Let US-B Wed – Book 6 – Sneak Peek

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Let US-B Wed

Two people matched, one already in love.

Her whole life was on that memory stick…

He was looking for a purpose and it saved his life…

Matthew was ready to give up. A small USB drive with a pink heart sticker caught his eye. Determined to get it back to its owner, he left his goodbyes on the bridge.

Kristie lost everything when her USB drive fell from her backpack as she ran from her cheating ex-boyfriend. She sought revenge by signing up for an online marriage site using his credit card. A woman scorned and all that, but Kristie was an accident waiting to happen.

When Kristie is matched to Matthew, he seems to know more about her than what she put on her profile, like he understood the real her. Can she trust him to be her forever or is there something unforgivable he’s hiding in his past?

Click into this poignant romance about the need for love and belonging with feel-good moments all along the way!

Chapter 1

 

Kristie

Why did Chad constantly lock the door to our third-floor apartment when I left for work? The afternoon had barely begun with the sun high in the sky with short, sharp-edged shadows.

The small town of Libby, Montana wasn’t known for its break-in robberies or even its high catch men. I had the sneaking suspicion I had one of the men who was up to no good. Usually I had to jiggle the key when I tried to get it to turn and it made the rest of keys on my keychain jingle.

Not this time. Instead of letting my keys jangle or even any metal scraping sounds to alert Chad to my arrival – not to mention the massive migraine I had developed – I held the rest of my keys in my fist while turning the lock and opening the door.

The panel popped open. I froze at the sight before me. After a second, I blinked slowly, then started to laugh. When I had my suspicions, I was right. When was I going to start paying attention to my gut?

Chad lay on the couch with Kami – the counter girl from the video store – sprawled on top of him. He arched an eyebrow and covered his surprise, as he pushed her long, brassy hair out of his face. “You’re supposed to be at work.” But he didn’t move his naked body from my couch. Mine. The one I had paid for when I’d moved in.

Kami just laughed, leaned over his chest and muttered, “Don’t you knock?”

I continued laughing, as if they had every right to be there, doing what they were doing. Shaking my head, I kept my chin up. Calmly, I walked around the apartment, not looking at the occupants of the couch again, and gathered my things. I’d only been living there a few months, so my items weren’t completely embedded in the landscape – yet.

Now they never would be. Relief filled my heart more than betrayal or sadness. He was getting on my nerves and I hadn’t come up with any way to get away.

That doesn’t mean I was understanding or not mad – oh, not by a long shot. I swallowed my anger for now. For now. No one ever got great revenge while making decisions with a hot head. I’d learned that much.

As I tucked my laptop and cord into the case Dad gave me on my last birthday, I couldn’t help wincing at the sounds of the two acting like I wasn’t there. Yuck, they could at least wait until I’d gone.

No tact. No class. Just plain trash.

How long had he been cheating on me? I didn’t want to know. I couldn’t breathe all of a sudden and gritted my teeth in relief to be done packing my things. Pulling the key off my keyring felt surprisingly liberating. I dropped my two bags outside the front door and returned to the counter to click the key onto the counter. They didn’t even acknowledge me.

Glancing over my shoulder, I grimaced and whipped my head back around to face the counter. I would never get that image out of my head. Maybe I’d have to bleach my eyeballs. I caught a glimpse of Chad’s wallet and pushed the growing anger out of my head. I had to keep my cool. I didn’t look again over my shoulder. That was gross and not something I wanted to relive.

Reaching over the edge of the counter, I reached down to the lower kitchen counter and flipped open his leather bi-fold. Slipping his gold card from it’s slot, I closed the wallet. That revenge would come soon enough.

I had another major revenge in mind for a more dramatic end. He wouldn’t be able to ignore me for long.

Someone had to feel my anger.

Continuing to ignore the two absolute idiots, I approached the entertainment center with purpose. Out of sight, I tucked my newly acquired credit card into the front pocket of my waitress apron.

I’d given Chad the new gaming console with money from my first check down at the Grill. Part of me wondered – no, knew – he kept me around because I bought him things and paid for rent along with other necessities.

Now, though, he didn’t have the option to keep me around. My confidence didn’t need more of a reason to kick him to the curb. My best-friend, Tara, decided who to keep and who to skip. I needed to get that attitude.

Not the other way around. Chad needed to be aware of just how lucky he’d been with me.

I bent down in front of the Wal-Mart plastic center, snapping open the doors to the cupboard and yanking the cords out of the back of the system. I wasn’t quiet about it and might have even grunted as I pulled. He had those screwed on tight, like he didn’t want someone to take them. I giggled as I yanked harder and the cables finally popped free.

Chad’s gasp was almost cathartic. In the reflection of the large screen TV mounted on the wall I could see him move, dumping Kami from his lap and wrapping a throw around him – another gift I’d given him. Yeah, he could keep that one.

“What are you doing?” He moved toward me, his face incredulous.

I stood, console in hand and smiled sweetly. I didn’t say anything as I turned and walked out the front door. I pulled the door shut behind me before bending down to grab my other two bags. As I lingered outside the apartment – not from choice but because I hadn’t thought out carrying such big items – I overheard Chad stomping around and cursing.

“What’s the big deal? Buy yourself another one.” Kami’s plaintive whine wasn’t any less annoying through the thin apartment walls.

“Don’t be stupid. I can’t replace my game time. You need to leave. I have to fix this.” Chad’s voice wasn’t repentant at all. Instead he sounded like he was put out by the whole thing. “I’ll call you when I get this figured out.”

“Chad, just let her go.” Kami’s voice moved around. She was probably chasing him. Oh, she was annoying. “We can be together now.”

Yep, he’d been cheating on me for a while. The truth didn’t hurt half as much as knowing that others probably knew. That was what was bothering me. I wasn’t invested in him emotionally, but people probably knew and were talking about it. Great. That’s exactly what I needed.

I hefted my backpack higher on my shoulder and shuffled across the outdoor landing to the apartment across from Chad’s. Thankfully I hadn’t started calling the place mine yet. That habit hadn’t yet set in and I was so glad for now as I did a modified version of the walk of shame.

Kicking the bottom corner of the door, I fought the embarrassing cliché I’d become. Keep my head up. That’s all I could do.

Tara opened the door, arching an elegantly pierced eyebrow and taking in all of my things. Once her gaze landed on the console she pushed open the door without a word, staring at the apartment door across the way until I was fully inside and she could close it behind me.

I set my things on the counter in her kitchen, staring at the console where it came to rest beside the sink. What was I going to do with it? I hadn’t thought things through to that point. I hadn’t thought things through at all.

“What happened?” Tara’s brashness was appealing in so many ways. She held her bluntness to the edge of rude, never allowing her words to roll off her tongue without some level of charm. Thrusting her hands on her hips, she knew something was wrong and her righteous anger wasn’t directed at me, but I felt it.

I loved that she could tell someone to go rot in a dumpster while smiling. That’s how we’d met, in high-school. She’d shoved past me in the hallway, telling me a few choice things I could do with my books and then smiling to reach around me and open her locker – right next to mine.

We’d been joined ever since.

I shook my head, closing my eyes. Leaning on the counter, I hung my head.

What was worse? That I had been cheated on or that I’d caught him? I couldn’t figure out the answer or even what exactly had happened since I was still reeling from the last thirty minutes. I posed the question to Tara. “What is worse? That he cheated on me? Or that Libby probably knows?”

Had she known? Please, say she hadn’t known that he was cheating on me. “I don’t think all of Libby knew. Your parents are well-liked. I don’t think Chad would push that.” She half-shrugged. “I didn’t know. I won’t lie, I suspected something wasn’t right, but I sleep during the day.” She grimaced as she settled her hip against the wall behind her and folded her arms.

After studying me a moment, Tara pointed her maroon-painted fingernail toward the floor. “Or, I think the bigger question here is are you embarrassed you were dating a guy named Chad.” She pulled her lips back in a horrified sneer, then laughed, the sound soothing.

“I know, you’ve never liked him. I always thought… Well, he always said you were jealous because I wasn’t spending as much time with you.” I chewed on my bottom lip, raising my gaze to her face as I admitted that Chad and I had talked about Tara. That’s where my shame was. I was the jealous one. She’d found Brian and I’d… I only found Chad.

Her snort filled me with relief as I realized she understood me and forgave me anyway. “Please. You were dating a ‘Chad’. A Chad, Kristie. Like I had anything to worry about. I know the guy. Sure, he’s good looking, but he’s lazy, he doesn’t do anything for you and he expected you to do all the work. Hey, I want to be needed as much as the next girl, but he still should act like a man and get out there and work. Playing those video games was not working, either. I don’t care what he told you.” Tara pushed off the wall and came to me, wrapping her arms around my back and pulling me in for a hug.

I returned it, leaning on my friend with desperation. I moaned, the tears finally coming as the portent of what I was staring at finally returned its ugly glare. One more time I’d failed and I had to face my family and everyone else who knew I was a chronic failure. Sighing, I murmured, “Can I stay with you for a while?” The apartment was still technically mine and I was more than a little relieved to return to it.

Tara pulled back, her eyebrows drawn together. “I… I just took your name off the lease and – I was going to tell you tonight – but… Brian is moving in this weekend. You can absolutely stay with me as long as you need to, I just thought you should know.” She scrunched her lips and waited for me to say something.

She wanted my approval just like I needed hers.

Unwilling to hold back anything from Tara, I pulled my arms to my side then wiped my eyes. Chad hadn’t made me cry. My failure had. “Oh, of course, you did. I…” I raised my hands in the air and pasted on a semblance of a smile. “I’m so happy for you! Brian is a great guy!” And he was. They’d been together for two years and I knew a proposal was right around the corner – mainly because he’d asked me to help him pick out a ring.

But I was alone. Again. I was always alone and it hurt like ketchup in a papercut. The potential jealousy from Tara had been a slight balm, but I knew it wasn’t right. She wasn’t jealous of me. I wasn’t of her, I honestly tried not to be.

I waved my hand in the air as if to push away my internal struggles and shook my head. “Don’t even worry about it. I’ll see if I can stay with my parents. Dad still doesn’t know I’ve totaled the truck.” Of course he did. Small town like Libby?

I didn’t want to face that reality just yet. Dad finding out all of my lies was enough to cause heartburn in the worst way.

“Tonight is great, though. I’m off and you were coming over for pizza and hanging out after work, remember?” Tara picked up her cell and ordered a pizza. She was always fast at making decisions and right then I couldn’t be happier that someone was taking the wheel. She set the phone down and turned to me. “Wait, why are you back from work?”

I sighed. “I had a migraine. I must have sensed something wasn’t right.”

“You’ve been saying that for a while.” Tara put the phone down. “Well, we can start our night early. You pick the flick, I need to get into my pjs.”

I did as instructed, pulling up the menu on her cable and cuddling underneath a crocheted throw her mother had made her. As we sat on her couch swooning over Channing Tatum’s abs in the old dance classic, Step Up, I sipped my root beer float and had an epiphany.

Snapping my fingers and dropping my feet to the floor from the being tucked beneath my rear end, I turned to Tara. “You know what I need? I need to find someone outside of Libby.” I shook my head and laughed derisively. “I can’t believe I haven’t thought of it before.”

“You’re sugar drunk. Maybe you need that. Maybe not. How do you propose to do that? You could have grabbed someone at college, instead you came back here and picked him up.” She shuddered, wiping at her ice cream mustache and setting her cup on the small table at our feet.

“No, seriously. College was… I didn’t know what I wanted.” Technically I still didn’t know, but why broadcast that? Leaning over the arm of the couch, I pulled my laptop from the bag and rested it on my lap. I snapped the top up. While it booted up, I tapped the screen with the back of my finger impatiently. “No, I’m serious. Why wait to meet someone down at the Grill?” I Googled online dating sites while Tara watched lazily from my side.

A plethora of options came on the screen. I leaned back, overwhelmed at my options.

“Online dating?” Tara studied me cynically, but she kept her mouth shut, which I was grateful for. “Those cost money. You should probably wait on anything big until you know what you’re doing.”

I chortled. “Oh, no. I grabbed a card from Chad’s wallet before leaving. They were actually still messing around on the couch, so…” I snickered at Tara’s open-mouthed expression.

“Are you serious? They didn’t stop while you were in there? Can anyone say…” Tara searched for a word.

“Tacky? That’s all I could come up with as well.” I pulled my USB drive from the side pocket of my bag. The little pink heart sticker had been a reminder to myself that… I honestly couldn’t remember what it was supposed to remind me of.

In any case, that USB drive was my life. Plugging the drive into the closest port, I pulled the apron to my side and pulled out Chad’s card. I didn’t even feel bad. When the information uploaded fully from the drive, I pulled open a folder to the drive and started a new spreadsheet on the main file and saved it as “Online Dating Sites”.

Still laughing at the credit card, Tara grabbed it and waved the air toward my face. She groaned playfully. “Oh, things are serious. You’ve pulled out the spreadsheet.” She scooted closer. “Okay, let’s have some fun with this and when we’re done signing up for dating sites, let’s do some shopping!”

We clicked through multiple sites, laughing and screaming as the horrendous pictures of couples flashed across the screen like animals on auction.

A sponsored ad at the top of the last one was simple but straightforward. A red heart in a dialogue balloon with the phrase ‘ClickandWed.com – FREE application to marry the person you’re most compatible with. Other fees apply.

Marriage. The concept was so much more than I’d originally thought of. Why not? I stared at the ad, unable to tear my eyes away. “What am I dating for?”

Tara glanced at me, dragging her eyes off Tatum and his dance moves. She peeked at the computer screen, not seeing what had me so still since she didn’t know I was focused on the ad and not on the rest of the sites Google had pulled up. “Um, I guess we date to figure out who we’re going to marry?” She shrugged, leaning forward and claiming a Red Vine.

When we did girls’ night, we had more junk food than we knew what to do with and we were on sugar highs for days and days.

Pressing my lips together, I nodded. “Exactly. Married.” I tapped the screen and looked at her. “I’m going to skip the drama of dating and get right to the heart of the matter. No messing around.” Excitement filled me. If I could find a match, I wouldn’t have to mess with the stupidity of dating. I was sick of the games. I didn’t want to feel like I was going to be in perpetual college forever.

“What?” Tara shifted on her seat, leaning closer to see what I was talking about. Her interest had been piqued with mention of marriage. Maybe now she’d pay attention to me.

I clicked the ad and then didn’t allow myself to hesitate. With each move that I made, I documented it in my spreadsheet that already had a lot of sites and login info, as well as the answers I’d inputted on their surveys and bio information. Just copying and pasting had become the name of the game. I used Chad’s credit card to do the billing which was made easier by knowing his billing address and how to spell his last name correctly.

Even as I filled out the online applications and did everything I was supposed to with my best-friend sitting beside me, the wave of loneliness still crashed hard around me. There was a possibility I wouldn’t have to be lonely.

That was my secret. The main reason I was with Chad. I couldn’t tell Tara that. I couldn’t tell anyone.

I was lonely. I was so, bone-shatteringly lonely that I couldn’t breathe right sometimes.

With Chad I’d been surrounded by loneliness as he’d never really been there for me – he’d mostly just played his games and mumbled when I spoke. I was always alone. Would I have let him close, even if he’d tried?

Maybe marriage would fix that. Maybe anything other than what I was doing would fix it. I didn’t need to wait for a big moment in my life. I needed to make a big moment in my life.

No more loneliness.

 

~~~

 

The next morning, I shoved my server uniform and apron into my backpack and pulled on my jeans. Grabbing my things, I secured all the snaps and zippers on the bags.

Tara meandered from her room and yawned. “Morning!” She went to the kitchen and poured herself a cup of coffee from the automatic maker she’d set up the night before. Sipping her coffee in her terry-cloth robe, Tara mussed her short hair into a spiky mess. She nodded toward the bags in my hand and the folded-up blankets on the couch. “I’m serious, Kristie. You don’t need to leave. Brian isn’t moving in until this weekend. I’m having dinner with him tonight, but you can crash here. You don’t need me here for you to hang out.”

I shook my head. Brian was taking her out of town for a special dinner. Tonight was supposed to be the night. I wasn’t going to be an extra wheel in case they wanted the place to themselves.

I shook my head. “Nah, it’s okay. I’m going to ride up to my parents’ place. I think they’re out of town visiting family. They’ll never know I was there… maybe.” I grinned and lugged my armful of contraband from the apartment. Looking down at the gaming system, I glanced back at Tara. “Can I leave this here for now? There’s no way the saddlebags will hold all of this.”

She nodded imperceptibly, probably thinking of ways to dispose of the console.

I tilted my head to the side and grinned. “If you want to go target shooting with Brian and his new .22, feel free.” I winked and put the system on the floor, tucking it against the wall out of the way. I was only half-teasing. Glancing back at my bestie, I tried not to show how lonely I was. She didn’t need me to hold her back any more than I already had. “Thanks, Tara. I’ll text you when I get there.”

She wouldn’t offer me a ride because she knew I didn’t want one. I needed time to get my head on straight and the only way to do that was with the wind whipping around me and my two wheels steady beneath me.

Plus, I wasn’t going more than a couple miles. I had a Honda Magna from the 1980s. It wasn’t a truck, but it could hold the few bags I needed to take with me. The ride was a perfect fit for me and I’d used my insurance money to buy it rather than fix my truck. I hated my truck. An old Dodge that ate more gas and leaved a fine dusting of rust everywhere I parked.

Glancing around for Chad, I hurriedly secured my bags to the back of the seat, only one would fit into a saddle bag. The laptop case didn’t fit and I had to rest it broadside down to make sure I could strap it on the seat. Usually I would just carry the laptop with the strap across my chest, but it bulged with more than just the computer and I wouldn’t be able to get the strap across my shoulders.

I wasn’t going too far, so things should be secure enough until I pulled into my parents’ drive and could unload.

Turning on the engine, the sudden purr relaxed me and I pulled on my half-head helmet. Revving off, I knew it wouldn’t feel like I had escaped until I’d crossed California Avenue’s bridge over the Kootenay River. There was something about water that just made me feel so calm.

Chapter 2

Matthew

Nothing promised a faster, more all-encompassing end than water. The Kootenay River would be kind, it would whip Matthew’s worries away faster than the rope that took his friend’s.

Matthew stood at the center point of the bridge on California Avenue, crossing the Kootenay River. He was on a self-imposed lunch break from his job as a contractor. Yeah, he owned his own construction company, but did that matter? Not to his old partner.

Looking out over the meandering river, Matthew didn’t have to think twice about what kind of relief everything would be to just jump. No one would even know – not without his clues.

The bridge wasn’t the center of town regarding traffic so a small surge of cars and trucks would pass over, rattling the beams and making a humming sound as they past. Then the traffic would leave behind the quiet caress of the breeze over the river and the water far down below. The sun watched him with puffy clouds passing by in the blue expanse above. Nothing judgmental came from the skies and Matthew actually felt peaceful with his decision. Why not? He was alone in every other aspect of his life. Why not finish it that way?

Matthew paced north, then south, on the pedestrian portion of the bridge. His boots scraped on the concrete as his strong stride changed to a drag. His confidence was lagging. Maybe it wasn’t the best answer. Maybe he just needed to take a minute and think things through more fully.

Wanting to commit that kind of act was hard to stick with on such a beautiful early summer day. But like always – no matter what time of year or day, the dark thoughts always came. He couldn’t escape them.

The only times he could escape the darkness was when he was on a specific mission. This had become his mission. He had to fulfill the mission. He’d worked too hard on planning things out since… Lance.

He twisted Lance’s coat in his hands, shaking the jacket up and down as he fought for control over the tears on his face. He wiped the material over his face to wipe at the sneaky tears working down his cheeks. The faint scent of Lance’s cologne lingered as Matthew lowered the coat.

There were buddies and best-friends and then there were people like Lance. Lance was like a brother to Matthew. They’d gone through a couple tours in the Marines together. They’d seen things… They’d done things… They’d survived things they shouldn’t have.

Lance wasn’t supposed to check out early. Not when they’d both made it back stateside. Not when they started a company together building memorials and other things that were needed. Not when Matthew needed Lance’s help late at night when he was losing it, too. They would call each other and meet up for a beer or just shack at one of their homes. Nightmares were normal and they both understood.

Panic welled in Matthew’s chest. Was he more terrified about being lonely, if he didn’t do it, or more afraid that it was just lonelier on the other side? Either way, his fear paralyzed him and he didn’t like the way it took his control.

Anything had to be better than what he was going through.

Okay. He could do it.

Of course, he didn’t really need to do it by jumping off the bridge. At the same time, no one would find his body. If he turned on the truck and let it run in his garage while sitting there eating Ho-Hos, it would make more of a mess. The river was better.

No one would know. No one would care.

Matthew stopped pacing, moving up to lean against the railing and stare out over the scenery again. Rich, green trees bordered the river with its varying tones of greens, blues, and browns. Off in the distance a flock of Canadian geese honked and flew overhead on their way north for the summer.

Libby, Montana wasn’t his ideal place to die, but Afghanistan hadn’t been either. Was there an “ideal” place? Not when you had demons chasing you from all the way across the world. Lance’s house wasn’t an ideal place which irritated Matthew that he’d found his friend there.

His watch dinged. His lunch was almost over. But it didn’t matter. No one needed him at the site. He had a foreman who did the managing and a terrific crew who were all ex-military with their own issues to deal with. Sarge, the foreman for the crew stationed there, would understand what had happened. He would get it. Honestly, they all would.

None of them needed the added stress his problems would cause.

Turning to drape Lance’s coat over the guardrail, Matthew shrugged out of his own. He could leave them there, like a makeshift memorial for them both. No one would even miss them. Someone might find the coats and keep them or donate them or maybe even throw them away.

He leaned over to smooth the sleeve of Lance’s jacket, picking at a fuzzy piece of lint, when something pink and shiny caught his eye from the dirt shoulder of the bridge. Upon closer inspection, he bent down and picked up a small USB thumb drive that had fallen to the side of the bridge.

USB drives were usually pretty important. This day and age, people kept their entire lives on them, even just a collection of pictures was worth a lot. The pink, heart sticker labeled the owner as a girl – no matter how sexist that might be, Matthew had no doubt that drive belonged to a girl or a woman.

Maybe the owner had no idea she’d dropped her drive. Matthew had no way of knowing what was on it – not sitting on the bridge, but he could figure out who the owner was, or at least have more clues to help him get the drive back to its rightful place.

If he left then, he had no idea when he would get another chance to escape and end his pain. He had to choose – did he take on this mission and find the information he needed to get the drive back or did he do what he’d set out to do?

Gripping the thumb drive in his fist, Matthew stared over the railing of the bridge, his expression neutral. What did he do? He hadn’t wanted to bother anyone or cause any other person pain. Not getting that drive to its owner might do more harm than good. He couldn’t just set it back on the blacktop of the bridge in all good conscious.

Everything he’d done to get his affairs in order had been to tie all loose ends. This was leaving something undone.

Maybe joining Lance could wait. Getting that thumb drive back to the woman who owned it, had just given him a sense of purpose, like a mission. No, joining Lance would have to wait. He already couldn’t focus on why he was out there on that bridge. Everything was centered on the little metal piece in his palm.

As he focused on the drive, the darkness pulled back. He set his sights on the end result. Reuniting the female with her long-lost drive would feel good. She would be grateful. Matthew needed that. He needed to be worth something.

Having a positive impact on someone else’s life would be the turnaround he needed – if only for a brief time. He would take the break from misery.

As he gathered his things, Matthew said a silent thank you to Lance for helping Matthew find a purpose, even if only a temporary one.

 

Chapter 3

Kristie

My lanky, yet muscular, brother came out onto the wide veranda at my arrival. I rolled my eyes and parked the Honda, kicking the stand out and pulling off my helmet. I smiled tightly at him. It seemed like he was every where I was trying to be lately. He’d even been at the Grill the other day. Everywhere.

I wasn’t settled enough mentally to deal with my brother. Not yet. He was great at everything he did and he didn’t have to lie or exaggerate to impress anyone.

Leaning on the railing that came to waist height, Brent folded his hands and laughed. “So, Chad cheated again, huh?” His laughter continued, reaching me with more than just humor. Was that sarcasm in his tone, too?

My chest tightened. Had Brent known he was cheating on me all this time? “Again? What do you mean again?” I stopped unstrapping my laptop bag and glared at Brent. If he wasn’t careful, he might not live to his next birthday.

Brent scoffed. “Everyone knows Chad is a cheater. Tara just texted me to let me know you were heading up here and that things were over between you and that loser.” He uncrossed his legs and straightened from his lounging position against the railing. He softened his tone but not his volume. “Mom and Dad will be glad. Dad hated when you moved in with him. He almost went down and dragged you home.”

My jaw fell slack and I turned back to the bike with a heaviness in my chest. What else did Mom and Dad know? My parents really did know. I’d hoped against hope that they wouldn’t have any idea I’d moved out of living with Tara and into Chad’s place. Not that it mattered. I was deep into my twenties and I didn’t need permission from anyone, but at the same time, I didn’t want to disappoint them. My fear of being a failure reared its ugly head and I swallowed my disgust in myself.

Mortified, I opened my bag. Unhooking the straps, I glanced at the open pocket off the side.

I’d had a bunch of pencils in the bag. Yanking the pocket open more, I rummaged around in the pocket and in the bottom of the laptop. They were all gone. I’d had at least eight of them. There was the white eraser, and a Bic pen, but my colorful highlighters were gone.

No. No, no, no.

I stuck my hand into the front pocket to make sure the USB drive was secured still, certain nothing had happened to that piece. My fingers felt nothing but empty pocket space. My chest tightened. No. Wait. I patted around in the pocket more, then moved to the side of the steps.

The stairs led up to where Brent watched me with an amused expression on his freckled face. I glared at the bag as I unloaded its contents. My laptop was there with the cord. Three personal notebooks were stashed on top of the computer, the computer cover and screen protector were there, but the pencils and the USB drive weren’t.

Turning the bag upside down, I shook it to empty the contents fully. A couple gum wrappers and a crumpled receipt fell to the ground at my feet. Where was it?

Everything on the drive was backed up by my cloud data storage, but the drive had so much information. I hated thinking it was out there for anyone to find. Not only that, but it was a kind of a security blanket for me. Just holding it in my hand made me feel in control.

I would often shove the small piece into my front pocket even when I was just going for dinner or for a ride – with no option to use a computer or access the drive’s contents – I didn’t care. I needed to have the drive with me. All the time.

Absently, I glanced up at Brent. “Seriously, finish what you were saying. Again?” He’d mentioned something about Chad cheating again. I was removed enough from the situation that I honestly didn’t care nor was I surprised. I just wanted to know where my drive was. I was close to crying. That’s how much Chad meant to me – my drive was more important.

Brent cleared his throat, shifting to take a seat at the top step. “Yeah, you know Chad cheated in school. He’s not the stud all the girls think he is. I was so embarrassed when you started dating him.” He shook his head, sincere remorse in his eyes. “Did you lose something?”

My face flamed. I’d been blinded by the fact that Chad had been interested in me out of everyone else. Chad had been extremely popular in school and when Tara and I had returned from college to the small-town scene, I’d been wrapped up in the popularity contests again – things I’d never won when I was growing up.

I sighed, more aggravated by the loss of my USB drive and other items than Brent’s rough honesty. “Yeah, well, I’m more embarrassed than you could be.”

“What happened to you, Kris?” Brent stood and joined me at the bottom, settling on a step a few above me. He folded his hands and hung them between his knees while leaning forward and studying me closely. “You had so much potential. Whatever happened to you going somewhere and being something? You even brought Tara brought with you. I mean, jeesh.” Brent slapped his thigh, staring at me as spoke.

I avoided his gaze. “Tara didn’t have to come back.” I lifted my chin, my bravado not impressing anyone. “I…” I closed my eyes. Too much emotional turmoil over the last twenty-four hours dragged at me. I shook my head and pivoted on my feet, slumping to the step beside my half-successful bag. “I didn’t finish college. Tara did. I didn’t.” And I had all the student loans and no degree to pay off the debt.

“Wha… What do you mean you didn’t finish college? You had a diploma and everything that you sent to Mom and Dad.” He jerked his thumb over his shoulder. Cocking his head to the side, he lowered his voice. “How much have you lied?”

I scrunched up my nose and didn’t bother holding back the tears. “I flipped degrees too much. I didn’t have a capstone course in anything I chose and… the certificate was easy to design after one of my graphic designer courses. I can do a lot of stuff, but I don’t have a degree to prove anything.” My shoulders rocked as I started to really cry, really grieve the turn my life had taken. I wasn’t a young, fresh-out-of college girl. I was past twenty-five and had no direction in my life besides hanging out with Tara and making her do the things she was much better than doing. Her life could be so much different than it was now.

“Save your crying for someone who cares. I’m so disappointed.” Brent wasn’t the only one. His voice was rough and uncaring – just as I expected. He wasn’t the most empathetic person.

I couldn’t believe I’d just spilled everything to him. But he knew what to ask. He knew the buttons to push. He’d always been good at that. Unfortunately, this wasn’t his fault. He had no idea what I was going through. I was at a point in my life where I needed someone to understand me, or at least hear where I was coming from, where my loss was.

The only thing we had in common was living with Mom and Dad temporarily. Brent was waiting for his fiancée to get back from a last vacation with her family before tying the knot.

They even had a house ready for them in Whitefish, Montana near Brent’s job as a computer program. There was a lot of work to be had for anyone willing to prove they had the education to do it.

Not that there was an excuse, but when I’d been faced with coming home without a degree, I couldn’t come home as a failure. Being a failure wasn’t an option. I didn’t want to be another statistic in Libby. Yet, that’s where I was going. That’s the way I was headed. Heck, that’s where I was.

As if he’d just recognized how harsh he was being, Brent softened his tone. “What are you looking for?” Brent motioned toward my bag and then glanced at the bike. He raised his eyebrows like he had an idea that I was losing my mind, and I was doing a good job proving it.

I was too young for a mid-life crisis, but there I was with a motorcycle and a job at the Grill while Tara worked graveyard at the casino next door. What was I doing? What had I done? Brent’s reality check had me rethinking every step and lie I’d told since starting college. I had trapped Tara. She was there because of me. I had to do something about it. I had to get myself gone so that she could move on with her life and be happy with Brian.

Flipping my fingers at the bag, I leaned forward and placed my chin in my hand. “I lost my USB drive.” Tears welled in my eyes. He couldn’t see me cry. I didn’t want to show more weakness to him.

“Pinky?” Brent’s eyes widened and he scooted lower to pull the bag into his lap and look for himself.

“I can’t believe you remember that name.” I got the drive a year ago and I’d teased my dad that I was going to name it Pinky. Teased. I hadn’t actually done it.

Yet Brent remembered – he seemed to remember everything.

“Be careful with that memory of yours. If you prove you’re a vault of information, I’ll start making you go everywhere with me in place of my drive.” I held my breath for a moment, hoping he would pull his hand from the bag with the drive in his hand.

I moaned when he lowered the bag in defeat. “Everything was on that drive. Even my degree.”

“Your fake degree?” Brent laughed and my stomach sank.

“You’re going to tell Mom and Dad as soon as they get home, aren’t you?” My fake degree. If that got into the wrong hands, I’d be ruined. I’d never be able to look them in the eye again.

I needed to get out of Libby and get out for good, but first I needed to retrace my steps and look for that drive. Not that there was a chance in Montana to find it. “What am I going to do?”

“Don’t worry. Mom and Dad will be distracted with the wedding for a bit. Then you can die of mortification.” He patted my shoulder and stood, laughing as he climbed the steps back inside. He hadn’t said he was going to tell them or that he wasn’t. Exactly the type of torture Brent liked administering.

I needed to go to work that night, but I didn’t want to. I didn’t think it was necessary anymore. I didn’t have to support Chad and if I was going to leave…

Well, I needed some money and I couldn’t do that to the other girls at the Grill. I’d turn in my notice that night. One way or the other, I was getting out of town.

I’d completely forgotten about signing up for any of the matchmaking sites.

Kindle

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