Kate Dalton always thought Jake Bailey was her boomerang love – the person who was meant to be because they came back when you set them free. So what if he left and came back over and over again? Kate had always known one day the timing would be right and they would be together.
Although she’d had a lot of practice at saying goodbye to Jake in the past, this time is different. As she watches Jake fight for his life against advanced-stage cancer, she faces letting him go forever. And not just because he might not make it, but because she’s trying to reconcile the love she’s always felt for him with the nagging questions about why they can’t ever seem to make their relationship work.
A framing narrative looks back on Kate as she meets and falls in love with Jake eight years prior and goes through the frustration of all their miscues. As the storylines merge, Kate is confronted with choosing between Jake and Charlie Tucker, her childhood best friend. When Charlie moves back to town and surprises her with a kiss one night, her schoolgirl crush on him comes flooding back to the surface. Instead of being excited at the prospect of moving on, however, Kate is terrified that letting Charlie into her life means leaving Jake behind forever.
Chapter 1 (April 2008)
Kate Dalton’s heart raced as she replayed the voicemail, listening for clues hidden somewhere in the deep, Southern tones of Jake Bailey’s voice. She missed most of what he said the first time. She was too busy celebrating that Jake had finally come to his senses and realized he couldn’t live without her.
“Hey Kate, it’s Jake. There’s something I really need to tell you before you hear it from someone else. Give me a call…please.” He was almost pleading at the end.
Her heart sank. Jake was getting married, she was sure of it.
How could he be getting married? A year ago, when they rekindled the relationship they’d had in college, she thought they were finally getting their happily ever after. It had only been six months since they’d broken up. How could he have met someone so fast? He was supposed to come back to her, just like he always had.
Her stomach churned with an odd mixture of excitement and terror as she dialed his number and braced herself for news of his impending nuptials.
“Hey,” he said in an even tone she couldn’t read.
“Hey there, how are you?” she asked, hoping her voice didn’t shake.
Surely Abby would have mentioned if she knew he was dating someone. Whenever they broke up, which had been more frequent than she would have liked over the years, they joked that they shared custody of Abby. They both knew Abby’s true loyalty lie with Kate, however.
“Are you sitting down?” he asked in a tone that seemed a little too serious to be about wedding bells.
“Well, I’m driving. So, yes. What’s up?” Come on. It’s like a Band-Aid, just rip it off and get it over with already.
“I know you said not to call, but this isn’t about us. I need to tell you something.” There was a pause before he continued, “After all these years, you deserve to hear it from me.”
His tone was so sincere. He had something he needed to tell her. She’d always been his confidant. Maybe it had nothing to do with marriage. After all, they’d only been apart for a matter of months.
Her heart fluttered, and she silently reminded herself not to get too excited just yet.
“Okay…” she said tentatively, waiting for him to go on.
“I don’t know how to say this…”
Oh, just get on with it, she pleaded with her mind.
“Kate, I have cancer.”
Suddenly it was as if all of the oxygen was being sucked from her car. Her surroundings went on mute and her whole body felt numb, yet incredibly heavy.
She thought perhaps he should have told her to pull over for this, yet she kept driving. As if continuing on her routine course home from work would somehow keep her world spinning.
“Are you serious?” A ridiculous reply, but she could think of nothing else to say.
Cancer? Jake was the picture of health and fitness. His 5’8” frame was solid muscle acquired through a lifetime of baseball and manual labor with his father’s company. No one could outwork him out on the baseball diamond when they were in college. Heck, they still couldn’t. He was only twenty-nine and he was as healthy as a horse. Or at least she had thought he was.
“Yeah, it’s stage three.”
“Well, what does that mean? What kind of cancer is it?” Kate was asking questions, but she wasn’t really processing any of the conversation.
“I have a tumor in my colon, but they’re going to treat it with chemo and radiation. I’ll be fine. I just wanted to tell you before you heard from someone else. I told a couple of the guys last night.” He said it all so matter-of-factly that she couldn’t believe they were really talking about cancer.
Kate probably should have pulled over, but she was close enough to her house that she reverted into auto-pilot. Compartmentalizing what he was saying, as Kate was prone to do when faced with emotional situations, she began asking every question she could think of. How did he find out? What were they saying? When were his treatments going to begin?
Kate had an uncle who had successfully fought leukemia and she’d spent a couple of years working in a children’s cancer hospital, so she became very scientific about it all.
“Seven years,” he said in response to her question about how long they thought the tumor had been growing.
Seven years? It was practically the entire time they’d known each other.
It wasn’t until they finally hung up, with a promise by Kate that the silent treatment was over and that she was there for anything that he might need, that she finally let it run through her mind. Jake had cancer. Healthy, athletic Jake, who she had spent the past six months trying to convince herself wasn’t her soul mate, had cancer.
As she slowed to a stop in her driveway, she realized she wasn’t exactly sure how she had gotten there. She had done so without shedding one tear though. She wasn’t going to cry because there was nothing to cry about. Jake was going to be fine, he had said so.
If she really believed that though, why did she feel as though she’d been punched in the stomach?
Chapter 2 (September 2001)
After a particularly boring summer clerking in a law firm, Kate couldn’t wait to begin her junior year at Cranham University. The year before, she’d been a transfer student who knew absolutely no one on the tiny campus. Now she was a cheerleader, a writer for the school paper and a regular fixture at the Nu Beta fraternity house.
She had been looking forward to the first party of the semester on Greek Row since the last one ended three months prior. Eager to get inside and show off the newly toned figure she achieved from dance classes over the summer, she practically dragged her roommate Tracey across the parking lot towards the Nu Beta house their first night back on campus.
That’s when she saw them. Two guys holding either end of a broomstick, effectively blocking the entrance to the house.
As she and Tracey carefully climbed up the stairs of the sagging wooden porch, Kate wondered if they’d have to scoot under the makeshift limbo stick to get into the house. Being perpetually clumsy, especially in the new three-inch stacked heels that perfectly matched the dress that clung to her in all the right places, she knew she was just a spill waiting to happen. Quickly resolving to find another way to enter, she marched up to confront the wannabe guards.
“Hi,” Kate said, hoping she could charm her way through the door, sans limbo. A quick once-over revealed both guys were roughly her age and casually dressed in shorts and t-shirts. Neither was very tall, and both had nondescript brown hair.
“There’s a toll tonight,” said the shorter of the two. With the added height of her heels provided they were almost looking each other directly in the eye. He continued, “A kiss on the cheek for each of us from each of you and you’re in.”
Suddenly, limbo wasn’t the worst possible scenario. Just what she needed, two drunken trolls guarding the bridge she wanted to cross.
Who were these guys? She attended a small, private liberal arts college in the Deep South where, as in any small community in the South, everyone knew everyone. It was strange not to at least recognize all of the other students on a campus that size.
“Who are you?” she asked, knowing they weren’t members of this particular fraternity. Kate knew this because she’d spent nearly every waking moment outside of class the previous year at the Nu Beta house.
“I’m the guy you’re going to kiss to get in the door,” said the shorter one with a smirk. Apparently the taller one was just along for the ride, because he wasn’t saying a word, just sipping the Bud Light he held in one hand while the broomstick rested in the other.
“Pretty sure of yourself there, aren’t you?” was the best she could come up with in her annoyed state, which just aggravated her further. Kate had wanted to be a lawyer since the age of five, so she loved a good argument, but now found herself at a loss.
Kate noted a determined look in his eyes and feared she might have no choice but to surrender a kiss on the cheek.
“I sure am,” he said with a faint Southern drawl.
Catching him looking her up and down, the hint of a smile forming at his lips, Kate’s skin bristled. Having recently split from a good-looking basketball player, whose Army green Jeep she’d already spotted in the parking lot, Kate was anxious to get inside. The hot new red dress she had picked to drive him wild was beginning to stick to her in the summer heat.
She would have stayed and mounted a fight, just for the sake of arguing, had Tracey not nudged her and said, “Let’s just do it. I want to go inside before my hair ends up totally ruined in this humidity.”
Kate rolled her eyes, a habit that made it impossible to hide her annoyance in situations like these. It was September and they were in the Deep South; you couldn’t walk from your door to the car without your hair curling up like a Dolly Parton wig.
Weighing the options, she decided they might as well make these boys’ night and kiss them on the cheek so she and Tracey could move on to bigger and better things, or at least bigger and better boys.
“Fine,” Kate said, shooting a disapproving glare at the shorter one.
Tracey was already kissing him when Kate asked, “Are you guys going to at least tell us who you are?”
“This is Mark,” the shorter one said pointing at the taller one, “and I’m Jake, but everybody calls me by my last name, Bailey. And who are you pretty little ladies?”
“I’m Tracey,” she heard her roommate gush. Kate realized her roommate was actually beginning to enjoy the ridiculous attention.
“Kate,” she said flatly, ready for the ordeal to be over.
Mark blushed when she stepped forward and kissed his cheek. She felt sorry for him, because he was clearly embarrassed. The mouthier one must have talked him into this brilliant plan.
When she stepped towards Jake to give him the obligatory peck, he poked the side of his face out at her in dramatic fashion. She could have sworn there was a little sparkle in his eye when he smiled at the receipt of her lips on his cheek. For just a second, Kate thought perhaps she had underestimated his looks.
Then that mouth of his opened again, this time to ask, “Was that as good for you as it was for me?” A devious grin spread across his face.
“Oh yeah, highlight of my night,” Kate shot back, her annoyance renewed. Who in the heck did this guy think he was?
To Kate’s dismay, their new friends followed her and Tracey in the door. A fraternity party at a small school like theirs didn’t really draw that many people, so there would be no blending into the crowd to avoid the guys.
Partygoers were confined to one large cinder block room on the bottom floor and spilled out onto the porch. It was a bit ironic. In most circumstances the smokers would be outdoors, but not here. Instead, the non-smokers were usually outside looking for a breath of fresh air.
The guys had tried prohibiting smoking in the house once, but it had only lasted a night or two. They had even attempted to save the carpet from its dirty, stained fate by having a “party carpet” that could be rolled out on top of the good carpet before parties. That was one of those ideas that was good in theory but didn’t really work out, mostly because the guys were too lazy to roll it out in time to do any good.
The space inside was small enough you could stand on one end and still make out all the faces of people across the short expanse, so there was nowhere for Kate to hide from Jake. Although she positioned herself on the far end of the room from him, she kept catching him stealing glances at her from the corner of his eye.
There were a few couches and a built-in bar on one end of the room and a pool table on the other end. Like any good frat boys, the guys had figured out that they could put a thin, wooden board on top of the pool table and use it for games like beer pong and flip cup. This is where most of them would settle in for the night as they chugged their beers and heckled one another in a variety of drinking games. Her little friend from the door was no exception and was there all night.
The location of the pool table by the stairs and between the back door and the kitchen meant you had to walk past it to get almost anywhere in the house. Each time she walked by the table, Jake had to say something to her.
The first time, it was “How about another kiss for good luck?” After a few beers that evolved into, “Come on, you know you want to kiss me.” By the end of the night, it was a shout for all to hear, “Hey that’s the girl that kissed me! She totally wants me!”
With each playful taunt he’d flash a big smile and get a twinkle of mischief in his eyes. She thought he looked like he was up to something, like he had a secret plan to win her over. Not wanting to encourage him, Kate hurried past the table each time she was forced to pass it, refusing to make eye contact with Jake.
Then it happened. In a rare moment when she was standing alone, because Tracey had gone inside for a refill, he cornered her on the back porch.
“You just kiss and run, huh?”
Startled by his voice, Kate turned to face Jake, who had come up behind her.
“I don’t generally kiss strangers at all. You should consider yourself lucky.”
He laughed out loud before leaning against the porch railing next to her. “I create my own luck.”
She shuddered when he winked at her. Only she wasn’t sure if it was from annoyance or excitement. Her head felt a little fuzzy and she was beginning to find her feelings a bit confusing.
She could think of nothing else to say to him, and she silently hoped he would go away or that Tracey would come back. What was taking her so long anyway?
“So how come I haven’t seen you around?” he asked.
“Me? What about you? I’m always here. Meanwhile, I’ve never seen you here before.”
“I’m a dual degree at Georgia Tech, so I split my time between campuses. What’s your story?”
It took her a few seconds to respond. This guy was getting a dual degree from one of the most prestigious private colleges in the South and from the leading engineering and technology school in the Southeast?
Perhaps she’d underestimated his brain along with his looks. The sole light on the back porch produced a dim glow, which Kate noticed highlighted a bicep muscle she hadn’t seen protruding from his shirt sleeve earlier.
“I transferred in last year from the University of Central Georgia.”
“Ahh, couldn’t it cut it at the big school, huh?”
Now she remembered how annoying he was. No, she wanted to tell him, it simply wasn’t challenging enough for someone of my intellect. She was glad she ran the words through her head first and realized how cocky it sounded.
Instead, she countered with, “Not exactly. Sorry we can’t all be brainiacs like you. Some of us are well-rounded. I work in a law firm, volunteer at a children’s hospital, and am on the cheerleading squad.”
“And I’m the starting right fielder on the baseball team. So what?” He tilted his beer back, polishing it off.
She had been to several baseball games the year before, but she hadn’t noticed him. She was about to tell him the real reason she transferred, dispel any notions he might have that it was because she couldn’t make it at a big school, but he was already walking off. Just like that, without so much as a goodbye.
As Kate watched Jake walk back through the door, she caught a glimpse of her ex, Ryan, moving across the room. Her irritation with Jake was renewed when she realized he’d distracted her from that evening’s mission.
The brand new red dress that hugged her in all the right places, her carefully applied makeup and the soft curls in her long, blonde hair, were all painstakingly done in an effort to drive Ryan wild. She didn’t really want to date him again; she just wanted him to want to date her.
Crossing the short back porch and reentering the house, she became intent on finding Tracey and making sure they were in Ryan’s line of vision. She wanted him to get a good, long look at her.
Jake was positioned just on the inside of the door, playing beer pong with the other baseball players again. As she squeezed past him to get into the room, she braced for whatever comment he would make about her, as he had each time she’d passed him that night.
Preoccupied with making his final shot, however, Jake failed to notice her presence.
Kate felt a quick pang of something. What was that? She couldn’t possibly be disappointed that he didn’t notice her, could she?
She wasn’t sure if it was the late hour or the vodka she had consumed, but the sinking feeling in her stomach told her she’d actually begun to enjoy Jake’s attention.
His overwhelming confidence made her curious as to why he thought he was so great, and the looks he directed had made her insides flip-flop all night. She originally thought it was in revolt, but she was beginning to realize it might actually be attraction.
It didn’t hurt Jake’s case that the fluorescent lighting in the house revealed chest and arm muscles that tugged his t-shirt taut in all the right places. Why hadn’t she noticed that earlier?
When she found Tracey barely able to walk under her own power any longer, Kate decided it was time for them to call it a night. She could flaunt her stuff in front of Ryan later. It wasn’t as though she didn’t spend nearly every night at Nu Beta.
Jake caught her eye on the way out the door, and she saw the left side of his mouth begin to curl into a smile as she disappeared up the stairs. At least someone had appreciated the hot new look she’d achieved through thrice-weekly dance classes and a $100 dress that had meant only eating Ramen noodles for the past week.
As the night had progressed, Jake had literally transformed in front of Kate from the obnoxious troll who slowed down her entrance to the party to a witty, charming guy with a smile that made her heart skip a beat.
As she walked home with a stumbling Tracey, Kate had a feeling Jake was unlike any boy she’d met before. Picturing his boyish grin in her mind, she secretly hoped she would see him again.