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Johnny (Connelly Cousins #2)(2)

Abbie Zanders


* * *

What the hell had she been thinking?

Stacey Mallory, a.k.a. Salienne Dulcette, held her head in her hands. She’d just gotten off the phone with her former college roommate, having agreed to fly all the way across the country to the east coast for a visit. She couldn’t help herself; it had been an impetuous decision made under the sweet duress of Lina’s soft-spoken tones and remembered images of those huge, flashing green eyes.

Saying no to Lina had always been damn near impossible, which was exactly why Stacey refused to pick up the phone for so long. For one thing, Lina was one of those people who was always doing something for someone else. She was the one people confided in, the quiet and reliable shoulder to lean on, the friend you could always count on to lend a helping hand or simply just be there when you needed her. Lina rarely asked for anything herself, so when she did, Stacey felt kind of obligated, because she knew she would feel awful for days if she didn’t.

Stacey also knew that Lina harbored guilt on her behalf. While Stacey never once blamed her for anything that had happened, there was no doubt in her mind that Lina felt at least partially responsible. Lina believed she had let her best friend down, and had been trying to make amends for the past five years. Stacey had seen it in her eyes the last time they’d been face to face; she read it in between the lines of every card and hand-written note Lina sent her; and she heard it in her voice with every voicemail message Lina left, in all the things she didn’t say.

The last time they’d seen each other, Stacey had been in critical but stable condition, the victim of a horrible accident. They’d been seniors, preparing for finals, excited about being so close to finishing their undergrad studies with Bachelor’s degrees – Stacey in English Literature and Lina in Comparative Literature. Since then, Stacey had avoided direct contact with Lina, a fact which she knew was more painful to Lina’s sensitive soul than any form of verbal or physical abuse would have been.

Hurting Lina was not Stacey’s intention, but she hadn’t had much choice. Her life had been irrevocably changed that day. The person she was, the life she had led, had all changed drastically. Lina was part of her old life, and for Stacey, a reminder of what once was.

To soften the blow of her outright rejection (and to ease some of her own guilt), Stacey sent Lina a signed, first edition copy of every book she published, along with a small card listing Stacey’s current address and personal number.

The books were worth a fortune, since Salienne Dulcette was one of the most reclusive (and therefore sought after) authors in recent history. Her sexy, erotic, and insightful novels had taken the literary world by storm, finding and filling a niche among strong, independent, and often disappointed, women. Even though copycats had come out of the woodwork after her first book surpassed all expectations and shot straight to the top of the best seller list, there was nothing that came close to Stacey’s poignant wit and engaging storylines. Through her writing, Stacey touched the souls and hearts of women everywhere; her books were now offered in dozens of languages worldwide.

Lina apparently loved the books, too. Her notes and messages never failed to mention how much she treasured them, not just because she enjoyed romance novels, but because they had come from Stacey directly. Stacey knew that despite their worth, Lina would never sell them, just as she knew Lina would not reveal her personal address or phone number, even though she would be paid handsomely for that kind of information.

Not answering Lina’s letters or returning her phone calls had been a difficult, yet conscious choice. It had taken years to build thick walls of seclusion around herself. But on those rare occasions when she was totally honest with herself, she had to admit she enjoyed hearing from her old friend. Her spirits lifted every time she spotted Lina’s loose, curvy handwriting on the envelope, or heard her low, sweet voice on her voicemail.

As a result of Lina’s tenacity, Stacey knew everything that had happened in Lina’s life since they’d last seen each other. It many ways, it kept her grounded. Reminded her that there was a world beyond her laptop and her website and fan chat rooms, even if she wasn’t the one living it. Stacey lived vicariously through her own imagination and the life penned in the handwritten letters Lina sent to her faithfully.

She didn’t know what made her pick up the phone this time. Perhaps she’d been feeling more sentimental than usual. Or maybe it was that second glass of wine that clouded her judgment. The caller ID had popped up on the display, right along with a sudden, strong desire to answer. Before she had a chance to overthink it, she picked up. Lina’s shock at hearing Stacey’s actual voice was evident, though it only lasted a few seconds.

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