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The One That Got Away
 

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The One That Got Away


  What would it be like to kiss Ginger?

  Was she a good kisser? Was she warm and eager or cool and reserved? Marcus had no idea.

  He was hoping for the former as he stared at her mouth.

  “The thing about a near-death experience,” he said, “is it makes you wonder what you’re missing out on. It makes you want to live in the moment more, and do whatever the hell you feel like doing.” Would that explanation give her enough warning for what he was about to do?

  “Oh, yeah? What else do you think you’ve been missing out on?” Ginger asked.

  “You.” He hadn’t meant to say it, but half a bottle of wine would do that. Still, it was true. Sitting there right now, he couldn’t think of anything on earth he was more curious to experience than Ginger.

  Dear Reader,

  I love stories of second chances. Whether it be a near-death experience, a love lost then found, a phone call that changes one’s life forever—or all three, as is the case in The One That Got Away. Such events have the power to transform people. I very much enjoyed exploring how Ginger, Marcus and Izzy are changed by each other and the events that bring them together.

  Marcus, especially, is a man who needs to grow. Throughout the writing of this story, I imagined how it would feel to wake up in the hospital, having escaped death, and realize that no one cares enough to rush to his bedside. How would this change the choices he makes the second time around?

  I love to hear from readers. You can reach me at [email protected] or via my Web site, www.jamiesobrato.com, where you can also learn more about me and my upcoming books.

  Happy reading!

  Sincerely,

  Jamie Sobrato

  The One That Got Away

  Jamie Sobrato

  ABOUT THE AUTHOR

  Jamie Sobrato lives with her two children in a Northern California town not so different from Promise, where she is at work on her next book. She loves to hike and read good books, but not at the same time. The One That Got Away is her twentieth novel.

  Books by Jamie Sobrato

  HARLEQUIN SUPERROMANCE

  1536—A FOREVER FAMILY

  1604—BABY UNDER THE MISTLETOE

  HARLEQUIN BLAZE

  237—ONCE UPON A SEDUCTION

  266—THE SEX QUOTIENT

  284—A WHISPER OF WANTING

  316—SEX AS A SECOND LANGUAGE

  328—CALL ME WICKED

  357—SEX BOMB

  420—SEDUCING A S.E.A.L.

  490—MADE YOU LOOK

  To Annabella Sobrato, who reminds me every day how to live life with joy and passion

  CONTENTS

  PROLOGUE

  CHAPTER ONE

  CHAPTER TWO

  CHAPTER THREE

  CHAPTER FOUR

  CHAPTER FIVE

  CHAPTER SIX

  CHAPTER SEVEN

  CHAPTER EIGHT

  CHAPTER NINE

  CHAPTER TEN

  CHAPTER ELEVEN

  CHAPTER TWELVE

  CHAPTER THIRTEEN

  CHAPTER FOURTEEN

  CHAPTER FIFTEEN

  CHAPTER SIXTEEN

  PROLOGUE

  Berkeley, California

  Fourteen Years Ago

  ONE MORE DRINK, and she would tell him.

  Just one more very stiff drink, and he would finally know how she felt about him.

  Terror, like a knife, sliced through her. Which was ridiculous. Marcus Kastanos was Ginger’s best friend. She was closer to him than she was to any of her girlfriends. Often she didn’t even know what she felt about things until she’d talked them over with Marcus. She shouldn’t be hiding her feelings from him now, when it mattered most.

  Maybe she should switch from beer to tequila.

  She tried to get the bartender’s attention by waving her empty beer bottle at him, but it was the end of the school year and the place was busy. He was focused on pouring drinks for a rowdy group celebrating graduation at the other end of the bar.

  Her last night on campus, Ginger thought. She felt a torrent of mixed emotions. She was ready to move on after four years at UC Berkeley. She had completed her Bachelor’s degree and was excited about starting grad school in Iowa in the fall to earn her Master of Fine Arts; getting into such a prestigious program had been a dream come true. But she also had to confront the fact that she had no home to go back to for the summer.

  Her grandmother Townsend, who’d raised her since the death of her parents when she was nine, had died six months ago, and Ginger had no close family left. Marcus was leaving, too, on a trip around the world. This was the first summer she would be truly alone, and that left her feeling empty and scared.

  “You look like you need another drink,” Marcus said as he sat back down on the bar stool next to her. He’d just returned from the jukebox, where he’d spent the past few minutes pondering music selections.

  “I definitely need another,” she said, holding up the third bottle of Corona she’d emptied in the past hour. “But I’m making the next one a shot of Don Julio. Care to join me?”

  He looked surprised. Marcus knew she didn’t do shots unless she was totally stressed.

  “Damn straight I’ll join you.”

  Ah, Marcus. She could always count on him to make her feel better. At least for the moment.

  She watched as he caught the bartender’s attention, and she felt a mixture of affection and annoyance that the man immediately responded to tall, good-looking Marcus while he’d ignored, plain, wallflower Ginger. But that’s how it always was—Marcus turned heads, while Ginger faded into the background.

  With his adorably shaggy brown hair, piercing green eyes and naturally beautiful body, he was by far the prettier of the two of them. He was the beautiful swan to her ugly duckling. But Marcus saw past her frizzy hair and the extra pounds she tried to hide under baggy sweatshirts. He knew who she was on the inside. In fact, she was convinced he was the only person who truly understood her.

  Unfortunately, he was dating someone else.

  No sense in dwelling on the negative, though.

  Not when this was the night. After four years together, she’d finally found the courage to tell him about the longing—and yeah, lust—she’d been feeling for him for so long she couldn’t even remember when it had started. And okay, he might be surprised, but she was sure she hadn’t misread the signals he’d been sending her lately.

  Hadn’t he said just yesterday that she meant the world to him? That she’d made his four years of college the best years of his life? He had never talked that way to her before, and she’d felt something significant shift between them. Surely she hadn’t misread his meaning.

  No, she was pretty sure he felt more for her than mere friendship.

  He glanced over and flashed her a dazzling, heart-melting smile.

  Yes. He definitely did. She could see it in his smile. And just as soon as she downed that shot, she’d tell him.

  He slid one of the tequilas the bartender poured for him across the counter to her, and she buzzed with warm affectionate feelings.

  “To graduation,” he said, lifting his own glass to toast.

  Ginger raised hers in return, then downed the drink in one long, fiery swallow. Marcus did the same beside her. Thank heaven for the agave plant and whoever had figured out how to make it into a beverage.

  The burn of the liquor in her throat turned into an overwhelming sensation of well-being and invincibility. It was just what she needed.

  She could do this. She could tell Marcus how she felt.

  She was going to do it.

  Right now. This was it.

  She caught his eye and let her gaze linger.

  “You know,” she said, leaning
in close, “I’ve never had the guts to say this before, but I really love you.”

  There.

  She’d done it.

  The words had come out so easily, so naturally, she could hardly believe she’d waited this long. And when his eyes warmed in reaction, and his calm, easy manner remained unchanged, she knew she’d done the right thing.

  He really did feel the same.

  Joy sprang up in her chest like a geyser, and she wanted to leap off her bar stool and throw her arms around him.

  He grinned, affecting the wavering posture of a falling-down drunk. “I love you too, man.” He slurred the words purposefully. “You’re the best.”

  His teasing performance shocked her back into sobriety.

  He thought she was joking.

  He didn’t get her true meaning.

  Oh, God. He didn’t get it.

  Heat rushed to her face.

  She was the world’s biggest fool. They’d been friends for years, and she’d never once had the guts to tell him the truth. Then yesterday, when he’d spouted a few clichéd words of affection, she’d grasped on to them desperately, convincing herself they’d held a deeper meaning, when all he’d really meant was that he was glad he’d had her as his emotional sounding board throughout college.

  She was a fool and an even greater coward, hiding her true feelings behind their friendship. And she was never going to be happy.

  Ever.

  “Marcus!” a female voice cried from right behind them.

  They both turned to find Marcus’s girlfriend, Lisette Grayson, standing there, hands on hips, pretty face contorted into a frown.

  “Why didn’t you meet me at the apartment like I asked?”

  “Is it that late?” Marcus glanced at the Budweiser clock on the wall, confused. “I’m sorry. I didn’t notice the time.”

  He stood up from the bar stool and fished his wallet out of his pocket, then tossed a couple of twenties on the bar. “I’m sorry to rush off, Gin.”

  “It’s okay,” she lied, trying to put on a carefree expression.

  Lisette, who’d never bothered to say more than five words at a time to her, simply turned and marched out of the bar, knowing without a doubt that Marcus would follow.

  How did she get such confidence?

  Ginger supposed it came with blonde hair, blue eyes, perfect features and a size 4 body.

  Marcus paused, flustered. “She’s still pissed that I’m going off on a trip.”

  Ginger knew exactly how Lisette felt. She didn’t want to see Marcus go traipsing around the world for a year, either. Knowing him the way she did, she suspected he’d never come back. He’d find a nice little spot far away from the complications of real life and live happy as a clam. She’d been foolishly hoping that confessing her feelings to him would keep him from going—or even more foolish, cause him to invite her along.

  But this was Marcus she was talking about. Thanks to his world-traveling hippie parents, he’d learned never to sit still for long. They’d taught him that the best solution to every problem was to leave it behind and ride off into the sunset.

  “I guess this is goodbye, huh?” he said.

  Tears sprang to Ginger’s eyes. She didn’t want to cry, not now. She refused to be the kind of girl that clung pathetically to a guy as he walked away. It was time for her to learn from her mistakes. She was never again going to let herself want someone who didn’t want her.

  “I guess so,” she said, then hid her misery behind a fake smile.

  “My flight to Paris leaves at six in the morning.”

  “I could drive you to the airport,” Ginger offered, kicking herself even as she said it. She already knew Lisette had claimed the job.

  “That’s okay. You sleep in. You’ve earned it.”

  “Write to me, okay?” She hoped she didn’t sound desperate.

  He smirked. “I’ll try. I’m not such a great correspondent.”

  “Take care of yourself, and come back, okay?” She said, refusing to accept that this might be the last time she ever saw him.

  “You’re asking a lot.”

  She laughed, though it came out sounding forced. “Okay, don’t take care of yourself, and don’t come back.”

  “I think I can manage that.”

  He leaned in and gave her a long hug. Ginger clung to him as if her life depended on it.

  Don’t go, she wanted to beg. Don’t leave me here alone.

  “Try not to embarrass all those losers at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, okay?” He gave her shoulders a light squeeze as he released her.

  “Oh yeah, like that’s going to happen.”

  His smile disappeared. “You’re brilliant,” he said, sounding more serious that she’d ever heard him before. “Don’t let any of those smug bastards convince you otherwise.”

  Ginger fought to get words past the lump in her throat. “This isn’t goodbye, right? We’ll see each other again, so no goodbyes.”

  He kissed her on the cheek, smiled and walked away.

  CHAPTER ONE

  MARCUS KASTANOS SAT on the set of the British news talk show London Daily, sweating a little under the glare of stage lights as hundreds of eyes from the studio audience stared at him.

  He didn’t consider promotion fun under the best of circumstances—and these were anything but ideal—but he knew his book was good. The story he’d told was an important one that people needed to hear, and for that reason, he’d do everything he could to make sure it got the exposure it deserved. The critical acclaim he’d received was nice, but it meant little if readers didn’t know about the book and buy it.

  Of course, the death threats were just about the best book promotion money couldn’t buy.

  If anyone had told him five years ago that he’d be living with a death sentence hanging over his head, he’d have laughed.

  He still had trouble believing it.

  But checking the street before he stepped outside, triple locking his doors, keeping his curtains drawn at night and traveling with a bodyguard had all become second nature for him the past year, ever since he’d first received the threats.

  This wasn’t his first time appearing on TV to talk about the political fallout from his novel, but today he felt more uneasy than he usually did, and he couldn’t say why. He’d looked out his hotel room window that morning at the gray London sky and felt a bleak mood settle over him along with a more familiar restlessness. Probably the black mood and the edginess were inherited from his father.

  The terrorist attacks in London in the past year only added to the anxiety that niggled constantly at the back of his mind.

  But no matter. He was here, and he had his book to promote. Seven Grains of Sand had just come out in trade paperback a year after its hardcover release, and he wasn’t going to cower in fear. The story had to be told.

  “And we’re on again in five, four, three, two, one…”

  “Today we’re here with American expatriate author Marcus Kastanos, talking about his controversial novel Seven Grains of Sand, and the death threats issued against him as a result of the book’s publication.”

  The host, a man named Liam Parkinson, paused as the live audience applauded. Then he turned to Marcus.

  “Thank you for joining us, Marcus.”

  “Glad to be here.”

  “As I read your book, I found myself wondering what led you to write a story about a Muslim woman struggling to shed her family’s traditions. I’m guessing the book wasn’t inspired by personal experience.”

  Marcus forced himself to grin at the question he’d already answered a million times. “In a sense, it was personal experience that led me to tell this story. I was involved in my twenties with a woman whose life wasn’t unlike the heroine’s in my novel. Her story always haunted me, and I’ve never been able to shake the anger I felt on her behalf when I listened to her describe what she’d gone through as a child growing up with the painful effects of female circumcision.”

&
nbsp; “Ah, yes. One of the more graphic parts of the novel—your description of that brutal procedure. Did you do any firsthand research?”

  “Most of my research came from my former lover, who encouraged me to write the book, and medical and journalistic articles. I also had several people more familiar with the process than I am read the book for accuracy.”

  “And what about the now famous death threats? How has your life changed since you first received them?”

  Another predictable question, but one Marcus couldn’t really answer without putting himself in further danger.

  “I’m a bit limited in where I go and what I do these days. I’ve also scratched all plans to travel to certain Middle Eastern or African countries.”

  Uneasy laughter from the audience.

  “And how do you feel about—” The host’s question was interrupted by the sounds of a scuffle in the audience and raised voices.

  Marcus peered in that direction and caught the glint of light off metal. This couldn’t be happening. Before he could react, the first shot exploded. Then another, and another.

  Searing pain in his chest registered only after he was thrown backward against the chair.

  In the uproar that followed, his sense of reality became a series of fractured images.

  A hand. A leg.

  The overhead lights were too bright.

  Hey. He was lying down? Why?

  Shouting. People all around him were shouting. He had to get up. See what the noise was about.

  Ouch. Moving hurt.

  His chest, wet and warm. And so painful.

  Had he been shot?

  He closed his eyes. Yeah. That was better. The noise and pain faded.

  He was a kid. Playing. But where? Right. The commune. Oregon. That was chill, man.

  No. Not Oregon. Amsterdam. High school. He was so mad. Just so pissed off at the world and his useless father. Didn’t get out of bed for days. Depressed. Whatever.

 
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