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Too Hard to Forget
 


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Too Hard to Forget


  Contents

  Cover

  Title Page

  Copyright

  Dedication

  Acknowledgments

  Too Hard to Forget

  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

  Chapter Seventeen

  Chapter Eighteen

  Chapter Nineteen

  Chapter Twenty

  Chapter Twenty-One

  Chapter Twenty-Two

  Chapter Twenty-Three

  Chapter Twenty-Four

  Chapter Twenty-Five

  Chapter Twenty-Six

  Chapter Twenty-Seven

  Chapter Twenty-Eight

  Chapter Twenty-Nine

  Chapter Thirty

  Chapter Thirty-One

  Epilogue

  A preview of Too Beautiful to Break

  About the Author

  Also by Tessa Bailey

  Praise

  Fall in Love with Forever Romance

  Appendix

  This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.

  Copyright © 2017 by Tessa Bailey

  Excerpt from Too Beautiful to Break copyright © 2017 by Tessa Bailey

  Cover design by Elizabeth Turner. Cover illustration by Kris Keller. Cover copyright © 2017 by Hachette Book Group, Inc.

  Hachette Book Group supports the right to free expression and the value of copyright. The purpose of copyright is to encourage writers and artists to produce the creative works that enrich our culture.

  The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book without permission is a theft of the author’s intellectual property. If you would like permission to use material from the book (other than for review purposes), please contact [email protected] Thank you for your support of the author’s rights.

  Forever

  Hachette Book Group

  1290 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10104

  forever-romance.com

  twitter.com/foreverromance

  First Edition: April 2017

  Forever is an imprint of Grand Central Publishing. The Forever name and logo are trademarks of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

  The publisher is not responsible for websites (or their content) that are not owned by the publisher.

  The Hachette Speakers Bureau provides a wide range of authors for speaking events. To find out more, go to www.hachettespeakersbureau.com or call

  (866) 376-6591.

  ISBNs: 978-1-4555-9418-4 (mass market), 978-1-4555-9419-1 (ebook)

  E3-20170113-DA-NF

  For Eagle

  Acknowledgments

  Is it crazy that I want to acknowledge the characters most of all? They’re the stars here and I’ve just been living in their world. I don’t know why they decided I was worthy of having their stories whispered in my ear, but I love these Clarksons so damn much, it’s crazy. I can’t believe the third leg of their trip is already over, one more to go. With each book, I’ve felt a little part of myself heal along with the family, but I can’t even tell you (specifically) what part of me was damaged in the first place. Only that I needed them and this road trip. So many family rifts out there, so many stubborn aunts and cousins and fathers who can’t say what they’re thinking. Daughters, too. I’m one of them. Maybe I’m saying my peace through the siblings.

  In order to write this book—and every book—I received the help of a few wonderful, patient people. As always, my family comes first. Patrick and Mackenzie, you make this possible. I love you more than anything I could write here. Thank you for being mine. My editor at Forever Romance, Madeleine Colavita, this was our John Harbaugh book since the beginning and we totally did the man, the myth, the legend, justice! Thank you for your all star edits. My grandmother, Violet, whose real life siblings inspired these stories. I hope Peggy was every bit as wonderful as your sister, Peggy. Thank you for letting me have them for a while. Eagle at Aquila Editing (to whom this book is dedicated), for loving Peggy the best and being a fabulous beta, longtime reader, and friend. Thank you all so very much!

  TOO HARD TO

  FORGET

  Prologue

  Miriam Clarkson, January 13

  Would it surprise you (whoever you are) to know that Peggy is the most complicated of my children? If she has fluttered into your orbit for a short amount of time, as her four fiancés have done (I liked the second guy well enough, but the rest were self-indulgent twats), your impression of her might include the following: pampered baby of the family, takes nothing seriously, shallow, out for a good time.

  You would be…right.

  But that’s because you’ve only been allowed to see the top layer.

  Look closer.

  Peggy is a Rubik’s Cube. Just when I think I’ve got one whole side fashioned into a solid red block, a white square twists into place and throws off everything. Where I could predict Aaron, Rita, and Belmont most of the time, Peggy would be the type to send me a selfie as she jumped from a plane, parachute strapped to her back.

  After college, her unpredictable nature changed, however. It became more frantic. Less about having fun and more about…distracting herself from something with an adrenaline rush. I didn’t try hard enough to find out what high she was chasing and then the appropriate window grew smaller and smaller. I worried she might find my concern forced or, worse, phony.

  Fuck. This is getting pretty heavy, isn’t it?

  Bottom line: I sucked at momming. Thankfully, being mediocre in the parenting department didn’t preclude me from seeing beneath the caramelized top layer of Peggy’s crème brûlée. Someone took a fork and dragged it straight through the middle, leaving division among Peggy’s already split personalities. Sweetness used to exist at the forefront, but now it battles for visibility among the other components, the hurt and confusion and self-doubt.

  Peggy the bombshell. Peggy the liar. Peggy the mediator. Peggy the grief-stricken. The angel. The devil. The baby. The old soul.

  You never know what you’re going to get.

  Especially now.

  But look closer. She’s not what you’re expecting.

  Chapter One

  Once, when hanging a picture of Audrey Hepburn in her bedroom, Peggy had smashed her index finger with a hammer, leaving a permanent black spot beneath her fingernail shaped a little bit like George Washington’s silhouette on the quarter. She put on a coat of nail polish every day—usually red—to hide it.

  She stared in confusion now at the nails she’d covered in varnish only this morning, while waiting for food at the drive-through. How could it be chipped already? The metallic taste in her mouth suggested she’d chewed off the polish, but she would have remembered that, right? George’s dark silhouette slowly turned his head and winked at her, so smug in his founding fatherness. Oh man, I’m losing it.

  It was the sign that had gotten to her. Welcome to Ohio. They’d passed it a mile back and she’d been sparring with the urge to throw up ever since.

  “Pull over, Bel.” Peggy shot forward in her seat, giving a series of taps on the back of her brother’s headrest. “Can you just pull over?”

  Belmont’s eyes were steady on
her in the rearview mirror, holding for a too-long handful of seconds, before he nodded, pulling the Suburban into the next rest stop. She tried to open the door before the vehicle even stopped rolling, but Belmont hit the lock button, as if predicting her move, earning the driver’s seat a frustrated kick. As always, her brother took his sweet time locating a space, allowing a family of three to pass, before parking and shutting off the ignition.

  At the absence of the ever-present engine rumble, their third and final traveling companion, Sage Alexander, stirred, her mouth opening wide on a yawn. Peggy watched Belmont and Sage exchange a “good morning, oh, center of my gravity” look, and that was all she could take.

  Peggy pushed open the Suburban’s back door, sucking in deep breaths through her nose as she traversed the littered patch of grass and asphalt toward the rest stop bathroom. The air around her was cold, damp, and charged, fragrant with the recent rain. Behind her, the sound of interstate traffic sounded so alien, she felt like a stranger in her own body in this unfamiliar place. People lived here year-round, going to jobs, taking their kids to school, shopping at the mall, and they would never even know she’d passed through. There was something both comforting and terrifying about that.

  Before Peggy entered the beige, concrete structure, she glanced back at the Suburban to find Belmont and Peggy still staring at each other, neither of their mouths moving. Something awful and unwanted stabbed her in the chest. She didn’t want to be this person. The resentful one who turned away from any sign of happiness in others. But how could she be anyone else? How?

  In a matter of two weeks, she’d lost two siblings, Rita and Aaron, to love. And she was sure as shit on her way to losing a third in Belmont, if he ever woke up and smelled Sage’s bacon. Being surrounded by so much magic was almost enough to make her believe a second chance at the real thing was possible for her.

  It wasn’t so far-fetched, was it? She had a college degree, great hair, and made damn good conversation. “Congratulations, you’d be the perfect trophy wife.” She laughed under her breath. Love, or even the illusion of it, wouldn’t be happening anytime soon, though. Not until she accomplished her mission in Cincinnati.

  Facing the restroom once again, Peggy passed through the curved tunnel to find the bathroom empty. She came to a stop in front of the foggy mirror, her gaze landing on the string of engagement rings dangling around her neck. A little shimmy of her shoulders had the expensive baubles—symbols of her shame—clinking together with an eerie sound in the silent bathroom, layered with the plop of dripping water, the distant whoosh of traffic.

  When the Clarkson siblings—and Sage, who’d arrived later—set out on this road trip from San Diego to New York, united in the responsibility to fulfill their mother Miriam’s final wish of jumping into the Atlantic Ocean on New Year’s Day, Peggy hadn’t expected to reach Cincinnati so fast.

  One more mile to campus and she would be sharing oxygen with Elliott Brooks. Coach Elliott Brooks. The man she’d let ruin her for all others.

  This weekend, Peggy would be returning the favor.

  Deep down inside her, something needed repairing. Rebounds hadn’t worked. Facing her heartache only made it more real. Too much time had been wasted trying to patch up the gash herself, so she would be making Elliott’s life hell. That’s right. This chicken had come home to roost and she was extra crispy. After this weekend, she’d be walking away with the upper hand, as opposed to a bleeding heart. It was her last-ditch option. Her last chance to finally move on. Giving the coach a taste of his own medicine meant Peggy wouldn’t have to swallow it anymore.

  The sound of light footsteps signaled the approach of Peggy’s best friend, and she quickly bent at the waist, then flipped her hair back, striking a pose just in time to greet Sage with an exaggerated wink in the mirror. “What were you dreaming about in that passenger seat, huh? Sex? Were you dreaming of a hairy mountain man stealing your virginity? Spill it, Alexander.”

  As expected, Sage sputtered, fingers knitting together at her throat. “No! I—a mountain man? I wouldn’t even know what one l-looks like—”

  “Sorry, I confused your dream with mine.” Peggy pulled her blond curls into a messy bun, twirling the escapees around a digit. “But you were definitely moaning.”

  “Was I? Oh my—” In the mirror, she watched Sage square her shoulders. “You’re just trying to distract me.”

  Peggy pasted a blasé smile on her face. “Why would I do that?”

  “I wish I knew.”

  Outside, Belmont tapped the recognizable horn of the Suburban and they both jerked toward the door, but stopped before they could obey their mutual instinct to follow her older brother’s bidding. “It’s alumni weekend at the university, okay? That’s all.” Peggy leaned back against the sink and crossed her arms. “I’m just a little nervous about running into the old squad. You think the wedding planning business is brutal? Try impressing a dozen cheerleaders who expect to find any day now they’re a long-lost princess.”

  Sage chuckled, a bloom spreading across her cheeks. “Oh. I would be nervous, too. If I was going to see old classmates. Everyone weighing their accomplishments against one another.” A funny expression made Sage appear apprehensive, as though she were considering what her own reunion would be like. And didn’t like what she imagined. She took a few steps, closing herself into a stall. “I’m glad you told me.”

  Peggy swallowed the ball of guilt in her throat. “Yeah.”

  * * *

  Peggy couldn’t pinpoint what drew her toward the tunnel. The football game was going to start in just fifteen minutes, and she was supposed to be leading the Bearcat cheerleading squad’s warm-ups. But just like always, she was aware of his presence. On the field, pacing the sideline, terse instructions being delivered into his headset, while eagle eyes watched the team stretch and prepare. And in the same way she never failed to sense him nearby, his absence was having the opposite effect now. Instead of feeling hot and full, her stomach was cold and empty.

  Pom-poms in hand, Peggy walked on the balls of her feet down the silent, airless hall leading to the football team’s locker room. She had no authorization to be there but couldn’t ignore the pull. She’d find him back there. The man who watched her as if she were the Promised Land one moment, hell the next.

  Elliott Brooks. Head coach of the Bearcats. Two-time recipient of the Coach of the Year award. Uncompromising hard-ass known for demanding perfection not only from his team, but himself. Devout Catholic. They called him the Kingmaker, because so many of his players had gone on to be first round NFL draft picks. That man. The one who visited her bed nightly.

  Well. In her dreams anyway. In real life, they’d never exchanged a single word. Their long, secretive glances were a language all their own, though. When cheerleading and football practices intersected, his burning coal eyes moved over her like a brush fire.

  What are you looking at? his gaze seemed to ask. But in the same glance, she could read the contradicting subtext. Don’t you dare look at anyone on this field but me.

  Give me one good reason, she would blink back, cocking a hip.

  And he would. Commanding the field with a whip crack command, stalking the sidelines like a predatory creature, seeing all, commenting only when strictly necessary. Those eyes would sneak back to her, though. Without fail. Their message would read, I’m a man among boys. There’s your reason.

  Or she’d imagined everything and the telepathic communication was in her head alone. A scary possibility…and one she couldn’t bring herself to believe. Was it finally time to find out?

  The crowd’s excitement followed Peggy down the long tunnel, fading the closer she came to the locker room. That’s when she heard the heavy, measured breaths. The forceful clearing of a man’s throat.

  His throat.

  Before she could second-guess her sanity, Peggy stepped into the off-limits room, dropping her pom-poms and slamming back against the wall under the weight of his attention. It
snapped against her skin like an open hand. God, he was gorgeous, even in his sudden fury. Hard bodied, golden from the sun, and righteously male, all stubbled and tall and full of might. The muscles of her abdomen squeezed—squeezed—along with her thighs as he stormed over, his words being directed at her for the very first time.

  “What the hell do you think you’re doing here?”

  Don’t lose your nerve now. Years. She’d been watching him for years. Since she’d entered the university as a freshman. Watched his triumphs from afar. And the horrible tragedy, still so recent. So fresh. “You should be on the field.”

  Elliott’s crack of masculine laugher held no humor. “And you thought it was your job to come get me, cheerleader?”

  So condescending. But accompanied by his raking glance down her thighs and belly…she couldn’t help but be turned on by it. She loved him addressing her at all. Finally. “Yeah. I did. Everyone else is probably too scared of you.”

  Dark eyes narrowing, he stepped closer. So close, she almost whimpered, the fantasies having taken such a deep hold, her longing was on a hair-trigger. “Well, you were wrong. It’s not your job. So pick up your sparkly bullshit and move out.”

  “They’re called pom-poms and I’ll leave when I’m good and ready.” With an incredulous expression, Elliott started to move away, telling Peggy she needed to work fast. Toward what goal? She’d come with no plan. Had never expected to actually speak to this man in her life. “I’ve seen you watching me.”

  He froze, a muscle leaping in his cheek. “You were mistaken.”

  “No. I wasn’t. I’m not.” She wet her lips, gaining confidence when his eyes followed the movement and she saw the hunger. The same hunger she’d watched grow, even while he begrudged it, over the course of the last few months. Since the tragedy. “You don’t have to feel ashamed about it. Not now.”

  His fists planted on either side of her head with a bash, shaking the lockers, then his face hovered mere inches away. “What would you know about shame?”

 
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