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Protect Me Sneak Peek

CHAPTER ONE

Catelyn 

A pair of glaring red brake lights jerked in front of my car, nearly clipping my front bumper. On reflex, I stomped on my brakes and let out a little cry.

“Jerk face!”

My car skidded a stop seconds before I would have slammed into an obnoxiously lifted truck with chrome rims. With a hitch that size, it would have completely totaled my car. With a belch of black smoke, the truck scampered down the mountain highway again, oblivious.

Knuckles white on the steering wheel, I loosened my clenched jaw.

“May you get fined and not be able to pay the bill, you arrogant, slimy newt!” I called.

Not that it mattered.

The ring of my phone echoed through my car, distracting me from my rage. With a deep exhale, I hit the accept button on my car dashboard. The dulcet tone of my best friend, Binita, followed.

“Hey Catelyn!”

“Hey,” I breathed. “Please tell me something happy about you and Zayne. How are baby preparations going?”

Concern laced her tone. “Uh oh. What’s going on?”

My nostrils flared as I hesitated to respond. Binita was only a few short months away from delivering a set of twins: one boy and one girl. Not being at her side during this momentous moment in her life was hard enough, but dealing with all the breaking down of my day made everything seem worse.

“Talk to me,” Binita said when my silence continued. Realizing I wouldn’t be able to squirrel out of it, I gave in.

“It’s just . . . today was the worst day ever. I dropped three drinks at work this morning, the espresso machine stopped working, Dahlia was sick so I had to do the morning rush myself and I still don’t know the drinks really well. It took me forever to do anything, so the line built up. People got all passive-aggressive and huffy. To make it worse, last night I couldn’t get any sleep.”

The last sentence was a lie.

Sort of.

I couldn’t get any sleep had always been code between the two of us for the nightmares are coming back. Binita and I had always had our own kind of language.

“Again?” she asked softly.

Tears filled my eyes, but I blinked them back. “Yeah, but it’s fine.” My voice sounded hoarse for just a moment,  so I cleared my throat. “Really.”

“Catelyyyyn!”

The sharp edges of her reprimand made me laugh—she sounded just like her mother.

“I’m fine, really.” A sniffle punctuated my insistence. I pulled off the side of the road, my chest heavy. “I just . . . I don’t know what triggered the nightmares this time, but I’ll figure it out and work through it.”

“Like you always do.”

I snorted. “Maybe healing never ends?”

“Of course it does. It’s been five years,” she said softly. “Look how far you’ve come. You’ve worked so hard in therapy, Cate, but that doesn’t mean healing is absolute. You’ll slip back into memories every now and then and you’ll fight your way back to the light. I’m here for you.”

Having a Marriage and Family Therapist as a best friend had been a lifesaver for so many reasons.

I swallowed again. “I know. Thank you for the reminder. So, what’s up?”

With a sigh she said, “I had a favor to ask, but now I realize it may not be the best time for you.”

“No! Give me the favor.” My hands flapped with my insistence. “Give me something that I can do to help you. I can’t be in New York with you and your babies and it’s killing me to be this far apart.”

“I know!” she wailed. “I’ve missed you so much. Once the babies are born, Zayne will fly you out to visit. Mum will be back in New Delhi then anyway, so I’ll need the help. Within a week, you’ll be so tired of helping me, you’ll wish me back here.”

“Never!”

“I love hearing that,” she cried. “Anyway, something is wrong with Vikram and we need your help. Mum is a mess.”

My wrung-out heart twisted at the sound of her older brother’s name.

Vikram.

It resounded like a dull echo in my brain. “Vikram?” I whispered.

“We can’t get a hold of him.”

Vikram, the hero of my childhood. The ruggedly dashing young man that became a wild adult. Vikram, the love of my life. The light in my dark childhood sky. The lover of women and carelessness and impulsivity. My breath came fast just thinking about him, the man I intentionally hadn’t thought of in almost five years.

The man I’d never have.

“Tell me more,” I said quickly, because any more than that would have come out in a gasp. When just the mention of his name set my heart to racing, I already knew I was in big trouble.

“He was supposed to have a surgery a few days ago. Mum spoke to him right before, and he seemed fine. Said that Bastian was going to drive him home afterward. We haven’t heard from him since then.”

“You think he’s okay?”

“I hope so, but he’s not answering calls, emails, or text messages. Bastian hasn’t answered his phone, either. Vikram said something about a new job as a fire supervisor, or something. I can’t remember.”

Stress tugged at her voice, making the vowels slightly longer than usual. I’d do anything that Binita asked of me. We were sisters from the past. Our childhood had combined in all ways as we grew up next door to each other, intertwining like fate meant to braid us together.

Without Binita and the safety of her family, there would be no Catelyn here now.

“So you want me to go to his apartment?” I asked.

Her voice elevated slightly. “Would you mind?” Although still bright, I read the hesitation there. Binita, of anyone, would understand my hesitation, my rules for men. I had three of them.

  1. Never alone.
  2. Never stranded.
  3. Never unaware.

In the last five years, my rules had never failed to keep me safe. I’d applied them to every unattached man that I’d met and had never strayed once from the boundary lines they set.

So far, safe.

Going to Vikram’s apartment meant I’d need to go alone. Sure, I could bring a friend, but Vikram wouldn’t open the door. Although I hadn’t seen him in over five years, even I knew that.

Vikram of the past few years was . . . lost.

If anyone were safe enough to break one of my iron-clad rules, Vikram would be the only one.

“I wouldn’t mind checking on him at all,” I said, and managed to mean it.

“Really?” she drawled.

“Really.”

“Listen,” her voice softened, “you know you’re safe with Vik, right? That he wouldn’t . . . I mean you grew up with him. He thinks of you like a little sister. At least, he used to. You know, when he came home more often and didn’t try to shut the world out all the time.”

A heavy lump rose in my throat, but I swallowed it back. “Yes, I know.”

“Still, if you don’t—“

“It’s fine, Binita. Really. I’m happy to help however I can, especially with you so far away. Being near your brother will be the next-best thing to being close to you.”

“I miss you,” Binita said. “I wish you could be here for the babies.”

“Me too.”

I smiled, warmed by the amusement in her voice. Binita and Vikram had been raised in the US, but kept ties with their family members in India all their life. Now, Binita lived in upper New York State with her husband Zayne in an adorable house with a white-picket fence nestled in a neighborhood.

Now, she would have her babies without me there to help welcome them to the world. It stung, but what could be done?

“I’ll go check on him now,” I said. “Text me his address? I just got off work and . . . don’t really have anything filling the rest of my day.”

“You are the best!” she cried, and the relief in her voice made everything worth it. “Thank you, Cate. I’ll text you as soon as I hang up. Let me know what happens, okay?”

I’ll fall in love with him all over again, I thought. That’s what will happen. I’ll fall in love for a second time with the one playboy man that I love, hate, and can’t have.

“Of course,” I said instead. “Talk to you soon.”

Then I hung up the phone and stared straight ahead with the sinking feeling that I’d just altered the course of the rest of my life.

What had I just gotten myself into?

* * *

Vikram and Catelyn’s story is one of intertwined trauma, reluctant love, and healing wounds from the past.

I’m so excited for you to meet them, I’m a bit giddy over it.

PROTECT ME launches July 18th, 2022. You can preorder it at your favorite ebook retailer, or at www.katiecrossromance.com—where you receive a special, pre-order only discount.

Click here to preorder now.