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Lost Perfect Kiss: A Crown Creek Novel by Theresa Leigh (1)

Chapter One

Gabe

I was addicted to watching myself die.

My heart raced loud enough to drown out the sound of my breath coming faster. It felt like a hit of the purest dope I’d ever tried.

I was an addict now.

“I’m Gabriel King!” I shouted into the camera. “And I’m the King of Pain!”

A hot rush of adrenaline spiked in my veins just hearing the words. I could still feel it. The day was burned into my skin like some kind of fucked-up brand mark.

“Let’s do this!” my image shouted at me.

I hovered my finger over the pause button. This was where I should stop. Right here. It wasn’t healthy to keep watching. I knew this, which was why I kept my obsession secret. It was an addiction and I’d already been through that hell and come out the other side.

But the four walls of the room did their pulsing thing again, like they wanted to close in on me. A crawling sensation twisted under my skin, the one that always made me want to leap from my bed. The only thing that worked when this happened was finding a distraction.

One more time. I needed to watch just one more time.

There I was at the Perrine Bridge in Twin Falls Idaho—fifteen hundred feet above the Snake River twisting like a blue ribbon below us—hooked up to all my wires and mics. The day before, we’d rehearsed the jump and it had been the most wild rush I’d felt. Soaring like a fucking bird.

I remembered how I’d felt right then, in that moment before the jump. Impatient. All the delays and safety checks were just killjoys trying to piss all over my fun. I just wanted to do it, while my blood was still hot and thumping in my veins. I wanted to feel that same rush again, and was pissed at my safety guy for wanting to do another check. Again. Like, what the fuck? I knew what to do. We knew what to do, so let’s fucking do it.

You could see it all over my face. Feeling fucking invincible, I’d grinned at the camera and given a stupid thumbs up. “Woo!” I shouted on the screen.

I glanced up, checking to see that I was alone in the house, and turned down the volume.

Then I hit pause.

Was it crazy to want to re-live the moment? Was I insane for wanting to see it all go wrong, over and over again? What the hell kind of rush could I possibly get from watching my own body slamming into the rocks? What sick pleasure did I get from watching myself go stiff, then limp, before gently floating down as lifeless as a puppet dangling from the strings of my parachute?

If I sat down with a shrink, they’d probably be able to come up with some deep-seated, deep-rooted reason for why I kept watching the video. But I was done with the psychoanalysis. I’d done more than a life’s share of it in rehab, dragging through the pain and pulling it back up to feel it again.

That’s what this was. Rehab. My own little personal, fucked-up form of rehab, the way only Gabe King could do it. It wasn’t addiction at all.

Definitely not.

I half-believed my own lie as I propped the tablet up on my stomach. Then I took a deep breath—as deep as I could until the sharp pain in my ribs stopped me—and pressed play.

“Let’s fucking do it!” the little me shouted from the tablet.

Here in the bed, my stomach dropped. Because now that I’d watched it at least a hundred times, I could see it in an instant. I’d fucking hurried my safety guy along, and there it was on screen. The evidence. He’d only glanced at how my chute was packed, without folding and refolding it one last time.

“Ready!” the camera guy shouted. The little me grinned. My heart raced in anticipation of the hit.

On the bed, my body twitched.

Onscreen, I jumped.

As I fell, the wind was so loud in my ears, I couldn’t hear anything. But I could feel. All the protective gear I was wearing felt like cheating. I was flying and I wanted to be naked. I wished I could feel that wind on my skin, let the rush of it scour away the topmost layer until I was raw and red as a newborn baby.

I’d pulled my chute at the right moment. Here in the room, I closed my eyes as I remembered what happened next. Felt it. The horrible drag to the side as the wind caught me. My chute was rotated ninety degrees, sending me perpendicular to the canyon instead of parallel. The vortex of updrafts that close to the wall caught me almost instantly, like the hand of a giant bully dragging me off into an alley to beat the shit out of me.

It looked like it, too, there on the screen. I whipped around like an invisible giant had gotten ahold of me, spinning me around and dashing me against the canyon wall.

That was my old self. The me I used to be died right there. That first body-breaking slam into the rocks was the end of my old life. Thanks to the pause button, I could pinpoint the time of death down to the second.

Onscreen, stuff was still happening. “Oh, shit!” The cameraman said and everything went shaky.

Whatever Internet ghoul got ahold of this footage then did some fancy editing, splicing in the feed from my helmet cam. This allowed me to see what I couldn’t remember, because that first collision with the canyon wall had knocked me out cold. But thanks to the video, I now knew that I was fucking lucky my chute didn’t get tangled, because then I would have dropped like a stone. It remained caught in the updraft, the harness like a pendulum sending me slamming into the wall again and again, but not down. No. The swinging momentum of my broken body finally allowed it to escape the updraft and the feed leveled out as I floated out gently into the middle of the canyon again.

Everything was eerily silent on the video now. I couldn’t even hear my own breathing. My head had fallen so the helmet tracked the canyon floor, the river flowing below me completely undisturbed. For a moment, everything seemed almost peaceful. Like I really had died and was now floating like a ghost.

Then from off camera came the sounds of the Jeep speeding to my rescue, a crew member calling my name. The last bits of video were just a shot of the sky and then it was over. Gabe King was dead and this new thing, this strange, broken person was born in his place.

I hurried to tuck the tablet away when I heard my mother’s voice. She stormed into the sunroom where my hospital bed was set up, her cellphone shoved up against her ear, and she caught me as I slid the tablet under the sheets. Her mouth twisted. “Not again,” she mouthed at me, but then her attention was caught by something the person on the other end said. “He still needs help doing everything,” she hissed, and if there’s a more emasculating thing in the world than lying in a hospital bed while your mother argues with someone about how you can’t piss by yourself, I shudder to even imagine it. “The nurse needs to stay on another week at least. Until he gets onto crutches and even after that.”

My older brother Jonah appeared, here for his daily visit. He’d moved into his fiancée’s house while I was in the hospital, but came over every day to help me get into my chair. I shushed him with a look and he immediately started eavesdropping on Mom as well.

“Private nursing is covered under our plan, I know it is.” She paused and listened. “Right but full recovery hasn’t happened yet. He slammed into the side of a mountain!”

“Canyon,” I corrected under my breath. My mom glared at me. Then her eyes widened at whatever they said and she abruptly stabbed the button to hang up. “Why do we even have health insurance?” she asked the air.

“So Ana’s done?” I asked. “Can’t say I’m too broken up about that.”

“I know she wasn’t the friendliest nurse in the world, but she was a big help around here.” I hated how frazzled my mom looked. I also hated that it was because of me. It was enough to make a guy want to start drinking again.

No. I took a deep breath and tried to smile. “Mom, it’s fine. I can get around great in the wheelchair now.”

“No.” She shook her head. ”You still need help, Gabe.” She huffed a sigh and then her mind went to work, the same organizational skills she put into place running a household with five kids. “I guess that’s what I’m here for, though, right?”

Oh shit. “Mom. No.”

Her glare was withering. “I’m your mother, Gabriel.”

“I know.” I tried to sit up straighter, hard to do in this fucking bed. “Which is why I’m not letting you give me a fucking sponge bath. Those days are over.”

“Gabriel, I used to diaper your little weewee...”

Jonah snorted as I cried out in horror. “Jesus Christ, Mom!” I tried clap my hands over my ears and inadvertently grunted at the pain in my still-healing ribs.

Her face softened. “Gabe, you need help.”

I looked from her to my brother and shook my head. “You guys have done enough. It’s not your job to take care of me.”

“But we can make it someone’s job,” Jonah piped up.

He looked at my mom and then at me and I could tell he was asking permission to go on. I had to give the guy credit, he was really working on not just steamrollering over everyone with his ideas. I credited his fiancée Ruby for that change.

“What do you mean?” I asked, gritting my teeth. The doctors had prescribed much stronger pills, but I was managing on fistfuls of ibuprofen. I wasn’t about to undo two years of hard-won sobriety just because of a concussion, a laceration, and a few broken bones.

Jonah tapped his fingers against his mouth. “Private nurse. Someone we pay out of pocket.”

”That’s a fuckload of money.” I heard an aggrieved exhale and automatically said, “Sorry mom.”

Jonah looked smug, which meant he looked pretty much normal. “Don’t know if you remember a little band called the King Brothers? We have a fuckload of money.”

My chest tightened. Between my downward spiral after Noelle cheated and the medical bills that were piling up by the second, the “fuckload” of money I’d earned as the guitarist in America’s favorite boy band was dwindling fast.

He must have seen the clouded look on my face and instantly waved his hand. “Whatever. I’ll pay for it.”

“Jonah,” I warned.

“Fuck you,” he replied amiably. “I’m not making mom have to wash your ass for you for free.” He wrinkled his nose and then grinned and slung his arms over her shoulder, completely ignoring her scowl at him for swearing. “Whoever I hire is gonna be properly compensated for that.”

It was only my mother’s presence in the room that kept me from lifting the middle finger on my uninjured right hand.

The wheels were still turning in Mom’s mind. “Sheila Foster’s girl is getting her nursing license. She’s almost done with the program, I hear,” my mom said. “And she’s right next door so she’d be available whenever she’s not in class.”

“So I’ll go ask Sheila Foster’s girl. Boom. Done.” Jonah mimed wiping his hands together.

“Wait, who is Sheila Foster’s girl?” I demanded, sitting up as straight as my ribs would allow. “Don’t I get a say in this? It’s my ass that’s getting washed, after all.”

Jonah leveled his gaze at me. “You have a problem with a pretty neighbor girl playing nursemaid, dude?”

I played along. “She’s pretty, huh?” But it wasn’t like it mattered. Since Noelle, I’d basically been a monk. In the two years since our breakup, there had only been one girl. The girl I’d danced with the night of my brother’s cancelled performance back in December. The girl who’d kissed me like she was drowning and I was her life preserver. The girl I’d thought about every day since that night. But she’d run before I’d gotten her name.

Now her face was a shimmery blur in my wounded brain. All I had of her was a single memory of one lost, filthy kiss.

The fall had jarred the memory loose so that I only had the barest recollection. Like trying to recall a dream. And I knew that was for the best. It wasn’t like I was going to try and find her. That kiss belonged to the guy on the video. He died right there, the moment he slammed into the canyon wall. And I was reborn as a useless asshole who has to be waited on by his mother. That girl I kissed would want nothing to do with me. Nothing at all.

Maybe a pretty nursemaid would erase her from my brain. “Fine,” I yawned. “She can’t be worse than Ana.” I leaned back on my pillow, my eyelids suddenly heavy. I opened them exactly once before sleep took hold of me. “Thanks man,” I said to my brother.

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