It wasn’t every day you ended an engagement. The oddest part was that Hannah Walters didn’t even feel sad. No, that wasn’t entirely true. She felt sad about how not sad she was after breaking up with Jonas, her fiancé of two months.
Maybe she was broken. No longer capable of feeling love for a man. Had she ever? Back in high school she’d thought maybe she’d loved Kenny Johnson, but that had come and gone so quickly there was no way it had been real. In college she’d tried hard to love Nolan Peterson. He’d been such a good guy, the kind a woman should love. And such a good kisser. But she just hadn’t been able to muster the full range of emotions. It could be that she was looking for something that was unattainable.
There was no doubt she loved Jase, her neighbor and best friend, and had for years. Sometimes she wondered if her inability to love another man fully was because of her relationship with him. But looking back, that didn’t seem likely. As close as they’d been, she could clearly see that it had never been the kind of love that kept you up at night or made you do something crazy.
Hannah shifted on the sectional sofa she was lying on in her friends Tyler and Lia’s basement. It was Guard duty weekend, so Jase and Aiden were also here, along with her twin sister, Becca, who’d driven up from Kansas City before the storm got too bad.
She sighed. Thinking of her sister and Jase made her feel guilty. It had recently been brought to her attention that a stupid thing she’d done when they were kids might have accidentally-definitely caused Jase and Becca not to like each other. When in truth, they’d each been crushing hard on the other for years. And wasn’t that a tough pill to swallow? She needed to write to an advice column, quick. Dear Love Doctor, I think I was born without a heart because at the age of thirty, not only have I never loved a man for real, but I’m also a selfish brat who keeps other people from falling in love. Is there hope for me? Or should I go ahead and adopt out the entire local cat shelter now? Signed, Heartless Hannah
The sofa shook as the body on the opposite end shifted. Aiden. Hannah smiled. Talk about good guys. Jase’s fellow National Guardsman and close friend was like a unicorn of men: kind, quiet, gentlemanly. Here they were, toe-to-toe, on a sectional, in the dark, and he’d not so much as spoken even a tiny innuendo. On top of that, he’d also made sure she had the fluffiest blanket and her choice of pillow. After sleeping with an unapologetic sheet hog like Jonas, it felt like the most romantic gesture she could think of.
Whoever ended up snagging the heart of Aiden King was going to be very lucky. Of course, it didn’t hurt that he was handsome—in that bearded wilderness-man kind of way. He was also big and buff and could probably pick her up with his pinkie finger. As big as he was, did that mean . . .
And just like that her mind went to a naughty place. She bit her lip, staring at the shadowed outline of him on the opposite side of the couch. Was he asleep yet?
“Aiden?” she said quietly.
Interesting. He’d been silent for nearly ten minutes, but his voice held no sign of sleep. Just deep and a bit gruff like always.
“Have you ever been in love?”
There was a pause, and instantly she realized how stupid a question that was. As soon as she opened her mouth to apologize, he spoke.
“Can’t say that I have.”
Her eyebrows rose. Then she grinned. “Good. Then maybe I’m not broken.” Hannah sat up and crossed her legs. She could see that he was turning over to face her.
“What in the world makes you say that?” he asked, getting comfortable on the new side.
“It just seems by my age, I should have loved someone by now. Like, romantically. You know what I mean?”
“Weren’t you engaged recently?”
It was fair of him to bring that up, but she wasn’t one to be ashamed of mistakes she’d made. Well, not this one. “Yeah, but sadly I realize I was more in love with the idea of love.”
“I’ve just been lying her thinking about how I’ve never truly loved anyone romantically and wondering if maybe some people are just not cut out for love. And if that’s true, are those the unfortunate souls destined for spinsterhood? Or will I just finally need to marry someone I don’t love and make the best of it?”
He didn’t reply for a moment and she raised an eyebrow in the dark. She knew she was a lot for some people to handle. Her mother had always encouraged her to stop rambling, but Hannah liked to think of it more as a conscious streaming of creative thoughts and ideas.
“I don’t think it’s anything to be worried about. Everybody’s different.”
“Maybe. But as many guys as I’ve dated, you’d think at least one of them would have made me feel . . . something.” She shifted in her seat. “And I don’t mean lust. Of course I’ve felt the desire to get it on with someone. But that feeling fades. It’s like once we’ve tried all the major sexual positions, that person’s voice starts to grate, and the sound of him chewing makes me downright stabby. Before long I’m cringing before he even gets his hands a foot away from my body.”
He cleared his throat. “I honestly don’t think I’m the right person to give you advice on this.”
She waved her hand. “It’s fine. I really wasn’t looking for advice. I just . . . I guess I hate the thought that maybe I’m not capable of the necessary feelings to be someone’s forever person. I mean, is that something you learn? Because if so I was obviously busy focusing on kissing when I should have been paying attention. I guess I just assumed it would come naturally. The ability to see someone, like really see them, their flaws and all, and still want to be the one that cares for them. I want to hear them chewing and feel compassion instead of fury. I mean, what if I’m actually the most annoying chewer in the entire world? Do I want someone to judge me on that? Of course not. I couldn’t go through life ignoring that kind of hypocrisy.”
She took a breath and blew it out. “I’m sorry. I’m talking too much.”
“No, no. I’m . . . uh. I’m just thinking about what you were saying,” he replied.
Hannah flopped back down on the couch. “I need to just see this breakup with Jonas as an opportunity. I’m definitely at a crossroads and it’s going to take some deep and dirty self-reflection to come out of this with some insight I could use going forward. Because honestly, I can’t keep doing what I’m doing.”
“Well, I guess if you didn’t love him you made the right decision.”
“I think so. And I appreciate you saying that. Becca said the same thing and so did Jase, so three makes it a trend, which means I can feel more confident about my decision.” She turned and stared at Aiden’s large, shadowy figure on the sofa. “You know what my biggest problem will be in the immediate future?”
The silence in the dark room was broken by the rumbling sound of Aiden’s deep chuckle, which made Hannah grin. Aiden rarely laughed, so lately anytime she saw him—which wasn’t often—she made it her mission to make it happen as often as possible. However, this hadn’t been one of those times, which made it even more rewarding.
“What do estate sales have to do with your love life?”
“It’s simple. I’m addicted.”
“To estate sales.” It was not a question. He thought she was crazy. She was, no doubt about it.
“Addictions come in all forms, you know,” she teased in defense of herself, knowing full well what she’d just revealed was ridiculous.
“I guess that’s true.” He propped his head up on his hand. She really wished she could see his face, but Tyler’s basement was like a tomb. “Is there something in particular that does it for you?”
“Honestly, it’s the ones with an auction. I can barely handle it, Aiden. The minute I hear that auction colonel start his chant, put a fork in me. I’m done. I’ll raise my paddle for just about anything. I may as well drop my credit cards, my bank account numbers, and the keys to my apartment at the entrance.”
Aiden huffed out another laugh. So she kept talking. It felt good to get it out, because it was a part of herself she didn’t normally reveal. The only other person that knew was Jase, and it was probably time to stop turning to him for everything. “You may find this hard to believe, but for me, it’s almost better than sex.”
“You’re right. That is hard for me to imagine.” His voice was quiet and so manly.
“True story. Then again, I’ve had some bad sex in my day, so it shouldn’t be that much of a stretch. You guys probably never consider any sex bad.”
“I’m sure that’s not true.” She waited for him to elaborate, but she should have known better. He was a man of few words. Her polar opposite, considering sometimes she could barely breathe while she spoke. She really needed to work on that, but he didn’t seem to mind.
“Anyway, I can’t tell you how many times I had to phone a friend to talk me down during an auction.” And by friend, she meant Jase, and the conversation always went the same way, him reminding her of all the money she’d blown under the pressure. “You’d think I’d learn my lesson. But if I see a sign on the side of the road with a handy arrow, I can barely stop my car from driving there. It’s like I’m possessed, some part of me gets taken over by a demonic force, and I start imaging all the vintage maps, ephemera, and milk glass I might find. It’s like a drug.”
“So the key is avoiding them from the outset.”
“Exactly. But it’s not easy. Those little signs . . . they call to me.”
“Next time, you call me. I’m frugal. I’ll be your voice of reason.”
Hannah chuckled. Then really thought about what he’d just said. It surprised her, because Aiden hadn’t seemed like the type to encourage unnecessary conversation of any kind. “You say that now because you’re sweet, listening to me tell you all my problems. But if you give me your phone number, you’ll regret it. According to everyone I know, I can be a bugaboo.”
“I can handle you.”
She was silent for a moment, processing that. Should she be insulted? Turned on? Nah, this was Aiden. There was nothing there like that. He was just easy to talk to, and since he wasn’t much of a talker himself he made the perfect conversationalist for her because it felt like he really listened instead of just waiting for his opportunity to speak. What more could a girl want in a man? Too bad Aiden didn’t seem to date or be interested. Not that she was looking for that. In fact, it was the last thing she needed or wanted after ending her engagement with Jonas. She was going to get busy on that self-reflection business. Soon. In the meantime, she should stop dominating the conversation.
“What are you addicted to?” she said into the dark. “There has to be something.”
“Hmm,” he said quietly. “Not sure.”
“You’re a bit of a perfectionist,” she filled in for him. Shifting on the sofa, she pulled her blanket closer to her chin. “Although I guess that’s more of a personality trait than an addiction.”
“It is a flaw. You’re right,” he said quietly.
“Oh no, I didn’t mean to imply it was a flaw. You just like things to be a certain way. Nothing wrong with that.” Hannah rolled again, her foot sliding against his. “Sorry.”
“My fault. I’m too long for this sofa.”
She heard his body shift on the cushion. Was he facing her? On his back? And how was there not even a trace of light in this basement? Hannah grabbed her phone off the floor beside her. “Cover your eyes.”
When she turned it on, the screen lit up and she found the flashlight icon. It blared to life, lighting the room a bit. She placed the phone light-side up on the coffee table.
“Do you need a night-light to sleep?” Aiden asked.
She glanced over at him on the opposite end of the L-shaped sectional and gave him a teasing glare. “My mind’s just racing after today. And I like talking to you.”
A muffled giggle, followed by a breathy sigh, came through the bedroom door. Her sister, with Jase.
“And that,” Hannah said, jerking her thumb toward the offending door. “I don’t want to hear that.”
“Bother you?” Aiden asked. Now that she could see him, he was lying on his back with one hand resting on his chest, the other underneath his head. His biceps looked huge from that angle, especially with the shadows playing on his skin.
Hannah shrugged. “Bother isn’t the right word. I guess it’s a little weird. But ever since it started around Christmas, I knew it would happen eventually. Things between him and me haven’t been the same since and I knew he was missing her. He’s been distracted.”
“Makes sense, I guess. He seems taken with her.”
He did. What did that feel like? To be . . . taken with someone? Like well and truly distracted by their existence in the world?
“I’m happy for them,” Aiden said.
“I am, too. Like I said, it’s just new. That’s all. Different.” Hannah picked at loose fuzz on the blanket. Losing her best friend to her sister was hard. She hadn’t completely lost Jase, of course, but things would never be the same. They’d been each other’s most consistent “significant other” for as long as she could remember. Sure, she’d dated other people periodically throughout their friendship. Hell, she’d been engaged for a bit—what a disaster that had turned out to be.
She’d been looking for Mr. Wonderful for her entire adult life, but every potential suitor ended up turning into Mr. Disappointment, and so she always ended up crying in the arms of Mr. Always There For Me: Jase. Even during the years of his deployments with the army, he’d email or call and check in on her whenever he could. But things would change now. Becca would not appreciate Hannah calling for help with her broken appliances, or to come open her car that she’d locked her keys into. After tonight, Hannah was pretty sure that Jase would solely belong to someone else. Which was how it should be.
It was time for her to move on. And stop being so needy.
“You’re a good sister, Hannah.” Aiden’s words surprised her. She’d never considered herself that great a sister. She and Becca had never been super close.
“I’m trying. I want to be.” She gave him a half smile.
He returned it. “You are. Because you’re putting their feelings first.”
She breathed in deep and blew it out. “Yes, I am. Damn it. It isn’t always easy being a good person.”
Thankfully he laughed, because she’d meant it as a joke. “No, it isn’t. But the fact that you want to be is the important part. Plenty of people are fine with being horrible.”
She looked at him, a little shocked at so many words coming from his lips. He stared back. Something new, because many times he turned away after a second of her meeting his gaze. Hannah couldn’t help wondering who had hurt him to make him say such a thing. Or maybe he was just wise. That’s what she needed. Wisdom. From someone with a level head, and that fit Aiden to a tee.
Suddenly her lips parted into a gaping yawn. She smacked her hand against her mouth to conceal it. “Oh my goodness, excuse me. I guess I am tired.”
Aiden smiled. “Me too. I’ve got to be up in a few hours.”
“Oh my gosh! I’m so sorry. I forgot. You should have told me to shut the hell up.” It was Guard duty weekend for Aiden, Tyler, Reeve—who lived with his girlfriend and hadn’t stayed the night—and of course Jase. They would get up before the crack of dawn and head to Fort Riley, where they’d stay until Sunday evening. Spending the Friday evening together at someone’s house—and Aiden making dinner for everyone—had become a tradition for the guys.
“No problem,” he said on a yawn. “I like listening to you talk.”
“Aww, those are the sweetest words you could have said to this girl,” she said with a laugh before settling back down onto her side of the couch. Turning off the flashlight app, she slid her phone back onto the coffee table. “Good night.”
“Good night, Hannah. And for what it’s worth, I have no doubt in my mind that you’re capable of loving someone. You’ll find that person eventually, and he’ll be a lucky man.”
She sucked in a breath, tears suddenly pushing at her eyes. “Thank you, Aiden.”
The sound of him rolling over filled the room, and for once, Hannah had nothing left to say.
* * *
Hannah’s eyelids fluttered open as feet clomped up the stairs of Tyler and Lia’s basement. It was still dark, but the stillness of the room let her know that Aiden was gone from the sofa. It had to have been him or Jase leaving the basement in his boots.
Rolling over, she reached her hand out to the coffee table to get her phone only to feel a piece of paper. Picking it up, she grabbed her phone from beneath and brought them both to her chest. She turned on the phone and held the light up to the paper.
Call me the next time you get the urge to start bidding.—A
His phone number followed, and Hannah smiled. She placed her phone and the note back down and snuggled into her blanket, only to realize her toes were a little cold and her neck ached from the unsupportive cushions. Throwing her blanket off, she sprinted for the bedroom door, hoping that she’d been right about the guys leaving and that her sister, Becca, would be alone in the bed.
She tiptoed around the foot of the bed, made a quick swipe at it with her hand to make sure it was free of a large male body, and then lay down.
“That couch sucked. Please tell me I’m not going to be lying on anything questionable.”
“Nah, we did it on the floor,” Becca said, an obvious smile on her face if her tone was any indicator.
“Oh good Lord,” Hannah said with a sigh. Becca laughed, and they both shifted in the bed, getting comfortable. The two of them hadn’t slept in the same bed in decades. Another by-product of not being super-close sisters, she supposed. They were just so different, and Hannah had spent a lot of her life feeling jealous of and inadequate next to her twin, who had excelled effortlessly at anything she tried. How many times had their parents uttered, Is there anything you can’t do, Becca?
Hannah knew it was never their intention to make her feel bad about herself, but she couldn’t help it. And it wasn’t as if Becca had been a show-off. Even worse, she’d seemed embarrassed by attention, making her even more of a darling because she was so sweet about everything. As for Hannah, she’d resorted to being the loud, attention-seeking brat. A cliché if there ever was one. The one who was often told to hush, broke curfew with regularity, and actively sought the attention of any male within fifty feet. Her mother calling her boy-crazy finally felt like an accomplishment.
The one person who’d always made her feel good about herself had been Jase. Even when he was telling her hard truths he’d do it sweetly, letting her off the hook easily. He was a hard habit to break. But that’s exactly what they’d been to each other: a habit. Nothing more, and she wasn’t sure if that made this easier for her or sadder. Part of her wondered if she should have tried to take their relationship to the next level years ago, but . . . no. She knew it would never have worked.
It was time for her to put all that ridiculousness and childishness behind her. She wanted a strong relationship with Becca. She also wanted to stay good friends with Jase. It was going to be up to her to make sure she handled this new transition like the mature woman she knew she could be.
After her conversation with Aiden last night, she’d fallen asleep with her thoughts swirling. It was only February, not too late to start a new resolution. She was going to focus on being the best person she could. A good friend, good sister, and maybe try some new things. It would be good for her to change up her life. Teaching third grade brought her a lot of joy, and she knew she was good at it, but there was still something missing.
For a while she’d assumed that missing piece was the right man, but so far that search had proven to be a disaster. She needed to give her search for Mr. Right a rest, and maybe look for happiness elsewhere. In her own accomplishments. Traveling would be a good idea, she’d always dreamed of it. A new hobby sounded nice. One that didn’t cost a fortune, because while she did love teaching, it wasn’t making her rich. Not now and not ever.
But she could do this. This would be her year to reinvent herself. And with that satisfying thought, she drifted back off to sleep next to her sister.