This is an excerpt from the first chapter of Anchor Me. Note that this is just an excerpt and not how the novel begins. Also, this is subject to change . I hope you enjoy it!
The bell on the front door of Gills Aquatics chimed, and Jillian Banner snapped out of her memory. She wiped her eyes out of habit, but they were dry. In the tank beside her, tiger barbs wobbled awkwardly through the water, their sides heaving as they tried to pull water through distressed gills. She clenched her fists as she glared at the telltale signs of ich, which made the fish look as if someone had sprinkled them with Kosher salt.
Hopefully, they wouldn’t be belly-up when she came into work tomorrow.
She cursed, mad at herself for not noticing sooner. She had increased the temperature, vacuumed the gravel, and completed a partial water change before administering an antiparasitic medication. She shook her head quickly, as if to clear it. But she knew it wouldn’t do any good. The fog was still there.
Jillian ran her hands through her long brown hair and frowned at the split ends. To ease the tension from her face, she rubbed her hands on her jeans and opened her mouth wide, raising her eyebrows. She tugged her snug T-shirt over her hips and took a deep breath. Emotions in check, she swung open the door from the back room and went to greet her customer. When she saw the short bob of blond hair streaked with pink, she smiled.
When Jillian’s sneakers squeaked on the tile floor, the teenager looked up from the 220 gallon tank that held a pair of pacus. “Hey, Miss B.!” She gestured excitedly at the tank. “I like the new setup!”
“Hey, thanks, Piper,” Jillian said. Talking about her work never failed to bring a smile to her face. “How are the cichlids holding up? You keeping a better eye on the water temp?”
“Yeah, I appreciate the advice. They aren’t looking stressed anymore.”
“Great, glad to hear it. Wouldn’t want you to blow all your lunch money on some replacements,” Jillian teased.
“You just need some blackworms for them?”
“Yeah, I think that’s it.”
“All right, be back in a minute.”
Jillian returned to the back room and opened the refrigerator. To anyone else, the contents would be the stuff of nightmares. But to her, it was normal to see a large container of tiny blackworms, about the thickness of angel hair pasta, writhing in a thin layer of water. Those that had tried to escape had dried out and perished, leaving black lines of crust on the outside of the container. She grabbed a cup and pinched some out, breathing in the salty, earthy smell. The front door bell sounded again, and Jillian carefully sealed the cup before returning to Piper.
As soon as she returned to the sales floor, she felt a change in the air and knew he was there before she saw him. He was leaning on the dented wood counter, thumbing a pamphlet on the care of betta fish he’d read before. Mark Chambers wasn’t facing her, but she’d know that broad back anywhere, the way his muscles rose from the top of his shoulders and curved into his neck, developed by years of hard work. Mark was tall, well over 6 feet, and hard. The muscles in his arms rippled under his T-shirt as he shifted his weight, and his faded jeans still held dirt in the creases—from the morning’s job, no doubt.
The sight of him used to take her breath away. Now it mostly just made her angry.
Piper waited patiently beside him. The teen stole a couple of glances at Mark, then blushed as she looked away.
“Just $1.06,” Jillian said, more curtly than she intended and added, “Hun” to soften her tone.
Piper cheerfully pushed four quarters, one nickel, and a penny toward her on the counter. Jillian deposited them in the drawer without looking at Mark, although she could feel his eyes on her face. A surge of heat crept up her neck.
“Thanks Miss B.,” Piper said. “I can’t believe how much these cichlids can eat. I’m saving up for a larger tank.”
“Sounds great, Piper.” Jillian smiled, still a little uneasy. “I’m looking forward to helping you set it up.”
“My mom just pulled up! See ya!” The blond and pink bob bounced out of the front door.
Jillian muttered a farewell. Mark exhaled, and she finally raised her eyes. He looked at her steadily, and she quickly darted her gaze away, searching for something to do to keep her mind busy. Ah yes, algae scraping the 220. Clearing her throat, she eased out from behind the counter and grabbed the algae magnets. She plunged one into the water on the inside of the tank and caught it with its match on the outside. Slowly, she moved her hand across the glass, taking the magnets with her.
“Hey,” he said quietly to her back. “Sorry to just show up. Didn’t think you’d take my calls…” Mark’s deep voice trailed off. That voice. His voice.
She closed her eyes, and when she opened them, she looked at him. His dark brown eyes looked almost black, reflecting the dark shapes in the water. He wore the expressionless mask he was so good at donning.
“You could have just sent a card. Or flowers,” Jillian said quietly. The fog in her head became thicker, and she felt light-headed. She struggled to think when she’d last eaten. She faltered and put her other hand on the tank to brace herself.
He moved toward her with his hand out. It was probably just a gut reaction on his part, but she instinctively took a step away, and he stopped abruptly. Hurt flashed in his eyes. He glanced at his hand—stretched out to touch her? Catch her? He pulled it back and scratched the side of his head over his ear, ruffling thick, dark brown hair out of place.
That hair. His hair.
He steeled himself and hardened his face. The muscles in his jaw twitched with restrained irritation. “I wanted you to know I am really sorry about Gabe. I honestly can’t believe it happened and…I’m really torn up about it.”
Jillian’s ears burned with heat, and she knew her forked tongue was next. “Well, I’m so sorry to hear you are taking this so hard,” she snarled through clenched teeth. The sting of tears threatened as they always did when her anger rose, but she knew none would fall.
He sucked in a breath, and then he spoke slowly, his voice thick. “That’s not fair.”
She remained silent.
He took a deep breath. “This isn’t…I didn’t know…You know what, sorry. I thought coming here and offering my condolences was the right thing to do. But apparently not. Fuck it.” He held up his hands and began to walk toward the front door.
His words slashed at her. He only swore when he was angry, and any extreme emotion was rare for him. Her heart ached, and she knew she should say something. She wanted to, but her voice caught in her throat. She pulled away the magnet. The one inside the tank plunked down into the gravel. Grit swirled up from where it landed.
She turned to face the front door and opened her mouth in the same instant Mark whirled around and opened his.
They both stopped and stared.
“You go,” she said.
Jillian took a breath and studied his face—the long, thick lashes framing his eyes, his angular brow coupled with a large, masculine jaw that gave his resting features a slight scowl. She’d tried to forget how handsome he was. God, so handsome. And heartbreaking, chest-seizing, knee-quaking handsome when he actually broke that mouth into a wide grin—though he rarely did. The stubble on his chin made her furrow her brow. He was an immaculate shaver.
She looked at her fists, clenched at her sides. “Um. Okay. So, thanks for the condolences. And actually, there are some things of Gabe’s that you might want. I’m not sure who else to give them to. I don’t want them, but I can’t throw them away.”
“All right. Want me to pick them up?”
“They’re at his storage garage. Want to meet me there Sunday morning?”
“Sure. 11 a.m.?”
She nodded and finally looked up at him again. His expression was dark and hard to read. He scratched that spot again on his head, a common nervous tic of his.
“Okay,” he said, quietly. ”See ya then.”
When the door shut behind him, Jillian deflated. This was her life now. A life without her brother. A life without Mark—the man she’d pined for since she was six. The man she’d finally had as her own for a glorious three years. But on the heels of the memory of their happiness came the familiar feeling of betrayal that churned her stomach.
“I need to do this,” he had said reaching for her as she cringed from his touch. “If you’d let me explain. It’s not what you think.”
The last conversation they had echoed in her brain for the hundredth time. Mark had failed miserably at justifying why he betrayed her brother by leaving to start a rival landscaping business. But she hadn’t wanted to hear it, anyway. She cut him off and walked out. Three months ago. And still not a day had gone by that her heart didn’t ache just a little. That she didn’t think about him and his smile, the way he touched her hair and whispered jokes in her ear that were just for her. The way he looked at her, knowing exactly what she was thinking.
But then after Gabe’s death, the calls began to come in. The IRS requesting her brother’s business files and launching an investigation. The rumors leaked to her about Mark’s involvement. Rumors that came from Chris Newsome, the manager of GB Landscaping. Even though he was running the business until Gabe’s estate could be settled at the end of the year, she trusted him about as far as she could throw him. But after Mark’s betrayal earlier in the summer, she didn’t know what, or whom, to believe anymore.
But Mark hadn’t called to explain. She asked him never to speak to her again, and he’d honored her request.
Mark walked slowly to his truck in the parking lot, jingling his keys in one hand. He used to love being inside Jillian’s store. The bags of aquarium gravel were beautiful lined up in graduated color, and the sound of the trickling water from the tanks did something to him. Calmed him. Settled him. He always felt a sense of pride when he walked into the store—he and Gabe had laid the tile floor, painted the walls, and sanded the butcher block countertop by hand. And of course, he loved the store because Jillian was always there, smiling at him when he walked in the door as if her day didn’t start until she saw him.
But now, that trickling of water was an irritating pounding in his brain, and Jillian’s cold, flat eyes were a stab in the gut. Smile at him? She’d barely looked at him. And damn, she showed the stress since he’d last seen her. She’d lost weight, at least 10 pounds, and on her petite body, 10 pounds was too much to lose. Yet she was still beautiful. She always would be. But seeing those circles under her eyes and the paleness of her skin almost killed him. Of course, he doubted he looked much better. Which she probably noticed. And which probably made her happy.
He wrenched open the door of his truck a little too hard and took a deep breath to check himself before stepping in. Because he had to keep it in check. He always kept it in check. That’s who he was after all. He wasn’t like his dad, who easily lost his temper on his son—his only child.
He started the truck and pulled out of the parking lot. He glanced at the time on the dash. He had to head back to the industrial park to check on his crew. They were planting a couple of dogwoods to complement the rest of the landscaping his company had already completed. It was always back to work. That’s all he’d been able to think about for the past couple of months, and all he wanted to think about. Since Jillian walked out on him. Since Gabe died.
Since he was alone.
He couldn’t stop thinking about Gabe and Jillian. About what he had, and what he’d lost. He wished he had someone to blame. Anybody but himself. But he was the one who gave Gabe the ultimatum—run the business legally and tell Jillian the truth or Mark would leave. Gabe had chosen the latter, but Mark still felt responsible for starting the runaway train down the track. And something told Mark the train wasn’t finished barreling through his life. He just hoped he was still standing in its wake.
His cell phone rang, and he answered it without glancing at the caller ID. “Chambers.”
“Mark?” His mother’s voice sounded cautious.
Mark stifled a sigh. He didn’t have enough patience to deal with his mother right now, but he didn’t need her to know that. “Yeah, it’s me. You called me, Mom.”
“Oh, right,” she said quietly. There was a heavy pause.
“What did you need?”
“Oh, I…um…was just checking in. You know, seeing how you are doing. How the…um…business is going.”
He held the phone away from his mouth as he huffed out a breath between his teeth. His mom never called just to check in. She barely called at all. And his dad never called, thank God.
“I’m good, Mom. Staying busy. Business is doing really well. Thanks for asking. You?”
“Your father and I are good. I’m making some soup for him for dinner now. Would you…um…want to stop in tonight? Or maybe this weekend? I can make us all lunch on Sunday.”
He automatically began searching for excuses to get out of going to his parents’ house. Seeing his mom? Fine. Spending time with her and Dad? Total fucking torture. And yet the guilt still settled into his chest.
“I’m sorry, Mom, I can’t tonight. And actually, I’m meeting Jillian Sunday to get some things of Gabe’s.”
There was silence on the line, and he wanted to punch himself in the face. He never should have mentioned Jillian to his mom.
The tentative hope in her voice sliced through him. The beginning of a headache began behind his eyes. Dammit. This conversation needed to be over five minutes ago.
He pulled into a back parking space in a Target parking lot and sat idling, hating to lie but needing to do it. “Yeah, Mom. I stopped at her store today. Look, I’m sorry, but I gotta go. I’m at a job site.”
“Oh, okay. Sorry, dear. Well, please tell Jillian I said hello…and…”
“Right, will do. Later, Mom.” He cut the line before he heard her reply.
He felt like ten kinds of asshole. He loved his mom, but lately the worry in her voice just added a whole other dimension to the depression settling in his brain. Because he’d love to talk about Jillian again with hope in his voice. But seeing Jillian today just proved time didn’t heal shit.