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The Darkest Corner of the Heart: Chapter 35



That voice.

That deep rumble I now hear in my dreams. And surely, that must be what’s going on here. Because James is in Norcastle. He’s at the clinic, working, and not at some random funeral home on the outskirts of my childhood town, five hours away.

But then I snap my head up, and when my eyes fall on the last person I expected to see today, everything around me stops.

No. It can’t be.

I blink once, twice, screaming in my head at this cruel dream to go away.

But I know I’m not seeing a ghost. This isn’t my imagination playing tricks on me.

He’s here, standing in this empty hallway at Better Place Funeral Home in this forsaken neighborhood in Warlington, and it’s real.

He’s here for me.

For me.

I don’t move from my chair, but I don’t need to.

His long, muscular legs close the distance between us until he’s standing right in front of me. I don’t look at him, my eyes locked on his dress shoes. He put on a suit to come to my father’s funeral.

My heart isn’t doing okay. No part of my anatomy is, if I’m being honest. The sight of James in a suit should be forbidden, and I don’t allow myself to appreciate it.

He left.

But he came back.

The voices in my head are still fighting as he kneels in front of me, his face now at my eye level. My gaze still doesn’t move from the ground.

“Pain is an abstract feeling.” We haven’t seen each other in two days, and I didn’t know what to expect. Not these words. “We don’t always understand why we feel it, at least not right away.”

I think he knows I can’t find my own voice right now, my thoughts all messed up and blurry, because he continues in that soothing rumble.

I want to be worthy of you more than anything else in this world.

It’s the reminder of his words that makes me look at him, at those warm eyes that tell me so much without meaning to.

“There are people in my life that I hate, Maddie,” he continues. “That I loathe with every fiber of my being, but I can’t stand the thought of their death. It’s confusing and it’s frustrating, but I promise what you’re feeling is normal. It only shows you have a big heart with room for everyone, even those who never deserved it.”

Maybe I don’t want to hold space for people who don’t deserve it anymore. Maybe I’m tired of always being reliable, being there for people who wouldn’t do the same for me.

“We can’t control how we react to others or how much pain or love they leave within us.” He holds out his hand, twice bigger than my own, in a silent invitation. There are no regrets in my heart as I place my palm on his, and he closes his fingers around my hand, just holding it. “Do you know what’s one of the things I admire the most about you?”

I don’t answer.

“That you don’t waste your time with unworthy people. Look at your father. You didn’t give him a second chance; you didn’t fold when he begged to come back. That takes courage and determination, something not many people have when it truly counts. You take what’s yours and don’t apologize for it. I’m so fucking proud of you for living your life how you want to, Maddie. I’m learning so much from you.”

Me? He’s learning from me?

His thumb draws circles on my skin, setting it on fire and calming me down at the same time. For a while, neither of us says anything. This part of the hallway is mostly silent, with no loud voices or music coming from any of the rooms. It gives me time to think.

His brother hit him in the face that night. His phone was broken. That’s why he couldn’t contact you.

He didn’t stand you up.

He spent the night sitting outside your door, waiting for you.

“What are you doing here?” My throat burns as I speak. “How did you know where I was?”

“I found his obituary online.” He holds my hand a little tighter, his gaze searching every corner of my eyes until his protective urges are satisfied. “I needed to see you. I needed to make sure you were okay. I’ve been worried sick since you left, and I couldn’t wait another second.”

“But…but work…”

“I took a day off. Told them it was a family emergency.” When his fingers settle on my cheek, cradling it like my face is something precious to hold, I don’t pull away. “Why are you out here, crying all by yourself?”

I’m tired. I’m so, so tired.

I’m tired of being on edge all the time, on the lookout for the next person who will walk away from me. Because this is the thing—people have already done it. My parents left me to my own devices, forcing my brother to step in.

My worst fear has already happened, and I survived.

I’m here, aren’t I? Whole and proud of myself for never giving up, even when it got too tempting.

And what did I do? I kept pushing, kept meeting new people, kept making friends and living my life. In fear, yes, but no more.

Not when I could lose something that means so much to me. That means everything.

James didn’t make it to our date, and it upset me, but he had a good reason for it. He went to speak to his brother, someone he hadn’t seen in over a decade, and things took a turn for the worse. I know he’s telling the truth because his cheek is slightly purple and swollen under his stubble.

He said he was never going to leave me, and he didn’t. He didn’t.

It’s not fair to punish him for something that was out of his control. Nobody is always going to do what I say, and that doesn’t mean they don’t love me.

But James doesn’t love you. He doesn’t feel what you feel.

Burying the unexpected pain piercing my heart, I say, “My mother told me he was killed in a car accident.” I don’t know what it says about me that I can recite the words back to him without feeling any real emotion. “He was a junkie. Always has been.”

His thumb caresses the skin right under my eye, erasing the remains of my dry tears. “How does that make you feel?”

I shrug, unable to tell him because I don’t even know it myself. “I got what I wanted, didn’t I? I’m never going to see him again.”

His eyes look into mine with so much intent, I’m scared of what he’ll find there. “He wasn’t a good man, and he wasn’t a good father,” he declares, his voice firm. “Maybe he didn’t deserve to die for it, but it happened, and you don’t have to feel one way or another right now. You need time to process this.”

I give him a small nod, his words caving in. “I’ll be okay.”

That thumb rubs my cheek again. “I know you will, Maddie. I know.”

“My mother apologized,” I blurt out, not really knowing why that nags me more than anything else. “I told her we could talk after… You know, in a few days.”

“That’s good.” He gives me a small but reassuring smile that is so mesmerizing, I wish I could capture it forever. “Tell me what I can do for you.”

My poor heart leaps. “You don’t have to do anything. I…” I shake my head, still incredulous that this is real life. “Thank you for being here. You didn’t have to, but I needed you, and I’m glad you’re here.”

The softness of his gaze, so contrasting to all his rough edges, ends me. “I need you more, Maddie. Trust me on that.”

“I don’t think fuck buddies do this for each other,” I say before I can even realize what my words truly mean.

James’s expression sobers up, making my stomach knot. “No, they don’t.”

The air around us sizzles with a kind of magnetic electricity I’ve never felt before.

I can see the shift in his eyes, feel it in my bones, and I know this is where the doubting ends and everything else begins.

The healing, the patience, the excitement. The rest of our lives.

His fingers brush the strands of hair away from my forehead with such care, I forget how to breathe. “It wasn’t supposed to happen, was it? This thing between us.”

Slowly, I shake my head. “It wasn’t.”

“But it did.” His words sound final but not resigned. Scared, maybe. Cautious. “What do you want to do about it?”

He doesn’t need to clarify what he means. I’ve asked myself that question for weeks, maybe months now, and Grace’s words come back to me.

“I don’t know if we’re on the same page,” I admit, my voice so quiet, I don’t know how he even hears it. “How do you see yourself in five years?”

“With you.”

My heart stops. “Doing what?”

When did his forehead come so close to mine? “I don’t care, Maddie, as long as I’m by your side. I know you’re twenty-one and have many things to figure out still, but so do I.”

The way his demeanor shifts makes an alarm go off in my head. He moves back, a sigh parting his lips. “After what went down with my brother and my ex, I couldn’t see myself opening up to anybody else. I didn’t want to be in a relationship. And then you happened. You, with your strength and your fire, with that beautiful laughter that makes my heart soar even when I try to anchor it to the ground so it can’t get hurt.

“Our age difference could be a problem, maybe, or maybe not. I don’t know, Maddie, but I’m tired of fighting this when all I’ve wanted since I laid my eyes on you was to be in your life. Take care of you, love you like you deserve. And if that means quitting my job to move somewhere else with you, or have a bunch of kids, or adopt a dozen cats, then I’ll do it with a smile on my face because it’ll mean I get to have you.”

I don’t think my heart is working anymore.

My throat is dry, my pulse so strong in my neck I wonder if he can hear it.

Is he saying…?

“Shit.” I’ve never seen him so visibly shaken up, but I’m too nervous myself to tease him about it. “This is definitely not the time nor place for this, but I don’t want to pretend anymore, Maddie. It’s tearing me apart.”

My voice comes out as a whisper. “Wh-What do you mean?”

“It means I love you,” he declares, inking his words permanently on my soul. “It means I’ve fallen in love with you, and I’m so scared to fuck this up, I can’t think straight. That’s what it means.”

“James, you’re not going to f—”

“I might. I already have, and I might do it again. There’s no way to know for sure, but I can’t keep lying to myself.” He holds my face, and I drop my hands, wrapping them around his forearms. “You’re my guiding light, Maddie. You have been since the moment I met you. You’re admirable in so many ways, I would lose my breath if I dared list them one by one. Just the fact that you’re here today, facing the demons of your past, tells me I have a lot to learn from you. I feel like the luckiest man on this planet when you smile at me, and I want to make you happy, to love and protect you for as long as you’ll want me. If you even do.”

The only reason I’m able to find my words right now is because he needs them.

And for him, as I now know for sure, I would do anything.

Even the one thing I’m most scared of.

“All my life, I’ve been terrified of being abandoned again,” I admit out loud, maybe for the first time outside of a therapist’s office. And it feels so damn good. “I wouldn’t allow myself to fall in deep because I needed to protect my heart, but… My heart doesn’t need protecting from you. You’re worthy of it, James—of all of me. Don’t ever doubt that again.”

If there’s one thing my brother made sure I learned growing up, it was to recognize when love is real. To know when the person in front of me wanted to cherish all my rights and wrongs, despite the adversity.

I didn’t know what he meant at first, but then I sat back and watched. For seventeen years, I watched my brother love his wife in a way I had only read about in books. I watched him show her how much she meant to him, how easily he would give her the world if she only asked.

I may not have been born into the healthiest of families, but I’ve always had my guardian angel with me—my brother.

And it’s because of the way Sammy and Grace loved me and taught me that healthy, everlasting love is real, that I’m able to look at James right now and see our future unfold before my eyes.

“My heart is yours,” I whisper against his lips. “And I want your heart, James, all the dark corners that come with it. Will you give it to me?”

His charged gaze searches mine. “It’s always been yours.”

The moment our lips touch, every doubt I’ve ever had about us dissipates. The way he holds me like I’m the most precious thing he’s ever had, how his tongue wraps around mine with a promise of forever, how my heart has never felt fuller.

I cling to him, and he holds me closer, deepening our bond.

I’m not innocent enough to think we won’t ever face any challenges, but I know, I know we can get through anything together.

Because one way or another, we were meant to be.

“I love you,” I whisper against his lips as I pull away briefly, and only because I needed him to hear it.

“I love you. So fucking much. I will love you every moment until the day I take my last breath and all over again in my next life.” He squeezes my waist, hugging me impossibly closer, and I melt against him. “I brought you something.”

It’s the slight change in his voice that makes me arch an intrigued eyebrow. “Oh yeah?”

With an arm still locked around my middle, he pulls away just enough to reach his hand into the pocket of his suit jacket. “It’s not… Ah, it’s not perfect by any means.” Why does he sound nervous? Now I’m intrigued. “It’s quite ugly, actually.”

“I’ll love whatever you give me,” I encourage him, hoping he can hear the truth in my words. “Come on, what is it? I’m dying over here.”

The faint blush on his cheeks kills me.

And then the folded napkin he hands me kills me some more.

“You don’t even have to pretend to like it,” he says. “I made it on the plane on my way here, and I know it’s shit.”

I don’t even question why he’s handing me a paper napkin in the first place. “So dramatic.”

But I’m the one who gets the air knocked out of my lungs when I see what’s inside.


Oh my God.

He drew a mandala. By hand. In the shape of a heart.

“James, this is…”

“The ugliest thing you’ve ever—”

I don’t give him the chance to finish as I close the small distance between our lips again. He kisses me back without hesitation, bringing me closer until there’s no space between us.

Now I understand why my perfectly mapped-out future didn’t work out. Why it was never going to.

Everything happened the way it did so we could find each other, be here in this moment, and I will never regret a second of it for as long as I live.

“What the fuck?”

I jolt at the sound of that familiar voice, pushing James away as if he were on fire. He looks at me, confused, before we both turn to the man at the end of the hallway.

The man who looks one second away from killing both of us.


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