Read For Better or Worse Online

Authors: Lauren Layne

For Better or Worse

BOOK: For Better or Worse
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For everyone whose life has been touched by cancer in some way. I long for a world in which
everyone
beats it. Until then, be brave and stick together.

Chapter One

F
OR AS LONG AS
Heather Fowler could remember, living in Manhattan had been The Dream.

The one she talked about as a precocious eight-year-old when her mom's best friend, turned chatty by one too many glasses of the Franzia she chugged like water, asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up.

At eight, Heather hadn't been exactly sure about the
what
in her future. But she absolutely knew the where.

New York City.

Manhattan, specifically.

The obsession had started with
Friends
reruns, and had only grown as she'd moved on to her mother's
Sex and the City
DVD collection, which she'd watched covertly while her mother had worked double shifts at the diner.

People in New York were vibrant, sparkling. They were
doing
something. Important things. Fun things.

She wanted to be one of them.

By the time Heather was in high school, The Dream was still going strong.

While the overachievers had dreams of going to Mars, and the smaller-thinking ones had aspirations of getting to the mall, for Heather it had always and
only
been NYC.

Her mother had never pretended to understand Heather's dream. Joan Fowler had lived her entire life in Merryville, Michigan, with only two addresses: her lower-middle-class parents' split-level and the trailer she'd rented when her parents had kicked her out, four months pregnant.

And while Heather had wanted something more for her mother—something more for
herself
—than hand-me-down clothes and a two-bedroom trailer that smelled constantly like peroxide (courtesy of her mother's hairdressing side job), Joan had always seemed content.

But to Heather's mother's credit, Joan had never been anything less than encouraging.

If you want New York, you do New York. Simple as that.

And so Heather had.

Though it hadn't been simple. There had been detours. College at Michigan State. A tiny apartment in Brooklyn Heights with four roommates that, while
technically
located in New York City, wasn't quite the urbane sophistication she'd pictured.

But Heather's resolve had never wavered. In one of her college internships, a mentor had told Heather to dress for the job she wanted, not the one she had.

Heather did that, but she'd also broadened the idiom:
Live the life you want, not the one you have.

In this case, that meant saving up enough to cover rent that was more expensive than she could comfortably afford.
Yet
. More than she could afford
yet
. Because Heather was close to a promotion from assistant wedding planner to actual wedding planner. She could feel it.

The apartment was going to help her get there.

An apartment in zip code 10128, just east of Central Park.

She'd done it. She'd achieved The Dream, or at least part of it.

And it was . . .

Terrible.

It was two a.m., and she wasn't even close to anything resembling slumber. Heather's eyes snapped open after yet another failed sleep attempt. Her nostrils flared in an unsuccessful bid for patience before she turned and banged her palm against the wall over her Ikea headboard.

She'd purposely left the walls of her bedroom white because she'd read it was soothing. The curtains were also white, as were the area rug at the foot of the bed, the flowers on her table, and the lamp shades.

White is soothing, white is soothing, white is soothing . . .

She waited. And waited. There was a pause, and Heather held her breath.

Then:
Bum ba-dum bum bum bum
 . . .

White wasn't soothing enough for this shit.

Heather fought the urge to scream. Was the music actually getting
louder
?
Was that even possible?

Apparently. Because whoever lived on the other side of her bedroom wall either couldn't hear her banging or straight-up didn't care.

Heather closed her eyes and tried to tell herself that it was peaceful. Tried to pretend that the mediocre pounding of the drums and the squeal of some sort of guitar was a lullaby.

Her eyes snapped open again. Nope.

Heather threw back the covers—a fancy new white duvet for her fancy new place—and shoved her feet into her slippers as she pulled a hair band off the nightstand and dragged her messy dark blond curls into a knot on top of her head. She slid on her glasses, threw on a gray hoodie that she didn't bother to zip, opened the front door of her apartment, and made the short journey to the door of 4A.

The building was old, hence the thin walls, but it was also recently renovated, hence the modern-style doorbell, which Heather pressed firmly with one manicured finger.

And again, when there was no answer.

And again and again and again.

She pressed it until her finger started to cramp, and until—

Whoa.

The door jerked open, and Heather was suddenly face-to-face with a male chest. A
shirtless
male chest, replete with rippling abs and pectoral muscles that she'd seen the likes of only in magazine ads or on
billboards. An upper body so spectacularly shaped that it was downright tacky.

Yes, tacky was definitely what it was.

Not hot. Not hot at all.

Heather ordered her gaze upward and found it meeting the greenish-blue eyes of a dude who looked
highly
amused for someone who'd nearly had his doorbell torn off.

The guy leaned one forearm—every bit as tackily muscular as the chest—against the doorjamb as the other scratched idly at his six-pack.

“Hi there,” he said, giving her a crooked smile. It was a good smile. It was a good voice, too, but Heather was
soooooo
not in the mood to be charmed.

“Let me guess,” she said, gifting him with a wide fake smile. “You're in the midst of a quarter-life crisis, maybe it's taking a little longer to get the corner office than you hoped, and you decided to scratch the itch by, wait for it . . . starting a band.”

He was seemingly oblivious to her sleep-deprived bitchiness, as his smile only grew wider. “You're the new neighbor.”

She pointed at her front door just a few feet away. “4C.”

“Nice,” he said appreciatively.

For a second she could have sworn his eyes drifted down toward her chest, but when she narrowed her eyes back up at him, he was all innocent smiles.

“So that's a yes on the new band, then?”

Instead of answering her question, he extended his hand. “Josh Tanner.”

“Pretty manners for someone with no neighborly consideration,” she muttered as she reluctantly put her hand in his. “Heather Fowler.”

“Heather Fowler,” he repeated slowly, as though trying to decide whether or not her name fit and coming up undecided.

Before she could respond, he reached out, his thumb and forefinger tugging at a curl that had come loose from her messy bun. “Pretty.”

“Okay, enough,” she snapped. “Are you going to stop with the music or not?”

“Well now, that's hard to say.” He crossed his arms over his impressive chest. “I'm very volatile, what with the . . . what was it? Quarter-life crisis?”

“Just keep it down,” she said wearily, rubbing at her forehead.

“Mrs. Calvin never used to mind,” he said.

“Who the hell is Mrs. Calvin?”

“Lady who lived in 4C before you. She used to bake banana bread every Wednesday and make me a loaf. I don't suppose you bake?”

“Was Mrs. Calvin deaf?” Heather asked, ignoring the baking question. She
did
like to bake, but not for this guy, no matter how great the upper body.

“Definitely,” Josh confirmed. “Turned her hearing aid off every night at eight p.m., which is when my band and I started practice.”

“Aha!” she said, pointing a finger in his face. “You are in a band.”

“Of course.”

“Well, I need you guys to knock it off.”

“Oh, they're not here tonight,” he said simply.
“That was just me practicing along with one of our recordings. Can't get the intro quite right.”

“Can you get it right some other time?”

“It's Friday night, babe. You need to loosen up. Want to come in for a beer?”

“No,” she said, sounding out the word slowly with what she thought was admirable patience. “What I want is for you to stop the hideous music so that when my alarm goes off in four hours, I won't have to stop by here and kill you before I go to work.”

“Work? On a Saturday? Dare I hope this means you're a professional baker and like to get in early to make delicious sweet buns?”

“Do I look like the type that makes delicious sweet buns?”

“You look like the type that
has
delicious sweet buns.”

Heather made a face. “You're a pig.”

“I'm lashing out,” he said with a grin. “My ego's stinging from the fact that you didn't show any appreciation for how hard I work on all of this.”

He spread his arms to the side and glanced down at his body.

Heather rolled her eyes. Great body or not, this guy was disgusting. “What
normally
happens when a woman bangs on your door at two in the morning?” she asked irritably.

He wiggled his eyebrows.

“Never mind,” she muttered, embarrassed at having set herself up. “Can you please,
please
just shut up until after I leave at seven tomorrow?”

“To go . . . to the bakery?” he asked hopefully.

Yep. It was official. The new neighbor had to die.

Heather let out an audibly annoyed sigh. “To Park Avenue United Methodist Church to ensure the florist is there with the pew bows and to set up the guest book table, and to the bride room to make sure it doesn't still smell like onions. And then to the Bleecker Hotel to make sure the gift table's under way, that the florist is on time, that the caterers will be able to get into the kitchen, that they set up the good dance floor, not the crappy one that splits right down the middle, because if they do, so help me God—”

“And this is why modern men avoid the altar,” Josh interrupted. “You're one scary-ass bride, 4C.”

“I'm not the bride,” she grumbled, rubbing her increasingly tired eyes. “I'm the assistant wedding planner.”


Assistant
wedding planner. What does that mean?”

It means I need to get some freaking sleep so I can become the real deal.

“I see,” Josh said, even though she hadn't said anything. He leaned toward her. “You want to come in and talk about it?”

“Better idea. How about you go to bed like any normal person over the age of twenty-two,” she snapped.

“I thought you'd never ask,” he said, stepping aside and sweeping an arm inward as though to usher her inside.

Heather put a hand over her heart and made a
dramatic gasping sound. “You mean . . . you mean a big handsome hunk like you would actually bed little old me?”

“Like I said, gotta verify that the sweet buns are, in fact, sweet,” he said, flashing her another one of those easy grins.

Heather's fake smile dropped, and she stepped forward, getting in his face and ignoring—mostly—the heat radiating off him. “I'm going back into my apartment, and I'm going to sleep, and if I hear one more peep from your side of the wall, I'm going to get my hands on a loaf of Mrs. Calvin's glorious banana bread and shove it up your—”

Josh's head dropped to hers, and he stamped a kiss on her mouth. Hard.

Heather lifted her hands to shove him back, and they made it as far as his shoulders before she ­registered that it was a good kiss. A really good kiss. His mouth was warm and firm, and he tasted a bit like chocolate and a
really
good time.

For a second, Heather was tempted. It had been a while since she'd done something fun, just for her. Something that didn't have to do with the Wedding Belles, or moving to Manhattan, or making sure her mom remembered to pay her bills, or . . .

Reality crept back in just as her new neighbor's skilled lips nudged hers open.

She pulled back before he could deepen the kiss and make things
really
interesting. “What the hell was that?” she spat at him, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand.

Josh's shoulders lifted. “The quickest way to shut
you up, apparently. Should have tried it five minutes ago before you started rambling about bows and pews.”

“Fine,” she said through gritted teeth. “Let's make a deal. I'll shut up about bows if you stop the music. Deal?”

“You need to lighten up, Assistant Wedding Planner.”

“Yeah, we're not calling me that,” she said, already turning toward her apartment.

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