Read the first two chapters of Paradise in Death one week EARLY and for FREE
I’m so excited to share this book with you, that I wanted to give you a little free sneak peak! I hope this satasifies you for the next week as I continue to post teasers, snippets, and the trailer. Also, starting December 7th, Born in Sickness is going to be offered for FREE and Sweetness in Innocence will be on sale for only 99¢! Tell your friends!
“So– umm– how’s the wedding planning going?” Harlan asks, sitting down at the table with his mom. His mom looks shocked by the question but smiles after a moment, her dimples carving into her cheeks. She seems younger somehow as if meeting Paul has added years to her life. She is definitely happier.
He tries not to notice that his foot is still tapping along to the beat of Dueling Banjos. Ever since he dubbed Luka an official hillbilly after their impromptu trip into the woods, he has been humming it to Harlan at every opportunity. It has been a week now, and just when Harlan thinks he’s finally forgotten it, Luka quietly hums it into his ear again, setting off another two days of it replaying on a loop in his head.
“Good as can be expected with it being just over two weeks away,” Alison responds with a smile at the prospect. They decided on a quick wedding, wanting to have it before Harlan goes to college. Harlan still isn’t sure he will be going, but he understands their thought process. There is no sense in having a long engagement if they know they want to be together, so his mom and Paul have spent the last month planning everything out.
“Makes sense. Are you nervous?” Harlan questions, hoping it is the right thing to ask. He never knows how to speak to his mom, so he is just trying to keep things light, even though he kind of wants to talk to her about something that has been plaguing his mind for the last few months. Something he hasn’t told anyone else about, and he desperately needs another perspective. A more mature perspective.
“Not really. Are you?” She asks, looking at him through her lashes. He can see that she is holding her breath, waiting for something.
“Kind of. I can’t believe he asked me to be his best man. I figured he would ask his son. I don’t even know what I’m gonna say in my best man speech,” Harlan answers, telling her his honest thoughts for the first time in forever. Thankfully, the ceremony will be small and intimate, with just a few family members and close friends. Luka and Cadeon will be there, which will be an added bonus.
“I’m sure it will be wonderful. He loves you, Harlan. You are important to him, to both of us,” she tells him, but he doesn’t really believe her. He forces himself to bite back the bitter remark that is on the tip of his tongue while he tamps down the anger rising in his chest.
He takes a deep, calming breath, his logical side silently reminding him that she can’t change the past. It’s just hard to move on, his instincts screaming at him to go on the defense, but it is time to give her a chance. “Yeah. I’ll figure out what to say,” Harlan finally answers, looking up at her. She smiles at him again, but this time it doesn’t reach her eyes.
“So…um…do you have a ride to get fitted for your suit next week?” she asks, changing the subject a bit.
“Yeah. Lu said he could take me,” Harlan responds with a shrug. He begins jogging his leg under the table again, and he clasps his hands, wringing them in an attempt to get rid of some of his nervous energy. He takes a deep breath, trying to calm himself.
“Good. You know how much I love him. He’s such a nice boy,” she says, a smile lighting up her face once more. Harlan nods, returning her smile, but it probably comes across as more of a grimace. She is looking at him out of the corner of her eye as if she knows he is about to ask her something important. She doesn’t push him, just waits patiently. Harlan takes another deep breath, closing his eyes.
“Umm– Mom, can I ask you a question?” He pushes the words out through his lungs quickly before he can even think about taking them back. Her head snaps to him, but a smile is tugging the corner of her lips, eyes twinkling in the light.
“Of course, Harlan. You can ask me anything. What’s on your mind, hon?” Alison reaches a tentative hand across the table, placing her much smaller one on top of his. Her hand is warm and sure, and Harlan can feel the prickle of a tear in his eye.
She has been touching him a lot more lately, a pat on the shoulder, a squeeze of his elbow, even a hug occasionally, but this is the first time she has held his hand. He wants to hold on to it, afraid the moment will slip away before it even starts. He is still so fucking hurt though, he is conflicted. He hears Luka’s encouraging words in his ear, which spurs him on.
“How did you know that Paul was like– the one for you?” Harlan asks, his speech pattern even slower than usual because he is so unsure. He holds his breath, looking up at his mom. Her eyes go wide for a split second before she tilts her head to the side, considering an answer. At least she isn’t laughing at him like he was afraid she would.
“Well, that’s a difficult question because it’s different for everyone. There just comes a time when you know that you’ve met your person,” she starts, and Harlan notices right away that she didn’t use a gender-specific expression.
Fuck. He’s probably being far too suspicious. Harlan opens his mouth, deciding that this is a terrible idea, and he immediately needs to abort the mission. “Um… Never…”
“When you realize that you love that person so much, your heart feels like it is about to burst with it,” she continues, ignoring his interruption. “The feeling both hurts you and makes you happy. You feel like you are able to breathe when they are around, and they just make your day better. Like you can take on anything the world throws at you as long as they are holding your hand.”
Harlan doesn’t know why he’s surprised that she just described everything he feels for Luka. Deep down, he has been aware of it for a while; he’s just been too afraid to admit it, even to himself. Harlan is in love with Luka. He swallows hard, suddenly feeling sick with his next thought. “What if your person doesn’t feel the same way?” he asks, voice hoarse and eyes stinging. Luka could never love someone who is as broken as Harlan. Harlan doesn’t even love himself, so how could he expect Luka to?
“Have you asked?” she questions, her blue eyes sparkling in the light. Harlan shakes his head, unable to form a response in fear of choking on the lump in his throat. “I see. Well, maybe you should.”
“I can’t,” Harlan tells her, looking down at his fingers, fiddling with his rings, deep in thought. There is no possible way he can voice that kind of thing to Luka. He has a hard enough time talking about his feelings as it is. So how the hell is he just going to drop something like that on Luka? Especially when they haven’t even defined their relationship.
“Talking about your feelings is hard, Harlan. I understand that more than anyone.” She pauses as if she wants to add to that confession. Harlan watches her out of the corner of his eye, too afraid to make eye contact. She takes a deep breath, “You keep a journal, don’t you?”
“Yeah,” Harlan croaks out, wringing his hands so hard, he worries that the rings on his fingers will be crushed into the bone as he tries to disperse the nervous energy.
“Maybe you should write them down. If you can’t say them out loud, that seems to be the next best option. Right? You don’t have to even show them to this person, but it could help you figure things out,” she advises, patting his hand again, effectively putting a stop to his attempts at forcing the metal to meet his bone.
“Yeah. Thank you, Mom.” Harlan finally looks up to meet her eyes, squeezing her hand.
“You’re welcome. I hope I helped a little bit,” she says with a nervous chuckle. Her eyes follow Harlan when he gets up from the table, eager to go to his room and get some of his thoughts down on paper.
“You did,” he assures her, watching her body sag in relief.
“I love you, Harlan.”
He freezes when the statement slips from her lips. He hasn’t heard her say those words in… well, he doesn’t even remember the last time she said it to him. He doesn’t say it back, but he does give her a smile, hopefully telling her that he may be ready to return the sentiment someday. She smiles back, as if she understands.
“I guess we should go in. The appointment is in like two minutes,” Harlan points out, glancing at the clock on the dashboard. They just made it to the formal-wear boutique where Harlan has his final tux fitting. Luka insisted that Harlan drive even though he would have preferred Luka to do it since they had to go to the next town over, and he had never driven there before. The drive was even more nerve-wracking since he couldn’t stop thinking about the letter in the glove compartment.
“Yeah. I can’t wait to see you in a tux,” Luka says, reaching for the door handle as Harlan turns off the ignition. Luka doesn’t know it, but Harlan is also going to be getting something formal for prom. It won’t be like the tux he is wearing for his mom’s wedding. Instead, he wants what he wears to prom to reflect his personality and how Luka makes him feel. The confidence he has found through Luka. What he wears will probably still be black, but he wants Luka to be pleasantly surprised.
“Not that special,” Harlan responds, but he can feel the blush on his cheeks. He gets out of the car, shoving Luka’s car keys into the pocket of his tight jeans as they walk inside. The man recognizes Harlan right away and smiles in greeting. He thinks his name is David, but he isn’t entirely sure.
“I have finished the final alterations to your suit, Mr. Sharp. If everything fits properly today, you may take it home. Mr. Martin has already paid for it,” David tells them, leading them to the backroom, then gesturing at the black bag the suit is in. Harlan nods and smiles, unsure of how to respond. He was with his mom last time he came, then Paul the first time, and they carried those conversations. Harlan still feels awkward on the best of days, so talking to strangers is still difficult for him.
“Thank you,” Luka replies, smiling at David. Not for the first time, Harlan is so thankful for Luka. Luka is just good at everything Harlan is not. It almost feels like Luka completes him somehow. Harlan tries not to think about that and the overwhelming love he feels for the other boy. He has thought a lot about what his mom said and if he should tell Luka. He has been working on a poem to get his feelings out. He doesn’t know if he will ever give it to Luka, but it helps him process things.
“Call me when you have it on; I’ll be right out here,” David says, smiling one more time and excusing himself. Harlan looks at the black bag reproachfully. He almost wishes he hadn’t brought Luka because he feels slightly vulnerable at the prospect of Luka seeing him in anything other than his t-shirts and skinny jeans. Of course, Luka has seen him naked, but this feels much more monumental for some reason.
“The wedding is next weekend, so we don’t have time for another adjustment. Let’s hope that it fits.” Harlan turns toward the fitting room, and Luka follows him inside without being asked. Harlan doesn’t mind, though. He has no idea how to tie a tie. Paul did it for him the first time, and David did it the second time.
“I’ll pray for you,” Luka says, with a smirk and a wink, putting his hands on the hem of Harlan’s shirt, pulling it upwards, over his head.
“Thanks. You take the Western God, and I will take the Eastern Gods,” Harlan replies with a smirk of his own, but Luka doesn’t laugh. Instead, his eyes slant in interest, his cold fingers still on Harlan’s skin. Harlan loves that look and wants to kiss him, so he does. He makes it quick, not wanting to distract him from the conversation at hand, but he just can’t help himself. Luka looks so cute when he is thinking about something.
“Who are some of the Eastern Gods?” Luka asks, fingers working on the button of Harlan’s jeans as Harlan tosses his shirt to the side. Thankfully the dressing room is quite large, so they aren’t bumping into each other. Luka looks down while he asks the question, even though Harlan knows for a fact that the other boy has no issues unbuttoning his pants without looking.
“That’s a tough question because Hinduism, which is the main religion in India, has thousands of Gods. Religion in places like China and Japan is interesting because they don’t really see religion the same way we do in our culture. Some would even go as far as to argue that theirs is more of a philosophy or a way of life,” Harlan tells him, helping Luka push the tight pants down his legs, leaving Harlan in just his underwear.
“So they don’t believe in God over there?” Luka asks, his brown brows drawing together with his question. Harlan turns around to grab the shirt first, pushing his arms through the white sleeves. Luka’s hands are on the collar, helping him guide the starch-laden material over his shoulders. It makes a scratching sound against his bracelets, but Harlan isn’t going to remove them. He can deal with that for now. His arms will be covered for the wedding, so he doesn’t have to worry there.
“It’s kind of complicated. I am by no means an expert since I have never been to that area, nor do I know anyone who is a believer. From my understanding, they follow the teachings of various people like Buddha, Confucius, Sun Tzu, and Laozi, but they don’t believe them to be gods. Well, not in the same way you see the Christian God. They don’t believe that these men created the universe or anything of that nature, and they don’t just follow one of them. Many people in that culture follow more than one because their teachings aren’t contradictory,” Harlan explains, turning around.
“Wait. Do we know these people actually existed?” Luka asks, looking down to button Harlan’s shirt.
“For the most part. Sun Tzu is debatable, but his book, The Art of War, is highly regarded by the military forces,” Harlan answers, grabbing the suit pants and pushing his feet into them while Luka holds him steady.
“Wait. I thought we were talking about religion. Why would someone have a religion based on war? Christianity is a religion of peace, not war,” Luka says, eyes on Harlan. Harlan snorts in response, but Luka looks genuinely confused by that. Harlan pulls the pants up the rest of the way, tucking his shirt in as he thinks about how to answer Luka’s question. It is really hard for people in the Abrahamic faiths to understand Eastern religions because the concept is just so foreign to them.
“Have you ever heard of The Crusades?” Harlan asks, buttoning his pants and zipping them easily, looking down at Luka. Luka nods his head but still doesn’t seem to understand Harlan’s point. He looks like he is open to it, though, almost as if he wants Harlan to tell him instead of wanting to argue the point.
“Then you know they were a series of religious wars to gain control over sites that both religions claimed as holy. The point is, Christianity isn’t a religion of peace. Do you have any idea how many people have been killed in the name of God? Christianity is so widespread because of war and their forced belief system. It’s hard to call a religion peaceful when they would throw babies against a wall because their parents worshiped the same God as them but followed a different prophet,” Harlan tells him. It is a bit crude, but it has the desired effect. Luka’s mouth falls open in shock.
“But Jesus teaches love and peace,” Luka insists, as Harlan shoves his feet back into the black boots he plans to wear for the ceremony.
“You’re right. He does, but his followers didn’t seem to get the memo. They have been forcing their beliefs on people for centuries. If he was really correct, and his teachings were sound, then why would they feel the need to force it? Why can’t they follow his path in peace instead of using force?” Harlan asks, grabbing his tie. Luka doesn’t say anything, just takes it from Harlan’s hands and gets on his tiptoes to loop it around Harlan’s neck, fixing the collar over it.
“I don’t really know,” Luka finally replies, his gaze distant despite the fact that he is currently tying Harlan’s tie. Harlan looks down at him, unsure of what to say. These types of conversations are somewhat normal for them. Luka has had more and more questions for Harlan lately, sometimes just texting him something random when he thinks of it. A few days ago, Harlan was surprised to see a text message from Luka about Noah’s Ark because he had been watching a documentary about it with his family.
Harlan replied back with a very long and thorough text about how there is no evidence in all of the historical records that indicates a flood that wiped out all of humanity. The Ancient Egyptians were keeping records around the time of the supposed flood, and there isn’t even a pause or gap, nor did they write anything about it in their text.
Not to mention the notion of having every animal in existence, on different continents nonetheless, travel to board a large boat is ludicrous. The sloth alone only travels about a mile every six hours, so it would have taken its entire life for it to have made its way to the ark.
Luka called him after that, and they got into an even more detailed discussion. Harlan loves it and hopes that he is teaching him something, but he isn’t sure what is going on in Luka’s head. He doesn’t know what Luka believes anymore. He isn’t sure that Luka even knows what he believes anymore. If the title of the poem Harlan wrote for Luka was modeled after that discussion, no one needs to know.
“Luka, you know I’m not trying to like– make you an atheist or anything. Like I said before, I just want you to see the flaws in your own religion. The religion that you allow to dictate your life and your happiness. Can you truly be happy following everything that is written in the Bible?” Harlan doesn’t say anything about love, but it is implied at this point. If Luka still truly believes in everything his family and church have taught him, then he can’t love Harlan.
“I know, love. I do,” Luka tells him, finishing his tie and patting his chest, finally meeting his eyes. Something about the moment feels raw all of a sudden. Luka’s eyes are suspiciously wet, and his fingers are shaking ever so slightly. Harlan knows his words have gotten to him, but he doesn’t want to take them back. He was just stating the truth.
Luka doesn’t fight him when Harlan pulls their chests together, wrapping his arms around the small of Luka’s back. Luka’s own arms come up around Harlan’s neck as he hooks his chin over Harlan’s shoulder, squeezing tight, breathing in deeply through his nose. Harlan kisses him on the cheek, unsure of what else to do to comfort Luka.
“Mr. Sharp, do you need help?” They jump apart at the sound of the voice from outside of the dressing room. Harlan isn’t sure how long they were hugging, but it must have been a while for David to have interrupted.
“No. We’re good,” Luka says, smiling at Harlan as he hands him the suit jacket, helping him pull it upon his shoulders. Harlan isn’t sure if Luka is talking to him or David. Are they good when their future seems to be caught in the balance? If Luka can’t get past some of the shit written in the Bible, then they don’t have a future at all.
With that thought heavy in his mind, they finish the appointment, the tux fitting perfectly. Harlan takes it out to the car with them, climbing into the driver’s side once he carefully places it in the back seat. He turns the ignition as Luka shuts the passenger side door.
“What are you…” Luka starts, expression confused, as Harlan reaches between his legs. Harlan smirks at him for a split second before opening the glove compartment. He takes a deep, steadying breath and grabs the envelope, almost afraid it will burn him. He shuts the glove compartment a little too forcefully, then sits up. With a shaky hand, he slips into Luka’s lap.
“What’s this?” Luka asks, looking at it with curious eyes as he lifts it up, holding it to the light.
“Umm– It’s from the scholarship,” Harlan tells him, glancing over at Luka’s small hands holding the envelope that possesses so much hope for him. Harlan hasn’t been able to bring himself to open it, though. It’s too much. He is too scared. Every time he thinks about opening it, he considers the fact that he could be rejected and his future will go down the drain. Everything is in that envelope. The hope of getting out of this town and going to college with Luka.
“Which one?” Luka asks, his eyes lighting up with excitement. Harlan hopes it’s still thereafter it’s open. He can’t handle the light in Luka’s eyes disappearing. Harlan can handle his own disappointment and heartbreak over it, but not Luka’s. Never Luka’s. Luka is his happiness. He loves him. He isn’t ready to say it out loud, and he doesn’t actually think Luka returns his feelings, but he loves him. He really fucking does and just the thought of seeing any kind of happiness fade from Luka’s face makes Harlan’s heart hurt.
“The big one. The one that could pay for everything,” Harlan explains, swallowing down his fears. He is far too panicked over the idea of what is in that envelope.
“What? Why are you giving it to me? You should be the one opening it, Haz,” Luka says, eyes wide with the realization, looking down at the envelope as if he is holding something precious. He has been attempting to prepare himself for disappointment. Good news like that doesn’t happen to people like him. He tries not to have hope about anything anymore. It makes things much easier when the inevitable happens.
“You found the scholarship and helped me apply. I want you to open it. I have had it for almost a week, and I just– Lu, I can’t bring myself to open it,” Harlan admits, looking around at the parking lot so he doesn’t have to look at Luka. The sound of paper tearing floods the car, Luka’s nimble fingers opening the envelope, pulling out the letter within. A few seconds later, the distinct sound of a piece of paper being unfolded, then Luka’s sharp intake of breath. Harlan’s heart drops. He didn’t get the scholarship. He knows it. He just does.
“Haz…” Luka’s sentence trails off, and Harlan breaks. He finally looks over at Luka, who is still reading the paper, his firm pink lips moving along to the words printed on the page. Harlan looks at the boutique, feeling like he is going to cry. He told himself that he wouldn’t get his hopes up, but apparently, he did because his heart feels like it is in his knees.
“I knew it,” Harlan murmurs, more to himself, as disappointment floods his veins. He blinks his eyes a few times, hoping to keep the tears at bay because crying over something that he can’t change just sounds counterproductive. He holds his breath when he hears Luka’s voice again, preparing for the news he knows is about to come.
“Harlan, you got it. It says here that you can go to any school in the state, and it will pay full tuition and fees for up to four years as long as you complete 30 credit hours per year and maintain a 3.0 GPA. Hazza, you fucking did it!”
“What?” Harlan asks, his eyes snapping back to Luka’s face, who is now smiling so brightly, the fucking sun must be jealous of his radiance. Harlan still can’t believe it. He glances down at the paper then back to Luka’s face. Luka has to be wrong. He has to have read it wrong.
“You’re going to college on a full-ride, Harlan! Holy fuck! I’m so proud of you!” Luka exclaims, thrusting the paper into Harlan’s hands. Harlan continues to stare at Luka, though. There is not an ounce of jest in Luka’s expression, just joy and pride. He’s not lying. Harlan looks down at the paper to read the words for himself. The first word is ‘Congratulations’ and Harlan doesn’t bother reading the rest. Harlan got it. He’s going to college. A feeling that can only be described as elation floods him, and before he knows it, Luka has hopped over the middle console to wrap Harlan in a tight hug.
“I– I can’t believe this,” Harlan says, breathing in Luka’s scent, his warmth. He savors the touch even though now he knows he doesn’t have to say goodbye to Luka just yet. They can go to college together. They may not have to completely hide what they have there. They will be away from Luka’s family. Holy fuck. They may be free.
“You did it, love. I’m so fucking proud of you,” Luka tells him, letting him go in favor of kissing him, his mouth warm and sure on Harlan’s. Harlan could melt. He can feel the pride radiating off of Luka, and it is making him almost proud of himself. Harlan is so excited about the future now, the possibilities. They both have gotten into every single college they have applied for, so now they just need to choose.
“Thank you,” Harlan responds when Luka breaks the kiss. He is still in shock. He feels like it’s not real, but the letter in his hand says otherwise. He is fucking going to college, and he won’t have to worry about money or being in debt when he is done. He looks down at the paper again in disbelief, reading it twice before it sinks in. He looks up at Luka, whose eyes are shining in the afternoon sunlight, nodding as if to say ‘it’s real’.
Harlan eventually starts the car, even though driving back home suddenly feels like driving back to reality. Driving back to their cage. They will have to go back to hiding what they have. Harlan doesn’t know if being on a college campus will change anything. If Luka will be okay with being more open about their relationship. They haven’t really talked about it, and Harlan is too afraid to even broach the subject. Either way, they will be happier away from prying eyes. Only four more months, though. Four more months until they are in college and finally free.
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