The most brazen terrorist attack in history. A country bent on revenge. A love affair cut short. A heart that never truly heals.
I knew on the day of the attack that our lives were changed forever. What I didn’t know then was that I’d never see John again after he deployed. One day he was living with me, sleeping next to me, making plans with me. The next day he was gone.
That was five years ago. The world has moved on from that awful day, but I’m stuck in my own personal hell, waiting for a man who may be dead for all I know. At my sister’s wedding, I meet Eric, the brother of the groom, and my heart comes alive once again.
The world is riveted by the capture of the terrorist mastermind, brought down by U.S. Special Forces in a daring raid. Now I am trapped between hoping I’ll hear from John and fearing what’ll become of my new life with Eric if I do.
From a New York Times bestselling author, Five Years Gone, a standalone contemporary, is an epic story of love, honor, duty, unbearable choices and impossible dilemmas.
We met in a bar, of all places, a dingy hole-in-the-wall favored by military members from the nearby Navy base in San Diego. I went with a friend from school who was interested in one of the military guys. Before that night, I’d never been there, and I’ve never been back. John was celebrating the promotion of one of his buddies. He crashed into me as I left the ladies’ room and kept me from falling by grabbing my arms to steady me.
Just like in the movies, our eyes met, and my spine tingled with the kind of instantaneous awareness I’d only read about but never experienced personally.
“I’m so sorry,” he said, gorgeous and fierce in his fatigues.
I noticed gold on his collar, a hint of late-day scruff on his jaw and the name WEST in bold black letters on his chest. Intense electric-blue eyes made it impossible for me to look away, even when I was safely back on my feet.
“Are you all right?” he asked.
Realizing I’d been staring at him, I blinked and reluctantly broke the connection. “I… Yes, I’m fine. Thank you for the save.”
And then he smiled, and the tingling began anew.
I shook his outstretched hand. “Ava.”
Keeping his hold on my hand, he tipped his head. “You come here often?”
“Never,” I said, laughing. “I’m a first-timer.”
“What do you think so far?”
“I wasn’t impressed until about thirty seconds ago.”
As if he had all the time in the world to give me, he leaned against the wall. “Is that right? What happened thirty seconds ago?”
I thought about taking back my hand but didn’t. “I was saved from certain disaster by a man in uniform.”
“The guy in the uniform is the reason you needed saving in the first place, because he wasn’t watching where he was going. Least he can do is buy you a drink.”
“I wouldn’t say no to that.” I was proud of my witty responses and got the feeling he could more than hold his own in the wittiness department. Across the crowded room, I noticed my friend talking to the guy she’d come to see, and her brows lifted in interest when she saw me with John. He guided me to the bar, placing a proprietary hand on my lower back, and told one of the guys to give me his stool.
“Yes, sir.” The younger man bowed gallantly to me as he took his beer and moved along.
“Do people always do what you say?”
“If they know what’s good for them.” His teasing grin kept the comment from being overly cocky. “What can I get you?”
Deciding to live dangerously for once, I asked for a cosmopolitan.
“Go big or go home,” he said with admiration.
“That’s my motto.” I was so full of shit. I wondered if he could tell I was all talk or what he’d think of me if he knew I usually err much closer to the side of caution than the wild side. I wondered if he could tell I was just barely old enough to drink. I’d turned twenty-one only six months earlier.
When my cosmo and his Budweiser had been delivered, he offered a toast. “To new friends.”
I touched my glass to his bottle. “To new friends.”
“So, where’re you from, Ava?”
“I thought I heard New Yawk in your voice.”
I batted my eyelashes at him. “So four years at the University of California San Diego didn’t scrub the New York out of me?”
Laughing, he said, “Hardly. I know some guys from New York. One of them is from Staten Island, which is about as New York as it gets. I know New York when I hear it.”
“I’m from Purchase, upstate from the city. What about you?”
“I’m from all over. My old man is a retired general. You name it, I’ve lived there.”
“Right here.” He turned that intense gaze on me, and I went stupid in the head. I couldn’t see anything but him. We might as well have been alone in the crowded bar for all I knew. Unlike my friend, who loved men in uniform, I was never turned on by the uniform. Until then. Until John. “You want to get out of here?”
I swallowed hard. It wasn’t like me to leave a bar with a man I’d just met. “And go where?”
“Somewhere we can talk.”
“What do you want to talk about?”
He leaned in so his lips were close to my ear. “Everything. I want to know every single thing there is to know about you.”
That’s how we started. We were intense from the first second we met until the last time I saw him five years ago today. I can’t believe it’s been five years since I looked into those incredible blue eyes or woke to him on the pillow next to me or heard his voice in my ear, whispering words that’re permanently carved into my heart as he made love to me.
The worst part is I have no idea where he is. I don’t know if he’s alive or dead, being held captive or if he’s living his life somewhere else with someone else. I don’t know, and the not knowing is the hardest thing I’ve ever dealt with.
I love him as much today as I ever did. No amount of time could ever change that simple fact of my life. We had two beautiful, magnificent years together, caught up in our own little bubble. He never met my family. I never met his. We didn’t make couple friends. We didn’t talk about the future. We didn’t need to. Our future was decided that first night, and it would take care of itself in due time. I honestly and naïvely believed that.
Now, with hindsight, I realize the bubble was strategic on his part. He gave me everything he had to give, including no promise of tomorrow.
Five years ago today, we watched the horror unfold on live television. A US-based cruise ship blown up by suicide bombers. Four thousand lives extinguished in a heartbeat. Our world permanently changed once again, our country declaring yet another war on terrorists. After 9/11 we thought we’d seen everything. We were wrong.
“I have to go,” he said, grabbing the duffel that stood ready in the front hall closet. He called it his “go bag.” I’d thought nothing of it.
“Where’re you going?”
“I don’t know.”
“When will you be back?”
“I don’t know that either.” He held my face in his hands and gazed at me, seemingly trying to memorize my every feature. “I love you. I’ll always love you.” Then he kissed me as passionately as he ever had and was gone, out the door in a flash of camouflage.
I never saw him again.
I’m not his wife or even his fiancée, so no one notified me of his whereabouts. And three months after he left, when I found a way onto the base in a desperate quest for information, no one there could tell me anything either. I tried to locate his parents and other people he mentioned, but it was like they didn’t exist. I could find no record of a retired general named West in the Marine Corps, Army or Air Force.
Furthermore, an exhaustive search for information on the John West I had known led nowhere. No high school, no college, no military service, no nothing.
Sometimes I wonder if I dreamed the two years we spent together, doing mundane things like grocery shopping, cooking, watching TV and sleeping together after long days at work. But then I’d remember the blissful passion, the scorching pleasure, the desire that ruled us from the beginning, and I’d know I didn’t dream him. I didn’t dream us. We were real, and he was everything to me.
Sitting on the floor in our apartment, surrounded by boxes, I take a few minutes before the movers arrive to memorize every detail of the place where we lived together. I’ve packed his things along with mine, and I’m moving home to New York. Today was my deadline. I gave it five years, and I simply can’t do it anymore. I can’t sit in our home among our things, waiting for something that’s never going to happen.
It’s over. It’s time for me to move on. It’s probably long past time, if I’m being honest with myself. And though I know it’s the right move at the right time, that doesn’t mean my heart isn’t shattering all over again as I dismantle the place where we were us.
My sister is getting married next month. I promised her I’d be home in time to hold her hand through the festivities. Other than occasional trips home for holidays and other occasions, I’ve been gone more than ten years. I bear no resemblance whatsoever to the girl who left home at eighteen seeking independence from her overbearing family at a faraway college out West.
I accomplished all my goals, finishing college, landing a decent job and falling in love with the man of my dreams. I found out what happens when dreams come true and how painful it is when they blow up in your face.
It’s time now to set new goals, to start over, to begin a life that doesn’t have John at the center of it the way it did here. It’ll be nice to be back with people who love me and care about me, even if they tend toward smothering at times. That’s looking rather good to me after years of loneliness and grief.
The intercom sounds to let me know the movers are here. I pick myself up off the floor and steel my heart for the day ahead. I can do this. I’ve been through worse, and I’ll survive this the same way I’ve survived everything else. Despite my resolve, my eyes fill with tears as I press the button that opens the door downstairs to the movers.
It doesn’t take them long to pack my belongings into their truck. I keep with me the things that can’t be replaced—precious photos, gifts he gave me, the clothing he left behind. After taking a final look around the apartment, I pack those boxes into my car, turn my apartment keys into the leasing office and head east, feeling as if I’m leaving behind everything that ever mattered to me.
It’s like I’m losing him all over again. I cry all the way through the desert of Southern California and well into Arizona. I relive every minute I can remember, every conversation, every special moment. I think about what it was like to make love with him and wonder how I’ll ever to do that with anyone but him. Maybe I won’t. Maybe that part of my life ended with him, and even though I’m only twenty-eight now, I’m okay with that possibility. Once you’ve experienced perfection, it’s hard to imagine settling for anything less.
The tears finally dry up somewhere in northern Arizona, but the ache inside… I take that with me all the way to New York, where I will try my very best to pick up the pieces of my shattered life and put them back together into some new version of myself.
After all, what choice do I have?
My sister, Camille, doesn’t do anything halfway, including get married. She’s one of those girls I’d love to hate if she weren’t my beloved sister. Three years behind me in high school, she was class president, captain of the cheerleading squad, valedictorian and homecoming queen. I’m sure the teachers who had me first wondered how the same genes could’ve produced two such different sisters. Why do you think I moved so far from home to go to college and stayed there afterward? At least in San Diego, no one ever compared me to my rock star little sister.
A few weeks ago, she graduated from Yale Law School, at the top of her class, of course, and made Law Review, had offers from every big firm in the country and sported a three-carat diamond on her finger from the son of the New York governor.
Like I said, she doesn’t do anything halfway. So here I am at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City, standing beside my sister as she marries Robert James Tilden III in a lavish ceremony. Did I mention she’s also freaking gorgeous? Well, she is, and never more so than today. She’s glowing with happiness and excitement and unfettered joy that serves as a bitter reminder of everything I’ve lost.
Pass the champagne.
If ever there was a time to get rip-roaring drunk, this is it. Rob arranged for hotel rooms for every member of the wedding party, so no one has to drive or even function after the reception. I plan to take full advantage of my new brother-in-law’s generosity up to and including room service breakfast.
Camille grasps my arm as we make our way from the rooftop where the happy couple exchanged vows to the ballroom where the reception will be held. “Help me pee,” she whispers.
I follow her to the restroom, where an attendant greets us and congratulates the bride.
“Thank you so much,” Camille says with a gracious smile for the woman.
“Use the handicapped stall,” the attendant says. “There’s more room.”
“Good call,” I say as we enter the roomy stall where Camille teaches me how to bustle her dress. I get it pinned up as best I can and then hold it out of harm’s way while she hovers over the toilet to take care of business.
“This wasn’t in my maid-of-honor job description.”
She laughs. “Sorry, but this is what sisters are for. And I’m so glad you’re here.”
“Me, too.” And I mean that sincerely. “I love seeing you so happy.”
“I am happy, but I’ll be even happier tomorrow. I’m so ready for a vacation after planning a wedding during the last year of law school. If that doesn’t kill me, nothing will. Two weeks of sand, sun, sex and booze. Bring it on.”
My heart aches with envy, making me feel small and petty. What I wouldn’t give for two weeks in the tropics with John. What I wouldn’t give to simply know he’s alive. I shake off those thoughts. This isn’t the time to wallow in the past. Today is about Camille and Rob, and I’m determined to keep my focus on her.
She stands and hurls herself into my arms. “I love you so much, Ava. I’m so glad you’re back home where you belong.”
Blinking back tears, I return her embrace. “Love you, too.” It’s good to be home. Whether I’m back where I belong is questionable. I have no idea anymore where I belong, but I’m going to figure that out. “I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else but with you today.” That much is certainly true.
After she washes her hands at the sink inside the stall, she hooks her arm through mine to lead me out of the restroom as the attendant looks on with amusement. “Let’s get this party started.”
We line up outside the ballroom, and I’m paired with the best man, Rob’s brother, Eric. My sister has married into a rather fantastic gene pool. Not only are the Tildens wealthy and successful, they’re incredibly good-looking, too. Rob is a triplet, having shared the womb with Eric and their sister Amelia, whom they call Amy. They make a striking trio—Rob and Amy resemble their father, with dark hair and eyes, while Eric favors their blonde, hazel-eyed mother. Despite their different coloring, there’s a definite resemblance among the three of them as well as their younger sister, Julianne, a blonde spitfire who’s kept us laughing all weekend.
I instantly love the Tildens and can see why my sister is gone over Rob, who dotes on her to the point of nausea for the rest of us. I’ll give them a pass since it’s their wedding weekend, but the words get a room have frequently come to mind during the festivities.
“For Christ’s sake,” Eric mutters while we wait to be introduced. “Save it for the honeymoon.”
I glance over my shoulder to see Rob and Camille engaged in yet another passionate lip-lock and laugh at the look of disgust on Eric’s handsome face. “They can’t help themselves.”
“I need a drink. The wedding party is allowed to drink, right?”
“God, I hope so.”
“You’re up,” the wedding coordinator, a peppy woman named Mimi, says after Julianne and Rob’s cousin Nate are introduced.
“Ready?” Eric asks, extending his arm to me.
I tuck my hand into the crook of his elbow. “Ready.”
“Please join me in welcoming our best man, the brother of the groom, Eric Tilden, and our maid of honor, the sister of the bride, Ava Lucas.” The DJ draws out every syllable of my name, making me Avaaaaaa Luuuuucasssss.
We walk in to thunderous applause from the nearly five hundred guests in the ballroom. I’ll admit to being intimidated by the crowd and the noise, both of which have me hanging on to Eric a little more tightly.
As if he can feel my tension, Eric covers my hand on his arm with his free hand, and the gesture comforts me.
We stand on the side of the huge dance floor with the rest of the wedding party.
“And now, please welcome our bride and groom, Rob and Camille Tilden!”
The applause is deafening as the happy couple makes their way into the room, stopping for hugs and kisses from friends and family. They’ve been deliriously happy for two years now, ever since they met at a fundraiser for Rob’s dad when Camille was finishing her first year of law school. Rob managed his father’s campaign and runs his New York City office.
“Can we drink yet?” Eric speaks close to my ear so only I will hear him.
“Counting the minutes.” I glance up at him and realize he’s focused on me, not the bride and groom. The subtle, rich scent of his cologne surrounds me, making me want to lean in closer to him. This is, I realize in a moment of despair, the closest I’ve been to any man since the day John kissed me goodbye and disappeared from my life.
I shiver even though the room isn’t cold. If anything, it’s overly warm.
“Are you okay?” Eric asks.
I nod, but my heart aches. What I wouldn’t give to have the man I love with me today, to celebrate my sister’s marriage, to meet my family, to dance the night away. Even in the midst of so much happiness and joy, grief overwhelms me.
“It’s kind of disgusting, isn’t it?” Eric asks as he twirls me around on the dance floor after the wedding party is invited to join the bride and groom as they dance to “The Best Is Yet to Come” by Frank Sinatra.
“How perfect they are.” He points his chin toward Rob and Camille, who are so caught up in each other, the hundreds of other people in the room might not exist for all they care.
“It’s not disgusting. They’re perfect for each other.”
He pulls back ever so slightly to look down at me with an impish twinkle in his eyes. “You don’t think it’s the tiniest bit disgusting that any two people can be that gorgeous and that successful?”
I’ll never admit to having had a few of those thoughts myself. “No, of course not. She’s my sister. I’m very proud of her—and happy for her.”
“Uh-huh. Okay. If you say so.”
Why is he trying to bait me? “I say so.”
“You don’t think it’s the tiniest bit unfair that they got it all—looks, smarts, true love, great jobs and a fab apartment? How much you want to bet they’re going to have ugly kids?”
It’s such an outrageous statement that I can’t contain the gurgle of nervous laughter that erupts from my chest.
“Ah-ha! I knew it! You totally think their kids will be ugly.”
“I do not! Don’t say that. He’s your brother. You’re supposed to love him.”
“I do love him, but sometimes I want to punch his lights out. Everything comes so easily to him. He’s never had to really work for anything in his life.”
“And you have?”
“I’ve worked hard for everything I have. Still do.”
“What do you do?”
“I spend years researching a single company for the fund I work for, only to be shot down when I bring it to the acquisitions team. Then I have to find another company, spend years working on that proposal and hope it doesn’t get shot down, too. I’m one-for-four over three years.”
“That sounds rather…”
“It can be. It’s a major bummer to invest all that time and effort only to be shot down at committee.” He leans in a little closer, again closer than any man has been to me since John left. “I’ll let you in on a little secret. Those companies I spend all that time researching?”
I nod, intrigued by his secret.
“I’ve invested personally in every one of them, and they’ve yielded spectacular results.”
“Then the time wasn’t wasted.”
“Not at all.” He gazes down at me, seeming to take a visual inventory of my features in a way that reminds me of John doing the same thing the night we met—and again on the day he walked out of my life. The memory hits me like a punch to the gut, stealing the breath from my lungs. “You’re very pretty, but of course you know that.”
The most beautiful girl I ever met. John’s husky, sexy voice pops into my head, and I’m transported right back to the bedroom we painted a light gray, the bed we chose together, the sheets tangled around our bodies as he made fierce love to me, whispering sweet words I’ve never forgotten.
“Ava? Are you okay?”
Eric’s voice startles me, sucking me out of memories I wish I could wallow in. They come less frequently than they used to, and I live in fear of losing them forever at some point.
I glance up at him, embarrassed to realize he’s stopped moving and is looking at me with concern.
“I… I’m sorry.”
“I didn’t mean to upset you.”
The rest of the wedding party, including the bride and groom, are looking at us, wondering why we aren’t dancing the way we’re supposed to.
“Let’s get a drink,” Eric says.
“But the dance…”
“Screw the dance.” He takes me by the hand and leads me to one of five bars strategically positioned around the massive ballroom. “What’s your pleasure?”
“Just ice water, please.”
He orders my water along with bourbon for himself. “Let’s get some air.”
We take our drinks to a balcony where the warm June breeze is a welcome relief after the stifling ballroom.
“Did I screw up by saying you’re pretty?”
“No, of course not.” I’m mortified by the episode. Right when I think I’m regaining my footing, a memory of John appears to show me otherwise. Sometimes I think I’m no further along on this journey than I was the day he left.
“Well, just for the record, you are very pretty. More than that, really. Gorgeous is a far better word. That was my first thought when I met you at the rehearsal.”
“Thank you.” He’s flirting with me, and I’m so out of practice, I have no idea how to respond.
“You’re sure you’re okay?”
“I’m better now. It was hot in there.”
“Yes, it was. Camille said you just moved back to New York from San Diego. What’d you do out there?”
Fell in love with the most extraordinary man who disappeared from my life five years ago. “I… I worked in PR.”
“Is that right? Julianne is in PR. She knows everyone. I bet she can help you find a new job. If you’re looking, that is.”
“I am, and that’d be great. I have feelers out all over the city, but I have a feeling it’s more about who you know than what you know here.” My goal is to live and work in the city so I can get out of my parents’ house in Purchase as soon as possible. After one month at home, I already know I’ve been gone too long to go back to living at home long-term. My parents are lovely, and they mean well, but they dote on me like I’m twelve rather than twenty-eight, and I’m wounded enough that it would be easy to let them take care of me indefinitely.
“We’ll set you up.”
He says that with the easy confidence of a man with connections. As the son of the governor, he’s probably fat with connections, and I’m not above taking advantage of who his family knows to jumpstart my life in New York City.
After a few minutes outside, we rejoin the party. We’re seated together at the head table, where we enjoy a delicious meal of tenderloin and shrimp. Eric entertains me with hilarious stories about growing up Tilden and how their parents had to ban practical jokes between the siblings out of fear of them burning the house down.
Despite the crowded room and the revelry all around us, in some ways I feel like we’re on a date by ourselves. He gives me his full attention, except when someone comes up to say hello to him. Then he introduces me as Camille’s sister, Ava, and includes me in the conversation. He’s charming and fun and funny and handsome, and I’m not sure if it’s him or the champagne that has me slightly dazzled, but whatever it is, I’m having more fun than I’ve had in years.
Mimi, the wedding planner, shows up after dinner with a cordless microphone that she hands to Eric. “You’re on.”
“Oh crap,” he says to me. “I forgot I have to make a speech. What should I say?”
“Nah,” he says, chuckling at my horrified expression. “I got this.”
He stands and loudly clears his throat into the microphone. “If I could have your attention, please.” When the room goes quiet, he says, “This is the part of the program where the best man is supposed to humiliate the groom with embarrassing stories that make the bride wonder what the hell she was thinking marrying such a jerk.”
Laughter ripples through the big room as Rob glares at him.
“Sadly for me and the rest of you, Rob doesn’t do embarrassing things. I know… It’s not fair and sort of wrong that someone could live to be thirty-two without a truly embarrassing story to his name. But that’s our Rob. Focused, brilliant and, despite a startling lack of flaws, fun to be around. And from all accounts, he’s found in Camille someone who’s just like him.” Sobering, he says, “Rob, we’ve been together a long time.”
More laughter follows that statement.
“And even though you’re only five minutes older than me, you’ve been an awesome big brother and best friend. I love you, and on behalf of everyone here, I wish you and Camille the best of everything. Congratulations.”
Rob stands to hug his brother while everyone else applauds.
Watching them together makes me feel emotional, which is odd because I’d never met either of them before two days ago. Still, their obvious affection for each other—and the multiple glasses of champagne I’ve consumed—made it a sweet moment to witness.
“Your turn,” Eric says, handing me the mic.
Taking the mic from him, I stand and wobble ever so slightly, cursing the champagne.
Eric’s hand on my back steadies me. I give him a grateful smile. “Unlike Rob,” I say into the mic, “Camille had an awkward stage.”
My sister groans, laughs and drops her face into her hands as her husband puts his arm around her.
“She got a big idea to cut her hair super short right before middle school started. That was an unfortunate decision. She was also the girl who’d come out of the restroom in a restaurant with a trail of toilet paper attached to her foot.”
“No!” Camille cried. “You did not just mention the toilet paper on my wedding day!”
“That’s all I’ve got,” I reply. “Like your husband, you’re too freaking perfect and obviously perfectly matched to each other. We can only hope that the six children you’re sure to have will be high achievers like their parents.”
“Ain’t nobody having six kids,” Camille says, cracking everyone up.
“I just want to say that you’re a wonderful little sister and friend. I love you, and I wish you and Rob a lifetime of the kind of joy and happiness you’re feeling today.”
“Hear, hear.” Eric raises his glass to the bride and groom, who’re indulging in yet another passionate kiss.
“And,” I say, before surrendering the mic, “on behalf of the entire wedding party, I’d like to add one more thing… Get a room. Please, get a room.”
The comment, fueled by champagne, is met with wild applause from the rest of the wedding party.
“Got one,” Rob says with a dirty grin when the ruckus dies down. “Gonna use the hell out of it later.”
“Shut up, Rob!” Camille cries, punching his chest.
That leads to more kissing.
“Booze,” Eric says, standing. “We need more booze.”
“Take me with you. Please, take me with you.”
“You got it.”
About the Author
Marie Force is the New York Times bestselling author of contemporary romance, including the indie-published Gansett Island Series and the Fatal Series from Harlequin Books. In addition, she is the author of the Butler, Vermont Series, the Green Mountain Series and the erotic romance Quantum Series. In 2019, her new historical Gilded series from Kensington Books will debut with Duchess By Deception.
All together, her books have sold 6.5 million copies worldwide, have been translated into more than a dozen languages and have appeared on the New York Times bestseller list many times. She is also a USA Today and Wall Street Journal bestseller, a Speigel bestseller in Germany, a frequent speaker and publishing workshop presenter as well as a publisher through her Jack’s House Publishing romance imprint. She is a two-time nominee for the Romance Writers of America’s RITA® award for romance fiction.
Her goals in life are simple—to finish raising two happy, healthy, productive young adults, to keep writing books for as long as she possibly can and to never be on a flight that makes the news.
Join Marie's mailing list for news about new books and upcoming appearances in your area. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter @marieforce and on Instagram. Join one of Marie's many reader groups. Contact Marie at email@example.com.