EXCERPT: Living Out Loud by Staci Hart
When Annie Daschle arrives in New York City, the only thing she can control is her list.
Not her father’s death or the loss of her home. Not the hole in her heart or the defective valve that’s dictated so much of her life. But she can put pen to paper to make a list of all the ways she can live out loud, just like her dad would have wanted.
See the city from the top of the Empire State Building: Check.
Eat hot dogs on the steps of The Met: Check.
Stand in the middle of Times Square: Check.
Get a job at Wasted Words: Check.
Two things not on her list: Greg Brandon and Will Bailey. And just like that, she finds herself caught in the middle of something she can’t find her way out of, with no clear answers and no rules.
List or no list, she realizes she can’t control anything at all, not even her heart.
Not the decisions it makes, and not the moment it stops.
*Standalone contemporary romance Inspired by Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility.*
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We chatted as we walked down Fifth to the bike rental station and unlocked one of the blue bicycles. And a little while and one park bench later, we were walking through the park in search of a grassy stretch off the beaten path.
We found what we had been looking for—a space lined with trees, somewhat shielded from the rolling, open knoll by boulders jutting up out of the grass.
“This looks good,” I said, lowering the kickstand before taking off my backpack.
She pulled off her bag, looking nervously at the bike as she took a seat in the grass. A thin sheen of sweat glistened on her cheeks and forehead, her face a little pale.
“You sure you’re okay?” I asked, eyeing her.
She smiled—her favorite way to answer. “It looks worse than it is. Promise.”
I frowned. “Really, maybe the bike is too much. Maybe we can do this after your surgery.”
“Greg, I’m fine. Come sit by me for a minute.”
I kept my arguments to myself and sat next to her.
“The cool air feels so nice,” she said, gathering up her hair and pulling it over one shoulder, exposing her neck.
“When they fix your heart, will you still feel like this?”
“No. I should be able to do anything physical I want within a few weeks of the surgery.”
My brows drew together. “Really? After open-heart surgery?”
“Really. It’s not like a heart transplant or anything. The hardest part of my recovery will be the incision and the fusing of my sternum back together.”
A shudder tickled its way down my spine at the thought of a bone saw opening her rib cage. “What all will they do to your heart?”
“Close the hole, repair my valve. I’ve had open-heart surgery before, but I was too little to remember anything about it. The scar is the only proof that it happened. Well, that and my mother’s stories. But this shouldn’t be too hard on the muscle itself, just some sutures when it’s all said and done. My body will work a lot more efficiently once the surgery is complete—like, immediately. I just have to get through the whole split-ribs thing,” she said with a little smirk. “All right, I feel better. Are you ready?”
She looked better. Her cheeks and lips were tinged with color, and the waxy quality her skin had taken on was gone.
“Ready when you are.”
We got to our feet, and I stepped to the bike to lower the seat. Once it was down, I waved her over.
“Come here and see if this works.”
She climbed on cautiously, her feet on the ground and her hands gripping the handlebars. The seat was probably too low, but I figured it’d be better for her center of gravity—plus she could stop herself easier if she tipped.
“Okay,” I started, one hand on the back seat and my other on the handlebar next to her hand, “I’m gonna hang on and hold you steady while you pedal.”
She shot me a worried glance. “And if I fall?”
“You get up and try again.”
She laughed, not looking convinced.
“Don’t worry; you’re not going to hurt yourself on the grass, but I’m not going to let you fall. I’ve got you, okay?”
With a deep breath, she nodded once. “Okay.”
“All right. Put your feet on the pedals.” My grip tightened when the balance was all on me. “Ready?”
“Ready,” she echoed with determination.
She did, moving us both forward, the bike only wobbling a little bit under her.
“Good, let’s go to that tree. Just keep it slow like this.”
Her tongue poked out of her lips, her hands white-knuckled on the handlebars until she got to the tree. And when she smiled, it was with more confidence.
“I did it!”
I laughed. “You did. Come on, let’s go back. Ready?”
She nodded, and we took off again. This time, she wobbled a little less, speeding up until I had to trot next to her to keep up.
When we stopped at our backpacks, she cheered. “Again!”
“All right,” I said on a chuckle. “I’m just gonna hang on to the back this time. And…go.”
I did just that, my hands on the back of the seat, the handlebars swerving a little but nothing she couldn’t correct. And then I let go.
She didn’t notice, wholly focused on staying upright, and I kept jogging, pulling up beside her. When she glanced over, I held my hands up in the air and wiggled my fingers.
Her face opened up with joy, and a whoop passed her lips—just before she swerved into me.
A string of expletives hissed out of me as I tried to grab her, but it was too late. She tumbled into me, bike and all, taking us down to the cold grass.
Annie was lying on top of me, her hair tossed across her face. The ground was cold and damp under me, and the handlebar of the bike was jammed into my ribs, but I barely even noticed. Not with Annie sprawled out across my body, her green eyes sparkling and her laughter ringing in my ears.
My own laughter met hers like an old friend.
“Are you okay?” I asked, sweeping her hair out of her face to tuck it behind her ear.
She flushed but made no move to pull away from me. “I’m fine. Are you okay?”
We watched each other for a moment through the rise and fall of my chest, the movement carrying her like a rocking ship. And then she giggled again, climbing off me before reaching for the bike.
It was then that I began to fully comprehend the depth of the trouble I’d found myself in.
Meet The Author: Staci Hart
Staci has been a lot of things up to this point in her life: a graphic designer, an entrepreneur, a seamstress, a clothing and handbag designer, a waitress. Can’t forget that. She’s also been a mom, with three little girls who are sure to grow up to break a number of hearts. She’s been a wife, even though she’s certainly not the cleanest, or the best cook. She’s also super, duper fun at a party, especially if she’s been drinking whiskey. Her favorite word starts with f and ends with k.
From roots in Houston, to a seven year stint in Southern California, Staci and her family ended up settling somewhere in between and equally north, in Denver. They are new enough that snow is still magical. When she’s not writing, she’s sleeping, cleaning, or designing graphics.