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Nick needed to talk.

After many reader requests and suggestions, I've written a short chapter from the perspective of a character who didn't get his own voice in The Day He Went Away. I've told you why I wrote it, but now there's a new angle. Enjoy!

Nick and Kate

Tomatoes. And not just any tomatoes.

San Marzano.

I can’t make delicious, mind-blowing, tangy yet slightly sweet with a mouth-feel like velvet marinara without using the best ingredients. That's what the recipe says, and I'm not interested in challenging it.

Tonight's a big night for me.

Let’s see if the student has become the master, Kate teased when she left the apartment this morning.

I didn't want her to go, but there was no way I could miss classes. School is important to me now. I won’t mess up like before.

Before the war.

Before I knew people like Ethan and Kate existed.

Before I lost my world and found it again.

Life isn't something to be squandered. I was a jerk before, a guy who looked for fights just so I could feel something. Pain from a well-placed fist, or the pleasure of taking down the opponent. It didn’t matter. After a while, the two emotions bled together.

The military saved me.

Ethan saved me.

And then Kate and I saved each other.

She’s the reason I forced myself to get up this morning. I could’ve reached out, pulled her warm body back to mine. She wouldn't have minded. Kate doesn't have a job, at least not the kind that has her rushing to get there by nine.

I’m kind of proud of my girl. And by kind of I mean a ridiculous amount. Forget putting her heart on the line, Kate went and put her whole heart on paper. And now that she has the attention of an agent, she’s one step closer to putting our story in front of the eyes of strangers.

I’ve put my physical safety on the line more times than I can count, but I’ve never played with the fire that is emotional safety.

Her bravery astounds me.

When I met Kate, she wasn’t brave. She wasn’t much of anything, really. A shell, the kind that curl inward. I used to find them on the beaches of Long Island, and wondered what they were hiding inside. What could be precious enough to need layers of protection?

Kate’s shell is long gone, and so is what she was guarding. She’s no longer the person she was when I met her. And she isn't the person she was before Ethan died, either. She’s softer now, more willing to take chances and make mistakes. Sometimes she laughs until she snorts and it’s the cutest thing I’ve ever seen.

The sauce is almost perfect. It’s all I can do not to take a third taste, you know, just to make really sure it’s not poisoned.

Kate’s key turns in the lock. I meet her at the door, eager and not at all concerned with playing it cool. Kate and I never had the new relationship jitters, the don’t-show-too-much-of-yourself suppression. Broken people have broken layers. When you can see each others’ souls from the beginning, there’s no need to dip only your toes in the pool.

“Hi,” Kate says, leaning in to kiss me. She pulls back and smacks her lips. “I taste tomatoes.”

I kiss her again, because I can, then say “I had to make sure it wasn’t poisoned.”

She smiles with one side of her mouth. “My protector.”

She’s called me that before, and it’s accurate. My need to protect is more than just an inclination. It’s in my blood. I want the world to be right for the people who deserve it.

Kate steps out of my arms only to hang her purse and jacket on the hook by the door, then she’s back where she belongs.

She’s dressed in a big, cozy sweater and her hair is piled on top of her head. Her little gold earrings bring out the flecks of gold in her brown eyes.

“What?” She asks, looking up at me. Her fingers bump over the stubble on my face.

I swallow the lump in my throat. “I love you. That’s all.”

She arches her eyebrow. “That’s all?”

“Yep,” I nod.

Her eyes tell me she’s not buying it, but I’m hoping she’s hungry enough to get distracted.

“Come taste the sauce.” I tug on her hand, pulling her into the kitchen.

She stops short when we walk in. Her eyes sweep over the smear of red on the stove top, the confetti-like dots of green herbs sprinkled around the floor, and whatever the shiny stuff is on the counter. A small smile plays on her lips.

“Here.” I’m holding out the spoon, one hand under to catch the drips, as if the additional mess matters by this point. She leans forward, tasting the first thing I’ve made for her totally on my own. And I’d be a liar if I said watching her try the sauce wasn’t sexy as hell.

She pulls back, twists her lips one way, then the other. Her eyes lift to the ceiling, fall to the ground, and then she closes one of them and makes a face like she’s thinking.

“Seriously?” I’m dying over here.

She snickers.

I narrow my eyes.

“No,” she says, her face suddenly serious. She backs away, but she’s on the wrong side of the kitchen. The only thing behind her is a wall.

“Oh yes.” I slow my advance. She’s as good as captured.

Her only defense now is to put her hands on her hips and stand tall. She’s petite though, so it’s not exactly intimidating.

My hands land on either side of her stomach and I can feel her muscles clench, her laughter already starting even though I haven’t moved my fingers yet.

“I was going to tickle you, but now that I’m here, I don’t know if that’s what I want to do.”

Like butter left in the summer sun, her whole body melts. Her arms wind around my neck and she presses into me.

I love how intensely she loves me. She doesn't keep any emotion back. The good, the bad, the ugly, they all catapult from her heart. It wasn’t always this way, and I think it makes me appreciate it more. There was a time I had to pry every feeling from her.

That was nearly two years ago. That time will always be precious to us, but it doesn't define us. Who we are is happening right now. It’s Nick and Kate, in the kitchen of the apartment we share, seconds away from forgetting about the marinara.

It’s the trust she’s placed in me, her willingness to love me even when her fear of losing me tells her not to.

It’s who we were then, who we are now, and who we are going to be together.

Only yesterday I brought the ring home, but it’s burning a hole in my sock drawer.

I already know her answer. I’ve known mine since the day she showed me her phoenix tattoo.

Before I can ask her, I have two stops to make. Kate’s mother has already given me her blessing, but I owe it to her father to at least ask him too, even if his answer will be silent.

And then, Ethan. She was his before she was mine. He should know that we’ve both found happiness, and in just the way he planned. His hand left our relationship long ago, but it was there at first, guiding us, until we could make it on our own.

Some things in life are worth fighting for. And Kate was one of them.

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