Okay, so I'm working on my latest romance novel, How the Heart Breaks, and wanted to share the first chapter with you. I'll be working on this for the next several months and hope to have it out sometime this summer. In the meantime, let me know what you think.
Sometimes good things fall apart, so better things can fall together.
How does the heart break, you ask?
Viciously. Slowly. Painfully. Most definitely unevenly, and in every way imaginable, I suppose. It's an interesting question, and one I've spent years contemplating. I've experienced heartbreak, as I'm sure you have, and whether it’s enduring the loss of a friend or loved one, or simply a relationship that dwindles or crashes and burns in dramatic fashion, each experience, while different, is no less painful.
My name is Lincoln Chandler, and for those who don't know me, I've spent the last twenty years writing love stories, many of which have been enjoyed by readers all across the globe. Perhaps you're one of them. Whether you're a fan of In the Heart of Autumn or The Long Road Back To You, or even We Fall Together, let me start by saying thank you. Because without you, none of this would be possible.
They say the time comes in every man's life when he realizes more days are behind him than are in front of him. It's a sobering thought, and one I rarely dwell on for fear I will slip into the abyss of depression. Some refer to this tipping point in life as a midlife crisis, but I don't consider it a crisis at all. Rather, I like to think of it as The Great Reflection—a crossroads if you will.
It was during my own Great Reflection, in the fall of 2019, that I found myself alone. My wife, Madeline, had taken the girls to Chattanooga to visit her parents over fall break, so I had an entire week to myself. What to do? I remember thinking as I rummaged about the house, kicking around several ideas of how to spend my time. Time alone was rare. Time alone with no responsibility was rarer still. Rather than laze around the house binge watching the latest Netflix series, I decided to put the time to good use. I hadn't been for a long ride on the bike in what felt like years. The Harley Davidson I had purchased as a gift for myself when I turned thirty, as a way of celebrating the success of The Long Road Back To You and I'll Wait, had been sitting in the garage for the last decade collecting dust.
As I imagined myself on the open road—wind in my hair and not a care in the world—I envisioned thinking about what I had done with the last forty years, and what I would do with the years that lay before me. It's worth mentioning that this was before the start of the global pandemic, which has affected all our lives in such a significant and profound way. Had I procrastinated and put the trip off, even by a few months, I may never have heard the story I'm about to tell you, and what a tragedy that would have been.
Having decided on the road trip, I went to the garage and pulled the cover from the bike. It still shined like the day I bought it. I checked the plugs, topped off the tank, and took it for a spin around the neighborhood, just to make certain I remembered how to ride. When I returned home, awash with excitement, I phoned my brother, Michael, who lives on the south side of Indianapolis, and asked if he'd be interested in joining me. Not sure if I've mentioned him in any of my previous books, but he is a very important part of my life. We're a couple of years apart, he and I. I'm the oldest. I suppose we've always been close—we're brothers, after all—but since we became adults and began raising families of our own, the bond between us has only strengthened. We chatted for a while, and once we'd loosely ironed out the details, I hung up and began packing. My plan was to take a day and ride up to Indi, stay the night at Mike's place, then the two of us would ride out to Colorado together.
The next morning, I left Atlanta and headed north on I-75. I made it as far as Knoxville when Mike called to let me know he had come down with the flu and wouldn't be able to make the trip. He sounded heartbroken, and admittedly, so was I, but despite the setback, I decided rather than turn around, I would continue alone. To give myself time to regroup, I left the interstate and took back roads instead.
Highway 33 north out of Knoxville is a fabulous stretch of road, and if you're ever in the area, I highly recommend the drive. A series of small towns dot the two-lane road, each with general stores, restaurants, schools, and churches that have been around for decades. Twenty miles north, the road crosses the crystal clear water of Norris Lake, where you can always find a flotilla of pontoons, not to mention some of the best scenery you will find anywhere, especially in the fall when the colors are changing.
I continued north, making it as far as the Cumberland Gap, when I decided to stop for the evening. My legs ached from the ride, and the rumbling in my stomach told me I needed to refuel. The town of Cumberland Gap is a quiet little place, tucked away in a valley at the foot of the Cumberland Plateau. As a side note for those of you who love history, the town lies along the Wilderness Road, at the place where Daniel Boone first discovered a way through the mountains into Kentucky.
I pulled off the highway and descended the hill, ducking beneath the train trestle, and found the Cumberland Inn. The building had been around a while but had been recently renovated. I parked the bike near the main entrance, then went inside, checked in at the front desk, and asked the manager where I might find a decent meal. Without hesitation, she recommended the Pineapple Tea Room & Café, which occupied the first floor of an old brick building at the corner of Brooklyn and Corwyn Street.
Since the café was only a short distance from the Inn, I took my luggage to the room, splashed a little water on my face, then walked over to the restaurant. As I proceeded down Brooklyn Street, I stopped and peered in the windows of a bakery where a pair of women were making pastries. There was also a convention center and an old post office, which appeared frozen in time. As I looked north, I observed the mountains looming over the town like a giant specter. Atop one of them was a small platform where people stood around a guard rail, looking down. I imagined the view from up there must have been marvelous.
When I arrived at the restaurant, I went inside and found a table near the window. I enjoyed observing people as they went about their day. There were a few folks milling around on the streets, and a few more inside the restaurant, but mostly the town was quiet. As I sat perusing the menu, someone at the table beside me suggested I try the stuffed peppers. I had seen them advertised on the marquee out front. I thanked them kindly for the suggestion and slid the menu back into the rack while I waited for the waitress.
A minute later, the owner, a woman by the name of Katherine Muncy, noticed me waiting patiently. She came over, took my order, then disappeared off behind the curtain to get it started. When she came back with a glass of sweet tea, she and I had a brief conversation, during which I introduced myself, told her what I did for a living, and asked if she had any stories I might use as material for my next book. By the way, for those of you who don't know, this is my tried-and-true method and has led to many of my most popular books. Not to take you down a rabbit hole, but I believe everyone has a story... or two... or a dozen. Sometimes, you just have to dig a little.
The reaction I got from Katherine was not at all what I was expecting. She paused for a moment as her eyes drifted to an empty table in the room's corner. "I have one," she said sadly. A shiver rose the length of my spine because I realized what she had to tell me was going to be unforgettable.
As I enjoyed my plate of stuffed peppers, Katherine joined me, and we talked for a long time, mostly about life. She told me how she had bought the place a few years earlier with the help of her husband, Henry. Then, she told me he had passed away a year earlier from cancer, and how devastating that had been for her and their children. Then, as evening grew into night, she revealed to me the details surrounding a couple she had befriended a decade earlier.
Instead of continuing my journey to Colorado the next morning as I had planned, I spent the entire weekend in the Gap. Coincidently, they were hosting their annual Gaptober Fest, which included art vendors, bakers, restaurateurs, live music, and there was even a guided ghost tour. When I wasn't out enjoying the festivities, I was in the restaurant listening intently to Katherine as she relayed the story to me in bits and pieces.
I took copious amounts of notes, of course, and when it was over, I thanked Katherine for her time and told her if I was ever in the area again, I would be sure to stop in. I spent the next four days on the bike, riding and thinking about the story she had told me, and about life. When I returned home from my week of reflection, I remember seeing Madeline and the girls and thinking how lucky I was to have them in my life. We had experienced ups and down, Madeline and I, but I realized she was the one I had chosen to embark on this journey of life with, and she was the one who would be there with me until the end.
Now, before I jump into the story, a word of warning. If you're an emotional person, keep the tissues close by because you will most likely need them. I'll attempt to be concise and not drag on with unnecessary details, and if I am successful, perhaps you will consume the story in a single sitting. Aside from the usual, I hope you enjoy reading the story as much as I've enjoyed writing it, because it is, without question, one of my favorites.
Okay, here goes. The story of Nick Sullivan and Eve Gentry, as told to me by Katherine Muncy.
It all began with hot chocolate...
A Good Deed
“That’ll be four-fifty,” said Joyce Mahan, as she handed a latte and pastry to a whisper of a man in skinny jeans. He found his debit card and slid it through the card reader. When the transaction was complete, Joyce watched in amusement as he slipped into the side room and took a seat near the window, then stuffed a pair of headphones into his ears and prepared to immerse himself in the latest podcast. Where have all the real men gone? she mused as she put on a fresh pot of coffee.
Her question, though rhetorical, was answered in less than a heartbeat as in walked Nick Sullivan, a well-built thirty-eight-year-old with chestnut eyes, long brown hair, and a facial shadow that appeared to be permanently set on five o’clock.
“Morning Nick,” she said with a smile as she turned her gaze upon him.
"Joyce, how's everything this morning?" Nick asked in a southern drawl thick enough to bottle as he breathed in an aroma of coffee and cinnamon.
"Good so far," she said with a smile, "but it's early."
Nick flashed a smile. For as long as he had been coming to the coffeehouse, Joyce had been saying the same thing, but he didn't mind. In fact, he rather enjoyed the familiarity of their exchange.
The Gap Creek Coffee House had, at one time, been the home of Cumberland Gap’s oldest living resident, Virgil Whitehead. But shortly after he died, Joyce bought the place and converted it into a small sandwich and drink shop. Everyone from Pineville to Tazewell knew of the coffee house, and most people frequented the little hole-in-the-wall at least three or four times a week. For many, it had become part of their morning or afternoon routine, often both. They served coffee, of course, but also tea, hot chocolate, espresso, cappuccino, and so much more. There were even croissants, sandwiches, small bites, and about the best desserts around.
Given its proximity to the university in the neighboring town of Harrogate, the coffee house attracted a rather diverse crowd. Students, faculty, and locals all enjoyed afternoons beneath the shade of the giant poplars that covered the grounds. It was a quiet hangout for anyone who wanted to escape the fast-paced world and enjoy the beautiful scenery or listen to the babbling brook that ran along the edge of the property.
"The usual, I presume?" she asked as she reached for the pot of black coffee.
"Actually, I was thinking of trying something different today."
"Be still my heart," she replied with raised eyebrows, looking as though he had shaken her to the core.
Joyce knew Nick Sullivan better than most, which wasn't saying much since he didn't allow anyone to get too close, but in the five years since he'd been frequenting her establishment, she had never known him to order anything other than black coffee.
"I guess you can teach an old dog new tricks," she mused.
He smiled again, broader this time.
"In that case, what can I get you?" she asked with hands on hips.
"I'm feeling ambitious today," he answered, rubbing his hands together as he perused the blackboard menu hanging above the counter. "How about a hot chocolate,” he decided, “and a bit of whipped cream on top, if it's not too much trouble? I haven’t had anything like that in years.”
"Coming right up," she grinned as she went to work steaming the milk. "I've been meaning to ask you how the chickens are coming along—any eggs yet?" she shouted above the whirring of the frother.
"Any day now," he answered as he reached for his wallet. "And to be honest, I can't wait. The ones from the store just aren't the same."
"You got that right," she said as she dropped the chocolate into the cup and began stirring. When it was mixed completely, she spooned a dollop of whipped cream on top, applied the lid, then handed it to Nick. "That'll be two dollars."
"Fair enough," he replied, plucking a couple of singles from the stack of bills he kept in his wallet.
"You'll want to let that cool for a minute," she warned. "Wouldn't want you to scald your tongue."
"Thanks for the warning," he replied kindly. He paid her for the beverage and dropped a five into the tip jar when she wasn't looking. Nick had always made it a point of tipping well.
He grabbed a napkin and a mixing straw and turned to leave, but before he reached the door, Joyce called out.
"I don't suppose I could talk you into doing me a favor?" she asked nervously.
"That depends," he joked as he warmed his hands around the cup of hot chocolate.
"Sam is in class this morning, and I was counting on him to make the deliveries,” she explained.
"How many you got?
"Just the one. It's going to the university. The new English professor phoned it in, and I'd hate to lose her business. Things are tight these days and every dollar counts."
Nick had heard her made this comment more than once lately. Visiting the coffee house was part of his daily routine now, not to mention the fact that he enjoyed Joyce’s company, so the last thing he wanted was for the business to fail, especially if there was something he could do to help.
"All right, if you're gonna twist my arm," he teased as he returned to the counter. "I have to go by there on my way home anyway, so—"
"—Anyone ever tell you you're a saint?" she asked as she poured the milk.
"Only you,” he smiled.
She handed him the cup as a wave of relief washed over her.
"This professor got a name?" he asked with mild interest.
"Eve," she said, looking at the order slip. "She didn’t give a last name, but her office is on the top floor of Avery Hall. You know the place, right?"
Nick was familiar with the university. He had attended college at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, but he had been to Lincoln Memorial University several times over the years for special events, ballgames, and graduations, so he was familiar with the campus.
"I'll find it," he said confidently.
"Thanks again, Nick. You're a lifesaver. See you tomorrow?"
"Lord willing," he replied as he stepped out into the cool morning air.
Autumn had come to that part of the world, though it was later than usual. The hickory and oaks, which had only days before been awash in brilliant shades of emerald, had now taken on a hint of yellow and burnt orange.
Nick walked slowly back to his truck, placed the cups of hot chocolate in the cup holders, then slid into the seat and started the engine. As he waited a few seconds for the fog to clear from the windshield, he rubbed his hands together. He didn't much care for the cold, but as soon as the engine warmed, he’d crank up the heat and be fine.
When the fog had cleared, he drove to the end of Pinnacle Alley, then hung a right on Brooklyn Street. From there, he passed beneath the railroad trestle and climbed the hill away from town. After a quick trip down the Cumberland Gap Parkway, he made a right on to Robertson Avenue and entered the university. He parked in the lot behind the academy and went the rest of the way on foot, taking his time so not to spill the drinks.
Avery Hall sat on the east end of the quad and housed the English and History departments. It occupied the same space where The Four Seasons Hotel once stood, back before the university was founded. Many of the professors kept their offices on the third floor, so rather than risk a disaster on the stairs, Nick stepped into the elevator and pressed the button, then waited for it to take him up. Fortunately, class was in session, so the hallways were virtually empty, save for a handful of students sitting around a coffee table having a last-minute cram session.
When the doors to the elevator opened, Nick stepped out and set his eyes upon the marquee. After locating the name of Professor Eve Gentry, he found her room number, 305, along with an arrow pointing him in the right direction. He turned right and walked the length of the corridor until he found her office at the end of the hall. The door was slightly ajar, so he knocked once, then eased it the rest of the way open with his foot.
"Mrs. Gentry?" he called softly, peeking inside.
"Come in," she said without looking up.
Nick entered to find an attractive young woman in a sleeveless white blouse sitting behind a small desk. He had never been the best at guessing ages, especially when it came to women, but from what he could tell she appeared to be in her early-to-mid-thirties. Her long, dark brown hair was pulled up into a messy bun, and she had on a pair reading glasses, which framed her face beautifully. He stood in silence as she finished highlighting passages from Tom Sawyer.
"Can I help you?" she asked kindly, raising her eyes to find a man in boots, jeans, and a tan corduroy jacket standing in the doorway. He looked tough, but Eve had seen enough cowboys in her life to know it was only a façade.
For a second, during which Nick’s mind was a mix of confusion and wonder, words escaped him. Working against him was the image he had already constructed of her in his head on the drive over. He supposed, as he fought to pull his gaze away from her blue-green eyes, he had expected her to be older or ordinary or both. Perhaps he needed her to be. But the woman sitting before him was anything but ordinary.
"I…um…h-hot chocolate," he said shakily as he held out the cup. She took it as a wave of heat crept up the sides of his neck and face. "Joyce, from the coffee house...said you called it in this morning,” he explained, but his words did little to erase her confusion. "Sam, the kid that normally delivers for her, is in class this morning, so she asked if I wouldn't mind dropping it off."
“I don’t remember calling in a hot chocolate,” she said, looking puzzled.
“Really?” he asked, in disbelief. “She had your name written down. I saw the order slip myself.” He paused, during which time she appeared to be thinking. “I could take it back if you don’t want it?”
“No,” she blurted out all at once. “I’ll take it. Anything is better than the coffee they keep in the professor’s lounge,” she grimaced, thinking of the thick liquid that more closely resembled motor oil than coffee.
“Careful. You don’t want to burn your tongue,” he warned as she lifted the brim of the cup to her lips.
“Thanks for the warning,” she said, eyeing him as she sipped carefully.
Immediately, her eyebrows went up. “This is fantastic,” she smiled. “You know what?” she said, looking as though she had remembered something. “Now that I think of it, I’ll bet this is Cindy’s doing. She’s my graduate assistant. I was telling her the other day how much I loved hot chocolate.”
“Well, there you have it,” said Nick. “Mystery solved.” He felt a sense of relief.
“So, do you work for…help me out,” she said, prodding him.
“Yes. Thank you.”
“No," he replied with a grin.
"Like I said, she was a little shorthanded this morning. I guess I was just in the right place at the right time.”
"Oh," she replied, looking satisfied with his explanation. "That was sweet of you. I'm Eve, by the way,” she announced, as she stood and shook his hand.
Eve was taller than he expected, standing five six, but she was still small beside Nick, who stood six two, even without the boots.
"Nick... Sullivan," he replied politely.
"Pleasure to meet you, Nick Sullivan."
She sat down the cup and reached for her purse where she kept a wallet in the front compartment. As she did, Nick’s eyes drifted to the black pencil skirt she was wearing, which hugged her curves perfectly. A little look won’t hurt he told himself as he took her in with his eyes. She was slender, athletic, and it was obvious she took care of herself.
"What do I owe you?" she asked, turning back to him as he quickly raised his eyes.
"—On the house," he said, laying a hand gently on top of hers. "Like I said, it was on my way."
Something in his voice was soothing and it distracted her from the touch of his hand. For a moment, silence descended, and as Eve’s gaze steadied on his, she caught a glimpse of sadness in his eyes.
"Thank you," she said finally.
"You're welcome," he replied calmly as he withdrew his hand and took a step back. "So, how do you like it here so far?" he asked, lightening the mood.
"Huh? Oh…the jury's still out, I think," she said as she snapped back to reality. "I've only been here for a couple of months, but so far everyone has been extremely helpful,” she said as she stuffed the wallet back into her purse. “I was looking for a change of pace, and I definitely got that."
Sarcasm. A smile began in the corner of his mouth. "I take it you're not from the country?" he probed.
She gave a half-smile and said, "I am, but it's been a long time. I grew up in a small town in east Texas called Athens. Ever heard of it?”
Nick shook his head. Admittedly, geography had never been his greatest subject.
“Didn’t think so. It’s postage stamp small,” she said. “I moved out when I was eighteen and lived the last fifteen years in Dallas, now here.”
Nick did the math in his head. Thirty-three—he was right.
“What about you?” she continued. “You lived here your entire life?"
"No," he confessed, perhaps a little too quickly. "I'm originally from Virginia, near Roanoke. I moved to the area several years ago.”
While he wasn't looking, Eve glanced at Nick's hand—no wedding band. Divorced, she thought, finding it impossible that someone that looked the way he did had never been married. They were in the same boat, figuratively speaking, as she was a recent divorcee herself. She reached for the phone in her back pocket and checked the time.
"Listen, I hate to run, but I've got a class in five minutes." She grabbed her purse and threw the strap across her shoulder, then took the briefcase in one hand and the hot chocolate in the other. Now, what to do about the stack of books she had prepared for her lecture?
Seeing that she was overloaded, Nick said, "here, let me help with those.” He tossed his empty cup in the trashcan, then, in one swift motion, scooped up the books and stepped out into the hallway.
"Thanks," she said as she shut the door behind them.
They made small talk while they rode the elevator to the first floor, then exited and turned right. He went ahead and cleared a path for her through the sea of students, stopping as they reached the large classroom at the end of the hall. Being a gentleman, Nick opened the door for her, letting her go in first.
"Thank you," she said, seeing that at least in this part of the world chivalry wasn't completely dead. "Sit them anywhere you like," she told him as the students began filing into the room.
He sat the books on the table, then slid out of the way of incoming students. “Well, it was nice meeting you.”
"Likewise,” she said, and watched until he was gone.
Nick made his way through the sea of students and exited onto the quad as the clock struck ten.