Upside Down (Breaking the Rules #3) by A.M. Madden

Chapter One



Cooper





Gorgeous.

Thick mahogany hair that cascaded over her shoulders, a simple black dress caressing her curves in the sexiest of ways, and a pair of deep russet eyes that seemed to sear right through your soul all had heads turning wherever we went.

There was no denying Riana Carter was gorgeous. Sweet too. Kind. Caring. Affectionate. I could go on and on with all her amazing attributes. She was quite possibly perfect.

Her only downfall was falling for me.

“I know bringing this up tonight isn’t exactly ideal.” A sad smile lifted as her gaze swept across the romantic setting: dim lighting, red roses adorning the tables, mood music playing for those truly celebrating being in love. “It actually sucks,” she added with a humorless laugh. “But with my business trip this week and the wedding next—” A blip of uncertainty flashed as her pause lengthened.

“Ree.” I tried to give her an out and waited for her to take it. But she seemed lost in thought while staring down at her untouched salmon. I hadn’t yet dared to dive into my own perfectly cooked steak. The waiter placing our dinners before us three seconds after she said we needed to talk was just bad timing. Or maybe Riana stumbling into my life as she had during an early-morning run almost a year ago was truly the bad timing of it all.

We’d come together because of that slick spot on the boardwalk. Melted ice cream maybe? A patch of ice? Something caused her to stumble forward right into my arms. Things romance novels were made of.

I, of all people, should know, since I’d studied the best of them. As an English lit professor, I was constantly reminded of romantic tales penned by masters of the written word. Yet I couldn’t seem to find love myself. My two older and two younger siblings had all found their persons. My parents were decades into an epic love affair. And then there was me.

With so many failed relationships from puberty to manhood, I had become a cliché. And ironically, being dumped on Valentine’s Day served to put a neat little bow on my pathetic love life.

“Coop, this isn’t easy for me to say,” she finally admitted, barely above a whisper.

“I know.” I did… although our story hadn’t always been a tortured love tale.

At the beginning we’d moved through all the expected motions: a coffee first, graduating to having dinner a few times, sex on the fifth date. Our union had progressed organically. There had never been drama between us. We’d seemed to have an ideal relationship… but something was missing.

“Do you love me, Coop?”

“Yeah.” It was a knee-jerk, honest response. I did love her… just not that way. She had professed her love out loud to me months ago, and after I hadn’t said it back, she’d never said it again. Who could blame her?

I watched her drag in a deep, impatient breath before releasing it. “I mean, are you in love with me?”

And there lies the problem.

My silence spoke volumes. I didn’t know how to get there. I didn’t know why it wasn’t coming easily.

Her gaze cut away before coming back to me. “I know you care about me, would do anything to make me happy. You’re so sweet and attentive… but there’s something missing,” she said, admitting what I couldn’t. “I can feel it.”

The moist shimmer that diluted the rich brown hue of her eyes sliced me wide open. I hated hurting her. That was probably why I’d avoided this very discussion, one that I had ignored for so many months.

She was right. That didn’t mean I didn’t wish that one day I’d wake up and realize I couldn’t breathe without her. I wanted that so desperately… but to say I was there now would be a lie.

“I’m sorry, but I need to know we’re heading somewhere,” she went on to say. “I’m too invested in you, in us, and it will destroy me if I spend another year, or two, or ten, only to have you end up walking away.”

Knowing Riana’s history, I understood her need for a plan. She’d had one other serious relationship. Not unlike ours, there’d been no drama, no unnecessary tears. It was as simple as a relocation because of his job while she just started the job of her dreams. Three years in meant they’d needed to end their relationship. I didn’t doubt that if he hadn’t moved, they would’ve gotten married eventually.

Her cool, slim fingers wrapping around my hand served as a cattle prod to my cowardice. She deserved better than me. She deserved to be worshiped and revered. She deserved the truth.