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Unfamiliar

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Unfamiliar

A Novel by

Erica Cope & Komal Kant

Unfamiliar

Copyright © 2014 Erica Cope and Komal Kant

First Edition

Cover Design by Eden Crane Design

Photography by Tera Lankard

Cover Models: Chase Petersen and Karlie Monroe

Unfamiliar lyrics © 2013 Get Busy Living

All rights reserved. This book may not be used or reproduced, scanned or distributed in any form without permission from the author except where permitted by law. All characters and storylines are the

property of the author and your respect and cooperation are greatly appreciated. The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.

ISBN-13: 978-1496128331

ISBN-10: 1496128338

Prologue

Chase

Something was gnawing on the edge of my mind.

I couldn’t quite put my finger on exactly what was bugging me, but it was there just out of reach.

Something didn’t feel right. Something hadn’t felt right in a long time and I wished I could figure out what it was.

Trying to shake the feeling away, I headed upstairs to my girlfriend’s apartment. We had a concert to get to and I had to focus since I was the one performing.

Heather and I had been together for three years now and despite our problems, I was committed to her. She was the one familiar thing in my life that I wanted to hold onto.

Stopping outside her door, I knocked on it twice and waited. That gnawing feeling started up again the longer I waited. Seriously, why was she taking so long? Was everything okay?

Several long minutes passed before Heather finally answered—her thick, dark hair was messy and she wasn’t even dressed yet. All she had on was an oversized t-shirt.

“Baby, you’re early!” Heather looked flustered as she stared out at me. “You said six.”

I shrugged, suddenly feeling awkward. “Yeah, I thought we could spend some time together before we leave.”

Things hadn’t been great between us lately and I didn’t want Heather to think that I didn’t want to be around her. Especially when she was going out of her way to be supportive and go to the concert with me. I knew music wasn’t really her thing.

“Oh, uh, okay.” She seemed nervous.

Alarm bells rang in my head—not loud alarm bells, just faint ones that were telling me that something was a little off about the way she was acting. Heather was never nervous. She was always confident and sassy, and never let anything bother her. She was definitely acting weird.

“Everything okay, baby?”

“Yeah, everything’s fine.” She seemed irritated now, so I guess she was back to normal.

“You should’ve called.”

“I’m sorry, it slipped my mind.” I gave her a small smile. “Can I come inside now?”

She glanced over her shoulder before turning back to me and nodding. The nervousness was back again and I couldn’t understand why.

“Uh, sure.”

As I followed her inside, I knew immediately that something was wrong. The alarm bells grew louder.

The cushions from the couch had been knocked down and there were articles of clothing strewn across the floor. Heather wasn’t a messy person—this mess wasn’t like her.

“What happened here?” I asked, an uneasiness building up in my chest.

That gnawing in my mind intensified with the alarm bells until my head began to hurt. It felt like the disturbance in my head was trying to tell me something.

“Nothing happened.”

But I knew she was lying. Her eyes were darting all over the apartment, like she was searching for something. And then suddenly she froze. Her fists clenched and her normally tan skin turned pale.

Following her gaze, my eyes fell on something lying on the floor at the foot of the couch.

It was a shoe. A guy’s shoe. And that guy wasn’t me.

For a second it felt like all the air had been knocked out of me. Without even exchanging words with Heather, I already knew what this meant.

Why she wasn’t dressed. Why her apartment was a mess. Why some guy’s shoe was lying on the floor like it belonged there. Everything suddenly clicked in a fucked up way.

“Whose is that?” Anger was slowly working its way inside of me as images began to flash through my mind of what this implied.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Lie number two.

“Don’t play dumb with me! Who does that shoe belong to? Who’s here?”

“No one’s here.”

Heather’s responses weren’t really helping with the anger that was threatening to explode from within me. She’d been lying to me about a lot of things and had been acting weird for months now. Really, I shouldn’t be so surprised. Why the hell was I surprised? It all made sense now.

All the times she couldn’t answer her phone or call me back. All the times she pulled away from me when I tried to show her affection. All the yelling and the complaining and the fighting. Everything was hitting me at once like a succession of punches to the gut.

“You’re cheating on me.”

She didn’t say anything; only stared back at me as though she was too scared to think of anything to say. She didn’t even have the decency to look guilty.

“TELL ME! ARE YOU CHEATING ON ME?”

Heather flinched as though I’d stung her, and tossed her hair over her shoulder, looking pissed off. “Don’t yell at me. You don’t scare me. And, yes, I’ve met someone.”

“You can’t meet someone. We’re together!”

I wanted to shake her and tell her she was psycho, but I felt so numb that even the anger had frozen inside of me.

“Stop trying to control me. I can do whatever I want.”

“You’re my girlfriend! We’ve been together for three years.”

Heather gave me a look as though there was a bad smell hanging around me. “I’m not your girlfriend anymore. I’ve met someone better who actually has plans for his life.”

“Where is he?” I was only half-listening as she spoke. “I’m gonna beat the shit out of him. Tell him to come out and face me.”

Heather took a step forward and shoved me back hard. “Don’t even try and pull some macho bullshit here. I’ll call the police and tell them you assaulted me.”

“You bitch,” I spat out. “How could you do this to us?”

“No, you did this to us.” Heather pushed me back again. “Get out of here, Chase. I don’t want to see you again.”

Somehow I found the strength not to throw something at Heather or to go further into the apartment and drag that asshole out and beat the crap out of him until he learned not to mess around with another guy’s girl.

When I didn’t move, Heather pushed me again until I hit the wall. “GET OUT, CHASE!”

And that was what finally thawed me. I turned around and opened the door with an unsteady hand and stumbled down the stairs.

I wanted to get away from the familiar girl who’d suddenly become a stranger. I wanted to get away from her lies and betrayal. I wanted to get away from the heartbreak that was consuming me. Except I couldn’t get away. My heart was shattering, and it was over a girl who didn’t even love me.

Chapter One

Hailey

My room was mostly packed up. The only things not in boxes were the belongings I wouldn’t be taking with me and clothes to change into for tomorrow. Everything else was neatly labeled and stacked according to size and weight so it would be easy to load up into Braxton’s truck in the morning. Most people had their families help them move into the dorms, but all I had was my boyfriend of four years. It was fine though. In fact it was better this way. I never could rely on anyone else.

I heard my dad stomping around in the bedroom next to me. I supposed I should probably tell him good-bye, but I hadn’t forgiven him yet and he knew it. I didn’t expect him to leave the bedroom he’d once shared with my mother until I was officially out of here. I hoped that he at least had that much common courtesy left in him.

Braxton was supposed to be here in about an hour so I put my planner back in my purse on the practically bare desk next to the flyer advertising the Music Gala that we were attending tonight. He’d wanted to do something special for me since this was my last weekend living in

Southlake, Kansas so I’d gotten to pick our weekly date-night activity.

Tomorrow I would be moving into Webster Hall at Oakdale University about an hour away from here. I would have preferred to stay closer to home, but Oakdale was the only nearby college that offered me a full-ride scholarship. The only condition being, I had to live on campus for the first two years. It wasn’t the most ideal situation, but I wasn’t exactly in a position to be picky since it was my fault that I hadn’t chosen to spend my high school years working hard to save up for college.

Of course, that wasn’t exactly my fault either since I’d been under the impression that the college fund I knew my grandmother had started for me would still be there when I was ready for it. I guess I hadn’t really counted on my dad feeling entitled to what was rightfully mine. And since my dad had squandered away my college fund, I really needed that scholarship. In the grand scheme of things an hour wasn’t too bad. Braxton had said he would even apply at Oakdale next year, but for now, he needed to stay close to his family.

I picked out a simple navy blue dress that I knew Braxton liked and paired it with some classic nude closed-toe pumps with a low heel. The dress was sleeveless and though it was warm enough outside to pull off wearing it, I knew I’d be cold in the auditorium so I grabbed a white cardigan as well. I pulled the sides of my brown hair back away from my face with some bobby pins and took a long, hard look at the girl gazing back at me in the mirror. Once I was convinced that not a hair was out of place, I made sure my purse was ready. Phone, lip balm, planner, extra pen, keys, and wallet. Everything seemed to be in order.

I opened my bedroom door just a crack and listened carefully. The house was finally quiet so I tip-toed down the hall so I didn’t wake up my father. I didn’t want to have to deal with him tonight. Just one more day and I would be out of here for good. I ripped out the page from my notebook with the number for the addictions hotline. I had been trying to get him to get help for years to no avail. But despite how angry I was at him right now, I had to try at least one more time. I left the number on the table underneath his keys. He’d see it in the morning.

I stepped out on to the porch to wait for Braxton to walk over. He had texted me earlier to tell me his mother was having a bad day but that she was finally asleep. I didn’t want to disturb her so I’d decided to just wait for him here.

Her bad days were becoming more frequent. I knew that it had to be hard on Braxton, and his dad and brother. Brad was a few years older than Braxton and was studying pre-med at KU. When their mom had become sick, he’d decided to take a year off and come back home to help out his father. Mr. Douglas wasn’t handling it very well. Not that I could really blame him. It had been rough on all of us. It was hard to watch the people you loved wither away, becoming weaker by the day from the very thing that was supposed to heal them. She had started a new round of chemo a week ago and I felt like it had made her worse. She hadn’t eaten or drank anything for days and any time we managed to encourage her to do so, she would end up throwing it all up until there was nothing left but bile and blood. It was awful.

The night air was as warm as I expected so I draped my cardigan over my arms and sat down on the porch swing. I heard the sound of the door from the next house over opening and the screen door slamming shut. I closed my eyes and counted to ten in my head and when I opened them back up, he was there at the bottom of the stairs. The boy next door had been my boyfriend for the last four years but had been my best friend for much longer than that. Our pasts were so entwined that I couldn’t tell you which memories were my own and which were his.

“Sorry I’m late,” he said as he pulled me into his arms and kissed me on the top of my head in our usual greeting. “Mom got sick again and Dad needed my help.” “Is she okay?”

“She’s sleeping now but I think it’s going to be a long night.”

“Do we need to stay?”

“No, it’s okay. Brad is with her now. It’s your last night home for a while, we need to do something nice. Just the two of us.”

“Okay.”

“Though I can’t believe you are forcing me to sit through a piano concert,” he said.

“You said I could choose,” I reminded him.

“I know. I’m just teasing you. It’ll be fine.” He squeezed my hand as we walked to his truck.

We rode in comfortable silence into the city just enjoying each other’s familiar company. When he didn’t have to shift gears, he held my hand.

We arrived at the concert hall a few minutes after the concert started and of course, there was no parking.

Braxton had been convinced that parking wouldn’t be an issue since he just couldn’t fathom that anyone would actually willingly choose to torture themselves by sitting through a piano concert. I didn’t even bother to argue with him because I knew that it would be crowded with people from the city who actually did enjoy the arts. But if there weren’t whistles, a ball of some sort, and a bunch of sweaty guys slapping each other’s asses, he wasn’t interested.

“Okay, so I stand corrected. Apparently these things are a big deal.”

“I told you we should’ve left earlier.” I tried not to snap at him, but the annoyance I felt crept into my tone anyway and he looked taken aback.

“Hailey, look, I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”

“I told you we’d need to get here early. You just didn’t want to come.”

“We’re not that late. Let’s just park here and walk the rest of the way. We’ll be able to catch most of the concert, right?”

I wanted to point out that this wasn’t like basketball—there were no instant replays. I’d never get to know what I’d missed and it sort of ruined the entire experience.

“Yeah, sure.” I was mad and I felt bad for it. After all, if we had left earlier like I’d wanted, he wouldn’t have been there to help his dad.

It took us ten minutes to walk from our parking spot to the concert. The venue was small and there wasn’t assigned seating, but when we discreetly entered the auditorium, there weren’t any open seats available which forced us to stand in the back.

There was a young guy around my age, maybe slightly older, playing the piano on stage. He had short dark hair and wore trendy glasses. He was wearing a charcoal suit and an equally dark tie. Even at this distance I could tell the musician was passionate about his music. The song he played invoked a heavy feeling of sadness mixed in with such frustration that I found myself tensing up in response. The tightness in my chest caused by his music was so strong that I couldn’t tell if the emotions were my own or his. Listening to someone play with such passion was like getting a front row seat to the inner workings of their heart. I found myself instantly drawn to him. I wish we could have been closer. “Hailey-” Braxton started, but I put my hand up to stop him.

“Shh. Not now,” I whispered without looking at him. I was too mesmerized by the pianist’s hands and not at all in the mood to listen to another apology from Braxton. He could wait until after the concert was over.

I knew he didn’t enjoy this sort of thing, but I thought since I never complained about the countless basketball games he dragged me along to that he would at least humor me.

I looked through the program for the name of the pianist on stage. William C. Lancaster.

I’d heard of him before. He was some sort of musical prodigy. He’d made his orchestral debut at the age of seven or something like that.

I could feel Braxton watching me and I knew that he wanted to talk, but I was intent on ignoring him until after the concert. I wasn’t going to miss any more of the concert because of him.

After the concert was over, Braxton reached for my hand as we walked out into the lobby.

“It was good. Especially that piano guy,” Braxton said. I couldn’t tell if he was just trying to suck up or if he’d actually ended up enjoying it more than he thought he would. If I had to guess, I’d say he was just sucking up.

“Yeah, well, sorry you wasted your evening.”

“It wasn’t wasted. Just because this music stuff isn’t my thing, doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy spending time with you.” He kissed my forehead and I felt the ice start to melt. I really didn’t want to be mad at him on my last night in town.

“I wasn’t exactly nice to you,” I said.

“It’s my fault we missed part of the concert. I wouldn’t have been very nice to me either.” He smiled. “True.” I nudged him with my shoulder and couldn’t help but smile a little. I was being dumb. It wasn’t like he’d purposely tried to ruin my night and it wasn’t exactly very considerate of me to choose an activity I knew he had no interest in. We should have just stuck with something more neutral like dinner and a movie. “William C. Lancaster was brilliant.” “Should I be worried?” he asked seriously.

“Worried about what?” I asked, unsure of what he could possibly have to be worried about.

“About you falling in love with the Piano Man.” He cracked a smile.

“Ha, hardly.” I rolled my eyes at him. “It’s not like I’d ever have the chance to actually meet the guy,” I teased.

“That’s reassuring.”

I stood on the tip of my toes so I could reach his cheek and gave him a kiss. “Don’t worry about that, I tend to go for the good boy-next-door type.”

“It’s a good thing I live next door then, huh?” He kissed me and then asked, “Wanna grab dessert somewhere?”

“Cheesecake Factory?” I suggested. “We can grab some to take back to your mom.” “She won’t eat it.” His face darkened and his shoulders hunched forward. “I don’t know what it is, but it’s different this time.”

This was his mom’s third round of chemo, but it was the strongest. I wasn’t sure how much more her frail little body could take and I knew that Braxton was thinking the same thing. I gave his hand a comforting squeeze and smiled as brightly as I could manage. He’d been there for me after my mom had left, offering me constant support as I struggled to come to terms with being abandoned by the person who was supposed to love me unconditionally, and then of course dealing with my dad’s resulting downward spiral. Braxton’s family had become my unofficial adoptive family. It was their home in which I spent the holidays and enjoyed family dinners. Only in the Douglas home did I feel loved again.

“She never turns down cheesecake.” I put on my best optimistic smile. “Come on. I’m sure there is bound to be a flavor she hasn’t tried yet. That’s sure to spark an interest.”

“Maybe you’re right,” he replied with a dubious sigh.

We walked the few blocks to The Cheesecake Factory hand in hand. Braxton and I ordered our usuals (cherry for me, key lime for him) then we picked out a sinful looking caramel apple cheesecake for his mom. Before she’d gotten sick, it had been a game for her to try a different kind every time she came here. I hoped the memory of that tradition would perk her up enough to enjoy at least a few bites.

It was after midnight by the time we made it back to Southlake. Braxton walked me to my door and kissed me goodbye.

“I’ll put this in the fridge and try to get her to eat it for breakfast in the morning.” “I hope she’s okay.”

“Me too.” He sighed and then pulled me into his arms for another long hug. “I don’t know what I’m going to do without you.”

“You’ll still have me. I’ll just be a little further away than the house next door.”

“I know, but it won’t feel the same,” he said almost sadly. “I feel like everything is going to change.”

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t know. I’m being dumb. I’ll see you tomorrow, okay?”

“Okay. Goodnight.”

“Goodnight.”

As I entered my dark and quiet house, I couldn’t help but agree that everything was about to change. My whole life was about to change. I felt like I had been trapped in a cage for the last few years and tomorrow, I’d finally break free.

Chapter Two

Chase

Choices.

Choices were what had led me to this low point in my life. A bunch of messed up, fucked up choices that had set me on a destructive, down-spiraling path for life.

Well, according to my parents, anyway.

“You could be doing so much more with your life. You’re not unintelligent, Chase.” My dad sat at the head of the table, drinking one of his expensive wines out of an equally expensive, fancy wine glass as he told me all the things I’d done wrong in my short, twenty years in this world.

My mom sat to the right of Dad, the elegant bun on her head bobbing as she nodded in agreement at his words. “Your father’s right, dear.”

As I stared back at my parents, I couldn’t help noticing how much I resembled both of them. Dad’s dark brown hair and angular jaw; Mom’s hazel-green eyes and olive complexion. It was amazing that I was nothing like either them.

“Yeah, whatever,” I said with a shrug. I’d heard the same crap over and over again for years so it wasn’t like any of this was new to me.

My older sister, Cecilia, was on Dad’s left, also dressed impeccably in a navy kneelength skirt and a white blouse. She was fidgeting with her wavy, brown hair—that was the exact shade as mine—looking like she’d rather be anywhere but here.

Hell, I’d rather be getting my wisdom teeth pulled out than be sitting here at Sunday lunch with my parents. It had become this stupid tradition in our family ever since I’d moved out after graduating high school. It was like my parents thought that eating together once a week would magically turn us into a normal family who liked each other.

Mom and Dad were a unit who agreed on everything, especially when it came to me and all the wrong choices I’d made for myself, starting with my decision to major in Music at Oakdale University. It had been two years and they still weren’t over it.

The other thing they really couldn’t get over was my choice to be the lead singer of Set the Flames, the pop punk band my best friend, Jonathan Flick, and I had started together as juniors in high school.

But, honestly, when had I ever really given a fuck what they thought about me and my choices? Heck, I did most of this stuff intentionally just to piss them off, because according to them you weren’t good enough if you didn’t have a Law degree like them, or at the very least a boring, stuffy, nine-to-five corporate job.

Cecilia had managed to avoid their criticism by giving in and doing what they wanted her

to. But that wasn’t me. I wasn’t a follower. I did things my way. Even if they didn’t turn out so well for me in the end, at least I was making my own mistakes.

Compared to Cecilia and her recent promotion to partner at a prestigious law firm, I was the disappointment. The struggling musician. The one who could barely afford to scrape through

college without his parents’ help. To them I was a failure. Well, fuck them.

“We only want the best for you, Chase.”

In an attempt to appease me, Mom slid the dish of sweet potatoes my way. She wasn’t a carbs kinda woman, and I knew she only made them for our weekly lunches because she knew how much I loved them.

“Yeah, I know.” My voice was just as flat as my response as I met Mom’s disapproving eyes with a blank stare. “You want the best for me, you don’t want to see me making bad choices, and I’m wasting my life pursuing a Music degree, blah, blah.”

“We’re just trying to give you good advice,” Dad said, frowning at me. “Take for example your relationship with Heather. You were with her for three years and we kept telling you she was all wrong for you and look what happened. You should’ve just listened to us and-” I’d told myself that I wouldn’t let them get to me, but that was the final straw. My break up with Heather was still fresh in my mind—those wounds were still bleeding and had yet to scar over. They had no reason to bring her up. It was a low blow.

“Fuck this shit,” I said, standing up so quickly that my chair fell to the floor with a loud clatter. My parents and sister shot to their feet, alarm ringing clear across their faces. But I didn’t care. The only thing I was aware of was the pounding in my ears. The same pounding I’d felt the day things had ended for Heather and me. “Chase, calm down,” Mom said, trying to reach out for me.

“Don’t tell me to calm down!” I pulled myself out of her reach and stared around the table at them. “I sit at this table every week and put up with endless shit from both of you. You tell me the same crap every Sunday, but you do not get to rub my relationship with Heather in my face.”

Dad actually looked troubled as he started to walk around the table to me. “Chase, all I was trying to say was that you are so much better without her. She was all wrong for you.”

The reason they thought Heather had been all wrong for me was because she dressed too scantily for my conservative parents and had decided to pursue an Arts degree instead of something more “practical” that my parents approved of. She was also an alcoholic whore who smoked a lot of weed, but that was something I’d never liked about her either.

“Yeah, well maybe I don’t need to hear that right now. Maybe I need you guys to actually support me for once.” I began walking toward the front door before Dad could reach me. Once I’d wrenched it open, I turned to Mom and shot her a tight smile. “Thank you for lunch. The sweet potatoes were excellent as always.”

Then I stormed out into the sweltering heat and headed toward my beat up car, which made me smile because I’d paid for it myself without my parents help. It was a piece of shit, but it was my piece of shit.

“Chase!” There were hurried footsteps behind me, and I turned around to find Cecilia coming after me.

I immediately stopped and waited for her to reach me. I had nothing against my sister. She was the only one who really supported me and my music and tried to make it to as many of my shows as she could.

“Are you okay?” Cecilia swept her hair to the side, looking over me in concern. “I’m really sorry about them. I know how critical Mom and Dad can get, but they really do think they’re helping you by saying all those things.”

“Well, they’re not helping,” I muttered, staring around at the wealthy neighborhood that my parents lived in. You could tell from a glance the kind of people who lived in this gated community of Kansas City—they had a lot of money and they weren’t afraid to flaunt it.

“I know and they really shouldn’t have brought up all that stuff about Heather, but in their own way I think they were trying to say that they’re happy you’re not with her.”

“Well, they need to stop because I don’t need them to tell me how to live my life.”

“I’ll talk to them about giving you a break.” Cecilia sighed, blowing out a breath. “I know it hasn’t been easy for you after the break up. Three years is a long time, but your relationship with Heather was completely toxic. I was worried you would end up marrying that nightmare and that we’d be stuck with her forever.”

“Cici, not you too,” I groaned, running a hand over my short hair.

Cecilia held up her hands in surrender as a smile crept onto her face. “I’m sorry, I really didn’t mean to talk about it. I just wanted to tell you that I’ll be at one of your upcoming shows and that I love you and that I would like to give my baby brother a big hug.” She held out her arms and grinned at me expectantly.

A small smile crept onto my face as I stepped into Cecilia’s outstretched arms and wrapped my own arms around her. “You know I’m too old for hugs, right?”

“You’re never too old for hugs, little brother.”

“I need to get out of here,” I said, letting go of her. “Every time I come back, I feel suffocated, like I’m going backwards instead of moving forward.”

Cecilia’s eyes were sad as she studied me. “I know it’s hard, Chase, especially when Mom and Dad aren’t supportive, but don’t let that hold you back.”

“I know, I won’t.”

I gave her another quick hug and got into my car. As I drove away from my parents’ house, I could feel the tension in my body loosen with the increasing distance as though a noose was slowly being unraveled from my neck. My sister was right though—I couldn’t let them hold me back forever.

I finally calmed down once I got out of my parents’ neighborhood and continued driving through the city toward Lenexa, the Kansas City suburb where I shared an apartment with Jonathan. Apart from being my best friend and drummer in the band, he was also my roommate. We’d started living together three years ago after finishing high school.

The apartment wasn’t anything special—actually it was kind of a shithole—and had come furnished with all the basic furniture that we needed—beds, couches, and a fridge. The carpet was stained, the paint was starting to peel, and there was an underlying musky odor throughout the apartment. Between our part-time jobs at the local music store, this was all we could afford.

When I walked into the apartment, Jonathan was already there lounging on the couch with his feet hanging over the edge. Anyone who’d known him as a sophomore in high school wouldn’t recognize him anymore. He’d transformed from a blue-eyed, blonde-haired, chubby teenager into a lean, muscular rocker.

Jonathan not only had the customary tattoos and piercings that most guys in bands had— he also had an awesome Mohawk. And it was bright blue. Dude definitely stood out in a crowd.

“Hey,” I greeted him. “Did you get the flyers posted?”

We had a show coming up on the weekend in a local bar and since I’d had to go to

Sunday lunch, Jonathan had volunteered to post flyers around campus to attract the students.

Really, though, I think it was just an excuse for him to scope out the incoming freshman girls. Jonathan jerked his head up and a grin spread across his face. “Dude, you should’ve come with me. I got this freshman’s number. She was hot as hell. I helped her take her boxes in and told her to come watch us perform.”

Even though Jonathan looked like the kind of guy parents didn’t want their daughters dating, a lot of girls were into the way he looked and he was never single for very long. Too bad his relationships didn’t last very long either.

“That’s cool,” I said as I sat down on the armchair across from him. “Did you tell her to invite her friends?”

“Yeah, I did. I bet she has a hot friend you could befriend.” Jonathan raised his eyebrows up and down suggestively.

“You know I’m not looking to get involved with anyone after Heather.”

“I get that, but the only way to move on from that crazy is to find someone else. Or to just have a lot of sex. That always works.”

I knew what Jonathan was saying was probably right, but after being with Heather for three years, I felt drained. I didn’t have any energy left to invest in another relationship, even if it was just casual sex.

It just didn’t seem worth it if someone could completely tear you apart in a matter of seconds. That was something I wasn’t willing to let happen again, even if Jonathan did have a point.

What I needed to do was focus on my music and make sure I did well in my classes. I wanted to make a name for myself and prove my parents wrong. That wasn’t going to happen if I

let another girl into my life just so I could be broken apart again.

Chapter Three

Hailey

“Are you sure you want to do this?” Braxton asked me for probably the hundredth time today as he set the last of my boxes down on the unclaimed twin bed in this fun-sized room. Seriously. I was pretty sure my bathroom at home was bigger than my new living quarters—and that was saying something.

“Live a whole hour away from you instead of right next door? Of course not.” I wrapped my arms around his waist and buried my face into his chest, inhaling his familiar scent. “But you know that I don’t really have a choice. I have to live on campus to get my scholarship. And I need this scholarship.”

I had spent the last few months trying to find a loophole, but it was no use. Oakdale University had strict rules and regulations when it came to the few scholarships that they handed out. I had no choice but to live on campus for at least two years. Me. In a dorm room with a complete stranger. I knew most people wanted to go away to college and get the entire college experience. I was most certainly not one of them.

I just wanted to graduate with as little exposure to co-eds, beer pong, and keggers as possible.

“I know,” he sighed then kissed the top of my head. “Still on for lunch Sunday?”

“Of course.” I smiled at him. “It’s almost eight, you should probably head back. I can unpack the rest myself.”

We only lived an hour from campus, but he didn’t like to be away from home too long in case his mom needed him.

“Are you sure you don’t need any help?”

“Yep, I’m sure. It’ll actually help to calm me down about tomorrow.” Tomorrow was freshman orientation which I was very nervous about, so I was hoping that the methodical routine of organizing my things and making this place more like home would distract me and help me to feel more settled. You would think that at eighteen-years-old I would be over the typical first day of school jitters. But this was different. This was college and I wasn’t really sure what to expect, which was a little nerve racking. I didn’t handle the unexpected very well.

“Okay. I’ll pick you up this weekend?”

“Sounds good.”

“I love you, Hailey Peters.”

“I love you, too.” He kissed me. “Have a good first day of school.” He kissed me again before leaving me alone in my box-filled dorm room.

I sat down on the thin mattress that would be my bed for the next year and took a look around. The room screamed institution with its cream colored cinder block walls and generic beige colored floor tiles. I made a mental note to pick up an area rug ASAP. If I was going to be stuck here for the next year I was at least going to attempt to make it as homey as possible.

A small window on one wall separated a pair of identical twin beds which faced two empty closets on the opposite wall. Braxton had helped me set up my desk since it was too heavy for me to lift by myself and it didn’t go unnoticed that it was the only desk so far in the room.

My unidentified roommate was nowhere in sight, but she had obviously been here at some point because her side of the room was piled high with boxes as well. I tried not to judge as I compared my neatly sorted stacks to the jumbled pile of unlabeled boxes and trash bags strewn haphazardly across her area. With no markings to distinguish one box from another, I wondered how she was going to possibly find anything without sifting through each package one by one. I scrunched up my nose in disgust. This clearly was a bad idea. I wished freshmen were allowed private rooms.

To distract myself while I waited for the Mystery Slob to appear, I started to unload my own boxes and put everything away. Because I had taken the time to pack carefully and label everything, it only took me about an hour to unpack and organize my entire side of the room. It took all of my self-control not to start organizing the roommate’s belongings as well.

Classes officially started in two days and I still wasn’t sure what my final schedule was going to be. I’d get that tomorrow at orientation. I hated that I had to wait until last minute to get my books— that was the whole point of enrolling early so I had ample time to prepare.

I knew when I enrolled early over the summer that I might not get the classes I wanted as an incoming freshman. My adviser warned me that upperclassmen got first dibs, but there was always a chance that someone would drop so I’d taken the risk. I wanted my schedule so I could start planning the remaining seven semesters between now and graduation. The earlier I had it in my hands, the better.

I had printed my schedule out weeks ago and placed it in its rightful location inside my three-ring planner only to find out last week that I didn’t get into one of my pre-selected classes so I was forced to choose a different elective.

This really threw a wrench into my entire four-year plan.

After spending hours scouring through the catalog and drafting countless pros and cons lists and references back to the requirements for my major versus which classes were still available (just to be sure I didn’t miss an important one), I finally decided to go with Music Composition. I knew it was completely illogical, but if I had to choose between an extra math class and a music class, well, the latter was a hundred times more preferable despite the more practical nature of the first.

At least I liked music.

Okay, so I actually loved music. I loved playing the piano and my acoustic guitar— sometimes I even sang in the shower, but I’d never considered taking a music class.

My love for it had always been very private—my own personal form of therapy. I wasn’t too keen on the idea of sharing that piece of me with anyone else, especially complete strangers, but I figured at least I had a basic understanding of music composition so it would allow me time to focus on my other classes which was a major plus.

I decided to go shower and get ready for bed since it was getting late and I had to be in room 609 at 8am sharp tomorrow for orientation. I grabbed my purple plastic basket of toiletries, put on my robe, and slipped on my designated bathroom flip flops before making my way down to the communal bathroom.

Lucky for me, no one else was showering so it was almost as good as being in my own bathroom, though not quite. When I finished, I twisted a towel around my long mousey brown hair to keep from dripping down the hall to my room.

On the way, I passed a couple of giggling girls and a guy who was so brawny I would guess him to be on the football team.

“Hi,” one of the bubbly blondes squealed with a dramatic wave.

“Hi.” I smiled back politely but didn’t make eye contact as I made a determined beeline for my room. I wasn’t anti-social, but I definitely wasn’t comfortable having a conversation with strangers in my bathrobe.

“You must be Hailey Peters!” A tall, super-model thin girl with tight auburn ringlets and big brown eyes greeted me cheerfully as I reached my door. “I’m Tessa Rowe! It’s so nice to finally meet you!”

Then she threw her arms around me, trapping my arms at my sides. My new roommate was a hugger. She let go only a second later, but it was a second too long for me considering this was the first time we’d met. We had exchanged a few emails to determine which items each of us would bring to the room per the recommendation of the university. They suggested this in order to prevent doubles of big things like televisions and mini-refrigerators. “Um, hi. It’s nice to meet you,” I replied awkwardly.

“How long have you been here? I mean, I got here this afternoon and I’m still not unpacked! I got distracted when I met a couple of guys. One lives on this floor. He’s all the way from Miami, Florida! Can you imagine leaving Florida for the Midwest? I’d take a beach over cornfields any day. The other one—Jonathan—he’s in a band! He invited me to come see his band play on Saturday. Do you want to come?”

“Maybe.” I shrugged, but I don’t think she really heard me anyway.

“How did you get unpacked so quickly? I would’ve been here earlier, but I went out to dinner with some girls on the floor. I feel bad that you had to bring all your boxes up by yourself. I would’ve helped.” Tessa talked fast; really fast, like she was worried that if she didn’t say everything she wanted to say right this minute, the opportunity would slide right through her fingertips.

“My boyfriend helped carry the boxes, but he left a couple of hours ago.”

“Oh! A boyfriend! Tell me all about him.”

“Um, okay? Can I get dressed first?”

“Sure, go ahead! I’m not shy.”

Apparently, it didn’t matter that I was. I considered investing in a room divider just to have some semblance of privacy.

“Well, um, his name is Braxton.” I turned away so my back was to her. I pulled on my pajama pants before taking my robe off. Then I quickly shrugged into the matching cami before turning back around. “We’ve been together for, um, I guess almost five years now.”

“Say what?!” She was in the middle of taking a drink of the Mountain Dew in her hand and spewed it everywhere. Charming.

I grabbed the Clorox wipes from the top shelf of my closet and handed her a few, then started wiping up the mess myself before it got all sticky and attracted ants.

Half-heartedly dabbing at the puddles she asked, “You’ve seriously been together since you were fourteen? Seriously?”

“Seriously.” I knew that Braxton and I had a unique relationship, but back home everyone was used to it so it wasn’t that big of a deal. Clearly, Tessa thought otherwise. “Wow. That’s amazing. Didn’t you ever want to date anyone else?” “Not really.” I shrugged.

“Never?”

“Nope.”

“But you must know everything about him!”

“I do know everything about him.” And I was pretty proud of that fact.

“I just think that would be so boring. Do you miss the butterflies? The beautiful kind of jittery feeling you get when you know you are about to see him?”

I wasn’t really sure what butterflies she was talking about. I had read about girls getting all giddy over a boy, but I always thought that was just in books and fairy tales—at least I had never experienced it. I was pretty sure stuff like that didn’t happen in real life. It didn’t seem at all realistic or beautiful for that matter—it kind of seemed like it would be a little unpleasant to tell the truth. Who wanted flying insects fluttering around in their stomach?

“I guess not. But that’s why I like it. It’s comfortable.”

She just looked at me disbelievingly at first, but then there was a noticeable shift and she said, “He must be pretty great.”

“He is.”

“That must be nice.” She shoved everything off of her bed and flopped down. She lay unmoving for several minutes and I kept thinking that at any second she was going to hop up and start unpacking her things, but when it looked like she might actually fall asleep despite her generous consumption of caffeinated beverage I decided I needed to intervene. For my own sanity.

“Do you want me to help you unpack?” I finally asked because I wasn’t sure how much longer I could stand the chaos.

She eyed me carefully and then shifted her gaze between my neat and tidy side of the room and back at the mess that was hers.

“Is the mess bothering you?” She seemed mildly amused by this.

“A little bit.” I admitted sheepishly.

“OCD?” she asked, and for some reason it didn’t offend me—it actually caused me to crack a smile. Apparently, Tessa didn’t have much of a filter.

“Unofficially diagnosed.”

“Well then, yes, please, by all means, help me unpack and organize the chaos that is my life.” She walked over to the only thing of hers that was unpacked—her laptop—and after a moment of clicking, music started blaring out of the speakers. She must have been rocking out earlier. She turned it down to background level and I recognized the song. It was one I had recently stumbled across by an indie band from the West Coast. Nobody I knew had ever heard of them—nobody except for me and my new roommate anyway. Tessa started singing along and it made me smile.

“You know this song?”

“Hmm?” She turned to look at me. “Oh, yeah. I spent my summer in Oregon visiting family and discovered the band. They’re great, right?”

She continued hanging up her clothes in her closet and though I had to suppress the urge

to color coordinate them, I couldn’t help but think that maybe this year wouldn’t be so bad after all.

Chapter Four

Chase

So I was sitting in my Music Composition class feeling kind of content.

It was the only class I’d been looking forward to because, well, I was majoring in Music and it was kind of my life.

There was something about music that gave me a sense of freedom. There were no limits to what I could create. There was nothing holding me back. Music let me be who I really wanted to be. I just wished my parents could understand that.

As I took in the surroundings of the room, my eyes fell on a girl who had just walked into the class. Was that our teacher? She was definitely dressed as the part, even though she looked way too young.

I studied her in disbelief as it hit me that she was a student. She had on a sweater and a collared shirt on underneath it. She was wearing a knee-length pleated skirt that looked like it’d been ironed. Like with an actual iron.

Dude, who the fuck bothered to iron anymore?

The entire outfit was finished off with black leggings and brown Mary Jane’s that were almost the exact same color as the pleated skirt. Way too much effort had gone into coordinating that outfit. Seriously, who had the time to worry about that crap?

And it wasn’t even attractive. I mean, to be fair the girl wasn’t bad to look at. She was tall, had long brown hair, a pretty face, and as she turned to take a seat at the front of the room, I could tell that she was curvaceous and had booty.

Damn. She was completely my type. Too bad she dressed like a librarian.

My attention shifted to the front as the professor walked in. She was one of the younger

faculty and I’d seen her around before. From what I’d heard she wasn’t a hard ass, so this was going to be a pretty easy class to pass.

Professor Thomas—that was her name—began by describing the project we would be working on this semester. At first, I was stoked to learn it was a songwriting assignment, but when she announced that we would need to find a partner to work with, my enthusiasm disappeared quickly.

Great. That was the last thing I wanted to do. I hated doing assignments with someone else or in a group. You never knew who you were going to end up with and how much effort they would put in. Especially when it came to a class like this that was actually important to me.

As I glanced around the room, I saw that everyone was already pairing up. A couple of the other students shot me looks of apprehension, like they didn’t know what to make of the big, tatted up guy sitting in the back of the room.

My eyes fell on Librarian Girl—her head was bowed, but I could see that she was chewing on her bottom lip and looking completely uncomfortable. That was the universal sign for “I don’t want to be partnered with anyone”.

A smile crept onto my face as I realized that she was probably hoping that she wouldn’t have to pair up with anyone if she was the only one left without a partner. That’d kind of been my plan, too. I wanted to do this on my own and I didn’t need anyone holding me back.

My smile quickly disappeared when it hit me that everyone had paired up and that Librarian Girl and me were the only two left unmatched.

Professor Thomas walked over to Librarian Girl and pointed toward me. The girl glanced back at me and nodded reluctantly at the professor before grabbing her things and heading my way.

Shit.

She stopped at the desk next to mine and seemed nervous as she made eye contact with me. “Professor Thomas said that we should pair up since there’s no one else left in the class.”

“Sure, whatever.”

I hadn’t meant to sound so brash, but I could tell from the way her eyes grew wide for a second that I’d come across as a jerk. Great. Just what I needed for the rest of the semester—to be stuck with a girl who was sensitive as hell. “I’m Chase,” I said, in an effort to redeem myself.

Librarian Girl bit down on her bottom lip again and that’s when I noticed how green her eyes were. I’d never seen a girl with eyes so green before, and I took a moment to admire them. This girl had a lot going for her.

“I’m Hailey.”

“Cool,” I said with a nod.

Hailey gave me a tight smile and began arranging her things on the desk. I watched in amusement as she placed red, blue, and black pens on one corner of the desk and then proceeded to set her notebook on the opposite corner. Finally, she pulled out a planner, uncapped the blue pen, and began scribbling away furiously in it.

What the hell? Who had time to keep a planner these days? Was this chick Amish or something? Didn’t she know that an iPad organized shit way better?

Maybe Hailey was anal retentive. No one organized stuff like that except for my parents. And they were fifty. Things like that really pissed me off. Why did some people have to have a goddamn plan for everything? Why couldn’t they just let life come to them?

I could already tell that this Hailey girl and I weren’t going to get along, but somehow I had to make it work if I wanted to do well in this class.

I leaned in toward her. “Uh, so what kind of music are you into?”

Hailey jerked away from me and slammed her planner shut as though she’d been caught doing something she wasn’t supposed to be. This girl was seriously weird. Her cheeks were starting to flush a little. “I, um, I like indie-stuff— ” “You mean that artsy-fartsy shit?” I interrupted her.

“Yeah, I guess someone like you would think that.” She rolled her eyes at me. “I don’t know, I guess I like just about everything— ”

“Even country?” I interrupted her again.

“If the lyrics are good.” She shrugged defensively before continuing, “I’ll listen to pretty much anything except that screaming crap that tries to masquerade itself as music.” She eyed me up and down. “I can only imagine what kind of music you listen to.”

“I like rock, punk rock, heavy metal, stuff like that.”

Hailey made a face like I’d told her that I liked to skin puppies. “Why am I not surprised?

How can you like that stuff? It just sounds like noise to me.”

My eyebrows shot up. “It sounds like noise to you? Well, clearly you know nothing about music.” Hailey’s nostrils flared a little and she shot me a deathly glare. “I know enough about music to know when something is good, and the loud, banging drums and banshee screeching is not good.”

Holy shit. Had she seriously just referred to my favorite genre of music as screeching? Yep, this was definitely not going to work out. Hell no. This stuck-up girl—attractive or not— was not going to be my partner.

“You know what else isn’t good?” I stared her down. “People who are pretentious.” Hailey’s cheeks flushed and she narrowed her eyes at me before dropping her head and continuing to write furiously in that planner of hers.

Jesus. Of course I had to get stuck with the weird, anal retentive girl.

Chapter Five

Hailey

When I walked out of my Music Composition class, I was fuming. What a jackass! I generally thought I was the kind of person who was able to get along with most people—but I had zero tolerance for rude people and slackers, and Chase was obviously both.

I couldn’t believe that he had the nerve to show up to class wearing a shirt with the sleeves cut off and holey jeans. He must be pretty proud of his massively huge tattoo covered arms to show them off like that. I had never seen arms that big before—they didn’t even look real. He probably did a lot of steroids. I bet if he wanted to, he could crush me with those suckers—not that I would ever let him close enough to touch me.

He was probably expecting me to do all the work on this project while he sat back and relaxed. Well, if this punk thought that I was some sort of push over that would allow that to happen, he was about to be sorely disappointed.

This pairing was a disaster waiting to happen. I couldn’t believe I was going to be stuck writing a song with the likes of him. I mean, seriously? How could he honestly think that that screeching crap was music? You couldn’t even hear a damn word they were singing— if you could even call it singing. It was more like screaming into a microphone if you asked me.

I knew that some people thought that just the actual music alone was powerful enough to convey emotion, but my favorite part had always been the lyrics. It was always the words in the songs that reached out to me and made me feel like I wasn’t alone.

I just didn’t think that music was the same without lyrics. The only time that music alone had ever been able to make me feel anything was while watching William C. Lancaster perform.

I’d definitely felt something when I’d listened to him, but he was the rare exception to the rule.

While watching him, you could tell that he felt everything he was playing and I think that made all the difference. I could feel his passion.

Punk rockers definitely did not convey passion. It was ludicrous that Chase actually thought so. Anyone could jump up and down and scream— it wasn’t like it was hard or at all impressive. Did punk rockers even put thought into their lyrics? I doubted it and that was the reason I didn’t care for that type of music. It wasn’t at all poetic.

The idea of putting poetry to music, adding another dimension to the emotion bringing the intensity to a whole new level— God, why couldn’t I do that? Sometimes, all I wanted in the entire world was just to be able to create something that would make people stop and press their hands over their hearts and just know exactly what I was feeling because they felt it too.

But that was just me being stupid. I’d never have time to actually create anything like that. I had a plan for my future and it didn’t involve wasting my time with such emotional nonsense. I had goals. I needed to focus on graduating with a business degree and securing a good job with benefits in a company that I could easily make a life-long career with.

That’s what I needed: security. After growing up the way I did— abandoned by my mother as a child, and then neglected by the only parent I had left— was it really any wonder that stability was what I craved most of all?

I knew from all of those hours I’d spent researching college majors that a business degree was pretty much universal—you could do anything with a business degree. At least that’s what I was counting on. Because for all my planning, I still had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up.

This music class wasn’t even a requirement for my major. It was just an elective so it shouldn’t matter that I was stuck with the worst possible partner for the one major assignment we would have all semester. As long as I passed the class that was all that I should care about but for some reason I was annoyed. Okay, I was pissed off. This jerk, who obviously didn’t know a damn thing about music, was criticizing my taste? At least I had taste.

And I was not freaking pretentious!

I angrily jammed the key in the door to my dorm room and threw it open with more force than strictly necessary as though assaulting the door would make me feel better. It didn’t.

“Whoa there, Killer,” Tessa said from where she was laying on her bed plowing through an entire package of Oreos. How on earth did she stay so damn skinny eating the way she does? I had one cookie and I couldn’t even button my pants. My ass was its own freaking continent. “Bad day?” she asked with an amused grin.

I grunted noncommittally as I plopped down on my desk chair and opened up my planner. I checked a few things off of my Daily To-Do list in a vain attempt to stop thinking about the tattooed freak who I, unfortunately by some twist of fate, had been paired up with.

“Want a cookie?” She held over the box of cookies.

I glared at her and her box of offensive double-stuffed cookies.

“Dude, what happened?” she asked, more concerned now than amused.

“I don’t want to talk about it.

“Okay, so you won’t eat my cookies and you won’t talk to me about it. I think you missed the memo about this whole roommates-equal-best-friends-forever thing.” “It’s nothing. I’m getting worked up over nothing. It doesn’t even matter”

“Obviously, it matters if you’re this upset by it.”

I was incapable of holding back any longer. The words came spewing up out of my mouth fast and furious like the spray shooting from soda bottle that had been shaken vigorously and then opened to release the built up pressure— yeah, it wasn’t pretty.

“It’s just this stupid jerk I got paired up with in my Music Composition class. He seems like the total slacker type who couldn’t give a crap about whether he passes the class or not. He probably just took the class because he thought it’d be an easy A.” I left out the fact that I had similar thoughts when choosing the music class over the math class. “We’re supposed to write a song together and we have absolutely nothing in common and it just pisses me off that I’m going to end up doing all the work and I’m going to have to share the credit with him.” “That’s it?” she asked carefully.

“Yeah,” I said, feeling stupid. “That’s all. See? I’m just being dumb. It’s not even an important class so I just need to get over myself.”

“Maybe he just makes horrible first impressions. You can’t know for sure that he’s a slacker after only one class.”

“He’s covered in tattoos,” I said meaningfully.

“Oh my God, Hailey! Don’t be a snob! That doesn’t mean anything!” She laughed. “Hell, I have tattoos!”

She stood up, turning around so her back was to me and started pulling down her pants.

“Whoa!” I put my hands up over my eyes. “What are you doing?”

“Just showing you that not everyone with tats is a freak.”

I removed my hands from my face and gave her a look that plainly stated that I was still undecided about whether she was a freak or not. She rolled her eyes and promptly pulled up her pants.

“I guess it just makes me nervous having to write a song with somebody else.”

Her phone started vibrating loudly. Her face lit up as she looked at the number on the screen.

“Sorry,” she said with a guilty expression. “Hold on just one sec.” She belly-flopped onto the top of her bed answering with a girlish, “Hello?”

I watched her smile grow wider as the person on the other end of the phone spoke. It was a largely one sided conversation as she managed to get out some, “Uh-huhs” and “Yeahs” and finally a “Sounds perfect.”

She ended the call and flipped over on her back kicking her legs into the air squealing,

“He asked me out!”

“Who?”

“Jonathan!” She said it like I should know who that was. “The guy I told you about that was passing out flyers for his concert next week, remember? He asked if I would come watch his band play and then hang out afterward. Do you want to come with?”

“I don’t know. Maybe. It depends on how much homework I have.”

“C’mon! You have to! It’ll be fun.”

“That’s debatable.” I sighed. “What kind of music do they play?”

“Who cares? He’s in a band! That’s hot even if they suck.”

“I’m going to have to disagree with that sentiment.”

“I think he said he’s the drummer. Maybe he can hook you up with the lead guitarist!”

“Boyfriend, remember?”

“Oh, yeah. How could I forget? THE Boyfriend,” she said mockingly. “You really should come with me. He said they write all their own songs. Hey! Maybe they could help you with the song for your Music Composition class?”

“Yeah, I don’t think so.”

“Seriously though, it’s like Girl Code; as my roomie, you have to come with me.”

“Fine. Whatever. But I reserve the right to tell him they suck if in fact, they do suck. And I’m bringing Braxton so none of the other band guys get the wrong idea. I’m not going to be some groupie.”

“Famous last words.”

“Yeah, yeah.” I turned my attention back to my planner and started writing out my To-Do list for tomorrow.

“What are you doing?” Tessa asked, peering over my shoulder. This was the second time today that someone had been nosy about my planner.

“Nothing.”

“Is that a planner? Like a real life planner?”

“As opposed to a fictional one?” I asked sarcastically.

“Why don’t you get an iPad or something? It’s way more efficient.”

“I don’t know, I guess I like to actually write stuff down with good ole fashion pen and paper.” And besides, how was I supposed to afford something like an iPad when my lovely father had managed to lose all of my money and I didn’t have a job yet?

My financial aid refund check could not come soon enough. I hated that I had to take out

excess student loans, but my dad left me with no choice. I didn’t have any bills. Braxton’s parents had put me on their family mobile plan so I at least had a cell phone, and the meal plan was included in my tuition so I didn’t have to buy food, but until refund checks came in I had about twenty bucks to my name

My scholarship paid for my tuition but it didn’t cover the cost of my books so I was going to have to take out a small loan anyway. Since I qualified for a lot more than I needed, I went ahead and accepted a larger amount knowing that the school would give me whatever was left after my semester tuition and books were paid for.

I didn’t want to do it of course, all of my researching told me to avoid student loans but I felt like it was my only option. This way I would at least have some money to help me pay for any extra expenses that might come up until I was able to get a job. I didn’t want to have to work full-time and try to go to school but I definitely needed to start looking for a part-time job if I wanted to save up and buy a car.

I was ashamed to admit that I wasn’t more prepared for the real world. Of course, why would I think about stuff like money for a car and tuition when I knew I had a college fund waiting for me when I turned eighteen? I was going to buy a car over the summer when I finally had access to the account then go off to school with Braxton in the fall and live happily ever after.

I never even considered the possibility that my own dad would steal from me and leave me with nothing.

It was pretty depressing actually, but it made me all the more determined to work hard and create a life for myself so I never had to worry about money or depend on anyone ever again.

Chapter Six

Chase

We were at Zach’s house as usual for band practice. The show coming up on the weekend was important so we needed all the extra practice time we could get.

Zach Walker, our bass player, was the only one out of us who looked “normal”. By normal, I meant that he had no tattoos, no piercings, and no crazy hairstyle going on. He was tall and broad-shouldered with dark blonde hair and blue eyes. It wasn’t any surprise that girls were all over him after shows.

Since we were just hanging around waiting for our guitarist, Deuce Worthington, to show up, I figured I might as well tell the guys about Hailey.

“So get this, right?” I started to say, “My partner for my Music Comp assignment is this stuck up, anal retentive girl.”

Zach laughed. “Okay, and why is she all those things?”

“She thinks this kind of music,” I gestured around the room, “is noise.”

“That’s dumb,” Jonathan said, “Is she hot?”

I shrugged. “She’s okay. Nice ass and big tits.”

“Those are the best parts about a woman,” Zach said with a wink.

“Yeah, but she dresses like she’s forty, and she has this stupid planner with her. She’s one of those girls who thinks they’re too good for everyone, so that cancels out tits and ass.”

“Hell no.” Zach shook his head, his expression serious. “Nothing ever cancels out tits and ass.”

I was about to say something in agreement, but Jonathan spoke first. “Uh, guys, Deuce just texted me. He said he’s not gonna be able to make it.”

“What do you mean he’s not gonna make it?”

I was trying to stay calm, but inside I was starting to get pissed off. This was bullshit.

“I dunno.” Jonathan shrugged as he leaned back against his seat. “All he said was that he was busy doing stuff and couldn’t make it today.”

Dude, seriously, what the fuck? We couldn’t perform well as a band if the freaking guitarist failed to show up to practice the day before a show. This wasn’t the first time Deuce had bailed on us last minute. He’d been missing practice on and off for the past few months.

Seriously, I didn’t know what his deal was. One minute he claimed he was really passionate about our music and wanted to grow with the band, but then the next minute he acted like a douchebag and skipped out on practice. What was with that guy?

Zach took a gulp of his beer and snickered. “Yeah, we all know what “doing stuff” really means.”

“What does it mean?” Was I missing something here? Was something going on that’d completely gone over my head?

I’d been busy lately, but the last thing I wanted was to be out of touch with the band. That’s how bands fell apart; when one douchebag made it all about himself and didn’t give a shit about the other guys. I didn’t want to be that guy.

“Really, Chase? You haven’t noticed that he smells like sex all the time?” Zach asked, shaking his head in disbelief at me.

You could count on Zach to notice something like “sex smell” on a person. He’d been with so many girls that I’d lost count once he hit the double digits. I didn’t think he’d ever find a girl who could tie him down.

I shook my head. “No, not really. Maybe he has a girlfriend?”

“He’s not the kind of guy to have a steady girlfriend,” Jonathan informed me.

I didn’t know much about Deuce except that he knew his shit when it came to music.

Jonathan had recruited him and they’d hung out in the same crowd, so that’s how he’d ended up replacing our old guitarist, Trey.

“Well, whether he’s out banging someone or studying astronomy, I don’t really care. What pisses me off is that we have a big show tomorrow and he isn’t here to practice. Again. He needs to get serious about this or we’re gonna have to find someone else.”

“Yeah, I’ll talk to him,” Jonathan said. “So this promoter guy’s really gonna be there?”

I nodded as I slung my guitar over my shoulder and ran my hand gently over the strings.

“Yeah, for real. He said he sees potential in us to grow. It’s a pretty big fucking deal so we have to be on our game.”

Last month, a well-known promoter had contacted me and was interested in coming to watch us play live. He was well-connected to people in the music industry and could get us in touch with some pretty important people if we made a good impression on him.

That’s why I couldn’t have Deuce skipping practice and potentially screwing up during a performance. He was good, but he wasn’t that good.

There were so many plans I had for this band, but most of all I just wanted us to be successful. This was something that I was really passionate about. Music wasn’t confining or limited. It didn’t hold me back; it let me escape.

Before Jonathan could say anything, my phone started buzzing in my pocket. I pulled it out and saw that it was my mom calling.

Shit. I didn’t really want to talk to her after our last disastrous Sunday lunch. There wasn’t really anything I had to say to her or my dad that I hadn’t already said. For a second, I seriously considered not answering it, but then a tiny voice in my head told me I’d be an asshole for ignoring my mother.

Putting my guitar aside, I answered my phone, a tightness beginning to form in the center of my chest. “Hey, Mom.”

“Hello, Chase.” She sounded relieved, though I couldn’t really understand why. “I was worried you would ignore my call.”

I sighed. “I seriously considered it.”

Mom chuckled on the other end. “Well, I’m glad you did answer. I know you have an important show coming up tomorrow and I wanted to wish you luck.”

Wow. This was unexpected. Neither of my parents had ever called up to wish me luck before and I’d been doing this for years. This definitely wasn’t normal for them. I had a feeling that whatever Cecilia had said to them after I’d left on Sunday had gotten through to them.

“Well, uh, thanks.”

Mom heaved a sigh on the other end of the line. “Cecilia informed us that some of the things that your father and I said this weekend were out of line.” No shit.

“Uh huh,” I said, prompting her to continue.

“Even though we don’t really understand this music thing you’re doing, and although it sounds like a whole lot of noise to me, I don’t want it to get in the way of our relationship.”

So my mother had a weird way of apologizing, but at least she’d made an attempt. I couldn’t hold it against her for trying.

“Well, thanks, Mom. I appreciate it.”

“So I can look forward to seeing you on Sunday as usual?” She sounded more relieved now that the difficult part of the conversation was done.

“Yes, Mom, I’ll be there at noon, like always.”

“Okay, I love you, Chase.”

“Love you, too.”

I hung up and turned back to Zach and Jonathan who were watching me expectantly. They knew my family well, so there wasn’t a whole lot of explaining needed.

“What did your mom say?” Jonathan asked.

We’d been friends since we were five so he was well aware of what my parents were like. “She was saying sorry for some shit she said last week.”

“Oh yeah? The usual?” Zach asked.

I nodded. “Yeah, and then some crap about Heather. That I was better off without her.

Stuff that I didn’t really need to hear.”

“Well, Heather kinda was a psycho bitch,” Zach stated a matter-of-factly. “So she’s not wrong there.”

“Yeah, I guess.”

My turbulent relationship with Heather hadn’t really been much of a secret. Everyone knew about the frequent impromptu fights that we’d have anywhere and everywhere. And everyone knew how it had ended—she’d cheated on me and then dumped me. Stupid whore.

As I grabbed my guitar, and Jonathan started up a beat on the drums, my mother’s words echoed in my ears: it sounds like a whole lot of noise.

And even though I barely knew her, I couldn’t help but think back to the pretentious girl from my music class who dressed like a librarian and had booty who’d said almost the exact same thing to me.

Damn that booty.

Chapter Seven

Hailey

The concert Tessa wanted to drag me to was tonight so Braxton was picking me up this morning. We were going to spend the day with his family at home then head back here this evening. It was lot of driving back and forth so we decided that he should just spend the night here. Boys obviously weren’t supposed to be in the girls’ rooms after curfew but nobody ever came around to check so we weren’t too worried about it.

Normally I would never break a rule like that, but Braxton really wanted me to spend time with his family today— he said it just wasn’t the same without me there and I really needed him to go to that stupid concert tonight. Tessa was refusing to let me back out—laying on a guilt trip and calling Girl Code. So having him crash here instead of driving back to Southlake in the middle of the night seemed like the best solution.

Tessa said as long as we didn’t have sex while she was in the room she didn’t mind, but if we were going to have sex to at least put my bra on the door so she knew not to barge in. I told her she didn’t have to worry about it. Despite the fact that she may have issues with boundaries, I most definitely did not.

Braxton was supposed to be here at nine to pick me up so I woke up early to shower and get dressed. Tessa was still passed out when I got out of the shower so I tried to get ready as quietly as possible.

I was tip-toeing through the room toward my closet when, as if on cue, my phone started to ring and I nearly tripped over Tessa’s knee high boots she’d left in the middle of the floor trying to answer it before it woke her up. Seriously, out of all of the girls living in the dorms, I

had to be paired up with the messiest one of the bunch. Weren’t those compatibility tests we took prior to dorm assignments supposed to pair us up with a roommate that we were most compatible with?

“Hello?” I answered breathlessly into the phone.

“Hello?” I answered the phone.

“Hey babe, it’s me. Are you ready?”

“Yeah, I’ll be right down,” I whispered. Then, because I couldn’t help myself, I picked up Tessa’s boots and placed them neatly in her overflowing closet.

Braxton was waiting outside the dorm entrance, his tall, lithe frame leaning casually against one of the stone pillars. He had on faded blue jeans and the Basketball State Champions shirt he’d gotten our senior year of high school. He hugged me and gave me a quick peck on the lips.

“Missed you.”

“Missed you, too,” I told him.

The hour long drive back to Southlake was quiet as usual, which was a nice change after spending so much time with my chatterbox roommate. I actually really liked Tessa, but it was nice to just be able to sit and get lost in my own thoughts while in his company. Compatible silence.

When he pulled into his driveway, I couldn’t help but let my eyes wander over to my own house. It felt weird being that close to my childhood home and not having even the slightest inclination to stop by. My dad’s truck wasn’t there— he was probably already at the casino. The thought made me sick to my stomach, but at the same time I was relieved that I never had to go back to that house again. Braxton was always trying to encourage me to forgive my father and move forward, but that was easier said than done.

“There she is!” Brad, Braxton’s older brother, greeted me at the door. He and Braxton looked a lot alike with their matching shades of blonde hair and blue eyes, although Brad’s nose was a little larger and he kept his hair much shorter than Braxton’s. He was several inches taller than my five-foot-six frame so when he hugged me I was lifted from the floor like I weighed nothing. “How’s it feel to officially be a college student?”

“Good, I guess.”

“Do you like your classes?”

“Yeah, sure.” All but one anyway, but I suspected that was more to do with my shitty partner than the class itself.

“Okay, serious question.”

“Okay?”

“Is your roommate hot?”

I laughed and playfully pushed him away. “Off-limits.”

“Kill joy. Come on, lunch is already here.”

“Take-out okay?” Braxton whispered in my ear a little nervously.

“Of course.” Food was food and it was more important to spend time with Mrs. Douglas than anything. Besides I wasn’t picky.

After my mom had left, I’d survived off of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and cereal because my dad didn’t cook. Most of the time he wasn’t even home anyway. Once I was tall enough to use the microwave and brave enough to use the stove it got better. But when Braxton found out that I ate by myself most nights, he’d told his mom and she’d started inviting me over for dinner with their family. She was a wonderful cook, but the last year had been rough and the Douglas family had been eating a lot of take-out.

Chinese take-out boxes lined the otherwise unused dining room table. The family ate wherever Mrs. Douglas was most comfortable these days. Which usually was in the living room, with her propped up against some pillows on the couch.

I was hesitant to enter the living room. I obviously wanted to see her but at the same time, I didn’t know if I was mentally prepared for the reality of her deteriorated condition. Just the thought caused a lump to form in the back of my throat that threatened to cut off my air supply. “Are you okay?” Braxton asked me quietly.

“Yeah. Just nervous I guess.”

“She won’t eat much. Don’t freak out though, it’s just the meds messing with her appetite.”

I nodded, unable to put to words what I was feeling.

“Are you coming?” he asked as he walked past me.

“Yeah.” I followed behind him with slow, heavy steps.

As I walked into the living room, the first thing I noticed was that everything appeared to be the same as it had always been. The same oversized entertainment center filled with little knickknacks that were now coated with a significant layer of dust, something that Mrs. Douglas never would have allowed under normal circumstances. Pictures of the boys in every phase of life still took over the entire wall above the faded tan couch.

But the woman lying on that familiar couch was completely different.

She was once beautiful with chin-length blonde hair, the same color as her boys. Her blue eyes that had once sparkled brightly with life and love now seemed dull and lifeless. She had withered away to practically a skeleton and I could see the bones protruding through her pale, ashy skin.

I smiled as brightly as I could manage. “Hi.”

She smiled weakly in return. “Hi, Sweetie,” she croaked. Brad handed her a drink of water which she sipped carefully, grimacing as she swallowed.

Braxton was right, she didn’t eat anything. She occasionally took small sips of water, cringing each time in obvious discomfort, but for the most part she just laid there. Occasionally she fell asleep. It was difficult to be there.

After lunch, we told everybody goodbye and I promised to visit again soon.

Braxton didn’t have a bag with him as we walked back out to his truck after lunch. I wondered if he at least remembered to grab his toothbrush while making a mental note to pick up an extra one for him to keep in my dorm room along with some extra clothes just in case.

“I don’t want to take you back yet. Do you want to go see a movie?” he said as he wrapped his arms around my waist and kissed the top of my head. “Hmm, I guess it’s too late for a movie. Even if we caught an early one I don’t think I’d be able to make it back here by seven. What about some dessert?”

“I thought we were going to the concert?” I pulled away from his embrace. Did he forget?

“What concert?”

That would be ‘yes’, yes he did forget.

“Seriously? Do you really not remember?”

“Ah, shit. No, I completely forgot. I actually made plans with some guys from school.” “What?” I was disappointed and hurt but mostly shocked.

“Yeah, Jared called earlier today and said they needed another guy for the basketball tournament tonight.”

“So you’re going to go hang out with the friends you see practically every day instead of spending time with me? It’s one night; we barely see each other anymore!”

“I’m so sorry babe. They need me— it’s for some charity and I can’t really back out of it now.” “But it’s okay for you to back out of plans with me?” Irritation was taking over the shock and disappointment. Was he actually going to blow me off for his friends? I think this was the first time that had ever happened.

“I’m not really backing out of plans with you.”

“No, you just forgot that you had them in the first place,” I snapped.

“Look, I told you I’m sorry. I didn’t do it on purpose. Don’t be mad at me, babe.” He tried to pull me into his arms, but I turned away and climbed into the passenger side of his truck. The ride back to campus was as silent as the ride home to Southlake, but unlike the

‘compatible silence’ from before, the truck was filled with a thick, pressing tension.

When he finally pulled into the drive in front of my dorm, he put the truck into park and turned toward me.

“Hailey,” he started. I did the most mature and reasonable thing I could think of— I crossed my arms and looked out the window. “Hailey, don’t be like that. You know I would never intentionally blow you off, I really did forget. Besides, it’s not like I’m blowing you off for anything questionable— it’s for a good cause. And you don’t really want me to intrude on your bonding time with your roommate, do you?”

“She’s taking me to a bar,” I said pointedly. “A bar. There will likely be more drunk guys than sober. I really needed you there with me.”

He seemed to think about that for a moment.

“You don’t have to go you know,” he finally said. “Just tell her you don’t feel good.”

“And spend a Saturday night alone in my dorm room while my boyfriend hangs out with his friends?”

“Well, yeah, I guess.”

“You’re right, that just sounds like so much fun,” I said sarcastically. “I’ll talk to you later.”

I slammed the truck door shut. I half expected him to come after me but he didn’t, and I’m not going to lie, I was a little disappointed about that.

It was only late afternoon but Tessa was already getting ready for her sort-of-date. I hardly counted watching someone’s band play and hanging out afterward as a date, but who was I to judge? My boyfriend was blowing me off tonight to play basketball with a bunch of sweaty guys. “I thought the concert didn’t start until nine?” I asked her as she pulled a short, black strapless dress up over her head and flung it to the floor which was already littered with piles of discarded dresses, skinny jeans, and tops. “I have nothing to wear,” she complained.

“What do you call all of this?” I asked, gesturing first to the growing mound of clothes on the floor and then to her closet which was still overflowing with wardrobe choices.

“Yeah, but nothing is right.” She dug frantically through her closet again. It was no wonder she couldn’t find what she was looking for—everything in her closet was hung haphazardly and with no semblance of order whatsoever. She didn’t even separate her winter clothes from her summer clothes. Maybe I should offer to organize it for her by color and season. It would probably make her life much easier.

“What are you going to wear tonight?”

“Um, well, I think I’m actually going to just stay in,” I mumbled. I wasn’t really in the mood to go out anymore.

She stopped pawing through her chaotic closet and spun around on her heels. “What? No you aren’t! You promised— Girl Code, remember?”

“You know that’s not a real thing, right?”

“Why-ee?” She pouted, drawing the word out into two syllables.

“Braxton— ” I stopped myself before telling her that he was blowing me off. For some reason, I didn’t want her to think badly of him. It wasn’t like he did this to me all the time.

“Braxton isn’t feeling too well so he’s not coming.”

“So?”

“So—” I said. “I don’t think I should go to a bar without my boyfriend.”

“Ohmygod Hailey! Don’t be a loser! Just come hang out with me. I promise, I won’t let any drunk guys get the wrong idea. I’ll be your personal body guard.”

I eyed my scrawny roommate up and down with a raised eyebrow. If anyone needed a bodyguard—it was her.

She rolled her eyes at me like she knew what I was thinking then turned back around to her closet and yanked something out.

“Here,” she said, tossing it to me. “Wear this.”

“First of all, I said I wasn’t going.” I held up the red dress she just threw at me. “And second, there is no way anything of yours is gonna fit me. I, unlike some people in this room, was not built to walk a runway. I have boobs. And an ass.”

“First of all,” she echoed my words, “yes, you are going, because surely a responsible person like you wouldn’t dream of sending her beloved roommate to a bar alone. Safety in numbers, right, Hay?” She walked over to me and grabbed the dress from my hands then held it

up in front of me. “And second, trust me. This dress will look amazing on you.” I stared her down.

“I’m not giving in!” she sang.

“Fine. Whatever.” I turned my back to her so I could change with some semi-privacy. If she wasn’t going to take my word for it, I had no choice but to put the damn dress on and let her see for herself. The fabric felt expensive and I silently prayed I didn’t tear it trying to squeeze my booty into it.

I pulled the red sheath dress on— it was stretchy which made me feel better because I could at least breathe, but it was definitely tighter than anything I had ever worn before. I turned around slowly with my eyes closed. I had agreed to try the dress on to prove my point about it looking ridiculous on me, but that didn’t mean I wanted to see the inevitable look of disgust on her face when she realized I was right. “I kinda hate you right now,” she said.

“What? Why?” I squeezed my eyes shut even tighter. “Did I rip it?” I blindly started feeling around the seams of the dress—it felt intact.

“What? God, no! You look amazing!”

I opened one of my eyes to peek at her, trying to gauge if she was being serious. She looked sincere so I opened my other eye and dared a look in the mirror. It was tight— really tight and it made my boobs and butt look huge.

“I’m NOT wearing this.”

“Why not?”

“Seriously, I look like a whore.”

“Watch it— that’s my dress you’re wearing,” she said defensively, but then winked to let me know she was just teasing.

“I look ridiculous.”

“Um, are you blind?”

“I’m serious. If you really want me to go out with you tonight, I’m not wearing this. I’m going to at least wear normal clothes.”

“Fine, dress like a freakin’ librarian. As long as you’re coming with me I don’t care what you wear!”

“I do not dress like a librarian.”

She looked at me pointedly, then rolled her eyes.

After Tessa finally decided what she was going to wear, we walked down to grab dinner at the dorm cafeteria. I didn’t eat much. I mostly just pushed my salad around the plate with a fork. I was surprisingly nervous about tonight. I had never been in a bar before. This one was called Duke’s and was one of the very few around that was open to eighteen year olds.

Tessa scarfed down her dinner with impressive speed. I was still amazed that someone as thin as her could eat like she did. She couldn’t be real.

We went back to our room to change into our ‘going out clothes’ as Tessa called them.

My ‘going out’ attire wasn’t any different than what I normally wore though. I always went for comfort over style so, I had to admit, I felt very plain standing next to Tessa. She wore her long auburn curls loose down her back tonight, and looked stunning in her trendy dark skinny jeans and a black and white top that criss-crossed in the back. She paired the outfit with some stilettos that made her already long legs look even longer.

Duke’s was already packed by the time we got there. I noticed the poster on the front of the door announcing that Set the Flames would be playing tonight.

We paid our cover charge and the bouncer slapped the ugly ‘under 21’ paper bracelets on our wrists before we entered the smoky bar. The place was packed wall to wall making it nearly impossible to squeeze through, but we somehow managed. I scanned the crowd of countless girls wearing too-tight dresses with their boobs popping out and the sleazy guys that couldn’t help but stare. “There’s nowhere to sit,” I yelled over the noise. Nowhere clean, anyway. Maybe my cream-colored sweater wasn’t the best outfit choice after all. I felt completely out of place in this dirty, smoky, red-hazed bar.

“Just follow me,” she shouted back. She led the way, weaving us around the crowd of bodies until we were only a few tables from the stage. We came to a high top table with a sign on it that said ‘Reserved’. She winked at me and took a seat. Relieved, I sat across the table from her with my back to the stage. I casually picked up the menu just for something to do.

The generic bar music stopped and the crowd suddenly erupted into a deafening roar as the band took the stage. Tessa’s grin was huge and she nodded toward the stage expectantly, presumably to encourage me to check out her new hot boyfriend. I turned around in my seat to scan the stage for the drummer. He may have been perfectly good-looking but all I could focus on was his electric blue Mohawk. I was definitely not expecting that. I looked around at the other band members to see if they all had brightly colored Mohawks too—wondering if it was their ‘thing’, but they didn’t. The rest of them had normal haircuts.

The lead singer had his back to the audience. He caught my attention—though I’d never admit that out loud. Girls like me didn’t blatantly check out guy’s asses, but even I had to admit he had a nice one. He was wearing a cutoff shirt that showed off his well-sculpted arms and all of his tattoos. His loose fitting jeans looked like they had seen better days. The sad thing was, he’d probably bought them like that. He turned around to face the crowd and suddenly all thoughts of Mohawks and muscles left my mind. I was pretty sure my mouth hit the floor—it was Chase.

The band started to play and a group of squealing, screaming girls swarmed in front of the stage. I actually saw one of them take off her bra and slingshot it at Chase’s feet. It was a little ridiculous. I supposed I understood why they might find him attractive in an I’m-in-a-band sort of way, but tattoos and noise weren’t really my kind of thing.

I was curious to find out what the big deal was with these guys. The band was good— for pop punkers or punk poppers, whatever it was— and the music wasn’t exactly what I had imagined it would be.

I found myself watching Chase as he performed, and hearing him sing the lyrics, I could tell that he was the one who’d written them. I didn’t know how I knew, I just did and I was impressed with that fact. Even though it wasn’t exactly my favorite kind of music, I could appreciate the passion he so obviously had for it.

Truth be told— and I hated to admit it— but watching Chase perform was nothing short of mesmerizing.

Chapter Eight

Chase

So, there I was up on stage doing my thing. You know, the usual stuff? Rocking out, getting swept up in the music, thrusting my hips—hey, don’t judge, it totally added to the entertainment factor.

As I looked around the bar, soaking up the energy and enthusiasm from the crowd, my eyes fell on a girl sitting at a table close to the stage.

She stood out because she was the only one who looked like she had a stick up her ass.

Also, she was dressed in an outfit my mother had probably worn to work in her thirties.

My eyes zeroed in on her cream cardigan and I almost gagged. Okay, make that in her forties. My parents would’ve loved that whole ensemble.

Seriously, why was Librarian Girl here? This hole-in-the-wall bar wasn’t her scene. Was the world out to get me or something? I couldn’t seem to get away from her.

As our final song wrapped up, I stepped closer to the microphone and stared into the crowd. “We are Set the Flames and we wanna thank you guys for coming out to see us tonight. We’re gonna hang around, so if you’re over 21, you should come buy our underage asses a drink at the bar.”

The crowd cheered and laughed as I headed over to unplug my guitar from the amp. As the other guys started clearing our equipment off the stage, I glanced over my shoulder to seek out Hailey in the crowd.

Instead, my eyes locked with a guy who was walking around the raised platform that we’d been performing on. He grinned as he approached me and held out a hand.

“Hi, you’re Chase? I’m Parker; I work for the Vibe Group. I emailed you a couple of weeks ago about coming out to see you guys perform.”

Holy shit. The promoter dude had actually shown up! I could feel adrenaline surging through me—mostly from having just performed, but also from the fact that someone important had come out just to see us play.

Trying to stay as calm as possible, I shook his hand. “Hey, Parker, thanks for coming out to see us. What did you think?”

I might as well get to the point because, honestly, we weren’t going places if this guy thought we sucked. No one was going to invest their time and money in a band that sounded like crap live and couldn’t draw a crowd.

Parker glanced behind me to the other guys in the band before his eyes went back to me. “I thought you guys were great and you really got the crowd going. But the thing is, I’ve said that to a lot of bands. What our management company is looking for is a band that really wants to make it big and is committed to doing all the hard work involved in making it happen.”

I nodded as he spoke, even though in the back of my mind all I could think about was

Deuce and how he kept skipping practices. But Parker didn’t need to know that. He needed to be reassured that our band was one he could invest in.

“Oh, yeah, we’re all completely dedicated to this and wanting to go all the way. We’d love to get on a few tours and record another album with some new material we’ve been working on.”

Parker seemed satisfied with my response. “Well, those are the things we like to hear,

Chase. I’ll tell you what, I’m going to go ahead and tell Brent to come along to your next show.

He’s usually the one who makes decisions about which bands we sign with. Play some of your new songs and perform like you did tonight, and I have no doubt Brent will want to work with you guys.”

The excitement magnified in my belly. I couldn’t believe that someone was actually interested in managing our band and working to get us on tours. This also meant that Deuce had to be committed to the band one hundred percent. He hadn’t exactly messed up tonight, but I knew he could play way better than he had.

“Well, thanks for taking an interest in us. This is definitely what we want and I really hope we get a chance to work with your management company.”

Parker grinned. “I’ll be in touch, Chase, and we can talk about this more.”

“Sure thing,” I said, and watched as he walked away.

When I turned back to help pack up our equipment, I noticed the other guys watching me. Jonathan raised his eyebrows in question.

“That was the management guy? Parker?”

“Yeah, that was him. He said they might be interested in signing with us, but they’re looking for a band that is totally committed and really wants this.” I looked at Deuce pointedly but his expression was blank as he listened. Obviously the dude wasn’t getting the message. “Parker said he’d let this other guy, Brent, know that he was impressed with us. Brent’s the one who has the final say on who they decide to sign. He’s gonna come out and see us play, but they want to see some new stuff.”

“That’s cool, man,” Zach said. “You and Jonathan better get to writing some awesome shit then.”

Before I could say anything, Jonathan’s eyes widened and he motioned his head to something behind me. “That’s the hot freshman I ran into last week! She actually made it!”

He pushed by me, almost knocking me on my ass and when I turned to see where he was headed, I saw a tall, slim girl with auburn curls walking in our direction. She was cute, but not my type. As I began to follow after Jonathan, my eyes fell on the girl who was also with her. No freaking way. Tessa was friends with Librarian Girl?

“Hey, guys!” Tessa said, a grin spreading across her face as Jonathan gave her a quick hug. She motioned to Hailey. “This is my roommate, Hailey. She’s into indie bands so I thought it would be fun for her to come along too.”

“Oh, that’s cool,” Jonathan said, with absolutely no idea that Hailey was the stuck up girl I’d been telling him about all week. “What did you think of our music?”

Hailey pursed her lips as she tried her hardest not to look at me. Try being the operative word. Her eyes flickered over to me for the briefest second—I knew this because the corner of her mouth twitched slightly, like something had irritated her.

“It’s not really my thing.”

Irritation immediately flared up within me at her bluntness. This girl was such a snob; I was surprised Tessa had even convinced her to come along to a bar like this.

“Then what are you doing here?” I snapped, not in the mood for Hailey’s superior attitude.

Hailey turned her green eyes on me, her mouth set in a tight line. “Oh, trust me, I’m not here voluntarily.”

“Did you take the music class voluntarily then? Because you kinda don’t fit in there, either.”

I could tell that my frankness was rubbing Hailey the wrong way. This girl could dish it out but she sure couldn’t take it. Well, that just gave me more incentive to get under her skin, and for some reason I found it amusing to see her uncomfortable.

“Wait! You two know each other?” Tessa asked, looking back at Hailey in confusion.

Hailey nodded reluctantly, as it would lower her social status if she admitted that she was connected to me somehow. She was rich girl for sure. “Yes, Chase is in my Music Composition class.”

It was the first time I’d heard Hailey say my name, and I was surprised to find myself mesmerized by the way her lips formed my name. She had nice lips—they were round and shaped like a rosebud. Actually, she had nice features all round, and up close there was no denying how attractive she was. Too bad she had such an uptight personality.

“That’s cool!” Jonathan said from behind me. “Then you probably know the stuck up girl Chase is partnered with. Is she really as annoying as he says she is?”

Fuck. I wanted to kick Jonathan in the phalange. He and his big mouth always got me into trouble somehow.

“Tessa, why don’t you go hang out with Jonathan?” Hailey scrunched up her face and pressed her lips together. “I’m going to get a drink.”

Jeez. Was Librarian Girl secretly a closet alcoholic?

As soon as Hailey was out of sight, I turned on Jonathan. “Dude! She is my freakin’ partner!”

Jonathan’s face fell so fast, it was like he’d been hit with a bowling ball. “Oh, shit! I had no idea! Why didn’t you say something?”

Exasperation crept into me and I flung my hands out to the side in question. “What did you want me to say without making it obvious?”

Tessa peered at me, frowning. “She’s had a bad day. I should go talk to her.” Great. Now I felt like even more of an asshole.

“No,” I said, shaking my head at her. “I’ll go talk to her. It was my fault.”

All of a sudden, Tessa reached out and grabbed a fistful of my shirt. “Do not mess around with her, do you understand me?” She narrowed her eyes at me.

Taking a step back, I put my hands up in surrender. Tessa was a little scary. “Yes, ma’am. I’ll behave myself.”

Turning into the crowd, I made my way toward the bar, leaving Tessa and Jonathan

behind. Jonathan would be thrilled to be left alone with Tessa since all he’d done all week was talk about her.

Hailey was easy to spot. She was the one dressed like a librarian, after all. She was also the one standing awkwardly next to a bar stool and clutching a glass of clear liquid in her hand like it was a grenade.

“Vodka?” I asked, once I was close enough for her to hear me over the loud music.

“What?” she asked, raising her voice.

Okay, so I guess she couldn’t hear me.

I leaned in close enough that I could make out the few scattered freckles across her nose.

“I asked if you were drinking vodka.”

Hailey narrowed her eyes at me as though I’d asked her if she was a prostitute. “It’s water, actually.”

Well, at least now I knew that Librarian Girl didn’t have a drinking problem.

“Why don’t you sit down?” I gestured at the empty stool beside her, racking my brain for something to talk about that wouldn’t offend her.

Hailey glanced at the stool and scrunched up her nose in disgust. “I’d rather stand.” Uh, okay then. Somehow I’d managed to find something else that pissed her off. Stools. I guess I had a talent for getting on the wrong side of Hailey.

“Uh.” I ran a hand through my hair, wondering why the hell I felt so nervous all of a sudden. I mean, this was prissy Librarian Girl, after all. She had no right trying to make me feel like a douchebag. Still, I owed her an explanation. “What Jonathan said back there came out wrong.”

“Really?” Hailey eyed me in disbelief. “Because it sounded like you’d been complaining about a stuck up girl you were partnered with in your Music Composition class. Are you enrolled in more than one? What a coincidence.” Oh, crap. Okay, so I couldn’t exactly talk my way out of this one.

Instead, I decided to level with her. “Let’s be straight about this. You haven’t exactly been easy to get to know.”

“Excuse me?” Hailey’s mouth dropped open. “I haven’t been easy to get to know? Who’s the one doing those ridiculous head nod things and sitting in the back of the room by himself avoiding eye contact with everyone?”

Okay, she had me there. I was guilty of being an anti-social jerk. Still, she wasn’t exactly Miss Sunshine.

“I don’t even get why you’re taking the class anyway. I mean, can you even play anything?”

“Yes, I can actually,” Hailey said, placing her drink down and folding her arms over her chest in a defensive stance. “I can play the guitar and I’m familiar with piano, and I can sing a little. Not that it’s any of your business. I don’t even know why I’m telling you this stuff.”

Surprise shot through me at hearing that Hailey and I actually had something in common when it came to music. Still, a stick-in-the-mud like her probably wasn’t very passionate about it.

“That’s all great and shit, but I bet you can’t create music that actually makes people feel something. If you’re so scared to try new things, how do you expect to live a full life? You won’t even sit on a freakin’ stool, probably because you’re scared of germs or something stupid like that.” When Hailey stiffened and didn’t say anything, I stared at her in amazement. “Wow, you actually are a germaphobe, aren’t you?” Hailey was exactly the kind of girl my parents would want me to date. Well, it was never going to happen.

Hailey ignored my question. “It‘s still possible to be passionate about something even with limited experiences.”

“You wouldn’t know passion if it slapped you across the face.”

“This is turning out to be the worst apology ever,” Hailey said with no trace of humor in her voice.

“Maybe you just take everything the wrong way.”

With that, I turned away and headed back into the crowd to find my friends. Sure, I’d come out of that still looking like an asshole, but at least I was able to get away from Hailey and the hate-hate thing we had going on.

I was here to have fun and Hailey was not going to ruin my night.

Chapter Nine

Hailey

I could still smell the bar smoke in my hair when Monday rolled around. I had washed my hair at least eight times since the concert but it didn’t seem to have made any impact. I hated the smell of smoke; it made my stomach turn. I didn’t think I’d be attending any more concerts at

Duke’s.

And not just because of the smoke either. Chase was a total dick and putting up with him in class a couple of hours a week was already enough. There was no way I was going to force myself to spend any more time with him than necessary. Girl Code or not, Tessa was going to have to find someone else to go with her to watch Set the Flames.

I was almost to class when I saw the flyer. William C. Lancaster would be playing nearby next month. I felt a rush of excitement and knew immediately that I had to go see my Piano Man. I remembered how much his music had impacted my emotions that night and I was anxious to see him perform again. Maybe this time I wouldn’t be late and miss half of the concert. Which meant I most definitely would have to attend alone since Braxton probably wouldn’t be interested. That made me feel pretty lame. Maybe I should make Tessa come with me to pay her back for dragging me to that awful bar.

When I made it to class, Chase was already there with his feet propped up on the desk. He gave me one of his customary, obnoxious head nod things that boys did in lieu of an actual proper greeting. He was wearing a cut off shirt again. He must be really proud of the offensive tattoos covering his arms. There was a huge skeleton on his left forearm and to be honest, the thing gave me the creeps. Who the hell wanted a giant skeleton tattooed on their arm? Was he purposely trying to throw his rebellious nature in everybody’s face?

I sat down in my usual chair and opened up my planner. I flipped to October and carefully wrote down the time on the date of the concert. And then because I was feeling particularly giddy about seeing him perform again, I bordered the date in little tiny hearts.

“What are you doing?” Chase asked, startling me. My pen and planner fell to the floor when I jumped, and I scrambled to pick it up while he just sat back and chuckled at me. Yeah, real gentleman-like.

“Nothing,” I said as I composed myself.

“What were the hearts for?”

“What hearts?” I played stupid but I was sure the heat I felt in my cheeks gave me away.

“The hearts you drew all around William C. Lancaster’s name.” “I have no idea what you are talking about.” I sat back down. “Isn’t he that gay pianist?” he asked rudely.

“Yes—I mean, no—I mean, yes he is a pianist but that doesn’t make him gay,” I pointed out defensively.

“I don’t know. Most pianists I know are pretty boys.”

“Yeah, well, I suppose you would think that. You’re probably just jealous of their talent which you so obviously lack.”

“You have no idea, do you?” he said with a bemused grin.

“No idea about what?”

“Nothing”

“Look, I know you think I’m the most boring person on earth and that I wouldn’t recognize passion if it slapped me in the face, but you don’t know anything about me. I’m just like everyone else—I have feelings, you know?” God, I sounded like an idiot and that frustrated me even more. “Can you just leave me alone?”

“Sure thing.” He returned to his seat toward the back of the class, laughing the whole way.

I didn’t know why I was being so defensive and I didn’t know why he found it so amusing. Professor Thomas walked in then, so I turned my attention to her and planned to ignore Chase for the rest of the hour. Unfortunately, Thomas dismissed us thirty minutes early so we could get started on our group projects.

“So, where do you want to do this?” Chase asked, catching up with me as we walked out of the classroom. “I don’t care.” And I didn’t. I was not looking forward to this project at all. “Hmm,” he said thoughtfully. “I think I know the perfect spot. C’mon.”

I had no choice but to follow Chase across campus, but I was dragging my heels, kicking and screaming inside my head.

I had never ventured around the university grounds any further than the buildings my classes were in and the dorms, so I was not familiar with this area. I could see the college soccer fields to the east, a large parking lot to the west, and right down the middle was the creek that ran along the south side of campus. There was an old red bridge that crossed it that was flanked by two Weeping Willow trees.

“What’s this?”

“I’m actually not sure,” Chase answered. “But nobody ever comes here so it should be pretty quiet.”

“Which is good in case you suck.”

He chuckled at my insult before he said, “The ground is still wet from the rain last night but we should be fine to sit over on the bridge.”

“That’s fine with me.”

I followed him over to the red bridge and took a seat on the wooden stairs. He sat on the railing. He didn’t have a notebook or a pen which aggravated me. I guess my assumption that he was a slacker wasn’t too far off since he obviously assumed that I would do the writing. I got out my pencil and notebook.

“I guess we should form some sort of game plan.”

“What?”

“Well, we should, you know, make a game plan. Decide what we need to do first. Which I guess would be to determine what kind of song we’re going to write.”

“Do you make lists for everything?”

“Lists help keep me on task.”

“So what would happen if you decided to live dangerously and not make a list?”

“Why on earth would I want to do that?”

He laughed and shook his head at me in disbelief. Why did he have to be so critical of everything I said or did? It was irritating to be around someone who could be so mean.

“I don’t have to put up with this.” I stood up to leave but he put his hand on my shoulder and pressed me back down into a sitting position.

“Let’s just get started.”

“Okay, so what should we do first?”

“I guess we should decide what kind of song we want to write,” he said, echoing my previous statement.

“Like, what genre?”

“More like, what do we want to write about?”

“We should write a love song, of course.”

“Why am I not surprised?” he muttered under his breath.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” “Nothing. It just means you’re a girl.” “Well, obviously.” I rolled my eyes at him.

“It’s just so overdone and boring. Besides, have you ever even been in love before?”

“Yes,” I said too quickly. “I’m in love right now. My boyfriend Braxton and I have been together for almost five years.”

“Five years? Jesus Christ— how old are you?”

“Almost nineteen.”

“So you’ve been together since you were fourteen?”

“Yeah.”

“You’re not in love.”

“What?” I gasped. “How the hell do you know? You don’t know anything about me!”

“I know that when you’re fourteen, hell when you’re eighteen, you don’t know who you are yet or what you want. You haven’t even experienced anything. How can you know for sure?”

“I just know,” I stammered, flustered and angry. How dare he assume anything about me? “You’re a jerk. You know that, right?”

“I’ve been called worse. Look, I’m sure what’s-his-name is great, but there is no way you can know for sure you are in love if you’ve never experienced heartbreak.”

“That can’t be true.”

“Believe me, it’s true.”

“So you are saying that the only possible way to know love is to know heartbreak first?” I scoffed at the notion.

“That’s exactly what I’m saying. And I’ll let you in on a little secret about great songwriters: we all start with broken hearts.

“And you consider yourself to be a great songwriter?”

“Yes. But even if I didn’t, I’d still know it was obvious that all great artists have to know pain—it’s where the passion comes from.”

“I think that’s kind of sad, don’t you?”

“I think it’s just life.”

We argued for the rest of the time we were allotted to work on our song. We didn’t even agree on the simplest aspects. This was a disaster.

“I have to go. I guess we should decide when to get together again.”

“I’m free after class until noon.”

“Sounds good.” I left in a hurry, not wanting to give Chase any more opportunities to get on my nerves.

The thing was, I couldn’t really put my finger on what exactly frustrated me more: his extreme insensitivity or the fact that if I was honest with myself, he was right. I was boring. Everything about my life was so routine. It had to be. Growing up, I basically had to raise myself. Sure, Mrs. Douglas and the rest of Braxton’s family were there for me, but it was up to me to pay the bills and make sure there was food to eat in the house. Making lists and planning everything was how I learned to cope with all the responsibility that had been thrust upon me too early.

I made sure to always keep everything the same because as far as I could tell, change was what ruined everything. I didn’t want anything else to throw my world into a tailspin like it did when my mom left. So I controlled every possible aspect I could. My whole life had become one big, strict routine.

Braxton and I had been together for four years so even my relationship was routine. Every night I got a good night text and in the morning there was always a ‘good morning beautiful’. Every week we had a date night. Of course sometimes we changed things up, like instead of a movie on Saturday, we’d have dinner with his family—okay, yeah, we were like an old married couple. I guess I didn’t realize how odd and kind of pathetic that was until now.

How was I ever going to write lyrics that would make other people feel something if I never felt anything myself? Maybe Chase was right—maybe I needed to experience new things, to live a fuller life, but the thing was, I wasn’t really sure where to start.

I had nothing else to do today so I planned on googling William C. Lancaster when I got back to my dorm to see if there was an earlier concert. He had passion—it was obvious in the way he played. Maybe I could acquire some through osmosis. But when I got back to the dorms, Tessa announced that she was going into the city for some shopping and asked—no demanded— me to go too.

“I’m thinking about doing something crazy to my hair. I mean, Jonathan has a Mohawk—

I think I at least need to have some purple or maybe pink highlights. What do you think?” Tessa asked, though I doubt she really cared what my actual opinion on the matter was.

“Purple highlights?”

“Or pink.”

“That’s, um, adventurous.”

“You should do something new with your hair too.”

I subconsciously touched the ends of my shoulder length brown hair and asked, “Why?” “Don’t you ever just want a change?”

“Not really.”

“Isn’t that boring?”

“That’s the second time I’ve been called boring today,” I pointed out.

“Well— ” she said with a shrug, not denying it. She must have seen something in my face that made her feel bad because she quickly added, “Come on, you know the best thing about trying something new with your hair?”

“What?” “It always grows back.” She raised her eyebrows and looked at me expectantly.

She had a point. I guess if I was going to try something new, a good place to start would be my hair. And I did get my refund check today so I finally had a little bit of spending money. “Okay, fine. Just a cut though. I’m not dying it any funky colors,” I said sternly.

“Baby steps.”

She dragged me into the first place we came across on The Plaza. There were only two chairs for cutting hair and one table for what I assumed was used for manicures. It wasn’t a big space, but it was richly decorated. It sort of reminded me of walking into a Pier 1 but with that unmistakable smell of a salon.

“What can we do for you ladies today?” asked a short man with short dark hair and equally dark eyes. He was dressed nicely in the way only a gay man could pull off.

“Do you take walk-ins?” Tessa asked him.

“But of course!” He gestured over to the first chair and Tessa took a seat. “I’m Angelo.”

“I’m Tessa, and this is Hailey.”

“What are you thinking, Gorgeous?”

“Well, I just started dating this new guy. He’s in a band—the drummer.”

“Hot?”

“Totally sexy.”

“Tell me more,” he insisted.

“I just wanted to try something a little daring, you know? Just something fun. I’m thinking purple or maybe pink highlights. Thoughts?”

“Oh honey, with your skin tone? Let’s go with teal,” he said, running his fingers through her hair. “Just here—framing your face.”

“Teal? Sounds good to me!”

“And what about you?” he asked me.

“I’m thinking just a cut. But not too much. Just the ends. Let’s go with more of a trim.”

“Hailey,” she said with a look. “Don’t be boring.”

“I don’t really know what I want. My face is so round it’s hard to do anything shorter that looks right.”

“Well, why don’t you just let me work my magic?” Angelo asked.

“I don’t know.” I hesitated, but Chase’s words echoed in my mind and really, it was just hair. “Okay. Do your worst.”

Angelo worked on my hair after he put the dye on Tessa’s. I kept my eyes shut the entire time. My head felt lighter as inches of my hair were snipped off. What if I hated it? What if I looked horrible?

Finally Angelo finished styling my hair and said, “Open your eyes, Gorgeous.”

I peeked through one eyelid first then bravely opened the other. I was a little shocked. He had cut off quite a bit of my hair, but I was surprised that it didn’t make my face look as fat as I thought it would. In fact, I kind of liked it.

“Wow.”

“I second that,” Tessa piped up.

“Do we love?” Angelo asked.

“We do.” I smiled at him then I added, “Thank you.”

“I think we have some more shopping to do,” Tessa said after we left Angelo’s salon.

“What for?”

“Some new clothes. There is no way you can have awesome hair and still wear your boring old librarian clothes.”

Well, I couldn’t argue with that.

Chapter Ten

Chase

The cool morning breeze hit my face as I strode across the campus grounds and toward the Music room. I didn’t have a class until later in the day so I figured I could use the time to get some extra piano practice in.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved playing guitar, but there was something about gliding my fingers over the ivory keys that made the piano my instrument of choice. Even calling it an instrument seemed to degrade it somehow. It was so much more than that. Once my fingers found the right notes, it created magic.

I wished my parents could understand that part of me. My ex hadn’t understood my passion for music either. All I’d wanted was to share my love of music with someone who just got me and what I was trying to do.

That’s why I was unhappy most days, even though I hated to admit it, and I didn’t think I’d ever truly be happy until I really got somewhere with the band.

As I headed down the hall toward the Music room, I heard the soft notes from an acoustic guitar drift down the hall toward me.

Great. Someone had beat me to it.

The song being played was unfamiliar to me, but it sounded damn good.

Pausing outside the slightly ajar door, I peered through the gap and found a girl with short brown hair sitting on a chair and facing the back wall as she played. She didn’t look familiar at all. She was wearing tight fitted black jeans and a top that dipped low to show off her

back. Nope. I definitely hadn’t seen her around before. She was probably from a different class.

I listened to her play and was already captivated by the seemingly effortless way her fingers found every chord flawlessly, when all of a sudden she began to sing. I had definitely never heard the song before—it was probably an original piece—and I stood rooted to the spot as her beautiful voice caused goosebumps to pop up on my arms.

Holy shit, could this girl sing.

Now I had to see her face. I had to know who she was. Her voice had captured a piece of my soul and latched on. She was someone who had a passion for music.

When she finished singing and the music faded, I pushed open the door and stepped into the room, ready to introduce myself and get to know more about this mysterious girl.

That’s when she stood up and my eyes dropped down to the curve of her ass in those tight jeans because, well, we all know I’m an ass man. And, holy shit, no way! I’d recognize that ass anywhere. I’d spent a good few hours staring at that ass.

“Hailey?” I asked, wondering if I was mistaken and that maybe, just maybe, someone else in this school had an ass as fine as hers.

I mean, Hailey didn’t have short hair. Hailey didn’t wear jeans that tight, that fit her like a second skin and made my eyes skate all over that butt. Hell no.

Yet, as she slowly turned to face me—and those familiar green eyes and rosebud mouth that I suddenly wanted to kiss it because I somehow knew it would be soft and sweet came into view—I knew it was Hailey. The girl who’d had me transfixed for the last few minutes was my Librarian Girl.

Yeah, I wasn’t ready for a relationship, but that didn’t mean that I couldn’t find Hailey attractive.

And, right now I did. Right now I couldn’t form words or take my eyes off her. I stood frozen like a fucking moron because Hailey was amazing. And she probably hated me to the moon and back.

Hailey stared at me in confusion, tilting her head to the side. “Chase? What are you doing here?” Her tone was a little defensive and I couldn’t blame her. I hadn’t been the nicest person to her. If she didn’t like me, it was totally called for.

Oh, shit. I wasn’t saying anything. I had to say something or else she’d think I had mental problems. Hell, maybe I did have mental problems. I was openly admitting that I was attracted to Librarian Girl. Except, she wasn’t really Librarian Girl anymore. She was, she was-I didn’t even know.

“I didn’t know you could play like that.” Okay, so I’d managed to speak. Go me!

A pale flush crept onto Hailey’s face and she looked down at the floor. “Oh, um, you heard that? Yeah, I’m not that great, but I enjoy it so much, you know?” She raised her head and her eyes became bright as she spoke. I’d never been attracted to a woman as much I was attracted to Hailey at this very second. God, she was beautiful. Everything about her in this moment was perfect.

“You were amazing,” I said, drinking in every inch of her. “And you look amazing. That hairstyle really suits you.”

Her eyes widened at my words and she gave me a shy smile. “Oh, um, thank you,” she said nervously. “Tessa wanted to give me a makeover and I felt like it was time for a change, so I took the plunge.”

I was starting to like Tessa more and more now. Jonathan had picked well.

I also wanted to tell her how amazing her ass looked in those tight jeans, but I restrained myself at the risk of sounding like a complete sleaze. This was good. We had something going here. We weren’t trying to kill each other and I didn’t want to ruin that. And as stupid as it sounded, I really wanted Hailey to like me.

I mean, because her music was so awesome, that’s why. There was no other reason I

wanted Hailey to like me. I was just always looking to make more friends who were really into their music, that’s all. That had to be it.

“Well, I think you look great,” I said, raking my eyes over her for the hundredth time in a minute.

Then I kind of stood there awkwardly and stared at her. I didn’t really know what else to say or do. I probably shouldn’t stare, but whatever, I was doing it anyway.

I was pretty sure she noticed the weird way I was gawking at her because all of a sudden she cleared her throat. “Um, I was about to leave so you can have the room if you want.” “No!” I really didn’t want her to leave.

“No?” She raised a brow at me, looking even more confused.

I couldn’t really blame her for being confused. I was acting like a fucking weirdo.

“I mean, no, I don’t need the room.” What was I saying? Of course I needed the damn room! Wasn’t that the reason I’d gotten up at 7 am and driven to campus? I was not a morning person, so it was a big deal for me to get up that early, yet here I was now telling Hailey that I didn’t need the room? What the hell was wrong with me?

“Oh, I assumed you did.” Hailey’s tone was still shy as she leaned over and carefully placed her guitar back in its case. “That’s not why you’re here?”

At this point, I felt pretty idiotic to say the least, but after hearing Hailey sing, I kinda didn’t want to play the piano anymore—I wanted to spend some more time with the girl who had just shattered every judgement I’d made about her. “Uh, do you want to grab some breakfast?”

I cringed. Yeah, those words had just come out of my mouth. I wasn’t even sure what I

was doing anymore.

Hailey glanced around the room nervously, like she was looking for an out. Oh, great, she was going to reject me. Just what I needed to lower my ego even more after being dumped.

“I’m sorry, I can’t. I uh, have class.” Hailey picked up her guitar case and began heading towards the door. “See you later, Chase.”

In that moment I really wanted to say something, but then I told myself that I was stupid. Stupid for even trying to let someone in. Especially someone like Hailey. I was an idiot for thinking that different clothes and a new haircut could change who she really was.

She would always be stuck up and prissy.

Besides, I had more important things to focus on, like our upcoming show. I couldn’t let a girl distract me.

Chapter Eleven

Hailey

Braxton was going camping with his brother for the weekend—one last float trip before the weather cooled off too much. So I was stuck on campus. I didn’t mind though. I needed to fill out some job applications anyway and, honestly, it was becoming uncomfortable visiting Mrs. Douglas. I wondered if that made me a bad person—knowing that her time was running out should make me want to spend as much time with her as possible, but it was hard seeing her like that. I couldn’t explain it at all but for the first time in my life, I just didn’t want to be there. It just made me terribly sad.

I spent the day looking online for possible part-time jobs, but it was going to be hard to find one within walking distance and since I didn’t have a car because I didn’t have a job, it was a catch-22. My refund check had been a fairly substantial amount and I probably could’ve bought a cheap used car outright, but I wanted to get a job first so I could pay for things like gas and any repairs that would undoubtedly come up with a used car. Having to worry about things like this just intensified the resentment I harbored toward my dad and how much he had screwed me over.

I applied for on-campus work-study jobs that were still open even though they only paid minimum wage—unfortunately, I couldn’t afford to be picky. Starting Monday I’d be working at the Child Development Center every day in between my classes. I wasn’t even sure if I liked kids, but a job was a job and it would have to do until I could find something that paid better.

Set the Flames was playing at Duke’s again tonight, and even though I swore up and down I was never going to that bar again, Tessa somehow managed to talk me into it again. I swear that girl had crazy powers of persuasion.

I even decided to wear the red dress that she’d tried to convince me to wear to the first Set the Flames concert we went to. Again—crazy powers of persuasion. She also kept using that Girl Code thing against me.

I kind of wished that Braxton was here to see me in it. I felt different tonight. I couldn’t quite put my finger on the difference, but there it was. If I had to pick a word to describe it I supposed I would pick sexy. Which was definitely a new sensation for me.

When we arrived at the bar, I wasn’t sure if the timing was just perfect or if his eyes had been on me from the moment I walked in, but I spotted Chase giving me a hard stare before quickly shaking it off and acknowledging me with that dumb head nod of his and then returning his focus to the guys. He and his bandmates were apparently having a heated discussion because even at this distance, I could tell he was not happy about something. “Chase looks pissed,” I commented to Tessa.

“Hmm?” She looked over at him. “Oh, it looks like Deuce isn’t here yet.” Her eyebrows pulled together in confusion. “Maybe he’s just running late?” I suggested.

“Even so, I bet Chase is pissed. Jonathan said that he’s been missing a lot of practices lately.”

“That’s not good.”

“No, it’s not. Let’s go see what’s going on.”

“I don’t know…”

“C’mon.” She dragged me along.

“What’s up?” she asked Jonathan when we got close enough. Chase was the one who answered. “It’s Deuce. The asshole can’t make it tonight.

Apparently something ‘came up’.”

“What are you going to do?”

“We can’t play without him so we’re pretty much screwed,” Jonathan said. He seemed irritated but not nearly as angry as Chase looked.

“This sucks. Wait a second,” Tessa started. She looked at me and smiled slyly before telling the guys, “Hailey can play.”

“What?” I choked out, at the same time Chase said, “No way.”

“What, she’s actually pretty awesome,” she continued. I elbowed her severely. What the hell?

“Yeah, but it’s not like she can just learn the entire set in the 15 minutes before show time,” Chase argued. I had to stop myself from disagreeing with him. I could easily learn the set, but I didn’t want to so I just kept my mouth shut.

“True, but she can play by ear so I’m sure she could catch on quickly, and besides, you are pretty in a pretty desperate situation right now, so I’m not really sure why you’re not jumping at this opportunity. Either you cancel the show or you give her a chance and maybe pull it off.”

“I’m not blowing this chance by letting in some chick who thinks she’s a rock star because she can play a few Taylor Swift songs.”

Now that just pissed me off. I knew he’d heard me play the other day. Before I knew what I was doing, I grabbed Chase’s guitar.

“What are you doing?” he asked as I plugged it into the amp and glared up at him.

“Taylor Swift, huh?” I snapped.

He seemed amused by my attitude. “Show me what you got, Princess.”

So I did. My heart started pumping erratically and it felt like all the tension I kept locked up inside of me was releasing into the chords as I played the most complex riff I knew. I was definitely showing off which wasn’t something I typically did, but I just couldn’t let Chase get away with dismissing me like that.

I couldn’t help but smile smugly when I saw the look of shock on all of their faces, well, the band’s faces anyway. Tessa just looked proud.

“What the hell was that?” Chase asked. “I thought you played acoustic guitar?” I just shrugged like it was no big deal but I was beaming on the inside. “Maybe there’s more to me than you think,” I said coyly.

“And you can play by ear?” Jonathan asked.

“Um, yeah. It’s not hard,” I said arrogantly as I returned the guitar to Chase.

“Chase, man, what do you think?”

Chase wasn’t looking at Jonathan though. He was looking at me in a very unfamiliar way. I couldn’t describe the way he was making me feel because I had no words. I had never felt like that before. It was like a star had suddenly imploded in my chest, warming me from the core. My heart sputtered before picking up full force until I was absolutely convinced that it would fly right out of my chest.

What the hell was happening to me?

“Um, I'm--uh-- going to use the restroom,” I stammered as I backed away slowly. It was like Chase's eyes had a lock on me and I couldn't look away.

“I’ll come with,” Tessa said, grabbing her handbag. “We’ll be back, boys.”

Tessa linked her arm through mine and we maneuvered our way through the sweaty bodies that danced to the music in the smoky haze of the makeshift dance floor.

Once we were in the small dirty bathroom she locked the door behind us. There was only one toilet and it wasn’t enclosed in a private stall.

“Um, Tessa? I can’t pee in front of you.”

“What? I didn’t think you really needed to pee. I thought ‘going to the restroom’ was Girl

Code for ‘I need to talk to you privately’.”

“Well, I sorta do but I actually do need to pee first.”

“I’ll face the other way.”

“Fine.”

She turned around and closed her eyes, but I still turned on the sink for good measure.

“Nervous bladder?” she asked.

“Shut up.”

Tessa laughed. “This is going to be great. I’m glad you at least wore something fun tonight since you’ll be on stage.”

“This is probably a huge mistake. I don’t even like the kind of music they play.”

“That doesn’t matter. It’s not like this is going to be a regular thing. You’re just helping out some friends.”

“They aren’t really my friends.”

“No, I suspect Chase doesn’t really consider you just a friend.”

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure he hates my guts.”

“That’s not at all what I meant.” She shook her head. “Come on future rockstar.”

We exited out of the quiet bathroom and I ran right smack into a very solid chest. It was like my eyes were magnetically drawn to Chase’s, and when our eyes met a million things were said in that one look.

“Are you staking out the ladies room now?” Tessa teased. He barely acknowledged her— his eyes were focused on me. “You’re not backing out on me are you?” His tone was light but his face was serious. He wanted me to play with him.

“I can’t do this. I can’t get up there and perform. I’m just not that kind of girl, sorry.”

“That’s what I thought until I heard you play.” “That was dumb. I was just showing off. I can’t.” “Can you give us a second?” Chase asked Tessa.

“Yeah, sure.” She smiled sheepishly at me.

When she was gone Chase turned the full force of his attention on me again. “You have to play with us tonight.”

“Chase, I can’t!”

“And why not?”

“Because this isn’t who I am!”

“Really? Because it seems to me that’s exactly who you are. Not just anyone can do what you did out there. Don’t you know that?”

“I’m not the kind of girl who gets up on stage and performs. I’m the kind of girl who sits quietly in the back wishing I had the guts to be up there.”

Maybe before my mom left I was the kind of girl who took advantage of every opportunity to be the center of attention. But that carefree girl wasn’t practical. As much as I wanted to sing and make music my life, I just couldn’t do it. The chances of me even getting my foot in the door of the business was slim to none. I needed to focus on how I was going to make a realistic living so music got pushed to the side—a hobby that I kept private.

“So that’s it?” He smirked. “You know in twenty years you’ll be more disappointed by the shit you didn’t do than the shit you did.”

“Are you trying to quote Mark Twain?” I asked.

“Maybe.”

“You know you got it wrong.”

“Who cares?”

“Well, I just think if you are going to try to persuade me to save your ass tonight, the least you could do is quote the wise man accurately.”

“Are you going to play with us or not?”

“What if I mess up?” I whispered, all joking aside.

“You won’t. Just follow my lead.”

“I’m scared.”

Chase leaned down and for the first time I noticed the depth of color in his eyes. It was like someone had taken a bottle of whiskey and splintered it, letting slivers of amber show through.

“Your fear is holding you back from becoming who you’re really meant to be.”

I chewed on my bottom lip. “I guess you’re right.”

Chase winked at me. “Of course I’m right. I’m badass.”

He grabbed my hand and led me back into the noisy room. The crowd seemed to have doubled in size. I felt my steps falter but Chase didn’t let go of my hand. He just smiled reassuringly and pulled me right along.

“Well? Do we have a verdict?” Tessa asked with a teasing lilt in her tone.

“She’ll have to do,” Chase said. One side of his mouth curled up into a half-grin and it made my heart stop for a moment.

“Gee, thanks.” I tried to seem offended, but couldn’t help but smile in return.

As I joined the band on stage I couldn’t believe I was actually going to go through with it. It was so out of character for me but at the same time the adrenaline that surged through my veins felt amazing. I listened to the melody Chase played first, feeling the music inside me. I matched it perfectly on my first try, giving me the confidence I needed to fill in the melody on my own.

I looked up, wanting to make sure that the added flair was okay with him. The look he gave me encouraged me to go on. Nothing in my whole life had ever made me feel as elated as I did standing on the stage making music with him. It was intoxicating.

I already knew that Chase was an amazing performer, but I found that being this close to him while he performed intensified that— I couldn’t help but watch him. He was completely mesmerizing. I actually had to force myself to look down at the stage or my fingers as I played so that I didn’t seem like a pathetic groupie just staring at him. I couldn’t quite make myself look out into the crowd though. I had a feeling if I did that I would lose all my nerve.

One of the few times I allowed myself to glance over at him, he looked up at me quickly, a guilty smile on his face like I’d just caught him doing something wrong. Was he checking out my ass? Oddly enough the idea that someone was checking me out didn’t offend me. I actually think I kind of liked it. And THAT’S what bothered me.

Skeleton tattoo! I reminded myself. He has a freaking huge ass skeleton tattoo on his forearm—I do not find guys with tattoos remotely attractive.

Nope, not at all.

Even when said tattooed boy was smiling at me in a way that made my head spin. What was wrong with me?

Chapter Twelve

Chase

So I was staring at Hailey’s ass again.

Hey, don’t judge me. If you’re gonna put it on display, then I’m gonna look.

Even though she’d rejected me and I’d been determined to play it cool until we were done with this stupid song writing assignment, it was harder to ignore her now that she’d proved me wrong and rocked out on stage with my band.

Hailey had pretty much put me in my place. She was just full of surprises and I wasn’t ashamed to admit that I was impressed.

I was especially impressed with the way her ass curved in that short skirt she had on. She was wearing leggings and a t-shirt too, but they didn’t seem nearly as important as that skirt.

For a second I wondered if she’d put it on just to torture me. Yeah, right. She hated my guts. Well, whatever her reason was for her change in wardrobe, I liked it.

Hailey turned away from the conversation she’d been having with the professor and began heading toward where I was sitting in my customary seat at the back of the class. I quickly sat up straighter and tried not to look antisocial.

I even cracked a smile. “Hi, Hailey.”

Hailey’s cheeks flushed as she took a seat at the desk beside mine. “Hi, Chase.” We stared at each other and then glanced away once the staring had reached a level of “we’re staring at each other for too long and it’s becoming weird and awkward”.

Except I didn’t really know what to say. What exactly could I say to the girl I’d misjudged and who’d ended up saving my ass? Because, let’s face it, if it wasn’t for Hailey, we wouldn’t have been able to perform on Friday night.

I didn’t know what Deuce’s deal was, but this was the last time he was going to screw us over. We just couldn’t rely on him anymore. It sucked even thinking about getting a new guitarist though, especially now when we really had a chance to progress with our music. Despite being absent a lot, Deuce was good at what he did and it was going to be a long process teaching someone else the songs.

As I sneaked a glance over to Hailey, I couldn’t help but recall the image of her in that tight, little red dress she’d been wearing Friday night. Holy shit, did it outline her curvy body like crazy. I’d never seen a girl look that good in a dress before. Hailey was hot as fuck and she didn’t even realize it.

“So, what do you want to work on today?” Hailey asked.

It was an obvious attempt to break the growing silence between us. We already knew what we had to work on—lyrics. We’d both decided that we’d perform on our acoustic guitars and had laid down basic music for the song. Lyrics were what we were stuck on.

The problem was we still couldn’t agree on what the song should be about. I was still stuck on about writing a song about heartbreak, and Hailey was just as stubborn about writing a love song.

“Well, lyrics, I guess,” I said, trying to clear away the dirty thoughts I was having about

Hailey and her little dress. “Are we ever going to compromise on this?”

“I’m telling you— love songs are always more popular,” Hailey stated a-matter-of-factly.

“If we want to get graded well on this then we should stick to something that the professor is going to relate to. Love is a universal theme.”

“You can’t have love without heartbreak. There’s passion and intensity and anger and hate behind heartbreak. It’s real and it’s painful. It’s way more relatable.”

“Are we seriously going to have this argument again?” A small frown appeared at the corners of Hailey’s mouth. “I don’t care what you say; you can have love without heartbreak. Not every relationship has to end badly.”

“That’s not what I’ve learned,” I muttered under my breath.

I knew from the way Hailey’s eyes widened that she’d heard me. Yeah, so I’d probably spilled too much of myself into this discussion, but could you really blame me for being bitter about my break up with Heather?

You put everything into a relationship with someone; you gave them your trust and your love, but in the end it didn’t mean anything. You still got screwed over and left feeling like you were the one who’d done something wrong. Because, really, if something hadn’t been wrong she wouldn’t have cheated on me, right?

Releasing a sigh, I toyed with my Set the Flames wristband. Heather and I had nothing to do with Hailey. Heather and I had nothing to do with our assignment.

“Um, why don’t we write our lyrics individually and see what we come up with and then try to merge them together?” Hailey suggested.

I could tell she was feeling awkward and didn’t know what to say after my random comment. I wasn’t sure if Hailey and I were exactly “friends” so it was weird for me to bring up something like that.

I nodded and pulled my notebook and pen out of my bag, and stared at the blank page. Nothing was coming to me right now. This assignment was important but it didn’t seem as important as coming up with new material for the band.

My mind began to drift away from pop songs about love and heartbreak and instead to the fast paced music I usually played. I glanced over at Hailey and pictured her in that red dress, knowing that she had an effect on me that I couldn’t ignore.

The way I feel for you, I can’t ignore.

And then, a flood of words hit me all at once. Except, I wasn’t sure if they were just random words or if they were actually feelings. Feelings that I had for the complicated girl sitting beside me.

I was writing so fast that my hand was aching when I finally stopped to take a break.

Hailey looked up at me and gave me a small smile. “Did you make some progress?” “Yeah, I did.” That wasn’t exactly a lie. I had made progress—just not on our assignment. When I read back over the lyrics I’d scribbled down, I realized two things. First, they needed some more work, but it was a start and we could definitely do something with it. I even had a tune in my head that might just work.

Second, as I studied Hailey—not for the first time—it wasn’t a mystery where my inspiration had come from. There was undeniably something about Hailey that drew me to her. She reminded me of my parents in some aspects, yet at the same time she was unfamiliar to me in a way I couldn’t explain.

Too bad I wasn’t her type at all.

Chapter Thirteen

Hailey

I felt so bad that Braxton always had to come and pick me up whenever I visited. I had started at the Child Development Center and it was going well. The teachers I worked with were nice and the kids were actually pretty cute when they weren’t snotty and needing their diapers changed. But I only got paid once a month which meant my first paycheck was still weeks away and even when I did get it, it wouldn’t be much. Maybe I should look into getting a second job waiting tables at Duke’s.

“Waitresses make good tips, right?” I asked Tessa. The actual thought of waiting tables and touching dirty dishes freaked me out a little bit to tell the truth, but I was desperate.

“Yeah, I think so. Why?”

“I was thinking of applying at Duke’s.”

“I’m pretty sure you have to be at least twenty-one to serve alcohol.” “Damn. That sucks.” I needed to check the classifieds again.

“Do you need some money?” she asked. “I can loan you some, you know?”

“No, of course not.” Even if I did need money, there was no way I would ever borrow some from Tessa. “I’m just trying to save up for a car.”

“Oh. Well, you can borrow mine whenever you need it,” she offered.

“Thanks, that’s really generous of you, but I couldn’t do that.” I was really embarrassed that she even felt like she had to offer. I guess I was obsessing about this a little too much. I didn’t want her to feel sorry for me.

“Hailey, seriously. I don’t mind at all. It’s not like I don’t know where you live.” She winked.

“Thanks, Tessa,” I said quietly, still embarrassed.

“Anytime, see you tonight, right?” “Yeah, I’ll be back probably after dinner.”

“Have fun.” She waved goodbye.

The weather was pleasant today so I decided to wait for him outside the dorms. When he pulled up I hopped off the bench I’d been perched on and practically skipped to his truck.

I jumped into the passenger seat and threw my arms around his neck giving him a kiss on the cheek. He just sat there, open mouthed and stunned by my enthusiasm.

“What did you do to your hair?”

“What? Oh, I, um, cut it,” I mumbled, suddenly self-conscious. I had forgotten he hadn’t had a chance to see it yet. “Don’t you like it?”

“Why did you change it?”

“I don’t know. I guess I thought a change would be nice.”

As low as I felt right now, it was hard to believe that literally 5 minutes ago I was floating on air. Now I just felt like Braxton had popped my balloon.

He didn’t say anything else, but he seemed annoyed as we drove the hour to Southlake.

Nobody met us outside when we got to the house. I felt like it was a bad omen and I ended up being right. Braxton’s mom was not doing well.

Mr. Douglas was kneeling down beside her, his large tan hands clasping her smaller boney ones. His head was down as though in prayer. Brad stood behind him, his hand placed on his father’s shoulder. He looked up when we entered the room and gave us a weak smile before returning his gaze to where his mother lay feebly on the living room couch.

Braxton walked in without hesitation and plopped down on the arm chair. He was still acting weird but now wasn’t exactly the right time to mention it.

“How’s she doing?” I asked

“It’s not good,” Brad choked up. “Her tests showed no change. The doctor is recommending hospice.”

“What?” I felt like all the air had been sucked out of the room and my eyes filled with tears. I looked back at Braxton but he just held his head down, trying to keep his own tears from spilling. “Hailey?” she asked, her voice so weak it was barely a whisper. She was so lethargic that she didn’t even bother trying to open her eyes because the effort involved was too much for her.

“Hi, Mrs. Douglas.”

I kissed her lightly on her forehead. She felt like ice. I reached down and pulled the afghan up over her shoulders.

She didn’t say anything else, just drifted back to sleep with uneven breaths. Braxton, Brad, and I moved to the kitchen to allow her to rest quietly. “Dad hasn’t left her side since we heard the news this morning,” Brad confessed. “I’m so sorry,” I said, as I pulled Braxton’s hand into my own and gave it a comforting squeeze.

“Are you hungry?” Brad asked

“Sure,” I said weakly. I actually wasn’t hungry at all. My mind was still consumed in grief.

We ate lunch and attempted to talk, keeping our voices down so we didn’t disturb Mrs.

Douglas, but the conversation fell flat more times than not. I don’t think any of us were up for talking. “I like your hair, by the way,” Brad said.

“Thank you.” I gave him a small smile.

“What made you cut it?”

“I don’t know really. My roommate was getting hers done and I just thought I’d try something new.”

“It suits you,” he said with a smile. “So what else have you been up to?

“Not much. Just school mostly.”

“Don’t you ever go out and have fun?” Brad teased me.

“Actually you’ll never believe what I did last weekend,” I told him, being sure to keep my voice down but unable to completely contain the excitement of remembering the thrill of performing on stage. “I played electric guitar—on stage—in a bar!” “Shut up!” Brad exclaimed, clearly impressed.

“Shh!” I reminded him. Then I continued, whispering, “I did! It was at this local bar. My roommate’s boyfriend’s band plays there pretty regularly so we went to watch them play and one of the guys was a no-show so I stood in!”

“You did what?” Braxton’s head snapped up, clearly unimpressed.

“I played guitar with Set the Flames last weekend,” I said more nervously now in response to Braxton’s reaction. “It’s not at all my usual type of music—it’s like punk pop or pop punk or something like that.”

“Why did you do that?”

“I don’t know, I guess because they were desperate when Deuce didn’t show up.” I wasn’t sure why he was being so weird about this. “I wish you could’ve been there. I was kinda awesome,” I admitted.

“Deuce?”

“He’s in the band.”

“Obviously,” he said with an annoyed tone. “Come on Hailey, I need to get you back.”

He turned abruptly and left the house, letting the door slam behind him. I looked at Brad who just shrugged. I told everyone goodbye and made sure to shut the door behind me quietly, unlike Braxton.

I climbed into the passenger seat and he immediately slammed the shifter into reverse, not even waiting for me to put on my seatbelt.

“What’s your deal?” I finally asked.

“What’s my deal? Are you serious? You’re the one with the new clothes and the different hair, playing in a punk band all of a sudden! What’s going on, Hay? Why are you trying so hard to change who you are?”

“I’m not trying to change who I am!” I snapped. “Did you ever think that maybe this IS who I am? That I’m just beginning to find out exactly who I am and what kind of person I want to be?”

“And that person is the kind of girl who chops off all of her hair and joins a band?”

“I’m not joining a band! I just helped out my friends!”

“Friends that I’ve never even met.”

“And that’s my fault? You are the one who keeps blowing me off.” I was actually yelling at him now. I didn’t think I had ever really yelled at Braxton before. Sure I’d been angry with him before now, but this time it felt different—this time I didn’t feel like I needed to hold it in.

“You were so beautiful before Hailey, why change?”

“Are you serious? What are you trying to say that I’m not beautiful any more?“

“That came out wrong.”

“Whatever. Just take me home,” I finally said.

He flinched like my words hurt him somehow, but I wasn’t really sure why they should.

“This is your home, Hay,” he said softly, almost defeated. “Here with me.”

The ride back to campus was just as quiet as always. For the first time it occurred to me that maybe that wasn’t as reassuring as I once believed it to be. I used to think that the compatible silence was a sign that we were perfect for each other. That we were comfortable enough to just be able to enjoy each other’s company without unnecessary chatter.

And maybe that’s what some people wanted in a relationship—to co-exist in complete and utter contentment. The thing was, I wasn’t sure I was content anymore and that scared me. We pulled up in front of the dorms and Braxton stopped me as I tried to get out.

“Look, I don’t want to fight with you. I’m sorry. It’s just that everything in my life is so fucked up lately. My mom is dying. She’s dying, Hay.”

“Don’t you think I know that?”

“I guess I just thought I’d always be able to count on you to be there for me.”

“I am here, Braxton. I haven’t gone anywhere.”

“You’re here, but you’re different. You’re acting different. You even look different.” “This is about my hair?” I couldn’t believe that that was what bothered him the most. “It’s everything. It’s your clothes, it’s you hanging out in bars and playing in a band, and, yes, it’s your hair. You don’t look like my Hailey anymore and I hate it, Hay!”

“How can you be so freakin’ shallow? It’s HAIR, Braxton! It’ll grow back!” I snapped. I jumped out of his truck and slammed the door shut before leaning through the open window. “And you’re not the only one hurting because of your mom. Yes, I realize that she is YOUR mom, but you know she’s been like one to me all of these years. It breaks my heart too but I’m not being a jerk to you.”

I made sure to turn and walk quickly away before the tears started to flow. Somewhere in the back of my mind I knew I was walking in the wrong direction, but as soon as I realized where I was heading it occurred to me that maybe this was exactly the right direction. Whenever I was upset, I turned to music. It was my sanctuary. Music was what healed me and right now, I was pretty broken.

Chapter Fourteen

Chase

I’d just gotten in a good hour of music practice and was walking out of the Music building and toward the parking lot absorbed in my thoughts when someone slammed right into me. “Hey, watch it!” I snapped, then blinked several times to make sure that the blubbering mess in front of me was who I thought it was. “Hailey? What the hell happened to you?”

“Leave me alone!” Hailey cried, tears streaming down her face as she pushed me away. But instead, I held on tighter. I wasn’t going to desert her while she was at her lowest. I lowered my head so it was closer to hers, and smoothed back the stray hairs that had fallen across her face.

“Take a breath, Hailey. I’ve got you. You’re okay.”

Hailey’s body shuddered as she took several gulps of air. I couldn’t imagine what had happened to make her break down like that. If some asshole had messed with her I was going to punch their teeth out.

It was the first time I’d ever seen Hailey completely lose it. Usually, she was scribbling away in that stupid planner of hers, trying to control every second of her life. I wondered if an emotional breakdown was part of the plan.

She shook her head and stared down at the ground, refusing to let me in. But I was just as stubborn as she was, and I refused to let her shut me out.

“Hailey.” I grasped her tear-stained face in my hands. “What happened to you? Did someone do something? Are you hurt? I’m here for you, okay?”

And, it was like I’d said the magic words, because all of a sudden she began crying so hard I was afraid she would break.

Each sob that Hailey took ripped through me like a tornado—the effect was devastating. “H-he said he didn’t know why I was trying to change who I am. That I don’t look like his Hailey anymore.” She shuddered against me, and I had a sudden urge to punch her boyfriend in the face.

Hailey didn’t need to elaborate for me to realize who “he” was. She was referring to her boyfriend. What the hell kind of guy would say something like that to his girlfriend over a haircut? Stupid ass. He didn’t deserve someone like Hailey.

I took a step back and held Hailey at arm’s length, studying her—all of her. I wanted her to see every word as it came out of my mouth so she knew how deeply she affected me. “Hailey, listen to me. There aren’t enough words to describe how beautiful you look. I could tell you a hundred different ways, but none of them would come close to doing justice to how truly amazing you are, inside and out.”

The expression on Hailey’s face was one of surprise and confusion. Her eyes drifted to my lips and for a second I felt as though I knew what she was thinking.

“I-uh-you think I’m-“

I nodded, pulling her close again. “Who the hell is he to say you’re not beautiful? You’re so damn beautiful that I can’t keep my eyes off you.”

Hailey didn’t say anything, but her crying subsided. She continued to stare at me as though she was in a daze, and now I really wanted to know what she was thinking.

“Do you want me to call Tessa?” I asked, trying to keep my voice soothing.

Hailey shook her head, biting on her lower lip. “No, it’s fine.”

Yeah, right. Whenever a girl said something was fine, it really meant the exact opposite. “Well, do you want me to walk you back to your room?”

Hailey shook her head again. “I don’t really want to go back there. Honestly, I’m fine, Chase. You can just let me be.”

But I wasn’t going to let her be. Not when she’d just had an emotional breakdown over her jackass boyfriend. What Hailey needed was something to make her feel better.

“Do you want to come back to my apartment?”

I realized it was a pretty big ask considering she hadn’t even wanted to eat breakfast with me. What would make her want to go back to my apartment? I braced myself for another rejection similar to the one she’d given me that morning in the Music room, but to my surprise Hailey began to nod.

“Yes, I’d like that. I just really don’t want to go back to my room right now.” “I get it,” I said, and began leading her toward my car.

And, you know what? I wasn’t trying to be one of those guys who empathized with a girl when she was at her lowest just to get in her pants. I actually did get it.

I knew what it was like being in a toxic relationship where you were constantly making excuses for the other person and trying to convince everyone else, including yourself, that there was nothing wrong.

I didn’t know a damn thing about Hailey and her guy, but I knew enough to know that the fact her boyfriend had said that to her meant that he wasn’t willing to let Hailey change or try new things. It was like he was afraid to let her grow; afraid that she might grow away from him.

And, so what if she did? She deserved better than that asshole telling her that she wasn’t his Hailey anymore.

Okay, and what about what I’d said? In that moment, when emotions were so high, I’d told Hailey that she was beautiful. Which wasn’t a lie at all. She was beautiful, whether she dressed like a librarian or the way she dressed now. It didn’t matter to me. Hailey had always been beautiful

But was that inappropriate for me to say? I mean, I wasn’t her boyfriend—should I be saying things like that to her? It had felt right at the time, especially when her own boyfriend wasn’t saying those things to her. But maybe it was wrong of me to say that and try to get too close to her.

The drive back to my apartment was a quiet one.

There were a million thoughts running through my head, and Hailey seemed distracted so

I didn’t want to say anything to upset her further. I always seemed to end up rubbing her the wrong way without meaning to.

It was just that I always said the first thing that came into my head and sometimes people took that the wrong way. At least you could count on me to be honest and not sugarcoat things.

Once we got to the apartment, Hailey remained silent as she followed me up two flights of stairs. There was no way to know what she was thinking, but as she stared around at the dismal surroundings, it wasn’t too hard to guess.

She probably thought the building was old and shitty. Well, she was in for a real treat once she saw the inside of our apartment.

When I opened up the door, Hailey still didn’t say anything, but I noticed her eyes dart around the room as she took in our humble abode. ‘Humble abode’ was code for ‘crappy dump’.

I’m sure she was probably used to something entirely different growing up, judging from the stuck up attitude she had going on sometimes.

I assumed she had wealthy parents who spoiled her and gave her everything she wanted.

Sure, my parents were wealthy too, but I didn’t play into all that bullshit. I was fine acting like a poor bum, even though I knew my parents could buy me a brand new apartment if I only did what they wanted me to.

Well, fuck that. I didn’t do things to please other people.

“It’s not much,” I said, leading her inside and shutting the door behind us.

“It’s fine, really.”

I could see she was trying hard not to be rude, which was a nice change for her. Maybe she’d decided to give me a pass since I was being nicer to her for a change. Hey, I wasn’t that bad, was I? Hailey wouldn’t have come home with me if I was a complete jerk.

“Do you want a drink?” I asked, as Hadie awkwardly sat down on the edge of our ratty couch.

“A glass of water, please.”

Complying with her request, I got her a glass of water and then made a whiskey and Sprite for myself. I walked back over to the couch, handed Hailey her glass, and then decided to sit on the couch across from her.

“So, how long have you and Jonathan been living together?” Great. We were going to make awkward small talk.

I took a gulp of my drink before answering. “Since we were eighteen. We’ve been friends since we were kids.”

“Oh.” Her eyes fell on my drink. “What’s that?”

“Whiskey and Sprite. Do you want one?”

Hailey hesitated before nodding slowly. “I’ve never had whiskey before. Drinking’s never really been my thing, but apparently I’m a different person than I was before because I cut my hair so maybe this new Hailey likes whiskey.”

Yeah, I doubted that but I wasn’t going to tell her no. It wasn’t my place to tell her how to live her life.

An hour—and three drinks—later, Hailey was more than a little tipsy. She was definitely a lightweight and probably should’ve stopped at her first. I’d had several whiskey and Sprites myself, and was now starting to feel the effects of it.

It was funny how much of a change a little alcohol could make—Hailey and I were sitting on the same couch now, knees pressed together, laughing about the first time we’d met in class.

“I really didn’t want to talk to you. You terrified me,” she was saying, her eyes bright and her cheeks flushed. “I was worried you would steal my lunch money or something worse.”

“I was worried you would put me in detention.”

“In detention? What do you mean?”

“Well,” I said, feeling a smile tug on the corner of my mouth, “you kinda dressed like a librarian.”

Hailey’s eyes widened and for a second I thought I’d offended her. But then she started laughing. “Tessa said the same thing! I guess I kind of did dress a little too old for my age, huh?”

“You’re actually fun to hang out with, surprisingly,” I told her, downing the rest of my drink. I wasn’t sure what glass I was on. Sixth? Seventh? It was easy to lose count. “So how come you never drank much before?”

Hailey heaved a sigh and I could tell that whatever she was about to tell me was a big deal. “My dad’s kinda got a drinking problem so the stuff never really appealed to me. Plus

Braxton never drank so I think he wouldn’t like it if I did.” Wow. That was heavy.

“That’s rough. So you’re not some spoilt, rich kid, huh?”

Hailey shrugged and absently took a sip of her drink. “I guess not.” “I kinda am.” I let out a nervous laugh.

“You’re a rich kid?” Hailey raised her eyebrows in surprise. “But you live so…frugally.” I laughed at her attempt to sugarcoat my hobo style of living. “My parents aren’t supportive of my music or what I want to do in life so I don’t have a great relationship with them. They’ve never been to any of my shows.. I’ve basically rejected their offer of financial help and they don’t really want to support me anyway; not until I’m doing something more practical with my life, like studying for a Law degree.”

“Wow. I don’t think I could ever picture you as a lawyer. Then again, you are stubborn and like to argue, so there might be some natural talent there.” We both laughed, and Hailey placed her glass down on the table and stood up, wobbling a little. “Where’s your bathroom?” I pointed to the left down the hall. “It’s the door in the middle.”

With a nod, Hailey began to move forward and, as she did, started to trip. I quickly jumped up to steady her and she grabbed onto my arms for support.

“Your arms are really musclely. Is musclely a word? No? Well I’m making it one because your arms are definitely musclely.”

Yeah, she definitely should’ve stopped at the first drink.

“Do you want me to take you home, Hailey?”

She shook her head, frowning a little. “No, I feel great. And, besides, I’m just telling you what I first thought when I saw you. I noticed how big your arms were and I wondered what it would be like to touch them.”

“So you find me attractive?” My voice was low in her ear.

Hailey’s face was so close to me that if I turned my head, our lips would touch. And, maybe I did want our lips to touch. Maybe kissing Hailey was exactly what I needed to do right now.

Maybe it was exactly what I would do.

Chapter Fifteen

Hailey

I felt like my head was split in two—is this why it was called a ‘splitting headache’? Well, now that made sense. It was a struggle to open my eyes and when I did, I didn’t know where I was. I was suddenly filled with panic as I jolted up way too quickly and then groaned when my stomach clenched and vomit started to rise in my throat.

I swallowed it back down and groaned again in disgust as I laid back down, no longer really caring where I was.

Slowly, images from last night started becoming clearer. Chemo didn’t work. Mrs.

Douglas was being put on hospice. Braxton being a jerk about my hair. What Chase had said:

There aren’t enough words to describe how beautiful you look.

Then two too many Crown and Sprites.

Talking.

Laughing.

Kissing.

Well-muscled arms holding me.

More kissing.

Clothes being torn off.

More kissing.

Chase’s hands rubbing up and down my thighs.

The stubble on his cheeks scratching my face.

The weight of his body on top of me.

Oh God.

No effing way. I forced myself to open my eyes again, but did so more slowly this time. Yep, I was definitely lying in a bed— a bed that just so happened to smell exactly like a certain tattooed guy. I lifted up the covers to reveal myself in only an oversized t-shirt.

Guilt crashed over me full force. How could I have done something like that? I cheated on Braxton. I was a terrible person. What was I going to do? What was I going to say? I had to tell him—but how was I going to find the words?

“I thought I heard you. Figured you’d need this.” Chase strolled into the room wearing only his boxers with a glass of water and two big, white pills in his palm.

I tried not to stare at his huge arms or the ridiculous six-pack he had as I pulled the covers up to my chin. Though if what I thought happened last night had really happened, it was nothing he hadn’t seen before. My cheeks felt hot and I lowered my eyes, unable to look at Chase. I was so embarrassed.

“What’s wrong?” he asked as he sat down at the foot of his bed.

“Nothing. I just can’t believe I did that last night.”

“You did get pretty wasted. I told you to slow down.”

“That’s not what I mean.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Me and you— last night—do I really have to spell out what is wrong here?”

“I guess so because I’m kind of confused.”

“I have a boyfriend!”

“I’m aware of that,” he said quietly, and there was an edge to his tone that I didn’t understand.

“And you don’t see that what we did was wrong?”

“Seriously Hailey, I have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Wait…do you mean—you and I—we didn’t?”

“Didn’t what?” he asked, obviously questioning my sanity. “Will you just spit it out already?”

Did he honestly have no idea why I was so upset? Yeah, sure I’d gotten drunk last night, but did he really think I was the kind of girl who would do something like that? Of course he probably did. I’d been upset, had agreed to come to his apartment, and then proceeded to get drunk— not exactly my typical behavior, but how would he know that?

“I cheated on my boyfriend last night,” I whispered, still unable to believe I could be so heartless. Sure Braxton had been a jerk, but that didn’t justify my actions. It wasn’t even really his fault. He was just upset about his mom— it probably really had nothing to do with me or my hair; he just had no one else to take out his frustration on so he’d lashed out at me. I couldn’t really hold that against him. I was devastated about everything too— how could I do that to him?

“Wait! What?” He stood up. “With who?”

“With you, Einstein!”

He seemed relieved by my answer, though I couldn’t imagine why. “Hailey, nothing happened last night.”

“Yes it did—I know I may have been drunk but I remember…”

“You remember what? Because the only thing that happened was you getting so drunk you couldn’t even walk straight. I did what any decent person would do—I let you stay here and sleep it off. I even cleaned up your vomit.”

“But I remember—“ Oh God…

“What do you remember exactly?”

“Never mind.”

“No, tell me.” There was confusion plain on his face as he tried to figure out what I was talking about. I kept my face blank. There was no way I was going to admit it—ever—especially not to him.

“It was nothing.”

I watched his expression change as the pieces clicked in place. The confusion was slowly replaced with the sexiest smirk I had ever seen. “You had a sex dream about me. Didn’t you?” He seemed extremely amused by this.

“No, I didn’t,” I snapped a little too defensively.

“Yes, you did.”

“Why the hell would I have a dream about you?”

“Probably because you find me completely irresistible,” he said, that smirk still on his face. “I bet I was amazing, huh?”

I chose to ignore his question. “Why am I wearing your shirt?”

“I told you, I had to clean up your puke.” He laughed at me as my eyes narrowed. “Don’t get your panties all twisted; Tessa took care of getting you cleaned up and changed. I just cleaned it up off the floor in the kitchen. And the living room. And the bathroom. Honestly, we need to work on your aim if you’re going to have any more nights like last night.” “Tessa was here?”

“Still is. She’s still asleep in Jonathan’s room—it was a long night for everybody.”

I couldn’t think of anything to say to this so I just stayed in the same position, trying very hard not to stare at Chase’s distracting upper body. I had never seen a back like his before; every muscle was so defined.

“Do you want some breakfast? Or will the idea of me cooking shirtless be too much for your dirty little mind to handle? That’s like every woman’s fantasy, right?” he teased me. “I can put a shirt on if that will help.”

“Shut the hell up.” I threw his pillow at him.

“Bacon and eggs okay?”

The thought of food made my stomach twist. “No, no food.” I cringed.

He chuckled and forced the cup of water and pills into my hands. “Here take these and sleep it off.”

I didn’t want to stay in his bed for one more second. Even if we hadn’t actually done anything, it still was weird.

“Um, actually, I have a paper I need to work on. I should probably head back to campus.”

Plus, I really needed to shower. “I feel bad waking Tessa up though.” Especially if she’d spent her night cleaning up after me too.

“I can take you. It’s not a big deal.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah, it’s cool. Let me just get dressed.”

“Um.” A problem occurred to me. “What am I supposed to wear?”

I certainly couldn’t return to the dorms wearing nothing but Chase’s oversized t-shirt. “Oh yeah, give me a sec.”

He returned a few minutes later with the clothes I’d been wearing last night, only they were now vomit-free.

“I thought I puked all over myself?”

“You did. I, uh, sorta did the laundry. You know, the smell was horrific so really I had no choice.” He handed me my jeans and shirt. “Sorry I didn’t fold them or anything. I just pulled them out of the dryer.”

“No, it’s fine,” I assured him. “I mean, thank you. You didn’t have to do that.”

He just shrugged like it was no big deal. Of course being in a band he probably had drunk girls here all the time so maybe it wasn’t anything special that he’d washed my clothes.

“I’ll wait out here.”

When I was dressed, I went into the bathroom and splashed some water on my face. My hair looked like a bird’s nest. I guess that was the one downside to short hair— you couldn’t exactly just pull it up in a ponytail when it didn’t want to cooperate. I wet it down and brushed it back with my fingers. It’d have to do until I could get back to my room and shower properly.

“Ready?” Chase asked as I emerged from the bathroom.

“Yep.”

When we got in his car, he turned the radio down to background noise level.

“So where are you from?” he asked. Great, so we were going to do the whole awkward small-talk thing.

“Southlake. It’s about an hour from here, near Lawrence.”

“Oh yeah, we’ve played a couple shows in Lawrence, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard of Southlake.”

“It’s pretty small— there’s nothing to do there.”

“Is that why you wanted to move closer to the city?”

“No, not really. I just mostly wanted to get away from my dad,” I admitted.

“Yeah, you mentioned something about him last night. Drinking problem, right?”

I paused, not really sure how much of my personal life I wanted to reveal to Chase. Then again, he had spent last night cleaning up my vomit and it didn’t get much more personal than that. “We sorta had a falling out.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.”

“Yeah, he thought that the college fund my grandmother had left me was just free money for the taking. He’s a real classy guy.” I bit my lip nervously. I couldn’t believe I just admitted that to him.

“Jesus.” He shook his head in disbelief. Chase had admitted that he thought I was some sort of stuck up snob the way I’d been treating him. I guess finding out that I was dirt-poor surprised him. “That sucks. Why would he do something like that?” He didn’t act like he felt sorry for me. He just seemed honestly curious and for that reason I felt compelled to tell him my entire story.

I told him about how my mom had just up and left when I was a kid and how my dad had turned to alcohol and gambling after that to cope. I told him about how my neighbors had taken me under their wing and made sure I had a hot dinner to eat every night until I learned how to cook for myself. I left out the fact that it was Braxton’s family. I didn’t know why, but I didn’t want to talk about Braxton to Chase—not after last night.

“Yep, so that’s my sad story. What about you? You never told me where you were from.”

“Well, I’m from here. I grew up in Lenexa.” Chase rapped his fingers against the steering wheel. He suddenly seemed nervous which was unlike him. “I had a very comfortable life growing up in a very wealthy neighborhood. My parents are both lawyers which is why they want me to study Law.”

I was still blown away by the fact that Chase had grown up the complete opposite to me.

His living conditions, the car he drove, and the way he acted just didn’t seem to reflect someone from a wealthy family.

“You really surprised me,” was all I could think of to say.

“I’m not that surprising. I’m kind of a cliché, actually. Rich kid rebelling against his parents by doing something they don’t approve of.”

I knew he was only saying that because he was trying to do the whole “tough guy” thing. “So your parents have really never been to one of your shows?”

“No, they’re too good for that.” His tone was bitter as he stared straight ahead at the road, his hands gripping the steering wheel.

I couldn’t help but feel bad for him. “I’m sorry.”

“It is what it is,” he said with a shrug. “My sister’s awesome though, so that’s something.”

“That’s great that you have someone who supports you.”

Chase didn’t say anything after that and a comfortable silence set in between us. Had Chase and I just had a moment? We’d actually had a serious conversation that hadn’t ended with us wanting to kill each other. I’d never thought such a thing was even possible.

“What are you doing later?” he asked suddenly. “Probably just studying, why?”

“I was wondering if you wanted to get together and work on the song tonight? You know, for class?”

“Oh yeah, sure. Where? The bridge?”

“I was thinking my place.”

“That’s fine. What time?”

“How about seven?”

“Um, this is going to sound lame, but do you think you could pick me up? I know it’s a huge inconvenience; it’s just that I don’t have a car at the moment. I plan to get another job soon so I can start really saving money but—” I was rambling. I needed to just shut up.

“I don’t mind. How about I pick you up at six and we can grab dinner first?”

“Okay.”

I realized then that we had been parked in front of the dorms for a while now just talking. I didn’t think I’d ever talked so much to anyone in my entire life. I was suddenly embarrassed that I’d told him all those personal things about myself. I wondered what he thought of me now.

“Well, I guess I’ll see you later?” I bit my lip, uncertain why I was suddenly so nervous around him.

“See you at six.”

I went to my room and grabbed my shower caddy. It was just before noon so the bathroom was free. Tessa was still over at Chase’s apartment so our room was unusually quiet which was not good because it made it hard not to think about everything that had happened last night—well, the stuff I actually remembered.

The one thing that stood out the most about last night was Chase saying: There aren’t enough words to describe how beautiful you look.

I was pretty sure he had said that to me anyway. I didn’t think that was part of the dream. The dream. Holy crap, what was that? That was probably the most intense thing I had ever experienced and it wasn’t even real. Which made me wonder what it would be like if it was real… I quickly forced myself to stop thinking about Chase like that. It wasn’t right. He wasn’t my boyfriend. I didn’t love him— I was actually just beginning to kind of like him. But I did love Braxton.

But as hard as I tried not to, I kept thinking about Chase. I wasn’t sure how to feel about the things that he’d said to me. And I wasn’t sure what to think about the fact that just within the last twenty-four hours he’d witnessed me completely wasted, cleaned up my puke, and found out that I’d been fantasizing about him. Nice.

I tried to keep busy for the rest of the morning so I wouldn’t dwell on everything. I went down to the cafeteria and grabbed some snacks from the vending machine to sneak into the library. I had to print off a paper that was due for American Literature.

The library was deserted so I was able to find a private corner on the fourth floor where I could work on my paper and eat my trail mix without having to worry about the wrath of the head librarian. She was an ancient woman with two hearing aids and a constant scowl. The rest of the staff consisted of students who had chosen to be library aides to qualify for work study and they didn’t care about students breaking the No Food Allowed rule—they broke it themselves.

It took me most of the day to finish up my paper and finally get it printed off. It was almost five and I wanted to change before Chase came to pick me up. I tried to tell myself it was because I was covered in library dust and had nothing to do with the fact that I wanted him to call me beautiful again.

As I was heading back to my room, I suddenly saw Braxton walking toward me.

”I was waiting for you outside your room. Someone told me they thought you were at the library so—”

“Yeah, I had a paper to finish,” I said curtly, refusing to feel guilty over something that never actually happened.

“Can we talk?”

“I guess so.”

“Listen, I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings,” he said as he took my hands into his. “It’s just with everything happening with mom, I don’t know how to handle any other changes. Especially ones that involve you—you’re supposed to be my constant, you know? The one thing I can always depend on. But I still had no right to react like that so I wanted to tell you I’m sorry and ask you to forgive me.”

He stared down at me with those baby blue eyes and smiled that endearing smile of his that usually got him out of trouble with just about anybody. I don’t think anyone could refuse him when he put on the ‘smolder’. “Please?” he asked.

“Yeah, okay. Forgiven,” I told him. “I’m really sorry about your mom, Braxton.”

He leaned down and placed a chaste kiss on my lips and I realized with a jolt that I felt nothing at all. The dream, that I wasn’t ever admitting to having, about Chase stirred something inside of me that Braxton had never been able to. What was wrong with me? It hadn’t actually happened. I didn’t actually have any feelings for Chase. It was just a stupid dream. It didn’t mean anything.

At least that’s what I kept trying to tell myself.

“Are you okay?” I asked, trying to focus on the boy standing in front of me. “Not really.”

“I’m so sorry. I don’t know what else to say. I know how hard this must be on you.”

He bit his lip like he was trying to stop himself from crying. “It was expected, but that doesn’t make it any easier to face, you know?”

“Yeah, I know.” I wrapped my arms around his waist and buried my face into his chest. I wondered if maybe I should tell him about last night, but nothing had actually happened so I

decided not to bring it up. There really was no point in upsetting him anymore.

“Do you want to grab something to eat?”

“Um, yeah.” I couldn’t tell him no. “Okay. I kinda have a study date tonight over at a friend’s house. Do you mind dropping me off there after dinner?

“Yeah, I can do that.”

I got out my cell phone and sent a quick text to Chase cancelling dinner plans but promising to be there later. I didn’t want to completely blow him off—that wouldn’t be fair. I was actually looking forward to hanging out with him again—just as friends—but Braxton was my boyfriend. I needed to remember that.

Chapter Sixteen

Chase

My insides were still churning.

Even though Hailey hadn’t seen me this afternoon, I’d seen her. And her boyfriend. I’d been heading toward the library to return a book on contemporary piano when I’d caught sight of them kissing.

That was all I could stand to see. As a strange feeling stung me, I’d turned around and headed straight back to my car, not wanting to run into them and create an awkward situation.

Yeah, I knew Hailey had a boyfriend; what I didn’t know was how much it bothered me seeing them together. I mean, why the hell did I care so much?

Hailey and I had actually had fun last night and then really connected this morning, but that obviously hadn’t meant anything to her because the second her asshole boyfriend had come back into the picture, she’d completely forgotten about me.

Even though we’d agreed on going out to dinner before working on our assignment together, she’d blown me off to hang out with her douchebag boyfriend. All I’d gotten was a simple text message:

Sorry I can’t make it to dinner. I’ll see you tonight.

You know what the messed up thing was? A part of me had actually felt disappointed. But that was my fault. It was my fault for getting too close to Hailey and letting her become a familiar presence in my life.

What was even more messed up was I still wanted to get close to her despite the fact that she had a boyfriend. I mean, not in a sleazy “I wanna get in your pants” way—just in a normal, friends kind of way.

Believe me, I wasn’t that kind of guy—the kind of guy who acted all sensitive and shit just to get into a girl’s panties.

If a girl was taken then she was completely off limits. Except Hailey didn’t seem like she was taken. Not that she acted slutty or anything—she just didn’t seem very happy with her relationship. Not that it was any of my business.

So here I was sitting around in the apartment with Jonathan and Tessa, waiting for Hailey to get here so we could work on our songwriting assignment. Unless she decided to bail on me again. That would kind of suck.

And, because I had a platonic interest in Hailey and her well-being, I felt that it was only normal to ask Hailey’s best friend about the jerk she was with.

“So what’s with Hailey and the guy she’s dating?”

Tessa, who was snuggled into Jonathan’s lap on the couch, looked over at me in surprise.

“What do you mean?”

I shrugged, trying to act casual about the whole thing. “I dunno, I’m just wondering what their deal is.”

I wasn’t too sure how much Tessa knew about Hailey and her boyfriend, and I didn’t want to mention that Hailey had basically had a breakdown last night. What Hailey had shared with me was intimate—it was a small glimpse that I’d been given into Hailey’s world and I didn’t want to share that with anyone just yet.

Tessa hesitated before responding, looking troubled for a moment. “I’m not too sure. All I know is they’ve been together since they were fourteen.”

Bitter resentment rose up within me, and I tried to push it away before it took over me. I already knew that, but I didn’t like hearing it again. “Huh. So they’re pretty serious?”

“Yeah, I guess. She doesn’t really talk about him much.”

As I fell silent, I noticed Tessa and Jonathan exchange a look. I knew well enough what that look meant. They thought I was asking these questions because I was into Hailey, which was completely false, by the way. I didn’t care that she had a boyfriend—I only cared because I wanted to make sure he was treating her right.

What was really weird about the whole thing was that Hailey didn’t talk much about her boyfriend. Weren’t girls all lovey-dovey and shit about the guy they were with? If she’d been with him for so many years, wouldn’t she want to brag about how long they’d been together? I

knew girls who made a big deal about three-month anniversaries, so it was weird that Hailey rarely brought up her relationship.

Which brought me to my next point. Obviously she wasn’t happy with the guy she was with. That had been clear enough after last night, yet she’d gone off with him this afternoon and stood me up, which left me feeling extremely confused about where I stood with her.

I guess I didn’t stand anywhere with her. That was something I had to come to terms with before I started growing too attached to her.

There was a gentle knock on the door and I jumped up from the armchair I’d been reclining in and hurried to the door, knowing very well who I’d find standing on the other side.

When I opened up the door, the first thing I noticed was that Hailey looked very uncomfortable. She was toying with a loose thread on her sweater, looking as though she was questioning whether she should be here.

Heck, she probably was questioning it. Why would she want to spend any more time with me than was absolutely necessary to complete our assignment? That’s probably why she’d cancelled dinner.

“Hi, Chase.” Her tone was cautious as she regarded me with those bright green eyes of hers.

“Hey,” I said, trying to remain casual as I leaned against the doorframe. “I’m surprised you showed up considering you bailed on me earlier.”

Low blow? Yes. Obviously I was having trouble letting this go.

I did start to feel bad when Hailey’s face fell and turned pale. “Chase, I’m really sorry. I didn’t mean to leave you hanging like that. It’s just-I just-things are very complicated right now. I feel like a bad person.” Her face scrunched up a little and I was suddenly filled with a fear that she would start crying again.

Not wanting to upset her, I quickly reached out and grasped her by her small shoulders.

“I’m sorry, that was a complete douchebag move. I get it. Something came up; I won’t hold it against you. Let’s get some work done, okay?”

Releasing her, I stepped aside and gestured for her to come inside. Once I’d shut the door and turned to follow her, I saw that Tessa had Hailey in a hug and was jabbering away in excitement. “Are you feeling any better? You were a complete mess last night. Luckily Chase and his big arms were there to carry you to bed.”

Tessa threw a wink in my direction as I took a seat at the kitchen table and opened up my notebook. She could be so dramatic sometimes, but I could tell why Jonathan liked being around her so much. Tessa was just a huge ball of positive energy and very different to all the girls he’d dated in the past.

“I-uh-I don’t really remember much from last night,” Hailey stammered, looking increasingly uncomfortable. “But I am feeling better.”

“Of course you don’t remember much,” Tessa continued. “You were wasted!”

I cleared my throat. “Hailey, do you want to get started on this thing?”

The only reason I’d interrupted their conversation was because I could tell that Hailey was feeling awkward and embarrassed about losing control last night.

Hailey shot me a grateful look and came over to join me at the table.

Just as Tessa returned to her seat on Jonathan’s lap, she suddenly sprung up again. “Oh, Hailey! You know that piano guy you like? That William guy? He has a concert coming up soon.”

“William guy?” Jonathan straightened up and shot Tessa a curious look.

“Yeah, William something. Hailey is in love with him.”

“William C. Lancaster,” Hailey supplied, a smile creeping onto her face. “Yes, I saw the flyer posted for it on campus. I already marked the date down in my planner.”

What made me smile was the fact that she didn’t deny that she was in love with him.

Jonathan was staring around at all of us like he’d just had the most amazing sex on the planet. “William C. Lancaster, huh? Have you ever met him?”

“No, but I would love to one day. His music inspires me. He’s flawless.”

Jonathan let out a choking laugh, and I shot him a glare. “Th-that’s interesting because he’s-”

Shit. Jonathan and his big mouth were about to blow everything as usual. Before he could finish his sentence, I cut him off.

“Are you gonna go to the concert?”

“Of course!” Hailey enthused. “I’ll probably be going alone though. No one I know likes that kind of music.”

“Well, you’re in luck!” Jonathan was grinning from ear to ear. “Because that’s exactly the kind of music Chase does love.”

“Really?” Hailey didn’t seem convinced as she studied me. “I didn’t think you liked classical music since you called William a pretty boy.”

Crap. What was I supposed to say? Jonathan really knew how to back me into a tight corner.

“Hell yeah, he loves classical music!” Jonathan said. “He’s just embarrassed to admit it because we make fun of him. He also loves pretty boys.” I tore out a page from my notebook, scrunched it up, and threw it at Jonathan’s head. That only got him laughing again.

“That’s perfect, then!” Tessa cut in. “Hailey and Chase can go together. It’s a date! I mean, a platonic date.”

At this point, Hailey looked mortified at the thought of going on a platonic date with me,

and I felt like I needed to kill Jonathan. I couldn’t figure out what he and Tessa were up to, but if they were trying to set me up with Hailey, it was never going to work. Hailey already belonged to someone else.

Chapter Seventeen

Hailey

“It’s kinda cloudy today,” I commented. Awesome, Hailey, talking about the weather— real cool. “Yeah, but I think we’ll be fine.”

“Maybe we should go somewhere else. I don’t know, some place indoors maybe?” We were at the bridge again today. He was right; no one ever came over on this side of campus so we could work on it without any distractions.

“Stop worrying. A little rain isn’t going to hurt you, Hailey.”

“Yeah, but—”

“Did you bring your notebook?” he cut me off.

“Obviously.” I wasn’t the one who never came prepared.

“Can I see it?” “Yeah, sure, here.”

He opened it up and read over what little progress we had made so far.

“So, are you excited about the William C. Lancaster concert?” he asked without looking up from the notebook.

“Yeah, I’m really excited actually.”

He looked up then. “You must really like classical music.”

“I know I like him. I’ve only seen him perform once, but I was completely mesmerized watching him play—I can’t wait to see him again. I missed the first part of his performance last time.”

“Why’s that?”

“Braxton was running late.” I shook my head dismissively and shrugged. “He hates that sort of thing anyway so it’ll be nice to go with someone who appreciates classical music. Though

I have to admit, I never saw that coming.”

He chuckled quietly to himself. “Well maybe there’s more to me than you think,” he said, echoing what I’d once said to him.

I noticed that at some point in our conversation we had moved closer to one another. If I

moved just an inch to my left I’d practically be sitting on in his lap. I bit my lip as he leaned in closer, a heady look in his eyes. Something about the way he was looking at me made me wonder if he wanted to kiss me. And then I wondered, what would I do if he tried?

A small part of me admitted that I would probably let him.

Our faces were too close. His forehead was almost touching mine. If I moved my head any closer, our lips would touch.

Not trusting myself, I jumped to my feet. What I didn’t expect was for Chase to follow me. “Hailey.” Chase’s voice was low as he faced me, his hand pressed into the small of my back. I was trapped. But in a way, I liked it. Right now, I didn’t want to have options. I wanted him to be the only option.

Then, out of nowhere, those gray clouds he’d told me not to worry about broke open and the rain poured down on us. In a matter of seconds we were both soaked through. He let out a hearty laugh and pointed his face up to the clouds, his arms outstretched at his sides.

When he dropped his eyes back down to me, he caught me staring. I tried to look away but I was too late. He brushed the wet hair out of my face and his hands lingered just a moment too long. My breathing hitched as I thought about what it would be like to kiss him in the rain.

“You were right,” Chase said. I must’ve looked confused because he continued, “I guess next time I’ll check the radar before suggesting we work outside.”

“Oh,” was my lame response. “Yeah. I guess I should go change.” “Are you wanting to call it quits for the day?” “No,” I answered quickly.

“Do you want to finish working at my place?”

“Sure.” I smiled.

We were slowly making progress—on our lyrics and our friendship—if that’s what it was. It seemed funny to me now that I’d once thought he was just some stupid tatted up freak with freakishly huge arms. And though that gigantic skeleton tattoo still freaked me out, I found myself wanting to be around him. He made me laugh and inspired me to think about things differently.

He was such a walking contradiction and I found him fascinating. I was immensely surprised when Jonathan had said that Chase loved classical music. That didn’t seem to fit at all with what I knew of him so far—the tattooed lead singer of a pop punk band (or was it punk pop? Why couldn’t I ever remember?) was a closet lover of the classics? Yeah, it didn’t seem likely at all, but Chase didn’t deny it. There was something off about this whole thing, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.

I was feeling guilty about my thoughts of kissing him. And even though we’d made plans to attend the William C. Lancaster concert together as friends—I felt like maybe it wasn’t such a great idea. I wanted to go to the concert and ideally I didn’t want to have to go by myself—but going with Chase? That had disaster written all over it—I still hadn’t told Braxton of said plans which was probably a bad sign.

A part of me hoped that I was able to come up with an excuse to get out of it and then I

wouldn’t have to come clean about it to Braxton at all, but at the same time, I really wanted to go watch William C. Lancaster again.

When we got to Chase’s apartment and caught Tessa and Jonathan making out—I suddenly came up with the perfect solution: I would force Tessa, by the power of Girl Code, to come with. Then it would be a group thing and not so much a platonic date.

“Sure!” she agreed immediately, and I felt a huge wave of relief. “Jonathan should come too.”

Well, bringing Jonathan along wasn’t exactly what I had in mind—now it was less like a

‘group thing’ and more like a ‘double date’. I was totally screwed.

Jonathan and Tessa retreated to his bedroom, presumably to continue their make-out session in private. I assumed we’d work on our song in the living room so I was taken by surprise when Chase led me into his bedroom. He made himself comfortable, sprawling out on the bed on his stomach.

I took a seat on the floor—as far away from him as possible to avoid any further temptation. That didn’t stop me from thinking inappropriate thoughts though.

Trust me, it was hard to concentrate with the way Chase’s wet shirt clung to those ridiculously large arms of his. Not to mention the sight of his abs, which were clearly defined through the thin, soaked fabric. Were those things real?

“So,” Chase interrupted my thoughts. “What do you think of something like this:

There is this energy, it’s calling me

It’s making me change my mind

There’s this intensity when you’re close to me

And now we’re blurring all the lines”

Blurring all the lines.

I had to force myself to swallow before I could answer him.

“It’s good.” I said as I wrote it down, not making eye contact with him. “I like it a lot, actually.”

Chase was actually really good at this sort of thing. A lot better than I was expecting him to be when we were given this assignment. He was just full of surprises.

I grabbed my guitar and began strumming the chords, quietly singing the words he’d just come up with to see if anything needed to be adjusted. It was perfect.

“You’re really good at this,” I told him. “Great artist, remember?” he teased.

“So who broke your heart then, ‘great artist’?” I asked playfully, and was surprised when his expression darkened.

“You don’t want to hear it, trust me.”

Actually, at this moment, there was nothing I wanted more than to hear his story—to get to the roots of this walking contradiction that sat before me.

“That doesn’t really seem fair. You know my sob story, but I still know nothing about you,” I pointed out.

There was hesitation on his face, but finally he gave a small sigh. “My ex cheated on me a few months ago . We were together for three years.”

I was completely caught off guard. I hadn’t expected Chase to be the kind of guy who would be in a long-term relationship, especially considering he’d told me I didn’t know anything about love. Maybe when he’d said that, it’d come from bitterness. There was a lot I didn’t know about him.

“I’m so sorry, Chase.” And I meant it. Obviously this was something that was difficult for him to talk about.

He shrugged. “I’m over it now. I’m better off without her anyway. We fought a lot over stupid shit.”

I wanted to tell Chase that not everyone was like that. I wanted to tell him that he was a great guy. I wanted to tell him how amazing he was.

But before I could tell him any of those things, my phone buzzed in my pocket.

“It’s Braxton,” I muttered, mostly to myself. It was a little early for his regular good-night call. “Hello?” I answered on the next ring.

“Hailey.” Braxton’s voice broke as he said my name.

“What’s wrong?”

“It’s Mom. She—.” His voice was rough and I heard his breath catch. I could tell that he had been crying and that he was trying to stop.

“Hold on a second, Braxton, I can barely hear you.” I looked over at Chase and mouthed the words, “I’ll be right back.”

Then I quietly left the room so I could listen to my boyfriend’s breakdown in private.

“What’s going on?” I asked him once I was outside the apartment.

“She wants us to start planning her funeral,” he said quietly. “And I just-can you just come here?”

“Right now?”

“Yes.”

“It’s a little late and I have class tomorrow.”

“Please, Hay?”

“Braxton—how am I supposed to get there? No car, remember?”

“Just, please. I need you. I can’t do this alone.”

“Fine, okay.” I told him as my mind worked out a solution. I didn’t want to do this, but if Braxton needed me, I had no choice. “I’ll see if I can borrow Tessa’s car.”

I hung up with Braxton and took a deep breath. This was not something that I wanted to deal with right now. I loved Mrs. Douglas and my heart was breaking knowing that we didn’t have much time left with her. But Braxton had put me in a difficult position. I hated asking favors of people and I wasn’t particularly fond of driving at night. Regardless, he’d said he needed me so I had to go. I owed him that much. He’d been there for me when my mom had left and through the following years of neglect by my drunken father. He was always there for me. Now it was my turn to be there for him. “Something wrong?” Chase asked when I came back in the room.

“Yeah, I have to go,” I answered apologetically as I grabbed my things.

Chase’s face fell and I felt really bad for leaving so suddenly after he’d opened up to me about his cheating ex. Then his expression hardened and he simply shrugged. “Yeah, cool, I’ll see you later.”

Feeling a little guilty, I walked out of Chase’s room and knocked on Jonathan’s door. I heard Tessa giggling and after a scuffling noise, like someone scrambling to get on their pants, Jonathan opened the door.

“What’s up?”

“Can I talk to Tessa for a minute? In private?” “Course.” He smiled sheepishly and left the room.

“What’s going on, Hailey?” Tessa sat up.

“I have to ask a huge favor.” I told her what was going on.

“Yeah, of course,” she said as she dug out her keys from her purse. “Here you go.” “I’ll fill it up when I get back,” I promised.

“Hailey, it’s fine. Go.”

“Thanks,” I told her sincerely. Maybe she was right about the whole roommates-equalsbest-friends-forever thing. I hugged her goodbye and left without saying anything else to Chase.

I was so grateful to Tessa for letting me borrow her car. I wanted to race to Southlake, but I figured getting a speeding ticket in someone else’s car was probably not the smartest idea so I managed to maintain the speed limit. I finally pulled into the familiar driveway around 10pm.

The surrounding neighborhood was quiet but the lights were still on in the Douglas house.

I didn’t bother knocking on the front door. I assumed they knew I was on my way after Braxton’s frantic phone call.

I heard the faint mumbling of voices in the back room so I headed toward them. Mrs.

Douglas was on the hospital bed that had been brought in for her, looking much worse than I’d ever seen her. The stench of vomit hung in the air mixed in with what smelled like straight bleach.

She was asleep, propped up with some pillows. All the furniture in the living room had been shoved to the side to make room for the hospital bed. Mr. Douglas sat stoically beside her, holding her hand. It appeared that they had been having some sort of family meeting, presumably to discuss the funeral arrangements, and she had fallen asleep in the middle of it, too exhausted to keep her eyes open any longer. Braxton and Brad were still deep in whispered conversation near them. “Why are we even talking about this?” I heard Braxton say.

“Because she wants to, Braxton. She wants a say in what happens to her. You aren’t going to deny her that, are you?”

“I’m not planning our mother’s funeral while she’s still breathing.”

“It’s not like I want to do this. I just don’t see what choice we have. We can’t just keep acting like it’s not going to happen. This is what she wants.”

“It’s just not fair.” Braxton sat down sobbing into his hands. His mom stirred at the sound of her son crying. “I don’t want to spend what little time she has left talking about flower arrangements and music.”

“Braxton!” I whispered loudly to get his attention, but at the same time not wanting to disturb Mrs. Douglas.

He looked up and I could see that his eyes were red with dried tears but his face was streaked wet with new ones. He stood up when he saw me. I think he could tell that I wasn’t very happy with him. I pulled him out of the room until we were outside on the porch so we could talk without disturbing his mom. “What are you doing?” I asked.

“I don’t know.” He let out a frustrated sigh. “This is so much harder than I thought it would be.”

“That doesn’t matter. You can’t act like that.”

“Can’t act like what?”

“All sobbing and ‘poor pitiful me’. It’s her choice. You owe her that. If she wants a say in how she’s laid to rest, give it to her. No matter how hard it is for you to think about—I guarantee it’s a million times harder for her. This isn’t about you, Braxton.”

“I figured you of all people would understand what it’s like.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Don’t you remember how sad you were when your mother left you?”

“It’s not the same,” I said. Any ounce of sympathy I felt toward him vanished and I was left seething. “Your mother doesn’t want to leave you! She loves you! But she doesn’t have choice—she’s dying.” My harsh—but honest—words caused him to flinch in response but I didn’t care. I continued, “My mom chose to leave me. She decided one day that she didn’t love me enough to stay. Trust me. That is a million times worse. Stop being so selfish. The only thing you should be concerned about right now is making sure your mom is able to spend her remaining time here with her family however she wants to, and if she wants to start planning her own funeral—then goddamn it, let her!”

Chapter Eighteen

Chase

There were only a few things in the world that really got me on edge. One of the major things was understandably my parents, but I was pretty sure a lot of people were put on edge by their parents. So, parents aside, I was quickly coming to the realization that one of my other triggers was Hailey.

Which made sense, right? I mean, I’d basically disliked the girl since I’d first laid eyes on her, but now things were different. Hailey put me on edge because I felt the complete opposite about her now. Now, I kind of liked her and that freaked me out.

Yes, Hailey had a boyfriend—I got it—but they weren’t married. People broke up after years of being together. So that meant there was still a chance for me. A few weeks ago, I was singing a different tune. I’d been completely against dating anyone. It was amazing how one girl—who was pretty much the opposite of everything I stood for—could change all that.

So, as I sat here on the edge of my bed trying to focus on our assignment, I was more focused on all the things I could do to her on this bed. It was distracting having her here in my room.

As usual, she was wearing one of her distracting outfits—a low cut, white shirt which showed off her boobs paired with tight black jeans. Damn could this girl wear jeans. I wouldn’t mind if she wore jeans like that every day.

Shaking my head, I forced myself to focus on the assignment. We had to get this done and we had barely started making progress. “What if we move this line up and then add something new in here? I think it’d flow a lot better.”

“Uh huh, sure,” Hailey mumbled, not even looking me in the eye. Her head was bent over as she scribbled away in that planner of hers, and I knew that she wasn’t working on our assignment.

Actually, she had barely spoken two words to me in the last fifteen minutes.

What was her deal? The other day she’d rushed off to see her boyfriend without much of an explanation right after I’d told her about my cheating ex, and now she wasn’t even paying attention. I wasn’t going to lie; I was a little annoyed with her. Hailey seemed like the kind of girl who wanted to do well in class and get good grades, yet here she was barely helping me with our project.

It was really starting to piss me off.

“Do you have anything you want to change around?” I asked, hoping that if I asked her an open-ended question it would get her to talk more.

“Yeah, that’s fine.” She was so focused on her planner that she hadn’t even registered my question. And that’s what finally made me snap.

“Hailey, what the fuck? Have you heard a damn word I’ve said?” I stood up and glared at her, waiting to get some sort of reaction out of her.

Hailey glanced up, her expression blank. “I have been listening.”

“Yeah, sure you have. What was the last thing I said?”

She chewed on her bottom lip and then sighed. “I’m sorry; I guess I have been a little distracted.”

I released my own sigh. “It’s fine. Let’s just get this thing done, okay?”

Hailey nodded and I let my eyes fall back onto the lyrics that I’d been trying to fix.

We only have one night to make this right

To take back what we denied It’s only do or die, don’t hesitateCause we’re trying to stay alive

There was something with the lyrics that wasn’t working for me. Something would have to be changed around a little.

“Do you think the chorus needs to be shortened?” I asked, not really sure what to do with it. Maybe Hailey would have a better idea.

Except, once again, she wasn’t paying attention to me at all. Her lips were slightly parted, her brow knitted as she stared at that goddamn planner like it was a matter of life or death.

This was bullshit. I was done with this crap.

Jumping to my feet, I grabbed the planner out of Hailey’s hand. In the process, a handful of pages were torn out.

“Chase!” she cried, scrambling up to get the planner from me. “Give that back!” In a complete asshole move, I ripped out several more pages and threw them at her.

“There you go!” What could I say? I was mad at her for so many reasons.

Hailey looked like she was close to tears and I started to feel bad. “You can’t do that!” She sounded so helpless and her voice rose in panic. “You just can’t! I need that!”

I was so frustrated, I wanted to break something. “You don’t need a planner. It’s a freaking planner!”

“You’re a horrible person! You had no right to do that!” She suddenly came at me, beating her fists on my chest as tears fell down her face. Her skin started to turn red as she unleashed her anger on me.

I guess we both had a lot of pent up frustration toward each other.

I grabbed her wrist to stop her from hitting me. Losing her balance, Hailey fell hard against me. “I hate you, Chase!” she cried, her green eyes blazing with anger.

“No, you fucking don’t.” My other hand slid up her arm and entangled itself in her hair. “If you really think that then you’re lying to yourself.”

Hailey seemed to have stopped breathing. Her eyes were locked on mine. Our bodies felt like they were fused together—like we couldn’t break free or didn’t want to. Her skin burned against mine. Dirty thoughts were running through my mind—what it would feel like to taste her mouth, to take her clothes off, to run my hands over that curvy body of hers.

Then her eyes darted to my lips and I knew she was thinking exactly what I was thinking. Without a second’s hesitation, I pressed my lips against hers. There was some resistance on her part—she didn’t kiss me back at first, but after a second it felt as though she was melting into me.

My fingers found their way beneath her sweater to her soft skin. I pulled her in tighter and she pushed herself against me. We fell onto my bed. Oh God, I wanted so desperately to feel her naked body against mine.

My lips found her neck and she moaned. Glancing up, I noticed her eyes fluttering shut as she dug her fingers into my hair.

I was hard against her. I wanted her.

Then I felt a hand press against my chest as Hailey stiffened beneath me. As I began to pull away, I saw her raise her hand and then a sharp, stinging sensation met my left cheek.

“Hailey, what the hell?” I rolled off her and watched as she stood up and adjusted her clothes.

She was shaking and her face was bright red. “Oh my God, I can’t believe that just happened. I can’t believe I let that happen. Why would you do that?” She was practically yelling at me now.

“I wasn’t the only one doing it.” Yeah, it was a stupid thing to say, but I was once again left reeling from Hailey’s rejection, so I wasn’t really sure how to handle the awkward moment.

“This isn’t funny!” Hailey gathered up her things and began stuffing them into her bag. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me! And, I don’t know what’s wrong with you! I have a boyfriend!”

Before I could respond, she raced out of my room without another word. A few seconds later, the front door slammed shut. I was left in complete silence with my thoughts, but my mind was anything but silent.

I tried to process what had just happened and couldn’t understand how I’d let myself lose control like that. I’d acted like a complete asshole to her and then kissed her when I knew she had a boyfriend.

I’d always told myself I would never mess around with girl who was taken, yet I’d gone ahead and broken my own rules. What the hell was wrong with me?

Kissing Hailey had felt like a figment of my imagination and the only way I knew it was real was the sharp stinging on my face as a reminder.

I had screwed up big time and somehow I had to make it up to Hailey.

Chapter Nineteen

Hailey

I felt like everything was a huge mess and I couldn’t see straight long enough to figure out how I was supposed to be feeling right now.

First, I was pissed that Chase had ripped up my planner like that. What the hell was that about? It seemed like a huge overreaction. I didn’t understand his motives behind that at all and then, to make the whole situation even more confusing, he had kissed me. That kiss had affected me somehow and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Maybe it was just the heat of the moment but, then again, maybe it was something more.

All knew was that I was really nervous about seeing Braxton later. It wasn’t like Chase had just randomly kissed me; I’d let it happen and kissed him back, and I knew I owed it to my boyfriend to tell him about it. I could try to brush it off as just a kiss, like it was no big deal, but I didn’t really believe that.

Not now when I was pretty sure I knew exactly what kind of butterflies Tessa had been talking about—and the sensation was just as unpleasant as I had suspected it would be, but it was also kind of wonderful.

More than anything, it was confusing. How could one person make me feel so many

different emotions? I was pissed about my planner, giddy about the way I felt when he’d kissed me, and guilty because it shouldn’t have happened in the first place. Right now I was feeling so conflicted that I didn’t know which way was up.

I heard a knock at the door. It was probably someone looking for Tessa and since she

wasn’t here at the moment and I wasn’t in the mood to be social, I decided to ignore it. When the knocks persisted, however, I gave in with a reluctant sigh and walked to the door.

When I opened it, my newly discovered butterflies made a reappearance—followed quickly by a wave of guilt.

“What are you doing here?”

“Hey,” Chase said nervously. His uncharacteristic shyness threw me off for a minute until I remembered that I was supposed to be mad at him. I had slapped him across the face after we kissed. He probably wasn’t sure how I would react to his showing up here unexpectedly. “I wanted to bring you—I mean, I got you something.” He handed me a thin wrapped gift. “What is it?”

“A peace offering.”

“You didn’t need to get me anything.”

“Just open it, Hailey.”

Reluctantly, I did. It was a planner—a much nicer one than the one he’d ripped to shreds. “You got me a planner?” I asked in disbelief.

“Yeah, I felt like shit after what I did,” Chase admitted. “I’m sorry I was such an asshole.”

“You got me a planner,” I repeated.

“Yeah,” he said running a hand over the top of his head uncomfortably. “And, I uh, wanted to apologize for that kiss. It was out of line. I know you have a boyfriend and I shouldn’t have done that. I don’t want you to think I’m the kind of guy that goes around making moves on other guys’ girlfriends. It was a mistake and I’m sorry.”

I wanted to interrupt him and tell him that it was okay but I couldn’t. I really was mad about that kiss. It wasn’t that I was upset with him for initiating it, I was just so frustrated and confused by the way it made me feel when he’ done it. It was like my eyes had finally been opened and I was suddenly able to see everything I had been missing out on—it was kind of liberating. But now, here he was, apologizing and saying it was just a mistake. Obviously our encounter had not had the same effect on him. “Just don’t let it happen again,” I told him.

“Can we just go back to the way it was before?”

“What? With us hating each other?”

He cracked a smile. “Not that far back…could we just go back to being almost-friends?”

“Just almost-friends?” “Yeah.” He gazed at me with a nervous anticipation, as if bracing himself for rejection. Was he really that blind? Could he not tell that he affected me?

“I think I can handle that.”

“Do you still want to go to the concert with me?” he asked carefully.

“Yeah, I still want to go.”

“But do you still want to go with me?” The fear of rejection was still there in his voice and on his face.

As much as I wanted to tell him that there was no one I would rather go to the concert with than him, I knew that it wasn’t right. I had a boyfriend. If I truly thought that Chase and I were strictly friends, it wouldn’t be an issue. Even if he was blind to how I felt about him, I

couldn’t lie to myself. What I felt for him was more than just friendship. I was attracted to him, but because of my commitment to Braxton I needed to avoid the temptation as much as possible. The more time I spent with Chase, the more likely another slip-up would occur. “I don’t know yet. Can I think about it?” I finally asked him.

“Yeah, of course.” He seemed kind of relieved by my uncertainty. Maybe he was looking for an out. Before I could ask him if he even still wanted me to go, he smiled and said, “I’ll see you later, almost-friend.”

“Bye, Chase.” I couldn’t help but roll my eyes.

By the time Braxton picked me up for our date night, I had my mind made up. I decided not to tell him anything about Chase or the kiss. I still needed time to figure everything out and there was no point in hurting him in the process. I was confused and I just needed to take a step back and think. I couldn’t think when I was around Chase.

I couldn’t ignore the fact that he made me feel something—I just couldn’t decide if that something was a good thing or a bad thing.

Half the time I was so frustrated with him that I wanted to slap him—and did—but then there were other times, when he let his walls down, that I found myself wanting to get to know him better. The whole situation was such unfamiliar territory for me, and until I knew what to make of it I decided there was no point worrying Braxton about it. It was probably just a silly crush that I would forget all about. After all, no matter how intoxicating they were, butterflies weren’t grounds for a long-term commitment. No, Braxton and I were solid. We knew each other better than anyone else in the world—he was my absolute best friend, my high school sweetheart. The boy next door I had always planned on ending up with. Not some punk rocker covered in tattoos.

As much as I tried to convince myself otherwise, tattoos or no tattoos, I still couldn’t shake the way I felt when Chase kissed me.

I tried to act as normal as possible when Braxton came to pick me up, but he must’ve have known something was up because he was acting a little weird himself—all fidgety.

“Is everything okay?” I asked when I couldn’t take him bouncing his knee as he drove anymore. It was making the whole seat bounce.

“Yeah, everything’s great,” he said unconvincingly. I spent the rest of the ride trying to decipher what could possibly be going on without much luck.

He had made reservations at a nice restaurant—an expensive one on The Plaza. As we walked in, I immediately wished I would’ve dressed up a little more. I felt very plain in my sweater dress and knee-high leather boots.

When Braxton gave the hostess our name, she greeted us with a little too much enthusiasm and her eyes lit up expectantly. I thought it was a little strange but remembered the type clientele she was used to dealing with; most wealthy people came to expect the extra attention. She led us to a private table in the back that had a beautiful centerpiece made out of red roses and white baby’s breath. Braxton always got me roses for special occasions—I never had the heart to tell him that I hated roses. Sure, they are pretty and smell nice but they are just so cliché. Daisies were my favorite.

Soft classical music played in the background and the dim lighting of the room made it all quite romantic, but despite the romantic nature of our surroundings the butterflies were noticeably absent.

The waiter came over almost immediately, another overly enthusiastic smiler, to take our drink orders. I nibbled on a breadstick as I browsed the menu.

“Did you see that William C. Lancaster has a concert in the city next week?” Braxton asked conversationally. I gulped down some water. What if he wanted to go to make up for last time? “Um, yeah. Actually Tessa and I and a couple friends from school are going.” I hoped he couldn’t hear how nervous I was. I was a terrible liar. I wasn’t even sure why I was lying to him. Okay, so maybe I knew exactly why I was lying to him—and for that reason alone I knew I should tell him the truth, but I still didn’t say anything about Chase. “Oh.” I couldn’t tell if he was more disappointed or relieved.

“I mean, I didn’t think to ask you because I knew how miserable you were at the last concert.”

“It wasn’t that bad.”

“Braxton, I think I remember you snoring through most of it,” I teased him.

“Okay, so it’s not exactly my scene but I know how much you like the guy so I would suffer through it again for you.” He smiled.

“Well, there’s no need for that.” I tried to keep my tone light. “No reason to torture yourself for my benefit.”

The waiter brought out our salads and we started to eat in silence. I could feel the table shaking and knew that Braxton was bouncing his knee like he did when he was nervous or impatient. He didn’t say anything, but I knew something was up.

“Braxton?” I asked. “Seriously, what’s going on?”

He smiled an adorably nervous smile that I was familiar with. “I was going to wait until dessert but I’m too excited.” He stood up, pushing his chair back ever so slightly.

“You’re freaking me out.”

“Hailey Jean, I have loved you for over half of my life. I cannot tell you how happy you have made me. I know that we are young, but I also know that we are supposed to be together and I don’t want to wait any longer to start my life with you. Will you marry me?”

There was he, kneeling before me with a glittering, round-cut diamond ring. Now, even I knew that when someone proposed to you, you were supposed to feel excited, elated, happy-butterflies should have been gleefully fluttering around in my stomach. But in reality, all I felt was numb-and a little sick to my stomach.

“Oh God,” I gasped. I had to tell him, but I wasn’t really sure how to say it. All I knew was that I owed it to him—he deserved to know the truth. “I don’t know what to say.”

“Hailey, you’re kinda freaking me out now.” “Are you sure you want to do this?” I asked.

“Well I asked didn’t I? I wouldn’t have done that if I wasn’t sure.”

“I know, but we’re so young. There’s no reason to rush into this.”

“It’s not like we weren’t already planning to spend the rest of our lives together anyway. I just wanted to make it official.”

My heart was pounding in my chest and I felt like I might throw up because last night I was making out with another guy and today my boyfriend is asking me to promise to spend the rest of my life with him. I didn’t deserve him at all.

“I kissed Chase. Or I guess Chase kissed me. It’s all sort of a blur,” I blurted out, and I

heard Braxton’s sharp intake of breath. That was definitely not was he was expecting to hear at this moment, and I know he never imagined that I would do something so awful. “And it doesn’t matter who kissed who—all I know is that we kissed and now I’m just so confused.”

“Confused about what?”

“About everything. About you—about him. About who I am and who I want to be.”

“All that from just one little kiss?” He laughed humorlessly. “Don’t joke.”

“I’m sorry. I just don’t understand what’s happening here,” he said softly. “Do you have feelings for him?”

“I don’t know.” I paused, realizing that I couldn’t admit the truth to Braxton. I already felt bad enough as it was. “But I don’t think I can say yes to you. You deserve better than me.”

“God, Hailey. I don’t—I can’t—“ He blew out a gush of air, closed his eyes and tilted his head up toward the sky for a minute. When he looked back down at me, there was nothing but love and understanding in his eyes. “Do you need some time? Is that it?”

“I don’t know.” It was the truth but I hated that it was.

“Okay then. Take all the time you need to think about it. Do whatever you need to do because I know that eventually you will come back to me and be my wife.”

We didn’t talk much after that. To say things were awkward would be an understatement. I wasn’t sure what was supposed to happen after you tell your boyfriend of nearly five years that you aren’t sure if you’re ready to get engaged. He seemed to take my reluctance to accept better than I would have guessed. He must be pretty confident that I’d come around to the idea of being someone’s fiancé at eighteen-years-old. “Aren’t you mad at me?” I asked him as he pulled into the front of my dorm.

“I’m not mad. I’m disappointed, Hay. Okay so I’m a little pissed you kissed another guy but it was one time thing—a mistake. It’s okay, I can forgive you for that. I know that you’re it for me so it’s upsetting that you’re having doubts.”

“It’s not that I doubt it—“

“I know that. Do you think we’re too young to get married? Is that it then?”

“Yes,” I said clinging to the excuse because it was far more reasonable than I had a crush on someone else.

“And you’re right, we are young. I’m not saying we should get married tomorrow—but I also know that we belong together.”

I didn’t know how to respond to that. I knew he was being far more understanding than I deserved. Braxton had been the only constant in my life, the one thing I had always been able to depend on.

But with Chase—it was like there was this invisible elastic rubber band around us and as much as I tried to fight it, to pull against it, I couldn’t help but be thrown back into him. And the harder I fought, the stronger the whiplash.

“I’m sorry for ruining everything.”

“You didn’t ruin everything. You’ll make the right choice. We both know we belong together. I’ll see you soon, okay?”

“Okay. Bye.”

I brushed the tears out of my eyes. I wasn’t even sure why I was crying. I’m the one who hurt him, yet he was being so understanding and hopeful that everything would work out.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t as hopeful. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do.

I knew I needed to figure out what I wanted so as soon as I returned to my dorm room, I sent Chase a text.

If you still want to go with me, I want to go to the concert with you.

His response came a few minutes later.

Pick you up at 7 And with his response came the butterflies.

Chapter Twenty

Chase

I’d never really cared what I looked like, but for some reason I’d spent close to an hour coordinating my outfit for tonight.

Eventually, I’d settled on a white button-up shirt, black dress pants, and a black tie. I’d wanted to look somewhat decent for my date with Hailey so I’d pulled out my best formal outfit. Well, it wasn’t really a date. We’d agreed that it was an ‘almost-friends’ thing, but after that kiss, I wasn’t really sure where we stood. Were we still friends? Did this change at all how I should act around her? Was she serious when she’d said it couldn’t happen again? I knew I’d told her it was a mistake, but I didn’t really think that.

The lines of our relationship, friendship, whatever it was, were completely blurred. I

wanted more but I didn’t want to put pressure on Hailey and send her running in the opposite direction. She was still in this precarious relationship with her boyfriend—or maybe it was exboyfriend now since she’d suddenly agreed to come with me tonight—and I didn’t want to make things more complicated for her.

I just didn’t know how the hell I was supposed to feel about Hailey. I was developing such strong feelings for her, but I wasn’t about to invest myself in a relationship that was set to fail from the beginning. At least, that’s what I kept telling myself. The way I acted around Hailey contradicted all my common sense. Because, let’s face it, I was being pretty stupid about the whole thing.

Hailey had a boyfriend. She’d been with him for years. She wasn’t opening herself up to me completely. There wasn’t a whole lot I could do. Yet, here I was, going out of my way to take her out and get to know her when there didn’t seem to be a chance for us.

There was something seriously wrong with me.

“So what’s going on with you and Hailey?” Zach asked, as he and my other friends sat around on the couches drinking beer.

I glanced over to where he sat beside two of my closest friends from high school, Jason Wesley and Trey Roberts. They’d all come over to get a little drunk before the concert just so they could tolerate sitting through the show and listen to music they hated.

I shrugged, adjusting my tie for the twentieth time. “There’s not really anything going on with me and her. We’re just hanging out.” “Are you banging her?” Jason asked.

“Is she hot?” Trey said at the exact same time.

“No, I’m not banging her, and yes, she’s hot.”

Jason looked confused. “Then why aren’t you banging her?” “She has a boyfriend,” Jonathan explained as he joined us.

He’d also gone to some trouble to look nice; his blue Mohawk was flattened down with gel, and the tattoos on his arms were covered up with a long-sleeved shirt. A button-up shirt.

He’d really gone all out.

There was no doubt in my mind that he’d gone to all this trouble to impress Tessa. I’d never seen him so into a girl before. Something about her made him pay more attention to the way he looked. Kinda like the way I’d gone to some trouble to impress Hailey. The only difference was that Jonathan and Tessa were actually dating—there was actually hope for them. I wasn’t too sure if I could say the same for Hailey and me.

“That’s heavy, man,” Trey said, chugging the rest of his beer.

I gave them another shrug as I grabbed my wallet and keys. “I gotta go pick up Hailey. She wants to get there early so she doesn’t miss anything.”

“No, we wouldn’t want her to miss anything, would we?” Jonathan flashed me a cheesy grin and I rolled my eyes at him.

“Wait, she still doesn’t know?” Zach stared at me in disbelief.

Jonathan had filled Zach in on a little of what was going on, but the look of surprise on his face made me nervous. Was I making a huge mistake by not telling her?

“Nope,” Jonathan said with a shake of his head.

I didn’t stick around to listen to them as they dissected my relationship with Hailey. Instead, I made my way to my beat up car so I could pick Hailey up on time. I knew how punctual she liked to be.

When I pulled into a parking spot on campus and began heading to Hailey’s dorm, the nerves grew. What if this was a bad idea? What if this completely backfired and made things worse?

Maybe I should’ve thought this whole thing through a little more.

All doubts vanished from my mind when Hailey answered the door.

Holy shit, did she look stunning!

She was wearing a red dress that fell just below her knees. It hugged her curves in a way that didn’t look skanky, but instead, very classy. And, I bet when she turned around, there would be that booty looking fine as ever.

“Whoa.”

Yeah, that was all I could say. I sounded sleazy as hell.

Hailey blushed and tucked her hair behind her ear. “Um, thank you?”

I tried again. “Sorry, I meant to say that you look amazing. I’ve never, uh, seen anyone look so hot in a dress before.” Man, that had still sounded sleazy. I needed to work on my compliments.

“No one’s ever said that before, that I’m hot, I mean.” She seemed embarrassed as she said this.

“Well, no one’s an idiot,” I said, giving her a meaningful look, and from the way her brows knitted together I could tell she knew exactly who I was referring to. “Um, let me grab my coat,” Hailey said, turning around and walking back into the room. That’s when I got a good look at her ass in that dress. Oh man, it was going to be hard to keep my hands off Hailey tonight. And, something else was going to be hard too.

“Ready to go?” Hailey came back carrying a long, black coat. I really hoped she didn’t get cold tonight because I wanted to show her off in that dress.

“Yeah, sure.”

As we walked out to my car, I wasn’t sure what to do with my hands. What I really wanted to do was hold Hailey’s hand, but that was probably out of line so I decided against it. Once we got into the car, Hailey was silent, which was fine with me because there was a lot going on in my mind.

I couldn’t seem to shut off my thoughts when it came to Hailey. Let’s face it, I really wanted her to like me, and I wanted this night to go really well. I was hoping she would be somewhat impressed with me tonight.

When we got to the concert hall, I was relieved to find that it was starting to fill up, which meant that enough people still cared about classical music to come out and see the show. That thought made me smile.

“Let’s find a spot close to the front,” Hailey said to me, her eyes bright as she surveyed the hall. “We better save seats for Jonathan and Tessa.”

I remembered that Zach and Trey would be here too. “And two more seats for my other friends that are coming as well.”

“Okay, sounds good.” Hailey started making her way through the crowd and I was about to follow after her but stopped when I heard my name.

As I glanced around, I caught sight of three familiar people approaching us—my parents and Cecilia.

“Chase!” Cecilia greeted me with a smile and a big hug.

I noticed that Hailey had stopped walking and was now making her way back to my side as she took in my family. It wouldn’t take her very long to figure out who they were—we all looked exactly alike.

“Hey, Cici,” I said, giving her a quick kiss on the cheek. “I didn’t think you guys would make it.”

“We wouldn’t miss it for anything,” Mom said with a warm smile.

I gave her a hug and then glanced over at my dad. “Thanks for coming.”

Dad gave me a tight smile. I wasn’t sure what that smile was supposed to mean. Did he hate the fact that he was here? Or was he just keeping his mouth shut so he didn’t say anything to piss me off?

Either way, the fact that he was here meant more to me than he would ever know.

Mom’s eyes fell on Hailey, and I saw something in her face change. “Did you bring a date, Chase?”

A hot flush crept up my neck. My family hadn’t seen me with a girl since my break up with Heather, and it’d completely slipped my mind that they’d be here tonight. I was kind of at a loss for words.

“Uh, I-”

“I’m Hailey Peters,” Hailey said extending her hand, “I’m in Chase’s Music Composition class.”

My parents and Cecilia all shook Hailey’s hand in turn and introduced themselves. I still hadn’t managed to form any words as of yet.

“What are you majoring in, Hailey?” Mom asked, her tone pleasant. The way Mom’s eyes glided over Hailey wasn’t lost on me. Mom was highly critical when it came to someone’s appearance, and I could tell that the way Hailey dressed had impressed her.

“Business,” Hailey responded. “I thought it would be a practical degree to have.” “That’s right, it is,” Dad said.

Jeez. Even Dad seemed to be ‘Team Hailey’.

“But I’m thinking of adding a minor in music.”

I glanced over at Hailey in surprise. I hadn’t expected that from her.

For some reason, Dad didn’t seem shaken by Hailey’s admission. In fact, a smile came to his face. “So you’re creative, too? Chase needs someone like that.”

Mom nodded, as usual agreeing with Dad. “Yes, he needs someone who is balanced. And not crazy.”

Dad laughed. “Yes, lack of craziness definitely gives you points.”

Cecilia and I exchanged weird looks. Um, what the freaking hell was going on here? I’d never seen my parents act like this before.

“Well, I can get a little crazy when my clothes aren’t organized or when my room is untidy. I’m a little OCD, but I’ve been trying to keep it at bay—my roommate is kind of a slob.” What Hailey didn’t realize was that she’d just listed qualities that my parents loved.

“That makes perfect sense to me,” Mom said, her eyes shining.

I watched in amazement as Hailey flawlessly carried a conversation with my parents. She was just too amazing for words.

“Why don’t you sit with us?” Hailey asked, looking around at my family with this cute, little smile on her face that made my pulse speed up.

“We’d love to!” Cecilia said, linking her arm through Hailey’s.

“Why don’t you go ahead and save some seats at the front?” I placed my hand on the small of Hailey’s back. “I’ll be right back.”

Cecilia shot me a look of confusion and I shook my head slightly letting her know that everything was fine.

But I wasn’t sure if everything was fine. I was nervous as hell. My heart was thrumming.

My palms were sweaty.

I was pretty sure I was about to go into cardiac arrest.

But I held myself tall as I made my way through the crowd and around to the back.

Regardless of how I felt, I had to focus. I had to let the music engulf me. It was time for Hailey to finally see the other side of me.

Chapter Twenty-One

Hailey

Cecilia led the way to the front of the auditorium. We were early enough that we were able to grab seats front and center. I was relieved that I wouldn’t miss anything this time around. After we took our seats, I opened up the program just for something to do and again was disappointed that there were no pictures. It seemed weird that I felt such a connection to William C. Lancaster and still had no idea what he really looked like other than the fact that he had dark hair and wore glasses.

I couldn’t wait to finally hear him perform again. Even though it had been weeks since the first time I had heard him, I could remember every note he’d played and the way it’d made me feel, like he’d reached inside of me and touched my soul. Even if the evening continued to be awkward between Chase and I, at least I would get to enjoy listening to William play again.

I tried not to read too much into how nervous he was acting, but I couldn’t help but

wonder if maybe he didn’t want to be here with me tonight. For some reason I hadn’t told Chase yet that Braxton and I were taking a break. I almost said something a few times but stopped myself for couple of reasons.

First, it seemed presumptuous somehow. Like by telling him that I was currently single he would assume that meant I wanted to start a relationship with him. Second, I feared how he would respond. He was being so weird today that I kept questioning myself. Maybe he really did just wanted to be friends and I read way too much into that kiss after all?

Let’s face it, I really wasn’t his type. I didn’t want to make a fool out of myself before I knew for sure how he felt about me. So I kept my mouth shut, intent to just go with the flow tonight and see how things progressed naturally.

He looked really nice tonight, but he seemed really uncomfortable seeing his parents here. I guess it was kind of weird to run into them here of all places. What were the chances of that? It wasn’t hard to imagine his family being fans of William C. Lancaster, but Chase seemed really surprised so maybe it was just an awkward coincidence.

“Have you ever watched Chase perform before?” Cecilia asked.

“Um, yeah, a few times. I wasn’t sure if I’d like his punk music but it’s growing on me.” His parents exchanged a look that I took to mean that they didn’t really approve of Chase’s band.

“No, I meant— ”

“Hey look!” Jonathan interrupted her. “Zach and Trey are here.”

“Did we miss anything?” Trey asked eagerly. It was obvious that the concert hadn’t even started yet, but Jonathan answered anyway.

“Nope, not yet,” Jonathan answered.

“Good. We don’t want to miss this.” Zach smiled at me as he took a seat at the end of the aisle. “You must really like classical music,” I commented. Was the entire band closet classical fans?

“Something like that,” Trey said with a smirk.

Jonathan and Zach chuckled and I had a nagging suspicion that it was at my expense but told myself I was probably just being paranoid. I shook it off. I was letting my insecurities mess with my head. Of course, between the mixture of amused looks I was getting from the guys and the curious ones I was getting from Chase’s family, was it really any wonder I felt uneasy? I found myself wishing Chase would hurry up.

“Are you okay?” Tessa whispered.

“Yeah, I’m fine.”

“You look like you are about to puke.” I felt like I was about to puke.

“Do you get the feeling we’re missing something?”

“No, why do you ask?”

“Nothing,” I said dismissively. “I’m sure it’s nothing.” Five minutes passed and still no Chase.

“I wonder what’s taking him so long?” I mumbled.

Jonathan just smirked. “Oh, I’m sure he’s fine. Probably just jittery.”

What could he possibly be jittery about? I smiled thinking that maybe he did have feelings for me after all and was just as nervous about tonight as I was.

Ten minutes had passed and still no Chase. Nobody else seemed remotely concerned about the fact that he wasn’t here yet. I checked the time and realized the concert was getting ready to start.

“Should we try to find him?” I asked Tessa as I looked around the auditorium again for any sign of him. Cecilia tilted her head curiously at me but still didn’t say anything.

“What?” I asked her.

“Nothing,” she shook her head. “I guess I just don’t understand what’s going on here.” “Me either.”

“I’m sure he’ll find us,” Tessa assured me.

“Yeah, you’re probably right.” I just couldn’t help but feel like something was off but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I fiddled with the program, folding and refolding until it was so creased I couldn’t read the words any more. The auditorium was filled now, the only empty seat in the entire place was the one in between Cecilia and me—the one that I was saving for Chase.

Every minute that he was gone was making me that much more frustrated. Damn him. I

should’ve known better. At least Braxton didn’t abandon me. Sure he made us late but at least he was there with me. Chase had been acting weird the whole way here— like he was nervous about something. Maybe he was planning on bailing the whole time to get back at me. Jackass.

“Where is he?” I said, irritated.

“Don’t worry,” Tessa said. “I’m sure he’ll be here before the curtain opens.” Jonathan snickered.

“What’s so funny?” I asked him sharply when I couldn’t take it any more.

“Nothing.” He smiled. “It’s just so funny that you guys have no idea.”

“Wait—do you mean she doesn’t know?” Cecilia cocked an eyebrow. “She has no idea?”

“No idea about what?” Tessa was starting to sound just as irritated as me. “What’s going on?”

“You’ll find out soon.” He smirked as the lights dimmed.

“What does that mean?”

His only answer was a head nod toward the stage that reminded me of something Chase would’ve done. It was frustrating. “Tessa, your boyfriend is getting on my nerves,” I whispered to her.

“He’s kinda getting on my nerves too.”

I shifted my focus away from my annoyance with Jonathan so that I could enjoy the concert. I didn’t know what happened to Chase, but William was getting ready to come on stage and I had been looking forward to it for weeks. I was planning to come by myself anyway so nothing really had changed. I wasn’t sure why I was so disappointed—I shouldn’t care whether he was here or not.

Except I did care. I had hoped that tonight would be the night I could figure out how I felt about him— about everything. I was free and clear— sorta. Braxton had agreed to let me have time to myself to figure things out. We were basically on a break so I would be able to spend time with Chase and not feel guilty about it. And he’d totally bailed.

Though the lights were dimmed, I could see the shadowy figure of William C. Lancaster as he walked across the stage. I knew I should just forget about Chase and focus on the show but it was no good. Where had he disappeared to? Had he seriously just left me here? It appeared that way, but it just didn’t seem like something he would do. I found myself searching the dark auditorium for Chase again. Was he hurt? Maybe somebody jumped him in the bathroom for his wallet. Maybe he’d fallen and was lying somewhere unconscious. I should probably get up and go look for him.

“I’ll be right back.”

I had to go find him. Maybe he was uncomfortable being here with me because he didn’t know that I had ended things with Braxton. He didn’t know how I felt about him and I had to tell him. I stood as William C. Lancaster sat down and the spotlight illuminated him.

Only it wasn’t William.

It was Chase.

I was frozen in place.

What the hell was he doing? I looked at Jonathan who was shaking in a quiet fit of laughter. I turned back to the stage to look at Chase. He seemed to be looking for someone in the audience. His eyes found me easily even in the dim room. After all, I was the only one standing up like an idiot. He smiled at me nervously as he adjusted his tie.

Everything was suddenly in slow motion.

I watched as Chase put on a pair of glasses and turned his focus to the white and black keys.

It was like I was in a lucid dream, I felt that what I was seeing couldn’t possibly be real.

Then my mouth dropped as he started to play and I knew that it was really happening.

I heard Tessa gasp but I couldn’t take my eyes off of Chase, or should I say William C.

Lancaster?

How was it that I never knew Chase’s last name? Of course it really shouldn’t have been a

surprise at all now that I thought about it. He’d never once told me anything about himself and any time I would ask any questions he shut down.

Oh God, this whole time—the whole time—he knew I had a crush on William C. Lancaster. Was this some huge elaborate joke? Was he trying to make a fool out of me? This whole time he’d been lying to me like it was some sort of game. I was humiliated—and angry. I didn’t think I’d ever been this embarrassed in my entire life.

I had really thought something was wrong. I’d been worried about him and the whole time he’d been lying to me about who he really was. I couldn’t believe that I ever wanted to be friends with Chase—let alone toyed with the idea of something more. Right then I hated him.

Braxton was right, we belonged together. He was familiar and trustworthy and I knew I could always count on him. He never lied to me. I knew him. I knew everything about him. He didn’t have some secret identity and he certainly wouldn’t play such a mean joke on me.

If this is what it was like, taking a leap of faith and trying to experience new things— then forget that shit. I wanted nothing to do with it. I just wanted to go home— to my real home.

The only home I’ve ever known.

I realized I was still standing. Tessa pulled gently at my hand trying to get me to sit down but I couldn’t be there anymore. I stormed out, ignoring the whispered pleas from our friends to stop.

As soon as I was outside the auditorium I realized that I hadn’t really thought this through. I didn’t want to see Chase—I didn’t actually want to see any of them.

I heard someone call my name behind me but I didn’t stop walking. I had to get away from there. The only problem was that I was effectively stranded. I had ridden here in Chase’s car.

I got out my cell phone and sent Braxton a text, not trusting myself to actually talk.

I need to see you. This had been a good lesson. It reinforced what I’d already known my whole life; when you stuck with what was familiar, you didn’t get hurt.

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chase

It was one of those days where not a lot was going on. Jonathan and I were sitting around the apartment talking about Hailey and what had happened at the concert.

I knew Hailey was mad at me and I was trying to figure out what the big deal was. Sure,

I’d kept a part of myself from her, but how could she judge me when she kept things bottled in too?

I knew I wasn’t perfect and there were things about me that could be better, but at least I’d been putting myself out there. Even though I hadn’t wanted to get into a relationship after my previous disastrous one, I’d still put myself on the line because there was something about Hailey that I couldn’t stay away from.

“But you kinda gotta understand why she’s pissed at you, man.” Jonathan was lying back against the couch, gnawing on some beef jerky. “She was going on and on about how much she loved William C. Lancaster, not even realizing it was you.”

I let out a sigh of frustration. “Did Tessa say anything about it?”

“Tessa’s pissed at me because she thinks I was in on it the whole time.”

“It’s not like I was playing her or something.” I threw my hands up in the air. “Why do girls overreact about everything?”

Jonathan shrugged. “Just from being with Tessa, I’ve learned that it’s easier just to let the girl win. Just nod your head and go along with what she’s saying because it’s not worth the shit she’ll give you if you disagree about something.”

Well, that wasn’t me. It was hard for me to back down when I was really set on something. Which was probably why Hailey and I had locked horns so many times. I’d known Jonathan for a long time and I’d never seen him act this way over a girl either. Obviously he was really into Tessa.

“Dude, it’s called having balls.”

“Nope.” Jonathan shook his head. “You gotta lose the balls. That’s the only way. I mean, did you even call Hailey and apologize?”

“I don’t even know what I’m supposed to apologize for.”

And, I really didn’t. Yeah, I guess it was probably embarrassing for Hailey to find out that she’d actually been crushing on me the entire time, but I also thought it would impress her once she found out who I really was.

The reason why I hadn’t told her wasn’t because I was trying to be a jerk or trying to embarrass her—it was because I’d wanted to surprise her. Well, now I knew I sucked at surprising people.

“Just say you made a mistake. That usually works.”

As I thought about this, my phone began ringing in my pocket. When I pulled it out, I saw that it was Zach..

“Hey, what’s up?”

“Is Jonathan with you?”

“Yeah, why?”

“Because I need both of you to hear this. Can you put the phone on speaker?”

Uh, what the hell was going on? I’d never heard Zach sound so serious before. Had something bad happened?

“Yeah, sure.” I did as he said and then waited for him to speak.

“Okay, so I know that we have a big show coming up and I know what a big deal it is.” Zach paused as though he wasn’t sure whether or not he should continue. “But, see, the thing is that I’ve kind of met someone.”

Well, that was great news. I didn’t understand why he sounded so nervous. What did him meeting someone have to do with our show? Why was he making such a big deal out of it?

“And we’re going to get married.” “WHAT?” Jonathan and I said in unison.

“She’s amazing,” Zach hurried on. “Her name’s Danielle Monroe and she’s a British author, and I think I’m in love.”

Whoa. What the hell? Was I going deaf from too many years spent at loud concerts? Had Zach—THE Zach—just said he was in love? And getting MARRIED? To a British author. Dude, Zach didn’t even read.

“No way.” Jonathan was the first one to say anything. I could barely function, that’s how blown my mind was. “You’re screwing with us.” “I’m dead serious.” His tone was dead serious, too. Zach was not messing around—he really had fallen in love and was getting married. “But why can’t you play the show?” I asked, finally regrouping my thoughts.

“Because we’re getting married and I’m going back to England with her. I need time to get things planned and I won’t be able to play with you guys at the next show. I feel really bad, but I can’t let her go back without me. I need to give this a chance and see where it goes.”

Considering this was the first I’d heard about this Danielle person, I was willing to bet that Zach had only been dating her for a few weeks. It was crazy that he was giving up everything to be with someone he barely knew. “Dude, that’s crazy!” Jonathan said.

I didn’t even know what to say. That’s how stunned I was. It was hard to believe that Zach was taking such a huge step. But there was nothing Jonathan and I could say or do to talk sense into him—Zach was just too stubborn.

“So we have to start looking for another guitarist,” Jonathan said after we got off the phone with Zach.

I pretty much had nothing to say. What could I say? My dreams for the band were quickly falling apart. How were we supposed to play a show without our bass player? Where were we going to find someone to replace Zach? I couldn’t hold it against the guy. He’d fallen in love. Maybe I’d do the same thing in a similar situation.

“Where are we going to find a new one? We are so screwed.”

Jonathan was quiet for a few seconds before glancing up at me. “Let’s go to Deuce’s apartment and tell him what’s going on. We’ll figure it out together.” “Yeah, why not?” I said with a shrug.

As we headed to my car, Jonathan called Deuce a couple times but got no answer. “Are you sure he’ll be at home?” I asked.

“He’s always at home,” Jonathan said, as we got into the car. “He has nothing better to do than play video games all day.”

I took Jonathan’s word for it since he knew Deuce a lot better than I did. I didn’t even know where the guy even lived so I had to follow Jonathan’s directions to a part of Overland

Park that I wasn’t familiar with.

The apartment complex that Deuce lived in was actually pretty new. I could only assume

that his parents were supporting him because he worked at a car wash place so it wasn’t like he was earning amazing money.

The door into the complex was unlocked, so we walked inside and I followed Jonathan up several flights of stairs to the third floor. We stopped outside apartment 312, and Jonathan gave the door two loud knocks.

Then we waited. And waited. And waited some more.

“He’s probably not home,” I said, thinking that this had all been a waste of time. Now I was even more stressed out.

Just as I said that, I heard the door being unlocked from the inside. A sense of déjà vu hit me hard as Deuce opened up the door and peered out at us. His hair was mussed, his shirt wasn’t buttoned all the way up, and there was an alarmed look in his eyes.

I couldn’t quite put my finger on where I’d seen that same look before and gnawed at the back of my mind.

“What are you guys doing here? This is a bad time.”

Deuce and I had never been close, but even I could tell from the look on his face that he seemed nervous, like we’d caught him doing something he shouldn’t be doing.

Jonathan glanced sideways at me, and I could tell he knew something was up too. He turned back to Deuce, giving him an easy smile. “We wanted to tell you that Zach-”

But before Jonathan could finish his sentence, someone called out from within the apartment.

“Baby, who is it?”

The woman’s voice sent shivers down my spine.

Even though I hadn’t heard that voice in months, it was so familiar to me. Not in a good way. Not in a Hailey way.

It was familiar in a way that I wanted to forget. It was a voice I’d wanted to erase from my mind for the rest of my life.

From the way Jonathan turned to me with wide eyes, I knew he recognized the voice too.

It belonged to Heather.

That bitch was here. With Deuce. What the fuck was going on?

When Heather appeared at the door, she seemed at ease. She was wearing an oversized shirt that obviously belonged to Deuce, and her long, dark hair was just as messy as his. I didn’t have to stretch my imagination too far to guess what they’d been doing.

The look of ease on Heather’s face lasted about two seconds. She caught sight of Jonathan, and then her eyes shot to me. She reached out and grasped Deuce’s arms, her expression resembling someone who’d just been slapped across the face.

And, then you know what happened next? Nothing. Not a damn thing. No one moved. No

one said anything. I wasn’t even sure if anyone breathed.

Finally, I felt someone tug on my arm. It was Jonathan.

“Chase, come on, let’s get out of here.”

I shook my head. I wasn’t ready to leave just yet. “So, this is the guy?” I pointed at

Deuce. “Out of all the guys you could’ve screwed, you chose to screw our bass player?”

My words seemed to jolt Heather out of her state of shock. She pursed her lips and took a step closer to me. “And why shouldn’t I screw him? What have you ever done for me, Chase?”

“We were together for three years! I was going to propose!”

She narrowed her eyes at me, and I wondered what I had ever found attractive about this girl. “You really thought that was going to keep me around? You have no goals in life apart from your stupid band that’s never going to get anywhere! Why would I want to marry someone like you?”

It was weird, but a part of me wanted to burst out laughing as I looked over at Deuce. I’d be surprised if he could even tie his shoelaces. “And Deuce has goals?”

Heather flipped her hair over her shoulder in a snobby fashion. “Donald Worthington the fourth, actually has ambitions to start a chain of car washes in the next five years. That’s more than I can say for you.”

She said his name as though he was royalty. Donald Worthington the fourth? That was what Deuce was short for? That was freaking lame.

As I stared at Heather and Deuce, I felt nothing. No, seriously, nothing. I’d pictured so many times what I would do or say if I was ever confronted with the douchebag who’d been banging my girlfriend, but now that I was in the moment, I didn’t feel like doing anything. Had I actually moved on?

“I’m glad you found someone good enough for you. You two deserve each other.” A smile spread across my face. “I’m glad I never proposed. I’m glad you didn’t become my wife, because I found someone even better than you; someone who is so amazing that I would do anything to be with her. I wouldn’t do anything for you, Heather, and that’s how I know you aren’t the one.”

Heather gaped at me, her face slowly turning red. “How dare you say that about me! I was the best damn thing you ever had!”

With a laugh, I shook my head and walked away. “No, you weren’t. Not even close.”

“That goddamn whore!” Jonathan said as he followed after me. “I can’t believe Deuce fucking did that to you!”

I didn’t say anything. There was nothing to be said.

I’d just found out my ex-girlfriend had cheated on me with a guy I thought was a friend.

There was only one way to even begin to process that plot twist—get wasted.

So I did. When we got back to the apartment, I locked myself in my room and drank as much rum as I could tolerate before my head began swimming so fast that I was pretty sure I would turn upside down if I stood up.

Not wanting to move, I lay back in my bed and tried to think about things to get my mind off Heather and Deuce, but all I could think about was Hailey.

My thoughts were all overlapping with each other, but they all came back to her. They all came back to the girl who’d frustrated me for weeks. Yet, at the same time, she got me too. I couldn’t get Hailey Peters out of my mind. So I did what any sensible, drunk person would do—I dialed her number.

She didn’t pick up the first few times. Thinking she might be sleeping, I just kept hitting redial hoping the ringing would eventually wake her.

“Hello?” Her voice sounded weird when she picked up, like she didn’t really want to talk to me.

“So you probably don’t want to talk to me,” I said, not giving her a chance to say anything else or hang up, “but I have things to say to you. Very important things.” “Chase, are you drunk?”

I ignored her question. Her question had nothing to do with what I wanted to tell her.

“You’re a brat, Hailey Peters. You’re a snob. You think you’re better than me because I’m in a band and because I have tattoos. Well, you’re not better than me.”

“I don’t need to hear this right now.”

“Yes, you fucking do, Hailey Peters! You need to hear this every day for the rest of our lives! You need to hear that you’re stuck up, a little pretentious, imperfect, stubborn as hell, beautiful, amazing, and everything I’ve ever wanted in a woman. And I’m in love with you. I don’t know when I fell in love with you, but it happened.”

“Chase-”

“Stop, Hailey, just stop. Stop overthinking everything. I’ve seen you at your worst, and trust me, it was your worst, but I still want to be with you. You’re not perfect, not even close, but that’s why I love you.”

The line went dead and I was left talking to myself.

Shit! Hailey had hung up on me, and now I felt like an asshole again. She had this uncanny ability to make me feel like I’d screwed up over and over again.

What was really playing in my mind right now was that I didn’t give a damn about

Heather anymore. I didn’t give a damn about Deuce. All I cared about was Hailey, the girl who kept falling away from me.

Chapter Twenty-Three

Hailey

My phone rang again. I looked down to see who it was even though I already knew. Chase had been calling me non-stop all morning. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say to him yet— what was I supposed to say to him? He’d told me I was a brat and that he loved me. Was he serious? I couldn’t know for sure, so I had been ignoring all of his calls. You would think he’d get the hint but apparently not.

Tessa was car shopping with me. Neither of us knew anything about cars, but I had finally saved up enough money to buy a reliable used vehicle and she was tagging along for moral support.

“You know who knows about cars?”

“Who?” I peered through the window of a 1998 Ford Taurus.

“Chase,” she said matter-of-factly. “I bet he’d be more help than me.” “A chipmunk would be more help than you.”

She rolled her eyes, but didn’t bring him up again.

After I’d test-driven the Taurus, I decided to get it. I signed the papers and drove back to the dorms in my new-to-me car. It was navy blue and nothing fancy, but it was mine. I wouldn’t have to worry about Braxton having to always pick me up or borrowing Tessa’s car in an emergency. The independence felt good.

Tessa beat me back to the room—I had to get a parking sticker first. I didn’t want to have my car towed or get a ticket for illegal parking my very first day of owning it.

When I walked in, she quickly got off the phone with whoever she was talking to and gave me a guilty look. Her eyes darted to her dresser where a beautiful bouquet of flowers in a glass vase now sat. Jonathan must have sent them to apologize to her, though he really had nothing to apologize for. It wasn’t his fault Chase had lied to me. “Are those from Jonathan?” I asked, even though I already knew.

“Yeah,” she said sheepishly.

“You know, I don’t expect you to hold this against Jonathan. Even I’m not mad at him for being in on the joke.”

“Just trying to abide by Girl Code.”

“For the millionth time, that’s not a real thing.” I rolled my eyes at her. “Seriously though, I’m not mad at Jonathan.”

“Can you just tell me what’s going on between you two?” I didn’t have to ask her who she was referring to.

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Come on, Hailey. What happened?”

“He humiliated me, that’s what happened,” I said pointedly. “And then the jerk drunkdialed me last night. Which wasn’t cool, at all.”

I had actually spent a lot of time thinking about everything Chase had said to me. Some of it hurt, but as much as I didn’t want to admit it, I couldn’t deny the truth behind his words. Because the truth was, he was right—I was a brat and a snob and, yes, he was also right; I was pretentious.

And yet, he’d said he loved me.

But he’d also been seriously wasted. Did he feel the same way when he was sober enough to think straight? How could someone like him possibly love someone like me?

I wasn’t sure who I was and I only had a vague inclination of who I wanted to be. I had put so much effort in trying to plan everything the way that I thought it should be, that I didn’t even know what I actually wanted.

All I really knew was that it was going to take a full blown scrubbing with sandpaper and possibly bleach to get Chase out of my head.

It needed to happen. I needed to forget about him and move on to the future I had planned with Braxton. Unfortunately, that was easier said than done because every time I closed my eyes, it was Chase’s face that I saw.

“That’s not exactly the answer I was looking for.”

“I spent the last few months gushing over William C. Lancaster and the whole time, the whole time, it was Chase and no one thought to even mention it to me?”

“He didn’t want you to know.”

“Exactly. He lied to me.”

“Not really, Hailey. He just wasn’t forthcoming with the information.”

“Same thing.”

“Oh Hailey, he didn’t mean to hurt you. Don’t you realize that?”

“He didn’t mean to make me feel like an idiot when I realized that I had been obsessing over William C. Lancaster, crushing on William C. Lancaster TO William C. Lancaster? He should have told me.”

“You are right. He should have. But he didn’t. Did you even ask him why? Did you even give him the chance to explain?”

“No.”

“No. You didn’t. You immediately ran off to Braxton and got—” She grabbed my left hand and threw it up in the air as she spat out, “Engaged! Who gets engaged at eighteen years old? I’ll tell you who: cowards.”

“Tessa!”

“No, don’t ‘Tessa’ me! You are going to hear me out. You’re only accepting his proposal because you’re scared and he’s the easy choice— he’s comfortable and familiar. Don’t you find that dull? You don’t take any chances, Hailey. You never live. You’re stuck in place and you are never going to grow up until you realize that life is about taking chances. It’s about making mistakes and learning who you are from those mistakes. For once in your life Hailey, tell your freaking head to shut up and listen to your heart. Because I guarantee that if you actually gave your heart a chance, it would point you down a very different path than the one you are currently on. A bumpy, twisting, scary, and unpredictable path, but believe me, the view is so much better.”

Tears pooled in my eyes, probably messing up my black eyeliner, and threatening to spill out at any moment.

Tessa grabbed some tissues from her dresser. They were the cheap, stiff kind that would probably make my face redder than my tears, but I accepted them anyway and attempted to clean up the black smudges under my eyes.

“What do I do, Tessa? I’m so confused.”

“I can’t tell you what to do, that’s your decision to make. I’m not telling you to stay with him, but I’m also not telling you to leave him. You need to do what’s right and what makes you happy.”

“What if I choose wrong?” I asked, my voice quiet and shaky.

“Then you dust yourself off and start again.”

“That sounds terrifying.”

“That, my dear, is all part of this glorious ride they call life.”

“God, when did my life become so complicated?” I said more to myself than to her.

“Just think about everything I said, Hailey.” Tessa sighed tiredly. “And don’t be too hard on Chase. There’s a lot more going on there than you know.”

“I can’t think about him right now.” I grabbed my phone. “Not tonight. Thanks though, for you know, talking and stuff. I’m just going to go for a walk.” I hugged Tessa before I left. I didn’t want to make her think I was mad at her, because I wasn’t. Deep down, I knew she was exactly right.

I just needed some air—I needed room to think about everything. Even though I said I didn’t want to think about him, it didn’t matter. His face consumed my thoughts and I realized it was a lost cause. I couldn’t stop thinking about this unfamiliar walking contradiction. His name echoed in the back of my mind.

I wondered why he’d kept his identity a secret. A part of me wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt—maybe he’d wanted to surprise me? Maybe he’d thought I’d be impressed. Or maybe he was a total jerk who just wanted to mess with my head.

No, I didn’t really believe that. If he’d wanted to be a jerk, he wouldn’t be passiveaggressive about it. He would have been laughing in my face when I realized who he was. That wasn’t what he’d done at all. In fact, he’d seemed to be really nervous that day.

My phone rang. I checked it even though I was sure it would be Chase again, but this time it wasn’t—it was Braxton.

“Hello?” As soon as I answered, I could tell something was wrong.

“Are you busy?”

“No. What’s up?”

“It’s Mom—she wants to see you.”

He didn’t have to say anything else. All thoughts of Chase were pushed to the back of my mind.

“I’m leaving now.”

The hour drive to Southlake seemed longer than it ever had before. Chase called several times but I still couldn’t talk to him. I put my phone on silent. A person can only handle so much at a time and right now I needed to focus on Mrs. Douglas. I’d talk to Chase when I got back to Oakdale.

When I entered the familiar house I saw Mr. Douglas, his face white as he walked past me and headed up the stairs with heavy steps. He said nothing to me, but that wasn’t a surprise. I hadn’t actually had a conversation with him in a few months. He didn’t talk to anyone anymore.

I worried about how he was going to go on after Mrs. Douglas passed. I didn’t think he’d survive and that broke my heart. Brad turned the corner. His usual cheerful demeanor had shifted to a more solemn one and I knew that this was it. The last day we would have with her.

“Braxton’s in with her now. She’s having a good day,” Brad told me quietly.

“That’s good right?”

“Yes, it is. But it also means that we probably don’t have much more time with her.” “What do you mean?”

“It’s a pretty common phenomenon. One of my professors discussed it last semester. Right before terminally ill patients pass, they get one final burst of energy. Religious people say it’s like a gift from God—allowing a chance to say goodbye while the loved one is lucid. But— ”

“So this might be the last time I get to talk to her?” I interrupted him.

“It’s very likely.”

I nodded and went into the room. Braxton was sitting beside his mom, they were laughing about something. He might have looked up when I came in, but I didn’t notice. All I could see was Mrs. Douglas. I was struck with how different she seemed. I’d just seen her a few days ago, but the change was drastic.

“My sweet girl.” She said, turning her head to me. Her voice was rough and weak, but it was stronger than it had been in weeks. I idly wondered if maybe Brad was wrong, maybe it wasn’t the end after all. Maybe there was a chance she could be getting better? But I knew that was wishful thinking. He probably knew exactly what he was talking about.

Braxton got up to make room for me. He kissed the top of my head as he walked by. “I’m going to get a drink,” he said, but really I think he just needed a moment to compose himself. He might have put on a smile for his mom, but I knew his heart must be breaking inside.

“Hi.” I sat down beside the hospital bed. “I’m sorry I haven’t been around much.”

She smiled slightly. “Don’t apologize. Tell me about what you’ve been up to.”

“Um, well, nothing much.” I was terrible at small talk. “I got a job and I actually bought my first car today.”

“You should be proud.”

“I am.”

“How’s school?”

“Good. Surprisingly my favorite class is Music Composition.” “That doesn’t surprise me,” she said knowingly.

“I guess not. It started out kind of rough, but it ended up better than I expected. I got paired up with this guy who was super scary at first and my total opposite in every way— except he ended up not being as bad as I thought he would be—in fact, I think he’s actually a pretty decent guy. There’s definitely more to him than meets the eye. He’s sort of a walking contradiction actually. He’s the lead singer and guitarist in a pop punk band and he’s covered in tattoos, but he is also this classical musical prodigy—he plays the piano. I wasn’t very nice to him at first but the more I got to know him the more I realized that he feels music the same way I do.” I blushed as I realized I was telling my fiancé’s mother about the guy I was falling in love with. ”Anyway, we had to compose a song together for our class project, and I think it’s turning out to be pretty great.”

“Will you play it for me?”

“I didn’t bring my guitar.”

“Will you sing it?”

“It’s not really finished yet. Maybe next time I visit.”

“Please, just a little?”

How could I tell her no?

So I sang the lyrics that Chase and I had written together and the words took on a whole new meaning.

There is this energy, it’s calling me

It’s making me change my mind

There’s this intensity when you’re close to me

And now we’re blurring all the lines…” I sang for her, because she’d asked me to, but right then and there, I realized the truth of what I sang. I wondered if she could feel it too.

“Thank you,” she said when I finished.

“For what?”

“For singing for me. I know that you haven’t done that in years. I’ve missed it.”

“There wasn’t much reason for me to sing after she left.”

“I know. I’m sorry for everything you went through. I tried so hard to ease the pain, but I know no one can ever replace your mom.”

I shook my head. “No, you didn’t replace her. You were so much more to me than she ever was.”

“Hailey, there’s something I want to say to you.” The words were soft and she said them slowly like it caused her great effort to speak at all. “I love you and I have always been so proud of you. You were the daughter I never had.”

A single tear rolled down her cheek and it was like that one tear opened the floodgates.

My tears fell hot and fast, and soon I could barely see her.

She squeezed my hand lightly; she didn’t have much strength left but I felt it. She continued, “I’m sorry I won’t be there for your college graduation, or your wedding day, or when you bring your first child into the world. I won’t be there to hold your hand and give you advice like I always wanted to and that breaks my heart most of all. But I know you will be okay. You are strong. Just always stay true to yourself. Be the woman you are and the one you are meant to be. Do not become what you think others want and always live as if this is your last day because you never know if tomorrow is going to come.”

I didn’t know what to say to her after that. So I kissed her cheek and held her hand and we both cried silent tears.

She died the next day.

I never understood why people felt the need to comment about a funeral being beautiful. The flowers were beautiful, but everything else was black. There was nothing beautiful about burying a woman before her time—especially one who had suffered so much in her last few months on this earth.

I guess the only other thing about it that could be considered beautiful was that her suffering was done. She was in a better place—at least I hoped that she was. I hoped she was in a place where she could be healthy and happy and everything would be bright, and she could eat all the cheesecake she wanted.

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chase

I felt like throwing my damn phone across the room when Hailey’s phone went straight to her voicemail for the nineteenth time.

Yeah, I’d been calling this girl like a freaking psycho for a whole day and still nothing. Not to mention the numerous text messages I’d sent her. I could understand she didn’t want to answer my calls after I’d drunk dialed her the other night—stupid move by the way—but did she really need to ignore me like this?

After the confrontation with Deuce and Heather, I felt like the final pieces of my life had started to line up. I was over Heather completely, but now I needed Hailey. She was that final piece that had been missing.

“She’s still not picking up,” I told Jonathan who was casually resting on the couch watching me with amusement. “I’ve called her nineteen times and she still hasn’t picked up her goddamn phone!”

“Why don’t you call her one more time and officially become her crazy-ass stalker?”

Ignoring him, I slammed my phone down on the table and slid into the chair at the desk. I was pissed off that Hailey was ignoring me, but I was more pissed at myself for letting the lie go

on for so long. I’d had so many chances to tell her the truth, but I never once did.

Now I was regretting keeping the truth from her. Now it was all coming back to bite me in the ass.

My reasons for keeping this from Hailey were kind of selfish. After I’d gotten close to her, it’d been amazing to see her so passionate about something when her entire life seemed to be so planned out. When she spoke about William C. Lancaster, her face would light up and her eyes would shine. And it made my stomach freak out to see her glow as she spoke about me, even if she didn’t know it was me she was talking about.

“Why do girls overreact to the tiniest thing?” I asked, trying to fight the urge to send her another message.

Jonathan shrugged as he typed something into his phone. “I don’t know, but I’m used to it now. I told you, with Tessa, I just keep my mouth shut and agree with whatever she says. It seems to work and I get lucky.”

“Be straight with me.” I focused on Jonathan. “Did I completely screw everything up?”

“Yeah, you kind of did. You have to see where she’s coming from when she says that your relationship is based on a lie.”

I did see where she was coming from, but what if I’d told her the truth and it’d completely ruined her passion for my music? What if she was disgusted by me? What if she never went to another one of my concerts ever again?

I hadn’t wanted to ruin that for her. I’d wanted to keep her oblivious to the truth for just a little longer. But after that kiss—after that goddamn kiss that made me want to punch something—I had to tell her the truth. Because after that kiss, I just knew. I knew it didn’t even matter if I was Chase or if I was William. This girl loved me. She was the most amazing thing to ever fall into my life, and she wanted me.

Sure, I could forget about Hailey and find someone else. Plenty of girls hung around after every show we did just dying to hook up, but I didn’t want that. I wasn’t that guy. I didn’t want to be that guy.

I wanted to be the guy for Hailey—the guy she deserved. I wanted her to be the only girl in my life. Sure, it was going to be hard. It was going to be so damn hard, but I didn’t want it any other way. We were so different from each other, but there was something about her that just called out to me. Something about her felt so right, even though she was so different to the other girls I’d been with before.

And that was enough for me. That tiny spark that lit up between us was enough for me to want to give us a chance. Because I couldn’t let her walk out of my life knowing that someone like her existed in this world.

I had to fight for her, and I had to convince her to give us a chance.

“Dude.” Jonathan’s voice snapped me from my thoughts and I glanced up to find him staring at his phone. “Tessa said that Hailey finishes her Economics class in ten minutes. You can actually go physically stalk her now.”

At his words, I jumped to my feet. “Are you messing with me?”

Jonathan shook his head. “I’m not messing with you. I just got sick of watching you walk around like some chick with emotional ovaries.”

That was kind of true. I’d been acting a little over the top in the last twenty-four hours. I needed a freaking reality check and to get myself under control.

“Thanks, man,” I said, because there weren’t the right words to really tell Jonathan how awesome he’d been lately about this whole thing.

He’d probably gotten sick of me talking about Hailey a long time ago, but instead of getting pissed at me, he’d helped me out instead. And I wasn’t going to waste this opportunity. I needed to find Hailey and tell her exactly how I felt about her and why I’d kept the truth from her.

“As long as we don’t have to sit around and eat ice cream and talk about our feelings, it’s fine with me.”

A smile spread across my face as I headed out the door and raced outside, weaving in and out of the crowds of people walking around me. A new sense of purpose filled me as I headed toward the building where Hailey’s Economics class was held.

There was no way I was going anywhere until Hailey heard me out. My head felt light when I caught sight of her approaching. She hadn’t noticed me yet and I was glad for the chance to study her without her knowing that I was there.

Hailey’s head was down, her face pale and her expression withdrawn as she slowly ambled in my direction, not realizing what was about to hit her. She was about to find out how stubborn I could be. As determined as she was to avoid me, I was twice as determined to confront her.

“Hailey.” I was surprised by how much control was actually in my voice. I felt like a complete wreck inside. I wanted to demand answers from her about how she could avoid me so easily, but I had to keep it together.

Her head jerked up and she stared at me like I was some sort of disease. Her mouth formed a tight line and she quickly folded her arms across her chest in a protective stance.

“Have you thought up some other way to humiliate me?”

Her tone was biting and made me take a step back. I didn’t want to overwhelm her; I just wanted to get through to her. She had to understand my reasons for doing what I did. She had to forgive me. Because I needed to be with this girl. If I wasn’t with her, then my life was never going to be the same again. I couldn’t be happy knowing that Hailey was in this world and she wasn’t with me.

“Listen to me,” I said, my voice calm and steady, “you need to know why I didn’t tell you the truth about who I really was—“

“Chase, you know what?” She cut me off, giving me a firm look. “I’m not interested in hearing any more lies from you. I can’t handle this today. Why don’t you just leave me alone?” A rush of emotion surged its way through my chest, and I unfolded her arms and pulled her towards me. “Because you’re the only goddamn thing I think about, Hailey. Ever since you kissed me, all I’ve wanted is you. We both know that we have something amazing between us, so why are we playing these games with each other? Yeah, I made a mistake. Well, that’s life, Hailey. People make mistakes all the time. Not everything can be perfect and planned out, but we can try. That’s all we can do. We can try to make this work if you let us.”

Hailey’s eyes grew wide and her expression softened as she gazed back at me. “Chase, I don’t-”

But suddenly, I wasn’t listening to a word she was saying. My fingers had brushed against her hands, and I stopped breathing. There was something on one of her fingers on her left hand, and as I slowly gazed down, my stomach sank like a rock. There was a ring on her finger. And it was fucking huge.

Tensing, I dropped her hands and took a step back as I started putting the pieces together.

“What the hell is that?” I pointed to her finger, but I already knew what it was.

Hailey frowned and held out her hand as though it was going to poison her. “B-Braxton proposed.” Her tone had turned soft and she looked like she might break down into tears at any given second.

But none of that was really registering. All I saw was that fucking ring on her finger. It was having an effect on me like acid burning through my stomach.

“And you said yes.” My voice sounded distant and far away, like I was on some other planet and Hailey was a freaking alien. She must be. Why else would she agree to marry someone who wasn’t me?

“I-I did. But-” She stumbled over her words, clearly upset.

But what reason would she have to be upset? She’d just accepted her boyfriend’s proposal. Even after everything we’d been through together, all the ways we’d gotten under each other’s skin, she was still willing to be with someone else.

It was easy for her. It was easy for her to let go of me. So I had to let go too.

“Well,” I stalled, trying to think of what to say without sounding like a jerk. But I wanted to sound like a jerk. I wanted to rip that damn ring off her finger and talk some sense into her. But I had no right. I’d lied to her and she’d decided to shut me out of her life. “I hope you’ve found the guy you want to be with.”

Her bottom lip shook as she studied me with a lost look in those green eyes that I’d come to know so well. “I have found him.”

And that’s all I could hear. I couldn’t hear another damn word. I needed to walk away now before I completely lost it.

“Chase, wait!”

Not wanting to listen to another word that came out of her mouth, I blindly made my way back to my car. There was a weird buzzing in my head as I made the short drive back to the apartment, like I’d suddenly been hung upside down and all the blood had rushed to my brain. It was making it hard for me to think about anything else. All I could see was that huge rock on

Hailey’s finger.

How could she choose him over me? How could she just forget about our time together?

How could she move on when there were so many unresolved feelings between us?

And suddenly all those feelings hit me like a rush, and my mind overflowed with words and memories and mistakes. I was fucking angry but I was also upset and going a little insane over this girl.

Hailey made my life amazing—she challenged me, and irritated me, and made me laugh—and now she was gone, just like that. This shit was seriously messed up.

When I got back to the apartment, Jonathan wasn’t around and I was kind of glad to be alone, even if it was only for a little while. Walking over to the desk, I pulled out a sheet of paper and a pen, and collapsed into the chair.

My fingers flew across the page; I was unable to get the words down fast enough. Every single emotion I’d felt since I’d met Hailey spilled free. Heartbreak wasn’t what I’d experienced with my psycho ex; heartbreak was this.

Heartbreak was being shown glimpses of a future with someone you knew was right for you and then having everything ripped away before you even got a chance to be with them. That’s what heartbreak was, and that’s what losing Hailey was like.

I can feel you slipping away…

Chapter Twenty-Five

Hailey

My hand felt as heavy as my heart. The ring was beautiful. Braxton had done an excellent job picking it out. But it didn’t feel like it belonged there and I couldn’t get used to it no matter how often I found myself glancing down at it. I couldn’t forget the expression on Chase’s face when he’d seen the ring on my hand.

He’d looked so sad and then so betrayed. I hadn’t wanted him to find out about my engagement like that—honestly, I didn’t think I really wanted him to find out at all. That wasn’t a normal response, right? Weren’t girls typically overjoyed when they got engaged? Shouldn’t I be flashing my new ring to anyone and everyone? That should have been a red flag.

“Are you okay?” Tessa asked.

“Not really, but it’s not me I’m worried about.”

“How is Braxton?”

“I don’t really know. He just sorta shut down. Brad seems to be the only functioning person in that household right now.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Me too. They need me right now. I just came back to grab a few things.”

I had decided to stay in Southlake for a few more days and help out as much as I could with everything that the Douglas family was going through right now. “Is there anything I can do?” Tessa asked.

“No, I already cleared it with my professors so I should be good there, and I’ll be back in a few days.”

“Okay, just let me know.” Tessa hugged me goodbye, and I tried my hardest not to break down right then and there.

I listened to music the whole way back to Southlake. Chase was right; the best songs weren’t about a happily-ever-after. The best songs—the ones that caused any sort of stirring inside me—were about heartbreak and pain. It made me wonder what else he was right about.

I was young. I was inexperienced. Maybe settling down so early in life wasn’t a good thing.

Live as if this is your last day.

When I pulled into Braxton’s driveway, I noticed that the house was dark. I opened up the trunk and pulled out my bag.

“Hailey? Is that you?” asked a gruff sounding voice. I hadn’t heard that voice in months but of course I recognized it.

“Yeah, Dad, it’s me.”

“I didn’t know you were back in town.” He stepped out of the shadows and stood in front of me. He looked the same—taller than me and round, particularly around the middle. His hair was longer, not really shaggy but just like he’d gone a few months without a trim. He also needed to shave. He wore oil-stained overalls over a plain white t-shirt. He was looking a little rough, but at least he seemed sober tonight.

“Um, yeah. Mrs. Douglas passed away a few days ago.”

“Oh,” he said, reaching out toward me. I must’ve had an involuntary reaction to his attempt at comforting me because he hastily shoved his hands back in his pockets, looking embarrassed. “I’m sorry, Hay. Real sorry to hear that.”

It was kind of chilly and we were just standing around in awkward silence until I finally couldn’t take it anymore, so I said, “Okay, well, it was nice seeing you.” I turned and started to make my way to Braxton’s house.

“Hailey wait,” he called out. “I, uh, I have something for you. Can you come inside for a minute?”

I reluctantly agreed and followed my father inside the house I’d grown up in. Nothing about this house made me feel like I was home. Though I didn’t really feel at home next door now, either.

Sure the Douglas family had tried to make me feel like I was part of the family, but I knew that I didn’t really belong there. I had no home.

I stayed in the entryway, not feeling comfortable enough to venture further into the house. He went to the kitchen and came out a few minutes later with an envelope. He held onto it nervously, trying to gauge my reaction to what he was about to say.

“I—uh—wanted you to know that I called that number you left on the table for me. I’ve been—uh—talking to someone about my problems. I’m doing better, and I know that it’s not something that’s just going to go away—but I’m recovering.”

“That’s great, Dad,” I told him and I meant it, but I’d been trying for years to get him to do the right thing and get help, so why was this time any different?

“I also have been putting back some money from my paycheck each week to pay back what I stole from you.” He cleared his throat uncomfortably and handed me an envelope.

“It’s not everything, but it’s a start and I will pay back the rest.” My hands were shaking as I took it. “I don’t want your money, Dad,” I said quietly.

“It’s not my money Hay, it’s yours. I had no right to do that to you and I know that you probably can’t forgive me yet, but I hope that someday down the road you can try.” I didn’t know what to say so I just hugged him and he started to cry.

“I’m so sorry.” He repeated those words over and over in between his tears. “For everything.”

We talked for a little while longer. It was a little weird; I wasn’t quite ready to renew our relationship—it would take some time to build back the trust but it was a good start.

I spent the next few days with the Douglas family cleaning the house, cooking meals, and helping Brad take care of everything. Mr. Douglas didn’t leave his room the day we buried Mrs. Douglas and when he did emerge, he was like a zombie. He just wandered aimlessly through the house. He’d answer questions with a yes or no, but other than that he didn’t speak to anyone.

Braxton kept telling me how happy he was that I was here and how he couldn’t have gone through this without me. It made it harder for me to find the right time to do what I knew needed to be done. It seemed cruel to break his heart when he obviously needed me.

But as much as I wanted to continue being here to help the family that had helped me so much, I knew that it was time for me to head back to school.

I had been torturing myself for months trying to fight against what I so obviously wanted because I was scared. Tessa was right, it was time for me to follow my heart, to take a risk.

Maybe I’d get hurt, but it was a chance that I wanted to take. I didn’t want to just exist anymore—I wanted to live.

Be the woman you are and the one you are meant to be. Do not become what you think others want and live as if this is your last day…

I think that’s what Mrs. Douglas was trying to tell me before she died. I think she knew that I tried hard to be perfect on the outside because I thought maybe if I was, then my mom never would’ve left me and my dad never would’ve checked out and we could’ve been a perfect family like I perceived the Douglas family to be.

Nobody was perfect—and it was too exhausting to keep trying to be.

But did I really just want to settle for the comfortable and ordinary now that I knew something greater was out there? Or was I being naïve? Maybe the butterflies were only temporary and it was wiser to stick with what I knew instead of exploring this unfamiliar territory that could very well end in my heartbreak.

Either way, I knew that I wasn’t being fair to Braxton. This uncertainty was weighing heavily on my mind and my heart. I needed to tell him the truth—that I wasn’t ready to settle down and get married, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it yet. He’d just lost his mom and it didn’t seem right to hurt him anymore. I just needed to go back to school and give him time to get over this obstacle before I broke his heart all over again.

Chapter Twenty-Six

Chase

I’d been put in a lot of awkward situations in my life.

Hell, I’d had to put up with excruciatingly awkward lunches every Sunday with my parents and try to make small talk with them.

And, you know, I’d just found out that my girlfriend of three years had been cheating on me with a guy from my own band. That was pretty awkward. Okay, that was beyond awkward.

Yet, despite all those awkward situations I’d faced, working with Hailey on our assignment kind of took the prize for the most awkward situation I’d ever been in.

First of all, we were barely acknowledging each other or making eye contact. What little we did say mostly consisted of a ‘yes’, ‘no’, or some murmurs and grunts. I’d throw in a slight head nod from time to time, but beyond that there wasn’t a whole lot of communication going on. I didn’t believe it was from a lack of things to say—I think we really just had too much to say to each other.

Secondly, that ring on her finger was like a huge slap in the face, followed by a kick to the balls. There was barely any time for me to recover. I mean, did she really have to rub it in my face?

On top of that, I kind of felt like a complete moron for telling her that I loved her. Yeah, I could use the alcohol as an excuse and lie to her—she wouldn’t know any better—but I’d still know the truth. I’d still know that I was crazy about her and that I really did love her, so, really, what was the point in lying to myself?

Thankfully, this was the last time we’d have to work on our assignment together. We were just adding the final touches before we had to perform it in class one last time, and then I could stay as far away from Hailey Peters as I wanted.

I’d never have to talk to her again or worry about what I was going to do next to piss her off. I could just go on with my miserable existence and chalk it up to the girl who got away.

Because that’s who she’d always be to me—the girl I wanted but could never have. I’d always wonder what it was like to have a life with her. It didn’t matter who I ended up with—I’d always want to be with Hailey.

With that thought, something shot through me, like a charged current. Screw that. I

wasn’t the guy who sat around and wondered some bullshit for the rest of his life—I was the guy who took what he wanted because life was too short to wonder.

I wasn’t going to look back on this moment five years from now and regret not doing everything I could to be with Hailey.

“Why are we acting like strangers?”

Hailey flinched, and I noticed she took a deep breath before looking up at me. Her eyes were troubled, framed with creases; I didn’t like seeing her like this. I had never wanted to hurt her. “I-I just don’t know what to say right now, Chase.”

The way she said my name broke my heart. I wanted to hear her say my name for the rest of our lives. This couldn’t be the last time.

I blew out a frustrated breath. “I’m sorry, okay? I’m apologizing again because I know I screwed up. I shouldn’t have kept the truth from you, but I was so worried, Hailey.”

“Worried? Why?” She seemed confused, and I saw some of the anxiety disappear from her face. “You knew I loved William C. Lancaster.” A layer of blush flush appeared on her face. “Um, you knew I was a fan, so why would you be worried?”

Even though it was kind of embarrassing talking about this, I had to get it off my chest.

Especially if I wanted to make a difference in the way that Hailey saw me. I didn’t want her to think of me as a lying jerk forever.

“Well, uh, I already knew you didn’t think a whole lot of me. I wasn’t your favorite person and I guess I liked the fact that you really did like something about me, even if you had no clue.”

Hailey pressed her lips together. “You really hurt me, Chase.”

Her words made me feel like a shitty person. “I know, and I’m sorry. It’s just, at first I didn’t really care. You weren’t my favorite person and I wasn’t yours, but something changed. I know you felt it the same time as I did. Something changed between us and then it became harder to tell you. I didn’t want to ruin that for you. Your face would light up when you talked about William C. Lancaster. I couldn’t take that away from you. Stupid reason, huh?”

Hailey’s expression softened. “I’ve come to expect nothing less from you.” A smile peeked at the edge of her lips, and it was like the sun rising after a long period of darkness. That smile had a way of affecting me like nothing I’d ever felt before.

“I screwed up and I know that, but people screw up, Hailey.”

“I know that, but sometimes it’s hard to let for me to let go of things.”

I could see where she was coming from. It probably wasn’t easy having a mother who’d abandoned her and a father who’d been emotionally absent pretty much her entire life. I now saw

Hailey’s need to make plans and hold onto the things that were familiar to her, like her boyfriend/fiancé, for what it really was—it was her way of asserting control over her own life, the only way she knew how and that was completely understandable. But that wasn’t the way she should be living her life.

“Hailey, I know what it’s like to be screwed over by someone.” I took her hands in mine.

A look of surprise shot across her face, but thankfully she didn’t pull away. “My ex, Heather, was cheating on me with our guitarist, Deuce. I found them together that night I drunk dialed you.”

“What? I’m so sorry! I didn’t know!” Hailey squeezed my hands, and then a look of disgust appeared on her face. “That’s an awful thing to do! Why would she do something like that to you?”

I shrugged. “If I spend my entire life wondering why then how am I ever going to move onto something better?” I gave her a meaningful look and she turned a shade of dark pink and tried to pull her hands away from me.

“No, stop.” I held onto her. “Stop and just listen to me. Everything I said to you that night was the truth. Yeah, I was drunk, but I meant it all. I am in love with you, Hailey. I don’t know how or why or when, but it’s real. I can feel it, just out of reach, tucked away in some part of me, but I know it’s there. And I know you feel the same way.

She began shaking her head, tears brimming in her eyes as she stood up. “I can’t talk to you like this, Chase. Braxton proposed and he just lost his mother.” Her voice wavered, and I rose to my feet so I could hold onto her. I didn’t want her to run away from me just yet. “I just lost a mother. I can’t-I don’t know what to do.”

I ran my hand through her hair and pulled her into me. “You don’t need to marry him.

You don’t need to commit to him if it doesn’t feel right.” I lowered my face to hers as my hands glided over the sides of her sweater dress, finally resting on her hips. “Everything about this feels right. I want you to be mine. I want to love you like he never has. He’s never given you a chance to grow or to live your life. You need to get busy living your life and making your own choices.”

Hailey’s eyes fell on my lips, and I didn’t hesitate. I pulled her in for the kiss that had my insides aching with anticipation. The kiss was gentle at first but it quickly filled with urgency, like we were the last two people left on the earth. I darted my tongue through her parted lips as my mouth crushed hers, and when Hailey let out a moan, I pushed her against the table so hard that it scraped against the floor.

“Tell me you want me,” I said in a low voice as I trailed kisses down the soft skin of her neck. “Tell me that you choose me.”

“Chase,” was all she could manage as she ran a hand through my hair. Her other hand found its way underneath my shirt and pressed firmly on my tensed stomach muscles.

“Hailey!”

Hailey pushed me away so hard that I actually stumbled a few steps back. I hadn’t expected such a show of strength from someone like her. When I turned around, I found her boyfriend/fiancé standing behind us. I had no idea how he’d known to find Hailey in the library, but here he was. Fuck.

“Hailey, what the hell are you doing with him?” He said that last bit like I was an amoeba. I didn’t like the way he spoke to her and I refused to let it happen again as long as I was around.

“Back the hell off,” I said, taking a protective stance in front of Hailey.

He seemed surprised at first, but then he just looked angry. “Hailey! What the hell?”

I felt Hailey’s hand on my shoulder, so I turned around to meet her. I’d never seen her so upset before, even that night she’d had an emotional breakdown. She was a lot calmer, but for some reason I knew it was worse than the other night.

“Chase, you need to leave.” Her voice was surprisingly steady as she spoke. “What?”

Her rejection slammed me hard in the chest. I’d just poured my heart out to her and felt like I’d finally gotten through to her, that we’d connected, and now she was telling me to leave?

“Please, just go. I need to talk to Braxton alone.”

I hated that she’d said his name. I hated that so much. I guess she’d made her choice.

“Fine, whatever.”

I didn’t bother to look at her. There was no reason to. I just walked away, knowing it was the last time I ever wanted to see her.

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Hailey

“Who the hell was that?” Braxton asked.

“That was Chase.”

“Chase,” he repeated. He paused for just a moment before realization flooded his face.

“The band guy.”

“Yeah.” I bit my bottom lip, unable to look him in the eye. God, how many ways could a person screw up? Who else was I going to hurt today? People might as well form a line because I was on a roll.

I felt like I was going to choke on my own tongue. How could I find the words to tell Braxton—how could I tell my fiancé that I was in love with someone else? That Chase Lancaster held my heart in his hands. I didn’t even know when it had happened exactly. Maybe it was the first time I’d played guitar with him.

Maybe it was when he’d told me I was beautiful.

Maybe it was when we’d been writing our song or maybe it was when he’d told me about his heart being broken.

Maybe it was the first time he’d kissed me.

Maybe it was when I’d realized that he was my Piano Man.

I couldn’t pinpoint one specific incident. It had happened gradually, a little bit at a time but there was no denying it now. I was in love with him.

That revelation meant that I couldn’t postpone this conversation with Braxton any longer. I had waited too long in a vain attempt to keep from hurting him too soon after his mom passed away, but now I realized that that was just a cowardly excuse. He was going to hurt no matter when I told him and it was going to be entirely my fault.

“And why did Chase have his tongue down my fiancé’s throat?” He wasn’t even bothering to keep his voice down.

“We can’t talk about this here.”

“The hell we can’t! Damn it, Hailey, what the fuck was that?”

“Braxton, come on, we can talk outside.” I led him down the stairs and through the glass doors that opened into the quad. I couldn’t even look at him but I knew he was following me. Once we were out of the stuffy library I didn’t feel so claustrophobic. This wasn’t going to be easy—of course I knew that it wouldn’t be. I just didn’t realize just how hard it would be to find the right words. “I’m not really sure what to say.” I walked in a daze over to a nearby bench and sat down. He followed me over and sat down beside me.

I knew this conversation was long overdue and I was dreading hurting Braxton, but I

hadn’t anticipated hurting Chase in the process—he’d looked so pissed when I’d asked him to leave. But what else could I do? I couldn’t just break up with Braxton right in front of him. That wouldn’t be fair. I knew that I was going to destroy Braxton—he didn’t need an audience to witness his pain. I’d never really considered myself to be a heartless person, but right now I sure felt like one.

“I came here to surprise you, you know? Tessa told me she thought you were in the library ‘studying’.” He laughed humorlessly. “I know I’m not a college student or anything but that sure the hell didn’t look like studying to me.”

“Braxton, I-”

“No,” he interrupted. “You don’t have the right to act all pathetic.”

It was like a slap in the face. Braxton and I had gotten into arguments in the past but he had never talked to me so harshly before. Of course, I never had done anything to deserve this sort of hostility before either.

“I don’t know where to begin.”

“Try the beginning,” Braxton suggested.

So I did. I told him about Chase. I told him how we’d been partnered up together for class and how I’d felt when I sang with him on stage—how this whole other part me I didn’t know was in there seemed to open up. I told him how I’d learned that Chase was William C. Lancaster and how I was pissed that he didn’t tell me at first but now I kind of understood why he’d kept that part a secret.

I sat on a bench beside the boy next door—the boy I had been in love with for as long as I could remember, and I told him everything. I told him how I’d fallen in love with someone new. “Fuck, Hailey. How long has this been going on?”

“A while…”

“So you’ve wanted to end things with me for a while?”

“No—I mean, not really. I wasn’t sure what I wanted. I thought that maybe it was just a stupid crush that would eventually go away. I didn’t want to hurt you for nothing.”

“You’ve been lying to me for months—months! Because you didn’t want to hurt me?”

“I wanted to tell you sooner—but I was just so worried that it wasn’t the right time. Your mom just died and I-”

“Yeah, because finding out this way was so much better.”

“I thought I was doing the right thing waiting. I didn’t want to make things worse for you.”

“Well, thank you so much, you were absolutely right. Walking in on my fiancé kissing another guy—that was definitely better than just hearing the truth!”

I felt the blood drain from my face. I couldn’t even begin to count the many ways I’d screwed everything up. Hindsight is 20/20, right? I hadn’t wanted to hurt him any more than absolutely necessary but I could see that by being dishonest with him, I had broken him. His world was crashing down around him and it was completely my fault. “I’m sorry,” I whispered.

“Don’t give me that shit. You’re sorry? You’re sorry—for which part?”

“For everything! Do you think I wanted this to happen? Of course not! But it did! It happened and I know I didn’t handle it the right way but you have to know that I never wanted to hurt you.”

“So the whole time I’ve been taking care of my dying mother in Southlake, you’ve been here fucking the punk rocker?” he yelled.

“No! That’s not what happened—I didn’t—I mean, we didn’t—nothing happened! Not like that!”

“Nothing. Nothing at all?”

“Okay, well, I mean, we did kiss but you already knew that.”

“Why should I believe that was all that happened?” he asked, his voice tight.

“Braxton, this wasn’t something I planned for. It just happened. You and me—we don’t belong together.”

“How could you say that? We’re exactly right for each other.”

“No. We aren’t. We’ve just been together for so long that we forgot we’re not the same person—we are two very different people who have been trying very hard to be right for one another, not realizing that we didn’t have to be.”

My heart was aching for him, knowing that I was hurting him but at the same time I was exasperated. How could he be so blind?

“That’s not how it’s supposed to be, you know? We should be challenging each other to be better people but instead we’ve been stuck in the same place for so long that we—well, I won’t speak for you, but I know that I forgot how to be my own person with my own thoughts and desires. We’re trapped in this relationship out of some twisted sense of obligation or habit, but whatever it is, it’s not how love is supposed to be. I know that now.”

“I planned my whole life around you. I love you Hailey. I’ve been patient and understanding. Do you think I was okay when you told me you couldn’t say yes to me? I was dying inside. But I thought I knew you. I knew you’d come around and I thought you did. God, how could I be so stupid? I fucking love you. You needed time—so I gave it to you and this is what you do to me?”

“I’m sorry.” I didn’t know what else to say so I didn’t say anything more. I got up and walked away wondering if the guilt I felt would ever go away and if I had made the right decision walking away from the boy next door.

I was completely numb. The tears that I thought would pour down my cheeks as soon as I broke Braxton’s heart never came. I wasn’t sure if it was because Chase had already depleted my tear quota for the day, or if maybe, just maybe, I was more relieved than sad now that it was done. It was all out in the open and as much as much as it hurt, I knew that it was the right thing to do. I never should’ve let it go on as long as it did. I was just scared of letting him go because I didn’t know what life would be like without him. And even though I felt like I was finally ready to explore what that life looked like, it was still frightening.

I was so lost in my own thoughts that I almost ran right into Tessa in the hallway outside of our dorm room.

“Hey, what’s up?” she asked. She could tell something was wrong so there was really no point keeping it from her.

“I broke up with Braxton.”

“C’mon. I think I still have some double-stuffed Oreos.”

We both sat on her bed, our backs pressed up against the wall with the box of Oreos in between us. She didn’t ask for details—I think she would have been okay with just sitting here sharing her box of cookies with me until I was ready to talk so I told her everything.

Afterwards she asked, “Are you going to tell Chase?”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“Why not?”

“I think I hurt him too much that it won’t even matter. I doubt he wants to speak to me again.”

“I’m sure that’s not true.”

“You weren’t there, Tessa. You didn’t see his face. I really messed everything up.”

“Just give him some time. I’m sure he’ll come around. Do you want me to maybe tell

Jonathan so he can pass along the info?”

“No. Don’t tell anyone. Not yet. I don’t know. I just feel like it should come from me but I think it’s too soon. I mean, I literally just ended things with Braxton. I don’t want to immediately rush into Chase’s arms—that is assuming he’d even have them open for me. Which as of right now, I’m guessing he doesn’t.” “I think you’d be surprised.”

“Well, I still think I need to wait. Today I need to just sit here and watch sappy romance movies with my best friend and stuff my face with these delicious cookies.”

“Sounds good to me.”

There was nothing I wanted to do more right now than run to Chase and tell him everything, but I had hurt him deeply and he needed time to think about how he really felt about me—so I needed to give him that.

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Chase

It was weird looking around at a band that was fifty percent new.

I mean, at least we had band members, so we were in a better position than we’d been in two weeks ago. Luckily, Jonathan knew a guy who knew a guy, and now we had two new guys.

Brandon was the new guitarist and was a pretty cool guy who knew a lot about music. He hadn’t played many live shows, but he had a lot more enthusiasm than our last guitarist and I was pretty sure he hadn’t slept with my ex-girlfriend, so he got extra points just for that.

Jeffrey was Zach’s replacement and even though he preferred to play drums, he was also a pretty good bass player too. He also had a sarcastic sense of humor and within minutes of meeting him, he’d had me cracking up. He was definitely someone you either loved or hated. I could see how his jokes might rub some people the wrong way, but I thought he was hilarious.

Letting go of Deuce wasn’t a big loss, especially since he was such an asshole, but losing Zach was the hardest. Zach was a great guy and had become a good friend over the years. But if he’d found someone who was right for him then I was happy for him. Plus, British accents were hot.

Even though it was tough replacing the original members, I was relieved that they fit in so well and were excited to be part of the band. The guy, Brent, from the management company was definitely going to be there to see us perform live so we couldn’t mess this up. Nothing was going to stand in my way of making this band a success.

As we started going through the set list and the songs we’d be playing at the show, I was amazed at how much better we already sounded. We’d been practicing hard for the last week— we’d had practice nearly every day for several hours—and our time and effort was really showing. There was a great dynamic going on with us.

We started playing the new song I’d written to impress the management company, and I couldn’t help but think about the very thing that I was trying my hardest not to think about. I guess it was a stupid idea to write a song about the girl who’d broken your heart when you were really just trying to get over the whole thing.

Smart move, Chase. Smart move.

Every time we played this song, all I thought about was Hailey Peters. I thought about the look of disapproval she gave me whenever I said something she didn’t particularly like. I thought about the way she would smile at me when I did something unexpected. And I especially thought about the way she felt in my arms.

I was actually pretty happy with the way the song was coming together. It was one of heartbreak—big surprise there—and considering my relationship history, I was starting to become something of an expert on the subject.

When the song ended, I unslung my guitar and propped it against the wall. There were a couple of lines that I wanted to change around, so I pulled my notepad out of my pocket and began jotting down some new lyrics.

I didn’t notice Jonathan beside me until he spoke. He shifted around nervously for a few seconds before he spoke. “How are you doing?”

I took a deep breath. I wasn’t sure exactly what Jonathan was referring to—it could be either Heather or Hailey—but I didn’t really want to go into my feelings with him. I wasn’t sure if I was even feeling anything. Was that normal?

I guess I was just blocking my feelings out. My year had been pretty bad as far as years went, and Hailey was just another item added to my list that had gone wrong. It was too much for me to process that my girlfriend of three years had cheated on me with Deuce, or should I say, Donald Worthington the fourth? And to top it off, somehow Heather had ended up blaming me for it.

And, for the final blow, I’d gone ahead and gotten wasted and then completely screwed up my chances with the only girl who’d ever truly given a damn about me. At least I’d had the guts to tell her how I really felt though, which was more than I could say for her. She’d gotten rid of me as soon as her boyfriend had shown up, and that had hurt me more than I wanted to think about.

So it wasn’t really that surprising that I wanted to feel nothing. Feeling nothing was a hell of a lot easier than feeling everything.

“I’m fine. Just focused on making sure we get our set right for tomorrow.”

“I didn’t mean that, Chase. I’m talking about Hailey. I’m talking about Deuce and

Heather.” I’d never seen Jonathan so serious before and I’d known him since he’d been in diapers.

I sighed. “I know what you’re talking about. I just don’t feel like talking about it. There’s nothing left to say. Everyone’s made their choices—all I can do is pick myself up and put all my energy into something that means a lot to me.”

“Hailey means a lot to you,” Jonathan pointed out.

Yeah, like I didn’t already know that. But that ship had sailed. Hailey had rejected me yet again, even though I’d actually had the guts to tell her how I really felt. Sure, it’d taken me until I was drunk to do it, but at least I’d put myself out there.

At least I’d wanted to give us a chance. I didn’t know what Hailey wanted. I didn’t know if she wanted me, but that ring on her finger was the answer to all my questions. She was engaged to that douchebag boyfriend of hers and there was nothing I could do about it. I knew when I’d lost a battle.

“I know she means a lot to me, but she’s engaged to be married to someone else. Not me. She didn’t choose m-me.”

Shit. Was my voice cracking?

I cleared my throat and continued. “At some point I have to do my own thing and let her live her own life. There is nothing else I can say to her.”

“I talked to Tessa and she doesn’t think Hailey is really in love with that guy.”

I was so frustrated, I wanted to smash something. “That’s great, but it doesn’t matter what Tessa thinks. It’s Hailey’s decision, and she wants nothing to do with me.”

Disappointment filled Jonathan’s face. “Maybe she’ll come around.”

“Maybe she will, maybe she won’t, but I can’t let it distract me now. Not when we’re so close to getting somewhere with our music.”

“I hear what you’re saying. I just wanted to make sure you’re doing okay.”

“I’m breathing.”

Because that was the truth. I was still breathing; I was still functioning. There was a gaping hole inside of me that was slowly eating away at me, but I couldn’t focus on it for too long because it would consume me.

There was only one thing that I wanted to focus on—doing well tomorrow night and opening up a whole new future with this band. Something had to distract me from thinking about Hailey.

Sure, Hailey would be in the back of my mind for a while, but one day I’d have to let go of her familiarity and move on. One day I had to make her a faint memory.

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Hailey

Thanks to my dad getting his act together and returning most of the money he took from me last summer, I didn’t have to worry about finding a second job any more. My work-study position at the daycare would be enough to get me by, which was a huge relief. Now I could really focus on school without that added stress.

I had gone to my advisor and changed my major to ‘undeclared’. It was one of the scariest things I’d ever done— not having a plan. Instead, I was going to just concentrate on taking the general education core classes and try to figure out what I really wanted to do in life. Right now I was leaning toward Music Education. The possibilities were endless and I kind of liked that. I had asked someone in each of my classes if I could make copies of the notes I’d missed while I’d been gone so that’s how I intended to spend my weekend—catching up on everything so I didn’t fall too far behind.

But that’s not what I really wanted to do. What I really wanted to do was call Chase and tell him that he was right all along. I didn’t know what I’d wanted before because I had been too preoccupied with ‘my plan’ to see what was plainly in front of my face, but I knew now—or at least I knew the kind of person I wanted to be.

I wanted to be the kind of person who wasn’t afraid to experience new things, the kind of person who wasn’t afraid of falling down and scraping her knees now and then. The kind of person who got up on stage and poured her heart out in front of complete strangers. Chase was able to do that. He was comfortable enough with himself to be that vulnerable—I wanted to be that comfortable in my own skin too.

He’d said that he hoped I found the one I wanted to be with, and I told him the truth, I had found him. But it wasn’t the person who’d placed the ring tenderly on my finger—it was the one who’d walked away. The one who was avoiding me now.

I had tried calling him when I got back to Oakdale but he didn’t answer or return any of my calls or text messages. I didn’t want to seem pathetic so I took the hint and left him alone. But it was killing me being unable to explain everything to him.

“You’re missing it!” Tessa exclaimed. She was watching a Teen Wolf marathon and stuffing her face with her snack of choice—double-stuffed Oreos and Mountain Dew—while I copied my notes. Other than the occasional outburst of laughter or a frightened gasp, she was being relatively silent, which was shocking. I didn’t think it was possible for her to be quiet for as long as she had been, but throw some shirtless guys in front of her and miracles happened.

I humored her and glanced up from my notes to see what I was missing for the tenth time this episode. It was just as I expected: another half-naked werewolf. I had to admit, he was pretty hot and from the little bits and pieces I watched, the show seemed interesting enough, but I had no idea what was going on right now.

“I think I’m going to have to watch this show from the beginning,” I told her. “I’m kinda confused.”

My phone started ringing and I felt my heart leap—maybe he was finally returning my calls. But it wasn’t Chase, it was Braxton.

I held my phone, uncertain whether I should answer it or not. Finally, I knew that I needed to—I owed him that much.

“Hello?” I answered the phone nervously. I wasn’t really sure what to expect.

“Hey.”

“Hey, Braxton.”

“I—uh.” He cleared his throat nervously. “How are you?”

“I’ve been better. You?”

“I’m doing okay.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah,” he said, clearing his throat again. “I’ve just been thinking about everything and I don’t know, I guess I realized that’s not how I wanted things to end between us, you know?”

“I know. I’m so sorry.”

“It’s just…I thought we were forever, Hailey, you know?”

“I know.”

“The thing is, I knew. I knew you were pulling away from me. I knew I was losing you and I guess I just thought that if I proposed it would bring you back to me. That you would realize you belonged with me. I meant what I said before, I really did plan my entire life around you. I guess after everything I’ve been through lately, I’ve finally realized forever doesn’t exist. I don’t know what to do now.”

“You’ll figure it out. We both will.”

“I really do love you, you know. I had this whole future planned out for the two of us.” “I know. Me too.”

“So you fell in love with the Piano Man, after all,” he said in disbelief. How ironic that he had been the one to call it all those months ago. I cracked a smile.

“Yeah, I guess so.”

He paused thoughtfully. “It sucks. It really does but a part of me feels— I don’t know— somehow, I feel okay.” “Yeah?”

“Yeah.” He laughed. “I mean, I love you, of course, but it’s like the pressure is off. You’re right, we’ve held on the familiarity of each other for too long— almost like an old habit that’s hard to break. You’d been trying to break it off for a while, I knew you were, and I guess it scared me. Like, I didn’t know how to handle all the changes. But that’s life, isn’t it?” “I never meant to hurt you.”

“I know that. I never meant to hurt you either. And I know that I should be sad now, and a part of me is, but mostly, I just feel free. Like somehow a weight has been lifted from my shoulders that I didn’t even know I was carrying. Does that make any sense at all?” “Definitely.” I knew exactly how that felt.

“You’re my best friend, Hailey. You’ll always be my best friend. But I think you’re right, it’s time for us both to go live our own lives. A tree needs space to grow, right?”

“Did you just compare us to trees?”

“Hey,” he said jokingly. “You know I was never the poetic one.”

“Thank you.”

“For what?”

“For forgiving me. I know that I don’t deserve it, but thank you anyway.” “Of course. See you around?” “Yeah, see you around.”

I hung up the phone, feeling more at peace than I had in a while.

“I’m guessing that went well?” Tessa asked, her mouth full of cookies.

“Yeah.” I could hardly believe it. “Everything is good.” Well, almost everything.

“So are you coming to watch the band tonight?”

“Probably not.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t think Chase wants to see me,” I answered.

“I think he could probably use all the support from his friends that he can get.” “We’re not really friends.”

“The guy is pretty broken right now.”

That caught my attention. “Because of Deuce and Heather?”

“That’s a small part of it.” She nodded, a look of sympathy on her face. “Jonathan was there when it happened. He said Chase told her he was relieved he never proposed and-”

“Wait— what? Chase was going to propose to her?” He hadn’t told me that part. It surprised me how much the thought of him being with someone else bothered me. If he felt even slightly the same way when he saw the ring on my finger—it was no wonder he didn’t want to talk to me. If he would’ve just let me explain that I was going to tell Braxton everything—I just couldn’t bear to tell him so soon after his mom’s funeral. I didn’t want to make him hurt any more. But while I was trying to protect Braxton’s feelings, I ended up hurting Chase’s. I couldn’t win either way and now it was probably too late.

“It was a while ago,” she said waving her hand dismissively. A while ago or not, I couldn’t believe that anyone would choose Deuce over Chase. This Heather chick was obviously an idiot. “And—get this—Deuce’s real name is Donald Worthington the fourth! What kind of a name is that!”

“Yeah, I mean, I figured Deuce wasn’t his real name but I definitely didn’t see that one coming.”

“Plus the band broke up, so obviously Chase is stressed about that-”

“What?” I interrupted her. “Why would the whole band break up over Deuce? I mean, it’s not like he was consistent anyway.”

“It’s not just him. Zach left too.”

“What?”

“Yeah. He’s marrying some British author.”

“Seriously?”

“Yep. So, anyway, that’s why the band broke up.”

“Is Chase okay?” I knew how serious Chase was about his music. He must be devastated to have his band split up right before a potential break into the industry.

“Yeah, I mean he is now. He replaced Zach and Deuce the Douchebag. But that promoter guy is supposed to come watch the show tonight and I think he’s really nervous. I know that today was awful for you, but if you could find the strength to come out tonight, I think he’d really like to see you.”

“Do you think so? I kinda think I blew it. I took too long-”

“You didn’t blow it. Jonathan said that Chase has been focusing all his energy on getting the band ready for tonight but he knows that he’s still hung up on you.”

“Really?”

“I believe Jonathan actually used the word ‘mopey’.”

I couldn’t really picture that.

“I don’t know.”

“Trust me, Hailey. He’s crazy about you. Everything just sorta got messed up.”

I bit my lip and looked away from her. Was she right? That’s when I saw my planner laying unopened on my desk and a flicker of an idea started forming in the back of my mind.

“Okay, I’ll go.”

Tessa smiled. “Good, now let’s start getting ready.”

The closer we got to Duke’s the more nervous I felt.

This was a really stupid idea. This must be why in the movies the guy always makes the grand gesture because this hardly qualified as one. However, it was the only thing I could think of and I just hoped that he would realize what I was trying to say. I wrapped the “gift” up and took one last long look in Tessa’s visor mirror.

“You can do this,” I told myself as we got out of the car and headed into the bar. I had decided that I should wear the red dress again—the one that I was wearing the first time I noticed him checking out my ass. I figured I needed all the help I could get to make up for my lackluster attempt at a grand gesture.

“I’ll go get us a table.”

“Okay, thanks.”

“Good luck!” Tessa gave me a quick hug.

Duke’s was just as crowded as ever tonight—I took that as a good sign. Hopefully the promoter would be impressed when he saw how much the crowd loved Set the Flames.

And, just like always, it was like he could sense the moment I walked through the door.

Chase’s eyes found mine. I smiled, expecting the usual head nod, but he gave me nothing. He just held my stare for a moment and then looked away as he and the other guys walked backstage.

I wasn’t going to give up that easily. I needed to talk to him. I had something to tell him.

I weaved my way through the crowd and made my way backstage. He was talking to one of the new guys, giving him a pep talk. I tapped his shoulder. He turned around and seemed surprised to see me.

“Hey.”

“What are you doing back here?” he asked in a harsher tone than I was expecting. “I—uh—” My confidence wavered. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all.

“Hailey, whatever it is, just spit it out. I’ve got a show starting soon.”

“Yeah, of course you do, sorry.” This was much harder than I was anticipating. “I just wanted to tell you,” I took a deep breath, “that I ended things with Braxton.”

“So?”

Well, that wasn’t exactly the reaction I was hoping for. “So? That’s it? That’s all you have to say?” “What do you want me to say, Hailey?

“I don’t know. Something. I guess after what you said the other day— I thought you’d be happy, but I guess I was wrong.” “I guess you were,” he responded coldly.

I hadn’t known what to expect when I came here tonight, but I definitely wasn’t expecting to have my heart crushed at the fingertips of the tattoo-covered guy who changed my life in the most unexpected ways.

“Okay, well, um, I guess you probably don’t want this but I, uh— ” I pulled the gift out of my bag. “I— uh—I sorta got you something,” I stammered, feeling even more stupid than I thought possible.

His expression softened ever so slightly.

“You got me something?”

“It’s nothing fancy. You’ll probably think it’s stupid, but could you do me a favor?” “Sure.”

“Make sure you open it. Okay? Can you at least do that?”

If he thought it was a weird request he didn’t say anything, he just nodded his head.

“Okay then.” I tried to smile. “Good luck tonight. I know you won’t need it, but still.”

“Thanks.”

“Bye.”

I blew out a gush of air as I turned and walked away. That didn’t go exactly as planned. I

was feeling disappointed, thinking I had already missed my chance with him— until I looked back over my shoulder and caught him staring at my ass.

Okay, so maybe there was hope after all.

Chapter Thirty

Chase

As mad and indifferent as I was trying to be with Hailey, I couldn’t help but admire her ass as she walked away.

What? She was wearing that hot, red dress again that showed off her curvy body in ways that got me excited.

Besides, it was normal to want what you couldn’t have, but that wasn’t the only reason I wanted her. There were a hundred reasons why Hailey was the best damn thing that had walked into my life in a long time. And, yes, despite trying to get over her, I couldn’t help but have a reaction to seeing her.

I finally understood the kind of love Zach had been talking about—it was the kind of love that made you want to do anything for that other person.

I wasn’t sure what to make of Hailey getting me a present. As I fumbled with the wrapping on the package, I already knew what I would find inside. Call it intuition, but somehow I just knew.

As the paper fell away, the leather cover of the planner I’d bought for Hailey peeked through. Um, she hadn’t been lying when she’d said that it wasn’t much. I didn’t really know what she wanted me to do with the planner I’d given her.

Oh, shit. I knew that girls sometimes gave back things when they were trying to let go of

their memories and move on. Maybe that was why she’d returned the planner to me. She didn’t want to have anything to remember me by.

Yet, she’d also mentioned that she wasn’t with Braxton anymore. She’d wanted me to know that for a reason. Was the reason that she wanted to make things work between us?

Her words came back to me. She’d told me to make sure I opened the planner. I started flipping through the pages and that’s when I noticed that one of them was folded on the top right hand corner. I turned to the page and studied it in surprise as the words stared back at me.

My head snapped up and I searched for Hailey in the crowd but couldn’t see her anywhere. There were too many people around me and it would take me too long to find her before our set. I really didn’t want to wait until after we were done playing, but there was nothing else I could do.

I glanced back down at the planner.

Shit! What did this mean? I needed to know what was going on. Was this her way of telling me that she wanted to be with me? Why did girls have to be so confusing? Why couldn’t they just say be direct and say what they were really thinking?

All I had to go off of was a planner with hearts drawn in it.

“Chase? What are you doing? Are you ready?”

Turning around, I found Jonathan behind me with unasked questions in his eyes. I stuck the planner in the back pocket of my jeans and managed a nod. “Yeah, I’m good.” I started to follow him backstage. “Hailey showed up.”

Jonathan didn’t seem surprised by this. “Yeah, Tessa told me. We both thought it’d be a good idea if Hailey came along.”

I didn’t bother asking him why he thought it was a good idea. I was pretty sure he already knew Hailey meant a lot to me, and tonight was important. Of course I wanted her here, as long as it was on her terms.

As we took our positions, I finally caught sight of Hailey. She was with Tessa right at the front of the stage. She was so close that if I wanted, I could reach out and touch her.

We started out by playing a few of our older songs with the intention of getting the crowd

primed, and it worked. They’d come here to have a good time and that’s what they were getting.

Brandon and Jeffrey were doing a great job. They were really getting into it and having fun. When we wound up the second to last song, I stepped closer to the microphone.

“I wrote this last song for a girl who broke my heart. She’s here tonight and I want her to know that it’s still not too late.”

The crowd cheered, and when I glanced at Hailey, she was frozen. Her expression was blank and I didn’t know what to make of that.

We started to play Unfamiliar, and my eyes never left Hailey’s as I sang. I wanted her to know that this was about her, even though that should’ve been pretty clear by now. I had no reason to hide my feelings; she needed to know exactly how I felt.

Don’t waste your breath on this Don’t waste your breath on this

You’re wasting so much time just living in your lies.

I haven’t figured it all out but I know what you’re all about

You’re caught up with yourself and pushing me away Why waste your breath when the pain outweighs the truth?

I’m losing grip and I’m not so sure if we’ll survive

The way I feel for you I can’t ignore

He’s not the one for you

He’s not the one for you

It’s do or die don’t hesitate, I see it in your eyes, see it in your eyes

Just listen when I’m screaming

This unfamiliar feeling is what I hold

We only have one night to make this right

I knew it was important to engage the audience during a performance, but I was so enthralled by Hailey that I couldn’t look anywhere else. And she wasn’t looking away either. Her eyes were planted firmly on me.

There’s only so many ways I can say

You’re falling from the truth stop running in circles

Cause you’re fighting with yourself

Just look at me and say what you believe

Just play it safe is what I was told

The way I feel for you I can’t ignore

He’s not the one for you

He’s not the one for you

It’s do or die don’t hesitate, I see it in your eyes, see it in your eyes

Just listen when I’m screaming

This unfamiliar feeling is what I hold

We only have one night to make this right

Trust me there’s lessons to learn, if you can tell them apart I’ll let you in on a secret; we start with broken hearts.

We were getting to the end of the song now, and as I sang the last part, I meant every bit of it. I just hoped that Hailey got the message.

The way I feel for you I can’t ignore He’s not the one for you, he’s not the one.

It’s do or die don’t hesitate, I see it in your eyes, see it in your eyes

Just listen when I’m screaming

This unfamiliar feeling is what I hold

We only have one night to make this right

Don’t waste your breath on this Don’t waste your breath on this

You’re wasting so much time just living in your lies

And just like that, we were done. The crowd cheered. I exchanged back slaps and highfives with the other guys, congratulating them on the awesome show. We packed up our stuff and hauled it off to Jonathan’s van. After everything had been put away, I prepared to go out into the crowd to find the girl I’d fallen in love with, holding tightly onto her planner.

“Chase?”

Her voice was quiet and timid, but I heard her anyway. She was waiting backstage for me, and that’s when I knew that she’d chosen me. There was no other reason why she would be here, but I needed to hear it from her.

I tried to act cool as I held out her planner. “Here’s your planner.”

She seemed nervous as she took it from me. “Did you read it?”

“Yeah, I did.”

“And?” She chewed on her bottom lip. “Do you have something to say to me?” Yep, I was still playing it cool.

Hailey took an uncertain step towards me. “Chase, I know I’m probably too late. I know I took a long time to figure things out and I understand if you’ve moved onto something better. I just, I guess I wanted you to know that you’re the one who makes me happy. I thought about everything you said, and you’re right. I do need to get busy living my own life. I need to make my own choices and I wanted to start by saying that I choose you.”

I stayed silent, studying the way her face scrunched up as she spoke. It was the cutest expression I’d ever seen. I wanted so badly to kiss her right now so she knew that everything was fine, but it wouldn’t hurt to make her wonder for a second. After all, she had rejected me like twenty times. “Say something!” She looked really worried now.

I gave her a shrug. “I knew you wouldn’t be able to resist me and my muscles for too long. You had to come back for more of these sexy abs.”

“Chase!” She shoved me. “You are so frustrating!”

Laughing, I pulled her into my arms. “Oh, stop. You know I love messing with you.”

Hailey rolled her eyes at me. “Will you please let me know what you think so I know you’re serious about this?”

I pulled her in for a kiss, letting my hands roam all over the curves of her body. I could definitely get used to this.

“There were a million thoughts running through my mind, but every thought kept coming back to you. Every moment that made me smile was with you. Everything was confusion and darkness before you, and you gave everything a meaning. There’s no way I’ll ever let go of that. There’s no way I’ll ever let go of you.”

“So you still want me?”

“I’ll always want you.” And then I kissed her again.

“Chase Lancaster?”

I broke away from Hailey to find an older guy standing a couple of feet away from us. He was dressed casually and looked to be in his mid-thirties. He approached us with a smile.

“Yeah, that’s me.”

“I’m Brent, from the Vibe Group. I assume Parker told you I’d be coming.” No way. Brent was actually here. He’d actually come to see us play. This wasn’t happening.

“Hey, I’m so glad you could make it.” Hailey gave my hand a squeeze and it immediately calmed me down having her beside me.

“I’m glad I made it too,” Brent continued, “you guys were great. You really have a lot of energy on stage. I’ve been looking for a band with your sound for a long time.” All I could do was nod. I didn’t even know what to say.

“Do you think that management is something your band is looking for? I feel like we could help you advance your goals by putting you in touch with the right people.”

“That sounds great. We would love to sign with a management company that could help to take us to the next level.” I was still nodding, but at least I’d managed to form words this time.

“How about I shoot you an email with all the info and you can talk to the other guys in the band about it more?”

“Yeah, that sounds great.” Okay, I’d already said that. “This is exactly the kind of break we’ve been looking for.”

“It’s been great talking to you, Chase. Let me know if you have any questions.” Brent stuck out his hand. “I look forward to working with Set the Flames.”

As I shook his hand, something Hailey had said echoed through my mind. “Actually, we had a change of lineup in the band, so we decided we needed a new name.” I knew the guys wouldn’t care what I was about to do. “We’re not Set the Flames anymore, we’re Get Busy

Living.”

“Okay, I’ll make note of that,” Brent said with a nod, “It was good meeting you, Chase.”

“You too.”

After Brent left, Hailey turned to me, a smile on her face. She rested her head on my shoulder but looked up to study me with her green eyes that had become so familiar to me. “Get

Busy Living? I like it.”

“Good,” I said, kissing her forehead, “because that’s what we’re going to be doing with the rest of our lives.”

Epilogue

Chase

Hailey sat beside me, squeezing my hand so tightly I was pretty sure she was cutting off my circulation. “Hailey, I can’t feel my fingers,” I said with a laugh.

She gave me a look of embarrassment and loosened her grip. “I’m sorry! I’m just so excited! Aren’t you excited?”

Hell yeah, I was excited. I was also nervous as hell. This was a big deal. I still couldn’t believe this was happening. I felt like I was having an out-of-body experience.

“I am.” I kissed her hand. “I just don’t want to pass out from lack of blood circulation before I get to hear it.”

Hailey released my hand and rolled her eyes. “You are such a brat. I’m not that strong.”

And now we’re going to play the single from a fresh pop punk band to hit the Kansas

City scene. This is Get Busy Living’s debut single, Unfamiliar.”

“Oh my gosh! That’s you!” She grabbed my arm this time, digging her nails into my skin as the song came on the radio.

“Hailey, baby.” I couldn’t help but laugh again. “Save that for when you get crazy in bed.”

“Chase!” She was so outraged that she released my arm. “I’m not getting crazy in bed with you!”

“I’m just messing with you.” I wrapped an arm around her shoulder. “Thank you for being excited for me. I appreciate it.”

She cracked a smile at that and snuggled into me as the song played. Even though we’d both heard the song plenty of times, we still listened to it as though we were hearing it for the first time. It was our song. It was a piece of my relationship with Hailey that I’d managed to put into words. She was the inspiration that I’d always been looking for. The song covered everything that our relationship was about. It was up and down. It wasn’t perfect. But it was perfect enough for us, and that’s all we needed.

When the song ended, Hailey kissed my chin. “I’m so proud of you.” I shrugged. “It’s a start in the right direction. This will help us a lot.” “Don’t forget me when you’re famous,” she said with a grin. “That’s not possible.” And I meant it.

We stared at each other, this time not worrying about whether it was inappropriate or not. There was nothing holding us back. We were exactly where we needed to be.

This was my Hailey. Nobody else’s. I didn’t have to worry about her not wanting to be with me. I didn’t have to wonder if she had feelings for me. I already knew. Finally, I broke the silence. “About before, it’s fine, you know.” “What is?” A crease appeared on her brow.

A smile crept onto my face. “If you want to get crazy in bed. I wouldn’t mind.”

“Chase!” She playfully started slapping me on the arm, and all I did was laugh because I loved her and everything was easy with her.

“I’m sorry.” I grabbed her wrists. “I love you.”

And I meant it. I would never take her for granted. I would always try and keep that gorgeous smile on her face. And, maybe one day when we were both ready, we would take the next unfamiliar step forward in our relationship.

It was scary, but you had to live a little, right?

Do you want to hear the song that Chase wrote for Hailey? Pop punk band,

Get Busy Living, has created the song especially for the book and it’s available on iTunes now!

[+ https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/all-good-memories-fade-ep/id798818510+] [+ +]

You can also watch the music video for Unfamiliar on Youtube!

[* https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jl1uhtcZZkA&app=desktop*] [++]

Find out more about the guys from Get Busy Living:

Facebook: [++] [++]https://www.facebook.com/GetBusyLivingBand [++]

Twitter: @GBLband

Acknowledgments

We would like to extend a BIG thank you to the band Get Busy Living for writing such an awesome song for our book!

Thank you to Andrew Shepherd for filming the music video for the song, and Jonathan Hargett and Megan Derry for acting in it.

We would also like to thank Tera Lankard for taking the photo we used for the cover, as well as Karlie Monroe and Chase Petersen for agreeing to be our models/muses. We know that you were freezing and it was super early in the morning, but you all were such great sports.

Thank you Eden Crane Design for designing our beautiful cover—your talent never ceases to amaze us!

Also we want to thank Heather Sloan for helping us edit and everyone else that has been so supportive. We love you all!

About the Authors

Erica Cope and Komal Kant have been LDBFF (long-distance-best-friendsforever) since 2012 when they met through blogging, but it seems like they’ve known each other for much longer than that. They bonded over their mutual affection for King Dorian (Richelle Mead’s Dark Swan series), Daemon Black (Jennifer Armentrout’s Lux series), Beau Vincent (Abbi Glines’ The Vincent Boys) and Ryan Gosling.

You can find out more about Erica at: [++]www.ericacope.com [++]

You can find out more about Komal at: [++]http://komalkant.wordpress.com/ [++]

Sneak peek of PIECES OF ME by Erica Cope

[+ Available now on Amazon!+] [+ +]

Prologue

“Where are we going?” Sean asked for the fiftieth time since we left this afternoon but I wasn’t about to ruin my little surprise. He always went all out for holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries and this anniversary was a big one. Well, to us anyway. So I planned something special for him as a surprise.

It was a gorgeous summer night here in the middle of Kansas. The full moon was high and the stars dotted the night sky. I had already called the hotel to let them know we’d be checking in late. I smiled to myself as I realized I had almost pulled this thing off. We were celebrating three-years together—which is a pretty big deal when you’re only eighteen.

“I told you, it’s a surprise,” I said, unable to stop the huge grin from forming. He knew I hated surprises, but that didn’t stop him from torturing me every time an opportunity presented itself, so I was enjoying having the shoe on the other foot for a change.

“Come on, Aria. Give me a hint,” he begged, and because I was a sucker, I couldn’t resist.

“Oh, fine,” I said with an exasperated sigh. “Reach back there and grab my purse. Your hint is in the envelope.” I tried to pretend I was irritated but really, I was just too excited and impatient to keep the secret from him any longer.

He smiled at me like a child who was just given a cookie after being told he couldn’t have any dessert. I smiled back as he unbuckled his seat belt and leaned back to reach my purse from where I’d set it behind my seat.

As he picked up the envelope he looked over at me and said, “You know I love you, right?”

“Yes, I do.”

Chapter 1

One Year Later…..

I knew the moment that I decided to come here that I am a complete and total masochist. It’s not like I knew what movie would be playing, but I should have known that, even miles away, the tiniest thing has the ability to trigger memories. Memories that intensify the ache in my chest, the one that never really goes away, and cause it to expand and crush my insides until there’s nothing left but pulp. There’s no escaping that.

But what were the chances that they would be playing that movie? I wasn’t expecting the latest blockbuster but I certainly wasn’t expecting a movie that is several years old to be playing here tonight. I had been looking forward to this all week, since I first saw the flyer tacked to a telephone pole near my apartment.

Movies in the Park:

A contemporary version of the drive-in theater at a park.

Enjoy some of today’s new releases and old favorites.

It’s a wonderful way for the family to enjoy summer nights.

When I read the flyer a week ago, I thought it sounded so whimsical and fun—like something out of a movie—so I figured I would check it out and enjoy a much needed night out. I’ve been cooped up in my lonely apartment for nearly a month now with nothing to do but remember better days. But now that I’m here, I think I would have been better off staying in bed

“I can’t do this,” I mutter under my breath backing away from the large screen in the middle of the quaint little park. But just like a typical glutton for punishment, I can’t tear my eyes away. All I can do is back away slowly with my eyes glued on the familiar opening credits. If I wasn’t so wrapped up in my inner turmoil I would have remembered that despite how alone I may feel on a regular basis, the park is currently full of other movie-watchers and that I really need to pay attention to where I am going.

I back into what feels like a brick wall with an ‘oomph’ as the breath is knocked out of my chest and my Coke and extra-buttery popcorn spill down the front of my white blouse. I make some really intelligent sound like, “Gah” as I turn to face the person I just so gracefully backed into.

“I’m sor—” My words are cut off by one of the most breathtaking smiles I have ever seen. Six feet tall, with wavy blonde hair that hangs casually over his eyes and the brightest blue eyes I’ve ever seen smile down at me, clearly amused by my disheveled appearance. Or maybe it is the fact that he can clearly see through my soaked shirt.

“Well hello,” the stranger says.

“I’m, uh, sorry.”

“It’s okay. You clearly were distracted,” he smiles kindly. “Not the chick flick you were hoping for?” He gestures toward the large screen, reminding me why I was making my escape in the first place.

“Um, no, I just remembered I had something to do,” I stammer through the lie.

“Sorry for bumping into you.”

“Don’t be sorry, I never would’ve had the courage to talk to you otherwise.” The way he’s smiling at me, laying it on real thick, makes it obvious that this guy has no trouble talking to the ladies. I roll my eyes and start walking past him.

“Wait!” He reaches for my hand to stop me and I immediately jerk it away as if he just shocked me. It doesn’t faze him for long and despite my staring up at him with wide-eye confusion like a crazy person, he tries again. This time, instead of reaching for my hand, he holds his out to me and says, “I’m Holden.”

I look down at his hand and then back up into those crystal blue eyes. I know the proper etiquette requires me to shake his hand and introduce myself in return but I can’t get the words out. Then I hear the opening line from the movie behind him and, just like that, my world shifts. I forget how to breathe and suddenly I’m no longer standing here in the middle of the park. I’m fifteen again, sitting in a dark theater on my first real date. Sean smiling nervously at me, so embarrassed, as our hands brush up against each other in the large bucket of popcorn we were sharing.

My heart constricts painfully as I snap back into reality. I can’t be here anymore. I have to get out of here. It’s just too much.

Why did it have to be that movie? Why couldn’t I just have one night where my thoughts weren’t absorbed in painful recollections?

And then the guilt comes crashing down on me for even wishing that it didn’t hurt so much—of course it hurt. I should hurt. It’s my fault he isn’t here anymore. I should feel this pain every day for the rest of my life. I deserve it.

With one last look at Holden’s outstretched hand, I walk away throwing the now empty cup and bucket in the trash. My skin feels sticky from the soda and butter that has soaked through my shirt—I should have just stayed in tonight.

As I unlock my bike from around the old maple tree that I’d tied it up to not even twenty minutes ago, I can’t help but look back at where I left Holden hanging. He is staring at me, confusion written all over his face. He probably isn’t used to girls being so rude to him. I feel bad for brushing him off, but I can’t stand to be at this park any longer. It’s not like I’m ever going to see him again anyway. I pedal quickly on the way home and my legs burn in protest but I make it back to my one bedroom apartment within minutes. There isn’t a bike rack available and no trees nearby so I carry my bike up the two flights of stairs to my apartment like I have every day for the last month. Yes, I’ve been here an entire month and the first time I try to do something semi-social I regret it. I’m thinking that’s a sign.

I lean my bike against the wall in the doorway. The apartment is boring with plain white walls and tan carpet. There is one large window in the living room overlooking the parking lot below and another small window above the kitchen sink. There’s one tiny bathroom in the short hallway between the living room and my bedroom. There’s another window in my bedroom but that is it as far as natural lighting goes which, I suppose, is why the walls are white—a sad attempt to make the place seem brighter than it is. It isn’t anything fancy—which upset my mother more than I thought it should—but it is the closest complex to the campus which is of more importance to me since I don’t drive. I haven’t driven in over a year now and I’m not sure if I ever will feel comfortable getting behind the wheel again. Not after what happened….

I close my eyes and will myself to stop reliving that night over and over. I strip my clothes off leaving them scattered behind me on the floor as I head down the hall to my tiny bathroom, turning the shower all the way on hot. The scalding water burns away all feeling on the outside of my body but does nothing for the pain I still feel on the inside, the kind of pain that settles in your chest and makes a home there.

I remain in the shower until the water runs cold and even then I can’t seem to make myself get out. Something about the water pounding down on me makes it easier to breathe.

It’s not until my fingertips are wilted and my hands are turning blue that I finally feel numb enough to force myself to turn off the water. I dry off and instead of putting on pajamas like a normal person would, I pull his shirt off of one of my hangers. I’m careful not to look at the guitar or that damn cardboard box with the words ‘Pieces of Us’ written in black marker that rest on the floor of my closet. I shoved them both as far out of my view as I could manage in the tiny closet when I moved in, because I know I can’t go there yet. So the box remains unopened, and the guitar untouched, and they both continue to taunt me. I quickly push the closet door shut to further hide them from my view. I don’t want either of them here but my mom insisted that I bring the box and my dad insisted I bring the guitar. I think he is still hoping that someday I’ll change my mind and play for him again. I don’t want to disappoint him, but at the same time, I never knew it was possible to hate inanimate objects this much.

I lift the collar of his shirt up to my nose only to be disappointed that it’s starting to smell less like him and more like me. I cross the room and open the drawer to my nightstand, frantically pushing everything aside to find what I’m looking for. I locate and pull out the halfempty bottle of his favorite cologne. I’ll have to get some more soon. I spritz it generously all over his shirt, finally inhaling the comforting yet heart-breaking scent before curling up on my side under the covers.

As I lay there inhaling the clean crisp scent of him, I think to myself that yes, I really am a masochist, torturing myself like this but it’s the only piece of him I have left.

I set the alarm on my cell phone and notice a text message and a couple of missed calls—all from my mom. I don’t respond. I can’t deal with her right now. She’ll want to talk about it and that’s something I’m still not ready to do. The psychologist in her reminds me daily that talking about what happened is a crucial part in the grieving process—blah, blah, blah.

I didn’t want to think about The Five Stages of Grief and how I’d been stuck on stage four for much longer than mom thought was healthy. I just didn’t want to hear any more about it from her.

Tomorrow I start my freshman year of college—a year later than I was supposed to and all alone. I still can’t believe that my life is turning out so different from what I was expecting. Sean should be here with me. But he isn’t. All I have left is an old faded t-shirt and a box on the floor of my closet I can’t bear to look at because it contains memories of the boy I love.

Sneak peek of WRONG SIDE OF TOWN by Komal Kant

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Prologue

~ Two years ago ~

Estella

Tears stung my eyes as I staggered into my room and flipped on the switch.

The light was blinding, and I stumbled to my desk, knocking aside books as I searched for the only thing that could save me now.

My heart was pounding so hard, I thought I was about to have a heart attack. The fear was fading now, but it was being replaced with a sick feeling that made me want to throw up.

My hands were shaking as they continued in their search, and finally my fingers landed on my prize. A black permanent marker.

Without hesitating, I tore off the cap of the marker and rolled up the left sleeve of my sweater. Disgust shot through me as my eyes landed on the marked skin of my arm.

I was tarnished. I was ruined. I was scarred.

I would never be the same again. I would never be the same person again. He had made sure of that.

Hands still shaking, I pressed the marker to the raw, red skin, and began to write over it. Once the word was etched over the disfiguration, I continued to write on my arm at a furious pace. Over and over again, I wrote the same word until it was the only thing swimming in my vision.

Then, finally, I collapsed onto the floor, repeating the word in my mind until it was tattooed onto my skull.

Forget. Forget. Forget.

Maybe, if I told myself enough, I would truly forget.

Chapter One

Estella

Even through the phone I could tell Dad was drunk again.

I could tell from the way he slurred incoherently and said the name over and over again like it was going to bring her back. Fiona. But the mantra wasn’t going to bring my mother back. Ghosts didn’t come back, even if they were living.

Squeezing my eyes shut, I tried to muster up some sort of courage, but that name had a crippling effect on me whenever Dad said it. He had this way of taking away all the good memories of her and replacing them with the bad.

I held the phone away from my ear and took a few deep breaths to calm myself. My eyes glided over the familiar pasty white walls of the Penthill Community Center, over the large bulletin board positioned just within the entrance, and finally to the service desk where Michelle stood staring at me.

Michelle was in her late-twenties and ran the volunteering program at the Penthill Community Center where I volunteered every Monday and Friday after school in the soup kitchen.

“Are you okay?” Michelle mouthed at me when I caught her eye.

Concern filtered through her eyes as she studied me. She was one of those people who couldn’t help but care.

Somehow, I managed to nod even though I was about as far from okay as I could get. My shift at the community center had just ended and I was about to go home to this—to my drunken dad who would probably be passed out by the time I got there.

Sometimes I wished I could just go away. Somewhere. Anywhere. I wanted to escape from the problems that continued to haunt me as I grew older. I wanted something to wrap me up and carry me away, until I felt as light and weightless as a cloud. Until my mind was floating somewhere else, lost in a blur of colors and sounds.

“That bitch…that whore…who the fuck does she think she is?”

I cringed as Dad said each word. It hurt to hear him talk about her like that. Even after all these years, it still hurt.

“Daddy, please, I’ll talk to you about this later.” There was a hint of desperation in my voice.

I hated how weak I sounded. I hated that I always let this get the better of me.

“Yeaaah, fine.” The line disconnected and I let out a quick breath.

My head was swimming, but now wasn’t the time to have a breakdown. I put my phone into my bag and feigned a smile as I walked over to Michelle who was still studying me with concern. “Is everything okay, Estella?”

I forced my head up and down in a nod. “Yes, everything’s fine. If there isn’t anything else that needs to be done, do you mind if I leave? My brother should be here to pick me up soon.”

Truth be told, Nathan wouldn’t be here for another thirty minutes, but I needed to get outside into the fresh air and hope that Dad’s words would fade from my ears.

A frown pulled down on the corners of Michelle’s mouth, but she nodded regardless. She wanted to say more, but she didn’t know exactly what to say to me, the girl who was always so well put together and responsible.

Just like everyone else, she couldn’t quite figure out if there was really something wrong with me or not. And that was fine with me. I preferred it that way.

“Thanks for your help tonight. You’re fitting in really well around here.”

I’d started volunteering here a week ago after my brother, Nathan, had seen an ad posted on a noticeboard at his college. I’d been a volunteer at the Statlen animal shelter for a while and as much as I’d loved working there, I’d needed something more to distract me from my life.

“I’m glad you think so, it’s definitely been an experience.”

And that was the truth. Seeing the local homeless come in for a warm meal on cold nights like this one was affecting me in a way I’d never felt before. It hurt to think that they didn’t have a home or a family to take care of them.

“Well, be careful out there,” Michelle warned as I grabbed my bag from behind the counter and began heading towards the entrance. “Penthill’s never safe with that Madden gang lurking around.”

I paused and turned around, dread settling into me at the mention of the notorious motorcycle gang. “Are they really as bad as everyone says they are?”

I didn’t know much about the Madden gang—I lived in Statlen, which was a good half hour from Penthill, so they didn’t impact me as much—but the amount of stories that floated around about them more than made up for my lack of knowledge.

The gang had begun with three brothers, but had over thirty members in it now, and they were rivals with the Allbrook motorcycle gang. They were intimidating, muscular figures covered in tattoos and piercings, notorious for drinking, dealing drugs, and responsible for the violence that occurred in Penthill and the surrounding towns. Michelle shook her head, her long red locks fanning out behind her. “No, they’re worse. They steal, they vandalize, and they beat people up to the point of being unrecognizable. If you’ve ever heard a story about the Madden gang, multiply it by ten because those boys are just about the worst thing around these parts.”

I frowned at her words. Bullies didn’t scare me; they were weak and cowardly. “If I ever run into one of them, I’d like to give them a piece of my mind.”

“If you ever run into one of them, I suggest you run in the opposite direction if you value your life.”

I sighed. Michelle was right. You didn’t poke an angry bull in the eye; you ran away from it screaming. “Why don’t the police do anything about them?”

Michelle shrugged. “Too scared, I guess. I wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of one of those boys. There isn’t a law or a bone they won’t break in order to get what they want.”

Her words sent a chill down my spine, and I felt cold all over. All this morbid talk about the Madden gang was bringing down my already low mood. “I better get going, Michelle,” I said with a wave.

“I’ll see you on Friday. Be safe.” Michelle returned the wave and went back to sorting through the endless pile of paperwork she always had.

As I stepped outside, the cool air hit me like tiny bullets, and I hurried out onto the street, wrapping my arms around myself to stay warm. The weather in fall was unpredictable. We’d wake up with warm mornings that would end with freezing nights. I was dressed in baggy jeans and a sweater that seemed to absorb the cool air, and I was kicking myself for not taking a jacket with me.

“Estella Markson, you are a silly, silly girl,” I said to myself in a British accent as my teeth chattered.

Don’t ask me why I spoke to myself in a British accent. It was a strange habit I’d picked up at a young age when my mom and I had watched British comedies together. I’d loved the actors’ accents so much that I had begun imitating it and it had sort of just stuck with me. It was one of the few good memories I had left of my mom now.

“Estella Markson, do you always talk to yourself?”

The voice came out of nowhere and I jumped back, glancing from side to side. The streetlights were on the other side of the road, so this side of the street was full of shadows. From my right, a solid figure detached itself from the wall and began walking towards me.

It was a boy. Well, a man, I guess. He looked like he was a few years older than me and was dressed in fitted black jeans and a black leather jacket. My senses were on high alert and I didn’t take my eyes off him.

As he came closer, and the dim light fell on him, I noticed that he had longish brown hair that was slicked back. A strand or two fell onto his face like they’d been artfully placed that way. And, wow, that face. It was chiseled and taut with full lips and a cleft on the chin.

The guy was downright hot and he’d heard me talking to myself. Could I be any more embarrassing? Still, hot guys could be muggers or rapists and I wasn’t going to let my guard down just because he had a pretty face.

“Um…uh…I.” My eyes darted around the streets, searching for any signs of people out and about, but there was no one in sight. It was just me and the guy.

“What are you doing out here all by yourself, Stelle?”

Stelle. The hot guy had just called me Stelle. He had just spoken to me and a normal

person would say something back, but obviously I wasn’t capable of being normal for one second.

“Oh…I’m…uh…waiting for someone.” I was still feeling threatened. Maybe he was a distraction and he had an accomplice who would grab me from behind once my guard was down. I darted a glance over my shoulder just to make sure, but the streets were still empty.

He cocked a brow. “Your boyfriend?”

I deserved a medal for how stupid I was acting. Now the hot—possibly dangerous—guy thought I was a complete psycho and that I had a boyfriend. “No, no, my brother.” Then, for good measure, I added, “He’s a decorated police officer.”

The guy leaned against the wall of the community center and pulled a cigarette out of his pocket. He lit it up, inhaled, and blew out a cloud of smoke before turning back to me. “Is that so?”

I nodded, scrunching up my nose at the horrible smell of the cigarette. “Yep, and he has a gun and a Taser.”

“Fascinating.” The guy regarded me with his dark eyes and then finally smirked. “Your brother’s not really a police officer, is he?”

My heartbeat accelerated from my lie being caught out. I shook my head, my body trembling from the biting cold. “N-no. He’s a student at Statlen University.”

His eyes sparkled in the dim light. “Let me tell you something, darlin’. If you’re in this part of Penthill this late at night by yourself, don’t lie to a guy you don’t know and then admit that you were lying. At least follow through with the ‘my brother’s a police officer’ story.”

I gulped. He was right. I was stupid for coming up with the lie and even more stupid for admitting that I’d lied in the first place.

“Just because my brother’s not a police officer doesn’t mean that he still won’t kick your ass if you try anything funny.”

The guy held up a hand in defense, an amused smile lingering on his lips. “I’m not gonna lay a hand on you unless you tell me to, Stelle.”

There he went calling me Stelle again like he’d known me for years. And I still had no idea who he was. “I don’t even know your name.”

“Vincent,” he said simply, taking a puff of his cigarette again. I narrowed my eyes as the cigarette smoke drifted into my face. “Well, Vincent, if you’re going to continue talking to me then you need to put that thing out.”

Vincent’s eyebrows shot up and he regarded me with this look like he couldn’t quite figure me out. Finally, he sighed and flicked the cigarette onto the pavement, putting it out with the tip of his boot.

He turned back to me, looking thoroughly annoyed. “So, Stelle, is there anything else I can change about myself to accommodate you better during this five minute conversation?”

Taken aback by his tone, I shook my head. Seriously, where was my brother when I needed him? There was nothing stopping this guy from kidnapping me except for a vague threat about my no-show brother.

“N-no, it’s f-fine. I j-just…” I trailed off, my teeth still chattering. I wasn’t too sure if my teeth were chattering in fear or from the cold.

Vincent sighed. “Oh, for fuck’s sake. Here!” He began pulling off his leather jacket and I started shaking my head, not wanting to annoy him further.

“I’m not c-cold. Y-you’re not trying to get me to let my guard down and then kidnap me, are you? Because my family has no money to pay for a ransom.”

I was hypnotized by how dark his eyes were, as he swung the jacket over my shoulders and slipped both my arms through each sleeve. Shivers ran up my arms as his hand brushed my skin. A musky scent shrouded me and my heartbeat spiked.

A slow grin spread across Vincent’s face that both excited and terrified me. He leaned in closer and my eyes snapped to those full lips of his. “I think I should be the one fearing for my safety. You were just talking to yourself in a British accent a few minutes ago.”

Heat spread from my neck to my face and then back again. Feeling mortified, I lowered my gaze onto his neck. There was a squiggle on it.

I squinted at it, trying to figure out what the marking was. Giving up, I let my eyes wander to his bare arms.

I stopped breathing. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

Layer upon layer of tattoos were inked on his arm—both arms, in fact—intertwined with one another, some images, some words. I’d never seen someone with that many tattoos in my life.

Nausea rolled into my belly like a poisonous fog, filling it up until I thought I was going to pass out.

Tearing my eyes away from his arms, in an effort to keep my emotions under control, my eyes shot back to his neck and the squiggle that was on it. The squiggle wasn’t a squiggle at all.

It was a tattoo in a medieval looking font that said “M”.

The realization hit me like a ton of bricks.

The purpose of the tattoos was to instill fear and intimidate others; that’s why he had them. The ‘M’ wasn’t some random squiggle or letter. It had a purpose too. It defined who he was, what he was known for.

He was in the Madden gang.

Other books by Erica Cope

Pieces of Me

Lark (Lark #1)

In the Shadows (Lark #2)

Coming soon:

Like the Dawn (Lark #3)

Other books by Komal Kant

Impossible

Falling for Hadie

Wrong Side of Town

Coming soon:

Runaway Mortal


Unfamiliar

Hailey Peters has always held onto the familiar. From the way she wears her hair, to dating her childhood friend-turned high school sweetheart--she sticks with what she knows, and she’s convinced herself that this is what makes her happy. Chase Lancaster doesn’t play by the rules. He’s a classically trained pianist who rocks out in a punk rock band every weekend, and isn’t afraid of taking chances. When they are assigned to co-write a song for their college music class, Hailey can’t imagine anyone she has anything less in common with than Chase. She is a sweater-wearing, neat freak, and he is disheveled and rough around the edges. As they spend time together, they both find a place in each other’s lives—a place where they challenge each other to be different and to embrace the unfamiliar. Hailey never planned for a Chase Lancaster in her life, and she is about to find out that this walking contradiction will change her forever.

  • Author: Erica Cope
  • Published: 2016-11-30 16:20:59
  • Words: 69729
Unfamiliar Unfamiliar