Chapter One

Aaron

Holy shit. It’s Sam.

When they brought the girl up on stage for Marcus to serenade, I thought she looked familiar. The way the light caught on the blonde highlights in her hair. The way she moved. Now that I get a closer look, it’s definitely her.

Samantha Barnes.

My high school sweetheart.

The one who got away.

I know, I know. No one meets the love of their life as a teenager, right? I mean, right?

And yet, she’s the one I compare all other women to. Have ever since we parted ways the summer after high school.

I was headed to New York City to go to Juilliard. And she was going to the University of Virginia. She raved about their creative writing program. She couldn’t decide between fiction and poetry, but she planned on journalism to pay the bills. Ever the practical one. We decided we didn’t want to try a long-distance relationship. Not when we were both going off on new and separate adventures. It seemed stupid. Unnecessarily restrictive.

But we kept in touch. At least at first. Over the course of the first semester, our texting turned into occasional emails which turned into me calling her that Christmas break and her telling me her new boyfriend was jealous of the fact that she still talked to her old boyfriend, and no we couldn’t get together and catch up, not even as friends.

I’d been hurt, honestly, and more than a little jealous. Because new boyfriend. I hadn’t dated anyone. No time. No interest. I still held out hope that Sam would change her mind and we’d get back together. Clearly that wasn’t happening, and I had no claim on her. Not anymore. I was equally responsible for that decision, no matter how much I’d come to regret it.

As Marcus serenades my ex-girlfriend on stage in Philadelphia, I’m grateful that we’ve played this song countless times. I can’t tear my eyes away, and muscle memory is the only thing carrying me through. A flood of sensations fills my chest—shock, a dull ache, nostalgia as memories rush through my mind. Overlying it all is determination.

No matter what she’s been up to or who she’s dating—or, fuck me sideways, if she’s married—I’m going to talk to her at the very least. See what she’s doing now. How college went. If she’s happy.

If she’s single.

Dear Jesus, please let her be single.

Because those wide green eyes, filled with surprise when they locked on mine as she climbed onto her stool, encompass infinity, and I’d love it if I could lose myself in them again. And I’m not even going to get started on how luscious her curves have become. Mostly because I don’t need to pop a boner on stage. Let’s just say the last few years have been kind to her.

Marcus finishes the song, down on one knee, holding her hand and singing soulfully about undying love. I hit the final chords, all of us holding position as they fade, an eerie silence settling over the crowd for half a breath before they erupt into cheers.

Standing, Marcus pulls Samantha off her stool to take a bow with him, and I’m already in motion. We have an intermission right now, and I’m going to usher her off stage and into the greenroom. Hell, if she’ll agree to come to my dressing room, that’d be even better.

Visions flicker behind my eyes—kissing her again, feeling her skin, tasting her. I hover behind them, waiting for Marcus to finish whatever he’s saying to the crowd about taking a break to piss or some shit. As soon as he’s done, I butt in, inserting myself between them before Marcus can say anything else to Sam.

“Sam. It’s good to see you. Let me get you a snack in the greenroom before security takes you back to your seat.”

Marcus is staring at me like I’ve grown a second head. I get it. I never talk to the random chicks he pulls on stage. But this isn’t some random chick. This is Sam. I ignore him, keeping all my attention on Samantha’s eyes, once again wide with surprise and looking heartbreakingly vulnerable. She glances down at where my hand cups her elbow, then back up to my face. Her throat works visibly as she swallows, but then she gives a jerky nod and lets me steer her around the guitar and mic stands and back to the wings.

She doesn’t say anything as I lead her to the greenroom, and when we get there she just stares at me, her lips parted like she wants to say something but can’t quite come up with what it should be. I want to lean in and kiss her. That look on her face transporting me back to when we were together. But I fight back the urge, reminding myself of all the time that separates us.

I might think of her as the one that got away, but there’s no guarantee she sees me the same way. Hell, she might even be here with a boyfriend or—dammit—a husband. People our age get married all the fucking time.

Peeling my fingers off her arm, I busy myself with getting her a bottle of water from the bucket of ice on one of the tables before grabbing one for myself. “Wanna sit?” I tilt my head at a couch. “Or we could go to my dressing room if you don’t want to talk in front of god and everyone.”

She blinks a couple more times, that stunned expression on her face making me want to pull her close, then looks around the room, seeming to take it in for the first time. “No. Uh, no. This is fine. Yes. Let’s sit.”

I’m not sure why she’s so flustered to be here with me, but it makes me smile. Is she awestruck by my fame, such as it is? I mean, surely she should know that I’m part of Cataclysm, right? I didn’t start out with them originally, but I’ve been part of the band since we recorded our first album. I wasn’t on the demo. They brought me on when their original keyboard player didn’t want to drop out of school to sign with a label and go on the road. Bet he’s regretting that decision now.

We claim one of the couches. She sits almost stiffly, perched on the edge of the cushion. I leave space between us—no need to crowd her since she’s obviously nervous for whatever reason—draping my arm over the back of the couch and turning sideways with my leg propped up next to me so I can face her. I crack open my water bottle and gulp down half of it, swiping my forearm across my forehead to deal with the sweat beading there, trying to catch a quick whiff of my pits while I’m at it. Because do I stink? Is that why she’s acting like this?

I get sweaty during shows—the stage lights are blazing, and this many bodies packed into a space gets warm—but I put on deodorant beforehand. It still seems to be doing its job. I mean, I’m no spring daisy, but I don’t think I’m surrounded by a cloud of green fog either.

She looks all around the room, only darting glances at me, chewing on her kissable lower lip and running her finger over the water bottle’s label. I take advantage of the opportunity to get a good look at her up close. Her hair’s a little darker than I remember, not quite as blonde as it used to be. She has part of it pulled back, same as she always used to wear. Her clothes are different, though. Instead of the more relaxed and serviceable T-shirts and not-too-tight pants, she wears painted on jeans and a clingy top that makes it hard not to stare at her tits. I don’t know if they’re actually bigger, or if my memory’s faulty, but I try to be inconspicuous as I adjust my seat and tear my eyes away.

After taking my time comparing the woman in front of me with the girl I used to know, it’s painfully clear that any conversation is up to me. “Samantha Barnes. I haven’t seen you in ages. How’ve you been?”

Her eyes meet mine for a second before breaking away. “Good. Busy … but good.”

I chuckle. “That doesn’t tell me anything. Busy doing what? Are you still writing? How was college? Are you married now? Dating? Fill me in.” I hold my breath, waiting for the answers to my last two questions, hoping that including them with the others doesn’t reveal my desperation.

With a roll of her eyes and a huff of breath, she finally morphs into the girl I used to know, relaxing into the couch, a smile pulling at her lips at my barrage of questions. “I’m not married. Or dating. I don’t … I just don’t really have time for that right now.”

I quirk an eyebrow, inviting an explanation as I take another swig of water, but she doesn’t fill in the blanks.

Instead she looks me over, unashamedly checking me out. “You’ve been busy too, obviously.” Her smile grows. “Your high school piano teacher would be mortified to see what you’ve become.”

I throw back my head and laugh. “It pays the bills, though. Better than teaching piano lessons to a bunch of snot-nosed kids, anyway.”

Her smile dims at my comment, and she looks down at the ground. “Yeah,” she says softly. “Yeah, I bet it does.”

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