I gasped, desperately seeking air, as I tried clawing my way back to reality. Oxygen filled my airways too quickly and burned a fiery path to my overworked lungs. I felt myself gripping, holding on…trying not to let go.
Don’t let her go. Not again. Come back, Mia. Come back!
My eyes flew open, and I found myself back in my cramped, lifeless bedroom, back in the present.
Back to hell.
I couldn’t count the number of times I’d relived that day. I would relive what had started out as a perfect day in my past, and I’d wake back up to the hell that had become my life. It was like some sick, twisted curse I’d been given to remind me just how fucked-up fate could be.
The sheets felt cold against my sweat-slicked body, and my heart rate was still racing a marathon. A marathon I never won. Night after night, I’d awake from the same nightmare, my heart racing as I tried, over and over, to change history through my dreams.
Good luck, buddy.
I’d given up on that hope years ago. Sitting up, I ran my hands over my face and tried to calm my nerves. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught the glint of a mostly empty bottle of tequila sitting on my nightstand. Looking through my hands, which were still covering my face, I saw the bra first, then the dress, and finally the heels. They were all scattered among my own clothes on the floor.
My head began to pound like a drum as I slowly pieced together the night before, remembering the copious amounts of alcohol I’d consumed. I’d wandered into a bar after another long day at work, and there was a woman.
Sarah or Sierra? It didn’t matter.
I’d told her she was beautiful and offered to buy her a drink. She’d laughed at my lame jokes, throwing her head back with enthusiasm, while resting her hand on my thigh. Her laugh had been all wrong—high-pitched and too bubbly. But nothing ever was right. I’d bought her another drink, and finally, I’d followed it up by asking if she would like to have a third one—back at my place.
Running my hands through my disheveled dark hair, I slowly turned to my right, and there she was—the owner of the dress.
Siena or Samantha?
I had no clue.
I was not a player. I wasn’t one of those guys who would bring a different woman home every night and brag about it to his coworkers the next day. I didn’t have notches on my bedpost, and I actually really hated the one-night stand routine. But I wasn’t a saint, and sometimes, the solitude and quiet of being alone would get to be too much, overwhelming me to the point where I would become so weighed down by it that I thought I might drown. That was when I would end up here—with a nameless woman and a fucking mess to clean up.
She really was beautiful though.
I’m a giant asshole.
“Hey—” I started but stopped short, remembering I had no idea what to call her.
She stirred a bit, stretching like a cat, which made the sheet draped over her fall away to expose her naked body. I turned away.
“Oh.” She giggled a bit. “Good morning, Adam,” she nearly purred.
Adam, huh? I never gave my real name, but I hadn’t ever used that one before.
She reached out, searching with her fingers, but I jumped off the bed before she could touch me. I was sober. There would be no touching now. I threw on my clothes and began running around to pick up hers. Once that was done, I risked turning around.
Sitting up now but using the sheet to cover herself, she had that look. It was the same look they would all give me when I did this one-eighty routine. Her eyes darted around the room, and the confidence from her good-morning purr was now replaced with insecurity and awkwardness.
“Am I missing something? I thought we had a good time last night,” she said quietly.
I huffed out a breath. “We did,” I said even though I didn’t remember any of it. “But you need to go. I’m sorry.”
She nodded silently, and I tried to ignore the sight of her lip quivering as I put her clothes on the bed before walking out.
My apartment was small, bordering on claustrophobic, and it took exactly five steps to reach my kitchen from my bedroom. If I were to give someone a tour, it would last about ten seconds. I had one solitary bedroom, and it was barely big enough to fit my bed, nightstand, and dresser. There was one bathroom, and the kitchen and living room bled into each other so much that they were really considered one entity. To complete the bachelor pad, I had a small kitchen table that most people would probably consider more of a card table.
My sister, Clare, hated this apartment. She would refuse to use the bathroom because it was too close to the couch, and she felt like people could hear her pee. She’d said the word pee in a hushed tone, like it was a bad word. I’d tried not to laugh, but she was kind of ridiculous. Also, she was right. We could hear her pee, but I wasn’t about to tell her that. She would make me move.
After visiting for probably the tenth time and still refusing to use my bathroom, she had finally asked, Why do you live in such a shithole, Garrett?
It was a good question. I had a good job—one that would pay for a place that could eat my current apartment for breakfast. But why bother? It was just me. It would only ever be just me.
Just as I started to pour myself a cup of freshly brewed coffee, the smell beginning to do its job as my droopy eyes were prying themselves apart, my mystery date appeared in the kitchen. She looked awkward, tugging at her wrinkled black dress, as she stared at the floor. I got the feeling that she wasn’t the type of girl who did this often.
“I’m going to take off,” she said softly, her timid brown eyes peeking out from tousled blonde bangs.
“Okay,” I answered, feeling like the worst kind of asshole on the planet.
She waited for a second, obviously stalling to see if I would follow up with anything. When I didn’t, she reached for the door and took a step forward, but I stopped her.
“Hey, I’m sorry. I just…I’m…” I didn’t know what to say. I’m fucked-up? Permanently?
She looked up at me with those sad brown eyes that were now rimmed with tears—tears that I’d put there.
“Just answer one question. Is your name even Adam?”
“No,” I answered honestly. I didn’t volunteer my real name. What was the point?
Her watery eyes peered up at me as if searching for something. “You’re hurting…over a woman?” she asked, surprising me.
My silence was enough of an answer for her, and she seemed to recover a bit from her revelation. Seeing me as a victim suddenly made her feel better. Well, at least there was that.
“The tattoo on your arm…is it for her?”
Inquisitive little thing, wasn’t she? I really needed to stop getting drunk.
Her eyes wandered down to the tattoo in question, stopping at the black tip of script peeking out of my T-shirt sleeve.
“No,” I bit out. “That’s for someone else.”
Date night was definitely over.
It had been eight years since I was in my home state of Virginia. Eight years since I’d left the boy who stole my heart on a hot summer night under the stars. Eight years since I’d given him nothing more than a tear-stained note, destroying everything we’d planned. Eight years since I’d driven over that state line and never looked back, ruining my life from that moment on.
Now, fate had brought me home again. Why? I didn’t know, but like a magnet, I’d felt drawn back here, and I only hoped it wouldn’t be a mistake.
Virginia was beautiful and picturesque as I made my way down the tree-lined back roads dotted with small farms and forgotten towns. My roots were here, buried in the sweet Southern air and the historic countryside. Crossing the city limits into Richmond felt like coming home for the first time in almost a decade. No matter where I had gone, where I’d settled down, I never felt more at home than I did here. This is where I truly belonged and it was about time I came to accept that.
A few miles deeper into the city, I was pulling up to the curb of my longtime friend Olivia Prescott, or Liv, as I liked to call her. It had been years since we last spoke. That had been my fault, not hers. I’d cut ties with everyone from my former life when I quietly left town the night of our high school graduation. After what I’d done, I’d felt too ashamed to face anyone, even those I was closest to.
The house was drastically different than what I’d ever envisioned for Liv. Her family, like mine, came from money. Initially, it had been why we became friends. Our parents had attended the same country club, and we would end up attending many of the same functions together. We quickly realized that we had a lot in common, and we had become fast friends.
Liv had hated the country-club life almost as much as I had. It was so stuffy and stifling in there. I would feel like my lungs were tightening every time I’d walked inside those pretentious gilded walls. Our mutual hatred for the place had created a close bond, and we had always sought each other out when we were forced to attend parties or formal events. Our parents hadn’t approved of our friendship. We had been expected to act a certain way, and neither Liv nor I had fit the mold of the perfect daughter. Being together had only exacerbated the situation in our parents’ eyes.
I’d finally taken a stand against my parents, but by the time I had, it had been too late, and it had ended up costing me everything. I could only imagine what Liv had gone through alone. As I stepped out of my car, I took my first good look at Liv’s house, and I knew she must have done the impossible. She’d done what I should have that night so long ago. She’d broken free.
Her house was small, too small for a trust-fund baby, which we both were—or at least, we used to be. Her trust fund was substantially larger than mine since she came from a family that had a name everyone knew. My family was well-off, more so than most, but my parents always strived to appear greater than they were. My father was a lawyer, a very successful one. I never understood why he’d felt the need to kiss ass with the rich elitists of the city. But maintaining their image had been everything to my parents—or rather my mother. My father loved me, but he had been my mother’s puppet. She’d always come first. When I’d finally walked away, I’d told my mother to screw herself, and I’d left my inheritance behind. I hadn’t heard from either of them since.
Liv lived in a part of town known for being eclectic. The neighborhood was full of artists and college students. Within walking distance, there was access to great restaurants, shops, and bars. The houses were small, historic, and full of Victorian charm. Most were divided into duplexes or townhouses to accommodate the amount of students attending the nearby university. But Liv’s home looked to be all hers with only one address painted in hot pink stenciling on a wooden sign hanging by the side of the mossy green front door.
I pressed the buzzer and waited. I admired the bright colors she’d chosen for her trim and porch, and I hated the fact that she could keep her plants alive. I had the exact opposite of a green thumb. What would that be? A black thumb? Well, whatever it was, I had it. If they could, plants would scream and run away from my presence, knowing I would be their ultimate demise. I also couldn’t cook worth a damn. I was the antithesis of Martha Stewart.
The door was suddenly thrown open, and I was engulfed in a sea of ebony hair as Liv dove forward and threw her arms around me.
“Mia!” Liv squealed, pulling back from her hug attack to give me her signature megawatt grin.
I always loved Liv’s smile. It could light up an entire room. Her smile was genuine and encompassed her entire face. Her brown eyes twinkled and warmed, her right cheek dimpled, and her entire personality shined through. God, I had missed her.
“Amelia Emerson! You haven’t changed a bit! You’re just as skinny and gorgeous as ever. But wait, hold on,” she said, stepping back to assess me for a moment. “Turn for me.”
I rolled my eyes and did as she’d said, making a complete turn on her front stoop. I hoped her neighbors couldn’t see this little spectacle. I would be staying here for a bit, and I didn’t want them to think I was Liv’s crazy relative coming to visit.
“Your boobs got bigger!” she practically announced to the entire block.
“Oh my God, they did not!” I said, folding my arms over my chest.
“They did so,” she fired back, pulling my arms away to expose the area in question.
Suddenly, I felt underdressed next to my long-lost friend. She was very put together—in a strange way. It was much different than the Liv I remembered. She had on a gorgeous maxi dress that hugged her curves and highlighted her own rack nicely. Her jewelry all looked handmade, nothing like the pricey designer pieces our parents use to buy. The bold silver necklace and matching earrings she wore accentuated her long neck and shiny black hair. Her appearance was very eclectic and artsy but in a hip and sophisticated manner.
I looked like a bum standing next to her. Since I had been traveling all day, I wasn’t wearing anything fancy. I had on a faded Old Navy tank top and a pair of jeans I’d probably owned since college. Besides the pendant around my neck that I never took off, I didn’t have any other jewelry on. To complete my fashion train wreck, I was wearing flip-flops that didn’t even match.
“Well, whatever you say, but I still think they are bigger. Is that a thing? Are they supposed to get bigger in our twenties? Because mine sure haven’t. I heard they sometimes grow with pregnancy, but that shit definitely isn’t ever happening to me, so I’m stuck with my mediums. I’ve never had any complaints though. What do they say? A handful is all you need.”
I just stared for a moment, thrown off guard by what she’d said, but I laughed it off. Shaking my head, I said, “You haven’t changed a bit.”
“Oh, but I have. Can’t you tell?” She tossed her hands up as if to acknowledge her surroundings as validation of her epic change.
“Yes, you need to tell me all about this,” I said, waving my pointer finger in a circle to incorporate her entire look.
“Oh, I plan to. Let’s get you inside and make some tea.”
Of course she drank tea.
As we made our way through her home, I took notice of the hand-carved wood artwork on the walls and the unusual paintings scattered everywhere. I couldn’t help but wonder how my privileged friend had gone from being a senator’s daughter to wearing moonstones and making tea.
I settled into a chair at her worn kitchen table and drew my knees up to my chin.
“Still folding yourself into a ball, Mia?”
It was the second time I’d heard her say my former name. I’d given that name up when I left my old life behind. When I’d walked away from Virginia, I’d stopped being Mia, and I’d started using my proper name, Amelia.
Mia was the name he had given me, and I couldn’t bear to hear it. I didn’t deserve it anymore.
“I go by Amelia now,” I simply said.
“Okay,” she said, sending me a strange look. “Still folding yourself into a ball, Amelia?”
“Yes, I guess some things never change.”
She gave me a long stare as she filled up the teakettle. “No, they don’t.”
We moved from awkward conversation to silence for a while as she moved about the kitchen, pulling out snacks and tea from some weird tin. She was so different, yet I could still see parts of my old friend there. Some of her mannerisms were the same, like how she bit her bottom lip as she became impatient while waiting for the water to boil and how she rocked her hips when she was standing. I used to call her a valley girl for that silly movement after seeing the girls on Clueless do it. She would just laugh it off and keep doing it.
Liv finished pouring our tea—some weird herbal blend and set the mugs on a tray along with a plate of cookies. She brought everything over and set it on the table and joined me. I added a bit of cream to my tea and grabbed a spiced cookie to nibble on.
“So, are we going to talk about why you ran out of here like a demon on graduation night and then never came back? Or are we going to continue to ignore it?”
I knew she would ask, yet I still hadn’t prepared an answer.
“I…had to leave. I just…I’m sorry, Liv. I’m not ready to talk about this yet.”
I looked up, expecting to see hurt or anger, but she was radiating understanding.
“Okay, I can deal with that—as long as you’ll be ready to talk someday.”
“Okay,” I agreed, not knowing if that day would ever come.
As we continued to eat our cookies and sip our teas, something was tugging at me, something I needed to know. It was more than what Liv had been doing since high school, more than whether that ice cream store was still down the street from my old house. I needed to know about him.
“Liv, I need to know. Does Garrett still live here?”
Saying his name out loud hurt. I didn’t think I’d actually said those precious syllables in years. Hearing it spring free from my lips felt like I was cutting deep into my own flesh. It felt raw and ragged, like gravel against my vocal cords, and I was ashamed for even saying it.
She gave me a sympathetic gaze. “I don’t know. After you…after that night, he hounded me for days that turned into weeks, trying to get a clue as to where you went. When I finally convinced him I was in the dark like he was, I didn’t hear from him again. He went off to college, and that was it.”
We were supposed to go to college together—the beginning to our crazy life, as he’d called it. We’d picked out all of our classes together. He was going to be my brainy architect, and I was going to be his sexy teacher. But I’d left, and he had gone alone.
Now, I was here. I wondered where life had taken him.
I only hoped he was happy.
Ready for You
Copyright J.L. Berg 2014