But I didn’t walk away five years ago, I ran. As fast as I could go. And while my heart is whispering that it’s different this time—that he’s different—my brain is screaming for me to run again.
Malachi Porter isn’t a normal guy. And he doesn’t belong in my “normal life.” But, nevertheless, he’s bound and determined to make a place for himself here.
I just hope my heart can survive him, that we don’t burn into another bright tragedy.
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Read Chapter 1
My fingers flew over the keys. Up and down. Black and white. Sharp and natural and sharp, sharp, sharp. The damper pedal lifted with my momentum. I pressed down again, elongating the notes, pulling the best of the melody out of the song and letting it hang in the air, notes dancing and twirling and singing in the emotional symphony. Beethoven had never sounded so good.
I took a breath. Closing my eyes at the final, heart-stopping crescendo, I lifted my fingers and let the last notes resonate through the vaulted ceilings in perfect harmony.
When the sound died and the song drifted from the building, I couldn’t help but wait for applause. It was ingrained in my nature. My entire life I’d played to crowds much bigger than this one. And so, I sat there, my breath trapped inside my chest, my eyes closed in anticipation and… nothing.
There was no eruption of cheering and wild clapping. There was no demand for an encore. There was no stadium filled with rabid fans, blissed out at the end of the best show of their lives.
Only one person was clapping for this performance and it was Maya from the MAC makeup counter. And she only did it because she knew it made me happy. I grinned at her over my shoulder. She clapped louder, jumping up and down in a pure attempt to feed my ego.
A cluster of teenage girls moved between us, laughing and chatting, eyes glued on all the pretty things around them. I quickly turned away, ducking my head and focusing on the gorgeous grand piano that filled the center of the glistening lobby.
Nobody recognized me these days, but better safe than sorry.
When the shoppers had moved on, I gathered my music and slipped it inside a folder. Maya was still slow clapping by the time I reached the counter that was covered with tubes of lipstick.
“Woman, you were on fire today,” she cheered. “I was seriously moved by that last piece. Tears, Clover. Actual tears.” She pointed at the corner of her eye where her electric blue eyeliner was smudged.
“Moonlight Sonata.” I took a steadying breath, banishing the lingering emotions that clung to the edges of me. Beethoven’s masterful piece was one of my favorites too. And I rarely played it. But today I’d been in the mood for melancholy and memories. And that song, above all others, despite what the tabloids and bloggers said about me once upon a time, weighed the heaviest with my past. “It’s a good one.”
She leaned forward on her elbows. “You’re stupid good, you know that?”
I tilted my head, letting my long, fiery red curls fall over my shoulder and partially hide my face. “What you really mean is I’m good for Macy’s standards, right?” I looked behind me as Walter arrived and started to set up for his three-hour block. Macy’s hired us for elegant entertainment. We were the background music for the high-end department stores evening and weekend shoppers. There was a rotating total of six pianists and each of us were happy for the work. It was a relatively easy way to make a hundred bucks.
This was all part of my new normal. Trying to live and eat and sleep off the grind of regular employment.
Once upon a time, my piano-playing skills made me lots and lots of money. Not that I put in fewer hours. But it seemed easier to make money as a headline band dropping platinum albums.
It seemed easier, I realized. But it hadn’t been.
I breathed deeply of this normal life I lived now and smiled at the simplicity of it. Sorrow and heartache tugged at the corners of my thoughts, desperate to get my attention and claim some space in this adjusted life of mine, but I refused to give them room.
They were banished, along with everything else that used to be.
“Girl, I mean you’re good period. Stop playin’.”
“You’re really sweet. Thank you.”
She winked at me. “You’re welcome.”
“What is all this?” I asked, picking up a random tube of lipstick and turning it over. Russian Red. “Wow, this is bright.”
“Restocking,” she sighed. “It’s a pain in the ass. But also, better than giving tweens makeovers all day.”
“What about former tweens? Do you have time for one of those?”
She laughed her deep, throaty laugh that always made me smile. Maya and I had gotten to know each other slowly over the last few years after I’d first started playing at Macy’s. She’d been one of my most favorite parts of slowing down and finding normal.
She was a real friend. And a real person. There was nothing shallow about her. She jumped right into a deep friendship and demanded raw honesty. There were still parts of my life I kept a secret from her, but that wasn’t because I didn’t want to tell her the whole sordid history of how I’d ended up in Kansas City, Missouri. It was for her safety. And mine. And to honor all those pesky nondisclosures I’d signed.
Her big brown eyes widened. “Oh, my gosh, is tonight the night? The big night?”
I nibbled my bottom lip and nodded. “Yes.” My stomach flipped with anticipation for the surprise that waited for me just hours from now.
She leaned forward, bouncing on her toes with shared excitement. “What do you think it is? Oh, my gosh, what if he proposes?”
I lifted a shoulder and felt my stomach drop to my toes. Equal parts dread and hope spiraled through me, chasing each other, racing to see which emotion would win. “I have no idea what it is. He’s so excited though. He can barely contain himself. Yesterday, he had outfits spread out on his bed like he was deciding which one to wear.”
“Oh my god, Clover! This has to be it.”
I shrugged again. “It could honestly be anything, but a proposal, Maya? For real, that would be crazy.”
“Would you say yes?”
I took too long to think about my answer. Maya wanted an easy, breezy yes. She wanted to know that my relationship with Adam Shepherd was a whirlwind romance that had totally and completely swept me off my feet. She wanted a real-life romantic comedy and epic love story wrapped in one. She wanted me to be happy. And it was so sweet of her. But it was also unrealistic.
I’d already had all of that. And it had ended in the worst kind of tragedy.
Her question was supposed to have an easy answer. Even if I wasn’t ready for the proposal now, I was supposed to want it sometime, right?
Meet a normal guy. Fall in love with a normal guy. Marry a normal guy. Live a very normal happily ever after.
Every girl’s dream. Except mine.
“We’ve only been dating for six months,” I told her, laughing, playing it off, shining light on her absolutely ridiculous idea. “He hasn’t even told me he loves me yet.” A sick feeling rolled through my stomach, my body wholly rejecting the idea of saying those words to anyone.
She blinked, her fake lashes fanning over high cheekbones. “Oh.” Maya was a romantic to her bones. She wanted everyone to fall in love. If a man so much as knelt to tie his shoe in front of the makeup counter, she assumed it was some elaborate proposal stunt. “Well, maybe tonight’s the night for I love yous!”
My heart thrummed with the idea, bossing my nerves back in line. This was an easier question to answer, although she hadn’t asked it. Would I tell Adam I loved him if he said the words first? Yes. Yes, I would.
At least, I hoped I would.
Sometimes my mouth had a mind of its own.
I bat my lashes at her. “Better make me look pretty just in case.”
She grinned and grabbed the tube of Russian Red. “The good news is, if he doesn’t love you yet, he will after I’m done with you!”
Jumping up onto one of the high back stools, I set my messenger bag full of sheet music at my feet and waited patiently for Maya to make me gorgeous. The woman was a magician when it came to makeup. Seriously, she could make anything look beautiful.
Not that she had to try very hard. She was truly one of the most stunning women I had ever seen. Her dark skin was absolute perfection. Her natural hair, wild and curly and edgy, so perfectly fitting to her larger than life personality. And her curves the kind that every woman wanted, dreamed of, spent hours in the gym to get. She was one of MAC’s bestsellers consistently because everybody wanted to look like her.
Hell, most women wanted to be her.
Also, because she could transform anyone from blah to banging with a few mystical strokes of her brushes.
Thirty minutes later, I barely recognized myself in the small circular mirror on the counter. She’d given me smoky eyes, highlighted cheekbones, and dang that Russian Red if it didn’t look amazing on my lips next to my natural red hair.
“No way,” I whispered as she grinned over my shoulder. She’d highlight the dusting of freckles over my nose and under my eyes and given me perfectly porcelain skin that seemed to have no blemishes. Although, I knew that to be a lie. I looked better than I ever had.
I looked even better than when I’d had an actual makeup team.
“You’re going home with this lipstick,” she ordered. “You need to own it and wear it every damn day.”
“It makes my hair look so red.” I groaned. My hair and I had been at odds since I could remember. There was a time I did anything to hide the crimson curls. I straightened, I tied it back and hid it under stocking caps and finally, when the PR team got involved, I colored it in crazy vibrant colors like neon pink or bold purple. I loved the fun shades, even if I looked like a Barbie.
But, I’d given all that up five years ago and went back to my natural shade. The curls were more manageable than trying to straighten this mess every day. Eventually, my new hair stylist had found the perfect red to match my roots. I didn’t even get it dyed anymore. This was just me. Clover Callaway, completely natural. Completely anonymous.
Nobody expected the red curls. They were my new signature. And I was slowly learning to love them.
Like I was slowly learning to love this life.
“You’re welcome,” Maya repeated, laughing. “Tell you what. If I had your hair, I would rock the shit out of it.”
Now that I believed. “M, if I had your hair, I would never worry about my hair again.”
She bugged her eyes out at me. “You think this is easy? You have no idea how long this takes me every day.”
“Same,” I sighed.
Shaking her head, she murmured, “I guess the grass is always greener.”
“Now isn’t that the truth.”
An older woman and a thirty-something younger version of her stepped up to the counter, pointing out eye shadows. “That’s my cue,” Maya whispered, totaling up the lipstick with her employee discount.
I gave her my credit card. Honestly, whenever she picked out makeup for me, I gave her my money. Maya knew best. “Thanks for this.”
She grinned at me. “Good luck! I want all the details tomorrow.”
To be honest, I wasn’t expecting anything as grand as I love yous. Adam and I had met at one of my other jobs—local photographer. He had been a groomsman at a wedding I helped shoot. We’d hit it off when he’d gotten socked in the face with a wayward basketball.
The groomsmen and groom, while waiting for the bride and her attendants to get ready, had been messing around in the church’s gym. My photographer friend, River, and I had been shooting fun photos of the pickup game in their tuxes when Adam had gotten distracted and taken a ball to the face. Blood had gushed everywhere, spurting out his swollen nose all over his tux.
His excuse? He’d been staring at me and hadn’t seen it coming. I’d rushed to his aid and helped nurse his poor nose back to semi-normal, so he wouldn’t look like a cartoon for the wedding pictures.
He’d asked me out before the night was over, and now we were dating.
Adam was one of those guys that always made things easy. He was laid-back, responsible, and adorable. The last six months had been a surprising whirlwind of romantic dates and constant butterflies. And tonight, he’d planned something epic for our six-month anniversary.
I had never celebrated relationship anniversaries with anyone before, so my expectations were low. But I was also ridiculously excited. It made me feel special. I loved the idea of celebrating small milestones with this simmering anticipation for more to come.
And it just fit Adam in every way. Of course, he would make a sweet thing out of our six-month. Of course, he would make me feel cherished. Of course, he would make this about us. And not about himself.
I left Macy’s in my cool blue Mini Cooper, my favorite of all the cars in the world, and drove directly to his house. We lived across town from each other, so I didn’t have time to go all the way home after my shift before I was supposed to be at Adam’s house in Kansas City suburbia.
He was thirty-one with a stable job as an IT guy at a tech company, which seemed redundant to me. But he assured me even tech companies have tech problems.
His house was bigger than what he needed as a single guy. It seemed huge for him alone. When he’d first moved in, he’d shared it with three roommates. They’d all gotten married in the meantime and moved out. Over the last two years, he’d been slowly remodeling and updating. Making it his.
I didn’t know why I found that attractive, but I did. It showed me how stable he was. How reliable. How invested he was in his life.
And for those reasons, I loved his house. It was this symbol of responsible adulthood and trustworthiness.
It was an older one and a half story home with the master bedroom on the main floor and three bedrooms and an adorable terrace that looked out over his sprawling backyard. He’d let me plant a flower garden on the terrace last spring complete with pallet planters he’d built for me and hanging pots. It was my favorite place in the entire world.
The hot summer air stuck to my skin as I got out of my car and hurried toward his front door. I didn’t want to start sweating and ruin all of Maya’s hard work.
Pushing through the open door, I stepped inside, feeling a little extra ownership in Adam’s place. Six months was a milestone.
Six months meant something special.
“Hello?” I called out, feeling brave that I hadn’t even texted to let him know I was on my way.
I’d earned the right to show up unannounced, right?
He stepped out of his bedroom, tugging a t-shirt down at his waist. My eyes lingered on the smooth, stretch of skin across his midsection and I felt a burst of warmth bloom through me. This was going to be a fun night. It had to be.
“Hey,” he grinned at me. “You’re here.”
He was so happy to see me. It was written all over his handsome face. My heart swelled in my chest as I realized this was what a normal, healthy relationship felt like. This was what it felt like to be happy.
“Hey,” I repeated. “I’m here.”
We moved together across the living room, sidestepping furniture and the big, clunky coffee table he’d built himself on his first try at furniture making. Our arms wrapped around each other and he dipped me into a long, satisfying kiss. Butterflies buzzed beneath my skin at the sensation of his tongue tangling with mine. The scruff of his jaw wasn’t typical, and I shivered at the sensation.
Maybe we didn’t have plans tonight. Maybe we were going to hang out here instead and find other ways to celebrate six months.
“Are you ready for this?” he asked when he’d pulled away.
“Depends,” I laughed. “Are you ready to tell me what we’re doing?”
He took a step back, barely able to contain his excitement. No offense to my bedroom skills, but any hopes of staying in tonight were dashed in that one uncharacteristic skip in his step.
Reaching into his back pocket, he pulled out printer paper with barcodes in black ink. “I have tickets to Bright Tragedy! They’re playing at the Uptown Theater tonight.”
His words were a bullet to my good mood, killing whatever happiness and anticipation had been inside me. My heart dropped like a stone to my stomach, calcifying and fossilizing and drying up all at once. “The Uptown Theater is too small for them,” I heard myself say, my brain relying on logistics to make this not true. To change what he’d said into something different, something that didn’t make me want to run away from his house, from this city... from this country.
“It’s a more intimate show,” he explained, his grin ticking wider. “This tour they’re doing is all about small shows and private meet and greets. I missed the tickets for the meet and greet, but I managed to grab the main event tonight.”
His grin stayed in place, waiting for my reaction. I did breathe a small sigh of relief that he’d missed the intimate photo op. God, I couldn’t even imagine the shit show that would have been.
You wouldn’t have gone, my brain whispered honestly. And it was true. If Adam had tried to drag me to a private event where I would have been forced to interact with the members of his and the entire world’s favorite rock band and take pictures with them and shake their hands… I would have run screaming from his house. That was the worst-case scenario for me.
But a concert was a different story. Not because I had any interest in watching Bright Tragedy live or seeing them in person ever again. But because I wanted to preserve what I had with Adam.
I refused to let Bright Tragedy steal any more of my happiness. I refused to let them take anything more from me than they already had.
But this wasn’t a celebration for me. This was one of the hardest things I would ever have to do.
And the worst part… I couldn’t even tell Adam why.
He didn’t need to know that I used to be a member of his favorite band. Or that I had grown up with the guys. Or that the lead singer, Malachi Porter, had been my first boyfriend. My first everything. My only everything until Adam. I had loved him with all that I had in me. I had thought we would get married. That our entire lives would be each other and our band.
And that Malachi, or Kai as his adoring fans knew him, had hurt me in the worst way possible—that he had let our love burn into the brightest tragedy and left me ashes and dust and wisps of nothing.
He’d left me barely breathing.
He’d left me hurting more than I knew was humanly possible.
With no other choice, I’d fled. I’d disappeared. I’d carved out my normal, safe, happy existence without him. And without the world-famous band I’d helped build.
But now, my wonderfully normal boyfriend was asking me to go back to that dark place and I didn’t know how to tell him no without exposing all my shadowy secrets. Secrets he would never forgive me for.
Secrets I could hardly explain fully or reconcile with the girl I was now.
“Are you okay?” he asked, concern drawing his eyebrows together. His strong hands landed on my shoulders, rubbing soothingly. “Do you not want to go?”
I tried to smile, but it wobbled. And then it died completely. “I’m sorry, I just don’t love their music like you do.” Panic seized hold of my heart, squeezing it in an iron fist.
His face fell, crumbling with disappointment. The grip on my heart tightened. “Oh, but it could still be fun? We’re in the balcony. We’ll get drinks…”
I couldn’t stomach the way he was looking at me. I couldn’t be responsible for ruining this for him. I knew I had to face this. I knew I had to go. It was the only way to save my past from totally screwing up my future.
If I told Adam the whole truth, he would never look at me the same. He would never treat me the same. He would never… want me the same.
I would become an idol. And my past would become a badge of honor. And his feelings for me would become plastic.
But the band… if they saw me. If Malachi saw me…
They wouldn’t, I decided. They won’t. They can’t. How many fans did I recognize at any of our concerts? Zero. The stage lights were too bright. The crush of the crowd was too big. The adrenaline of the performance was too intense.
And besides, Malachi wouldn’t be in the right state of mind anyway. He wouldn’t even notice me.
I ignored the despair that colored everything inside me black. Death seeped inside my new life, turning everything cold and corpse-like. My bones grew stiff and my muscles weakened. My heartbeat slowed to a crawl. My lungs shook with the effort to draw breath.
“It’s fine,” I heard myself say, desperation to save this easy new life of mine setting in. I wanted to shake my limbs loose of the rigor mortis. “It will be fun.”
He squinted at me, trying to make sense of the hollow sound of my voice. “I promise, you’re going to love it. Love them,” he said, overly enthusiastic. “You’ll see why I think they’re amazing. You’ll be a super fan by the end of the night.”
I smiled, it was paper thin and fake, but it held. He was wrong. I had already been a super fan. I had been their biggest fan. I had wanted them to have the most success. To be the greatest thing that had ever graced the stage.
Now I knew better. I had loved a broken thing because I wanted to fix it. Instead, it had broken me too.
“Maybe,” I told Adam, knowing the truth would be the opposite.
His answering smile restored some of my faith in life. I wasn’t the same girl I was five years ago. I wasn’t a part of Bright Tragedy. And I wasn’t in love with Malachi Porter.
But I did like Adam. And I could support him this one night. I would slip inside the theater, be a good girlfriend and hang out on the balcony. And then we would leave at the end of the night and life would go on.
Malachi and the guys would move on to the next city.
And I would move on with my new normal.
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