Fri
May 19 2017 1:00pm

Cover + Excerpt Reveal: Start Reading Roni Loren’s The Ones Who Got Away!

The Ones Who Got Away by Roni Loren

There's nothing better than discovering the next book from one of your favorite authors—what's even better is when you can get a sneak peek at that book far in advance! Today we have it all with the exclusive cover reveal of Roni Loren's The Ones Who Got Away and a chance to start reading it now with an excerpt of the first three chapters!

Learn more about the book here:

Twelve years ago, tragedy struck the senior class of Long Acre High School. Only a small number of students survived, a group the media dubbed as The Ones Who Got Away.

Now, web designer Liv Arias, along with the rest of the survivors, have returned to the small Texas town to tell their stories for a documentary. Which means Liv seeing former star-athlete and old flame Finn Dorsey. A lot happened between them that night and Liv is ready to end their decade-long riff and move on. But when her attempt at closure turns into a steamy kiss, moving on proves much more difficult than either of them thought...

Liv's words cut off as Finn got closer. The man approaching was nothing like the boy she'd known. The bulky football muscles had streamlined into a harder, leaner package. The smooth face was now dusted with scruff, and the look in his deep green eyes held no trace of boyish innocence. A thousand things were in those eyes. A thousand things welled up in Liv.

If that description had you saying “I need this now!” then you're in luck! We have the first three chapters right here for you to read right away!

Get a sneak peek of Roni Loren's The Ones Who Got Away (available January 8, 2018) with an exclusive excerpt of Chapters 1-3. Happy reading!


Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3



Chapter 1

Back to Top

Nothing can save you. Liv Arias rubbed goose bumps from her arms as she read the words scrawled on the sign taped under a maniacal-looking wasp painted on the wall of the gym. Nothing can save you from the sting! More hand-drawn posters hung crookedly around the ridiculous mascot, bubbly cheerleader handwriting declaring that the Millbourne Yellowjackets were going to take down the Creekside Tigers. Some smart-ass had drawn a tiger with a swollen face and an EpiPen with an X through it.

Nothing can save you. The level of artistic skill on the cartoon should’ve made Liv smile. Back when she was in high school, she would never have been the one making school spirit signs, but she would’ve appreciated the art and the sarcasm. Today, she couldn’t find enthusiasm for either. Because it all felt off. The new name for the school. The weird, too-smiley mascot. Her, being there.

This wasn’t the gym where it had happened. That building had been knocked down within months of the tragedy. Spilled blood covered with dirt. A memorial courtyard was in its place now on the other side of the school. She’d taken the long way around and had avoided walking past it on her way in, afraid it would trigger all the stuff she’d fought so hard to lock down. Even after twelve years, she couldn’t bear to look at a list of names that should’ve been in a graduation program instead of etched onto a memorial. People she’d sat next to in class. People she’d been friends with. People she’d thought she hated until they were gone and she’d realized how silly and superficial high-school hate was. Now they were just names on stone, memories painted on the walls of her brain, holes in people’s hearts.

“You said you weren’t in the gym when the first gunman came in.”

The interviewer’s calm voice jarred Liv out of her thoughts, and she blinked in the bright camera-ready lights. They’d been talking about the tragedy as a whole, but hadn’t gotten into the details of the night yet. “What?”

Daniel Morrow, the filmmaker putting the documentary together, gave her an encouraging nod, making his too-stylish hair flop across his forehead. “You weren’t in the gym…”

Liv swallowed past the rubber-band tightness in her throat. Maybe she’d overestimated her ability to handle this. She’d agreed to it because the proceeds were going both to the families of the victims and to research that could help prevent things like this from happening. How could she say no to that and not look heartless? But in that moment, she wished she’d declined. Old fear was creeping up the back of her neck, invading like a thousand spiders, the sounds and memories from that night threatening to overtake her. She closed her eyes for a second, focused on her breathing.

She wasn’t that scared girl anymore. She would not be.

“Do you need to take a break, Ms. Arias?” Daniel asked, his voice echoing in the dark, empty gym.

She shook her head, the lights feeling too hot on her skin. No breaks. She needed to get this over with. If she took a break, she wouldn’t come back. She opened her eyes and straightened her spine, rallying her reserve of calm, that place where she went and pretended she was talking about things that had happened to someone else, to people she didn’t know, at a school she’d never heard of. “No, I wasn’t in the gym. I’d gone into the hallway to get some air.”

Not entirely true. She’d left the prom to sneak into a janitor’s closet with Finn Dorsey. But she and Finn had never told that part of the story because he’d been there with a “proper” date, and he would’ve never wanted his parents or anyone else to know he was sneaking off with someone like Olivia Arias. She’d first dragged him into the closet to fight with him, to let him know how she felt about being passed over for his student-council-president date. But fighting had only stoked the fire that had burned between them back then. Young, misguided, completely inconvenient lust. They’d been rounding second base when they’d heard the first shots fired.

“What happened when you were in the hallway?”

Liv didn’t want to picture it again. She’d wrestled with flashbacks for so long that it felt like inviting the devil in for another stay. Her only reprieve in the last few years had been one hundred percent avoidance, cutting herself off from everything and everyone from back then. Letting the scene run through her mind could be too much. But there was no helping it. The images came anyway.

“When I heard the shots and screaming, I hid in the janitor’s closet.” She and Finn had thought it was some kind of prom prank until they’d heard Finn’s date, Rebecca, shout the word gun.

Gun.

A tiny, three-letter word that had knocked their world off its axis and punted it into a different dimension forever.

“So you never saw the shooters?”

Liv wrapped her hands around her elbows, trying to keep the inner chill from becoming visible shivering, and ignored the pine scent of the janitor’s disinfectant that burned her nose as if she were right there again. She still couldn’t buy a real Christmas tree because of that smell. “I didn’t see anyone until Joseph opened the door.”

Because Finn had left her. The second he’d heard Rebecca scream, he’d bailed on Liv. He’d said something to her, but she could never recall what. All she remembered was him leaving. And in his rush to save his real date, he’d inadvertently alerted Joseph to Liv’s presence.

“He pointed the gun at me and yelled at me to stand up.” Her voice caught on the last bit, snagging on the sharp memory, bringing back that all-encompassing fear that she was in her last minutes. She’d learned to mostly manage the panic attacks that had plagued her after that night, but that moment was always the image that haunted her most—when she saw the barrel of that gun pointing at her, the scared but determined eyes of her former lab partner drilling into her like cold steel.

“But Joseph didn’t pull the trigger?”

Liv looked down at her hands, turning her mother’s wedding band round and round. “No. He knew who I was. I…wasn’t on his list.”

“Meaning?”

There was no way Daniel didn’t know what it meant. The media had latched on to the killers’ manifesto like ants on honey. Joseph and Trevor had chosen prom night for a very particular reason. Not to take out the popular people or people who’d wronged them. They wanted to take out the happy ones. If you can be happy in a fucked-up world like this, then you’re blind and too stupid to live. That’d been the motto of their mission.

Liv hadn’t been deemed a happy one and had been spared. But she wasn’t going to say it and open herself up to the question of why she hadn’t been happy. There’d been enough speculation in the press back when it’d happened. What was broken with all those lucky survivors? Were they the mean kids? The depressed kids? The damaged kids? Friends of the killers? “Joseph and I had worked together on a project in chemistry. We weren’t friends, but I’d been nice to him.”

And he’d been nice to her. But she’d also seen part of him that would haunt her later. When she’d worried that their project wouldn’t be up to par, he’d assured her that the rest of the class was filled with idiots, jocks, and assholes, so they’d look like geniuses in comparison. He’d smirked at her and said, I mean, seriously, someone should just put them out of their misery. Save us the trouble of having to deal with them.

Back then, she’d already been a subscriber to the church of sarcasm and had no love lost for many of her classmates, so she’d taken his comment as such and agreed with him. Now the memory of that conversation made her sick. She’d reassured a killer that he was right. Given him more fuel for his bonfire.

“He cursed at me, told me to stay put, and wedged a chair against the outside of the door.” She rubbed her lips together. “After that, I heard more shots.”

“Presumably when he shot at”—Daniel checked his notes—“Finn Dorsey and Rebecca Lindt.”

Liv reached for her water and took a slow sip, trying not to hear the sounds of that night in her head. The gun going off in that steady, unrelenting way. The cries for help. A Mariah Carey song still playing in the gym. Her own rapid breath as she huddled in that closet and did—nothing. Frozen. For five hours. Only the chair against the door had alerted the SWAT team someone was in there after everything was over. “Yes. I didn’t see any of it, but I know Finn was shot protecting Rebecca. You’d have to ask Rebecca about that part.”

“I did ask her. I plan to ask Finn, too.”

Her head snapped upward at that, the words yanking her out of the memories like a stage hook. “What?”

“Mr. Dorsey is my next interview.”

She stared at Daniel, not sure if she’d heard the words right. “Finn’s here?”

She barely resisted saying, He exists? The guy had become a ghost after the awful months following the shooting. He’d gotten a ton of press for being a hero, and the media had played up the story to the nth degree. The star athlete and son of a local business owner taking a bullet for his date. But within a year, his family had moved out of town, running from the spotlight like everyone else. No one wanted to be that brand of famous.

Liv hadn’t heard anything about him since, and he never gave interviews. She’d decided that he and his wealthy parents had probably moved to some remote tropical island and changed his name. She would’ve skipped town back then too if she’d had the funds to do it.

“Yes,” Daniel said, tipping his head toward the spot over her left shoulder. “He got here a few minutes ago. He’s declined to be on camera, but he’s agreed to an interview.”

With that, she couldn’t help but turn and follow the interviewer’s gaze. Leaning against the wall in the shadows of the darkened gym was a man with dark hair, black T-shirt, and jeans. He looked up from the phone in his hand, as if hearing his name, and peered in their direction. He was too far away for her to read his expression or see the details of his face, but a jolt of bone-deep recognition went through her. “Oh.”

“Hey, we should invite him to join you for this part since you were both close to the same place at the same time. We’ll get a more accurate timeline that way.”

“What? I mean, no, that’s not—”

“Jim, can you turn off the camera? I think this will be important. Mr. Dorsey,” Daniel called out, “would you mind if I asked you a few questions now? The camera’s off.”

The cameraman went about shutting things down, and Finn pushed away from the wall.

Liv’s heart leapt into her throat and tried to escape. She’d avoided Finn after everything had happened, not just from hurt, but because seeing his face, even on television, would trigger the flashbacks. But she wasn’t that girl anymore. Seeing Finn after all these years shouldn’t concern her. Still, she had the distinct urge to make tracks to the back door. She slid out of the director’s chair she’d been sitting in. “I think I’ve probably given you everything I have to add. I wasn’t in the gym, and my story is really just me cowering in the closet. Not that interesting—”

Her words cut off, her voice dying a quick death, as Finn got closer and some of the studio lights caught him in their glare. The man approaching was nothing like the boy she’d known. The bulky football muscles had streamlined into a harder, leaner package. The smooth face was now dusted with scruff, and the look in his deep-green eyes held no trace of boyish innocence. A thousand things were in those eyes. A thousand things welled up in Liv.

Finn Dorsey had become a man. And a stranger. The only familiar thing was the sharp, undeniable kick of awareness she’d always had anytime the guy was around. Time had only made the effect more potent. Without thinking, her gaze drifted to his hands. Big, capable hands that had once held her. When she’d known him, he’d always worn his football championship ring from junior year. The cool metal used to press against the back of her neck when he kissed her. Now he wore no rings at all. She took a breath, trying to reel in that old, automatic response to him, and smoothed her hands down the sides of her now-wrinkled pencil skirt.

Daniel held out his hand. “Mr. Dorsey, so glad you could make it.”

Finn returned the offered handshake and gave a brief nod. “Not a problem.”

Then, his gaze slid to Liv. His brow wrinkled for a second, but she could tell the moment he realized who she was. Something flickered over his face. A very distinct look. Like she caused him pain. Like she was a bad memory.

Because she was. That was all they were to each other at this point.

“Liv.”

She cleared her throat. “Hi, Finn.”

He stepped closer, his gaze tracing over her face as if searching for something. Or maybe just cataloging all the differences time had given her. Gone were the heavy kohl eyeliner, the nose piercing, and the purple-streaked hair. She’d gone back to her natural black hair color after college, and though she still liked to think she had a quirky style, she’d chosen a simple gray suit for today’s interview. Something teen Liv would’ve made snoring sounds over.

“It’s good to see you,” Finn said, his voice deeper and more rumbly than she remembered. “You look…”

“Like I’ve been through a two-hour interview, I’m sure.” She forced a tight smile. “I’ll get out of your way so that you and Daniel can chat. I’m sure you’ll be able to offer a lot more detailed information than I can. I was just the girl in the closet.”

Finn frowned. “Liv—”

“I was hoping I could talk to you both,” Daniel interrupted. “May provide extra insight.”

Liv’s heart was beating too fast now. Part of her wanted to yell at Finn, to demand why, to spew out all those questions she’d never asked, all those feelings she’d packed away in that dark vault labeled senior year. But the other part of her knew there was no good answer. In the end, all three of them had survived. Maybe if he hadn’t left the closet, Rebecca wouldn’t have made it. Then Liv would have that on her conscience.

She turned to Daniel and plastered on an apologetic look. “I’m sorry. This has wiped me out. I’d rather wrap things up here. I really don’t have more to add.”

“What if we took a break and then—”

“She said she’s tired,” Finn said, cool authority in his voice.

“It would only be a few more questions. The viewers would—”

Finn lifted a hand. “Look. I know you’re doing this for a good cause, but you have to remember what this does to all of us. To the outside world, this was a tragedy. Something people discuss over dinner, shake their heads at, or get political about. To us, this was our life, our school, our friends. Asking us to come back here, to talk about all these things again…it requires more than anyone realizes. It rips open things that we try to keep stitched up. So let her go. She doesn’t owe anyone more of her story than she wants to give.” Finn peered at her. “She doesn’t owe anyone anything.”

Liv’s chest squeezed tight, and Daniel turned her way, apologies in his eyes. “I’m sorry. You’re right. Ms. Arias, if you need to go, please do. I appreciate all the time you’ve given me.”

He held out his hand for her to shake, and she took it. “It’s fine. Knowing that the proceeds are going to the families helps. I know you’ll do a good job with it. I just don’t have any more to add.”

She released Daniel’s hand and turned to Finn, giving him a little nod of thanks. “I’ll get out of here so y’all can get started. It was good to see you, Finn.”

Finn’s gaze held hers, for a moment kicking up old memories that had nothing to do with gunmen or violence or the way it all ended. But instead with stolen minutes and frantic kisses in the library stacks and his big, full laughter when she’d tell him her weird jokes. Before Finn had abandoned her that night, he’d saved her each day of that semester, had given her something to look forward to, something to smile about when things were so awful at home. He’d made her hope.

But even before the shooting, she should’ve known there was no future for the two of them. The signs had been there the whole time. She’d just been too dazzled to see them.

“It’s been too long,” he said quietly. “We should have a drink and catch up. Are you staying in town?”

She was. But she didn’t feel prepared for that conversation. She didn’t feel prepared forhim. All those years after he’d disappeared, she’d had a thousand questions for him, but now she couldn’t bring herself to ask one. This interview, the twelve-year anniversary, and seeing him had left her feeling too raw, exposed. And what difference would his answers make, anyway? The past couldn’t be changed.

She wanted to lie and tell him she was heading out tonight. But she was staying at the Bear Creek Inn, the only decent hotel in their little Texas town, which meant that was probably where he was staying, too. If she lied, she’d run into him because that was how the universe worked. “I’m meeting up with some friends for dinner. I’m not sure I’ll have time.”

He watched her for a moment, his gaze searching, but then nodded. “I’m in Room 348 at the Bear. Call my room if you change your mind, and I can meet you at the bar.”

She forced a polite smile. “Will do.”

“Great.” But she could tell by the look on his face that he didn’t believe her.

This was all just a formality, and maybe his offer for a drink was the same. No matter what had happened between them before the night of the dance, all they were to each other now were bad memories and even worse decisions.

She told both men good-bye and turned to head to the door, forcing herself not to look back. This place, this story were her past. Finn Dorsey was her past. She didn’t need anything or anyone reminding her of that time in her life, of how fragile she’d been. She’d worked too hard to lock up all that stuff in a fail-safe box so that she could finally move forward. She couldn’t linger here.

She picked up her pace. Her high heels clicked on the gym floor at a rapid clip.

But instead of hearing her footfalls, all she heard were gunshots. Click, click, click. Bang, bang, bang.

Anxiety rippled over her nerve endings, and she tried to breathe through the astringent pine scent that haunted her. No. Screams sounded in her ears.

She walked so quickly that she might as well have been running. Finn may have called out her name.

But she couldn’t be sure, and she didn’t turn back.

The faster she could get away from this place and the memories, the better.

She was not that girl anymore.

She would never go back.

Chapter 2

Back to Top

Finn needed a stiff drink, a warm bed, and a long-ass vacation. He gratefully accepted the first from the waitress at the hotel’s only restaurant and ordered another before she could leave.

“You want to add a little food to that, hon? We’ve got a great chicken-fried steak tonight with homemade white gravy and mashed potatoes. That’ll make any night better.”

Finn fought back a grimace. Nothing could improve this night except a pass-out-in-bed kind of drunk. But Janice, who’d been working there since he was a kid, looked way too eager for him to crush her with a snide comment. This was why he’d moved away from here. The whole town always wanted to do something for the Long Acre High survivors. But there was nothing anyone could do.

Even he had found himself trying to do something today when he’d seen Olivia Arias. Beautiful, quirky Liv all grown up. Seeing her had hit him like a hundred fists to the gut. Had jolted him back to a time when what he’d looked forward to most each day was sneaking away with Liv to steal a few kisses and share a few sparring words. A bittersweet ache like he hadn’t felt in longer than he could remember had tightened his chest and stolen his breath.

He’d wanted to reach for her. He’d wanted to fix things. Apologize. Do something to take that haunted look out of her eyes. Do something to show her how goddamned sorry he was for how spectacularly he’d let her down. But he’d seen it in her face. There was nothing to be done. The past was locked in stone. He knew that better than anyone. The scars were deep and permanent, and he’d left an extra vicious one on Liv.

Now this lovely woman was trying to fix it with deep-fried beef. He found his voice, the words like gravel in his throat. “Sounds great.”

Her smile brightened. “You betcha. I’ll get one going for you right now and bring by that second drink.”

Finn laced his fingers around his glass of Maker’s Mark, staring into the liquid, watching the amber light play along the ice cubes. He should’ve gone straight to the lake house. The interviewer had asked all of them to stay in town an extra night in case he needed more information or more footage, but Finn felt exposed here and out of place. He wasn’t the kid who’d left Long Acre. And after years of undercover work, he wasn’t sure he knew who the man he’d become was either. Two weeks ago, he’d killed a guy and almost gotten killed himself. Tonight, he was supposed to be the hometown hero who’d shielded his date. The shift was enough to give him whiplash.

Even his name felt like an ill-fitting shirt. He found himself forgetting to answer to it. For almost two years, he hadn’t been Finn Dorsey, former high-school running back and school shooting survivor, he’d been Axel Graham—employee of Dragonfly Industries, a company that owned strip clubs officially, but trafficked drugs and guns off the record.

He’d done what he’d gone there to do. He’d uncovered high-level criminals and turned them in, but he wasn’t sure at what cost. Pretending to be a bad guy for two years, seeing all the things he’d seen, and being part of those things, had seeped into him like tainted water. He wasn’t sure when or if he’d ever feel clean again. Even his boss was concerned about him. But a summer alone at the lake house would hopefully be a start—if he could ever get there. He just needed to make it through one more night in Long Acre.

He lifted his glass and drained the liquor. The alcohol turned to smooth fire at the back of his throat right as Liv Arias walked in. He stilled and almost choked on the bourbon.

Liv didn’t look his way. She’d have no reason to. He’d grabbed a corner booth in the dark restaurant to do his drinking, and she was already in conversation with someone. But he definitely couldn’t take his eyes off her. She’d walked in with three other women, all around the same age, and he vaguely registered that one was Rebecca Lindt. The others were probably classmates of his, too. The reporter had told him that he’d managed to get eighteen of the survivors for interviews and the mother of one of the shooters. But Finn hadn’t considered that he’d be running into anyone. He’d been too focused on making sure the guy understood Finn couldn’t be shown on film.

He needed to bail. The last thing he wanted to do was make small talk with anyone. But he couldn’t seem to move from his spot. Liv was smiling at one of the women, a simple tilt of glossed red lips that illuminated her entire face. He remembered that smile. He used to be able to put it there.

She’d changed from her business suit into a pair of figure-hugging black pants and a simple white shirt that emphasized her bronze complexion. Her hair was pulled back into a curling ponytail, and his gaze snagged on the delicate tattoo on the back of her neck. That little detail had heat building in him that had nothing to do with the alcohol. That was the Liv he remembered. The girl who’d had a rebellious streak, the girl who’d dyed her hair crazy colors that skirted the edge of school rules, and the girl who had trusted him with her secrets. The girl who’d put up with being his secret.

God, he’d been such a spineless coward with her. He hadn’t dated Liv publicly because his family would’ve had a shit fit. The daughter of the man who took care of their lawn, she was from the part of town his parents had told him not to drive through at night. On top of that, she was artsy and weird and foul-mouthed. She wouldn’t have known the right fork to use at his mother’s dinner parties. And she wouldn’t have cared. So he’d kept their relationship hidden, and she’d put up with it.

She should’ve kicked him in the soft parts and told him to go screw himself. He had a feeling grown-up Liv would know what to do, based on her quick dismissal of his earlier offer to meet up tonight. She didn’t look like a woman who would be walked on. Which, of course, only made him want to talk to her more, to discover who she’d become. But he didn’t deserve her time. She’d let him know that, and he didn’t blame her. He’d lost that right on so many levels he couldn’t name them all.

Janice stopped at his table with another drink and set down a fried slab of meat as big as his head. White gravy sloshed off the side of the plate and onto the pine table. “Hot sauce and ketchup are by the sugar caddy if you need them. Can I get you anything else right now?”

“Lipitor?”

She laughed and patted him on the shoulder. “Strapping young man like you. I think you’ll handle it just fine. I’ll check on you in a few.”

Finn took a halfhearted bite of his food as he watched Liv and her friends. They headed to a large round booth in the corner, and the bartender brought over two giant pitchers of margaritas. Apparently, Finn wasn’t the only one ready to get hammered after the day of interview questions and hellish memories.

Liv was smiling still, listening to something one of the others said, but she was the first to reach for the pitcher, and she poured her glass to the top. When she lifted it to her lips, she drained half in one go, telling him exactly how much of a facade that carefree smile was.

He lifted his glass in silent camaraderie. Here’s to drinking away the dark, Liv. Let’s hope we can outrun it for another night.

***

The sounds of the restaurant and her former classmates blurred at the edges, everything becoming a little more fluid, a little less crisp. Liv set down her glass, knowing that three margaritas were more than her limit. She didn’t drink like this anymore. College Liv could’ve taken down twice this much and still been on her feet—well, before she ended up off her feet in some random dude’s dorm room. She wasn’t that girl anymore. And she wasn’t going to let this rocky hike along memory lane resurrect that train-wreck version of herself. But dinner with these women needed a little boozy fortitude, so she’d allowed herself a few.

“Need a refill, Liv?” Kincaid asked as she poured another glass for herself, her bangle bracelets clinking against the pitcher. Somehow the woman still looked put together after a long day of interviewing, not a lock of her golden hair out of place. “We can make a toast and then open the jar.”

Liv lifted a palm. “No, I’m cutting myself off. If I drink any more, I won’t be able to read what’s inside that jar. Plus, I’m too old to be hungover.”

“I’m not,” Taryn said, lifting her glass and shaking her ice cubes. “If any night deserves a hangover, it’s this one. I want to pretend that I’m here with friends I haven’t seen in years because I missed them, and we’re doing some fun, little time-capsule thing. Not because we had to recount the most horrible night of our lives in traumatizing detail, mm-kay?”

“I’ll drink to that,” Rebecca said from her spot across from Liv before taking a big gulp of her margarita. “And I’m not sure we should open the jar anyway. Let’s just get drunk and move on. The notes inside are irrelevant. We aren’t those teenagers anymore.”

All four women stared at the dirty mason jar they’d placed in the center of the table as if it were going to detonate. Taryn had retrieved it a few hours ago from beneath the lemon tree in her mom’s backyard where the four of them had buried it the summer after senior year. None of them had reached for it yet.

Kincaid tapped a fingernail against the worn wood of the tabletop. “We had a pact, ladies. We were supposed to open this two years ago. We’re finally all together. Now is not the time to chicken out.”

“We also made a promise to stay in touch,” Rebecca said between sips. “That worked out well.”

Taryn frowned and smoothed a dark lock of hair behind her ear. “Come on, it’s not like that. We’ve…Facebooked. We’ve just been busy.”

Rebecca arched a brow. “For a decade? Yeah, okay.”

Taryn opened her mouth to respond, but Liv cut her off. “It’s not because we’ve been busy. We all know that.”

“We do?” Kincaid asked.

Liv wiped salt off the rim of her glass and rubbed it between her fingers until it disappeared, not wanting to be the one to say it but knowing someone had to. “It’s because we want to forget. We say we want to keep in touch, but it hurts to remember. And what else do we do for each other but remind ourselves of the bad stuff? We were never friends in the Before, only in the After.”

Silence fell over the table, everyone looking as uncomfortable as Liv had felt since sitting down with them. The four of them didn’t have good memories together because they had never been friends before the shooting. Kincaid had been head of the dance team—gorgeous, popular, sparkling in a sphere not many could touch. Taryn had been the honor student and athlete, playing three different sports and not having time for friends besides the other jocks and her younger sister, who had been one of the victims. And Rebecca, student council president and Finn’s date the night of the dance, had been the goody-two-shoes redhead Liv rolled her eyes over, her nemesis. None of them would’ve ever been friends.

But after prom night, the four of them had ended up in a support group together. Overnight, they’d become members of the same club. A club no one would ever want to join. After what they’d been through, their differences and cliques had fallen away, leaving nothing behind but the bond of knowing no one outside of the group could ever understand them like the ones in it. They’d made a promise to keep in touch. And they’d made a pact to live their lives to the fullest to honor those who wouldn’t get the chance. Then they’d stuffed those promises into that freaking time capsule, outlining exactly how they would do that.

Liv didn’t remember what she’d written on that piece of paper that was all folded up and tucked inside the jar, but she didn’t really care. Whatever dreams she’d scrawled on that page were silly teenage fantasies of what it’d be like to be grown up. Easily dismissed. But as much as she’d been tempted to, she hadn’t been able to turn down the invitation to meet up and do this. She didn’t know these women anymore, but they’d gotten her through the worst year of her life and she wasn’t going to break her word to them.

“I think we should just open the thing,” Liv said finally. “Get it out of the way so we can relax the rest of the night.”

“Amen, sister. I’m with you. It’s ruining my buzz.” Kincaid reached for the jar. “Let’s open it, and we can each read someone else’s letter out loud.”

“Wait, what?” Rebecca’s blue eyes went wide. “No way. It’s private. It’s—”

“If we read our own, we’ll edit. This is about honesty.” Kincaid grabbed her napkin and draped it over the rusty metal lid. “No one outside of this group is going to share anything about the letters. And we can burn the things afterward if we want, close the past for good.”

The sound of the rusted lid grinding against the glass gave Liv a layer of goose bumps, and her palms went clammy. Visions of the night they’d buried the thing flickered through her head, dragging her back in time. The night had been humid, the scent of lemons and fresh-cut grass heavy in the air. None of them had cried. They’d been out of tears by then. They’d kneeled in the dirt and lowered the little jar into the ground together like it was some kind of religious ritual. Four lost girls making a plea to the universe, begging for the future to be better than the present, burying seeds of dreams and hoping they would grow.

Now they would see if they had.

Liv fought the sudden urge to reach out and grab the jar, throw it into the creek out back, leave that stuff buried. Her fingers curled against the table. But none of the women stopped Kincaid as she set aside the lid and fished out the pages.

Without ceremony, Kincaid looked at the names on the letters and then handed one to each of them. Liv ended up with Rebecca’s. Kincaid kept Liv’s.

The paper felt brittle in Liv’s fingers, the blue lines of the loose-leaf faded. But when she unfolded it, the writing was still clear. Neat, looping green handwriting filled half the page.

“Liv, why don’t you go first?” Kincaid suggested. “Put Bec out of her misery.”

Rebecca winced at the suggestion, and Liv hesitated. “Hey, if you don’t want me to read it, I won’t. Seriously. It’s up to you.”

There was no love lost between her and Rebecca, but she wasn’t going to torture the woman. These were her secrets to keep or share.

Rebecca stared at Liv for a moment, a few different emotions flickering over her face. Bec was an attorney now, and Liv imagined she was having some sort of courtroom battle in her head, but finally she pressed her lips together and nodded. “No, go ahead. It’ll be embarrassing, but I’ll just make sure y’all drink enough not to remember this in the morning.”

Liv smirked. “That may happen all on its own. But okay, let’s do this.” She smoothed the paper on the tabletop and began to read. “On this day, August first, I, Rebecca Lindt, promise the Class of 2005 that I will not waste the second chance that I have been given, that I will honor all the people we lost by living my life to the fullest. Professional goals: I will get a law degree and graduate at the top of my class. After practicing law for a few years, I will run for political office and will fight for better gun control laws and more mental health interventions for teens. I will make a difference in the world. Personal goals: I will stay a virgin until I’m married. And I will marry Finn Dorsey in a Paris wedding. We’ll have two kids, preferably one boy and one girl, and a dog named Bartholomew, after my grandpa. I will be a good friend, wife, and mom. I will be happy.”

“Oh God.” Rebecca put her reddened face in her hands and groaned. “That was worse than I remembered. I hate you, teenage Rebecca.”

Taryn pressed her hand over her mouth but couldn’t contain the snort.

Rebecca turned and sent her an oh-no-you-didn’t look.

Taryn grimaced and lifted her hand. “Sorry. The dog name got me.”

“Not the virgin thing?” Kincaid said with a grin, bumping Rebecca’s shoulder with hers. “You really were rocking the good-girl life, Bec. You don’t do things halfway.”

Rebecca shrugged and took another sip of her drink. “Well, I never said I didn’t go halfway.”

The others burst into laughs at that, the margaritas and awkwardness of it all making everyone a little silly. But Liv only gave a distracted smile as her gaze ran over Finn’s name again. Rebecca had never known about Finn and Liv’s secret relationship or where he’d been that night before he’d jumped in to save her. Finn had said there was nothing between him and Rebecca but friendship, but clearly Rebecca had felt differently.

“Finn, huh?” The words slipped out before Liv could stop them.

Rebecca looked up, her smile faltering a bit. “Yeah. He’d been my neighbor since we were little. And after my mom left, things at home were…not great. So he’d let me escape to his house to get away from my real life. I think I loved him from fourth grade on, and I got pretty close to his family. So when he saved me at the school, I figured it was fate.” She stared down at her drink, a far-off look on her face. “But I don’t think he ever saw me that way. It was all very Dawson’s Creek in my head. I just didn’t realize I was Dawson.”

“What happened with him?” Kincaid asked.

“We kept in touch for a few years after he moved away and I went to college, but eventually the emails stopped coming.”

Liv felt a petty kick of jealousy, the old rivalry ghosting through her. Finn had kept in touch with Rebecca for years? But then the second part settled in. They’d been close friends but nothing more. Maybe Finn hadn’t been lying to her.

“Well, some of the stuff worked out, right?” Taryn said, a hopeful note in her voice. “You’re a lawyer.”

Rebecca nodded, her expression going thoughtful. “Yeah, a corporate attorney. But I’m not the political warrior Teen Me wanted to be. I’ve never run for office. And I wouldn’t have time for a dog, much less a husband or kids.”

Even though Rebecca seemed to have a lot of be proud of, the undercurrent of disappointment in her voice was hard to miss. But Liv couldn’t tell if that was Bec’s overachiever gene kicking in—I’m only a successful corporate attorney—or if it was something more than that. Liv frowned. “Maybe we shouldn’t do this if it’s just going to bum us out.”

Rebecca’s attention snapped upward. “Oh, no you don’t. My dirty laundry pile is stinking up the joint. The rest of you aren’t going keep yours hidden.” Her wry smile returned, and she tapped the table with a manicured nail. “Bring it on, ladies.”

“I’ll go next,” Kincaid said, lifting Liv’s letter. “Let’s see what dark-and-broody Goth Liv had planned.”

Liv groaned. “To get the hell out of town. I think that’s as far as I’d thought.”

“Let’s find out.” Kincaid unfolded the letter and cleared her throat as if she were going to give a speech. “On this day, August first, I, Olivia Arias, promise the Class of 2005 that I will not waste the second chance that I have been given, that I will honor all the people we lost by living my life to the fullest. First, I will move anywhere but here.”

Liv sniffed. “See.”

But Kincaid ignored her. “I will find a job I like that will make me enough money and give me enough time to do my photography. Then, when I get good enough, I will turn art into my job. I won’t play it safe. I won’t be practical. I’ll live a passionate life and date passionate guys and see the world so I can take pictures of it. I promise, Class of 2005, to live the life that scares me.”

Kincaid’s eyebrows popped up, and Liv’s heart sank as each word hit her like drops of cold rain. She could almost see her eighteen-year-old self climbing up on her soapbox and making all those declarations. That girl who was racked by panic attacks and nightmares, who had a family who didn’t—couldn’t—get it, a girl who was trying to look her fears in the face and give them the finger.

Too bad it hadn’t worked out. “Boy, I certainly was dramatic.”

Taryn put her chin in her hand, the dim light over the table making her brown eyes sparkle. “I think it’s beautiful. I mean, damn, I want that life, too. Minus the art part. I suck at art. But passionate guys and seeing the world? Sign me up.”

“Right? Seriously,” Kincaid said. “So did you get to do any of that? The travel? The guys? If it’s a yes to the guys, we need to get more drinks so you’ll tell us the sordid stories.”

Liv laughed. “I’m definitely not drunk enough for that.”

Not that there was much to tell. There’d been more guys early on than she cared to admit. That’d been her go-to way of dealing with the anxiety that had stalked her at college. Drink too much. Find a guy to distract her. Anything to forget what she was going through for a few minutes. But passionate love affairs? Romance? The things she’d imagined when she wrote that letter? She’d never had that. Not even close.

“Are you still doing photography?” Rebecca asked.

Liv stared at her melting ice cubes, absently stabbing them with her straw. “Not really. I had this project I started, but I don’t know. I haven’t looked at it in a while.”

Or in years.

“Was that the project with survivors of other tragedies?” Kincaid asked, curiosity lighting her hazel eyes. “I remember reading a story about you, and it mentioned that.”

Liv rolled her lips inward, a pang going through her. “Yes. It was just an idea at the time. I thought I could take stripped-down portraits of survivors of different events to show their range of emotions, their strength and vulnerability. Somehow show the world that we weren’t just the one thing they’d labeled us as. I was going to donate the proceeds to the Long Acre fund.”

“Wow. I’m sure that’d be amazing,” Taryn said. “And intense.”

Liv glanced up. “Yeah. Too intense. At least for me.” She’d made it through two sessions before she’d realized she couldn’t handle it. Hearing other people’s stories, seeing their scars…it’d been too much, too close to home. It had set off her PTSD like fireworks. “I put the photography aside and got a job doing web design. Eventually, all my time got sucked up as I moved up the ladder at work. Now I barely have time to squeeze in a workout, much less a hobby. I guess my just-to-make-money job became my career.” She rolled her shoulders, trying to shake out the tightness gathering there. “Photography was never going to pay the bills anyway. I wasn’t that good.”

Taryn’s expression soured. “No way. Your photos were gorgeous, Liv. Don’t sell yourself that line of crap.”

Liv took her letter from Kincaid, half wanting to ball it up and toss it across the room. But she forced herself to fold it neatly, creasing each line just so. “It’s better than admitting that I got practical, right? That I’ve become some boring nine-to-fiver—or nine-to-niner—that teen Liv would’ve hated.”

“I don’t know,” Rebecca offered. “Maybe that’s just a consequence of being a grown-up. Dreams are called that for a reason. They usually don’t happen.”

“Oh, that’s uplifting,” Kincaid said, her East Texas twang turning dry. “Put that on a motivational mug, y’all. If you can dream it…you probably can’t do it.”

Taryn snorted. “Let’s call Oprah. She’d love the hell out of that one.”

Rebecca gave both of the women a gimme-a-break look. “Just being realistic.”

“Realistic?” Kincaid straightened, her nose wrinkling in derision. “Screw that. We need to do better.”

“Kincaid—” Liv began.

“No. Realistic? Practical? What in the hell is wrong with us?” she demanded, her gaze alighting on each of them. “We made these promises to people. People we lost who will never get the chance to chase their own dreams. We’re not eighty. We still have time.”

“I don’t think time’s the issue,” Liv said, giving in and pouring herself another drink. Maybe she didn’t drink like this anymore, but if there was ever a time to have earned being drunk, it was tonight. “Once you’re on one path, it’s not easy to take a hard left. Like Rebecca said, we’re grown-ups. We have bills to pay, responsibilities. Jobs. We can’t just chase whims.”

“Why not?” Kincaid asked, in full bulldog mode now. “Does it have to be an either/or thing? There’s got to be a way to do some of both—the practical and the exciting, right? Why couldn’t you pick up your photography project on the side? Or travel? Or have a passionate affair?”

Liv shifted in her seat and frowned. “It’s not that easy.”

“Exactly,” Rebecca said with a curt nod. “And how about you wait until we read your letter, Miss Rah-Rah-Siss-Boom-Bah, before you start making battle cries for us?”

Kincaid lifted a haughty brow. “If that’s a cheerleader joke, it doesn’t work. I was dance team. Totally different.”

“I was referring to your cheering now,” Rebecca said. “And how were you not on cheer?”

“Dance team had better outfits, and I didn’t have to trust other girls not to drop me from great heights.” Kincaid flicked her hand at Rebecca, giving her the cue to read her letter. “Bring it on, lawyer. I don’t remember what I wrote. But either way, I’m definitely adding ‘have passionate affair’ to my to-do list.”

“Agreed,” Taryn said. “That’s going on mine, too. Good suggestion, Liv.”

“Thanks,” she said distractedly.

The conversation moved on. But Liv had trouble focusing on any of it. Kincaid’s challenge had landed on her with a thud. Why can’t you? Why not?

Those questions poked at that long-ago rebellious girl who thought she could do anything. And they weighed on her as the other letters were read and as the night started to wrap up. She and the other women weren’t doing badly. Kincaid was a successful real estate agent, Rebecca a lawyer. Taryn hadn’t kept up with sports or moved away from town like she’d wanted, but she’d gotten a doctorate in forensic psychology. More than a little impressive.

From the outside looking in, they appeared just fine. Successful, even. They’d all managed to get good jobs, make a living. But it wasn’t lost on Liv that none of them were in relationships. None had started families. No one had taken any risks. And none had lived up to the women they’d wanted to be in those letters.

They were still young, just entering their thirties. But they’d already settled. They’d been given this second chance when others hadn’t, and they’d settled for good enough, for getting by, for not making waves.

Teen Liv had been racked with anxiety and nightmares, but still, she’d craved adventure. Art.

Passion.

She’d believed she could still have it.

What did grown-up Liv believe? Want?

Did she even know?

Her attention wandered from her friends as her thoughts tangled around themselves, and her gaze lingered on a booth in the far corner. The waitress was dropping off the check, but Liv caught the profile of the man taking it from her, the big, capable hands. Hands that never dropped the football. Hands that had once held Liv close.

Finn.

He didn’t look her way, just accepted the check and fished some bills out of his wallet. But as she watched him move, something stirred in her, something old and familiar and dangerous.

Suddenly, she was back in the library, hiding from Mrs. Wentz—the eagle-eyed librarian—and trying to keep quiet. She was supposed to be tutoring Finn in history. But instead, Finn’s hands were in her hair, his scent in her head, and his lips on her neck. They’d always known exactly how many minutes they had before the bell rang. They’d used every second.

As if hearing her thoughts, his gaze drifted her way. Their eyes locked, and a still quiet filled her. This was the part where she was supposed to do something. But she didn’t turn her head, didn’t offer a wave, didn’t do what any normal, polite person would do. She just let it go on. The staring.

Let herself remember how he used to look at her. How that made her feel. There’d been steel gates between them in public, but alone, there were never any walls with Finn. He’d made her feel wanted. Dangerous. Alive.

She realized right then how long it’d been since she’d felt that brand of high, that flavor of reckless abandon. That good. She wasn’t supposed to crave that, wasn’t supposed to imagine the before because there was no going back. She certainly wasn’t supposed to let herself entertain how things used to be with him. But she couldn’t stop staring.

Without looking away, Finn lifted his half-empty glass in a silent question. Drink?

This time there was no hesitation with her answer. It was as if her body were on autopilot. She grabbed the margarita pitcher, topped off her glass, and then wished her friends a good night, saying that she needed to get some air and would see them in the morning.

She didn’t look to see if Finn followed. She just kept moving forward, her heartbeat a steady thump in her ears. She stepped out onto the unlit porch that looked over the creek behind the hotel and leaned against the railing, letting the heavy night air cloak her and the smooth soundtrack of the water and the singing crickets surround her. She shouldn’t be out here.

Footsteps sounded behind her.

She took her letter from all those years ago and tucked it into her back pocket, giving a little nod to teen Liv.

She was only here for one night.

Maybe it was time to keep some promises. And bury some ghosts.

Maybe tonight she wouldn’t play it safe.

“Hello, Finn.”

Chapter 3

Back to Top

The boards of the restaurant’s back deck creaked somewhere behind Liv. She didn’t need to turn and look to know it was him. His gaze on her could’ve been a physical touch with the way her senses were attuned to his presence. She kept her eyes on the water, letting her greeting drift between them. “Hello, Finn.”

“Liv.”

The quiet tenor of his voice hit her harder than she’d expected, the volume too close to how it used to sound against her ear in those stolen make-out sessions. Funny how even after all the years and the men who’d cruised through her life since, that voice still sounded so bone-deep familiar. She didn’t turn to face him, not trusting her expression to stay neutral. “I guess it turns out I have time for that drink after all.” She lifted her glass. “But I’ll warn you, I’m a few drinks in and all out of energy for polite chitchat.”

“Good. I don’t chitchat.”

He stepped a little closer, his scent drifting her way—some combination of cedar and mint. Like a man who chewed gum while chopping wood. The thought made her want to giggle.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

Liv scrunched her nose. “You mean, am I drunk?”

She wasn’t sure what the answer was on that one. Probably a little. She doubted she could be this close to him without anxiety bubbling up otherwise.

“No. You ran out of the gym today. I mean, are you okay?”

Okay.

Was she? She hated that question. That was the question she’d probably heard most since that night and then again when her mom passed from cancer two months later. That was what everyone always wanted to know. Are you okay?

But people asked, wanting her to say, Yes, I’m fine. I’m going to pull up my bootstraps and not make you uncomfortable with my messy feelings. No one wanted the real answer. But she got the sense Finn did. After all, he’d probably gotten asked that question just as much as she had. She released a breath. “Today sucked.”

“Yeah.”

She took a sip of her drink, the sweet liquid cool on her dry throat. “Being in the school got to me, but I’m okay now. Just a little panic attack—shitty but brief. Drinks and friends helped distract me.”

She could hear him shift behind her, skin against fabric, maybe tucking his hands in his pockets or crossing his arms. “Distraction’s good.”

She finally stole a glance at him, but he was shrouded in shadows, just a broad-shouldered silhouette. “You could’ve joined us. You didn’t have to eat alone.”

“Y’all looked involved in something,” he said, the gruff drawl in his voice making her think of steamy-windowed moments in the back of his car. She used to tease him that the more turned on he got, the more his country-boy accent showed. “You were reading papers. Seemed kind of intense.”

“Oh, that.” She turned back to the water, her shoulders curving inward and the sexy memories icing over. “Kincaid decided we should open some dumb time capsule. It’s probably good you didn’t come over and hear that part.”

“Time capsule?”

She picked at a splinter in the wood railing. “Just something we did that summer after everything happened. Kincaid decided we should open the letters inside tonight to see what our teenage selves hoped we’d become. I decided we should get drunk after.”

He made a throaty sound, like a laugh that didn’t quite make it out, and moved closer. He settled next to her along the wooden rail, his gaze fixed on the dark water. “Sounds like a solid plan to me.”

“I thought so.” She rattled the ice cubes in her glass and dared a peek at him. But all she got was his familiar profile, the slight bump in his nose from when he’d broken it sophomore year, and the unfamiliar scruff as he took a sip from his drink. It was hard for her not to stare and catalog all the little differences, all the changes time and experience had given him. The harder angles. The dark mess of hair that looked at least two haircuts past neat. Expression that didn’t reveal a thing. He was still Finn somewhere in there, but gone was the boy with the wide smile and the playful attitude. There was a sharpness to him now, jagged edges. Like if she met him in a dark alley, she’d have trouble determining if he was friend or foe.

He lifted his drink in agreement and turned, his green eyes gray in the darkness. “That was my plan, too. Minus the time-capsule part.”

“Ha. Lucky you.” She shifted her stance and accidentally bumped her shoulder against his, sending a tendril of awareness down her arm. She wet her lips, ignoring the shiver. “Now you’ll never know if you lived up to teen Finn’s expectations.”

He was quiet for a moment, and she wondered if he was having the same push and pull inside as she was. On one hand, this felt comfortable. They’d always talked easily with each other. But at the same time, they were strangers now. Strangers who had this big, breathing beast between them.

He took a long swig from his drink. “Teen Finn didn’t have expectations. He just wanted to play football, not work for his dad, and get the hell away from here.”

“Guess you lived up to that last part at least. I was convinced you’d changed your name and moved to a foreign country.”

His jaw flexed. “Something like that.”

“You’ll have to give me your off-the-grid tips,” she said, trying to make light of a completely un-light situation. “I had to change all my legal stuff to my mom’s maiden name because I got tired of the phone calls from reporters and weirdos, but I still have people find me. Some dude cornered me at the grocery store last fall, convinced that I was part of a conspiracy with Joseph. That he’d been my boyfriend.”

Finn frowned her way, his grip flexing against his glass. “You need someone to do a security evaluation for you, lock things down tighter and give you better protection. There are sick people who get obsessed with news stories like ours. You’re too easy to find.”

She gave a halfhearted shrug. “I told the cops what happened, and I keep my stuff unlisted. I’m sure the guy just got lucky. He didn’t try to hurt me. He was just an asshole who wanted fodder for his conspiracy website.”

Finn considered her, his hair ruffling in the breeze and his expression serious. “You work as a web designer at MCT Design and live in Austin—renting not owning. You’re not married. You drive a Honda. You’re a member of an online book club, and you’ve registered an LLC for a photography business that, from what I can tell, you never opened.”

Her stomach flipped over and reared back. “And you know that, how?”

“How do you think?” He tapped the phone tucked in his back pocket. “The Internet. If someone wanted to find you, they could.”

Unease curled through her. Finn knowing that information wasn’t a threat to her, but hearing that real stalkers could find her that easily was more than a little unsettling. She’d thought she’d put in protections both online and off. “Why the hell were you looking?”

He was stoic for a moment, but then his lips kicked up at the corner, some of the old Finn peeking through. “What? You never looked me up?”

Her spine drew straight, and she sputtered for a second. “I… Well, obviously, I wasn’t as successful. What am I supposed to do if you’re not on Facebook? My hands were tied.”

His smirk went to a full smile, and he chuckled. “Your online detecting skills are top-notch, Arias.”

Hearing him call her by her surname sent a nostalgic warmth through her. She’d always loved when he referred to her like she was one of the guys on the football team. For some reason, she’d found it unbearably sexy. “Hey, I’m a website designer, not a security specialist. I make things beautiful and functional. Someone else at the company worries about making them safe, all right?”

He lifted his hands in defense. “Duly noted. And to answer your question, I looked you up because I wanted to make sure you were doing okay.”

Okay. There was that damn word again. Her mood soured.

“I’m fine.” She turned to face him and swept a hand in front of herself like she was Vanna White revealing a new puzzle to solve. “As you can see. Fully functioning human and contributing member to society. Much to everyone’s shock, I’m sure.”

His gaze slid over her at that, accepting the unintended invitation for a slow head-to-toe appraisal. “Not mine. You were always the one going places. The one with big plans. I loved that about you.”

The way he said it wasn’t suggestive, but his attention sweeping over her made her skin tingle anyway, a slow-burning awareness that spread across her nerve endings.

She used to murmur all her crazy ideas to him when they got too worked up. They’d kiss until they were mindless, and then he’d slow them down with Tell me where you’d go next, Livvy. She’d lean into him and close her eyes, rattle off exotic locations and the photos she imagined taking, weave the fantasies until they were both presentable enough to get back to class or home or wherever they were supposed to be without revealing what they’d been doing. He used to tell her that nothing killed his hard-on quicker than hearing about her leaving.

The memory tightened her throat, and she set down her drink. “What about you? Are you okay?”

He ran a hand over the back of his neck, weariness there. “Depends on your definition of okay, I guess.”

She cocked her head, the world tilting a bit and revealing that maybe she was a little tipsier than she’d thought. “Meaning?”

He broke eye contact and glanced out at the line of trees on the other side of the creek. He was quiet for a while, pensive, and she found herself focusing on his forearms, on the way the hair dusted over his tanned skin, on the obvious tension in the muscles beneath. He wasn’t nearly as relaxed as he was trying to appear.

She wasn’t sure he was going to answer, but after a few seconds, he bowed his head. “Meaning I’m back in the town that thinks I’m a hero when I wasn’t, talking to some reporter about stuff I wish I could forget, and standing here with the girl who I almost got killed—and I still don’t know what to say to her.”

The words fell like stones between them. Heavy words that would sink in the creek and pull them both under.

She swallowed hard, her everything’s cool bravado faltering. “Finn…”

“No.” He set his drink on the railing and turned fully to her, apparently ready to dive into the murky waters of their past. “I don’t know what to say because nothing will undo it. I know nothing can fix it. But how about I start here?” He met her gaze, anguish there. “I’m sorry, Liv. I’m so. Fucking. Sorry. There hasn’t been a goddamned day that I haven’t thought about what I did to you.”

She closed her eyes. Breathed.

“I know those are just words, but they’re the truth. I was no hero that night. You know it and I know it. It’s time everyone else did, too. And if you give me the go-ahead, I will call Daniel tomorrow and tell him everything. He can put the truth out in the documentary.”

Liv’s lungs compressed, too many things rolling through her to pinpoint one emotion. She’d imagined this conversation many times before. She’d been so angry and devastated those months following and had thrown all this blame at him in her mind.

No, she hadn’t been killed, but she’d blamed her PTSD squarely on Finn. If he hadn’t left, she’d never have that gun in her face, and that image wouldn’t have haunted her for so many years. That feeling of aloneness, of knowing she was going to die would’ve never imprinted on her psyche. But the words that spilled out of her weren’t the ones from that script. “You can’t tell.”

His brows bunched. “What?”

“That’s not what I want. You were a hero.” She reached out and touched the spot in his left shoulder where he’d been shot. “You took a bullet for Rebecca. You earned that title.”

He put his hand over hers, flattening her palm against him. His heart pounded beneath her fingers, hard and strong. “And I led Joseph right to you.”

“And it is what it is,” she said, moving her hand away and looking down. “You think some sort of public declaration or apology is going to make anything better?”

“I—”

“That’s not what I want at all.” She took a deep breath, trying to rein in her emotions and focus through the fuzz of alcohol. “You know what that would set off in the press? It’s going to be bad enough when the documentary comes out and stirs up interest again. If new information comes to light, they’ll be all over us again. How do you feel,Ms. Arias? What were you two doing in the closet? What do you think of him choosing to save his date instead of you? Did you two have some sort of sexual relationship? I can’t deal with that.” She shook her head, haunted at the thought. “It won’t change what happened. Nothing changes what happened. It’s like a rerun we’re forced to live over and over again.”

“Liv—”

“I’m serious.” She pressed her lips together, searching for the right words. “I’m tired of being Olivia Arias, the Long Acre survivor, the girl in the closet, the goth Latina, or whatever gem they’d choose to call me this time around—which would probably be something horrible like the slutty chick who was making out with someone else’s date.” Anger flashed through her, remembering all the crap that had made it through the media, all the misinformation. “I’m done. Everyone else gets to decide who we are. They get to name us, label the boxes. The Girl in the Closet. The Jock Hero. The Wounded Valedictorian. It’s why no one in my life outside of my family knows who I really am. I got so tired of all the bullshit. I’m not a character in some bad thriller novel or inspirational story.”

“Of course not.”

“And neither are you. You were a hero for Rebecca. You also left me behind that night, which hurt. But you were a seventeen-year-old kid who was scared shitless and reacted. And before that, we were totally different things, but we get stuck with how they branded us. Everything that we were before that night got erased.” She snapped her fingers in front of his face. “Gone. Just like that.”

“Not everything, Liv,” he said softly, lifting his hand like he was going to reach for her but then lowering it to his side again. “They can’t take everything.”

“You know, I’m not so sure.” She pointed toward the door to the restaurant. “Tonight, I had to sit at that table and listen to what my teenage self wanted. That girl you remember? She knew who she wanted to be. And all it did was remind me that those sick assholes stole not just my friends’ lives but the could be’s from us. We never get to find out who we would’ve been otherwise. Before we were aftermath.”

“Aftermath.” He rubbed the spot between his eyes, shadows crossing his face. “That’s exactly what it feels like sometimes.”

She tipped her head back and sighed, her frustration on a roll now. She always got ranty or reckless when she was drunk. Those margaritas had been a bad idea. But she couldn’t staunch the words now that they were flowing. “And I hate that I’m out here with you and have to dredge this stuff up again. Other people have reunions where you drink punch and play retro music, do stupid line dances and talk about when you were two sizes skinnier.” She looked at him. “We have ones where we have to discuss our friends dying, how we let each other down, and our failed dreams.

“And if we did drink punch and play music for some get-together, people would look at us like How could they.” She was talking too loud now but didn’t care. “If I’d rather just sit down with you and remember the good times, who we were before, there must be something wrong with me. We’re supposed to move on, but not too much. Be happy but not too happy. I’m tired, Finn. I’m so sick of it being like this. I thought I was past it, but then I come here and…I don’t know. It’s like it’s all just sitting there, waiting to remind me how we can never really escape it. How the ones who got away never really get away. Those sick bastards changed us—have their fingerprints all over our lives—and it pisses me the hell off. I don’t… I can’t… I don’t know.”

All her words fell into a jumble and her fist balled, ready to punch something that wasn’t there. But she didn’t have anything left.

“Livvy.”

The softly uttered endearment undid her. Popped the pin in her balloon of righteous indignation and deflated her. She was trembling and drunk, mad and…lost. Like she thought she’d been following the right map on her way to a place where she wanted to be, only to find out that she didn’t just have the wrong map, she was traipsing around the wrong goddamned continent. And now she had no idea where the hell she was or where she was supposed to go.

She closed her eyes, willing herself not to break down. She didn’t want to cry. She didn’t feel like crying. She didn’t know what she felt like. There were too many options to pick from, and that made it hard to breathe.

But then big, warm hands landed on her shoulders, a gentle hold, a simple I’ve got you, and she couldn’t fight against it. Her muscles surrendered beneath the touch and her body moved on instinct, her brain shutting off. She stepped into his space, didn’t ask permission, and wrapped her arms around his waist.

He stiffened in her hold, his entire body going as rigid as the boards under her feet. But when she didn’t back off, he released a breath and wrapped his arms around her, pulling her fully into an embrace. She pressed her cheek against his shoulder and breathed in the earthy scent of him, the familiarity, letting her guards fall away for a minute as he simply held her.

“I’m tired and pissed off, too,” he said quietly. “And I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you. I won’t say anything to the filmmaker. Just know that if there’s anything I could ever do to make things up to you, anything you need, you just have to tell me.”

She squeezed him a little tighter, not wanting to get dragged back into the memories, the apologies, the regrets. “You can stop talking about that night. That’s what you can do. At least for now,” she said against his shoulder. “I didn’t come out here for that. I wanted to come out here and prove that the killers don’t get a say in this. We haven’t talked because of them. They’re winning. I don’t want them to win. So maybe we can just pretend for a little while that we’re old friends from high school reminiscing about the good times.”

“The good times,” he said, his breath ruffling her hair.

“Yes.”

He set his chin on her head. “Like when all I was worried about was if our landscaper’s daughter was going to be outside helping him that day.”

Liv smiled, the words digging beneath the layers of all those bad memories, unearthing some of those simple, sweet ones. Ones she hadn’t let herself think about in a very long time. She leaned back to look up at him. “Yes. Like that. Like how you were such a perv, watching me from your window. You weren’t even sneaky about it. Just standing there and staring.”

Some of the tension left his expression, and a droll look replaced it. “You wore a tank top, short shorts, and combat boots. I was sixteen and not that noble.”

“It was a hot day.”

“Oh, it was hot, all right,” he teased. “And don’t pretend you didn’t know exactly what you were doing to me.”

She stepped back from his hold with an innocent Who,me? smile.

Liv had only tutored Finn once before the day she’d helped her dad put in an herb garden at Finn’s house, but she’d already developed a mad crush. He’d been nothing like she expected after all those years seeing glimpses of him from a different social circle. He’d been funny and friendly. Much smarter than people gave him credit for. And way, way too good-looking.

“My dad couldn’t for the life of him figure out why I was volunteering to help out. I hated yard work. But free labor was free labor, so he didn’t question me. If he’d realized I was trying to shamelessly flirt with the son of his customers, he wouldn’t have been so accommodating.”

Finn chuckled. “Best surprise ever when you showed up. And confession: the dog didn’t dig up half the garden a few days later when my dad had to call y’all back out.”

She narrowed her eyes. “So that’s why the next time I helped him, you brought out lemonade and cookies. You knew I was coming and were trying to butter me up. I thought it was very Martha Stewart of you.”

He smirked. “Until you broke out in hives because I didn’t know there was peanut butter in the cookies.”

“God, I still remember your face when you realized what had happened. You were so horrified. It was kind of adorable.” She leaned against the railing behind her, happy to be talking about something else, something other, something good. “And the hives were no fun, but at least Dad let me go into the house to let the meds kick in and take a break from the heat. We watched some random movie that sucked.”

“And then I made an ass of myself and tried to kiss you.”

“Yeah, with my swollen lips and tingling tongue. Very suave.”

His mouth curved, revealing the dimple hiding beneath the scruff.

Damn. Still unfairly good-looking.

“I remember you saying something like, Now? You’re going to try to kiss me now? Like I had broken every rule in the How to Impress a Girl handbook.Any game I thought I had was effectively squashed.”

“Well, your ego could withstand a few dings,” she said, poking him in the chest. “Luckily, you were very pretty and I forgave you. Multiple times. In the library. In the back of your SUV. Wherever we could find.”

He ran a hand over his hair, chagrined and boyish. Memories assailed her. Eager lips and whispered words. All that building need. They’d never gone all the way because she’d still been a virgin. But Lord, she’d wanted him to be her first. She’d told him that on prom night in the closet before everything had happened. If he had asked her to be his date, she would’ve given him everything.

But just kissing him, being touched by those capable hands, still held a spot as some of the hottest encounters of her life. “Our make-out game was strong.”

“Olympic level,” he said, dimple ablaze again.

She wet her lips and had to remind herself that they were just joking around, reminiscing, trying to forget the bad stuff for a few minutes. This was not flirting. Because that would be inappropriate. And ill-advised. And fucked up.

“My tutoring game, not so much,” she added.

“Hey, I passed, right?” He looked up, wistfulness there as his eyes met hers. “God, it’s so easy to let that stuff slip away, to remember that there were good things.” He reached out and pushed a stray lock of hair behind her ear, letting his fingers linger. “Great things.”

Her mouth went dry, and electric awareness traveled down her neck from the spot where he’d touched her, lighting up nerves along the way. She cleared her throat, searching for something innocuous to say, but no words would come. All she could see was Finn. Not the one who’d left her. Not the stranger he was now. The one who used to make her feel good. Her Finn.

She couldn’t turn away. She recognized that look, the sharp edge of yearning in it. She had a feeling she was giving the same one back.

She needed to stop, step away. Save them both. But instead, her hands reached out and flattened against his chest, and she stepped closer, too close for friendly. She did all of it without saying a word, and then she pushed up on her toes and pressed her mouth to his.

***

Finn’s muscles locked the moment Liv’s hands slid up his chest. He’d seen her shift forward but hadn’t expected her to actually touch him again. He’d still been reeling from the earlier hug. But the feel of her hands splayed over him, moving up along his body, was far more erotic than the embrace had been, and his body was so starved for touch that it took everything he had not to groan.

But this was Liv. And she’d been upset. And drinking. He needed to warn her away. Stop this before anything happened. That was the right thing to do. This was not what he’d come out here for.

But then she kissed him.

Salty sweet lips and soft curves melted against him, blowing his noble plan to bits. Every cell in his body caught fire at the contact. It’d been so long—So. Damn. Long.—since he’d had a woman pressed against him. But more than that. This was Liv. Sexy, grown-up Olivia Arias. Subject of his teenage fantasies. His thoughts scattered like shrapnel, making it impossible to piece any together. He was supposed to be doing something. Stopping this. But he didn’t say a goddamned word. He couldn’t. Instead, he did the absolute worse thing.

He kissed her back.

His hands went to her face, and a needy groan escaped. The taste of her was like adrenaline to his blood—the tartness of her drink and Liv’s own unique flavor all mixing in. She had started softly, tentatively, a Hey, how about we try this for a second? But soon he couldn’t help himself. When she parted her lips, he took the invitation and deepened the kiss, the starved man taking over. He hadn’t been with a woman in over two years, but this was more than that. He hadn’t kissed this woman in what felt like a lifetime.

Liv gasped into his mouth but didn’t pull away. Instead, she took his cue and shifted closer, torturing him with the feel of her curves and the heat of her skin against him. His hand slid to the back of her neck, gripping that soft place and holding her where he wanted her. But as the kiss went on, he craved more, every male cell in his body making demands. He wanted to tip her head back and work his way down her neck, take that salty skin between his teeth, fill his hands with her lush curves and follow with his tongue until she moaned for him. Until she begged and fell apart in his arms.

Maybe she wanted that, too, because this was not fumbling teenage kisses in the library stacks. This was the kiss of a woman with experience, one who knew what kisses like this led to, one who lit matches because she wanted the fire. So when she fully aligned her body against his, all that soft heat grinding against the increasingly un-soft part of him, he was ready to set her whole world ablaze.

His brain switched off completely. Gone were logical thoughts, rational explanations, or wise decisions. He just wanted the oblivion right now. He wanted Liv.

She gasped between kisses, grabbing a breath, her eyes dazed. “Finn.”

His name was a plea, a prayer, a goddamned benediction.

He wanted to answer it.

“I’ve got you.” He took her mouth again and backed her up against the porch column, the wood creaking in protest. Screw good decisions. Screw it all. He’d figure that shit out later. This felt too good to stop.

Her hands slipped beneath his T-shirt, her touch like a firebrand on his skin, and another groan escaped them both. He grabbed her thigh and dragged her leg up, pressing himself against her, liking the noise she made at the contact. Loving the way her nails dug into skin. Yes. This.

Tonight they’d finally—

“Whoa, uh, oops.”

Finn froze at the voice, and Liv turned to stone in his hold, her eyes going wide as she looked over his shoulder at their visitor.

“Tell me it’s staff,” he said against her ear. “Tell me they’re turning around and leaving us be.”

“It’s Kincaid,” she whispered. “And she’s not going anywhere.”

Shit.

Finn grimaced and instantly released Liv, giving her space to straighten her clothes, but he didn’t turn around to greet the unwelcome guest. He adjusted the front of his jeans instead and gave Liv a pointed look.

Blessedly, she got the message and stepped around him, giving him cover while he let the ice water of being caught cool his arousal.

“Um, hey,” Liv said, her voice a little wobbly.

“Hey, yourself,” Kincaid replied. “Everything all right?”

“Just fine,” Liv said quickly. Too quickly.

After one more breath to calm himself, Finn rolled his shoulders and turned to face the firing squad. Two of his old classmates stood there in the glow of the open door, Kincaid Breslin and Rebecca Lindt. Rebecca was owl-eyed, her gaze jumping back and forth between Liv and Finn. But Kincaid looked nonplussed.

“Sorry,” she said brightly. “Didn’t mean to interrupt, uh, things. We just got worried about you when we saw you didn’t come back in. Wanted to make sure you hadn’t fallen into the creek. Apparently, you fell into something else.” Kincaid strolled forward, pinning her interrogating gaze on Finn. “And you are?”

Finn had forced himself back to stoic mode, but before he could respond, Rebecca stepped forward, her limp barely detectable. “Finn?”

Kincaid’s brows went up. “Finn Dorsey?”

He nodded and glanced at Rebecca. “Hi, Bec.”

He didn’t have much to say beyond that. His body was still too revved to focus on much else besides Liv. A chat with a classmate and a childhood friend was not on the agenda. Now. Or ever, really.

“Um, can we have a minute, please?” Liv said finally.

Rebecca was still staring at him like she was trying to figure out an equation. But Kincaid smiled a smile that could cut right through a person, her Southern belle accent like a sugar-coated knife. “Sure. A minute. And Finn, it’s great to see you, but our dear Liv here has had a lot to drink tonight, so I’m sure you’ll understand that after I give you a few minutes to say good night, I’ll be walking her to her room.”

Finn stared at her for a moment and then nodded, keeping his expression smooth and feeling like a world-class dick. “Of course.”

“Great.” Kincaid patted him on the shoulder. “And don’t be a stranger. We’re all having breakfast at nine tomorrow. You should join us.”

Hell no to that. But Kincaid didn’t wait for his answer. He wasn’t her concern. Liv was. Kincaid strode away from him, giving Liv a We’ll-talk-later look as she passed her. Rebecca remained silent as Kincaid grabbed her elbow and led her back into the restaurant.

Liv sagged back against the railing and made a face. “Well,that was awkward.”

Finn laced his hands behind his neck and blew out a breath, trying to slow his heartbeat and the unrepentant lust that was still coursing through him. He’d almost hauled Olivia up to his room. Taken her to bed like she was some random woman he picked up at a bar.

When she was drunk and vulnerable on top of it. What the fuck was wrong with him? “I’m sorry. I don’t know what… I shouldn’t have done that.”

She crossed her arms, looking grim. “What are you apologizing for? You didn’t do anything. I kissed you.”

“And I let it go too far. You’re drunk. And you’re…” He almost said Liv. “You were upset.”

She pinched the bridge of her nose and gave a humorless laugh. “It’s nice of you to take the chivalrous route, but don’t fall on a sword about it. This was…”

“This was what?” he asked when her words trailed off.

“What I do,” she said flatly. “Or what I used to do at least. Alcohol makes me…” She looked up and then shook her head. “Let’s just say I have a two-drink limit for a reason.”

Part him was dying to know what word she would’ve filled in there. Reckless. Stupid. Horny.

The last one made him feel like an even bigger jerk for thinking it. He tucked his hands in his back pockets, trying not to let his thoughts show on his face. “It’s been a long day and a lot of memories. I think we both just got carried away. We can’t do that.”

“Kiss?”

“No. Pretend we’re the people we used to be. Those people don’t exist anymore. They’re ghosts.”

She winced.

There was no denying the heat that had arced between them. He’d bet everything he owned that having her in his bed would be nothing short of spectacular. But it would be a lie. Drinking or not, she was seeing the guy he used to be. And he was seeing the girl he used to know. This was a grab at the past. Nothing more. Neither of them could afford to forget that.

She gave him a little smile. “Maybe we went traditional high-school reunion after all. Getting drunk and having ill-advised hookups with classmates you never got to bed back then.”

Just hearing the word bed from her was almost too much for him. “It’s good that we were interrupted.”

“Yeah.” She smirked and pushed away from the railing. “Saved you from my drunken mauling.”

Finn sniffed. “Saved you from mine.”

She reached back and tightened the ponytail he’d loosened with his roaming hands. He wet his lips. How he’d love to drag his fingers through that glossy hair, wrap his fist in it when he…

“Do I need to be saved from you, Finn?”

The question yanked him back to the moment. He cleared his throat. “Yes. You don’t want this. You don’t even know me.”

“Don’t I?”

Grim reality filled him. He reached out and took her hand. “No, you don’t. When you woke up in the morning and your head cleared, you’d be disappointed by what you found.”

She stepped closer and tipped up her chin, their hands linked by just the fingertips. “And what would I find?”

Nothing she was looking for and nothing that she deserved. He could guarantee that.

“That making you feel good for a few hours was all I had to offer.”

Her expression flattened.

He leaned over and kissed the top of her head. “I’m sorry I stepped over the line tonight. Go get some rest, Liv.”

With a sigh, she stepped away from him, letting their hands stretch out until the hold broke. When she was a safe distance from him, she put her hand to her hip and cocked a brow. “A few hours, huh? Is that your ego talking, Dorsey, or a promise?”

The little jab made him smile. He leaned back against the rail so he wouldn’t reach for her again and shrugged. “Rough estimate depending on your level of endurance.”

Her grin was broad, full of sass, before she turned and strolled away, calling back over her shoulder. “Hell, that might’ve been worth the regret.”

His fingers curled against his thigh, the need to haul her up against the nearest wall a real thing. “Go to bed, Arias.”

“I’m already gone.”

The door shut behind her, and he rested his head against the porch column. “And so am I.”

He’d come back to do his part and help the charity by giving an interview, but that was over now. There was no reason left for him to hang around. He’d already been taking a risk being there. He’d taken a bigger risk kissing Liv.

 

First thing in the morning, he was getting the hell out of there.

***
Copyright © 2018 by Roni Loren. 

***

Learn more about or pre-order a copy of The Ones Who Got Away by Roni Loren, available January 2, 2018:

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Roni wrote her first romance novel at age fifteen when she discovered writing about boys was way easier than actually talking to them. Since then, her flirting skills haven’t improved, but she likes to think her storytelling ability has. After earning a master’s degree in social work from LSU, she worked in a mental health hospital, counseled birthmothers as an adoption coordinator, and did management recruiting in her PJs. But she always returned to writing.

Though she’ll forever be a New Orleans girl at heart, she now lives in Dallas with her husband and son. If she’s not working on her latest sexy story, you can find her cooking, watching reality television, or picking up another hobby she doesn't need—in other words, procrastinating like a boss. She is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author and a winner of the prestigious RITA Award.


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4 comments
Carmen Pinzon
2. bungluna
I put this one on my wish list. Thank you for the preview.
Tori Benson
3. Torifl
I'm loving the darkness and intrigue of this one. Preordered
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