All it took was one glance at the flyer over the bar, and Claire knew. No matter how much time had passed, she still had a weakness. It was one of those spine-tingling, knee-weakening, heart-sputtering sorts of problems. A problem with men and their hands.
The flyer was mostly dark, the band barely an outline except for the lead singer standing front and center, holding a guitar. She couldn’t see his face, just strands of hair falling to an angled jaw darkened with scruff. But the spotlight hit right on those large, strong hands, fading just above a tattoo of two thick bands wrapped around his muscled forearm.
“Who’d you say they are, again?” she asked, swallowing hard.
“I swear you live under a rock, Claire. It’s Square One, and their debut album just came out. They’re still kind of small but seriously amazing.”
Mack dropped pint glasses into sudsy water as she talked, prepping for the evening rush. She and her boyfriend, Connor, owned Mackenzie’s, the newest—and best—bar and restaurant in Gold Mountain, and they’d started booking shows to keep business strong during the slower months before the ski season kicked in.
Too bad Claire had moved to Gold Mountain in no small part to get away from late nights with the steady thump of bass notes reverberating in her heart. If she had any doubts, she just had to remember Ryan Thomas.
He must have been responsible for countless self-administered orgasms in college dorm rooms across the country, thanks to the way his black leather jacket hugged his shoulders. Not to mention his gravelly voice. His low-slung jeans. That hint of a very happy happy-trail when he raised his guitar.
But for Claire, it was no contest. It was his hands that did her in—spanning the frets as though it were nothing. Igniting her in ways that, at twenty, she’d never been lit.
Back then, Claire was still a self-professed Good Girl. She’d let her roommate drag her out just that once, but she set the alarm on her phone for ten to make sure she got home early. She had a midterm the next day.
And she probably would have gone home, gotten a good night’s sleep, and aced the exam as usual, if not for Ryan and his midterm-blowing kisses. Ryan and his goddamn sexy hands.
It had to have been fate that made him elbow his way to the corner of the bar right where Claire was standing between sets. It was definitely fate that made the bartender collide with a waitress and drop a tray of sloshy pints right then so that the lead singer of Little White Lie, the rising band in Seattle, had to wait for his drink.
Had to drum those delicious fingers on the bar and turn to the nervous, wide-eyed, self-professed Good Girl next to him, run one of his large, sexy hands through his dark hair, and open that shockingly kissable mouth.
All these years later, Claire had no idea what he said. What she remembered were his hands when he opened his wallet and riffled through the bills. He didn’t have to pay for his drinks, but he insisted on picking up hers.
Her heart pounded as though she’d been sprinting. She crossed fingers and toes that she wouldn’t get carded, that her roommate’s fake ID would work if she did, and that she wouldn’t hate the gin and tonic he’d ordered her when what had been in her glass was plain old seltzer with lime.
Because of the midterm. Because she was good. Because she wasn’t even supposed to be at that bar, a place so crowded and noisy she had to practically climb on top of him to shout her name in his ear.
She felt a jolt of warmth when his fingers grazed hers to pass her the drink, and then the unexpected pressure of his palm on her back, deftly sliding her over before some beefy guy could elbow her in the kidneys to get to his beer.
She’d never been so grateful for beefy guys. Or obnoxious crowds. Or the noise that let her pretend she hadn’t heard her alarm go off at ten. Her roommate finally came looking for her, and Ryan, his thumb hooked loosely in the belt loop of her jeans like this was all perfectly normal, asked with a darkening of his stormy gray eyes if she had somewhere else to be.
And now here she was, eight years, four skipped midterms, two cross-country moves, one unplanned pregnancy, and a shattered heart later, and she still hadn’t learned. She saw a picture of a man’s hands playing a guitar, and all her good judgment up and vanished. It was just gone, her brain off on vacation somewhere tropical with pineapple slices and umbrellas in the drinks. That was the only explanation for why she hadn’t said no to Mack on the spot.
“I can’t get a babysitter on such short notice,” she hedged, trying her hardest not to be tempted. The fact that the lead singer looked so goddamn sexy in that photograph was all the more reason to stay away. She shouldn’t be hanging out at concerts anymore. That world was behind her. For good.
But Mack was insistent. “I’m sure we can find some teenager who’s up for reading Brown Bear, Brown Bear two hundred times and then texting her friends for the rest of the night.”
Claire laughed even as she shook her head. “You know I can’t leave Maya with just anyone, and her regular sitter’s away looking at colleges.”
“She’ll be in your totally safe, peanut-free house the whole time. You even have my permission to leave your phone on at the show.”
“I know, but—”
“You need this,” Mack said. “A night out so you’re not always going from work to Mackenzie’s and home again.”
“I’d still be at Mackenzie’s,” Claire pointed out as she sipped her seltzer.
“Yeah, but when the bar is actually open. You’re always here too early to meet anyone. I know,” she said before Claire could remind her that the reason she swung by so early was right now getting ready to be picked up from after-school care. “But this would be different.”
Different? More like a tiring late night when she still had to wake up early the next morning, ready to go. She had responsibilities her friends didn’t. As a massage therapist, she ran her own business and had clients who relied on her. And then there was Maya, her five-year-old daughter, obsessed with dinosaur toys, finger paint, and smearing dinosaur toys with finger paint. Maya was the light of Claire’s life, the reason she was always doing laundry, and the reason she hadn’t been to a concert since she walked out on Ryan after that disastrous conversation, oh, about five years and nine months ago.
But who was counting.
“Do it for me?” Mack pleaded. “A night out with friends?”
Claire sighed into her seltzer and let her eyes stray back to the flyer. His hands were strong and sinewy, his fingers thick but clearly agile. Add in the cut of muscle leading up to that tattoo, and it was hard to hold on to her resolve.
“Admit it. You like what you see,” Mack said.
She pushed the paper away. “It’s a nice image,” she said, working to keep her voice steady.
Nice was one word for it. Raw was another. And arresting. The guy cradled the guitar as though he knew every inch of its curves, could coax any sound from its strings.
Mack laughed. “If his voice is half as good as his body…”
“You can’t even see his body in this picture,” Claire protested, even though she’d been thinking the same thing.
“I have a good imagination.”
“And a boyfriend who loves you!” Connor had been working this whole time in the open kitchen. Now the steady sound of chopping paused as he playfully chucked a piece of broccoli over to the bar.
“You’re supposed to be helping me,” Mack called back. “I’m trying to get Claire to come out with us tomorrow night.”
“By objectifying the entertainment?”
“Yeah!” She turned to Claire. “Is it working?”
She knew she should say no. She had Maya. She had her business. And she had a terrible track record when it came to men and guitars. She’d fallen so hard for Ryan it had taken ages for her to finally leave him. First in fits and starts, trying for a night, a week, wearing out her welcome on friends’ lumpy couches until his sweet promises lured her back. And then for good, when she told him she was pregnant, and he—
Well. It didn’t do her any good to revisit that.
“So, what’s the verdict?” Mack asked. She went to top off Claire’s seltzer, but Claire held her hand over the glass. She had to get going.
“Maybe,” she said, sliding off the bar stool.
“You said yes wrong.”
Claire laughed. Then her phone buzzed. She thought it was Maya’s after-school program, even though she wasn’t technically late. But it was from their friend Abbi.
You’re coming tomorrow, right? she’d texted.
Claire flashed the phone at Mack. “Are you recruiting?”
Mack held up her hands. “I’m totally innocent.”
But Claire hadn’t even responded to Abbi before their other friend, Sam, texted with the same question.
“I’ve been prepping drinks this whole time,” Mack said.
Claire whirled around in time to catch Connor sliding his phone into his pocket. “I thought Mack needed backup,” he said.
Claire shook her head. “You guys are impossible.” She bit her lip. “Are you sure they’re good?”
“And the babysitter?”
“We’ll find someone.”
“Mack,” she started.
“It’s just a night out,” Mack said. “Live a little. We haven’t gotten everyone together in so long, and I want you to be there.”
She told herself she’d finally relented because she was running late and Maya would be waiting if she didn’t get on her way. And because her friends wanted her to, and she hated to let people down.
But those were just excuses. It was the darkness of that flyer and the gleam of light hitting the singer’s guitar. It was the man’s hands that made her give in.
It doesn’t mean anything. I’ve left that world behind.
But something soft and winged fluttered inside her as she drove across town—a butterfly she thought she’d chased out of her, suddenly right back at home in her chest.
Ryan Thomas looked out the window and sucked in his breath at the fiery streaks of red climbing up the mountainside. He’d forgotten how beautiful Washington was. There was nothing like the Cascade Mountains in October, the trees so bright it looked like the whole place was lit up in flames.
He tapped the bassist, Zeek, who was leaning against the window next to him and snoring. “Where’d you say we’re going again?”
Zeek muttered something about fucking assholes not letting him sleep and went back to sawing logs. Throughout the cross-country tour, they’d done everything to him while he was sleeping—shaving cream, inked fingers, Sharpie mustaches, the works. Once they duct taped him to the seat and woke him up with sirens. The Instagram feed for Square One went nuts.
But now that the tour was finally winding down, even Ryan was so tired he wished he could sleep like Zeek, conked out no matter where they were.
The problem was Seattle. The whole Pacific Northwest. As soon as he’d crossed into this freaking time zone, he’d been restless. Every venue, every chord, every spotlight made him think about Claire.
He was a different man than when he’d been here last. This time, he could perform each night and still remember the show the next morning. But he spent the whole week in the city wondering whether he was going to see her. Maybe he’d bump into her getting coffee. Maybe she’d come to one of his shows. She could have seen the flyers or heard him on the radio. Starting over had meant playing with a new band, creating a brand new image. But if she ever Googled him, she’d know.
But not one of the tall girls with wispy brown hair cheering in the front row was her. Something settled in his chest as they drove into the mountains, leaving the city behind. Relief. Or maybe it was more like regret.
For all he knew, she didn’t even live in Seattle. It was just a guess. She’d run out on him so fast all those years ago, all he could assume was that she’d left their New York apartment and gone home. Back to her parents, the ones who’d never liked him anyway. Back to the life she should have been leading all along.
She’d left him a note folded on the coffee pot, the one place she knew he’d look once he finally peeled himself off the futon. All it said was good-bye.
She’d disconnected her cell phone, and her emails bounced back. He called around to her friends, but it wasn’t like the other times, where he’d find her on someone’s couch and convince her to come home, knowing he was an asshole for doing it but unable to make himself stop.
Finally, he sucked it up and tried her parents. They said they didn’t know where she was, but he didn’t believe them. They didn’t sound frantic—the way they’d always been when it came to their little girl. If anything, they were probably popping champagne. She could go back to school, get her degree, become the lawyer they’d always wanted.
He used to Google her sometimes. Claire Collins. Claire Collins + Seattle. Claire Collins + University of Washington. But it was a common name, and nothing useful came up. He knew whatever she was doing, though, she was successful. Her clients would be lucky to have her. And she’d be foxy as hell in a suit.
He exhaled, then realized it was more like a sigh when Alex, the drummer and the one driving this shift, glanced at him through the rearview mirror. “It’s Gold Mountain,” he said.
Ryan leaned forward. He’d almost forgotten he’d asked. “Where?”
“Gold Mountain. Ski town, but I’ve heard it’s awesome any time of year.”
“Kind of off the beaten path,” Ryan commented as he looked around at trees, trees, and more trees.
“Our last show. Man, it’s going to be good to get off the road.”
“They have a concert venue up here?” He didn’t mind the view, but it wasn’t exactly where he’d expected his booking agent to stick them.
“A bar, I think,” Alex said. “Somebody’s name. Mackenzie’s?”
Ryan sat back in his seat. He thought they’d graduated beyond these dinky little spots. Whatever—it might have been scheduled early on, before they knew the tour would do so well. And he was in no position to complain. He still couldn’t believe a single person would pay to hear him sing, not after he’d flamed out so spectacularly with Little White Lie.
Square One wasn’t his dream band, and this hadn’t been his dream tour. But the fact that he still got to wake up every day, let alone make music, felt like a gift he couldn’t turn down.
“We have any time to kill up there?” he asked Alex.
“Nah. We play tonight, drive right back to Seattle, then fly out first thing,” Alex said.
“That’s too bad.”
“Too bad to be on a plane heading home? No more of this cramped little shitbox?”
Ryan laughed. “They’re supposed to have good climbing routes out here.”
He gazed out the window, feeling that familiar itch across his fingers. His one condition for going on tour was that they build a few off days into the schedule so he’d have time to go rock climbing if they were in a good area, or hit a gym whenever they could stop. The exertion helped keep him steady and focused when he felt himself starting to slip.
But countless hours on the road, plus climbing on stiff muscles, had just about wrecked him. He reached across his body and pressed the fingers of his left hand hard into the meat behind his right shoulder. Not like he’d be able to get out and enjoy this place, even if he had time. His arm hurt like hell.
“We’ll be back in Chicago soon,” Alex said, seeing Ryan massaging his shoulder. “You can get back to your crazy stunts then.”
And get to work on his next album. His manager, Eddie, had finally been able to set up the meeting of a lifetime. According to him, Square One had done well enough—and Ryan had finally proven himself together enough—that his old bandmates had come calling. For the first time, Ryan had an actual chance to get Little White Lie back together—and get himself back on top.
He looked down and realized he was rubbing his forearm, touching the armbands he’d gotten inked as soon as he’d left rehab. Two lines, one for him and one for Claire. A ring for the one he never got her, and another for the one he’d never wear. Parallel, not intersecting, because that was how their lives were going to have to be.
The last night he ever saw her was a blur. It was the same day Little White Lie finally signed with a major label, and he’d gone out celebrating with the guys. He knew she was waiting for him—he remembered her saying she had something important to tell him. But no matter how much he racked his brain, he never recalled what it was.
All he knew was that after coming home way too late, for whatever fucking reason, he stupidly went out again. When he came to, he was lying on the futon in his clothes and shoes, puke spattered on the rug, and Claire was gone.
If he was ever tempted to drink again, the ink was a reminder. He just had to look down at his arm and see all he’d once had…and all he had lost. His band, his girl—everything he was.
He told himself it was better that he hadn’t seen her in Seattle. He wouldn’t have known what to say if he had. The past was better off behind him. He was going to play this last show in Gold Mountain, go home to Chicago, and kick ass at Eddie’s big meeting.
Nothing—not his memories, not his drinking, and certainly not a woman—would ever distract him again.
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