Authors: Eden Summers
“You know I’m not here for the media, and our problems were much more than a few parties.”
“Care to elaborate?” he seethed. She was painting him as the neglectful partner, when all along he’d wanted nothing more than to bathe her in affection.
She stood and his heart lurched at the sudden movement. He wasn’t ready for her to leave. They weren’t finished. They couldn’t be.
“You make me crazy,” her voice rose in the confined space. “I’m not a psychotic person, Judd. Not around anyone other than you.”
“I think the security guard with your teeth marks tattooed in his arm would disagree.”
“This isn’t a joke,” she huffed. “When I’m around you, I don’t fit in. I don’t even fit into my own skin. I feel like it’s a persona, like I’m playing a role to get responses from you that I’ve never looked for with other guys. I say things that I never would’ve imagined saying to anyone. And I do things…”
Pink entered her cheeks, from frustration or embarrassment he wasn’t sure but it was beautiful. So damn beautiful.
“I throw vases and swear like a trucker.” She panted for breath and her throat convulsed with a heavy swallow. “You tear this insanity from me, and it’s not normal. It’s not healthy. And it’s not me.”
She raised her chin and stared at him, stared until the silence sliced at him with lethal blows, and he had to hold himself back from slamming his lips against hers to kiss some sense into her. Couldn’t she see that it was love?
“Say something,” she whispered.
He shook his head, slow and lazy. “You don’t want to hear it. You’re already gone.”
“I guess you’re right.” She reached into her pocket and pulled out something shiny.
She held it up between them and the ring he’d given her last year fell to the bottom of the chain. “I didn’t pawn it.”
His heart climbed to his throat and pulsed, cutting off his air.
“I care for you, Judd. But our lives are worlds apart, and all I really want is to belong somewhere.”
Irony hit him in the sternum, cracking ribs and piercing flesh. He didn’t fit in either. He’d given up that sensation when he chose music over an easy existence at the family business back in Phoenix. He didn’t need the excessive bank balance or the perks of celebrity status. But he loved music. And he couldn’t give up the opportunity of touching a large audience with his songs.
“I can’t quit my career for you.” He wished he could. God, he wished he could. He really thought they had a chance, that she was the one.
“I would never ask you to do that. I would never
you to.” She placed the ring on the table and let the chain fall into a heap around it. “Tank’s going to drive me home.”
He wasn’t ready, yet he couldn’t find the words to stop her leaving. Pride still clung tight to his ribs and he fought to let it go. He fought with every step she took toward the bus door.
She paused half way down the stairs and looked over her shoulder.
“You may not think you fit in, but you always felt like home to me.”
The tiny smile faded, and she quickly turned away. “Bye, Judd.”
She stepped from the bus, the crunch of her shoes grating against the deserted street as she strode for Tank, who stood at a car parked a few feet ahead. He would’ve killed to have a reason to go after her. For the briefest excuse to get her to stay. But there was nothing.
His friend helped her into the escape vehicle, then climbed into the driver’s seat and drove her away—from the bus, from the road and from his life.
He didn’t chase after her.
She shouldn’t have been surprised. She definitely shouldn’t have been heart broken. But she was, even more than the last time.
“Are you okay?” Tank glanced at her from the driver’s seat.
“I will be.”
He nodded and gave his full attention to the road. “You did the right thing.”
? “I did?”
“Yeah.” He shrugged. “If you’ve been playing him with a false persona all this time, you were right to walk away.”
“You were listening?” Her cheeks heated at the thought of Kyle and Tank overhearing her private conversation.
“Believe me, if I had a choice to be anywhere else this morning, it wouldn’t have been stuck on the roadside, listening to the two of you bicker in a volume that could’ve been heard miles away.”
“Well, I wasn’t playing him.” Her heart felt like it was being removed with an ice cream scoop. She didn’t want anyone thinking she’d misled Judd. That wasn’t the case. It was just…complicated. “I wasn’t pretending to be someone else. I was just…” She sighed and rested her shoulder against the passenger door window. “I just couldn’t control who I was around him. I couldn’t control anything.”
“So you weren’t acting under a persona?”
She focused out her window, at the buildings that glowed with the early morning sunlight. It was going to be a beautiful day. Clear skies and warm weather. In complete contrast to the dreary thoughts and cold heart overtaking her. “I don’t know what I was doing. It wasn’t me. But it wasn’t
me either…Does that make sense?”
“Not at all.”
, this was her problem. The entire situation was confusing. Nothing added up.
Tank cleared his throat. “But then again, I’ve never been in love.”
She sighed, wishing this big, gruff man would stop trying to be her shrink.
“I’m pretty sure that’s the answer to all your psychotic issues.”
“Psychotic?” She glared. “I’m allowed to call myself names. But you? Not so much.”
He grinned, the biggest grin she’d ever seen his thuggish features morph into. “My apologies.”
Silence invaded the car. Nothing but the whir of the tires and the traffic surrounded them. She wanted to reach for the radio, to turn the volume loud to drown out the thoughts of Judd, but it would only delay the inevitable need to over analyze her decision.
“You fit in, Harper.”
She straightened in confusion. She thought she understood what he said, only she refused to believe it. “Pardon?”
“You told him you didn’t fit in but you’re wrong. You fit.” Tank looked at her with solemn eyes. “With him. With his life. I don’t think he’ll ever find anyone else that will match him the way you do.”
“No.” She shook her head. “I can’t stand the limelight. It’s not me.”
“And that’s exactly why you fit. He hates that side of his career. He doesn’t interact with the crowd because all he wants to do is sing. He loves the music and everything else is static that gets in the way. You let him be himself when every other woman has expected to be wooed with the limelight. You remind him of how we grew up and what he wants to return to once the fame fades.”
“That’s a lifetime away.”
Tank inclined his head. “It could be. Or it could be tomorrow. You never know.”
He reached for the radio and filled the awkward silence with rock music she wasn’t in the mood for. “And do you want to know what really pisses me off?”
“Please tell me,” she muttered. “I’m dying to know.”
“The two of you are perfect together.” He shot her a glare. “But you’ve got an affection phobia, and he’s got too much pride.”
“Shut the fuck up, I’m on a roll.”
She raised a brow and settled into a glare.
“I’ll probably lose my job and my best friend for this, but that ring he gave you wasn’t a fucking commitment ring, Harper. He planned to propose to you that day.”
She raised her hand to her chest, to the place where the ring had been carried for the last year. She no longer had it to comfort her. It was gone. Along with Judd.
“Why didn’t he?” Her tone was weak and pathetic.
“You might want to ask him that. All I know is that it had nothing to do with him and everything to do with how you reacted on the day.”
How she reacted? She frowned, trying to rewind the memories of her life to the moment he’d placed the ring box in her palm.
She’d been shocked. Almost sickened by the possibility of what lay inside. She’d known, even before opening the box, that whatever he gave her would make her fall harder for him. It scared her. It made her angry. At herself. At her inability to be normal.
Everything that followed opening the box was a blur…apart from his murmured stipulation of it being a commitment ring.
“He wanted to marry me?”
? The woman who sang off key and danced out of rhythm.
“Yeah, he did.”
The past tense didn’t escape her. She could’ve been married to Judd Hart. She could’ve been the wife of a swoon-worthy musician.
“It doesn’t change anything,” she whispered, still reaching for the missing necklace.
“I guess not.”
She lowered her hands to her lap and dug her nails into her palm. It hurt. Everything. Everywhere. She hated that she hadn’t truly known Judd in the time they were together. She loathed that her affection issues were to blame. And the biggest regret was knowing she couldn’t change any of it now that they were over.
“Can you take me back to the stadium?”
The car slowed. “I can take you back to the bus if you like.”
“No, I don’t want to see him again.” Not now. She couldn’t. “I need to clear my head, and if I go home Nicole will be all over me.” She needed grounding and funnily enough the solitude of an empty arena had always helped when she was touring with Judd.
“Just take me there, and I’ll find my own way home.”
Judd stepped off the bus, his gaze cast straight ahead, his stride strong. He’d stayed away from the stadium all day, sequestering himself in the private room of his tour bus while his assistant intermittently barked out how long he had until he was due on stage.
“You’re late.” Tank came up beside him with one of the sound technicians following close behind.
“I’m here, aren’t I?” He grabbed the receiver pack from the tech and clipped it to the back of his pants as he walked.
“The supporting band had to add two songs to their set to cover your ass.”
Judd planted his feet and glared as he wove the cords attached to his ear monitors inside his shirt and retrieved them from the back of his collar. “I’m sure they’ll love the additional publicity. But just so we’re clear, my schedule isn’t your responsibility. You’re head of security. Nothing else.”
Tank smiled. Fucking smiled. “Ouch. Harper really pissed you off, didn’t she?”
“Don’t. Okay?” He continued walking through the cemented halls leading toward backstage. “Don’t mention her name again.”
“Even if she’s in the crowd?”
His feet stopped without his permission. His heart, too. “She’s what?”
“In the crowd.” Tank theatrically gasped and placed a hand to his lips. “Oh, sorry. I forgot, I’m just head of security. Not Cupid. I’ll endeavor to keep my comments to myself.”
“Don’t be a dick.” Questions were poised on the tip of his tongue, yet he refused to let them out. Once bitten and all that crap. She’d walked away from him twice. His pride couldn’t take a third hit.
Tank’s smile increased, his eyes turning spiteful. “You know you want to ask. Just spit it out.”
He shook his head. Nope. He wasn’t going to ask why or how. He was going to take the stage, do his shit, then leave for Salt Lake as soon as the performance was over. The miles between him and Harper would stretch. And his ability to get in her face and talk sense into her would vanish. Just the way it was supposed to when you’d been castrated twice by the same woman.
“You’re not going to ask, are you?” Tank taunted.
“Back at ya, you stubborn prick.” Tank shoved at Judd’s shoulder and helped to untangle the receiver cord leading up to the ear monitors. “She asked me to drive her here.”
“Why?” Judd grated.
“She needed to clear her head, or some shit. But I kept an eye on her. I think she might have fallen asleep while hiding in the back row of the top tier. Last time I checked, she was still up there watching the show.”
He didn’t want to ask. He hated that his chest tightened the longer he refrained. “Did she say anything on the drive here?”
“She umm…” Tank pressed a hand to his own ear piece and frowned. “
I’ve gotta go. There’s a fight in the crowd. I’ll catch up with you when I can.” He took off down the hall in a run. “Get your ass on stage so these fuckers don’t get bored and start more problems.”
Judd glanced over his shoulder to the sound tech who hovered a safe distance behind him. “Am I right to take the stage?”
The man gave an awkward smile and nodded. “Everyone is in place and the band is ready. All they need is you.”
Great. He had mere meters to find the energy and passion to play to thousands of fans who paid good money to hear him sing. Problem was, Harper had drained all the goodness from him. He needed to know why she was still here. If there was hope.
The constant, nauseous churn of his stomach was infuriating and nothing he did nudged it from his consciousness.
“Fuck this.” He broke into a jog, needing to get his responsibilities over and done with. Tonight would be another mass of lonely hours, but he still craved the seclusion of his tour bus and the miles of uninterrupted road. He needed to move on and cut the ties that held him hovering close to obsession for a woman who didn’t want him in return.
“Judd, wait up?”
He turned, finding Kyle behind him.
“How are you feeling?”
Like I want to bite the heads off chickens.
“Forget her. At least until the end of the show.”
He wanted to scoff, as if forgetting her, even temporarily, was a possibility, but nodded instead. “Find Tank. Tell him I want him side stage as soon as he’s available.”
“Not a problem.”
He shoved the in-ear monitors in place and found a brief glimpse of peace at the muted chanting. This was it. The time to fake it like a pro. He shook out the heaviness in his arms, sucked in a deep breath to try and calm his heart rate and strode on stage.
“How you doin’ tonight, Denver?”