Offstage Book #2 Excerpt

*Please note that the following is subject to further changes.


Prologue

I know it’s impossible I’d ever meet Ryan Carson, but I’d love to.

I mean, dreams do come true, right?

-Blaire’s Diary

* * *

Blaire

The first time I saw Ryan Carson on national television, I knew he was the one.

I was smitten. He was handsome in that charming boy-next-door way—perfect teeth, magnetic almost-gray eyes. Even better smile. He had a voice to match his face, and a personality that made me feel like we could be friends… if only we’d met.

And instantly, I had grand visions of the way we’d meet. We’d unknowingly bump into each other at a cafe. It would be magical, like love at first sight. And I suppose it was for me. Time would feel suspended, and everyone in the cafe would simply melt away.

I hang the most recent poster of him in my bedroom wall and stare up at it proudly. It’s my most recent one, next to the one I was lucky enough to get from a limited-edition magazine last year. 

I suppose he’s like my moon. He was comfort when self-doubt crept up and every time my parents told me pursuing music was all but a dream. So I bought all his albums. I went to his shows. I could probably sing all his songs in my sleep, too.

Music. It’s the one thing I consider myself good at. It’s silly, but in the interviews I’ve watched of him, I’ve found something so comforting in his passion for it. His drive. It made me feel like I could do anything—rule the world. Make music people love.

My door pushes open and my brother bursts into my room. He opens his mouth and he shakes his head, lost for words. He can’t seem to say anything for a while.

“What is it?” I ask, bewildered.

“I’m doing it,” he finally says, determination steeling his voice.

I place a hand on my hip. “Doing…?” I prompt, brow raised in question.

“I’m going to be Ryan Carson’s bassist on tour. And by the way… He’s coming over.”

* * *

It feels like the room shrank the moment Ryan stepped inside our house. Like a coward, I’m hiding behind my bedroom door, partially open as I peek outside the hallway to take a glimpse of him. He’s sitting in one of our lounges. My breath catches. Wow. I’m so used to seeing him in television, posters, and even my phone’s wallpaper, but now he’s right here. Shelly, my sister, had just gone out with friends. She will be so mad that she missed this. She likes his music too. 

“Chris, who is that?” Ryan asks bluntly, looking pointedly at my direction.

And I thought I hid well. I’m caught, like a deer in the headlights. For a moment, I forget to breathe.

My brother turns his head and catches me staring at them.

“Oh. That’s my sister,” my brother replies casually. He frowns when I still don’t move from my place. Then to my horror, he strides towards me. No, no, no. Don’t come here. But he doesn’t listen. He ignores my death glare, and then he takes my hand, trying to pull me out of my room. Just in time, I place my hand by the side of the doorframe and dig my heels on the ground, stopping him. I’m only half outside my room. Success.

“I—I think I’m good right here,” I whisper in panic, eyes wide.

The truth is, I’m terrified to meet someone so… so everything. Intensely charismatic. Sexy. Famous. I’m going to act really stupid around him and only embarrass myself more. I mean, I’ve dreamt about meeting him, but it feels too soon. Somehow I don’t feel like I’ll ever be ready. I’m gangly and too plain, and what on earth will we talk about?

“Huh? But he can’t see you from over there?” Ignorant to my freak-out, he continues to pull my hand, and I feel my grip slipping. “Chris! I’m really fine where I am.”

“Yes, but Ryan’s over there. How are you supposed to talk to him? Blaire, I thought you really like—”

Realizing what he’s about to say with Ryan not too far away, I loosen my grip on the frame of my doorway, and since my brother is still pulling my hand, my body crashes onto him.

Ouch.

His breath whooshes out in surprise. “Ow. What the hell?” He rubs his ribs. He then gives me a light push forward. “Here she is! She finally came out.”

I force a smile, letting out a nervous laugh. I give my brother a sidelong look. I can’t believe he just did that. Somehow, it feels equivalent to throwing me to a den of wolves. Except it took form in the shape of one frowning, infuriatingly gorgeous man.

He’s taller than me, I realize. I’m tall for being sixteen—something I’m often teased about. “Hi!” My voice comes out high pitched. Ahh. That didn’t come out right. It sounded much more confident in my head. “I’m—I’m Blaire.” I’m only introducing myself and I’m already stuttering.

Ryan blinks, scratching his cheek. Our eyes meet, and I look away. I don’t want to make him uncomfortable by staring. But I notice, from a quick glance, that his lips quirk up at my awkwardness. My breath stops.

He gives me a look like he can’t quite figure me out. “Ryan,” he says, holding out a hand.

I take it, and the moment my skin brushes against his, I gasp, because it’s as if a current passed through us. My brother clears his throat and says that he’ll grab something from the kitchen. And as quick as Ryan held it, he lets my hand go. Did he feel it too? 

Now we’re all alone in the living room, and I have to remember to breathe. Do we even have anything in common? Then it comes to me. “Um. So I wrote this song… Want to hear it?” I regret it the words soon as I ask it. Oh my God. What am I doing?

My question seems to take him aback. He shrugs. “Sure,” he answers, curiosity in his eyes.

Why did I say that? As if I don’t have trouble performing in front of people already. But he doesn’t seem opposed to the idea. Well… How many teenagers can say they’ve had a chance to perform in front of Ryan Carson? No one I know for sure.

I hurry to grab the guitar from my room, and like I’ve done many times before, I carry it with me. Suddenly, I’m conscious that the bottom half of my guitar is covered with glitter stickers. Maybe he’ll think it’s terrible. No. Stop.

Here goes. I strum my guitar, starting to play the song I just recently finished. It was one of those songs where I couldn’t get the tune out of my head at midnight, and so I decided to just write it. It turned out to be about an old crush who wouldn’t spare me a glance in the classroom a year ago. I can’t look at Ryan, because if I do, I’m bound to make a mistake.

It’s strange, singing something so personal in front of someone. Almost like pouring your guts out. And I immediately realize it’s a mistake, because I just skipped a couple of steps ahead in the getting-to-know-you stage—like baring my soul in front of a stranger. Is this how he feels every time he releases his songs?

And yet without looking up at him, I feel Ryan’s eyes on me the entire time. My brother returns with glasses and a pitcher of a honey-orange drink. “Mom made some peach tea. Hey, what’s this song, Blaire?” he asks me, sliding next to me on the lounge. My voice fades off and my fingers stop playing, their scrutiny overwhelming.

I shrug, embarrassed, looking down at my slippers. “It doesn’t have a title yet. I just wrote it.” My face heats up. Heart in my throat, I look up at Ryan, whose eyes now look more like a gunmetal blue. I wait patiently, a small, hesitant smile on my lips. “W-what do you think?”

I look up at him expectantly, the nerves almost making me want to run back to my room. But somehow, I muster all the courage I can and make myself stay.

The indent on his forehead deepens, and then he opens his mouth to say, “You sound like a dying rat.”

* * *

Overnight, my moon had died, taking all the stars with him. Someone who seemed so friendly and charismatic turned out to be an illusion. I admired him so much. It was a mistake. 

The more time my brother spent with Ryan, the more I did, too, and not through any fault of my own. And the more I learnt that he was the worst. With me, he wasn’t like how he was with everyone. He teased me all the time. I’m convinced he reserves all his mean and insulting remarks for me just so he can watch me implode.

I don’t know if he was simply was going through a rough patch that day he insulted my singing. Maybe he didn’t like my hair that day. Or maybe I looked at him wrong. 

But still, it hurt. And so around him, I learnt I could never let my guard down.

* * *

“Blaire, don’t get mad, okay?” my brother asks me, guilt on his face, reminding me of that time on Halloween when he took my chocolate. It’s my seventeenth birthday and we’re holding a small party at home. I’m not one for large parties, so I only invited a couple of my close friends.

Uh oh. That doesn’t sound good. “What is it?” I ask cautiously. He hasn’t even been gone for too long. He left earlier to go pick up the phone he’d forgotten in a friend’s house, and now he’s back.

To my surprise, Ryan walks in behind him, and it’s as if everyone in the room goes still. All night I wondered if he would come. Seeing him, my friends ask me about him all at once, talking over each other. I’m still in shock that he came at all. It’s no secret to the people around us that whenever we meet, they know us know to give us a wide berth. Because bickering ensued, among other things. 

Wanting to spare him from all the hushed whispers and staring, I decided to approach him instead. “You came.” It almost comes out as a question. This has to be some kind of mistake. “Sure you’re in the right place?” And even as the question comes off as a joke, I steel my heart against the possible jab to avoid disappointment.

His lips quirk up. “Positive.”

I don’t expect it all, but he hands me a bouquet of flowers. They’re all large red roses. A smile hits my cheeks immediately. Because it means he remembered, and he cared enough to give me something. A spark of hope fills me. It strikes me that maybe it’s an apology present.

“Happy Birthday, Blaire,” he says, and he grins back at me. There’s no snide and there’s no teasing. It’s hard to ignore his charm, because he has it in spades. Much to my mom’s delight, she sees the flowers and announces that she’ll put it in a vase, and even with my insistence to do it, she all but pushes me out of the kitchen.

We walk towards our deck in the back of the house in silence. He sighs audibly in relief. Maybe, just like me, he finds peace in the quiet. I wonder what it’s like to live with security around him all the time. In a way, it must feel suffocating. “Hope kicking me out isn’t in the cards,” he remarks.

I snort. “I’d never hear the end of it if I did that.” From Mom, Dad,  Chris, and even Shelly. I blow out a breath, looking at the dark sky, the clouds so thick, I can barely see the stars. “Everyone’s probably talking about us,” I mutter. I bite my lip. I didn’t really mean to say that out loud. I ignore his questioning stare. “Thanks for coming.”

I don’t know why I try to fill in the silence with words. He still made it here, even though he never really liked me. He looks up at the sky, too. And it’s odd, being next to him, sharing the same view. “It really means a lot,” I add softly. I tuck a lock of hair behind my ear. 

I don’t know if he realizes it, but he’s holding my heart in his hands—fragile and guarded all at once. 

“Least I can do,” he replies, but the look on his face is pensive. 

It’s then that Lucy, our dachshund, runs towards us, welcoming Ryan with excited yaps.

“Darth, no,” I tell her. She doesn’t listen. Still, she barks at Ryan, planting her paws on his pants, and wags her tail in excitement. 

“It’s fine.” Ryan gives her a good rub on her back. She melts like a puddle under him. Gah. Traitor.

It’s so strange that he’s being so agreeable. I can’t help but feel there’s another catch to all this.

He raises a dark brow. “Darth?” he asks me. Humor dances in his eyes. “Did you name her that?”

I roll my eyes. “Chris did. Actually, he wanted Darth Vader, but we reached a compromise. So Darth it is.”

He chuckles, the sound rich and warm. Why? Why do I like the sound of his laugh? That it was me who caused it?

“She chewed on everyone’s favorite shoe,” I explain. “I don’t think we were ever the same after that.”

“I’m sure.” I catch a flash of teeth, and decide I liked it too much. 

I shake my head. I glance behind us, to where everyone is gathered. I need to end it right here. “We should probably go back. Face the music and all that.”

“Just for tonight,” he says unexpectedly, drawing my gaze to him.

I blink, not really understanding.

“Forget about everything else for tonight, Blaire.” His dark eyes see through me.

He means forget all the fights. Everything he ever said. I don’t know if I can do that for tonight—because that would mean tomorrow, and after that, we would go back to before. So instead I say, “We should go.”

As I start to move, Ryan stops me, his hand closing over mine. Something flashes in his eyes. It was brief, but I caught it. He wanted me. Before today, I couldn’t imagine a universe where he did. It surprises me. Empowers me. The knowledge hums through my veins. Heady, almost.

About to ask him what he’s doing, he leans close and kisses me. His touch is electrifying, my heart racing fast. I stand frozen for a moment before I melt into it. My lips part and he deepens the kiss, and when his fingers brush over the back of my neck, my knees go weak.

Then I hear my brother’s voice calling my name from inside the house, and it’s as if a dash of reality hits us. We break apart. Dazed, I try to catch my breath. But when I see the look on his face, the bottom of my stomach drops like lead. Remorse is plain on his face, and the bubble we’d created shatters. “Ah, hell, I’m sorry, Blaire,” Ryan says, each word like a sharp stab against my chest.

My cheeks turn hot. He regrets it. “Right. Of course you are,” I mutter softly. What else did I really expect?

I start to turn away, but his hand grips my wrist. “Blaire. I really am.”

He’s killing me with his words, because shame sweeps over me, like a living thing that consumes everything in its path. My first kiss, too. A lump forms in my throat, my eyes getting wet, even when the last thing I want is for him to know how much he affects me. It’s not his fault, but I can’t help it. I didn’t know kisses make you stupid.

I run off in a hurry, but even as he calls after me, I don’t look back.

* * *

A day after the kiss, I unfollowed him in all my fan accounts. I deleted his music. I took my posters down. I couldn’t quite make myself rip them apart, but I stow them away in a few boxes. In the never-to-see-again part of my closet. Some part of me is grateful, even while a small part shrivels. He’ll never know that part of me. The part that adored him and his work so much. And I let go of the part of me that needed his attention. His validation. None of it matters anymore.

I’m determined to forget all about it, and for my sanity, I think it’s what’s best. On hindsight, I should’ve done this a long time ago.

I had just started to put away some boxes from my collection when I realize my bedroom door is cracked open. I gasp in shock. Ryan stands inside, leaning against the wall in my room, beside my shelf. And he’s holding a book. It looks vaguely familiar, until I realize he’s holding something baby blue. My diary.

“What are you doing here?” I demand.

Startled, he turns around to face me. “Your brother let me in,” he answers dryly. “This yours?” He holds it up in front of me. To my horror, he starts to read out, “Dear diary, Ryan Carson—”

I snatch it from him. He read it. I always knew he doesn’t like me, but this is a new kind of low for him.

I wrote everything there. How he was the man of my dreams. How I wanted to meet him one day. How he turned out to be a jerk. Songs I wrote that I liked. Awful ones, too—the ones that shouldn’t ever see the light of day. Pieces of those dreams, delicate and hopeful, and crushing. He’d seen it all. 

“Get out,” I find myself saying, a rasp to my voice. This is what I get for thinking he was so dreamy. Ideal man, yeah right.

“Blaire—”

But I don’t listen. I place a hand on his chest, and I shove. Hard. I slam the door, ignoring the look on his stunned face as I did it, and I curl up in a ball.

No more delusions. No more singing in front of people. Why did I think my songs were any good, anyway?

Maybe it’s the part of me that always searches for the good in people, always trying to understand them and make excuses for them, but something in me breaks.

Let it all out, I tell myself, as the tears fall, unbidden, and then never again. Never because of him. I could put it all to rest, even if it feels like a heavy stone pressing down my chest, like I can’t breathe.

Out of my sight, and out of my life.


Chapter One

Ryan

Six years later

There’s nothing money can’t buy.

It’s a fact I’ve long acknowledged. Put gold in front of a gold-digger and she’ll kneel. Toss a little cash on a so-called friend and he’ll spill your every last secret. Become a celebrity and watch as long-lost relatives come out of hiding. The scent of money lures people in, like shark to prey.

“Ryan!” Chris Mendes calls out.

I grin. Scratch that—I guess there are only two things money can’t buy—that’s real friendship and a non-dysfunctional family. The first is something that’s earned. The latter you’re stuck with for life. 

“Glad you came,” he says when I make it to their table.

“You told me it was important,” I reply. But as I say this, my eyes are drawn to a woman whose hair is pinned half up in a twist. Her white dress hugs her body, dipping down low on her back. Then she turns around, and I freeze. 

Blaire. Fucking. Blaire. Chris Mendes’ sister.

Chris nudges me, chattering about how he’s starving.

I seem to have caught Blaire’s eye too. She covers her surprise quickly, but I notice. She tosses her hair over her shoulder and sends me a smirk. I send one back. She then proceeds to ignore me. It’s a game we’ve been playing for years. She, for some reason, can’t stand my ass, while I continue to rile her up at every opportunity.

I know it was my fault, but it had been years ago, and she still can’t let it go. To add to it, she outright refused to listen when I’d tried to explain. I gave up even trying.

My presence had caught her off guard. Good. Satisfaction slides over me. When she’s around other people, she locks up. Goes quiet as a mouse. And yet, knowing that, she never acted that way around me. Even though she turns away from me, I walk over. “Fancy seeing you here,” I drawl.

She blinks, as if the fact that I’m talking to her is unexpected. She looks around her innocently, and then back to me. Smartass. She pastes a smile on her face. “Ryan,” she says evenly. “Chris didn’t tell me you were coming.”

I wasn’t sure if I was coming, either. But I received an invitation and was told some announcement was going to be made, and that I shouldn’t miss this dinner. The Mendes family have always treated me like one of theirs and I’ve never taken that for granted.

“Schedule cleared the last minute,” I admit. “Know what this dinner is about?”

She shakes her head. I choose the seat across from her at the table, and I could tell she isn’t happy about that. That’s too bad. I smile wide, knowing it would piss her off.

Her eyes spark with an emotion she quickly masks. Blaire intrigues me. Big, brown eyes and a heart-shaped face. A smile that can knock you over when she gives it to you. I found I like her mind, and as much as she might try to deny it, we both took pleasure in the constant verbal sparring. For whatever reason, around me, she has a short temper. And since she does, I immensely enjoyed seeing what could set her off.  I make a habit of doing it on a regular basis. At least I know with her around, I’d never be bored. 

It’s just too damn bad she doesn’t like me.

* * *

Blaire

There’s only one slice of Wagyu beef left. It’s a stand-off between me and Ryan. I stab it with a fork, with more agility than I thought I possessed. 

Gotcha. I hide a triumphant smile. I cut off a piece and eat it slowly, savoring my win. When I open my eyes, I find Ryan’s eyes dropped to my lips, his gaze heated. My eyes widen. I can’t decide if it’s a look that says he wants to steal it from me, or one that says he’ll charm my pants off to get them. Well, he can try. Whatever the look means, it’s positively sinful. My hand hovers over my plate protectively. Unexpectedly, Ryan takes some spare ribs from the next plate instead. My mouth parts in surprise. Ugh. Damn him. The spare ribs were really, really good. And now that plate is empty, too. His lips curve into an arrogant smile.

“That’s him!” my best friend Gretchen squeals next to me. This catches my attention. The game made me oblivious to everyone else around me. I have a sneaking suspicion it’s the same way for him. Distractedly, I look behind me to see who she was talking about.

Clay Lyons. One of the hottest stars in country music. Tall with the greenest eyes, I can understand why my best friend took one look at him and went crazy. He’s a good friend of my brother’s too, and a family friend by extension. She looks at him dreamily. “Oh my gosh. He’ll think I’m a dork if I approach him, won’t he? The last time I spoke to him, I couldn’t even remember the title of my favorite song of his.” That was six months ago.

Now he’s married to his best friend. I went to their wedding two years ago. I give him a small wave at the other end of the dinner table. He smiles back and nods in acknowledgement. 

“That’s strange. He’s here too?” Gretchen blurts out.

I think it’s strange he came, too. Why are there so many people, today?

I hear our parents bickering again at one end of the table over our dad’s insistence on eating crispy pork belly, with Mom telling him it might increase his blood pressure. I roll my eyes.

All of a sudden, my sister, Shelly, clears her throat. She and her boyfriend, Jordan, share a look. She had been acting a little odd the past week, and I felt like she was stressed out during our phone calls. I know she’s been trying to get my brother to confirm attendance for tonight’s dinner. She looks around the table, beaming at us, her smile radiant.

“We’re getting married in three months,” my sister announces all of a sudden. “And you’re all invited.”


Chapter Two

Blaire

I’ve always hated travel by air. I have this vision in my head that we’re going to crash straight to the ocean. And because I don’t know how to swim, I’d be the first to die—never mind that there are life jackets. I’ve never claimed that it’s a rational fear. I think my dad once told me that the chances of a plane crash happening are pretty low compared to car accidents. I’m still scared of it anyway. Even though the plane had landed roughly an hour ago, I still feel its effects.

“Glad you’re finally here,” my sister tells me. I hear the sound of cutlery. She’s probably about to have breakfast. “Mom and Dad are driving me crazy. How is it they’re more stressed than I am?”

“You know them. They nearly fainted when you said it was in three months,” I say, recalling when she announced her engagement.

“Ha. Can’t wait til it’s your turn,” she throws back.

“Well, I’m not getting married anytime soon,” I declare.

“Hmm. You can never really tell when you’re going to meet the right person. By the way, I hear Ryan’s arrived this morning, too.”

Why is she bringing him up now, on a marriage discussion of all things?

“Maybe you’ll bump into each other soon,” she says brightly.

“Dear God. I hope not.”

She snorts. “Okay, spoilsport, Jordan is here. I’ll see you soon.”

“See you soon,” I reply. “Love you.”

I finally made it to our hotel. I can’t believe she’s getting married in two days. Months ago, after her announcement, Mom had a meltdown. She went on about how it was too soon, and that it was barely enough time to plan. Dad had to calm her down for hours after that. After she got over it, it was all she could talk about.

After checking in the hotel, I hunt for Room 115. It’s the second last door in the hallway. I insert my keycard and I hear the faint click that tells me it’s unlocked. 

I slowly push my luggage in the room and shut the door. A burst of relief fills me. I can finally stretch my legs and rest. I turn around… and almost walk straight into Ryan Carson. Naked, a white towel on his waist. 

I gape, my heart stuttering in my chest. For a moment, I stand there, rooted to the spot.  I have this stupidly dazed reaction whenever I see him, especially when caught unprepared. My eyes trace his abs, into the happy trail that hides underneath the towel. 

I hear the sound of something hit the ground. Oops. I knocked my luggage over. Whatever train of thought I’d had screeches to a halt. Umm. 

Come back, brain. This… This can’t be the right room. I pick my luggage back up. “Sorry, I think I’ve got it all…” I glance down at my keycard. Room 115. Nope, the numbers are still the same. What in the world?

“You surprise me, Red.” His voice slides over me, arrogant as ever. I hate it when he calls me that. Ever since I dyed my hair a streaky red in my teens, it stuck. What is he trying this time?

My cheeks turn hot. Well, my sister was right. I did happen to bump into him. It’s hard to deny that he looks good. On the other hand, I didn’t get much sleep on the plane last night. Sleep deprivation. That must be it. I decide it’s doing strange things to my brain. Clearly, I’m not thinking straight.

“Following me all the way to my room,” he continues.

I roll my eyes. What does he think he’s doing? “This isn’t funny.” At least I don’t stumble over my words anymore. I lost those stars in my eyes years ago, and I’m glad.

He only chuckles. “Don’t worry. I won’t tell anyone that you broke into my room.”

What? Did he just…? Oh, hell no.

“I—I didn’t break in!” I sputter at his ridiculous statement. “You’re in my room.” I wave my keycard.

He stares at it for a beat before he takes it from me, checking it closely. Then he runs a hand across his face.“You’re fucking joking.”

What does that mean? He answers my questioning look with, “It’s my room, Blaire.” He walks towards a side table and picks up his own keycard. He holds it up for me. “And I wondered why Chris got me this suite,” he says, frowning. “Thought he made a mistake.”

That makes no sense. “This suite?”

He moves aside, and that’s when I finally notice the bed behind him. I stare at it in shock, speechless. 

There’s one bed. Just one. It stretches wide, clearly made to fit two people. Instead of a regular hotel room, this is a couple’s suite.

My. Brother. He told me he would sort out the hotel. 

Are those flower petals on the bed? I walk closer and scoop some on my palm. They’re deep red and soft as a feather. I tilt my hand and watch as each petal kisses the ground.

“I left the arrangements to him,” Ryan says tightly. 

Oh my God. I can’t believe this. “He thinks he’s being funny. A couple’s suite,” I mutter. I can’t believe he tricked me. No wonder he was smiling funny before he told me to ‘have fun’.

“Never again. Fucking mistake, letting him book everything,” Ryan says, jaw hard.

He turns to look outside the window. Deep burgundy curtains are drawn, offering the view of palm trees and a large outdoor pool that stretches wide, gleaming from the sun. “He comes back, I’m dunking his ass in the pool.”

I hide a grin, and for the first time, I feel an odd sense of solidarity with him. “Me first.” My eyes trace his muscled arms and I clear my throat. “So… Can you get dressed now?”

Seeing my face, he looks thoughtful. “We’ll go sort it out later.” 

I only nod in acknowledgement. But he’s slow to move, checking something from his phone, and I’m starting to believe he’s doing it on purpose. My eyes start to narrow, and I snag a pillow and throw it at him. His shoulders shake from suppressed laughter, and when he finally, finally leaves, I hear him laughing all the way to the bathroom.

* * *

“What do you mean you can’t fix it?” Ryan growls.

“Today is an important day,” the receptionist explains apologetically. “There’s a fashion show, and they’re having some parade. Our hotel is fully booked. I’m really sorry. If you’d like, we can book you in a branch that’s not far from here.”

I sigh, exhausted. This is turning out to be more complicated than I originally thought. “Ryan. It’s okay,” I try to placate him. “I’ll sort this out with Chris later.”

Just as we’re about to leave, the receptionist clears her throat. “Sorry if this seems kind of ill-timed, but can I get a picture with you?” she adds hopefully. “I’m a huge fan.” Her hopeful eyes are wide and awed. 

She asks for an autograph after the photo, and her voice trembles with excitement as she tells him how his music influenced her since she was fourteen. 

And the thing is, I get her. His music resonates with many—me included. He’s always nice and courteous to everyone he meets… Everyone except me.

Ryan smirks when he catches me watching him. He leans to the counter on his side and he spins a pen around his thumb smoothly. “Want one too?” he asks, indicating the piece of paper he’s signing. And there he goes, proving my point.

“Pass,” I deadpan.

“You could stick it on your fridge.”

The nerve. “I’d rather not.”

He laughs, disguising it with a cough.

Five minutes later, we’re back in the room. Tired of pacing back and forth, I drop down at one of the lounge seats next to the window.

“Is my brother answering your calls yet?” I ask, my chin resting on my palm.

“He’s not,” he replies, still holding his phone to his ear, clearly displeased. 

“Why would he do this?”

“I don’t know… But Blaire?” I can already tell what he’s going to say, and dread pools in my stomach. He gives me a long look, and then he declares smugly, “Looks like you’re stuck with me.”

* * *

Ryan

“When are you coming back home?” my mom asks. Her disappointment is tangible, and it makes me guilty.

“Gonna try for next month,” I admit. The past few months were busy as hell, and I had to take a break after my tour, especially with all the media exposure. It seemed like people had nothing to do with their lives but talk shit and spread rumors. LA had too much people. Too much buildings. 

Sometimes, it feels like my life’s been put through a fast-forward button. Everything’s happening too quickly. That’s why this wedding is important—it’s a welcome break, and I need to slow the hell down. One of the ways to do that is to spend time with my closest friends.

“Has dad called again?” I ask, my body going tense. They split up when I was three, and he had refused to return my mom’s calls or acknowledge my existence, only making himself known after my second album was released. The first thing he asked for? Money. Yeah, I made it without his help, and like hell we needed someone like that in our lives.

“Just last week,” she says slowly. “He’s asking if you can give him a call when you have the time.”

Shit. That means she’s asking me too.

“Enough about your dad. You remember Maria?” Her voice perks up. “Our old neighbor’s daughter. Pretty girl. She says maybe you could catch up when you come back home.”

Oh I remember Maria. She followed me all the way to the studio this one time and made a scene, bursting into tears, when I told her she couldn’t come inside with me. That’s what I don’t get—why go that far? I can tell where this is going. I’m not going to be set up.

Understanding my silence, she releases a long sigh. “Alright, I get it. You travel too much. And don’t forget to rest—I don’t think you really have for the past two years.”

She’s right. The pressure of wanting to do better is starting to get to me.

“Natalie?” I ask. My sister. She’s on her third year of college doing Accounting. “Can I talk to her?”

“Natalie!” I hear my mom call out over the speaker. “Natalie Grace.” I can almost imagine her shaking her head. “She says she’s studying for her examss,” she adds apologetically.

Ah, hell. My eyes shut. “I see.” 

I fucked up again. She really isn’t going to talk to me. The last time I visited, she accused me of not having time for them. It looks like she’s still keeping her distance. Her way of letting me know she’s mad. This is what it’s turned into—traveling and doing what you love, but in the meantime, everybody’s growing up, and you start to realize they’re growing up without you. I need to try calling her again later. 

My eyes snag on someone outside by the pool area. My heart stops when I recognize who it is sitting by the pool. Blaire.

What the hell is she doing down there? She can’t swim. She’s sitting down by the edge, swinging her legs in the water. Earlier, she told me she was going to walk around and check out the scenery. You ask me, it was just an excuse to not be in the same room. Not that I could blame her. Well played, Chris. Well fucking played. 

Mom?” I loosen the tight grip on the phone I didn’t realize I had. “I have to go.”

* * *

I watch as Blaire tips her head up, inhaling the breeze. Her hair is tied up in some sort of knot now. She leans back, her hands behind her in support. Something in my chest goes tight. Just one slide, and she could slip down there.

But after several moments, as if sensing my presence, she tilts her head to the side, finally spotting me. Her reaction is immediate—her body freezes up, going tense. Then carefully, she schools her expression into a calm mask, meeting my eyes. She does this sometimes, especially when I catch her off-guard. Like she’s mentally preparing herself. I don’t know what I did to make her this way, but I want to find out.

She frowns, her hand gripping the pool’s rail firmly. As if she suddenly doesn’t know what to do. “You don’t have to watch over me,” she says quietly. Her eyes return to the pool water, as if she could test their depths that way. “I’m not about to jump down or anything.”

She can’t swim. I had offered to teach her on two separate occasions, but both times, she turned me down without batting an eyelash. 

I grin. “Sure, Red, but no telling if you’d slip.” As if she doesn’t know her own brother. “Your brother will kill me if anything happens to you on my watch.”

Now that I think about it, it’s rare that we’re alone together. She often makes up an excuse to leave me and Chris alone. Now that we’re probably one of the first ones to arrive, there’s no escape.

I realize it’s the perfect opportunity to ask her what the hell had happened between us, that every time we wind up in the same room, she’s hatching up an escape plan. Maybe it’s because of that kiss that night years ago. She can say what she wants, but if she says it wasn’t a damned good one, it’s a lie.

So I walk carefully towards her, thinking that at least this way, I could make sure nothing will happen to her if she slips.

“W-what are you doing?” she asks nervously, inching away from me. I don’t answer. I bend down to sit next to her, mirroring her own action, dipping my own feet in the water. My hand brushes hers, and her reaction is… telling.

I don’t know what the hell to talk about that won’t scare her away, so I bring up the first thing I could think of, something Chris told me recently. “I hear you’ve got a YouTube channel. So what’s it about? Vlogging? Traveling?” I wrack my brains for what Chris said about her. “Bags? Ryan says you have a thing for those.”

“No,” she simply answers, her voice low.

“No?” The response is unexpected. She turns silent. I can tell I’ve made her angry, but I don’t know what the hell I even did.

“You don’t get that, Ryan.” Determination blazes in her eyes, like fire. Except it’s the kind that draws me in, and I can’t tell what the reason is behind it.

“Why the hell are you mad?” I demand.

“You don’t know?” She sounds almost disbelieving. She snorts, and without warning, she pulls her legs up from the water, drawing them close to her chest, her arms going around her knees. “Of course you don’t know,” she mutters. She does it again—reigns in her temper. And for the first time, I see it. Maybe it’s because I caught her by surprise, or maybe because she let me see. But it’s hurt in her eyes.  I don’t expect to see it there and it catches me off guard. She blinks and it’s gone. She stands up apruptly. “Chris should be here soon. I’m going to see if I can switch rooms with him.”

I don’t fucking get it. I don’t understand what I see.

I know what’s going to happen—she’ll pretend nothing happened. Like always. I’ll give her this—for now. Because this time, I can tell something’s not right. No way I’m leaving it alone.