Authors: M. Lynne Cunning
What We’ve Become
About The AuthorWhat We’ve Become
M. Lynne CunningCopyright
What We’ve Become
Copyright © 2016 by M. Lynne Cunning.
All rights reserved.
First Print Edition: July 2016
Fifth Ink Publishing, LLC.
No part of this book may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, scanning, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher. Please do not partake in or encourage piracy of copyrighted works in violation of the author’s rights. Thank you for respecting this author’s hard work.
This is a work of fiction. All characters, names, places, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to locales, events, or actual persons—living or dead—is purely coincidental.
This is a work of fiction. All characters, names, places, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to locales, events, or actual persons—living or dead—is purely coincidental.
Thank you for purchasing What We’ve Become, Book 2 in the My Kind Of Country Series, by M. Lynne Cunning. We hope you enjoy it as much as we do. We just want to let you know that What We’ve Become is not a standalone. Who I Am With You, Book 1 in the My Kind Of Country Series, is to be read prior to What We’ve Become.
Again, we thank you for your purchase and we hope you enjoy the story!
Erica M. Christensen
Owner, Fifth Ink Publishing, LLC.
“Let it go, Katie.”
Katie huffed in annoyance at hearing that phrase come from Jay. It was a phrase that meant so much, and yet, coming from him, she wanted nothing more than to ignore it.
“I have already told you, I can’t.” She had to admit, the idea of letting go sounded all too appealing. Letting go of her guilt. Letting go of her fear. That wasn’t what Jay meant, though. He wanted her to let go of the farm—herdad’sfarm—and that just couldn’t happen. No matter how appealing the idea of not having to keep up two properties—two separate lives—might seem.
Things had changed in many ways since she had agreed to come to Nashville with Jay, but in other ways it was all still the same. Gone was the serenity and peace of the slow moving life she had been struggling to live out at the farm, replaced instead by city lights and an abundance of people. Most of those people were starry-eyed dreamers hoping and praying for their one chance to show Nashville that they could hack it in the country music world. Those people tended to move fast around her, leaving Katie’s mind whirling long after they had moved on. There were still many days though when she longed to be back on those porch steps with no sounds to keep her company, save for the slow shifting movements of the animals in the barn, and the singsong melodies of the crickets and cicadas.
That was no longer possible, though. As much as she had tried to maintain a balance between taking Mason to see Jay in Nashville and continuing to run at least part of the farm, she had quickly come to the conclusion that the notion was futile. It was impossible to run a farm on her own—even one as small as Rustic Acres—and Jay had absolutely no interest in aiding her in such a venture. She had no one else to turn to, and the thought made her feel even lonelier and more desolate.
It also made her miss Chad even more.
That’s why she couldn’t allow herself to think about it, about how it had all turned out. Chad was gone—back to his old life, she presumed—and the farm had suffered because of it, almost as much as she had.
The back and forth of trying to make Jay happy had resulted in downsizing her duties at the farm the only way she knew how. It had brought tears to her eyes to do it, but the end result included having to sell off most of the livestock. The horses had been sold quite easily, but the cows and pigs had proven easier to sell by having them butchered and sold as freezer packs, locally. Any crops she hadn’t been able to get harvested and sold at the local markets before the Canadian Thanksgiving weekend had been ruined by the frost that hit with a vengeance. The chickens had been sold as a flock to one of the farmer a few miles down the road. She had practically given them to him in return for his time spent watching over the farm during her sporadic absences. Mason had shed a few tears over that, and the sight of his sadness had caused her heart to clench with pure guilt. When she paired that with the emptiness of the farm, Katie couldn’t help but wonder if she had made a mistake.
It was too late to change her mind now. The farm was now sedentary and silent as a tomb, and her son was now confused and struggling through an adjustment phase, being dragged from one life—a life he had thrived in—to one he knew nothing about. Katie wished his excitement for the transition had lasted, but, in all honestly, if she wasn’t excited for their future in Nashville, how could she expect him to be?
Jay didn’t seem to notice that she and Mason were unsure as to how to begin their new life in the city with him. Instead, he had frivolously sold the condo in Canada, only advising Katie of the news after the fact. She’d been furious, but the reality was that, despite purchasing it together just before Mason was born, Jay’s name was the only one listed on the property deed. There was little she could do about the sale, and he knew it. He was obviously ready to take the bull by the horns and start over in Nashville with her and Mason by his side. She, however, was not yet that keen on the idea. However, with no condo to go back to—not that she would, anyway—and no crops or animals to look after at the farm, her reasons for jumping on a plane and flying back to the farm were becoming less and less believable. Jay had fought her on her plans to leave Nashville many times, but the only thing that allowed her solace was knowing that she could still use Mason’s schooling as an excuse. With the exception of the long Thanksgiving weekend in October, she and Mason had only been able to stay in Nashville with Jay for a weekend at a time, usually flying there through the night on Friday, staying with him Saturday, and then leaving again Sunday evening. Rarely, Katie would permit Mason to miss school on a Monday in order to stay a day longer, but that had only started to happen once she had sold the livestock and had nothing to returnhomefor.
“You could stay longer than a few days at a time, Katie. But you would have to let it go.” Jay’s voice cut through her thoughts again.
“Jay, we’ve been through this. You know I can’t sell the farm.”
“Everything you need is right here. Mason and I are here.” Jay reached out to pull her closer to him, just as he always did when the repetitive conversation arose.
“Mason still has school to attend, Jay. You know that.”
“We could get the paperwork done to transfer him here. I have said that before.”
Katie exhaled slowly. She’d heard it all before. It seemed Jay had it all figured out in his mind, every detail planned out that was needed to create the perfect “happy family” he believed they could become. Katie couldn’t do it, though. She was far from ready. He might be prepared to forgive and forget, but that didn’t mean she had to be. Too much had transpired between them, and only a few months had passed since. A new beginning without the comfort of any kind of safety net was too much to fathom at this point.
“Mason is happy in his school, Jay. With his friends and his familiar surroundings. We will let him finish out his school year and see how it goes.” Katie held her hands on his arms, not allowing herself to be held any closer. She felt Jay stiffen slightly.
“You want to wait another six months or so to decide?”
“I told you, let’s just take this slowly. So much has—”
“You still don’t trust me.”
“I never said that, Jay.”
“But youdidsay you were going to try.”
It was Katie’s turn to become rigid. “I am. I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t trying. I just need more time than you do, obviously. I’m sorry for that, but it’s the truth.”
“When are you going to forgive me for what happened between us?”
She didn’t want to say aloud that she wasn’t sure if she ever would. There was no use in creating more tension. “I’m not saying I haven’t. You’re putting words in my mouth again.”
Jay’s chest rose and fell against her as he exhaled in frustration. Silence ensued, and Katie knew that he was trying to get the conversation back on more solid ground. “I just want things to go back to the way they were. I’m sorry if I am being pushy.”
The way things were? Before he left her for another woman? Before her father died and left her with a sense of desperate loneliness she couldn’t shake? Or before she fell in love with someone else, only to have her heart broken again? Katie was not sure that things could ever go back to the way they were ever again. “I know you do,” was the only response she could muster.
“Someday, wewillbe okay again, Katie,” Jay crooned against her ear, wrapping his arms around her despite her halfhearted attempt to pull away. “Someday, we will look back on this time in our lives and laugh about it.”
The last thing Katie felt like doing was laughing, and she doubted she ever would. He may not think she had forgiven him yet, but she had—for the most part, anyway. She wouldn’t be capable of spending so much time in Nashville with him if she hadn’t. There was a difference between forgiving and forgetting, though. She did not forget.
“Time, Jay. Just let me get my bearings, okay?”
“That would happen a lot faster without that farm tying you elsewhere.” He held up his hands, denoting he meant no offence. Still, Katie scowled. “I am just stating a fact. I won’t mention it again,” he quipped, pretending to lock his mouth closed with an invisible key.
Right, Katie thought.Until the next time.
“You just need to give me a chance, Katie. To make everything right again. So we can live here together, raise Mason together...get married like we were meant to do.”
“Jay—” Katie warned. She pulled away, and this time she put enough force into it to actually break free. She had a hard enough time with his constant questioning, and his thoughts regarding the farm; she had no tolerance for his absurd thoughts about getting married. She was nowhere near ready for that.
“We could, you know. Just do it. It would be a real start-over for us, a real new beginning.” Jay didn’t try to pull her close again, but his face revealed a sly grin, the left corner of his mouth twitching upward. Katie had heard this idea before though, and she was once again going to put a stop to it before he continued on.
“I’ve already told you no. We are not there yet, okay?”
“You’re not. I am.” He offered his best boyish grin. Katie rolled her eyes. She knew he was well aware of her stance on this matter, but he was just mentioning it again as a method of psychological warfare, making sure it was clear thatshewas the one unwilling to make things better between them. That’s how it always was with Jay; things were never truly his fault.
“Stop it, Jay. I am not hashing this out with you again. I said no.” She turned her back on him and began to pluck Mason’s Hot Wheels cars from the floor, allowing herself a short-lived reprieve from his watchful stare. Once again, Jay held his hands up, signaling what would only be a temporary surrender. His amused smirk never wavered.
“Okay, okay, I’m done. But I will wear you down eventually. And if I don’t, this city will.”
Katie responded with only a curt nod. He might be right about the city. Maybe it did hold something appealing for her, but, if she was honest with herself, she wasn’t yet convinced that that something was Jay.
Chad took a step away from the microphone suspended before him, his hands cupped over the headphones he wore. That was it, he could feel it. He knew without even looking up into the watchful eyes of the guys in the sound booth that he wouldn’t need to record the song again. He exhaled in relief and lifted his gaze toward the pane of glass separating him from his producer and manager. As he’d expected, they both wore wide smiles of satisfaction. They felt it as well, then; the air of finality, of a process seen through to completion.
He was back.
He was back in tune with himself, the man who had fought to get to this point in his music career, and who had subsequently clawed his way back from what could have been the abrupt end of it. He was back to creating music that not only was he was excited to see how his target audience would react to, but that also had the attention of the executives within the industry, too. In a matter of months, he had managed to achieve some level of forgiveness from the people who had helped him throughout the years, even though he knew damn well they should have packed up and gone on to find someone more worthy of their guidance and unwavering support. Instead, after disappearing from Nashville for a handful of weeks without so much as a note or call to any of them, he had returned to find his band and business partners—a group of guys who had done all they could, in the time he’d been gone, to prevent the media and powers-that-be in Nashville from finding out he’d left—waiting for him, albeit impatiently. That told Chad more about them than they could ever say; they were friends, not just people who worked alongside him.
That’s not to say he didn’t return to a flurry of wide eyes, angry outbursts, and curse words. He heard it voiced in many different ways, but everyone he knew had cried out the same concerns.What the hell would possess you to do that?You should have contacted someone!andWhat if we were sitting here thinking you were dead?were just a few of the retorts he had been faced with. His friend and fellow songwriter, Andy, actually hit a wall and caused his knuckles to bleed when Chad first appeared back at the studio after his impromptu hiatus. Andy tossed insults and fits of outrage at him, visibly attempting to hold himself back from throwing a punch, along with the string of expletives. He let Chad know in no uncertain terms that his little vanishing act was unfair, uncalled for, and downright irresponsible. Chad knew that was his way of saying he had been worried sick about him, especially seeing as Andy rarely showed any sort of negative emotion outwardly. Andy was only one person in a long line of them who had flung around some choice words when Chad returned to the city, but he had expected it. Hell, he’d welcomed it.
At that point, it had almost been a relief to know that there were other people who were dealing with hurt and anger about things that had happened, even if it was all directed at him. That meant he wasn’t suffering alone. He was fully aware of how deranged he was to think such a thing.
He was also quick to notice how everyone phrased their statements towards him—saying “What ifwe’d thought you were dead?” instead of “We thought you were.” He picked up on the fact that, though they were concerned about his well-being and state of mind, no one had really questioned him as to his exact whereabouts during those weeks. That could only mean one thing.
Obviously, Liz had figured out his whereabouts long before he had known hers, and she had subsequently let the most important people back in Nashville know that he was okay. Call it damage control—or maybe just a love of gossip—but he supposed he should be thankful she had helped him out that much. Lord knows she’d made an absolute disaster of every other aspect of his life, so he figured it was the least she could do. He had barely spoken to her since parting ways with her on the other side of the border, speaking civilly to her only when something work related required it. It was funny how a city with more than six hundred thousand people could seem so small sometimes.
Perhaps out of everyone though, his manager, Barry, held the least amount of grudge against him following his return.
“As long as you’re okay, Chad, then I am just glad to see you back where you belong.” Barry’s words had struck a chord somewhere deep within him, wondering then, what it would take for him to view Nashville as the place he truly belonged again, the way Barry did. Chad also decided that he must have been one of the people Liz had called—therefore, giving him time to calm down and setting his manager’s mind at ease—but the lack of hostility was welcomed, nonetheless. Barry also seemed overly eager to get Chad back into the life he had walked away from, and he supposed that was because it was the man’s job. He wondered if there was more to it, but he was certain he was doing it all for Chad’s own personal benefit rather than just for their careers.Thatmade him wonder just how much Liz had divulged to him. But Chad didn’t have it in him to confirm that Liz had, in fact, notified anyone of his location or what she had deemed relevant to tell them.
Now, though, as he stood in the middle of the recording studio and tugged the headphones from his ears, basking in the energized glances from his colleagues, he knew two things for sure. The first was that this new single was the one. It would surpass the success he’d had withTake Me Homeand put his name out there for the world to remember. The knowing excitement that was radiating from Barry and his producer on the other side of the glass confirmed it. The song was country—realcountry—and it fit his voice, his demeanor, and his idea of what country music should be. And it should, seeing as he had written it with Andy’s help. No matter what releasing it would do for his career, he knew he would always be proud to call this song his own.
The second thing he knew was that the pain he felt from losing Katie the way he did was just as raw and fresh as it had been three months ago. Without that kind of immeasurable pain to eat away at his emotions and burn a ragged hole through his heart, he never would have been able to sing the song he had just recorded with as much truthfulness and emotional upheaval as he had. Hell, he probably never would have dreamed of recording such a song before he’d left Nashville. There were some songs that were so deeply rooted in a singer’s own personal demons, that no one else would be able to possibly convey the agony and self-destruction that led to such words being paired with a melody.
“What the hell happened to you in Canada?” Barry had remarked on the day Chad had sat down and performed an acoustic version of the song for him to hear. Chad could tell he was half joking, the raised corner of his mouth giving him away. Chad arched an eyebrow at him anyway, and Barry responded by raising his hands in mock surrender. “I’m not complaining, trust me,” he added, a full-fledged smile taking over his features. “The music you’re cranking out is amazing, Chad. It’s deeper, for lack of a better word. But, you—I don’t know how to say it. You’re still you, but you’re not...you.” Chad scoffed quietly at that, reaching out to lean his acoustic guitar back into the stand. He couldn’t bring himself to answer the question, but he had a feeling his manager didn’t expect him to.
If only Barry knew just how right he was. Chad wasn’t himself anymore—at least not the same man he’d been prior to walking away from the life he’d once known in Nashville.
Maybe he never would be again.
Katie heard Jay come home from work before she actually saw him. She hadn’t yet grown accustomed to leaving the door unlocked while he was away during the day, still uncomfortable with the city life. Even at the farm, she had been sure to lock the door at night, and before she left for any extended length of time. She could hear the shuffling as he shifted his weight from one foot to the other, cursing as he tried one key and then another. Katie bit back a smirk as she crossed the room and turned the deadbolt, pulling the door open to come face to face with Jay’s flustered expression as he balanced multiple bags and boxes in his arms, and his fingers tangled in a jumble of keys. However, the crease in his forehead quickly disappeared at the sight of her, his face breaking out in a wide smile.
“Thanks, I was just about to give up and sit down here in the hallway until you got worried and came looking for me,” he chuckled.
“I figured I’d better do something quick, before your colorful language started to concern the neighbors.” Katie stepped back to let him and his baggage pass, offering him a joking grin in return. She closed the door once he was in, fighting the urge to relock it. Instead, she followed Jay through the open living area into the kitchen, returning to the bar stool she had been perched on before his arrival, the hot mug of coffee she’d made still on the kitchen island billowing steam into the air. She eyed the bags he’d brought home as she took a sip from the mug, curling her nose up as the liquid burned her lips, and setting it back down again to cool. Jay had bought things—multiple things—and he wasn’t exactly an avid shopper, which usually meant he had some big idea he was going to try to convince her to go along with, or he had done something that required an apology. Either way, she raised her eyebrows dubiously at him.
“What’s with all the retail therapy?” she asked, trying to keep her tone lighthearted. The last thing they needed was another argument or conversation that resulted in her asking him to stop pushing his plans on her.
Jay stopped rustling through the bags. He squared his shoulders as he turned his attention to her, his hands splayed before him on the countertop as though to steady his balance. “I have an idea, Katie.”
What a shocker, Katie thought, and fought the urge to roll her eyes.Give the guy a chance.“Why does that worry me?” she retorted instead.
“Christmas holidays. Mason gets two weeks off from school for the Christmas holidays already, so let’s pull him out for an additional week, and then the three of us can spend three solid weeks together. No sprinting back and forth across the border, just a real family Christmas. Let’s do it, Katie.” He was practically vibrating with enthusiasm as he spoke, and Katie chuckled absently at him. She opened her mouth to speak, but realized she couldn’t think of a good reason right off hand why it was a bad idea. She quickly closed her mouth again.
It was his turn to laugh at her. She was rarely speechless. “See? Even you, queen of all things logical and overanalyzed, can’t come up with a way to turn me down! Katie, it will be great. We’ll get a tree, and we can go shopping for Mason’s gifts together, and—”
“The farm can’t be left alone in the dead of a Canadian winter like that. I’m sorry.” She said it softly, not wanting to crush the excitement radiating from him. He deflated almost immediately, exhaling sadly.
“It always comes back to that place. Is there—”
Katie held up her hands. “Don’t tell me to sell it, Jay. I’m not listening to that again.”
Jay cocked his head to the side, motioning for her to bring her defensiveness down a notch. “That’s not what I was going to say. What I was trying to say was, is there any way that we can hire someone to keep an eye on the house or something? Just for a few weeks?”
They both grew silent. Time seemed to stand still with the lack of movement and sound between them. Faintly, Katie could hear Mason talking to himself as he played in his bedroom down the hall. He must be completely enthralled within his imagination not to have heard Jay come home. That was probably a good thing, because she was sure she wouldn’t be able to fend them both off if her son got wind of this idea. “Even if I could, the house isn’t prepared to withstand winter for any length of time. I would need to go back to get it ready. I can’t put that on someone else.”
“So, you’re saying that if you were able to make a quick trip back to the farm you could get it all prepared to be left unattended for three weeks, and arrange for someone else to step in and check on things for you while you and Mason are here for the Christmas holidays?”
Katie held his gaze. Was that what she was saying? Did she really want to stay here for that length of time with him? Did she want to give Mason that kind of opportunity, to really see his dad, and to spend the entire holiday season with him? When it came down to it, she did. Katie couldn’t deny the appeal of not having to keep up with the constant travelling schedule she had been maintaining. She welcomed the notion of not having to keep her bags packed, and not having to tear Mason away from Jay each time they left again for another five days.
“You would be willing to take time off from work?” Katie asked.
“I can book days off sporadically throughout those weeks so we can all spend time together,” he offered. “I will not sit here and say I can stay home the entire time, but I will be here as much as I can be, and definitely on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.” He nodded as though making a promise to her.
His words were surprising to Katie, and she’d be lying if she said she believed he would be so accommodating. Jay’s work had always been first and foremost for him, and he made sure that what needed to be done within the walls of his office was done before anything else—family, friends, or time away—could be contemplated.
“Besides, you’re probably going to want the odd day away from me. You like your space, and I can appreciate that,” he added, grinning ruefully.
“You’re making it sound like I am always trying to get away from you.”
“Maybe you’ll want to after three weeks of being here, but at least then we’ll know.” His smile never faltered, and Katie could see the accomplishment written on his face. He knew he had her, and that she was going to agree.
She sighed, shaking her head. “All right, Jay, here’s the deal. If I can go back to Canada for a few days to get the house set up—you know, stuff like the hot water tank, the water pipes, the heaters, and blah, blah, blah—andif I can convince Ed Johnson down the road to look in on the place while Mason and I are here,andif I can count on you to be here enough that Mason won’t end up feeling like he is just always waiting for you to get home, then I guess it looks like we are all spending Christmas together.”
Jay let out a holler, slapping his hand down on the counter in triumph. In seconds, he was around the island and holding Katie tightly. She squealed laughingly when her feet left the ground as he spun her around. He had just set her back down on the floor when Katie recognized the sound of Mason’s little footsteps coming down the hallway.
“Please, just do not let him down, okay?” Katie whispered, locking eyes with Jay. He’d heard Mason coming to see what was going on, too.
“I promise, Katie. I’ll be here for him this Christmas.” He turned to face Mason’s confused gaze just as the boy rounded the corner into the kitchen.
“I didn’t know you were home, Dad!”
“Just getting in the door, I swear. How was your day?” Jay stooped to chat at eye level with his son, ruffling his hair playfully. Immediately, Mason attempted to smooth his unruly hair.
“Boring. There’s nothing to do here.”
“Oh, Mase, there issomuch to do here! Get your Mom to take you around the city tomorrow and check it all out. You won’t be bored, I guarantee it.” Jay glanced over at Katie, but she held her hands up. She didn’t know what he wanted her to do.
“I don’t have a clue where to go here. You forget, I’ve never lived here before.”
“You can take us out tomorrow then, Dad, and show us some stuff!” Mason exclaimed, and Katie saw the anticipation highlighting his eyes.
“I have got to go to work again tomorrow, pal. I’m sorry.” Jay held up a finger in pause, and Katie knew he was scrambling for a way to make the situation better. She would be as well if Mason were looking at her so dejectedly. “How about we spend tonight showing your Mom how to work that cell phone we got her so she can easily look up all the cool sites that are close by? That way you guys can make a list of them, and then plan to go check them out next time you are bored stiff.” Jay ducked his head to catch a glimpse of Mason’s eyes, seeking confirmation that he had moved beyond his bout of sadness. Sure enough, Mason peeked out at him through his messy bangs, the wheels of mischief and imagination turning once again in his overactive mind.
“Can we find a zoo?” the little boy asked.
Jay chuckled. “Go grab a pencil and some paper from your room and we will all sit down and create a list of things we can look for in the area, okay? A zoo can definitely be at the top of the list, my boy.”
Mason cast a wide-eyed glance of sheer happiness at Katie and she offered him a slight nod to get him moving along. She wasn’t keen on figuring out how to stare at a teeny tiny cell phone screen and using it for absolutely everything the way most of the modern population did, but she knew Jay was right, it was a necessary evil, and it would help her and Mason to become more acquainted with their new surroundings.
When their son had skidded in his sock feet around the corner and down the hallway toward his room, Jay rose to his full height and reached out for Katie. “This is going to be great. I mean it. Thank you for agreeing to this.”
“There were a lot of ‘ifs’ in my conditions, but I agree with you. If it will work out, I think we’ll all have a nice Christmas here. A little relaxation sounds oddly appealing.” She smiled up at him, letting him wrap his arms around her tightly.
“It will be a perfect family Christmas. We’ll go all out. More festiveness than you can handle.”
She nodded against him, glancing toward the hallway. Her eyes rested again on the unpacked bags still sitting on the counter. “So, those shopping bags are...”
Jay pulled away to beam down at her. “Your outfit for Saturday night.”
“But I am not going anywhere on Saturday night.”
“Sure you are. Come with me to that release party I’m attending. I was just going to go make an appearance, but why not use it to celebrate our upcoming holidays? Let me show you off a little bit.” Jay leaned down and kissed the side of her face gently.
“Itistempting, Jay, but I can’t. Mason will—”
“Mason can hang out with Julia and her kids in the apartment down the hall. She already said it was okay.”
Katie crinkled her forehead. He had already made plans for a babysitter? “I don’t know Julia.”
“Not yet, but I do. Mason will have a blast. Her kids are a little older, but they’re boys and they will keep him entertained. She told us to stay out as late as we wanted.” He lifted his eyebrows suggestively, and Katie scoffed.
“Well, that was nice of her. But I still don’t—”
“We can go for an hour and leave if you’re not enjoying it. It’s just an evening out.”
“Fine!” Katie laughed. “But I get to meet Julie before we go out on Saturday night.”
A victorious grin flashed across Jay’s face. “Deal.”
The festivities had not even really begun yet, and already Chad was wishing he could disappear out the back door. Unfortunately, that was really difficult to do when you were the guest of honor.
His record label had pulled out all the stops in order to promote his new single, mostly—he figured, anyway—in an attempt to make sure the general population knew that Chad Ashton was still around, still making music, and planning a stellar new album, despite the vague speculations that he had suffered from some kind of breakdown and gave up on his career. Those gossip magazines would print anything and call it the truth no matter how little they actually knew about the real situation. Then again, Chad was well aware he had brought those rumors on himself. His publicity team was constantly reminding him that he needed to regain the trust of his fan base and follow up his hit,Take Me Home, with something that would make them all forget the drama and just enjoy the music.
And Chad knew that was exactly what this new single would accomplish.Crossing That Linewas country—something he could picture George Strait singing, and the thought of that made him smile. He knew that singing this twangy, heartfelt song about the boundaries between friendship and love would resonate within most people’s hearts. The lyrics were something pretty much everyone would identify with, and he couldn’t wait until they had a chance to do just that.
But first he had to make it through this overcrowded, noisy party. Everyone who was anyone on Music Row was here, it seemed. Hell, Chad had been wearing his wide, fake smile for the past forty-five minutes, shaking hands and laughing at jokes told by people whom he either recognized, didn’t know, or probably should know. As quickly as they introduced themselves, he soon forgot each name as it was followed up with the next fleeting introduction. Oh well, that was the way these kinds of functions always were. His only real purpose at this particular one was to sing his song for everyone, say something meaningful to show his gratitude that they’d all came out to celebrate, and then mingle for the remainder of the evening as though he actually wanted to be there, surrounded by a couple hundred of his closest friends.
That was okay, though. The single would be released on the radio tomorrow, and Chad sincerely hoped listeners would hear it and feel the same way he did when he played the recording back to himself. It would be heard here first though, tonight, when he sang it live for all the attendees of his release party. His nerves were buzzing within him at the thought, but he was excited just the same.
He was ready. He was prepared for whatever came from the release of the song, good or bad, but his gut was telling him that he had made the right decision in choosing it as the next single. He believed in it, and he had to trust in that. He would bounce back from his hiatus and overcome everything he had been through only months before. He had to believe that, too.
“Chad, the band is ready to gear up for the show.” Barry had appeared out of the masses of people around him, his voice a few octaves louder than usual to be heard over the multiple conversations melding together all around him.
“It’s that time already, is it?” Chad followed his manager’s lead through the different circles of people, doing his best to acknowledge each “Congrats, Chad!” and “There you are!” he heard as he made his way behind the small stage at the far wall of the convention centre. His eyes flickered from one face to the next, his less than genuine smile still plastered across his face. His feet suddenly stopped moving, however, when his gaze landed on a pair of green eyes that he would never be able to erase from his mind.
“Katie?” The name fell from his lips, though it became lost in the talking and laughter that invaded his senses. He blinked only once, but the crowds had shifted again, obstructing his view of the entrance doors. He craned his neck from one side to the other, ignoring the odd looks he was warranting from those near him, but she was gone.
Had she been there at all?It was her, he assured himself silently. Based on the width of her eyes and the shock etched on her face, he was sure she had recognized him as well.
Of course she did, he scolded himself.She’s at a party with your stage name and publicity photo plastered all over the place. It’s impossible she came here by chance.So, what the hell did that mean? If Chad was honest, he’d daydreamed repeatedly about the moment he would see Katie in Nashville for the first time since they’d parted ways the way they had, but he never expected that moment to be now—orhere, in front of hundreds of watchful glances. His chest clenched tightly at the thought of being close to her again—though, whether it was from elation or the purest form of fear, he couldn’t be sure.
He took a step in the direction he’d thought he had seen her in, only to be held back by a strong hand on his shoulder. “What are you doing? Come on. We need you at the stage. We’re ready.” Barry’s tone revealed a lack of patience, and Chad knew he was feeling the weight of what was riding on the success of this single as well. He glanced once more toward the entrance doors, but they were completely obscured from view. There was no sign of the bright, mossy eyes that had haunted his thoughts since autumn, and he reluctantly turned away to head to the stage.
Things seemed to go in fast forward after that. There were less people backstage, but the small group of them seemed to swarm him, invading his personal space and shouting questions and commands at him in rushed hostility. Everyone was on edge, hoping to make a lasting impression on the room full of artists, executives, and radio personalities. All Chad suddenly wanted to do, however, was remove the guitar that had been slung over his shoulder and head back out into the throngs of people to search for the only person he wanted to see. Thankfully, he hadn’t completely lost his mind, though, and he understood that his career was riding on the next ten minutes. He shook his head, shaking the intrusive thoughts of Katie back into the depths of his mind. He would deal with her as soon as he’d sung his song to the best of his ability. If Katie wanted to show up athisparty, then she would damn well get to see him during one of his finest moments. He would make sure of it.
“Are y’all ready for this? Here he is, the man of the hour... Chad Ashton!”
Chad took one last long exhale and then bounded forward onto the stage, his acoustic guitar at the ready before him as the bright stage lights beat down on him. An eruption of applause, whistles, and hollering greeted him, and his smile widened because of it—atruesmile. The welcoming from a cheering crowd would never get old, no matter how long he was able to maintain his career. The drummer tapped his drumsticks together to count everyone in, and the musicians immediately started into the first chords ofCrossing That Line. Chad’s heart swelled with pride at the melodic sound as his song was played for the people before him; a musician’s dream.
“On the other side of goodbye...” he began to croon into the microphone, closing his eyes as he sang. “We’ll see each other again...” His fingers strummed the guitar strings with a cool confidence, allowing the rhythm and lyrics that had painstakingly poured out of him to set his mind on an easy drift. He opened his eyes to see a couple of lighters waving among the partygoers and his smile widened. A woman in the front row was holding her hand to her chest, her eyes glistening as she listened. The showing of clear emotion urged him on, and the huskiness in his voice became even more pronounced. “And now I’m crossing that line with you...” He broke into the instrumental portion of the song and stole the chance to turn and peer back at the band. The reception from the crowd was pleasing them, too. They were playing their instruments with such fervor and energy that Chad couldn’t help but send an accepting nod towards Barry, who stood just off the stage behind them, hidden from the audience by the edge of a curtain. He made eye contact and tipped his head forward knowingly in return.
They had done it. Chad was back, and his true country roots were showing. And people loved it. He scanned the crowd, wondering what Katie might think of his performance, but he couldn’t find her within the swaying bodies of the crowd.
Chad took another pull from his beer, or pretended to, anyway. As long as he held a beer in his hands and acted as though he was actually drinking it, no one tried to offer him another. He idly made his way amongst the crowd. He had to keep up appearances, therefore having to make sure he said hello to all the right people and made a point of being seen with more of the right people. It occurred to him that he would love nothing more than to slip out the back entrance and trade in the warm beer he had been nursing all evening for some iced tea and a little relaxation—less people, more serenity. His mind pushed forth a memory from deep within its folds; the image of a sinking sunset over distant trees, the scent wafting through the open window of dinner bubbling away on the stovetop, and a warm hand within his as he gazed out from his chair on the porch with...
Even with all the bustling going on around him, she still had the allure to push everything else from his mind. He focused on his mental image of her so intently he could almost feel her next to him. Chad looked down at the bottle of beer within his grasp, silently wishing it would reveal life’s answers to him. Instead, he gave up the ruse and set the beer down on the appetizer table—he’d never found solace in alcohol, anyway.
Enjoying the lull in social interaction, he relished in having a moment to take in everything that was going on around him. He had to admit, his team had worked hard to make him look good in front of all these people. The album cover art he had just chosen last week was hung around the room on signs of various sizes, boasting the new song’s title and that the album would be available soon—which Chad found humorous since he knew no one had confirmed the album’s release date yet—every beer, wine, or spirit anyone could ever want seemed to be available at the bar, and judging by the staggering gait, and loud obnoxious laughter from some of the party attendees, he would say that most of them were utilizing the bar’s well stocked status to its full potential. The food and appetizers were just as plentiful as the booze supply, and tables of handmade, catered finger foods and hors d’oeuvres lined two of the walls. He was scanning the table beside him so thoroughly for cornbread that he didn’t see her until she spoke.
“This is quite the party.”
Chad whirled around, so struck by how close Katie was to him that he attempted to take an unsteady step backward. He tried to catch his balance, which, in fact, did result in him remaining standing, but the beer he had intended to discard toddled to the floor, its odorous contents splashing their feet.
“Christ! I’m sorry!” Chad flung his hands out for a pile of napkins and dove to the floor, trying to clean up the mess before it spread any further. He was frantically sopping up the puddle when the sound of her laughter drifted through the noise surrounding him. He glanced upward, slowing his efforts to clean up, and saw that she was holding out her hand to him.
“Get up, Chad.” She laughed softly again. “I guarantee your beer is not the only one that’ll be spilled tonight.”
Chad rose to his feet, a small smile dancing on his lips. He did not dare to touch her hand. His mind might be over-thinking things, but he was sure the heat of her skin would be too much to bear. Seeing her had already reopened the wounds he was sure he’d roughly mended and hidden away.
“This, right here, is my biggest fear and my greatest hope.” The words rolled from his tongue without thinking them through.
“What is?” Katie pulled her hand away, confusion outlining her features.
“Seeing you again.”
She looked unsure of how to respond, but Chad decided not to elaborate. She had shown up at his party, so it wasn’t up to him to explain himself.
“I didn’t plan on being here, trust me.”
Her words cut through him, slicing through his resolve. He flinched. She must have realized how crass her statement sounded, and she held up her hands.
“Wait, that’s not at all what I meant. I just meant—” Katie lowered her hands, obviously trying to calm down her nerves. “I had no idea the party Jay was taking me to was for...well, you.”
“And you wouldn’t have come if you had known I would be here?” Again, words were formulating before Chad had thought them through. He sighed, shaking his head mournfully. “I’m sorry, Katie. Forget I said that. It’s just—I feel like two worlds are colliding right now and I am not sure if I am ready for it.”
“That makes two of us.” She offered him a sad smile. “I can’t even bring myself to look at Jay right now. I am not sure what he thought he was going to accomplish by bringing me here.”
Chad did. He had brought her here on purpose, gloating that he had won the war. That said, Jay was not a stupid man. He also had to know the hail storm of anger that would be coming from Katie after pulling a stunt like that.
“Are you okay?” Chad asked instead. Katie was not a stupid woman, either. She would be putting Jay’s selfish reasons together, too.
“Yeah, of course.” She waved a hand dismissively. “Looks like things are going well for you, too. Congrats, by the way. Your new song was great. You’ll be burnin’ up the charts with it in no time.”
Pride beamed within him. “Thanks, Katie. That means a lot, especially coming from you.” He watched as a deep pink blush crept up her cheeks, and a wave of satisfaction spread through him.
“I’m really glad you got back into doing what you love. Your passion for music was so clear when you were up on that stage singing. No one should walk away from something that they feel that passionate about.”
Instinctively, Chad’s hand twitched. He caught himself just before he reached up to brush his thumb across her cheek.That’s how I felt about you, Katie...The swell of emotion burned within him. It would be so easy to tell her nothing has changed since—
“Are you happy with him, Katie?” He regretted the words as soon as they left his mouth, not only because it wasn’t a polite thing to ask, but also because her face shadowed in response, and he knew then what her answer would be.
“I...” She was struggling to find the words to answer him. “I’m trying,” she stated finally. Chad raised an eyebrow.
It had been months—since she chose to work things out with Jay, and since she told Chad she loved him but couldn’t be with him. She had saidthenthat she was going to try. The thought crossed Chad’s mind that no one should have to try that hard to love someone, but he was polite enough to keep that anecdote to himself.
“Mason and I are staying here in Nashville for three full weeks over Christmas, so I’ll know better afterwards where Jay and I truly stand. It’s been a big adjustment—the traveling back and forth, keeping Mason up to date in school, only being here for days at a time—it’s all made it very hard to really figure out if we’re—I don’t know—solid.”
“You mean like we were?” Chad grinned mischievously, but it didn’t reach his eyes. “We were good, you and I. There was definitely a foundation there. You know...solid.”
He held up his hands in mock surrender. “I know. Sorry, I couldn’t help it. You walked in here in that pretty, little red dress, and just turned my world on its axis. I thought maybe I was finally dealing with everything that happened. Seeing you has proved that is obviously not the case.” A strangled chuckle erupted from his throat, and Chad removed his cowboy hat momentarily to run his hand through his hair.
“I’m sorry, Chad. If I had known—”
“Katie, please stop apologizing. This is not your fault. It’s Jay’s, and I blame no one but him and his pride for it.”
“Well, there is something we can definitely agree on. If I had a drink, I’d clink it together with yours,” she said brightly.
“It’s safer if you don’t, seeing as I’d probably spill it again.”
Laughter erupted between them. The tension eased slightly, and the moment of brutal honesty and emotional truths had passed.
“You really do look beautiful tonight, Katie. That’s quite the outfit. Your hair barrette even matches.”
Her eyes lowered to the floor, reaching up to touch the intricate barrette tenderly. The heat crept up into her cheeks again. “Thanks. It’s all a bit too fancy, I think. But I quite like your countrified look, too. Especially the scruff. I’m a fan of the facial hair, I must say.”
“I’m glad someone approves.” Just this morning, Barry had been giving him a hard time about needing to shave.
Katie’s eyes scanned the room. When they finally rested on him again, she said, “I should probably get going.”
“Sure, of course. That’s probably wise, actually.”
“I think I know what you mean.”
“This is hard.” Chad swallowed audibly.
“It’ll be easier if I don’t see you, to be honest. Probably easier for you, too.” Katie was biting her lip, her eyes searching his for understanding.
All he could do was nod. It might be easier, but he didn’t want easier. He wanted Katie.
“I just can’t believe you would do that to me! Or to him, for that matter.” Katie barked at Jay, unable to bring herself to glance over at him as he drove home. Instead, she focused her attention on her seatbelt, fiddling with it as she tried unsuccessfully to get it buckled before he put to car into gear.
“Don’t worry about him, Katie. But, you’re right. I shouldn’t have done that to you.”
She heard the seatbelt click into place and raised her head, waiting for him to continue. When he didn’t, her eyes widened even further. “You aren’t even going to apologize, are you?”
A scoff escaped Jay’s throat. “Of course, I am. I’m sorry. You know I am. I shouldn’t have brought you here tonight.” His gaze never wavered from the road stretching out before him, and Katie leaned back against the seat, her nerves bundled tight and tense with frustration.
“What the hell did you think you were going to gain from tonight? I mean, other than hurting Chad, and embarrassing me?”
“Katie, calm down, okay?” His hands clenched the steering wheel tighter. “I guess I was just—”
“Just what, Jay? Trying to see how I would react when I saw him? Well, how’s this for a reaction? Stop the damn car.” Katie pulled wildly at the door handle. Thankfully, the doors had automatically locked once the car was in motion, but Jay’s eyes still went wide when he stole a glance in her direction.
“Katie! Christ, stop it! You’ll get yourself hurt!” His hand gripped her arm in an attempt to stay her movements, and Katie flung his fingers from her skin.
“Get your damn hands off me!”
“Then stop trying to jump out of a moving car!” Jay had pulled onto the highway, his eyes flitting from the yellow line to Katie, and then back again.
She knew her actions were ridiculous, and frankly she didn’t care. “Stop the car, Jay. I’m getting out.”
“And going where, exactly? We’re a fifteen-minute drive away from the apartment and you’re wearing a party dress with a light jacket. This may not be Canada, Katie, but it’s still December.”
Katie huffed in frustration, leaning back against the seat. She would freeze. Her high-heeled sandals weren’t exactly ideal footwear for a hike, either. “What was the point of tonight? Tell me.”
“Some of the artists I work with were attending—”
“Why werewethere, Jay? You purposely invited me, knowing full well—”
He rested both hands back on the wheel, seemingly confident enough that she’d calmed down enough to stay in the car. “I let my pride get the best of me. I really am sorry.”
She snapped her head around to look at him. “Your pride? You took me to Chad’s release party to prove a point? To ruin his night? Wow, you should be really ashamed of yourself. You do know that, right?”
The venom on her tongue must have stung; she saw him flinch. “I said I’m sorry.”
“It’s not me you should be saying sorry to, Jay. It’s Chad.”
Jay slammed his hands down hard on the steering wheel. “I won’t be apologizing to him! I made a mistake, I admit it. I just wanted to show off my fiancée. I wanted to showhimhow far we’ve come.”
Her anger flared again. “There’s only one problem with that, Jay. I amnotyour fiancée, and you need to remember that.”
“You were, though. Before...everything. Before him.”
“Go to hell,” she snapped. “Don’t you dare blame him for the breakup of our engagement. That one’s on you, in case you don’t remember.”
Silence ensued, and they both sat unmoving, seething. Katie clenched and unclenched her fists repeatedly, as she stared blankly out the passenger window, trying desperately to relieve some of the tension coursing through her veins. “This was all a bad idea. I shouldn’t be here.”
For a moment, she wondered if Jay had heard her. “Don’t say that, please,” he pleaded, finally. “I screwed up—”
“You’re damn right, you did.”
He’d pulled the car back out onto the road, and the rhythmic ticking of the turning signal echoed through the car as Jay turned it onto their street. “I know. Let’s just start over—”
“How many times are we going to do that?”
“Just give me one last chance. I promise, I will never do something like that again.”
Katie exhaled loudly. How many times was she going to let him say stuff like that? Honestly, why did she let him? She knew how he was,whohe was, and she knew she didn’t want to be with him.
“Just give me Christmas,” he added. “Three weeks with you and Mason here, and if it’s not working then...” He let his sentence drift into the silence.
“You need to apologize to Chad.” Katie saw him stiffen slightly, but he nodded in response.
“If I see him, I will. I promise.”
She didn’t believe him, but refused to argue anymore. “I’ve decided I will leave in two days for the farm. There is a flight leaving at a decent time and I’ll only be gone a few days.”
Jay must have taken the turn in conversation as confirmation that she was still agreeing to stay for Christmas, as she saw his shoulders lower visibly. “Sure, whatever you need. I’m not complaining, but that is definitely going to be a whirlwind of a trip for you.”
“It will be, but I know what needs to be done to be able to leave the house unattended. It shouldn’t take me long. Besides, I don’t want Mason to get too bored.”
“If you’re only going for a few days, maybe Mason could stay here with me.” His words were riddled with uncertainty.
“What about work?” Katie questioned.
“You let me worry about that.” He offered her a sly grin, but his gaze was still unsteady. He was waiting for her to turn him down.
“You know what?” She held up her hands in surrender. “If you think you can make time to hang out with Mason for a few days, then I will take the flight home by myself. Are you sure?” One last chance to back out.
“Of course, we’ll be fine.” He dismissed the thought with a wave of his hand, but his eyes gave away the nervousness behind them. “We’ll eat potato chips and watch football games. You know, guy stuff.”
“Good luck with that,” Katie snorted. “Mason doesn’t have much interest in most sports. Come to think of it, neither do you.”
He shrugged, a smile highlighting his face once again. “We will figure it out, Katie. Don’t you worry your pretty little head about it.”
Worry pulsed through her veins, though, and she knew Jay enough to know that the same thing was happening to him. Mason had grown up a lot since Jay had spent any extended period of time alone with him. The boy had been through a lot, too, and some of that had been caused by Jay. It was anyone’s guess what a child so wise beyond his years, would say or do.
Good, she thought spitefully.You can see what you’ve missed over the last nine months since you walked out on us.
“It’s going to be okay, Katie.”
Jay’s words rang through the silence, causing her to face him and exhale. She was scowling and hadn’t been aware of it. He’d noticed, however.
“Of course. Yeah, I know.” She nodded again, more to convince herself than him. Leaning her head back on the seat rest, she stared aimlessly out the windshield as the apartment building came into view. Everything might turn out okay, but Katie realized, at this moment, she didn’t even know what that meant.
Three days. That’s how long it had been since Katie unknowingly waltzed through the entrance of the convention hall, and subsequently turned him into a complete mental wreck. Four days ago, he had been planning the next steps in his career, throwing himself back into his work, and—for the most part, anyway—looking ahead at what the future would hold for him.
Now, he was at a standstill, and his heart was reeling from the glimpse he’d been given of what he’d lost. He wanted to thank the heavens above for bringing her back to him, while at the same time, fighting the urge to curse fate for its role in her unforeseen return. He was conflicted, and unsure how to react. There was also the matter of the silver and ruby hair barrette. He turned it over again, and again, in his hands, the metal warm from the heat of his constant handling.
Barry had coerced him into having one last beer after the party had come to a close—another bottle that still remained mostly full by the time he finally caught a ride home from Barry’s wife, the designated driver for the band. They’d stood there in the hall, leaning comfortably against the appetizer tables, the bright lights now all on as the staff began to clean. When the cleanup staff began to speak in low voices and a middle-aged woman raised the barrette in the air to question whether anyone recognized it, a flash flooded his memory of Katie’s beautiful face and curled hair with the barrette situated strategically behind her left ear. Disappointment shadowed the cleaning woman’s face, but he quickly pocketed the barrette, citing he would return it to its rightful owner.
However, it had been three long days since that night and he still had yet to do it. Back and forth, his mind constantly teetered between seeking Katie out in order to give it back, or tossing the damn thing in the trash, and pretending like he had never seen her in that form fitting dress and high heels. The jury was still out as to which side of the battle would win.
That’s not fair, he chastised himself.If she had found something of yours, she would return it to you.
Or would she?
It’ll be easier if I don’t see you. Her words cut through him once again. He understood why she’d uttered them, of course, but that didn’t make it any easier to withstand.
He was being immature. It was just a barrette, and he knew he should return it. Unfortunately, there was an unfavorable process he would have to go through in order to do so, and that process caused even more turmoil on his heart.
Just call her. It’s for Katie.
He shook his head at how cruel fate could be, and then reluctantly pulled his cell phone from his back pocket. He searched through the numbers in his phone’s directory; he’d removed her from his speed dial months ago. As the phone rang shrilly in his ear, he struggled to level his breathing.
“Well, hi. This must be one hell of an emergency.” Liz’s greeting caught him off guard and he suddenly found himself nervous and unsure of what to say to the woman he’d spent so much of his adult life with.
“Uh, hey. Look, I was hoping you could help me with something.”
He could practically hear her smiling on the other end of the phone. “And here I thought you were calling to rub my nose in your new success. Good for you, by the way. The new single’s doing well on the radio, from what I hear.”
She was right.Crossing That Linehad been welcomed with open arms by radio and digital downloads. Country music fans were liking what they heard. “Thanks, Liz, but that wasn’t really what I was calling about.”
“What is it you need, babe?”
Don’t call me babe, was the first thing he thought of requesting, but it was better to play nice. “I need Jay’s address here in town.”
Silence greeted his request and, for a moment, he wondered if she had hung up. “I have got to tell you, I didnotsee that one coming.”
“Believe me, I wouldn’t be asking if I didn’t need it. Katie’s staying there.”
“Katie.” Liz spoke her name bluntly. “Well, I didn’t think you would be going to see Jay.”
He blew a long breath out. “Come on, Liz. Will you give me the address or not?”
“Desperation never was a good color on you, Chad.” She rhymed off the address.
Chad scribbled it on the notepad he kept on the counter for impromptu song lyric ideas. “Thank you. I appreciate it.”
“She must really mean something to you,” she goaded.
“It’s not like that.”
“Chad, I may not know exactly how the sad country song ended, but I was privy to some of the sad, emotional struggle that it derived from. I know exactly how it is.” They said their curt goodbyes and Chad closed his phone, his gaze set firmly on the address scrawled so messily on the notepad.
Was he crazy to show up there, especially after she’d basically told him not to? Probably. But the constant back and forth battle waging in his mind for the past three days was beginning to torture him, perhaps even more than if she turned him away at her door. Besides, it would be worth it despite the outcome. He’d get to see her pretty face once more.
Chad pulled his truck into one of the marked visitor parking spots at the apartment building, cringing at the squeak reverberating as he pushed down on the brake pedal. He made a mental note to book the truck into one of the garages near his place to get it fixed. Shielding his eyes from the sun that shone high above him, he considered the apartment building that stood before him. Over seven hundred miles separated it from Canada, yet it struck him that Jay’s apartment complex here seemed to look a lot like the building he and Katie had once lived in back home. As he strode through the lobby doors and headed for the elevators, the rich, feminine decor of the halls confirmed it. Maybe all high-end apartments and condos looked similar, he wouldn’t know.
He consulted the folded paper held tightly in his hand once more, confirming he had the right suite number. He hesitated before knocking, silently rehearsing what he planned to say when he saw her. Unfortunately, the door swung open prematurely to reveal a shocked looking Jay, causing the planned dialogue to dissipate into the furthest depths of his mind.
“You have got to be kidding.” Jay stood unmoving, his gaze fixed firmly on Chad’s face.
“What’s wrong?” Katie came around the corner and stopped at the sight of him. Part of her face was obstructed from view by Jay’s shoulder, but her eyes spoke volumes.
“I was just...” Chad swallowed, starting again. “The cleaners found your hair barrette after the party the other night. I thought...” He trailed off, unsure what else to say in explanation.
“Go back to work, Jay. It’s fine.” Katie put a hand on his shoulder, and Jay whirled around, disbelief hardening his expression. He opened his mouth and promptly closed it again.
“It’s fine,” Katie stated again more assertively.
Jay turned his gaze back to Chad once more, blinked twice, and then pushed past him toward the elevators.
“How very ‘Cinderella’ of you,” Katie smirked, holding out her hand.
“Pardon?” He placed the hair barrette in her hand, letting his hand linger against hers a moment too long.
“You know, hunting me down to return my glass slipper...”
“If you had lost your shoe at the party, I would’ve had to assume you were just drunk.”
Katie burst out laughing, stepping back to allow him into the apartment. “I guess you would be right about that.”
Chad took a few steps in and shut the door behind him. “If I’m being honest, Katie, the truth is...I had to see you.”
“And why is that?” She challenged him, laying the barrette down on the glass-topped coffee table. She waved her hand, offering him a seat on the oversized armchair to her left. He nodded gratefully as he sat.
“For such a big city it seems cramped and suffocating, just knowing you’re here.”
“I feel like I should be apologizing for that.”
“Don’t,” Chad pleaded, shaking his head. “I didn’t mean it that way. It’s just...how it feels. You’re so close, yet so far away. It’s like having a friend that you’re not allowed to talk to anymore.”
“And is that what you want to be? Friends?”
Was she trying to make him admit he was looking for more commitment than she could offer? He wasn’t going to take the bait. “I’ll take moments of your time any way I can get them, Katie.”
Her unwavering gaze met his, and he watched her jaw clench and release, mulling over something in silence.
“I’ve got a surprise for you.” She stood up and disappeared around the corner beyond the kitchen nook, leaving Chad alone with his confusion. He listened as a door opened and a series of low whispers were heard. He’d just realized there was no radio playing within the apartment, the way Katie had always done at the farm, when the thumping of running footsteps caught his attention and a seven-year-old boy came barreling around the corner, Katie grinning widely behind him.
“Little Man Mason!” He hit his knees in front of the armchair, embracing the boy in a tight hug. “How’s it going?”
“Okay! Mom is going to take me to the zoo!” Mason exclaimed excitedly.
Laughter erupted from Chad’s throat. “You’re pretty lucky! I have heard it’s a pretty cool place to go.”
“Maybe you can come with us!” Mason offered, stealing a glance in Katie’s direction.
“Your Dad is going to go with us, if he can.” She waited until her son had turned back around to shrug apologetically at Chad.
“That’s a great offer, Mase. You can tell me all about it, though, okay?”
Katie interjected, to abate the awkwardness. “Hey, Mase. Remember what I told you in the bedroom?”
He looked to his mother, nodding. “That Chad had a surprise for me.” Mason grinned wildly, snapping his gaze back to Chad in anticipation. Chad, bewildered, turned his gaze to Katie for answers, only to see her holding up a flimsily wrapped package. Recognition registered immediately.
“You kept it?” he murmured softly.
Katie just nodded. “I did. But it’s yours to give him.”
Chad reached out to take the package from her, handing it over into Mason’s eager little hands. “That’s your birthday gift from me, buddy. It’s a little late, and it’s not wrapped very well, but at least it made it to you.” He watched in fascination as the little boy ripped into the racecar wrapping paper to reveal a harmonica wrapped in velvet and an instruction booklet.
“Cool!” Mason immediately pushed the instrument to his lips and blew, making a horrid, high-pitched sound emit from it. Laughter erupted, but he shrugged it off.
“You’ll get better at it, I promise.” Chad reached out to tousle his hair affectionately.
“Thanks, Chad! It’s awesome! Maybe I can play in your band someday.”
The comment caught him off guard, and he turned to Katie. She held up her hands. “He knows you’re Chad Ashton. He Googled you.”
“Never mind playing in the band. I might need you to teach me all that techy stuff you obviously already know.”
Mason spent the next half hour trying to play one of the tunes from the booklet, much to his dog Cash’s discomposure. He was never too far away from his side, but Chad and Katie were able to continue their conversation over Mason’s musical attempts.
“So, your plans are to stay here for Christmas? That’ll be nice for you two.”
Katie nodded. “Yeah. I’m headed back in two days to make some arrangements for the farmhouse to be checked on while I’m away. You never know what kind of weather or temperatures could hit.”
“The livestock is being tended to by someone else?”
Katie’s gaze faltered. “I sold all of them. It was getting too hard to give the animals the attention they needed while bouncing back and forth between here and there. I was paying the farmer down the road more to look after them than I was making back by having them. They’re all gone.”
His throat constricted. “But the farm itself, you didn’t—”
“Sell it? God, no. Jay might want me to, but that’s one battle he’s not going to win.”
Chad nodded, a shiver of pride blossoming inside him.Good for you, he cheered silently. He knew how much that place meant to her. “He wants you to sell it and just move here?”
“He wants me to reallytry.” She made quotations with her fingers. “These next few weeks will show where we’re truly at with each other.” Her voice lowered as she spoke, uncertain how much Mason could hear over his blazing harmonica melodies.
“I miss you, Katie.” Chad blurted the words he had been waiting to say since he’d shown up. He expected her to tell him to stop, to be mad or frustrated with him.
Instead, she nodded. “I miss you, too.”
A small triumphant smile tugged the corner of his mouth upward.
“But I mean it. Jay and I need to really put in an effort—”
“I’ve got it, Katie.” He raised his hands. “It’s okay.”
Mason whirled back around the corner of the sofa with Cash lagging exhaustedly behind him. “Did Mom tell you Dad wants to get married? To her, I mean?”
“Mason!” Katie turned seven shades of embarrassed, which confused the boy even more.
“What? Dad keeps talking—”
“No, she didn’t mention it, Mase.” Chad did his best to wave the subject off dismissively, seeing Katie’s evident discomfort.
“Go get washed up for lunch, okay? I seem to have lost track of time today.”
Mason was still staring at her with a befuddled expression as he turned the corner and disappeared down the hallway.
“I wasn’t keeping it from you on purpose, Chad.”
“It’s okay. It’s none of my business.” He stood up, feeling the air in the room growing thick with tension.
“Jay’s been bringing it up, and I am very much against it,” she continued to explain. “I want to have a big ole’ beautiful wedding ceremony and a cake and a party someday, but not right now.”
“And not with him.” He locked eyes with her.
“Don’t do that. Please.” Her gaze flitted to the floor as she stood, wiping nonexistent dust from her black pants. “And don’t follow me back to Canada, okay?”
He arched an eyebrow at her. “What makes you think I would?”
“You have done crazier things.” The corner of her mouth twitched. “I’ll be back.”
Chad glanced around the room, plucking a marker and paper from Mason’s drawing supplies on the coffee table. He scribbled vehemently and handed it to her. “I’m glad to hear it. When you do come back, feel free to call me or stop by.”
Katie took the paper from him, eying him warily. After a moment’s hesitation, she bent to scribble on one of the pieces of paper and handed it over to him.
“And that’s my cell number.”
“You have a real cell phone now? I never thought I would see the day.”
Katie laughed, and the sound made him smile. “Only because there isn’t a landline phone here,” she advised.
Chad tucked the paper into the back pocket of his jeans, knowing he would have to remember to save it in his phone’s directory later that night.
“So, friends?” He held out his hand toward her.
Katie chuckled softly, slipping her hand into his and shaking it gently. “Friends.”
She was far from surprised when Jay came home earlier than usual from work, a few brightly colored file folders and CD cases tucked under his arm.
“What was he doing here, Katie?” he demanded to know once he had deposited his armful of stuff onto the kitchen counter.
She’d known Jay would be disgruntled about Chad’s appearance—and frankly she expected an argument to arise from it—but the blame and annoyance in his voice still put her on edge. “You heard him. He found my barrette and returned it.”
“It sounds like a flimsy excuse to me.” Jay tossed his cell and wallet into his pile of belongings on the counter, the abrupt clatter causing her to turn around and face him.
“You bought me that barrette, and seemed more than a little frustrated with me when I realized it had fallen out. You should be thanking him instead of insinuating that—what exactly are you insinuating?” She pulled the oven mitts from her hands, pushing the buttons on the timer a bit more aggressively than she needed to.
“You didn’t seem unhappy to see him, Katie.”
She suppressed an eye roll. “I wasn’t unhappy to see him! Why the hell would I be? I was a bit surprised, I will admit that, but he did me a favor by returning something I had lost. No more, no less. You can stop grasping at straws in your jealous stupor any time.”
“You can sit there and say—”
A loud honk from the harmonica cut through their argument as Mason appeared around the corner, the instrument held closely to his lips. “What’s wrong?”
His question resulted in a brief silence and short glances at one at another.
“Sorry, Mase. It was just a silly argument.” Katie flashed him a halfhearted smile but it didn’t reach her eyes. “Supper is almost ready, buddy.”
Jay bent down to give his son a quick hug. “Hey, pal. Where did you get that nifty little thing?”
Mason held out the gold colored harmonica proudly. “Chad gave it to me for my birthday! It’s late, but it’s still cool.”
Jay snapped his head around to glare at Katie. “Is that so?”
She purposely turned away from him, checking the minutes left on the timer, then opening the oven door to inspect the chicken within it. “It’s been here a while, Jay. I was eventually going to just give it to Mason myself, but—”
“But Chad showed up here and the present just happened to be here, too. Expecting him, were you?”
Katie slammed the baking pan down on top of the oven and turned it off. “No! Would you stop that? Mason loves the harmonica, can we just leave it at that?” She peered over to see Mason, wide eyed and uncertain, watching the two of them bicker back and forth. “It’s okay. Dinner is ready, though, so can we take a break from the harmonica melodies for a bit and go wash up?”
He obediently nodded, his gaze flickering down to the instrument in his hand as though it were the reason for all the fighting. He disappeared silently around the corner again, his dejected features tugging at Katie’s heart strings.
“You need to calm down, Jay.” Her words came out as a venomous hiss, trying hard to keep her voice low. “Mason doesn’t need to see us fighting all the time, especially when it’s for no reason.”
“And you think Chad Kirkwood is ‘no reason’ for me to be angry? Giving my son gifts and juststopping byfor visit?” Jay made air quotations with his fingers. The look of disgust on his face angered Katie even more.
“We’re friends, Jay. Nothing more. And Mason was glad to see him, too. Just let it go for now, all right?” She shook her head. This conversation was going nowhere fast and Mason did not need to be here for it.
“I missed him, Daddy.” Mason’s small voice rang through the air, his admission catching them both off guard. His hands were red from scrubbing them, and the harmonica was still clutched tightly between his fingers.
A loud sigh escaped Jay’s throat. “Mason, you do not need to—”
His father’s tone of voice must have made him assume he had said or done something wrong. His eyes were wide with fear. “So did Mom!”
“Mason!” Jay bellowed. “I don’t want to hear it!”
“But she said she did!” he cried, looking over frantically to Katie for support.
The color drained from Katie’s face. “It’s okay, Mase—”
“No, it’s not! Mason, put that damn harmonica away like your mother told you!” Jay pointed accusingly at the toy in his son’s hand, his face turning red with bubbling anger.
“She said not to play it! I won’t—”
Jay lunged forward, snatching the harmonica from the little boy’s hand, and threw it angrily back toward the hallway, the metal casing thumping hard against the drywall. Mason began to wail immediately, a flood of tears and cries for Katie erupting from him as he ran to her.
“Christ, Jay!” She stared at him incredulously, Mason wrapped up tightly in her arms. “What’s gotten into you?” She stroked her son’s hair gently, whispering hushed shushing noises in between blinking back tears of her own.
“Go check on your harmonica, okay, Mr. Mase? Take it into your room and I’ll bring dinner in there so we can watch Ninja Turtles and camp out on the bed, okay?” She pulled away from him to peer at his tear stained face through his bangs. A meek nod was all she got in response, and he ran down the hallway into the refuge of his room, without once looking back at Jay.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” Katie turned to him, her face distorted in disbelief and anger. “Whatever it is, don’t you dare take it out on him!” She pointed toward Mason’s bedroom door.
“Katie, I am not trying to make things work just so that Chad goddamn Kirkwood—”
“If this is youtrying,” she motioned furiously between them, “then you’re not very good at it. What did you think was going to happen? Purposely throwing Chad back into my life like that? This is all on you, Jay, not him!”
“Ourlife! I was proving a damn point! You’re with me, not him! And I wanted him to damn well know it!”
“You’re an idiot,” Katie blurted out. “A jealous, raging idiot, with no concern for anyone but yourself and your stupid pride.” The thought flitted through her mind that she, too, was being idiotic, allowing herself and Mason to continually endure this kind of living arrangement purely for the sake of ‘trying’ to make something work that very obviously wasn’t. She silently pulled two plates from the cupboard and began to dish out portions onto each of them. Jay could dish out his own. She could hear him pacing on the other side of the kitchen island but didn’t turn around.
“You’ll have to go in and apologize to Mason. It’ll be a long few days together while I’m at the farm if you don’t.” She tried to even out her tone in hopes of dissipating the anger and tension between them.
“You need to just sell that damn place, Katie. And let go of everything associated with it. Maybe, then, we would actually have a fighting chance.” Jay, however, didn’t seem the least bit interested in lessening the animosity. She knew he was referring to Chad as the thing ‘associated with’ the farm, but she refused to take the bait.
“I’m not selling it, Jay. We’ve been through this. It was my Dad’s home—”
“And your father is dead, Katie. Dead.”
She turned sharply, fixing her glare on him. She swallowed hard but kept her face stone-like, the steam rising steadily from the two dishes she held. She saw no remorse for his words or his actions. She left him standing alone in the kitchen nook as she trudged down the hall to Mason’s bedroom, refusing to even dignify his ruthless, biting words with an answer.
Katie should have been tired. After a prolonged goodbye to Mason (he had begun to cry as soon as she’d slammed the trunk lid down on her luggage bag), a curt, tense exchange with Jay about the things he needed to remember with regard to Mason’s care, more than a few moments of second guessing her decision to leave Mason alone with him at all, then a six hour flight with a delayed stopover, a long lineup while she waited to pick up her rental car, and a struggle getting a wood fire lit once she finally did make it to the farm, Katie knew she should have been burnt out and ready for sleep. She and Mason had just been talking, only a few days ago, about missing the comfy old double bed they’d spent numerous Saturday mornings cuddled up in together, planning out their activities for their day on the farm. She should have been eager to climb into that bed and rest her exhausted body.
Instead, she was no more prepared for sleep than she was for the deafening silence and loneliness that welcomed her home. The animals and birds had made more noise, and offered more companionship than she had realized. She wandered around the barnyard, peeking into the vacant chicken coop, and running her hands along the old barn beams that made up the horse stalls as she passed. Sporadic flakes of snow began to drift slowly from the darkening sky above her, only adding to the cold and forgotten feel of her surroundings.
It all seemed so void of feeling somehow. Such a lack of attachment and purpose.
Maybe I could walk away from here for good, she thought, staring grimly at the outbuildings and fencing, as the snowflakes began to land on them and remain visible. The moment she dragged herself back onto the porch and into the warmth of the house’s interior, Katie was reminded almost immediately of exactly why she couldn’t do such a thing. Seeing the cedar planks adorning the walls of the cozy kitchen brought reminiscent tears to her eyes, and she could once again visualize the time she and her father had spent remodeling the old farmhouse to suit his rustic sense of decor. She may not be able to see him anymore, or hold his frail hands, but she could sense her Dad’s presence when she was within these walls, and she’d be damned if she would give that up to suit someone else’s needs.
Instead of attempting to achieve the sleep she knew wouldn’t yet come, Katie grabbed the only bottle of cheap wine she had left in the house, snatched the radio from the kitchen window, and ran a bath. She let the water turn as hot as she could physically handle before pushing the plug in and letting the old claw foot bathtub fill. She inhaled the steam as it wafted into the air, quickly creating a film of condensation across the oval shaped mirror above the sink.
She may have gasped as she inched herself into the scalding water, cursing herself for letting it get so hot, but within minutes her head was rested comfortably along the bathtub rim and her muscles and joints were growing less tense.
Tomorrow, she would visit the farmer down the road and hopefully arrange a deal with him to check on the house and property while she was in Nashville over Christmas, but tonight she had little else to occupy her time except over-thinking everything, and eventually—hopefully—sleeping. Therefore, drinking wine from the bottle and listening to the radio while she waited for the water to cool seemed like the only logical option.
The chill from within her bones slowly dissipated as her mind floated over thoughts of all that had happened in the past few days.
And thoughts of Chad.
It was all supposed to be over with him, and yet Katie felt as though this was just the beginning. Even now, being back at Rustic Acres—the place she and Chad had sparked their friendship and bloomed their quiet affections for one another—she was sure she was closer to him somehow, despite being hundreds of miles away. Months ago, Katie had been convinced she would be able to turn her back on his kind of love, even if just for the sake of her son to have his father in his daily life—to have anormallife. But then she’d seen Chad, in all his glory, up on that stage, his husky voice crooning so beautifully with the music his band played. Then, he’d talked to her as though no time had passed between them at all. He missed her just as much as she missed him, and she liked the thought of having someone miss her like that.
She had been away from Mason less than a day, yet she yearned to see his face and hear his uplifting chatter. She had yet to give Jay a second thought, however, save for fleeting moments when she questioned herself as to why she ever thought trying to build a relationship with him again would ever work out. It was impossible to build anything on a crumbling foundation, and the strong and sturdy foundation on which she and Jay’s love for each other had once been constructed, was nothing more than dust now, eroded by broken promises and shattered hearts. There was nothing left between them, she could see that now. So, why was it so hard to admit it when Jay was in her presence? Why couldn’t she just tell him—or better yet, how could he not see it? Their days together since the fall had been filled with snippy comments, full out arguments, and tip toeing around the truth of their unhappiness. Only a few moments broke through that web of discontent and registered on Katie’s radar as happy moments. Yet, Jay still seemed to believe there was something left worth clinging on to.
Was she the one being unreasonable, dooming them before really giving it one last chance?Thatwas the problem: She didn’t want to be the one who would be unwilling to try. In the end, she feared being deemed the thoughtless one who refused to try to keep their family together. She worried too much about how it affected other people, perhaps, but it was the truth nonetheless. And despite the knowledge that Jay had already walked away from their impending marriage and family life once, he wanted to put it all back together again. It pained her to think that if it didn’t work this time, it could be blamed on her actions.
Maybe I’m just as selfish as I think he is, she thought idly.Maybe we deserve each other…and the misery that being together brings.
A string of familiar chords pulled Katie from her dark thoughts, and she stared at the radio suspiciously. As Chad Ashton’s brand new single played through the static, she stared up at the ceiling hopelessly, wondering if perhaps misery had a way of following her so as to always keep her company.
Despite being filled with promotional events and endless hours in the recording studio, Chad found his days still managed to drag on, leaving him too much time to ruminate and not enough time to do anything about it.
Not that he knew what he would do about any of it, anyway. The more he analyzed Katie and Jay from his vantage point, the more confused he got. There were conflicting signals from both sides: Katie seemed hell-bent on sticking by Jay, despite admitting she missedhim. Jay seemed determined to keep Katie as his own, despite having already left her once—for Chad’s ex, no less—and lacking trust in her. Why could neither of them see how deranged their relationship was? Chad knew his own opinion was biased, caring little about how anything affected Jay and being more invested in Katie’s welfare than he probably should be. It’s funny how that happened after falling in love with someone.
The whole messy cluster of emotions and uncertainty led him to the present moment, sprawled out across his black leather sofa staring mindlessly at the slip of paper he turned over repeatedly between his fingertips. If he thought about it hard enough, he could still picture Katie’s hand moving effortlessly as she scrawled her cell number onto it. Since then, it remained either tucked in his wallet, travelling with him from each radio interview and meeting, or placed beside the papers strewn about his coffee table he’d been scribbling down song ideas on, like a tangible muse he could consult when needed. He’d written two additional words on that scrap of paper, too, to match one of his song ideas.
Friends, she’d said. He had been foolish to agree, but just as desperate to not lose her completely. Was he a despicable person for wanting to remain on the sidelines to be there for her? The cracks were beginning to show in the makeshift exterior of her relationship with Jay, and then what? When it all came crashing down, he needed to make certain he was there to show Katie she hadn’t lost everything just because she didn’t have Jay anymore. She would havehim. And he wanted her to have him. Yeah, despicable was a good word to describe him.
Yet, he did it anyway. He plucked his cell phone from the table beside him and thumb dialed the number into his phone for safe keeping. Instead of calling, though, he texted her. Somehow the action seemed more distant, less invasive. He knew she was in Canada, anyway; there was a chance she wouldn’t even have her phone turned on. The roaming charges could add up quickly once the border was crossed. He’d learned that the hard way during one of his first shows in Toronto.
Hey, it’s Chad. Just wanted to say hello...and make sure you made it into the Great White North okay.He sent the text and let out a long sigh, making sure to slip the scrap of paper back into his wallet. The doorbell-sounding alert of his phone sounded loud in the silent living room, and a swell of happiness flooded through him at the sight of her words.
Pleasant surprise. Made it here fine. Can you call me instead? Not good with this whole texting thing.
Chad chuckled as he redialed her number.
“That was fast,” she greeted him.
“Faster than waiting for you to figure out how to text.”
“Easy, Kirkwood. This cell phone stuff is not for the technologically impaired.”
“I’ll keep that in mind. How was your trip?” Chad stretched his legs out again on the couch, his arm swung back behind his head.
“Long. This seems like the day that will never end.” Weariness was shrouding her voice, mixed in with the muffled sound of music.
“And is the new Carrie Underwood album helping you get through it?”
She laughed. “I have the radio playing. I need some kind of noise to keep me company here. It’s silent as a tomb, I swear. You kept me company about twenty minutes ago, actually. Well, Chad Ashton did.”
He bit back a smile. “I’m going to have to talk to that guy about following you around.”
“Don’t bother. I happen to like that new song of his. He can follow me around anytime,” she chuckled, and Chad’s ear picked up on another sound.
“Was that water splashing?”
“I happen to be relaxing in the bathtub.”
Chad swallowed hard, desperate to keep the mental images at bay. “Now I feel like I’m intruding.”
“You are. How dare you interrupt my date night with the radio and a bottle of wine?”
He could practically hear her grinning through the phone line. “So you like the new single?” It was a feeble attempt at luring the conversation onto safer ground; as far away as he could get from the vivid images his mind conjured of Katie chin deep in the steaming water of the bathtub.
“It’s great, actually. Back to the roots of what country music used to be. Don’t get me wrong, I love listening to the newer breed of artists, but there’s something to be said about the timelessness of a song you can picture George Strait or Alan Jackson singing.”
Chad didn’t even know what to say. He’d spent years trying to explain exactly that to Liz, and here Katie was, trying to explain it tohim. “If you didn’t already have it, I would say you’re a woman after my own heart.”
“My dad and I used to listen to the radio and he would quiz me on singers’ names and song titles. It became a daily game. I got my love of that twangy, honky tonk type of country music honestly.”
“That sounds like a great way to grow up. My dad was the one telling me to put the damn guitar away and get a real job.” More bitterness came out in his statement than he expected. “Maybe I should send him a copy of my album when it comes out, just to prove a point.” He let a laugh escape his lips, trying to lighten the mood.
“Your dad didn’t approve of your decision to go to Nashville, I take it?”
“My dad sold my one and only guitar—my first guitar—to buy alcohol when I was in the twelfth grade. Supportive was definitely not in his vocabulary.”
Katie hesitated. “I’m sorry, Chad. I didn’t realize your father was an alcoholic.”
“I don’t know if he ever realized it, either. Besides, I don’t announce it, so it’s not like you would know. He is one of the reasons I spent so much time there with Liz in her hometown.”
“When was the last time you had contact with your own family, Chad?” Katie’s tone indicated she already had a sinking suspicion what his answer would be.
“I speak to my mom and my sister every few months or so on the phone to let them know I’m all right. And to make sure they’re all right.”
“But you haven’t actually seen them?”
“Not since I was eighteen and left for Nashville,” he replied flatly.
“That was more than ten years ago!”
“Twelve to be exact, but thanks for reminding me I’m old.” His mouth twitched upward.
Katie exhaled audibly, and he knew she must have been trying to make sense of his story. He had given up on that a long time ago. “You had no one standing by you. But you were just a kid...” Her voice trailed off.
“I had Liz. She was my rock while we waited for eighteen candles on the cake to appear.” Even now, the admission of how much he had relied on his ex-wife throughout the years was hard to take.
“And when she left...” Katie cleared her throat as she approached the subject. “...with Jay, I mean—”
“That’s why it was so hard to bear, Katie. She really was my everything, and had been for so long that I couldn’t imagine continuing on the same path without her. So, it wasmyturn to leave.”
“And you headed straight back to her hometown.”
“The only place I’d ever felt comfortable.”
“The place you grew up with her.”
“The place I met you.”
Silence answered him. Chad was relieved she wasn’t sitting in front of him to see the wry smirk forming on his mouth. He could picture her now, her hair pulled up in a messy pile atop her head, the steam from the hot water rising slowly around her, her arm jutting over the edge of the tub with the wine bottle dangling from her fingertips. And right now, at that moment, she was thinking of him—the good times, the kiss they’d shared by bonfire light not so long ago—he was sure of it.
“I should have listened to you...from the beginning. I should have believed you.” Her voice came out weak, laced in a veil of regret.
Chad lowered his voice. “It’s okay, Katie. What’s done is done. I should have just told you the truth from the beginning. I should have...done a lot of things.”
“Me too,” she whispered. “Maybe things would have been different now.”
He wanted to tell her they could be. He wanted to tell her that they’d both made a series of wrong choices, but that putting herself and Mason through trying to make it work with Jay was the worst choice yet. He wanted to beg and plead with her to stop all the unneeded heartbreak and foolishness, and walk away from him for good.
“We’ve still got the future, Katie. The past is behind us, but we’ve still got the future ahead of us,” he said instead. Hope was furling inside him. What he once thought were only cracks in the foundation of her relationship with Jay, were actually wide, gaping holes, and the regret and unhappiness was pouring from them with aggressive power, threatening to destroy the entire formation. Katie regretted her choice; she wondered what could have been. That was all Chad needed to keep the hope alive within himself.
“I’m sorry. For how it all got so messed up.”
“Don’t give it a second thought, Katie.”
“Where does that leave us now?”
Chad had a few potential answers, but chose the safest one. “As friends.”
“Friends.” Katie repeated the word as though testing it on her tongue.
“Yes, friends. We were friends before, and we can remain that way still. And I think that, as my friend, you should call me when you get back to Nashville.” He inflected as much lightheartedness into his voice as he could muster.
“I’m not sure Jay would like that,” she admitted, and quickly gave him a vague rundown of the events that happened a few days ago. The thought of Jay being angry at Katie made his jaw clench involuntarily.
“Jay is not allowed to be upset, Katie, especially when he’s the one who brought us together again. I suppose I really should thank him,” Chad quipped.
“I thought we were over. I thought you and I were done. Why, now, does it seem like no time has passed between us?” Katie sounded distant. He resisted the urge to tell her to put the bottle of wine away.
“That’s how it is when you’re the kind of friends we are, Katie.”
“I can always count on you to make me smile.”
Chad bit his lip to suppress his grin. “Well, when you get back into Nashville and need a reason to smile, you know who to call.”
Katie was trying hard to be quiet as she shuffled through the door into Jay’s apartment just before midnight, which meant she ended up making more noise than she ever would have otherwise. She wasn’t even sure her eyes were focusing properly after being awake and in transit from the farm since seven o’clock that morning, but the darkness wasn’t helping the situation, and she groped the hallway wall for the light switch. It fleetingly occurred to her that she didn’t even know if the switch was on that wall, and cursed under her breath for the millionth time for ever having agreed to stay somewhere she was so unaccustomed to. She vowed to pay attention more to her surroundings once the sun rose again in the morning.
A startled yip escaped Katie’s throat and she whirled around to face the voice. At the same moment, Jay flicked the light on—using the switch on the other wall.
“You scared me. I couldn’t find the light switch.” She took in his comfortable appearance—plaid pajama pants, a white t-shirt, and tousled hair. He’d been asleep. She rarely saw him like this, always preferring to be all business with little need for downtime. She tilted her head to the side and idly wondered if a few days with Mason had maybe been good for him.
“Are you checking me out?” A sleepy smile played on his lips.
Katie shook her head, snapping herself out of her thoughts. “What? No. Sorry, just in a daze. I’m tired, I guess. How was your—”
“You were staring.” Jay’s grin grew wider as he stepped forward. “And now you’re blushing.”
“I am not,” she insisted, even though she could feel the heat rising in her cheeks. “I’m tired.” She stooped to grab the duffle bag from the floor, and Jay quickly eased it out of her hand into his own.
“I’m just playing, Katie. I’m glad you’re back.” He leaned in and pecked her cheek lightly. “Mason has missed you.”
She immediately picked up on the fact thathehadn’t missed her, but she left her thoughts unspoken. “The feeling is mutual, believe me. Is he asleep?”
“Has been for hours. He spent the afternoon at Julia’s with her boys again. I think it tuckered him out.”
Katie turned the lock on the apartment door and shimmied out of her jacket, leaving it hung on the back of the armchair. She would hang it properly in the morning when she felt she could see clearly. “Why did he go to the neighbour’s place for the afternoon?”
Jay’s posture stiffened. “I had to go to the office for a few hours to make up for staying home with Mason the day before. He didn’t want to go with me.”
Katie suppressed a disappointed sigh, not wanting to argue with him. Evidently, things hadnotchanged. She tried to walk past him, and his hand jutted out, flattening gently against her abdomen.
“Don’t be mad at me.” His eyes were locked with hers. “We’ve got three weeks, and I don’t want to spend it avoiding each other.”
She nodded her agreement. “Can the three weeks start tomorrow? I can barely hold my eyes open.” She offered him a halfhearted grin, mentally flipping a coin to decide whether she believed he would actually spend tomorrow with her and Mason or not. Heads, he wins; tails, she loses.
The sun had no sooner begun to peek through the apartment windows and Jay was up and rifling through his closet...for a suit jacket. Katie frustratingly chastised herself for not betting money on that mental coin toss from the night before.
“It’s the first day into this holiday thatyoutalked me into, and you’re leaving?” She was snapping at him as she followed him out into the kitchen, but she didn’t care. Lack of coffee and little sleep had that effect on her.
“I’ll make it up to you, Katie.” He pulled the pot from the coffeemaker and poured some into a travel mug.
“Do you ever get tired of saying that?”
He whirled around to face her squarely. “I said I was sorry, but I have to work. I have to make up for some of the time I spent here with Mason while you went off to Canada. What is it you want from me?”
“You said you’d be here, and yet you can’t get out that door fast enough. I want you to admit that this—” she motioned between them emphatically. “—isn’t working.”
Jay snatched his coffee mug from the counter, stepping closer to Katie in the process. “You may be right, Katie, but it’s because you don’t want it to.” His gazes flitted across her face, daring her to say otherwise. When she pursed her lips and stared back at him defiantly, he let out an angry chuckle. “You know what? I’m not having this conversation again. When Mason gets up, tell him I said I’ll call him later to say good morning.”
Katie watched him storm out of the apartment without looking back.
“You really shouldn’t watch this show, Mr. Mase. It will rot your mind.”
Mason giggled, perched in front of the flat screen television as SpongeBob SquarePants dawdled across the screen. He turned slightly, his chin resting awkwardly on his hands, and gave her a goofy grin. “I like it ‘cause you don’t.”
She tossed the pillow from the sofa at him in jest, and Mason scampered from his laid out position to his knees, preparing for a playful fight. “We can’t sit here all day. The sun is shining and it’s actually quite nice out there. We should do something.”
This conversation had already taken place a few times in the last few hours, yet it always resulted in the same response. “But there’s nothing to do, Mom.” Mason was beginning to whine. Katie hated to admit it, but she had to agree with him. Unless she was willing to dish out money for the attractions around the city, spend her money in the malls and shops where thousands of other folks were running around in scatter-brained frenzies to do Christmas shopping, or bribe Mason into having fun by buying him things he didn’t need, there was little for the two of them to do. Seeing as Katie was rationing what little money she had left from her spring and summer at the farm, and the inheritance her father left her, she was in no mood for frivolous spending just to pass the time.
“Well, what did you and your dad do while I was away?”
Mason screwed his face up in a scowl. “Dad was in a bad mood the whole time you were gone.”
It seems not much has changed on that front, she thought immediately. “Even in a grumpy mood, you two must have done something together.”
Mason answered with a shrug. “Dad had his papers and briefcase and stuff all over the table. He mostly talked on his cell phone and sat there while I watched cartoons and played on my Nintendo DS.”
“Your dad worked the entire time you were here alone with him?” Frustration was building in her throat, along with the guilt she felt at thinking that leaving her son with Jay for a few days was a good idea.
“We did go out for dinner; that was pretty cool. When dad wasn’t on his cell phone, I mean.”
Katie sighed, feeling defeated. “Mason, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize. Did you at least have fun at Julia’s place with her kids?”
Her son’s eyes widened, beaming with excitement. “Yeah! Bobby and Lucas have some cool video games, and their mom lets them build forts in the living room to play the games in! I watched Bobby play a whole level of Call of Duty and when he won, he jumped up so fast the fort fell down around him!”
Katie laughed as Mason re-enacted the scene, and she made a mental note to thank Julia for her hospitality. Lord knows, Jay didn’t seem to have much of it.
“You can build a fort here anytime, Mase. Don’t ever think you can’t.”
He turned back to the television. “I don’t feel like it right now, but it was cool then.”
She nodded, huffing at the boredom that plagued her as well. “Well, we can do whatever you want, Mason. The sky is the limit.”
Mason wielded himself around again to face her, folding his legs in front of him in one fluid movement. “Let’s go see Chad.”
He could have asked to go to the zoo, or even to the mall to see Santa Clause. Hell, he could have asked to go to the moon. Katie would have expected all those requests from her seven year old long before she expected Chad’s name would fall from his lips.
“We can’t do that, Mr. Mase.”
“Why not? You said you missed him.”
Katie would have asked herself why kids had to be so damn logical, but she was too busy trying to come up with a reason her son couldn’t see the man he called a friend.
Friends. The label halted her frantic mind. A quick glance at the clock told her she still had a few hours before Jay would be home. Besides, Chad was a busy man right now. There was a good chance he wouldn’t have time for a chat with a little boy.
“I’ll give him a quick call, but he might be really busy, okay? Don’t get your hopes up, all right?” Mason’s face was already lit up in anticipation as she searched through the call records on her phone and pressed the buttons to dial the number he’d called her from. Maybe he could show her how to save the number in the phone, too, seeing as she was too proud to ask her son to teach her.
“I didn’t expect to see your number on my caller display. Hey, Katie.”
The happiness in his voice made Katie grin. “I was hoping to cash in on that smile.”
Chad chuckled softly in her ear. “I meant it. What’s going on?”
She could hear the soft strum of a guitar in the background, the same few chords over and over. “Actually, I was just going to see what you were up to. I understand that you’re busy with—”
“If you want to see me, Katie, just ask.”
She blushed and turned her back on Mason. “I was wondering—actually, Mason was wondering, too...”
Chad was chuckling again, and an image of what he must look like as he smiled right now passed through Katie’s mind. “I’m just fiddling around with some of the songs I’m recording for the album. You tell Mason that he and his currently blushing mom are welcome to come and hang out with me here if they would like.”
“It wouldn’t be for long. We don’t want to disturb you, and I don’t even know where to go to find you.”
Katie took in a deep breath, peering over her shoulder at Mason. He gave her a look of puzzlement, and Katie returned it with a thumb up. Mason let out a cheer and fist pumped the air.
“Just tell me where the recording studio is and I’ll bring an extremely excited little boy over to say hello.” She scribbled down the address he recited and winked in Mason’s direction. “I guess we will see you soon.”
“I’m lookin’ forward to it.”
That made three of them.
Katie pulled the car up to the place that matched the address Chad had given her. She was surprised to find it was a house, not a big industrial looking building like she expected. She killed the engine, thankful for the drive to be over. City driving had never been her thing, and driving in a place she wasn’t familiar with was even worse. Mason, whose right hand was gripping the passenger door handle tightly, didn’t much like her driving abilities here, either. Making a slight detour for Starbucks had made the trip longer, but the bold aroma drifting from the cups made it all worthwhile.
Balancing the tray of coffee and hot chocolate, Katie led Mason to the doorstep and let him ring the doorbell, glancing at the address scrawled on the paper once again before shoving it into her coat pocket.
Chad answered the door with a wide smile, his thermal long sleeved shirt and jeans giving him a comfortable look. He only wore socks on his feet, and Katie idly wondered if she had ever seen him without his boots on.
“What took you so long?” Chad directed his question toward Mason jokingly, ushering them in out of the wind.
“Mom got lost trying to find the Starbucks.”
Chad burst out laughing, biting his lip to suppress his amusement. “She’s got a mean caffeine addiction, Mason. We both know she would go to the end of the world for that stuff.”
“I got a peppermint hot chocolate there, though, so it’s okay.” Laughter erupted again and Chad high fived Mason.
“I’m standing right here,” Katie reminded them as she followed them down the staircase into the basement. The stairs themselves may have creaked under their weight, and seemed in need of some repair, but the basement opened up into an incongruently modern setting, causing her eyes to grow wide.
“Wow,” Katie whispered.
Mason was already ambling forward, running his hands along the edge of the sounding board, a mixture of switches, buttons, and little levers greeting him.
“For the love of God, don’t touch anything!” she exclaimed. Chad put a gentle hand on her shoulder, amused at her fearful concern.
“It’s okay, he’s fine.” He turned to the young boy. “Go ahead and check it out, pal. I’ll show you how to use it all in a second.”
They watched as Mason shimmied out of his coat and tossed it on the back of one of the chairs pulled up to the equipment, crawling onto the chair to get a better view. Katie held out the tray.
“I bought you a coffee. I didn’t know if songwriters and singers required coffee for the creative process, but I figured it couldn’t hurt.”
Chad pulled one of the paper cups from the tray, his smile still plastered across his face. “Coffee always makes things better, and I doubt any creative person will ever tell you any different.”
“I’m glad to know my search for a Starbucks wasn’t in vain then.” She undid her jacket and hung it on one of the hooks by the staircase. “Are you sure he’s okay to be playing with that?”
“He’s fine, Katie. It’s a new gadget for him to play with. Maybe he’ll—” Chad went silent as footsteps clomped down the stairs. A man with greying hair appeared, holding up his hands in surrender.
“Sorry to interrupt, Chad. I just wanted to let you know we’re leaving for the evening. You can lock up whenever you’re done.” The man turned his attention to Katie, jutting out his hand. “Sorry for the rudeness. I’m Barry, Chad’s manager.”
Katie shook his hand gently. “I’m Katie. Good to meet you.”
She watched as his dark eyes bulged suddenly. “You’re Katie?” He sent a questioning glance over at Chad, and her uncertain glance followed.
“Yes, Barry. This is Katie. And that’s Mason, her son.” He tossed his head to the side to indicate the boy behind them, his gaze never once deviating from the direction of his manager. An unspoken truce was made.
“Ya’ll have a good evening. Good to meet you...Katie.” An amused grin tugged at the corner of Barry’s lips, but he left without another word.
“What was that all about?”
Chad waved a hand dismissively. “Nothing. He’s just being an idiot.”
“He seemed to know me, Chad.” She narrowed her eyes. “What did you tell him about us?”
“Nothing, I swear it. Obviously, he’s just heard me say your name in passing or something. He doesn’t know a thing about us. I promise.”
Katie held his gaze a few moments longer. Despite not believing him, she gave a reluctant nod and let it go. She peered over her shoulder to confirm Mason was out of earshot, and then she lowered her voice. “You promised you would never lie to me again.”
Chad moved closer to her, his jaw softening slightly. “I’m not lying to you. Barry knows absolutely nothing about what happened when I left Nashville. It’s your name he knows, not you in particular.”
Katie immediately wondered if Chad’s ex, Liz—and, ironically Jay’s ex, too—had spread her name around, causing Chad grief in the process. It was on the tip of her tongue to ask, but she decided against it, tucking that topic of conversation in the back of her mind for later on. She might be gullible when it came to Chad, succumbing to his charms as she had in the past, but she also knew that not believing him a few months ago when she, in fact, should have, had led her to the mess she was in. He had sworn to never lie to her again and, right or wrong, she believed him. “Do you live here?”
Chad shook his head, pulling up another chair beside his, motioning to her to sit. “It’s actually Barry’s house, but it does feel like I live here lately,” he joked, taking a sip from his coffee cup. “Thanks for this, by the way.” He held the cup up. “I could use the energy jolt.”
“You’re welcome. With the new single doing so well, you must be being pulled in all directions lately, huh?”
Chad opened his mouth to answer but didn’t get a chance. Instead, he stood up and strode over to Mason, who stood on a wheeled chair in front of the recording booth, his body stretched dangerously across the control panel. He held the chair in place, preventing it from rolling out from under him. “Careful, Little Man. That chair is going to move. Let me show you something, okay?” He motioned for Mason to follow him, and the two of them disappeared into the recording booth.
Katie watched through the glass as Chad set her son up in front of one of the microphones suspended from the ceiling, adjusting it to his shorter height. She couldn’t hear what they were saying, but Mason was wide eyed with excitement and nodding furiously. It was safe to say his case of boredom had been cured. She laughed to herself as she watched Mason pull his harmonica from his jeans pocket. She didn’t even know he’d brought it with him.
When Chad finally opened the door and came back out of the recording booth, he wore a smug grin. “He’s going to record himself playing the harmonica. I think I should apologize to you in advance.”
Katie laughed. “That tape is going home with you, not me.”
“Maybe he’ll grow up to be famous, and that ear splitting recording will be worth millions,” Chad reminded her.
“Perhaps I can lock it away until then.” She watched as Mason plunked the oversized earphones over his ears and held the harmonica up in front of the microphone. “Is he playing it right now?”
“Soundproof glass. We only hear him if we want to hear him.” He motioned toward the abundance of controls and switches before him, grinning.
Katie sighed dramatically. “Oh, nowthat,is music to my ears.”
Chad took a seat by her again, idly watching the little boy tinker with his newfound toys. “To answer your question from earlier, though—yeah, it has been a bit hectic since the single was released, but it’s worth it, too, you know?”
“You must be on top of the world. All that hard work is starting to pay off.” Katie cupped her hands around her coffee, the warmth of it seeping into her fingertips.
Chad snickered softly. “Definitely. I’ve been signing autographs and taking pictures with fans when I go out places. I’m actually starting to feel a little bit famous.”
“You are.” Katie nodded, tilting her head slightly. “I mean, you already were...to me, anyway.”
“You didn’t even know who I was.”
“You’re wrong about that.” Katie pointed an accusing finger at him. “I knew who Chad Ashton was. I listen to the country music radio station all the time, remember? What I didn’t know was that Chad Ashton and Chad Kirkwood were one and the same.”
“Stick with Chad Kirkwood, he’s a good guy.” Chad leaned forward, his elbows resting on his knees.
Katie leaned forward as well, matching his stance playfully. “I might knowwhoChad Ashton is, but I don’t think I know him enough to be able to compare him to Chad Kirkwood. That just wouldn’t be fair at all.” She cast a quick glance in her son’s direction and he caught her eye and happily waved back.
“You think you might like Chad Ashton more?”
Katie turned back to Chad, chuckling lightly at his question. “Like I said, I can’t compare you with someone you say I don’t know. What makes Chad Ashton so different from Chad Kirkwood?” She was laughing now, unable to hide her smirk any longer.
Chad reached out for her hand and stood up. “Come on, I’ll show you.”
She laughed harder, setting her coffee cup on the floor. “Oh, what? Chad Ashton has a secret superhero suit or something? I can’t leave Mason in there without being watched.”
He reached down and covered her hand with his, pulling her gently to her feet. “He’s fine. We’re not leaving, just...come here. I have to show you something I have wanted to show you since you walked down those stairs.” They both glanced quickly at Mason again, who was paying them no attention, his face contorted in concentration as he played his harmonica into the microphone. Chad then tugged on Katie’s hand, walking backward to face her while he led her past the glass window, and opened the door into what must have been a storage closet, subsequently blocking their view of Mason. With one more gentle pull, Katie stumbled towards him and he pivoted, holding her against the wall and himself as his lips landed against hers, causing a surprised gasp to escape her throat. He kissed her gently at first, but his kiss became more forceful when she didn’t pull away.
Without thinking, Katie’s fingertips, still warmed from the heat of her coffee cup, trailed upwards to his throat, and she could feel his pulse beating wildly beneath his skin. His hands rested on her hips, and his kiss lingered as he slowly pulled his head away from hers, his eyes gleaming even in the shadows of the darkened room. “Thatwas Chad Ashton,” he whispered playfully.
The sound of his voice, husky and hoarse, brought Katie back to her senses, and she took a hesitant step away from him, pulling her hands from his neck, convinced the heat of his skin might burn her. “We shouldn’t have done that.”
“Maybe not, but it was just as unbelievable as I remembered.”
She couldn’t look him in the eye. “You’re making this harder on me, Chad.” Her fingertips touched her swollen mouth tentatively, her gaze meeting his. “Why is this so hard?” The question reeled through her mind and escaped from her lips without realizing it.
Chad stepped closer to her again, his hands on her shoulders to hold her firmly in place. “Katie, it shouldn’t have to be.” His voice was hushed and tender. “I need you to realize...you should be furious with me right now. Hell, you should be grabbing your coat and your son and be storming out of here. Yet, you’re not. You’re standing here with me now, after kissing me back. And you wanted it just as badly as I did.”
She might not have known much about Chad Ashton, but he seemed to know her very well.
If silence was truly golden and ignorance was really bliss, it was safe to say that Chad was doing something wrong. While Katie had left the recording studio on good terms with him—he felt he knew her well enough to know if she’d been upset at him for his actions or not—he hadn’t heard a word from her in over two days. The thought plagued him that he’d made a huge mistake by kissing her and letting her know that not a damn thing had changed in regard to his feelings for her—but he didn’t regret it, and that was mostly because he was confident enough that ithadn’tbeen a mistake.
So, what happened? It had been a welcomed surprise when she called asking to see him, and he hadn’t asked why she’d made that call. The reason didn’t matter. Whatever led her to choose to contact him, it was a blessing. When she left, she’d hugged him back, thanking him for giving her and Mason a sneak peek at the life of a recording artist. Mason was jabbering frantically about how cool it all was, and Chad wondered amusedly if the young boy would even be able to stay awake for the car ride home.
He wasn’t sure what he expected after kissing her, and being able to spend some time with her, but two days of utter silence wasn’t it. He kept checking his phone for text messages and missed calls as he ducked in and out of interviews and appearances. His mind played tricks on him, pulling his phone out of his pocket often when he was sure he’d heard the text alert or the ringing of an incoming call. It was driving him crazy, and the urge to call her was beckoning within him in an astoundingly loud voice. He couldn’t push her, though. Kissing her—and then blatantly pointing out her positive response to that kiss—was forward enough. Anything more might drive her away instead of bringing her closer. Emotionally, Katie was so close to him, it was as if she was a part of him—he could feel it. Mentally and physically, however, she might as well have been a million miles away, her uncertainty and distrust erecting concrete walls he would never break down if she didn’t give him the chance. When it came down to it, he could want her and love her all he wanted, but Katie needed to make the decision to come to him; he couldn’t do it for her. He wouldn’t do that to her.
He wouldn’t be like Jay.
How that man managed to treat Katie the way he did and still keep her for himself, Chad would never understand it. While he couldn’t be one hundred percent certain of it, his gut told him that no love lived within that home anymore. Katie had distanced herself from everyone following Jay’s choice to leave her, only to push everyone further away when Chad’s true identity had been revealed in such a cruel and disbelieving way. Now, she held on to the only thing she seemed really sure of: her loveless, but convenient, relationship with the father of her son. It was illogical thinking in Chad’s eyes, but he could see how, after everything she’d been through, Katie found an odd comfort in the low expectations she had of her current relationship. Jay, on the other hand, seemed just as disinterested in truly being with her. To him, their relationship seemed a practical ruse that looked good from the outside, and that made sense, despite the lack of true companionship and the nonexistent connection. To Chad, Jay seemed to want Katie as his own because he should, not because he actually wanted to want her; like he owed her that much after everything he’d put her broken heart through. Despite his dislike of the man, Chad believed that Jay, deep down, must mean well in his reasoning. He hoped, anyway.
However, could he not see that things were getting worse, and not better? They may have once loved each other—Chad couldn’t attest to the validity of that—but now their union seemed volatile and destined for destruction. It was a ticking bomb getting dangerously close to exploding and destroying everything and everyone in its wake. How could Jay and Katie not see that?
Objectivity is the key, Chad surmised. Well, perhaps Chad’s perspective was somewhat biased, but he still didn’t believe he was wrong in his assumptions. He might be in love with Katie and wanting to do right by her and Mason, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t see what was right in front of him for what it really was.
A gentle knock sounded at the door of the office he was camped out in while waiting for his next meeting—his producer for the new album had a few things he wanted to go over—and the interruption saved Chad from having to ponder this question any further. Chad quickly heaved his boot clad feet from the desk, sitting up in alarm at the unexpected company.
Speak of the devil and he shall appear, Chad thought, his jaw clenching tightly at the sight of Jay, who stood comfortably leaned up against the door jamb, his hand still on the handle.
“I have made some pretty big mistakes, Chad.” Jay didn’t look angry or agitated as he spoke, but his finger tapped rhythmically against the door frame, giving away his inner tension.
“We all have, I suppose. That’s life...” Chad covered his confusion with a fake grin. “...and that’s what country songs are spawned from.”
Jay didn’t seem to hear his joke. “One of my biggest mistakes was taking her to your single release party.”
It irked Chad that he didn’t even have the decency to say Katie’s name. “Well, I would beg to differ, but I could see how you would see it that way. It was a bold move, Jay. And a confusing one, for that matter.”
“Like I said, it was a mistake. And as for mistakes, I’d like to request that you leave her and my son alone.”
Again, he didn’t use Katie’s name, and Chad bit back the urge to snap at him for it. Chad had more important things floating through his mind.
Does he know I kissed Katie?The thought resonated through him, and he finally decided that Jay couldn’t possibly know or he would have jumped over the desk between them by now and fought to recover the pride that had gotten him into this mess in the first place. “We’re friends, Jay.” He would make no promise to stay away; there was no use making a promise he knew he could never keep.
“Funny, that’s the same rehearsed answer she keeps giving me.”
“It’s not rehearsed; it’s the truth.Katieand I are friends, despite what you might be thinking.”
Jay scoffed, shaking his head in protest. “I’m not blind, and, frankly, I don’t blame you. All I’m asking is that you don’t ruin this chance for her to start over.”
Chad arched an eyebrow at his insinuation. “I would never ruin anything for Katie. Don’t blame me for your faults, Jay.” Chad stood, deciding this conversation needed to end soon, before it turned into something neither of them wanted within the halls of Mercury Records.
Jay stiffened, his tone growing terse and impatient. “You’ll ruin everything, Chad. It pains me to admit it, butyouhave the ability to ruin everything for us, and I hate you for that.” Jay’s frigid glare pierced Chad’s gaze. “I know I’m to blame for much of what led us here to this moment, but, damn it, if there is any time I’d like you to hear me out, it would be right now. Just leave them alone and let me have my family back.”
Chad didn’t move. He couldn’t. Shock paralyzed him, though he struggled to maintain his outward composure. Jay saw him as a threat, admittedly hated him, and was asking him to back down and let him have another chance at being a family. Politely enough, even. Chad never thought he would ever have an ounce of respect for the man that stood before him, but he did.
“I can’t let you have something back that I don’t have in my possession to give you. Katie is not mine, but you and I both know she’s not yours, either. Your comments and suggestions have been duly noted, Jay, but I’d recommend that you question your own motives in all this and decide who is really putting Katie’s chance at starting over in jeopardy. You can close the door behind you.”
Jay stared incredulously at him, obviously wanting to retaliate in some way. Chad’s cell phone rang shrilly on the desk between them, breaking the tension, thick as fog between them. He dropped his gaze to the caller display, seeing Barry’s name flashing on it. He picked it up and let his thumb hover over the answer button, glaring expectantly at Jay.
“You have a good day, Mr.Ashton. It’s been a pleasure, as usual.” The door clicked shut behind him and Chad let out a breath of relief. He let the call go to voicemail. Barry would recognize the uneasiness in his voice, and he didn’t feel he could ever explain that he had just been advised to stay away from the one person he would give anything to hear from, yet hadn’t heard from in two full days. He hadn’t promised to keep his distance from Katie, but so far he had to say he was doing a pretty good job at doing as he was told.
Katie heard the door squeak open as Jay entered the apartment, which was surprising considering the whoops and cheering coming from the living room. Mason and Bobby were competing against each other in their racecars via the video game console, bobbing and weaving their shoulders and sidestepping as they moved in time with the movements on the television screen. His mumbled greeting was incomprehensible from Katie’s vantage point, but as she folded the rest of Mason’s laundry and tucked each item neatly into his dresser drawers, she could already tell Jay was not in a good mood. She listened as he roughly kicked his shoes off at the door, made his way to the kitchen counter where he slammed his briefcase down, and stomped his way down the hallway, stopping briefly at each doorway.
“I’m in here,” she called apprehensively, knowing he obviously must be looking for her. She tucked the last few shirts into the bottom drawer and slid it closed, breathing a steadying breath. Tension was radiating from Jay’s impending presence, and she needed to steel herself from whatever storm of anger was headed her way.
He stopped abruptly in the doorway, both hands clutching the side of the doorframe. “It’s time to talk about this.”
“About what?” She glanced past him but couldn’t see the boys. Their laughter and witty banter was still going strong, and Katie was relieved they weren’t paying any attention.
“You know what I’m referring to. Him. Chad.” Jay spat his name out in disgust.
“What’s he done wrong now, according to you?” She wasn’t in the mood for this again. Obviously, neither was he.
“Why did you wait to tell me about you and Mason going to visit him? Why did Mason have to be the one to tell me?”
Katie crinkled her forehead disbelievingly. “Jay, you’re making it sound like I had the intention of purposely hiding it from you, which I didn’t. Mason was excited, he had just been to a recording studio, seen and done some cool stuff he’d never been privy to before. You were barely in the door and the words were already spilling from his mouth. You know that.”
“Would you have told me yourself if he hadn’t?” Jay’s eyes were wild with anger and jealousy.
“Are you seriously asking me that? Of course I would have!” She hissed her response in an attempt to keep her voice down. “Mason has a friend over, can we not hash this out—” She reached out to put her hand on the door, wanting to block their heated voices from reaching the boys in the living room, but Jay shoved her hand away, making her flinch. He turned around, taking long strides down the hall.
“Mason, it’s time for Bobby to go home.”
Katie began to protest, taking a few steps down the hall, but Jay turned and locked his gaze on her—the menacing look in his cold eyes stopped her in her tracks. Jay’s request was met by protests from his son as well, and both boys were wide-eyed in wonder of what was happening.
“Mase, Bobby has to go home now. Do me a favor and go with him for a few minutes, okay? I need to talk to your Mom about something.”
Katie stood there in silence as the boys saved their game progress and exited the apartment, bewilderment outlining their young faces. At least Katie wasn’t the only one wondering what the hell was going on.
“Jay, you need to tell me—”
“No, you need to tell me why I’m so convinced I can’t trust you to be in the same vicinity as Chad Kirkwood.”
Katie crossed her arms. “That is unfair and you know it. Whether or not you trust me with him really has nothing to do with me, now does it?”
“It has everything to do with you. You took my son to see him the moment I walked out that door to head to work!”
She arched a brow. “You’re being a little dramatic. We’re friends, Jay, and friends hang out and have coffee—”
“That’s all it was, Katie? Friends just hanging out? Be honest with me. Hell, be honest with yourself!”
She pressed her lips firmly together, choosing to ignore the question. “We are friends, and I have no one else here to—”
“Then gofindfriends, Katie!” he exclaimed. “Go out and meet other people who aren’t Chad goddamn Kirkwood! Put a little effort into making this your home!”
“This is not my home!” she fired back. Once her breathing leveled out, she cocked her head to the side. “Have you talked to Liz lately?”