“Big M, I was hoping you’d make it!” shouted a voice above the din of the crowd.
Big M, also known as M, also known as Miles, my ex-boyfriend. The boy I hadn’t laid eyes on in years. The same boyfriend who’d told me my recovery was too much for him to handle, who’d never even questioned what had happened to the promise ring he’d given me a couple of months before the accident. The person who’d vanished from my life and never visited me in the hospital again.
And I got it. Damn, I got it. We were young. He was on his way to college on a basketball scholarship. Still, his desertion cut deep. Because after his phone calls and visits stopped, I’d felt so alone. Hollow. Gutted.
Sure, I had my parents. And Dakota. And Kai.
Kai—the guy who spent hours playing cards and wheeling me back and forth to physical and occupational therapy. Who held my hand when I could barely grasp his back. Who stayed in my room until I fell asleep with tears dried in the corners of my eyes from crying so damn hard over Miles.
Those nights in the hospital changed me. Toughened me up. Even more than the physical accident caused me to get stronger. More than the two surgeries reduced the swelling and pieced the fragments of my skull back together.
Now Kai gripped my shoulder in another show of support. Or maybe it was to hold himself back from pouncing on Miles. He’d already done that once after the accident, and I made him promise to never do it again. Even though Miles had deserved it.
But I wasn’t the same girl who needed Kai’s support back then. I hardened to the point of not needing anyone anymore. At least I didn’t want to need anyone. And I’d proven that I could take care of myself during these last three years.
So when I shrugged Kai off, I felt his hand skate down my back and fall away. Like it was a last-ditch effort to hang on to the girl I had once been.
I felt a warm hand on my arm again and figured Kai was trying to mess with me, but when I looked back it was Dakota instead. Her eyes were widened in surprise. “Shoot, I’d heard he was back in town, but I didn’t think he’d show up here. Let’s have Shane kick him out.”
I steadied my breath. “No, it’s cool. I don’t want him to think I can’t handle being at the same party with him.”
At this point almost everyone’s gaze was shifting back and forth between Miles and me, even though he hadn’t even spotted me yet. Kai had stepped away and now stood across from me, as if to shield me from Miles’s view. I had to look away from him because I knew his gaze would cut deep. He knew how hard it’d been for me those days after the accident. He knew so damn well. My knees practically buckled at the thought.
The crowd parted to let Miles through and as the realization of my presence dawned on him, his jaw became slack and his steps slowed to a halt. He gave me the once-over, like he was seeing a damn ghost or something.
He was all lean muscles from playing ball twenty-four seven for Cleveland State University. I’d forgotten how smooth his tan skin had felt or how long his powerful legs had been. He was so tall, in fact, that I barely reached his chest. But I’d loved that about him—how he could lift me up with one scoop of his arm or raise my mouth to his lips. Rumor had it that he had a good chance of being picked in the NBA draft this summer. I knew that was his dream, so in a strange way, I was glad for him. But that happiness was padded by a thick wall of sorrow, even to this day. Because there were so many things unresolved between us.
I’d thought for sure I was over him. But seeing him standing before me with his close-cropped hair, square jaw, and deep-set brown eyes was nearly my undoing. Regret slammed into my chest and blindsided me. I tasted the stinging of tears in the back of my throat. The truth of the matter was: I’d never been gutted by someone like that before Miles. Anyone who’d experienced such a profound loss would understand the lingering influence that person has over you. Your emotions. Your moods.
My heart had been tucked away in a corner, with the shades pulled down, for the past three years, but now it was as if she were peeking out the window, getting a closer look at the one person who’d obliterated her.
Even as Miles high-fived a bunch of guys, he kept his eyes glued to mine. But I didn’t want him to have that kind of power over me, not anymore. So I commanded my legs to move. I turned and nearly tripped over my own toes, they felt so unstable, like a crumbled and abandoned building. As I walked back over to my perch by the truck, I felt as if I were floating in some kind of fucked-up dream.
An old high school friend named Carrie made room for me on the edge of the truck bed, sympathy dripping from her eyes. “You okay?”
“I’ll be fine,” I said, my voice sounding strained. “First time I’m seeing him, is all.”
Man, I was way off my game since I’d been back home. I didn’t discuss feelings with anybody. Not anymore. Normally I wouldn’t even dignify that kind of lame question with a response. Especially not to these people, who’d never figured out how to treat me and had backed away instead, making me feel even more alone. I mean, fuck, I was only a girl in town who’d had an accident that resulted in a brain injury.
“Rachel.” He was standing in front of me now, and Carrie had the decency to scoot off the truck bed to give us privacy.
My name fell from his lips, and my stomach clenched into a solid brick. I hadn’t heard him say my name in such a long time that the sensation bordered on painful.
“Miles.” It came out in a hoarse whisper.
“You look . . . amazing.” He looked down as if unsure of himself. “I . . . I heard you were back in town. Can . . . can we talk?”
I stood up on the bed of the truck so that I towered over him, giving me the leverage I needed. “Nope.”
And then I jumped down and headed toward the mishmash of cars parked haphazardly on the lawn. Anger blazed like a wildfire inside my chest. No fucking way did he earn the right to talk to me.
I heard the crunching of dry grass behind me and realized that Miles was gaining on me. Except he was about three years too late.
“I’m just about to head home,” I called over my shoulder. “So just go the fuck away.”
Without turning around, I knew that I’d shocked him into silence. Never had I spoken that way to him before. Kai said that led to our downfall. He hadn’t liked the way I’d acted with Miles and had told me so on a number of occasions.
As I moved toward the cars, Shane stepped into our path, with Kai beside him. “Miles, probably best for you to take off.”
Kai tried catching my eye, but I looked away and kept moving, pushing past Shane.
“Wait, Rachel, please,” Miles said, and I twisted my head just as Kai restrained him, keeping him from going after me. “There’s something I need to say and then I promise to leave you alone.”
I stopped dead in my tracks and then swung toward him. “Oh yeah? How about all those times I wanted to say something to you but you never answered your phone?”
Damn it to hell. I had blown it. I’d let him see how he was affecting me. For three long years I had said he was dead to me. So why was my whole body reacting right now? I balled my shaking fists.
I had imagined this same scenario playing out so many times in my head: Miles returning to tell me he’d messed up, that he’d been a wreck without me. That he was sorry. Then he’d help me through rehab. He’d hold my hand and tell me I was beautiful despite my shaved scalp. He’d adjust the straps on my recovery helmet and kiss my cheek tenderly.
Just like Mom had done . . . and just like Kai had done.
I gave Kai a stern warning look. One that said, Stay out of this. Kai tightened his jaw as if he wanted to clock Miles one, but he let him go and stayed put, respecting my wishes. These two boys were as different as night and day. And I was different with each of them. With Kai, I confronted him toe-to-toe. With Miles, I’d always softened to his wishes.
I shook the thought from my head and moved farther away from the crowd, Miles following behind.
I spun in fury toward him. “What the hell do you need to say to me?”
Miles was just as handsome as always. His cheekbones had sharpened, and the chocolate eyes I had loved so much now appeared to hold a deep well of pain. They made me waver.
“Rachel, I was an asshole. I’ve grown up a lot since then.” Had he felt bad about his decision all of these years? “You didn’t deserve someone like me, anyway.”
I clenched my jaw so tight I saw stars. “You’ve got that right.”
“Damn it. I’m so sorry. I was scared.” He began pacing in wide circles, running his fingers through his barely-there hair. He’d always kept it closely shaved during the basketball season. “We were supposed to go away to college together and I didn’t know how to handle what happened to you. But I haven’t been able to get over how I treated you.”
Even though I had wanted this type of apology for years, hearing it out loud only made me feel numb. Confused. Lightheaded.
“I get it. I do,” I said. My voice was now a whisper. All my anger had been placed on pause. “But I sure as hell didn’t know how to handle it, either. So I don’t feel sorry for you.”
He looked me over as if surveying the aftereffects of everything damn thing that had happened to me. “You came back strong.”
“I did,” I said. “Without your help.”
“Maybe that’s just it, Rachel,” he said. “Maybe you got strong because I walked away.”
“Don’t pretend you were doing the honorable thing!” I spit out. His face fell, but I knew he was right in so many ways. But there was no chance I was admitting to them now. I probably wouldn’t ever.
“Please, Rachel.” He stared into my eyes, and I looked away to break the spell. “Can you give me a chance to make it up to you? I want to get to know you again. To be friends.”
“Will you at least think about it?”
“Never.” I shook my head and turned away. “Fuck off.”
But I had lost the power of those words and my shoulders slumped forward instead. Like all the fight had gone out of me in that moment.
I stalked toward Kai and Dakota, leaving Miles in my wake. “Give me your keys, Kai, so I can drive myself home. Catch a ride back later with Shane.”
“Wait a minute,” Dakota protested, and then turned to Shane. “If you don’t kick Miles’s butt out, then I will.”
But before he could respond, I said, “No, please. I want . . . I need to be alone.”
Kai gave Dakota a look. They knew I meant business when I wanted my solitude. It was the one thing that hadn’t changed over the years. I’d been an only child who’d absolutely thrived on it when my family had gotten to be too much for me. Kai reluctantly dangled his keys in front of me, and I snatched them from his grasp before he had the opportunity to change his mind.
I sprinted to his car, swung open the door, and slid inside. I had shut out that little corner of the world and all I could hear were my own heavy breaths. I closed my eyes, rested my head against the seatback and breathed a sigh of relief.
After another moment, I fired up the engine and put the car in drive. But before I could peel off like some badass, the passenger door swung open.
And in slipped Kai.
“Not even going to talk to you,” I said through gritted teeth. “But I’m not letting you leave alone. You haven’t had more than one drink, right?”
“So just start driving, goddamn it.”
“Shit,” Rachel grunted, and then she pushed down on the gas pedal, causing her to fishtail through the grass. I kept my mouth shut like I’d promised and gripped the door handle instead. She turned the wheel and straightened out the car as she came toward the road.
Being with Rachel like this again made it all rush back. Not one great middle-school memory didn’t include her. Rachel had always been so damn cute with that dark hair and those sea-green eyes. And now this body of hers that had blossomed since her illness—she’d developed shapely legs, narrow hips, and tits that I couldn’t stop noticing in that thin tank top of hers. Fuck me.
When she started dating that douche bag Miles, she’d changed. She became meek and humble, lost her smartass retorts and sarcasm. She hadn’t been my Rachel anymore. She’d been his.
But now. Now she was her old self to the extreme. They say your personality can change after a head injury. But this was something altogether different. This was Rachel shutting down, closing herself off completely. And I got it. I so got it.
I had looked for someone like Rachel in Amsterdam. I’d actually dated girl after girl trying to get that feeling back that I had when I was around her. In her space. But it had never returned. Until now.
Rachel grumbled and huffed and smacked the wheel. I just shook my head and looked out the window, allowing her to work it through in her own head. I wanted to know what that motherfucker had said to her, but a promise was a promise.
Did Miles want her back? Would she actually consider it after all this time? He was like her kryptonite. I clenched my jaw until it ached. I wanted to push his teeth through his skull.
As we drove past Lucy’s bar, her foot let off the gas in a moment’s hesitation. Maybe if I hadn’t been with her, she would have pulled in and drunk herself stupid. Gone home with some random guy. I wasn’t an idiot. I knew what my cousin Nate was getting at when he’d given me reports about Rachel.
She’d become someone different in college. It sounded like she was using guys who reminded her of Miles to get lost in for a night. Just like I’d used girls who weren’t Rachel in Amsterdam.