Watching him ruined me.
Made me want and long and fantasize, the way one does over fancy things. Cars, houses, clothes. Over people who are out of reach. I couldn’t move. Couldn’t send the correct signal from brain to feet to step forward. To acknowledge to him, to the thousands of screaming fans who’d braved the August sun for the biggest music festival of the year, that it was me he was singing about. The music, the soul-clenching lyrics he’d changed a million times over the summer, the guitar lick I knew everybody’d love, the kind that gets stuck in your head, makes you stop twenty years down the road.
Because what a memory.
What a song.
What an artist.
But to me.
He was a man. A man I’d trusted. The man I’d loved for a precious, precious moment. The man I’d never get over, even though I had no choice but to do just that. He’d helped me grow, while reminding me to hold on to who I was. To never compromise the heart for outside circumstances.
But outside circumstances, they happened.
And I had to—I had to let him go.
His string-callused fingers stole my heart. Scarred me for life. All I knew, all I wanted—myths, legends, lies. He took my paper universe, wadded it into a ball and hurled it to the stars.
Watching him made me burn.
For the nights he kissed me, held me, took my innocence and kept it. For the light in his eyes, the crooked grin when I’d said something to make him laugh, the concentration in his brow as he wrote at two o’clock in the morning.
His passion, his desperation to give the world something to remember, the emotion he poured into every performance. He symbolized all the madness I never knew I had. The desire that stirs and expands inside like a hurricane over warm waters.
Watching him destroyed me.
Watching him put me back together again.
I never was much of a dreamer.
At eighteen, I’d lived my life by a strict set of rules. Most of which were unspoken, but more or less amounted to setting goals, working to attain said goals, and making new ones once the old could be classified as achievements.
Acing high school? Check. Valedictorian, Most Likely to Succeed, president of every academic club that looked best on a college resume. Triple-check. Raised by a single father, I’d always had a lot to prove. To others, to myself. To the mom who left us before I was out of diapers.
Dad helped me write my graduation speech. Months prior, when I told him I wanted to study international law, he grinned, put down the book he was reading at the dinner table. “What do you think about applying overseas?”
He framed the offer of admission from Trinity College in England.
As a literature teacher, Dad’s rules were simple: read two books at once—one fiction, one nonfiction—and never deviate from your own path.
The night I met Lawson Hill, I deviated.
We moved after graduation, Dad and me. A community college in Nashville, Tennessee had offered him an English professor’s position that paid double what he was making at St. Mary’s in Columbus, Ohio. We had no family. No real ties. Did I have friends in Ohio? Enough to count on one hand and have fingers leftover. Not enough to equate as long-term relationships.
House hunting was easy. We took the first place that didn’t have leaky ceilings or dry-rotted floors. Got a job, too. Executive assistant to the community college’s head librarian. A refined title for the person responsible for shelving returned and discarded books.
It was just a summer job. A means to pass time. Four and a half months and I’d be headed overseas for the next six to seven years.
One other person at the community college filed books: Savana Petrov, the half-American, half-Russian actress who’d played on six episodes of Days of Our Lives and a handful of cell service commercials.
She’d spent the first two weeks of my employment relaying all the ways being an actress in Nashville sucked—in supreme dramatic fashion, of course. I need Los Angeles, Harper Evans! New York, anyplace but the one spot in the U.S. where twangy-voice singers came to either make it big or fail trying.
She only worked to keep her boredom at bay, not because she needed the money.
“Country music,” she said. “Over half the population here writes it, sings it or wishes they could write or sing it. Make it big, go on tour with a name bigger than yours. Pray one day you’re the headliner and it’s someone else’s hungry soul begging for the opening act slot. Endless cycle.”
I couldn’t’ve cared less. We might’ve been smackdab in the middle of Honky-Tonk Highway or whatever else people incessantly talked about in the cafes, restaurants, coffee bars and street corners. Nashville wasn’t special to me.
It’s not that it wasn’t a nice place. People smiled a lot, said please and thank you, and held doors open for one another.
Southern hospitality wasn’t dead.
But there was no sense in getting attached. Dad could’ve taken a job in the middle of the Sahara, for all geographical location mattered. I was still leaving in September.
When I told Savana so, she threw back her blonde head, laughed like she was auditioning for a Disney villainess. We were in the middle of the European history aisle. Someone told us to shoosh. From the corner of my eye, I noticed she’d misfiled one of fourteen books we carried on the battle of Waterloo. I made a mental note to correct that when she wasn’t looking.
Hired a whole week and two days before me, Savana hated when I went behind her.
“Harper Evans.” She’d adopted the habit of using my whole name whenever she was about to impart wisdom. “That’s, like, forever from now. Besides, you’d better get used to the music scene, if you plan to live here. I’m not even joking. Music, like, pours out of the freaking sewage drains. Well, you know,” she said, sliding a Greek history account between two books on the second World War, “not, like, literally, but you can’t escape it. It’s everywhere. Better to accept and appreciate.”
She started toward the end of the row, and I quickly re-shelved the books to their rightful places. “It’s not that I don’t like music,” I said, catching up to her. “But—”
She turned around and we almost collided. “Look,” she said, “I’m gonna do you a huge favor, okay? My girlfriend and a few others jam at Lawson’s on Tuesdays. Work on stuff for upcoming open mic nights, that kind of thing. It’s fun but super chill and it’ll give you the chance to meet a couple of people before you leave. Whaddya say?”
No. That’s what I wanted to say—what I should have said. Attachments were unnecessary, not that I planned to make any. I had a feeling Savana and I might exchange texts after I left, but eventually even that would fade. Then again—
My back pocket buzzed.
“One sec.” I stepped away, retrieved my phone.
Hey, sport, Dad texted, how’s your day?
Good. I texted back. Yours?
Long. Think you can pick up dinner tonight?
Translation: He’d be working late. Two weeks and there hadn’t been a single weekday when he’d gotten home earlier than 10 pm. He seemed to like it, though, his job. Said the other professors were cool and helpful, and that the students taking summer classes were a nice change from misguided freshmen. If he was happy, I was happy. He deserved to be happy.
Perfect. Just leave it in the microwave. Love you.
Love you, too.
“So?” Savana said as I slipped my phone back inside my jeans pocket.
“I’m kind of on a tight schedule.” Wasn’t a total lie. Rules and schedules went together. Besides, there was no harm in prepping for the discipline I’d need once I had my college calendar. One class to the next with barely any room to breathe in between. Schedules were important. Necessary.
“Doing what?” She laughed. “It’s summer. You work, eat, sleep and have fun. And this? This is part of that thing called fun. You do know what fun is, right?”
I pursed my lips. “Of course I know what fun is. And I have fun.” Sort of. “In my way.”
“Uh huh. Translation? No, Savana, actually, I haven’t had fun since I-can’t-remember-when. Please take me with you! Save me from my life of un-fun-ness!”
I folded my arms across my chest, arched an eyebrow. “That is so not a word.”
I glanced up at the ceiling, at the single lightbulb that always seemed to flicker, no matter how many times the maintenance guy changed it.
She wouldn’t stop. I didn’t know her well, but I knew her. She wouldn’t stop.
“Say yaaasss,” Savana begged, and I laughed.
Attachments were unnecessary. But neither did I want to be that girl. The one who never did anything fun. Who never said yes to invitations or went out with friends like young people were supposed to. I had two years left as a teenager. No one here knew me. As far as anyone else was concerned, I was the cool, outgoing new girl. I could play that role.
“Sure,” I said. “Okay.”
“Yay!” Savana clapped, then gave the guy who shooshed us before a dirty look when he shooshed her again. “Text me your address. I’ll pick you up at 8.”
“Okay.” I couldn’t understand why I was nervous all of a sudden. Meeting new people wasn’t hard for me. I didn’t buckle under curious stares. In fact, I found strangers challenging.
Why, then, the onslaught of insecurity? The worry that I wouldn’t measure up or that I’d say the wrong thing, make a fool of myself? Was it because I didn’t want to make a bad impression? An omen of bad things to come? Savana was a decent coworker and I didn’t want things to be weird between us. Maybe that was it.
As she walked away, presumably to go touch up her lipstick for the third time in the last hour, she turned around. “Oh, and wear something cute, okay?”
“Uh huh.” She blew me a kiss.
I didn’t do cute. Oversized shirts, shorts, sneakers. That was my M.O. Raised by a man, what else did she expect? I had a firm grasp on British literature and American football. Shakespearean plays and NASCAR. Every year’s NFL draft was a huge occurrence in the Evans household. I’m talking fries, wings, cheese dip—the works. I had two dresses to my name, one white, one black, and one pair of heels I hated.
So, it was no surprise when I climbed into the passenger’s seat of Savana’s Mini Cooper, she took one look at me and said, “Sister. We’ve gotta take you shopping.”
I wasn’t offended. She did look way more famous than me. Tight jeans, a lowcut top that displayed perfect, tan boobs, knee-high boots. She looked great. She smelled great. And there I was in my black yoga pants, oversized sweater and Converse.
“I put on mascara and lip gloss.” Which somehow sounded lamer spoken out loud than in my head.
“Uh huh. Yeah.” She pulled on to the street. “All I know is there’s no way I’m letting you go to England in the fall looking like a desperate housewife. Who are you texting?”
“My dad.” Went out with Savana from work. Food’s in the microwave. Love you. “Just didn’t want him to worry.”
Shrugging, I said, “Guess so,” and turned attention to the city outside.
Thirty minutes later we were slowing at a gated drive, where at least a dozen girls stood in outfits like Savana’s. Some held signs Sharpied with I LOVE YOU and MARRY ME?? Others were taking selfies in front of the gates, where beyond I glimpsed the kind of home that popped up on an old episode of MTV Cribs or when you Googled million-dollar houses. Wide, tall. Modern but in that built-to-look-like-a-classic way. Unattainable by anyone who had less than eight digits in their bank account.
“Keep your window up.” Savana used the button on her steering wheel to turn down the radio. “These bitches don’t play.”
“I thought we were going to Lawson’s.” A beefy security guard made one of the girls climb down from her perch on the fence.
“This is his house.” Savana eased up, slowly, slowly, her car parting the sea of girls, who began stooping to look inside the car like a pack of velociraptors. “Where’d you think we were going?”
“I don’t know. Maybe a restaurant or something? A club?”
A feminine snort. “I’ll admit, it’s pretty lax around here.” She rolled down her window as the security man approached the car. “But they still don’t let anyone under twenty-one into the clubs. Hey, Mack, what’s up?”
“’Sup, Savana?” He gave her a fist bump. His hand was at least five times bigger than hers. “Doin’ all right tonight?”
“Think the better question is are you doin’ all right?”
He glanced over his muscled shoulder. “Eh, well, smaller crowd than usual. Some of the regulars must be on summer vacation with their folks.”
Small? Jesus. Never once in my life had I felt the urge to hide my face. I was the one people looked to for help. The workaholic, the perfectionist, the chick who volunteered to lead group projects. Teachers loved me. My peers, they knew they could count on me. I couldn’t have hidden if I wanted to, especially in high school.
But I found myself sinking into the bucket seat as two, then three, then five girls shaded their eyes against Savana’s headlights to peer inside the car at us—at me.
“Who you got with you?” Mack’s brown eyes homed in on my face. “New friend?”
“Co-worker,” Savana said. “Figured she could use a night out.”
“Harper Evans.” I leaned over Savana to give him my hand, which he squeezed warmly. Harmless enough, I gathered, but I sure as heck wouldn’t have picked a fight with the man. I would however make friends with someone who kept a huge crowd in check. “Nice to meet you.”
“Likewise, ma’am. Y’all have a good time, now. Careful pullin’ up the drive.”
He punched a code into a keypad and the gates began to creak open.
“Move to the side!” Raising his hands, he simultaneously waved us through while warning the crowd to clear a path.
Boom. Twelve dirty looks. One girl downright snarled, then flipped me the bird.
Savana didn’t appear fazed. Rolling up her window, she accelerated toward the house.
It really did look like something from the pages of a magazine. French-style-meets-Southern-charm, the boxed hedges were lush, the hydrangea bushes overflowing with blue and pink blooms. A single gaslit flame danced over a thick wooden door.
Savana parked behind a white Range Rover. Killed the engine.
My heart was slamming like a fist to a punching bag.
“Just breathe, okay?” She reached across the gear shift, squeezed my wrist. “You’ll be fine.”
“I wasn’t—” But Savana was already getting out of the car.
I followed her, slipped my long ponytail over one shoulder, then the other. I couldn’t place my nervousness. Couldn’t understand why it mattered. Sure, I was eighteen, lacking in life experience. But I’d always been mature for my age. Everyone who knew me said so.
Inside the house, the first thing I noticed was the aroma of leather and pine. Soft, subtle. The kind of scent that harnesses a moment, creates a memory. I breathed it in, allowed it to sooth my nerves. This was fine. Normal. Lining the walls of a wide staircase were gold and platinum records. Achievements, milestones. This, I understood. This, too, was fine.
But then I heard the singing. The gentle croon of a woman’s soprano wove through the air, bounced off the walls of the foyer. The hairs on my arms stood on end.
This, I had never experienced.
“That’s my baby.” Squeezing my hand, Savana tugged me along behind her. “Come on. I can’t wait for you to meet everybody.”
We ran-walked through a monstrous kitchen, in and out of a formal dining room that looked as if it got zero usage, and into what might’ve been a normal living room.
Except for the twenty-some-odd acoustic and electric guitars sitting along the walls. There was a drum set in the corner, an upright bass leaning against a bookshelf, a banjo in an armchair. Mason-jarred candles burned atop a baby grand piano, where the girl I heard singing sat with a guy who couldn’t have been much older than me. His fingers stroked the ivories with ease, and she sang along as if they’d been performing together their whole lives. For about half a second I wondered if they were an item.
Until Savana laid a hand on the girl’s shoulder, and she stopped singing to turn around, her face splitting into a wide grin.
Savana said, “Hey, baby,” and bent to kiss her. “Miss me?”
“You know it.” The girl was beautiful. Brunette with light blue eyes like me, but with the refined features of a runway model. “How was the gate?”
“Not so bad,” Savana said and stroked her face. “I brought a friend. You’ll like her,” she whispered. “You sounded so pretty, babe.”
“Thanks.” They kissed again, thoroughly, and I found myself looking away.
PDA made me uncomfortable. It’s not that I hadn’t been kissed before; I had. But since Dad never dated, I guessed I wasn’t used to affection. Not like this.
Heat spread up my cheeks, into my hairline, and I started taking in the room again. The instruments, the books, the awards, the photos of a little boy with a guitar.
Handsome didn’t do him justice.
Handsome seemed like the dullest, most cliché word in Webster’s Dictionary.
Except handsome was the only word that kept spinning in my head.
He sat to one end of a plush, cream-colored sofa, the ankle of one leg propped on the knee of his other. Alone. Away from everyone else. A deliberate decision, I gathered, for he was softly strumming a guitar, his head tilted ever-so-slightly. He was humming.
When I was in sixth grade, my class went on a field trip to an art museum. It was early September. Temperatures had reached a peak high that day. Tired and sweaty, we welcomed the air conditioning of the museum, regardless that none of us gave two bits about art. It was an extra credit grade. We sucked up our irritation. There were centuries-old paintings that’d been on the walls for years, or so the tour guide said as we feigned interest, but then she pointed to a section reserved for a local artist. Those were new. Just brought in for a show that evening.
I moved closer. Mountains, beaches and hilltops painted in swirls of blue and white and beige drew me in. In each depiction, a man stood alone. In one, his hands were tucked inside his pockets. The next, they were lifted toward the sky. Whether it was the same man in every picture, I did not know. But he captivated me. My other classmates walked past, uninterested. Someone asked where the restrooms were, another for the nearest soda machine. I stayed. Stared at the man. Wondering what his story was and feeling, for the first time ever, a swell of something in my chest.
Setting eyes on this man was like viewing the man in the paintings. He moved me, shifted the ground where I stood. I was helpless to stare. To stop breathing. To feel emotion I hadn’t realize I possessed.
His dark blond hair was styled in a clean-cut pompadour. James Dean, David Beckham, I thought, but no. Neither seemed right. This guy, he was in his own class. He wore a brown Henley, faded black skinny jeans and, God remind me how to breathe, a pair of custom black Converse.
I was a sucker for a guy confident enough to customize his sneakers.
He hit me in waves. His lashes as he closed his eyes and tilted his head closer to the guitar. His fingers as they dragged across the strings. The foot he had resting on his knee bobbed a beat.
“Y—” It took two tries for me to gain enough breath to answer. “Yes?”
Savana gestured to the girl she’d kissed. “This is Christina Rose.”
“Chris.” Christina offered her hand. “Nice to meet you.”
“Harper, and same.”
“Savana says you two work together at the library?”
“Yeah.” I glanced at the guy on the couch.
“Hey, I’m Luke.” The boy at the piano. He was talking.
I shook his hand, too. “Harper.”
And then someway, somehow, I got brave.
“Who’s that?” I slipped a glance in his direction.
The flash of his watch as his fingers moved across the fretboard. A leather bracelet with plated hardware. Biceps flexing with every single movement, regardless his arms were covered.
“Oh, that’s just Lawson,” said Luke and he returned to the piano, played a jazz riff that made Chris go, “Ooooh, yes! Let’s.”
“Come on,” Savana murmured close to my ear. She tugged the arm of my sweater, bared a shoulder. “I’ll introduce you.”
“No, that’s okay.” Bravery gone. Poof. Out of here. “He’s clearly—”
“Don’t be chicken, girl, come on. He’s really nice.” She pushed me forward until my thighs bumped the arm on the opposite side of the sofa. “Hey, Law, got a second?”
“Evenin’, Savvy.” His eyes, those came in degrees, too. He looked up once, the quickest of glances in our direction, and then again.
But that second time: a full-on, deep blue-eyed gaze that pushed my lungs up my throat.
Fact: Men like this walked the planet. On the occasions I took breaks between studying, I’d seen Pinterest pages full of them. Models, actors, singers. Men who wore confidence like most men wore clothes. But to see one in real life? Less than five feet away?
“Who you got with you?” His accent was faintly southern.
“This is Harper. Harper Evans. We work together.”
“You got a job?” Lines formed over his brow. He was still picking out a tune on his guitar.
“Couple of weeks ago,” said Savana. “Harper, Lawson Hill. This is his place.”
My hands were shaking, sweating. I had this flash of a memory of an old miniseries from the 80’s about Priscilla Beaulieu when she met Elvis Presley for the first time. Inside, she was screaming like a banshee, and he was like hey baby, what’s up or whatever Elvis said that made girls’ panties melt off. Would it have been proper to offer him my hand? We’d just been introduced, and this was the South. But I couldn’t possibly. Touch him. Skin to skin. Pulse to pulse. Disaster.
His smile explained at least half of the shiny records up the stairs.
His fingers never missed a beat, and it was as if he was playing the title track to my moment of supreme humiliation.
He shifted his gaze to Savana, and his left eye twitched. A wink, a muscle spasm, I didn’t know. Everything about him stood out, no matter how small.
Our eyes connected once more.
“Harper,” he said with a certain finality. Like saying my name granted me permission into his world. “Why don’t you come sit beside me?”
I swallowed, positive at any moment I was going to pass out. Knees shaking, I s-said, “Okay,” and could’ve smacked myself for sounding like an idiot.
His eyes remained on my face, lowering as I lowered myself to the cushion next to his.
“Do you play?” He moved as if to hand over his guitar.
I curled my legs beneath my butt. Shoved my hands between my knees. “I took piano lessons when I was four, but no. No instruments.”
“You like music?”
“Sure. Of course.”
He went back to strumming, his fingers seamlessly jumping from chord to chord.
He didn’t look away, though. Kept staring at my face, his eyes roaming from point to point as if committing features to memory. As if perhaps he meant to sketch me later. Or somehow turn me into a song.
Which was absurd. And stupid. And entirely made up in my head. Obviously.
“Who’s your favorite?” he asked.
“My favorite?” My throat went dry.
“Artist. You have a favorite artist, right?”
I thought a moment. “Several, actually.”
He smiled. “Fair enough. Who’ve you been playing on repeat?”
“Hmm.” I looked up, thinking. Allowed my gaze to roam over the bookshelves lined with photos and awards, and awards and photos. All his, I realized, and wondered how old he was, how long he’d been doing this.
Sighing, I caved, “I don’t know.”
“Easy way out. Nope. Not having it.” The light in his eyes, the way he smelled, the genuineness of his smile. It was so much to take in at once. Like standing beneath a waterfall with a kid’s sand bucket, hoping it’ll all fit.
“I’m a music wuss,” I protested.
“Nobody’s a music wuss. Come on. Play the game, Harper.”
I pressed my lips together, annoyed and impressed by his persistence. “Fine. I’ll go with the last song I was listening to this morning.”
His head jerked back. “Tame. Impala.”
“I like their sound. It’s different. Doesn’t fit in to any genre, although I think they’re categorized as—”
“Alternative rock, yeah.”
He was staring at me, lips parted. He’d stopped playing, too. I didn’t know when that’d happened. Chris and Luke were in their own world, working out harmonies. Savana was swaying to the music, a glass of something in her hand.
“Yeah,” I whispered.
“Oh…uh, Patience? I think?”
“Yeah.” Hours later, I’d rewind and replay all I’d said to him and wonder how on earth I managed to nail my admissions interview to Cambridge.
“I must’ve tried to work out that piano part fifty times before I finally had it.” Carefully, he set down his guitar. Turned to face me, head-on, and all the blood vessels in my chest began knotting themselves together.
“You play piano, too?” I asked.
“Little bit of everything. All you see in this room, yes, and a few you don’t.”
“Like?” I was eager to keep him talking, to keep living this moment for hours.
“Ah, let’s see. Kazoo?”
I cocked my head and an eyebrow. “For real?”
“Legit. Amazing kazoo player. What else? Um…accordion, mandolin, fiddle, dobro—” He was ticking off fingers, gaze flicked upward. “Ukulele, cello. Harp, but not too well.”
“Trumpet?” I asked, the first thing that came to mind.
“Heck, no. Terrible at brass instruments.”
He shook his head. “Woodwinds, either. They don’t like me.”
Laughter spilled out of me faster than a speeding car.
He was laughing, too, and oh, God, he sounded like freedom. Husky yet boyish, as though he purposely teetered the tightrope between the two.
Then again, no. He wasn’t a boy.
I’d dated. Not much, but enough to block a few numbers from my phone. Some good, some bad. No one who made me feel that oomph in the pit of my stomach. That flutter, that sensation of involuntarily sighing at the very thought of him.
More than that.
I’d never been in the presence of a man that made me so aware—so very, very hyperaware of how much of a man he was.
And how very female I was.
“So, where you from?” He leaned back, reached behind for a bottle of water he had sitting on a table. The cords in his neck strained, and I decided then and there I’d need a cold shower, once I got home.
“Is it that obvious?” I asked.
He unscrewed the cap. “No, it’s—something to drink?”
“I’m good.” I wasn’t. Not by a large margin. “Thanks.”
“You just don’t seem like most of the other girls I’ve met.” He took a long pull from the bottle, and there was something incredibly intimate in watching him drink. “At least, the ones I’ve met here.”
I’d’ve bet all I had he’d met plenty, too.
“Columbus,” I said. “Ohio.”
“Hmm.” He recapped the bottle. Narrowed his eyes. “Not an Ohio State fan, are you?”
“Wow. Yeah.” Biting his lower lip, he shook his head, set down the water bottle. Eyed me from the side, a grin he couldn’t conceal toying with the corner of his mouth. “I don’t think we can be friends.”
My eyebrows shot up. “UT?”
He looked insulted, and I almost laughed. “What? No,” he said, hand over his heart as if I’d mortally wounded him. “LSU.”
It was my turn to make a face, and he did laugh. “Really?” My nose wrinkled. “With all the purple and gold and adding -eaux to the end of every word?”
“I’m just gonna stop you right there, darlin’, before I’m forced to call you a cab home. I try my best to be a hospitable host, but lines are gonna have to be drawn.”
“Clearly those lines merge along the Mason-Dixon.”
He grinned. “Something like that. But hey—” He stood, and his open hand appeared in front of me and I didn’t know what to do, because here I was, faced with the decision of whether or not touching him was a good idea, when clearly, clearly, clearly it wasn’t.
“At least we have one thing in common.”
“Oh yeah? What’s that?”
“We’re both strangers to this town.”
But he wasn’t. He wasn’t a stranger. People knew him. I didn’t. But people did.
My hand slipped inside his and he squeezed slightly as I stood. He wasn’t tall. Taller than me, sure, but only by two maybe three inches. Where he lacked in height, however, he’d clearly made up for by taking care of himself. His skin was beautiful, his body tight.
He released me and a tiny pang hit my stomach. “So, Columbus. You played piano when you were four?”
Shuffling on the other side of the room. But I couldn’t look away from him. He was captivating, Lawson was, and I had the fleeting thought he could ask anything of me in that moment, and I would’ve been hard pressed to say no.
No wonder women gathered at his gates. Hoping for a glimpse. A few precious seconds of his eyes locking with theirs.
“Yeah, sure. For, like, less than a year, though.” Dad discovered I was better suited for community softball and spelling bees.
“Let’s see what you’ve got.”
“What?” I glanced at the piano, which Chris and Luke no longer occupied. They must’ve heard the word exit Lawson’s lips and instantly dispersed. In fact, they were nowhere to be seen. Neither was Savana. Some date she’d turned out to be. Ditching me within half an hour of arrival.
Was this what it was like to be his friend? To be in Lawson Hill’s inner circle?
“Where’d everybody go?” I asked, looking around.
“Probably outside to the pool. Late night swim. Come on.” He made for the piano.
“You have a pool?”
An airless chuckle. “Yes, Columbus, I have a pool.” He sat to the left end of the piano and patted the space of bench he’d left open. “Sit.”
I did, because, one, I didn’t want to be a bad guest and, two, to disobey him seemed absurd. If a musician invited you to sit while he played, you listened. He was the artist, not me.
“Let’s see.” He began to play and, I swear, I had the ridiculous but real thought the keys could’ve been sticks of butter beneath his fingers.
Music filled the room. Beautiful, smooth music that made light bloom in my chest.
“Like any of the classics?”
“Like classical? Sure, loads. Bach, Chopin—”
“Damn, girl, you’re gonna make it real hard on me, aren’t you?” His smile was infectious. “I can play, but I can’t play classical. I mean, I can, but not well.”
Of course, he could.
“I meant like Billy Joel, Elton, Stevie.”
“Elton John,” I said. “My dad, he’s a big fan.”
“Yeah? Okay, then. Elton, it is.”
When he struck the first chords of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, my breath caught. Excitement welled like a fountain, overflowed. Everybody knew that song. I’d grown up with the vinyl album on repeat when I was a kid. Dad played piano on the kitchen countertop; I sang into a hairbrush.
This was surreal. Unbelievable. Overwhelming to the nth degree.
But then he started singing—When are you gonna come down, when are you going to land—and the light in my chest, it exploded.
Dear God, he could sing. A honeyed, flawless pitch most depended on a recording studio to perfect. I’d been to a couple of live shows. Local stuff, nothing big. But not one of those singers had sounded like Lawson Hill.
I could’ve died on the spot. Poured off the bench, melted into the hardwood floor. A happy, meaningful death, for sure. Better than anything I could’ve imagined.
I watched him. Awestruck. Mouth open. A little drool might’ve come out. I was aware of very little but him. Of him singing, his eyes opening to glance at his fingers as they played the familiar melody, closing again as he hit those high ooohs and aaahs.
Happiness, pain, contentment, longing. A plethora of emotions passed over his face as he sang and played like a seasoned performer.
After he finished, I breathed, “Wow, that was—” But he didn’t allow me to finish, went straight into another number, almost as if he’d forgotten I was there beside him, his arm brushing mine, our thighs touching.
Later, much later, almost midnight, Savana drove me home, and she was talking about Chris and an upcoming show and how stupid-excited they were, but I wasn’t listening. It felt like there was a veil between me and her, between me and anything, but him. He’d overtaken thought. He’d overtaken reason. He’d overtaken the ability to decipher whether tonight had been real or a very colorful figment of my own imagination.
I had no words.
Words weren’t important anymore.
If someone had given me the task of reciting my valedictorian speech, on the spot, in that moment, I couldn’t have remembered the first word, let alone the first line. And I’d spent hours nailing it down. Refused to use index cards. Didn’t use them. Still got a standing o.
So, when Savana slowed down at the bottom of our short drive and said, “I gave him your number. Hope that’s okay,” it wasn’t any surprise that all I could muster was a half-ass nod.
“’kay, well…” She smiled. “See you tomorrow.”
Once inside, I came to.
Routine was good.
Routine was safe.
Methodically, I checked the kitchen, made sure all the dishes were washed, wiped down the counters and locked the front door. Dad was already in bed, but I leaned in, kissed his cheek and whispered that I was home and I loved him.
He whispered he loved me, too, and went back to snoring.
I showered, brushed my teeth. Gazed at myself in the bathroom mirror longer than usual. Would anyone ever mistake me for a beauty queen? No. But I wasn’t terribly unfortunate looking. Light blue eyes framed by full brows I’d resisted overplucking. My lips were a little too full—someone started a rumor in eighth grade that I got fillers, but of course that wasn’t true. Plain brown hair, nothing special. What did he see? I wondered. What was it like looking at me through his eyes? Eyes that’d doubtless seen some of the most beautiful women on Earth.
I tore my gaze from the mirror and went to my room. Changed into a tank and a pair of sleep shorts. I was tired. The kind that’s bone-deep and requires at least half on hour of winding down before you can get any real sleep. Reading would’ve been ideal. But then the night had been so abnormal, the book on my nightstand wouldn’t have done for an effective remedy.
Grabbing my laptop, I turned out the lights, slipped on my wireless headphones and sank underneath the covers.
And then I did what any normal girl would’ve were she in my shoes.
I Googled Lawson Hill.
Music videos. Live performances. Full concerts—some professional, some fan-made. Interviews. Presentation speeches at awards shows. Acceptance speeches at awards shows. Segments on late night television. Cameras following him around on tour. Exclusive behind-the-scenes coverage. More interviews, more live footage.
He even gave guitar lessons to an elementary school music class.
My head was spinning so fast I felt sick.
He was famous.
That I didn’t know who he was? When obviously everyone else did, because the video view count, the likes and dislikes, the five-million-plus subscriptions to his personal channel? The blaring truth I’d apparently lived under a rock for too long—long enough to not know the name Lawson-freaking-Hill? Said many, many things about me as a person. None of which were particularly complimentary.
Numero uno? Yep. I’d been living the hermit life.
Second, I didn’t know as much about music as I thought I did. In the least, I didn’t have a broad taste spectrum. Lawson was incredible. The man bled talent and charisma. In interviews, he was humble. On stage, he was fire. The crowd loved him. Fans sang every word, cried, screamed and begged him to play Maelstrom and To Me You Are and dozens of other songs I’d never heard of.
But that wasn’t the worst of it.
He texted me.
6:30 am. As I was waking up, stretching my legs and arms, imagining all the ways Savana would grill me about Lawson once I got to work, my phone dinged.
Clumsily, I made a grab toward my nightstand. Dropped the phone. Reached down, half on, half off my bed to retrieve it. Fell off the bed.
Not my finest moment.
A number I didn’t recognize materialized on the screen, but it didn’t matter.
I knew it was him.
First song you played this morning.
The voice inside my head, the one everybody’s got that keeps that inner dialogue going, she let out a yip and a squeal and an ohmygodohmygodohmygod that kicked up my heart rate. I rolled to my back on the white plush rug I’d snagged on sale at Target. Before the move. Before this.
Haven’t gotten to it yet, I typed and hit send.
Bubbles. What? Columbus, you disappoint me.
I felt my face stretch with a smile. Not everyone has music on the brain 24/7.
Say it ain’t so.
True-blue southerner. Even in his texts.
#truth, I returned.
Two minutes, five, ten.
At twenty, I put the phone down, got up and forced myself into action. Showered, brushed my teeth. I couldn’t worry whether or not he replied. If I’d sounded dumb or chosen the wrong words. I wasn’t good at flirting. Definitely wasn’t good at flirting via text. Plus, he didn’t owe me anything. The experience of sitting at the piano while he sang like an angel? Maybe he was just being nice. Celebrities were like that. Kept their fans close, bated, reeled in. Then again, I wasn’t really a—well, yeah, now I was a fan. Sort of. Still felt strange listening to country music.
Regardless, I wasn’t the kind of girl who fed into a guy’s ego. Or anyone’s, for that matter. Texting him again, after I sent the last text? Out of the question.
I met my dad in the kitchen, both of us dressed for work. He in his polished shoes, tailored pants, starched white dress shirt and expertly knotted tie. Me in my ride-or-die Converse, skinny jeans and the I’m silently correcting your grammar tee that used to be white before I accidentally washed it with Dad’s navy socks. Now, it was a muted grayish blue.
He was handsome, my dad. Tall, toned, salt-and-pepper hair freshly trimmed. One of his first orders of business when we moved to Nashville was to find a good barber and a talented tailor.
“Hey, sport, doing all right this morning?” He took a seat across from me at the kitchen table. Toast with marmalade. Hot tea. Cream, no sugar. Same breakfast he’d eaten every morning since I could remember. “You look a little worse for wear. Trouble sleeping?”
“A little.” I sipped my dark roast. Thank goodness for Keurigs; I was the only soul in our family of two who drank the stuff. No sense in putting on a whole pot for just me.
“How’s work at the library?” He opened the book he’d been reading for the last couple of days, a biography on Sidney Poitier, to the page he’d marked with a CVS receipt.
Small talk. Conversation for the sake of conversation. Dad had this thing about keeping communication open between us. Even when there was nothing to say.
“Good,” I said. “Decent. Savana’s been cool.”
“Savana. She’s about your age.”
“Close, yeah. I think she’s maybe twenty? Twenty-one?”
He glanced at me from over the rim of his cheetah-print reading glasses. He’d had a normal pair last week. Black, red, I couldn’t remember. But he misplaced them every month or so, and they’d turn up in odd places like behind the fridge or in a load of laundry. CVS had a wide selection of pink, zebra and cheetah. Hence the cheetah and the CVS receipt he’d turned into a bookmark.
“She’s who you went out with last night?” At my nod, he said, “Where’d you end up going? Dinner? Movie? There’s some good ones out right now, I hear.”
Dinner. Movie. Hanging out at a local coffee shop. Bowling. Skating on 80’s night. Normal evening for an eighteen-year-old. For a girl from Columbus, Ohio.
But we weren’t in Columbus anymore and, as Savana bluntly pointed out, music leaked from sewage grates here. Why wouldn’t we go to a famous singer’s house the first time I went out with a friend? Didn’t everybody?
“We actually hung out with some of Savana’s friends.”
“Dad.” I got up, trudged to the coffee maker for another cup. I’d have to make this one to-go. The library opened at nine and I liked to get there early, take a moment to browse the new releases.
“I know, I know. I shouldn’t pry. You’re an adult. I just…”
Coffee brewing, I turned to look at him. “You just…what?”
He set his book down. Removed the glasses. John Evans, ladies and gentlemen. About to get serious. “I just don’t want you hanging out with anyone who could get you in trouble, Harper. Okay?”
“You’ve got a lot going for you.”
“I know I have a lot going for me.”
“And while your scholarships are solidified, as is Cambridge in the fall, a mar on your character, on your reputation—”
“Oh my God, Dad, I have to go.” Slipping a lid on my coffee-filled tumbler, I grabbed my backpack, slung it over a shoulder.
“I love you, okay?” I leaned in to kiss his cheek and he patted my shoulder. “You don’t have anything to worry about. See you tonight.”
“We can ride together, you know,” he reminded me on my way out.
“I like the walk.”
Truth: I did enjoy the walk. Three blocks from our house to the college and I got to pass a florist and a donut shop, both of which smelled amazing, especially commingling in the air. The streets and sidewalks were clean, not too much traffic.
This morning, however, Savana was pulled up to the curb, passenger’s side window rolled down. “Hey!” She’d probably woken every neighbor. “Get in!”
I propped my forearms on the door. “You could’ve texted,” I said, peering in at her.
“Did. But did you answer?” she said through a wad of pink bubblegum. “No.”
Hair up in a ponytail, designer shades parked at the end of her nose, she looked like she just walked off the set of Mean Girls: Nashville.
I checked my phone. Sure enough. Two texts from Savana.
None from Lawson.
“Oops.” I’d left it upstairs. Along with a laundry load of mixed feelings about the guy with blue eyes and a two-hundred-dollar haircut. Which was more than a little ridiculous, when I thought about it. How could I have mixed feelings about someone I’d known less than 24 hours? “Sorry.”
“Well, get in, sister. We’re ditching work today.”
“Uh, no. I’m not ditching work.”
“Yep. You are. Let’s go.”
“I don’t ditch anything.”
“Guess today will be your day of change.”
Was she serious? I’d never called in sick to anything in my entire life. “Savana, people are depending on us.” Someone had to be the voice of reason and, between the two of us, that person was definitely not Savana Petrov.
“Called McEntee this morning, told her we both had the runs,” she said as if it was nothing. As if she didn’t lie to the head librarian, our boss, with a diarrhea excuse. “That we’re not sure if it’s a bug or the Mexican we ate last night—”
“We didn’t eat Mexican last night.”
“Would you get on board with me here, Evans?” She rolled her eyes. “Car. Now. First breakfast, then shopping. Chop, chop!”
I gave up. Right there at the end of my drive. Four months, I told myself. Four months of letting go, having fun, and, thanks to Savana, doing a few things out of my comfort zone and I’d focus on college. On the future that was only a handful of years out of my reach.
Throwing my bag in the backseat, I set my tumbler in Savana’s cupholder and fastened my seatbelt. “So, what did she say?”
Savana turned up the radio, humming. “What’d who say?”
“McEntee. When you told her we weren’t coming in?” Because of diarrhea. My cheeks heated at the thought.
“Oh, you know McEntee. Germaphobe supreme. Didn’t even have the words out of my mouth before she was gasping, ‘Oh my gosh, please stay home,’” she said, adopting Ms. McEntee’s warbly tone. “‘Both of you. Please. We have this. Really. Stay home. You’re staying home, right?’” Savana laughed. “God bless that woman. I’ve never seen someone who sets a timer for when she needs to Germ-X her hands.”
She started singing again, tapping her thumb to the steering wheel. “So, are we gonna talk about it?”
Warmth crawled up the back of my neck. “Talk about what?”
“Talk about what.” She snorted. “You and Law?”
“Uh, what?” A weird laugh burst out of me. “There is no—no.”
“Because you know he’s a player.”
I took the bait. “He is?”
Laughter. The radio deejay announced that was Josh Cole’s latest—number one on the country charts, and it wasn’t until he was leading up to the next song that she finally stopped laughing. “Sister. There’s no you and Law? Please. I may not have a scholarship to a fancy British school, but I’m not that stupid.” She cut her eyes at me, lips twisted.
“Savana,” I said, “I honestly don’t know what you mean. We talked. We laughed a little. It was nothing. Just two people talking.”
“And laughing,” she said.
“Is he really a player?”
She rolled her eyes, accelerated through a yellow light. “I told you he’s nice.”
“Okay. So, he’s nice. Lots of guys are nice.”
“Not like Law.”
I chewed on that for seconds. She didn’t say it like it was a bad thing, him being nice, but it didn’t sound great, either. How could nice be considered a bad quality?
“Thing is,” she said, “he’s been hurt—shit, he’d be pissed if he knew I was telling you this.”
“No, you should know, because he’s into you and, yeah, it’s fast. Really fast. But it’s Law and in a way he’s like a brother to me, to all of us. We want him to be happy, because he’s been too fucking unhappy for way too fucking long, and it’s fucking up his creativity like a son of a bitch.”
I was too hung up on he’s into you to question her excessive use of cuss words. Wasn’t that I didn’t cuss. Finals made me swear like an extra in a Tarantino flick. But four cuss words in one sentence could’ve easily been exchanged with better adjectives.
“He’s unhappy?” I asked.
“Artists are always experiencing some level of unhappiness. Just the way they are. Creativity requires tapping into all kinds of emotions. That’s how the best songs get written, the most memorable movies get made. Those are the stories we connect with. It’s the happy moments, sure, everyone likes to be happy, but it’s also the painful shit we go through. Every human knows what it’s like to suffer, to feel the clench of a broken heart. And Law? He’s in the ugly aftermath.”
My heart sank.
Who was she?
Gazing out the passenger window, I ticked a fingernail to my teeth. Another celebrity? A gleaming blonde beauty like Savana? The type seemed to be the norm here. Tall skinnies in boots and jeans with rhinestones on the back pockets. At least five of the same just filed into a Starbucks at the corner of 11th and Charlotte.
“What happened?” I asked.
“Usual. Different schedules, too much time apart, opposite interests. The bigger issue is he’s having a hard time writing.”
“Oh.” I tried to imagine what that might be like for a songwriter. For a person whose livelihood depended on his ability to not only write a song but a song good enough to make a record. And then to do it multiple times over to make an entire album? I envisioned all the artists I loved, my favorites—The Killers, The 1975, Declan McKenna, Halsey—and the grueling process they must’ve gone through to put out the songs I kept on repeat. Until then, I’d never really given it much thought.
We drove a while, the radio playing music new to me, familiar to Savana. Not only did she know every song, but she could recite the backstory of each artist. It was like being with a tour guide, the kind that takes you by stars’ homes and tells you how they started out poor, living out of their car, before hitting it big. I didn’t mind. History, regardless of where it came from or who it was about, fascinated me. Wasn’t uncommon for me to choose a Netflix documentary over the newest romcom or action flick.
About an hour later, Savana pulled into the parking lot of a corner café.
“Yeah. So.” She unfastened her seatbelt, reached back for her handbag. “As I was saying, before I got sidetracked.”
Easy for Savana, I was beginning to learn, getting sidetracked.
“He has an evening with you, and suddenly he’s at the piano playing Elton John, something none of us have seen him do in months.” She pulled out a tube of gloss, used the mirror in her visor to do a touch up. Popped her lips together a couple of times. “Luke said after we left, Law and Jack Daniels were up all night writing. Said there was staff paper all over the piano, the floor. I’m telling you,” she said, “it’s been a while, but when Law writes? He’s like that fucked up, mad composer from Amadeus. Scary and awesome at the same time.”
I didn’t have the heart to tell her that fucked up, made composer from Amadeus was Amadeus. Or, at least, Tom Hulce portraying Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
“Luke lives with him?” I grabbed my backpack, fished around for my wallet.
“Nah. Luke just crashes sometimes.” She ran her ring finger over each eyebrow. Glanced from side to side in the mirror. For all the world as if we were about to walk into a fashion shoot. “His fiancée’s on tour right now. Backup singer. Telling you, sister.” Her visor flipped up with a snap and she zipped her purse. “Everybody’s involved in the music scene here. Someway, somehow. Ready to eat?”
The café was quaint and cozy with brick walls, red vinyl booths and a jukebox. Savana went all out with a stack of pancakes smothered in powdered sugar and maple syrup. Since I wasn’t much of a breakfast person, I ordered coffee and toast with butter.
“So, what do you own besides yoga pants and sweaters made out of old circus tents?”
I narrowed my eyes at her. “I have other clothes.”
“Oh, excuse me. Jeans and nerd tees.” She gestured with her syrup-covered fork. “Any skirts? Dresses? Heels and boots?”
“Skirts, no. Dresses, yes. Heels—”
“Stop. How many dresses? Two?”
My jaw dropped. “How did you—?”
Her open palm shushed me. “How long have you had said dresses?”
Shrugging, I looked down at my coffee. “Since I was a freshman, maybe?”
“That’s what I thought.” She sucked a blob of powdered sugar from her thumb. “Definitely shopping.”
“Okay, I hate talking about money. Where I come from, it’s bad table conversation.”
“Money’s not the issue.” I’d saved every paycheck from my after-school job waitressing in Ohio and close to two-thousand in graduation gift money.
“I’m not talking about breaking the bank here,” she said, “but a couple of things to go to a local show. You can borrow some things from me, too. Think I have a pair of boots that’ll fit you perfect. You’re…what? A seven? Seven and a half?”
“Seven, but I’m not wearing boots,” I countered, fully aware I’d essentially conceded her victory. But after last night’s chosen attire, well, let’s just say I’d learned a valuable lesson. I wasn’t about to change my whole style just to blend in with everyone else, but a bit of sprucing seemed wise. “Wait. What show?”
“Saturday night. Eight o’clock. Come on.” She got up, tossed a couple of twenties on the table. “We have shopping to do.”
“Savana,” I said, rising and opening my wallet. “I can buy my own breakfast.”
“Don’t sweat it.” She waved me off. “Dad’s loaded.”
Savana only shopped at designer boutiques. The kind that sold t-shirts for a month’s salary and jeans that made you question whether they were stitched with gold thread. I’d been inside one or two similar shops in Columbus. I’d walked out of one or two, as well. Sure, trying on expensive clothes was fun. Getting a visual of what I’d look like if I dressed like someone who had fashion sense. Looking in a mirror and receiving a thumbs up from a personal stylist. If a girl ever wanted to feel beautiful, trying on clothes at designer boutiques was definitely an option. But the price tags were always too much of a turnoff for me. And the sale racks? Never had anything in my size.
Savana’s family owned all three of the boutiques we hit.
Which meant she got anything she wanted at cost.
Which meant I got anything I wanted at cost.
Which meant I went a little crazy.
Didn’t help when I was in the middle of going back and forth over a pair of black leather rock-studded ankle boots—yes no yes no yes no—my phone pinged in my back pocket.
Figuring it was Dad saying he’d swung by the library to say hi, only to be told I was sick (busted), I braced myself for the worst.
And had to brace myself for a full-blown panic attack, instead.
Everyone has music on the brain 24/7, Columbus. It’s just not everyone admits it.
Kirkhart, Alyssia. Jump Then Fall. Aurora Dream Press, LLC. March 2021.
All Rights Reserved. Printed in the United States of America. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, events and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.