CHAPTER ONE

 

“Flight Five-Four-Two from Los Angeles.” I squinted at the screen mounted to the nearby wall. It was a warm spring Friday in mid-June, and I was standing in the middle of Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport. “It looks like the plane arrived twenty minutes ago,” I called over the noise of the bustling baggage claim area.

 

My best friend, Kat Taylor, was perched on the edge of an aluminum bench a few feet away, flipping through a discarded copy of SkyMall. “What is it about these catalogs that makes me want the most random junk?” She scrunched her nose and held up the magazine so I could see the page she’d been reading. “Like, who knew that glow-in-the-dark toilet seats were a thing?” She giggled. “No, wait. I get it—so you don’t have to blind yourself with the bathroom light if you get up in the middle of the night to pee. Why didn’t I ever think of that?”

 

“Maybe we should get those for Castle Rock’s bathrooms. They’d be perfect for the Black Light Rave Night in the Dungeon next month.” I smirked. “Anyway, the guys should be walking up any minute.”                

 

Kat set the magazine on the bench and came to stand next to me. “Can you believe it’s been five years?” she asked. The last time we’d seen Jack Pearson, Mickey Ward, and Chad Egan, they were just three college dropouts dreaming of recording an indie-rock album. Our pals left Georgia State senior year and moved to L.A. to try and land a record deal. Half a decade later, they were three-fifths of the mega-famous rock outfit, Royal Flush.

 

“Shouldn’t be hard to spot ‘em,” Kat said, surveying the crowd. “Just look for the throng of swooning girls.” Her light brown hair bounced as she dubiously shook her head. “You’d think they were freakin’ One Direction the way women get their panties wet over them.” She rolled her eyes. “It’s kind of ridiculous.”

 

“Be nice,” I scolded, though I was smiling. “They’re still the same old goofball stoners from down the hall in the dorm freshman year. Plus they hooked us up with exclusive booking rights for all of their shows in Atlanta.”

 

Kat rested her hands on her hips. “Which would be great if they played here even once in the past five years. It’s like they’ve been shunning ATL until now. Where’s the hometown love?”

 

I shrugged. “Yeah, well, that’s part of what made the tickets for tomorrow night sell out so fast.” I patted her arm. “Come on. It’ll be fun to see them—like a mini college reunion.”

 

“Yeah.” Kat nodded, her lips twisting in a goofy grin. “I can’t wait to see if Chad can still throw down on some Mario Kart like the old days. My Xbox is on the top shelf in my closet, just in case.”

 

“You bet your skinny butt I can, Taylor,” called a voice from behind us. Kat and I exchanged excited looks and turned to find a lanky, red-haired man strutting toward us. “Hey there, strangers.” His freckled face stretched in a wide smile as he set down his luggage and wrapped one arm around Kat.

“Chad!” Kat squealed, returning his hug.

 

Chad pulled me close with his other arm. “Hey, Amelia. Long time no see.”

 

When he’d released us both, Kat stepped back and sized him up. “Dude, you haven’t changed a bit.”

 

Chad Egan arched a bushy, red eyebrow. “Not true. I didn’t have these before.” He pointed to the quarter-sized black discs plugging his gauged earlobes. “Or this,” he added, lifting his shirt. Tattooed on his pale chest were five playing cards—the ace, king, queen, jack, and ten of hearts. The bottom half of each card was missing, and bright red-and-orange flames licked at what remained. Beneath the burning cards was a pile of black ash that spelled the letters R and F for Royal Flush. “So, what do you think?” Chad shifted his gaze back and forth from his ink to Kat and me, trying to read our reactions. “Pretty wicked, huh?”

 

“Very,” I said, giving him a high five.

 

“Badass!” Kat reached out and poked at the tat with one finger and then tickled Chad’s ribs.

 

“Cut it out, K.” He laughed and grabbed her shoulders, holding her at arm’s length as he looked her up and down. “You’ve definitely changed—you went and got hot while I was away.” He gave an appreciative whistle.

 

“Please!” Kat scoffed. “I was always hot, and you know it.” That was true—my best friend had looked like a Victoria’s Secret model since high school. She had wavy light brown hair that tumbled down past her shoulders, eyes like blue chips of ice, full heart-shaped lips, and legs for days. Though I didn’t look half-bad myself, hanging around Kat had sealed my fate as the perpetually single sidekick up until college.

 

“Yeah, yeah.” Chad rolled his eyes. “So, about this Mario Kart face-off—”

 

“I hate to break up the love fest, y’all,” I interrupted. “But where is the rest of the band?”

 

Chad aimed a sly grin my way. “Yo, slow your roll, Ame,” he said, using the old nickname Kat gave me when we were kids, like Amy without the y. “I beat the rest of the guys off the plane. I know you’re dying to see your old lover boy, but chill. He’ll be along in a minute.”

 

Heat rushed to my cheeks. “I wasn’t just talking about Mickey,” I protested. Royal Flush’s drummer, Mickey Ward, was my first serious boyfriend. We’d dated for about a year and a half in college that ended in a messy breakup right before the guys skipped town. I hadn’t spoken to him since. Five years was a long time to go without official closure, but I’d moved on a long time ago. That’s what I kept telling myself, anyway. Still, the thought of seeing Mickey again after so long filled my stomach with butterflies—something I wasn’t about to admit to Chad.

 

 “Oh, come on.” Kat eyed me pointedly. “That hot outfit you’re rockin’ has nothing to do with the fact that you’re about to see Mickey for the first time since college—seriously?”

 

“What?” I glanced down at my tight-fitting, knee-length, blue wrap dress with a plunging neckline, which I’d paired with a cute pair of black leather ankle boots. It was a far cry from my normal work wear: the first thing from my laundry pile that wasn’t too wrinkled and smelled clean enough. “I was just trying to look more professional.” I smoothed a wrinkle in the fabric near my waistline. “We are technically working right now, after all—picking up tomorrow night’s performers.”

 

Kat wagged a finger at me. “Don’t give me that, Missy. I see the way you dress on a daily basis, remember? And that includes the occasional chauffeur duty from the airport.” She reached out and lightly tugged a strand of my shoulder-length auburn locks. “You don’t straighten your hair and break out the mascara for just anyone. When’s the last time you came to work not sporting jeans and a ponytail?” Damn. The downside to having a best friend who’s known me since we were in diapers is that she’s mastered Amelia Grace Psychology 101. I can’t get anything past her.

 

“Busted!” Chad cried gleefully.

 

I shot Kat an arctic look. “Traitor,” I muttered. So, I dressed a little fancier than usual today. There’s no rule that says a girl can’t look her best when seeing an ex again for the first time post-breakup, even if she no longer has feelings for him. “Is it a crime to try and look nice for my friends?” I asked indignantly. “And besides, I’m seeing someone—you know that, Kat.” My cold expression thawed a little at the thought of Emmett, my boyfriend of the past seven months.

 

“Hey, good for you, Ame.” Chad grinned, holding out his fist so I could bump it with my own. “Get you some!”

 

“Get some what?” The familiar masculine voice made my insides flutter. Keeping my breathing even, I raised my eyes toward the man walking up to meet us. “Hey,” Mickey Ward said, his lips pulled wide in a brilliant smile. The noise of the busy airport fell away when we locked gazes. My mind ran through a gag-worthy montage of our college romance that was one sappy Paula Cole song away from being an episode of Dawson’s Creek: meeting Mickey in our music management class, sharing our first kiss on the quad after a Georgia State basketball game, the look on his face when he’d spot me in the crowd at one of his gigs—and the devastation in his eyes when I handed back the engagement ring he’d just placed on my finger. Stop that, I chided myself. This isn’t some made-for-TV movie. Don’t make things weird. So what if I hadn’t seen him since the day I’d turned down his proposal? We could still be normal around each other, right? Of course, normal for Mickey and me was being attached at the lips…and maybe a few other parts. Crap.

 

“Hi, stranger,” I said, trying to sound casual as I looked him over. “Long time no see.” The extra five years looked good on Mickey—he was tall and broad-shouldered, not quite as trim as he’d been in college, but still in great shape. His brown hair had grown down to his shoulders and was tied loosely behind his neck. Mickey’s face was round with a soft jaw line, and there was still a little white scar on his chin from a shaving accident when he was seventeen. He’d never been conventionally handsome, but in all honesty, that was part of why I was attracted to him to begin with. That, and his eyes. Mickey had the sweetest eyes I’d ever seen—warm and golden brown, like two drops of wild honey. Even staring into them now made me want to melt.

 

“And you,” Mickey began and then paused, as if not sure what to say. “Amelia, you look…wow.” I glanced down at my own slightly slimmer figure, giving myself a mental high five for shaving off about ten pounds this year doing yoga. I looked back up just as Mickey’s face broke into that charming boyish grin that I fell in love with in college. Despite my best effort to keep cool, my insides turned to mush. “I can’t believe you’re really standing in front of me right now,” he said. Mickey slid his carry-on bag off his shoulder and dropped it at his feet, holding his arms open wide. “Get over here!”

 

 I stepped forward to accept Mickey’s hug. The smell of his Burberry cologne sent even more memories spiraling through me. He still wears the same scent I bought him for Valentine’s Day junior year. I gulped, pulling away from his embrace before he seemed ready to release me. I cast a glance at Chad and Kat, who were huddled close together, staring at our interaction and whispering to each other like a pair of gossiping housewives.

 

Chad caught my eye and broke away from Kat to join us. He slung a casual arm around my shoulder. “Ame was just telling us about her new man,” he said to Mickey, his mouth quirking at the corners. Chad really hadn’t changed a bit since our Georgia State days—he always liked to stir the pot. For once I was relieved that he was a sucker for drama: he’d broken the news to Mickey so that I wouldn’t have to. Still, I hated seeing the glint of pain in Mickey’s eyes. Maybe I wasn’t the only one looking for closure.

 

“Oh.” Mickey quickly recovered from the look of regret that flashed across his handsome face. “Good,” he said warmly. “I’m happy for you.”

 

“Thanks.” I suddenly felt self-conscious in my tight dress. I slipped out from under Chad’s arm and adjusted the purse strap on my shoulder. “Hey, there’s Jack!” I pointed toward the mob of women, young and old, who were crowded around our college buddy and his entourage. The Royal Flush front man was signing autographs and flashing his signature half-smile as fans shoved in front of each other to snap photos with him. Standing behind Jack and his flock of lusty ladies were two men that I recognized as the newest members of Royal Flush, Sid Malone and Zane Calloway. Sid joined the guys right before they left Atlanta, and they’d met Zane out in L.A.

 

A curvy woman with fiery red hair ushered Jack and the others through the throng of women, shooing more fans away with her over-sized rolling suitcase. “We’ve gotta go,” she commanded as they reached us. “If we don’t lose these broads now Jack will be signing autographs in this freakin’ airport until next Easter.”

 

“That’s why we should’ve sprung for a private jet,” Chad quipped from beside me.

 

The woman rolled her eyes at him. “It would’ve been a waste of money considering Jack’s the only one the ladies are flipping out for. I don’t see a flock of girls knocking over luggage carts to get to you, Egan.”

 

Chad stuck out his bottom lip. “I’m incognito,” he said, pulling his shades down over his eyes.

 

“I’d knock down a cart to meet you,” Kat said, bumping him with her shoulder. Chad’s cheeks turned pink.

 

“You must be Ginger,” I said, stepping forward and extending my hand to the red-haired woman.

 

She shook my hand. “Yes. I’m Ginger Robbins.” Her tone was professional yet polite. She squinted at me. “Amelia, right? I believe we spoke on the phone a few times.”

 

“That’s right.” As both the booking agent and general manager for Castle Rock, I handled all of the paperwork and dealt with tour managers like Ginger for each concert we produced. “We’ve rented an Escalade so that Kat can take you and the band over to the hotel. I’ve also got my car parked nearby to transport luggage if needed.”

 

“Thank you.” Ginger’s glossy lips parted to show perfectly white teeth. “The tour bus will be here tomorrow morning with all the gear, but the rest of our luggage should be coming down the chute any minute.” She inclined her head toward Jack, who was nuzzling the neck of a short, dark-haired woman I assumed was his latest girlfriend. “Can you believe he’s got a whole carry-on just for his hair products?” Ginger asked in a conspiratorial whisper. She shook her head and made a clucking sound with her tongue. “Rock stars.”

 

I smiled. I liked this woman already.

 

Kat wagged her finger back and forth, counting everyone in Royal Flush’s entourage. “It looks like there are too many people to fit in the Escalade,” she said, turning to Ginger and me. “It seats seven, including the driver.”

 

My eyes roved over the group in front of us. Five members of the band, plus Ginger, Kat, me, and the girl glued to Jack’s side.

 

“Hmm.” I chewed my lip. “Someone can ride with me in my Jetta.”

 

“I’ll do it,” Mickey offered, a smile cresting his lips. “It’ll give us a chance to catch up.”

 

I exchanged a wide-eyed look with Kat. “Er—” I stammered, trying to think of an excuse to have anyone but Mickey ride along with me. Being alone in a car with my ex-almost-fiancé was dangerous territory.

 

Mickey saw my expression, and his own face fell. “Hey, I don’t bite,” he said, sounding hurt. “I just thought it’d be nice to talk. I wanna know what you’ve been up to for the past five years.”

 

Getting over you, for starters. I forced down the lump in my throat. Come on, we’re both adults. It’s just a quick ride. It’s not like he’s proposing marriage…again.“Sure, that’d be great,” I said evenly.

 

After hugging Jack and greeting the rest of the band, Kat and I helped them retrieve their luggage. Then we headed into the parking garage where Kat led the others to the Escalade while Mickey and I climbed into my little gray car. I ducked my head so he couldn’t see the involuntary look of panic that crossed my face as he slid in beside me. Being trapped alone in a moving vehicle with my ex was pretty far up there on my list of awkward situations I’d like to avoid, and yet, here I was. I took a deep breath as I backed out of the parking space, silently praying he wouldn’t want to talk about why things between us had gone sour.

 

Turning down Mickey’s proposal hadn’t been part of my life plan. For the longest time, I really thought we would be together forever. But when he got down on one knee and popped the question right after telling me that he and the guys were dropping out of college to move to L.A., something inside me sort of…snapped. It didn’t matter how much I cared for Mickey—I wanted to stay in Atlanta and graduate. I just didn’t see myself fitting into the life he wanted for himself: on the road with the band, never staying in the same city for more than a couple of days, never sleeping in his own bed.

Back then, all I wanted was to find a steady job in the music industry and work toward owning my own venue here in Atlanta. Kat and I had achieved that dream last year by taking over Castle Rock. I was happy with the path I chose, but—full disclosure—I’d be lying if I said I didn’t often think about what might have happened if I’d said yes to an adventure-filled life on the road with Mickey. While I was happy the band was back in town, having him around this weekend was going to stir up all those doubts and feelings again.

 

Just grin and bear it, I thought as I pulled my Jetta onto I-85. It’ll all be over soon.

 

*  *  *

 

To his credit, Mickey gave me a good twenty minutes of enjoyable conversation before he dredged up the topic of our failed relationship. We chatted about what life was like for him in California and how much fun it was to be on the road. He even shared a few crazy stories from Royal Flush’s world tour—including being chased by an unruly rooster around a hotel courtyard in China. Gradually we tested the waters of reminiscing our college days.

 

“Have you talked to Dillon lately?” I asked, referring to our old buddy Dillon Green, Royal Flush’s original bass player. Jack booted him from the band just weeks before the guys moved out west. Being with Mickey at the time, I knew Jack’s claim that they’d had ‘creative differences’ was to cover up the real reason he’d kicked the old bassist to the curb—Dill had drunkenly made a pass at Jack’s girlfriend.

 

“Nah.” Mickey gave a dismissive wave. “We used to text back and forth sometimes, back when Royal Flush was first starting out in Cali. After a while, we just kind of lost touch. You know how it is.” Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him sneak a glance at me before turning to gaze out the window.

 

“Yeah. To be honest, I don’t even know if he’s still in town,” I admitted. “Kat and I were never really close with him. I guess with you guys gone, he didn’t see the need to stay friends with us.”

 

“What a shame.” Mickey shook his head. “He was such a cool guy before that beef with Jack. Part of me has always felt a little guilty that we blew up right after he left the band. That success should’ve been his too.”

 

“Oh, hey!” I reached for the volume dial on my radio. “Speaking of your success…” Royal Flush’s first big single, “The Hand You’re Dealt,” emanated from the car speakers. “This one takes me back,” I said, bobbing my head up and down as we cruised the interstate. I peeked over at Mickey. “Do you ever get used to hearing your own music on the radio?”

 

He shrugged. “Yes and no. It was a lot more exciting back when we first got our break, ya know? Flipping from station to station, waiting for a deejay to play one of our singles, seeing our names move up every week on the Billboard charts—there’s no other feeling like it.” Mickey paused. When he spoke again, his voice was softer and a little sad. “But even all of that kind of loses its thrill when you don’t have someone special to share it with.”

 

Here we go. I sucked in a breath and mentally braced myself. Let’s just get this over with.

 

“I miss you,” Mickey said quietly. In my periphery, I saw his hand move toward my knee. At the last second he pulled back, curling his fingers away from me.

 

“Mickey, look,” I started, my voice harsh from frustration. I took a beat to collect myself and softened my tone. “I miss you too,” I admitted. “A lot. But we were just kids back then.” Cliché or not, it was the truth. “You’ve been gone five years. We’re not even the same people anymore. If you had really wanted to be with me, you would’ve come back. But you—”

 

“That’s not fair,” he interjected, his voice bitter. His hand clenched into a fist in his lap. “You meant the world to me, but the band was going places. I couldn’t just throw away everything we’d worked for—the guys were counting on me. I wanted you to come with us.”

 

“I know.” I stifled a sigh. “I don’t blame you for leaving, Mickey. You’ve been living your dream for the past five years, and that’s not something that many people can say.” A sad little smile curved my lips. “I’m proud of you. Really.”

 

“Thanks,” Mickey said, but his tone was melancholy. Silence stretched between us for several long moments before he spoke again. “I just wanted you to know that I regret it,” he said quietly. “Storming out like I did when you said you wouldn’t marry me. Never coming back. That—that’s not how things should have ended between us.”

 

“I appreciate you saying that.” I kept my left hand on the steering wheel and reached down with my right hand to touch his arm. “And I’m glad you guys found a new tour manager to replace me. Ginger seems nice.”

 

“Yeah, she’s all right,” Mickey agreed. “A bit of a hard-ass sometimes, though. And no one could ever really replace you. You’re still the best manager the band’s ever had.” He cleared his throat. “So, tell me about your new guy. He’s good to you, I hope.”

 

“He is.” I couldn’t help but grin as I thought about my new beau. I’d met FBI Special Agent Emmett Larson last November when an assignment brought him to Castle Rock. He and his partner were investigating an allegedly reformed Vegas mobster named Shawn Stone. As it turned out, Stone was still very active in his mob family’s business. When I found myself in the middle of all the chaos, Emmett came to my rescue. Though the attraction between us was undeniable from the moment we met, it wasn’t until Emmett saved my life that we acted on our feelings.

 

Unfortunately, when Stone caught wind that the feds were closing in, he skipped town. Emmett and his partner, Special Agent Gavin Addison, hadn’t been far behind him. That was seven months ago, and since then I’d only seen Emmett in person five or six times. We talked on the phone several times a week, but the frequent calls were no substitute for up-close-and-personal affection, if you know what I mean. Of course, I wasn’t going to share all of this with my ex.

 

The sun had set by the time we reached North Avenue, and darkness slowly curled around the cityscape. “Wow,” Mickey murmured when we crested a hill and Castle Rock came into view. He gazed out the window as we drove past the large, gray building. The venue had been named for its resemblance to a gothic castle—similar to the ones you see in movies like Dracula or Robin Hood. It was a huge structure of stones, wooden doors, turrets and parapets—the whole nine yards. We even had a majestic rear tower that, well, towered (for lack of a better word) over the surrounding neighborhood. Two large, red flags with black guitars waved in the breeze high atop the building, like beacons that attracted music lovers from all over Atlanta and beyond. That, as well as the flashing electric red “Castle Rock” sign, made us pretty hard to miss. The venue stuck out from the surrounding condos and skyscrapers like a Marilyn Manson fan at a Taylor Swift concert.

 

“I can’t believe we’re finally playing there tomorrow night.” Mickey sounded awestruck. “I used to dream about selling out a show at Castle Rock as kid. And now you freaking own the place!”

 

“Co-own,” I corrected him. Kat had inherited Castle Rock from its previous owner under sudden, tragic circumstances. While I still served as Castle Rock’s general manager and booking agent, Kat had graciously asked me to be her business partner. Having dreamed about owning a concert venue since high school, I’d happily accepted.

 

Mickey and I rode in companionable silence for several more minutes until we reached the Georgian Terrace Hotel on the corner of Peachtree and Ponce de Leon. “Are you and Kat joining us for dinner?” Mickey asked, lingering in the passenger seat as I pulled up behind Kat’s rental Escalade.

 

I smiled apologetically. “Can’t. We’ve got a show starting in…” I checked my watch, “…twenty minutes. How about we grab coffee tomorrow morning instead?” I’d blurted the invitation without even thinking—wanting to spend more time with Mickey just felt natural. Regret rushed in as soon as I caught the eager look on his face. Did he think it was a date?

 

Mickey’s lips quirked. “Sure. I can’t wait.” He started to lean toward me, his eyes half-closed. When I pulled back slightly, he hesitated, and his face flushed an embarrassed red. “Sorry,” Mickey said sheepishly. “Old habits die hard, ya know?” Without another word, he ducked out of the car and moved to unload the luggage from my trunk.

 

When Mickey was gone, I smacked my forehead with my palm. He wanted to kiss me, I thought, remembering with bittersweet clarity how it felt to press my lips against his, to close my eyes as he wound his hands in my hair. I exhaled a shaky breath. I would’ve kissed him back. That realization was dangerous—I had a boyfriend, for crying out loud! A sweet, sexy, hard-working boyfriend who, at this very moment, was hunting down a lunatic so he could keep me safe. Yet, like an idiot, I’d just asked a man that was technically my ex-fiancé out for coffee. Just the two of us. What had I been thinking?

 

That it feels good to see him again, chimed a voice in my head, a bit wistfully. I’d missed Mickey a lot more than I realized. Our banter in the car had only been a watered-down version of the deep connection we once shared, but it was enough to stir something inside me. It’s a good thing Mickey’s leaving town on Sunday, I thought guiltily as Emmett’s face flashed through my mind. Or I’d be in big trouble.

 

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© Anne Marie Stoddard 2017