She doesn't expect to see him at her parents' fortieth wedding anniversary. Of course, she'd never expected to see him again, at least not in person, so the location isn't what startles Daisy Weston when she spots Drew Taylor on the other side of the bamboo-covered bar.
She recovers fast. It wasn't always that way, but it's been five years (four years, ten months, fourteen days, thirteen hours, and twenty-six minutes, but who's counting?). She's learned how to work past the terrible ache in her chest and the tightness in her stomach. To smile when every inch of her hurts.
"H'lo, Drew." It's an innocuous greeting. Nothing more than she'd give an old high school acquaintance or a particularly annoying, but important and mouthy, reporter.
Warm brown eyes slowly rake over her from scalp to soles. His gaze lingers on her skin like a film. She absently scrubs her free hand over her bare bicep while her other hand tightens around the fragile crystal stem of her champagne flute.
Her dress feels too short. The neckline too low. She wishes she'd taken her assistant's advice and worn the halter. Or pants. Or a burlap sack. She thinks Marcie would like hearing that she was right, but her assistant won't live long enough for that moment. Daisy's going to absolutely murder her for not mentioning that Drew was on the guest list.
"I wasn't invited. Not formally. I was doing a show in San Antonio and your dad invited me."
Heart thumping, her eyes shoot to his face. She's almost forgotten how good he was at reading her. In their better, lighter moments she'd accused him of being telepathic. She manages a sharp nod and shifts her weight to give her aching feet a break. Her sparkly, strappy shoes are gorgeous but utterly impractical. She's glad she wore them to the party before attempting to wear them on stage. The last thing she needs is to fall during a show. She doesn't need the rumors (truths) from five years (four years, nine months, give or take) to resurface.
"I'm sorry, Day," he continues, voice that mixture of smoky roughness and eagerness that she never tired of hearing. "I shouldn't have accepted. This must be hard."
Gripped by hysteria-tinged shock, she can only stare at him. Hard? This isn't hard. Hard was standing in the wings in Hawaii just before their first encore when he'd stumbled off stage and given her that glassy-eyed stare and shattered her heart with five little words. Hard was finishing the rest of their tour by herself. Hard was answering questions from reporters, questions from her parents, and her own questions while trying (failing) to maintain her image. Hard was finally accepting her problem and giving up the alcohol and the manic schedule. Hard was admitting that she'd have to live a life without Drew.
This? This is easy.
"It's okay," she finally answers. "Dad loves you. It's good you came."
He extends a hand, stops before he can touch her arm. She can feel the heat of his long, callused fingers. A shiver dances down her spine. She's always loved his fingers, even before they'd evolved from touring partners into partner-partners. What that man can do with a guitar is nothing less than epic.
"It's okay," she repeats, downing the rest of her champagne to lubricate her throat. She sets the glass on the bar and backs away slowly. She needs to get away from him before she does something foolish like count the freckles on his nose to see if there are any new ones or run her fingers through his impossibly thick hair.
"Day…" He stumbles a half-step towards her, fingers closing over the air next to her elbow. The faint plea in his voice brings a prick of tears to her aching eyes.
"I should go. I need to circulate."
Faster than she can blink, he's at her side. She tilts her head back to glare. In her heels, she's no shrimp, but he's a tall, skinny freak who doesn't know the first thing about personal space. Thankful for the fury melting the ice in her veins, she elbows him not-too-gently in the ribs and sidles away. "Goodbye Drew."
For the first time in her life, Daisy Weston, pop princess turned bad girl turned music darling, walks away from rock god Drew Taylor. Her knees wobble, but her head is held high. She thinks that maybe, just maybe, she's proud of herself.
"I tried to call you."
Daisy stops abruptly. A tuxedoed waiter stifles a curse and maneuvers around her. Her spine is rigid and her ears are pricked, but she doesn't turn around. "I didn't change my number."
"I know." He blows out a sigh and in it she can hear frustration and anger. The tiny, hopelessly optimistic part of her hears regret as well. "I never finished dialing. I just… Daisy, I just…"
He's a gifted songwriter. She collaborated with him on four albums and he never failed to impress her with his poetic genius. That he can't find the right words when it really matters is sadly ironic.
She's never been a fan of irony.
"Enjoy the party, Drew."
"Daisy, I can't do this…"
God, those words again. The world stops spinning. The breath catches in her throat and her eyes swell with scalding tears. Her stomach churns and her fingers go numb. She remembers this feeling. Remembers a moment of blessed confusion before comprehension dawned and she was left with a pile of shattered glass where her heart should have been.
They've been here before. She's grateful that this time she doesn't have to see his face. She thinks that if she were to catch a glimpse of that little-boy sadness mixed in with his soulful pleading she would punch him in the nose. While it would undoubtedly make good fodder for the gossip rags, she doesn't think her parents want it on the commemorative DVD.
"I get it," she mutters through clenched teeth. "It's ancient history."
Except it's not. Every article mentions their past. Shows file photos of the two of them so sickeningly sweet in love it makes her want to hurl. And cry. And wail. There are still questions about how she likes his new album, what she thinks of his new band, and whether or not he really tattooed her name over his heart.
His hand closes over her wrist while his arm winds around her waist. She's grateful for the support, though she doesn't care for his new cologne. She'll have to remember that for her next interview. His suit jacket is cool and smooth under her flushed cheek. Her body trembles with the desire to bury her face in his shoulder and cry until she's empty inside.
"Can we talk?"
She doesn't remember answering, but he guides her out of the party pavilion and onto a stone bench near the fountain she splashed in as a child. The stars and full moon overhead provide nearly as much light as the candles and lamps in the pavilion. She can see every line on his handsome face and trace the line of his angular jaw. What she wouldn't give for a cloudy night.
"I am so sorry, Daisy."
He's not apologizing for the party. She tilts her head in acknowledgement and blinks back tears. It's more than she hoped for, so if it's all she gets, she'll take it. And maybe she'll stop poking holes in the voodoo doll under her bed on the bus.
"I was… I was a mess. The accident… it was…," he breaks off on a frustrated sigh and runs a hand through his hair. "I should have listened to Donna. I needed professional help, but I didn't want to…"
"After hearing people call you a god for so long, you start to believe," she offers quietly. The light in his eyes when he turns to her makes her foolish heart trip.
"I'm not stupid," she continues gently but firmly, "I saw what was happening. I tried to help, but you kept pushing me away. I know it was hard being trapped in that van and losing Mark and Pete, but you wouldn't let any of us in."
"I didn't want to hurt you."
She snorts. He hangs his head. The ache in her chest eases and the butterflies in her stomach settle.
"You look better, Drew. Sound better. I really liked that last album." Liked is a relative term, of course. She can't very well tell him she played it for seven days straight. His ego, like his music, is legendary.
"You told the reporter at Rolling Stone that it sounded like two Toms fighting over a Tabby."
Daisy licks her lips, grins. She had done that. Told a radio station in London that his signature golf pants were looking a little tight in the rear, too. She isn't obligated to make things easy on him. Hell hath no fury and all that.
"San Antonio was the last stop on this tour. It felt right to end there. Remember when we used to…"
"Play four encores and drive Donna up the wall? She'd have security waiting to carry us away before we could play a fifth. Remember the time we dragged her on stage?"
"She still hasn't forgiven me for that one. Bolts like a colt whenever I come near between sets."
She thinks of Drew's bossy, redheaded manager. They'd been instant friends and had often ganged up on Drew. "How is she? I've missed her."
"She's somewhere inside. You know, I think she has a bit of a crush on your father."
"Oh, ew. That's horrible. You should be ashamed of yourself for even thinking such a thing."
His laughter washes over her and settles in her bones like molten lava. If someone had told her she'd be having a normal, almost pleasant conversation with Drew Taylor after that night in Honolulu, she'd have recommended they lay off the LSD. It's surreal but just painful enough to not be a dream. For the first time in years, she's ready to believe that she can live, really live and not merely exist, without Drew Taylor.
"I miss you," he says in a rush, the words flowing so quickly together that she almost misses them. "That album. It was for you. All those love songs. I tried to call, but I couldn't bring myself to… what if you hung up, so I just… oh, I miss everything about you, and it is so… Daisy, my life is so empty, just empty, without you."
She swallows, eyes the path leading to the house and considers the sturdiness of her heels. For long, lonely months she waited to hear those exact words, but maybe it's too late. She doesn't think she'll ever be over him. One just doesn't get over a man like Drew Taylor. She's not throwing herself in his arms, but she's not running away, either.
"I love you, Day."
She glares at him through damp eyelashes. Saying the words he was so stingy with before is dirty pool. She breaks away from his bone-melting gaze and stares at the stars. She wants to get this right. She didn't get her say the last time, and she'll be damned if she's robbed of the chance.
"I think I will always love you." She holds up a hand to stop him when it looks like he's going to pounce. "But I don't trust you. I can't trust myself. You broke me, Drew. Not just my heart. You broke me. My faith in you, in myself, in everything. You've pulled that trigger once. How can I be sure you won't do it again?"
He's so heartfelt that she wants, with everything inside her, to believe him. "I'm sorry. I don't know if I can take that risk. I barely made it through the first time. I don't think I'd survive a second round."
He deflates, hangs his head between his bony knees. He traces the silver checks in his black trousers and sucks in a slow, steadying breath. She sees a glimmer of moisture in his chocolate eyes. "So this is us, then? Just… this?"
She could say yes. She could get up, pat him on the back like a friend, and walk away. No one would blame her. Her father might be disappointed, but her mother would understand. Donna would hug her and give a soliloquy on girl power. Marcie would propose a toast.
"My tour kicks off in four months. North America. Mostly smaller venues but a few stadiums. We're keeping it low key this time around."
He raises his head. His throat works slowly. Hope radiates off his face and curls around her bandaged heart like a balm. Slowly, reverently, he folds his fingers around hers.
She clamps her eyes shut, prays she's not going to regret this, and squeezes his hand. "I could use an opening act."