* Riley *
Life-changing moments can be as obvious as a guy holding a gun to your forehead or as subtle as glimpsing a face in a crowd.
That gun and that face haunted my nights and often my days.
I hadn’t laid eyes on Tiffani Vernon since the night of our high school graduation over three years ago. She couldn’t leave Seattle fast enough, while I’d never considered going anywhere else. Seattle was the only real home I’d ever known, and I wanted to stay here and make things better. Face my fears head on. You know, crap like that.
Tiff ran from her fears, and our last night together had been epic, unforgettable, and scary as shit. She sped out of town and never looked back—especially not at me.
I knew why. It wasn’t personal, but that didn’t make me feel any better.
I reminded her of that horrible, awful day when our lives hung in the balance, the world shifted in a matter of minutes, and nothing would ever be the same again.
And there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it.
Except move on.
And I had.
Or I thought I had, until I saw her standing across that proverbial crowded room. Our eyes met. Her brown ones to my blue ones. Recognition flashed in her eyes, then panic. Her mouth opened as if she were going to say something. Her expression went soft with regret. Shaking her head, she turned and ran, weaving through the crowd faster than a running back angling for the end zone. Her little pink skirt swished back and forth, calling attention to her fine ass and shapely legs. She was so smoking hot, heads swiveled as she passed.
Pain stabbed deep in my gut. Memories flooded back and slammed me to the turf, leaving me stuck to the beer-soaked floor. Graduation night. Her skin glowed in the moonlight as she gave herself to me, body and soul. I lost myself inside her, certain we’d be together forever. She left town the next morning, and I never saw her again.
Squelching that memory, I stood alone in a crowd of people, hearing nothing, sensing nothing, seeing nothing but the place where she’d stood a second ago. People elbowed me in their haste to get to the keg of beer I was blocking.
I shook my head, attempting to clear it.
She couldn’t be here.
She should be at USC starting her senior year, just as I was starting mine at the Ty, what us locals call Tyee University on Lake Union in Seattle.
She’d traded the rain and mud for sun and sand, and she’d traded me for surfer dudes and Hollywood wannabes.
But now she was back.
My feet refused to follow my orders. All I could do was gape open-mouthed like some creep with a stalker crush. There’d been other times I’d sworn I’d seen her, only to race after her and embarrass the hell out of myself when I found out the poor girl I’d dogged wasn’t Tiffani.
But we’d locked gazes this time, and there wasn’t any doubt in my mind. She was here. I tried to swallow, clear my throat, gulp in some oxygen. I swear my organs were either shutting down or going into overload. My heart slammed in my chest as if building to detonation, and my head pounded to the beat of the music in the room.
Oblivious to my disinterest, the blonde who’d been hustling me all night leaned in closer and gripped my arm. She slipped her tongue in my ear while her hand migrated to my crotch. I gave her a gentle shove, not giving one shit how rude my behavior was, even though I usually prided myself on being a nice guy.
“Later,” I told her and pushed through the throng of frat-house party-goers.
Almost frantic, I shoved my way to where I’d last seen her and caught a flash of blonde hair as she slipped out the door. I dashed after her down the sidewalk into the street and glanced left and right. She was gone, vanished into thin air as if she’d never existed. I waited five, then ten minutes, she never reappeared.
With a sigh, I trudged back to the party, ignoring the curious stares of the guys. I sank onto the couch in the living room, next to a couple of teammates, and faked interest in a football game on TV. My heart thudded wildly, and my hand shook as I lifted a pizza slice to my lips.
My eyes met the concerned blue gaze of my best friend, Gage Harmon, the team quarterback, campus man slut, and proud of both titles. He was chewing slowly and staring at me as if he expected me to strip naked and dance on the table while stone-cold sober.
“You okay, Ry man?”
“Yeah, fine. Thought I saw someone. I was wrong.”
One brow crept upward, disappearing under his messy blond hair. “Female?”
I nodded, refusing to meet his gaze on the off-chance he’d see the pathetic truth and peg me for the idiot I was. What kind of loser pines after a girl this long when he has the world at his feet?
Tiff was the only girl I’d ever truly loved.
And I’d never stopped loving her, as fucked up as that was.
* Tiff *
Running into Riley Black was inevitable. The Tyee campus was big, but obviously not big enough. Even so, I hadn’t expected to see him during my first week of classes. I’d carefully avoided the areas where he might be hanging out, such as Greek Row, and opted for an off-campus apartment. I planned my classes to avoid being near the football field and gym in the afternoons when he’d most likely be practicing. I timed everything with careful attention to detail and avoidance. Lot of good that did me.
Coming to this party had been a lapse in judgment. I should’ve known he’d be here. Maybe I secretly hoped to run into him, just to torture myself. Maybe I was all kinds of screwed up.
Okay, well, that’s stating the obvious. Ask my family. Ask my counselor. Ask my horse. They’d all agree. I, Tiffani Grace Vernon, was one fucked-up girl, and years of therapy had barely put a dent in my tormented past. Through no fault of his own, Riley brought back every traumatic memory of that fateful day when my charmed life became a living nightmare. He was a victim as much as I was.
Now, here we were. At the same frat party. I shouldn’t have come.
Our eyes met, and recognition instantly lit up his gaze. Those same cobalt blue eyes had studied me intently from across the room in our high school biology class. They’d watched me ride my horse in endless circles at the arena near his aunt’s house. Those same eyes had opened wide in horror as my ex-boyfriend, also his teammate, pointed a gun at each of us, aimed, and pulled the trigger. The loud bang had deafened me, and the smell of iron had filled my nostrils, followed by the wrenching pain of being slammed to the ground.
Oh God. Oh God. Oh God.
Seeing him brought it all back as if it had happened six minutes ago instead of almost seven years.
Maybe seeing me did the same for him, too? He’d gaped at me like he’d seen a ghost. Momentarily frozen in shock, his mouth opened and closed as if he were trying to say something but couldn’t. Not that I would have heard him over the sea of drunken partygoers and the roar in my ears.
My brain clawed at the last shred of sanity as wave after wave of dizziness sucked me deeper into a swirling abyss of darkness. My lungs begged for oxygen until I had to be blue in the face. My legs wobbled, and I stuck out a hand to steady myself. Swaying like a drunken sailor, I accidentally buried my fingers in some sorority girl’s cleavage. She raised her hand to take a swing at me but was too wasted to come close.
“You stupid, perverted bitch.”
Whatever. She was the least of my worries.
The music was so loud, no one paid attention to us. I wasn’t a fighter, and the time had come to get my ass out of here, not so much to run from her—I could handle her—but to get away from him and the demons nipping at my heels
I abandoned my beer on a windowsill and shoved my way through the crowd, desperate to exit as quickly as possible. Glancing over my shoulder, I saw Riley dodging people in the crowd with deft footwork that would do any running back proud. Only he wasn’t a running back. He was a tight end. The starting tight end for Tyee University. A big man on campus with an NHL star uncle.
And I was—
And I planned on keeping it that way. I didn’t have any interest in being in the spotlight or even in a flashlight.
It’d been a mistake to enroll here, but I hadn’t had a choice. My parents’ divorce had been costly, leaving no money for out-of-state tuition. So here was I was. Back in the area I both loved and despised among the best of memories drowned out by the worst of tragedies with the one person who played a part in both.
I ran out the door and down the front steps, knowing he was only seconds behind. Glancing around desperately, I dived into some bushes in front of the apartment building next to the frat house and huddled in the darkness.
I waited what seemed like hours.
Finally, I peeked through the branches of the bush. Riley stood there, several feet away, gazing down the street with such profound sadness, you’d think he’d lost his best friend. His big hands hung loosely at his sides. He still had that one lock of dark hard that refused to stay in place. He looked the same, but different. A familiar face, yet a stranger.
Shaking his head, Riley trudged back inside, his shoulders slumped and his feet dragging.
I almost ran after him—almost—but I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t invite the one person back into my life who could destroy every bit of progress I’d made since high school. Even worse, I couldn’t drag him down with me.
I waited long after he’d gone inside before creeping along the side of the building, and around the corner. I ran the several blocks home and collapsed on my bed. Only then did the wrenching sobs shake my body and wring every bit of emotion from my soul until nothing was left but bone-deep weariness.