As I sit and wait for Mia to make an appearance at the Red Rooster Diner, a blonde slides into the booth opposite me. Her hair is in thick waves that blanket her shoulders and her eyes sparkle emerald in a tanned, pretty face. The perfume that floats over to me is sweet-smelling, like vanilla, and her top is hot pink and tight against her well-toned figure. I pause with a glass of water to my lips, wondering why Ana Love is sitting before me and looking at me in such a commiserating way.
“I see you're both still idiots,” she announces, brushing hair from her face. There is no malice in her tone of voice; it is as though she is merely making an observation. I suppose she is.
I set the glass down. “What are you talking about?”
“You. Grayson.” She shrugs. “Idiots.”
I don't know Ana. I don't know what kind of person she is and I don't even know the relationship she had with Grayson. I know they were friends, but they could have been more than that at some point. When Grayson lived here, I saw her with him once in a while; mostly when he was working. She runs the nicest bar in town; Jackie's Bar—named after her mother and owner. I don't even think we've really exchanged words. Yet here she is, telling me how dumb I am.
“Why is that?”
Throwing her hands up, she asks, “Are you together?”
“Is he still living in California?”
“Yes.” My face is hot.
“Is he dating someone else?”
I really wish Mia would show up soon. “Yeah. He is.” I look up, glaring at her. “So what?”
Her eyes darken with empathy and Ana's voice softens as she says, “Grayson loves you. He's always loved you. Can't you see that?”
I don't say anything. My throat is thick and my heart is aching, making it impossible to speak. If I could count the meaningful moments between us—too infrequent to amount to much—maybe I could think she was right, but then what am I left with? Not Grayson, that's what.
“Unless...you don't love him.” Cocking her head, she studies me with pursed lips. I stare defiantly back, really wanting her to go away. After a moment, she shakes her head. “No. You still love him. What is wrong with you two?”
“We were teenagers. A lot has changed since then. We've both moved on,” I lie.
Ana's snort shows how much she believes that. “Yeah. I can tell.”
I am starting to get aggravated by her comments. She doesn't really know anything about what happened with Grayson and me. She can speculate, but she wasn't there; she doesn't know how I felt or how he felt. She doesn't know how much it hurt to let him go, or how much it still hurts not having him.
“What do you care anyway?”
Eyes narrowing on me, she leans closer. “I care because I care about Grayson. He's my friend and I want him to be happy. You are the only thing that's ever made him happy. I don't understand why you two don't do whatever it is you need to do so you can be together.”
Straightening, I say, “Wasn't it your uncle who signed him? Wasn't it you who made sure your uncle heard him sing? You wanted him to go. Why are you acting like I was the only one responsible for him leaving?”
“Can I get you something to drink?” The waitress, a young girl with red hair and wide golden eyes, asks Ana.
“Yes. I'll take a water with lemon. Thank you. And there will be four of us dining together.” She smiles at the waitress, and then turns her gaze to me. “No one made Grayson leave—not even you. He made that decision. True, you broke up with him, breaking his heart in the process. You could have handled that differently, by the way. But only Grayson could have made Grayson go. He had to go. He knew it. That isn't what I'm talking about. I'm talking about now. He went and he did what he had to do, and now he's here, and you're still apart.”
“He has a girlfriend,” I remind her.
“Megan?” She rolls her eyes. “She's okay and everything, but she isn't you.”
“We are not eating together.” I don't care if I sound bitchy. There is no way I am enduring a meal with her, and Grayson on top of that. I haven't spoken to him in days. The time from one chance meeting to another is agony. It would be better to not see him at all, but even that is painful. I really can't win.
She just smiles and shrugs.
I am actually relieved when I look up and see Grayson approaching. His face is dark with a scowl. He has his glasses on and is dressed in a blue and green plaid shirt with dark jeans. His eyes flicker over me and then remain on Ana until he reaches us.
“Ana, what are you doing?” he asks stiffly.
“We're joining Lily and...” Her eyebrows lift.
“Mia,” I mutter, keeping my eyes averted from Grayson. I have no qualms about glaring at Ana. She ignores it.
“...Mia for lunch. Lily invited us.” She smiles brightly at me.
I stare back.
He looks from Ana to me, a suspicious look on his face. “Why?”
“Because we all have some catching up to do and we thought it would be fun.”
“Lily doesn't like me, so...” His gaze is locked with mine, defying me to say otherwise.
Oh, so apparently we're back to that. What did you expect? My face feels wooden from trying to keep all expression from it and the lump in my throat is close to impossible to swallow around.
“It isn't that I don't like you...” I begin.
“Really? Because I'm pretty sure that's what you said.”
I scowl at him and he glances away, but not before I catch the twitching of his lips. It's annoying how my anger always seems to entertain him. I grab a sugar packet and toss it at him.
His hand shoots out, catching it before it connects with his chest as he lifts one arrogant eyebrow at me. I don't understand how that simple act can cause such illicit thoughts to form in my mind, but it does.
“Such violence,” he murmurs.
Mia finally makes an appearance; looking flushed and guilty, but also excited. Her hair is pulled back in a high ponytail and she is wearing short red shorts and a white flowy top. She stops and gives Ana and Grayson a look. “What the hell?”
“That was kind of my reaction,” he says, eyes narrowed between me and Ana.
“What's going on, Lily?”
“Nothing. Thanks for being late.”
My friend's eyes narrow on me, but I am too upset to care. If she had been on time, chances are I wouldn't be in the predicament I now am. Her face turns redder and I am not sure if it is from anger or embarrassment. Mia stiffly slides into the seat next to me. Grayson grudgingly does the same. We all glance at one another and away. The tension at the table is thick. I just want to disappear. Instead I glare at Ana. She doesn't seem to notice, calmly perusing the menu.
“Your brother's band is playing at the bar next Thursday night,” she tells Grayson.
“I thought they broke up?”
He glances at me. “They're back together. You know how famous people get. So melodramatic.” His lips begin to lift in a smile and mine inadvertently curve in response. We realize what we're doing and look away.
“Aidan has a band?” Mia asks. “Isn't he, like, eleven?”
“Almost three years ago,” I answer, eyeing her. A faint red mark on her neck that looks a lot like whisker burn gives me pause. She catches me watching her and quickly moves to lean her elbow on the table, her hand covering the side of her neck.
“This is their first semi-real gig so they're acting like cats on cocaine.”
“Have you seen cats on cocaine?” I ask him.
“Only in California,” he retorts.
His eyes shift away. “One time.”
“When?” I insist.
“The details are kind of blurry. It was summer.”
“Uh-huh. Were they at a cat bar when it happened, got a little wild and crazy, couldn't say no to the drugs?”
“Yes. It started with catnip and then they moved on to bigger things.”
“And what were you doing in a cat bar, if I may ask?” The tension has evaporated as we verbally spar and I am struggling not to laugh.
“What can I say? I have a secret fetish. I like cats.”
“Do your parents know you have a thing for cats?”
He sighs. “I tried to talk to them about it, but they think it's a phase. They're hoping it passes.”
“You got to be who you got to be, cat lover or otherwise.”
Nodding solemnly, Grayson replies, “That's what I said. I just want to be me, with my cat obsession. I'm still the same on the inside. And maybe I'll be the crazy cat man when I'm older, but I shouldn't be judged because of that.”
I can't keep it in any longer. Laughter spills from my lips, Grayson joining in. I watch the transformation of his features; mesmerized by what happiness does to his already gifted looks. It is like the sun opens up directly over him and flows into him; blinding with its purity and beauty. When we stop laughing, it is to find not only Mia and Ana but also the waitress all staring at us. I forgot they were even with us.
“You guys are so weird,” Mia mutters.
“For real,” Ana adds.
“Don't be jealous,” he says, still looking at me.
Mia rolls her eyes. “Trust me, not even an issue.”
He winks at me and I melt, feeling like I just got a little piece of me back.
“Um, so...are you guys ready to order?” Her name tag says Brenda and the flush going over her cheeks says she recognizes Grayson—or maybe it's the way she is openly staring at him like he is her long lost love. I wonder if that's what I look like? I hope not. How embarrassing.
“I'll have a garden salad with Italian dressing,” Mia says, handing the waitress her menu.
“Cheeseburger and fries.” Ana smiles at Brenda.
I open my mouth and Mia and Grayson say in unison, “Chicken strips and fries.” I shrug, not disputing them. So I am predictable.
Grayson grins at me again. He has to stop doing that. It is making my head go fuzzy. “I'll have a chicken salad sandwich, a cup of chili, and a salad with ranch dressing.”
“You are such a girl,” Ana teases after the blushing waitress leaves.
“I need to watch my figure.”
I glance down at his defined chest tragically hidden by his shirt. There is absolutely nothing wrong with his figure and he knows it. His muscles are perfectly proportioned without a hint of fat on his frame. When I look up, he is watching me with heat behind his eyes. He rubs his jaw and my name stares back at me in bold, black lettering. It makes my breath stutter and I bite my lip to keep a moan inside. Just like that—that is how quickly I am affected by him. A look, a word, a simple action on his part and I am a mess. My skin is burning up and I have to drag my gaze from his or be incinerated.
Ana clears her throat. “Wow. Do you two need to leave? Maybe go...talk...somewhere?”
My skin heats up for another reason entirely at that observation. Are our feelings so obvious? And what are his feelings? I know he desires me, but does he still love me? In the deepest part of me, I feel he does.
“Shut up, Ana,” he murmurs, taking a drink from the glass of water in front of him.
“Have you been mauled since you returned?” Mia asks, not looking too interested in his answer.
“Nah. Just one attempt and by an elderly lady. Her groping was easily deflected.” A small grin takes over his mouth. “The thing about the town you grew up in is that even if you make it big in the world, you're still just you to the people you grew up around. I kind of like that. People around here are excited, but they aren't fanatical like some of the fans. They knew me before Thrush, so it isn't as monumental to them. I am relatively safe from being assaulted by half-crazed women.”
“So you didn't have to resort to the badass self-defense moves you learned?” Ana asks, playing with a lock of her hair.
“No.” Grayson gives her a look.
Her hand drops from her hair. “What? Is no one supposed to know about your martial arts class?”
“It's not that no one can know—I just don't like to bring it up.”
“Why?” I ask curiously.
He shrugs, but avoids my eyes. “I like to have parts of me not open to the public. It seems like every little detail about me is scrutinized by people that don't even know me. Some parts I'd like to keep to myself.”
“We're not the public. We're just us—people you know,” I point out.
“And we don't gossip,” Mia says, which earns her an eyebrow lift from Grayson. She kind of is a gossip.
“I won't tell.”
He smiles. “I know, Lily.”
“Isn't she your biggest secret of all?” Ana nods her head toward me.
I frown; wondering what she is hinting at, but Grayson is glowering at his friend. He growls, “What is that supposed to mean?”
“Just that everyone wonders about the girl you were with before you became famous; the one you write your songs for, but no one knows who she is, surprisingly. That's all.” She places a hand on his stiff shoulder. “That's all I meant, Grayson.”
He nods stiffly, but the relaxed atmosphere is gone. I don't understand what happened or what Grayson thought Ana meant, but he isn't happy. I can tell she is troubled as she gnaws on her lower lip and continually glances at him. We eat our meal in awkward silence, all of us going our separate ways as quickly as possibly.