The night before the competition, everyone gathers at Jay and Vance’s house for a cookout and celebration before the big day. Chance and Dakota mingles well with Emmett and Micah, making me feel better about not saying much to them most of the night. Letty makes her way over to where I’m standing in the backyard, away from everyone. She hands me one of the beers in her hand that I gratefully take. “Did you ever imagine this happening?” She stands beside me and looks at our friends, smiles on all their faces.
“Not in a million years. It feels… euphoric.”
“Did you ever imagine it?”
“I dreamed of it. Hoped for it. I knew North Isles couldn’t be the last time I’d see you. You were-are my sister. It wasn’t right.” There’s a pain in my chest at her words, and her words are all it takes for me to doubt what I’m doing. To question how selfish I’m really being… Maybe I could leave for a little bit and return eventually… I just need to get over Jay. As if noticing I was staring at him, Jay’s deep blue eyes find their way to me. He doesn’t look away and I hold his stare. Wishing that he could see everything I can’t tell him. But he doesn't and he looks away to Micah, who’s laughing.
“What it must feel like to have everyone be able to read your face.” Says Min as she walks up to us.
“I don’t have the slightest idea of what you mean.”
“Alia, you’re making eyes at Jay. Those sad little eyes you always make when you’re thinking about him affectionately.”
“I do not make sad eyes at Jay.”
“Oh yes, you do.” Adds Letty. “You’ve made them at least twice since you got here.”
“You guys are ganging up on me.”
“You can’t use that excuse every time you know we’re right.” Min nudges me with her elbow playfully. “I think you should say something. Finally, put it out in the open. What’s there to lose?”
“I’m not embarrassing myself.” I say, remembering those photos. The look on Emma’s face as she leaned into Jay.
“I don’t think you have to worry about embarrassment. Not after Jay questioned Micah’s feelings for you.”
“Wait, I didn’t hear about this.” Says Min.
“Sorry, we didn’t find out until Micah and Letty went with me to see my mom. I honestly haven’t thought much of it.”
“How? If that’s not an indication of how Jay feels about you, then I don’t know what is.” Says Letty.
“I’ve had other things on my mind.”
“Don’t worry about your mom. She’s not going to make you leave.” I nod my head and take a swig of my beer, hoping to hide the look of uncertainty on my face. Emmett motions for Letty and she walks over, leaving just me and Min.
“You didn’t want to tell her?” She asks.
“I couldn’t… not after what happened with Micah. He hasn’t even looked at me.”
“You’re breaking their hearts again, Alia… Is it worth it?”
“It won’t be like when I left North Isles. I’ll stay in touch.”
“You and I both know long-distance relationships are hard. Especially ones on different continents.”
“It won’t be forever, Min. I just need time.”
“You had three years.”
“But now I know Jay has had a good life. I can let him go now.”
“If the last four months are any indication, then you can’t.”
“I’ll be back.” I say sternly. She says nothing as she makes her way back to the group. I stay away, needing to get my emotions in check before I join them. I look down at my drink, wishing I didn’t have the urge to throw it at a tree. Wishing I wasn’t so angry with myself and everybody around me. The crunch of leaves brings my head up as Jay walks towards me. I offer a small smile, one that he returns. “I can’t believe tomorrow's the day. It came by too fast.” He says, standing beside me.
“It’s crazy to think so much has happened over the last four months. I don’t think I have even fully processed it.”
“I agree. Feels like more time should have passed with everything going on… You know, I just wanted to say thank you.”
“For what?” I look up at him, but he’s focused on our group of friends.
“For coming back. I know how it happened wasn’t ideal, and I have been really hardheaded but look at this.” I look over to our friends who are smiling, laughing, and fully enjoying themselves. “As much as we all hoped that this would happen one day, I don’t think we ever believed it would.”
“I didn’t either… I’m happy that things worked out in the end.” I feel his eyes on me, studying my face, looking for something.
“What did you say to your mom to get her to let you stay?”
“I just had to bargain with her.”
“What did you bargain?” I shrug my shoulders, knowing that I can’t outright lie to him or he’ll know.
“Something she couldn’t refuse. I’m here. That’s all that matters.” His eyes are still on me, but he doesn’t push for an actual answer. We walk back over to the group and I put my hands near the fire, enjoying the warmth it gives me. Chance convinces Jay to bring out his guitar and play us some music while we all chit chat and enjoy each other’s company. I do my best to smile and enjoy tonight even if it’s the last night I’ll get to feel this way for a long time. Micah actively stays away from me and although I’m disappointed, I don’t let it affect me. Soon I’ll be gone and none of this will matter.
═════════════════ ∘◦ ❉ ◦∘ ══════════════════
Jay, Vance, Chance, Dakota, and Emmett drive the band’s van over to the venue while Micah, Letty, and Min ride with me. The trip takes over an hour but doesn’t feel that long with Letty and Micah filling the ride with their bantering. Min at one point tells them to not even look at each other or she won’t let them buy any snacks at our halfway stop. That only shut them up for five minutes before they started up again. Once at the venue, and parked, Jay and I sign in and get the backstage passes for our friends. They will spend time with us until the event starts, then they’ll join the crowds. I feel better having them with us, but my nerves are still on edge. “You look like you’re going to have a heart attack.” Min joins me in my corner, ten minutes before they have to leave.
“I’m not feeling the best.”
“Because of the competition or…” She trails off, knowing anyone can hear us if they’re paying attention.
“You know what the right choice is.”
“Your right choice or my right choice?”
“The right choice.” She says sternly. “No matter what, you’ll always have me. I promise. I’ll just be mad for a little bit.”
“I don’t deserve you.”
“You deserve everything.” She pulls me into her embrace, squeezing me as hard as she can. Our last night of normalcy before I tell everyone that I'm leaving. “I love you.” She whispers.
“I love you.” I whisper back. She lets go, then walks over to Vance to give him his good luck speech. Letty walks over, a big smile on her face, clearly pumped about the event.
“You going to make it?” She asks.
“Yeah. I’m not the one who has to be on stage.”
“That’s true. This will be the most people they’ve played in front of. I’m surprised they’re not all shitting their pants.”
“Oh, I’m sure they’re hiding their nerves well.”
“Good luck tonight, everyone is going to love what you've created.”
“Thanks Letty.” She gives me a quick hug before joining the others as they leave to join the crowds of people waiting.
“And then there were five.” I say to myself, a sigh on my lips.
The host of the event soon walks on stage, and the crowd erupts. It’s finally starting. The host tells the crowd how many times they can vote, and how voting is done on the website. Each band will play three songs which each individual song can also be voted on by the crowd. For the first performer, Riverton’s recently debuted singer will perform a few of her hits, then the first band of the competition will come out. After them, a band signed under Riverton will come out and perform as well. Then Fallen Resistance will play. One more singer under Riverton will perform, and then the last band will come out. The closing act is a band from some other label, but their producer mostly works with Riverton artists. All in all, it will be a nice little festival. About an hour into, Jay walks over and hands me a hot chocolate. “If I remember correctly, you used to die for these.”
“I still do on occasion.” I say with a smile as I take the cup from him.
“Are you doing okay? You seem tired. Is your wrist hurting you?” He sits down in the chair beside me, a hot chocolate in his own hands.
“No, it has been feeling okay. The pain meds are doing wonders.”
“Don’t I know it.”
“Can I ask you something?”
“After I left, did you ever touch them again?”
“No. When you were kidnapped, I couldn’t live with myself if something bad happened to you when I could have possibly stopped it. I felt pathetic and ashamed. I knew Riley wouldn’t be proud of the person I was becoming. I stopped then. Even when the urge hit me hard when you left. I never let myself fall back into it.”
“Is that why you started playing baseball again?”
“It was. I needed something to make me feel as good as the pills did. Baseball always gave me that.”
“I’m really happy you healed. Seeing you play baseball again, watching you perform in front of people, seeing you here at college. It’s everything I ever wanted for you.”
“I could have had it if you stayed…” His voice is low, and I hear the hurt in it. For the first time, I get a glimpse into how my leaving affected Jay.
“Not like this…” I meet his eyes, those beautiful deep blue eyes searching mine. “This is your perfect future, Jay, and I wouldn’t change it for anything in the world.”
“What’s your perfect future?”
“I’m content where I’m at.”
“But it’s not perfect.”
“I’m happy to see you exceed.”
“Do you not think that I want these same things for you? I want you to be happy. You are successful in every aspect of your life, but I want you to be happy. I have not seen that girl who smiled so carefreely at the beach. That girl who stuck her tongue out at me because I was being an ass. The girl who decorated the apartment for Thanksgiving. I have not seen that happiness from you since you returned. Sure, I have succeeded and I’m happy, but it was at the cost of your own happiness and that is something I would have never wanted.”
“I know you, Alia. You’re not happy.”
“Fallen Resistance, we need you out here in five.” Says a woman, her head peeking through the door. Jay nods his head to her, then stands up.
“Let’s get this done, fellas.”
I stand on the side of the stage as I watch the band set up their instruments and run a quick check. Satisfied, they give the stage director a nod. Behind them a banner falls, revealing the band’s name and logo. Goosebumps rise on my arms as excitement courses through my veins. All the hard work these last few months has led to this. It’s finally happening. They’re about to play the songs we have worked so hard on to a gigantic crowd. People who will know who they are and who will talk about them when they go home. Who will record the performance and post it to their social media accounts. The band is finally getting the audience they deserve. Vance starts his intro on the drums, then everyone else joins in. Jay’s voice resonates flawlessly through the speakers and my nerves quiet down as I watch him in awe. It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve heard him sing, his voice will always bring me back to that rooftop, to when I first heard him. They make it through effortlessly and when that last note comes, I clench, waiting. But Jay makes it through without a single hitch, and the crowd goes crazy. They finish the song and quickly move into the next. When our last song comes to an end, everyone in the crowd screams and cheers, and I see some people pulling out their phones to vote already. The boys come off the stage, smiling ear-ear. “Fantastic job guys!” I say.
“That was incredible.” Says Dakota.
“Honestly felt like I was going to pass out.” Adds Chance.
“I can’t believe it’s over. Just like that.” Jay's voice is quiet, but we all go still at it.
“It’s not the end. You all just gained hundreds of new fans. That’s the primary focus of this festival.” I say. Jay looks at me, reassured, and smiles.
We all gather back into our waiting room where we can either stay or join the festival. We decide to go join our friends, not wanting to stay in this stuffy room for a couple of more hours. I text Letty and Min to tell me where they’re at so we can find them. The band changes into fresh shirts and lock their belongings in a locker. I grab my purse, but it catches on the hook, and all the pictures I've been keeping on me as a reminder of why I'm leaving, topples out. I drop to the ground, gathering them as quickly as I can, but a hand picks up the picture of Emma leaning in for a kiss. I look up and meet Jay’s eyes that are full of hurt and betrayal. “Why do you have these?” He looks to my hands full of pictures as I stuff them in my purse.
“It’s none of your business.” I say, snatching the photo from him.
“Bullshit. That’s of me and Emma. Why do you have them?” The band is looking our way, and I can see Vance wince at Emma’s name. Does he know she’s back in Jay’s life?
“I’m not talking about this.” All the air seems to disappear as fear fills my chest instead. I grab my purse and go for the door, but Jay pulls me back.
“Let go of me.”
“Tell me why and I will.”
“Your dad gave them to me. At Rustic’s.”
“Why do our parents do anything, Jay? I’m begging you to let me go.” I can’t cry, not in front of him. His hold on me loosens, and he reluctantly drops his hand from me. I don’t hesitate. I run out as fast as possible. Needing to get away from him before I crumble. I text Min to meet me out front so I can give her my keys, so she can drive it back and I can take a rideshare home. I have to go.
I can’t stay here.
I can’t face Jay.
I’m chickening out once again.
The minutes tick by and I check my phone several times, making sure I saw Min’s response correctly. “Alia.” I come to a halt. His voice is soft as if trying not to spook a scared animal. I turn around and there Jay stands. All air escapes from my lungs at the sight of him. The look of confusion on his face. Of worry.
“I told you to let me go.”
“Min told me where you were.”
“God.” I say angrily.
“Alia, why did your mom have you meet my dad? Why did he give you those pictures?” He steps closer to me but thankfully I'm still out of his reach.
“To ensure that I left.” My voice is weak as I look at Jay, knowing I’ll have to confess to what I’ve been trying to hide for so long.
“Why would these pictures make you leave?”
“Don’t make me say it, Jay. You can easily guess why.” My voice cracks as tears cloud my vision.
“I need to hear the truth from you, Alia.” I wipe at my face then pull out the picture I haven’t been able to wipe from my brain.
“Because of that.” I close the distance and shove the picture into his hands. “I have been falling back in love with you these past few months and seeing that picture broke me. I foolishly thought – hoped – that I was the one that ‘got away’. But it wasn’t me. It was Emma. I was just the rebound.”
“Do you know what happened after this picture?”
“I can’t hear that. I don’t want to hear it.”
“Alia, I pushed her away. Emma contacted me, wanted to ask for forgiveness and all that bullshit. I forgave her, but then she tried to kiss me. I pushed her away because I was falling back in love with you too.” My body goes still, searching his face for any sign that he’s lying, but I find none. “Alia, I stopped loving Emma the day you and I met. And these last few months with you have been so hard. One minute I knew you were still in the love with me, then the next I wasn’t so sure.”
“I can say the same about you.”
“I was only playing off what you gave me. When I couldn’t figure out what you wanted, I planned to talk to you. After the competition. I wanted to see where we stood. If I was going to have to figure out how to only be your friend. Or if I could finally kiss you.” My cheeks flush and I can’t help the smile that spreads across my face. “I never got over you, Alia. God, I tried, but you’re addicting. You’re everything I want and more.” He steps closer to me, arms wrapping around my waist as he pulls me tightly to his body. He leans down and gently kisses me on the lips. But I want more. I’ve waited three years for this. Threading my fingers through his hair, I pull him more into me, kissing him with all the desire that I can possibly convey. Jay’s hold on me tightens as he reciprocates the kiss.
“Oh, thank god you found her.” We both look over to see all of our friends standing a few feet away. I bury my face into Jay’s chest, utterly embarrassed, but he just laughs.
“Min, you couldn’t keep silent, huh?” I say as Jay and I reluctantly let go of each other.
“I wasn’t willing to lose you. Not when we all knew how you two felt about each other.”
“Seriously, it was like high school all over again.” Adds Letty.
“Why don’t we go join the festivities?” Asks Jay as he threads his fingers through mine. My heart leaps and the smile on my face is so big that my cheeks hurt.
═════════════════ ∘◦ ❉ ◦∘ ══════════════════
After the festival is over, we pile back into our cars. Micah has to drive my car because I’m too tired to keep my eyes open. “I’m sorry…” He says about twenty minutes into our drive. Letty and Min are snoring in the backseat. Both barely made it out of the parking lot before they passed out. “For what?”
“For being angry with you.”
“Micah, you have every right to be. I’m sorry for being a shitty friend.”
“You’re not a shitty friend. None of us had the upbringing you had. You have always been alone, and you feel like you should continue to be alone. You keep punishing yourself for the kind of mother you have. But Alia… We love you and we want you to stay. I know you want to protect us but let us help.”
“I don’t want to leave…” I say honestly. “I’ve just been scared.”
“When I realized how happy I was becoming again… How things were feeling like the past – I got scared that it would be yanked away from me again. No matter how much I fought to keep you guys, I knew she would do whatever it took to make sure I wasn’t happy. I didn’t want to give her that power, so I thought if I made the choice and left… It wouldn’t hurt as bad. But ever since I told Min and you, I realized I was going lose you and it was going to hurt whether it was because of my mom or because of me.”
“We’re going to find a way, Alia. Don’t give up.”
“I hope so…”
“Just don’t leave us again, Alia.”
We get to Jay and Vance’s house before they do since they had to drop off Dakota and Chance. “Are you okay to drive over to the apartment?” Asks Min as she gets out.
“Are you not coming?”
“No, you’ll have a visitor soon.”
“What do you mean?”
“Just don’t fall asleep.” She smiles sleepily at me, then shuts the door. I wait for them to get inside safely before driving over to the apartment. I hurry inside to take a quick shower, freshen up my makeup, and pick up my room a bit. Shortly after midnight, there’s a knock on the door. When I look through the peephole, I see Jay standing there. I feel nervous but open the door and let him in. “You didn’t tell me you wanted to come over.” I say.
“I hope you don’t mind… I didn’t want to be away from you so soon.” His words fill my heart with joy. My eyes water, but I quickly look away and walk to the kitchen.
“Do you want anything to drink or a snack?”
“Something to drink, what do you have?”
“Tea, water, Canada Dry, or Dr. Pepper.”
“Who drinks Canada Dry?”
“I do!” I say, glaring at him over my shoulder.
“I’ll take a Dr. Pepper please.” I grab a can out of the fridge then a Canada Dry for me. Jay has already made himself comfortable on the couch, so I join him. Maybe putting too much distance between us because I’m so nervous right now.
“So what was meeting my dad like?” He asks, opening his soda and taking a drink.
“It wasn’t the first time I met him.” I position myself sideways on the couch so I can face Jay. He repositions himself in the same way, giving me a wary look.
“Okay… Why have you met my dad before Rustic’s?”
“When I returned to Westbrook. I had a really hard time adjusting and getting past everything that happened. Darren saw me struggling and after I broke my arm, I told him I wanted to meet your parents.”
“I don’t know.” I say with a shrug of my shoulders. “I couldn’t understand why my mother did the things she did. I thought if I met your parents and knew why they left you, it would give me some kind of closure. Maybe some hope that they felt bad…”
“But they didn’t.” It’s not a question. Something he’s already known for years.
“I don’t like them. They were so blind and self-absorbed. They said some awful things, but they were just like my mother. They don’t care about us enough to be in our lives, but they also don’t want us happy. He told me to stay away from you. That you would never accept me back into your life after what I did…”
“And you believed him?”
“Jay, I was – still am broken by my mother. I don’t see the Alia you see. I see a parasite that’s going to end up causing you more damage in the end.” He reaches for my hand, holding it tightly in his. I can’t look at him, afraid it will undo me.
“It’s easy to believe the worst in yourself. But that’s what manipulators do. That is what your mother has done to you your entire life. I don’t expect you to be free of that so easily. But I want to help you see what we see. What I have always seen you. Alia, you left to protect us. You let yourself suffer all these years to make sure we had amazing lives. You are so selfless and caring – anyone would be lucky to have you in their life.” Tears fall into my lap, Jay’s words hitting me harder than I thought they would. He moves closer, pulling me into him. “I know what it’s like to have someone make you feel worthless, but your mother does not represent what love should be.” My heart races at his words, remembering my first love confession to him all those years ago. “And if you’ll let me, I will work my hardest to love you as much and as hard as I can.”
“Did you just copy me?” I ask, finally looking up at him. His dark blue eyes search my face as he smiles sweetly at me. His hand cups the side of my face, running his thumb over my cheek a few times before leaning down and kissing my forehead, then my other cheek, and lastly my lips.
“I never forgot the words you said to me when I was at my lowest point. When I felt unworthy of you and everyone else. But you saw me and wanted me. Just as I see you and want you now.”
“I love you too much Jay… It’s dangerous.”
“Alia, my love for you is all-consuming. I can barely breathe when you’re around. I have been so jealous of you and Micah… I was really worried that you were falling for him.”
“And all I wanted was for you to just look at me.”
“It was hard… I would have confessed if I looked at you too long.” I lean up and open my mouth against his, wanting more than words from him now. He eases back on the couch with me on top of him. His hands running down the sides of my body until they stop on my hips and he pulls me closer to him. I grab the ends of his shirt and tug up. He breaks the kiss and looks at me in surprise. “Are you sure?”
“I have wanted you for so long, Jay. I’m pretty damn sure... Do you want me?”
“That’s a ridiculous question.” He pulls off his shirt in one fluid motion, then looks at me expectantly.
“Oh, you want mine off?”
“I think it’s only fair.” I sit up, straddling him between my legs, and look at his naked torso and smile. I nervously pull my shirt off, suddenly feeling exposed and shiver. Then I reach behind my back and unclasp my bra. Jay’s breath catches as I throw my bra to the side. The smile on his face is hungry and dangerous. In one fluid motion, Jay has me on my back against the couch, kissing along the side of my neck to my chest, and lastly, nibbling on my nipples. A soft moan escapes me, every one of Jay’s touch sends a fire throughout my body. His mouth comes back up to mine as I unbutton my pants and shimmy out of them. Jay helps the best he can and soon I’m completely naked under him. His hand slides down past my stomach and his fingers find the most sensitive spot on my body, causing a loud moan to escape me. I feel his smile against my lips as his fingers keep their rhythm on me, every nerve in my body reacting to his touch. His mouth sucks on my nipple, coaxing me to climax. I try to hold on to this feeling a little more, but my body is at the peak. One more rhythmic touch and I’m pushed over the edge. Jay softens his touch through my climax but never removes it completely. As soon as I’m done, his hand comes up and rubs his thumb gently over one of my nipples. “Do you want more?” He asks.
“I want you naked.” I say breathlessly.
“I think I can do that.” He stands up off the couch, his eyes never leaving my body, the smile never leaving his face as he unbuttons his pants and slides them and his boxers down. I let my eyes go straight to the size of his erection and a smile crosses my face. Before he can get back on top of me, I sit up and pull out the condom I stashed in my pants pocket. He reaches for it, but I yank it away.
“Nu uh. Come here.” He eyes me suspiciously but walks over. I hold the length of him in my hand, gently moving my hand up and down. His erection grows and I can’t help but smile.
“You better let me put that condom on or we’re not going to get to the next part of our evening.” His voice is low and when I look up, his eyes are closed, savoring every moment of my touch. Reluctantly, I pull away from him and open the condom up before he can take it away. I barely have finished putting the condom on him before he tackles me back down on the couch, his lips on mine before I can catch my breath. My heartbeat increases as I feel him at my entrance, making me wait for him. “I need you, right now, Jay.” That’s all it takes for him to slide in. I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think of anything other than this was the love of my life. Jay was kissing me, thrusting in me, pulling another moan from my lips. How was it possible that this moment was finally happening after three long years? And under such random circumstances.
“Alia,” He breathed.
“Jay.” I answered, my throat dry. I moved my hips with his, causing a moan to rise to his lips. I smile at that sound, wanting to hear it again.
“I love you.” He said into my ear as every part of my body burned with sensual pleasure.
“And I love you.” I answered. My body tightened and I once again climaxed with him inside me. With no more control, Jay releases too. He rests his head on my chest, panting. I reach up and run my fingers through his hair and soon he relaxes against me.
“I could lay here all night.”
“I would let you, but I think a shower is needed.” He looks up at me, a smile on his face.
“You’re so beautiful.” Heat rises to my cheeks as I playfully cover his eyes. “Don’t worry, every inch of your body is now etched into my brain.”
“For finding you beautiful?”
“For making me wait so long.” He kisses the spot between my breasts, then reluctantly gets off me.
“Shall we go shower before we start up again?”
“Oh, we’re going to have a round two?”
“Alia, I have three years' worth of ravishing to do on you. That was just a warmup.”
“I’m going to need a snack.”
“That can be arranged.” I take his outstretched hand and he pulls me off the couch, then we make our way down the hall to the shower. The smile on my face never leaving once.