Seventeen Years Ago
Tell me this isn’t a dream.
Tell me the memories of last night—the most unbelievable, most romantic night of my life—are real.
Carefully rolling onto my side, I prop my head in one hand and study Ian’s face as he sleeps. He’s gorgeous, even if I can’t see the bright blue of his eyes and he isn’t giving me that sexy grin, the one he gave me last night before he said, “You have no idea the things I want to do to you. You should tell me to leave.”
Tell him to leave?
Why did he think we were in this hotel room all by ourselves? Did he really have no clue how long I’d loved him? Did he not know how many nights I’d spent dreaming that he’d see me as something other than his little sister’s best friend? Couldn’t he see the way I idolized him? Especially last night . . . he was my hero.
Back home after his freshman year at UNLV, Ian witnessed my tearful meltdown yesterday morning as I cried to Sabrina that my senior prom date had ditched me last minute for someone else. He offered to take me instead.
I was stunned. He’d kissed me once at a party a couple months back, but we’d hardly spoken since. I figured he’d forgotten all about it.
I’d never felt as beautiful as I did walking into the prom on his arm. Pressed against him as we danced, I’d never felt my heart pound so hard. When he kissed me on the dance floor and told me he’d had feelings for me for a while, I’d never felt so head over heels.
After the dance, he asked me if I wanted to go to the hotel with the rest of my friends. “Yes,” I said, forcing myself to be brave. “But I don’t want to go to the party. I want to be alone with you.” Without another word, he took my hand and we raced for his car. When we arrived at the hotel, Ian got us our own room.
On the elevator, my pulse raced with anticipation. He kept my hand in his as we ascended, and my stomach ballooned as if we were cresting the top of a rollercoaster.
Alone in our room, door locked, shades drawn, lights low, he reached for me. Pulled me against his body. Kissed me as if he knew how many nights I’d dreamed he would.
Tell him to leave?
Not in a million years.
Instead, I gave him everything. My heart, my soul, my body. He was slow and tender and sweet with me, because he knew it was my first time. I was in awe of him—of his hard muscles, of the way he moved, of the thrilling words he whispered.
God, you’re so fucking beautiful. I’ve wanted this for so long. You feel so good.
I still can’t believe he wants me. Me! I look nothing like the blond Barbie dolls he usually dates. My hair is dark, my chest is small, and my waist is not the size of my thigh. On a scale of one to ten, most days I feel like a six.
But last night he made me feel like I was the only girl in the entire world. It was magical . . . and it was only the beginning.
Light is spilling in beneath the drapes, so I know it’s morning and we should probably get up, especially since Sabrina’s graduation party is later this afternoon. I promised to help her with decorations.
But I never want this time with him to end.
He’s lying on his back, one arm flung over his head, the sheets pulled up to his waist. I resist the urge to run my hands over his taut abs and muscular chest, but it’s not easy.
His eyes open. Upon seeing me, his lips tip up. “Hey.”
My heart races. “Hey.”
“Did you sleep?”
“I didn’t tire you out enough?”
I grin. “You did. But it’s hard for me to sleep when I’m this excited.”
He cocks one eyebrow. “And what has you so excited?”
“You,” I say guilelessly. “This. Us.”
He grins too. “Come here.” Hooking me with both arms, he pulls me tightly against his side, and I lay my head on his chest.
For a moment, I simply breathe him in and let pure happiness wash over me. “Did you mean all those things you said last night?”
“Of course I did. Do you think I’m the kind of asshole who’d lie to you just to get you in bed?”
“I don’t know.”
“I’m not, London. Look, I might not be the most sensitive guy on the planet, but I’m not a total dick, and I don’t take this lightly. We’ve known each other too long.”
“So . . . what happens now?”
He’s quiet a moment. “What do you want to happen?”
“I want us to be together.” I take a deep breath. “I’m in love with you, Ian.”
He freezes, and for a moment I fear I’ve gone too far.
“You don’t have to say it back to me,” I say quickly, picking up my head so he can see my face. I want him to know my feelings don’t come with any demands. “I just want you to know how I feel.”
His eyes are locked on mine. “I’ve never been in love before.”
“I haven’t either.”
“But the way I feel about you—I’ve never felt anything like it.”
I can’t stop a smile from forming. “Really?”
“Really. I want to protect you. Keep you safe.” He pauses. “But I also want to fuck you like a hundred and ten different ways. It’s actually kind of weird.”
I giggle as my stomach whooshes. “A hundred and ten?”
“At least.” Suddenly he flips me onto my back so he’s on top of me. “And that’s just this morning.”
My heart threatens to burst from my chest. “I’m not going anywhere.”
Sex is even better the second time. It doesn’t hurt as much, although I’m sore from last night, and I even have an orgasm, thanks to his patience and skill. I’m curious about how many girls he’s been with, but I don’t really want to know. The only thing that matters is that we’re together now. And I hope we always will be.
Mrs. Ian Chase.
London Marie Chase.
Mr. and Mrs. Ian Matthew Chase.
“This feels so right, doesn’t it?” I ask dreamily. We’re still breathing hard, our skin hot and sticky, his chest heavy on mine.
“Like it was always meant to be.”
He props himself up and looks down at me. “Maybe it was.”
“So were you just pretending to be annoyed with me all those years Sabrina and I followed you around?”
He shakes his head. “No. You were definitely annoying.”
I push against his chest playfully. “You’re so mean.”
“But you love me, remember?” He drops a kiss on my lips, then lowers his head to whisper in my ear. “And I love you. It just took me longer to realize it.”
A lump forms in my throat, and for a second I’m scared I’m going to embarrass myself by crying. But after a few deep breaths, I’m okay again. More than okay, actually—I’m a new person. Everything is different now. My entire life is him.
“God, I’m so happy, Ian. This changes everything.”
“Yes.” I’m smiling again.
He picks up his head and looks down at me. “I don’t want you to change, London. You’re perfect just the way you are.”
“I mean my life—it’s going to be different now.”
“Well, for one thing, I won’t be going to Northwestern in the fall.”
He looks confused. “You won’t?”
“No, silly. I want to be with you.”
He brushes the hair back from my face. “What about that scholarship?”
I shrug. “I got one to UNLV too. I’ll take that offer instead.”
“But UNLV isn’t your dream school. Northwestern is.”
“You’re my dream. I don’t care about anything else.”
He doesn’t say anything for a moment, and his expression has changed. There’s something in his eyes I can’t read.
But then he kisses me once more. “Come on. We better get going.”
We drag ourselves out of bed and get dressed.
On the short ride home, I alternate between replaying every delicious moment from the night before and fantasizing about everything yet to come. Ian is silent too, and I wonder if he’s doing the same.
When he pulls into the driveway of the house I share with my dad, he gets out of the car and walks me to the front door.
“See you in a few hours,” I say. “Thanks for . . . everything.”
“You’re welcome. I’ll see you at the party.”
I let myself into the house and float dreamily up the stairs, humming a song we danced to last night.
“London?” my dad calls from the second-floor bedroom he uses as an office. “That you?”
“It’s me.” I pause in the doorway and see him hunched over his computer. The poor man has terrible posture.
“Did you have a good time?” he asks.
“Yes. A wonderful time.”
“Good.” He smiles at me briefly before focusing on the screen again. It’s nothing new—my dad has always been a workaholic. We have that in common. I don’t know who was more proud the day I got the scholarship offer from Northwestern, him or me. He’s going to take the news hard when I tell him I’ve decided not to accept it.
But I don’t care, I think stubbornly as I continue down the hall to my room. The only thing that matters to me now is being with Ian. I might be only seventeen, but I swear I’ve loved Ian Chase since the day I met him.
This is the real thing.
* * *
The party begins at six, and Ian still hasn’t shown up. Mrs. Chase keeps asking Sabrina where he is because he’s not answering his phone, but neither she nor I have any idea. By seven I start to worry he might be avoiding me. By eight, I’m convinced of it.
“Stop worrying,” Sabrina tells me. We’re in her bedroom sharing a strawberry wine cooler we snuck upstairs. She takes a sip and hands it to me. “He’ll be here eventually.”
“I just have a bad feeling.” I take a few swallows of the sweet fizzy drink.
“Why? He said all the right things, didn’t he?”
“Yes,” I admit.
“Then I’m sure he’s just being his usual clueless self. I love my brother and all, but he rarely thinks about anyone’s feelings besides his own. He probably has no idea he’s making you worry.”
“Maybe you’re right.” I force a smile, take another sip, and hand the bottle back to her. “Sorry. I’m being stupid. Let’s finish this and go back to your party.”
By the time the bottle is empty, I’ve got a happy little buzz going and I feel much better. But as soon as we come out of the house, I nearly throw up. Because that’s when I see him kissing another girl in the backyard.
I can’t breathe. My stomach churns. My clothes feel too tight.
Sabrina grabs my hand. “Hey. Let’s go back inside.”
I shake her off. “No.”
“Lon, come on. He’s just a jerk, okay? Let’s go sneak another wine cooler.”
How could he?
I don’t understand. He lied to me. He said he loved me and now he’s touching another girl? After everything we had last night and this morning? I want to scream. Cry. Throw something.
But instead of any of those things, I march over to where he’s standing with a pretty blonde wearing tiny denim shorts and a red bikini top. She fills it out in a way I never could.
I feel like pushing her into the pool. Him, too.
“Ian, can I talk to you for a minute?” I’m surprised at how calm I sound. Inside, I’m falling apart.
He looks at me with zero emotion on his face. Like last night didn’t even happen. “Oh, hey London. This is Heidi. She goes to UNLV with me.”
Heidi gives me a bored look. “Hi.”
Ignoring her, I skewer Ian with my eyes. “You brought a date?”
He shrugs heartlessly. “I guess you could call it that.”
My heart is racing, and I think I might pass out. I’ve never felt this before. Is it normal for your chest to physically ache? Because each breath I take hurts.
“Wait a minute.” I hold up my hands, my eyes filling with tears. “What is this? I thought you meant what you said last night. And this morning.”
Heidi giggles, which makes me want to throat punch her, and I’m not even sure what throat punching is. “God, Ian, what did you say to this poor girl?”
Ian looks me right in the eye and breaks my heart in three words. “It was nothing.”
All at once it’s clear I’ve been a total idiot. How could I have thought he was really interested in me? I’m a pathetic little kid with a crush. He doesn’t love me. I gave him exactly what he wanted, and now I’m worthless.
I hate him. I hate myself for believing him and thinking I should throw my life away.
“Fuck you,” I whisper. Then I turn around and run, vowing I will never, ever let anyone hurt me this way again.
As I stumble around the side of the house, I thank God I didn’t tell my father I wanted to turn down the offer from Northwestern. All I want now is to get the hell away from Ian Chase.
The farther the better.
“The line to get in is crazy,” my manager, Drea, says as I’m going over last night’s sales figures. “We’re over capacity as it is.”
“Uh huh,” I say, not looking up from the screen.
I don’t care about the line. I don’t care about people waiting to get into the club, I care about money. Veil is the hottest nightclub in Vegas right now, and I damn sure plan to keep it that way.
“Ian.” She taps the desk.
“Okay, great, what do you want me to do?” I ask.
“I don’t know, but we’re going to get fined again.”
I huff, and lean back in my chair. “Then fix the issue.”
She pulls her long blond hair to the side, leaning forward on my desk so her fake boobs are extra—large. My eyes go there, I can’t help it, they’re in my damn face. “Not going to work,” I tell her, slowly bringing my gaze to her pouty lips. Drea gets what she wants by using her . . . assets . . . to bend men to her will. I’ve seen it in action and it’s impressive, but she’s barking up the wrong tree. I’m a man of principle and honor.
Well, that’s a lie, but I have no interest in shitting where I eat, at least.
“Ugh,” she groans. “You’re the only man in Vegas who won’t sleep with me, or at least do what I want.”
I laugh. “I’m the only smart man you’ve met then,” I challenge.
She’s tried, God knows she has, but I prefer to keep my dipstick out of the lube at work. Now, the patrons, they’re all fair game.
“Or the only man who doesn’t have a brain,” she retorts.
I won’t even dignify that with a response. I’ve learned over the years that Drea needs to be wanted. The only thing I want is for her to be the manager I need. “Do your job, Drea, and deal with it.”
Her lips turn down and I can sense this isn’t going to go my way. “Can you please smooth this over with the cops?” she asks.
I close my eyes, pinching the bridge of my nose. “The cops are here?”
“That’s how I know it’s a problem,” she tosses back at me.
I get to my feet, irritated that she failed to mention that. The last thing Veil needs is another run-in with the cops. I’ve had enough fines, warnings, and calls to break up fights to last me a lifetime. I also prefer to keep them out of my establishment as much as possible.
“Lead with that next time,” I instruct and stroll out.
The club is alive. Everyone is dancing, drinking, spending their money, and I couldn’t be happier. My parents thought I was nuts for opening the club, but I had a hunch. My sister was the only one who backed me. She was the most vocal about getting my head out of my ass and doing something “real” with my life, and supported me one-hundred percent when I said this is what I wanted to do. My parents hoped that meant becoming an accountant, but after spending almost ten years as a promoter, I knew the ins and outs of the club life. I took the money I’d saved up and bought Veil. The location on the strip is prime, and it paid off.
My sister smiled at my parent’s disapproval, as did I.
As I walk around the club, I say hello to some of the girls who come often. Getting them in the door once is great, but when they come back, that’s a win. I’m definitely winning right now.
“Ian,” my bartender, Toby, calls with his hand out.
“You have a call.” He pushes the phone toward me.
No one calls the club for me other than vendors, and it’s eleven-thirty at night, so whoever it is can wait.
“I have to deal with something now, send them to my voicemail.”
He shakes his head. “She’s called three times.” The annoyance in his voice is clear, even over the music.
The only woman that would resort to calling the club is my ex-wife. God only knows what bullshit she wants now. For all I know she broke a nail, it’s my fault, and she thinks I should pay for her new manicure, or a hand replacement. She’s like the gift you’ve tried to return but can’t find the receipt for, so you’re stuck with it. I hate unwanted presents, and I hate Jolene.
“Send the devil to my voicemail,” I say and walk away.
I head out to the sidewalk. Drea wasn’t kidding, the line is nuts. “Hello, Officer,” I say to the pudgy cop standing next to the bouncer.
“Mr. Chase, we’re getting complaints,” he says, looking down the sidewalk at the line.
“I can’t help that we’re popular.” I shrug. “I’m at capacity, and can’t kick out the paying customers to take care of the line.”
“You’re obstructing the entrances of other businesses because of the way your overflow lines are set up.”
How the hell would they like me to handle it? We’re not inside the casino, there’s no way to control the line. I’m not about to turn away people when we hit the number ten. This is a business, and part of the free marketing I get is thanks to the line.
“All right, I’ll figure something out.” I grip the back of my neck.
I feel my phone vibrate in my pocket. If this is Jolene, I swear to God, I might lose my fucking mind.
The name flashes across the screen, London Parish. For fuck’s sake. Like I need to deal with my sister’s uptight, irritating best friend right now. London would be incredibly hot if she wasn’t such a raging bitch. I look at my call log and see this is the third time she’s called.
I walk down the strip a little, and after a few deep breaths, I call her back.
“Ian, you need to come to my house.”
I smirk. “Well, this is a first. Did you have the stick removed from your ass?”
“Don’t. Not today, please. Just come here.” I hear her sniff and my protectiveness kicks in. Someone made her cry. We don’t get along at all—partly because we’re polar opposites and partly because of our history—but no one gets to make her cry.
“Are you hurt?” I ask.
“Not in the way you think.” Her voice hitches.
I’ve known London for twenty-five years. I can count on one hand how many times I’ve seen or heard her cry—I was the reason one of those times.
“What’s wrong? Is it an emergency? Because I’m at work and the club—”
“Now, Ian. You need to come here now.”
She also doesn’t play games.
I look at my watch and blow a deep breath through my nose. It’ll take me at least thirty minutes to get there. This is seriously a shitty night. “I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
“Just . . . hurry,” London says and hangs up.
Dread pulls at my stomach, telling me there’s something going on. I don’t know what, but I know I need to get there.
“Get rid of the line, no more get in,” I tell the bouncer, and then head inside.
Drea is at the bar, and my anxiety is starting to grow. London needs me there, why? What happened? Did someone break into her house? Mine? Maybe it has to do with an ex, if she even has one, or it could be nothing like that. Regardless, her voice was shaky and I can’t waste time wondering.
“I have to go,” I tell Drea.
Her eyes widen. “Go? Go where? It’s a packed house.”
“I’m aware of that, but something came up. I need you to handle things tonight.” I turn to Toby. “Stay until Drea is done closing and I want you to escort her to her car at the end of the night.”
I never let her walk out of here alone. Even if I have someone coming home with me, Drea’s not going to be unescorted. Too many men get the wrong impression because she’s nice to them. Over my dead body will she be hurt as a result of working at my club.
After I get in the car, my mind is racing. I drive faster than I should, telling myself that London is just being dramatic.
And then I remember . . . she has my nephew and nieces at her house.
My foot pushes down on the pedal of my Jaguar, making the engine howl with each mile. I turn into the development where we both live, pass my house, and head to hers. I still hate that our backyards touch. Every damn day I see her sitting out on her deck, reading her books, looking down at me with her disapproving attitude.
When I get there, the flashing lights of a police car brighten the road. I don’t think. I don’t know if I even put the car in park before I’m out of the vehicle.
“London!” I yell as I rush through the door. “Christopher? Morgan? Ruby?” I call out for the kids, praying it’s not one of them.
When I get to the living room, I release a heavy sigh—they’re all there, not hurt.
Then I see the tears streaming down Morgan’s face. London gets to her feet. Her eyes are red, puffy, and black mascara runs down her cheeks. “Ian.” She chokes on my name.
“What’s wrong? What happened?”
The girls start to cry again, and my nephew pulls them into his arms.
London moves toward me, placing her hand on my chest. “They’re gone.”
“Who?” I ask, confused.
“Sabrina and David,” she whispers.
Yeah, they went on a trip. Why the hell are they crying? “This is what you called me for? They’ll be home in a few days. Why are you crying too?” I ask.
Her green eyes meet mine and her lips part. “No.” She shakes her head. “They won’t.”
I look over at the kids again, and then to the muted television. My feet move closer, because I have to be sure the words flashing across the screen say what I think they say. “Flight 1184 crashes off the coast of Hawaii. Three hundred missing and presumed dead.”
My sister was going to Hawaii.
My sister is gone.
I sink to my knees in front of the kids, unsure what to say. They just lost their parents, and my heart is breaking. My sister was my best friend. She was the one who pushed me to open Veil and do what I wanted. I’ve always had her support, and now she’s gone.
Christopher lifts his head, his brown eyes filled with unshed tears. “They’ll find them,” he says with conviction.
“Okay,” I reply. We both know it’s a lie, but it’s one he has to tell himself. I remember being fifteen; there was no telling me I was wrong.
“Dad wouldn’t . . .” he starts, and then stops as his lip quivers.
My own tears start to fall, as Morgan grabs my hand. “What do we do now?”
I have no fucking clue. How do I tell these kids how to survive? I’m the last person in the world equipped to give this advice. I look to London. Her hand touches my shoulder and she wipes the tears that fall silently down her cheeks.
“We hold each other close,” she says.
Our eyes meet and I’m transported back to a time when London and I weren’t always at each other’s throats. A time when we had feelings for each other. Even though we’re both aching, there’s something keeping us from breaking completely—a trust that even in the deepest pain, we can still come together and offer comfort.
London kneels beside me. She looks like she’s on the verge of falling apart, but won’t allow it to happen. “Did you call my parents?” I ask.
“They’re getting on a plane.”
The five of us huddle together and soothe each other, as we all realize our lives will never be the same again.
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