About the book:
There’s always a chance the past will come back. Always a chance for secrets to reveal themselves…
Claire Monroe thinks she has it handled. She’s moved back to her home town, bought a house and has been commissioned by The King Edward Hotel in Toronto to paint three original works. She never imagined that at the conclusion of her meeting she would see Austin McKinley, love of her life and world-renowned rocker, walk into the lobby. Letting him go six years ago so he could fulfill his rock star dreams was the hardest thing she ever had to do. Seeing him now involves a revelation she isn’t prepared to face.
All Austin sees in the lobby of his hotel is the woman responsible for sending him into a tailspin. His destructive behavior had been the result of a broken heart and a shattered dream that didn’t include his music. For six years he’s kept up the façade for his band. Yellow Scarlet hit the big time, and he couldn’t just up and leave. But he has finally reached his limit. The band is taking a badly needed break to regroup and rest. Seeing Claire is unexpected, and the realization that he still loves her grates at his every nerve.
Austin will fall in love again and will quickly find out that they have a bond that can never be severed.
Their love is young, it is real and it is irrevocable.
Read Chapter 1
Ever since Claire Monroe had been discovered at an exposition by an influential financier and his wife, her paintings had been sought-after commodities. Some of the most prominent businesses in Toronto wanted her art displayed on their walls. The point of view of a young artist in love with nature and all it had to offer was a refreshing perspective. Every flower, hill, and person had a story, brought to life with every brush stroke and brilliant combination of color.
The execs at the King Edward, one of Toronto’s most prestigious hotels, were no different. She watched mindlessly as the hotel manager flipped the pages of her portfolio, which lay open in the middle of the large round table. A few hmm’s and ah’s were the extent of her vocalization. The big guns wanted locals. If all went her agent Rae’s way, Claire would be obligated to honor a contract that would require she submit three paintings by September. She looked at her watch—she had two months to create her heart out.
“Do you have a website?” asked the hotel manager.
“Facebook, Twitter? Anything?”
“I’m not on social media,” Claire responded to a question that had been asked a million times.
A website and any form of social media would mean a type of exposure she couldn’t afford.
She’d just moved back home to Springridge, a small town that afforded her the anonymity she relished when she lived in Ottawa. Eight months in and she’d been thrust into notoriety. It made her nervous—she had secrets that any type of publicity could expose—her son Charlie being the biggest secret of all. However, she had to make a living, even though at twenty-one, she had inherited a hefty trust fund. But she wanted to live a simple life. She wanted to raise a humble and kind child. Most of all, she wanted to show her son that hard work paid off, that nothing came easy in life.
“How does that sound to you, Claire?” Rae asked, breaking through her thoughts.
“How does what sound?” she asked the three faces staring back at her.
“September. Does that give you enough time to complete the work?”
“Yes. That’s plenty of time. But I have one condition.”
The sounds of traffic and people chanting on the streets traveled through the revolving doors into the lobby, distracting them from their meeting.
“Which is?” asked Stephanie, the hotel manager.
“It’s on my time, my ideas. I don’t want any pressure from management. I will keep you posted as to the progress,” she demanded, not that she was in a position to make demands. “Give me an idea of what you’re looking for, and I will work very hard to give you what you want.”
She had her son to think about. Charlie always came first. He was a busy boy who loved sports—baseball in particular. She was determined to be a present and supportive parent, everything her parents weren’t. She’d give up anything that jeopardized his happiness—she’d done it once before when he’d been nothing but a tiny dot on a printout from her sonogram. She’d protected him fiercely then, and wouldn’t hesitate to do it again.
The sounds outside were getting louder. It didn’t escape her attention that the crowd gathering on the sidewalk was mostly women. Girls, actually. They had signs, magazines, cameras, and smartphones at the ready. She wondered who they might be waiting for. She could see the exasperation on Stephanie’s face as the woman studied the growing crowd outside.
“As long as the job is completed by the deadline, I have no problem with your suggestions. Do you, Stephanie?” said Alexa.
As the hotel manager opened her mouth to speak, there was a commotion just outside the revolving doors. Girls were screaming something Claire couldn’t understand, a jumbled chant that echoed off the century-old marble walls of the hotel lobby and restaurant. The dining area was set in the large, open lobby, sticking to its original character.
“Well then, we’re all set,” said Rae.
“I hate to cut the meeting short, ladies,” said Stephanie. “It seems our high-profile guests have arrived. I’m going to spend the rest of the weekend arranging security and keeping teenage girls from sneaking into the hotel. Miss Monroe, it’s been a pleasure. I look forward to seeing what you come up with. Rae, I’ll email you the contract and specifications. Alexa, I’m sure I’ll see you around.”
Alexa, the interior designer in charge of the project (as well as her best friend), had to practically drag her out of Springridge. Claire hated coming into the city, and the drive was as expected, a slow one. Traffic was an endless epidemic infecting most big cities—Toronto wasn’t immune. Claire was aware what a huge opportunity this was for her; however, if she could have conducted this meeting from her living room, she would have been a lot happier. Alexa’s excitement over this opportunity was infectious, and she already had some idea of what she would paint. But she couldn’t wait to get home to her son.
She smiled to herself then, despite her doubts and fears. She loved having her own house and being around her family at last. Growing up, things hadn’t always been easy for Claire and her brother. Her parents were absent parents; the allure of Paris and London was more appealing than sticking around to raise Claire and Hunter. After the death of Alexa’s mother, Claire’s parents had taken in her best friend, and there was a noticeable shift in parental responsibility. With one more mouth to feed and the unimaginable support Alexa would need to cope with her mother’s death, the crack in their familial unit was sealed. They finally became the family she and Hunter wanted, and the family Alexa would need. They’d stuck together ever since.
As the screams reached a deafening level, Claire longed for Springridge. The small town had grown in the six years since she’d been gone. Nestled against the picturesque Niagara Escarpment and skirting around horse and produce farms, the modern fit nicely with the old. Although at times, the small town seemed to fight against the monopoly that wanted to turn it into a city. She hoped that the manic race to further populate it would stop. Claire loved the simplicity it offered, the safety one blindly accepted, and the closeness a community had endured for almost two centuries. With that thought in mind, she pushed away from the table, gathered her portfolio, and began digging through her large bag for her car keys.
“Okay, the firm’s contract has been faxed to you?” asked Alexa.
“Yes,” answered Rae.
“Sign it and get it back to me as soon as possible. I want to seal this deal. I don’t want this contract to go to anyone else, Claire.”
“Thanks, Alex, for all your help.”
“You did this on your own, Claire. You’re very talented. I’m just glad you’ve decided to do something significant with all that talent. This is a long way from your market days.”
It had been a warm, sunny Saturday. Claire had just finished setting up at the coveted rented booth in front of Joe’s Ice Cream. Financier Michael Jameson and his wife Isabella had given in to the undeniable urge to explore the booths of local farmers, bakers, and artists that shut down Main Street for four hours every Saturday from May to October. That pit stop changed Claire’s life forever.
They bought a painting and, unexpectedly, returned the following week. Michael told her he knew someone who’d been inspired by her art and purchased two more. She’d been okay with him buying the paintings and didn’t think anything of his purchases. When the man returned several weeks later with check book in hand and bought three more, she got a little curious. He mentioned they were gifts. She sold out, and thanks to him, her art was exposed to the world.
“Those were the days…” she said and stared at her friend.
“Okay. I really have to get going. I have a client meeting for a job I’m going to be doing in Cabo.”
“San Lucas?” asked Claire, excited.
“Yeppers!” said Alexa, wiggling her eyebrows.
“Let me know if your client needs any art.”
“I will. Okay, I really need to get going. I’ll see you Sunday, Claire.”
“I’ll be there. Charlie lives for those Sunday barbecues.”
“It’s the first of the season, and I love that he makes you—” the roaring screams from outside cut her off, making the three women look up.
“Jesus. Well, good luck getting through that. I need to head back to the office. We’ll be in touch, Claire,” said Rae.
“Yes. Take care. We’ll talk soon.”
Alexa’s attention was fixated on the commotion by the doors. Claire shook her head as a very large black man dressed in a fitted black T-shirt yelled orders to an equally large white man. Between them, a body huddled, covering his head, protecting it from the hordes. Two more bodyguards followed them. Claire continued digging for her keys in her oversized purse, eager to get the hell out of there.
“Holy shit!” exclaimed Alexa, reaching to grab Claire’s arm.
“I know! I need to get a smaller bag—I can’t find anything in here,” said Claire, laughing and assuming Alexa’s exclamation was about her purse that had once doubled as a diaper bag. It was old, but she loved it for the very reason Alex hated it. It fit everything and anything.
“Claire?” whispered Alexa. The alarm in her voice had her looking up at her friend and then wincing at the strength Alexa used as she locked her hand around Claire’s wrist in a painful grip.
“Alexa, what the hell? You’re hurting…” she began but stopped at the look on her friend’s face.
She followed Alexa’s gaze and was met by the icy green stare of Austin McKinley, world-renowned rock star, lead singer of Yellow Scarlet, and father of her only and beloved child. She could feel the color draining from her face. Alexa’s grip seemed to be the only thing holding her up.
What the hell were the chances?
“I have to get out here,” she said, unsure if she’d actually spoken the words out loud.
The knot in her throat made it hard to swallow, and she reached down for her cold tea to ease her suddenly parched mouth. It’d been six years since she’d last seen him, since she stood in front of him and told the biggest lie of her life.
Telling him she didn’t love him anymore had shattered her. All so he could go follow his dream. She hadn’t wanted to hold him back. She took a deep, steadying breath and hoped the fear she felt all of a sudden didn’t incapacitate her. Her heart was beating frantically, her chest felt heavy as she tried to coax some air into her lungs—the tea hadn’t helped.
“Breathe, Claire,” whispered Alexa as they both stood watching his stunning six-foot-three frame making its way towards them.
He’d changed. His height wasn’t a big shock; he’d always been tall. What shocked her was his build—big and muscular. He’d gotten a tattoo. Four peacock feathers climbed up his arm from his wrist, the tendrils wrapping around his arm leading to a colorful sleeve tattoo. The green and turquoise feathers disappeared up his shirtsleeve, accentuating a defined bicep. She looked up to his face and noticed a smirk playing on his lips. The first thing he’d ever given her was a peacock feather on a trip to the zoo. She’d painted it and given the painting to him. She couldn’t help but wonder if the decision for the artwork on his skin was intentional.
Her gaze wandered to the fitted shirt he wore that clung to a sculpted chest, and she knew he was hiding rippling abs. She had bought the magazines, seen the posters—none of which did him justice. Her eyes moved back to his face. Day-old stubble covered the soft skin she remembered. Dark circles shadowed his eyes—he looked exhausted. Despite his smirk, his eyes were devoid of any emotion. His enticing full lips reminded her of how much she’d missed the feel of them against hers. She brought her fingers to her mouth, feeling the ghost of a touch she hadn’t felt in years. Memory was a funny thing, she thought as her body reacted to the sight of him. The hair she loved running her fingers through was longer, the ends curling out from beneath a beat-up baseball cap at his nape. She snapped her eyes away from his and looked up at Alexa, who was smiling her brilliant smile as if nothing about this little reunion was unsettling. She would have laughed too if she wasn’t so scared of what this encounter meant. The time had come.
“What the hell are you smiling at?” she asked her friend.
“He’s hot, Claire, and from the looks of the suitcases being brought in, it doesn’t look like he’s here for an overnight visit.”
“I have to go,” Claire repeated.
Alexa kept her from moving, her grip tightening even more on Claire’s arm.
“Too late. Relax. You’ll be fine. Say hi and then leave. If you run away, he’ll question it.”
“I can’t face hi—”
“Claire?” Her name came out a questioning surprise in his deep, husky voice.
“Hi—” she started, her voice catching on the dryness of her throat. She cleared it and tried again. “Hi, Austin,” trying desperately to convey a confidence she didn’t feel.
“It’s been a while. How are you?” he asked.
“I’m good, you?”
“Hmmm, getting by. You know how it is.”
“No I don’t, actually. Listen, I’d love to stay and chat, but I have to go. I’m—”
“Hi Alexa, how’ve you been?” he said, cutting Claire off midsentence and turning to her friend.
“Great,” she responded, that bloody smile plastered on her beautiful face.
“I have to go,” said Claire once more to no one in particular.
She was going to pass out. The one bite she’d had of her cucumber sandwich was threating to come back up. She pressed her fist over her stomach, trying to control her emotions and bodily fluids.
“Yeah, you were saying. Why are you in such a rush? I have to check in. If you wait, we can grab a drink, catch up.”
Claire looked up at him, dumbfounded by the request. “I can’t. I have to get back to work.”
“Where do you work?”
“I paint,” she said to him as his lips turned up into a knowing smile. “I just signed a contract with the hotel,” she informed him, waving her hand at the expansive lobby. “I need to get started.”
“You always did beautiful work. Do you have a studio?” he asked with genuine interest.
“I have one at home,” she said nervously.
“Where’s home these days?”
“Springridge. Look, I really need to get going.”
“Springridge, really? You did always want to settle there. I have some interviews today, but maybe I’ll see you around. I’m going to stay with my parents for the summer.”
“Yeah, they moved back a week ago—though their stuff’s been here for a couple of months. They bought a nice property up in the Escarpment.”
“Your parents are living in Springridge?” she asked, flabbergasted by this revelation. The town was small; she could run into them. She didn’t want to think what this meant with Austin back in town. Their families knew a lot of the same people, most of which still lived in Springridge. The thought that someone could have said something about Charlie nearly had her running to her parents’ house to grab her son and escape…again.
“And you’re staying…with them?” she stammered.
“It’s what I said. I need to chill. It’s been a crazy few years. I’ll be there tomorrow,” he whispered, leaning into her and winking. “Maybe you and I can meet by the pond. You know, for old time’s sake.”
She looked up at him, startled by the mischief in his voice. She didn’t miss the vindictive gleam in his eyes.
“I’ll pass, thanks.”
“Are you sure, darling? Others would jump at the chance to frolic under a weeping willow. Is the willow still there?”
She stared at him, offended and unable to come up with a response malicious enough to affect him. She turned away from him.
“I’ll call you later, Alex,” she said and attempted to walk away.
His grip on her arm was like a shock to her already rattled senses, despite his cunning words. She hated herself for reacting to him.
“Come on, sweetheart, a little touch here and there between old friends won’t hurt anyone. Where there are no feelings…” He shrugged. “Well, there are no feelings.”
“Who are you?” she asked, unable to mask the hurt from his words.
She might have deserved his anger. Hell, she’d expected it. But she never imagined he would be so cruel. It was obvious his wounds were still raw—her own self-inflicted wounds hadn’t completely healed either.
There was a minute or two of uncomfortable silence. Claire looked anywhere but at him—she could feel his gaze on her. He’d always been good at calling her bluff, and she was sure that if he looked into her eyes he would call bullshit. At the sound of his name, the three of them turned. A sharply dressed man was gesturing with his head for Austin to join them.
“You’re being summoned,” said Alexa.
“Looks that way. I need to check in. Claire, Alexa, it was nice seeing the two of you,” he said.
The brush of his shoulder against hers was a strategic maneuver. One that left his scent lingering in the air around her. But the sting of his touch, no matter the subtlety, was heartbreaking.
She risked a look in his direction. His head was bent, listening to whatever the man who’d called him was saying. As they spoke, he reached out for a paper that the concierge slid over to him. The shorter man kept talking as Austin looked over the piece of paper, signaled for a pen, and scribbled something on it. The girl behind the counter handed him what she assumed was a key card. He looked at her, said something, and the girl blushed and batted her fake lashes. She slipped another piece of paper towards him. Austin took a look at it, smiled at the girl, and slipped the paper into his back pocket.
“Well, there’s a rock star move if I’ve ever seen one. Any money that’s her number sh—”
“I don’t care!” Claire snapped.
Just as those words slipped past her lips, Austin looked up, holding her gaze. She wondered briefly if he’d heard them. That thought quickly vanished as he turned on his heel and walked away. In those brief few seconds, she saw the resentment and, if she wasn’t mistaken, the anger he held towards her. She let out her breath and squeezed her eyes shut in an attempt to keep the tears she hadn’t let spill in years from making a rare appearance. It took a second for her to realize that Alexa held her arm once again. Claire swung her arm free from her friend’s numbing grip and turned her panic-stricken face toward her.
“What the fuck am I going to do? I have to go. I have to go get Charlie,” she rambled.
“Relax, Claire. He’s checking into the hotel. He won’t be there until tomorrow. Besides, you knew this would happen at some point. You can’t keep Charlie from him forever.”
“I’m not ready to tell him, Alexa.”
“So when then? When will you be ready? Charlie needs his father, Claire. That boy worships a man he’s never met. He needs to know his father, and Austin needs to know his son. It was just a matter of time.”
“I know you are, sweetie, but these are the consequences of your decisions. Everything will turn out, you’ll see.”
“And if it doesn’t? What if Austin decides to take him from me, then what?”
“Then you could be in for the fight of your life, but I doubt he will do that. Austin is a good man, Claire. I know it’s been years, but people don’t change too much.”
“He hates me. Did you hear how he spoke to me? God, I can’t think right now. I have to get to my son.”
“Please try to calm down, Claire. I don’t want you driving like this.”
“I’ll be fine. I’ll call when I get to Springridge.”
Claire grabbed her things and headed towards the side door entrance in order to avoid the mayhem of fans in front of the hotel. Her quick steps took her past the bank of elevators. She glanced in one of the cars to see Austin standing in a corner, fiddling with his phone. As if sensing her presence, he looked up at her, a somber look on his face. Her steps faltered, but she couldn’t bring herself to look away as the doors slid shut. She watched the numbers light one by one as the elevator climbed, stopping on the number nine. She stared at the number until her vision blurred with tears she was unable to stop from spilling. Years of secrets and lies had caught up to her, and she was helpless to stop the storm that was brewing.
“Claire?” She turned at the sound of her name.
“Jackson? Hi, how are you?” she asked the band’s drummer as she wiped at her eyes. “Wow, it’s been ages. I can’t believe you guys did it…I um…” her voice was shaking with pent-up emotions.
He was Austin’s best friend, and hers too, to a certain extent. They’d all hung out together countless times. He’d more than once confided in her, taken her advice on all things teenager. In that moment, there was none of that camaraderie, but an awkwardness that filled her with discomfort.
“Hey, are you okay? Why are you crying?” he asked, concerned.
“I’m fine, just caught off guard, that’s all.”
“Yeah. I’m fine,” she said and turned to walk away.
“Claire?” Jackson called. She turned slowly. “I know things didn’t end great with the two of you. I don’t really know what happened, except that the break-up did a number on him. He doesn’t talk about it. He doesn’t talk, period. It changed him, Claire,” he said, waiting for her reaction. All he got were silent tears and a nod. “He’s not the same guy. He doesn’t smile, doesn’t enjoy life anymore. I think he does this for us; his heart isn’t in it anymore. Anyway, for what it’s worth, he never forgot you. In fact, I don’t think he ever stopped—”
“Don’t. Please don’t say another word. I can’t bear it.”
Without further acknowledgement, she took off in a run towards the doors.
The time had come.