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K. A. LINDE
Not for reprint or sale.
Lucas Atwood stepped over the threshold of Savannah’s parent’s two-story home. He looked even taller than when she had last seen him. He easily towered over everyone in the room and drew her eyes like a moth to a flame. He’d cut his hair. The shaggy locks she’d adored for years were gone. The crisp button-down and khaki pants were a sharp departure from his typical basketball attire.
And she should never have noticed.
“Savannah?” Easton said at her side.
“Yeah?” She drew her attention away from Lucas. “Did I miss something?”
Easton flashed her a smile. Sometimes, it was hard to believe that they’d been dating for nearly three years. That she was finally graduating from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and going off into the real world to be a reporter. At the Washington Post no less.
“I asked if you wanted another drink?”
She glanced down at the empty glass she’d been holding. When had she finished it?
“Uh, yeah. Sure. That would be great.”
He kissed her cheek. “Be right back.”
She watched him go with a half-smile painted on her cherry red lips. This was her official college graduation party. The one her parents had thrown for family and close friends. It was the party where she had to play the part of perfect Savannah Maxwell, Senator’s daughter. A role that she had worn like a second skin her entire life. Sometimes she wasn’t even able to recognize the difference between that part and the real Savannah Maxwell.
Everyone had said that she’d gone through a rebellious stage once she had finally gotten out of high school. Even though UNC was only ten minute down the road from her family home, she wasn’t living under their roof anymore and she didn’t have any of their rules.
Then she had started dating Easton and everyone had been so happy to see that ‘phase’ end. Easton was everything she had ever wanted in a boyfriend—college tennis player, smart, funny, kind, caring, loyal. If only he didn’t want to be a politician. Just like her father and brother. She knew it was unfair to be frustrated by his choice in careers, but she’d had enough of politics for one lifetime. But if she wanted Easton, then she had to take that part of him too.
“Deep in thought?”
Savannah snapped her head to the side and found Lucas with a half-smile staring back at her. “Hey.”
“Penny for your thoughts?”
She tried to hide the smile from her face, but was unsuccessful. That had been a catch phrase between them since eighth grade. She’d been upset over some stupid boy after school. Lucas had picked up a stray penny in the parking lot and placed it in her palm. She’d divulged everything that had happened and the phrase had stuck around.
“No,” she told him.
He pulled his hands out of his pockets to show they were empty. “That’s good, I suppose. Fresh out of pennies.”
Her cheeks heated as he took a step closer to her. His eyes were bright blue and without his hair falling into his face she could see how electric they were in the light of the foyer. But being around Lucas was a bad idea. She took a step away from him. “What are you doing here, Lucas?”
“Your parents invited me,” he said casually.
“Isn’t your graduation next weekend? Shouldn’t you be studying for finals?”
He shrugged. “We made it to the NCAA tournament. I think I’m going to pass my finals.”
“I’m sure. Padding your grades much?”
Lucas played basketball for Vanderbilt and he was good. Really good. Better than Savannah’s brother, Brady, and his brother, Chris, who had both played at UNC when they had gone there. Then Lucas had turned traitor and gone to Vandy. It still made her cringe.
“We both know that they don’t need to.”
She laughed softly. Of course they didn’t need to. For all his dumb jock tendencies, they’d graduated first and second in their class. He’d gotten to give the speech to introduce her. Most of the audience was crying from laughter before she even got onto stage.
If only everything was still like that between them. If only it hadn’t unequivocally changed the summer after graduation.
“So, did your parents fly you in just for the party?” she asked. He hadn’t been at the ceremony in Kenan football stadium where she’d dressed in Carolina blue and walked with all of her friends. None of which were here at this stuffy get together.
“Yeah. I wanted to be here for you. But my flight got delayed and so…I’m late.”
Lucas glanced over her shoulder, frowned, and took a step back. She followed his gaze and found Easton meandering toward her. His eyes narrowed when he saw her talking to Lucas.
“Hey, here’s your drink,” Easton said, passing her a sweet tea vodka and lemonade.
“Thanks.” She took it from him and absentmindedly sipped it as she bathed in awkwardness to the nth degree.
Easton, ever the gentleman, stuck his hand out. “Hey Lucas. I didn’t know you were going to be here.”
“Last minute trip,” Lucas told him.
“Just for graduation?”
“Yeah. I have to finish up finals next week.”
“What’s your degree in again?” Easton asked.
“Right,” Easton said. “What are you doing with that after graduation?”
Lucas shrugged. “Depends on the draft I suppose.”
“Draft?” Savannah asked finally interjecting into the conversation.
“Uh…yeah. Figure I’ll just keep playing ball until they tell me I can’t.”
“You could go anywhere,” Savannah said. Her heart in her throat.
“Well, yeah. That’s kind of how a draft works.”
Easton grinned like a Cheshire cat and put his arm around Savannah. “That will be good for you. New city. New team. That sort of thing.”
Lucas just laughed. “Yeah. We’ll see what happens. I’m going to go check out the rest of the party.”
He nodded at them both and then disappeared through the living room. Savannah felt a weight lift off of her chest. Easton just shook his head.
“I really don’t like that guy,” Easton said. His eyes were still on Lucas’s back as he drifted around the room.
“Let’s not today, okay?”
Easton had every reason not to like Lucas. To hate him even. But she really did not want to get into it today. She’d chosen Easton. She had pushed Lucas out of her life. That should be enough for him.
“Yeah. Sorry,” Easton said, rubbing a hand up and down my back. “I just can’t believe he even showed up.”
“I’ve known him since I was a baby. Our parents are best friends. It’s not that surprising.” She took another long drink and then veered into the living room. Easton followed and thankfully didn’t press the issue.
Savannah tried to push away the awkwardness as she mingled with her parent’s friends and went through all the pleasantries. She was really looking forward to the after party on Franklin Street. The rest of the newspaper had gotten together a going away event for all the seniors. Guaranteed to be better than this party.
Savannah whirled around and found her sister-in-law Liz Dougherty standing in front of her. “Oh my God!” Savannah cried, throwing her arms around Liz.
They’d worked on the paper together when Liz had been a senior at UNC, during the debacle with her older brother Brady while he’d been running for Congress. Liz was probably her closest girlfriend. It sucked having her in D.C. One more reason to be stoked that she was moving.
“How are you? And congratulations!” Liz said. “I’m so proud of you! Washington Post!”
“Thank you. Thank you. I’m good. So ready to move already.”
“I know that feeling. And finally moving in with Easton, huh?” Liz waggled her brows up and down.
Savannah laughed. “Yeah. Lucky that Brady had an opening in his staff.”
“Lucky.” Liz snorted. “He’s your boyfriend. Of course, there’s going to be room.”
“Nepotism was the first word that came to mind,” Savannah said with a laugh.
“Eh. Whatever. If it makes you happy, then we’ll let the boys deal with the potential consequences.” Liz giggled and drew her away from the center of the room. Then she stopped laughing and frowned. “So, are you going to tell me what’s really going on? Because you look like you swallowed a toad.”
Savannah checked her reaction. Why the hell was she upset? This should be one of the happiest days of her life. Yet Liz had seen what she’d been trying to ignore. She wasn’t okay. She felt like she was barely floating above the water.
“I don’t know.”
“Is it Lucas?” Liz asked, glancing over Savannah’s shoulder.
“No,” Savannah said quickly. Maybe…too quickly. Liz raised an eyebrow.
“Have y’all talked since last summer?”
Savannah shook her head. “I don’t want to talk.”
“You can’t avoid him forever.”
“Why not? That makes everything so much easier.”
“Lucas is a part of your life whether you want him there or not. You can’t run away from your problems, Savi.”
She took another long sip of her drink. “I can try.”
Liz shot her a ‘don’t kid yourself’ look. “Take it from somebody who knows. I tried to erase my problem for over a year. It was not pretty. And I don’t want that for you.”
Savannah sighed. “I know.”
“At the very least, it’s best to get it all out of the way before you come to live by me. That way you have a clean slate.”
“I’m so ready to live near you again,” Savannah said.
“Me too. It’s going to be the best.” Liz hip-checked her and then sauntered off toward Savannah’s oldest brother Brady. He was chatting with their parents, but when his eyes fell on Liz, the world stopped. Savannah could see it from all the way across the room. She didn’t know how they had all missed it the first time.
She went to take another sip and realized she had gone through another drink. She grimaced. Time to switch to water for a bit.
Savannah headed into the kitchen. She had just picked up a glass of water when she turned to see Lucas standing at the back door. He tilted his head toward the French double doors in invitation and then sidled out them.
She chewed on her lip. Should she go out there? Anytime she’d ever followed Lucas out to a secluded location had been a bad idea. Yet Liz’s words were ringing in her ears. Maybe it was time to finally close that door.
With a sigh, she set her water back down and exited her parent’s house. It was a beautiful North Carolina spring day. Sunny with a light breeze. Not too hot, not too humid. Just perfect. She would miss days like this when she was in D.C. full time. Nothing compared to a Carolina day. She wouldn’t believe anyone who told her otherwise.
Savannah found Lucas sitting on the wooden porch swing at one end of the wrap around porch. Her heels clicked on the wood as she moved over to where he was sitting. Where they had sat countless times before this moment.
He patted the seat next to him, but she remained standing. She turned her gaze off into the distance. What was she doing out here anyway?
“Savi, have a seat,” Lucas said.
“Probably not a good idea.”
“I wanted to give you your graduation gift.”
She tilted her head up and closed her eyes. “I don’t want anything.”
“I know. I didn’t get you something that you want.”
“What?” she asked in surprise. Her dark eyes finding his baby blues.
He patted the chair again. “Sit.”
“Under protest,” she said, pointing her finger at him.
He just smirked. She sat.
The chair rocked back and forth a few times before either of them spoke again. It felt like déjà vu sitting here like this. Too many memories. All those happy thoughts laced with the poison of the last four years.
Lucas reached for a stack of papers sitting next to him and then handed them to Savannah. “Here.”
“What is it?”
“Just open it.”
He stared deeply into her eyes and she broke contact first. She opened the papers and found a small rectangular red frame. Inside was a ticket stub to the play Seven Brides for Seven Brothers that she’d performed the lead in in high school. And next to it was a picture of them from that night. His arm was slung over her shoulders. She was holding an enormous bouquet of flowers that he’d brought for her. They’d been best friends then and nothing more. Easier times.
“I can’t put this up in my apartment,” she finally told him.
“Sure you can.”
“I’m moving in with Easton.” Her words were deliberate and she made sure to make eye contact when she said them. “We’ve been together for three years. After all those bad summers, Lucas, I just…can’t.”
“You’re moving in together?” Lucas demanded. His normal chill had evaporated. She could see his frustration etched in every line.
“What do you expect me to do, Lucas?” she asked just as frustrated. “Wait for you? All the good that did me.”
“What do you even like about that guy?”
“No,” she spat. “I am not doing this with you.” She shoved the papers back toward him. “You already know where we stand. The same place we stood that night on the beach this summer.”
He grit his teeth. “That was different.”
“Don’t even try.”
She moved to stand up, but he placed his hand on her elbow. “Please.”
“What? What more could you want from me?”
His eyes had lost their anger. Their fire. Instead all she saw was the adoration he’d always had for her. “Everything.”
“Stop. Please. This is never happening.”
“You don’t mean that.”
“I do,” she choked out. “I really do.”
He nodded slowly as if he couldn’t really believe the words she was saying. “Well, I’ll keep the frame then, I guess. But that was only half the gift.” He pushed the papers in her hands, placed a gentle kiss on her cheek, and then stood. He pocketed the frame he’d made for her. “Happy graduation, Savi.”
She watched him walk away with a mix of fury, desperation, confusion, and pain. How could he elicit all of these emotions at once? Why did it feel wrong to do the right thing? What she knew was best for her?
She choked back the words to call out to him. Then forced herself to look down at the papers. She peeled them open where he’d folded them down the middle. Her hand flew to her heart.
Inside was an audition packet for a musical theatre troupe in D.C. For the production of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.
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Continue on to chapter 2 HERE!