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First pages

ONE

"Will you marry me?"

It was the words that I'd wanted to hear my entire life. Didn't every girl fantasise over the perfect man going to buy the perfect ring and getting down on one knee in the most romantic way possible, before telling them that they loved them so much, they wanted to spend the rest of their life with them?

I knew that I certainly had.

Me and my best friend Cici used to talk about it all the time. We used to plan our dresses, the music, the flowers—every part of the ceremony down to the very last detail. Of course, the man didn't really matter. We were young enough and naive enough to believe that we would magically meet the perfect man without even trying.

And I really thought that I had. I really, truly believed that my dream had come true.

Me and Danny had begun our love story in a very typical fashion—our eyes had met across a bar, where we'd had long, lingering eye contact, sparking all kinds of emotions within me. The only difference between my story, and that of every other rom-com ever, was that Danny was a genuine up-and-coming rock star, playing on a fairly big stage, and I was a fan who already felt a lot of love for this man. I'd been admiring him from afar ever since I first heard their album a year or so before.

I certainly hadn't expected it to ever go any further than that moment, so when he came and joined me at the bar later on for a drink, despite being mobbed by other members of the audience, I felt like my entire life had been leading me up to that moment. I felt like everything that I'd experienced was all drawing me closer to Danny, the love of my life. Here was a gorgeous man who was destined to be famous, and who could have any girl in the world hanging off of his arm, talking to me, asking me questions, and actually showing me interest.

It seemed like a dream—one that I was terrified to wake up from.

As he flicked his messy auburn hair from his warm, chocolaty eyes and he gave me that smile that had already melted the hearts of the nation, I thought for a dreaded, wonderful second that he was going to kiss me in front of all of those people. But after a few beats of pure terror, he didn't. Instead he handed me his phone number, and he asked if I would like to go on a date with him.

Me—boring old Charlotte (Lottie) Jones—on a date with Danny Boreom, bassist of the (now very) famous band Jax. It didn't seem real.

Yet, it was real, and it did happen.

It was the start of my real life.

After a night out on the town where he well and truly wined and dined me, he walked me home to my tiny flat which must have looked ridiculous compared to the mansion that I now know he lived in with the rest of the band at the time, and he finally kissed me. As his lips met mine, I felt myself flying on top of the world—he was an amazing kisser, and there seemed to be an endless chemistry between us. One that I never wanted to end.

Breathless and turned on by the power of his mouth, I invited him inside. Although he coolly and calmly turned me down, it was still the best night of my entire life, made even better by a phone call the next day to say that he only didn't come inside with me because he wanted to be something real. He didn't want our love to end at a one-night stand, he actually wanted us to develop and for him to become my boyfriend.

Fast forward three and a half years and we were blissfully living together, grazing by every day happily and easily. Although he was away for a lot of the year touring, it didn't seem to bother us. We were so strong and so solid with what we had, that nothing would get in our way.

It was perfect, still a dream come true and that intense chemistry hadn't burned down one bit.

Which made it even weirder that my reaction to Cici telling me that Baz—another member of the band—had just told her that he'd been engagement ring shopping with Danny, wasn't one of pure joy.

"What...what do you mean?" I asked, my heart racing frantically in my chest. I could tell that my voice was breathless and kind of terrified, but my mind was spinning too fast for me to be able to do anything about it.

"Aren't you happy?" She giggled, "I thought that you'd be over the moon to finally be Mrs. Boreom."

"No, no, I am," I half lied. The idea had always been at the edge of my thoughts. I knew that Danny was the one for me, and despite all the car crash relationships around us, we'd even managed to survive the fallout of him becoming mega famous. It helped that I had no interest in the spotlight and that I did everything I could to avoid it, but even despite all of that, I felt like it proved that we could go the distance, and be together forever. So why wasn't I excited for us to take the next step? "It's just a bit of a shock, that's all."

But that was normal, right? Everyone freaked out at first when they learned that they were going to become someone's wife...didn't they?

Of course, I already knew that wasn't true. I'd already been proposed to once in my life before, and that time, I didn't hesitate one bit. Panic didn't even come into the equation, I was happy, over the moon at the thought of becoming his wife. This was nothing like that had been. I felt completely different.

For the first time in a very long time, I allowed myself to think about Joe again, and almost the second that I allowed that vault to open in my mind, I felt myself fall into a tailspin. As his face filled my brain once more, it was almost as if the last five years hadn't happened at all, and that I was still his proud girlfriend, waiting to be his wife.

As the wound reopened, I could barely hear what Cici was saying to me. I felt like I was gaping, exposed, and extremely vulnerable all over again, and I did what I'd always done when I was younger, when things got too difficult for me. I started to talk to Joe in my mind.

Where are you now?

What became of you?

What happened to your life?

It was so strange to have gone from the closest people in the world, to absolutely nothing, and I struggled to imagine that he'd changed one bit. Of course I had, my life was completely different, but I couldn't think of Joe without viewing him as the other half of me. The boy that I'd adored, and the one that I never thought would leave my side.

"I...I've got to go," I finally announced to my friend. "I'll speak to you later, okay?" And then I hung up the phone, without even waiting for her to answer. I knew that I was being rude, acting more than a little strange, but I needed some time. I needed to be alone with my thoughts to try and process all of this.

So quite how I found myself sitting at my computer with my fingers running along the keys, I wasn't quite sure.

Don't press anything, I willed myself. As soon as you do, everything will change.

Since we had gone our separate ways, I hadn't contacted Joe once, and with the uprising of social media I hadn't looked him up either. I just couldn't face it. He was like an imaginary fantasy in my mind now, and I wasn't sure that I wanted to ruin that with reality. What if he was married now? Or into drugs or something? His life could have gone in any direction, and I wasn't sure that I really wanted to find out which one.

Plus, my life really was amazing now. Why would I want to even consider risking that? I had a gorgeous, passionate man who actually wanted to be with me forever, even though he was about ten leagues above me, I had a teaching job that I loved, and friends that would do anything for me. That was a hell of a lot more than most people had!

In the end I forced myself to stand up and to move away from the computer screen before it lured me in. I couldn't do it; I just wasn't willing to take that step into the unknown. It terrified me far too much. But as I wandered aimlessly from room to room, I realisedthat I couldn't just do nothing either. I needed to calm this beast within me, which meant delving into my past whether I liked it or not.

I stood at the bottom of the attic ladder, wondering what awaited me up there. When me and Danny decided to buy a place together—well, he put the most money in of course, but we still classed it as 'ours'—I shoved everything related to my old life away, not wanting to even consider it. But it was always a comfort, knowing that it was there, knowing that I could access it at any moment if I really wanted to.

And I could feel myself finally taking that step.

I creaked up the ladder, feeling my heart thump and my palms sweat with nerves. This was a mistake, I knew it was, but at the same time I couldn't stop.

There would be no way for me to get married without taking this step anyway. Right now, things were comfortable, but if I was ever going to have a future with Danny, I needed to consult my past first. At least, that was my excuse and I was sticking to it.

Danny knew about Joe anyway. Well, he'd been told some of it, the very basics, so I supposed that I was probably going to have to confess all before we finally took the plunge. With that thought in mind, I tore open the first box I stumbled across, and I ended up looking at the few photographs that I had of me and Joe when we were very young, when we very first met...

TWO

I could never remember when we moved in the house next door to Joe's because I was only seven months at the time, and he was only a month and half older than me, but from what we were both told later on in our lives it was a traumatic time for my family.

My dad had walked out on my mum only a few weeks before, leaving her with absolutely nothing. She was heartbroken, and left with the sole responsibility of sorting out a life for me too. It was almost overwhelming for her, and she really struggled to pick herself up. There was another downwards spiral when she found out that dad had a whole other life, and that his other girlfriend was pregnant with twins. He must have deemed them more important than me because I never saw him again. Admittedly I hadn't thought about it for many years, but now it was weird to me knowing that I had half-siblings out there, somewhere in the world. It was like some kind of unfinished business, that I had no idea how to tackle.

Of course, I'd never gone as far as to look them up, because I was afraid to open that can of worms, but every now and again they would pop up into my mind. I often wondered if he managed to stick around for them, or if he left them high and dry too...

Joe's parents were saviours, picking mum up from the bottom of the barrel, helping her to turn her life around. They helped her organise her house and get herself a job—who knows what would have happened to us if they hadn't. According to the legend between our families, Joe's mum brought us a lasagne round on our first night in our new home, mum burst into extremely grateful tears, told her what was wrong, and a friendship was born. As simple as that.

The photo that I was holding tightly between my fingers showed a picnic that we all went on together only a few weeks later. It must have been taken by Joe's mum because it showed my mum, his dad, his older sister Marie—who was then a toddler—and us two as babies. Even in that image, the very first one of us in existence, we were gazing at each other, as if we already knew that we couldn't live without one another. It was as if that unbreakable bond was already forming.

Of course, it wasn't quite as unbreakable as we'd always assumed, but I didn't find that out until much later on...

Because of our close living situation, we grew up to be the absolute best of friends. We were inseparable before we were even one-years-old, and we got lucky in school too because they kept us in the same class, allowing our friendship to continue. To be honest, we were so wrapped up in one another that we didn't even care about the rest of the world. We didn't bother to try and make new friends because we just didn't need to.

We had each other and that was all that mattered.

Of course it meant that others thought we were weird, and that they had a lot to say about us behind our backs, but that didn't bother us either. Even when it became a real issue for me, Joe kyboshed it pretty quickly.

It happened once when we were eight-years-old and all the other girls in the class decided that I was a loser and started picking on me. Maybe they were jealous that I was so close to a boy, or maybe they just didn't like my flame red hair. Who knows, but they started to make my life hell. A week after it began, I ran out of class sobbing when one of them scribbled all over my homework, and without a second thought Joe chased after me to comfort me. Once I calmed down, he took me to the school nurse and told her I was sick so that I could go home early, meaning I didn't have to go back in there and face them all over again.

Nothing ever happened to me again after that. The girls were never my friends, but they left me well alone. However much Joe insisted that he didn't do anything, I just knew that he did. I tried to get it out of him for years, but he never did tell me. I could only assume that he maybe threatened them or something...although I couldn't picture that really. Joe was a gentle, caring should, with a heart of gold. Although he always stood taller than the rest of the class, towering over everyone, so maybe they all saw a different side of him. Maybe he was scary to them.

I guess I'll never find out the truth for sure...

Anyway, whatever he did, it made me feel even closer to him, even more pleased that he was in my life. I wasn't sure what I would do without him. I was dependant on him, probably far more than I should have been, but it didn't seem to matter to either of us.

Our friendship was perfect; I didn't think anything would ever get in the way of it.

How naive I was...

THREE

The phone rang shrilly, completely knocking me out of my nostalgia trip. With my heart still racing from the shock, I rushed down the stairs, amazed at myself for getting sucked in so easily. After avoiding the past for so long, I was a little stunned at how quickly my mind went right back to it, without even considering the implications of that. I'd unlocked the box inside my brain, and I wasn't sure if there was any way of going back now.

"Hey babe." Danny crooned into the phone, in the chocolaty sweet voice that I loved so much. Although this time, hearing his voice didn't make me feel safe and special, it sent waves of guilt crashing through my body. I felt like I'd been betraying him by just thinking of Joe. "Our show last night was amazing!" He continued, completely oblivious to my internal turmoil. "I wish you could have been there."

"I don't think your adoring fans would appreciate that." I smiled warmly to myself, trying to push my other thoughts aside. I needed to focus on him and what he was saying to me, because I never got very long to speak to him. I didn't want my worries to affect the short time that we had together.

I was so happy for Danny and the way that Jax had become so successful. I knew how much they deserved it and how hard they'd worked to get there. There was only one member of the band who had let the fame go to his head—their lead singer Craig, but he was always a bit of a knob anyway, so it wasn't much of a surprise. As the drummer, often hidden at the back of the stage, Danny had a few less admirers than the rest of the band, but that wasn't to say that there weren't a few dedicated groupies just for him!

"Anyway, I think we're in Cardiff tonight so I won't be able to ring you until tomorrow okay? Oh hold on..." I could hear his muffled talking, which meant that he obviously had his hand over the receiver. I couldn't help but feel a little annoyed, couldn't he spare just one moment for me without being dragged back into band stuff? Normally I didn't mind, and I was really understanding, but today I felt different. Dragging up my past had made me uncomfortable and unsettled, which unfortunately I was taking out on him. "Got to go babe, we have some promotion party thing to go to. Love ya! Bye."

"Work is going fine thanks, yeah I'm good..." I muttered angrily into the dead receiver, slamming the phoned down. I loved Danny to bits, but I felt like this was a moment that I really needed him to just speak to me and pay me some attention, and I was irrationally angry because he hadn't gotten my telepathic message about that.

Or maybe I was just looking for an excuse for what I really wanted to do. Maybe I was looking for a reason to stomp back up into that attic and to continue looking through my memories. I knew what I was doing was wrong—it certainly felt like deception at any rate—but I had no intention of stopping. Especially not after that phone call!

It was done, and I needed to know it all now. I wouldn't be able to rest until I'd uncovered everything. I already knew that there was no way that I could sleep until I'd gone through all of the secrets hidden away up there, and I was forcing my guilt to subside to get me through that.

Sighing as I sat back down, I flicked through the rest of the photographs in the box. There were literally thousands of us growing up, it was as if our parents couldn't bear to let a second go by without catching it on camera. Joe's sister sometimes featured alongside us in the pictures, but she was only an outsider really—everyone else was. No one was invited to our little clique, and that was the way we liked it.

It was all quite causal and sweet to look back on, until in one of the boxes I found my diary, which that changed everything. Even the atmosphere in the room changed as I ran my hand over the silky front cover, just knowing what lay inside...

I quickly scanned my eyes over the first few pages and the posts that were only bitching about my mum, because I knew that soon enough I started to talk about Joe—really talk about him—and for some reason, I wanted to explore that. I wanted to go back to that awkward time in secondary school when there was an obvious shift in our friendship—not that he seemed to notice of course!

 

12th March 2006

Why not me? Why never me?

It was always just me and you Joe, so why did that have to change?

I miss primary school when you didn't you notice anyone else.

Damn it, when did it start to hurt to see you look at other girls?

 

I gulped down a ball of emotion that lodged firmly in my throat as I read my teen-angst filled words. The feelings of jealousy that I felt back then flooded right through me once more, which sent me to the edge of unease.

Seeing Joe with anyone used to drive me crazy with jealousy, to the point where I thought I might go insane. I'd go hot and dizzy, nauseous if he even smiled at another girl. Yet with Danny—a bona fide rock star with gorgeous fans dripping from his shoulders—I didn't feel bad about that even once. If anything, I was always pleased for him to have women chasing after him. It meant that he'd really made it.

What did that mean?

Did that mean that I didn't love Danny as much as I had Joe? Or that I trusted him more? I wasn't sure, and it was making my head spin. I stood up, feeling light-headed and very sick, before staggering back down the stairs and into natural light. But not without bringing the diary with me. Now that I'd read that information, I felt like I needed to know more, to work out how I really felt about my life right now.

I'd always assumed that I was happy, but was that just a trick that I was playing on myself to help me move on with my life? To help me get over losing Joe?

Sure, Danny was absolutely gorgeous, and he was lovely too, but did that really make him the man for me? Did that really mean that I should marry him? It wasn't even like he was the man that I'd admired from afar anymore because we had a real bond and connection. We were really in love...or so I thought.

Urgh, what the hell was wrong with me?

I padded into the kitchen and grabbed a half drunk bottle of wine, taking a swig without even thinking. My heart was pounding and my mind was reeling, so much so that I felt like I wasn't even in the room anymore.

In the end, I poured myself a glass of the wine, trying to at least behave normally, before sitting on the bar stool and reading a little bit more, digging in even deeper to the girl I used to be.

 

18th June 2006

I can't take it anymore. I can't.

This is the end of the world to me.

How the fuck am I supposed to move on?

 

21st June 2006

I'm so confused. Now you're showing me all the attention that you once did, and I don't know what to think about it. She's still in the picture, and I can tell that she hates me, but when I'm in your sun rays of affection it doesn't matter.

It's when you leave and you're kissing her that I go into turmoil.

 

I remembered feeling that way, so passionate and heartbroken that I didn't even make any sense. That life felt like an unbearable rollercoaster that I couldn't seem to climb off of. I recalled needing to get my feelings out and writing them down as the only way to do that, and now reading over those words once more, I felt like I was in the same state, that I was the same mess waiting for Joe to look my way once more. It was weird—I was now twenty-three years old and it was like I'd reverted back to a teenage girl all over again. Everything that I'd learned about life just melted away, and I became an insecure, neurotic puddle all over again.

I sipped the wine, just thinking for a moment, trying to get a calm perspective on things, but instead my brain span back over my memories, dragging me back there once more...

FOUR

About a week after we started secondary school, I started to notice a change. Not just in everything surrounding us, but in me and Joe too. We joined a massive school from our very tiny one, and the difference was immense. I found it really hard to come to grips with. Our classes had gone from twelve students to over thirty, which was incredibly daunting. I felt claustrophobic, like I couldn't breathe as easily anymore. Every day went from being fun and manageable, to a real challenge. It got to the point where even walking through those doors in the morning was overwhelming.

But not for Joe.

Joe relished our new life, he embraced it with open arms, and it didn’t take me long to work out why.

The selection of new students brought along with it a whole heap of girls. Girls who hadn’t grown up alongside Joe, and seen him go through his awkward stage. He was new to them, exciting. The girls we’d grown up alongside didn’t even dare to look at him because they knew that I had some sort of claim over him—of course, it wasn't really in the romantic sense, but that didn’t matter—but these new girls didn’t know about that.

They saw what I did, plus a whole lot more too. They didn’t just grasp that you were kind, loyal, and very sweet. They also saw potential in the messy hair, a spark in those piercing blue eyes, and something to swoon about in the dimples that popped up when he smiled.

Diana was the first one—his first girlfriend. She was tall and slim with long, flowing blonde hair. I couldn't help but be jealous of her because she was everything that teenage me wanted to be. She already wore a bra, she never seemed to have any spots, and she also didn’t ever appear to be plagued with the insecurities that all-but swamped me.

Of course, she had Joe too. I hated that with every inch of my being.

Luckily for me, Joe continued on with our friendship in mostly the same way as before. Especially when school was over, and we were at home. I got the impression that Diana wanted him to stop speaking to me, but he never did. Maybe they argued over it, or maybe he was completely oblivious to her feelings—he never told me, and I didn’t ask either.

She didn’t last too long though, which was a massive relief for me. That was until Heidi came along. Heidi was even more beautiful than Diana, and she was older too, which made me feel even more crazy and possessive. I used to sit in my bedroom, screaming into my pillow, just imagining them together. Most of the time, I felt like I was going insane with it all, which was made worse by the fact that I couldn't talk to my best friend about it. This time, my confidant was the problem, and that was really difficult to come to terms with.

Back then, I thought that it was only his friendship that I missed. I thought that my insane jealousy was purely because I didn’t like someone else sharing his focus. I preferred the days when his warmth was only directed at me.

It was more, that became obvious later, but I couldn't see that at the time.

Heidi became an increasing problem as time went on. She didn’t just invade our time together at school; she started to encroach on our home life together too. She would come round for dinner, and charm the pants off our parents. The fierce passion that I hated her with was incredible. I’d never felt so strongly about anything before, and that was tearing me up from the inside out. Every time I saw her, I felt muddy and raw, which meant that I didn’t even give her a chance.

Then again, she must have hated me just as much as I did her because rumours quickly started flying around the school that they kept fighting because of me, and when they finally broke up, I found myself under the intense scrutiny of the entire school—a place that I didn’t feel comfortable at all.

Suddenly people wanted to talk to me, to get to know me, and every whisper in the hallway was about my involvement. I quietly tried to reassure people that I was only friends with Joe, but that wasn't what people wanted to hear. They wanted juicy gossip, so they started to make things up.

If I hadn’t wanted to leave Joe with those vultures, I probably would have quit school, just to get away from it all.

All of that came to an abrupt end when Joe moved on with someone else. Then another girl, and another. After Heidi no one seemed to last that long, as if they didn’t quite make the cut for him. This helped my confidence to grow—those girls would come and go, but me and Joe were forever—and that was the way that I liked it.

Well...that was until the school camping trip.

Everything started to disintegrate then...

It was really starting to trouble me that I’d never experienced that sort of mental jealousy for Danny, the man who was supposed to be the love of my life. Why had I never felt like I would die without him? Why did I not despise every girl that was even in the same room as him? It was confusing. I’d never really thought about it before, I was confident that our relationship was happy, but now it was all that I could think about.

I was comparing what I had with Danny to what I once had with Joe, which wasn't fair on anyone because the situations could not have been more different.

So why couldn't I stop...?

FIVE

I brushed the tear off my cheek angrily, feelingly increasingly frustrated with myself with each passing second. How was it possible that I found myself already so upset? I’d only been delving into the past for a short while for crying out loud! I assumed that it was because I knew where this story ended, and everything that I would unleash by doing this. But that wasn't enough to stop me, not now... not when I’d already gotten so far in.

“No, no,” I muttered to myself, standing upright. “Not today.”

I was so unsettled by everything that this had made me think about already, and I knew that it was only going to get worse the more I continued on. Looking back at what I once had with Joe was going to make me question every aspect of my current life—not only what I had with Danny—and there was no way that I was emotionally equipped to do all of that in one day. I needed to pack it all away and come back to it another day, before it drove me insane.

I sighed deeply, feeling a cold sense of relief flood through me at the idea that I was done with the day. Then, knowing that I couldn't just leave it all in the attic now, I grabbed each and every one of the boxes, and pulled them downstairs ready for another day.

Maybe once I was done with it all, once I’d looked through it, I would be able to just chuck it out and continue on with my life. With it downstairs, that would be much easier to do.

Maybe...

By the time I clambered into bed, exhaustion consumed me and I all but blacked out the second my head hit the pillow.

***

I honestly expected to feel better by the time morning rolled around, so it was a little shock to wake up still sickly and feeing like crap—emotionally and physically. It didn’t help that I hadn’t slept well. Nightmares of the past had plagued me all night, and now I was more haunted than ever.

As my feet hit the bedroom floor, I felt a surge of energy burst through me. I couldn't sit around and mope today, working myself up over something that was realistically no longer a part of my life. I actually had some weekend plans that I really couldn't cancel—a meeting with my mother. Sure, it was only going to be an awkward coffee, like we did every single month, but if I was focused on my strained relationship with my mum, then I couldn't be worrying about anything else.

Urgh God... suddenly the thought of the weirdness with my mum was a little overwhelming, so I sent a message to Cici. If I had something to do with my best friend afterwards, then I could get through it.

‘Hey Cici, fancy going out for drinks later? Xxx’

I was pretty sure that she would already have plans anyway—the social butterfly that she was—so it wasn't at all unexpected when she quickly shot back telling me to meet her at a bar at eight pm.

“Okay,” I nodded to myself, trying to steel myself for what I needed to do today. “You can do this.” I was perfectly aware that whispering to myself like a crazy person, but it was all I could do to sort myself out. “Just... get in the shower. Just get through this.”

As I stepped into the shower and allowed the hot water to steam over me, my mind drifted off to another problem that I hadn’t yet considered. My mum might not know about the potential engagement just yet, by Cici certainly did, and if Gabby (Baz’s girlfriend) was out with her like she normally was, then it was very likely that I would have to suffer squeals and excitement about wedding that I honestly sure wasn't going to happen. If me and Danny actually made it down the aisle, then we would be the first out of our friendship group, so it would be a level of madness that I was nowhere near equipped to deal with.

I padded across the apartment, naked and wet, not even bothering to grab a towel. Sometimes I got so used to be in our home alone that I forgot it wasn't just mine. The more popular Jax became, the less I saw of my boyfriend, which left me mostly to my own company. Generally, I liked that, it suited me just fine. But at the moment it was like torture—the silence was painful, and driving me insane.


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

Samie Sands is the author of the AM13 Outbreak series - Lockdown, Forgotten, and Extinct. She has also had stories published in best-selling anthologies. For more, check out samiesands.com.

Q. What is the inspiration for the story?
A.
I wanted to write a story about comparing past loves to present loves because I think it's something that people do a lot. Especially when it's something unexpected that tears the couple apart, which is definitely the case with Lottie and Joe.
Q. Where did the idea for this book come from?
A.
I wrote another book in a similar genre, titled Living on Borrowed Time, and readers loved the unexpected nature of it. I wanted to recreate that again and I think I was successful. People who've read the story commented that it didn't go as they expected it to.
Q. Where can readers find out more about you?
A.
At my website, samiesands.com, or by signing up to the newsletter http://eepurl.com/bRjtkf.

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