Excerpt 1: Stay With Me
Book 1: The With Me Series
I NOTICE HIM AS SOON as I step outside.
He leans against the siding, semi-cloaked by the dark of the night. I don’t have a good idea of what he looks like, only a brief impression of a tall, lean body and sharp features. I have no idea who he is, but I’m pretty sure he knows who I am.
Unfortunately, everyone knows me. Or rather, they think they do.
As soon as I walked into the party earlier tonight, people bombarded me. They wanted to take a picture and get my autograph, and some even tried to get me to sing. I politely declined, as being anything but nice would sell fast to all the tabloids and also make the news. Instead, I made my way to the keg to get a cup of beer that was more foam than liquid.
It’s only a few weeks into my freshman year at college, but it’s been all over the news that I’m attending Green College and now live in Vermont. But I’m determined to have fun tonight and, more importantly, blend in.
Still, I need a few minutes to myself. I’ve never gotten used to crowds, or being stared at like I’m a bug under a microscope.
I’m hoping as the year progresses that the novelty of me attending college will wear off. Perhaps I’m hoping for too much, but I thought . . . I thought for once in my life I could have a chance at normal, whatever that is.
My skin prickles with awareness. I’m nowhere near him, but it feels like he’s standing right next to me. Maybe that’s because he keeps looking at me. He’s not the first to do so, but I don’t feel like he’s invading my space. So many times people just look at me and stare, cataloging every single feature, noting my flaws, what I wore, how I looked, how I acted. I always felt on display—that I could never just be me because everyone wanted what they heard on the radio, saw on TV, or read about in the magazines.
But, oddly enough, I don’t feel like he’s staring at me because I’m famous. The space around me doesn’t feel small and closed in. I can still breathe. I don’t have this urge to run or escape.
I just want to stay.
With a complete strange male.
Yeah, having actually put that into thought . . . well, it doesn’t seem like the wisest decision.
I don’t know anything about him. And I know better than anyone that appearances can be deceiving, that this guy could just be hiding in the shadows, lying in wait for me to make a move, and then try and work me to his advantage.
But as silly as it sounds, I just don’t get that vibe from him. The feeling I get is that he’s just a guy out here who’s taking a break from the party, too.
I glance over my shoulder at the party behind me. There are just so many people in the living room, grinding against each other, drinking, laughing, touching. And it reminds me, in a small way, of the rock concerts I used to perform. All those people. Dancing. Reaching out to me. Hands touching me. The deafening noise. The pounding of fear that would envelope me right before I stepped on stage—because there was just so much riding on each tour. Making fans happy, making record executives happy, making my mother happy . . . and being miserable the whole time.
I have no desire to go back into the party. The deck is big enough for the both of us. And out here I can pretend for a moment that everything will be okay. That everything is okay. That I’m just a girl at a party who is outside and getting some fresh air.
I shiver, surprised at the sudden drop in temperature.
It’s been warmer than usual for mid-September in Burlington, so I opted for something more summery as opposed to early fall. My sparkly silver tank with its thin spaghetti straps reminds me of a disco ball, and my tight, tiny jean shorts hit my high upper thighs. But the weather’s changed since then, and now the wind is brisk and strong. I rub my hands over my bared arms. I really should’ve brought my jacket with me.
Suddenly, a black leather jacket that smells faintly of male cologne—a deep, bitter woodsy aroma that appeals to me—is draped over my shoulders and eases the chill away.
I turn, clutching the jacket with one hand, and holding the cup of beer in the other.
Not that I’d expected anyone else, as we’re the only two ones out here, but . . .
He’s here, a few feet away—so close, yet so far.
His boots hit the edge of the pool of light, and he still stands in the dark. I’m of average height so I have to crane my neck to meet his gaze. That’s rare for me. Most of the male actors in Hollywood are my height or an inch or two taller than my five-foot five. I still can’t tell what color his eyes are—or what he looks like. I start to wonder if he’s ashamed of his physical appearance.
“Thank you,” I say.
“No problem. You looked like you were cold.” His voice is low, and this time when I shiver, it’s not from the wind. “Why don’t you put the jacket on?”
“I would, but I have this.” I raise my drink as much as I dare to without spilling it and losing his jacket in the process.
“I’ll take it.”
He steps closer to me. His fingers brush against mine, and my heart jackhammers in my chest. I quickly back away when he takes my drink, and I slide my arms into the sleeves. It’s huge on me, but I love how it feels.
I groan when I realize a lock of my hair has snagged on my tank. I reach behind me to free it, but he puts a hand on my right arm, stalling me.
“Wait. It looks like your hair is caught in some of that stuff.”
“They’re sequins,” I say, the nervousness rising in me like bubbles in a glass of champagne.
“I know.” He must have seen something in my expression because he adds: “I have four younger sisters.”
“Oh.” I don’t have anyone but myself. I always wished I had a big family. But then again, it’s probably better that I’m an only child. My mother is a piece of work, and she would have pushed a sibling, like she did me, into singing, dancing, and acting. She would’ve managed them. She would’ve pushed them to do things they wouldn’t want to do, whether it be dieting, dating, taking a role, performing a show . . . or growing up faster than they should.
My childhood was anything but typical. There was no playing around, goofing off, or even going to school. It was work, work, work. Practice, practice, practice. By six, I could tell you what it was like to sing to thousands of people on Broadway. By nine, I’d released my first album. By fourteen, I’d been on tours and acted in movies. By fifteen, I was offered my first starring role—a lead in a romantic comedy for teens. And right up until I turned seventeen, I was going from movie to tour to recording a new album . . . to leaving it all behind.
For a new chance. A new start. A new life.
To discover me. To be normal. To have a regular life and not have to live the rest of it under public scrutiny.
I stop thinking so much when he grabs my free hand and tugs me to the deck’s balcony. His palm is cool against mine and slightly rough, like he works outside. His fingers are long, tapered. He sets down my drink, and before I’m able to say anything, let alone think, his fingers are in my hair, lifting it out and fanning the long, loose waves over the leather. When he’s done, he just stays there with some strands of my hair still snaked around his wrists.
I’m so close to him that only a tiny amount of space remains between our bodies. If I take one step closer, I’d feel his heart beat and find out for myself if his chest is as firm as it looks.
I look up at him. I’m finally able to make out his strong, angular features. There’s no softness to him that I can find; a roughness permeates his whole being. He’s easily one of the most handsome men I’ve ever seen in my life, but not in the pretty boy kind of way. His inky black hair is a little on the long side and looks silky to the touch. I want to tangle my fingers in his hair.
I want to touch him.