An all-new powerful love story is out this week from author Tara Leigh, and I have a sneak peek for you.
As I grab for my science notes, the pages I’d ripped from a magazine while I was at the dentist’s office last week fall to the ground.
Before I can tuck them back inside my bag, Gavin glances over my shoulder. “Class project?”
“Not exactly.” I feel a flush creeping up my cheeks, as if he’s caught me with my sister’s tattered copy of Fifty Shades of Grey instead of a double page spread from an interior design magazine. “I thought they looked a little like us, actually.”
It’s become a habit of mine, ripping out pages from magazines and squirreling them away in a drawer at home. Photos of people and places and clothes. A woman ice skating in the snow. A pair of black slingback stilettos with red soles. The setting sun melting into a placid lake, turning the water into a violet cauldron. Sometimes, I spread them out on my bed, trying to find some thread of connection, a common similarity. The ones I like best, I pin to a bulletin board on my wall.
Gavin frowns at the couple embracing beneath a chandelier dripping with crystal beads and pendants. “If you say so.”
I run my finger over the glossy photographs taken in the couple’s newly renovated apartment and sigh. So many glamorous, elegant things in one place—furniture, artwork, high ceilings and thick, carved molding. Especially the couple themselves, who are dressed as if they’re going to a ball, he in a fitted black tuxedo and she in a strapless evening gown glimmering from thousands of tiny sequins and seed pearls threaded through the lush fabric.
The only consistency I’ve found is not in the captured subjects themselves, but the response they evoke in me. Awe. Maybe a little envy. A desire to see what’s on the page with my own eyes. Feel it, touch it, experience it.
Obviously sensing I’m more interested than I’m letting on, Gavin sets aside his own homework and reaches for the pages. His lips move silently as he skims the article. When he’s finished, his gaze lifts to mine. “What is it you liked so much about this apartment, these people?” Gavin’s expression is earnest, and he asks the question as if he really wants to know the answer, as if it’s important to him. Because I’m important to him.
When I’m with Gavin, there’s just the two of us. No one else is vying for his attention. He makes me feel like I’m the only girl in the world. But beyond our wooded sanctuary, in my high school, in Sackett, I’m nobody.
Moving back and forth between these two worlds—somebody to nobody, nobody to somebody—just amplifies the best and worst of them both.
Lately, I’ve wondered if my mom ever experienced this kind of elation. If she’d ever felt the way Gavin makes me feel.
Because if she had, and then been forced to live without the one person who makes her feel happy and welcomed and interesting… Well, maybe then I’d understand her need to dull the sharp edge of loss with a bottle of wine every night.
Even thinking about living without Gavin makes pressure build up inside my chest, constricting my airway and blood vessels. To distract myself from the sudden rush of fear clawing at my neck, I return my attention on the pages in Gavin’s hands.
Unlike Gavin’s dream of becoming an FBI agent, I don’t know exactly what I want to do. But I do know who I want to be.
Someone who is invited to glamorous parties.
Someone who fills her home with beautiful things.
Someone who drinks coffee—not wine—out of an unchipped mug.
Someone who builds a life with a man who loves her. A man who will never abandon her.
I hesitate, trying to put my feelings into words. “It’s more than just the apartment. Look at the expressions on their faces. Look at how he’s holding her, as if he’ll never let her go. And the way she has one of her hands on his chest, right over his heart. They just,” I pause for a moment, sighing at the photograph. “They look so… perfect. Meant to be, you know. Like nothing bad has ever happened to them. Like nothing bad ever will.”
He frowns. “Bad things happen to everyone.”
“Not everyone.” I shake my head stiffly, the movement conveying my absolute certainty. “Some people were born to live charmed lives. I mean, do you think that couple would ever have their kids taken away from them, or voluntarily give them up?”
Gavin considers what I’ve said for a minute, then shrugs. “That’s the thing about pictures. They capture one moment in time, and only what’s within the frame. That couple—in that moment, in that picture—they may look like they lead perfect lives. But it’s just an image. It’s what they want us to see. We have no idea what really happened before the photographer got there or after he left.”
I blink back the unexpected sting of tears. There are times, like now, when the worry I’ll never escape the cycle of my past—abandonment and fear and a constant yearning for things I’ll never have, a life I’ll never lead—weighs on me like a boulder, the pressure slowly crushing me.
I need to believe that not all images are illusions. Some are true snapshots of the kind of life I can have—if I want it badly enough, if I work hard enough. One day.
“Well, you might not believe in them,” I say, looking back down at the couple in the photograph, “but I do.”
Gavin sets the torn pages aside and gently sweeps a lock of hair behind my ear. “I believe in you, Poppy. And I believe in us, too. We all have… stuff we keep hidden from view. If you didn’t have yours and I didn’t have mine—maybe we wouldn’t be here, together. But you do, and I do, and we are.”
Gavin’s arm encircles my waist as he positions my palm over his chest, just like the couple in the picture. “You are strong, Poppy. Stronger than you think you are.” The steady thrum of his heart is both reassuring and terrifying.
A heart can ache. A heart can break. A heart can harden.
A heart can stop beating, stop loving.
In an instant.
“I don’t feel strong,” I admit in a choked rasp, doubt crashing over me. What if my mom once had the same dreams as I do right now? What if I’m just a bad breakup away from a life of alcohol and addiction?
Gavin presses a kiss to my forehead. “You are,” he assures me. “It’s what I love most about you. Well, besides your laugh. And your smile that shines from your entire face, not just your mouth. I love that you don’t just walk through the woods, you’re always looking around, noticing birds’ nests and blooming flowers and trees with the perfect amount of shade.”
My breath catches in the back of my throat as I study Gavin’s face, wanting so badly to believe what he’s saying. “You love me?”