More than want you, p.30
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       More Than Want You, p.30
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         Part #1 of More Than Words series by Shayla Black

  every time. I don’t want to be wrong about him. I don’t want to be hurt by him. I don’t want to know that the magical connection we once shared is gone for good.

  I’m not ready to face that.

  I glance around the little sports bar, relieved to see the surprisingly thick crowd just before I take the stage. I spot Griff in front. As I peek out from behind the curtain shielding the employees’ area, he waves. I wave back. He’s sitting alone. I try not to let disappointment overwhelm me.

  I guess that means Maxon either can’t forgive me for my well-intended lies to reconcile him and his brother or he got over me quickly.

  I should stop what-iffing because I can’t live in the past. It isn’t moving forward. Isn’t healthy.

  And trying to do it now is killing me.

  I don’t know what I expected from Maxon. More, I guess. But we were only together twenty-two days. Maybe it didn’t mean that much to him after all.

  I thought he was the love of my life. My soul mate. Actually, I have a feeling he still is—and always will be.

  It’s not his fault he didn’t feel the same.

  I meant well when I came into his life. Yes, I lied to him. I simply wanted to figure out how he felt about his brother and if he might have any forgiveness in his heart. When I got to know Maxon, I liked him. A lot. Of course, he was hot. And cocky. He was also different from anyone I’d ever dated. He made me laugh—usually with him, but sometimes at him. When he propositioned me about coming on to Griff, I realized it was the perfect way to achieve my end. Yes, I was insulted and annoyed at first. But then I saw the beautiful irony of his plan.

  Unfortunately, nothing turned out the way I thought it would.

  “Aloha, Lahaina. I’m Keeley Sunshine. I’m going to sing you some of my favorite songs, and since I’m a single girl who recently broke up with the man she loves, they’ll probably all be about heartache.”

  After a smattering of applause, the little band behind me starts, and I launch into one of the saddest songs I can think of in this moment, Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me.”

  The ballad’s melancholy melody fills the space between my ears and hits me right in the heart. Every word is enveloped in a grieving note and seems to tell my story. It’s a fight to sing without tears compromising my voice.

  I’m not even sure how I’ll make it through the end of the song. I try to focus on the subtle intricacies of the tune, my appreciation for the keyboard player Gus brought in to better fill the audial space of tonight’s set list—anything but Maxon Reed and his absence.

  The applause is somehow subdued and hearty at once. It preserves the moment. I’m weirdly grateful that the people in the bar seem to understand my mood.

  Right now, I have to revel in these small victories until I’m over Maxon and am able to appreciate the bigger ones again.

  “This is a song that I’ve been listening to a lot over the past week. I remember it from high school and didn’t quite understand it then. Now I completely comprehend the addiction Michelle Featherstone sang about.”

  The naked piano provides the sole melody for “Coffee and Cigarettes.” The bittersweet notes rake across my senses as I close my eyes and sink into the ballad that totally describes my mood in this moment, where I feel as if I’ve given up the vices I hoped would make my problems dissipate, but my pain hasn’t moved into yesterday, as the lyrics suggest it should.

  The second verse is a blur. I know it’s something about pouring booze down the kitchen drain. I’m not much of a drinker, much less a smoker, but I feel what she’s saying about the loss of something you love…and equating it to someone you miss more than anything, even if they’re bad for you. Often, the metaphor is more powerful than the straightforward explanation, so I’m grateful to music for helping me through this difficult spot in my life.

  But now we come to the part of the song where I can’t avoid admitting that I’m still blue, but I’ve finally figured out what I must quit.

  “You.”

  Some form of this sentiment repeats two times over, then I’m done with the song. It’s already hard to breathe, and holding my emotions back is getting so damn near impossible. Why didn’t I sing upbeat stuff? “Walking on Sunshine” or “I Got A Feelin’” or “Happy”?

  Probably because I would have cried through those, too. Despite what Maxon may think about my “deception,” I’m not a good liar. I only wanted the best for him and Griff. I try to be a good person and help others.

  I never imagined in a million years how badly it would mess me up.

  The small band begins the intro to the next song. I close my eyes and groan. Why did I ever imagine this was a good idea? Yes, I rasped out in the last song that I was going to quit him. It’s logical. But, for better or for worse, I’m a girl who thinks with her heart, and Plumb’s “I Want You Here” is a much closer representation of how I really feel.

  This is another sad tune with a simple piano melody. Is the keyboard the new plucker of heartstrings?

  I already know the song rolls and builds to a wrenching chorus. I doubt I’m going to make it out unscathed.

  When the lyrics start, I’m thankful the song isn’t really about romantic love. But too much of it echoes the sentiment in my heart, the fact that I can barely breathe because my ache is so deep. I’ve asked myself if it will ever heal.

  In truth, I’ve spent days pondering that question.

  I grip the mic desperately and try to hold on. I already know I have to change the whole next set. Everything I have planned is just sad and sadder. I’m a happy person by nature. I need to realize that this experience with Maxon was still valuable, even if we weren’t meant to be. He’s not my happily ever after, simply a lesson I needed to learn. I’m not sure what knowledge I was supposed to glean yet, but everything happens for a reason. I’ll figure it out someday.

  I just have to get through this last song, then I’ll fix everything—from my set list to my personal life—and start grieving in private.

  Then I sing that I’d waited so long for him to come into my life…and now he’s gone. I wasn’t prepared. I’m in agony. Maybe it sounds melodramatic, but I feel it.

  I’m devastated.

  Suddenly, I can’t see anything. My whole world is blurry. I feel wetness on my face. Hell, I’m crying in front of the whole audience, actually shedding real tears down my face. Music has always been therapy for me, and it’s probably good to get this out, but not in front of people who just want to be entertained.

  I suck.

  I’ll stick to karaoke in the future, only songs that make people smile. Things I can breeze through and not have to feel all this drag-down of pain that’s taken root in my soul.

  I’m almost done. The end of the song is close. I just have to get through the part that rips me up the most…

  I close my eyes and imagine Maxon in front of me as I sing how desperately I want him here, my voice a sorrowful cry.

  There’s a little bookend to the song that mirrors the beginning and wraps the whole thing up. I can’t sing it. I just can’t finish these lyrics. I have to get off this stage right now.

  “I’m sorry, folks. I’ll be back in thirty.”

  I try to run to the employees’ section of the bar. Griff is waiting for me by the back curtain with a hug. I tumble into his solace and hear deafening applause from the audience.

  “They liked it?” I choke.

  “Yeah. It was real and raw. It was you,” he assures with a smile as he drags me into a darker corner. “Even I felt it.”

  I’m grateful for the semi-privacy. Since the kitchen is right behind my escape drape, there really isn’t any way of being alone. So I stay with Griff. “You? But you never feel anything.”

  That makes him laugh a little. “I know. Right?”

  Wrong. Just the way he says it tells me he’s feeling something far more than nothing these days.

  “Where are you with Britta?” I change the subject.
>
  I’d rather talk about anyone’s problems—as long as they aren’t mine.

  His face shutters up quickly. The smile he wore becomes a grim press of lips. “She and I are going to come to an understanding. We’re not there yet, but I intend to make sure we do.”

  What Griff means is that he has some outcome in mind, that Britta isn’t cooperating, and that he’s looking for some bargaining chip to ensure that she does. She ought to know that nothing and no one can stop the Reed men once they’ve set their sights.

  On the other hand, Britta doesn’t seem like a pushover. Maybe she’ll put Griff in his place. God knows he needs it.

  “I hope you guys can work it out for the best,” I say diplomatically.

  “Me, too.” He drags me against his chest and hands me a tissue.

  “I’m sorry again that I didn’t tell you about Jamie when I first found out.” I really do feel awful about that.

  “You made the right decision. If you’d told me the night Maxon dropped the bomb on you, I would have hunted Britta down and made all sorts of demands. Maxon would have rushed to her defense. He and I would never have patched things up. Waiting another few weeks sucked…but it’s better for the long-term big picture.”

  Relief melts me. Griff wasn’t quite so understanding when we first talked about this. “Thanks for listening. I’m glad you understand.”

  “You’ve always had my back. Dry your eyes. It’s going to be all right. Hey, I think Gus booked another act to liven the place up in between your sets. Want to see?”

  “I should go to the ladies’ room and try to repair my makeup. I’m sure I’m a mess and—”

  “Three minutes,” Griff says in a tone that’s somewhere between persuasive and implacable.

  I open my mouth to argue.

  Then I hear the strains of a song I haven’t heard in exactly two weeks, since the crazy night I dragged Maxon out for karaoke.

  I tense. Freeze. Look up at Griff.

  He’s smiling, the expression between indulgent and superior. He knows what’s up.

  “This is for the beautiful woman I stupidly hurt. I could tell her that I love her but those are just words, and she deserves more.”

  My heart catches. I’d know that voice anywhere—in my sleep, a million miles from civilization, moments from death.

  Maxon Reed.

  With a gasp, I turn around and see him standing on the stage, holding the mic as the strains of the song continue to bloom in my ears.

  He’s looking right at me, his face full of apology and adoration and something I’ve never seen there before.

  Love.

  My chest heaves. I put my hands over my heart as if I’m afraid it will fall at his feet again. Fresh tears come. Is he really here for me? And is he going to sing?

  He is. He does. And his ability to carry a tune is just as terrible as it was the last time, only now he actually knows the words and he doesn’t seem to care what anyone else thinks. He’s singing his heart out—literally. And he’s looking right at me and as he vows that he needs me more than he wants me…and that he will want me—and only me—for all time.

  My knees give out. I lose my composure completely.

  Griff supports me with strong hands and guides me gently toward his brother. Maxon comes off the stage to meet me and wraps a supportive arm around me before he brushes his thumb over my cheek and wipes away my tears.

  As the song’s instrumental interlude begins, he relinquishes the mic to the stand. Who cares if anyone sings the rest? All I want is the man in front of me.

  I stare up at Maxon’s face, his green eyes caressing me with a heartfelt devotion I never thought I’d see from him.

  “I’m sorry,” he murmurs. “So sorry. What I did was wrong and thoughtless and not at all indicative of the fact that, in my heart, you’ll always come first.”

  Words fail me. I know he means that, not because he’s spoken but because he’s now shown that he’ll sacrifice everything—his career-making deal, his need to best his brother, even his substantial pride—for me.

  He loves me.

  I sob into his chest.

  He crooks a finger beneath my chin. “Hey, I’m here and I’m not going anywhere. Did you see what I’m wearing?”

  I’m still hoping all of this means that he wants me back as I send him a watery gaze. “Wearing?”

  What does that have to do with anything?

  Then he shows me the timepiece on his arm. Black band, white face with Roman numerals. Cartier. “My grandfather’s watch. I realized I never wore it because I didn’t feel like a man of honor. You changed that. You changed me.”

  I send him a teary smile of hope. I wish I could stop crying, but I’m an emotional girl.

  I also admit when I’ve done something wrong, too. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you the truth about who I was and why I was here when we met. I meant well, I swear. I knew Griff needed you in his life…and I figured you needed him, too.”

  “You’re right.” He waves my apology away. “If I had known you’d come for Griff, I wouldn’t have listened to any of the important things you had to say about changing my life and embracing love. That man didn’t deserve the truth—or you. But I’m going to spend the rest of my life being worthy of you because I love you.”

  With a kiss on my forehead, he drops to one knee and pulls a box from his pocket, then flips the lid open. It’s a simple solitaire winking at me from a thin gold band. It’s striking and beautiful and perfect. Everything inside me stops.

  He’s proposing?

  I hold my breath. “Are you serious?”

  He nods. “Marry me, sunshine. Please say yes. Nothing will ever again be more important to me than you. I promise.”

  I know some women might hold out longer, want to make him suffer and squirm. They would want to make sure he learned his lesson thoroughly. But I think he has, and that’s not how I roll. I love him. Why would I risk losing him again by saying no? If he screws up, I’ll remind him of his priorities.

  With a watery nod, I urge him to his feet. “Yes!”

  “Oh, thank fuck.” He sounds relieved.

  I laugh in joy. The audience claps and cheers uproariously. Then I cry again as he slips the ring on. It hugs my finger just right.

  “I’m glad you said yes because I have another surprise for you.” He whips out a set of keys from his pocket, along with a business card of a hammock on a beach. It reads SUNSHINE COAST BED AND BREAKFAST. The address matches the house we toured together, the one in which I pictured our happy future. It lists the proprietors as Keeley and Maxon Reed.

  I gasp as thrilled disbelief courses euphoria through my veins. “You…you bought the house?”

  “For you. When we met, you said you wanted to be happy. I’m going to make you delirious.” He grins at me. “Is it working so far?”

  “Yes.” I nod like an idiot because I can’t imagine being any happier. “This is perfect.”

  “Good. We already have our first booking eight weeks from now. It’s the beginning of our future.” He looks near tears, too. He’s holding me close, and I feel so cherished. “Tell me you love me.”

  The way he searches my eyes for my heart nearly takes me out at the knees again. I have a feeling he’ll be doing this every day.

  “I love you, Maxon Miles Reed,” I vow.

  “And I love you, Keeley Sunshine Kent.”

  I giggle. “That’s not my middle name.”

  “Whatever.” He shrugs. “It fits you. Just like you fit me. You’re my everything, sunshine.”

  It hits me in that moment that he’s mine to kiss and tease and feed every day. He’s mine to laugh with and make love to every night.

  I can’t imagine a better ending than that. A million emotions pelt me, and I wish I could tell Maxon everything I feel. I guess I could try…but I know a better way.

 
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