Thirteen years old
I could still remember the very first time I laid eyes on Mason “Mace” Keller. The way my heart threatened to beat out of my chest, the goose bumps that broke out across my skin, the blood rushing to my cheeks and setting them on fire. That day, that moment, had been burned into my brain and would remain there for the rest of my life.
I’d been ten years old at the time, and everything in my little world changed the moment he stepped into it. At that age, my sense of romance was inflated thanks to the standards set by every princess movie ever made.
I firmly believed that a handsome prince would appear one day and I’d fall madly in love. I went as far as to act out elaborate wedding ceremonies with my Barbie and Ken—when I still played with dolls, of course. I wore the cheap metal ring I got out of the machine at the grocery store on my left hand like a badge of honor, even after it turned my skin green and the plastic diamond fell out of the setting. I was totally going to be Drew Barrymore in Ever After, just without the evil stepmother and all that jazz.
The second I laid eyes on Mace, I knew he was it for me. My one and only. My true love. My heart swelled, and I knew without a shadow of a doubt that I’d never feel for any other boy the way I felt for him.
Unfortunately, while I was quickly falling head over heels for the first time in my young life, the boy holding my heart in his hands looked at me as nothing more than his best friend’s annoying little sister who had a habit of embarrassing herself on a regular basis.
For three years, I harbored those feelings, my unrequited love slowly crushing me with every girl he brought around. And there were many.
My brother had been part of a garage band with three friends he’d grown up with, Garrett, Declan, and Killian. When Mace moved to our town at fifteen, it hadn’t taken long for his talent on the guitar to outshine my brother’s mediocre musical skills. Will had been happy to step back, more interested in building cars than making music. They shuffled, and Mace found his place as lead guitarist for their band, Civil Corruption. I used to sit and watch them for hours, entranced by the way his fingers plucked at the strings of his prized Gibson with incredible speed, creating the most enchanting melodies. He cherished that guitar, given to him by his grandfather, like it was the most valuable thing he’d ever have the privilege of owning.
Word eventually got out, the guys’ talent became well known, and the girls practically threw themselves at them. Of course my brother’s friends were all too happy to take advantage, bringing random chicks over to show off in our garage.
The only one I’d bothered getting to know during those years was Declan’s best-friend-turned-girlfriend, Tatum Valentine. She was kind and funny. It was obvious she was in love with Declan, and he was just as crazy about her. Despite the five-year age gap between us, she never made me feel like a pathetic little girl trailing behind them. True, I was only thirteen, and they were all set to graduate high school soon, but she’d quickly become a close friend, taking me under her wing and giving me a feeling of belonging in their little circle.
Will might have been the typical big brother at times, picking on me whenever he was in the mood and being a general pain in the butt, but he never made me feel unwanted. It was because of him and Tate that I became an official part of the Civil Corruption family. I grew to love each and every one of them in my own way, but it was always Mace who held the largest chunk of my heart. However, being a thirteen-year-old in love with a boy who was quickly becoming a man meant I’d already been dealt a fair share of heartache.
Still, I was a glutton for punishment. I couldn’t get enough, and that day as I sat on the crate that had become known as “my seat” over the past three years, I listened to them talk about their plans for after graduation, and a little piece of me died inside.
Tate sat on the taped-up box beside me that held all our Christmas decorations and bumped my shoulder with hers. “Hey,” she said, speaking loud enough to be heard over the song the guys were playing. “You’ve been quiet today. What’s the matter?”
“Nothing,” I replied with a shrug, my lie made obvious by the pouty look on my face.
“Ah, ah,” she chided, giving me another bump. “You’ve been sitting here moping for the past hour, so don’t bother lying. Tell me the truth.”
I turned and looked up at her, feeling inferior as I took her in. I adored Tate, but I couldn’t help but feel self-conscious whenever she was around. With the swell of her hips and her round behind, the way her glossy, fiery hair draped over her full breasts, she was everything I wasn’t. She was built like a woman while I was still in that awkward, boney phase between child and teenager.
“I can’t wait until I look like you,” I whined. “I can’t wait to get boobs so I don’t look like an ugly little boy anymore.”
She let out a tinkling giggle that reminded me of wind chimes. “Is that what’s got you all sour-faced today? Ly, babe, you’re beautiful just how you are. You’re thirteen. Give yourself some time. Don’t be in such a rush to grow up.”
That was easy for her to say. She was the same age as the rest of the guys, which meant that when they left in a few months, she’d be going with them. “Yeah, well you aren’t the one being left behind,” I grumbled, my melancholy growing worse and worse.
“Oh, I get it now,” she murmured knowingly.
“You’re all gonna graduate and take off, and I’ll be left here alone.”
Crap. I was going to cry. The last thing I wanted to do was cry in front of Tate and the guys. If Will or any of the others suspected how I felt about Mace, I’d most likely die of mortification. I might’ve been young, but I wasn’t stupid. I knew I didn’t stand a chance with him until I was older, so until then, I had to keep it a secret.
“We won’t be gone forever, Ly,” Tate stated sympathetically. “It’s only for six months. It’ll be over before you know it. And who knows, maybe by then you’ll have met a boy you really like and won’t even notice we’re gone.”
Not likely. There was no other boy but Mace. Not for me. And those six months they planned to be gone, touring up and down California, were probably going to be the most miserable months of my life. Tate would be gone. The guys would be gone. And Will would be working. Everyone was growing up and moving on. Everyone but me, that was.
“If you say so,” I muttered sullenly.
“I do,” she replied, trying her best to sound cheerful. “Because I’m right.”
It was then that Declan called for a break, pulling Tate and me from our conversation. She might have been convinced that everything she’d just said was true, but it hadn’t done anything to make me feel better.
* * *
Four months later
The music and laughter filtered up from the backyard through my bedroom window, driving the knife deeper into my chest. My brother had asked me to come down and join the party. Even Tate and Garrett had knocked on my door asking why I was locked in my room instead of downstairs with everyone else. I gave them all them all the same excuse—I had a headache and just wanted to sleep it off.
The truth was I couldn’t bring myself to join the celebration. To me, there was nothing to celebrate. They were leaving. My parents had grown into a second family to all the guys in the band, so my mom planned a big going away party for them and all their friends to, in her words, “send them off the fame the right way”. But I couldn’t do it. I hated having to say goodbye to all of them, but especially to Mace.
Instead, I laid in my bed, writing in my diary and doodling random, nonsensical patterns while wishing everything could be different. I didn’t hope the guys would fail on their trip. Honestly, I wanted them to succeed. I knew how hard they worked and how talented they were. I wanted them to end up rich and famous, to get everything they wanted. I just wished I was old enough to go with them.
A knock on my bedroom door startled me out of my melancholy. Lifting my head, I turned to find Mace standing in my open doorway, and my heart immediately lodged in my throat. “Uh, hi. What are you doing up here?”
“Came looking for you, Goldie.”
He’d taken to calling me that about two months ago, and the nickname never failed to create a riot of flutters in my belly.
“Oh, um….” My whole body began to tremble with nervous energy as he moved into my room and took a seat on the edge of my bed. Suddenly remembering what I’d been doing before he interrupted, I slapped my journal shut and shoved it beneath my pillow.
“How come you aren’t at the party, darlin’? We boring you?”
Was he joking? “No!” I cried, sitting up and folding my legs under me. “No, I just… I didn’t… you aren’t—”
“Relax, Ly,” he said with a chuckle, bringing his hand down to rest on my knee. The touch made my skin crackle and burn, and I couldn’t drag my eyes away from those long, callused fingers until he finally pulled them away. “I was just teasin’ you.”
“Oh.” I somehow managed a weak laugh that sounded more awkward than anything. “Well, um… you’re kinda missing your party.” I pointed out the window where the crowd sounded like it was beginning to swell.
“Yeah, but I wanted a chance to talk to you.” In the past months, Mace had started acting like another brother to me. All the guys did, really, but it was more with him. Every time they practiced in our garage, he made an effort to take time out to visit with me. We shared our own private jokes, and he was the only one who’d given me a nickname, but there wasn’t anything romantic lingering beneath the surface. It felt more like a familial bond than anything, which only made the ache in my chest hurt that much more. “I got you something, Goldie.”
“A present?” I chirped excitedly, sitting up straighter.
“Always so damn greedy,” he chuckled. And he was right. It wasn’t the first time he’d given me a present. He had a tendency to show up to hang with Will with a gift in hand for me. Sometimes it was something as small as a candy bar he got in the vending machine at the high school and kept in his backpack for me, and sometimes it was more, like the time he brought me a little pewter picture frame with flowers etched into the design. But no matter what it was, I got excited, and I loved it more than all my Christmas and birthday presents combined. I’d never let him know, but I still had every candy bar and bag of chips he’d given me stashed in my nightstand drawer, all of them unopened.
“What is it?” I asked, my voice going high-pitched as I bounced in place. “Gimme, gimme!”
Mace’s laugh grew more prominent as he reached around his back and pulled something from the waistband of his jeans. “It’s nothin’ big or anything,” he explained, handing over a crinkled plastic shopping bag. “I just saw it at the mall the other day and thought of you.”
I snatched it out of his hands and ripped the bag open. All the air whooshed from my lungs the second I reached in and pulled out the thick, gorgeous journal. The leather binding was stamped with a beautiful fleur-de-lis pattern, and a leather cord wrapped around the middle keeping it closed.
“Mace…,” I breathed, looking up at him with wide eyes.
“It’s not a big deal. I just noticed you’re always scribblin’ in a journal, so I thought you might like this one. It’s pretty big, so you shouldn’t have to replace it for a while.”
I’d been keeping a diary since I learned to write. I’d gone through countless little spiral-bound notebooks, most of which my mom would buy in packs from the drugstore. But I’d never had one this nice. I had to bite my lip to keep the tears at bay. It was the most thoughtful gift I’d ever received, and it made me fall in love with him even more.
“This is….” I couldn’t find the right words to express how much his gift meant to me. “I love it,” I whispered, hugging the journal to my chest as my eyes grew misty. “This is just….” I swallowed down the lump in my throat. “It’s just… I can’t even….” I let loose a sniffle just as a lone tear broke loose and slid down my cheek.
His face stretched into a gorgeous smile. “So I take it you like the present?”
“I l-love it,” I answered brokenly, the floodgates on my emotions bursting open. I couldn’t hold it back any longer, and the words started pouring out with barely a breath in between while tears trailed down my cheeks. “I love it so much. And it sucks that you guys are leaving. I’m so happy for you, and I want you to be super successful, but I hate that you’re leaving. I’m gonna miss you. I wish I could go, and I’m just… I’ll miss you guys. I’m excited for you, but I’m sad. I don’t want to be sad, but I am. That’s why I wasn’t down at the party.”
Mace pulled his bottom lip between his teeth and bit down, drawing my attention in that direction as he examined my face. “Ah, Goldie. Come here, darlin’.” He pulled me into a hug—our very first hug—and the subtle smell of his cologne wrapped around me, settling like a warm, comfortable blanket. I never wanted him to let me go.
“I’ll miss you too. We all will. But it’s not like you’ll never see us again. This is our home. Always will be. You’re a part of our family, sweetheart. And that’s never gonna change.”
I managed to get my tears under control, pulling in a heavy sigh as I turned to press my cheek against his chest. As I held tight to the hug all I could do was hope with all my heart that he was right.