For Emma Matthews, she feels like all of her choices are rooted in the fear of letting down her parents… God…of never being good enough.
For Tanner James, he’s wearing an identity he has created with his friends and their pact—Bro Code—fixed in sex, alcohol and bad choices.
Both are longing for a new story they look to one another to help them write.
Follow Emma and Tanner as they rewrite stories they thought had already been written into something new. To discover sometimes painful truths about love and identity.
About the ways that love can help us lose ourselves… or find ourselves.
How love can break us… or heal us.
[…]I stood. “I’m going,” I told Griff, who had a girl sitting on his lap I didn’t know.
He smiled over her shoulder at me and presented his knuckles. The girl whispered something in his ear, and Griff laughed. She was attractive. Dark haired.
My mind drifted to Emma Matthews (which was strange since we weren’t friends). I’d seen her the day before with her friend, Liam, hanging a poster for some club or function in the hall after school, heads together about something. Under usual circumstances, I wouldn’t have noticed, but in this case, I had because I’d noticed Emma and how cute she was. I had noticed her for a while, but she was out of my league.
Emma wouldn’t be partying like this. She definitely wouldn’t be sitting in Griff’s lap, and if she were, it would piss me off, but I didn’t consider why. She was probably at home, doing something productive, like homework, or a group study session. Perhaps she was doing something fun and wholesome, like a movie with her friends. I wondered if she went to the movies. Though I wasn’t exactly sure why I wondered, because I wasn’t a big movie goer (too boring to sit in one spot for too long).
Why was I even thinking of Emma at all?
It wasn’t like we talked. Sometimes, I thought she might be looking at me in the cafeteria at school or in the hallway as we passed one another. Her pretty eyes always slid away, but they made me curious. What color were they? Was she just glancing at me, or was she looking? I used to think about her. A lot. That started in the eighth grade when she yelled at Cole Butler in science during a lab. She’d been so fiery and funny. The memory still made me smile. We hadn’t had many classes together — one or two, maybe — because she actually tried at school.
I shook my head to get my errant thoughts about Emma out of my mind. Leaving Griff and Wannabe Emma behind, I walked through the living room.
Deb stopped me with a hand on my chest. “Hey, Tanner. Want to dance?” An invitation.
The message was clear: I could have stayed there with her and gotten laid, but it made me tired. Instead I said, “I’m looking for Penelope,” and even as I said it, I was hoping she’d already left.
Deb shrugged, because that was as much as I meant to her. “Upstairs,” she told me and returned to grinding to the music with her group of friends.
I moved through the crush of people toward the stairs, even though I wasn’t sure why I was going through these motions. A different choice seemed an impossibility, though I couldn’t articulate why that was so. Josh and Danny were sitting in a group smoking weed, and they offered me a head nod as I passed. I gave them an eyebrow raise in return and started up the stairs.
Near the top, I almost tripped on someone sitting on the steps. “Whoa.” It was a girl folded over on herself, and because I’m not a complete douchebag, despite what I know has been said about me, I leaned down and asked her, “You okay?”
The girl tipped her head up to look at me, and suddenly, I was looking into the face of…
She smiled, and it lit up her eyes — dark blue with swirls of gray — like stars in a dark sky. “Tanner James.”
“Are you drunk?” I asked. I was too, but not enough to help me forget that Emma was the object of my secret fantasies, along with the fact I’d just been thinking about her. I shook my head to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. There wasn’t anything in our experiences that should have contributed to our paths crossing, and yet, there she was, as if I’d conjured her. “What are you doing here?”
“I’m feeling really good.” She smiled again, and I remembered feeling that smile in my stomach like a lead weight had melted into molten liquid.
“Why are you sitting here on the stairs?”
“You.” She giggled.
That made no sense. First, why would Emma Matthews be at this party? Second, why would she be drunk? And third, why would she say she was waiting for me? I wondered if someone was playing a joke on me and even looked around, but it was just the two of us in the hallway. I slid down the wall and sat next to her. “You’re definitely drunk if you’re waiting for me.”
“Did I say that?”
“Oh. That’s a secret.” She pressed a finger to my lips, and that touch dove all the way from the top of my neck to the base of my spine like I’d been zapped with electricity. “I’m supposed to find Liam.” Then she moved her finger from my lips to hers, her dark blue eyes — flecks of green and aqua too — never leaving my mouth. “Shh.”
My heart pounded in my chest, excited by the form her lips took against her finger. “Damn, Emma. I didn’t know you drank.”
I attempted an inconspicuous adjustment of my pants, because I started feeling that tingle in my crotch and needed to calm that shit down. I chuckled, amused, because I hadn’t caught wood from just a look and a touch since I was, like, fourteen. I decided the honorable thing to do was help her find her friend, which led to the decision to dump looking for Penelope. I hadn’t really wanted to be with Penelope outside of sex anyway, and that left me feeling dirty. “Shall we go look for Liam?”
Her eyes roved over every inch of my face. She reached up and touched my lips with her fingertips again; it was tender. “You have a nice mouth, Tanner James.”
My stomach tightened. I tried to remember that reaction. It was a hungry craving, the anticipation of the satiation of a voracious appetite, but it was also so distant. I hadn’t been aware I’d been missing it until it resurfaced inside of me.
“You want to hear a secret?” she asked and leaned closer to me, though I had the impression she thought she was whispering. “I’ve wanted to try and kiss it.”
Her admission made me smile, and my heart thumped a little more. I realized that while I’d been fantasizing about her, perhaps she’d thought about me too. Knowing that made me feel buoyant. “You have? Well, I could remedy that for you, but I’m afraid you wouldn’t remember it. I would want you to.” It was a truth. I wanted Emma to remember me.
“I would,” she said, wide-eyed, and nodded. “I promise.”
I stood up, needing the distance, because I was afraid I might kiss her. As I did, she held my arm, and I almost toppled onto her. I self-corrected and took her hand to help her up. Once upright, she stumbled against me, and I caught her waist with my hands while her other arm wrapped around my neck. My heart was now knocking against the wall of my ribs. She was so close, so pretty, so pressed against me. I looked at her mouth, heart-shaped pink. She licked her lips, and my belly buzzed. I wanted to kiss her so badly, but I chickened out, which was part of why I didn’t; it also felt wrong on some level. I could take advantage, but I didn’t want to. On the other hand, I wanted to extend my time with her, so when I said, “Come on. Let’s go look for Liam.” I took her deeper into the house instead of down the stairs, which was probably the more likely place to look. I wasn’t being altruistic.
She put her hand in mine.
I noticed how soft her skin was, and I wondered about the rest of her.
“I don’t want to find Liam,” she insisted as we walked down the hall. “I want to wait for Tanner.”
“I’m right here.” I looked over my shoulder at her.
Her eyes brightened again, the outside corners scrunching with joy. “Oh! It is you.”
“How much did you have to drink, Em?” I asked.
She held up four fingers. “Two.”
“We should get you some water. Let’s find a place for you to sit.”
I started testing doors in the hallway. Honestly, on one level, I knew what I was doing. I wanted to be alone with her, even if I didn’t want to cheapen the moment. I think I justified it to myself. I needed to find her a place to sober up. Deep down, though, it was a lingering understanding of a latent wish buried in the darkness of my fantasies attached to what she’d said: Waiting. For you. You have a nice mouth. I’ve wanted to try and kiss it.
Emma Matthews was waiting for me.
The knowledge made my heart swell even if I couldn’t believe it. Even if I didn’t — couldn’t — trust it. I wanted to keep the idea close, to remember it, to hold it tight. I knew the moment this was over, it would slip away.
“Em?” I asked as I tested another door.
She made a moaning noise to indicate she’d heard me.
“Why were you waiting for me?”
“I like Tanner. I want to be brave.”
My brain wasn’t quick enough, because it was slugging through the marsh of alcohol. I understood what she was saying, but I didn’t quite comprehend it. “You like me?”
She nodded emphatically. “I saw him.”
“What did you see?” I asked her as I tested another door.
“He helped Connor. At lunch. I saw him. I see him. Everyday. He helps Connor.”
Lunch time. Connor Festner, a kid I help with his tray. Griff gives me shit for it, but Connor is pretty badass and probably beats Griff’s butt playing Duty online. Connor’s given me tons of gaming pointers.
She had been watching me at lunch. I’d known it. My expanded heart compressed, constricted in my chest with a pressure that somehow made me feel like I might be floating off into space without oxygen.
I tested another door. This one opened. The bedroom was empty, and I took a deep breath. Relief. “Here.” I helped her sit on the bed. “Let me have your cup, and I’ll fill it with water.”
She handed me her red cup, and I took it into the bathroom. I rinsed it out and put in water. Before I walked back into the room, I glanced at myself in the mirror. I stared into my own eyes and whispered to my reflection: “It’s Emma. Don’t be a dick.”
When I returned to the room, she was curled up on the bed, eyes closed. “Here, Em.”
She turned her head, looked at me and smiled as if it was the first time she’d seen me that night. “Tanner!” She reached for me, and I had the impression she wanted me to stretch out next to her.
Don’t be a dick, I reminded myself and helped her to sit back up. “Drink some water.”
She took a sip. “Liam says I’m dumb.”
“That isn’t nice of him.” Her statement annoyed me. I sat down next to her, suddenly absolved we weren’t looking for him.
She shook her head. “No. Not like that.” She stopped and took another sip. “Because I wanted to come to find you.”
“Of everything.” She took another sip and then leaned her head against my shoulder.
I could smell her — a nice scent that was clean and slightly sweet, like vanilla or cotton candy. I resisted the impulse to press my nose into her neck to find out for sure, or to run my tongue across her skin to taste it. Instead, we sat like that for a long time — her head on my shoulder, my hands in my lap and my brain chastising me for smelling her like a freak.
The doorknob wiggled several times as people tested the door; I was smart enough to lock it. Habit. I tried to tell myself it was because I was trying to protect Emma from my reputation, but it was also the temptation to maybe just get to kiss her once. I didn’t make a move though, and that was unfamiliar — and kind of exciting — territory for me.
“Tell me what you’re afraid of,” I said eventually, ending the silence, and also because I wanted to know if she’d fallen asleep. I needed to keep my mind occupied with other things besides thoughts about kissing her. I was beginning to feel more coherent and sober.
“I told you. Everything.” Her hands flailed out, and when they settled, one landed on my thigh. My skin tingled under her touch, and heat spread like radiant light from a lightbulb to illuminate all the dark parts of me.
I swallowed and closed my eyes to focus on her words. The words. “Well, name me one thing.”
“Everyone’s afraid of that.” I looked down at her hand. Casually rested. On my thigh. Emma’s hand. Her fingernails were painted a bright green and matched her hoop earrings.
“Disappointing my parents,” she said. “Disappointing God.”
I looked at her then, the candor of her statement running through me almost as hot as her touch. It wasn’t practiced. It wasn’t her act of being flirty or a ploy to seduce me. It was just an honest statement. Maybe I couldn’t relate to either of those, even if I wanted to. My parents were so blind to me outside of the tug-of-war they played, using me against one another. And God? Never experienced that in my life, unless having an orgasm counted as prayer. “And?”
She moved her head from my shoulder and turned to look at me. “Never kissing Tanner James.”
My stomach did another of those nose dives into my body, toward my groin. The heat of her hand still warmed my leg. I noticed her eyes, fringed in thick lashes, rove over my face. They came to rest on my mouth. Under different circumstances, I probably wouldn’t have cared and would have provided what she wanted. I wanted it — bad — but I’d found some weird sense of honor I hadn’t been aware I had. “I can’t, Em. You’re drunk.” These were those different circumstances. Emma represented a different kind of life I didn’t think I deserved.
“You don’t like me.” She moved back, slumped a little, her shoulders rounding, and folded her hands in her lap. “It’s okay.”
I missed the weight of her hand on my leg. “It isn’t that.” I leaned forward to try and meet her gaze. “I do like you.”
She sat up quickly, her eyes big and bright. “I got it! I will kiss you. Then you don’t have to kiss me. I’ll do the kissing.”
This made me laugh, because I thought it was one of the cutest things I’d ever heard. And she was so excited by the prospect, as if she’d discovered something new. I couldn’t remember having more fun on a Saturday night.
“Unless, you think I’m — ugly.” Her eyebrows arched over her wide eyes, but now she couldn’t look at me.
I shook my head. “Nope, Emma. I don’t think that. At all.”
Her eyes met mine again, and she said with a slight frown, “The easiness is wearing off. We better do this fast, before I come back.”
I scrunched up my face. “What?”
“If I come back–” she tapped her head– “I’ll be too scared. My head will get in the way. My bravery will melt off.”
“Liquid courage.” I tapped her cup.
She nodded. “I made a plan. I was waiting for you.”
“I, maybe, drank a little too much. Miscalculated.”
I smiled. “And you were waiting for me. Why?”
“To kiss you.” She laid her hand on my arm.
I took a deep breath, as if her touch returned a missing piece of my soul, and I needed to breathe it in. Her admission had me unbalanced, however. My usual practiced lyrics receded from the surprise. I’ve had girls try and lure me with their sexuality, but this? This was totally new. “Why again, Em?”
“Because I saw you. You helped Connor. That’s nice, Tanner. And I think it’s sexy. And I don’t want Keven Bennett to be my only kiss.”
I glanced at her mouth, thought about her kissing Keven Bennett, and was annoyed by it. Then I looked at my hands in my lap. She saw me not because of how I looked. It was because I helped Connor that made me sexy to her. It wasn’t partying or being drunk. It wasn’t a rumor that I knew how to have sex. It wasn’t being smart at school. It was because I’d done something unselfish. “Keven Bennett, huh?”
She wrinkled her nose. “He has a lizard tongue.”
I chuckle. “That’s not good.”
She adjusted her body. “So, is it okay if I kiss you?”
“Who would you be kissing? Just for clarification.” I was testing the truth, not believing it.
“Tanner James. You.” She faced me, drawing her knees up between us, where they pressed against the outside of my thigh. “I see you. I’m not that drunk anymore.”
Her words were enough for me to nod, to give myself permission to cross the line, and indulge my curiosity. “Yes. Okay.”
“You have to turn.” She directed me with her hands on my arms, turning me toward her but with her knees between us.
I watched her working out the problem, completely satisfied in the moment, enjoying her and her cute pout. Her dark, curly hair fell around her heart-shaped face as she looked down at our legs.
“This won’t do.”
“It does seem rather awkward.”
She stood. “Stand up.” She remained steady, the alcohol wearing off, and held her hands out to me.
I took them and stood. When I looked down at her, my heartbeat quickened. The movement of her eyes caressed my face, and for the first time, I understood what it felt like to be seen — really seen. For me, Tanner. Not because of some rumor about what I could do, or because there was enough alcohol in my system to lower my inhibitions.
“Tanner?” She reached up and put her hands on my face.
“Can you bend down? Just a little bit?” She drew me closer.
I leaned forward, cataloguing all of her attributes. My heart went bat-shit crazy inside my chest. I noticed the width of her blue eyes, the fullness of her dark eyebrows, the way her bottom lip was a tiny bit fuller than the top, the way her pert nose was slightly upturned and kissed with tiny freckles that reached out across her cheeks.
I couldn’t believe she didn’t have a boyfriend. Did I want to be a boyfriend? Why was I thinking about that? I wasn’t boyfriend material.
Her gaze flicked to my lips — her tongue darted out to wet her own — then her eyes slipped up to my eyes before sliding shut as she pressed her lips to mine.
It was a gentle kiss, soft. Her mouth was warm and pliable against mine. My heart tripped into a more intense speed. Then her lips parted, and she used her tongue to coax me to be an active participant. As much as I tried to not be a dick, that was the last straw of my self-control. I answered the tease of her tongue with my own. Suddenly, where the kiss started as one-sided and tentative, it exploded, because my whole body was an exposed nerve ending. Every sensation — her hands in my hair, her mouth, her tongue, the whisper of her clothing when she moved, the soft noise she emitted because I became involved —was enough to light me on fire.
I’d dreamed of Emma.
I lifted her.
She wrapped her legs around my waist and hugged me closer with her arms around my neck.
Our tongues moved together, and it all felt like a first time. It was. With her. Exciting. Novel.
She moaned into my mouth.
I stumbled forward until her back was pressed against the wall and then my hands wandered, molded, massaged. I forgot myself. Just let go […]
With four books now published, she’s looking forward to her fifth release October 13, 2020, a YA Contemporary Romance called The Stories Stars Tell.