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Lover's Alibi (Ryan Tedder/OneRepublic FanFiction)

Chapter Text

“How’s it goin’, Jeff?” Tara walked up to the register of her favorite coffee shop.

“Not too bad. It's been a slow day. So the usual? A tall Vanilla Latte?” Jeff, the 5’7, slim and short bleach blond hair barista smiled.

“It’s not always the usual. I’ve ordered other drinks before... not as much but I have.” Tara returned the smile. “But yes, a Tall Vanilla Latte, please.”

Java Lounge was Tara's favorite underground coffee shop. It was an average looking place on the peaceful side of town where nothing interesting ever happened. It was well lit but not so bright with modern art decorated on the bright lavender walls. It wasn’t one of those big company coffee shops, just a family owned, underground, kind of coffee shop, where they knew their loyal customers names. They didn’t get as much business but their friendliness and willingness to go up and beyond to make their customers satisfied and welcomed always brought back their business. Tara was one of those loyal customers.

“So when’s the wedding?” Jeff wanted to know if Shane, Tara’s fiancé had finally set the date for their wedding.

“I don’t know. Shane kind of seems to be avoiding it.” She answered.

“Why would he avoid it? He asked you to marry him. You’d figure he’d want to help set the date.”

“I know but I’m just gonna give him some time. He’s been working overtime for the past month. He comes home exhausted. So how’s Stephan?” Tara was curious to know how Stephan, Jeff’s boyfriend was doing.

“He’s great, just waiting for him to put a ring on this little finger.” Jeff popped out his left ring finger as he handed Tara her drink.

“Don’t worry, you guys will get there soon enough.” She grabbed her drink out of his pale but always moisturized hand.

“Oh he better.” He winked.

“I’ll see ya later.” Tara chuckled. She absolutely adored Jeff’s attitude. He always made her smile, even if it was just a simple, small conversation like they just had. They have become great friends over the two years Tara had been going to Java Lounge. She was the only person Jeff would truly open up too, he was never judged by her and he never judged her. She was the sister he never had.

“Later girl.” Jeff walked over to the register to help another customer.

Tara took a step backwards and quickly turned around, accidentally crashing hard into a man who also had a drink in his hand, making the liquid explode out of their cups and onto their clothes and floor.

“Oh crap! I’m so sorry!” Tara apologized, overfilled with utter embarrassment.

“Oh man, that’s… that’s real refreshing.” The 5’9 stranger with coffee stained on his white shirt responded.

“I’m such an idiot, I am so sorry. Please, let me help you clean that off.” Tara looked around for some napkins but her mind was spinning out of control that she never noticed the napkins on the counter behind her.

“It’s okay; it’s no big deal, accidents happen.” The man looked into Tara’s eyes, understanding that it was an honest accident. He didn’t want to make her feel worse than she already seemed to be.

“No, no, no. I insist, let me help.” Tara’s fingers gripped over the strangers left wrist and dragged him into the restroom. She closed the door behind him, grabbed a few paper towels then started rubbing it on the brown wet spot of his shirt.

“Ok, um, this is so not going to work but the honest thing to do is pay for your dry cleaning.” She noticed that drying it off with a brown paper towel would never do the trick and was wondering to herself why she thought it would even work in the first place. Yet she was still lightly rubbing the paper over his chest, but at this point, where her mind was at, she didn’t have control of her hands.

“Don’t worry about it, it’s totally fine.” He assured her.

“Oh my gosh.” It finally dawned on her. “Did I just drag a stranger by his will into the restroom?”

The man chuckled; amused with the strange woman whose hands were still on his chest.

Her face slightly turned pink. “I am so embarrassed.”

“It’s really no problem at all.” The man stared down at her hands.

Tara gulped and removed her hands from his chest, now realizing that her hands were resting on his chest. “Now I’m even more embarrassed.”

“Well if we knew each other’s names it will probably be less awkward and embarrassing.” He tried to lighten her mood. “I’m Ryan.” He held his right hand out for a handshake.

Tara smirked, knowing that it was still going to be awkward and embarrassing but went along with it and shook his hand. “Tara.”

With that handshake, Tara was stuck with volts of anxiety as his hand firmly gripped hers. His grip was strong, yet gentle for her delicate hand.

With Ryan's hand still firmly gripped onto hers he had to ask. “Tara, may I tell you something that might make this situation less or even more awkward?”

“Umm… sure.” She hesitated.

“You have a beautiful name.”

“Thank you.”

Ryan saw the embarrassment in her eyes but he couldn’t help but smile, he was captivated by her beauty. Her layered wavy dark brown hair that ended in the middle of her back, her deep sugar brown eyes, the curves of her body that were beautifully complimented with her dark blue skinny mid rise jeans and a grey stylish Chiffon Splicing V-neck T-shirt that showed the very start of her breasts but stood hidden behind the shirt, keeping it clean for the public’s eye and leaving it to the viewers imagination. She’s a beautiful woman and he wanted to flip the pages in her book to know more about her.

“Whoa.” An elderly gentleman had opened the door to the restroom and quickly closed the door as he saw Tara and Ryan standing in the middle of the restroom. Ryan quickly released Tara’s hand and his smile grew as Tara cleared her throat, not knowing what else to do.

“I should get out of here, let you clean up.”

“Uh, yeah. Okay.” Tara pursed her lips.

Ryan’s right foot was about to take a step forward but he stopped himself to tell her one last thing. “By the way… I don’t think you’re an idiot.”

Tara stared at the floor, not able to make eye contact. “Thanks.”

Ryan quickly eyed balled her up and down then walked out of the restroom. Tara locked the door behind him and took in a huge breath and exhaled deeply, trying to take in what just happened. She grabbed a few paper towels damped them and tried to clean off the spilt drink on her shirt then dried it up as much as she could with a few dry ones. She washed her hands then looked into the mirror.

There was something about this man. The way his blue eyes made contact with hers, lingering, not once did he looked away from her as they talked, the long two inches of dirty blonde hair that was stroked back and tamed with just a little mess in the front with the sides of his head clean shaven, the hair style she loved on a man, the faux hawk. Or maybe it was the way he was dressed, with a white shirt with two out of four buttons unbuttoned, faded black, slim jeans with what seemed to be a small tattoo on his left wrist written in Japanese but was hidden behind a half inch black bracelet that looked handmade or that orgasmic scent that ran through her nostrils or maybe, just maybe it was the genuine smile he flashed at her that showed his pearly whites.

What am I doing? She snapped out of her thoughts. I’m engaged, I shouldn’t be thinking like this about another man. She walked out of the restroom, praying the mysterious man had taken off.

“Vanilla latte, right?” Ryan held out the drink in his hand, surprising Tara.

“I can’t let you pay for that.” Tara pulled out her wallet from her back pocket and plucked out a ten dollar bill.

“No, it’s alright. It’s on me.” Ryan insisted.

“No, I wouldn’t feel right. I already messed up your shirt. The least I can do is pay for that and your drink.”

“If you really want to make up for it, how about you accompany me?” Ryan suggested as he hand motioned her over to the corner booth where his new drink was waiting for him. “That is unless you have somewhere else to be?”

“I uh.” Tara wanted to make up a quick excuse to leave the man hanging but staring into his hypnotic eyes made it difficult to reject him. “Okay.” Ryan smiled as they both sat down across from each other.

Jeff looked over at the table and quickly knew what Ryan’s intentions were. He stared at them talking for a while and hoped that Tara wouldn’t do anything she’d regret. He knew that Tara and Shane had some issues and he was afraid that it would eventually drive her into the arms of another man.

“So you’re a kindergarten teacher. How do you like being the molder of young minds?” Ryan was intrigued with everything she had to say so far.

“The pay isn’t the best but to be able to mold children’s minds and to see how innocent they are compared to us adults, it’s rewarding in its own ways.

“What school?” Ryan followed up.

“Charming Elementary.”

“No way, my niece Celeste starts there tomorrow. How many kindergarten teachers are there?”

“Just two. So she’s going to be in kindergarten?”

“Yeah, small world huh? She might end up with you.”

“Awesome, guess we will find out tomorrow.” Tara smiled. “So what do you do?”

“Well I actually work two jobs. I’m a shop assistant at Pottery Barn and a waiter at Chez Loma.”

“Oh that fancy restaurant that opened a few months ago?”

“That’s the one.”

“I’ve always wanted to go there. What kind of food do they serve?”

“It’s French cuisine. Anything French they have except French toast.” Ryan caught himself at a bad joke all too late and hoped she wouldn’t find it foolish.

“And French Fries, right?” She giggled.

“Right.” Ryan smiled, relaxed that she giggled at his bad joke. “I’m trying to get into the music industry, so two jobs help pay the bills and the rest is savings to get me settled in once I move to L.A.

“Oh, so you sing?” Tara started finding herself in awe with the man. “Solo or band?”

“Band. We play at some local bars for now and a few coffee shops, read some poetry at a couple of poetry reading slams, places like that.”

“Wow, well I’d love to see you play.”

“Yeah, totally. I’m playing down at Romeo’s this Friday at 8. You should stop by.”

“Sure. I’ll check you out.”

Ryan smirked at her remark.

“I mean the band…check out the band.” Tara turned red in the face.

“You two enjoying your drinks?” Jeff walked over to their table and butted into their conversation.

“Yes we are.” Ryan smiled, his eyes never leaving Tara’s.

“We’re good.” Tara looked up to Jeff, realizing why he butted in.

“Great, tell Shane I said hello.” Jeff raised his left eyebrow at Tara and walked away conspicuously.

Tara looked down and realized how it was all starting to look.

“Shane? Your boyfriend?” Ryan quickly caught on.

“Fiancé.” Tara confessed.

Ryan glanced at her left hand and noticed no ring on her finger and Tara saw where his eyes shifted to. “I took my engagement ring in for a smaller band. That’s why I’m not wearing it.”

Ryan felt like a complete idiot, embarrassed that he was almost about to ask her out. Tara noticed the change of look he took on. “I uh, think I should apologize. I think maybe I gave off the wrong impression that…”

“There’s nothing to apologize for. Two adults can’t talk without it meaning anything more than a friendship?” Ryan capitalized.

“Yeah, I guess you’re right.” Tara thought about it.

“So, should I be expecting your appearance on Friday?” Ryan stood up.

“I don’t see why not.” Tara stood up as well.

“Great. So uh, see you Friday.” Ryan put out his hand for a friendly handshake goodbye.

“Okay.” Tara shook his hand with a warm smile.

-Later That Night-

-Shane’s POV-

“You’re over 18, right?” Shane instant messaged a woman online. He found her on a dating site that he signed up for three months ago, the day he asked Tara to marry her but never had the time to browse local women until now.

“Yeah, 19. Too young for ya? Because I don’t mind the age difference. You seem like a mature man and I’m really tired of all the lame games boys play.” The blonde, petite, big breasted girl responded.

“I definitely don’t mind, sweetheart.”

“So why are you on this site anyways? I browsed through your profile and you seem like a genuine, nice and very hot guy ;)?” The girl quickly instant messaged Shane back.

“Just wanted to try it out and see where it takes me. It doesn’t hurt to see who’s out there, am I right?”

“Exactly. :) We should meet up; grab a bite to eat or something.”

Shane heard the front door open and quickly jolted up. He clicked on the red X button on internet explorer, the internet browser that he knew Tara wouldn’t use since she uses Google Chrome, shut the laptop and paced downstairs.

“Hey baby.” Shane went in for a hug.

“Hey, how was work?” Tara returned the hug.

“Uneventful. Wanna grab a bite to eat?”

“Um, you know what? I think I’m just gonna eat something here. I just want to take a long shower and read a book or something.” Tara rubbed the back of her neck.

“You sure?”

“Yeah, I’m sure. I just need to relax.” Tara slowly walked up the stairs, feeling guilty for having Ryan on her mind. She just barely met the guy, so why was she overtaken by him? She just wanted to read a book, catch up on writing her short stories that she keeps to herself and hopefully the thought of Ryan would diminish.

Shane stood there watching his fiancé walk away and couldn’t help but wonder if making their relationship official by getting married was a good idea. He loved her but he was starting to have a little inch of doubt. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to give up the excitement of having other women.

Chapter Text

Tara sat at her desk, waiting for all the parents to bring in their children to start off he new school year. As she pulled out the folder to check the names of her assigned students, two people entered the open door. Tara's heart skipped a beat as a small smile became visible on her face.

"Hey, it really is a small world." Ryan walked in behind his niece, Celeste.

"It really is." Tara stood up and made her way towards them.

"Celeste, this lovely lady is going to be your teacher." Ryan looked down to Celeste, who seemed to be a bit timid to talk for herself. "She's a little shy, but don't worry. Once she opens up, she's a chatterbox."

"Hi." Tara bent down to her level. "I'm Miss Figueroa."

"Hi." Celeste breathed out, looking down at her the carpeted floor.

"Don't worry. You're not the only one who gets shy." Tara assured her.

Celeste gave her a tiny shy smile and Tara stood back up to face Ryan. "So her parents couldn't make it?"

"You'd rather talk to her parents instead of me? Sorry for my presence." Ryan joked, flashing his killer grin.

"As much as I'm glad to see you again," Tara lightly chuckled. "I like to check out the parents and see who they are. It actually helps me develop a better connection with my students."

"Understandable, but they're pretty busy most of the time. I fill in for everything her parents can't make it to. Plus, I kind of wanted to see if you were going to be her teacher." Ryan admitted.

"Well, now you know." Tara quickly eyed him up and down when he looked down at Celeste, then went back to her desk. She didn't mean to make it obvious that she was checking him out, but she caught herself too late to do anything about it. He looked even more amazing than the last time she saw him.

Celeste decided to take a seat and started rummaging through her backpack as Ryan followed behind Tara. Tara turned back around after grabbing her folder from her desk and was slightly startled, not expecting him to follow right behind her, but played it off cool.

"You gotta watch it; I was almost going to bump into you again." Tara cleared her throat.

"Well, it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world." Ryan confidently stared into her eyes with a smile that took her breath away.

"Um, well, since you're here..." Tara flipped through a thick packet of papers inside the folder as she took in a breath and exhaled slowly, hoping that he couldn't hear her heart beating out of her chest. "I'm going to give you these now instead of sending them home with Celeste." She pulled out the stapled school syllabus and handed them to Ryan. "There's an emergency card that her parents need to fill out, a itinerary of what she will be learning, what the school lunches are going to be, plus a few school events listed that the parents and anyone else can attend."

"Cool." Ryan flipped through the packet. "So should I still be expecting you on Friday?" He stopped flipping through the packet and gazed into her eyes, exuding the aura of rockstar cool and boy next door charm.

Ryan's eyes stunned Tara for a quick moment and the tingling in her checks assured her that she was on the verge of blushing and his intoxicating cologne that she was breathing in was not helping the cause. He's just a random guy I dragged into a restroom once and invited me to see his band, nothing more. She kept repeating in the back of her mind. "Yeah, wouldn't miss it."

"Awesome. I should be taking off now." Ryan looked down at his wrist watch, checking how much time he had left. "Gotta be at work in less than a half hour, but I'll see you Friday."

"I'll be there." Tara shyly smiled.

"I'll see you later, Celeste." Ryan bent down to her level for a hug.

"Are you going to pick me up after school, Ryan?" Celeste asked as she wrapped her little arms around him to return the hug.

"I don't know, sweetie. If your dad doesn't get out of work on time, I'll be here to pick you up."

"Okay. I love you, Teddy."

"I love you, too." Ryan warmly smiled, then got back up and headed towards the door. As he took a step outside, he turned back around, smiling at Tara. "Have a good day."

"You too." She responded.

I'm getting married, I'm getting married, I'm getting married. Tara kept reminding herself that Ryan is off limits. It's just a tiny crush on a very attractive stranger.

-Later That Night-

That night Tara paid a visit to her best friend's apartment. She didn't have a wide range of friends and neither did Lilah, so they would hang out whenever their schedules permitted.

"What are you doing Friday night?" Tara blurted out when Lilah opened the door.

"I have a hot date." Lilah cockily smirked.

"Really?" Tara walked in.

"Very hot…like in Hot Pockets." Lilah's smirk disappeared.

"So you're staying home and watching Netflix while eating a Hot Pocket?" Tara caught on to what she really meant.

"You don't need to say it out loud. Makes me sound pathetic."

"You're not pathetic." Tara hugged Lilah for comfort. "How would you like to go with me to Romeo's on Friday?"

"What's going on there?" Lilah crashed down on her couch again, laying her head back.

"There's this band I heard about and I wanted to check them out." Tara sat down next to Lilah.

"Sure, I've never been there and it definitely beats hanging out at home with a Hot Pocket and a bottle of Pino. How'd you hear about the band? What are they called? Are they hot?! I'm already excited to go!"

Tara sat there quietly and realized that Ryan never told her the name of his band. "I don't know the name of the band but the lead singer invited me to check it out." Tara's left index and middle finger rubbed the outer edge of her left eyebrow.

"Is there something you're leaving out?" Lilah observed her movements, which were met with a quizzical glance.

"Why are you asking?"

"You touch the end of your left eyebrow if you're lying or 'forget' to mention something." Lilah knew Tara's actions and behavior like the back of her hand and why wouldn't she? After all, they've been best friends since grade school.

"No, I don't." Tara swung her hand down to her lap. "Well... I kinda bumped into him at Java Lounge and ended up dropping our drinks all over our shirts, so I dragged him into the restroom to clean it up, but then it got awkward. He tried to make me feel better, so we ended up talking and he told me he was in a band, that I should check it out. I said okay and I also found out that his niece is one my students today when they walked into my classroom and he wanted to know if I was expected to be there Friday. I said yes but I really don't want to go alone." Tara confessed in one long breath.

"What's his name?"

"Ryan."

"Some story." Lilah chuckled. "You know I'll go with you. I really need to get out of this apartment. Is he cute?"

"I don't know." Tara lied. "I guess." Tara was about to raise her left hand again to rub the outer edge of her left eyebrow, but stopped herself.

"Tara." Lilah pushed for a confession.

"Yes, okay. He's an attractive man. What else do you want me to say?" Tara shrugged defensively.

"Well, I hope the band is ready for a little bit of this." Lilah winked and flicked her wrist down at her hourglass body.

"Anyways, why don't you want to go with Shane? You said you guys don't spend much time together anymore. I figured you'd want to take him."

"No, you know how Shane is. Every time we go to places like that, his jealousy is too easily ignited. Plus, he's not into bands and he's been working overtime lately. He's hardly home and when he's not working, he wants to hang with his boys." Tara explained.

"Seems like he wants to hang with the boys more than you." Lilah confessed.

"Yeah… I know." Tara sat there, silently thinking to herself.

-12:42 a.m.-

Tara woke up from her sleep as she heard someone walking through the house. "Shane?" She called out. She waited a few seconds for a response but never got one. As she rolled out of bed, Shane walked into their room. "Shoot, you scared me. Are you barely coming home?" Tara turned on the lamp by their bed.

"Yeah, I know I said I'd be home earlier, but the guys and I lost track of time." Shane tossed down his wallet, phone and keys.

"Oh, okay." Tara studied his movements.

"I'm gonna hop in the shower. Travis spilt some beer on me earlier."

"Yeah, okay. Can I have a kiss?" Tara politely asked.

"Not now. Just go back to bed. I'll try not to make any noise." Shane quickly took off his shirt, exposing his rock hard abs and strong biceps before locking himself in the restroom.

Tara laid in bed with a million thoughts clouding her trust in him. She was starting to feel suspicious, but didn't have the evidence to back up her feelings. Every excuse he threw her way was always covered with a valid alibi every time she attempted to dig further. Shane walked out of the restroom after his shower and looked over to Tara, who was wide awake.

"Shane? What were you doing tonight?" Tara sat up, the thin white sheet over her legs.

"Hangin' with the guys, baby. What do you think I was doing?"

She hesitated. "Nothing..."

Shane knew she was having doubts about his whereabouts and didn't want her to start getting doubtful of his actions. He crawled into bed and finally gave her a tender kiss on the lips, sitting next to her. "I went to the bar with Travis and David, had a few beers, almost got into a bar fight because of Travis's big mouth, and then I came home. That's the truth, baby."

Tara looked into his brown eyes, running her left hand through his short, wet, dark brown hair and decided to blow off her uncertainty. "Okay."

Shane looked into her eyes, knowing there was still a hint of disbelief in her, so he pulled out the big gun. He knew that if he set the date for their wedding right now, it would get her off his back and focus more on their wedding.

"May."

"May what?" Tara questioned.

"Our wedding month. How does May sound to you?"

"Are you serious?" Tara started to smile, excited that he finally brought it up.

"Yeah." Shane returned the smile as he pushed back a strand of hair that was over her eyelash. He wanted to pick a date that was close enough for Tara to get excited about but far enough to give him some breathing time and think about his future with her.

"That's perfect."

"How about we go out for dinner Friday night?" Shane insisted. He needed to spend more time with her so she wouldn't keep getting dubious.

"Um, Lilah and I already made plans."

"Okay, we'll go out to dinner another night then. What are you two going to do?"

"We're going to see a local band, then probably just head over to her place and watch a movie."

"Sounds fun. Just don't get too crazy." Shane smirked. Tara is the most faithful woman he's ever met, and he knew she was a woman he would never have to worry about doing anything behind his back. It was the second reason why he wanted to tie her down. The first reason was because of her beauty.

"We won't."

Shane laid down on his back as Tara laid her head on his chest and wrapped her leg around his. Her mind quickly went from the wedding to Ryan. She wondered how soft his hair would feel if she ran her fingers through it and how bad she wanted to smell his cologne again as she dozed off to sleep.

-Friday Night- 8:07 P.M.-

Tara and Lilah decided to take a taxi cab to Romeo's since they wanted to have a couple of drinks. It was their first time stepping foot into the club and they were amazed by how roomy and down to earth it was. The lighting was dim all around except for the bar area, which was neon blue, making all the variety types of liquor bottles and glasses on the shelves shine and everything that was white would glow like at a rave. Since there was a college nearby, there were a lot of students sitting in groups at the booths and tables, along with a lot of single men and women at the bar area.

"So, where is this mystery guy? You said he was playing at eight." Lilah spoke over the rock music playing as they both made their way to the bar, taking a seat on the barstools.

"I don't know. You know how bands are, they're always fashionably late." Tara looked out to the small stage across the room.

"Fireball, please. Two shots." Lilah called out to the bartender.

"Oh no, I don't do shots anymore. You know that." Tara refused.

"Come on, it's just a Fireball. It's not even that strong. Just oooone little shot." Lilah tried convincing her, she never liked taking shots alone.

"I don't know." Tara thought.

"Aw, come on, it's Friday night. You don't have to wake up early for school." Lilah persuasively nudged her shoulder.

"Fine, just one."

"Ready?" Lilah looked to Tara and picked up her shot glass after The Fireball was poured.

"Better night as any I guess." Tara grabbed her shot and downed it simultaneously with Lilah.

"What are you gals drinking?" A man snuck up behind Tara, almost making her choke on her shot.

Tara and Lilah slammed down their shot glasses, turning to look at the man.

"Ryan." Tara smiled as she swung the barstool with her feet to face him.

"I'm glad you could make it." Ryan's body was facing Tara as he shifted his weight onto his right side, resting his right arm on the bar table.

"I told you I would. Oh, this is my friend Lilah." Tara introduced.

"Ryan. Nice to meet you."He put out his hand for a shake.

"Nice to meet you, too." Lilah got off her stool and stood beside Tara, smiling with pleasure as she shook his hand but noticed he was more interested in chatting with Tara just by his body language and the way he kept glancing over at her.

"Stick around; I'll buy you gals a drink afterwards." Ryan's right hand lightly squeezed the top of Tara's left hand that rested on the bar table before disappearing into the crowd.

Tara gently bit her bottom lip, fixated on Ryan's soft touch and forgetting that Lilah was staring right at her. He left behind his intoxicating scent that was still running through her nose and couldn't help herself from thinking about how good he looked in his black V-neck shirt with black skinny jeans and his hair combed back.

Lilah knew there was something up with Tara and Ryan but needed a little more proof to confront her about it, so she sat back down and started analyzing her every reaction.

Ryan and four other men followed a husky man with a three inch beard up to the stage and with their presence, the rock music playing throughout the place seized. "Ladies and gentlemen, let's welcome back Romeo's favorite band! Give it up for OneRepublic!"

Chapter Text

The husky man handed the microphone over to Ryan and walked off stage. The natural room lighting turned to red and blue, shining over all five men as they got into their spots. Ryan grabbed his guitar, with the three other men following his lead. The last guy sat on the chair facing his drum set and reached out for his drum sticks, with the music beginning to sound through their instruments.

 

“This town is colder now, I think it’s sick of us
It’s time to make our move, I’m shakin’ off the rust
I’ve got my heart set on anywhere but here
I’m staring down myself, counting up the years
Steady hands just take the wheel
Every glance is killing me
Time to make one last appeal
For the life I lead

Stop and Stare
I think I’m moving but I go nowhere
Yeah, I know that everyone gets scared
But I’ve become what I can’t be, oh
Stop and stare
You start to wonder why you’re here not there
And you’d give anything to get what’s fair
But fair ain’t what you really need
Oh, can you see what I see?

They’re tryin’ to come back, all my senses push
Untie the weight bags, I never thought I could
Steady feet, don’t fail me now
I’ma run till you can’t walk
Something pulls my focus out
And I’m standing down”

 

Tara’s eyes were super glued to Ryan the entire song. He was a natural and she knew his performance was one of a rising star. The way the red and blue lights illuminated over him, his soothing voice echoing through the speakers, it was simply breathtaking. Ryan took his share of glances at Tara throughout the song and she could’ve sworn she saw him slightly smile every time their eyes met. Lilah was amazed with how good they actually were but kept an eye on Tara, noticing admiration with a hint of lust in her eyes as they watched Ryan unfold his musical talent.

Ryan wound up singing three more songs after his first and all the while, Tara shut out every sound around her except for Ryan, not realizing that during the last song, Lilah got chatty with a random man who came up to the bar for a drink. The crowd cheered as they walked off stage and a few women that gathered in a group tried to get their attention, and that’s when Tara turned her seat around and faced the bar. She didn’t want to see the women ogle Ryan, so she sat there, trying to decide what her next drink would be since Lilah was in deep conversation with a tall and fit blond.

“So what’d you think?” Ryan once again snuck up on Tara.

She didn’t expect for him to talk to her right away after the performance, she thought he’d be talking to the aspiring groupies who craved the band's attention, or at least talk to his band members for a while before he came back to her. “You guy are pretty amazing.” She turned her stool with her feet to face him.

“Hey, Tara?” Lilah finally returned. “I’m gonna head out.”

“Seriously? You barely know that man?” Tara spoke up.

“Not necessarily. We took a class together in college. I’ve always wanted to hook up with him but he was taken at the time. I know you said you didn’t want to come alone, but I’ve been on a dry spell and I really need this night to go off with a bang.” Lilah felt bad leaving Tara behind, except her impure thoughts were clouding her good judgment.

“Just be careful and call me if you need anything.” Tara sighed.

“I’ll text you when I get to his place. Call me if you need anything, too. It was nice meeting you, Ryan.” Lilah glanced over to Ryan, hugging her friend before walking away with the tall man. A girl could never be too careful, so Lilah and Tara were never without a protection plan. Since Lilah always had her share of one night stands with complete strangers, they would activate the GPS on their phone and always text each other, the app on their phone sharing their exact location so if anything ever happened, they knew where to find each other.

“Well.” Tara turned back to Ryan. “I should probably be taking off now.”

“So early? Let me buy you a drink. I wanted you to meet my friends.”

“I don’t know.” Tara wasn't sure if she could meet his friends all alone. She was a shy girl, and being left alone with a group of guys made her anxiety shoot through the roof. “Can you buy me a Margarita?”

“Margarita, please.” Ryan waved to the bartender.

“So I’m drinking alone?” Tara questioned, raising an eyebrow.

“I hate to leave you hangin’ like that, but I gotta take my not so sober friends home.” Ryan grabbed the Margarita once the bartender was finished and handed it to Tara. “Come on.”

She followed behind Ryan over to a corner booth where the rest of the band sat.

“Guys, this is Tara. Tara, this is Zach, Brent, Drew and Eddie.” Ryan introduced them, each of his friends said hello as Ryan said their name.

“Hi, you guys were awesome up there!” Tara sat on the edge of the seat as Zach and Drew scooted over to make room for her. Ryan sat across from her, sitting next to Brent and Eddie.

“Thanks.” All four men simultaneously smiled.

“So Ryan told us you’re a kindergarten teacher.” Drew stirred up the conversation.

Tara was overwhelmed with anxiety, and now the fact that she knew Ryan had been talking about her was making her palms sweaty. She took a sip of her Margarita, along with a small breath. “Yeah, his niece just so happens to be one of my students this year.”

“When’s the wedding?” Brent followed up with his own question.

Tara knew they were interrogating her. She used to play that card when Lilah kept talking about a past boyfriend and that’s the card they were playing on her now, she had no doubt about it. The question rolling on the back of her mind was why? Ryan obviously said something to make them wonder who she was. “Um, Shane and I decided that May would be the month. Just not too sure on the exact date yet.”

“Lucky man. I’m sure you and Shane are a happy couple.” Zach commented then looked over to Ryan with wide eyes as if he was telepathically telling him something.

“Yeah… so…” Tara tried to shift the conversation in a different direction. “The city of Charming doesn’t really have much opportunity to grow as a band. Have you guys ever thought of moving down to L.A?”

“We’re working on it. We actually got a call today from Columbia Records. They were interested but want us to come up with more songs. They want to know who we are and were impressed by our Facebook popularity and how many fans we have in this city alone.” Ryan explained.

“Nice. Sounds like you guys will be getting there soon enough.”

The next two and a half hours were spent talking about dreams of making it big, life stories and bad jokes that made all of them laugh out loud. Even though the ice broke and Tara felt more comfortable chatting with the group, they still snuck in personal questions.

“Well, surprisingly, I had fun, but I think I’m going to call it a night.” Tara got up from the edge of her seat.

“Already?” Ryan quickly jumped up.

“Yeah, I had a long day. I didn’t drive here so I just gotta call a cab real quick.” Tara pulled out her smart phone.

“I’ll take you home.” Ryan offered.

“Oh no, I couldn’t impose.”

“It’s no problem. Where do you live?”

“Sixth and Millbrook.”

“That’s perfect. I’ll drop off the guys first since it’s on the way.”

“Okay, thanks. I just need to use the restroom real quick.” Tara smiled and put her phone away.

As Tara disappeared, Zach, Brent, Eddie and Drew stared at Ryan from their seats with a quizzical expression on their faces.

“What?” Ryan questioned.

“Oh, nothing...” Eddie casually sighed. “Just you falling for a girl you can’t have.”

“What?” Ryan chuckled. “I’m not falling for her. She’s not my type.” He lied. “Plus, she’s engaged. There’s no way I’d ever get in between that.”

“How long have I known you, man?” Zach got up from the booth. “I know when you’re lying to yourself. It’s okay, happens to the best of us, just don’t act on it. You and Tara, never gonna happen.”

“Who do you think I am? I know that. I’m not interested in her like that.” Ryan harshly denied.

“Seriously bro, I’d step away from her before things start getting complicated.” Zach knew that the feelings Ryan was starting to develop for her would come crashing down in nothing but heartache and wanted to make sure that Ryan wasn’t going to do anything impulsive.

---- ---- ---- ----

Throughout the car ride, Ryan, Zach, Brent, Eddie, Drew and Tara had very little room to move as they cramped into Ryan’s black 2010 Chevy Impala, but the jokes that the guys were throwing out were making the situation of being squished inside a car amusing. Once Ryan dropped off the guys, Tara sat in the passenger seat, looking at the night sky through the window.

“I want to apologize if the guys made you uncomfortable with their questions.” Ryan’s eyes were focused on the road ahead of him.

“It’s…It’s no problem. Friends are like that. Curious little George’s.”

Ryan quickly glanced at her with a soft smile before turning his attention back to the road.

“So you really thought we were good or are you just being polite?” Ryan wanted to know if she was serious about their performance.

“Honestly, yeah. The lyrics have meaning. It's refreshing to hear something beautiful and meaningful instead of music like ‘Hey girl, you got a big booty, shake that thang and drop it to 'tha floor’ type of song.”

Ryan chuckled, making Tara chuckle back.

“The energy you guys had while performing, your voice and the looks. I really think you guys will be huge someday. You're are not the typical boy band, you illuminate something different.”

“Thanks.” Ryan smiled.

“Ooo, tacos.” Tara looked out the window to a taco truck that was parked in front of a liquor store with a few customers surrounding the area.

“Are you in a hurry to go home?” Ryan asked.

“No, why?”

Ryan quickly made a U-turn, grinning from ear to ear.

“What are you doing?” Tara looked to him with confusion and a hint of excitement.

“Tacos sound amazing right now.”

Tara smiled widely as Ryan parked behind the taco truck. As they got their tacos they headed back into the car to eat due to no seating areas. After finishing their delicious food and exchanging a few laughs, they buckled up and drove away.

“That was so yummy. I can’t remember the last time I had food from a truck. Shane thinks it’s dumb and that supposedly its "dirty food".” Tara expressed.

“Well, he sounds like quite the optimist.” Ryan was annoyed by the sound of her fiancé’s name.

“Hm, I can’t do these kinds of things with him. I haven’t had a night like this in a long time, I forgot how good it feels.” Tara barely saw the text message Shane had left her an hour ago as she pulled out her phone to check the time.

Ryan pulled up to her house as she gave him directions, and at that very moment the radio station changed from current pop to classic slow jams. The song "Stand by Me" by Ben E. King filled the car.

“Oh, I love this song.” Tara spoke. “I haven’t heard it in such a long time.”

The only light visible was the moonlight that shined through the car windows and it seemed to make Tara glow. Ryan couldn’t help but stare at the way she looked at that moment, with "Stand by Me" sweetly flowing through their ears and the moonlight perfectly shining on the woman he wanted to know more than anyone else on the planet. He couldn’t help but softly sing the words to the song. Tara stared at him and couldn’t believe how stunning and piercing his voice was and within his words, she was lost. She closed her eyes and listened to his soothing voice.

 

“When the night has come
And the land is dark
And the moon is the only light we’ll see
No I won’t be afraid
Oh, I won’t be afraid
Just as long as you stand, stand by me

So darling, darling
Stand by me, oh stand by me
Oh stand, stand by me
Stand by me

If the sky that we look upon
Should tumble and fall
All the mountains should crumble to the sea
I won’t cry, I won’t cry
No I won’t shed a tear
Just as long as you stand, stand by me”

 

They sat there for three minutes, enjoying the classic song with Ryan singing along and Tara listening to every word and as the song ended, Ryan cleared his throat. Did I just serenade her? He thought. “I love this song, couldn’t help but sing along to it.”

Tara stared at him and wanted to say something but was completely speechless.

“You shouldn’t keep your man waiting.” Ryan didn’t want to say Shane’s name out loud, just thinking about him drove him insane inside.

“He’s not home, he texted me saying that he’s too drunk to drive so he’s crashing at his friend’s house.”

“Well, at least he’s not driving under the influence.”

“Yeah… good night, Teddy.” Tara smirked and felt her cheeks tingle by calling him "Teddy".

“Teddy?”

“How’d you wind up with that nickname?” Tara smiled. “I heard Celeste call you that on the first day of school.”

“She couldn’t say Tedder when she was younger and kept saying Teddy. I guess she always stuck with that.” He smiled as he remembered.

“Ryan Tedder.” She whispered to herself.

He stared into her eyes, making Tara’s stomach turn. Ryan stared at her differently this time, a stare she’s never seen before. It wasn’t seductive, but it wasn’t casual, either. It was as if he was searching for something within her, like he was trying to read her every thought, and it threw her off. “Can I walk you to your door?” Ryan offered.

“I think I’m capable of walking myself to the door.” Tara smartly responded.

“At this time of night with a pretty woman walking alone from here to your door…I don’t know, seems kind of dangerous if you ask me.” Ryan persuaded.

Tara blushed and looked away from his eyes that glistened in the moonlight. “Okay, I can’t argue with that.” She opened the car door and let herself out, not realizing that her small pack of gum fell out of her back pocket.

Ryan got out of the car when he turned it off and walked by her side to the door.

“Well, thank you for walking me to my door. I saw a suspicious black cat over by that corner bush. Probably would have sneak attacked me if I was walking alone.” Tara turned to face him as she stood by her door with a smile.

“No problem.” He chuckled. “I feel a lot better now knowing that you got to the door safely.”

They stared at each other for a moment, both of them feeling the anxiety build up inside as if it were the end of a first date.

“Good night, Tara.” Ryan softly spoke.

“Good night, Ryan.” Tara gazed into his piercing eyes for a moment then unlocked her door, walked inside and gently closed the door behind her.

---- ---- ---- ----

Ryan pulled up to his apartment complex and parked under his parking spot, but left the car running. He sat there pondering over Tara while the slow jams were still playing. He thought about what Zach and the rest of the guys told him about Tara. They were right, it would never work out and he knew that. Finally, he met a woman whom he shared common interests with, was funny, smart and beautiful, and he didn’t stand a chance because of some other man. As Ryan glanced over to the passenger side, he saw an object on the seat. He pulled out his phone from his pants pocket and turned it on for light seeing that Tara had left behind a small pack of gum. He picked it up and stared at it. After a minute of him tossing the gum back and forth in his hands, Ryan decided to return it as an excuse to see her face one more time before tonight ended, so he drove off to her place, which was clear across town.

Chapter Text

*Ding Dong*

Tara quickly jumped up from the sofa on panic mode, startled by the sound of the doorbell. When she got ready for bed after Ryan dropped her off, she grabbed her book, her sacred confidant where she would write down her poems. Tara started writing and before she knew it, knocked out on the sofa as she was in her creative state of mind. She took a peak through her white curtains and saw Ryan standing outside her door.

“Crap.” She muttered under her breath as she checked the clock hanging over her TV. Tara didn’t want Ryan to see her without her makeup on but she had no choice. Not wanting to keep him waiting, she quickly attempted fixing her hair before opening the door. “Ryan, what’s up?”

Ryan stared at Tara, mouth agape from the natural beauty she possessed. He tried everything in his power to not gawk but couldn’t help himself and glanced down at her body. Clad only in small white lace boxers with a white lace top up to her midriff, her perfect waist visible for Ryan’s eyes, her natural wavy hair that came down to her breasts was pure eye candy. “I, uh...” He rubbed the back of his neck nervously as he cleared his throat. “I wanted to return this.” He pulled out her small pack of gum from his pants pocket.

“You came back at two forty-nine in the morning just to return my pack of gum?” Tara smiled, noticing his reaction to her sleepwear and she couldn’t deny herself, she was enjoying it.

“Yeah, I figured that you might wake up in the morning and would want a piece of gum then realize ‘Hey, where's my pack of gum?’ and then you’d be pretty bummed out and I uh…don’t want you to be bummed out?” Ryan realized what he was saying too late and mentally kicked himself. He wanted to go back in time to think of a better excuse, because he sounded like a complete idiot.

“Well… makes sense, I guess. Thanks for returning it.” Tara grabbed her pack of gum from his hand.

“No problem, I should leave so you can go back to bed. Good night.” Ryan ran his right hand through his hair as he turned to walk away.

“Ryan?” Tara softly called.

He turned around and stared straight into her eyes, trying hard to not look at her lovely figure.

“I was just about to make myself some tea, would you like to join me? If you’re not a tea person, I could make some coffee.”

“I, umm...” Ryan knew he should turn away, walk off, leave and never look back. This was a bad idea entering an engaged woman’s home at two fifty in the morning when her fiancé was out but that was just it, he couldn’t refuse her offer because her fiancé was not there. “Sure.”

Tara walked over to her sofa to grab her white silk robe that was three inches above her knees and slipped it on. When she turned her back to Ryan to reach for her robe, he couldn’t help but notice a tattoo on her lower back. Tara didn’t seem like a girl who’d have a tattoo, especially in that particular spot, so it was a surprise to him to see her with one. He tried to observe what it was but was side tracked by her long legs and round firm ass as he slowly walked in, closing the door behind him. He had to stop thinking about all the naughty things he wanted to engage in with Tara before it made him make a move on her.

“Make yourself comfortable, I’ll be right back.” Tara walked into the kitchen.

He analyzed the beautiful set up of the white modern living room set and walked over to a picture frame that rested on the coffee table in front of the sofa. It was a picture of Tara and her fiancé at what seemed to be an amusement park, hugging with a smile as they stared at each other. He now had the face to put with his name and he wished he’d never seen it, because it just became that much more real to him. He was a very attractive, fit man, and at that moment it made Ryan feel small, Tara was out of his league.

“Ryan?” Tara poked her head out from the kitchen. “Are you a coffee or tea type of guy?”

He took a step back from the picture frame. “Coffee is fine. Gotta stay awake.”

“Coffee it is.” Tara walked back into the kitchen.

Ryan awkwardly sat down on the edge of her sofa, thinking to himself that he should have just stayed home. His eyes caught sight of a small black and purple notebook that laid wide open on the other side of the sofa. Doing a double take over to the kitchen and then back at the notebook again, he couldn’t help himself. Curiosity got the best of him, so he scooted closer to the notebook and read the words written on the page.

 

“Remember those walls I built
Well baby they’re tumbling down
And they didn’t even put up a fight
They didn’t even make a sound

I found a way to let you in
But I never really had a doubt
Standing in the light of your halo
I got my angel now

It’s like I’ve been awakened
Every rule I had you breaking
It’s the risk that I’m taking
I ain’t never gonna shut you out

Everywhere I’m looking now
I’m surrounded by your embrace
Baby I can see your halo
You know you’re my saving grace

You’re everything I need and more
It’s written all over your face
Baby I can feel your halo
Pray it won’t fade away

Hit me like a ray of sun
Burning through my darkest night
You’re the only one that I want
Think I’m addicted to your light

I swore I’d never fall again
But this don’t even feel like falling
Gravity can’t begin to pull me back to the ground again.”

 

“Here you go.” Tara walked over to Ryan.

“Did you write this?” Ryan kept his eyes on the notebook.

“Mmhm.” Tara placed Ryan’s cup of coffee on the coffee table.

“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have read it, but do you mind?” He apologized.

“I don’t mind, go for it.” Tara sat down a few inches away from him. “It would be nice to get a musician's point of view.”

Ryan picked up her notebook and finished reading the first two pages. “Wow.” He whispered.

“I know it’s cheesy and…”

“No, it’s not.” Ryan interjected. “This is good. I mean, like, really good.” Ryan glanced up at Tara, then back to the notebook. He took a look at a few other pages and was in complete awe by the choice of words and emotions she expressed. “I didn’t know you write. What’s your inspiration?”

“I’ve been depressed since I was a little girl and all the feelings I felt just started channeling into words on a piece of paper. Writing it out helps me think clearly. I started to notice that behind pain there is a certain beauty to it, amazed that I could feel all these emotions, like I gained a bit of clarity somehow. It might not make sense; it’s just how I feel. Then I realized that in order to make your life epic and to say that I’ve truly lived then you need to feel pain before you find happiness. So I’m probably the most optimistic pessimist out there. I’m depressed but I’ll use it to my advantage, I’m not ready to give up so easily.”

Ryan stared into her eyes, deeply moved by her words and wanted to know everything about her and reading her notebook was a good start. “Well, your fiancé is one lucky man to have such a positive and creative woman in his life.”

“Eh, he doesn’t really care about that.” Tara sipped her tea.

“Why not?”

“He’s not into poems, writing, art, rainy nights and dancing in the rain type of person like I am. He’s the macho sports type who loves hanging out with the guys a lot.”

Ryan couldn’t believe that Tara was marrying a man completely opposite of her, he sounded like an absolute tool. If he had a chance to romance her, she’d leave Shane in a heartbeat. “You said you’ve been depressed since you were a little girl…so you still are?”

“Yeah, it’s not as bad as it used to be though. I don’t really tell anyone about it because then people start to act different around me. So I just smile and keep it to myself. Shane doesn’t really know about it and I don’t want to tell him. Lilah knows because we’ve been friends since grade school, we tell each other everything and now you know."

“If hardly anyone knows about it, why tell me?” Ryan curiously raised an eyebrow.

“I don’t know. I haven’t known you long but I feel like I can trust you. You’re different.”

Ryan couldn’t help but feel his emotions getting stronger for her at that very moment. He finally picked up the coffee cup and took a few sips. “Do you have a piece of paper I could have, I just had an idea for a song.”

“Sure.” Tara pulled out a piece of paper from her notebook, grabbed the pen that rested on the coffee table, and handed it over to Ryan. He started writing down his idea then folded the paper and put it in his front pocket.

“What were you writing?” Tara asked.

“Um, just some ideas for a song.”

“Like?”

“Like let me finish the song first and then I’ll sing it to you, promise.”

“Okay. You better.” Tara smiled with a wink. “Can I ask you something?” She became fixated over the small tattoo on his left wrist.

“Of course.” He put down the coffee cup.

“What does your tattoo mean?”

Ryan stared down at his tattoo and held out his wrist for Tara to get a better view. “It written in old Japanese. It means ‘God’s Will’, literally meaning ‘God gives and God takes.’”

“Nice.” Tara kept her eyes on his tattoo.

“I hope I’m not crossing the line here but do you mind if I ask about your tattoo?” Ryan mustered up the courage to ask.

Tara smiled at how cute he looked when he asked. She turned her back to him and slid down her robe just below her white lace boxers to reveal the tattoo. “It’s a dream catcher with angel wings. I designed it myself.”

“Wow.” Ryan couldn’t contain his smile as he stared at her beautifully drawn tattoo on her smooth lower back and just like that, he got a little too excited. “That’s very detailed.”

He quickly got up from the sofa as Tara turned back to face him and wrapped her robe back on. “Can I use your restroom?” Ryan cleared his throat.

“Sure, it’s down the hall to your left.” Tara stared at how awkwardly he started to act.

“Thanks.” Ryan paced to the restroom. As he entered he closed the door and rested his forehead on the door, shut his eyes and desperately tried to think of anything besides how sexy Tara looked. It wasn’t working; his manhood was still aching for her. He turned on the cold water from the sink and splashed some on his face to cool down. “Pull yourself together.” Ryan muttered under his breath, trying to calm his urges.

After Ryan left the restroom, he and Tara spent all night talking until the crack of dawn. They got to know more about each other that night, they even shared some things about themselves they never even told anyone else. They shared their fears, life goals and laughs. It was that night that made their friendship grow. Her friendship with Ryan was something she never told Shane about. Tara never said a word to Shane about Ryan and Ryan never asked.

-Four Months Later-Five Days before Christmas-

It was Sunday, the sun almost gone, making the moon and stars visible. Tara waited by a huge oak tree at her favorite park carrying along a notebook, a small brown gold box and two pens in her shoulder bag. She sat by the tree and waited for Shane to meet her there but instead she got a phone call.

“Shane, where are you?” Tara answered the phone.

“Sorry baby, I can’t make it. I have to go back to work.”

“On our anniversary? Seriously? You’ve been working all day!”

“I know, it’s last minute but I have to go in. We’ll do it another day, hang with Lilah and spoil yourselves, baby. I’m sorry, we’ll celebrate another night.” Shane hung up.

Tara looked down at the phone, upset that he hung up on her so abruptly and that he couldn’t make it, so she just sat on the ground, her back leaning on a huge oak tree for a few minutes with her depression going south.

“Tara?” A man called out behind her.

Tara turned around to see Ryan walking up to her. “Ryan, what are you doing here?” She stood up.

“Well, I got a text from Lilah telling me that your man called her and told her to take you out for a girl’s night because he had to go to work, but she can’t make it. So, she asked me if I could bring you some comfort food to make you feel better and told me that you were at the park. I was at the liquor store down the street and now, here I am.” Ryan explained.

“Shane called Lilah?” Tara sighed. “Wow, okay.”

“So what were you and your man going to do before he bailed out on you?” Ryan questioned.

“Shane and I were supposed to write a letter to each other today on our anniversary then bury it and not read it for five years to see how much we’ve grown. I guess it’s not happening now.” Tara sighed.

Something in the back of her mind knew that Shane would never show. Over the past few months, Shane and Tara had grown more distant. They haven’t been intimate in a long time, just kisses here and there, because she was either not in the mood or Shane would never come home for whatever reason he conjured up. Tara grew suspicious of his behavior and her feelings towards Shane were changing. She was more confused and questioned how her future with him would be but never told anyone about her problems.

Occasionally she would vent to Ryan about some issues she had with Shane, but kept most of it hidden behind a fake smile, except Ryan saw past her smile and knew she was lying to herself.

“I can’t believe he would just leave you here like this.” Ryan ran his hand down his jaw, upset that Shane would blow off a woman like Tara. He didn’t know why she continued to stay with a man who obviously was not worth her time. Just like a good friend would, he tried to support her relationship, even though he wanted it to come crashing down.

“Yeah, it was pointless trying to connect with him more. I’m just gonna go home.”

“How about you and I write a letter to each other?” Ryan suggested, trying to brighten her night. “And five years from now we can see how much our friendship grew.”

“I’d really like that.” Tara smiled, pulling out her notebook and two pens. She tore out a piece of paper and handed the notebook over to Ryan with a pen. They sat down next to each other with their backs leaning against the tree and started writing. The moon seemed to be closer to the earth that night, making it that much bigger and brighter. Tara thought about what she wanted to tell Ryan five years from now, then started jotting down her feelings, using the small box in her bag that laid on her lap as a table to write on and the moon for her light to see.

Ryan, on the other hand, didn’t think about what he wanted to write. As soon as he sat down he started writing his heart out. After a couple of minutes of silence and writing, Ryan glanced at Tara to take in her beauty. As Tara looked up at Ryan, he looked away with a smile and continued his writing.

Tara finished first so she folded her paper in four then pulled out her small box from her bag and put the letter inside. A moment later, Ryan folded his paper in four and handed it to Tara. Tara held his letter in her hand. She wanted to read what he wrote, what he wanted her to know five years from now, but she had to be patient, so she opened the box and put it inside.

“Crap.” Tara groaned.

“What’s wrong?” Ryan raised a curious eyebrow.

“Shane was supposed to bring the small shovel to dig up the hole.”

Ryan started to think for a second and figured out the solution to their problem. He got on his knees and started using his hands to dig up the dirt. “Guess we just gotta improvise.”

Tara loved how he was trying to make her situation better and stared helping Ryan dig a hole with her hands. Once the hole by the tree was deep enough Tara laid the box down then they both pushed the dirt back, stomping on the earth to secure it. They both tried wiping off the dirt from their hands as much as they could, they couldn’t help but smile at each other and the few clouds on that December night decided to sprinkle its cold liquid down on them.

Tara pulled out her green pocket knife with black tribal designs and flipped the blade as she looked up in the sky after she felt a sprinkle hit her cheek.

“You carry a pocket knife?” Ryan stared.

“I was waiting alone in the park at night, a girl needs her protection.” She carved the letter T on the giant tree and handed Ryan the pocket knife. He now knew what she was doing, so he carved a plus sign and the letter R, then handed back her pocket knife back.

“Now my hands are freezing.” Tara blew her hot breath on her hands after she put her blade away.

“Here.” Ryan firmly grabbed her hands and slid them in his front pockets of his leather jacket for warmth.

At that moment, both of their hearts palpitated and they instantly warmed up. He already liked winter, but now he loved it. Ever since they met, Ryan had always wanted to hold her hands and finally had the perfect excuse to do so. “What do you have planned for Christmas?” He struck up a conversation to break the silence.

“I have absolutely nothing planned. Shane has a business meeting down in San Diego, which is fine I guess… I’ll probably join Lilah in whatever it is she’ll be doing, which probably involves a bottle of Jack.”

“He didn’t show up today for your anniversary and now he’s leaving you on Christmas? Seriously?” Ryan knew that her fiancé had to be cheating on her; why else would he always ditch her? What man would leave his fiancé alone the way he does and on a holiday to top it off? “Why don’t you join me and my family up in Tulsa?” He invited, not wanting her to be alone.

“Oklahoma? I don’t know, when are you leaving?”

“Yes, and tomorrow. Come on, its way better than staying here alone with your alcoholic friend, no offense to Lilah.” Ryan smirked.

The rain started to drizzle down on them as Tara rolled her eyes and thought about it as she stared up at the night sky.

Ryan on the other hand didn’t bother looking up at the night sky once. The moon light surrounded them like he was dreaming and the rain dripping down on Tara made her that much more beautiful. “Do you really want to be stuck alone with a drunken Lilah? There is a whole world out there waiting for you to explore it. I’ll show you around, and unlike your fiancé, I won’t leave you alone.”

Tara stared into Ryan’s eyes and couldn’t help but think about what her life would be like if she was Ryan’s girl. He is just too perfect that whenever she tried to find a flaw in him she couldn't find a single one, and now with the rain dripping down his peaceful face made her realize how special he really is. “I don’t know. I don’t have enough money to buy a ticket and I don’t want to impose on your family.”

“It’s no problem. I’ll pay half your ticket and my family won’t mind, trust me.”

Tara couldn’t believe that his hands were still firmly gripping hers and wanted to melt into his arms, but kept her cool. “Yeah… okay, I’ll go.” After all the complications Shane was stirring up in their relationship, she wanted to be the one who ditched him this time and what was better than leaving California for Christmas with a man Shane has no idea about?

“Awesome.” Ryan grinned, still gripping her hands in his pockets for warmth. He loved holding her soft hands in his, but now his anxiety started to bubble up… she’s meeting his whole family, and that made him a little uneasy yet excited at the same time. “If I’m remembering correctly, you’re a dancing in the rain type of gal, right?”

“Wow, you remembered.” She looked down with a smile.

“How can I forget anything you say?” He squeezed her hand a little tighter. “May I have this dance?”

Tara stared into his glowing eyes and knew at this moment that Ryan was the one for her. She shyly nodded as Ryan let go of her hands and gently wrapped his hands around her waist. She wrapped her arms around his neck and he pulled her closer to his body, taking advantage of the moment to feel her close to him.

“You know you deserve better, right?” Ryan gazed into her eyes.

Tara stared down at his chest as they were dancing to the beat of their own emotions. She couldn’t stare into his eyes with his comment, she knew he was right but was still conflicted with everything that was happening. Tara knew all along Shane was not the man for her, but she gave him a shot anyways and it had led her to being unhappy, she just didn’t know how to get out.

After a moment of thinking she finally looked into his eyes. “Just dance.”

He gave her that look again that he gave her that night in the car when she saw him play for the first time. Ryan was searching for something within as he led her in the gentle dance. His hypnotic eyes were too much for Tara to bear, it filled her with emotions she didn’t know how to deal with, so she slid her hands through his leather jacket, wrapped her arms around his back for a hug to keep warm. She rested her head on his upper chest, listening to the drumming of his beating heart as they danced away in the rain.

Chapter Text

-The Next Day-

Ryan was standing with Rebecca, Daniel and Celeste at the airport lobby, waiting patiently for Tara to arrive. Daniel and Rebecca were Ryan’s older brother and sister in law, respectively, as well as being the parents of Celeste. That morning when Tara woke up, Shane was nowhere to be found. He left early that morning for work so she wrote a note telling him that she left with Lilah to Oklahoma and would be back on the twenty-sixth. It wasn’t like her to just drop everything and leave, but she desperately needed time away from the city of Charming to clear her mind.

“Tara.” Ryan smiled as he saw her walk through the entrance. “This is my brother Daniel and his wife Rebecca, Celeste’s parents.” He introduced.

“Hi, it’s so nice to finally meet you two.” Tara smiled with her hand out for a shake.

“Well, it’s a pleasure to meet Celeste’s teacher. We’ve heard so much about you.” Rebecca genuinely shook her hand.

“Hey.” Daniel muttered as he walked away, barely acknowledging her.

“Oh, great.” Rebecca sighed. “I’m sorry, ignore him.” She assured Tara as she grabbed Celeste’s hand and followed Daniel.

“Did I do something?” Tara turned to Ryan for an answer once the mother and daughter had walked off.

Ryan sighed as he ran a hand through his hair. “No, don’t let him get to you. He’s in his own little world. We should board, our flight leaves in ten minutes.”

Daniel, Rebecca and Celeste sat at the front of the airplane while Ryan and Tara sat in the back and Tara knew Daniel requested it to be that way. She quickly caught on that he had a problem with her, but didn’t know the reason behind it. It was uncomfortable for her being the black cloud for Ryan’s brother, but Ryan tried to ease the situation and keep her comfortable.

Tara ended up falling asleep an hour and a half into the flight and the only way she seemed to be comfortable was by resting her head on Ryan’s shoulder. Daniel shook his head with shame as he looked back at Ryan and saw Tara resting on him. Ryan knew what Daniel's problem with Tara was but didn’t have the heart to tell her. More than anything, he just hoped Daniel would keep to himself.

Ryan looked down at Tara soundly sleeping and decided to wrap his arm around her shoulders so she could lean in more comfortably on him. As she snuggled tight into his warm nook, he couldn’t help but softly smile with her asleep in his arms. Ryan wanted to show Tara the world, to make her his and be the man to take care of her, but just being her good friend is as far as it will go. No matter how bad he wanted to tell her how he really felt for her, he wasn’t a home wrecker. If she was to ever leave Shane, he wanted it to be her choice with a clear conscious and not because he got involved.

-The Tedder Household-

As they arrived at the Tedder household, Daniel, Rebecca and Celeste walked in after they grabbed their luggage while Ryan stayed behind to see why Tara wasn’t exiting the taxi cab.

“Hey, are you okay?” Ryan opened the taxi door and looked in at her as the snow sprinkled lightly over his hair and shoulders.

“Your brother hates me and I have no clue as to why. What if your parents hate me, too?” Tara gulped.

“Daniel has some issues, don’t take it personal. You’re an amazing woman, you’ll be fine.” He extended his hand to help her out, like a true gentleman would.

“Well, I don’t really have a choice now, do I? Let’s get this over with.” Tara inhaled deeply and gripped his open hand to exit the cab. Tara grabbed her suitcase out of Ryan’s hand as he was removing their luggage from the trunk, then slowly made her way towards the huge, two story house, dragging her feet through the thin layer of freshly dropped snow.

“Ryan!” Ryan’s mother trampled him with a gigantic hug and a kiss on the cheek. “My handsome boy! I’m so glad you’re here.”

“It’s good to see you again, Ryan.” His father went in for a hug.

Tara stood by the door, not wanting to disrupt the beautiful family reunion, opting to take in the new surroundings. She was distracted with the cinnamon fragrance filling her nose with a hint of freshly baked sugar cookies and the Christmas decorations that flattered the beautiful, modern, living room set up.

“Tara.” Ryan took a step back from his parents. “This is my mother Marlene and my step father Philip Cunningham."

“Hello.” Tara nervously took two steps closer to them with her hand extended forward.

“So this is the lovely Tara that Ryan has told me about. It's a pleasure to finally meet you.” Marlene shook her hand after Philip.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, too, Marlene. Now I see where Ryan gets his good looks.” Tara complemented.

“Well, thank you.” Marlene smiled sweetly.

“Ryan, we've got a bit of a situation.” Philip spoke. “Your cousins Ashley, Austin and Clark decided to drop in last minute. They were inclined to take over the last two rooms.”

“I could get a hotel room.” Tara compromised. “I don’t want to stir anything up and…”

“Oh no, sweetheart.” Marlene interrupted. “I convinced them to stay in one room so you and Ryan would have to share his old bedroom.”

“Oh, okay.” Tara nervously cleared her throat. The thought of her sleeping in the same room with Ryan brought up a wave of fear with a hint of excitement because she would be that much closer to him.

“So let’s get you guys all set up and comfortable. I’m cooking a magnificent dinner tonight so get your appetites ready.” Marlene grabbed Tara’s bag and headed upstairs. “Follow me.”

-That Night after Dinner-

Marlene, Philip, Rebecca, Daniel, Celeste, Ashley, Austin, Clark, Ryan and Tara were in the living room, keeping warm near the fireplace with mugs of hot chocolate in their hands as everyone was catching up with one another and getting more acquainted with Tara. Daniel was still giving Tara the cold shoulder, but everyone else seemed to be just fine with her. In fact, they adored her, especially Marlene.

“I have an announcement.” Ryan grinned as he stood up from the sofa. “I’m excited to say that the guys and I are heading out to L.A in a month. Timbaland wants us out there to grow and learn everything there is to learn.”

Everyone gasped with excitement and got on their feet to congratulate Ryan on his success. He was swarmed with praise and hugs from his family and Tara slipped out to the restroom down the hallway while everyone was focused on Ryan.

She leaned her back to the door, her emotions running haywire. Tara was truly happy for Ryan’s success but she didn’t want him to move away from her. It was a feeling she didn’t know how to handle. Her emotions were starting to get too real for her. She was doing fine hiding everything deep down in the pit of her stomach, but just like a volcano, it would eventually erupt. Right now, the lava was rapidly bubbling. If this is how she’s feeling now, she couldn’t imagine how she would feel the day he leaves.

After a couple of minutes of trying to regain her composure, she opened the restroom door and walked out.

“There you are.” Ryan caught sight of Tara and walked over to her. “Are you okay?” He noticed the sadness shaded in her brown eyes.

“I’m fine.” Tara put up a confident front, forcefully trying to put on a smile. Ryan stared deeper into her eyes, trying to figure her out but Tara looked away, not able to stare into his hypnotic blue eyes. “Seriously, I’m good.” Tara saw Daniel walk over to them as she glanced over Ryan’s shoulder.

“Good night, bro.” Daniel patted Ryan’s back and brushed past Tara to get to his room.

Daniel bumping into Tara was Ryan’s last straw, he couldn’t stand how Daniel was treating her. He had to speak up and settle it. Tara saw in Ryan’s facial expression that he was going to speak out for her and didn’t want him to. She didn’t want to cause any trouble between the two and a girl is the last thing two brothers should be arguing about. Ryan took a step forward, about to confront Daniel, but Tara gripped his shoulder with her right hand and looked into his eyes. “Congratulations.” She vaguely smiled, hoping he would drop the Daniel issue. “You deserve it.”

Ryan stared down at her, hating the fact that he wouldn’t be able to see her on a daily basis anymore, but put up his own strong front and smiled, hiding his feelings in that moment. “Thank you.”

Tara wrapped her arms around Ryan’s waist and hugged him softly, who returned the gesture but firmly pulled her closer to him.

Daniel turned back for a quick glance at his brother and saw him hugging Tara in the middle of the hallway. Ryan stared at Daniel as Tara was in his arms and Daniel sent Ryan a disapproving glare before he turned back around.

-Thirty Minutes Later-

Ryan was alone in his old bedroom and changed into his black sweatpants, white shirt with faded grey vertical stripes and white socks. He stood right in front of his full size bed and couldn’t believe he was going to sleep in the same room with Tara, feeling like a hormonal teenage boy who’s going to his first boy:girl sleepover.

Tara walked in and closed the door behind her after she took a shower and changed into her pajamas in the restroom down the hall. “Hey.” She laid her shoulder bag on the corner dresser.

“Hey.” Ryan turned to her and observed her sleepwear. She was wearing midnight blue cotton pajama bottoms with a tight white tank top, white socks and her hair down, lightly damp from her shower. He was hoping she would wear her white lace revealing sleepwear he saw her in the first time but she still looked gorgeous nonetheless.

They both stared at each other knowing what was on each other’s mind, but too shy to be the one to bring it up. “You could take the bed; I’ll just crash on the floor.” Ryan offered.

“Oh no, this is your room. I’ll take the floor. I really don’t mind.”

“You know, we’re both adults. Why don’t we just share?” He shrugged his shoulders.

“I don’t see why not.” Tara pursed her lips.

Tara sat on the left side of the bed as Ryan sat on the right side after he turned off the light. They lifted the thick black blanket and slid underneath, trying to get warm and comfortable. The white curtain that was pulled to the side on the window allowed the moonlight to flood the room for a natural nightlight.

“I tried to see if we had any extra blankets but Ashley took the last one.” Ryan explained.

“It’s cool.” Tara looked over to him. “You and I sharing a blanket in a full size bed should be warm enough.”

“I’ve been told that I hog the blanket so if I do, don’t be afraid to yank it away from me.” Ryan warned.

“Will do.” Tara smiled. “I’ve been told I hog the bed so sorry if I get in your personal space. Don’t be afraid to push me away.” Tara gave her own warning.

Ryan chuckled, thinking about Tara hogging the bed and hoped that she would crossover to his side as an excuse for him to feel her again. “Will do.”

Tara and Ryan never seemed to run out of anything to say to each other that they stayed up until four in the morning, sharing what was on their minds except for the one thing they couldn’t talk about. Deep down, both of their hearts were breaking that they wouldn’t have anymore late night chats about random what nots once Ryan heads out to L.A., but they tried to make the best of their time together while they still could, letting each other’s presence sink in for the memory to last forever.

-December 23rd-

During Tara’s visit with Ryan’s family, Ryan made sure he stood by her side and showed her around the city. Shane called her once which led to an immediate argument, but Tara hung up on him and didn’t think twice about it, she was enjoying every moment with Ryan. Marlene stole Tara away from Ryan every chance she had to help with cooking, light cleaning and decorating. She loved that even though Tara wasn’t a Christian and didn’t classify herself into any religion, she was still a believer and was open to hearing about their faith without judgment. She enjoyed Tara to the point where she wished she was Ryan’s partner, but knew that she was invested in another man so she never bothered asking personal questions about her and Ryan. Although, it hadn't stopped Marlene from asking Tara personal questions about her and Shane.

The day before Christmas Eve, Tara woke up early to help Marlene with breakfast before church. “Can I ask you something?” Tara took a seat on the stool around the kitchen island and started cracking eggs into a bowl.

“What’s on your mind?” Marlene brought out the butter from the refrigerator.

“I’m hoping you could shed some light on what Daniel's problem with me is?”

“He’s not a fan of the relationship you have with Ryan.” Marlene truthfully answered with slight hesitation.

“What are you talking about?” Tara raised her left eyebrow.

“He thinks that Ryan is starting to develop…feelings for you. He thinks your leading him on into believing there is something more than just a friendship between you two. Daniel just doesn’t want to see his baby brother get hurt.”

Tara was in disbelief but it all made sense to her now. Not knowing how to respond, she continued prepping the food on the table quietly.

“Tara, may I ask you something?” Marlene sat down next to her.

“Sure.” Tara kept her eyes on the food.

“What is going on between you and Ryan?”

Ryan walked down the stairs to grab a glass of water but stopped before he reached the last step when he heard his mother say his name and out of curiosity he eased dropped on the conversation.

“A whole lot of nothing. We’re just friends.”

“I don’t think Ryan sees you as just a friend.” Marlene expressed her opinion. “The way he lights up when he hears your name, how he stares at you, how he talks so highly about you. A man doesn’t smile the way he smiles at you unless he’s falling in love and I think that maybe you feel the same.”

“He’s a great guy and could have the whole world on the palm of his hand, so why would he waste his time on me?”

“Tara, I like you, I really do. I feel bad for saying this because I don’t like to be an intruder on relationships, but you are perfect for Ryan. I only know what the two of you have told me about Shane, but can you really see yourself spending the rest of your life with Shane or do you want to know what your life could be like with Ryan? Don’t lie to me and definitely don’t lie to yourself, because lying about your happiness is the worst thing a person could do to themselves.”

Tara sat there, struggling to think straight. She knew Marlene was right. Tara had been lying to herself the day she met Shane and didn’t know if she could continue with it once she went back home to him. Deep down, she wondered what her life would be like if she was with Ryan after all. “I…”

*Ding Dong*

“I’ll get that.” Marlene was clearly upset that their conversation was interrupted as she walked out of the kitchen. Tara was saved from the moment of her own truth, thankful that it was interrupted because she didn’t know if she could say what she was feeling.

“Good morning.” Ryan crept up behind Tara.

“Crap!” Tara jolted up as her hands crossed over her chest. Ryan chuckled, amused that he caught her off guard. “Good morning, jerk. Nice hairdo by the way.” She playfully nudged his shoulder and smiled at his massive bed hair. Ryan ran his hands through his hair, trying to slick it back as he flashed his pearly whites.

“Orange Juice?” Tara held up the pitcher of OJ, trying hard to not be captivated by his bright smile.

“That sounds good.” Ryan yawned as he stared at Tara pouring the juice into a glass. “So guess what I just thought of? We can officially say we’ve slept together.” Ryan joked.

“I guess you’re right. Was I any good?” Tara joked along.

“Oh, you were amazing. You sleep like no other woman I’ve been with” Ryan winked. “Up until you stared hogging the bed.”

“You and I both know you loved it.” Tara winked and handed him the glass of orange juice.

“Well, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t.” Ryan took a sip of the juice. “By the way, remember the night at your house I told you I’d sing you the song I was taking notes on when I finish?”

“Yeah.” She nodded.

“Finally finished.”

“Wow, and it took you how long?” Tara smirked.

“Hey, you can’t rush a good song.” Ryan gulped down the rest of his juice.

“So when can I hear this good song?”

“Tomorrow night.”

“Why tomorrow?” She asked.

“Because everyone is leaving the house for a Christmas Eve party and I want us to be alone when I sing it to you.” Ryan took a step closer to her, confidently staring into her eyes.

Tara felt herself getting weak in the knees with the way he stared at her but tried to push that feeling off to the side. “So we’re not going to the party?”

“We are but we’ll be leaving early.” Ryan gazed deeper into her eyes, containing his urge to grab her tight and kiss her like no man has ever kissed her before.

“Ryan.” Marlene trudged into the kitchen with nothing but concern written all over her face. “We have company.” A tall, model-esque woman with long, wavy blonde hair was standing behind Marlene.

Tara stared at the woman, wondering who she was as Ryan’s heart plummeted forty feet down at the sight of his ex-girlfriend.

Chapter Text

“Jennifer!” Daniel rushed down stairs to welcome Jennifer, Ryan’s ex-girlfriend.

“You knew she’d be here?” Marlene couldn’t believe that Daniel would go as low as to pull this stunt on Ryan.

“I invited her to church today. I also told her she’s more than welcome to have breakfast with us.” Daniel directed his attention to Ryan, closely analyzing his reaction.

Ryan stood beside Tara, stupefied, not knowing how to react in front of the woman who he hadn’t seen in two years, the same woman that ripped his heart out and played with every emotion he possessed like a yo-yo.

“Don’t you think you should have confirmed this with Ryan?” Marlene’s mouth twisted into a grimace.

“You told me Ryan knew?” Jennifer confronted Daniel, working her innocent puppy eyes.

“I didn’t think it’d be such a big deal. Ryan said he was over you.” Daniel knew exactly what he was doing, as did everybody else.

He intentionally invited Ryan’s first love, the woman who ended up breaking his heart because he knew it would get in between whatever might happen with Ryan and Tara. Whatever feelings he’s harboring for Tara would be lost behind the feelings he had for Jennifer and maybe with the spirit of the holidays, Ryan and Jennifer would reconcile so he would forget about Tara and wouldn’t be hurt by her in the long run.

“It’s okay.” Ryan finally spoke.

“Are you sure? If you’re not comfortable with me…”

“It’s fine.” Ryan interjected in the middle of Jennifer’s sentence then walked up to Daniel. “Could you help me find my tie, I must’ve misplaced it.” Ryan turned his back to everyone, scowling at his brother.

“Make yourself comfortable, Jen.” Daniel followed Ryan upstairs.

“Hm, this wasn’t awkward at all.” Jennifer looked to Marlene and Tara, feeling out of place and unwanted.

“Where are my manners? I’m Jennifer, and you are?” She sauntered over to Tara and held out her dainty hand for a shake.

“Tara.” She faked a half smile as she strongly shook her limp hand as a show of dominance over her.

“Are you Ryan’s… girlfriend?” She raised her eyebrows slightly as she quickly glanced up and down at Tara, studying her new adversary.

“I’m just a friend.” Tara took that moment to study her as well and it didn’t take a genius to realize who she was to Ryan. She was a picture perfect image of a human Barbie doll. Tall, long blonde hair, decked out in stylish winter attire with knee high boots and perfectly manicured fingernails. Other than the fact that she wore a little too much makeup, Tara could see how any man would fall for Jennifer, she’s beautiful.

“Well… nice to meet you, Sara.” Jennifer faked her own smile as she yanked away from Tara’s strong handshake.

“Tara.” She corrected.

“Right.” Jennifer flipped her long blond hair. “May I use your restroom, Marlene?”

“It’s Mrs. Cunningham and yes, you may.” Marlene stared harshly at the woman who she most despised.

“So, I’m taking it that you don’t like her.” Tara looked to Marlene as Jennifer disappeared out of the kitchen.

“No.” Marlene shook her head in distress. “She broke Ryan’s heart a while back. She tries to pull you in with her web of lies and kindness, but she can get very manipulative. She had Ryan like a puppet around her boney little finger. I don’t know why Daniel had to invite her. Then again, he was blinded by her kindness as well, a lot of people were. Ryan wasn’t himself for a couple of months after her. She drained the life out of him.”

“Wow.” Tara soaked in the information.

“Marlene?” Rebecca trudged in the kitchen. “Celeste is in no shape to leave the bed today, she came down with a nasty bug. I’m afraid I’m going to have to miss church today.”

“I’ll watch her.” Tara was quick to offer.

“No, I couldn’t ask you to do that.” Rebecca refused.

“It would be no problem, honestly. This is your family vacation and it’d be a shame to miss church. You should go and I’ll watch over her.”

“Really?” Rebecca couldn’t believe the kindness of Tara’s soul for volunteering to watch over her daughter and only wished that Daniel could see her for who she really is and stop with the childish bitter attitude.

“Of course.”

“Oh thank you, Tara.” Rebecca leaped in with a giant hug of gratitude.

“It’s no problem.” Tara did offer out of the goodness of her heart but also because she didn’t know if she could stand being in the same room with Jennifer and Ryan at the same time. She started to feel jealous, but buried it in the shallow part of her stomach. She’d rather be blind from what could possibly hurt her more, and taking care of Celeste would distract and keep her mind busy.

---- ---- ---- ----

“Why did you invite her?” Ryan stopped in the middle of the hallway, snapping at his brother.

“I ran into her yesterday, so we started talking and she told me she was spending the holidays alone. She has no one, Ryan. Do you know how depressing that is? The Christian thing to do is invite her into a loving home. Am I really the bad guy for trying to help someone have fun on the holidays? Oh, I also invited her to the Christmas Eve party.”

“She’s going to the party?” Ryan’s eyes widened as he tightly clenched his jaw.

“Yes. I know what happened between you two, but you clearly said you were over her. So if you really are, then prove it. Grow up.”

“You and I both know that being nice has nothing to do with inviting her here. I know what you think about Tara. We’re friends, Daniel, nothing more. She’s getting married and I really don’t see her the way you think I do.” Ryan lied through his teeth. “You brought her here to separate Tara and I in hopes that Jennifer and I will get back together. Am I right or am I right because this is just the kind of thing you would do. You’re telling me to grow up and here you are playing games. You don’t play with people’s emotions like that!”

“Playing games? Like the game Tara is playing on you? You are so blind, baby brother. All I’m trying to do is open your eyes. I don’t want to see you get hurt. She’s marrying another man. You really think you can sit in the pews on her wedding day, watch her walk down that aisle and hear her say ‘I do’ to another man and just be okay with it? Can’t you see what she’s doing to you? Jennifer confessed to me that she was wrong about the break up, that she was being immature, and if she had a second chance, she’d never let you go. So why don’t you see where this goes? It’s for your own good, man.” Daniel patted Ryan’s shoulder and walked away before Ryan could get in another word.

-After Church-

“He has a crush on you?” Tara smiled at Celeste as she sat on the edge of her bed and handed her a thermometer to take her temperature.

“Yes.” Celeste pursed her lips together as she put the thermometer under her tongue.

“By the look on your face, I’m taking it that you don’t like him very much.”

“I like Netflix and chocolate milk, I don’t like Joey.” Celeste took out the thermometer as it started to beep and handed it over to Tara.

“A hundred degrees. Yikes. Well, your mother texted me saying that she’s going to make you some soup when she comes home.” Tara comforted Celeste by pushing back the strand of hair over her eye.

“Mm, I love it when Mommy makes soup.” Celeste softly smiled at the thought of getting the soup her mother always made for her whenever she's sick. It was the only good thing about feeling terrible for her.

“Just rest up, hun. I’ll bring you some more water.” Tara got up, grabbing the empty plastic cup and laying the thermometer on top of the dresser.

“Do you like anyone?” Celeste raised her blanket to her shoulders.

“Well, I am engaged.” Tara reminded her.

“No, besides him, do you have a crush on anyone else?”

“I don’t know. You know the actor who plays Iron Man? I think he’s cute.” Tara winked.

“No, that doesn’t count. He’s not real.” She sniffed and rubbed her irritated nose.

“Well...” Tara chuckled. “Even if I did have a crush on someone, it’s not appropriate to talk about it. I’m still your teacher after all.”

“It’s Ryan, isn’t it?”

“What?” Tara dropped the cup on the ground, completely caught off guard with her response.

“I know Ryan has a crush on you.”

“How do you know that?” Tara questioned as she reached down to grab the cup.

“If I can tell then so can you, and I’m only 5. He’s always smiling, compliments you, follows you, buys you food, and talks about you a lot. Joey brought me a cookie one time and then I found out he likes me. Ryan brings you food all the time, that means he likes you, too.”

“Tara.” Rebecca walked in the bedroom.

“Hey, how was church?” Tara turned to her, ignoring what Celeste was saying. Rebecca's arrival had been perfect timing.

“It was beautiful, thank you again for staying. I really owe you one.”

“I’m not doing this for a payment of any kind, just glad I could help.”

“Well, I know Daniel is giving you a hard time right now, but he’s grateful that you stayed.”

“Nice to know. I’ll leave you two alone.” Tara smiled as she walked out of the room and headed to Ryan’s bedroom.

Ryan was standing in front of the bed, dressed in his black church suit, digging through his luggage that he had laid out on the bed. A devious smile crossed Tara’s face, now was the chance to get revenge from earlier that morning when Ryan had scared her in the kitchen.

“How was church?” Tara snuck up behind him and gently clawed her midnight red fingernails onto his shoulders.

Ryan jerked back and quickly turned to Tara. She started laughing at his reaction and he joined in once he realized she had gotten her payback. “Laugh it up. I’ll get you again.” Ryan playfully pushed her on the shoulder.

“Don’t start what you can’t finish.” Tara nudged his shoulder.

“Oh I always finish.” He winked as he stared deeply into her eyes.

Ryan would always give Tara a deep, almost seductive stare after he would make a cheesy or inappropriate joke or reference, as if he was trying to see if it was okay to keep going. That stare was always too much for Tara to bear, so she quickly blew off the wink before she got lost in his blue eyes again, sitting on the edge of the bed by his luggage. “So, like I said… how was church?” She looked down and felt the smoothness of her fingernail polish on her left wedding finger with her right thumb.

“Awkward. Everyone kept thinking Jennifer and I were still together. My mother told the pastor that I broke into the music industry and they wanted me to sing in the choir. Jen gave me this goo-goo eyed stare the couple of times I accidentally glanced over at her when I was up there singing.”

“Wow..."

“Tell me about it.” Ryan sighed as he continued rummaging through his clothes.

“I’m sorry for bringing it up, but… do you still have feelings for her?” Tara sat patiently, waiting for an answer that could possibly devastate her.

Ryan stopped and stared at his clothes, searching for the best response. “Honestly, I thought I did. I thought about her more than I should’ve but now that I see her again, I’m just reminded of the hurt she caused and how cruel she was. The feelings faded away. I think it’s all in the memory now, of what we used to be that I miss, but there’s no going back to that.”

“I get it.” Tara empathized with him. “It’s easy to believe you still love someone with those memories flooding your thoughts.”

Ryan continued moving his clothes around, trying to forget everything about Jennifer, but it was eating away at him at how hard it was to do so when he never got closure on why Jennifer dumped him the way she did. All he knew from what his friends have told him was that she left him for another man, but it was never confirmed.

“Nice boxers.” Tara knew the look on his face all too well and knew it was time to change the conversation. She didn’t mean to bring up his boxers, but she saw them as he was moving his clothes around and didn’t know what else to say.

“Thanks, they're nicer on me. You should check it out sometime.” He stopped organizing his clothes, took a step to his right to face her and held his right hand out. Ryan didn’t want to dwell on Jennifer anymore than he should and pulled Tara up to him when she gave him her hand. “On another note, I’m looking forward to tomorrow night.” He held her hand ever so lightly, anxious on how the night with Tara will end after he sings her the song he promised and perfected for her.

“And I’m looking forward to hearing the song that took you forever to write.” She smiled. “Can I ask you something?”

“Yeah, what’s up?” Ryan released her hand.

“The cologne you’re wearing… what’s it called?” She finally asked, wanting to know the name of the intoxicating scent he wore from time to time. He was wearing the same cologne he wore that day she bumped into him at the coffee shop, the night she first saw him perform at Romeo’s, and a few other occasions. Out of the few other scents he would wear, this was the one Tara absolutely adored.

“Silver Shadow.” He smiled. “Why, you don’t like it?”

“I love it.” She blurted out. “I mean, it smells good. You should wear it more often.” Tara looked down as she cleared her throat, trying to contain her adoration for it. Ryan raised his eyebrows, holding himself back from wanting to cup Tara’s face with both of his hands and plant a kiss her.

Tara pulled out her phone from her back pocket as she felt the vibration, watching the picture of Shane flashed on her screen. She exhaled deeply and pressed ignore on her phone, slightly rolling her eyes as she remembered her last conversation with him.

“Your man?” Ryan knew by the bothered look on her face.

She nodded and slid her phone back into her back pocket. It was as if Shane had that sixth sense of knowing whenever she was having a moment with Ryan, because he would always call her at the times where she didn’t want any interruptions.

“How are you guys doing?” He tried to act concerned about her relationship with Shane even though he didn’t really want to know. The more he knew about it, the more he hated the man and wished their relationship would end so he could pick up the pieces and be her prince charming that swept her off her feet.

"I’m gonna get something to drink.” She walked away from him and headed to the kitchen, completely avoiding the topic that she wasn’t comfortable talking about.

-That Night-12:54 A.M-

*Gasp*

Tara quickly sat up, fully alert from her nightmare and kicked the thick blanket off her. Cold sweat glistened from her body as she tried to catch her breath. She and Ryan had gotten into a huge argument and never talked again after that. She couldn't remember what they argued about and she didn’t want to remember, she just prayed it would never happen. Losing Ryan in her life would be a devastating blow to her already fragile mind.

Tara looked over to Ryan as she gathered herself together. He was soundly asleep, lying on his back and warm underneath the thick blanket. She took a moment to memorize his face and couldn’t believe how lucky she was that out of everyone in the world, she bumped into him, and how lonely she was going to be once he left for L.A.

She traced her fingertips over his soft, untamed hair, taking in every physical aspect to paint his image in her memory. Ryan turned his back to her as he clutched tight to the blanket and found comfort on his side. Tara smiled as he hogged the blanket, then rolled off the bed to grab her laptop from her luggage, using the moon for light. Sitting on the edge of the large bay window, she crossed her legs Indian style and started typing away, trying to find the inspiration to continue her romance novel that she started a little over a year ago but never got around to finishing it. After writing a few paragraphs, writer's block kicked in, so she stopped and stared up at the half moon to think, desperately trying not to bring up the nightmare.

“Tara.” Ryan yawned as he sat up on the bed.

“Hey, did I wake you?” Tara quickly shut her laptop.

“No, you’re good. What are you doing?” He ran his hands through his hair to maintain his bed hair.

“I couldn’t sleep so I decided to catch up on some writing.”

“You okay?” He slid off the bed and walked over to her.

“Yeah, I’m good. Just one of those nights I guess.”

“What were you writing?” He sat by the bay window, a few inches across from her.

“It’s just a cheesy romance novel I started a while back but now I’m suffering through writer's block again.”

“Well, care to explain? Maybe I can help.”

“Well," She sighed, somewhat embarrassed to explain what she was writing about. “Sky and Marshall have been friends for two years and it’s obvious that they have untapped sexual tension between them, but they’re both too shy to confront each other. A war erupts and Marshall gets drafted. He’s leaving in one week, so he finally musters up the courage to ask Sky out on a date. I’m pretty much stuck on the date part.”

Ryan stared down at her laptop that rested on her knees and thought about it. “So they’re friends and he’s leaving in a week for who knows how long and finally asked her out on a date?”

“Yes. What would you plan for a date?”

“It depends.”

“What do you mean "it depends"?” Tara raised her left eyebrow in curiosity.

“Not every girl is the same. Some are old fashioned. You know, the whole flowers and candy at the front door followed by dinner and a movie. Some girls don’t like the old fashioned bit. I once went on a first date with a girl who wanted to bungee jump.”

“Wow, how’d that go?”

“Didn’t go well. I was in high school and I was convinced she was crazy… long story.”

“Wow, okay.” Tara rubbed the side of her left eyebrow and felt her heart beat a little more rapidly. “Why don’t you use me as an example then?”

Ryan raised his right eyebrow as he stared at Tara, wanting the real thing instead of just explaining what he was about to say. “I’d knock on your door like any gentleman would five minutes before the initial time I said I’d be there. I would compliment you on how stunningly beautiful you look in that dress and heels that you took forever to pick out.” He slightly smiled, picturing exactly what it would be like if he ever had the chance.

“I’d hand you a bouquet of roses with three lilies in the middle because I know roses and lilies are your two favorite flowers along with a soft Dalmatian stuffed animal because I know you love Dalmatians.”

Tara anticipated what he was going to say next as he paused for a moment. She was picturing every word he said and didn’t want him to stop, already impressed and unable to imagine what else he had in mind.

“I’d take your hand and walk you to my car, open and close the door for you and take you to Echo.”

“That completely out of my price range, romantic, forty-five minute wait for your food restaurant?” Tara couldn’t believe that Echo, the most expensive and romantic restaurant in town, was part of his itinerary. It was way out of her league that even Shane never bothered with the place.

“That’s the one. I’d open the door and pull out your chair and tell you again how beautiful you look just in case you didn’t get it the first time. We’ll place our order then as we wait for our food, I’d take you by the hand and ask if I could have this dance as a new song plays on the dance floor. Granted, if you accept, we’ll walk over to the dance floor where other dates and couples are romantically dancing the night away. I’d hold you close, gaze into your eyes and think to myself how lucky I am to have such a smart, beautiful woman in my arms. My hands desperately want to test the waters and touch you inappropriately, but I contain myself from doing so.”

Tara felt her heart beat faster, picturing exactly where his hands would roam. It was winter and freezing cold outside, but it was definitely getting hot inside.

“We’ll dance until our food is ready then head back to our table to eat, talk about random whatnots and share a few laughs. Once we’re done eating, I may ask for one last dance, and I’m hoping that you say yes just so I can wrap my hands around your waist and bring you closer to me again. After that I’d take you to the art gallery downtown because I remember you said you’ve always wanted to go, just haven’t found the time or anyone to go with. Once we take in the fine art I’d take you to Java Lounge, get the same drinks you splashed all over our shirts and reminisce on the story of how we met. How embarrassed you were but how you took my breath away and that I had to know everything about you.” Ryan smiled at the beautiful memory and Tara smiled back, feeling her cheeks tingle and stomach violently flipping.

“Then I’d take you home, walk you to your door and sing you a song that I wrote just for you as I take your hand in mine. When I’m done I’ll gaze into your soft brown eyes and tell you that I enjoyed our magical night together and how I’m looking forward to the next. I’d take my other hand and lightly brush your hair back as I lean in for a kiss. A subtle, warm, soft kiss as I let go of your hand and gently bring you closer to my body by your waist, my other hand on the back of your head, tangled in your hair, trying to completely take your breath away. No matter how bad I want to continue and walk through that door with you for the night to advance, I pull away, the tip of our noses barley touching. I’ll wish you a good night as I grab your hand again and softly kiss the top of it just to show how much I truly adore you and make sure you are safely inside your house before I leave.”

Tara sat there in a trance, her palms sweaty from the intensely painted picture; she wasn't able to utter a word because she didn't know how to react to the blunt answer to her question.

“Are you okay?” Ryan snapped out of his fantasy and took notice of the dazed look on Tara’s face not knowing if she was feeling what he was feeling or if he should apologize for coming off too forward. “Tara?”

“I, uh...” Tara grabbed her laptop and laid it in front of her, then stood up. “I’m fine.” She croaked. “I just need air.” She walked out of the bedroom and headed downstairs to the empty living room.

Ryan sat there mentally beating himself up. He now felt like he crossed the line, and the last thing he wanted to do was be too forward and drive her away. He was now debating if he should even sing her the song he promised her tomorrow night. If she had this reaction to his straight forward answer to her question, he didn’t know if she would act the same when and if he sings her the long awaited song.

Chapter Text

-Christmas Eve-

Christmas Eve finally arrived, and even though the day was going to consist of nonstop snow, the holiday spirit struck everyone with joyful smiles. Marlene, Tara, Rebecca and Ashley had woken up early to cook breakfast and after everyone ate the girls tidied up and started baking three types of cookies from scratch: chocolate chip, snicker doodle, and peanut butter cookies since they couldn’t come to an agreement to stick with one flavor. While the girls were bonding, sharing personal stories that made them sad and laugh out loud, Philip, Ryan, Daniel, Austin and Clark left the house to run some last minute errands.

Ryan and Tara didn’t have a minute alone that day but if they did, Ryan would have confronted her about last night. They only had a light conversation at the breakfast table, followed by a few lingering glances.

“Oh, crap!” Ashley laughed out loud as the bag of flour she tried to pop open exploded all over her and Tara, who was standing right beside her. “I’m so sorry.”

“It’s fine.” Tara giggled, wiping down the flour that landed on her purple tank top with her hands.

“I’ll be right back, I need to take this.” Rebecca smiled at Ashley and Tara as she walked out of the kitchen with her ringing phone in hand.

*Ding Dong*

“Who’s at the door?” Marlene questioned as she put down the bag of chocolate chips.

“Relax, Marlene. I’ll go check.” Ashley offered as she put down the flour bag and slowly walked out of the kitchen.

“So, what’s going on?” Marlene spoke upon Ashley’s exit.

“What do you mean?” Tara tore off a sheet of the paper towel roll and wiped the flour off the counter.

“I couldn’t help but to notice the way you and Ryan kept staring at each other. Something happened between you two?”

“Nothing happened.” Tara crumbled the piece of paper and tossed it in the trash by the dishwasher.

“I know that face all too well… what exactly happened?” Marlene pushed for an answer.

“Hi Marlene, Hi Sara.” Jennifer’s high pitched voice broke their conversation as she followed Ashley into the kitchen.

“Tara.” She sternly corrected as she rolled her eyes.

“Yeah, whatever.” Jennifer mumbled.

“What are you doing here?” Marlene felt her blood boil at the sight of the woman who broke her son’s heart.

“Daniel invited me to the Christmas Eve party, remember?”

“No.” Marlene definitely remembered.

Rebecca trudged back into the kitchen and tossed her phone on the kitchen island table.

“Are you okay?” Tara took notice to how despondent she was acting after her phone call.

“The babysitter canceled on me. I’m gonna have to miss the party.” Rebecca frowned.

“Little Selene is still sick?” Jennifer commented.

“Celeste.” Rebecca shook her head, astounded that she still couldn’t remember her name. Ryan always talked about Celeste to Jennifer when they were dating and it just showed how much she really paid attention to him.

“There’s no reason for you to miss the party you look forward to all year. I’ll watch her.” Tara ignored Jennifer and offered Rebecca.

“No, I seriously couldn’t ask you to watch her again. I know Ryan was really looking forward to taking you and…”

“I’m seriously fine with it.” Tara interjected. “I would feel horrible if you missed the party and honestly, I’d rather have a quiet evening, stay in my pajamas and watch a little Netflix. Guess I’m just having a lazy day today.” She lied.

“Tara…” Rebecca sighed.

“I’m good, seriously.” Tara rested her hand on her shoulder. “Go and have fun.”

“I don’t know what to say. You are such an angel.” Rebecca wrapped her arms around Tara and gave her a huge bear hug. “Thank you so much.”

Jennifer smiled, not because of the goodness out of Tara’s heart that she volunteered to stay, but because she’d be out of the picture and would have Ryan to herself at the party. It was just too perfect.

“We’re back.” Philip announced as he walked through the front door with the guys behind him.

“Come with me, I’ll walk you through with the medicine Celeste is taking.” Rebecca headed up stairs with Tara following behind her.

The guys walked into the kitchen and laid the grocery bags on the counters. Ryan’s eyes searched for Tara as he walked past Jennifer without saying a word.

“Hey, girl.” Daniel hugged Jennifer as soon as he put the bags down.

Austin and Clark were just as blinded as Daniel because they also took a shine to Jennifer, but Philip saw past her smiles and small talk, he knew she was toxic for Ryan

“Looks like you and I get to catch up tonight.” Jennifer sauntered over to Ryan.

“Sorry, I told Tara that we’d…”

“She’s not going.” Jennifer interrupted.

“What?” His eyes widened.

“Babysitter canceled, she offered to stay and watch the little one.” She stepped closer to Ryan who immediately left the kitchen to find Tara.

Marlene sat on her barstool and rested her elbows on the island table as Philip wrapped his arms around her from behind and gave her a peck on the side of her head to show his affection, but all she could think of is how Ryan would be in for one emotional rollercoaster of a night and wished all his pain could go away. A mother knows when her baby isn’t well. A combination of Jennifer in the picture and his canceled plans with Tara, she knew exactly how he was feeling.

“So just give her this every four hours and make sure she stays hydrated, orange juice and water only.” Rebecca handed Tara the liquid bubblegum flavored medicine. “She’s still knocked out and by the looks of it, she might be out for the rest of the day. She was really burning up. So just keep an eye on her. I left her soup in a pink container, just warm it up if she has an appetite and there are some crackers in the pantry if she wants some.”

“Got it.” Tara read the name of the medicine as she grabbed it out of her hand.

“Are you sure you want to do this, I could try to find another sitter.”

“On short notice? Seriously, I got this.” Tara assured.

“Thank you.” Rebecca smiled. “I’m gonna start getting ready now.”

“Cool.” Tara put down the medicine on the dresser by the door and headed over to Ryan’s bedroom. She closed the door behind her and pulled out another shirt from her luggage to change into.

Ryan opened his bedroom door and his eyes immediately drew on Tara. Her back was to the door as she was standing in front of the bed, pulling up her purple tank top. He was completely captivated by her bare back, black lace bra, and her tattoo that he couldn’t move a muscle. She slipped on her black, low cut shirt and turned around as she pulled it down. “Oh, crap.” Tara jolted back at the sight of Ryan.

“I’m sorry… I just walked in.” He gulped, lying threw his teeth.

“It’s okay, just startled me is all.” She held her right hand over her heart.

“Um…” Ryan tried to gather his words that he had ready to spit out but it had vanished and was replaced with inappropriate thoughts. “You’re not going to the party?”

“No.” She sat on the edge of the bed. “Babysitter canceled last minute and I’m not going to let Rebecca miss the party she looks forward to all year.”

“But I had our evening all planned out, I’ll see if I can find someone else to babysit and…”

Tara got up as she saw him pull out his phone and placed her hand over his to stop him. “Who’s gonna wanna come babysit last minute on Christmas Eve? I know you had this evening planned, but that’s life, right? Things come up, shouldn’t stop you from trying to make the best of it.”

“Then I’ll just stay here with you and…”

“No.” She firmly looked into his eyes. “Your family wants you there, the way you guys talk about it, seems like the event of the year and you are not going to miss it. Go, have fun, smile and make memories. Please.” Tara softly smiled, her eyes assuring him that everything will be okay, the look that always made Ryan submit.

Ryan ran his left hand down his face, frustrated of the predicament he was placed in so he nodded, not able to say a word. He wanted to be with Tara, he wanted to take her to the party, to dance under the mistletoe and bring her back home from the party early to sing her the song she’s been waiting for. Instead, now he has to go without her and try to avoid his ex along the way.

“Okay.” Tara gave his right hand a gentle squeeze before letting go and headed towards the door.

“Tara?” Ryan stood there with his back to her.

“Yeah.” She turned to face him.

“I’m sorry if I crossed the line last night.” He turned to face her. “If I made you feel uncomfortable with…”

“Don’t worry about it.” Tara lightly brushed her hair back. “I uh…” She tried to speak, but trying to think of what to say to something that was so beautiful to hear but that she couldn’t dwell on was very difficult to conjure up on the spot.

“I mean you asked and… I’m not going to lie to you. If I had a shot to date you I wouldn’t change a word of what I said. I probably shouldn’t have told you in detail, you’re engaged and I don’t want you to think that I would ever…”

“Ryan.” Tara spoke over him. “I know. It’s cool. I uh…” She cleared her throat, wanting more than anything to tell him that what he said was the most romantic thing anyone has ever said to her, even though it never happened but badly wanted it to come true. “We’re good.”

-The Party-

Ryan spent two hours at the Christmas Eve party catching up with family and friends and avoiding Jennifer at all costs. Every time Jennifer wanted to talk to him he pawned her off to someone available and disappeared into the crowd of people inside his mother’s best friend’s mansion that was filled with elegant music and delicious food with extravagant Christmas decorations. Ryan’s uncle Jon had to end his conversation with Ryan after he got a text message from his wife saying that she was in labor with their third child, so Ryan headed over to the kitchen which was empty at that moment because everyone was dancing the night away underneath a four foot long mistletoe that hung underneath the middle of the living room. He poured himself a small glass of champagne but before he could take a sip, Jennifer found her way into the kitchen.

“Ryan?” Jennifer sashayed over to him.

Ryan set down the glass and looked down as he pushed his weight on his hands that were resting on the counter.

“You look so tense, let me help.” Jennifer walked behind him and dug her skinny fingers onto his shoulder blades.

“Don’t.” Ryan backed up, distancing himself from her.

“Baby, weren’t things much simpler when we were together? I took care of you, had food ready on the table everyday when you got home from work, everything was always taken care of for you.”

“Yeah, you also made sure you took care of my wallet as well.” Ryan glared at her pathetic attempt to reconcile.

“No, honey. If you didn’t want me to spend your money, then why did you give me your credit card? I only bought the things I needed to look good for you and you only, and you were fine with it. You always told me how beautiful I looked in my new outfits and when I got my hair done, manicures, pedicures, spa treatments, and all of the décor around the apartment.”

“So that trip to Vegas with your girlfriends, months of my money saved up for a new car that I needed to get to work that you wasted was for me?” Ryan raised his voice, realizing how blind he really was.

“If I remember correctly, you said I should go.” She countered.

“Yeah, go have fun, I never said to take my damn wallet. You always do this, Jennifer, sweet talk your way through everything and I was blinded by all your lies. You’re a gold digger who never really loved me, you only settled when you found stability in me.”

“Ryan, that’s not true. I loved you and I still love you. I may have taken some things for granted, but I have changed and if you give me another shot you would see that I’m not the same girl anymore.”

Ryan heavily sighed, frustrated that she just couldn’t grasp the gravity of what he was saying and has been saying since she first walked into the front door yesterday. A million thoughts cluttered his mind.

He thought of Tara, how bad he longed for her, but she was a dead dream. Ryan knew Tara and Shane were going to get married, he didn’t want to be a home wrecker and beg her to leave Shane for him, he’s found himself almost going through with it but backed off. If he would have listened to his friends and Daniel about staying away from Tara before he got hurt then he would never be in this situation, he wouldn’t be hurting right now. Then he started thinking of the past, how he did feel for Jennifer before she dumped him.

“You can’t keep ignoring me. What we had was real and it still can be. I grew up while we were apart, I’ve changed and I realized that you are everything to me and I would never take advantage of you again.” Jennifer pleaded.

Ryan ran his hands down his face then stared into her sky blue eyes.

“I don’t know what is going on between you and Tara but you know that is a broken bridge that you’ll never cross. She’s getting married to someone else and if she wanted to be with you then don’t you think she would be with you? I’m here, I’m something real, I want you and you know deep down inside you want me as well. Baby, I need you.” She sweetly grabbed his hand with her right and ran her other hand through his combed back hair.

Ryan couldn’t speak, Tara was a lost cause and it hurt to know she belonged to someone who didn’t deserve her and for that moment, he let himself get manipulated by Jennifer’s words again. He got lost in her web of lies, lies that she wasn’t capable of following through with.

Jennifer gently pulled his hair, pulling him down closer to her and crashed their lips together. She dominated him with a kiss that she thought would make him weak in the knees, but within five seconds of trying to take his breath away, he escaped her lips and without giving her a second glance, he walked away. No emotions of the love he used to carry for her was in the mix, which had just been confirmed by that kiss.

“Ryan?” Jennifer paced after him.

“It’s a shame.” Ryan turned to confront her. “I’ve tried to get you, I tried with all I had and you always left me standing empty handed. You got the best of me, had me on my knees and I lost my pride searching for something I couldn’t find. I was devastated when you left me, but time apart brought a change of heart and now you’re confessing that you need me, except how is this supposed to ever be the same? It’s a shame, Jennifer. You need to know something though.”

Ryan smirked, feeling relieved that he was getting the closure he needed. “You walked out on me thinking you found someone better, but you know what? There is no one better. I’m the best that you’ll ever have. You’re not the one that got away; I’m the one that got away. I’m the one you’ll always think of when you settle for the next.” Ryan shook his head and with his pride, he was now able to walk out on her.

Ryan left the party and went to the only place in town that was open on Christmas Eve at 7:43 p.m. where he knew he could pick up some food for him and Tara, then went home in the car Philip had lent him for his visit. The snow drizzled down on him from the car to the front door, making his black fedora sparkle with white. He walked into the living room with a white plastic bag of Chinese takeout and gently closed the door behind him. Ryan took two steps into the living room and saw Tara lying down on the sofa, chatting away on her phone.

“I don’t know.” Lilah’s voice echoed through Tara’s cell phone. “Sounds like he was really looking forward to tonight. You know what this sounds like, right?” Lilah wanted to point out the obvious of Ryan’s intentions.

“I know, I’m not oblivious.” Tara responded. “I don’t know how to explain it, but I really wanted to know how tonight was going to pan out. I know I shouldn’t except I can’t help but wonder.”

Ryan cleared his throat, alerting Tara that someone was home. She jumped up to see Ryan and was hoping that he didn’t hear her whole conversation. “Lilah, I gotta go. Love ya.” She touched her screen to end the call and tossed her phone down on the sofa. “How long were you standing there?”

“Just walked in.”

“Oh… you’re home early. I thought you guys were going to be out all night.” She walked up to him.

“I didn’t want to leave you here all alone, plus I thought you’d be too lazy to make food, so I picked us up a little somethin’ somethin’.” He raised the bag with a smile.

“Oh, I love you!” Tara yanked the food right out of his hand and immediately caught what she blurted out. “You know… for bringing food… I’m starving.” She immediately walked to the kitchen, beating herself up for what she said.

Ryan lightly chuckled as she walked away from him. “I’m so in love with you.” He whispered under his breath.

Tara laid the bag on the island table and tried to comprehend what she thought she just heard Ryan mutter.

*Coughing in the background*

“Well, looks like Celeste is awake.” Tara snapped out of her thoughts and started walking towards the stairs to her aid.

“I’ll check on her.” Ryan laid his hand over her shoulder. “You just get the drinks ready and we’ll eat in the living room.”

As Tara grabbed two glasses and a bottle of wine, she couldn’t help but think of other possible words that he could have whispered to himself but even with denial she knew that he said “I’m so in love with you.” Once she had the bottle of wine and the food on the coffee table in the living room, she went to go check on Ryan and Celeste. Standing by the doorway, she saw Ryan sitting next to Celeste as she was snuggled up in her thick blanket with a light brown guitar in his hands, singing her a lullaby.

 

“Days feel harder, nights grow longer
Summer says its goodbyes
Darkness covers, we find shelter
Our own place to hide

Oh as the light goes out
Thoughts turn to angels on the run
Oh as the night comes in
Dreams start their drifting and you hear a lullaby
Lullaby
You and I

Trees touch windows, say their hellos
Hear this house as it settles in
Worry slips away it don’t know your name
It don’t know where to find us

Oh as the light goes out
Thoughts turn to angels on the run
Oh as the night comes in
Dreams start their drifting and we hear a lullaby
A lullaby
You and I, you and I”

 

Celeste drifted off into her beautiful dream world as Ryan gently pecked her warm forehead. He stood up to see Tara standing by the door. “She’s sound asleep.”

“That was beautiful.” She whispered.

“I sing it to her before bed sometimes. She loves it.” Ryan softly spoke as he walked up to her with the guitar in his left hand. “Let’s go eat.”

They walked downstairs arm in arm and enjoyed their dinner. As they were eating, Ryan took off his black overcoat and rocked out in his black dress pants, a white dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up and a black vest. Ryan knew Tara was checking him out by the way she kept eyeing him up and down. She didn’t even try hiding the fact that she was admiring him, she didn’t care at that point.

“She begged for me back and I finally told her everything I’ve wanted to say after she broke up with me. It felt so good to finally get closure and let her have a piece of my mind. She’s not the one, not then and definitely not now.” Ryan explained what happened at the party as he swallowed his last bite of food.

“Good for you. Closure is good; you really did need to let her have it. Besides that mishap, sounds like you had a blast at the party.” She gulped the last sip of her second glass of wine.

“It was, I just wished you were there to dance with me. I ended up dancing with my friend’s grandmother who kept trying to grab my ass.”

“Lucky lady.” Tara chuckled as she stared down at her glass and Ryan got up and walked over to the stereo system beside the TV.

“What are you doing?” Tara questioned.

Ryan shuffled through stations trying to find the classic old jams station he used to listen to when he lived in Tulsa.

“It is eight fifty p.m. on this cold but magical Christmas Eve night, hope everyone is staying warm and some way or another making this night a night to remember. Let’s get back to the classics you all love, only on 102.1 Classics only. Here’s ‘Stand by Me.’ by request from Jared who is enjoying his honeymoon night with his lovely new wife. Congratulations two the newlywed couple. Cheers!”

Ryan smiled as the song ‘Stand by Me’ started playing. What perfect timing he thought to himself as he walked up to Tara who was still sitting on the sofa. “May I have this dance?” He held out his right hand to her. She gave him her hand and he gently pulled her away from the coffee table and rested his hands around her waist and she wrapped her arms around his neck. “Thank you for taking care of Celeste.”

“No problem.” Her eyes smiled.

“My mother is in love with you. I heard her talking a lot about you at the party.”

Tara chuckled. “Well I love your mom, she’s a wonderful woman.”

“Thank you for coming. I’m really glad you’re here.” He stared deeply into her eyes, remembering the night where they were both sitting in his car listening to that exact song as the moonlight shinned down on them.

“I’m glad I’m here, too.” She stared at him the way he stared at her, and didn’t bother looking away this time, what was the point of hiding it she thought, especially with ‘Stand by Me’ playing. They danced the song away as they gazed into each other’s eyes. “Can I play you the song?” He hesitantly asked as the song ended.

She smiled. “Yes, please.”

Ryan’s hands let go of her waist and headed over to the grand piano by the corner of the living room. Tara turned off the stereo before following Ryan and sitting next to him on the piano bench.

His fingers hovered over the keys of the piano for a moment as he turned to stare at Tara. “Before I play the song you’ve been oh so patiently waiting for, I want to sing you another one. You actually wrote this, I’m just singing it.”

Tara raised her eyebrows wondering what he was talking about. “I wrote it?” She thought to herself. He started pressing down on the keys and after a few seconds of playing the piano he began to sing.

 

“Remember those walls I built?
Well, baby they’re tumbling down
And they didn’t even put up a fight
They didn’t even make a sound

I found a way to let you in
But, I never really had a doubt
Standing in the light of your halo
I got my angel now”

 

Tara was amazed as she listened to him sing her poem. She never thought much of her writing, but hearing Ryan take her words and express them through song with his angelic voice was making her melt away. Nothing existed in her world right at that moment, only herself, Ryan and the grand piano.

 

“It’s like I’ve been awakened
Every rule I had you breakin’
It’s the risk that I’m taking
I ain’t never gonna shut you out!

Everywhere I’m looking now
I’m surrounded by your embrace
Baby, I can see your halo
You know you’re my saving grace

You’re everything I need and more
It’s written all over your face
Baby, I can feel your halo
Pray it won’t fade away

I can feel your halo, halo, halo
I can see your halo, halo, halo
I can feel your halo, halo, halo
I can see your halo, halo, halo…
Halo, ooh ooh…

Hit me like a ray of sun
Burning through my darkest night
You’re the only one that I want
Think I’m addicted to your light

I swore I’d never fall again
But this don’t even feel like falling
Gravity can’t forget to pull me back to the ground again

And it’s like I’ve been awakened
Every rule I had you breakin’
It’s the risk that I’m taking
I’m never gonna shut you out!

Everywhere I’m looking now
I’m surrounded by your embrace
Baby, I can see your halo
You know you’re my saving grace

You’re everything I need and more
It’s written all over your face
Baby, I can feel your halo
I pray it won’t fade away

I can feel your halo, halo, halo
I can see your halo, halo, halo
I can feel your halo, halo, halo
I can see your halo, halo, halo
Halo, ooh ooh…

What if I, what if I was to say to you
You could promise the world ‘cause you see it through
Everything anything that we ever do
You could shelter me and I will shelter you
When the days are as cold as the winter rain
Ain’t no way that this heart will ever stray
Ain’t no way, ain’t no way
So don’t you ever doubt

Everywhere I’m looking now
I’m surrounded by your embrace
Baby, I can see your halo
You know you’re my saving grace

You’re everything I need and more
It’s written all over your face
Baby, I can feel your halo
Pray it won’t fade away

I can feel your halo, halo, halo
I can see your halo, halo, halo
I can feel your halo, halo, halo
I can see your halo, halo…
Halo, ooh oh…”

 

Ryan stared into Tara’s eyes as he sang the last line, waiting for a reaction out of her.

“First of all wow, that was amazing. I never thought I would hear my poems into a song and you sang it beautifully.” She looked at Ryan with a small smile. “Second of all, you only read that poem once, how’d you remember the words?”

“I took a picture of it on my phone when you weren’t looking. I wanted to surprise you.”

“Well, you really did surprise me and you Teddered it up.” She smiled.

“Teddered it up?” He chuckled.

“Yes, but that’s a very good thing.” Tara’s smile disappeared as she looked down, avoiding eye contact.

“What’s wrong?” Ryan tilted his head down to catch a glimpse of her face but she didn’t respond. “Tara?” He reached over with his left hand and gently lifted her chin up so he could stare into her eyes. “Are you okay?”

Tara stared into his sincere blue eyes and tried hard to not let a tear escape. “I’m, uh…I’m gonna miss you…you know… when you leave for L.A.”

Ryan was suddenly overcome with a knot in his throat and felt his heart twisting in pain, he didn’t know what to say. “Oh, boy.” Tara quickly got up from the grand piano bench. “I need another glass of wine.” She walked over to the coffee table and poured herself another glass. Ryan, on the other hand, didn’t get up, he sat there staring at the piano keys, drowning in the sea of his emotions. As Tara gulped down the whole glass she poured herself, she walked back to Ryan. The glass of wine made her feel more at ease and took away the urge of wanting to cry. “Ryan?”

Ryan snapped out of his troubled thoughts and stared up at her.

“How about that song now?”

“You really want to hear it?” He questioned, afraid that after the song his emotions would get the best of him.

“Yes.” She nodded. “I really want to hear it.”

Ryan took a moment to stare into her eyes then got up and walked over to the guitar that he rested against the TV. “It sounds a thousand times better with the piano and everything else but a guitar will have to do.” He sat on the edge of the coffee table as Tara sat right across from him on the sofa. Their knees touched and there was only a small gap between them and the guitar as he took a deep breath and started strumming the strings.

 

“I-I-I
I’m sinking in
You know that something’s got to

Something’s gotta give
And then you told yourself
You found a modern Mona Lisa
You gave her all your love
You said ‘I pray this fool could keep her’
You got no money
It doesn’t mean a thing
You got time
And time is everything
Knock all night
Stay awake
Listening to
Records that you like
Now you’re saying

I-I-I
I’m sinking in
You know that something’s got to
Something’s gotta give
Ooooh”

 

When Ryan wasn’t looking down at his fingers and the guitar he stared at Tara, taking in the facial expression from his greatest critic on this song. She studied and took in every word that came out of his talented mouth. So far, she was deeply impressed and eager to hear every word.

 

“And then you showed yourself
All the colors that you fear
oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh
It doesn’t mean a thing
You got love
So you got everything
Talk all night
Stay awake
Listening to
Records that we like

I-I-I
I’m sinking in
You know that something’s got to
Something’s gotta give

It’s gotta give
Oh, oh, oh
Oh, oh, oh
Oh, oh, oh
Oh whoa, whoa oh…”

 

Tara knew the song was coming to an end and tried to figure out what she should make of it. Why those words? Why did he sing it to her? A million whys in her mind but she knew deep down what it was all about. She hated that not only was his voice sweeping her off her feet and his attire was pure eye candy, he had to wear ‘Silver Shadow’, the cologne she absolutely adored on him. All of that was making it hard for her to think straight, but she absolutely thrived on every moment spent with him that it was starting to become an addiction.

 

"Something’s gotta give
It’s gotta give
It’s gotta give
It’s gotta give
Oh whoa oh”

 

As Ryan sang his last words to the song, their stares intensified as he kept the guitar going, not missing a beat and at the moment their walls finally crumbled down. The walls that kept them mutual, that kept the aching of want to explore each other shattered and their morals, knowing that they shouldn’t cross that line was thrown out the window and splattered on the cold, hard pavement. They both leaned in, she got a deep whiff of his cologne and their lips barely touched, letting the moment before their first kiss linger with adrenaline, then dove in. His sensual lips made for a perfect kiss and she was hooked into his warmth and fantasy.

He moved the guitar and dropped it down on the ground, his lips still glued to hers. He gently cupped her face with his left hand and caressed her left knee with his other. Her left hand laid over his right hand and grabbed a handful of his vest with the other. Their kiss grew heavier, their hunger getting the best of them and the simple, romantic kiss turned into a steamy, passionate make out session.

After a moment he gripped her waist with both hands and stood up, pulling her up with him and brought her body close to his. Her chest pressed up to his, her hand on the back of his neck while the other was tangled in his hair and his hands explored the curves of her body. She then moved her hands to his vest, unbuttoning the buttons, then started working on the buttons of his white dress shirt as his hands firmly moved up her black shirt, making contact with her smooth skin and slid his fingers underneath the back of her bra, wanting so badly to unhook it. Their intense kissing was overflowing with raw passion, their lips were perfect for each other, especially their tongues. Soft, warm, and wet it drove Tara and Ryan insane with wanting more, wanting to explore all they had to physically offer. He had to know how she felt, wanted nothing more than to be inside her as she trembled into his divine touches.

“Whoa!”

Ryan and Tara quickly pulled away from each other in panic to see who was standing by the open door.

Chapter Text

Ryan's hands rushed to his white shirt, buttoning up the three buttons, followed by his vest as Tara stepped away, wiping her mouth with her hands. They both felt like two horny teenagers who had just gotten caught making out by their parents, a feeling they thought they’d never experience again. After a moment of Marlene impassively staring at them with her jaw to the ground, everyone else stampeded in the house, escaping the snow storm that had brewed up. Daniel and Austin had Philip’s arms around their shoulders, carrying him to the sofa while he was moaning in pain.

“What happened?” Ryan’s eyes widened.

“He twisted his ankle doing the boogie with Mom.” Daniel chuckled.

“I’m alright, just need a little ice on this bad boy and I’ll be good to go!” Philip grunted. “You should have been there, Rye, it was one heck of a party until your mother decided it was time to come home because of my ankle.” Philip looked to Marlene, exasperated by her caring nature. He was hurting but was willing to play through the pain to stay a little longer at the party that they look forward to all year.

“You need to stay off it.” Marlene raised his right leg up and rested his foot on the coffee table for elevation.

“And I’m going to take care of you whether you like it or not, mister. We would have stayed if you didn’t keep grunting and groaning all over the place.”

“I need air.” Tara cleared her throat as she walked towards the front door.

“Tara, it’s snowing outside and you don’t have a jacket on.” Ashley tried to inform Tara but she walked out the front door anyway, not giving it a second thought.

Tara hugged herself, feeling her body shake from the ice snow that fell on her warm skin and stared down at the white ground, trying not to lose control of her emotions bubbling up inside until she was momentarily blinded by the high beams of a car pulling up to the drive way. Jennifer hopped out the car and shot Tara a cocky smile as she walked her way. “Hey Laura.”

Tara tightly clenched her jaw, she wasn’t going to dignify the vile woman with a response anymore. “What are you doing here? Daniel invited you again?”

“No, I came to get my man back.” Jennifer flipped her long blonde hair back.

Tara scoffed. There was no way Ryan would ever take her back and it was pathetic on her part for keeping up with the chase. “Hmm, good luck with that, honey.” Tara shook, rubbing her hands on her arms for friction as a large cold breeze swooped through her face, covering her long eyelashes with snowflakes.

Jennifer smiled, knowing that she was better than Tara in her high opinion. “I don’t need luck. He’ll come back to me. When we kissed earlier tonight, it was magical and I know he felt everything I felt. He won’t be able to deny me much longer. I’m the best that he’ll ever get.”

It was terribly cold outside, especially since Tara was only wearing her black, low cut shirt and her dark purple checkered pajama bottoms but she felt herself becoming numb to the violent wind. Ryan never mentioned that they had kissed and wondered why he never mentioned it. Why would he hide that from me?

“Did he not tell you about our kiss?” Jennifer noticed the disturbed look in Tara’s eyes and was about to take advantage of the situation. “Just ask him. His hands gripped his favorite part of my body and pulled me in close, kissed me the way we used to kiss, passionate and oh so hot. After a while, he did pull away, but he wanted me. I felt it in his kiss and body language and that’s why I know I’ll get him back. That kiss confirmed it all for me. He told me that I’m the only woman he’s ever truly loved but he’s afraid I might hurt him again but I changed and I’m going to prove it.” Jennifer twisted up her side of the story.

Tara marched back into the house, not able to hear another word out of her vicious mouth and brushed past Ryan who had walked up to her as she entered the house. He noticed how upset she looked as she passed him. As he was about to chase after her, Jennifer caught his attention as she walked through the front door.

“Get out!” Ryan barked and pointed his index finger to the door.

“Ryan, baby…” Jennifer begged.

“What did you say to her?”

“Nothing baby, I swear.”

“You’re a bullshit liar! I’m so sick of your crap! You ruined the party, you ruined my visit here, you ruined everything between me and Tara, and you ruined my life! Get out!” Ryan couldn’t contain himself from yelling, but he had endured enough from Jennifer. If his mother didn’t raise him right and to respect women he would have slapped common sense into her.

“There is nothing going on between you and Tara!” Jennifer snapped. “She’s freakin’ engaged! If she liked you then you’d know it, she’s playing you for a fool. That snobby bitch has no right to even be your friend. She’s tricking you into believing something more can happen between the two of you. Well, news flash Ryan, it will never happen. You and I can happen though, we are real and I love you! How much longer are you going to deny us?”

Everyone in the kitchen popped their heads out to see what all the commotion was about, except for Philip, who was unfortunately still sitting on the sofa with an ice pack around his ankle.

“Get out!” Ryan stared dead into her eyes. Jennifer had never seen this side of Ryan before, and for the first time since she’s known him she was frightened. She saw nothing but anger, resentment and frustration in his eyes. Right as she was about to say those three small words that she meant with her little black heart, Marlene barged through the thick hatred in the air to save her son from the wicked woman who had caused him too much pain.

“Alright, out, out, out!” Marlene gripped Jennifer’s dainty wrist and dragged her outside before Ryan completely exploded.

Tara had locked herself in Ryan’s room and silently started crying for letting herself feel the way she did. She was engaged to a man she settled for while she was falling in love with Ryan and hated that he was leaving for L.A.. All those emotions made her weak and she actually believed what Jennifer had told her. She packed her belongings as she called Lilah, but Lilah never answered her phone, so she called Jeff to ask for a loan. Jeff ended up sending some money to her bank account for an airline ticket back home without question. Tara was always there for Jeff, so it was his way of repaying her for being a true friend.

*Knock Knock Knock*

Tara grabbed her luggage, wiped the tears away and swung the bedroom door wide open to see Ryan standing before her.

“Where are you going?” Ryan noticed the luggage in her hand and her puffy red eyes.

“I’m going home. I’m sorry, Ryan. I just can’t be here.”

“You’re leaving with no car on Christmas Eve in the middle of a snow storm? No, I’m sorry, but I’m not letting you. Do you know how ridiculous that sounds?”

“Do you know how ridiculous you are?” Tara snarled.

“What?” He raised an eyebrow, wondering what she was talking about.

“Nothing.” She took a deep breath, exhaling slowly to calm her nerves.

“No, what do you mean? Whatever you’re feeling, whatever is going on, we can talk about it and deal with it together. You’re not alone on this.” He couldn’t stand to see the woman he fell in love with shed a tear and wanted nothing more than to take her pain away.

“Ryan, I just...” She rubbed her forehead, trying to relieve the headache that was starting to amp up. “There is too much going on right now, I can’t think straight. Please, I am begging you, I just really want to go home and be alone. I need time to think and sort everything out.”

“Well we should talk about it and…”

“No, I don’t want to talk about it, not right now. I just need to breath.”

“Okay.” Ryan gripped her shoulder. “I can’t stop you, but at least let me take you. There's no way I’m letting you go alone.”

“Ryan, I just can’t be around you right now.” She closed her eyes, avoiding eye contact.

“I really don’t care, Tara. It is too dangerous for you to be alone in a snow storm. I’m going with you to make sure you’re safe and don’t you dare argue back with me on this because this is an argument you will not win.” Ryan put his foot down, respecting her wish of wanting to leave and hoped she’d respect the fact that he at least wanted to make sure she was safe.

Tara heard the concern in his voice and the apprehension was made clear in his blue eyes, so she stood quiet, nodding in agreement.

After Tara briefly said her goodbyes to everyone with no explanation on why she was suddenly leaving, Ryan and Tara safely arrived at the airport. Ryan turned off the car and heavily sighed, combing back his hair with his hands, extremely frustrated but tried everything in his power to maintain his composure. Tara wasn’t the only one falling apart, Ryan was as well. He was certain that he was scaring her away. He wanted to talk to her, to lay everything out on the table for evaluation, but he had to respect that she was not up for that conversation yet.

“Ryan, please don’t follow me in.” Tara broke the long silence between them. “It’s Christmas Eve, you should be staying cozy by the fireplace with your family instead of being here with me. I’m such a mess right now I don’t even know where to begin.”

“What kind of man would I be if I just left you here?” He looked over to her with his hands firmly gripping the steering wheel.

“I’m serious, Ryan.” She persisted. “I really need to be alone and I can’t think when I’m around you. So please, I’m begging you, I’ll be okay. I’ll even call you when I get home so you’ll know I made it safely, but just please give me this one thing. I need to be alone. That’s all I’m asking for.”

He sat there with a pensive stare out the car window, struggling on choosing the right words to express what he was feeling.

“I am so sorry, Ryan, believe me…for everything. I’m confident and sure where my heart lies, but right now I’m just too stressed and I can’t seem to think straight. You and I… I can’t talk about it and I can’t deal with it right now. Shane… you… my life… I know what I want but I just don’t know where to begin, how to deal with this situation the right way and that is something I need to figure out on my own. I can’t have anyone impact my judgment but myself. Any decision being made is on me, what and who my future holds with.” Tara explained.

“I understand. I can only imagine what you are going through, what you’re feeling.” He sympathized. “I know you don’t want to talk about it and I don’t know what Jennifer told you, I just hope you can distinguish the truth from the lies. I really don’t want to leave you alone, but I can see you’re serious about it so I have to respect that. I want you to know that I’m willing to board that plane with you if you don’t want to be alone.”

Tara shut her eyes but a tear drop still managed to escape as she nodded then rested her head in the palms of her hands as her elbows rested on her knees. “I just need to be alone.” She sniffed.

Anything that Ryan said seemed to make her want to cry, so he sat there quietly until he observed her attire. She didn’t have on her thick jacket for the snow, only her black hoodie, which was not enough to keep her warm. “Where’s your jacket?”

“I left it on your bed.” She sighed.

“Here.” Ryan shuffled out of his black over coat and wrapped it around her.

“No, Ryan, I’ll be fine.” She slightly resisted.

“You need it.” He made sure she kept the overcoat on then reached over to the back seat to grab the gift he had bought for her.

“What’s this?” Tara stared at the small gift that was beautifully wrapped in shiny green and red Christmas designed paper with a small gold bow in the middle.

“I was really tight on money this month, it’s nothing big, just something I saw and thought of you.” He handed her the gift.

“Thank you.” She gently grabbed the gift out of his hand.

They sat there for a moment, knowing that there was nothing more to say. Tara opened the car door and as she was getting out, Ryan jumped out of the car, beating her to the trunk to help her with the luggage. “Be careful.” He sighed, handing it over to her.

Tara nodded and gently kissed his cheek, half an inch away from his lips. In one swift movement as her lips left his cheek, Ryan closed the very small gap between them with his hands cupping her cheeks, his lips pressed onto hers roughly but compassionately, catching Tara completely off guard. After a moment of trying to comprehend what was happening, her lips finally responded to the warmth of his dominant lips, grabbing a handful of the jacket that he wore under the overcoat he lent her and pulled him closer, both taking in the sensations as she trembled into his body heat.

He couldn’t bear the thought of Christmas without her, so his unexpected kiss was his last hope of maybe changing her mind to stay and maybe his last kiss with her if she decides to stay with Shane, so he had to taste her lips one last time before she left his sight. They inhaled their souls and all the love they had for each other in that kiss. Their tongues gently caressed each others, his hand slipped inside the overcoat and gripped her hip, which caused her to lose her breath in all the chemistry. She wrapped her arms around his neck, forgetting all her worries and problems as she slipped into another universe she didn’t even know existed, a universe she wanted nothing more than to live in.

As the fire dimmed down, they lingered for a precious moment, their foreheads rested on each others, trying to stay in that universe where their love could conquer any issue.

“I have to go.” She whispered and pulled away, grabbed her luggage and the gift and walked off, leaving Ryan standing by himself in the middle of the airport parking lot. After she disappeared from his vision, he stood there for another minute, not able to move with all the emotions pushing down on him. More than anything he hoped that maybe, just maybe she would turn back around, but she never did.

-Morning-

Due to the snow storm delaying flights, Tara wasn’t able to get home until late Christmas morning. Instead of going straight home, she went to Lilah’s apartment in hopes that she was home since she didn’t answer any of her phone calls.

“Hey, what are you doing here?” Lilah answered to the knock on her door.

“I’m such a fool.” Tara broke down.

“Hey now.” Lilah grabbed her luggage, closed the door behind her and pulled Tara in for a hug. “You’re not a fool. What happened? You look exhausted.” She dragged her to the sofa so she could sit and rest. “What did Ryan do to you?” She was ready to turn into a beast on who ever hurt her best friend.

“Remember Rick?” Tara sniffed.

“Yeah.” Lilah’s heart started palpitating for more than just one reason.

“He was my first boyfriend…I thought we would get married, spend the rest of our lives together. The love I felt for him was so real but we both wanted different things, our lives were headed in different directions and we couldn’t handle the pressure. Yes, we mutually decided to call it quits, but he still haunts my thoughts. I met Shane at some sleazy sports bar that you dragged me to and I settled to make the pain of losing Rick go away. It was a horrible mistake because Shane and I have nothing in common but I convinced myself into thinking that he and I were meant to be. I’m still somewhat trying to convince myself of that. I learned to love him, but I’m not in love with him. I thought that was just how I was going to spend the rest of my life until I met Ryan. I’ve tried to search for all the flaws in him, anything to make myself not fall for him and you want to know the one flaw I found?” Tara finally exposed her hidden feelings and thoughts to the only person she could trust in the world.

“What’s the one flaw you found in Ryan?” Lilah asked.

“He takes the bend out of bendy straws. I want to bend the straw when I put it in my drink and he always bends it for me.” Tara caught herself smiling and wiped her tears away. “I don’t think about Rick or Shane when I’m with Ryan. He’s so sweet, compassionate, patient, caring, funny, talented, hardworking, dedicated man who’s so freakin’ handsome and an amazing kisser. I’m in love with him…and I didn’t think I could feel this way again but he proved me wrong.”

“Wait? You two kissed?” Out of everything Tara exposed, Lilah only wanted to know more about the kiss.

“Twice, I’ve never been kissed the way he kissed me. He’s a perfect kisser. I feel horrible for leaving him last night but I really need to clear my mind. He’s leaving for L.A soon. He’s going to become someone big, travel all over the world singing the music he loves and I’ll be here. I don’t want him to go.”

“I’m sorry.” Lilah caressed her shoulder. “What are you going to do?”

“I need to text Ryan. I told him I’d let him know when I got home.” Tara pulled out her phone and as soon as she was about to press her finger on Ryan’s name, Shane started to call her.

“Are you going to answer it?” Lilah asked.

“No.” Tara put her phone away. “I’ma go home, take a long hot shower and then call him back and deal with him then.” Tara got up and grabbed her luggage. “By the way, why haven’t you answered my phone calls?”

“I went out, got a little tipsy and lost my phone.” Lilah shamefully confessed.

“Girl, how many times have you lost your phone already?” Tara smiled.

“I seriously lost count.” She smirked.

“You mind if I stop by later? I have a feeling all I’m getting from him this Christmas is a headache and I don’t want to spend the whole day alone.”

“I’ll be here all day. Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas.”

---- ---- ---- ----

Ryan and his family gathered around the Christmas tree late that morning with cookies and hot chocolate to open their gifts. Ryan didn’t contribute much to the conversations that everyone was having amongst themselves. Everyone knew Ryan’s heart was ripped out and stepped on last night so they understood that he wasn’t all smiles this year.

“Ryan, you have a gift from Tara.” Marlene pulled a present out from under the tree.

Ryan got up from the sofa, grabbed the small blue snowflake gift bag with red tissue paper keeping whatever was inside hidden and stared at it for a moment. He was surprised that Tara had gotten him something. He didn’t see her with it and she never informed him that she had gotten him something.

“What is it Teddy?” Celeste, who was sitting by the fireplace to stay warm, casually asked.

Everyone had stopped opening their gifts and looked to Ryan, nosy to know what Tara got him. He plucked out the Christmas card and couldn’t help but smirk as he pulled out the custom made card.

“Did she have that custom made?” Rebecca looked to Ryan. The front of the card said “Merry Christmas OneRepublic.”

He opened and read what she wrote inside. “To the talented band that will be counting stars, Merry Christmas. Congrats on your success and may it bring joy to your hearts as you bring joy to everyone else when they listen to the art you pour out on stage.” He emptied the contents of what was left in the envelope in his hand, five blue guitar picks with OneRepublic written across in cursive.

“That’s so cool.” Ashley commented.

He then reached in the bag and pulled out a picture frame with piano tiles for the frame and small music notes with a violin on the bottom right corner. He smiled wide but felt his heart collapse that she wasn’t with him to open it. It was a picture of Ryan and Tara who had taken a selfie in his car at 1:43 in the morning while they were on a Taco Bell run.

With every blink came a flashback to that night. They were texting each other and she had mentioned that she was starving but too lazy to make food so he randomly picked her up and drove her to Taco Bell for her late night munchies. They were jamming away to the music on the radio, sharing a few laughs and Tara pulled out her phone after they had gotten their food, wrapped her arm around Ryan’s neck to pull him close to her and snapped a picture, both with a wide cheesy smile. He enjoyed every second he had with her that night and it was also the night he came close to confessing his true feelings for her but what had gotten in the way was Zach. Zach had texted him for some insights on a song they were working on and when Ryan had mentioned that he was with Tara, Zach warned him not to do anything he might regret, so Ryan thought about it and even though it felt right, he was afraid that Tara might not feel the same way, so he backed down.

“That’s a beautiful picture.” Marlene hovered over Ryan’s shoulder.

“Yeah, she is.” Ryan whispered, admiring the radiant beauty in the picture.

---- ---- ---- ----

As Tara walked into the front door of her home a different scent filled her nostrils. She looked around and found a dozen scented candles scattered in the living room, in addition to six vases with six different types of flowers. After observing the living room she looked around for Shane but never called out to him, because she knew he was home since his car was in the driveway. As she opened the bedroom door, her eyes caught Shane tossing a few rose petals on the bed. “Shane?”

“Tara?” Shane quickly turned to face her.

“Where is she?” Tara gulped down the lump in her throat.

“Who?”

“I told you that I was coming back after Christmas and here you are the day before I’m supposed to be back with flowers and candles in the living room, spreading rose pedals on our bed. I know what this is so who’s the woman, Shane?”

“The woman is you.” Shane grabbed the envelope on the dresser and pulled out an airplane ticket to Tulsa, Oklahoma. “I was going to go find you and bring you back home. I didn’t want to spend Christmas without you.”

Tara’s mind was shaking on the edge of a cliff, she didn’t think Shane was capable of such a grand romantic gesture, which made it that much more difficult for her to think. “I thought you were on a business trip?”

“It got cancelled last minute. I came home and this house was just so empty without you. I really missed you.” He revealed.

“Shane, I don’t think this is working out.” She blurted out. “We’re so opposite, we always argue and our love life is not where I want it to be. We’re…” Tara confessed but couldn’t finish what she needed to get off her chest.

“Don’t say that.” He lifted her chin up to get a glimpse of her eyes. “I know we have issues but we can work it out. We’re getting married in a few months, let’s work together to make it right.”

“Shane, it’s not that simple. I can’t trust you. I always feel like you’re cheating on me and I can’t keep living like this, I’ll go insane.”

“I know, but you have to believe me when I say that you are the only woman for me. I’m faithful to you. I proposed to you because I’m in it for the long haul. You are the woman I want by my side. You say you’re scared of me cheating on you, but I’m the one who should be scared, so I had to do it.”

“Do what?” Tara narrowed her eyebrows.

“I went and got a copy of your phone history. I noticed that you talk to a man named Ryan a lot. You’ve never mentioned him before and you seem to have a pretty strong relationship with him, strong enough that you’d even go spend Christmas with his family. You lied to me.”

“Shane, I swear to you that we’re only friends. Nothing is going on.”

“Yeah.” Shane rubbed the back of his head, not buying into what she was saying, but he didn’t want to argue, not today out of all the days of the year. “I just realized that I could lose you to anyone and if I don’t try harder to meet your needs then I will lose you. So let’s work things out.”

“I don’t know, Shane…I really don’t know.” Tara sat on the edge of their bed.

“Give me a chance. You lied to me just to spend time with another man, you at least owe me that.”

Tara couldn’t speak a word, she didn’t know how to handle the situation. “Hey.” Shane got on one knee and stared into her eyes. “I forgot your favorite chocolate and a few ingredients for the dinner I’m going to prepare for us tonight, so I’m going to find a store that’s open. Don’t go anywhere, take a long hot bath and unwind. I’ll hurry back.” He cupped her chin, gently kissed her lips, then got back up and left the bedroom.

Tara was now more confused than ever. She’s never seen this side of Shane before, the part of him where he started to really care about their relationship. Difficult decisions needed to be made and she didn’t know how to go about it. A few seconds after Shane left the bedroom, she felt her back pocket vibrate. She reached to grab her phone and without checking to see who was calling she answered.

“Hello?”

“Hey, you never called to tell me if you got home safely.” Ryan’s voice echoed in her ear. His alluring voice alone made the hair on Tara’s arms rise.

“I’m sorry. The flight was delayed because of the snow storm. I got here late this morning, stopped by Lilah’s for a bit. I just got home right now actually.”

“Oh…okay. Well, I’m glad you made it home safely.”

“Yeah, I did.” She sighed.

“I opened the gift you left under the tree. Thank you, it really means a lot to me. I just thought you should know that.”

“I’m glad you like it.”

“I love it.” He corrected her. “Thank you.”

“I haven’t opened the gift you gave me. I’ve been so tired I just want to sleep.”

“You should rest; open it later when you’re wide awake.”

“I will. I’ll talk to you later.”

“Okay.” Ryan breathed.

“Bye.”

Ryan hesitated for a second. “Bye.”

“Ryan?” Tara quickly tried to catch him before he hung up, but what she didn’t know is that he was nowhere close to hanging up on her, not until he heard the dial tone.

“Yeah.”

“Merry Christmas.” She softly spoke.

He hesitated once more, choking up on his emotions. “Merry Christmas.”

---- ---- ---- ----

Instead of going to the nearest open store, Shane found his way to the front door of a beautiful blue suburban home.

“Shane!” A blonde, petite, big breasted girl answered the door and jumped into his arms. “I thought you were going on a business trip, baby.”

“Yeah, my flight takes off in an hour.” He lied. “But I wanted to see you before I go.” He gripped her round ass and brought her in for a kiss.

“Well, let me show you how much I’m going to miss you.” The blonde spoke in between kisses as she pulled him into her house and kicked the door shut.

Chapter Text

-Later That Night-

“How’d you enjoy your dinner?” Shane passed the clean wet dishes to Tara to dry and put away, both working as a team to clean the kitchen after he had made her dinner as a way to try and save their relationship.

“It was really good, thank you.”

Shane turned the faucet off and dried his wet hands on his black T-shirt, then grabbed the plate out of Tara’s hand and turned her to face him, brining her body in for a close embrace.

“Shane…” Except before Tara could finish her sentence, he smacked his lips on hers for a passionate kiss.

“Whoa.” She pulled away, gasping for air.

“How about we move this upstairs?” He seductively smirked, moving his hands lower to her curves.

Tara found herself hesitating at his request. "Um, maybe we could just cuddle tonight?”

“Come on, baby. I’m really trying to meet your needs here and I know when we make love it’s not up to your standards, so let me start tonight. I’ll make you feel like you’ve never felt before.”

“It’s just that I’m full and I had a long day.” She excused herself.

“I’m going to go upstairs, light the candles to set the mood and all you have to do is lie down, I’ll do all the work, baby.” Shane brought her in for another romantic kiss, clearly not taking ‘no’ for an answer, then hurried upstairs.

Tara quickly dried her hands and paced over to the living room where she left her luggage that she never took upstairs and grabbed the gift Ryan had given her. She quickly unwrapped the beautiful gift and held a lime green notebook with a dream catcher in the middle with a quote saying, “Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.”. A quote from a romantic poet from the 1700’s named William Wordsworth, which was a poet she had mentioned once to Ryan when they started talking about poetry. She opened the notebook and pulled out a red ace of hearts playing card. As she held the card in her hand she read what he wrote on the first page of the notebook.

“Directly or indirectly, everything we write is for someone. Never stop pouring your heart out onto pieces of paper that instantly turn into gold with your words. The night you showed me my future, knowing that I had an ace of heart in my hand means that we’ll both get what we want, so maybe you can hold on to it until that day comes. It’s in your hands now. I’ll be waiting patiently for the card to unfold its magic.”

Reading Ryan’s words in his well written hand writing had her emotions threatening to jump off a cliff and made it that much more difficult for her to breath. She knew exactly what Ryan meant. It was really up to her to make the move, to decide when and what will happen next between the two. She remembered the night she told him his future clearly despite the fact that she was intoxicated and realized at that moment how much meaning that card held and how much it meant to Ryan.

-November 25th-One month ago-

It was Zach’s birthday and he decided to not celebrate it this year after an incident that happened to him last year. He refused to talk about it and wanted to stay home for his birthday and just relax, but Tara didn’t like the thought of him spending his special day alone. Since Shane was out for the night, she decided to invite Zach, Brent, Drew, Eddie and Ryan over for a private get together to celebrate his birthday and after some convincing, Zach agreed as long as no one else was invited. She bought dinner for everyone and made him a birthday cake from scratch. Eddie insisted that everyone needed to drink to have a good time, so they all started taking shots which lead them all wanting to play a game.

They were all in her living room, sitting on the ground around the coffee table and playing Sevens, which was like competitive solitaire but much more fun while rocking out to the music Zach was playing on his iPod connected to Tara’s stereo.

“Bam!” Zach laughed as he threw his cards on the table, showing everyone that he won the game. Brent, Drew, Eddie, Ryan and Tara groaned in disappointment of losing the game and threw their cards on the table in defeat.

“You cheated!” Tara giggled as she drowned down the last sip of her mixed drink.

“You wish.” Zach smiled. “I’m just that damn good!”

“Whatever, man.” Drew stated while he was rough housing around with Zach by shoving his shoulder.

“I wanna thank you again for throwing me this private hangout.” Zach shoved Drew back with his shoulder and looked to Tara. “After last year’s birthday party fiasco, I’m just glad to be around people who matter to me this year. I wasn't in the mood for a huge party.”

“No problem. When Ryan told me that you weren’t doing anything special I couldn’t have that. You deserve a homemade birthday cake at least.” She smiled back and forth between Zach and Drew who kept shoulder busting each other.

“That cake was so delicious. Do we have anymore?”Zach fell back on the floor when Drew pushed him again. He laid there, relaxing as he felt his head spin from the alcohol consumption and with a craving of more cake.

“Dude, it’s like right behind you.” Brent pointed to the piece of cake left on the small table by the door.

“Yes!” Zach attempted to crawl to it.

“I’ll be right back, we need more booze.” Tara pushed her weight on Ryan’s shoulder to help herself up.

“Yeah!” The guys simultaneously cheered.

Tara searched the kitchen for the unopened bottle of Grey Goose that Drew had brought, but because the alcohol impaired her vision, she couldn’t see that it was right by her microwave.

“Hey, Tara.” Ryan stumbled into the kitchen with the deck of cards in his hand.

“Ryan! Where’s the Grey Goose?” Tara whispered for no apparent reason and leaned back on the refrigerator for balance.

“Oh man, we can’t tell Drew you lost it!” Ryan slurred as he started rummaging through the kitchen appliances to find it.

“I lost it? Gee thanks, Teddy.” She smirked.

Ryan stopped searching and walked up to her. “You gotta stop calling me Teddy.” He demanded in his macho deep voice, standing up straight like a champion, his nonverbal cue of asserting his dominance and vitality.

“Oh, come on, you know you like it when I call you Teddy.” She flirtatiously winked followed by a playfully nudged on his chest.

Ryan couldn’t contain his smile. “Yeah, I really like it when you call me Teddy.” His drunkenly gaze into her eyes made Tara’s heart skip a beat. Even when drunk, he still possessed the unique charm that she couldn’t resist and in his stance, head up, chest out, stomach in, both feet facing her and the confidence of a superhero, there was no way she could resist him.

“What else do you like?” She bravely kept the gaze into his eyes going, taking a baby step closer into his personal space that he left wide open for her to enter.

Ryan slightly licked his lips and took a peak at her body before returning his eyes back to hers. “I really like y…”

“We need more liquor!” Brent ran into the kitchen and found the Grey Goose by the microwave, completely interrupting what Ryan was about to expose to Tara. “Guys!” He paced over to them and held Ryan’s shoulder for balance. “You gotta come see this. Zach said he’s going to chug this bad boy and wants us to record it so he can remember it in the morning.” He held up the liquor for show. “Let’s go!” He scampered out of the kitchen and back to Zach.

“Wanna see a magic trick?” Tara grabbed the deck of cards out of Ryan’s hand, choosing to ignore what Brent had said. She didn’t want to walk out of the kitchen just yet and she definitely didn’t want Ryan to either.

He stared at her as he gulped down the words he wanted to expose and nodded.

“Well, it’s not really a magic trick. Lilah dragged me with her on a card reading. You know those people who can ‘supposedly’ tell you your future because she wanted to know if this mystery guy she doesn’t want to tell me about is worth her time.”

“That doesn’t sound like Lilah to not tell you who she’s involved with. You guys tell each other everything.” Ryan stated.

“Yeah, well she won’t tell me. She must be real serious about the mystery guy because she’s been acting differently. Oh well, like I was saying.” She started shuffling the deck of cards. “I studied what the fortune teller was doing with the cards and it was pretty simple except I don’t have one of those fancy fortune telling candles the lady used to light up while I’m doing this.” Tara grabbed Ryan’s right hand and laid the deck on his palm. “Hold the cards tight and repeat the name of the person you love or most desire to yourself. If I do this correctly, the cards will foretell your future with that person.”

Ryan held the cards tight and repeated Tara’s name in his head as he eyeballed her from head to toe when she pulled out her phone to check the time.

“Okay.” Tara yanked the deck out of his hands. She shuffled once more then started throwing cards on the counter until she got to the number 17. “I’m probably doing this all wrong because I’m a little too drunk to remember every detail but I’m going to remain confident and say that I’m doing it right.” She giggled.

“Got it.” Ryan smiled when he heard her giggle. Her giggles were music to his ears and he enjoyed her innocent smiles that followed every time.

Tara laid out the next four cards side by side. She laid down the ace of spades, king of hearts, queen of hearts and ace of hearts. “Hmm.” She analyzed the cards as she tried to remember their meanings.

“What does that mean?” Ryan questioned, staring at Tara while she was studying the cards.

“Well, if I remember correctly, Ace of spades means a very rocky road for you and that person. The king of hearts and queen of hearts means both of you are hopeless romantics and the fact that you have both the king and queen means that the person you were thinking of can potentially be your soul mate, but the ace of spades is what is keeping you two from being together. At least that is what the fortune teller said.” Tara kept her eyes on the cards. “You wanna know something weird?”

“What?”

“These are the same exact cards Lilah got in her reading.” Tara couldn’t help but feel odd about the fact that they both held the same cards in their future. “I personally don’t believe that someone’s future can be told by some deck of cards, but I’m not gonna lie, it’s pretty interesting that you and Lilah wound up having the same cards.”

“What does the ace of hearts mean?” Ryan picked up the card, ignoring the coincidence that Tara was fixated on.

“It means you’ll overcome it, you two will overcome all adversity. What’s meant to be is meant to be.” Tara began to choke up as she stared at the ace of hearts in Ryan’s hand, her emotions now overpowering her relaxed demeanor.

“Tara.” Ryan flipped the ace of hearts around in his hand. With the consumption of alcohol and the card of fate in his hand gave him more than enough confidence to tell her everything that was in his heart. It was now or never.

“Yeah.” She stared into his eyes, trying to guess who the person he most desired was but knew deep down whose name he repeated in his head. Ryan’s small acts of affection towards her since they met -the light touches, pressing hugs, lingering eye contact, late night texts and good morning wishes- were just the summary of the hints he gave away of how much he really cared for her.

Ryan gulped, his heart beating fast and palms sweaty with fear. “I…”

“The kitchen! Run to the kitchen!” Drew’s loud voice interrupted the moment, followed by Zach sprinting into the kitchen and threw his face in the sink to vomit.

“What happened?” Tara rushed to Zach’s aid.

“He can’t keep his liquor down.” Eddie laughed as he and the rest of the guys guffawed their way into the kitchen.

Tara rubbed Zach’s back for comfort as Drew turned on the faucet while Brent and Eddie searched for a bar towel to wipe Zach’s wet face.

Zach finally took in a breath and cupped his hands to catch the running water to rinse out his mouth. “Did you guys record…?” But before he could finish his sentence he hacked up the rest of his dinner again.

Everyone was by Zach’s side, making sure he let everything out and to keep him standing except for Ryan. Ryan stood by the kitchen counter and stared down at the cards displayed out in front of him, holding the ace of hearts in his hand, wanting nothing but the cards to be true.

---- ----End of FlashBack ---- ----

Tara couldn’t handle the pressure anymore. She felt a nervous breakdown forming just around the corner. Having Shane suddenly make a three hundred and sixty degree change on their relationship issues was making it that much more difficult for her, but she couldn’t just deny how she felt for Ryan. She kept the gift in her hand, grabbed her already set luggage and walked out the front door and straight to Lilah’s apartment.

“Can I stay here for a few days?” Tara beseeched when Lilah opened her door.

“Did Shane give you hell?” She questioned as she stepped to the side to let her in.

“No, he did the opposite.” Tara updated. “I just need to be secluded from everyone right now. I can’t be anywhere near Shane or Ryan. I really need a few days to myself to clear every thought I have.” Tara handed her cell phone to Lilah. “Take it, please.”

“Whoa.” Lilah grabbed Tara’s phone. “Are you sure you wanna go cold turkey like that?”

“I can’t have any connection to the outside world. I need to do this.”

-Two days later-

*Knock, knock, knock*

“Hey Ryan, what are you doing here?” Lilah opened the door after she checked the peep hole to see who it was.

“I really need to talk to Tara. I’ve called, texted and showed up at her house, but she seems to have completely cut me off. I was hoping you’d know where she is.”

“She went cold turkey.” She grabbed Tara’s phone and showed it to Ryan. “She told me to hold on to her phone so she won’t have any distractions. She looked like she was about to crack and said that she needed to think. She’s staying here with me but she took off about an hour ago. I don’t know when she’ll be back.”

“Well, turns out I’m leaving sooner for Los Angeles, so could you let her know that I really need to talk to her?”

“How soon?” Lilah questioned.

“After I finish my last performance at Romeo’s tomorrow night I’m gone. I just really need to see her so could you please let her know.” Ryan pleaded, hoping that Lilah would pass the message along.

“Yeah, okay. I’ll let her know. Hey, I know you’re going through something right now, but incase I don’t see you again, congratulations. You’re going to do great in L.A.”

“Thanks. That means a lot.” Ryan failed at his attempt to smile and walked away.

It was 6:54 p.m. when Ryan walked into a bar for a drink. Normally he wouldn’t be caught drinking by himself in some run down bar, but he couldn’t handle the pain anymore, he needed to numb it. He sat at the bar drowning down the whiskey in his glass, staring blankly at the different bottles of liquor that rested on the dusty shelf. He pointed down at his empty glass as he took in the last gulp to signal the bartender that he needed another.

The bartender observed Ryan as he was polishing a glass in his hand and walked over to him. “You should take it easy there, buddy. You’ve been here for thirty minutes and I’ve refilled your drink several times. Did you drive here?”

“Yeah but I’m taking a taxi home.” Ryan pointed to his glass again.

“Alright, it’s your funeral but if you keep drinking at the pace you’re going I’m gonna have to cut you off.” The bartender filled the glass once again and walked over to another customer.

“Scotch on the rocks.” A tall and muscular man ordered as he took a seat on the bar stool next to Ryan.

Ryan glanced over to the man then stared back to the bottles on the shelf, and after a moment it finally dawned on him. He took another look at the man, which was when all his pain and frustration channeled into anger as he finally came face to face with Shane.

“Can I help you?” Shane stared at the man who was scowling down at him.

Ryan took a big gulp of his whisky. “No.” The liquor burning down his throat husked up his voice. “You just have a familiar face.”

“I tend to get that a lot.” Shane replied. “I’ve had people mistake me for an actor named Jon Bernthal. He’s one sexy son of a bitch so being mistaken for that guy is an honor, but uh, you don’t look familiar so I don’t think we’ve ever met.”

“Yeah.” Ryan kept up with his husky voice. He was on high alert, sitting tall and no longer slouching as he studied his only nemesis in the world.

“You alright, man?” Shane asked when he noticed how Ryan gulped down his drink. Being an avid bar hopper, Shane knew when someone is drinking for the hell of it, and when someone is drinking to hide their pain. He automatically knew why Ryan was there.

“Yeah, just one of those days you know.” Ryan took another gulp.

“I’m with ya on that, bro. I’m busting my ass off for a girl who doesn’t appreciate anything I do for her. I’m pretty convinced that she’s off cheating on me.” Shane took a sip of his scotch.

“What brought you to that conclusion?” Ryan tried to act interested and concerned but he really couldn’t care any less on what the man had to say.

“Went through her phone records, noticed she talks to some douche bag named Ryan. Just the name alone sounds like some low life, hipster surfer dude… pff. What kind of name is Ryan?” He shook his head in disgust, trying to imagine how Ryan looked like. “She seems to be pretty close to him, lies to me about hanging with her girlfriend just so she could be with him. Hell, she even lied to me about spending Christmas with her girlfriend. She went down to the good ole' state of OK with him.”

Ryan stared down at the glass in his hand, restraining himself even though he wanted to defend Tara’s honor. She was too much of a good girl to have the sinful intention of cheating, even to her fiancé who was clearly not worth her best years. She had a conscious and knew it was wrong nonetheless. Ryan knew that was one of the reasons why Tara secluded herself from him, because she felt guilty for wanting to be with him, and even though Shane was a chauvinistic imbecile, she didn’t have the heart to hurt him. Tara didn’t have it in her to hurt anyone no matter how cruel and horrid a person could be. It just wasn’t in her nature.

“I’m Shane.” He held out his hand for a handshake. “I’m here ranting about my problems and I never even caught your name.”

Ryan clenched his jaw tight which sparked a sharp pain, trying to hold himself back from knocking Shane off the barstool. “John.” He lied as he gripped his hand firmly.

“Strong grip you got there, John.” Shane pulled his big hand away and quickly focused his eyes on a beautiful redheaded woman who was ordering a beer two feet away from him.

Ryan caught sight of Shane taking off his engagement ring and slipping it into his coat pocket. “She’s quite a looker, isn’t she?” Ryan interrogated.

“She’s very sexy.” Shane admired the pretty redhead’s assets as she walked away with her beer. “Maybe I should hit that.” He straightened out his appearance.

“What about your girl?” Ryan formed a tight fist, his anger shaking him to his very core. “You’re saying that she’s cheating on you and you’re running off to another woman?”

“Why shouldn’t I get at that piece of ass? I’m not married yet. My girl is just too much to handle right now. She’s becoming a whiny bitch. We’re men, it’s in our nature to plant our seed where it needs planting and that girl needs fertilizing.”

“You running off and sleeping with other woman is probably the reason why your girl is spending so much time with this Ryan guy.” Ryan explained. “If she was getting the attention she deserves and the affection any woman craves then maybe she wouldn’t lie to you about spending time with another man. Maybe you should evaluate yourself and see what you’re doing wrong that’s driving her away.”

“I’ve given her everything a woman could ask for.” Shane countered. “I bust my ass to support us. I bought us a dream home, the expensive car she drives, diamonds, everything a girl could possibly want. She doesn’t make much on a teacher’s salary, so I’m more than happy to take the load. All I ask for in return is to have dinner ready on the table and give me some space to unwind from a long day at work and she can’t even do that. She chooses to be distant with me. I’ve tried to make us work but she doesn’t want to try.” He told his version of the story.

“A smart woman will eventually catch on when her man is cheating. I’m thinkin’ you drove her into the arms of another man, but since she has a heart, it wasn’t her intentions of falling for someone else, she just realized that she could do better with this Ryan guy.”

“You don’t even know her so why are you defending her?” Shane glowered as his hand slapped down on the bar table. “I’m the best she’ll ever have, no man can give her what I can. You’re saying she didn’t have the intentions of falling for someone else but here’s where you’re wrong. No woman lies to her husband about being with another man unless she fucking him. She’s a lying, two timing bitch whose whoring around with some low life asshole of a man.” Shane started to capture the attention of the bar goers around him with his loud and aggressive voice.

“Oh, I’m looking at some low life asshole of a man right now.”

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” Shane stood up on both feet.

Ryan chugged down the rest of his liquid courage and stood up to him. “Nothing, you just seem like a total jackass who doesn’t know how good he has it.”

“Who are you to be judging who I am and what I have?” Shane pushed Ryan’s shoulder hard enough to knock him back a foot.

Ryan stared down at his shoes, unable to make a sober decision to walk away, he pushed forward with all his body weight, forming a fist and punched Shane right in the nose.

“Fight!” A bitter old drunk yelled out from the dark corner he roamed in clear across the other side of the bar.

Shane tackled Ryan down to the ground and got Ryan back with a fist to his nose. As he was about to throw in another punch Ryan countered with a head butt to Shane’s face and punched his strong jaw in.

“Hey, break it up or I’m calling the police!” The bartender jumped out from behind the bar counter.

Ryan and Shane exchanged multiple blows to the face and gut, trying to take one another down as if they were in a battle to the death. Ryan knew that he was the underdog in the fight, which he would probably lose because Shane had the muscles of a professional fighter, but the anger he harbored for him and the adrenaline running through his veins allowed him to keep up with Shane, not to mention all the whiskey in his system helped numb the physical pain to his body. They threw each other across the bar and broke a pool table in the process, which made everyone scamper away, not wanting to get caught in the crossfire. Since no one wanted to intervene, they kept up with the blood spilt brawl until the police finally showed up.

---- ---- ---- ----

“Tara, you need to call Ryan right now!” Lilah tossed Tara’s phone back to her possession when she walked into her apartment.

“I only need one more day.”

“You just ran out of time. Ryan stopped by and he told me that he’s leaving for L.A. tomorrow night.”

“What?” Tara’s heart plummeted fifty feet to the ground. “I thought I had more time.”

“Well, apparently you don’t and he really needs to talk to you.”

“Crap.” Tara checked her messages from Ryan then called him back. “He’s not answering.”

“You better keep trying.” Lilah persisted. “You two need to clear the air and be with each other already.”

“So now you’re pro Ryan? What changed your mind?” Tara started to wonder why she was eager for her to chase after him. It wasn’t that Lilah was against her friendship with Ryan, but Tara knew that Lilah was aware of how they felt for each and she always hinted out to Tara that they shouldn’t be hanging out together so much. It’s dangerous to be friends with someone you have feelings for when you are committed to another man.

“I’m just doing what a best friend does. If I happened to like someone but was too afraid to go for it I would hope you’d do the same for me.” Lilah hesitated.

“Yeah…I guess I would.” Tara knew Lilah’s mind was clearly on another topic. She knew that it wasn’t really about her, it was about Lilah, but she didn’t have time to figure her out at that very moment, she had to deal with her problems first.

“If I fell for someone I probably shouldn’t have fallen for and it was beyond wrong to pursue him because of whatever issue of the past was present, I know you’d be an amazing and understanding friend and push me to be happy no matter what the cost was…you know…if that were the case.” Lilah continued on.

“Okay…I suppose.” Tara took notice of Lilah’s fidgeting which was odd for her to see but she quickly blew it off to hear her voicemails. “Oh crap!” Tara gasped.

“What? What happened?” Lilah’s eyes widened.

“Shane’s in jail! I got a voice mail from him about an hour ago. He got into a bar fight.”

“Wow.” Lilah sighed. “That guy is oozing testosterone there, isn’t he?”

With a deep sigh, Tara grabbed her keys and headed out the door to bail her fiancé out of trouble, which sadly was not the first time.

---- ---- ---- ----

Charming’s police station was pretty compact that the voices tend to carry onto the other rooms, so the arrested felons who were locked up in the back could usually hear everything that the officers were saying in the front when silent. Shane was locked up in the cell right across from Ryan, both of them mad dogging each other but remained quiet so when Tara walked in, Shane and Ryan heard her voice.

“Excuse me.” Tara sprinted in the station, in a rush to have Shane released. “You guys locked up my fiancé.” She directed her comment to the officer whose back was turned to the entrance.

“Would his name happen to be Shane Walsh?” The officer turned around.

Just when Tara thought her unhinged mind couldn’t be any more distressed she was proven wrong. She never thought she’d see her ex again after he left the Charming Police Station for a sheriff position in Sacramento, but there he was, standing tall in his tan police uniform. His gun was snugged tight in his holster that wrapped around his fit waist, still slim but in shape, short curly dark brown hair, crystal blue eyes that thunder struck her with the past and his sophisticated robust pretty boy face. She couldn’t believe her eyes that he was actually standing before her. One of the many reasons why their relationship was mutually shut down was because he was a police officer. She was always worried that she’d get a dreadful call that determined the terrible fate of whatever emergency call he attended. Shootouts, drug smugglers and murders, it was just too much for her that she couldn’t sleep at nights, and when he got offered a sheriffs position in Sacramento she knew it was over. “Rick?”

“Tara?” Rick gulped, he too couldn’t believe his eyes and was struck by her beauty that he hadn’t seen in four years. “Wow.”

“When’d you come back?” She batted her eyes to adjust her vision.

“I came back in August. Sacramento was great but something about this city just pulled me back in.”

“So you’re the new sheriff?” She stared at his badge.

“Yeah, Jimmy Novak, the previous sheriff, finally retired. A buddy of mine told me about the opening and here I am.”

“Well that’s…that’s cool.” She stuttered.

“You look great.” Rick eyeballed her perfect figure.

“Yeah, you um…so do you.” She did a quick check out of how amazing he looked in his police uniform. The four years apart seemed to do wonders for him. Just like fine wine, it tastes better with age, but in this case he looked better with four years of life written in his face.

“So uh, I’m assuming you’re here to bail out your fiancé.” Rick got down to business.

“Um, yeah…how much is it?”

“I couldn’t determine who started the fight but there was a not so reliable witness stating that the dirty blond haired guy started it but I can’t be too sure. So when that happens we arrest both parties of the fight. With that said, bail is five fifty. You should know that Shane is pressing charges against the other man, so he might be looking at some jail time if your fiancé wins but between you and I, I don’t think he’s got a case.”

“Wow…okay then.” Tara pulled out her wallet to pay the fine. “Five hundred and fifty dollars is a little steep for a bar fight.” Tara handed over the credit card that Shane had given her.

“I don’t make up the prices I just enforce it.” He grabbed her credit card and swiped it through. “Follow me.” He handed back her card and led her to the jail cells.

“Looks like you’re being released.” Rick informed Shane as he pulled out his keys to open the cell.

Tara realized it must have been a real intense fight from the open cuts around his lips, his swollen purple cheek and ripped shirt. Anyone that could kick his ass like that had to be one tough cookie because Shane used to be an MMA fighter in his college years and still possessed his rock hard physique. As Tara glanced over to the arrested man sitting on the bench across Shane’s cell, the air was violently kicked out of her lungs. She started choking over the words that tried to escape her mouth. She couldn’t believe Ryan was the one who was involved in this mess and felt horrible seeing Ryan beaten down the way he was with a busted bottom lip, black eye, ragged hair and his jacket sleeve ripped in half.

“Tara, are you okay?” Rick rushed to her aid when he saw her lose balance. “Tara?”

“No.” She finally caught breath and pushed herself right in front of Shane’s cell, blocking Rick from setting him free and pointed over to Ryan’s cell “If you press charges against that man then you can spend the night in jail.”

“What?!?” Shane boiled. “That jackass started it and you want me to just let him go free? He needs to pay…”

“No!” Tara argued. “You said you want to make things right between us, then it starts here. You don’t press charges and let it go or I swear…”

“You swear what?” Shane pressed on.

“You really want to know?” Tara stood her ground and slipped her engagement ring off.

“Okay, okay.” Shane surrendered, knowing exactly what she was going to say next. “I won’t press charges.”

Tara stepped back and with her nod of approval, Rick unlocked Shane’s cell. “Wait in the car.” Tara stared past Shane, too disgruntled to make eye contact. “I’ll be there in a minute.”

Shane tried to contain his hostile behavior since he was in the presence of an officer but if he wasn’t he would have never given in the way he just did. “You hit like a bitch.” He muttered under his breath as he limped away, trying not to put so much pressure on his left leg that was damaged during the fight and deviously smirked knowing that Ryan heard his comment.

“Rick, could you give me a minute?” Her eyes focused on Ryan’s wounds. Rick nodded and proceeded out the door. “What happened?” She gripped the bars on Ryan’s cell.

“It really doesn’t matter now, does it?” Ryan didn’t bother looking up and continued to sit on the bench and stare off into space.

“I got Shane to not press charges against you so…”

“Am I supposed to say thank you or somethin’?” Ryan slurred, still highly intoxicated.

“I wasn’t expecting one. Ryan, please don’t do this.”

“Do what, Tara?” Ryan jumped up and walked over to the cold steel bars to get a better look into her eyes.

Tara knew Ryan was drunk by his red eyes, drunken stance and the intense smell of liquor on his breath. “Don’t make this harder than what it…”

“Already is, right?” Ryan completed her sentence. “When did it start getting hard for you? You wanna know when it started getting hard for me? The moment I met you.” He exploded, then turned his back to her. “I should have just walked away.” He confessed under his breath.

“Ryan?” Tara whispered.

“You’re engaged to a total tool! Do you know how we both wound up in here?” Ryan turned back to her. “I’m sure your prince charming will give you his version of the story, but listen to mine. I was at the bar he walked into, started ranting about how bad of a woman you were and made himself set out to be the victim and being the jackass that he is, he was going to go home with another woman. I stepped in trying to shed some light in hopes that maybe he would stop his ways and be a better man, even though it hurt me to do it, and he pushed me. So I did what I had to do, self defense.”

“If it was just a push then why didn’t you walk away? You should know better, you are better.”

“I guess I’m not. I’m not better, Tara…I’m just not. Not for you, I never was, was I?” Ryan held back his tears and hardened up. “By tomorrow night I’ll be out of this town forever and you could get back to your life of lies and deception from your husband to be."

Tara on the other hand couldn’t hold back her tears, they flooded out and dripped to the floor. “You wanna know something, Ryan? Why I hesitate so much… it’s because you scare me.”

“How?” He scrunched up his eyebrows in curiosity.

“I’m engaged. I was moving forward with my life, then I met you and you changed everything. Every day that we saw each other you changed my philosophy on everything I thought I knew. I’m happy for you that you finally got your big break, but I really wish you wouldn’t leave me here like this. What we…”

“What am I supposed to do? Quit my dream, stay here and hope that you will ditch that jerk and realize that even though I have two crappy jobs and don’t make as much as he does I could give you everything that he lacks in.”

“You know I would never ask you to do that. If you ever quit I’d hate you for it and…”

“Just stop, Tara.” Ryan sighed. “I can’t do it anymore. I’m walking out of this town and I’m not coming back because I’ve had enough. I don’t know how much longer I can feel like this and not go insane. Being around you is nothing but torture. I need to get over you…I’m over you.” He shut his eyes, lying to himself and Tara.

“I decided your life changing decision for you so you won’t have to be the one to make it. You can go around saying that you at least tried while I gave up.” At that very moment, everything Ryan said was coming straight from the heart that was attacked with pain with every glance to Tara. As long as Shane was in the picture there was no more film to develop between the two, but he was never supposed to speak of it, to let it out in the open like he just did, but because he was intoxicated and still amped up from the fight he didn’t have control of his words. What he really wanted to do was beg her to leave Shane, to see what a monster he truly was and to tell her to go with him to L.A so he could take care of her and make her his girl, but the cruel power of alcohol wouldn’t let him drop his pride.

Tara tried to toughen up, wiping her tears away. “So…just like that? Ryan, I…”

“Please just do me the favor and be quiet. Save your excuse for someone who cares because I don’t. I can’t do this anymore.”

“You don’t even know what I’m going to say so how can you say that you don’t want to hear it?” She argued.

“Trust me, it’s nothing I want to hear.” He lied as he slouched back down on the bench.

“I didn’t want you and I to be like this. You and I can’t end like this, it’s a horrible ending to something so amazing we have but if that’s what...” She couldn’t help but to choke up again. “What you really want then…”

“It’s what I need. Just walk away.” It was far from what he wanted. He broke inside saying those words. It was something he definitely didn’t want and he hated that he had to be cold to her, but it was the only way he knew how to deal with it at the moment and it was also something he would regret when sober. “Just go!” He yelled as he ran his hands down his face.

Tara pulled out her wallet and plucked out the ace of hearts card. “I’m sorry.” She laid the card on the ground and walked away, holding back her tears because she didn’t want to bawl like a baby in front of Shane.

“Are you okay?” Rick rested his hand over her shoulder.

“Yeah.” She sniffed. “I’ma…I’m gonna pay for his bail as well.” She pulled out her personal bank card that Shane had no knowledge of and handed it over. She had a total of one thousand and forty-two dollars saved up. It was her ‘rainy day’ money that she saved up little by little.

“Are you sure?” Rick narrowed in his eyebrows.

“Yes, could you just make sure he gets home safely? He’s too drunk to go off alone.”

“Of course.” Rick swiped her card, then handed it back once the transaction was completed.

Tara stared into his eyes, thanking him with a forced upon smile before walking away. “I wanted to call you.” Rick blurted out before she got to the exit. She turned around and Rick took a few steps over to her. “I know this is bad timing to talk about it, but I really did. I almost dialed your number over a hundred times, but Lilah told me you were engaged so I backed down.”

“You, uh...” She cleared her throat. “You talked to Lilah?”

“Y… yeah. We ran into each other while grocery shopping the first week I came back.”

“Oh.” Tara couldn’t believe that Lilah didn’t tell her an important piece of information like running into her ex and started to think of all the reasons why she’d keep that from her. “She never mentioned anything about running into you.”

Rick hesitated to continue talking and stared down at the floor as if he was ashamed.

“Tara!” Shane burst through the entrance. “How long are you going to keep me waiting? Let’s go!” He trudged back out.

“He seems like a great guy.” Rick exaggerated upon Shane’s departure.

Tara shook her head and ignored it all. “I’ll uh, I guess I’ll see you around, maybe.”

“From a police man's point of view I sure hope not, but as an acquaintance I really hope so.”

-Later that night One A.M.-

Tara couldn’t sleep in the same bed as Shane that night. It was torture for her to lie down next to a man she faded from. Her eyes were wide open when she should have been asleep, her mind running laps, writing Ryan into her thoughts was something she tried to erase but to no avail, and now Rick fluttered back in her mind. She couldn’t help but think that Rick seemed somewhat guilty over something when he mentioned Lilah and started to think about why Lilah would disappear at times without an explanation. Something was definitely up. Lilah’s attitude as of late was off balance and even though Lilah didn’t confirm anything, Tara knew that she was seeing someone. Both Rick and Lilah had a guilty vibe going on and she wanted answers.

*knock knock knock*

“Tara, what are you doing here?” Lilah cracked open her door and yawned.

“I went to bail out Shane…turns out the bar fight he got into was with Ryan.”

“Oh my gosh!” Lilah’s eyes flew wide open. “What happened?”

Usually when Tara would show up at Lilah’s for whatever reason it may be, Lilah never hesitated to let Tara in, even if she had one of her one night stand fellas knocked out in her bed. Lilah never cared because her best friend always came first, so when Tara noticed how Lilah wasn’t inviting her inside like she always does, she put two and two together. “Long story short, Shane started it because Ryan was defending me, but listen, that’s not why I’m here.”

“Okay.” Lilah breathed. “What’s up?”

“Rick was the one who arrested them.” Tara informed.

“Oh… really? I wasn’t aware he was back.” Lilah’s heart jumped out of her chest.

Tara rubbed the outer edge of her left eyebrow, the nervous involuntary action she does when she knows something or lies. She tried hard to keep her facial expressions neutral, to not give Lilah the ‘are you kidding me’ look, and Lilah knew that Tara was holding something back when she started rubbing her eyebrow and was worried that maybe she knew what was going on.

“How are you holding up?” Lilah shifted her weight on her right foot and steadied the door so it wouldn’t open any wider.

“Not so well. Rick coming back threw me off and I didn’t get to tell Ryan what I really felt. He was too drunk and didn’t want to hear it. He’s leaving tomorrow night and never coming back. That’s it, end of story.”

“Tara, I’m so sorry.” Lilah sympathized. “Let me throw some appropriate attire on and I’ll take you to Denny’s so we can talk it over.”

“No. He made it loud and clear where he stands now. There’s nothing to talk about anymore. I’m just gonna go home.”

“You said he was drunk, right? Well it had to be the alcohol talking. He’s crazy about you, he wouldn’t just quit on you like that.” Lilah explained.

“End of story, Lilah.” Tara walked away and silently cried to herself. She didn’t want to accept that Ryan was now the past. She wanted another chance to talk to him, try to make him understand her point of view and beg for forgiveness. She just wanted another chance to stare into his blue eyes again, not wanting Ryan to be just another chapter in the book of her life. What made her feel worse was that she didn’t have Lilah to run to anymore, because she was certain that the man she was involved with was Rick and couldn’t believe her best friend, the woman she considered a sister, the woman she would drop anything for would do something so shameful.

Chapter Text

When Tara walked out of Romeo’s, she flagged down the only taxi available that was about to take off and quickly hopped in. “Just drive. Go, go, go!” She pointed forward. The cute Mexican taxi driver with a goatee and his short slicked black hair felt her urgency to leave and pushed down on the gas pedal, speeding off and made a quick right turn.

“Tara?”

Tara turned her attention to the man sitting next to her, and just when she thought she couldn’t feel any worse, life proved her wrong. “Rick? What are you doing in here?”

“Going home until you unexpectedly jumped in. Are you okay?” Rick carefully took in her facial expression: her mouth vaguely forming a frown, the emptiness and sadness in her red eyes, the little wrinkle on her forehead that appeared every time she was stressed.

“No, I’m far from okay. Seriously though, what are you doing in a cab in front of Romeo’s?”

“I was going to head in for a drink, but I saw you and decided maybe I should just go home.” He confessed.

“Are we still heading to your desired destination, sir?" The taxi driver glanced at the two through his rear view mirror.

“You seem to be in a rush, did you need to be somewhere?” Rick discreetly checked her out as she stared down to her knees and thought how stunning she still looked even with sad eyes.

“I’m fine. I’ll wait my turn.” She sighed, holding in her tears.

“Yes, to my apartment, please.” Rick confirmed with the taxi driver, who shrugged and continued to drive to the address Rick had given him.

“What do you mean you didn’t go in because of me?” Tara pushed for an answer.

“Nothing, just forget about it.” He shrugged her off.

“No Rick, tell me.” She kept pushing for that answer he was refusing to cough up.

“It’s nothing. I had a long day and just want to go home and relax.” Rick stared out the window, trying not to let the feelings he still harbored for her slip out.

“Don’t you dare look away from me.” She gently tugged on his jacket to grab his attention. “I know you way too well, Rick. Something’s eating at you. Whatever it is you could…”

It was now or never Rick thought to himself. He still loved Tara and had to let her know. He turned back to face her, cupped her face with both hands and pulled her in for a kiss. Tara was completely taken aback for a second and didn’t respond to the warmth of his soft lips, but then she remembered all the times she fantasized about kissing him again for the four years that they had been apart, so she finally moved her lips to his tender pace.

He gave her everything he had in that kiss. His love, his regret, his heart, and Tara tried to do the same. It was everything she imagined the kiss would be except it was missing the key ingredient. Before they broke up, their love was burning hot and every kiss was like their first, but she was now finding it difficult to get the sparks flowing. Four years of fantasizing about another kiss with Rick was now replaced with the fantasy of kissing Ryan.

She pulled away from his sensuous kiss and snapped out of the forced intimacy she tried to feel again but failed and rested her forehead on his as his hands moved down to her arms. “Wow.”

“What?” He desperately needed to know what she felt.

“Nothing.” She whispered.

“No, tell me.”

“Nothing…I feel nothing.”

Rick felt his heart sink down the deepest ocean. “Tara, I still love you. You’re the one, you’ll always be the one. Letting you slip away is the biggest regret of my life.”

Tears started streaming down her cheeks knowing that he loves her the way she loves Ryan, and it broke her heart knowing that they both wouldn’t be able to get what their heart desires. “I love you, Rick. When you fall in love with someone the love will always be there, it never goes away. You were my first love and you’ll always hold a special place in my heart but I’m in love with someone else.”

“Yeah, I know. Of course I know. I was just hoping I was wrong.” He pulled away to stare into her eyes. “Ryan, right?”

She nodded, not knowing how he knew but didn’t bother asking. She figured that he heard the conversation between her and Ryan at the police station or that Lilah had filled him in. “Let’s just stop beating around the bush, Rick. I know about you and Lilah.”

“Tara, I didn’t mean…”

“Don’t! Save it for someone who cares, I just need to know one thing. I don’t need to know how and why it happened.” She gulped and looked deep into his eyes for the answer that was going to kill her inside. “Do you love her?”

Rick ran his hands down his face, feeling ashamed for keeping it a secret, for going behind the love of his life’s back to be with her best friend. “She’s great…I can potentially see myself lasting with her…but I’m not in love with her the way I’m in love with you. You’ll always be the one, Tara.”

Tara shut her eyes, not able to comprehend that this nightmare was really happening. More than anything, she wished that she would wake up and that Ryan never left, Lilah never sneaked behind her back and Shane was never in her life. “And Ryan will always be the one for me. I’ve wanted you back for years and now that I've moved, on you come back into my life and cause a mess. I’ve lost my best friend because of you, I can’t look at her the same way knowing that she broke the Girl Code.”

“Girl code?” He raised a curious eyebrow.

“It’s like the Bro Code but for girls. She knew I loved you and that I wasn’t over you, and she still defied me and went through great lengths to cover it up. Maybe if you guys would have consulted with me first before anything happened, then perhaps this situation would be different, but it’s not. You guys decided to go about this in the worst possible way, but despite that I realized that I have gotten over you and I can thank Ryan for that. I love him but he’s gone now and this…what’s going on between you and my supposedly best friend…I don’t need this right now.”

“We’re here, sir.” The taxi driver informed as he parked in front of Rick’s apartment complex.

“You should get out.” Tara looked forward and crossed her arms, not wanting to waste another minute on him.

He sat there for a moment, hesitating to get out, but knew that there was nothing left to say to make his situation better and didn’t want to make matters worse. “I’m sorry, Tara.” He heavily sighed and stepped out of the taxi. “Make sure she gets home safe.” Rick paid his cab fare through the driver’s window and threw in extra for Tara’s fare.

-Ten Minutes Later-

“We are here, miss.” The taxi driver stared at Tara, who was quietly sobbing to herself through his rear view mirror.

“Oh…thanks. How much do I owe you?” She questioned, wiping her tears away on her long sleeve shirt.

“The gentleman paid for your fare. Also, you might need this.” The driver bent over and pulled out a small travel sized bottle of Hennessy Cognac, the kind that are sold at liquor stores behind the counter. “To help ease the heartbreak.”

Tara felt uneasy as she accepted the small bottle of liquor. “You don’t drink and drive, do you?” She questioned, worried that he might have been under the influence while driving and didn’t want anyone on the road to get hurt.

“No.” The man responded almost too quickly.

“Okay…well thanks.” She hopped out and walked into her home.

When she opened the door to the house she saw Shane super glued to Sports News on their flat screen, so she let him be and went upstairs to pack her belongings in peace. She laid her biggest suitcase and started packing the necessities only and what she couldn’t live without. As she went through her clothes she came across Ryan’s black overcoat that he lent her Christmas Eve night. Tara couldn’t resist the intoxicating scent that emitted from it and buried her nose in his coat, smelling her favorite cologne that she only ever smelled on Ryan, ‘Silver Shadow’. She didn’t want to start crying again, so she wiped away the one tear that escaped, packed his coat in and then walked back downstairs with the suitcase ready in her hand.

“Hey baby, where are you going?” Shane walked over to her when Sports News went on commercial break.

“Shane, I’m sorry but I can’t be with you.” Tara finally came clean with what she had been hiding so long.

Shane smirked, rubbing the back of his head and knew that it had to be a joke. “Ha, good one, baby. Seriously though, where are you going?”

“You had to have known this was coming.” She sternly stared into his brown eyes. “We haven’t been working out and we never will. We are complete opposites and I have no doubt in my mind that you are cheating on me. I can’t live like this. Thank you for everything but it’s over. I can’t continue to be blind and force myself to be with you because I’m afraid of being alone.” Tara made her way to the front door but Shane quickly ran over and blocked her way out.

“No, no, no, no. You and I being opposite is not the real reason why you’re leaving me. Its Ryan isn’t it? You’re leaving me for him? What the hell does he have that I don’t?”

“No, I’m not leaving you for Ryan. He’s long gone. I just need to ride solo. I thought you were the answer but you’re not. Please Shane, don’t make this harder than what it is already and just let me go.”

“Baby no!” Shane forced the suitcase out of her hand. “What do you want from me? I’m trying to give you everything but it’s still not enough and I’m not cheating on you. How many times do I have to tell you that? I only have eyes for you and-”

“That’s not what Ryan told me.” Tara quickly covered her mouth with both hands. She didn’t mean to let that slip out and didn’t want him to know that the man he got in a bar fight with was Ryan all along.

Shane quickly put two and two together and clenched his jaw tight, feeling his anger bubbling up. “That jackass I got in a fight with…that’s Ryan, isn’t it? That’s why you begged me not to press charges against him.” He raised his voice, causing her to jerk back. “Are you fucking kidding me? You are leaving me for him!”

“No, I’m not!” She yelled back. “I’m not leaving you for anyone, I’m leaving you because what we have is a total joke. There’s no love and no trust, hell, I don’t even feel safe around you half the time. We’re over, Shane. Grow a pair and handle this like a man!” She grabbed her suitcase and gently pushed him away from the door.

“Tara, don’t go.” Shane grabbed her left wrist and pulled her back from the door.

“Let go!” She struggled to get out of his strong grip.

“Just listen, we can work things out.”

“No, let go of me!”

“Tara, please.” His free hand gripped her shirt as the hand gripping her wrist grew stronger.

“Stop, you’re hurting me!”

“Baby, you’re not giving me a choice. Just listen to me!” Shane wrapped his hand on the back of her neck to pull her away from the door with his other hand still crushing her wrist
Tara backhanded Shane across the cheek as hard as she could, which caused him to break his hold on her. She quickly grabbed her suitcase and dipped outside, never looking back. She didn’t mean to slap him, she’s never had to hurt anyone before and felt bad for doing it, but she had to. Shane was stubborn and would have crushed her wrist if he held on any tighter and knew that it was the only way to escape.

-Two Weeks Later-

When Tara explained her situation to Jeff, he welcomed her into his townhouse for as long as she needed to. She was thankful that Jeff opened up his home to her until she got back on her feet but the only difficult situation from living with him was that his townhouse was clear across town from Charming Elementary. After Shane took the car he bought Tara and everything that was rightfully his, she didn’t have transportation to get to work. At times when Jeff’s schedule permitted he would take her to and from school, but when he couldn’t she had to take public transportation.

Tara went to buy a new phone with the very little money she had left saved up and changed her number in the process. The man who sold her the phone explained to her that he could restore all her contacts and everything else she had on her last phone by simply downloading the app she used to back up her previous phone and sync the information over to the new one but she refused. If she had Ryan’s number on her phone, then she would be tempted to call him up and beg for him to sweep her away and she couldn’t have that. She didn’t want to screw up his life with her issues and insecurities, she was glad that she didn’t memorize his number either or she probably would have called him already.

It was a new phone number, which meant a new beginning. She was glad that Lilah and Rick didn’t have her number as well and that she didn’t have theirs. Since that night Tara walked out of Romeo’s, she hadn’t bothered contacting Lilah, there was no point anymore. Lilah betrayed her trust and she didn’t want to be around the emotional chaos of having
to see her best friend with the man she used to love more than anyone.

It was Thursday morning and she had to take the bus to school but made a quick stop in between to the nearest store to pick up a pregnancy test. She was a little worried that her period was two weeks late and needed to know if it was one of her rare periods that were a week or so late that she had a few times before or if it was the unthinkable. Since that stop to the store was a last minute decision she was running a little late to class, so she quickly took the test at school, wrapped it in a paper towel and put it in her shoulder bag, deciding not to check the results until after school was over.

If she was pregnant then she knew exactly when it happened. The last time she was intimate with Shane was a month and two weeks ago and it was only out of pity. It was Thanksgiving Day and they both tried to have a nice dinner alone, trying to solve their relationship issues. They were in completely different worlds which resulted in them hardly ever having sex anymore, so when Shane brought up the issue they both started drinking, especially Tara. She was highly intoxicated to ease the fact that he wanted to be intimate with her that night, and out of pity and manipulation from his sweet words that he didn’t mean, they slept together. Tara couldn’t remember much of what happened that night, but she remembered that she almost screamed out Ryan’s name a few times during. Picturing Ryan on top and making love to her was the only way she could get through the night.

When Tara released her students, she pulled out the pregnancy test from her shoulder bag and unwrapped the paper towel. She closed her eyes and tapped her index finger on her desk, too nervous to take that look down, knowing that in a second her life could take a drastic turn.

“Okay, I can do this.” She whispered to herself, took a deep breath and checked the results. Her eyes widened, mouth agape, heart drumming out of her chest and her airway was suddenly blocked by the shock. She dropped her head on the desk and started crying, not able to get a grip on herself. How could I bring a new life into this world when I can’t even get my life together?

“Tara?”

Tara quickly sat up, wiped her tears away and cleared her throat. “Yes… come in.” She quickly pulled herself together, remembering that she was still at school and had to remain professional. As her vision focused she noticed Rebecca and Celeste standing by the door and felt ashamed that she accidentally let her student Celeste see her cry on school grounds.

“Celeste, honey, could you wait outside for a minute?” Rebecca shooed Celeste out the door and walked over to Tara. “Honey, what’s wrong?”

“Nothing.” Tara stood up. It was a little odd for her to see Rebecca because she had never picked up Celeste before. It was always Ryan and since he left for L.A it was Daniel who picked up Celeste but never stepped a foot in her classroom. “I’m fine. Dang these allergies, you know?”

“What’s really going on, Tara?”

Rebecca stared at Tara with nothing but compassion, sympathy and patience, the look only a mother could give. Staring into her hazel eyes made Tara feel safe, that she could trust her with her problems. “I’m such a loser!” She broke out. “I broke up with Shane, my best friend is sleeping with my ex and lied to me about it and Ry…” She stopped herself from continuing. The thought of speaking Ryan’s name out loud would just make her want to cry again.

“You really love Ryan, don’t you?” Rebecca knew how Ryan felt for Tara and knew that Tara felt the same, she just didn’t know why they completely stopped talking to each other. Ryan never explained to her what happened, she only knew that he didn’t want to talk about her anymore.

“I…” Tara hesitated and looked down to the carpeted floor. “It doesn’t matter now.”

“Yes it does, I know for a fact that he…”

“It doesn’t matter anymore because I’m pregnant.” She blurted out. “I left Shane because he’s a complete asshole and now I’m pregnant with his child…that’s why it doesn’t matter anymore. Ryan ditched a bullet. He deserves someone better than me. Look at me! I’m a mess. I’m barely managing on my own and now I found out I’m pregnant. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

Rebecca didn’t know how to handle the news that was released to her, but knew that Tara needed a friend more than ever to help her get through this delicate and problematic situation. “Let me take you out for lunch. You need someone to confide in and I’m here for you like you were there for me and Celeste.”

-Later That Night- Seven forty-seven P.M.-

“Hey booger, what have you been up to?” Ryan had Celeste on speaker as he sat in the studio after everyone had left to work on a new song he was trying to finish.

“Daddy took me to Chuck E. Cheese and I got a bunch of tickets and got the biggest prize! It’s a mini piano that plays in different tones. I’m going to learn how to play it so I can be just like you.” Celeste eagerly told him the highlight of her day and was ecstatic to hear his voice.

“Oh really? That’s great! Maybe when I go on tour you could be my backup on piano.” Celeste started giggling which made Ryan miss his niece but smiled that they at least had ways to keep in contact. “How are Rebecca and Daniel doing?”

“Good. Daddy’s at work and Mommy went out with Tara.”

“Mommy did what?” Ryan put down his pen and stared at his cell phone in front of him.

“Mommy picked me up after school and we saw Tara crying so Mommy took her out to lunch.”

Ryan gulped down the hard lump in his throat. Hearing that Tara was crying ripped his heart out. For the first week when he left for Los Angeles, he tried contacting Tara any way he could but nothing worked. He knew that she had erased him out her life so he buried himself in work to distract himself from his shattered soul, but working wasn’t enough to distract him. He pictured what she was doing without him and imagined her in a much better state than he was in. She was probably still with Shane and moving forward with her life, so when Celeste mentioned that she saw Tara crying it painted a whole new image in his head. Even though she broke his heart, he didn’t want her to suffer the way he was without her. “Do you know why Tara was crying?”

“No, but since you left she looks sad all the time.”

“Celeste, go to your room and start reading. I’ll be there in a minute.” Rebecca had walked into the living room where Celeste was talking to Ryan and grabbed her phone back out of her daughter's hand. “Ryan, how are you doing?”

“You took Tara to lunch?” Ryan jumped straight to his burning question.

“Gee, I’m doing great, thanks for asking. Yes, I did.” Rebecca smartly replied.

“Sorry. How are you and Daniel doing?”

“We’re doing great. Ryan, listen, Tara isn’t doing so hot. She left Shane and literally has nothing to her name. She’s…”

“Why are you telling me this? I tried to call her, tried contacting her through Lilah and Jeff, I’ve even called the school to see if they could put me through to her along with the emails and messages I left on her Facebook and nothing. It’s pretty clear she doesn’t want anything to do with me. I’ve even been tempted to take a drive over there, but I don’t have any free time. I’m swamped with work right now to the point where I can’t even breathe trying to meet my deadlines.”

“Ryan, she loves you. She confided in me and told me everything. She left the way she did because she didn’t want to drag you down with her issues. She said that you should be with someone better than her, that she’s not worthy of you and if she could change back time then she would have the courage to dump Shane and do things differently with you.”

Hearing what Rebecca just said motivated him to drop everything he had in front of him and drive back to Charming for her.

“Ryan?” Zach walked into the studio. “How’s the song coming along?”

Ryan picked up his phone and turned the speaker off. Rebecca sighed and knew she shouldn’t tell Ryan about Tara’s pregnancy, but she thought that he had the right to know considering the fact that he needed to know everything to make a clear and rational decision if he wanted to ever come back for her. “Ryan, there’s something else you should probably know. Tara’s…”

“Look, I can’t talk about this right now.” Ryan interrupted. “I’ll call you later.” He hung up and looked over to Zach. “It’s coming along. We were totally right about the melody that Timbaland wanted for this song, it doesn’t fit. Not with the message we’re trying to convey to the world. I tried to make it work but it doesn’t sound like us, it doesn’t sound like OneRepublic.”

“Drew has an idea, he wanted to run it by you tomorrow.” Zach informed.

“Yeah, um…l trust his judgment so go with his idea.” Ryan stood up and grabbed his car keys that rested on the empty chair next to him. “I need to head out for awhile. A day, two tops.”

“Where are you goin’?” Zach questioned.

“I need to go back to Charming.” Ryan admitted.

“No!” Zach denied Ryan the right. “You are not going back for Tara. She’s history, man. Look at what she’s doing to you. You’re too distracted and you are going to make us fall behind on our insane deadline. She walked out, leave it be.” He knew Ryan was distracted by the exigency of making amends with Tara and he tried to keep him busy, to keep his mind clear from her, but he always failed. Zach was afraid that if Ryan went back in the high hopes of a happy ending, it would tumble down and bury him beneath the wreckage of all the damage she caused. He didn’t resent Tara, he knew that she didn’t mean any harm, but wished that she never bumped into Ryan’s life.

“Look, I’m tired of hearing what you’re saying out of everyone’s mouth. I see your concern, I hear all the voices telling me to move on, but I can’t and I won’t. I need to go back. I can’t let things end the way it did. I know we’re on a deadline but I’m managing my time perfectly. I have time to go back for a day or two, so I’m going.” Ryan walked out the door, ready to take that five hour drive in hopes that he would find Tara and mend fences. He silently prayed that after all that’s said and done, he could call her his girl.

---- ---- ---- ----

That same moment Ryan decided to take that drive to the city of Charming, Tara took the bus to her favorite park for the clarity she was desperately seeking. She sat on the ground and leaned her back against the tree, the same tree where she and Ryan had written the letters to each other and buried, the tree with the letters T + R carved right into it. Everything that had damaged her over the past month, Ryan leaving and never speaking to him again, the end of her friendship with her best friend Lilah, finally leaving Shane, the fact that she didn’t have a car, a place to call home, the fact that she was now pregnant with Shane’s baby and didn’t know if she should tell him or not was pushed to the back of her mind as she tried to meditate.

A half hour had passed when she finally thought to herself that she couldn’t wait to read Ryan’s letter anymore. She knew that he would never come back anyways, so waiting five years to read the letter would be pointless now. Tara got on her knees and started digging up the dirt with her hands, wanting nothing than to replace the dirt with that piece of paper.

Her fingernails finally scratched the top of the brown and gold box, so she pulled it out, sat back down and leaned against the tree as she pulled out his letter to her. Taking a deep breath, she unfolded the piece of paper, pulling out her phone for light as she exhaled and began to read.

 

“God forbid if anything tragic happens to me where I don’t live as long as I wish I could or before I can tell you how I really feel about you, then you have this letter to know where my heart stands. I’ve only known you for a few months and I have completely fallen in love with you. Your stunning smile, honey brown eyes, your smooth silky skin, the long eyelashes that make your eyes pop, the soft hair that smells like a tropical rain forest, the music in your laughter, your loveable, quirky personality with a heart of gold. You are simply the most perfect woman I have ever had the privilege to know. You may point out the flaws within yourself, but it’s those imperfections you hold that make you perfectly imperfect and I wouldn’t picture you any other way. If you could only see yourself through my eyes, then you’d realize how crazy I am about you.
My only wish is that whatever happens, it leads to us both being truly happy and I hope it’s with each other. I’m not perfect, I’m not rich, I make mistakes, but if I’m lucky enough to ever call you my girl I would reach for the stars to bring you the moon. I can only hope that you think about me every night the way I do for you, that you feel that spark wanting to start a fire with every lingering glance, that you catch yourself smile out of the blue because you realized you were thinking of me. You make me feel like I can see the whole world, feel emotions that I only feel when I’m listening to and writing love songs, you make me feel like music. I hope that in five years when you read this letter I’m by your side, holding your lovely hand with a smile, but until that day comes, I’ll be patiently waiting by your side.”

 

Her warm tears rolled down her cheeks, leaving a black trail of her makeup in the path by reading Ryan’s heart filled letter. She had never felt more alone than what she was feeling right now. She couldn’t let the silence she caused tear them away any longer and knew she had to contact him, to let him know how much she loves him, how badly she regrets letting him slip out of her fingers.

“Tara.” Shane crept up from behind the tree.

Tara quickly turned her back, tucking Ryan’s letter and her letter to him inside her shirt and zipped her jacket up higher. “Shane? What are you doing here?”

“I had to follow you.” Shane deeply sighed and stared at the carving ‘T + R’ on the tree and again, he put two and two together.

“How long were you following me?” She stood up on both feet.

“It doesn’t matter. I’ve been working up the courage to talk to you.” Shane slurred, not wanting to admit that he had been following her for the past week. His heartbreak of losing Tara was slowly turning into obsession, the thought of her being with Ryan or any another man infuriated him to the point where he had to drink constantly to help him sleep at night.

Tara knew that this was going to take a turn for the worse. His bloodshot eyes, an occasional hiccup and how he slouched forward as if he was on the verge of falling were only the other obvious clues that he was wasted besides the strong odor of liquor on his breath. “Look, I have to go.”

“Baby, I miss you.” He stepped forward to stop her from leaving. “You and I apart is the biggest mistake you could ever make. I want you back.” He tried pulling her in to his embrace but she took a couple of steps back.

“You’re drunk, please don’t do this. Did you drive here?” She didn’t care for the safety of his well being, she was only concerned for the safety of others on the road.
“Baby, you’re not listening. I need you back. You are the only one who understands me, the only one who I want to be inside of.” He firmly gripped her arms and tried to stick his tongue down her throat.

“Let go of me!” Tara tried to escape but he overpowered her. “Stop!” She started to freak out and out of instinct, she kneed him in the family jewels and for a split second she was out of his hold. He released her arms and as she turned to run away, he quickly wrapped his arms around her waist, turned her to face him and lifted her up over his shoulder, carrying her to his car.

She tried everything in her power to escape by kicking, punching, hair pulling and even tried to bite him, but when Shane is drunk he has a very high tolerance for pain and nothing worked. He pushed her into his car through the driver side, then slid in after her, locking the doors as he put his key in the ignition. Tara tried opening the passenger door but it was jammed, as if Shane had already had this planned out and blocked her escape.

“Shane, open the door!” She screeched.

“Baby, can’t you see that you and I are meant to be? I’m going to take you back home where you belong. I can take care of you, you just need to let me. I love you.”

“This is not love! This…”

“Just shut the fuck up!” He snapped and caved his strong fingers into her shoulder, making her squirm down in pain. “I don’t want to hurt you, I really don’t but if I need to, I won’t hesitate.” He let go of her after a few seconds to turn the car on. “What the fuck does Ryan have that I don’t? I can’t stop picturing you with him and I can’t handle it anymore! That little prick isn’t half the man I am! I love you, Tara! Why can’t you see that?” He sped off and hit the main roads going twenty-five miles over the forty mile speed limit.

“Okay!” Tara fastened her seatbelt and submitted in hopes that if she would say what he wanted to hear, then he’d calm down and she would be able to make her escape. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what I was thinking. I want you back.”

“I don’t believe you. Prove it! Prove to me that you want me as much as I want you.”

“Shane, slow down, you’re going too fast. Pull over and let me dri…”

“Fuck!” Shane punched his stereo as hard as he could. “Are you always going to nag at me?” He grabbed a handful of her hair with his right hand, making her yelp in pain and pulled her closer to him, taking his eyes off the road.

“No, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” She panted.

“I hate hurting you, baby. Don’t make me do it.” He leaned in for a kiss.

*Beep Beep*

Tara screamed and Shane quickly drew his eyes back to the road and was able to swerve out of the way of the oncoming car when he crossed over the double yellow solid lines.
“Shut up! I can’t concentrate with you screaming and nagging!” He slammed his big hand down on the steering wheel.

“I…I’m sorry.” She quietly sobbed.

“Stop crying!” He raised his right hand, forming a fist. Tara knew what was coming to her, and out of desperation, she accidentally let her newly discovered secret slip out of her mouth. “Stop, I’m pregnant!” She winced back, trying to block her face away from the punch he was about to throw.

“What?” He gasped, taking his eyes off the road.

“Look out!” Tara pointed forward and screamed by how close an oncoming truck was.

*Honk Honk*

Shane turned his attention to the speeding truck ahead of him, unaware that he had swerved past the double solid yellow lines again and tried to gain control of the wheel, but it was too late. The last image Tara saw as she was screaming was the bright high beams of the oncoming truck that crashed straight into Shane’s car, shattering all windows, and with the velocity Shane was driving caused the whole front of the car to cave in and flip over.

Shane was slipping in and out of consciousness for a minute, then finally managed to keep his eyes open. He was laying face first on the car roof and realized at that point that the car was flipped over. He wiped his bleeding nose with his jacket sleeve and looked up to Tara. “Tara.” He coughed and leaned her way.

Tara had her seatbelt on and was leaning down, the seatbelt securing her in the upside down seat and was bleeding profusely from a two inch gash on her forehead. “Tara, wake up!” He unbuckled the seatbelt and tried to catch her before she fell hard on the roof of the car. With his index and middle finger he checked for a pulse on her neck. He found it but it seemed to be slowly fading. “Tara, please wake up!” Shane shook her, desperately trying to wake her but he knew she wasn’t going to, so he climbed out the window and hit the pavement.

A man pulled over when he passed by the wreckage to see if he could be of any help. His wife and son stayed in the car as he started running over to Shane. “Hey mister, are you alright?”

“Call 911!” Shane yelled out, then bellowed in agony as he looked down at his hands and felt the stinging of the glass that pierced deep into his skin when he fell out.

As the man pulled his cell phone out, there was only one thing Shane should have done. He should have gone over and tried to pull Tara out, hold her close until help arrived and check to see if the people in the truck that he crashed into were okay, but he took the coward way out.

When the man who was calling for help turned his back to Shane, he got on both feet and limped away from the scene. He knew that if he stayed they would have locked him up and jail was not an option for him. He knew it was selfish and cowardly and that karma would come around and strike him down tenfold, but he knew that Tara would never forgive him whether he stayed or left, so he left.

---- ---- ---- ----

It was after midnight when Ryan made a pit stop at Bravo Farms. He had seen signs for the past few miles advertising the place saying to stop for the great food, merchandise, gas, rest stop and the incredible atmosphere. After he found the restroom he walked around the place to check out what all the hype was about. Bravo Farms seemed like it would be a blast during the day, but since it was late it was pretty quiet but everything seemed to remain open.

Ryan walked into the small gift shop to see if anything caught his eye to surprise Tara with and came across a medium sized stuffed Dalmatian doll and smiled. He remembered how much Tara loves Dalmatians, so when he picked it up and felt how soft it was he smiled, knowing that it would bring a smile to her face as well. Ryan went up to the lady at the register and laid in on the counter.

“Did you find everything alright, sir?” She flirtatiously smiled.

“Yeah, this is a cool little place you guys got here.” He pulled out his wallet, not noticing the flirty smiles from the cashier.

“Yeah, I love working here. So many cool people from all over seem to stop here. Are you buying this for your girlfriend?” She tried to see if he’d correct her or say yes to figure out if he was single or not.

“Yeah, no…I, uh...” Ryan didn’t know how to answer her question. “She’s… well…” He handed her his credit card. “I’m hoping she’ll be my girlfriend.”

“Oh.” The lady was slightly disappointed. She found him to be very attractive and really wanted to make a move on him, but respectfully stepped down and swiped his card through the machine. “Well, hopefully when you give her this doll, she will.” She slightly smiled, handing the card back.

“Thanks. I’m driving five hours late at night just to see her so I really hope so. Have a good night.” He picked up the doll and started walking away.

“Hey.” The lady picked up a single rose that they sold from a vase on the counter behind her and walked over to Ryan. “That doll and a rose, there’s no way she’d be able to say no to you. Go get her.”

Ryan accepted the rose and gently smiled. “Thank you.”

As Ryan walked over to his car he started feeling anxious. He was less than an hour away from her and couldn’t wait to see Tara's beautiful face again. Before he reached his car, he felt his phone vibrate so he pulled it out of his back pocket and answered. “Hello.”

“Ryan?” Lilah’s scratchy voice sounded through his phone.

“Lilah?” Ryan was surprised to hear from her and wondered what the purpose of her calling him was. It’s not like she would call just to say hello and was ultimately a little worried hearing her voice.

“I don’t really know how to tell you this.” Lilah’s voice started cutting off.

“What? I can’t hear you too well, can you say that again?” Ryan checked the bars on his phone and noticed he didn’t have the best service where he was at.

“Tara was in a car accident… she’s not doing so well.”

Ryan froze in his tracks, completely paralyzed as his life abruptly stopped. He could no longer control his hands, shaking with fear as the color drained from his face and his heart beating in an odd rhythm. This couldn’t happen, not her, not now, not ever. “What hospital is she in?” His unsteady voice cracked with each word.

“Saint Agnes Hospital.”

“I’m on my way.” He hung up and ran to his car. As he sat down, he tried to slide his key in the ignition but it took him a few tries as his hands continued to shake. His whole body felt like it was shutting down, his mind spinning causing him to feel lightheaded, but he pushed himself to hold it together. This was not the right time to start breaking down and there was definitely no time to cry.

-Saint Agnes Medical Hospital-

“How is she? Is she alright?” Ryan stepped out of the elevator and raced over to Lilah, who was pacing back and forth in the waiting room.

Lilah stopped and stared into his weary eyes. “We’re not too sure yet. I couldn’t go in to see her since I’m not blood related, but Rick’s seen her. ”

Ryan’s eyes shifted to the right and noticed Rick sitting down on the waiting room chair in his police uniform. “Wh-what happened? How’d th…this happen?”

Rick stood up and made his way over to Ryan. “She was in a two car collision. No one saw how it happened, but a Good Samaritan who pulled over and tried to help said a man crawled out of driver’s side and left the scene with Tara strapped in the passenger side. Their car was flipped over, it…it was...” He cleared his throat to keep his voice from cracking under the vivid images swirling in his head. “The car registration belongs to Shane Walsh, so he is our prime suspect.”

Ryan clenched his jaw tight, trying to control the anger bubbling from within him.

“Her head took most of the damage. She has a two inch gash that was stitched up on her forehead, sprained ankle and shoulder, along with minor cuts and bruises throughout her body.” Rick continued. “We won’t know how damaged she is until she wakes up. I called Lilah so she could call you. I figured you may have wanted to know since you two are close.” He patted Ryan on the shoulder, empathizing with the man.

Ryan approached the nurse who passed by and Rick couldn’t help but glare at him with envy. It was a dagger to the heart knowing Tara would never be in his arms again and was ultimately jealous of Ryan for winning her heart. Due to the fact that he felt guilty for secretly starting a relationship with Lilah, he knew he had to back down and let them be. That was Rick's reason for calling Lilah, to tell her to call Ryan, because if he was in Ryan’s shoes he’d want to know.

“Miss.” Ryan captured the nurse’s attention. “Tara Figueroa, could I see her?”

“Like I told your friend over there, only family members are permitted to see her.” The nurse informed him as she was shuffling through the pack of papers in her yellow folder.

“He’s her husband.” Rick intervened.

“Oh, I’m sorry about that sir. I’ll check to see if she’s cleared for visitation.” The nurse walked through the doors to the Intensive Care Unit.

“You didn’t have to lie.” Ryan glanced over at Rick.

“I know, but if I were in your position I’d be thankful that someone lied to get me through to see her.”

Thank you.” Ryan murmured.

“No problem.” Rick turned his attention to Lilah and sat next to her.

*Ding*

The elevator sounded and out popped Jeff with his black skinny jeans and his tan Java Lounge collared work shirt. “Oh, thank goodness! I was starting to suspect you didn’t get my messages.” Lilah sprinted over to Jeff.

“Boss had me keep the coffee shop open late.” Jeff explained. “Once I clocked off I checked my phone, saw your messages and jammed over here. I can’t believe this. What’s going to happen to the baby?”

“What?” Lilah’s eyes widened as did Rick’s and Ryan’s.

“Oh, dear.” Jeff started fanning himself with his hands, trying to relieve the instant heat that burned upon his face, knowing that he shouldn’t have said anything. “Well, when she came home earlier today she started throwing up, so I asked her if she was sick. She told me that she just had lunch with a friend and that maybe it was something she ate, so I didn’t think anything of it until I couldn’t find my rewards card for Rite Aid. I asked her if I could borrow hers because I wanted a discount on the tub of ice cream I wanted to buy. With her permission, I went through her shoulder bag where she keeps her wallet and saw a pregnancy test. I know I shouldn’t have checked, but being the curious little daisy that I am, I looked and saw two pink lines indicating that she’s pregnant.”

“Nurse!” Rick ran over to another nurse who was walking away to inform them of the information he just received about Tara. He wanted to make sure she wasn’t getting any drugs that could potentially hurt the baby.

At this point, the roller coaster of emotions running through Ryan’s entire body was now set to anger mode. He started thinking where Shane was through all of this and knew that everything was on him. Tara was in Shane’s car, so that meant he was driving, but why he bailed and left Tara helpless after the crash was troubling Ryan. Did Shane know she was pregnant? Why did he bail? Why was she in his car if Rebecca had told him that she broke up with him? That and many more questions started pilling up and he couldn’t keep calm anymore.

“That fucking asshole!” Ryan started walking towards the elevators.

“Ryan, where are you going?” Lilah called out.

“I’m going to find that poor excuse of a man!” Ryan kept pushing the button to the elevator as if pushing it multiple times would make it open faster.

“Ryan, I have my men out looking for him. You-” Rick jogged over to stop Ryan from leaving.

“How’s that coming along?” Ryan stepped a foot back from Rick. “Shane is responsible for all of this and he’s out there while she’s in here? Tell me how that’s fair? He left his pregnant ex fiancé helpless and he takes off like a fucking coward and you have your men looking for him? No offense but the whole Charming police department is a joke! You guys couldn’t catch a criminal even if you wanted to.”

“Sir?” The nurse who Rick informed about Tara’s pregnancy walked over to them. “I’m going to have to ask you to keep it down.”

Ryan ran his hands through his hair, seeing nothing but red dots and not able to control himself at this point.
“Are you going to go out and do your job or am I going to have to do it for you?” Ryan continued.

“Ryan, you-”

“Don’t "Ryan" me!” He forcefully pushed forward and punched the wall behind Rick, physically taking his frustration out and left a medium sized dent on the wall.

Rick had no choice but to spin Ryan around, pull his cuffs out and cuff him. “Let’s go.” Rick pushed him forward and headed out of the hospital with Ryan slightly resisting the whole way.

“You need to calm down.” Rick let him go as they stepped outside into the cold night. “Tara wouldn’t want you to resort to this level. Shane Walsh is a lowlife scumbag who messed up her life for way too long. I will find and send his ass to jail, but right now you need to remain calm or I will have to take you downtown. I feel your pain, I really do, but she needs you to be here for her and not kicked out for inappropriate behavior.” He stepped behind Ryan, pulled out his key and uncuffed him. Ryan shook his wrists free and glared at Rick, but knew that he was absolutely right. “Stay out here for a few minutes, breathe, then come back inside.”

-Eight A.M.-

Lilah, Rick and Jeff had left after three A.M. due to the early shifts they all had in the morning, but Ryan stayed in the waiting room the whole night. Since it was late and the doctors were monitoring her all night, he had to wait until visitation hours came around to see Tara. He laid across the four chairs by the wall of the waiting room, using the Dalmatian doll he grabbed out of his car as a pillow and the single rose resting on top of his chest.

“Sir?” A nurse gently gripped his shoulder. “You can see your wife now.”

Ryan cracked his eyes open, forgetting where he was for a brief moment. "I can see her?” He licked his dry lips.

“I’m terribly sorry for the wait, but yes, you can see her now.”

He jumped to his feet, not giving his body enough time to wake up completely. As he followed the nurse into the ICU, he became light head, almost to the point where he was about to collapse.

The nurse walked into the private room Tara resided in and checked up on her. As Ryan glanced over to Tara laying on the hospital bed with a white hospital gown and a beige blanket covering her waist, he couldn’t help but want to cry. He shut his eyes tight and ran his hand down his face, trying to get a grip on himself, holding it in as the nurse did her job.

“She’s hooked up to an arterial line to monitor the blood pressure, EKG to record her heart’s electrical activity and Nasogastric tube that goes through the nose into her stomach to remove stomach acids and for short term feeding.” The nurse informed Ryan of the machines she was hooked up to as she checked Tara’s chart that rested on the end of her bed. “She seems to be breathing on her own now, which is good considering the fact that she wasn’t when they brought her in. She took a big blow to the head and we won’t really know how much damage her brain endured until she wakes up.”

“When will she wake up?”

The nurse struggled to find the right way to say what needed to be said. “I don’t know. She could wake up in a few minutes, hours, days, weeks, months or maybe she won’t. I suggest talking to her, in some cases while in a comatose state they could hear you. I’m truly sorry; I know it’s difficult to see her like this. Let’s just pray she pulls through quick.” She sincerely looked into his eyes and then left the room, gently closing the door behind her.

He slowly made his way over to the side of her bed, pulled up the chair beside the table, sitting down as he laid the doll and rose on the table, desperately trying to keep it together. He observed her condition, the two inch gash that was stitched up on the side of her forehead directly above her right eyebrow, a small cut under the left side of her bottom lip, the purplish shade of color on her right cheek, a few dark bruises on her arms and small cuts on her delicate hands.

His eyes squinted, fighting to keep them open as his lips quivered and formed a frown. He laid his sore right hand from when he hit the wall over hers. As he gently squeezed her limp hand, a wave of his emotions knocked him down entirely. His head dropped down, his forehead pushing down his hand over hers, silently letting his emotions roll down and dissolved into tears. He’s never had to beg God for help, but then again, he’s never felt more vulnerable in his life before, like a diminutive undeserving speck hiding from God's light. He cried out to the big man upstairs to help her pull through, to have another chance to talk to her, to look into her glossy chestnut eyes again and beg for forgiveness, to proclaim to her his true love once and for all.

“Please Tara, come out of this.” He sobbed. “Wake up…just wake up.” He lifted his head and dried her hand with the blanket, not wanting to drip anymore tears on her pale skin. “I brought you something.” He wheezed, followed by a cough, trying to clear his airway. “So you need to wake up so you could see it, I know it’ll bring a smile to your face.”

As he was about to reach for the doll, he noticed two folded up pieces of papers next to her wallet and keys and reached for that instead. As he opened and read the first line, he realized it was the letter he wrote for her. He couldn’t believe it, she had read what he wrote and he wasn’t even there to see her face while reading. Ryan folded it back up and unfolded the letter she wrote to him.

 

“I’m finding it quite difficult trying to figure out what to write. We’ve known each other for a few months now and you have been an amazing and supportive friend. I could go along the lines as to say how awesome you are and how I wish we could continue our friendship till the end of time, but then I’d be lying because I don’t want us to be just friends. Things aren’t looking so bright for me right now, I stand a little confused but also more certain on what I want. I deny the obvious between you and I because it’s easier for me, because I don’t know how to get out of this triangle without anyone getting hurt. That’s one of my greatest flaws, I try to make everyone happy and I forget what I really want and what I really want is to be with you.
Since we’ve known each other we’ve only gone two days without talking, and those were the two worst days of my life because I didn’t hear from the man I’ve fallen hard for. I’m so blessed that I accidentally dragged you into the restroom at Java Lounge after I spilled our drinks or we probably wouldn’t have been here now, we probably would have still been strangers to each other, two ships passing by in the night. I can only tell you that I am truly sorry for the wait, I don’t know how you manage to be so patient with me.
I hope when you make it big and you are performing on the grandest stages around the world that you don’t forget about me and when you finally read this letter that I’m right next to you, waiting for you to finish reading this so I could slip into your warm embrace for a kiss. Ryan Tedder, I love you and I can’t wait to say it for the first time.”

 

The hot, salty tears continued to drip down Ryan’s cheeks, falling off his chin and onto the paper. His body convulsed as he threw the papers across the room, and in one swift movement he swung his arms, throwing everything off the table and wailed in pain. “Why are you doing this?!?” He cried out to God. “Why her? Why?” He ran both hands over his face, ridding himself of the tears. “Why didn’t you just take me instead, or even that monster Shane? What’s your reason, your unjust plan for taking her?!? Bring her back!” He paced around the room, then leaned his head back, looking up to the white lights in the ceiling. “I’m losing faith here, man, just give me something! Wake her up.”

He walked back over to Tara, sat down and locked hands with her. “I love you, please wake up. Give me a sign, baby, anything to let me know that you’re here, that you’re listening and that you’re going to pull through.”

He sat there, holding her hand and waited for a sign, but after a moment of waiting he knew it was hopeless. God never answers when you need him and Ryan was starting to lose his religion as his tears had come to a halt and he started coughing. His eyes were now too swollen to continue on and the buildup of phlegm was starting to make it difficult to breathe. “Tara, I love you. I’m not going to leave your side. I’ll stay here as long as you’re here. I promise.” He sighed.

As Ryan was about to rest his head on the bed, he felt a sudden light squeeze on his hand. He looked down at her hand, giving her a squeeze back, and with his squeeze she returned another, just a little bit stronger than the first. His lips curved, forming the smallest smile on his tired face as he squeezed her hand again. He knew that it was a sign that she’ll pull through, that soon enough she’ll wake up, and he wasn’t going anywhere. With his hand still holding her's, he leaned forward and rested his head on the bed, closing his eyes for a moments rest. As he was slowly drifting off, he was awoken from the sound of his name.

“Ryan…”