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you are my sun,

my moon,

and all my stars


E E CUMMINGS

Chapter 1

My 24th Birthday

Walking out of my boss’s office, I held my head high and straightened the front of my black pencil skirt. I had been given a new client, a struggling company looking to revamp their image with a possible new buyout, and I had two hours to research them before our 3:00 meeting that afternoon. Closing my office door, I smoothed back my chestnut hair, thankful I had spent extra time curling it. I loved my hair, and it was my favorite asset, even though I was always told I had a great smile. I looked in the mirror behind my door and touched up my blush and cocoa eye shadow, adding my signature bright red lipstick. Growing up, I never really liked makeup or fixing my hair—I clearly didn’t know what I was missing. A long way from the young girl with braids in her hair, now I enjoyed salon appointments and pedicures.

My cell phone buzzed on my desk and as I reached for it, Paige’s name flashed on the screen.

“Hi bestie, what’s up?” I crooned into the phone.

“Just calling my favorite person in the whole wide world to tell them happy birthday!” Paige sang back. “Are we still on for happy hour?”

I flopped into my leather chair and brought my laptop to life. “Of course! Wouldn’t miss it. I have a meeting at 3 then I’m heading home. Is Vanessa meeting us too?”

“Yep, I’ll let her know what time after I hang up with you.” Paige paused. “Sooo…”

I knew her next question. She’d been my best friend for over half my life, and she knew me better than anyone—well, almost anyone. I smiled and answered her unspoken question. “You want to know if I’ve heard from the Dark Lord?”

“Well, yes, yes I do.”

“Flowers were delivered to my apartment at 7:30 this morning. Who gets flowers delivered at 7:30? He must be banging a florist.” I rolled the pen back and forth between my finger and thumb.

“Ha, good one. Were they lilies?” Paige waited for my answer.

“Yes, beautiful orange ones. I’ll snap a pic when I get home.”

I had a long past with the Dark Lord, as Paige and I liked to call him. I’d known him longer than Paige, but we didn’t speak of him except on my birthday when he popped back into my life almost every year. It was better that way.

“I’m sure he spared no cost. So, no date with Daniel? He didn’t want to take you out for your birthday?” I’d known that would be her second question.

I rolled my eyes. “Daniel isn’t going to make the cut.”

Paige laughed out loud. “You and your ridiculously high standards.” They were a direct result of said Dark Lord.

“You know me. I’ll fill you in on Daniel at dinner, but I really need to run. I have research to do before my meeting.” I pulled on a strand of my hair and twirled it in my fingers.

“You’ll do great, Maddie! Talk to you after your meeting.”

I set my phone on the mahogany desk and pulled up the website for the company I was going to meet. I jotted a few notes—they would need a whole new site, logo revamp, and print collateral, and then we’d discuss their best choices for marketing. I traced out a few logo designs they might like, making sure to align similarities to the current design. Although I’d dabbled in website design, I had great connections to top-notch designers and would let them do the actual designs. I enjoyed this part of my job the most—the creativity. I’d never been far from a sketchpad, and although I was only 24, I’d scored a cush internship during college and quickly promoted my way up after snagging a few of our top clients.

After slamming back a protein bar and a bottle of water, I stood, smoothed my pressed white button-up shirt, and adjusted the waistband of my skirt again. Slipping on my black Jimmy Choo points, I placed my notes in my black leather bag, grabbed my matching purse, and headed to Uptown.

A young woman wearing a headset greeted me. “How can I help you?”

I stood tall, holding my bag in front of me. “Madison Price, I have a meeting with Samuel Overton.” I glanced at my watch: just over ten minutes early, as I’d planned.

The receptionist spoke into her headset then back to me. “Mr. Overton will be right with you.”

As I turned to find a seat, a voice boomed behind me. “Ms. Price, this way please. I’m Sam, it’s a pleasure to meet you.”

I stood, extended my hand, shook his, and followed. “Please call me Madison. I’m looking forward to sharing some ideas with you.”

Sam extended his arm, holding the door to a conference room open for me. “I hear they’ve sent the best, so I’m sure you have brilliant ideas. This is John, our vice president, and our business partner will be here shortly.”

I smiled and took out my notes, taking my seat across from the men and diving right in. The men were smiling and nodding their heads, looking pleased when the door opened and a tall dark blond man in an expensive jet-black suit with a bright blue tie matching his eyes entered the room. They were the bluest eyes I’d ever seen, ones I could never forget. Preston McKenzie waltzed in, shaking the men’s hands before turning to me, his charming smile wavering for only a second.

“Preston, this is Madison Price. She is going over some excellent designs for our rebrand. Please have a seat and join us.”

“Madison,” Preston said, shaking my hand before sitting. I couldn’t help but notice his perfectly sculpted hair and designer clothes. He looked more like his father than the boy I’d known.

I continued the meeting, noticing Preston taking notes, his characteristic carefree smile nowhere to be found. Despite the unexpected encounter, I finished up the meeting with an overall good feeling.

Sam extended his hand again. “Madison, we’ll be in touch soon. Thank you for your time.”

Picking up my briefcase, I exited the room confidently. The only sound was the clicking of my heels on the tile floor, and I was almost to my car when I heard a deep voice behind me.

“Maddie!” His voice still made my stomach flip. I turned, tossing my hair over my shoulder, and watched as Preston closed the distance between us. “So, you work for the Redman Group?”

I nodded once. “Yes, and it’s funny, your name didn’t pop up once while I was Googling this bid.” I kept my arms at my sides, playing it cool.

He tilted his head and watched me. “I’m looking at investing in the company. Did you get the delivery?” While my stomach was in knots, Preston seemed relaxed standing in front of me. He looked even better than the last time I’d seen him, which should have been impossible. Even with his suit on, I could tell he was still in good shape. Definite form showed under his sleeves and when he removed his jacket, I got a better shot of those sculpted biceps. I swore my mouth actually watered. Damn traitorous body.

I breathed out. “Yes, thank you. They’re beautiful.” I gave a small smile—that was all I was willing to give.

“Well, now it’s even better because I get to tell you happy birthday in person. Happy birthday, Maddie.” Damn his gorgeous smile, damn, damn, damn. “Let me take you for a drink. We can catch up—unless you have plans with someone?” Preston raised a brow, fishing for information.

“Actually, I do have plans, but I’m sure we’ll see each other again soon. By the way, it’s Madison now. I would appreciate your professionalism if we should be working together.” I was starting to fidget and needed to escape.

Preston’s lip twitched; he was holding back a smile. “Right, Madison, I heard. Of course I’ll be professional, this affects my job as well.” Preston unfastened his cufflinks and my eyes darted, following the action. Next, he was sure to peel off his dress shirt in this heat. It wasn’t like I’d never seen Preston without a shirt, but his small movements were making my insides melt.

“So, I’ll see you around then.” I turned toward my car, using my key fob to unlock the door. As I slid inside, Preston stepped closer, his arm extended on the open door’s frame.

“Tell Paige I said hi.” He smirked then winked and shut my door.

Shaky hands gripped the wheel as I pulled out of the parking lot. Of all the people and all the meetings, why did Preston have to be in mine? My phone rang, connected to Bluetooth.

“Happy birthday, sweetie!” crooned my grandmother’s sweet voice. I immediately relaxed. “Did I catch you at a bad time?”

My mood shifted just hearing her. “Perfect timing, Gram. I just left a meeting and am driving home. How’s everything?”

“Oh, I’m just peachy like always. You have big plans for your birthday? A handsome date perhaps?” Gram would have loved to set me up with someone from the club or a friend’s grandson if I’d let her.

“Just meeting Paige for drin—dinner.”

“Oh, that’s nice. Say hello to her for me. Are you still coming over this weekend? I have your present here.”

“Of course, Gram. I told Mom I’d be there tomorrow afternoon. You know you didn’t have to buy me anything.” Gram and I had always been close. Being one of five kids and right smack dab in the middle, hand-me-downs and lack of attention were often thrown my way, but I could always count on Gram to make sure I was taken care of.

“All right then, I will see you tomorrow. I love you, sweetie.” I ended the call with my grandmother as I pulled into my apartment complex. I had roomed with Paige since we left our parents’ houses, and this was my first year to ever live on my own. I loved it. I waited for the gates to open then I pulled in and around to my building.

As soon as I unlocked the door and threw my purse and bag down, I went straight to the freezer then called Paige. “Hi. How soon can you meet? I need a shot or five.”

“Uh oh, meeting went bad?” Paige asked with concern.

“The meeting was fine.”

“What is that sound? Are you eating?” Paige asked. “I can probably meet in an hour. I’m finishing up some proofs to send out.” Paige was the best photographer I knew. I enjoyed taking pictures for pleasure, but Paige had a talent for the perfect lighting, setting, and posing.

I let out a long sigh. “I’m eating my emergency stash of Thin Mints.”

“Wait—did you see him?” Paige knew what it meant when I ate Thin Mints. Other than Preston, I only ate them if I was completely stressed about something, which was hardly ever.

“The Dark Lord was in the meeting. He’s a possible investor in my client.” I leaned my hip against my kitchen counter and wiped the cookie crumbs off my shirt. “Hence the need for shots.”

“First round is on me for your birthday, and second round is mine for the run-in. Meet you at Chuck’s?” Paige and I loved Chuck’s for its casual atmosphere, great drink prices, and live music on weekends.

“Yep, call Vanessa.” I clicked off the phone and went to my room to change, passing the dumb, beautiful flowers from the dumb, beautiful boy on my way.


Vanessa waved to me from a table close to the window then she and Paige stood and each gave me a hug. Paige also had birthday balloons to tie to my chair. Paige had met Vanessa her last year in college and she’d quickly become our third wheel. She was taller than us but wore the same black-framed glasses as Paige and had long blonde hair.

“Oh, lucky me! Everyone will know it’s my birthday,” I said sarcastically.

“Exactly, and you’ll get free drinks from boys.” Paige beamed. Her auburn hair had a slightly darker shade of red to it tonight, and she was wearing a Pink Floyd t-shirt with torn jeans and Converse. She wasn’t a fan of Pink Floyd but liked the “vintage” look, as she called it. The tiny nose ring, trendy glasses, and deep magenta lipstick completed her outfit.

“I like the way you think.” I giggled.

“So, how’s your day been? You’re so lucky it’s Friday—we can drink up!” Vanessa cheered. Vanessa was Paige’s complete opposite. She wore a frilly floral top with short jean shorts and her blonde hair up in a twist on her head.

“She needs shots. She had a run-in with He Who Shall Not Be Named,” Paige informed our friend.

“You saw Preston?” Her eyes grew wide and her voice went up three octaves.

“Shhh!” Paige and I both yelled at her.

“He was in my business meeting, possibly my new client.” I pulled over the drink menu, looking at the specials.

Vanessa patted my hand. “Oh girl, let’s get started STAT.”

The three of us giggled. We each took a shot of tequila and sat discussing our day-to-day lives. “So, no more Daniel?” Vanessa asked as we ordered another round.

Paige laughed. “He didn’t even make it to a second date.”

“Oh Maddie.” She rolled her eyes. “You are too tough on these poor guys.”

Paige sat up. “Hey! Did you ask Preston how he got your new address?”

I cringed. “No. If he called my mom, she would have told me…oh! It must have been Gram. That woman is so sneaky. No wonder she asked if I have a date tonight.” Paige and Vanessa laughed, and I just shook my head. “So, I’m thinking chili cheese fries. Birthdays are cheat days, right?”

When our words started to slur together, we changed to singing along with the music, which was fortunately loud enough to drown out our voices. Two good-looking guys approached our table as we belted out a familiar tune.

“Happy birthday!” they shouted over the music. “Can we get you ladies a drink?”

“Sure! Have a seat.” I motioned for them to sit with us. The guys looked a little younger than we were, but it wasn’t like we were taking them home, and a free drink was always nice. The brown-haired guy, Tom, was blatantly flirting with me while his blond friend Nick talked back and forth between Vanessa and Paige. When Tom asked if I wanted to get out of there with him, I kindly turned him down, thanked him for my drink, and told him it was a girls night. Both guys walked away with their tails between their legs.

I stood and caught myself before wobbling. “Ladies, I gotta go. I’m going to my parents’ tomorrow, and I can’t go there with a hangover.”

“Aww,” the girls said in unison, pouting.

“It’s still early,” Paige said with a frown.

I waved my hand in front of me. “My Lyft is here, but you two stay. Don’t leave on my account.” They stood and hugged me. “Talk to you tomorrow. Thanks for a fun night.” I blew them kisses and went home to my quiet, empty apartment, drank a glass of cold water, and crawled into bed thinking about my surprise run-in with Preston. I rolled over, fluffed my pillow, and forced myself to think of other things until I finally fell asleep.


Waking before my alarm, I made myself a bagel and pulled up my computer. After checking social media for some of my clients, I pulled up Facebook. I hadn’t been on in a few days, and I absentmindedly browsed the news feed until a picture caught my attention. Preston and his best friend, Nate, stood at a lake, both shirtless and in board shorts. That was the way I was used to seeing Preston. I stared at the picture, noticing his easy tan and toned abs before I shook my head and slammed my laptop closed. Deciding on a jog on the treadmill, I laced up my shoes and plugged in my favorite playlist, jamming out to the newest song from the Chainsmokers.

Like every morning, I mixed my protein shake then moved to the shower, spending an extra few minutes letting the hot water caress me. Since I didn’t have to impress anyone at my parents’ house that afternoon, I put on some athletic shorts and a tank top and braided my hair on either side of my face. I smiled at my simple appearance.

With nothing else to do, I was early to my parents’ house, which was actually my grandmother’s house. We had lived with her starting when I was a little girl.

Gram greeted me at the door. “Maddie, you’re here. You look beautiful. Did you have fun last night?”

I hugged her neck. “Gram, I’m wearing gross clothes today. You must need your vision checked.” I rolled my eyes. “Yes, last night was fun.”

My mom appeared next, hugging me. “Happy birthday, Maddie. We have your favorite—strawberry cake.” I followed my mom into the living room where Dad was talking to my brother Ethan.

I ruffled his hair. “Man, are you still growing? Ready for senior year?”

“Hey sis. Happy birthday. Yeah, I think I’m ready—ready to be done with school.” Ethan was cute, growing out his wavy brown hair. In the fall, he would be the starting quarterback for my alma mater, Richmond Academy, where our parents still worked.

“Where’s Levi?” I asked, hugging my dad.

My dad plopped back down in his recliner. “He should be here any minute.”

“He’s got a new girlfriend,” Ethan announced. My brothers had always been close growing up, being only 18 months apart. Levi had graduated that summer and was working full time as a lifeguard at the country club. He was saving money for a car, like my sisters and I had had to do, but Ethan hadn’t had a job yet and wasn’t concerned about getting a car, or even his license.

“Ohhh, I’ll be sure to tease him about that.” I snickered.

My family sat around making small talk before finally singing “Happy Birthday” and serving cake. My parents gave me my standard Bath & Body Works basket and a gift card, a yearly ritual along with the strawberry cake.

My grandmother clapped and got our attention. “My turn!” She handed me a beautifully wrapped small square box, and I lifted out a silver charm bracelet with a heart and a letter M attached.

“Gram! You shouldn’t have!” I jumped up and hugged her.

My mom cleared the plates while Dad went back to watching TV, and Ethan and Levi left the room. I walked past the front living room window and stood looking directly across the street at where Preston’s parents lived. Mrs. McKenzie’s Lexus was parked in the driveway along with the shiny black Infiniti sports coupe I recognized from the run-in the day before.

Gram quietly approached me, holding out a measuring cup. “Sweetie, be a dear and go ask Mrs. McKenzie for a cup of sugar.”

“Geez, Gram.” I jumped. “Don’t sneak up on me! What? No. You don’t need sugar.”

“Sure I do. Used the last of mine on your cake.” She smiled.

I rolled my eyes. “Do you really need sugar?” I knew just what Gram was up to. I looked down at my outfit choice—of all the days to dress down, I’d chosen the day she wanted me to face him.

“Why would I send you for sugar if I didn’t need any?” I swore I saw Gram smirk before turning away.

I sighed. “Fine. I’ll be RIGHT back,” I said, emphasizing that I wouldn’t be lingering.

Before knocking, I took one calming breath. Preston’s younger brother answered the door and immediately pulled me in for a huge hug.

“Maddie! What are you doing here?” Payton smiled warmly at me. He looked a lot like Preston, but that was where their similarities stopped. Payton has always been quiet, studious, and so not the playboy his big brother was.

“Who is it?” said a woman’s voice, carrying from another room.

“Hey, sorry to bug you. Gram needs to borrow sugar if you have any.” I held up the cup to Payton as if to prove my point.

“Sure, come in. Mom, it’s Maddie,” he called back to her.

“Maddie Price?”

We rounded the corner, and Pamela McKenzie greeted me with a genuine smile. “Good to see you. You need sugar?”

“Apparently Gram is baking something.” We stood in the kitchen talking, and I thought I was going to avoid seeing him, but of course I couldn’t be so lucky.

“Wow! Two days in a row. How’d I get so lucky?” his voice bellowed above us. I turned, and Preston was standing in swim shorts with no shirt and his cap on backward. “Here to go swimming?”

I focused my eyes on his, avoiding any chance of getting caught checking him out. “Nope, just here for sugar.” Preston’s mom held out the cup, now filled. “Thank you.” I reached for it and turned to leave.

“Tell your grandmother I said hi. No need to repay me.” Pamela had always been kind to me.

“Bye Payton,” I said as I walked for the door.

Of course, Preston followed me. “What? No goodbye for me?”

“Oh, are you still here?” I stopped when Preston blocked the door with his hand then I stood back and looked up at him. “Do you need something?”

Preston tugged on one of my braids. “I was thinking we should go to dinner one night to discuss our new relationship.” He smirked.

“You can call my office and schedule a meeting if you need to discuss things. I’m sure I can pencil you in somewhere.”

Preston stood straighter and took one step forward. “I like your hair like this. I almost didn’t recognize you yesterday. You looked…well, amazing, but you look even more beautiful like this. Natural, like Maddie.”

Butterflies swarmed my stomach. If Preston still had the ability to make me swoon, that definitely would have been happening right then, but I straightened and reached for the door handle. “I need to get Gram’s sugar to her.”


Chapter 2

My 9th Birthday

July 29th, a day just like any other…except it wasn’t. It was my 9th birthday, but I wasn’t having a big party. My family was making cake and had presents for me. All of my supposed friends from my snobby school were on vacation as I sat on the porch wearing my hand-me-down jean shorts and t-shirt from my older sisters, Taylor and Tatum. They were twins, and generally were not very nice to me—they thought they were so cool because they were teenagers.

As I swung back and forth on our porch swing, I watched a moving truck pull up at the house across the street, where there had been a For Sale sign the week before. Next a really nice car pulled up. It was much fancier than my mom’s minivan, and two blond-headed boys jumped out. I stood, curious. They looked close to my age, and no one around there was my age.

Lifting my hand to shield my eyes from the sun, I walked across the street and said hi to them. “Hi, I’m Maddie. Are you moving in here?”

The smaller boy seemed to be shy, but the taller one spoke to me. “I’m Preston, and this is my brother, Payton, and yes we’re moving in. Do you live there?” He pointed in the direction I had just walked over from.

I nodded. “It’s my birthday. You can come over and have cake later if you want.”

“Cool. I’ll ask our mom. Happy birthday. I don’t have a present for you though.” Preston seemed genuine, like he truly believed it was impolite to show up without a present.

“Oh, I don’t need a present.” I smiled at him. Payton watched us for a moment, and then a lady called their names.

“We have to go. We’ll come over later. What’s your favorite color?” Preston asked as Payton ran off.

“Today it’s pink.” I smiled proudly.

“It changes?” Preston looked curious.

“Yes, doesn’t yours?”

Preston thought for a minute. “Nope, it’s always blue.” Preston wore nice shorts and a collared shirt like the kids from school did. It didn’t go unnoticed that most kids had more than me. I smiled. I liked Preston. “Okay, bye for now!” I ran off.

An hour later, the doorbell rang. Preston and a hiding Payton were at my front door. “Is it time for cake?” he asked with a huge smile.

“Come in. I’ll go ask.” I introduced the new neighbors to my parents and grandmother, and they agreed it was the perfect time for cake.

I wasn’t expecting much for my birthday. My parents got me some nail polish and a new shirt, and though I never painted my nails, it was still nice to unwrap something. Gram’s present was next, and I got excited because she always got me something nice. I pulled out a beautiful sundress and sandals. “Thanks Gram, I love them!” I said, hugging the dress to me.

“Here.” Preston handed me a piece of paper that was folded up several times, and Payton watched quietly as I unfolded it. Happy Birthday was written in big pink letters with some balloons and a cake drawn next to it.

I smiled and looked at Preston. “Thank you.”

He shrugged like it wasn’t a big deal. “We have a pool. My mom said you could come over and swim.”

I loved swimming but only got the chance if Mom took us to the public pool. I looked at my mom for approval with a huge smile and she nodded. “Just be careful, and wear sunscreen.”

“Thanks Mom!” I smiled at Gram, waving as I ran off.

Preston liked to show off by doing cannonballs into the pool. Payton eventually warmed up to me, but never really had much to say. After a while, we stopped playing and could hear the boys’ parents fighting inside the house. Preston said they fought all the time and acted like it wasn’t a big deal, but I was worried. I had never heard my parents raise their voices like that.

After a minute, the fighting stopped, and Preston jumped in, splashing me.

“Where will you be going to school?” I asked him.

“It’s called Richman Academy, or something like that.”

“Richmond! That’s where I go. How old are you?” I wanted to know all about the boy who’d made me a birthday card.

“I’m almost ten. I’m going into fourth grade. Payton is six. He’ll be in first grade. What about you?”

I treaded water as we talked. “Fourth grade too. That’s cool. Maybe we’ll be in class together. Some kids are mean there. They tease me because my parents work there.”

“That’s not very nice. We can stick together. I won’t know anyone.” He paused, then said, “You have a big family. Does your grandma live with you?” Preston studied my face.

I nodded. “We live with her. Big families aren’t so fun.”

“Why not? You have more people to play with.” Payton had left us to go inside.

I shrugged. “My brothers are too little to do anything with, and my older sisters are twins and don’t pay any attention to me. My Gram is nice, though.”

“Oh, I guess you’re right. You’re kind of alone in the middle.” Preston wasn’t trying to be mean, but he was spot on. “Payton’s cool, I guess. He’s quiet.”

“I noticed. So, what do you like to do?”

“Play sports. I’ll play anything. What about you?”

“I like to draw.” I shrugged. “I guess I’m kind of boring.”

“No, you’re not. I wouldn’t be friends with someone boring.” Preston took off for the steps and leapt out of the pool, only to jump right back in. We stayed out there swimming until the beginning of dusk approached and our fingers were pruney. It was my best birthday so far.

I was pleasantly surprised the next afternoon when Preston rang my doorbell. Gram answered the door and called for me. As she passed by, she gave me a wink.

“Hi Preston.” I smiled.

“Hey, I’m reorganizing my baseball cards. Want to help me?” He held out the binder filled with small trading cards.

I shrugged. “I guess. I don’t know much about baseball.”

“I’ll teach you. Baseball is my favorite. Maybe you could make the cover since you can draw.” Preston pushed his way past me into the house. We sat at the kitchen table as he sorted cards and told me about the teams and good players while I drew out a cover for the binder. Mom and my brothers were at a playdate, and my older sisters were with friends, so it was quiet in the house with just Gram and my dad there. Gram made us brownies and lemonade and feigned interest in baseball for Preston’s sake. She and I smiled back and forth when Preston was busy because we really had no clue.

Sometime later, my mom returned with groceries and my brothers and asked us to clear the table for dinner.

“I should go. Do you want to swim later? It was pretty cool with the lights on last night, and my mom bought some pool rafts and stuff.” Preston held my gaze, waiting for an answer. He was already the nicest kid I had ever met. No one invited me to their house, or to go swimming, or anything. Suddenly my snobby private school didn’t seem so bad.

My head nodded up and down, and I shouted, “Yes! I’ll come over after dinner.”

“Cool,” Preston said then walked home.

“He’s a nice boy,” Gram said quietly while everyone else scurried around the house loudly.

I looked at Gram’s warm face. “He is. It will be nice to have a new friend.”

After dinner, I changed into my pink swimsuit and skipped across the street, where a beautiful lady answered the door. She had the same blonde hair as Preston and Payton and the same sparkling blue eyes. She wore a sleeveless white dress and smiled down at me.

“You must be Maddie. Come in. I’m Pamela. Preston will be right down.” I followed her into the house.

The night before, I had entered through the outside gate, so I hadn’t even seen Preston’s parents. Today everything was already unpacked and put into the perfect place. I was amazed at the nice things they had: huge vases, expensive-looking framed prints, spotless furniture. Off the living room was a study just like at our house. The room was dark brown and had animals hung on the walls behind a large wooden desk. A man was hunched over the desk working on his computer. He never greeted me.

Rounding the corner, I saw Payton sitting at the bar. “Hi Payton. I heard you got new pool toys.”

His lips pulled back slightly. “Yeah, Mom bought me a big water gun. I’m going to get Preston.”

I laughed and smiled back at him as I said, “I’ll help.”

“Help with what?” Preston bounded into the kitchen holding towels.

My lips tightened. “Oh, nothing. Let’s go!”

Preston took off out the back door. “Last one in's a rotten egg!” he shouted over his shoulder.

Payton and I followed him out and watched as he cannonballed into the water, just like he had the day before. I set my towel and flip-flops by the table and ran and jumped in behind Preston, who immediately started splashing me. The three of us laughed and swam for hours until Mrs. McKenzie announced that it was time to come in. She gave us each a Sprite, which I loved—we never had soft drinks at my house. Preston then walked me to the door.

“Good night Maddie. I’m glad you live across the street.”

“Me too. I finally have someone to play with.” I waved as I started to walk off.

“We can swim every day till school starts,” Preston hollered louder.

I looked back with a smile and noticed that Preston watched me walk all the way home. Preston made me happy. Just like he promised, we spent every last day of summer together.

Present day

After the day at my parents’, I drove back to my apartment. I was loving my new place. I’d loved living with Paige, but I had craved my own place since I was a child. I was making decent money and had found a great one-bedroom apartment in a really nice area close to restaurants and shopping.

Paige wanted to stop by to show me her latest photographs before sending them to her client and to go over some things before our meeting the next day. Paige and I were trying to start a wedding planning business together. She would be our photographer, and I would run the creative side—invitations, decorations, etc.—and be the point of contact. So far we’d had two successful weddings and a referral we were meeting that Sunday. Hearing her knock, I opened the door.

“I brought wine!” She held up a bottle with one hand, and the other held her laptop. “How was family day?”

“Typical—strawberry cake, small talk, Preston.” I held the door as Paige walked past.

“Again? You can’t be for real. He was at your house?” She followed me into the kitchen where I pulled down two wine glasses.

“His mom still lives across the street, and Gram sent me over for sugar when she saw his car there.” I handed Paige the wine opener. I could never get those things off.

“Sneaky Gram. So, she definitely gave him your address. By the way, those flowers are breathtaking.” Paige motioned to the large arrangement on the counter.

I sighed. “I know, and get this: I was wearing this”—I waved my hands down my body—“and he said I looked beautiful, said he didn’t recognize me yesterday because I wasn’t ‘natural Maddie’.” I scoffed.

Paige shook her head and let out a laugh. “He’s still got it. Wow! What did you say?” She pulled the top off and poured us each a glass of merlot.

“I thanked him for the sugar and left.”

Paige stopped mid-motion before she could take a drink. “You didn’t! I would have loved to see that. Was Payton there?”

“Yep.” I took small sips, savoring the flavor.

“He has gotten gorgeous. Too bad you couldn’t have fallen for that McKenzie. Such a sweetheart,” Paige continued.

I cackled. “How about no McKenzie boy for me. Okay, enough about him. Let me see your proofs.”

We drank a few glasses of wine, finished prepping for our meeting, and moved to the sofa. “Want to watch The Bachelor?”

“Oh yes please. I missed it this week!” Paige cheered.

After the show finished, we critiqued the remaining girls and gushed about what we loved about the bachelor. Paige relaxed against the sofa, pulling her auburn hair up in a ponytail. She was wearing cutoff jean shorts and a tank top. “I’m thinking of getting magenta tips in my hair. What do you think?”

“That’d be cute, and you can totally pull it off. I’m adding some blonde highlights this week.” I never did anything too crazy with my looks, no tattoos and no piercings other than my ears, but I did splurge on my nails and hair now that I finally could afford it.

“So when will you see him again?” Paige turned to face me.

“Who?” I knew exactly who she was talking about.

“You’ll be working with him, so you can’t avoid him. Just be careful—don’t fall for his charm,” she warned.

I waved my hand dismissively. “I’m not worried about it at all. It’s a professional thing, that’s all.”

“If you say so. I should be going. You picking me up tomorrow?”

“Yes, 1:30. That’ll give us plenty of time to get to the Starbucks where we’re meeting.” I walked Paige to the door. “Night, sister from another mister.”

“Night Maddie Moo.”


Paige and I landed the wedding planning the next afternoon. The bride-to-be was cousins with our last bride and raved about how wonderful that wedding had been—I was pretty sure we would have gotten the deal even if we hadn’t shown up for the meeting. I left Paige and went home to start plotting some possible venues based on the area the bride wanted. Outdoor weddings in spring were beautiful, so the top of my list was the arboretum. They had a large room for ceremonies, so rain or shine, we could make it work. I would need a follow-up meeting to get color choices before starting on invitation designs, but I pulled out my sketchpad and doodled for a while before heading to bed. It would be a busy week balancing the new client I hoped to land and planning the beginning of that wedding, but I was looking forward to it.

First thing Monday morning, my boss called me into his office. I smoothed my maroon wraparound dress and crossed my black high heel-clad feet as I sat across from his desk. “Sam was impressed with you Friday, and he wants to sign with us. I scheduled for you to go over this afternoon with the contract.”

I beamed. “Great. It should be a pretty easy rebranding. They seemed to like the ideas I proposed.”

“I’m not surprised.” He sat with his hands clasped in front of him. “I’ll have my secretary draw up the agreement and have it ready for you.”

I thanked him and went back to my office to check emails, squeezing in a few wedding-planning things in between my work. I looked up, surprised it was already time to go meet Sam.

As I turned into the parking lot, I searched for the shiny black sports car, but it wasn’t anywhere in sight. Relieved, I relaxed and walked in with confidence. Shortly after I sat down with Sam, Preston entered the room. I managed to keep from rolling my eyes—barely.

“Sorry, I got stuck with my last client for longer than I expected. Is this the contract?” he asked as Sam pushed the paper toward Preston.

“Yes, pretty standard setup,” Sam replied.

Preston examined the document and asked a few follow-up questions. “How soon can you get the logo to us? How long will a new website take?”

“I can have the logo by the end of the week, maybe sooner. It usually takes a few weeks to hammer out the design for a site and add content, and another few weeks for coding.” I noticed Preston’s eyes lingering on me fractionally longer than they should have. I hoped I didn’t blush. “Then we’ll immediately start the SEO portion of the plan.”

“Looks good. Let’s sign.” Preston was all business. “Madison, I look forward to this project. Sam, I need to make a call. I’ll touch base with you tomorrow.” Preston stood to leave, and relief filled me.

I finished up with Sam, eager to get the contract back to my boss. I had just rounded the corner to exit the building when Preston walked up casually beside me. I was caught off guard by his sudden appearance.

“Um, hi. Where did you come from?”

He held up his cell. “Had a call. So, dinner?” He kept up with my pace easily even though I was walking quickly, and he let out a soft chuckle.

“What?” I questioned without slowing down.

“I never got how you girls can walk in those shoes. They look like torture. Although, on your long legs, they do look good.”

I stopped short and faced Preston. “Preston, this is a professional situation, otherwise I wouldn’t even entertain the thought of talking to you right now. Please be respectful.” I started walking again.

“Ouch!” Preston laughed and picked up his pace again. “So…dinner? As colleagues, of course.”

Thankfully, we had reached my car. I opened the door and climbed in quickly.

“No thanks.” I smiled sarcastically out my window and gave Preston a small wave.


The rest of the week flew by with no more run-ins with Preston. I spoke directly to and only with Sam regarding his project and met with the bride-to-be after work on Thursday. We hammered out several important details and set times to meet on Saturday to look at venues.

At the end of the day Friday, I scanned my unanswered emails. Preston’s name displayed, and I clicked on it.

This is an email so it’s professional. Dinner tomorrow night?

Preston

I closed down my laptop and headed out for the weekend then called Paige and met her for dinner. We went over the plans that had been made for Allie, the bride, and everything was running along smoothly.

Tuesday at work, another email from Preston showed up.

Dinner tonight?

Preston

I ignored it. Later in the day, I got a text.

Preston: Not responding to emails is not very professional

I opened my email and typed a quick response to Preston’s latest request.

Sorry, busy.

Madison Price

Redman Group

Friday, I was gearing up for a presentation when the receptionist notified me someone was there to see me.

“I don’t have an appointment. Who is it?” I inquired through the phone system.

“Preston McKenzie. He said you’d know what it’s regarding,” she sang through the speaker.

I rolled my eyes; I’d known he’d eventually find some way to corner me. I straightened my cotton shirt and black slacks and stood by my desk as Preston strolled in easily, wearing pressed jeans and a white button-down shirt rolled up at the sleeves. He looked as handsome as ever, and I had to remind myself not to react to him.

“You’re a hard woman to get ahold of. I’ve been requesting a meeting.” Preston spoke with authority, standing across the desk from me with the hint of a smile. Smug bastard.

“You’ve requested dinner, after hours. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have work to do.” I walked toward my door to show him out.

“I’m your client, and I’m requesting a meeting. Lunch? Surely you eat.” Preston smirked, knowing he had won.

I pinched the bridge of my nose, frustrated. “Fine. Lunch. You have one hour.” I grabbed my purse and glided past him, smelling his woodsy cologne mixed with sandalwood. It was his scent, the one he’d worn since we were teens, and I could get lost in it if I allowed myself.

Preston chuckled. “What are you so scared of?”

I ignored him and walked past.

Chapter 3

My 10th Birthday

I woke up actually looking forward to my birthday. That afternoon, Preston and Payton would come to my house for cake along with a new girl who had moved in that spring, Paige. I’d liked Paige right away. She had short brown hair and big awkward glasses. Some of the mean girls teased her, but I sat next to her at lunch on her first day and surprisingly, Preston did too. He seemed to know it was important to me.

When the doorbell rang at 2:00, I bounced down the hall to get it. Paige stood at the door holding a large pink gift bag with all colors of tissue paper sticking out, matching her personality perfectly. Preston walked up behind her holding a box that looked like it had been professionally gift wrapped, matching his world. I hugged them both and ran toward the kitchen. Gram and Mom greeted my guests.

“Happy birthday, Maddie. Here, open my gift.” Preston pushed his box across the table and I carefully unwrapped the white paper, the perfect pink bow. I lifted the lid and pulled out two sketchbooks, a pack of charcoal pencils, and a pack of colored pencils. Preston knew I liked to draw, and I loved the gift.

“Thank you!” I shouted then reached for Paige’s gift, haphazardly flinging the rainbow of tissues out of the bag until I reached the bottom. There was a small box, which I opened to reveal two necklaces that made up a fractured heart with the words Best Friends. I hugged Paige, and then we ran off to play.

After Paige’s parents picked her up, Preston asked if I wanted to swim. At the end of the day, I decided that birthday topped the year before.

Everyone had a bedroom at my house but me. The twins shared a room, my brothers shared a room, and of course Gram and my parents had their own bedrooms. I was in the downstairs office/living room that didn’t even have a closet, but at least it was my own space. Because it was at the front of the house, I had a view of our front porch, and sometimes Preston would sit on the swing there. He never rang the bell those times, but I’d see him out my window and go sit with him.

“They’re fighting again. I had to get out,” Preston explained, looking forward as I approached.

“Where’s Payton?” Payton didn’t talk much in general, and sometimes I worried about him.

“He was already asleep.”

I nodded and looked up as the first few stars appeared. It was the weekend so I could stay up late, and if my parents knew I sat out there with Preston at night, they never said anything to me. I pulled my knees up to my chest. “Do you ever make a wish?”

“What do you mean?” Preston faced me, curious.

I pointed up to the sky. “Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight, I wish I may, I wish I might, have this wish I wish tonight.”

Preston’s smile widened. “What do you wish for, Maddie?”

I grinned. “Lots of things. When I grow up, I wish for a shiny red car and my own apartment, one of those fancy ones on the top floor.”

“A penthouse?” Preston squished up his nose, and I nodded. “I wish I could play baseball. My dad says I have to stick to football to get really good at it.”

“But you like football too,” I pointed out.

“Yeah, but I want to try baseball, so that’s my wish.”

I smiled at Preston. “It’ll happen.”

Once we started middle school, Preston and I didn’t see each other as much at school. I was in art, he was in sports, and we had our own sets of friends, but every once in a while, he’d find me at lunch and sit with me. That usually gained me extra attention from the “popular” girls.

Pixie White, the prettiest girl in seventh grade, approached me after school one day. “You know, you have really pretty hair. You should totally let me fix it for you.” She started talking to me at school, but still snubbed Paige.

After a few days, it finally clicked when she casually asked, “Are you friends with Preston?”

I turned, looked around the cafeteria, and found Preston sitting with his group of guy friends, watching me. “Yeah, why?”

“Does he like anyone?” Pixie twirled her hair and smacked her gum.

“I really wouldn’t know. I gotta go. Come on Paige.” I reached for my backpack.

“Wait, maybe you could say something to him about me.” Pixie flashed her perfect white teeth at me.

I just shrugged. “Maybe. Talk to you later.” After we were out of earshot, I leaned toward Paige. “Can you believe her?” I pointed over my shoulder.

Paige snorted. “Actually, I can. Want to hang after school? I brought my camera.”

“Sure. You know I’ll be here until my parents can leave.” When everyone else left in their luxury cars, I sat in an empty classroom doing homework, waiting on my mom to drive me home in her minivan.

Paige and I walked around the outside of the school. She carried her camera, and I took my sketchpad. We ended up on the bleachers facing the football players. After a while, Preston jogged over to us, holding his helmet and covered in sweat.

“What are you two doing out here? I didn’t think sports were your thing.”

“Preston, you stink. You need to shower.” I held my nose.

Preston leaned toward me and shook his overgrown hair at me. I jumped up and yelped, “eww!” but he just laughed and walked away. Paige laughed at our exchange.

By eighth grade, Nate had moved to our school. He was as cute as Preston with bright blue eyes like Preston’s, and they became best buds. Preston also started talking to more girls. We didn’t talk as much at school, but he’d still come sit on my porch sometimes at night.

I silently sat beside him one evening. “What did you wish for tonight?” he asked, breaking the silence. Preston was sitting on the swing next to me wearing khaki shorts and a light blue Polo-brand t-shirt; all his clothes were brand name. He brushed his fingers through his hair and looked up at the stars.

“I can’t tell you.”

Preston’s head snapped to mine and his eyes grew wide. “Why not?”

I was not going to admit to Preston that I had a crush on his best friend. “Because if I tell you, then it won’t come true.”

“Oh. I guess you’re right.” Preston looked down and pushed off the swing again.

“Besides, I doubt it will happen.” Preston waited for me to explain. “Fine, it’s about a boy, but I’m not telling you who.”

“What about a boy? You like someone?” Preston was still looking down then turned to look at me, and I nodded. “Why wouldn’t anything happen?”

I glared at Preston. “Because…look at me. I’m ordinary. Our school is like having any pick of dessert and I’m the broccoli.”

Preston snickered. “Good one, Maddie.” His laughing faded. “But you’ve got it wrong. You’re just as pretty as any girl at our school, and you’re different, you know. They’re all fake, but you are….you.”

I rolled my eyes and playfully punched his arm. “You’re delusional.”

“If you want something, I say go for it. What are you so scared of?”

Present day

I was hyperaware Preston was behind me, probably watching me walk as quickly as possible away from my building. I stopped short and turned, and he collided with me. Preston grabbed my arms, stabilizing me, and my heart skipped a beat.

“Um, sorry. I was going to ask if you’d drive. I’m low on gas.”

Preston nodded, slowly releasing my arms. “This way.” He didn’t hold up any key fob, just pushed a button on the door that unlocked them both and then pushed another button inside, making the engine roar to life. The car screamed Preston: black leather seats, loud rock music blaring from the speakers, and the scent of his masculine cologne filling my nose. He turned down the music and backed out.

“You didn’t get a standard? I thought that was the only way to drive a car?” I joked, mocking the 18-year-old Preston that had just gotten a brand new black Mustang.

Preston grimaced but kept his eyes on the road. “Sometimes tastes change. Age or wisdom, as they say.”

I snickered. “For you, let’s go for age.”

“That hurts, Maddie.” He held his chest like I’d wounded him.

“So why were you at your mom’s the other day?” I purposefully wiped my hands down my pants, suddenly feeling nervous.

“Dad served her papers last week, completely cleared out the place while she was at Bunco, so Payton and I were there to support her.” I couldn’t read anything from Preston’s expression.

“I’m so sorry. She looked great. Is she doing okay?” Honestly, I was surprised Preston’s parents had made it as long as they did. They fought constantly, and Mr. McKenzie had become less and less discreet about his “business trips” in recent years.

He shrugged. “I guess. I have a feeling she had popped a pill before we got there. She was awfully cheery, and she wouldn’t say much.”

“I’ll tell Gram to check on her this week.” I offered Preston a sincere smile. Pamela McKenzie had always been nice to me growing up, and I hoped she was doing all right.

“Maybe she’ll need more sugar.” Preston’s lip twitched.

I rolled my eyes. “I have a feeling she has plenty of sugar.”

Preston chuckled and turned in to the Blue Goose. “I assume you still love Mexican.” I blinked and nodded. “Good, they have the best margaritas here.”

Preston ordered us each a margarita on the rocks. “No salt?” he asked me.

“Right.” I was touched he remembered. “Remember the first time we drank together?” I asked when the waiter walked off.

Preston laughed once. “I definitely remember. Someone thought she could sing.”

“Oh, I can sing. I’m signing my record contract any day now. Do you remember what else happened?” I leaned forward like it was top secret.

“You mean Nate kissing Paige and her running off while yelling, ‘Gross, I have to go brush my teeth!’ Yeah, fun times.”

I laughed along with him. “She still gets mad when I bring that up. Those two were always so weird around each other.”

“I think Nate is just used to girls hanging all over him, not busting his balls.” Preston looked over the menu.

I snorted. “Sounds like someone else I know.”

“Hey, you never hung all over me, and I could always keep up with you.” His brow rose as if to challenge me.

“Well, that’s because I was the only girl you knew who had half a brain,” I quipped.

“I’m sure you have more than half.” He smirked over his menu.

I rolled my eyes. “So, what is Nate up to?”

“Working, picking up hot chicks, the usual. I’m hanging with him tonight. You should join us for drinks, bring Paige for old times’ sake.” Preston seemed serious.

“You’re forgetting this is a business lunch, and that would be recreational,” I pointed out.

“Ah, and apparently Madison is against fun these days,” Preston remarked sarcastically.

“I’m living on the edge, my friend. You’d be so lucky to hang out with me,” I retorted.

“So, we agree—I would be lucky to get the chance.” Preston’s smile was cocky.

“I’m starving. Where’s our waiter?” As if on cue, the waiter approached with our drinks and took our order.

After a beat of silence, I spoke up. “So, what exactly is your involvement with Sam Overton?”

“Diving right in, I see. I told you, I’m considering investing money to help him rebuild.”

I tilted my head. “What’s in it for you?”

“Well for starters, hopefully money. Also, he’s an old friend of my mom’s. She asked me to see what I could do.” He shrugged nonchalantly.

“That’s almost noble of you.” I pressed my lips tight.

His lip twitched again, holding back a smile. “And look at you, Ms. Big Shot. I see you got the shiny red car. Did you get the penthouse too?”

“I would think you would know since you’ve apparently stalked me. I’m on the second floor, which is the top floor, so technically it’s the penthouse.” I grinned.

“Public information, Madison. And congrats, I’m happy for you.” Whenever Preston said Madison, it felt like he was taking a little jab at me, but I let it go. “Is Paige still taking pictures?”

“Yes, she’s so talented. In fact, she and I are working weddings on the side.” Oops. I hadn’t planned on telling him that.

Preston chewed his food and wiped his mouth with his napkin. “I know she’s talented, I’ve seen her work. What do you mean, working weddings?”

In high school, Paige had taken a beautiful picture of Preston and me, carefree and laughing at something. Paige had made it black and white, and I’d had it in a frame ever since. I wondered if Preston still had the copy I’d given him for Christmas our senior year. “She’s taking the photographs, and I do the other stuff. We just got a new client, and I’m meeting her tomorrow at Royal Oaks Country Club and Delaney Vineyards.”

The side of Preston’s lip tilted up. “You know there was time when you would have sneered at those places.”

“Turns out when you have a little money, those places are a lot more fun. I learned how to bargain shop and find outlets—it’s amazing how much you can save on brand names if you look in the right places.” I shrugged. “I like it. The weddings we’ve already done have been beautiful and elegant.”

“I’m not surprised. If you put your mind to something, you do great, always have.” Preston avoided eye contact.

I sat back. “I’m stuffed.”

“You barely ate anything,” he teased.

“I don’t usually eat lunch, just do a protein bar or shake. Guess I’ll skip dinner.” I smiled at him. “And I should really get back. I have a full afternoon if I want to leave at 5 today.”

Preston nodded in agreement and paid the check.

“Thank you. That was almost fun,” I snarked as I slid out of his black leather seat in front of my office.

Preston chuckled. “Glad you almost had fun. Later, Ms. Price.”

I smiled as Preston pulled away and then remembered why I wasn’t supposed to be having fun with Preston McKenzie.


Chapter 4

My 15th Birthday

Freshman year of high school was officially over. Preston and I ran in different circles at school but at home, we were still as close as ever. I spent many summer days swimming and laying out in his back yard. The first day I wore my bikini over, he whistled at me and I rolled my eyes, but inside my stomach did flips. My crush for Nate had been short-lived and I didn’t admit to being attracted to Preston, although everyone knew he was the cutest boy at school.


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