The vibe in the room abruptly changed, and tiny hairs on the back of my neck stood at attention. A crowd around my table continued to mull about, unaware of what had just come over me.
I was no stranger to panic attacks, but this was different. I recognized this feeling, although I hadn't felt it in...God, more than eight years. Scanning the room for the cause of my hypersensitivity, I couldn't find it. Countless fans wandered the space, mingling with the seventy-plus authors congregated for the signing.
Before I could think about what I was doing, I planted my feet in the seat of my chair with my assistant looking at me as though I'd lost my mind.
"Callie, what the hell are you doing?" Hayden pulled on my pant leg, frantically trying to get me down while the line of people in front of me waiting for my attention was a mile long.
She tugged on my knee until I gave up and brought myself back to the people who'd paid money to see me, and I finally sat down. Milo, my cover model, sidled up next to a group of girls cooing over his bare chest, anxiously awaiting their moment in front of the camera.
"Callie, seriously, what the hell is going on?"
Hayden was my right hand; she went everywhere with me, handled my entire PR function, and happened to be my lifelong best friend. She'd jumped on this ride when I was a nobody indie author and had ridden the train to full-blown fame, but at times, she was a pain in my ass.
Her ice-cold fingers grabbed my chin, and she forced my eyes to focus on hers. "What the hell has gotten into you?" she hissed under her breath.
I shook off her irritation-as well as her hands from my face-before regrouping to take a picture with the giddy girls who fawned all over Milo. I stepped into the shot, donned my plastic smile for the photo op, and signed a few books, all while simultaneously continuing to scan the perimeter.
"You're freaking me out a bit here, Callie. Can you come back to planet Earth and focus on what you're here to do? Please."
With forced effort, I re-engaged with the women buying my books, those who'd brought things for me to sign, and others who had come bearing homemade gifts-which were by far my favorite. I had a room at my house full of those little mementos.
Throughout the signing, I couldn't rid myself of the intense feeling of unease, but I couldn't locate the source, either. And as the afternoon wound down, the readers began to clear the venue while the hosts thanked everyone for coming. Milo and Hayden then started to break down my table, signaling the end of another event.
"I'm going to go find a bottle of water; it's hot as hell in here. I'll be back to help pack up." I almost asked Hayden to come with me, unsure I wanted to be alone, but I decided against it. The threat obviously wasn't real, but I couldn't imagine what would have brought it to the forefront of my mind after so many years without some sort of trigger.
I stopped several times on my way to find a vending machine, chatting with other writers and signing things for a few lingering fans. Turning toward the door, determined to make my exit, I saw it.
I couldn't breathe. My lungs wouldn't expand.
My hand flew to my chest at the familiar agony my heart had felt for so long.
"Callie, are you okay?" some random person asked while walking by.
I nodded, but I was far from fucking okay. My heart raced, and I was finally able to gasp for air, but my lungs burned from the denial of oxygen.
His dark curls were longer than I remembered but not overly, the glasses familiar; he'd gained weight but was by no means unhealthy, just more mature. I'd begged God for so long to allow me to see him just one more time, but my prayers had always gone unanswered. Yet here, twenty feet from me, stood Davis Inman. Tears filled my eyes at the sight.
My mind roamed to a period when Davis had returned my sentiment, when he had loved me as completely as I did him-or so I'd thought. The sensation that now plagued me was one I had once loved, one I had hoped would never leave. Lost in my reflections, memories of times I'd never left behind, I didn't think to stop staring, to move on from this place, so he didn't try to connect with me.
The moment our stares met-his green eyes still stoic and stark-the same connection we'd always had instantly coursed through me like heroin in a vein. It was as if we'd never spent a day apart, despite it being nearly a decade.
Davis stuffed his hands into the pockets of his jeans. Clearly unsure of how to proceed, he nervously made his way toward me. I didn't know whether to slap the shit out of him, run the other fucking way, or squeeze him in hopes he'd never leave again. Studying his face, I noticed how slowly and infrequently he blinked as if he weren't sure this was reality.
Less than an arm's length in front of me now stood the only man I'd ever loved, the one I had silently longed for, the one I'd compared to every man thereafter. I had spent years submerged in writing, trying to forget him.
I couldn't stop the tears. They flowed freely down my cheeks, pouring out in the only communication I could muster. My eyes burned with pain, and my heart throbbed with grief. Yet all we did was stare at each other, searching for answers maybe, but I didn't have any. He had to have known I'd be here; he wouldn't be at a book signing if he hadn't, but I couldn't bring myself to ask for fear of never receiving an answer.
"Hell, no!" Hayden's voice startled me, reverberating off the walls, or maybe just in my ears.
I broke the stare long enough to glance over my shoulder, where she stomped toward me. Her face was ablaze with unkempt emotion.
"What in the fuck do you think you're doing here, Davis?" Not giving him a chance to respond, she followed her question with, "You have no right-no fucking right-to waltz in these doors like you know someone. You need to take your ass on out. I'm not cleaning up another one of your messes. Go. The. Fuck. Away!"
She stepped in front of me, blocking the majority of my view, and placed her hands on her hips. It was dream-like, but this was never how I'd envisioned this happening. For years, I'd wished he would return with some deeply philanthropic story of why he'd had to leave, something earth-shattering that would allow for complete atonement. He would profess his undying love for me and confess his years of celibacy. Down on one knee with an enormous diamond ring of course-I write romance...I dream big.
"Hayden...." He tried to calm her before she made a bigger scene than the one that had already erupted.
People began to make their way to my location. These were my peers, this was my job, but they were also my friends, and the men here were fiercely protective of the authors who employed them.
Hayden's stance was firm. "Sorry, Davis, but no-go."
He glanced around her to find me still quietly crying behind my best friend's defensive posture.
"I need to talk to Callie." His voice was still the same, smooth tenor it had been so many years ago, so warm it could melt butter. Hearing my name pass his lips shattered my heart into a thousand pieces.
Hayden's voice continued to rise, gathering further attention. "You needed to talk to Callie eight years ago but couldn't be bothered."
My hand found her bicep, shifting her focus. "It's okay, Hayden. I can talk to him." My words were meek and unsteady, and I hardly recognized myself.
"Don't do this, Callie. Please. Think about what's at stake," she whispered so only I could hear.
I knew exactly what was on the line, but no one else did. "You know as well as I do, even all these years later, I won't walk away from him. I need closure. Now more than ever." My pathetic smile did nothing to encourage her departure, but she finally relented to my silent pleas.
Turning back to Davis, she pointed two fingers at her eyes, then at his, and back to hers. "I'm watching you, asshat. One step out of line and I'll be on you like white on rice. You got me?"
With a curt nod, she grabbed Milo and shooed the onlooking crowd away, leaving me standing in front of the skeleton who'd built my closet.