Tie Me by Olivia Cunning




  Chapter One

  The night washed over Kellen, wrapping him in a cocoon of nothingness. The occasional flashes of yellow in the distant clouds would soon be overhead, and he’d have to go inside. Although a powerful storm brewed over the Gulf of Mexico, he wasn’t ready to face that empty house. He’d just stay on the beach until resolve proved stronger than dread.

  As the flickers above the horizon intensified, the wind picked up, whipping his long hair around his neck and face. He stared out at the endless water, fighting shivers as the damp bite of the salty sea air drew warmth from his body. His skin had become numb. He wished the Gulf breeze could numb the raw ache deep in his chest. Would the feeling that part of him was missing ever leave or was he destined to feel empty for the rest of his life? Sara’s loss was still as tangible to him as it had been five years ago when he’d stared at that fucking heart rate monitor, holding his breath, waiting for just one more blip. Just one more.

  Just one more, Sara. I’ll do anything.

  It had never come.

  All the hope in the world—all the love he had to give—hadn’t amounted to anything in the end.

  Beneath the angry clouds, the water looked like shifting obsidian—shiny, black glass with peaks and valleys. Random curves of white froth approached the damp sand at Kellen’s feet and then receded, a ceaseless pattern of surge and withdrawal. The surf toyed with him—slowly retreating as the tide went out. Waves churned beneath the power of the storm, sometimes washing over his bare feet and drawing the sand from beneath his soles, but those waves never claimed him. Never pulled him under. Kellen stepped forward, following the slowly ebbing water, knowing eventually the sea would push him back toward the shore as the tide returned. There was little a man could count on in life, but he could count on the tides. And Kellen could count on memories of Sara haunting him.

  He glanced over his shoulder at the dark house behind him. It was painted a sunny yellow, but at night it looked gray. Cheerless. Not like the happy place he’d shared with her before she’d gotten sick.

  Oh, look at this house, Kellen, Sara’s cheerful voice echoed through his memory. Wouldn’t it be fun to rent it for a week and pretend it’s ours? I’ve never seen the ocean. I want to see it for the first time with you.

  Kellen had peered at the computer screen over Sara’s shoulder. She’d flipped through pictures of an enormous, sunny yellow vacation rental with open, airy rooms, inviting furnishings, and sprawling decks with beach views.

  You want to go see the ocean, honey. We go, he’d said. How much is it?

  She’d clicked on a reservation link and both their jaws had dropped when the weekly rental rate had been displayed. She’d closed the laptop and looked up at him, her big blue eyes drawing him in. Like a riptide, they’d always pulled him under.

  I don’t need that, she’d said. I have you. And she’d kissed him the way only Sara could kiss. A kiss that stirred his body into a heated frenzy. A kiss that touched his heart and soul. Her kiss had always turned him inside out. That’s what love did to him. That’s why Kellen needed it and at the same time never wanted to find it again.

  So Kellen had done what any fool in love with his perfect girl would do. He’d hocked his most prized possession—his late grandfather’s vintage Les Paul guitar—and surprised Sara with a week in her dream house. She hadn’t made him feel bad about giving up his guitar. She turned the sacrifice of his most cherished belonging into a week of his most cherished memories. The delight on her face as she’d stood in front of that obnoxiously large vacation rental with her hands clutched before her chest had been worth any cost.

  I love you more than all the water in the ocean. All the grains of sand on the beaches. All the stars in the sky, she’d said as she’d flung herself into his waiting arms.

  That’s a lot of love, he’d said, burying his nose in her sweet-smelling hair and taking a moment to just feel her. She was his everything. She would be his forever. He didn’t doubt it for an instant.

  I love you more than that, Kellen. So much more.

  Me too, honey.

  Kellen swallowed hard and closed his eyes against the echoes of the past.

  Memories of Sara continually tormented Kellen. They ripped his fucking heart out. Regardless, he sought things that reminded him of her. Losing her body and soul had been difficult enough. Losing those memories? He couldn’t take that too. He needed reminders of her. Constant reminders. That’s why, even though she was gone, he’d bought that huge fucking house on the Galveston shore as soon as he could afford it. Money had become a non-issue after Sole Regret’s second album had gone platinum and they sold out concert after concert on their first headlining tour. What would Sara think of his success? Would she be proud? Jealous? She’d never understood his need to make music.

  He’d have given up every penny, every cheer, every fan for one more moment with her.

  That empty house was why he was here, standing on the beach. He had no business being here. He should be on the tour bus with his band and on his way to Beaumont for their show tomorrow, but he hadn’t been able to stay away. Not when the band played in Houston. Not when he was so close to the place that had made Sara happy for a week in her short life. He wanted those joyous memories close. They were right on the other side of the sand dune behind him. In that house. That dark, empty dream house that had become another nightmare.

  Now that he’d arrived, he couldn’t force himself to go inside. He couldn’t stand sipping a beer on the deck without her beside him. He couldn’t stand knowing that when he climbed into bed, her pillow would be empty. He couldn’t touch her, couldn’t listen to her breathe. He could only lie there, staring up at the whirling ceiling fan trying to remember what they’d had for breakfast that first morning and the way the sun had danced through the golden highlights in her hair as she’d watched the sandpipers skitter through the surf. He could almost hear her laughing. Almost see her spinning in the warm breeze with her arms extended. Almost feel the water splatter against his legs as she kicked at the waves. She’d been so alive that day. So fucking alive. In his memory, she would always be alive.

  And that was something he would never give up.

  Owen had tried to convince him not to visit the house tonight. Owen’s reasoning had been right—being here didn’t help. It hurt. But Kellen couldn’t stay away. And even though he knew it would be for the best, he just couldn’t let Sara go.

  It had been five years since Sara had slipped away from him. Five long years that Kellen should have been healing and learning to move on. Five fucking years of misery.

  He’d hit rock bottom the day she’d been buried, and he’d thought that would be the worst of it. But he was below that now. What’s below rock bottom?

  “Hell,” he whispered to the wind.

  Why did you die on me, Sara? I need you beside me. Didn’t I fucking tell you that enough?

  Kellen wrapped his hand around the leather cuff on his left wrist. To him, it signified a lasting connection with the woman he still loved. The one time Kellen had thought he might let Sara go and move forward, Owen had given him this cuff, a Christmas gift. Its significance hadn’t been a huge deal, but it was a sign—one that had insisted Kellen must remain attached to Sara for a while longer. His feelings hadn’t ended when her life had. That wasn’t how love worked. People who hadn’t lost the love of their life didn’t understand that. Owen, God love him, didn’t understand that. He thought a man was supposed to move on when his soulmate died. Find some sort of replacement. Kellen didn’t want to move on. He didn’t want a replacement. He just wanted Sara back.

  He wanted the impossible.

  And he wanted Owen to stop staring at his cherished brac
elet as if it were possessed with evil. Kellen wished Owen would just let him wallow in grief and stop pressuring him to move forward. But maybe if Kellen pretended, the recent tension between him and his best friend might lessen. His determination to remove Sara’s cuff tonight wasn’t for his own sake. It was for Owen’s. He could do this for Owen. The widening rift between them was tearing Kellen apart. That woman Owen had met the night before—Caitlyn—had opened Kellen’s eyes to a brutal reality. Kellen’s weird head space—his inability to forge new intimate connections—was pushing Owen away from him. And he couldn’t lose Owen too. He had no one else, no one that he’d allowed close to him. No one else he trusted. No one else who’d put up with all the weird shit he’d been going through.

  Kellen took a deep breath and tugged one of the cuff’s straps free of its buckle fastening.

  I won’t forget you, Sara. I meant it when I said forever. I’m so sorry, honey. I just can’t… I can’t center my life around you anymore. But I won’t forget. I’ll never forget.

  He swallowed the lump in his throat and unfastened the second strap. The cuff fell into his right hand. His bare wrist felt foreign. Exposed. Inside he felt empty. So empty. Before he changed his mind, he flung the cuff into the sea.

  You shouldn’t litter, asshole. Kellen snorted as the first words Sara had ever said to him rang through his memory. He hadn’t been paying attention when he’d thrown his empty water bottle on the ground instead of into the recycling bin at which he’d been aiming. She’d picked up the offending piece of trash, marched up to him, and jabbed the end of the bottle into his chest. He’d stared at her, his mouth hanging open, at a complete loss for words. He’d known in that moment that he’d found his everything. Before those eternal seconds that marked their first meeting, he hadn’t believed in love, and certainly not in love at first sight, but he knew the instant his gaze touched upon Sara’s innocent face that they were meant to be. She was of a different opinion. There was no love in her eyes when she’d asked, Just how many planets do you think we have?

  Millions, he’d said. Trillions.

  The corner of her mouth had twitched, just a little, and a bit of the fire had receded from her big blue eyes. For a second, he’d thought she found him funny.

  Well, feel free to go live on one of them. I happen to be partial to the one I’m standing on.

  Her long, light brown ponytail had slapped him in the arm when she’d whirled around and stomped to the recycling bin. She’d slammed the bottle into the big blue container and gone to rejoin her friends in the environment club. They’d embraced her as if she’d singlehandedly saved the planet by telling off the cool guy who’d missed the recycling bin.

  Didn’t matter. Kellen was hooked. He’d signed up to join her little tree-hugging group the next day, and he hadn’t even been enrolled in her college. He hadn’t let trivialities like rules stand in his way when he wanted something. And he’d wanted her. He still wanted her.

  “I think leather is biodegradable,” he said now, knowing she wouldn’t approve of him throwing junk into the water. It just felt like a fitting burial for the thing, giving Sara to the sea she’d loved so briefly. He knew she’d wanted to spend more time there before she’d passed. Knew he was responsible for not fulfilling that want because he’d been terrified of letting her leave the hospital. He hoped there was an ocean in the afterlife and that she was always dancing in the waves.

  Kellen rubbed his bare wrist, trying to work the feel of the confining leather from his skin. As with her memory, he couldn’t seem to lessen its effect by simple effort. After a moment of kneading his wrist, something bumped into his bare foot. He looked down and caught the reflection of two metal buckles in the sand.

  “Back so soon?” he said and released a sigh. He bent and retrieved the bracelet, stuffing it into the front pocket of his jeans. A circle of wetness blossomed over his hip. He’d carry the cuff a while longer, but he silently swore that he wouldn’t put it back on his wrist. That wasn’t going back on his promise that he would remove it tonight. Not exactly. He had removed it. Yet while it wasn’t on his wrist, he was still very conscious of its presence in his wet pocket.

  The soft tinkle of piano music competed with the roaring waves. Kellen glanced behind him, seeking the source of the sound. Most of the houses along the deserted Gulf beach were dark, but a soft yellow glow lit an open window in the house next to his. The southwestern end of Galveston Island was far removed from the tourist attractions of the city. Down here, late at night, one could pretend to be the only person for miles. Yet he didn’t mind the intrusion of the poignant melody. In fact, he was pretty sure he needed something unexpected to draw him back to the present.

  A strong gust of wind slapped his hair against his face. Thunder rumbled overhead.

  The piano melody built—an inspiring crescendo—soaring higher. Higher. Drawing him out of the darkness. Clearing his thoughts. Freeing his heart. Washing him with elation. If only for a few seconds.

  The string of notes ceased suddenly. A loud blam on the keys ended the piece.

  A moment later, an angry rendition of “Chopsticks” drifted from the open window and drew a smile to Kellen’s lips.

  A bolt of lightning split the darkness, followed by a loud crash of thunder. Kellen squinted as the rain began to fall in fat droplets. He was instantly soaked, water coursing over his face and bare chest. His hair stuck to his neck in thick chunks, but he didn’t run for shelter. The melody had started again. He didn’t realize he’d approached the neighboring house until he found himself standing beneath the open window, which was shielded from the deluge by a wide, overhead deck. Again the melody built. He held his breath, waiting for the next note. One more beyond the first time he’d heard the amazing piece of music. Just one more note. One more.

  Blam!

  “Argh!” he heard a woman’s frustrated cry right before another bolt of lightning flashed and a rumble of thunder snapped him back to his senses. He turned his gaze to his beach house next door, trying to muster the courage to go inside and out of the rain. Without Sara.

  “Nice night for a walk,” a voice called down to him. The woman’s words were muffled by the downpour and the churning surf. He looked up and saw her standing against the deck railing. He couldn’t make out her features, as the light was at her back, but he could make out her curves when the wind blew her flowing white dress against her body.

  A familiar and unwelcome heat stirred low in his belly.

  It had been a long time since he’d been with a woman. Too damned long. And it was going to be a damned while longer if Sara’s memory had a say in the matter.

  Chapter Two

  The last thing Dawn had expected to see on the beach behind her rented vacation house was a soaking wet, shirtless hunk. She was too surprised to feel threatened by his presence. Had Neptune—lord of the sea—washed up on the shore? With that hard body and water dripping from every inch of his taut skin, the tall, muscular man sure resembled an immortal god.

  “Are you lost?” she yelled.

  Really, Dawn? The sea gifts you with this gorgeous, tail-less merman and you ask him if he’s lost? Of course he was lost. Why else would he be standing half-naked on the beach during a thunderstorm? She doubted he was rescuing sea turtles.

  He shook his head. “No,” he shouted up at her. “I live next door. I was just enjoying the”—with an outstretched hand, he indicated the churning sea behind him—“view.”

  “Normally, I’d believe you, but the view is a little violent at the moment,” she yelled back.

  Thunder crashed overhead, and the wind blew cold rain against her. She stepped back from the railing. The storms here didn’t mess around. Palm fronds slapped against tree trunks, rattling like a nest of angry snakes. The surf slammed into the beach with increasing retaliation as the storm advanced ashore.

  The man cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled, “Was that you pla—”

  Lightning broke the darkness,
announcing another rumble of thunder. Dawn could see the man’s lips were still moving, but the wind robbed her ears of his words.

  “What?” she yelled.

  “That melody I hear—”

  She shook her head and pointed to her ear. “I can’t hear what you’re saying!”

  He scowled and glanced around before turning and running for the wooden walkway that had been built over the sand dunes. Soon she couldn’t see him at all and wondered if she’d imagined him. At least he’d found the sense to get out of the rain, even if it was rude for him to dash off without so much as a see ya.

  Dawn shrugged and went back in the house. Perhaps that little interruption would wake up her muse. The lazy twit wasn’t cooperating with her at all tonight, and Dawn had a deadline to meet. She had to find the rest of this song by morning or she was in deep, professional trouble.

  She flexed her aching fingers and had just sat down at the piano when the doorbell rang.

  Had Neptune come calling? Her heart rate kicked up. She was here in this strange house by herself, and she was pretty sure the nearest cop was ten miles away. What if that soaking wet hottie was a psycho? He had to be a little crazy to be standing out in a storm in the middle of the night, didn’t he? That was the curse of having an overactive imagination. It served her well in her song writing, but damned if it wasn’t a burden whenever something a little out of the norm came her way.

  She hesitated for just a moment and then went to the door, drawing the shade up so she could look through the glass pane. The shadow of a broad-shouldered figure loomed outside. She switched on the porch light. Yep, there standing on her deck, dripping water and looking sexier than any drowned beast had a right to look, was her Neptune.

  “Can I help you?” she yelled through the door. She wasn’t about to unlock it. She’d seen a lot of horror movies in her day, and she knew what happened to women alone on dark, stormy nights who were stupid enough to open doors to strangers. Real killers didn’t warn you of their intentions by wearing frightening masks and revving a chainsaw on your doorstep as they asked for entry.

 
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