New Adult Romance
Date Published: October 2, 2018
We all carry tiny pieces of those who built us.
And those who wrecked us.
For Aria Clarke, Cole Porter is all her tiny pieces.
When Cole shows up in Aria’s hometown a decade after being gone, her whole world changes. She thought she had moved on, but the past has a way of taking hold of her again and dragging her back into the depths of first love and first heartbreak.
After everything she believed to be true turns out to be a lie, she’ll have to decide if the hurt she endured in the past is too much of a risk to try again, or if just maybe first love deserves a second chance after all.
With one glance at him, a thousand memories flood my mind, taking my breath away – Cole Porter as a small child, late nights at John’s house, swing sets, a dark closet, the beach, dropping to the floor in a heap of suffocating tears. I want the good memories to win, but the bad memories have a way of seeping themselves further into my consciousness and marking me forever, darkening my once vibrant soul. I can’t forget what Cole did to me. Which is why seeing him now, after all these years, has brought my heart to a complete halt. I can’t believe he’s here. My pulse quickens when my heart begins to beat once more. I try to appear calm and collected on the outside but internally I’m screaming from the top of my lungs.
Scarlet’s mossy eyes get big as she looks at him and then back to me. “Is that Coleton Porter?” I’d answer her, but I can’t breathe. “Holy shit, Aria. That is Cole. When did he get back in town?”
I feel like I’ve been punched in the stomach. Panic floods my senses and my knees start to quiver. “What is he doing here?” I manage to squeak out. I place my glass of champagne on the bar top because I don’t trust myself not to drop it. He shouldn’t be here. I don’t want him to be here. We stopped existing in one another’s worlds long ago. Sucking in a deep breath, I exhale, trying to gain some composure, but it isn’t helping.
“I have no idea. I didn’t know he’d be here,” she whispers, offering me a guarded but apologetic smile. She knows what seeing him again is doing to me.
My only response is the tight grip I have on the edge of the bar as I stare at the bartender, my eyes avoiding any area where they may accidentally catch sight of Cole again. I don’t want to see him, and I certainly don’t want him to see me.
“I swear,” she says, “I had no idea. John must have invited him without telling anyone.”
That’s nice of John, I think sarcastically. I plan this whole engagement party for Scarlet and John… and John goes and invites the one person he knows I never wanted to see again. Real nice. I wonder if Reese knew. She would have to have known he’d be here. John would have told her, I’m sure. John and Reese have always had a close brother-sister relationship, despite their nine-year age difference.
Scarlet’s aunt Margo walks up to us and I’m momentarily distracted by the strong, stifling scent of her perfume. Her white hair is layered on top of her head neatly and her floral dress flows down to the floor. “I’m just delighted for Scarlet and your brother,” she tells me, smiling sweetly while placing a hand on Scarlet’s shoulder. “You are John’s sister, right?”
“Actually, no,” I absentmindedly tell her, my mind far too occupied on Cole’s reappearance to notice I’ve made a mistake in trying to explain our complicated family dynamic. She scrunches her eyebrows together, giving me a perplexed look, further confirming that I’ll now have to explain something that most people have a hard time understanding. I suppress the frustration that begins to boil to the surface and instead smile sweetly back at her. I hate trying to explain my relationship with John, but saying so would sound rude. From the expectant expression on her face, I can tell she’s waiting for me to continue, so I try to keep it as simple as I can. “My step-sister is his half-sister. So even though we have a sister in common, John and I aren’t actually related at all.”
Scarlet gives me a warning glare. I want to tell her I realize what I’ve done, but it’s too late now.
Scarlet’s aunt shakes her head back and forth. “I don’t understand.”
“Aunt Margo,” Scarlet chimes in, “You remember Reese, right? Well, Reese is Aria’s step-sister – Aria’s step-father’s daughter.” She waits for her aunt to nod in understanding before continuing. “And Reese is John’s half-sister – they have the same mother, but not the same father. So Reese is their sister, but technically Aria and John are not brother and sister themselves.”
The look of confusion on Margo’s face disappears, but I can tell she still doesn’t understand. She waves her hand in the air, dismissing the whole conversation. “Never mind. It’s not important.”
I agree. The fact that John and I aren’t blood related has never been important to me. Even though there’s no DNA between us, we spent a lot of time together as kids. I’ve always thought of him as a brother. Not today, though. Not if he invited Cole here, knowing how damaging seeing him again would be to me.
I risk a quick glance around the room but don’t move from my defensive stance at the bar. I want to run away. I want to leave my glass of champagne on this bar and make a beeline straight for the exit. But I don’t. I planned this party for my best friend. I planned every detail from the food down to the napkins. I won’t be running out in fear. Plus, my purse is halfway across the room – only about five feet away from Cole – and I would need that, especially with my car keys inside it, in order to leave. Not happening. I’m not taking the chance of bumping directly into him. I’m not sure my heart could take it. I haven’t quite recovered from the initial shock of him being here. In fact, with each passing second, I find my hands are starting to sweat and feel clammy at the same time. I feel physically ill.
I decide to run to the bathroom. I need to collect myself, and I can’t do that with Scarlet’s sympathetic eyes on me. When Scarlet’s aunt begins to question her on the wedding details, I take advantage of the moment and move through the event room, keeping my eyes straight ahead while trying not to trip in my high heels.
In the bathroom, I grip the counter just as tightly as I gripped the bar. How could he show up here? Why would he? He hasn’t been around in years. Why now? I hang my head and concentrate on breathing in and out, not ready to meet my own eyes in the mirror. I know what’s coming. I try not to remember, but I can’t keep the memories at bay. No matter how hard I fight to keep them tucked away, they demand my attention. Refusing to be ignored any longer, reality slips away and the past comes hurling right at me. Punishing myself as always, I acknowledge the recollection and let it wash over me.
The first time I met Cole, I was six years old. I had no idea he would end up meaning so much to me. I was with Reese for the night. My mom and step-father went out almost every Friday night and she always babysat me. Sometimes her mom would call her to come babysit John too, which is exactly what happened on this particular night. I hated going to John’s house. He didn’t have any Barbie dolls and boys had cooties that I might catch if I play with one. Reese talked us into watching a movie while she gabbed on the phone for hours.
“Shit, Amy, I gotta go. My mom’s home. Talk later.” Reese hung up the phone just as the front door opened.
Mrs. McGregor’s eyes grew wide when she saw John and I still awake on the couch. “Reese, they should be fast asleep by now!”
“They were watching a movie. Besides, what are big sisters for if I can’t let them get away with breaking the rules every once in a while?” She shrugged her shoulders while offering a sly smirk.
Mr. McGregor rolled his eyes at his step-daughter.
I stood up and stretched, stifling a yawn that ultimately came out. I thought we were leaving, but Reese just kept chatting with her mom. I waited. And waited. And waited.
Then the knock came.
“Who would be here at this time of night?” Mrs. McGregor asked, looking over at her husband with concern. She was an older version of Reese, just as petite and pretty.
We all moved for the kitchen and Mr. McGregor got the door.
I saw the police uniforms before I saw the boy. My heart started racing. I didn’t know what was going on, but I knew that police coming to your house late at night wasn’t usually a good thing.
Reese ushered John and me back into the living room, even though we both wanted to stay and find out what was happening. She turned the TV back on for us, but neither of us could pay attention to what was playing on the screen. We were both intrigued and eager to find out what was going on. After what felt like forever, a boy came in and sat with us.
“Hey. What’s going on?” John asked the boy, clearly recognizing him.
He didn’t answer John, but he kept looking over at me with curiosity. I was curious about him too. He was John’s age, both of them about a year older than me. He had dark blond hair that was shaggy around his face. He was in desperate need of a haircut. But despite the shaggy hair, his eyes still stood out. They were the bluest eyes I had ever seen. I have blue eyes myself, but there’s no comparison. Mine are a dull, dark grayish-blue. His are like the crystal-clear waters of an ocean. He was staring straight at me and all I could do was stare back. Who is this boy?
“Aria, we have to go.”
I snapped my head up to break the staring contest I was having with the boy. “It’s about time,” I told Reese. “I was ready hours ago.” She only chuckled in response.
In the car, I turned to her. “What happened? Why were the police there? Who was that boy?”
“One question at a time.” She tucked her shiny brown hair behind her ear and started the car before explaining. “That’s Cole. He’s John’s friend. I guess his parents got into a fight and the police wanted him to stay at my mom’s tonight.” She shrugged and drove me home.
For a long time after that, every time my mom and step-father got into the littlest of arguments, I always worried the cops would come and take me away. I didn’t realize back at that young age how horrible Cole’s parents must have been fighting in order to get the cops called on them.
From then on, every time we went to John and Reese’s mom’s house, Cole was there. I think he moved in with the McGregors, but I couldn’t be sure because I never asked. All I knew was that going there wasn’t quite so bad anymore. And Cole definitely did not have cooties.
The bathroom door flies open, bringing me back to reality. Reese walks in, all five-feet-nothing and barely a hundred pounds. I glance up at her in the mirror, but I don’t turn around. She makes eye contact with me, but I hang my head back down, my grip on the bathroom counter never loosening, even though my knuckles ache.
When my mom married her dad, I had no issue with having a step-father. I had never known my biological father, since he cheated and bailed on my mom before I was even born, and Reese’s dad seemed nice so I was okay with the marriage. However, I wasn’t sure I’d like having an older sister. Reese didn’t seem too keen on having another younger sibling either. But throughout the years we grew on each other. By the time I turned twelve and wanted all the name brand clothes my friends had, I realized having an older sister – especially one as small as Reese – could have its advantages. Not many twelve-year-olds could fit into their twenty-one-year-old big sisters’ clothing, but much to Reese’s dismay, I could… thanks to Reese’s small size. I would steal her clothes often – the only time we’d ever fight. But it was always worth it. By the time I was a teenager, I realized how much of an asset having an older sister was. Reese would help me with my makeup, keep all of my secrets, teach me about boys. She was invaluable to me.
Her lips purse, disguising a sympathetic smile. “I know why you’re in here and you can’t hide out all night.”
I lift my head and look at her through the mirror again. It’s obvious we’re not related by blood. Not only is she extremely petite, but her dark eyes contrast my light ones. The only resemblance we have is our deep chestnut-colored hair, but whereas mine is long and straight, Reese keeps hers short and wavy. She puts her hands on her hips while narrowing her eyes at me through the mirror.
“You’re a traitor.” I narrow my eyes at her in return.
She softens. “I only found out today.” She lets her hands fall off her hips, but she doesn’t break eye contact.
“Any heads-up would have been better than being completely blindsided.”
“You would have chickened out. You would have made an excuse and bailed on your best friend’s engagement party. The party you threw for her. And you never would have forgiven yourself for it.”
Maybe she’s right, but I’m still angry with her. She should have said something, so I could have been prepared to see him again.
“Come on, Aria. It’s okay to take a minute to pull yourself together, but you have to suck it up and get back out there. It was so long ago. And besides, the best revenge is to just live your life and show him you’re happy.”
We were supposed to be happy together, I think to myself. I fight back a sob. How did it come to this? “What if he approaches me?”
She moves away from the closed door and walks further into the restroom. “Then you plaster a smile on your face and you tell him you’re doing amazing. You tell him you’ve never been better, that life is great. And then you excuse yourself to talk to someone else.”
I move away from the mirror, turning to look her straight on. “You make it sound so easy.”
“It’s only as complicated as you make it.”
“And what if he just completely ignores me?” A much as I want to dodge an encounter, I don’t know if my heart can bear him ignoring me altogether.
She lets out a heavy breath and releases it. “Honestly? Then it won’t be any different than the last ten years. You’ve done just fine without him and you’ll continue to do fine after tonight too.”
I rest my head in my hands and stay like that for a moment, concentrating on getting my breathing steady and controlled. I feel Reese place a hand on my shoulder. We’ve never been the affectionate type, so this is her way of comforting me. “Let’s get this over with.”
I turn back around and stare at myself in the mirror, suddenly feeling very self-conscious. This morning I thought I looked great. But now…
I swipe my fingers under my eyes, fixing the bit of eyeliner that smeared, and I run my hands through my long hair, which is starting to frizz up a bit. Then I smooth out my dress, which suddenly feels too tight. I was beautiful and confident coming into this party and now I’m falling apart with insecurities. Funny how seeing an ex can do that to you. I take a deep breath as Reese locks arms with me and leads me out of the restroom.
Scarlet runs up to me right away. “Oh, thank God. I thought you left.”
“Just needed the ladies’ room.” I smile brightly at her, even though I know she can see right through my facade. “I would never ghost you on such a special day. Especially one I planned.”
She gives me a warm smile in return right before someone else moves beside her and starts to chat. That’s the thing about parties – they’re always more for the guests than the actual guests of honor. Scarlet gets stuck making small talk with distant relatives she barely ever sees, while everyone else gets to eat and drink and talk to whomever they want.
I freeze in place at the sound of his voice. Goose bumps pebble across my arms and I hope he can’t see my physical reaction to the sound of my name on his tongue – like it has always belonged to him. I haven’t heard that voice in over ten years. Time has changed it – it’s deeper, raspier, sexier – but I would still recognize the timber of it anywhere. I take a deep breath, trying to control the butterflies swarming through my stomach, and plaster a smile on my face before turning around to face him. “Cole. How have you been?”
He’s not smiling. He almost looks… tortured. He is still as handsome as he always was. In fact, my memories don’t do him justice. His hair is cropped shorter than he wore it before, but his eyes, as wounded as they appear, still hold the heart of the ocean in their depths. “Wow. You are…” He swallows, nods his head, and tries again. “You’re stunning.” My smile fades. I don’t thank him. Instead, I look around the room awkwardly. He takes the hint and moves on to something else. “So, you put this together, huh? You did a great job.”
“Yeah. I planned all of this for Scarlet and John... right down to every last detail. I just don’t recall sending you an invitation…” I thought I had let go of a lot of the resentment I had for Cole, but evidently, all it takes is three minutes with him for it to all come boiling back out. I know I’m being mean, but he deserves it. No. He deserves so much worse.
He nods his head like he understands my bitterness toward him. He looks away from my venomous glare and swallows before fidgeting with the collar of his shirt, as though it’s too tight on his neck. “I know. I wasn’t going to show up here uninvited, but the McGregors said it would mean a lot to them and, well, after everything they’ve done for me…”
This time I nod in understanding. What can I say to that? I make an effort to release some of the anger I’m holding on to, if only for tonight. I get why he would come here if the McGregors had asked him to. I just wish they hadn’t asked. Sometimes I wish Coleton Porter had died the day he left me. I don’t really mean that… but it would be easier to deal with, I’m sure. There’s nothing harder than missing someone who’s right in front of you… except maybe accepting an apology you never received. That’s what it feels like I’m doing right now. I should be screaming at him, not standing here calmly talking to him. I feel like I’m letting him off the hook. I never got answers and I certainly never received an apology. Yet here he is. All six feet of him, standing in front of me with that same look he always reserved just for me – the one that lets his vulnerability shine through, his innocence be seen, if only slightly. He’s bigger than he was as a teenager. His muscles strain against his royal blue button-down dress shirt. His shirt makes the blue in his eyes even deeper than I remember them being. They’re intense. I get lost in them for a moment as they roam mine for answers, as if I’m the one who owes him any. Then I snap out of it and break eye contact, letting mine travel down his face. He never had scruff in high school, so I can’t help but stare at it now. It’s sexy as hell, even if it kills me to admit that. I was hoping if I ever saw him again he’d be old and decrepit. I’d wonder what I ever saw in him. But much to my dismay, time has served him well. He’s even hotter than he was back then, and that’s saying a lot. He didn't die after he left me… he flourished. It was me who died. I died every single day that he was gone. I died a painful death, full of agony, until the Aria Clarke whom everyone knew no longer existed. Only love can murder you, yet still keep your heart beating enough to feel every bit of the pain.
“If you’ll excuse me, I need to go check on something.” I do what Reese suggested and make up an excuse to end the awkward conversation. I should call my mom and check on Lucas anyways. I’m sure he’s fine, and it’s not like it’s the first time my mom has watched him, but I still worry. I guess that comes with being a mom. I turn to walk away, but as soon as I do Cole grabs onto my arm, stopping me in my tracks, his touch searing me.
“Aria, wait.” I look at his hand around my arm and then back up into his deep blue eyes. He hesitates and I know for a fact that he can feel what I feel – what I’ve tried for all these years to forget – that electric spark that passes between us whenever we touch. It’s still there. I’ve never felt it with anyone other than him and I absolutely hate that. It’s like my body betrays my mind. I’ve tried so hard to feel this untamed electricity with someone other than Cole, but it always falls short. “I know you’re busy hosting the party, but I was hoping we could talk.”
My heart pounds against my chest – speaking of my body betraying me. He’s had over ten years to talk. Why now? “I really am busy and you haven’t had much to say to me in over ten years, Cole. I hardly think we need to talk now. This really isn’t the time or place.”
“Tonight then. After the party,” he presses.
I’m taken aback for a moment. He doesn't break eye contact. He’s serious.
“We can grab some dinner… or just drinks… whatever you want. Please?” His eyes beg and I feel that familiar pull that always made it so hard for me to say “no” to him. My heart pangs in my chest, reminding me he still has a hold on me both physically and mentally.
About the Author
Stephanie Henry is the author of What Doesn't Kill Us, The Story of Us, the C-Vac series, and most recently, Tiny Pieces. She loves writing, as well as immersing herself in a good novel. Whether in a book or on screen, she's a sucker for an epic love story. She lives in Central Massachusetts where she is a mom to her young son and daughter, as well as a full-time office manager. Find Stephanie on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/AuthorStephanieHenry/