At a recording studio in Northern Lower Michigan, twenty-nine year old Liv Beckman sang the last of four songs a popular musician from the Netherlands, who added her vocals to his original music, paid her nicely to record.
"That's a wrap."
Liv removed her headphones and nodded to the sound engineer smiling at her from the other side of the glass booth. Sighing aloud after a long day, Liv gently patted her vocal cords. That last song took four tries before she and Gloria, the sound engineer, liked what they heard.
"Give yourself a few minutes to recover," Gloria suggested as she rose from her chair in front of a console laden with buttons, knobs, and levers. "I'll listen to everything later, and if I hear anything iffy I'll let you know. Want some coffee?"
Liv shook her head. "No thanks, Gloria." Setting the headphones on the stool she'd been seated at for the past two hours, Liv wagged a bottle of water near her head and smiled, "I've got what I need."
Gloria turned to leave when the studio door opened and a big man with dark hair appeared. His tall frame and broad shoulders filled the opening, and his smile lit up the dim room.
Wow, Liv thought, trying not to blush. Now that is gorgeous.
She shot a quick glance at the startled engineer before turning aside to drink from the water bottle. As Liv gulped, recognition slowly entered her mind.
It couldn't be, could it?
Another sideways glance showed that the unexpected arrival stared at her and still smiled; grinned actually.
Stiff from shock, it became difficult for Liv to move or breathe, much less think. To at least remain rational under the startling circumstances.
It couldn't be. Not after more than ten years and the thousands of miles that separated them. If it was who she suspected, then it meant she was now a cornered rat.
Being cornered and a rat didn't feel good.
Before the ringing in her ears became any louder, Liv tore her gaze from the man and stared at the dark wall of the recording booth. She tried not to think as she downed the rest of the water. Choking, she set a wrist to her mouth and inwardly begged herself not to convulse in an embarrassing coughing fit.
Not in front of the man who might be.
The fit never occurred, and Liv let out a thankful sigh. Then she frowned.
Who is he and why is he here?
If there was anyone from her past she never wanted to see again, it was Neal Hendrix. The hot new guy in high school who had innocently or otherwise started a painful things can't possibly get any worse ball rolling to rob her of what little she had left to cling to.
The man currently standing in the recording studio looked a lot like her first kiss. And instead of being outraged like she knew she should, Liv could only gape at him in awe. His natural auburn hair fell in unruly waves at his shoulders and framed a handsome face.
And those eyes.
Closing hers, Liv let her mind glide back to a day she had long since abandoned as meaningless. It was hardly surprising that the visual before her was as clear and concise as if it were happening all over again.
The remarkable senior stood gazing down at her with those intense green eyes right before he ―
A quick shake of her head was all it took to erase the memory and return to the here and now. With the heat of blush still forming across her cheeks, Liv stole another glance at the man.
As hot as ever, her heart mused. No, her head admonished.
Another discreet shake and Liv turned away from the glass wall that separated her from the thrilling and terrifying possibility standing on the other side.
How was she supposed to appear unaffected when the urge to stare was so difficult to tamp down?
Her skin tingled, her heart rate beat a staccato rhythm, and warm blush returned to her cheeks. Afraid that her excitement would be obvious, Liv bowed her head and stared at the floor.
What if she was wrong and it wasn't Neal? Why would someone so famous be at a tiny recording studio in a tiny tourist town, anyway? It was thousands of miles away from the glamorous life he had created back in California.
Jumping in her skin, Liv swallowed hard before slowly turning in the direction of the control room.
Don't look at him, her mind whispered.
A disobedient heart over-ruled, and Liv's gaze darted to the man she thought might be the one she never wanted to see again. Sizing him up head to toe before looking at Gloria, Liv forced her expression to appear relaxed even if she felt anything but.
Inside, raging OMG that threatened to burst like a confetti-filled balloon. It was all there, just below the surface of a facade that was starting to crack. Instead of level-headed and confident adult, bursting hearts, shimmering glitter, and a warm glow of excitement surrounded her.
Stop it, her mind insisted while her heart continued to pulse a rapid beat. And then she heard Gloria say, "This is Mr. Hendrix."
A deafening gasp filled Liv's head and her eyes grew with shock.
So, it is him. The guy ... the man she hoped never to see again.
Unbelievable repeated in her head as she stared at him with what she hoped looked to Neal like calm indifference.
"He said you two have an appointment," Gloria managed, her voice quivering as if she suffered from stage fright. "If you'd like to use my office, I'll just run into town now and ―"
Liv shook her head as a loud "No!" escaped. Shrinking with embarrassment, she shot Neal a shy glance before returning her attention to the star-struck engineer. "That won't be necessary."
The fact that she really was looking at the man she never wanted to see again caused a light-switch fast mood change to occur. Liv snapped out of giddy schoolgirl mode and back to the cautious woman she'd become . . . because of him.
And then she deflated.
Okay, so he was only partially responsible. Still, at her age, she knew better than to act schoolgirl crush. She could definitely lay full blame on Neal Hendrix, rock star, for turning her into a silly twit.
If he wasn't still eyeing her that way, she would slap herself a few times to get rid of the residual emotions that still churned inside. The unwanted thoughts and feelings that made her stomach flutter and her temperature rise like the onset of a fever.
An appointment, eh? It was news to her.
A deep, resolute breath expanded her chest, and just as the right response to his boldface lie entered her head, she exhaled. A confident smile curved her lips as she shot Neal Hendrix, fibber, a daring smile.
Not that it mattered. Neal wasn't looking at her now.
In a strained attempt at discretion, Liv struggled to regain a little of the don't-give-a-damn facade that came and went like a weak breeze on a sweltering summer afternoon.
"There's a business proposition I've been anxious to discuss with you," he said. His deep, slightly accented voice filled the booth and gave her a thrilling chill. "Five minutes of your time is all I need."
Good Lord, that voice. That sexy phone voice, with its charming British accent, worked double-time to break down what little defenses Liv had left.
She fought hard not to enjoy the dizzying shiver currently creeping up her spine. Now that she knew it really was him, the curious cat within became intrigued. Liv wanted to stare; to study the subtle changes in Neal's appearance.
It was okay as long as he didn't catch her in the act of ogling him.
In low-rise jeans, a thin striped button-down, and a tan jacket, Neal Hendrix looked good. Even better than he had that first (and last) day in high school.
"I've been a fan of your work for a while now," he said. "Five minutes?"
Liv stared at the big, long-fingered hand he held up, and her gaze kept shifting from that hand to those eyes; eyes that could bore right through to her soul and made her feel ―
That's enough, her inner voice warned.
Anger and a bit of resentment rose up to replace the euphoria she had subconsciously allowed him to let her feel. All it took to stay angry was to know that his presence brought back a lot of the memories she had worked so hard and for so long to erase from her mind.
Going back was never an option and something Liv would never think to do, and yet here she was being reminded of all the awful, despicable, and unbelievable crap that occurred shortly after Neal had stolen that dumb kiss.
"What time did you say our appointment was for, Mr. Hendrix?"
His grin widened and Liv swallowed hard.
She almost wished that Neal had matured into a pudgy dude with a receding hairline. That he was covered in rock-idol tattoos or wore the five o'clock shadow look she hated. The ideal deterrent would be for him to have vulgar piercings in places she'd rather not conjure up just now.
What she got, though, was zero trace of his being a famous musician with busty groupies at his heels and tons of awards to his name.
Well, there was the hair length. And the mysterious fact that he resembled another famous musician from the seventies.
Lost in another daydream, are we?
Upset to know it was true, Liv frowned at Neal.
Frowning and determined to walk away, Liv started for the exit with no intention of meeting with Neal. She couldn't let him affect her the way he had back then. Nothing would destroy the second life she'd built for herself, and no one could drag her back to a past she refused to confront anymore, either.
Pulling the door open with greater force than necessary, Liv stopped in the narrow hallway and gazed up at Neal with the cold indifference she had sought to possess from the moment she recognized him.
"It is you."
Startled, Liv blushed even as her mind begged her not to. Don't let him see you falter, the voice of caution warned.
Gripping the purse strap at her shoulder with both hands, Liv took a calming breath and narrowed her eyes as Neal continued to stare at her. If she knew him better, it would be easier to assume that the look he offered said he was glad to see her again and wanted this to be more than just a business deal.
"Five minutes," he said again as she brushed past him and headed for the front door. She could hear and feel him follow her, and once outside on that lovely, late April day, Liv paused on a narrow sidewalk in front of the studio. Pine and cedar mixed with lilacs and the distinct scent of Lake Michigan filled the air, offering a hint of the long, sweltering season to come.
"How did you find me?" she asked.
"I can't say as I'd ever lost you, love."
The annoying blush returned, and the urge to throw herself at him was great. To feel her body pressed against his again and delight in the outlandish comfort of his arm around her waist proved difficult to shrug off as being insignificant.
As cautious as she'd learned to behave, Liv had never lost the need for close human contact. She had no personal space even for total strangers, and even the inadvertent brush of a hand gave her goose flesh. To be held by anyone was desirous under almost any circumstance, but to be wrapped in the strong arms of a man who truly cared was the stuff of fairy tales and daydreams.
And what Liv longed for more than anything else she could think to ask for in life.
"You're the last person I ever wan-," she bit her lower lip to keep from saying the wrong thing and then finished with, "expected to see again."
"So, you're the voice," he said and laughed under his breath. "This comes as quite a shock."
Liv's wide-eyed gaze followed the arm Neal used to reach around her waist, and for a moment everything stopped. Ears, eyes, mind. Just as quickly, her senses returned with a rush of noise, color, and clarity.
She stepped back to avoid the touch she had thought she wanted to experience again and averted her gaze. The sting of unshed tears made her close her eyes.
"Damn him," she whispered.
Another deep intake of breath helped to calm her frazzled nerves, and opening her eyes, she shot Neal a look she hoped said what she wasn't able to convey in words. That she wasn't interested and didn't appreciate his advances.
"It's great to see you again," he said, making her jump. The sensual tone of his voice made her skin tingled, betraying her own determination to act impervious.
"Not for me," she said and made sure to glare at him before turning and heading to her car. Don't look back, the voice ordered while the steady Do It rhythm of her heartbeat pounded against her tightening chest.
The confidence she thought she'd lost came rushing back and made her smile. Finally, her turn to walk away and not look back had arrived. It was a powerful feeling of accomplishment that nearly overwhelmed her.
Adding a sultry swing to her step didn't hurt, either.