The thud of the bass, pulsating from one of the most popular clubs in St Kilda, didn’t shake off the stupor dulling my senses. I stifled a yawn.
“Winter?” Liam asked.
I looked up at my fiancé with raised eyebrows.
I sighed. “I need a night out.”
“You’ve been working too hard.”
“Like you can talk,” I said, staring him in the eyes. He laughed, and I chuckled to share the joke.
Liam gave me his famous smirk. “We work too hard. The price of success.”
I nodded. He wasn’t wrong there.
“You still need to sleep, though.”
“After Monday, I will attempt to sleep for a full 8 hours.”
“This way, please.” A young woman wearing a black satin jumpsuit beckoned for us to follow her. “I’ll escort you to the VIP area.”
Our small group trailed after the woman into the darkened building. A bright light flashed to the right. My best-friend, Maddie, flinched. I grabbed her hand and squeezed her fingers. Constant attention was hard to get used to. Undoubtedly, over the next week, photos of us entering the club would appear in the media, in some form or another.
Liam was walking in front of me. A plain white shirt defined his muscular arms, broad shoulders and narrow hips. I was one lucky girl. Mind you, between my work and his relentless schedule, we hadn’t spent much time together lately. But I hoped to change that. Liam turned and winked. Then he reached for my free hand and kissed the palm.
We arrived at the VIP area, and the woman directed us towards a semi-secluded lounge. It wouldn’t stay empty for long. It never did when the guys were around. Not when both Liam and Adam played Aussie Rules for the Melbourne Heroes.
Maddie’s partner, Ben, was also with us tonight. Her polar opposite, in terms of her brightly coloured clothing choices right through to her high-pitched giggle, he always stood close behind her, straight-faced and silent.
The boys went to order a round of drinks at the nearby bar, and Maddie turned to me. “So … I feel like you’re acting way too relaxed, what gives?”
I grimaced and ran a hand through my hair. “What makes you say that?”
She shot me a disapproving look.
My chin went up. “I’m trying not to think about it. The more I do, the more I’ll drink. So, thanks for bringing it up.”
“Sorry.” Maddie’s expression transformed into one of sympathy. “It’s just that you’ve been talking about it non-stop and yet, so far tonight, nothing.”
I chewed my inner lip, worrying the wound netted from several such attacks during the last few days. The metallic taste of blood was off-putting, so I picked at my nails instead. “If I survive this weekend without having a full-blown anxiety attack, I’ll be a happy woman.”
The important presentation I had to deliver for work on Monday morning had me walking on eggshells. I was petrified. The idea was doubly terrifying, not only due to a public speaking phobia but also because I was at a pivotal moment in my career.
Maddie took hold of both my arms and looked intently into my eyes. “Winter Starling, you’ll smash it. I believe in you.”
I slapped on a fake smile. Maddie frowned but let me off the hook. Instead, she pointed at the boys, who were now chatting to a couple of women at the bar. Adam was doing most of the talking and had morphed into full-blown, sleaze-ball mode. I walked over to Liam, and he pulled me into their semi-circle. A second later, a drink was in my hand, and a strong arm encircled my waist.
The behaviour of football fans covered a wide range. Some would throw the boys a shy smile while others would be bent on throwing a punch. So, random females hovering around the two players came as no surprise. That one of the women had snatched back her hand from Liam’s arm, however, hadn’t escaped my attention.
She gawked at me for a moment and then said, “You’re Winter Starling. I love your outfits. Who designed that dress?”
I glanced down at the royal blue garment clothing my body. Short and tight, the dress kept riding up my legs. “Thanks. I bought this from a boutique in Perth.”
The woman’s wide-eyed expression told me she envisioned a luxurious, jet-setting lifestyle, one I didn’t have. Unfortunately, the occasional trip to Perth was pretty much the extent of my traveling experience. And I only went there to see my family.
“I saw that you and Liam got engaged. Congratulations. When’s the wedding?”
“Next year sometime.”
“How did he propose?”
A lack of sleep and the woman’s wanton display of cleavage proved all too much. “He threw a ring at me and said, “If you catch it, I’ll marry you.”
“Really?” she said as if not fazed by my tone.
Liam steered me away from his admirer back towards Maddie and Ben.
“Another drink?” Maddie asked.
I nodded, having already consumed my vodka, lime, and soda at record speed, and glanced around at the people in my immediate vicinity. We all seemed to be attractive, twenty-somethings, dressed better than the club-goers sectioned off from us. Staying here at the side of the stage, in our exclusive bubble, didn’t appeal to me. I wanted to move closer. Live music feeds off the crowd’s energy, and I needed to be in the thick of it.
A pleasant sensation at the base of my neck sent goosebumps skipping across my skin. Liam’s fingers wrought their magic. I leaned into him. Still a foot taller than me, despite the heel on my boots, he rested his chin on my head. I turned to face him.
Liam licked at my flavoured lip gloss. “Mm caramel…” Then he kissed my lips.
Maddie, back from the bar, screwed up her nose. “Err yuk! I don’t want to watch you two making out all night.” She handed me my drink.
I giggled. Maddie and Ben weren’t what you would call an affectionate couple, maybe because they’d been together for years, whereas Liam and I had been together for only three.
“The Stonevilles will be on ten minutes, let’s get closer to the stage,” I said.
Liam squeezed my shoulder. “You’re the only person I know that would want to leave the VIP section.”
“You can’t watch live music from this distance.”
Liam groaned. “Right.”
The Stonevilles were sold-out for the night, but Liam had been lucky enough to score last-minute tickets to watch the popular band. Their song ‘One Time’ had been playing on repeat in my car for the last few months. If that tune was anything to go by, they were on the verge of stardom. Maddie had mentioned earlier that the band was from New Zealand. Other than that, I didn’t know too much about them. I barely had time to sleep, let alone check out what bands were doing on social media.
I grabbed Liam’s fingers with one hand, and linked the pinkies on the other, with Maddie. Liam signalled to Adam, who was still chatting up the two women. He headed towards us straight away. Liam took the lead, weaving in and out of the sea of people, earning the odd glare in the process. We trailed in his wake. Eventually, we reached a central position close to the stage. The energy in the club increased as the crowd became restless. Liam pulled me to him, pressed his body against my back, and tickled my ear with his tongue. His Armani cologne enveloped me in a familiar bubble.
“Stop it!” I playfully elbowed him in the ribs. I glanced at the others. Adam was already ogling a female standing in front of him. When he gyrated his hips in her direction, perfecting his timing to the background music beat, I pointed out his behaviour to Liam. He merely laughed and pinched my bum. I spied some movement near the drum kit, and soon after, the heavy strum of a single guitar chord cut the air. The crowd surged forward, pushing us even closer towards the stage. Five men were now visible but only in silhouette. Then the stage lit up, and The Stonevilles commenced their first song of the night.
I checked out the band members. A different style of a geometric white mask partly covered each of their faces, although they all wore black T-shirts and dark denim jeans. The effect was sexy in a futuristic way. My gaze locked on the lead singer. The mask wrapped around his eyes but left the rest of his face uncovered. Piercing, arctic blue eyes, like those I’d seen only once before in my life, stared straight into mine. I recoiled as if I’d been punched in the stomach. Air escaped my lungs, and my heart pounded against my chest. The music’s intensity, the flashing lights, and the energy exuding from the fans faded into the background.
I was hallucinating. Or drunk. Or both. My parched mouth, at odds with my hot, clammy body, needed moisture. I licked my lips. The man on stage looked like Kai. The same dark chocolate coloured hair, although messier and longer than I remembered; the familiar strong nose; and the square jawline, prominent under a smattering of stubble. The similarity between this man’s voice and Kai’s was uncanny. I’d listened to this band non-stop, but the likeness had never struck me before.
Memories of Kai flooded into my conscious mind. I fixed on an image of us sitting in a poorly built shelter in the bush behind our high school. We had shared a joint, and Kai was performing an Oasis cover. As I listened, I scoffed the oranges we’d stolen from a nearby orchard. I remembered thinking how peaceful he looked when he played music and the sharp stab of jealousy that had followed.
I fought my way from this ten-year-old memory back into the present. The past was not a place I wanted to be. A giant imaginary brush dipped in black paint erased the image; it was a self-made suppression technique I’d developed for situations like this.
The man on stage broke eye contact but only for a moment. When he looked back at me, his eyes widened, and his mouth fell open. Had he recognised me? I looked around, from his position that didn’t seem likely. I breathed a sigh.
The intro to their hit song filled the club. The crowd surged, pushing me forward. I stumbled and fell onto the girl in front of me. Strong arms lifted me back up, and I looked towards the stage. The singer’s eyes were darting about as if searching the crowd. They stopped on me. I smiled, and my heart tumbled when he grinned back. The same slightly crooked smile Kai owned. Unexpected heat filled my veins.
“Are you OK, babe?” Liam yelled into my ear.
I nodded and kissed him before returning my attention to the Kai lookalike. The singer’s smile now looked like more of a scowl—time to get another drink.
Leaving the others in the reasonably tame mosh pit, I made my way to the bar. I needed the chance to regain my composure. The band was still clearly visible from there, and I could enjoy the music without those mesmerising eyes tearing me apart. When I was stressed and anxious, thoughts of Kai always entered my head so, perhaps, I was imagining things. I quickly swallowed another shot of vodka and ignored the raised eyebrows I received from the bartender.
The Stonevilles’ set came to an end, and I scanned the crowd looking for my friends. I still hadn’t spotted them when a security guard tapped me on the shoulder and indicated I should go with him. Not sure what I’d done, I followed the man. The door he halted at blended so seamlessly into the wall it was only visible from a few feet away. He ushered me through.
“Excuse me, is there a problem?” Liam would be annoyed if I wasn’t where I said I would be. I quickly typed out a text.
With security. Meet back at the bar as soon as I can x
“No problem, miss. I was asked to bring you back here.”
“Back here?” I looked around. We must be heading towards the rear of the stage. “What? Why? You must have the wrong…” The words stuck in my throat. We’d rounded the corner and came face to face with Kai.
I held my breath and studied the man in front of me. Now, without the mask and with only a metre separating us, I had no doubts. This was an older, sexier version of the boy I used to know. Kai’s full lips parted. His gaze swept my body and returned to rest on my face. I shifted my feet and ran clammy hands down my short dress. Electricity sizzled in the air between us. It took all my strength not to reach out and touch him.
“Cheers, bro,” Kai said softly to the security guard who nodded and left without another word. He turned back in my direction. “So, do you remember me?”
“Of course.” I snorted and rolled my eyes, breaking free from his hypnotic spell. “You look the same … but manlier.”
Kai’s face broke into a grin, and his eyes twinkled. “You still roll your eyes.” He laughed.
It was one of the best sounds in the world. I poked out my tongue, which made him laugh even harder. I’d reverted to teenage Winter.
“Come with me.” Kai snatched up my hand and pulled me deeper into the rabbit warren of dark walls. I sucked in air as a zinging sensation flooded my skin where our hands were joined. I looked up at him. Had he felt it as well?
He took me to a small room and pointed to a retro, green velvet couch, taking up much of the space. I sat down on the plush fabric.
Kai picked up an opened bottle of Grey Goose. “Drink?”
Band posters covered the walls, and musical equipment of one kind or another cluttered the tiny area. Kai handed me a vodka on the rocks and sat beside me on the couch. I took a massive gulp, hoping to calm my sudden nerves. Instead, the strong taste of liquor made me cough.
“I can’t believe it’s you.” Kai looked at me with wide eyes. “What are you doing in Melbourne?”
We studied each other a while longer, and then I said, “I guess the main reason I moved here was for work.”
“What do you do then?”
“I’m acting as Creative Director for an advertising agency.” I lifted my chin. The new work title rolled off my tongue, but I should have known Kai wouldn’t be so easily impressed.
“Advertising, eh ... interesting.” Kai continued to gaze at me. My career choice was a long way from the dreams I’d held as a teenager.
I shrugged and jiggled my foot. “And, you’re the lead singer of The Stonevilles. How the hell did that happen?” But more to the point, where the hell had he been all these years? A question I thought best kept to myself.
“Mum and I moved to New Zealand.” Kai broke eye contact and scrutinised his drink. Before I could say anything else, my clutch vibrated. I pulled out my phone.
“What’s going on, babe?” Liam’s worried voice thundered in the small space. “Why are you with security?”
I glanced at Kai, and a burst of heat flamed in my cheeks. Liam and the others had completely slipped my mind. I ignored Kai’s hardened expression and crossed arms. “Sorry, honey, it turns out that one of the musicians is an old friend. We’ve been catching up.”
Liam’s voice lowered an octave. “We’re still at the main bar. I thought something had happened to you.”
“I’m fine. I’ll come and meet you now.” I ended the call and turned to face Kai. “I’d better go.”
“I’m coming with you.”
I rolled my eyes at his protective tone. “Liam is my fiancé, not just some guy.” Kai had slipped back into old patterns. But things were different now, and I could look after myself; like I’d been doing for the last ten years. I got up and headed towards the door. Kai muttered something, released a groan, and then followed me out of the room.
Maddie ran over from the other side of the bar and grabbed hold of me. “Are you alright?” Her tone was flustered. She looked past my shoulder and her face lightened. Kai, behind me, had rested his hand on the small of my back.
“I’m fine, hon.”
Liam and the others arrived, and I introduced Kai.
“Any friend of Winter’s is a friend of mine,” Kai said, looking at Liam in a less than friendly manner.
“Great set, man,” Ben said, stuttering his words. He held out his hand.
I giggled. Someone was star-struck by Kai. That was hilarious. A smile teasing his lips, Kai raised an eyebrow in my direction.
Liam glanced at both of us, seized my hand, and drew me to him. “Let’s go, babe. I have to get up at five o’clock.”
My enthusiasm took a dive, and I shrugged at Kai apologetically, I’d only just caught up with him again. “Liam plays footy for the Melbourne Heroes. He has training tomorrow morning.”
Kai drew his lower lip between his teeth then pulled out his phone. “Put in your number. We can get a coffee or something. The band has only recently moved here, so you can show us the local hotspots.”
I typed in my number. “It was great seeing you.” My fiancé and friends were watching our every move, but I hugged him tightly anyway. I didn’t want to let him go.
“Still can’t believe it’s you,” Kai whispered into my ear.
I looked into his eyes and curved my lips into a small smile before Liam tugged me away.
“What’s up with that band guy?” Liam and I were lying in bed, both showered and dressed in PJs that weirdly matched the grey and white décor of the master bedroom. I sighed and rolled onto my side, so I was facing him.
“I met Kai in high school. He was a good friend of mine for a while. Until he left.”
“As in boyfriend, good friend?”
I grinned and then reached over and stroked his face. “Why, are you jealous?”
I laughed. He wasn’t usually the jealous type. “Kai was never my boyfriend.”
Liam raised his eyebrows, but I ignored him and traced the bridge of his nose with my finger. His face was striking, with high cheekbones and thick, dark lashes framing honey coloured eyes. No wonder we were accosted by females wherever we went. My heart rate doubled. I stroked his parted lips with the tip of my finger. “I love you.”
Liam groaned and pulled me on top of him. We kissed, and Kai was quickly forgotten.
“Hello? Is anyone there? I need to get my guitar.”
The voice echoes around the vast drama room, and Mr Korcula freezes. I leap into action and scream with all the force I can muster. A sweaty hand covers my mouth, and I bite down hard, capturing a fat finger between my teeth. Mr Korcula yelps and yelps again when I kick him in the balls. He staggers backwards. I run towards the only exit. As I reach the door, it opens. I panic. A tall figure blocks my only escape route. I have to get out of here. I push the obstructer out of the way and race out into the foyer. Into the open. Into safety. I stop to catch my breath and lean against the brick building. Hyperventilating and sobbing; I attempt to rearrange my clothing.
“Are you OK?”
I flinch and look up into the palest blue eyes I’ve ever seen. Their uniqueness startles me for a second, and then I recoil.
“My bag ...” I whisper to the teenage boy. His eyebrows furrow, and he sucks his bottom lip between his teeth. Then he turns and heads back towards Mr Korcula. After shouting and a door slam, the guy reappears with my backpack clutched in one hand.
A scowl twists his features, and he shakes his head. “What did that fucker do to you?”
A shudder runs through my body, and my tears turn into sobs.
“We need to get you home,” he says in a gentle voice.
“No! I don’t want my mum to see me like this.”
“OK ... so do you want me to call the police?”
“No! You can’t tell anyone!”
The boy stares at me, his eyes wide, and runs a hand through his hair.
“I know a place behind the school where we can hang out for a bit if you want. We can go there until you’re ready to go home.”
His crystal eyes show only kindness and compassion. The longer I gaze at him, the safer I feel.
“OK. But I need to go to the change rooms first. Will you come with me and wait outside the door?” I glance around, hoping Mr Korcula isn’t lurking, ready to pounce. I shiver.
“If you want.” He grabs both of our bags, and, for the first time, I notice he’s also carrying a guitar. We slowly make our way towards the change rooms. Inside, I avoid looking at the mirrors that line the bathroom walls. My hair is no longer in a ponytail and I can see marks on my clothing. I look closer. Blood. I rip my clothes off and head into one of the shower cubicles. When the water runs hot, I douse myself in rose-scented body wash from a nearby metal dispenser, then stand under the scalding cascade. The flowery smell, mixed with steam, makes my stomach churn. I keep applying soap until the container is empty. As empty as I feel.
I woke with a jolt. Tears leaked from my eyes, and sweat covered my shaking body. After several minutes of deep breathing, my heart rate slowed. The queasiness in my stomach proved harder to control. Get a grip. I was a grown woman. Not a child haunted by fucking nightmares.
I reached for Liam, but he turned away when I touched him. I grabbed my phone to check the time and eyed the screen—3 a.m. I’d only been asleep for a few hours. The message icon indicated I’d received a text, but I didn’t recognise the number, so I didn’t bother looking at it. Head pounding and gasping for a drink; I slid out of bed. Once armed with a hot cup of Milo, Ugg boots, and a doona, I set myself up in the living room. Then, feeling more like myself again, I thought to read the message.
When do I get to see you again?? I still can’t believe I finally found you. BTW it’s Kai.
I studied the message and sipped the boiling Milo. The burning milk sliding down my throat hardly made an impact. Emotions raged inside me. I wanted to see him now. I wanted a hug and a shoulder to cry on. I wanted him to make me feel better the way he used to.
But no chance in hell would I text him that. He needed to know my life was on track, and I was doing well. Really well. I had a fabulous fiancé, excellent job, fantastic friends. Everything was perfect. I had my shit together. So, I tapped out a text.
Hey Kai:) Me neither, it’s crazy! I’m keen when you are.
Beep, beep. My heart lurched. I looked down at my phone.
Ur awake? Thought you went home?
Yeah, can’t sleep. You’re awake as well :P
At a club. Think it’s called Cookies. Meet me?
I smiled. Sure Kai, let me finish my Milo, replace my Uggs for some heels, and meet you at da club!
No thanks, I’m content cuddling my doona.
Boring. Cuddle me instead ;P
This time I laughed. Being suggestive and sticking his tongue out at me? He’d become a lot more forward.
I’m sure my fiancé would love that!
Probs not. Why can’t you sleep? Are you having bad dreams, Star?
Before I could reply, Kai sent another text.
I can Uber to yours?
Ten years and he could still read me like an open book. And via text, no less. I wanted to see him more than anything. But I wasn’t a complete idiot.
Not a good idea. Liam wouldn’t be impressed if he woke up and you were here.
OK. You’ve never mentioned me before?
That he asked that question meant that Kai was hurt. But he shouldn’t have been. He belonged to that time I never discussed with anyone, except for Dr Tan. Even then, I’d spoken to her out of desperation.
The only person who genuinely knew me was Kai. Well, the old me. And that was because he knew the truth.
Some stuff I don’t talk about.
OK ... so when can I see you?
How about sometime during the week?
Sweet as. Gotta run, but call me if you need me :)
Thanks, don’t party too hard. X
I switched my phone to silent. Now to try and get some sleep. Surprisingly, I returned to my bed, smiling. After all this time, I’d found Kai.