The One You fight for
Book 3 - The Ones Who Got Away series
How hard would you fight for the one you love?
Taryn Landry was there that awful night fourteen years ago when Long Acre changed from the name of a town to the title of a national tragedy. Everyone knows she lost her younger sister. No one knows it was her fault. Since then, psychology professor Taryn has dedicated her life’s work to preventing something like that from ever happening again. Falling in love was never part of the plan…
Shaw Miller has spent more than a decade dealing with the fallout of his brother’s horrific actions. After losing everything—his chance at Olympic gold, his family, almost his sanity—he’s changed his name, his look, and he’s finally starting a new life. As long as he keeps a low profile and his identity secret, everything will be okay, right?
When the world and everyone you know defines you by one catastrophic tragedy…
How do you find your happy ending?
Copyrighted Material Roni Loren 2019 - All Rights Reserved
Dr. Taryn Landry had learned that talk of sociopaths was not great first-date material. Yet somehow, on Friday night, she found herself going on about the topic and watching her date lean a little farther back in his chair, his eyes drifting to the cell phone he’d set next to his plate at the too-fancy restaurant. A cell phone that had vibrated about every fifteen minutes through the meal. Apparently, Doug the financial planner was in very high demand.
“Yeah, so,” she said, clearing her throat and trying to find a natural end to her rambling, “based on my research and the results of other studies, I’ve developed a program I hope to implement in schools. Most of the traits and factors that lead someone to violence aren’t immutable if you catch them early enough. A lot of people have that bad seed theory in their head, but I refuse to believe there’s nothing we can do, and the research is supporting that belief.”
Doug lifted his gaze at that, as if just noticing she was still there. “Right. That’s…interesting.”
Yep. He hadn’t heard a word she’d said. Awesome. But she wasn’t surprised. She hadn’t conducted a formal study, but she’d collected enough anecdotal evidence to know that she sucked at this whole dating thing. People wanted to talk about breezy stuff on dates—what Netflix shows they were bingeing, what hobbies they had, which cities they wanted to visit one day. She didn’t have time to have favorite TV shows or quirky hobbies or to take vacations to exotic places. She had research, developing her program, and teaching. She barely had time to sleep, much less be recreationally well-rounded.
Why had she subjected herself to a date again? She could’ve been home and in her comfy clothes by now. Instead, she was here in uncomfortable shoes and even less comfortable conversation. Maybe she’d agreed to this because she liked the idea of dating someone. When she came home late at night, lugging a pile of research and student papers with her, she sometimes imagined what it would be like to have someone to call or have dinner with, or more than have dinner with. That was probably what had landed her on this blind date—the idea of these mythical things. But in actual practice, dating was just straight-up painful.
She took a long sip of wine as her date glanced at his phone again. “Do you need to check that?”
“Huh?” Doug glanced up guiltily. “Oh, no. It’s fine. Well, maybe I should check in case it’s work.”
Taryn shrugged, expecting the answer. She had a degree in reading people, but Doug’s behavior didn’t require a doctorate to decipher. “Knock yourself out.”
At least she could tell her friend Kincaid that she’d given this a shot. Kincaid had set her up on this date because Girl, I worry about you. You need to get out of that research lab and live a little. Doug is smart and a sly kind of cute, like an eighties teen movie villain.
Taryn had pictured a young James Spader, which had gotten her to reluctantly agree to this, but Doug would never have been able to pull off feathered hair and a white suit. Also, she suspected he had a mild case of narcissistic personality disorder—which was probably why he’d shut down when she’d started talking about sociopaths. They were in the same psychological family. He was probably insulted.
Or maybe she should learn to shut up about the research part of her job and just tell people about the more straightforward part—that she taught psychology at a university. When people asked about what she did for a living, they usually were just being polite and didn’t actually want to hear the details. She liked details—telling them and hearing them. People’s life stories were endlessly fascinating to her. She collected them like other people collected photographs of interesting places. What made someone tick, what led them to their career, what made them who they were. But even she’d had trouble finding something interesting about Doug the financial planner.
Date experiment conducted. Experiment failed. Oh well. This outcome would’ve matched her hypothesis anyway. Blind dates had a high crash-and-burn rate. She wouldn’t have gone on this one if Kincaid hadn’t looked so damn sincere and concerned about Taryn’s lack of a social life. Her friend didn’t want her to be lonely, and Taryn loved her for at least trying. However, now she was ready to get home, get in her pajama pants, and compile the final data for her presentation.
Taryn checked her watch, and when she saw that Doug was still scrolling through something on his phone, she pulled her own phone from her purse. Two missed calls and a text alert filled her screen. Two from her mother. One from her dad.
Shit. Taryn got that queasy pinch in her gut, and she almost fumbled the phone, trying to quickly open the messages. She’d silenced her phone and had forgotten her nightly check-in text to her mother. Which meant red alert at her parents’ house if her mom was having one of her bad days. She quickly texted both of them back, feeling like a guilty teenager instead of a grown woman.
To her mom: I’m sorry. I’m fine. Got caught up at work. All is well.
She didn’t mention the blind date because that could potentially set off a whole other slew of panicked questions. Who is he? Are you in a safe, public place? What do you know about this guy?
To her dad: Sorry. Out with a friend and had phone on silent. Is Mom okay?
Her dad quickly responded: She’ll be fine. Enjoy your night. Thanks for getting back to us, sweetie.
Taryn lifted her glasses and rubbed the bridge of her nose, guilt flooding her. How could she have forgotten? Was it really so hard to remember one text? She’d probably sent her mom into a tailspin and ruined both her and her father’s nights. Ugh.
“Everything all right?” Doug asked, startling Taryn.
She glanced up as the waiter dropped the check between them. “Um, yeah. Just a missed call.” She dropped her phone into her purse and reached for her wallet. They were definitely going dutch on this date. “Well, we should probably—”
“Do you want to come by my place for a drink?” Doug asked, interrupting her and dropping a sleek, black credit card on top of the bill. It didn’t even have numbers on the front.
The waiter swept in like a stealth bomber and took the card.
Taryn blinked. “Wait, what?”
Doug drained the rest of his wine and smiled. “My place. I don’t live too far from here, and it’s still early.”
The chagrined smile he gave her said everything she needed to know. He was suggesting they sleep together. Even though they’d bored each other. Even though they had about as much in common as a grasshopper and a skyscraper. And he’d said it as if it was a totally normal thing to suggest.
She tilted her head. “So even though we clearly don’t have anything in common and this date has been pretty boring, you’re inviting me to go to your place?”
Now it was Doug’s turn to blink like an owl. His smile faltered. “Wow, you don’t pull punches, do you, doc?”
She had a tendency to blurt things out and speak her mind, but she wasn’t going to apologize for it. “Am I reading the situation wrong?”
He chuckled and adjusted his tie. “No, you’re not. I like your honesty. The date hasn’t gone as well as either of us had probably hoped, but I think we’re just two very busy people who have a hard time talking about anything but work. But”—he shrugged—“that also means we’re two people who could probably stand to blow off a little steam without worrying about who’s going to call whom tomorrow. You’re attractive and smart. Physically, we’d probably work out just fine. It could still turn out to be a good night.”
Taryn considered him. That was the first thing he’d said all night that made some sense—or at least had a shred of logic to it. Maybe Kincaid hadn’t been totally off base with this match. When Doug dropped the smooth-talking, I’m Mr. Important act, he was almost likable. Almost.
But it’d been longer than Taryn cared to acknowledge since she’d slept with anyone, and if she was going to break that dry spell, she wanted to make it count. She’d had It’s convenient and we like each other well enough sex before. It’d always been vaguely unsatisfying during and then awkward after. She’d sworn to herself after the last uninspired hookup that she’d wait for some kind of Oh my God, I must get this guy naked spark. So far she’d only gotten that watching the occasional movie with a hot actor in it.
She tried to imagine tugging off Doug’s tie and unbuttoning his shirt, running her hands over his chest, letting him touch her. Her internal interest meter swung to the far left, to the icy tundra zone. Nope.
She pulled her purse onto her lap and gave Doug a polite smile as the waiter dropped the receipt and card back on the table. “I appreciate the offer, but I’ve got a lot of work left to do tonight.” And probably a James Spader movie to watch.
“You sure?” he asked, looking genuinely disappointed.
She stood and smoothed the wrinkles from her skirt. “Yeah, thanks so much for dinner, though.”
“Here. Let me walk you out.”
She let him lead her with a loose hand on her lower back through the restaurant and out into the muggy spring air. A few cars whizzed by on the damp downtown street, but otherwise this part of Austin was pretty chill on a Friday night—only a couple of restaurants and after-work-type bars were open, mostly frequented by the locals living in the condos along this stretch. The tourists had more exciting places to be. She’d always liked this part of town.
She turned to Doug and put out her hand to shake his. “Thanks again. It was nice to meet you. I’ll be sure to call you when I decide to invest in some mutual funds.”
His face lit up. “Oh great. Here, let me give you my card.”
She didn’t have money for mutual funds, but she accepted the card and tucked it into her purse like a peace offering. “Thanks.”
“And if I run across any sociopaths, I’ll send them your way…” He cringed. “Wait, that was supposed to be a joke, but now that I say it out loud…”
She smirked, amused. “It sounds like a threat.”
His cheeks dotted with red in the glow of the streetlight. “I didn’t mean it that way. Sorry, after what you’ve been… That was kind of horrible. Sorry.”
Her stance on Doug softened a little more at his obvious embarrassment. Maybe he wasn’t so much a narcissist as a guy trying to be smooth and confident when he was just as awkward at this as she was. Plus, once people knew who she was and her history, they inevitably put their foot in their mouth about it and forgot everything else about her. It was like some weird disease.
She’d gotten used to it. Her past either freaked people out or morbidly fascinated them. She wasn’t sure which was worse—pity or rubbernecking. Flip a coin. At least Doug had made it through the whole date without asking her about the Long Acre High shooting. He got points for that. “It’s fine. I know that’s not what you meant.”
His shoulders sagged in relief, and he met her gaze. “I really do think it’s remarkable what you’re doing. I’m not sure I’d be able to bounce back after something like that. I definitely wouldn’t be able to dive into research about school shootings. I’d probably never want to think about it again. I’d be a total ostrich.”
She laughed, picturing Doug sticking his head in the sand in full suit and tie. “Ostriching is a valid reaction.” She slipped her purse strap over her shoulder. “That might’ve been the route I would’ve taken if I remembered that night like my friends do. But my mind has blocked most of it out.”
His brown eyes widened. “Seriously?”
She nodded, though she got that familiar uncomfortable twist in her stomach at the oft-repeated lie. “I lost my sister. I remember that part. But I have no solid details of the rest of the event.”
“Wow, that must be kind of scary.” He tugged on his tie as if it’d gotten too tight. “I’m not sure I’d like knowing there are memories I can’t access. Doesn’t that make it hard to, like, move on?”
Move on. Was that a thing people really did after something ripped your entire world in two? Move forward, maybe, but moving on seemed like a ridiculous expectation. That was like saying, Why don’t you move on from your personality and get an entirely new one? Taryn lifted a shoulder. “I don’t have to remember that night to know how important it is to make sure those kinds of tragedies don’t happen again, you know? I’ve got all the information I need.”
Doug tucked his hands in his pockets, his gaze serious as he nodded. “Now I feel kind of shitty that I was so checked out at dinner. I’d like to see you again, do better, really get to know you instead of being so distracted by work. You think I can have a do-over?”
Taryn smiled, though it felt a little brittle. Now she’d captured his interest. She was beginning to worry that the only thing others found interesting about her was her tragic history. That was goddamned depressing. “How about as friends next time? No pressure to impress.”
Doug looked down at his feet and laughed lightly before meeting her gaze again. “Sounds like a plan.”
Taryn stepped forward and gave Doug a quick hug, deflated about how the night had gone and ready to get home. “Have a good night.”
They walked in opposite directions to get back to their cars, and she didn’t bother looking back to wave. Her steps were purposeful on the sidewalk, but her mind sifted back through the date, replaying the conversation, analyzing.
Damn, she had been boring. She spent so much time with her colleagues, who thought the minutiae of research were top-level entertainment, and her students, who were forced to pay attention to what she said, that she’d forgotten how dry all that stuff could be to someone outside of that world.
Taryn pulled out her phone and texted Kincaid.
Taryn: Thanks for the setup.
It only took a few seconds for her friend to respond.
Kincaid: Uh-oh, ur texting me before midnight. That can’t be good. Did I miss the mark?
Taryn: Not ur fault. Apparently, I’m boring.
Kincaid: WHAT? Did he say that? B/c I will kick Doug’s ass.
Taryn: No. I’m saying it. I bored him.
Kincaid: It’s not ur job to entertain a dude.
Taryn: Correction—I bored myself. He was just along for the snore-worthy ride. I’m BORING.
Kincaid: *hugs* You’re not boring. You’re brilliant.
Taryn: The two aren’t mutually exclusive. Can be both.
The phone rang in her hand. Taryn passed her parked car and kept walking, needing a bit of fresh air before the drive home. “Hello?”
“Stop calling yourself boring,” Kincaid said without preamble.
Taryn stepped over a wad of gum stuck to the sidewalk. “I’m just calling it like I see it.”
“No. You’re not seeing it clearly. You’re just in a rut, honey,” Kincaid said, her sassy country-girl accent coloring each word with concern. “Don’t be so hard on yourself. It can happen to the best of us.”
“Oh, please. When in your life have you ever been boring?” Taryn asked with an eye roll her friend couldn’t see. Kincaid was the definition of the life of the party. She could probably turn a seminar on time-shares into a hot ticket.
“It’s happened. I swear,” she said dramatically. “I had a stretch where I worked so much that I was in bed with a guy and found myself telling him how the cornices on his windows would raise the value of his house.”
Taryn laughed. “Oh no.”
“Yes, you better believe I took myself on a vacation two weeks later,” Kincaid said with a huff. “If I’m thinking about cornices when I have a naked man literally on top of me, it’s a code red. That needed the Bahamas.”
“I don’t have time to go to the Bahamas.” She didn’t have time to get a pedicure, much less take a trip to an island that served umbrella drinks.
“I know, but maybe you just need to take a break or shake things up a little,” Kincaid suggested. “Try some new things. Meet some new people. Hell, move to the city. I could get you a good deal on a condo. I know an agent who works the area near the university.”
“Move to the city?”
“Sure, why not? You’re young and single. You can move where you want.”
Taryn’s eyes drifted to the loft apartments in the building on the other side of the street. The big plate-glass windows shone bright with interior lights at this hour, different versions of home being displayed in each—a modern minimalist look with bizarre artwork on white walls and a couple sitting at a dinner table, another apartment with a collection of African masks above the couch in a funky display, and yet another with a cat perched in the window and a woman drinking coffee or tea in a chair nearby.
Move to the city? Not that the thought didn’t sound glamorous. Taryn had always been captivated by the idea of living downtown in some big city. The buzz of life all around her. Restaurants and shops just a quick walk away. It was so far from her reality in Long Acre, three streets over from her parents in a boring ranch-style rental house, that she couldn’t even wrap her head around it.
Even though she worked in Austin, she’d never lived anywhere else but the small town an hour outside of the city. Growing up, she’d had dreams of going to college in New York, of traveling, of seeing all the things the world had to offer. But after the shooting and her mom’s decline, those options had become so far out of reach as to be laughable. Now, even the simple lofts in downtown Austin seemed downright exotic.
“That’s not even a remote possibility,” she said to her real-estate-agent friend.
“Fine, but maybe try to loosen the border restrictions on your life a little. I know you have a lot on your plate, but sometimes you just need to go out, do something crazy…examine some cornices from beneath a sexy guy.”
Taryn snorted. “There will be no cornices tonight.”
“Doug’s loss. But look, I’ll see you on Sunday at the charity run. We’ll do some brainstorming,” Kincaid said resolutely.
“We’re also supposed to start training for the university’s 10K run that you agreed to do with me. We need to figure out a schedule,” Taryn reminded her.
“Hold up. Did I actually agree to that?” Kincaid asked, her voice getting higher-pitched at the end. “Like with a yes?”
“Was I sober? Because I don’t think it counts if I wasn’t.”
“Stone cold,” Taryn said, shaking her head. “Don’t try to back out of it now. You said you were, and I quote, ‘eating like a bear preparing for hibernation and needed to get your ass off the couch.’”
“I would never say such a thing, but we’ll talk about it after the ‘Let’s find excitement’ brainstorming. That’s more important. I am not friends with boring people, so I know there’s a wildly fascinating woman on the other end of this phone. We just need to bring her out a little. Because I could give a shit if some dude finds you interesting, but Lord, if you’re boring yourself, it’s intervention time, sugar.”
Taryn smiled and leaned against a light post. “I’m not sure there are interventions for this but thanks.”
“Yep. And sure there are. I’m on it. See you on Sunday.”
Taryn exchanged goodbyes with her friend and pushed away from the light post, feeling a little better and trying to decide which was the best way back to her car. She should probably circle the block. She’d just given Kincaid a speech about preparing for a run but hadn’t exercised beyond walking back and forth across the classroom in ages. She started walking and reassessing the rest of her night. Maybe tonight she would take a break, skip the statistics compiling, and just go straight to the James Spader movie.
Taryn turned the corner and, after half a block, passed a small bar with an open door. Her steps slowed. The sidewalk sign outside the door advertised open mic night at the Tipsy Hound, and the initial guitar chords of an old Green Day song she used to love drifted out to her, mixed with the clink of beer bottles and muffled conversation. Unable to stop herself, Taryn paused to listen and leaned into the doorway to peek inside.
The bar was tiny and only half full, but the skinny guy onstage commanded the room with a single spotlight, bright-purple hair, his acoustic guitar, and a song about walking lonely roads and empty streets. Taryn listened to the opening verse of the song, her fingers curving against her purse strap as if holding the neck of a guitar, her muscle memory playing chords along with him. “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” had been one of the songs she’d secretly taught herself to play on the guitar in high school[AU8] . It had contained the proper amount of angst. Taryn mouthed the lyrics.
“Want to come in?” an upbeat male voice asked from the dark interior.
Taryn startled and squinted as a guy with a backward baseball cap and long, red hair stepped into the light of the doorway. He had an apron tied at his waist and a pen behind his ear, but somehow she got the sense he was in charge.
“No cover charge,” he added. “And if you want to perform, the audience favorite wins fifty bucks and a free beer.”
“Perform?” she asked, unable to hide the incredulity in her voice.
He shrugged. “Sure. I mean, you were singing.” He nodded toward her shoulder and wiggled his fingers. “And air-guitaring.”
Had she been? “Um, no, thank you. I mean, I can’t.”
“Sure you can. Anyone can,” he said with an easy smile. “That’s the beauty of open mic night.”
She shook her head, her shoulders tightening. “No. I don’t have a guitar or anything and—”
“We have a loaner up there.” He cocked his head toward the stage. “You play?”
Taryn’s gaze jumped to the stage. Did she play? No. Not in over a decade.
But this weird urge to say Yes I do and sure I’ll play zipped through her like a firecracker. What in the hell was that? Maybe the combination of wine and her conversation with Kincaid had been too much. It was making her think insane thoughts. Taryn stepped back and lifted her palm. “No, I haven’t played since I was in high school. I better be getting home.”
“Aww, come on. I know that look. You want to.” He swept a hand toward the stage where the guy was finishing his song. “Take a shot. I bet you’ll remember more than you think. Plus, Mo’s the last of the night, and I could stand to sell a few more beers. Give it a whirl. It’s technically nineties night so anything from that decade is welcome, but, as you can see, even if you pick something off theme, you’re fine. Boos and hecklers aren’t allowed here.” He tapped his name tag, which had Kaleb typed in blue letters and had a logo with a droopy bloodhound on it. “The Tipsy Hound needs to be true to its mascot. People are friendly here. And drunk. But mostly friendly.”
Taryn swallowed past the dryness in her throat, and her heart thumped faster than the rhythm of the music. Was this what Kincaid was talking about? Stepping over the borders of her normal life and walking into completely unknown territory? Taryn had played guitar all through high school, but she’d never performed in front of anyone outside of church. Her parents never would’ve approved of the songs she played or the ones she wrote in the privacy of her room because they thought music was a distraction.
“Okay,” she heard herself say.
Okay??? Her stomach dropped, her mouth betraying her and saying the opposite of what she’d intended to say.
“Great!” Kaleb said. “All right, what’s your name? I’ll do an intro when Mo’s done.”
“Uh…” What am I doing? What the hell am I doing? “James.” She cringed inwardly at the fake name. James Spader really needed to get out of her head. “With a z.”
With a z? What the hell? Like that made it less weird?
But the guy didn’t flinch. “Unisex. I like it. Cool.” He waved a hand. “Come with me. I’m Kaleb, by the way, owner and operator.”
She needed to turn around. There was no way she was actually doing this. But her feet moved forward as if an invisible hand was pulling her puppet strings. Her hands were sweating, and she couldn’t catch her breath. She felt disconnected from her body in a way that was disconcerting. Still, she kept moving.
The stage got closer.
The other song ended. Kaleb smiled at her.
Holy shit. She was doing this.