“Unforgettable...Roni Loren at her best!" --Kristen Callihan, New York Times and USA Today bestselling author
"Phenomenal." --Lorelei James, New York Times bestselling author
"Unforgettable." --KIRKUS Starred Review
The Ones Who Got Away
First in a new series!
A fresh new contemporary romance from New York Times and USA Today bestseller Roni Loren that will rock your world.
Twelve years ago, tragedy struck the senior class of Long Acre High School. Only a small number of students survived, a group the media dubbed as The Ones Who Got Away.
Now, web designer Liv Arias, along with the rest of the survivors, have returned to the small Texas town to tell their stories for a documentary. Which means Liv seeing former star-athlete and old flame Finn Dorsey. A lot happened between them that night and Liv is ready to end their decade-long riff and move on. But when her attempt at closure turns into a steamy kiss, moving on proves much more difficult than either of them thought...
Liv's words cut off as Finn got closer. The man approaching was nothing like the boy she'd known. The bulky football muscles had streamlined into a harder, leaner package. The smooth face was now dusted with scruff, and the look in his deep green eyes held no trace of boyish innocence. A thousand things were in those eyes. A thousand things welled up in Liv.
READ CHAPTER 1
Copyrighted Material Roni Loren 2018 - All Rights Reserved
Nothing can save you. Liv Arias rubbed goose bumps from her arms as she read the words scrawled on the sign taped under a maniacal-looking wasp painted on the wall of the gym. Nothing can save you from the sting! More hand-drawn posters hung crookedly around the ridiculous mascot, bubbly cheerleader handwriting declaring that the Millbourne Yellowjackets were going to take down the Creekside Tigers. Some smart-ass had drawn a tiger with a swollen face and an EpiPen with an X through it.
Nothing can save you. The level of artistic skill on the cartoon should’ve made Liv smile. Back when she was in high school, she wouldn’t have been the one making school spirit signs, but she would’ve appreciated the art and the sarcasm. Today, she couldn’t find enthusiasm for either. Because it all felt off. The new name for the school. The weird, too-smiley mascot. Her, being there.
This wasn’t the gym where it had happened. That building had been knocked down within months of the tragedy. Spilled blood covered with dirt. A memorial courtyard was in its place now on the other side of the school. She’d taken the long way around and had avoided walking past it on her way in, afraid it would trigger all the stuff she’d fought so hard to lock down. Even after twelve years, she couldn’t bear to look at a list of names that should’ve been in a graduation program instead of etched onto a memorial. People she’d sat next to in class. People she’d been friends with. People she’d thought she hated until they were gone and she’d realized how silly and superficial high-school hate was. Now they were just names on stone, memories painted on the walls of her brain, holes in people’s hearts.
“You said you weren’t in the gym when the first gunman came in.”
The interviewer’s calm voice jarred Liv from her thoughts, and she blinked in the bright camera-ready lights. They’d been talking about the tragedy as a whole, but hadn’t gotten into the details of the night yet. “What?”
Daniel Morrow, the filmmaker putting the documentary together, gave her an encouraging nod, making his too-stylish hair flop across his forehead. “You weren’t in the gym…”
Liv swallowed past the rubber-band tightness in her throat. Maybe she’d overestimated her ability to handle this. She’d agreed to it because the proceeds were going both to the families of the victims and to research that could help prevent things like this from happening. How could she say no to that and not look heartless? But in that moment, she wished she’d declined. Old fear was creeping up the back of her neck, invading like a thousand spiders, the sounds and memories from that night threatening to overtake her. She closed her eyes for a second, focused on her breathing.
She wasn’t that scared girl anymore. She would not be.
“Do you need to take a break, Ms. Arias?” Daniel asked, his voice echoing in the dark, empty gym.
She shook her head, the lights feeling too hot on her skin. No breaks. She needed to get this over with. If she took a break, she wouldn’t come back. She opened her eyes and straightened her spine, rallying her reserve of calm, that place where she went and pretended she was talking about things that had happened to someone else, to people she didn’t know, at a school she’d never heard of. “No, I wasn’t in the gym. I’d gone into the hallway to get some air.”
Not entirely true. She’d left the prom to sneak into a janitor’s closet with Finn Dorsey. But she and Finn had never told that part of the story because he’d been there with a “proper” date, and he would’ve never wanted his parents or anyone else to know he was sneaking off with someone like Olivia Arias. She’d first dragged him into the closet to fight with him, to let him know how she felt about being passed over for his student-council-president date. But fighting had only stoked the fire that had burned between them back then. Young, misguided, completely inconvenient lust. They’d been rounding second base when they’d heard the first shots fired.
“What happened when you were in the hallway?”
Liv didn’t want to picture it again. She’d wrestled with flashbacks for so long that it felt like inviting the devil in for another stay. Her only reprieve since that awful year had been one hundred percent avoidance, cutting herself off from everything and everyone from back then. Letting the scene run through her mind could be too much. But there was no helping it. The images came anyway.
“When I heard the shots and screaming, I hid in the janitor’s closet.” She and Finn had thought it was some kind of prom prank until they’d heard Finn’s date, Rebecca, shout the word gun.
A tiny, three-letter word that had knocked their world off its axis and punted it into a different dimension forever.
“So you never saw the shooters?”
Liv gripped her elbows, trying to keep the inner chill from becoming visible shivering, and ignored the pine scent of the janitor’s disinfectant that burned her nose as if she were right there again. She still couldn’t buy a real Christmas tree because of that smell. “I didn’t see anyone until Joseph opened the door.”
Because Finn had left her. The second he’d heard Rebecca scream, he’d bailed on Liv. He’d said something to her, but she could never recall what. All she remembered was him leaving. And in his rush to save his real date, he’d inadvertently alerted Joseph to Liv’s presence.
“He pointed the gun at me and yelled at me to stand up.” Her voice caught on the last bit, snagging on the sharp memory, bringing back that all-encompassing fear that she was in her last minutes. She’d learned to mostly manage the panic attacks that had plagued her after that night, but that moment was always the image that haunted her most—when she saw the barrel of that gun pointing at her, the scared but determined eyes of her former lab partner drilling into her like cold steel.
“But Joseph didn’t pull the trigger?”
Liv looked down at her hands, turning her mother’s wedding band round and round. “No. He knew who I was. I…wasn’t on his list.”
There was no way Daniel didn’t know what that meant. The media had latched on to the killers’ manifesto like ants on honey. Joseph and Trevor had chosen prom night for a very particular reason. Not to take out the popular people or people who’d wronged them. They wanted to take out the happy ones. If you can be happy in a fucked-up world like this, then you’re blind and too stupid to live. That’d been the motto of their mission.
Liv hadn’t been deemed a happy one and had been spared. But she wasn’t going to say it and open herself up to the question of why she hadn’t been happy. There’d been enough speculation in the press back when it’d happened. What was broken with all those lucky survivors? Were they the mean kids? The depressed kids? The damaged kids? Friends of the killers? “Joseph and I had worked together on a project in chemistry. We weren’t friends, but I’d been nice to him.”
And he’d been nice to her. But she’d also seen part of him that would haunt her later. When she’d worried that their project wouldn’t be up to par, he’d assured her that the rest of the class was filled with idiots, jocks, and assholes, so they’d look like geniuses in comparison. He’d smirked at her and said, I mean, seriously, someone should just put them out of their misery. Save us the trouble of having to deal with them.
Back then, she’d already been a subscriber to the church of sarcasm and had no love lost for many of her classmates, so she’d taken his comment as such and agreed with him. Now the memory of that conversation made her sick. She’d reassured a killer that he was right. Given him more fuel for his bonfire.
“He cursed at me, told me to stay put, and wedged a chair against the outside of the door.” She rubbed her lips together. “After that, I heard more shots.”
“Presumably when he and Trevor shot at”—Daniel checked his notes—“Finn Dorsey and Rebecca Lindt.”
Liv reached for her water and took a slow sip, trying not to hear the sounds of that night in her head. The gun going off in that steady, unrelenting way. The cries for help. A Mariah Carey song still playing in the gym. Her own rapid breath as she huddled in that closet and did—nothing. Frozen. For five hours. Only the chair against the door had alerted the SWAT team someone was in there after everything was over. “Yes. I didn’t see any of it, but I know Finn was shot protecting Rebecca. You’d have to ask Rebecca about that part.”
“I did ask her. I plan to ask Finn, too.”
Liv’s head snapped upward at that, the words yanking her out of the memories like a stage hook. “What?”
“Mr. Dorsey is my next interview.”
She stared at Daniel, not sure if she’d heard the words right. “Finn’s here?”
She barely resisted saying, He exists? The guy had become a ghost after the awful months following the shooting. He’d gotten a ton of press for being a hero, and the media had played up the story to the n th degree. The star athlete and son of a local business owner taking a bullet for his date. But within a year, his family had rented out their house and moved out of town, running from the spotlight like everyone else. No one wanted to be that brand of famous.
Liv hadn’t heard anything about him since, and he never gave interviews. She’d decided that he had probably moved to some remote tropical island and changed his name. She would’ve skipped town back then, too—if she’d had the funds to do it.
“Yes,” Daniel said, tipping his head toward the spot over her left shoulder. “He got here a few minutes ago. He’s declined to be on camera, but he’s agreed to an interview.”
With that, she couldn’t help but turn and follow the interviewer’s gaze. Leaning against the wall in the shadows of the darkened gym was a man with dark hair, black T-shirt, and jeans. He looked up from the phone in his hand, as if hearing his name, and peered in their direction. He was too far away for her to read his expression or see the details of his face, but a jolt of bone-deep recognition went through her. “Oh.”
“Hey, we should invite him to join you for this part since you were both close to the same place at the same time. We’ll get a more accurate timeline that way.”
“What? I mean, no, that’s not—”
“Jim, can you turn off the camera? I think this will be important. Mr. Dorsey,” Daniel called out, “would you mind if I asked you a few questions now? The camera’s off.”
The cameraman went about shutting things down, and Finn pushed away from the wall.
Liv’s heart leapt into her throat and tried to escape. She’d avoided Finn after everything had happened, not just from hurt, but because seeing his face, even on television, would trigger the flashbacks. But she wasn’t that girl anymore. Seeing Finn after all these years shouldn’t concern her. Still, she had the distinct urge to make tracks to the back door. She slid out of the director’s chair she’d been sitting in. “I think I’ve probably given you everything I have to add. I wasn’t in the gym, and my story is really just me cowering in the closet. Not that interesting—”
Her words cut off, her voice dying a quick death, as Finn got closer and some of the studio lights caught him in their glare. The man approaching was nothing like the boy she’d known. The bulky football muscles had streamlined into a harder, leaner package. The smooth face was now dusted with scruff, and the look in his deep-green eyes held no trace of boyish innocence. A thousand things were in those eyes. A thousand things welled up in Liv.
Finn Dorsey had become a man. And a stranger. The only familiar thing was the sharp, undeniable kick of awareness she’d always had anytime the guy was around. Time had only made the effect more potent. Without thinking, her gaze drifted to his hands. Big, capable hands that had once held her. When she’d known him, he’d always worn his football championship ring from junior year. The cool metal used to press against the back of her neck when he kissed her. Now he wore no rings at all. She took a breath, trying to reel in that old, automatic response to him, and smoothed her hands down the sides of her now-wrinkled pencil skirt.
Daniel held out his hand. “Mr. Dorsey, so glad you could make it.”
Finn returned the offered handshake and gave a brief nod. “Not a problem.”
Then, his gaze slid to Liv. His brow wrinkled for a second, but she could tell the moment he realized who she was. Something flickered over his face. A very distinct look. Like she caused him pain. Like she was a bad memory.
Because she was. That was all they were to each other at this point.
She pushed words past her constricted throat. “Hi, Finn.”
He stepped closer, his gaze tracing over her face as if searching for something. Or maybe just cataloging all the differences time had given her. Gone were the heavy kohl eyeliner, the nose piercing, and the purple-streaked hair. She’d gone back to her natural black hair color after college, and though she still liked to think she had a quirky style, she’d chosen a simple gray suit for today’s interview. Something teen Liv would’ve made snoring sounds over.
“It’s good to see you,” Finn said, his voice deeper and more rumbly than she remembered. “You look…”
“Like I’ve been through a two-hour interview, I’m sure.” She forced a tight smile. “I’ll get out of your way so that you and Daniel can chat. I’m sure you’ll be able to offer a lot more detailed information than I can. I was just the girl in the closet.”
Finn frowned. “Liv—”
“I was hoping I could talk to you both,” Daniel interrupted. “May provide extra insight.”
Liv’s heart was beating too fast now. Part of her wanted to yell at Finn, to demand why, to spew out all those questions she’d never asked, all those feelings she’d packed away in that dark vault labeled Senior Year. But the other part of her knew there was no good answer. In the end, all three of them had survived. Maybe if he hadn’t left the closet, Rebecca wouldn’t have made it. Then Liv would have that on her conscience.
She turned to Daniel and plastered on an apologetic look. “I’m sorry. This has wiped me out. I’d rather wrap things up here. I really don’t have more to add.”
“What if we took a break and then—”
“She said she’s tired,” Finn said, cool authority in his voice.
“It would only be a few more questions. The viewers would—”
Finn lifted a hand. “Look. I know you’re doing this for a good cause, but you have to remember what this does to all of us. To the outside world, this was a tragedy. Something people discuss over dinner, shake their heads at, or get political about. To us, this was our life, our school, our friends. Asking us to come back here, to talk about all these things again…it requires more than anyone realizes. It rips open things that we try to keep stitched up. So let her go. She doesn’t owe anyone more of her story than she wants to give.” Finn’s gaze caught hers. “She doesn’t owe anyone anything.”
Liv’s chest squeezed tight, and Daniel turned her way, apology in his eyes. “I’m sorry. You’re right. Ms. Arias, if you need to go, please do. I appreciate all the time you’ve given me.”
He held out his hand for her to shake, and she took it. “It’s fine. Knowing that the proceeds are going to the families helps. I know you’ll do a good job with it. I just don’t have any more to add.”
She released Daniel’s hand and turned to Finn, giving him a little nod of thanks. “I’ll get out of here so y’all can get started. It was good to see you, Finn.”
Finn’s focused attention held hers, for a moment kicking up old memories that had nothing to do with gunmen or violence or the way it all ended. Instead, her head filled with snapshots of stolen minutes and frantic kisses in the library stacks and his big, full laughter when she’d tell him her weird jokes. Before Finn had abandoned her that night, he’d saved her each day of that semester, had given her something to look forward to, something to smile about when things were so awful at home. He’d made her hope.
But even before the shooting, she should’ve known there was no future for the two of them. The signs had been there the whole time. She’d just been too dazzled to see them.
“It’s been too long,” he said quietly. “We should have a drink and catch up. Are you staying in town?”
She was. But she didn’t feel prepared for that conversation. She didn’t feel prepared for him. All those years after he’d disappeared, she’d had a thousand questions for him, but now she couldn’t bring herself to ask one. This interview, the twelve-year anniversary, and seeing him had left her feeling too raw, exposed. And what difference would his answers make, anyway? The past couldn’t be changed.
She wanted to lie and tell him she was heading out tonight. But she was staying at the Bear Creek Inn, the only decent hotel in their little Texas town, which meant that was probably where he was staying, too. If she lied, she’d run into him because that was how the universe worked. “I’m meeting up with some friends for dinner. I’m not sure I’ll have time.”
He watched her for a moment, his eyes searching, but then nodded. “I’m in Room 348 at the Bear. Call my room if you change your mind, and I can meet you at the bar.”
She forced a polite smile. “Will do.”
“Great.” But she could tell by the look on his face that he didn’t believe her.
This was all just a formality, and maybe his offer for a drink was the same. No matter what had happened between them before the night of the dance, all they were to each other now were bad memories and even worse decisions.
She told both men goodbye and turned to head to the door, forcing herself not to look back. This place, this story were her past. Finn Dorsey was her past. She didn’t need anything or anyone reminding her of that time in her life, of how fragile she’d been. She’d worked too hard to lock all that stuff in a fail-safe box so that she could finally move forward. She couldn’t linger here.
She picked up her pace. Her high heels clicked on the gym floor at a rapid clip.
But instead of hearing her footfalls, all she heard were gunshots. Click, click, click. Bang, bang, bang.
Anxiety rippled over her nerve endings, and she tried to breathe through the astringent pine scent that haunted her. No. Screams sounded in her ears.
She walked so quickly that she might as well have been running. Finn might have called out her name.
But she couldn’t be sure, and she didn’t turn back.
The faster she could get away from this place and the memories, the better.
She was not that girl anymore.
She would never go back.