Strings of the Heart

Runaway Train - 3

Katie Ashley

Sometimes I have the strangest feeling about you. Especially when you are near me as you are now. It feels as though I had a string tied here under my left rib where my heart is, tightly knotted to you in a similar fashion

- Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre

Never let anyone pull at your heart strings unless they plan on permanently tying them to their own

- Anonymous

There are strings in the human heart that had better not be vibrated.

- Charles Dickens

To my readers, thanks for the Runaway Train love.

You rock my socks!

Prologue: Allison

Go on, Allison,” Mallory urged.

“Yeah, do it now!” Kim chimed in, as she nudged me forward.

I tore my gaze from staring out the ballroom’s glass doors back to my two best friends. Their bright eyes danced with a mixture of excitement coupled with the champagne we’d been sneaking when the adults weren’t looking. I’d downed two flutes myself, and it was strictly the bubbly fueling my courage at the moment to give in to their dares.

“He’s alone for the first time all night. It’s the perfect time,” Mallory said.

Gnawing my bottom lip between my teeth, I shuffled indecisively on my heels while wringing my hands. Turmoil raged within me about my potential course of action. “I know, but…”

“But what?” Kim pressed.

“What if he laughs at me?” My eyes widened in fear at the wild thoughts galloping through my head. “What if he won’t do it, and then he tells Jake what I asked him?”

Mallory rolled her green eyes. “Quit stalling, and just do it!”

Kim nodded. “You’ll always regret it if you don’t.”

I threw both of my hands up in defeat. “Fine, fine. I’ll do it.” I wagged a finger at them. “But if it goes horribly wrong, I’m never speaking to either of you again.”

With a laugh, Mallory said, “Yeah, right.”

Glancing over my shoulder, I searched through the crowded room teaming with party guests for my parents. Relief flooded me at the sight of them completely occupied. Although intrigued by why my older brother, Jake, stood before them soaked to the bone in his dress suit with a sheepish grin on his face, I managed not to let my curiosity get the better of me for once. Instead, I focused on the task at hand.

Just the thought of what I was about to do sent my spray tanned legs shaking beneath the yards of satin on my Sweet Sixteen gown. I took a few deep breaths to try and calm my nerves. The last thing I needed was to pass out and have my dress around my head for all my friends from school to see. I’d picked the lavender perfection a few weeks before. It was exactly like what I had envisioned when I’d made sketches of my dream dress. The bodice was encrusted with silver sequins and beading while the bottom of the gown flowed out, making me look and feel like a Disney Princess.

I tried my best to tune the voices of doubt out of my head. On my trembling legs that reminded me of the new colt at Jake’s farm, I pushed myself forward and headed out the door into the courtyard. Standing in front of the sparkling fountain was the man I’d been in love with for the past three years. Rhys McGowan—the bassist for the world famous band, Runaway Train, and my older brother’s best friend. The man who had no idea how I truly felt about him because all he saw me as was Jake’s kid-sister. But that was all going to change. Tonight I was going to make him see me as more.

For a moment, I could only stare at his broad back, watching his movements as he smoked his cigarette. In an instant, I was transported back in time to the first time I’d met him. My older sister Andrea and I had gone up for a weeklong campout at Jake’s farm. I didn’t know at the time that he had invited his new bandmates to come along. The guys were just starting out, playing weekends at Eastman’s Pub in downtown Atlanta. I knew AJ because he was our next-door neighbor when I was little, but the two other guys, Brayden and Rhys, I’d never seen before.

The moment Rhys stood up from his lawn chair and held out his hand to me, I was a goner. I liked every single thing about him, from his bygone era manners to his wavy dark hair and chocolate brown eyes. He was younger than the other guys, and somehow that made him seem more accessible to my teenage self.

But my love for him was sealed the next day—the day he became my true knight in shining armor. During a swim at the waterfalls on Jake’s land, I was deep underwater when I swam by a downed tree and became entangled in the branches. Panicking, I flailed left and right, but I couldn’t seem to get loose. And then out of nowhere, Rhys’s strong arms pulled me free. When I reached the surface, I was coughing and sputtering between fearful tears. “Hey now, don’t cry. You’re okay,” he had said, pulling me against his bare chest.

I’d melted against him. Even after I could breathe again and knew my life was no longer in danger, I couldn’t bring myself to tear away from him. Instead, I kept trembling all over from my growing feelings, which Rhys mistook as me still being shaky from almost drowning. When he started rubbing wide circles over my back, I sighed with contentment.

I jumped at the sound of a voice behind us. “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” Jake demanded.

A chuckle rumbled through Rhys’s chest. “Easy man. I’m not putting the moves on your baby sister.”

“Yeah, well, that’s what it looks like to me.”

A whimper escaped my lips as Rhys gently took my arms and extracted me from his embrace. He then turned back to Jake. “She got tangled in that downed tree and almost drowned, you ass.” He shook his head. “I don’t like to think what would’ve happened if I hadn’t seen her.”

A shudder rippled through Jake as he processed Rhys’s words. “I-I didn’t know. I’m sorry,” he replied, as he took long strides in the water to come to my side. He wrapped his arms around me. “Oh, Allie-Bean, thank God you’re all right. I don’t even want to fucking think of anything bad happening to you.” Once again, a shudder rippled through him.

He placed a tender kiss on the top of my soaked head. “It’s all right. I’m okay,” I said, never taking my eyes off Rhys.

When Rhys winked at me, my heart fluttered, and once again, I found myself fighting for breath. “Yeah, she’s fine. She’s tougher than she looks,” he said.

“Come on. Let’s get you inside,” Jake said.

“No, I want to stay,” I insisted, unable to bear the thought of being deprived one second with Rhys, my savior.

“Are you sure?” Jake asked, concern etched on his dark brows.

“Hell, Jake, quit babying her. She said she’s fine,” Rhys countered.

“Fine. But just be careful, okay?” Jake replied.

I bobbed my head. “I will. I promise.”

With a final glance at me, Jake swam back over to where the others were. As Rhys turned to me, the sunlight hit the water droplets on his face, causing him to have an almost angelic glow. He gave me a beaming smile. “Stick close to me, and you’ll be fine. I won’t let anything happen to you.”

“Thanks,” I murmured.

Now three years later, I still loved Rhys with all my heart and soul. Of course, he didn’t actually know how I felt about him. And there was no time like the present to let those feelings become known.

“Hi Rhys,” I said.

At the sound of my voice, he whirled around. “Hiya Allie-Bean,” he said, tossing his cigarette to the ground. As he stomped out the glowing embers with his shoe, I wrinkled my nose both at the smell of the smoke and at him using Jake’s old nickname for me. “What are you doing out here?”

I shrugged. “I could ask you the same thing.”

“Well, I decided to have a smoke after finding your brother and Abby swimming in the fountain.”

I widened my eyes in surprise. “Is that why he’s all wet?”

Rhys laughed. “Yeah, it is. Not quite sure how they both ended up soaking wet, but I’m sure there’s a pretty good story about how it happened.” He winked at me. “Maybe even a naughty one.”

A warm flush filled my cheeks at his words and gesture. From the smoldering looks Jake had been giving his new girlfriend all night, I could imagine there was definitely something naughty behind why they ended up in the fountain. But I had also been glad to see the way he looked at her with love in his eyes, too. Since I was a romantic at heart, I hoped he had found someone to settle down with.

Shifting on my heels, I cleared my throat. “I just wanted to say thanks again for playing at my party. It was amazing.”

Rhys grinned as he reached in his pocket. After he dug out a tin of mints, he popped a couple in his mouth. When he offered me one, I shook my head. “You’re welcome,” he said.

Taking a few tentative steps closer to him, I said, “You always seem to be doing nice things for me. I mean, you saved me all those years ago and now you’re making my Sweet Sixteen something that everyone will be talking about at school on Monday.”

“Regardless of the fact that Jake would’ve whipped my ass if I had said no to your party, I was glad to do it.” He cupped my chin. “Anything for you, Allie-Bean.”

His simple touch sent my heartbeat thrumming wildly in my chest. Since it seemed so loud in my ears, I hoped that he wouldn’t be able to hear it over the roar of the fountain. “I’m glad to hear that,” I whispered breathlessly.