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We’re at the end of the second act, and that steamy kiss is about to happen. My heart pounds as I say my lines. I never thought about him kissing me like this in front of so many people. Sweat trickles down my back and it feels like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. My head is in the clouds, as my hands tremble. Trystan reaches for me, his eyes locked on mine. Smooth words flow softly from his lips as he leans in, closing the distance between us. His hands tangle in my hair and his mouth brushes against mine. The kiss feels more real, more intense than anything before. I gasp as he pulls away, and my eyes flick to the side—to the audience—as the lights fade to black and the curtain swings shut.

She’s here.

I stand utterly still, even after the dim blue stage lights come up so we don’t trip as we walk off stage. We have fifteen minutes before the next act. Trystan is smiling. He loves this so much and I don’t want to ruin it for him, so I try not to react, but he’s already noticed.

“What is it?”

“My mom. She’s out there.” I stare at the floor, at the way the wood takes on blue tones in the light.

“Is that bad?”

Glancing up at him, I answer truthfully. “I don’t know. They said they wouldn’t come.”

“Your dad said they wouldn’t come. Maybe your mom realizes he’s been acting like an ass. Mari, you are exceptional. You’re dazzling everyone out there. She has to see that.”

I smile up at him, but it’s forced. Seeing her there makes me question myself. Everything I do is lacking in her eyes and it’ll crush me if she thinks my performance is subpar. “She doesn’t see much when she looks at me, Trystan. She sees that I’m not what she wanted, and that’s about it.”

The conversation is cut short when we’re shoved off stage, so the crew can change out the set. Trystan walks with me quickly into one the back dressing rooms. “Forget that she’s here. Tonight is a new start for both of us. Try to be happy.” He leans in and kisses my nose, which makes me smile. It’s such a sweet thing, innocent and kind, that I can’t help but grin.

Sucking in a deep breath, I nod. “You’re right. We both get a new start after this. And honestly, I’m loving every second of it. They love you Trystan. You could hear a pin drop out there, and it’s because of you.”

Trystan never takes compliments well. He usually boasts or does something silly to deflect or distract people from seeing it, but I know. This time he does neither. His voice is a whisper. His dark lashes lower and he leans into me, holding me in his arms and whispers in my ear. “Thank you, Mari. I couldn’t have done this without you.” As he pulls away, he pecks the side of my face. “I need to take care of something, okay. You should go get a drink and have your make-up touched up before curtain call.”

“Okay, I’ll see you in a little bit.” I wander around backstage until I find the side door that leads to the water fountain. Pushing through, I head into the only hallway that is blocked off from the public. Still, some people have managed to get backstage, including Brie.

She’s wearing a tight little skirt and saunters over to me as I guzzle water from the fountain. “I can’t believe they let you on stage. Trystan is totally carrying you. If it wasn’t for him, they’d be throwing rotten vegetables at you.” She laughs and tips her head back. The bruises under her eyes are half hidden by make-up. She must have rubbed her face and some of the concealer came off. Either that or she’s been crying.

I straighten and look her over once, and raise an eyebrow. “I’d rather get hit with rotten fruit than have a rotten soul. Good luck with that.” My throat is still dry, so I bend my head to the fountain again, but Brie doesn’t leave.

“You think you’re better than me? Please!” She cackles and several pairs of eyes turn our way. Some of the actors are lingering backstage with me, waiting for water while others are practicing their lines. They all stop what they’re doing and watch. Brie rants, “You’re just the spoiled daughter of a rich man. You’ll never amount to anything, and as for Trystan, I’ll always be his first love. I’ll always be the woman who slept with him first and nothing you can do will ever change that.” Her words are spoken loudly in a clipped tone, like she’s superior.

The urge to punch her in the face courses through my arms, and my muscles tense, but I’m not a fool. Besides, Tucker went out of his way for me and I’m not going to get into another fistfight with her, so I straighten, look straight at her, purse my lips together, and spew. A splattering of water comes out and hits her face right before I start choking. By the time she squeals, I’m doubled over and hacking up a lung.

It looks like she was in the spray zone and the rest of the cast that’s loitering down the hallway come over to make sure I’m all right. No one notices Brie, but I do. There’s murder in her eyes as she wipes away the smeared make-up. It was childish. Maybe. But I’m not letting people like her talk to me that way anymore. Brie stomps off and disappears into the crowd on the other side of the barricade. I hope she goes home, but I doubt it. She’s probably waiting around to see what damage she can do.

There are several sets of hands on my back when I hear Mom’s voice. “Mari?” I glance up, horrified that she’ll try to talk to me now.

Her gaze meets mine and we stare at each other. Everything within me says to walk away, that talking to her right now is not a smart move, but I can’t. There’s something about her, about the look on her face, that draws me down the hallway. Soon I’m standing in front of her with only the wooden posts separating us.

Glancing up at her with a stern tone, I ask, “What are you doing here?”

There are people around. Many voices are talking at the same time. A camera pushes its way to the front and soon I can see the man wielding it. He shoves it in my face and I think that Mom will back away, but she doesn’t. Rather, she lifts her hand and I can see what she’s been holding. A single red rose with a white ribbon tied around it, forming a little bow.

Holding it out to me, Mom offers the flower. “You amaze me, Mari. I never knew you could do anything like this and seeing you up there on the stage…” Her fingers cover her mouth quickly as she swallows a sob. The rose remains between us, an offering not accepted. I can’t touch it. I’m frozen in place. Her words hit me like a sheet of water and I’m drowning, dying to hear what she has to say.

Mom continues, “I never knew.” She looks down at the rose in her hand. “And I’m afraid I’ve been holding you back. I’m so sorry, honey.”

I nod slowly, too shocked to speak. When I find my voice, I ask, “Where’s Dad?”

Mom’s spine straightens and her eyes lock with mine, offering an apology that words cannot express. She doesn’t have to answer because I know he isn’t here. Remorse fills her eyes, like there are more things to say, but not here—not now.

The rose starts to fall to her side, clutched in her hand, but I reach for it, refusing to make the same mistakes my father’s made time and time again. Forgiveness is something I want, so it’s something I have to offer, and there’s no one that I’d rather give it to than my mother.

“This is beautiful. Thank you, Mom.” I take the rose and reach over the barricade and hug her quickly before saying, “I need to get back. I’ll talk to you after. I have some really exciting news.” Hiding my face, I hurry down the hall. Tears prick my eyes as hope fills my chest.

She’s proud of me. My mother is finally proud of me.

CHAPTER 12

~TRYSTAN~

The play is over too quickly. Trystan basks in every moment, willing time to slow, but it doesn’t. Rather, it seems to fly by, the minutes passing like seconds. He saw Mari with her mother and the smile on her face as she hurried back toward the stage during intermission. At least she has one parent now. Going through life alone is hard and Trystan wouldn’t wish it on anyone. For some reason, blood matters. There isn’t a day that goes by that he doesn’t wish his mother would show up and say something like that to him, but the woman is a ghost—gone forever.

The last line is said and something inside his chest tugs hard. This is the end of one life and the beginning of another. Most people never get a chance like this, and he knows he should feel lucky, but he’s going to miss this place. Trystan will miss his afternoons with Mari, and driving Tucker crazy in class. He’ll miss the hallways and Seth’s crude mouth. If Trystan doesn’t make an effort, he knows the people he holds most dear will vanish from his life.

The curtain swings closed as he stands there with Mari in his arms. He beams down at her and kisses her hard, not holding back a bit of emotion. Without warning the curtain swings open again and a single spotlight shines across the room, illuminating their private kiss.

The audience is cheering wildly, standing and clapping so loudly that he can’t hear a thing. Mari and Trystan pull apart. She smiles and covers her lips with her fingers, trying to hide a beautiful, shy, grin. Trystan tugs her forward toward the edge of the stage. The spot light follows the pair until Trystan stops. He holds up their hands and they bow together, which makes everyone cheer louder. The casting call begins and one by one, the entire cast is called out onto the stage.

At the end, Mr. Tucker is called out and applauded. Up until this moment, everything is normal. Now, Tucker would normally take a mic and thank everyone for their hard work, but not tonight. Tucker taps the mic in his hand and clears his throat. “There are members of the press here tonight with a question for one of our students, and I believe he has an answer for you.”

Tucker turns to look back at Trystan. This is it. His heart feels like it’s going to leap out of his chest. It’s a combination of dread and excitement. Trystan steps forward and tugs Mari with him before releasing her hand after a couple of steps.

Trystan taps his mic to make sure it’s still on before his voice rings across the auditorium. “A few months ago I was completely and totally in love with a beautiful woman who didn’t know how I felt, so I wrote her a song.” Trystan reaches for Mari and pulls her to him. “She knows how I feel, now.” Trystan laughs lightly as he looks at Mari, and the audience laughs with him.

“And before tomorrow morning, everyone will know everything about me, so I might as well tell you a little bit about who I am. When I was a baby, my mother left. It broke my father’s heart and for the longest time, he blamed me. He took it out on me with words and fists. I’m not the guy from the pristine home with the perfect parents. I didn’t have that life.” Trystan’s throat tightens as he speaks, but he pushes through. He lifts his gaze and looks at the reporters and smiles the confident smirk he always wears when things are difficult.

“I’m the kid that cut class and drove my teachers crazy. I’m the guy who fell in love with his best friend.” He glances at Mari and squeezes her hand. “And I’m the guy who wrote her a love song and uploaded it to the internet. I’m the guy everyone has been calling Day Jones, and my name is Trystan Scott.”

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