Before You

By: Lisa Cardiff


Chapter One





The minute Aubrey Keaton walked into the bar, she wanted to turn around and walk right back out. The smell of stale beer, sweat, and something suspiciously resembling vomit assaulted her nose. Dark wood paneled walls combined with low lighting made it virtually impossible to see anyone’s face. She looked down at her phone to check that she was in the right place for the third time since she pulled into the parking lot fifteen minutes ago. This was the place. She shoved her way through the crowd, looking for her boyfriend.

This was it. The day she and Camden had been planning for the last six months—no—for the last six years. Not less than two hours after completing the final exam of her last semester for her Masters of Fine Art degree, a semester early, she hit the road for Los Angeles. Aubrey and Cam would have an entire month together, and then she would go back to Colorado and find a job at an art gallery in Aspen, which was near her hometown. She loved art. It flowed through her veins. Her mother was an artist, and if she could do anything she wanted, she would be one too, but that wasn’t going to happen. Naturally, working in a gallery was the next best thing.

She and Camden had been dating since their senior year in high school, but they had known each other since she moved to Carbondale, Colorado to live with her grandmother when she was ten years old. Camden lived next door, and from the minute they met, they were inseparable. Meeting Camden and living with her grandmother was the best thing that had ever happened in her life. It marked the first time she had experienced anything resembling stability in her life.

Standing on her tiptoes, she surveyed the room, looking for Camden’s wavy blond hair. Normally, the color stood out like a beacon, and she could find him anywhere, but the bar was so dark and crowded that she was lucky if she didn’t inadvertently grope a stranger. After five minutes of searching, she gave up, hoping he would come looking for her when he saw her text.

Sliding into a stool at the bar, she spun around on her chair to face the dark stage at the back of the room. Camden and his new band were playing at the bar tonight, so they were likely in the back somewhere getting ready. She had never met any of the guys before, but she felt as though she knew them given how much Camden talked about the three of them. If they weren’t all guys, she would be insanely jealous about how much time they spent together and how much Camden respected and liked them.

Feeling the kind of aloneness that a person could only experience in a crowded room where everyone appeared to be having fun except for her, she pulled a hair tie out of her purse and lifted her long brown hair into a messy ponytail, trying to look busy so no one approached her. Turning her head to the side to order a drink, she felt someone brush against the side of her body. Startled, she looked up and found herself looking straight into the steely gray eyes of a man she didn’t know.

A warm, foreign sensation chased down her spine and her heart pounded against her ribcage. She felt completely out of her element. He was the type of man who bled charm and sex appeal from his pores. Looking at him made her wish she had stopped at the last rest stop and applied some makeup or at least combed her hair and changed out of her rumpled, coffee stained t-shirt. He was shockingly handsome—there was absolutely no denying it.

He ran his fingers through the front of his brown hair, pushing it out of his eyes, and a faint smile lingered at the corner of his lips. “Are you lost? This doesn’t look like your kind of place.”

His smooth voice tingled across her nerve endings like a physical touch, and rational thought escaped her. “It’s not. I’m meeting someone.”

“Is it too much to hope that the person you’re meeting is a female?” His eyes slanted in her direction, simmering with an unnamed challenge, their eyes locked for much longer than was appropriate for two complete strangers.

He had an interesting and demanding face, not traditionally handsome, but it was so much more. Masculine strength and charisma were stamped into every feature of his shadowed face, from his square jaw to his long straight roman nose. He wore dark indigo jeans that hung on his narrow hips and a tight, gray long-sleeved t-shirt that stretched across the toned muscles of his chest. There was something sinful about the fact that she could almost imagine how he looked beneath his clothing. And his lips, she couldn’t begin to describe them other than to say they were sensually molded and devastatingly provocative.

Aubrey was still examining his lips with too much concentration when they curved upward. Abashed, her gaze shifted to his eyes, and to her utter horror, he seemed to know exactly what she was thinking. She had been caught basically drooling over him, and while she instinctively knew that every woman in the bar probably had a similar reaction to him, she hated that he managed to intrigue her more than was appropriate when she was supposed to be looking for Camden.

“Did you get an edifying look?” he asked before she could answer his question.

Speechless, her mouth hung open in shock, but when she saw the playful look on his face she regained her composure, meeting his eyes with a mocking smirk. “I’m meeting my boyfriend here.”

“Really? He must not be very bright to leave a woman like you alone in a bar like this.” His hand brushed her arm above her elbow so lightly she almost questioned whether it was a figment of her overly tired imagination, and yet she knew from the warm sensation still teasing her arm that it was real. She felt that touch in every cell of her being.

Aubrey shot him a confused look, but before she could respond, a tall blonde woman in a tight red dress that was working overtime to conceal her lady parts put her arm on the man’s shoulder. “Well, hello there, Jax. Have you missed me?” She leaned in to his body and whispered into his ear while conveniently putting her cleavage in his direct line of sight. With what Aubrey guessed was meant to be an alluring smile, but one that came out more predatory than anything, she whispered, “Maybe you want to visit the storage closet with me again tonight. We could have a repeat of last weekend.”

Aubrey tried to ignore the disheartened flip of her stomach caused by the woman’s proposal. It didn’t matter what this man did or didn’t do. She didn’t know him and she would never know him. He was a stranger in a bar, nothing more.

Jax’s face became unreadable. “I’ll catch up with you later, Katie. I’m busy right now,” Jax replied dismissively, shifting away from the woman, so she plainly understood he wanted her to leave him alone.

Katie shot Aubrey an angry look and looked back toward Jax. “But you never answered my text about going to my parents’ house for dinner tomorrow.”

“Katie, you know I don’t do the parent thing,” Jax responded forcefully as he glanced over his shoulder. “We’ll catch up later.”

“Fine. We’ll talk later.” Katie flipped her hair and turned to leave.

Jax glanced at Aubrey, tilting his head to the side, surveying her response to the woman’s comment. “I’m not dating that woman. She’s just a… family friend, nothing serious,” he said in a lazy voice.

“Good to know. I can rest easy knowing that you don’t hop into closets with random strangers. For a moment there, I was worried for your safety,” Aubrey replied, searching the room for Camden again.

“Ah, you heard that,” he replied, a slow, startling white smile spreading across his face. “Well… in case you’re curious, I’m definitely not interested in her tonight. I have other things in mind.”

She couldn’t control the heat that flooded her face. “I have no interest in what you do or don’t do,” Aubrey said, scanning the room.

Jax shot her a wry glance and his voice deepened enticingly. “Really? Because from the way you looked at me earlier, I got the distinct impression that you were interested.”

“Impressions can be wrong. Like I said earlier, I’m meeting my boyfriend here. His band is playing tonight.”

The man rose from the barstool and regarded her curiously. “There’s only one band playing here tonight.”

For the first time, Aubrey noticed that he was really tall and she had to tilt her head back to meet his gaze. “Right, Chasing Ruin. That’s his band. He plays the guitar.”

Setting his beer down on the bar, his eyes traveled over her body and face with frank masculine appreciation. “Ah, you must be Aubrey, Cam’s girl from home.”

“Yes,” Aubrey replied, smiling. “Do you know Cam?”

Jax shoved his hands in his pockets, his gray eyes enigmatic. “You could say that. See you around, Aubrey.”

Aubrey watched his back as he wove through the crowded bar until she couldn’t see him anymore. She didn’t really understand what had happened between them, but she didn’t have much time to ponder it before the lights flipped on above the small stage at the far end of the bar.

Almost immediately, Cam bounced onto the stage with his guitar followed by two other men and Aubrey smiled when she saw his familiar head of bright blond hair. Camden was dressed in faded jeans and a plain white t-shirt.

The two men trailing Cam couldn’t have been more dissimilar if they tried. The first man was all brooding darkness, whereas the other one was playful lightness. Dressed in a fitted black t-shirt with black jeans and heavy black boots, the dark-haired man slid behind the set of drums and flipped his drumsticks into the air, mesmerizing the audience with the black tattoos curling up his toned arms.

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