I don’t know how I ever got myself into this mess to begin with, but I know the only way to end it is to break off all contact with Sydney. I knew the moment I held her hand last night that there wasn’t a flaw in the world that could have stopped my heart from feeling what it was feeling.

I’m not proud of the fact that Maggie doesn’t make up all of my heart anymore. I fought it. I fought it hard, because I didn’t want it to happen. Now that the fight is finally coming to an end, I’m not even sure if I’m winning or losing. I’m not even sure which side I’m rooting for, much less which side I was on.

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I knock lightly on Sydney’s door, then place my palms flat against the doorframe and look down, half of me hoping she refuses to open it and half of me restraining myself from breaking down the damn door to get to her.

Within seconds, we’re face-to-face for what I know is the last time. Her blue eyes are wide with fear and surprise and maybe even a small amount of relief when she sees me standing in front of her. She doesn’t know how to feel about seeing me here, but her confusion is comforting. It’s good to know I’m not alone in this, that we’re both sharing the same mixture of emotions. We’re in this together.

Sydney and me.

We’re just two completely confused souls, scared of a much unwanted yet crucial goodbye.

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19.

Sydney

Be still, heart. Please, be still.

I don’t want him to be standing here in front of me. I don’t want him to be looking at me, wearing the expression that mirrors my own feelings. I don’t want him to hurt like I’m hurting. I don’t want him to miss me like I’ll miss him. I don’t want him to be falling for me like I’ve been falling for him.

I want him to be with Maggie right now. I want him to want to be with Maggie right now, because it would make this so much easier knowing our feelings were less a reflection of each other’s and more like a one-way mirror. If this weren’t so hard for him, it would make it easier for me to forget him, easier to accept his choice. Instead, it makes my heart hurt twice as much knowing that our good-bye is hurting him just as much as it’s hurting me.

It’s killing me, because nothing and no one could ever fit my life the way I know he could. I feel as though I’m willingly forking over my one chance for an exceptional life, and in return, I’m accepting a mediocre version without Ridge in it. My father’s words ring in my head, and I’m beginning to wonder if he had a point after all. A life of mediocrity is a waste of a life.

Our eyes remain in their silent embrace for several moments, until we both break our gaze, allowing ourselves to take in every last thing about each other.

His eyes scroll carefully over my face as if he’s committing me to memory. His memory is the last place I want to be.

I would give anything to always be in his present.

I lean my head against my open bedroom door and stare at his hands still gripping the doorframe. The same hands I’ll never see play a guitar again. The same hands that will never hold mine again. The same hands that will never again touch me and hold me in order to listen to me sing.

The same hands that are suddenly reaching for me, wrapping themselves around me, gripping my back in an embrace so tight I don’t know if I could break away even if I tried. But I’m not trying to break away. I’m reciprocating. I’m hugging him with just as much desperation. I find solace against his chest while his cheek presses against the top of my head. With each heavy, uncontrolled breath that passes through his lungs, my own breaths try to keep pace. However, mine are coming in much shorter gasps, thanks to the tears that are working their way out of me.

My sadness is consuming me, and I don’t even try to hold it in as I cry huge tears of grief. I’m crying tears over the death of something that never even had the chance to live.

The death of us.

Ridge and I remain clasped together for several minutes. So many minutes that I’m trying not to count, for fear that we’ve been standing here way too long for it to be an appropriate embrace. Apparently, he notices this, too, because he slides his hands up my back and to my shoulders, then pulls away from me. I lift my face from his shirt and wipe at my eyes before looking back up at him.

Once we make eye contact again, he removes his hands from my shoulders and tentatively places them on either side of my face. His eyes study mine for several moments, and the way he’s looking at me makes me hate myself, because I love it so much.

I love the way he’s looking at me as if I’m the only thing that matters right now. I’m the only one he sees. He’s the only one I see. My thoughts once again lead back to some of the lyrics he wrote.

It’s making me feel like I want to be the only man that you ever see.

His gaze flickers between my mouth and my eyes, almost as if he can’t decide if he wants to kiss me, stare at me, or talk to me.

“Sydney,” he whispers.

I gasp and clutch a hand to my chest. My heart just disintegrated at the sound of his voice.

“I don’t . . . speak . . . well,” he says with a quiet and unsure voice.

Oh, my heart. Hearing him speak is almost too much to take in. Each word that meets my ears is enough to bring me to my knees, and it’s not even the sound of his voice or the quality of his speech. It’s the fact that he’s choosing this moment to speak for the first time in fifteen years.

He pauses before finishing what he needs to say and it gives my heart and my lungs a moment to catch up with the rest of me. He sounds exactly as I imagined he would sound after hearing his laughter so many times. His voice is slightly deeper than his laughter, but somewhat out of focus. His voice reminds me of a photograph in a way. I can understand his words, but they’re out of focus. It’s as if I’m looking at a picture and the subject is recognizable, but not in focus . . . similar to his words.

I just fell in love with his voice. With the out-of-focus picture he’s painting with his words.

With . . . him.

He inhales softly, then nervously exhales before continuing. “I need you . . . to hear this,” he says, cradling my head in his hands. “I . . . will never . . . regret you.”

Beat, beat, pause.

Contract, expand.

Inhale, exhale.

I just officially lost the war on my heart. I don’t even bother verbalizing a response to him. My reaction can be seen in my tears. He leans forward and presses his lips to my forehead; then he drops his hands and slowly backs away from me. With each move he makes to pull apart from me, I feel my heart crumbling. I can almost hear us being ripped apart. I can almost hear his heart tearing in two, crashing to the floor right next to mine.

As much as I know he should leave, I’m a breath away from begging him to stay. I want to fall to my knees, right next to our shattered hearts, and beg him to choose me. The pathetic part of me wants to beg him just to kiss me, even if he doesn’t choose me.

But the part of me that ultimately wins is the part that keeps her mouth shut, because I know Maggie deserves him more than I do.

I keep my hands to my sides as he backs away another step, preparing to turn through my bedroom door. Our eyes are still locked, but when my phone sounds off in my pocket, I jump, quickly tearing my gaze from his. I hear his phone vibrate in his pocket. The sudden interruption of both of our phones is only obvious to me until he sees me opening my cell phone at the same time as he pulls his out of his pocket. Our eyes meet briefly, but the interruption of the outside world seems to have brought us both back to the reality of our situation. Back to the fact that his heart belongs with someone else, and this is still good-bye.

I watch as he reads his text first. I’m unable to take my eyes off of him in order to read mine. His expression quickly becomes tortured by whatever words he’s reading, and he slowly shakes his head.

He winces.

Until this very moment, I’d never seen a heart break right before my eyes. Whatever he just read has completely shattered him.

He doesn’t look at me again. In one swift movement, he grips his phone tightly in his hand as if it’s become an extension of him, and he heads straight for the front door and swings it open. I step out into the living room, watching him in fear as I walk toward the front door. He doesn’t even shut the door behind him as he takes the stairs two at a time, jumping over the edge of the railing to shave off another half a second in his frantic race to get to wherever it is he desperately needs to be.

I look down at my phone and unlock the screen. Maggie’s number shows as the last incoming text message. I open it and see that Ridge and I were the only recipients. I read it carefully, immediately recognizing the familiar string of words she’s typed out to both of us.

Maggie: “Maggie showed up last night an hour after I got back to my room. I was convinced you were going to barge in and tell her what a jerk I am for kissing you.”

I immediately walk to the couch and sit, no longer able to support my body weight. Her words knocked the breath out of me, sucked the strength from my limbs, and robbed me of any sense of dignity I thought I had left.

I try to recall the medium through which Ridge’s words were initially typed.

His laptop.

Oh, no. Our messages.

Maggie is reading our messages. No, no, no.

She won’t understand. She’ll only see the words that’ll hurt. She won’t be able to see how much Ridge has been fighting this for her.

Another text shows up from Maggie, and I don’t want to read it. I don’t want to see our conversation through Maggie’s eyes.

Maggie: “I never thought it was possible to have honest feelings for more than one person, but you’ve convinced me of how incredibly wrong I was.”

I turn my phone on silent and toss it onto the couch beside me, then start crying into my hands.

How could I do this to her?

How could I do to her what was done to me, knowing it’s the worst feeling in the world?

I’ve never in my life known this kind of shame.

Several minutes pass, full of regrets, before I realize the front door is still wide open. I leave my phone on the couch and walk to the door to shut it, but my eyes are drawn to the cab pulled up directly in front of our complex. Maggie is stepping out, looking up at me as she closes the door. I’m not at all prepared to see her, so I quickly step back out of her sight to regain my bearings. I don’t know if I should go hide in my room or stay out here and try to explain Ridge’s innocence in all of this.

But how would I do that? She obviously read the conversations herself. She knows we kissed. She knows he admitted having feelings for me. As much as I can try to convince her that he did everything he could not to feel that way, it doesn’t excuse the fact that the guy she’s in love with has openly admitted his feelings for someone else. Nothing can excuse that, and I feel like complete shit for being a part of it.

I’m still standing with the door open when she makes it to the top of the stairs. She’s looking at me with a stern expression. I know she’s more than likely here for anything other than me, so I take a step back and open the door wider. She looks down at her feet when she passes me, unable to continue the eye contact.

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