Thud. Thud. Thud.
White sneakers with baby pink trim pounded against the pavement in rhythm to the heavy bass beat blasting in Kimber Benton's ears. When her friend and Jem and the Holograms bandmate Aja Leith had suggested she take up running to distract herself from her latest bout of broken heart syndrome, the sulking songwriter had put aside the weepy lyrics of the love ballad she'd been writing and mustered up a laugh. But Kimber Benton wasn't about to admit she couldn't handle the challenge, so after a little goading from her athletic friend, she'd tied her long, red hair back into a determined ponytail and hit the bike trail running along Clear River Park. And then she'd fallen in love all over again…with running.
Of course, it hadn't been easy at first. Oh, the running itself was easy; you just put one foot in front of the other—like walking. Not regular, casual window-shopping walking, but annual-clearance-sale-at-Victoria's-Secret walking. (Which, in a rush like that, amounted to at least jogging.) No, the hard part had been getting Kevin off her mind.
Blue skies and sunshine, or gray clouds and rain, her heart ached just the same, and all Kimber could think about was Kevin. He'd been a little older than most of her former boyfriends—mature. That maturity had attracted her just as much as his dark eyes and black hair. But it had been their downfall.
They were total opposites. Kevin preferred a quiet dinner at home to the boisterous parties Kimber liked to host as often as attend. He hadn't cared for many of her friends; they were too young, too loud, and too disorderly. He never wanted to hang out at her place. Even though one of the perks of being in a world-famous pop group meant that Kimber got to live in a mansion, the band's estate co-functioned as a foster home for more than a dozen young and teenage girls. Unsurprisingly, as a man who craved a peace-and-quiet sort of lifestyle, Kevin disliked children—particularly of the tween variety. Though the house was large and its gated grounds substantial, there was rarely a chance for privacy at Starlight Mansion, so they'd spent all their dates at quiet restaurants or at Kevin's pristine apartment in the city.
Maybe he hadn't enjoyed parties or shopping, but Kevin was brilliant, and—at least when they were alone—never treated her like a child. Maybe Kimber didn't understand everything he said when he talked about politics or the economy, but she could listen to the sound of his voice for hours. And he had looked so adorable in his reading glasses when he told her about the stock market over his morning paper!
Initially, running didn't prove to be the distraction it was intended to be. Every time Kimber crossed the intersection between Rosemary Street and Clear River Ave, she glimpsed the tower of Kevin's 36-story office building rising up from the distance of Downtown Los Angeles. She thought of him every time she ran past the L.A. Times newspaper stand at the bus stop on the corner of Clear River and Lily Grove. She'd even chosen the park's bike path as her running trail because, not only was it just across the way, but she and Kevin had come here on their first official date together: a Sunday afternoon cook-out by the tennis courts. But jogging by the picnic area had brought tears to her eyes on so many occasions, Kimber had quit wearing makeup during her routine, earning an eyeroll from Aja, who knew not to wear makeup on a run in the first place.
After the first few attempts to jog away her pain, Kimber had nearly called it quits entirely. "I just can't. It's not helping," she had complained to her friends. "Everywhere I go, I see him."
That's when Giselle had made a suggestion that turned out to be the perfect solution.
"You know, Kimber," the rainbow-haired professional dancer had said while rummaging through her duffel bag one evening after practice, "I agree with Aja that exercise is a great way to work out your problems as well as your muscles." She found her iPod and pressed a button, then handed the attached headphones to Kimber. "But just like when you're dancing, running is better with—"
"Music!" Kimber finished, smiling as she accepted the headset and covered her ears.
And Giselle was right.
At once the soft melody playing from Giselle's iPod drowned out everything else Kimber heard, making her forget all about her anxiety over their upcoming talk show appearance and even the cramp she'd gotten in her left calf during choreography practice tonight. There was only the music.
She'd hugged the other girl. "Oh, Danse!" Kimber smiled, using Giselle's nickname, "Thank you so much!"
That very night Kimber had slipped through Starlight Mansion's front gates in a pair of gray sweatpants, the cowl of her pink hoodie pulled up over her head and covering the cords to her own pair of earbuds. She had taken off at a dead run, racing to the beat of a remix of Beyoncé's Halo like her life depended on it. She ran until the streets and houses around her began to look unfamiliar, then she ran some more. (Later, Aja told her that she had run about six miles, all told.)
Somewhere along the way thunder started to rumble, but Kimber was unaware of it over the pulse of her own music, until the clouds burst and she found herself suddenly caught in a heavy shower.
After her first scream of surprise, she'd turned around to run back home. The rainwater was cold but refreshing after the exertion. By the time Kimber reached the mansion, she was laughing at the sky. She fell through the gates and jogged lightly up to the house, still grinning.
Realizing that she'd been gone for over an hour, and that now the house was dark, Kimber slipped around the corner and followed the walkway to the back of the house to the patio. The rain was only drizzling by then, but she was soaked to the bone. The poolhouse was unlocked, so Kimber quietly opened the door and went inside, not bothering with the lights as she stripped out of her wet clothes. She tip-toed into the dressing room for a towel, carefully patting her iPod dry and then herself. The silence of the deserted poolhouse was deafening after she'd grown accustomed to the earbuds blaring music into her ears.
Kimber didn't want to wake anyone, so she pulled on a clean bathrobe, dropped her wet clothes into the laundry machine on her way out of the poolhouse, then padded outside and to the back door of the mansion. The key was hidden beneath a potted geranium, and she used it to let herself in. She'd had to hold her breath to keep from singing on her way upstairs to her room. It wasn't until she got there and noticed Kevin's photo on her nightstand that she realized she hadn't thought about him at all during her run.
She slowly crossed the room, sitting down at the head of her bed. She lifted the framed picture from the nightstand and gazed down at it in wonder. The photograph had been taken at Starlight Mansion on the Fourth of July—the last time Kevin had visited Kimber at home before refusing to ever set foot on the property again. In the picture, Kimber was smiling brightly as she waved to the camera, but Kevin wore the stern expression she'd learned meant he was annoyed. Looking at the two of them and remembering that time, Kimber smiled. The girls had been particularly rowdy that night, running around with sparklers and screaming with excitement.
Kimber realized suddenly that she could look at the photo now and just fondly remember the good times they had shared without getting teary or aching to be together again. Closing her eyes for a moment and sighing softly with grateful relief, Kimber shook her head and turned the frame over in her lap, popping the back off and sliding the photo free. Behind it had been an older picture, one of Kimber in high school, posing with her sister, Jerrica; Aja; and their friend, Shana.
Opening the bottom drawer of the nightstand, Kimber reached down to remove the lid from a heart-shaped, cardboard storage box. Inside were photos and letters from past boyfriends. She dropped Kevin's photo—the only one she had of him—into the box and let it join the others. She felt she could let him go now.
Kimber had closed the box and drawer again and slept soundly that night. She had lost a boyfriend, but gained a new love in running. She ran all the time now, and thought about it and missed it on days when she was trapped indoors because of the rain, or when she was too busy with work to have time for it.
But it was Saturday morning today, and there was nothing in the world except for Kimber, the road, and Lady Gaga belting out Judas.
Only, she wasn't alone with the road and with Gaga. She couldn't hear the thud of a second set of feet against the pavement behind her over the music pouring into her ears, so she was unaware that the other runner was watching her...and closing in.