A/N: OK. This has been my labour of love for a while. It's kind of two stories in one, and I don't know what possessed me to write it, or why I felt I had to. But I did. I'm definitely nervous about posting it. I seriously thought about not sharing, but...well, I couldn't just have it sitting on my computer.

The format might seem a little odd or hard to follow, so I'll explain. Italicized and centered text are excerpts from Lucas' book, The Autumn Letters. Italicized and left aligned are emails. I hope that's not too confusing or anything.

----

-
She started writing letters. Her house was only a few blocks from mine, and we spent most of our time together anyway. Still, every so often,
I'd get a letter in the mail, stamped and dated like she hadn't seen me in months.

Sometimes she'd have written them when I was sitting there with her. I'd be reading from textbooks and she'd describe my every
movement back to me, there on blue lines with black ink. She'd sign every letter the same way. 'xxoox, Ella.'
I realized, after she was gone, that I missed those letters most of all.
-

Her life isn't exactly what she thought it'd be.

But she's in her mid 20's, and whose life is perfect in their mid 20's?

The thing is, she's so far from perfect that she can't ever see herself even getting close to it.

She wants to love her life. She really does. But her job - a job she wants so badly to have passion for - is wearing her down. The one escape she's always had is the music, and now she's becoming complacent with it, and it feels like a tragedy. It feels like she's losing a best friend, and she can't do what she needs to do to get that friend back. She needs money, so she can't quit working at the label that's quickly selling out to stay afloat.

She's in a life she needs to either resolve herself to living, or stop living all together, and she hasn't really decided which to do. Could she really just pack up and go somewhere else? Could she really give up the music for something different?

Every day, it's getting easier and easier to believe that she could.

She has friends. She has a lot of friends.

She has a best friend she'd do anything for, and who'd do anything for her.

She has a few people she can call to go dancing, a few she can call to go see indie rock bands. She's got a few girls to shop with, and a few guys to watch college basketball with.

But she has no one to call if she really needs a shoulder to cry on. She has no one to call to voice her fears about never getting out of the city. Brooke loves L.A., and doesn't understand. She has no person. Not one single soul who would listen to her every silly fear and tell her that it's natural to think it, and it'll pass, and the universe is looking out for her.

She's not exactly happy, but in L.A., it's easy to fake it.

Throw on a pair of stylish knockoff sunglasses, and drive with the top down, and drink from your Starbucks cup, and you look just like almost everybody else.

Look the part, and no one will see that you're poorly cast.

So she'll go out, and she'll have another night of margaritas and chips and salsa and wearing a smile that no one knows is fake. She'll shake her hips and smile at boys and pretend that she doesn't know exactly how pointless it all is. She'll pay her tab and leave a tip for the cute waiter, and she'll say goodbye as her friends all pile into one cab and she gets into another one alone.

And she'll go home and find comfort in the words of a man she barely knows; a man she's only met once.

A man whose book is continuously changing her life.

She steps into her apartment and kicks off her heels, and drops her bag on the table. She checks her answering machine and the robotic woman tells her that no one's called - though Peyton would have known that anyway, from the lack of a blinking red light. She has no new messages. No one's called her. No one is going to ask her how her day was. No one's just going to talk to her to make her feel a little less alone.

So she walks to the CD changer, and she presses play, and that silken tone of his voice fills the room. It's such a beautiful sound that if she was less of a cynic, she'd probably cry.

She lays back on her sofa with tequila still buzzing through her body, and she listens to Lucas Scott tell the story he's written. The beautiful tale of two young lovers, caught up in each other and in a relationship that was a little too big and a little too real for them to understand. The story of the beautiful girl who brought the quiet boy out of his shell, and the quiet boy who made the beautiful girl realize that the world wasn't such a dark and jaded place.

The girl who died and left the boy alone in a love he didn't know how to get out of.

Peyton Sawyer bumped into Lucas Scott two years ago in an airport in Austin. Literally bumped into him. He was running late for his flight, and she was early for hers. She was walking with her head down, trying to pick the best music in her iPod for her two hour wait in the airport, and he was sprinting through the terminal towards his gate. She collided into him, and his book fell to the ground.

"I'm so sorry!" she said quickly, bending down to pick up the novel.

"No, it's OK," he told her. "I've got...a few copies."

His blue eyes were like ice as they bored into her, and she noticed that they were fixed on her legs as they both moved to stand.

"Why so many copies?" she asked in confusion.

He let out a breathy laugh and shook his head, and he gave her a perfect, dimpled grin.

"I'm Lucas," he said before turning and rushing away.

"Your book!" she called after him.

"Keep it!"

It was then that she noticed the author's name on the front cover. Lucas Scott.

The novel was called 'The Autumn Letters', and she started reading it right there in the airport.

And she knew that the handsome stranger had nothing to do with her love for the book.

His words hit her like bricks every time she reads them. She wants to believe there's a love out there like that. She wants a passion for anything as strong as that boy and that girl in that book had for each other.

And until she finds it, she'll live vicariously through David and Ella, and the love story that, even though it was cut so short, is already far more incredible than anything Peyton's ever experienced.

She's not sure what makes her do it. She's had this book for two years, and been attached to it the entire time. Maybe it's the tequila or the loneliness, or the way his voice seems to hit her in the heart.

Maybe it's the memory of those blue eyes and that dimple on his cheek.

Whatever it is, she's reaching for a college ruled notebook and a black pen, and she's writing his name at the top of the page before she can stop herself.

She falls asleep on the sofa, and wakes in the morning and re-reads the page-long letter she wrote the night before, and she wonders if ever she'll send it.

Probably not.

She's not Ella, and he's not David. She's not sending silly notes to her boyfriend, and he's not keeping them in a wooden box on his desk. She's not as courageous as Ella. It doesn't take much for her to realize it.

She gets up and showers and puts on her knockoff sunglasses, walks to the nearest Starbucks, and steps into her office to do a job she's certain she'll eventually start to hate.

And everything's a little easier in the daylight.

----

He thinks it should all be easier.

He's got a great life. A home and a beautiful family who he'd do anything for and who'd do anything for him. He loves the little town he lives in. He's a published author whose novel was a New York Times best seller.

But he can't write another one.

He's tried. He's tried a lot. All he's come up with are half-hearted stories and superficial characters. David and Ella seemed to write themselves, and he's desperately waiting for that feeling to come to him again.

And with each passing day, he's convincing himself a little more that it'll never come to him again.

He's happy to live in his little town and go about his every day life of coaching and spending time with his nephew and his family. But the more he stares at a blinking cursor, the more he wonders if he needs something more - something else - to inspire him. Love, or art, or religion or travel.

He's single. He had a girl who almost became his fiancé. But she said no. She didn't say maybe, or someday, or that they should talk about their relationship. She said no. She left his home and his town and his life, and it didn't take him long to realize that she wasn't meant to be there in the first place. Even scarier was the realization that he would have figured that out on his own, sooner or later, whether she'd left or not. Perhaps it's selfish to think it, but he's just glad things happened the way they did so he didn't end up with her getting some sort of alimony and he didn't end up someone's ex-husband.

He's 26 years old, and he's thinking about what he should do if he never writes another word.

He can't write today. He's sitting at his computer, listening to the seconds tick past, and he finally gets frustrated and checks iTunes for the new releases. There's a new band out of L.A., signed to a little label there, he learns, and he purchases their album after hearing only 10 seconds of one song.

The music somehow always makes him feel better.

He listens to the first couple songs, and there's something different. There's something special about this band, and he can't put his finger on it, but he certainly likes it.

And then his fingers are moving on their own and he's writing again.

----

-
She was fearless. She was unstable and unstoppable and unpredictable and she knew what she wanted.
Apparently, she wanted me.
I didn't understand it for a second.
We were walking hand in hand one day, and it started raining out of nowhere. It was coming down in sheets, and she was laughing at me. Not just chuckling at how the weather had changed so quickly. She was laughing at how soaked I was, and how I was trying to cover my head with my jacket. And she knew I hated the rain.
But she stood in front of me and she took my hands in hers, and she looked me in the eye as we stood in the middle of the sidewalk in the center of our deserted little town.
And she said, "this is the beauty."
I wish I could tell you what that meant. I still don't know.
I don't know if she really wanted me to.
-

"Hey, Peyton? Justin wants to see you in his office," Peyton's assistant says over the intercom.

"OK, thanks," Peyton mutters.

She stands from her desk and reaches for her notepad and pen. She learned early in her career not to ever step into a meeting - planned or otherwise - without a pen and paper. She smoothes out her skirt and straightens her top, and she starts down the hall toward her boss' office.

"Hey," he greets distractedly. "That little band you signed is doing OK."

She'd almost think he was surprised if he was capable of any emotion at all.

"Yeah. I just looked at the reports," she says as she takes a seat in the chair across from him.

"Anything new for me?"

"I'm working on a couple bands. A little rough around the edges, but there might be something special there," she says.

"I thought we discussed that singer/songwriters were the way things were moving," he says, looking away from his computer screen to glare at her.

"I just don't necessarily agree with that. How can you say that bands are done?" she asks confusedly. "You can't just assume what people want to listen to."

"Neither can you," he says seriously. "And actually, I can assume whatever I want to, because I'm your boss, and I can fire you if you don't bring in something that I actually want to put money into."

"Justin, I think..."

"I didn't ask you what you think," he points out, turning back to his screen. "I told you what to do."

She lets out a breath and shakes her head, but gets up and walks to the door. She stomps down the hall and slams her door once she's in her office again. She throws her pad of paper onto her desk and runs her fingers through her hair. She watches the rain patter against her window, and she almost smiles, thinking about that beautiful line from that beautiful book.

She wonders if she'll ever find an artist or a band whose words will affect anyone like Lucas' words affect her.

She wanted to work in the music industry to scout raw talent and potentially change someone's life through the perfect lyric of song, not to be told who to scout and where to go and what kind of song to look for. That's not what her vision of this job is, and that's not what her vision of music or art as a whole is.

And she wonders how this is her life.

----

"Yes, Paul, I'm aware that we haven't spoken in two months..." Lucas says into the phone. Haley steps through the door and he smiles at the friendly face, not the bitter tone on the other end of the line. "Last time we talked, you said not to call unless I had something written...Well, I do now...No, it's not much. Maybe 15 pages...I know that doesn't make a novel, but it's something...Alright. I'll send them tomorrow."

He hangs up the phone and pinches the bridge of his nose before looking back to Haley.

"You're writing?" she asks after a moment.

"Yeah," he says. "A little. It's...I don't know if they'll like it."

"But you're actually pushing keys and writing sensible words?" she asks, laughing when he squints at her. "That's awesome."

"It's...something," he repeats.

"What happened? What made you write?" she asks.

"Have you heard of this band Coaster?" he inquires, getting up from his seat at his desk and stretching his arms over his head.

"No," she says, shaking her head. "Why?"

"It's weird. I bought their album and I was just...I started writing," he says with a shrug of his shoulders.

"Just like that," she states skeptically.

"I know. It's weird, but...something about it just hit me," he says.

They walk to the kitchen and he starts making some tea while she takes a seat at the table.

"That's crazy," she says. "I mean, it's great, don't get me wrong. I just think that it's crazy that just one song can spark that creativity."

"I guess that's just...the power of art," he explains, as though it's all just as simple as that.

But really, he's thinking the same thing she is.

----

-
I don't think I was the best of her, but I think she was the best of me.
-

Peyton gets home from work that day, knowing full well that she should be hitting open mics or a few low-key shows looking for the singer/songwriter that will let her keep her job.

But she finds herself really not caring one way or the other.

She heats up some food and pours herself a glass of wine, and she checks her email to find a few from friends, sending her photos from the night before. She just shakes her head at how ridiculous it all is. She's 26 and she looks like a teenager in her tight skirt and low cut top.

So she decides she won't do that anymore.

The phone rings a couple times and she doesn't answer. She thanks the heavens for call display. She doesn't even feel a little bit bad for not answering.

She sits down on her sofa and turns on the television, switching through gossip 'entertainment' shows before landing on an old episode of Friends.

And then she sees that letter she wrote, sitting there on the table in front of her. Suddenly, she has the urge to write another one.

But this time, she grabs her computer, and a quick Google search gives her an email address for the author. She's not naive enough to think that he's actually the one who reads the correspondence, but she thinks it might be cathartic to write a little note to Lucas Scott.

So she does.

It takes her two glasses of wine to get the nerve to actually hit send. As soon as she does, she wonders what in the hell she's doing.

But it's too late now, and she reminds herself that she'll never get a response, and so she finishes her glass of wine, pulls on the oversized tee shirt she wears to bed, and grabs a copy of that novel to read that man's words.

Only this time, she finds herself getting caught up in thoughts of where he lives and what he's like and how he takes his coffee.

And if he's single.

----

He's writing the following morning when he opens up his email to send his latest work to his editor.

He doesn't expect an email to come up on an address his publishers set up for him when his first book was released.

It was printed on every fan site and posted at every table for every book signing, and for a while, he was inundated with messages from all sorts of people. Teenagers asking him to prom and housewives thanking him for restoring their faith in romance and men chastising him for giving women such high expectations.

But those emails stopped coming around the time his inspiration faded.

He finds it interesting that the day he starts writing again, someone sends him a message on that account. He has to see it as a sign.

He clicks on the name - a name he momentarily lets himself believe is beautiful - and starts reading what's before him.

Lucas,
It may seem bizarre that someone write you and say what I'm about to say, but I somehow think you might understand. If not, you can just delete this and no one will ever know. Such is the beauty of the internet.
You probably don't remember, but a couple years ago, we literally ran into each other in an airport. I was in Austin for SXSW, and I was on my way back to L.A. I was searching through my iPod for a particular Stevie Ray Vaughan song (when in Austin, right?) and you ran right into me, sending your book tumbling to the ground.
You told me to keep it, flashed a smile, and took off running again. I didn't understand until you were gone that it was
your book. I started reading it immediately and stayed up all night, wrapped up in the story.
Now, at the risk of making myself sound like a total fangirl, I have to tell you that your novel speaks to me in a way that nothing else - besides music - ever has. I was just thinking that you haven't written anything since, and it's a shame. Not to be judgmental - all I really know about you is that you're a writer and you have incredible blue eyes - but it would be terrible if someone of your talent only ever wrote one novel.
I totally understand if you never write back; I actually don't expect you to. I just thought you might like a little gentle encouragement from a girl who adores your book.
If nothing else, consider this my apology for bumping into you and stealing your book two years ago.
-Peyton Sawyer

He reads the email three times, laughing at different lines each time, and he wonders why - after two years - this girl has decided to email him now. Her 'gentle encouragement' has him wanting to lock himself in the house and write until he has a finished book for her to read.

But that's crazy.

Right?

"What's with the dazed look?" Nathan asks, stepping into the room and throwing himself onto Lucas' bed.

"I just got this email," Lucas explains distractedly, staring at the message on his screen. "You remember I told you about that girl in Austin?"

"What girl?" Nathan asks, tossing a basketball in the air and catching it repeatedly.

"At the airport."

"Oh! The girl you ran into and gave your book to? The book that was the only printed copy at the time and your publishers yelled at you for giving away before the release date?" Nathan says with a smirk, sitting up at the end of the bed.

"That's the one," Lucas says with a chuckle. "She just emailed me."

"What!?" Nathan asks with wide eyes.

"Yeah. She...her name's Peyton, and she lives in L.A.," Lucas explains.

"That's pretty random," Nathan points out. "What'd she say?"

"She said it's a shame I haven't written anything since," Lucas says, rereading the email again.

"Ouch," Nathan laughs. "Maybe she's a plant from your publishers. A little tough love to get your ass in gear."

"Very funny."

"You gonna write her back?"

"I don't know," Lucas answers honestly. "I feel like I should, you know?"

"Because she's hot," Nathan states.

"Well...yeah, she is. She was. But...I don't know. It feels like she just kind of...believes in me," Lucas says, immediately recognizing how lame that sounds.

"Well, do what you want, but are you coming to the River Court or not? Skills and Fergie are meeting me," Nathan tells him, standing from the bed and placing the ball at his hip beneath his arm.

"No, I'm gonna stay and work a while," Lucas says, furrowing his brow when Nathan laughs. "What?"

"You're going to stay here and write 15 drafts of an email to the hot Austin airport girl."

"No! I have to write while things are fresh," Lucas insists.

"And you're going to write her back," Nathan states. "Let me know what happens."

He wants to be able to say that he's just going to work on pages. And he is going to write some new pages.

But as soon as the door is closed, he hits reply and types out that girl's beautiful name.

----

-
It was hot as all get out. Her hair was a disaster from the humidity and ocean breeze, but I knew better than to mention it. She sprayed me with her bottle of water, and I scowled at her, but she just raised her shoulder coyly. She had to have known I couldn't stay mad at her. We walked along the sand and got ice cream, and we had to trade when she said my chocolate looked better than her cherry cheesecake.
She wrote me a letter about that day. She told me I looked cute trying not to stare at her in her bikini. She told me she watched a bead of sweat roll down my temple, and that was why she kissed me there. She told me it was too hot to hold my hand, but she had to do it anyway. She told me she wanted that day, every day, all summer long.
-

She doesn't know if she should quit her job, or just wait to get fired.

The last three bands she signed are selling well - better than anyone but she expected - but now she's being asked to change her entire strategy and the way she does her job, and she doesn't like that one bit. Why mess with a good thing?

She wants to say she can just quit and move on to another label, but she feels like she'd be abandoning the work she's already done, and she won't do that.

So she finds herself sitting at her desk in her office, counting down the minutes until she can leave. She decides that she will hit the clubs that night, looking for that feeling she feels only rarely, telling her that a particular talent has what it takes to make it.

She steps into her apartment for dinner and to change her clothes, and once she's in her jeans and tee shirt and has placed her order with the local Japanese place for delivery, she sits pulls out her laptop and checks her mail.

Her heart nearly stops in her chest when she sees that he's written her back. She's almost afraid to read it. She wonders what he's said, but doesn't know if she wants to find out.

But she feels humbled that he's written her. This best selling author took time out of his day to reply to her silly little email.

She clicks on his name - a name she's seen and read a thousand times before, but it feels different somehow; more human - and takes a deep breath before reading the words he's sent.

Peyton,
I do remember you. I always wondered what you were listening to that had you so distracted that you'd bump into me like that. And you're probably thinking that I ran into you. Well, I did, and I apologize. I suppose that's what happens when you get through security 20 minutes before your flight leaves.
I feel the need to be honest with you. You are the first person to ever read my novel. That copy was the only copy at the time, and I gave it to you for a reason I have never been able to understand. I can't tell you how many times I wondered if you had read it.
The only bizarre thing about your email is that it came only a day after I finally started writing again. I've had a two year case of writer's block that had me questioning everything, and then it's like someone flipped a switch. I heard this band I'd never heard before - Coaster - and I don't know how, but the words just started coming again. It's strange, but I won't question the inspiration, I'll just be thankful that it's there.
No need to apologize for that incident two years ago. It's not every day a beautiful girl 'steals' my book.
Thank you for the kind words and gentle encouragement. I just hope that if this next book gets published, you'll enjoy it as much as you enjoyed the first one.
-Lucas

She almost can't believe it.

Not only does he remember her, but he called her beautiful, and her band, the band whose album she just released, is the one that got him writing again.

There's something about all this that has her thinking that it's not just coincidence. It can't be a coincidence that they bumped into each other and he gave her his novel, or that his words inspire her, and her music inspires him. It can't be a coincidence.

Maybe it's fate.

----

He's sitting at a local coffee shop. Just a little place that's been around forever that uses full fat milk, brews simple coffee, doesn't serve any fancy drinks, and sells fresh baked goods in the little glass case. It feels like home, and he adores it. He needs that feeling of home.

His laptop is open, and he'd usually be distracted by passing people and the clatter of mugs and the music playing overhead, but he's been on such a roll lately, that anywhere he goes, he's needed to take his computer with him, just in case. He's got notebooks filled with ideas and dialogue and prose that he'll fit into his new story. A little book that he carries in his back pocket, and a golf pencil to jot down ideas.

The inspiration that he'd been lacking for two years has him him all at once, and it's coming in a continuous wave. He wouldn't dare complain. His fingers can't move fast enough sometimes. His characters are well thought out, and his plot is clear, and he has an ending; a destination.

And he checks his email 20 times a day to see if Peyton has written him back.

She hasn't, and he wants to say that's OK. She hasn't, and he wants to say that it doesn't matter. He wants to say that he knew she wouldn't. But he sure hoped he would.

It's alright. It is. He's got ideas, and it's all flowing from him, and it feels good to be a writer again. He'd stopped calling himself one, fearful that it was all a sham; wishful thinking. But he is a writer, and he won't hide it. He'll tell anyone who asks, and he'll be proud of that.

"Hey, uncle Lucas!"

He loves that little voice. Loves it.

"Hey, Jamie," he replies happily. He winks at Haley, and she rolls her eyes when he closes his computer screen. He's so damned secretive about his writing, but he's promised her that once he has a 'solid start', he'll share it with her.

"What are you doing? Mama's taking me to the zoo!" Jamie says, all boyish and wide-eyed.

"The zoo? That's cool," Lucas says.

"You want to come?" Haley asks. "Nathan's at a meeting in Raleigh. You should come for dinner tonight."

He thinks about it for only a moment. He's written ten pages since he sat down close to two hours ago. He's got five chapters - good chapters - written and sent to his editor, and expectations are low. He's not working on a timeline, since the publishing house sees this book as a blessing and a miracle, and they're being almost inexplicably patient.

And he loves the zoo.

"Yeah," he says. "Yeah, I'll come with you guys."

Jamie smiles and his eyes light up, and Lucas lifts the boy into his arms. A day with his best friend and his nephew sounds pretty damned good right about now.

He spends his afternoon watching bears and elephants and giraffes, and listening to Jamie's laughter. The boy asks questions almost non-stop, and between Haley and Lucas, they answer them all. Haley can only smile when she sees Jamie on Lucas' shoulders, pointing to the monkeys and talking about how funny they look.

He gets home late that evening after a great dinner with his family, and he writes until close to two o'clock in the morning.

He won't admit that he's still waiting for a message from that girl that he's almost entirely certain will never come.

----

-
She couldn't love me, I thought. I didn't believe her when she told me. I was just a boy with a quiet little life, and she was the girl whose eyes were so brown they were almost black; mysterious and impossible to ever figure out. She was the one with all those amazing things to love. When I was with her, she always made me feel like everything. Maybe that was how I knew I loved her. Maybe that was how I knew she loved me.
I didn't say it back right away, in a display of true boyish stupidity. I think I always knew I loved her, too, I just didn't know how to admit it.
I snuck through her bedroom window like a fool and scared her half to death one night. I told her I loved her, and she told me she hated me for waking her. She was smiling, so I knew I didn't have to believe her. She kissed me, and I felt it. A change. A difference. Everything got a little more real.
I think I knew from that moment that I'd never love another the way I loved Ella. And that no one would ever love me like that, either. It was pure and innocent and deep, and I never wanted it to end.
I nearly died when it did.
-

She lays on her sofa, her glass of ice water close at hand, and her music of choice - a little Bob Dylan - playing in the background, and she reads that book. Again. Always. She doesn't even know why she bothers buying anything else. It never measures up.

Getting fired was never part of the plan.

She doesn't hate that it happened, she hates that her boss was enough of a fool to not see what she saw in a few of the bands she presented in their weekly listening meeting. She didn't take any singer/songwriters. Maybe if she'd found the next Bob Dylan - well, someone who was comparable; there'll never be another Dylan - she would have presented a solo artist. She found bands. Good bands. Bands good enough for a second listen, or at least a showcase.

When her boss told her he hated what she'd found, she clenched her teeth. When he told her she was fired in the next breath, she didn't say a word. She let out a bitter laugh and shook her head. He was making a mistake, and she was sure he'd figure that out sooner or later.

She doesn't know what she's going to do for work. She needs a job, and she wants to find something immediately, but she has no clue where to apply or what to do, or if she wants to work for another megalomaniac.

She needs advice.

Her friends are at a party, and she probably wouldn't ask them anyway.

Her eyes fall to the name on the cover of the book she's got in her hands, and she wonders if maybe she could email Lucas, and he'd have all the answers. She wants him to. He helps her without even knowing, and she thinks that if he knew she needed help, maybe it'd all be even better.

Dylan starts singing about Boots of Spanish Leather - always her favourite song of his - and she smiles as she opens her computer and clicks on her email.

Lucas,
I know I let on that I wouldn't bug you again, but, well, here I am. I'd love to be able to say that I'm great, but I'm not, really, and I don't know why you'd necessarily care to know that, but it feels important. I'm getting ahead of myself. And rambling a bit.
Let me start at the beginning.
I'm so glad you're writing again. I actually smiled when I read that, and smiles have been hard to come by, so thank you for that. Wow, I'm making myself sound depressed. Maybe I am, a little bit.
Rambling again. Sorry.
So you remember me, huh? I guess giving me the only copy of your novel makes me kind of memorable. I kind of feel honoured that I was the first to read it. It makes me feel...I don't know...significant somehow; if to no one else, then at least to you.
And here's a fun fact, I work in the music industry, and Coaster is a band I scouted and signed to the label I worked for. Great guys. Real passion. Love for music, and great outlook on the world. My heart stopped a little when you told me they inspired you. That's what I want my life to be. I want to find artists that'll change someone; inspire someone or open someone's eyes.
Sucks that I got fired today.
I don't know what I'm doing, Lucas. I feel like I need music, but it might not need me. Maybe that sounds crazy, but it's just this feeling in the pit of my stomach that won't go away. I want my work to mean something. I don't know why, but I feel like you can understand that somehow.
Re-reading this, I realize that I've made myself sound like a little bit of a crazy. I assure you, I'm not. I'm just a little confused right now. A little lost. I wonder if everyone feels this way at 26, or if it's just me. I don't know if I should feel bad about wishing that everyone does.
If you don't reply, I'll understand. I just wondered if maybe you'd be able to give me some gentle encouragement. I could use a little. Just a shove in the right direction.
Any insight or advice would mean a ton. If you are a little scared of me, I guess I understand that, too. If I got this email from a virtual stranger, I'd probably be blocking the address and double locking my doors. I promise there's no need for you to go to that length.
Thank you. For all sorts of things.
-Peyton

She hits send, and she cries. She almost feels more connected to this stranger than she does to anyone she knows for real.

Maybe no one knows her.

She doesn't know why she feels like Lucas does.

----

He's in New York meeting with his editor about his book, when he gets her email. It's been nearly three weeks since he wrote back to her first one, and he'd all but given up hope that he'd ever hear from her again. He's not sure why, but he said he wouldn't write her back if she didn't write him first.

He's really glad she has.

But he doesn't necessarily love that she sounds like she's falling apart. He has no idea why he cares so much. He does, though. He can't help it.

He wastes no time writing back. It's just after dinner, and he's back at his hotel after suffering through an insanely boring meal with the head of the publishing company and his editor. He knew it was a big deal, but he's never cared about all this stuff. He just wants to write; the rest is obligation.

He sits at the little desk in his hotel room, and it scares him just a little bit how easily he types her name. Peyton. It's silly, he thinks. He types for a living, and the keys aren't the easiest combination to press. Peyton. It flows through his fingertips seemingly on its own. He questions it. He has to. He types it and deletes it a few times, and he never once hits a wrong key. Peyton.

He thinks he's had one too many glasses of scotch, gives his head a shake, and moves on with the rest of his message.

Peyton,
I won't lie, I'm thrilled to hear from you. Thrilled sounds like too enthusiastic a word, but it's shockingly appropriate. I find you refreshing. You're not like the people I know. I like it that way.
You don't sound crazy. You sound like every 26-year-old I've ever met, myself included. I know what it's like to feel like you're drowning a little in your own life. I know how it feels when the thing you love is holding you down and you're completely at its mercy, but you still love it. It's inexplicable and intense and insane and it's a whole lot of other things, too.
But you can't give up on it, on yourself. I may not know you well - or really at all - but I can tell you've got a passion for music and for life, and a need to better the world. I feel like you're meant do do big things, and I don't know how or why I feel that. It's just there. Don't let one person hold you down. I've let it happen to me, and it's a shame - your word, not mine.
I don't know why I feel like I need to take care of you, but I do. Maybe we're forever connected through
The Autumn Letters.
Don't ever let anyone tell you what music is to you. Don't let someone tell you how to hear something or feel something. That isn't what artistry is; it's not what artistry is based on. It sure as hell isn't what art is created for.

-Lucas
PS: Ever thought of starting your own label? Just a thought...

He's just settled himself in front of a basketball game, burrowed beneath the sheets of his hotel bed, when he hears that ding telling him he's got a message. He gets up and walks to his computer, and he smiles when he sees her name.

The message is only two words long, but he smiles a little wider.

Thank you.

----

-
I wasn't next to her when she died. She was home with her mother and father, and she was wearing one of my old tee shirts, that much I know.
I felt like I felt her breath stop. There was an ache in my heart and I almost lost my balance, and it was almost like I just knew.
I was never the same after that. I don't want to be.
She deserves that part of me.
-

"Peyton, are you sure?" Brooke asks desperately, her eyes scared and pleading.

"I can't...I don't know."

"You don't know what, sweetie?"

"Don't do that, please," Peyton pleads. "Don't get all...nice."

"I'm nice!" Brooke cries indignantly, and Peyton laughs. "I'm worried about you."

"Look, working with you will be fine for a while," Peyton insists.

"Music is just...it's you, Peyton, and I don't want you to give up on that."

"I'm not." Peyton takes a sip of her coffee and shakes her head emphatically. "I'm just taking a break."

"And you'd kick my ass if I took a break from designing," Brooke reminds her seriously. "I want you to promise me that you won't do this forever. I love that you want to help me with the new line. Really, I love you for that, but..."

"Brooke, really. I just need a paycheck. There are worse ways to get one."

"You want to tell me what all this is really about?" Brooke asks gently. Peyton rolls her eyes. "I'm serious. You need to tell me what's going on. I know you got fired, but you can't just give up."

"I'm not giving up," Peyton says firmly. "I'm just re-evaluating."

"Re-evaluating? What the hell does that mean?"

"It means...I don't know. Maybe I have to find another way to be fulfilled by music," Peyton says with a shrug of her shoulders.

Brooke doesn't say anything more, and Peyton doesn't know why, but she's thankful. She doesn't want to answer any more questions, and she really is OK with working with her best friend for the time being. Lucas planted a seed in her head, and she needs to figure out if she really could start her own label. She needs to do research and she knows that'll take a while. She needs some sort of a job to fill in the gaps, and working for Brooke is better than working for Starbucks.

So she dresses in Clothes Over Bros, and she goes to work at Clothes Over Bros, designing prints for tank tops and dresses, and helping select fabrics. She loves it.

But something's missing.

It's not music.

It's a few weeks after Lucas emailed her back and gave her that hope she needed, that reassurance. It's silly, but she finds herself missing him. She's never even met him - not really - but she misses him. She hasn't gotten any indication that he thinks she's insane. She actually kind of gets the impression that he might just like 'talking' to her.

So she emails him again.

Lucas,
Me again. Getting sick of me yet? Ever thought of taking up psychiatry?
No big sob story this time. Not really. It seems I just can't let go of the idea that you somehow know me a little better than anyone. Again, I'm not some crazy stalker, I'm just a girl who happens to think you're brilliant. I never thought I'd hear from you after writing that first email. I guess now that I know that you will write me back, I guess I just can't help myself.
How are you? How's the writing going? I'm on the edge of my seat waiting for the next book. I know it'll be incredible. You say you can tell I have passion for music. I can tell you have passion for writing. It comes across in even these letters we write each other. You choose wonderful words, and you have a way of writing that makes...I don't know. It makes things make a little more sense, somehow.
I'm going to go park myself in front of a fan. I hate L.A. in summer.
Hope you're well.
-Peyton

----

Lucas is in the middle of writing a new love story, the backbone of his latest book. He's re-reading the passage he just wrote, and he smiles when Peyton's name appears on an email that pops up in the corner of his screen. He's been wondering about her.

He's found himself wondering if she's changed at all since he bumped into her. Is her hair the same? Do her eyes still shine that way? Does she still have those skinny jeans that had made her look so damn good? Maybe she has a boyfriend. He doesn't think so, but perhaps that's just wishful thinking.

Nathan has asked about the girl, but Lucas hasn't let on that he's been talking to her. He's not sure why. He thinks it has something to do with not wanting the ridicule or the questions, asking him what he's thinking. She's a stranger who emailed him out of nowhere, and there's no real reason for him to be writing her back.

But he wants to.

There's something about her that he really can't put his finger on. She's clever and funny, and he knows she's beautiful, even if she has changed in the two years since he last saw her. There's something, some intangible quality that comes through in these little messages, that has him drawn to her.

It feels a little bit like faith. In him. In art. In herself, a little bit. He doesn't know why that means so much to him. It does.

Peyton,
You always seem to write me just when I need to hear from you. I'm not sure that makes sense, but it's the truth. I was thinking about you today, at the risk of sounding like a creep. I had my television on while I worked, and I heard something that made me think of you.
"You need to live life to be inspired by music." I hope you're doing that very thing.
Writing is going well. In fact, I just got my advance and signed the contract to publish the book. That means that if I can finish writing the thing, it'll be out sometime within the next year. It feels amazing to be able to create again. To get that kind of rush that comes with reading what you've written and thinking that it might actually be alright.
I've never really loved L.A. It's just too much of everything, you know? For me, anyway. Tree Hill's amazing this time of year. Hot and sticky, but with an ocean breeze and beautiful beaches. Perfect weather to sit on the front porch with a sweet tea sweating in a cold glass.
Maybe it's presumptuous of me to say, but I think you'd like it here...
-Lucas

He's hit send before he realizes that he's gone mad. What the hell was he thinking typing that?

Well, what's done is done, and he can't change it now. If he's being honest, he's not sure he would if he could.

It's crazy and makes absolutely no sense, but he feels a little bit like he's falling for this woman.

----

-
The hardest part about losing Ella were all the simple things. The silly things. I'd hear that song on the radio that always made her dance in the passenger seat.
I'd find her handwriting in the margin of one of my schoolbooks. People kept giving me photos of the two of us.
I met a little girl with the same name one day, and I cried for hours.
I realized that eventually those little, simple, silly things would eventually stop happening. That song wouldn't be popular on the radio anymore.
The school year would end and I wouldn't look at that textbook again. People would run out of photos to pass along.
I'd run out of those little, simple, silly things.
And then what would I have left?
-

She steps off the plane, and she almost runs back on.

A couple more emails with Lucas after that one where he'd told her she'd like Tree Hill, and they were talking flight times and she was researching hotels. She told him she was going to visit, and he told her he was nervous. She said there was an army of butterflies in her stomach. She didn't tell him when she was going to arrive, or where she was staying.

She certainly didn't tell him she only booked a one-way ticket, and that she doesn't know when she was going back to L.A. She just, for once in her life, wants a little freedom; a little adventure.

She still has no fucking clue why she's doing this. It's just some strange pull. Some strange connection between them that has her doing crazy things. She doesn't want this to be awkward, and she really hopes it isn't. She thinks it won't be. Nothing has been awkward so far.

But they haven't even spoken on the phone. He told her it was better this way, and she had to agree. She knows his voice, and he knows what she looks like, and that's probably enough.

She pulls her rental car up to the hotel, and she realizes they never exchanged numbers. She didn't bring her computer with her. They didn't arrange a time to meet. They're leaving it up to fate. She smiles. She thinks that's for the best.

The town is small, but she likes it. It's homey and sweet. Even driving through town in her shiny Toyota hybrid, people seemed to know she wasn't from around here. She kind of likes that; that people know each other well enough to know when someone sticks out.

She drops her things and washes the plane air off her face and hands, and then she changes into a summer dress. Lucas was right. It is hot and sticky. But the air feels clean and smells like sea salt, not smog. She wants to find the beach.

She steps outside and pulls her sunglasses over her eyes, and she walks towards the water; to where she can hear the waves and the children laughing. It's humid and her hair is already becoming a problem, and so she pulls her it up into a pony tail as she kicks off her flip flops and steps onto the hot sand.

She stays at the beach for a while, getting acquainted with the little town and its beachy, summer feel and the sweet people who live here. Several people smile at her as they walk past where she sits on a log, and she smiles back like she's known them for years.

Tree Hill has something - a lot of things - L.A. doesn't. Compassion. People acknowledging people because it's the nice and normal thing to do. She doesn't think she's seen one person on a cell phone since she got here, and while she's sure they all have them, it's nice that they're not attached to peoples' ears.

She stands when her skin feels hot to the touch, and she heads towards the main part of the town, to a little coffee shop she saw there on the drive through. A coffee would be amazing, and sitting in that shop seems kind of like a great way to kill an hour or so.

She's sitting reading a copy of that book that she brought with her. She took the jacket off the hardcover, afraid that someone would laugh at her reading the book of an author who was no doubt roaming around in that town somewhere.

"Jamie, stay with me, OK?" a sweet, maternal voice says.

Peyton looks up from her book and smiles at the little boy standing not five feet from her. His big, blue eyes are shining at her, and he smiles back.

"What kind of smoothie should we get daddy?" the woman asks.

"I don't know, Mama."

"How about banana-strawberry?" she inquires, clearly hoping for any sort of response.

The boy nods his head, and as the woman reaches for her wallet, a small stack of papers falls from her purse. She doesn't notice, and Peyton waits to see if the girl will pick them up, fearing that she'll be stepping on toes if she just reaches for them. When the boy shuffles forward in the line with his mother in tow, those papers are left on the ground. Peyton closes her book, using her index finger to mark the page she'd been reading, and rises from her seat to pick up those papers.

"Excuse me," she says politely. The woman turns around and gives a genuine smile. "You dropped this."

"Oh! Thank you! I'd be so dead if I lost that," the woman says, tucking the pages back into her purse. Her eyes glance down at the book in Peyton's hand, and she smiles again.

"Mama, we're next!" the boy calls, tugging his mother's hand once or twice.

"Thanks again!" the woman says over her shoulder.

Peyton offers a wave when that woman and that little boy leave the shop, and the boy smiles at her until they are out of sight of the window.

She finishes her drink and drops her book back into her bag. When she steps out onto the street again, she sees the same mother and son with a tall, dark-haired man, getting into a car parked at the curb just down the street.

The man lifts the boy up over his head before setting him in his booster seat, the boy laughing the entire time. When Peyton's eyes lock with that man's, she feels something a little...eerie. She'd thought it when she saw that little boy, but she'd brushed it off.

Those eyes are fairly familiar.

Jamie waves at the woman as she walks past, and when Nathan is buckled into the drivers seat, he turns to Haley with a confused look.

"Who was that?" he asks.

"I'm not sure. She was in the coffee shop. I dropped the pages from Lucas' new book and she picked them up for me," Haley explains.

"You know, you'd think after the trouble he got into last time over letting people read it early, he might be a little more careful," Nathan laughs as they pull away from the curb.

"She was reading it," Haley says, turning to Nathan. "The Autumn Letters."

----

-
The letters kept coming for a while. I got one the day of her funeral. She had told me about her favourite day with me, and how she'd always remember that, and that I should always remember it, too. I got one a couple days before my 20th birthday, weeks after she'd passed. She reminded me of the azaleas I gave her on my last birthday, and she said she thought it was sweet that I gave her a gift on my day.
The last letter I got wasn't mailed. Her father came to me with the envelope in his hand, and he didn't say a word. He just placed it in my palm and started back down the walk. She wrote that letter the day she died, and I could tell.
She wrote that she'd love me forever. She wrote that she knew I'd love her forever, too, but that I didn't have to love only her.
I cried again. The last letter. Her letting go of me, and of us. And of herself.
There were no more letters, and even though I knew it, my heart still broke every time one didn't come.
-

He can't sleep. He doesn't know if it's the heat - it's nearly unbearable, even laying atop the sheets - or the fact that his brain just won't turn off. He's written almost non stop for weeks, and it seems he's always thinking of his characters. He'll be at dinner with his best friend, or shooting around on the River Court, and he'll have to drop everything and run home. Everyone seems to be used to it but him.

He finds himself, not surprisingly, on that old black top at close to 3:00 in the morning. He couldn't sleep, but he couldn't write - for once, and it was odd - so he grabbed his ball and ventured out.

He's still got a little pad of paper and a pen in the back pocket of his jeans, though. Just in case.

Haley told him she saw a woman reading his first novel that day, and he smiled and looked down, and she accused him of being bashful. But really, he still just finds it insane and unbelievable that he's an author. A published author, whose work people value and read and enjoy. Those little reminders make him realize just how lucky he is.

He gets back in his car when he tires of shooting the ball - something that very rarely ever happens - but he doesn't feel like going home yet.

He finds himself at the beach, at his favourite little spot to come at night. It's right out in the open - not hidden at all - but it makes him feel small and insignificant to sit there on the sand, just him and the waves and however much of a moon is overhead.

As he's walking towards that spot, he sees someone sitting not too far from it. It's a woman, he can tell, and the last thing he wants to do is startle her. She's got her legs pulled up to her chest and a dark sweater on, and her hair is in a ponytail.

She stands before he's even 10 feet from her, and when she turns around, he feels like the wind has been knocked out of him.

"Peyton."

"Hi," she says softly. She's frozen in her place. Her heart is racing, and her hands are shaking, and she's pretty sure that he's even more gorgeous than she had always thought.

He watches her bite the inside of her bottom lip, and he can tell she's nervous. He can tell it has nothing to do with the darkness and the fact that it's the middle of the night. He knows all that because he's just as nervous to be standing in front of her.

"You're...here," he says. "I mean...wow."

"I don't...I don't know what I expected to happen when I first saw you."

"I tried not to think about it," he admits, smiling at her. He takes a few steps closer, and he swears her eyes are still the most beautiful shade of green, even in the darkness. "I honestly didn't think you'd come."

"I thought about it. Not coming. But...I just..."

"Felt like you needed to," he finishes. She nods her head gently and they both smile a little bit. "Do you have to go, or can you sit with me for a bit?"

"It's 4:00 a.m. in a town where I known no one. I think I'm free," she jokes. He laughs and runs his hand over the back of his neck. He gestures for her to sit, and he follows.

They're quiet for a minute, neither knowing what to say to the other. She pulls her legs up to her chest again, and he leans back, resting his weight on his hands. He studies her profile; the curve of her cheek, and the line of her jaw and her slender neck. He notices that her sweater has fallen off her shoulder, and he reaches over and fixes it for her. She smiles at him, and he smiles back.

"I love it here," she admits, looking out at the water, not at him. "I've only been here a day, and I love it."

"It's an easy place to love."

"It is," she says. And just like that, she thinks his instincts when it comes to her, are dead on. He told her she'd like it. She had believed him.

"I'm sorry," he says after a moment, shaking his head and sitting upright. "I'm in shock or something. I can't believe you came."

"Me neither," she laughs. It's a nervous one, but it's a laugh, and he loves it. "It's not like me to do something like this."

"It's not like me to basically ask that strangers come visit," he insists, and she laughs again.

She really doesn't know anything about him, but she wants to. She wants to know everything about him. The big things, the little things, all of it. She wants to know if David and Ella were real or completely fiction. She wants to know how such a ruggedly attractive man came up with such a beautiful love story. She wants to know what his next novel is about.

"What's your favourite colour?" she asks after another minute of complete silence between them.

"My favourite colour?" he asks with a smirk. She turns to look at him and nods her head, and the smile on her face is one he wants to memorize. "Whatever colour the ocean is right now."

Well, that was a perfect answer.

"Why?" she asks softly.

"Because this moment, right now...It feels kind of big." She tucks a curl behind her ear, and he smiles when she looks away. "What about you?"

"Oh. Well, you stole my answer," she jokes, looking over at him when he laughs. "Red."

"Yeah?"

"Mhmm."

"I could have guessed," he says, and she narrows her eyes questioningly. "Passion. Art. Primal need, and desire. Courage. Basic, but complex, and kind of open to interpretation."

She wants to cry. She wonders why she's never dated a writer before. He's basically just described her entire life, her entire personality, in a few words.

"That's...yeah," she says. "You know, you kind of have a way with words?"

"I've heard that before." He squints as he nods his head and they both laugh again. He has no idea why it feels like he's known this woman forever.

"I didn't tell anyone I was coming," she says. "I just said I was going on vacation."

"How come?"

"It's all a little Sleepless in Seattle," she laughs. "Or something...I don't know. I just didn't want...I mean, if we hadn't met or something..."

"You didn't want anyone to know you were meeting a perfect stranger based on just a feeling," he finishes, and she nods gently. "Me too."

They sit there in silence, and the tide's coming in. When it nips at Peyton's bare feet, she scoots back on the sand a little, and Lucas follows her. This is about the time he'd normally go home. Hell, he'd probably not be here in the first place. But there's something strangely uplifting about just sitting with her, even in a fairly uncomfortable silence.

He can tell already that she's a lot of things, and what he'd thrown out about the colour red seems to just be the tip of the iceberg.

"I wish I knew what to say," she admits softly.

"Tell me about you."

"Me?" she asks, then laughs. She thinks it was silly to say it, but then he smiles, and she thinks it was worth it.

They sit and talk until the sun comes up, and then people are filing onto the beach, and they're still sitting there in the same spot, talking about whatever they can think of.

She tells him she grew up in Sacramento and moved to L.A. when she finished high school. She tells him about her life and her friends and her passion for music and art and just living. She says she doesn't ever want to grow complacent with living, and he looks at her like it's the most profound thing he's ever heard.

He tells her that his first novel was an accident. A great accident that he doesn't regret a second of. He just sat one day and started writing, and the characters wrote themselves. The dialogue was pithy and easy to write, and David and Ella's love story was just Lucas, himself, wishing for a love that strong.

Peyton hides the tear in her eye, and wipes it away when he's not looking.

She yawns, and Lucas smiles and looks to the sand. She's beautiful, and she's adorable, and he thinks he never wants her to leave, as selfish as it is.

"I've kept you up all night," he says.

"Don't be crazy," she says earnestly. "I was...this was...really nice."

"It was."

"I guess I'm not used to watching sunrises with handsome authors," she says. He smirks at her and her heart races a little.

"Handsome?" he asks.

"Oh, please," she scoffs. She says nothing more, and he lets out a laugh, and he swears he can feel his cheeks on fire.

"I guess I'm not used to being captivated by beautiful strangers," he says softly. He sees her close her eyes for a moment before she turns to him, and he just offers a timid smile. "Come on. I'll walk you to your hotel."

They stand, and Lucas is very pleasantly surprised when Peyton wraps her arms around him in a hug that feels so right, he wonders if it's wrong.

She gives him a sheepish smile when she pulls away, and her right hand lingers on his shoulder. It's a subtle thing she probably doesn't even realize she's doing, but he misses that touch once it's gone.

They walk through the little town, its streets just starting to come to life a little bit, and she tells him that it's strange to not see a Starbucks on the corner or a meter maid shouting with someone or a homeless person with a handwritten sign. She says she likes it; the quiet. Her eyes stay locked with his for a moment after, and he almost wants to take her home and keep her all to himself.

They stand in the hotel lobby - vacant except for the attendant at the desk - and they face each other. She notices the stubble on his jaw and the flecks of sapphire in his eyes. She thinks handsome may have been an immense understatement.

"Lucas, this was...I don't know what word to use," she says, and he smiles and nods as he looks to the floor. "That's your department."

"Lovely."

"Lovely?"

"Yes. Definitely lovely," he says. She tucks her hair behind her ear again as she blushes. Why is she blushing? She really doesn't know.

"I can't believe we spent all night...morning...whatever...just talking."

"I kind of can, actually," he insists. "I want to hear everything you have to say."

Now she knows why she's blushing.

"You should save all these beautiful lines for your book, Lucas," she says with a smile. He laughs and she feels butterflies in her stomach.

"Would you have dinner with me tonight?" he asks, getting a surge of courage that he's sure stemmed from that smile she just flashed him.

"I'd like that."

"Yeah?" he asks, and she nods her head. "I'll meet you here at 7:00."

She hugs him again, and he closes his eyes as he holds her. He wonders where she's been for the past 26 years. He wonders why California was so lucky to have her. He wonders why he's lucky enough to have her now.

She watches him walk away before she turns to the elevator to head to her room.

And it feels a lot like she's falling in love.

----

-
It doesn't get easier. It never does. I feel her everywhere, and it's hard. I'm always thinking of her. I'm always thinking "Ella would have loved this",
or "She would have bought that sweater", or "If she could see me now, she'd tell me..."
But it's OK. It's good. I never want to forget her. Never.
I don't think she'll let me.
-

She's surprised when there's a knock at her door at ten minutes to seven. She's ready; she's been ready. She's just nervous. She shouldn't be, she thinks, since they spent hours on the beach together and he knows more about her than she ever really expected him to. She slept until the middle of the afternoon, then ordered room service and ate her snack on the little balcony with the sun kissing her shoulders and legs. She showered and got ready, putting far more effort into her appearance than probably she should have.

She wears just a pair of dark jeans and a dressy kind of tank top, black with white detail. Her hair is down and styled, and she loves the way the sun of this little town has made her skin glow a little more. She thinks that might be the happiness, too, though.

She pulls the door open, happy to see that Lucas is wearing jeans and a short sleeved navy blue button down shirt.

"Hi," she says with a smile. "I just...need one minute. Come in."

"Don't change a thing."

"Excuse me?" she asks, turning to him just in time to see him checking her out.

"You look...Just don't change anything," he says. She smiles and he smirks at her. He sends her a wink that she swears stops her heart. "You're gorgeous."

"Thank you," she says softly.

She reaches for the small black wristlet, and she slips her feet into her sandals, and when she looks back to him to tell him she's ready, he's standing not two feet away. Her breath catches in her throat when she smells the faint notes of a cologne she's already sure she'll never forget.

"Would it be horribly inappropriate if I kissed you?" he asks, his eyes locked with hers.

"Oh, God," she sighs, closing her eyes. "Just do it."

She hears him chuckle, then his hand is on her hip and his other one is in her hair, and she feels him press his lips to hers and it's like a waterfall, somehow. Like emotion and feeling and contentment pouring out and going...somewhere. It's soft and sweet, but the way he grips her hip is urgent and she feels like he just needed to kiss her. Just about as much as she needed to kiss him.

And it's lovely. It really is.

She's starting to like that word a lot.

"I'm not hungry," she says as he rests his forehead against hers.

"No?"

"No."

He doesn't think she's telling him to leave. He's pretty sure she's telling him to stay. She kisses him again, a little harder, a little less innocently. She clutches the collar of his shirt in her fist, and he moans a little when her tongue runs along the seam of his lips. That noise is enough to have her pulling away from him and turning her back.

"God. I'm sorry. I'm...I'm acting crazy. This is crazy," she says, running her hands through her hair. "I'm here kissing you, and I want to be here kissing you. I don't even remember when I didn't know you. I'm not...I can't even explain anything. I don't know...I don't know."

"Peyton..."

She turns to him, and he reaches out and places his hands on her upper arms, and she lets herself look at him. She lets herself get a little wrapped up in him. Really, that's all she's been doing since she wrote that first message, and it's certainly all she's been doing since she landed in this town.

She wants to be wrapped up in him. She does.

"Why does it feel like I'm falling in love with you?" she asks quietly. She watches his eyes shine a little bit, and then he's smiling, and she's letting herself relax beneath his touch.

"Because it feels like I'm falling in love with you, too," he answers. He moves his hand to her cheek, and he gently moves his thumb over her cheekbone.

"I don't want to mess this up," she admits.

"You aren't. You really aren't. I don't think you could." She smiles at him and he kisses her quickly. She doesn't think she'll ever get sick of that.

"I live in L.A."

"You don't have to."

She wants to tell him he's being even crazier than she is. They haven't even been on a date yet, but he's telling her to leave her life and essentially start one with him. She can't tell him he's being crazy, because that sounds like just about the best laid plan in the world.

"How is this happening?" she asks with a soft laugh. "This is...it's not normal."

"Not really," he agrees. "Who cares?"

She laughs again and when she shrugs her shoulder, he smiles again and looks down at the space between then. There isn't much of it. He likes it that way.

"Tell me to stay, and I'll stay," she says softly.

"Stay." He kisses her and it's like a promise. "I can't stop thinking about you. I don't want to."

"Good."

"Is it?"

"Well, I think so," she says, and they both laugh. "You want to know my favourite passage from your book?"

He doesn't answer, and she doesn't expect him to. She takes his hands in hers and she locks eyes with him, and she recites the lines like poetry in a way that has him wanting to hear her tell him she loves him.

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