Something was wrong. I knew it the moment I walked in the door. With one hand I flicked on the light, dumping my purse onto the couch with the other. After the dimly lit hallway, the sudden glare was dazzling. Little lights flashed before my eyes. When they cleared all I saw were spaces . . . spaces where, just this morning, things had been. Like the couch. My purse hit the floor and everything came tumbling out, tampons, loose coins, pens and make-up. A stick of deodorant rolled into the corner. The now empty corner since both the TV and its cabinet were gone. My thrift store retro table and chairs remained, same with my overflowing book case. But the bulk of the room lay bare.
“Skye?” No answer.
“What the hell?” A stupid question, what had happened here was obvious. Across from me, my roommate’s door stood wide open. Nothing but darkness and dust bunnies in there. No point in denying it. Skye had bailed on me. My shoulders slumped as the weight of two months worth of back rent, food and utilities came crushing down upon me. Even my throat closed tight. So this is what it felt like to have a friend fuck you over. I could barely breathe.
“Anne, can I borrow your velvet coat? I promise I’ll . . .” Lauren, my neighbor from the apartment next door strode in (knocking never had been her style). Then, like me, she stopped dead. “Where’s your couch?” I took a deep breath and let it out slow. It didn’t help. “I guess Skye took it.”
“Skye’s gone?” My mouth opened, but really, what was there to say?
“She’s gone and you didn’t know she was leaving?”
Lauren cocked her head, making her mass of long dark hair swing to and fro. I’d always envied her that hair. Mine was strawberry blond and fine. Anything past shoulder length and it hung limp like I’d stuck my head in a bucket of grease. It’s why I didn’t tend to let it grow longer than jaw length. Not that hair mattered. Making rent mattered. Having food to eat mattered. Hair styles? Not so much. My eyes burned, betrayal stung like a bitch. Skye and I had been friends for years. I’d trusted her. We’d trash talked boys and shared secrets, cried on each other’s shoulders. It just didn’t make sense. Except it did. It so very painfully did.
“No.” My voice sounded strange. I swallowed hard, clearing my throat. “No, I didn’t know she was leaving.”
“Weird. You two always seemed to get along great.”
“Why would she take off like that?”
“She owed me money,” I admitted, kneeling to collect the contents of my purse. Not to pray to god. I’d given up on him a long time ago. Lauren gasped. “You’re joking. That fucking bitch!”
“Babe, we’re running late.” Nate, my other next-door neighbor, filled the doorway, eyes impatient. He was a tall well-built guy with an edge. Normally, I envied Lauren her boyfriend. Right then the glory of Nate was lost on me. I was so fucked.
“What’s going on?” he asked, looking around. “Hey, Anne.”
“Where’s your shit?”
Lauren threw her hands in the air. “Skye took her shit!”
“No,” I corrected. “Skye took her shit. But she took my money.”
“How much money?” Nate asked, displeasure dropping his voice by about an octave.
“Enough,” I said. “I’ve been covering for her since she lost her job.”
“Damn,” muttered Nate.
“Yeah.” Seriously, yeah.
I picked up my purse and flipped it open. Sixty-five dollars and one lone shiny quarter. How had I let it get this far? My paycheck from the bookshop was gone and my credit card maxed. Lizzy had needed help yesterday paying for textbooks and no way would I turn her down. Getting my sister through college came first. This morning I’d told Skye we needed to talk. All day I’d felt crappy about it, my stomach churning. Because the truth was, the sum total of my talk involved telling her that she needed to ask her parents, or her fancy ass new boyfriend, for a loan to pay me back. I couldn’t keep the both of us housed and fed any longer while she searched for a new job. So she also needed to talk to one of them about a place to stay. Yes, I was kicking her to the curb. The guilt had weighed in my stomach like a stone. Ironic really. What were the chances of her feeling any remorse for screwing me over? Not likely. I finished retrieving the contents of my handbag and zipped it up tight. “Ah, yeah, Lauren, the coat’s in my closet. At least I hope it is. Help yourself.”
Rent was due in eight days. Maybe I could work a miracle. There were sure to be some cash savvy twenty-three-year-olds with savings in the bank out there. At least one of them must need a place to stay? I’d been doing fine before this. But there’d always been something my sister or I needed more than future financial stability. Books, clothes, a night on the town, all those little treats that made living worth-while. We’d sacrificed enough already. Yet here I was, broke and on my knees. Guess I should have prioritized better. Hindsight sucked. Worst case scenario, I could probably get away with sleeping on the floor of Lizzy’s dorm room if we were super sly. God knows our mom didn’t have the cash. Asking her for help was out. If I sold my great aunt’s pearls it might help toward the deposit on another apartment, a smaller one that I could afford on my own. I’d fix this somehow. Of course I would. Fixing shit was my speciality. And if I ever saw Skye again I was going to fucking kill her.
“What’ll you do?” asked Nate, lounging against the door frame. I rose to my feet, dusting off the knees of my black pants. “I’ll work something out.”
Nate gave me a look and I returned it as calmly as I could. The next thing to come out of his mouth had better not be pity. My day had been crappy enough. With great determination, I gave him a smile. “So, where are you guys off to?”
“Party at David and Ev’s,” Lauren answered from inside my room. “You should come with us.”
Ev, Nate’s sister and Lauren’s former roomie, had married David Ferris, premier rock god and lead guitarist for the band Stage Dive, a few months ago. Long story. I was still trying to get my head around it, frankly. One minute, she’d been the nice blond girl next door who went to the same college as Lizzy and made killer coffee at Ruby’s Café. The next, our apartment block had been surrounded by paparazzi. Skye had given interviews on the front step—not that she’d known anything. I’d snuck out the back. Mostly, my relationship with Ev had involved saying hi when we’d passed on the stairs, back when she used to live here, and with me hitting Ruby’s Café every morning for a big-ass coffee on my way to work. We’d always been friendly.But I wouldn’t say we were friends exactly. Given Lauren’s penchant for borrowing my clothes, I knew her much better.
“She should come, right, Nate?” Nate grunted his affirmation. Either that or his disinterest. With him it was kind of hard to tell.
“That’s okay,” I demurred. Debris lined the walls where the couch and cabinet had stood; all of the collected crap Skye had left behind. “I had a new book to read, but I should probably get busy cleaning. Guess we hadn’t dusted under the furniture for a while. At least I won’t have much to move when the time comes.”
“Come with us.”
“Lauren, I wasn’t invited,” I said.
“Neither are we half the time,” said Nate.
“They love us! Of course they want us there.” Lauren re-emerged from my room and gave her boyfriend the stink eye. She looked better in the black vintage jacket than I ever would, a fact that I chose not to secretly hate her for.
If that didn’t earn me points into heaven then nothing would. Maybe I’d give it to her as a good-bye present before I left. “Come on, Anne,” she said. “Ev won’t mind.”
“Good to go?” Nate jiggled his car keys impatiently. Hanging with rock stars didn’t seem the appropriate response to learning you’d soon be out on the street. Maybe one day when I was at my sparkling, buffed-up best I could strut on by and say hi. That day was not today. Mostly I felt tired, defeated. Given I’d been feeling that way since I turned sixteen, it wasn’t the strongest of excuses. Lauren didn’t need to know that, however.
“Thanks, guys,” I said. “But I only just got home.”
“Um, honey, your home kind of sucks ass right now,”
said Lauren, taking in my dust bunnies and lack of décor with a sweeping glance. “Besides, it’s Friday night. Who sits at home on a Friday night? You wearing your work gear or jumping into jeans? I’d suggest the jeans.”
“No.” Lauren grasped my shoulders and looked me in the eye. “You have been fucked over by a friend. I have no words to tell you how furious that makes me. You’re coming with us. Hide in a corner all night if you want. But you’re not sitting here alone dwelling on that thieving ho. You know I never did like her.” Stupidly, I did. Or had. Whatever.
“Didn’t I say that, Nate?” Nate shrugged and jangled his keys some more.
“Go. Get ready.” Lauren gave me a push in the general direction of my bedroom.
In my current situation, this might be my only opportunity to meet David Ferris. Ev still showed up here now and then, but I’d never seen him, despite occasionally “hanging out” on the steps just in case. He wasn’t my absolute favorite out of the four members of Stage Dive. That honor was reserved for the drummer, Mal Ericson. A few years ago, I’d crushed on him something hard. But still . . . the David Ferris. For the chance to meet even just one of them, I had to go. A few years ago, I’d had a bit of a thing for the band. Nothing to do with their being buff rock gods. No, I was a musical purist. “Alright, give me ten minutes.” It was the absolute minimum time frame within which I could mentally, if not physically, prepare myself to face the rich and famous. Fortunately, my care factor was now dangerously close to fuck-it levels. Tonight would probably be the best time to meet Mr. Ferris. I might actually manage to keep my cool and not be an awestruck waste of space.
“Five minutes,” said Nate. “The game will be starting.”
“Would you relax?” asked Lauren.
“No.” The man made a snapping sound and Lauren giggled. I didn’t look back. I didn’t want to know. The walls here were disgustingly thin so Lauren and Nate’s nocturnal mating habits weren’t much of a secret. Happily, I was usually at work during the day. Those hours were a mystery to me, and not one that I pondered. Oh, alright. Occasionally I pondered because I hadn’t gotten anything non-self-induced in a while. Also, apparently I had some repressed voyeuristic tendencies in need of addressing. Was I really up to a night of watching couples rubbing against one another? I could call Reece, though he’d said he had a date tonight. Of course, he always had a date. Reece was perfect in every way apart from his man-whore tendencies. My best guy friend liked to spread his love around, to put it mildly. He seemed to be on a conjugal-related first-name basis with the better part of the straight Portland female population aged eighteen to forty-eight. Everyone except me, basically. Which was fine. There was nothing wrong with just being friends. Though someday I truly believed we’d make a great couple. He was just so easy to be around. With everything we had in common, we could go the distance. In the meantime, I was content to wait, do my own thing. Not that lately I’d been doing anything or anyone, but you get what I mean. Reece would listen to me whine about Skye. He’d probably even cancel his date, come over, and keep me company while I moped. He would, however, definitely say “I told you so.” When he’d found out I’d been covering for her, he hadn’t been happy. He’d outright accused her of using me. Turned out he’d been 110 percent right on that score. The wound, however, was too raw to be prodded and poked. So . . . no Reece. In all likelihood, Lizzy would give me the exact same ass kicking Reece had. Neither had been a fan of the save Skye plan. Decision made. I’d go to the party and have fun before my world turned to shit. Excellent. I could do this.
I couldn’t do this. David and Ev lived in a luxury condo in the Pearl District. The place was sprawling, taking up half the top floor of a beautiful old brown brick building. It must have been surreal for Ev, going from our poky, drafty, thin-walled building to this sort of splendor. It must have been awesome. Our old apartment building sat on the edge of downtown, close to the university, but David and Ev lived smack-dab in the middle of the very cool and expensive Pearl District. Happily, Ev seemed delighted to see me. One potentially awkward moment negated. Mr. Ev, the rock star, gave me a chin tip in greeting while I did my best not to stare. I itched to ask him to sign something. My forehead would do.
“Help yourself to anything in the kitchen,” said Ev.
“There are plenty of drinks and pizza should be here soon.”
“You live next to Lauren and Nate?” asked David, speaking for the first time. Good lord, his dark hair and sculpted face were breathtaking. People shouldn’t be so greedy; was it not enough that he was insanely talented?
“Yes,” I said. “I used to be Ev’s neighbor and I’m a regular at Ruby’s Café.”
“Every morning without fail,” said Ev with a wink.
“Double shot skinny latte with a hit of caramel coming right up.”
David nodded and seemed to relax. He slipped an arm around his wife’s waist and she grinned up at him. Love looked good on her. I hoped they lasted. I’d loved, really loved, four people in my lifetime. They weren’t all romantic love, of course. But I’d trusted my heart to all of them. Three had failed me. So I figured there was a twenty-five percent chance for success. When David and Ev started sucking face, I took it as my cue to go explore. I grabbed a beer from the kitchen (state of the art and beyond fancy) and faced the big living room with renewed determination. I could totally do this. Socializing and me were about to be best buds. A couple dozen people were scattered around the place. A huge flat screen blared out the game and Nate sat dead center in front of it, enraptured.
There were a few faces amongst the crowd that I recognized; most belonged to people I’d never dare approach. I took a sip of beer to wet my parched throat. Being the odd one out at a party is a unique sort of torture. Given today’s events, I lacked the courage to start a conversation. With my talent for picking who to trust, I’d probably ask the only axe murderer in the room for his sign. Lauren gestured to me to join her right when my cell starting buzzing in my jeans back pocket. My butt cheek vibrated, giving me a thrill. I waved to Lauren and pulled out my cell, walking quickly out onto the balcony to escape the noise and chatter. Reece’s name flashed on the screen as I shut the balcony doors.
“Hey,” I said, smiling. “Date canceled on me.”
“That’s a shame.”
“What are you up to?”
Wind whipped up my hair, making me shiver. Typical weather for Portland at this time of year—October could definitely get cold, wet, dark, and miserable. I huddled down deeper into my blue woolen jacket. “I’m at a party. You’re going to have to entertain yourself. Sorry.”
“A party? What party?” he asked, the interest in his voice moving up a notch.
“One I wasn’t exactly invited to, so I can’t extend the offer to you.”
“Damn.” He yawned. “Never mind. Might get an early night for a change.”
“Good idea.” I wandered over to the railing. Cars rushed by on the street below. The Pearl District was a mecca of bars, cafés, and general coolness. Plenty of people were out and about braving the weather. All around me, the city lights broke up the darkness and the wind howled. It was lovely in a moody, existential-crisis sort of way. No matter the weather, I loved Portland. It was so different from back home in southern California, something I appreciated immensely. Here the houses were built for snow and ice instead of sunshine.
The culture was weirder, more lenient in ways. Or maybe I just had a hard time remembering any of the good regarding my hometown. I’d escaped. That was all that mattered.
“I should go be social, Reece.”
“You sound off. What’s up?”
Groan. “Let’s talk tomorrow at work.”
“Let’s talk now.”
“Later, Reece. I need to put on my happy face and go make Lauren proud.”
“Anne, cut the shit. What’s going on?”
I screwed up my face and took another sip of beer before answering. We’d been working together for almost two years now. Apparently, plenty of time for him to figure out my tells. “Skye’s gone.”
“Good. About time. She pay you back?”
I let my silence do the talking. “Fuuuuck. Anne. Seriously.”
“What did I tell you?” he snarled. “Didn’t I say—”
“Reece, don’t go there. Please. At the time, I thought it was the right thing to do. She was a friend and she needed help. I couldn’t just—”
“Yeah, you could. She was fucking using you!”
I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Yes, Skye was fucking using me. You were right, I was wrong.”
He mumbled a long string of expletives while I waited mostly patiently. No wonder I hadn’t wanted to have this conversation. There’d never be a good way to spin such a shitty tale. Frustration boiled up inside of me, warming me against the cold.
“How much do you need?” he asked, voice resigned.
“What? No. I’m not borrowing money off you, Reece.
Getting further into debt is not the answer.” Besides, business owner or not, I wasn’t sure he had it to spare. Reece wasn’t any better at saving than I was. I knew this because of the designer gear he wore to work on a daily basis.
Apparently being Portland’s resident Mr. Lover-Lover required one hell of a wardrobe. To be fair, he wore it extremely well.
He sighed. “You know, for someone who’s always helping others, you’re shit at accepting help yourself.”
“I’ll figure something out.”
Another pained sigh. I leaned over the railing and hung my head, letting the cold, wet wind batter my face. It felt nice, offsetting the tension headache threatening to start up behind my forehead. “I’m going to hang up now, Reece. They have beer and pizza here. I’m pretty sure if I try hard enough I can find my happy place.”
“You’re going to lose the apartment, aren’t you?”
“It’s likely I’ll have to move, yes.”
“Stay with me. You can crash on my sofa.”
“That’s sweet of you.” I tried to laugh, but the noise that came out was more of a strangled cough. My situation sucked too much for humor. Me sleeping on Reece’s couch while he went hard at it in the next room with some stranger. No. Not happening. As it was, I felt small and stupid for letting Skye play me. Bearing witness to Reece’s oh-so-active sex life would be too much.
“Thanks, Reece. But I’m pretty sure you’ve done unspeak-able things to many, many people on that couch. I’m not sure anyone could sleep there.”
“You think it’s haunted by the ghosts of coitus past?”
“It wouldn’t surprise me.”
He snorted. “My gross sofa is there if you need it, okay?”
“Thank you. I mean that.”
“Call me if you need anything.”
“Oh, hey, Anne?”
“Can you work Sunday? Tara’s had something come up.
I told her you’d cover for her.”
“I spend Sundays with Lizzy,” I said carefully. “You know that.” Reece’s answer was silence. I could actually feel the guilt slinking up on me. “What if I do a different shift for her? Is it something she can move?”
“Ah, look, never mind. I’ll deal with it.”
“No problem. Talk to you later.”
And he hung up on me. I put away my cell, took another mouthful of beer, and stared out at the city. Dark clouds drifted across the crescent moon. The air seemed colder now, making my bones ache like I was an old woman. I needed to drink more. That would solve everything, for tonight at least. My beer, however, was almost finished and I hesitated to head back inside.
Ugh. Enough of this. Once the drink was done, my lonely-girl pity party was up. I’d quit lurking in the shadows, pull my head out of my ass, and go back inside. This was an opportunity not to be missed, like I hadn’t wished a million times or more to cross paths with someone from the band. I’d already met David Ferris. So there, wishes could come true. I should put in a request for bigger boobs, a smaller ass, and better taste in friends while I was at it. And money enough to pay for my sister’s college educa-tion and to keep a roof over my head, of course.
“Want another?” a deep voice asked, startling me. My chin jerked up, eyes wide. I’d thought I was alone but a guy sat slouched in the corner. Wavy, shoulder-length blond hair shone dully but the rest of him remained in shadow.
No. It couldn’t be him.
I mean it could be, of course. But it couldn’t be, surely.
Whoever he was, he had to have heard my half of the phone conversation, which was more than enough to mark me out as being one of the great idiots of our time. There was the clink and hiss of a beer being opened then he held it out to me. Light from inside reflected off the perspiration on the bottle, making it gleam.
“Thanks.” I stepped closer, close enough to make him out even with the low lighting, and reached for the beer.
Holy shit. It was him, Malcolm Ericson.
The pinnacle moment of my life was officially upon me.
So I might have had one or two photos of Stage Dive on my bedroom wall when I was a teenager. Fine, maybe there were three. Or twelve. Whatever. The point is there was one poster of the whole band. At least, the photographer probably thought it was of the whole band. Jimmy was out in front, his face contorted as he screamed into the microphone.
To his right, half shrouded in shadow and smoke, was David, smoldering over his guitar. And to the left, toward the front of the stage, stood the bulk that was Ben, playing his bass.
But they didn’t matter. Not really.
Because behind them all, there he was with the lights shining up through his drum kit. Naked from the waist up and dripping sweat, the picture had caught him mid-strike.
His right arm cut across his body, his focus on his target, the cymbal he was about to strike. To smash.
He played with abandon and he looked like a god.
How many times after a day of looking after my mother and sister, working hard and doing the good, responsible thing, had I lay on my bed and looked at that photo. And now here he was.
Our fingers grazed in the way that’s pretty much inevi-table during such a hand over. No way could he have failed to miss the trembling in mine. Thankfully, he didn’t comment. I scurried back to my place by the edge, leaning casually with a beer in hand. Cool people leaned. They looked relaxed. He chuckled softly, letting me know I wasn’t fooling anybody. Then he sat forward, resting his elbows on his knees. His face came fully into the light and I was caught, captivated. My mind blanked. No question about it. It really was most definitely without a doubt him. The man had hooker lips, I shit you not. High cheek-bones and one of those notches in his chin. I’d never understood the appeal of those things before. Now I got it. But it was him as a whole that blew my mind. The parts meant nothing without the amused gleam in his eye and the hint of a smirk. God, I hated people who smirked. Apparently, I also wanted to lick them all over because my mouth started watering.
“I’m Mal,” he said.
“I-I know,” I stuttered.
His smirk heightened. “I know you know.”
Huh. I kept my mouth shut.
“Sounds like someone had a bad day.”
Nope, I still had nothing. A brain-dead stare was the best I could do. Why was he out here in the dark? From all reports, the man was the life of the party. Yet here he was, drinking alone, hiding like me. Slowly, he stretched, rising out of his seat. Thank you, lord. He’d go back inside and I’d be off the hook. I wouldn’t have to try and make conversation. Fortunate, given my sudden bout of starstruck stupidity.
Only he didn’t leave.
Instead, he walked toward me, his lean, muscular frame moving with careless grace. He had maybe five, six inches on me height wise. Enough to intimidate if it was his purpose.
Muscular arms put the sleeves of his shirt to the test.
Drummer’s arms. They were certainly nice as body parts went, covered in ink and bulging in all the right ways. I bet they felt good, too.
And I was so obviously checking him out someone should slap me.
If I kept this up, I would slap me. Hard.
“What’s your name?” he asked, joining me at the railing.
God, even his voice felt good. The little hairs on the back of my neck stood on end with delight.
He stood close enough that our elbows bumped. His bare elbow, since he wore only jeans, a pair of Chucks, and a fitted “Queens of the Stone Age” T-shirt. Mal Ericson had touched me. I’d never wash again.
“Yeeeah, your name,” he drawled. “The point of me telling you my name, even when you already knew it, was so you’d give me yours. That’s how these things go.”
“You knew I knew?”
“The crazy eyes kinda gave it away.”
A moment later, he groaned. “Never mind, this is taking too long. I’ll just make one up for you.”
A brilliant grin lit his face. “Anne Rollins. See, that wasn’t so tough.”
I gritted my teeth and tried to smile. Most likely I resem-bled a lunatic. One that had spent way too much time imagining him naked. Good god, the shame.
Gently, he tapped his bottle of beer against mine. “Cheers, Anne. Nice to meet you.”
I took another sip, hoping it would calm the shaking. The booze wasn’t hitting me hard enough fast enough to deal with this. Maybe I should move onto something stronger.
One’s first intimate conversation with a rock star should probably be conducted over hard liquor. Ev was definitely onto something with her tequila-fueled antics in Vegas. And look how well it had worked out for her.
“What brings you here tonight, Anne?”
“I came with Nate and Lauren. They brought me. They’re my neighbors. They live next door.”
He nodded. “You’re friends with Ev?”
“Yeah, I, well . . . I’ve always been friendly with her.
I wouldn’t want to presume . . . I mean, I don’t know that I’d say we were close friends, exactly, but—”
“Yes or no, Anne?”
“Yes,” I answered, then snapped my mouth shut against another outbreak of verbal diarrhea.
“Yeah, Ev’s good people. Davie was lucky to find her.” He stared off at the city lights in silence. The amusement fell from his face and a frown creased his brow. He seemed sad, a little lost, maybe. For certain, his much-vaunted party-rocker personality was nowhere in evidence. I should know better. People had painted Ev to be the next Yoko Ono, riding on David’s coattails, sucking him dry of fame and fortune. I didn’t have to be her BFF to know it couldn’t be further from the truth. Chances were, whoever Mal was had little to do with the nonsense flowing freely on the Internet.
But more important, how badly had I embarrassed myself?
“I didn’t really get a crazy look in my eyes, did I?” I asked, dreading the answer.
“Yeah, you did.”
“So you’re a friend of Ev’s? I mean, you’re not in the music business or anything?” he asked, focusing on me once more. His face had cleared, his mood shifting. I couldn’t keep up. With the flats of his palms he beat out a swift rhythm on the balcony railing.
“No. I work in a bookshop a few blocks from here.”
“Okay.” He gazed down at me, apparently pleased with my answer. “So what was that phone call about?”
“No?” He stepped closer. “What happened to your nose?”
Immediately my hand flew up to block his view of my face. It was only a small bump, but still. “My sister broke it when we were little.”
“Don’t cover it. I think it’s cute.”
“Great.” I lowered my arm. He’d already seen the flaw, so what was the use?
“Why’d she break it?”
“She got mad one day and threw a toy truck at me.”
“Not how. Why?”
I smothered a sigh. “She wanted a kitten and I’m allergic to cats.”
“You couldn’t get a puppy instead?”
“I wanted to but Mom said no. My sister still blamed me.”
He scowled. “So you never had any pets growing up?”
I shook my head.
“That’s fucking terrible. Every kid should get to have a pet.” He appeared sincerely outraged on my behalf.
“Yeah, well, time’s past and I’m kind of over it now.” I frowned and swallowed some more beer. Everything told me I was going to need it. This conversation was just plain weird.
He stood, watching me with his faint smile. Just that easily I was riveted once again. My lips curled into some sort of vaguely hopeful idiotic half grin of their own accord. Mal. Mal Ericson. Damn, he was beautiful. My long-dormant hormones broke into a dance of joy. Something was definitely going on in my pants. Something that hadn’t happened in a very long time.
“There go the crazy eyes again,” he whispered.
“Shit.” I shut my eyes tight. Lizzy walking in on me and my boyfriend seven years ago had been pretty damn embarrassing, especially given that she then ran and told Mom.
Not that Mom had been coherent enough to care. This, however, topped it.
“Your cheeks have gone all rosy. Are you thinking rude thoughts about me, Anne?”
“Liar,” he taunted in a soft voice. “You’re totally thinking of me with no pants on.”
I totally was.
“That’s just gross, dude. A massive invasion of my privacy.” He leaned in closer, his breath warming my ear.
“Whatever you’re imagining, it’s bigger.”
“I’m not imagining anything.”
“I’m serious. It’s basically a monster. I cannot control it.”
“You’re pretty much going to need a whip and chair to tame it, Anne.”
“That okay with you?”
I covered my hot face with my hands. Not giggling. Not even a little, because grown women didn’t do that shit. What was I, sixteen?
Inside the condo, Nate started shouting. The sound was only slightly muted by the sliding glass doors. My eyelids flew open as he hurled abuse at the TV, arms waving madly.
Lauren laughed and my brain came back on line, sending all sorts of emergency signals throughout my body. Like I didn’t already realize I needed to get the hell out of there before I humiliated myself further. Good one, frontal lobe. At least I could think if I didn’t look at Mal directly. This was a brilliant and timely discovery. And it worked right up until he leaned over, getting in my face, making my lungs feel like they were about to explode.
“You have a little gap between your two front teeth,” he informed me, eyes narrowed in perusal. “You know that?”
He studied me like I was an alien species, a curiosity that had been dumped on his doorstep. His gaze slid down my body. It wasn’t as if he could possibly see anything what with me wearing a coat, jeans, and boots. But that knowl-edge didn’t help at all. His lazy, appreciative grin made my knees knock. It took about forever for his gaze to return to my face.
Damn, he was good. I’d been professionally sullied without a single item of clothing removed.
“Your eyes are a pleasing shade of . . . Is that blue?” he asked. “It’s hard to tell in this light.”
I cleared my throat. “Yep, blue. Will you please not do that?”
“What?” he asked, sounding vaguely aggrieved. “What am I doing?”
“You’re staring at me and making me feel all uptight.
I don’t like it.”
“You stared at me first. Besides, you were wired long before you came out here. If I had to guess, I’d say you’re uptight in general. But don’t worry, I’m here to help. Go on; tell Uncle Mal all your troubles.”
“Wow, that’s really kind of you. But I’m good.”
He shuffled closer and I shuffled back. Pity there was nowhere for me to go. “What were you talking about on the phone before, Anne?”
“Oh, you know . . . personal stuff. I don’t really want to discuss it.”
“You were saying your friend ripped you off and you’re going to lose your place, right?”
“Right.” I slumped, my heart hurting. Fucking Skye.
I wasn’t a pleaser, but I did look after the people I loved.
Stupid me, I thought that’s what you did. When Mom got sick, I’d stepped up, done what needed doing. There’d been no other choice. The state of my finances right now, however, would suggest it had become a bit of a bad habit. “Yeah.
That about sums it up.”
His eyes widened in sudden alarm. “Shit. Don’t cry. I’m not Davie. I don’t know how to deal with that.”
“Shut up, I’m not going to cry.” I blinked furiously, turning my face away. “I told you I didn’t want to talk about it.”
“Didn’t think you’d burst into tears. Christ.”
My beer was empty; time to go. Besides, I needed to escape before my watery eyes betrayed me. And Mal had to have better things to do with his time than talking to me.
Teasing me. This had been the most excruciatingly awkward and awesome conversation in my entire life. For a while there, I’d forgotten all about my problems.
He’d made me smile.
“So.” I thrust my hand out for shaking, wanting that final contact, needing to touch him properly just once. He’d been on my bedroom wall back home for years. I’d end meeting him on a high if it killed me. “It’s been lovely to meet you.”
“Are you trying to get rid of me?” he asked, laughing.
“Stop looking over my shoulder, Anne. Look me in the face,” he ordered.
“Are you scared you’re going to make crazy eyes at me again?”
“Yes, probably.” I clicked my tongue, exasperated. “Do you normally taunt your fans like this?”
“No. I never realized it could be this much fun.”
My hand hung in the air between us. I was about to retract it when he grabbed hold. I stared him in the face, determined not to lose it this time. The problem with Mal Ericson was that he was physically flawless. Not a single imperfection marred him, big or small. If he kept riding my ass, though, I’d fix that for him.
“What’s that look mean?” he asked, leaning in. “What are you thinking now?”
My stomach swooped and all thoughts of violence were pushed aside. “Nothing.”
“Hmm. You’re not a very good liar.”
I tried to pull my hand from his grasp. Instead, he held it firmly.
“One last quick question. This shit with your friend, that sort of thing happen often?”
“’Cause when you were on the phone, talking with your other friend, it sounded like it did.” He loomed over me, blocking out the night sky. “It sounded like it was a problem for you, people using you.”
“We don’t need to talk about this.” I twisted my hand, trying to get free. Even with the sweaty palms it was an impossible task.
“Did you notice how your friend asked for a favor even knowing you were all sad faced about this other friend ripping you off? How do you feel about that?”
I yanked on my arm, but he held fast. Seriously, how strong was this bastard?
“Because I think that was kind of a low move. Between you and me, I don’t think you have very good friends, Anne.”
“Hey. I have great friends.”
“Are you fucking kidding me? They rip you off and expect shit from you when you’re down. Seriously, dude.
Only assholes would do that.”
“But what’s worse is that you’re letting them. I don’t get that.”
“I’m not letting them do anything.”
“Yes, you are,” he said, voice rising in volume. “You so are.”
“Good god, do you have a mute switch?”
“It’s appalling! I’m officially appalled,” he yelled, clueing the whole damn neighborhood in on my life. “This must end! I will stand for it no longer. Do you hear me, Portland?”
“Let me go,” I said through gritted teeth.
“You, Miss Rollins, are a doormat.”
“I am not a doormat,” I growled, everything in me rebel-ling at the idea. Either that or running in fear of it. I was so worked up it was hard to tell.
He rolled his eyes. “C’mon, you know you are. It’s right there on your face.”
I shook my head, beyond words.
“So, I’ve given this absolutely no thought and decided that you need boundaries, Anne. Boundaries. Are. Your.
Friends.” Each word was punctuated with his finger tapping the tip of my nose. “Do you hear me? Is this getting through?”
Which is about when I snapped and started screaming.
“You want boundaries? How about getting the hell out of my face! How’s that for a boundary, huh? None of this is any of your damn business, you obnoxious dickhead.”
He opened his mouth to reply but I charged on regardless.
“You don’t know a damn thing about me. And you think you can get in my face and tear my psyche apart for fun? No.
Fuck you, buddy. Fuck you hard.”
Everything went quiet, even the music inside. The most horrible silence reigned supreme. People were watching us through the glass with curious faces. Lauren’s mouth was a perfect O.
“Shit,” I muttered.
What had I done? Lauren had invited me to this nice party and I’d just gone psycho on one of the guests. It was time to wither and die, I could feel it. “Please let my hand go.”
“Anne, look at me.”
“C’mon, gimme your eyes.”
Slowly, wearily, I turned back to him. The slowest of smiles curled his perfect lips. “That was fucking awesome.
I’m so proud of you right now.”
“Yes. You really are.”
“You’re just thinking that now. But give it some time.
Think about what I said.”
I just shook my head in silence.
“It was great to meet you, Anne. We’ll talk again real soon,” he said, pressing a kiss to the back of my hand before releasing it. There was a light in his eyes, one I didn’t want to decipher. One I certainly didn’t trust. “I promise.”