And then I open my eyes and see the absence of the Escalade on the curb. Nola’s gone. I don’t want this to end, but I know it must. So I break the kiss first, touching my lips that swell.
His chest rises and falls heavily, and he stares at me for a long moment, not detaching.
“She’s gone,” I tell him. I hate what my body eagerly aches for. I could so easily hike a leg around his waist and slam him against the building. My heart flutters in excitement for it. I am not immune to those warm amber eyes, the ones that a functioning alcoholic like Lo carries. Endearing, glazed and powerful. The ones that constantly scream f**k me! That torture me from here until eternity.
With my spoken words, his jaw hardens. Slowly, he peels his hands from me and then rubs his mouth. Tension stretches between us, and my very core says to jump, to pounce on him like a little Bengal Tiger. But I can’t. Because he’s Loren Hale. Because we have a system that cannot be disrupted.
After a long moment, something clicks in his head, horrified. “Tell me you didn’t blow some guy.”
Oh my God. “I…uh…”
“Dammit, Lily.” He starts wiping his tongue with his fingers and dramatically takes what’s left of his flask and swishes it in his mouth, spitting it out on the ground.
“I forgot,” I cringe. “I would have warned you…”
“I didn’t know you were going to kiss me!” I try to defend. Or else I would have found toothpaste in that frat’s bathroom. Or some mouthwash.
“We’re together,” he says back. “Of course I’m going to f**king kiss you.” With this, he pockets his flask and aims his sights on the entrance to the Drake. “I’ll see you inside.” He spins around, walking backwards. “You know, in our apartment. That we share, as a couple.” He smiles that bitter smile. “Don’t be too long, love.” He winks. And part of me utterly and completely crumbles to mush. The other part is just plain confused.
Reading Lo’s intentions hurts my head. I trail behind, trying to unmask his true feelings. Was that pretend? Or was that real?
I shake off my doubts. We’re in a three-year long fake relationship. We live together. He’s heard me orgasm from one room over. I’ve seen him sleep in his own puke. And even though our parents believe we’re one small step from engagement, we’ll never have sex again. It happened once, and that has to be enough.
I inspect the refrigerator’s contents. Champagne and expensive brands of rum cram in most space. I open a drawer and discover a pathetic bag of carrot sticks. As a girl who frequently burns off thousands of calories by grinding on pelvises, I need my protein. I’ve heard enough mean comments about my emaciated figure to wish for meat on my ribs. Girls can be cruel.
“I can’t believe you lied about groceries,” I say, irritable. I slam the fridge closed and jump on the counter. For however historic the Drake claims to be, the inside looks more like a modern escape. White and silver appliances. White countertops. White ceilings and walls. If it wasn’t for our red and gray upholstered furniture and framed Warhol-inspired art décor, we’d be living in a hospital.
“If I knew I was going to make a pit stop at Douchebag Row, I would have bought you a bagel at Lucky’s.”
I glare. “You ate this morning?”
He gives me a duh look. “Breakfast burrito.” He pinches my chin, still taller than me even though I’m on the counters. “Don’t look so glum, dear. I could have always stayed at the diner while you found your own way home. Want me to rewind time?”
“Yes and while you’re leaving me to escape the frat house, you can go and pick up groceries like you told Nola.”
He sets his hands on either side of me, my breath hitching. “I change my mind. I don’t like that reality.” I want him to lean in, but instead, he edges back and starts gathering liquor bottles from the white cabinets. “Nola needs to think I feed you, Lil. You’re looking a bit skeletal. When you breathe, I think I can see your ribs.” Boys can be cruel. He pours whiskey into a square glass beside me.
I purse my lips and open a cabinet above his head. When I slam it, he flinches and spills whiskey all over his hands.
“Jesus.” He finds a towel to dab up the puddle of alcohol. “Did Mr. Kappa Phi Delta not do his job?”
“He was just fine.”
“Just fine,” Lo says, his eyebrows rising. “What every guy loves to hear.”
Red welts surface on my exposed arms.
“Your elbows are blushing,” he tells me, a smile growing as he re-pours. “You’re like Violet from Willy Wonka, only you ate a magic cherry.”
I groan. “Don’t talk about food.”
He leans over, and I stiffen. Oh my… Instead of taking me in his arms—something I imagine in a momentary lapse of weakness—he brushes the bareness of my leg while grabbing his cell from the charging dock. I immobilize again. The touch barely fazes him, but my insides ripple in eagerness and want. If he was a no-named, redhead with splotchy acne, I may still feel this way. Maybe.
My fantasy tangles: Lo keeping his fingers on my knee. Roughly leaning over me, trapping me beneath his weight. My back arching against the cabinets—
“I’ll order pizza if you go take a shower. You smell like sex, and I’m reaching my limit of inhaling foreign male stench.”
My stomach collapses, and my fantasy poofs into reality. I hate picturing Lo and me unchastely together because when I wake up, he stands inches from me, and I wonder if he can tell. Can he?
I scrutinize him while he sips his whiskey. After a lingering moment of silence, his brows scrunch and he looks at me like what the hell? “Am I going to have to repeat myself?”
He rolls his eyes and takes a large swig, not even grimacing as the sharpness of the alcohol slides its way down. “You, shower. Me, pizza. Tarzan eat Jane.” He bites my shoulder.
I ease back. “You mean Tarzan likes Jane?” I hop off the counter, about to go wash off the frat house from my skin.
Lo mockingly shakes his head. “Not this Tarzan.”
“Alcohol makes you mean,” I say casually.
He raises his glass in agreement while I pad down the hallway. Our spacious two bedroom apartment masquerades as our lover’s den. Pretending to be together for three years hasn’t been simple, especially since we started the ruse as seniors in high school. When we decided on the same college, our parents actually proposed our living situation. They’re not very conservative, but even so, I doubt they’d understand or agree with my lifestyle, bedding more guys than is appropriate for a young girl.
My mother cited my eldest sister’s college experience as reason enough to share a space with my “boyfriend.” Poppy’s random roommate brought friends over at all hours, even during finals week, and she used to leave her dirty clothes (including panties) on my sister’s desk chair. Her inconsiderate behavior was enough for my mother to settle on off-campus housing for me and push Lo right into my bedroom.
It’s worked out for the most part. I remember a weight rising off my chest once the doors shut and my family was gone. Leaving me alone. Letting me be.
I step into the quaint-sized bathroom and shimmy off my clothes. Once in the steaming hot shower, I exhale. The water washes away the smell and grime, but my sins are here to stay. The memories don’t vanish, and I desperately try not to imagine this morning. Waking up. I love the sex. It’s the after part that I haven’t quite figured out yet.
I squirt shampoo on my hand and lather it in my short brown locks. Sometimes I picture the future. Loren Hale working for his father’s Fortune 500 company, dressed in a tight fitting suit that chokes at the collar. He’s sad. I never see him smile in my imagined futures. And I wouldn’t know how to rectify it. What does Loren Hale love? Whiskey, bourbon, rum. What can he possibly do past college? …I see nothing.
Maybe it’s a good thing I’m not a fortune teller.
I’ll stick to what I know. The past—where Jonathan Hale brought Lo to informal golf games with my father in attendance. Me by his side. They discussed what they always do. Stock, ventures and product placements for their respective trademarked brands. Lo and I played Star Wars with our golf clubs, and they chided us when I bruised Lo’s ribs, swinging my light saber too haphazardly and too hard.
Lo and I could have been friends or enemies. We always saw each other. At boring conference waiting rooms. In offices. At charity galas. In prep school. Now college. What could have turned into a cootie-driven relationship with constant teasing transformed into something more clandestine. We shared all secrets, forming a club with a two-person quota. Together, we discovered superheroes in a small comics shop in Philly. Something about Havoc’s galactic adventures and Nathaniel Grey’s time-traveling plights connected with us. At times, not even Cyclops or Emma Frost could fix our troubles, but they’re still there, reminding us of more innocent times. Ones where Lo wasn’t boozing and I wasn’t sleeping around. They allow us to revisit those warm, unadulterated moments, and I gladly return.
I finish scrubbing last night’s debauchery from my body and slip my arms in a terry cloth robe. I cinch it around my waist as I head into the kitchen.
“Pizza?” I ask sadly, noticing the bare counters. Technically they’re anything but bare, but I’ve become so desensitized to Lo’s liquor bottles that they might as well be invisible or another kitchen appliance.
“It’s on its way,” he says. “Stop giving me those doe eyes. You look like you’re about to cry.” He leans against the fridge, and I subconsciously eye the zipper to his jeans. I imagine his gaze on the strap to my robe. I don’t look up to ruin the image. “When’s the last time you’ve eaten?”
“I’m not sure.” I have a one-track mind, and it doesn’t involve food.
“That’s discomforting, Lil.”
“I eat,” I defend poorly. I see him pulling my robe in my fantasy. Maybe I should drop it for him. NO! Don’t do it, Lily. I finally look up and he watches me so carefully that my face immediately begins to heat.
He smiles into a sip of his glass. When he brings it down, he licks his lips. “Do you want me to unbutton them, love, or should I wait for you to get on your knees first?”
I gape, mortified. He saw right through me. I’m so obvious!
With his free hand, he pushes his button through the hole and slowly unzips, showing the hem of his black tight boxer-briefs. He watches my breathing go in and out, jagged and sporadic. Then he takes his hands off his jeans and leans his elbows on the counter. “Did you brush your teeth?”
“Stop,” I tell him, way too raspy. “You’re killing me.” Seriously, my entire body, not just my lungs, hyperventilates.
His cheekbones sharpen, his jaw locking. He sets his drink down and then zips up his jeans, fishing the button back through.