“How about Connor’s limo?” Lo asks with a smile. “Do you think your driver would mind?”
“I would mind,” Connor tells him. “You’re charming, Lo, but not enough to make me want to sit in your—”
“Stop.” I cringe and cover my ears. Gross. Guy-talk. No.
All three of them laugh and I wave down the bartender. “What do you want?” Lo asks me.
“Just a beer.”
He nods and lets me order for myself. I slide my fake ID to the bartender, and she hands me a Blue Moon.
“You don’t want to go in those bathrooms,” Connor tells Lo. “They’re disgusting. I think I might call the CDC when we leave. You need a hazmat suit just to walk in there.”
Lo grins at me and raises an eyebrow. No! Connor is just being over dramatic.
“You rarely venture into smoky clubs,” I tell Connor. “I’m sure you’re just not used to a place that doesn’t have a bathroom attendant and complimentary mints after you pee.”
“I’ve lowered myself to these standards before, but there are some places no human being should go.”
Lo smiles into another big gulp from his drink. I let the issue drop but plan to sneak into the restrooms later to make my own conclusions.
After a couple more drinks, Lo starts asking Ryke questions and I struggle to hear over the cacophony of sounds: drunken college students, newly blasting music, and Connor practically yelling into his phone as he talks to my sister.
“Yeah! I’d wear a peacoat!”
What? Is Rose asking him for fashion advice? The world really has gone mad.
He grimaces. “I can’t hear you! Hold on!” He presses his palm to the speaker. “Lily, can you save my seat?” Before I can agree he’s hopping off the stool and charging towards the door. Connor Cobalt doesn’t push his way through bodies; he saunters into the masses and waits with an impatient scowl before people part and make man-made paths for him. I smile in amusement and turn back to place my coat on the stool.
But a blonde rushes to take it before I can claim the spot. Oops.
“I don’t have any siblings.” I overhear Ryke say. “It’s been pretty much my mom and me since I was a kid.”
Lo shifts, uncomfortable by the topic of mothers, especially after his phone call with his father. So he redirects the conversation. “How did you get into running?”
I’m surprised Lo chooses to ask questions and not be evasive like usual.
“When I was little, my mom put me in a lot of races. She told me it was either tennis or track, and I picked track.” He laughs to himself. “I have a thing for running towards finish lines.” I can believe that.
“That’s funny,” Lo says bitterly, “My father always tells me I run away from everything.”
Lo’s cheeks sharpen, his lips forming a pout.
“Forget it,” Ryke says quickly. “You don’t have to answer that.”
“How much of what I’m telling you are you going to exploit?” Lo asks.
Ryke frowns. “What are you talking about?”
“The article,” Lo reminds him. “I’m expecting to be in the tabloids by the end of the semester.”
“I wouldn’t sell you out.”
“Isn’t that what they all say?” Lo turns back to the bar and orders another drink. To me, he asks, “Want another beer?”
I shake my head. What I really want doesn’t reside at a bar, but Lo has jumped into the rabbit hole of self-involved drinking. I can’t pry the shot of whiskey from his fingers, and he’s had enough liquor to forget about my problems.
“We need to toast,” he tells us and holds up his drink in salute. “To Sara Hale. For being a f**king bitch.” He throws back his shot and I steal a glance at Ryke.
His eyes narrow to hard stone. “Maybe you should switch to water.”
“If I’m bothering you, you can always run towards the door.” He takes his next shot in hand.
Ryke tensely leans back and shoots me a wide-eyed look like do something.
No, I mouth. There’s nothing I can do. I see the end of the night. Lo wants to pass out. He wants to reach that point so he can drown his feelings. No matter what I say, he’ll continue to do it. Even if I plead and scream and beg Lo to stop, he won’t.
He needs to wake up by himself, and nagging Lo will only push him from me. That’s not what I want. Or what I need.
Ryke shakes his head at me in disapproval and watches as Lo curses his mom again in a more callous toast.
“Can you not?” Ryke spits.
“What’s it to you?” Lo watches the bartender help someone at the other end, waiting for her to return to this side.
“I generally don’t like toasting to bitches and whores.”
“No one’s making you,” Lo retorts.
Ryke looks distressed as he runs a hand through his brown hair. “I know you hate your mom—”
“Do you?” Lo spins towards him.
“Let’s go dance,” I tell Lo, tugging on his arm. He jerks away from me and glares at Ryke on the other side.
“You don’t know me,” Lo sneers. “I’m sick of you acting like you understand what I’m going through. Did you live in my house?”
“Did you watch the cops take away my bed because my mom claimed it belonged to her?”
Ryke rubs his jaw. “Lo—”
“Did my father grab your neck”—Lo places a hand on the back of Ryke’s, bringing him close—“and tell you, ‘son…’” He pauses, only inches separate their faces, and something intangible circulates in the air, a tension so thick I can hardly breathe. “…‘son, grow the f**k up.’”
Ryke refuses to back down. He meets Lo’s challenge, not deterring from his sharp gaze. He even goes one step further and sets a gentle hand on the back of Lo’s neck. “I’m sorry,” Ryke breathes with so much hurt that it takes me by surprise. “I’m so f**king sorry, Lo. I’m here for you now. Whatever you’re going through, I may not have experienced it, but I’m right here.”
And just like that, Lo takes his hand off Ryke, the strangled moment passing. What kind of response did Lo expect? A fight? Another verbal showdown? Something other than compassion—that’s for sure.
Lo flags down the bartender and acts like nothing happened. Like Ryke never offered to help in some giant immeasurable way.
“Let’s go dance,” I try again.
He avoids my gaze. “I’m busy. Dance with Connor.”
The bartender slides over another small glass. Should I leave him alone? Ryke drinks from a water bottle and watches him carefully. He’ll stay here with Lo. I’ll just…go. Maybe he’ll remember me and follow after a while.
When Connor returns, I convince him to dance with me—the chaste, friendly kind with more than twenty inches between our bodies. Occasionally I glance back at Lo, but he drinks silently, staring off at the towering racks of bottles behind the bar. The only difference is the burger in his hand, which gives me some relief. At least the food will soak up some of that liquor.
I try to relax and concentrate on the pumping music, drifting away from Lo and his worries. The bump bump bump of the bass carries me.
In the pit with other bodies bouncing up and down, I lock onto wandering eyes, and for a brief moment I connect with another guy. The clandestine looks set my blood ablaze and it takes all of my energy not to follow them subconsciously.
After our sixth song, Connor looks back to the bar and someone takes an invitation to dance against my backside. His hands linger on my hips. I don’t see his face, and in my head I imagine it being Lo or maybe Prince Charming. Someone other than Mr. Reality.
I close my eyes and float on the idea. The hand moves across my belly and then up underneath my shirt. Past the soft flesh of my abs and onto my padded bra. My breathing shallows and I sink back into the body.
I feel a hand tightly grip my wrist and yank me forward. I stumble into a chest as he wraps an arm around my shoulders in a brotherly way. “Go grope someone else,” Connor tells the guy calmly, but his hand tightens on my elbow. It was real? Not a fantasy?
My body heats and I refuse to look at my handsy dance partner. He mutters something under his breath and walks off. I steal a glance at the bar, but Lo is now in a heated conversation with Ryke, waving his burger around so wildly that lettuce falls out of the bun.
Connor puts his hands on my shoulders and makes me face him fully. “Lily,” he says, a rare drop of concern on the edge of his tongue, “What the hell is going on?”
I want to shrink in place. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Not when Lo is already spiraling. My throat becomes swollen and just as I’m about to mutter the stupidest lie in the world, Ryke saves me.
He bounds over with a water bottle in hand and a scowl creasing his eyes. “Lily,” he snaps. “I need your help.” He points to the bar. “Lo is going to be piss drunk in five minutes. You need to tell him to switch to water. Every time I say a word about it he throws back a shot of whiskey just to spite me.”
“He’s eating a burger.” Is defending Lo engrained in my DNA?
Ryke stares at me, dumbfounded. “Don’t do this right now. He needs his girlfriend. This is not going to be like Halloween, okay? I’m not carrying him up to your apartment unconscious.” He rubs the back of his neck with a shaking hand.
I take a shallow breath. “I’ll go try.” I push past people and slide into the empty bar stool beside Lo.
He barely acknowledges me, but he says, “Just when I was starting to like that f**king prick.”
“What did he do?”
“He doesn’t take a hint. I don’t want to talk about my parents. I don’t want to talk about his mother when I don’t have one. I don’t want him to badger me about drinking.” He takes another shot. “What the hell is this article on anyway? Two rich kids with silver spoons in their mouths? Or two spoiled brats who became destructive fuck-ups?” Lo’s words spill out clear and coherent. He rarely slurs, but there’s an edge to his voice that comes with drinking a lot, and I hear it tenfold.
“I don’t think he’s asking about that stuff for the article,” I say softly, “maybe he just wants to get to know you.”
“Why?” Lo asks with furrowed brows as if it’s completely foreign for someone to befriend him.
“He cares about you.”
“Well he shouldn’t.” Lo orders another drink as he pops a French fry in his mouth.
“Maybe we should leave.”
“No. This place has good liquor and food.”
I wait for the sexy smile or maybe a flirtatious joke but he’s consumed with what’s in front of him. And I just sit off to the side. Even if I take off my shirt and fling off my bra, he’ll keep that glass in his hand. He’ll drink until everything melts away. So I keep my clothes on. The only tactic I have in my arsenal is completely worthless.