And then, all of a sudden, the cardboard is plucked right from my arms, and I am left in an awkward, hunched over position, avoiding the trickling plastic bag like it’s the source of the bubonic plague.
I glance over my shoulder and meet Connor’s eyes. And I trace his features quickly: his thick, wavy brown hair, his fair skin and pink lips, striking blue eyes and a conceited smile that somehow never gets him in trouble. He wears confidence like his most expensive suit, with style and dignity and so much charm. I immediately want to combat him, to match him smile for smile, grin for grin, word for word. But right now, that conceited look does not lessen my misery.
Although, I am overly grateful that my invoices weren’t scattered along the porch. My profit margin is embarrassing, and I’d rather Connor not catch a glimpse of the numbers.
“Are you auditioning to play Quasimodo?” he quips.
I flash a dry smile. “Very funny.”
“Give that here.” He gestures with his fingers to pass the food.
“I have it,” I say. “The damage is already done.” My romper will need to soak in spot-remover for an hour.
Still, he leans over and unlocks the door with his key. I don’t know why this rouses me. Maybe the fact that he has a key at all. That he lives with me. I still can’t believe our relationship has moved to that level. Especially since I have yet to fully comprehend Connor Cobalt, and we’ve been dating for over a year.
He’s the hardest person to understand because he makes it so.
But I would never admit that to Scott Van Wright.
I should be glad that my boyfriend has saved the day by grabbing my things, but the fact that I ruined it makes me feel unraveled, as though my hair is frizzy, my lipstick smudged, my dress crooked—oh, well it is stained, so there’s that. And my mouth flies open before I can shut it. “You’re good at that.”
His brow arches, seeing exactly where I’m going. “Of sticking my key into a hole.” His hand drifts to the crook of my hip.
“I said nothing about your keyhole,” I retort.
“No, I believe you were about to comment on your keyhole and my key.”
“If you’re trying to frazzle me with sexual idioms, it’s not going to work.”
“I didn’t think it would, seeing as how you were the one about to mention keyholes in the first place.” It’s as though he can read my mind. We think alike on too many occasions. “You’ve been spending too much time around your sister,” he adds, smiling as he says it.
I suppose he’s right. Lily would have been quick to make that assessment. Keys. Holes. Sex. That’s where her mind travels. I would like to say mine doesn’t go there on occasion, but I’m only human.
My eyes flicker to the camera, and Ben shakes his head like you can’t look into the lens. But I’m not embarrassed by our talk. I’m just trying to get used to the third-party presence that lingers like an awkward chaperone on a date.
“The door’s open,” Connor tells me.
So it is. I pass him my clutch and my phone. Then I sacrifice my hands and dam the hole in the bag, the sauce collecting in a pool but thankfully not streaking a red trail along the hardwood.
I head into the kitchen of my house and spot the second camera guy—Brett, short and stubby and a little plump, the exact opposite of Ben. His eyes grow big as he shoots, a steadicam attached to his chest like Ben.
It takes two-point-two seconds for me to find the source of his wide-eyed expression. Loren has cornered my sister into a cabinet, his entire body pressed against her so tightly that air can’t pass through. They kiss deeply and passionately, as if no one else lives in the same universe as them.
His hands disappear underneath her blouse, but it’s quite obvious he’s groping her br**sts. And then one hand emerges. Thank God.
He hikes her leg around his waist. Or not.
Lily lets out a sharp gasp, her fingers gripping his brown hair that’s thick on top and shorter on the sides. She’s tinier than me, and she has lighter hair than I do. I have the bigger ass, the bigger boobs and the fuller hips. She’s thin in ways that I’m not.
Connor clears his throat, and Lily detaches from Loren (or Lo, depending on my mood. I usually swap between the two. He prefers the nickname over his full-real name, but I don’t really care).
Lily’s whole face reddens.
“Did we disturb you?” Connor asks casually, setting my things on the bar.
Lo wipes his mouth, eyebrows raised. “Actually, yes.”
“Don’t be crude, Loren,” I refute as I set the bag in the sink. Lily tries to hide behind her hands. Connor and I are more comfortable in situations like these.
“Crude?” Loren says with a short laugh. “Last week you told me if you ever saw me with an erection, you’d slam my boner in a doorjamb.”
Connor nods to Lo. “In Rose’s defense, no one but Lily really wants to see your erection.”
“That’s not what you said last night,” he banters.
Connor’s lips rise. “Shh, that’s between us, love.”
I shoot him a look. “You’re asking to sleep on the floor tonight.” Their friendship, while amusing, is coming at my expense.
Connor eases close to me, and he tilts his head down to whisper in my ear, his eyes full of power. “If you think it’s best, I’ll convince you to let me back in your bed later.”
His voice is deep and sexual, and something that shallows my breath for an instant. I’m about to reply, but Lo tickles Lily’s h*ps and she squeals. They distract me, breaking whatever brief moment was occurring with Connor.
Loren is a recovering alcoholic. Lily is working on her sex addiction. They’re at a good stasis, but they can’t live alone since isolation is what amplified their addictions in the first place. So they’re here. With us.
And it’s about as awkward as it seems
With the cameras around I thought they might be more discreet, but the opposite has happened. Loren has taken PDA to a whole new level.
Some tabloids believe Loren and Lily are only engaged to repair my sister’s tarnished image as a sex addict, so Loren sticks his tongue down her throat (on camera), to give the world the middle finger for doubting their love. He really doesn’t care what the public thinks at this point.
But I do.
It’s why I have the cameras around in the first place.
Before Lily escapes Loren’s hold completely, he draws her back to his chest and playfully bites her shoulder. She fidgets with a goofy smile and slaps him on the bicep. His bites turn into kisses.
And both cameras spin off me and zoom in on them.
I don’t mind at all. Lily is wearing a signature Calloway Couture piece that viewers at home may like—a plum lacy skirt with a champagne blouse (untucked thanks to Lo’s fondling). She’s usually in leggings and Loren’s baggy shirts without a bra, so she looks slightly uncomfortable in the outfit, but I know she’s trying hard to make things right.
I tap on the faucet with my wrist, and Loren tears his gaze from Lily to see the red sauce that washes off my palms.
“Whose heart did you rip out this time?”
Scott Van Wright. I wish. “Connor’s,” I say, “but he stopped me before I got that far.”
Connor grins. “She has quick hands, but I’m faster.”
My eyes narrow. Oh, he wishes.
“When is the psychic coming?” Lily perks up, combing her fingers anxiously through her hair, and she shifts as if her body doesn’t fit her quite right. From behind her, Loren tangles his arms around her waist and rests his chin on her shoulder. She immediately relaxes into him.
His presence is a kind of reassurance that brightens her whole being. If she didn’t have Loren, I’d imagine she’d be on street corners, sleeping with random guys to satisfy her sexual compulsions. I’m more grateful that he’s here, helping her, than I’ll ever let on.
“She should be arriving soon.” I use extra hand soap and scrub beneath my nails.
Connor leans against the counter beside me. “A psychic at a dinner party,” he says, “next thing you know, we’re going to be pouring salt around the doors and creating spirit circles.”
“It’s two hours,” I remind him, “and you don’t have to believe in it to enjoy a reading.”
He watches me so intently that my heart starts to pound. My eyes skim his lips and rise back to his intense gaze. “No,” he says after a long moment, “I just have to listen to some crock stir up shit between us.”
I squirt more soap in my palm. “That won’t be happening.”
“I can tell the future better than whoever walks through that door—and I bet you a thousand dollars that she’s going to make someone cry tonight.”
“Fine,” I say. “If you want to lose a thousand dollars, then I’ll take your bet.” Who would cry? Not any of the guys. Not me. That leaves Lily and Daisy, and I do not see my youngest sister shedding a tear. And Lily—she’s a wild card. But I would bet on her strength.
“No way,” Loren cuts in. He has Lily swaddled in his arms. “That’s not a good bet. You need real stakes.”
“That’s a lot of money,” Connor tells him.
“For who?” Loren asks. “You’re the heir of a multi-billion dollar company, as is Rose. All of our parents shit gold bricks.”
“That’s disgusting,” I say flatly.
“A lap dance,” Loren suddenly says. “If Rose loses, she should give Connor a five-minute lap dance.”
My chest constricts, and I glare so hard at Loren that my eyes feel like they’re being serrated.
“You don’t have to do that,” Connor tells me. He studies the way I lock a breath in my lungs.
I am not my sister.
When it comes to intimacy, I am a chicken. I’ll fully admit that. I’m more likely to run out of a pair of arms than in them.
And Loren is aware of my hesitance. A part of me wonders if he feels badly for Connor, knowing that I’m not putting out after such a long time together. But maybe Loren’s just trying to provoke a reaction out of me.
Which everyone is about to see.
“You don’t think I would do it?” I ask Connor. I’m not sure I could grind on Connor. In public. Without being humiliated. I am confident in all areas except these: Being sexy, being skilled in bed, being great at sex. I believe, wholeheartedly, that sex is not something you can study to ace. No, you have to learn by experience.
And I have none.
So I have a feeling that once I do have sex with Connor, our relationship will be different. Any attraction that pulls between us will be cut with my sloppy moves and my inability to please him.
So far he has never pressured me to have sex, but I wait for the moment when he walks out—when he’s had enough of my high-octane personality and my obsessive compulsive behavior.
Hell, I want to walk away from me sometimes. My therapist even hates me. She’s prescribed me Alprazolam, Paroxetine, Fluvoxamine, and Clomipramine, drugs that I have taken and then disposed. On them, I feel so high I could be floating through life or I’m so heavy I could be sinking into mortal hell.
I am not the girl you want to sleep with every week. I’m the chase. The one you catch and then release. And once Connor has sex with me, he’ll be done. He’ll have won the hardest challenge of his life—de-virginizing the biggest virgin.
I know this. It’s how all men work with me.
And I never, ever let them win.
But Connor is getting close.
He watches me scrub my skin harder, my whole body tense and unmoving except for the bristle brush in between my fingers.
“Don’t answer her,” Loren warns him. “It’s a trick.”
Connor doesn’t move his gaze off mine. “I can handle her, Lo.” Yes, he may be the only one. He edges close and shuts off the faucet.
I turn it back on. “I’m not finished.” There’s a thin layer of sauce underneath my nails still.
“We both know you won’t give me a lap dance. So let’s stick to the thousand dollar bet.” His voice is unreadable. If there’s disappointment, he won’t ever let me hear it.
I feel defeated in some huge way. “I can do it,” I retort.
“I’m not trying to use reverse psychology on you, Rose. I really don’t think you should.” He shuts the faucet off again, and when I go to turn it back on, he slips in front of me, blocking the sink, and he wraps a towel around my hands.
“They’re clean,” he says.
I glance down at my romper, which is still stained. “I need to change.”
Loren cuts in, “So have we established whether or not we’ll be seeing a lap dance tonight?”
“Only if I lose,” I say.
Connor’s jaw muscles twitch, the single sign that I can read. He really doesn’t want me to do this, but I don’t like the way he’s staring at me. Like I’m a scared little bird.