Lily stares at the movie, tight in her grip. And after a long moment of contemplation, she pops it open and inspects the disc inside.
Scott has crossed a line. Maybe he sees this as a drama-inducing ploy, but this is beyond that. It’s beyond just giving Lily a movie. He might as well be passing a drug addict a joint. I’ve seen the amount of p*rn she’s had to trash. I’ve seen her cry at the foot of her bed until Rose consoled her. There were three months when Lo was in rehab, when she was struggling to recover from her addiction, and she had no one but me and her sister. And we were trying the best we could to get her to stay sane, to get better.
And shit like this—it’s how something bad starts. One small moment can change everything.
“We need to talk,” I say to Scott. “Alone.”
He obligingly follows me to his bedroom on the main floor, Brett close behind, but as soon as Scott slips inside, I shut the door. The wood almost hits the camera. I lock it, and I ignore Brett’s disgruntled look.
Two computers are sprawled on his bed. I scan everything quickly. The papers that splay on his pillow, a camera opened and on pause. I can barely make out the image on the tiny screen, but it looks like footage from the drinking game.
“What is it?” he snaps. “I don’t have all day.” He glowers like I f**ked with his show.
He f**ked with my friends.
But we’re not even. I’ll never be even with him.
“Say whatever you want,” I refute, my complacency slowly and painfully leaving me. “Call me a prick, call Rose a man-hating prude. Call Lily a slut and Loren a bastard. But don’t f**k with their addictions.”
“I gave her a movie, Connor,” he says like I’m being ridiculous. If Rose was here, she’d spit in his face. “Not a dildo.”
“You don’t understand sex addiction. And that’s fine. Not everyone does. But you know exactly what you’re doing. I’m asking you nicely to stop. The next time, I won’t be as kind.”
Scott laughs a bitter dry laugh that spikes my irritation. “It’s funny,” he says, “this is the first time you’ve been in my face in a while, and it’s not even for Rose…” He eyes me up and down. “Does she know you’re attracted to her sister?”
I near him, gritting my teeth. “You are grasping for drama. Literally pulling at anything ridiculous you can latch onto. Shall I educate you then?” He opens his mouth but I don’t give him the chance to refute. “I’m secure enough in my relationship with Rose that I don’t bite off the cocks of men who wrong her or call her a bitch. She’s more than capable of biting them off herself. I’m here, now, in your face because that girl in the living room has no teeth.”
Brett knocks on the door, and I hear a muffled angry yell against the wood.
I don’t take my eyes off Scott. “They’re addicts, Scott. You kick Rose and me down, we’re going to feel like shit but we’ll get back up. You kick Loren and Lily, and they may not. This isn’t drama for television. It’s real and painful, and if you put them in those places, you don’t need to be scared of anyone but me. I will kill you myself.”
And I mean it.
Not because Lily is Rose’s sister. Not because Loren is my friend.
But because there are some things in this world that are just wrong.
Scott nods, whether it’s sincere or not, I don’t know. “I’ll take that into consideration.” Not.
I can’t stay here. I might punch him. And hitting people is something I consider stupid. It solves nothing.
I turn around and leave, passing an infuriated, pudgy cameraman as I do so.
In the living room, Lily is talking to Lo. “Please. Just once. It’s not porn, Lo. We can even fast-forward all the dancing. I just want to watch a movie like a normal person again.”
“We can watch movies,” Lo retorts. “Just not ones that might trigger your compul—”
“Might! Keyword. And I won’t! I promise!”
His face twists in pain. Lo has told me how much he hates saying no to her, but it’s tough love he’s slowly sunk into. “Lil, if I asked you for beer, what would you do?”
“It isn’t the same thing!”
“It is!” he yells back. “And the fact that you don’t get that worries me.”
Silence lingers between them for a long moment before she says, “Okay…” She hands over the DVD. “Lo…I just want to be normal.”
He pulls her into his chest and kisses the top of her head. “I know, love.”
I step farther into the living room until Lo sees me. His eyes meet mine. “Where is he?” he growls, referring to Scott. He detaches from Lily and charges forward. I put a hand on his chest.
“I talked to him.”
Lo’s eyes redden with hate and hurt. He knows what Scott’s attempting. “He can’t f**king do this, Connor.”
Lo searches my face for what…maybe strength, comfort, reassurance. I try to give it as best I can.
“I won’t let anything happen, I promise. He won’t screw with your relationship or your addictions.” It’s a big promise. I usually only give out ones I’m one-hundred percent confident I can keep. This one is a tossup really.
“Thank you,” Lo says, his amber eyes full of gratitude. I see something else in them. Apologies. For doubting our friendship after the screening party. For doubting me.
It feels nice to be back in Loren Hale’s good graces. I think that’s the thing about friends who aren’t quick to let others in.
When they do give you their friendship, it means something more.
[ 29 ]
We reach a frozen lake on our run, which turned into more of a walk with the heavy snow. Ben, who’s proven to be clumsy, has tripped over his gangly legs three times, even stumbling over a root buried beneath thick white powder. Ryke helped him up after the second and third fall to make sure he didn’t sprain an ankle. Ben was assigned to follow Lo, Ryke and me only because Brett can’t run, and Rose has latched onto Savannah, picking a favorite. I’m not surprised it was the girl.
It’s hard to ignore the guy holding the camera, especially one that has face-planted twice. But we’ve all somehow adapted these past few months.
Lo turns to Ryke and me with a focused look. “So I have some big news.”
“Please tell me Lily isn’t f**king pregnant,” Ryke immediately jumps to conclusions.
Lo sends him a patented Hale glare. “It’s about the wedding, you a**hole.”
“You didn’t give me any f**king hints. Don’t be pissy.”
“Not that I don’t enjoy these brotherly spats, it’s cold. Can we get to the point?” I ask.
“My bachelor party is coming up,” Lo explains. “And I have to pick my best man…” He looks between us. “So you can see I’m at a dilemma.”
“How?” Ryke asks, his brows bunched in confusion. “I’m your f**king brother.”
“Yeah, but I’ve known Connor longer.”
“By what? A couple months.” He points accusingly at me. “He doesn’t even f**king love you.” Ryke’s voice carries, disturbing the birds as they fly from their tree branches.
“It’s nothing personal,” I defend, my voice easier and calmer than Ryke’s. “I don’t love anyone.”
“There you go,” Loren says like I make complete sense. I must have really been forgiven yesterday. “It’s a tough choice. My best guy friend…” He motions to me adding the obligatory guy since his best friend happens to be Lily. “…and my half-brother. One of you will be royally pissed at me if I make the decision.”
“Connor doesn’t get pissed,” Ryke says.
“I do,” I reply. “I just don’t let you see my anger.”
Ryke gives me an annoyed look. “You don’t even want to be his best man.”
“That’s not true. I’d love the position.” I wait for my choice of words to crawl under his skin.
“You don’t love anything,” Ryke groans in distress.
“Hey!” Lo cuts in and physically pushes Ryke back as he steps closer to my body. But I’m not afraid of getting punched. “To make it fair, you two can flip for it.”
“No,” I say quickly. “I’m not leaving this up to chance.”
Lo shrugs. “Then you’ll both just have to share it.” He puts a hand on each of our shoulders, standing between us. “Co-best man,” he says to Ryke and then looks to me. “Co-best man.”
Ryke glares at me.
And I say easily, “I’m toasting first at the wedding, just so you know. I’m afraid you’ll scare the children.”
“My point exactly.”
He restrains himself from flipping me off. “I’m standing closest to Lo when Lily walks down the aisle.”
I don’t like losing this part. “You can stand behind me,” I tell him.
Ryke glares harder.
“Or beside me. On the right side.”
“We can always tie you to the arch.” I’d actually really enjoy that. “I’ll set out a bowl of water so you don’t get thirsty.”
Lo laughs while Ryke just shakes his head.
“There isn’t going to be an arch at his wedding,” Ryke reminds me. “It’s indoors in a f**king church.”
Right. I forgot. Formal. Traditional. Lily and Lo seem more likely to be married in the middle of a comic book convention—or something else far from the norm. When Rose proposed an outdoor wedding to her mother, she quickly rejected it. Three times. In text, phone and email. That was not a good day for anyone.
“I’ll tie you to a pew then.”
Ryke takes another step forward, and Loren puts his hand on his chest.
“You should be honored,” I tell him. “I only tie up the people I really like.”
Ryke rolls his eyes dramatically and shakes his head. “I’m not backing down from this.”
He’s his brother. He should be his best man. The loss is going to sting, but I can manage. Just as I go to relinquish the title, I notice the questioning in Lo’s eyes, the narrowed gaze, wondering how much I’m going to fight for this. If I care at all. He’s naturally insecure about friendships since he’s had very few.
So I look back to Ryke and say, “Let’s just flip for it.”
“Yeah. Why not?” Because my odds are now fifty-fifty.
Lo brings a quarter out of his pocket. “Who wants to call it?”
Ryke nods to me. “Go ahead, princess.”
“Stop, you’re making me blush,” I say flatly.
He actually laughs, and both Lo and I share a smile. His brother hasn’t relaxed this whole trip, not with Julian here and Scott threatening to unhinge his brother’s life.
Hearing that sound from him lifts the whole mood of our run. “Heads,” I tell Lo.
He tosses the coin in the air, and it comes down into his palm. He cups his hand over the quarter, and I hear the mechanical groan of Ben’s camera as he zooms in over my shoulder.
Lo uncovers the coin.
This is why I hate gambling.
I usually lose.
[ 30 ]
“This week went by so fast,” I say, watching the snow fall outside, the dark sky illuminated by the ski resort’s bright lights in the distance.
We fly back home soon. Back to rabid paparazzi. American television. And my mother. Even though Ben, Brett, and Savannah have followed us around, it’s been nice to have a house that isn’t rigged twenty-four-seven with cameras.
Connor sidles up behind me, and his hands slip around my waist. I sink back into his chest, the action so much more natural now. It’s hard to believe that months ago I was scared of this intimacy. Now all I think about are ways to be closer.
He pulls my hair off my shoulder and kisses the sensitive skin of my neck, marking a line up to my ear. My nerves prick with each feather-light touch. “This week may have gone by fast, but tonight will feel so…” His warm breath tickles me. “…unbearably…” He brushes the straps of my nightgown, and they fall off my shoulders. “…slow.”
The air nips my skin, and he runs a hand from my thigh, along the curve of my hip and settling his palm on my breast. He tugs the silky fabric to expose them. A breath hitches in the back of my throat as he kneads my breast with one hand, standing behind me while I stare at the snowfall. His muscular body overtakes my frame, no space between us, and I eagerly wait for his skin to meet mine, for his shirt to be gone, his pants to disappear. Please, yes…
He massages my breast with force and want, rippling a new feeling through my core. I ache for him. All of him. His thumb flicks my hardened nipple back and forth, shivers cascading down my spine.