Her lips tighten in a line, and she blushes. “We’re not hav**g s*x right now.”
I tilt my head, my brows pinching. “All I meant was that I can lead myself upstairs. I said nothing about sex.” I pass her on the stairs and walk in front of her.
She huffs. “We don’t have time to accommodate your ego.” She’s pissed that I took precious time away from the dire situation.
She tries to pass me on the stairs, and I hold out my arm and give her a look.
“Move faster!” she commands.
“Is the townhouse on fire? Did someone steal your shoe collection?” I ask with a growing smile.
Her neck is so stiff. She barely even inhales. “I’m going to slap you.”
I actually think she may.
I’m too curious about the Lily and Lo drama to start that fight, but it’s really tempting. I can already see her hand scorching my cheek. And then I’d shove her against the wall, bite her lip, and f**k the anger out of her, replacing it with content, vulnerable submission.
She finally exhales as she watches me, so deep that I know she must see the longing in my eyes. But we can’t have sex in the hallway. It’s rigged with cameras.
I break her gaze and go to the bedroom without another word. She shuts the door behind us, and I notice Ryke already here, pacing in front of the bed with clenched fists. I recognize Savannah’s Canon Rebel on the mattress. Before I can ask what the camera is doing here, Rose explains.
“The tequila and wine are gone,” she tells me, her hands planted firmly on her hips. She says she searched the house, and then Ryke found the bottles in Lo’s closet—empty and hidden beneath a pile of dirty clothes.
I blink a few times, trying to ignore emotions that want to pummel me backwards. I’m not used to feeling so much from something that has no direct effect on me, no cost that’ll weigh down my benefit.
“There wasn’t much in the tequila bottle. We spilt most of it on our bed,” I remind Rose with an even voice, but a lump scratches my throat. I have to cough into my fist to clear it.
“It doesn’t matter.” She points a finger at the door. “He’s been sober for sixteen months.”
“I know.” Breaking his sobriety—it’s a big deal.
I turn on Ryke who fumes, trekking forwards and backwards with hostility.
“And you haven’t stormed downstairs to confront your brother?” I ask in disbelief.
He stops in the middle of the room and points at the door just like my girlfriend did. “I’m so f**king close,” he growls. “But that’s exactly what those dickfuckers want.”
I cringe. “Can you not use that curse word? It’s ridiculous.”
Both of them glare at me.
“I’ll take cocksucker for one-hundred,” I banter, hoping to ease Ryke’s flexed muscles and Rose’s hot-tempered eyes. But I realize it’s more for me. I’m dodging. I never dodge. I just don’t want it to be true. I don’t want Lo to drink again and go down that dark path. I can’t save that kid from his demons, and watching him drown is not a show I want a front row seat to.
Ryke chooses to ignore me, finishing his rant, “They want me to scream at Lo, and then the whole world will think he’s relapsing like an irresponsible rich prick. And maybe he is…” Ryke rests his hands on his head, breathing heavily.
“You don’t believe that,” I say.
His features break, and his eyes glass as he shakes his head. “Every day I think, that could be me. I spent twenty-two f**king years with my head up my ass,” he says. “I didn’t give a shit about my f**king half-brother who I knew was living with our father—our father…” He can’t say the rest out loud.
Rose stares at Ryke with the most empathy I’ve seen her convey, her face pained like his. My stomach is in knots, and I don’t know how to untighten it.
Production never airs these intimate, painful details—the parts that shape us into the people we are. I think we all hide them too often. Sometimes from each other.
Lo has been verbally abused by their father all his life, and Ryke escaped it.
That’s the truth.
It’s what we all know.
If production truly wanted to show all of Ryke Meadows, they’d tell the viewers that he spent his last year in college helping his half-brother get sober. That he stopped hanging out with college buddies, going to parties for athletes, just to make sure that Loren didn’t turn out like their alcoholic father, to guide him towards a better road.
I admire Ryke for many reasons. But I think this is the greatest one: Loren Hale is the bastard child that destroyed Ryke’s family. Their father got another woman pregnant, conceiving Lo. And Ryke subsequently lived with his single mother after the divorce. Yet, Ryke stands here today, wanting only to protect a guy who was the catalyst for his broken life.
But Ryke doesn’t even understand the impact he’s had on Lo’s life. He really can’t see all the good he’s done. Because he’s not finished blaming himself for being so selfish those first twenty-two years, for ignoring Lo because he was attached to their father by blood and proximity.
He needs to forgive himself. I’m not sure how long that’ll take, if it will ever come to pass. We just have to wait and see.
Ryke rubs his reddened eyes. He looks like he needs to scream. Or maybe kick something. “I don’t know what to f**king do.”
“Ryke,” I say calmly, filling my voice with the most reassurance it can handle. “If he’s relapsing, you’re not alone in this. We’re going to help you take care of him.”
Ryke nods to himself, trying to believe this.
I want to add, You didn’t fail your brother. But it sounds trite and cliché. But it’s also true.
“That’s not all,” Rose says, her voice slightly shaking.
She heads over to the mattress and picks up Savannah’s camera.
Whatever’s on there—it has to do with her sister.
We lock eyes for a second before she adjusts the screen, the volume and the playback. Sometimes I feel as though Lily and Lo are the heart of us all. When they go down, a force inside of us slowly decides to break. It’s a painful reminder that we’re all human; we all have foibles and no matter how hard we think we’re keeping ourselves together—it’s other people that can hurt us the most.
Love is an a**hole. Or a bitch. I wonder how long we’ve been fighting each other.
I watch the screen as Rose hits the “play” button.
Lily and Lo are at a bookstore—a rarity for them. Usually they’re holed up in their rooms or they hide out at Loren’s office where he’s trying to build a publishing company for comic books and graphic novels.
I watch as Lily pulls Lo into the public bathroom.
They have rules based on Lily’s recovery plan. No public sex is one of the big ones. Savannah films from outside the door, but the audio picks up their voices from the microphones they wear underneath their clothes.
“Everyone is staring,” Lily whispers.
“You’re a sex addict and I’m an alcoholic,” he reminds her, “and the whole world f**king knows it. We have to get used to people staring, love.”
There’s a long moment of silence before Lily asks, “Can I give you a bl*w j*b?”
I glance up at Rose who still holds the camera. Her yellow-green eyes pierce me with an internal rage. I wrap an arm around her shoulder, so rigid she might as well be a marble statue.
Lo doesn’t exactly answer Lily. But noises emanate from the bathroom. Sucking. Slurping. Groaning comes soon after.
Rose turns off the camera. “That lasts for thirty minutes,” she says coldly. “Thirty minutes, Richard. He knows better.”
“And your sister is innocent in all of this, of course,” Ryke snaps. “She shouldn’t have asked him to have sex in the first place!”
Rose squares off with him like they’ve been tapped-in to battle for their respective siblings. “Lily has been doing really well—”
Ryke lets out a dry laugh. “That’s doing well?” He points to the camera. “She might as well have jumped on his—”
“She’s under a lot of anxiety,” Rose cuts him off. “Her entire sex life and addiction has been put up for public mocking. Let’s see how you handle thousands of people calling your dick a disease infested wasteland.”
“She’s clean,” Ryke refutes. “She knows it. We all know it.” He motions around the room. “What other people say shouldn’t f**king matter.”
“She’s trying to be stronger!” Rose screams at him, her nose flaring. I walk forward and touch her waist to calm her, but she only moves out of my hands. “Your brother, however—”
I cover her mouth with my palm. She grips my wrist to try to pry it off, but my force keeps her head in my possession. She’s not going anywhere or saying anything that will turn this situation from bad to unmanageably shitty.
“Enough,” I say calmly. Both of them fall into silence. Well, Rose is being forced into it, but her shoulders thankfully begin to relax, less on the defensive. “When you two compete over who has the better sibling, we accomplish nothing. They’re both f**ked up. Leave it at that.”
“They shouldn’t be together,” Ryke declares. It’s a statement he throws out almost every time the three of us have these little talks about Lily and Lo.
Rose politely slaps my arm this time instead of just tearing at it. So I release her.
“You break them up and see what happens,” Rose threatens, peeling a piece of hair off her lips. We could do it. We’re the oldest of our so-called group, and it wouldn’t be hard to force Lily and Lo to separate for a couple years. I think we all consider it for about five minutes before we realize what that means.
They love one another deeply. And the only reason they’re still trying to be healthy is for each other. Take that support away and they might as well be slaves to their addictions again.
Instead we sit for hours discussing alternative plans. Like taking both of them to a comic book convention. We did that months ago, trying to get them out of the house and out of their heads. Little things matter.
They have no clue we talk about them in detail. They’d probably feel guilty that we all care enough to obsess over their welfare.
“We don’t even know if he drank the alcohol,” I tell them. “It could have been Lily or…” I shake my head at the thought. “Production.”
“They wouldn’t,” Ryke says, his eyes dark. “If they f**k with their addictions, I’m done. I’m f**king off this show and they can f**king kiss my ass.”
I swear I become stupider when I hear curse words strung together.
“The only way we’ll know is if we ask Lily and Loren,” I tell him.
“They’ll lie. You think they want the three of us shoving our disapproval and disappointment down their throats?”
“So let’s not even ask,” I say with a casual shrug. “Let’s just act like they’re two dishonest, despicable addicts who don’t deserve to explain their side of the story.”
Ryke narrows his eyes at me. “You know what, I’m f**king glad that production has been editing you into a giant f**king prick. Because this…” He waves his hand. Ryke becomes overly animated with his body gesticulations whenever he’s angry. A huge part of me wants to tie him up just so he stops. “…is the most annoying shit I have to deal with in my f**king day.”
I have so many rebuttals to that, but provoking Ryke takes time. Which I don’t have right now.
“So we agree to talk to Lily and Lo?”
“I’ll get them,” Rose cuts in and slides between us to leave out the door.
[ 34 ]
Lily and Loren take a seat on my bed, and Lily keeps shaking her head the longer Connor and I explain the situation. She finally cracks when Connor mentions the empty tequila bottle. “He would have thrown up if he drank! He’s on Antabuse.”
The drug is for recovering alcoholics, causing them to be ill if they ingest liquor. It doesn’t curb your cravings; it’s merely an incentive not to drink.
Loren stares at the ground, his eyebrows bunched in confusion.
“Are you still taking it?” Ryke asks roughly.
Lo glares. “Shouldn’t you know that? You count my pills.” He’s acting abnormally sketchy, deflecting instead of outright answering his brother. I almost charge forward on the offensive, but Connor holds me by the waist, two firm hands on my hips.
Ryke rubs the back of his neck. “I stopped because I was trying to trust you.”
“I don’t know why you even ask me,” Lo says angrily. “You already think I drank.”