“You totally love me.” He gave me a squeeze. “I’m your everything. You’d be lost without me.”
Thankfully, this time when I scrambled off of him, he didn’t try to fight me. I pulled down my old T-shirt and smoothed back my bed hair, getting myself together. “It was just a stupid teenage crush. Don’t let it go to your already swollen head.”
“The big one or the little one?”
Mal just laid there, his fingers sitting steepled atop his bare chest. He watched me without comment. His eyes, they saw far too much. After a moment, he sat up, his feet hitting the floor. He yawned and then stretched, cracking his neck. “You know, that’s the first decent sleep I’ve gotten in ages.”
“With me passed out on top of you? It can’t have been comfortable.”
The shadows beneath his eyes had faded and he seemed more relaxed, stretching out his long limbs. Still, he rubbed at the back of his neck. “No, it wasn’t really. Go figure. Guess we should be sleeping on the couch every night from now on.”
“My bed is broken.”
He pushed back his hair, gave me a smile.
“You’ve been having trouble sleeping?” I asked.
“A bit, I guess.”
“Something on your mind?”
“Dunno. It’s nothing.” He avoided my eyes.
“It’s something.” This was the first real in he’d given me. Or first vague in. Either way, I needed to take it. “What’s going on with you? What’s wrong? Sometimes I look at you and you seem so … ”
“What? I seem so what?”
His face blanked, his hands settling on his hips. Tension radiated from his body like a force field. “Nothing’s going on. I told you that shit wasn’t up for discussion.”
“Sorry. I just thought maybe you’d like to talk about it.”
“Not up for discussion kinda means, I don’t want to talk about it. Got it?” His voice was hard and he used it like a weapon. Accordingly, it hurt.
“Okay,” I said quietly.
Anger thinned his lips. “You know, Anne, you’re the last f**king person who should be pushing me about anything. We had a deal, an understanding.”
Oh no, he did not. My chin jutted out. “And you’ve stuck to it so well.”
“What the f**k is that supposed to mean?”
“I went to the party. I played my part.”
“And you spent the night trying to prove you’re the world’s greatest lover or something. There wasn’t anyone around to see some of those kisses, Mal. They were all about you proving you’re the shit because that’s what you decided to do.”
“They were about more than that.” A muscle popped in his jaw. It was kind of impressive and a little scary. But screw him.
“’Course they f**king were.”
I stared at him, a little taken aback. “Okay. I didn’t realize. But don’t rip my head off for crossing a few lines because I’m worried about you. I don’t like seeing you sad either.”
“Fuck,” he swore and his face stilled. He linked his hands behind his head, muttering some more expletives. Then he let out a long breath, never taking his gaze off of me. His mood had shifted, the anger gone from the air. Ever so gently he reached out and traced my swollen bottom lip. “Looks sore.”
“It’s okay.” My voice wavered.
“I overdid it. Sorry.”
I wilted, the anger seeping straight out of me. His eyes were sad again and this time, it was all about me. I had no defense for that. “If the worst thing to happen to me is that you think it’s fun to kiss me and lie to people about me being pregnant with your child, my life will probably be pretty sweet.”
His smile lacked commitment, there and gone in an instant.
“Mal, if you ever want to talk, I’m here.” I should probably have shut up but I couldn’t. “It’s okay.”
He looked away.
“To be honest, I’m not exactly great at sharing either.” My hands flexed and fisted, flexed and fisted, as if to demonstrate the point. Awkward as all hell, I hated feeling helpless. Why couldn’t he just spill so I could try and fix whatever was wrong already?
“Can we stop talking about this now?” he asked the wall.
“Thanks.” He reached out, tugged on a strand of my hair. Then his hand slid around to the back of my neck and he drew me in against him. Damn, he smelled good. I got giddy. Maybe there was also a little relief over the argument ending, hard to tell which. With my cheek pressed to Mal’s chest, my brain malfunctioned. I wrapped my arms around his waist, getting a solid hold on him just in case he changed his mind and tried to peel me off of him.
“That was our first fight,” he mumbled.
“Yeah. I won.”
“Pfft. Okay.” His arms tightened around me. “I’ll give you that one. But only because you’re being so childish about it.”
He breathed out hard. “I don’t want to fight again.”
“No,” I agreed wholeheartedly.
“Is it safe to come out yet?” Lizzy asked, peeking around the kitchen door. She gave Mal a quick once-over and then realized what she was doing and looked away. I didn’t blame her, but I didn’t like it. Man, now I was getting jealous of my own sister. Ridiculous, especially given the man had an army of women after him. If I planned to hang out with a rock star I’d need to get used to this.
“Your sister and I have to go have make-up sex now. It’s very important for the long-term health of our relationship.” Mal started forcibly stepping us toward the spare room. “But you have a good breakfast and a very nice day. Just leave the dishes; I’ll take care of ’em later. It was lovely to meet you, Lizzy.”
“Mal, you’re strangling me.” Or that’s what I tried to say. With my face pressed up against his hard chest, it came out garbled. Most likely my words were completely unintelligible.
“What was that?” He loosened his octopus hold enough to allow me to take a good deep breath. Phew, oxygen, my dear old friend.
“Why don’t you put some clothes on? I’m going to help Lizzy cook breakfast,” I said.
Lizzy watched us with eyes popping out of her head. Fair enough, really. We’d apparently entered some alternative universe where Mal Ericson was all over me like a rash. How mind-bendingly breathtakingly amazing. I needed to make the most of this before he went on tour. Soak up all the memories I could.
“You’re the worst girlfriend I’ve ever had.” He pouted. It shouldn’t have been charming. But of course it was.
“Yes. The very worst ever.”
“I’m the only girlfriend you’ve ever had.” Fake or not, it was the truth.
“Yeah, you are.” He held my face in his hands and covered it in kisses. Everywhere but my poor, sore lips. I don’t know what I’d done exactly to earn such an outpouring of affection, but I was profoundly grateful for it just the same. My heart up and keeled over; gave up the war. Hopefully my panties were made of sterner stuff. Given last night, I highly doubted it, however.
“We good?” he asked, lips brushing against my cheek.
He laughed and wandered into the spare room, kicking the door shut behind him with some faux Fred Astaire dance move. The man was all class in his snug boxer briefs.
“I’ve never seen you smile like that.” Lizzy leaned her shoulder against the kitchen door, watching. “You look kind of stoned.”
“Ha. Yes, he has that effect.”
She had her careful face on. I rarely liked anything I heard when she had her mouth set like that. What with me being the older sibling, I didn’t see it often. But when I did, it was never good. “I um, I didn’t mean to hear what you guys were saying. But your apartment is pretty small.”
“I need you to not ask me any questions about this, please.”
I agreed to nothing.
“Whatever is going on between you two, this deal you have, is it going to end up hurting you, Anne?”
I hung my head, scuffed the sole of my foot against the floor. My sister and I didn’t lie to each other. It was a rule. One we stuck to without fail. No matter the crap Mom peddled, Lizzy and I were always straight with one another. “I don’t know.”
“You think it’ll be worth it?”
“That’s two questions,” I said with a small smile.
“Call it an early Christmas present.”
“He’s great, Lizzy. He’s so great. I’ve never met anyone like him.”
She nodded slowly, dusted off her hands, and then squeezed them tight. More nervous traits we’d inherited from our crackpot of a mother. “It’s like he’s turned you back on. Getting away from home helped but … he’s found you again or something.”
“Found me? I’ve always been right here, Lizzy.”
“No, you’ve been gone a long time.”
I stared at the floor, lost for words.
“So, I thought you were inviting Reece to join us this morning.”
My mouth dropped open in surprise. Talk about a first time for everything. “Shit. I said I’d call him. I totally forgot.”
“Poor, Reece. You know, I think this is going to be character building for him.” Lizzy grinned then stopped and sniffed at the air. “Bacon’s burning!”
We rushed into the kitchen in time to see smoke rising out of the pan and blackened strips of bacon that had shriveled away to nothing. What a waste. I turned off the burner, emptying the remains of breakfast into the sink. Normally, the fridge would be full for our Sunday brunch. But this week I’d been too busy. “Never mind, we’ll have toast instead.”
“You two are coming to band practice, right? The guys won’t mind.” Mal walked into the kitchen, still zipping up a gray hoodie. The man belonged in a jeans ad he wore them so well. And I was still hanging out in my elegant sleepwear, unwashed, and with what had to be greasy hair. He peered at the charred mess in the sink. “Lemme guess, I’m taking you out for breakfast after all?”
“No, we’re having toast. You have practice today after that party?” I asked. The merriment of last night had lasted into the early hours. “That’s dedication.”
“Only four more days till the tour kicks off. Time’s a-wasting.” Mal paused. “And we’re going out. You can’t expect me to live on bread and water. You gotta feed your man better than that, woman.”
I did my best not to get weak at the words “your man” and thereby set the feminist movement back fifty years. Proximity to Mal was a dangerous thing. “Sounds great. Let me grab a quick shower.”
“Good idea. I’ll wash your back,” he said, following me into the living room.
“Why don’t you keep Lizzy company?”
“Why don’t I keep you company?” His voice dropped in volume. “I could clean that special place for you with my tongue. Promise I’ll do a good job.”
“Wow. That’s really sweet of you.” Oh, boy. I clutched at the bathroom door handle for support. “Two words for you, Mal. Fatal. Attraction.”
His smile was huge as he waved away my concerns. “Hello, I don’t even own a rabbit. And let’s face facts, you’re not that strong, pumpkin. I could easily disarm you if I needed to. We’ve been getting along so well. Come on, it’ll be fun.”