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“Gah! Stop,” I whisper yelled at him. “I can’t tell if you’re serious or not. You’re hurting my head.”

He leaned down, getting in close. “Look at me; I am totally serious. You’re not drunky Anne today, you know what you’re doing, and I feel like f**king. Let’s renegotiate. This agreement is no longer working for me. I wanna talk to my lawyer!”

“Oh, you feel like f**king?”

“Well, yeah. I’m not used to going more than a day or two. It’s making me antsy.” He did a little jig on the spot to demonstrate. “I don’t like it. C’mon, Anne. Help a friend out. It’ll be good.”

“Hands down, that’s the most romantic thing I’ve ever heard. I can pretty much feel my legs just falling wide open for you right now.”

“What do you want, some bullshit about love?”

“No.” But maybe something terrible whispered deep inside of me. It needed to shut up.

“You want a song? No problem. I’ll ask Davie to write you one later.” He put a hand to either side of the bathroom doorway. “I know you wanted to go for it last night. But I wanted you sober. Now you are. I want you. You want me. Let’s f**k.”

My heart went into overdrive, but I forced myself to calm down. “You’re right, I did want to last night. I still want to. But this is not the time, Mal. My sister is here.”

“I’ll come quick.” His brows bunched up. “Wait, I didn’t mean it like that. It’ll be fast but great. Anne, you might diss my kissing but I’m telling you now, my o**l s*x skills are off the chart. I know all about getting dirty down under. Let me show you, pretty please?”

“Mal …” I couldn’t even think what to say when he gave me pleading eyes. He had me bouncing between emotions as fast as he changed moods. Angry, horny, and amused all blended into one. “Lizzy is just in the kitchen. She can hear every word we’re saying.”

“We’ll shut the bathroom door, turn on the shower. With the water running she won’t hear a thing.”

“God, you confuse me. I don’t think my head has stopped spinning since you walked in the door.”

“You can be confused later. But come on my face now, please?”

Which is about the time I started panting. Horny was definitely winning the race. Fortunately my baggy T-shirt hid the worst of the hard nipple evidence. I pushed him back with a hand while I still had the strength. “We’ll talk about this later when we’re alone. Go bond with your supposed future sister-in-law. Please.”

“Fine.” His whole body drooped. “But you’re missing out big-time.”

“I don’t doubt it.”

“I might not even be in the mood later, Anne. You could completely miss out and that’d be it, life ruined.”

“I consider myself duly warned.”

“Last chance.” He rolled out his big pink tongue like a dog. Though that was probably being mean to dogs. In all likelihood, canines showed more discretion. “Thee? Iths really long.”

“Will you please put that away?” I laughed.

Instead he grabbed the back of my head, dragging the length of his warm, damp tongue up the side of my face. I froze against the onslaught. “You did not just do that.”

“It’s a sign of affection. You think I salivate on just anyone?”

“You … I can’t even.”

“There are women who would kill to have me licking their face. You do not even begin to appreciate just how lucky you are to have my spit. Now lick me back.” He pointed to his jaw, demandingly. “Anne, do it. Do it now, woman, before I get offended.”

I giggled, my whole body getting in on the act. Which was getting dangerous. “I need to go to the bathroom. Go away. Stop making me laugh.”

“I like making you laugh.”

“Yeah, well, me peeing my pants would be less cool. Go on.”

“Hold up.” He grabbed my wrist, his voice quieting. The way he could switch from clown to calm in an instant was nothing short of amazing. “One, that was too much information. Two, you and Lizzy coming to band practice with me?”

“You’re sure that’s okay?”

“Yes.”

“Then we’d love to.” I nodded. This had to be the most insanely perfect moment ever. Me with a full bladder and a full heart both at once. “We just have to make a phone call first, then we can go.”

“Good. Three, admit you lied about not liking my kisses last night.” His gaze held me fast.

No point denying it any longer; I liked him and I wanted him so much it hurt. The minute I had him all alone, it was on. His fingers were still wound around my wrist as I cupped his jaw. The scratch of his stubble against the palm of my hand and the warmth of his skin was divine. But it wasn’t enough. I needed to give something back. Some small part of the crazy, confusing, lusty joy he gave me. He held perfectly still while I reached up and pressed a careful kiss to his cheek. “You’re right, I lied.”

The tension lines around his mouth eased. “You did.”

“Yes. I’m sorry. You just kind of overwhelmed me and … anyway, you’re the best.”

He pumped his fists into the air. “I knew it! I’m the best.”

“You are.”

A simple statement of fact, but it lit up his eyes just the same. “Thanks, pumpkin.”

His smile … I had no words.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

We called Mom from my bedroom, perched on the edge of my downed mattress. Mal was busy watching TV in the living room, a cup of coffee in hand.

I nodded and Lizzy took out her cell, selected the contact, and set the phone to speaker. Then she held it between us. My skin prickled. The air seemed cold and hot all at once. Fuck, I hated this. I hated it with a passion. But in my head, Mom was so closely entwined with anger and frustration I couldn’t separate her from the emotions. One day, it wouldn’t be this way.

“Hi, Mom,” said Lizzy, sounding cheery as sunshine in a bottle. She’d forgiven Mom already. I was still getting there.

“Hi, girls. How are you?” Just the sound of her voice brought it all back. Sitting in the dark with her, begging and pleading with her to eat just another spoonful, to get out of bed and have a shower maybe, act like a human being. To start being an adult and look after her daughters so I could go back to being a kid.

“We’re great, Mom,” I said, doing my best to sound normal. “How are you?”

“Good. Work’s been fine.”

I nodded like she could see me, relieved she was holding down a job still, being responsible for her own finances. That was good. For years I’d made do with the remains of the savings account, then whatever Dad saw fit to send.

“School’s going well.” Lizzy swapped her cell over to her other hand, talking on about college all the while. Then she put her arm around me and started rubbing my back. A sweet gesture, but honestly, being touched right then didn’t help.

My sister excelled at these conversations. She could babble on for a good ten minutes. And really, ten minutes was a long enough time frame for a weekly call home, right?

“What about you, Anne?” she asked once Lizzy had exhausted herself.

“I’m fine.”

“Anne is seeing someone,” Lizzy supplied.

I shot her a glance. “It’s not that serious.”

“He’s really great, Mom. He’s so into her, you can just see it in his eyes.”

“Oh,” said Mom, followed by a moment’s silence. “You’re being careful, aren’t you, Anne?”

It could mean so many things, but I knew exactly what my mother was saying. Had I not forgotten men were the sworn enemy? Why, look how our dad had just up and left us! Funny, men being evil wasn’t the lesson I’d taken away from my teenage years, no matter what Mom might have intended.

“Yes, mom.” I tucked my newly styled hair behind my ears, sat up straighter. “Everything’s fine.”

Mom let out a little sigh. “Good. I wouldn’t want–”

“He’s actually waiting to take us to breakfast, Mom. So we better go.”

“Alright, I wanted to ask if you girls would like to come home for Thanksgiving, maybe?” Her voice sounded hopeful, pleading. “It would be lovely to see you both.”

“Thanksgiving?” Lizzy asked, like she’d never heard of the occasion. “We’ll think about it … sure.”

Like hell.

“I don’t think I can get the time off work, Mom,” I said. “Sorry.”

Mom made a sad little noise and the heart I’d hardened toward her a long time ago paused. There was a twinge of guilt, but not enough to make me go back. Never even remotely enough for that. I had my own life now.

“But, Anne, you never take time off,” she said. “It can’t be good for you.”

“Reece depends on me, Mom.”

“Surely you’re entitled to some holidays. Are you certain he’s not taking advantage of you?”

I just stared at the phone.

“Oh, crap, Mom,” said Lizzy. “My cell’s about to die. I’m so sorry.”

“You’re always forgetting to plug it in.”

“I know. Look, we love you. Great to talk to you. We’ll talk again next week.”

“Alright, girls. Take care.”

“Bye,” cried Lizzy, carrying the show.

I mouthed the word. It was honestly the most I could manage. Thank f**k, we’d made it through another week.

Lizzy ended the call, her hand rubbing up and down my back somewhat frantically. Like I needed nurturing. I’m the one who sat her down and explained what a period was. Oh, and sex too. I’d looked over her homework, making sure she got assignments done on time. I could keep my shit together. So I hadn’t quite moved on yet from this issue I had with Mom. I’d get there.

“We’re not going home,” she said.

“Not a chance.” I crawled back up onto my feet, smoothed down the gray sweater dress and straightened my tights. I opened the bedroom door. Mal sat on the wingback, staring at the TV.

“Hey, you good to go?” he asked.

“Yeah. All done.”

He cocked his head. “What’s up, pumpkin?”

I forced a smile, walking toward him. He made me want to smile. It wasn’t a complete lie. The concern didn’t fade from his eyes, however.

But my mother wasn’t ruining this for me.

I leaned over him, setting my hands on the back of the chair, getting close. “Hey.”

“Hi,” he said, gripping my upper arms. Despite the feeling of not wanting to be touched, something in me unwound at the contact. At his nearness.

“I need a kiss.”

“Do you, now? Then you’re in luck. For you, I have an endless supply.”

God, he was so sweet.

I pressed my lips to his, kissing him lightly to start with. His hand slid into my hair, supporting my head. Then his tongue slid into my mouth. Warm, glowy, happiness filled me. This man, he had magic. At the very least, he had a magical tongue. And really, wasn’t that what life was all about? No, okay. Don’t try to follow that logic.

“Mm.” My happy place had been found.

“An okay effort,” he said, rubbing his lips together. “You could probably use a little practice though.”

“Haha.”

“You get bad news?” he asked.

“No. My mom just hurts my head.” There, let the record show, I’d officially shared.

“Yeah?”

“Yes. Let’s go get breakfast. Don’t want you to be late for rehearsal.”


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