“Thanks for letting me know,” she said at last. “Mal’s been acting strange since he came up a week ago. Manic … more so than usual. Then other times he just stares into space. We’ve tried talking to him, but he says nothing’s wrong.”
“We don’t know if he’s depressed or on drugs or what. And after having Jimmy go through rehab so recently …” She gave me a small, sad smile. “I’d appreciate you not mentioning this to anyone.”
“Anyway, I’m done for the day. I’d better get going. David will be wondering where I am. It was good to see you.”
“Come over again soon, okay?” She backed toward the door, waving good-bye. The request seemed genuine. It soothed my heart. After the horror of Skye I could do with some real friends.
“I will. Thanks again for the caffeine.”
She gave me the rock-star chin tip and then she was gone.
Reece wandered back out, his own cup of coffee in hand. “Your friend go?”
I snapped back to reality, dragging my mind away from the six-foot something conundrum that was Mal. My mind liked lingering on him far too much. He’d apparently become my new go-to thought despite all of the other things happening in my life. “Yeah, she had to get back to work.”
“You’re frowning. Still worrying about the bitch?”
I nodded the lie. Though it wasn’t exactly a lie. I worried about everything. Mal had been wrong. Uptight wasn’t my thing, worry was, and right now I was worrying about him. I shook off my frown, drank some more coffee. “Why don’t we do some work today, boss?”
“This is why you should be in charge.” Reece sighed dramatically. He had an impressive business degree behind him while I’d only barely finished high school, but most days it seemed I was the one with the work ethic. When mom went through her darkest days after Dad left, I couldn’t just leave her on her own. The day I came home to find her lining up codeine and sleeping pills on her bedside table convinced me of that. So I was ‘homeschooled.’ Child Protection Services came around once and we put on a good enough show.
I made damn sure Lizzy turned up to classes at the local high school Monday to Friday, however.
Reece lifted a box of new stock onto the counter so we could start pricing it out. “Tell me more about last night.”
“Ah, I got to meet a couple of the band members. That was cool.”
“You got to talk to them?” Reece’s expression was rapt. Usually shop talk revolved around his innuendos and escapades due to my life being boring. His language, not mine. I’m pretty sure you don’t need to be balling every female in the downtown Portland area to make conversation. Perhaps that was why we’d never gotten together. Our hobbies differed so wildly.
My thoughts were remarkably bitter and twisted today.
Where had I left my happy face? Most likely it still lay on my doorstep, where it had fallen some sixteen hours ago. Malcolm Ericson had briefly resuscitated my joy before he’d started in on my supposed failings. Still, just thinking about him made me feel lighter.
Lizzy hadn’t texted me back yet. Not a surprise. Her college lifestyle kept her pretty busy. She could also be crap at remembering to charge her cell. I didn’t doubt my sister would be there for me, though. Her and her dorm-room floor. I’d left a message for my landlord and received no response from him either. Fat chance he’d give me an extension on the rent. Even if I found a new roommate in record time, I still couldn’t come up with my half of the money.
Time to admit defeat whether Reece liked it or not. Time to move on.
Said friend waved his hand in my face. “Anne, fill me in. You get to talk to them or not?”
“Sorry. Yes, I talked to Mal, the drummer.”
There was the question on everyone’s lips.
“Not much, it was only briefly. He was busy. There were lots of people there.” For some reason, I was loath to admit to more. Actually, for several reasons. Talking to Reece about another man would be weird. Also, I’d clearly blown the night out of proportion when it came to Mal Ericson. There’d been no connection. No one had looked into anyone else’s soul. My fevered imagination had clearly been working overtime last night. So I rushed right on. “David seemed nice. Ben was there too, but I didn’t really get to speak to him.”
“You’re totally dropping names right now.” He chuckled.
I gave him a friendly smack in the ribs. “You asked. It’s not name dropping if you asked.”
“Okay, okay, I believe you. Don’t beat me up. So can you get me into the next party there?”
“I doubt I’ll be going to another party there, Reece. It was a pure fluke I wound up there last night.”
“What use are you?” he joked.
The elderly tie-dyed woman shuffled toward the counter with a copy of The Alchemist in hand.
“That’s a great book. I think you’ll really like it.” I rang up her purchase and handed it over for her to put in her reusable bag. Was there anything more wonderful than sending someone home with a book you loved? No, there was not.
I turned to Reece, who was straightening up some credit card receipts. “So you want to hang out tonight?” I asked. “If you’re not doing anything. Maybe I’ll try to perfect my martini.”
“Hmm, I’m kind of leaving my calendar open tonight. There’s a girl I’m waiting to hear from.”
Of course there was.
“Buuut,” he strung out the word. “If she doesn’t call me, how about I come over for a martini?”
My heart sank a little bit. Stupid heart. I put on a fake smile. “Sure, Reece, it’s not like I have anything better to do than wait around for you all night.”
“Exactly,” he said, and I couldn’t tell if he was joking or not. At that moment, I wondered what exactly I had been chasing and why. Answer: a dream, because I was an idiot. Maybe Mal had a point about my usability. I’d covered for mom for so many years, perhaps the habit had stuck.
He was fiddling with his phone now, a goofy half smile on his face. “She wants to meet up,” he said. “So … I have a huge favor. Could you close up tonight? Since you’re not doing anything?”
“I should really say no. Shit, Reece. I’m not a total loser. I do have some boundaries.” No matter what Malcolm Ericson said.
“Please. I’m sorry. You’re right, I shouldn’t have asked that. And I respect your boundaries, I do. I’m an ass and you’re a name-dropping celebrity party animal. Forgive me?” He didn’t look sorry, just vaguely desperate. But whatever, this was Reece. The man had offered me his couch last night as an emergency home.
And let’s face facts. He was right; I didn’t have any grand plans outside of reading.
“Alright,” I said, resentment burning deep down in my soul. It soon gave way to sadness. Probably, I should buy chocolate or alcohol on my way home. A truly wise use of the extra money made from the extra hours. Chocolate martini, here I come.
“Thanks. I owe you.”
“No worries. Not like I have anything going on.”
It wasn’t as if I’d be seeing Mal ever again.
Something was wrong. Again. This time, I knew it before I walked in the door.
Work had picked up in the afternoon. There’d been no more time for worry, or bitter and twisted thoughts. Definitely a good thing. Now, I was ten types of tired. Two hours of sleep and stressing over money had done me in. The icy cold wind I’d walked in after getting off the MAX had frozen my neck and the tip of my nose. Any chocolate- and booze-fetching plan had flown straight out the window. I wanted a bath and bed. That was my entire plan for the night and it was a beautiful thing.
In a daze, I slid my key into the lock, which was when the door flew in–it wasn’t even latched. Balance shot to shit, I fell, face planting in the middle of a hot, hard, sweaty chest.
Strong hands grabbed me about the waist, holding me steady. A good thing, I really needed a hand right then or my ass might’ve met the floor. Perhaps I’d entered the wrong apartment. My mind had been elsewhere, worlds away from reality. Another apartment would certainly explain the delicious warm body I was up against.
Since when did sweat smell so good?
It was all I could do not to rub my face in, breathing deep. A sniff or two shouldn’t be going too far. Discreetly done, of course.
“Anne. Dude.” The chest vibrated beneath my cheek. “Welcome home!”
I knew that voice. I did. But what the hell was it doing in my apartment? Stunned, I blinked up at a familiar beautiful face. “Mal?”
“’Course it’s me.” He laughed. “You on drugs or something? You shouldn’t do drugs. They’re not good for you.”
“I’m not doing drugs.” Though drugs might have gone a ways toward explaining what I was seeing. Because what I was seeing was surreal. “You’re here.”
No doubt about it. He definitely was. I would know because my hands were still all over his hot, half-naked body. My hormones sidetracked any thoughts about their removal. I couldn’t blame them.
“I know,” he said. “Isn’t it great?”
I stared. How the hell did he get in? The door had been locked when I left.
“How was work?” he asked.
“Fine. Thank you.”
He smiled down at me. “I was expecting you hours ago.”
“Yeah, I had to close up and some people came in at the last minute. Mal, why are you here in my apartment without a shirt on? How did that happen?”
“It got hot moving shit.” He rolled his neck, stretching out the muscles. “You’re only on the second floor, but the stairs start to add up, you know? Nate and Lauren helped out for a bit, then they had to go. Anyway, not like you care, right? No dress code I need to know about?”
I still stared. Words came out of his mouth but they continued to make no sense. Nothing about this did.
His eyes narrowed on me. “Hang on, I’ve got my shirt off and everything and you’re not giving me crazy eyes. What’s with that?”
“Ah, I guess I’m too surprised at seeing you here.”
His brows descended, as did the corners of his gorgeous lips. The man looked seriously sad. “Been looking forward to it all day.”
“Never mind. Come on, check it out.” He pulled me into the apartment, my apartment, slamming the door shut behind me. Not answering the important question about his presence even a little. But what was truly upsetting was the way he separated my hands from his body. They wept silently. Either that or I was sweating. Most likely the latter. He had the weirdest effect on me.
“Ta-da,” he sang, waving a hand about in a grand gesture, presenting my small living room to me.
“Yeah! I knew you’d love this.”
I stared some more. Then I rubbed my eyes because they were starting to hurt. It was probably from all the bulging but I couldn’t be sure.
What the hell was happening here?
“You moved in with me somehow.” There could be no other reason for an entire drum kit appearing in the corner, let alone all the other stuff. The Twilight Zone had officially been entered. “You … huh. How about that.”
He grimaced and rocked back on the heels of his Chucks. “I know what you’re gonna say, it’s sooner than I thought too. But Davie threw me out today so I figured, why wait?”