“Why are you here again?” Connor asks.
Ryke’s jaw hardens. “I’m Lily’s friend.”
“Well, I’m Rose’s boyfriend and Lily’s friend,” Connor says. “I don’t know if you’re good at math but…” He flashes his prep school smile. Oh…Connor…
Rose smacks him lightly on the arm. “Stop, we’re here for Lily. The two of you, get a grip. We don’t have much time left.”
She hands me a black plastic bag and I take a quick peek inside, already knowing it contains the very last of my porn. I forgot about one of the shoeboxes in the back of my closet the last time I threw everything away.
“So I guess I just toss this stuff in?” I turn to Rose for instruction. She nods and I take a couple steps forward.
“Don’t catch on fire. You’re made of fur,” Ryke warns me. Oh yeah. I stop a foot away and slowly pull a couple of the magazines from the bag. I roll them up so that Connor and Ryke can’t tell what they are. I really don’t need to add to my embarrassment today.
“Goodbye, porn,” I say under my breath and toss them in one-by-one as quick as I can. The fire cracks and sparks and I step back a little. Now I am kind of scared I’ll catch on fire.
Hurriedly, I finish with the magazines and throw the empty bag in last.
“Now your vows,” Rose announces. “Read them out loud.”
Right. I stuff my hand in the pocket and pull out a slip of paper. My fingers are already pink from the cold, but I manage to fold it open quickly anyway.
I only have a few items on my list, but each one is a little painful to say. At least in front of Rose, Connor, and Ryke. They move around the trash can so that I can see them clearly, which makes this even harder.
“One,” I say in a small voice. “I will not look at porn.”
“I thought this was supposed to be a proclamation.” Ryke rocks on the balls of his feet. He leans forward and says, “I can’t even hear you.”
“Say it like you mean it,” Rose agrees with a supportive nod.
“Scream it,” Connor adds.
The fire lets out another loud crack and it triggers something in me. Or maybe the unbridled confidence of my friends does. I take a deep breath before I yell, “I will not look at porn!”
Ryke starts clapping. Connor lets out a whistle with his fingers, and Rose gives me a smile. The pressure on my chest builds but also lightens with each word. In this moment, maybe their confidence is contagious.
“Two. I will not masturbate!”
They’re still cheering and I focus on the paper in my cold fingers.
“Three. I will not be compulsive about sex!” I scream it, and yet I know this will be the hardest vow to live by. The most difficult to control.
“And four,” I pause as I look at these final words. They mean the absolute most to me. “I will not cheat on Loren Hale!”
My blood is pumping from the fire, my friend’s supportive cheers, and my words—so much so that I toss the paper triumphantly into the flames.
“What the hell?!” Rose shrieks. I jolt backwards and check my arms to make sure I haven’t caught on fire. I’m okay though. I touch my cap. Wampa’s fine too.
“What?” I ask, confused now.
I look back up and see Rose about to faint in distress. “You burned it,” she says like I’m the one who lost my mind.
“I thought I was supposed to.”
“Why would you burn your vows? They’re supposed to help you.”
“Then what’s the fire for?” I point at it accusingly.
“For the porn, Lily.” Rose groans into her hands and looks up. “Okay, we have to do it again.”
“No,” we all say unanimously.
Rose turns on Connor first. “This is important,” she complains, her hands going to her hips. She means business, but I have no intention of repeating this. I think one LVD is enough for a lifetime.
“She read it aloud. Isn’t that the point, Rose?” Connor asks.
“It’s bad luck.”
“Please tell me you’re not superstitious.” Connor tilts his head, scanning the length of her as though she’s morphed into a gypsy—the magical kind, not the gaudy ones you see on TLC. “Are you going to tell me you practice witchcraft and sorcery too?”
“This isn’t the seventeenth century, Richard,” Rose snaps. “If it was, I suppose you’d have me burned at the stake.”
“I wouldn’t have the chance. I’d already be dead.”
“For what? Being a smartass?”
He edges closer to Rose, only a couple feet away, and I’m surprised when she stands her ground, not taking one step back. His eyes flit across her porcelain cheeks, her pink nose from the cold, and her striking cat-colored eyes. “I would mention how the Earth revolves around the sun, and they’d cry heretic. You, of course, would be accused of heresy or witchcraft by eighteen.”
“I’d survive,” she declares.
“You would,” he nods. “You’d cut your beautiful hair in order to.” His fingers skim her brown glossy locks that stop at her chest.
“You think if I cut my hair I would look like a boy?” she retorts, defensive. I guess to protect herself back then, she would need to be a man. She jerks out of his grasp, eyes as cold as ice.
He doesn’t shrink back. He takes the challenge with a fervent smile. “I think you would make an effort to, and I’d keep my smart ass lips shut so I didn’t die.” He looks her over. “Then I’d pretend to be with a man just so I could do this.” One of his hands slides across her neck, the other cups her face, and he presses his lips to hers, drawing her closer as they kiss.
Her hands hang loose by her side, and as he melds his chest to her, closing every gap, she relaxes her arms around his shoulders. Internally, I’m waving Connor Cobalt and Rose Calloway flags, cheering them on.
When they part, their warm breath smokes the cold air. Rose’s eyes are surprisingly soft, but her words remain fiery. “And then we’d both be dead,” she reminds him. “We’d be hung for sodomy.”
“Then I’d die with you. Happily.” He grins, and her lips rise in an equally infatuated smile.
And then the doorbell rings, breaking their moment and successfully ruining Rose’s pleasant mood. “I still have to put out the fire,” she says in distress.
Connor squeezes her arms lightly, and her attention returns to him. “I’ll go mingle with your mother. Take your time, hun.” He kisses her softly on the cheek and disappears inside the sliding glass doors.
It’s in this moment that I realize how well Connor knows my sister. Most guys would choose to save the girl from manual labor. But Rose would rather delay any conversation with our mother. As she walks off to find something to smother the fire, Ryke approaches me with a stiff gait, his hands still firmly pocketed in his jacket.
I lick my chapped lips, as hesitant as him. “What?” I wonder if he’s going to chastise me for something I did with Lo. Maybe talking to him again. He’s never been on my team. Not really. He’s sided with Lo far more often.
“I’m sorry,” he says, the words sounding so sincere that I almost stumble back in shock.
He rolls his eyes, his features darkening. “Don’t make me say it again.”
My brows crinkle, and I tug the flaps of my Wampa cap lower to shield my flush and the incoming gust of wind, not sure what else to say since he’s left me in a state of confusion.
He runs a hand through his hair. “I thought you’d cheat on him and break the guy’s soul,” he admits. “I didn’t think you could do it. And I was wrong.” He pauses and then his eyes meet mine, and I see Lo in them. “I’m sorry for being an a**hole, for not understanding…I think that he needs you as much as you need him.” He nods to himself, as though realizing how right those words are as he says them.
So, he may not be rooting for me exactly. But he’s supporting our relationship. That’s even better. I can’t help but smile.
Ryke actually smiles back. “You’re okay, Calloway.” With this he pats my shoulder and then turns around, heading for the warmth of the indoors.
Rose shovels a light layer of snow into the trashcan, and the fire hisses and smoke plumes in the air. She tosses the shovel to the side and smacks her hands together to clean off the dirt. When she sees me watching, she nears and tightens my coat around me, finding the hooks to snap it closed.
“Thank you,” I tell her, “for these three months.”
Her eyes flicker to mine. “You did all the work.”
“Not true,” I say with a small laugh. She found my therapist. She decorated the house. She spent more time helping me than I can even add up. “I’m happy I’m here.”
“Me too,” she says, her eyes softening again. She’s starting to get good at that. Her arm wraps around my shoulder. As we go inside, I know that the future may not be so easy. I know that there will be more issues to deal with.
But I can’t imagine going back to how things were.
Now it’s time to start building relationships.
I think I’m ready.
Lo comes home tomorrow.
I don’t think my brain can process anything else for the day, yet I’m sitting in Dr. Banning’s office trying to go over some heavy topics before Lo returns. My poor brain is about to emergency eject right out of my skull.
But I don’t want to quit, not when I’m so close to having some sort of breakthrough about my addiction. I feel like I’m on the verge of answers. I just need something to click.
Dr. Banning runs a hand down the side of her short black bob, her eyes intent on her notepad for the moment. My fingernails are bitten down to the beds, and I rub the tops in an attempt to ease the sting. It only hurts more.
“Lily.” Dr. Banning finally looks up and I meet her gaze. She gives me a warm consoling smile and I relax a little. “You told me you were having a housewarming party. How did that go?’
“Fine,” I say, running my hands on my jeans and inwardly cringing at the word. Fine. Such a stupid word really. It feels empty and weightless. It’s the kind of word you use to hide the truth.
“And your parents know that Lo will be returning home from rehab. How do they feel about him living with you after all of this?”
I mull over the question, hearing my mother’s response instead of my own. “Work it out.” Three words that had me more confused than anything.
“They’ve always approved of our relationship,” I tell Dr. Banning. “Rehab didn’t change that. I’m not sure anything would.”
“What if you told them about your addiction?” she questions.
My stomach churns at the very thought, but I imagine my mother with her cold judgment and my father’s shame for having a dirty, disgusting daughter. I couldn’t…
“They wouldn’t understand.”