Yet another lie. Would it ever end?
“Don’t panic, asshead,” Avery said, placing her hand on my arm. “You don’t have to fess up to anything. It’s just . . . I think he brings out something good in you.”
“Plus, he’s pretty hot,” Ella said with a dreamy look in her eyes. “And he’s different than your normal type, which is a refreshing change.”
If they had noticed, did that mean Kai had, too?
“And I really like your best friend,” Ella said, looking back at Dakota. “So bring her back with you for a visit in the fall.”
She kissed my cheek, and they turned to head back to our friends.
“Wait!” My voice rang out. I looked back at Kai for courage and then mouthed sorry to him. He shook his head and turned back to the stage to watch the band set up.
“Listen, guys,” I said as they turned back toward me. “I do have to fess up.”
They looked at each other, confused.
“I haven’t been a very good friend. I realize that now,” I said, my voice wavering. “Worst of all, I didn’t tell the truth.”
“What do you mean?” Avery asked, looking past me at Kai.
“Not only did I keep stuff from you.” I bit hard on my lower lip. “I . . . I told you a lie because I didn’t want to face up to my own truth.”
“What kind of lie?” Ella asked, a worry line etched between her brows.
“About my ex, Miles,” I said. “It’s a long story and I’ll tell you sometime if you want to hear it. I mean, if you still want to hang out with me.”
“Out with it, dickhead,” Avery said. “No holding back this time.”
And just like that, it felt like old times. Like everything would be okay.
They didn’t look angry, just concerned—and a bit disheartened. And I didn’t blame them.
“The short version is: He didn’t give me an engagement ring, it was just a stupid promise ring. And I didn’t leave him at college. He left me. He didn’t want to stick around during my recovery.”
Ella’s hand slammed over her mouth. “That’s awful.”
“Yeah.” I nodded. “But, my lie was awful, too. I guess I didn’t have enough faith that people would want to get to know me if they knew the whole truth. Not after the way I was treated in this town right after my accident. People just . . . disappeared. They didn’t know how to act around me most of the time.”
Ella reached for my hand, sadness in her eyes. In Avery’s, too. They silently waited on me. Giving me their full attention. And for once I didn’t back down from their scrutiny. I didn’t try to hide or make a joke.
“I don’t know who I’ve become these past three years,” I said. “But I don’t want to be that girl anymore.”
Still they remained quiet. Dragging it all out of me with their unspoken sympathy, understanding, and—hopefully—acceptance.
Dakota might be a different story.
My heart hammered in my chest. “Can you forgive me?”
“On one condition.” Ella folded her arms across her chest, like a disappointed parent scolding her child. “We’re allowed to ask you questions and make you talk about stuff. We care about you. You shouldn’t have to hold all of that in.”
“Ella!” Avery said, laughing.
“No, that’s fair. Absolutely,” I said. “It’s a deal.”
“We’ll have more girl time later,” Avery said. “Now go have fun with that gorgeous guy waiting on you.”
I nodded and turned back to Kai.
When I neared him, he reached out his hand. “Grab it. I don’t want to lose you.”
As soon as I gripped his fingers, I could breathe again.
He was my anchor, my respite, my North Star.
I don’t want to lose you either, Kai.
As we trudged to down the grassy slope, the rain began to fall in heavy layers, so we darted beneath the cover of the pavilion. We looked up the hill to try to spot our friends but couldn’t make anything out through the mayhem of people sprinting to their cars. Of course, plenty of people had remained to splash around in the rain and watch the show’s headlining band.
The Black Tresses’s first note sounded as we made our way to our seats. We seemed to be a million miles away from our blankets on the lawn, and I was thrilled that Rachel had accompanied me to watch my favorite band play.
Our clothes were drenched, our hair dripping wet, our eyelashes glued together. We found the fifth row and I was practically elbowed in the face and kneed in the balls while getting to our primo spots. We were practically close enough to touch the band, and I could feel the frenetic energy of this crowd as they yelled and swayed to the music. We remained standing at our seats, because everyone around us was up and moving like a tightly wound live wire.
Eyes glued to the stage, I leaned toward Rachel. “You okay?”
She smiled and nodded, hovering close to me since the people on either side of us were attempting to dance on their chairs.
I recognized the band’s first couple of numbers and reveled in seeing them perform live. The bass player was one of the best I’d heard, and his upright, which looked hand-carved, with an ebony fingerboard, was fucking sweet. Rachel held up her phone with a text from Dakota that our friends had piled in the rental van and were heading home.
I felt guilty that Shane and Dakota would have to squeeze into those seats to fit, but also thankful that I had driven separately, so I could enjoy the entire show. Even still, I leaned down and asked, “Do you want to take off, too?”
“Hell no,” she said and then lifted her phone to snap a selfie of the two of us. I felt like I resembled a drowned rat, but Rachel looked gorgeous with her brown hair plastered to her forehead and her green eyes beaming at the lens. She also took a few shots of the band, which she promised to text me later.
By the middle of the set, I noticed that Rachel was shivering beside me. I slid over and wrapped my arms tightly around her, hoping to keep her warm. She immediately relaxed against my chest, so I knew I’d made the right decision.
It felt like we were in our own little sanctuary—surrounded on all sides by people we didn’t know, and, fuck, I wanted to savor it. The privacy and the freedom to be out in the open with her. Nobody questioning anything. Questioning us.
Overcome with emotion, I leaned forward to kiss Rachel’s hair, at the exact location of her scar. I hadn’t even thought it through—it just felt natural. She looked up at me, eyes wide and lips quivering, as if I’d done something so private, personal, secret.
Then she cast a quick glance over my shoulder, and at the crowd, as if we’d been caught being close. Intimate. The moment she realized that we were anonymous, the corners of her lips tugged into a gorgeous and playful grin.
I planted a soft kiss on her shoulder and then my fingers traced her chin before slipping down her throat. I brushed aside her hair to feather my lips along her hairline. She trembled and tucked her head against my neck.
My fingers traveled down her arm to the soft sliver of skin above her shorts and I tugged her more firmly against me. I was sure she could feel how aroused she made me, but I didn’t give a shit. It felt too damn good—too damn right—having her so close.
It was amazing how responsive she was to me. Her breaths escaped from her lips in shuddery whispers, and her nipples pebbled beneath her shirt. I could hear—or rather feel—her low moans, despite the chaos of the crowd and the noise of the band.
She swung her ass across my crotch, and it was so seductive, my breath scattered in gusts of wind against her hair. If anyone had been watching, they might have assumed we were simply swaying to the music, when in fact I had the impulse to lay her down on the grass and strip her naked. Feel her soft skin and bury myself deep inside her.
She placed her warm hand over mine, urging my fingers beneath her shirt. My palm crept upward, slipping over her moist flesh, and enclosing her breast. Skimming beneath the lace of her bra, my thumb traced circles around her nipple, as she whimpered and arched her back.
I groaned into her neck and then trailed the tip of my tongue to her ear. “I fucking want you so bad.”
Her eyes wilted to half-mast upon hearing those words. Twisting her head, she kissed the hollow of my throat, her lips like a suction cup against my damp skin.
She clutched my shoulder and tilted her face, her mouth moving closer to mine. My tongue flitted out, outlining her lips, and her eyes darkened with need. Our breath mingled and our lips brushed as we stole the smallest of kisses. Kisses that did nothing to quench my craving for her.
Her mouth found my ear. “I want you, too . . . so much.”
I could barely focus on the music because her fingers were in my hair, and her other hand had slid up my shirt to tug lightly on my nipple ring. My knee was resting between her legs, and my dick was pulsing so goddamn hard against her back.
I looked into the deep pools of her eyes and saw something there.
It was more than desire. It was more like a promise of things to come.
I sealed my mouth over hers and our tongues darted out to taste each other. She spun in my arms and wove her hands around my neck. I deepened the kiss and pulled her body flush against mine, keeping in mind that we were in a public place.
We stayed close throughout the rest of the set—stealing kissing and touches and secret glances against the backdrop of my favorite music, not giving two shits if anybody was observing us.
I watched her expression as the lights from the set illuminated her features, and I saw how lost she was in the moment. She was as engrossed as I was, and it felt like something had shifted between us. I wasn’t ready to name it, nor did I want to. I just wanted to feel it, experience it, live it tonight—with this girl who meant the world to me.
After an impressive fireworks display as the grand finale, we weaved our way through the crowd, fingers interlaced, never once considering letting go. I was positively drunk on Rachel, and given her furtive glances my way, she seemed equally as intoxicated. Call it longing or passion or lust—I didn’t know which.
Her hair had begun to dry, and it fell in soft waves at the top of her neck. She looked sexy as hell. Even the black eye makeup that had crept beneath her eyes made her look like a seductive vixen. Her thumb was rubbing circles against my palm, and, God, I wanted her more than ever right then. If only we could head somewhere private, where I’d have her to myself all night.
She tripped over a puddle, getting our shoes even muddier, and we laughed about the state of our clothes.
All of a sudden we heard a low voice behind us. “Rachel.”
We turned to see Miles behind us and an audible gasp fell from Rachel’s lips. Miles looked from Rachel’s face down to our entwined hands, and just like that, our secret bubble of happiness was ruined.
His eyebrows rose to his hairline. “Are you two . . . ?”
I dropped her hand and felt frustration well up in my chest.
“Of course not,” I said, leaving out the words asswipe. “I’m just looking out for her, like a good friend would.”
There was deeper meaning in those words, and Miles understood it immediately. He flinched as if I’d slapped him.
“Okay, dude, no harm,” he said, holding up his hands as if in surrender. “You’ve always been a great friend to Rachel.”
Rachel snapped out of her surprise and seemed to finally find her voice as her eyes warily scanned the crowd. “So . . . who are you here with?”
She was afraid that someone else had seen us, and now my gaze searched the area as well.
And that’s when I saw her, the same blond from the casino standing between two parked cars off to the side. Shit. Just what Rachel needed tonight.
I noticed how Rachel squared her shoulders and waited on Miles’s response. Miles turned and stepped a couple of feet forward, awkwardly grabbing for the blond’s hand. “I want to introduce you to someone, babe.”
The blond stepped into his embrace, and he wound a secure arm around her shoulder. She had trouble meeting Rachel’s eyes. “This is my . . . girlfriend, Melanie.”
My eyes shot to Rachel, wondering if she’d need me to have her back, but she stood strong and resolute. And then she stretched out her hand. “Melanie, nice to meet you. I’m Rachel.”
Melanie’s face brightened in relief. After all, she knew who Rachel was and what a fuck up Miles had been. “You, too.”
For the first time in ever, I felt a bit of admiration for Miles. At least he had the balls to admit he’d made a mistake. To try to move past what an idiot he’d been.
I’d been a dumbass all these years, as well.
We all fuck up in some way or another. The point was to own up to it and move on. And I could tell that was what Miles had been trying to do.
“Hi, Melanie. I’m Kai.” I moved closer to Rachel and placed my fingers at the small of her back, no longer caring what Miles thought. “Did you guys enjoy the show?”
Miles’s face broke out into a grin. It was probably the first time we’d ever shared sincere pleasantries with each other. “Yeah, it was cool. But now we’re beat and headed home.”
“We are, too,” Rachel said, and then turned as if to continue walking to my car. Like she didn’t want to stay another moment to make small talk with her ex-boyfriend and his new girlfriend. And I didn’t blame her.
With a small wave she said, “Drive safe, Miles.”
She and Miles shared one last lingering gaze. Almost like a normal good-bye between friends.