She headed over to greet me and what’s-his-face followed behind.
“Thanks for coming,” Rachel said, and then flung her arm around my neck for a hug. I went to kiss her on the cheek, just as she turned her head, and my lips landed on the corner of her mouth instead. Ah hell.
That little taste only made me want more. “Sorry,” I said, backing away.
Color rose in her cheeks, and she had trouble meeting my eyes. “Kai, you remember Andrew.”
I lifted my hand in a wave. “Yep. Nice to see you.”
Yeah, right. If I never saw you again it’d be too soon.
“Andrew,” Mrs. Mattson said. “Dakota tells me you’re transferring your credits to TSU in the fall?”
Seriously? Well played, dude. Now I just wanted my knee to find his nuts.
Panic flared briefly in Rachel’s eyes. Maybe she wasn’t even into this guy, and it had all been my imagination.
But then she flashed him a sweet smile, and I felt confused all over again.
“Yes,” he said. “They have a great finance program and I already took all of my core classes at the community college.”
There was a closer university about twenty minutes away, so I wondered why he hadn’t just transferred there.
“And I live in Hamilton County, so the commute to TSU is shorter.”
So it would have been a toss-up either way. I needed to knock it off and stop acting like this guy was ready to propose or some shit.
Mrs. Mattson’s face brightened. “I’m glad Rachel will have more friends around.”
Rachel looked away, but I caught the subtle roll of her eyes.
Shane had just joined our group as Mrs. Mattson turned to me.
“How about you, Kai?” she asked. “What are you plans for the fall?”
Dakota showed up next to Shane with a full glass of wine. “Yeah, what are your plans, Kai?”
She was such a pain in my ass lately. The exact reason why I hadn’t confided my news to her.
“You didn’t tell them yet?” Shane said, balancing a plate of appetizers and a bottle of beer.
“Tell us what?” Dakota reached for a carrot from Shane’s plate and doused it in ranch dressing.
Rachel refused to meet my gaze, and the words seemed to stick in my throat. I just shook my head.
“He might go back to Amsterdam,” Shane said. “Same setup as last time, right, dude? Classes at the university in between working at the recording studio.”
“Yeah, Johan asked me back,” I said, finally finding my voice. Rachel’s eyes flicked to mine, but I turned to Mrs. Mattson to avoid any emotions that might pass between us. “We had a little . . . misunderstanding this spring. He called me to discuss it and offered me another opportunity.”
That conversation had happened two nights ago, when I’d been out with Shane. I’d been shocked, to say the least. I’d been mulling the move over the last couple of days, considering all of my options. My parents would definitely be impressed if I returned to Johan’s studio and got my shit together, along with my degree.
“Fantastic,” Mrs. Mattson said. “So you’ll be heading to the Netherlands again soon?”
Truth be told, I hadn’t been sure until that very moment—I decided I needed to finally make a choice. Do something. Be somebody, for Christ’s sake.
“Yes,” I said, trying to sound confident in my decision. “I’ll be leaving in a couple of weeks.”
“Wow, Kai,” Dakota said with a look of something like awe in her eyes. The first expression of support she’d shown me all summer. “Do Mom and Dad know?”
“Not yet,” I said. “I’ll let them know in the morning.”
“They should be happy about your decision.”
I nodded and threw a quick glance Rachel’s way. Her eyes were unfocused and her shoulders were stiff. She seemed to be trying to keep her mouth in a neat straight line.
Finally she met my gaze, the corners of her lips turning up, and said, “Congratulations.”
Her gaze swept over the crowd before returning to her mother. “We’re getting low on appetizers. I’ll refill some plates.”
Then she walked away, leaving me to deal with my tornado of emotions.
Stomach convulsing, I rushed to the back room as quickly as I could. We’d cleared a table for extra fruit, crackers, and wine for the opening, next to a shelf filled with my mother’s candle-making supplies.
I grabbed an additional serving tray and began loading grapes onto it.
Overcome with despair, I sagged against the table.
What in the fuck. Kai was leaving again?
I supposed he had no grounds to stay. I certainly wasn’t a good enough reason.
Going to college an hour away from home was completely different than traipsing off to a separate goddamn continent.
Sure, we had been back to friends-only status since the concert that weekend. Based on his angry outburst, all I could gather was that he thought I was using him for his body. But hadn’t he done the same? And hadn’t he encouraged just that?
After my recent hospital stay, he’d practically treated me like a porcelain doll—something I used to be able to count on him not to do.
At least Andrew had treated me like a normal girl. But I’d accepted his offers of hanging out for the wrong reasons. He was cute and nice and great, actually. The kind of guy I would have been interested in a few years ago. But I wasn’t the same Rachel anymore. Especially not after being with Kai. And shit, now I’d have to see Andrew around TSU campus, too.
I was tired of Dakota acting disappointed in me and asking me five hundred questions about the past three years. It was true that I’d avoided in-depth phone calls or visits home, which she was beginning to piece together. It was clear how much she didn’t really know me anymore.
And being around her again just reminded me how much I respected her, revered her, even—how straitlaced and honorable she’d been most of the time. How tough it had been to live up to that, even thought she hadn’t asked me to.
Instead of arguing with her, I felt some bizarre need to compensate. So I told her I was ready to date some nice guys again. As if I’d been the victim of my meaningless hookups instead of seeking out guys to get lost in.
Truth be told, I’d also hoped that having Andrew pick me up at the condo might’ve jogged something in Kai. Made him realize that he missed being with me—in an intimate way, instead of just allowing me to use him to fulfill my sexual needs.
I figured he’d moved on already. He’d been going up to the bar, and I’d overheard my high school friend Julia talking about how hot he was, so I assumed he’d hooked up with her. Of course, I’d lain awake at night tormenting myself imagining how he’d probably dirty talked her.
And finally, I had hoped that Andrew was the solution to all that was Kai. Would help me get over him, forget him. That maybe I’d slowly fall for Andrew. Like I had with Kai.
How it was like some crazy, wicked roller coaster. You’re climbing the tracks, hoping for a decent thrill, when suddenly the bottom drops out, and you’re crashing headlong into the most electrifying ride of your life.
But kissing Andrew was like grabbing on to a fizzling sparkler on the Fourth of July. And making out with Kai inspired the awe of the grand fucking finale. Opulent and exhilarating and wholly captivating.
I wasn’t sure if any guy would ever measure up to his charm, his glow, his magnetism. His dirty mouth. And truth be told, I no longer felt like finding out. I was done dealing with my problems this way. It was useless and dumb and only reminded me of what I was missing.
Before I could fully reason my way through my map of emotions, Kai came bursting through the door, shutting it closed behind him.
He stared at me, his breathing broken and heavy in the enclosed space. How someone could be so beautiful and self-possessed was a mystery. His dark hair hanging loose. His tight black pants and gray high-top Vans. It was almost painful to look at him.
“Rachel, I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner,” he said, his voice raw with emotion. “I only made up my mind to go back to Amsterdam today.”
“No problem,” I said, trying to keep my voice steady. “I’m not your keeper. You don’t need to run your decisions by me.”
“True. You’re not,” he huffed out. “But you are my friend. My best friend.”
My chest constricted agonizingly. I wanted to reach out to him. To erase this invisible wall between us. Remove my desire to touch him, kiss him, and taste him. I could see it in his eyes, too. Desire, flanked by awkwardness and hurt. Being together had fucked our friendship up royally.
He may have enjoyed our sexual relationship, but we both knew that Kai belonged to no one, least of all to me. So the most I could’ve hoped for was to hear him say those words. His plea for my friendship.
“Yeah, well,” I said finally. “It hasn’t felt that way lately.”
“I know.” He stepped forward, and I held my breath. “It’s been so messed up between us. I’m so sorry. Had I really thought it all through—that I might lose your friendship . . .”
What he wasn’t saying was that he wouldn’t have been intimate with me. And that hurt, even though it did sound mature. Because I’d prayed for him to want me—the whole package—all of me. And now he was leaving again and I wouldn’t be able even to hug him for a long time. Maybe ever. Not like that, anyway.
“I’m not going to apologize for any of it, though. It happened. It is what it is.” His fingers slipped a piece of my hair behind my ear. “But the truth of the matter is that I . . . I miss you, Turtle.”
I shuddered at his touch. His lips moved closer to my ear. “So much.”
I closed my eyes. “Me, too.”
He pulled me into a tight hug, and I reveled in his touch, being tucked inside his warm arms. Smelling his spicy scent, feeling his soft hair against my cheek while his fingers touched my back.
“This summer showed me how much I value your friendship,” he said into my hair. “And I don’t know what’s going to happen when I leave the country and you return to school.”
He tugged me flush against him. “But I don’t want to lose you again, Rachel.”
“We didn’t lose each other,” I said. “I just lost myself. And that’s not going to happen again.”
“It’s not?” He pulled back to look at me. “What about with this new guy, Andy?”
I jabbed him playfully. “You know his name is Andrew. And I don’t know. He’s nice.”
“He seems like a good guy.” He sighed. I wanted him to be angry, possessive, claim me as his own, but that had all been just a pipe dream. “I just want you to be happy.”
I nodded, feeling the sting of tears at the backs of my eyes. If he only knew what would truly make me happy.
“I just want you to promise me, Rachel,” he said.
“Promise you what?”
“That we won’t lose each other . . . ditch each other.”
He was bouncing my words back at me.
“Because no matter how you spin it,” he said, cupping my cheeks. “You left, too.”
He yanked his phone out of his pocket and began typing something. I wondered what in the hell he was doing until I heard my cell buzz with a text.
I pulled it out of my purse and read his message.
Let’s start keeping in touch now. Texts will be the easiest way, Turtle.
I nodded, and then we heard the knob jiggle and backed farther away from each other. As if we’d been caught doing something wrong. When for the first time, the only thing we were doing was being friends.
I lifted up the cheese tray, handed Kai a bottle of wine, and turned toward the door.
Dakota stepped inside the room. “Your mom sent me back here. What the hell is taking you so long?”
“Tone it down, Dakota,” Kai said, strolling around her and out the door.
I just shrugged and handed her another bottle of wine.
I was leaving in the morning and my heart—my soul—was heavy. My bones weary, as if I was just going through the motions. Even though I was looking forward to getting back into the studio, I wasn’t as thrilled about returning to the country where I’d felt so unsure of myself, lost about so many things.
But I told myself it was a step in the right direction—that I hadn’t figured things out all summer long and this would at least help keep me focused on my future.
As soon as I made the decision, the days flew by. I made preparations for travel and finished my shifts at the casino. I wanted to show my parents how sincere I’d been about being responsible and finishing my degree. Maybe I’d come back in a year and feel surer, more settled.
Maybe I’d be over her once and for all.
Since our talk at the Pure grand opening, Rachel and I had been better at the friendship thing, both of us trying to be present with each other, even though there was sadness at hand every time we were in each other’s company—as if we’d never see each other again.
So I got in the habit of texting her short status updates every day, even though we lived in the same condo. I figured that would be our form of communication when we were away, and I wanted to make sure to keep in touch this time around. I wanted to hear about her classes and her life. I wanted to be a part of her world as a friend, and maybe that would make leaving less difficult.
Out of earshot of Dakota, I told her that it was good for her to date again. That she deserved to have a healthy relationship with somebody who appreciated her. Who she could be herself around—and she almost burst into tears at my declaration. But we’d been in front of the television and Dakota could’ve walked back in the room at any moment with our popcorn from the microwave.