Cade breathed out harshly, and then faltered on his feet. I rushed toward him and took him by the arm. He smiled, and I winced at the blood in his teeth. His eyes searched my face, and when he didn’t find any injuries, he rested his hand against my cheek. It might have been a side effect of being choked, but it was suddenly harder to breathe.
“Pretty impressive, Golden Boy.”
He coughed, and then groaned. I moved closer and wrapped an arm around his waist. His hard body pressed into mine, and the heat of him seeped into my skin. His brown eyes met mine, and there were volumes written in his expression. Those volumes contained words that terrified me, but I couldn’t look away for the life of me.
“I’m sorry,” he said. His eyes closed, and he teetered toward me. His forehead pressed into my temple in a gesture that felt sweet and familiar. He swallowed, and I could feel every imperceptible change in his body.
I held tighter to him and asked, “What could you possibly be sorry for?”
“I’m getting blood on you.”
I laughed. “Only you would apologize for something like that, Golden Boy.”
His eyes were open again, and they locked on mine. He wasn’t laughing. He shook his head. “I meant I was sorry for kissing you.”
With his forehead pressed against mine, the sight of him filled up my vision. There was nothing else in that moment, but him. And he . . . he reminded me of music. Of the way singing made me feel. Like I was falling and flying, freedom and fear.
Without thinking it through, I said, “Don’t be. I’m not.”
Max led me back inside the bar, and it took all of five seconds before Milo was at my side whistling. “Damn, hermano, I think you took that promise to get pissed a little too seriously.”
I rolled my eyes and said to Max, “This is my friend Milo. Milo, this is Mackenzie.”
That was for calling me Golden Boy.
Her head swung around to face me and she asked, “Are you looking to get in another fight tonight?” Her cheeks were flushed, and her eyes sparkling.
“No, I just like seeing you angry.” She pressed her lips together and glared, but a smile was poking through within a few seconds. God, when she looked at me like that I forgot completely about the splitting pain in my head.
When I turned back to Milo, he was looking between Max and me, grinning. “You bastard, did you knock out all four commitments in one go?”
I was still leaning on Max, a little because I needed to and a lot because I wanted to. Her face angled up to mine and she asked, “What is he talking about?”
“Don’t worry about it. He’s drunk.”
I, on the other hand, had sobered up completely. I tried not to look disappointed as I removed my arm from around her shoulder.
“Thanks, Max. I’m good now.”
All I wanted to do was get home and take a long, cold shower, followed by a really hot one to ease the stiffness in my back and arms.
“What do you think you’re doing?” she asked. Her hands came up to rest on her hips . . . hips that I’d held in my hands before this all went down.
“I’m just going to head home and get cleaned up.”
Milo said, “Uh, Cade, you live at least twenty minutes away and your face is leaking. I think we should get you cleaned up here.”
Max’s fingers found my chin, and she drew my face down toward hers. “I’m going to get a first aid kit. Don’t you dare leave.”
I was too tired to argue, so Max disappeared, and Milo led me toward the bathroom at the back of the bar.
“Damn, Cade. Who knew you liked the feisty ones?”
I wasn’t sure if I liked “feisty ones,” but I liked her. A lot.
There was an obnoxiously long line for the bathroom, and everyone was either too drunk or too rude to care that I was bleeding. I leaned against the back wall, tilted my head back against the brick, and closed my eyes. In a shocking turn of events, Milo kept his mouth shut until Max returned.
She said, “Bad news. Our first aid kit is pretty much empty.”
I opened my eyes and focused on her. Shoving off the wall, I swayed slightly. Max caught one arm while Milo caught the other.
“I’ll catch a cab home,” I said. That was a lie. I didn’t have the cash for that, but it would make them happy.
Max scoffed, “Good luck finding a cab in this neighborhood.”
Milo offered to run to a drugstore and buy some stuff, but I insisted that it was too much trouble.
“Really, guys, I’m fine. I’ll splash my face with some water, and then head home. It’s not a big deal. I feel fine.” I moved toward the bathroom, but Max darted around me and placed a hand on my chest.
She was chewing on her bottom lip, wrestling with something. Her lips pulled into a straight line, and she looked up at me. “We’ll go to my place. It’s only a few blocks from here.”
I didn’t have to see Milo to know he was grinning behind me as he said, “That sounds like a great idea!”
I brought my hand up and covered hers that rested on my chest.
“Max, I’m okay, really.”
She glared at me, and I got the feeling that she was rarely told the word no. With her hand on my chest and mine on hers, I was all too aware of how much my body wanted to say yes.
My brain knew better.
She stepped closer to me and lowered her voice. “Listen, Golden Boy, I’m trying this new thing where I don’t act like a raging bitch all the time. That means when a guy gets his ass kicked for me, I have to show a little compassion. It doesn’t come easy to me, so help me out.”
Huh. One day . . . we’d known each other one day, and she’d already picked up on the fact that I had difficulty saying no to people, especially people that needed my help.
I was supposed to do something out of character, though most of the things I did tonight were a little out of character. And it wasn’t like I didn’t try to say no.
“Okay.” I sighed. “But only if you take back that part about me getting my ass kicked.”
She laughed. “All right, I’ll give you that. But I totally softened him up for you.”
“Yeah, remind me not to make you mad when you’re smoking.”
There was a moment of awkwardness where we’d both already agreed, but neither of us stepped back or stopped touching the other. After a few seconds, she cleared her throat, and her hand dropped from my chest.
I said good-bye to Milo, and ignored the thumbs-up he gave me over Max’s head. I waited while she slipped on a coat and grabbed her things. She explained to one of the other bartenders what had happened. I thought maybe they wouldn’t let her leave, but after a short conversation, she was back at my side and ready to go.
She smiled up at me, and I was nervous. With all the pain and fatigue, who would have thought I’d have room for something like nerves?
“Come on,” she said. “You’re covered in blood.”
“Too gross for you?”
“Either really gross or really hot. I’m not sure which.”
She didn’t wait for a response before turning and pushing her way through the crowd toward the door. I followed at a slower pace, sure again that this was a dangerous idea.
Her attacker and Benny were gone when we returned outside, and someone else had taken up the bouncer’s post at the door. That was probably for the best, because if I’d seen the guy who attacked her, I couldn’t be held responsible for my actions. I kept seeing her face, pale and in pain, and his hand on her throat. Just the memory had me ready to fight him all over again.
She linked her arm with mine and asked, “You okay?”
I nodded. I didn’t need her for balance anymore, but I wasn’t about to deny the chance to touch her. It felt natural, like we were any other couple returning home.
We were silent for the first block or so, but when I looked over, I could see the glazed look in her eye, and knew she was replaying the event in her mind. I doubted she wanted to relive it any more than I did.
“So you’re a musician?” I asked.
She nodded but didn’t reply. Her gaze was fixed on the sidewalk, and from this angle I could see red marks on her neck from his hands. I wanted nothing more than to stop and hold her in my arms, but I knew that wasn’t her style. I doubt she’d ever been the type for hugs and comfort.
So I settled for distracting her.
“I’ve written a couple of songs, you know. Not because I want to be a musician, but just because the music helps organize my thoughts.”
I followed her around a corner, and though she kept her face down, I could see a small smile form on her face. “Will you sing me one?”
“Not a chance.”
“Oh, come on!” She wrapped both hands around my arm, and pushed her bottom lip out in a pout. It was so damn convincing I actually considered it for a moment, but the only song I knew by heart cut a little too close to said organ.
Tonight was the night for forgetting about Bliss, and it had been going remarkably well until now. Singing a song I wrote about her was the last thing I wanted to do.
“Maybe another time,” I said.
“I’m going to get it out of you,” she said.
I had no doubt that if anyone could, it would be her.
The silence of the street swallowed up my thoughts, and that was fine by me. I was happy to just walk with her, no thoughts or troubles to get in the way.
We passed a twenty-four-hour Laundromat, and she slowed to a stop in front of a glass door with a set of buzzers. A staircase trailed upward on the other side of the door, and she pulled the door open without a key.
She shrugged. “It’s broken. I’ve been asking the landlord to fix it for weeks.”
I looked at the door while she started up the stairs.
“You know, I could probably fix it. My grandfather was a locksmith.”
She called back from the middle of the staircase, “Is there anything you can’t do, Golden Boy?” I could think of one thing. I seemed to be incapable of finding a girl who wasn’t taken.
I let the door swing shut behind me, and climbed up the stairs. We went up two flights and down a hallway before stopping at the last door on the left. She pulled her keys out of her coat pocket, and hesitated for a moment.
She took a deep breath and slid the key in, turning until it clicked. Her apartment was dark as we entered, and she threw her keys on a small table next to the door.
“Hang on a sec.”
She left me by the door to turn on a lamp a few feet away.
The light revealed an apartment that was simple, bare, and lifeless. I followed her into a tiny living room crammed with a futon and a boxy-looking love seat. There were no pictures, no knickknacks, nothing that gave any insight into the tempting creature that had entered my life this morning and hijacked it completely.
“How long have you lived here?” I asked.
She laid her purse down beside the couch and said, “Almost two years in this apartment, but I’ve been in Philly twice that long.”
Then why did she live like she might pack up and leave any day? There was nothing but furniture here. The only thing I saw that was even the least bit personal was a guitar case propped up in a corner.
“Take a seat, and I’ll grab some bandages and stuff.”
She started shrugging off her coat, and then sucked in a sharp breath. Her arms dropped to her side, and her face scrunched up in pain. I leapt to my feet. Her eyes were clamped shut and her teeth dug into her bottom lip.
“What is it, Max? What’s wrong?”
She whimpered slightly, and turned her back to me. She held her arms out to me like she wanted me to remove her coat. I took a hold of her collar, and started to pull.
“Ah,” she whined.
The lining of her coat was wet with blood and leeched to her back.
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