I didn’t have an answer for my behavior, not a good one anyway. So I turned it back on him. “What about the fact that you spent all day today ignoring my calls and flaked out on setup?”
He tossed his head to get his black hair out of his eyes. He shoved his hands in the pockets of his leather jacket, completely closed off. Face blank. He said, “I told you, something came up.”
A drop of unease rippled through my chest. He was lying about something.
“Want to tell me what that something was?”
He punched a fist forward in his pocket and clenched his jaw. He shook his head and shrugged. “You have your secrets, and I’ll have mine.”
“The difference, Mace, is that my secrets don’t affect the band.”
“Jesus, I’ve got zero fucks to give about this band, Max. You know I’m only here for you.”
Unbelievable. In some demented part of his brain, he must have thought that sounded romantic because he stepped toward me and slipped his hands over my hips. I shoved him back hard.
“If you knew anything about me, you would know that this band is my life.”
“Oh, it’s clear you care about this band more than you care about me, about anybody.”
“Damn right, I do.”
He tugged on one of his gauges and ran his thumb under his nose. He got up in my face and said, “You’re a real piece of work, you know that?”
I’d known that for a long time.
“Says the guy with pinpoint pupils. What are you on? Couldn’t wait until after the set?”
He closed his eyes and groaned. “I get it. You’re mad about this morning. I’m sorry.” His hands came up to my jaw, and he continued, “Can’t we just—”
I shoved him back again and felt his fingernails scrape my jaw.
“No, Mace!” My voice was explosive, and I made myself calm down and lower the volume. The last thing we needed was for someone to hear us arguing back here. “Just . . . I can’t do this right now, Mace. Let’s take the night off, and we’ll address this all later.”
“Later, yeah, I’ve been hearing a lot of that recently. I’m sick of waiting for later.”
Damn it. I didn’t have the energy to deal with this right now. I tried to reach for him, to appease him, but he backpedaled away from me. “I don’t know what the hell you want from me, Mace.”
His face screwed up in anger and he said, “I’m not sure I want anything from you anymore.”
He blew out the back exit into the alley, and it didn’t bode well for our relationship that the thing that irked me the most was that he left Spence and I alone to pack up once again.
“Does that really work for you?” I turned to find Cade leaning against the door. He was wearing a black button-down shirt with his sleeves rolled up to his elbows. You knew you were in bad shape when just the sight of a guy’s forearms distracted you. The week of not seeing him had done nothing to quell my attraction to him.
“Sometimes,” I said. “At the moment, it’s doing a fat lot of nothing.”
One side of his mouth lifted up in a half-smile, and he asked, “Do you want me to leave?”
I wasn’t sure whether he had heard enough of the fight to know that it was about needing space or if he was just better at reading me. I wasn’t calm, not in the slightest, but I trusted him not to push.
“No, that’s okay. I’m okay.”
He pushed off the wall and stepped inside the room, closing the door behind him.
“I’m really glad I came,” he said.
I nodded, and because I was a glutton for punishment, I asked, “Where’s your friend?”
He laughed and ran a hand across his jaw. My hands tingled, and I pushed them behind my back, far away from him. He said, “She’s gone. Thank God. She wanted to leave in the middle. I didn’t. We agreed to go our separate ways.”
I took a seat on a beat-up old couch in the corner, and he sat a few feet away from me. I slid a little closer.
“I wouldn’t have been offended, you know. You could have left.”
“No, I couldn’t have.” His eyes dipped toward my legs just for a second, but I saw it. “I’m sure you hear this a lot, but you were amazing.”
My skin warmed, and I basked in his attention like it was the sun. I pulled my legs up on the seat, and settled my chin on my knees. “Feel free to tell me again, as often as you like, really.”
He stretched an arm out on the couch cushion behind me, and said, “I could do that.”
I leaned back until my head brushed his arm. My blood still pumped too fast from the fight with Mace, and the damaged, angry part of me really wanted to prove how much Mace’s anger didn’t bother me. I turned toward Cade, and leaned my legs against his.
“So . . . I—”
The door swung open and Spencer came trotting in with two people behind him. A tall, attractive blond guy with a little brunette tucked into his side. I heard Cade’s sharp intake of breath a second before the brunette said, “Cade? When did you get back from Texas?”
I swear, every time things get remotely good, the universe puts me back in my place.
“Hey, Bliss. Garrick.”
The two of them crossed the room toward us, and Max whispered, “Who is that?”
“Remember the alternative Thanksgiving plans I mentioned?”
“The ones better left in the past?”
I nodded and stood to greet my friends. I shook Garrick’s hand, and gave Bliss an awkward one-armed hug.
“I didn’t end up going back to Texas. Sorry I didn’t tell you. Things changed at the last minute, and I decided to stay.”
Bliss asked, “Your grandmother got better?”
I cringed. “Yeah, she’s good.”
“Why didn’t you come over for Thanksgiving, then?” She gripped my arm, and I took a step back out of her grasp. I watched her face fall and could see the pity that she was so bad at hiding. I could just imagine the scenario going through her head—me, home alone and miserable for the holiday. Of course, that had been my plan until Max blew into my life. I opened my mouth, unsure of what excuse I was going to use. Was I sick? I could have been sick.
Then Max said, “He was with me.”
She slipped an arm around my waist, and on instinct, I put my arm over her shoulder. She pressed close to me and held out a hand toward Bliss. “My name is Max.”
Bliss’s eyebrows disappeared underneath her side-swept bangs, and I saw her eyes scan Max’s tattoos and outfit. I tried to see what she was seeing, imagine what Max must look like to someone who didn’t know her. When I looked at her, all I saw was the black bra that showed through her ripped white shirt, and I decided it was better if I kept my eyes off her for the moment.
Bliss shook Max’s hand, a little in shock.
Garrick recovered faster. He greeted her, “Lovely to meet you, Max.”
When she heard Garrick’s accent, her eyes met mine, and I knew she had put the pieces together. She smiled up at me, and I tried to express my gratitude in a look. Her smile widened, so I thought she understood. “Max, this is Bliss. We went to college together. And this is her boyfriend, Garrick.” I left out the part where he’d been our professor. Things were weird enough already.
“It’s so nice to meet friends of Cade.” She nudged me playfully. “I was beginning to think he’d never introduce me. Did he invite you guys to see the show tonight?”
“Actually”—her band mate, the one with the punk bow tie, stepped up—“I invited them. Garrick is a friend.”
Max said, “Oh, I didn’t realize you knew Spence.”
This Spence was looking between Max and me like the world had spun off its axis. I didn’t blame him. With me in my button-down and her looking like a rock goddess—we didn’t exactly match. He pinned me with a stare and said, “And you are?”
Max jumped in. “This is Cade, my boyfriend. Don’t act like I haven’t been talking your ear off about him, Spence.”
“Right.” Her friend nodded. “Cade.”
I decided it was time to help Max carry the burden and asked, “What did you think of the show?” I looked down at Max and said, “She’s pretty amazing, isn’t she?”
She leaned up and placed a kiss on my cheek, no doubt leaving a print of her ruby red lips against my skin. I knew she was pretending, but damn she was good at it.
“It was . . .” Bliss tore her eyes away from me and smiled at Max, “It was awesome. You have a great voice.”
Garrick said, “How come you haven’t introduced us to Max before now, Cade?”
Max answered, “Oh, well, we’ve not told many people. We wanted to take things slow, spend some time with just the two of us before broadcasting it to the world.”
Bliss smiled up at Garrick and placed a hand against his chest. “We can definitely understand that.”
My eyes zeroed in on the ring on her finger. He’d done it. He’d proposed, and she’d said yes. I expected to feel some kind of pain, maybe longing, but those feelings never came. There was discomfort, sure, but if anything, seeing the ring on her finger only caused generic emotions—the same ones I felt every time another friend changed their marital status on Facebook or announced they were pregnant. It was the unsettling shock of feeling like everyone around me was moving at a speed I just couldn’t match.
That was the first moment, standing there facing them with Max by my side, that I really started to question what I’d felt for Bliss. Shouldn’t this hurt more? Or was I too distracted by Max’s body next to mine?
I felt like I was standing on a precipice, seconds away from discovering a truth about myself that I didn’t particularly want to learn.
Max’s hand around my waist squeezed tighter, and I tore my eyes away from the ring on Bliss’s hand. I cleared my throat and forced a smile. “I see she said yes.”
Garrick beamed, a smile so bright and happy that it was painful to look at. “She did.”
“Congratulations,” I said. “To both of you. I’m really happy for you.”
Bliss bit her lip, then gave me a soft smile. Her eyes went a little glassy. Her voice was soft when she said, “Thank you. That means a lot.”
There was a beat. Another one of those moments when the winds shifted, time turned, and life started again in a new direction. I didn’t know about anyone else in the room, but I could tell Bliss felt it.
Maybe it was because we were both actors. Maybe it was just because of who we were. But I could see in her eyes that she knew, too. This was the end of a chapter.
We were moving in different directions, and every minute put us another mile apart. Regardless of what my feelings for Bliss had been, there was too much history between us to ever go back to how we were. I’d thought that if I could just get over the pain, then everything else would fall back into place. Well, the pain was gone, but the rift it had caused between us remained.
Funny how four years of friendship could be so completely devastated by one moment of more than friendship. Bliss was the one piece of my old life that I hadn’t had to say good-bye to when I moved to Philly. College had been like home to me, the big family that I’d never had. But that home didn’t exist anymore. And trying to hold on to it through Bliss wasn’t good for either of us.
All the memories and feelings that had connected Bliss and me had frayed until we were connected only by a flimsy, dying thread. It reminded me of an empty theatre after the play had ended, the audience had left, and the crew had cleaned up. The last one to leave turned out all the lights, and left a solitary ghost light in the otherwise darkened space. As we stood there, stiff and awkward, that last thread, that last light, gave way.