I blinked and stared up at his face. His dark eyes locked on mine, and he wasn’t joking. “Why? You just said . . .”
“I think you have to stop pretending to be something you’re not, yeah. Which is why I’ll come to Christmas with you if you go as yourself, not as that tame, turtlenecked version of you. That’s step one of escaping the bell jar.”
My heart was beating so hard I could feel it up in my throat. My lungs felt far away, like they had sunk down into my stomach, and everything in me felt out of place.
“I’d still be lying about you. I’d still—”
“So, it’s baby steps. You knock out step one first, and let your parents get used to the idea of who their daughter is. Then you hit them with Mace.”
Somehow, in all the chaos, I still managed to laugh. “I’ve thought about hitting them with mace quite a few times actually.”
His half-smile snuck on his face again, and it made me feel a little steadier, a little less out of sorts. Somewhere in my freak-out, his hands had worked their way up from my arms to my neck, and his fingertips now cradled my jaw.
He asked, “So what do you think? Are we a go for Operation Introduce Your Parents to the Real Max?”
“More like Operation Give my Parents a Panic Attack . . . but yeah, we’re a go.”
His thumb traced the line of my jaw, and a shiver raced up my spine. I swallowed and wet my lips. “Thanks,” I said. “For everything. The walk. The talk. And you know, fake dating me.”
He paused for a few seconds and then said, “You know, I seem to remember you promising me a real date the other day.”
My heart thumped. I wanted him. I’d been attracted to him before, and now it had only grown. Tonight had been so perfect. He’d said all the right things, and made me think, and pushed me to be myself. Which is exactly why I didn’t need to date him. My dating history was toxic, and he was the last person I wanted to taint. We could be friends. I’d needed a friend like him my entire life. He called me on my bullshit and made me less afraid.
And yet, when he looked at me and his skin touched mine . . . friendship was the last thing on my mind.
My phone buzzed, and I jumped at the chance to escape. I pulled away to answer it, but the name on the screen made me pause.
The conversation with Cade had put me in a peaceful place that I didn’t want to destroy. I hit ignore, but just seeing his name had ruined some of the luster of the evening.
It had been a long day, and all the emotions of it hit me all at once. Maybe all I needed was sleep. I asked Cade for a rain check on the drink, and he volunteered to walk me home. I was happy for the company because his presence kept my mind from dwelling on the things it shouldn’t be dwelling on . . . like how things were spiraling out of control with Mace. And the rockier our relationship became, the more disruptive he was toward the band, which meant more than whatever was going on between us.
When we reached my block, Cade held open my apartment building door for me.
“Your landlord still hasn’t fixed this lock?” He followed me up the stairs and said, “You should let him have it, Angry Girl. That’s ridiculous. It’s not safe to leave it like this where anyone can get in.”
I kept climbing the stairs and smiled at him over my shoulder. “I know . . . some complete psycho could creep into my apartment while I sleep . . . naked.”
We reached my floor and he said, “You’re right. I could do that.”
I laughed and gave him a playful push. His hands caught my arms, and he pulled me closer to him. My stomach felt like I’d just gone down the drop of a huge roller coaster. I licked my lips and he said, “Really though, please make your landlord take care of the door. If he doesn’t, I will.”
His face was stern, and it gave me goose bumps.
I tried to play off the way he affected me with humor. I rolled my eyes and said, “Yes, Master. Anything else you’d like to order me to do?”
His eyes darkened, and something contracted low in my belly. A whimper built in my throat, and I was seconds away from throwing myself at him when I heard someone call my name.
The clenching in my belly turned painful. Cade’s hands loosened on my forearms, and I turned to face Mace.
He’d been sitting outside my door and was climbing to his feet. He lumbered down the hall, one hand on the wall to steady himself.
He was trashed.
I took a step away from Cade and asked, “Mace, what are you doing here?”
“Clearly not having as much fun as you are. You didn’t waste any time, did you?”
His normally gorgeous features were twisted into something ugly. His nose scrunched up, and his lips pulled into a grimace.
“Mace, this is my friend, Cade. He came to see the show and walked me home.”
He twisted the piercing in his eyebrow. “Right. You think I’m stupid, don’t you?”
I sighed. “No, I think you’re high.”
He lurched toward me and said, “And I think you’re a whore.”
Cade moved in front of me. “Chill, man. We’re just friends.”
I curled an arm around his elbow and tugged him back. “Don’t bother, Cade. He’s not good for the band, and he’s not good for me. Consider yourself done with both, Mace.”
He sauntered up to me. His eyes were red, and his pupils constricted. It was funny how attraction could live and die in an instant. Looking at him now, I didn’t feel any of the heat that normally crackled between us. He stood there, high and angry, and I only felt relieved. I stared him down, and he scanned me from head to toe. He drew a thumb across his bottom lip, and said, “I was bored anyway.”
I skipped straight past angry into repulsed. What a douchewaffle.
“Go pop some more pills, asshole.”
He clipped Cade with his shoulder as he passed and snarled, “Enjoy the lousy lay, man.”
“Son of a—”
I inhaled and curled my hands into fists. I went after him, but Cade’s arms wrapped around my middle and took me captive. He held me back until Mace was long gone and my breathing was under control. As angry as I was, and as much as I wanted to follow Mace down the stairs and give him a swift kick to the junk, part of me was also thankful. I felt like a bird loosed from a cage.
I faced Cade, and he looked even more enraged than I had been.
That guy had the self-control of a saint.
I smiled and said, “How about you show me those dance moves after all?”
I was free. Time to fly.
I was torn.
Part of me wanted to tell her it wasn’t a good idea, that she should take the night to cool off and think. Another part of me was already thinking of how she would look on the dance floor. And then in the back of my mind was the tempting thought that I should take her into her apartment and prove that she was anything but boring.
As usual, the responsible choice won out.
“Max . . . it’s been a long day. Are you sure you don’t want to do something a little less—”
She cut me off. “I want to dance, Golden Boy. I can do that with or without you.” She turned that killer pout on me and added, “Though being alone really isn’t the safest option.” She batted her eyes and smiled. She already knew she’d won.
“When I blow your mind with my dance moves, I expect an apology.”
She grabbed my hand and pulled me down the stairs after her. “We’ll see who blows whose mind.”
We hailed a cab and headed north, into my area of the city. We pulled up outside what looked like an abandoned warehouse in a less than stellar neighborhood. I should know because it was mine. I’d passed by this place numerous times and just figured it was probably abandoned and filled with homeless people.
I asked her, “Did you want to dance or get murdered?”
I paid the cabbie and slid out of the car. Max grabbed my hand and started tugging me toward the warehouse.
“Relax, Golden Boy. I think you’ll like this place.”
I liked her. Too much for my own good.
I could feel the vibrations from the music before we even entered the building. It didn’t look like your typical club. There were couches and artwork painted onto the walls that made it feel like a cross between a friend’s apartment and a graffitied street corner. A lot of buildings around the city were covered in murals that spanned multiple stories. There was similar art on the walls here, but it was smaller, and up close you could see all the detail work.
Max said, “Welcome to the Garage.”
This place pulsed with the same vibrancy that bled from Max’s every word and movement. It matched her. So yeah, she was right. I liked it.
It didn’t feel like normal clubs that were packed tight and reeked of sweat with modern, upscale fixtures. This place had a heartbeat all its own. It had soul.
I turned my eyes back to one of the murals on the wall. It was all black and white and showed people singing and others dancing. It was simple, no color, no frills. But it was beautiful.
Max leaned up to my ear. “My boss at the tattoo parlor did that back when this place opened. He’s also the one that did this.”
Tattoo parlor. That explained the abundance of art on her body.
She pulled the neck of her shirt down to reveal smooth skin, tattooed branches, and enough cleavage to make my mouth go dry.
Someone shouted Max’s name, and I turned to see her jogging over to one of the bartenders. When I caught up he was saying, “Sorry I missed the show tonight, but . . .” He held up the drink he was mixing and shrugged.
“It was a good one,” I said,
Max beamed, and the bartender looked between us like he didn’t quite understand how we fit together.
His eyebrows were still halfway up his forehead when he said, “I’ll try and make the next one. You kids have a good night.” He poured us two shots on the house, and then turned to the people next to us for their order. Max used her elbows to heft herself up on the bar and gave him a smacking kiss on his cheek. She didn’t look like a girl who’d just broken up with her boyfriend.
At the moment though, her long legs had my full attention. She looked over her shoulder and caught me staring. As she slid down off the bar, she didn’t seem to mind. In fact, her smile only widened.
“You ready to be amazed, Angry Girl?”
If her smile as she led me upstairs was any indication, I might have to change her nickname. Going up the stairs behind her could give any straight man a heart attack. Her red high heels gave way to toned calves, glorious thighs, and short leopard print shorts that enhanced her curves. Somewhere out there was an ex-boyfriend with her likeness tattooed somewhere on his body. She was the kind of sexy that begged to be immortalized.
Upstairs was more crowded than the section we’d just left, but there were still couches and mismatched furniture that gave it the same relaxed vibe. There was the main dance floor, and then a second one that was raised up a few feet and featured b-boys freestyling while a crowd of onlookers cheered.
She took a deep breath and closed her eyes. I was getting accustomed to interpreting her breathing. There was the “I’m about to breathe fire” inhale, the “anything involving her mother” inhale, and my personal favorite, the “just been kissed” inhale. As she entered the dance floor, though, her breath was reminiscent of the way she sang. She was relaxed here. Her arms snaked above her head, and her ripped white tee raised to show a strip of skin above her shorts. The last time I’d seen her lower back, it had been covered in bandages and bruises. Now, more than a week later, only the faintest hint of healing scratches remained behind. From here, her skin looked smooth, and I could see the dimples at the bottom of her spine.
A few people slid between us, and I missed the view. She turned, and her eyes found mine. She crooked a finger at me and smiled.