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“Well, thank you for paying my rent and for the furniture and everything.”

“That was nothing. I would’ve done that anyway. Didn’t like seeing you sad last night.”

“Really?” My throat tightened and I stared at the door, amazed. That was huge. I really didn’t know what to say. He barely knew me and yet he would have come to my rescue? Mal Ericson might be a bad boy, but he was also a good man.

One that I liked very much.

“Yeah. ‘Course. It’s going to be fun, Anne,” he said, his voice close to the door. “You wait and see.”

“Okay.”

He sounded like he needed me to believe him. Funny thing was, I did.

CHAPTER SIX

I started getting Mal’s texts just before lunch.

Mal: Awake

Anne: Morning

Mal: Going for a run with Jim

Anne: Have fun!

Mal: Back from run having lunch

Anne: K

Mal: Where’s cleaning stuff?

Anne: To clean what?

Mal: Pizza exploded in microwave

Anne: Spray bottle under sink

Mal: When you home?

Anne: 5:30

Mal: Bored

Anne: Sorry

Mal: What you doing?

Anne: Working right now. Gotta go. Talk later.

Mal: Your taste in music sucks

Anne: Thanks

Mal: Seriously, we need to talk it’s that bad. Everything apart from Stage Dive needs to go.

Anne: Wait. What are you doing?

Mal: Fixing it

Anne: Mal, WTH are you doing?

Mal: Making you new playlists with decent shit. Relax

Anne: K Thanks

Mal: Bored again

Mal: Ben’s coming over to play Halo

Anne: Great! But you don’t have to tell me everything you do, Mal.

Mal: Davie says communication’s important

Mal: When are you on the rag? Davie said to find out if you want cupcakes or ice cream

Anne: I want to not talk about this ever

Mal: Bored. Ben’s late

Mal: Let’s get a dog

Anne: Apartment has no pets rule

Mal: Nice green lace bra

Anne: Get out of my drawers, Mal.

Mal: Matching panties?

Anne: GET OUT NOW.

Mal: :)

Mal: Sext me

Mal: Come on it’ll be funny

Mal: Plz?

Mal: High level of unhealthy codependency traits exhibited by both parties relationship possibly bordering on toxic

Anne: WTF?

Mal: Did magazine quiz. We need help. Especially you

Anne: …

Mal: Booking us couples counseling. Tues 4:15 alright?

Anne: We are not going to counseling.

Mal: What’s wrong? Don’t you love me anymore?

Anne: Turning phone off now.

“Problem?” asked Reece, moseying on up and looking over my shoulder.

“No. Sorry.” I shoved my cell into my back pocket. “I’m working, I swear.”

“Sure you are.” He winked. Being friends with the boss did pay off sometimes. “Do anything interesting last night?”

Had I ever. Mal seemed hell-bent on driving me crazy today, but last night had been fantastic. We’d had a floor picnic with some of the best tapas I’d tasted in a long time, washed down with Spanish beer. He’d told me hilarious stories about big-name musicians. Lots of tawdry sexploits and insane backstage demands, Mal knew about them all. He made for awesome company.

I wasn’t ready to explain Mal to Reece, however. Looking at Reece, I might never be ready. Where would I begin? Even if I could keep a straight face, he knew me well enough to know I didn’t jump into relationships. Not in this way. Luckily, Reece’s attention had already slipped away. I shouldn’t have worried. His gaze rested on a young woman browsing in the True Crime section. You’d have thought he’d have enough sense to turn away when she picked up a book on female serial killers, but no.

“I didn’t get up to anything much last night,” I lied, feeling zero guilt.

He did a half nod, probably not even listening. “I’ll just go see if she needs help.”

“Okeydokey.” I pulled my cell out, switched it back on. As soon as the screen flashed to life I started one finger typing, a smile already on my face.

Anne: Ben arrive yet?

Mal: He’s here. How you doing? Home soon?

Anne: Soon.

Ben was lazed on the love seat, hands busy on the game controls, when I walked in the door. There was lots of blood and guts happening on the TV screen. The novelty of walking in to find famous people hanging in my apartment would probably never fade. I sincerely hoped it wouldn’t. Disappointingly, Mal was nowhere in sight. I’d been rushing through tasks, eager to see him all afternoon. Lizzy had called me and it’d almost killed me not telling her about him. But I honestly didn’t know how to plausibly explain his sudden appearance in my life. She’d been furious about the shit with Skye. I hadn’t been able to muster much anger about it, funnily enough. Good things were happening. That was all in the past.

Now I was finally home, my heart banging around inside my chest, and I felt inexcusably shy. Hesitant almost. Forget it, this was my apartment. My home. And he had chosen to live here, with me, for whatever reason. Back straight and boobs out, what little there was of them.

“Hey, Anne,” he said.

“Hi, Ben. Is Mal around?” My ability to play it cool was improving. I hardly stuttered at all.

“In the kitchen.”

“Thanks.” I dashed past him, trying not to mess with his on-screen killing spree.

Mal was staring out the small kitchen window, his cell to his ear. “What aren’t you telling me?”

A pause.

“Yeah, okay. What’d he say?”

Another pause.

“No. Just lay it out for me. C’mon.”

The break was longer this time. After a while, he grabbed hold of the edge of the counter, gripping it so hard his knuckles turned white. Obviously, this was a private moment, but I couldn’t walk away. The pain in his voice and the lines of his body were acute. He was hurting.

“That can’t be right. What about if we–”

He listened in silence. Back out in the living room, the boom of explosions and the rattle of gunfire continued on.

“Okay. Thanks for letting me know.” He pressed end on the call and threw his cell aside. Both hands now gripped the edge of the counter, squeezing so hard it creaked.

“Mal?”

The whites of his eyes were huge, rimmed with red. What the hell was going on?

“Anne. Hey. Didn’t hear you come in.”

“Are you okay?”

He breathed in hard, shook his head. “Yeah! Slept like shit. Then the run with Jimmy wore me out. But all good. Aren’t you cute, worrying about me? That’s very girlfriendish.”

“Ha.” I smiled. He didn’t smile back.

“Let’s, ah … You say hi to Ben already?”

“Yes, I did.”

His hands grasped my shoulders, turning me and marching me back out into the living room. “You really need to greet your guests properly, pumpkin. You don’t want him thinking you’re rude.”

“Mal, I—- ”

“Ben. Look, my awesome girlfriend came home.”

“Hi, Mal’s awesome girlfriend.” Ben didn’t take his eyes off the screen. “This place is a bit smaller than your LA pad, dude. You gonna stay here or buy bigger?”

“Anne’s been talking about getting a dog, so I’m thinking we’ll trade up eventually.”

Ben nodded.

I didn’t bother to correct Mal. Really the best way to handle him was to simply roll with it. Plus, this current mood of his concerned me.

“Time to beat drums,” Mal announced, rubbing his hands together, then shaking his arms. He still wasn’t smiling. The manic energy was clearly back despite his claim of being tired.

This time, Ben did take his eyes off the screen. “Thought we were getting dinner and hanging out with Miss Awesome here.”

“Need to burn off some energy. Anne understands, don’t you, pumpkin?”

I pushed my disappointment aside and nodded. A man had to do what a man had to do. I just wish I knew what was going on. Whatever the phone call had been about, it wasn’t good news. It also wasn’t my business, I know.

“She’s very supportive of my career. Always has been. In many ways, she is my inspiration.”

“You only met her two days ago.” Ben turned off the game, throwing the control aside.

“And I’ve done some of my best work in that time.”

“Whatever. So that’s what you wanna do, go play some music?” Eyes narrowed, Ben watched Mal bopping up and down beside me.

“That’s what I said. Keep up, Benny boy.” He curled his hands into fists. “Let’s go.”

“’Kay.” Ben’s sharp gaze turned to me like he expected me to have answers. I shrugged. As he’d pointed out, I’d only known Mal for forty-eight hours.

No, I didn’t know what was going on with him, but damned if I wasn’t going to find out.

CHAPTER SEVEN

Someone was yelling. A male someone. Then another voice joined in, the noise carrying through my bedroom wall. I bolted upright, bewildered but wide awake. Five-fifteen glowed green on the little alarm clock beside my bed.

Damn, it was early.

Due to Mal’s nocturnal habits, I hadn’t gotten the best night’s sleep. When he’d eventually returned just after eleven, he’d been dripping with sweat. I’d crashed earlier in the evening and had been half asleep, dragging my sorry ass out to check if he needed anything. He’d said he’d be crashing soon, so I’d gone back to bed. But for hours I’d lain there, listening to him moving around the apartment. He’d watched TV, talked on the phone, and hummed for hours. Actually, I didn’t mind the humming. It was kind of nice. Though humming death metal was more of an art form than you’d imagine. I’d finally fallen asleep to something by Metallica. Good lord, had my dreams been weird.

But why couldn’t Mal sleep?

The shouting escalated. I crawled off my bed and bolted for the door, flannel pajamas, bed hair, and all. Out in the living room, Mal’s back was to me, barring the front door. He wore only a pair of black boxer briefs. Not that I was complaining because good god, the man’s ass. I almost lost my tongue. To the floor or my throat, I’m not sure which. Both were strong contenders.

“Even if you are a friend of pumpkin’s this is not a suitable hour to visit,” Mal hissed.

“Who the f**k are you and why are you calling Anne pumpkin?” That was Reece and he sounded distinctly enraged. Like, rampaging enraged.

My boss and I weren’t an item, though. We were just friends. So a semi-naked man answering my door at odd hours of the morning was actually none of his damn business.

“Morning,” I said, standing tall.

Mal gave me a brief cranky look over his shoulder. As nice as the couch was, I’d probably be in a bad mood if I’d slept on it too. Maybe that was why he’d stayed up so late. He’d ordered another bed for the spare room, but for some reason it had yet to arrive. Tonight, I’d ask if he wanted to share with me. Just as friends.

His shoulders were distractingly large with his hands on his hips. I was no lightweight, but if he was willing to stand with his arms out, I’d give climbing him a try. Years back, before all the shit with mom, I’d been different, braver. Something about Mal reminded me of the adrenaline-junkie tomboy I’d been. I missed that girl. She’d been fun.

“You woke her, asswipe.” For once, Mal didn’t sound the least bit light and easy as he gave Reece hell. “Do you have any idea how stressful shit’s been for her lately? Plus she had to work late last night.”

And as relaxed as Reece was about work, that comment was not good. “Mal, it’s okay. This is my friend and my boss, Reece.”


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