“Reece?” He sneered. “This is who you were talking to on your phone at the party?”
“Huh. Figured it was a chick.”
“Guess again.” Reece pushed his way past the mostly na**d drummer to shove a box of donuts into my arms. Voodoo Donuts. My saliva glands kicked into overdrive despite the early hour and manly standoff.
To be fair, partly also because of it, yes.
“What the f**k is going on, A? Who is this ass**le?”
“Reece, not cool.”
His bloodshot eyes blazed angrily, his dark hair sticking out. The scent of stale perfume lingered around him like a miasma. I’d also question his sobriety because his movements seemed a bit off. Here was a man who had not yet been to bed.
At least, not his own bed.
“A?” asked Mal, crossing his arms over his chest. He turned and winked at me. “You call her ‘A’? What, saying her whole name’s too much of a commitment for you?”
I barked out a laugh. Then attempted to turn it into a cough. Reece didn’t look convinced, but I didn’t care. Relief made me weak in the knees. My Mal was back, cracking jokes and smiling. A real smile this time, not the harsh manic parody from the night before.
It was amazing. I could actually see Reece’s hackles rising. Mal might have had a good half a head on him, but violence was not out of the question. Meanwhile, Mal just looked amused. The depth to which he didn’t give a f**k was actually a large part of his charm. I’d never met anyone like him.
Not to say he wouldn’t throw down with Reece. I had no doubt the man could handle himself.
“Why don’t I make coffee?” I took a hesitant step toward the tiny kitchen, hoping someone would follow. Either one of them would do. Neither made a move so I stayed put.
Reece’s brows drew tight together. “Even for a hookup you can do a hell of a lot better.”
“What?” Not only was it an extraordinarily rude thing to say, it wasn’t even remotely true.
“You heard me.”
“Shit, Reece, how can you even …” I stared at Mal, frowned, and cocked my head. So much skin. I looked and looked until I hit the dusting of dark blond hair leading down from his belly button, heading straight for No-Anne Land. He had a treasure trail. A map to hidden delights. The donut box trembled in my hands.
I could and should avert my eyes. But I didn’t.
“Anne?” Reece demanded angrily, dragging me out of my p**n y daydreams.
“Um …” Yes, such was my genius statement.
“There’s the crazy eyes,” said Mal in a low, rough voice. “Looks like my pumpkin is ready for round six of the sexin’.”
Oh. Crap. He didn’t.
Reece’s forehead furrowed, his fingers curling into fists.
Alright, so he did.
I crushed the box of donuts against my chest. “That’s a really sweet offer, Mal.”
“Pumpkin, if you’re still walking straight, my work here is clearly not done. Hell, we haven’t even gotten around to breaking in the new couch yet.” He turned to Reece, enjoying himself way too much if the light in his eyes was any indicator. “She’s worried we’d stain the material. Like I wouldn’t just buy her another, right? Women.”
No answer from Reece apart from the white lines around his mouth.
Mal exhaled hard. “Next time let’s stick to leather. Wipe clean is so much easier and it won’t chafe your soft skin nearly as much as you think, Anne. Not if we–”
“Enough,” I barked, feeling the cardboard box cave in.
“Too much sex talk in front of friends?”
“Sorry,” said Mal. “Real sorry. My bad.”
So much hostility in such a confined space. And there was no question, Reece was genuinely jealous. He was all puffed up and radiating fury. His gaze shifted between Mal and me, mouth fierce.
You have to understand, before now, I hadn’t been entirely certain Reece even realized I was female. Yet here he was, edging toward me as if I was territory to be protected. Something Mal didn’t intend to allow if his side-stepping maneuver meant anything. It was like some strange animalistic caveman dance, the two of them slowly hemming me in. Amusing in a way.
The first male to pee on me, however, would pay with his balls.
“Thinks I’m a hook-up,” scoffed Mal with a side look. “Set him straight, pumpkin.”
At those words, Reece’s nostrils flared. I stood, pinned to the spot. My heart beat so hard, I’m certain ribs were bruised in the process. Wild bed hair or not, this moment was glorious. I wanted it up on YouTube for all time. (Okay, maybe I didn’t want it on YouTube. But you get what I mean.)
I cleared my throat and steeled my spine. Today, I stood about ten times taller. “Reece, Mal and I are seeing each other.”
“We’re living together,” Mal corrected.
“Right. That too. I’ve been meaning to tell you. Mal and I are living very happily together since the day before yesterday.”
“Mal?” My boss froze. “Mal Ericson, the drummer?”
Reece’s reddened eyes blazed even brighter. Nothing more was said.
“Now that we’ve got that straightened out, I’m gonna hit the shower,” Mal announced. “Give you two kids a chance to talk.”
“Thanks,” I said.
“No problem.” His hand smacked into my ass, making me jump. Then, fingers lazily scratching at stubble, he sauntered into the bathroom. My butt cheek stung. I made a mental note to kill him later, once we were alone. Kill him or screw him, whatevs. My hormones were so confused.
The second the door clicked shut Reece grabbed my arm and hustled me into the tiny kitchen. Dawn had yet to make an appearance. Light from the living room shone weakly on his surly face. His black-rimmed glasses were askew, adding to his whole thoroughly ruffled appearance. I probably should’ve been jealous. But for once I actually wasn’t.
“What the hell is this, Anne? You said you met him, that’s all. Fuck, I thought he looked familiar …”
“It came as something of a surprise to me as well. But it’s great, right?” The boy had bed head and it wasn’t from sleeping. No way was he coming into my home and giving me shit over finding me similarly (allegedly) occupied.
“Great,” he replied flatly.
“He’s a really nice guy when you get to know him.”
“He makes me smile, you know? Doesn’t take me for granted,” I said, going in for the kill. So I had some early morning bloodlust going on. It wasn’t like he didn’t deserve it for being rude to Mal. I might not like most of the women he had hanging around at various times, but I sure as hell never insulted them. “And I’d appreciate it if you didn’t insult him again.”
Reece’s mouth fell open. “Anne, the way he talked to me–”
“You’re going to go with he started it? Seriously? You don’t knock on my door at this hour and call the person that answers it an ass**le, Reece. That’s not cool.”
“Sorry.” He gave my battered old fridge a foul look.
“What’s happening here? You’ve never cared about me dating before. Not that I’ve done much of it recently.”
“Nothing. I just wasn’t expecting …”
I waited, but he didn’t finish the sentence. Maybe the subject was best left alone. “Would you like some coffee?”
“No, I’m heading home.”
“Okay. Well, thanks for the donuts.” I sat the broken box on the counter.
“No problem.” He just stared at me, his eyes a mixture of mad and sad. I didn’t really know what to do with that. Anger still gripped me.
“I don’t want this affecting our friendship.”
His shoulders pushed back. “No. Of course it won’t.”
“Good.” I don’t know what came over me, but I had to hug him. He was feeling down, I wanted to fix it. Mom had never been into the touchy-feely stuff and I’d inherited the talent, or lack of one. Accordingly, my arms were stiff, awkward. I patted him once on the back and then got the hell out of there before he could react. A surprise attack, if you will.
“How did your date go last night?” I asked.
“It was nothing special. What were you up to?”
“Mal ordered dinner. Just a quiet night in.” As soon as I mentioned Mal’s name, Reece’s face turned grumpy. It’d have been easier to empathize with him if he hadn’t reeked of sex and behaved like an entitled jerk.
“I’m going to go,” he said. “I’ll see you later.”
I was still standing there staring after him long after the front door slammed shut. Deep down inside, I was neither angry nor sad. Just a little shocked perhaps to find Reece cared about me in that way after all. How it would affect things, I had no idea.
When Mal reemerged it was with his long hair slicked back. The blond was much darker when wet and the angles of his face were displayed to perfection. He’d put on a pair of jeans and a soft-looking, worn old AC/DC T-shirt. But his feet were bare. His long toes were lightly dusted with hairs. Neat, square nails.
“Coffee?” I asked, already pouring him a cup. It gave me a solid excuse to look away from his apparently fascinating toes. What was it about bare feet?
“Yeah, thanks. Your little hipster friend gone already?”
I set his cup on the counter and he started piling in sugar from the canister. One, two, three heaping spoonfuls. All his energy had to come from somewhere, I guess.
“Reece left a while back,” I confirmed, picking through the chunks of donut. Delicious.
“Hard not to think less of you there.”
Mal took a sip of coffee, eyeing me over the rim. “You like the douche. You like him a lot.”
I filled my mouth with food. Such a great excuse for not answering. If I chewed really slowly it could kill the entire conversation.
“Even with you giving me crazy eyes, I could tell,” he unfortunately continued. “You’re just lucky I’m not the jealous type.”
I choked down the mother load of food in my mouth. “Is that why you started up with the sex adventure stories?”
He laughed, low and mocking. But who he was laughing at exactly, I couldn’t tell.
“He shows up here, fresh from a night out drinking and f**king, fully expecting to find you waiting with open arms … I didn’t like it.”
“We’re just friends.”
He looked away, licked his lips. “Anne.”
The disappointment in his voice stung. I wanted to make excuses. Roll out the old standards. I wanted to protect myself. But I didn’t even know what I was protecting myself from. Mal hadn’t attacked me. His quiet reproof slipped past my guard in a way Lauren’s lectures and demands never could.
“Thing is, you’re both straight,” he said. “Men and women as friends doesn’t really work. One person’s always into the other. Fact of life.”
“Yes, I like him,” I admitted. “I have for a while now. He, ah … he doesn’t see me that way.”
“Maybe. Maybe not. He sure as f**k didn’t like finding me here.” Mal set down his cup and leaned against the corner of the faded gray kitchen counter, arms braced on either side. His damp hair slid forward, shielding his face. “Were you planning on using me to make him jealous?”
“Manipulating him and being an asshat to you? No, I hadn’t planned on doing that. But thank you for asking.”