Sounded like a solid plan. “Yes.”
“You’re good for me. You take me any mood I come in. I don’t have to be always happy or on around you. You roll with any shit I say and give as good as you get. You don’t let me push you around if it doesn’t suit you and you haven’t asked me to buy you a f**king thing.”
I arched my brows and “ooh”ed. “God, I’m so slow. It hadn’t even occurred to me. Can I have a Porsche?”
“Sure. What color?”
Holy shit, he would too. If only to mess with me. I took a deep breath and let it out slowly, shook my head. “You never hesitate when I ask for something.”
“You don’t do it often. I figure if you’re asking, it’s something that matters.”
My eyes did not tear up again. I had allergies or something, probably to feelings. And you had to know, this man, he made me feel all the things all the damn time. “I don’t really need a sports car. But thanks.”
“Let me know if you change your mind.” He smirked, obviously having known full and well his agreeing would freak me out. Cunning man.
“Ev wants to organize a dinner tonight with the parents and everyone,” he said. “You good with that?”
“Sure. They’re nice and their place is beautiful.”
He stilled, studying my face. “Yeah, it is nice. Glad you like it there. They mean a lot to me.”
“They’re great people.” In my bedroom the alarm clock blared to life, belting out some long forgotten hit from the seventies. “I have to get moving.”
“Your legs working yet?” Mischief danced in his eyes.
“I think so.” I laughed.
“Call me today. I wanna know you’re okay dealing with Reece and everything.”
“I’ve been dealing with things for a long time.” My jaw tightened. “I can deal with Reece.”
“Hey, you were into him for over two years. I’m allowed to feel a little vulnerable and insecure about the f**kface. Stop trying to stunt my emotional growth, Anne.”
“I thought you were going to try to be nice to him. And stunt your emotional growth? How do you even come up with this stuff?”
“To him, not about him. And it’s a gift.” Given what was making its presence known once more against my hip, love and understanding wasn’t all he was searching for. “I have another gift for you.”
“We don’t have time for you to give me your gift. Plus, your good friend, my vagina, needs a rest.”
His mouth turned down at the edges and he rose up on his arms, sitting back on the mattress. He stood and offered me a hand. “Call me. I’m not trying to mess with your boundaries or anything. Just want to know you’re okay.”
Easily, he pulled me up onto my feet. “Alright, I’ll call.”
I cocked my head. “You going to call me if things aren’t okay with you regarding stuff?”
The little line appeared between his brows. Now maybe he appreciated how hard it could be letting someone into certain places. He looked away, jerked his chin.
What a pair we were. Sometimes it seemed we’d need a miracle to make this work. But my usually cautious heart had already committed.
“Thanks.” I placed my hand on his chest. “You don’t need to worry about Reece.”
“I know, I know. He’s nothing compared to my magnificence.” His fingers stroked mine and his eyes softened. “But just out of curiosity, how do you feel about getting my name tattooed on your forehead?
I was two blocks from work when I saw Reece walking toward me through the early morning crowd. His face was set in hard lines. Five minutes late. Five. Okay, seven (max) and he came looking for me? I’d even skipped my morning coffee fix to hurry things along. Excuses ran through my mind, backed up by all the times I’d stayed late to close because he had a date. I should have kept actual figures. They would have been so helpful right now.
“About-face.” He hooked my arm with his and spun me around to face the way I’d come. “Keep walking. You don’t want to go to the shop.”
“What’s going on?” My cell buzzed in my handbag. Mal’s name flashed up on screen. “Mal?”
“Ah, hey. Got good news and bad news. What do you want first?”
“Does this have to do with Reece keeping me from my place of employment?”
“Yeah, he called here a few minutes ago.” He made a pained noise. “Listen, photos of us at the restaurant last night got around. Someone recognized you and told a reporter who is currently hanging around the shop waiting to get the inside scoop on our lurve.”
“Right.” Mind officially boggled. Reece rushed me across a road and down another block. “What’s the good news?”
“Everyone knows about us now. We don’t have to hide.”
“We weren’t hiding anyway.”
“Good point. Sorry, pumpkin, there is no good news. Things are going to be painful for a while.”
“You’re lucky I’m extremely fond of you. What happens next?” We turned into the entry of a café. A table was available in the corner and Reece and I walked toward it.
“Reporters will probably just scrounge whatever information they can on you or make shit up, enough to have a story to run with. They’ll wanna get it out fast, news’ll spread, and there’ll be more people digging into your life. It shouldn’t be anything like what happened with Ev ‘cause we haven’t done anything crazy stupid like getting married in Vegas.” He took a breath. “You don’t do anything else too newsworthy, they’ll lose interest. Meanwhile, how do you feel about us staying at a hotel?”
“What about work?” I asked him, then shook my head and turned to Reece. It was really a question for the boss. I turned to Reece. “What about work?”
Reece raised his eyebrows in question while Mal cleared his throat. “Well, I figured you’d want to talk to him about that,” said Mal.
“Yes, I do.”
“But, Anne, for once don’t worry about the money, okay? I’ve got you covered.”
Hmm. I didn’t know about that. Realistically, though, if I was with Mal, I’d be crashing in his hotel room. My rent was paid up. Apart from the occasional meal, I shouldn’t need much.
“Okay. Just give me a minute please, Mal.” I moved the cell back a bit. “Sorry. Reece?”
“We talked,” Reece said. “He said it’ll probably be crazy for the next week or so, but then it should calm down.”
“I’m sorry about the reporter. But I was hoping to ask if I could take some time off anyway? I realize this is short notice, but given the circumstances … ”
Reece flinched and panic rose up like a tidal wave. He didn’t seem angry last night, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t holding a grudge, or he might well decide he’d had enough and fire me. Things could get screwed up pretty fast here.
But he sighed and relaxed once more. “You’re going on tour with him?”
“I’d like to. Just for a while. It would give this a chance to blow over.”
“I guess it makes sense. Though if you stick with him, this shit could be ongoing. Have you thought of that?”
“Are you asking for my resignation?”
“Of course not.”
“I’m not giving him up, Reece.”
He looked away. “I can cover you for a week, Anne. With such short notice, I don’t think I can do more.”
“No, a week would be great. Thank you.”
“You’re overdue for vacation. And I can’t have reporters hanging around, scaring the customers. I’ll rearrange the shifts with Tara and Alex.”
“I really appreciate it.”
“You’re an awesome friend.”
“I’m awesome,” said Mal in my ear. “I’m so much more awesome than him, I can’t even … there’s no comparison. Why would you even use that word in reference to him?”
“Hush,” I told him.
“Be back in time for your birthday, okay?” asked Reece with a hesitant smile. “We’re still going to dinner, right?”
“God, I hadn’t even thought about it. I’ll be back then.” We always went out to dinner on each other’s birthdays. It was our tradition. Mal would still be on the road, so I could celebrate with him early. This would be a nice chance to mend bridges with Reece, going out as just friends. “I’d like that.”
“What?” asked Mal. “When’s your birthday? Pumpkin?”
“Take care,” said Reece. “You need anything, call me.”
“Thanks. Really, I … you’re a great friend.”
“A great friend … right,” he said dryly. Then he leaned in, kissing me on the cheek. “Bye.”
“Did he just kiss you?” Mal yelled in my ear, making it ring.
I winced, pulling the cell back. “Whoa. Noise levels, buddy.”
Reece moved through the crowd and out the door. Maybe we were going to survive this after all. Last night, I hadn’t been so sure.
“When is your birthday?” Mal asked.
“Twenty-eighth of October.”
“A week and a half away. I’ll have to get something sorted for you.”
“Just you will do. We’ll have to celebrate it early, though. I’ve only got a week and I was probably damn lucky to get that what with the giving five minutes’ notice.”
“Can’t believe he kissed you. Ballsy, but still, he’s dead.” He mumbled some more of what I presumed to be idle threats. “Don’t come back here, just in case. I’ll ask Lauren to help me pack a couple of bags for you. You head to The Benson, okay? There’ll be a room ready by the time you get there.”
“You’re not mad about me turning your life upside down?”
“I’m a big girl, Mal. I knew who you were going into this and I saw what went down with Ev. There was always a chance this could happen.”
“And if it keeps happening, you gonna get sick of it and leave me?”
My heart rebelled at the thought. “No. We’ll work something out.”
“Yeah, we will,” he agreed. “You’re pretty mellow after a night of hot sex. I’m keeping a note of that.”
“You do that, my friend.”
He chuckled. “See you in an hour or two. We’ll break in the hotel mattress, order some room service, and hang out, okay?”
“Sounds great.” With a grin, I slumped down in the chair. I was officially on vacation. The last vacation I went on was to Florida with Mom, Dad, and Lizzy. I’d been fourteen years old, the year before everything went to shit. And no way did I need to be dwelling on the past.
Life here and now with Mal was a roller coaster. Scary and elating. No matter how strange the circumstances, I was going to enjoy this time.
The dinner with the band and his parents was lovely.
Afterward, we headed for a dive bar on the edge of Chinatown. It was located down a narrow staircase, underground. Not too clean but not too dirty. There were pinball machines and a pool table, a jukebox blasting out Joy Division. The crowd had the market on slacker-hipster style cornered. Apart from a few double takes, nobody got excited when we came in. I guess they were all too cool to freak out over some boring old rock stars.
Though Sam the body guard was along, just in case.
My cell had been ringing on and off due to my newfound fame. Plenty of messages had been received, but I’d checked in with Lizzy and she was fine. There wasn’t really anyone else I needed to talk to. Ev had given me a pep talk about dealing with all the attention. To keep my head down and not feed the monster. Eventually, they’d lose interest and move on.