“No. I never realized it could be this much fun.”
My hand hung in the air between us. I was about to retract it when he grabbed hold. I stared him in the face, determined not to lose it this time. The problem with Mal Ericson was that he was physically flawless. Not a single imperfection marred him, big or small. If he kept riding my ass, though, I’d fix that for him.
“What’s that look mean?” he asked, leaning in. “What are you thinking now?”
My stomach swooped and all thoughts of violence were pushed aside. “Nothing.”
“Hmm. You’re not a very good liar.”
I tried to pull my hand from his grasp. Instead, he held it firmly.
“One last quick question. This shit with your friend, that sort of thing happen often?”
“’Cause when you were on the phone, talking with your other friend, it sounded like it did.” He loomed over me, blocking out the night sky. “It sounded like it was a problem for you, people using you.”
“We don’t need to talk about this.” I twisted my hand, trying to get free. Even with the sweaty palms it was an impossible task.
“Did you notice how your friend asked for a favor even knowing you were all sad faced about this other friend ripping you off? How do you feel about that?”
I yanked on my arm, but he held fast. Seriously, how strong was this bastard?
“Because I think that was kind of a low move. Between you and me, I don’t think you have very good friends, Anne.”
“Hey. I have great friends.”
“Are you f**king kidding me? They rip you off and expect shit from you when you’re down. Seriously, dude. Only ass**les would do that.”
“But what’s worse is that you’re letting them. I don’t get that.”
“I’m not letting them do anything.”
“Yes, you are,” he said, voice rising in volume. “You so are.”
“Good god, do you have a mute switch?”
“It’s appalling! I’m officially appalled,” he yelled, clueing the whole damn neighborhood in on my life. “This must end! I will stand for it no longer. Do you hear me, Portland?”
“Let me go,” I said through gritted teeth.
“You, Miss Rollins, are a doormat.”
“I am not a doormat,” I growled, everything in me rebelling at the idea. Either that or running in fear of it. I was so worked up it was hard to tell.
He rolled his eyes. “C’mon, you know you are. It’s right there on your face.”
I shook my head, beyond words.
“So, I’ve given this absolutely no thought and decided that you need boundaries, Anne. Boundaries. Are. Your. Friends.” Each word was punctuated with his finger tapping the tip of my nose. “Do you hear me? Is this getting through?”
Which is about when I snapped and started screaming. “You want boundaries? How about getting the hell out of my face! How’s that for a boundary, huh? None of this is any of your damn business, you obnoxious dickhead.”
He opened his mouth to reply but I charged on regardless.
“You don’t know a damn thing about me. And you think you can get in my face and tear my psyche apart for fun? No. Fuck you, buddy. Fuck you hard.”
Everything went quiet, even the music inside. The most horrible silence reigned supreme. People were watching us through the glass with curious faces. Lauren’s mouth was a perfect O.
“Shit,” I muttered.
What had I done? Lauren had invited me to this nice party and I’d just gone psycho on one of the guests. It was time to wither and die, I could feel it. “Please let my hand go.”
“Anne, look at me.”
“C’mon, gimme your eyes.”
Slowly, wearily, I turned back to him. The slowest of smiles curled his perfect lips. “That was f**king awesome. I’m so proud of you right now.”
“Yes. You really are.”
“You’re just thinking that now. But give it some time. Think about what I said.”
I just shook my head in silence.
“It was great to meet you, Anne. We’ll talk again real soon,” he said, pressing a kiss to the back of my hand before releasing it. There was a light in his eyes, one I didn’t want to decipher. One I certainly didn’t trust. “I promise.”
I’d only just wandered back inside when David Ferris appeared at my elbow, probably to throw me out. Yelling at rock stars had to be severely frowned upon at such events.
“Hey.” David spoke to me but his gaze stayed on the other side of the room where Lauren and Ev were huddled together. A possible problem, since Lauren talked with her hands. Every few seconds Ev got whacked in the arm. She didn’t seem to mind, however.
“Having fun?” he asked.
He nodded, his demeanor as cool and detached as earlier.
“Great,” I whispered.
The two beers and bizarre confrontation had left me a little light-headed. Maybe drinking wasn’t such a good idea after all. Especially if I had to keep talking to important people and actually making sense as opposed to yelling abuse at them. Music was pumping once again, people mingling and chatting their hearts out. No one even really gave me a second glance. I could only hope that picking random strangers’ lives apart was Mal’s thing and they’d seen it all before. “You talked to him?” he asked.
“Ah, yes. I did.” I’d thought everyone had heard.
“Hmm.” Across the room, Ev burst out laughing. An answering smile tugged at his lips. “You argue about something?”
“No, nothing really,” I stumbled. “Just nothing.”
David turned to me and his forehead creased, the smile long gone. For a long time he just looked at me.
“Never mind.” He slinked away, leaving me boggled.
Was I not supposed to have talked to Mal? He’d talked to me first. I might have started the staring, but he’d definitely kicked off the conversation. And the yelling, for that matter. Not my fault I’d interacted with one of the most famous drummers on the planet. But a memory of Mal looking out over the city came back to me. The frown he’d had on his face before he’d gotten busy poking fun at me once more. The way he’d bounced between moods. And now with David checking up on him …
Curiouser and curiouser.
If cash and conquests were everything, then Mal had it covered. I’d seen a picture of his beautiful beach house down in L.A. Photos of him covered in scantily clad women were the norm. Money didn’t buy happiness. I knew that. Given my current situation, though, the knowledge wouldn’t quite stick. Plus the man had fame, worldwide adoration, and an awesome job involving lots of travel. How dare he not be deliriously, ridiculously happy! What was his problem?
“That’s a big frown.” Lauren hooked her arm with mine, drawing me further into the party. “You okay?”
“I heard you and Mal fighting.”
“I’m assuming pretty much everyone did.” I winced. “Sorry about that.”
She laughed. “Please, Mal lives to get a reaction.”
“He certainly got one from me.”
“Let me guess, that was your friend, Reecy, calling earlier?” Her voice dripped with disdain. Lauren and I started spending time together when Ev got married and moved out. Often on weekends Nate would wind up needing to work. Lauren had a low boredom threshold for her own company. So we’d grab a coffee or go see a movie. It was good. Especially since Skye had taken to avoiding me the past few months. It had been on the pretext of spending time with her new boyfriend but now I had to wonder.
I hated doubting everything that’d happened. The feeling of losing all trust. It was skin crawling and noxious.
“Reece’s date bailed on him,” I said. “Did Ev say something about pizza? I’m starving.”
“One day, you’re going to stop being that boy’s back-up plan.”
My spine straightened. “We’re just friends, Lauren.”
She steered me into the kitchen. A vast array of pizza boxes had been spread across the marble benchtop.
“Please,” she huffed. “He’s a cunt tease. He knows you like him and plays on it.”
“No, he doesn’t. I repeat, just friends.” I’d only recently finished embarrassing myself in front of Malcolm Ericson. Thoughts regarding my possible foolish behavior around Reece Lewis could wait for another time.
Or never. Never would also be fine.
“You could do better if you bothered to,” she said.
I made some vague noise. Hopefully it was enough to end this topic of conversation. Then my stomach rumbled loudly. Yum, melted cheese. Earlier, I’d been so worried about the talk with Skye, I’d skipped lunch. With two beers sloshing around inside my belly, food was long overdue. Though the toppings laid out weren’t what I expected. “Is that artichoke and spinach?”
“Probably.” Lauren shook her head and shoved a piping-hot piece of ham and pineapple at me, taking the time to sit it on a napkin first. “Here, try this one. Evelyn hasn’t wrecked it with any of her vegetable nonsense. I love her, I do. But the girl has the strangest taste in pizza toppings of anyone I’ve ever met. It’s unnatural.”
I bit into it immediately, scalding my tongue and the roof of my mouth. One day I’d learn to wait until it cooled down. Not today, but one day.
Out in the living room, the music suddenly jumped in volume by about a billion decibels. My ears started ringing. The walls shuddered. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club thundered through the condo. Someone else managed to be louder. “Par-tay!”
Lauren smiled and leaned in closer to be heard. “Mal’s decided to join in!” she shouted. “Now the fun begins.”
Ben Nicholson, Stage Dive’s bull-necked bass player arrived, blowing my mind just a bit more. He and Mal started pouring shots. I stuck to my mostly full beer. Holding it gave my hands something to do. What followed was pretty much everything I’d ever expected from a rock star party. Well, there weren’t really drugs or groupies so much. But plenty of pretty people getting drunk and lots of noise. It was a bit like the college parties Lizzy talked me into attending now and then. Only instead of cheap beer in red Solo cups, they passed around bottles of CÎROC and Patrón. Most everyone’s clothes were top-of-the-line designer goodies and we were sitting in a million-dollar condo instead of some crappy student apartment.
So, actually, it was nothing like the parties I went to with Lizzy. Forget I said that.
Lauren, Ev, and I had danced and chatted earlier. It’d been fun. For certain, Lauren had done me a favor dragging me out tonight. I’d had a hell of a lot better time than I ever would have sitting at home all by my lonesome. Mal had gone off with David and Ben to another room for a while. Not that I’d been keeping an eye out for him.
For a while I’d hung out in the kitchen, talking to a sound technician by the name of Dean. Apparently he worked with someone called Tyler, who’d been with the band for forever and was basically a family friend. Dean was nice, intelligent, with cool black hair and a piercing through his lip. Yes, he was sort of hot. He asked me back to his hotel room, and it was tempting. But all of my current stresses were running on a loop in the back of my mind. It would basically take a Sex God to make me unwind right now.
I bid Dean good night at the kitchen door.
Then Mal and the guys returned and the music got turned way up again. As inevitably happened, everyone had started pairing up. David and Ev disappeared. No one commented. Lauren sat on Nate’s lap in the corner of the couch, their hands all over each other. I stifled a yawn. It’d been a blast, but it was nearing three in the morning. I was running out of steam. We’d probably be leaving soon.