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I hoped we’d be leaving soon. In a few hours I had to rise and shine. The shining part might be problematic with the way Mal’s words were beating around inside my brain. Overly trusting and broke? Yes. Doormat, my ass.

“Benny boy,” hollered Mal. He was dancing on top of the coffee table with a long-legged brunette. The girl seemed hell-bent on wrapping herself around him, strangler-vine style. Somehow he managed to keep her at a polite distance. Well, almost.

“Yo,” replied Ben in a very manly manner.

“You met my girl, Anne?” Mal nodded to where I sat perched on the end of a couch. I froze. For hours he’d been otherwise occupied. I’d thought he’d forgotten about me entirely.

“You got a girl?” asked Ben.

“Yeah. Isn’t she cute?”

I got a brief looking over from Ben, followed by a chin tip. It seemed eerily similar to the one I’d gotten from David. Maybe this was the equivalent of a rock star’s secret handshake.

“We were talking earlier outside. We’re moving in together,” Mal informed him. The brunette in his arms scowled. He didn’t even notice. But more important, what the hell was he talking about? “It’s serious, man. Real serious. She’s got a few issues with her friends going on. It’s a f**king mess. Anyway, she really needs me with her right now for support and shit, you know?”

My hands quietly throttled the poor innocent bottle of beer.

“You doing the Dave and Ev thing?” asked Ben.

“Abso-fucking-lutely. I’m settling down. I’m a changed man. True love and all that.”

“Right. This should be interesting,” said Ben. “How long you think it’ll last?”

“Mine and Anne’s lustful passion will be eternal, Benny boy. Just you wait and see.”

Ben’s eyebrow arched. “You willing to bet on this?”

“Name your price, punk!”

“Five large says you can’t make it till we go on tour.”

“Fuck that. Make it worth my time. Twenty.”

Ben guffawed. “Easiest twenty grand I’ll ever make.”

“You’re moving in with me?” I asked, interrupting all the male bravado and talk of money. I wasn’t even touching upon my supposed friend issues.

“Yes, pumpkin,” said Mal, his face deadly serious. “I am moving in with you.”

I cringed at the horrid nickname but chose to focus on the real concern for now. “When did we talk about this exactly?”

“Actually, you might have left by then. But it doesn’t change the facts.” He turned back to Ben. “Perfect timing with Mom coming to town. She’s going to love her. Mom always wanted me to find a nice girl and settle down and shit.”

“Thought you didn’t like Portland,” commented Ben.

“I don’t like Portland. But I like Anne.” He gave me a wink. “Besides, Davie’s not moving back to L.A. anytime soon. Even Jimmy’s been talking about relocating, maybe buying the place next door.”

“Has he?”

“Yeah. You met his new babysitter?”

“Nah, not yet. What happened to the old one, the big black dude?”

“Ha, no. He’s long gone. There’s been several since him. New girl started a couple while back.” Mal chuckled. The sound was distinctly evil. “If Jimmy doesn’t want someone around, he has ways of making their life f**king intolerable.”

“Sh-i-i-t. Tell me later.”

Mal chuckled some more. “Anyways, things are tight between me and Anne. I may as well stay.”

The brunette turned her glare up to high beam. My look was probably more confused. Maybe he meant another Anne. One that had a clue what the hell he was talking about.

“Your girl doesn’t mind watching some chick crawling all over you?” Ben gave me a raised brow. “I need a girlfriend like that.”

“Ah, f**k. Good point. Honestly, this whole monogamy thing. It takes so much getting used to, man.” Mal set the distinctly cranky brunette away from him, the muscles in his arms flexing. He deposited her gently back down onto the floor. “Apologies. I’m sure you’re very nice and all but my heart beats only for Anne.”

The brunette threw a withering glance my way, flicked her hair, and turned to leave. Ignoring her huffing, Ben caught the girl around the waist, pulling her onto his lap. The girl’s transfer of affections took all of a millisecond. To be fair, Ben was a big burly guy. Few would say no.

Mal threw himself at my feet. I scuttled back in my chair in surprise.

“Forgive me, Anne! I didn’t mean to stray.”

“It’s fine.” I didn’t know exactly how much he’d had to drink. A truckload would probably be a good guess.

“Guess what, pumpkin?” Mal jumped onto the couch beside me, towering over me on his knees. “You don’t make crazy eyes at Ben.”

I needed to shoot him at least twice. Once for calling me pumpkin and then again for embarrassing me every damn chance he got. Instead, I studied my beer with great intensity.

“She makes crazy eyes at you?” asked Ben.

“Oh, yeah. Anne?” A finger slid beneath my chin and gently lifted, forcing me to face him.

Mal stared at me and I stared back despite my best intentions. His face gentled. None of the drunken amusement remained. He just looked at me and all that stuff about seeing someone’s soul began to make sense. It was terrifying. I could almost feel a connection between us. Like there was something I could reach out and grab hold of.

It couldn’t be real.

But for one perfect moment, it was just me and him. We were in our own little bubble and nothing or no one else existed. It was strangely peaceful.

“There we go,” he said, not taking his eyes off me. “She doesn’t do it for you or Davie though. Only I get the crazy eyes. Because I’m special.”

Ben said something. I didn’t hear what. Then Mal looked away and the moment was gone. The spell was broken. “It’s sweet, really. She can’t live without me.”

“Obviously.” Ben laughed.

My jaw clenched. Fuck Mal Ericson and his games very much.

“I haven’t met your lead singer, Jimmy, yet,” I said, finally finding my fight. It was either words or fists. Given the way he just exposed me to ridicule, I was good with either. “Maybe he’s the real favorite and you’re just the runner-up. Did you think of that?”

His mouth fell open. “You did not just say that to me.”

I didn’t answer. Let’s see how he enjoyed being teased.

“Anne, are you trying to make me jealous? You wouldn’t like me when I’m jealous!” The drunken lunatic roared and started pounding on his chest like King Kong or the Hulk or whatever the hell he was trying to be. “Take it back.”

“No.”

“Don’t toy with me, Anne. Take it back or I’ll make you.”

I screwed up my face, incredulous. And he said I was crazy. Or crazy eyed. Whatever.

The madman shrugged. “Okay, pumpkin. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

Without further ado, he launched himself at me. I screeched in alarm. The noise was awesome. My beer bottle went flying across the floor.

It could be said I’m somewhat ticklish. Sure as shit, I hated being tickled. His fingers were dancing and digging in turn, hitting all my sensitive spots, damn it. It was like someone had given him a map to my body. I was panting and squirming, trying to get away from him.

“Boundaries, you bastard,” I hissed.

His answering laugh was no less than wicked.

Then I started to slip off the couch.

To be fair, he did try to break my fall and he used himself to do so. Hands grabbed hold of me, turning as opposed to torturing. We fell in a tangle of limbs, me landing flat on top of him. Mal grunted as the back of his head bounced off the hardwood floor.

Ouch; that had to hurt.

Despite the knock, his arms remained tight, holding me to him. The man felt good, better than I’d ever imagined. And you had to know I’d done some serious imagining, even out there on the balcony. The playful light disappeared from his eyes and every inch of him tensed. He stared up at me, unblinking, his mouth slightly open. I got the distinct feeling he was waiting to see what I’d do next. If I’d take things further. Mostly, I concentrated on breathing. Then he looked at my lips.

Breathing was out.

He couldn’t want me to kiss him. Surely this was just another game. Except it wasn’t, not entirely. I could feel him hardening against my thigh. Things low inside of me tightened in response. I hadn’t been this wound up in ages.

Fuck it, I was going for it. I had to know how his lips felt. In that moment, not kissing him was out of the question.

“Malcolm, no!” Ev stared down at us sprawled on the floor, her face a picture of dismay. “Let her go. Not my friends. You promised.”

All trace of sexual tension melted away as embarrassment filled me to overflowing. Everyone was laughing. Well, everyone except for David and Ev. Sadly, they’d chosen that moment to rejoin the party.

“Your friend and I are meant to be together. Suck it up.” He gave me a squeeze. “You know, I thought you at least would recognize true love when you saw it. I’m very disappointed in you right now, Evelyn.”

“Let her go.”

“Davie, control your wife, she’s making a scene.” Distracted, Mal’s hold on me loosened and I managed to scurry off of him. Lucky for him, my knee didn’t land in his groin.

“You’re the one rolling around on the floor, dude,” said David.

“Not. My. Friends.” Ev repeated through gritted teeth.

“Your shirt is on inside out, child bride,” said Mal, the side of his mouth kicking up. “What have you been doing?”

Ears turning pink, Evelyn crossed her arms over her chest. Her husband did a bad job of hiding a smile. “None of your f**king business what we’ve been doing,” he said in a gruff voice.

“You two disgust me.” Mal climbed to his feet then grabbed hold of my hand, hauling me upright. “You okay?” he asked.

“Yeah. You?”

He gave me a goofy grin and rubbed at the back of his skull. “My head would probably hurt if I could feel it.”

There was my answer. He was plastered. I was entertainment. Any romantic notions were strictly mine. The story of my life, really.

Finally the laughter quieted down. We were still the focus of every eye in the room, however.

“Malcolm, is that your beer on the floor?” asked Ev, pointing at the mess my fallen bottle had made.

Before I could open my mouth to apologize, Mal was there.

“Yes. Yes, it is. But do not despair. I’ve got this.” He ripped off his T-shirt and knelt, mopping up the spill. There was a whole lot of hard flesh and bronzed skin right there. A truly impressive amount. His back was covered in ink, an intricate scene of a bird taking flight, the opening wings spanning across the breadth of his shoulders. A sigh rippled around the room at the sight of him half na**d on his knees. It wasn’t just me making the noise, I swear. Though yes, I definitely contributed heartily.

“Christ, Mal,” said Lauren. “Put some clothes on before you start a riot.”

The man just looked up and grinned.

“And I think that’s our cue to leave.” Lauren pushed herself off Nate’s lap. “It’s been fun. But we’ve got work tomorrow, unlike you musical slackers.”

“You’re taking my Anne?” Mal asked. His lips turned down at the edges. He climbed to his feet, leaving his sodden shirt on the ground. “You can’t take my Anne. I need her for stuff … private stuff, in my room.”

“Another time.” Lauren patted him on the back.


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