I just blinked, the rest of me being too frozen to respond.
“Okay. Long story short, I accidentally saw Ev naked.” He held up his hands, protesting his innocence. “It was only side boob, I swear. No nipple or anything like that. But you know what he’s like with her, the f**king drama queen. He completely lost his shit.”
I nodded. I didn’t actually have a clue, but it seemed a response was required.
“Exactly. As if it’s my fault. It was in the f**king kitchen! I just wanted something to eat and there they are, dry humping against the wall. I didn’t even know she’d gotten home from work. As if I want to see that. It’s like walking in on your folks. Well, except Ev actually has great tits.” His guilty gaze slid to my face. “Alright, there might have been a flash of nipple but I swear it’s not like I went out of my way to see it. Not my fault she was topless. Anyway, Davie went ballistic.”
“Oh yeah. Huge. Harsh words were said. We may have even wrestled slightly. But I forgive him. Love makes you psycho, right?”
“Right.” There was a sentiment I could wholeheartedly get behind. When my first boyfriend broke up with me at sixteen, my tiny little world had been rocked. And look at my mom. She’d lost her shit completely when dad left.
“So you moved in with me?” I said, ever so slowly piecing the story together.
Mal shrugged. “Well, hell yeah!”
“No, I mean, you actually moved in with me. Here. Into my apartment. Um, how did you get in again, just out of interest?”
“Is this going to be an issue?” he asked with a long, winded sigh. “Anne, come on. We talked about this last night. If you were gonna have a problem with me moving in, that was the time to bring it up, not now.”
“I thought you were joking.”
“Dude, that’s offensive. Why would I joke about important stuff like that?”
“Because you were drunk?”
“I get some of my best ideas under the influence.”
“I didn’t even think you’d remember.”
“Again, offended,” he said. “I’m not some fifteen-year-old. I know what I can handle.”
“Sorry.” I don’t quite know why I was the one apologizing. But never mind. My legs felt weak. I perched on the edge of the nearest couch. It was incredibly comfortable, though it did little for my sudden light-headedness.
Living with me.
He did indeed look serious as evidenced by the little indent between his brows from frowning back at me. Ever so subtly I kicked myself, to check I was awake and not dreaming. Crap, it hurt. Pain radiated from my anklebone, making me wince. Yep, wide awake. Also, the heel on my Docs packed a punch.
“You’re looking at me weird again,” he said.
He rolled his eyes. “Women. Honest, I swear, it was a hint of nipple and no more. I meant no disrespect to Evvie.”
I leaned down, surreptitiously rubbing my brand-new bruise. “I believe you.”
“Good. Can you please stop bringing it up?”
I opened my mouth to tell him I hadn’t. But it seemed safer to keep the thought to myself. Who knew what tangent it would launch him into next? Mal Ericson was a hard man to keep up with.
“Shit, you don’t like the couch do you?” he asked. “That’s what the look is about.”
“Man.” Mal hung his head, hands on his slim hips. “I called Ev to ask what color you’d want but she started asking questions and then she started yelling and it was just a f**king mess. I can’t be standing in some furniture shop arguing on the phone with some chick, you know? I’ve gotta reputation to consider. So I tried calling Lauren ‘cause I figured she might have a spare key to your place–which she did.”
“Lauren let you in?”
“Yeah. And she said to definitely get that one, said you’d go nuts for it.”
“No, it’s … um, it’s really nice.” I ran my palm over the velvet fabric. It felt divine, super soft. No way did I want to know what it must have cost.
“Really?” He looked at me from beneath his brows, mouth tight with concern. Still, the green and hazel of his eyes was crystal clear. He seemed almost childlike somehow, vulnerable. “You’re sure you like it?”
I couldn’t tear my gaze away from him to give the item of furniture a proper perusal. No doubt, however, it looked every bit as good as it felt. “It’s beautiful, Mal.”
“Phew.” His sudden grin lit my world.
I smiled back so hard my face hurt. “Look, I’m not saying no to you moving in. I guess I’m still trying to get my head around the concept. But why do you want to live with me?”
“I like you,” he said simply.
“You barely know me.”
“You’re a friend of Ev’s and Lauren’s. We talked. I tackled you. We rolled around on the floor together. It was a real bonding experience.”
“You know, I’ve never lived with a female before. Well, not since my mom and sisters, and they don’t count. Gimme a minute, this is way harder than it looks.” He threw himself into the black leather wingback chair across from me. Very cool chair. No match for the man sitting in it, but still, nice chair. I waited as he made various pained expressions, finally pinching the bridge of his nose. “You seem like a nice girl, you know?”
I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Laughter seemed safer. “Thanks.”
“Hang on,” he groaned. “I’m not used to having to talk women into shit, either. Usually, they’re just happy to go along with whatever.”
And I did not blame them one bit. But I was reasonably certain there lay the path to ruin. I’d be trailing around behind him like a lovelorn puppy in no time. Not good.
His fingers tapped out a beat on the rolled wooden chair arms. He was a restless soul, was Malcolm Ericson. Never still. You could see how all of his energy made him such a great drummer. “You know, it was fun hanging out with you last night. I enjoyed it. Cool that you weren’t being psycho or getting in anyone’s face. Despite you being so into me that you get all crazy eyed, I kinda find you strangely soothing to be around right now.”
A shadow passed over his face, there and gone in an instant. If not for Ev’s visit I might have convinced myself I’d imagined it. But no. Something was definitely up with this man.
“You don’t bug me with a lot of questions. Well, you didn’t last night.” He reclined in the chair like a king, resting his ankle on his knee. The energy or tension running through him kept his fingers jittering, endlessly tapping. “Let’s look at it this way. You need money, right?”
I hesitated, but it was the truth. We both knew it. “Right.”
“I need something too.”
My eyes narrowed. If he started yelling about sexual healing again I’d throw him out, cool furniture, drum kit, and all. Or I’d lick him all over. With my current confusion and stress levels, chances were fifty/fifty. An opportunity to throw myself at him might just be too good to miss. After all, how many more chances would I get? My luck had to run out eventually.
“And I think you’ll suit my needs to perfection,” he continued.
One side of his mouth hitched higher (forty/sixty). “Every man has needs, young Anne. How old are you, by the way?”
“Twenty-three. I’m aware everyone has needs. But Mal, I’m not going to meet yours.” My nose went high. Sweet baby Jesus, I so badly wanted to meet his needs, but not when he gave me that smug grin. A girl had to have her pride.
“Sure you are.” He laughed softly, evilly, seeing right through me (twenty/eighty). “You’re dying to meet my needs. You can’t look away from my luscious half-naked body. The minute I opened the door you were pawing at me. It was like you were in heat or something.”
I squeezed my eyes shut for a moment, blocking him out in an attempt to regain my wits. If only my heart would stop slipping into cardiac arrest at the sight and sound of him. It would make things so much easier. “No, Mal. I lost my balance when you opened the door on me. Finding you here has actually come as a bit of a surprise. I’m not used to people just moving themselves in with me without some serious discussion up front.”
When I opened my eyes, he was silently watching me. Judging me.
“And I wasn’t pawing at you.”
The too-calm expression on his face spoke volumes. He didn’t believe me, not even a little. “Hey, now, don’t be embarrassed.”
I wasn’t a clueless virgin. My V-card had been stamped with my first and last long-term boyfriend at age sixteen. Since coming to Portland, I’d indulged in the odd date. Why wouldn’t I? I was young and free. I enjoyed sex. Thoughts of mounting a half-naked man on a wingback chair? Not so much.
I was out of control. No way could I let him know this, however.
“It’s okay, pumpkin. I don’t mind you pawing at me. If that’s how you feel the need to express your affection, that’s cool.”
“Mal.” This was going from bad to worse. I don’t even know why I started laughing. “Please stop talking. I need a minute. Consider this a boundary.”
His eyes lit with delight. “Hey, you’ve been thinking about what I said. That’s great. I respect your boundary, Anne.”
“Then why are you still talking?”
I tried to find my calm. Why had I never made time for yoga? Deep breathing exercises would have been so useful.
When I opened my eyes, Mal smiled back at me serenely. The arrogant jerk. So confident. So hot. And so damn shirtless. What was with that? It was fall in Portland, cool weather, raining on and off. Normal people wore clothes this time of year.
“Can you put a shirt on?”
He scratched at his chin. “Mm, no. That’s my boundary, sorry. I like your sexy looks too much to get dressed.”
Crap, was I making crazy eyes?
“You’re perfect,” he muttered, smirk firmly in place.
Damn it, I was.
“What do you think my needs are, Anne?”
“I’m aware you’re talking about sex, Mal. That’s kind of obvious. But why, out of all the women at your disposal, would you choose me? That I don’t understand. And why you would move yourself in with me, I don’t really get that either. You could have gone to a hotel or rented a place of your own much nicer than here.”
“Noooo.” He slumped back in the seat, laying his meshed fingers on his flat belly. “I’m not talking about sex. I like to think you and I are above all of that messy, physical stuff, despite your infatuation with me. What I need is a girlfriend … well, a pretend girlfriend, and you, Anne Rollins, are perfect.”
He burst out laughing.
“You’re joking,” I said, relieved. Well, mad and relieved. Were rock stars so bored these days they had to resort to such extremes for entertainment?
“No, I’m not joking. Your reaction was funny, is all.” Long fingers brushed back his blond hair, pulling it off his face. “This is serious, a business transaction, and it’s gotta be kept on the down low. I’ve paid your rent. I got you furniture to replace what that ass**le friend of yours took. In return, I want you to play my girlfriend for a while.”
My jaw gave way to gravity. “You’re not serious.”
“Why do you never believe anything I say? Anne, I am very serious.”