He sighed and stared at the ceiling long and hard. “I dunno, the way you helped your friend out, even if she didn’t do right by you.”
“Mal, that doesn’t make me a good person. It makes me an idiot.” Given how things had gone down it was nothing less than the cold, hard truth. “You basically said as much yourself last night. I let her use me.”
Mal bared his teeth. “Hey, I never said you were an idiot and I don’t want to hear you talking like that again. There’s another boundary, right there.”
“I am perfectly relaxed. Look, we’ve all got our problems, Anne. I never said you were perfect.” He paused, scratched his chin. “Oh, no wait. I did say that. Well, I didn’t mean it exactly like … not that you’re not great and everything but … yeah, let’s move this on.”
“No. Come on, rock star. How did you mean it?” I asked, suppressing a giggle. It was just him. I couldn’t help it, the man was hilarious.
He waved away the question. “No, we’ve moved on. Out of interest, did it even occur to you to hit Ev up for the money you needed last night?”
I reared back in surprise. “What? No.”
“She’d have given it to you. Fuck knows her and Davie have got it.”
“It’s not her problem.”
He gave me another smug look.
“That proves nothing. And if you’ve chosen me for my ethics then am I really the best person to be lying to your friends and family, Mal?”
“Pumpkin … we’re not going to be hurting anyone. We’re just going to be helping each other out, that’s all.”
“You said I was a hopeless liar.”
“You’ll be fine.” He waved my protests away.
I just sat there and reeled. Was this really something we could pull off?
“Why do you need a pretend girlfriend?”
“Because I do.”
He rolled his eyes, face tensing. “Because it’s none of your business why, okay? I’ve paid up your rent. Your sweet ass will not be evicted. In return, all I ask is that you gaze adoringly at me around other people. You do that anyway; what’s the big deal here?”
“So you’re not going to tell me?”
“Have you had your hearing tested lately? Let’s just say I have a good reason, a personal reason, and leave it at that. Honestly, you’re as bad as Davie and Ev. ‘What’s wrong, Mal?’ ‘Are you okay, Mal’ Well, I was until everyone asked me a thousand f**king times.” He pushed to his feet and started pacing the room. Given the length of his legs, he didn’t get very far. Three steps forward, three steps back. After a couple of laps he stopped, stared out the window at the street below.
“Why does everyone insist on being heavy all the f**king time? Life’s too short for all this oversharing. You’re here. I’m here. We can help each other out and have a good time while we’re at it. That’s all that matters.” He spun on his heel to face me, arms out wide. “Life’s a song, Anne. Let’s play.”
My life hadn’t been much of a song … at least, not up until this point.
Neither of us spoke for a moment. Expectation and impatience oozed from him. I did indeed have a bad feeling I was being played again. However, not maliciously this time. Mal didn’t seem like he’d harm a fly. But he might accidentally trample one.
From the outside, it seemed a good deal. I really did need the money. I also liked being around him. He was about a bazillion times more fun than I’d ever known. Whatever happened, this was bound to be a hell of a ride. And if I knew he would leave, up front, there’d be no risk of getting overly attached. I’d just enjoy the time I had with him and then say good-bye. This could very well be fantastic.
“Alright,” I said at last. “You have pulled my ass out of the fire. Thanks for that. But I’m still not completely convinced about this girlfriend plan. I guess we’ll see how it goes.”
He clapped his hands in glee. “You won’t regret this. I won’t mess with your life. Much.”
“And you know I’m a f**king delight to have around. People don’t always get that about me. Plus, I’ll open jars and lift heavy shit. I hear those are issues for women.” He bounced around the room. Good god, this man had energy to spare like he snorted sugar. “So, what should we do tonight? Wanna order some food? What do you feel like?”
I slumped back in the chair, tired from just watching him. “Mal, I don’t have money for that, but you go ahead.”
“Would you stop worrying about money? That’s why I’m here. Everything’s fine. Now what do you feel like?”
“Whatever you want is great.”
“That is so the correct answer. We are going to be the best fake couple ever, pumpkin.”
“Please don’t call me that.”
“Puuuumpkin,” he drawled, eyebrows waggling. “It’s a great nickname. Your hair is kinda that color and we’re a couple now. Couples always have dumb-ass names for each other. C’mon, you think up one for me.”
“I’ll get right to work on that.”
“Cool. Then we’ll have touching time.” He rubbed his hands together. “Actually, never mind, we can do that later in bed.”
My mind scrambled for purchase. “Bed? Touching time? Is that a euphemism? I thought we weren’t having sex. You said we were just pretending.”
“Geez, relax. We’re not having sex, we’re just sleeping together. The whole plan will totally collapse if we start having sex. What I need is a respectable long-term-looking relationship. We start f**king and you’ll be all ‘Oh Mal, I never dreamed such ecstasy was possible. I cannot live without you! Fuck me, Mal. Pleeeeease.’” His knees buckled until he fell flat onto the floor. It was an impressive performance. The man knew how to bat his eyelashes.
I giggled like a vapid schoolgirl. A noise that pretty much made me want to shoot myself on principle.
“And then everything will go all psycho Fatal Attraction. Trust me, I’ve seen it happen and it’s not pretty. So let’s keep it strictly above the belt. Get your mind out of the gutter, Anne.”
“You’re that good, huh?”
He leveled me with a look. “Miss Rollins, you have no idea.”
“You know, I honestly can’t decide if your ego is repulsive or just impressive.”
“You want me to lie to you instead?”
“Mal, I can barely tell when you’re being serious as it is.”
He rolled onto his hands and knees, then crawled over to me, eyes full of mischief. “If I’m talking to you, I’m serious. Now, we’ll have to kiss in public, obviously. And what if we’re out to dinner and I stick my tongue in your ear and you get all weirded out? People might start to wonder. So we need to practice the touching thing.”
“Your tongue? Really? I don’t know …”
“Lucky for you, I’m here and I do.” He stood and picked up a cell phone, his finger flicking over the screen. “We need to make sure we look tight. Lauren’s been over f**king constantly. We can’t risk separate bedrooms. Do you know she doesn’t even knock, just bursts on in like she owns the place? Some people, no manners.”
I was too overwhelmed to point out the irony in that statement.
“Yes, but we could lock the door,” I suggested, growing slightly palm-sweaty desperate again. Though, to be honest, I’d never really stopped.
Me sleeping with Mal? No. Not a good idea. Him bouncing around my apartment half-naked was enough. Touching in the dark would do me in for sure. I’d attack him despite my best intentions. Given we’d be living together for the foreseeable future, pushing for more would be a freaking disaster.
“We can’t just lock the door,” he said. “Lauren went and got another key made. You need better security, pumpkin.”
“Hey, you don’t snore do you?”
I gave him my very best withering glare.
“Just asking.” He backed away, still playing with his phone. “And I’ll make sure I keep any hookups on the down low, okay? I won’t embarrass you with any of that.”
“Thanks.” I shouldn’t have been surprised. But I was. Stupid, stupid me. “Were you just setting this up last night? Was that what it was all about?”
I opened my eyes wide. Painfully wide. I took a deep breath in through my nose. It didn’t matter really. My pride had taken a hit, but I had a roof over my head for the foreseeable future. Time to suck it up.
This sleeping-together thing wouldn’t work. It couldn’t. The fact that I was buzzing with tension just from the thought of it confirmed as much. But me playing his girlfriend part? I owed it to him to try. It could even be fun. Serious fun. And god knew I was overdue for some of that in my life.
I sat up straight, took a deep breath. “Okay, I’m agreeing to everything but the touching time.”
He opened his mouth to protest but I plowed on before he could get a word out. “And tomorrow we put a sliding lock on the door to keep Lauren out and you start sleeping in the spare room. These are my conditions.”
“Look at you, all assertive. I like it. Though really, I’d prefer it if you thought of me as being beyond boundaries.”
“I’m serious, Mal. Take it or leave it. I just got out of one clusterfuck of a roommate situation. I won’t fall straight into another.”
Mal crossed his arms and looked down the length of his nose at me. At first, I thought he would argue. Some evil subversive part of me might have even hoped he would, at least on the sleeping front. But he didn’t.
“Very well, I accept your terms. Tell you what,” he said slowly. “Why don’t I hit the couch tonight?”
My shoulders dropped in what was most likely relief. “That would be great. Thanks.”
“No problem.” He gave me a vaguely amused look. “Whatever works for you, Anne.”
“Great. I’m going to go have a bath.”
The bathroom door was locked shut behind me in record time. I sat on the edge of the big old battered claw-foot tub, blood rushing loud behind my ears. My mind was a blur. I’d just talked my way out of sleeping with a rock star. What had I done?
Disappointment made my insides ache.
But this was the right move. I needed to remember how into Reece I was. He was a far safer crush option. One day, he and I had a chance of actually working out.
Once all of the noise in my head faded, I looked at myself in the mirror. My hair hung flat around my face. My eyes were wide and wild. Within the space of twenty-four hours I’d been turned upside down. I might not be sleeping with one, but I most certainly now lived with a rock star. Didn’t see that one coming.
“What the hell have you gotten yourself into?” I asked the girl in the mirror.
She had nothing but a dazed, surprised smile to offer. Clearly she was a sucker for Mal’s particular brand of crazy. Thank goodness I was more mature.
I pulled my work T-shirt off over my head and started in on the laces of my boots. The sudden banging on the door almost made me fall off my perch. I put a hand to the floor and pushed myself upright before I fell face forward.
“Yeah?” I sat back up and crossed my arms over my black bra, covering things up even though he couldn’t possibly see.
“I forgot to say thanks. For letting me live here with you and agreeing to be my girlfriend. I really appreciate it.”