I shake my head. “I don’t know how it happened, Bass. It just did. I don’t want to like the guy. And when we’re apart, I think of all the reasons I shouldn’t. But when we’re together, something about us just clicks. The way he looks at me, touches me.”
“He’s paying you to click with him, surely you must realize that. You are his fake girlfriend. He’s pretending to like you so he can stay with the Hawks. That’s all this is.”
“I know. But sometimes I think maybe there’s more. He’s a baseball player, not an actor.”
“His job is on the line. He will do anything to save it.”
I nod. Everything Bass is saying is true. Everything he’s saying is what I tell myself each night before I go to bed. It’s what I tell myself every time Sawyer touches me.
“I didn’t mean to fall for him,” I say. “I don’t want to feel this way. But my mom used to tell me that you can’t help who you fall in love with. That the heart wants what it wants.”
“Love?” he says abhorrently. “You’re in love with the guy?”
“I – I don’t know. Maybe not. Maybe I’m just infatuated with him and his celebrity and his money.”
He shakes his head in disgust. “Since when have you given a rat’s ass about someone’s fame and fortune? Fuck, Penny, I can’t believe this.” He looks at his phone. “Damn it, we’re going to be late. We have to go. Let me get my jacket.”
He goes back into his bedroom and I’m pretty sure I hear him say a few more choice words, and I can’t be sure, but I also think I hear him throw something against the wall.
Thirty minutes later, Bass, Brooke and I arrive for graduation.
“I can’t believe we’re graduating!” Brooke squeals, holding onto Bass’s arm. “Oh, and did I tell you I got a job?”
“Congratulations,” I say. “What will you be doing?”
“I’ll be working with the children’s symphony right here in New York.”
“That’s fantastic,” I tell her. “I’m so glad you get to stay here. I know how much you like the city. Isn’t that great, Bass?”
I have to nudge him.
“What? Oh, yeah. Congratulations. Nice job.”
He seems completely uninterested in her and oblivious to just how much she likes him.
Brooke and I head back for the pre-ceremony instructions and Bass finds a seat in the auditorium. I can’t help being upset as I look around at the people arriving. So many people are missing. Mom. Dad. Denver. But I want to kick myself when I realize the one I miss the most is the person who cares about me the least.
I’m not sure why I thought he would show up. Maybe it was all the groveling he did over the past week. I thought maybe he would come as a gesture of goodwill. But Bass is right. Sawyer Mills cares about one thing and one thing only – Sawyer Mills.
“Come on,” Brooke says, hooking my elbow with hers. “Let’s go get our diplomas.”
~ ~ ~
After the commencement speeches, my name is the first called as they hand us our diplomas in alphabetical order. I’m not nervous. I’m used to being on stage at Juilliard. But when I shake hands with the deans, my spine stiffens when I hear someone shout, “Way to go, babe!”
I turn in the direction of the voice and see Sawyer, Brady, Caden, Murphy and Rylee standing up next to Bass as they all cheer for me. I realize in this moment how grateful I am to have more than one person in the audience clap for me as I cross the stage.
Suddenly, my nerves hit and I become unsteady on my feet. I also feel bad for the next few graduates behind me, as Sawyer and his teammates have caused quite a stir in the auditorium.
I look over at them as I make my way back to my seat. Sawyer looks good. Like Bass, he’s dressed for the occasion wearing a nice shirt and tie. He smiles seductively at me. I can’t help but smile back. Tingles work up and down my spine as he looks at me. I’ve missed looking at him. I’ve missed talking to him. I’ve missed touching him.
I break our stare when I sit down. I promise myself I will remember what Bass said. Sawyer is not my boyfriend. He’s using me. He’s paying me. It’s not real. But then why does it feel like it’s nothing but?
I fidget the entire time I’m waiting for the other graduates to make their walks. But it doesn’t take long as there are only a couple hundred – less than my high school graduation even.
When it’s over, the president directs everyone to the reception hall. I find Brooke and then we find everyone else. Brooke has even fewer people here than I do. Unlike mine, her parents are alive. But they are off jet-setting around the globe and couldn’t be bothered to come home long enough to see their only child graduate from college. She’s never seemed that upset about it, however. I guess you get used to it after a while, growing up in boarding schools instead of in your parents’ home.
Murphy and Rylee run over to hug me, offering me their congratulations.
“Thank you so much for coming,” I say. “I thought Bass was going to be the only one clapping for me.”
Rylee nods to Sawyer. “It was his idea that we all come.”
“I guess when he thought about it, he knew it was the right thing to do. Sometimes he just needs a little nudge in the right direction, but he’s a good guy, Aspen. I hope you know that.”
I shrug. “Did he tell you what happened at the benefit?”
“He did. I believe he’s telling the truth. And so do the guys. As far as we know, he’s never lied to them, so why would he start now? Women want him. They will do almost anything to get him. You should give him the benefit of the doubt.”
Sawyer walks over to me and kisses me on the cheek. “Congratulations,” he says.
“Thanks for coming.”
“I should have planned on it all along.”
“Well, you’re here. And I appreciate it. But I’m sorry you had to change your plans.”
He looks down at me. “I didn’t have plans with another woman, Aspen.”
“Then why are you so secretive about it?”
“There are just some things I don’t share with everyone. Not even Brady and Caden.”
“Do you have a brother in prison or something?” I joke. “I can see you not wanting that to get out.”
He laughs boisterously. “No, not a brother in prison. Just something I do for myself.”
I look around to see many people staring at us. “What now?” I ask. “I’m sure you’ve seen the tabloids. We’re supposedly broken up.”
He puts his arm around me and pulls me close. “Those rumors will be put to rest by midnight. And speaking of midnight, I’d like to go home with you tonight.”
My heart races. He has no idea just how much I want to bring him home and have him in my bed. I dream about it. I fantasize about his hands on my body and my lips on his tattoo.
I say the only thing I can. The only thing that will leave me with a shred of dignity. “No, Sawyer. I’m not sleeping with you.”
“I know. You made that perfectly clear last Saturday. But we need to be seen sleeping over at each other’s places. You’ll have to get used to it sooner or later seeing as you’ll be moving in with me in a few weeks.” He reaches over and grabs two glasses of champagne from a tray, handing me one. “Come on, Aspen. I’ll sleep on the couch.”
I sigh deeply. How on earth am I going to manage living with the man if my heart beats this wildly just standing next to him? How am I going to handle being around him every morning and night when he’s not traveling? Will I go into his room and lie on his bed when he’s gone? Will I sneak a t-shirt of his and put it under my pillow so I can dream of him? Oh, God, will I see him in a towel when he gets out of the shower?
“Oh, sorry,” I say, composing myself. “I suppose you can sleep on the couch. Bass will be there of course.”
“To protect you?” he asks.
“I didn’t say that.”
“Do you think you need protection from me?” he asks, looking guilty.
“No. Not from you.” From myself, maybe.
“What does that mean?” he asks, looking at me strangely.
I ignore his question as Bass, Brooke, and Brooke’s roommate, Jordan join us. They are deep in conversation.
“Maybe you can post a sign for a roommate at the new freshman orientation this summer?” Jordan asks. “Surely there will be people who need a place to stay.”
“Living with a freshman?” Brooke says. “I’d rather move.”
“You need a roommate?” Sawyer asks.
“Are you applying for the position?” Brooke jokes.
“No, but I know someone who might.”
Sawyer nods to Bass. “He’s getting kicked out of his building at the end of next month.”
“I, uh, was looking to live with someone from fire school,” Bass says.
“Have you found anyone yet?” I ask.
“Then why not take Brooke’s spare room?” I ask. “It’s in a good location. You’re both in need of a roommate. It’s the perfect solution.”
Bass shoots me an annoyed look. I don’t know what the big deal is. Brooke is nice enough. He doesn’t have to date her if he doesn’t want to.
“That would be great!” Brooke hollers. “It would be a huge relief. What do you say?”
Bass looks at me and I nod in encouragement. I can practically see the wheels spinning in his head as he tries to think of a reason not to live with her. But he can’t.
“Let me get back to you after I talk to a few of the guys that were looking into something,” he says.
“Okay,” Brooke says, looking hopeful. “I promise I’d be the best roommate. I won’t play my cello too late at night.”