/ Language: English / Genre:love_erotica,

Secretly More

Lux Zakari

What if the one you love IS the one you’re with… Jay Navarrete has been in love with his best friend Kimber York for years. When she ends her frustrating long-term relationship with an apathetic musician, he decides the time is finally right to tell her how he feels. But Kimber has an agenda of her own, one that doesn't include returning Jay's feelings. Instead, she's eager to make up for lost time by becoming more sexually adventurous. Her mission leads her to an upstairs bedroom at a wild party, where she agrees to be blindfolded and await a mystery lover. Although Jay knows it's wrong, he's unable to resist the opportunity to be with her. But Jay soon finds himself in a complex tug-of-war between his integrity and his heart, one that threatens to ruin everything between Kimber and him-especially when she falls hard for someone else: her mystery lover.

Lux Zakari

Secretly More

Copyright © 2011 by Lux Zakari


Many thanks to my editor, Char, for cracking me up and finding those pesky word gremlins.

To those who are in love with their best friend, whether they know it or not.

Chapter One

“You won’t believe what Dane did this time.” Kimber shook her head as she poured a dash of sweet vermouth in the rocks glass.

“I bet I will.” Jay didn’t look up from the book he was reading on the floor behind the casino’s downstairs bar. His knees to his chest, he stretched Proust’s In Search of Lost Time in front of him while twisting a piece of his curly dark hair around his finger.

“Smart ass.” Kimber sidestepped her friend and added a cherry to the Manhattan, which she placed before the customer on the sleek gold-and-mahogany surface of the bar and flashed a brilliant smile. Although her teeth were slightly crooked and her lips might’ve been considered too large, she knew her mouth was her best asset and used it to her advantage. As if proving her point, the customer-a white-haired gentleman in a neatly pressed suit-gave her a wink, raised his glass, and walked away, leaving her an impressive tip.

The money improved her mood only marginally. The slow pace of Airy Peak Racetrack and Casino on a Tuesday afternoon did nothing to distract her from Dane-centric thoughts. She leaned against the counter, crossed her arms and ankles, and sighed. When Jay failed to react, she released another sigh, then another, each deliberately louder and more melodramatic than the one before.

Jay lifted his gaze toward her and closed his book with a roll of his eyes. “So what did Dane do?”

“Well, you know we were planning on living together.”

“I know you were. I doubt Dane’s ever made a plan in his life.”

“Living together was his idea.”

“Was he stoned when he suggested it?”


“Drunk then?”

“That isn’t the issue.” Kimber bristled and lifted her gaze toward the Tiffany-style ceiling made of amber glass and a filigree network of stars, butterflies, and leaves. “The point is, we had a plan to live together, so I found us a place and signed the lease. All I needed was his signature next to mine. But during the two seconds we were broken up last week, his old lease expired and he had nowhere else to go, so he moved in with Sam and Wendy.”

“The two girls who hate you?”

“All his friends hate me. They think I suppress all his fun Dane-ness.” She leaned against the counter with her chin in her hand and remembered how Dane had cried when he’d told her about his new living arrangement. He’d said he hadn’t known what else to do, he’d had no other choice, he hadn’t thought she’d ever talk to him again, he couldn’t afford anything else, and if he’d known it would jeopardize their relationship, he wouldn’t have done it. The memory of his tearful excuses-and how she forgave him and took him back all the same-roiled in her stomach.

“But now you’re back together so…”

“So he’s still living with those other girls because he thinks it’d be wrong to back out on their lease and screw them over. Meanwhile, tomorrow I’m moving into the apartment I was meant to share with Dane, only now I’ll have to live in it myself, wondering what the hell he’s up to all the time. What am I gonna do?”

“Call Dane and dump him for the hundredth time, and make it stick for once.” Jay lifted his shoulders. “He’s a dumb fuck. I’ve told you this before.”

“You never told me that.”

“I thought it was heavily implied every time you complain about him and I tell you to dump him. It’s time to move on.”

“Yeah…” Kimber raked her teeth over her lower lip and looked toward the stretch of jangling slot machines and fast-paced table games. Move on wasn’t the answer she wanted to hear, especially when it concerned her six-year relationship, no matter how tumultuous it was. “You used to like Dane though. You were the one who set us up.”

“I introduced you. That’s not the same thing as setting you up. And it’s not like Dane’s a bad person or anything. He’s nice enough, a great guitar player.” Jay shrugged. “But he’s not the guy for you if he’s not coming through with what you want.”

Kimber snatched a damp rag and wiped the counter, more for the need to distract herself from her panic than to tidy up the bar. “That’s what Ferney said, too.”

“Right, and it’s not often your sister and I have the same viewpoint, so maybe this is a real sign if we’re saying the same thing.” Jay pushed himself to his full height of six feet, two inches, and stretched with a yawn. “Well, that’s that.”

“‘That’s that’? That’s all you can say?”

Jay wrapped his arm around Kimber’s neck and pulled her close, messing up her blonde ponytail with his knuckles. “I meant that’s that, as in I have to get to class now. But yes, the same goes for you and Dane. As shitty as that is, sometimes that’s just the way things are. Some things work out, some things don’t, and that’s the score.”

“Hmph.” Kimber shoved him away and tore the elastic band from her hair, trying to comb out the tangles with her fingers. “Are you coming back to pick me up after my shift tonight? My car’s still in the shop.”

“Kim, your car’s been in the shop for like, three weeks. Face it-it’s been stripped and sold for parts by now.”

“Just be here by eight. We need to iron out the details for my move tomorrow.”

“Oh shit.” He winced. “That’s tomorrow?”

Her eyes widened in alarm. “Jay! I just told you-”

“Kidding.” He laughed and gave her shoulder a light punch. “I’ll see you tonight, okay? We’ll talk all the strategy you want.” He ducked under the bar counter and gave it a slap as he sauntered away, book in one hand, his crumpled dealer’s uniform over his shoulder.

Kimber watched him leave with amused affection. If Jay wasn’t her best friend, she didn’t know what she’d do.

* * *

Jay slid into the driver’s seat of his rusty white Monte Carlo and tossed his uniform and book in the back seat to join the rest of the junk piled there. Then he gave a groan as his forehead crashed against the steering wheel, the horn giving a brief toot in sympathy upon contact. He wasn’t sure who the biggest fool was: that idiot Dane for treating Kimber like shit, Kimber for letting him, or himself for thinking that she’d ever see the truth.

He twisted the key in the ignition with a heavy sigh, and as the engine roared to life, the passenger door swung open. His friend Matt Moquest tumbled into the seat beside him, slamming the door with a force that shook the vehicle.

“Good, you haven’t left yet,” Moquest panted, his round face ruddy from exertion. “I need a ride.”

“Dude, I gotta get to class. The final’s next week.”

“It’ll just take a sec.”

“What will?”

“You dropping me off at the beauty school. It’s just up the road.”

“Really? Last I checked, Empire was a half hour away in the complete opposite direction.”

“Come on, man.” Moquest jutted out his bottom lip and drummed on the dashboard. “Be a friend. I’m good for gas money.”

“Where’s your truck?”

“At Empire. I lent it to Gina so she could get to her shampoo class on time.” Moquest flipped down the passenger-side visor mirror to peer at his short, spiky brown hair, which was currently sporting new frosty blond tips. “Do you mind if we step on it? I don’t wanna be late meeting her.”

“A thousand apologies, my liege.” Jay shifted the Monte Carlo into reverse. “Apparently Gina’s education is more important than mine-especially if she’s the one who did that to your hair.”

Moquest made himself comfortable, reclining the seat and sliding it backward for maximum leg room to better suit his tall, hefty frame. “Question. If my name was Kimber York, would you be bitching so much about giving me ride?”

“Har har.” Jay rolled his eyes, pulling out of the parking lot and onto the main highway. His gaze flicked between the road and the car’s clock as he accelerated, the latter based on reflex. He’d bought the car for five hundred dollars off eBay a few months ago and the clock-as well as a few other features, including a jammed sunroof-had never worked. Instead, Kimber had used a label maker to create the standing time of 12:52 during one of their rides to the casino together, leaving yet another of her many marks.

“You know I’m right.” Moquest stretched, putting his hands behind his head. “Face it, Navarrete. You and Kimber? Not in this lifetime. If it was meant to happen, it would’ve by now.”

“Right, like I’m going to take relationship advice from a guy nailing a stripper.”

“An ex-stripper. Gina’s trying to turn her life around.” Moquest grinned. “Fortunately, she’s still got all the perks and knowledge from the gig without having the gig itself, if you know what I mean.”

“I always know what you mean. You’re not exactly Joyce or Eliot.”

“I’m just gonna ignore what was probably one of your geeky, literary insults no one gets and tell you I know someone who’s into you.”

Jay narrowed his eyes and cranked down his window, the glass jarring with every twist of the handle. “Who?”


“I don’t know a Nicole.”

“Yeah, you do-the chick from the cash-out counter with the sexy flower tattoo on her spine. Don’t ask me how I know that. Trust me, she wants you, man. You should go for it. Bring her to my party Saturday.”

“What’s the occasion, a celebration of you dating an exotic dancer?”

“An ex-exotic dancer, and yes, more or less.” A wicked gleam shone in Moquest’s eye. “It should be a wild night.”

Jay rested his arm along the window, his elbow feeling the fading, late-spring sunshine. “Isn’t it always?”

“Yeah, but this one should be especially interesting. Gina’s been giving me ideas.”

“I’m sure she has been.”

“I’m telling you, you’ve got to bring Nicole. I can’t predict a surer thing.”

“I guess.” Jay shrugged. “We’ll see.”

Moquest crossed his arms over his broad chest and looked out the window, shaking his head. “I repeat-never gonna happen.”

“Shut up.”

“I wish I could, man, but you’re just so pathetic. Does Kimber have any idea how long you’ve been into her? Seriously, you need to tell that girl what’s what or move on and finally get a life. I know so many girls you could be gettin’ it on with, it’s painful. I can’t stand to see you waste the prime of your life like this.” He paused as the car veered off the highway and slowed along the shoulder. “Why’re we stopped? Where we going?”

“I’m going to class. You’re going there.” Jay pointed out the windshield, where several Indian women mingled around a battered bus stop covered with graffiti and defiled posters urging citizens to vote.

“Are you kidding me?” Moquest sputtered as Jay reached over him to open the passenger door and push him out of the car. “I’m just trying to get you laid for the first time in eons, and this is how you repay me?”

“Tell Gina I said hi.” Jay pulled the door shut and, with an exaggerated wave to his friend, made a U-turn and merged into traffic again.

“I’ll get you for this.” He heard Moquest yell after the vehicle. “Just you wait.”

Jay snickered as the rest of Moquest’s threats faded with the distance, but his mirth was short-lived. He knew Moquest was right about Kimber. It was time he did something about his feelings for her, and with Dane edging more and more out of the picture, now could be the perfect opportunity.

* * *

Later that evening, the Monte Carlo rolled to a stop in front of a renovated Victorian house, its first-floor apartment the one Kimber currently shared with her older sister Ferney. Jay lowered the volume of the stereo, currently blasting Sly and the Family Stone, as Kimber gave a sigh.

“I’ll miss this dump,” she said.

“I’m sure it’ll miss you, too, but you’re onto bigger and better things.”

She turned to him, her blonde ponytail swishing with the movement. “You think?”

“God, yeah. Having your own place is awesome, you’ll see. You should be proud you can pull off living alone.”

“You’re just saying that-but I think I needed you to.” She grinned and leaned toward him, wrapping her arms around his neck. “So I’ll see you in the morning?”

“Obviously. How else are you gonna get your stuff there with no car?” Jay gave her a squeeze back then loosened his embrace, but he didn’t let go until Kimber did. She chalked it up to the hug etiquette she’d taught him when they were juniors in high school. The day they met, she’d been milling around with some mutual friends, insisting it was Free Hug Day. Then Kimber, ever the extrovert, grabbed him, the new kid from the next town over, and gave everyone a demonstration on giving the perfect hug. Part of the tutorial was never letting go until the person who initiated the hug did. Kimber pulled away with a smile, thinking how much she’d probably embarrassed him then but how the lesson was apparently instilled in his brain anyway.

She gave his nose a tap goodbye. “Don’t forget to bring your muscles tomorrow.”

“I’ll try to remember.”

She exited the car, half-skipping to her apartment while the Monte Carlo idled outside until she reached the porch. Kimber waved as Jay beeped the horn and drove away, then turned to go inside, almost bumping into Ferney, who met her at the door with a glass of merlot.

“Hey there.” Ferney passed Kimber the wine. “I thought you could use a drink after a long day at work.”

“Fern, I work at a bar.” Still, Kimber accepted the glass and took a sip, although not without giving Ferney a suspicious look.

Ferney elevated her chin and pursed her thin lips. “It’s the thought that counts.” She beckoned for Kimber to follow her into the kitchen, where Ferney’s fiancé Paul stirred a pot of brown liquid. Tall and rail thin with delicate cheekbones and pale skin, he looked more fey and elfin than usual, wearing her older sister’s frilled cherry-print apron. “You remember Paul.”

Kimber slanted Ferney an exasperated look then turned to Paul, who’d been her sister’s boyfriend for the past three years before he recently proposed. “Kimber York, how do you do?”

“Paul Langham.” He jutted out his hand, and she shook it. “Good to meet you. Ferney’s mentioned you once or twice.”

“I can only imagine what she said.” She peered into the pot. “What’re you burning?”

Paul’s lips twisted into a pout. “It’s supposed to smell like this.”

“Never mind Paul and his ways.” Ferney slid into the breakfast nook’s booth with her own glass of wine and scooted over, patting the seat beside her. “Come here and let’s have a little chat.”

“Oh boy.” Kimber sat with a groan. “I knew something was up. You’re never this nice to me when I come home.”

“What are you talking about?” Ferney’s voice rose, indignant. “I’m always freaking nice to you.”

“All right, fine.” Kimber laced her fingers atop the table with a stifled sigh. “What do you have to say for yourself?”

“I just want to make sure you’ve got everything ready for the move.” Ferney covered Kimber’s hands with her own and stared at her, her gray eyes brimming with distress.

“I think so. But I’m moving, like, eight blocks away, so if I forget something, I’ll just pop over.” Kimber turned her attention to her orange striped cat, the eight-month-old Pepperoni, who trotted into the room and flopped onto his back. She bent toward him, rubbing his stomach. “Hello, little man.”

“Which reminds me, don’t forget to take that mangy thing.” Ferney gestured toward Pepperoni.

“He isn’t mangy. He’s clean.”

“He’s a menace. He’s constantly in my ear, meowing and playing and carrying on.”

“That’s what kittens do.”

“Whatevs. I’ll be glad to be rid of him. And now that he’s gone, you can finally concentrate on going back to school, getting your business degree, and opening your own bar like you’ve wanted,” Ferney said. “I hope you’re still planning on calling it Ferney’s.”

“Totally,” Kimber said, deadpan. “You know what a brilliant idea I think that is.” She slanted her sister a look. “While we’re on the subject of the future, you will be helping me move tomorrow, right?”

“Of course.” Ferney made a face. “I’m offended you’d even question me. The one you should doubt is useless Dane. Is he going to come through for you? That’s the real mystery-and one I probably know the answer to, if his track record is any indication.”

“You’re a real Nancy Drew.” Kimber took a gulp of wine, trying to calm the nerves that had suddenly frazzled at the reminder of her boyfriend’s undependability.

Ferney slapped her palm on the tabletop. “I think tomorrow should be the final test. If he doesn’t show up to help you lug your shit into the place you should’ve been sharing, he’s history. If he shows up, great. Then I’ll think of more tests he’s likely to fail.”

Paul rested his hands on Ferney’s shoulders and gave them a squeeze. “What your sister’s trying to say is that she’ll miss you.”

“No, what I’m trying to say is I hate Dane. He’s twenty-four and he acts like he’s still in college. He doesn’t know what to do with a real woman.” Ferney’s head lolled forward and she gave a groan, the veil of her straight-ironed white-blonde hair hiding her face. “Keep rubbing. I think your thumb’s on a knot.”

Kimber’s cell phone sounded in her purse, and she swilled the last of the merlot and hurried to her room, her heart turning over at the sight of Dane’s name on the display screen. She both craved and dreaded his calls; they usually went exceptionally well or exceptionally bad, with no in-between option. Most often they were both.

She flipped on the light, illuminating nearly empty room with stacks of filled cardboard boxes, and answered the phone. “Hello?”

“Hey, bables.” His voice, as always, sounded vaguely amused and slightly stoned. “What’re you up to?”

“I just got home from work.” She sat on the edge of her mattress resting on the hardwood floor; pieces of the bed’s headboard and frame leaned against one of the bare walls in the corner. “What about you?”

“Just hanging out, wondering when I’ll get to see you again.” She pictured his wiry form sprawled across a couch, clad in the classic Dane uniform-khaki shorts and a Grateful Dead tee over a long-sleeved shirt-and his long, wavy brown hair tied back.

She pulled her knees to her chin. “Why not tonight?”

“I wish I could. But Sam’s car is blocking mine in and she’s not home to move it.”

“Oh.” Pain and anger constricted her heart, and she fought against the wave of uncontrollable jealousy threatening to run rampant. How was it that rotten twists of fate always managed to keep Dane and her from seeing each other or even getting along? There was always some barricade to overcome, and most of the time Kimber didn’t know if they actually overcame the obstacles or just ignored them.

“You could come over here, if you want.” He gave a heavy sigh. “I understand if you’d be uncomfortable doing that though.”

Uncomfortable was not the word to describe how agonizing she imagined visiting his new place would be, all the while knowing it wasn’t supposed to be like this. “I shouldn’t,” she said finally. “I still have a lot of packing to do.”

“Ah. All right.” She heard him light a cigarette and take a drag. “So what time am I helping you move tomorrow?”

“How about nine?” She willed back the tears she knew loomed in the very near future. “Ferney wants to cook us all what she’s calling a power breakfast beforehand, so bring some antacids.”

Dane laughed. “I’ll be there.” His voice dropped. “Love you, bables.”

“You too.” She hung up, trying not to feel disappointed in the evening and wishing there was something Dane could say to fix everything. In spite of herself, she thought of Ferney’s move-in test and wondered if it wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

Chapter Two

Jay wandered through apartment 18, nodding as he surveyed the stacks of boxes that created a cardboard fortress along the blank walls. “Look at all this space you have.”

Kimber smiled. “That’s because there’s no furniture in here.”

“And how long is your minimalist phase going to last?”

“Hopefully not long. I talked to my mom last night, and she said since she and my dad are still in Florida visiting my grandparents, she’s going to mail me a check to buy some stuff.” She sighed, her smile vanishing. “I’m sort of glad they’re not here to help me move. The whole sight is too depressing to witness.”

“Hey, this place isn’t so bad. This little guy likes it.” Jay bent down and scooped up Pepperoni, who’d been crouched low, flattening himself between a canopy of box flaps. “Right, Puddypaws?”

Pepperoni dangled limp from Jay’s hands, looking so miserable Kimber had to laugh. “Leave the cat alone. And stop calling him Puddypaws or he’ll never learn his name.”

“You’re the one who keeps calling him the cat.” Jay let Pepperoni drop to the carpet on all fours, and the feline scampered into the kitchen with a meow that sounded more like a chirp.

“I can’t help it. He hasn’t grown into his identity yet.”

“What kind of identity does one named Pepperoni have? A delicious one?”

“Which reminds me-I have no food. The only things in the fridge are a six-pack of PBR, a box of microwavable sandwiches, and some of those popsicles with the syrup that always make me cough.” Kimber sank into a cross-legged position on the freshly shampooed carpet with another sigh. “And don’t even get me started on how and when I’m ever going to fill all those cupboards.”

“You need to quit with the woebegone bit and buck up. This set-up is sweet, definitely better than my place.” Jay poked her in the stomach with the tip of his sneaker, knocking her off balance. “Unlike me, you have guaranteed parking and don’t have to fight the neighbors for the driveway. And the area looks safe, so I bet you don’t run the risk of bumping into any shady characters. Meanwhile, I got propositioned by two different but equally strung-out people last week, asking if I was looking to buy some meth-and this happened while I was on my way to my front door.” He gestured to himself. “Be honest. Is there something about me that suggests I could really go for some drugs right now?”

“What about you doesn’t suggest that?”

“Guess I’ll have to work harder on my upstanding citizen disguise. In the meantime, it’s your turn to name a bright side about your new address.”

“Hmm.” Kimber tapped a finger to her lips in thought. “Well, the balcony is small, but I can still go out there and sing ‘Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina’ in my pajamas. And now that I don’t have Ferney in my ear, hounding me about everything, I don’t have to do the dishes right away, and I can decorate however I want.”

“And you can eat ice cream naked in front of the TV. You can also break dance at three a.m.-and subsequently break stuff at three a.m. You can even go to the bathroom with the door open.”

“Living with Ferney and her extroverted ways taught me that you don’t have to live alone for that last one.”

“Thanks, just what I wanted to picture. Look, my point is, living by yourself is awesome and you’re gonna love it. You rule the roost. You have the freedom to do whatever and never have to answer to anyone.”

Kimber couldn’t fight the smile on her face. “Stop making me feel better.”

“Oh yeah?” Jay grinned. “So it’s working?”

“Yes, damn it.” She lay back on the carpet with a groan, pressing the heels of her palms to her eyelids. “Leave me to my misery.”

“What good would that do?”

“It’ll help me focus on how I’m going to murder everyone but you for not helping me move today.”

“Ferney looked really sick every time we went over there to load up.”

“Don’t be fooled. She’s hung over.” She uncovered her eyes and noticed Jay’s quizzical look. “She’s very high-maintenance the morning after.”

“I believe it. I’m surprised Paul wasn’t by her side, hand-feeding her ice chips.”

“He had to work, but I don’t think he would’ve been much help to us. Ferney’s less effeminate than he is.”

Jay scooped up Pepperoni, who’d returned, and blew a raspberry on the cat’s back. “And Dane, what’s his deal? Did Congress call, requesting his presence on the floor?”

Kimber stiffened at the sound of her boyfriend’s name. “He’s a bastard.”

“That’s some old news right there.” He dropped Pepperoni on Kimber’s stomach, and Kimber let out an oof as the cat leaped off her like she was a springboard. “See, this is why you should’ve got with me all those years ago. Then we wouldn’t even be having this discussion.”

Kimber looked at him, startled, then relaxed and laughed, interpreting the proposition as a joke. “Right. Brilliant plan.” She sat up and gave his shin a nudge with the ball of her foot. “Better get to work on that time machine. Then we can start fixing all my problems.”

His expression turned serious as he jammed his hands in his pockets and took a deep breath. “No time machine necessary. Just-” A thud sounded at the door, and the look in his eyes darkened. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“Oh shit.” Kimber scrambled to her feet and snatched Pepperoni from where he’d settled on top of a desk chair, and he let out a meow in protest. “Is that someone knocking? What if it’s someone from the office to tell me that cats aren’t allowed here?”

“I’m sure it’s just some idiot.” Jay stalked toward the interruption while Kimber shut the cat in the bathroom anyway. When she returned, Jay opened the door, revealing a tall brunette coiled around a short, yellow-haired, baby-faced man who appeared to be in the process of devouring her face, starting with her mouth. No longer alone in the hallway, they jumped apart and stared at Jay and Kimber, red-faced, as if they’d forgotten other people existed.

“Oops. Sorry.” The brunette pinched her lower lip between her index finger and thumb and winced. “Brad just got back from his trade fair in Germany so I was a little happy to see him.”

Her paramour-Brad-nodded with the vigor of a bobble head on a dashboard. “After sitting in on meat conservation seminars all week, I’m a little happy to see her, too.”

“We have a lot of lost time to make up for.” The brunette giggled, and Kimber tried to mask her incredulity. With wide, pale green eyes, a plethora of freckles covering her face and arms, and a thin body that looked like it had been built from Tinker Toys, she was not someone Kimber wanted to picture having sex. “I’m Taryn, we live next door. You two are the new neighbors?”

“Just me.” Kimber placed a hand over her chest. “I’m Kimber, and this is my friend Jay.”

Brad peered beyond Kimber into the apartment. “A friend who helps you move?” His lips twitched in a knowing smirk. “You got yourself a pretty good pal there.”

The look in Jay’s eyes darkened even further, and Taryn nudged Brad in the stomach and cleared her throat. “We’re going to take our reunion inside and let you get back to unpacking. Let us know if you need anything.” She wiggled her fingers in a wave as Brad grabbed her by the waist and all but hauled her inside the apartment adjacent to Kimber’s.

Jay shut the door. “The neighbors are friendly.”

“And definitely not shy.” Kimber released Pepperoni from the bathroom.

A brief silence fell between them, and Jay glanced at his cell phone. “I have to get ready for my shift.” He glanced around the room. “At least we got most of the stuff here. I can help you assemble your bed frame tomorrow if you want.”

“That’s okay. I’ll get Paul to do it tonight when Ferney makes her recovery and I guilt them both into helping me move the rest of my shit.” She stretched her arms toward him. “Thank you so much for everything. You really are fantastic.”

“Tell me something I don’t know.” He wrapped his arms around her waist and lifted her off the ground, squeezing her tight until she squeaked. “See you later.”

“Bye.” She waved as he left and shut the door behind him, not realizing until then that Jay hadn’t finished what he’d been saying regarding the time machine and her choosing him over Dane.

A lump formed in her throat. She hoped he’d been teasing. It wasn’t like Jay was unattractive by any means-quite the opposite, with china-blue eyes, a curly mess of dark brown hair, and a regal, narrow nose. He was tall with broad shoulders, and despite him subsisting on a diet of processed foods and candy, his body stayed effortlessly in shape. Perhaps his most striking feature was his smile, which lit up his whole face and made him look boyish and incredibly appealing.

But she’d known him for nearly ten years, and she’d never thought about him in a romantic way, too afraid of losing him to think of him as more than her best friend. The bond between them was too important to risk ruining with a relationship. It was better than a relationship, actually, if her history with Dane was anything to go by. Why couldn’t she and Dane have something between them that was just half as good as what she and Jay had?

Suddenly deeply depressed, Kimber collapsed on her mattress in the middle of what was supposed to be her bedroom and stared at the ceiling, feeling like she floated on a desert-colored ocean. Her back and shoulders ached from hauling boxes from Jay’s car and her skin wore a layer of sweat and grime. She briefly entertained the thought of unpacking the towels and taking a long relaxing shower but the mere idea was exhausting. Instead she pretended Pepperoni, who circled the room, was a hungry shark, and the mattress was her life raft. She might as well have been adrift at sea; she’d never felt so alone. Kimber wished she could call Jay, but his going to work made that out of the question. Her second choice was Ferney, but she figured her sister still lay in bed, clutching her stomach and her head and wailing like an actress on a Mexican soap opera. Third on her list were myriad friends she didn’t feel like speaking to right then anyway.

All the while, she tried not to think of Dane, her real first choice. She used to envision them living together, combining movie collections and writing love notes to each other using magnetic letters on the fridge. He’d once said he wanted to live with her over a pizza parlor on a busy street in an apartment, where they would push their two queen-size mattresses together to create one massive bed. Now that dream couldn’t be further from reality.

Then, like a demon summoned, her cell phone rang and Dane’s name appeared on the screen. Kimber waited several long seconds before answering. “Hello?”

“Hey!” He sounded far too nice, like he was compensating for fucking up. “How’s the place?”

“Great.” Let him think she was living it up. Let him think he was missing out.

“Good, I’m glad,” he said with a relief she thought to be more about the fact she hadn’t immediately started in on him rather than her happiness. “So you just moved everything in by yourself?”

She clenched and unclenched her jaw. “No, Jay helped me.”

“Oh.” Now she detected a note of suspicion in his voice, which brought her some satisfaction. “Well, why didn’t you call me? I would’ve helped, too.”

“Are you serious?” She fought to keep the anger out of her voice but failed. “Just last night you promised you’d be here, but you never showed. You didn’t even bother to call.”

“I know. I’m so sorry, bables. I set my alarms this morning but slept through them all. Then I forgot until Wendy asked me a few hours ago if you were all moved in. I’m so, so sorry.”

Hot fury numbed her body, and all Kimber could do was shake her head, speechless at his audacity. Her boyfriend’s roommate, who didn’t even like her, could remember the day she was moving into a new place, but Dane couldn’t? Every time she tried to speak, she found that no words existed to describe just how gypped, crushed, and livid she was.

“I still want to come over and help,” he continued, “but when I went out to get smokes this morning, my back tire blew out so I’m stranded. If you want to come get me though-”

“No, forget it.” She licked her dry lips. “It’s over and done with now.”

For all the thoughtless things Dane had ever done, one thing Kimber had to give him credit for was being able to pick up on her cryptic double entendres. He fell quiet for a moment. “What does that mean?”

Kimber wished he didn’t sound so sad and scared; it was turning her inside out. “You know what that means.”

“But bables…”

She squeezed her eyes shut. “Whatever it is we’re doing just isn’t working.”

“How is it not working?”

“How is it?”

“Don’t answer my question with a question. That’s not fair.”

A nervous titter rippled through her, and Kimber burst out laughing. He wanted to talk to her about fair? “It’s over, Dane, I’m sorry. Don’t call me back.”

Then she hung up the phone and cried.

* * *

That evening, Kimber and Ferney struggled to bring her desk through the front door of Kimber’s apartment while Pepperoni sat in a cardboard cave of boxes, watching. Grunting and groaning, the sisters pushed it across the carpet, leaving deep grooves in the fibers, and moved it near the window in the living area.

Kimber stepped back and inspected it, her chest heaving. “It’s not straight.”

“Just make all the other furniture crooked, too, and then it will be.” Ferney dusted her hands off on her designer jeans, what she called her play clothes.

Paul materialized from the kitchen, dressed in a flannel shirt better suited for the body of a lumberjack instead of his narrow frame. He held a frosty bottle of beer in one hand and a butterscotch crumpet in the other and nodded his approval. “Looks good. You ladies did a great job.”

“I bet we would’ve done an even better job if someone else had helped.” Ferney plucked the beer out of his hand and twisted off the cap, tossing it to him. He missed catching it and nearly dropped the crumpet, too, thanks to Pepperoni, who’d left his cave in favor of scaling Paul’s leg.

“Um, someone?” Paul’s face screwed up with terror as the cat inched up his thigh.

“Ew, Kim, save Paul.” Ferney gestured to her fiancé with the beer. “I don’t want that dirty beast giving my betrothed rabies.”

“He doesn’t have rabies.” Kimber pried Pepperoni off Paul and plopped him in an empty cardboard box, figuring that finding a way to escape would keep the animal occupied for a few minutes. “And call him Pepperoni, not ‘that dirty beast.’”

“Please. You don’t even call him Pepperoni,” Ferney said as the cat peered over the sides of the box and Paul crammed half the crumpet in his mouth, as if sparing it from another near fall. “You might want to work on that. Not having a properly defined name can cause some real psychological damage.”

Kimber rolled her eyes and sank onto the futon Ferney and Paul had brought over in Paul’s SUV. “Thank you for that valuable insight.”

Paul cleared his throat and patted the back of the futon. “Is this okay, Kim? Was it what you were looking for?”

“It’s perfect.” Kimber nodded. “Thanks for the donation.”

“You’re welcome.” He eyed the piece of furniture with wistful longing. “It’s been good to me for the past few years. But Ferney said it’s time to move on.”

“That’s right.” Ferney nodded. “It’s time for grown-up furniture. You’re not in college anymore.”

“Grown-up furniture being Ferney’s furniture, obviously.” Kimber nudged her sister as Ferney sat next to her. “And I’m not in college anymore, either.”

“But this futon says you need to go back so you can open your own bar, remember?”

“I thought it says, ‘Please put your ass here,’ just like all good futons do.”

“Oh, you. I’ll miss your juvenile wit.” Ferney put on her best sad face as she passed her sister the beer. “I can’t believe we won’t be roomies anymore.”

Kimber shrugged. “Now that you and Paul are engaged, it’s only natural that you two would want your own space.”

“Yeah, but I’ll miss you. Living with boys can be so gross.”

“Speaking of living,” Kimber said, taking a sip and passing the bottle back, “it’s good to see you’ve made a miraculous recovery and are helping me like you promised to.”

“Hey, I was seriously ill, okay? It was the worst thing ever.”

“No, moving is the worst thing ever. I hate not knowing where everything is. Before you came over, I tried to unpack but found the whole thing so daunting that I just set up the TV and ate a box of Hot Pockets instead.”

“Why didn’t Dane help you?” Ferney asked in a voice that was far too innocent to not have ulterior motives. “Was he too busy doing bong rips to fit it in his schedule?”

Kimber shot her a warning look. She had told her sister about the breakup but asked her not to bring it up until the move was over and she’d had time to sort out her feelings. Now it seemed Ferney could no longer resist.

“Don’t look at me like that. It’s lame he didn’t help you and you know it. If he wanted to get in your pants so bad, he should’ve made a fucking effort.”

“He doesn’t have to make an effort anymore.”

“Unbelievable. The things that guy thinks he can get away with. Meanwhile, you and Jay never even went out, and I bet he was lugging your crap up and down those steps all damn day.”

Kimber blushed. “What’re you getting at?”

“I think you should give Jay a little thank-you lay for all his years of suffering and pining.”

Paul coughed. “I think I’ll go assemble that bed frame.” He scurried down the hallway, and Kimber heard him shut the bedroom door.

“Look at him go, pretending he can do manly work.” Ferney fluttered her hand. “All because he’s scared of a little girl talk.”

“I think he’s scared that you’re mentally ill. I know I am.” Kimber narrowed her eyes at her sister. “How could you say that about Jay? We’re best friends. We see each other like Ken and Barbie, with no sexy-time parts. There’s never been anything romantic between us and there won’t be. Neither of us would ever jeopardize what we have at the risk of trying for a relationship.”

“Oh God.” Ferney snorted. “If you really believe all that nonsense, then I hate to break it to you, but you’re the mentally ill one.”

Kimber licked her lips, forcing her annoyance with Ferney to take precedence over her heartbreaking disappointment in Dane. “Can we please just talk about something else?”

“Fine, fine.” Ferney took a long, unladylike pull on her beer. “Let’s talk about how happy I am that I won’t have to see Dane diving headfirst into my refrigerator anymore or hear his eight hundred cell phone alarms go off before he drags his lazy ass out of bed.”

Kimber gave a grunt of indifference although she privately agreed with her sister regarding those particular grievances. However, to hear Ferney gripe about the same things made Kimber defensive. As far as she was concerned, Ferney didn’t have the right to complain. She hadn’t earned it.

“You should be glad to be rid of him,” Ferney continued. “I’m excited at the prospect of his downfall once he realizes no one but you will ever put up with his immature shit again. That’ll be such an awesomely rude wake-up call.” She clapped with glee. “That’s what he gets for not showing up at your college graduation all those years ago.”

“He couldn’t find where it was.” Was the excuse really as thin as it sounded?

“Pff. Right. There were only signs all over campus pointing to the football field. He’s totally full of crap. Think of all the times he’s blown you off or stood you up. He’s a selfish prick, and he has no right to be so preoccupied with himself when he’s such a suck-fest. He does nothing but play in that loser band and work at that loser car wash.”

Kimber curled up on the futon and groaned. “Thanks. I feel much better about life now.”

“You’re welcome.” Ferney reached over and patted her sister on the shoulder. “Don’t you worry. We’ll find you a real man. I’ve got my feelers out.”

“Can’t wait to see what you come up with,” Kimber said, her voice thick with sarcasm.

Ferney’s eyes glittered. “Me neither.”

* * *

“Hey, slugger.” Jay arrived at the casino bar at the end of Kimber’s shift the following day and slid onto an empty stool. “Almost ready to go?”

“Almost.” Kimber held up a finger as she backed through the door marked Employees Only. “Let me just punch out.”

“All right.” Jay plunged his hand into a bowl of mints on the counter and helped himself. “I’ll be waiting.”

I’ll be waiting. The casual promise rolled around in Kimber’s head as she gathered her things until her entire body ached with the sadness she’d suppressed all day. When had Dane ever waited for her? Jay went out of his way for her thousands of times through the years, most recently leaving work only to drive the same seventeen-mile round trip to pick her up a few hours later because her car was in the shop. Dane-the boy she’d given everything to-could never have been bothered with such gestures. Everything had always been such a struggle. Why? How could a love she’d poured so much faith and hope into turn out so wrong?

Jay rose from the stool as she staggered from the back room, clutching her purse and jacket like she feared they’d be stolen. “What happened?”

“I-I broke up with Dane.”

Surprise flared in Jay’s eyes. “What, just now?”

“No, last night. After you left.”

His bewildered expression gave way to something unrecognizable. “Is this for real or one of those we’ll-probably-be-back-together-in-two-days things?”

“It’s for real.” She gritted her teeth in the effort to stay strong but her vision blurred with tears she hadn’t been able to cry all day. “It has to be.”

Jay slung an arm around her and guided her toward the door. “Come on. Let’s go for a drive.”

His kindness dissolved her, and as they left the casino and crossed the crowded parking lot toward the Monte Carlo, she couldn’t prevent her sobs any longer. “I’m sorry, I think it’s just finally dawning on me,” she said between hiccups.

“That’s okay.” He opened her car door and waited until she collapsed inside before closing it, then slid behind the wheel. “You guys were together for a long time and it was a big decision. You’re allowed to be sad, but things’ll get easier. Better, too.”

“Blah, blah.” Kimber wiped her cheeks as he started the car. “The standard bullshit pep talk friends say in such circumstances, right?”

“Right, but it’s still true.” He drummed his fingers on the wheel and stared out the windshield as if deep in thought, then brightened. “I know where we can go.”

“Yeah? Where?”

“This park where my dad used to bring me and my brothers when we were kids.” He negotiated the car out of the parking lot and onto the main highway. “It was when my mom moved out and the divorce wasn’t finalized yet. My dad was depressed and went to the park to get some perspective.” He smiled. “I guess it worked. Now when I visit him and my stepmom in Vegas he’s always urging me to get laid and calling me a fucking pussy when I don’t talk to girls.”

“Awesome.” Kimber reclined in her seat. “I can’t wait to follow in your dad’s footsteps. Then I’ll flip through those Vegas hooker magazines, pick an escort, and call up some sex god to do me on my lunch break.”

“Right. And it all starts with the park. My dad said it helped bring him peace when he had a broken heart. Maybe it’ll do the same for you.”

They cruised the nearly empty highway weaving through the Pennsylvania mountainside, the sinking sun flickering through the trees flanking the pavement. Kimber rolled down her window, letting a rush of air inside the car, and Jay did the same. Her ears filled with the roar of wind, the deafening noise providing a welcome distraction from the dark thoughts crowding her head and blackening her heart.

They turned off the highway onto a desolate route, and a few moments later the Monte Carlo slowed in front of a dirt-and-gravel lot surrounded by tall grass. Jay parked the car between the only other two vehicles present-a red flat-bed truck and a gold Malibu-and raised his chin at Kimber as he got out, signaling her to follow. She trailed him as he led the way to a nearby path worn down over time by countless feet and surveyed the area. To the left was a steep tiered knoll backed by a thicket of trees, and to the right stretched a stream with a designated swimming hole. Beyond lay a field, in the middle of which stood a slanting, splintering barn. Kimber relaxed, the quiet, unfamiliar setting erasing some of her stress.

Jay glanced her way and gave a half smile. “Nice, right?”

“Yeah.” She squinted into the setting sun, burning bright in the horizon. “Where’d your dad ever find this place? It’s so removed from reality here.” She smiled. “I sort of feel like we’re running away from home.”

“We are.” Jay gestured to their surroundings as the path led into the woods. “Didn’t I tell you? We live here now.”

“No way. I’m not cut out for roughing it in the wilderness.”

“You’re underestimating yourself.”

“You’re underestimating the likelihood of me getting eaten by a bear.”

Jay laughed. “No bears are going to eat you. You worry too much.”

“Maybe I do.” Kimber’s thoughts crept back to Dane as she picked up a fallen branch and swiped at a passing tree trunk with it. “Maybe I get worked up over nothing. You think?”

“Where are you going with this?” Jay’s voice held a note of suspicion.

“Just thinking. I mean, isn’t it possible that Dane really isn’t so bad? Maybe my expectations are just too high.”

“It sounds like you’re what’s high. Are you being serious?”

“Listen. Dane is who he is.”

“And you hate who he is.”

“No, I just haven’t learned to accept him as he is.” She chucked her stick aside. “I wanted him to fit the ideal boyfriend mold I have in my head, but maybe that’s not realistic.”

“What does the ideal boyfriend do, call you? Take you out? Want to spend time with you? Find a way to make things better when he fucks it up? Make you feel like you matter?”

She shrugged, feeling as weak as her collapsing argument. “Well, yeah, of course.”

“And you didn’t get any of that from Dane at all. Do you realize that even the dumbest fucking people in the world know how to show the ones they care about that they, in fact, care? It isn’t hard and it isn’t an inconvenience. I can’t even believe this is up for debate.”

“Neither can I.” Tears pricked Kimber’s eyes as she thought of all the hurt she’d endured, thinking it would somehow be worth it in the end. It hadn’t been, and it also could’ve been easily avoided-she didn’t know which was more disappointing. She gave a watery sigh. “You know what’s so fucking sad to me? After all Dane and I have been through, he’s just going to turn into a story of mine, never anything more.”

Jay heaved a giant breath of his own. “You don’t have to look at it that way. You’re just choosing to make yourself sad now.”

“Because the whole thing is sad.” Fresh tears rolled down her cheeks.

“Maybe it is, but I don’t want you to be sad, too. You need to get pissed. Like, really pissed. Think of all the times he screwed you over. I’ll help you.” He held up a finger. “First, remember last year? He threw that party without inviting you and you later found out they’d all been playing Spin the Bottle. Then he made you feel like you had no reason to be pissed because they were all friends, just trading little pecks. Hate to break to you, but that’s not normal. Someone who really loved you would never have done that, let alone played.”

“Mmm-hmm.” A new wave of anger regarding an old crime washed over Kimber.

“I also recall he got mad at you when you wouldn’t come over to his place at three in the morning after a bad gig and an even worse after party, so he burned himself with a cigarette so he’d always be reminded of the time you betrayed him.”

Kimber gritted her teeth, too furious to refute what she knew was true.

“Then there was the time he got drunk and threw a plate of instant rice through his last neighbor’s upstairs window.”

“That was a dark time for him. He was depressed after getting kicked out of school.”

“Which brings me to that whole fiasco. Remember how hard he tried to appeal to the dean’s decision?”

“No. He barely tried at all.” Confused, Kimber glanced at Jay, who slanted her a look.

“Exactly my point. And what was the alternative to trying? Being unemployed and living with his parents for an entire year. Now he finally has a job, and what is it? Working at a car wash, doing Jesus Christ knows what, considering machines do all the work.” Jay shook his head. “I could list a thousand more reasons, but I’ll skip to the most recent one. Namely, you broke up with him, and he’s done nothing to convince you not to or win you back. If he wanted to call, he would’ve called. If he wanted to move in with you, he would’ve. If he wanted to be with you, he would be, or he’d at least make the effort to be with you, even if you were getting hitched to another guy on some Hawaiian mountaintop. He’d crash the wedding and threaten to fling himself off the cliff if you didn’t choose him instead. He’d do anything he possibly could, and then some.”

“I told him not to call me back,” she said, knowing her excuse was as weak as her voice.

“Trust me, that wouldn’t stop anyone who really didn’t want to let someone go.”

Kimber worried her bottom lip with her teeth for a moment before heaving a sigh of resignation. “Jesus. You’re so right. What have I been thinking?” She stopped walking and pressed her fingertips to her temples. “How could I have forgiven all that? How could I have let any of that slide?”

“Don’t do that.” Jay stopped in front of her and grabbed her shoulders, stooping slightly so they were eye level. “You feeling shitty about your decisions wasn’t the point of that exercise. The point was for you to recognize how much better off you are without him. Kim, think about it-you will never, ever have to deal with any of that again. The worst is over, and you lived through it and dealt with it. You should be proud of yourself.”

Kimber dropped her hands to her sides and stared at Jay and the determined look in his eyes. “Yeah. That’s true.” She growled and slapped a palm to her forehead. “I can’t believe I’m even talking about this. It’s nonsense.”

“I agree. You’re too hot to have these problems.”

She laughed and gave his shoulder a push. “And yet I do. Why’s it so hard to find a guy?”

“It’s easy to find a guy. We do make up about half the world’s population, you know.”

“I mean, a cool guy. A soul mate or whatever.”

“Soul mates. Pff. Soul mates are for the Dr. Phil, eHarmony-type. At this point in the game, all you can do is try to find someone you can stand to be around, and someone who can stand to be around you. If you got that, I think you’re pretty lucky.”

“That seems too simple, too callous. I want to think there’s something more magical than that. I want a Moan.”

“What the hell is a Moan?”

“It’s a term I made up for a person of your preferred gender who embodies absolute romantic ecstasy for you, enough to make you moan with pleasure. He or she is so moanlicious that he or she is powerful enough to give you a physical, emotional, and spiritual orgasm.”

“A spiritual orgasm? What’s that? I want one.”

“Join the club.”

“So is Dane your Moan?”

“No, I guess not. And you finally helped me see that.” She sighed, feeling a smile tug at the corners of her mouth. “I’m so glad you’re on my side.”

“Always. Now come here, you.” He wrapped his arms around her and she sank into his embrace, squeezing his waist with all her might until he gasped. “Easy now. You’re supposed to be giving me a hug, not cracking my rib.”

“Sorry.” Kimber giggled as she loosened her grip. She rested her face against his chest and relaxed, feeling comforted and safe. What had she done before Jay came along? What would she ever do without him? It was an unfathomable question; Jay had been one of the only constants in her life, and for that she was grateful. “You know, you always give the best hugs, and I like how you don’t let go until I do. I guess the tutorial I gave you in high school really left its impression on you.”

“I didn’t just remember the lesson. It’s that I never really want to let go.”

Kimber’s brain numbed at his words, which she couldn’t be sure she truly understood.

“You know,” he continued, his voice low, “I’m really trying to resist the urge to kiss you right now.”

She laughed, trying to break the unusual, awkward atmosphere falling over what she’d thought was a friendly embrace. “Right. Because I’m so irresistible today, crying all over you.”

“I want you all over me.”

Too stunned to reply, Kimber froze as Jay lowered his head and kissed her softly but firmly. He caught her upper lip between his and gave it a gentle tug, warmth creeping through her despite the warning bells in her head. She closed her eyes as he kissed her again, this time with a little more urgency, a little more need. That small escalation shocked Kimber back into her senses and she turned her head, giving him her cheek. “Jay, no. We can’t.”

“Yes, we can.” His lips found her exposed neck and his kisses grew desperate as they traveled lower to meet her collarbone.

“No, this isn’t right.” She wriggled in his arms, trying to shake off his grip and his mouth’s lingering spell. “We’re friends. We don’t do this sort of thing.”

“Clearly we do.”

“No, we don’t.” Kimber pushed away from him and stepped backward until she bumped into a tree trunk. She pressed her fingertips to her still-tingling mouth like a shield. “We can’t. This-us-it wouldn’t be right.”

Jay’s jaw tightened as he pressed his lips together and looked away, glancing toward the way they had come like a man steeling himself to walk over hot coals. After a long pause, he said, “I should get you home.”

Kimber’s throat constricted as a sharp pang of regret punctured her heart, and she shuffled beside Jay in silence as they made their way back to the car. Her fear intensified with every step, robbing her of the ability to even begin to know how to repair the damage. It was impossible to concentrate on anything but how she’d just ruined one of the most important friendships she ever had.

They returned to the Monte Carlo, and Jay started the car and immediately switched on the radio, filling the awkward lack of conversation. The action wounded Kimber further; she dreaded talking about what just happened but was terrified what would happen if it wasn’t addressed. Clearly, Jay was not about to bring up the topic. She watched him on the ride home from the corner of her eye, noticing his blank, unreadable expression and how he drove the car like he was going to be graded on his efforts. An outsider wouldn’t even bat an eye at his behavior. Kimber knew better. She licked her dry lips and looked out the window, wondering if she would ever see him again. It was a histrionic thought, but what else was she supposed to think at this point?

Jay pulled up in front of Kimber’s apartment building and let the car idle, both hands still on the wheel as he looked in the rearview mirror. “All right, see you around.”

Kimber felt ready to crack in half and curled her fingers into fists. “Jay, will you look at me?”

He turned to her, his face stoic and impossible to interpret. He said nothing.

“I’m sorry about what happened back there.” She swallowed hard. “I don’t want it to ever be weird between us. You’re my best friend in the world and I hate the thought of ever losing you. I care about you so much.”

Jay broke eye contact again, his gaze returning to the rearview as he scratched his shoulder. “I know.”

Another silence fell between them, making Kimber want to scream. “Well, what’s going to happen now? Has everything changed? Are we not friends anymore?”

After several excruciating moments, he finally said, “No. We’re still friends.”

“Okay. Good.” Kimber noticed that he still refused to look at her but she had run out of things to say. She sensed he wasn’t saying what he wanted to, but she didn’t have enough proof to demand honesty, especially when she wasn’t sure she wanted him to be too honest. She hooked her fingers in the door handle. “I’ll see you tomorrow then.”

“Yep.” He nodded as she climbed out of the car. “Later.”

Kimber watched him drive away, feeling like a wrecking ball had slammed into her chest. It was the first time they’d parted in years without a hug goodbye.

* * *

“I’ve figured out what your problem is,” Ferney announced the next day when Kimber slid into the passenger seat of her sister’s Subaru Legacy.

“Great, I can’t wait to hear what it is.” Kimber raked a hand through her unwashed hair and adjusted the giant Jackie O sunglasses on her face, suddenly feeling self-conscious. A few minutes ago, rolling out of bed without showering had seemed like a great idea after a night of crying with little sleep. Now, next to Ferney, who looked fresh and classy to suit her titling and abstracting job for the gas company, she wished she didn’t look as horrible as she felt. Attempting to look like a normal person who bathed and wore clean clothes probably would’ve gone a long way to feeling at least an ounce better.

Ferney peeled away from Kimber’s apartment complex, narrowly missing taking out a row of mailboxes without batting an eye. “The last person you slept with spent six years not worshipping you like you deserve. This can be attributed to the fact that prior to him, your experience with men was so limited you never learned how to assert your needs in the bedroom.”

Kimber grunted in response, half listening and half wondering if she could fall asleep behind her sunglasses without her sister noticing.

“So what I propose is you gain some sexual confidence. Then you’ll learn to be more demanding of the men you wind up with and never have to settle again.”

“And how do you propose I do that? Go out and screw a bunch of guys?” Kimber’s patience frayed; the last thing she needed was her sister in her ear, insisting on her promiscuity.

“Not a bunch, just a few who know what they’re doing. But first, you need to know what you’re doing. That’s why we’re going to get you a special present today.”

“A special present, huh? Is it loaded?”

“Ha ha.” Ferney glided the car to a stop, the gravel parking lot crunching beneath the tires. “Well, here we are.”

Here turned out to be Amour, the sex shop down the pike from Kimber’s apartment complex. Kimber stifled her frustration as Ferney turned off the ignition. “You’re supposed to be taking me to pick up my car from the garage.”

“And I will. But first, I’m treating you to a vibrator.” Ferney alighted from the car like the Duchess of York and arrived at the passenger door. “Considering that useless Dane probably never pleasured a woman in his life, I think you’ll be a lot happier once you start having effortless orgasms and realize what you’ve been missing. Trust me, I know these things. I used to do those passion parties so I’m an expert. You’re lucky to have me.”

Kimber groaned as Ferney tugged her from the vehicle by her wrist. “Wouldn’t I be luckier if you weren’t telling me I need a sex toy?”

“I can’t believe I have to even tell you. It’s common knowledge that every girl needs to own a vibrator.”

“I never needed one before.”

“Yes, you did. You just didn’t know it.”

“Look, my sex life with Dane was never the issue, okay?” Kimber eyed the building’s bay window with the lace curtains and the cardboard cut-outs of busty blondes in cop and pirate wench costumes. “It was probably the one thing we didn’t have a problem with. It was fine. We had fun.”

“Impossible. Just listen to the boring way you describe it.” She shot Kimber a pointed look. “Can you look me in the eye and tell me Dane fulfilled all your sexual needs, every single time, without fail? He always got you off?”

Kimber tried to ignore the hot flush that bloomed in her cheeks. “I think we’ve become a little too comfortable with each other. You care too much about what’s happening in my crotch. It’s time we start drawing some boundaries.”

“We’ll draw them later. Answer the question.”

“Well, no…” Kimber nipped her lower lip, doubt regarding her orgasms creeping into her. Could they really be called orgasms? The answer probably lay in her having to even wonder. “But so what? Are you telling me that Paul always makes you scream and moan without fail?”

Ferney yanked open the sex shop’s door. “Yep.”

“You lie.” Kimber followed her sister, who led them through the racks of diaphanous lingerie and vinyl skirts to the back room with the saloon-style half-doors and the sign overhead reading No one under 18 permitted.

“I would never. What would be the point?”

“Paul seriously makes you come every time you guys have sex?” Kimber couldn’t imagine her sister’s awkward, slightly nebbish fiancé pulling off something Dane fell admittedly far short of.

“Don’t throw yourself off a bridge or anything, but yeah-it’s like a ninety-five percent success rate.” Ferney paused in front of a cherry-stained wooden shelf where a rainbow of dildos stood proudly erect, a faraway, mysterious smile on her face. “What he does to me-I could never explain it. I’ve never had anyone so attuned to me and my body before. I didn’t even believe such synchronicity existed. But Paul… It’s like he knows me so completely, and I can tell that he’s not satisfied until I’m satisfied, and he’ll do anything to make that happen, which makes the whole thing that much hotter.”

Kimber listened, stunned. Her sister had just described an experience she thought happened only in people’s idyllic hopes for the best and resembled nothing of her own reality. A knot formed in her throat as panic worked its way through her circulation. What was she doing, living her life and never feeling anything close to that remarkable? Could she actually call it living her life at all?

Ferney turned to her sister, a look of genuine concern in her eyes. “You really never felt anything like that with Dane?”

“Of course I have.” Kimber cleared her throat, trying to shake the latest bit of anxiety rising inside her. “Now please-can we stop talking about this?”

“Fine.” Ferney selected a big, black dildo, complete with a mushroom tip and veins that looked like a highway map. Kimber guesstimated they were about the size of an interstate at that. Ferney held it toward her sister, the dildo wobbling back and forth. “What about this?”

“If my vagina was the size of a moon crater, maybe. Put the harpoon back.”

“This dinky thing? Psh. If you think this is big, you should see Paul’s.”

“Let’s get talking about those boundaries again.” Kimber tried to smile, but her insides twisted. Her relationship with Dane seemed more pointless and frustrating than ever. She was twenty-six years old, fresh from a six-year dating disaster, and horrified to learn that she may have never had an orgasm before. All of a sudden, the clock was ticking. There was a lot of lost time to make up for. Aside from the vibrator, where else would she start?

* * *

That night, Kimber tossed and turned, listening to the neighbors bounce between a crime scene investigation show and “The Nanny.” The sound kept her awake and dwelling on the fact that twenty-four hours had passed without hearing from Jay. They’d always carved out time to contact each other at least once a day, even if it was just a text message, but it didn’t look like he was going to be resuming that tradition any time soon. Aside from here and there at the casino, maybe she’d never see him again. After all, if she were him, she wouldn’t exactly be excited to hang out after what had happened. The memory turned her stomach. It was just as bad as what happened with Dane, and she felt totally alone.

In an effort to improve her mood, Kimber reached for the vibrator her sister bought her earlier: a glitter-flecked My First Vibe in vibrant magenta with multiple speeds. It was five inches long and two inches around, and she eyed it with trepidation. She was on the brink of foreign territory. The thought made her give a bitter laugh. How could she have gone so long without total satisfaction? Earth-shattering orgasms shouldn’t be unfamiliar at her age, and the promise of impending pleasure made her kick off her pajama pants, leaving her nude from the waist down.

Kimber gave the vibrator’s base a twist and the phallic object buzzed to life. She settled back against her pillow, steepled her knees, and parted her legs. Then she touched the tip of the vibrator to her clit and immediately shuddered at the sensation. This was already amazing. Maybe Ferney really was onto something.

She closed her eyes and traced her clit and her opening with the vibrator, letting the pleasure ripple through her. She couldn’t help but whimper, and the sound of her own desire turned her on even more. The vibrator teased her entrance and her hips twitched, but she didn’t slide it inside herself. She wanted to savor this.

Her desire dimmed as her thoughts drifted to Dane. How was this toy already closer to bringing her off than he had ever come? Was that a fair assessment of his skills, considering she was already so jaded toward him? She shook her head. No, she refused to spend her time with My First Vibe thinking of her ex-boyfriend.

Kimber pressed the vibrator to her clit again as the memory of Jay’s lips on hers sprang unbidden to her mind. She hadn’t granted herself permission to even think of it since it happened, but suddenly she couldn’t think of anything else. In a flash of honesty, she had to admit that although it had been short and sweet, it was easily the best kiss she’d ever had, one she was ashamed to admit she’d felt in her clit. If Jay hadn’t been her oldest and best friend, she could easily picture the situation having escalated.

A sharp crack against her bedroom wall shocked Kimber from her reverie, and she shrieked, dropping the vibrator and covering her lower half with her unmade sheets. She rocketed to a sitting position and looked around the room, wondering what the hell she would do about being partially naked if a burglar broke in. However, the moans and gasps on the other side of the wall registered in her brain, and she recognized one of the voices as belonging to her new neighbor, Taryn.

“Oh, fuck yeah, Brad, like that.” Taryn moaned, clear as day through the paper-thin walls. “Fuck… Oh, fuck, yes. Lick my pussy just like that.”

The neighbors were definitely done watching TV. Kimber’s first instinct was to laugh at the discomfited position she was in, but a more primal need overrode her amused embarrassment. Her clit throbbed in response to the needy, desperate quality in Taryn’s commands, and she lay against her pillow once again, rolling the tip of the vibrator over her now dripping cunt. Her breath came faster as she imagined herself in Taryn’s position with a man’s head between her legs, lapping at her with a talented tongue, hell bent on making her come.

Another crack sounded, and Kimber placed it as her neighbors’ headboard whacking against the wall from a sudden force. Then came Taryn’s long, drawn-out ooh of pure bliss, and a man’s muffled groan. Kimber could only assume Brad had transitioned from eating Taryn out to sliding his cock inside her, and their vocalized passion confirmed this as Taryn shrieked for him to fuck her harder and the headboard crashed against the wall with a new intensity.

Kimber mirrored their assumed actions, pushing the vibrator inside her cunt and stifling a moan. She withdrew the toy then pushed it home again, pretending she was the one being fucked with abandon and reaching the sexual ecstasy Ferney had sworn she deserved.

Taryn and Brad’s moans increased in frequency and volume and Kimber’s hand moved faster as her juices slid along the length of the vibrator to meet her fingers. She couldn’t remember ever being so wet before. She chewed her lip and arched toward the ceiling as her neighbors screamed with pleasure next door; she felt much like doing the same. A powerful sensation crept through her body, like a ribbon of pleasure unfurling toward her clit. Her legs trembled, and she choked on a moan and squeezed her eyes shut as she felt like a firework exploded inside her, sending pleasure zipping through her bloodstream. Kimber shuddered, the muscles in her cunt gripping at the slick vibrator, and a wave of calm fell over her as she went limp, her mind and body numb to everything else except what had just happened. My First Vibe resulted in Her First Real Climax.

She lay there, panting toward the ceiling as the toy still buzzed, wringing the final aftershocks of her orgasm from her. Suddenly, Ferney’s suggestion of a sexual awakening didn’t sound so crazy after all. She couldn’t believe she’d lived without one for so long, and there was no way she was going to let another day go by without seeking the satisfaction she finally knew she deserved.

Chapter Three

“Where’s your partner in crime?” asked Alison, Kimber’s petite and busty coworker, as she materialized from the crowd to relieve Kimber from her nightmare of a shift. Too many customers, not enough tips. No one was feeling lucky tonight.

“I’d rather ask where you were. You’re fifteen minutes late again.”

“You could ask me that if you want to.” Alison moved like she had all the time in the world, helping herself to a cherry. “I prefer talking about Jay Navarrete though. I miss his sexy ass. Where’s he been?”

Kimber shrugged, taking off her half-apron and feigning nonchalance. “Around. He’s a busy guy, what with school and work and all.”

“Yeah, but he always seemed to make time to linger by the bar like a love-sick puppy. You two are usually joined at the hip.” Alison waggled her perfectly sculpted eyebrows, which resembled two delicate strips of black tar. “Maybe even literally. Watch out, I might start some rumors about you two.”

Kimber rolled her eyes as she balled up her apron and stuffed it beneath the counter. “See you in thirty. Try to stay out of trouble.”

“I could say the same for you.”

After clocking out for her break, Kimber rode the escalator to the second floor, where the restaurants and shops awaited. She took a long, deep breath of the oxygen pumping through the casino to keep the risk-takers awake and her stomach twisted. So she wasn’t the only one who’d noticed Jay’s absence during the past few days. It wasn’t just her imagination. She tried to convince herself that his job kept him occupied, and he did have finals this week, but Alison was right-he’d made the effort before. The timing of his absence-hot on the heels of her rejection-also suggested this went beyond him being busy. Her shoulders slumped. She didn’t entirely blame him, but the avoidance still stung.

Then she caught sight of Jay’s broad-shouldered frame clad in his dealer’s uniform ambling toward her, rolling with the tide of gamblers and shoppers. She smiled; he always walked with a slight hop to his step, a happy-go-lucky gait, no matter what. He looked around at his surroundings, his expression neutral, betraying nothing unusual. He looked just like the boy she’d always known, with his dark, unbrushed hair curling around his ears, and she realized how happy she was to see him. He was so familiar to her, her one true constant.

Then his gaze came to rest upon her, and she noticed the startled flicker of recognition in his dark blue eyes, which subsequently clouded. Her heart plummeted. If she hadn’t thought something was wrong before, this was certainly confirmation.

But she refused to perpetuate the weirdness. Crushes came and went; it was inevitable. He’d get over this, he had to. Their friendship was too special and had endured too much to let something so fleeting ruin it.

“Hey you.” She gave a bright smile, stepping in his path and forcing him to shuffle to a halt. “How’s it going?”

“It’s going.” He shrugged, looking everywhere but at her.

Kimber noticed him trying to edge around her and swallowed hard, staying resolute in her mission and stance as she moved in front of him again. She wouldn’t let him shut her out. They could get past this. “Are you on lunch, too?”

“Yeah. I got about ten minutes left.”

“Oh. So what’d you have? An excitement sandwich?”

“Totally.” His voice was flat. “Look, I can’t talk right now.”

“Okay.” She inhaled a deep breath through her nose. “Then want to meet up after work? We can grab dinner. There’s a pizza place in the shopping plaza about fifteen seconds from my apartment. We should check it out. My treat, of course, for you helping me move.”

“Kimber.” Jay fixed his gaze on her at last and obliterated any façade of normalcy with his steely expression. “No.”

“No?” A small swell of panic rose in her chest. “Why?”

“You know why. It’s insulting that you’re pretending you don’t.”

This time, Kimber let him pass, too stunned to stop him, but Moquest did the work for her, appearing out of nowhere and charging Jay. “There you are-just the two people I was looking for.” He wrapped an arm around Jay’s neck and looked from his friend to Kimber, seemingly oblivious to the grave tension crackling in the air. “Jay, you tell her about my party yet?”

Kimber squared her shoulders and forced another grin she didn’t quite feel; Jay had every opportunity but obviously no intention of telling her about any party. “What’s the occasion?”

Moquest hooted. “Oh, you’ll see. And you better see-I don’t want either of you to miss it. You will be ever so sorry you did.” He released Jay and backed away, firing his fingers like guns at them. He blew on the tips of his index fingers and tucked them in an imaginary holster as he sauntered off.

Kimber risked a fleeting look at Jay. He chewed on the inside of his mouth and stared wide-eyed at the rug’s jellyfish-and-flowers pattern in a clash of teal, brown, coral, and moss green. He glanced at her, shrugged again by way of farewell, and turned to leave.

“Are you going to Moquest’s thing?” Kimber had to ask, hating that she grasped at straws to have a conversation with him.

“Yeah. Nicole and I are heading there around ten.”

“Cool.” She tried not to crack. This was a whole new Jay, one she didn’t know at all, one who kissed her one day then dated the leggy twenty-one-year-old who worked the cashier’s station without telling her. “Maybe I’ll see you guys there.”

“Yep.” He tossed his hand up-hardly a wave at all-and loped off like he couldn’t escape fast enough, stinging Kimber’s heart in the process.

* * *

“I should just not go.” Kimber tucked her feet under herself on Ferney’s couch later that evening. She’d gotten off work only to go to her sister’s apartment and pout, seeking comfort. However, that Ferney was the only one she now sought comfort from was hardly comforting at all; her sister’s advice was abrasive at best. “Seeing Jay there will be so painful, a thousand times worse than earlier today. He obviously hates me.”

“Who, Jay? Pff.” Ferney waved a hand, causing the wine to slosh over the rim of her glass. “He could never. He’s too, too in love with you.”

“Ferney.” Kimber shot her sister one of her famous don’t-go-there looks.

“Fine, no more talk of Jay. Besides, so what if he’s going with someone to the party? You two are allowed to pair off and go your separate ways, Journey-Perry style. You should even be happy for him. There’s something about that guy that just screams he hasn’t gotten laid in, like, a year.”

Kimber grunted a response, assaulted with images of Nicole and Jay having the kind of sweaty, innovative sex that only trained acrobats could master. To say the thoughts churned her stomach would be an understatement. It wasn’t that Jay didn’t deserve to be happy, but with Nicole? She wasn’t the type of girl she saw someone like Jay with. Then again, she’d never really given the matter much thought before; she’d never had to. If she were honest, she didn’t like having to, either.

“You need to start focusing on who you’ll be with at the party,” continued Ferney. “Isn’t Moquest one of those people who knows everybody? The guy’s a Kevin Bacon hub. Think of all the real men you’ll meet tonight, the ones who’ll put Dane to shame.”

Dane. Damn, she’d barely spared him a thought this past week, which she found slightly disturbing, considering how much she thought she’d loved him. Then again, she’d had plenty of time to get over him while they were still together.

And what better way to celebrate that than to enter an era of someone new?

“You’re right.” Kimber got to her feet. “It’s time I learn how to do a little day-seizing.”

“Ooh.” Ferney’s eyes glittered along with whatever was sparkling in her glass and on her ears as she scampered into her bedroom. “I know just the outfit to seize it in.” She returned with a topped-off drink and a short red dress with an empire waist and cap sleeves. “What do you think?”

“It’s hot,” Kimber admitted. “But we’re not the same size. You’re a stick. I’m a stick’s antithesis.”

“Don’t fret.” Ferney tossed her the dress. “It’s a few years old, left over from my fat days.”

Kimber shook her head. “How do you make being helpful sound so mean?”

“She’s good at it, isn’t she?” Paul stated in a monotone, startling Kimber. She’d almost forgotten he was there. He’d been moping beneath an afghan in the corner’s armchair for a half hour, trying to read a compilation of Iron Man comics for the duration of Kimber’s visit. However, she’d never seen him turn a page. Maybe it was Ferney’s shrill voice that wouldn’t let him.

“Paul, hush. And Kimber-” Ferney pointed a finger at her. “You go out and get good and laid tonight. You deserve it.”

Kimber laughed, but a blossom of excitement grew in her stomach as she decided her sister was right. Why not? What was she waiting for?

* * *

There was no denying it: Nicole was nothing short of smokin’. Her hair fell to her waist in a sheet of brown and gold, her tight body was bronzed and aerobicized to perfection, and her legs ended somewhere in the stratosphere. Not to mention her backless dress completely exposed the orchid tattoo blooming along the length of her vertebrae. All eyes were on her as she and Jay walked through Moquest’s door, and he could tell every guy in the room racked his brain for a way to spend a few minutes with what lay underneath her thong.

Of course, Nicole’s single mortal flaw was that she was boring. Wasn’t that always the case? Even though everything inside him-and Moquest-insisted that he be into her, Jay couldn’t convince himself. Dinner had been excruciating, sitting side by side at the sushi joint, trying to find common ground. She’d apparently run out of things to say after telling him how she’d just split from a long-term relationship with a guy ten years her senior and had spent the duration of their meal asking him awkward questions he thought died with the concept of video dating. She had actually asked him what his favorite holiday was. When she inquired about his taste in music, he rattled off a few bands, many found at the low end of the dial so he wasn’t surprised she wasn’t familiar with most of them. However, he nearly fell out of his chair when she did say, without confidence, that she “might’ve heard of” Paul McCartney. Paul McCartney! No wonder he hated dating so much. What misery.

It didn’t help that Kimber was also at the party, looking beyond phenomenal in a short red number. If that wasn’t enough to drive him mad, she was giggly and happy, enjoying herself and mingling with the other partygoers. He wondered what his evening would’ve been like if he were on a date with Kimber instead of Nicole. She probably would’ve gotten the High Fidelity joke he’d cracked over shrimp rolls earlier. Hell, she probably would’ve corrected him, insisting he quoted the line wrong.

Jay took a swig from his lager, forcing himself to focus on his date. After all, everyone else was. Here he was, the envy of all the other guys at the party for being with the hottest girl there, and he was anything but happy. Talk about that grass always being greener.

Moquest staggered into him, clamping a heavy hand on his shoulder. Jay could smell the Jim Beam on his friend’s breath mingling with the scent of Axe. “Having fun?” he shouted in Jay’s ear.

“Sure, why not?”

“Exactly.” Moquest leered at Nicole, who was chattering away with Moquest’s girlfriend, Gina the Stripper. Actually, it was Gina the Ex-Stripper, though it was impossible to tell from her black mini dress with the plunging neckline and her Lucite platforms. Jay wondered what Gina and Nicole could possibly be talking about. He couldn’t imagine it being remotely interesting in any way.

Moquest’s grip turned fierce, and Jay turned to see his friend’s concerned brown eyes focused on him. “You all right?”

Before Jay could respond, Moquest’s gaze flicked across the room to where Kimber stood, surrounded by a knot of men who were likely interested in more than just hanging onto her every word. Her throaty, infectious laugh reached his ears and he looked away, taking an angry gulp of his beer. Why couldn’t she just want him the way he wanted her? Nothing made sense to him.

“Don’t worry.” Moquest clapped him on the back and drew away. “I got some things in store to switch up the atmosphere.” He bit his lip and hummed an unrecognizable tune best suited for porno background music as he danced from foot to foot, waving his hands raise-the-roof style.

Jay arched a brow. “Should I be afraid?”

“No.” A wicked grin spread over Moquest’s face. “You should be stoked. And you will be. I promise.”

* * *

One hot red dress, two cups of Moquest’s jungle juice, and more than a few head turns had Kimber feeling pretty damn good. Fuck Dane, and fuck Jay, too, seeing as he couldn’t even deign to say hello to her that evening. Fuck everybody. Why not? As far as she was concerned, the night was all about her. In fact, all nights should now be about her. It was high time.

“So how come I haven’t seen you around before?” asked Bryan, whom she’d been talking to for the past half hour. “I can’t believe Moquest never introduced us.”

“We’ll have to have a word with that boy.” She couldn’t believe Bryan seemed so interested in her; he could be a runner-up in a Jake Gyllenhaal lookalike contest. Where did Moquest ever meet this Adonis? She wasn’t used to guys this gorgeous chatting her up. Then again, she’d been tied up with Dane drama for years, so she’d never really had or been open to the opportunity.

The reminder of the time she’d been without any real happiness and attention sent a bullet of sadness through her chest, but she shook it off. There was no need to think about the past when the magic of the present was so real. She couldn’t change any of it, but anything could happen now.

Kimber tucked a strand of blonde hair behind her ear and gave Bryan a shy smile, all the while wondering what it would be like to go to bed with him, and not just someday-tonight. Sex had always seemed so sacred to her, something she could only do with someone she loved. She couldn’t believe that sex was something that anyone could just have, at any given moment. Now she realized she had the option-and the power-to do that, too.

She could be having sex with someone in a few hours. All she had to do was say so.

And she wanted to say so. She’d wasted years being good, too good. Where had it gotten her? What was the point?

It was time to live it up a bit, but how? How did these things just happen? Despite her desire, she was nervous. Kimber had always preferred relationships to bloom organically. Judging by the past, however, that had had limited success.

Moquest’s girlfriend, who was wearing an outfit straight out of Frederick’s of Hollywood, stepped in the center of the room and clapped her hands overhead. “Okay, everybody, who wants to play a game?”

Everyone in the vicinity turned toward her; she’d delivered her announcement in a way that suggested the game she had in mind wasn’t exactly a friendly round of pinochle.

“I propose,” sang Moquest’s girlfriend, “a favorite pastime you all thought you outgrew.” She held up an empty wine bottle like a sword of victory. “Spin the Bottle, anyone?”

The partygoers whooped in response, as if they were all still teenagers. After wrestling with the nasty reminder of when Dane had taken part in the game, Kimber surrendered to the excitement at the prospect of playing. This could be the exact opportunity she’d been looking for to get closer to Bryan. Considering the way he glanced at her, his thoughts ran parallel to hers.

The guests dropped into seated positions, drawing Kimber’s attention to the few left standing, which included Moquest, who was dancing in a way more resembling humping. Jay stood beside him, slugging his beer with an unreadable expression on his face. His gaze flicked to her and she risked a smile. In response, he polished off what was left the bottle and left the room.

A sudden rush of anger replaced Kimber’s guilt and worry. If Jay wanted to rebuff her at every turn, fine. He was obviously unconcerned about repairing the rift in their friendship. She alone could only do so much, and she wasn’t going to let him ruin what she had a feeling was going to be one of the most important nights of her life.

She smoothed her borrowed dress over her hips as she lowered herself to her knees beside Bryan, who watched her do so with great interest. She sat back on her heels and took a deep breath, giving Bryan an excited grin. He smiled and leaned in, parting his lips as if to speak.

At that moment, Moquest appeared between them, wielding two red cups brimming with jungle juice. “Refreshment, anyone?”

Kimber plucked a cup from Moquest’s hand and took a sip, more grateful than she wanted to admit for the liquid courage. She had a feeling she was going to need it.

* * *

Jay inspected his damp face in the bathroom mirror, cringing at how the sick, weak light intensified the dark circles beneath his eyes. He cupped his hands beneath the running faucet and splashed more cool water over his hot skin. Still, he was unable to wash away his visible unease and the memory of Kimber settling next to some toolbox on the floor, both of them giggly and horny and inevitably bound for the bedroom. Apparently, kissing him at the park was the worst thing Kimber could possibly do, but letting drunk, meaty-pawed strangers feel her up in front of other drunk, meaty-pawed strangers was more than acceptable. Fucking wonderful. If this was what Moquest had in mind when he promised Jay a good time, then Moquest was worse than Judas himself. Jay would almost rather be nailed to a cross than witness Kimber tongue-bang someone else. He even welcomed it at this point.

He opened the door and just avoided being plowed down by an impatient brunette, who gave him the stink eye as she locked herself in the bathroom, clutching the crotch of her jeans like a four-year-old. He negotiated the crowd back to the living room, where he saw Nicole getting cozy on the couch with a guy Jay recognized as one of Airy Peak’s new upstairs bartenders. She’d apparently grown disinterested with Jay’s disinterest and moved on. Good for her; that was what smart people did when the ones they loved didn’t love them back. They shrugged and went about their lives like nothing ever made any difference at all.

Despite this observed wisdom put into effect, Jay’s attention turned to the Spin the Bottle game, looking for Kimber. The aforementioned toolbox who’d been eyeing her like a desert mirage all night remained in the circle, but Kimber was noticeably absent. A moment of relief flickered through him, followed by a need to find her. Maybe she drank too much of that piss Moquest made and needed a ride home. Maybe she came to her senses and decided that making out with strangers during grade-school games was ridiculous. Maybe she was outside on the porch with the smokers, lost in her own thoughts and wondering if she should’ve given him a real chance after all.

A shrill, musical chime pierced the party atmosphere, and Gina, Moquest’s woman of the hour, scooped up her smart phone and let out a hoot. “Time’s up. Come out with your hands where we can see them!”

The game participants cheered as the coat closet swung open and out stumbled Kimber, flushed, jewel-eyed, and tittering. Behind her sauntered a guy who, amazingly, appeared to be an even bigger douche than all the other idiots who had been hovering around her like gnats circling brown bananas. He looked so smug it took everything Jay had not to bury a fist in his face, especially as he milked the moment for his audience, bringing his fingers to his nose and taking an exaggerated sniff.

Kimber moved to rejoin the game but Jay latched onto her upper arm and dragged her into the hallway, ignoring her sputters of protest. He spun her around and clamped his hands on her shoulders. “What the fuck are you doing?”

“Me? What the fuck are you doing?” She batted at his grip.

“I can tell you what I’m not doing, and that’s fucking total strangers in closets for the entertainment of everyone else outside.”

“We didn’t fuck.” Kimber’s expression could’ve frozen Hell twice over. “It’s called Seven Minutes in Heaven. When you spin the bottle and it lands on the same person three times, you have to go in the closet together for seven minutes and make out. So what?”

“Can you hear what you’re saying? What are you, thirteen?”

“What are you, a cop?” Her struggles in his grasp increased in violence. “I want to have some fun for once. Why is that such a crime?” She licked her lips, swollen from kissing, her tone taking a desperate edge. “Why am I not allowed to feel good ever?”

Before Jay could respond, Moquest raced over like he’d been running for hours. “I have the greatest come-on. Ready?” He turned to a nearby waif downing the contents of her red plastic cup in one fluid motion. “If you were a pile of bricks, I’d lay you in a second.”

The waif’s cheeks puffed and she lurched forward, spit the mouthful of whatever concoction she’d just taken on the hardwood floor, and exploded with laughter. Kimber took the distraction as an opportunity to wrench from Jay’s hold and scamper back to the Spin the Bottle game.

“Oh well.” Moquest’s shoulders slumped. “Back to the drawing board.”

Jay sucked in a sharp, shaky gulp as he tore a hand through his messy hair and struggled to regain control. Then again, when it came to Kimber, maybe that was impossible.

Moquest shook off the rejection and looked from Jay to Kimber then back again, his jaw set. “That does it. Time to make things interesting.” He approached the game and grabbed Kimber’s hand, tugging her to her feet. “Everyone, this is Kimber. Kimber, this is everyone.”

“Hi, Kimber!” The majority of the guests raised their drinks in greeting, and she responded with a shy albeit happy wave as she tucked her hair behind her ears.

“She is very interested in making out with a handsome stranger.” Moquest turned to her. “Aren’t you, Kimber?”

Her eyes widened and her cheeks turned pink. She opened her mouth to reply, but Moquest added, “She’s so interested, in fact, she’s agreed to let me blindfold her, send her to my room then pick someone to be her mystery lover. Pretty sweet, right?”

“What! I never-”

Moquest silenced Kimber’s outburst with a finger to her lips as the partygoers let out shouts of bawdy encouragement. Jay surpassed astonishment as Kimber pushed Moquest’s hand away from her mouth and laughed, otherwise not protesting. Was this seriously happening?

“Come on, Kimmy.” Moquest draped an arm around Kimber’s shoulders and directed her toward the staircase. “Let’s get ready for your surprise.” He led her to the second floor, pausing to yell to the other guests, “Y’all fight nice over who gets to rock her world now!”

Jay leaned heavy against the wall, feeling the situation spiral further and further from him. What could he do? There were no options left, except perhaps throttling Moquest the first chance he got.

A few moments later, Moquest materialized in front of him wearing a smile most often reserved only for patron saints. “There you are,” he said with smug benevolence. “In case you haven’t heard, I got something waiting for you upstairs.”

“You’re a real asshole, you know that? Call this off.”

“I’m busy being a good host. You go call it off.” Moquest smirked. “If you’re not back in five minutes, I won’t send help.”

Jay stared daggers at his friend’s back as Moquest loped off, trying more random pick-up lines on passing female guests. He took a few deep breaths before ascending the staircase, formulating the speech he intended to deliver once he saw Kimber. This behavior was insane, dangerous, disgusting. But with every stair came the reminder of Moquest’s obvious intent in arranging this opportunity, and both his knees and resolve weakened.

No! He refused to this of it as an opportunity; it wasn’t, it couldn’t be. It’d be wrong to consider it as such-this was Kimber.

And it was that very argument against the situation that warped into his reason in favor of it as he opened the door. In the dim red light coming from the lamp on the nightstand, he saw Kimber perched on the edge of the bed, chewing her bottom lip, trembling, the blindfold in place.

Jay sucked in a breath as the magnitude of the moment slammed into him. This was unreal. She looked perfect and she was his for the taking. No one would ever have to know the truth. If this was a perfect world where consequences were unheard of, wouldn’t he take this chance? Hell yes he would, especially if he knew the chance would never come along again. It’s not like Kimber wasn’t willing; she was ready to do anything with any old fuck.

Oh God. Was he actually justifying this? Was he actually talking himself into it?

He shut the door with a soft click and turned the lock, and Kimber straightened, alert. She licked her lips and he realized that he could be doing the same in just seconds. He was the only one holding himself back.

She cleared her throat. “Hi,” she said, her voice soft.

The sound rolled through him, mixed with pity and affection. Who says hi at a time like this? She was in over her head-they both were. He couldn’t let anyone in this room to get to her; he didn’t trust them not to take advantage of her. So why didn’t he speak up and say so? Say anything?

He remained still, watching as Kimber rose and took slow, careful steps toward the door. “Where are you?” she whispered.

Jay stretched his hand out, sliding it in hers, shivering as a jolt rippled through his fingers and up his arm at her touch. She stepped closer, just inches from him, and her smell obliterated his senses, leaving the memory of their kiss in the woods and how easily that kiss could happen again if he wanted it to. And he definitely wanted it to.

Her hand left his and touched his face, and her forehead creased; he knew she was trying to figure out who he was. Confident she’d never guess, he closed his eyes as her fingers quested over his cheeks, his nose, his jaw, his lips. Why should he feel confident? Why was that a good thing? What was he actually debating on doing?

Before he could admit his intentions to himself, Kimber cupped his face and kissed him, effectively murdering his ability to think beyond the moment. Swallowing a groan, he wrapped his arms around her, tugging her closer as he deepened the kiss, exploring her mouth with his tongue, teeth, and lips. God, she tasted so fucking incredible, better than he’d imagined. Their last kiss had been good, but he’d been so focused on making it happen he hadn’t had the chance to truly experience it. Now that she was so willing, he had all the time in the world to do just that.

Kimber pulled away with a soft sigh. “Man,” she said softly, the awe in that single word weakening his willpower further.

What the fuck was he doing? This was deceitful and wrong. He couldn’t do this; she was his best friend. She trusted him. He couldn’t be like all the other horny fucktards at this party, ready to use her however they saw fit. He was in love with her, and people didn’t do this sort of thing to the one they loved.

Or did they?

Kimber gave a greedy, impatient whimper in response to his sudden detachment and wound her arms around his neck, finding his mouth with hers again. Unable to resist, he encircled her with his arms and kissed her back. Damn, she really wanted this to happen. And she felt so unbelievably good. He could feel the heat emanating from her body beneath her dress, and her skin was so soft. He could so easily get addicted to this, to her, if he wasn’t already.

That didn’t make the situation less wrong. He never wanted her to want him under pretenses, and that’s exactly what this was. His mind throbbed, commanding him to let her go, but his body had a different agenda as he backed Kimber toward the bed. They both tumbled on the mattress, which squeaked in protest, and she entwined her legs around his waist, pulling him tight against her, her dress bunching around her upper thighs. The only thing separating him from entering her was their clothes, and that problem could be resolved easily enough.

“Oh fuck.” The words left him in a breathy rush before he could stop them, and his spine stiffened as he remembered he spoke aloud, giving himself away, but Kimber still didn’t seem to know it was him. Why would she? She didn’t know him like this. The reminder made him bold as he pressed his cock against the crotch of her panties, thrilling to how she broke their kiss to release a gasp. He vowed to do more than make her breath catch. That is, if he wanted to go through with what was in danger of happening.

He rocked against her, wanting to make her scream as he stroked his way up the outside of her thighs, the dress riding higher and puddling just under her belly button and revealing lacy, black boy-cut panties. The sight was one straight from his wet dreams. His control rapidly deteriorated, and his desires overruled his ethics as she reached beneath herself to untie the back of her dress, making it possible to slip it off her body with ease. He sat back for a moment, staring at her. Her blonde hair was a bird’s nest, her lips were puffy and pouting from kissing, and the black blindfold remained in place. Her bra matched her panties, and she looked so damn appetizing, he had no idea how he could just walk away now.

“What’s wrong?” she asked, suddenly sounding shy.

He cleared his throat. “Nothing.” He forced his voice to a husky, indistinguishable growl. “You’re perfect.”

Jay caressed her everywhere, taking the time to study her by the light of the one red bulb and enjoying the needy twitches of her body. He wanted to memorize her. A sprinkle of freckles of her chest reminded him of the Andromeda constellation. There was a small mole on her ribcage that he’d never noticed before. She had two white scars on her left knee, likely leftover from childhood. His breath came faster at the thought of everything else about her he had left to discover.

He unclipped her bra and peeled the fabric from her skin, and his mind clouded, seeing her small, bare breasts topped with light areolae for the first time. Unable to help himself, he lowered his head, capturing a hardened peak in his mouth, and she groaned, arching her back upward, pressing herself against him. His brain refused to comprehend what was transpiring. He turned his attention to Kimber’s other nipple, fueled by her responses and acting on instinct and want. Logic and morality had never been so foreign to him.

As he savored and kissed his way to her belly button, he tried to rationalize what he was about to do next. Kimber was going to go ahead with this anyway, right? Wouldn’t it be better if it were him than some other guy who could be crawling with diseases and might treat her as if she were disposable? He couldn’t let that happen to her, especially after all that shit she went through with Dane. She deserved to be with someone who respected her, who cared if she got off, who understood that this wasn’t just a game.

This line of thinking brought him to the waistband of her panties, and he glanced up at her, seeking signs of hesitance but saw none. She’d tilted her head back and was chewing her bottom lip as she teased her nipples with her fingers, her hips twitching slightly in anticipation. There really was no going back now.

He took a deep breath for courage, peeled aside the crotch of her panties and flicked her swollen clit with his tongue. Her whole body jerked at the sudden contact and a choked oh left her mouth. The reaction urged him on, and he batted his tongue against her clit, his efforts slowly building in speed. He couldn’t believe he had his head between Kimber’s legs, couldn’t believe he now knew how her cunt tasted, how she sounded when she groaned in pleasure. His cock throbbed to the thought of her climaxing because of him.

Jay teased her clit with his lips as he slid a finger inside her, and she released a moan in response. He worked up a rhythm with his hand and mouth. She was so wet, hot, and tight, and he pictured how her slick walls would feel around his cock.

“Oh God.” Kimber arched toward the ceiling, pushing her cunt farther against him. Her breath came in pants, and she gave a whimper every time he dipped his finger deep inside her. “Oh God, oh God.”

The sound of her had him embarrassingly close to coming himself. He added a second finger with his next thrust, wanting nothing more than to fuck her-really fuck her, in a way he was pretty sure Dane never had. Kimber’s oohs and “oh Gods” grew in frequency and pitch, and he was determined to see this through to her satisfaction. He maintained a steady rhythm until Kimber shuddered and the muscles of her cunt clenched and unclenched his fingers.

Jay rose, kissing his way up her stomach, his body heavy with unsatiated lust. When he arrived at her mouth, she gave him a greedy kiss. Then she broke away.

“Do you want to fuck me?” she murmured against his lips.

He could hear himself swallow and his mouth went dry. He tried to respond but no words escaped. How could he answer that honestly? Wasn’t that taking it a bit too far?

“Because I really want you to fuck me.” She punctuated her request with a kiss, and he kissed her back, distracted beyond comprehension. Every nerve in his body screamed warring decisions.

“You sure?” he finally whispered, his voice scratchy and low.

“Mmm-hmm.” She tightened her legs around him, emphasizing her decision.

He drew away, his heart hammering as he fumbled in his jeans pocket for the condom Moquest had given him earlier when he’d found out Jay was bringing Nicole-the sure thing-to the party. Nicole-he’d forgotten about her. He’d forgotten a lot of things in the past half hour, it seemed.

As he unzipped his pants and rolled on the condom, he thought of how much shit he was in. Prior to this everything could be blamed on the heat of the moment, albeit barely. What was about to transpire seemed different-premeditated. If he was honest with himself, wasn’t this whole evening premeditated? Hadn’t he known all along what would happen and he did nothing to stop it?

He glanced at Kimber, pulling her knees up to her chest to more easily slip off her panties. There she was, offering herself to him on a silver platter. Was he really too polite not to dig in? She was completely bereft of clothes and brimming with want-for him.

On the other hand, how could he do this to her? He was forsaking their friendship for one moment of insanity. But he couldn’t imagine leaving now, conscience be damned. Something about that option, no matter if it was the moral high road, didn’t feel right for so many reasons.

Unable to resist, Jay returned to the space between her legs, wondering if she could hear his heart. He bit his lip, feeling her skin brush the hardness of his cock. How could any of this be real? She wrapped her arms around his shoulders and pulled him close. Knowing what was true in his own heart, he positioned himself at her entrance and pushed inside.

He couldn’t prevent the groan at the feel of her encompassing him so completely; he couldn’t have imagined it any better. She moaned at the initial contact, locking her ankles at the small of his back as he withdrew and returned to her. The moment was surreal but better than a dream. His thrusts were slow, deep, and measured, intended to build and bring her pleasure and stave off his own orgasm, which drew closer every second.

Kimber wasn’t making it any easier for him, with her breathy whimpers in his ear, the way her body felt against and moved in time with his, and how she clutched his back, nicking his skin with her fingernails. He buried his face in the side of her neck, trying to hold onto his last scrap of control, but her scent and her voice and her entire entity consumed him, making it impossible to do much more than speed up the rhythm he created.

“Oh God.” Kimber was definitely an Oh God kind of girl. She bucked into him. “Oh God. More…”

He gritted his teeth, not knowing if he could handle much more. But he obliged, slamming in and out of her, trying his best not to think about her “oh Gods” in his ear and how slick and tight she was and how her cunt was clenching around his cock, wringing the rest of his control from his body. Jay stifled his groans in her hair as he came in response to her second climax of the evening. Then he squeezed his eyes shut as reality pushed back to him, replacing the peace following his orgasm, and he reluctantly withdrew from her, already missing her touch.

Jay dressed quickly, hating himself for so many reasons as she struggled to a sitting position.

“Where are you going?” she asked. “Are you leaving just like that?” She moved to take off the blindfold.

“No!” He hit the light switch, plunging them into complete darkness, and zipped his pants. “I’m sorry,” he croaked and darted from the room, ducking inside the bathroom to get rid of the condom and regain both his composure and his sense of self.

Back there, he could’ve been anybody to Kimber. What’s worse was that he’d treated her like he was.

Chapter Four

Before last night, Kimber had never been fucked before.

She didn’t even count the brief, unmemorable encounters she’d had before Dane, with whom she’d come the closest to simulating sex. They’d indulge in the obligatory routine of kissing this, groping that, licking and sucking until their tongues got tired. Then he’d wrap his dick in latex and slide it inside her, and it’d feel okay. Sometimes he’d hit the right spot in the midst of his erratic thrusting, and sometimes she’d near a climax. Then he’d shudder with a groan and pause, resting his sweaty forehead against her collarbone, and she’d fight waves of impatience and frustration and rage at how fucking unfair he was. But he’d kiss her and tell her how amazing she was and that he loved her, and no one had ever told her that. He made her feel like a sex goddess, and for a moment, that power would overshadow her dissatisfaction and she’d forget that he could sleep easy with the knowledge he’d never once made her come. She construed her sexual pleasure a low priority, prided herself on her prowess, and moved on.

Then came last night.

Good fucking God.

Kimber had emerged from Moquest’s bedroom after getting dressed, but there was no sign of her mystery lover. Not that she knew what he looked like or even his name, which made the whole thing even more deliciously wrong, but she was past the point of labeling the situation. She’d raced downstairs to find that the Spin the Bottle game had broken up and everyone was sloppy drunk, all remnants of the sexual atmosphere good and murdered. There was no indication that it ever even took place, and Kimber had wondered if anything that had happened since she’d arrived had been real.

She’d found Moquest simultaneously dumping various cheap liquors into his homemade jungle juice and still hitting on passing girls. Between that and Gina’s participation in Spin the Bottle, Kimber couldn’t figure out the happy couple. She had latched onto his shoulder, and he did a double take, as if he didn’t recognize her. “Hey, where’ve you been?”

“Upstairs, where you sent me.”

Moquest’s eyes had widened. “You’ve been up there this whole time? Doing what?”

Her face had flamed. “Reading to the blind, what else? Now just tell me who you sent up there after me.”

It was impossible for him to have looked more shell-shocked. “You don’t know?”

“Matthew!” She’d given his upper arm a punch to mask her humiliation. “Stop with the games and tell me.”

Moquest had stopped pouring both the gin and the juice into his potent concoction as his expression contorted into one of discomfort, like he had a question but didn’t know how to ask it. His brow furrowed as he’d clucked his tongue against his teeth. “I can’t tell you,” he’d said after a long pause. “I was sworn to secrecy.”

Before she could protest, he’d changed the subject and resumed his efforts in mixology. “Hey, have you seen Jay?”

She’d hadn’t, but she didn’t feel like admitting that, considering helpful was the last thing Moquest was being. “Maybe I have, maybe I haven’t.” She’d given him what she hoped was a mysterious look and walked away, putting a knowing twitch in her step.

Kimber had left the party then as if in a trance, her whole body still buzzing and feeling like it no longer belonged to her. She’d slid behind the wheel of her car and driven home, the experience having sobered her yet she felt higher than a skyscraper. She’d just let a complete stranger do things to her that she hadn’t let Dane do until three months into the relationship. What the hell had gotten into her? She’d behaved out of character, engaging in anonymous sex, yet it had felt so natural that maybe she’d just discovered who she really was.

She’d returned to her apartment, fed Pepperoni, slipped into her pajamas, brushed her teeth, and then burrowed in her bedcovers-her normal routine, but she felt anything but normal. Her mind had refused to deviate from her encounter; she could still feel his lips burning the inside of her thighs. Kimber had replayed every moment, every kiss, every touch, every thrust, until she couldn’t take it anymore. She’d stuffed her now much loved My First Vibe between her legs and less than two minutes later experienced an effortless, instantaneous orgasm, remembering to keep from crying out so Taryn and Brad, likely sleeping next door, didn’t hear her. This cycle had repeated itself until the weak morning sun’s blush slipped through the cracks in the blinds. Her pajama pants had been at a tangle around her ankles, her fingers had gone numb from clutching the dying vibrator for so long, and all she’d been able to think about was how to get whatever the hell happened to her at the party to happen again.

It was still on her brain at work that night. She couldn’t keep the smile from her face as she hopped from one corner of the bar to the next, serving drinks with a wide, genuine smile she’d thought was impossible to muster while on the clock. She’d even hugged Alison in greeting when her coworker had arrived-twenty minutes late-for her shift.

“Someone must’ve gotten laid last night,” Alison had said, bewildered, having no idea how close to the truth she was with that expression.

But it had been more than getting laid. Despite her limited experience, Kimber knew that much.

She tried to guess what her lover looked like based solely on remembering the feel of him. Her overactive imagination led her to hope he resembled someone like Ryan Phillippe; her mystery man had had such sexy, tousled curls, and she’d never fooled around with a blond before. Not to mention, he seemed to have a mouth similar to the actor’s, if the way his lips had felt on hers was any indication.

The memory had her head in a lusty fog for the entirety of the day. It was a wonder that she managed to get anything done at all. She somehow managed to function using only half her brain; the other half was devoted to the memory of last night’s rendezvous. She couldn’t imagine what she could’ve gotten done if she weren’t constantly thinking of her mysterious stranger. The possibilities boggled the mind.

Jay slunk into the bar before his shift, interrupting Kimber privately reliving the evening for what had to be the thousandth time since it happened. He slid onto a stool and stretched his arms in front of him, staring at his hands like they were a Chinese math problem. “Hey,” he said after a few moments, his eyes flickering to her then away again. He looked like he’d suffered through a restless night.

Kimber chalked up his discomfort to how awkward things had been between them lately, but suddenly, their lack of seeing eye to eye seemed inconsequential. “Hello.” She captured his hands in hers, ignoring how he jolted at her touch, and sighed with happiness. “Have fun last night?”

“Um, yeah.” He stared at their hands. “It was okay.” Finally, his gaze lifted to hers. “Did you?”

“I did.” A smile twitched on her lips and she looked away, afraid she’d burst into peals of giddy, uncontrollable laughter. She cleared away a few empty glasses, humming to herself.

“Really?” Jay straightened in his seat. “What, uh… I mean, what happened?”

She dug her teeth into her lower lip. “You don’t want to know.”

“Yeah, I do.”

“You really don’t. You wouldn’t approve.”

He took a deep breath. “I promise I won’t be judgmental. Come on. You can tell me.”

It was then that Kimber realized how badly she needed to talk to someone about what had happened. Who better than her best friend in the world? She turned to face Alison, who was flirting for tips in her low-cut black top. “Al, I’m going to take my break early, okay?”

“Yep.” Alison waved her away, leaning over the counter toward the sixty-something-year-old man she was talking to and purring with interest to whatever he said.

Kimber clocked out and scurried around the bar to meet Jay, linking her arm around his and tugging him through the rows of slot machines until they were outside on the patio that faced the horse track. After glancing around to ensure they were alone, she turned to him with a grin. “Jay, last night was the most amazing night of my life.”

His mouth dropped open. “What happened?”

“I can’t tell you the details.” She looked away, dying to tell him in order to relive the moment via conversation. “It’d be rude.”

“It wouldn’t.” Jay grabbed her upper arm, forcing her to make eye contact. “Really. I want to know.”

“Well…” She swallowed hard, buying herself some time to put her chaotic, passionate thoughts in order. “Moquest sent me upstairs and blindfolded me, remember? So I was in his room, honestly not expecting much-just a little making out and stuff. But…”


“But I don’t know.” Kimber sighed and slapped her palm to her forehead, unable to prevent a smile. “Let’s just say I just got carried away. And you know what’s weird? Even though I was acting totally unlike myself, I never felt more true to who I am.”

“What do you mean?” Jay stared at her, like she was a mystery that desperately needed solving.

“I can’t explain it. It just felt right. I won’t go into details, but it really was amazing.” Her face grew warm. “You want to know something that’s sort of sad?”

“What?” His voice sounded rusty.

“I felt more cherished and desired-understood, even-in that one moment that I had during my entire relationship with Dane.” She laughed, although nothing was funny. “Isn’t that crazy?”

* * *

Jay called upon every fiber of his being not to reach out and kiss her in a way that would make her feel incredible and valued again. “That’s not so crazy. That’s pretty cool. You’re lucky.”

A series of complex, undefined emotions played over her features, and Jay couldn’t believe that this girl-the girl he’d loved for years-was the one he’d been inside last night, the one he’d felt come around his cock after so long dreaming of just that. He looked away, afraid he’d crack and confess.

It was confusing, to say the least, to learn that he’d made her so happy. As per her claims, he’d given her the best night of her life. That was one night out of almost ten thousand that usurped all the rest. That was so fucking unbelievable he had to take a seat on one of the nearby metal filigree chairs, afraid his knees would give or he’d start bawling, moved beyond his comprehension.

She’d made it clear she didn’t want him. But now, how was he supposed to give her up?

Moquest made his appearance then, all dark sunglasses and slightly wrinkled suit, his Manager nametag hanging from his lapel at an angle. “Guys,” he said in a voice that clearly suggested he was beyond hung over-and all too well aware of their situation. “What’s the haps?”

“Not much.” Kimber shrugged, and again Jay was reminded, by that casual, careless motion, that he’d gotten to make love to the one girl he’d always wanted. It was unreal.

“Uh huh.” Moquest sounded anything but convinced. “So everyone had a good time last night?”

Jay darted his friend a warning look, one both Moquest and Kimber seemed to miss.

“I really did.” Kimber nodded with vigor. “When’s the next party?”

“I’m glad you asked. I’ve got something in the works for next week.” Moquest arched a brow. “Plan on coming back, Kim?”

She smiled, a pretty blush dancing on her cheeks. “It’s a distinct possibility.”

“Glad to hear it.” Moquest looked to Jay and shook his head like the world had gone mad and he had no time to figure it out, but he wanted the minutiae on Jay’s break. “I’ll see you crazy kids later.”

Moquest shuffled inside the casino, leaving them alone again, and Jay realized he had no idea how to act around Kimber anymore, unbeknownst to her. Everything had changed, and she had no idea.

“So tell me something, Jay.” She placed her palms on the table in front of him with a smile. “Why are you suddenly so supportive of my behavior? Last night you acted like I was the whore of the world.”

“I know, I’m sorry.” He hated that she assumed he thought the worst of her, even though he knew he’d led her to believe exactly that. “I just had a change of heart, I guess.” He sought her eyes again, momentarily struck by their golden cedar-and-tobacco color, their intensity. “We’re friends, Kim, and we always will be. Despite recent events, I don’t want that to change.”

“You don’t know how happy that makes me.” She closed the distance between them and bent down, wrapping her arms around his neck. As her blonde hair drifted over his shoulder and her breasts pressed against him, he couldn’t help but be reminded of their union-as if he could think of anything else. He wriggled from her embrace after giving her a brief, friendly pat on the arm and stood, afraid the memory of what happened between them would manifest in a physical sense.

“I gotta clock in.” He stretched and yawned, feigning being unaffected. “I’ll catch you later.”

“Of course.” She gave him a wink and tapped his nose like it was sweet little button before wandering back inside.

Alone again, Jay sank into his chair with a sigh, wondering just how life was going to unfold from this point on. After all, there was no going back now. Today was a brand new world.

He was just about to go inside when Moquest reappeared, this time carrying an extra large coffee that was already half empty. “Oh, good, you’re alone,” he said. “Let’s go have a chat.”

Jay followed Moquest with reluctance to a spot on the empty bleachers facing the horse track. “My shift starts soon. Is this going to take long?”

“It depends,” Moquest said as they both sat. “How long is it going to take you to tell me you fucked Kimber on my bed?”

Jay stared at the empty track like it tried to hypnotize him. “It’s a complicated situation.”

“Way to put it mildly.” Moquest took a noisy slurp from his Styrofoam cup and stroked his chin, regarding Jay with suspicion. “Feel free to correct me on this, but she has no idea it was you, does she?”

Jay gulped. “I told you. It’s complicated.”

Moquest shook his head. “The fuck happened up there, Navarrete?”

“What do you think happened? You orchestrated this fucking mess.”

“Despite popular belief, my awesome powers of manipulation only extend so far. Did I arrange for you two to wind up in an intimate situation? Hells yes. But did I take hold of your dick and-”

“Okay, okay.” Jay held up his hand with a defeated groan.

“You escalated the situation, man, not me. You didn’t have to do what you did.”

Jay didn’t speak, didn’t know how to tell his friend how much he had had to do what he’d done. At the time, there’d been no other choice.

“So let’s think of a plan.” Moquest paused for another slurp of coffee that smelled so strong Jay could vicariously feel the effects of the caffeine. “Like I said earlier, I’m throwing another party in a few days. Kimber’s already planning on showing up, expecting a similar sort of arrangement with the faceless sex god I set her up with last week, right?”

“Looks that way.” The truth both depressed Jay and excited him in ways too complex to define.

“Fucking crazy. Who knew she had it in her? For that matter, who knew you had it in you? Why didn’t I know you had all these secret moves that turn chicks batshit?”

“Oh, I don’t know.” Jay gave his friend a withering look. “I guess because the Masons said if I told anyone, they’d cut my balls off. Can we now focus on what the Christ I’m gonna do?”

“Tell Kim the truth. It’s really your only option.”

Jay found it to be the most unattractive of options, too. He could only imagine Kimber’s reaction, which was anything but pleasant. “How do I do that?”

Moquest shrugged. “I’m sure you’ll figure it out.”

“Are you kidding me? That’s all you got for a great plan? I thought it was totally obvious that when it comes to Kimber, I can’t figure anything out.”

“That’s true. She does turn you into a dumbass.” Moquest drummed his fingers on the sides of his cup. “All right, this is what we’ll do. On the night of the party, you wait in my room, and I’ll send Kimber in wearing the blindfold. Get her all hot and bothered, then drop the bomb in the middle of talking dirty or whatever. At that point, she’ll be so fired up, she won’t care if you’re the goddamn Crypt Keeper, so long as you get her off.”

Jay sighed and buried his face in his hands. “Clearly I’m on my own here.”

“What do you want me to say? It’s a huge fucking problem. What makes you think there’s an easy solution?” Moquest glanced at his bare wrist where a watch should’ve been. “Gotta get to the salt mines for real this time.” He slugged the rest of his coffee and gave Jay’s arm a nudge with his elbow. “Good luck.” He clamored down the bleachers, leaving his empty cup where he once sat.

Jay stared at the track, both already dreading and anticipating Moquest’s next party. There was no way to predict how that night would turn out, but he had a sick feeling he would do something incredibly, unthinkably stupid-again.

* * *

The following Saturday, Kimber arrived at Moquest’s at eleven, when she knew the party would be good and underway. She parked her car behind a Honda Civic and checked her reflection in the rearview, wishing she hadn’t had to drive. The ride over had been horrifically eventful; she was so nervous and distracted that she’d nearly run over a squirrel, zipped through a red light, and almost slammed right into the back of a truck. She’d intended on asking Jay for a ride, but he’d been mysteriously absent and not answering his phone. He probably had his nose in a book again. Poor guy. He deserved to have a bit more fun.

She traversed Moquest’s small, sad excuse for a front yard, her heels sinking in the dirt and patches of trampled grass. Her heart performed acrobatics with every step; she never felt so exposed and vulnerable and her self-consciousness climbed. She had no idea what this person looked like, but he had seen every inch of her. He could be watching her now, deciding whether she was worth another go. It was a gamble, her being here; she couldn’t be sure he even wanted to see her again, although Moquest-under duress-had said her mystery boy was just as intrigued by her as she was by him.

That reminder gave her confidence a boost. Kimber squared her shoulders and strutted into the house, assuring herself she was the hottest girl alive and no one could possibly resist her. After all, Ferney had lent her another dress, this one a shimmery pale gold with a hem so daring it was probably illegal and a draped, low-cut neckline that exposed her throat and flirted with the idea of a glimpse of a nipple. It was a dress meant to hang loose on women with Ferney’s slim frame, but the sisters had been blown away with how it clung to Kimber’s curves.

“Keep it, it’s yours,” Ferney had said. “I can’t wear it again, knowing you looked better in it than me.”

As far as Ferney knew, Kimber had met someone at last week’s party but he hadn’t asked for her number, so the plan was to return looking stunning to either inspire him to action or attract the attention of someone else. Kimber hadn’t yet mustered up the energy to tell her sister the truth. A tiny part of her even hoped the whole thing would fall through so she’d never have to. What she’d done was, by her standards, immoral, unsafe, and fucking crazy.

And here she was, back for more.

Inside, Kimber caught sight of Moquest standing amid a few other guys, all watching a gaggle of drunk girls with Wii remotes attempt to play Just Dance. His eyes lit up as he noticed her and gave her a brief, one-armed hug, his other hand wrapped around a Bud Light. “There’s my new favorite bad girl.”

“Oh, shut up.” Heat rose to her face and she looked around, not quite knowing how to ask the one thing she was dying to. She settled on the innocuous “Jay here?” and was quite aware of how lame she sounded. Fumbling to make normal conversation was excruciating when there was just one thing on her mind.

Moquest slanted her the knowing look of a man who’d seen and done it all. “He’s somewhere.” He reached into his pocket and withdrew a black sash. Just the sight of it sent arousal jolting through her. “But let’s talk about where you’ll be.”

So nervous she could barely walk, Kimber followed Moquest upstairs on trembling legs. The rest of the partygoers were a blur as they paused before Moquest’s door so he could blindfold her.

“Remember,” Moquest said. “No peeking.”

“I won’t.” Her words were little more than a croak.

She heard Moquest open the door. “What the…” He huffed an impatient sigh. “Just a sec.” A pause full of rustling clothes and the sound of electronic beeps followed. “Hey, yo, where are you? I thought… Well, what are you doing out there… God, you’re being such a tool about this. Fine. See you in a few. And you better be there or I’ll cut you.”

The cell phone snapped closed and Moquest took her elbow. “Change of plans. Back down the steps, doll.”

“What’s going on?” Kimber grabbed onto Moquest’s shoulders as they slowly descended the stairs. Fear cut through her heady, hedonistic thoughts and overwhelmed any idea of what the other guests thought of her, wandering around with Moquest and wearing a blindfold. “Does he not want to see me?”

“No way.” They reached the ground floor and he took her elbow again. “He’s just being difficult, for whatever reason.”

She sensed him lead her outside through a cloud of smokers, who murmured their amusement about her sightless state. Then they were in the yard, her heels snagging again as the crowd faded away. “Where are you taking me, some axe murderer’s cabin in the woods?”

“Close-the garage. And watch where you’re going. The neighbor’s dog likes to shit out here.”

“Matthew!” She slugged where she estimated his shoulder was, her knuckles connecting with his collarbone instead.

He let out a “heh,” a laugh not much more than a hiccup. “I’m only being serious.” He caught her hand in his before she whacked him again. “Calm down, Rocky, we’re here.”

Kimber waited what felt like eons with her heart in her throat while Moquest opened the side door to the one-car garage. The smell of moldy, dusty boxes and damp clumps of grass still clinging to gardening tools flooded her nostrils.

“Hello?” Moquest called.

“Yeah, I’m here,” came the deep, muffled reply that spiked her desire.

“Thank God.” Moquest’s hands were warm on her back as he steered her forward, her shoes clacking on the concrete. “Have fun, guys.”

The door closed, and a heavy silence fell over the confined space. She could hear the muffled sound of the party outside and felt so aware of herself at that moment, aware she was on display. Even through the blindfold, she could tell the garage was dark; no stray light or shadows worked their way through her blindfold or closed eyelids.

Kimber heard him clear his throat followed by the squeak of a riding lawn mower seat as he presumably stood. “Hey.” His voice was rusty and vaguely familiar, although her lust dulled her senses and her memory for anything outside this moment.

“Hey.” Her own voice sounded small but loud in the quiet garage. “I was starting to think you didn’t want to see me again after all.”

“That couldn’t be less true.”

She felt his presence before her, and her breath caught. Then came his hands on her bare forearms, and her goose bumps were instantaneous. His fingers entwined with hers, and she imagined white-hot sparks rising from the touch.

“Speaking of seeing you,” he said, “you look irresistible tonight.”

She bit her lower lip and fidgeted, already wanting their innocent hand-holding to escalate to epic Letters to Penthouse proportions. “Then prove it. Don’t resist me.”

“Trust me, that’s the last thing I want to do.” He sucked in a deep breath, his grip tightening. “But I have to tell you something.”

“Before you tell me,” she interrupted, “will you do me a favor?”


“Kiss me.” She could hear herself begging and didn’t care as she leaned into his body, hard and warm beneath the thin fabric of a well-worn T-shirt. “Please?”

He groaned-in defeat or desire, perhaps both-and finally his mouth was on hers. Kimber untangled their fingers and slid her hands up his chest, taking her time and the opportunity to feel him beneath her palms. She could feel his heart pounding. Good, that put them in the same boat. Her arms tangled around his neck and she pressed herself against him fully as their sweet, closed-mouth kisses lost their hesitance and intensified with need. She parted her lips, allowing his tongue to flicker against hers, and the sensation sparked through her, making her whimper. He encircled her waist with his arms and attempted to shuffle backward, then stumbled to the accompanying sound of jostled metal.

He broke off the kiss with a breathless swear. “Fucking lawn mower.” His hands captured hers again as he put some space between them. “Just as well. I hate to say this, but we really shouldn’t do anything else until you hear what I have to tell you.”

“I have to tell you something, too.” Kimber advanced closer, forcing him backward, and heard him move into the lawn mower’s seat. “And it’s that I’m not a selfish lover.”

He drew in a shaky breath as she felt her way into a sitting position on his lap. “The thought didn’t cross my mind.”

She maneuvered so that she straddled his waist, her short dress shifting up her thighs and exposing the lacy cream thong she wore, and she could tell by his tremulous exhale that he noticed. “So I just wanted to let you know,” she said, punctuating her words with kisses, “that I plan on returning last week’s favor.”

“What do you mean?”

“I could tell you.” Kimber’s hand slid between them to give his already hard cock a squeeze through his jeans. “Or I could show you.”

He released a whoosh of air and grabbed the back of her head, pulling her in for a kiss that left her lips swollen. She pushed the hem of his shirt upward, the thin trail of fuzz just below his belly button tickling her palm. Then she undid his belt buckle and lowered his zipper, but before she could do more she felt his fingers tracing light circles over her clit through the thin, soaked crotch of her thong. Distracted beyond comprehension, Kimber gave up on her quest for his pleasure and surrendered to the rhythm of his touch. Energy flowed from the tips of her fingers and toes as he massaged her clit with his thumb. She rocked her hips into his hand, craving more, and let out a moan as he pushed aside the thong and slid a finger along her slick entrance.

“You’re so wet,” he mumbled, mystified, like he couldn’t believe he could possibly be turning her on as much as he was. Kimber could scarcely believe it herself. Her lust was getting dangerous, and fast.

As much as she wanted him to slip a finger or two inside her aching cunt, she vowed to stick to the original plan of selflessness. It took a great deal of willpower to wriggle off his lap and away from his touch, and considering her temporary blindness and the fact they were fooling around on a riding lawn mower, she was hardly graceful about it. She stumbled and bumped into the wheel as she slipped from his lap. “Stop sidetracking me.” Her hands returned to his open zipper and slipped inside. “I’m on a mission.”

“Please don’t do this.” Despite his plea, which escaped him in a breathy rush, everything about his tone begged otherwise. He even lifted his hips so she could tug his jeans down.

“Why not?” She stroked him up and down. He certainly didn’t feel like he wanted to stop. He was hard and smooth and thick and perfect.

“Because what I want to tell you is really important, and I should’ve told you right off the bat but-”

Warning bells gonged in her head and she paused. “You have an STD?”

“No. No, no, no, nothing like that. I’m clean.”

“A girlfriend? Fiancée? Wife?”

“None of the above.”

“You just gunned down your whole family and are on the run.”

He breathed out a laugh. “Hardly.”

She smiled and resumed her caresses. “Then whatever you have to say can wait, can’t it?”

“It really, really shouldn’t.” His voice trembled as she cupped his balls and rolled them in her palm. “And if you keep doing what you’re doing, I’m not going to be able to stop.”

“What about if I do this instead?” Kimber gave the head of his cock a flick with her tongue. Judging from his sharp intake of breath, this was exactly what he’d meant.

She crouched low on the mower and took him between her lips, alternating between sucking and swirling her tongue around the head. Encouraged by the abbreviated moans coming from the back of his throat, she took him farther in her mouth, savoring the experience of giving him head for the first time, liberated from the knowledge of any shortcuts to a quick, easy bliss. She took her time, licking her way from tip to base and back to the tip again. She used every muscle in her mouth to tickle his nerves and teased him until she felt his hands on her shoulders, and he pulled her up and toward him for a rough kiss.

“Still feel like talking?” she murmured against his mouth.

In response, he tore her panties down with a speed and finesse that left her speechless. She heard him rummage in his pocket and a foil wrapper rip, then he tugged her back in his lap, her knees on either side of him. He kissed her while she felt between them, fumbling for his cock and finding it already sheathed in latex. The knowledge that it was in preparation to fuck her made her dizzy with want.

Impatient, she guided his cock to her entrance and sank down, moaning in his mouth as she experienced the length of him at a deliberately slow pace. Never had Dane filled her quite like this, but it was senseless to compare them at this point.

His hands slid up her thighs and over her ass and lower back, like he couldn’t get enough of touching her, like he couldn’t believe his good luck. It was empowering, to say the least. She took him in as far as she could before rising, whimpering as she felt his cock slide against her walls in reverse. Then she lowered herself, starting the rhythm all over again.

The lawn mower squeaked beneath them as he dug his fingertips into the curves of her ass, urging her to go faster, and she complied with the silent command. He widened the low, draping neckline of her dress, exposing her right breast, and took her nipple in his mouth, hardening it with the wet slide of his tongue.

She twisted her fingers in his hair, holding him close to her as his teeth scraped her sensitive skin. An “oh God” slipped from her lips, and then another and a third as his mouth left her nipple and he raised his hips, pushing upward against her, meeting her movements. She gripped the back of the mower’s seat for leverage and let him take control of the rhythm, having no choice but to enjoy herself. It felt good not to be a martyr in bed for a change. Not that they were in a bed per se, and this went beyond good. She couldn’t recall a time when she’d been so delirious with bliss.

Her whimpers and soft, airy groans echoed through the relatively silent garage, their volume and breathy, needy quality turning her on even more. She’d never realized she could sound or be so sexy. Imagining what her moans must be doing to him, she leaned forward, angling herself so her clit met with the base of his cock, and screamed her way into an orgasm with him slamming into her.

He’d been fairly quiet aside from his erratic breathing, but his body convulsed beneath hers and he released a choked “oh fuck” that sounded like he’d been bottling it up for years.

Kimber pressed her lips to his in a sweet, indolent kiss, her heartbeat still hammering in her ears. He replied in kind, his hands traversing her skin as though he was memorizing her, the moment. That touch told her she hadn’t made a wanton mistake; despite its unorthodox start, whatever was happening here actually meant something. This was real. She didn’t know anything practical about him, but she intuited she knew everything important.

She drew away from him, wanting to ask if she could take off the blindfold but not knowing how. Furthermore, the unveiling partially terrified her. She wondered, even in such an intimate position with his cock softening inside her, if she was ready to know the truth. It was a fear she couldn’t explain, even to herself.

“So,” she said, opting for a slightly different route, “what did you have to tell me?”

He took a deep breath and held her tightly for a moment before releasing her and helping her stand on the concrete again. Then he adjusted her dress in place and pressed her crumpled thong in her hands. She heard the jangle of his belt buckle and his zipper hissing back into place while she awaited a response, confused.

Distance fell between them and then came the groan of the side door opening, followed by the noise of the not-so-far-off party. Finally, he said in a choked voice, “That I can’t see you anymore.”

By the time she yanked off the blindfold, he was gone.

Chapter Five

Jay had tried. He’d arranged to meet Kimber in the garage, figuring it was the least sexually suggestive place to do so. Who could possibly be turned on in such an environment? Him, apparently. Kimber could probably make the apocalypse sexy. His libido didn’t seem to have a conscience; all his good intentions of staying focused and morally sound dissolved as soon as she kissed his cock, and his willpower had gone the way of ancient Rome. Just a few seconds of the memory made him hard. He’d thought the only way he’d ever see Kimber deep throat his cock would be via his dreams, but when she actually did it, he couldn’t have imagined it better-because it was one hundred percent real. And when she directed him inside her and rode him to oblivion…

But not even the recollection of Kimber’s tight cunt milking him dry and bringing him to the fringe of paradise could make him forget or ignore the immediate aftermath. She’d made his dreams come true, and he’d essentially dumped her minutes later. It was a scenario he’d thought less probable than her ever giving him head. Maybe such an unlikely event happening was signifying the aforementioned end of days. The impending arrival of the Four Horsemen was the only excuse he had for explaining his insane, out-of-character behavior. Was this traipse down the slippery slope toward mental illness a new development or something that had been lying dormant?

Jay was intensely afraid of the person he’d become. For all his insisting he’d intended to do the right thing, why then had he spent the past week, calling upon that one acting class he’d taken in college and working on a way to disguise his voice? Why would he do that if he’d planned to tell Kimber the truth? He couldn’t be sure of anything anymore, sans his intensifying feelings for her and his self-loathing in himself.

He drove past Kimber’s apartment complex the next morning, noticing her car in the lot and cringing. He was scared to face her, to face her sadness and shock and then to try to comfort her while pretending he wasn’t the one who’d plunged her into misery. He’d help her wish a plague on the house of this heartless, nameless bastard who’d used her up and thrown her away-himself. Jesus, the situation became more screwed up by the second.

Jay turned the Monte Carlo around and parked in the empty spot beside Kimber’s battered coupe, unable to ignore the possibility of her in pain, especially since it was his fault. As he made his way to her door, he rationalized that this was the perfect time to not only offer his friendship and support but to do some damage control. He could play devil’s advocate and suggest reasons why her lover bailed to keep her self-esteem and optimism afloat. It seemed a fine plan, yet it still managed to deeply sicken him.

He knocked on the door to apartment 18 and waited as he heard footsteps muffled by carpet rush toward him. Then he heard a knock mimicking his come from the other side and the door unlock. He twisted the knob and stepped inside, where he saw Kimber settling on her futon, freshly showered and looking comfy in frayed jeans that were too big for her and a vintage-looking navy T-shirt displaying a Honolulu surfer.

She rested her laptop atop her crossed legs and gave him a brilliant smile. “Hey! This is unexpected.”

“You took the words right out of my mouth.” He shut the door behind him and eyed her with suspicion. No signs of tears, distress, or loss of sleep. Then again, women were tricky, deceitful creatures; talking to them was like negotiating a minefield. Kimber could combust into a rage at any given moment and body parts would start flying.

She gave him a strange look at his comment but otherwise didn’t acknowledge it. “What brings you here?”

“Just passing by. Thought I’d check in.” There it was-the first truth he’d told in days. When had he turned into such a liar? He glanced around the room, unable to look at her for too long without wanting to crack. “The place is really coming along.”

“You think?” She chuckled and took a long pull on her juice box, her cheekbones caving until the staccato sound of the last few drops trapped in the straw filled the room and she let it drop, empty, on the scarred wooden end table. “One futon and a few magazine pictures taped to the wall, and you think this joint’s a palace?”

“Let’s not get carried away. I just said it’s coming along.” Jay smiled in spite of himself, granting himself permission to enjoy how easy it was to be in her company. He gestured to the stack of neon orange milk crates holding DVDs beside the TV. “Nice rack.”

“I bet you say that to all the girls.”

His innuendo had slipped from him with little effort and triggered the unpleasant reminder of why he was there. He settled in one of the beanbag chairs scattered on the floor. “So, how are you?”

“I’m awesome. Just catching up on some XKCD comics I’d missed and watching last night’s Jon Stewart. And later I plan on taking on the Marsh Cave in Final Fantasy while eating taquitos.” She lifted her chin toward the TV and her ancient Nintendo, both resting on a locked trunk. “I love days off.”

Pepperoni, perched on the back of the couch just behind Kimber’s head and resembling a feline-shaped airline pillow from Jay’s vantage point, released a yawn of agreement.

“Cool, cool.” Jay nodded, not sure how to talk to her. He’d been expecting to walk in on a firestorm, not intrude on a peaceful, normal routine.

“Did you have fun at the party?” she asked. “I didn’t see you last night.”

No, she sure didn’t. “Yeah, just hung out with the usual clowns.”

She smiled. “Was Moquest still trying out pick-up lines? Any actually work?”

“It’s still a work in progress.” In truth, he’d high-tailed it out of there as soon as he’d left the garage, unable to face anyone, including Moquest, who’d called him five times already and it was only 11 a.m. He picked at the small white foam beads spilling from a tiny hole in the beanbag chair. “What about you?” He forced the words out, and it felt like trying to regurgitate glass. “You have fun?”

“I did.” She closed her laptop with authority and gave him a brilliant grin, like she’d been waiting for someone to ask. “I had a fantastic time.”

He nipped his lower lip with his teeth. “What happened?”

“I met up with my mysterious friend.”

“How’d that go?”

Kimber twisted into a horizontal position on the couch with a happy sigh, hugging the laptop to her chest and looking at the ceiling like a lovesick teen. “You don’t want to know.”

“Yeah, I do.” Did he? “Tell me.”

“Let’s just say we put the ‘riding’ in riding lawn mower.”

That was for sure. He’d never be able to cut grass again without getting a hard-on.

She turned to him. “You don’t seem too surprised or impressed by that.”

“Oh. Am I supposed to be?”

“Why the hell wouldn’t you? I fucked someone on a lawn mower. That doesn’t raise eyebrows?”

He shrugged. “I’ve done it before.” As in twelve hours before.

“Hmph. I didn’t realize it was so common.” She pouted in a way that made him ache to kiss her, then brightened again. “I bet you didn’t do it blindfolded though.”

This was getting a bit too close for comfort. “True, you win.” He took a deep breath. “So what happens now? You gonna keep seeing him or what?”

Kimber sat up and set the laptop on her coffee table, which was actually a battered bass drum she’d rescued from the curb. “That’s the plan.”

Jay stared at her, dumbstruck, not knowing how to question that without giving up the jig.

She planted her feet on the floor and leaned forward, clasping her hands, her expression turning serious. “He told me when he left he couldn’t see me anymore. It pretty much broke my heart at first but then…” She shook her head, lost in thought. “I realized that something can’t not happen between us. What happened was fucked up as hell, but it was real. I felt it, and I know he did, too. He had to have. A connection like that-I can’t understand how anyone could ignore it. It’d be criminal.

“And when he kissed me last night, I had this crazy epiphany that it was the most important, meaningful moment of my entire life. There’s no way I can let him just walk off into the sunset and accept it as a freak incident, a hiccup in reality. For me, that was reality. That was so real, it felt like a dream. I know I’m probably not making any sense and these are really bizarre circumstances, but I can’t let this fade away without a fight.”

Jay watched her, a knot in his throat and his skin prickling. Finally, he dropped his gaze to the floor and stabbed the beanbag chair’s hole with his pinky, not trusting himself to speak.

“Hey.” Her voice forced him to look at her again, and she wore a sympathetic smile. “I hope I didn’t make you uncomfortable.”

He cleared his throat with a cough. “Don’t worry. You didn’t.”

In truth, he was more than uncomfortable. He was in huge fucking trouble, and he had no idea how he was going to get himself out of it.

* * *

“So tell me all about him,” Ferney said later that afternoon over her and Kimber’s lunch specials at a local southwestern restaurant.

“Tell you all about who?” Kimber feigned ignorance, partly to rile Ferney up and partly because she was terrified of her sister’s reaction to the truth.

Ferney raised her fork, tines toward Heaven. “Tell me or this goes right into your hand.”

“Fine, just calm down.” Kimber rolled her eyes. “But I need you to prepare yourself, because you aren’t going to like it.”

“Psh.” Ferney scoffed. “Anyone’s better than Dane. Lay it on me.”

Kimber poked the ice in her Coke with her straw, wondering how to bring it up, then decided to just get it over with. “Truth is, I don’t know his name or what he looks like, or anything about him, actually. Moquest arranged for us to meet up in his room with me blindfolded, and one thing just led to another, and I finally experienced what you said you have with Paul. Even though it’s totally weird, I think something can really happen here.” There it was, laid out and abridged.

Ferney stopped picking at her taco salad and stared at her like she was a terrorist. “Okay,” she finally said. “And the real story is…”

“That’s it. That is the real story.”

Her sister’s mouth tightened and she stabbed her salad with her fork in silence for a moment before taking a long sip of her ice water. “I really, really hope not.” She spoke around her straw in a voice quivering with rage. “Because you clearly have no idea how fucking insane and scary that sounds.”

Kimber frowned. “It-”

“It’s fucking insane and scary,” Ferney repeated, slamming her glass on the table. “What isn’t completely messed up and dangerous about fucking and falling for someone you know nothing about and couldn’t even pick out of a lineup? He could be a murderer, Kimber, or a serial rapist spreading AIDS. What if you get pregnant with this psychopath’s baby? Jesus Christ.”

“We’ve been careful, and he’s not a murderer. Or a rapist, for that matter.”

“Confirm that. Oh, wait, you totally can’t, because you have no goddamn idea who he is.”

“I can just tell, okay?” Kimber heaved an annoyed sigh, knowing her argument was weak. She could hardly fault her sister when she shared the same fears, the ones she’d ignored since Jay and Moquest knew about her situation and hadn’t been so concerned about the danger factor. “Just trust me on this. I can tell by the way he touches me, like he truly cares about me, like he instinctively knows what I want.”

“Yeah, well, I read this book once about a blind serial killer who also touched his victims with all the love in the world. Then he got bored of them, hacked them into pieces, and made sculptures out of their body parts.”

Kimber stared at her sister, agape. “What the hell were you doing reading that?” She couldn’t picture her sister reading something more intense or complex than hair coloring instructions, and even then Ferney left her highlights to the professionals.

“Paul sometimes gets me to read crazy shit. You know, Paul, my real life fiancé whom I can see and whose name I know and whom I’ve had conversations with and-”

“Okay, you’ve made your point.” Kimber rolled her napkin in a tiny rope around her fingers, trying not to focus on the tears pricking her eyes and the hopelessness spreading through her like ink in water.

Ferney sighed. “Look, I’m just worried about you, okay? I’m not undermining your feelings. I’m sure they’re real. I see you’ve got that glow about you, and of course I want you to always look so happy. But think about what you’re doing, and think about why this guy hasn’t given up his anonymity yet. There’s a reason.”

“Uh huh.” Kimber nodded with reluctance and tossed her mistreated napkin atop her half-eaten lunch, but Ferney had tapped into what she felt was the biggest question of all. Why didn’t he want her to know who he was? What could he be hiding that was so bad?

* * *

Jay found Kimber on her break the next day, ordering a veggie wrap in the food court and wearing a forlorn expression that used to trigger his immediate and often correct assumption that Dane did something stupid again. However, she hadn’t had much to say on that front lately, so he could only wonder what her issue was about-or who. He had a hunch he wouldn’t feel good knowing the truth.

“Hey.” He sat opposite her in the booth she sat in and watched her morosely arrange some ridged potato chips inside the wrap’s folds. “What’s wrong?”

“What makes you think something’s wrong?” she asked, her voice flat.

“Come on. Do you really think I don’t notice when you’re not acting like Kimber?”

“That’s because I’m not Kimber.” She fixed her gaze on him, her mouth drooping into a frown. “I’m an idiot.”

“How do you figure?”

“Please.” She pushed her wrap away, granting herself the room to bury her face in her hands. “Stop being nice and pretending you don’t know what a complete fool I’ve been, getting my hopes up over some total stranger who basically told me to fuck off. Where do I get off, assuming he doesn’t really mean that? Like I said, I’m an idiot. I know it, you know it, the world knows it.” She sighed. “Too bad my stupid heart doesn’t know it.”

Jay snagged a chip from her wrap’s red plastic basket and ate it, but the effort was for show. Guilt filled his gut, obliterating his appetite. “Yesterday you were all systems go no matter what. What happened to that?”

“I actually took some time and thought about it, like a normal, logical person with morals and a brain.” Kimber looked at Jay with eyes that unnerved him; they were so full of despair. “And now-at last-I feel like the worst person in the world. Can you even imagine how that feels?”

He ate another chip but couldn’t taste it. He had no idea what he could possibly say. Here was the meltdown he’d expected yesterday, and he was still clueless how to fix it. He stole a third chip to buy time.

“Hey.” Kimber straightened and tugged the basket back toward her, a small, begrudging smile on her face. “Save some for me. I’m not so depressed I can’t eat.”

He breathed a relieved laugh. “There’s some good news.”

“There’s no such thing as good news anymore.” Moquest suddenly sank in the booth beside Kimber and hid his face in his hands as Kimber had done just moments ago. “All the goodness in the world has ceased to exist.”

Kimber took a small bite of her wrap, the potato chips she’d hidden in there popping in her mouth. “What happened?”

Moquest raised his face to the ceiling and took a deep inhale through his nose, steepling his fingers before his mouth. “My beautiful ex-stripper is now my beautiful ex-girlfriend.”

“Maybe because you keep referring to her as an ex-stripper,” Jay said. “What is her name again?”

“What’s it matter? She hates me now.”

“What’d you do?” asked Kimber. “Did one of your lame pick-up lines finally work on someone other than her?”

“Surprisingly, yes. I told one of the girls playing Just Dance at the party the other night-the naughty nurse-that I liked her socks, and the next thing I knew, Gina caught us making out in the bed of my truck.”

“Commenting on a girl’s socks was all it took?” Kimber shook her head. “Damn.”

“I know, right?” Moquest asked. “If I’d known socks were key in the art of seduction, I’d have been noticing them years ago.” He sighed. “But because of my attention to detail, I lost Gina.”

Jay rolled his eyes. “Don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll meet another theme girlfriend at your next little get-together. The French maid or the pirate wench, maybe.”

Moquest narrowed his eyes at Jay. “That’s impossible, considering I’m not having any more parties. I’m too depressed to play host.”

“No more parties?” A stricken look appeared on Kimber’s already distraught face and Jay could tell what she was thinking, despite her self-defined foolish feelings. “Then you have to tell me who that guy was.”

“What guy?” Moquest groaned, rubbing his temples.

Kimber blushed. “My guy.”

Moquest looked at her, then shot Jay a pointed look. “I thought he was supposed to tell you himself the other night.”

“Well, he didn’t get around to it, I guess. Maybe he got scared.”

“I’ll bet.” Moquest snorted and shook his head, still staring at Jay. “What a little bitch that guy is, pussing out like that.”

Jay toyed with the salt and pepper shakers, glad Kimber was hiding her embarrassment in her wrap and not noticing the glares he and Moquest exchanged. “I’m sure he had his reasons for keeping his identity a secret.”

“Yeah.” Moquest nodded, his mouth twisting in mock sympathy. “Like he’s a hideous, disfigured beast who just wanted to rail some chick without commitment but not have the guts to be straightforward about it.” He patted Kimber on the shoulder. “I’m sorry I ever set you up with that tool. I’d no idea he could be such a heartless, soulless prick.”

Kimber’s eyes widened in alarm. “Matthew!”

Jay stretched his hands behind his head and blew out a stream of air, composing a mental note to beat the hell out of Moquest the second they were alone. “Look, here’s an idea. Mo, since you’re suddenly a huge party pooper and an even bigger dick, you should tell the guy to meet Kimber at a certain hotel at a certain time wearing the blindfold and let him explain himself on his own terms when they’re both completely alone. I’m sure he’d be willing to do that.”

Moquest heaved a dramatic sigh. “How did I get to be so involved in such tedious bullshit? This blows so hard I can’t stand it.”

“Please?” Kimber turned her pleading gaze to Moquest. “I need closure in the worst way. Please help me out so I can sleep at night.”

Moquest scrunched up his face in disgust and kicked his feet in protest under the table, a bratty habit leftover from his youth spent as a histrionic only child, but Jay knew he would never turn a girl down, no matter what she asked of him. It was how Moquest had, for three months during their freshman year of college, smuggled and kept a kitten in his dorm room at the behest of an attractive co-ed, who never repaid him in the way Moquest hoped. And Moquest thought Jay’s unrequited love was pathetic.

“Fine,” Moquest said through gritted teeth. “But this is the absolute last time I’m getting involved.” He shot Jay another murderous look. “And if he doesn’t tell you the whole truth, I’m gonna kick his ass.”

“Good luck trying,” Jay quipped, but his insides felt like the aftermath of a cyclone. It was time to own up to the truth, and he hoped in the worst way he could find the strength to do it.

* * *

“I’ve been given instructions to blindfold you before you go into the room.”

Kimber noted Moquest’s flat, unenthusiastic tone suggesting his disapproval with the whole scenario, which he’d expressed at lunch with her and Jay the day before, but she was too excited to care. She could feel how wet she already was at the thought of her mystery lover’s impending nearness and sucked in a trembling gulp of air as Moquest positioned her outside a hotel room marked with a brass 495 and draped a black sash over her eyes, her world going dark. The blindfold matched her outfit-a simple black dress she’d found in the back of her closet. It was a few years old but if the evening proved successful she didn’t think she’d be wearing it long.

“That comfortable?”

She nodded, and he tightened and tied it with a grunt of satisfaction.

“You’re all set then.” His fingertips probed her cheeks, teasing the edge of the blindfold. “You can’t see, can you?”

“No, I can’t see.” She swatted Moquest’s hand away. “Get off me.”

“Ah hah. If you really couldn’t see, then you wouldn’t have known it was me touching you.” Despite his gloating, she detected the edge to his voice.

“Call it female intuition and just open the door.”

“Fine.” He sighed. “Good luck. And Kim? Don’t forget to get some answers this time.”

She saluted him with two fingers and heard him knock, which was followed by a pause that lasted ages. Finally, the door yawned open and his presence drowned her senses in emotions too complicated to comprehend. She wondered if she ought to feel like a whore and be embarrassed, standing blindfolded in a hotel hallway and waiting for Moquest pass her into the room of an awaiting stranger who would fuck all the remaining sense right out of her. Yet for reasons she couldn’t explain, none of it mattered. She couldn’t justify why she felt how she did, why she sensed she was in safe, more than capable hands. She just wanted to go with it.

A warm hand entwined itself with hers and tugged her into the room, and the vague brightness of the hallway seeping through the sash vanished in favor of total darkness as the door slammed behind her. Soon she was pinned between the wall and his body, and just the smell of him-cologne with an underlying hint of some familiar scent that reassured her-sent her spiraling.

“I’ve been thinking about you all day.” His breath was hot on her collarbone as his lips worked their way to her ear.

“Oh?” She tried to sound cool and in control but was sure her audible gulp gave her away. “What about me?”

“Everything about you.” His mouth teased the shell of her ear and he pressed his body into her, his cock already hard and straining against the barrier of their clothes. “Everything about you turns me on.”

“Everything?” The word was a squeak as she felt his hands make their way up the outside of her legs. “Not possible. You don’t know anything about me.”

“I want to know what a good girl like you is doing, meeting me like this.”

“I’m not so good. For starters, I forgot to wear panties.”

His fingers found proof of her statement and she let out a whimper. “That’s true,” he replied in a gravelly voice Kimber could swear she recognized. Was it possible she already knew him? The answer was on the tip of her tongue, which he sucked on gently, bringing her curiosity to an end. There would be time for questions. They had all night.

He drew away and released a shaky sigh. “Ten seconds you’re in the room and this already isn’t going well.”

“What do you mean?” She found it hard to concentrate on his words as his fingers found her clit, already swollen in anticipation. On her end, things looked like they were going pretty damn well.

“Because we need to talk-like, really talk.” He drew laborious circles over her clit with his fingertip. “But I can’t stop touching you.”

She was well aware that he was completely right; she certainly had a list of questions that, written down, would rival the unrolling of some ancient Dead Sea scroll. But she whimpered and widened her stance, desperate for him to enter her in some way, be it via his fingers, tongue, or cock; she didn’t care, just needed him inside her. “I want you to touch me, though.”

At that, he wasted no time grabbing her hips and helping her perch next to what felt like a TV on the top of a long, nearby dresser. Then he peeled the dress up and over her head, leaving her naked except for her black open-toed shoes and sparkly Y-necklace.

“You look incredible right now.” His words were little more than a groan, and she wondered how he could see her in the darkness. Maybe the moon or the streetlights slipped in through the window and revealed her hard nipples, already mussed hair, and what lay between her open legs. Stepping outside herself and picturing her body like that turned her on more than she thought possible.

He moved away from her for a moment. “Will you touch yourself? For me?”

Kimber felt a momentary flash of embarrassment; she’d never even done that for Dane. Then again, she’d gotten so disappointed in his inattentiveness to her needs all across the board she hadn’t really felt like being so generous in bed after a point. But already this stranger had made her pleasure his number one priority every time they were together, and even though she was the one blindfolded, it lent her strength. Her lack of vision broke down her inhibitions and allowed her to pretend no one else could see either.

She kicked off her shoes and raised her knees, resting her bare heels on the dresser’s edge and putting herself on display for him. Then she leaned back, supporting herself with one hand, and brought her other hand between her legs. She traced her cunt’s opening with an indolent finger, finding herself wetter than she’d been during any of her other solo sessions, even the ones featuring My First Vibe, her new, battery-powered best friend. Using her own juices, she used two fingers to rub circles over her clit, whimpering at her own touch and at the sensation of being watched.

As she caressed herself, she heard the hurried rustle of clothed being removed and a foil package rip, a telltale sound that excited her more. He stepped closer, and for the first time she could feel he was as naked as she was. His body was lean but not too muscular-someone who made the effort to stay in shape but wasn’t obsessive about doing so. His cock, already wrapped in a condom, brushed against her thigh. “Keep going,” he commanded, his voice low and tremulous.

She obeyed, her cunt twitching in anticipation as he positioned the head of his cock at her wet entrance. Then he slid inside her in one deep stroke.

The unexpected feeling of being filled to the hilt so soon knocked Kimber backward with a gasp, and her shoulder blades pressed into a cool, smooth surface-the mirror. She let out an elongated moan as he slowly pulled out then pushed back inside with a vigor that left her breathless.

As he continued the intoxicating rhythm of a swift, hard penetration followed by a measured withdrawal, she rubbed her clit faster and pushed her hips at him, needing more. He increased his speed, his breathing turning shallow and erratic. The idea of him nearing climax to her body’s effect on him brought her closer to her own release, and she leaned farther against the mirror to raise her pelvis and meet his thrusts.

“Oh Christ,” he breathed out. “I want to make you come so bad. Come for me.”

Kimber cried out toward the ceiling and arched her back, contracting around him like she’d never stop. She felt him stiffen as he came, and she slumped against the mirror, exhausted and satiated, whimpering from the lingering aftershocks of her orgasm.

Still buried inside her, he lifted and carried her to the bed a few feet away. Then he rested atop her and tugged softly at her lips with his own, and to her surprise, the reminder of Jay kissing her that day in the park sprang to mind. Even more surprising was that it wasn’t a disturbing thought. Instead, it comforted her, and she believed it to be a sign that she and her mystery lover had acquired the closeness and connection similar to the one she and her best friend had and in a short span of time. Hope filled her heart, and for several long, unimaginably delicious moments, the rest of the world ceased to exist and everything between them simplified. She was happy, he was happy, nothing else mattered.

Except for one little factor. “Do I get to know who you are now?” she asked, her mouth brushing his.

Silence followed, making Kimber wonder if she said the wrong thing. Then her anger flared. She let him inside her body, no questions asked. The very least he could do was tell her who he was.

“You deserve answers, and I want to give them to you,” he said finally. “But once you have them, we’ll never be able to get this back.” He drew what felt like a heart shape on her cheek with his knuckles. “Once you know who I am, this will all be over.”

“Why does it have to be over?”

“I meant the mystery, the excitement.” He reached between them and found her clit, making her sigh. “I know you love all that.”

“I do…” She groaned and rose to meet his touch. “But that doesn’t mean this situation isn’t totally unfair.”

He continued to play with her clit but said nothing, and Kimber, nearing her second climax of the evening, had given up on him saying anything at all. Finally, he kissed her neck, working his way to her lips. “You’re right. It is unfair,” he said. “I’ll tell you everything in the morning, I promise. Let’s just have one last night of this though. Please?”

“Okay.” Her breath grew shallow as her legs shook with her impending release. “In the morning. The truth.”

* * *

To say Jay awoke at the crack of dawn would be a lie, as he’d lain awake all night, staring at the ceiling while Kimber slept in his arms, quiet as a grave and drooling on his chest. He couldn’t believe he had the only thing he ever wanted and wasn’t the least bit pleased about it. This was a classic case if “be careful what you wish for.”

The sun’s first rays passed between the heavy curtains, and Jay forced himself from the bed and Kimber’s embrace. All the co-ed sleepover parties they’d had with their friends in high school had taught him Kimber slept like a coma patient, and that hadn’t changed. She didn’t once stir as he left the mattress, their island.

Jay raked both hands through his hair and watched her still form, wanting to cry. She’d wanted him to make her come and he’d done just that, which made him feel like a fucking god and a fucking asshole. As for himself, he’d wanted to meet her last night to finally tell her the truth, but he’d gone and fucked it up again. He couldn’t believe he’d been so weak. They’d soon be running pictures of his spine on milk cartons.

Part of him-the part he hated to admit to-knew he’d arranged this tryst, fully aware he had no intentions of telling her but fearing it’d be the last chance he’d ever have of being with her. Last night had been a goodbye. There was no way they could make something from this god-awful mess, and it was his fault. What was wrong with him? Why did he have to be such a stupid bastard?

Jay dressed with the speed of a man on death row approaching his impending execution. He cursed every decision he ever made; they all led him to this point. How could anything ever go back to normal between him and Kimber? How was he going to be able to look her in the eye now? There was no way.

He turned to Kimber, still sleeping, and wished more than anything that climbing back in bed, removing her blindfold, and kissing her everywhere until she awakened was an option. But it wasn’t and never would be, and the thought was so painful it was if his chest would crack open.

His hands shaking, he sat at the small table with the hotel’s pen and paper and scribbled Kimber a note using his left hand instead of his right, fearing she’d recognize his handwriting otherwise. Jesus, he couldn’t even tell the truth in an anonymous note.

But he could tell most of it. As quick as he could using his less dominant hand, he scrawled in the weak light:

I hate that I’m not there when you wake up and that I won’t ever be. You’ve no idea how much I want to make something work with you, but I know for a fact you would never love me with the blinders off. I’m sorry for any pain I’ve caused you, but know I feel it, too, and I’ll regret hurting you for the rest of my life. I wish I had been brave enough to be honest with you from the start, but I was too weak to do the right thing.

I’ll always be thinking of you.

Don’t seek me out.

He laid the note on the table and, after one last look that nearly wrenched his heart out, left the room, ready to face the cold light of morning.

Chapter Six

Since waking up alone at the hotel, Kimber had been sleepwalking in a mediocre nightmare. Any minute now, she expected evidence to arrive that would explain his abandonment and decision were part of an elaborate sick joke. A week later, she still waited.

He’d promised. She’d believed him. Why not? Someone couldn’t possibly be so cruel to keep his identity a secret after all that-so she’d thought.

They’d spent the night in bed, in bliss, making good use of the king-sized mattress. Liberated by the lack of time limit and wanting to savor the last few hours of the unknown, Kimber had let her remaining inhibitions go, giving rise to a passion inside her she hadn’t known existed. Afterward, they’d lain beside each other, their limbs tangled as their mouths all but fused together to the point where they no longer felt like kisses but a way of life, and she’d wondered how it could ever not feel right.

Then came the morning, when she’d woken from a sleep that more closely resembled hibernation and read his note, and her optimism had morphed into a humiliation and disappointment unlike anything she’d ever known. She’d dressed in the wrinkled outfit she’d worn last night and left, embarking on her walk of shame through the hotel lobby toward her car, where she’d burst into tears, not caring who saw her. She’d never felt so used in her life.

Was it something she’d done? Of course it was-she’d let him have his way. What was wrong with her, not demanding or requiring to know who she was sleeping with? She’d all but asked for this.

She couldn’t decide which was worse-the pain and embarrassment of being betrayed in such a way, or the fact she’d never know who he was. Moquest wasn’t talking, said that it wasn’t his place. That he thought keeping an acquaintance’s identity under wraps was more important than her sanity was another slap to the face. Since when was Moquest so good at keeping secrets? His mouth was so big he could whisper in his own damn ear.

As Kimber built a sea breeze on ice in a highball glass, wondering if she would ever experience a full night’s sleep again, Dane shuffled toward the counter from between rows of slot machines, looking sheepish, unsure, and the worst she’d ever seen him. Dark circles ringed his troubled pale blue eyes, his long, wavy brown hair hung limply around his shoulders, and though he’d always been lean, he looked downright gaunt now, resembling one of the skeletons on his trademark Grateful Dead shirt. To think her coworker Alison commented on her looking like a zombie today.

Fantastic. She hadn’t thought the week could get worse, yet she was surprised to feel nothing but mild annoyance at his presence. Just a month ago, his showing up at the casino would’ve sent her head and heart into a tailspin, for better or worse. Now she barely recognized him or identified with the girl she’d been, wanting him so badly.

“Hi, bables.” Dane’s mouth twisted the way it always did when he was delivering bad news or waiting for her to make a decision that would further complicate his slacker lifestyle.

“Hey.” How she could know all his idiosyncrasies yet view him as a stranger? “What’re you doing here?”

“Visiting you.” He toyed with one of the many braided bracelets on his wrists. There were a few new ones she didn’t recognize, reminding her of their separate lives. “Is that okay?”

“It’s fine.” It wasn’t, it was annoying, but what could she do? Scream “No!” and cause a scene? “Are you getting a drink?”

“Nah.” Everything in his eyes betrayed how badly he wanted one though. He let out an embarrassed chuckle. “I’m sort of too broke for that.”

Now there was the title of Dane’s future autobiography. Still, she mustered up a sympathetic grimace and set to wiping the counter.

Dane licked his lips and hopped onto a stool. “See, I got laid off. I’ve been trying to find a new job, but there’s nothing out there but customer service gigs and that’s, like, the last thing I want to do.” He sighed, propping his elbow on the counter and resting his head in his hand. “And Sam and Wendy kicked me out since I couldn’t make rent, and I had to move back in with my parents. I’ve been so embarrassed about it that I haven’t talked to anyone in a week. Not that anyone will even talk to me anyway.” He released a bitter laugh. “So I’m unemployed with no place to live, no education, no money, no friends, and no future. The only decent thing I’ve got going for me is the band, and I can barely make practice since my car is such a piece of shit. Isn’t that the most pathetic thing in the world?”

It actually was. Kimber stared at Dane, almost feeling sorry for him because he couldn’t see how any of it was his fault.

“As if it wasn’t totally obvious,” he said, fixing his tortured gaze on her, “my life is shit without you, bables.”

Kimber turned away. This wasn’t a road she wanted to go down. But Dane stood and followed her around the perimeter of the bar, his voice growing desperate. “You probably hate my guts now and I really don’t blame you, but what I’m saying is the truth.” He lunged across the counter between two women nursing martinis and caught her elbow. “Please, Kimber, listen to me. You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me, and I hate myself every day for fucking it all up.”

Her face flamed in both anger and embarrassment as other customers ringing the bar gawked at them with curiosity. Alison even leaned back against the counter with her arms crossed, openly watching them with unguarded fascination.

“Alison,” Kimber said, “I’ll be back in five, okay?”

“Oh poo.” Alison huffed and blew her jet-black bangs from her eyes with a disappointed sigh. “I never get to see anything good.”

Kimber shook Dane off her and rounded the counter, heading for the outside patio. Dane trailed behind her, cowed and subservient. “I’m sorry about that. God, I can’t do anything right anymore.”

Once outside, she whirled on him, furious. He wasn’t sorry he made a scene; he was sorry, period. “What could you possibly want from me?”

“I just wanted to apologize in person.”

“Mission accomplished. I forgive you. Now please leave. I’m working.”

His face crumpled with despair. “But you don’t really forgive me. You’re clearly pissed off.”

Kimber grabbed her hair with both hands and let out a frustrated howl. “Dane-”

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Look, meet me tomorrow night for a drink, just one. I just want to see you for a bit. I need to talk to you. I hate that you’re not in my life. Please. Let me try to set things right.”

“Fine, whatever.” Agreeing to his proposition seemed the only way to get rid of him. It was strange to think that just a few weeks ago, she would’ve had a vastly different perspective on the situation.

“Thank you, bables.” He reached out with a finger to brush her forearm then snatched it back, as if remembering he’d no right to do such a thing anymore. “Thank you.”

She gave him a brief nod and a wave then headed back inside, where Alison lurked behind the counter with giant tell-me-everything eyes. But what was to tell? She was only getting together for drinks with the guy, hoping his sob story would make her feel better about her own. Where was the harm in that?

* * *

“Jesus.” His knees to his chest and his arms circling his bent legs, Jay rocked back and forth on his sit bones on Kimber’s living room floor and shook his head, staring at the TV blasting a version of The Frog Prince as told by Jim Henson’s Muppets. “Where the hell did you find this?”

“I’ve had it since I was a kid.” Kimber stifled a yawn. “My mom sent the VHS in a care package along with money-some of which I had to use to buy a VHS player.”

“We need to turn this off. There are too many frog puppets running around. It’s weirding me out.”

Kimber shrugged and curled up on the couch, fetus style, unable to muster the energy to care as Jay stopped the tape. Although he’d been the one to suggest a movie-and-McDonald’s night last week and insisted on not canceling, he’d been antsy all evening, like he couldn’t wait for it to be over, and he couldn’t stop complaining. There’d been too much pepper on his burger. Traffic was too traffic-y. There was nothing good to watch. Now there were too many frogs. Nothing seemed to satisfy him.

Not that she could blame him. The whole night had a strange vibe to it, like something was about to happen. Whatever that something was, it needed to happen before she ground her teeth into powder with frustration. In the meantime, it was excruciating trying to put the polish on the dull silver living.

Jay glanced at her, and in that moment, she realized she hadn’t seen him smile all night. He looked away with a heavy exhale and studied her DVDs, still in the orange milk crates. “What a bunch of no-fun nuns we are.”

“Yeah.” She ran a hand through her hair. “Maybe we should just call it a night. It’s clear we got a lot on our minds.”

Jay didn’t respond, and Kimber idly noted he didn’t ask for details like he normally would. Then again, she probably wouldn’t ask for details if she were him either. She was sick of her own problems, which had been self-inflicted from the start. Everyone had warned her, but she let herself get swept away by someone who finally seemed to care about her after so long of the opposite with Dane.

Dane-now that was a whole other story. Her interest in him now was so slight she felt like she’d imagined their entire relationship. It happened another lifetime ago to someone else. She’d no idea why she’d agreed to see him tomorrow. What was the point?

She hadn’t yet told Jay that Dane had come to see her, let alone that she’d agreed to go out with him. For some reason, she couldn’t bring herself to do it. She just knew he wouldn’t approve-and had the nagging feeling if she couldn’t admit to her best friend that she was getting together with an ex who bored her, it probably wasn’t a good idea. However, she wasn’t known for her good ideas, as recent events had taught her.

Jay remained quiet, and Kimber was suddenly struck by the realization that maybe his silence had nothing to do with her. Maybe he was going through something as equally miserable as she was, although probably less depraved. The possibility added a side order of guilt to her mood. She’d tried to get him to tell her what was going on with him earlier but he’d refused, and she knew she should’ve tried harder. Now she was not only a fool, but a bad friend.

“Hey.” She sat up and tossed a pillow at him. “A quarter for your sad, crabby thoughts.”

He arched a brow. “Not a penny?”

“Inflation. Times are hard. Now what’s your deal?”

Jay heaved another sigh, staring at his feet. “What, I don’t want to watch frog marionettes jump around so I have to talk about my feelings?”

She threw her hands up in the air, frustrated, inexplicably anxious, and at a loss for what to do regarding his demeanor. “Fine, then I don’t know what to tell you. I’m out of ideas.” She stretched out on the futon and crossed her arms over her chest. “I guess we’ll just sit here in silence and hate life.”

A few minutes of quiet did follow, the only sounds being their breathing and Pepperoni scratching at the rug then jumping on the kitchen counter with a chirp. Finally, Jay spoke. “You first.”

“Are you sure? It’s just more of the same old crap.”

He nodded. “I wanna hear it.”

Kimber told him the abridged version of how she’d met her stranger at the hotel and they’d spent all night making love and everything had seemed possible-until she woke up alone with a note that put an end to all that. “So that’s my closure, my unequivocal sign, I guess. I went there, hoping for that.” She sighed. “Who am I kidding? I went there for every reason but closure.”

“Yeah, but why?” Jay still stared at his feet, nudging the bass drum coffee table with the tip of his sneaker. “I don’t get why you’re so into a guy you never even saw.”

“I know. I try to rationalize it, but I can’t. This is going to sound weird, but he gave me so much hope.”

“Of course he did. He came on the heels of a bad relationship. Anyone would’ve done the trick.”

“That’s not true.”

“How do you know?”

“I could tell by the way he touched me.”

Jay finally looked at her, his jaw twitching like he was trying to formulate a question but didn’t know how to go about it. “How?”

“How what?”

“How did he touch you?”

“Like I was the most important girl in the whole world. Like he couldn’t get enough of me.”

“No.” There was a dark, indescribable look in his eyes that sent a shiver up her spine. “What did he do?”

Her eyebrows rose. “You’re asking for serious details.”

He nodded, his mouth tight.

Kimber blushed. “Why do you want to know?”

“Because.” His expression remained unreadable. “It’s the most fascinating thing in the world.”

Her skin prickled as the atmosphere in the room changed. “Yeah, why?” she asked, keeping her tone light, the mood familiar. “Meet someone special and need tips on your technique?”

“Let’s just say it’s a weird situation.”

A flicker of unexpected jealousy sparked inside her at the thought of Jay doing any form of sexual calisthenics with some random girl. She didn’t like the idea of sharing him, even though her feelings toward him were platonic. Was he torn up over some girl and that’s why he was so upset? If so, Kimber couldn’t stand her already, judging by the agonized expression on his face.

“Bleh.” She rubbed her temples. “We should’ve gone out and gotten wasted tonight. I know I could use a drink. First all this, then I have to deal with Dane tomorrow night.”

“Dane?” Jay’s features contorted with confusion and suspicion.

She hadn’t wanted to tell him yet, but why stop with the confessions now? “Yeah, he wandered up to the bar today and was all, woe is me, life sucks without you. I dunno, I just felt sorry for him, so we’re meeting for drinks tomorrow.”

Jay’s expression hardened. “You two are hanging out? Are you fucking kidding me? After all this?”

Kimber’s mouth dropped open as he pushed to his feet and paced the length of the room like a restless lion in a cage. It was no secret that, despite having introduced him to Kimber, Jay never really cared for Dane and liked them as a couple even less, but she’d never seen him so angry about it. “Chill, it’s not like it’s a big deal or anything.”

“It’s actually quite a big deal, Kimber. I’ve had to deal with hearing about that douchebag making you cry and disappointing you for years now, and just when I think we’ll finally stop talking about what a fucking moron he is, I hear you two are going on a date-probably your first ever with him, if I recall his protocol correctly.”

“Whoa. Will you calm down?” Kimber’s heart hammered against her ribs. She couldn’t believe the stark fury and intensity of his words. “I’m not even into him anymore.”

“Bullshit. Why else would you be going out with him? Obviously you still feel something for him. What isn’t obvious is why. And after all this time apart from him, you’d think you’d know better, but be honest. All it’ll take is a few of his empty promises and you two will be together again. Then the shit will start back up and I’ll never hear the end of it.”

“None of this is in any way true,” Kimber spluttered. “Things are different now.”

“I thought so, too. But they’re not.” He stopped pacing and faced her, his jaw clenching and his gaze hard. “Just tell me one thing. Tell me why Dane gets all these chances with you, and I never even got one. And one would’ve been all I needed.”

Stunned heat crept through her body as she fought to find the right words. “I don’t know. We went over this, Jay. You’re my best friend. I never thought of you like that.”

He raked both hands through his hair. “I don’t care. Think of me like that now.” He stared at her, expectant, his dark blue eyes unyielding.

She rubbed her face with her hands then straightened, shuffling things around on the bass drum cum coffee table, feigning busyness to mask her extreme discomfort. “I can’t. I’m sorry. I just can’t see us…being together like that. You’re too important to me to risk getting involved with.”

He crossed his arms. “So you’d never fuck me.”

Kimber gasped and stared at him, open-mouthed. “Jay!”

“Just tell me, yes or no. Would you ever fuck me?”

She cleared her throat and coughed, wishing she were anywhere but there. Even an Iraqi war zone would be preferable. “No. I’m sorry. I just can’t see it.”

“Oh, I fucking know you can’t see it.” Jay breathed out a nasty laugh. “And I’ve got news for you-you’ve been doing it for weeks.”

* * *

Jay regretted the words the second they burst from his mouth. The blank, uncomprehending look in Kimber’s gold-brown eyes meant he’d have to explain them, too, which could only be a thousand times more agonizing for the both of them.

“What?” Her voice was calm and controlled and on the verge of being neither of those things.

He took a deep breath. “Kimber, I-”

“There is no way you’re telling me what I think you’re telling me. And if you are, you better follow it up with a confession that you’re lying.”

“I wish… I wish I was.”

Kimber stared at him, unmoving, but in the silence of the room, he could hear her breathing turn heavy and shallow and her jaw tightening as she watched him as if deciding how best to torture him. She shook her head slowly. “No. You’d never do that to me. There’s no way.”

He squeezed his eyes shut and pressed the heels of his palms to his stinging eyes, not replying.

“Deny it, Jay.” Her tone became shrill. “Tell me you’d never do that.”

“I’m sorry,” he croaked, his mind and body paralyzed with the shock and fear of this moment finally happening. This was it. This was the end.

Jay looked up as she rocketed to her feet, and now it was her turn to pace. “No, no,” she kept repeating, as if trying to convince herself. “That’s not like you. This isn’t happening.”


She whirled on him, her eyes blazing and her cheeks red. “Are you fucking serious? It was you the whole time?”

“I can explain.”

“I can’t even imagine what you have to explain. I can’t believe this. You and Moquest arranged this whole sick game, and for what? To get your revenge on me because I said I didn’t want you? Then how fucking hilarious it must’ve been for you both to see me lose my shit over this whole thing-over you. That must’ve felt really good to make me look like a fucking fool.”

“No, I don’t feel good. I don’t feel good at all. I never wanted to make you feel like a fool.” He pressed his palms together and clasped his hands to his chest. “Please believe me, I never meant for any of this to happen.”

“You didn’t mean for it to happen on three separate goddamn occasions? Fuck you, Jay, this wasn’t an accident, and you didn’t do it under duress.” Tears dripped down her face but she didn’t seem to notice them. “After all these years, now this. Now you decide it’d be a great idea to use me, embarrass me, take advantage of me, degrade me, lie to me… Who the fuck are you? You’re obviously not my friend. Friends don’t do this to each other. No self-respecting person would do what you did.”

“I know, I know.” His body shook, like an earthquake devastated his insides.

“No, you don’t know. You arrogant asshole, you just sat here, requesting a play by play on everything you did to me. What a power trip. Did that make you feel like a real man? Like a god? Did you get the ego boost you so psychotically craved you’d do the most fucked-up thing in the world to get it?”

“It wasn’t about an ego boost,” he whispered, hating how he couldn’t find the words to explain himself, but maybe she was right; what was there to explain? “I did an awful thing, I know. I regret everything. Believe me, I never intended to degrade you or use you or any of that, and I wanted to tell you but I just-”

“But you couldn’t because you were too busy fucking me? Oh my God.” She sank down hard on the futon, as if her knees could no longer support her, and stared at the floor like it had just told her that her family had been devoured by cannibals. “We had sex.” She glared at him, more angry tears welling her eyes. “We had sex, a lot of sex, and you didn’t bother to tell me. My fuck, Jay, I’ve done things with you I didn’t even feel comfortable doing with Dane. I opened myself up and-God, I think I’m going to be sick.”

He sucked in a shaky breath. “Kimber, I-”

“You of all people treated me like a whore then tossed me away.” She covered her head with her hands like a makeshift helmet, a wild, stricken look on her pale face. “You fucked me without my knowing, got your rocks off, and dumped me on hotel stationary. Then you have the audacity to come here and treat me like I’m crazy for getting emotionally attached to quote-unquote a stranger.” Her face crumpled with misery. “Who the fuck do you think you are? Where do you get off, thinking you could do this to me and it’d be all right? That everything would continue as normal?”

“Kimber.” He couldn’t stop saying her name, clinging to it like a life raft as everything whirlpooled out of control. “Please, listen-”

“No, you listen.” She sprang to her feet again and advanced on him, backing him toward the front door. “You know all facets of me now, but it turns out that I know absolutely nothing about you. I trusted you, Jay, more than anyone. Do you understand how badly you betrayed me?” She wrenched open the door. “Get out. Get out of my apartment, get out of my life.”

“Look, I know you won’t believe anything I say,” he hiccupped as he edged into the hallway, registering only then that he was crying. “What I did was the most selfish, fucked-up thing I’ve ever done, and I know this won’t make sense or right any wrongs, but I want you to know I did it because I’m in love with you. I mean, really in love with you. I’ve wanted you since the day we met. You’re everything I could hope to find in a person, a friend, a girlfriend, everything. You mean the world to me, and I hate myself for hurting you.”

“You love me,” she repeated in a monotone. “Well, that’s very unfortunate for you, because right now, I can’t think of a person I hate more.” The door slammed and he heard the lock slide into place.

Jay stood there for a moment, staring at apartment 18’s brass number below the peephole and giving his brain a moment to catch up and comprehend everything that had just happened. Still in shock and having no other choice, he wiped his wet eyes on his sleeve and eventually forced himself to shuffle down the stairs to the exit with lead legs. Tremors still rippled through him like aftershocks. The nightmare had finally happened. His worry of losing Kimber for good was out of his head and real now. In a way, it was almost a relief; there was nothing left to fear. But he knew the worst was yet to come. All those endless minutes of passing life without her and trying to live with himself and what he’d done still had to be faced.

Outside the building on the concrete steps sat a woman. He recognized her as Kimber’s neighbor, Taryn, who had nearly gotten freaky with her boyfriend outside Kimber’s door on moving day. Now she looked anything but orgasmic, smoking a cigarette and wearing owl-print pajamas. She looked at him as he descended the steps like a zombie. “Hey,” she said softly. “Jay, right?”

“For the most part. I’ve answered to worse.”

“Rough night, I take it?”

“Nothing that a bottle of whiskey and a rooftop can’t fix.” He feigned lightness but knew the truth wasn’t that far off. He violated and betrayed the only person he ever loved. It was a stretch, wondering how he might eventually come to live with himself.

“I figured.” She wrinkled her nose and flicked the ash. “I could hear the whole thing.”

“Oh.” Until then, he hadn’t even thought of how others outside the situation might view his actions. Suddenly that rooftop didn’t seem like such a joke.

“Don’t worry. I heard it, but I didn’t understand it. Nobody understands a relationship except for the people who are in it, and sometimes not even them.”

That was for sure. Jay didn’t even understand himself anymore. He let out a gusty sigh. “I’m not in a relationship,” he admitted, his voice cracking. “Not with Kimber. I totally fucked up any chance of that.”

“Oh, I know all about doing things like that. Why do you think I’m out here, pretending I’m a smoker?” She took a brief, inexperienced drag then eyed the cigarette. “My mom smokes these-Misty 100s. I used to wave them in the air and pretend they were magic wands that could make everything all right. But now I know the truth-all a cigarette does is make my mouth taste like my mood.” She glanced at Jay. “See, Brad and I got in a fight, and he left for who knows where.”

“That sucks.” Jay struggled to care more, but his own problems loomed too massive to see around.

“Yeah. Tomorrow was supposed to be our anniversary, and I don’t even know if we’re together.” Taryn looked at him. “Check us out, a couple of screw-ups.”

“Pretty much.” Just what he wanted to dwell on.

“Look, I know we don’t know each other well at all, but right now I can’t think of anyone more miserable than me aside from you, and they say misery loves company. Since my friends are somehow nowhere to be found and I really don’t want to be alone tomorrow night, what do you think of feeling like hell together?”

“Sure.” He shrugged, just eager to get away from her and return to his seedy apartment in a neighborhood so shady it made Skid Row look like Beverly Hills. For the first time, he felt like his address suited him-and his character-perfectly.

“Great.” Taryn sounded anything but as she crushed the cigarette out on the step and tossed the butt in the bushes. “I’ll find you.”

She retreated indoors, leaving Jay alone with his morose thoughts. He realized then that not even five minutes after pouring his heart out to Kimber, he accepted a date with a woman who may or may not still be in a serious relationship. He unlocked and climbed into the Monte Carlo, where he rested his head against the steering wheel and tried to remember when he’d become such a terrible person.

Chapter Seven

“Oh my God!” Ferney’s eyes went so wide Kimber could see the whites all around the cool gray irises. “Your mystery lover was Jay? The whole time?”

“Apparently.” Kimber’s voice broke on the word. She hated to admit it, hated the pain and nausea it caused to do so, hated thinking about the truth, remembering how libertine and wanton she’d been. She’d put herself in a vulnerable position and it made her sick to think the person she’d trusted most took advantage of that.

“I’m aghast. Aghast.” Ferney sloshed the rest of the bottle of pinot noir into two glasses, pouring most of it on the breakfast nook’s table, and pushed one toward Kimber. “I can’t believe sweet, worshipful Jay would do something so manipulative and conniving. The guy’s about as devious as a Care Bear. Since when did he start being such a guy and thinking with his dick?”

“Who knows.” Kimber picked up the glass, her fingers shaking, and took a greedy gulp.

“Talk about an opportunist.”

“Mmm.” The wine was tasteless on Kimber’s tongue.

“However…” Ferney paused, drumming her manicured nails. “It sounds pretty hot, too.”

Kimber nearly choked on the wine. “What?”

“Don’t ‘what’ me. Weren’t you raving about the whole thing a week or so ago?”

“I said all that about someone who I thought wasn’t a fucking liar.” Kimber’s face flamed as the trembling moved from her fingers to the rest of her body, and she tore a hand through her bedraggled, unwashed blonde hair. “It makes me physically ill, thinking about the things I did with Jay. I put myself on the line, assuming that I could. I thought I was with someone I could trust, not someone who would take advantage of me like this. It was degrading.”

“I’m sure Jay didn’t see it that way. Degrading you was likely the last thing on his mind, considering you were fulfilling his dreams. So.” Ferney leaned forward, her eyes gleaming. “You said the sex was amazing?”


“You’re right, how dumb of me to ask. Of course it was amazing. You kept going back for more, after all.”

Kimber swallowed back a rush of nausea, her sister’s voice the equivalent of an air horn being blasted in her ear. “Please. Focus.”

“I am. I’m very focused. I’m focused on what you can’t focus on.”

Tears pricked Kimber’s eyes and she blinked them away. “All I can focus on is that I trusted Jay, and he betrayed me.”

“You also trusted who you thought was a total stranger with your heart and body. That stranger just so happened to be someone who’s worshipped you for years and would never intentionally hurt you. Considering all the different people it could’ve been, this may have actually been the best of all possible scenarios.”

“Are you seriously kidding me? This is the worst thing that could’ve happened.”

Ferney shrugged, her mouth twisting in sympathy. “Maybe so, maybe not.” She wrapped an arm around her sister’s neck, less of a hug and more like a lazy stranglehold. “I’m not saying that Jay didn’t do a disgusting, awful, unforgivable thing, but you know you guys were good together. And now you’ve had the best sex of your life with someone you really like. So disgusting, awful, unforgivable thing aside, how does that make you feel?”

“I don’t know.” Kimber’s gaze dropped to the table as she scratched at a dried patch of sauce clinging to the surface. “I haven’t thought about it.”

“Then think about it.”

Kimber froze and gaped at her sister. “Are you suggesting I forgive him?”

“No, just suggesting you think about it, that’s all. Hole yourself up tonight and do some serious soul-searching about the whole thing.”

“I can’t.” Kimber crossed her arms over her chest. “I’m meeting up with Dane.”

“Dane?” Ferney recoiled in horror. “Gross! Why?”

“Why not?” Her sister’s vehement opposition to the idea only inspired Kimber’s innate urge to defend it.

“Because you’re all wrong for each other, and by now you can surely see that, especially with Jay in the picture.”

“Jay is not in the picture.”

Ferney snorted. “I always knew you were delusional, but not this bad.”

Before Kimber could reply, her phone chirped in her bag, and she fished it out and checked the screen. “It’s Dane.”

“Ugh.” Ferney sat back in her seat and polished off her wine with a theatrical head toss. “The madness begins. Again.”

Kimber flipped her sister the bird as she retreated into the bedroom that used to be hers, where she would fall asleep waiting in vain for Dane to call her. Now that he finally had, she couldn’t help but see it as an annoyance. “Hello?”

“Hi.” His voice held that innocent note it always did right before he intended to disappoint her. “Just wanted to see what’s up.”

Part of her wanted to scream and demand why he couldn’t have bothered to find out what was up when they were still together, but she didn’t have the energy. She sank onto the edge of the guest bed Ferney and Paul had wasted no time purchasing after she’d moved out. “Not a lot. You?”

“The same, the same.”

A long pause followed, one Kimber didn’t feel inspired to break. Had Dane always been so boring? What an irritating waste of time this conversation was turning out to be.

He cleared his throat. “Actually, I’m also calling because I have some bad news.”

No kidding. There it was-that familiar instinctual bristle as she braced herself to be pissed off at him. Apparently some things never changed. “What?”

“Alex just reminded me Aural Stimulation is playing tonight at Bellringer’s, which means I won’t be able to meet you for a drink.”

Kimber didn’t reply, trying to decide if she was surprised. Was she even upset?

The worried, vaguely desperate note that crept into his voice, however, pleased her as he added, “Can we please reschedule? Or maybe you could come to the show. Then we can talk between sets.”

She sighed, more out of boredom than anything. “I’ll let you know.”

“Please, please, please don’t be mad at me, bables.” His whimper made her shudder, and had that nickname really once warmed her heart? “Please. I really want to be better for you, for us. I don’t want to mess up what we have anymore.”

Be better for her? Mess up what they have? What did he think was happening here? The idea that he had the impression she wanted to get back together with him sickened her, but wanting only for the conversation to end, she didn’t bother attempting to set the record straight. “I’m not mad, I just can’t talk right now. I’ll call you later.”

She hung up, wondering if she would, in fact, call him later. It was surprising to compare her feelings a few weeks ago to them now. She’d never imagined there would ever come a time where she’d be so ambivalent toward Dane. She didn’t think that would ever happen unless someone else-someone better-came along. Now it turned out that even the good guys were creeps. Sometimes a girl just couldn’t win.

* * *

Kimber returned to her apartment complex to find Taryn stretching outside their building in a black Spandex number that clung to her skin-and-bones frame. Her neighbor waved in greeting, despite that Kimber stood five feet in front of her. “Hey, Kimber. I’m just warming up for the gym. Wanna join me?”

Warming up? Taryn was already so slick with sweat she looked like she’d just dove into a pool. “No, thanks. I’m pretty beat, I didn’t get much sleep last night.” That was an understatement, and Kimber realized it was also probably no excuse to energetic Taryn, who likely sprung out of bed at 4 a.m. and set to work, cooking crack on a spoon while jumping ol’ Brad of the talented tongue. “Besides, working out always makes me feel justified for eating two giant bags of M &Ms, so it’s all futile, anyway.”

Taryn laughed. “Yeah, I hear you.” She spread her legs into a wide, upside-down V and bent forward, hinging at the hips and staring at Kimber between her spread thighs. “Hey, question for you. That guy who helped you move in-what’s his story?”

Kimber’s heart turned over at the vague mention of Jay. “I don’t know what you mean.” Had Taryn heard them screaming at each other through the walls? How could she not have? The partition that separated the apartments might as well have been made from popsicle sticks and Scotch tape.

Taryn straightened then propped a foot on the stair railing and reached for her toes. “I bumped into him out here after I got in a huge fight with Brad yesterday night. I’ve been doing all I can not to think about him but…” For a moment, her eyes clouded. Then she brightened. “Anyway, I saw Jay and thought, hey, the perfect diversion.”

“Oh.” Kimber took a slow, deep breath, trying to calm down and decide for what reason she felt the need to calm down.

“But after he said yes when I asked him out, I was like, what the hell are you doing, Taryn? You don’t know anything about this guy. And it’s not like Brad and I are big on going out on the town, so I have no idea what’s cool to do around here.”

“Uh huh.” Jay had spent the evening screaming about being in love with her then turned around and agreed to date the neighbor as soon as he was out the door? What the hell was going on?

“Since you and Jay are such good friends,” Taryn said, picking up the jump rope at her feet and hopping like the White Rabbit on amphetamines, “I figured you’d be the best person to ask. What do you think he’d want to do?”

Me wearing a blindfold was the first response that came to mind. “Um, well, when are you guys going out?”

“Tonight.” Taryn sighed. “This whole thing has been very impulsive.”

A scheme Kimber didn’t quite comprehend took a nebulous shape in her mind. “There’s this local band he loves playing at Bellringer’s tonight. Have you ever heard of Aural Stimulation?”

* * *

“Bables!” Dane looked so happy to see her when she approached him at the counter of Bellringer’s in between the band’s first and second set that Kimber almost wished she still felt just an ounce of longing for him. He engulfed her in a hug, and she could feel how hot his skin was beneath his plaid button-down shirt. They swayed in a tight embrace, the kind she used to want to last forever but now seemed excruciatingly endless. “I’m so glad you’re here.”

“Me too.” She gave his spine a soft pat and pulled away, craving the end of the uncomfortable hug.

He released her albeit with reluctance. “You want a beer?”

There was no way she could survive the night without one-or several. “Sure. Whatever you’re having.”

His mouth twisted in apology. “I’m drinking straight Jack.”

Of course he was; there was no mistaking that beautiful glitter in his blue eyes that foretold he was already wasted on hard liquor. For once it didn’t bother her. It was even somewhat comforting that he was so the same while she was the one who changed. “I’ll have that, too.”

Dane called over the bartender while Kimber glanced around, hoping it wasn’t obvious that she sought Jay. Her body jolted with anxiety when she spied a man of a similar height and build with an arm around someone, but it was only an acne-riddled teen wearing too much eyeliner, and his companion was another boy. If Kimber had come to learn anything about Jay, it was that he definitely wasn’t gay, not even close. Her cheeks burned, recognizing that she knew this for a fact.

“For you, my queen.” Dane pressed a glass of whiskey in her palm. “I gotta get back to the band though. Break’s almost up. You gonna be all right by yourself?”

She nodded. That had been the situation all along when it came to the two of them.

Relief bloomed on his face. “Good.” He brushed his knuckles across her cheek. “I’m so glad you’re here. We’ll talk more after this next set, okay?”

Kimber bobbed her head again and Dane ambled off, his step light. She made herself comfortable in a vacant seat at the bar, hoping no one would talk to her yet hoping someone would, in the event Jay might be around and looking her way. Even though she’d just told Ferney that he wasn’t in the picture, now there was no other thought more attractive than him watching her with a lustful, deliciously tortured expression in his eyes, all the while knowing he couldn’t have her. Looking good and living well was really the best revenge.

But she’d be lying if she said that all day long, she hadn’t been alternating between schemes of how to make him completely miserable and fantasies of him pinning her against the Monte Carlo in the parking lot and having his way with her. She took a sip of her whiskey, trying to swallow her complex feelings with it.

Aural Stimulation took the stage, and though the bar was crowded, no one seemed to notice. Alex’s bass drum throbbed a few lazy times while the bassist, Ted, walked his fingers up and down the neck of his bass. Dane slid his Native American-patterned guitar strap over his head, played a quick albeit complicated riff, and then gave the band a nod. Alex returned the gesture and crashed his drumsticks together overhead, and the band lapsed into a cover of “Casey Jones.”

Kimber’s legs bounced in time to the music, partially out of nervousness regarding what the evening might bring and partially because she could never stop herself from moving with the beat. Despite his flaws, Dane was a phenomenal guitar player, his heroes being Jimmy Page and Stevie Ray Vaughn, and his talent transcended dive bars in northeast Pennsylvania. Kimber watched him play his guitar, stroke the strings, and she recalled how badly she used to want him to have a similar intensity about her. She’d wanted him to love her like music and couldn’t understand why it had been so hard.

“Thank you both, you’re too kind,” Dane quipped in a monotone as the song closed to the response of less than a quarter of the patrons half-heartedly clapping. He paused to take a swig of his whiskey, which rested in his microphone stand’s drink holder. “This next song was written about Catherine the Great’s horse.” Aural Stimulation’s rendition of “Hash Pipe” soon blasted from the amplifiers.

Kimber downed her drink and beckoned the bartender over for another, the whiskey’s warmth spreading through her, and a lazy, lighthearted pleasure took rule of her heart. This wasn’t so bad. This was even fun. She was out on the town, getting tipsy and listening to a good cover band. She was even happy Dane was around, thankful for his reassuring predictability and that she no longer had expectations of him. It freed her to see that he wasn’t really a bad person, just someone who wasn’t right for her, and there wasn’t anything wrong with that. She was alive and doing okay, had made it past the end.

No sooner had Kimber decided to enjoy the night, no matter what, her fitness-friendly neighbor’s sudden appearance shocked all the toasty happiness from her body.

“Hey there!” Taryn hugged her with a fierceness their relationship hardly warranted. “I didn’t even see you come in. When did you get here?”

“Only a little bit ago.” The now familiar unease and horror returned to Kimber as Taryn released her. “What about you?”

“We got here about twenty minutes ago.” Taryn gestured between herself and the man beside her, ordering drinks, and it wasn’t until he looked her way that Kimber registered the man as Jay. Her heart halted like a needle scratching to a stop across a record, her mind white at his transition from her daydreams to standing right in front of her.

To make matters worse, he tossed his chin her way. “Hey, Kim. How’s it going?”

“Great, you?” The words left her in a rush although she couldn’t wrap her mind around their meaning, so stunned was she at Jay’s friendly ambivalence. It was like she was a stranger, like he hadn’t known her for years, like he hadn’t ever poured his heart out to her, like he’d never been inside her, making her come. She forced herself to behave the same and ignore the swell of guttural screams now looping through her head.

Taryn’s eyes sparkled as she bobbed her head, perhaps a bit too vigorously. “Everything’s going good. Really good.”

“Have you heard from Brad?” Kimber asked, hoping that Taryn had, that her neighbors’ love life would resolve and stop intruding on hers. Not that Jay was in her love life but-

“No.” A dark, sad look filled Taryn’s light green eyes, and Kimber regretted saying anything at all-until Taryn beamed and patted Jay on the back. “No, I’m not going to think of him tonight.”

Kimber forced a weak smile, keeping her gaze on Taryn’s face and refusing to let it drift in Jay’s direction.

“Hey, we’re sitting at a table near the stage,” Taryn added. “You should definitely join us.”

“No, that’s okay. You guys go ahead.” Kimber heard herself speak and felt her lips move, but she couldn’t comprehend the situation, which felt like an out-of-body experience. Here congregated a group of people, everyone being polite, and no one saying what was truly going on. She clasped her hands together to prevent them from shaking. “I’m waiting for the guitar player to finish up.” She nodded toward Dane, not wanting to catch Jay’s response. Suddenly, the idea of making him jealous was unattractive-especially since he didn’t seem inclined to be jealous at all.

“Okay,” Taryn said as the bartender set two beers before Jay, who instructed they be put on his tab before picking them up and handing one to Taryn. “Well, come join us if you want. You know where to find us.”

Jay gave her an easy smile. “If we don’t see you, have a good night.” Then he and Taryn disappeared into the crowd, back to the two-person world they’d apparently created for themselves.

Kimber chugged the whiskey the bartender had placed in front of her, hoping it’d make her feel better but hating that it made no difference at all. She had made a huge mistake.

* * *

Jay slid into his seat beside Taryn, wondering if it was possible to feel any shittier. The last thing he felt like doing was making small talk with and blowing his paycheck on a girl he wasn’t in any way interested in while listening to a cover band he hated for personal reasons, but here he was.

Actually, that was the second-to-last thing he wanted to do. The first was seeing Kimber dance in her seat with a faraway smile on her face, contented by her own company and awaiting fucking Dane, as always, apparently harboring no anguish regarding their recently dissolved friendship and the obliteration of anything romantic between them. Confirmation of this had come in the form of her reaction to seeing him with Taryn. After everything they’d been through, she could hardly pretend to give a shit about any of it, so he’d acted similarly. What other choice did he have? He’d laid all his cards on the table, and it hadn’t made any difference whatsoever.

He longed to call it a night and head home to his bed and a bottle of SoCo. Getting blitzed at home and allowing himself to fully immerse in his misery sounded far more appealing than feigning happiness. But feigning happiness was exactly what he intended to do. He wasn’t going to let Kimber see how her rejection affected him again. He would put on the face of a Spartan warrior and suck it up. She’d made it clear it was over between them, so it was time he recognize that, accept it, and act accordingly, no matter how fucking wrong it felt.

* * *

When Dane left the stage for the band’s second break, Kimber threw herself in his arms, even though his clothes were soaked with sweat. “You were fantastic. I loved that last song.”

“Really?” His eyes lit up. “We were wondering if anyone would notice that we snuck an original in the set list. It’s new, we wrote it about two weeks ago.”

“It was brilliant.” It had been okay, but Kimber imagined Jay’s eyes on them and kept the awed, flirty smile on her face. She wondered why she felt the overwhelming need to prove Jay was so unimportant to her that she would even prefer Dane’s company to his. That wasn’t what friends did to each other when they stopped being friends.

“Brilliant?” Dane looked so delighted and boyish that Kimber wished she’d meant the compliment. His expression softened with affection. “Thanks, bables.”

“You’re welcome.” She nudged him with her hip. “Now how about buying your biggest fan a drink?”

Dane winced as he reached for his wallet. “Don’t kill me, but I only have, like, five bucks left on me. I’m in the band so I’ve been drinking for free, but I owe everyone money so I don’t even get paid for tonight’s gig.”

Typical. She forced her annoyance aside in favor of keeping the smile on her face. “I only want a lager.” He could afford that, right?

He forked over his last crumpled ones with a wistful look and passed a draft to Kimber, who sipped it and tried to act like she was enjoying herself. Not only had he made the beer taste terrible by acting like buying it had been the ultimate sacrifice, she couldn’t think of a thing to talk about with him. Small talk seemed too small. It seemed best to just get to her new objective for the evening, although best was probably an inaccurate description.

She entwined her fingers with his. “I’m sorry I was so touchy yesterday at the casino. I really have missed you.”

“I really missed you, too, bables.” His gaze flittered between her eyes and her lips, and his brow furrowed with what she knew was the want to kiss her. She closed the distance between them and pressed her mouth to his. Despite the familiarity of the kiss, it was like he was a stranger. Ironically, when she’d kissed a stranger, it’d felt so familiar. Then again, she hadn’t actually been with a stranger, had she? And she’d done more than just kiss him. A lot more.

Her skin grew warm from the thought, and her tongue slipped between Dane’s lips. He groaned and pulled her closer to him using her jean’s belt loops, the contact revealing how much he-or at least his cock-really had missed her.

In an effort not recoil, Kimber recalled the times when she had felt true passion-namely the past few weeks. She detested having to do so; so much negativity and just plain wrongness played into the scenario and its aftermath. But her body defied her, her cunt wet with the memory of being laved by a talented tongue then clenching around a cock that had fit her so perfectly she’d seen stars.

Dane drew away from her, breathless. “Wow. What’s gotten into you? You’ve never been this…I dunno, passionate before.” Before she could reply, he added with a grin, “I like it.” He glanced around the bar. “I like it so much that things are going to get pretty embarrassing for me if we continue this in public.” He tossed her pleading look. “Afterward?”

“Afterward,” she said, cupping his face and biting his lower lip, a move she was well-aware she’d learned from Jay, “you’re coming over to my place.”

* * *

“I wish I knew what I did,” Taryn wailed, facing the tabletop, propping her head over her draft with her hands. “I don’t understand why Brad would just storm off and not come back or even call.” She turned to Jay. “Do you?”

“I don’t.” Why would he? He didn’t even know why things happened in his own life.

Taryn released a sad sigh. “Did you know that we were high school sweethearts? He promised me in the yearbook that he’d never love anybody else.”

Jay sipped his lager and gave a grunt of interest despite the fact that he could barely make sense of what Taryn complained about. From what he could make out, they were fighting over something retarded. Not only could he care less about Taryn’s plight, he was also intensely distracted by the public make-out session Kimber and Dane were engaged in. He tried to look elsewhere but it was no use. He was too steeped in misery.

Aside from just depressing him, the sight of Kimber with Dane truly pissed him off. Yes, he’d had a horrible lapse in judgment-several epic ones, actually-but after all that had happened, she still preferred Dane? Jay experienced a flash of what it was like to feel nothing for Kimber aside from pity that someone could be so stupid and self-sabotaging. Wanting a girl of that caliber hardly seemed worth the pain anymore.

Jay turned to Taryn. “You just have to face it,” he said, silencing her tirade in mid-sentence. “What you and Brad had is obviously over. You can either sit here all night feeling sorry for yourself or you can take a step in the right direction and move on-like this.”

He kissed her with a fervor he didn’t really feel, and she moaned, giving his tongue access to hers. For a moment, Jay thought this was the best decision.

Then Taryn broke away, looking not overwhelmed with lust but bug-eyed and bewildered. “What was that about?”

“Um…” Wasn’t the answer obvious? If he had to explain what he’d just done and why, he’d seriously misjudged the situation.

She covered her face with her hands. “I’m just so confused.” She peered at him through her fingers. “Last night outside the apartment… The argument… Well, don’t you have a torch for Kimber?”

That a complete stranger preoccupied with her own romantic problems could discern that-after he’d just kissed her, no less-but Kimber hadn’t for ten goddamn years was quite possibly one of the most depressing things he’d ever heard. He sat back with a sigh, resigned to his fate. “On that note, I’m just as confused as you.”

“Let’s go over the facts.” Taryn returned her hands to the tabletop. “I asked you out because I’m in love with Brad, and you just kissed me because you’re into Kimber.”

“Sounds about right.”

“Does she have any idea? I know you said last night that you messed everything up, but the way I’ve seen you guys act around each other, I thought she had a crush on you, too.”

“Seeing as how she was just all over one of the guys in the band, I’m gonna have to go with no.”

Taryn paused for a moment and stared at the table again as if trying to determine why a raven was like a writing desk. “Just as I thought.” She gave a brusque nod. “Love makes no sense at all.”

Jay groaned and rubbed his temple. “All I need is a new way to feel. At this point, it’s the only thing I ask for. I can’t take this anymore, and I don’t know what to do about any of it.”

Taryn rubbed his arm. “Maybe there’s a reason you feel the way you do. Like an everything-happens-for-a-reason reason.”

“There is. The reason is I’m stupid.”

She laughed. “Come on, let’s get out of here and go back to my place.”

Jay arched a quizzical brow. “I can’t kiss you in the bar but you want me to go home with you?”

“Actually, yes. I’m sick of this place, as I’m sure you are, and I’m craving the cookies I made this afternoon.” She frowned. “I made them for Brad. I was hoping he’d be back by now.” After a pause, she shook her head, like shaking off a spell. “I just don’t want to be alone right now. The other night without him was too tragic to relive.”

“I don’t know.” Jay yawned. “I should probably just go home and get some sleep.”

“Just for a little while,” Taryn pleaded. “Besides, imagine Kimber’s expression when she sees your car in our lot and realizes you’re not there to see her.”

Jay knew Taryn played his weak spot with desperation but didn’t mind. The idea of Kimber experiencing twinges of jealousy over him and Taryn together was an attractive one, although she’d made it more than clear she had no interest in him. In fact, she flat out copped to hating him. What did she care who he went home with? It was a reminder that strengthened his case to go to Taryn’s. It was better than the alternative, which was going back to his place and trying to stop thinking about everything just long enough for him to get a few hours rest. “Those cookies better be pretty damn awesome.”

Taryn grinned. “With a glass or two of wine, there’s nothing better.”

* * *

Kimber watched as Jay and Taryn left, tittering like lovers, and her body burned with anger and worry. Were they going to top off the night with a romp in the sack, then laugh afterward about how pathetic it was that poor Kimber was stuck alone at the bar, awaiting her ex-boyfriend to finish playing the music he’d always loved more than her so they could have some unsatisfying encounter vaguely resembling sex? It was the most miserable thing Kimber had ever imagined. Meanwhile, Jay would be giving Taryn multiple orgasms-orgasms that should’ve been hers.

She stared at the wet rings on the bar counter as Aural Stimulation began their third and last set. She tried to make sense of her possessive feelings toward Jay. It wasn’t fair to not want him but not want him to be with someone else, too. She knew that; it wasn’t even debatable.

What wasn’t so cut-and-dried was the part about her not wanting him. Was that even still true?

Kimber closed her eyes, and for the first time, she granted herself the permission to imagine herself in a relationship with Jay. She fit him in all the scenarios she’d pictured in the past using a perfect, faceless stand-in boyfriend and realized it wasn’t such a stretch from how Jay had always treated her. Jay shared many of the attributes she’d assigned to her imaginary ideal significant other. He helped her when she needed him to, always made her laugh, cheered her up with humor and wisdom when she was sad, and ensured her happiness. He was fun and easy to be with, and she adored his dry sense of humor. He had always shown her endless patience, from the time he taught her how to parallel park to the countless instances when he listened to her rehash the same romantic problems over and over as if they were new and not self-inflicted.

And for as much as she teased him for it, she loved how intelligent he was, how he was always reading and learning in his spare time. She found it amusing how much he proclaimed to hate the History Channel for all its numerous shows concerning conspiracy theories, yet it was always on the TV every time she risked a visit to his apartment in that unsavory neighborhood. Her heart ached at the thought of him living there by himself, yet at the same time her clit throbbed at how independent he was, how he didn’t need to surround himself with the fascinating noise and fleeting pleasantries that Dane thrived on.

There were so many aspects about Jay that she adored: his unapologetic, un-ironic love for Katy Perry’s music; how he would taste-test her failed cooking experiments with bravery; that he would call or text her at random; and how, no matter how many times she tried to explain it to him, he couldn’t figure out how Deal or No Deal worked. But most importantly, he was good to her, and she wanted to be good to him, too. Jay was her home, and she couldn’t imagine a life without him. Not to mention the way he kissed her-the way he did everything to her, really-gave her goose bumps. She had a rash of them just remembering it all.

And he’d just left the bar with some other girl.

Tears pricked her eyes as a rush of panic flooded her veins. This was insane. How could she feel such affection for someone who’d violated her trust? She fought for control of her heart, needed to hold onto that anger. Otherwise, everything would make even less sense than it already did.

Aural Stimulation played its last note and Dane bid the crowd a good night. She couldn’t believe it was one-thirty already. She’d sat there for so long, and for what?

The band left the stage, and Kimber wondered what she was doing there. Jay and Taryn were gone, and she didn’t feel the desire to talk to Dane. Still, she remained at the bar until Dane gravitated over to her, negotiating through the tipsy patrons on their way to the exit.

“Bables.” He wrapped his arms around her in a hot, uncomfortable hug; he was even sweatier than he’d been before. “Are we still on for tonight?”

Oh, right. She’d all but promised him he’d get laid. The thought of him touching her in any capacity made her skin crawl. Still, being with Dane was more appealing than being alone, especially since who the hell knew what Jay and Taryn were up to. She had a sinking feeling she wouldn’t like the answer.

Kimber tossed Dane a winning smile. “Consider us very, very on.”

* * *

Taryn’s apartment was a tidy wreck, with clean laundry folded and resting on all available seats in the living room and various half-accomplished craft projects occupying every other surface. With few remaining choices of chairs to sit upon, Jay followed Taryn to the bedroom she shared with Brad and they relaxed on the bed, watching reality TV and splitting the batch of chocolate chip cookies she’d made and, against his better judgment, a bottle of wine. Still, he found viewing Celebrity Fit Club without being wasted was all but impossible.

Then came the sound of a woman moaning next door. They turned to each other with wide eyes.

Taryn tilted her head toward the wall. “Is that Kimber?”

Did she have to ask? Who else would it be? The cookies and alcohol churned in his stomach as a wave of nausea hit him hard. “Oh God.” He leaned forward, hunching over his legs, folded under him Indian-style. “I think I’m gonna be sick. I can’t stay here.” He stood, and his drunkenness finally got the best of him as he sank back onto the mattress. “And apparently I can’t leave either. Shit.”

“You go in the other room and do whatever you have to do.” Taryn bounced to her knees on the mattress. “I’ll take care of business.”

Jay ducked into the bathroom, where he emptied the half-digested contents of his stomach mere seconds after the door shut behind him. He flushed the toilet and drank some lukewarm water from the tap before sitting on the furry bathmat with his spine against the side of the cool, ceramic tub. He tilted his head back to rest between a bottle of conditioner and the shower curtain and listened to Taryn scream down the hallway, squealing his name and all sorts of naughty things she wanted him to do to her as she threw herself around the mattress, the headboard clacking against the wall. Had the circumstances been different, he would’ve found it fucking hilarious.

But the circumstances weren’t different. Everything was just how it was, and it was impossible to ignore why Taryn resorted to such noisy shenanigans. Kimber was obviously back with Dane, and there was nothing he could do about it.

* * *

Dane followed Kimber to her apartment in his Sentra, even though he’d had more to drink than she had. She knew she should’ve volunteered to drive him, but the bar was just a few blocks from her place and he didn’t know where she lived. More selfishly, she didn’t want to have to take him back for his car in the morning, didn’t want either of them depending on each other for anything anymore. She was done relying on and babysitting him. It was everyone for themselves.

She parked her car and got out just as Dane pulled in beside her and stuck his head out the window. “Is it okay to park here, or is this someone’s reserved spot?”

Kimber barely heard him, too focused on the Monte Carlo across the lot. Jay’s car. Hope that he’d come to see her vaulted through her, but then she saw Taryn’s bedroom light on and two shadowy figures just beyond the curtain, and her heart plummeted.

They were going to fuck right next door to her, knowing she could hear it all.

“Kim?” Dane drummed impatiently on the wheel.

“Yeah, park wherever.” Kimber was tired of him already, and for a moment she felt bad for feeling that way; he seemed so earnestly excited to be with her. But so what? They were broken up, yet she was still putting Dane’s needs first. When had he ever done her that favor in return?

Once inside, Kimber switched on the living room light and Dane looked around with his half-open eyes, heavy with drink. “So this is your crib.” He wandered around, touching everything like he was a five-year-old reading with his fingers. “I like it.”

Kimber crossed her arms and watched as he bent down to pet Pepperoni, who was curled up in the nap position on the beanbag chair. “What about you, buddy? You like it here, too?” He ran his hand up and down Pepperoni’s spine, seemingly oblivious to the cat bristling, as if to say, Who is this stranger and why is he mauling me in my own home? He gave no sign of remembering who Dane was.

Dane straightened and turned to Kimber, raising an eyebrow as he shrugged off the tan, Salvation Army-bought corduroy suit coat he wore as a jacket. “You okay?”

“I’m fine.”

“I’ll say.” He grabbed her waist and pulled her toward him. “I missed you,” he murmured before crushing his mouth to hers. His tongue slid against her lips, seeking entry, and she obliged, unable to think of a reason not to.

He broke off their kiss. “Show me your bedroom.”

The reminder he didn’t already know where it was or what it looked like weighed on her. He was so removed from her life now. This dampened her already tenuous enthusiasm toward the evening, but she still took him by the hand and led him down the hall, and they toppled onto her bed in a tangle of limbs and open-mouthed kisses.

Dane settled atop her, touching her with an almost bruising need, but that was okay. She wanted it to hurt, felt like she even deserved it to as he kissed her with an intensity she no longer felt for him. What was the point of this? How was this half-assed charade better than being alone, facing her sadness? She was tired and ought to get some sleep-or try to. The thought of how she’d bought brand new sheets, pillowcases, and a comforter in the wake of their relationship’s demise in an effort to erase Dane’s trace from her bed took precedence over any passion she might’ve felt toward him.

“You’re so hot tonight. It’s driving me up a tree,” Dane mumbled as his mouth traveled to her ear, her neck, and in the darkness, in spite of herself, she thought about her mystery lover-Jay. Suddenly Dane’s presence became bearable, his touch actually inspiring her passion. Her lips sought his, and finally she returned the kiss with equal fire, all the while picturing him as someone else.

Her self-deception worked, sparking her desire at last. Part of her hated that it did; it broke her heart to fantasize about someone who hurt her so badly. Yet she couldn’t help herself, thinking of her body pressed against Jay, who instinctively knew how best to please her-information he’d somehow derived from connecting with and trusting her outside the bedroom.

The memory that someone had intimate, expert knowledge of her body and her needs had her tangling her legs around Dane’s waist. She didn’t even realize she’d been moaning until a loud crack of a headboard sounded against the wall. The headboard next door.

The shock of the familiar noise ripped through Kimber as she remembered seeing Jay’s car in the parking lot. Now she was forced to hear just why he was there.

Taryn’s screams came through loud and clear. “Oh God, Jay. Yes, right there… Oh yeah, that’s good… Don’t stop, Jay, don’t stop.”

Dane laughed and kissed her neck again. “Guess your neighbors have the same idea we do. Wouldn’t it be funny if it was your Jay, the guy who introduced us?”

Kimber’s lust turned into lead in her stomach, and she rolled off the bed, disoriented and on the verge of what she could only assume was a panic attack. She stumbled from the room and into the kitchen, where she flipped on the light and took a few deep breaths while trying not to cry.

Pepperoni appeared in the doorway, then wound around her legs in both greeting and a not-so-subtle reminder he was hungry. Operating on autopilot, she scooped a tablespoon of wet food in Pepperoni’s bowl as Dane shuffled into the kitchen, looking drunk, horny, and confused. “Bables?”

“Just feeding the cat.” She avoided eye contact, didn’t want him to ask what was wrong.

“You got up so fast, I thought I did something wrong.” He approached her from behind and wrapped his arms around her, burying his face in the crook of her neck.

“No, you go lie down. I’ll be back in a second.”

“Okay.” He drew away and gave her ass a slap. “I’ll just listen to the couple next door and get ideas.”

Kimber forced a laugh that sounded like a grunt of pain as Dane left the room, and her eyes filled with tears. She sank down on the kitchen mat beside Pepperoni, who briefly glanced up from his tuna feast in acknowledgment. She pressed her fingertips to her now leaking eyes and tried to calm her breathing, which left her in trembling gasps. How could Jay treat her like she was the most important person in the world one night then hop into someone else’s bed like she never mattered at all? If she’d had any remaining notion that Jay still harbored any feelings for her, it was gone now.

She sat on the kitchen floor long after Pepperoni had finished eating and padded off into the darkness. The quiet of the room except for the hum of the refrigerator both comforted her and emphasized her loneliness. Finally she stood and, with trepidation, returned to the bedroom, where Dane snored, fully dressed and sprawled horizontally across the bottom of the mattress. No further sounds came from the other side of the wall.

Kimber changed into her pajamas in the dark and crawled under the covers, careful not to kick Dane. Then she lay awake for hours, unable to recall a time when she’d ever felt more alone.

Chapter Eight

Jay awoke to his body rocking back and forth with a violent vigor often associated with storms at sea. He scrambled to a sitting position on the bed, his heart jumpstarted as he looked around the unfamiliar room and recalled he’d fallen asleep in his clothes last night next to Taryn, who stood beside him with eyes the size of the moon.

“Brad’s here!” she shrieked in a whisper. “His car just pulled up.”

“Okay, so…” He rubbed his eyes, desperate to understand the situation, but the sleep still clouding his brain refused to let logic in.

“You have to get out of here.” Taryn tore the sheets off him and dragged him from the bed. “He’ll be walking through the door any second.”

“How am I supposed to get out? The only exit aside from the front door is off the balcony.” He held up a finger. “And before you ask, no, I’m not jumping.”

The front door opened, and Taryn let out another shriek. “No time!” Before Jay could protest, Taryn ushered him into the wide, two-door closet, kicked his sneakers in after him and shut the door.

He squeezed his eyes shut and pinched the bridge of his nose, feeling the onslaught of a headache. “You’ve got to be kidding me.” What a fucking sitcom. He listened to Taryn scamper from the room and down the hall to presumably meet Brad, and he cursed his luck, which had become part of his normal routine. Jay jammed his feet into his sneakers, stepping on the pointy heel of a woman’s shoe in the process, but silenced his hiss of pain as he heard someone enter the room, kissing and groping another someone.

“I missed you so much, Brad,” Taryn said between kisses as if she hadn’t slept next to Jay all night, even though there had been a healthy stretch of mattress between them.

“I’m so sorry I left,” replied Brad, or so Jay gathered from the crack between the closet doors. Brad cupped Taryn’s face. “It’ll never happen again. I promise.”

She smiled like an angel with a devil’s intentions. “Make it up to me?”

In one fluid, continuous move, Brad had Taryn on her back, her pajama pants off, and his head between her legs, and Taryn erupted into a series of high-pitched moans.

Jay sat back in the closet atop a haphazard pile of dirty laundry and dropped his head against the wall. He’d officially reached a new all-time low. Whoever thought he’d come to this point? On the day he met Kimber, never did his sixteen-year-old self imagine him in this predicament.

As always, he wondered what she was up to. Taryn’s wails of pleasure brought to mind a nasty assumption. Was Dane still at Kimber’s? Were they lying in bed, giggling and having a conversation that only made sense to them as they delayed the inevitable rising to greet the day? Were they sleeping, limbs entangled, or was he between her legs and thrusting inside her like he had last night?

Jay’s stomach turned over and tears stung his eyes. The whole situation had spun so out of control he couldn’t think himself to any conclusion. Maybe there was none. Maybe this was it.

Through the crack, Jay could see Taryn lost in bliss, holding Brad’s head close to her pussy as she gyrated against his face. The sight reminded him of how Kimber had looked when he’d gone down on her, a memory that did nothing to abate morning wood. He couldn’t believe it was an actual memory; it had been so surreal he felt like he’d dreamed it, yet he could recall every aspect in its entirety, from her breathy moans and “oh Gods” to how her inner thighs had brushed his face to her smile to how silky wet she was, and the rosy blush on her face as she neared climax…

He already had his cock out and in his hand before he made the decision to do so. He stroked in time to Taryn’s cries, which built in frequency and pitch until she tugged Brad upward and turned over with her ass in the air. Brad unzipped his pants and slammed into her with the force of a man possessed by the call of his primitive side.

Jay watched the couple screw and scream their way to a sexual release, half-registering what was happening and half-picturing himself doing the same to Kimber. He imagined taking her from behind and burying his cock inside her to the hilt, her ass bouncing with every thrust and her moaning his name.

Soon his hand and cock went slick with his cum, and his arousal ebbed to an overwhelming depression. It was quite possibly the most pathetic, loneliest thing in the world to jerk off to someone who hated you. The empty cavern in his chest widened as he grabbed one of the socks from the laundry and wiped himself clean while Taryn and Brad collapsed in a sweaty heap atop the bed, still moaning and mewling. He’d been mistaken-this was a new all-time low. Just when he thought the limit had been reached, he somehow managed to push past it. So ambitious.

Brad and Taryn exchanged more hushed laughs, whispers and kisses until finally Brad left the room and Jay heard the shower running. Taryn then sprung from the bed, wrapped herself in a sheet, and flung open the closet door. “I’m so sorry.” She blushed, although what was left to be modest about? “I couldn’t help myself.”

“I know the feeling.” Jay got to his feet, his legs cramped and aching.

“You go outside. I’ll meet you on the steps.”

“Fine.” He wondered what she could possibly say to him as he left the apartment undetected by Brad, who was singing “Kryptonite” in the shower when he walked past the bathroom. He sat on the concrete front steps of the building, praying to whatever deity on duty that may have been listening that he didn’t run into Dane or Kimber or worse, both of them together.

Taryn, to her credit, didn’t leave him waiting long, and he stood as she emerged wearing a bathrobe and slippers shaped like smiling clouds. She gave him a sheepish smile. “I just wanted to say goodbye to you properly. Not that anything that’s happened has been proper.”

“That’s for damn sure.” He kicked a stray rock that had somehow made its way onto the sidewalk.

“But when has anything been proper, really?” Taryn shrugged. “I can’t think of a single time in my life when something’s gone by the book or been normal. Nothing’s ever been easy.” She smiled at him and gave his shoulder a light punch. “What I’m trying to say is that people are surprising, and that’s something to be happy about.”

Jay heaved a sigh, emptying his lungs. “I don’t know. I just don’t.”

“Exactly.” Taryn held his face in her hands, obliging him to look at her. “And that, my friend, is a beautiful thing.”

* * *

Kimber awoke the next morning alone although the TV blasted in the next room. She padded into the living room to see Dane on the couch, eating from a can of ravioli beneath a poorly executed afghan she’d once made when she was going through her knitting phase. His eyes were on the TV but he looked up and smiled when Kimber entered. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and set the can aside, then stretched his arms toward her. “Bables.”

“What’re you doing out here?” She collapsed on the couch beside him, avoiding his reach.

“Just hanging out. I couldn’t sleep. Too much on my mind.”

“Like what?”

“Just things.” He picked up the remote and flipped through the channels, pausing on Animal Planet. A poodle in a tutu was jumping through a ring of fire. “Cool.”

She plucked the remote from his hand and turned off the TV.

He looked to her with a contrite grin and rubbed her knee. “I was thinking about how stupid I was, falling asleep on you last night before anything could happen. Damn, I definitely wanted to see that through. You were never like that before. I’m a lucky guy.”

Kimber narrowed her eyes. “Why are you lucky?”

“Because. I get to call the sexiest chick in this dump of a town my girlfriend.”

She crossed her arms. “We’re not together, Dane.”

“What do you mean?”

“Exactly that. You and I-we don’t work. We don’t make sense.”

“But…” His satisfied expression became one of bewilderment. “But I want you in my life.”

“What about what I want?”

“I thought that was what you wanted.”

“Not anymore. We have too many problems. It’s like a giant onion of problems, with all sorts of layers, and we just can’t get to the core of anything. They’ll never be fixed.”

“Everyone has problems, bables. We’ll fix ours.”

“Stop calling me that.” She rose from the couch and paced the length of the room. “And we won’t fix them. We can’t. If we could, why didn’t we fix them before?”

“I don’t know.” He shook his head, looking lost. “I guess I was just being a stubborn jerk.”

“But now you think things could be better.”

“Well, I fucking hope so, Kimber, because I’ve never been this unhappy before in my life. I just don’t feel like myself. I’m not Dane without Kimber.”

“But you are. Everything you are is you without me. You’ve always been you without me.”

“And I don’t want to be,” he insisted. “I don’t understand. Look, I can be a better boyfriend. I’m ready for that now. I want to be good for you. I want to be with you.”

She stopped pacing and stared at him. Dane finally offered what she’d wanted after all these years. He knew the script; he knew all the right things to say, as if he’d sifted through the card aisle at Hallmark to pull his inspiration.

But now the offer wasn’t enough. It hadn’t been before, and it certainly wasn’t now. She thought of Jay, insisting he’d only ever need one chance, and she knew it was true. She would never be sitting around, having a similar conversation with Jay, because-all current events aside-Jay would never blow it like Dane had, over and over, without a second thought. A rush of affection mixed with regret flooded Kimber’s chest, and she sighed. “I think you should go.”

Dane watched her, stunned, his eyes like a battlefield after a war. “Are you really serious? You don’t want to be with me?”

“Come on. You know this doesn’t feel right. It never has.”

He stared at the rug, resembling a little boy whose ice cream just toppled from the cone and onto the hot sidewalk. A few minutes of silence drifted by until finally he clapped his hands on his knees with finality and stood. “Well then. Don’t I feel like a real asshole.”

Kimber sank back down on the couch and noted her apathy toward her ex-boyfriend as she watched Dane jam his feet into his sneakers, his movements slow, like he expected her to change her mind. When she said nothing, he said in a rush, “Y’know, Kimber, I really hope you find whatever it is you’re looking for. And I hope someday you’ll actually let someone try to make you happy, or else you’re going to be really lonely.”

She didn’t mean to laugh, but she did. What the hell was he talking about? Did he know her at all? Probably not, but that didn’t seem to matter now. “Thanks.”

He shook his head, stunned. “What’s wrong with you? Why are you being so ‘whatever’ about this? About us?”

Kimber wanted to ask him why he’d been so “whatever” about their relationship for more than half a decade, but that would surely prolong his presence. She shrugged instead.

“Fine. I guess that’s it then.” A long pause followed. “I can’t believe it’s really over.” Panic welled in his eyes. “I don’t understand why we have to end things this way, but if you’re being for real, then for what it’s worth, I just want you to know how fucking sorry I am. You gave me all the love and compassion and caring I could have ever asked for, and I just couldn’t reciprocate and I don’t know why. I’m going to try to get help while I’m at my parents’.” He sucked in a shaky breath. “I also want you to know how much I care for you. I care for you endlessly, and you’ve changed my life. If I never talk to you again, I hope that everything works out for you.”

The icy ambivalence around Kimber’s heart melted at the sadness and desperation in Dane’s voice. No matter how she felt toward him now, she had loved him once. He’d been the most important person in her life for a long time, and they’d had good times together. She used to love how he’d hug her tight and sigh her name, and when they’d laze around in bed in the morning, making up songs or drawing “tattoos” on each other with washable markers. One of her favorite memories of the times she’d spent with Dane included the night they drank Corona, watched Roundhouse episodes taped off the TV ten years prior, and kissed during the dated commercial breaks.

But laying around in the darkness giggling and feeling close for a few hours wasn’t a relationship-at least, it didn’t count as one for her any longer. She wanted more than that. She deserved more than that. She deserved more than phone calls after midnight, phone calls that were weeks late, phone calls that were had only on Dane’s terms. She deserved more than four dates in a span of a year, more than no Christmas presents, more than forgotten dates and empty promises. For how much she had cared about a boy whose rash of excessive, downright cartoonish bad luck always featured more prominently in his thoughts than her, she had always deserved more.

Kimber harbored no ill will toward Dane, however. She didn’t feel that he was a bad person, just one who made horrible decisions, and she could certainly emphasize with that. He never maliciously intended to hurt her. He had no master plan to break her heart, no blueprints of how to best her, no satisfaction derived from her misery. They just weren’t compatible. The answer really was that simple.

She got off the couch and hugged him, her heart in pain as his grip around her tightened and he cried into her uncombed hair. “I’m sorry.” She rubbed soothing circles over his back. “You changed my life, too. And I really do wish you the best.”

Dane hiccupped for air then pulled away, not looking at her. “I’m gonna go now.” He opened the door and paused, like he had something more to tell her, but all he said was, “Bye.” Then he was gone, and she knew it was for real this time.

* * *

Kimber arrived at Ferney’s just as her sister and Paul were in the process of breakfast-misshapen blueberry pancakes served on Star Wars dishes.

“Paul made them himself.” Ferney, wearing a silky black Victoria’s Secret robe, cut into a pancake doused in syrup using the side of her fork and took a bite, making exaggerated mmm noises.

“Careful there, my little waif.” Kimber nodded to Ferney’s plate. “You may actually be ingesting calories.”

“It’s Saturday. I’m allowed to cheat a bit.”

“Once a week, she pretends she has a tapeworm and inhales everything in the cupboards,” added Paul, who, in addition to eating his pancakes, was alternating taking bites from an apple in one hand and a block of Colby cheese in the other.

“Paul! Quit telling my secrets and get back to what you do best-obeying my every whim.”

“Yes, mistress.” The tiniest of wry smiles teased the corners of Paul’s mouth, and Kimber felt wistful hearing the banter. She’d love the intimacy of teasing a boyfriend about quirks learned only through loving someone.

“Hungry?” Ferney patted Kimber’s back. “Do you want Paul to make you some pancakes?”

“I’ll just have some coffee.”

“Paul, be a love and pour Kimmy some caffeine.”

He put aside his apple and cheese and heeded Ferney’s command, despite also manning the browning pancakes, and passed the coffee to Kimber in a faux-mangled mug reading I Got Smashed in New York City, along with the cream and sugar.

“Isn’t this fun?” Ferney asked. “It’s like we’re at a diner.”

“I bet I get stiffed like a diner waiter, too,” Paul said.

“That will be true if the wait staff doesn’t remain seen and not heard. Now, Kimber.” Ferney wiped her mouth with her napkin and crossed her legs, resting her shoulders against the breakfast nook’s high-backed bench. “Let’s hear about your night with Dane. I want all the details.”

Kimber summed up the events concerning Dane, lacking emotional investment in her own story. It was like partaking in an obligatory sensible dinner when all she wanted to do was skip to dessert, the whole reason she was there.

“You really booted him out for good?” Ferney gave a polite golf clap. “Good for you. Finally.”

“Mmm.” Kimber twirled her spoon in her coffee, chewing her lower lip.

Ferney sighed. “I shouldn’t be so surprised though. I knew it’d be easy for you to forget Dane the moment you found someone else to make you miserable.”

That her sister’s words stung so much shocked Kimber, and she folded forward and burst into tears.

“Oh shit. I’m a terrible sister.” Ferney slid across the bench toward Kimber and smoothed her hair. “This is about Jay, isn’t it?”

“Everything’s such a mess.” No matter how often Kimber wiped her eyes, tears continued to spill from them of their own accord. “I don’t know what I want to do.”

“You want to be with him.”

“No.” However, the idea spoken aloud by someone else sent a rush of inexplicable optimism through her.

“Yes, you do. You just have too much pride to see past it.”

“Speaking of pride, how much of mine do I have to swallow to be with him since I heard him fucking the neighbor last night?” Kimber snapped, wiping her eyes and trying to regain her composure. “That’s a pretty clear indicator of him not giving a shit about me, I’d think.”

“And last night you were with Dane and pining for Jay the whole time, so apparently it’s not such a clear indicator after all.” Ferney crossed her arms and gave Kimber a patient, expectant look. “Just tell Jay what he has to do to make it up to you and get back to having amazing sex already.”

Kimber dropped her head in her hands and groaned. “It’s not that simple.”

“Then simplify it.” Paul’s firm tone made Kimber look up with surprise.

“Paul, please.” Ferney sighed. “The girls are talking here.”

“Just let yourself feel a certain way without trying to explain them or attaching stipulations on them,” Paul continued as if he hadn’t heard Ferney. “Don’t say, ‘I feel this way but I shouldn’t because of X, Y, and Z.’”

Ferney shook her head. “Oh, Paul. How many times have I told you that if I wanted your opinion, I’d just beat it out of you?”

To Kimber’s shock, Paul picked up the skillet he’d been cooking pancakes in and dropped it in the sink, still sizzling, atop a stack of dirty dishes. He turned to his fiancée, Lucifer blazing in his eyes as he yanked off the frilly apron and hurled it on the counter. “Fuck you, Ferney.” Then he stalked from the room.

A gasp sounded in Kimber’s throat. She’d never seen Paul so angry. She’d never seen Paul convey any emotion, really, except total subservience. “Ferney, is he-”

Ferney patted her sister’s forearm with a few swift slaps. “I’ll go see what his problem is.” She rose from her chair and followed Paul, and Kimber heard the bedroom door slam and them lapse into an argument.

Uneasy, she wandered outside on the front porch, out of earshot, and sat on the top step. She watched a little girl push a stroller holding an American Girl doll around in circles in the driveway across the street, and she wished she could meet herself when she was that age. She’d tell seven-year-old Kimber to follow her heart, stay away from trans fats, and not agree to fucking strangers while wearing a blindfold. That was some wise wisdom, she felt.

The screen door swung open behind her and she turned to see Paul exit the house and give a nod as he sat on one of the patio chairs. “You may not have noticed this,” he said, “but your sister’s one bossy bitch.”

Kimber gave a weak chuckle, startled at Paul’s choice of words, now anything but deferential. “That’s putting it gently.”

“Yeah. Sometimes she takes it too far though. Sometimes I think about what life would be like without her in the director’s chair, if you know what I mean.”

She swallowed hard, the conversation taking a very uncomfortable turn. “I don’t think I should be hearing-”

“Sometimes I think about being with someone else, someone who never cracked a whip, and sure, that’s fine and all. But then who will do all the things Ferney does that I absolutely love? I know you girls think I’m a total dweeb, always hiding behind a comic book, but truth is I’ve actually dated a lot of girls-a fact your sister gets really jealous about but refuses to admit. And I’ve come to realize that a little loss of autonomy is nothing compared to how Ferney makes me feel on the whole.

“What I’m trying to get at in my jumbled, roundabout way is that in real life, nothing will ever be exactly as we want it to be. But it can come pretty damn close, and if we don’t recognize that, we’ll always be dissatisfied and miss out on some really amazing experiences.

“I don’t know all the details and Ferney’s actually good about keeping confidences, but this guy you talk about… It seems like he did a terrible thing that was out of character, out of desperation, and it sounds like you’ll be a lot unhappier without him if you decide it’s right not to forgive him. Like I said in the kitchen, just try feeling whatever it is you feel for him without justifying why. Go with it. See what happens.”

“Damn, Paul.” Kimber gave a nervous giggle. “You’re like the Silent Bob to Ferney’s Jay. I feel like I’m in Chasing Amy right now.”

He smiled. “I wish you a more resolved ending then. And I’m sure you’ll get it.”

“Thanks.” For the first time, she felt like maybe the resolved ending could be a happy one as well. “How’d you get to be so wise?”

“Blueberry pancakes aren’t my only specialty.”

Ferney joined them on the porch, still clad in her bathrobe and looking sullen like a spanked child. She stalked across the gritty wooden planks to Paul, and Kimber wondered if her sister was going to ream into him within earshot of the entire block; Ferney had a voice that carried. Instead, Ferney crawled into Paul’s lap like an oversized cat, looking contrite. “I’m sorry.” She wound her arms around his neck. “I was being a bitch.”

“A little.” Paul squeezed her back. “I forgive you.”

“Wow.” Kimber rubbed her eyes. “Did I just see what I think I saw-Ferney apologizing?”

“Yes, and you best forget you ever did.” Ferney’s voice was muffled in Paul’s shirt.

“Your sister is a very proud, stubborn creature,” Paul said, as if he had to explain.

“But I’m also fantastic in bed, so Paul can’t stay mad at me for long,” Ferney added, although her tone lacked her usual confidence, and her barb seemed to seek reassurance that everything was still okay.

Paul looked to Kimber and shrugged as he stroked Ferney’s back. “What can I say but forgive? If you want to continue with someone, that’s just what you have to do.”

Kimber looked down at her hands. “Even if that person doesn’t deserve it?”

“Do you really think he doesn’t?” Paul asked. “And who are you really punishing if that’s what you decide?”

Those two questions clung to Kimber for the rest of the day and long into the night. The sheer possibility of forgiving Jay and being with him despite their unfortunate beginning was like discovering a new window in a room she’d lived in all her life.

Maybe he did deserve it. Maybe she did, too.

Chapter Nine

Kimber crossed Airy Peak’s vast parking lot the following Friday night, weaving between the cars as she made her way to her coupe and planned her weekend. Alison had invited her to see a local band that evening, and she knew it would be good for her to go out and deviate from what had become her usual routine: applying to schools for the fall semester and shopping for “grown-up furniture” with Ferney. These efforts led her to be the proud owner of an actual coffee table and lent her life the illusion of forward momentum, yet they provided little comfort and no true distraction from how lost she actually felt. All her progress during the day meant nothing during her sleepless nights, when she suffered from thoughts of Jay drifting further from her every minute, eventually finding someone new. She went out of her way at work to avoid him, anticipating, fearing, and hating that he likely did the same. Her evasion was an act of self-preservation; she knew she wouldn’t be able to handle hearing about him ever getting involved with someone else. She recalled all the things he’d told her about being in love with her that one night, and her body would stiffen with pain at the idea of someone else ever meaning the same to him like he claimed she had.

The reminder was enough to make her decide on a quiet night in with the cat and her Netflix subscription while painting her nails mermaid-tail turquoise, but the thought dissolved at the sound of someone calling her name. She turned to see Moquest, huffing and puffing in an effort to close the distance between them. She paused, giving him the opportunity to catch up, although she was quite aware of the role Moquest had played in the mystery-lover situation and was anything but happy to see him.

His round face rosy with exertion, he stopped next to her, breathing hard with his hands to his chest. “Way to make a fat guy run. If I have a heart attack, I’m blaming you.”

“I’m so sorry.” She snorted and continued her trek to her car. “I forgot, it’s me who should be apologizing to you.”

With a burst of energy, Moquest rounded a few cars and stepped in her path. “Don’t crucify me, Kim, you got no case. I sent him up to the room when you were blindfolded that night, but you guys took care of the rest. Yeah, I could’ve told you the truth, and even I think what he did was shitty, but what did you want me to do, rat Navarrete out? He’s my best friend. And we both know Jay’s a good guy. He eventually does the right thing.”

“‘Eventually’ came a little late this time.” Kimber tried to sidestep him, but he blocked her with surprising agility.

“Now, now, don’t be a grump. No one faults you or sees you differently or any of that, so let’s let bygones be bygones, all right?”

“No, thanks.” She edged past him and bee-lined for her coupe.

He jogged after her. “That hurts, Kim, that hurts real bad. But don’t worry, you can make it up to me. How, you wonder? Why, by attending my party tomorrow night, which celebrates me getting back in the saddle.”

“I could care less if you’re in or out of any saddle. Hell to the no.” Kimber jammed her key in the car door.

Moquest sidled up beside the lock, his back against the vehicle and his arms folded. “Look, it’s pointless to pretend you don’t care about Jay. We both know you do. I don’t understand why any of this is happening at all. Why don’t you guys say fuck the past and move forward like you both want to?”

“Like we both want to?” She whirled on him, her anger blazing through her and heating her skin. “I heard him fucking my next-door neighbor the very day after he finally told me the truth about what a sicko he is. Do you really think that’s something I’m going to forget? Do you really think that’s someone I want to move forward with?”

To her annoyance, Moquest laughed. “Would it help you to know he didn’t bone her? Rumor has it she was just having some fun while he was blowing chunks in the bathroom, sickened by you screwing your ex.”

Kimber felt the color drain from her face, startled by this new information. “I didn’t sleep with Dane. He came over but then I heard… And I just-” She growled, flustered with her own ineloquence. “Never mind. The point is, it’s over between Dane and me.”

He grinned. “I know someone who’ll think that’s good news.”

She squared her shoulders and looked away, squinting in the sunset. “That’s over, too.”

Moquest turned with an exasperated groan and pounded on the roof of the car. “That’s such bullshit. Just put away your pride and follow this three-step plan. Ready for it?” He spun around and ticked off the instructions on his fingers. “One, come to my party. Two, kiss and make up with Jay. Three, profit. Trust me, it really is that easy if you want it to be.” Then he gave her a pointed look and sauntered off, whistling.

Kimber finally sank into the driver’s seat, starting the ignition and blasting the air conditioner with the door open wide to ebb the stifling heat trapped in the interior. She rested her head back, her mind turning over with myriad scenarios, only one of them bringing happiness of any sort. But how could she possibly make that one happen?

* * *

“God be praised!” Moquest shouted as he had every other time he sank a striped ball into one of the pockets of the bar’s pool table. “Can life get any better? I submit that it cannot.” He tipped his head back and took a triumphant, commercial-worthy swig from his beer bottle.

Jay arched a brow as he chalked his pool stick. “Everything’s just coming up Moquest, isn’t it?”

“It really is. Ever since I gave up ex-strippers in favor of my naughty nurse, I’m a new man.”

“I don’t mean to split hairs here but as I recall, the ex-stripper gave you up when she caught you getting mouth to mouth from the naughty nurse.”

“It was mouth to something, all right,” Moquest quipped, circling the table.

While his friend sought the perfect angle for the most viable shot, Jay sipped his lager draft and looked around the oddly named Targo Beach Club, a tiki bar that defied the geographical logistics of Pennsylvania’s beach-less condition in favor of inflatable palm trees and throbbing Top 40 remixes. He noted three blondes, all full of their blondness, splitting one of the bar’s twenty-dollar island-themed drinks served in paint-can-sized plastic coconuts, a multitude of straws protruding from it, kraken-style. Moquest had picked the locale, which was where he met many of the characters that put in appearances at his parties.

Jay hadn’t minded; he’d been in the mood for a bar, and the Targo Beach Club was the perfect place to remind him why he wasn’t in the mood to go to a bar more often. Still, it beat sleeping for at least ten hours a day, which had become the norm. Between shifts at the casino and waiting for his summer classes to start, he often indulged in excessively long naps, having lost his interest in reading and feeling resentful of everyone’s happiness on TV. Even the sappy tweens on the Disney channel had relationships that made him feel lonely.

Each of his dreams was weirder than the previous one. When Moquest roused him from his slumber an hour earlier, Jay had been in the midst of one about the duke from the Wizard of Id trying to defeat the leader of a foreign country with elaborate weapons and schemes, but the leader had already invented the same product or plan, only faster, better, and stronger. Jay had awakened, feeling as though the dream’s plot was revolutionary, but now that he thought about it, it was too Spy vs. Spy, very unoriginal indeed. Still, he enjoyed waking up, feeling like a genius. In his sleep was the only time he felt smart anymore, the only time he wasn’t out actively hurting the people he most cared about.

Moquest gestured to the cover-slash-jam band-a pack of college kids and a forty-something hippie on the recorder-playing on the stage of the bar’s ground floor, visible from his and Jay’s spot near the second level mezzanine. “Should I get these guys to play at my party tomorrow?”

“Only if you want me to hang myself upon arrival. I’ve been praying for sweet death ever since they started playing.”

“You’re always praying for sweet death these days. It’s such a bore, man. Another reason to throw a party.”

This time the word snagged in Jay’s ear. “A party?”

“You bet. To celebrate me and my Hello Nurse overcoming the odds-”

“The odds being your ten seconds of shame over having been dumped.”

“-I’m whipping up a little get-together tomorrow night, and you’re invited.” Moquest poked Jay in the stomach with his pool stick. “So’s Kimber.”

“Fuck.” The good mood he’d been attempting to mimic burst like a cloud full of rain and Jay leaned heavy against the bamboo-print wallpaper, plummeting back to square one. The most miserable of all quadrangles.

“She and I had a nice chat today. I found out she didn’t fuck Dane or get back with him after all, so that should set your mind at ease.”

Jay grunted in response, even though the news did give him a rush of hope. Then again, having hope was dangerous, and just because she hadn’t wanted to be with Dane didn’t mean she wanted to be with him.

“At any rate, you both should show up at my little gathering,” Moquest continued. “I think it’d be a good opportunity for you two.”

“A good opportunity to do what exactly?”

“That’s up to you.” Moquest hunched over the table and squeezed one eye shut, taking aim. “But you could try talking about this hot mess you’re in so you can get past it. Then, it’d be all, blindfolds, ahoy!”

“I’m taking it Hello Nurse isn’t dating you for your tact.”

“No way. I keep it real. Corner pocket.” Moquest took his shot, and the ball rocketed into the desired location. He threw his hands in the air. “God be praised!”

Jay crossed his arms and waited for Moquest to finish showboating, doubting he’d get another turn in this game.

Moquest paused his celebration and leaned against the table, clasping his fingers around his pool stick. “Now, before I completely slaughter you this game, let’s be serious. You haven’t talked to Kim since your Night of Ultimate Confessions, which is fucked up, so why don’t you just talk to her at the party? It’s on neutral ground and the perfect opportunity.”

“I haven’t talked to her because I don’t know what to say. Nothing I do now is going to make any difference. She already told me she hates me.”

“Jesus, Navarrete, you’re one sad sack. She wants to be with you, man. Why don’t you stop acting like a whiny bitch and make her realize it already?”

Jay shook his head, not knowing what else to do or how to respond. Attempting reconciliation was absurd. It wasn’t like the time in college when he’d taken her pleather pants, cut out the back pockets, and made assless chaps for Moquest one liquor-soaked night-and she’d been livid then. Furthermore, how could he expect Kimber to forgive him when he couldn’t forgive himself?

“What you need to do is figure out why the hell you’re so obsessed with this girl. There needs to be reasons why this is worth the trouble.” Moquest held up a hand. “But don’t tell me. I’m sick of hearing about you two. Just think it over while I finish kicking your ass.”

Jay drank his lager as he watched Moquest sink all the striped balls, then the solids just to show off. He also pondered Moquest’s question. It certainly was a fair one, and one he’d never thought to reflect on or bring under analysis. It had always been a feeling, a knowing, a way of living, a state of being: in love with Kimber. The why and all its logic never before factored in.

Now, in lieu of all that happened, he found it only fair to dwell on the answer, although he was scared to learn what it was that really mattered to him, scared at the thought of possibly wasting a decade loving the wrong person, scared of having to face the fact that he ruined a lifetime with the right one.

But he did it anyway. He allowed himself to think of all the things he loved about Kimber, like her infectious laugh and how she made even the most ordinary, day-to-day things seem fun. In a town of inhabitants with the imaginations of sea-soaked driftwood, she was the sole beacon of endless fascination for him, like finding a long-lost Alphonse Mucha original at a garage sale. He found her incredibly beautiful, with her blonde hair, gold-brown eyes, curvy form, and that mouth-damn. It was no surprise the casino bar goers plunked down their hard-won cash in the form of generous tips every time she flashed them a flirty smile.

Furthering her attractiveness was how she lived her life. She brimmed with an energy and vivacity so strong it would be damn near exhausting if it weren’t so intoxicating. He liked that he could bring her to the park and trust her to derive meaning from it, and that she had ambition to go back to school and open her own bar someday, even if drama with Dane had put those goals on hold. He even liked her fluctuating mood swings, how one moment she’d be consumed with sadness over thoughts of her mortality and a half hour later she would be draping her sweater over her head so it looked like beautiful blue hair and positioning a maple leaf over the crotch of her pajama pants, announcing, “Hello, I’m Eve.” Kimber made the most ordinary events seem special, which is how she once coerced him into an evening spent wearing their bathing suits in a bubble bath together, while they colored on the walls with washable crayons and drank strawberry milk out of beer glasses. Not that he’d needed much coercion to get in a tub with Kimber, but the event had hardly been sexual, with Kimber next to him, splashing her chin over and over to create a waterfall beard and proclaiming to be Poseidon. Nevertheless, the moment had definitely made him fall more in love with her.

She wasn’t always selfless, but when she wanted to be, she gave all of herself. He would never forget his twenty-first birthday, when she gave him a silver flask engraved with his initials and a glittery, homemade “Jay’s Wish Candle” in the middle of a plate of chocolate chip cookies served with mudslide mix blended with half a bottle of peppermint schnapps. She’d given him a tutorial on delivering the perfect hug as well as head that had made him see stars. He liked how she could somehow make doing a favor for her something to look forward to. Actually, he both loved and hated that.

On that note, there were several things he didn’t love so much about her, like her taste in guys, her insecurity, and her tendency to dwell on her problems. But these attributes were so inherently part of Kimber he couldn’t imagine or prefer her without them.

“You come up with anything?” Moquest cut into his reverie, and Jay took note how his friend was already setting up another game, which was likely to be one-sided.

“I guess.” Jay nodded, his voice rusty.

“And what you came up with-is it all worth it?”

“Yeah.” He didn’t even hesitate.

“Then why are you giving up?”

“I’m not giving up.” The words were an automatic defense, but it wasn’t until they were out of his mouth did he realize how much he meant them. “I’m not giving up.”

Moquest smirked and pushed the pool stick back in Jay’s hand. “Then man up and do something about it.”

Jay knew his friend was right. When faced with the choice between a life with Kimber and one without her, there was no choice at all.

Now if only he could convince her to feel the same way.

* * *

Kimber arrived at Moquest’s party, feeling anything but celebratory. Her faded jeans, vintage Yellowstone Park T-shirt, and flip-flops made her feel like an outsider compared to the other guests. The girls were decked out in tank tops and skirts and surrounded by frosted-haired boys wearing Abercrombie polos and too much Axe. They looked carefree and full of bliss, too-another difference between her and them, and an important one. Were they really enjoying themselves, or were they just that good at pretending? How were they able to put their troubles out of their minds?

She heaved an impatient sigh and fought through the crowd. A Sublime song pulsed from the speakers, and everyone in the vicinity erupted into a sing-along. She’d witnessed this sort of phenomenon happen before, yet it never failed to surprise her. It wasn’t even a song that received a lot of radio airplay aside from college stations, and even then it had to be heavily edited to the point of no recognition. Still, everyone’s shoulders moved to the relaxed groove like they were one.

A generic hot girl, with too-straight hair and a beakish nose that was overlooked in favor of her size-zero midriff, scrambled atop the coffee table, which wobbled beneath all ninety-five pounds of her. She swayed to the beat, using her beer bottle as a microphone as she sang the Spanish verses dead-on but in a painful, off-key voice reminiscent of a cat piano, the felines screaming their pain in different note as their tails were yanked.

But her spectacle was the stuff of male arousal. Moquest, for one, dropped to his knees below her and reached for her as he thrust his pelvis in her direction. It didn’t take much, yet somehow it took more than Kimber even knew and she suddenly felt guilty, like an interloper stumbling upon a tribe’s sacred mating ritual she had no understanding of.

The girl drunkenly teetered off the table and landed in Moquest’s arms with a dizzy spin, and they both laughed, holding each other tight in a way that meant more than just sex. It dawned on Kimber that the girl was likely the naughty nurse who’d replaced the saucy stripper. Kimber had heard via casino gossip that Moquest had been raving about her to anyone with ears the past few weeks, and she had been expecting the nurse to give Helen of Troy a run for her dough, with hair done up in jewels, a face holding perfect symmetry, and not a tan line in sight. However, his latest ladylove looked like any other toned, giggly barfly with a vodka blush staining her cheeks. Still, they looked happy, and that was more Kimber could say for herself.

Moquest and his nurse straightened, and Kimber tapped him on the shoulder. He whirled around, a giant grin on his face as his eyes lit up. His genuine, undisguised happiness was almost enough to lift her mood, but not quite. She tossed her hands up and slapped them against her thighs. “Well, here I am.”

“I see that.” He pointed to the ceiling. “Just head on up to my room.”

“Yeah, right. The last time I did that-”

“-you couldn’t thank me enough.” Moquest smirked and crossed his arms over his expansive chest, his stance challenging her to defy him.

She narrowed her eyes at him, her annoyance and frustration mounting. “Matthew-”

“Just go on.” He spared a few moments to leave his new squeeze, spin Kimber around, and guide her toward the narrow staircase. “Don’t be shy.”

“There’s a different between being shy and being weirded out.” Kimber jogged up the steps, having no other choice with Moquest behind her, steering her to the second floor.

“You know, I don’t really like your Negative Nancy attitude. You should go back to being slutty, skirt-over-your-head Kimber. You were more fun then.”

“Don’t take this the wrong way, but I’m going to kill you.”

“Wow, good thing you put a disclaimer on that or else I would’ve been totally scared.” Moquest paused outside his closed bedroom door and gestured to it. “Well?”

Kimber eyed him with mistrust as she slowly gave the knob a twist. As soon as the door cracked, Moquest’s hands were on her back, shoving her inside and slamming the door behind her.

She whipped around and slapped the door. “Why are you such a freak?”

Her response was the click of a key turning in the lock and Moquest’s cackle.

“Good Lord.” Kimber rolled her eyes as she heard Moquest thunder down the stairs and return to the party. She glanced around the room, and her exasperated appraisal ended her confusion and sent a bolt of shock through her core.

Jay stood near Moquest’s window, looking just as miserable as she felt.

“Oh.” She raked her teeth over her bottom lip and tried to smile, even though she felt like crying. “Hey.”

His Adam’s apple bobbed with a gulp. “Hey,” he said, his voice scratchy, like he wasn’t used to talking.

Suddenly there didn’t seem to be anything left to say. Informal chitchat seemed inane and everything else felt too unwieldy, too frightening. She gave the knob a futile twist then sank onto the edge of bed, resigned to the hopelessness and the unavoidable awkwardness even though she despised the silence between them. Jay was her best friend. She’d told him everything-everything. Now a conversation felt like heart surgery without the anesthesia.

Jay cleared his throat. “Moquest thought this would be an opportunity for us to talk. Maybe he’s right.”

Nervous tremors rippled through her. “What’s to talk about?”

“Jesus, Kimber, really? Where do I even start?” Jay paced the room, raking his hands through his hair. “I can’t do small talk with you. Not now, not ever. I won’t even try.” He stopped and faced her, looking more distraught than Kimber had ever seen him. “So that leaves only the big stuff.”

“Right.” Kimber gulped like she was swallowing razor blades.

“Like I said, I don’t know where to begin, but I guess I have to at some point.” Jay took a deep breath. “We both know I’ve done a terrible, unforgivable thing. I was selfish. I betrayed you. I violated you and any trust you ever had for me, and it makes me sick.”

He sucked hard on his lower lip and squeezed his eyes shut. “I don’t blame you if you hate me. I hate me. I had no idea I could be such an awful person. But listen-and I know I sound insane and depraved and delusional-but I just want you to know how much I truly, completely love you. I always have. Aside from this mess we’re currently in, that’s been the only secret I’ve ever kept from you and it’s been my biggest one. And it breaks my fucking heart that I was so preoccupied and scared I’d never be with you at all that I totally disregarded anything you wanted, and I obliterated all the good times and memories we still had left between us. I wish there was something I could do to go back in time and be mature and respect your decision that you just wanted to be friends. Then I could still be a part of your life, and you’d be a part of mine, and I know now, no matter what, that will always be better than being without you.”

Kimber let out a few sad gasps, willing her tears not to fall as she stared at the floor, his words drilling holes in her last remaining reasons to never forgive him.

“Even though all the evidence points to me being the world’s biggest scumbag, I would never intentionally hurt you,” he continued, his voice cracking. “You’re my best friend and the girl I love. Like I said, I was a selfish prick, but I also wanted to protect you. I didn’t want you to be with a stranger who didn’t care about you at all, someone who wouldn’t feel like being with you was as good as life got. That’s what you deserve-to feel special, like you matter. That’s all I ever wanted for you.”

A brief pause followed his monologue. “I know it’s messed up to even ask,” he said carefully, “but since you haven’t punched me in the face yet, I just have to know-is there any chance that we can someday get past this?” He swallowed hard. “I know that’s asking a lot from you, and you don’t have to answer right now. Just think about it. And I swear to God, I’ll never bring up being more than friends with you again. I just-”

“What if I want to?” she whispered, her voice rusty as her nervous gaze met his. “What if I want to be more than friends?”

He watched her for a long moment, his expression that of a man suspicious that the universe was playing one big, cruel joke on him. “Is that what you want?”

“Yes.” She lowered her eyes, her confession scaring her. “But I don’t know how.”

Jay released a gusty sigh. “Kimber, I don’t have any right telling you how or when to forgive me or if you even should. But you know that being with you-really being with you-is the one thing that I want most, and if you want that, too, I will figure out a way to make this all up to you.”

They were silent for a moment, and Kimber realized the only thing separating them now was air and her pride. Now that they flirted with the concept of reconciliation, she looked up again with a sudden burst of playful bravery. “Would you shave off your eyebrows?”

His eyes widened. “Would I what?”

“Shave off your eyebrows.” She mimed using a razor over her own brows, hoping he didn’t notice how much she was shaking. “For my forgiveness.”

He breathed out a laugh. “Only if you’d actually forgive me afterward. If you wouldn’t, then no. And keep in mind you’d be the one who’d have to look at me.”

“Nuh-uh.” She wrapped her arms around her waist and pressed her lips together, trying to hide her mischievous smile. “I’d just wear a blindfold.”

“Oh, aren’t you just so goddamned funny.” He lunged at her, digging his fingers in her ribs, making her shriek with laughter.

“Okay, okay, give.” She curled into a fetal position to protect her body, which she felt hyper aware of now that he was so close and touching her. “Give!”

He stopped tickling her and took hold of her wrists, tugging her so she was sitting up and facing him. “Seriously. Tell me what you want me to do and whatever it is, I’ll do it, because Kimber, honestly, you’re it for me. And we’ve already done almost everything a couple can do, so I feel like we should at least try to be one.”

“I know.” Kimber swallowed hard and looked away. “But I’m scared.”

“So am I. How do you think it is for me, wondering if you’ll still want me with your eyes open? I’ve got a lot to lose here, too. But I don’t know why we can’t be scared together and figure it all out. I just want one chance at having something real with you.”

“One chance is all you need.” Her words were little more than a croak as she echoed his earlier vow.

His expression softened and he nodded. “That’s right. Now come here, you,” he said as he pulled her off the bed and into his arms.

An intense shyness bloomed through Kimber, both of them teetering on the brink of weird, foreign territory that she, until recently, never thought existed, let alone toyed with the idea of visiting. But it seemed even stranger to do nothing at all, so when Jay dipped his head and kissed her, slowly, softly, nipping his lips with hers, she responded in kind.

Kimber felt the room become a whole new place during that kiss. She allowed herself to relax, contentment overriding her anxiety. He swept his tongue inside her mouth, and her fear that being with Jay-her best friend, the boy she knew too well-like this would be too bizarre to work ebbed in favor of excitement. It wasn’t weird, it was wonderful. His mouth felt so right on hers, his lips firm and pillowy and making her dizzy with want. Her excitement mounted at the thought that she could be kissed like this every single day if she wanted to. She draped her arms around him and kissed him with a fervor she’d been saving for the right one without knowing she’d been saving it.

He pulled away slowly, trapping her lower lip between his teeth and giving it a tug before releasing it with a laugh and shake of his head. “I’m sorry.” He opened his eyes, smoky with desire. “You’re just sort of blowing my mind a little here.”

“I know.” She put a hand to her mouth in an unsuccessful attempt to hide her nervous giggle. “It’s definitely different. But it’s fun. I support it.”

“Good. I’m glad you’re a fan.” He rested his forehead against hers. “This is going to sound lame as hell, but I want to be your Moan.”

She burst out laughing. “You think you can give me physical, emotional, and spiritual orgasms?”

“Just give me the chance.” Jay leaned in and gave her a brief kiss. “But for now, what do you think about getting the hell out of here? I sort of need to take you on our first date, like, now.”

“How’re we supposed to get out? Moquest locked the door.”

He led her toward the window and snapped up the blinds. “That’s what the fire escape is for.”

“Fantastic. This date’s already off to a brilliant start.”

He grinned and kissed her again. “Finally.”

Chapter Ten

“Good God.”

Jay looked up from his task of shoving the futon into place and did a double take as Kimber staggered into apartment 18’s living room through the open front door, swaying from the weight of the cardboard box in her arms. “Please tell me you think this should go-oh, say, on the floor about two inches from where I’m standing.”

“Yes, Jesus, drop it.” He straightened and hurried over to her as she let out an oof and heaved the heavy box into his waiting arms. “Why are you even carrying this?”

“Because I’m strong,” she said with a whiny groan, slamming the door shut and kicking off her flip-flops.

“How many times do I have to tell you?” He set the box on the carpet with a thud. “You do not have Slayer strength.”

“Yes, I do. I just don’t have the proper training yet.” She collapsed on the futon he’d been in the process of moving, her legs dangling over the sides of the armrest. “What’s in there? More of your boring old tomes?”

“I’m stunned you even know what a tome is. I thought I was going to have to explain to you that before there were web comics, there were these things made of bound paper with words written on them.” He crouched down and removed Of Human Bondage from the box. “See?” He flipped through the pages. “This is what they call a book. Think of it as a very long Twitter update.” He grinned. “Since you’re going for your business degree in a couple of days, I’d like to think this lesson was of great value to you.”

Kimber slapped a palm to her forehead. “Wow, you are so nerdy, I almost can’t believe it.”

He stood and stepped between her legs, which she immediately locked around his waist as he leaned forward over the futon’s arm with a hand on either side of her head. “Then aren’t I lucky you have a thing for nerds,” he murmured before slanting his mouth over hers.

She turned away, giving him her flushed cheek. “Quit it. We’re never going to finish moving you in if we keep taking make-out breaks.”

“Sure we will.” His lips trailed down her neck. “It’ll just take a really long time.”

“Come on, get off me.” She closed her eyes and tilted her head back with a moan, giving him access to her collarbone.

Jay laughed. “That was so close to being believable-but you still have your legs around me. Face it, your body is saying this is so on.”

“No, it isn’t.” Kimber giggled as she tangled her arms around him. “Now get back to moving stuff.”

“Okay, I will.” Jay gave her a final kiss and tore himself from her embrace. Then he scooped her off the futon. “First, I’ll move this situation into the bedroom.”

She laughed as he carried her down the hallway, her bare feet bumping into a wall and knocking a picture frame askew while he nearly tripped over the plush panda bear being used as an unnecessary doorstop. When they reached the bedroom, he deposited her in the middle of what was now their bed, just missing crushing Pepperoni, who emerged from the unmade sheets with a look of alarm and raced down the hallway.

“Oh no.” Kimber shook her head. “The cat hates us now.”

“You, maybe. I’ll just give Puddypaws a can of sardines and we’ll be best friends again.” He toed off his sneakers and socks and crawled between her bent, parted legs. “But he’ll have to wait until later. I’m a little busy now.”

He took his time, raising the hem of her shirt to give her bare stomach soft, gentle kisses that were anything but innocent in intent. Kimber relaxed further against the pillows in willful submission and regarded him with heavy-lidded eyes brimming with anticipation. The fact she watched him do this to her, let him do it, hell, even desired it still took him by surprise.

Her shirt inched up her torso to just below the velvety underside of her breasts and he heard her breath catch. He moved upward to place brief, teasing kisses on her lips and nestled between her thighs, hearing her gasp as his hardening cock pressed against her clit through their jeans. He loved that sound, loved always hearing it when he first entered her, followed by her throaty, classic “Oh Gods.” Just the thought of them had him rocking against her as his tongue explored her mouth.

Jay briefly broke away to pull her shirt over her head and kissed her neck, working his way to the tempting skin peeping over the cups of her bra. He teased the top edges of the fabric with his tongue, seeking her nipples, and she writhed beneath him, pushing her hips upward. He tugged her straps off her shoulders and pulled her bra down just enough so he could see her light-pink nipples, already hard and looking so delectable he couldn’t resist tasting her salty skin.

Kimber moaned and locked her ankles behind him, and he kept at his slow, torturous pace, having found she enjoyed being teased and made to wait. He transferred his attention to her other nipple, alternating between sucking, flicking it with his tongue, and grazing the peak with his teeth.

She squirmed against him, an airy moan sounding in the back of her throat as her hands traveled up his back, beneath his shirt, feeling her way along his spine. She lifted the shirt as far as she could, forcing him to pause and take it off. This granted her the opportunity to wriggle into a position on top. The sight of her with just-rolled-around-in-the-sack hair, pouty lips, and her nipples still peeking over her bra made his mouth go dry.

Kimber kneeled over him, her hands on his bare chest, and gave him a sexy smile. “Oh, dear, look at this. I’m on top now. How did this happen?”

His response died in his throat as his hands traveled up and down the bare skin of her stomach, her sides, her back, unable to get over how unbelievable she looked. At that moment he didn’t care how any of this happened, only that it had.

She straightened and unsnapped her bra, freeing her breasts. Then her hands drifted to her jeans’ button fly, but there she paused. “Should I do the honors or do you want to unwrap your present yourself?”

With zero hesitation, he sat up and pulled Kimber’s hips toward him, undoing her fly with his teeth as she whimpered and tangled her fingers in his hair. He nipped the sensitive area around her belly button, his hands peeling her jeans down her hips as he moved his mouth to the top edge of her ridiculously hot lace hipster panties. Then he reenacted the move he’d learned from Brad the day he’d seen his neighbor and Taryn make love: he nudged Kimber backward, moved from beneath her, and yanked her jeans off the rest of the way.

She laughed. “Damn, that was downright impressive.”

“I got skills. Recognize.” He shrugged, feigning nonchalance as he rubbed her unbelievably soft legs, his heart hammering away. He craved a glimpse of her cunt, all pink, hot, and wet.

Kimber propped herself up on her elbows and nudged his shoulder with her foot. “What other kind of skills you got?”

It was the perfect segue, and he knew she knew it. Horny to the point where he couldn’t dream up a witty comeback, he bent over and lapped at the crotch of her panties, tasting how wet she already was. Breathy moans spilled from her mouth as his tongue fluttered over the lacy fabric, the sounds numbing his brain and destroying his ability to think of anything but making her come. Encouraged by her needy whimpers, he paused only to tear her panties off, then his mouth was on the pink pearl of her clit, sucking softly and drawing wet circles over the sensitive bud.

She bucked toward his face, her legs over his shoulders and her heels digging into his back. He probed her entrance with his tongue, her scent and taste driving him crazy, turning him primitive. He lifted his gaze to her face, looking for an indication she felt the same, and his heart paused. Kimber watched him, her dewy courtesan’s lips parted as she wore that sexy, stormy expression she always had when she was close. But also, she regarded him with total awareness, total consent, total passion. A knot formed in his throat and he moved up her body to kiss her, unable to believe such a day had finally arrived.

“Mmm.” Kimber’s cunt pressed against his bare stomach, making him grit his teeth. “Are we done with this whole foreplay business? Can I just get right to fucking you?”

Jay rolled off her and onto his back with an exaggerated sigh. “I guess, if you have to.” His entire body was dying for her to mount him.

Kimber giggled and sat beside him with her legs folded under her like a geisha, undoing his belt and jeans. He kicked free of them, rendering him as naked as she was. Then she slung one leg over him, straddling him, and he clutched her thighs, forcing himself not to thrust up inside her already.

She gave him a few slow strokes then guided him in her cunt, moaning all the way down. Jay’s eyes nearly rolled into the back of his head. The decision to give up condoms and get Kimber on the pill had been a phenomenal one. Her cunt clutched him like a slick fist and he stifled a groan. Could this ever get old?

Jay opened his eyes and his breath hitched at the sight of her riding him, the sunlight spilling in from the open window and over her bare skin, her fingers digging into his chest, his cock glistening as it disappeared inside her cunt. He became lightheaded, and the sounds they both made echoed through the room. “Holy fuck.” The words came out as a whoosh as curls of rosy pleasure snaked through him.

Her gaze met his as she swiveled her hips, making him bite his lip. “What?”

“This. You. Me. Us.” He shook his head and laughed, embarrassed by the lusty fog in his brain that made him so inarticulate. She was turning him stupid with arousal. “I can’t believe this is happening.”

She gave a throaty giggle. “Yeah, it’s pretty sweet.”

Suddenly needing more body contact and control, he flipped them over so he was on top and slammed inside her, making her cry out. He drove into her at a deep, even pace, trying not to let her moaning his and God’s name in his ear push him over the edge.

She let out one last groan and came apart in his arms, her short fingernails raking over his shoulder blades and her cunt contracting around his cock, signaling permission for and bringing about his own climax.

“Yay,” Kimber said with a happy sigh, hugging Jay and giving his cock, still inside her, a private squeeze. “That was fun.”

“I agree.” Jay rolled off her and flopped on his back, panting toward the ceiling. “Good work.” He extended his hand toward her, like they were business associates, and she gave it a single, firm shake before burying her face in his neck with a giggle. In turn, he wrapped his arms around her and crushed her to him in a way that made her squeak like a dog’s wheezy plastic newspaper. He could feel himself grinning like a fool and couldn’t think of any other time in his life when he felt so impossibly complete and at peace.

Then came a pounding on the other side of the wall.

“Woo! Way to go, guys!” came the sound of Taryn’s voice. “From what I hear, moving day is going pretty well.”

“Taryn!” said a shocked male, presumably Brad. “Leave the neighbors alone. They’re just having fun.”

“We sure are.” Jay sat up and gave the wall a noisy high five.

“Oh God.” Kimber hid her face in a pillow with a gasp. “That’s it. Forget moving in. We’re both moving out. How does Canada sound to you?”

“Too cold.” Jay turned her over, forcing her to look at him, and kissed her. “Sorry, but you better get used to it. They’re going to be hearing us-a lot.” A mischievous idea sprung to mind. “But first, you have some explaining to do.”

“I do?”

“That’s right.” He leaned over her to crack open her night table drawer and enjoyed her gasp when he withdrew the magenta vibrator. “How come you never told me about your other live-in lover?”

She clapped a hand over her eyes. “Just when I thought I couldn’t get more embarrassed.”

“Why, because you own a vibrator?” He gave the bottom of the toy a twist and enjoyed how her body jerked as it buzzed to life, a Pavlovian reaction that had a similar effect on him. “That’s not embarrassing, that’s hot.”

“Is it?” Her voice was little more than a whisper and her eyes went shiny with anticipation as he circled one of her hardening nipples with the toy.

He nodded, sucking on his lower lip as he traced a path down her body, the vibrator riding lightly on her skin. He moved between the valley of her breasts to her belly button, her back arching and her stomach caving as he reached her lower abdomen. She closed her eyes and dropped her head back in an act of surrender. It was intoxicating seeing her like this, all naked and spellbound and wanting in her bed. Their bed.

Jay outlined the creases of her inner thighs with the vibrator, Kimber’s every needy whimper threatening to crumble what remained of his self-control. She parted her legs, granting him a view of her shiny, pink sex, and his mouth went dry. Using the tip of the toy, he explored her folds, stroking her clit, probing her dripping entrance but not entering her.

Kimber raised her hips and gripped the pillow beneath her head, mumbling breathy, half-finished commands and words of encouragement. He bit back a smile. He loved her wanting this as much as he did.

Unable to stave off his own needs any longer, he pushed the head of the vibrator inside her, and her breathing became short and choppy with every additional inch that entered her. He twisted the bottom of the toy so it was on the highest setting and angled it, aiming for her G-spot. She shuddered and released a moan so primal it went straight to his already engorged cock. “Oh God.” Her grasp on the pillow intensified, all but wringing the fluff from it.

Jay sucked in a breath and watched as he plunged the toy in and out of her, the sight hypnotic, erotic. He pushed her knees farther apart and settled between them, continuing his motions. His free hand found her right breast and kneaded it, tugging at the nipple until it peaked. Kimber’s hand covered his, and his gaze moved from her cunt to her mouth as she captured his index finger in her mouth and gave it a good, hard suck, her tongue swirling around it.

Overwhelmed, Jay became completely undone. He lost the control he’d needed to hold back and, still fucking her with the vibrator, covered her clit with his mouth, sucking, kissing, nibbling, breathing in her musky, irresistible scent. Kimber, apparently forgetting all about Taryn and Brad, screamed her pleasure toward the ceiling as her hips bucked toward his face. Lost in sensation, he lapped at her like he’d never again have the chance. Within moments, convulsions racked her body and goose bumps bloomed over her skin, and his cheeks went damp with her juices.

She was still whimpering, eyes squeezed shut and lips pouty, as he kissed his way back up her body, nestling between her open legs. He buried his face in her neck and nipped at the sensitive skin there as she draped her arms around his shoulders. “What are you trying to do to me?” she said, her words a happy sigh.

“Make you come.”

“Mission complete. Congratulations. I don’t even think I can walk, let alone help you move the rest of your stuff in.”

He clucked his tongue. “Lazy ass.”

Her mock gasp and retort was cut short by more pounding on the wall.

“That last one sounded especially inspiring,” Taryn shouted.

“Jesus, Taryn, leave them alone,” Brad admonished.

Kimber’s eyes went wide as Jay laughed. “I’d forgotten about them,” she said. “On second thought, Canada isn’t far enough. I heard there’s a nice, cheap apartment located on the fringe of the galaxy. It’s worth checking out at least.”

“Forget it. You just have to face the facts.” He combed his fingers through her hair, running into the sex-inspired nest of tangles at the back of her head. “We’re going to have an awesome time together. And the neighbors are going to hear all about it.”

“Oh, really?” A naughty smirk danced on her lips. “What’re we going to do that’s so awesome?”

He pressed his mouth to hers and gave her waist a squeeze. “You’ll see.”

“Good.” She let out a sound that was both a giggle and a moan. “I can’t wait.”

About the Author

Lux Zakari is an erotica-writing, heart-breaking, gun-jumping, opportunistic, ink-stained wench masquerading as a librarian in the United States. A Renaissance gal who is always both playing and working, she is interested in a variety of mediums, including music, painting, sewing, illustration, photography and graphic design. More often than not, she gets carried away with an idea-and takes everyone else along for the ride.

Some of her claims to fame include reading the entire Sweet Valley High series, completing Rock Band 22s Endless Set List and almost winning a few hula hooping contests. If her heart had a voice, it would sound like a Florence + the Machine song. She is currently working on an album, as well as her next novel.

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