Chapter One

 

 

I’ve dated several guys since then. Not entirely successfully, but I am learning how to trust my instincts more. Phoenix and I have been doing really well. I like his drive and the passion he has for his work. He was really mature about it when I said I wanted to take things slow, and hasn’t pushed me much, physically. We met at a volunteer thing for the university library a couple months ago where I was picked to lead the kids’ reading corner, and he was one of the student journalists covering the event for the university. He’s three years older than me—the perfect age—and we have similar goals. He’s got amazing taste in restaurants and appreciates a quality glass of wine. He can go on and on about Vonnegut and Neitzsche like he actually understands them. He’s, like, a real grown up.

 

Plus, he’s extremely good looking—I actually realized last week that he sort of looks a little like my boss, Diego, and I’m not sure what that says about my subconscious. But where Diego is warm and attentive, Phoenix is kinda stiff. I need someone more grounded in my life, though. Because . . . well, let’s face it, I’m nuts.

 

And, seriously, I need to get over my girl-crush for Diego and stop comparing every single male I meet to my boss. It’s super unhealthy.

 

Everything is going to be fine with Phoenix. Great, even. I’m sure I’m overreacting about that look on his face. Maybe he just had a rough day? I’m being too sensitive because of that mess I made on Sunday night.

 

I reach up, self-conscious as I touch the bruise on my forehead at my hairline, the memory surfacing. The bump is gone but the spot is turning an angry yellow. It starts to throb as Phoenix gets closer.

 

No, he didn’t hit me—he’d be in a coma right now. This bruise was all my own fault.

 

I just freaked out. I got skittish. Again. But I apologized. Profusely. So, he can’t possibly still be upset, right?

 

We were hanging out in his apartment on his designer couch and he was telling me about an article series he wanted to pitch to the Times on modern artists and how they interact with their work. Something about it must’ve gotten him excited. Because before I knew it his lips were attacking me. He’d never kissed me like that; passionately. He was so urgent that it didn’t take long for him to have me on his lap, his dress shirt gone. It was nice, and I was so glad to be enjoying it, that I didn’t pull away like I normally would as things got . . . breathy.

 

But then his touch slipped under my dress, his fingers tugging on the elastic of my underwear with a snap.

 

And I jumped off his lap so fast, he let out a little choking sound.

 

I twisted around and fell backwards. Smacking my head on the coffee table. Like a dumbass.

 

Why, you ask? Why did I leap away from him like a fleeing gazelle?

 

I seriously have no clue. He’s hot. He’s not a bad kisser. And I do like him. But . . . well, I don’t know what to say. I’m crap at intimacy. I sabotage every moment because I second guess everything, and I can’t get out of my own head long enough to enjoy any of it. I get close to sex with a guy and inevitably panic. Which is pathetic. I can’t let Maxwell Patterson ruin my life forever. I need to get this wall out of my brain.

 

How, is the question. Who knows, I’m not a shrink. I probably need one, though.

 

After the coffee-table-head collision there was some blood, a lot of embarrassment. And a very solid end to the moment.

 

Phoenix hasn’t texted much over the last few days since The Incident. But he’s probably just been busy. I need to calm down. My imagination tends towards the ridiculous.

 

I watch him approach and force myself to put on my best relaxed face. “Hey, how was traffic? You look nice.”

 

He quirks his lips again with a smile that never reaches his blue eyes, then he leans over and gives me a quick peck to the cheek. “Thanks. I think our table’s ready. Unless you want to sit at the bar.” I start to get up but he takes off his jacket suddenly and sits on the stool next to me. “No, let’s just do this at the bar.”

 

My heart moves into my throat. Do this? “You want to eat at the bar?”

 

He shakes his head. “I just need a drink.”

 

“Oh.” I sit again and look at him. He’s staring at the bartender and fiddling with a stack of napkins. “Are you okay?” I ask, swallowing hard. “Did your meeting with that editor today not go well?”

 

“No, it’s fine. I’m fine.” He waves to get the bartender’s attention, then says loudly, “Double vodka, rocks.”

 

“Well, good,” I say absently. My nerves are officially raw. I clear my throat. “How did it go then? Was he open to your angle on the story?”

 

“The guy is still being a dick.”

 

I blink at the bite in his tone. “Oh,” I say again. I study his profile as his drink is set in front of him, admiring his intentional stubble, his expensive, perfectly-styled glasses that he doesn’t even need. He leans forward on his elbow, running an agitated hand through his brown hair, leaving it sticking it up on the one side. He closes his eyes for three seconds. And then he reaches out to grab the vodka and takes a deep swig. He definitely seems stressed.

I lean closer, so I don’t have to yell over the hum of the bar, and dare to ask, “Seriously, Phoenix. What’s wrong?”

 

He sets the glass down with a clink of ice. “Look, Verity.” He takes a deep breath and releases it. “I’ve dated younger girls before, I get it. You’re scared, inexperienced. Possibly a virgin, which I, uh, admire and stuff.”

 

I lean away, my breath suddenly frozen in my lungs. Did he just call me an inexperienced virgin? A lead weight settles in my stomach. I was right. It’s happening again.

 

“You’re nice,” he says with a tilt of his head, like a condolence. “I like you, really, I do. But I think you’re just too young. I need a woman. Not a child.”

 

He’s seriously breaking up with me. At a crowded bar? Before I can even explain what happened the other night. Wow. Dick move, Phoenix. I thought he’d at least wait until dessert.

 

My nerves spark at his condescending tone. “A child?”

 

The bartender gives me a sideways glance as he sets down a refill for Phoenix.

 

“It won’t hurt for long,” Phoenix says like I’m crying or something. And I want to hit him. Because he just keeps talking, making it worse. “You’ll find the right guy, someone more at your level. It’s gonna be okay.” He pats my arm then takes the glass of vodka, sipping it this time. “We don’t have to make a big deal out of it all.” His relief to be done with dumping me is obvious.

 

I tighten my lips, pissed. But I can’t stop the words that escape. “You could at least ask me if I’m feeling okay after hitting my head before you kick me to the curb for not wanting your hand in my underwear.”

 

His head pulls back. “This isn’t—I’m not breaking up with you. We were never together, Verity. I date lots of people.”

 

The words hit like an arrow to the chest. Why did I think I was becoming more to him? Of course, I was just a thing to do on a Sunday.

 

“And this isn’t about the other night,” he adds. “But since you brought that up; you do need to figure out what’s wrong with you. The whole thing was completely juvenile. I was just glad when you left so I could the accept the invitation to Professor Frasier’s body art symposium. Now that’s a woman who makes a man feel appreciated. Maybe you should ask to talk to her after her class this week—you’re in the noon group, right? Whatever you do, get help.”

 

My throat clenches. I can only gape at him. The guy that I thought was so perfect, so handsome and intelligent—he now strikingly resembles a well-groomed troll.

 

My response comes before I can stop it.

 

I reach out and snatch the glass from his hand.

 

And toss the contents in his face.

 

I slam the glass back down on the bar and slide off my barstool. As I grab my purse, I say in a sweet voice, hoping everyone around us will hear. “Whatever you want, princess. Have fun! I’ve heard Frasier has the whole alphabet. I hope your dick shrivels up and falls off.”

 

I turn away, walking through the crowd—who are currently watching me pass—as tears of anger and embarrassment rise into my throat.

 

Someone shouts behind me as I slip out into the night, “You tell him, girl!”

 

I can’t possibly feel proud of myself, though. I’ve become a cliché. I let the guy get too close, let myself think he’d start to care about me. But in the end, they never do. And I, of all people, should know better.

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

I’m half asleep when I stumble toward the bathroom in the middle of the night, trying not to fully wake up. Because then I’d have to think about the evening. I’d have to wonder how I keep ending up like this. And the four shots of vodka I choked down last night while I painted a clown face on the piece I’d been working on of Phoenix was very helpful in the forgetting.

 

It’s clearly not my night, though. Because as I shuffle down the hall of the apartment, I immediately I trip over a mound of rocks, stubbing my toe.

 

My eyes fly open, pain shooting through my foot.

 

I search the floor, confused. What the hell are rocks doing in the hall? Wait, that’s not a mound of rocks. It’s a mound of man. What?

 

I squint at the figure, trying to make it out in the dark. He’s curled up against the wall, arms hugging his chest for warmth. He groans from the impact of my toe, then rolls over and goes back to sleep.

 

Who the hell is this? And why is his leather-jacket-clad body in our apartment hallway?

 

A male is the absolute last thing I want in my path right now. He’s dressed like a 90’s rockstar-reject who probably gets kicked out of bars on a regular basis. I squint down at him as my toe throbs, but I can’t get a clear look—it’s dark as crap and I’m sorta still wearing vodka goggles. Maybe he belongs to Willow—my one roommate who actually brings boys into the apartment. But then why did she leave him in the hall? That’s not her style. Unless he’s too smashed to work his way back into the Love Den, as Willow calls her room. He seems too clothed if that’s the case.

 

I take a whiff and, sure enough, he smells like a brewery. A brewery in a weed shop.

 

Quality gentleman.

 

Willow usually picks them better than this.

 

The toe I stubbed on his metal jacket zipper pulses harder and when I look down I realize it’s bleeding. I have to hop my way past his snoring body before I pee my pants. I almost fall on my butt, catching myself with my elbow on the wall. Painfully. That’s gonna leave a mark.

 

Once I’m balanced again I consider kicking the male obstacle in the stomach with my good toe. I currently feel a bit violent towards the opposite sex. I may be overreacting.

 

Instead, I just whimper because I’m tired, I have a test tomorrow, and I’m fairly sure Phoenix will be somewhere on campus, his stupid grad-student self, looking smug, being fawned over by cougar profs.

 

I make my way to the bathroom, grumbling to myself about it. After I finish peeing and cleaning the blood from my toe, I carefully limp back to bed, praying I’ll see the rocker boy hung-over and miserable in the morning. Like I’m going to be.

 

But when I wake up several hours later and stumble into the front room, the mysterious lump in the hallway is gone.

 

The apartment is anything but empty, though. My two roomies, Willow and Jade, are in the kitchen chattering and laughing. My brother, Lance, is at the breakfast bar, smiling at them with a wicked grin on his face.

 

“What are you doing here, Lance?” I ask, shuffling over to the coffee pot. A stupid question but I ask every morning anyway. He’s always here because Mom doesn’t buy the “right coffee.” More like Mom and Dad don’t have two twenty-year-old girls dancing around their kitchen in tight jamme-shorts. “You need to get your own place. You’re almost twenty-four for crap’s sake.”

 

He smiles and pops a piece of bagel into his mouth. He’s got his usual dress shirt and slacks on for work. His blond hair is combed to look like he just rolled out of bed, but I know he spent at least twenty minutes getting it perfect. “Morning to you too, Sunshine,” he says. “You look bombed. Rough night?”

 

I squint at him, consider sticking out my tongue, but then remember what Phoenix said about how juvenile I am, so I just ignore him and pour my coffee.

 

“And I have my own place, you know,” he says.

 

“Mom and Dad’s pool house isn’t your own place.” I hug the cup to my chest, letting the smell of dark roast fill my aching head.

 

“Whatever you say, Sis. Helps me afford the BMW.” And he goes back to gawking at Willow’s ass. Her shorts say Smack My Smexy—he must be doing his morning reading.

 

Typical.

 

I turn to Willow. “Where’s your friend from the hall, Will?”

 

She makes a face like I’ve insulted her and blows at a strand of blond hair that’s fallen from her sloppy bun. “Not mine. That drunk boy belonged to your brother.” She points at Lance with the spatula.

 

I look over to Lance and raise my brow in question. “You brought that guy over here last night? How. . . how the hell’d you get in?” Because there’s no way I’d give Lance a key.

 

He smiles over at Jade. “Your loveliest roommate let me in,” he says, and Jade tips her head, her short dark brown hair curtaining the side of her face as a bright shade of pink starts to climb up her neck.

 

Willow makes a pouty face, offended, and flips her egg. “Hey!”

 

Lance winks at her, then blows her a kiss. She gives him a knowing look and I cringe. God, why do they insist on constantly flirting in front of me?

 

“Why’d you bring him here in the first place?” I snap. Of course, Jade let him in with his strange buddy. She’s always had a crush on my brother. Since middle school, poor thing.

 

She’d be poorer if he liked her back, though. The guy’s a slut and a tool. I love him, but I have to be honest. What Jade sees in him I have no idea. He barely gives her the time of day. And, as far I know, he’s totally clueless to her feelings. But clueless is pretty much his default setting.

 

“Your place was closer to the club,” he says, like it was the obvious choice. Bring the strange drunk man back to Little Sister’s apartment and dump him there. What could go wrong?

 

“Are you experimenting, Lance?” Willow asks. “Didn’t wanna bring the boy back to Mom and Dad’s for the romp in case the country club lot didn’t approve?”

 

“The guy’s a friend,” Lance says with a shrug. “And hopefully soon he’ll be a business partner.”

 

Willow winks at him. “A partner, sure.”

 

“So, you brought him here?” I look around the messy apartment—a pile of mystery laundry on the green garage-sale chair, scarves as window dressings, Jade’s tarp, easel, and painting supplies in a misshapen arrangement in the corner. My art stuff is tucked away in my room. I don’t like showing any of my work until it’s done. Or ever. But because there are two active artists in the apartment it always smells like turpentine.

 

Unless Willow is baking. Then it smells like a fire just got put out.

 

“He’s a musician, Verity,” Lance says. “He's used to sleeping in vans and busses. I didn’t think he’d mind the . . . um . . . decor.”

 

Jade giggles. 

 

“And you dumped the guy here with three vulnerable sleeping females, then went home?” I ask. I’m not sure why I’m having trouble believing all this. We’re talking about Lance here.

 

“I'd have kicked him in the unmentionables if he'd tried anything,” Jade says with a straightening of her shoulders. But I wonder; if she can't even work up the gumption to say balls how can she work up the nerve to kick someone there?

 

I met Jade in sixth grade, in a painting class at an art studio in The Valley. I was a private school kid and she was a breath of fresh air as a free-spirited homeschool girl. Even though she’s always been way smarter than me she still agreed to be my friend over a contraband cupcake I hid from the teacher for her. She’s only gotten smarter since, while I’ve only gotten nuttier. She currently speaks four languages, plays the piano, the flute, the guitar, and already has a partial degree in math that she got at Pepperdine. Oh, and she knits. I have no idea why she still hangs out with me.

 

She comes from a loud family of six kids, her mom is a Hispanic fireball who makes the best tamales you’ll ever eat—which she brings over in massive quantities every Christmas. Her dad is a Russian immigrant; a large, quiet man who smiles a lot. Whenever I see him he has his head in a book. I’m not sure if I’ve heard him speak a full sentence before. His English isn’t great. But the rest of the family makes up for his silence. Except for Jade. She takes after him. Silent, smiley, and sweet.

 

I’ve always been jealous of their huge clan. They actually enjoy each other. And even when they argue they make it fun. When bad stuff happens, they pull together. And really bad stuff is definitely happening to them right now . . .

 

Jade’s oldest sister was diagnosed with cancer this summer and a dark cloud has hovered over everything for the last few months. It’s why Jade cut off her hair, so she could donate it for her sister’s wig. She’s been taking weekends to go home a lot, and she’s been even quieter than usual. I’m just not sure how to help her. I keep thinking, if it was Lance, how would I feel? But I know Lance and I aren’t as close as her and her sister. Emma is like a god to Jade. And I know something’s wrong with me, because even in their pain I’m jealous of them all. Somehow her family is still able to laugh and hug and give, and I marvel at it. They work together. And love each other. It’s so strange. So beautiful. It breaks my heart that I’ll never have that.

 

"Not every guy is a creep, Verity." Lance says, breaking into my thoughts. He sounds like he’s offended that I’m assuming he’s an idiot for leaving a stranger in my house in the middle of the night. Which just proves he is. An idiot.

 

“The guy was high,” I say, annoyed. “I smelled the stuff on him when I tripped over his rocker ass.”

 

Willow scrunches up her nose. “You smelled him?”

 

Lance rolls his eyes. “His name is Fin. And don’t be so naïve.”

 

“Excuse me. Whatever his name is, I don’t want drug addicts in my—I mean, our apartment.” I wave at the girls. Willow laughs and Jade nods in agreement.

 

“You’re an artist, Verity.” He shakes his head. “How can you be so judgmental?”

 

“Don’t do it again,” I snap, irritated at his scolding.

 

“Anyway, he wasn’t high,” Lance says. “He drank a little too much. The bathroom was practically a hotbox and he’d gone in there a few times. I brought him back here so he could get some rest and sleep it off—the band’s tour bus was a little crowded, if you know what I mean.”

 

“The hall isn’t very restful,” Jade says. “I wonder how he got there. I’d set him up on the couch.”

 

I give her a look across the breakfast bar. “Not helping, Jade.”

 

“It’s all right,” Lance says. “I asked Mom and she said Fin could stay with them while he’s in L.A.”

 

I choke on my sip of coffee. “Mom. Our mom. She said a drunk musician could sleep on her six-thousand-count Egyptian cotton sheets?”

 

He wiggles his eyebrows at me. “She loves me.”

 

“Typical.” I smirk. Mom never says no to Lance. She has no problem telling me no. No, or Absolutely not, but especially Really, Verity, must we do this again, you need to learn responsibility. It’s the nice things she has trouble saying. Like when I won the eighth-grade Presidential Art Contest she said my drawing of Lincoln was “not as passé” as she thought it would be. But then she asked why I didn’t choose a less obvious figure.

 

“What’re you courting a musician for anyway?” I ask him. “I thought you were working on that TV project about the end of the world.”

 

“Fell through,” he says on a tired sigh. Happens all the time. The “Business” is tough all around and Lance seems to have a tougher time than most because he’s always getting distracted by something else he thinks is prettier—probably why he can’t keep a girl around for more than a weekend. “I’ve got this writer who wants to collaborate and do a few mixes with Fin. We’re supposed to cut the demo while he’s in LA and then try to get funding so we can write and record it for a release next Fall.”

 

“That’s soon,” Willow says. “Only a little over a year for all that?”

 

“It’s meant to go along with a high-budget movie which will be heading into post-production in a month or two and releasing around the same time.”

 

Jade leans on the counter looking intrigued. “Who’s in it?”

 

“All’s hush-hush, Sweetie.” He smiles at her and I can see her melt from across the kitchen. “Their lead for the score fell through so we’re auditioning with three other composers.”

 

“That’s actually really great,” I say, feeling glad to see him so excited about something that might actually happen. Maybe that’s why Mom said the musician could stay at her designer house—anything to see her perfect son finally become a man.

 

He smiles his boyhood smile at me. “Thanks, Sis.”

 

And in spite of the fact that he’s a dumbass, I smile back, forgiving him for everything on the spot.

 

 

This cannot be happening again.

 

I swallow a groan as I watch my boyfriend, Phoenix, approach the bar. My gut sinks at the stiff tilt of his full lips when he pretends to smile a hello, his shoulders tensing when he gives me a wave across the crowd. He taps something on his phone before he comes towards me, his neck muscles tightening as he gets closer.

 

And that familiar dread hits me. God, he’s totally over me already.

 

I immediately shove the thought aside, though, begging Fate to prove me wrong this time. I always assume the worst about a guy—of course, who can blame me after what Maxwell Patterson did to me senior year? No one wants to find out their V-card was the subject of a bet. They especially don’t want to find out online with thousands of other people. Lindsey Tredwell made sure that dagger went deep enough to wound me permanently. And Maxwell’s horrifying betrayal ensured that I now second guess every guy I meet.

 

But it’s been three and a half years and I’m over it. Or, at least, I’m getting there.

© Copyright Rachel A. Marks 2018,

No faeries were harmed in the making

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