Today, I am sharing with you the first three chapters from the mesmerizing final chapter in the Bad Romeo duet—Broken Juliet by Leisa Rayven…
New York City, New York
The Apartment of Cassandra Taylor
In Japan, they have something called Kintsugi – the art of repairing precious pottery with gold. The result is a piece that has obviously been broken, but is more beautiful for it.
It’s a concept that’s always fascinated me.
So often, people try to hide their scars. As if the slightest damage proves how weak they are. They equate scars with mistakes, and those mistakes with shame. Perfection forever marred.
Kintsugi does the opposite. It says, “There is beauty borne from tragedy. Look at these precious fault lines of experience.”
As I stand in my hallway, staring at the front door that reverberates with my former lover’s knocks, it occurs to me that even though Kintsugi is a noble concept, it doesn’t change the truth that once something is broken, it can never be anything else. Beautiful repair, no matter how elegant, doesn’t make it whole again. It’s still just a collection of pieces impersonating its former shape.
Judging from his soul-baring email this morning, which included an epic declaration of love, I believe Ethan wants to repair me. Ironic, considering he was the one who broke me in the first place.
I know you think I left because I didn’t love you, but you’re wrong. I’ve always loved you, from the moment I first laid eyes on you.
I’d spent so long believing I got what I deserved when people left me, that I didn’t stop to think I got what I deserved when I met you. I couldn’t comprehend that if I stopped being an enormous insecure jackass for five minutes, that maybe … just maybe … I could keep you.
I want to keep you, Cassie.
You need me as much as I need you. We’re both hollow without the other, and it’s taken me a long time to realize that.
There was the knocking again, this time louder. I know I have to answer it.
He’s right. I am hollow without him. I always have been. But what do I have to offer other than a shell of the woman he fell in love with?
Don’t be as stupid as I was and let the insecurities win. Let us win. Because I know you think loving me again is a crapshoot and that your odds are grim, but let me tell you something: I’m a sure thing. I couldn’t stop loving you if I tried.
It’s possible for him to love me and still leave me. He’s proven that time and again.
Am I still terrified of you hurting me? Of course. Probably the same way you’re terrified I’ll hurt you.
But I’m brave enough to know, it’s absolutely worth the risk.
Let me help you be brave.
Brave is a word I haven’t used in describing myself for a long time.
My phone buzzes with a message.
<Hey. I’m at your door. You in there?>
Excitement and fear crawl up my spine, racing to see which one can paralyze my brain first.
When I’d finished reading his email, I needed to see him. But now that he’s here, I have no idea what to do.
As I walk down the hallway, I feel like I’m dreaming. Like the past three years have been a nightmare, and I’m about to wake up. Everything feels slow. Important.
When I reach the door, I tighten my robe and exhale in an effort to calm my nerves. Then, with a shaky hand, I pull it open.
I make myself breathe as the door swings open to reveal Ethan, phone in hand. So handsome but tired. Nervous. Looking almost as nervous as I feel.
“Hey.” He says it softly. Like he’s afraid I’m going to chase him away.
“How? I mean, I just texted you. Were you already here?”
“Uh … yeah. I’ve … well, I’ve been here for a while. After I emailed you, I couldn’t sleep. Couldn’t stop thinking about things. You.” He looks down at the phone and shoves it in his pocket. “I wanted to be near you, just in case you …” He smiles and shakes his head. “I wanted to be here. Close.”
His jacket is on the ground, crumpled next to a cardboard coffee cup.
“Ethan, how long have you been out here?”
“I told you, a whi–”
“How long, exactly.”
His small smile masks something deeper. Something desperate.
“A few hours, but in a way … ” He looks at his feet and shakes his head again. “I kind of feel like I’ve been waiting out here for three years, just trying to find the courage to knock on the door. I guess that email was my way of doing it.”
When he glances up again, for the first time in a long while, I see fear in his eyes. “The real question is, are you going to let me in?”
I notice how I’m gripping the doorjamb with my right hand, while holding the door with my left. My whole body blocks the entrance. It’s like everything I am is subconsciously standing in his way.
He leans forward slowly, being so careful. “You read my email, right?”
Right away, the space between us feels very small.
He puts his hands in his pockets, expression wary. “And? Did it help?”
I don’t know what to say. Does he expect some sort of declaration from me? Something to match his thousand ‘I love yous?’
“Ethan, that email was … amazing.”
Apparently that’s all he wants to hear, because his face lights up.
“You liked it?”
“I loved it.” My throat tightens around the “L” word. “Did you really type out the … those phrases … individually?”
“How long did it take?”
“I didn’t keep track of time. I just needed you to know. I still need for you to know.”
I grip the door tighter.
I know we shouldn’t be having this discussion in my hallway, but if I let Ethan in, he’ll touch me, and then whatever fragile strength I have left will shatter.
“So … where do we go from here?” He moves forward. “I mean, I know what I want.” So close, his feet almost touch mine. “I think I’ve made myself pretty clear. But what about you?”
I tense because of his proximity.
This man represents so many things to me. He was my first true friend. My first love. First lover. The master of more pleasure than I knew existed, and the architect of more heartache than I thought I could endure.
It seems almost impossible to translate all of those men into the one he wants to be. The one who just wants to be a single thing to me.
“Cassie … ” He touches my hand then traces down my wrist and over my forearm There’s an explosion of goosebumps left in his wake. “What do you want?”
I want him. Can’t want him. Need him. Hate needing him.
“I don’t know,” I whisper.
“I do,” he says, leaning forward. “Invite me in. I promise, I’m here to stay this time.”
Six Years Earlier
Westchester County, New York
When I wake, I stretch, and it takes me a moment to realize why I’m sore. Then I remember.
I had sex. Incredibly passionate, muscle-trembling sexual intercourse. With Ethan.
Ethan Holt took my virginity.
Oh, Lord, how he felt. All around me and inside.
Scenes from last night come flooding back and make the ache transform into tingles.
Surely I’ll look different now. I feel different. Wonderful. Like a whole new world of experience has been opened up to me, and I can’t wait to explore it.
As I sigh in contentment, I reach over to the other side of the bed, only to find it empty.
I open my eyes. “Ethan?”
I get up and check the rest of the apartment. Empty.
I go back and sit on my bed. The sheets are crumpled and still smell like him.
I check my phone. No messages. I look under the bed to make sure that a touching love note/apology hasn’t slipped under there.
I’m pretty certain when a man leaves your bed in the middle of the night, it’s not a good sign.
Later that morning, I jiggle my knees as I wait for our Advanced Acting class to begin.
Holt’s late. He’s never late.
I still can’t believe he just left. I mean, if you sleep with a girl for the first time, you at least give her a text, right? If not an actual phone call to say, “Hey, thanks for letting me deflower you. It was rad.”
I know that being open is a struggle for him, but doesn’t he realize he’s not the only one who needs reassurance?
Erika sweeps into the room, and I try to put Ethan from my mind.
“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome back. I trust you all had a refreshing Thanksgiving break.” Everyone murmurs something vaguely positive, and she smiles. “Good, because for the next few weeks, I’m going to push you harder than ever before. This term we’ll be working with masks, which is one of the most challenging and ancient art forms within the theater.”
The door opens, and Erika frowns as Holt walks in and sits down. He looks tired.
“Thank you for joining us, Mr. Holt.”
He nods. “Yeah, no problem.”
“Can I get you anything? A watch, perhaps?”
He looks down at his hands. “Sorry I’m late.”
She gives him a pointed look. “As I was saying, mask work is difficult and requires the actor to be completely honest and open. It’s not an art form that forgives emotional blocks or insecurities. Be prepared for some brutal self-examination.”
Holt glances at me and gives me a tight smile before he turns away.
Erika goes to her desk and collects a large box filled with masks. She spreads them out on the floor.
“These masks exhibit specific emotional traits. I’d like you all to take a few minutes and choose one that appeals to you.”
Everyone goes over to the masks. As they talk and laugh among themselves, Ethan stands at the back, waiting for the crowd to subside. I go and stand beside him.
“Hey.” He barely looks at me.
“You bailed on me this morning.” He shoves his hands in his pockets, and the muscles tighten in his jaw. “Are you … upset with me? About what happened? I mean, I know you said we should wait, and I pushed you to do it anyway, but –”
“No.” He shrugs. “I’m not upset with you. I was just … I had stuff to do and I didn’t want to wake you. Everything’s fine.”
His words are reassuring, but they don’t make me feel any better. “So, you … enjoyed it then? Me? What we did?”
He drops his head, and I see the hint of a smile as he leans down to whisper in my ear. “Cassie, only you would want to discuss sex in the middle of acting class. Can we please talk about this later, when we’re not in a room full of people?”
“Oh, yeah. Absolutely. Later.” I know he’s right, but my ego deflates more every second. “When, later?”
He sighs and leans down again, so close his lips brush against my ear. “Yes, I enjoyed it. A lot. You were, without a doubt, the best I’ve ever had. But thinking about it right now isn’t going to end well for me. So please, for the love of inconvenient boners everywhere, let it go.”
His confession makes me beam. It doesn’t excuse him leaving, but at least I know he had a good time.
Erika gestures to us. “Mr. Holt, Miss Taylor … less talking, more mask-choosing please. I’d like to get started.”
By the time we step forward, there are only two masks left: one with a large nose and heavy, frowning brows, and one that looks like a child, all round eyes and soft cheeks.
“Aggression and vulnerability,” Erika says as she leans against her desk. When I pick up the child and Holt goes for the other one, she clucks her tongue and swaps them around. “This is a far less obvious choice for you both, don’t you think?”
Holt tenses, and for a second I think he’s going to argue, but Erika stares him down until he turns and goes back to his seat.
Erika then calls people to the performance space in pairs. She gives prompts for improvised scenes that use only body language. It’s difficult, and everyone struggles, but Erika pushes them to give more. She’s scary today, and by the time she calls me and Ethan to the stage, my hands clammy.
“Miss Taylor, you’re representing strength, but in a negative context. Bullish, domineering, uncompromising. Mr. Holt, you’re the opposite. Sensitive, open, trusting. Begin when you’re ready.”
I slip on my mask. It’s tight, which makes it difficult to breathe. My vision is limited to the small eyeholes, and I have to turn my head to see Ethan.
He glances at me for a few moments before putting on his own mask.
I take some time to center myself then move toward him and make myself as imposing as possible. It’s not easy when he towers over me. Still, I try to be aggressive and intimidating.
“Feel what you’re doing, Miss Taylor. Inhabit the emotion of the mask.” I grab Holt’s shirt and silently order him to the floor. He shies away, feigning fear, but his movement is awkward.
“Mr. Holt, your mask represents submission and vulnerability. You have to embody those characteristics. Open yourself up.”
Ethan tries to do what she’s asked, but he throws out cliché gestures that make him seem more angry than vulnerable.
I can tell that Erika is disappointed in our effort. A few minutes later, when she calls a stop to the exercise, Holt all but rips off his mask and stalks back to his chair.
Erika collects the masks and places them back in their box. “I know that today was difficult, but it should get easier. Your final assessment in this subject will account for fifty percent of your acting grade, so I expect you all to deliver your best work.”
Ethan raises his hand.
“Can we swap masks next time?”
“No. The mask you worked with today will remain yours for the rest of the semester. I think you’d better get used to exploring your vulnerable side, Mr. Holt.”
The look on Ethan’s face is so disdainful, it’s almost funny.
The Grove’s acting school is the most prestigious in the country, so it stands to reason their standards are extremely high. Still, I don’t think any of us were prepared for just how difficult some classes are proving to be. Especially masks.
Contrary to Erika’s assurance that it would get easier, we all continue to struggle. But as bad as most of us are, Ethan is worse. Erika has been pushing him harder than anyone else, and of course that means he’s always in a crappy mood.
He’s being distant, and even though I’ve made it very clear I’d love to have more sex, it’s been nearly a week since he’s touched me anywhere interesting. He doesn’t even hold my hand unless I initiate it. Good thing I always initiate it. If he won’t let me have the rest of his body, I’m damn well going to have his hand.
“Erika fucking hates me,” he says, as we head over to the Hubto meet our friends for lunch.
“That’s not true.”
“Then why force me to work with that particular mask? Anger, sadness, aggression: I could nail any of those.”
“Yeah, but she knows you have an issue with vulnerability, so she’s pushing you to conquer it. Imagine how great it would be if you had a breakthrough. You’d probably top the class.” And become a more affectionate boyfriend.
He shakes his head. “The likelihood of that happening is fucking nil. I can’t do it, Cassie. In fact, I’m not even sure what it is.”
We’re almost at the Hub when I spot a group of second years near the door. I recognize Olivia among them, Ethan’s ex. She frowns when she notices Ethan holding my hand.
“I don’t believe it,” she says as we approach. “I thought all the stories about you having a girlfriend were bullshit, yet here you are with the same girl I saw you with at the beginning of the year. You’re really putting in the effort to get her attached before you dump her, aren’t you? I mean, what you did to me was bad, but this one? She’s going to be cursing your name for years. Impressive.”
Ethan tightens his hand around mine. “And today just keeps getting better.” He tugs on my arm, and we head inside. I’m aware of Olivia staring after us.
“She really hates you, doesn’t she?”
He nods. “Yeah, well, I gave her good reason to.” He mutters that he needs food before disappearing into the crowded cafeteria.
I make my way to the far side of the room and find Jack, Lucas, Connor, Aiyah, Miranda, and Zoe at our usual table in the corner.
Jack looks around. “Damn, this place is depressing. Doesn’t the student council have anything better to do than decorate the shit out of everything? It looks like Jingly the Glitter Fairy jizzed all over the damn place.”
“It’s nearly December,” Aiyah says. “It’s festive.”
“Festive?” Jack gestures to the tsunami of tinsel and baubles surrounding us. “It borders on psychotic. Yesterday they ripped down the Thanksgiving decorations like they’d personally insulted their mothers, and today there’s a metric shit-ton of Santa porn all over the damn place. No one needs this much fucking tinsel.”
There are giggles before Lucas says, “So, what’s everyone doing this weekend? Jack, did you finally convince that red-headed dance major to go out with you?”
Jack grins. “Hell, yeah, I did. I’m taking her to that new Italian place in town. A little wine, a little pasta. And afterward, when I turn on the Avery charm, I predict I’ll be face-deep in her ballet tights by bedtime.”
Miranda glowers. “You realize that buying a woman a meal doesn’t give you the right to bone her, right?”
Jack scoffs. “I’m aware. Plus, I actually like her. If sex was all I wanted I wouldn’t go to all the trouble of taking her out, would I? I’d just invite her over to watch soft porn on Netflix in the hope it would put her in the mood.”
Connor nudges Lucas. “What about you, dude? Aren’t you seeing that chick with the dreadlocks from visual arts?”
Lucas leans back and puts his hands over his heart. “Oh, sweet, sweet Mariah. I’m taking her away this weekend. Vineyard tour. Bed and breakfast. The whole nine.”
Jack frowns. “Shit, that escalated quickly. Haven’t you only been dating for two weeks?”
“What can I say, man? When it’s right, it’s right. She’s amazing. I may suck at a lot of stuff, but taking care of my woman isn’t one of them.”
I feel a twinge as I hear them talk, because I’m reminded that even though Ethan and I have been officially going out for over a month, he still hasn’t taken me on a real date. Usually we hang out at my place or his. Watch TV. Read. Study. If I’m really lucky, we make out, but that’s it.
Kind of depressing, really.
“What about you and Holt?” Connor says, as he picks at his fries. “Any grand romantic plans this weekend?” His voice has an edge that says he already knows the answer.
I look over at Ethan in the cafeteria line. “Uh, I’m not sure. We haven’t really discussed it yet.”
“Uh-huh.” Connor looks back down at his lunch, and I have a stab of resentment that he brought it up.
Can everyone see how non-romantic Ethan is?
I have a feeling that if I told them he bailed on me the morning after we had sex for the first time, no one would be surprised. It’s like our relationship is one of those stupid logic paradoxes.
When is a boyfriend not a boyfriend?
As everyone continues to chatter on about their romantic plans, I excuse myself and head to the bathroom. I guess I always knew Ethan wasn’t the most demonstrative person in the world, but I had figured once we came out of the relationship closet, it would change.
When I come out of the stall, Olivia’s there, bent over the bench and snorting something off the counter. When she sees me, she wipes her nose. “Hey.”
I take a breath and slide past her to wash my hands. “Maybe you should do that where people can’t see you.”
“I usually do, but I figure you should see what’s in store for you when Holt breaks your heart. It’s not pretty.”
I shake my head and wash my hands as quickly as possible. “I’m not into drugs.”
“Not yet. Give it time.”
I dry my hands and try to ignore her snorting another line off the counter.
When I’d first met Olivia a few months ago, I couldn’t help but notice how gorgeous she was. She made me feel inferior in every way. My hair is the most common shade of brown imaginable, while hers was a deep tawny color, thick and glossy. While I am curvy and well proportioned for my five-foot-five frame, she is about four inches taller and has the type of slender elegance I’d always envied.
I could imagine she would have looked fantastic standing next to Ethan, both of them as stunning as each other.
Sadly, the woman standing in front of me now has greasy hair, her skin tone is uneven and sallow, and the slender elegance she used to possess has given way to sunken cheeks.
Whatever demons she’s carrying around from her time with Ethan, they seem to be eating her alive.
As I turn to leave, I feel a pang of sympathy. “Take care of yourself, Olivia, okay?”
Before I can open the door, she touches my arm. “Look, I’m really not here to bust your ass. I just want to make sure you know what you’re getting yourself into.”
“I do, thanks.”
“Do you? Because from where I’m sitting, the Ethan Holt who broke my heart looks an awful lot like the one you’re dating.”
“He’s changed since then.”
She leans back against the bench and crosses her arms. “Let me paint you a picture.” I can already tell I’m not going to like this story. “He grudgingly agreed to let people know you were dating, but he doesn’t act like a real boyfriend. No dates, very little public affection, and it’s like pulling teeth to get him to talk about his feelings or mood swings. Sound familiar?”
I keep my face impassive, even though my adrenaline has kicked up a notch. “I don’t know what to tell you. I like him. A lot. I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.”
Olivia shakes her head. “You don’t get it, do you? You probably think it won’t happen to you, because you’re different or special, and maybe you’re right. But that’s not the problem. You may be different, but he’s not, and he’s the one who’s going to destroy you. Tread carefully. That boy is an avalanche just waiting to happen.”
* * *
“So this chick is, what, stalking you now?” my roommate Ruby asks as she struggles to open a can of tomato soup.
“Sort of, but I get the feeling she’s kind of trying to look out for me.”
“Yeah, well, bitch needs to step off. That’s my job. Still, she’s right. I can’t believe he’s never taken you on a real date. It seems like the man doesn’t have a single romantic bone in his body.” She dumps the soup into a saucepan.
“He’s not that bad.”
“Cassie, we did the How Romantic is Your Guy? quiz from Cosmo, and Holt’s results were This Man Doesn’t Know He’s Your Boyfriend. It’s freaking ridiculous.”
I check on the pre-made rolls I’d put in the oven a few minutes ago. They’re still way too pale. “He’s been hurt before. He just doesn’t show his affection like normal guys, I guess.”
“And how does he show his affection? Because, from what I’ve seen, he doesn’t kiss or hug you hello, he barely holds your hand, he sleeps with you once but won’t do it again. There are no presents, no dates, and no epic love poems written while high on peyote.”
I frown. “What was that last thing?”
“Never mind. Long story. My point is, the boy has zero romantic game, and you’re the one who’s suffering. I can’t believe you’re not more pissed about this.”
“Well, I’m not happy about it, but what can I do?”
“Okay, here’s my advice. You’re being a doormat.”
“That’s not advice. It’s a statement. And an insulting one at that.”
“Dammit, Cassie, woman up!” She stirs the soup aggressively. “He’s treating you like crap because he’s got issues or whatever, but that’s no excuse.” She pours some milk into the saucepan. “Call him on his bullshit or else stencil WELCOME on your boobs and be done with it. It’s your choice.”
I know she’s right, but I can’t help feeling like one wrong move with Ethan could have disastrous results.
“Oh, crap.” Ruby frowns at the saucepan then picks up the soup can and reads the instructions. “I think I’ve fucked this up.”
“How is that possible? It’s soup. From a can.”
“I put in too much milk. Apparently, I was supposed to measure it or some bullshit.” She dips in her spoon and sips it.
“What’s it taste like?”
She shrugs. “Tomato-flavored milk.”
“Not the weirdest thing you’ve ever made.”
I sigh and lean against the bench. “Serve it in mugs?”
“Okay. At least we have rolls.”
“Oh, frack!” I open the oven door and smoke wafts out. When I pull out the tray, the rolls are black. “Dammit.”
“Who’s the bad cook now? You were only in charge of re-heating, for God’s sake.”
We stand there for a few moments and look at the pathetic remains of our horrible dinner. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. I have an urge to call Ethan to see if he’d like to come over, but I figure if he’d wanted to talk or spend time with me, he’d let me know.
“Wine?” I ask.
Ruby sighs. “Most definitely. I don’t think I can fuck that up.”
* * *
Oh, God. Ow.
I wince as I open my eyes. Sunlight pierces my pounding brain like an ice pick.
I’m on the floor, surrounded by wine bottles and pizza boxes. Judging from the disgusting taste in my mouth, I not only drank way too much last night, I also smoked a crapload of cigarettes. My mouth feels like the floor of a cock-fighting ring.
As I stretch and rake my tongue across my teeth, I see Ruby lying on the couch, her arm thrown over her face.
I really hope she feels this bad when she wakes up. Even though I can’t remember much about last night, I’m almost positive it’s her fault.
My head throbs, and my stomach churns, and when I put out a hand to steady myself, something on my hand catches my eye. My knuckles have the word HOLT written in black eyeliner.
What the . . . ?
My other hand has SUCKS scrawled across it.
I hear a groan and glance over at Ruby.
“I didn’t do it,” she says from behind her arm. “Well, okay, I did, but you told me to.”
“You remember last night?”
“You don’t? Well, I ranted for a couple of hours about how much of a bastard Holt is, until you agreed with me. Then you did this to my face.”
She lifts her arm to reveal the most horrendous makeup job I’ve ever seen. Her eyebrows are thickened, and her jawline has been drawn in, all sharp angles and bad shading.
“You tried to make me look like Holt, because you wanted to punch him in the face for being so closed off.”
“Oh, God, Ruby, did I hit you?” It was hard to tell with all the makeup.
“No, but you did make a particularly yelly phone call to Holt at around 2 am.”
“What? What did I say?!”
She sits up, then grabs her head and groans. “You said a lot of stuff. I may have been doing drunken cheers in the background. By the end, I felt sorry for him. You really bitched him out. Then you hung up and passed out.”
“Oh, God.” I feel sick and not from the alcohol. I scramble around the floor and uproot debris as I try to find my phone. “Why didn’t you stop me?!”
“Honey, I was even drunker than you were. Plus, he totally deserved it. For a drunk chick, you were quite eloquent. Except for the part when you cried.”
I stop what I’m doing and look up at her. “Please tell me you’re joking.”
“Nope. About ten minutes into it, you sobbed something about how he’s your first boyfriend, your first lover, and you’re supposed to feel giddy and in love, but all you feel is confused and lonely because even when he’s with you he’s not totally there.”
“Then you said something like, ‘Why don’t you just let yourself love me? Don’t you understand how good we could be?’ And, well, by that point, I was crying, too, so . . .”
I rub my eyes. “Oh, Ruby, this is bad. Bad, bad, bad.”
“Yeah, we need to never drink that much ever again.”
I shove stuff off the coffee table, desperate to find my phone. At last, I find it under a pizza box. It’s switched off and covered in grease.
When I turn it on, there are eight missed calls and two text messages.
“Crap, crap, crap.”
I read his first text message.
<Call me back. Now.>
I don’t want to look at the next message, but I know I have to. He sent it an hour after the first one.
<I fucking hate that I made you cry. Call me when you get this. I don’t care how hungover you are. We need to talk.>
I stare at the screen for a long time as I reread his words.
“Cassie? Everything okay?”
“I don’t know. He said we need to talk.”
“That’s what I thought.”
I dial his number. It goes to voicemail. “Hey, this is Ethan. Leave a message. Or not. Whatever.”
I hang up.
“It’s only seven,” Ruby says, “and you did keep him awake with your drunken verbal abuse. Maybe let him sleep.”
“I need to borrow your car.”
“Uh . . . you don’t think you’re still too drunk to drive? I sure as hell am.”
“I need to get over there, Ruby.”
She rubs her eyes. “Fine. The keys are on my desk. But you might want to shower and get changed first. You have pepperoni stains on your boobs.”
I look down, and I’m not at all surprised to see she’s right. “Ruby, we are never drinking again.”
* * *
Half an hour later, I knock on Holt’s door while nausea and panic fight it out to see who can make me vomit first. When he doesn’t answer right away, panic quickly takes the lead. I knock again.
After a few more seconds, I hear shuffling footsteps, then the door opens a crack to reveal Elissa’s squinting face.
“It’s 7.30 in the morning.”
“On a Saturday.”
“I’m sorry. Is your brother here?”
“No, or I’d freaking kill him. He bellowed something about going for a run about an hour ago. I hope he gets hit by a car. The hot-headed idiot banged around the apartment from, like, 3 am. Swearing and slamming things around as he cleaned.”
“Yep. He only cleans when he’s beyond agitated. He started to vacuum around 4 am. Did something happen between you two last night?”
“Uh the thing is, I was drunk, and I . . . well, I think I verbally abused him.”
“You drunk-dialed him?”
I screw up my face. “Apparently.”
“Well, that explains a lot.” She yawns. “Do you want to come in and wait?”
“Sure. If that’s okay.”
“It’s fine.” She pulls the door open then shuffles back toward her room. “He shouldn’t be long. Make yourself at home. I’m going back to bed. When he gets back, slap him over the head for me, would you?”
“Okay. Thanks. Sorry for waking you.”
“No problem.” She closes her door behind her, and I gaze around the living room. It’s spotless.
Never before has a tidy room given me such a sense of foreboding.
My head aches, so I sit on the couch and flick through a magazine for a few minutes, until I realize I’m barely looking at it. I toss it back onto the coffee table and head into Holt’s room. His bed has been made with military precision. Sitting open in the middle of it is . . . his diary.
His neat writing covers both pages, and a pen lies along its center.
Temptation, thy name is Holt’s Journal.
The urge to read it is almost impossible to resist, but I know how it feels to have your privacy invaded, and even though I’d give my left arm to get a sneak peek inside his brain, the breach of trust wouldn’t be worth it.
I close the book, careful not to look at what he’s written, and place it and the pen on the nightstand. Then I crawl onto the bed and shove my face into his pillow.
Hmm. Smells so good.
Please don’t let him be angry with me. Let me be able to fix this.
* * *
Something brushes against my neck.
Lips. Warm breath.
I turn toward it, wanting more.
Shh. You’ll scare away the lips.
“Hey . . . you awake?”
“No. Shhh. More lips. My boyfriend will be back soon.”
The lips return. A different shape. Smiling?
They move up my neck, across my jaw. So soft but next to something rough. His chin. Cheek.
“Who do you think is kissing you?”
“Hmm. Orlando Bloom?”
Lips freeze, mid-kiss.
“Bloom? Seriously? Your boyfriend would kick that pasty Englishman’s ass.”
“Are you implying that you’re my boyfriend?”
More kisses that linger on my neck then press softly against my ear. “I’m not implying anything. I’m stating it as fact.”
“Impossible. My boyfriend isn’t this affectionate.”
The lips stop. Breath exhales. Tension leaches from his body into mine.
I swallow, eyes still closed. “I’m sorry.”
“What I just said. What I said last night. Please don’t be angry. It was the wine’s fault.”
“No, it wasn’t.”
“Okay. You’re right. I can’t blame that entirely, but it helped.”
He cups my cheek. “Cassie, it wasn’t the wine, or you, or even Ruby, although I could hear her cheering you on. If it was anyone’s fault, it was mine.”
The excuse I’m about to say dies on my tongue. I open one eye. “Um . . . what?”
“You called me a fucking terrible boyfriend, and you were right.”
Both eyes open. “Did I actually use those words?”
“Even the ‘F’ word?”
“Yes. Not gonna lie, it made me kinda hard.”
I push up on my elbow and assess him. He must have just gotten out of the shower, because he’s wearing only boxers. The sight of his naked chest distracts me. What’s even more distracting is how he’s not flinching away from my scrutiny.
I shake my head. “I’m sorry, but what exactly are you saying?”
He drops onto his back and closes his eyes. “Everything you said . . . You were right. I’ve been keeping you at a distance.”
When he pauses, I stroke his arm to urge him on. After a few seconds, he opens his eyes and gazes at the ceiling. “Do you know what my first thought was when I walked in and found you in my bed?”
“That you’d read my journal.”
“But I didn’t. I swear—”
He turns to me. “I know. When I stopped and thought about it, I realized you wouldn’t do that. And yet, my first instinct was to think the worst of you, because that’s how I cope with . . . things. People. I’m always prepared for the worst, so when it happens I won’t be surprised. Or disappointed. I figure, if I don’t really try, I can’t really fail, right? So that’s what I’ve been doing.”
“Ethan . . .” I put my hand on his shoulder, and he tenses.
He sits up. “I was angry with you last night, really fucking angry, not because what you said was wrong, but because it was all true. You brought up all the things I hate about myself. Shit from my past that has no right affecting you but does.” He shakes his head. “I’m going to try harder. I know that sounds like bullshit, but it’s all I can do, right?”
I don’t know if he’s trying to convince me or himself.
“Try to do what?”
“Be better.” He cups my face and kisses me. There’s an edge of desperation in the grip of his fingers, the way his eyes are still closed when he pulls back. “I can do this. Be the boyfriend you deserve.”
“I believe you.”
As I say it, I know I’m lying, but I do believe he’s going to try.
* * *
The next morning, I’m throwing the last of my books into my bag and shoving a piece of toast in my mouth when I hear a knock at my door.
I open it to see Ethan, smiling and holding out a cardboard cup.
“Dickacino?” I ask, concerned.
“No, just hot chocolate. Extra marshmallows.” He smirks and gives me a quick kiss.
He’s freshly shaven and wearing faded jeans and a blue sweater. For a moment, it doesn’t compute. Him. Here. Attentive. Smiling. Not dressed all in black like the grim reaper.
His smile drops. “What the fuck is that look for? You’re staring at me like I’m a serial killer. The cocoa isn’t poisoned.”
Okay, that’s more familiar.
“It’s just, you’re not usually . . .” I’m distracted by how gorgeous and unburdened he looks. “Uh, what are you doing here?”
He pushes past me and puts the cup on the table. “Regular boyfriends walk their girlfriends to class, so here I am.” He picks up my bag and slings it over his shoulder. “Fuck me, what do you have in here?”
“I’m thinking regular boyfriends are nicer than you.”
I snort. “Okay.”
He wraps his arm around my waist and pulls me against him, then kisses me in a way that makes my body go from zero to hormonal overload in about two seconds.
He looks down at me in triumph. “You can’t tell me that wasn’t nice.”
I nod. It’s not a valid answer, but it’s all I can manage.
He takes the hot chocolate from the table and hands it to me. “Ready to go?”
He grabs my hand and pulls the door closed behind us.
I think I like this new boyfriend.