Friday, March 13
“I’m leaving,” Oliver Ryan says as I plod out of my bedroom and start a zombie-walk toward the coffeemaker for a much-needed caffeine boost.
“Where to?” It’s too early in the morning for him to head to work. I know he’s not jogging or hitting the gym in that tight gray T-shirt and the faded jeans that cling in all the right places and make me sigh. Is he going to the coffeehouse? The grocery store?
“Back to London. I’m moving. I leave tonight.”
I whirl around to face him, suddenly wide-awake. Did I hear that right? Oliver is leaving me for good?
His solemn gray eyes, like a London morning, stare back at me, unblinking.
My heart falls. “What? Why?”
“Shane’s gone.” He pulls at the back of his neck and looks away. “And it would be best if I didn’t stay.”
Best for whom?
Tomorrow, I’ll resume my last semester of college after a much-needed spring break, and I look forward to graduating in May. But if Oliver goes, I’ll be utterly alone. Yes, I’m a grown woman. I’m capable of making my own decisions. I’ve been doing that since I turned eighteen and my mother decided to follow her heart—and her latest fling—to Italy. Of course I can live alone.
But I don’t want to.
“You’ll do great,” Oliver murmurs before he turns away.
I’m somewhere between shocked and numb as I brew my coffee. Is there anything I can say or do to change his mind? A hundred ideas run through my brain. They all sound ridiculous.
Without his best friend here, why would Oliver stay?
As the brew finishes dripping into my cup, he whisks by, carrying a pair of suitcases, shoulders and arms bulging, and heads toward the front door. I chew my lip, fighting panic. He’s already packed? Yes, and he has one foot out the door.
God, my life is falling apart.
For the past three years, I’ve had two anchors: my brother, Shane, and his best friend, Oliver. They took me under their wing after my mother skipped the continent. They were both protective and supportive, in some ways more nurturing than Mom. Most special, they were always there for me. Vice versa, too.
Then, nearly four weeks ago, Shane fell asleep at the wheel after pulling double shifts at the hospital and hit an embankment. He died instantly, just shy of his twenty-ninth birthday. Since then, Oliver and I have been dealing with his funeral, his estate…and the never-ending nightmare of grief. I still can’t believe it. The three of us enjoyed such a wonderful Valentine’s Day together. None of us had anyone special in our romantic lives, so we watched goofy movies and gorged on candy. Of course, I had to pretend I wasn’t ogling Oliver…
Two days later, my brother died.
I’ve thanked God every day that Shane didn’t suffer and that Oliver has been my shoulder to cry on, my hand to hold, my rock. I haven’t completely fallen apart because I’ve had the stiff-upper-lip Brit beside me.
And now he’s leaving. Shock still pings through my system.
I want to beg him to stay. But if returning home will make him happy, how can I be selfish? He’s more than done his duty after Shane’s death. Staying in the house where we all lived as a mismatched family of sorts must hurt Oliver the same way it pains me. Shane’s absence often feels like a black hole sucking me under when I least expect it.
I have to let Oliver move on and be happy…even if that’s without me.
Shane bequeathed me his house, which was paid off in the event of his death. I also inherited my brother’s life insurance money, which will help me finish school debt free. I have a roof over my head and I never have to worry where my next meal is coming from. I’m smart and I’ve maintained most of the household responsibilities for years. I’ll certainly survive.
But somehow, I know my life will never be right again without Oliver Ryan.
“You’re really going tonight?” My voice trembles as I leave my coffee untouched and follow him to the door. “And you’re not coming back?”
He thrusts long fingers through his short brown waves, then flicks his gray eyes in my direction. After a quick glance at my face and a discreet peek lower, he looks away. “I am.”
I glance down at myself. Crap, I’m still wearing exactly what I slept in: tiny pink boy shorts and the matching pale tank top, almost transparent from years of washing. I wince. Oliver can probably see my nipples. And with the morning chill, the hard peaks poke the cotton. I’ve had these pajamas since I was a kid. They’re too tight, and I should trash them, but I love their softness.
I cross my arms over my chest for modesty. After all, inadvertently flashing Oliver is obviously making him uncomfortable. No surprise since he probably sees me as a sister. He’s behaved like my second big brother for years.
I’ve always had a secret crush on him. But he doesn’t know—or care. And this morning, he’s so distant I worry he’ll leave without a word if I disappear long enough to find a robe.
Why is he going all the way to London? It’s where he grew up, but it’s also very far away. Did he fall for another woman when he flew back to see his parents for the holidays? If he did, he never said a word. Then again, he doesn’t confide in me about his sex life. I know he has one. Women talk, and I’ve heard the sound bites. In bed, he’s supposedly creative, talented, long-lasting…and kinky.
I’m jealous. I have no right to feel that way, but the hard knot in my stomach every time I think about him with someone else hurts.
“My flight is at five thirty this evening.” He hazards a glance at me again, then curses under his breath. “Sorry.”
With that clipped apology, he brushes past me and heads toward his bedroom once more, presumably to collect another of his suitcases.
As I watch him go, I squeeze my eyes shut and resist the urge to cry. Once he boards that plane, will I see him again? Other than my friend Perrie, who’s graduating with me before heading back to Phoenix, I’ll have no one. Oliver is the person I’ve relied on most, the one I’ve always counted on. I know it’s not fair, but it feels as if he’s abandoning me.
Dejected, I slog to the bathroom to brush my teeth and hair. Selfish or not, I scour my head for a plan to make him stay. He’s always been happy here. If I put my mind to it, maybe I can find a way for him to be again. Or I could offer to go with him. But something about the way he’s behaving feels less like he’s leaving to start a new future and more like he’s running away from me.
Two minutes and sparkling white teeth later, I still have no idea what to do. After tearing out my sloppy bun, I quickly swipe a paddle brush through my long hair. The thick curls caress my shoulders, cutting dark swaths over my tank and ending at my waist.
Oliver said once that he liked it loose and down. Okay, it’s a lame start, but until I can figure out how else to persuade him not to leave the house, job, and people he’s enjoyed for the last three years, I can try small ways to make him happy.
Unfortunately, I only have a handful of hours to think of some big ways—or I’ll lose him forever.
* * *
I stomp my way back to the kitchen and scrub a hand down my face. My transport to the airport is supposed to pick me up in four hours. I’ve managed—somehow—to keep my hands off my best friend’s little sister for the past three years. But if she keeps prancing around the house wearing next to nothing, with her bloody tempting nipples on display under that fucking transparent tank, I will tear it off her saucy little body, pluck those sweet berries in my mouth, and fuck her senseless.
But I can’t. The day Shane introduced me to Kayla, he made me promise I would never touch her. I can’t dishonor his wishes now.
With a curse, I reach for the coffeemaker and spot the steaming mug Kayla left behind. I hear her at the back of the house. I should be a friend and take it to her. But I don’t think my self-control can handle the view of her half-naked anymore. Restraint only goes so far.
Since she hasn’t doctored the brew with heaping teaspoons of sugar and that dreadful flavored creamer yet, I lift her Messy Hair, Don’t Care mug and down a scalding swallow. Caffeine is good. The sting of the burn is better. It takes my mind off her—and the way she looked at me as if I’m ripping her heart out.
She’s driving me utterly mad.
On the counter beside the coffeemaker, I hear a ding and glance down to see Kayla’s phone. I don’t intend to pry, but a message from her good friend Perrie pops up, asking if she’s talked to Justin since last night.
Who the devil is Justin? Someone Kayla is dating? Someone she’s now shagging? And what happened last night?
The phone dings again. Up pops a message from the aforementioned Justin that reads: You look so fucking hot. Feel like giving me a bite of those, baby?
A bite of what?
I shouldn’t peek. I know that quite well. But if some deadbeat thinks he’s going to hustle Kayla into bed…
Who will stop fuckwits like him when you’re gone?
I have no answer, but I’m determined to deal with the situation while I’m still here.
Grinding my teeth together, I launch Kayla’s messages. I’ve told her a hundred times to put a passcode on her phone. She never has, and now I’m using that to my advantage.
I don’t bother reading her string of messages with Perrie. Her university friend is very sweet and would never intentionally lead Kayla into trouble. But whoever this Justin is, he sounds as if he needs a fist in his face. I’m convinced he does the moment I open his message.
The photo he sent doesn’t merely make me mad. It makes me anxious. It makes me violent. And dear god, it makes me sweat.
I don’t know what the devil Kayla has been up to or how Justin got this photo, but I intend to find the fuck out. I may nearly be out of strength to guard Kayla’s body without defiling it, but no other man will put his hands on her as long as I’m still here.
And I intend to make that clear to Kayla—now.