“I’m already there.” Cassidy is only about three inches taller than me, but she’s always been larger than life, and I’d been overwhelmed by her shadow. And that had just made me angrier. I was hurting. I was lost. And even my best friend wasn’t backing me.

“Just. Fucking. Don’t.”

“Don’t what?” she’d asked. “Don’t tell you the truth? Don’t try to beat through that thick head of yours how absurd this is? Some pervert photographer preys on you because you were young and pretty, and so now you’re still trying everything in your power to disappear? Fuck that shit. You were fourteen—fourteen. He was the asshole.”

I’d shaken my head slowly, my eyes burning even though no tears came. I’d wanted to run, but it was Cass I always ran to, which meant there was nowhere left to go. “I should never have told you.”

The truth is I hadn’t told her all of it—not even close. But I’d told her enough.

“Dammit, Syl,” she’d said, and there’d been tears streaming down her face. “Don’t you get it? Some fucked up a-hole took your virginity. He took sex. But he didn’t take you. You’re smart and you’re beautiful, and he can’t touch that shit. You need to own it. Because every time you hide behind some bullshit like this,” she’d said, plucking at my ugly gray sweatshirt, “you’re letting him win. You want your life back, you take it back. And you look damn hot doing it.”

Now, as I sit in my sexy red cocktail dress in the back of the limo, I can still feel the way my stomach twisted when she’d talked about what Bob did to me during those months when I was fourteen. More than that, though, I remember how warm and safe I’d felt just knowing that I’d had a friend who really cared.

“Thanks,” I say softly.

She tilts her head, obviously not following my train of thought. “For what?”

“For this,” I say, plucking at the dress. “If you hadn’t bitched me out all those years ago, I’d probably be wearing sweatpants tonight.”

“Not if you were going with me,” she retorts, and we both laugh.

“Look, Syl,” she says after a moment, “I just don’t want you getting all twisted up again. You never really told me what happened with Steele, but I know you well enough to know you’re kinda screwed up where guys and relationships are concerned.”

“Understatement of the century,” I agree. I don’t need a shrink to know I still have issues.

“Have you even slept with a guy since Atlanta?”

I tense. “I’ve been focusing on work,” I say, my words crisper than I intend. “It’s not like my job is nine-to-five.”

She holds up her hands in surrender. “Hey, I get it. I do. And it’s not like I’m saying you should go back to the way you were before Steele, either.”

I cringe, because the truth is I’d fucked a lot of guys in college. Not because I wanted them, or even because I wanted to get off. No, I was using sex as therapy, proving over and over that despite everything I knew about myself, I could keep my feelings and reactions and emotions in a nice, tight little box. That I could win over the memories and fight the nightmares. That I could keep control.

Cass knows more about that time in my life than anybody. And she also knows that it isn’t a time I want to talk about. “Don’t do this, Cass. Don’t fuck with my head tonight. Please.”

“I’m sorry. I am. But tonight’s the whole point. You’re still raw.”

I shake my head automatically, wanting to deny even though she’s right. “I haven’t had a nightmare since I moved back to LA.”

“And that’s great. That’s my point. And I don’t want you to get hurt now. Again. You’ve already gone through too much.”

“I won’t,” I say, though the promise is hollow. “I love you, you know.”

Humor flashes in her green eyes as her mouth quirks into a halfsmile. “Yeah, but will you get naked with me?”

“After all the time I took to get dressed?” I quip. Considering I really am screwed up where guys and relationships are concerned, I sometimes wish I could go there. But that’s not me. And though we’ve had our awkward moments, for the most part, the crush she’s never bothered to hide is just one more dynamic between us.

She grins wickedly, then glances at her watch. “We’ve still got a couple of minutes before we get to the theater. We could drop the privacy screen. Give Edward a little show.” She purses her lips, then manages a boob-shaking shimmy.

Tags: J. Kenner Stark International Trilogy Romance
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