I stared at him. “What?”

“I think he’s trying to make you jealous.”


Mission accomplished.

“You’re saying he doesn’t do this every night?”

Ryan shifted uncomfortably. “You understand that no matter what I say, it’s not going to sound very good, right? But you shouldn’t hold that against him. I mean, he didn’t even know you were still alive until a few days ago – ”

“Just spit it out.”

He sighed. “Derek doesn’t do dancing. He doesn’t do after-parties. He doesn’t do photos – not like this. He’ll take pictures with kids, yeah, but not club girls. After a show’s over, he picks a woman… sometimes two or three… and immediately takes them up to his room. Or he’ll get Miles to send up a selection, like room service. He never hangs out at these things afterwards. Never. I’ve never seen him act like this, not once over the last two years.”

Despite my nausea at hearing about Derek’s sexual antics, my surprise was even greater. I stared at Ryan in open-mouthed shock. “…really?”

“Hey Killian,” Ryan called across the table as he pointed into the crowd. “Is what Derek’s doing normal? I mean, for him?”

Killian looked up from doodling on his guitar and followed Ryan’s finger.

“What, he’s still here?” the guitarist asked, confused – though I wondered if it wasn’t the ganja.

“Exactly,” Ryan said with a pointed look at me. Then he asked his bandmate, “You ever seen him do that before?”

Killian shook his head, mystified. “That’s a first.”

Then he pulled the joint out of his mouth and looked down at it comically, as though maybe he had accidentally gotten the extra-super-strength version without knowing it.

I could almost read his thoughts, like word bubbles in a cartoon:

Whoa… this is some gooooood shit…

I looked out at the dance floor and watched a woman, her miniskirt riding halfway up her ass cheeks, grinding her derriere into the front of Derek’s pants. I saw others raking their nails across his chest, rubbing their flesh against his –

I had to look away, nauseated.

“Yeah, well, he’s a real class act, then,” I said bitterly.

Ryan took a sip of his beer and said philosophically, “Yeah, he’s kind of messing things up. I told him not to do this sort of crap. I told him you were a nice girl, and he should just be cool and a gentleman with you, and not do this player jealousy routine.”

I stared at him again. “You two were talking about me?”

Ryan blushed a little. “Well… yeah. I was the first one he told when the Rolling Stone guy emailed Miles your name.”

“And you strategized with him?”

He groaned. “Don’t make it sound like that.”

“What should I make it sound like, then, exactly?” I asked, pissed.

“Like a guy trying to help his best friend get the girl who broke his heart.”

Oof.

That brought me up short.

“Is that what you’re doing now?” I asked warily.

He gave a short, mirthless laugh and looked away. “I guess.”

Him looking away reminded me of earlier, of that weird expression he’d had, like Do I do this or not?

So I asked, “What do you mean, ‘you guess’?”

He didn’t look back at me, just took another sip of beer.

“Ryan – earlier you said, ‘I don’t even know why I’m telling you this.’ What did you mean by that?”

He finally looked over at me, and his eyes were soft and gentle.

“It means that Derek wasn’t the only one who fell for you years ago.”

My heart leapt into my throat.

I didn’t know whether to be alarmed, or flattered, or to feel horrible, because I just didn’t feel that way about him.

It wasn’t because he wasn’t cute, because he most definitely was. He was talented, and smart, and sweet –

– but he wasn’t Derek.

He saw my reaction and smiled gently. “I’m not hitting on you, Kaitlyn. You’re Derek’s girl.”

My hackles raised up. “I’m nobody’s ‘girl.’”

He laughed. “Okay, forget that part – but I know you’re in love with him, and you always have been, even if you won’t admit it to yourself. You guys have a lot of unfinished business to attend to… and I think you should. I’m not saying that just because I’m his best friend, but because… I know what it’s like to want something for a long time and never get it.”

I wanted to reach out and touch him, to comfort him, but I knew that would be a bad idea. It would quite possibly be cruel.

He kept talking. “And if you can have it, then you ought to go for it. Reach out and take it. Regretting things you did is a whole lot less painful than regretting things you didn’t do because you were afraid. Just… one word of advice: be careful. He’s my best friend, but… just be careful. Don’t give too much of yourself away. Not completely.”

He took another sip of beer. When I didn’t say anything and just sat there with my mouth open, he put down the bottle and said with exaggerated humor, “Well, this isn’t awkward at all. If you don’t mind, I think I’m going to excuse myself. Maybe go break my rule about hooking up the same night.”

He moved to stand –

“Ryan…” I said feebly.

“Kaitlyn, it’s cool,” he said, and gave me another smile that almost broke my heart. “I didn’t tell you those things for any other reason than to let you know I care about you. So when I tell you this, you know I’m telling you the truth: he’s in love with you. He just has a messed-up way of showing it. And you ought to let go. Let yourself live a little. Just… be careful. I like you way too much to see you get hurt.”

I nodded mutely, sad that such a great guy was saying such amazing things –

Had felt this way about me for so long –

…and yet I just couldn’t return his feelings.

He paused, waiting to see if I would say something… and then he smiled sadly, resigned. “Have a good night, Kaitlyn. See you tomorrow.”

“You, too,” I said quietly.

Then he got up, gave me a wink, and took his beer and waded into the crowd.

I should’ve felt better, because he was almost immediately set upon by a half-dozen cute girls.

But I didn’t.

I just felt hollow and sad.

Then I looked over at Derek, clowning on the dance floor, surrounded by women trying to fuck him in public –

And I got furious.

I stood up from the table.

“Leaving so soon?” Killian asked in a mellow haze.

I looked over at him in surprise, having forgotten he was still there. “Yeah, I… I’m taking off. Goodnight, Killian.”

“Goodnight, luv,” he said amiably.

I forced my way into the crowd and left the bar.

21

Ten hours after I’d arrived at the Dubai, I finally made my way up to my room. It was small but lovely – beautifully decorated, with a luxurious king-size bed. There was a large glass window that looked six stories out over the Sunset Strip, with all its lights and cars and revelers on the sidewalks, even at 1AM. The glass was double-paned, though, so the room was quiet as could be, with no more than a whisper from the air conditioning vent.

There was my bag, waiting for me in the middle of the room. I put it on a nearby chair, opened it up, and dug out my super extra-large t-shirt that I slept in. I stripped off my clothes and smelled them. Ugh – stale pot smoke. Same with my hair. Blech. I desperately wanted to slip into bed and just forget the entire last three hours had ever happened, but I couldn’t bear the thought of smelling like this, not one second more. I slipped into the bathroom and took a short, hot shower. The hotel’s exotic soaps and shampoos washed away my makeup and the funk, but nothing could wash out the image of Derek being pawed at by his writhing, oversexed admirers. If I could have directed the spray of steaming water directly into my brain, I would have. I tried to think of something else, but the more I suppressed my rage and hurt and jealousy, the more they devoured me alive.

I quickly toweled off, applied some moisturizer, and slipped into my oversized top. The non-stop go-go-go of the day had finally seeped in, and the bed was calling out to my weary body –

When suddenly there was a knock on the door.

Bam bam bam.

What the fuck?!

I glanced over at the hotel room clock. 1:40 AM.

My stomach turned.

What if it was Ryan, drunk off his ass, coming up here to profess his love?

Jesus that had been uncomfortable down in the bar.

Sweet, but incredibly uncomfortable.

I didn’t know how I could tell him I just wasn’t interested.

Or – horror of horrors – what if it was Riley?

My skin crawled just to think of it.

I fearfully went over to the door. “Who is it?”

“It’s me,” a deep, dark, powerful voice said.

Derek.

OH MY GOD.

I looked through the peephole just to confirm that it was him – and that he didn’t have any of his little hoes along with him, looking for a threesome.

No, he was alone in the hallway, and still wearing his sunglasses. He looked pretty tense.

My heart pounded as I undid the chain, the lock, and opened the door.

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