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Let's Be Just Friends (A New Adult Novella)

Let’s Be Just Friends

(A New Adult Novella)

By Camilla Isley

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Copyright Pink Bloom Press 2015

All rights reserved. No part of this eBook may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express permission in writing of the author.

Dedication

To friends

Contents

Dedication

One – Wake Up Call

Two – Bigger Things to Sort

Three – Friends with Benefits

Four – Party Girl

Five – A Bitter Pill to Swallow

Six – No Talking

Seven – Will I See You Again?

Eight – You Can Trust Me

Nine – Something Red

Ten – Come With Me

Eleven – I Love You

Twelve – Hell on Wheels

Thirteen – It Wasn’t Me

Fourteen – Marry Me

Excerpt from A Sudden Crush

1. Honeymoon

2. The Crash

3. The Island

4. Mr. Ogre

Also by Camilla Isley

About the Author

Acknowledgments

One

Wake Up Call

Something woke Rose with a start. She tried to pinpoint the source of the noise, but it stopped before she could locate it. Peeking at the alarm clock sitting in silence on her bedside table, she saw it was only nine a.m. Good, she thought. It’s Saturday, so I don’t have to get up for at least two more hours. She rolled over in bed, humming and stretching.

As Rose was drifting back to sleep, the noise started again. Since she was already half-awake, she was now able to identify it clearly. It was Tyler’s phone, ringing somewhere in the distance. The sound wasn’t coming from the adjoining room, where Rose assumed he was sleeping. No, the sound seemed to come from somewhere on the lower floor of Tyler’s townhouse.

Rose waited, curled under her soft covers, for the sound of his quick footsteps down the stairs, but it never came. He must be fast asleep; she doubted the faint noise of his ringtone was enough to wake him. Tyler was a heavy sleeper, and he hadn’t been at home when she’d gone to bed at three a.m. last night. She guessed he wouldn’t wake up until at least noon.

Rose waited for the phone to stop ringing so she could go back to sleep. But Tyler’s vintage MC Hammer—U Can’t Touch This ringtone started playing again almost immediately. Throwing the blankets away from her body in frustration, Rose sat up and swung her legs off the side of the bed. What the hell! Who was so eager to talk to Tyler this early on a Saturday morning?

Georgiana was the first name that popped into her mind. She was the only person who’d obsessively binge call him on a Saturday morning and not get the message people wanted to sleep. It had to be her; even Tyler’s mom would’ve given up after two missed calls. Why was Georgiana so desperate to talk to him? Did they have a huge fight? Did he finally ditch her? No, that’d be too good to be true; they probably just had some kind of argument.

The carpeted floor felt soft and warm against her feet as Rose sat on the edge of her bed, tense, listening. The phone had gone quiet again. While twisting her long brown hair in a side braid she waited, still skittish, to hear if it was going to ring again. It did. Irritated, she hopped off her bed, opened her door, and stepped onto the landing.

Tyler’s door was shut. She walked up to it, pressed her right ear to the wooden panels, and heard the faint, regular breathing of someone sleeping. Listening more closely, she tried to make out the sound of a second person breathing, but she could only hear Tyler. It seemed he was alone.

Rose stepped away from the door, disappointed. So the argument had not been about Tyler cheating on Georgiana with some other girl. Rose was surprised and annoyed that Tyler had been faithful to Georgiana for as long as he had. It had to be a record. Not that she supported the cheating—she was just eager for Georgiana to be out of their lives. Considering Tyler cheated on every girl he was ever with, it was just maddening that the one girl he’d decided to be faithful to was an obnoxious mean girl.

The house was silent again. Rose shivered; Boston always felt too cold compared to Texas, no matter the season. Also, the sorry excuse for PJs she was wearing—a turquoise tank top with a frilly trim and matching shorts—wasn’t helping in the warmth department. Rose usually preferred to wear oversized sweaters when she went to sleep, but she hadn’t had much of a choice last night. She’d used up all her regular, cozy PJs, and she hadn’t done laundry in weeks because she’d been too busy with her Summer Academic Fellowship for Harvard Law. So her Victoria’s Secret PINK set was the only clean thing she’d had left, and it was either that or two drops of Chanel number five.

Rose massaged her arms with her hands to warm herself up as she turned around, away from Tyler’s door and toward the bathroom. Since she was up, she might as well go before she went back to bed. The only time she got to sleep in was on the weekend, and she was determined to enjoy her well-deserved rest.

Rose finished her business and was about to exit the bathroom when she caught a flash of herself in the mirror. She stopped in front of it and checked herself out. She looked good in her mini-pajama. Yes, not bad at all. Too bad she felt like a popsicle when she wore them.

Rose moved her gaze away from her body and up to her face. Her eyes were almost black, and her skin tone made her look constantly tanned. Not like Georgiana, who had impossibly white skin, long licorice-black hair (dyed), and startlingly light blue eyes. Did Tyler prefer blue eyes? Over the years, he hadn’t shown any particular trend in his women. Tall, short, curvy, androgynous, brunette, blonde, red-head—it didn’t matter to him. As long as they were attractive, he liked them.

Rose was distracted from her musings by Tyler’s phone ringing again downstairs. Like an angry cat, she wheezed at the mirror. How was she supposed to sleep if that damn thing was going to go off every five minutes? She exited the bathroom and ran down the stairs, the carpet muffling her steps.

She had a quick look around the living room but couldn’t see the phone anywhere. Then she moved into the kitchen and there it was, lying innocently on the table—lifeless. Rose looked at its black screen accusingly just as it started ringing again. Georgiana’s smiling face darted up on the screen. So it was her calling. Rose grabbed the phone, turned it to silent, and put it back down, relieved. Georgiana’s face remained lit for a few more seconds; then disappeared. The phone had been neutralized and wouldn’t disturb her any more. She could go back to her peaceful sleep-in day.

As Rose turned to leave the kitchen, she saw a speech bubble suddenly pop up on the screen. The temptation was too strong; Rose snatched up the phone and read it.

Georgiana: I’m sorry, ok? Can you please pick up?

So they definitely had an argument. And it looked like it was Georgiana’s fault. What could she have done? Nothing too bad, Rose was sure. Georgiana was all sweetness with Tyler. Rose had seen her act nasty only when he wasn’t around, during the rare times when Georgiana and Rose were alone together.

Georgiana was jealous of her; of this, Rose was sure. The sentiment was strong and reciprocated. Georgiana didn’t like the idea of her boyfriend living with his attractive female best friend. As for Rose, she didn’t appreciate Georgiana’s intrusion in their friendship—or the intrusion of any of Tyler’s girlfriends, for that matter. And Georgiana was more annoying than most of the girls he dated; she went to Harvard Law with them, so she was able to not only impose on their free time, but on their school time as well. In class, she sat with them—Rose on one side, Georgiana on the other, and Tyler sandwiched in the middle. At lunch, she ate with them. When they were studying, she followed them to the library. And she was at the house so often that Rose wondered if she was trying to move in without Tyler noticing. Georgiana being beautiful and rich didn’t help. Nor did the fact that she was the daughter of one of the most powerful and recognized lawyers in Boston.

This was the first time since high school that Tyler had dated someone who was in school with them. Rose had forgotten how hard it was to have a daily reminder of him being with someone else. Not to mention the unwelcome novelty of being in the next room when Georgiana spent the night. Contractors should make thicker walls. Rose was certain Georgiana had made it a personal mission to make sure Rose knew just how satisfied in bed she was.

When Tyler had first started going out with Georgiana, it hadn’t been so hard, Rose thought. Not while she’d been with Marcus, her longest relationship to date. The two years she’d spent with Marcus had been Tyler’s first time to be jealous, instead of the other way around. She remembered being actually glad when he’d started dating Georgiana, so that she could finally stop feeling guilty for spending all her time with Marcus. Rose also hadn’t told Tyler she was moving in with Marcus, and hadn’t been sure how he would take the news. Then everything had collapsed when Marcus had been offered a huge promotion in LA. In less than a month he’d left Rose heartbroken, with a cancelled lease, and nowhere to live. Of course, Tyler had stepped in immediately and invited Rose to stay in his spare bedroom. She’d accepted, grateful to have her best friend near her 24-7. Georgiana hadn’t been happy about it.

Rose sat in a chair at the kitchen table and rolled Tyler’s phone in her hands; she was tempted to snoop. She didn’t know why, but it seemed important she find out why Tyler and Georgiana had argued. But if Tyler discovered her at it, he’d flay her. He’d always been protective of his things, especially his phone, at least with his girls, and usually with a good reason. Although lately he’d been growing increasingly private with her, too. Rose felt she was being left out, and she couldn’t help but blame Georgiana. Georgiana, who was sorry for something she’d done. What was it? She contemplated the black screen, trying to make up her mind. To spy or not to spy?

“What are you doing?”

Tyler’s voice put a sharp end to her dilemma. He was standing at the foot of the stairs, wearing only sweat pants.

“Oh, you’re awake, good!” Rose said, faking anger to cover up her embarrassment at nearly being caught in the act. “Next time if you leave your phone lying around, do me a favor and put it on silent so it doesn’t wake me up.”

“Rose.” There was an edge to his voice. “Why were you looking into my phone?”

“I wasn’t looking into your phone,” she said, and dropped the phone on the table. “This thing has been ringing non-stop for almost an hour. I couldn’t sleep, and it didn’t seem like you were getting up anytime soon, so I came downstairs to silence it.”

“If you were just putting the phone on silent, why were you sitting on a chair with it in your hands?”

Ah, always the lawyer.

“I was trying to decide if your cuckoo girlfriend had ruined my sleep-in,” Rose said, getting up. Her chair scraped loudly on the kitchen’s floor. “Or if I could still try to go back to bed.”

***

Tyler knew that aggressive tone Rose was using. She brought it out when she was feeling guilty about something, and wanted to distract attention away from herself. When she brought up Georgiana, he was planning a sharp retort—but then she stood up, and he was thrown off-balance by her look. His eyes widened and his mouth dropped open as he stared at her. He was used to seeing her in faded, loose t-shirts three or four sizes too big for her. Not in mini shorts. Definitely not in mini shorts.

Rose seemed to notice his staring, because she blushed bright red. But she didn’t lower her gaze or back down.

“Anyway, Georgiana says she’s sorry,” Rose said, brushing past him as she continued toward the stairs. “And before you ask, no—I didn’t spy. The message just popped up on the screen.”

Tyler followed her, not quite able to tear his eyes away from her departing derrière as she began to climb the stairs. He was shocked into silence. Seeing her like this felt like being slapped in the face. He hadn’t tried to sleep with her, sober or drunk, for how long now? Almost two years. Not since she’d been with Marcus; not since her fierce refusal of his advances. Tyler had lured himself into the false idea that he’d finally managed to see Rose only as a friend—a sister, almost. But his reaction now to her lack of clothes told him without any doubt that he’d been kidding himself.

Tyler collapsed onto the living room couch, taking a couple of moments to steady himself, to reboot his brain. He’d always thought Rose was beautiful, but he’d never considered her sexy. However today, the combination of her outfit and her defiance just made her irresistible to him. He had to know what was going on with her that was making her act this way.

Standing, he followed her up the stairs, as if being pulled by an invisible rope. His phone remained forgotten and lonely on the kitchen table, Georgiana’s face surfacing on the screen yet again.

Two

Bigger Things to Sort

At the top of the stairs, Tyler looked toward Rose’s room and saw she’d left the door half-open. Was it an invitation? He approached it, stepping carefully so his bare feet were silent on the carpet. He peeked inside and saw her lying on the bed with her back resting against the wall on a mound of pillows, and her legs stretched in front of her crossed at the ankles. She was playing with her phone. To his delight, she hadn’t changed, or put on a sweater.

He knocked on the door; then stepped inside.

“Oh,” she said, surprised, looking up at him. “I thought you’d be downstairs, making peace with Georgiana.”

“What’s up with the shorts?” he asked, ignoring her comment.

“Yeah, I know,” she said, looking down at herself. “I was a bit behind with my laundry, and I only had these left.”

“Weren’t you against Victoria’s Secret and their objectification of women?” Tyler retorted.

Rose shrugged. “They were a present from Marcus.”

She’d said it casually, but he knew her well. He could detect the lingering sadness hidden behind that simple response. He knew that, as a loyal friend, he ought to feel sorry for her and for the abrupt way her relationship with Marcus had ended. Instead, Tyler couldn’t help but feel relieved Marcus had moved to LA and out of their lives for good. But there was a new feeling in the mix, now—a fierce jealousy he’d never experienced before. He was jealous that Rose would wear something so not like herself for Marcus.

Tyler sat on the bed next to her. He took her right ankle into his left hand, placing it in his lap.

***

Rose was extremely aware of Tyler’s hand on her ankle. How long had it been since he’d tried to sleep with her? Almost two years. He’d been “well behaved” since that last time, when she’d refused him with no room left for interpretation. Rose flinched at the memory. She’d been so taken with Marcus that she’d been harsh with Tyler. She’d treated him almost with contempt—certainly not in their usual playful way. She hoped Tyler had been drunk enough not to remember how badly she’d turned him down. But given that he hadn’t tried anything ever since, not even after her break up, some of it must’ve sunk in.

A tingle rose up her legs from where he was touching her with the tips of his fingers. It had been easier to say no to him when he was hitting on her once a week. But now she was out of practice, and she felt vulnerable.

“So what’s up with Georgiana?” Rose asked, putting her phone down on the bedside table and looking at Tyler expectantly.

“Oh, nothing,” he said, brushing off her question.

“It must’ve been something if she felt the need to call you ten times on a Saturday morning.” Rose didn’t know why, but she wasn’t ready to let it go.

“I’ve already told you it was nothing,” Tyler said, looking annoyed at her persistence.

“So why was she sorry about nothing?”

“Why do you have to always press me so much when it comes to Georgiana?”

“And why are you so adamant about not telling me? You used to tell me everything!” she retorted accusingly.

Tyler stared at her for a few seconds before lowering his gaze to the floor, embarrassed.

Rose narrowed her eyes at him as comprehension dawned. “It was about me, wasn’t it?” she hissed, leaning forward. She folded her legs, her ankle slipping away from Tyler’s grip. “Why does she hate me so much?”

“Come on, Rose, she doesn’t hate you. Don’t be melodramatic. She’s just a bit jealous, that’s all.”

“Why am I your only friend she’s jealous about? Especially when I’m the only one you haven’t slept with.”

“Well, you’re the only friend who lives with me. And Georgiana has this theory that the fact we haven’t slept together is more meaningful than if we had. She actually said she wished we’d done it before I met her and got over it!”

“And what exactly makes Georgiana think sleeping with me would make you get over it?”

“Would it?” Tyler asked with a hint of flirtation, making one of his cutest, mischievous faces.

“We’re not going to test it.” Rose kept her sulky frown. “So, what was she going on about this time?”

Tyler finally gave her an answer. “She wanted to know when you were planning on moving out.”

Rose shot out of the bed as if it were made of burning coals.

“I didn’t know I’d overstayed my welcome,” she spat, furious that Georgiana would stick her posh nose into her life like that.

It was true that she felt a bit guilty about living in Tyler’s swanky apartment without paying any rent. But it was Tyler who didn’t let her pay her share. To compensate, she did what she could. She bought most of the groceries and paid all the bills—and even though she and Tyler had never spoken about it, she thought he was fine with their arrangement. Georgiana had already made a snarky comment once to her: “How nice it must be to live rent-free in such a nice neighborhood.” Rose could only imagine what other things along that line she was telling Tyler. The thought made her livid.

“I can start packing immediately,” she said, and moved to grab some discarded clothes from a chair.

“Rose, will you calm down?” Tyler said, grabbing her wrist and pulling her onto his lap. “I’ve told her to piss off.”

“You know I feel guilty about not paying rent,” she protested, trying to ignore the fact that she was sitting on top of him and that they were both half-naked.

“And you know I don’t want you to. Plus, I know you sneak around and pay off all the bills before I even have a chance to open them.”

He put his hands around her waist. It felt good.

“Are you sure?” She needed more reassurances, besides the physical ones.

“Rose, my life has improved a lot since you moved in with me. My fridge used to look like a war zone, but now you make sure I eat all my vegetables,” he said jokingly.

“I bet she just wants me out so she can move in,” Rose couldn’t help saying.

“As if.” Tyler snorted, making Rose happier than she’d been all morning.

She beamed at him, looking him straight in the eyes. He looked back at her intensely, and suddenly she wasn’t smiling any more.

***

Tyler was bewildered by Rose’s beauty as he watched the smile disappear from her face. She was now looking at him with a serious expression, one he’d never seen before. Could it be that after all this time she’d finally give in to him? Today, when he’d least expected it, when he hadn’t tried one of his many stunts to seduce her. He leaned in closer as if to kiss her. He felt her stiffen, but she didn’t move away as she usually did when he tried something like this. Nor did she make any motion to get up. Her eyes widened, but she didn’t move.

Tyler didn’t need any more hints. This was his opportunity; he wasn’t going to give Rose time to think about what was happening or to change her mind. He bent her backwards and pressed his lips to hers.

***

A few miles away, in another posh neighborhood of Boston, Georgiana was pacing around her living room. She was nervous and impatient. She was seething with hatred for Rose, anger for Tyler, and resentment for Marcus. Whom she didn’t exactly know, but who she was positively sure had ruined her life by moving to LA.

She tried Tyler’s number another time. When he didn’t pick up, she threw her phone across the room in frustration. Luckily, it hit the couch and bumped on its soft cushions. It landed on the carpeted floor in two bounces with no hard damage sustained. Not that she cared.

It wasn’t going to work this way. She living there wasn’t right. How could Tyler not see it? And why wasn’t he picking up his damn phone?

Georgiana checked the time on her Rolex: nine forty-five in the morning. She’d been calling him for almost an hour now. She stared out of her floor-to-ceiling windows without focusing on anything in particular. Maybe he had the phone on silent and was still asleep. It wasn’t unusual for him to sleep in on weekends, and they’d been arguing until late last night. He’d left her apartment at, what, three, four a.m.? By the time he’d gotten home and to bed it must’ve been really late.

That was it, she decided, he was still sleeping. Ah, men! They could sleep through everything. Unlike her, who had barely slept and had been forced to use all her willpower not to call him before nine—she didn’t want to come off as the hysterical girlfriend. Georgiana had gotten up at six o’clock, when she’d been too fed up with tossing in bed. She’d showered, completed her beauty routine, and gotten dressed. By eight she’d already had breakfast, and she spent the next hour sitting in her apartment, willing time to pass faster.

Anyway, Tyler asleep or not, the problem remained. The sneaky little ho was after her boyfriend; Georgiana knew it for a fact. She’d probably been since puberty. Oh, why did Marcus have to dump Rose and give her the perfect excuse to move in with Tyler? To sink her claws even deeper into his skin?

If Tyler and Rose stayed under the same roof much longer, something was bound to happen. Georgiana could sense their relationship wasn’t strictly brotherly and sisterly—no matter how many times Tyler sworn it was. There was tension between them; she could tell from their body language. The fact that they hadn’t done the deed wasn’t an assurance it wouldn’t happen in the future. It was even worse, in a way. It helped build up the pressure, making Rose—the one girl Tyler had never had—too big of a temptation for him to resist.

Why did everything have to go down this way? Why now?

Georgiana felt as if a cosmic conspiracy was in place to undermine her relationship with Tyler. But she wasn’t a “live and let live” kind of girl. She was used to taking action and gaining control over things. She’d even tried to convince her brother, Ethan, to provide a distraction for Rose. He, five years their senior, was drop dead gorgeous and a womanizer. But he’d refused without even meeting Rose. To hell with him, too. She needed another plan, something that’d keep Tyler and Rose apart for good.

Georgiana turned away from the window. She started pacing around the apartment in search of an inspiration. It took her a few laps of the room before an idea started forming in her mind. At first she couldn’t quite grasp it. She was sure she’d overlooked something, but couldn’t put her finger on what. Then, out of the blue, an illumination hit her. She stopped dead in the center of the living room, unable to believe how stupid she’d been not to think of it sooner.

Grabbing her bag and car keys from the coffee table, Georgiana hurried toward the door. Halfway there she paused, turned around, and went back for her phone. She picked it up and checked the screen, only half-hoping to see if Tyler had called her back. He hadn’t.

Never mind, he could wait. Right now she had bigger things to sort out. With a feeling of purpose, Georgiana plonked the phone into her bag and exited her apartment. She felt strangely calm and regenerated. It was good to finally have a plan.

Three

Friends with Benefits

Tyler lay in Rose’s bed, staring at the ceiling, stunned. He was mesmerized by what had just happened. He thought he finally understood what making love meant as opposed to having sex. Being with Rose had felt right on so many levels; he couldn’t believe they’d waited this long. Why had they waited? Tyler felt as if the last ten years had been a total waste of time. But that was over. Everything was going to change. He’d have to break up with Georgiana first thing. He wasn’t looking forward to that. He was sure Georgiana would not make it easy for him. But there was no space left in his life for her, not now that his friendship with Rose had transformed into something new, something better … Love? The word scared him a bit. But he wanted to see where things would go with Rose. Take it one day at a time and see where their relationship would bring them.

He looked down at her. She was snuggled against him, her head resting on his chest, her eyes closed. He brushed the hair away from Rose’s face to have a clear view of her beautiful features while she slept. Yep, he was in trouble.

***

Rose kept her eyes tightly shut, pretending she’d passed out. She was lost; she didn’t know what to do next. She was sure the loud thuds of her heart beating in her chest would soon give her away. And then what? She had no idea how to handle the situation. Was her friendship with Tyler ruined forever?

She was mad at herself; she’d been weak. She hadn’t been able to resist. Not with Georgiana being a bitch. Not with Marcus dumping her and throwing her off her game, leaving her as insecure as ever. And not with Tyler being Tyler.

Oh Tyler! He was a lost cause. It’d never work romantically between them. There was a time when she’d had hope for them. She’d waited years for him to change. Not dating anyone, always waiting for him to mature, or for the girl of the moment to be dumped. Until she’d finally accepted he’d never change.

Unbidden, her mind began a mental recap of all the girls Tyler had dated over the years.

He’d had sex for the first time during their sophomore year in high school, with Amanda Lockwood, a junior. She was a popular girl, and after his conquest Tyler had become the hero of the school. Despite girls finding him irresistible, he remained faithful to Amanda for a whole year; after all, she’d been his first. That was, until Amanda’s nemesis, Charlotte Pierce, had decided to seduce him during summer break. Amanda had been away on vacation for a month, and teenage Tyler had been easy prey for Charlotte.

When Amanda had come back from her European trip, there’d been a lot of drama. Amanda and Charlotte became the first entries on a long list of girls who would end up hating Tyler for dating, cheating, and dumping them. By twelfth grade, Tyler had become the most popular guy in school. He’d basked in the glory of fooling around with a never-ending stream of girls. He’d been juggling at least two of them at any given time.

Rose had hoped college would steady him a little bit, but she couldn’t have been more wrong. He’d gone on an even wilder spree in their freshman year at Harvard. He’d slept with a different girl almost every night. Rose had told herself it was only their first year; that once he’d gotten it out of his system, he’d finally be ready for something serious. In their second and third year, she’d almost believed in Tyler’s redemption. He’d been in a serious relationship with Jessica, an English major he’d met in the library. Tyler and Jessica were together for two years, but when Rose found out he’d cheated on her eighteen months in, she officially gave up on him. If he couldn’t stay true to Jessica, the closest thing he’d ever had to a long-term girlfriend, then how could Rose trust him with her heart?

After Jessica, it had been pretty much the same with every new girlfriend. He’d cheated on all of them—he couldn’t help himself, it was just the way he was—and they’d all ended up loathing him. Rose didn’t want to end up loathing him. He was her best friend; he was the most important person in her life besides her parents. He was family. And she knew a romantic relationship would lead exactly to that. In the end he’d cheat on her—maybe not in a year, but in five, ten, it was a given. He simply wasn’t a monogamist. She would end up bitter, with her heart shattered to pieces. She could not let it happen, not to them. Today had been a mistake, a big one. But they could fix it. They had to.

Rose stirred, pretending she was just now waking up. She looked at him shyly, blushing.

“What?” she asked, self-consciously pulling the sheets around her body.

“I find it funny you choose to blush now.”

“I didn’t choose to, and don’t look at me like that.”

“Like what?”

His wolfish smile was making it hard for her to keep a steady mind.

“As if you want to eat me.”

“Maybe I do.” He bit her hand affectionately.

“Pff.” She felt her face burn red; she buried it in his chest to cover up her embarrassment. She still couldn’t believe they’d done it! She was hoping to discover this was one of her dreams about him.

“Don’t play shy, Rosalynn,” he said, using her full name. He planted a soft kiss on her collarbone. No, definitely not a dream. “After today I won’t believe you.”

After today. That was the problem.

“So,” she said, shifting positions so that he couldn’t kiss her.

“I know that expression, Rosalynn Atwood. It’s your serious-talk one.”

“Tyler,” she said sternly. “This is serious.”

“What is serious?”

“Me, you, naked in bed.”

“Relax, Rose. It’s not the end of the world.”

“No, but it could be the end of our friendship. Doesn’t that scare you?”

“What do you mean?” he asked, frowning.

“Oh, Tyler. I don’t know! I think it was a mistake.”

“Why?”

“All your exes hate you.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You cheated on all of them.”

“I didn’t cheat on all of them.”

“Name one you haven’t.”

He thought for a while.

“I haven’t cheated on Georgiana.”

Rose snorted. “Oh right, your girlfriend!” Hearing him say her name sent her into a frenzy. “The one you just cheated on!”

“But it was with you, so it doesn’t count.”

“I don’t think Georgiana would agree.”

“I can dump her if that’s what’s bothering you.”

“How nice of you,” she said sarcastically. “Please, don’t dump her on my account.”

“Rose, I wouldn’t cheat on you.”

“How do you know? Do you really expect me to believe you’d be fine sleeping with me and only with me for the rest of your life?”

“Yes. No. What the hell do I know! I haven’t even had breakfast and you’re already talking marriage. Why don’t we choose the name of our kids already and be done with it.”

“Well, it’s not like we can date and see how it goes, right?” Rose snapped.

“Why not? What’s wrong with that?”

“Everything’s wrong with that.”

“Nothing’s wrong with that”

“Tyler, please stop talking, you’re making it worse.”

“I don’t get you, Rose. What do you want me to say?”

“Nothing. You’ve already said enough.”

“Why do you girls have to go cuckoo the moment the sex is over?”

“See, Tyler, that’s the problem. I’m not one of your girls, and I’ll never be,” Rose said, raising her voice. “This was a big mistake. I wasn’t thinking.”

“I preferred you when you weren’t.”

“Well, I am now. This,” she added, pointing at the two of them, “shouldn’t have happened. It won’t happen again.” Rose gathered the bed linens around her, transforming herself into a human cocoon to shield her naked body from him. She retreated to her side of the bed, away from him.

“Don’t worry, Rose,” Tyler said, grabbing his pants and pulling them on. “I’ll get out of your way.” He jumped off the bed and was out of the room in three quick strides. He slammed the door behind him.

The moment Tyler left, Rose felt dead inside. She reached out her hand to his side of the bed, where the sheets were still warm from his body heat. She felt tears prickle her eyes. She wasn’t ready to let him go, not yet.

She followed him out of the room; she could hear the shower going. She tried the bathroom door and found it unlocked. Turning the knob, she pulled the door open and tiptoed inside the room. He was in the shower; she tapped on the glass, making a rasping sound.

He opened the glass door and stared at her, surprise written all over his face.

She stepped into the shower with him.

Tyler raised his eyebrows in a silent interrogation. He was probably thinking she was crazy. She’d just told him she didn’t want to have anything to do with him. Yet, here she was, jumping him in the shower not two minutes later.

“Today doesn’t count,” Rose said curtly, answering his unspoken question. Going up on her tiptoes, she pulled him toward her in a wet kiss.

~ * ~

The next day ended up not counting as well. And the next. And the next. Rose and Tyler fell into a weird routine of having sex (making love?) wherever, whenever, without ever talking about it. Afterward, they would pretend nothing had happened. Rose knew she was playing a dangerous game, one she couldn’t possibly win. She knew Tyler wasn’t ready for a serious relationship with her, and that what they were doing was wrong, but she couldn’t help herself!

Georgiana was still in the picture. Tyler had the decency not to bring her over to the house anymore. But on the odd nights on which he didn’t come home, Rose cried herself to sleep in her room. The next few days she would pout and ignore Tyler, but eventually she’d break. Then she would jump right back into his arms, and their unhealthy routine started all over.

It was driving Rose crazy. She knew it was a mistake. This situation couldn’t go on forever, but she couldn’t stop. She’d wanted Tyler for too long to be able to keep saying no. Rose told herself it was better to be the one he was cheating with, instead of the one he was cheating on. But after a month, even this excuse was running thin.

She’d told him he didn’t have to leave Georgiana for her, but that had been ages ago! Couldn’t he see things had changed? She wasn’t going to ask him again—what if he said no? What if he said yes? They’d get together, most probably, and then he’d cheat on her, and that was the last thing she wanted. They were such a mess. She was a mess. On one hand, she wanted Tyler to leave Georgiana and be with her officially. On the other, Rose was scared to death of it really happening. She wasn’t sure of anything anymore. The only thing Rose knew for a fact was that things couldn’t keep going like this.

Something had to change, soon, but Rose didn’t know what, or how.

***

Tyler was confused. He knew the situation with Rose and Georgiana was about to explode in his hands. He didn’t understand Rose. She’d been adamant they couldn’t be together. Not unless he proposed right then and there, and he wasn’t ready for that. What the hell, he was only twenty-four. He didn’t want to be tied up already. But Rose had become a drug for him. He couldn’t go back to just being her friend.

On the other side of the fence, Georgiana was catching up on the fact that something was going on. The few nights he was at her apartment he pretended to be tired to avoid sleeping with her, and he never invited her to the house anymore. They were arguing more often than not, and he was getting tired. And school had not even started yet. What would happen when he’d have to spend all his days in class squeezed between the two women in his life? The whole situation was a disaster. He should dump Georgiana, but the thought scared him. If he did, what would happen with Rose? And what would happen if he didn’t?

Tyler didn’t know what to do, or how to behave. He wished girls came with an instruction manual attached to their backs. The only thing he knew was that things couldn’t keep going like this.

Something had to change, soon, but Tyler didn’t know what, or how.

***

Georgiana knew something was up with Tyler. They hadn’t had sex since the night of their fight about Rose moving out of his apartment, and that had been a month ago. He’d mumbled some lame excuses about being tired on the few nights he’d been at her house. Usually he couldn’t keep his hands off her, and now that he’d also made it clear she wasn’t welcome at his apartment anymore …

Had he slept with Rose? She was almost certain he had. Georgiana was hurt at first, and she’d had a dark couple of days. Her first instinct had been to burn Tyler’s car and dump him without ever looking back. But then she decided she didn’t care if he’d cheated on her—she was in love with Tyler. He was hers, and she was ready to fight for him. She wasn’t going to let that ho snatch him away from her. No matter what it took, things couldn’t keep going like this.

Something had to change, soon, and Georgiana knew exactly what, and how.

Four

Party Girl

A couple of weeks later, Rose, Tyler, and Georgiana were having lunch together in a cafeteria on campus. The fall semester hadn’t started yet, but the campus was already buzzing with students for the orientation period. Rose couldn’t get over how weird it was, the three of them eating together. When Tyler had invited her out, Rose hadn’t realized Georgiana would be present as well. Since Tyler had been going out of his way to avoid unnecessary contact between Rose and Georgiana, Rose suspected Georgiana had somehow orchestrated the lunch.

Rose watched Georgina as she sat possessively next to Tyler, eating all his fries. Did she know Rose loved eating his fries? Was her dominion over his French Fries a metaphor of their love triangle? Rose hated that out in the open Tyler belonged to Georgiana, and that she was powerless about it.

“Do you have any plans for this coming Friday, Rose?” Georgiana asked, all sweetness.

“No, nothing in particular,” Rose said cautiously. She couldn’t help but feel like she was walking into an ambush—Georgiana never asked about her “plans”, not to mention she was being uncharacteristically nice. Rose didn’t like it—it was easier to sneak around with Tyler behind her back when Georgiana was being a bitch to her. If she thought of Georgiana as a nice, normal girl, then Rose knew her guilt would overwhelm her.

“Oh, that’s perfect!” Georgiana exclaimed. “I’m doing a dinner with some friends for my birthday. I want you to be there. Do you think you can make it?”

Rose couldn’t think of a polite way to say “no”. “Um … yeah, sure. Where?”

“Great. I haven’t decided yet. But you can come with Tyler straight from your house. I’ll meet you there.”

“Okay.” That was even more peculiar. Georgiana not bugging Tyler to pick her up, and suggesting they went in the car together instead. Something was definitely up.

***

Tyler followed the exchange, at a loss for words. He pushed his plate away, his stomach churning. He didn’t know what to do, or what to think. What else was Georgiana planning? She’d already thrown him a curve ball impossible to catch; what else could she possibly want? He felt trapped and didn’t see a way out. He was still angry with Georgiana for the way she’d manipulated things. He should’ve left her when he’d had the chance. He should’ve known Georgiana wasn’t going to stand by idly while he was having his way with Rose. That she was going to fight. And she had. That morning, Tyler had been called into Professor Hendricks’s office and his life had changed forever. He had no proof, but he was sure Georgiana had orchestrated everything, leaving him no choice. But the damage was done and there was nothing he could do at this point; all there was left to do now was to tell Rose. He looked at her with longing; he’d have to talk to her soon, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it, not yet. He couldn’t bear the thought of losing her. And after talking to her, he’d consider himself lucky if she ever spoke to him again.

~ * ~

Friday night, on the way to the restaurant, Tyler still hadn’t spoken to Rose. He’d made a resolution he’d tell her tonight after they got back home. But while he was driving, it crossed his mind that maybe it had been a mistake to wait so long. It’d only make Rose angrier. And the idea of Rose and Georgiana in the same room for a whole dinner made him nervous. He had an ominous feeling about the party.

Rose was sitting in silence beside him, staring out of the window. She was holding a little gift-wrapped package in her hands. He’d told her it wasn’t necessary to buy Georgiana a present, but Rose had insisted she should. Thinking about it, he had no clue what was in the box. Poison ivy? He could only hope.

At home, Rose had stunned him again. She’d emerged from her room dressed in a tight black jumpsuit with cutouts around the waist, and an almost bare back. She was also wearing very high-heeled black shoes and a furry-leathery jacket thing. In short, she was Catwoman. She was just missing the ears, whiskers, and tail. Again, these were clothes he’d never seen before. He was discovering a whole new secret side of Rose. It was great to see Rose under a different light, but sometimes Tyler wished he was still oblivious. His life would be much simpler. This sort of gear was probably reserved for Marcus; Tyler couldn’t help but think bitterly. But tonight she had it on for him, or to compete with Georgiana—he didn’t know for sure which one, if he had to be honest. Georgiana, thinking about his girlfriend made him slightly nauseous, he wasn’t used to not being in control and he didn’t like it.

Tyler’s mood worsened as they entered the restaurant. Georgiana and some of her guests were already there. They were sitting at a long, rectangular table laid for at least twenty people. Georgiana was sitting at the head of the table with an empty space on her left, followed by a couple of nicely dressed girls. On her right, there was a rather plain-looking guy, followed by two other girls and another good-looking man who seemed three to five years older than everyone else. There were fifteen or so empty places left at the table.

The older guy fixated his gaze on Rose the moment she entered the door, and didn’t seem to be willing to leave her any time soon. The fact was not lost on Tyler, and he felt an immediate, irrational surge of hate for the man.

***

Walking inside the restaurant, Rose watched Georgiana rise to her feet to greet them. She looked beautiful in a short dress made of lace flowers with a white blouse and a pink skirt.

“Tyler, Rose,” Georgiana said. “You’ve made it! Meet Joselyn, Kate, John, Mel, Alicia, and Ethan.” She did a counterclockwise round of introduction.

Rose stood there awkwardly, looking around the table at these people she’d never met before. Suddenly she was feeling self-conscious. Especially when she met the gaze of the guy sitting at the edge of the group, Ethan. He had bright, unsettling light-blue eyes that looked somewhat familiar, and short black hair. He was arrogantly good-looking, and was openly staring at her in a way that, if possible, made her even more uncomfortable.

Rose delivered her gift to Georgiana—a noncommittal make-up palette—who thanked her without opening it. The seat beside the birthday girl was obviously intended for Tyler, and Rose didn’t want to be anywhere near the couple, so she backtracked to go sit at the opposite end of the table. Georgiana protested mildly that she shouldn’t sit so far away, but Rose assured her she would be fine, and Georgiana didn’t insist further. Her head down, Rose shuffled away as quickly as possible.

Rose had a bad feeling about this night. She’d never seen Georgiana look so radiant, so smug. Georgiana was at this very moment watching Rose with an expression in-between triumph and pity. Rose wondered why. Why had Georgiana invited her tonight? Did she have an ulterior motive? A hidden agenda? Rose felt something was going on, and she was the only one who didn’t know what. Tyler had behaved strangely in the last week, and she couldn’t tell what had changed. Somehow, tonight she felt as if she’d walked herself into a trap. The evil stare hidden behind Georgiana’s smiles only served to increase her anxiety about this party. What on earth had made her say yes to this night?

The moment Rose sat down, Ethan got up and whispered something into Georgiana’s ear. He took his half-empty cocktail with him and moved toward Rose. He was tall, Rose noticed—maybe not as tall as Tyler, probably an inch or two shorter, but still tall. She peeped at Tyler for just a second. There was a look of pure hatred on his face as he followed Ethan’s movements. Good, it should serve him right to be the jealous one for a change.

Rose looked around at the other guests and spotted a pair of eyes filled with hatred, staring straight at her. They belonged to the blonde girl who’d been sitting next to Ethan, who didn’t appear at all happy with his sudden move over to Rose. Don’t glare at me, lady, I didn’t ask your guy to come talk to me. Is he even your guy?

“Hello,” Ethan said, interrupting Rose’s thoughts as he took the seat next to her. “It didn’t seem right to have you sit here all alone. I’m Ethan, Georgiana’s brother,”

Ah, that explains why the eyes looked familiar.

“And you are Rose, right?” he pressed.

“Right.” She smiled at him, blushing slightly under his piercing gaze despite herself. Was this what Tyler felt whenever Georgiana looked at him? Her heart sank into her chest.

***

Ethan was intrigued by the faint blush that appeared on Rose’s cheeks as she spoke to him. In fact, he was intrigued by everything about Rose. When his sister had begged him to seduce her boyfriend’s new roommate, she’d described Rose as austere-looking, but pretty. The woman seated next to him was neither austere nor pretty. To call Rose pretty had been the understatement of the millennium. She had a dark beauty with her long brown hair, olive skin, and almost-black eyes. And to think he hadn’t wanted to come tonight. He was glad now that Georgiana had insisted so much.

“So, how do you know my sister?” he asked, pretending he was clueless.

“We’re at Harvard Law together, and she’s dating my best friend Tyler,” Rose said.

“You came here together?”

“Yeah, I’m crashing at his place until I can find one of my own. I had a bit of a lease mishap.”

“What kind of mishap?” Ethan asked. Georgiana had already filled him in on all of the drama with her ex-boyfriend, but he wanted to see if Rose was going to volunteer the information.

She did. “Oh, nothing serious. My boyfriend dumped me a month before we were supposed to move in together, and I’d already cancelled my lease on my old place.” She shrugged, smiling awkwardly.

Ethan realized he liked her even more after her straightforward answer.

“So, being Georgiana’s brother, can I safely assume you’re a lawyer?” Rose asked.

“I am afraid you can’t,” he said, smiling a naughty smile.

“You didn’t go to Harvard Law?” Rose asked, surprised. “I thought every offspring of the Smithson family went to Harvard.”

“I did go to Harvard Law, as did many of my siblings and cousins before and after me,” Ethan replied, amused by the way she’d wrinkled her nose in confusion.

“And after all that pain, you didn’t become a lawyer?”

“Actually, I did.”

“I don’t understand,” Rose said. “What happened?”

“I tried the big studio, with the big cases, and the long hours for a year, and hated it, so I quit.”

“And your father let you?”

“He didn’t have much of a choice. I’m over eighteen, you know.”

“You stood up to Bradley Smithson. I’m impressed.”

Ethan roared with laughter. “To me, he’s just my father.”

“So he didn’t make a fuss?” she asked curiously.

“Of course he did. But in the end, when he saw my mind was set, all he could do was make me pay him back my tuitions.”

“For law school?”

“And college, too.”

“Ouch. And you managed?”

“Just about. I’m still paying. Having him as a creditor makes me regret not taking out student loans.”

“So what do you do now?”

“I’m into real estate.” Ethan scrutinized her face for a reaction. Was she going to give him the downright sorrowful look of contempt other lawyers reserved for him when he told them his new occupation?

She didn’t.

“My father is in real estate,” Rose said. “What do you do, exactly?”

“I usually buy places that need refurbishing, restore them, and when I’m done I re-sell them or rent them out.”

“If you have some nice studio apartments to rent, you could show them to me.” She blushed and looked away, like she immediately regretted asking him.

“So you’re looking to move out?” Ethan said, piercing her with his blue eyes.

He saw her throw a furtive, guilty glance at Tyler, who was looking back at her pointedly. “I mean, not that I have much of a budget,” she backtracked.

“I’ll see what I can do,” he promised. “If something interesting pops up, you’ll be the first I call.” Ethan meant the words. For once, he felt himself united in his sister’s desire of not wanting Rose to live under the same roof as Tyler. Not that it was going to be a problem much longer, from what he’d gathered from Georgina on their way here when he’d picked her up from her apartment. But Ethan wanted Rose out of Tyler’s house anyway. Why? He wasn’t sure yet. He just recognized it as a fact.

Five

A Bitter Pill to Swallow

When all the guests had arrived, menus were distributed, and Rose picked one up as an excuse to interrupt the conversation with Ethan. She stared at the pages, not really reading them. She felt bad she’d lied about her need for an apartment, or for it to be on a budget. Well, not exactly lied. Her dad was in real estate; she’d just omitted that his company owned half of Dallas, where she and Tyler were from. She wasn’t as comfortable as Tyler in displaying her family’s wealth. She asked her dad to cover only her tuition and limited living expenses. So it was sort of true that she was on a budget for her rent, even if the budget was self-imposed. What wasn’t true was that she was looking for a house. She had no intention of moving out of Tyler’s home.

Rose focused back on the menu. Three items in, she realized Georgiana had taken them to a sushi place. She looked at the names written on the pages, not understanding any of them. What were a Nigiri, a Maki, or a Miso? She had no clue, and there were no pictures to help her, as the restaurant was definitely too classy for those. She knew everyone was supposed to eat sushi, and that it would be unsophisticated of her not to, but she simply couldn’t digest the idea of eating raw fish. The thought made her slightly nauseous.

“Pssst,” she whispered, with her face hidden behind the leather menu.

“Are you talking to me?” Ethan asked, cocking his head toward her.

“Mmm-hmmm. Are you a sushi connoisseur?”

“I’ve had my fair share. Why?” He too was talking with his whole head hidden behind the black menu, and had his face turned toward hers.

“I don’t have the faintest idea what any of this is. Can you help me out?”

“You’ve never had sushi?” He seemed shocked.

“I’m from Texas; eating something that hasn’t been barbequed, or at least grilled, is considered a state offence.”

“You’re from Texas! You don’t have a southern accent.”

“My mom is from Chicago. But we moved here ages ago for college.”

“We?” Ethan asked.

“Oh, I meant Tyler and I.” Rose shifted uncomfortably in her seat, not sure she wanted to start talking about Tyler with Ethan. “We’ve know each other since pre-school. He’s like family.”

“Family, huh? You don’t say.”

Ethan appeared skeptical. Was she such an open book?

“So,” she said, deliberately changing the subject. “Will you order for me?”

He laughed. “Sure.”

“I want something like a beginner set of the less gross things.”

“By gross, I’ll assume you’re referring to the raw fish. In case you didn’t know, they also have cooked stuff here—you want me to get you one of those?”

“You know what? I don’t think I’ll give sushi another try any time soon, so I might as well just go all in and try the uncooked bits.”

“Mmm, you’re the adventurous type,” Ethan said flirtatiously. He winked one of those blue eyes at her, causing her stomach to do a little involuntary flip. “I like it.”

When their food arrived, Rose found herself in another predicament—she had no idea how to use chopsticks. She tried to handle the two wood sticks, but soon found she was hopeless.

“Ethan?” she murmured. It was the first time she said his name, and she liked the sound of it.

“How can I be of assistance?”

“Do you think they’d flay me if I asked for a fork and a knife?”

“Oh Rose, you’re helpless, aren’t you?” He chuckled.

“I’d like to see you fight a full rack of greasy barbequed pork ribs with your bare hands in your neat white shirt,” she joked. “Then it’d be my turn to laugh.”

He chuckled again. “Japanese actually eat sushi with their hands. It’s supposed to be eaten that way, at least for real hardcore sushi diners. Chopsticks are for sissies. If you do it, you’ll impress everyone at the table.”

“Will you do it with me?” she challenged.

His blue eyes hardened—Rose got the impression he wasn’t one to back down from a challenge.

“Sure, why not,” He said, and set his chopsticks back on the table.

Rose hesitated at using her fingers, so Ethan took a roll in his hand to show her he wasn’t joking. She followed his lead, raising one of her rolls halfway to her mouth.

“Cheers!” she said, bumping her California Maki into his before bravely putting the whole thing into her mouth.

“Cheers!” he responded, smiling.

After she’d tried a bit of everything he’d ordered for her, he said, “So, what do you think?”

She swallowed the last mouthful of the piece she was chewing and answered, “To be honest, I’ve had better food…”

“Like a barbequed rack of greasy pork ribs?” he teased.

“Exactly.” She nodded. “But I thought this was going to be a lot worse.”

“So I haven’t managed to bring you over to the raw side.”

“I’m afraid not. Hey, I’ve been meaning to ask—what’s this?” She pointed at a lime-green ball that looked like Play-Doh.

“That’s wasabi.”

“What’s it for?”

“It’s to add spice to the rolls.”

“Oh, I like spicy food.” She grabbed the ball.

“Don’t,” he warned. “It’s really spicy.”

She considered him for a second, the little ball still held between her thumb and index finger. Then she placed it back on the wooden tablet that was used in the place of a regular plate and used one of her discarded chopsticks to split the wasabi in two identical halves.

“Is this better?” she asked.

He shook his head. “Not really. It’s still too much.”

“I think I can handle it,” Rose decided.

Ethan was clearly trying and failing to suppress a grin as she raised the wasabi to her mouth. He had a face that said, “If you want to find out for yourself, I’m not going to stop you.”

So it was a dare. Rose put the half ball in her mouth and decided to win this one. But after just a few gnaws, her eyes started to water and her cheeks burned. Her nostrils flared wide as she tried to swallow the offending substance. She was sure she must look like a dragon breathing fire. To her credit, she managed to keep an almost straight face throughout the whole ordeal. When she finally managed to swallow the whole thing, she grabbed her diet coke, shoved the straw aside, and downed the whole glass.

“Don’t say anything,” she hissed at Ethan once she’d gone back to normal breathing.

She needn’t have admonished him, as he didn’t seem able to talk at the moment. He was too busy laughing his head off.

When the dessert menu arrived, Rose disappeared behind it once again.

“Pssst,” she whispered at Ethan again.

“You need help with the dessert?”

“No thanks, I can figure out ‘Green Tea Ice-Cream’ all on my own. I wanted to ask you if there’s something going on between you and that blonde chick.” Rose jerked her chin toward the other end of the table. “The one two seats down from Georgiana. She’s been giving me the look of death all night.”

“Ah, yes,” Ethan admitted, reluctantly. “That’d be Alice. We hooked up a couple of times, and now she probably thinks she’s my girlfriend.”

“Oh, phew.” Rose made a swatting gesture with her hand, still well-hidden behind her menu. “How old fashioned of her to think so.”

So Ethan was a player, just like Tyler. How big of a player, she wondered? Then she dismissed the thought; what did she care, anyway? Tonight had been a nice evening, sure—way more fun than she could’ve ever expected—but it wasn’t as if they were going to see each other again after the dinner was over. So, player or not, it really didn’t make any difference to her.

Clink. Clink. Clink. Clink. Clink.

Georgiana was batting one chopstick against her glass to attract everyone’s attention. She was on her feet, looking down at all her guests. The chatting groups of two or more quieted down, and twenty sets of eyes fixated on Georgiana. It was clear she loved being the center of attention. What was the big announcement, Rose wondered—a new Prada bag? A new Mercedes from daddy?

“I wanted to thank you all for being here tonight for this special day…”

Ow, she was really going to make a speech. Rose was about to roll her eyes at Ethan when she remembered he was Georgiana’s brother, and caught herself just in time.

“Tonight is special,” Georgiana continued, “not only because it’s my birthday, but also because, as most of you already know—” Georgiana looked pointedly at Rose. “—I won’t be seeing you all for quite a while, as I’m leaving in two weeks.”

Did she say leaving? In two weeks? For where? For how long? Rose couldn’t believe her luck. Georgiana out of the way meant one less complication for her and Tyler. She looked over at him, filled with hope and trepidation. But he’d gone very pale—he looked almost ill as he stared fixedly at the tablecloth. At that moment, as if feeling Rose staring at him, he lifted his head and looked at her from across the table. She knew that expression: it was a guilty one. Why was he feeling guilty, if Georgiana was going away?

Rose’s question was answered by the end of Georgiana’s speech. “I couldn’t believe my luck when Professor Hendricks told me there’d been a reshuffle in the Semester Abroad scholarship, and that Tyler and I would be able to join the program in the upcoming fall term! We’re going to spend the next six months in Paris. How exciting is that?” Georgiana addressed her question directly at Rose. As the table erupted in cheers and applause, Georgiana kept her gaze fixated on Rose, her lips twisted in a smug little smile. Rose could practically feel the triumph wafting off her.

Despite feeling like a knife was slicing deep into her heart, Rose didn’t give Georgiana the satisfaction of crumbling right before her eyes. She managed to maintain an impassive expression on the outside—but inside, oh, it was mayhem.

Tyler and Georgiana, leaving for France in two weeks. They were going to Paris together, and he hadn’t even bothered to tell her. She knew he and Georgiana had applied for the scholarship almost a year ago. She remembered being genuinely sorry for Tyler when he hadn’t gotten into the program. Of course, at the time, she’d still been with Marcus and nothing had happened with Tyler. The idea of Tyler being abroad with Georgiana for six months hadn’t been daunting in the least. But now, now it was a nightmare.

Rose’s brain was a whirlwind of thoughts, and her heart was pounding so fast in her chest she was afraid it was going to escape. She hadn’t bought Georgiana’s explanation of a “reshuffling” in Hendricks’s exchange program. He was one of the sternest, most revered professors at Harvard, and he wasn’t one to play favorites—Rose could only imagine what strings Georgiana’s father must have pulled to get Tyler and his daughter in.

Whatever he’d done, it had worked. Tyler was leaving her. Rose felt the beginning of a sob forming in her throat, and she choked it into her glass of diet coke, pretending it was a hiccup.

***

Ethan had watched Rose closely during Georgiana’s speech. To the casual observer, she might have appeared as if she hadn’t been affected at all by the news. But his close scrutiny had not missed the flicker of hope that had appeared on her face when Georgiana said she was going away. He’d also seen her expression become much like the one she’d had while trying to swallow wasabi when Georgiana had added that Tyler was going with her.

So, there was something between them; his sister had been right again. But Ethan was sure Georgiana had succeeded in crushing whatever it was that was going on, judging by the icing stare Rose had thrown Tyler just after the end of the speech. He’d been taken aback by how quickly Rose’s warm eyes could turn to such a frosty wall of black steel when she was angry. Ethan prayed he’d never be at the end of that stare. He felt almost sorry for Tyler. But, most of all, Ethan felt happy for himself. For once his sister’s scheming had proven quite useful. Rose fascinated him, and he intended to pursue this new interest in the future. It wasn’t often these days that Ethan Smithson found a girl interesting. If he thought about it, it hadn’t happened since Sabrina, and that had been a very long time ago.

Six

No Talking

Tyler, Georgiana, Ethan, and Rose were the last ones left outside the restaurant.

Georgiana felt slightly annoyed. Rose had remained impassive throughout the length of her speech. Had Tyler told her about Paris beforehand? She wasn’t sure. Sometimes Rose was inscrutable. And tonight her announcement had not produced the powerful effect Georgiana was hoping for. Rose crumbling in front of everybody would’ve been the icing on her birthday cake, but it didn’t really matter. Soon Georgiana would be gone with Tyler, and Rose would no longer be a problem.

“Baby,” Georgiana said to Tyler, interlacing her arm with his. “Do you want to stay over at my place tonight?”

“Actually, I came here with Rose,” Tyler said. “I should probably drive her home.”

“Oh, I can do that,” Ethan offered.

“I think it’s better if I drive her home,” Tyler said.

His possessive attitude irritated Georgiana. The day they left for France couldn’t come fast enough.

“I’m sure Ethan is a proficient enough driver to see me home safely,” Rose said, putting an end to the discussion. Her cold stare seemed to be daring Tyler to add something.

Mmm, interesting, Georgiana thought. Just when she’d thought her fun was spoiled, her moment of triumph had finally arrived. Rose was angry—very angry. Tyler hadn’t told her about Paris after all. Georgiana grinned to herself. Mission accomplished.

“It’s all set, then,” Georgina chirped, moving toward Tyler’s car. She was a bit annoyed that her brother had decided to pay attention to Rose tonight, since he didn’t have to anymore. She’d needed him before her Paris scheme was in place, not now that she’d solved the situation on her own. But if he wanted to toy with Rose, whatever. The more water under the bridge of Rose and Tyler, the better.

“I’m this way,” Ethan said, steering Rose away by placing a hand on the small of her back.

Trying to ignore the fact that Tyler appeared to be jealous of her brother, Georgiana pulled him toward his car.

***

Ethan drove a black Mercedes SLK—perfectly fitting for his character, Rose thought. She was glad it was him driving her home tonight. The thought of being stuck in a confined space with Tyler was unbearable just now. She didn’t even care that he was staying over at Georgiana’s; she was too angry for that.

They didn’t speak much on the way to Tyler’s house, except for the occasional driving direction Rose would proffer. All the playfulness of the night had evaporated, and Rose had too much on her mind to make small talk. Ethan didn’t seem to mind; he seemed perfectly fine with driving her home in silence.

When they pulled up in front of Tyler’s building, Rose didn’t even have a chance to thank Ethan for driving her home before he was already out of the car and circling it to reach her side. As he opened the car door for her, a small smile escaped her lips; this guy was full of surprises.

“How gentlemanly of you,” she said, taking his outstretched hand.

“I’m being no gentlemen,” he said, his eyes suddenly dark in the cold night. “I just wanted to be able to do this.” He pulled her up and out of the car toward him. Moving his free hand to the small of her back and forcing their bodies closer together, he kissed her.

At first she stayed rigid in his arms; she hadn’t expected him to kiss her. But soon she found herself responding to his kiss. Her body took control and she pressed herself against him. As suddenly as she’d let herself go, though, Rose regained control over herself and pulled away from him, breaking the kiss.

She threw him a quick glance, blushed, and had to look at the curb for a while before being able to meet his eyes again. She was leaning with her back against his car.

“I guess that was good night, then,” she said, smiling shyly.

“I guess it was.”

“Good night, Ethan.” She stepped toward him.

“Good night, Rose.” He cupped her face in his hands and planted a soft kiss on her lips.

She looked at him with the hint of a fire burning behind her eyes; Ethan had melted the steel in her gaze. Then she walked past him, up the alleyway. Feeling his stare on her back, she couldn’t help herself, and glanced back to look at him one last time. He was now leaning against his car, watching her go, his gaze intense. Rose ran the last few steps toward the door and disappeared inside the house, feeling a bit out of breath.

But the moment she closed the door, the brief elation Ethan’s kiss had given her vanished. A strong pain constricted her lungs as she collapsed to the floor. Rose rested her head on her knees and let the tears she’d been holding back for the past hour run freely.

***

In Georgiana’s apartment, Tyler was lying awake on the bed, unable to sleep. Georgiana was sleeping naked beside him, snoring faintly. He’d had sex with her tonight, more out of frustration than anything else. Tyler had not enjoyed it; he’d been thinking about Rose the entire time. Even when she wasn’t here, she was all he could think about. He’d been livid with her all night for the way she’d openly flirted with Georgiana’s brother. And now white hot jealousy was coursing through his veins like venom.

He couldn’t get the image of her going home with Ethan out of his mind. Had she really gone home, or had she gone back to his apartment? Was she having sex with him now? The thought of Rose, naked, with somebody else was unbearable. Unthinkable. It was enough to send him shooting out of the bed. He had to know, now. He had to know if she was at home, waiting for him or not.

His sudden movement woke Georgiana. She stirred on the bed and looked at him. The room was in half-darkness; the only light came from the street lamps outside. He doubted she could see much more of him than his dark silhouette.

“What’s up, baby?” she asked.

“I can’t sleep. I need my bed.”

“You never had a problem with my bed before.”

“I do tonight,” he said harshly. Then, realizing it’d be easier to be nice with Georgiana rather than argue, he leaned toward her and planted a soft kiss on her forehead. “I’ll call you tomorrow when I wake up, okay, baby? Now, go back to sleep.”

Apparently soothed by his sweet tone, Georgiana didn’t protest further, her eyelids fluttering shut. In a few seconds, she had drifted back to sleep.

The journey home seemed infinite to Tyler, even if, this late at night, the streets were deserted. Every red light seemed to linger on for an eternity. He sat in his car nervously drumming his fingers on the wheel, coils of anxiety twisting in his stomach. Rose was home. She had to be home. He needed to explain the Paris thing to her, and then she’d forgive him. She always did. Six months were nothing. They’d known each other for all their lives; six months in France didn’t matter.

When he finally pulled over in front of his house, Tyler parked the car in a hurry and almost ran up the alleyway. Once inside, he paused briefly in the entrance hall, listening for any sound. Nothing. All was silent. It didn’t mean anything; Rose must be sleeping by now. He took off his shoes and jacket without turning on any lights and then ran up the stairs, trying not to make any noise.

Rose’s door was closed. He stopped in front of it for a moment, undecided. But he had to know. He turned the knob slowly, again careful not to produce any sound. He opened the door enough to pop his head in and peered into the room, filled with trepidation. The lights were all off, and the curtains closed, but his eyes were already used to the semi-darkness. He was able to distinguish the slim outline of a body lying on the bed, curled up under the covers.

She was home. Of course she was home. Relief washed over him. How stupid had he been to think she could’ve gone home with that dude. Rose loved him. She’d be angry with him in the morning, sure, and probably yell at him, but she’d always be there for him. Tyler went to bed feeling more relaxed than he had in a week. Everything was going to be fine.

***

Rose cried herself to sleep that night, and woke up the next morning feeling miserable. It took her a few groggy seconds to remember why she was in such a terrible mood. Oh, right. She’d been sleeping with Tyler for the past month, and now he was moving to France with Georgiana. At the thought, she felt slightly ill. What now? She’d have to move out first thing. The realization made her even angrier; Georgiana was going to get all she’d wanted in one swift move. Rose hated her like she’d never hated anyone in her entire life.

Her loathing of Georgiana was interrupted by the sound of the toilet being flushed. Tyler was home. Her heart skipped a beat. When had he returned? What time was it? Her alarm clock provided the answer: it was seven forty-five. What was he doing home so early? She wasn’t ready to talk to him. In fact, she’d been hoping she could sneak out of the house this morning before he got back from Georgiana’s, and return long after he’d gone to bed. What was she going to do now? She wasn’t ready to face him. She didn’t want to.

Her heart stopped altogether when she heard the sound of a faint knock on her door. Shoot! What now? She didn’t move. She didn’t do anything.

The knock came again, this time a bit louder. Rose was paralyzed.

“Rose?” Tyler’s voice came tentatively from the other side. “Rose, I know you’re in there.”

How did he know?

“Rose, we need to talk.”

Oh, so now he wanted to talk. That did it; she was angry now.

“Go away!” she shouted at him, getting out of the bed. She was wearing a baggy t-shirt and pajama pants.

“Rose, I’m coming in.”

He entered the room, dressed in a white t-shirt and gray sweat pants.

“I don’t want to talk to you,” she said.

They faced each other down, standing on opposite sides of her bed.

“Rose, please, I had no choice.”

She’d expected this excuse and was ready for it. “Oh really?” she snapped. “And why exactly was it impossible for you to tell me you were moving to France with your girlfriend?”

“That’s not what I meant.”

“Why didn’t you tell me? Why?” she yelled, hysterical. “Oh, I know why! Because you wanted to keep screwing me until you left. You’re a jerk.”

“Rose, please, it’s not like that and you know it. I wasn’t expecting any of this to happen. Professor Hendricks called me into his office last Monday. He told me Montgomery had backed out of the French scholarship and that, if I wanted it, the spot was mine. But because the program was starting in three weeks, I had to give him an answer right then—and you know how much I wanted that scholarship. So, I said yes. I didn’t even know Georgiana was also going until I’d already accepted.”

“She made this happen, didn’t she? How?” Rose could feel the venom spilling out through her words, but she didn’t care.

“I don’t know. Both Montgomery and Brown withdrew from the exchange program at the last second. She probably got her father involved—I’m guessing he offered them something to give up their spots.”

“Did you sleep with her?” Rose hissed.

“What?” Tyler seemed thrown off balance by the fury of her question.

“Last night. Did. You. Have. Sex. With. Her?”

It was the first time Rose had asked him, and she had a feeling it was also the wrong time to ask.

Tyler looked at her with a desperate expression. Rose didn’t need him to talk. His answer was clearly readable on his guilty face.

“You bastard…” She started to sob.

“Rose, please, it didn’t mean anything. I was thinking about you the entire time.”

How many times had she heard that same plea? Every time he’d cheated on one of his girlfriends and had been caught. Oh, crap! She’d become one of his girls. The thing she’d feared the most had become true.

“Get out,” she commanded. “I don’t want to talk to you. I don’t even want to see you.”

“Rose, please…”

“Get out.”

“Rose…”

“I said GET OUT!” she screamed.

***

Tyler had never seen Rose this mad, and if he had to be honest, she was scaring him a little. So he did as she asked and gave her space, resolving to talk to her later, once she’d calmed down. But he never got the chance. In the next few days, Rose became a ghost. She would leave the house at dawn, and not come back until very late. When he waited up for her, she ran from the entrance door to her room, ignoring his calls as she locked herself away. One night he’d camped outside her bedroom, determined to catch her before she left the next morning. But he’d awoken to discover she’d stepped over him and left without waking him.

During his last week in the States, she’d disappeared altogether, and had only reappeared two days before he was to leave for Paris. He suspected she’d gone home to Dallas to visit her family without telling him. Even outside the house, he couldn’t find a chance to talk to her—Georgiana shadowed him everywhere, and he was never alone long enough to seek Rose out.

The night before his departure for Paris, Tyler was in his room, finishing up his packing, when he heard the front door open. It had to be Rose; no one else had a key. For a brief moment he was tempted to go out and try to talk to her again. But given how badly every previous attempt had gone, he decided it was better to wait until he was back from France. Then he’d get rid of Georgiana, and then Rose would forgive him.

***

Rose went inside her room, feeling dead inside. Tyler was leaving tomorrow; he wouldn’t just be in a different city, he’d be on a different continent entirely. She’d done her best to avoid him after their fight. She didn’t want to hear his excuses; she’d heard all of them before. Always the same words, uttered a thousand times to as many girls. When she’d found him sleeping outside her door she’d almost given in, but somehow she’d managed to stay strong. Well, at least until tonight.

Tonight was different. It was their last night.

Rose went into her room and changed into one of the longish t-shirts she liked to sleep in. She tried lying on the bed, but she couldn’t stand still. On impulse, she got up, crossed the hall, and burst Tyler’s door open. He was already in bed ready to sleep; he was reaching up to his table lamp to turn it off.

He looked up at Rose surprised. “Oh, so now you’re talking to me?” he asked.

“No,” she said, removing her t-shirt in one swift movement. “Not talking.”

Afterwards, Rose spent the night awake on the bed, staring at the black ceiling and listening to Tyler’s deep breathing as he slept next to her. When she got scared he might wake up, she snuck out of the bed. She looked outside the window; the first light of dawn was approaching, and the night fled before it. Just like Rose was fleeing from Tyler. She collected her discarded t-shirt from the floor and went into her room, locking the door behind her. She knew Tyler wouldn’t wake her the next morning; he had to leave early for the airport. She didn’t want to say goodbye. She couldn’t.

Seven

Will I See You Again?

Over the next few weeks, the memory of that night haunted Rose, no matter how much she tried to push it out of her mind. She didn’t want to remember, she just wanted to forget, to forget him. He was in Paris with Georgiana. What were they doing? No, no, no. She had to stop torturing herself with the thought of what Tyler was or wasn’t doing. She had to move on.

A six-month break would do the trick. It had to. If she wanted things to go back to the way they’d been, she just needed some time to forgive and forget. It wasn’t too late for them to be friends again. But she needed to move out before he came back; this house was too full of him, too full of them.

Right, move. The thought brought her back to present. It was a Saturday morning, three weeks after Tyler and Georgiana had left, and Rose was seated at the kitchen table scrolling through Craigslist, looking for rental houses. She’d already found a few options within her price range, but the pictures were so revolting that the search was doing nothing to improve her mood.

As she looked at one ugly house picture after another, her phone started ringing. An unknown number beginning with the Boston area code appeared on-screen.

“Hello?” she greeted, perplexed. It wasn’t often she received phone calls from unknown numbers.

“Rose?”

It was a male voice, one she didn’t recognize.

“Yes?”

“You have no idea who I am.”

She kept silent.

“Ouch, I’m hurt.”

He was funny, she thought. She liked his voice.

“It’s Ethan.”

Her stomach did a little flip.

“Georgiana’s brother,” he added for good measure.

Georgiana. Tyler. France. Her stomach landed from the flip with an almighty crash.

“Oh, hi,” she said, trying to keep an even tone. It wasn’t easy; she felt she might start sobbing at any moment.

“Hi.” He sounded put-off by her small voice—which, somehow, uplifted her.

“Why,” she said in a much cheerier tone, “just when I thought you’d forgotten all about me.” She had a hunch it wasn’t by chance he’d waited until Tyler was out of the country before calling her.

“Well, I had to make sure I had a winner before calling you.”

“A winner?” Rose asked, both puzzled and captivated.

“I have a wager to propose to you.”

“This early on a Saturday morning? Shouldn’t we wait until at least, I don’t know, late afternoon before we started gambling?”

“Normally I’d say yes, but since I have a better chance of winning in broad daylight, you’ll have to make an exception.”

“Would I want you to win?” she asked, surprised by her own coquettishness.

“I think it’ll be a win-win, so yeah…”

“Mmm, I’m intrigued. Tell me everything.”

An hour later, as she walked up the steps of a fancy new building just a few blocks away from Harvard, she knew she’d lost the bet. Surprisingly, as Ethan had predicted, she was not at all sorry about her defeat.

Ethan had called to show her an apartment he thought she might like, on the condition that if she was to take it, she’d have to go out to dinner with him. Rose vaguely remembered telling him about her search for an apartment the night of Georgiana’s party. It hadn’t been true at the time, and she hadn’t foreseen her lie becoming the truth quite so abruptly. But now she was glad for it. She welcomed the distraction; it was the first positive thing that had happened to her in a while.

Ethan had picked her up in his black Mercedes thirty minutes after calling her. She’d barely had time to take a quick shower and get dressed before he’d arrived.

“Are you sure this is within my budget?” she asked, eying the luxurious building.

“The owner’s a good friend of mine, and he’s agreed to lower the price in exchange for a reliable, tidy tenant who won’t trash the place,” Ethan explained shrugging. “A lot of rich, spoiled frat boys want to live here, but they’re trying to keep them out of the building and make it more of an adult community.”

“How do you know I’m not a crazy party girl?”

“Are you?” Ethan called her bluff.

“No,” she admitted, unsettled by the x-raying of his light-blue eyes.

“Shall we?” he asked, holding the door open for her.

The apartment was perfect, just perfect. It was a spacious one-bedroom with one wall made entirely of floor-to-ceiling windows. The kitchen was ultra-modern, brand new, and had a huge island that overlooked the dining table and part of the living room. The bedroom was bigger than the one Rose was occupying now, and had a walk-in closet. The bathroom was cozy and as new as the rest of the apartment, which was furnished with a minimal style that suited the place. The house furniture and walls were painted in white and warm gray shades, with the occasional pop of a wooden detail.

Excitement was written all over Rose’s face; she could hardly believe her luck.

“Do I take it we have a date?” Ethan asked when she was finished examining every inch of the apartment, exploring every cabinet, drawer, and closet, marveling at any new feature she discovered.

“Mmm-hmmm. When can I move in?” she asked, beaming.

“Next weekend. I’ll have you sign some papers, and it’s a done deal.”

“You don’t need to check with the owner?”

“Nah, I had you pre-approved.”

“Confident, are we?”

He smiled dashingly.

“When do you want to go out?” Ethan asked once the paperwork was taken care of.

“You’re the winner, you call the shots.”

“Next Friday?”

“Next Friday it is.”

~ * ~

During the following week, Rose changed her mind on how she felt about going out with Ethan every other hour. At first, she’d feel happy for the distraction. Then she’d get worried about getting into even bigger trouble. Ethan was another bad boy, maybe even worse than Tyler. Why couldn’t she find one of the good ones? Because you find them boring as hell, a nasty little voice replied in her head. When she was done worrying about how much Ethan could potentially hurt her, guilt towards Tyler crept in. She knew she shouldn’t feel guilty for going out with another guy—after all, Tyler was in Paris with his girlfriend. But her heart was stupid, and it told her she was being disloyal. Once the guilt trip was over, she’d switch almost immediately to vindictiveness—of all the guys she could have gone out with, Ethan was definitely going to annoy Tyler the most. Not that he was going to find out about it, since they were barely on talking terms these days. She’d emailed him to say she was moving out, and that she’d check on his house every now and then and keep paying the bills while he was in France. He hadn’t emailed her back. She knew he almost never checked his non-Harvard email account. And she was perfectly happy with him not knowing, at least for a while, until she’d had time to settle into her new place―and life, hopefully.

Ethan was due to pick her up at seven. Now it was six-thirty, and she was already set. She’d had to choose her clothes for tonight well in advance, as everything else was packed away in two huge suitcases for her big move tomorrow. She’d opted for a casual-chic style; she was wearing a white neoprene quilted sweater over lightly faded ultra-skinny jeans, and a pair of high-heeled nude pumps. She’d let her hair down, styled it in soft waves, and she’d kept the make-up simple: foundation, bronze blush, a double coat of mascara, and lip balm. She didn’t like to wear lipstick or lip-gloss at restaurants.

At six-fifty-five the doorbell rang. She picked up her black furry jacket and hurried out of the house to meet Ethan.

He drove her to a fancy steak house for their date—he’d remembered meat was her favorite, Rose noted.

“I wish I’d given in to my sister’s request a lot sooner,” he said after they’d drunk their first glass of wine.

“Meaning?” Rose asked, a little uneasy at the mention of Georgiana. She’d tried to store the notion of her being Ethan’s sister in a remote corner of her brain.

“She’d been bugging me to go out with you for ages.” Ethan explained.

“How nice of her to worry about me,” Rose said, unable to keep the sarcasm out of her voice. Her anger at Georgiana’s scheming resurfaced immediately.

“I don’t think she was being utterly altruistic,” Ethan said without flinching. He was direct; Rose liked it. “I guess she was a bit jealous of you and Tyler living together.”

Tyler’s name made Rose blush. She hoped her reaction wasn’t too obvious, even if Ethan’s attentive stare told her otherwise.

“So what made you change your mind?” Rose asked, steering the conversation away from Tyler. She didn’t want to think about him tonight.

“I met you,” Ethan said simply, holding her gaze.

She blushed again and lowered her eyes, embarrassed by his piercing stare. Something in her belly fluttered; maybe she really was getting herself into bigger trouble.

The rest of the night passed in a blur of general getting-to-know-you talk. Rose found she was relaxed with Ethan; he had an easy way about things, quite the opposite of his snotty sister, and he made her laugh—a lot! He didn’t mention Tyler again during the dinner, much to Rose’s relief. She suspected he was trying not to spoil their first date, which she was perfectly all right with. Deep down, she knew she’d have to eventually come clean about her relationship with Tyler to Ethan if she wanted to keep seeing him. How would Ethan react? Would he hate her for hurting his sister? Think of her as the other woman? There was no way to anticipate his reaction.

When Ethan pulled up in front of Tyler’s house, Rose was surprised to see the clock of his car read 1 a.m.

“Do you need any help with the big move tomorrow?” Ethan asked.

“Yeah, sure, I’m going to stick my humongous luggage in your spacious trunk,” she joked, wondering if his sports car even had a trunk.

“I’ll have you know that I’m also equipped with a pick-up, Miss Atwood. It should be more than capable of hauling your humongous luggage.”

She’d planned to call a cab, but the possibility of Ethan helping her was far more enticing.

“Okay then. But only if you’ll let me buy you breakfast afterwards.”

“Deal,” he said.

“Should we shake on it?”

“I have a better idea,” he said, and leaned in to kiss her.

~ * ~

“You seem undecided,” Ethan said.

They’d just finished moving all of Rose’s luggage into her new apartment, and Rose was famished. “Well,” Rose said, shifting her gaze between the two sides of the road. “I love Starbucks’ coffee, but I prefer donuts from Dunkin’ Donuts.”

All night she’d thought about Ethan. About their date the night before, the conversations they’d had, the occasional fluttering in her belly, and the kiss! Yesterday had been the first night Tyler had not haunted her dreams.

“You get the coffee, and I’ll get the donuts,” Ethan proposed.

“But breakfast was supposed to be on me!” Rose protested.

He laughed. “So pay me back the two dollars the donuts will cost.”

She smiled. “Okay. Let’s meet back here and we can eat in my new kitchen.”

~ * ~

“Do you ever miss Texas?” Ethan asked her as they ate breakfast seated at Rose’s new table next to the wall-wide windows. Sunrays filtered through the glass, making her new apartment appear even brighter than when she’d seen it the first time.

“Sometimes, but we moved here almost seven years ago, so now Boston feels like home too,” Rose said.

“You keep saying we.”

“Aw,” Rose said, embarrassed. “Bad habit.”

“Some other bad habits I should know of?”

Ethan’s question was vague enough, but the is-there-something-going-on-between-you-and-Tyler subtext was all too clear.

“Who am I talking to?” Rose asked. “Georgiana’s brother, or just Ethan?”

“Just Ethan,” he replied, and somehow Rose felt she could trust him.

“Tyler is my best friend; we’d managed to stay just friends for a long time.”

“Past tense?”

“Past tense,” she confirmed.

Ethan didn’t press her; he waited for her to tell him more, or not tell him anything. This made her even more confident she could open up to him, and she did. She told him everything; she started with Marcus, and ended with the disaster the last couple of months had been.

“… and now you probably hate me because Georgiana is your sister and I’ve been horrible to her.”

“I don’t hate you. I know my sister’s not an angel, but she doesn’t deserve to be cheated on. But I’m not angry at you—how could I be? You weren’t the one cheating on Georgiana. Tyler’s the bastard who was playing both of you like that. He’s lucky he’s on another continent!”

Rose’s cheeks were beyond red by this point. “Do you think she knows?” she asked, not daring to look him in the eyes.

“From what she told me, she’s almost certain.”

Rose felt more ashamed than ever. “And she doesn’t care?”

“My sister’s peculiar like that,” Ethan said noncommittally. “She’s decided she wants to be with Tyler, and apparently she doesn’t care if he wants to be with her or not, as long as she gets what she wants.”

“So you don’t hate me for hurting her? Are you sure?”

“As I said, you aren’t the one who’s in the wrong here. That Tyler dude, though—him, I hate. I could snap his neck. You love him?”

“I do,” Rose said sincerely. “But I don’t know if I’m in love with him. Our relationship is too complicated to know where the friendship ends and where the love starts. But I think what we did was a huge mistake, and I hope we can find a way to go back to being just friends. What about you? Anyone I should know about?”

“Not really…”

“What about that blonde girl at Georgiana’s birthday?” The one who was glaring at me, Rose silently added. “What was her name?”

“Alicia.”

“Alicia, right. Are you still seeing her?”

Ethan shrugged.

“The night we met, did you go see her after you dropped me off?” Rose pressed.

Ethan’s eyebrows flew skyward; he was clearly taken aback by the question. “I did,” he admitted.

“Did you sleep together?”

Ethan replied with a curt nod, his jaw tense.

“And after that?”

Another small nod.

“When was the last time?”

“Two nights before our date.”

“Will there be a next?” Rose asked, not sure she wanted to know.

“I don’t know,” Ethan answered honestly.

“Listen.” Rose took a sip of her coffee, which had gone cold. “I genuinely like you…”

“I sense a ‘but’ coming,” Ethan said with a skeptical smile.

“But… I don’t want to be mixed up in another love triangle. My life is already too complicated as is. I don’t want to fool around, and let’s not kid ourselves—the fact that you’re Georgiana’s brother is not irrelevant.”

“You’re right,” Ethan said. He stood up and pulled on his black leather jacket. “I should probably sort myself out first.” He moved toward the door.

“If you ever do, well, you know where I live.” Rose followed him to the door and held it open for him.

“Good bye, Miss Atwood.” He kissed her on the forehead.

She liked that he acted like a gentleman out of a Jane Austen novel whenever he was flirting. “Good bye, Mr. Smithson,” she said, playing along.

Rose watched Ethan go, and closed the door behind him. She leaned her forehead against the cold metal. She was already feeling a pang of regret. Had she done the right thing? Yes. Why did she feel so disappointed, then? Because doing the right thing sucked, she answered herself. But she’d done enough wrong for a while, and she wanted her next relationship to start out clean. No secrets, no sneaking around, and most definitely no other women. Yes, she’d done the right thing. If the bare mention of an exclusive relationship sent Ethan running for the hills, it’d be even clearer she’d made the right choice.

Eight

You Can Trust Me

Once she was settled into her new home, Rose started settling into her new, independent life as well. Being out of Tyler’s house helped more than she’d expected. Not having to see him or Georgiana was the icing on her recovery cake. Six months was a long break. By the time Tyler was back, her heart would be healed and she’d be in control of her feelings once again. Really, France was the perfect solution. The only way to salvage her friendship with Tyler. If he’d stayed here, she wouldn’t have been able to control herself. And she needed to be in control. Because truth was, Tyler was the best of friends but also the worst possible boyfriend.

He would’ve ended up hurting her in a much deeper way. Sex between them had to happen at some point, and being apart for a semester could be the only way they could get over it. It was the longest they’d ever been separated, but Rose didn’t have time to feel alone. Harvard Law was more than enough to keep her mind busy and, without distractions, her grades had become even better than usual. She was concentrating on herself and on her studies. She was alone, independent, in control of her life… and it felt good.

Rose stretched in bed, half asleep. It was Saturday morning and even if she had to study, she hadn’t set the alarm clock. Unexpectedly, the doorbell rang, cutting her morning treat short. Rose blinked, staring at the ceiling, confused for a few seconds. Right, it must be the mailman delivering her latest textbook order. Rose reluctantly shuffled out of bed. She adjusted her hair in a messy bun and went to open the door, wearing only her pale gray just-above-the-knee t-shirt nightdress and a pair of socks. She had a paper to write anyway, so the delivery was as good a wake-up call as any.

But there wasn’t a mailman waiting for her on her landing; rather, it was Ethan Smithson, holding a tray of coffee cups and a box of donuts.

“Not a morning person, huh?” he said with a wicked smile.

“I plead guilty.”

“Shouldn’t you negotiate something first?”

“You have donuts in one hand and coffee in the other. I think I made a pretty good bargain.” Rose smiled. “Come on in. Let me go put something on.”

“No, please, it’s the first time I’ve seen your legs. They look too good to be covered up.”

“Well, sorry, but I don’t feel comfortable being the only one in the room not wearing pants.”

“In that case…” In a swift move, Ethan dropped everything on the kitchen table and kicked away his shoes. He was already unbuttoning his pants before Rose realized what he was doing.

“That’s not what I meant!” she protested, covering her face with her hands. But he was already folding his pants neatly in two. He laid them on the back of a chair on which he sat afterwards. Rose didn’t have any choice left, other than to sit opposite him and try to ignore the fact that there was a half-naked, very attractive guy―and Georgiana’s brother, nonetheless―sitting in her kitchen.

“So what brings you to this part of town?” She took a sip of coffee, pleased to notice he’d remembered she loved cappuccinos.

“Oh, I like to check on tenants I’ve helped find a place for from time to time.”

“You mean you bring coffee and donuts to all of them?”

“No, donuts are a special perk I reserve for you,”

“I’m honored.” She took a bite to show her appreciation.

“You’ve been all right, then? You have all you need?”

Rose knew his question wasn’t a casual one, but she decided to give him a casual answer all the same. “I’m missing something red.”

“Red?”

“Yeah, I like the minimalist style, but I need a pop of color.”

“Don’t tell me you have an artistic side! So un-lawyer-like of you. How’s everything else been?”

“Same old. You know, I’m having fun with Constitutional Law.” She knew she was avoiding his questions, but she wasn’t sure what he was doing here yet. “How about you?”

“I’ve pretty much been a lone wolf in the last month.”

He looked a bit like a wolf—one with piercing blue eyes.

“Not on my account, I hope?” Rose hid her face behind her coffee cup.

“To be honest, Miss Atwood, it has been on your account.”

Rose smiled. She really liked when he went all gentleman-like. “You want some more coffee?”

“Sure.”

She moved into the kitchen and he sprawled himself on the couch. Rose had almost forgotten he was pants-less. Watching Ethan Smithson wander around her living room in boxer shorts was weird and thrilling at the same time.

“Just coffee, or you want a cappuccino?” she asked from behind the kitchen island.

“You make cappuccinos at home?”

“Yeah, I’ve a frothing machine.”

“Then a cappuccino.”

She brought two huge mugs to the couch and sat opposite to Ethan, draping her calves on his lap.

“Is this what your typical Saturday morning looks like?”

“Nah, I’m usually caught up in boring stuff like accounting or supervising some remodeling project. Running a company is a 24-7 job. Being a grownup isn’t fun.”

“I wouldn’t know about that. I’m still in grad-school limbo. I have at least another year before I have to grow up.”

“Lucky you.”

“So what were you like as a kid, before you went over to the grown-up side?”

“I was a little terror…”

Rose chuckled. “I can imagine that.”

“I drove my mom and sisters crazy, but they adored me all the same.”

“Sisters, plural?”

“Yeah, Georgiana is the youngest. Victoria—Vicky—is the middle kid, and I’m the oldest.”

“I didn’t know you had another sister. Georgiana never mentioned her, and she wasn’t at her birthday.”

“That’s weird, because they’re tight as hell. I’m sure Vicky didn’t make it to G’s birthday party because she was stuck in an office with a big case to work on. Vicky’s career was my father’s consolation after I quit the law practice. She puts eighty to ninety hours a week into the family business, and she’s even engaged to another pedigreed lawyer. They’re getting married next year, and I’m sure they’re going to breed another generation of perfect little lawyers. She’s a daughterly dream come true. Despite that, I love her. She managed to remain human even after going over to the real dark side.”

“Uh-uh, you really can’t stand lawyers. Should I remind you I’m going to be one pretty soon?”

“I won’t hold it against you, I promise.”

“So you never liked the law?”

Ethan shrugged. “You know, when I was in school I actually didn’t mind the law per-se, it was more the fact of not having a choice that didn’t sit well with me. Having to do it just because I was supposed to, expected to. And yes, I hated staying all those hours in the office, but running my own company isn’t that different. I have to be on the job just as much, but since it’s my choice, I’m happy about it. Does that make any sense?”

“It does. It makes a lot of sense.”

“And being a lawyer still has its perks. I don’t need anyone to draft my contracts, which saves me a lot of money. What about you—have you always wanted to be a lawyer?”

“Yeah, my dad passed it on to me. Not in a forced way; he wanted to be a lawyer, but couldn’t.”

“Couldn’t?”

“Couldn’t. My grandparents both died in a car accident right after he graduated from college. He’d already been accepted to Harvard Law, but couldn’t go. His brother and sister were still young—my uncle Adam was in high school and aunt Debra was even younger. My dad had to go back home to take care of them.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Thank you, but it’s okay. It was a long time ago. However, when my dad went back to Dallas, he took over the family business and provided for his brother and sister. He was already engaged to my mom, so he became their step-father and she their step-mother, sort of. By the time my aunt and uncle were old enough to take care of themselves, I was already three and the company was doing well. My dad didn’t feel right leaving a secure position to follow his dream, but he kept studying on his own. He’d discuss cases and sentences with me when I became old enough. We always watched crime shows together, judging the cases they presented. We loved playing court, or just discussing this or that sentence.”

“No dolls and fairytales for you?”

Rose chuckled. “No, just vicious crimes. Anyway, he was so passionate about it that he passed on his love for the law to me, and I absorbed it like a sponge. It’s what I wrote in my admission paper to Harvard Law; in fact, I think it was one of the main reasons why I got into the program. So yeah, I’ve always wanted to be a lawyer.”

“I should introduce you to my dad. He’d probably want to adopt you right away,” Ethan commented with a dashing smile, trying to lighten the mood.

He really was a terror, Rose thought. A dangerously attractive one. She tried to speak evenly when she asked her next question, the one she’d been burning to ask ever since he’d arrived. “So you’ve gone solitary just for me, huh? May I ask why?”

“You’ve piqued my interest, Miss Atwood.”

“How so?”

“For one, you look adorable with a foam mustache.” Ethan leaned in closer to wipe it away with his thumb. Too close. And then he was kissing her.

Rose let herself melt in the kiss. She knew she shouldn’t trust Ethan. She’d done some asking around in Georgiana’s inner circle of friends, and they’d all confirmed he was a big player. But even against her better judgment, she felt secure in his arms. So she let him drop their mugs on her coffee table and she let herself go without thinking, without being in control… and it felt even better.

***

“You look worried,” Ethan said as he watched Rose get dressed while she self-consciously hid behind the couch. He couldn’t help thinking she was even more adorable when she frowned.

“I was just wondering if you were going to give me the speech now.”

“Meaning?”

Ethan snatched his pants, pulled them on, and then started buttoning up his shirt.

“I ran a background check on you, Mr. Smithson,” she said. “You have quite a reputation.”

“Ah, Miss Atwood, you don’t do me justice. What falsehoods have you heard?”

“That you pretty much run away from relationships the minute they become serious.”

“I don’t like to waste anyone’s time.”

“Is that so?”

Ethan sat at the kitchen table, undecided. He’d never told anyone about Sabrina; only his sisters knew.

“Come on,” Rose prompted. “I already told you my darkest secrets; I’m not going to judge. And if you tell me, I’ll feed you.”

“Feed me what?”

Rose opened a cupboard and studied its insides. “How does boxed mac and cheese sound?”

“Perfect. If you throw in a beer, we have a deal.”

Rose put the mac and cheese on to cook, opened the fridge, and sat in front of him, putting two bottles of Coors Light on the table. Ethan liked that she didn’t use glasses.

“You want the short or long version?” he asked.

“Short.”

“Her name was Sabrina, and I was about to propose to her. I’d already bought the ring and everything…” Ethan winced involuntarily at the memory. “Long story short, one night I came home early and I found her in bed with my best friend. Now they’re married. They moved to New York about three years ago.”

“I’m sorry,” Rose whispered.

“No need to be. It was a long time ago. But now it takes me a little longer to get committed to anything or anyone. So when a girl starts talking rings after three dates, I tell her I’m not marriage material and we usually part ways.”

“That’s a bit cynical.”

“I think it’s fair.”

“So where does this leave us?”

“I don’t know. Where do you think it leaves us?”

“Here’s what I think.” Rose scrunched her face, trying to order her thoughts. “I’m tired of investing in relationships and people who walk out on me. I’m not saying we should define anything today, I just want to know that if we start going out and if things get serious, you’re not going to bolt just because. Do you think you can keep an open mind?”

“I think your mac and cheese is burning.”

Rose threw herself at the pan to try to salvage whatever was left of the mac and cheese.

“I think it’s ruined.” Rose sighed, turning towards him.

Ethan stood up and put his arms around her waist. “How about I take you out to lunch?”

“And where would you take me?” She tilted her face upwards to look him in the eyes.

Ethan knew her question had nothing to do with food. Neither did his answer. “You can trust me.”

Nine

Something Red

Five months later…

Tyler was nervous as he walked up the steps of Rose’s new building. He felt edgy. He hadn’t called Rose to tell her he was stopping by—heck, she probably didn’t even know he was back from France. But he couldn’t wait a minute longer.

When his plane had landed, he’d had to use all his self-control not to go to Rose in the middle of the night the moment he set foot in the US. Now it was early morning, and the air in Boston was even crisper than usual for January. Tyler blew in his clenched fists to warm his hands before opening the entrance door. Rose was probably still sleeping, but he couldn’t wait. He hadn’t slept last night, anticipating today. His heart was beating hard against his chest. Six months away from Rose had seemed to last forever—he didn’t want to spend a minute longer away from her, and today he was going to tell her. He was going to fix things between them.

When he’d read the email where she’d said she was moving out, he’d panicked. He’d almost jumped on the first plane for Boston to tell her to come back home with him. But then he’d decided it was better to let her cool down while he was away. Once he got back, he could charm her into forgiving him. More than forgiving him, he wanted to be with her—now he knew for sure. No one, no girl ever before, had made him feel the way he felt about Rose. She was his best, oldest friend; she was kind, smart, and smoking hot. Tyler felt stupid—how had he not understood sooner that he was in love with her? How much time had they wasted? But yesterday had been the last lost day; today he’d tell her how he felt, and everything would be fine.

Tyler took a deep breath and rang Rose’s doorbell. He heard some muffled steps behind the door, which opened almost immediately.

“You’re early,” Rose said with a big smile. Then her eyes met his, and the smile was replaced by shock. “Tyler.”

“Surprise,” he said uncertainly. Something was different in the way Rose looked at him. There was a coldness he wasn’t used to. Well, he deserved it. He’d pulled a number on her, but he was sure he could make her forgive him. Especially with what he’d come to say. “Expecting someone else?”

“I didn’t expect to find you on my doorstep,” Rose said noncommittally. “Come on in. When did you get back?” She was still awkward, guarded.

“Last night.”

“So how was Paris? You want some coffee?”

Rose was nervous; she always had to busy her hands with something when she was.

“Coffee would be great, thanks,” Tyler said. “Nice new place you got yourself.”

“Yeah, I was really lucky to find it.”

She was avoiding looking him in the eyes.

“I’ve brought you a housewarming gift and some upscale chocolate.” Tyler handed her a gift-wrapped package and a Fauchon tin box.

“Fauchon, wow. Fancy. Thank you.” Rose unwrapped the present and the fond smile that finally surfaced on her face told him he’d scored a point.

“I’ve been looking for something red since I moved in,” Rose said. She was still smiling as she admired the bright lacquered apple he’d bought for her in a Parisian design shop. “This house needed a pop of color.”

She studied some options, and finally decided to position the apple in a corner of the kitchen island where it’d be visible from both the kitchen and living room.

“It looks perfect. Thank you.”

She was looking at him with a new brightness in her eyes. This was his moment.

“Listen, Rose, I’m sorry.” Tyler took her hands into his. “I’ve been an idiot. I messed up badly. But everything happened so suddenly, so unexpectedly. I didn’t know what to do, and then there was France, and there wasn’t much I could’ve done about that. I’m sorry, Rose. I’ve been a jerk, and you didn’t deserve it. Can you forgive me?”

“I forgave you a long time ago, Tyler. We made a mess. I wasn’t such a straight arrow myself, but it’s all gone now. We’re fine.”

Tyler couldn’t believe his luck. This had been even easier than he’d anticipated. “I couldn’t wait to see you, to say how sorry I am.”

“Come on, cheer up. We’re fine.”

“Rose, I’ve missed you so much.” Tyler leaned in to kiss her.

“Whoa!” Rose pushed him back, planting both her hands on his chest. “I said we’re fine, not ‘let’s make out.’”

“If we’re fine, why can’t we make out?” Tyler asked, leaning in again.

Rose slipped away from him, putting some space between them.

“Gosh, Tyler, you just said you were sorry, and the minute I say it’s okay, you try to jump me?”

“What’s so wrong with it? I want to be with you, Rose. These months away from you have been a nightmare. I was stupid before. I was scared about getting serious with you, but I had time to think, a lot of time, and I’m sure now. We can make it work. Please give me another chance.”

“Tyler, no. We both know it wouldn’t work. We work great as friends, but that’s it. Look at the mess we made last time. Let’s be just friends. Please. I want my best friend back.”

“And I’m here. But I want more. So last time it was a mess. I’ve said I’m sorry. Why can’t we try it again?”

“Listen, Tyler, I’m not saying it was all your fault. I know it wasn’t. It was as much me as it was you. What I’m saying is that we had our time to cool off, and now we can go back to how things were before, like it never happened.”

“I don’t want things to go back to the way they were before. Rose, I’ve spent the last six months thinking about you, and only you. I don’t want to be friends with you, I want everything—the whole package. I’ve never felt the way I feel about you about anyone else.”

“That’s because you’re my best friend, and we’ve known each other forever. Tyler, listen, please. We can’t be anything more than friends, we just can’t. It’d never work.”

“I’d make it work. I can’t go back to how things were…” Tyler paused. “Rose, I love you. I’m in love with you.”

***

Rose stared at Tyler, shell-shocked. She’d dreamt of hearing those exact words for over a decade now. Tyler, in love with her. Her dream come true. Only now, for some reason, it didn’t feel as right as it had inside her head. Thinking about it, she hadn’t dreamt about it for some time either. A flash of blue eyes popped in her head. Ethan’s eyes. Georgiana’s eyes. Rose sobered up immediately.

“How did Georgiana take it?” she asked, crossing her arms over her chest.

“Georgiana?” Tyler seemed dumbfounded. “What does Georgiana have to do with any of this?”

“I’m just curious. After all the strings she pulled to organize your romantic gateway in France, she must’ve been pretty stone-faced when you dumped her.”

Tyler stared back at her in confusion.

“You did dump her, didn’t you?” Rose pressed.

The dark shadow that passed over his face was enough of an answer.

“This is exactly why it’d never work,” Rose said, turning away.

“Rose, if this is about Georgiana, don’t worry. I can break up with her in a second.”

“So why haven’t you already?”

“Rose, it would’ve been just awkward. We were in Paris, living in the same house—”

“And did you sleep with her while you were in Paris, living in the same house?”

Again, she was able to read the answer on his face.

“It didn’t m—”

“Don’t say it didn’t mean anything.”

Tyler stood silent, petrified, in the middle of her living room.

“But Rose, I didn’t cheat on you. It’s not like we were together. If you give me a chance, I would―”

“It doesn’t matter if we were together or not, don’t you see?” Rose was hardly able to keep it together. Tyler’s declaration of love had thrown her off her game, and now he was making her so angry. Rose didn’t like how worked up she was getting. “You say you’re in love with me. You say you’ve spent six months thinking about me nonstop. But that didn’t stop you from sleeping with your girlfriend, and that’s the problem.”

“But me and you, we weren’t together,” Tyler protested.

“It’s irrelevant. Love should be enough for you not to want to fool around with whoever else is available. But it’s not. It has never been. Saying you are in a relationship is just a label; it shouldn’t change anything. You shouldn’t want to sleep with other people if you’re in love with me. Not at all.”

“You’re not being fair. Why can’t you give me a chance?”

“Because if you blew it, then we’d be over for good, and I don’t want that. Plus…” Rose hesitated just for a moment. “I’m kind of seeing someone else.”

“Who?” Tyler was suddenly cold.

“Ethan.”

The name took a moment to register, and Rose was able to witness the shock in Tyler’s eyes when it did.

“Georgiana’s brother?” Tyler hissed. “Are you kidding me? He’s a bigger player than I am.”

“He’s not, at least not with me.”

Tyler snorted. “Why does he get a chance and I don’t?” His tone was bitter.

“Because if I break up with him, it’s just that: a break up. If I were to break up with you, I’d lose my best friend too, and I don’t want that to happen. Not ever.”

“It’s not fair.” Tyler pouted, and Rose’s heart warmed up a little bit. “I would never hurt you, Rose, you have to believe that.”

“Tyler.” She moved closer to him to look him in the eyes. “I believe you. I know you wouldn’t want to hurt me. And I believe you think you can behave, but the fact remains that you probably wouldn’t in the end. There’s too much at stake, and I care about you too much. Tyler, if you cheated on me, I could never recover from that. Never. And I’m not willing to take that bet. Plus, I’m happy with Ethan. Really happy.”

At that, Tyler moved away and started pacing around her living room. He looked like a caged, angry lion. “That is such a load of crap, Rose. You care about me too much! Bullshit. If I tell you I can do something, it means I can do it. It’s all about that dude, isn’t it? He was all over you from the moment he set eyes on you.” Tyler sagged on the couch like an empty potato sack. “Do you love him?”

His question took her aback. Did she love Ethan? She wasn’t sure, but if it wasn’t love, it was something close enough. Rose sat next to him, staring almost hypnotized at his legs, which twitched up and down in a nervous motion as he rested his elbows on his knees. “Tyler… I honestly don’t know.”

He looked at her with sadness in his eyes. “I always thought we would’ve ended up together at some point or another. I never thought I’d blow it so big time, or that I’d be too late.”

Rose didn’t know what to say to that. She’d felt the same for a long time. Even when she was with Marcus, somehow she’d sensed it wasn’t going to last forever. But something had changed between her and Tyler. Rose had had a taste of what her love life with him could turn into. The paranoia, the jealousy, the second-guessing. She hadn’t liked it, and it had made her not like Tyler that much either. She didn’t want to not like Tyler; she loved him too much. But she didn’t know if she was in love with him anymore, or if she’d ever been for real, and not just like in a fantasy.

A long silence lingered between them.

Tyler spoke first. “Am I?”

“What?”

“Too late?”

Rose closed her eyes to take a good look within herself to try to decide how she felt. She’d imagined Tyler saying all the things he’d just said to her a million times before. But in all her fantasies she’d felt elated, giddy, out-of-this-world happy, and never the way she was feeling right now. Empty, almost.

“Tyler, I think it wasn’t meant to be between us. Not romantically. Even if I was willing to risk our friendship and give it a shot, which I’m not, the truth is I don’t want to. I’m with Ethan, and I want to be with him. Do you think we can go back to being just friends?” As she asked the question, she felt a bit hypocritical. If she had to be honest, they’d never been just friends. There’d always been something deeper between them—they had a deeper bond, and the sex had ruined it. She hoped with all her heart they could find a way back to each other.

Tyler stood up from the couch without saying a word. He moved toward the door, opened it, and paused, his back turned to her. After a few seconds he stepped outside, slamming the door behind him, not once turning around to look at her.

Ten

Come With Me

Ethan felt nervous as he drove his black Mercedes through town toward Rose’s apartment. His sister had just called him to tell him she was back. Georgiana had decided to leave France two weeks early to be with their sister, Vicky, and help her in the final wedding preparations. Ethan was happy to have his sister back home. But he was more scared of the three-hundred pound gorilla she’d brought along with her—Tyler Bronfman.

Somehow, Boston felt too small for the two of them, and he didn’t like the idea of him anywhere near Rose. Things were going great between them. But the thought of Tyler and Rose seeing each other every day at school, and possibly outside, too, irked Ethan in a way he wasn’t prepared to handle. He’d known he’d been in trouble with Rose from the night they’d met. She’d stirred something in him, she had a power over him that not even Sabrina had had. He usually wasn’t the jealous type, but with Rose he felt possessive in a way he was ready to admit wasn’t normal. And Tyler’s return spiked this feeling to new unchartered peaks.

When Rose opened her door, she had puffy eyes, as if she’d just been crying.

“Are you okay?” Ethan asked as he entered her apartment.

He immediately noticed a vivid red apple standing on the kitchen island. Instinctively, he didn’t like it. The thing was too red, too in-your-face; he found it almost offensive. He liked it even less than Rose’s puffy red eyes, although he wasn’t sure why. Not until he saw a Fauchon chocolate box standing next to it.

“I’m okay,” Rose said.

“Found your red thing?” Ethan asked, aware of the edge in his voice.

“It was a present,” Rose replied warily.

“From Paris?”

Rose nodded.

“How did he know you were looking for something red? I thought you two weren’t talking.”

“And we weren’t, but he just knows me.”

That was an even worse explanation, and Ethan lashed out. “Not twenty-four hours in the country, and he’s already been here? What did he want?

“Ethan, please don’t get jealous. I had enough of a bad morning.”

“Why? What happened?” Ethan felt his hands curl into fists and his knuckles go white. But he was mostly able to control himself and not punch the wall as he listened to Rose’s tale.

***

Ethan’s face didn’t look good. Rose had wanted to tell him everything, but looking at the cold fury mounting inside him right now, she wasn’t sure she’d done the right thing. His jaw was set tight and it was twitching while his hands were turned into fists, and he was clenching them so badly his knuckles had turned white.

“So let me get this straight,” he said. “The only reason why you’re not with Tyler is because you’re too scared he’d break your heart. Otherwise, you would’ve already set off with him into the sunset.”

“Ethan, that’s not what I said.” Rose felt panic rising in her chest.

“I must’ve gone deaf, then, because that’s exactly what I heard.”

They glared at each other, neither able to talk. Both were panting as if they’d just run a marathon.

“Ethan, please, can you calm down? I don’t want to argue with you. I’m just trying to be honest. Can we talk about it without shouting or getting mad?”

She watched him struggle to keep his cool—he was clearly beyond mad at this point. He flared his nostrils, paced around the room a couple of times, and finally settled on a stool at the kitchen bar. Rose was actually surprised by how quickly he’d calmed himself down—for the first time, she appreciated what it meant to be with someone older, more mature. Ethan might be mad, but he wasn’t out of control.

“I’m listening, but I hate the way he still affects you.”

“Ethan, it’s impossible not to be affected. If Sabrina walked through that door right now, you’d be upset even if you hadn’t seen her in five years. We’re humans, not robots.”

“I’m not in love with Sabrina,” Ethan said pointedly.

“And I’m not in love with Tyler.”

“Are you sure about that?”

“Listen, I care about him, and I always will. But no, I’m not in love with Tyler. I’m not sure I ever was.”

Ethan’s shoulders relaxed a little bit.

“The nerve of him,” he grumbled. “He still hasn’t broken up with my sister, and he came here to get all over you. Makes me want to punch him.”

“Please don’t. I’m happy with you, and I don’t need anyone else. But Tyler is still a big part of my life.”

Ethan shrugged, annoyed.

“I know you don’t like it,” she pressed, “but do you think you can accept it?”

Ethan was silent for a long time. Rose wondered what he was thinking. Finally, he raised his head and x-rayed her with his intense gaze.

“Talk to me,” she whispered.

“I’ve been in this situation before. With Sabrina, I’d noticed one stare too many between her and Max, but I wouldn’t trust my instincts. I couldn’t believe what was right before my eyes. I didn’t want to. And I ended up being the fool. I’m not going to make the same mistake twice. Rose, I trust you, so I’m going to ask you one last time: Are you sure Tyler is just a friend to you? After everything that happened? I couldn’t stand walking in on you and him together. So if you’re not one-hundred percent sure, if you need time to think things through, tell me. I’d much rather we end things now, clean. If you say there’s nothing between you two, you have to mean it.”

His speech was so full of passion that Rose felt a tingle deep in her stomach and in her chest.

“Ethan, I do mean it,” she said, cupping his face in her hands. She didn’t need to think about it any longer. She was sure. “I want to be with you. Only you.” She leaned in and kissed him.

He tugged her into a bone-crushing hug that told her how scared he’d been of losing her. She smiled.

“I prefer you when you smile,” Ethan said.

“I prefer you when you’re kissing me.”

“Ah, Miss Atwood, I must oblige you then.” He kissed her. After breaking the kiss, he said, “What do you say we make it official?”

“What do you mean?”

“My sister, Vicky, is getting married in two months. She’s been pestering me to know if I’m going alone or with a date. Would you like to be my plus one?”

“Whoa, and meet the entire Smithson clan. Are you sure?”

“As I’ll ever be. I promise they don’t bite.”

Rose hesitated, and Ethan stiffened in her arms.

“I mean, if you don’t want to, I completely understand. You don’t have to come. I can go alone.”

“No, I want to… but…”

Ethan raised both his eyebrows in a facial question mark.

“Do you think Georgiana will be okay with me being there? I mean, I don’t want to create an awkward situation at your sister’s wedding. Everyone in your family should be relaxed and enjoy the day.”

“As long as she’s with Tyler, I don’t see why she should have a problem.”

“You think she’s going with him?”

“She already told Vicky she would.”

“And don’t you think that’s going to be even more awkward?”

“Honestly, I don’t care. She’s my sister, and you are you. If we stay together, you girls will have to learn how to talk to each other while keeping your claws tucked in. And I want you to meet my family.”

“I don’t have claws,” Rose protested.

“You sure?”

“I am.”

“So you’re coming?”

“I guess so. I mean, it’s only a day. How bad can it be?”

“Oh. I should’ve said that the wedding is on Martha’s Vineyard… for the entire Spring Break.”

“You bastard.”

“I’m sure you can survive it.”

“Isn’t the middle of March a bit too early to go to Martha’s Vineyard?”

“What can I say, my family is weird. And Vicky always says how she loves the island at the end of winter.”

“And how can a wedding last for a week?”

“I have no idea. Come here.” Ethan tucked her in closer to him, and Rose felt reassured that with him by her side, she could endure an entire week of Georgiana. And maybe Georgiana didn’t hate her so much after France. Rose could only hope.

Eleven

I Love You

“So what do you think of the stray?” Georgiana asked.

She was in her hotel room on Martha’s Vineyard with her sister Victoria. It was their second night on the island, and they were doing their make up together as they used to do when they were younger and both lived with their parents.

“Come on, G,” Victoria said. “Rose isn’t a stray. She seems perfectly nice to me.”

“She’s a sneaky little ho. I can’t believe Ethan brought her here. He must be out of his mind.”

“He seems a little bit out of his mind,” Victoria said. “But in a Sabrina-out-of-his-mind way.”

Georgiana lowered the sponge she was using to apply foundation and threw her sister an evil stare through the mirror. “You think he’s in love with her?”

“G, you’re blind if you haven’t noticed.”

“I just hoped he wouldn’t be so stupid.”

“I haven’t seen Ethan this cheerful in years. You should be happy for him.”

“I would be if it was anyone but her.”

“Didn’t you ask him to go out with her a while ago?”

“Yeah, but only because he usually chews girls up and spits them out in the blink of an eye. I never thought he’d be so dumb as to actually fall for her.”

“What is it you have against her?”

“For one, as soon as her ex dumped her she was all over Tyler, even though he was with me. She moved into his house right away, and who knows what else she tried to do.”

“She and Tyler seem pretty cold with each other,” Vicky said, applying a thick coat of mascara on her lashes.

“Which only proves my point. Why did they argue? Probably because he’s with me and not with her.”

“I don’t know, sis. I don’t like the way Tyler glowers at our brother every time they cross paths.”

“What are you saying?” Georgiana’s tone was so icy she saw embarrassment flicker on her sister’s face.

“Just be careful,” Victoria said. “I don’t want you to get hurt.”

“You think the stray’s still after Tyler?”

“Don’t call her that. Or, at least, don’t let Ethan catch you. But no, not from the way she looks at our brother. Are you sure it’s not Tyler who’s after her?”

Georgiana positively glowered. “Excuse me. You’re talking about my boyfriend. He wouldn’t be with me if he was into her. We’re perfect for each other, and who knows, maybe in a year’s time it will be me getting ready for my rehearsal dinner.”

Or sooner, if her new plan worked, Georgiana added to herself. France had not been the success she’d hoped for. She and Tyler had had a lovely time, with no arguments or troubles. But their relationship lately could be summed up as lukewarm. She could feel him slipping away from her. And even if she’d never admit it aloud, she suspected Tyler still wasn’t out of reach of Rose’s claws. So, at least for now, she tolerated Ethan’s relationship with her, as it provided a sort of safeguard. But with a bit of luck, soon there’d be no doubts about whom Tyler belonged to. And Georgiana was confident Ethan would grow tired of Rose sooner or later. She couldn’t wait for the time she’d be rid of the stray for good.

***

Rose shuffled around the dining hall of the hotel, hating that Ethan was not by her side. But he had a lot of friends at the party who he hadn’t seen in a long time, and she couldn’t demand he babysit her every second.

“You must be the famous Rose,” a distinguished man with trimmed white hair said, approaching her. “I’m Ethan’s father, Bradley Smithson. Nice to meet you.”

“Rosalynn Atwood. Very pleased to meet you, sir.”

“The pleasure is all mine. It isn’t often that our boy brings home a girl. Ethan tells me you’re in your second year at Harvard Law. Have you already decided what branch of the law you want to follow?”

“I’d like to work in litigation in the area of criminal law, sir. I’m interested in working with Federal Criminal cases rather than at the state level.”

“Interesting. We had this case on our hands a couple of years ago…”

Mr. Smithson started outlining the grounds of the case, and Rose listened attentively. Was he putting her to the test? He must be. Why else would he discuss legal matters with her five seconds after introducing himself? He finished his speech, and when he was done, he looked at her expectantly and asked, “What do you think?”

Yes, definitely a test.

She collected her ideas in her head. In the particular case he’d outlined, textbook solutions would only put the defendant in deeper trouble, which was probably why he’d selected this particular case. So what would a shrewd lawyer do? Was there a way out? Rose felt there was something at the back of her mind that was escaping her. She concentrated, trying to get a firmer grasp on the solution that was evading her. After closing her eyes for a second, inspiration hit. It was a jurisdiction issue, the crime had been committed on a federal enclave and it did not fall within the jurisdiction of the state where it was being tried. Her dad had told her about a similar case ages ago.

She smiled and offered her response.

Mr. Smithson smiled back, a new respect twinkling in his eyes. “Do they teach that to second year students nowadays?”

“No, I don’t think so. But my dad has always been passionate about the law. As a child he read to me supreme court sentences instead of fairy tales.”

“Hi dad,” Ethan said, coming up from behind them. He stepped up to Rose and slid an arm around her waist in a protective gesture.

“Son,” Mr. Smithson said, acknowledging Ethan with a nod. Then he returned his focus to Rose. “Your father is a lawyer? I’m not aware of any Atwood law firms in the Boston area.”

“Oh, no. He couldn’t pursue the career. When my grandparents died in a car accident, he’d barely finished college before he had to go back to Dallas to take care of his younger brother and sister.”

“Dallas? What does your father do back in Texas?”

“He’s in real estate.” Rose could feel the tension spike between father and son.

“Atwood, Atwood,” Mr. Smithson said. “Are you by any chance related to David Atwood?”

“He… he’s my dad,” Rose replied, embarrassed.

Mr. Smithson’s eyes bulged for a brief second before he caught himself.

“Well, I’m going to let you two enjoy the party,” he said. “It was a real pleasure meeting you, Rose.” He smiled fleetingly, then turned on his heel and was gone.

***

Ethan followed the exchange between Rose and his father with mounting tension. When Rose mentioned her father was in real estate, he was ready to go on the offensive if his dad dared say something insulting about that particular line of work. Instead, Ethan’s dad had stunned him by recognizing Rose’s father by name. Even more so when he’d caught his father gaze just before he’d left, and his dad had winked at him. His father had not shown any comradeship toward him since, well, since he’d abandoned the law. What was up with him? He looked at Rose, perplexed, and was even more confused when he found her blushing tomato red.

“What was that about?” he asked.

“Not now. I’ll explain later.” She looked mortified.

“Rose, is something wrong? Why did my dad know your father by name?”

“Can we do this later? I need a drink.” She skipped forward, away from him and toward the bar, and Ethan followed. He’d ask her later.

***

Tyler paced around in his room like a zoo animal. How had things come to this? He was trapped in a relationship he didn’t want, but needed. The only reason he was still with Georgiana, ironically, was to be closer to Rose. Like this weekend—he’d agreed to come only because he knew Rose would be here. He’d hoped he’d be able to talk to her, but Ethan stuck to her like a shadow. At least they were staying in separate rooms. Georgiana’s parents were old fashioned like that. Maybe he should try to talk to Rose now. Yeah, he definitely should.

He picked up the room’s phone and dialed 9.

“Reception, how may I help you?”

“Hi, hello. I’m here with the Smithson wedding party. Can you please tell me the room number of a guest?”

“Sure, sir. Do you have the name?”

“Yes. It’s Rosalynn Atwood.”

“Miss Atwood is in room 2405. Can I do anything else for you, sir?”

“No, that’s all, thank you.” He hung up.

Room 2405. Damn, it was on the same floor as Georgiana, but he had to try. Tyler ruffled his hair in the mirror—yeah, the bad boy look suited him—and walked out of his room.

After waiting for what felt like hours for the elevator to arrive, Tyler hopped in and took it up to the second floor. As he walked out into the corridor, he felt like a spy, sneaking around where he wasn’t supposed to be. Why did he feel so anxious? He wasn’t doing anything wrong. And if someone caught him… ah hell, America was still a free country, wasn’t it?

2401, 2403… there, room 2405. The hallway was completely empty, much to Tyler’s relief. He decided to knock, since he didn’t want to ring the doorbell and risk someone from an adjoining room hearing. When no one answered after a minute or so, he knocked again. Was Rose not in her room? Was she still downstairs in the dining hall? That wasn’t likely—when he’d left the party he hadn’t seen her. Rage seared through his veins. Was she in Ethan’s room? He knocked once more, louder this time, so that if she was inside it wouldn’t be possible she didn’t hear him.

“I think you have the wrong room,” a deep voice said from behind him, making him jump. “My sister is two doors down the hall.”

Tyler turned around to meet a stare of manly hate. Ethan had a black expression that told Tyler he was more than ready to get in a fight. He wouldn’t mind knocking out the old guy, but he had a feeling the move wouldn’t score him any points with Rose. The two men stared at each other aggressively for what felt like an eternity. Until Tyler decided to break the eye contact and move down the hall without saying anything.

He paused at Georgiana’s door, and looked back before knocking. He watched Ethan go through the door that had remained shut for him, and a wave of angry resentment took him over. He rapped on Georgiana’s door, feeling vindictive. Not that Rose cared about anything he did anymore. The knowledge made him livid.

***

When Rose heard the first knock on her door, she assumed it was Ethan. It was only her innate sixth sense that prompted her to have a look through the peep hole before throwing the door open. When she saw Tyler standing in the hall outside, her heart stopped, and not in a good way. What did he want? She couldn’t go through another conversation like the one they’d had just after he’d returned from Paris. Not with Tyler, not here, not now. Even if they’d hardly spoken in two months, it was too soon. Their friendship was still bleeding from a thousand open wounds, and they couldn’t afford to add fresh ones. Plus, Ethan was going to come over at any minute, and the three of them standing in a confined space together was a no-no-no situation.

Even through the glass’s distortion, she could see Tyler had a pained expression; it was killing Rose. She backed away from the door. She couldn’t bear to see Tyler suffering like this. But what could she do? Nothing she could say right now would make him feel better—it’d only make things worse, if anything. The easiest thing was to pretend she wasn’t in her room. If she didn’t open the door, Tyler would go away, and they’d talk at another time. Yes, this was the only sensible thing to do. But as another knock came, and then another, her heart churned. She really hoped Tyler would leave soon, because it wasn’t in her nature to shove him away.

“I think you have the wrong room,”

Ethan’s voice sent a chill down her spine, and she glued her eye to the peephole.

The two men were glaring at each other like angry beasts ready to attack.

“My sister is two doors down the hall.”

Tyler’s expression was murderous—not that Ethan’s was all hearts. If she could magically dematerialize with a poof right now, she would do it. Her heart beat faster as the two just stood there, glowering at each other. After what seemed like forever, Tyler finally turned on his heel and walked away.

A soft knock came immediately after, and she opened her door to let Ethan in. His stare was a blue wall of ice.

“What did he want?” Ethan hissed.

“I don’t know.”

“I don’t like it, Rose. I don’t like it one bit.” Ethan was nervously pacing around the room. “I know you said he’s a big part of your life, but if he keeps this shit going, I’m going to whack the bastard.”

“Ethan, calm down. Everyone’s going to hear you if you―”

“I don’t care if everybody hears,”

“But your sister―”

“It’d be about time she opened her eyes. Listen, Rose, I have to tell her. I can’t stand that he’s all over you while he’s still dating her.”

“Tell her what, exactly?” Rose said icily.

“About you and Tyler. Your history together. She needs to know. It’s the only way she’ll be able to move on.”

“Ethan, you can’t tell her that. When I told you, you promised I wasn’t talking to Georgiana’s brother. You promised.”

“I know, I know. But it’s killing me to see the way he’s hurting her, and not being able to do anything about it. And I can’t stand him anywhere near you.” Ethan’s shoulders relaxed for the first time since he’d came into the room.

“Come here.” Rose grabbed his hand and pulled him toward the bed, where they cozied into each other’s arms. “I know it’s hard,” she said, stroking his hair. “But I’m sure everything is going to be all right. Tyler and Georgiana will break up on their own. If Tyler doesn’t love her, he’ll break up with her. To be honest, I’m surprised he hasn’t done it yet.”

“What if he doesn’t?”

“Ethan, I don’t think he’s going to propose to your sister, so they’ll break up sooner or later. And about me, he’s just spoiled. He’s not used to being told no. This is just a tantrum. It’ll pass. He needs some time. That’s all.”

“I still don’t like it.”

“I know, and I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. It’s not your fault.” Ethan kissed her forehead. “But don’t think you’re so easy to forget.”

Rose scrunched up her face.

“You’re adorable.” Ethan showered her face with tender little kisses. “You even impressed my dad. I told you he’d want to adopt you.”

“Oh, come on. He was just being polite.”

“No, he wasn’t. Rose, he winked at me! You must’ve done something to really impress him. And why did he know your father?”

“About that.” Rose flushed red. “Remember when I said my dad was in real estate?”

“Mmm-hmm.”

“I may have understated that a little. I mean…” Ethan looked at her questioningly. Rose hoped he wouldn’t look at her differently after she told him. “Let’s just say his company is a little bit shy of a Fortune 500…”

Ethan stared at her. “What, you’re saying your dad’s a real estate mogul, and you’re a billionaire?”

“Pretty much.” Rose’s cheeks felt so hot, she was sure her face was about to melt.

“That would explain my father’s approval. If I’d known you were an heiress, I wouldn’t have rented your place to you at half price.”

“You said the owner didn’t want to have it go to frat-boys!”

“More the owner wanted to get in your pants.”

“It’s your apartment, isn’t it? You sneak!”

“Me, sneak? What about all that ‘I have a low budget’ crap you pulled, Miss Heiress?”

“I prefer Miss Atwood. And it’s true I don’t like to flaunt my dad’s money around. I prefer to live on a reasonable budget until I can make a living of my own. And I don’t like people knowing about my dad, because no matter what they say, they look at you differently once they know.”

“I know the feeling. It was the same in school for me. Once my surname was public knowledge, I had a whole lot of new ‘friends’. I hated it.”

“So you get it?”

“I do.”

“Are you mad I didn’t tell you?”

“No.” Ethan leaned in and kissed her.

“You must’ve really liked me to pull that rent stunt,” Rose said with a mischievous smile. “How much did you lose?”

“Miss Atwood, I do a little more than like you. And I didn’t lose anything. I gained you. Rose.” He almost never used her first name, and it gave her goose bumps all over. “I love you.”

The butterflies in Rose’s stomach were beyond control. “I love you too,” she replied, finally sure of her feelings. She practically melted into the kiss that came afterward.

Twelve

Hell on Wheels

“Tyler,” Rose said, picking up her phone. She was surprised. She hadn’t heard anything from him since the wedding, and that had been almost two months back.

“I-I need to talk to you.” He sounded agitated. “Can you meet me?”

“Right now?”

“Yeah, right now.”

Rose looked at her watch. In forty-five minutes, she had a meeting for a group project that was due in less than a week. “I have a group meeting in forty-five minutes, but we can meet on campus and we can talk there before I go in the library to meet the others.”

“Rose, to hell with classes and finals and group projects.” There was a hint of desperation in his words. “I need to talk to you, and it’s going to take a lot longer than forty-five minutes.”

“Tyler, did something happen? What is it?”

“Not over the phone. I’ll pick you up at your house in fifteen.”

The line went dead. He’d hung up without leaving her room to reply.

Exactly fifteen minutes later her doorbell rang. Rose picked up her bag and hurried to meet Tyler downstairs at his car.

“Hey,” she greeted, opening the passenger door and climbing in. “What’s up?”

Tyler turned toward her, and she gasped. He was a mess. He had ghastly white skin, bloodshot red eyes, disheveled hair, and a five-o’clock shadow that made his skin look even whiter. He looked ten pounds thinner and ten years older than usual.

“Tyler, what’s going on?” Rose asked, alarmed.

“Later.” He put the car into gear and started driving. He was gripping the wheel so tightly his knuckles were stark white.

After ten minutes of driving in silence with no radio and no talking, Rose began to feel uneasy. She had no idea where they were going. She thought they might be heading north, but that was about it. She’d never seen Tyler look so ashen; something was going on, something big. She needed to know what.

“Tyler, can you at least give me a hint here?”

He shook his head. “I can’t talk about it in the car. I can’t…”

“Can I at least know where we’re going?”

“Salem.”

Salem? Was this a witch-hunt? But when they kept going on the I-93 North instead of turning on the I-95, Rose knew they were going to Salem, New Hampshire, not Salem, Massachusetts. The “why” remained a mystery. She kept quiet for the rest of the ride, until they stopped in the parking lot of what looked like an amusement park. An amusement park? Why would Tyler want to drive forty-five minutes on a random Saturday to go to an amusement park? And on a day like this? Even if it was almost the end of April, the weather was chilly and windy, and the park looked like a ghost town. Rose had so many questions she wanted to ask him, but once again she didn’t. She had a feeling he wouldn’t answer anyway, and he looked more wretched with every passing minute.

Rose followed Tyler to the ticket booth, where he bought two daily passes. He took a free map of the park and started walking down a paved path. She walked behind him, a million scenarios playing in her head. Was this about them, their friendship? Their love quadrangle? They’d not talked to each other properly after the wedding. They’d seen each other on campus, but always with other people as a cushion, which had suited both of them perfectly. Somehow, though, Rose knew this was about something else. There was still tension between them, but nothing strong enough to turn Tyler into the mess he was right now. Rose was so absorbed in her thoughts that she didn’t see Tyler stop, and when he did, she bumped into his back.

“We’re here,” he said.

Rose followed his gaze upwards and saw they’d stopped in front of a Ferris wheel. Her heart jumped in her throat. So it was something bad, really bad. Ferris wheels were their special place. The most important turning points of their life and friendship had been discussed while on a wheel ride. Mostly the one back at home, the Texas Star, but sometimes, also other Ferris wheels around the world.

Rose thought back to some of the things they’d said and done inside a Ferris wheel’s capsule. They’d promised each other they’d be friends forever, pierced their index fingers with a needle and mixing their blood to seal the pact. When they were twelve, they’d shared their first kiss—just because they’d decided they should practice it together before they went out and did it with someone else for real. At least, that had been Rose’s excuse. She’d wanted Tyler to be the first boy she kissed. It had also been on a Ferris wheel that Tyler had told Rose about losing his virginity. Many years later, Rose had done the same. They’d tried their first beer, out of a flask Tyler had stolen from his dad and hidden under his football jacket. The beer had been warm and disgusting, and Rose had ended up being sick, granting them one of the harshest groundings in their teenage history. They’d opened their Harvard admission letters together in a Ferris wheel capsule. After high school, they’d gone less often, but Rose had cried over Marcus for the first time while they were riding on the Ferris wheel. They’d kept the tradition of going at least once whenever they went home to Dallas. Everything important had been said on a Ferris wheel, and now here they were in front of one. Tyler had something so big to tell her that it called for a Ferris wheel. What was it?

Rose felt a cold shiver go up her spine. She was scared.

“I know it’s no Texas Star,” Tyler said with a forced smile, “but it was the best I could find.”

There was no line, and they entered in the first available capsule, an eerie silence lingering between them. As soon as the ride started, Tyler dropped his head into his hands. After a while, Rose realized with horror that he was crying. She’d never seen Tyler cry. Never. She wanted to comfort him, but she didn’t know why she should comfort him, and asking didn’t seem like an option. So she just sat beside him in sympathetic silence. After the wheel did a full circle, the attendant on the ground moved forward as if to open their capsule. Rose signaled they were taking another ride. The park was empty, no one was in line, and after their second go-around, the attendant left them alone and kept the ride spinning.

“My life is over,” Tyler said once they reached the top for the third time. “I feel so sick I want to throw up.”

“You’re ill?” Rose’s voice cracked.

Tyler shook his head.

“Tyler, what is it? You have to tell me.” Rose was feeling so on edge, she was about to explode with anxiety.

“She… she’s…” Tyler shook his head again. “She trapped me.”

“Who? Who trapped you? What do you mean?”

“Georgiana.”

A cold chill went down Rose’s spine. “What did she do this time?” There were no more semesters abroad to force on him. “Is it school again?”

“No.” Tyler kept shaking his head in his hands. “I’m done. No way out.”

“Tyler, what did she do?” Rose whispered.

“She lied. She tricked me. She did it on purpose. She says she didn’t, but I know she did.”

“What? What did she do?”

“She-she’s pregnant.” At this point, Tyler cracked and collapsed into Rose’s arms, crying like a baby.

Rose hugged him close to her chest, whispering soothing words, all the while boiling inside with suppressed rage. She was sure Tyler was right. Georgiana had done it on purpose. She’d probably told Tyler some lame excuse about the pill not working one hundred percent of the time, or some other crap like that. Rose didn’t need to hear the details. She felt her phone vibrating in her bag, and turned it off without looking at the caller ID.

“Have you… have you discussed―mmm―options?” she asked when Tyler seemed a little calmer.

“There’s nothing to discuss. She says she wants to keep it.”

Well, of course, after all the trouble she went through to engineer the pregnancy, it figured she’d say something like that. Rose felt homicidal. “And what do you want?”

“It doesn’t matter what I want. I can’t have it. I want my life back, Rose. I want you back. But, most of all I want our friendship back!”

“Tyler, I’m here, and we’re friends. We’re always going to be friends, no matter what happens. I’m so sorry she did this to you, but we’re going to get through this like everything else. What are you going to do?”

“I have no clue.” He shook his head. “What can I do?”

“From how I see it, she didn’t leave you much choice…”

“She didn’t leave me any choice. Even if she was open to discuss options, you know how I feel about abortion, and she knows too.”

“You told her you were adopted?” Rose was shocked; Tyler never told anyone.

“Yeah.”

“When?”

“At the beginning of our relationship. I don’t know. The topic just came out somehow…”

“Oh, Tyler, look at me. Please, look at me.”

“What?”

“You’re going to be a great dad, no matter what.”

“Oh, Rose, please, I’m the most irresponsible person in the world. I can’t take care of myself. How am I going to take care of someone else on top of that?”

“Tyler, that’s crap and you know it. You’re a good guy, and you’re going to be a great dad.”

“Stop saying dad. I want to throw up.”

“And who said morning sickness was just for the girls?”

“I’m going to be someone’s father,” Tyler stated grimly.

“It appears so.”

They sat silently for a long while, until Rose finally spoke. “You know, I feel a bit guilty about this whole situation.”

“Guilty, you? Why would you feel guilty?”

“Do you think Georgiana would’ve gone to these extremes if I hadn’t moved in with you, making her go cuckoo jealous?”

“I don’t care if she was jealous—she didn’t have the right to do this to me. When she told me, all I can say for myself is that I didn’t strangle her then and there—and not because I didn’t want to.”

“I know, Tyler. Ethan said she got somehow fixated on you, for whatever reason―”

“Don’t bring him into this discussion,” Tyler hissed. “I don’t want to think he even exists right now. And please don’t tell me again I should’ve dumped Georgiana a long time ago. I don’t need an ‘I told you so’ speech right now. I already know all the mistakes I made. Don’t you think I regret everyday not leaving her right after we… you know. I think about it every day. If I had, we’d be together now, and you wouldn’t be dating the devil’s brother, and I wouldn’t be having a baby with the devil!”

“Oh, Tyler, don’t go there… it’s not your fault―”

“But it is, Rose, it’s all my fault. If I hadn’t been so damn scared, now we’d be happy, together. I’ve been an idiot, Rose. I wanted to be with you so bad, but I was so scared because I knew that with you, it would’ve been the real deal. And so I did what I do best, and ran. I ruined everything. Georgiana got all scheme-y because I left her room to. I shouldn’t have stayed with her, I shouldn’t have gone to France, and I should’ve used a condom even if she said she was on the pill. I mean, how many idiots have been in my position before?”

“Listen—and I’m not condoning what Georgiana did, because it’s so wrong on so many levels. But it shows you how much she cares about you…”

Tyler snorted.

“In her own perverse way, I think she really loves you. Look at all she’s done to be with you. And it’s not like she’s after your money or anything. Her family is well off, so all she has to gain from this mess is you, and I’m not saying you should forgive her―”

“Are you sure? Because that sounded a lot as if you were making excuses for her.”

“No, she doesn’t have any excuses. But I’m just stating a fact: she loves you. A lot.”

“You don’t trap the people you love.”

“True. Let’s say her love is a bit on the selfish side—okay, a lot on the selfish side—but you can’t deny it’s there. What about you? How do you feel about her?”

“I hate her, Rose. I hate her. Don’t even make me think about her…”

“Tyler…”

“I don’t like that tone.”

“Can I ask you something?”

“I have a feeling you’re going to ask anyway.”

“How did you feel about Georgiana—I mean, really—before all of this happened? Before, mmm…me? Were you in love with her? Because if I have to be completely honest with you, she scared me more than any of your other girlfriends. And that’s why maybe… I mean, you know.”

“What are you saying, Rose?”

“I’m saying that before I messed things up for you, you seemed really happy with Georgiana. I’m saying that partially, maybe―mmm, subconsciously―things happened between us when they did because I felt threatened by Georgiana. Yeah, I was sad about Marcus, but I was also so jealous of you and Georgiana. Oh, Tyler. I’ve been selfish and stupid and petty. I couldn’t stand her, and I was scared she was going to take you away from me for good. That’s part of the reason why we—I mean…you know…when we did.”

“If you felt that way, why did you turn me down when I came home begging to be with you?”

“Because, Tyler, when you went to France I had time to clear my head. I know I love you, and I thought I was in love with you for most of my life… but then all that shit happened, and you went to France, and then… I met Ethan, and…”

“Please don’t tell me how much you’re in love with him, because I couldn’t stand it right now.”

“That’s not… My point is this. I idealized you for more than a decade, and you probably did the same for me. In my head, I’d always known that we’d end up getting married, you know, after you had straightened up a bit and seen enough women naked to be good for life…”

“Yeah, I had that same idea. But what’s your point?”

“My point is that maybe this fantasy we’ve been both having was just that—a fantasy. What I’m saying is that in all the years I’ve known you, I’ve never seen you as involved as you were with Georgiana. I mean, before I screwed things up for everyone by jumping in bed with you because I wanted to ruin your relationship. Because if I’m being honest, that’s what I wanted. I couldn’t stand that you hadn’t cheated on her. I couldn’t stand that you were no longer having a go at me, so I had to go ahead and ruin it for you. As I said, I’ve been the worst friend—person, even. Worse than Julia Roberts in My Best Friend’s Wedding. I am the fungus growing on pond scum.”

“No, you’re just the scum,” Tyler said, with the tiniest hint of a smile. “We both are. But Georgiana… she’s the fungus feeding on scum.”

“She’s a bit of a fungus, or the mucus of the fungus… But the fact remains that despite everything, despite me, and France, you didn’t break up with her. It has to mean something.”

“I came to that stupid wedding only because I wanted to see you.”

“Ok, but you had a million other opportunities to dump her, and you never did.”

“I’ve already told you I’m very aware of all the mistakes I made. I don’t need you to rub my face in them.”

“What if it wasn’t a mistake? What I was trying to say is that you’ve never been with someone as long as you were with Georgiana. I mean, not before I ruined it for you. Not even with Jessica. So, are you sure you can’t find that love again, that there’s no way you could ever forgive her and be happy with her? Even if she’s a bit―mmm―”

“Of a conniving bitch?”

“I was going to say pushy. I know you’re mad right now―”

“Mad doesn’t begin to cover it.”

“Okay, but as I said, the only choice you can make right now is how you’re going to be in this baby’s life.”

“Meaning?”

“Meaning, are you going to be a single dad, or are you and Georgiana going to be a family?”

Thirteen

It Wasn’t Me

Ethan was mad at everything and everyone. He’d been pacing up and down Rose’s lobby for an hour now, and his patience was running thin. Why wasn’t she picking up the phone? Ethan knew why. She was with him! The notion served only to fuel his anger to a steadfast fire that was already burning high. He had the keys to Rose’s apartment, being the owner, but it didn’t feel right to let himself in when she wasn’t there. She hadn’t given him a key, and anyway, waiting inside the apartment would hardly be better. At least down here he’d see Rose the minute she came home.

Half an hour later, he watched a black car pull up in front of Rose’s building. It was Tyler’s car. He’d been right. The lights of the car went out, and everything stood still. If Rose didn’t come out of the damn car immediately, Ethan was not responsible for his actions. He wanted to crack Tyler’s neck so badly, and his being in the same car with Rose didn’t do anything to ease the urge.

Luckily, just when Ethan was about to spring into action, the car’s lights came back on and Rose climbed out. As she trotted up the few steps to the front door, the car sped away.

Rose’s eyes widened as she entered the lobby and spotted him—she seemed taken aback to find him there. “Ethan?”

“Why didn’t you pick up your phone?”

“Did you talk to Georgiana?”

Ethan nodded.

“So do you really need to ask why I wasn’t picking up the phone?”

Ethan was about to come out with some petty retort, but Rose cut him off. “Listen, it’s been a long day. Why don’t we go upstairs to talk?”

He followed her to the elevator and they went up to her floor, keeping mutually silent. The metallic ding announcing they’d reached her floor sounded deafening after their quiet ride.

“I want pizza, a giant one,” Rose said, opening the door to her apartment and taking off her jacket.

“Pizza? How can you think about pizza right now?”

“I skipped lunch, I’m hungry, and I could use some comfort food. Are you mad at me for some reason?”

“You were with him all day, don’t deny it. And you didn’t pick up your phone!”

“As I said, if you’re up to date on the ‘good’ news, I don’t think I need to explain to you why I was with Tyler all day. He’s still my best friend, and I’m his. He needed to talk. Do you want just cheese, or also pepperoni on the pizza?”

“Just cheese.”

“Um, hello. Yes, one cheese pizza and one pepperoni, please… Rose Atwood… correct, that’s me… okay, perfect. Bye.” Rose went to open the fridge. “Beer?”

“Yeah, I need one before I go strangle that bastard.” Ethan sagged down onto the couch.

Rose gave him his beer and sat rigidly next to him. “Excuse me?”

“You heard me.”

“Yes, I did, but honestly this whole situation is hardly Tyler’s fault.”

“Last time I checked, it takes two to make a baby.”

“Yes, it does take two, but if one of the two says she’s on the pill when, in fact, she’s not… all it takes is one lying b―”

“Watch it,” Ethan threatened. “You’re talking about my sister.”

“I don’t care if she’s your sister. You’re not on her side on this, are you?”

“I don’t even know what her side would be. Her side would be her not being pregnant with that bastard’s baby, and her never seeing him again.”

“Well, that’d be Tyler’s side, too, but it’s too late for that.”

“And whose fault is that?” Ethan looked at Rose pointedly.

“Are you saying it’s my fault? How is any of this my fault?”

“If you’d let me talk to her, tell her the truth, she would’ve never done it.”

Rose glowered at him, her eyes black with anger. It was the first time the stare of death was directed toward him.

“Don’t you even dare go there. There is no way it’s my fault if your psycho of a sister decided to get herself accidentally-on-purpose pregnant. No. Way. So don’t you even try to put this on me. And I don’t see why you should be so mad. The only person entitled to be angry here is Tyler.”

“Of course you’d be on darling Tyler’s side.”

“You’re being petty and you know it. Is this because I spent the day with him? Is this just a jealousy tantrum?”

“You know I can’t stand him. And you didn’t pick up your phone.”

“Because we were talking, and you know about what. I can assure you there weren’t any romantic implications in our talk. He’s destroyed… I’ve never seen him this bad… ”

“He’s a cheating, lying b―”

“And what does that make your sister? She schemed and lied just as bad.”

“At least she did it for love. Why did he do it? Why did he stay with her if he doesn’t love her? Only to be closer to you, or to try to make you jealous, and now my sister will have to pay the consequences for life.”

“Only because she made herself pregnant against Tyler’s will. And please don’t act as if you were an icon of moral behavior. None of us is.”

“Meaning?”

“How many girls have you slept with who you weren’t in love with?”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

“How would you have felt if one of these girls had trapped you into a pregnancy you didn’t want by deliberately lying to you about being on the pill? Think about it. What if Alicia had done it to you? Would you be rooting for her, saying how after all you were the bastard for not loving her? I don’t think so.”

Ethan began to calm down for the first time since arriving at Rose’s house. Rose was right; he was being over-protective of his sister, and over-jealous of Rose.

“I know you love your sister,” she continued, “and that you’re worried about her. But for once this mess was not Tyler’s fault, or mine. It was all Georgiana. One hundred percent. She’s far from stupid or naïve, and she knew all the risks and consequences when she decided to go through with her little scheme. So it’s all on her.”

“But she doesn’t know about you and Tyler. Maybe if she’d known, she wouldn’t have done it.”

“Didn’t you say that she suspects it? Do you really think it would’ve stopped her, even if she knew? To me it seems like the opposite. I think it would’ve made her even more desperate to cling onto Tyler, instead of stopping her altogether.”

“Maybe you’re right. But I still feel I need to tell her. You have to let me do it.”

“Why? What good would it do now?”

“Maybe she’d reconsider and…you know, think of other options.”

“Tyler would never let her do that.”

“Why not? It’d be the perfect way out for him.”

The doorbell rang in the background.

“Pizza’s here.”

Rose went to buzz the delivery guy in. In a few minutes, she was back on the couch with two huge cardboard boxes and two more beers. They ate their first slice of pizza in silence. Ethan didn’t want to be mad at Rose, but he still was. He was convinced that if she’d let him talk with Georgiana, none of this would’ve happened.

“Why do you say he wouldn’t let her do it?” Ethan eventually asked.

“Because… well, you’re going to find out anyway sooner or later. Tyler is adopted.”

“Really?”

“Mmm-hmmm.”

“Does Georgiana know?”

“She does. She has for a long time.”

Ethan snorted. His sister really was a piece of work.

“Do you think that’s part of the reason why she did it? Because she knew Tyler would want to keep the baby?”

“I’m pretty sure she weighed all the circumstances.”

“Dooming herself for life.”

“And bringing Tyler along for the ride.”

“What is he going to do?” Ethan wasn’t able to keep the animosity from showing in his voice.

“What would you do in his place, since you seem to have all the right answers today?”

Rose sounded hurt. “Come here,” he said, grabbing her by the waist and pulling her onto his lap.

“Oh, so I’m back to hugging privileges?”

“And kissing privileges, too…” It felt good having her close, kissing her. Ethan felt calm for the first time all day. “I’m sorry I took it out on you. It’s just that my sister is crazy, and you know I can’t stand him.”

“Well, you might as well get used to Tyler being around; he might become your brother-in-law soon.”

“Aw, don’t say that. That’s even worse.”

“Why?”

“Do you really think he’s going to propose?”

“Ethan, I hate to be the one to break it to you, but right now they’re either going to split up for good and be single parents, or they’re going to get married and give a shot at being a family. And, despite what you think, Tyler has a pretty big sense of responsibility, especially when it comes to family.”

“Has he already decided?”

“No, but if I know him, he’ll try. That is, if he can start looking at Georgiana again without wanting to kill her on the spot. It’s going to take some time… but eventually, once he has come to terms with the situation and the idea of becoming a father…”

“What do you think they should do? Do you think he’ll keep being a cheating loser if they get married?

“I don’t know what they should do. And I’ve no idea how it will turn out. I think Tyler is going to be a great dad; I’m not so sure about a great husband. It’s hard for anyone to start a family and have kids, but if you’re forced into it, especially if you’re Tyler… I just don’t know.”

“So my sister basically dug her own grave.”

“It’s not necessarily going to be a fairy tale wedding, but I think there’s a part of Tyler that cares about your sister. If he can forgive her, they could make it work.”

“At least my mom is going to be ecstatic if she has another daughter married before the end of the year. And my dad too, with all these lawyer genes getting mixed up. He’s going to have a lawyer empire of grandkids.”

“I don’t know, with us, they could have mixed real estate genes…” Rose blushed all of a sudden. “Not that… I mean… I wasn’t saying we should have kids or anything, it was just… you know…”

“You’re so cute when you blush.”

“And you’re so annoying when you look that smug.”

“That’s not true; you adore me all the same. So much so that you want to have my babies…”

“I-I said it just for the sake of talking.”

Ethan pressed one hand to his chest mockingly. “Now you’re hurting me.”

“Oh, stop it.”

She silenced him with a kiss, and he wasn’t about to complain.

“I have to study—finals are in ten days, and I haven’t done anything today. Plus, I have a bunch of angry emails from my group project members who I blew off at the library that I have to read and reply to. Do you mind spending a cozy night in while I study? You have some work to do?”

“I couldn’t imagine a better way of spending the night than cozied in with you, and I always have work to do.”

“I love you.”

“I love you too, Miss Atwood. Sorry again for taking it out on you today. I know it’s not your fault. I think I was as worried for my sister as I was mad you spent the day with him.”

“You know,” she said, and kissed Ethan again. “The feminist movement is going to shoot me for saying this, but I sort of like it when you get crazy jealous. You’re annoying as hell, but just as much adorable.”

“I’m not going to tell, I promise.”

Rose got her books from her room and sat at the dining table. Ethan sat next to her, taking out his iPad. They started working and studying respectively, and Ethan thought he’d never felt happier than this. A simple night in, doing ordinary, boring stuff, and he was in heaven because he had Rose by his side.

Fourteen

Marry Me

“I can’t believe finals are over!” Rose tilted her face up to enjoy the first real warm sunrays of May.

“You mind taking a walk with me?” Tyler asked seriously.

“Is Georgiana around?” Since the pregnancy announcement, Georgiana had become even more clingy and possessive of Tyler. Which usually resulted in escalating nasty behaviors toward Rose.

“Nah, I think she had an exam.” He checked his watch. “Right about now, actually. We should be good for a couple of hours.”

“Okay then.”

They walked in silence for a little bit until Tyler stopped in front of a sunlit bench. He sat on the backrest and Rose sat on the bench next to him, her head level with his knees.

“I think I know what I want to do with Georgiana,” Tyler announced. “But I need to talk to you first.”

“Okay…” Rose’s heart started beating a little faster.

“I think I’m going to ask her to marry me and try to make it work. But before I do, I need to know you mean it when you say there isn’t a future for us. That you see me just as a friend.”

Rose was breathless for a moment. This morning when she’d woken up, she hadn’t thought this would be the day she’d have to say goodbye to Tyler forever. She knew the day was coming—fast—but somehow in all the scenarios she’d imagined, being on a bench in the sun on campus had not been one of them. Rose felt her vocal cords fail her as words choked in her throat. She tried again. “Tyler, I don’t see you just as a friend. You’re so much more than that. You’re my best friend, my oldest friend… you’re family to me, and I love you.”

“But you’re not in love with me anymore.”

Rose shook her head.

“‘Cause you love him.”

Rose nodded. She thought it was funny how Tyler and Ethan kept avoiding saying each other’s names and just kept calling one another him.

“I hate his guts, you know.”

“If it’s any consolation, he hates yours too.”

Tyler snorted. “Excuse me if I don’t feel sorry for him.”

Rose tried to keep her emotions in check. She was aware that her relationship―um, friendship?―with Tyler wouldn’t be the same after today. For years in their interactions with each other they’d flirted with the idea of romance between them. Of a possible distant future together. But today they were putting a stop to that for good. She just hoped she’d manage to finish this conversation without bursting into tears.

“Okay then. I’m going to be a married man soon!”

“Did you already know what I was going to say?”

“Pretty much.”

“How?”

“It’s the way you look at him; you’ve never looked at me that way. You’ve never looked at anyone that way.”

“Can I get a hug?” Rose was about to break down.

“‘Course you can. Come here.”

Tyler jumped down from the bench’s backrest and pulled Rose up into a tight embrace. Hugging Tyler was of little comfort, and Rose felt a lingering sadness she knew would take a long time to shake off. But, at least for the first time in a long while, there wasn’t tension between them.

“Promise me we will stay best friends no matter what happens,” she whispered.

“Hey, okay I’ve gone soft, but I’m not Paris Hilton BFF material yet.” Tyler smiled. “And from the way things are going, you could become my sister-in-law very soon. We’re going to be one big, happy family!” he said sarcastically.

“Aw, Tyler.” She pushed him away. And then sat back on the bench. “It’s not like I’m going to marry Ethan anytime soon.”

“If he’s not stupid, he’ll ask you. Plus he’s such an old guy; he’d better get a move on.”

Rose beamed at Tyler. It felt good that he was making jokes again.

“So, when are you going to propose?” she asked.

“This weekend I think,” Tyler said, shifting in his seat next to her. “Just before the term ends. Knowing Georgiana, she’d want to get married straight away before her bump starts showing.”

“You’ve already picked a ring?”

“I have one on hold…”

“You seem calm enough. I mean…”

“I’m freaking out, Rose. My guts are screaming at me to hop on a plane, go get lost somewhere in Asia, and not come back for years. But, like you said, I’m going to become a father no matter what, so I want to at least try to be a decent one.”

“You’ll be a great dad, Tyler. I’m sure of it.”

“I have another question for you…”

“Is this one a little easier?”

“Pretty straightforward. Will you be my best man?”

“Of course I will, Tyler!”

“Thank you. It means a lot to have you there by my side.”

“You think… Georgiana… mmm… will be okay with me being your best man?”

“You think she has you lined up for the maid of honor role?”

“Ha ha. I’d be surprised if she let me inside the church at all.”

“Between me and the old guy, I’m sure she won’t have much of a choice.”

“He’s not old!”

“He is. So, will you be there by my side?”

“Of course I will. Always!” Rose squeezed his hand. They’d been on a long journey, but she finally felt she had her best friend back.

~ * ~

A mere three weeks later, Rose examined Tyler’s appearance in his wedding suit. They were in the chapel’s side room, reserved for the groom, and the ceremony was supposed to start in one hour. After Tyler’s proposal, Georgiana had not wasted a second and, in record time, the Bronfman-Smithson wedding had been organized.

“You look like a ghost,” Rose said.

“And you look like a boy.”

“I was under strict orders to dress in a tux and comb my hair in a low chignon. Your wife-to-be was worried I’d ruin the visual equilibrium of the ceremony if I were to stay by your side dressed like a girl.”

“What?”

“Interpreting Georgina’s thoughts with some liberty, I think she wanted me to look as ugly as possible.”

“You’re never ugly, not even when you dress like a boy.”

“Well, I wasn’t forbidden from wearing makeup at least. How you doing?”

“I think I might be sick. I want to throw up!”

“That good, huh?”

“Yep. Where did you leave the old guy?”

“Ethan’s outside. Helping his father welcome the guests. Your parents are doing the same. It’s funny to look at the guests… You can spot the ones from Texas from miles away, even if they can’t wear hats inside the church!”

“How was the big dinner last night?”

“I think my mom has a crush on Ethan. As for my dad, he couldn’t understand how someone could not want to be a lawyer, but he and Ethan had plenty of topics to discuss, and they hit it off pretty well…”

“Uh-huh.”

“You asked.”

“I’m a masochist, don’t you know? Why else would I be doing this right now?”

“Because you’re a good man, because it’s the right thing to do, and because despite what you might think, deep down you care about Georgiana. A lot. And, I had a little peek at the bride; she’ll blow your breath away.” Rose said all of this while smiling.

She was trying her best, but seeing Tyler getting married to someone else wasn’t the piece of cake she’d anticipated. Seeing Georgiana resplendent in her white gown had not helped; Rose had felt a pang of jealousy she hadn’t been able to anticipate or suppress.

There was a knock on the door. Ethan came in.

“How’s everything going? G wanted me to check everything was in order… You look a little on the pale side,” Ethan added, looking at Tyler.

Rose felt butterflies fluttering in her belly. Ethan in a tux was something else. Okay, she was feeling a bit melancholic about Tyler and everything, they had a lot of history that was hard to let go of. But Ethan was her future. Of this, Rose was sure.

“You try the ‘getting married’ thing, and then we’ll see how you look,” Tyler retorted.

The two men still didn’t like each other. But they were coming to terms with the fact that, for better or for worse—literally—they were about to become family.

“You sound like my mother now! However, I come bearing gifts…” Ethan took out of his jacket pocket a flask and three plastic shot glasses. “Here,” he said, filling them with transparent liquid and then passing them out. “To the bride and groom—cheers!”

The three of them raised the glasses, tilted their head backwards, and downed the shot in one swig. Rose screwed up her face—bleagh, it was vodka. A little too strong for the a.m. hours. Tyler, however, looked far happier than he had a minute ago. There was even some color surfacing back on his cheeks.

“If we’re all set, I’ll go tell the priest we can start,” Ethan said, tucking the flask and glasses back into his jacket. “You should come out in a few minutes and wait for the bride at the altar.”

Tyler nodded bravely.

When Ethan was gone, Tyler turned to Rose. “The old guy… he’s not too bad.”

“I know.” Rose was close to tears again. Vodka was a great idea for a guy with a bad case of cold feet, but probably not the best for an over-emotional woman.

“Come here,” Tyler said.

Rose went over to him and they hugged tight. This felt like the last private moment they were ever going to share.

“Nothing is going to change between us,” he whispered in her ear.

“Nothing,” she said, repeating the lie.

Tyler let go of her. “Let’s go do this,” he said. He straightened his jacket, and then marched out of the room.

Rose watched him go and she let go of him, forever. When she came out of the small room she was just Rose—there was no more Tyler and Rose.

~ * ~

“I’m not sure if the fact that I find you hot while you dress like a boy should scare me or not,” Ethan said as he and Rose waltzed across the dance floor—a platform in the middle of the Smithson’s family home garden.

“I’m going to cut into your dilemma and loosen up a bit,” Rose said. “Do you think the style-gestapo will flay me if I let my hair loose? This chignon is killing me. And the bow tie is strangling me! How do you guys wear stranglers around your neck every day?” She started pulling some pins out of her hair.

“Here, let me help…” Ethan pulled her to the edge of the garden and started working his fingers into her hair.

When the last strand came loose, Rose shook her head and let her hair cascade down on her shoulders. Ethan was already undoing the bow tie.

“I have to stop now, or I’ll end up undressing you completely and it wouldn’t be proper, Miss Atwood.”

“No, it wouldn’t, especially not with your mother staring at us. She’s been watching us like a hawk all day. What’s up with her?”

“Ah, my dear, I’m afraid that with my sister’s nuptials, I remain the sole Smithson sibling yet to be matched. I am pretty sure my mother has designs on you.”

“Aren’t two weddings in six months enough for her?”

“Is the thought of joining yourself to me in holy matrimony so unappealing to you, Miss Atwood?”

“What? No, I-I mean…” Rose was stuttering, her face searing red. “Are you serious?”

“Why not?”

His stare was like burning ice.

“I thought you w-were against getting married…”

“I’m against girls shopping for rings after one date; I’m not against getting married to the woman I love!”

“Are you proposing?” Rose’s heart was beating way too fast.

“Now, don’t go getting a big head, Miss Atwood,”

She swatted him playfully. “Jerk.”

He grabbed her hand and pulled her closer to kiss her.

“I love you,” Ethan whispered. “One day, I want you to be my wife. What do you say?”

“One day.” Rose couldn’t help but smile like an idiot. “I love you too.”

“Ok, now that my noble intentions are in the open, can I bring you to my room?”

Ethan and Rose discreetly disappeared behind a bush and ran across the lawn toward the house, holding hands and laughing like a pair of kids. Never, not even in her wildest dreams, could Rose have thought the day Tyler married another woman would end up being the happiest of her life. But life held its surprises in store… and running free on the grass, holding the hand of the man she loved, and looking into his blue eyes… Rose felt exactly that. The happiest she’d ever been…

The End

###

Dear Reader,

I hope you enjoyed Let’s Be Just Friends. If you loved or hated my story―I value your opinion―please consider leaving a review on Goodreads and/or on the retailer website where you purchased the book. Reviews are the biggest gift you can give to an author, and word of mouth is the most powerful means of book discovery.

If you’d like to explore some more of my work, keep reading for an excerpt from my novel A Sudden Crush.

Thank you for your support!

A Sudden Crush by Camilla Isley

1

Honeymoon

“Excuse me,” I say, trying to attract the attention of the man sitting next to me on the plane.

He ignores me.

I try again. “Um, excuse me?” I have to sort this out before we take off.

Nothing.

Is he brushing me off on purpose?

I decide to gently tap my index finger on his shoulder. “Um, sir, excuse me…”

This time I get a brusque, “Yes?” back.

I start my pitch with a smile. “Hi, sorry to bother you—”

“Then don’t.”

I’m taken aback by this guy’s rudeness, but not enough to desist. “Sorry again. It will take only a minute, I promise.”

He rolls his eyes in an exaggerated gesture, but I ignore his body language and continue. I have to try.

“I got married today,” I say with a dreamy, I-cannot-believe-I-am-this-happy smile, “and we, I mean my husband and I, were held back at the reception for so long, the goodbyes took forever, and then there was an accident on the highway—“

“You have a point?” the man interrupts with the same gruff attitude.

“Yeah, of course.” I try to keep my cool, as I need to ask this ogre a favor. “My point is that we arrived at the airport super late and there were no seats left for us to sit together, so I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind switching places with my husband. He’s over there.” I point at Liam.

The grumpy ogre takes a casual look at Liam and snorts loudly.

“Was that a yes?” I ask hopefully.

“No, miss, it wasn’t.”

“It’s Mrs., actually, and—”

“He’s sitting in an aisle seat,” the ogre says. “I want to be in a window one. Anyway, if you ask me, your husband doesn’t appear too bothered with his seating accommodation.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“That he seems pretty comfortable chatting with the top model next to him, not worrying too much about his annoying wife not being there to hold his hand.”

“That…you’re the rudest man I’ve ever met!” I’m puffing with indignation; how dare he say those things to me? “You don’t know me, how can you say—”

“I’ve known you the whole of ten minutes, and already I’ve had enough. I can’t help but imagine the poor guy is happy he’s having a break.”

With that last nasty comment, the troll turns around, presenting me with his shoulders, and goes back to staring out the window.

I turn to look at Liam. Admittedly, he seems pretty engrossed in his conversation. I can’t see the woman very well; they’re on the opposite side of the plane to the right, four rows down from me, and in first class four rows is a lot of space. I crane my neck backwards, but I see only the top of a blondish head. She must be tall for her head to pop out like that; it’s almost even with Liam’s, and he’s six-foot-two. What are they talking about? And why isn’t he trying to have her switch places with me?

I push the request-a-flight-attendant button. This is not how my honeymoon was supposed to begin. So far, this journey has been a nightmare. We left the reception too late, and Liam got mad at me for wanting to say goodbye to everyone. And I will admit that at home my bag wasn’t exactly one-hundred percent packed. I was maybe eighty percent done, at the very minimum. But how was I supposed to know the movers had completely ignored my directions for packing, and that none of my things were in the right boxes at our new house? It took me forever to locate the stuff I was missing.

Then there was traffic. Again, it was hardly my fault that some idiot decided to speed up on I-294, lose control of his car, and create the most prodigious traffic jam in Chicago’s history. But Liam is so fastidious about his pre-flight buffer time that, for him, arriving one hour before the departure was almost as bad as missing the plane altogether.

To be fair, when we finally showed up at the airline desk we were the last two people to check-in, and we had to make do with whatever places there were left. No matter how much I whined with the clerk about it being our honeymoon, she said there was nothing she could do at this point and that we would have to try to switch places with someone else on the plane. Which is what I’m trying to do. Only I’m sitting next to a brute.

I throw a sulky glance at him. He must be a couple of years older than me, and looks like a cross between a surfer and a lumberjack. He’s probably someone’s type, but most definitely not mine…too unrefined, too big, and too dark. He has mocha-brown eyes and longish black hair bleached light brown at the points. His strong jaw is covered by a three or four day’s stubble, he has a stubborn mouth, and his face is too rawboned. He’s wearing a horrible checkered reddish shirt rolled up at the elbows that leaves his tanned forearms exposed, a pair of faded gray cargo pants, and sneakers. He has a general air of unkemptness or wilderness about him, and doesn’t look to me like someone who belongs in first class.

Not that I’m a frequent patron; this is my first time ever. But Liam said we shouldn’t settle for our honeymoon, so here we are in plush, bed-like chairs half a plane away from each other. Right now, I’d give up this ridiculously large throne and happily sit in coach if it meant getting to be beside my husband.

“Excuse me, miss, did you call?” A smiling stewardess is towering over me.

“It’s Mrs., actually, and yes, I need some help. You see, I’m on my honeymoon…”

“Congratulations!” she exclaims, including the brute in her felicitations.

“Don’t look at me—I’m not the lucky fella,” he says sarcastically.

“So you’re not sitting next to your husband?” she asks, the smile evaporating from her lips.

“No.” Finally, someone who understands. “And that’s the problem. We were detained at our reception…”

“Here she goes again,” the ogre grumbles, then resumes his out-of-the-window staring.

I ignore him.

“… then the movers had made a mess, and there was the accident on the highway…” I’m babbling; all the adrenaline from today is making me skittish. “So we were late for the check-in, and the only seats left were these two,” I conclude.

“You didn’t check-in online?” the flight attendant asks, perplexed, almost shocked.

Am I the only one who didn’t get the memo that online check-in is the new black?

“I… should have, but I forgot,” I admit, turning scarlet. “With all the details from the wedding to organize, it skipped my mind.”

“Madam, I understand completely,” she says sympathetically. “And I’m very sorry for the inconvenience, but the flight is fully booked.”

“I know, but couldn’t we switch places with some other passengers?”

“I’m sorry, madam, but it’s too late for that.” She puts the last nail in this journey’s coffin. “We’re about to take off, and the seatbelt sign is already on.”

“Oh.” I want to cry. “But this is a six hour flight!” If it were a one or two hour connection, I wouldn’t care.

“Again, I’m very sorry,” she says with a fake smile that I’m sure she reserves for customers she can’t accommodate. “Can I offer you some complimentary Champagne before we depart?” she asks, the smile never leaving her face.

Free Champagne, wow! At least she’s trying to make up for it.

“Yes, thank you.” I say, slightly soothed.

“I will take one too,” chips in the troll.

We both glower at him. The stewardess, because he just gave away her game by pointing out that in first class the bubbly is free for everyone, and me for making me feel stupid that I thought the hostess was giving me a special perk.

“I will be back in a minute,” she says graciously. She shoots a cold look at my neighbor, her smile changing from fake to “I-politely-hate-you”.

As she leaves, the security instructions begin to play in the background. I cross my arms on my chest and look around me only half listening to them.

“…this aircraft has ten emergency exits…”

Bored, I automatically reach into my bag to take a manuscript out—I’m a book editor, I love my job, I’m great at it, and I always carry a manuscript wherever I go. But when my searching fingers can’t find anything, I remember Liam made me promise to leave all work-related books at home. He’s a best-selling author, so we made a deal that he wouldn’t write a single word on our honeymoon if I didn’t edit a single word. So I left all physical book copies home. Only now we’re trapped on this plane for six hours, miles away from each other, and I don’t have anything to do. I could try to edit something on my phone, I guess, but I don’t want to be sloppy—no author deserves that—and I’m too tired to accomplish anything half-decent anyway. I even feel too tired to just read, which has never happened to me before.

“…illuminated strips on the floor will guide you to these exits…”

Joan, stay positive, I say to myself. The destination matters more than the journey.

“…in the event of a loss in cabin pressure, oxygen masks will automatically drop from the panel above you…”

Tomorrow I will wake up in a five star resort in a tropical paradise. There’s no need to stress about the plane ride.

“… every seat is provided with a life vest. In first and business class, the vest is located under the armrest. In economy class…”

“Here’s your Champagne, madam.” The stewardess is back with two plastic flutes filled with the sparkling liquid. “Sir,” she adds curtly. “I hope you have a pleasant flight. Let me know if I can assist you in any other way.”

I mutter a thank you. The troll doesn’t even bother. So rude.

“…personal electronic devices may be used during take-off and landing, providing all transmission functions are switched-off and the device itself is put into airplane mode….”

I take my phone out of my bag; there’s a text from Katy, my maid of honor. She sent me a selfie of us together that she took just before we left. Yes, it was another one of the above-mentioned deferments. I reply with a waterfall of XOXOs and obediently switch the phone to plane mode.

The plane accelerates on the runway and takes off. I calmly sip my Champagne and watch the Chicago skyline disappear beneath us as the plane soars higher and higher in the dark-blue sky. Relax, I tell myself. I need to let go of the stress of these past few weeks. After all, from now on this trip can only get better.

2

The Crash

Several hours later, I am laughing my head off watching Sixteen Candles. It’s one of my favorite coming-of-age movies; it always cheers me up, even if I’ve seen it a thousand times and practically know it by heart. I’m glad they had it in the classics section, as I am utterly incapable of sleeping even though it’s almost two a.m. I have tried. I experimented with all the possible settings of my seat. It stretches out so far that it basically becomes a twin bed, but all the excitement of today is making it impossible for me to sleep. I feel like a kid who has eaten an entire box of candies before going to sleep…not going to happen! Liam, on the other hand, is fast asleep. After the takeoff, once the seatbelt sign finally turned off, I wanted to try again to see if we could somehow switch places, but he was already sleeping and I didn’t want to wake him.

I concentrate back on the small screen and giggle loudly as Molly Ringwald escapes her horrific grandmother trying to grope her “boobies”. I’m not looking at him, but my mind’s eye can clearly see the ogre rolling his eyes with disapproval next to me. Rude, and with no sense of humor. Phooey!

As I watch Sam confessing to her sister that she thinks she’s in love, the screen freezes and the text “PA – Public Announcement” scrolls across it.

“Attention passengers, this is your captain speaking.” The metallic voice bursts out from my headphones and from the general speaker system of the plane. “We are entering an area of heavy turbulence.”

Oh no!

“All cabin service is temporarily suspended, and all passengers and crew are kindly asked to remain seated with your seatbelts securely fastened.”

If the crew has to sit as well, this has to be serious. Where are we? I peek at the ogre’s screen, which has been on the flight map the entire time, and see that we are flying over the Atlantic Ocean somewhere between Miami and Puerto Rico.

“Please make sure that all your personal belongings are safely stowed in the overhead compartment above you, or under the seat in front of you. Your seat should be in an upright position, and your tray table should be closed. For our passengers in first and business class, please return your TV screens to the compartment under your arm seat. I apologize for the inconvenience. I will inform you when these extra precautions will no longer be necessary. Thank you.”

Perfect! Just perfect. They took away my only comfort. So far, I hate first class! In economy they get to keep their entertainment. And for what? We’re not even shaking. I put away the TV screen, and since I don’t have a seat in front of me—only a plastic wall and an exit hatch—I carefully close each zip of my Prada hunter bag, buckle the leather straps at the front, and tie its shoulder belt to the seat’s armrest. I wrap the strap around three times and make a couple of knots, just to be sure. The last thing I need is for my bag to fly halfway across the plane, scattering my things all over the place.

I cross my arms over my chest and, for lack of anything better to do, I study the patterns of the plane’s wall in front of me. I have to pee, I suddenly realize with horror. Why didn’t I go before? It’s as if in the moment they said I couldn’t get up, I suddenly felt I had to go. I shift uncomfortably in my seat.

“Excuse me, can I go to the toilet real quick?” I ask a passing steward.

“No, I’m sorry, madam. No one is allowed to stand at this point. I have to go sit, too. You will have to wait until—”

“Yeah, I know. Until the seatbelt sign is off,” I interrupt him. “Thank you anyway.”

He smiles and scurries away.

After fifteen minutes, my bladder is about to explode. I could have totally gone to the bathroom without any problems. The plane is trembling a little bit, but nothing too serious. Why do they have to spread the alarmism? I look around me and see only worried faces. I glance back at Liam, and see he’s finally awake and looking at me. Gosh, I love him so much. He gives me a reassuring smile and blows me a kiss, causing my stomach to flutter. Was it the kiss or the air pocket? I’m not sure.

I smile at him, then fix my attention back on the wall in front of me. All this wobbling is making me nauseous. If they don’t let us up soon, I’m making a break for the washroom whether the steward likes it or not.

Suddenly, the plane drops down sickeningly fast. Screams erupt around me, my voice among them. I grip the armrests for dear life. Okay, now I am worried. The plane is vibrating really badly, making all kind of ominous sounds. Suddenly all the plane’s oxygen masks drop down with a loud bang.

This is not a good sign, is it? Aren’t the masks supposed to come out only in the case of an extremely serious situation? As if it wanted to answer my question, the plane drops again. I don’t waste any more time with philosophical musings; I take the mask and pull it on my mouth, securing the elastic behind my head. Now, besides people screaming, I see a couple of passengers crying, and some others praying.

The plane does another sharp jolt downward, and I’m vaguely aware of a hand pushing my head between my knees. I see a flash of light and hear a loud blasting sound…then everything goes black.

3

The Island

“Mmm, mwaw,” I yawn drowsily.

A good night of sleep was just what I needed; I feel so much more relaxed now. What better way to wake up than having my newly wedded husband caress my hair as the sunlight gently grazes my skin? Before opening my eyes, I inhale the smell of exotic flowers, tropical fruits, and the scent of the sea. I listen to the birds’ musical tweets and relish the light breeze brushing over my face; Liam must have opened the window to let in the fresh air. This is more like it! I had this bad dream where we were on the plane and everything was going wrong. There was that horrible man, then the perfect storm, the explosion…I was caught in this nightmare where the plane crashed. How silly!

I feel a heavy tug at my scalp.

“That’s a bit too harsh, honey…AAARRRRGHHHH!” I scream as I open my eyes and see a hairy muzzle inches away from my face.

“Eek, eek!” The monkey bares its teeth at me before climbing on a taller branch, protesting loudly. “Ook. Hoo, hoo, hoo.”

A monkey? What is a monkey doing in my hotel room? Did it break in? Isn’t this the five star resort? Where am I?

I try to move my neck. Ouch! It hurts. My neck and shoulders, along with every other muscle in my body, feel sore. My head is throbbing; I can feel the blood pounding against my skull. My face is trapped under something plastic-y and yellow. Did I buy a sleep mask? You know, one of those things you put in the fridge before you wear them, that are supposed to regenerate your skin as you sleep? Because I don’t find it very comfortable.

I remove the offending plastic thingy from around my neck, but the effort is too much for my sore shoulders and I collapse backwards again. Despite the pain, I turn my head to the right—tropical jungle. Then to the left—jungle again. And, finally, upward—my legs are stretched above me, clad in my military green cargo pants—my favorite to travel—and I can see the points of my white sneakers. I look at my arms and see I’m still wearing the lilac cotton t-shirt with three-quarter sleeves from yesterday. Why did I go to bed with my clothes on? But I’m not really in bed, am I? No, I’m sitting in some sort of reclining armchair stuck in between tall coconut palms. That’s odd!

I try to dismount, but something holds me firmly in place. I look down at my lap and see a light-blue seatbelt tightly fastened around my body. Seatbelt, plane, crash! It wasn’t a dream!

I unfasten the belt and wiggle sideways to land clumsily on the moist, fern-covered earth about four feet below. My seat, the ogre’s seat, and what looks like a chunk of the plane are wedged in between thick tropical vegetation above me. I inspect the ground around the wreckage to see if somebody else is here. I rummage in this tangle of equatorial bushes, but I don’t accomplish anything besides adding some scratches to my hands and forearms. I’m glad at least I’m wearing long pants.

It looks like no one else is here; this entire area seems deserted. My heart drops. Where is Liam? What happened to him? I have to find him. I frenziedly search through the underbrush, as if I could find Liam hiding underneath, but after a few minutes I’m exhausted and have to stop. I haven’t eaten anything since yesterday afternoon, and my body feels emotionally and physically worn-out.

I try to calm myself. I spin in a full circle one way, then back around the other way, but I can’t see anything or anyone; it’s just rainforest all around. Despair gnaws at me. My heart feels like it’s about to explode from fear and agitation; this jungle is oppressive and I need to get out of here. I spot a small gap among the trees and decide to move in that direction. I fight my way through the waist-high vegetation, and finally reach a clearing.

As I emerge from the jungle, the most beautiful landscape I have ever seen unfolds before my eyes. I’m standing on an immaculate white beach made of fine, dusty sand, and I have to shade my eyes from the bouncing light of the sun reflecting off the electric blue-green of the ocean.

The island—I’m guessing I’m on an island—is teeming with non-humans being, from various birds pecking at the sand—seagulls and some other black and brown feathered kinds I can’t name—to small birds chirping happily in the jungle, to an entire colony of brownish monkeys that come in all sizes.

I could dote on this unadulterated, beautifully wild panorama forever if it wasn’t for the tiny drawback of my current situation and the desolation that comes from the lack of any human contamination in this place. I think that right now one of those ugly concrete resort monsters, which I usually despise, would warm my heart to the core.

What should I do? I’m hungry, thirsty, and I don’t have the slightest idea how to survive in the wilderness. Okay, let’s stay calm here. The first thing I should do is check if I’m really alone. I mean, the plane had hundreds of passengers. There must be someone else around. Let’s not be overdramatic; Liam is probably just waiting for me around a group of palm trees.

As I move down the beach in search of someone—anyone—I suddenly hear loud crackling noises that don’t sound natural. I quicken my pace, excited, and run in that direction. My pulse quickens as I spot the silhouette of a man sitting on the sand. Could it be Liam?

4

Mr. Ogre

Unfortunately, as I come closer it becomes clear that the man is not Liam, but the ogre from the plane. He’s hunched over a pile of coconuts, and seems pretty intent on fumbling with some wooden sticks to open them.

“Heeyyy! Heeeeyyyy!” I call, running towards him, hope fluttering in my chest. I have never been happier to see another human being, or even troll in this case, in my entire life.

“Oh, I see her royal highness is awake,” Mr. Ogre says, getting up and watching me run towards him.

“You mean you knew I was here?” I stop dead in my tracks.

“Affirmative.”

“And you left me there alone in the middle of the tropical jungle!”

“It’s barely some bushes.” The troll shrugs noncommittally.

“You let a monkey pick the fleas off my hair!” I accuse him, indignant.

“You have many?” he shoots back with an infuriating smirk, looking at me from under his brows.

“You know what I mean.”

“Unfortunately, I do. You’re right. I should have warned the poor fella of what he was getting into.”

“Ah, ah. Very funny,” I retort, sarcastic. “You left me there hanging upside-down. Don’t you know it’s dangerous to stay like that for too long?”

“Also gives the brain a little extra boost. You look like the type who could use it.”

“That’s offensive, superficial, and you’re the most horrible man I’ve ever met,” I yelp, not able to control the strident pitch in my voice. “Why didn’t you wake me? I could have been dead.”

“You were snoring louder than a running tractor, and I checked your pulse just to make sure. Anyway, I wanted to do a reconnaissance of the island before I had to deal with you as well.”

“For your information, I don’t snore. And what do you mean ‘before having to deal with me as well’?”

“You do snore, and if somebody has told you differently they were lying to you. A truck driver with sinusitis would not be as loud as you. And by dealing with you, I meant exactly this—having a hysterical bimbo screaming at me for no good reason!”

“Who says bimbo? Nobody says bimbo anymore, it’s so sexist!”

“Still true.” He shrugs.

“I hate you,” I caterwaul.

“Very mature. Thank you for proving me wrong,” Mr. Ogre says, arching one teasing eyebrow.

I cross my arms and pout. Why am I behaving like a three-year old?

“Hopefully we won’t have to share each other’s company much longer,” Mr. Ogre continues.

Right, why am I even losing time with this troll?

“Liam. Liiiaaaaamm. Liiiaaaaamm,” I scream at random.

“Eek, eek! Eeeeeek. Ook. Hoo, hoo, hoo.” Only the monkeys seem interested in giving me a response.

“Stop screaming, you idiot. You will have the monkeys come down and attack us to protect their territory.”

“Oh, so now you worry about the monkeys. I thought you would get along well with your similars. Liiiaaam. Liiiaaaaamm.”

“He’s not here. Stop screaming! It’s just you and me.” He’s shouting, too.

“Eek. Eek! Eeeeeek. Eeeeeek. Ook. Hoo, hoo, hoo. Eek, eek!” The monkeys are getting dangerously worked up by all this yelling.

I ignore them and keep calling.

“Didn’t you hear me? I’ve said he’s not here,” the troll repeats, dropping his work instruments and moving menacingly towards me.

“But that’s impossible, he has to be somewhere around here. Liiiaaam.”

“Do you see a plane lying around?” he roars. “As I said, it’s just you and me!”

I take a good look at the surroundings. On one side there’s the ocean; on the other, thick tropical vegetation with some hills visible in the background; and we’re standing on the beach in between. We really are on what looks like the perfect desert island from a movie.

“This isn’t happening. This isn’t happening.” I pace in circles in the sand, fear gripping my stomach with a painful tug. Where is Liam? What happened to him?

“How long have we been here?” I ask in a soft, polite voice. I don’t have time to waste arguing with this caveman. I have to find Liam.

He checks his watch. “I think the plane crashed at around three or four a.m. I woke up at six with the first light, and now it’s about eight.”

“Good, we haven’t been here long then. Well, it was nice meeting you—I hope I will never see you again.” I turn around and march towards the trees.

“Where do you think you’re going?” The caveman follows me and forcefully grabs my left wrist to hold me back.

“Let go of me!” I command. “I need to find my husband. He could be injured. He may need my help. I have to go find him. Let me go.”

“You’re not going anywhere,” he announces with finality. He also grabs my other wrist for good measure.

“You have no authority to say what I can or can’t do!” I protest, trying to break free, but it’s no good. He is so much stronger than I am. I’d have a better chance trying to break free of real metal handcuffs.

“Look around yourself,” he hisses, seething with suppressed anger. “I don’t particularly care for you, but I don’t want to be responsible for your death either. In case you haven’t noticed, we’re on a desert island full of wild animals. You have no idea what could await you inside that jungle. And I have a feeling you wouldn’t be so good at surviving on your own.”

“If the jungle was so dangerous, why did you leave me there for two hours?”

“You were asleep and harmless, but if you go around screaming you could get some of the beasts angry or scare them, and scared animals have a way of protecting themselves.”

“But my husband,” I wail, struggling to get free. “He could be dead.” As I say the words, a stone of fear plants itself in my chest. “I have to find him. I have to know.” I utter those last words in between body-shaking sobs.

“Listen—” He eases the grip on my wrists but doesn’t let go. “I understand that you’re worried for your husband, but the best thing you can do for him right now is to stay alive. And going into the jungle on your own would be counterproductive.”

“Then come with me,” I plead.

“I don’t think so. Rescue teams are more likely to find us if we stay here.”

“You selfish bastard…you…” I don’t finish; I just cry and pound my fists on his chest. He doesn’t stop me, even though he’s still tightly gripping my wrists.

“Calm down, will you?” he says after a while, his tone slightly softer than before.

“How can you tell me to calm down when you won’t help me find Liam?”

“He isn’t here.”

I stop the pounding.

“How can you say that?” I challenge him.

“I don’t know how much you remember about the crash, but at one point there was an explosion that smashed the plane open right beneath us. Our seats were sucked away. I think we survived only because the winds were so strong they carried us around until the tornado or whatever it was spat us out here on this forsaken island. We were lucky the vegetation is so thick it slowed our fall. Anyway, there are no signs of an explosion around us or anywhere nearby. I think we were separated from the rest of the plane altogether. The pilot was trying to pull off an emergency landing before the fuselage ripped. Chances are your husband is with the wreckage of the cabin somewhere else.”

At this point I collapse on my knees and let my torso bob up and down with heavy sobs. My arms are suspended over my head, as the troll still has a firm grip on my wrists.

“If I let you go, do you promise you won’t try anything foolish?” he asks gently.

I nod.

“All right.” He lets go, and I collapse completely on the sand.

I don’t move. Even if I wanted to, I don’t have the strength to do it. I hear some other distant sounds of wood being smashed, and five minutes later the caveman is back with me. He hands me an open coconut shell.

“Drink the juice inside,” he orders. “It’s nutritious, and you won’t risk dehydration. Then you can eat the pulp.”

“If I didn’t know better, I would say you were being nice to me,” I tease, summoning some of my usual witty spirit from the depths of my derelict—literally—soul.

“Don’t get used to it,” Mr. Ogre retorts sharply. “When you’re done eating I need you to get your act together.” He squats down to look me in the eyes. “The situation is not the best, and I don’t want to be stuck on this island with you any more than you do, but if we want to survive we have to work together. So get whatever it is you have to get out of your system, and come join me when you’re over it. We have a lot to do before it gets dark.”

I’m tempted to reply “Aye, aye, sir!” but I’m not sure he would appreciate the humor. He doesn’t leave me the time to say it anyway, because as soon as he’s done speaking he gets up, turns away from me, and goes back to his makeshift workbench, leaving me alone to deal with my demons.

Oh Liam! I hope you’re safe.

###

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Also by Camilla Isley

I Wish for You

A Sudden Crush

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About the Author

Camilla was born in 1984. She’s an engineer that has always had a vivid imagination and a more creative approach to life. After working in a corporate job for some years, she left everything to follow her husband around the world in a new adventure. Upon finding herself with loads of free time for the first time in a long while, she decided to begin pouring some of her fantasies into words…

Connect with me:

Check out my Website: www.camillaisley.com/

Twitter: @camillaisley

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Or just drop me an email: [email protected]

Acknowledgments

Thank you to all my friends. To L. in particular for having me as a guest in her house in Boston for ten days. I fell in love with the city and the Harvard campus during that time and I wanted one of my stories to take place there.

Thank you to my editor Michelle Proulx, to my proofreader Emily Ladouceur, and to my beta readers.

Finally, thanks to you for your continuous support.


Let's Be Just Friends (A New Adult Novella)

What if the man you’ve always loved isn’t the right one for you? Rose Atwood has been in love with her best friend since she was twelve years old. The only problem is, he's the biggest player to have ever landed on Earth. Rose has waited forever for Tyler to grow up, all the while keeping her feelings under wraps for fear of getting hurt. But after watching Tyler go through girl after girl, Rose has lost hope he’ll ever change. Being Tyler's best friend is becoming more difficult with every passing year and every new woman in his life—especially when the girlfriend du jour is Georgiana, a snotty, beautiful girl who’s in Law School with them and who never leaves Tyler's side. When Rose, dumped by her long-term boyfriend, moves temporarily into Tyler’s apartment, tension spikes. Georgiana wants Rose out of the house. Rose wants Georgiana out of Tyler’s life. And Tyler … well, he doesn’t really know what he wants. As an unexpected argument brings Rose and Tyler closer than they’ve ever been, they must decide if there’s more to their relationship than being just friends. And they must do it quickly, as Georgiana is determined to do everything in her power to keep Tyler and Rose apart. After all, all is fair in love and war. Will Rose make a leap of faith and trust Tyler with her heart? Will Tyler make the right choice, or will he be too late?

  • ISBN: 9781311447876
  • Author: Camilla Isley
  • Published: 2016-04-04 11:35:15
  • Words: 38127
Let's Be Just Friends (A New Adult Novella) Let's Be Just Friends (A New Adult Novella)