Her wrath turns to Warren. “And you—for God’s sakes, act like you have some sense! If you think you’re too old for me to take the belt to, you are sorely mistaken, young man. I raised you better than this.”

He looks down. “Yes, ma’am.”

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“I expect you boys to stay on opposite sides of the room the rest of the evening. Any more trouble from either of you and I’ll have you thrown out on your asses.” In a huff she walks out of the room, with Warren trailing behind her like a stray puppy.

Leaving Kate and me alone.

Chapter 3

THE SILENCE IS HEAVY. Awkward. Kate paces angrily, her movements sharp. She finally comes to a stop in front of me. “I don’t even know what to say to you.”

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I squirm—just a little. “He started it.”

Her eyes narrow. “Are you serious?”

I think about it for a minute. “Kind of.”

Kate shakes her head. And her chocolate eyes turn wounded. “Do my feelings mean so little to you, Drew?”

I groan. “Come on, Kate. Don’t do that.”

“Do what?”

“Make this into some big thing about me not respecting you, or caring about you enough. It’s really not that complicated. I hate him. I hate that he’s here. I hate that you f**king talk to him.”

She folds her arms over her chest, “We’ve been over this—Billy was my friend long before you and I got involved. We grew up together. Like you and Matthew and Steven. You know what that’s like.”

I do. There’s nothing on earth more valuable than an old friend. Someone who understands you, knows why you are who you are, why you do what you do. No explanations needed.

“Matthew and Steven haven’t seen me nak*d.” And if they have, they certainly haven’t enjoyed it.

“Half the city has seen you nak*d, Drew.”

“Nameless women who mean--”

“Women who we run into every time we step outside the door!”

My voice rises. “I can’t help that!”

Hers rises more. “I never asked you to!”

“Then why the f**k are you bringing it up?”

I can feel the discussion spiraling, gaining momentum like a tornado about to touch down. I push a hand through my hair and force my voice to level out. Not exactly calm, but reasonable.

“What if I told you it was him or me—that you couldn’t have us both in your life? What would you say?”

Kate stutters, “Are you…are you giving me an ultimatum?”

“No. Just a hypothetical. If I told you that, who would you pick?”

Her eyes stare past me, thinking it over. The fact that she even needs to think about it bothers me more than I can put into words.

Then she looks back at my face. “I’d pick you. Billy’s my past and I care about him very much. But you’re my future.”

I let out a relieved breath. Too soon, it turns out, because then she adds, “But I’d resent you for it, Drew. It would hurt me…hurt us.”

I know I should tell her that she doesn’t have to choose. That just knowing she’d pick me is enough. I should—but I don’t.

And a second later she’s making a bee line for the door. “I have to go help Delores.”

I follow behind her. “Hey, we’re not finished here.”

Her hand’s on the doorknob. “Yes, I realize that, but I can’t deal with this at the moment, okay? Just…stay away from Billy and we’ll talk later.”

And in a whirl of shiny hair, she’s gone.

I walk back into the main ballroom and lean up against the wall, watching the middle-aged, half-gagged, designer-clad guests trying to get their groove on.

My sister Alexandra walks up and leans back against the wall beside me. “Interesting show. Much better than anything WWF’s come out with recently.”

I scowl. “Not now, Lex.”

She shrugs. “Okay. Just happened to see you floating up shit’s creek and thought I’d throw you a paddle. But if you’re not interested…”

She lets the offer hang.

Until I turn my attention to her. “What?”

She sighs. “You’re new to this whole thing, so I’m going to give you some advice. Relationships only work when both parties put the other person’s feelings before their own. Without that? Things tend to implode rather quickly. Let’s take Matthew and Delores, for instance. It’s obvious she doesn’t like you very much, but she doesn’t let that come between them. How do you think he would feel if she told Matthew she didn’t want him talking to you anymore?”

I’m already shaking my head. “It’s not the same thing.”

“Not to you. But to Kate, it’s exactly the same thing.”

I clench my fists, frustrated. “So what are you saying? I have to invite the guy over to my place for a freaking slumber party? Do each other’s nails?”

She rolls her eyes. “No, you don’t have to be friends with him. You just have to suck it up and accept the fact that Kate is.”

I fold my arms and look around the room, purposely not acknowledging her counsel.

She shrugs. “Or don’t. Ignore everything I’m saying, let your insecurities get the better of you, and completely disregard Kate’s feelings on the matter.” She pats my shoulder. “Let me know how that works out for you.”

Then she walks away. While I stand there. Pouting—yes, I’m aware.

I scan the room and find Kate, talking to Delores. She smiles at something her friend says, but her eyes don’t. It’s fake. A cover.

Fuck.

And then I spot Warren, sitting at the bar. I look back and forth between the two. Then I let out a big breath and walk over. I nod to the bartender. “Whiskey. Double.”

Eating shit? Doesn’t taste very good. I’m going to need something to wash it down.

An hour later, I’ve learned three things about Billy Warren:

1) He loves music.

2) He’s really into his new truck.

3) He can’t hold his liquor for shit.

Douchebag is a total lightweight. Which, for me, is a good thing—a drunk guy is usually an honest guy.

“…custom leather seats as soft as a baby’s ass…”

Blah blah blah. I’ve tuned him out for a while now. It’s the only way I’ve been able to stop myself from getting as trashed as he is. But warm-up time is over now. Might as well get right to the point.

“So listen, Billy, I need you to level with me—man to man. You looking to hook up with Kate again, or what?”

His face wrinkles. “Nah, man…me and Kate…that’s like so yesterday. We were done way before we were done. Water over the bridge.”

“Under.”

“Exactly. Started too young. I mean, I love the girl, always will. Not like…in a sister kind of way exactly, cause we’ve done it…”

So don’t need to hear this right now.

“…but almost. Her and Delores, they’re like my inner sanctum. For a long time it was just the three of us against the world, you know what I’m sayin’?”

I digest this information while he takes a drag of his beer.

Then he leans forward and his voice drops low, like he’s got a secret to tell. “She’s happy, you know. Kate. These last few months, she’s sounded really happy. More than she ever was with me, that’s for damn sure. Dee Dee says so, too.”

He fingers the label on his beer bottle. “But you know how it is—the higher you climb, the farther you fall—and it’s not like you’re the sticking type. So when I think about how bad you’re gonna hurt her? Pretty much makes me want to put a f**king bullet between your eyes.”

Now that, I can respect.

I slap him on the back. Maybe a little harder than I needed to. “Tell you what, Billy—the day I hurt her? I’ll buy you the gun.”

His drunken eyes regard me suspiciously. Then he holds out his hand. And I shake it firmly.

Why are you so surprised? I can be mature. Sometimes. Besides, just because I’ve decided not to punch him in the face the next time I see him doesn’t mean I’m going to give Kate all of his goddamn messages.

What do I look like? A saint?

Out of nowhere the lovely woman in question appears beside me, standing between our bar stools. “What’s going on? What is this?”

I open my mouth to explain, but Warren beats me to it. “Relax, Katie. Me and Evans…just buryin’ the old hammer.”

“Hatchet.”

“That, too.”

Her eyes flicker back and forth between us. I smile calmly. Reassuringly.

She’s not convinced. “So, what? You two get into a fight, have a few beers, and now you’re all buddy buddy? You gonna go outside and pee on the wall together, too?”

Warren holds up his hand. “Let’s not get crazy. It’s not like we’re gonna hang out and play foosball or something. But if Evans here ever needs an extra hand with an assisted suicide?” He taps his chest. “I’m your guy.”

I raise my glass. “Well said.”

He downs a shot and stands up. “And on that note, I’m gonna head over to that little hottie on the dance floor who’s been givin’ me the eye all night. Tell Aunt Amelia not to wait up. And hey, Evans-- you should watch your back. This shin-dig is my cousin’s deal, and we messed it up. Dee Dee’s not gonna let that slide.”

I nod. “Thanks for the warning.”

After he’s gone, there’s a moment of silence. And Kate looks sideways at me. “What’s your game, Drew?”

I look surprised. Innocent. “Game? Me? No game. I just…like you more than I hate him. Simple, really.”

She nods slowly, the corners of her mouth turning up in a half smile. “And you couldn’t have had this little revelation before you announced my talent for fellatio to our family and friends?”

That probably would have been better.

“Yeah. Sorry about that. Got caught up in the moment. Although it was the truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God.”

She snorts, shaking her head. “Jerk.”

And with that, I know I’m in the clear. My hands circle her waist and pull her between my legs as I change the subject. “Have I told you how cock-stiffeningly gorgeous you look tonight?”

Kate smiles as she rests her forearms on my shoulders. “Not in the last few hours.”

“Consider yourself told.”

She leans in and lays her head against my chest.

And all is right with the world.

“Thank you, Drew.”

And I know she means for more than just the compliment. I brush my face against her hair, inhaling the scent that still captivates me.

“Anytime, Kate. Anything.”

Over her head, I spot Warren—and more importantly, the woman he’s hitting on. And I start to laugh.

Kate’s head pops up. “What?”

I motion with my chin. “Warren’s talking to Christina Berman—a distant cousin of Matthew’s.”

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