She flips me off.

I look at Maggie; luckily, she’s laughing about it. “There is no way I could live here,” she says. She walks to the refrigerator and pulls out the milk, then makes her and Warren a quick drink to wash away the aftertaste.

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“Let’s go,” Warren says after he downs the milk and tosses his cup into the sink. “Ridge is driving cuz I won’t be able to walk in three hours.”

9.

Sydney

I have no idea where we’re going, but I’m doing my best to appear engaged.. I’m in the backseat with Warren, and he’s talking to me about the band, explaining his involvement in it. I ask the appropriate questions and nod at the appropriate moments, but my mind isn’t here at all.

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I know I can’t expect the hurt and heartache to go away this quickly, but today has been the worst day so far since my actual birthday. I realize that all the pain I’ve been feeling hasn’t been quite as bad because I’ve had Ridge this week. I don’t know if it’s the way he brings comedic relief when he’s around or if it’s because I really was developing a crush on him, but the times I’ve spent with him were the only times I felt remotely happy. They were the only times I wasn’t thinking about what Hunter and Tori did to me.

But now, watching him in the front seat with his hand clasping Maggie’s . . . I don’t like it. I don’t like how his thumb occasionally sweeps back and forth. I don’t like the way she looks at him. I especially don’t like the way he looks at her. I didn’t like how he slipped his fingers through hers when we reached the bottom of the apartment stairs. I didn’t like how he opened her door, then placed his hand on her lower back while she climbed inside the car. I didn’t like how they had a silent conversation while he was putting the car in reverse. I didn’t like how he laughed at whatever she said and then pulled her to him so he could kiss her forehead. I don’t like how all of these things make me feel as though the only good moments I’ve had since last week are now over.

Nothing has changed. Nothing significant happened between the two of us, and I know we’ll continue with the way things have been. We’ll still write lyrics together. He might still listen to me sing. We’ll still continue to interact the way we’ve done since I met him, so this situation shouldn’t be bothering me.

I know in my heart that I didn’t want anything to happen with him, especially at this point in my life. I know I need to be on my own. I want to be on my own. But I also know that the reason I’m feeling so conflicted by this entire situation is that I did have a little hope. Although I wasn’t ready for anything right now, I thought the possibility would be there. I assumed that maybe someday, when I was ready, things could have developed between us.

However, now that Maggie is in the picture, I realize there can’t be a maybe someday between us. There will never be a maybe someday. He loves her, and she obviously loves him, and I can’t blame them, because whatever they have is beautiful. The way they look at each other and interact and obviously care about each other is something I didn’t realize was missing between Hunter and me.

Maybe someday I’ll have that, but it won’t be with Ridge, and knowing that diminishes whatever ray of hope shone through the storm of my week.

Jesus, I’m so depressing.

I hate Hunter.

I really hate Tori.

And right now, I’m so pathetically miserable, I even hate myself.

“Are you crying?” Warren asks.

“No.”

He nods. “Yes, you are. You’re crying.”

I shake my head. “I am not.”

“You were about to,” he says, looking at me sympathetically. He puts his arm around my shoulder and pulls me against him. “Chin up, little girl. Maybe tonight we can find someone who will screw the thought of that jerkoff ex right out of that pretty little head of yours.”

I laugh and slap him in the chest.

“I would volunteer to do it, but Bridgette doesn’t like to share,” he says. “She’s kind of a bitch like that, if you haven’t noticed.”

I laugh again, but when my eyes meet Ridge’s in the rearview mirror, my smile fades. His jaw is firm, and his eyes lock with mine for a few seconds before he refocuses on the road in front of him.

He’s unreadable most of the time, but I could swear I saw a small flash of jealousy behind those eyes. And I don’t like how seeing him jealous that I’m leaning against Warren actually feels good.

Turning twenty-two has rotted my soul. Who am I, and why am I having these awful reactions?

We pull into the parking lot of a club. I’ve been here a few times with Tori, so I’m relieved that it won’t be completely unfamiliar. Warren takes my hand and helps me out of the car, then puts an arm around my shoulders and walks with me toward the entrance.

“I’ll make you a deal,” he says. “I’ll keep my hands off you tonight so guys won’t assume you’re madly in love with me. I hate cock blockers, and I refuse to be one. But if anyone makes you uncomfortable, just look at me and give me a signal so I can swoop in and pull you out of the situation.”

I nod. “Sounds like a plan. What kind of signal do I give you?”

“I don’t know. You can lick your lips seductively. Maybe squeeze your breasts together.”

I elbow him in the side. “Or maybe I can just scratch my nose?”

He shrugs. “That works, too, I guess.” He opens the door, and we all make our way inside. The music is overwhelming, and the second the doors close behind us, Warren leans in to shout into my ear. “There are usually booths open on the balcony level. Let’s go there!” He tightens his grip on my hand, then turns to Ridge and Maggie and motions for them to follow.

• • •

I haven’t had to use the secret code Warren and I agreed on, and we’ve been here more than two hours now. I’ve danced with several people, but as soon as the song ends, I make it a point to smile politely and head back to the booth. Warren and Maggie seem to have made a nice dent in the liquor stock, but Ridge hasn’t had a drop. Other than a shot Warren persuaded me to take when we first arrived, I haven’t had anything to drink, either.

“My feet hurt,” I say.

Maggie and Ridge have danced a couple of times but that was to slow songs, so I made it a point not to watch them.

“No!” Warren says, attempting to pull me back up. “I want to dance!”

I shake my head. He’s drunk and loud, and every time I try to dance with him, he ends up butchering my feet almost as badly as he butchers the moves.

“I’ll dance with you,” Maggie says to him. She climbs over Ridge in the booth, and Warren takes her hand. They head down to the lower level to dance, and it’s the first time Ridge and I have been alone in the booth.

I don’t like it.

I like it.

I don’t.

I do.

See? Rotten soul. Corrupted, rotten soul.

Ridge: Having fun?

I’m not really, but I nod, because I don’t want to be that annoying, brokenhearted girl who wants everyone around her to feel how miserable she is.

Ridge: I need to say something, and I may be way off base here, but I’m attempting to improve on how I unintentionally omit things from you.

I look up at him and nod again.

Ridge: Warren is in love with Bridgette.

I read his text twice. Why would he need to say that to me? Unless he thinks I like Warren.

Ridge: He’s always been a flirt, so I just wanted to clear that up. I don’t want to see you get hurt again. That’s all.

Me: Appreciate your concern, but it’s unnecessary. Really. Have no interest there.

He smiles.

Me: You were right. I like Maggie.

Ridge: I knew you would. Everyone likes Maggie. She’s very likable.

I lift my eyes and look around when a Sounds of Cedar song begins to play. I scoot to the back of the booth and look over the railing. Warren and Maggie are standing by the DJ’s table, and Warren is interacting with the DJ while Maggie dances around next to him.

Me: They’re playing one of your songs.

Ridge: Yeah? That always happens when Warren’s around. Are they playing “Getaway”?

Me: Yeah. How’d you know?

Ridge presses a flat palm to his chest and smiles.

Me: Wow. You can differentiate your songs like that?

He nods.

Me: What’s Maggie’s story? She communicates really well. She seems to dance really well. Does she have a different level of hearing loss from yours?

Ridge: Yes, she has mild hearing loss. She hears most things with hearing aids, which is why she also speaks so well. And she does dance well. I stick to slow songs when she wants me to dance with her, since I can’t hear them.

Me: Is that why Maggie speaks out loud and you don’t? Because she can hear?

His eyes swing up to mine for a few seconds, and then he looks back at his phone.

Ridge: No. I could speak if I wanted to.

I should stop. I know he’s probably annoyed by these questions, but I’m too curious.

Me: Why don’t you, then?

He shrugs but doesn’t text me back.

Me: No, I want to know. There has to be a reason. It seems like it would make things a lot easier for you.

Ridge: I just don’t. I get along fine with how I do things now.

Me: Yes, especially when Maggie and Warren are around. Why would you need to talk when they can do it for you?

I hit send before I realize I probably shouldn’t have said that. I have noticed Maggie and Warren do a lot of his talking for him, though. They’ve ordered for him every time the waitress has come by the booth, and I’ve noticed Warren do it several times this week in different situations.

Ridge reads my text, then looks back up at me. It seems I made him uncomfortable, and I immediately regret saying what I did.

Me: I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for that to come out how it probably sounded. I just meant you seem to let them do things for you that they wouldn’t necessarily have to do if you would speak for yourself.

My explanation seems to bother him even more than the initial text. I feel as if I’m digging myself a hole.

Me: Sorry. I’ll stop. It’s not my place to judge your situation, because I obviously can’t put myself in your shoes. I was just trying to understand.

He looks at me and pulls the corner of his bottom lip into his mouth. I’ve noticed he does this when he’s thinking hard about something. The way he continues to stare at me makes my throat go dry. I break his gaze, pull the straw into my mouth, and take a sip of my soda. When I look back at him, he’s texting again.

Ridge: I was nine when I stopped verbalizing.

His text does more to my stomach than his stare did. I don’t know why.

Me: You used to talk? Why did you stop?

Ridge: It might take me a while to text the explanation.

Me: It’s fine. You can tell me about it at home when we have our laptops.

He scoots to the edge of the booth and peers over the balcony. I follow his gaze down to Maggie and Warren, who are still both hovering around the DJ booth. When he sees that they’re still occupied, he moves away from the railing and leans forward across the table, resting his elbows in front of him as he begins to text.

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