First thing Sunday morning, I do something I haven’t done in too long. I take myself off to the gym. For the first time in weeks, I have energy that I need to burn off, and I know exactly where that energy has come from. Adam kissed me last night. He kissed me and then he walked away. I’ve never had a man walk away from me in my life. He left me wanting. He left me needing. He left me…so aroused I can’t think straight. I’ve never wanted a man more.
I know we both decided it would be a terrible idea to pursue anything. His reasons are about Logan and Kristy. Mine are about self-preservation. But his kisses made me forget every reason we shouldn’t be together. I felt every touch and every kiss – every breath we shared – in my heart and soul. Protecting myself and my heart is essential, but the part of me that has never experienced such intensity and passion with anyone is undeniably curious about what it would be like to be with him. Sexually and romantically.
But he doesn’t want to screw things up between us.
It makes sense. It’s logical. I guess I should be thanking him for coming to his senses, but this burning in my chest I’ve been feeling since his rejection sucks. And I can’t help feeling that if I’d been Kristy, he never would have turned me away.
I sigh and mentally swipe away the bitterness that thought brings as I get out of my car. Dressed in my best workout gear – I need every confidence boost I can find – I walk into the gym, doing my best to keep my head held high. I left the house early, before Adam woke up. Since it’s a Sunday, there won’t be a lot of people around this morning, but even if there are, I’m not going home.
For the first time since the interview on Mercury FM, I’m not wearing a disguise. Then again, a giant floppy hat and sunglasses would draw more attention to me than what I’m wearing now. My iPod is filled with music designed to keep me going. I made the playlist before I left the house. Eye of the Tiger, Remember the Name, and as many inspiring songs as I could find.
I put the earbuds in my ears after nodding to the young guy behind the desk, then walk through the doors that lead me to the area where all the machines are. I don’t want to speak to anyone here, but I’m done hiding.
Despite my vow to start off slowly, like I should, I start hard and fast, needing an outlet for all the energy Adam left me with last night. The music, too, has me so pumped up and I can’t seem to slow down. Even though I know I’m going to feel it tomorrow, I push myself hard, relishing the burn in my muscles.
By the time I’ve finished my workout, I’m exhausted, sweaty, and I would’ve thought completely unrecognisable from the model that’s graced so many magazine covers.
When someone taps me on the arm, however, I know I’ve been recognised. My gaze swings around to land on a familiar face. Taking out my earbuds, I smile at the man in front of me. Crystal green eyes, dark blond hair, and rings through the lip and eyebrow, I know the face well.
He hugs me and I hug him back, not caring that we’re both sweaty. I wonder where he’s come from because I didn’t see him on any of the machines.
“Boxing,” he says, reading my mind.
“It stops me from drinking too much the night before.”
I smile. “Right.”
“How are you?” His expression is full of concern and I know he must be thinking about everything that’s come out about me in the past few weeks. There’s no way he’s missed it, unless he’s been hiding under a rock.
“I’ve been better,” I say.
A month ago, I would have made a quip or downplayed things, but my interactions with Adam have turned me into a more honest version of myself.
He nods. “Just so you know, I think they’ve been pretty harsh.”
“Aren’t they always?” I offer.
“But never about you.”
“Yes, the only time I used to get this kind of publicity, it was completely intentional.” And it was all good.
Jake Cantrell is well aware of the pitfalls of fame. He’s a part of a well-known Australian Rock Band and he’s been in the game long enough to know how things can be spun. We had a fling when we both ended up in Paris at the same time, a few years back. It was a few weeks of fun. He was a little wild and a whole lot nice.
“I never believed it,” he says.
“I’m not sure I did, either, but…”
“Don’t let them make you doubt yourself, Jess. You’re one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. Smart and beautiful.”
Am I? I’m not sure he knows who I am. While I was with Jake, I acted the same way with him that I did with every other man I dated before him. I never let him see beyond the surface. We never had anything…real.
I smile and put my hand on his arm. “Thank you, Jake.”
“I guess you’ve been laying low these past few weeks, waiting for things to blow over.”
“I have been. I’m not anymore. Life goes on, you know.”
He grins approvingly. “I do. You know, I’m in Melbourne for a while. Me and the guys are recording a new album. Why don’t you let me take you out for a night?”
I bite my lip, uncertain. Before my reputation was blown to smithereens, I wouldn’t have hesitated. Jake was one of the flings I had that ended well. A quick fling could be what I need right now, especially since my libido has been revived and I’m ready to start living my life again.
But it’s one man that has jump-started my libido. And saying yes to Jake feels like I’m betraying him. Which is ridiculous, really. Adam and I aren’t together. He had sex with a woman on Thursday night without giving me a second thought, and even if he did kiss me last night, he stopped it. There isn’t anything wrong with going on a date with this man, right?
“Sure, I’d really like that,” I say, forcing a smile.
“Great.” His grin stretches. “I should give you my new number. I don’t think you have it.”
“Probably not, but my phone is in my locker.”
“That’s okay, I’ll send you a message if you’ve still got the same number.”
“We’ll tee up a time for this week, then?”
We both make a move at the same time, reminding me of last night with Adam. But instead of holding me and kissing me senseless, Jake leans in and gives me a kiss on the cheek.
And I feel nothing. No butterflies, tingles or excitement.
I flash him a smile and then walk away, trying to convince myself I didn’t do anything wrong by agreeing to a date. If Adam wants to stay friends and leave things between us as uncomplicated as possible, it’s best I move on as quickly as I can, isn’t it? This is one more way to protect my heart. And even if I didn’t experience any tingles or passion with Jake just now, that doesn’t mean I won’t feel them later, does it?
As I drive home, I decide I’ll just tell Adam right off the bat that I’m going on a date with someone else. He values honesty above everything else. He likes to play things straight, so that’s what I’ll do.
By the time I walk through the door at home, I’m more nervous than I should be. As much as I keep telling myself Adam isn’t going to care I’m going out with someone else, I can’t escape the guilt that keeps creeping in.
Adam is standing up in the kitchen, eating a bowl of cereal when I walk in. His hair is messy and falling over his forehead, and all I can think about is how I ran my hands through his hair last night as he kissed me.
Not a good sign.
“Hey,” he says when he sees me, almost looking relieved. “You went to the gym?”
“Yes. You were right when you said I need to spend energy.” And now I need a cup of tea.
The kitchen in this house isn’t big enough at the best of the times, but after everything that happened last night, it seems to have shrunk. And when Adam’s gaze meets mine, my heart goes crazy as we look at each other.
“How did you go? I hope you didn’t push yourself too hard after fainting yesterday.”
“I didn’t take it too easy, but thankfully I managed not to faint and make a spectacle of myself.”
“You should have waited for me. I would have come with you. I’m not a fan of the gym, prefer the great outdoors, but I would have struggled through a morning workout for you. I got up early so we could…hang.”
Because that’s what we’ve been doing. Now that we’ve moved in together and shared kisses that scorched me, however, things feel…different.
“It would have been nice to have the company, but I should start getting out and doing things on my own. I haven’t really since I came back to Melbourne, and …well, it was good to do it. Face the fear and all that.”
He nods, but he doesn’t look completely satisfied by my answer. “You didn’t have any trouble, then? I mean, with people recognising you?”
“No, it was quiet, like I expected. I did run into someone I know, though.”
“An old friend.”
He nods. “Did she say much about the stuff that’s been in the papers?”
“He. Jake Cantrell.”
“The Jake Cantrell? As in the guy from the Ripped Tees?”
I smile at his impressed face. “That’s the one.”
“I didn’t realise you knew him?”
“We…had a thing.”
“So he’s an ex. Not a friend,” he states, his mouth pulling down at the corner.
When I hear the jug switch off, I pour the hot water into my mug before turning back to face Adam. “We were friends when we parted a few years back.”
“Not the way you are with Kristy, though? Because I’m sure you said no one really matters outside of her.”
I have the distinct impression he’s throwing my words back in my face, even though I’m not sure why he would. We’re not fighting, are we?
“No.” I add milk and sugar to my tea and then take a sip. “No one has come close to being a friend like Kristy. Except for, well, you.”
You matter to me, Adam.
His gaze softens a touch, but it’s still cloudy. “So what did Jake from the Ripped Tees have to say?”
“He wants to take me on a date.”
His expression darkens. “Is that really a good idea? You’ll draw attention to yourself. I thought you wanted to avoid that.”
“Haven’t you spent the past week telling me that I shouldn’t be hiding?”
“Yes, but dating Cantrell isn’t coming out of hiding, Jess; it’s throwing yourself into the spotlight. Are you ready for that?”
Truthfully, I hadn’t thought about the fact we would likely attract attention together. “Maybe I’ll tell him we should keep it low key. Stay out of the public eye.”
He shakes his head. “One guess where that date is going to wind up.”
“Adam. I…” I break off, feeling awkward bringing it up. And yet I feel like I need to tell him. Like I should tell him. “It feels strange making plans with another man after last night…”
“Last night was nothing, Jess.”
It feels like I’ve just been shot in the chest. Clearly, he didn’t feel half the things I did when he kissed me. “I see.”
It really was a mistake for him. He doesn’t want to kiss me again, and already he feels awkward about trying to let me down gently. He couldn’t feel worse about this conversation that I do, however.
“It shouldn’t stop you from making dates,” he adds.
The second bullet hits my chest and I can’t help but wince as I feel it lodge itself in there, the pain brutal as it spreads through my chest.
“Because it’s not going to stop you from going out and hooking up?” I ask.
“Unless that’s going to be a problem for you?” he says, frowning and making it sound like a question.
“No, why would it be? It wasn’t on Thursday when you brought someone home.”
He’s studying me carefully. “It didn’t bother you at all?”
I glance away. I know this is where I’m supposed to be honest, but how can I tell him that Thursday night left me so devastated that I curled up in a ball on the bathroom floor and cried my heart out?
“No. It was fine.”
The lie doesn’t feel good. In fact, I feel like I’ve backslid on all the progress I’ve made lately. But acknowledging the sexual tension between us is one thing. Admitting that my feelings for him are more than I’ve felt for anyone…ever, I can’t share that with him when I know for a fact he doesn’t feel the same way. As much as I want to tell him the truth, he doesn’t want complications. And isn’t telling him how much it hurt me to know he was with someone else going to make things ten times more complicated?
This is what he wants – us as friends. No complications. We need to think about Kristy ad Logan.
“Good,” he says, still frowning.
“Good,” I say, trying to make it look like his reactions don’t phase me at all. “So, there’s no reason I can’t bring Jake back here, then? After our date?”
“Make yourself at home, Jess,” he says, waving his arm around, despite the fact his tone is anything but welcoming. “Just let me know when the big day is and I’ll make myself scarce.”
“There’s no need for you to do that.”
“Sure there is. This way you can have privacy and I can go out and get what I need.”
And there’s the third bullet. This one feels like my chest is cracking open, and when he walks out of the kitchen without another word, I lean against the counter to make sure I don’t fall over.
I don’t understand. He told me last night was nothing. He told me we shouldn’t complicate things, and he told me he’s fine with me bringing Jake back here. Adam Granger is one of the most honest people I know. So, why do I feel like he’s the one lying right now?
I order my food and drink and then wait for Naomi to do the same before we both hand our menus to the waiter.
Once the waiter is gone, I turn my attention to Naomi. “Thanks for meeting me.”
She smiles at me across the two-seater table we booked at The Chinese Palace. “You mean after you ignored my calls for two weeks?”
I know I must look guilty. Adam and Kristy have been telling me for weeks that I should talk to Naomi, but Naomi and I have always felt more like acquaintances than friends. And the thought of facing her and hearing her judgement has been something I’ve put off. I can’t put it off any longer, however. I need help and I’m willing to put my pride aside and ask for it.
“I’m sorry, Nay. I’ve been…struggling.”
Naomi nods. “Kristy mentioned it when I spoke with her. She said you haven’t been in a good way.”
“I was barely coping after the interview on Mercury FM. But when that article came out with Alfie’s comments about my feelings for Logan…”
My friend’s expression is sympathetic. “I know, but I still don’t understand why you haven’t come to me before now. I know it’s been hard, Jess, but that’s when you need your friends the most.”
“I’ve been terrified of what everyone has been going to say.”
She looks so appalled that I feel ashamed. “I didn’t know what you’d say.”
I never thought Logan would react the way he did. Things do thankfully seem to be better on that front, but his reaction wasn’t what I expected. I can’t deny that it knocked me.
Naomi shakes her head. “If you’d spoken to me, I would have told you I’m here to support you, and that I don’t care what you did, I’m still here for you. More importantly, I would have told you that I know you’d never do anything to harm Kristy. There’s nothing Alfie could say that would change my opinion on that.”
“You sound so shocked. You don’t know me very well, do you?”
“You and Kristy have always been closer than you and I are.”
She sits back in her chair. “Yes, because Kristy let me in and you didn’t. I always felt like the third wheel around the two of you. Kristy made an effort to include me, but I always had the impression you never wanted me around.”
“That isn’t…” I start to shake my head, but then I stop, frustrated.
I’m about to tell Naomi she’s wrong and it isn’t true, but there is a little bit of truth to it. And she looks so cut, remorse kicks me squarely in the gut. Adam was so right about me in that regard. I never really tuned into people or connected with them after my parents died. All my dealings with Naomi, starting in high school, have always been surface conversations – never anything deeper. I can’t believe I’ve never realised until now how much that could have hurt her.
“I’m sorry you felt that way. I wish I could say you had it all wrong, but…”
“I didn’t,” she finishes.
“I was worried you and Kristy would…I needed Kristy. I needed her more than anyone else. She was my life raft and I clung to her. She was everything when my parents died and I was afraid adding anyone else to the mix would…”
I was so focused on surviving that I never saw what was right in front of me. This woman tried to be my friend and I pushed her away.
“Yes.” I’m ashamed to say it, but it’s the truth.
The waiter brings over the wine glasses we ordered when we first sat down and I wait for the waiter to leave before continuing.
“I know now that clinging so hard to Kristy and keeping everyone else at a distance hasn’t been healthy. I’m gradually working on letting her go and letting other people in.”
“I’m glad, Jess. That you’re moving on and letting other people in. Even if it has you taken too damn long. Now I’m hoping you’ll let me in, too. That is why you asked me here, right?”
I nod as I pick up one of the prawn crackers in front of me. The smell of the Chinese food being served to the table next to ours suddenly has me ravenous. “My agent and publicist aren’t hopeful I’ll find work anytime soon. I’m not sure you’ll be able to do anything they haven’t, but I…I wanted to ask if you’d try.”
I feel bad asking her after ignoring her calls, and then hearing how she felt around me, but I do need her help.
“I’ll do more than try.” She grins. “I’ll find you something and have you out there again before you know it.”
I can’t help but smile. “You really think you can pull a rabbit out of a hat and get me a job?”
“I’m not sure it’ll be exactly what you’re used to, but I think I could definitely get you something.”
I still haven’t figured out what I want to do if I’m not a model, and the idea of anything else makes me nervous.
Naomi grins. “Do you remember when we were fifteen, and you were the go-to girl at school for advice on everything. Fashion, boys, hair, make-up…life.”
I laugh harshly. “Those days feel like a lifetime ago.” Before my parents died. “And I’m not in any kind of place in my life to give anyone advice.”
“Maybe you can’t see that you are, but I can. I could see you on a talk show, giving advice. Sharing your opinions.”
“I’m not sure, Nay.” Lord knows my last experience on television did not end well. “I was thinking more along the lines of another modelling contract.”
Naomi takes a deep breath, and I can see her getting ready to let me down gently. This is it. My career really is over. I think this is another reason I’ve been so afraid of getting back out in the world and making contact with people who might be able to help. While I hide inside, I can imagine there’s a sliver of sunshine behind the clouds. Seeing Naomi’s expression right now, however, is confirmation there isn’t.
“I’m not going to say it’s impossible, Jess. I’ll put feelers out for you, but…”
“It’s unlikely,” I finish for her.
“Even if you are offered work, it might not be the exact campaign you want.”
“You mean I could end up selling condoms or divorce lawyers?”
She smiles. “That’s always an option, though not one I’d recommend. Have you thought about leaving your agency?”
“Are you asking me to sign with you?”
She shrugs as if it’s neither here nor there, but I can see how important it is to her. “You can stay where you are. I want to help though, and you know I can’t really give you top priority unless you sign with us.”
“I’m still on contract, but it’s possible with everything happening that they might let me out of it.”
She nods. “Find out. And if you’re willing to come aboard…”
“What if you can’t find me something?”
“I believe I can.” She leans in a little. “And I really want you to let me try. We’ve known each other for a long time and this is the first time you’ve considered using me as your publicist. I’m not going to let you down.”
“I trust you, Nay.”
Naomi looks at me as though I’ve just made her day, and I can’t help but smile as she picks up her glass and grins at me.
“To finding you a job,” she says as we clink wine glasses.
“So,” she says after the waiter delivers the meals we ordered. “How are things working out with Adam?”
“You heard we’re living together?”
“Yeah. Kristy said she’s missing you already.”
“I miss her, too. It’s strange not living together anymore.”
“You two have always been inseparable. And I can’t deny I’m surprised you moved in with Adam of all people. Even if he does live next door, I always had the impression that…well, that you didn’t get along well.”
“We didn’t. Things have changed recently.” I frown.
“Really? You don’t look too sure about that.”
“Things were good.”
Ever since I moved in with Adam and we kissed, things have been even tenser between us than they were when I first came back from London. We still talk in the mornings, after I come back from the gym, but the conversations are stilted and it feels like there’s a white elephant in the room with us.
“Something happened, and now…things are very awkward.”
Naomi grins. “Can I take a guess at what happened?”
I study my friend, her shoulder length auburn hair piled on top of her head, her blue eyes twinkling with interest as I consider telling her exactly what happened. Normally I would have shared what happened with Kristy, but since Logan warned me off his friend – and I expect Kristy shares most things with Logan – I haven’t been game.
I pick up my wine and sip it. “You can guess.”
“You slept together.”
My heart beats faster and my stomach drops at the mere thought. “No, but we did kiss.”
She’s smirking at me now. “Is he a good kisser?”
“He’s…I’ve never felt anything like it, Nay.”
There must be something in my tone because she stops smirking and looks at me seriously. “You like him?”
It’s the first time I’ve said it to anyone – the first time I’ve said it out loud. I feel incredibly vulnerable sharing my feelings with Naomi, and maybe she seems to sense that because she’s quiet for a moment, as though she wants to give the appropriate amount of gravity to what I’ve said.
“Does he know?”
“No, and I don’t plan on telling him. He wants to keep things uncomplicated so that it doesn’t interfere with Logan and Kristy’s relationship. To him, we’re nothing more than friends.”
“Oh, how the mighty have fallen.”
Despite her words, her tone is gentle, and her expression sympathetic. “Guys never mean anything to you, but this one does.”
“Yes,” I agree. “This one does, and I don’t think anything is going to come of it. Logan actually warned me not to get involved with Adam. Kristy might even feel the same way. It would be awkward for them if things didn’t work out. Besides, I’m going on a date with Jake Cantrell on the weekend.”
“Jake Cantrell? The lead singer from the Ripped Tees?”
I nod. “We’re friends.”
“Oh, my goodness. I love Jake Cantrell.”
I smile at her excitement, and then something occurs to me. “I came over to your house a couple of times, and if I remember correctly, you used to have him plastered all over the walls of your bedroom.”
She blushes and put a hand over her face. “I had it so bad. He was all I dreamt about when I was fifteen and sixteen.”
My smile widens. “Maybe I should introduce you two.”
“No!” Her eyes widen. “I’d make an absolute fool out of myself, I’m sure. Besides, he can’t possibly compare to the person I’ve created in my head. Don’t you dare take that away from me.”
I laugh. I can’t help it. I don’t think she got over her crush when she was a teenager, and I’m not sure I’ll be able to go out with Jake and not think about this conversation.
“Our firm was approached about doing the band’s publicity a while back,” she says. “Nothing came out of it, but I still freaked out. And I do mean freak.”
“You never know, you could end up with him as a client one day.”
“I hope that never happens.”
It’s my turn to smirk. “Okay.”
“So,” she starts, losing the blush and becoming serious once more. “What are we going to do about you and Adam?”
“Nothing. I just wish it would stop being so weird between us.”
“Have you talked to him about it?”
“We talked about the kiss, how it meant nothing, and then when I told him I was going out with Jake, he told me I should bring him home while he goes out to get…his needs taken care of. And yet, nothing has been right between us since.”
“Hmm. He’s in denial.”
“I don’t think he is. And I don’t think anything is going to come of it. He’s the first guy I’ve really liked or felt something for and I’m not going to get the chance to explore it.”
I try to smile, but I know I’m not pulling it off. I wasn’t even aware of how devastated I am by the thought of never being with Adam until I said it out loud. Being with Adam would undoubtedly be a mistake. It would complicate everything, and losing him could break me into little pieces. I don’t want to risk it…I shouldn’t want to risk it…and yet every time I see him, I think about how it felt to kiss him and be in his arms.
“Jess, you need to talk to him.”
“I can’t tell him what I’m feeling.”
“Then at least try and set things right between you and get over the awkwardness. Unless you want to keep things awkward between you…”
“Why would I want to do that?”
“Simple. It makes it easier to avoid how you feel about him if you’re both avoiding each other and the topic. It keeps distance between you, and distance keeps you safe.”
“We live together. We can’t avoid each other forever.”
“Exactly. Sort it out, set things right, and then, when you feel ready, I think you should go for it and jump his bones.”
“That’s a terrible idea.”
“Why? Because you get crazy feels whenever he’s around?”
“Jess, that’s exactly why you should do it. No regrets. Don’t you want to be with a man who makes you feel crazy things? At least just once?”
“I don’t want to shatter apart all over again.”
“Do you remember Devon?”
Naomi nods, her eyes sad even as she smiles at me. “He broke my heart, Jess. He ripped it out and then stomped all over it. But you know what? I’d do it all over again if I had the chance. Loving him was a crazy rollercoaster I would never have experienced otherwise. I was devastated when he ended it, but I wouldn’t take it back. I know what it’s like to love. Don’t you want to know the same? Loving someone is part of life. Don’t you want to live?”
Yes, that’s exactly what I want to do. But being with Adam…the thought alone leaves me breathless and beyond excited. Am I really willing to risk the complications and the heartbreak to be with him?
I’m worried I might be.
I think that’s the thing that scares me the most about Adam. It’s not the fact he could break me to pieces; it’s the fact I know he could, yet I’d still take the risk if he wanted me to.