Bonus story for
A Brooding Bodyguard (spoilers!)
Rafe snorts and throws his phone down on the round table in the dining area of our rental. It nearly hits the drinks cauldron, full of fizzy red liquid. I ordered the cauldron as an impulse purchase after seeing it on Pinterest at two in the morning. It looks a little dumb, to be honest—it’s not Halloween, so what was I thinking? On the plus side, no one will notice for long. I’ve been practicing mixology with Griffin, I’m told that my most recent efforts are much less likely to kill someone from alcohol poisoning, so that’s a win.
“Did you see this?” Rafe asks, gesturing to the phone. He’s wearing one of his old bodyguard button-ups. I’d like to think it’s partly for old time’s sake, but he’s also staunchly refused to let me buy him a new wardrobe.
“Looks like a phone,” I say flatly, smiling at him, because that’s something he would say, and how he would say it.
He rolls his eyes but gives me a small smirk. “Very funny, Clay. That tool from C+ Celeb News gave us a couple name.”
A snort escapes me. He must hate this, but I have to admit I’ve always wanted a celebrity couple name. I once went on several dates with another actor named Fuller because I was hoping someone would call us Sinful.
“Snafe,” I guess, checking the stacked glasses next to the punch bowl.
“Nope,” he says, popping the ‘p.’
“Nope, but that’s actually kind of funny.”
It ends with a squeal as he lifts me up by the waist and twirls me around, my blue skirt flaring with the motion. This same sequence—man catches woman unaware with a twirl—has probably happened in a million movies, but here in this apartment, it’s ours. When he sets my feet on the ground, I tug his collar down forcefully until his lips meet mine. He laughs into my mouth and then kisses me hard, nipping my lip before he pulls away slightly, his hands still on my waist.
“You got something against these shirts, huh?”
“Absolutely. I’m going to ruin them all, and then we’ll be forced to go on a shopping trip.”
He shakes his head ruefully, and I squeeze his arm. “Come on. Tell me our celeb couple name. The suspense is killing me.”
His lips twitch a little at the corners as he studies me, his eyes dark and deep. Consuming. “Safe.”
Something in me melts a little at that, my heart in an ever-increasing state of gooiness lately. “I love it. It’s so us.”
A laugh escapes him. “You would like it.” But he leans in and kisses me again, softer this time, his hand lifting to the nape of my neck. Normally, I’d be all about that, but we have guests arriving, and fine, I’ll admit it. It took me an hour to get ready tonight, and I’m proud of the sleekness of my bun. I move his hand to my ass and am rewarded with a squeeze.
It’s vain for me to worry about my hair, I guess, along with the weird punch bowl, but It’s not every day you have your first housewarming party as a couple. And, yes, I suppose it can be argued that we’ve lived in this apartment for almost three months now, but Rafe’s father, Reggie, just moved out, so it’s the first time we’ve lived here alone.
When I told Rafe I was worried his dad might think we were holding a party to celebrate that he was moving out, he lifted his eyebrows and said, “Aren’t we?”
Thankfully, Reggie didn’t seem all that upset about the party. He asked me twice if there’d be a cheese platter, then sent a follow-up text asking which cheeses would be on it. I guess he and Aunt Helen are bringing some food, but I’m not as worried about the expiration dates on everything as I’d normally be. According to Marnie, Reggie has such a garbage disposal palate that he’s taken care of the Aunt Helen’s old food problem better than anyone could have hoped. They’re a perfect match, actually—they both hate wasting food and only sleeping with one person.
I didn’t dislike having Reggie live with us, to be honest. I wasn’t close to my own dad, and I’d always felt the lack of it, especially after he died last year. So it was kind of nice to have Reggie sitting around on our couch, watching Turner Classic Movies on repeat, telling endless stories that didn’t have any perceivable point, and eating all of our leftovers without asking before putting the empty boxes back where they came from. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad that Rafe and I can now have sex whenever we want, wherever we want, but I enjoyed the company. Now, we only have a kitten around to give us judgey looks. Rue’s doing that now, actually. Sitting on top of the hutch and watching us with lazy disdain that’s more adorable than it has any right to be.
Rafe squeezes my ass. “Don’t give me ideas.”
“Do you mean to tell me you didn’t already have them?” I ask in mock offense.
“Don’t give me more ideas.”
The doorbell rings, and Rafe gives a beleaguered sigh before squeezing my ass one more time and then letting it go. “You’d better get that. Give me a second.”
If I feel a little burst of feminine power. I can’t help it. I love that I make him so crazy he gets a hard-on just from touching me. I’m not particularly worried about giving him blue balls, because I will absolutely enjoy giving him a ride after everyone leaves. Now, that the apartment is our playground, I figure we have a lot of ground to make up. We’ve never once had sex in the kitchen, and the wide counters, the perfect height for him to be standing and me to be sitting, have gone to waste.
The doorbell rings again, making me jolt, and I realize I haven’t taken a single step away from Rafe.
“Are you having dirty thoughts, Clay?” he asks, his voice husky.
“Yes,” I admit, letting my fingers walk up the front of his shirt and then pull at his collar again. “And later, I’m going to do all of it to you.”
“Can’t we just send everyone away?” he asks, his mouth a tease—so close to mine, I can feel his breath on my face. Heat and cold shivers through me. “I have some plans of my own.”
“Sinclair?” Drew calls from behind the door to the hall, his voice anxious. “I’m not that early, am I?”
Rafe sighs and pulls away, because he knows I’m not going to leave my brother out there. Drew and I have only just gotten close, so every moment he willingly spends in my presence is another big win in my book.
“Later,” I promise Rafe, releasing his collar. He looks a little mussed, his brown hair slightly longer and messy, his dark eyes fixed on me. “You’re going to fuck me on the kitchen counter, and it’s going to be very enjoyable for both of us.”
His laughter is in my ears as I turn and make my way to the door. I can feel him retreating into the bedroom, and I can’t help but wonder if he’s going to think wilting thoughts or take care of himself in there. The thought of him touching himself, thinking of me and that kitchen counter, makes me wet, but then I remember my brother’s out in the hall, which is enough to kill anyone’s libido.
I open the door, and I immediately know something is wrong. Drew’s full of nervous energy, and he shoves a bag at me, which I take, before stalking into the apartment with both hands buried in his hair.
“What’s wrong?” I ask.
“It’s a candle,” he says. “Don’t burn the apartment down.”
“Thanks.” I set the bag on the coffee table as I pass it, heading directly for the unfashionable cauldron and getting him a drink.
He’s pacing a little when I hand it over, his whole body practically humming with that same nervous energy.
“What’s in it?” he asks.
“Do you care?” I counter.
His response is to take a big gulp of it.
“What the hell happened?” I repeat, more emphatically. “You’re not yourself.”
“I’m not?” he asks, then takes another gulp, nearly emptying the glass, and taps on it with his fingers. “Have you heard from Andy?”
“Why isn’t she with you?” I ask. “I thought you came from the house?”
Andy, Marnie’s best friend since childhood, is Drew’s new roommate in our childhood home. She moved in with him a couple of weeks ago, just after Marnie moved in with Griffin. The whole thing had seemed like an ideal arrangement. She’d needed a place to stay, and I’m not altogether sure Drew is capable of living on his own. Or at least he never has. But I’ve been getting a weird vibe from him, and now...
“I did something stupid. Maybe several stupid things.” He finishes the drink and goes to the little round table for a refresh. “Is that a cauldron?” He darts a glance at me.
“Yes, but if you could pretend it’s not, I’d appreciate it.”
He doesn’t react to that, which is worrying in and of itself, and refills his glass.
“You’re kind of concerning me right now,” I say. “Actually, you’ve kind of been concerning me for weeks. What’s going on?”
Sighing, he heads into the open living area and practically collapses onto the leather couch. I sit next to him.
“There’s some shit going down with my friend Burke, and now...”
“But the stupid thing you did involves Andy,” I press.
Swearing, he sets the drink onto the table and turns to face me. “She—”
But the door, which we left unlocked, opens. I have enough lingering trauma to flinch and grab for a weapon--the nearest thing is the bag with the candle, but clocking someone with a candle would still hurt, so I pick it up--before Andy walks into view. She’s wearing a pretty red summer dress, her long hair down around her shoulders.
Drew reacts as if someone shoved a hot poker up his ass.
Interesting. Very interesting.
“You left without me,” Andy says flatly, but her eyes are full of fire.
“I’m sure it was a misunderstanding,” I say, even though it obviously wasn’t.
Rafe emerges from the bedroom and gives me a what the fuck? look. My best answer is a shrug, because I don’t know what's going on with them either.
“Oh, so he took all the credit for the candle?” Andy asks shortly, glancing at the bag still clutched in my hand. I set it down, because hopefully I won’t need to bludgeon someone with a candle to settle this situation.
“For God’s sake,” my brother says, getting to his feet before abruptly sinking into the leather couch again. He lifts up his drink and uses the cup to gesture to her, the red punch dangerously close to sloshing. At least we opted for the leather couch (Rafe’s insisted on it because Reggie had ruined the upholstery on his old couch). “I was going to tell her you helped me.” Then he takes another long sip from his cup.
Should I leave them alone together? Throw Andy out? Ask them to take this outside?
“The party already started?” Reggie asks, stepping through the still-open door. My aunt’s with him, wearing the kind of fascinator hat you usually only see on rich white people at weddings in England. She’s carrying a stack of Tupperware, the couple of boxes on top so small they seem pointless, so maybe Reggie hasn’t been able to keep up with her appetite after all. I’m absurdly grateful to see the two of them.
I rush over and give Reggie a big hug.
“Miss me already?” he asks, and I tell him that I do before shifting to give my aunt a hug, careful not to topple Tupperware mountain.
“I brought you some things you need for your home,” she says, giving my hand a pat before handing over the massive stack. “Don’t eat the crystals in the bottom Tupperware. Those are for a cleansing ritual.” Her gaze shifts to Rafe. “The special treat you asked for is in one of the ones on top,” she says cryptically.
Does he have a thing for her tooth-cracking candy? If so, he’s never told me, but I can understand why he might be embarrassed. Still, Rafe’s not a candy kind of guy, even now that he’s cut back on his workouts and protein diet. Maybe it’s something he asked her to make for me?
“The ritual will keep negative energy out of your apartment,” Aunt Helen continues. “I believe in including everyone, you know that, but you’ll be happier if you have happier ghosts around you.”
Or none at all, but she won’t want to hear that.
“Thanks for the warning about the crystals, Aunt Helen,” I say. I used to be pretty skeptical of her belief in things like crystals and the Tarot, but a superstitious side of me believes that the crystal necklace she gave me, and I put around Rafe’s neck after his head injury, helped him. So now I take everything she says with many fewer grains of salt.
I set the Tupperware stack down on the table next to the candle that is from Drew and apparently also from Andy. She’s standing by the bar, and he’s still sitting on the couch, very pointedly looking away from her.
I’m desperate to know what happened. I want him to tell me, but I know he’s not going to do it with her here, and she’s given me no reason to ask her to leave.
Rafe walks over to the table to study the Tupperware stack, then pockets one of the small ones from the top. I’d be more intrigued by the mystery if my gaze didn’t keep pinging between Drew and Andy.
“Let’s get everyone drinks,” Rafe says to me, probably noticing that I’m distracted.
It won’t give us a chance to talk—the cauldron is sitting out, loud and proud, and yes, buying it was definitely a mistake. Maybe I’ll just shove it into the closet until Halloween.
Rafe and I meet at the cauldron. He glances at the awkward assembly of people in the living room—Drew pointedly not looking at Andy, Andy staring daggers at him; Reggie and Aunt Helen acting oblivious to all of it as Aunt Helen sorts through the Tupperware.
“You were gone for a long time before your dad got here,” I whisper to Rafe. “Were you...seeing to your needs?”
“I was giving you time to talk to your brother,” he says with a huff of air, filling one cup and then another. “But yes, obviously. What the hell was happening out here?”
“There’s something weird going on with Drew and Andy,” I say. “Maybe we really should skip our own party.”
“No way,” he says, filling a third glass. “You’ve been planning this thing for weeks. Getting weird shit for it. I’m not going to take your tacky cauldron away from you.”
“Please do,” I say with a sigh. “It really doesn’t look anything like it did in the pictures. Either that, or I was drunker than I thought when I ordered it.”
“It’s all right, Clay. I’ve got this.”
I lift my eyebrows, prepared to ask a dozen questions, but he just winks at me, juggles the three drinks over to the living area and hands them out to Andy, his dad, and my aunt.
“Glad you could make it,” Rafe says, settling onto the crimson, footed loveseat across from the couch (yeah, I chose that one) and gesturing for me to join him. I do, obviously, because I don’t want to sit in the middle of whatever Drew and Andy have going on. Reggie and Aunt Helen settle in next to Drew, Aunt Helen practically in Reggie’s lap. My brother throws a nervous glance at them, then looks longingly at his now-empty drink. Andy selects a stool near the cauldron, possibly so she can have better access to the punch. My mind continues trying to unpack what’s going on there. Did they quibble over the placement of Andy’s things? Over Drew’s screen time or smelly hiking boots?
“Hey, Dad,” Rafe continues. “Can you tell us more about working as a set photographer on the set of Star Wars? I’ll bet Drew has questions.”
Drew brightens up and leans forward. Just a few weeks ago, he might have listened with exaggerated patience, because most people assume Reggie’s stories are made up. They’re not wrong—about seventy percent of them are fictional or so grossly exaggerated they might as well be, but it just so happens that this one, the one that sounds like the biggest whopper of all, is true. I’m happy Drew has someone else to admire, someone who’s mostly a good guy, after the Edgar James debacle.
Even thinking his name makes a shudder go down my back. He’s in prison, awaiting trial, but no amount of bars or locks feels like enoguh. Still. If I’d never met Edgar James, if he’d never buddied up with Penn and Brock to stalk me, I probably never would have met Rafe. I mean, I’m not saying I’m glad I got stalked, obviously. I’m not a psychopath, but life is more complicated than we’d like it to be, and bad things can lead to good ones, and vice versa.
Oh God, I sound like Aunt Helen, don’t I?
Rafe pulls me closer, his mouth pressing a kiss just above my ear. Then he whispers, “You don’t have to listen. It’s the same story he told us yesterday at lunch. Just tune him out.”
“You’re brilliant,” I say back in an undertone, settling into him.
Reggie’s still talking when Marnie and Griffin show up, followed by Shauna. Grace and Enoch are in New York City for a week, so they won't be here, and Nicole and Damien were invited but aren’t coming. They’re off ruining someone’s life or saving it, I guess. Reggie’s story eventually ends, long after any reasonable person would wish it would, and we circulate and talk to our friends.
My mind’s still on the weird energy between Drew and Andy, though, and I make a point of pulling him aside, toward the short hallway leading to the bathroom and bedrooms. He’s holding what must be his fourth or fifth glass of punch.
“Should you be drinking that?” I ask, frowning.
“It’s not that bad,” he says, missing the point entirely. “You’ve gotten much better at making mixed drinks.” Then he hiccups. He gives me an abashed look, and sets the drink down...in a potted plant. Agatha, this one’s called.
Yeah, Andy may be pissed at him, but I’m going to make sure she gets him home safely.
“What happened with Andy?” I press, stooping to pet Rue as he circles my legs on his way to the back rooms.
Marnie sees us talking and sidles up to our conversation. “Are you guys talking about what’s going on between Drew and Andy?”
“Nothing’s going on,” our brother insists, believably pissed but definitely lying. Acting is a skill he hasn’t honed from constant use. “Can you just let it drop? I didn’t fucking want her to move in in the first place, and now she’s there, and we’re dealing with it. So whatever.”
Andy circles the corner from the bathroom, gives him a look that’ll probably freeze his balls off, and says, “You may come off as sweet and harmless, Drew Jones, but you’re a fucking asshole.”
I’m shocked to see that her eyes are a bit glassy, as if she’s holding back tears. Andy and Marnie have been friends since they were little girls, and this is the first time I’ve ever seen her on the verge of crying. I mean it. Even as a little girl, she was never the one who broke. Drew looks shocked too. And when she storms out of the apartment, he storms after her, walking in an impressively straight line all things considered. Still...
“Don’t drive,” I shout after him, as if I’m the big sister. “Don’t let him drive, Andy.”
She waves a hand behind her in what I assume is agreement, and Drew tells me he’s well aware of the existence of Uber. Then they’re gone, the heavy door shut behind them.
“Um, should I go after them?” Marnie says, her eyes wide.
“Has either of them said anything to you?” I ask, frowning at the door.
“Not really,” she says. “But I've been getting the sense they have a thing for each other. Andy said something to me earlier..."
“Well, maybe we should let them talk it out,” I say.
Marnie walks over to talk to Shauna, who watched the whole scene with keen interest and the slightest bit of amusement. Reggie is attacking one of the Tupperware containers from the stack, which appears to contain breadsticks of some sort, and Aunt Helen is doing God knows what with those crystals from the bottom container. There’s a cluster of people talking in the corner, but I don’t see Rafe. I glance around for him, feeling a little swell of anxiety. It’s silly, but I like knowing where he is. If I don’t, I worry he’s in trouble. I guess it’s a holdout from what happened a few months ago, and my therapist assures me it’s normal.
He exits the kitchen and comes to me, wrapping me up in a hug that I melt into. He smells slightly of whiskey.
“Did you go in there to get a shot of whiskey?” I ask, amused. “This party really is going off the rails.”
“I’m not a fan of the punch, and I needed some liquid courage.”
“To deal with this bunch?” I ask, laughing. “I don’t blame you. Something really strange just happened.”
I tell him about the whole Drew and Andy thing, but I get the sense he has something on his mind and is only half listening.
"Yeah, he's got a thing for her. Shit, I shouldn't have said that. Pretend I didn't."
But I don't really want to pretend. This is interesting.
I ask him more questions, but he keeps darting glances across the apartment. For a minute, I’m worried there’s a mouse or some hideous palm-sized spider, and he doesn’t want to tell me because he knows I’ll freak out, but then he asks, “Can you step out onto the balcony with me for a second?”
“Sure,” I say, suddenly nervous. Is he going to tell me that he’d prefer to live by himself? Maybe he’s finally had enough of me. I don’t really believe that, but I know that I can’t lose him.
I follow him out onto the balcony, feeling eyes on my back, but no one calls out to us or tries to stop us.
Before we step out, Rafe slides the curtains shut so no one will be able to see us, which doesn’t do anything good for my nerves. Then he closes the sliding door behind us, leaving us out on the balcony, overlooking the lights of the city. It’s summer, balmy but not too hot, and although the city lights here don’t compare favorably to those of other cities I’ve seen, they’re more...inviting. Asheville feels like home again, and I feel like the kind of person who can have a home again, and that’s the greatest gift anyone could have given me.
“Is this some sort of birthday surprise?” I ask, gripping the railing of the balcony, “because I was born in December, and I’ll have you know that I intend to be thirty two for at least another two years.”
He laughs and rubs his jaw. “I’ll keep that in mind when it comes time to put candles on your birthday cake.”
Then he does something that instantly shoves my heart into my throat.
A sound escapes me as I look at him, down on one knee, holding out a Tupperware box opened to reveal a beautiful diamond in a flower setting. Somehow it’s better like that, more like us.
“Your French fry sound,” he says with a soft smile. “I’m sure it’s not the biggest rock you’ve ever been offered, Clay. But it’s from Reggie, so you won’t be surprised to hear there’s a story behind it. He bought it for the woman he loved, but he never got around to giving it to her. He fucked up and lost her, and he hung onto it all these years as a reminder. When I told him that I wanted to propose to you, he told me that I’d finally wised up, and I had to use it.”
Tears well in my eyes, and I reach for it. He gives it to me. “Get up, you idiot,” I say in a ragged voice, “you’re ruining your pants.”
He does, laughing, his eyes sparkling as he watches me put on the ring and set the Tupperware box on the little folding table we keep out here. The ring’s loose, but it’s nothing a jeweler won’t be able to fix. Seeing it there, seeing Rafe look at me like that, my heart grows within my chest. That emptiness I’ve been carrying around for years, for maybe my whole life, feels a lot smaller lately. It’s been filled in by our work on the Waiting Place, by the role I’ve secured in a film that will start shooting in another couple of months in Asheville, and by being here, with Rafe and my family. I’m no longer concerned about discovering who I am, because I’m living it. I feel a sense of giddy freedom that some people might consider ironic given what Rafe brought me out here to ask.
“Will you marry me, Clay?” he asks, standing up and taking my hands. “I don’t have much, and most of what I have you brought into my life, so I’m stretching my luck by asking, but you make me believe in the impossible.”
“Of course I’ll marry you,” I say, and we lunge at each other in a way that’s probably ill-advised considering we’re on a small balcony. He kisses me hard, and I kiss him harder, and by the time I pull away, we’re both panting.
I glance at the curtain. “Do they know about this?”
“I was planning to do it after the party, but yeah. I asked your brother and sister for their blessing, and my dad and your aunt brought over the ring.”
“You, Rafe O’Dooley, are full of surprises,” I say, looking again at the ring and then at him, feeling a pulse of wonder in my chest.
“I’ll take it,” he says, smirking. “It’s better than you thinking I’m full of shit.”
And then, because he’s him, he pulls his sunglasses out of the pocket of his shirt and slides them on.
“You’re such an asshole,” I say, sounding like the moony woman I am.
“You like me that way.”
Want to find out what’s going on with Drew and Andy? Check out A Reluctant Roommate!
Available from March 27-29
Available on Amazon and KU starting March 30