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Authors: Laurelin Paige

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BOOK: Last Kiss
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She’d met my eyes, and I saw the truth. Yes, she’d left because of me, but underneath that, I’d seen something else – fear. She’s been afraid to stay, maybe because she hadn’t known how to be happy or maybe because she’d been scared he’d eventually leave her and she’d wanted to be the one to do it first.

The minute she’d realized that I’d seen through her, she’d turned back to her task of unpacking. “It would have been weird without you, anyway,” she’d said, stuffing panties into a drawer. “We already established our relationship as a threesome. Bryan wanted the things you gave him as much as he wanted the things I gave him. It doesn’t work to go from sharing to not sharing.”

I’d leaned my shoulder against the wall and continued to study her. There had been so much that we’d had in common. And so much that we hadn’t. If I’d found the right guy, I’d have stayed through the worst of things. When she’d found the right guy, she’d left while it was still good.

One thing had suddenly seemed quite clear – we couldn’t go on like we had been forever.

I raised my chin and issued the challenge. “Then maybe we shouldn’t share anymore.”

“That’s probably not a bad idea.”

I don’t know what I’d expected her to say, but it hadn’t been that. “No, it’s probably not,” I’d agreed, more hurt than I should have been considering I’d been the one to suggest it.

Hostilely, I’d grabbed a dress from our suitcase and went to the closet to hang it up, determined not to let her see me get emotional.

But there’d been no hangers in the cheap motel room. I’d kicked the door, stubbing my toe so hard that tears pricked my eyes.

Amber had glanced at me over her shoulder. “Are you okay?”

“Yes,” I’d hissed. Then I’d leaned my back against the wall, balled the dress up, and hugged it to my chest. “I didn’t give anything to that relationship, Amber. You wouldn’t have missed me as much as you think you would have.” The words had felt like peanut butter in my mouth. They’d stuck and even when I’d pushed them out, there were still traces of them clinging to my tongue.

Amber had crossed to me then. She’d put a hand on my shoulder and with gentle eyes, she’d said, “He likes having two girls. Without you, he’d eventually want to bring someone else into the bedroom. He can’t come without watching two girls go at it, and I’m not interested in having sex with any woman that isn’t you.”

They were excuses, and we’d both known it. “He wouldn’t need another girl. Or you’d turn on a fem porn and it would be fine.”

She’d shaken her head. “It’s not the same.” Then, with only the slightest bit of a breath beforehand, she’d said the words that had addressed the real issue. “Anyway, you wouldn’t have left so it wouldn’t have been necessary.”

“I would have,” my throat had caught on the lie. “If you had really wanted me to.”

“Whatever,” she’d grinned. “I wouldn’t even begin to know how to get rid of you.”

“Are you kidding me? Getting rid of me is easy – you just have to tell me to go.” It had hurt to be that honest, in parts of me that I couldn’t identify. It was as if I’d given up the key to my demise simply because the person who’d asked for it was someone I’d loved
that much
. So much that I’d been willing to clue her in on the one way she could destroy me.

I’d had to do it. She’d sacrificed for me. It was only fair I did the same.

At one point in our relationship, she would have refused the gift. She would have pushed my words away and told me that she’d never let me go.

But things had changed with Bryan. She’d seen what could have been possible for both of us. And, likely, she’d begun to grow weary of my needs and the trouble they’d caused.

So instead of denying, she’d embraced it. “I’ll remember that next time.”

Next time came a whole year later, but she did, indeed, remember.

Amber wasn’t in her room when I looked for her the next day. Nor was she downstairs. Reeve also wasn’t around. Despite the amazing breakthrough we’d had the night before, something inside nagged with suspicion and jealousy. Were they together somewhere? And if they were, did that mean anything?

Around noon, the anxiety began to crescendo, and I paced the house like a mother worried about her lost child. I was seriously considering asking Tabor, the bodyguard Reeve had assigned to protect me, to help me search the ranch, but then, on my third trip to the back deck, I spotted her.

She was standing about fifty feet away, by the shed that housed the ATVs and other large ranch equipment. Jenkins circled her feet as she chatted with a trim man in a button-down flannel shirt and jeans. He wore a cowboy hat so I couldn’t make out his face, and, even though his description matched nearly every one of the men on the ranch, I tensed and began searching for clues that would tell me if it was Reeve or not. He was drinking a beer, something I’d never seen Reeve do midday. But Amber was so familiar with him. She grabbed the bottle from his hand and took a swig. With his hands free, the man retrieved something from his back pocket. Cigarettes, I realized. He lit one and handed the pack to Amber as she returned his drink.

Reeve didn’t smoke. It wasn’t him. And, when the man tilted back his head to take his next swig, I got a better glance at his face. I couldn’t be positive, but it looked like he was the cowboy who’d approached me the night before. I tensed remembering how he’d eerily confronted me. I had no real reason not to trust him, but I didn’t. His presence on the ranch felt wrong and his friendliness with Amber made me even more wary.

I was still shielding my eyes from the sun and squinting in their direction when he pointed up at me. Amber’s gaze followed his gesture and, when she saw me, she waved. I smiled tentatively in return. A second later, she left him at the shed and crossed the yard toward the back of the house. Soon, she was climbing the stairs to the deck.

“Hey,” she said, bracing her injured side. “Guess I should have taken those stairs with a little more caution.”

“Are you okay?” There was really nothing for broken ribs except rest, time, and painkillers, and I doubted the small dose of methadone that Jeb gave her was enough to touch it. “Do you want me to help you back to bed?”

“Please, no,” she said dramatically. “I’m so bored in that bed. I can deal with the ache in exchange for freedom.”

Amber had never liked to be cooped up or stifled. When Reeve had forced her to stay at the ranch, she must have gone out of her mind. She was the type of person who needed to spread her wings. In fact, as I studied her now, I noted that her color was better than it had been in days, and the fog that had clouded her eyes was gone. It was surprising how different she looked from the meek woman I’d sat with in the bathroom only one day before.

“You look fantastic,” I said, somewhat awkwardly. Talking to her still wasn’t as easy as it had been once. I supposed that took time. “I’m guessing that you’re feeling better?”

She eyed me carefully. “Maybe I should be asking that about you?”

“Oh, because of dinner last night?” I forced a smile that I hoped was just bright enough to be convincing. “I was fine. I was just giving you privacy.”

“Thank you for that. I wasn’t sure.” Her expression didn’t give away what other reasons she might have thought I’d run. “And, yes, I feel much better.”

“That makes me so happy!” It felt false, but I meant it. I did want her better. I wanted a lot of things, though, and some of them were not straightforward. Some of them I wanted in degrees with conditions attached and some of the things I wanted were in direct contradiction to other things I wanted just as much.

But for that moment, I tried to concentrate on wanting her well and was glad that she was.

Well enough to traipse around with a cowboy, no less, which wasn’t a judgmental thought, but a concerned thought.

I peered over the railing and saw that the man had disappeared, as eerily as he had the last time I’d seen him. “Who was that guy you were talking to?”

“Buddy, maybe?” She shrugged, avoiding eye contact. “That’s his nickname, I think. I, uh, just met him. He bummed me smokes.” She dug out a half empty box of cigarettes from her back pocket and held them up for me to see.

Years had passed in between us but I could still tell when she was keeping something from me. I didn’t have to wonder what she was hiding – she’d shared that beer with the stranger when Reeve had already made it clear that he expected her to refrain from alcohol while she was trying to get over her addiction. While I wanted the best outcome for her recovery, I understood why she’d bristle at his attempt to control her behavior. And knowing Amber, it was only natural that she’d try to undermine him at every turn.

It was a war that the two would have to battle for themselves, I decided. But I was still concerned about the man – Buddy. “Be careful around him, okay? I saw him last night, and he gave me a creepy vibe.”

Amber tilted her head. “Creepy how?”

He’d known my name, but that in itself didn’t make him a criminal. “I don’t know. I just didn’t feel safe alone with him.”

“You’re a hottie who likes to do bad things,” Amber said with a wink. “I imagine there are a lot of men you’d feel unsafe with.”

It was an accurate remark – so accurate that I couldn’t decide if it offended me. It was the kind of thing she could have said years ago, and I wouldn’t have batted an eye. Now, there was too much distance between us and I couldn’t pinpoint her motivation like I could then.

But that was the way with reunions – it took a while to settle back into the comfort of the past. At least she felt she could try.

So I decided I could as well. “Just as I imagine there are a lot of men who would feel unsafe with you.”

“Touché,” she said, beaming, and the sunlight caught in her hair, illuminating her so brightly she had a glow. Like an angel.

Angel.
Reeve’s name for her.

I ignored the pinch in my chest and concentrated on what was right in front of me. My friend, looking vibrant and alive, the way I’d remembered her.

And if she was back to herself then that meant I had no excuse not to tell her all the things I needed to tell her, once and for all.

I took in a deep breath of mountain air and let it out slowly. “Can we talk a bit? Alone?” I almost hoped she’d say no. I almost hoped it so much that I gave her an easy opportunity to bow out. “If you’re feeling up to it, because if you’re not —”

She cut me off. “I’d love to spend some time with you. Have you been up to the attic yet?”

“No.” I hadn’t even known there was an attic.

“Fabulous. I get to show you. Nobody ever goes up there, and it’s one of my favorite places on the ranch.”

I followed her into the house and upstairs to the far bedrooms. I’d explored when I’d first arrived at the ranch, but I’d spent barely any time in this area after determining it was comprised of two rarely used guest suites. Between them was what, I’d assumed, was a linen closet. However, when Amber opened it, there was a hidden staircase.

“I’m warning you,” she said before climbing up, “there might be spiders.”

I shuddered dramatically. I’d always been horribly afraid of eight-legged creatures. “I’m guessing there might also be mice.”

She mirrored my horror. “I’ll take on the arachnids, you take on the rodents.”

“Deal,” I said with a laugh. Then we went up, one after the other, and we were two young, courageous girls again, out seeking our next adventure, like no time had passed at all. It felt easy, like getting on a bike after not owning one in a decade. It felt like the kiss of an old lover, lips fitting together as if made in the same mold. It felt better than I could have imagined.

It felt like coming home.

At the top of the stairs, I discovered the attic wasn’t as dark as I’d expected. Light streamed in through a window on the east wall. It was there Amber led me, carefully stepping over an assortment of paint cans and brushes and worn suitcases and long forgotten Christmas decorations. This had been the house where Reeve had grown up, yet I’d seen nothing to indicate as such in the rooms below. Among the dusty boxes that lined the walls, I felt for the first time that a family had once resided here, and I had a pang of sadness for the parents Reeve had lost when he was only sixteen.

When she reached the window, Amber turned back to me. “The pane sticks, and I can’t do any lifting yet. Would you mind?”

“Not at all.” I traded her places, and, after flipping the latch to unlock it, I pushed the frame up as far as it would go. Outside the window, there was a flat section of roof that butted up to the eave behind it. “I’m guessing we’re going out?”

“You got it.”

I climbed out first, then turned to help Amber, who groaned as she hoisted herself up.

“Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea,” I said, wincing in sympathy.

“Nah. It’s totally worth it for the view.” She gestured behind me, and I spun carefully to look.

“Oh, my God,” I gasped. The landscape was breathtaking. On the ground, there were too many trees surrounding the main house to see the green meadows beyond and the yellow flowers that blanketed the hills. Beyond that, snow-capped Rocky Mountains extended so high that the peaks disappeared into the nearly cloudless sky.

“It’s why I always liked to come up here. It’s peaceful.” Amber sat down on the eave, and, when I looked at her now, she seemed less familiar than she had a moment before. In so many ways, she was still the woman I’d remembered. But in just as many, she wasn’t. The Amber I remembered hadn’t ever found beauty in nature – she’d preferred shiny jewelry and expensive cars. She’d been happiest in large crowds with her music turned so loud that she could feel it thunder her feet. Peace and quiet and solitude were things that had always made her restless.

Of course, we weren’t kids now. But we were still young, not even thirty. And Amber suddenly seemed very old for her age.

She pulled a cigarette from the pack she’d gotten from Buddy and cupped her hand over the end to light it. When it was lit, she took a long puff, then sighed, smoke curling into the air as she did.

“God, I needed that.” She leaned back against the roof, cradling her head in the crook of her arm.

“You know what this reminds me of?”

“Of course I do,” she said, as if it were ridiculous that she wouldn’t be thinking exactly the same thing. “I think about that night a lot.”

I did too. It had been the first night I’d ever hung out with her. We’d snuck onto the construction site of an apartment building and smoked a pack of cigarettes on one of the balconies while we’d flirted with the men in hard hats and shared things we’d never shared with another person before. It had been the birth of our friendship.

Now, as our relationship was reborn, it seemed fitting that we were in a similar location.

I crossed to stand by her. “Can I have a drag?”

She held the cigarette out toward me, but asked, “Do you want one of your own?”

“I think a drag is enough.” I took a puff and immediately had to stifle a cough. “Damn, I haven’t had one of those in years. How the hell did we smoke so many of them?” I cringed as I handed the cigarette back to her.

She laughed softly. “We got used to the abuse.”

Those were loaded words. Words that spoke volumes about so many aspects of our friendship and the men we’d chosen and the lives we’d lived. They were words that could be understanding but also very bitter. And when I looked her in the eye, I knew she meant them in every way they could be meant.

I had to tell her about Reeve. Now.

She inhaled her cigarette, staring up at the sky as I took a seat beside her. “Amber —”

“You know,” she said, cutting me off, her voice tight as she held her breath. She exhaled before going on. “When I left you that message, it wasn’t because Reeve wouldn’t let me leave the ranch.”

My neck prickled, and I had that sudden gut-dropping fear that I’d been lied to. “He didn’t keep you here?”

She twisted her head to look at me. “No, he did.”

Then Reeve hadn’t lied.

“Oh. He did,” I confirmed, trying my best to recover from the false alarm. Why was it so hard for me to trust him? I hated that I always assumed the worst where he was concerned. As if proving any of those assumptions true would change how I felt about him.

She nodded as she took another drag. “Just, that wasn’t really that bad. I mean, it was. I wanted to kick him in the balls for it.” Her eyes narrowed. “In fact, I think I did that too.” She exhaled and smiled, as if enjoying the memory.

I drew my knees up to my chest and hugged them, uncomfortable with how it felt to hear her talk about Reeve. More specifically,
her
and Reeve.

She sat up and crushed the butt of her cigarette against a roof tile. “But he wasn’t malicious. He didn’t do it out of cruelty. He did it because he loved me, and he didn’t want to let me go, and, yeah, it pissed me off, but I didn’t feel like I needed to be rescued.” She tossed the butt over the side of the house.

I swallowed a chiding remark about littering and asked instead, “Then why?”

She hesitated, her attention elsewhere. My eyes followed her gaze to her shoes –
my
shoes, rather. Her whole outfit had been borrowed from my closet.

And while I was marveling at how convenient it was that we’d always worn the same size, she said, “I called that day because I’d been thinking about not living anymore.”

My breath caught as I realized what she was saying.

“I’d been thinking about it a lot. And, at the time, I thought you were the only person who’d maybe be able to talk me out of it.” She glanced at me and grinned, as though that could lessen the severity of what she’d just said.

But it didn’t in the least.

“Oh, my God, Amber, no.” I had no other words than those. Even with years of acting under my belt, I couldn’t improvise anything better. Because I’d never played this role before. I’d never in a million years imagined that I’d be on this side of a suicide conversation. With Amber, of all people.

BOOK: Last Kiss
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