CW: Adult Content & Graphic Language
Day/Time: Sunday, 9:23 P.M.
Current state of mind: Kind of tired
What are you wearing? Shorts & a tank top
What are you listening to? Hearts on Fire by ILLENIUM
What are you drinking? Strawberry mojito
Hangovers sucked. There was nothing fun about the head-throbbing, cotton-mouthed, room-spinning, liquor-infused pain. There was no joy in wading through the murky waters of your muddled mind as you tried remembering all the stupid shit you said and did the night before. There was no pleasure in surfing the waves of nausea while trying not to drown in a sea of your own regrets.
Hangovers were pure torture. Lucky for me, I rarely got them. Unlucky for me, I’d woken up with one.
A soft snore resounded against my ear, followed by the steady thrum of a beating heart. My lids fluttered open, and I found myself sprawled on top of two-hundred-plus pounds of tanned muscle. My head was burrowed against Ryan’s chest, my leg strewn over his thighs, while my arm was slung haphazardly over his waist.
What in the flipping shit had I done?
As my brain struggled to get online, my gaze drifted about the spacious bedroom, noting the dark furniture and rich, earthy tones of the walls and décor. A sliver of sunlight streamed in from beneath the crack of the heavy pewter drapes that covered the French doors. We were in Ryan’s room. In his bed. And I was wearing his clothes.
I didn’t remember passing out on him, but I vaguely remembered Ryan taking care of me—remembered him tucking me in under the comforter after I’d imbibed enough alcohol to kill a herd of elephants. I remembered the Gala and bits of the after party, but the rest was one gigantic blur.
I closed my eyes, inhaling Ryan’s spiced, citrusy scent while relishing the feel of his strong arms holding me tight. I missed this. Missed touching him. Missed falling asleep in his arms and waking up next to him. I missed the cuddling. I missed the way he grumbled about me stealing all the covers. I missed our pillow talk. I even missed his snoring. I missed him. I missed us.
But I wasn’t sure if he felt the same.
Oh. Gods. What if he hated me? What if I’d epically fucked up and pissed him off amid my booze-induced haze? Drunk me had no filter—not that sober me had much of one either—but drunk me tossed out truth bombs like beads at fucking Mardi Gras. What if I’d said something inappropriate… or confessed my feelings and had made things weird and awkward? What if—
“How you feeling, kitten?”
I froze at the sound of Ryan’s husky drawl. “Um…”
Ryan shifted, gently rolling me off him and onto my back. He turned on his side, propping himself up on his elbow, his emerald eyes searching my face. “You okay?”
“Yeah.” I waved my hand dismissively, burying my insecurities within the deepest depths of my scrambled brain. “I’m fine—other than feeling like my head might spontaneously combust—I’m perfectly fine.”
He rolled his eyes, placing his palm on my forehead. “Relax.”
I gripped his wrist. “You don’t need to—oh.” I sank into the mattress, losing my train of thought along with my ability to form coherent words as healing waves of warmth washed over me. The tension poured out of my muscles as the hammering in my skull eased until it completely dissipated. My nausea eroded away, and my stomach rumbled with a renewed and a voracious vigor.
After a few minutes of soothing magical bliss, Ryan pulled his hand away and studied me. “Better?”
“You know I would’ve healed on my own.”
“You’re welcome.” He shot me a wink and rolled out of bed.
“I just meant that you didn’t need to waste your magic on me.” I fluffed the pillows and propped myself up against the headboard, admiring the way Ryan’s muscles flexed beneath all that smooth, sun-kissed skin as he strode across the room. Dressed in nothing but black boxers which were slung dangerously low on his hips, and showed off his impeccably sculpted frame, I couldn’t help but stare—like some desperate, lust-starved idiot.
I licked my lips as he bent over, pulling out two water bottles from the fridge. Why did he have to be so ridiculously attractive? And why did he have to be so caring, and confident, and easygoing? He was the whole package: looks, personality, and everything in between. Anyone would be lucky to have him. Including me. But luck hadn’t been on my side lately.
“Heads up.” Ryan spun, tossing a bottle my way. “It wasn’t a waste.”
I caught it with ease and heaved out a sigh. “But what if you need that energy for later? What if there’s a demon attack—or Junior resurfaces from the depths of the Atlantic?”
“Ash.” He crossed the room in a couple of quick strides and stretched out next to me. “It was a simple headache, not multiple organ failure. I’ve got plenty of juice left.”
“I know, but…” Ryan was right. Healing a hangover was no biggie, but we needed to be at full strength, especially when we were surrounded by endless threats—particularly from Junior.
Gods, I hated that asshole. He had this uncanny ability to creep me out and make me stabby all at the same time. I didn’t know what his deal was. To be honest, I didn’t want to know. I just knew I wanted him dead. And killing him would take a whole lot of power. We needed to be at one hundred percent. All of us. Including Ryan.
Ryan swept my hair back, tucking it behind my ear. “But what, kitten?”
“You could’ve just given me one of Kari’s specialty banana bags.”
“You hate IVs.”
“Well…” He had a good point, but I didn’t want to get into all the doom and gloom. And I definitely didn’t want to waste my breath talking about my deranged psycho stalker. “I would’ve dealt with it.”
“Mm-hmm.” Ryan nodded. “Sure. Now, why don’t tell me what’s really eating at you?”
Yeah. That wasn’t gonna happen. I refused to be Buzzkill Betty. Buzzkill Betty sucked all the joy out of life, and I wasn’t about to ruin a potentially good day. So, I did what I did best and changed the subject. My avoidance game was strong. I flashed Ryan a bright smile. “Food sounds good. We should go out to eat. I am famished.”
Ryan’s expression turned thoughtful as he fiddled with the cap on his bottle. After a few beats of tortuous silence, he looked over at me. “Okay. I’m in. We can talk over lunch.”
“Perfect!” I clapped my hands together, lying my little ass off. Maybe my avoidance game wasn’t as strong as I thought. But the day wasn’t over yet.
One hour and one strawberry sangria later, Ryan and I were splitting an order of calamari at Cove Brewery. We’d talked on the drive over, where he’d filled in the missing pieces from last night. Turned out, I hadn’t done anything too humiliating—not unless you counted me ripping my dress off and jumping into the ocean for a late-night dip. Ryan ended up going in after me, because apparently, drunk me had refused to come out and go to bed. Drunk me was a little bitch.
I reached for my drink and tipped it back, grimacing as a giant strawberry nailed me in the teeth.
“Care for a refill?” Ryan chuckled, arching a dark brow over the rim of his square aviators.
My cheeks erupted into flames as I shoved my empty glass into his hand. “Yes, please.”
Ryan’s fingers brushed against mine, kicking up my pulse and sending my nerve endings into a fiery frenzy. I averted my eyes, ignoring those deft, capable hands as his long fingers curled around the pitcher of wine. I didn’t notice the way the ropey muscles in his tattooed forearms flexed as he poured my drink. I didn’t notice the broad sweep of his shoulders—or the measure of his powerful biceps, draped in a white linen shirt, as he set the decanter down. Nope. I didn’t notice anything at all.
“There you go, kitten.” Ryan set my sangria down in front of me, his attention straying to the sparkling blue waters of the Atlantic.
“Thanks.” I followed his gaze, watching as the boats bounced about the frothy waves. Gods, what I would do to be out there—to be away from the packed patio of human tourists and witches. I’d kill to feel the spray of the sea water and caress of the cool breeze against my skin, while soaking in the sun as we cruised along on Ryan’s boat. “We should’ve gotten carryout,” I mumbled.
“We still can.” Ryan reached across the table, stroking his thumb over my wrist. “We could do with some privacy, don’t you think?”
I narrowed my eyes, getting the notion he was working some secret agenda—one that didn’t involve flirting and fun in the sun. One that didn’t involve my stupid, delusional fantasies about the two of us alone amid the deep blue sea. I should’ve known. “You want to talk.”
“You can’t avoid the conversation forever, Ash.”
Oh. I could. I really could. But if I did, we’d lose what little progress we’d made—and then I’d have no one to blame but myself. I didn’t want to lose this. I didn’t want to lose us.
As much as I wanted to avoid all the heavy and depressing shit that’d been weighing me down for the past five weeks, I knew I needed to talk. Knew I needed to let it out, or I’d explode and take all my frustrations out on the people I loved. And I’d already caused enough damage. I wasn’t about to add to it.
Besides, I owed Ryan. I owed him an explanation—or at the very least the conversation he so desperately wanted. And deserved. He’d saved my ass last night. He protected me, took care of me, and then healed me, sacrificing his own power—no matter how miniscule—for my own well-being. All over a stupid hangover, caused by yours truly. So, yeah, it was time to suck it up and spill.
But intentions were easier than spoken words. I didn’t know why it was so difficult for me to open up—for me to tell him about all the stressors that had taken up residence in my convoluted brain. Maybe it was the fear of being judged—but Ryan was one of the least judgy people I knew. Unlike me. I was one judgy bitch. But I was straying. Stalling. Avoiding the inevitable.
Suck it up, buttercup.
“I thought you hated me,” I blurted. Wait. Where the hell had that come from? I hadn’t meant to say that.
Ryan frowned. “Now, why would you think that?”
“I feel like you’ve been avoiding me—like you haven’t wanted to talk to me—or deal with me, or see me, and I can’t blame you. I know I’ve been an insufferable bitch, but it still sucks, because I miss talking to you and hanging out with you, and…” My voice trailed off as the horror of my verbal vomit socked me straight in the face.
What in the ever-loving fuck was wrong with me? This wasn’t supposed to be a confession of feelings and insecurities. It was way too soon for all of that. I groaned. “I’m sorry.”
Ryan sank down into the seat next to me. “Look at me, Ash.” He slid his forefinger under my chin, tipping it up until my eyes locked with his. Gods, he had the most gorgeous emerald eyes: dark, deep, and alluring. They were the kind of eyes you could just stare into for hours, getting lost in their tranquil depths, and forgetting the rest of the world existed.
He cupped my cheek, brushing the pad of his thumb soothingly along my skin. “I don’t hate you, kitten. I could never hate you. I don’t know what I have to say or do to prove that to you.”
“You haven’t been around to say or do anything,” I grumbled.
“We’ve been on opposite schedules for weeks. You’re coming home and I’m hitting the door, or I come home, and you’re passed out. Doesn’t give us much of a chance to chat or hang out, now, does it?”
“No.” He had a solid point, but it still stung. I shook my head. “But even when we have seen each other, we’ve barely spoken.”
“Each time I’ve tried to talk to you, you’ve practically taken my head off. You’ve been stressed as all fuck lately. I don’t know if it’s all from planning the Gala or what, but you haven’t exactly been approachable. I figured it was best to give you space.”
Another solid point. I had been a snippy little bitch—not only to Ryan—but to all of my friends and family. Between planning for Solstice, worrying about Junior, and fighting demons, and helping Holly at the overcrowded orphanage, I’d turned into a hurricane of horror. No wonder everyone had been avoiding me. I’d avoid me too.
“Talk to me, kitten.” Ryan continued massaging my cheek. Gods, his touch had the power to melt and calm me at the same time.
He deserved to know the truth. So, I told him. Everything. Once the words started pouring from my lips, they just flowed. It’d been like the dam of doom had busted open, and I couldn’t stop talking. It felt so incredibly good to let it all out.
I wasn’t sure how long I’d rambled on for, but it’d been long enough for our food to get cold. So, we ended up getting carryout and opted to go somewhere a bit more secluded instead.
Nick had offered up his beach house, and we spent the rest of the night there. We swam, built a bonfire, talked some more, and watched the sunrise, before hitting the sheets in a fit of exhaustion. But it was a good kind of exhaustion. It was the kind of exhaustion that came from baring your soul and speaking your heart.
I wasn’t sure what our relationship status was, or what lied ahead of us, but I was sure that neither of us had faked anything. And that was a good start.
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