CW: Adult Content, Language, & Violence

Name: Ryan

Day/Time: Sunday, 8:36 p.m.

Current state of mind: Chill

What are you wearing? Shorts and a t-shirt

What are you listening to? Periscope by Papa Roach & Skylar Grey

What are you drinking? Summer Shandy

I hated drama. Hated wasting my time and energy on bullshit bickering—which was exactly how I kicked off my Saturday evening. If it were anyone other than Ash—or Nick, I would’ve walked away. I would’ve spared myself from the mother of all migraines. But oh no, here I was entertaining another one of Ash’s wild accusations.

I took a deep swig of my shandy, longing for something stronger and with more of a kick—like bourbon—or spirit juice. Or maybe I just needed a good, hard kick in the head. I could ask Nick. He was my brother from another mother; it was his gods-given duty to put me out of my misery.

My gaze roamed over the sprawling patio, which was all decked out in twinkling fairy lights and lavish floral arrangements three times the size of my head. The bartenders poured fresh glasses of bubbly, while the servers made their rounds through the crowd, their silver trays stacked with all sorts of appetizers and bite-sized goodies. A small group had converged onto the makeshift dancefloor as the band played a 2000s pop song.

Nick was over by the bar with Kari and Riss, the three of them deep in conversation. Daniel had parked his cranky ass over by the trio, and despite appearing cool and detached, he was alert and focused. I tipped my beer back, beyond ready to bail on this convo and have a little fun. It was Solstice, for fuck’s sake. I wasn’t planning on spending another second of it fighting with the tiny blonde firecracker. But Ash was relentless.

“As I was saying, I don’t need or want a pity date.” Ash downed the rest of her champagne, depositing the glass on a passing tray.

I rolled my eyes. “For the last time, it’s not a pity date.” Tired of cycling through the same argument, I tucked my sunglasses into the collar of my shirt and met her steely stare. “I offered. You shot me down. End of story.”

“Because you didn’t want to go with me,” she hissed.

For fuck’s sake.

“If I hadn’t wanted to go with you, I would’ve never asked.” And that was the truth. I’d been so focused on security for this Solstice Gala that I hadn’t even thought about taking a date. Not to mention, we’d barely spoken lately—how in the hell was I supposed to know she wanted me to take her? I’m not a mind-reader.

Once Ash mentioned needing a date, I offered. Not out of pity, but because I genuinely wanted to go with her. She knew that. But nothing I said or did could convince her otherwise. I was damned and deemed guilty for reasons unknown.

And I knew she was stressed. Planning events—big or small—always put her on edge. She was a perfectionist to her core. One little mistake—one tiny slipup, and she spiraled. But there was more to this meltdown of hers. I was sure of it. She’d been snippy as all fuck for weeks now, arguing with everyone and isolating herself in the process. But in typical Ash style, she played the good old “I’m fine” card—which was utter bullshit.

I polished off the rest of my beer and excused myself. But I didn’t make it far. In fact, I hadn’t taken a single step when Ash choked back a feral shriek, sounding something like a dying cat. She bristled beside me, her hands curling into fists like she was poised for a fight. As I followed her gaze, I could see why.

Gabriel, aka Gabe, aka Junior, aka Douche Weasel (thank you, Kari), had made his not-so-grand entrance. His soot-colored eyes zeroed in on Ash, like she was an all-you-can-eat buffet he could feast on at his leisure. The immortal was obsessed with her, and he was untouchable in our realm—courtesy of the Covenant—unless he broke the law, of course. But I’d kill the fucker if he even attempted to touch Ash. Consequences be damned.

And even though Ash was more than capable of handling the asshole, there wasn’t a fiery chance in hell I was gonna leave her alone with him. I slung my arm around her shoulders, plastering a shit-eating grin on my face. “Junior! Long time!”

Ash played along, wrapping her arm around my waist, resting her head against my chest—like it was the most natural thing—like it was something we did all the time. Spoiler alert: once upon a lifetime ago, we did do just that. But shit changes. So do people. And circumstances. But I wasn’t about to take a stroll down Memory Lane. Some things were better left as memories. Untouched. Unbothered.

I shoved the past back down—way down—and refocused on the here and now. Because that was what mattered. Nothing else.

“Ryan.” Junior glowered at me and turned to Ash, raking his gaze over her taut curves. “Ash. I didn’t realize you two were together, unless… I’m mistaken?”

“You’re not,” I snapped. Man, I wanted to pluck those peepers right from Junior’s skull and shove them down the asshole’s throat. I wanted to crush all two hundred and six of the asshole’s bones, and then I wanted to use his broken body as a punching bag, before filleting him open like a fish and feeding whatever remained to the sharks.

“Shame,” he drawled, “I was hoping Ash and I could dance.”

“I’d rather eat glass and set myself on fire. Repeatedly.” Ash shot him a falsie of a smile, her perky tone carrying a deadly edge to it.

Junior narrowed his eyes and before he could utter a word, I gripped his throat, cutting off his oxygen supply. “Think very carefully before you speak.” I squeezed tighter. “Or I’ll send you home without your tongue.”

Just because I couldn’t kill the asshat didn’t mean I wouldn’t hurt him. He wasn’t gonna insult Ash—or intimidate her—or do anything that made her uncomfortable in any way. I didn’t give one hot fucking damn about who he was, where he was from, or how powerful his parents were. He was in our world, which meant he played by our rules.

Man, I’d been itching to school this asshole in the art of manners for years now. He was cunning and careful, but he’d slip up. Eventually. They all did. Maybe tonight would be my lucky night. It’d been weeks since I’d gotten into a fight, and I could use a little action. I eased off his windpipe. “You were saying?”

Junior grimaced, rubbing his throat. “Enjoy your evening.” He shoved his hands in his pockets and sauntered off, getting lost in the crowd.

Ash heaved out a sigh, tilting her head up at me. “I thought you were going to kill him.”

“I considered it.”

Her lips curved up in a smile. “And here, I thought you hated me.”

“I don’t hate you, kitten.” I brushed her glossy waves away from her face. “You just drive me insane.”

“Hmm.” Her aquamarine eyes glittered with playful curiosity. “Insane in a good, irresistible way—like you can’t get enough of me? Or insane in a reprehensible, you-want-to-throttle-me kind of way?”

“Both.” I shot her a wink and took her hand, stroking my thumb over her smooth skin. “Now, how about a dance?”

“Lead the way.”

I escorted her out to the dancefloor, just as the band switched it up to a slower number. I twirled her. Once. Twice. Then pulled her flush against me, placing my hand on the small of her back, while holding the other against my chest, right by my heart.

“You know, no one’s gonna buy that we’re a couple,” Ash said, keeping her voice low.

Now, that was just downright insulting. I was a damn good actor with a master’s in the art of deception. I could and would make anyone believe whatever I wanted them to. But the thing was, I didn’t need to pretend with Ash. I didn’t need to pretend to like her—didn’t need to fake being attracted to her. She was gorgeous—and I’m not just talking about her looks.

Sure, she had a savage mouth and had the ability to eviscerate you with her words, but she had a good heart. When she wasn’t in perfectionist mode, she was a fun-loving, free spirit with a thirst for adventure. She was genuine and loyal to her very core. And her laugh—oh man—her laugh was downright infectious. I didn’t need to fake shit. “Why not?” I asked.

“We just had a massive fight. We’ll never convince them, especially our friends.”

I dipped my head, lowering my mouth against her ear. “Every couple has spats. Not every argument has to be fatalistic, kitten.” Everyone bickered from time-to-time. Ash and I had plenty of disagreements in our lifetimes, but we’d always gotten past them. We’d never begrudged each other. Not for long. And this time was no different. Not for me. “I bet we can fool them all.”

“You think so?”

“I know so.” I spun her around again and pulled her close, taking the lead. We glided across the floor, our movements in sync, our bodies brushing up against each other’s. Our little squabble long forgotten as the world receded. It was only us and the music and the moonlight.

Ash felt so damn good in my arms. I missed these nights. Missed dancing with her. Missed holding her close.

Gods, I wanted to bury my face in those thick, silky waves of hers, while drowning in her strawberry champagne scent. I wanted to taste her, wanted to run my hands down her luscious curves, and watch as she came undone beneath my touch. Hell, who the fuck was I kidding? I just wanted her.

As the song neared its end, I twirled her and dipped her down low, our mouths only a breath apart. Ash’s eyes flared with unbridled desire as she licked her lips. Whatever little self-control I’d been holding onto snapped and I crushed my mouth against hers in an insatiable kiss. She tasted like wild berries and wine and whipped cream as her tongue slipped into my mouth, and I wanted to savor all that sweetness.

There was no faking it. No pretending. I was drunk as fuck off of her, and I wanted more. So much more. My desire consumed me, overruling the logical part of my brain, as Ash pressed herself up against me. I knew we were giving everyone a show, knew we needed to take this somewhere private, but I couldn’t get enough of the feisty little firecracker.

At some point, we’d made it off the dancefloor. At another point, we’d found our way inside and into a closet, where she tore my shirt open, the buttons scattering all over the marble tile. I liked that shirt, but I liked her more. And I proved it. Over and over again.

Satiated, the two of us eventually made our way back to the festivities, where most of the crowd had cleared out. Only the Coven and a couple of our closest friends remained. Nick arched a dark brow at my decimated shirt. “I see you two kissed and made up.”

“Yup.” I clapped his shoulder, scoping out the near-deserted venue. “Where is everyone—better yet, where’s Junior?”

“Probably somewhere in the Atlantic.” Kari shrugged. “I’m not really sure.”

I raised my brows. “Do I want to know what happened?”

“Kari had another one of her ‘magical oopsies’ and flung the halfwit into the ocean,” Nick said, wearing a proud grin.

I tipped my head back and laughed. “Man, I wish I would’ve seen it.”

“You were too busy getting your lip-lock on.” Daniel smirked.

And then everyone started chatting it up at once. I tucked Ash against my side and whispered in her ear. “Told you they’d buy it.”

She flicked her gaze to mine, a sly little smile playing up on those pouty lips. “I wasn’t faking it.”

“Neither was I.”

Stay tuned for Ash’s part, coming up on Sunday, July 10.

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