Up in FlamesAbbi Glines
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I danced around your kitchen while you played music on the pots and pans. I never could beat you in a game of Uno because you were hands down a pro, and when I needed to know someone was praying for me, I didn’t have to question it.
I love you, Granny Campbell. Not a day passes that your words of wisdom don’t echo in my head. You are greatly missed, but you will forever be in my heart.
To love and be loved is a basic human need. Before him, I thought my life proved that theory untrue. Before him, I was strong . . . or was I weak? I’m not sure anymore. Most things I thought I knew to be true are now things I question. What I’m sure of is that after him, nothing was the same.
Men pissed me off. In my experience, they always wanted something from me, but it was never really me they wanted. I knew it without giving them more than a moment of my time. When they looked at me, they saw “daughter of a rock star” and “money.” Most of them were just hoping I’d get them on the cover of a cheap gossip magazine.
This left me with little to no respect for the male species. I held only one man in high regard, and that was my brother, Rush. He had always been there for me when I needed him—except for a few times when I was a raging bitch to his wife, Blaire. But now that I was over my jealousy, Rush was back to being my rock. And it was enough for me that he was happy.
I knew it was time that I grew up and fought my own battles. I wasn’t doing a fantastic job of it, but I wasn’t doing too badly, either. I was managing things. In my own way . . .
My phone vibrated in my hand, and I looked down to see Major’s face on the screen. This was my newest bad idea. He was gorgeous and almost too sweet for me—I usually liked at least a little bit of drama—but what kept him from being too perfect was the fact that he was a player. He loved women. Craved the attention he got from them. He thought I was too stupid to know that when he wasn’t with me, he was usually with someone else, but his acting skills weren’t as foolproof as he thought. I could tell by the way he responded to my texts if he was with someone else or if he had time for me.
I thought I was dealing with this reality pretty well, but it was getting harder to keep my heart in check and not fall for his pretty-boy charms. His kindness was getting to me, even though I knew I was nothing more than another girl to him.
What are you doing?
This was the kind of text I usually got when he was alone and bored. At first, I had thought he was genuinely interested in the answer, but after noticing how often the words hey sweetie and babe flashed across the screen of his phone when we were together, I knew that was all bullshit.
All men were liars. Even the bighearted, pretty ones.
I didn’t trust men, but unfortunately, I needed them in my life. I wished I weren’t always so needy for affection and attention, but I was. I hated that about myself, and I often tried to hide it, but it was getting harder to do that. Watching Rush abandon his playboy ways for the right woman and seeing his best friend—and my onetime fuck buddy—Grant Carter, turn into the perfect man for his wife, Harlow, hadn’t been easy. I wasn’t a Blaire or a Harlow. I didn’t inspire men to want to change for me. Admitting that hurt deeply, but it was something I was coming to terms with.
Anger, self-loathing, and feelings of inadequacy can make a person hateful. Bitter. A monster.
That’s exactly what I didn’t want to become.
As much as I wanted to ignore Major, I knew I wouldn’t. Replying to him meant he’d give me attention, and then I could pretend for a moment that he had feelings for me. That I was worth more. That I was the kind of girl a guy would change for.
Just waking up, I replied, as I sat up in bed.
The text bubble that always popped up when someone was in the middle of replying showed up on the screen, and my stomach did a little flutter thing. He was alone. He was thinking about me.
Yes, I know, I sound pathetic, but I’m being honest here.
Sleepyhead. What time did you go to bed last night?
The better question would be what time did he go to bed last night. He hadn’t texted me after eight p.m., and I had too much pride ever to text or call him first. His last text had been distracted, and I assumed he was with someone else.
Late, was my simple response. The truth was, I had sat on my sofa, cuddled up alone under a blanket, watching season three of Gossip Girl and eating popcorn that I would have to run off this morning.
What were you doing up late?
That kind of question always annoyed me. He felt like he could just ask me anything because he knew I’d give him a real answer. but I could never straight-up ask him what he was doing, because I knew I’d only get part of the truth—usually the part that didn’t involve another girl.
Watching TV. I didn’t feel like lying to make him jealous. I had realized long ago that Major didn’t do jealous where I was concerned, which sometimes felt like a slap in the face. Yet another thing I always forgave him for, just because he was so damn nice.
Gossip Girl or Grey’s Anatomy?
He knew my two favorite shows. He remembered everything about me. Which was yet another thing that complicated things for me.
I’m good, he texted, with a winky face. He was the only guy I knew who used emojis. At first, I thought it was weird, but I expected it now. It was just Major being Major. He could make things acceptable that normally weren’t sexy.
Lunch today? Maybe Japanese?
He loved Japanese food.
And I was afraid, maybe just a little, that I loved him.
I let out the breath I was holding. I could never be certain if Nan was pissed at me. Did she have a reason to be? Not really. We weren’t exclusive, and I’d reminded her a few times that we were just friends with benefits so she wouldn’t get any ideas. But I didn’t know if that really mattered to a girl like Nan.
The woman who had spent the evening at my apartment came with a lot less baggage than Nan. She laughed and was easy to be with. I didn’t worry about making her angry or if she was about to have a mood swing that would ruin the night. I also didn’t have to worry about not being able to walk away the next day. With Nan, I was stuck until this job was over. I had to keep her happy. Fucking her and walking away wasn’t an option.
Sarah, on the other hand, knew the score. She wasn’t clingy or needy. She was no-pressure and fun, and she offered me the release I needed. I liked her, but I didn’t want to keep her in my life. Not in that way. I just needed someone like her to balance out Nan’s overwhelming presence.
Nan had a way of making me forget that we could never be more. My job was too important. We could never be real. She just didn’t know it. Yet.
I didn’t need to know what she was doing last night. I already knew. I may have been busy with my date, but her house was under constant surveillance. Cope—my boss, so to speak—was watching her every move when I wasn’t. If she went out, we needed to know where.
Luckily, she’d stayed put, and I’d gotten to have a fun night with Sarah. The last time I’d tried to go out with Sarah, Nan had called upset over something, and I’d had to go over to her place to comfort her. She was a ball of emotions and constantly kept me on my toes.
A sharp knock on my door made me groan with dread. I knew who it was, and it was too early to deal with him. I hadn’t had m
y coffee and eggs yet. Sighing, I got out of the warmth of my bed, jerked on a pair of shorts that I’d left on the floor the night before, and headed toward the door.
Cope barely let me get the door open before he forced his way inside. He was taller than me, though not by much. But it wasn’t his height that made him larger than life; it was his persona. He walked into every room like he owned it—and if he didn’t, he’d kill whoever he needed to in order to own it. He was the kind of son of a bitch you didn’t want to piss off. He was as brilliant as he was crazy, and I’d seen him track down a target within minutes and kill with no emotion.
“You enjoy your night?” he asked, with an edge to his voice.
“Yeah, I did. Thanks for asking,” I said matter-of-factly, refusing to let him intimidate me. I hadn’t told him about Sarah, and I wasn’t going to start now.
Cope didn’t even glance back at me. “You’ve gotten us nowhere. She doesn’t trust you. She knows you’re a slut.”
Slut? What the fuck did he know? “She does trust me.”
Cope turned quickly, and his dark eyes pierced me with a glare that would make Superman take a step back. “The fuck she does. The woman’s not stupid. She knows. She’s been with enough men to know when she’s being blown off.”
“I’m taking her to lunch!” I fired back at him.
“Not enough. She might not know who the other girl is, but I sure as hell do. Sarah Jergins, 8431 Ravenhurst Drive. She knows you were with someone. That means she won’t trust you enough to spill her secrets, and we need the fucking secrets. She’s our only in with Livingston. She got close to him. She has to know something. We need to know what she knows.”
Cope stalked toward the door to leave, and I took the opportunity to make faces behind his back, because it was the mature thing to do, obviously.
When he put his hand on the doorknob, he stopped. “You’ve got a week to figure it out, and then I’m stepping in. If you can’t make the girl fall in love with you, I’ll have to do it myself.” With that, he jerked open the door and slammed it behind him.
The fact that he knew Sarah’s name and address didn’t surprise me, but the idea that he thought he could get Nan to fall in love with him was hilarious. Nan liked men with model-like faces. Faces made for the movies. Faces like mine. She also liked flirty and sweet.
Cope didn’t have a chance in hell. His hair was so long he wore it in a man bun most of the time, and his facial hair was too much. He needed to shave that shit. Sure, he was built like a brick wall, but he wasn’t at all like me. And Nan liked me. She liked me a hell of a lot. I could tell. Cope didn’t stand a chance of even catching her eye.
If it wasn’t for the fact that I really didn’t want to hurt her, I’d have pushed her one more step and let her love me. But I couldn’t hurt her that way. I didn’t love her. She was more than I needed in my life right now. I had a mission to accomplish first.
Picking up my phone, I sent her another text. Want to walk down to the beach after lunch? Or are you up for a run today?
I could get her to talk without messing with her heart. She just had to trust me. I thought she did or was starting to. She’d have been snippy with me this morning if she had known I was with Sarah last night.
I could use the run, she replied.
Smiling, I texted back. Then we’ll run.
Some women pouted and sulked. Others tried to make the guy jealous. Then there were those who did the good-girl thing and moved on. Me, well, I just went to Vegas.
The slinky silver dress I had bought in a boutique in Paris last July hugged every curve I had, and I knew just how good it looked. Not that it mattered. Tonight wasn’t about love or anything real. I would dance and flirt and forget them all tomorrow. Vegas was a cure-all for me, grounding me in the reality that relationships never worked for me and that I should stop trying.
My phone vibrated, and I saw Major’s name on the screen. I changed all my settings to silent, then slipped my phone into my Prada wristlet. He had ignored me for two nights too many. Tonight I’d ignore him and get him out of my system with someone else. A real man. Someone with broad shoulders and big arms. Someone who could handle me. Control me. Remind me that I didn’t need to be the strongest person on earth.
When I returned to Rosemary Beach, Major’s pretty smile and charming ways wouldn’t reel me back in. I would make damn sure of that. I wasn’t pathetic, but lately he’d been making me feel that way. Not anymore.
I walked from my room at the Bellagio to a club called Hyde, where some of my friends had a VIP table reserved for the next three nights. I could feel the stares that followed me, which only confirmed that I looked as stunning as I’d felt when I’d looked in the mirror. I was ready for a night of vodka and forgetting.
Knox was the reason I was here to begin with. She was a friend from my brief stint at a Swedish boarding school and was dating Ezra Kincaid, the heir to the Kincaid hotels. This was Ezra’s birthday weekend, and the guest list was exclusive. When I’d received the invitation from Knox, I hadn’t been sure if I wanted to go. I hadn’t wanted to leave Major. But during our lunch date, I’d felt like he was being forced to spend time with me. So I decided to get out of town, which turned out to be a smart move; two days later, I still hadn’t heard from Major.
Tonight I would pretend I had never let him string me along. By tomorrow, maybe I wouldn’t even remember his name.
“Nan!” Knox squealed. I could tell she’d been drinking for hours from her glazed eyes, but she still looked fantastic. Her wild, curly blond hair was pulled back by a candy-apple-red headband that matched the dress she was wearing. I needed to catch up with her cocktail count. She looked like she was having a wonderful time.
“Winter’s here, too! And she brought Roland. They’re engaged now!” Knox chatted away with a slight slur, as she looped her arm through mine and pulled me toward her table. I recognized the faces. They were all part of the circle I’d been raised in when I lived with my mother. Demi Fraser was just on my TV last week in some all-important tennis match that I didn’t keep up with. She’d made a name for herself on the court and now had her own fitness line. Her dark red hair was cropped short, and her nose and shoulders were dusted with freckles from all the time she spent in the sun. She looked great. Which annoyed me. If only I looked that good with freckles.
I walked to the table and directed my attention to the server. “Vodka cranberry.”
“It’s been a while, Nan. What have you been up to, other than shopping in Paris?” Demi was being snide, as usual. She liked looking down on the world from behind her perfect, freckled nose.
This night was meant to help me forget my issues, not bring up more shit.
I scanned the club without responding to Demi or even acknowledging Winter and Roland. Not enough vodka in my system to make me play nice yet.
As my gaze drifted over the crowd, already bored with the sight in front of me, it collided with the hard gaze of another. A pair of eyes locked on mine. Eyes that made me shiver with fear and excitement. I took in a chiseled face, its hard planes obvious even under a thick beard. My eyes traveled lower. Broad shoulders gave way to thickly corded muscular arms and a chest that looked like it was about to burst from the black T-shirt he was wearing.
Then he began to walk. Toward me. I was his focus. I stood without thinking, as if I’d been beckoned to, and my breathing became erratic. Almost like I couldn’t draw in enough air.
He was tall. The stilettos I wore brought me to six feet, but I was still forced to tilt my head back as he drew closer.
“Do you know him?” Knox asked, but she sounded like she was far away. Unimportant. I didn’t respond. I just waited.
The oxygen in the room was too thin by the time he stopped in front of me. I was sure I looked like an idiot as I tried to take a deep breath.
“Dance with me,” were the words that flowed out of his mouth. It sounded like a command, not a request. I didn’t ta
ke orders from anyone, but I wasn’t going to turn him down. I wanted to feel his hands on my body. I wanted to be close enough that I could soak in his scent with every inhalation. I also wanted to touch that massive chest of his that looked like a brick wall.
I managed to nod, and when he held out one of his hands, I eagerly slipped mine into it. The heat and strength from his touch made me tremble. If I could breathe properly, then I might be more concerned about making an idiot of myself. But I just needed to stay balanced on the heels I’d chosen to wear.
He drew me into the thick of the crowd, and it seemed to part for him. I could see other women turn and look at him with the same fearful yet excited expression that I had.
When he finally stopped, he turned, and his hand slid around my waist to press possessively against my lower back. I moved against him, wanting to cry out in pleasure when the tips of my breasts brushed against his chest. He didn’t say anything, but he began to move with an easy grace that I didn’t expect from a guy built like him. I expected him to be stiff with all that muscle, but he wasn’t. He seemed at ease on the dance floor.
His head lowered, and I could feel his breath against my skin. My nipples budded, and I grabbed his arms to keep steady. “You feel good,” was all he said, in a thick, deep accent I couldn’t place.
I wanted to reply that he smelled better than I’d anticipated, but I didn’t. I kept my mouth shut and lifted my eyes to look into his. I didn’t know this man. I doubted I’d ever see him again, and that made me feel bereft. Like I was losing something that I didn’t even have.
Country-club life wasn’t all that bad. I didn’t know why my cousin Mase disliked it so much. He complained whenever his little sister, Harlow, dragged him to Kerrington, but he indulged her by spending time in her world, like a good older brother.