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Lovely Madness by Jaine Diamond

Lovely Madness

by Jaine Diamond

Published by DreamWarp Publishing

Book 4 in the Players Series

He was lost when I found him…

Everyone says that Cary Clarke, former rock star and reclusive music producer, is crazy.

That he fell apart after the death of his best friend.

That he shut everyone out and locked himself away.

That nothing matters to him anymore but music.

Maybe they’re right.

I don’t even know why he let me in.

I was only supposed to meet him once. But then once turned into so much more.

When I look into his eyes, there's just something about this man I can't walk away from.

And the deeper I get into his world… the less I ever want to leave.

Maybe I’m crazy to fall for a man whose heart is already broken.

Maybe I should’ve known this could only end in more heartbreak—for both of us.

But when you find something this precious in the darkness, it’s only natural to want to bring it out into the light… no matter what it costs you.


Contemporary Romance


Lovely Madness is the fourth book in the Players series written by Jaine Diamond. It centers around the reclusive Cary Clarke, a former Rockstar turned music producer, and Taylor, Danica's (Ashley's wife) best friend, who agrees to help Cary's sister find him an assistant. While Cary doesn't want an assistant, he agrees, because its his sister asking. Neither of them were expecting the electricity between them - nor was Taylor planning on being an assistant, but Cary is adamant: if he is to have an assistant, it has to be her. The chemistry between them becomes too much to resist. But Taylor is scared to fall for a man who is obviously so scarred from his best friends death, and Cary's debilitating anxiety keeps getting in the way. But can they both get through their issues and get their happily ever after.

This was the book I was waiting for since Xander and Courteney's book. Immediently, I was drawn to Cary's character, and I had to know his story. This book was everything I wanted and more. The romance is intense and steamy, and I loved the chemistry between Cary and Taylor. What I loved the most was Jaine Diamond's description on Cary's anxiety. Specifically, how it wasn't an "out of the blue" thing for his character after his best friends death. Mental health is such a tricky, sensitive subject to write about, but I love how Jaine Diamond went about it. I appreciated that Cary's written in a way that he always had terrible anxiety, but he managed by leaning on his best friend and self-medicating. So when Gabe dies, and he no longer has anyone that understands his anxiety, and someone to lean on, ON TOP of what happened to Gabe, it made sense why he became so reclusive. Anxiety is a nasty beast. Much like Cary, I have always suffered from anxiety - from the time I was a child, to this very day. The racing thoughts that make me feel like I'm going crazy, the panic attacks that make me feel like I'm dying, and take everything out of me for the rest of the day, it's hard. I felt connected to Cary's character, and I understood him. I think the only issue I had, was a small line that was said about Cary's mother, who also suffers from anxiety, appearing drugged. Later it comes up she is medicated for her anxiety. While its brought up that she also self-medicates with alcohol, I hated that its brought up that she is on medication, and looks drugged. I'm medicated. I know many people who are medicated. They do not look drugged. I do not look drugged. Let's not shame people who have found a way to manage their mental health.

Wow. I talked a lot about Cary and his anxiety, and not so much about the romance, but honestly, I felt like the romance was secondary to Cary's story. I love how their relationship encourages Cary to eventually find help, and that Taylor is not afraid to talk to Cary about his mental health. She asks questions, and she helps him realize there are so many different options for help. It's not all medication and therapy. This book lived up to my expectations and I honestly, I think it was my favorite of the series.

He reached out and tried to grasp the skull-and-crossbones on my necklace, and when he looked up at me and smiled, holy Christ. He had Katie’s big, blue-green eyes and Jesse’s smile.

Taylor: “Whoa. You realize the girls of future generations are fucked if this is what you’re sending their way.”

Katie laughed.

Katie: “I know. He’s so much fun.” Cary: “So, let’s see. She likes Metallica and Dolly Parton.”

Taylor: “Yup.”

Cary: “You know, I used to try to figure people out by the kind of music they listen to. I’m not sure it works. Especially when you come at me with Metallica and Dolly Parton.” Taylor: “Hey. How’s it going?”

Danica: “Great! Sorry I missed your calls. We were doing sex stuff.”

Of course. Danica and her man were always doing sex stuff. They’d been married for six months and their honeymoon phase was still going strong. It was inspiring, really.

Taylor: “My eyes are rolling right now.”

She laughed.

Danica: “What can I do for you this fair evening?”

Taylor: “Spoken like a woman who just got laid.”

Danica: “Guilty.” Taylor: "“I’ll keep an eye on them for you, though. I’ll let you know if there’s ever a time when he needs a stern talking to. I’ll even lure him in here for you and lock the soundproof door so you can give him shit.”

Cary: “I knew there was a reason I hired you.” Taylor: “Oh, I know all about the vortex playlist thing. I have my own.”

He blinked at me.

Cary: “Really?”

Taylor: “I mean… I’ve been working on it for a while. Okay, almost a year. I think it’s almost done, though.”

His mouth twitched a little in amusement.

Cary: “Well, I can send the band’s playlists to you, if you want to hear them.”

Taylor: “I’d love that. I’ve heard Ash’s. Danica made one, too. But I haven’t heard the others.”

Cary: “I’ll send them your way.”

He turned his attention to his laptop.

Taylor: “Can I hear yours?”

I asked him. He stopped what he was doing, and I wondered if I’d overstepped a line there. Oops? His eyes locked with mine.

Cary: “I didn’t make one.”

Taylor: “You should,”

I said. Because obviously, he should.

Cary: “I’m not in the band.”

Taylor: “Neither am I.”

He studied me for a lingering moment. Then he said,

Cary: “I want to hear yours,” in that bossy way of his.

Taylor: “Is that a requirement of my employment?”

Cary: “It is now,”

he said, deadpan, going back to his laptop. I turned to mine. Without looking at him, I said,

Taylor: “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.”

He said nothing. When I couldn’t stand it anymore, I glanced over. He was looking at me.

Cary: “Deal,”

Taylor: “And you better not take a year to put it together.”

Cary: “Of course not. Only a weirdo would do that.” Cary: “Good night, Taylor. Go use my pool. I pay the pool boy too much already.”

Taylor: “There’s a pool boy? Is he cute?”

Cary: “No idea,”

he said, deadpan. He didn’t even look up from his laptop.

Cary: “But if he is, let me know so I can fire him.”

Taylor: “Will do,” I should’ve really stopped drooling over him and his amazing car and gotten back to work. But I kinda couldn’t believe this was suddenly my life. Then it hit me—this wasn’t my life. This was his life. And he wasn’t really living it. When was the last time he’d driven this car? Or any of his cars? When was the last time he’d cruised around his beautiful city and gone to the café? It was fucking sad, that he didn’t get to feel this. This freedom. The sun on his face. The breeze in his hair. And the true enjoyment of reaping the rewards of all that hard work he did. Cary: “Taylor,”

he said. He moved toward me so suddenly, I froze. He gripped my upper arms. He looked deep into my eyes. Then he kissed me. His lips crushed to mine, effectively silencing me. His tongue slicked over my lip, tasting me, and he shuddered. And I was so there for it, so fucking fast, I whimpered a little as my mouth opened for him. Then he ripped his lips from mine and I drew a stuttery breath.

Cary: “Can you please shut up?”

he gasped.

Taylor: “Yes.” Ghosts don’t haunt us, man. We hold onto them. We drag them around like shadows. You’ve got to let that shit go. Cary: “There’s a hole in your sock.”

She wiggled her toes.

Taylor: “Oh. I didn’t notice.”

I looked at her face.

Cary: “I don’t understand you.”

Taylor: “Okay…”

She cocked her head a little, reading my expression.

Taylor: “Is that a problem?”

Cary: “It’s unbelievably frustrating.”

Taylor: “Why?”

Cary: “Because I’d like to understand you, so I can put you in a box and set you aside.”

She sat up a little, hugging her knees to her chest.

Taylor: “Why would you want to do that?”

Cary: “So I don’t need to get involved.”

She blinked at me.

Taylor: “Do you need to get involved?”

My voice scratched when I said,

Cary: “Yes.”

There was no way she could know how painful it was for me to admit that to her. It made me feel crazy vulnerable.

Taylor: “Why?”

Cary: “Because… I’m drawn to you.”

Taylor: “But you don’t understand me.”

Cary: “Maybe that’s why I’m drawn to you.”

Taylor: “Maybe you just like me,”

Cary: “Why did you put your foot in my pool the first day I met you?”

Taylor: “Because the water looked nice.”

Cary: “Why is there a hole in your sock?”

Taylor: “What is this obsession with my feet?”

she asked, a smile playing at her mouth. I just stared at her. The truth was, I had a growing obsession with her everything.

Taylor: “Why does it bother you that I have a hole in my sock?”

Cary: “Because it makes no sense. You’re so organized and efficient. And yet you have chipped nail polish in every color of the rainbow on your fingers and toes. You use perfect punctuation in every text message you send, yet you crack your chewing gum and write on your sneakers with marker like a delinquent.”

She grinned.

Taylor: “Thank you.”

Cary: “You wear Mickey Mouse bandages and implement filing systems and get whiplash to Metallica and cry at Dolly Parton and none of you makes sense.”

Taylor: “I’m sorry you can’t fit me into a box. I prefer to be oblique.”

Cary: “You’ve got a clever answer for everything and you’ve got holes in your socks.”

Taylor: “It’s just one hole,”

she said, wiggling her toes again and checking to make sure there weren’t more of them.

Taylor: “I try to focus on the important things in life. I feel like a hole in my sock or a chipped nail just isn’t worth losing sleep over. I’ll get to it tomorrow. Or the next day.”

Cary: “And yet you insisted on alphabetizing the books in my office today for shits and giggles.”

Taylor: “You paid me. So I alphabetize your stuff. Who cares about my socks?”

Cary: “I do. I’m fucking infatuated with that goddamn hole and everything else about you.” She opened one eye.

Taylor: “Why am I afraid you might say no?”

Cary: “Maybe because you can sense that I’m fucking terrified.”

She opened the other eye.

Taylor: “Of what?”

Cary: “Of blowing my load the split second you touch me, and having you decide that doing your nails would be a great way to spend the rest of your night.”

She burst out laughing.

Cary: “Laughing is helping, though,”

I said dryly. Cary: Unfortunately for me, everything you do makes me hard.”

Taylor: “Everything?”

Cary: “So far.”

Taylor: “Just talking?”

Cary: “Yup.”

Taylor: “Eating my chip sandwiches? Cracking my gum?”

Cary: “Definitely.”

Taylor: “Singing April Wine?”

Cary: “I almost came in my pants.” Cary: “Is it wrong that that turns me on?”

Taylor: “What turns you on?”

Cary: “That you’re all mine.”

Taylor: “I am. If you want me to be.”

Cary: “I do.”

Taylor: “Does that mean you’re all mine, too?”

Cary: “Yeah.” Cary: “I think I’m obsessed with you,” Cary: “I don’t want to let you go,”

I whispered. She kissed my lips and said,

Taylor: “Then don’t.” Cary: “Is it inappropriate if I kiss you goodbye?”

Taylor: “Nope.”

I really didn’t care if it was inappropriate. I didn’t care if it was inappropriate that he bend me over his desk and fuck me while I called him Big Boss Daddy. I’d do it right now, if he wanted me to. She breezed behind her desk and picked up her phone, hit a button, and said to whoever was on the other end,

Merritt: “Taylor’s here. Make sure everyone’s wearing pants. And then come help with a package, please.”

She hung up and smiled at me as if to say, Some people’s children.

Taylor: “Do they usually record music with their pants off?”

Merritt: “It’s very pants-optional back there. I’m just saying I’ve already caught both Ashley and Xander with their pants down, and not in a good way. Xander has a habit of leaving the bathroom door open, like he forgets women exist in the workplace or something. And Ashley just seems to prefer life without pants.” Ash: “What’s that?”

Ash said, as I pulled a small bag out of my purse.

Taylor: “Well, I figured you guys probably weren’t supposed to smoke in here. So I got you some edibles.”

I laid out the half-dozen packages of edibles I’d picked up for them at the weed dispensary.

Ash: Whaaaat.”

Ash picked one up.

Ash: “Why is your best friend so cool?”

Danica: “I dunno.”

Danica shrugged.

Danica: “Just is.”

Taylor: “Those are chocolates, which you might want to stash in the fridge. And there are gummies, too.”

Ash wrapped his hand around the back of my head and kissed me firmly on the forehead.

Ash: “You’re a sweetheart, Taylor. Don’t let any asshole tell you different.” I deposited him at the foot of the stairs and watched him reluctantly head upstairs. He turned to walk up the stairs backwards, raking his gaze over my body again.

Cary: “You know, I’m only going with you because I want to see how well that sports bra holds in your tits.”

Taylor: “Great. I’ll be here waiting. Hope you have some decent running shoes.” Taylor: “Don’t worry. We’ll start at a slow pace. Ish.”

Cary: “Good. If I have a heart attack, it’s your fault.”

Taylor: “First of all, that is not an okay thing to say to someone.”

Cary: “Isn’t it? I’ve lost my social acceptability meter.”

Taylor: “You’re kidding me,”

I said with mock surprise.

Taylor: “I didn’t notice.”

Cary: “And I’ve lost my filter, too. Your tits look huge in that top.”

Taylor: “Anyway. Second of all, you’re too healthy for a heart attack. Probably.”

Cary: “Thanks for the reassurance.”

Taylor: “And I’m sure a panic attack is more likely, given your history.”

He wanted to distract me by talking about my tits? I wasn’t sure who he thought he was trying to play, but I wasn’t that bimbo. I held his gaze and told him point blank,

Taylor: “If that happens, I promise to sit your ass on the curb and calm you, and call Liam to come get us.”

Cary: “How do you intend to calm me?”

I tried to come up with something on the fly.

Taylor: “Remind you to breathe? Tell you you’re safe. Press my huge tits up against you.”

He took a breath like he was fortifying himself.

Cary: “Okay. That’ll work.” Taylor: “I love the title, actually. The words I tattooed on my arm. It says so much with just two words. And I love the whole idea that you can still ask for shelter, and hope to find it, when the world is going to hell. The lyrics are dark. They sing about war and rape and murder, floods and fire. The mention of love… it only comes in at the very end of the song. It’s like this spark of light after so much dark. After that darkness, the very idea that love could be a mere kiss away… It’s simple but so powerful.” Cary: “Well, I’m a musician. What am I gonna do except make music… and listen to music, and read about music?”

Taylor: “And yet you didn’t know ‘Heart of Gold’ was a love song…”

she teased. I liked that. That she was comfortable enough to tease me.

Cary: “And that would be why I keep listening. There’s always more to learn.” Taylor: “Okay… I’m not sure I’m qualified for that—”

Cary: “Sure you are. You love music. And I trust your judgment.”

Taylor: “Cary, you’re making me sweat.”

Cary: “Good. That means you care.” Taylor: “Wait. Do we do a Russian cheer or a Canadian cheer?”

Cary: “I don’t speak Russian, so…”

Taylor: “What is that nosto-vitia thing Russian gangsters say in movies when they drink? Nosdro-vee-ah? Nos-do-via?”

Cary: “I think that’s just in movies.”

Taylor: “You’re leaving me hanging here.”

Cary: “Alright. To your good health.”

Taylor: “Is drinking straight vodka healthy?”

Cary: “The pickle adds nutrients. I think.” Cary: “Nope. I prefer you uncensored.”

Taylor: “That’s good. Because when have I ever censored myself while we’ve had a conversation?”

She handed me my next shot and a pickle.

Cary: “The first several times we had a conversation.”

Taylor: “Well, what was I supposed to say?”

She raised her shot glass, holding my gaze.

Taylor: “You’re strange, but you’re hot and more interesting than anyone I’ve ever met. Please hire me, I want to see what you do all day and maybe stare at you a bit.”

Cary: “You’re strange,”

I replied, shot glass in the air

Cary:, “and gorgeous, and sexier than anyone I’ve ever met. Please work for me and move into my poolhouse so I can make you hang out with me all day and maybe stare at you a lot.”

Eyes still locked, we drank to that like it was a toast or something. Taylor: “So, why are we doing this again?”

Cary: “Because a drinking tradition is just like music. It’s personal. Imprints on you. Even if it makes no sense. It’s why you listen to certain music even if your friends hate it and you’re supposed to, too. And it’s why you drink straight vodka with a pickle and bread. Memories.” Cary: “You look like a siren.”

Taylor: “Huh?”

She laughed a little, then frowned.

Taylor: “Siren,”

she said, like she was searching her mental database for the word through the vodka buzz.

Taylor: “What is a siren, exactly? Is that one of those vague sexual compliments-slash-insults that men make up for women?”

Cary: “No,”

I said, pouring us another shot,

Cary: “it’s an actual thing from mythology. Enchantress who lures sailors with music, so they wreck their ships on the rocks.”

Taylor: “Wow. Savage.”

I handed her a shot.

Cary: “Not your style?”

Taylor: “Hmm. The guys on the ship are stranded with me now, right?”

Cary: “I guess so.”

I clinked my glass to hers and we threw back the vodka. She shivered and sucked on her pickle.

Taylor: “Do some of them survive the wreckage? Like the cute ones?”

I plucked her shot glass from her hand.

Cary: “It’s your fantasy, sweetheart.”

Taylor: “Do I have somewhere to collect them? Is there vegetation on this island so I can feed them and keep them alive? I’m on an island, right? So I don’t have to share the cute guys I shipwrecked?”

Cary: “You may be putting too much thought into this.”

She was still thinking as she munched on her pickle.

Taylor: “Can I have a mermaid tail, though?”

Cary: “How are all these sailors you’re collecting gonna fuck you if you’re a mermaid?”

Taylor: “Mermaids don’t fuck?”

Cary: “Think about that,”

I said, as I tried to pour us shots without wasting vodka. My aim was already getting a little dubious.

Taylor: “Holy shit. Check out this mindfuck, Cary Clarke. Why have men fantasized about mermaids for centuries if they can’t fuck?”

Cary: “Dunno.”

Taylor: “Is it because they have boobs?”

Cary: “Maybe it’s the seashell bras.”

I handed her a shot.

Taylor: “Huh. Do you think they give really good blowjobs or something?”

Cary: “How about when I meet an actual mermaid, I’ll let you know.”

She gave me a dirty look, but laughed. We clinked shots and drank.

Cary: “Come on. I don’t get a free pass for a mermaid?”

Taylor: “Okay, fine. You meet a mermaid, you get a blowjob. But I get to watch.”

Cary: “Fine by me.”

I took the empty shot glass from her and set it aside. How many shots was that now? The pickles were making them go down weirdly easy.

Taylor: “And I’m making a video of it. Cause then I’m selling that shit, and we’re gonna be rich as hell.”

Cary: “You’d use me and my dick like that?”

Taylor: “It’s not about your dick. Duh. It’s about the mermaid.”

Cary: “Oh. Right.”

Taylor: “You come on a mermaid’s face, that’s the money shot of the millennium. I wonder if her skin would be slimy…”

Cary: “You have a vivid imagination, Taylor Lawson.”

Taylor: “I know. And it’s vividly dirty.”

She rested her head back against the side of the pool.

Taylor: “How do mermaids make babies? Do you think some guy fucked a fish long ago and that’s how the first mermaid came about?”

Cary: “You know mermaids aren’t real, right?”

I slid over in front of her, kinda trapping her against the wall of the pool. I smoothed the wet ends of her hair back off her shoulders.

Cary: “Also, pretty sure fish don’t fuck.”

Taylor: “Maybe mermaids drop eggs, like fish,”

Cary: “Sexy.”

She slid her arms around my shoulders, gazing u p at me.

Taylor: "What if I dropped eggs right now? And then I made you come in the water and then we had little fish babies living in the pool?"

Cary: "I knew you were strange when I met you."

Taylor: "We could charge admission."

Cary: "Is this another of your get-rich schemes?"

Taylor: "Hey, you started it by calling me a mermaid."

Cary: "I called you a siren."

Taylor: "Oh, yeah."

Taylor: “I like you,”

she said abruptly, and I paused before kissing her more deeply.

Taylor: “I want to keep you.”

Her turquoise eyes, wide open, looked into mine.

Taylor: “And I don’t want your money.”

I just looked at her.

Taylor: “I mean… I like your pool and everything. But I like you more. I like working for you. But I don’t need your riches. I can make my own money. I just want you to know that isn’t why I’m here. I’m here letting you smush me up against the wall of your pool with barely any clothes on because I like you. And if you lost your entire fortune tomorrow, I’d make sure we survived on chip sandwiches and Coke. My treat. Because I like you.” Taylor: “I think two people are what they are at the moment they meet. You shouldn’t change for each other. You either like each other or you don’t. Or maybe you hate each other, but you’re still drawn to each other. That part is chemical. And spiritual. I think the idea of getting to know each other and then having feelings develop is bullshit. It’s either there or it’s not. Everything else is just time. And time means nothing. It’s just a construct invented by man, to try to control things we can’t control. You choose what you do in every moment, but moments are fleeting. Underneath that is who you are and at the core, that doesn’t change, even when you grow.” Cary: “I think it’s dangerous to accept that you have no control. Because then you have no illusions, nothing to hold onto when the fear creeps in.”

Taylor: “I think fear is natural and holy and good. It’s primal and there’s a reason for it.”

Cary: “I think not everyone is as brave as you.”

Taylor: “I think anything worth doing is frightening at its core. Because it makes you face the truth, that if it’s something you want to do or want to have, it’s worth losing.” Cary: “I think you’re way too smart to be an executive assistant. And way too special to be wasting your time on me.”

I was flirting with her, flattering her, but there was so much naked truth in that statement it was kinda terrifying.

Taylor: “I think it’s not a waste of time if I wanted you from the moment I met you. Because that means I have something to gain, something to learn, or something worth losing by being here.”

Cary: “I think you’re fucking beautiful.”

Taylor:“I think drinking straight vodka makes people really drunk.”

Cary: “I think you’re way too sexy to not have my cock in you right now.”

Taylor: “I think I like it when you make me wait for it.”

Cary: “I think you’re gonna be naked in a few seconds.” Cary: “You don’t have to think when you’re with me.”

She laughed. I paused, brushing my thumb over her wet cheek.

Cary: “That came out wrong.”

I held her by her jaw and looked in her eyes.

Cary: “I meant, I’ll take control. You just give.”

Taylor: “Give?”

Cary: “Give me everything. I can’t get enough of you.”

I melted into another kiss as her soft lips moved against mine.

Taylor: “Okay. I give. You take. Take everything you want from me, Cary.” Taylor: “Coffee?!”

I gaped at him.

Taylor: “You’re supposed to stop drinking coffee? It says here that caffeine can increase anxiety.”

Cary: “Your point?”

Taylor: “I’ve been supplying you with this shit.”

Cary: “And I love it.”

He played with a lock of my hair, but I slapped his hand away lightly.

Taylor: “That is it, Mr. Bossy. You can’t flirt your way out of this.”

Cary: “Hey, I showed you the list. I’m not hiding anything.”

Taylor: “We’re switching to decaf tea,”

I said, ignoring that.

Cary: “Sounds delicious,”

He said sarcastically.

Taylor: “We can try a million flavors if we have to, until we find something that you like to replace the coffee.”

Cary: “Gimme that.”

He tried to take the paper from me, but I snatched it back.

Taylor: “I am keeping this and I am going to memorize it. There’s yoga on here!!”

I shouted, holding the paper out of his reach as I scanned the rest of it.

Taylor: “Why didn’t you say so? We’re totally doing yoga together.”

Cary: “As long as you don’t mind every session ending in sex.”

I gave him a look.

Cary: “You look so good in your yoga wear.”

Taylor: “You’ve been watching me do yoga?”

Cary: “You do it in the backyard. How can I not look?”

Taylor: “Okay, fine. If you do your yoga with me like a good boy, I’ll be so turned on, I’ll probably pounce on you afterwards anyway.”

Text: Cary: Take off your panties and send me a pic.

Whoa. Okay. I really, really wanted to do that. Right now. I’d never done that for a guy before. But Cary Clarke was totally the guy you did that for because he ordered you to.

Me: You’re so pretty and bossy.

Cary: Is that a compliment?

Me: Yes.

Cary: I’m waiting for my pic.

Me: See? Bossy. Taylor: “I just took a picture of my pussy in the washroom and sent it to someone.”

Danica’s eyes popped and she burst into laughter.

Danica: “What? Why?”

Taylor: “Because he asked me to.”

Danica: “Cary?”

Taylor: “Yup.”

Danica: “Oh my God.”

Taylor: “I need another drink.”

We sipped our cocktails while she grinned at me. She shook her head. In awe, I supposed.

Taylor: “You know what you need to do, right?"

Danica: “What?”

Taylor: “You need to march into that washroom and take a picture of your pussy and send it to your husband.”

She wrinkled her nose, but she was still grinning.

Danica: “Really?”

Taylor: “Really.”

Danica: “And why do I need to do this?”

Taylor: “So I don’t feel like a slut.”

Danica smirked drunkenly.

Danica: “What’s wrong with feeling like a slut?”

Taylor: “Nothing. Just don’t make me do it alone.” She picked up her phone to check it.

Danica: “I wish I could see his face when he looks at—Oh. No.”

Taylor: “What?”

Danica: “Oh dear fuck no…”

Taylor: “What?”

I leaned into her, darting a glance at the other girls. None of them were paying attention to us.

Danica: “Ohmygod.”

My best friend looked up from her phone, her eyes meeting mine. She looked like she was about to burst into tears.

Taylor: “What is it?”

When she didn’t answer me fast enough, I grabbed the phone and she tried to hold on, covering part of the screen with her hand.

Danica: “Don’t look at my pussy!”

she shouted. Every girl at the table turned to us. Danica and I froze, both holding onto her phone.

Taylor: “Excuse us.”

I took Danica by the wrist and dragged her off to the back hall that led to the washrooms. She was kind of hysterically choking when we got there, maybe trying not to laugh/cry?

Taylor: “What!?”

I demanded.

Danica: “Look!”

She thrust her phone in my face.

Taylor: “Oh, now you want me to see your pussy?” She tucked her phone away, looking like a wilted flower.

Danica: “I feel stupid.”

I threw my arm around her.

Taylor: “Don’t. I’m sure it’s a very nice pussy.” Cary: “Kiss me,”

Taylor: “I’m giving the orders. Shut up and fuck me.”

His eyes flashed with pure lust. He lifted his hips, grinding into me with each undulation of my hips. I met each thrust as his movements grew more impatient, more hurried. I could see him getting close to losing it. I could hear it in his stuttered breaths.

Taylor: “Now, I’m gonna come. Be a good boy and don’t come until I’m peaking. If you go soft before I’m done, there’s gonna be trouble.”

He’d been watching my body move up and down, mesmerized. But now his eyes met mine. He choked out a strained laugh.

Cary: “You’d better hurry.” Cary: “I can’t feel anything but the blood pounding in my cock. You’re like a cock vampire or something.”

Taylor: “That doesn’t make sense.”

Cary: “Doesn’t it? There’s no blood left in my brain.” For example, the topic “Things you should never say to a woman after you fuck her” somehow ended up in an argument over whether or not men should be allowed to wear bikini bathing suits. I had no idea how we got there. The vodka was going down too easy. Incidentally, all of us said yes to that particular question, except Xander. But then again, all of us were sexually attracted to men, except Xander.

Xander: “You’re just saying that because your man is fit,”

Xander challenged Danica.

Xander: “I’m saying picture, like, the average man, and if that’s not enough, picture the very unattractive, unfit, aging, hairy man in that same bikini, and tell me your answer is still yes.”

Danica: “I’m not here to body shame anyone. Age and body hair are not a crime. And beauty is in the eye of the beholder. So my answer is still yes.”

Taylor: “Should only fit women wear bikinis in public?”

I challenged Xander.

Matt: “Can’t wait to hear this,”

Matt said. Ash chuckled. Xander considered, then concluded,

Xander: “I’m not answering that. This room is too hostile.” Matt: “The topic is ‘People Ash would rather fuck than Xander,’”

Matt translated for me.

Danica: “Hmm,”

Danica said thoughtfully, tapping her pen against her paper.

Ash: “Take your time,”

Ash said, grinning at Xander. Xander scratched his forehead with his middle finger.

Taylor: “Oh, I get it.”

My brain clicked into gear, and I wrote my response on my little paper.

Danica: “This one is easy-fucking-peasy, people.”

Xander: “Yeah, just like Ash,”

Xander quipped, and Ash chucked a cushion at his head. It bounced off and Xander ignored it, writing carefully on his paper. I wondered if this was anything like what it was like for him after Gabe died. After his heart was broken. Did it ever mend? In all those days, those months and years, alone in his home? And sometimes I wondered… was this anything like what dying was like? I felt like a ghost. It was like the world went on without me in it. How much could you keep talking to yourself, asking yourself questions, and getting nowhere, before you feared that your sanity might be slipping? Before you told someone how bad it was? Before you sought help? How would I know when I’d reached the end of my rope, if no one was there to catch me? Ash: “Get her off the couch.”

Taylor: “Hey.”

I pointed at him.

Taylor: “When she met you, I told her you’re a keeper. Don’t you dare ever forget it.”

Ash: “And I love you for it. Now get the fuck up off my couch.”

I sat up, unenthusiastically, and put my feet on the floor. But I didn’t get off the couch. My best friend’s husband shook his head like I’d disappointed him.

Ash: “What’s up with her, anyway?”

he asked her. Danica looked me over empathetically. Then she started washing vegetables in the sink.

Danica: “Can we just tell him already?”

she asked me. Ash frowned.

Ash: “Tell me what?”

I gave her a warning look, which she returned with a sad face. Then we exchanged a silent but vehement back-and-forth, while Ash said,

Ash: “What? Tell me what? Tell me tell me tell me.” Ash: “Hey. Come here.”

Ash waved an arm at me and I went over so he could pull me into a hug.

Ash: “You’re prime cut though, babe. You’ll find someone else.”

He kissed me on the head.

Danica: “Ashley! That’s all you have to say to her?”

Ash: “What?”

He released me.

Ash: “I’m just saying. She’s not gonna die alone. Look at her.”

Danica rolled her eyes a little.

Danica: “I’m sure what my husband meant to say is… You deserve to be happy, Taylor. And we’re here for you.”

Taylor: “Thanks. I know.”

My phone chimed and I went to grab it from the couch. While I did, I heard Danica gently giving her husband crap.

Danica: “When your friend is hurt, you don’t tell her she’s hot meat and she’ll find someone else. You tell her you love her. Etcetera.”

Ash: “No, that’s what you say. You tell her she deserves good things and you’re here for her. Your husband tells her she’s hot. That’s the way it works.”

Taylor: “Really, you both said the exactly right thing.” Ash: “She doesn’t have a brother. Or a dad who gives a fuck, apparently.”

His black eyebrows angled in that look of his that meant you either listened to what he had to say, or you were on his shit list.

Ash: “So now I guess that shit is my job.”

I glanced at Xander, who looked away with a smirk and pretended to be absorbed in searching for splinters on a drumstick. Of course, I’d given him shit about putting his hands on my sister, not so long ago. He was probably loving the hell out of this.

Ash: “Here’s what I know about Taylor. She’s strong. She’s got a huge heart. She’ll admit when she’s wrong. She doesn’t ask for much. And she’s been a hell of a friend to my wife. So I guess what I’m saying is it would be swell if you could get over your shit enough to talk to her. If you’re pissed at her—”

Cary: “I’m not pissed.”

Ash: “Well, whatever it is. Even if you just don’t want to be with her… Taylor can take it. If I know anything about having your heart stomped on…”

I looked away, and he got to his feet. He came over and stood in front of me. I looked up at him.

Ash: “Trust me. I know a thing or two. She’d rather hear it from you than not hear anything. Don’t leave her wondering what the fuck went wrong. I’ve been there. It sucks. And I know you’re better than that, man.”

He tapped his fist to my shoulder.

Ash: “Don’t leave her like that, adrift.” Cary: “Thanks for the pep talk.”

He grinned.

Xander: “Always here for support and advice.”

Cary: “Was there advice in there? I didn’t hear any.”

Xander: “The advice is simple. You fucked up. So, unfuck it.”

Cary: “And how do you suggest I do that?”

Xander: “You look her in the eye. Tell her the truth. Whatever the truth is.”

Cary: “Maybe she was right. You have matured.”

Xander: “Uh-huh. Or, you get down on your knees and beg. And while you’re down there, slip your tongue in her panties. There’s not much that can’t be fixed by a mouth-to-pussy apology—”

Cary: “Nope. Totally not hearing this from the man who’s engaged to my sister.”

He patted me on the back as I walked away.

Xander: “Come on, aren’t you and Liam dropping me at home?”

Cary: “Only if you promise not to say another word.”

Xander: “I’m telling you, though. Mouth-to-pussy. Works every time.”

Cary: “I’m calling you a cab.” Danica: “Shhhh!”

Danica hissed somewhere behind me. I knew it was her, because even when she hissed at people to shut the fuck up, she did it politely.

Courteney: “Xan, quit breathing so loud,”

Courteney whispered.

Xander: “Yeah, I’ll try not to breathe so it doesn’t bother anyone,”

he whispered back.

Matt: “Shut the fuck up. You’re all too loud,”

Matt whispered, accompanied by the sound of guzzling beer. That was followed by the flick of a lighter sparking a joint. The smell of fresh, burning weed mingled with the crisp, November night air as I felt my way along the fence in the dark. A branch snapped and someone grumbled a nasty word. I heard shoving and a small squeal. I tried to quicken my pace. Maybe I could lose them all in the dark.

Courteney: “Quit stepping on my toes,”

Courteney whispered.

Xander: “Who’s hand is that?”

Xander whispered.

Ash: “You wish,” Taylor: “You guys are awesome, but I’m good. I’ve got this. I’m going full commando on this mission.”

Xander: “You’re not wearing underwear?”

Xander said, and Courteney elbowed him in the stomach.

Taylor: “Yeah. I’m climbing a fence in a dress with all of you underneath me and I’m not wearing panties.”

Dean: “Sweet,”

Taylor: “I meant, I’m gonna strike fast and I’m not leaving until I achieve my objective.”

I totally meant it. I’d really worked up my liquid courage at the bar. And trespassing on someone’s property, sneaking through the dark and scaling a fence was just fueling my hunger for victory.

Danica: “And what is your objective, exactly?”

Taylor: “I’m getting him to open his door and talk to me,”

I said, with one-hundred-percent confidence. They all just blinked at me like drunk owls in the dark.

Taylor: “Well… I’m getting him to open his door,”

I amended, maybe downgrading to fifty-percent confident.

Taylor: “After that… we’ll see.”

Danica: “Okay. You’ve got this, Tay.”

I took a deep, fortifying breath.

Taylor: “I feel like I need war paint.”

Dean: “Try the no-panties thing. It’ll be fierce.”

Taylor: “Maybe on the other side,”

I said dryly. He flashed me a thumbs up. Courteney: “You were a great big brother,”

Cary: “I could’ve been around more.”

Courteney: “You always made time for me. You always made me feel special.”

Cary: “You are special,”

Cary: “I think you’ve got a long time to go before the silver fox years kick in.”

Taylor: “Not that long. I found a gray hair just the other day. I named it Cary.”

She took a sip of her wine and smiled at me.

Taylor: “Then I plucked it out.”

Cary: “Funny.” Cary: “I don’t think I can be what you want.”

Taylor: “And what is it you think I want you to be? The only thing I want you to be is mine.” Taylor: “I’m here to tell you, Cary Clarke, we’re all abnormal. What matters is how you pick yourself up after you fall.”

I looked into her eyes.

Cary: “What if I fail? I don’t want to let you down again.”

Taylor: “Everyone fails, Cary. You will fail and you’ll pick yourself up and keep trying. And that’s okay. You just need to keep showing up for your life, even when it feels hard.”

She leaned in and kissed me on the lips.

Taylor: “It could be a really beautiful life.”

Cary: “It’s been pretty dark for a long time. Maybe it’s hard to look into the light.”

Taylor: “Yeah. But just imagine what you might find there.” Taylor: “I can go home, if you want me to. But however you want to look at it, Cary, you’re my home.” Cary: “Well, it’s been five years. How much more time should I waste on trying to save myself?”

Taylor: “Are you serious? How about every moment you’ve got, until you’re in your grave.” Cary: “What are you still doing here? Go live your life, Taylor. It’s waiting for you.”

Taylor: “Well. I’m waiting for you.” Taylor: “Can you two please make more babies? Like, get on that shit right now. You’re doing the world a major disservice by not fucking bareback, right the fuck now.”

Yeah, I’d gotten a lot closer to Katie in recent months. And her husband. So now I could say that shit when it was on my mind. She just laughed. Jesse grinned. Taylor: “You made it this far. You can make it the rest of the way. There’s no difference between here and there.”

Cary: “There’s a huge difference, Taylor. Here, it’s just you and me. There, it’s hundreds of people.”

Taylor: “But we’re still just you and me.” Cary: “I can imagine.”

Taylor: “You don’t have to imagine. You can live.” Courteney smiled at me as I strapped the Fender on.

Courteney: “Have I told you how cool it is having you for my big brother?”

Cary: “Even now that you’ve got your own rock star?”

I gave Xander a little shove.

Courteney: “Yeah, he’s a rock star. But you’re just… cool. Rock star or not.”

Xander: “Thanks, babe,” And when I stepped out onstage, I could hear Gabe somewhere in all the noise. This is my favorite day that I’ve ever been alive. Zane: “You ready for this?”

Cary: “Never. But let’s do it anyway.” Taylor: “I’m so proud of you.”

Cary: “Proud enough to take a ride on my cock back in the dressing room?”

She laughed again, and she took my face in her hands so she could look in my eyes.

Taylor: “Proud enough to be your woman for the rest of my life.”

Then her smile faded as I took her face in my hands and the mood grew serious.

Cary: “Then you should marry me."

Taylor: "Then you should propose.”

I kissed her again.

Cary: “Maybe I will." Everyone drifting past me like I was a ship, passing through. There was a certain rhythm to it. A flow. Like a current, deep underwater. An undertow, drawing us down. For the first time in a very long time, I flowed right along with it, carried on the stream. It didn’t sweep me under.

Cary: “You know what?”

I said, and Taylor turned back to hear me.

Cary: “This is my favorite day that I’ve ever been alive.”

She smiled.

Taylor: “Me, too.” Taylor: “They let me hear the heartbeat, too. And all I could think was, if Cary was here, he’d hear music in it.”

Cary: “You’re killing me. I don’t ever want to miss something this important again.”

Taylor: “I know. But you didn’t miss it. It’s right here. And anyway, life happens. We can’t always control it.”


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