A Light in the Dark - Christina Kirby

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Table of Contents A LIGHT IN THE DARK Acknowledgments Opening Act Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9 Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Chapter 12 Chapter 13 Chapter 14 Chapter 15 Chapter 16 Chapter 17 Chapter 18 Chapter 19 Chapter 20 Chapter 21 Chapter 22 Chapter 23 Chapter 24 Chapter 25

Chapter 26 Chapter 27 Chapter 28 Chapter 29 Chapter 30 Chapter 31

A LIGHT IN THE DARK Survival Of The Fittest



A LIGHT IN THE DARK Copyright©2018 CHRISTINA KIRBY Cover Design by Leah Kaye-Suttle This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, business establishments, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the publisher. The only exception is brief quotations in printed reviews. The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated. Published in the United States of America by Soul Mate Publishing P.O. Box 24 Macedon, New York, 14502 ISBN: 978-1-68291-653-7 www.SoulMatePublishing.com The publisher does not have any control over and does not

assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.

For my Brian I’ll follow you anywhere. There’s no one else I’d rather make plans with.

Acknowledgments A special thank you to all my friends from the school pickup posse who listen to me gripe about what stage my book is in. You guys are the best. And, to my sweet neighbors for allowing the kids to come over and play when work gets derailed by ‘snow days.’

Opening Act With the final chord reverberating around the stadium and the fan’s screams slicing through the air, Bailey exited the stage. The weightlessness signaling the end of the tour descended upon him, and brought with it a sense of relief. Their time on the road had been extensive, one of the longest tours of their careers, but the fans deserved it. They’d stuck by the band through what was admittedly the toughest year of their lives. But now, it was time for a break, and time off would be different than in the past. They didn’t have to rush into the studio to record the next album or jump through any promotional hoops. Their time was their own. Oliver, his big brother and the lead singer of Survival of the Fittest, slapped his shoulder. “Not a bad way to end it.” “No, man. You were at the top of your game.” Bailey accepted the offered towel from one of the roadies with a nod of thanks. “I know Lexie will be glad to have you home for a while.” His brother grinned like an idiot at the mere mention of his wife. “That she will. Hey,” Oliver turned and walked backwards, “don’t forget, dinner

at our place tomorrow night.” Leo, their drummer, slung a sweaty arm around Bailey’s shoulders. “You know I’ll be there.” “Anytime there’s food, we know you’ll show.” Leo mussed Bailey’s hair and then popped his sweaty towel toward Oliver, making him take off down the backstage hallway. Leo gave chase and soon after, Bailey could only hear their shouts bouncing off the cinderblock walls. “They never change.” David joined Bailey as they made their way to the backstage entrance where four cars waited to drive each of them home. “Nope.” Bailey laughed. “Hey, how’s your lady?” “She’s good. Working her ass off as usual, but she’ll be there tomorrow night.” David pulled his Braves cap, a little memento from their time spent in Atlanta, out of his back pocket and pulled it down over his eyes. “Well,” he jerked his head in the direction of the stage, “It was fun while it lasted.” Bailey grinned, “It always is.” They each received a quick handshake from the security guard working the door as they pushed their way through and hurried to their cars. One at a time, the dark sedans rolled to a stop at the end of the alleyway, forcing the security guards decked out in yellow shirts to battle back the horde of fans. Women of all ages screamed and waved while a

man with a thick mustache pointed a finger in his direction through the glass and stuck out his tongue, Gene Simmons style. To keep the fan’s efforts from going to waste, Bailey rolled his window down halfway and waved goodbye. The volume of the crowd shot from excited to deafening while fans screamed his name and several shouted offers of marriage. He rolled his window back up and leaned his head against the seat. If only they realized how far from marriage material he was. The cluster of faces faded, traded for the palmtree-lined highway signaling the way to his house. The scene was familiar and while he liked Los Angeles, he longed for a change. His fingers tapped the armrest on the door, mirroring the unrest he’d been fighting for the last six months. The same unrest which had prompted him to apply to college. He still wasn’t sure it would fix what was ailing him, but assuming he got in, it would be a chance to try something new. And, potentially rediscover a dream he’d put on hold. The ocean waves crashed in the distance as he climbed out of the car, but beyond the tranquil sounds of the water there was silence. His place was empty. Thanks to his housekeeper, a plate of food was waiting on him in the fridge, but unlike his brother and David, there was no one there waiting for him.

He popped the plate of chicken, brown rice, and edamame into the microwave and thumbed through the stack of mail sitting on the bar. There was the usual junk, several companies offering him medical services, a couple of bills, and an ad with a guy sporting a tarantula on his bald head offering pest control. Better you than me, dude. When the microwave beeped, he dropped the stack back onto the counter, but stopped again when the gold lettering shone from the corner of one of the envelopes. Food forgotten, he tore it open and scanned the letter, and then he scanned it again. He’d expected an email but hadn’t taken the time to work through the hundred plus messages awaiting him. This letter . . . he scanned the wording again. He was in. It seemed opportunity had arrived. Okay, Honeycutt, so what now?

Chapter 1 The rare appearance of the sun and the start of the semester looming on the horizon, had driven everyone outside in search of familiar faces and a final chance at freedom. As Brie and Jessica, her flatmate of two years, made their way through the park they were forced to navigate through an unusual number of students, and to Brie’s dismay, another discussion about her lackluster love life. “Are you telling me blind-date-Henry had no redeeming qualities?” “None. Ugh, that’s the last time I let Mei set me up with one of her friends.” Brie stopped to spread a blanket over the lawn. “Between his bushy unibrow and the amount of times he talked about his mum, I’m convinced I would’ve been the third wheel in any sort of relationship with him.” “That’s too bad. You could’ve used a little oneon-one time with the ol’ gentleman’s sausage.” “Gross.” Jessica snorted, rolled up her bag, and set it on the ground to use as a pillow. “Forget him. There will be an entire new crop of guys hanging around, starting tomorrow.” “You do realize that the new ‘crop of guys’ as

you so eloquently put it are going to be a bunch of teenagers. Adolescents still covered in the stench of their parents’ houses, hell-bent on testing their limits by drinking to excess and shagging whomever they can?” Jessica squinted at her with one eye, “What’s your point?” “I have no interest in being humped by some puppy. If I were going to take the time for a little roll, I’d at least want a man who knew what he was doing.” Brie looked out over the lawns where the spires from the university shot into the blue sky. Hundreds of years’ worth of scholars had passed through The University of Oxford’s hallways, and in a few short months she would join their ranks. “Besides, you say that like I’m going to have time to think about dating.” “That’s why I suggested a shag. You don’t need a boyfriend, but a little flirtation or a chance to get off with someone might do you some good.” Brie lay back on the ground and stared up at the sky. “No thanks. I have enough to focus on. Maybe next year I can revisit the topic again after I’ve managed to finish my dissertation.” “Please, the DPhil is as good as in your hands and if you wait until next year, you’ll be a dried up old prune by then.” Jessica rolled to her side and propped herself up on her elbow. “Remember, if you don’t use it, you lose it.”

Brie couldn’t keep from laughing. “You’re a piece of work, aren’t you?” “But, you love me.” Jessica leaned in and touched her nose to Brie’s. A Nome kiss as she called it. “Hey, listen to that.” The sound of a guitar floated on the air from the direction of the river. “I love that song.” Brie made a noncommittal noise as she listened to the voices of people close by, their laughter mixed with the music. It wasn’t unusual to hear instruments being played in the park. On more than one occasion groups of students would play impromptu concerts for passersby. As she lay in the grass with the sun on her face, she had to admit it was a pleasant afternoon. It was the kind they would all long for in a couple of months when the weather turned cold and forced everyone inside. “Let’s go down to the river and see what’s new.” Jessica stood and held her arms up over her head. “I’m in the mood to be spontaneous.” Brie shielded her eyes and groaned. “Can’t we just enjoy the peace?” “No. Now, come on.” Jessica held out a hand, for once free of the gray stain of sculpting clay, and helped Brie to her feet. They walked arm in arm down the path to the water’s edge and as they did, the music sounding from the guitar grew louder. Between the small

cluster of people who’d stopped to listen, Brie could make out the man playing. He was propped on a tree stump with his legs spread and a coffee cup resting between his feet. “Let’s move in a little closer.” Jessica tugged her arm and half dragged Brie until they were directly in front of him. “This is hardly a little,” Brie murmured out of the corner of her mouth. Jessica offered a quiet, “Shh.” Brie bit her tongue and tried not to feel foolish as she concentrated on the music. After all, the man wasn’t paying any attention to the growing crowd. His head was bent and nodding to the rhythm of the song. She stood mesmerized as he glided from one familiar song into another and then into something she didn’t recognize. His fingers moved with agility across the strings and though his jeans were torn and his shirt wrinkled, he didn’t look like the usual street performer. Between the way his hair was cut short and the intricate tattoos covering one of his arms, he wasn’t at all what she’d expected. As he strummed a final chord the crowd broke out into applause. The man’s head rose and he nodded in thanks, and then, meeting Brie’s eyes, offered up a grin. Beautiful. “That was brilliant,” Jessica said. “Do you

know any other Survival of the Fittest songs?” Though Jess was speaking from right beside her, the haze Brie was caught in made her seem much further away. She wanted to offer a compliment or at least a hello, but she couldn’t find the words. So instead, she continued to stare as though mute. He chuckled. “I know a few. Which one would you like to hear?” Jessica bounced on her toes. “Dark Days is one of my favorites.” “You got it.” He played the requested song, but this time he sang as well, his American accent doing nothing to help Brie compose her nerves. As his voice rose and his deft fingers moved along the neck of the guitar, she couldn’t stop herself from wondering what his hands would feel like on her body. What was it about men and music? “He’s completely fit,” Jessica whispered from beside her. They rarely had the same taste in men, but this time Brie couldn’t argue. There was something interesting about the man before them, some sort of depth projected as he sang. She felt pulled to him, suddenly curious as to what he was thinking. It was the same way she wanted to go back in time and talk to the painters who’d created the works of art she studied. The scholar in her needed to know

more. The song finished up and Jessica clapped at a volume bordering on embarrassing. “That was completely amazing. Thank you. They’re a favorite of mine, well that’s obvi, I guess.” “Mine, too.” He turned his gaze on Brie again. “And, what about you? Are you a fan of Survival’s music or is there someone else who would please you more?” “What? Oh, um. That was fine.” Jessica elbowed her in the side. “No, I mean it was better than fine. Here,” Brie dug around in her pocket and pulled out a coin where she then proceeded to toss it into his cup. Coffee splashed over the rim and splattered down the legs of his jeans. He shot to his feet and set his guitar to the side. Her stomach dropped at the same time she dropped to her knees and tried to wipe his legs dry with her flowery scarf. “Oh my God, I’m so sorry.” She continued to pat at his legs until a hand appeared beside her face. She tilted her head back, her cheeks scalding, and stared at his outstretched hand. “It’s all good. No harm done.” He reached a little further and she took his hand, unsure if it was simply her embarrassment or something else that sent the jolt through her at his touch. “Seriously, I’m such a git.” She backed up a

step and didn’t miss the look of amusement Jessica was sending her way. “I should’ve looked first.” “It’s no biggie. I was heading out anyway.” He gathered up his guitar and his cup. “Maybe I’ll see you two around.” “Sorry again,” she called as she buried her face in her friend’s shoulder. Jessica patted her on the back. “It’s okay. I’m sure it happens all the time.” “Yeah, right.” With her hot face still buried she mumbled, “I sure hope that isn’t a sign as to how the rest of the year is going to play out.” “Not on my watch.” Jessica looped her arm through Brie’s and pulled her through the dispersing crowd. “Come out with me tonight.” When Brie let her head fall back and dragged her feet, Jessica pulled harder. “Don’t make me beg, because you know I will and I’ll do it at the top of my lungs, too.” “Didn’t we just talk about this? I could swear I made myself clear on the topic of dating, at least for the foreseeable future.” “All I heard was blah-blah-blah when what I needed to hear was, ‘You know what, Jess? You’re right. We could use a night out before school starts and since I’m your best friend in the world, I’d be happy to hit the pub with you.’ That’s what I needed to hear from you, missy. There will be plenty of time for studies after classes start.

“And, I don’t know about you, but after watching the finger work of that guy back there, whew . . .” Brie shook her head. “You’re insane. You know that, right?” “Oh, please. You thought he was hot, too. I haven’t seen you flustered like that in forever.” “I don’t care how buff he was. I’m through with artists.” “He was a musician.” Brie crossed her arms. “Artists, musicians—no more creative types for me at all.” She glanced down at her feet while trying to push memories of her past relationship back down in the depths where they belonged. “Not after the last time.” “Okay, that’s fair, but you could still come out with me and maybe we can find you a nice accountant or solicitor in the making.” As they headed out of the park in search of food, she decided Jessica’s proposal wasn’t entirely terrible. She could use some male attention and a little flirting never hurt anyone. Maybe then she wouldn’t go completely stupid over a guy who borderline looked like a hobo simply because he could play the guitar. Sure, he was an attractive hobo, but he was hardly her type. Not anymore anyway. “I’m still waiting for an answer you know.” Brie groaned.

“That’s it.” Jessica stopped in Brie’s path, arms raised, and when she took a deep breath, ready to shout in the middle of the onlookers, Brie clamped a hand over her mouth. “No, no. That won’t be necessary. I’ll go out, but I’m not hooking up with anyone and only this one time.” Jessica squealed. “You’re the best.” She hopped up on her toes and kissed Brie’s cheek. “You won’t regret this.” Brie shook her head and allowed Jessica to pull her down the street. Somehow, she doubted that was true. ~~~ Bailey turned around on his stool and studied the growing crowd. Though this particular bar was new to him, it was the same as any other. There were the regulars at the end nursing warm beer, students in clusters speaking loud enough to hear each other over the music, women dressed in form fitting clothes and heels eyeing potential dance partners, and men returning their looks eager for the job. “Yo, Honeycutt,” Drew, one of the members from the band’s European crew slapped him on the back, “I’m glad you made it out.” “Yeah, man,” Bailey set his beer to the side and shook hands. “Me, too.”

Drew straddled the stool next to his and signaled the bartender. “So, big college man now, huh?” “Yep, something like that.” He hoped like hell he could hang. It’d been a long time coming and he was almost a decade older than most of the other freshmen. But, while fear of failure clung to the back of his mind, his need for change was greater. “What’s up with the rest of the guys? Still enjoying the California sun?” “Yeah, pretty much.” The bartender set Drew’s glass on the bar and left them to take care of more customers. They hung out in silence for a couple of minutes, their eyes trained on the soccer game showing on one of the many TV’s mounted to the walls. “You know, man, if we’re being honest, I was kinda surprised when you called. After everything that happened . . .” His words hung on the air while the announcer from the game droned on in the background. They both knew he was referring to Bailey’s cancer. “You look good, but it’s just with everything that happened, Oliver seemed, well, on the tour he seemed almost overprotective. I’m surprised he isn’t here with you. No offense.” “None taken.” After all, Drew was right about his brother, Oliver. Since he’d been taking care of Bailey most of his life, the cancer had been as much of a shock and life altering experience to him

as it had been to Bailey. Oliver was like a big brother and dad all rolled into one, a role he’d stepped into without complaint. And, Drew was right about the overprotective thing, too. Oliver had taken charge alongside their mother to see he got the best medical care, but those days were over. He was healthy now and ready to start the next chapter in his life. His brother had opted for marriage, but he wasn’t his brother. What he needed was a chance to focus on something he enjoyed and take back the part of himself he’d been missing. Bailey hoped he would find some sort of peace for himself in Oxford. A way to quiet the discontentment within. The door opened and a small group of ladies pushed inside, their laughter bright and infectious. Seeming to follow his gaze, Drew leaned closer. “So, what do you think of Oxford so far?” As the ladies passed them by on their way to an empty table, Bailey grinned at his friend, “Not too bad so far.” Drew returned his smile and gave him a halfhearted punch in the shoulder. While Drew turned around to get them another drink, he let his gaze wander to the table where the ladies were talking. They were an interesting group, eclectic, colorful in their scarves and bight tops, but there was one who looked almost familiar. Her dark hair hung to her shoulders, her face

pretty with understated makeup, but he wasn’t sure. She turned then, as if sensing his eyes on her and smiled. He tilted his head and returned her grin and it clicked where he’d seen her before, and judging by the way her eyes widened, it did for her as well. She jerked her head back around to her friends and he laughed. She remembered him all right. “God, you sodding prick.” Drew elbowed him in the side. “I almost forgot what it was like to go out with you and the other guys.” “Shut up. It isn’t like that.” Bailey turned around until he was facing the bar again. The truth was, he hadn’t been with anyone since his illness. No one wanted to be with someone who was sick and since he’d recovered, he hadn’t had much interest. There’d been beautiful women along the way, waiting backstage on their recent tour, standing outside the bus, waiting outside their hotel, but along with his love of music, his desire had wavered. There was a lack of passion on his part. It was as though his illness had stripped away the color in life and left him with varying hues of gray. Laughter sounded behind them and he glanced over his shoulder to find the dark-haired girl staring. Her cheeks reddened when she was caught. He grinned as he took another sip of his beer. She was cute and damn if her shyness didn’t add to the

attraction. Sure, he was used to fans fawning over him after a show, but this wasn’t the same. This girl didn’t look like the kind who turned red any time someone looked at her. Her posture alone spoke of someone who was usually in control of any situation, someone who followed rules and played it safe. “Excuse me.” The girl who’d been with the cute girl in the park pushed her way up to the bar. “Can I get two halves of lager, please? And, two orders of crisps?” Bailey made room for her while Drew jabbed him in the back. Unlike her shy counterpart, this one had no trouble looking him straight in the eye. When he offered her a nod, she smiled back, revealing a tongue ring and a dangerous glint in her eye. “Aren’t you that guy from the green this morning?” “I was there, yeah.” “You should come over and join us,” she motioned to Drew who was pressed up against him hard enough so that they were on the verge of tipping over, “and bring your friend.” “Thanks for the invitation. We might have to do that.” She winked and accepted her order from the bartender. “Cheers.” “Come on, man. Let’s go.” Drew was halfway

off his stool before Bailey could turn around. “Chill. If you come across as desperate, they won’t give you the time of day.” “But, I am desperate.” Bailey laughed. “I know, but at least try not to act like it.” “Right.” They bided their time for a couple of minutes, finishing their drinks and then ordering more for themselves and the table before they went over to join the group. Better not to show up empty handed. As they approached the table, the girl with the piercing nudged her friends over to make room. Drew slid in first and then Bailey followed, putting him straight across from the mystery girl. Unlike his friend who was beaming like an idiot, he relaxed against his seat while introductions were made. Though the dark-haired girl was last, when he finally did meet her, there was no mistaking the fresh blush of pink in her cheeks. This was going to be fun.

Chapter 2 The small group took turns introducing themselves and along with the handful of names came the same number of differing accents. The one thing the girls did have in common was that they were all graduate students at Oxford. Bailey didn’t mention he was starting the undergraduate program, and considering he and Drew had a few years—age wise—on the ladies surrounding them, there was no reason for the girls to assume they were flirting with undergrads or at least an undergrad. “So, how do you guys know each other?” It was the tongue-ring girl asking, the one he’d learned was named Jessica. “We’ve worked together in the past.” When he didn’t elaborate, Drew caught his eye and widened his own in question. Bailey shook his head a fraction. No need to turn the attention to the band. “Yeah, we’ve both been in the music industry now for what, B? Fifteen years or so?” “Something like that, bro.” “Ooh,” Mei, the girl originally from Japan, cut in, “does that mean you get to go to concerts for free?”

Bailey shrugged, “Sometimes.” “No, my boy here is just being modest. He can go to any show he wants. Isn’t that right, mate?” “I don’t know about any show I want, but I do know some people.” “You have to take me with you.” Mei grabbed his forearm in a talon-like vise. “I love live music, but most of the time I can’t afford to go to anything in London.” “I’m sure Bailey would love to take someone as pretty as you along.” When Drew leaned in and winked, Mei giggled. “Or, maybe I could stand in for him.” The dark-haired girl, Brie, stood and excused herself. She didn’t appear to be as easily impressed as her friends and he didn’t blame her. Drew sounded like an ass. While he understood the art of impressing, he wasn’t looking to make promises he had no intention of keeping. The last thing he needed was a date arranged with someone who only wanted a free concert out of the deal. If he wanted more of the same—an introduction here, a free dinner there, a free concert per chance—he’d have saved all the late nights, effort, and work, and stayed in L.A. Tonight, what he wanted was a simple night out catching up with a friend and then to start classes, as under the radar as possible. After a couple of minutes passed, he excused

himself and headed in the direction of the back. He wasn’t looking for Brie, but he found her hunched over the controls of an old school, arcade version of Pac-Man. Her shoulders were tense as she jerked the joystick left and then right. “Sorry if our company wasn’t to your liking.” Bailey leaned against the side of the game so he could see her face. She jumped and then slammed her hand down. “Bollocks, you made me lose.” He turned enough to eye the screen where the words ‘Game Over’ flashed. “Sorry. Here, he dug into his jeans pocket, “I’ll spot you a game.” She nodded and hit the two-player button. “I hope you’re better at playing than you are at trying to chat up girls.” “I’ll admit I’m a little out of practice.” When she eyed him, trying to deduce which way he’d meant he was out of practice, he simply grinned and took a seat on the stool next to hers. They sat side by side yanking the joysticks in every possible direction while they dominated round after round. It was only due to his ultracompetitive nature he was able to concentrate on the game and not the girl. She smelled of vanilla and every time they won a round she slammed her hands on the controls and yelled, “Take that.” When they finally died on round seven, they took a break. She slumped against the game and he

leaned against the wall, both smiling from the exhilaration. “You’re right, you know?” “I am?” He sat up. She grinned. “You’re pretty good.” “You’re not bad yourself. I have to admit I love a bar stocked with arcade games.” “Oh, and you were doing so well.” She snapped her fingers dramatically. “That was strike two.” “Wait a minute.” He leaned forward, encouraged by her playful tone. “What did I do to be on strike two already?” “Well, first it was the bragging.” She rolled her eyes. “Typical yank.” “I did no such thing.” “And then, you called this place a bar. This is a pub. You need to learn the lingo if you’re going to stick around.” He leaned back against the wall, a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. “First of all, I wasn’t bragging.” Brie smirked, “Look at me. I can get you into any concert I want. I’m awesome.” “I never said those things. That was all Drew.” She shrugged, “I’m afraid you’re guilty by association.” “Harsh.” Bailey shook his head and rubbed a hand over his chin. “In my boy’s defense, I think he has a little thing for your friend Mei. It’s his

moronic way of flirting.” “And, you can do better? With the flirting that is?” “Definitely.” “Is that what this is? You, following me back here and buying me a game of Pac-Man?” “I wasn’t flirting with you. I simply wanted to play some Pac-Man. You just happened to be sitting here.” She pursed her lips to contain her smile. “Sure.” “And, so long as we’re being honest, I used your coin from this morning.” Her face turned red and her smile broke free as he reminded her of the coffee incident in the park. “Sorry about that.” “No harm done. Just a couple second degree burns.” She shoved him playfully and stood. “I better get back to my friends before they think I’ve made a break for it.” He stood, too, sorry their time alone was ending. “Is that something you do often? Run out on your friends?” “No, thank you very much, but this isn’t really my scene.” He walked beside her as they returned to the table, the bar, er, pub, more crowded now than before. They rejoined the part of the group who

was still sitting at the table. Drew was dancing with Mei, and Jessica was with a guy he didn’t recognize from earlier. And, judging by the way they were dancing, he wasn’t sure they were going to stick around much longer. His eyes cut to Brie who was seated beside him. She was pretty, more than that, she was interesting to look at. A little too sexy to be considered girl-next-door attractive, but simple enough not to be called exotic. And, she was fun. His eyes cut to Drew and Mei again and then back to Brie. Ah, what the hell? “Hey, Brie, would you want to . . .” he nodded toward the dancefloor. Her eyes darted to the dance area and then back at him, her expression tinged with alarm. It was just a dance, but the way she was staring at him made it seem like he’d asked her to get it on in the middle of the room. “I can’t.” She stood and gathered her things. “It’s been fun, but I better go.” She took off for the door and left him sitting there alone. That went well. ~~~ “Hey, Brie, wait up.” When Jessica came barreling out of the pub and caught up to her, she turned. “Where’re you going?” “I’m sorry, Jess, but it’s getting pretty crowded

in there. I’m going to head back to the flat, but you should stay.” “Are you sure?” “Oh, yeah. You know me. I’m ready to go.” “I thought you and the American were hitting it off, what happened?” Jessica gazed through the pub window, dingy as it was, as though searching for someone. “Oh Bailey, yeah, I mean he was fine, but you know how it goes.” Brie stared down at her shoes. She already felt stupid enough for bolting. The door to the pub opened behind Jessica and in a wave of blaring music Bailey stepped out. Turn the other way. Turn the other way. He looked straight at them and then to make matters worse, Jessica turned and spotted him. “Hey there, Bailey. Are you heading out as well?” “Yeah, but it was good meeting you.” “You, too. You know, Brie’s leaving and I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind walking her back to our flat?” Brie’s eyes grew wide and she had the sudden desire to smack Jess in the back of the head. What was she thinking? “I’d hate for her to walk all that way by herself.” “It’s not that far. I think I can manage,” Brie said it through clenched teeth, but either due to the haze of alcohol or her dire need to see her flatmate get laid, Jessica continued to ignore her.

“I mean, at this time of night you never know what kind of person you might run into. Pick pockets, deranged perverts . . .” Bailey’s mouth twitched as Jessica continued to exaggerate the dangers of Oxford as if they weren’t out in the middle of the country with one of the lowest crime rates west of London. She was going to kill Jessica if she didn’t die of embarrassment first. “You’re right of course.” He nodded and kept a serious face, but she didn’t miss the way his eyes danced. “I’d be happy to escort the fair Brie home.” “Okay, you two. Very funny.” Bailey waved a goodbye to Jessica and started down the sidewalk, but before Brie could join him, Jessica grabbed her arm. “For fuck’s sake, unclutch your pearls and have some fun.” Bailey paused and turned back, his gaze shifting from Jessica to her, but there wasn’t much she could do without making it a bigger deal, so she yanked her arm free and walked on. “See you kids later,” Jessica called after them. Yep, she was definitely going to kill her. Slowly. Brie and Bailey walked the first part of the way to her place in silence. He didn’t seem affected by it, but her insides were twisting like they were on a broken fair ride. She’d never felt so stupid, minus throwing money in his coffee that morning, but that

had been an honest mistake. Then, there was the pub where they’d had some nice flirting going on before she’d gone and ruined it. Argh. This day needed to end. “Hey, so about earlier—” “Don’t tell me I managed to get a third strike against me. I wasn’t even talking.” She laughed and some of the tension drained away. He did seem like a good guy and there was no denying he was attractive, especially now that he’d cleaned himself up a little. And, he was a damn fine Pac-Man partner. “No, you’re holding steady at two strikes.” She raised her eyebrow at him. “For now.” “Good thing. I didn’t want to get kicked out of the country after only being here a few days.” He held his hands, which were shoved into the pockets of his denim jacket, out to his sides. “I don’t blame you. That would’ve been embarrassing, and speaking of embarrassing moments . . .” She blew out a breath. “I wanted to apologize for earlier. The whole dance thing—” “Don’t worry about it. I’m terrible anyway. Believe me, you saved yourself a lot of pain.” “That’s sweet of you to say, but honestly, it had nothing to do with you. I’m rubbish in crowded spaces. If I were to dance, it would have to be on a dancefloor with plenty of space.” He lowered his hands back to his sides and

nodded as though making a mental note. “Got it, no crowded dance floors. Anything else I should know?” She laughed and decided Bailey wasn’t a bad guy at all. In fact, if she didn’t have so much going on with school and if her entire future wasn’t riding on the upcoming year, she would’ve considered seeing more of him, but that wasn’t possible. “Well,” she paused beside a stretch of brick row houses a few minutes later, “thanks for the company.” “Any time.” He kicked at a loose stone and then tilted his head to one side. “You know, this was one of the best nights I’ve had in a while. Thanks for that.” “Yeah, me too.” He was standing close to her, close enough to touch. Jess’s words echoed somewhere in the corner of her mind and before she had time to consider all the ways this was crazy, she snaked a hand out and latched onto his jacket, pulling him the remaining inches toward her. She paused, and he kept his eyes on hers as he leaned in, his lips brushing hers once, and then again, until her eyes fluttered closed. God, yes, his mouth felt good on hers. The heat, the strength of his lips, the slight brush of day old stubble. She’d missed this more than she’d realized until this moment. Somewhere far away

someone sighed, possibly her, and she kissed him again. Bailey’s hands slid from her waist up to her face until he was cradling her head and tasting every corner of her mouth. Jesus. This was a man who knew what he was doing. He wasn’t some freshman boy, he was a man, the kind who would make sure to please a woman in bed. Under normal circumstances she would’ve been shocked by her train of thought, but with Bailey’s mouth on hers, all of her thoughts were muddled at best. The breeze swept around them as they stood clinging to each other in the dark, frozen in a spell of their own making until blinding lights bore down on them and they pulled apart, each a little breathless. She bit her lip, a little surprised at her own actions. He whisked a hand through his hair. “See you around, I hope?” She wanted to see more of him, but better to keep things light. There was no reason to give him hope or to act as though she had time to devote to any sort of relationship. She shook herself mentally for not just living in the moment. It was only a kiss. Yeah, the way Van Gogh was only a painter. “I’m sure you will and if you ever need a PacMan partner . . .” “I’ll know who to call.” He winked, and her stomach fluttered. This was so not good.

Chapter 3 The following morning, as Brie glanced over her notes, she took a steadying breath to calm her nerves. Though she knew the material backwards and forewords, it was her first time leading Art History as the primary instructor. In the past, she’d filled in on the rare occasion the regular professor couldn’t be there, but as a doctorate student, the undergraduate class was hers to teach. As the auditorium style seats filled, she reached for her coffee, but when her hand shook due to over-caffeinating, she pulled her it back. Instead, she held her head high and waited for everyone to get settled. Now wasn’t the time to show weakness. “Good morning, everyone and welcome to The Ruskin School of Art.” She blew out another steadying breath and forced the slight tremor of nerves from her voice. “I’m Brie Freeman and I’m going to be your instructor this term. If you’re not supposed to be in Art History One, you’re in the wrong place.” One guy near the back shot out of his seat, arms loaded with a tablet and backpack and took off out the door. “Good, now let’s get to work.” Brie moved to

the lights and flipped them off allowing the audience to see the projector screen with clarity. “This term, the majority of our class time will be dedicated to discussing art from the Renaissance period. It was a fascinating time and one that is significant because it marks the transition of Europe from the Medieval Period to the Early Modern age.” Brie tapped her tablet to change to the first slide showcasing a world-famous drawing. “You can find this drawing and others by Michelangelo right here in our Ashmolean Museum, which brings me to our first assignment. You will all need to visit the Ashmolean Museum in person and choose a piece from the Arts of the Renaissance collection to write a three-page paper, as mentioned on page one of your syllabus.” She pointed to the image with her laser pointer and traced the lines of the subject’s face. “I want to know how it speaks to you. What about it catches your eye? What is the mood of the painting and why do you think so?” Her eyes flitted across the eager faces as the students typed or wrote as she spoke. They seemed young though they were only a handful of years her junior, and in some ways she envied them. Where she was locked into her future, most of the students before her had endless possibilities ahead them. Their futures were blank canvasses whereas hers

was only awaiting the finishing touches. “You can find all the information you’ll need for this assignment as well as others on my website. Now, let’s begin with . . .” As she started to turn back to the screen her gaze caught on a familiar face. “With, uh . . .” She shook her head, convinced her mind was playing tricks on her the way it had been since the night at the pub—since the kiss. The student in the audience looked exactly like Bailey, but with his head down, she couldn’t be sure. Besides, it wasn’t possible. Bailey was too old to be a freshman and he wasn’t a student. This was a case of nerves and hers were not going to get the best of her. “We’re going to start with—” The boy with the similar features looked up at her and grinned. The same unnerving smile which had turned her into a bloody muppet outside her flat echoed back to her in class. What the hell was he doing there? And, how was she supposed to get through the entire term with him sending her into a stupor every time she laid eyes on him? She straightened her shoulders and turned away, a new determination taking hold. This was her class and she couldn’t afford to let some bloke distract her, no matter how attractive he was. Or the fact that she couldn’t stop daydreaming about kissing him again and a few other things she might like to do to him. No.

She swiped her finger across her screen hard enough to create heat. “Right, so let’s begin with one of the greats, Mr. Leonardo da Vinci.” When the end of the hour rolled around and the class emptied, then and only then did she allow herself to glance in the direction he’d been sitting. Sighing with relief when she found his seat empty, she hefted her bag onto her shoulder to leave. By some sort of miracle, and a superhuman amount of self-control, she’d gotten through the rest of the lecture without tripping over her words. Of course, it had helped that she hadn’t let her gaze shift even a fraction past the middle of the room. No point in risking it. Her cell phone beeped inside her pocket and she paused outside the class to fish it out. When her ex’s name appeared on the screen, a twist of dread moved through her chest. He wasn’t one for checking in. The only time Theo called was when he needed something and like her new student, he was a distraction she couldn’t afford. ~~~ “So, how was it?” Jessica dropped her heavy bag on the table, banging the chair against the table leg as she sat. Her arrival at the library didn’t go unnoticed. Several people cut eyes in their direction showing their distaste at her chosen volume. “It was fine,” Brie whispered, dropping a hint

at her friend. She tapped her pencil on her cheek while Jessica pulled out a large text and her laptop. “Okay, it wasn’t exactly fine. It was a total cluster starting with class and ending with a call from Theo.” Only too happy to put studying off, Jessica leaned in closer, eyes wide enough to send her eyebrows into her hairline. “Start at the beginning and leave nothing out.” “Remember the guy from the pub, Bailey?” “You mean the one you assaulted with hot coffee and then snogged?” Jessica snickered. “Yeah, I remember. Whenever I’m feeling bored I conjure up the memory and it always makes me smile.” Brie narrowed her eyes and sat back in her chair. “If you’re going to be like that about it, never mind.” “No, no, no. I’m sorry.” Jessica leaned across the table and took her hand, her stack of bracelets jingling. “It’s fun to poke fun at the girl who never makes mistakes or gets flustered.” “Oh, please. We both know that isn’t true.” Brie pulled her hand away, crossed her arms over her chest, and gazed out over the other tables. Aside from the Art School buildings, the library was where she spent the majority of her time and she wasn’t alone. Several of the faces of those seated nearby belonged to other grad students and DPhil

candidates. “Brie, you always have it together. You got to university knowing exactly what you wanted to do and how you were going to achieve it while the rest of us floundered for a year or two.” “I appreciate the vote of confidence.” “I’m serious. It’s good to see you’re not a robot sometimes.” “Thank you? I think.” Jessica laughed and when a guy at the table behind them hissed a ‘shh’ in their direction, they both leaned in again. “What were you going to tell me about the delicious guitar guy?” “He’s in my class.” “What?” “Yeah, as in, he’s a student.” “And, you thought he was homeless.” Jessica started to laugh, but after daring a glance over her shoulder seemed to think better of it. She settled for a smirk instead. “Isn’t that an interesting development? Do you think he can play the song ‘Hot For Teacher’ on his guitar?” “Why are we friends again?” “Oh, Brie, come on. It’s not like you’d be the Mrs. Robinson in this situation. He looked around our age.” “It’s not about age.” When Brie’s voice came out louder than intended, she dropped back into a whisper. “He’s a student, which means he’s off

limits.” Jessica made a distorted kissy face. “You can always set him up with me. I’m not his teacher, but I wouldn’t mind teaching him a few things.” “Good Lord.” Brie rolled her eyes toward the heavens. “This is going to be a fun semester.” Jessica smacked her lips. “Could be.” “You are impossible.” “Thank you,” Jessica settled back in her chair, sly as a cat, “Now, tell me what that wanker Theo wanted.” Brie didn’t want to talk about Theo, he was her past, but Jess was the one person who would understand. She let out a huff of air. “He wanted what he always wants.” “Did you tell him to buggar off?” “No, I didn’t call him back. It’s easier to ignore him.” Jessica’s smile faded and a hint of concern crossed her features. “Until he shows up at our door like he did the last time.” “I’m sorry about that, Jess. You know I am.” Eyes sympathetic, her friend folded her hands on the table, “I’m not mad. I’m worried about you. When are you going to stop giving into his demands? You can’t keep this up.” “I know, but—” “But nothing, Brie. He’s wronged you in almost every way a person can and he’s still taking and

taking. You don’t have the money to keep paying him off.” Brie nodded and wiped away a tear, annoyed Theo still held control over her after everything he’d done. Jessica reached a hand across the table and squeezed hers. “Come on, love. Cheer up. You have more important things to think about than Theo, like maybe one of your students . . .” Brie wiped under her eyes one last time and laughed, “Oh shut up. I never should’ve told you.” “What fun would that’ve been?” “It isn’t always about fun, Jessica. Sometimes it’s about doing the right thing.” “I think it can be both.” Brie shook her head and opened her laptop. She’d tried fun once before and it had led to nothing but embarrassment and trouble. She wasn’t going there again. ~~~ Bailey ducked his head against the drizzle of rain as he made his way across the street to his row house. It wasn’t much, but it worked. Besides, he spent months at a time living in hotels and on tour buses. If he could share a bus with a bunch of foulsmelling guys, he could live about anywhere. He slinked out of his jacket and hung it near the door at the same time he toed off his boots. The

denim jacket hadn’t done much to keep out the dampness and, as he looked around, he was reminded again how nice it would be to have a dryer. As he pulled his shirt off and tossed it onto the pile of dirty clothes at the foot of his bed, he winced. There were times, like now, he missed the hell out of his housekeeper Rosa. Thumping sounded through the wall he shared with the guys living in the house next door. Like him, they were students, but while he was an undergrad, they were nearing the end of their time at Oxford. The banging sounded again followed by a muffled, “Hullo.” Bailey jumped onto the couch and banged back. “Sup, fellas?” Their laughter echoed back. “Wanna play for a bit?” Bailey’s gaze landed on his guitar where it was leaning against the wall. He hadn’t touched it since he’d played in the park. He’d tried to see if being outside and playing for fun instead of as an obligation would bring him more enjoyment, but he hadn’t felt the usual pull. Although, he had met a certain woman that day and while his feelings toward the music hadn’t changed, he couldn’t deny a certain yearning had sparked when she’d kissed him. There were two pounds against the wall when he didn’t respond.

“Yeah, give me a second.” Bailey picked at a thread on one of the cushions while the brief moment of loneliness passed. The feeling wasn’t new to him, even when he’d been touring with the band over the last year he’d had moments when he looked at them and felt removed. It wasn’t their fault any more than it was his, but he couldn’t stop it, the lingering nag of separateness. His mother, when he’d dared to broach the subject with her once, had said it was because he’d gone through something no else could understand and she’d encouraged him to join a support group. He’d tried her advice and attended a couple of meetings at the hospital, but either his celebrity or remission set him apart. His brother tried to get him to work on a couple of new songs while they’d been on the road, but like everything else, he couldn’t seem to connect. The music was there inside him, but he couldn’t reach it. There was some sort of invisible barrier holding him back. He tore the string off and crossed to the kitchen. It was time to shake the moodiness. He opened the fridge and pulled out everything he needed for his daily smoothie. He’d left plenty behind at his condo in L.A., but not his Ninja blender. After his year spent in and out of hospitals he’d made a few life changes and his daily green smoothie was one of them.

A knock sounded on his door and a minute later he and his neighbors were lounging around the covered patio, instruments in hand. “Damn, man, what’re you drinking?” Bailey set his clear cup filled with the kale infused smoothie down by his feet and grinned. “I’m super into health.” He considered flexing to annoy John further, but refrained. He wasn’t alone in his feelings. Leo tended to be more than a little grossed out when he made them on the tour bus. “It can’t taste good,” John, the eldest one of the group scowled. “Shut up,” Freddie kicked his leg. “You wouldn’t know healthy food if it hit you in the face.” “Jesus, if it looks like that, I don’t want to.” “C’mon you lot,” Cohen tapped out a few notes on his keyboard, but unlike the others, he didn’t play for fun. Cohen was considered a musical prodigy and based on the music Bailey heard pouring through the wall on the rare occasion Cohen was composing at the house, he deducted there might be some truth to the claim. They warmed up with a popular Queen song and then agreed to play around with something new Cohen had been working on. Sitting out on the side porch of his row house wasn’t exactly the same as sitting on his back balcony with the ocean extending the length of the horizon before him, but

it wasn’t bad either. Strips of taupe colored row houses lined the narrow road, mostly occupied by other Oxford students. He was one of the few first-year students living out as they called living off campus, but it was the only way to earn a little privacy. He was, after all, a great deal older than most of the other undergrads and like his neighbor friends, people eventually figured out who he was. “Not bad.” Cohen leaned over his paper, pulled his pencil out from behind his ear and scribbled something before pointing to one of the other guys. “Hey, Freddie, do you mind picking up the tempo on the last few chords? And, John, will you let the last note of the second verse hold an extra two beats?” They started again from the middle of the song, this time, making the few adjustments Cohen suggested. With the slight changes the song flowed until it swelled into what one might hear at the climax of a movie. “Hey, ladies,” John shouted over the music. They continued to play while he motioned for whomever it was he could see to come over. “Come join us.” John stood and offered his seat to Jessica and another lady who was hiding behind her. They took the offered loveseat and huddled together they way girls always seemed to do when outside their

element. Once seated, there was no mistaking the dark hair or the slim build. Brie looked up and her eyes went wide at the sight of him. He grinned. This was a pleasant turn of events. “Hi, Professor.” “Oh, well,” her cheeks turned scarlet when her eyes landed on his bare chest, “I’m not technically a professor yet. It’s just Miss Freeman. Or, Brie, when we’re not in class.” “Until the end of the year,” Jessica bumped her shoulder. “Then, it’ll be Doctor Freeman.” The group whistled and cheered. “Really? Nice.” Bailey spun his guitar around once and leaned it against the side of his chair. “Until then, Miss Freeman, it is.” “So, whose digs?” Jessica stared around the space seeming to take in every detail. “This is Bailey’s place, but he’s nice enough to let us hang out over here.” Bailey shrugged. “It’s no problem.” Jessica’s mouth fell open, “Do you have this whole place to yourself?” He chuckled, “Yes, I’m afraid so. I like my privacy.” “That’s brilliant.” She nudged Brie’s leg with her own. “She thought you were a hobo after we saw you in the park the other day.” Freddie snorted, “A hobo? Bailey? Not bloody

likely.” Bailey silenced him with a look. He didn’t mind them knowing who he was, but it was more fun for him if they didn’t, at least for a little longer. They could make up their own minds about him before they found out how he’d spent the last decade because no matter what, it would alter their opinions of him. John stood, “Do either of you ladies fancy a brew?” “Sure,” Jessica got to her feet, “I’ll help.” Brie tried to follow them, “I can help, too.” “No, stay and hang out. We’ll be right back.” Jessica followed John back around the side of the house toward the guy’s place. They weren’t gone thirty seconds before a squeal pierced the air. “Sorry, guys, all good,” Jessica shouted a second later. Freddie and Cohen exchanged knowing glances. So much for keeping his identity a secret. Bailey ignored them and turned his full attention to Brie, “It’s nice to see you again.” The words were simple, but he meant them. For the last week he’d hoped more than a few times that he’d run into her again outside of class. It’d been a long time since a woman had stayed with him and he had no intention of letting Brie disappear before he had the chance to see if there was more to what had passed between them than a


Chapter 4 Brie was going to kill Jessica for leaving her alone. She let her gaze drop to her hands as she tried to decide what to say. Anything was better than staring at the man before her. Bailey was relaxed as he could be, no shirt, no shoes, and a smirk she wanted to knock off his face. Why couldn’t he have mentioned he was attending classes the night they’d hung out? She was his instructor for pity’s sake and yet the way he was studying her made her feel like the uneasy student on the first day of class. “I’m not sure how much I should say about myself considering you’re my student.” When he let the silence stretch between them, she shifted in her seat. It was clear he wasn’t easily deterred. She sighed, “I’m an instructor, a grad student, and that’s all I have time for.” “Maybe not all.” He stretched his legs out before him and crossed them at the ankles before grinning at her. “You have to make time for a little Pac-Man now and again.” The tight space forced his feet within inches of her own, but she would not move away. She raised her eyes to meet his and saw the challenge

reflected there. His mouth twisted into a failed suppressed grin. Challenge accepted, pal. “What about you? She kept her tone even and tried to enunciate with a hint of authority as if to remind him she was the one he should be trying to impress and not the other way around. “Why are you in my class? Why art school?” “Hmm, that’s a long story.” He scratched his head and squinted. “I might be willing to tell you about it over dinner.” Her mouth fell open. “That would hardly be appropriate.” “You were the one rubbing my legs within two minutes of seeing me.” He grinned again. “Who’s the inappropriate one now?” “There was coffee. I was trying to—” “And, after I walked you home you—” “I know what happened, thanks.” The other guys, whom she’d forgotten were there, snickered behind their instruments at the same time heat flooded her cheeks. Normally she could take a joke, but he was infuriating. The screen door opened with a squeak. Thank God. She shot to her feet. “Jessica, didn’t you say you needed to be at the studio by three?” Jessica grinned complete with excess eyelash fluttering as she handed a drink to Bailey and then turned, confused. “I don’t remember saying . . .”

Brie narrowed her eyes. “Oh, right. Yeah, I did.” Jessica reluctantly set down the remaining drink she was holding. “Sorry, John, bad luck. I’ll catch up with you later on.” “Sure thing.” “Well, bye then.” Jessica giggled and then looped her arm through Brie’s. “See you guys later.” Brie took care not to look at Bailey, Bailey with his lean body and toned muscles on display for all to admire. He may’ve acted charming at the pub, but it seemed that’s all it ever was, an act. “See you in class, Miss Freeman.” His voice forced her to betray her own resolve and she glanced his way. Infuriating or not, he was nice to look at. Unlike the blokes who spent too many hours in the gym building muscles until their necks were non-existent, Bailey was trim and smooth, more like the statues of the men she taught about in class. She nodded once and let Jessica pull her away. As they made their way down the lane toward their flat, Jessica jumped into the air in an explosion of excitement, nearly yanking Brie’s arm out of the socket. “What the devil’s gotten into you?” “You’re never going to believe this.” Brie rotated her shoulder while Jessica danced what could only be described as a jig in the middle

of the street. “What’re you talking about?” “That guy, Bailey?” Brie started walking again. She was over worrying about that irksome, impossible yank. Class on Wednesday would be soon enough to think about him again. “Well, you know how he was playing a Survival of the Fittest song when we heard him in the park?” “Yeah, so what? Everyone knows Survival songs the same way everyone, whether they’ll admit it or not, knows a song by Nickelback.” “Oh, no. It’s more than that and please don’t compare Survival to Nickelback. That’s insulting.” Jessica’s hands flailed in her excitement. “Anyway, he is a member of Survival of the Fittest. As in, he’s the lead guitarist, Bailey Honeycutt.” “Don’t be daft, Jess. Who told you that, John?” Brie stuffed her hands in her pockets as the rain started up again. “He’s having a go at you.” “No, it’s true. I thought he was kidding, too, but then he pulled up a picture of the band on his phone to prove it.” Jessica grabbed her arm and they halted to a stop. “I’m telling you, it’s him.” Brie blinked in disbelief. “Yeah, and you thought he was a hobo. He’s probably got more money than the Queen.” Jessica broke out into a manic laugh. “Can you believe it?” She set off for their place and left Brie standing in

the middle of the road, her laughter trailing behind her on the wind. This was not possible. Her mind simply wouldn’t accept it. She dug her phone out of her back pocket and typed the band’s name into Google and clicked Images. She zoomed in on the first picture and then on the second. This could not be happening. A horn blasted as a lorry came barreling down the street toward her. Brie jumped back out of the way, but didn’t let a little thing like almost getting run over stop her from scrolling. It was him. There was no way it wasn’t. The tattoos matched, the sly grin, and though he had longer hair in most of the pictures, there was no denying it. She blew out a breath and hit herself in the forehead with her phone. Just when she thought she couldn’t feel like a bigger prat . . . The door was unlocked for her when she finally dragged herself inside and there on the sofa, kicked back without a care in the world, was Jessica. “You believe me now, don’t you?” Her smug expression did nothing to help Brie’s mood. “Don’t start.” Jessica sat up, suddenly excited all over again. “Oh, come on, Brie. This is huge, isn’t it? Bailey Honeycutt right here in Oxford.” “Lucky us.” “You mean lucky you. He’s already kissed you.

This is your chance.” Jessica let out a sigh of aggravation as she hung her head upside down off the floral pillow. “Why aren’t you more enthusiastic? This is the best news I’ve had in my five years here.” “I have no idea what you’re talking about. My chance . . . that’s ridiculous. We’re here to work and learn, not fangirl over some guitar player.” Brie shook out her damp hair and opened the refrigerator. Maybe if he were someone else, someone who didn’t make her go stupid she’d feel differently, but so far all she could tell about Bailey Honeycutt was that he was smug, rich, and dangerous—as was the nature of attractive men with money. Unlike herself, he most likely hadn’t had to bust his ass to get into school. She paused with the can of soda in her hand. How had he gotten in? Ugh. She slammed the door closed. For all she knew there would be a new building named after him in the coming months, proof he’d paid his way in. “I can’t believe you’re being like this.” Brie flopped down on the sofa and crossed her arms over her chest. “Like what? Sensible?” “How is it sensible to pretend like you don’t like him?” “I hardly know him.” Jessica sat up and pointed a finger at her,

“Precisely, and you still kissed him. You never just have a go to have a go. You were into him.” She shifted her knees away from Jessica and flipped on the tele. “Yeah, well, I’m not anymore.” Jessica sprang off the sofa, blocking her view of the Doctor Who rerun she was trying to focus on, “You’re completely mental by the way.” “I’m focused.” “Argh,” Jessica huffed as she left the room. “Insanity is not focus. It’s just insanity.” “You should engrave that on one of your sculptures,” Brie called after her. She tried to let David Tennent distract her, but when she caught sight of her phone sitting on the table, she picked it up and opened her search engine back up. Bailey’s face filled the screen. How had this man with his perfect life ended up in her class? And, not only that, she’d kissed him. Deny it as she might, Jess was right. She had been into him. She scrolled through a couple more pictures and then threw her phone to the opposite side of the sofa. Bailey Honeycutt was out of the question. ~~~ Bailey twirled his beer bottle between his fingers as John returned to the seat he’d offered up to Jessica and Brie. He wished they’d stayed longer, or at least that Brie had. If so, she might’ve

had the chance to loosen up and been a little less formal. Then, maybe he would’ve gotten a chance to talk her into going out with him before she realized he was in a band. Because, there was no doubt in his mind she knew. Her friend, Jessica, hadn’t exactly done a bang-up job at hiding the fact she was in on his little secret. Freddie, as though reading his thoughts, launched an empty cup at John’s head. John blocked it at the last second and scowled. “What the hell was that for?” “Why did you out our boy to Jessica?” John’s eyes swung between Bailey and Freddie, a dumbfounded expression on his face. “What?” “Bailey was trying to make some progress with the lovely Brie before telling her his true identity.” Freddie leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. “Isn’t that right, mate?” Bailey let one shoulder rise and fall. “She’s cool.” “See, John, that’s rock star speak for he fancies her.” Abashed, John looked at Bailey. “Sorry, man. I didn’t realize.” He shook his head. “No worries. She was bound to find out sooner or later. And, on top of it all she’s my professor.” “That’s a tough break,” Cohen added, finally tearing himself away from the piece of music he’d

been working on and acknowledging their presence. “She’ll never go for you now. Not as long as she’s your instructor. Brie is a follow-the-rules kind of girl.” Bailey’s grin returned. “That’s okay. I’m a patient man.” And, he’d be damned if he wasn’t going to take a shot at the first woman who’d peaked his interest in three years.

Chapter 5 With his bag slung over his shoulder, Bailey set off toward the elder of the two Ruskin buildings. He’d obsessed over his paper for Art History for the better part of a week, and he was in dire need of coffee. After he’d turned it in the previous night, one minute before the midnight deadline, he’d lain awake worrying over the content. “All right, mate?” “Morning, John,” Bailey waited while his neighbor locked his door and joined him on the street. “Where’re you heading?” “Just up the street to the media lab. I’ve got to get started on a project and they have the 3D printer I need.” John held up a hand to signal they were crossing to an oncoming bus. “What about you? Where to?” “Art History with the formidable Miss Freeman.” “Ah yes, Brie.” John hopped up onto the curb, his strides graceful despite his size. “She’s a force to be reckoned with. I met her and Jessica a few years back at a summer ball, both gorgeous and too smart to give our group the time of day.” “What about now? Are you and Jessica . . .?”

“No, man. We’re friends. Besides, I think Cohen has a little thing for Jess.” “Hmm.” Bailey pictured Cohen, floppy hair, glasses, serious expression more often than not, and someone he hadn’t heard speak more than about ten words since he’d met him. His intense concentration on his music rarely allowed for idle chatting with the boys. John snorted. “I know he doesn’t say much, but he’s a good bloke.” He paused on the corner where they would be parting ways. “Just whatever you do, don’t speak against his beloved Red Devils.” “His what?” John threw his head back and laughed from his gut. “Definitely don’t say that either. He’s bloody in love with football and he isn’t afraid to challenge anyone who speaks against Manchester United. He’s been thrown out of more than a few pubs for defending their name.” “Oh, so he’s into soccer as well as music.” Bailey rocked back on his heels, pleased he’d figured it out. “That’s cool.” John shook his head, “Careful, B, your yank is showing.” He offered him a farewell wave and took off at a jog. By the time Bailey reached class most of the chairs were occupied and Brie was in her place at the front of the room. As she spoke with a fellow

student he noted how her eyes were alight with energy. At ease and without her guard up as per her usual around him, she was breathtaking. Unlike a lot of nipped, tucked, tweaked, and bleached girls from home, Brie with her raven hair and fair skin had a natural beauty. Her eyes skimmed past him, too quick to flash her a smile before she put her back to him and flipped to the first slide of the day. He shook his head and began to type out the facts she offered as she moved through the day’s lesson on da Vinci. It was always the same in class, she’d never meet his eyes. Most days, she seemed to pretend the left side of the room didn’t exist. If it were someone else, he might take it personally, but when she’d kissed him, there was no mistaking she’d enjoyed it as much as he had. He cleared his throat and pushed the night they met out of his mind. It wouldn’t do well to lose sight of the lesson. The rest of his classes were going well enough, but art was where his interest lay and the class he cared about above all. The other core classes were a means to an end and fortunately, he didn’t have to retake the few he’d taken during high school. As Brie continued to explain da Vinci’s origins, snippets of whispered conversation distracted him. “It’s him,” the first voice hissed. “You’re mad,” a male student cut in, “How

could he have gotten in here? What’s the acceptance rate now? Less than twenty percent?” Bailey shifted uncomfortably in his seat. He was used to people talking about him, but usually he wasn’t in the middle of it. Most forms of gossip about himself or any of the other guys in the band resulted from tabloids or internet chatter which could be either laughed at or ignored. “He has enough money. He probably paid someone or made a donation to the school.” They halted when Brie turned and gazed in their direction, but when her back was to them once again, they returned to their incessant gossip. “It wouldn’t surprise me if he paid someone off. That’s what celebrities do, isn’t it? He’ll flame out before the year’s over.” The deep timbre of a male chuckle sounded. “Or, he could’ve played the sympathy card. He like, almost died a few years ago.” They kept whispering, but he didn’t hear the rest of what they were saying. Bailey’s stomach sank as the thin shred of hope he’d been clinging to on the off chance they were talking about someone else snapped. Brie turned and stalked in their direction. “I’m sorry, was there something you wanted to add? Because, I would be shocked if you know something about da Vinci that I don’t. For example, did you know that after completing his

apprenticeship, he stayed on as an assistant in Verrocchio's shop and that his earliest known painting is in Verrocchio's Baptism of Christ circa 1475? Leonardo executed one of the two angels as well as the distant landscape, and he added the final touches to the figure of Christ, determining the texture of the flesh.” She stood, hands on hips, back straight, daring the two behind him to comment further. “No? Well, then please don’t interrupt me again or you will be asked to leave.” When she reached the front of the room again, she leveled her gaze at the entire class. “Keep in mind that I find there is no better time to offer a pop quiz than after disrespectful students are asked to leave.” Bailey grinned, but had the sense to keep his eyes lowered to his laptop. As Brie returned to her lecture, he listened to her with a renewed respect. She was without doubt as brilliant as she was beautiful and her passion for art, well, he was envious. It’s what he’d lost, that kind of drive and passion for something. He sat up straighter in his seat and returned to his notes, more determined than before to succeed. ~~~ Situated with coffee, a stack of student papers, and research books of her own, Brie hunkered down in the Theory Studio and settled into the

silence. The Studio as the students referred to it, offered a peaceful environment to work on their postgraduate research. It was a cozy space lined with shelves of books and a few tables. She’d spent a fair amount of time tucked away inside its walls. She liked it better than the library because it wasn’t far from her flat, and tonight, it was empty. The confrontation in her morning class had been a precursor for the rest of her day, a sign she failed to notice until later. Between almost being run over by a guy on a bike, dropping half her lunch down the front of her shirt, and a leaking pen, she’d had enough. She uncapped a fresh red pen and prepared to mark as she read over the first paper in her stack. It wasn’t bad, a little fluffy, but not bad. She made a few notations in the side margin and continued on to the next one. If she could make it through a fourth of the stack in one sitting, she’d be pleased. Staying on schedule was key and unlike Jessica who planned to go out that night, Brie couldn’t do it. After the day she had, she was probably safer inside and away from people. One hour turned into two and her coffee turned cold. She paused to rub her eyes and took what was going to have to be her final paper from the stack. As her eyes skimmed over the name at the top, her fingers tensed. She exhaled and then chastised herself for being silly. He was simply a student like

any other. A crease formed between her eyes as she concentrated on his words. Unlike the papers up until this point, Bailey’s work was reflective. It wasn’t about what he liked about the artist’s use of colors or how the topic of the piece was still relevant in modern times, his spoke of something much more personal. The drawing he’d chosen hadn’t been chosen by anyone else thus far, most likely because it was unattractive and unpleasing to look at for any extended period of time, and yet Bailey, who she’d assumed was used to being surrounded by attractive people, referred to the drawing as da Vinci himself once had, a portrait of his inner self. Leonardo da Vinci’s, A Grotesque Head, was by no means one of her favorite pieces in the museum and yet, she was fascinated by what she was reading. The waves in the image remind me of inner turmoil and the face, monster like in its grotesque beauty, fills me with an appreciation for the artist. It is as though a man from thousands of years ago read my thoughts as I laid ill for so long. No longer the man I once saw in the mirror, but a changed man full of self-loathing and fear. A man who’d turned bitter and willful in the face of an obstacle. Brie let out a breath as she finished and leaned

back in her chair. Who was Bailey Honeycutt behind the cocky smile? With renewed energy, she sat up and pulled her laptop out of her bag and with a few strokes did a Google search on Bailey Honeycutt. The sheer volume of articles and pictures depicting him both as part of the band he was famous for and the man himself were staggering. She scrolled through the long list of articles and images until the word cancer caught her attention and she clicked on the headline. “Bailey Honeycutt, lead guitarist and younger brother of lead singer Oliver Honeycutt from the band Survival of the Fittest, has been diagnosed with APL, which is a type of leukemia. Heartbroken fans gathered outside an Atlanta hospital today in a showing of support armed with candles and flowers. A spokesperson for the family held a press conference earlier where he assured fans that the doctors caught it in time and expect the star to make a full recovery. Honeycutt will remain in Atlanta to undergo treatment.” Brie clicked another article, this one from Rolling Stone magazine and read. Then, she clicked another containing an interview from early in the band’s career. She read another and another until she felt she was re-reading information she already knew. Her cell phone buzzed across the table, startling

her and forcing her to abandon her rather unsuitable research. He was her student and it didn’t matter what he did outside her class. Her job was to teach him about art history and grade the paper in front of her. She glanced at the text on her screen. It was Jessica trying one last time to get her to meet her at the pub. Brie sighed and typed back: Not happening. She slid Bailey’s paper back in front of her and read through it again. As much as she tried to treat his paper as common, she couldn’t. She battled back a wave of shame. Shame for assuming he’d bought his way in. Shame in judging him without knowing him. If his paper was any indication, there was a lot more to him than she’d realized. His words and the feeling behind them struck a chord of understanding within her and even now, on her second pass through his paper, she felt pulled to him, some sort of inexplicable need to know more. How did you get here, Bailey Honeycutt? Her phone buzzed again and she cursed under her breath. Don’t leave me alone here. John’s group is up here and Bailey is with them! Her words were followed with an emoji with hearts in place of the eyes and the poop emoji. Brie snickered through her frustration. Jessica had always had a flare for

the dramatic. Typical creative type. Before she’d finished reading, her phone buzzed in her hand. I’m begging here. Followed by another text and then another, each growing more desperate. I’ll do the dishes for a week. No, a month. Brie hit her head against her phone and regretted her response before she’d typed it. Fine. I’ll be there soon. There was no way she’d admit to herself or anyone else she wanted to see Bailey, but there was no denying she was captivated by the man behind the smile.

Chapter 6 The Bullingdon was a staple in Oxford or so he was told. Not only was it a bar, it served as a concert venue for local talent and the place Bailey’s neighbors had chosen for their night out. He was enjoying himself, though he’d been reluctant to join the guys to celebrate surviving the first couple of weeks of classes. It wasn’t so much he didn’t want to hang out as it was he was enjoying a little bit of notoriety and he wasn’t sure a concert hall was the best place to go for someone trying to lay low. The atmosphere was one he was accustomed to, dark room, the smell of stale beer, too many bodies pressed in together, but it was one of the rare times he was part of the crowd. They’d been early enough, at Freddie’s suggestion, that they’d managed to snag a small table and a few chairs in the corner giving them at least an iota of privacy. With his back to the crowd, Bailey sipped his beer while John regaled them all with a story about his first time at The Bullingdon and how he’d proceeded to end up on the stage with one of the local bands. Freddie held up his glass, “John, you were as

pissed as I’d ever seen you, mate.” “But, at least I kept my clothes on which is more than ol’ Cohen can say.” Cohen held up his hands to gain everyone’s attention. “If I don’t remember it, it didn’t happen.” While they argued and finger pointed over who’d embarrassed themselves the most over the years, Jessica leaned in closer. “Ignore these heathens. That’s what the rest of us do.” “Ah, they’re not so bad.” Bailey grinned around the top of his bottle as he held it to his lips. “You have to remember, I’m used to being surrounded by a bunch of guys. There’s nothing they can say that will shock me.” “I bet you have some good stories from the road.” Jessica slid over in her seat until her elbow was on the arm of his chair. “Maybe you could tell me a few sometime.” “Oh, I know a few.” Bailey caught Cohen watching them out of the corner of his eye and pulled out his cell as though receiving a call. “Hey, I’ll be right back.” Obviously deflated, Jessica pulled away and rejoined the other’s conversation. He hated to brush her off, she was a nice enough girl, but he wasn’t one to encroach on another man’s lady, even if said lady didn’t know she was spoken for. Poor, quiet Cohen needed to man up.

Bailey pushed his way outside and slipped his phone back into his pocket while inhaling a deep breath of cold air. Through the window, he could see the group laughing and drinking and there was poor Cohen staring at Jessica like a statue in the background. Maybe he’d have to come up with a plan to help the poor bastard out. He chuckled and turned back to face the road. Unlike the quiet street he and his friends lived on, Crowley was a main thoroughfare through town. The smell of cooking food floated on the air from one of the restaurants further down the street and cars whizzed past. The atmosphere couldn’t have been more different than back in the states and yet, it worked. Everyone and everything in Oxford seemed smooshed in closer together, student life a world of its own, and he was part of it. At least, most of the time he was. Heels clicked on the pavement and he turned toward the sound. “Hello, Miss Freeman.” She stopped and her cheeks flooded with color. “Brie, please. We aren’t in class, remember?” “Okay then, Brie.” Her name brought a smile to his lips as he said it aloud. “Are you headed inside?” She glanced through the window at the others and sighed. “Jessica is determined that I do. It seems she can’t live without me.” The thought of her being inside with them lifted

his spirits. He said a silent thank you to Jessica in his mind. He held out a hand in the direction of the door. “Shall we?” She winced as the first chords from the band sounded from inside. “Not a fan of these guys?” She shook her head and sent her dark hair swinging. “The band is fine I’m sure, but the crowd looks intense.” She rotated her shoulders in a way that made it seem like she was warming up for a game. “We don’t have to go in.” “No, it’s fine.” Seeming to gather her courage, she passed him on her way to the door. “I just have to mentally prepare myself. I’ve been here dozens of times, but I’m usually earlier.” Bailey opened the door and allowed her to pass and as she did the smell of her perfume chased away everyone and everything else. As though intoxicated, he followed her to where their group was listening to the music blaring from the stage. Jessica stood to hug her friend and moved over so they could share a seat. With the addition of Drew and Mei, who’d been dating since their initial meeting at the beginning of term, the space had shrunk. “What took you so long?” Jessica’s words weren’t slurring, but her volume was rising. He expected she’d be yelling how every song was her

favorite and telling everyone how much she loved them soon enough. “I told you I had work to do, papers to grade, remember?” Jessica waved a hand as though shooing away a fly. “How long can that really take? They’re freshman, not poets. Slap a grade on there and go.” Brie’s gaze shifted briefly in his direction. “You might be surprised.” The group listened to the band for the better part of an hour and their corner was by far the loudest in the crowded room. The guys had their arms around each other’s necks and as they sang, they swayed causing more than a few people to look in their direction and more than a little beer to splatter to the floor. When Bailey spotted two girls who were sitting nearby taking pictures with their phones, he turned away and pulled his hat lower over his eyes. Due to the late hour, the crowd had grown and pushed him closer to Brie to the point their arms were touching. His fingers brushed hers and she shoved her hands in her pockets. When that didn’t suit her, she crossed her arms over her chest. He did his best to plant his feet and bear the brunt of the crowd’s weight to keep it off her, but with the return of the band after a break it grew harder to hold his place. “Hey, you,” a guy called from Bailey’s left.

“Aren’t you that guy from that band?” A girl dressed in jeans and a halter top who was leaning heavily against her partner pointed. “Yeah, you’re that guy from Survival of the Fittest. I’ve seen you on the telly.” A few heads swiveled in Bailey’s direction and then phones were raised, poised for pictures. “I’m just checking out tonight’s entertainment.” He looked forward to try to drive his point home, but a drunken group of people aren’t ones for subtlety. The couple who’d spotted him first pushed their way over until they were beside him. “How about a picture?” The girl slung her arm around his waist and leaned in to take a selfie. Bailey smiled and nodded, hoping that would be the end of it, but then another person came over and another until their corner was overrun with strangers. They pressed in close, forcing his group of friends back until they were against the wall. Used to the spotlight, he managed the situation as well as possible, but when he glanced toward Brie, her face was white. Jessica was next to her, but she was oblivious, too caught up in whatever Freddie was saying and the blasting music to notice. He smiled for a picture with the two ladies flanking him, thanked them, and then held up his hands. “I’m sorry, guys. I have to run.” Grumbles

of disappointment were made, but the admirers were satisfied enough to allow him some space without further complaint. With expert maneuverability, he hooked a protective arm around Brie’s waist and felt her weight sag against him until they reached the sidewalk. The cool air washed over their damp faces and with the reprieve from the crowd Brie pulled away, leaving a void where she’d been. He kept his distance while she braced the brick wall for support. “I’m sorry, Brie. Truly.” Full of remorse, he hooked his thumbs in the pockets of his jacket. He’d never meant to cause her any kind of discomfort. If anything, he wanted to help her, but she was a strong woman and he knew without asking she wouldn’t want or accept his help. She shook her head as she continued to take deep breaths. “It’s fine. Not your fault.” Her face was still pale and her eyes too bright, but he stayed in place. “How about some tea? I’m sure there’s somewhere we can go. Or, I can—” “No, no. I’m okay now.” She shook her head and straightened, but kept her hand fixed on the wall. “I just need to go home.” “I’ll walk you.” Her eyes widened, “You don’t need to—” “I said,” his voice loud enough to prove he

wouldn’t take no for an answer, “I’ll walk you.” ~~~ Brie wanted to argue further, to convince him she didn’t need him to walk her home, but the truth was she was still a little unsteady. Between the stifling heat and crowd of bodies the room had closed in on her. The darkness had crept in at the corners of her vision and threatened to pull her under, but Bailey had been there, his presence like a light in a dark sea. Another surprise from a man she’d been quick to judge. They walked in silence the first few blocks, but she didn’t miss the way his eyes cut in her direction every so often. “I’m fine.” She touched his arm and they stopped. “You can relax now.” His shoulders lowered and his easy grin returned. It was the same smile that usually drove her crazy, but tonight it didn’t put her off. Her resolve slipped away and she allowed herself to really look at him. In some ways, after the enlightenment his paper had offered, it was as though it was the first time. He was of course supremely fit, but there was something about him, a certain amount of charisma and easy charm. There was also a scar on his face the day-old stubble darkening his chin didn’t cover. They fell back into step, almost like two friends

out for a stroll, except they weren’t friends. He was her student, though a few years older than she was according to her internet research, so not exactly scandal inducing, but still . . . The smart thing would be to send him on his way, but the words from his paper came back to her and with them the curiosity. It didn’t seem possible that the man who saw a part of himself in an almost disfigured drawing was the same who was walking beside her now. The same man who’d posed for dozens of photos without complaint. “I don’t know how you do it.” “Do what, exactly?” Although Oxford was famous for its diversity and she was accustomed to conversing with all sorts, hearing Bailey’s American accent sent a little flutter through her. Another sign she was heading for danger by simply being near him. “The crowds of people forcing themselves on you. How can you stand it?” “They don’t mean any harm and,” he shrugged, “I’m used it I guess.” “It seems like a hard way to live. Like your life is never your own.” “But, that’s only a very small part of it.” He tilted his head to the side, thoughtful. “It’s like what you do—” She barked out a laugh, “Hardly.”

“No, like when you grade papers. That’s part of your job, but not the reason you do it,” he lifted an eyebrow in question, “I’m assuming.” “Okay, I’m following and you’re right. The thrill of grading papers isn’t why I chose to study art.” “Exactly,” he gestured to the sides with his hands which were tucked into his jacket pockets again, the same way they were the first night he’d walked with her. “Getting followed by the press or hounded for selfie’s isn’t always fun, but it comes with the territory. And, despite all the crazy, getting to write music and play for fans is all I’ve ever wanted.” As they waited at a crosswalk for cars to pass, she turned to him. “That can’t be entirely true.” “What?” “The part about playing music being all you’ve ever wanted.” She gestured in the direction of the school with her hand. “You’re here, aren’t you? You must be looking for something else.” When his steps slowed, she held her breath a beat, certain she’d spoken out of turn. Her mother always chastised her for speaking her mind too freely, a trait many fellow Brits found crude, and now she’d done it again. But, it was strange how easy it was to talk to him. She’d never been around someone who could slip so easily into two different personas. There was

the accommodating attitude and welcoming smile for the fans and the other, the thoughtful man with hidden feelings and private motivations. Finally, the corner of his mouth twitched. “You don’t miss much do you, Miss Freeman?” She let out the breath she’d been holding in a rush and smiled. “Observation is part of my job. Well, one of my jobs.” “One? How many do you have?” “Only two right now.” He chuckled and they crossed the street allowing a couple to pass between them before coming together again on the sidewalk. “So, is teaching what you want to do after you finish school?” “No. Ultimately I’d like to be an art curator, but first I have to finish my research and complete the DPhil program.” As her street came into view a stirring of disappointment moved through her. “What about you? What is it you want to accomplish here?” He smiled and with it a wall was erected around whatever his true wishes were. He wasn’t going to let her in, which was clear, but what startled her was how much it bothered her. She had no right, no claim to him and yet she wanted to know what he was thinking. She squeezed her eyes closed for a second. Was she crazy? She wanted him to share his

innermost thoughts with her, Brie, a practical stranger? Thinking of the crowd in Bullingdon demanding pictures and hugs or whatever piece of him they could get, she bit back a surge of disgust. His desires were his own, as was his privacy. Whatever connection she’d felt with him through his paper was entirely in her head. “Hey, are you okay over there? I feel like I lost you.” “Nope, all good. I just get caught up in my thoughts sometimes.” She slowed, “Well, this is me.” “I remember.” They stopped in front of her house, and Bailey tilted his head back to stare at the sky. “It’s nice out here, different than where I’m from.” She tilted her head back to follow his gaze. The stars were bright tonight, alight with a strange excitement, or maybe it was her imagination. She too felt alive, the earlier claustrophobia wiped away. “What do you see when you’re home?” He returned his attention to her face, his eyes searching, and for a moment she wondered if he was going to kiss her. Her heart beat faster, hopeful all the while her head was screaming at her to go inside. “I see the ocean, but it isn’t nearly as interesting as what I see here.” She didn’t miss his meaning and felt her face

flush with heat. “Bailey, we can’t go there.” The air seemed to thicken between them and she shifted her weight from one foot to the other. He was attractive and unlike she’d first thought, he wasn’t conceited. But, even with her new opinion of him, she couldn’t lose her position at the university by acting foolish. She’d worked too hard. He grinned, “Dang, and I was really looking forward to you taking me out for coffee.” “Excuse me?” She blinked twice and he offered her a playful smile. “Remember in the park when you threw money in my cup?” He sighed. “You ruined a perfectly good cup of coffee.” She let out a relieved giggle. “Maybe at the end of the semester, I’ll repay you by taking you to my favorite coffee shop.” He started to walk away and then spun around on his heel. “It’s a date.” Clearly delighted with his cleverness, he turned and headed for home. “Hey, I didn’t say anything about a date.” “Goodnight, Miss Freeman,” he called over his shoulder, “Until we meet again.” When he began to whistle, she bit her lip to try to stop her smile from spreading. He was quite the character. She watched him until he was swallowed up by the darkness. Bailey Honeycutt, so much more than she’d expected and she’d stepped straight into his trap.

Her phone buzzed inside her bag. When she dug it out to find Theo’s name glaring at her from the screen, she glanced back in the direction Bailey had gone and her smile faltered.

Chapter 7 As Bailey stared around the laundromat he couldn’t mask his surprise. There were students sprawled around every surface, but instead of the quiet, tired looking people who he usually saw taking part in the chore, people were laughing. The place seemed more like a coffee shop or pub except with washing machines and dryers tossed in. John nudged Bailey in the back. “Get on with it, mate.” Bailey shuffled over to one of the few vacant washers and proceeded to dump his first pile of clothes into the aging machine. He hadn’t done laundry in weeks which meant he was one day away from having to wear his boxer briefs inside out. He could wash clothes easily enough at his place, but there was no dryer and hanging clothes out on the line to dry was not only outside his norm, it had rained too much in the past week to be able to do it. With two machines working, Bailey dropped into a chair next to John who took the opportunity to pull a six-pack out of his duffle. “I hate to say it, but I’m a little surprised a guy like you knows how to do his own washing.”

“Hey,” Bailey said with mock hurt, “I do my own laundry.” He grinned and then added, “Some of the time.” John sipped his beer and then handed one to Cohen when he joined them. “All right, mate?” “All right.” Cohen slid down in the chair until his spine was in a C shape and his knees were halfway across the narrow isle. John was the polar opposite of Cohen and kind of reminded Bailey of a bear. Between the fluffy beard, barrel chest, and stocky build, John looked as though he could give you a bone crushing hug or tackle you head on with equal skill. “Hey, man, did you ever play ball?” With his massive frame, schools back in the states would’ve clamored for a chance to get him on their team. He shrugged, “I played a bit of rugby.” “No . . . football, then?” Bailey made sure to use the proper English term for what he knew as soccer. “Nah, I’m not light enough on my feet.” Bailey nodded and returned to his beer. A girl across the line of washers from where they were sitting caught his eye and tried to give him a sultry smile. She was cute enough, but she was obvious. She was missing the mystery and he wasn’t sure she would challenge him, not the way Brie did. And, there it was. His thoughts were back to Brie.

It’d been a week since he’d walked her home and true to his word, he’d kept his distance. In class, he was the perfect student and never offered her more than a nod by way of greeting, but it wasn’t easy. He’d caught himself daydreaming more than once and had to rein his thoughts back in while watching her teach. But, it was hard not to imagine what it would be like to slip her small hand in his and link her delicate fingers between his calloused ones. Not to mention when she wore jeans to class he had to spend the entire hour trying not to ogle her perfect butt. He’d wait until the end of the term, but as soon as grades were posted, all bets were off. “So, B,” John leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees, “I saw you leave the pub with Brie last week.” Cohen stopped picking at his fingernails to listen. “She wasn’t feeling well, so I walked her home.” “That was good of you.” “Yeah, well, what can I say? I’m a nice guy.” John smirked at him. “And, that’s all there is to it, eh?” “Yeah, man, that’s it.” Bailey leaned forward to match John’s position. “Look, I’m not going to deny it, I’m down, but for now she’s off limits.” “I bet that’s a first for you.”

Bailey laughed. “Yeah, in a way, I guess it is.” John was studying him and clearly weighing his next words. “What is it?” Bailey smiled in encouragement. “Whatever it is that’s eating at you, just say it. I can take it.” “Right, so I’m about to sound like a total prat, but here it is.” John set his bottle between his feet and wrung his hands. “A couple years back Brie dated a guy she met in the painting class she teaches. Anyway, he turned out to be a—” “Total arse,” Cohen added helpfully. “Yeah, exactly. This guy was a lot, you know? And, she deserves better.” Bailey nodded in understanding. John’s concern for Brie made him respect him even more. “And, someone like me comes along and you figure I’m just interested in the challenge? Is that about right?” “I mean no disrespect.” “None taken and you don’t need to worry. I won’t hurt her.” There must’ve been something in his face, a hint of seriousness or believability because John picked up his bottle again and held it out to toast Bailey’s. “You’re a good bloke, B.” “Back at ya.” “Of course,” John broke out into a grin, “there’s no way she’d go for a guy like you. I mean

look at you. Did you pull those clothes off the floor?” “As a matter of fact,” Bailey sniffed at his shirt and then tried to smooth out the wrinkles with his hands, “I think I did.” “Pretty soon you’re going to look as rough around the edges as Cohen here.” Unfazed by his friend’s abuse, Cohen flipped John the bird as he left them to go move his clothes from the washer to the dryer. “Hey, did you say Brie used to teach a painting class?” John stood and stretched, “Not used to, mate. She still does. I’m not exactly sure what days, but it’s not far from where we live.” Bailey leaned back in his seat as an idea took shape in his mind. He may’ve agreed to take her out after the semester was over, but that didn’t mean he was going to give her the chance to change her mind. ~~~ On Sunday night, Bailey’s phone rang and with it, his brother’s face filled the screen. He’d known Oliver would call. It was a special day and his brother never missed important dates. “Hey, ugly.” “Speak for yourself, ass hat.” “Happy three years in remission day!” Lexie

and Oliver shouted into the phone in unison. Bailey laughed, “Thanks guys. How’s everything out there?” “Oh, you know, the usual. Mom is in Jamaica with her new man, Leo is spending every waking moment in the ocean, David is working on some music, and we’re . . .” Oliver turned his face to his right, his big grin filling the screen, “making up for lost time.” Lexie’s high pitched, “Oliver,” sounded through the phone. “Okay, I get it, I get it. Say no more.” Bailey shook his head as he gazed out the small window over his kitchen sink. “What about you, brother? How’s school?” He tapped his thumb against the counter and thought about his classes, how much he’d already learned, the people he’d met. “It’s good, actually.” “So, it’s everything you’d hoped?” A smile tugged at the corners of his face as he thought about Brie. “More.” “That’s great, Bailey. We miss you, but we’re glad you’re where you want to be.” Oliver said something inaudible to Lexie. “Hey, hold on, Lexie’s dying to talk to you.” There was a pause, muffled sounds and a blurry screen as the phone traded hands. “Hey, you.” “Hey, Lexie. I hope Oliver isn’t being too big

of a pain in the ass.” He turned and rested his butt against the counter. With the view of Oxford behind him, and listening to Lexie’s voice, it was almost as though he was home. “He’s your brother so, it comes with the territory.” “I heard that,” Oliver nosed his face into the shot and planted a kiss on the side of his wife’s head. Lexie giggled and then returned her attention to Bailey, “Hey, listen, we wanted to run an idea by you.” “Uh-oh. Should I be worried?” “No, no, no. It’s good.” He listened as Lexie took a deep breath. “We were thinking that we could come visit you for Christmas. Your mom is going skiing and we thought it might be fun to do something different. You could show us around and we could see where you’ve been spending all your time. What do you think?” “Wow. Um. Sure, that sounds good. I was planning to come home, but we could totally do it here.” “Excellent. Everyone will be so excited.” “Everyone?” “Yeah, David and Leo are planning to tag along and I thought I could invite Simone to join us since she’s already going to be in the U.K.” He hadn’t seen Lexie’s best friend Simone in

months. “What’s she coming over here for?” “She’s working on a new show for BBC One. She said she has her fingers crossed it’s the next Sherlock. You guys should get together and hang out sometime. I know she’d love to see a familiar face.” “I’m not sure what kind of time I have with all the studying, but I’d love to see her.” Lexie let out an exaggerated sigh. “You two lead such exciting lives.” “I don’t know about that,” Bailey laughed. “I think it’s more that I have to study all the time to keep up with the rest of these dudes. They’re all borderline geniuses around here.” “I’m sure you’re right there with them.” They wrapped up their conversation and Bailey collapsed onto the couch. It seemed both of his worlds were going to collide, but in the best way. He missed those guys and talking to his brother only made the distance more pronounced. When was the last time he’d gone three months without seeing his brother? Or Leo or David? He’d joined Survival of the Fittest at nineteen and, if memory served, they’d never been apart this long. Customarily, it was the opposite and they were together more than they weren’t—especially on tour—and though they needed a break after, it didn’t last more than about a week. Laughter sounded through the wall and for a

moment he was tempted to stop next door, but he didn’t want to explain to his neighbors that he was battling a twinge of homesickness. Or that today, the day he’d received the news of his remission three years before, he’d wept in his mother’s arms. No, the people who weren’t a part of his life then wouldn’t understand what that single word had meant to all of them, the relief, the freedom. The stress that had aged his mother slipping away as she’d held him and then launched herself at his doctor to hug him. And, his mother was not one to relish in elaborate displays of affection. He rose and tugged on a shirt and his boots. What he needed was air and an outlet to work out his restlessness. With his head ducked against the wind, he crossed campus and kept going until the lights from the vast building that made up the Ashmolean Museum came into view. He hadn’t intended to come here—it was closed anyway—but there he was. He slowed his steps and took in the scene. The sidewalks were empty, the stone steps vacant, as the museum stood tall against the night sky. Bailey sat down on an iron bench across the street from the entrance and tucked his hands in his jacket pockets. The structure, much like the artifacts inside, was magnificent. “Hey,” a female voice said from behind him a few minutes later, “what’re you doing out here?”

When he half turned to find Brie climbing off a bicycle, a lightness filled his chest. “I was out for a walk. What about you? Big night out on the town?” “Hardly.” She walked her bike over next to the bench and sat down beside him. “I’ve been grading papers.” She widened her eyes at him and then smiled, the teacher teasing her student. Going along with her game, he sucked in a sharp breath and grimaced before returning her smile. They faced forward, each lost in their own thoughts as they stared at a building full of history and stories of those who’d come before. “It’s beautiful out here at night.” She let out a soft sigh. “It’s one of my favorite places.” Bailey turned his face to study her profile, the soft curve of her lips, the sharp cheekbones. “It’s not the only thing that’s beautiful.” His compliment had the desired effect. Her cheeks flooded with color and her mouth twisted as she tried to hide her pleasure. “You are trouble, Bailey Honeycutt.” “The worst kind.”

Chapter 8 The night air was cool, but as Brie sat beside Bailey on the bench across from the museum, the inkling she’d had for some wine after a long day vanished. Being near him set off a live wire of energy, like she’d downed a shot of expresso. Though passing cars sounded in the distance, they were alone on the street enveloped in a quiet she found both welcoming and, if she were being honest, thrilling. Staying away from Bailey was best, her head knew it to be true, but she couldn’t deny the pull she felt when he was near. She tucked a few unruly strands of hair behind her ears as a breeze moved around them. Bailey’s scent, a mix of sandalwood and soap, floated along with it and filled her with a desire to scoot closer to him. Instead, she dug her toes into the dirt and kept a respectful distance. “It’s nice out here at night when the world is quiet.” “Is that what you were looking for? Quiet?” She slid her gaze from the vastness of the museum and studied the man beside her. His face was thoughtful and his eyes a little sad as he considered the roof lines of the building.

“I’m not sure exactly, but this is where I ended up.” Her breath caught in her throat as it occurred to her it was a sign. There he was, the man she’d been thinking about on a loop for most of the week, sitting outside one of her favorite places. He grinned at her, almost playful, “You want to know the truth?” “Always.” “It’s kind of a big day for me.” “Oh?” He nodded and swallowed. “It’s the third anniversary of my cancer being in remission and I guess I was just missing home. I’m sure that sounds ridiculous, but—” She shook her head and touched his hand with hers. “No, not at all.” Her heart twisted, as though unsure rather to beat wildly in triumph at the feeling of their touching hands or sink with sadness. He was so young and though she’d read about his past struggle online, seeing the man in front of her dealing with the aftermath of something that had forever changed him, weighed on her soul. His eyes met hers. “I’m glad you found me out here.” “Me, too,” her words were no more than a whisper. In that moment something between them changed, or at least something for her. The resolve she’d clung to, the assurances of doing the right

thing, the scars she continued to carry from her past relationship, none of it stopped the flood of longing filling every corner of being as she sat beside Bailey. She yanked her hand back and mentally berated herself again for stopping. She should’ve kept riding and gone home the way she’d planned because sitting beside him in the seductive night air when he looked as he did now, all she wanted to do was lean over and kiss him. “What are some of your favorite pieces?” When he nodded toward the museum entrance and offered her an easy smile, she wondered if he’d sensed her unease and asked to provide a distraction, or maybe he was naturally curious. Either way, she was thankful for the change in subject. She relaxed against the bench and settled into one of her favorite topics. “It’s hard to choose.” “Try.” “Okay, okay. Let’s see, there are the paintings by Cezanne, Picasso, Rubens, and Uccello.” She tilted her head to the side and held up her hand to count off on her fingers. “There’s also the Alfred Jewel, if you haven’t seen it, you should make it a point to check it out. Oh, and the Messiah Stradivarius. It’s a violin and it is beautiful. I’d imagine a musician such as yourself would like to see that one in person.”

“I’ll have to do that.” She saw him grinning out of the corner of her eye, but she didn’t care, she was too caught up in her own enthusiasm. “Another one of my favorites and it’s one collection that might surprise you, are the Posie rings.” A crease formed between his eyes and he gave a slight shake of the head. “They are, as one would assume rings, but these rings date as early as the fifteenth century. They contain short inscriptions on their surface and while once done mostly in Latin, during the sixteenth century they were more commonly done in French.” “What do these rings you love so much say? And, let’s hope it isn’t along the lines of one ring to rule them all.” She laughed. “No, nothing quite so foreboding.” One of her shoulders rose and fell. “Usually, some sort of sentiment of love. They were common gifts amongst lovers.” Catching herself too late, her face flamed at the term. Bailey reached for her hand and traced a line down her finger with the tip of his own. “It sounds like a nice tradition.” She let out a nervous giggle. “It’s still done today on wedding rings, but we definitely weren’t the first to think of it.” “Who knew you were such a romantic, Miss

Freeman.” He turned his hand over and gripped her fingers between his, light pressure and comfort in the gesture. She couldn’t stop herself from looking down at their joined hands and though all her alarm bells were sounding in her head, she couldn’t bring herself to pull away. “Can I tell you something, Miss Freeman?” She eyed him, suddenly nervous. “I guess so.” “I find myself struggling to think about anything other than kissing you, but since I’ve promised to behave until our date at the end of the semester—” “Now, wait just one minute—” “Please, Miss Freeman,” he grinned, “don’t interrupt. Since I’ve agreed to wait to, let’s say, make a move, I’m going to have to insist that you allow me to walk you home. Now, before I go against my better judgement and kiss you right now on this bench in front of God and anyone else who happens to walk by.” Too stunned to do anything else, Brie’s mouth opened and closed and opened again and then she burst into laughter. “You were right the first time. You are ridiculous. Who says in front of God and anyone else?” “Don’t all of you British women love your striking gentlemen of the Austen era?” She laughed again. “You’re mental.” “Maybe, but that doesn’t change the fact that I

want to kiss you.” Bailey stood and pulled her to her feet. They stood facing each other, their clothes touching as they held gazes for one heartbeat, two. “We’d better go.” Her breath exhaled in a rush as disappointment reverberated inside her. There was no denying she’d wanted him to kiss her, and luckily for them both he had stronger willpower than she did. One more breath and her mouth would’ve been on his and to hell with the consequences. As they headed in the direction of her flat, Bailey steered her bike along the bumpy streets. The sounds of car horns, laughter, and noise from surrounding rooms sharpened as they got closer to her street, but it was lost on Brie. She was caught up in the sounds of Bailey, his laugh, his voice. And, what surprised her more than anything was how comfortable she was with him. It was as though they met this way every night. They stopped outside her place and as Bailey released her bike back to her, her fingers lingered on his a second longer than was necessary. “You aren’t what I expected, Bailey Honeycutt.” “Right back at ya, Miss Freeman.” ~~~ A bell chimed overhead as Bailey opened the coffee shop door. The place wasn’t big, but with the temperatures hovering a little over freezing,

there were plenty of people inside in search of warmth. He waved when he spotted Simone sitting at a table for two near the street facing a window. “Hi,” she stood and kissed his cheek, “it’s been forever.” “Hey, Simone.” He shrugged out of his jacket and slung it over the back of his chair. “How’s everything?” “Absolutely crazy.” She slumped in her seat. “I mean, don’t get me wrong I’m pumped for this show and the opportunity, but time is short, the budget is nonexistent, and one of the lead actors is a complete idiot.” “Forget I asked.” She laughed, and the sound reminded him of home. Since Lexie had married his brother, Simone had become a fixture around their house. The entire group, Simone included, had also spent almost every night at the beach the summer after his ordeal. Seeing her was like getting a little piece of home away from home. “You look great by the way. Does that mean Oxford’s agreeing with you?” He grinned and settled in while the patrons around them drank their coffee and worked on their laptops. “I’d like to think so.” He glanced around at the students and then through the window at the street outside. There weren’t any paparazzi waiting around the side of the building, or appointments he

had to keep. “It’s easier here in a lot of ways.” A barista appeared at the counter and called Simone’s name. “One sec.” She jumped up and then returned a minute later with two cups. “Here you go.” “Thanks.” Bailey sipped at the bitter coffee and let the heat from it warm him. “So, tell me about this new show you’re working on.” Simone blew out an exaggerated breath. “This is my first day off since I got here a month ago, if that gives you some idea.” “That’s tough. I almost feel bad I made you drive down. Maybe you should be sleeping or something.” “God, no. I needed to get out of there and I was in desperate need of a friendly face.” She smiled at him revealing the dimple in her cheek. “Now, if we could find a way to trade in this wind and rain for a day at the beach, life would be perfect.” Bailey turned his mug in circles on the table. A day at the beach did sound appealing, possibly with Brie alongside him. His mind wandered until he drummed up an image of what she might look like sprawled out beside him in the sand. Her eyes hidden by large sunglasses and her white skin glowing, curves visible in a form fitting swimsuit. “Hello, Bailey, are you there?” He stopped spinning his cup and cut his gaze up

to find Simone with her head ducked toward him. “I’m sorry. You mentioned the beach and I got caught up in the idea.” She smirked. “Is that all it was?” “Yeah, why?” “Your face indicated it might be more than that . . .” she drummed her nails on the sides of her cup, “like maybe you had someone in particular on your mind.” When she continued to gaze at him with a slight grin tugging at the corner of her mouth he raised his hands in front of him. “Okay, guilty. There is someone—” “I knew it,” at her outburst several people at nearby tables turned in their direction. “Sorry,” Simone lowered her voice. “Tell me everything. I bet she’s gorgeous. Lexie is going to freak.” Laughing, he sat up straighter in his chair. “Sometimes I forget that you and Lexie are basically the same person.” Simone shrugged. “So, are you going to fill me in here?” He sighed, but couldn’t keep the smile off his face. “Look, it isn’t anything yet. I just enjoy her company.” Simone tapped her mug on the table. “That I understand all too well. There’s an actor onset and you know . . . he’s been keeping my company some.”

“Really?” Bailey arched an eyebrow at her. “You have been busy.” “Oh, shut up. It’s not serious. He’s an actor for Christ’s sake.” “I thought you didn’t do actors?” She whimpered. “I know. I’m breaking my own rule, but being over here and not knowing anyone. I guess I was lonely and he isn’t so bad, if you don’t mind that whole needy, narcissistic thing.” “He sounds great,” Bailey shook his head, “really.” “I know I’m pathetic.” Simone buried her face in her hands. “No, you’re not. You just need to find someone who you actually want to be with.” “Don’t we all.” She tossed her hair over her shoulder and gripped her mug. “Well, that’s enough about me. What about you? You clearly like this girl. What’s the holdup?” “It’s complicated.” “Please, spare me. Is it the whole celebrity thing? Does she not know who you are?” “No, she knows who I am.” He took a deep breath and answered in a rush, “She’s my teacher this semester.” “Whoa, Bailey’s hot for teacher.” Simone hit the table and sent their cups tittering. “Don’t you have to be like a hundred years old to be a professor? Wait, is that your thing?”

“She’s a grad student.” He narrowed his eyes at Simone. “Have a little faith in my taste, would you?” “Oh, I have faith, but you can’t blame me for wondering. I mean, when’s the last time you dated anyone?” There was an awkward pause while she waited for the answer he didn’t need to give. She knew he hadn’t gone on more than a first date here or there in the last few years. Everyone in their inner circle did. “Listen,” she covered his hand where it was resting on the table with her own, “I’m not going to pretend that I understand what you went through and how it made you feel because I don’t. What I do know is that you deserve to be happy. If this girl can do that for you, go after her.” “Listen to you Dr. Phil.” Eyes wide she nodded. “Oh, I can give some good advice. I just can’t seem to take it.” When they finished catching up an hour or so later, Bailey walked Simone to her car where it was parked against the curb in front of a bookstore. “Thanks again for driving down.” He leaned in and hugged her. “It was great seeing you.” “You, too, Bailey.” She kissed his cheek and he felt the tip of her cold nose brush his skin. “Take care of yourself.” “Will do.” He stepped back while she folded into her small European rental car and rolled down

the window. “I may need you to drive back down here one day and help me go Christmas shopping.” “I might be able to do that.” She cranked the engine and blew on her hands. “Don’t forget to ask the cute teacher out.” “Maybe when you dump the actor.” “Touché, Honeycutt. See you soon.” She offered him a wave and then she was off. As Bailey walked toward campus, he paused in front of a display window for one of the many shops lining the street and watched while a woman balanced on top of a step ladder. Using one hand for balance, the lady in the red sweater tacked up a long piece of garland in one corner of the window. When she stepped down and turned, she offered him a warm smile and then she moved the ladder and repeated the same process. It wouldn’t be long now, not until Christmas and not until the end of the term. Grinning at the idea, Bailey tucked his hands into his coat pockets and started down the street. As a cold wind whipped between the buildings and cut through his clothes, he wondered if for the first time in his adult life if he would be getting a white Christmas. He moved along the sidewalk, but stopped when he spotted an art studio sporting the name Splash Pad across the street. Gesturing a thanks to a cabbie for allowing him to cross, Bailey jogged over to the building and let

himself in. There were bound to be several studios in the area, but he had to check. “Hello, can I help you with something?” A girl with brown hair and large rimmed glasses said from her place behind the counter. “I was wondering about a class you may offer here. I believe the instructor’s name is Brie Freeman.” “Oh sure, Brie.” The girl smiled and pulled out a sheet of paper with a list of available classes and their schedule. “Brie oversees our sessions on the human form.” She slid her finger midway down the page. “It’s on Wednesday nights at seven. Would you be interested in signing up?” He debated for a half second and then handed her his credit card. He wasn’t sure he possessed the talent to attend, but any excuse to see Brie would be worth the potential embarrassment.

Chapter 9 Chilled to the bone, Brie let the door swing closed behind her as she blew out a breath. She unwound her scarf and hung it on the coatrack, which, like most things in Splash Pad, was splattered with an array of paints and scarred with use. “Hey, Brie.” Laurel stepped out from behind the till and followed her into the main studio. “Hey, what’re you still doing here?” Brie tucked her bag into a cabinet and started pulling easel’s into place in preparation for the night’s class. “There was a guy in here earlier this week,” Laurel hauled a cushion onto the raised platform in the center of the room where the model would be standing. “I kinda wanted to see if he’d show.” Brie chuckled. “Shame on you.” “No, Brie, you don’t understand. He was gorgeous.” She grasped her hands together in front of her chest. “In fact, you should see if he’d be interested in being the model.” “I’ll keep that in mind.” Brie tore a soiled sheet of paper off the easel in front of her and surveyed the area. Nine sketchpads, stools, and easels stood

at the ready. “He asked for your class specifically.” “That’s nice.” Brie took out her own sketchpad, only half listening to Laurel, and set her pencils on the desk beside her. This wasn’t the first time Laurel had been overly excited about one of their customers. There’d been the guy with the motorbike and then the one with the sinking ship tattoo—they had vastly different taste in men. With the pad balanced on her knee, she let her hand move in waves across the page. Class was her downtime. The last thing she wanted to do was gossip about some phantom guy. “You’re not hearing me, Brie. He didn’t ask for your kind of class, he asked after you. By name.” Brie stopped what she was doing and focused on Laurel. “Maybe someone recommended the class. It’s been known to happen.” “Brie,” Laurel huffed. “Laurel,” she mimicked back. “Don’t you have something better to do?” “Fine, but you’ll see what I’m talking about when he gets here.” Brie shook her head and returned to her drawing. The start of class and sometimes at the end she allowed herself a few minutes to play around at drawing. She wasn’t some great talent, but she enjoyed sketching and painting on the rare occasions she had the time.

She wasn’t sure when she decided on the direction of her sketch or when she started humming, but when she paused and studied what she had so far, there was no denying it was taking on Bailey’s form. The curve of the lips, the sideways grin, the strong jawline, all Bailey. A few of the artists filtered in and unpacked their bags and when they did, Brie glanced up and offered a welcoming smile, but when Bailey walked through the door a moment later, she almost slid off the side of the desk where she’d been propped. As he sauntered her way, a huge grin on his face, she caught sight of the unfinished, but unmistakable drawing of his face and flipped the pad facedown. “What’re you doing here?” Laurel caught her eye from the doorway and silently pointed at him while mouthing, “That’s him.” “John mentioned your class and I thought I’d check it out. I hope that’s okay?” “Right, fine. Glad to have you.” He unhooked the bag from his shoulder and glanced at the setup. “Should I just sit anywhere?” “Sure.” The model walked in and dropped her bag on the floor near the mirrors. “I have to go give some direction, but it’s good to see you.” He grinned, and she darted in the direction of the door. She’d seen him in class since their

evening on the bench, since the hand holding, but she hadn’t spoken to him. And now, there he was. Maybe if she’d been prepared to see him her stomach wouldn’t have flipped or maybe if she’d had a clue, but never in a million years had she expected Bailey to be the one Laurel had talked about. Sure, he was gorgeous as described, but she didn’t realize his interest in art went past the history. It wasn’t like he would pay for the class merely to see her. Regaining her composure, Brie paced behind the artists’ stools. “Tonight, we’re going to work on a full body nude.” She crossed her arms and then uncrossed them again while the model took her place on the raised platform and let the thin robe she’d been wearing fall. Brie wasn’t one to be a stickler for nudity, but standing in the same room with Bailey while they both stared at the naked female form made her feel exposed. She cleared her throat, “Make sure to pay attention to the curve of her hips and the dips near her collarbone.” The model took her place on the settee and draped her languid body across it with a grace that made Brie green with envy. She would never have that kind of courage, much less that body. With some effort she pushed all thoughts of Bailey and how he must be enjoying their subject matter aside. Besides, what did she care who he looked at? The

model was, after all, a model. In his line of work, he’d probably dated a hundred of them. The sound of pencils scratching across paper filled the room. While those around her sketched, she moved between the artists offering encouragement and tips where she could. The model remained lounged across the heavy pillow, her body angled toward the back wall with her head turned so she could look back over her shoulder in a way that was both flirtatious and demure. The dip of her buttocks showed, but the thin sliver of fabric too small to be a scarf draped around her middle. There were a few exposed curves here and there, but never her entire body. The entire picture crated a sense of mystery. Brie moved to the front of the room and raised her arm in the direction of the model. “Raise your chin slightly, please.” The model did as asked. “You will all note the slope of her neck and the dip of her chin. Don’t lose one inside the other. Show definite lines.” She moved back behind everyone so not to disrupt their view. Bailey was only a few feet in front of her, but she couldn’t see much of his drawing. Due to his shoulders and the angle at which he was seated she could only see the model’s feet and shoulders. She tried to focus on what he was doing, but the movement of his back and shoulder muscles through his thin T-shirt as he

worked were too diverting. Her fingers twitched as she pondered what it would feel like to run them along the width of his back. Focus. She shook her head and walked on. She wasn’t getting paid to fantasize about Bailey or his perfect shoulders. Not that someone would have to pay her. That she would do for free. At the end of the hour, everyone offered thanks and filed out except for Bailey and one particularly chatty woman who she’d been instructing for the better part of a year. While Rachelle talked about a new exhibit at the local gallery, Brie was keenly aware of Bailey’s presence. “I’ll do my best to make it.” Brie walked Rachelle to the door. “I hear he’s an amazing talent as well.” “Couldn’t you just die? And, right here in Oxford.” Rachelle did a little dip. “It’s pretty amazing. I’ll see you soon, okay?” Brie watched her disappear out the door and then glanced to see if Laurel was still lurking around. When she deemed they were alone in the building, she was both relieved and nervous. “So,” she said once she was back in the studio, “what’d you think?” “It was fun.” Bailey stood where he was with his bag already on his shoulder. “It was a nice break from studying and Cohen’s music.” “But, I thought he was a brilliant composer.”

“Oh, he is when it’s going well, but sometimes . . .” Bailey lifted his arms to cover his ears and as he did so the few inches of skin between the hem of his shirt and his jeans was on full display. She could even make out the dip of the muscle between his hip and— “Brie?” “What? Right. Sorry.” She crossed her arms and raised a hand to twirl one of her earrings. “You were saying?” “I was just saying that Cohen’s great, but not until he gets it right and he’s a perfectionist. Sharing a wall with a perfectionist is about as much fun as you can imagine. And, based on the string of words I heard last night, I’m starting to wonder if he has a little Irish in him.” Brie laughed. “Maybe so.” “Oh, and before I go,” he stepped forward and handed her the rolled-up paper he’d been holding. “I’ll see you in class.” “Yeah, see you.” She waited for him to get all the way outside before she unrolled the paper and she was glad she did. As she stretched out the drawing her mouth fell open. It wasn’t the model, it was her, as she’d stood in the front of the room giving direction. Only the model’s shoulders and feet could be seen, her face blurry. Brie, with her arm raised and her shawl hanging covered most of the model’s body. Somehow, he’d made Brie in her

plainness seem, well, pretty. She couldn’t stop the pleasure from pulsing through her. The drawing was still clutched against her chest as she made her way home, closed the door, and leaned against it. Too lost in her own thoughts, she didn’t see Jessica before her flatmate saw her. “What are you grinning about?” Jessica abandoned the ice cream in her lap and climbed onto her knees. “What’s that?” “Here.” There was no reason to try to hide it from her. Jessica would find a way to discover what she wanted to know. She was unrelenting. Besides, Brie needed to talk to someone before she exploded. “Who did this? One of your students?” “Yes,” Brie paused to slip out of her jacket and scarf. “A new one.” “It’s good and flattering if you ask me.” Jessica slid back into a sitting position and continued to stare at the drawing, her face wistful. “I wish someone would sketch me. Who was this person?” Brie bit her lip. “It was Bailey.” Her roommate’s eyes went as round as saucers. “Bailey, Bailey?” “Yes. He was in class tonight.” “Wow.” Jessica studied the picture again. “And, after last week.” “I know,” Brie dropped onto the sofa and sent Jessica bouncing.

“Girl, I don’t know how you’re going to make it to the end of the semester.” Jessica set the picture on the table so it was face up between them. “He’s working you hard.” She groaned. “I know and it’s working.” She’d dated before, but more often than not it was guys who she was friends with first. They’d fall into sort of an easy relationship, but not once had she been pursued. Jessica threw her head back and shouted, “I’m so jealous. I haven’t gotten laid in forever.” Brie sat up, “Me, either.” “Yeah, but at this rate you’ll be on your back the second you enter his grade into the computer.” Brie couldn’t stop the laugh that bubbled up. “You’re probably right.” Her phone dinged inside her bag. She abandoned a sulking Jessica to dig it out and then frowned. The sight of Theo’s name wiped away her happiness and as she read his text, her stomach turned. “What?” Jessica held out her hand for the phone. Without saying a word, she handed it over and fought the sinking feeling tugging at her insides as Theo’s words spun around in hear head. We need to meet and it wouldn’t be wise to say no this time. Remember, a picture is worth a thousand words. “That son of a bitch. Ignore him, Brie. You

can’t let him control you like this forever.” Brie shook her head. “No, not forever, but for now he’s got me and he knows it.”

Chapter 10 Bailey strummed his guitar and then paused to tune one of the strings. The air was cold on the porch, but he didn’t mind. For the first time in a long time he was enjoying the music. He strummed his fingers over the strings again and, pleased with the sound, played a riff from one of his favorite Guns N’ Roses songs. “Watch out, boys. B’s on point today.” Freddie nodded to Cohen and John and they took the hint and readied themselves at their respective instruments. Cohen’s fingers danced across the keys faster than what should be humanly possible and John strummed a few notes on the bass while Freddie tapped his digital drum set. They warmed up with Queen and then, as they played through Cohen’s piece, Jessica turned up and joined them. “Sounding good, gentlemen.” “That’s all Cohen,” Bailey nodded to the man of the hour. “He’s as talented as they come.” When Jessica offered Cohen a grin, he turned red from his neck to the roots of his hair. Poor bastard. “Where’s Brie today?” John asked saving Bailey from doing it himself. He hadn’t seen her

since the drawing class, but even that short amount of time seemed long. And, it wasn’t merely that he wanted to see her. She was beautiful sure, but she was more than that. She was compassionate, and listened like few others. He could talk to her as himself instead of how people expected him to be. He glanced at Cohen and observed the way he was staring at Jessica. There was no denying he was no better off than Cohen. He suspected he looked at Brie the same way. A dark look flickered across Jessica’s features and then she cleared her throat. “She had something she had to do in town. She’ll be around later.” Bailey narrowed his eyes trying to decipher more, but Jessica wouldn’t meet his gaze. He tried to catch her eye, but was forced to abandon the idea when Freddie started up another song. He watched her while he played his part. Instead of her usual jovial self, she was distracted, worrying the hem of her sweater in a way he’d never seen her do. Again, he wondered where Brie was. Half an hour later when Jessica stood to leave, they called it quits. He set his guitar inside and stepped back out, ready to follow Jessica so he could ask her more without having to do so with an audience. He was aware she might tell him to butt out, but there was something in her face he

couldn’t ignore. “Bailey,” John waved him over to join him and Cohen near the screen door, “Would you please try to help me talk some sense into our boy, Cohen, here?” Cohen elbowed his roommate in the stomach. “Shut up.” “Oh, come on, mate, Bailey knows you’re into her. Everyone knows.” Bailey nodded in agreement. “Yep, pretty much.” Cohen let his head fall back revealing day-old stubble down his neck. “Great.” Misery dripped from the word. “Does that include Jessica?” He was a man in love if Bailey had ever seen one. “No, man. I don’t think so.” “Good God, C. Ask the woman out already. Have some courage.” Cohen’s face turned a deep scarlet and then he shook his head. “I can’t.” “Why not?” “Look at me. No one like Jessica would go for someone like me. She’s so . . . so her and I’m so,” he glanced down at his wrinkled shirt and thread bare pants, “me.” John and Bailey exchanged a glance. “You’ve got a point.” Cohen let his head fall against the keyboard, causing a painful combination of notes to screech

through the speakers. Bailey suppressed a smile. “Listen, Cohen, you’ve got to act. Be the man. We’ll help you.” John’s eyebrow shot up in question. “Um, yeah. We’ll help.” “Oh yeah, Mr. Man,” Cohen squinted at the two of them, “and how are you going to do that?” Bailey glanced toward the road where Jessica was almost out of sight and rubbed a hand over his face. “I don’t know, but we’ll think of something.” “That’s super helpful.” John dropped a monster sized hand on Cohen’s shoulder. “No, B’s right. We’ll help. Just give us time to make a plan.” Bailey nodded and when they finally left to join Freddie back at their place, Bailey took off at a jog. At the memory of Jessica’s worried expression, a feral need to protect Brie flared. Whatever was going on wasn’t his business, but he couldn’t sit back and do nothing if there was a way he might be able to help. He jogged faster. ~~~ Brie tapped her foot as much to create warmth as to channel her over caffeinated body’s anxiety. The last thing in the world she wanted to do was meet her ex, but what could she do? He could destroy everything she’d worked for with a few keystrokes.

Her head swiveled from right to left as her butt froze to the bench she was sitting on. In typical Theo fashion he was late, no doubt to make the point he was the one with the power. She glanced at her cell phone screen. There were two texts from Jess, but before she could read them a familiar whistle sounded on the air. She shuddered and wondered again as her greasy-haired ex emerged from behind a cloud of smoke. How she could’ve ever been involved with him? He smirked and then sat down beside her, close enough so that their thighs were touching, but she didn’t move. Instead, she ground her teeth together and stared him in the eye. “What do you need this time?” “Woah, is that any way to talk to your old man? I mean, come on, baby.” He flung the butt of his cigarette across the sidewalk and looped an arm around her shoulders. “Don’t touch me.” She put as much venom into her tone as she could muster when what she really wanted to do was punch him in the jaw. Where his touch had once been exciting, now she found it revolting much like the man himself. Her gaze travelled to where his paint-stained fingers were hanging over her shoulder until he removed them. “And, don’t call me baby. I’m not your baby or your anything else. Now, I’ll ask you again, what do you want?”

He took his time in answering and she did her best, while he rubbed a hand over his bristled face, not to scream in frustration. She was tired of his games. “Now listen, Brie, there’s no reason we can’t talk like friends.” “How about the fact that we aren’t friends?” “Sure, we are.” He turned sideways and traced a finger down her cheek, the smell of stale cigarettes lingering. “That was before the lies and the cheating and the—” “Shh, don’t go getting all worked up again.” “Worked up?” Her voice cracked with disbelief. “You know the only reason I’m here is because you’re blackmailing me. The second I graduate is the second this little arrangement ends.” She stood, “If you aren’t going to say what you came here to say, I’m leaving. I can’t stand to be around you.” Theo remained sitting, but cut his gaze up at her. “You don’t want to take that tone with me, Brie. I might forget the terms of our arrangement and let one of those little photos of you make its way to the head of your school.” She swallowed as much out of dread as to hold back her anger. “And, we all know what would happen then, don’t we? Poor little Brie would be out on her ass,

penniless, with no hope of graduating.” Furious tears welled and she swiped them away. As she stared down at Theo, hate pumped with each pulse of her blood. Even though she’d gotten out, he’d found a way to make her life miserable. With her fingernails digging into the palms of her hands, she kept her voice calm. “How much, Theo?” “Well, now, why do you assume it’s money that I want? Maybe I was thinking about something else. Something a little sweeter.” He eyed her ass with a small, satisfied smirk. She angled her body away from him as her fingernails dug in further, her arms on the verge of shaking. “Okay, I’m kidding, you caught me.” He held his hands up. “See, there’s this little place outside London that would make the perfect studio. As you know every artist needs their space.” “How much?” she asked through clenched teeth. He stood and stretched as though he didn’t have a care in the world. “I think ten thousand pounds will do it.” Eyes wide, she shouted, “Are you completely mental? I don’t have that kind of money.” “Sure, you do. That big fancy teaching job must pay pretty well.”

“It covers my tuition. That’s it.” His easy smile slid away, replaced by a darkness she knew all too well. “Where’d you get the money last time?” Her gaze lowered to her lap as she remembered signing the papers for the student loan she’d had to take out in order to pay him. And, the look on her brother’s face the time before that when she’d had to lie about why she needed to borrow money. Her tears were back, hot pools of anger threatening to spill over. “I borrowed it.” “Then, you might want to revisit your lender. Or, ask mummy.” “I can’t. There’s no more money to be had.” She’d die before taking another penny from her brother and no banker in their right mind would give her more. Her leg bounced uncontrollably. “You know my mum doesn’t have it either.” He stepped toward her, his face no more than six inches from hers. “That’s not my problem, it’s yours.” He pulled back and replaced his menacing expression with an easy smile at the same time he hooked his dirty fingers into the loopholes of his jeans. “Oh, and I’m going to need the money by the end of next week.” When he started to walk away, she tried a different tactic. “Theo, please.” He stopped and turned toward her. “Don’t make me do this anymore.”

“Sorry, Brie, but I gotta do what’s right for me and right now that’s a new flat. I’ll see you at the end of next week.” He spit on the sidewalk and then called over his shoulder, “You might want to go home and have a lie down, Brie. You look bloody awful.” Adrenaline unleashed through her body as she dropped back down onto the bench and stared at her shaking hands through her tears. She wanted to scream. Scream and scream until her throat hurt, until she was too spent to think about how stupid she’d been or how weak. But, allowing herself to give in to her misery wouldn’t solve her problem. She needed money and a lot of it. As she gripped the bench she ran down a mental list of everyone she knew, but there was no one she could ask. Jessica was using student loans to pay for school and with her own brother in school, her mum was strapped. Besides, how could she ask her anyway? “Brie.” A fresh wave of panic surged through her at the sound of Bailey’s voice. She ran her fingers under her eyes and through her hair. This day just kept getting worse. “Hey, there you are. Jessica said you were out here.” Bailey took the open seat on the bench Theo had vacated. “Hey, what’s wrong?” He half turned to stare in the direction Theo had taken. “Who was

that guy?” She shook her head and tried to shrug off his concern, but he glanced down and then grabbed one of her clammy hands with his warm one. He turned her palm up and his eyes shot to hers. “Did he hurt you?” She snatched it back, embarrassed by the red marks she’d caused. “No, I did that.” “Brie, tell me what’s going on. Maybe I can help.” A frazzled laugh erupted from her chest and a fresh wave of tears with it as she stood. “No. I don’t think so.” Bailey got to his feet, slowly, as if she were some kind of nervous animal he didn’t want to spook. Concern reflected in the deep blue of his eyes. How easy it would be to fall into them and into him. And, part of her wanted to. A bigger part of her than she was comfortable with. She knew Bailey was the kind of guy who would pull her close and stroke her hair and tell her everything was going to be fine, but that wasn’t possible. Theo was her problem and her problem alone. “Listen, Bailey, I appreciate your concern, but this has nothing to do with you.” He took a step back, “I know you’re right and it’s not my place, but—” “But, nothing. You’re my student. Not my family or even my boyfriend. My life is my own

and my problems are mine to solve.” “Listen, I get that, but I am your friend at least.” She tore her eyes away from his troubled ones and watched as a bus drove by. “Go home, Bailey.” She turned and walked in the opposite direction of Theo and the mistake she couldn’t shake, and from Bailey, a better man than most. It wasn’t like she wanted to hurt his feelings, but she only had two weeks to come up with ten thousand pounds which might as well have been a million.

Chapter 11 With a pounding head, Brie did her best to hurry from the room when class ended. She didn’t want to risk Bailey attempting to speak to her, not after the way she’d treated him after her run-in with Theo. Ashamed of her cowardice, she kept her gaze focused on the scratch in her desk while she packed up her things. Bailey was too good to get dragged down into the mess she’d made. If anything, she was doing him a favor by keeping him out of her life. She shoved her laptop into her bag and at the same time eyed her phone with trepidation. Over the course of the last week she’d done nothing but try to come up with the money to hold Theo off, but as she’d feared there wasn’t enough. Enough money, enough time. She shook her head and tossed her phone into her purse. Staring at it in fear wasn’t going to help. “Miss Freeman, do you have a minute?” Brie jumped, but was at least able to stifle the yelp she’d almost let out. “Sure,” she plastered a smile on her face while her heartrate tried to return to some variation of normal, “What can I do for you?”

“It’s our latest assignment, the one for the midterm? I’m having trouble narrowing down which collection to write my paper on. There’s the Western Art collection that’s important because it’s, you know, our history in a lot of ways, but then the Eastern collection is fascinating and unique and entirely different from what I’m used to.” Brie opened her mouth to comment, but didn’t get the chance. “I mean which would you rather read about? The Western one in keeping closer to home or the Eastern, which would undoubtedly force me to challenge myself on a greater scale? Either way it’ll be interesting and I’ll learn loads, but I don’t want you to think I’m taking the easy way out or if there’s one you like more I could go that route. Thoughts?” Brie waited a beat to make sure her student was finished and then asked her a few questions to help her make the decision for herself. “It seems to me you’re leaning more toward the Eastern collection and to that I say go for it. Either way works which is why I let everyone choose which collection to write about. If you’re interested in your topic, it will show in your work.” Beaming, her student made a note and headed off. Brie let out a breath and smiled for the first time in a week. To get to see the spark of interest in the students was what made the prepping and the

grading worth it. She tucked her hair behind her ear and as more of a reflex than a conscious decision she glanced toward Bailey’s seat, but he was already gone. A small part of her sagged under the weight of relief while another made her question whether or not she should run after him and beg his forgiveness. But the truth was, that much like her students, she had her own class work to deal with. She couldn’t run off after a guy even if she’d acted harshly toward him. He’d be better off without her drama anyway. A few minutes later, as she entered the museum, the sound of squeaking sneakers on wood and murmuring voices greeted her along with her favorite security guard. “Afternoon, Brie. Where are you headed today?” “Hey, Saul.” She stepped to the side to allow a small group to pass. “Oh, you know me. I’ll be around.” He tipped his hat and she set off. Inside this place, this building full of history and creativity she felt more at home than in her own flat. She waded through the tourists, students, and clusters of art lovers near the entrance and made her way to a familiar far corner of the museum. It was one of her favorite areas inside the Ashmolean and today, she had it almost completely to herself.

Brie slid her pack off her shoulder and dropped it on the empty bench facing one of her favorite paintings. She could stare at it for hours and sometimes did when she needed to clear her head. Her earbuds were raised halfway to her ears, when a girl sitting on a nearby bench groaned in frustration. Brie turned and couldn’t suppress a smile when the frustrated girl’s face twisted into a scowl as she stared at Watteau’s work entitled ‘The Surprise.’ “You have Daniels this term, eh?” The girl turned and nodded, a look of misery on her face. “Yeah, I’ve been there. My name’s Brie.” She crossed over to stand beside the girl and the painting. “I’m Ava.” “It’s nice to meet you. So, what do you have to do? Wait, let me guess. You have to either describe similarities between some of Watteau’s works or explain the two opposing sides to this particular work and why you feel the way you do.” Ava nodded, wide eyed. “How’d you know?” “Like I said. I’ve been there.” Brie took a seat beside Ava careful not to knock her over-stuffed bag to the floor. “Which question did you choose?” “Hell if I know,” she whimpered, “I don’t understand anything about art, but I have to take this class.”

“Okay, don’t panic. I’ll help you.” “You will?” A sliver of hope sprang into Ava’s voice. “Sure. Okay, so first I would recommend dissecting the two different natures of the painting. It’ll be easier to fill your paper with definitive facts since Daniel’s doesn’t like a lot of fluff.” “Got it. Minimum fluff.” Brie grinned. “Exactly. So, when you look at this work, what do you see?” Ava’s determined eyes searched the work. “Obviously, the couple is in love.” She paused to glance at Brie for approval and then continued. “But, the little guy playing the guitar is sitting really close to them, like way too close for them to be that wrapped up in each other. He’s probably thinking they need to get a room.” Brie laughed, the sound echoing around the exhibit space. “He just might be or what else might be his significance?” “Um . . . he could be setting the mood for them?” “That’s one side of it. He’s part of the picture of love and romance, possibly elevating the experience. Nice work. That’s half your paper right there. Now take what you know and find the opposite side of it. What else might the musician represent?” “Okay, this is harder.” The girl blew out a

breath as her eyes searched the painting again. “I’m not great with poetry and words and pictures representing different things. Can’t people just say what they mean?” “They can, but they rarely do.” Ava sighed. “Right, okay so maybe he’s a lurker. Like he’s what makes this less beautiful.” “Possibly, but think of it like this. What if he’s like us, the viewers of the painting, what does he see?” Ava tilted her head to the side, thoughtful. “Lovers, affection, and maybe he’s sitting close to them because he wants to be a part of it or like he’s seeing something that’s missing from his own life.” Brie broke out into a huge smile. “You’ve got it.” “I do?” “Yes, that’s it. It’s all about asking the right question. And, Watteau is known for including semi-tragic observers. Now, take what you know and get writing. You’ll be good to go.” Ava gathered her things and stood. “Thank you so much. I couldn’t have done it without your help.” “It was no problem.” She watched Ava leave and returned to her bag, pleased she’d been able to help and, as an added bonus, she’d been able to forget about her own problems for a few minutes. As she took her seat on the bench and pulled a

notebook and pencil out of her bag, a centered calm descended over her. She wasn’t going to quit working on her dissertation simply because everything she had worked for could be wiped out in a matter of days. She sighed and flipped her pad of paper over. All of her work over the last five years would mean nothing without completing the DPhil program and if compromising pictures turned up, she would be fired. As she’d feared, it was outlined in the bylaws of the University that professors and grad students had to maintain a certain level of professionalism and she was pretty sure nudie pics wouldn’t fall under their criteria. God, and it wasn’t like she’d allowed him to take them of her for anything other than to use to paint a portrait. It wasn’t like they were for publication, in fact, most were sexy without full on shots. But, the university wouldn’t see it that way. Now that she knew the truth about what kind of man Theo was and what the pictures were really for, she wouldn’t be able to argue with the head of the school over whatever punishment came her way. She exhaled as she dragged her pencil across the page to create the curve of a woman’s back. The repeated gesture lulling her into a calm few other things could. She moved the pencil again, this time focusing on the angle of the woman’s shoulders to mimic the painting before her. This

particular work reflecting a pair of lovers from the turn of the century held a sort of whimsical romanticism. Soft colors, smooth lines, rosy complexions, it was what love looked like in her mind. There were no hard edges or threats. No deceptions between them, only light touches and happiness. “That’s pretty good, Miss Freeman.” She jumped at the sound of Bailey’s voice and then stared as he bent to pick up the pencil she’d dropped. As she tried to come up with something to say, something that would convey how sorry she was for the way she’d acted, she tugged one of her earbuds free. “Sorry to sneak up on you.” He met her eyes and handed her pencil back to her, their fingers brushing in the process. She transferred the pencil from one hand to the other, her fingers continuing to hum with energy after touching his. “No, it’s fine. I was lost in thought. What are you doing here?” He held a notebook out to the side. “Working on my paper for your class, actually, and you?” She held his gaze a moment, searching for any sign he was angry with her, but found his face relaxed, an easy smile touching his mouth. She swallowed and tried to come up with the appropriate words as she scooted over to make room for him. If nothing else she owed him an

apology. He took the offered seat and let his gaze wander to the painting before them. “The artist makes it look simple, doesn’t he?” “I guess that’s what it means to be a master at something, taking a task that is extremely difficult and making it look effortless.” Bailey tilted his head to the side and crossed his ankle over his opposite knee as though ready to settle in for a deep philosophical discussion. “That’s true enough, but I meant the subject matter. The artist makes love seem simple.” She turned her face so she could study the man beside her. “Maybe for some people it is.” “Maybe so.” There was a heaviness to his voice that made her want to reach out, to touch him, to let him know she cared, but she held back. She had no right to probe him about anything. “Listen, Bailey, about last weekend.” He turned his gaze on her and shook his head. “No, don’t. Let’s not go backwards.” “But, the way I spoke to you—” “You were having a bad day. It happens.” He shrugged and returned his attention to the painting. “I appreciate that, but I do want you to know that I’m sorry.” “Think nothing of it.” He offered her an easy grin, successfully easing her guilt and turning her

insides to mush at the same time. It had been a long time since a simple look from an attractive man had made her feel so unsettled, but it happened with Bailey every time. She glanced down where her silenced phone was lying on the top of her bag as though it were a snake about to strike. If only she could let go of the past and move forward. Brie slid forward on the bench and returned her gaze to the lovers on the wall, frozen in time together, blissful. “It’s inspiring, isn’t it?” Bailey said a few minutes later breaking her trance, though his words were quiet like he was talking more to himself than her. “He’s one of the greats. It makes sense that one would feel inspired.” “No, you don’t understand.” Bailey turned, placing one knee on the bench and facing her, a renewed energy about him. “It isn’t the art itself, it’s this place and it’s you.” “Me?” “Yes, Miss Freeman, I saw you earlier, when you were helping the other student. I didn’t want to interrupt, but listening to you in class and then here . . . I find you to be very inspirational. Your passion for the art you teach us about is more than just something you have to do, it’s who you are. You’re doing exactly what you should in the world. In truth, I envy that about you.”

“Isn’t it the same with you and your music? Isn’t it what you were meant to do?” Bailey shrugged. “I used to think so, but . . . things change. People change.” “Maybe, but it would be a shame for you and all your fans if you stopped playing and writing music. You’re too talented.” His eyes bored into hers. “I didn’t realize you were such a big Survival fan. That’s nice of you to say.” Her cheeks flooded at his words. “I can actually be nice, contrary to my words and actions the last time I saw you. And, here you are paying me the highest of compliments. I definitely haven’t done anything to deserve your kindness.” He tilted his head to the side. “Sure you have, maybe not last weekend.” He grinned when her cheeks heated again. “But, in a world full of people who want to know about every aspect of my life, and then turn around and use it for their own personal gain, you’ve treated me like you would treat everyone else. You’ve made me feel normal. Trust me, for someone like me, that’s pretty rare.” She reached out and rested a hand on his arm, his warmth radiating through his shirt. “Thank you, Bailey, and for the record, I do consider you my friend regardless of what I said before.” He grinned again causing the outsides of his eyes to crinkle. “Right back at ya and you know, if

you ever need anything, feel free to ask, you know, since we’re friends.” She sucked in a breath to tell him thanks, but he didn’t give her the chance. “I’d better get going. I have this teacher who’s a total slave driver.” He stood and touched his fingers to his temple in an almost salute. “Until next time.” She watched him go, surprised and touched all at once. No one had ever called her inspirational before. She’d had some nice comments sprinkled throughout her teacher evaluations, but none were as meaningful as Bailey’s words. And, he’d never know how much they meant. Leave it to Bailey Honeycutt to say exactly what she needed to hear. She smiled and shook her head. Friends, they were that, but she couldn’t deny a huge part of her longed to be more. Her phone dinged and when she turned it over and saw Theo’s name, her mood imploded like crude oil thrown onto a painted canvas, covering what was once beautiful. Friday at the Splash Pad. After your class. She stared at the screen and swallowed against the bile rising in her throat. How had she become this woman? Someone who was weak and who had let a man have power over her? Hot tears burned at the back of her eyes as she dropped her phone back into her bag and stood to leave.

Six months, she only had to deal with Theo for six more months and she would be free. And, she would never let a man or anyone else have control over her life again.

Chapter 12 Bailey knocked on his neighbor’s door with a satisfied smile on his face. Mid-terms were over and thanks to Leo and his serial dating, Bailey had a surprise for Cohen. He knocked again to make sure they could hear him over the piano music filtering through the windows. This was going to be fun. “Hey, B,” John stepped to the side and allowed him to enter. “All right?” “Yeah, it’s been a good day. Hey, is Cohen around?” “You mean you can’t tell?” John rolled his eyes toward the ceiling in the direction of the music. “I was just trying to be polite. I could hear him through the wall.” “No doubt.” John shouted, “Cohen!” in the general direction of the stairs. “Get your ass down here. He’ll be down in a second. Guy needs a break. He’s been staring at his midterm piece all afternoon.” Bailey tapped the side of his jacket. “Maybe I can give him something else to think about.” “Oh?” John plopped back down onto their shabby couch and propped his bare feet on the

table. “Do I get to be privy to this mystery?” “All in good time.” Bailey tapped his jacket again and couldn’t suppress a grin when Cohen’s heavy footsteps pounded down the stairs. He appeared a moment later, dark circles under his eyes. “What’s up? Hey, Bailey.” “Hey, so I’ve been thinking about that little problem you’re having, and I think I’ve come up with a solution, or at least an opportunity.” “Little problem?” Cohen echoed, one eyebrow arched as he made his way to the kitchen and searched for a clean glass. Bailey caught John’s eye and nodded at which point a spark of understanding lit up John’s face. “Oh, yeah, the great Jessica conundrum.” “Come on,” Cohen smacked his glass on the counter with a carton of orange juice frozen in midair, “don’t even go there.” “No, I’m serious, this is going to be good.” Bailey crossed their entire flat in five steps and set an envelope on the counter between them. “Go on. Take a look.” Cohen shot John a look, but John shrugged. “Don’t ask me, mate. This is all Bailey, unless of course it turns out to be a brilliant idea. In that case, I helped.” They waited while Cohen lifted the flap on the envelope and then his eyes widened. “Holy Christ. You got me tickets to go see Manchester?”

John shot off the couch and tore one of the tickets out of Cohen’s hands. “Yes.” His eyes bulged as he read where the seats were located. “Yes, yes, yes.” “I figured you can take Jessica along.” Bailey rocked back on his heels, pleased. This was when having connections was fun. “I don’t know, man, I mean this is bloody unbelievable, but I’m still not sure I can do it.” “Sure you can. Just ask her and if she says no, I’ll be happy to tag along.” John hooked an arm around Cohen’s shoulders and shook him. “I figured if you were wrapped up in the game and having a good time, it might be easier to relax.” “Yeah, maybe,” Cohen stared at the ticket again, his fingers strumming across the back. “Yeah, okay. I’m in. Thanks, Bailey.” “You bet. Make us proud.” When Cohen continued to stare at the tickets, Bailey slapped a hand on the counter. “What are you waiting for? Go call her.” “Right.” Cohen plucked the other ticket out of John’s greedy fingers and took the stairs two at a time. “You’re a good chap, B.” “I try.” He eyed the Play Station controller sitting on the table. “Shall we?” “Hell yes.” Later the same night when Bailey arrived

home, he toed off his boots and collapsed onto the couch with a contented smirk on his face. Cohen was well on his way and it made him feel good to have helped, assuming, of course, the guy didn’t screw things up too badly on his first date with Jessica, but the ball was in his court now. There was nothing else Bailey could do. Settling in for the night, Bailey flipped on the television and surfed through the limited channels. He didn’t mind the lack of content since he was forced to stream shows while on the road, but when he caught a glimpse of Luther, he set the remote to the side and watched as Idris Elba did what he did so well—total badassary. A strange mewling sound cut through a tense scene a minute later. Bailey adjusted the volume, but the sound happened again, louder than before. He tried a different station, but there was no change. He rose and tried hitting the side of the old television a few times, but the sad wail turned louder until he abandoned the living room and followed the strange noise to the screened in porch. He squinted into the darkness until he spotted movement on the ground. There just outside the door with its pitiful cries was a little tabby cat who couldn’t be more than a few months old. When Bailey moved toward him, the kitten tried in vain to run, but tripped over the trash in which he’d gotten himself caught. He knelt down

and scooped the kitten up with one hand. “It’s okay little guy. I’ve got you.” Between the rain and the cold, the kitten was half frozen. “Let’s get you inside.” While Bailey removed the plastic string from around his back legs with a pair of scissors, the kitten stared up at him with green eyes. He didn’t seem scared anymore, but based on the way he was shaking and the fact that Bailey could feel each of his little ribs beneath his fingers there was no doubt he couldn’t put him back outside. It was possible he wouldn’t survive the night. A deep sadness twisted in Bailey’s gut. “I won’t let anything happen to you.” He hoisted him off the counter and moved to the refrigerator. “Let’s see what we’ve got in here to eat.” ~~~ Brie climbed the stairs in search of Jessica. What she needed now more than anything, except maybe an insane amount of money, was a friend. When she rounded the corner at the top of the stairs she stopped, eyes wide, in the doorway of Jessica’s room. The space was never clean by any degree of the imagination, but this was beyond messy. There was a pile of clothes, which based on its sheer size and the amount of empty hangers swinging wildly in the closet, seemed to make up

her entire wardrobe. “What the heck is happening in here?” Jessica finished pulling a shirt over her head in front of her floor-length mirror and turned. “Oh, hey. I didn’t hear you come in.” “Seriously, what are you doing?” Jessica followed Brie’s horrified gaze around her room. “Yeah, it’s a bit rough, but I’ll put it right later. First, I’ve got to find something suitable to wear to a football match.” “You’re going to a match?” Brie’s mouth fell open in disbelief. “Why?” “It’s a date, apparently.” “With who?” Jessica’s face turned a light shade of pink. “Cohen.” Brie wouldn’t have thought her mouth could open any wider but it did, and no sound would come out. She shook her head, forcing her mind to start working again. “That’s it. I’ve entered into some sort of Doctor Who episode where the whole world is upside down.” “Right?” Jessica plopped down on the one open corner of her mattress, a huge grin on her face. “It surprised me, too. I mean, we’ve known Cohen for what, five years and he barely speaks to me.” “He’s cute though and talented.” Her flatmate’s nose scrunched up. “I know. I’m

kind of excited.” “When did this all happen?” “Earlier today.” “Why didn’t you say anything sooner?” “You’ve barely been here and, I’m sorry to say, when you have, you’ve been a little preoccupied.” Brie moved to where Jessica sat as guilt twisted in her stomach. She was right of course. Brie had been consumed with her own life. “I’m sorry. I know I’ve been a little distracted. I also seem to be doing a lot of apologizing lately.” “Why, what happened?” At Brie’s hesitation, Jessica took her hands and squeezed. “You know you can tell me anything.” “I know I can. I just haven’t wanted to talk about it.” “Let me guess, Theo?” Brie swallowed down the ball of dread which had lodged itself in her throat at the mention of Theo and nodded. “He wants more money and right after I saw him, Bailey showed up. I wasn’t in the best mood and I kind of snapped at him.” “You didn’t?” Brie nodded again. “Hence the apologizing. I ran into him today and tried to set things right.” “And, did you?” Brie took her hands back and moved to the window. The world outside was quiet, the sun an impossible shade of dark orange and pink as it hung

onto the horizon. “I think so. Bailey seemed fine when he left, but I’m not sure how long he’s going to actually want to keep speaking to me after Theo gets through.” “How much does he want this time?” “Way more than I have.” Brie put the sunset to her back and leaned against the wall. “I’m hoping I can negotiate with Theo. Maybe offer him what’s in my savings. It’s not enough, but it’s close.” “Brie, no.” Jessica shot to her feet. “You can’t. That’s your money for New York. You can’t give it to Theo. You’ve been saving for years. And, you’ve just finished paying your brother back.” “Tell me something I don’t know.” “There’s got to be another way.” Jessica’s face turned hard, determined, and for a second it seemed as though she might start pacing. But, after a second glance around her room she stayed put, hands planted on her hips. “Maybe I can talk to my stepdad. Tell him it’s for, I don’t know, new clothes. He hates the way I dress.” “I appreciate the thought, but no. And besides, it wouldn’t be enough. He wants ten thousand pounds.” Jessica collapsed onto the bed again. “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.” “I know.” “There is one person you know who has that kind of money and a lot more where that came

from.” Brie’s head snapped around. “Don’t even say it.” “Bailey would do it. For you, he would. I’m sure of it.” A small part of Brie liked the idea he might like her enough to help her, but that part was being overshadowed at the nauseated part of her that would never do such a thing. Hadn’t he just said how much he appreciated that she treated him like everyone else? That she didn’t use him for some sort of personal gain. “I could never ask and I would never ask.” “I know.” Jessica offered her a weak smile. “It was a stupid idea, but Brie you can’t throw away your New York money. How else will you get there after graduation and get set up for your job at Sotheby’s?” “I don’t know, but I’ll figure something out. I always do.” Brie pushed off the wall at her friend’s anguished expression, ashamed she’d ruined her good mood.” She picked up a flashy red and black shirt off of the floor and held it up, “Now, let’s figure out what you’re going to wear on your date.”

Chapter 13 Brie scrubbed her paintbrushes clean under the tap at Splash Pad and tried not to think about how her fellow colleagues were going to react to the pictures. There was no doubt they would see them. She glanced at the clock on the wall with the Starry Night background. In less than thirty minutes Theo was going to show up and demand something she didn’t have. Her stomach twisted as she turned off the water and stared at her reflection, her dark hair matching the dark circles under her eyes. Maybe her professors would let her finish out the program. Maybe if she went to them first instead of them finding out on their own . . . and she could use her money for New York to pay the tuition she would owe. She sighed, defeated, and flipped off the light. Her life was about to change and not in the way she’d hoped where dreams came true and hard work paid off. This time, reality was going to get the upper hand. She crossed the studio and laid the paintbrushes out to dry along the counters. If she did get fired, she’d have to find another way to cover rent and

bills. New York could wait, but Jessica needed her to pay her share. Hands on her hips, she glanced around the studio. Maybe they could use her full time. The extra money for the mural she was contracted to paint would help, but it wouldn’t last long. A tap sounded against the glass and a cold sweat broke out all over her body. When she turned to find Bailey instead of Theo, her mouth formed a silent ‘o’. She used the mirrors lining the walls to give her face a once over as she hurried to the door. The last thing she needed was Bailey reading the panic undoubtedly etched into the worry lines around her mouth and eyes. Of all the nights for him to show up unannounced . . . She cleared her throat and pasted on a smile as she unlocked the door. “Hey, what’re you doing here?” “I wanted to see if you’d like to grab a coffee.” “Coffee? You want to take me out for coffee?” She shook her head. Here she was on the verge of having her life turn upside down and inside out and Bailey was asking her out. “You know we can’t go out together.” Aware of how clipped her words were, she backtracked, “As nice as it would be, you know we can’t. Not right now.” “Oh, you miss understand. I know we can’t go

out, so I brought it to you.” He turned and held the door open with his hip while he bent at the waist. When he turned back around, he was holding two cups from the coffee shop down the street. “Thanks, this was very thoughtful, but it won’t get you a better grade on your midterm.” Bailey offered her a wolfish grin. “A guy has to try, right?” She took the offered cup and sipped though the bitter taste did nothing to ease her stomach. “So, can I walk you home?” “Um . . .” Her fingers tapped against the side of her cup. “I can wait while you grab your stuff.” She wanted to say yes, to hook her arm through his and listen to him tell her about his day, God how she wanted it, but . . . “That’s really sweet of you, but I can’t. I still have a few things I need to do here and I wouldn’t want you to wait.” And, I definitely wouldn’t want you to run into Theo. “I don’t mind. I could even help you out.” Bailey pulled the door open the rest of the way and stepped inside. With panic rising in her chest, Brie looked up and down the sidewalk before following him into the studio. “How was your class?” “Fine.” She set her coffee on the counter and

started stacking easels in the corner. “I was helping out and working on the sketch for the mural I’m about to start. The owner wants to jazz up the back wall and asked me to come up with something. It’s supposed to be fun, but I’m struggling to come up with the right idea.” She put her back to him and took a deep breath willing herself to slow down her speech so she wouldn’t sound as wound up as she felt. “I’m sure you’ll come up with something great, but I understand the pressure. I get that way when I’m writing songs under a deadline. It flows more naturally when I can hang out and let the music come to me.” He grinned, “But, everyone has their own way I guess. So, are they going to pay you to paint the mural?” She nodded. “That’s cool.” He carried more easels over and stacked them on top of hers. “It never hurts to help out when you can and make a few extra dollars.” A strangled laugh escaped her. He had no idea. She dared a glance out the large store front windows half expecting to see the glow of a cigarette, but there was no one there. God, how was she going to get rid of Bailey? “I heard Jessica was going out with Cohen tomorrow.” Brie tore her eyes away from the window and smiled. Her life may have been in the cross-hairs,

but she wanted Jessica to be happy. “Yeah, she’s pretty excited. I have to admit, I’ve wondered in the past if Cohen was crushing on her. He always seems nervous when she’s around, and there have been more than a few times I’ve caught him glancing her way.” “Maybe they’ll hit it off.” “Maybe so.” A pang of envy stabbed at Brie’s heart. She wanted the freedom to go out without worrying over Theo, but she’d lain with a dog and she was going to have to deal with the fleas, or in this particular case, the flea. She rubbed a hand over the back of her neck, tired from two weeks of worrying. Bailey set down the remaining stands and turned to her. “Allow me.” He slid his thumbs over the tight muscles at the base of her neck kneaded the knots. His fingers were warm and steady as they moved over the top of her spine, adding pressure as he went. Brie moaned and let her head roll forward. “You really shouldn’t, but that feels so good.” He continued to ease the tension allowing the tips of his fingers to massage the muscles at the base of her collarbone while working her shoulders with his thumbs. “This is cute,” he touched the ends of one of the paintbrushes she was using to hold her hair up. A habit she’d developed in high school.

“Oh, yeah, super cute.” She turned until they were face to face and with heat in her cheeks either from his hands or his compliment, though she wasn’t sure which, she pulled the paintbrushes out and let her hair fall around her shoulders. Concerned it was standing up in ten different directions, she ran her hands through her hair a few times to tame it. He reached out and played with the ends of her hair, letting it fall between his deft fingers. When her eyes locked on his, she found his had changed and his expression had softened. She stopped fidgeting, transfixed by his stare. She’d seen the look before in paintings. It was longing, and her heart recognized it, too. As she stood inches from him, his scent surrounding her, her worries faded into the background. He raised his hand and ran the back of his fingers down the length of her face. “You’re beautiful.” She wanted to kiss him, Jesus, how she wanted to feel his mouth on hers again. But instead, she leaned into his hand and smiled. For the first time in two weeks, she felt safe. Bailey rubbed his thumb across her cheek with the softest of strokes, his calloused finger igniting her skin. Muffled laughter sounded and a quiet thud hit the glass. She jumped away from Bailey with her stomach in her throat and spun toward the window

with wide eyes. But, it wasn’t Theo outside. It was only a group of people walking by. Stupid, stupid, stupid. She stalked away from Bailey. What had she been thinking? She hadn’t been. That’s what it was. And, who could blame her? Bailey was gorgeous, talented, and rich. He was basically the trifecta of fantasies everywhere. What girl wouldn’t want to be flirted with and complimented? She spun around on her heel and clapped her hands together. “Well then, I should get back to it.” She started for the door and he followed, his eyes narrowed in confusion. “Thanks again for the coffee.” “Sure.” He stepped through the doorway and turned, but she shut the door in his face. “Are you sure you don’t want me to walk you?” “No,” she shouted through the glass. “I’ll see you in class.” “Okay, then.” ~~~ As she trudged home under the light drizzle of rain, Brie’s sullen mood worsened. She’d been careless, and for what? A touch. A look. Was she completely mental? She turned up the sidewalk leading to her front door and then paused to tilt her head back. The rain was picking up and splattering across her cheeks like tiny, cold slaps. The door to her flat flew open with Jessica

standing on the other side. Her eyes were wild as though Brie had been caught after sneaking out. “Brie, what the hell are you doing?” Her flatmate grabbed the edge of her jacket and yanked her inside. “Seriously, why were you standing outside? It’s freezing.” Brie blew out a breath and peeled off her jacket and rain boots with slow movements. “I needed the air.” “That son of a bitch. What happened?” “That’s the thing, he didn’t show.” Brie collapsed onto the sofa and leaned her head back. “Didn’t show?” “No, and I waited.” She glanced at the clock on the microwave. “I waited almost two hours, but there was no sign of Theo.” “What do you think that’s about?” She shook her head, her damp hair clawing at her face. “I don’t know, but it’s Theo, so it can’t be good. He’s never not shown, well, I mean, when we were together he rarely showed, but when it comes to getting money, he always manages to make an appearance.” Exhausted, she let her head fall back again. “What are you going to do?” “What can I do? He’ll show up when he shows up I guess. And, when he does . . .” she shrugged. There was nothing she could do now, but wait for the other shoe to drop.

“You know, if you want, we could go into London tomorrow and tool around in the city. Go to a show or something.” Brie raised her head and smiled. “What about your date with Cohen?” Jessica’s face reddened. “No, thanks for the offer, but I want you to go to that match with Cohen and then come home and tell me all about it.” “I feel bad though. I don’t want you to be alone all day.” Brie slid sideways and rested her head on Jessica’s shoulder. “I’ll be fine.” She pushed all thoughts of Theo out of her mind. He wasn’t worth the energy it would take to worry. Her thoughts slid back to the searing look that had been in Bailey’s eyes. She couldn’t deny what was happening between them and she didn’t want to, but at what cost to them both?

Chapter 14 The final few weeks of the semester arrived with a mix of ice and wind. As Brie crossed the campus, the frost covering the grass crunching under her feet, she couldn’t help but notice the sideways looks more than a few people sent her way. She raised a hand and ran it over her hair feeling for anything unusual. A female student passed her on the right and smirked when she caught her eye. Brie tried to convince herself she was acting paranoid, but when she entered the building a small group of students huddled around a cell phone stopped talking and glanced her way, their eyes lingering a little too long to be innocent. A spark of panic flickered to life. It couldn’t be Theo. She hadn’t heard from him since the night he hadn’t shown to collect his money. He couldn’t exactly be angry she’d shorted him since she’d never had the chance. She entered her classroom and took the stairs toward the front placing the few students who had already arrived to her back. When their quiet chatter ceased, she did her best to casually check to see if there was a line of toilet paper attached to her

shoe, but there was nothing. The small flicker of nerves inside her grew. Brie flipped on the computer and glanced at her phone. There were six missed calls and several text messages from Jessica, including more than a few laced with emojis and exclamation points. Her stomach dropped through the floor. Check the internet before class starts. Call in. Don’t go to class today! Call me! This is an EMERGENCY. Keeping her back to the class and fighting the urge to puke she pressed the Safari button on her phone and checked the top news stories. Her eyes widened when she saw the headline: Member of Survival of the Fittest Spotted in Oxford with New Girlfriend She blinked. What? She scrolled through others: Lead Guitarist from SotF Finds New Cure, Honeycutt Living It Up in Oxford, New Celebrity Couple Alert in the Music World—on and on they went as if there was nothing else of any importance going on. Dizziness washed over her, the room no longer still. She leaned against the table holding the computer for support as she clicked on one of the headlines. There she was with Bailey, his hand touching her face from the night they were at Splash Pad. The night Theo had never shown. Her

mind went back through the events of the evening. They’d been close, but hadn’t kissed, but it didn’t matter. The only way the pictures could’ve looked more intimate was if they’d actually been naked. Her eyes continued to scroll through the story. Maybe they didn’t know who she was? Besides, who was she really? Some little nobody from nowhere England. The woman pictured is said to be a grad student at The University of Oxford . . . shit. So much for that theory. Her insides twisted. The whispers behind her intensified. How could this have happened? A quiet gasp escaped her mouth, Theo. He hadn’t been a no-show after all. He’d been there. She shook her head. He’d found a way to get his money without her paying him off. With a fresh wave of panic, she scrolled faster fearing what other pictures might appear. Bailey wasn’t naked with her, but now that his name was attached to hers, would it matter? God, and after he’d said she was one of the few people who didn’t want anything from him . . . what would he think now? Her skin heated with rage, a fire swirling inside her. It was one thing to threaten to expose her and ruin her career, but to bring Bailey into it. She spun on her heel and tossed her phone into her bag. She would deal with this. Somehow, she would fix this, but first, she needed to keep her focus and lead the class.

She raised her eyes and couldn’t stop herself from glancing toward Bailey’s usual seat on the left side of the room. When she found it empty, paralyzing guilt threatened to stop her from teaching. What must he think? Where was he? She swallowed. No. She couldn’t worry about that now. For the next hour she had to be present. It was her job, at least for the next sixty minutes anyway. What she needed was a plan of action. She drummed her fingers on the table. After class, she’d make her way to Mr. Catling’s office. Since he was the Acting Head of the School, he was the best place to start. Maybe if she got out in front of the potential scandal, she’d be able to exert some sort of control over the situation. The whispers in the room became more urgent. She stopped drumming her fingers and her head snapped up. Enough was enough. “Shall we begin?” Her voice was sharp and cut through the quiet conversations with efficiency. “Right, today we’re going to discuss the last artist from our syllabus. We will then use the remaining minutes of class to discuss your final project, whether it be—” Laughter interrupted her train of thought and brought class to a screeching halt. “I’m sorry, did you have a question?” Her question was met with silence and more than a few of the students shifted in their chairs. “Right, then, let’s get started.”

~~~ Bailey thanked the receptionist and took a seat in one of the straight-backed chairs lining the walls. The office was quiet—other students busy in class —where he should’ve been. He set his stack of papers from the course of the semester on the empty seat beside him and stared around the walls. Like most of the older buildings on campus its walls were lined with gold framed paintings. Some included a small plaque at the bottom explaining whose image was captured, while others were unmarked, too well known to require further explanation. Baily scooted to the edge of his seat, the feeling taking him back to sitting in the principal’s office after pulling off a rather ingenious senior prank. But, unlike finding golf carts parked all over the school roofs, there was nothing funny about why he was there. His impatience to spend time with Brie could’ve cost Brie her job and it was no one’s fault, but his own. How many times had she told him she couldn’t be around him? How many times had she tried to put space between them? He bit back a curse and eyed the door to his left. Whatever the fallout from his recklessness, he was going to do everything in his power to keep that from happening. The phone of the assistant’s desk rang and then she caught Bailey’s eye. “Mr. Catling will see you

now.” Bailey stood, collected his things and then pushed through the door separating the waiting area from the Head of the Art School’s office. When he closed the heavy door behind him, he blinked against the light pouring in through the spacious windows offering a panoramic view of the campus. The warm atmosphere was in stark contrast to his current mood. “Mr. Honeycutt.” The white-haired man seated behind the large mahogany desk rose and held out a hand, pumped Bailey’s arm twice and released. “It’s nice to see you again, although I must admit I’m concerned about the rumors circulating around the school this morning.” Mr. Catling motioned to one of the smaller chairs facing the desk and took his seat again. “As I’m sure you can recall I had some concerns when you first got accepted here. While your test scores and grades were more than exceptional, I worried what sort of disruptions your presence here might create.” “Yes, sir.” Bailey nodded, remembering all too well the conversation they’d had at the beginning of term. “You see, we here at Oxford have a certain reputation to uphold,” Mr. Catling made a couple of half-hearted circles with one of his hands. “I’m sure you can understand that any sort of

fraternization between an instructor and her student could potentially tarnish our reputation, and I’m afraid that can’t happen.” His gaze bored into Bailey’s. “I understand completely, sir.” “Now, Mr. Honeycutt, would you like to explain the nature of the relationship you have with Miss Freeman? Because, from where I’m sitting, she has broken the ethical code of this University and in doing so, put me in a rather uncomfortable position. As the rule stands, Miss Freeman must be let go, which is a shame since she’s one of our best. As for your situation, you fail the class and take it again with a different instructor. There can be no question as to whether or not you earned the proper marks.” Bailey took a moment to weigh the less than stellar verdict. Though he’d expected to endure some manner of retribution, it troubled him to hear Mr. Catling would be forced to fire Brie, regardless. “Sir, let me assure you that Miss Freeman has done nothing to jeopardize the reputation of this school.” “The images of the two of you say otherwise, Mr. Honeycutt.” “I understand that, sir, truly, but I assure you nothing has happened beyond my own advances.” “Forgive me, Mr. Honeycutt, but your assurances do little to convince me that that’s the case. From where I’m sitting, Miss Freeman has let

her emotions cloud her better judgement.” “Forgive me, sir, but that’s not true. You see, I’m the one who asked her out and when she refused, I’m the one who signed up for one of her art classes. At no time did Miss Freeman encourage or return my feelings.” He waited for the man to say something, but he didn’t. Mr. Catling remained silent, his fingers steepled together, an unconvinced expression on his face. “Here,” Bailey reached for the stack of papers he’d brought with him and placed them on the desk between the two of them. “This is every paper, quiz, and exam I’ve completed in Art History. I know you’re a busy man, but if you would take the time to check over the work I’ve done, I think you’ll see that I’ve earned the grades I’ve received. It would be beneath Miss Freeman’s character to show favoritism.” The man arched his eyebrow, waited what felt like an eternity, and then reached for the papers. “Okay, Mr. Honeycutt, let’s say I’m willing to do what you’ve asked. Let’s say I’m willing to overlook your less than becoming behavior towards one of our instructors and look over your work. What then?” “That’s up to you, sir, but I hope you’ll allow Miss Freeman to keep her job and spare her any more trouble.”

Mr. Catling tapped his fingers on the papers. “And, what happens to you?” Bailey let out a nervous laugh, “Well, I hope you’ll allow me to finish the semester and remain in your program, but again that’s up to you.” The clock on one of the many bookshelves ticked, one minute, two, three. Bailey did his best to keep his face blank, but when Mr. Catling began reading through his work, he couldn’t stop the trickle of sweat from rolling down his back. The clock continued to tick; five minutes passed, then ten, until Bailey feared he would go crazy. “Mr. Honeycutt,” Mr. Catling flipped his papers over and leveled his eyes at him, “I have to say I’m impressed. The work you’ve done is exceptional.” Bailey continued to hold his breath, though a part of him beamed at the high praise. He couldn’t relax until he learned Brie’s fate. “Thank you, sir.” “What if we come to some sort of an arrangement?” Bailey leaned forward ready to do whatever was asked of him. “For the next three weeks here’s what you’re going to do. You are going to stop attending Miss Freeman’s class. I will personally make sure you get the remaining notes and power point presentations. Secondly, you will not speak to her

on or off campus until this semester is completed. If I so much as see the two of you exchange a glance in the hallway, this will end very differently.” Mr. Catling tapped his finger against the desk. “Finally, and most importantly, you will turn your final paper in to me. From this point on Miss Freeman is no longer your instructor, I am. Do I make myself clear, Mr. Honeycutt?” “Yes, sir, perfectly, but what’s going to happen to Miss Freeman?” Mr. Catling pursed his lips. “She will remain on staff as long as you keep your word.” Bailey’s breath rushed out in relief. “Yes, sir, and again, I’m very sorry for the trouble I’ve caused.” Bailey stood to leave, accepted his papers back from Mr. Catling and made for the door. He didn’t want to give the man a chance to change his mind. “Mr. Honeycutt.” Bailey froze with his hand on the handle. “Miss Freeman is a remarkable young woman. It’s easy to understand why you feel the way you do.” “No, sir it isn’t like that.” Bailey turned, ready to convince him some more, but Mr. Catling cut him off with a raised hand. “After you complete the semester.” They held gazes a moment and then Bailey nodded once.

“Thank you, sir.” With relief coursing through him, Bailey tugged open the door and froze for the second time. Brie met his eyes, worry etched deep in her face. He dropped his gaze, determined to keep his word. “I’m sorry for the trouble.” He didn’t say anything more. Instead, he hurried past her and out of the building.

Chapter 15 Brie sipped her tea, unable to make her mind stay on her work for more than a few seconds at a time. It had been this way since she’d seen Bailey leaving Mr. Catling’s office. “Hey,” Jess shouted from the first floor. The door banged closed and then footsteps could be heard on the stairs. “How’s it coming?” Brie shook her head and spun around in her chair until her desk was to her back. “It’s not. I can’t focus.” Jessica unwound her scarf and offered her a pitying stare. “No word then, I take it?” “Nothing, and not only was he not in class, his name has changed in the roster where I can’t click on it to see his marks. It’s like he’s still part of the class, but removed.” “Do you think he’s been tossed out?” Brie groaned and buried her face in her hands. “Lord, I hope not. Can you imagine? And, it would be all my fault.” “You know what, never mind about that.” Jessica patted her knee. “He hasn’t been tossed out. If he’d been, Cohen would’ve said something.” “Have the guys mentioned Bailey at all or seen

him around?” “No, nothing new to report. I asked Cohen about Bailey this morning, but he said they’d barely seen him this week. Said he’s been out most days and getting in late.” Brie slumped back against her desk. It didn’t make any sense. None of it. One minute, she’d been sure she was going to be sacked and then next thing she knew Mr. Catling had been reassuring her. And now, Bailey was nowhere to be found. Not in class on campus or at Splash Pad. He’d disappeared like he’d never been in her life, which should’ve made her happy. His departure certainly made everything less complicated, but his absence was driving her mad. “Tell me again what the Head of School said.” Jessica pulled her out of her thoughts. “Maybe we missed something.” “I told you. He didn’t say much of anything. He said he was sorry I’d had to deal with an overeager student and let me know everything was taken care of. And,” she let out a crazed laugh, “he told me not to worry.” “Men are such idiots. Don’t they know you can’t tell a woman not to worry and then actually expect her not to worry? It’s like telling us to relax when we clearly need to yell about something. Morons, the lot of them.” Brie laughed and felt some of the tension of the

week drain away. Jessica returned her smile. “Maybe you could ring him, you know, to make sure he’s all right.” “I thought about it, but I have no idea what to say to him. The mere thought makes my insides twist into knots.” She tossed the pen she’d been twirling to the side. “I mean, whatever has happened between Bailey and the school is my fault and contrary to what I thought of him at the beginning of the semester, he deserves to be here. He has some of the most interesting ideas about art and life.” “Brie,” Jessica’s tone pleaded, “it’s not your fault. There’s no way you could’ve known what would happen with Theo. He’s a total con artist.” “But, how did I not see it? Sure, he was attractive, but—” “He was also an artist, which appealed to your interests. And, come on, you were young. It was your first time outside your small town and away from your family. You’re supposed to screw up and date the wrong people.” Brie let her head fall back against her chair and sighed. “I sure got that one right, didn’t I?” Jessica’s eyes went wide and she dove for the computer on Brie’s desk. As Brie was about to ask what was wrong, a familiar picture filled the screen, the one of she and Bailey from the studio. “Oh, good Lord, what now?”

“Shh,” Jessica waved at her and then they both leaned in closer to the screen. “It seems Bailey Honeycutt’s latest love interest is more than just a pretty face. Rumors are swirling that nude pictures of the instructor exist and could popup online at any time. I guess we’ll all get a chance to see if she’s worth singing about.” “Of course you are,” Jessica interrupted. “You’re hot.” “Shh. Defend me later.” “Right.” “But, more on music’s hottest new pair when we return. Be sure to join us tomorrow for all your latest PopC News.” “No. No. No. No. No. This can’t be happening.” Brie rested her hands on the top of her head to stop herself from throwing her laptop across the room. “Now, he’s really not going to talk to me. And, I’m still going to lose my job.” “Don’t panic. It’s just rumors.” Brie dropped her arms and spun around toward Jessica. “Be serious. Who do you think started that rumor? You see this, this is what I’ve been waiting for. Theo’s probably neck deep in negotiations with the highest bidder right now.” “It’s a shame you aren’t getting a cut of the money.” “Who cares about the money? My naked ass is

going to be everywhere. And, my mom and Bailey and . . .” Brie’s legs gave out and she dropped onto the bed. “I thought this was bad before, but now that Bailey’s name is tied to mine . . .” “And, you didn’t even get to sleep with him.” “I think you’re missing the point.” She fell backward against the pillow and stared at the ceiling. The water spot staring down at her seemed to be growing alongside her mounting dread. Although, she hated to admit, Jessica wasn’t completely on the wrong track. Hadn’t she spent the better part of the last month lusting after Bailey? And for a while, she’d hoped they’d have a chance, but what was he going to think of her now? ~~~ Bailey accepted his coffee from the barista and took a seat across from Jessica who looked like she was about to bolt. Other than one other couple they were the only ones inside Tick Tock, a coffee shop located well off campus, but the way Jessica was acting made it seem more like they were on the lam. She glanced over her shoulder for the third time since they’d arrived and eyed the door. “Relax, we aren’t doing anything wrong here.” Not that he wanted Brie, or Cohen for that matter, to walk in and see them. If either of them did, there would be a lot of explaining to do. Assuming of

course that Jessica explained to him what the hell they were doing there. He was still in the dark about what this super-secret meeting was about. Jessica had called him, said she needed to meet regarding Brie, and that it was important. She hadn’t exactly been forthcoming with the details and he hadn’t asked a lot of questions. Jessica cared about Brie and that was enough for him. If she said it was important, it was. “Speak for yourself, Honeycutt. I’m pretty sure I’m about to break the best friend code in about a hundred different ways. And, while I know this is to help her, she wouldn’t see it that way.” “Okay, so let’s not sit here any longer than we have to. What’s going on? Why are you so worried about Brie? Is it about her job?” “No, nothing like that, well, not yet anyway.” Jessica sighed and turned her mug in a circle on the table, the heart shaped foam turning upside down. “Right, okay. This is going to be awkward.” She let go of the mug and met his eyes, her mouth in a determined line. “You know how those pictures of the two of you went viral?” She shook her head. “Of course, you do, well, I think we know who leaked them to the press and as it turns out there’s more.” Bailey narrowed his eyes. “Okay, but I don’t see how. I’ve made it a point not to cross paths with Brie.”

Jessica winced, and he could see her courage wavering. “Just tell me. It can’t be as bad as all that.” Jessica closed her eyes for a second before continuing. “It is actually, but in some ways I’m glad to be talking to someone. This whole situation is out of control.” Foot tapping under the table, Bailey’s usually dormant temper was beginning to stir. “What situation?” “Okay, so there’s this guy, Theo. He used to date Brie, like a really long time ago, way before you showed up, but while they were together,” she paused to swallow. “God, I can’t believe I’m about to tell you this. You of all people.” Bailey reached over and laid a gentle hand on Jessica’s arm. “I care about Brie. Whatever this Theo guy did, I can help.” Jessica smiled and nodded once. “I know you do, believe me. That’s the only reason I’m here and because I don’t know what else to do.” Bailey pushed his coffee to the side and placed his elbows on the table. “Start at the beginning.” He remained quiet while Jessica outlined the details of Brie’s past relationship with the picture guy, Theo. Who he now understood was the same guy he’d seen leaving the morning Brie’d gotten so mad at him. At least now, he had a name to go with the face he desperately wanted to punch.

“So, this all boils down to some pictures?” His hand balled into a fist. He hated that some guy hadn’t respected Brie enough to keep private photos private, almost as much as he hated the thought of another man touching her. Maybe if the guy loved her or bothered to be a decent person. He drummed his fingers on the table. No, not even then. Jessica fell back against the seat. “Yep. Over the last few years those little pictures have coast her thousands not to mention more than a few sleepless nights. Now me, I’d tell him to sod off, but I’m not the one who would lose my place in the program. I mean, look at me,” she motioned a hand down her body. “I’m not ashamed. Hell, this is the best I’ll ever look, so look on, but Brie needs the job to pay for school. And, she can’t get another loan because old Theo has already run that tap dry. He’s taken everything from her and she’s busted her ass working two, sometimes even three jobs to keep him from taking away the one thing she can’t get back, her job and the recommendation she needs from the Head of the School.” Bailey stared down at his lukewarm coffee. He could try to buy the guy off and keep him from releasing the photos, but it wouldn’t fix her problem. Theo would keep coming back like the asshole he was. No, this was going to take outside help.

“And, you said the networks are already hinting at a release?” “Yeah, we saw something last night on PopC.” He wrapped his knuckles on the table and stood. “I’ve got to go make some calls.” “Wait,” Jessica clutched his hand, “what are you going to do?” “I don’t know exactly, but something to get rid of Theo. Preferably for good.” Jessica slid out of the booth, dragging her messenger bag along with her. “You aren’t going to like, pay someone to,” she glanced around with wide eyes and then slid her finger along her throat, “off him, are you?” He couldn’t suppress a grin. “No, nothing quite so messy, as tempting as it sounds.” Jessica’s expression held a mix of relief and disappointment, and he decided he liked her even more. He started for the door, one hand already reaching for his phone. “Hey,” she put a hand on his arm to stop him, “you know you can’t tell Brie about any of this, right? I mean, I love her, but she would never accept your help. My girl is far too proud sometimes.” “I kind of gathered that about her.” He sighed. He didn’t want to lie to Brie albeit by omission or any other kind, but if she wouldn’t save herself, he was going to step in. Even if they never worked

out, she deserved better. When they parted ways outside, he waved as Jessica boarded the bus and then he dialed his brother. “Hey, Oliver. I need some help.”

Chapter 16 Brie slammed the door of the lift and stepped up onto the curb beside Jessica amongst a crowd of passersby. London, as per the norm, was buzzing with tourists and eager shoppers. Christmas decorations shown from store fronts and red and green lights reflected on the wet sidewalk. A gust of wind swirled around them and lifted Jessica’s rainbow-colored scarf into Brie’s face. She batted it away, her mood lacking her usual abundance of Christmas spirt. Any other time she would’ve enjoyed the sights and feel of her favorite season, but her thoughts remained scattered with worry. “Come on, Brie.” Jess looped an arm through hers and pulled her toward a row of shops. “A little retail therapy is just the thing to set you right.” “Except that I can’t afford anything.” Jessica stopped in the middle of the sidewalk forcing several disgruntled Londoners to walk around them. “Listen, this is supposed to be fun, got me? You haven’t heard from Theo, the entertainment reporters haven’t mentioned you in over a week, which might as well be a year in entertainment gossip, and the semester is almost over. Relax. Have a little fun, you know, fun? That

thing you used to dabble with every now and again.” Brie rolled her eyes, but smirked. “You’re right. I’m sorry.” They started down the sidewalk again. Brie linked her arm through Jessica’s and exhaled as they strolled. “Let’s go have some . . . wait, what was that word you used again?” “Cute, Brie.” She tugged her arm. “Now, move it. I have to find the perfect something for Cohen.” Brie pasted a smile on her face and did her best to be in the moment. After all, everything Jess said was true. Theo hadn’t so much as texted and there hadn’t been mention of her or Bailey in the news for over week. She’d spent enough of her time combing through the headlines checking, Lord knew. A habit she’d need to kick to get her own project completed on time. Not to mention all the grading she’d be doing over the next week. Final papers were due in the following day and then the clock would be ticking to post final grades. She blew out a breath to steady herself. When they passed a music store, her thoughts drifted back to Bailey, concern creeping back to the forefront of her mind. What had their little flirtation cost him? As far as she knew he was still enrolled in the university, but beyond that, she knew nothing. Was he sitting at home right now writing a song about how much some girl had screwed up his life? “Brie, are you listening to me?”

She blinked, trying to refocus on Jess’s face. “Sorry, what did you say?” “I said,” she wiggled a jersey in the air, “do you think Cohen would like this?” Brie nodded. “I’m sure he would.” Jess stared at her and tapped her foot, a signal for her to say more. “Um, it’s cool?” “Ugh.” Jessica hung it back on the wall. It seemed cool wasn’t what she was going for. “He probably already has ten of them anyway.” While Brie was thrilled Jess had a good thing going with Cohen, by the time mid-afternoon rolled around they’d peered in shop windows and rummaged through vintage records until Brie’s feet hurt from standing. “This is hopeless.” Jess leaned her head against the mirror in a store and watched while her breath fogged up the glass. “Why is this so hard? I never have this much trouble buying gifts for people. People love my gifts, don’t they?” “Definitely. You are the queen when it comes to gift giving.” “See. So, what is my deal today?” Brie collapsed onto a chair situated near the wall and did her best to keep from groaning in relief. “I think it’s because you like him so much.” Jessica turned around and then slid to the floor with her back resting against the pole. “You’re

right, I do, and I never expected it. I mean where was Cohen last year or the year before that? He was right in front of me, but I didn’t see him.” Brie smiled. This was the first boyfriend Jessica had had in a long time who was a good match and who seemed to like Jessica as much as she liked him. It was nice to see even if it did spark a faint twinge of envy. Not that she wanted Cohen, but a chance to be with someone who was into her for her. She sighed. Maybe when the semester ended she’d get a chance. A little voice in the back of her head spoke up. As if Bailey would be interested now. After the trouble Theo caused him. Too much complication where you’re concerned. She straightened her spine and ignored the doubts creeping in. Today wasn’t about her or Bailey. As soon as the semester was over she’d find a way to set things right, but first . . . “Listen, I think you’re going about this the wrong way.” “Okay,” Jess perked up. “What do you suggest?” “You need something more personal.” “Like lingerie?” Brie pressed her lips together and nodded once slowly, “There’s that, or maybe something a little more from the heart?” “Oh, right. Okay.” Jessica’s hands pounded her

knees. “I can do this.” “You can do this,” Brie echoed. “What’s he into other than football, and you, of course?” “Music, obvi.” Jessica tapped the top of her knee with her fingers. “Oh! There’s this jazz guy he loves.” Jessica shot to her feet and then held out a hand to Brie to yank her out of her chair. “He’s here in London. Maybe we could find him and have him sign something or get some tickets or I don’t know something. Let’s go.” Brie laughed as Jessica pulled her through the department store and out onto the sidewalk. Then, Jessica froze. Brie crashed into her back, “Hey, why did you . . .” And, then she followed her gaze. It was Bailey, but he wasn’t alone. He was walking beside some tall, dark haired girl on the opposite side of the street. “Who’s that?” Brie was too busy staring to offer any sort of suggestion as to who the girl might be. It seemed the end of the semester hadn’t arrived soon enough. She couldn’t blame him though, could she? Had she actually expected someone like Bailey Honeycutt to wait for her forever? “Listen, it doesn’t matter.” “Like hell it doesn’t. He’s crazy about you and there’s no way he waited all semester and then up and changed his mind right here at the end.” Jessica stepped toward the edge of the curb. “Bai—”

“No.” Brie yanked Jess back by the arm. “Don’t. He doesn’t owe me an explanation. We aren’t a couple. He’s free to do what he wants.” She willed her feet to move, but they wouldn’t listen. Instead, she stood there as though stuck in wet clay while she watched him laugh and then hold the door open for the girl beside him. ~~~ A bell overhead chimed as Bailey let the store door close behind him. While Simone moved toward a rack full of Wellington boots decorated in various patterns, he glanced through the storefront window. People were moving down the sidewalks in both directions, hurrying from one place to another to get out of the biting wind. It wasn’t the best weather for shopping, but he was running out of time. A man with a poodle strode by and then a woman on her cell. The sight was similar to L.A. in that way, but in few others. There were no palm trees lining the streets or scantily clad pedestrians, but there was life, hurried, busy life. Movement across the street caught his eye and as he tried to make sense of what he was seeing as a bus drove by, breaking his line of sight. He could’ve sworn he’d seen . . . he tried to see through the bus windows to the other sidewalk. Move.

“Hey, what do you think of these for Lexie? Don’t you think she’d love them?” Simone came to stand beside him at the window. “What are you looking at out there?” “I don’t know. I thought I saw someone, but now I’m not sure.” “And, by someone do you mean Brie?” With one hand bracing the wall, Bailey turned his head this way and that, but whoever it had been, they were gone. “You should call her. You’re down to what? Two days?” He gave up and turned around. “Thirty-six hours.” Simone grinned. “But, who’s counting?” He laughed and then shrugged. “I’ve waited this long. I can wait another day or two.” “So, what do you think about the boots?” He tried to picture them on his sister-in-law. Hot pink rubber boots covered in old-fashioned clad nurses sporting little white hats. “She’ll like them.” “Yeah, she will.” While Simone dug out her wallet, Bailey rubbed a hand over his face. The last few weeks had been long. The entire time he’d worked on his final paper he’d wanted nothing more than to discuss it with Brie, but he’d done as promised and kept his distance. That time was almost over.

She was more to him than a simple conquest. He’d felt that way all along, but now, after being kept away from her, he was sure. He missed her laugh and her company, the sound of her voice when her passion for art burned inside her, but damn if he wasn’t desperate to touch her. Thirty-six hours. And then, he wasn’t sure he’d ever stop touching her. He shook his head to clear it. Better not to think about touching any part of Brie unless he wanted to go outside in the cold to take the edge off. “So, what about you and that actor? Did you cut him loose yet?”’ “Oh yeah. A few weeks ago.” Simone thanked the clerk and hefted her large shopping bag off the counter. “His time here was almost over and, to be honest, he was getting boring. I mean he’s hot, but he doesn’t talk about anything other than himself. At some point it’s like, get over yourself already, you know?” Bailey nodded and held out a hand for her bag. He did know. He’d been touring for years and after a while the girls waiting to meet them backstage all ran together. Chicks with their cleavage pouring out of their shirts, or skirts that left little to the imagination, guys showing off tattoos of their faces or instruments, young girls sporting tops with the band’s picture ironed on, forty-somethings looking for attention or a quick screw to fulfill some sort of

fantasy. His nineteen year-old-self had loved the thrill of it all, but a decade and near-death experience later he wanted more. He wanted Brie. Simone bumped him with her hip jarring him back to the present. “Let’s grab some dinner before I have to go back.” “What’re you in the mood for?” “If you’re buying, something fancy and delicious. I’m so over the catering on set.” ~~~ Brie held the door open to the coffee shop and allowed Jessica to pass. The coffee had helped her chilled hands, but its warmth hadn’t reached the iciness in her chest. They stood on the sidewalk and stared up and down the row in search of a taxi. It was time to go home. “Thanks again for helping me with Cohen’s present.” Brie nodded. “He’s going to love it.” The signed vinyl they’d picked up probably would’ve been enough, but Jessica hadn’t been satisfied. Determined, she had dragged a numb Brie to the club where the jazz player Cohen loved performed regularly on the off chance he’d be there, and to their surprise and delight, he had been. The signed swag was now tucked under Jessica’s protective arm where they stood huddled together.

“He better love it.” Jessica smiled and leaned her head on Brie’s shoulder, her fluffy hair tickling her cheek. “I’m sorry about Bailey, but you know, it may not be as it seemed. She could be anyone.” Brie sipped her coffee. Jess was right. The girl could be anyone. She could be anyone to him, and for him, without any of the same hang ups or drama. “Brie.” At the sound of her name, she clutched her cup tight enough she feared she would crush it between her fingers. Jessica turned first, her reactions not paralyzed by things she felt for the man standing behind them. “Hey, Bailey.” Jessica nudged a subtle elbow into Brie’s side to remind her to blink or breathe or show any sign of life. “Who’s your friend?” Brie turned then, as much out of curiosity as to keep herself from looking more foolish than she already did. Why was he in the city? And, today of all days? A part of her wanted to get a better look at the girl he was with, but a much bigger part of her wished she could change the scene altogether and paint herself into a new setting—one far away from Bailey. He met her gaze, but remained quiet. The mood around the foursome remained suspended in time, the silence growing uncomfortable. “I’m Simone,” the pretty girl with the brown

hair finally said after glancing at Bailey and then back at the two of them. “I’m a friend of Bailey’s from California.” Jessica shook her hand, but had the decency as Brie’s best friend not to look overjoyed by the action. “That’s cool. So, are you in town for a visit?” Brie tried to listen to Simone’s answer, but couldn’t hear what she was saying over the deafening buzzing in her ears. Bailey had yet to say anything other than her name. Instead, he kept staring at her like he was trying to memorize her face. As his eyes bored into hers, her hand curled into a ball inside her coat pocket. She wanted to reach out, to ask him a hundred questions about what was happening with his classes, to tell him how sorry she was, to try to make things right, but her mouth wouldn’t work. Bailey glanced toward Simone, “We need a minute. Do you guys mind?” Simone shook her head and stayed with Jessica while Bailey took ahold of Brie’s arm and pulled her into the alley between the two brick buildings behind them. If anyone else handled her that way she would’ve fought back, insisted she could walk on her own, but she couldn’t do more than let him lead her away. Maybe this was when he was going to tell her he was through waiting. Finished before they’d

gotten started. Brie glanced down to where his hand lingered on her bicep. She could feel the heat from his body transferring to hers, but then he pulled away seeming to realize he was still touching her. “Listen, Brie—” “You don’t have to say anything. You’re free to do what you want.” She glanced back to the sidewalk where Jessica and Simone were talking. “She’s really pretty.” “Simone?” Bailey glanced at her like he’d never seen her before and then returned his focus to Brie. “Yeah, I guess, but listen, Brie that’s not what I wanted to talk to you about.” “Oh?” “No, I wanted to apologize about the pictures and the news.” He paused to look up and down the sidewalk as though paranoid they were being followed. “I never wanted to drag you into that side of my life. For me, it goes along with the rest of it, but you never asked to be a part of it.” He ran his hands over his face and met her eyes again. “I should’ve kept my distance like you asked, but I . . .” He shrugged, “I couldn’t.” He stopped fidgeting, stopped looking around as though nervous and reached out a hand. The air between them sizzled with heat as though they were standing in their own world. As his palm cupped her cheek, relief at his

touch radiated through her and she tilted her head until she was leaning into his hand. He ran a thumb over her cheek. “There’s something about you, Brie.” Warmth started in her face and slid all over her body. “Bailey those pictures and the trouble at school were not your fault.” “But, they were. The lack of privacy, the interest in my personal life—” “Again, not your fault. Sure, it may have been amplified because of what you do, but that doesn’t make it your fault.” She stopped leaning into his touch as realization dawned on her. “That’s what you told Mr. Catling’s isn’t it? You told him it was your fault?” “It doesn’t matter what I told him. The important thing is that you get to keep your job.” She shook her head. “You didn’t need to do that, Bailey. I’m a big girl. I was just as much to blame as you.” “But, it doesn’t matter what happens to me. For me, it’s school, but for you, it’s a career. It’s your future.” Aware their voices were rising, but uncaring, she stood taller. He didn’t get to swoop in and sacrifice himself for her. She didn’t want to owe him anything. The days of owing anyone were over. “Don’t belittle what you’re doing here. You, yourself, said you were searching for something

else, something more. It’s more than just a few classes for you, Bailey. I know it is.” She narrowed her eyes at him. “What happened in Mr. Catling’s office? What did you do?” Bailey shook his head and took a step back from her. “I agreed to do what I said I’d do from the beginning and until today I’ve done a pretty good job of staying away from you. But, it sure as hell hasn’t been easy.” He grinned at her, his boyish charm returning. “I hope it’s been better for you though, me staying away.” Better for her? She wanted to shake him. If by better he meant sleepless nights and constant anxiety, sure. Men could be such gits. Her life had been anything but better by his absence. She tossed her coffee into the wastebasket to her right and crossed her arms over her chest. “You make it sound so one-sided, like I don’t have a mind of my own. Well, I assure you, I do.” “What?” “You’re standing there acting like I didn’t want you to kiss me. Like I wasn’t thrilled to see you every chance I got.” Her foot tapped against the stones. “Damnit, Bailey, don’t you understand? You’re all I think about.” His hands were on her then, gripping her upper arms as he dragged her against him. He pressed is mouth to hers, not gentle like the first time, but desperate, hungry. She moaned against his mouth

desperate for him to keep holding her, keep kissing her. All the pent-up frustrations of the last few weeks melting away as they stood pressed against each other until he jerked back. With red lips and eyes on fire he leaned in near her ear. “I won’t do this to you. I made a promise to Mr. Catling and I’m going to keep my promise, but Brie, when this semester ends, I’m coming for you.” He strode away from her and then proceeded to nod to an open-mouthed Jessica as he walked away with Simone following close behind. Jessica hurried over to the entrance of the alley where Brie was standing frozen. “Holy shit. That was hot.” Brie touched her fingers to her still tingling mouth. “You have no idea.”

Chapter 17 A few days after London and the kiss, Brie’s nerves reached breaking point. Jessica said it wasn’t so much nerves as anticipation of what was to come, but whatever the case, Brie needed to keep busy. She couldn’t take another minute of fantasizing about Bailey or his perfect hands or perfect arms or his shoulders that made her want to hold on and . . . She gave her head a hard shake to clear away the images she’d managed to conjure and then hit the stairs in search of an escape. Jessica unhooked her arms from around Cohen’s neck where they were sitting locked together on the sofa and sat up. “Where are you going?” “Splash Pad for a bit.” Brie slid into her jacket and wound her scarf around her neck, but as she did, Jessica pounced her at the door. “But, why?” Jess turned her body so her back was to Cohen. “Bailey could show up here at any time.” She tried to whisper, but her words came out more like a hiss. “He said he’d come when grades went out and they’re out.” Brie sighed. She was well-aware most grades had been posted. Hell, she’d posted hers yesterday,

but that didn’t mean anything. Bailey could show up tonight, or the next day, or she could shrivel up and die while waiting for him to touch her. What was it Jess had said about how she was going to turn into a useless old prune? “I know what he said, but I can’t sit in my room another second. I’m going to go mad up there.” She’d spent an hour cruising the internet followed by an hour attempting to sketch something other than Bailey’s face and every other part of Bailey that had filtered through her mind. And, considering her bed was within her line of sight, several of his more interesting parts had crossed her mind. “Look, if he comes by, I’ll tell him where you are.” Jess bit her lip and glanced over her shoulder at Cohen. “Assuming we hear the door.” “Oh, God. And, you wonder why I’m leaving.” Brie grabbed her purse and ducked around Jess so she could say goodbye to Cohen. “You guys have fun.” He offered her a sheepish grin and a half wave and then Brie eyed Jess. “Stay out of my room.” Jess giggled. “Spoil sport. See you later.” With her hands shoved into pockets and her breath puffing out in little white clouds, Brie made her way to the art studio. The one place she hoped would actually be able to hold her attention. After the kiss Bailey laid on her in London, nervous

energy had left her unable to focus on any one task for the last few days. Her mind had turned into a tornado of emotions and excitement she couldn’t quite separate. Though she’d dreamt of Bailey touching her, now that it could actually happen, her dreams were muddled with fear. The safety net of her position separating them was no longer there to protect her from what could come of her time with Bailey. What would happen if they grew closer? What about her future in New York? What about his? He was just starting school and when he finished what then? Would he return to LA? To the band? The lifestyle? And, where would that leave her? Angry at him for leaving? Or, angry at him for making her give up her dream for his? She tilted her face down deeper into her scarf aware she was getting ahead of herself and worrying over what might be instead of what was. She blew out a breath against the inside of her scarf and walked faster. A distraction couldn’t come soon enough and the mural was going to be that distraction. Her plan was to create the London skyline. It wasn’t exactly groundbreaking, but people tended to like the familiar. And, what was more familiar than the London skyline featuring the London Eye, Tower Bridge, and the Parliament Building. It was a simple plan, but one she needed to get started on

nonetheless. When she entered the building, she unwound her scarf and hung it on the coatrack near the front desk where Laurel was on a call. “Yes, that’s right. Thirty-five pounds for one class or one month for a hundred.” Laurel caught Brie’s eye and winked. Brie smiled and then set out for the classroom, her footsteps echoing across the empty space. She dropped her bag on the lone desk and crossed to the wall of windows where she proceeded to drag the heavy curtains closed. While they encouraged onlookers during class, tonight, called for seclusion. She took her phone out of her bag and scrolled through her music until she found what she was looking for, making sure to avoid all Survival of the Fittest music. Listening to Bailey’s guitar solos was hardly going to help her purge him from her thoughts. Settling on some alternative music from the 90s, she cranked the volume until she couldn’t hear herself think anymore. She was tired of worrying and dissecting. Tonight, she wanted to get lost. She dragged a large, dull gray sheet out from the storage area and slid it against the wall. It was covered in faded old paint stains from years of use. Then, she toted cans of paint from the cabinets, being sure to choose vibrant colors which would add excitement to the picture. The scene was

familiar, but that didn’t mean it had to be boring. With her sleeves rolled up and her feet bare, she unrolled the sketch she’d done and taped it to one of the long mirrors to reference. Her mural needed to cover the space above and below the mirrors. The skyline would be above, with the mirrors serving as River Thames, and the space blow would serve as the opposite shore. She stepped back and tilted her head to the side, first one way and then the other. The space was empty, open, a blank canvas for her to do with it what she would. The scene of the skyline opened up before her artist’s eye. Tower Bridge appeared in her mind the way she’d seen it a hundred times, tall towers joined by the slope of iron. Opting to start in the middle, she lined the paint cans up at her feet and dipped her brush in the bright orange can first. With her brush in one hand, she climbed up to the third rung of the ladder she’d carried out from the closet and sketched the outline in the bright paint. The familiar fumes and thumping music filling her with a calm she desperately needed. ~~~ Bailey rounded the corner, the sharp wind biting at his exposed skin, but his determination was too great to be thwarted by a little cold. Not after months of waiting, no years of waiting,

because Brie wasn’t like anyone else he’d known. He halted when he ran into Laurel locking up Splash Pad for the night. “Is Brie around?” Laurel grinned, her knees seeming to go slack as she leaned into the doorframe for support. “Um, Brie? Yeah, she’s inside. Did you need me to get her?” Bailey stifled his smirk. “No, I think I can find the way. If you don’t mind.” “Nope.” She bit her lip and unlocked the door. “Not at all.” He slipped through the entrance, gave the girl a wink through the glass, and then he flipped the lock. Alone inside the entryway, he followed the thumping music and grinned. Guns N’ Roses, classic. When he spotted Brie on the ladder, arm extended while she reached for a high spot on the wall, he stopped and leaned against the doorway to admire the view. Tight calves flexed as she balanced on her toes, her midriff reflected in the glass, and as usual her dark hair was pulled back revealing her slender neck. He flexed his fingers as he imagined running them along the curve of her spine. An action, that until today, he’d had to put on hold, but no longer. Tonight, he planned to show her what they’d been waiting for. And, that he was worth it—that they were. Her eyes met his in the mirror and even from

across the room he could see the color rushing into her face. He grinned and sauntered her way, letting the tension build. She didn’t turn at his approach, but kept watching him in the glass, her eyes on his. A guitar solo sounded in the background and he had a brief moment of clarity. It was a sign that this wasn’t a simple hookup. This moment and this woman were much more. When he reached her, he ran his hands up her legs and squeezed her thighs. The mere feel of her soft flesh beneath his fingers was enough to awaken every part of him. They held gazes a moment longer and then she turned to him. As he lifted her from the ladder and set her on her feet, a silent understanding passed between them. What more was there to say? With deft fingers he lifted the paintbrush from her fingers and tossed it to the floor. Her hands free to roam, they rose to his shoulders and then pushed his jacket down his arms. He tossed it to the side and let her continue to explore. She took her time, her hands on his chest, feeling their way along his torso until his stomach quivered beneath her touch. He sucked in a breath as she slid her hands around his hips and then traced their way back up, this time hauling his shirt up over his head. Her eyes raked over him, but unlike others before and the doctors in the hospital he didn’t feel exposed or vulnerable, he felt alive.

The hunger in her gaze made him want to please her in any way he could. Unable to stand still any longer he reached for the hem of her shirt and pulled it up and over her head, leaving her standing before him in yoga pants and a white lacy bra. A smile tugged at the corner of his mouth as he took in the sight of her. From the orange paint streak across her cheek . . . to the swell of her breasts . . . to the tips of her brightly painted toes, she was perfection. His eyes roamed back up her body and stopped at her neck. He let his fingers trace over her shoulder, across her collarbone and down until he brushed the tips of his fingers over the swell of her breast. When he did, she inhaled sharply and moved closer, their exposed skin touching. Like the rest of her body, her breasts were perfect, modest and inviting. His blood roared at the feel of her. He needed more. He moved his hand to her back and unhooked her bra with one hand while he caressed the side of her face with the other. Flesh met flesh in a collision of bodies and mouths. He tasted her mouth and let his tongue run along the edge of her upper lip, and then grazed the lower in a tantalizingly slow kiss. Her tongue flicked against his igniting what was left of his self-control until there was nothing left. He stepped forward, until Brie’s back hit the mirror.

She sucked in a sharp breath and then giggled. “It’s cold.” He grinned and kissed her again. Her fingers ran down his ribs and traced the top of his jeans. As she tugged at the button, he braced one hand on the mirror for support. His zipper followed and then nothing else was in his way as she freed him. He kicked his pants away and then used one of his hands to push her pants to the floor. She tried to bend to pull them the rest of the way off, but he stopped her. “Allow me.” He knelt on his knees in front of her and, with deliberation, slid the clingy fabric over her legs. He used his thumbs to massage her calves and then her thighs as he made his way back up her legs. While still on his knees, he looked up, the whole of her body before him in flawless shades of pinks and whites, the occasional freckle sprinkled along the way. The sight brought with it a renewed sense of urgency. He kissed her thighs, one and then the other, and then paused long enough to meet her eyes as he asked her permission without words. When she ran her hand over his head, urging him on, he kissed her again, this time where she was the warmest. Her back arched against the mirror, but this time she didn’t giggle or mention the cold. Instead, her hips rocked forward, her hand coming down to

rest on his head as he tasted her again. Christ she was amazing and if he wasn’t careful their first night together was going to be short lived, but he couldn’t get enough. “Bailey.” When she gasped his name, he got to his feet. “Together. We go together.” She nodded and wrapped her legs around his waist. He gripped her tight ass and pulled her against him and then turned to lower her to the floor. As he positioned himself over her they locked eyes again and he knew he’d never be the same. With rock music as their soundtrack and the smell of paint surrounding them, he took her, their two worlds joining as their bodies melded together. One as lost in the air as the other, impossible to separate. He slid into her gently at first and then in a fervor of motion. Paint cans clanged somewhere in the background, but he didn’t care. The world could burn around them. If this was their end, so be it. He’d never get closer to heaven than he was at this moment. Brie’s gasps were coming faster now punctuated by moans. His heart threatened to explode in his chest as he moved—a fresh punch of pleasure with each motion. On the verge of taking them both over the edge, he slowed his pace, determined to make what they’d waited so long for

last. He bent low to nip at her lips and then her breasts while he filled her with an aching slowness. Her back arched beneath him, her pale skin flushed pink under the lights. “Bailey, please.” He picked up the pace again and lifted his face to watch her soft expression as the pressure built within her. He wanted to see her when she fell. She clamped down around him and his hands balled into fists. He was undone. Her body clung to his and they moved like two instruments in harmony. “Fall with me, Brie.” She cried out, a shudder wrecking them both until they both collapsed among the spilled paint. A few minutes later, Brie chuckled against his side as she traced her fingertips lazily along his chest. “This is going to be hard to explain.” He pushed up onto his elbow and glanced around at the soiled drop cloth and pools of spilled paint surrounding their streaked skin. Then, with a devilish grin, Bailey dipped his finger into the blue paint, and touched it to the tip of her nose. Her eyes widened and she scrunched her nose at him. “No, you didn’t.” She shoved him onto his back and climbed on top of him. This time, it was her turn. She slapped her two palms into the collection of red paint next to her knee and

wriggled her red fingers to show him what was coming. He grinned. “You wouldn’t dare.” She giggled again and proceeded to place handprints over his torso. Her fingers slid across his chest and mingled with the sprinkling of hair, her eyes greedy. “Two can play at your little game.” She leaned down and kissed him, turning him on further. “Hey, what’s this scar from?” As she touched her finger under his collarbone he grabbed her wrist, gently, and with a firm motion moved her hand to his shoulder. “It’s nothing.” The last thing he wanted to think about was his port scar or why he had it in the first place. He hadn’t felt as strong or as alive as he did tonight since his diagnosis and he wasn’t going to let it ruin what was happening between them. To distract them both, he dipped all of his fingers into some green paint and traced his fingers down over Brie’s breasts. Her nipples tightened at his touch and her back arched. There, that was what he wanted, her vibrancy, her heat, her light. He sat up and held her in place, kissing her shoulder and then her slender neck. “We’ll just have tell whoever it is that asks that you had your way with me.” He nuzzled against her neck and massaged his fingers into her hips until he could feel her pulse quicken beneath his lips. “Several times.”

“Honesty is always the best policy I suppose.” She kissed along Bailey’s lightly shadowed jawline. “For example, that was the most erotic encounter of my life to happen in an art studio.” “Hmm, we’ll have to see if we can top it.” He leaned into her and kissed her. An easy meeting of the lips until he lingered and the kiss deepened. Her body responded at once and she rocked her hips welcoming him inside. They moved together again, this time he’d planned on taking his time to explore her, but as soon as she took the lead, urgency took over as they explored each other’s bodies with their mouths and their hands. As the familiar tension built and her pace quickened, Bailey stared at the woman changing his life. With her head thrown back in passion leaving the bluish veins in her neck visible, veins full of life and love, he buried his face in her chest, her pounding heart the last thing he heard before rolling her onto her back and over the edge for the second time. As they lay suspended, bodies intertwined and his mind empty of worry for the first time in years, he wondered if he’d ever been whole before Brie.

Chapter 18 When Brie crept home under the faint light of dawn, she took extra care to shut the door with as little sound as possible. Jessica hadn’t woken up earlier than nine or ten o’clock since they’d met claiming she was an artist and that artists were creatures of the night. Brie wasn’t sure if that were true of all creative types, but it was where her friend was concerned. As she slid out of her jacket she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror. Under normal circumstances she might’ve grimaced, but not today. The paint coloring her face and hair alongside her slightly swollen lips only made her self-satisfied grin widen. Body still humming from Bailey’s touch, she turned and then screamed. “Hiya, sorry there, Brie.” Cohen was standing in her kitchen with wet hair, rumpled clothes and a mug of coffee. She lowered her hand from her mouth and released the wall. “Jesus, you scared the life out of me.” As she crossed to the kitchen, too alert to consider sleep, she caught Cohen appraising her appearance. “How’s the mural coming along then?” He

smirked behind his mug, but had the decency not to comment further. She poured a cup of coffee for herself and turned to lean against the counter. “I’d say it’s off to a good start.” They grinned at each other over their chosen mugs. “Right then. Well, I’m off.” He pitched the rest of his mug’s contents into the sink and headed for the door. “You know the semester ended. It’s okay to take a break.” Cohen shrugged into his coat. “I know, but I have a project that I’m helping a friend with. Will you tell Jess I’ll call her?” “Will do.” Still smiling and not the least bit embarrassed about her sunup return home, she climbed the stairs and headed for the loo. What she needed was a bath or to break out into song, she didn’t care which. Feeling whimsical and only a little silly she rummaged under the sink for the bottle of bubble solution Jess was known to keep around. It was, after all, sort of a special occasion. While the tub filled, she set her coffee to the side and peeled away her ruined clothes. She moved to toss them into the rubbish bin and then paused and opted for the laundry hamper instead—a keepsake from their night together. The bubbles crackled around her as she sank

into the warm water. Her body felt used in the best way, reawakened after a long drought. But, getting close to someone had been hard after Theo, if not impossible. How do you trust again after being hollowed out by another person? How do you overcome being betrayed in every way by a person who claims to love you? She raised her hand out of the water, red paint visible under her nails. Bailey wasn’t Theo. He was caring and warm. He’d had her back and taken the fall when he didn’t have to, all so she could hold onto her job. She sighed as she let the warm water slide from her fingers. Bailey with his expert hands and chiseled abs . . . The door swung open letting in a burst of chilly air and a disheveled Jessica. She paused on her way to the toilet and squinted down at Brie. “There seems to be an unusually large amount of paint in your hair. What happened to you last night?” She leaned down and inspected the water. “Are those my bubbles?” Her sleepy expression vanished and her eyes widened as she dropped to her knees beside the tub. “Tell me everything.” Brie recounted the evening’s events with fewer details than Jessica wanted, but enough to keep her squealing every three minutes. “Finally.” Jessica climbed to her feet and danced around in circles, the small space not allowing for more. “Finally, finally, finally. And,

you said you’d never find someone again.” She stopped and pointed a finger at Brie, “And, not only did you find someone. It’s freaking Bailey Honeycutt. My friend’s dating a rock star.” She spun around and this time punctuated her turn by playing air guitar. Brie laughed. “Yeah well, I’m not sure what I found, but whatever it was, it was pretty amazing.” Brie flipped her loofah into the bathwater, then sat up and hugged her knees to her chest. “There was one thing though.” Jess stopped dancing and crouched back down. “What?” “There was a moment. It was really brief, like a heartbeat, but I saw it. I saw this scar that he has and so I asked him about it, not thinking really, and he made it a point to change the subject. I don’t know. It’s probably nothing.” Jessica touched Brie’s wet shoulder. “Don’t overthink this. Whatever’s happening here is a good thing.” “I know.” Jessica left her alone to go in search of coffee and Brie leaned back against the tub. Jessica was right, whatever was happening with Bailey was a good thing. No, a great thing, but in that moment she’d seen him slide back behind the wall he used when taking pictures with fans or addressing questions in interviews. She’d watched enough of

them online to notice. She rubbed her hands over her face and through her hair. She wanted to trust him. Needed to trust him and that whatever it was he wasn’t saying he would reveal to her over time. ~~~ “Hey, ugly, over here.” Bailey stood on a chair located in the private plane section of the airport and waved at the familiar group of faces. Lexie was behind his brother carrying a floral bag draped over her shoulder and David was hiding under one of his many L.A. Dodgers hats while Leo brought up the back, his arm around the waist, of who Bailey assumed was, the flight attendant from their plane. “Hey, man.” Oliver consumed him in one of his familiar bear hugs equally bone crushing and welcoming. “Lexie.” Bailey shifted to his sister-in-law and squeezed. “How was the flight?” She tried to hide the fact that she was wiping away a tear and smiled. “It was great, naturally. I can’t believe you guys always travel that way. I may never get used to it.” “Well, you better little wife.” Oliver hooked an arm around her shoulders and kissed the side of her head. “You deserve the best of everything and I know just the man to give it to you.” Bailey shook his head. It had been four years

and his brother was as in love with Lexie as the day he met her. He transferred his attention to David. “Hey, man. How’s it going?” They shook hands and patted each other on the back in a half-man hug. “Your girl didn’t come with you?” David pushed his hat back on his head revealing a slight tan line on his forehead, “Nah, she had to work and then she’s visiting her sister.” He didn’t elaborate and Bailey didn’t push, but he didn’t miss the absence of warmth in his buddy’s voice. Bailey let it drop and called out to their party’s straggler. “Leo? Are you too busy to say hello?” Leo kissed the hand of the redheaded lady beside him and waved a farewell to her before joining their little group. “I’ve always appreciated London and all it has to offer.” He grinned. “Bailey, what’s up brother?” “Some people never change.” He slapped Leo on the back. “So, are you guys ready to move this party to Oxford?” Bailey led the way out of the airport and to the waiting limousine. As the driver maneuvered them out of London, they caught up and cracked jokes as though they hadn’t been apart for the last four and half months. He looked around at the faces of the people he cared for above all others, but he couldn’t shake the feeling someone was missing. Brie.

He shifted in his seat as the new sensation swept over him. She stayed in his thoughts on a constant rotation, but he never expected her absence to nag at him the way it was while he was surrounded by his people. As he sat back and listened to their usual banter, he was surprised by how much he wanted her beside him and much he wanted her to know his family—wanted them to know her. He accepted the offered glass of whiskey from Leo and took a sip as he wrestled with what his new realization meant. Sure, he liked her, hell, he wasn’t in middle school, he more than liked her, but that didn’t explain what he was feeling—the churning gut, the void beside him, the distraction at her absence. There had never been another woman he’d wanted to be a part of their group, but Brie . . . It wasn’t like he loved her though. He fought the urge to snort as he took another swig from his glass and let the liquid warm him from the inside. He didn’t love anyone. Their night together swam into focus, her dark hair and eyes filling his vision, the sweet taste of her skin, her passion. His mind switched gears faster than he could keep up. Her face as she looked up at him during their first meeting in the park, her determination as she led class, her gentle touch as she listened to him outside the museum. Falling in love with someone had never been

his plan. He was simply trying to get his life back on track, but . . . Could it really happen that fast? Lexie laughed at something Leo said pulling Bailey’s attention her way. There was his brother, his hand resting over Lexie’s as though he wasn’t able not to touch her. Bailey flexed his fingers in understanding. Now that he’d had Brie and felt her body, touched her skin, tasted her mouth, he didn’t want to be anywhere else—didn’t want to be with anyone else. Christ, he did love her. “Hey, Bailey. Are we boring you already, brother?” Oliver kicked his shoe. “Nope.” He grinned. “All good here.” Oliver exchanged and a look with Lexie and then glanced back his way. “I was asking you about dinner tonight, are we still on?” Lexie leaned in. “Simone said she’d be there.” “Excellent. Let’s do it.” Bailey leaned back against the dark leather and smiled while the familiar laughter of his friends carried him home. Tonight would be the perfect opportunity for Brie to meet his family, and so what if he was moving a little fast? Life was short. He downed the rest of his drink and smiled. All he needed now was to ask her.

Chapter 19 Brie removed her arm from where it was covering her face long enough to watch Jessica haul her suitcase down the last three steps. “Do you need a hand?” Jessica tossed her long braids over her shoulder and panted. “No, all good here. Don’t let me interrupt your nap. I have a feeling you need it.” She shot her a cheeky grin which Brie chose to ignore though she tended to agree. “I thought you were only going to your mum and dad’s for a few days? Based on the thud coming from that bag it sounds as though you’ve packed to move out permanently.” “Ha. Not bloody likely.” Jessica rolled her bag to the door and turned back to gather the rest of her things. “Mum and I would murder each other after a week.” “Ah, yes, now that you’ve had a taste of freedom you can’t go home again.” Brie’s phone buzzed on the table. She slid her gaze over to where it was, too tired to care who was calling, but when Bailey’s name appeared on the screen she sat up so fast her head spun. “Hehello?”

Jessica smirked at her from the kitchen. “Yes, okay.” She couldn’t contain her own grin when he invited her to dinner. “What do I need to wear?” Her face heated and she giggled when he answered, the reaction not lost on her flatmate who moved closer to the sofa to eavesdrop. “Okay, then. I’ll see you.” She returned her phone to the table as a sudden case of nerves sparked to life. “He invited me to dinner tonight.” “That’s fun. And, what exactly did he tell you to wear?” Jessica tucked her tongue into her cheek. “Let me guess, nothing?” Brie stood. “Well, yes, but then he said to be myself and that it didn’t matter.” “Like hell it doesn’t. Come on.” Jessica grabbed her hand and dragged her up the stairs. “Ow.” With the staircase as narrow as it was, Brie tripped over her feet and banged her elbow into the wall more than a few times until she managed to yank her hand out of Jessica’s grasp. “I really think you’re making too big a deal out of this. It’s just dinner and he’s seen me naked already.” A blouse flew out of her closet and over her head followed by a skirt. Brie stepped out of the way of the flying wardrobe and sat on the edge of the bed rubbing her sore fingers while Jessica continued to attack her closet. “He ambushed you last night and while I’m,”

Jessica’s voice muffled as she bent over to get something tucked in the corner, “all for a little surprise sexy time, it doesn’t exactly allow you to prepare.” Brie sighed. “Prepare?” “Yes, prepare. You need to keep his interest. Make him want you again and again.” A dress soared over Jessica’s head followed by one highheeled shoe that missed Brie by about three inches. “Think about who you’re dealing with.” Jessica turned around with the matching heel in one of her hands and placed the other on her hip. “Bailey’s a man who’s traveled to the far corners of the Earth. He’s been a member of one of the biggest bands in the world for more than a decade. Do you know how many women have crossed his path? Flashed their tits? Gotten on their knees?” Brie fought back the surge of nausea at the picture Jessica was painting. “You have to be smart about this, Brie. Sure, Bailey’s asking you out now, but it’s new. To keep him coming round, you’ve got to put forth a little effort, keep it exciting.” She tossed the remaining high heel for Brie to catch. “Now, put that dress on and let me see how you look.” Brie stood, her previous excitement draining away as Jessica’s words swam around her head. She was right of course. Bailey had been on the music scene for years and he was gorgeous. It

wasn’t like girls wouldn’t be lined up to get into bed with him. She tugged on the little black dress Jessica had chosen and let her help with the zipper. What if he didn’t know the first thing about fidelity? He’d never mentioned dating anyone long term, but then again maybe that wasn’t his intention. “Turn around.” Jessica surveyed her with catlike eyes, missing nothing. “Your bum looks good, but you need to switch bras. Go a little more tits out.” Brie stomped her foot and forced her spinning head to come to a halt. She had faith in Bailey. In what they might have, did have. They’d waited months to be together and she’d be damned if she was going to let what might’ve been in his past upset what they might have in the future. Bailey wasn’t Theo. He wouldn’t hurt her. “Jess, while I appreciate your help, you’ve got to calm down. Bailey and I are going to be fine.” She caught sight of herself in the mirror and turned from side to side. “Okay, you’re right about the bra though.” Jessica grinned. “Yeah, I am.” She took Brie’s spot on the bed and waited while she switched undergarments. “And, just for the record, I think you’re right about Bailey.” She crossed over to where Brie was standing in front of the mirror and wrapped her arms around

her waist and put her chin on her shoulder until they were staring at their joint reflection. “He’s a good man. I’m so happy for you I got a bit caught up. You deserve this.” ~~~ Later that night when Brie climbed out of the taxi, she tugged at her skirt as she glanced at the address typed into her phone. The building before her wasn’t a restaurant, but a house. It looked like a cottage out of a fairytale with its storybook windows and ivy climbing the brick. She craned her neck to try to see in the windows, but she couldn’t make out anything beyond the heavy shrubs except a faint shimmering of lights. She debated ringing Bailey to double check she was in the right place before knocking, but before she could, he opened the door. At the sight of him, her stomach flipped over and her cheeks heated. Unlike herself, he wasn’t dressed up any more than usual. His jeans were relaxed, his gray shirt-sleeves pushed up to the elbows showing off the many tattoos wrapped around his defined forearm. When his eyes ran over her exposed flesh where her jacket hung open, she fought the urge to cover up. “I wasn’t exactly sure what to wear.” “You look perfect.” Laughter echoed through the open door alerting her they weren’t alone. “Who else is here?

And, where is here exactly?” She searched the outside of the house for a plaque of sorts, but came up blank. “Oh, it’s a place we rented for the holidays.” He stepped to the side, “Sorry, come in. It’s cold out here.” “Who’s we?” she asked as Bailey helped her out of her coat. “Hi,” a woman she’d never seen before appeared from around a corner and grabbed her arms. “You must be Brie.” “Y-yes.” Bailey laughed at her startled expression. “Brie, this is my sister-in-law Lexie.” Brie blinked twice. “It’s lovely to meet you.” “You guys follow me back to the kitchen. Everyone is dying to meet you.” Brie’s gaze found Bailey’s as they found their way to the kitchen. “Everyone?” “Oh, yeah, my family’s in town. Did I forget to mention that?” Her lips pressed together in a firm line and she hoped he could read the look on her face she was trying to portray. Something along the lines of, ‘You’re dead when we get out of here’ and ‘Why would you not tell me.’ “It may’ve slipped your mind.” He laughed and hooked an arm around her waist. “Come on. They’ll love you.”

She elbowed him in the side. “You could’ve given me at least a little warn—” But, she didn’t get to finish scolding him. The kitchen opened up before them, on one side shiny appliances blended with original woodwork and on the other an extra-long table sat filled with unfamiliar faces. All except one. Simone was there nestled between two guys she vaguely recognized from her internet research. “OhmyGod,” she whispered under her breath. Lexie must’ve heard her because she turned and offered her a warm smile. “It’s a little overwhelming the first time, but you get used to them.” “Yo, Brie,” a blond guy, whom she believed was Leo, called to her, “you can sit over here.” “No way,” Bailey shot back. “She’s not going to have you pawing at her all night.” He bent down near her ear and mock whispered. “Never trust a drummer.” “Hey, now. I heard that.” They approached the table and Bailey started with Simone, “It’s nice to see you again,” and worked his way around introducing her to everyone else. “And, finally, this jackass is my brother, Oliver.” Oliver stood and held out a hand, his arms tattooed like his brother’s, but he was twice the size. Where Bailey was trim with wiry muscles,

Oliver looked like a weight-lifter, thick from the shoulders and tapering into a narrow waist. He also had a head of thick hair pulled back at the base of his neck. While she normally wasn’t one to appreciate a man-bun, Oliver could pull it off. “What he means to say, is that I’m Oliver, his older more attractive brother.” Brie shook his hand. “Well, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” “Oooh, burn,” Leo said from the opposite side of the table. Everyone snickered and instead of getting angry at her jab, Oliver let out a booming laugh. “Oh, I like her.” Brie relaxed and could almost feel her legs again when Bailey grinned and held out a chair for her. When she caught his eye, he winked and settled into the chair beside her. The entire event was like an out of body experience, but as the plates full of pasta were passed around the table and easy chatter amongst friends resumed, Brie found herself laughing alongside Bailey’s family and friends. The same way Bailey had surprised her, the rest of the group did as well. David was quiet, but kind. Simone was animated and gorgeous, which Brie didn’t mind admitting now that she knew they weren’t lusting after the same man. Leo was crazy, but hysterical. More than once, she had to catch

her breath or try not to shoot her drink out of her nose. And, then there were Lexie and Oliver, even she could see how in love they were. Oliver’s fingers brushed his wife’s hand or rubbed her back regularly. “How long have you guys been in town?” she asked when there was a lull in the conversation. “We got in this morning. Bailey, here, came and picked us up.” Oliver slapped his brother on the shoulder. “How did you set all of this up so quickly?” The house looked as though they’d lived in it forever and the meal. The carbonara they’d just eaten complete with kale salad and garlic bread on the side would’ve taken her a week to prepare. “We had some help.” Lexie winked at her. She stared dumbfounded at the table with its fancy runner and red candles. “Even so. You guys are brilliant.” Bailey leaned her way. “We hired a caterer.” “Oh,” heat rushed into her cheeks, “right. That makes sense.” “So, Brie.” Lexie slid her plate to the side and leaned her elbow on the table and rested her chin in her hand. “Tell us about school. What are you studying?” “Right, yes. I’m working on the DPhil, which is like your Doctorate in America, in art theory and history. My thesis on the human form and how it’s

representation has changed in art over time.” Leo hit the table hard enough to make the plates rattle and whistled. “What is someone as smart as you doing with Bailey?” “On the contrary,” Bailey leaned in, “it’s only through her brilliance she can see what a great guy I am.” She scrunched up her nose and shook her head. “No, that’s not what it is.” “No?” Bailey cocked his head to the side. “What else can it be then?” “I’m only into you for your body.” Bailey’s face broke into a grin and a second later he leaned in and kissed her in front of everyone at the table. Under other circumstances she might’ve been embarrassed, but not with him even though Leo was whistling. “Why don’t we go into the living room for a while? Maybe catch a Christmas movie or something?” “Do you need me to help clear the table?” Brie picked up her blue salad plate and stacked it with her pasta dish. “Oh, no. You don’t have to do that. The caterer is coming back later to take care of all of that.” Brie set her things back down, awkward with nothing to do. She wasn’t used to living where people did things for her or catered to her whims. Lexie, seeming to sense her unease, came

around the table and looped an arm through hers. “We’re not always like this,” she gestured down the table, “but it seemed easier today since we only got here this morning.” She nudged her shoulder with her own, “And, when Bailey decided he wanted us to meet you, he set everything up. He’s a lot of things, but I’m not sure cooking is in his wheelhouse.” Brie glanced back at Bailey who was laughing at something his brother was saying. He’d set everything up? And, when had he decided he wanted her to meet his family? Surely, something like this would’ve taken a little while to plan. Her heart soared that he’d cared enough to go to the trouble. “We could’ve gone to a restaurant. He didn’t have to do all of this.” They took a seat on the sofa beside each other. “Renting a house can make it easier to fit all of us and it also ensures they get the privacy they need.” Lexie smiled. “Don’t worry, it took me awhile to get used to it, too.” Brie followed Lexie’s gaze to where Bailey was standing at the window with the other guys. “He’s crazy about you, you know.” Lexie smiled, but her eyes filled. Brie looked down, unsure how to handle the display of affection from someone she’d only known for a couple of hours. Lexie clearly loved

her brother-in-law which made Brie like her all the more, but she didn’t quite understand the depth of her comment. Was it rare for him to introduce a woman to his family? “I’m sorry.” Lexie rubbed her fingers under her eyes and blinked back the tears. “I know I’m being ridiculous, but it’s nice to see him so happy.” She squeezed her hand and then stood. “I’m really happy he found you.” Brie stayed where she was on the sofa, but kept her eyes on Bailey, a man she could only describe as unexpected. A man who was almost as unexpected as the feelings she was developing for him. She crossed her arms over her chest and observed the reunion taking place before her. Leo pretended to hit Bailey in the stomach and then Bailey tilted his head back and laughed. The sound was full and loud and like music to her ears. His usual cautionary wall was gone. With these people in this place she was getting to see him the way she liked him best, unguarded and full of life. He laughed again, and she smiled, and when he met her eyes a moment later, another little piece of her heart gave in to him. ~~~ Bailey hit his brother’s shoulder and made his way over to where Brie was sitting on the couch. His eyes roamed up her legs and over her chest

where her cleavage called to him. Damn he wanted to get her out of that dress. He’d thought of little other than her body since the previous night in the art studio. As happy as he was to have the guys in town, he would kill for a little alone time with Brie. “What are you doing sitting over here all alone?” He dropped down beside her and put his arm around her when she snuggled against his side. “I was simply admiring the view.” “Were you now?” He leaned in and touched his lips to hers, but pulled back before he let himself get carried away. It wouldn’t take much to make him forget about everyone else in the room. “So, what do you think of the guys?” “They all seem great and Lexie is adorable.” “Yeah, she’s the best.” He intertwined his fingers with Brie’s, warming up her hand with his. “Are you pissed I sprung this on you?” “I’ll admit I was taken aback at first, but I like seeing you this way. You’re freer here.” She glanced down at her dress and then met his eyes. “Although, I’m not sure I dressed for the whole meet my family date.” “You look perfect.” He glanced toward where his brother was joking around with Leo and then at the kitchen where Lexie was brewing coffee. David and Simone were arguing over the television the way they tended to do, and when he swung his gaze

back around to the woman beside him and even though they were an ocean away from home, somehow everything felt right. His heart squeezed. Never had another woman so completely belonged. He kissed her again. “What was that look?” She grinned at him, a familiar blush in her cheeks. “Nothing.” He touched his forehead to hers, content. “I’m just glad you’re here.” “Okay you two, knock it off.” Oliver dropped into the over-sized chair and then Lexie appeared with a tray of coffee, set it on the table for all to enjoy, and then joined him. “Brie, what’re your folks up to for Christmas? Are you going home?” Brie crossed her legs and blew across the top of her coffee, her lips distracting him from her answer. He caught something about a mother and brother and Christmas Eve, but the details were hazy. She caught his eye and grinned seeming to read his thoughts. “So, was our guy able to help you with that little legal matter?” Bailey’s arm stiffened as his head whipped around in his brother’s direction. No. No. No. “What legal matter?” Brie leaned forward and placed her mug on the table, her eyes squinting in confusion. Lexie closed her eyes for a half second and then looked at Bailey with an uh-oh expression.

Oliver glanced between Bailey and Brie and shifted in his seat as he caught sight of the panic on Bailey’s face. “Oh, um, I thought there’d been something you needed help with, but I must’ve been mistaken.” “Maybe not.” Brie shifted so she wasn’t touching Bailey’s side anymore. The cold air rushed in to fill the void much like it had in his lungs. “Do you happen to remember what sort of legal issue it was? Maybe that will help jar my memory.” “Oh, I don’t know. I thought there was some unwanted publicity Bailey wanted to put a stop to.” Brie’s gaze angled in his direction. “I see.” Those two syllables held more weight than a punch to his gut. Bailey touched her arm. “It was nothing.” “Yeah, don’t worry about it. It’s one of those things we have to deal with regularly.” Oliver smiled trying to ease some of the tension that was now thick enough to taste. “Bailey wanted to get in front of it.” “Totally. I mean we’ve had to deal with more than one dick pic of Leo getting out.” “Hey,” Leo grinned, “it could happen to anyone.” Brie got to her feet and with shoulders tight enough to cause a migraine, smiled a tight smile toward Lexie, and put as much distance between herself and him as possible. He didn’t have to see

her face to feel her anger. It was rolling off her in waves. “Thank you so much for having me round to dinner, but I really should be off.” Lexie stood too, her hands jerky as she tried to salvage the evening. “Oh, you don’t have to go. We were thinking about watching a movie—” “I appreciate that, but I’m afraid I must.” She glanced around at Simone, David, and Leo, mumbled a quick, “It was lovely meeting you all and made for the door.” “Bailey, I’m sorry,” Oliver said as Bailey moved to follow Brie. “It’s not your fault.” And, Bailey meant it. He’d brought this on himself by not being completely honest with Brie.

Chapter 20 Bailey paused long enough to grab Brie’s coat from the closet though he was pretty sure her fury was enough to keep her warm. It wasn’t her temper that scared him though, it was the white in her cheeks, the slight tremble he’d seen in her hands as she’d made her way from the room. This was more than a flare of temper. She was hurt and he’d done it. Christ. He should’ve come clean earlier or at least before they’d slept together, but he’d put Theo out of his mind. As far was he was concerned, Theo was a piece of trash and he’d been taken out. Bailey followed the old stone walkway to the gate and then stepped out onto the narrow lane in search of her. With a quick glance, he found her, shoulders rigid, feet grinding into the ground. He bit back another curse. This was going to take more than a mere apology. “Brie, wait.” At the sound of his voice her shoulders ratcheted up another notch, but he jogged to catch up with her, ready to deal with the fallout. “I have nothing to say to you,” she shot back, venom in her tone. She didn’t slow down. “Oh, I don’t think that’s true. I think you have

plenty you want to say to me. Here,” he came alongside her and held out her coat, “at least put this on.” She yanked it out of his hands so hard that a sleeve slapped him in the face. She kept moving. “I can’t believe you embarrassed me like that. And, you went behind my back. Argh.” “Listen, Brie, I’m sorry. Let me at least explain what happened.” “There is nothing you have to say that I want to hear.” She quickened her pace. “Brie, if you want to leave, I understand, but let me call you a cab. It’s a five-mile trek back into town.” “I’m well aware, but I don’t want anything from you.” “Would you at least like to turn around and head in the right direction?” He repressed the urge to smirk when she came to a grinding halt. “You’re an asshole.” She turned and stormed in the opposite direction. “How much did you have to pay, Bailey? How much did it cost to fix my mistake?” “Brie.” “Tell me damnit.” Bailey sighed, but matched her long strides. If she wanted honesty, he’d give it to her. “Half a million dollars.” Brie’s steps faulted and her face blanched.

“I paid him half a million dollars for the photos, which were then destroyed, and then had my lawyers draw up a restraining order. Theo was also warned that if he tried to blackmail you again, he’d be dragged to court and sued for everything he has and there was the threat of jail time thrown in for good measure.” “Jesus, what must your family think of me? I’ll tell you what they think, they think I’m some whore who sunk her claws into you to get the money to solve her problems.” “Hey,” he grabbed her arm, forcing her to stop. She was a lot of things, headstrong, smart, ambitious, beautiful, but she was not a gold digger. Her murderous gaze lowered to where his hand was on her arm and he let go. “My family thinks no such thing and more importantly, neither do I. In fact, they don’t know anything about what happened with Theo.” “No? They don’t know about the pictures or the money” her eyes filled and the sight tore at his insides—“and the threats and the—” “No.” “But, your brother said something about Leo and some pictures so—” “My brother was trying to put you at ease the only way he knows how, humor. And, even if they did know, they wouldn’t care because they love me. They would love you simply because I do, and

believe me, they don’t care about your past.” Her breath caught. “What did you say?” “I said . . . I said I love you.” He hadn’t planned to say it to her now, especially in the middle of a heated argument, but she needed to understand. She needed to know. There wasn’t anything he wouldn’t do for her. Brie’s eyes filled again, and she shook her head. “How can you say that to me?” She turned her back to him. “How can you stand there and say you love me when you lied to me?” “I know you’re right. I should’ve told you about what happened with Theo, but I was afraid you’d think I overstepped.” She spun around and pointed a finger in his face. “That’s because you did.” He stepped toward her, their bodies almost touching. “And, I’d do it again if I thought it would help you.” A horn sounded, and they jumped to the side of the road near a huge tree as it passed. They stood, their breaths rushing out in little puffs as the wind stirred, blowing what was left of the dead leaves down the sides of the road. In another time, he might be able to appreciate the beauty around them, but all he could think about was regaining Brie’s trust. “Bailey, I can’t be with another man who lies to me.”

“I know and I’m sorry. You have to know that hurting you was never my intention.” She crossed her arms over her chest and looked at him, eyes ablaze with determination. “It’s more than that, Bailey. When you stepped in like you did, it came at a price.” “Brie.” “No, listen. You paid to make my problems go away.” “A problem made worse because of your relationship with me.” “My problems were my problems before you showed up and, Bailey, while a huge part of me appreciates what you did another little part of me resents it, because I want what we have to be pure. I want to be free to love you and be loved by you without having this huge thing with Theo hanging over our heads. I don’t want to feel like I owe you.” “It was nothing.” “Maybe to you it was nothing, but Bailey . . . you have to let me fight my own battles.” “And, you have to let people help you every once in a while.” She turned her face away from his and, as she did, the wind pulled a stand of her hair across her face. He longed to reach out and tuck it behind her ear, any excuse to touch her, but he held back. The anger which had been radiating from her was still

under the surface. He could see her emotions playing out over her face, first frustration, then sadness, and accompanying both was the hurt he’d caused. “Brie, can’t we forget him and all of it and start fresh? No more secrets.” Oh, the hell with it. He reached up and touched a hand to Brie’s face, rubbing a thumb over her cold cheek. “You don’t owe me anything. What I did? I would’ve done it for anyone I care about.” “But, we weren’t even together then.” “We were friends at least.” She nodded, “Sure, but Bailey it’s one thing for you to say I don’t owe you anything. It’s another for me to accept it.” “Don’t throw away what we could have because of your pride, Brie.” Her head snapped back in his direction, anger sparking back to life. She stepped closer, her breasts pressed against his chest. “How can I trust that you won’t hurt me again? That you won’t lie? I won’t survive it, Bailey. Not from you.” Her voice was a whisper, but the full meaning of her words was loud and clear. She needed to be able to trust him above all else. “You see, I think I’m falling for you, too. That’s why you lying to me is so much worse than if it were someone else.” Bailey’s heart soared, and he crushed his mouth to hers. She was falling in love with him and

that was all he needed to know. He pulled away, breathless. “I won’t hurt you again and I’ll spend forever proving it to you if that’s what it takes.” He kissed her cheeks, one and then the other, tasting her salty tears as he went. “Bailey.” She said against his mouth as their kisses turned urgent. “Don’t ever lie to me again.” “Never.” He took her hand and hauled her against the closest tree and out of eye-shot of anyone who might happen by. With the huge oak to one side and the open field behind them to ensure their privacy, he put his hands inside her coat and ran them up her sides, while hers were in his hair tugging his mouth closer. He was rock hard, desperate for her warmth as the relief of hearing her say she could love him pulsed through him with every beat of his heart. He ran a hand up her thigh and felt the lace of her panties against his hand. “Jesus,” he breathed against her neck, “I’ve been dying to get inside you since I first saw you in that dress.” “Then, do it.” He met her eyes and then with one swift yank tore the thin fabric away from her body. He pressed a hand against her mound and felt her writhe against it. She tugged at his jeans and forced them down and he brought her knee up and hooked it around his hip. With one hard thrust he was inside

her, the explosion of pleasure expressed by them both with a sigh. She held onto his shoulder as he drove into her again and again with a fierce need no other could conjure, but Brie. Her leg shook and his own body quivered as release called to them both, but he kept going, proving to her as much as himself, he wouldn’t lose her. “Bailey,” she gasped, her mouth open just enough for him to taste her one last time as they tumbled over the edge. ~~~ Bailey slid onto the stool in the kitchen of the manor house and rubbed a hand over his face. When he thought about how close he’d come to losing Brie earlier that afternoon, his chest constricted. He hadn’t fully understood how attached he’d become until the moment she’d walked out the door. “Coffee?” Lexie set a blue mug in front of him on the counter and leaned down onto her elbows. “Thanks.” Lexie squinted at him like his mother used to do when trying to gage what he wasn’t saying. “So, did you and Brie get whatever it was worked out?” “Oh, yeah.” Bailey couldn’t keep the smirk from his face as he thought about their makeup session on the side of the road. He’d never been

more reckless or felt such uncontrollable desire. “It’s all good.” Brie sipped her coffee and turned her head in the direction of the living room where the others were watching a movie. “Good, because I really liked her.” “Yeah?” “Yeah, she was smart and polite, gorgeous of course,” Lexie grinned, but then her smile fell away and her eyes turned serious. “More importantly though, you’ve never seemed happier than when you were looking at her.” Bailey sipped his coffee, unsure what to say to his sister-in-law. How was he supposed to explain that the felt alive again for the first time in years without sounding like a complete shmuck? “I don’t know what it is, but,” he shrugged, “It’s different with her, you know?” Lexie glanced toward the chair where Oliver was sitting. “I do know.” Bailey nodded. Of course, she knew. Lexie had changed his brother’s life and he hers in all the ways that mattered. He’d given her a family and she’d given him strength when he needed it the most. As the music started to play signaling the ending credits, Bailey yawned. Missing nothing, Lexie set her mug to the side and studied his face. “Are you feeling okay?”

Bailey chuckled. “Yes, nurse. I’m just a little tired. I didn’t get much sleep last night.” Hell, if Brie was around, he doubted he’d ever sleep again, but it was a sacrifice he was willing to make. Lexie narrowed her eyes and then touched his wrist. For a second, it seemed like a caring gesture, but when she glanced at her watch, he tugged his arm away. “Are you seriously checking my pulse?” Her face reddened and then his brother was there swinging an arm over her shoulders. “What’s going on in here?” Oliver’s gaze swung between the two of them. “Your wife, here, is worried about me.” Oliver’s arm fell away from Lexie and a shadow of concern darkened his face. “It’s nothing.” Lexie forced a smile and patted Oliver’s shoulder. She knew his brother better than anyone and understood how quick he was to worry after the cancer. She snuggled up against his side. “You know I can’t help myself.” “This is true.” Oliver agreed, but it took a beat for his face to relax. “People get tired, Lexie. Between exams and a late night out last night, it was bound to happen.” Bailey stood and kissed her on the top of the head. “Trust me, you have nothing to worry about.” He appreciated that she cared, but he had no intention of being fussed over. His days of being the

patient were over.

Chapter 21 Brie scrolled down as she read and then reread the same section of her notes. In a few short months she would have to stand up in front of her professors and the department head and defend her paper. Knots twisted in her stomach. Speaking in front of a room full of students was one thing, but in front of a group of professors who she respected was a different matter altogether. A knock sounded from the first floor and saved her from having to start over for the third time. She sighed and clicked save, before making her way to the door to find Bailey on the other side. Paper forgotten, and with a fresh wave of heat rushing to her cheeks, she stepped to the side and allowed him in. God, he was beautiful. No wonder she’d been so reckless. When it came to Bailey, she lost any iota of reason. “Hey there.” She rose onto her tiptoes and kissed him. His lips were cold under hers, so she wrapped her arms around his neck to lengthen the kiss. A week ago, she would’ve cringed at him seeing her in her yoga pants and thick Harrods sweatshirt, but not anymore. There was an easiness to their relationship, an openness.

“Hello to you, too.” He wrapped his arms around her middle and gazed down at her. “I missed you last night.” “Me, too, but you have to sleep some time.” She giggled. “I guess, but I’m starting to think it’s overrated.” He released her and walked in a sort of half-circle around the small room. “Can I steal you away for a little while?” “What about the guys? Aren’t you hanging out with them today?” He grinned, “Nah, they’re out shopping for last minute stuff. At least that’s what Simone and Lexie are doing and it sounds like Oliver and Leo are getting dragged along.” She laughed. “I bet they love that.” “Oh, I’m sure.” He grinned. “So, what do you say, beautiful, come out with me for a couple hours?” “I think I can manage that.” She batted her eyelashes at him. “Or, we could stay here. Jessica’s still gone and we have this whole luxurious place to ourselves.” She pressed against him and planted a kiss on his neck. Bailey tilted his head to the side, “If you start that, we’ll never make it out of here and then you won’t get your Christmas present.” Her head jerked away from where she was sampling his collarbone, and she stepped back.

“But, we agreed no gifts.” An agreement she’d been adamant about. She didn’t have the money to get him something extravagant and he’d already done so much for her. There was nothing else she needed or wanted other than to be with him. If he’d gone back on his word . . . He held his hands up in surrender. “It isn’t a gift exactly. It’s just a little something I’ve been working on.” She narrowed her eyes at him. “I promise. It’s not a big deal and I didn’t spend any money.” She sighed. “Okay, then. Let me go change and you can show me what you’ve been up to, but I’m warning you, Bailey—” He cut her off with a kiss and then swatted her butt as she turned in the direction of the stairs. She threw him a saucy look over her shoulder, or at least the sauciest look she could muster in her oversized shirt and glasses. What was he up to? Ten minutes later, they were in a cab headed toward campus. She tried to weasel a location out of Bailey using her wiles, but when that didn’t work, she tried a different approach. He leaned down near her ear. “If you keep touching my thigh like that, I’m not going to be able to get out of this car.” “You could always tell me what I want to know.”

“Never,” he looped an arm over her shoulder and let his fingers graze over her nipple igniting a wave of pleasure inside her. “And remember, two can play at this little game of yours.” She met his eye, “Oh, I do hope so.” On the verge of sliding her hand up to the center of his lap, she paused when the cab came to an abrupt stop in front of the Ashmolean Museum. “What are you up to, Bailey Honeycutt?” “Come on.” He paid the driver and tugged her out of the vehicle and into the wind. “Let’s get inside.” She let him lead the way, their steps hurried, though she could’ve gotten pretty much anywhere inside blindfolded. He grinned at her as he led her through the front doors, his boyish charm contagious. She didn’t have the heart to tell him that there wasn’t a single exhibit she hadn’t visited or studied. As he tugged her along, their footsteps echoed around the large space. The museum was quiet and come to think of it, they hadn’t passed anyone on their way in. Not a security guard or single person standing around the gift shop. Brie turned this way and that in an attempt to spot a single person, but there was no one. “Bailey, where is everyone?” He shrugged and kept moving until they were in the far back corner of the building at the

entrance to one of the collections. “I don’t get it.” He laughed and then pulled an iPod and headphones out of the pocket of his denim jacket. “Take this,” he placed it in her hand and waited for her to put the earbuds in, “and this.” It was a map of the museum, but it wasn’t blank. There were red arrows drawn all over it giving her direction as to which way to go. “Press play as you walk in here,” he gestured to their right and she noted it was marked on the map with a red star and the word Start, “and, I’ll see you at the end.” She glanced around the empty space again, took a few steps toward the first exhibit, and then turned to ask Bailey what she was supposed to be looking for, but he was gone. She sighed and closed her mouth, fearing she looked a bit like a fish stranded on a dock with her mouth hanging open. Willing to play along and being the type who loved a good mystery, she pressed play as she stepped inside the Music and Tapestry gallery. Bailey’s voice filled her ears. “Hello, Brie.” She grinned. “I hope you enjoy your self-guided tour of the Ashmolean and see it in a way you’ve never seen it before. Merry Christmas, or if you prefer it, Happy Christmas.” The soft strum of a guitar set the mood and the pace as she moved along the rows of instruments

lining the room. Gorgeous violins stood on display for admiration, followed by a case on the wall showing the different processes and parts required in the creation of such delicate instruments. Guitars were next and though inexperienced, the fine craftsmanship wasn’t lost on her. Since getting to know Bailey and watching and listening to him play music, it was impossible not to appreciate his talent. Mother-of-pearl inlays and intricate designs decorated the fine pieces and as she admired what was before her eyes, a complicated guitar riff sounded in her ears. She laughed, the sound echoing around the space. As she moved from the music room into the Italian Renaissance gallery, the music changed, and this time a piano joined in. She didn’t recognize the tune, but didn’t miss the Italian influence. She passed paintings and artifacts she’d lectured about in class, favorites she admired, and about halfway through the tour came across the painting they’d sat in front of together discussing love. The painting was the same, the colors unchanged, but it seemed different now. The look on the lover’s faces, the softness of the strokes, the longing reflected in their gazes . . . it was as though the painter could see into their souls. She stepped closer and tilted her head to the side to study it more closely. What was different? What had she missed before in her trips to this room?

The music soared in her ears, the piano melding with the guitar into a song she could swear was only meant for her. It was the same song she heard in her heart when Bailey was touching her or looking into her eyes. She took a step back from the painting and touched the smile on her lips with the tips of her fingers. Maybe she was the one who was different now. As she strode through the rest of the galleries marked on the map the music continued to flow, sometimes fast and reckless, sometimes soulful, and at times tortured. Astoundingly, Bailey had managed to match the mood of the art and amplify its meaning. The time he must’ve spent thinking about the pacing and planning. The creation of new music only she’d heard. She picked up the pace, ready to be with him again, this man who had entered her life and turned it upside down as much as he’d righted it. Frantic to touch him again, to show him how much she cared, she started to jog and didn’t stop until she saw him near the entrance a single rose in his hand. As she approached, he smiled, but she didn’t slow until she crashed into him and threw her arms around his neck, pressing her lips to his over and over again. “Whoa there.” He laughed. “We’re unaccompanied, but we aren’t alone.” He rolled his eyes toward the security camera located just over

their heads. “Take me home.” ~~~ With their skin still damp from making love, Bailey let his fingers stroke up and down the upper part of Brie’s arm. Her bed was soft and warm with her pressed up against him, and for once it was quiet save for the occasional car rolling by. Jessica wasn’t working on her sculpting in the next room while music blasted, Cohen wasn’t banging away on his keyboard through the wall—tonight, it was simply the two of them. “So, you liked your present then?” He kissed the top of her head, grinning into her hair. “It was brilliant. I still can’t get over how long it must’ve taken you and who was playing piano?” “Cohen. I roped him into helping me last month. Between his course work and composing, he’s a hard man to nail down.” “Last month, huh?” She tugged on the trail of hair under his navel. “It seems as though you were pretty confident you were going to need to get me a gift.” He shrugged against the sheet as his blood began to stir again. “I only hoped, but I would’ve given it to you even if we weren’t together. And, it wasn’t a gift, it was an experience.” “I was the best experience gift I’ve ever

received.” She kissed his chest. “Thank you.” “You’re welcome.” He didn’t fight the surge of pride that shot through him. Instead, he basked in it, elated he’d been able to give her what no one else had or would. “You should let me take you out next week.” Brie tilted her chin up and offered him a sleepy grin which was ridiculously sexy. “Where’d you have in mind?” “Anywhere you want to go.” He let his gaze return to the ceiling when she snuggled back into his chest, a smile spreading across his face in the soft light. He’d take her anywhere she wanted to go whether it be down the street or to Tokyo for dinner. There was nothing he wouldn’t give her. “Part of me feels like we should go out simply because we can. We waited a long-ass time to get here.” She laughed, the sound muffled by his chest. “Maybe we should go back to where it all started.” Brie pushed up onto her elbow and eyed him, the curves of her breasts coming into view. “You want to have a date in the lecture hall?” Now, it was his turn to grin. “No, I was thinking more about a game of Pac-Man.” She traced her fingertip over his pec and bent to nip at his nipple. “You know what I wish?” “That we could stay in this bed forever?” He

bent his head forward and kissed her mouth, gentle at first and then deeper, his tongue tracing her lower lip. “Mmm, as good as that sounds, that’s not what I was going to say.” “Then, what say you, madam? Tell me your wish and I will do my best to make it come true.” He overpowered her and rolled her until she was under him. She shook her head, but laughed. “What I was going to say was that I wish we were closer to your place so I could see it.” He touched the tip of her nose with his. “What are you talking about? You’ve been to my place dozens of times.” “No, not your place here. Your place in the States.” “It’s not so great.” She gave him a disbelieving look. “Okay, it’s pretty nice, but if you’re looking to stay somewhere other than our pitiful student digs, I could take you into London and we could check into a hotel for a couple of nights.” “No, that’s not what it is. I’m perfectly happy here with you, but sometimes I feel like I’m only seeing this one side of you. It’s like I only know this temporary version of Bailey Honeycutt that doesn’t exist outside of Oxford.” She sighed. “Forget it. I sound crazy.”

He kissed her, but instead of distracting her with sex, fell back against the pillows. “I don’t know exactly how to fix this short of throwing you on a jet and taking you to L.A. Any suggestions?” “You could start by telling me about your house.” Her face changed from soft to eager as her eyes lit up. “Oh, and another thing I’ve always wondered about is if you live like they do on Real Housewives of Orange County. Do you have a trainer, a cook, a house cleaner, a yoga instructor, and like a life coach?” He laughed, the sound echoing around the room. “How long have you been waiting to ask me all of that?” She scrunched up her nose, her expression guilty. “A while I guess.” “So it seems. Okay, where to start.” He closed his eyes and pictured his place in the hills. “The house sits up on a hill overlooking the ocean. It seems simple from the front other than the gate signaling something exciting might be on the other side, but the back view,” he whistled, “it’s a thing of beauty. I also have a couple of fruit trees and a pool. The house is far from new, but it’s been updated to look modern. Lots of black and white and clean lines—at least that’s how the realtor explained it to me—I just bought it for the view.” “It sounds amazing. How in the world did you leave it behind for student housing? These places

are older than time itself.” “Well, you have to remember, I’m on the road when we’re touring for ten months at a time. I’ve stayed in some pretty gnarly digs.” “I don’t think I’d be able to leave. It sounds too beautiful.” “Maybe you’ll get to see it in person once you’re in the States.” A strange stillness settled over them and for an instant he feared he’d moved too fast, but a moment later, Brie rolled onto her side and met his eye. “I’d like that very much.” He let out a shaky breath, “And, for the record, I don’t have a life coach.” She giggled and then straightened up. “Wait, does that mean you have all those other people working for you? The cook and trainer and all that?” “A nice lady named Rosa works for me and she does some of the cooking and cleaning. And, I have a trainer who I work with on occasion, but that’s about it.” Brie grinned and kissed his chest, then slid down and placed a trail of kisses down his torso until she stopped to hover over the crevice between his hip bone and his dick. “Your trainer has earned every penny.” As she continued down, his stomach tightened, her mouth teasing him until he couldn’t keep still.

His trainer was getting a raise.

Chapter 22 Brie jogged away from the bus stop as she hurried to meet up with Jessica. The winter wind was brutal against her cheeks stinging enough to make her eyes water, but not enough to dim her mood. Over the last week, when she wasn’t working tirelessly to finish the mural at The Splash Pad, she’d been in bed with Bailey. She’d never been in a relationship where she hadn’t craved her own space after a few days and it was exhilarating. A squeal pierced the air. “It’s about time.” Jessica ran toward her, snatched her up into a hug, and spun around. “It feels like it’s been forever, which is either because I missed your face or because I was trapped inside the house with my bloody family.” “Gee thanks.” When she finally released her, they hurried toward the abandoned factory building looming before them and Jess looped her arm through Brie’s. “I’m kidding. You know I love you.” She pulled back and narrowed her eyes. “What?” Brie ran a hand over her hair. Between the wind and her scarf there was no telling

what she looked like. “What is it?” “You look different.” Jessica broke out into a grin and pointed a finger donning no less than three rings at her. “You slut. I know exactly what’s going on here. You’ve been getting laid on the regular.” Brie’s face burned despite the temperature. “I knew it.” Jessica squealed again and jumped up and down a few times. “Okay, okay. Calm down.” Brie glanced around the street, but no one was paying them any attention. One guy passed on the opposite side of the street, but like everyone else, he had his face buried behind a scarf. “In all seriousness, you look happy.” Brie grinned. “I am.” They embraced in the middle of the sidewalk. Jessica understood what it meant for her to have found someone. She’d held her head in her lap and listened to her tears more than a few times. They released each other, but remained shivering near a large brick wall, white graffiti the only thing to distinguish it from all the other brick buildings in the Art District in downtown London. “Have you gotten to see Cohen yet?” “No, but as soon as we get back I’m going to hunt him down.” When Jessica made a low growl in her throat, Brie shook her head. “How romantic.” “Screw romance. I need to get some serious

action. I’m talking toe-curling, headboard banging action.” Brie nodded once. “Thank you for that spectacularly vivid picture.” “You bet. Now, let’s get in there and marvel at how fabulous this art show is going to be.” They started for the large barn-style door and paused to gawk at the sheer size of it. “Can you believe this place? It’s completely mental.” Brie bumped her hip into Jessica’s. “And, you’re going to show here.” Her flatmate pulled to an abrupt stop. “Oh my God, don’t say it out loud. I might chunder.” “You’ll be great.” Brie nudged her along with her shoulder. “Now, come on. It’s bloody freezing out here.” The space was as impressive on the inside as it seemed from the outside. The ceiling was over thirty feet high, the walls composed of exposed brick, and metal beams crisscrossed over their heads completing the industrial feel of the place. Half-walls were constructed and scattered throughout to transform the space from a factory into a gallery. “Hey, I need to run talk to the lady at the desk and find out exactly where my stuff is going to be and all that. Are you okay to look around for a bit?” Brie nodded and then strode off in the direction

of some black and white photographs mounted to the outer walls, her footsteps echoing off the concrete floor as she moved. She recognized the building in the first image. It was the warehouse, but based on the photo quality and upon further scrutiny, the surrounding streets shown, it was the building when it was new. The second picture was also of the factory, but it was clearer and the streets surrounding it were congested. When she reached the end of the row, she read the plaque explaining the history of the place and then froze when her own history sounded from behind her. At the familiar whistle she stiffened from her shoulders to her knees. It was a sound she would know anywhere. Her core turned to ice at the same time fury welled in her chest. She spun around on her heel. “Theo.” He clucked his tongue at her, but stopped a good distance away. “Isn’t this an interesting surprise?” “I’d say it’s more of an unfortunate coincidence.” She had no intention of spending any more time on Theo and started to head off in the direction of the desk to find Jessica. Theo stepped into her path, blocking her. “Move, Theo,” her voice was low, but strong. He didn’t have power over her anymore.

He leaned in close to her ear, the smell of cigarettes and paint she’d once found exciting, now threatening to turn her stomach. “I’m glad we ran into each other. I wanted you to know that your boyfriend paid well for you.” She inhaled through her nose and raised her hand to slap his face, but he grabbed her arm. “Ah, ah, ah. I wouldn’t if I was you.” Fuming, she yanked her hand out of his grip. “Your boy can only help you to a point, but if you hit me . . . he grimaced, it wouldn’t end well for you with or without your boy to pay your way. Assault is a very serious crime.” “I hate you.” She shook her head. “No, that’s not true because hating you would mean I spend time worrying about you and what you think and I don’t. If anything, I pity you.” Theo laughed loud and full. “Come now, Brie don’t say that. We both know I’m the best you ever had.” She bit back a harsh laugh of her own. He was the dullest of lovers compared to Bailey who always made sure to please her. He knew her mind as well as her body which was something she never would’ve said about Theo. “Why are you here, Theo?” “It’s the art, love. I go where it takes me. But, one thing’s for sure, I’m thoroughly enjoying spending your new man’s money. You turned out to

be a pretty good investment after all.” “Piss off, Theo.” He pulled a crushed pack of cigarettes out of his back pocket and tapped it on the palm of his hand as he circled her. “Tell me something, Brie. How long do you think you’ll be able to hold onto ol’ Richie Rich? Because, let’s be honest, you’re not overly pretty, and in bed? Well, I got bored and I don’t have nearly the same amount of pussy buffet to choose from as a guy like that.” When her cheeks burned with the fire of a thousand suns, he laughed. She closed her eyes for a half second and ground her teeth. She didn’t have to put up with his abuse anymore and she wouldn’t. “You know what, Theo? Someday you’re going to run out of money and someday your looks are going to fade, a day not too far off it would seem, and you know what? You’re going to be left with nothing. And, no one. So, you can act high and mighty if you’d like, but the truth of the matter is you’re nothing.” The smirk slid off his face. “What no witty comeback? No more threats to make?” At the sound of footsteps, Theo tucked his cigarette behind his ear and strode off, but this time he wasn’t whistling as he went. “Brie,” Jessica appeared at her side, “what

happened? You look terrible.” When Brie didn’t turn, Jessica craned her neck to try to follow her gaze. “Who did you see?” “Theo.” Jessica started in the direction he’d gone. “That son of bitch. He’s not supposed to be anywhere near you.” Brie touched her friend’s shoulder. “No, don’t. Let him go.” Jess turned back around, scanned her face, and then seeming to be pleased enough by her appearance, nodded. “Okay, but know I’d rather let him go off the side of a cliff.” As they started for the door, leaving Theo behind, Brie couldn’t shake his words. She should she knew, sticks and stones and all, but he’d known the exact way to dig at her that would inflict the most damage. And, though it would’ve been wrong to hit him, she couldn’t help but think for a few moments it would’ve been worth it. “Ugh, I wonder why he was even here. The upcoming showcase is for students.” “Who knows?” Brie shrugged. “Theo’s always been good at showing up where he’s not wanted.” They slid the large door back into place behind them and set off to find a cab. As they walked, Brie’s mind whirled as fast as the wind tugging at their scarves. “How did I ever end up with someone like

Theo? I mean, how did I not see him for who he truly is?” Jessica blew out a breath and looped her arm through Brie’s. “I don’t know. You were young, out in the world on your own for the first time, and let’s not forget he’s a con artist. Plain and simple. And, at least you have some sort of excuse. What about the rest of us? It isn’t like you’re the only one who’s ever dated a loser. We’ve all been there. Do you remember that one guy, Linus?” “Was he the one with the hairless cat?” “No, that was Blake. Linus was the one with the clown porn stash.” Despite the whirlwind of emotions she was struggling to sort through, she couldn’t stop the laugh that bubbled up inside her. “God, I’d forgotten about him.” Jessica gave off an over exaggerated shudder, shaking their linked arms. “That’s one I’ll never forget.” They laughed the rest of the way down the street until they stumbled across a waiting cab. She’d never been more thankful for the woman beside her or her ability to make her get out of her own head. All she needed now was to feel Bailey’s arms around her. ~~~ The traffic remained congested around the

entirety of London-Heathrow until their little group was able to split off to the private sector. As they passed through a gate, Bailey stared out the window of the first of the two dark SUVs shuttling them to the airport. Several large and a handful of smaller jets sat idle waiting for their intended passengers. The cars glided to a stop near one of the larger planes and the stairs folded down. While they gathered to say their goodbyes, the drivers unloaded their bags and handed them off to the waiting crewmembers. “Let us know when you get ready to head back our way and we’ll be ready for you.” Lexie leaned in and hugged Bailey tight. “You know we miss you, but we’re glad you’re happy.” “I miss you guys, too. Thanks for making the trip over.” Leo was next, his hideous Christmas sweater featuring zombie elves scratching his face as he pulled him into a headlock. “Bailey, come back soon. There’s some serious wave action needing your attention.” He shoved Leo away and punched him in the arm. “Definitely.” “Alright, man. Take it easy.” David gave him a half hug and then jogged up the steps and disappeared inside the plane. The others followed with one more kiss on the

cheek from Lexie and an ass slap from Leo—which he hadn’t been fast enough to block—leaving only he and his brother. “You know Lexie’ll probably cry half the flight.” Oliver tucked his hands in his back pockets and dug the tip of his boot into the ground. “She misses you.” “I’m sure you can think of a way to keep her busy.” Oliver’s eyes twinkled while a sly grin spread across his face. “I’m sure I can.” “Okay then. You’d better get going.” Bailey hugged him and then pulled back. “Thanks for making the trip.” “Yeah man. It was no problem.” They stood and watched a member of the ground crew run around underneath the plane and unhook a couple of different hoses each prolonging the inevitable. “Hey, B,” Oliver kept his eyes on the guy in the orange jumpsuit, but his tone was serious. “I know when you first mentioned that you wanted to do this that I wasn’t exactly . . . you know, bursting with excitement at the idea.” “You were just being cautious,” Bailey offered to try to ease some of the guilt he could sense in his brother. He’d had lots of questions when they’d talked and had made clear he was worried about him being so far away from his regular doctors. “Yeah, maybe, but at that point I knew you

were fine. Thank, Christ for that, by the way.” Bailey grinned. “You aren’t kidding.” Oliver smiled back and turned toward him. “I think some of it was that I didn’t know what to do with myself. It’d been a long time since you hadn’t needed me and I don’t know, I think a part of me was unsure about what to do without you around.” Bailey shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “I’m sorry, bro. I didn’t realize—” Oliver raised a hand and waved it. “No, no, no. It wasn’t your job to stick around just so I could feel useful, but with you setting out and the band taking a break, and I know I have Lexie,” he glanced toward the plane where she was waiting inside, “but even she has a job. I guess I was a little lost.” He shook his head, “Anyway, I say all that because I want you to know I think what you’re doing over here is pretty great. You’ve always been meant for more and you’re happier than I’ve seen you in ages. And, between you and me, Brie’s pretty great, too.” Bailey reached out and pulled his brother into a bear hug. “Thanks, man.” They slapped each other on the back and cleared their throats. “Okay, that’s enough of that touchy-feely crap.” Oliver did a little shake to ward off any welling emotion. “Get your ass back to your place and go study or something. We can’t have you

failing out of here.” Oliver jogged toward the steps. “It’ll make the band look bad.” “Hey, Oliver.” His brother turned around when he reached the top step and Bailey threw him a memory stick. Oliver glanced down at the palm of his hand. “Is this what I think it is?” “Take a listen and let me know what you think.” Oliver nodded to him, a huge grin on his face. “Play on, brother.” “Play on.” Bailey broke out into a wide smile. It’d been a long time since his brother had said that to him. It was what he said anytime he sensed a change on the horizon. He’d said it the first time he’d invited the other guys to hear Bailey play and they’d offered him a place in the band, and again when they’d signed with a label for the first time. Maybe he sensed something in the air for Bailey now, too.

Chapter 23 Brie bounced on her toes for warmth while she waited for Bailey to open the door. Today was a day for celebrating and she couldn’t think of a better way than a little alone time with her favorite American. A puff of white escaped her mouth a moment before she tucked her chin down further into her scarf. She wouldn’t have braved the cold, but Cohen and Jess were at her place making up for lost time or working out their mutual stress or whatever. Brie put the door to her back and stared out over the yard and beyond. The fresh snow on the ground was pure white, untouched from foot traffic and yet to be turned into slush on the roads. It was beautiful and reminded her of being a kid again. Caught somewhere between nostalgia and a giddy sense of accomplishment, she bounded off the steps and into the fluff. “Hey there.” Bailey jumped to the side as she sent a snowball in his direction. “Oh, so it’s going to be like that, is it?” He leaped over the steps and into the snow with bare arms and his shoes unlaced at his feet. “Do California boys actually know how to

throw snowballs?” She launched another one at his back and beamed with pleasure when it hit its target. He turned and sent a wad of snow flying with surprising speed. She squealed and took off running, packing more snow together as she went. He chased her around the side of the townhouse, his steps crunching against the snow. “I know you’re back here,” he taunted in a singsong voice. “Come out come out wherever you are.” She giggled and then pressed a hand over her mouth. “Got ya.” He grabbed her around the middle and crushed a snowball onto her head and though her toboggan was protecting her, it didn’t stop some of the snow from slipping between her neck and shirt. She laughed and wriggled against him as the snow melted down her back. “Are you ready to surrender?” “Yes,” she managed through her laughter, “You win. You win.” He took her hand and led her inside. “God, it’s freezing. I’m not sure I’m ever getting used to this.” She unwound her scarf and slid out of her jacket. “Yuck, my back is wet.” Bailey pressed up against her and hooked a finger under her chin. “Let me see if I can help you

with that.” He kissed her mouth and then tugged her shirt over her head, before letting his hands slide up and down her back. “Ahh, your hands are so cold,” she cried against his mouth. “But, you’re not. You’re deliciously warm.” He bent his head down and kissed along her neck, the cold fingers on her back massaging along her spine until they were gripping her butt. She let out a soft moan. “This is more like it.” “Yeah, it is.” Brie’s eyes grew wide and Bailey followed her gaze toward where the cat he’d rescued and sort of adopted was sleeping in a heap on the top of the chair. “Who’s this?” “That’s Bowie. He’s kind of my unofficial roommate.” “Is he now?” She stopped beside where Bowie was snoozing and rubbed a gentle hand along his back. “And, how long has he been staying with you?” “Well, at first I was just leaving some food out for him, but since it’s so cold, I thought he’d be happier inside.” “So, just for a few days then?” Bailey shrugged. “Maybe a little longer than that.” Bowie rolled onto his back still half asleep and

put his paws in the air so Brie could reach his tummy. “He’s really cute.” She left the cat to keep napping and moved back to Bailey, “And, so are you.” She kissed him and snuggled in close. “It was good of you to take him in.” “Ah, he needed a home.” And, he didn’t want to watch a person or an animal suffer. Not if he was able to help. Bailey shook off the thoughts of sickness and concentrated on the way Brie looked standing in front of him in her black bra, his favorite. He spun her around and walked her backwards until she fell onto the couch. When they landed, a loud squeak sounded and they both laughed. Bailey lifted his head and put his finger to his lips. “Shh, the guys next door will hear you giggling over here.” “Then, you better shut me up.” “Don’t mind if I do.” He kissed her then, long and hard, the stubble of his chin digging into hers. She brought her legs up and looped them around his waist, urging him closer. God, she feared she’d never get enough of him—his body, his mouth, his taste. Bailey was intoxicating. He ducked his head lower until his mouth was tracing the line of her bra across the tops of her breasts, teasing her with the softest flicks of his tongue. She dug her fingers into his back as he slid lower, the promise of what was to come

heightening her desire. He sat up suddenly and flung one of her legs to the side so that they were close enough to tug her jeans off, his hands urgent and deft. She reached for him the minute her legs were free, but he stopped her and kept them to the side. The room was bright as the outside light glared off the snow. She moved to lower her hand so Bailey couldn’t see her so clearly, but he grabbed her hand and moved it back to her side while he slipped his jeans off. “You’re beautiful.” He moved his hips until she could feel him against her. “I want to see all of you like this.” She sucked in a breath as he slipped inside her. He gripped her thigh as he picked up the pace, while she turned her face sideways into the pillow. The scream that was building in her chest was going to be anything but quiet. Her muscles grew taught, eager for the sweet pleasure of release. “Not yet.” He gripped her ankle and pulled her leg back over until he was between her legs and they were face to face. Half-drunk with pleasure, she looked into his eyes and felt her heart swell. She’d never care for another man the way she did Bailey. He bent to kiss her, their chests pressing together as they cried out against each other’s mouths. ~~~

Bailey traced circles across Brie’s back as they lay in his bed, spent from making love a second time. He bent his head and kissed the top of her hair, its silky texture soft to the touch. He wasn’t sure he’d ever get tired of touching her or looking at her. Her almond eyes which were full of wonder drinking in every detail around her or the smile she saved for her closest friends. There was so much about her he loved. “Bailey?” “Hmm.” “What were you thinking about?” She tilted her head back until their eyes met. “You seemed lost for a moment.” “No, I wasn’t lost.” He hooked a finger under her chin and raised her lips to meet his. “I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be.” “Yes, keeping me warm.” She snuggled in closer to his side as he chuckled. He quite enjoyed it when she wriggled against him, her breasts pressing against him with her leg hooked over his middle. He bent his elbow and tucked his arm behind his head as he let out a contented sigh. He was a lucky man. Brie reached up and touched his chin. “Where’d you get this?” He smiled, his eyes remaining closed. “That little scar happened when I tried ice skating for the first time while we were up in Canada for a show. I

caught an ice skate to the chin.” “Ouch.” “Right? I had to get six stitches.” “I bet you were very brave.” She pushed up on her elbow and grinned at him before she kissed him. “I really was.” He kissed her back and then she snuggled back down in the covers. “Can I ask you something else?” Caught somewhere between satisfaction and the faint pull of sleep, he mumbled, “Sure. Ask away.” “Were you scared when you got sick?” Bailey’s eyes snapped open. His illness was the furthest thing from his mind and the last thing he wanted to talk about. But, it was Brie asking, not some reporter or radio DJ. He sighed again. “Yes, maybe not at first, but the longer I was in the hospital . . . you see things, hear things. It gets hard not to start thinking about the worst possible outcome.” He stared at the ceiling, their breathing the only sound in the room. “I used to make lists of all the things I’d miss: my guitar, my brother, my mom, playing our music for a crowd, Game of Thrones. I mean can you imagine not getting to see the end after all this buildup? I need to know who’s going to end up on that damn thing.” They laughed, breaking the seriousness of the

moment. “It’s good to know you had your priorities straight.” “Isn’t it?” Their laughter subsided and then Brie’s hand slid up his chest. “And, this,” she traced her finger over his port scar near his collarbone. “It’s from your time in the hospital, isn’t it?” “Yes. It’s the place they used to pump poison into my body.” He rubbed a finger idly over the scar and tried to push away the memory of sitting hooked up to the machines for hours on end. “I didn’t look like the man I am today or feel like me. That’s what they don’t tell you. The medicine destroys you while it’s trying to save you. And, it’s so much worse than they show you in movies, so isolating.” Bailey rubbed a hand over his face. He hadn’t said this much about how he’d truly felt to anyone. Oliver and Lexie assumed and knew parts, but he’d never wanted to burden them, never wanted to say it aloud. “Brie, I didn’t feel like myself again for years. Not until this place, and you, actually.” Her fingers froze and her eyes found his. “That’s quite a line, Bailey.” “It’s no line. You’re the lightening that jolted me back to life. I’d been living like a dead man for three years. Seeing your passion for art and getting to know you made me want to begin again, to start

really living and not just exist.” The same brown eyes he dreamt of bored into his own and then her mouth crashed down on his. With a fresh wave of passion, they tore at each other. Her fingers clawed at his chest and his dug into her ass while he shifted her until she was on top of him. At the feel of her, his body surged to life and he sat up stroking fingers down her back while he pressed his face into her chest. “There’s never been anyone like you, Brie Freeman.” She smiled and tossed her head back as he moved inside her. Her hands gripped his shoulders as she moved. Coiled and ready to burst, he bore down, his fingers gripping hips as she found her rhythm and rocked them both over the edge. ~~~ “Woman,” Bailey mumbled into Brie’s shoulder a little while later, “Must. Have. Food.” She giggled, but didn’t move. “Okay, that’s it.” He threw the covers off both of them. The shock of the cold air across her naked body sent Brie scrambling for one of his shirts. “That was mean.” “You haven’t seen mean. I have to stay fed or . . .” He put his hands out in front of him and growled.

Brie squealed when he got close and ran for the kitchen. By the time he slipped on some jeans and joined her, she had already started a pot of coffee. He found her with her head in the fridge and her perfect ass hanging out of his shirt while she leaned in further. Mental note, place all food as far back as possible. “I’ve never seen you have so much food at once.” “My sister-in-law took care of that for me, but I have to say she was bummed by the lack of bagels here.” “We have beigels down near Brick Lane where they do the open market.” “My dear sweet, Brie, those are not bagels.” “Oh my, and right when I was starting to think you weren’t a snob.” Hands full of sausage and eggs, she bumped the fridge closed with her hip. “Only when it comes to my bagels, oh and my pizza. This is why I can’t wait for you to move to New York.” Bailey poured them each a mug of coffee and offered her one. “That city has the best there is of both.” She accepted the mug and grinned at him. “Does that mean you’ll come visit me?” “If you keep walking around in that shirt, I may have to move in with you. It makes sense seeing as how I love you.” He set his own mug down two seconds before Brie launched herself into his arms

and kissed him. “Wait a minute, if you start that again, we’ll never eat.” She kissed him hard and then lowered herself off him. “You’re probably right.” She grinned and then pulled out a pan. “Hey, since you’re so crazy about me,” she winked at him over her shoulder, “does that mean you’re going to be my date for Jessica’s art show?” “I wouldn’t miss it.” He slipped up behind her while she broke an egg and let his fingers brush across her butt, making her giggle again. “But, only if you wear this.” “I think it’s more of a dress thing.” “Oh, well in that case, I may not be able to make it after all.” She wiggled against his cock and leaned her head back on his shoulder. “What if I promise not to wear anything under the dress?” “Then, you have yourself a date.”

Chapter 24 As Brie climbed the stairs of the Ruskin building, student voices echoed throughout the hallways. With classes back in session, both undergrads and graduate students were hard at work on assigned projects. Though her own final project loomed on the horizon, Brie was less stressed than she’d been in years. There was no more Theo, no more having the threat of losing her job hanging over her head, minus a serious screw up on her end, and she had a man in her life who loved her. She paused at the top of the stairs as a flutter moved through her at the idea. Bailey loved her and though she hadn’t told him as much in so many words, she loved him. And, he knew it. As sure as she knew art was her calling, Bailey knew how she felt about him. “Hey,” she called out when she entered the studio where Jessica was working on her final piece for the show. The rest of her clay sculptures were set up on white staging cubes around the edge of the room in varying sizes and shapes. “Jess,” Brie tried again when she didn’t turn around. Jess spun around and pulled an earbud out of

her ear, leaving it to dangle from the side of her head. “Hey.” Brie smiled and then her mouth fell open. The piece was beautiful. Standing at least five feet tall was a girl standing barefoot in a puddle of tears, but as Brie moved closer and studied the face more closely she realized the girl was only crying out of one of her eyes. One half of the face was downtrodden, brimming with sadness as tiny clay tears sat perched on her cheeks, but on the right side, the girl was staring out at the onlooker with a fierce determination. “Do you hate it? Brie, say something. I’m dying over here.’ “Shhh,” She continued on closer and then circled the sculpture in its entirety. The waves of the dress were perfect, so much so, the clay could almost be mistaken for fabric. The puddle surrounding the girl’s feet was made up of thousands of individual tears blending into a larger more singular piece. Brie stopped and then turned to Jessica, speechless. “You’ve always shown talent, Jess, but this . . .” She shook her head. “This is beyond anything you’ve ever done before. I’m so damn proud of you.” Jessica’s eyes welled up. “Really?” “It’s brilliant.” “It’s you.”

Brie’s eyes widened. “Me?” “Not you exactly,” Jessica eyed her sculpture again, bearing down on it with severe scrutiny. “But, the idea of her is based on you. How you’ve emerged and persevered.” Brie swiped at a surprising tear. “I’m honored.” Jessica stepped back and they stood side by side admiring her work one more time. “I think we should go out and celebrate. You don’t have any more classes today, do you? Want to grab a coffee?” “Yes, lets.” As they settled in for a coffee at a nearby shop surrounded by fellow students and staff who were doing their best to get out of the cold, Jessica leaned back in her chair and stretched. “I am so ready for this show to happen. I’ve barely slept in weeks.” “I know.” “Sorry about the pacing.” Brie waved a hand as though she hadn’t lain awake at night listening to her friend pace back and forth across the squeaky floor in her room. Like most artists, she was her own harshest critic. “It’s fine, but you shouldn’t worry so much. Everything looks great. And, I’m your friend. I’d tell you if it was shit.” “Gee, thanks for that.” They laughed and accepted their coffees from a

girl who used to be one of Brie’s students. “Do you want to hear something crazy?” Brie sipped her drink and then kept her eyes down. “Bailey told me he loved me.” “What?” Several people at surrounding tables turned in their direction. “Sorry.” Jessica dipped her head and leaned in closer, “That’s amazing. Did you tell him you love him, too?” “Not in so many words.” “Well done.” Jessica hit the table. “If I’d known about this, we would’ve gone out for proper drinks.” “How about we do that after your show?” “That’s an excellent idea, but I may have to get sloppy before the show so I can get through it.” Jessica made the sign of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit over her chest and reached for her coffee again. “So, back to this Bailey thing, what does this mean for New York?” Brie toyed with the handle on her mug sporting a llama. “I don’t know. He said he’d go to New York, but I don’t know if he was serious. I mean his life is in L.A. and his family, the band. What would he do in New York?” Brie shrugged. “I don’t know. Plans change. Maybe I’ll end up in L.A., too.” Jessica fell back against her seat at stared at Brie until Brie rolled her eyes. “Okay, what? What is the look?” “Wow. I’ve never known you to be so . . .

flexible.” “Oh, come on now. That’s not true.” Jessica’s eyes widened and her braids swung around like dancing vines. “You’re kidding. Brie, you always have a plan and you always stick to it. The fact you’re even considering a different path . . . just wow. You really do love him.” Suddenly panicked and little defensive, Brie bolted upright in her seat. “I wouldn’t give up on working in the art world or anything. I don’t want to live off Bailey and make him support me.” “Of course not. But, Brie this isn’t a bad thing. And, of course you wouldn’t abandon art entirely. It’s what brings you joy and Bailey isn’t the kind of guy who would want you to walk away from what makes you happy or what you’ve worked so hard for.” Jessica reached across the table and laid her hand over Brie’s fist. “It’s a good thing and that’s what love is all about, right? Merging two worlds?” “I’m sorry.” Brie relaxed and shook off her defensive mood. “It’s all so new and strange. If you’d asked me in the past if I’d ever loved someone, I would’ve said yes or at least that I thought I had, but now, feeling the way I do about Bailey, I don’t think I’ve ever loved anyone until now.” “And, I’m happy to see it. Cheers,” Jessica picked up her mug and held it up for Brie to tap with her own.

“Cheers.” “Now you and that hot boyfriend of yours get your asses to my show and then we’ll really go out and celebrate.” ~~~ Bailey set his guitar to the side and took his phone off Facetime. He’d been talking with his brother for the better part of an hour trying to work out a few of the lyrics on one of the songs he’d given him. And, for the first time in ages, he was enjoying the process. “That’s it.” Bailey laughed when Oliver let out a whoop in his ear. “This is the best song you’ve written since, hell man, I don’t know when. The other guys agreed. We just kind of fell into step with it as soon as we got going.” Bailey could picture them in the studio together, the one Oliver had put in at his house when they’d made their first real money. It was small and littered with a hodgepodge of every instrument under the sun, some old, some new. Posters for some of the greats hung in the recoding area, The Beatles, The Doors, Guns N’ Roses, Jimi Hendrix, Metallica. It was the group’s sanctuary. “That’s great, man.” “When are you going to be out here? End of the term?”

“Yeah, I’ll have to come back and at least check on the house, do a little surfing.” His fingers grazed over the strings of his guitar. “Maybe we can finalize a few things in person when I’m there. Jam a little.” “Hell yes. Bailey slid down further into the couch and leaned his head back. His late nights with Brie were catching up with him. “How are the rest of the guys?” “Fine I guess. I haven’t seen much of Leo which means he’s probably holed up with a woman somewhere.” “He’ll show up in week or two.” Oliver laughed, “Yeah, I’m sure he will.” “What about David? He seemed a little distracted when you guys were out here. Is he doing okay?” His brother let out a sigh. “I don’t know. I think he and his girl are on a break, but I’m not sure. You know how he is. He doesn’t say much.” Now, it was Bailey’s turn to laugh. David talked about as much as a Monk taking a vow of silence. “Maybe they’ll get everything sorted out.” “Maybe so. Lexie’s going to invite him to dinner so I’m sure we’ll know the whole story soon enough.” “No doubt.” A knock sounded on his door a moment before

Brie cracked it and peered inside. When he caught her eye, he signaled her inside. “Listen, bro, I’ve got to run. Talk to you later.” “Tell Brie we said hello.” Bailey grinned and didn’t bother denying she was there. “Will do.” He hit the End button and tossed his phone to the side before pulling Brie down onto his lap, careful not to disturb Bowie, who was sleeping on top of the couch behind his head. “There you are.” They kissed, the heat simmering hot enough that their kiss could either end there or be taken to the next level with the slightest of pressure. She tasted of coffee and her familiar strawberry chap stick, a flavor which was quickly becoming one of his favorites. Brie pulled away and leaned her head on his shoulder. “I’m beat. Do you care if we stay in and maybe watch a movie tonight or do you need to study?” “Nah, now that I don’t have you for an instructor, life’s a lot easier.” Her mouth fell open and she slapped at his chest. “I’m kidding.” He kissed the tip of her nose. “A movie sounds great. What are you in the mood for?” She tilted her head to the side and gave him a cheeky grin.

He chuckled. “I thought you said you were tired.” She giggled and turned until she was pressed up against him. “I’m never that tired and besides, I think I just got my second wind.” “Isn’t that supposed to be my line?” She kissed him and let her fingers trail up his side until she was gripping his shirt in her fist. “I missed you today, Bailey.” She nipped at his jawline and then his neck sending a shiver of pleasure through his entire body the way only she could. “Did you now?” “Mmm-hmm.” She linked his fingers with hers and then gently sucked on the end of each one until he started to pant. “Christ, woman.” He tugged the paintbrush holding her hair up until her hair fell loose around her shoulders. She slid down between his legs until her knees were touching the floor. With eyes the color of dark honey she looked up at him, a seductress in full control. When she reached for the button on his jeans and bent forward, he gripped the couch like a lifeline. As her mouth went to work on him, it was all he could do not to levitate. His guitar fell to the floor beside him when he jerked a moment later, sending Bowie running for cover, but it didn’t stop Brie or her perfect goddamn mouth.

When he finished, he grabbed her by the shoulders and spun her where he could lower her to the floor. With his eyes on hers, he ducked his head to nip at her flat stomach, her back arching in response. “Now, it’s your turn.” ~~~ Bailey stirred when he felt Brie’s hand shaking his arm followed by the sweet smell of coffee. She set it on the nightstand beside his head and the bed moved under her weight when she sat on the edge of the mattress. “Come on, Honeycutt. Get it moving.” “You wore me out,” he mumbled against the pillow. “Be that as it may, we have to go shopping to get something to wear to the showcase.” He grumbled and then stretched, pausing when her lips tickled his ear. “It’ll be a treat to see you in a suit and then an even bigger one when I get to see you out of it.” His eyes sprang open and he grinned. Seeming to read his mind, Brie shook her head. “Oh, no you don’t.” Then, he hooked an arm around her waist and tugged her into bed with him. “Let’s talk more about this private after-party.” She laughed as he nuzzled her neck with his stubble. “Maybe later, but first you need a shower.”

The day was bright, the sun reflecting off the snow, but the wind had died down. As Bailey allowed himself to be dragged down the row of stores with his fingers linked with Brie’s he couldn’t keep from smiling. He probably looked like a complete moron, but he didn’t care. It was the perfect day. He awoke to Brie’s face, shared coffee with her, and now they were out together with no constraints. “I want to pop in here for a bit.” He grabbed the door and held it open. “Lead the way.” While Brie tried on no less than ten dresses, Bailey used the time to check his phone and catch up on emails. “What about this one?” Bailey glanced up from his screen and nodded. “You’re hot in that one, too.” “That’s so not helpful.” “What can I say?” He stood and pulled her into a tight embrace. “I always think you look hot.” He kissed her, and she shoved him away. “Don’t mess it up. I haven’t paid for it.” “I’ll get it for you.” He grinned. Hell, he’d buy her the whole damn store if she wanted it. “No.” Her tone was like steel. “You don’t need to buy me things, Bailey. I can take care of myself.” He held up his hands and backed up a step. “I know you can. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean anything by

it.” Brie shook her head. “No, I’m sorry. I know you didn’t, but, Bailey I need you to understand that I don’t want our relationship to be that way. I don’t want us to be one-sided. I’m not in this with you because you can support me.” “I know. I wouldn’t be with you, if you were.” They stood there, staring at each other across the dressing room while the tension ebbed. “I’m going to get changed.” Bailey dropped back into the chair and ran his hands over his face. Though she’d forgiven him for the thing with Theo, he’d do well to remember she hadn’t forgotten. He hated that it made her angry, but if it meant protecting her, he’d do it again. He swiped at a strange tickle on his upper lip and then froze. There was blood on his hand. He dabbed under his nose again, and again found blood. He shot out of his chair, his clothes suddenly too tight. No. No. No. Not again. Not now. “Hey, uh, Brie,” when his voice came out to tight, he cleared his throat and tried again, “Brie, I need to run. I forgot I said I’d meet up with Cohen and help him out with some music stuff.” “Oh,” her voice was surprised behind the changing room door. “If you wait a second, I can come with you.” “No, no.” He paused with one foot out the door. “You finish up here and I’ll meet up with you

later.” “Okay. Tell him I said hallo.” Bailey darted for the shop door, desperate for air. This was nothing. Just a bloody nose. It happened. His thoughts spun out of control flipping between the past and the present. This was how it had started. Weak, tired, bloody noses. He hadn’t been tired, had he? Wait, Lexie had asked him, hadn’t she? She thought he’d looked tired and he’d played it off as being too busy with school and not getting enough sleep. Shit. He swiped at his nose again and made for the coffee shop up the street and didn’t slow down until he reached the bathroom. He tilted his head forward and felt the room sway around him at the sight of his blood mixing with the water. Blood, bags of fluid, poisonous drugs wrecking his system —his breaths came fast, shallow as he tried to separate the past from the present. He gripped the sides of the sink for support and stared at the mirror as perspiration dotted his forehead. He’d known it was a possibility. The doctors had warned him of the chance of the cancer returning. Remission wasn’t a lifetime guarantee. “Damnit.” He slammed his hands down on the edge of the sink. “Damnit. Damnit. Damnit.” He stared at the man in the mirror again and as sure as he was standing there he saw the man from three

years ago staring back at him. A sick man. Frail. A man who did nothing, but bring down everyone else around him. He hit the mirror, adrenaline blanketing the hurt in his fist. He’d be damned if he was going to weigh Brie down the way he had everyone else in his life. She had a career to chase and dreams to fulfill. With his heart in shards, he made a decision. “Hey,” he handed some money to a confused looking barista on his way out. “Sorry about the mirror in the bathroom. That should cover it.” The barista stared down at the wad of pounds in his hand, his mouth hanging open in confusion. “Okay, then.” Bailey pushed the door open, glanced around the street of the town that had given him his life back even if it was only for a little while, and then climbed into the back of a waiting cab. She’d hate him for what he was about to do, but hating him was better than loving him. He slammed the cab door. “London-Heathrow, please.”

Chapter 25 After a fitful night of sleep, Brie dragged herself into the kitchen and scooped more than her usual amount of coffee into the filter. She hadn’t heard from Bailey and while it wasn’t his job to talk to her every waking minute of his life, it was unusual for him to drop off without at least a text. Maybe the almost row they’d had in the clothing shop had bothered him more than she’d realized. She rolled her shoulders in an attempt to ward off the headache trying to take hold. Her class was due for its first exam and she couldn’t afford not to be at her best. There would be grading later and she’d promised Jessica she’d ride into London with her for one final walkthrough before the showcase. She flipped her phone over where she’d left it on the counter and let out a sigh when there were no new messages. “Still no word, huh?” Jessica asked as she swept into the kitchen. “No, but it’s no big deal.” That’s what she was going to tell herself anyway. “I’m sure he just had some class stuff to do.” Jessica didn’t bother pouring her own cup of coffee instead, she swiped Brie’s and took a huge

gulp. “Ah, yes. The life of an undergrad. No thanks.” “Are you off already, then?” Jessica slapped her mug back on the counter, sloshing coffee over the rim and grabbed a biscuit out of an open package. “Yeah,” she shoved the biscuit in her mouth and grabbed her bag off the chair. “Professor Kitch is going to go over some notes with me and then I’ll meet up with you this afternoon, right?” “Yes, I’ll meet you in front of Ruskin One.” “Right. See you then.” Jessica rushed out as fast as she’d rushed in, leaving Brie to what was left of her coffee. What she needed was a shower and to quit with the worrying. She wiped up Jessica’s spill and headed for the stairs. It was time to get busy on her own stuff and quit making up problems where there weren’t any. Bailey was fine. She was fine and together, they were, well— an image formed in her over-active imagination of Bailey’s naked body— much better than fine. ~~~ While Bailey sat waiting for the nurse to come take his blood, he did his best not to stare at any of the people around him. With their varying lengths of hair and extra layers of clothing despite the warm temps outside, he knew they were all cancer

patients and he didn’t need to be reminded of how it felt to be one. His flight home had been uneventful and with everyone assuming he was still away, he’d been left alone for the past few days. Alone to sit and think and turn over his decision in his mind a million times. But, it always came back to Brie and what was best for her. “Mr. Honeycutt, we can take you back now.” Bailey followed the nurse and then her instructions while she filled three vials of blood. Under different circumstances he would’ve joked around with her or offered to take a picture with her after he’d caught her double take, but not today. Today, he wanted to be left alone. His phone buzzed inside his pocket. “You can take that if you want to. I’m all finished.” The nurse, in her Scooby-Doo scrubs, turned and placed a sticker with his name on each of the containers filled with his blood. “No.” He stood and flexed his arm once. “I’m good.” He didn’t have to look to know who was calling. He’d been gone for four days and Brie’s calls and texts were becoming more frequent and pressing with each passing day. He shouldn’t have worried her, it was cruel in a way, but soon enough her anger would turn to hate. “We should have the results in the next few days.” The nurse beamed at him like he was there

for a checkup and not to hear life altering news. “You have a good one now.” Bailey nodded and then made his way to his car. He hadn’t missed much about L.A., but he had missed driving his 1968 Ford Mustang convertible. When his phone buzzed again, he tossed it aside on the empty passenger seat and headed for the liquor store. He’d only thought he’d known pain before, but now, after almost having everything he’d ever wanted and losing it—this was real pain. And, from now on, he didn’t want to think or feel anything for as long as possible. With the top down and warm sun on his neck, he pressed the accelerator and sped away from the hospital. ~~~ “Bailey, wake up.” The room was shaking. “Wake up, man.” The voice beside him was loud, too loud but familiar. Bailey tried to open his eyes, once and then again, grit refusing to let go. He squinted against the harsh light and then remembered where he was. When he finally could squint, Oliver was standing over him scowling. “Christ, man. What’re you doing here?” When his asshole brother pressed the button to open his blackout shades all the way, sunlight filled the room and he winced. The only thing stopping him from

punching Oliver in the jaw was the pounding in his head. When Oliver pointed to some aspirin and a glass of water sitting beside his bed, Bailey pushed himself up onto his elbows and let out a string of curses, and grudgingly, slipped the pills into his mouth. Then, he gulped at the water like a man in the desert until there was no more. Breathless, he leaned back against his pillows and croaked, “How’d you find out I was here?” “It seems someone recognized you at the hospital.” Oliver sat down in the chair, stretching his long legs out in front of him. “And, then TMZ picked it up.” He didn’t say more. He simply waited for Bailey to explain himself, the same way their mother used to when they were young and got caught doing something they weren’t supposed to do. “Damn vultures.” Bailey’s head lolled from one side of his pillow to the other. “That’s pretty unforgiving of you, Bailey. Aren’t you the one who always says not to let it bother you? That those reporters are only doing their jobs?” When Oliver smirked, it was like he’d poked him with a stick. “Yeah, well, maybe I’m not in a very forgiving mood.” He sat up and punched his pillows, sending a shockwave of pain through his head. He winced again. “Christ.”

“It’s been awhile hasn’t it, little bro?” Bailey grunted in response. It had been years since he’d gotten as drunk as he had the day—he glanced toward the digital clock in his room that displayed the date—or rather days before. At this point, he’d been drunk for about forty-eight hours straight and if his nosy-ass brother hadn’t shown up like he was his keeper, he would currently be pushing that number to seventy-two. When Oliver folded his arms behind his head and continued to watch him under a steady gaze, Bailey’s anger flared to life. “What, Oliver? What is it that you want me to say? Do you want me to tell you that I left school? Oh, sorry to disappoint you there.” He threw off the covers and stormed across the room, his adrenaline disguising his hangover. “Or, that I threw away months of work?” His chest heaved as his pent-up frustration swirled inside like a fierce beast clawing its way out. “Or, about how I got a nosebleed that wouldn’t quit like before?” Bailey pounded the side of his fist into the wall and leaned his forehead against the cool surface. “Or, how about you tell me that the cancer might be back?” He’d known, deep down he’d known his brother would figure him out. Oliver kicked the empty whiskey bottle on the

floor and sent it spinning. “So, this is what you’ve been doing since you got back? You’ve been trying to drink yourself to death instead of turning to your family? How’s that working out for you?” Bailey jerked around to face his brother. “Fuck you, Oliver.” Oliver shot to his feet and crossed the room in three strides until they were nose to nose. “Fuck me? Are you serious right now?” “Look, man—” “No, you look, man. This isn’t how our family deals. We handle whatever comes our way, together. You got me?” Bailey knocked Oliver’s arm out of the way and stormed past him. “We’re not done here.” “I’m taking a shower, or is that something else we do together as a family?” Bailey slammed the door and turned the water as hot as he could stand. Of course, he was worried. What kind of moron wouldn’t be, but damnit he didn’t want to pull Oliver and Lexie back into this crap. And, their mother . . . she’d finally found some happiness, and what? They’d call her and she’d come running and once again her entire life would be spent researching doctors and specialists and foods he should eat. He sat down and tried to get a grip on his thoughts, the cold stone sending a chill through his

back. He didn’t want to be angry or bitter. What he wanted was to be back at his place in Oxford cozied up with Brie. Or, in Splash Pad listening to her teach. Hell, wherever she was, was where he wanted to be. The shower did its work and though he didn’t feel any better physically, he at least smelled less like the bottom of a bottle and more like a human. When he went to the kitchen to grab a cold bottle of water out of the fridge, his brother was waiting for him on one of the bar stools. “Better?” Bailey rubbed his towel over his wet hair and let it hang around his neck while he gulped down half the water in one breath. “Good enough.” “So, what did the doctor say?” “Nothing yet. I’m waiting for the blood tests to come back.” He crossed to his couch and flopped down. Flipping on the television in search of a distraction, he settled for a surfing competition, but Oliver wasn’t deterred. His brother sat in the chair beside him and turned his knees toward Bailey, ignoring the TV completely. “Bailey, you beat this thing once and you can do it again. Even if you’re acting like a complete dick, we’re still here for you.” Bailey sighed, “Look, I know you mean well, Ollie, but . . . I just can’t. I can’t stand the thought of starting over.”

“Well, what about school? When this is all said and done, can you go back?” Bailey shrugged as the darkness threatened to move back in. He hadn’t bothered to call Mr. Catling yet. What was the point? If he was sick again, he’d have to quit when he’d barely gotten started and they wouldn’t hold his place forever, nor would he want them to. Returning to Oxford wouldn’t be the same if he was gone for any length of time and even if he did, it would become tainted the same way L.A. had. Bad memories would encroach on the good. And, there wouldn’t be Brie. Oliver nodded, thoughtful and then asked the question he’d been dreading more than any other, “And, what about Brie? What’d she say when you left?” “Nothing.” “Nothing?” “What are you a parrot now? Yeah, nothing. Are you going deaf from too many shows?” Bailey stared at the television as his hand balled into a fist. “Can we please drop this?” Oliver narrowed his eyes. “I’m having a hard time believing that Brie didn’t say anything about you leaving. Not one little thing.” Bailey snapped and launched his half-empty bottle across the room. “She didn’t say anything because I didn’t tell her.” There was a beat of silence while his brother

tried to process his words, his forehead wrinkling in confusion. “So, like, you didn’t tell her you were leaving, or didn’t tell her you might be sick?” “Either. I just left. What’s the point of dragging her into this?” “Holy shit, B. What were you thinking?” Bailey’s head snapped around. “I was thinking that she doesn’t need this, doesn’t need me piling all my baggage on her. She has everything going for her right now and I won’t stand in the way of that.” “But, she loves you.” “I know and that’s why I didn’t tell her. She would’ve demanded to come along and it would’ve derailed her career. I won’t do that to her.” Oliver shook his head and tried a different tactic, “Bailey, I know your heart’s in the right place, or whatever, but you can’t do that to her. You can’t just leave.” “I already did.” “So, let me get this straight. You’re throwing your life away over something that may or may not come to pass. What happens if you aren’t sick? What then, B? You go back to school and return to Brie and what? She’s just supposed to forgive you?” Bailey raised the remote and turned the volume up, keeping his eyes trained on the screen. Oliver stood and made one final plea. “Listen,” he shouted to be heard over the television

announcers, “I get that you’re in a bad place right now, but for being one of the smartest guys I know, you’re acting like a complete moron.” “Gee thanks.” Bailey shook his head. “This coming from a guy who barely graduated high school.” “Yep, you’re right Mr. Valedictorian. You’re the smart one, but so what. At least I know a good thing when I see one. At least I know how to treat a woman.” “Oh, yeah, because it was so hard to get Lexie to like you with all your money and fame. Please.” Bailey regretted the words as soon as they were out of his mouth, but he couldn’t stop himself. He’d been spoiling for a fight for days and based on the cold fury emanating from Oliver, it looked like he was going to get one. With a face twisted in anger, Oliver bent down, grabbed the towel hanging around Bailey’s neck and hauled him to his feet. “Okay, smart guy, that’s enough. You want to sit around here and have a pity party, fine, but don’t you dare talk about my wife.” Using the couch for leverage, Bailey shoved Oliver, but Oliver didn’t let go. Together they crashed through the top of the coffee table, sending splintered wood shooting in every direction. Bailey raised his fist, but Oliver caught it, and they rolled until Oliver was on top of him. Oliver raised his fist

and Bailey blocked it a second before it hit him square in the jaw. Using his legs in a maneuver taught to him by a Jiu Jitsu professor, Bailey escaped his brother’s hold and got to his feet. Oliver followed and they circled each other, eyes sharp and matching tempers on full display. “Anytime you want to quit, just let me know. I can go all day.” He should’ve stopped. Oliver was twice his size, but instead, Bailey let out a feral cry and charged his brother pushing him into a wall and sending a glass encased platinum record crashing to the floor. He punched Oliver in the face, a trickle of blood appearing on his lip, but he didn’t have time to land a second one. Oliver spun Bailey until he was the one against the wall and a second framed picture fell. “Why don’t you just say it, Bailey?” Oliver shook him while trying to ward off his punches. “Say what this is really about.” “Shut up.” Bailey struggled to hit Oliver, but Oliver pulled him in closer, engulfing him in a bear hug he couldn’t escape. Frustration, sadness and fear, filled him up as he tried to jerk himself free. “It’s okay to be scared, B. I’m right here. We’re all right here.” “This isn’t how it’s supposed to be.” A sob ripped free from Bailey’s chest as his

feeble attempts to punch Oliver faded and he dug his fingers into his shirt. Oliver stood there amongst the destruction, anchoring him as he’d done their entire lives, holding him while the stress of the last few days and worry over what might happen came out in haggard chokes and sobs until there were no more tears. When they pulled apart, Oliver rested a hand on Bailey’s sweaty shoulder. “When you love someone, you don’t push them away, you pull them in as tight as you can and never let them go. It’s a partnership.” Bailey’s chest tightened around the shards of glass that were once his heart, understating full well that his brother was talking about Brie, but he’d made his decision. She deserved a future and he was going to have to live with his choices no matter how much it hurt. “Yeah well. You’d know better than me.” Bailey swiped a hand across his snotty nose and knocked some glass shards out of his hair. “Hey, I’m sorry about what I said about Lexie. You know I didn’t mean it. Hell, I like her more than I like you.” Oliver grinned. “It’s all good.” Bailey pointed at his face. “You might want to get cleaned up. You look like shit.” Oliver nodded toward Bailey’s living room. “So does this room. Good luck with that.”

Oliver booked it to the door. “What was all that crap about having my back?” “Not when it comes to domestics, little brother. That’s all you.” Oliver laughed and then announced, “We’ll see you at our place for dinner tomorrow night,” as he slammed the door.

Chapter 26 Brie awoke with a start, heart pounding, hands sweating while the news droned on in the background. The nightmare hadn’t been new. She was calling out for Bailey as he stood on the edge of a bridge, rushing water and jagged rocks below him, but he wouldn’t turn around. When she’d mentioned her dream to Jessica the day before, her flatmate had been sure it was a sign, and though she didn’t put much stock into the idea, she couldn’t shake the feeling something was wrong. She pinched the bridge of her nose to ward off the headache throbbing behind her eyes. Four days. It had been four days since she’d heard from Bailey and she wasn’t the only one. Working hard not to come across as the needy girlfriend, she’d waited two days to start grilling the guys, but John and Cohen hadn’t seen or heard from Bailey either. It was as though he’d never been there at all. The door opened, and Jessica rushed in, her hair transformed into a different style than when she left. Her showcase was less than twenty-four hours away and she was running on all cylinders. “Hey, sorry, did I wake you?” She tossed her bag onto the chair and stripped off her shoes.

“No, I was awake, but only just.” “Good, you needed some sleep.” Jessica sat down on the sofa beside Brie and rubbed a hand over her back. “Still nothing, huh?” Brie shook her head and fought the urge to cry. She hated feeling lost, but she bit back her tears and inhaled through her nose and out through her mouth. She refused to be that girl, one who sat at home crying over a guy who wouldn’t call and it was Jessica’s time now. It was Brie’s job to act like a supportive and slightly more put together version of herself than she currently was. “I told Cohen to stalk his place and to call the second he heard anything, but he said so far, there hasn’t been so much as a closing door from that side of the wall. John’s been feeding Bowie because apparently Bailey left him a message asking if he would, but other than that . . .” “This is so unlike him.” Brie slapped her hands on her knees and stood, trying to ignore the sting at the idea he’d called John, but not her. “I keep worrying something bad has happened to him and he’s lying in a hospital somewhere, but, and I hate to admit this, I called around and no one has seen him. Does that make me crazy?” “Oh, my Lord.” Jessica’s eyes grew wide. “What? I mean maybe a little, but I don’t think it’s completely crazy to—” “No, look, Brie!” She swiped the remote off

the table and turned the volume up on the television. It was the celebrity segment of the program and when Bailey’s face filled the screen, Brie’s breath caught in her throat. He was leaving a hospital in California. There were palm trees in the shot and though he seemed oblivious to the picture being taken, there was no denying it was him complete with day old stubble on his chin and his infamous denim jacket. The news correspondent threw out several theories about why Bailey might be there, but it was obvious no one had any clear answers. After a minute, Brie tuned out the anchor and focused harder on Bailey’s face. The difference in his appearance in the handful of days since she’d seen him was shocking. His cheeks were drawn and new lines were visible around his eyes, not to mention the circles. It didn’t look as though he’d slept at all. “Brie.” When they moved onto the next celebrity scandal, Brie continued to stare at the screen too stunned to move or speak. “Brie, are you okay?” She shook her head and blinked. “Yes, I’m fine, but . . .” Jessica nodded. “I know . . .” They both stood there, locked in a state of confusion. What had happened? Why hadn’t he

told her he was leaving? Why hadn’t he answered her calls? Was he okay? Was it his brother? Had something happened to one of the other guys? Jessica’s phone screeched the familiar tune to her favorite song and she pounced. “Hey, Cohen. Yeah, we saw it. You lot, too, huh? What?” She pulled the phone down below her mouth and met Brie’s gaze. “Cohen said some girl just went into Bailey’s place. Long brown hair, but not someone he knows.” Simone. Brie yanked on her coat and headed for the door. “I’ll be back later.” “Do you want me to come with you?” “No, it’s okay. I think I know who it is.” She shut the door and ran. She didn’t have another way to contact Simone and if anyone knew what was going on with Bailey, she would. Or, she would at least know how to get ahold of someone who did. The slippery sidewalks slowed her progress while the cold air burned her lungs, but when she arrived, her speed was rewarded because the unfamiliar car Cohen had mentioned was still parked out front. Panting, she knocked on the front door to Bailey’s flat. “Come on. Come on.” She bounced on her toes as her adrenaline started to wane and knocked

again. The knob let out its familiar squeak as Simone opened the door with Bowie in her arms. “Brie.” “Hey, Simone.” “Come in.” They stood in the middle of Bailey’s place, the silence around them strange. The usual noise of the television or music was absent, but other than that nothing was different. The place was stuck somewhere between its usual state of slightly messy and comfortable making it seem as though Bailey might join them at any moment. When Brie’s eyes shifted to the duffle bag sitting on the table and then met Simone’s gaze, she raised a hand. “Oh, no. This isn’t what it looks like. I’m only here because I got a call from Lexie. Bailey’s not even here.” Brie smiled. Her goal wasn’t to put Simone on the defensive and no matter what Bailey may or may not have done, she wasn’t worried about him cheating. He wasn’t the type and deep down she knew he wouldn’t do that to her. Whatever was going on with Bailey was beyond anything so cliché. “I don’t think it looks like anything, and I know he isn’t here. I just saw him on the tele.” “Okay, good. I didn’t want you to think . . .” Simone sunk down into the worn chair and stroked Bowie when he nuzzled her hand.

Brie crossed to the sofa and sat down. “Imagine my surprise after days of worrying about where Bailey was and why he hadn’t called, and then seeing he was in the States.” “He didn’t tell you he was going? I mean, he didn’t tell me, either, but it’s different with you.” She scratched under Bowie’s chin. “Men can be such idiots.” Brie shrugged, though at the time, she was inclined to agree. “He didn’t say a word and when they showed him on the tele, he was leaving the hospital.” She leaned forward, her elbows on her knees, “Listen, Simone, I know you don’t know me very well and that your loyalty lies with him, but I’m worried. Is he okay? Is it his brother? What?” Simone’s eyes darted to the ceiling like she might be sending up a silent prayer. “Simone, please.” They locked eyes. “I love him.” Simone blew out a breath. “It’s not that I don’t want to tell you, but in truth, I don’t know much. I was at work when I got a call from Lexie asking me to come down here and pick up a few things for Bailey, and then she begged me to help find a home for this little guy.” She paused to rub Bowie’s head which he showed his appreciation for by closing his eyes and purring louder. “I didn’t even know Bailey had a cat.” “His name is Bowie. Bailey found him outside

and when he saw how sick he was, he took him to the vet and paid to get him healthy. And, he’s been feeding him ever since.” Simone stroked Bowie and then turned her gaze on Brie. “That’s a very Bailey thing to do.” They smiled at each other, understanding flowing between them. “Look, all I know is that he went in for some tests and as of yesterday, they didn’t know the results. And, with Bailey’s past, they’re all obviously worried.” Brie’s stomach sank. The hospital. Tests. As the understanding of what might be happening slammed into her, she shot to her feet. “Would you mind giving me Lexie’s number?” “Um, yeah, I can do that.” Simone struggled to dig her phone out of her purse and then listed off Lexie’s number. Brie’s brain moved a hundred miles an hour as she typed in the digits. Bailey could be sick. Right now, he could be sitting in California and getting the worst news of his life. Her chest tightened at the idea. “I-I have to go.” “Brie, are you okay?” “Yeah,” Brie called over her shoulder as Simone followed her to the door. “Thanks for taking care of Bowie. Could you maybe hold onto him for a little while?” Simone’s dark eyes were round with worry.

“Sure.” Brie waved to Simone over her head and then logged into her bank account as she walked. The balance wasn’t anything to get excited about, but it would get the job done. At least, it would get her there and she didn’t care about getting back. All that mattered was getting to Bailey. ~~~ Back in her room, she flipped her computer closed and then tugged her suitcase out from under the bed. She had five hours to get packed and to the airport. Her heart raced as she tossed jeans and jumpers into her bag and then paused to take the jumpers back out again. She didn’t have a clue what people in L.A. wore. She ripped her charger from the wall and tossed it on top of her bag and then zipped her cosmetics closed. “Hey,” Jessica leaned against her doorframe. “What’s going on in here?” “Listen, don’t kill me, but I may have to miss your show.” Brie crossed over to the closet again and grabbed a few other tops, better for warmer weather. “O-kay,” Jess moved further into the room and surveyed the haphazard pile of clothing overflowing from her case. “Do you mind telling me where you’re going?” “L.A. I have to go to L.A. and make sure

Bailey is all right. I saw Simone and he’s the one who might be sick.” She paused and met Jessica’s eye. “I’m so sorry, but I have to go. I know I’m a complete idiot and the worst sort of friend.” Jess took Brie’s upper arms in her hands and held her still. “Slow down. Have you thought this through? He didn’t tell you he was going and he hasn’t called. And, how’d you pay for the ticket? Better yet, when are you coming back?” She gave her a small shake. “Talk to me here, Brie.” “I’ll be fine.” Brie tugged herself free of her friend’s grip and grabbed a raincoat from her closet. “He probably didn’t want to worry me is all and I used the money for New York for the ticket. And, I’m not sure when I’m coming back, but I’ll figure it out once I’m there.” When Jessica’s face clouded with concern, Brie smiled to try to reassure her and then flung more stuff into her open bag. “I’m sorry, but I can’t waste any more time chatting. I have a flight to catch in a few hours. Please don’t hate me, Jess, but I need to see him.” They held gazes a moment and then Jessica pushed her to the side and started folding. “I’ve got this. You go get what you need out of the loo.” Relief flooded through Brie and she pecked Jess on the cheek on her way out of the room. Everything was going to work out. She’d get to the States and Bailey would welcome her with open

arms and then, together, they’d figure out what to do next.

Chapter 27 The following night, Lexie opened the door to allow Bailey inside and gave him a brief hug. “It’s good to see you.” She released him and then paused to study his face, always the nurse. “How’re you doing?” “Better than yesterday,” he offered her a sheepish grin. At least he was sober and the bruise on his check wasn’t as pronounced as it had been. The steak he’d put over it the night before had done the trick. She pursed her lips, but didn’t press him for more information. No doubt, Oliver had filled her in on all the humbling details of their scuffle and even if he hadn’t, his sister-in-law didn’t miss much where he was concerned. Although considering the amount of time she’d spent with him in the hospital, it wasn’t a surprise she could read his emotions so clearly. Determined to act like a semi-decent human being for the first time since his return home, he inhaled deeply through his nose. “Hey, something smells good.” She scanned his face one last time and then apparently satisfied by what she saw, turned and

led the way to the kitchen, “That would be the lasagna and garlic bread.” “Yes, please. Sign me up.” He crossed to the kitchen sink and couldn’t help getting lost in the view while he washed his hands. The group of scrubby trees located at the top of the cliff where his brother had chosen to build a house gave way to the smooth surface of the ocean. Light blue changing to dark blue where the sky met the sea. Though both their houses looked out at the same ocean, the elevated perspective from his brother’s made it seem new. He dried his hands and paused beside the oven to sniff at the Italian aroma seeping out. “What can I do to help?” “Hey, B.” Oliver’s voice pulled Bailey’s attention away from the food. “Do you want a beer or something?” “I think I’d better stick to water, tonight, thanks.” His brother smirked and tossed him a bottle from the fridge. He caught it and blew out a breath. Better to talk to his brother before they sat down to eat. “Hey, Oliver, can we talk a minute?” Oliver paused with his hand on the refrigerator door and glanced at Lexie. Neither one did a great job at hiding their concern. “Yeah, man. Of course.” Oliver recovered first and moved for the door most likely as much to

appear calm as to assure Lexie. “Want to sit out on the porch?” “Sure.” “You two don’t need to look so twisted up. It’s no big deal.” He offered Lexie a reassuring smile. It wasn’t like his brother wasn’t going to tell her everything about five seconds after they talked, but he wanted to at least do the initial groveling in person. “I’ll come back in and help you finish up, Lex.” She waved him off and returned to tearing pieces of kale off a stalk as he and his brother made their way outside. Sprawled beside each other on matching chaise lounges, they sat in silence while the ocean churned and a bird rode the breeze high above them. He’d missed this, the lazy days spent with his brother and the other guys from the band. How much time had they spent together over the past decade? Thousands of hours? Hundreds of thousands? More? As the warm air rustled the leaves on the nearby trees, Bailey’s thoughts floated back to Oxford. Would he ever sit outside the Ashmolean again? Or, step inside the school? He could almost smell the interior of the buildings, leather mixed with old books. The sounds were different, too. There was no laughter or music coming through the wall in his home, no chance at camaraderie when he stepped out his front door.

“So, what’s up? You didn’t hear from the doctor yet, did you?” “No, it’s nothing like that.” Anxiety drained out of his brother’s face and shoulders and a pang of guilt shot through Bailey. He should’ve known that was where Oliver’s mind would go. “Really, man, I’m fine. A little hungover still, but fine.” Oliver nodded and tapped a finger against his bottle. “So, what then? Are you heading back to school?” “No, nothing has changed except maybe you helping me get my head on straight.” Oliver tipped his bottle in Bailey’s direction. “That’s what big brothers are for.” “And, speaking of yesterday, listen, Oliver—” Oliver held up a hand and sipped his beer. “Don’t even worry about it.” “I appreciate that, but seriously, I’m sorry. I’ve just got a lot on my mind, you know?” “Yeah, man. I know.” Bailey’s phone rang and cut through the ease of the moment. He pulled it out of his pocket and glanced at the screen. At the sight of the familiar name and number his stomach turned over as he stared paralyzed. When its continued ring continued to go unanswered, Oliver bumped is shoulder with his bottle. “Answer it.” Bailey wasn’t sure how long he’d been staring

at the doctor’s number when his brother told him to take the call, but long enough for Oliver to read the look of apprehension on his face. “Hel—” he had to pause to clear his throat when it threatened to close. “Hello? Yes, this is Bailey Honeycutt. Okay. Okay, thanks for calling. Yes, I’ll be sure to keep my six-month appointment. You, too.” After he pressed end he sagged against the cushion and let his head fall back. “Dude.” “I’m okay.” Bailey started laughing. “It was a false alarm. He said it was probably a mix of the dry air and stress of the end of the term, but there’s no sign of the cancer.” Oliver bounded off his seat and yanked Bailey into a bear hug. “Thank God.” He laughed while his brother beat the crap out of his back, both on the verge of hysterics. Oliver released him and lifted his beer into the air. “Do you hear that everybody?” he shouted into the void at the top of his lungs, “Bailey’s okay.” While his voice echoed back to them, Lexie opened the backdoor and rushed out. “What’s going on out here?” “Bailey’s okay. The doctor just called.” Bailey looked away as they embraced, reminded again he was alone. Cancer or no cancer, he’d made up his mind about Brie. He wouldn’t pull her into his world when the possibility of

sickness would always hang over his head. He would have to find a way to return to his life the way it had been before. “Come on, bro. Let’s eat.” Seated around the kitchen table with steaming lasagna heaped in front of him, Bailey’s muscles relaxed the way they hadn’t since the day of the nosebleed. He wasn’t happy exactly, but he wasn’t suspended between knowing and not knowing—a situation which made him crazy. “Here,” Lexie smiled as she passed him the bowl of salad he’d ended up not helping her make. In her excitement, she hadn’t let him. “Thanks.” He’d no sooner taken a bite, when she threw her first question at him. “So, what does this mean for school? Are you heading back?” He took a sip of his drink to try to force down the clump of kale he hadn’t finished chewing. “I’m thinking about trying to transfer to a school out here somewhere.” “Really?” Lexie’s voice rose two octaves in her surprise. “What?” Bailey teased. “You don’t want me back out here?” “Of course, we do, but . . .” When his brother didn’t immediately jump in to back her up, Lexie stared holes through Oliver until he took the hint. “No, I mean yeah.” Oliver set his fork to the

side and wiped his mouth. “I think we’re surprised is all. I mean, why not finish out the year at Oxford at least? You’re already established out there.” Bailey shifted in his seat. “Nah, I’m good here. I’ll call a realtor and let my place. It’s cool.” Lexie opened her mouth to say more, but Oliver touched her arm and gave a slight shake of his head. They ate the rest of their dinner in silence, until finally Oliver slid his plate to the side and started talking about the new music. It was an easy enough topic to fall into, but Bailey was only half listening. Why couldn’t they see he was right about this? How could they, of all people, not understand why he didn’t want to drag anyone else into his uncertain future? ~~~ As he sped through the hills back toward his place, the moon was out in full force shining through the dark clouds. When he pulled to a stop, where he either turned right to go home or left to head toward the city, he tapped his fingers against the steering wheel. The thought of going back to his empty place wasn’t appealing. Not tonight. But, he also wasn’t in the mood to sit at the bar and make small talk. A voice in the back of his mind whispered Brie’s name. He tapped the wheel again and closed his eyes

for a moment as the memory of sitting beside her on the bench outside the Ashmolean in the dark grew strong enough he could almost taste the English air. A horn blasted behind him and he threw the car into gear and sped toward home. No stranger was going to be enough to wipe Brie out of his mind and after the hangover he’d had . . . he grimaced. But, maybe in time he’d find a way to move on without Brie. Maybe at some point in his life he wouldn’t think of her with every breath or speak her name in his sleep. As if the universe itself was mocking him, one of Brie’s favorite songs started on the radio. He snorted and hit the button to change the station, but it was useless, the same song was playing on the next station and then the one they’d listened to while making love was on another. Finally, he pushed the power button and gave up. How had she wound herself around every fiber of his life in such a short time? Breathing a sigh of relief as he swung his car into the driveway, he pushed a button inside his car and waited for the gate to respond. As it swung open, he narrowed his eyes in the direction of his porch, certain he’d seen something in the beams of light cast by his car. He squinted toward the house again. No, he wasn’t crazy, there was definitely someone there.

Bailey put it in drive and sped the rest of the way until he brought the car to a screeching halt. No one was supposed to be here and no one knew the code except his brother and Rosa. He slammed his car door closed and opened his mouth to tell off the unwelcome guest, when his mind played a trick on him. Warning forgotten, he did a double take. What the hell? “Brie?” She rose from her place on his front step, suitcase by her side and offered a wave. “It’s me.” Bailey’s adrenaline spiked and he took a step forward, elation at seeing her again clouding his better judgement. But, when the weight of why he was in L.A. and not with her in the first place crashed down on him like lead, then and only then was he able to muster the sheer willpower to stop himself from going to her. “How did you? When did you?” At the sound of her laughter, his resolve started to crumble. “The same way anyone else would I’d imagine. I took a plane and then a cab. Lexie told me where your place was and gave me the code to the gate in case I got here before you did.” Goddamnit, Lexie. She hopped down the remaining step and drew closer to him, her light perfume floating to him on the Santa Ana winds. The leaves rustled around them as his worlds collided again and though he’d

dreamt of having her there and showing her where he lived, this couldn’t happen. Some dreams didn’t get to come true. He took a breath to steady himself and balled his hand into a fist at his side to keep himself in check. She needed to leave before he did something stupid and gave in to what he really wanted. “What’re you doing here, Brie?” She balked, confused by his cool manner. “I’m here to see you, obviously.” She was close enough to touch now and tried to reach for his arm, but he stepped back. “I-I was worried.” Worried. Of course, she was worried. Wasn’t that everyone’s main emotion where he was concerned? He marched over to his front door and unlocked it and without glancing back her said, “You shouldn’t have come.” Inside, he glanced around his destroyed house and then tried to kick some of the glass out of the way. What was he supposed to do now with her in California? If she’d stayed in Oxford, he wouldn’t have to explain things or push her away, but she’d followed him. The same way he would’ve followed her. His realization did nothing to ease his temper. He hung his head and tried to get a grip on his spiraling emotions. Being so close to her and unable to lean in and tell her everything that was pent up

inside. Everything he’d wanted to say to her since he left. Pressure built inside him until he was ready to explode. “I never expected you to live like a clichéd rock star, but I guess I was wrong.” He turned and found her staring around at the smashed table and broken glass he hadn’t gotten around to clearing away, her artist’s eye taking in each detail. “Let me guess, there’s a stripper in your bedroom?” It would make things simpler for him if there was, but it was the last thing he wanted. The person he wanted was right in front of him, beautiful, smart, inspiring, but he couldn’t have her. He snorted. “Hardly, and this,” he gestured toward the broken coffee table, “this was a little disagreement between family and it’s not like I was expecting you now, was I?” “Maybe if you’d called or at least bothered to tell me you were leaving in the first place, I could’ve avoided flying all the way out here.” He shrugged. “It was supposed to be easier this way.” Brie’s hands sprang to her hips. “Easier for who? I just spent every last dime I have to come out here because I saw the man I love on the tele at a hospital. A man who disappeared and let me think the worst. For Christ’s sake, Bailey, I called the

local hospitals looking for you.” Shame twisted in his gut. “You shouldn’t have. In fact, you shouldn’t be here at all.” He cut past her and headed for the kitchen, “Let me at least call you a cab and get you a returning flight.” “So, is this you ghosting me? Is this how you were going to break things off?” She shook her head and crossed her arms over her stomach. “Is that how you break off all your relationships? You go home and stop calling?” He slammed his phone down on the counter. “No, that’s not how I . . .” He took a deep breath. “This is about giving you an out. No one wants to be stuck to a sick guy.” Her face fell as she covered her mouth with her hand. “Are you sick again? Is the cancer back?” She held up a hand and shook her head. “No, you know what, I was afraid that might be the case so I read everything I could about APL on the flight here and the research says you can beat it again. I read about, and I may not get this right, but people have had good luck with autologous hematopoietic cell transplantation.” She ticked the name off on her fingers as she spoke. “There’s also—” “Stop.” Bailey pressed his knuckles into the countertop and hung his head. “Bailey, this is good news. We can—” We. “Please, just stop.” He shouted, and it startled

Brie into silence. “I’m not going to do this with you. This is my problem, not yours and besides, I’m not sick.” Her face lit up with excitement and she rushed toward him, “Bailey, oh thank God.” He stepped past her, avoiding her touch and tried not to dwell on the brief moment of hurt in her eyes when he did. What he needed was space and a better way to make her understand. Brie broke the silence first, her strength shining through as always. “Listen, I’m not going to lie to you, Bailey. You’ve been a supreme asshole over the past week, but I get that you were freaked out. I would’ve been, too.” She moved to him, but didn’t try to touch him this time. “Come back to Oxford with me and let’s put this behind us.” “That would be nice, wouldn’t it? To forget it and go back to the way things were, but we can’t.” He met her eye and braced himself for a fight. He was going to have to make her see reason. “Let me tell you what’s going to happen. You’re going to get back on a plane and do your damnedest to forget me.” He grabbed her upper arms and held her in place, the feel of her soft skin like a knife to the chest. “Get back to your life, Brie, and find someone who deserves you.” She recoiled from him as though he’d struck a physical blow. “Who do you think you are, Bailey Honeycutt? You don’t get to make my choices for

me. And, don’t feed me any bullshit about what I deserve and what I can’t handle.” He crossed his arms as much to keep from touching her as to hold his insides in place where it felt like they were being ripped out. “Look, I’m doing this for you whether you see it or not.” “No,” she pointed a finger at his chest. “You can tell yourself that all you want, but this isn’t about me. This is about you. You’re scared.” “You’re goddamn right I am.” Breaths coming faster now, his shoulders stiffened. “And, if you had any sense, you’d thank me and run for the door. Just because I’m not sick today, doesn’t mean I never will be again.” “Maybe you will be. If that happens, we’ll take it as it comes, but don’t throw away what we have.” He had to make her see, make her understand and if hurting her was the only way, then so be it. His spit turned to acid on his tongue as he struck the final blow. “And, what exactly is it that we have, Brie? I mean, how long have we known each other really? A few months?” Brie’s jaw twitched. “You told me you loved me, Bailey and I know it’s true.” “Maybe you shouldn’t believe every promise you hear while you’re getting fucked.” Tears welled in Brie’s eyes and the sight gutted him.

“Fucking, Bailey? Really?” Disgust radiated from Brie’s every pore signaling how close he was to getting what he wanted. “You’re not the man I thought you were,” her voice was no more than a whisper, so much worse than if she’d simply shouted at him. The shouting he could take, but this . . . “I never would’ve taken you for a coward.” “Looks like you don’t know me as well as you thought.” “Bullshit. I know you better than anyone. Maybe better than you know yourself. Because this,” she gestured between the two of them with her hands, frantic, “What you’re doing to us? I’ll be damned if I’m going to sit here while you destroy every happy memory of what we have with this darkness you’re spewing.” Bailey pulled his wallet out of his back pocket and yanked out a few hundred-dollar bills. “Here, this should be enough to get you to and from the airports.” When she refused to take it, he grabbed her hand and shoved the bills into her palm. “I don’t want your money.” She yanked her hand away, fury turning her dark eyes to black. “Quit being so stubborn and take it.” He shoved it in her pocket with rough hands and when he released her, she stumbled. “There will be a car here within the hour and I’ll make sure you have a ticket waiting at the airport.” He started toward the

bedroom and left her standing in the middle of the foyer. “Goodbye, Brie.” While the phone rang to the transportation company the band used, the front door of his house slammed shut hard enough to send the reverberations through every window. The sound echoed throughout his chest with the same ring of finality. It was over.

Chapter 28 The crowd inside the Bullingdon was thinner than usual and for that, Brie was grateful. While she sipped her pint, she pretended to listen to Cohen’s recap of the Red Devil’s latest match. Jess was beside him wide-eyed as though it was the best story she’d ever heard and they were flanked by Freddie and John who were only too happy to tag along if it meant having a pint or two. Mei was on her way, but thankfully, Bailey’s friend Drew wasn’t going to be able to join them. The last thing she needed was one of Bailey’s mate’s hanging around. Though she would’ve preferred to stay at home, her friends wouldn’t hear of it and as it turned out, it wasn’t so bad returning to the land of the living. As long as she didn’t think about how they were using the same table they had the first night she’d met Bailey. Or, that the evening was a little less majestic without him there. “Hey,” Jessica bumped her shoulder, “doing all right?” “Oh, yeah. I’m fine.” When the chime sounded over the door, Brie turned and then cursed under her breath at her own stupidity.

“It’s been over a month, Brie.” Jessica laid a hand on Brie’s and squeezed. “He isn’t coming back.” “Good riddance I say.” Cohen winked at Brie. “He isn’t actually that good of a guitar player,” Freddie added with a slight slur. “I wouldn’t go that far—” Cohen started, but Jess elbowed him in the stomach. “I’ve got it. What about the way he always walked around with bare feet?” John added. “What a tosser.” Brie couldn’t stop the grin. “Thanks for the bit of cheering up you lot.” They held up their drinks and toasted over the center of the table and miraculously avoided any spills. “And, I promise I’ll get everyone paid back soon.” The guys shrugged and got back to the business of drinking. She’d meant it though. She would’ve borrowed, begged, and stolen if it would’ve helped her pay Bailey back. Embarrassing as it had been to borrow money from the guys and Jessica, she’d do it again to mail Bailey that check. Never in her life had she felt more humiliated than she had when she’d had no choice but to take Bailey’s money to get back home and that was including her Theo debacle. Somehow the fact that it was Bailey made it all the more terrible. She swallowed past the memory of standing in his foyer, furious hot tears streaming down her cheeks as he’d

turned his back on her and walked away. She didn’t want to owe Bailey anything and now, she didn’t. She finished off her Guinness and stood. “I’m heading out.” Jessica stood to leave, too. “I’ll walk with you.” She jerked her head in the direction of the guys where they were arguing over some sporting something or other. “They’re going to be here for a while.” “You don’t have to do that. I’m fine.” “No, no. I’m begging you. Take me with you.” Jessica latched onto her arm and stuck out her bottom lip until Brie cracked a smile. “What about Mei? We probably shouldn’t abandon her.” “Are you kidding? She’s almost as big of a football fan as Cohen. She’ll be fine.” They said their goodbyes and stepped out into the cool air. The last time she’d done this particular walk, Bailey had been with her, taking care of her. She ground her teeth. Heaven forbid she help him. “Hey, where’d you go? You looked like you were a million miles away.” Brie shook her head and pushed thoughts of Bailey away or at least as far away as she could, but they were always there on the outskirts of her mind. “Jess, you know I’m sorry for missing your show, right?”

She rolled her eyes and huffed at her. “Yes, Brie. I know. You’ve only apologized about a thousand times.” “And, I’ll keep apologizing until I can find a way to make it up to you.” Jessica stopped in the middle of sidewalk and turned to her. “Brie, stop.” She gripped her hands in her own. “You left because you thought the man you love needed you. I get it and I’m not mad.” “But, it was your big night. I should’ve been there. It was like I was that girl. I hate that girl.” When Jessica raised one eyebrow, Brie continued. “You know, the type of girl who puts her boyfriend ahead of everyone else in her life. I never meant to do that to you.” “Brie, you have to forgive yourself. And, besides, Bailey wasn’t some boyfriend. He was the love of your life and I’m pretty sure he still is.” Brie turned her face away and fought back tears. “It’s okay. You just need some time.” Jessica hooked an arm around Brie’s middle and tugged her along. “Let’s go home and watch Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. I love it when those chicks kick all that zombie ass.” Brie smiled. “I still say the book was better.” “They always are.” ~~~

Bailey leaned against his stool and fiddled with one of the strings on his guitar while his brother and Leo went over the drum solo on their latest track. It was their second month in the studio and they were within two tracks of completing what would be their tenth album. He hadn’t planned it, but after his implosion with Brie, he’d had nowhere to turn but the music. The lyrics had flowed out of him, pain, love, longing, self-hatred, it was all there. His soul would be on display with this album, but as with all great music, truth was the foundation. And, this was his truth. He was happier with this music than he’d been with any of their other stuff though he couldn’t say the same for his life outside the recording studio. But, at least when they were playing, he felt closer to Brie. He tilted his head back and cracked his neck and when he felt the brush of someone’s eyes on him, he straightened to find David glaring in his direction. And, it wasn’t the first time in the last few weeks he’d done so. He caught David’s eye and nodded, but David didn’t return his greeting. Instead, his jaw twitched and he half turned his body away from Bailey. Okay, so maybe not everyone was digging the new tunes. “All right,” Oliver called everyone back to attention, “Let’s try this one again from the chorus.”

With his bare feet digging into one of the many bohemian rugs tossed around the recording space, Bailey played his part and let the music, his music, carry him back to Oxford. The music swelled echoing his emotions from the first time he’d kissed Brie, her soft lips, her warm body, the feel of her breasts against his chest as they’d stood outside in the night air. He slid his hands up and down the neck of the guitar, adding a riff here, adjusting one there, while the others did their part to complete the sound. They played through to the end and earned a thumbs-up from their friend working the sound board on the opposite side of the glass. “Hell yes. That’s what I’m talking about.” Oliver high-fived the each of them. “I think that was the one.” Leo shook his half-shaved head of hair like a dog and hit the drums once before throwing his sticks into the air. “You’re damn right. Nice one, B.” “At least Bailey’s gotten one thing right.” The celebratory mood hit a flat note at David’s comment and earned him everyone’s attention. “Dude, what’s that supposed to mean?” Bailey set his guitar to the side and stood, sick of the backhanded comments and strange looks. “You’ve been riding my ass for weeks.” David dropped his bass and matched Bailey’s

stance, a cloud of rage brewing behind his eyes. Oliver stepped between them, but remained quiet while Leo stared wide-eyed from his place behind the drums. There were disagreements from time to time the way there were with any group who spent as much time together as they did, but it was rarely David who lost his temper, and Bailey couldn’t remember a time he’d been so flat out angry toward him, specifically. Usually it was Leo’s crazy ass who pushed David too far. “It’s nothing. Forget it.” David turned for the door to leave. “No way, man. I’m not going to forget it. Not this time.” Bailey took a step toward him. “Is it the music?” “No, it’s not the music. I just said that was the one thing you’ve gotten right.” “Meaning what exactly?” David shook his head slowly and then sneered. “You have no idea what you’ve done, do you?” “Enlighten me.” “Why do you think this is the best music you’ve ever written? Why do you think this came to you so easily?” “I don’t know.” “Bullshit,” David got within a foot of Bailey, “you know exactly why. It was because of Brie. You finally found somebody who loves you and you crapped all over it.”

Bailey’s temper flared. “My relationship with Brie has nothing to do with you, David, so back off.” Oliver and Leo’s heads moved as though watching the final two minutes of a Lakers game, each wide eyed during the exchange. “What the hell do you care anyway? You’ve got Sara.” “No,” David’s voice was low, but hard. The pain unmistakable. “I don’t.” “What?” Oliver cut in, eyes narrowed. “What are you talking about?” David’s gaze cut to Oliver’s. “I asked Sara to marry me and she said no.” The silence in the room was deafening. They’d all known Sara for years. She and David had basically been one person. Bailey’s temper evaporated. “Shit, David. I’m sorry.” “Screw your apology.” It seemed David’s temper was still plenty intact. He turned his baseball cap backwards and shoved a finger into Bailey’s chest. “I’ll deal with my effed-up life, but what about you? You had a girl who loved you, who flew here to be with you, who put her life on hold and you turned her away. Do you know what I would give to have a woman look at me the way Brie looks at you?” “Listen, David, my situation isn’t the same as

yours. I’m trying to do the right thing here.” “I spent years with Sara and all the time I was hoping for a future she was making plans. Plans for her career, plans for her life and as it turned out none of them included me.” David was shouting now, a man who he’d seen lose his cool on a total of two occasions in the last decade. “But, you wouldn’t understand how that feels. How could you? You don’t know what it’s like to love someone and for that love not to be returned. Instead, you’re the one turning his back.” David shoved him and instead of Oliver stopping him, he stepped back allowing David full access. What the hell? Bailey glanced at his brother and then back at David who shoved him again. Temper reignited, Bailey shoved him back. “Drop it, David.” “No.” David shoved him, and he tripped over his stool, hitting the ground hard enough to jar his spine. “You need to pull your head out of your ass and go to her and beg her to forgive you.” Bailey scrambled to his feet as anger welled inside him. “This is none of your goddamn business.” “What, Bailey? You get a second chance at life, at happiness, and instead of grabbing it with both hands you kick it in the face?” Bailey swung at David and caught him in the jaw.

David rubbed his face and smiled, blood showing in his teeth. “That’s it, Bailey. Get angry.” He dove at him and they hit the floor, rolling one way and then the other as they fought for control. Bailey took the upper hand and straddling David, punched him in the face first with his right hand and then with his left. David’s head snapped one way and then the other, but then he bridged his legs and sent Bailey sideways. “Oliver, how about a little help?” Bailey said between dodging David’s fists. When his brother made no move to help him and then held out his arm to stop Leo from coming to his aid, Bailey narrowed his eyes. “What’s going on here?” “Do you think I’m the only one who thinks you’re being a complete asshole?” David climbed to his feet and Bailey scrambled to his, his head a little foggy from the repeated blows. “Everyone’s been walking on eggshells, but I say screw that shit.” Bailey’s gaze swung between the three guys, the ones who were supposed to have his back no matter what. Now, it was like he was standing in the middle of some sort of intervention. “If you wanted to stop living, then you shouldn’t have fought so hard to beat the cancer. Because that’s what you’ve chosen to do. You’re quitting. On school, on a chance at a life with Brie. And, for what? To protect her from getting hurt?

Well guess what, Bailey, life isn’t certain. You could get in a wreck tomorrow or worse yet, Brie could. Would you stop loving her if she were hurt? Would you rather have never met her if she were to die? Would that make it easier on you? Because, that’s how it is, right? It’s all about you.” Bailey’s blood boiled as David threw insult after insult his way, but when the thought of Brie dying was thrown in his face, he exploded. Oliver and Leo jumped back as Bailey went on the attack. He bent at the waist and hit David as though he were no more than a tackle dummy. They slammed into the wall, the air rushing out of David’s lungs, but it wasn’t enough to stop him. He maneuvered to the side and caught Bailey from behind, holding him steady in a headlock. Then, with his mouth beside Bailey’s ear, he continued. “That’s right, Bailey. Get mad. Care about something enough to fight for it.” Bailey struggled against David’s hold, but his friend had a lot of years of Jiu Jitsu under his belt where he’d only had a couple. Stars appeared before his eyes the harder he struggled. “You’ve had enough time sitting around here feeling sorry for yourself. Now, it’s time to go back to Oxford.” “I . . .,” Bailey wheezed out the words, “don’t want to go back.” “No? You want to stay here hanging around

your brother’s place watching him have a life while you remain lost and alone? You want to give up on the art history degree you were working toward? Why? Because something may or may not happen someday.” David released him and pushed him away. Bailey rubbed his sore neck and eyed Leo first, who nodded and then his brother. “You agree with him, don’t you?” “Yeah, man. I do. You were yourself again for the first time in years when we flew out for Christmas and now it’s like you’ve slipped back into this half-life.” Oliver stepped forward, and shrugged. “We love you, man, and it sucks to see you this way.” Bailey met David’s eyes and surprisingly, he didn’t seem angry. Even though his right eye was swelling and his lip was bloody, he seemed a little sad maybe, but the heat of the fight was gone. The room was silent while Bailey’s emotions waged war. He’d done the right thing, hadn’t he? He’d given Brie her life back. He rubbed his hands over his face, as the weight of David’s words swam around in his head over and over. Would it be better if you’d never met her? A sharp pain rooted in his chest and started to spread. Brie’s laugh filled his ears, her smile flashed in his mind. He could feel the way her body fit against his when they were together. Like two notes

meant to be paired or the lovers reflected in her favorite painting. They were meant to be. And, his life was better because of her, for loving her. He fell to his knees. “Shit, what have I done?” The guys circled around him and then David rested a hand on his shoulder. “Don’t worry, we’ve got you.” “You know it,” Leo added. Oliver reached out a hand and yanked him to his feet. “Tell us what we can do to help.”

Chapter 29 The sight of Oxford as they’d driven through town the day before felt as much like returning home as L.A. had. They’d traded sun for fog and sand for old buildings, but Bailey drank in the sight as though seeing it for the first time. There was comfort in the familiarity and though his nerves had snapped with each passing mile, he was glad to be back. How had he almost let this slip away? When he returned to the hotel after attending his meeting on campus, the rest of the guys were waiting for him. “How’d it go with the dean guy?” Bailey sat down on the edge of the table since all the other seats were currently being occupied. “It was good.” It was good now, at least, but it hadn’t been easy convincing Mr. Catling he was serious about finishing his degree. After a lot of negotiating and a lengthy discussion about where he’d been the last two months, he’d been granted permission to return for the summer semester. “Did you guys talk to Simone?” “She’s on her way to your place.” Oliver stood up and stretched. “Are you ready to do some

groveling?” Bailey sucked in a breath. Compared to what was coming, the Head of School was going to seem like a saint. He had more than a few fences to mend. “Yeah, let’s go.” He touched his pocket and when he felt the bump inside it, moved for the door. It wasn’t going to be easy or pleasant, but if he wanted a chance at a future with Brie, he was going to have to fight for it. David had been right. He’d fought to live, fought to have a future, and then when he’d gotten so close to having one, he’d panicked. Brie deserved better. She deserved a man who would fight for her, for their future. When they arrived at his place, music could be heard coming from the next row house over. The apologies had to start somewhere. He knocked on the door to John, Cohen, and Freddie’s place while the rest of the guys stood a little distance back. When the door finally opened, John’s bulk filled the fame, his eyes widening at the sight of Bailey. “I didn’t expect to see you.” “Listen, John—” “Hey, mate, I thought I heard . . .” Cohen’s face appeared over John’s shoulder. “Oh.” “Hey, Cohen.” The silence stretched between them, but Bailey held firm. He was in the wrong and he would have to take whatever was coming his way.

John stepped outside, forcing Bailey back. “I thought you and I had an understanding about Brie. Didn’t you promise me that you wouldn’t hurt her or was that some yank bullshit you were feeding me?” He cracked his knuckles. “You said she wasn’t just a challenge for you.” John didn’t wait to hear Bailey’s excuses. Instead, he reared back and punched Bailey hard enough to knock him to the ground. Darkness curled around the edges of his vision, but he staggered back to his feet at the same time his bandmates charged for John. “No,” Bailey held up one hand and rubbed his throbbing jaw with the other. “I deserved that.” The guys halted and there was another awkward pause while the two sets of guys eyed each other. It was one thing for David to kick his ass, but to the Survival guys, John was an outsider. “Damn man, I always figured getting hit by you would hurt, but shit. Your fist is like a hammer.” Not to mention if he kept getting his ass kicked, he was going to end up with a concussion. “Yeah, well, you could’ve avoided it if you hadn’t acted like a total wanker.” John turned and headed for his place where Cohen and Freddie were watching the exchange with solemn expressions. It seemed John wasn’t alone in his disappointment. Christ, the whole world hated him. “John, wait.” Bailey followed him to the steps

and stopped. “I know I seriously fucked up. Believe me, I know.” John kicked at the edge of the concrete step. “You’ve got a hell of a way of showing it.” “I know.” Bailey leaned to the left and caught Cohen’s eye. “And, I’m truly sorry about missing Jessica’s show, too. Brie was upset about missing it and if it weren’t for me she would’ve been there.” “Yeah, mate she would’ve and Jess missed her being there.” Bailey dropped his gaze to his shoes. He needed to make them understand, make them see how sorry he was. “I need to see Brie.” John chuckled. “You think a little apology is going to make Brie forgive you?” He whistled. “I know it’s going to take more than an apology, but I have to try.” He met John’s eyes. “I love her, man.” Cohen, John, and Freddie exchanged looks and then Cohen jerked his head toward the house. “Do you guys want to come in for bit? Grab a brew?” “I would, but there’s someone else I’ve got to go see.” Bailey turned and motioned to the guys where they were waiting near the short wall bordering the property. “They might be down to jam awhile though.” “Always.” Leo jumped up onto the top of the wall and made a drumming motion in the air. “Let’s

do it.” Cohen grinned. He was a hell of a musician and though he’d hung out with Bailey numerous times, Bailey recognized the look of awe on his face at the thought of playing with the rest of the guys. Bailey slapped his bother on the shoulder. “Use the side porch at my place. It’s the only space there’ll be enough room for all of you and I’ll catch up to you later.” “Hey,” Cohen called over to Bailey and held up his phone. “Brie’s over at Splash Pad.” Oliver and the other guys grinned at him and a minute later he was well on his way to get back what he’d lost. ~~~ Brie paced the room as the familiar sounds of pencils dragging across paper filled the air. The model tonight was male and while his form was pleasant enough, he wasn’t mouthwatering to look at. His skin was smooth and clear of ink, unlike Bailey whose body told a story without words and where the model’s hair was blond and long, she missed the thick, dark waves she was used to. It seemed Jessica’s idea for some hot model revenge sex was off the table. Not that the idea had appealed to her in the first place. The last thing she needed was another male complicating her life. Hadn’t she been on the

correct path at the beginning of the semester? Focus, finish, and get started on the rest of her life. And, then Bailey had shown up. Brie paused to make a suggestion to one of her long-time students, a mom of four who used the class as much to escape her everyday life as to hone her craft. With a different grip on the pencil and a tilt of the head, her shadow work improved in a few strokes. Brie touched her shoulder in encouragement and continued on. She hadn’t expected someone like Bailey though, had she? Bailey had been surprising in every way and sure he’d made mistakes, stepped in where he wasn’t invited, pulled her attention away from what was important, he’d also filled her life with a joy her heart and her body had been missing. Bailey with his thousand-watt smile and protective nature. A man who oozed talent and charisma, a man who made sure she felt pleasure when they were together. One who took an interest in the same things she did and who listened when she spoke. And, a man who . . . She stopped midstride and stared openmouthed toward the hallway. Bailey was a man who . . . who was here. Her heart sprang into her throat at the same time her legs threatened to buckle. What was he doing there in Splash Pad or, rather, in Oxford? He wasn’t supposed to be here. He’d made it clear that

he wouldn’t be back. That he wouldn’t be a part of her life anymore. The shock was soon replaced by the pain of seeing him again and it took her breath away. She shook her head and forced her feet to move, but she didn’t go to him. She wouldn’t let him see her weakness or let him know she thought about him every waking minute. In fact, she wouldn’t speak to him at all. What more was there to say anyway? Brie eyed the clock. Five minutes of class remained and as feared, they ended up being the longest five minutes of her life. With an effort that could only be described as monumental, she didn’t look at Bailey. She finished up the class, chatted with a few remaining stragglers and proceeded to straighten up the room, acutely aware he was there and that they were alone together. Without asking, he helped put away easels and stacked pads of paper. Waiting for him to speak was like waiting for a bomb to go off. The anticipation of what he could possibly have to say to her was excruciating. She didn’t want to hear it, but at the same time she was desperate to hear his voice. Listening to his albums hadn’t been the same because he rarely sang and watching interviews on YouTube had merely been a means of torture. Though if asked, she’d never admit to her stalkerlike behavior. It was more than a little embarrassing.

She grabbed her bag from behind the lone desk and turned to leave. “Brie.” The sound of her name on his lips twisted her insides as her head and heart waged war. Her heart yearned for him, but her head was screaming to get away. For her own protection it was time for fight or flight and damnit she wanted flight. She was tired of fighting. Tired of being sad. “Brie, please. Will you look at me?” She blew out a breath and turned, keeping one hand on the desk for support. “What are you doing here, Bailey? The last time I saw you, you made your feelings about us perfectly clear.” Bailey at least had the decency to look ashamed. Head bowed, he tucked his hands into his coat pockets and took a few steps toward her. “Brie, there are no words I can say to you that will ever make up for how I treated you when you flew out to L.A.” She scoffed. “You’re right about that at least.” “I’m sorry, Brie.” “I appreciate your apology.” She hooked her messenger bag over her shoulder and strode past Bailey and out the door. Surely, he didn’t think she was going to drop everything and forgive him? She shook her head as she pulled her key out of her bag. “If that’s it then, I need to lock up.” “No, that’s not it. That’s not even close.” He

moved to her and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear that had escaped her paintbrushes. She sucked in a breath, it was one thing to be strong from a distance, but not when he was this close—his intoxicating scent, his familiar touch awakening her down to her core. “Brie, what I said before. I want you to know that although a part of me still feels that you would be better off without me, a bigger part of me can’t stay away. I don’t know if it makes me selfish as hell or not, but Christ, Brie, I love you. That’s not going to change in a week or a few months or in a few years. I tried to stay away, truly I did, but I can’t.” He leaned his head down and touched his forehead to hers. The gesture so gentle and intimate, tears burned behind her closed eyes. What he was saying, it was how she felt, too, but how could she trust him not to hurt her again? How could she forget and forgive? She pulled away from him. It was the only way she could think clearly. “What made you change your mind?” “Let’s just say I got some sense beaten into me,” Bailey’s lips twitched and a ghost of a smile appeared a second before he messaged his jaw on one side, “a few times actually.” “Right.” She didn’t quite follow his meaning, but considering the remnants of what looked like a

bruise on his cheek, she could guess. Though, whatever had happened didn’t matter. The bottom line was he’d done what he’d done and she hadn’t been enough. She hadn’t been able to get through to him and now it was too late. Her hand tightened on the strap of her bag. “Bailey, I appreciate your apology. I do. But, what you said to me. What you did?” “I didn’t want to hurt you, Brie.” She shrugged. “But, you did.” Bailey fell back a step and she could see regret reflected in every line of his face, but she had to protect herself. “Bailey, I know people make mistakes, but you said you loved me and then at the first sign of trouble, you treated me like I was the cancer and cut me out of your life instead of letting me share in your burden. That’s what love is, Bailey. It’s facing things together.” “Brie—” “No,” she held up a hand to cut him off, “it’s my turn now. You said your piece in California when you broke my heart.” She stood up straight, all the things she hadn’t been able to say, everything she’d been holding in for months bubbling to the surface like a tube of paint being squeezed too tight. “Not only did you cut me out of your life, you also made me look like a fool.”

Her voice echoed around the empty studio and she stopped to regain her composure. “After Theo,” she tried again in a quieter tone, “that was the one thing I swore I would never do again. I swore I’d never let anyone discard me and make me feel like nothing and you did, Bailey. You embarrassed me in front of my friends and you made me feel like a git and I’m not a git, Bailey.” “I know,” his voice was a whisper. “Brie, you’re the smartest person I know, and I hate that I made you feel that way. I hate that, for one second, you doubted your place beside me. There’s no one else, Brie. There never will be.” “The problem is, I don’t know how to believe you. Sure, things are fine now, but what happens when they aren’t?” She let one of her shoulders rise and then fall. “Because, that’s life, Bailey. At some point there will be downs and what happens then?” Bailey reached a hand in his pocket and knelt down. Brie’s hand flew to her mouth as she held her breath. “Bailey, no. What’re you doing?” “This is how you’ll know, Brie. This is how you’ll know that I won’t turn away from you. Marry me, Brie. Be my partner in life.” Tears slid down Brie’s cheeks as her chest threatened to crack open. This was wrong. It was all wrong. She wanted to scream at him for shutting her out when he had. If he hadn’t they’d be

together right now planning for a future together, but not anymore. She wouldn’t give up her dreams for him or anyone. Her future plans were all she had left. Summoning every ounce of courage she had, she met Bailey’s hopeful eyes with her own and gave him the only answer she could. “No. I’m sorry, Bailey, but I can’t.”

Chapter 30 When Bailey finally managed to drag himself home and closed the door to his place, he found he was far from alone. The neighbors were there along with the guys from Survival, and at some point, Simone and Jessica had shown up and added themselves to the mix. “Hey, everybody.” A collective ‘hey’ was shouted in his direction from everyone except Jessica. She was watching him with hawk-like eyes. Did she know what had happened earlier that afternoon? “I think this little guy missed you.” Simone placed Bowie in his arms and squeezed his shoulder. “It’s good to see you.” “Thanks for taking care of him for me.” Bailey chuckled when Bowie preceded to head-butt his face by way of greeting. “Hey, little guy.” “How’d it go?” Oliver stretched to try to see outside and then seemed surprised when Brie was nowhere to be found. “Later, okay?” Oliver’s eyebrows drew together in obvious concern, but he let it drop. When he returned to the discussion that Bailey’s return had interrupted with

John and Freddie, the names Vedder and Cobain reached his ears—no doubt the grunge era was being dissected. Though the scene was comical, he wasn’t laughing. He caught Jessica’s eye and nodded and then with Bowie tucked in his arms, he made his way to her. If there was one person on the planet who hated him as much as Brie, Jessica was the one. Better to let her kick him while he was down. “I take it you’ve seen her?” Jessica’s words were clipped, but not filled with the venom he expected. “I did.” “And, how’d that go for you?” He inhaled deeply through his nose and gave his head a slight shake. “That’s about what I expected.” Jessica leaned in, “At least she didn’t kick you in the knob like I would’ve.” When he didn’t say anything, her eyes sparkled. “Wait, she didn’t, did she?” “No, she didn’t kick me. I’m pretty sure she wanted to though.” Jessica leaned back in her chair. “I’m sure, but she’s too classy for it.” He nodded. “Listen, Jessica, I’m sorry about missing your show and for you know, pulling Brie away. It was never my intention.” “I know, but it’s good of you to say so.” Jessica sighed. “Bailey, the truth is I like you. I shouldn’t. I

should wish you dead, but I can’t.” “Thanks, I think.” Bowie purred loud enough that he got Jessica’s attention. Smiling, she reached for him and gave him a chin rub, one that must’ve been euphoric from the way Bowie’s eyes half-closed in appreciation. “So, Bailey, what’s your plan?” He met Jessica’s gaze and raised one eyebrow. “You know, to get Brie back. What’re you going to do?” “Considering I asked her to marry me and she said no, I’m not sure what else I can do.” “You asked her to marry you?” Jessica’s voice was so loud Bowie jumped off her lap and everyone else in the room stopped speaking and stared with matching shocked expressions. It was like a scene from a movie when the needle of a record player suddenly screeches to a halt and everyone goes still. “You asked her to marry you?” Oliver finally choked out. “Holy shit, B. I thought you were going to talk to her.” Bailey wasn’t immune to the looks being passed around the room. Blood heated his face. “I did talk to her. I talked and talked and apologized and then I asked her. I couldn’t think of a better way to make her understand that I’m not going anywhere.”

Jessica let out a low whistle. “You yanks don’t mess around.” Bailey leaned forward and placed his elbows on his knees while he racked his brain for another idea. How could he prove to Brie that he loved her? How could he make her see he was sorry? And, that he’d spend the rest of his life making it up to her if she’d let him? “I think you’re going to have to give her some time.” Bailey raised his eyes to meet Jessica’s and she put her hand on his shoulder. “She loves you, Bailey, but you’re going to have to be patient. Six months ago, I wouldn’t have believed she’d be willing to give up on her New York plans for anyone, but for you, she would’ve. At least she would’ve until you screwed things up. You’ve changed something in her.” Miserable, Bailey let his head hang. “I never meant to do that. She’s perfect the way she is—” Jessica waved her hands to stop him. “Of course, she is, but the change I’m talking about is good. She opened back up with you as though this light that used to be inside her flickered back to life. But, even so you’re going to have to let her come back around to you in her own time.” “I can do that.” Jessica smiled. “I know you can and when you get ready to pop the question for real, we’ll be here

for you to make sure you don’t screw the pooch a second time.” Bailey laughed and glanced around the room at his brother, bandmates, and new friends. They were his people, his tribe and in time with their help, he’d find a way to earn Brie’s trust again. ~~~ Brie stepped back from the full-length mirror and gave herself a onceover. The black gown and cap brought a level of satisfaction she could hardly describe. With tears in her eyes, she inhaled and held her head high. She’d done it. After years of hard work and determination she’d finished the DPhil program. Her thesis complete, her final interviews over—all she had left to do was accept her certificate and get on her way. “There you are,” Jessica burst into the room and gave her a brief hug. “You better get out there if you’re going to get a seat.” “Oh, that’s what Cohen’s for. He’s keeping your mum and brother entertained.” “I bet he is.” Jessica met her eyes in the mirror, “Bailey’s out there, too. Looking quite fit if I do say so myself.” “No denim jacket?” “Oh no, he’s still wearing the jacket, but this time, he’s wearing a tie with it.”

They shared a laugh over Bailey’s inability to blend in. No matter how long he stayed at Oxford or picked up the traditional habits, he would continue to be his own man. A man who was meant to stand out in a crowd. An announcement signaled the ten-minute warning. “You’d better go.” “Yeah.” Jessica opened the door and paused. “You know, Bailey’s been trying really hard over the last few months, maybe it’s time to forgive him. You could invite him out to go to dinner with the rest of us after.” “Yeah, maybe.” Jessica rapped the door with her knuckles and left Brie alone with her thoughts. It was true. Bailey had been trying. True to his word, he’d stayed in Oxford and though he wasn’t allowed to pick up any classes until the summer semester, he’d been busy helping out in the music department. Thanks to Cohen, Bailey was giving extra help to those who needed it. And, when he wasn’t assisting at the school, or doing radio press in preparation for the upcoming release of Survival of the Fittest’s new album, he’d been romancing her. Fresh flowers each week and coffee deliveries before class, tickets to art openings, group outings with their friends where he gave her a respectable amount of space. He’d been the perfect gentleman and it was wearing thin.

While his thoughtfulness was moving, seeing him and not being with him was torture. To know what it was like to be with him and to be kissed by him and then not being able to have him was like a knife being slipped ever so slowly between her ribs. Because the truth was she had forgiven him. It was no longer a matter of forgiveness, but of reality. She was leaving in a few weeks. What good would it do to give him hope now? What could come of it? Sure, they might fall back in step, but what then? She’d leave and it would be like losing him all over again and she wasn’t sure she’d survive it a second time. The door opened a fraction and the devil himself popped his head in. “Hey,” when she smiled, he took it as an open invitation and let himself the rest of the way in the room. “I just wanted to give you your graduation present and tell you how proud of you I am. I know it may not mean as much coming from me, but damn, Brie. I’m in awe of you.” Her throat threatened to close at his words. Of course, it meant a lot coming from him, but she refused to admit it. Refused to acknowledge how amazing he looked with his skinny tie and button up. He held out a small blue box, one every woman recognized as being from Tiffany & Co. and her eyes grew wide. “Bailey, you shouldn’t have.”

“Don’t worry, it isn’t anything crazy.” Their gazes met as they both caught his meaning. “Open it.” Her fingers trembled as she pried off the lid and then her heart skipped a beat. Inside was a silver necklace of a paint brush surrounded by a palate of paints, each color represented by a different gemstone. “It’s beautiful. Thank you, Bailey.” He held out his hand for it. “May I?” She nodded once and then held up her hair so he could put it around her neck. His fingertips brushed her skin and sent a rush of heat racing up and down her spine. She leaned back on her heel a breath away from leaning into him and letting him hold her. Her heart soared at the thought of him wrapping his arms around her and pressing his lips to her neck. “There.” All too soon he took a step back and took the feel of his body and his soft touch with him. “I’ll see you out there.” She turned, suddenly fearful she’d never feel his hands on her again. “Bailey.” In two steps she was against him and pressing her lips to his. The familiar heat tangled with the desperate longing after months apart as she held onto him. He was reluctant at first, cautious, but when she nudged at his lips with her tongue he took

her in and threatened to devour her. The kiss turned into desperate groping and she couldn’t stop herself. She walked toward him, pushing him in the direction she wanted to go. She tugged at his waistband and he at her dress and when the back of his legs hit the couch, they fell together. As she straddled his lap, he gripped her hips and guided her until he filled her with one thrust. The pleasure was sudden and acute, cutting through the distance as though no time had passed at all. They were feverish, grinding together in a haze of desire and recklessness, uncaring that someone could walk in or that she might miss her own ceremony. She slowed and took in each glorious inch of him slow enough to have him forcing his face against her breast to muffle a curse. She threw her head back and moaned, his hand quickly covering her mouth as they reached the edge together. Footsteps sounded outside the door as other graduates headed for the ceremony. Their eyes met and held while their breaths came fast. “I’d better go.” She managed to move her jellylike legs to stand, letting her dress and gown fall back into place as though nothing had happened. He nodded and as he was putting himself back together she left him there without another word.

Chapter 31 Bailey stood at the back of the audience while Brie moved across the stage to accept her certificate. As she shook hands with the head of the school, beaming with pride, he grinned along with her from his place near a large oak tree. It was true what they said about wanting the best for the person you loved. He wanted nothing more than for Brie to be happy and to have her every wish granted. And, he’d come close to accepting she was meant to do it without him. But, not anymore. When she kissed him in the dressing room, everything changed. She could keep him at arm’s length and try to convince herself otherwise, but he was sure now. Sure she loved him as much as he loved her. Whatever had happened in the past was the past and he’d paid his penance. He wasn’t going to waste any more time being apart from her. In the blink of an eye, his plans had changed. The ceremony concluded with laughter and pictures in a sea of black, but Bailey found the man he was looking for easy enough. Mr. Catling was shaking hands with one of the many graduates and offered Bailey a smile when he approached.

“Mr. Honeycutt, I see you dressed up for the occasion.” Bailey glanced down at his attire and shrugged. “I try my best, sir.” “Indeed.” Though Mr. Catling was of the old school variety, Bailey saw his mouth twitch as he fought a smile. He was a good man and Bailey hoped like hell his decency would play in his favor one more time. “Sir, may I have a word?” Mr. Catling glanced around at the thinning crowd and then at his watch. “Can it wait until office hours next week?” “No, sir. I’m afraid it can’t.” Mr. Catling pursed his lips and gave one brisk nod. “Okay, then. Meet me in my office in twenty minutes.” “Thank you, sir.” Bailey hurried off in search of familiar faces and thanks to the purple streaks highlighting Jessica’s braids, found the group talking animatedly in the center of the lawn. Brie saw him first, her eyes raking over him as he approached. His blood stirred at the sight of her. What he wanted was to sweep her off her feet and get her alone. What had happened earlier had been incredible, as it always was with Brie, but he wanted more. He wanted to take his time and reacquaint himself with each part of her.

When he caught her eye, her cheeks reddened. It seemed he wasn’t the only one thinking about their last meeting. “I have to go see my mom and brother off. Catch you lot later, then?” Brie waved and left the group, and not two seconds later Jessica was at his side. “Something happened between you two,” she narrowed her eyes at Bailey, ready to cut through any bullshit answer he might throw her way. He simply nodded. “She’s still in love with me.” “No shit,” Jessica used the back of her hand to swat his bicep. “What are you going to do about it, then?” Bailey grinned at Jessica and then John, Freddie, Cohen and Mei. “Friends, I need your help with something.” ~~~ Brie huffed out a breath and sent a loose strand of hair flying. Sitting amongst the pile of boxes made the reality of her impending move all too real. In two days, she was set to be on her way to New York thanks to some unexpected graduation gifts and more than a little frugal planning, it was happening. Her shoulders slumped as she stared around the small space and empty walls that had been her

home for the last four years. Change was hard, but necessary. Isn’t that what her mother had always said whenever one chapter of their lives closed? She stood, annoyed at herself for the glum mood she couldn’t shake. She was supposed to be happy. She was getting everything she wanted, wasn’t she? Brie glanced at her checklist again and compared it to the boxes marked with thick black letters, winter clothes, summer clothes, jumpers, books—it was all there and yet the nagging feeling something was missing lurked at the corner of her subconscious. Jess bounded into the room, at least a few steps before her path was blocked by boxes. “Brie, you’re never going to believe what I heard on the tele.” “What?” “A man was arrested in West London for theft.” When Brie showed a lack of enthusiasm, Jessica’s eyes widened. “Brie, it was Theo.” Brie swallowed. It looked as though karma had come around. “The tosser,” Jess spat. “I hope he rots in prison.” “What did he supposedly steal? No, wait. Don’t tell me. It doesn’t matter.” Brie closed her eyes and exhaled, waiting for some sort of emotion to take hold, but there was nothing. She wasn’t happy about Theo’s situation, but she wasn’t sad

either. When she opened her eyes, she finally accepted that he was nothing to her anymore, just a man she used to know. “Forget him.” Jessica tapped her hands on top of the box in front of her. “Come out with me tonight.” “We went out last night as I recall.” She nodded toward the aspirin bottle still sitting on her bedside table from the night before. “How much can one person’s liver take?” “Oh, it’s not like that. There’s this new art exhibit opening and I really want to go. Please,” she put her hands together as though in prayer and gave her puppy dog eyes, “please, please, please. One final art show together.” Brie laughed. “Okay, okay. Let’s go.” “Yes,” Jessica danced in a small circle. “You’re completely mental.” Jessica tossed her braids with in an overdramatic gesture. “But, you love me.” “This is true.” Unexpected tears welled in Brie’s eyes and she batted them away. “I’m going to miss you.” Jessica stuck out her bottom lip and leaned over a box to pull Brie into a hug. “Me, too, but I’ll be in New York before you know it to visit.” Brie held on and fought the urge to sob. Though they’d be friends for life, of that she was certain, it would never be the same. The wheels of

change were turning once again. “Okay, now.” Jessica righted herself. “That’s enough of that. I refuse to spend my last days with you moping about.” “Right.” Brie sniffled. “Okay then.” Jessica started to leave and stopped, eyeing Brie from head to toe and then back again. “You might want to wear something a bit nicer tonight.” Brie glanced down at her yoga pants and loosefitting sweatshirt. “You think?” When Jessica nodded, Brie threw a sock at her head and sent her running. ~~~ Later that night, dressed in a flatmate-approved little black dress and heels, Brie squeezed into a taxi with Cohen and Jessica. They, too, were dressed smartly for the occasion and Brie did her best not to feel like the third wheel, while running her finger along the side of her shoe where it was already rubbing against her skin. “So, what’s the deal with tonight’s show? Is it one artist or several being showcased?” Cohen deferred to Jessica, who shrugged. “I don’t know much, but I believe there is more than one artist with work on display. I heard about it really last minute.” Brie nodded and stared out the window at the familiar sights of Oxford that would soon be in her

rearview window. In the coming weeks, she’d be trading buildings with hundreds of years of history for structures less historically rich, but equally as fascinating. They passed The Splash Pad and the Bullingdon and continued on until they were on the edge of town. Brie opened her mouth to ask if they were heading all the way into London, when their cabbie pulled to a stop in front of a small glassfront shop with no signage out front. “I guess the mystery is part of the charm,” she offered as she climbed out of the cab. The windows were covered with light blue curtains so that nothing was visible except faint lights and a few shadows. Considering the sidewalk was deserted around them, she decided they were either walking into a very exclusive opening or a horror movie where they were the victims. “This should be interesting,” Cohen muttered as he held the door open for them. Jessica elbowed him on the way past. “Oooph.” They took a card as they entered and on the front it said, Finding Light in the Darkness. Brie flipped it over and there was a picture of some sort of splatter painted work, but no artists’ names or other information was given. Aside from the title and the image, the only other image was that of a map. It appeared the exhibit was meant to be moved through in a specific order. Other voices could be heard, but they were too muffled to make

out. “Are we early?” Jessica shook her head. “Right on time, I think.” They started walking toward the front of the space, Jessica and Cohen leading the way. Brie couldn’t see much due to the strategic placing of walls, cutting off her view from anything other than what was right in front of them. Soft music played over the speakers, it was vaguely familiar, but there were no words. If it weren’t for the added guitar it could almost be mistaken for elevator music, but there was something about it which made it more appealing. Cohen and Jessica stopped in front of her, pulling her attention away from the music. When her eyes landed on the first installation, they narrowed. It was a coffee cup sitting on the ground beside a stump where some of the coffee was splashed over the sides and onto the ground. Brie leaned in and whispered in Jessica’s ear so not to offend the artist if they were nearby. “I’m all for modern art, but this seems a little thin.” “Agreed. Let’s hope it gets better.” They moved on and as they did, Brie paused to fix her shoe where it was rubbing against her foot. She knew she should’ve broken them in more. They were cute, but hurt like hell. When she stood, she found herself alone and hurried to the second

exhibit, but when she found it, her steps slowed. Standing before her was a full-size Pac-Man game and two stools. She blinked, dumbfounded. Jessica and Cohen were nowhere to be seen. What is going on? She hurried on and found a bench situated before a huge black and white image of the Ashmolean Museum. It couldn’t be . . . Brie kept moving, her heartbeat turning frantic as she tried to make sense of what she was seeing. The music changed overhead and this time, she knew exactly what she was hearing. It was the music Bailey had written for her to walk around the museum for Christmas, and as it played she found a small table with the map he’d made for her and a rose. Tears burned the back of her throat as she kept going. He was here. Somewhere in this place, Bailey was waiting. Annoyed at her own slowness, she paused to strip off her shoes. The next exhibit was large and stopped her where she stood. It was Jessica’s piece of the crying girl—the one she said Brie had inspired. It was set up beautifully and she imagined it was the way she would’ve gotten to enjoy it had she made it to the showcase. Brie teared up and moved on. Bailey had done this. She turned a corner and there covering the wall was the image from the card they’d picked up when

they walked in, but this time she wasn’t seeing a small portion of what she’d assumed was a painting. In fact, it wasn’t a splatter painted canvas at all. It was the drop cloth where they’d first made love. Her hand flew to her mouth as she let out a laugh. There were distinctive handprints and a few she knew to be butt cheeks. Her face heated at the memory and then Bailey was there. He stepped out from behind the wall dressed in dark jeans and a button up shirt. His sleeves were rolled up revealing his arms. Her body turned liquid at the sight of him and it became harder to breathe. She hadn’t spoken to him since graduation. She hadn’t known what to say. “What’s all this?” Her voice shook as he moved towards her. “It’s our story.” He glanced around them and then back at her. “The first part of it anyway.” He smiled the same dashing smile that had tugged at her heart the first time she’d seen him in the park. It was a smile that had the power to be her undoing. “I couldn’t let you leave without talking to you.” “This is a lot more than simply talking. How did you do all of this?” “Oh, I had some help.” He took her hands in his and rubbed his thumbs over her knuckles. “Brie,” he held her in place with his gaze, all

kidding aside as his tone grew more serious, “I know I screwed up when I left and then I screwed up again when I asked you to marry me as a way of apologizing. I guess I still need you as a teacher in some ways.” They both let out uneasy chuckles. “Now, that doesn’t mean I don’t want to marry you, but I do realize now that, at the time, it wasn’t what you needed to hear.” Her heart soared into her throat cutting off all ability to speak. He still wanted to marry her? “The thing is, Brie, I don’t think I can be here without you.” She swallowed down the lump in her throat and pulled her hands back. “Bailey, I can’t stay.” “No, no, no. I know that and I’m not asking you to give up anything. If you want to be in New York, then that’s where we’ll be.” “That’s where we’ll be?” Her mind reeled at his words. “But, what about school? You need to finish school. I know what it means to you.” “I will finish, Ms. Freeman. Promise.” Bailey crossed his heart and then smiled. “But, I plan on transferring to a school in New York.” When she didn’t say anything, Bailey’s easy expression changed to a kind of panicked look. “Please don’t hate the idea because I’ve already talked to Mr. Catling about it and he’s agreed to help.”

“I don’t know what to say.” Her chest swelled, and she moved closer to him, her hands against his chest as he encircled her in his arms. “Are you sure?” “I want to be wherever you are.” She bit her bottom lip as images of the two of them together filled her mind, walking hand and hand in Central Park, checking out a new gallery in Midtown, or maybe heading to a bar to check out a local band. Bailey waiting for her inside their place when she got home from work. Her watching Bailey study at a table while they’d sit drinking coffee together. Days filled with love and nights filled with passion. The idea was too good to be true. “Do you remember that thing you asked me before?” A slow smile spread across Bailey’s face as he nodded. “I think I remember it vaguely, yes.” “Ask me again.” He slipped his hand into his pocket again and held up a ring that looked like the Posie rings she’d told him about—the ones she loved inside the Ashmolean. “Will you marry me, Brie?” She nodded as fresh tears slipped down her cheeks. Bailey lifted her off her feet and swung her around and then set her back down so he could slide the ring onto her finger.

“There’s a message on it for you.” She held it up and looked closely at the tiny words. Love is everywhere. She smiled up at him and nodded. “It sure is.” He covered her mouth with his and when she opened her eyes again, they were surrounded by their friends. Oliver, Lexie, the other guys from the band and Simone was there, too, handing out glasses of champagne. Jessica hugged her and Cohen grinned, while Mei and Drew beamed from the back of the group. “I damn near had a heart attack keeping a straight face on the way here.” “You?” Jessica squealed at Cohen. “You should try living with her. I should win the BAFTA for the performance I gave this afternoon.” “Welcome to the family, Brie.” Lexie leaned in and hugged Brie. “You’ll never be bored.” Oliver hugged her, too, and kissed her on the top of the head. “I always wanted a sister.” “Hey,” Bailey laughed and hit his brother in the shoulder. “What? Girls smell better.” Bailey shrugged. “I can’t argue with that.” “Hey, bro,” Oliver jerked a chin toward the drop cloth hanging on the wall. “Is that some sort of artwork from one of her favorite artists or something?” Bailey burst out laughing. “Something like

that.” Brie’s face ignited in heat, and luckily before Oliver had too much time to think about it, she was saved by John, who cleared his throat and held up his glass. “Cheers, you two.” They all held up their glasses and toasted. “Cheers.” Brie grinned again and hooked an arm around Bailey, her future husband. The mere thought made her insides turn to mush. As though sensing her line of thought, Bailey met her eyes and grinned. “I guess plans change.” “I definitely didn’t plan on you.” She kissed him and let the rest of the world melt away.

Also by Christina Kirby and Soul Mate Publishing: SAFE AT HOME (Book One in The Warm Springs Trilogy) Driven by fear and desperate to protect her family, Samantha is forced to leave Chicago and everything she’s worked to achieve, only to start over by tossing a dart-at-the-map. The Georgia townsfolk’s true Southern charm is the unexpected prescription needed to heal her soul, and the sexy carpenter who touches her heart are distractions she didn’t plan on, but they might offer her a chance at a new life, if she can let go of her past. Town heartbreaker Spencer Malloy isn’t looking for anything serious. His days are perfect working as a contractor, attending his nephew’s baseball games, or taking him fishing. He never expects to fall for the big city girl, Samantha. She’s not his type, timid and closed off, but in her unguarded moments, he’s intrigued by the woman he can’t get out of his mind. The urge to get closer to her grows stronger each day, and when the shadow of evil resurfaces, he vows to protect Samantha, even if it means abandoning his home and joining her on the run. When confronted by the man who’s bent on revenge, Samantha must choose between running

again to save the people she loves, or, if she has the strength, to stay and fight for her new life. Available now: SAFE AT HOME RUNNING HOME (Book Two in The Warm Springs Trilogy) Small-town beauty queen Jenny Fillmore is a survivor. In the wake of having been kidnapped by a madman, she’s managed to put her life back together, complete with a successful career and a serious boyfriend. But, when her first love returns and hires her as his real estate agent, old wounds are torn open, making Jenny question whether or not she has the life she wants. It turns out broken hearts don’t heal so easily and old desires don’t always fade with time. Professional baseball player Adam Hamilton didn’t expect a career-ending shoulder injury. Thrown a curveball in his prime, he returns home to Warm Springs and the one woman whose heart he broke to pursue his sports dream. But earning Jenny’s forgiveness won’t be easy. What he and Jenny once shared was real, but she’s moved on. With the new man in her life, time isn’t on Adam’s side. Available now: RUNNING HOME PROTECTING HOME

(Warm Springs Trilogy Book 3) The town’s favorite troublemaker, Avery Hamilton, is all grown up and has returned to Warm Springs—this time to stay. She used to envision following in her grandfather’s footsteps and opening her own general practice. But, that dream was before. Before she made the mistake that derailed her life, a mistake she’s tried hard to put behind her. Returning to the one place she loves most in the world will help her heal, but not before the man she’d left waiting forces her to confront her past. Everyone’s favorite cop, Nick Holloway, has his sights set on making detective, but when the one woman he thought could’ve been the one blows back into town, his world tilts on its axis. While focused on his future, his life starts to unravel, both professionally and personally. And, the one person Nick never saw coming is the one who hates him enough to stop at nothing in order to ruin his life. Even if that means hurting the people he loves. Nick and Avery must find a way to let go of their pasts to secure a future, but if the man out for revenge has his way, they may not get the chance. Available now: PROTECTING HOME A FACE IN THE CROWD Alexis Hightower considers trust a four-letter

word, and she has no intention of getting serious with anyone. After all, her day job as a nurse is plenty serious enough. On one of her nights off, she attends a concert for her favorite band and ends up on stage. She never expected to meet the legendary singer in person or that he would be the one to make her question her way of life. But how do you learn to trust again when the one you want is desired by thousands? Oliver Honeycutt has it all, success, fame, admirers, but when his family is faced with the unthinkable, none of it matters. Stranded in Atlanta, he meets Alexis, who’s unlike any woman he’s known before. As his attraction grows, plans for the future change, which leaves someone desperate to keep them apart. But Oliver won’t be easily discouraged. To have a future with Alexis, he’ll do whatever it takes to make her see the man behind the image. Available now: A FACE IN THE CROWD
A Light in the Dark - Christina Kirby

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