Bennett Ross has a list of don’t-wants. No white dress or happily ever after. She doesn’t want soul-crushing love or promises she’s too broken to keep. Most of all, she doesn’t want anyone to ask her to stay.
Dane Masters might not have a list, but he does have a house and a steady job, and he knows exactly what he wants—Bennett.
When life keeps dragging her back to him, he’s there to give her a reason not to leave again. Each time, she has more trouble walking away, and he falls a little harder when she goes.
Unless Dane can find a way to prove he’s what she’s been searching for, Bennett will always have an excuse to push him away.
And then he’ll risk becoming another broken piece she leaves behind.
1 – SNAKES
A STACK OF VIDEO GAME cases crashes to the floor when I bump into the dresser. I cringe and glance over my shoulder. Despite my utter lack of stealth, the guy named Guy remains unconscious in his bed. Exactly how I want him to stay until I successfully sneak out of his apartment. I finish slipping on my shoes and back out of his room, pulling the door shut like I’m defusing a bomb. It latches without a sound.
Claiming victory, I turn to escape down the hall, only to slam straight into a hard body. A gasp slips out of me, a grunt from him. I would topple backward if not for him grabbing my arms to keep me upright. I tilt my chin up, and startled gray eyes meet mine.
Whoever he is brings a finger to his lips. “Shh.”
He checks through the open doorway behind him. A naked girl rolls across the bed in her sleep, the sheets tangled around her legs, and he lets go to ease the door closed with the same caution I used. A kindred spirit also making a break for it. When he turns back to me, a flash of amusement crosses his face before he drags me behind him to the living room.
Apparently, we’re in this together now.
“I’m missing my belt,” he says, scanning the floor.
While he searches around, I pick up my bag off an end table. In the process, I knock over a frame. Smooth, Bennett.
I set it back up and take in the photo of Guy and his sister—the naked roller. They’re posing in front of a tacky backdrop covered in trees, their smiles almost as disturbing as their color-coordinated outfits. We took similar photos at a department store I worked at in high school. But never of twenty-something twins who’d won a hundred thousand dollars off a lottery ticket and quit their jobs, thinking they were set for life. More like a few months since they live together in a two-bedroom, one-bathroom. As always, my drunken ability to choose a quality man amazes me.
He’s tearing apart the couch when I start inching toward the entryway.
“Is it worth it?”
Cushion in hand, he looks up and notes me slinking away. “You’re right. She can keep it as a souvenir.”
But on our way past the kitchen, I spot the belt by the refrigerator. I detour for it, pulling off my heels to avoid them clicking across the linoleum. He waits by the open door when I return.
I slap the leather against his palm. “She’ll have to remember your time together some other way.”
“You’re a fucking angel,” he says, following me out of the apartment.
I stop in the hallway to put my shoes back on, not sure anyone’s ever referred to me as such before. When my foot lifts, he extends a hand, so I can steady myself. “And you’re a fucking gentleman.”
His lips twitch, fighting off a smile. “The people on the other side of the door might not share these opinions of us.”
“Trust me, I’m doing him a favor by skipping out on him.” I teeter, switching legs, and he steps closer, not trusting my balance. It’s automatic, and it makes me think he really is a gentleman deep down.
With both my feet back on the ground, he tugs me in the direction of the elevators before letting go. The harsh overhead lighting intensifies the pounding in my skull. I made it through my entire college career without a debilitating hangover, so it makes nothing but sense that I wake up the day after graduation with one. I squint and drag my hands down my face. My escape partner flips a light switch on the wall, darkening the corridor.
He’s a hero as well.
A little old lady with blue hair walks her dog off the elevator before he and I lean against opposite walls. He tips his head back and closes his eyes, slapping at the buttons. A few light up but not the right one.
“Want to try that again?” I ask.
An eye opens, and he pokes the lobby button with one finger. His other eye slits. “You owe me a condom, by the way.”
One side of his mouth turns up. “Your dude came in, asking his sister for a condom. I provided.”
“Such a waste,” I mumble.
He raises his eyebrows and fully opens both eyes as we stop on the fourth floor. “Go on.”
I shake my head. “I’m not telling a complete stranger about the sex I had less than five hours ago.”
He pushes the third-floor button as the doors close. “You know who I went home with last night, where I woke up this morning, and that I’m a fucking gentleman. I know you practice safe sex, rock the shit out of a pair of heels, and believe you’re more trouble than you’re worth.” He presses the next floor’s button when we stop on three. “We’re practically best friends.”
I purse my lips as I think it over. It really doesn’t matter, since after this, we will never see each other again. “Fine,” I say, making him perk up even more. “Did you know a snake’s saliva contains digestive enzymes powerful enough to break down bone?”
He makes a face. “I do now.”
“They can digest everything, except for the claws and hair of live prey.”
“Why are you doing this to me?”
I let my head rest on the wall behind me and stare up at the mirrored ceiling. “I wondered the same thing when he insisted I watch him feed his snake and explained the entire process.”
“No…” The reflection shows him sticking his foot out of the elevator to keep us on the second floor a little longer.
“All I could think about the entire time was that, less than five feet away from my head, a mouse was being digested.”
His eyes meet mine in the mirror. “On behalf of men everywhere, I am so sorry. You deserve better from us.”
I smile, and he lets the doors shut.
It’s early on a Saturday, leaving the lobby deserted, except for a mailman shoving letters into tenants’ boxes. I stop and dig through my bag for my phone. “Shit, I forgot to charge it.”
“Thank God you have backup this morning.” He pushes one of the glass doors open, holding it for me. “After you.”
I put on sunglasses on my way past. “I’m not getting in a car with you.”
“I’d be worried if you did.” He snags my elbow, redirecting me the other way, and points to a coffee shop across the street. “We’re going to get a coffee, order you an Uber, and you’re going to give me the name of a business within walking distance of wherever you live. That way, when I turn out to be a psycho stalker, you and your loved ones are safe.”
“You won’t just follow me?” I ask.
He shrugs as we step into the street. “I didn’t even think about it until now. But thanks for the idea.”
The floor-to-ceiling windows in the coffee shop provide no relief for my headache, so I leave my sunglasses on as we stand in line.
“You look like a lurker with those on,” he says.
“I’m cool with it.” I give him a once-over. “They make more sense than a stocking cap.”
He drags the ugly olive beanie off his head. The dark hair is longer on top than I would have guessed from what was sticking out underneath. Even after combing his fingers through it, he still looks like he rolled out of someone else’s bed. “Your turn.”
I take off my sunglasses and move forward with the line. “Do you want to stare into my eyes now?”
At the counter, he orders a large black coffee. The barista asks for his name.
“Snake,” he says, watching me out of the corner of his eye. I pretend not to care.
She writes on the cup and turns her attention to me. I order something complicated to make up for his lack of imagination. Eyebrows raised, he waits for my name.
He covers his mouth with his hand, but his eyes smile. When he reaches for his wallet, I wave him off and toss down cash. “You’re paying for me to get home. At least let me buy your coffee.”
“I’d argue, but that wouldn’t be very gentlemanly, and I have a reputation to uphold with you.”
As we wait, he checks his phone. All the while, he chews on his lip, not even seeming aware of it. I wonder if he’s serious about trying to keep up a persona or if this is the real him. I decide it is, and in three years, when I randomly think about this moment, he will be the exact same person out there in the world as he is right now, standing in front of me.
“Snake,” the barista calls. “And Angel.”
He thanks her and picks up our drinks. Walking out, I take mine from him and slide back on my shades. The Phoenix sun has graduated to blinding and murderous. One of many things I won’t miss. I sip my coffee that ended up mostly sugar and milk as a black SUV pulls up to the curb.
He steps ahead to open the door. “Your carriage.”
“Thank you,” I say, climbing in. “I really appreciate it.”
“I couldn’t have you sneaking back in and marrying snake boy.” He purses his lips like he wants to add something, but then he says, “Take it easy,” and shuts the door.
The driver asks if I’m ready. I face forward and start to answer until the door swings open.
“I need you to give me your number.” The guy sticks his head in, phone in hand.
He nods, eyebrows drawn together like it’s the most obvious thing in the world. “Need.” He pulls off my sunglasses and tosses them on the seat beside me. He’s staring into my eyes. “There’s something I need to tell you, but I can’t right now.”
“What could you possibly need to say later that you can’t say now?”
“Something that doesn’t feel right saying until we’ve both taken a shower. Please. One text, and I’ll delete your number.”
I laugh because it makes no sense, and he smiles, holding out his phone. After a second, I sigh and take it. “One message,” I say, adding my number to his contacts under the name Angel. “If you send more, I’m blocking you.”
“All I need is one.”
THE PINK STICKY NOTE SHOWS up from halfway down our hallway. It hangs eye-level on our apartment door. Keaton calls them mini-mems, short for miniature memos, and uses them whenever I let my phone die. To be fair, it happens with me more often than most people. She writes down what she wants to text me and posts it to whatever surface is closest. It’s one of those quirks that’s endearing as hell. I unlock the dead bolt as I read it.
Your phone’s dead again.
I find another on the other side of the door.
I can’t believe you bailed so early.
The way she and her boyfriend were all over one another, it surprises me she noticed me leaving the bar at all.
One on the table where we keep our keys.
Liam’s hot cousin showed up just after you left. Some skanky bitch was all over him.
I grab the water bottle from the fridge with one stuck on the label.
Dammit Bennett. That skanky bitch should have been you!
The cousin moved back from LA a few days ago. She convinced herself if we met, the four of us would have a joint wedding, raise our kids in a cul-de-sac, and all be buried under an apple tree together. A sweet thought but far from how I envision my life going.
The pile of pink on a couch pillow surrounded by used tissues hints she squeezed in a movie before passing out.
Julia Roberts should star opposite Kate Hudson in a love story.
They’d make a beautiful couple.
So would we.
On her bedroom door.
Don’t die before me.
She’s lying facedown on top of her comforter. I pull off her shoes, cover her up, and pull the note off her cheek.
I love you.
“You too, crazy woman.” I leave the door open a crack, so she knows I’m home, and I space out in the shower before crashing onto my bed.
WHEN THE BOUNCING STARTS, I know the only way to make it stop is to open my eyes. They fight me, but I prevail.
Keaton hovers over me, her blonde curls in my face. “I brought you food.”
I grunt, rolling over. “You also brought an audience.” Liam waves from the doorway. “You look like shit, Bennett.”
“Oh, stop. You’ll make me blush.”
“Red is a better look than gray.” He dodges the pillow I launched and adjusts his glasses. “Your aim sucks too.”
“Why do we keep him around?” I ask her.
“Eye candy.” Keaton throws the pillow back at me. “Don’t go back to sleep.” She drags Liam out and shuts the door behind them.
I blink away the sandpaper lining my eyelids and haul myself out of bed. The bathroom mirror confirms Liam’s evaluation of gray not being an attractive color on me. Sleeping on wet hair hasn’t helped either, but between the shower and nap, my headache has become tolerable. I own the mess and throw my hair up without bothering to run a brush through it.
Liam meets me at the kitchen counter with the greasiest burger in existence. “We weren’t sure how hungover you’d be, so we went with very.” He slides over a shot and my phone and walks away. “Eat. Shoot. Make sure you didn’t declare your love for anyone.” The advice of a recently retired frat boy.
Being a rebel, I check my phone first. My belly flips when I see the text from an unknown number. Only one. The smart choice is to delete it, never read it. But curiosity overpowers sense more often than not. I abandon my food, ignoring Keaton’s questionable look on the way to my room, and crawl back under the covers. When I open it, I laugh.
He sent an audio message. I don’t even hesitate to hit play.
“You’re so fucking beautiful.”
That’s it. Four words and less than five seconds, and I want to know him—what he wants out of life, his favorite song, how he says my name, what his laugh sounds like. I listen again. To how he accentuates each word like it’s the most important thing he’ll ever say. And again, with my eyes closed. I commit it to memory—him, his words, all of it. Then, I delete the message.
In a week, I’ll be gone. The last thing I need is a reason to stay.