As soon as the elevator doors slide open, granting us entrance, you can feel the bass of the music. I can’t make out what song it is, but the beat has me swaying my hips before I can stop myself. A clear sign I shouldn’t be here. It’s been too long since I’ve felt this carefree. The last time—
“That’s what I’m talking about, Lo. Get your groove on,” Kendall encourages.
She has no clue how bad of an idea it would be for me to get my groove on. I tried to talk my way out of coming tonight. This is the last place I want to be, but my best friend wasn’t taking no for an answer. The semester is over. I’ve been using studying as an excuse to stay in all year. To avoid his parties. But I’ve run out of excuses, and Kendall’s been begging and pleading with me for days to be my plus one.
Yes, this is an invitation only kind of party. Not that it makes me any less comfortable being here. I have a standing invitation courtesy of my brother, tonight’s host.
Judging by the increasing volume of the music as the elevator climbs the five flights to the top level of his building, he extended more invitations that usual.
This could work in my favor. With so many bodies in his loft, maybe I’ll be able to avoid him. My brother’s best friend, roommate, and the object of my every fantasy since I was fourteen years old, Finn Graham. The man is built like a brick house—tall and muscular, with perfect hair and plump lips that taste like mint. Dark chocolate brown eyes that always find mine, sending shots of adrenaline to my heart, and other places.
We spent one night together last summer. I remember every second of it, even after consuming half a bottle of Grey Goose. I can recall the way it felt when he kissed me. It was all consuming. Hot. Passionate. Almost erotic, yet at the same time, he was gentle … the way our lips danced as if we were the only two people who knew the steps.
I traced every curve of his body with my lips that night. Stared into his eyes as he thrust into me the first time. Tugged his long, brown locks hard as I came unglued beneath him.
That night I was granted my one and only wish. The wish I made whenever I blew out candles or spotted a shooting star.
He was finally in my arms. In my life. As more than my brother’s best friend. As mine.
The next day, it was over. The only trace of our night together was the raw skin on the inside of my thighs from where his five o’clock shadow had rubbed as he teased me with his tongue for hours.
So, yeah, avoiding this party, any party my brother throws, is at the top of my list. Because there is no doubt in my mind Finn will be here. And I’ve managed to do just that for the last nine months. Until two hours ago. Three shots of tequila and I was letting Kendall dress me up like a Barbie doll. Tight leather pants, a red halter top, and smokey eyes that make my blues pop. My hair is in long, loose waves, cascading down the middle of my back. If I’m being honest, it felt good to have someone make me up after spending the week studying my ass off, wearing nothing but yoga pants, a messy bun, and oversized sweatshirts. By the time my buzz was wearing off, we were already in the Uber and on our way.
“I need another drink,” I mumble to myself when Kendall bumps me with her hip.
She has no idea what she’s done. Tonight is going to end one of two ways.
1. I’m going to get really drunk, make an ass out of myself while flirting with everyone who isn’t Finn, and pass out on the bathroom floor.
2. I’m going to get really drunk, do something stupid like demand answers from Finn, and my brother is going to flip his shit.
No, he doesn’t know what happened. No one does. I haven’t told a soul, not even Kendall, my best friend and roommate.
I’m not ashamed of that night. Hell, I’d love nothing more than to scream what happened in the middle of campus for all to hear. To claim Finn so girls would stop draping themselves all over him.
I can’t, though. Max would kill him, then me.
Max made all his friends promise not to touch me a long time ago. When we were all younger, hitting puberty. The summer my boobs finally came in. I remember the afternoon like it was yesterday. Max, Finn, and Brady were all swimming in our pool. Being only sixteen months younger than Max had its advantages. I liked his friends; they didn’t mind if I hung out with them occasionally. It was the beginning of summer vacation and my bestie at the time, Lucy, was on vacation with her family.
Instead of sulking inside or reading a book from my summer reading list, I decided to jump in the pool with the guys. My mom and I had just gone shopping for a new bathing suit. I’d chosen a cute, red two-piece with tiny white polka dots on it. I turned fourteen and my body had finally started to fill out. Instead of being a stick-thin, little girl, I was starting to get curves.
Needless to say, the moment I stepped into the backyard and called out to the guys, jaws dropped. I laughed at their reaction because it was Max’s friends. Who cared, right?
Max cared. He freaked out, wrapped me up in a towel, and escorted me back inside. He was muttering to himself the entire time about his friends not touching me. That I need to cover my body.
I barely realized what was happening because my eyes were locked with Finn’s, and it was clear he liked what he saw. I noticed the changes in his body as well. He had put on some muscle, his shoulders seemed broader, and his jaw more defined.
“Aren’t you proud of your brother?” Kendall asks, pulling me back to the present. I need to focus anyway.
Keep my head on a swivel to avoid being caught off guard. To evade Finn and his smoldering gaze.
“Your brother is going to be a kick-ass president. I’m so excited for him.”
For as much as Kendall and Max don’t get along, she respects his position with his fraternity. And she’s right. He is going to be a great leader for those guys. That’s why they elected him.
“Yeah, proud. I don’t think becoming fraternity president warrants a rager though,” I reply, my voice dripping with sarcasm.
“Of course it does. It’s a huge honor.”
I honestly don’t get the full impact of it, but I also don’t want to fight with Kendall. She’s a legacy, having joined the same sorority as her mother and grandmother. That means something to her. Max is a legacy as well, having joined the same fraternity as our father.
I’m anti-Greek. Not that I think there’s anything wrong with joining, it’s just not for me. I like to keep my circle small, and I get along better with guys than I do girls. I can count on one hand how many girlfriends I have, including my little sister.
Am I happy Max was voted as their next president? Hell, yes. He’s been talking about how much he wanted this for the past year. He has ideas on how to make the fraternity better, more philanthropic. To eliminate some of the harsher hazing he’s seen over the years.
So, I’m here to celebrate with him. But that doesn’t mean I want to be here. Because being here means seeing Finn, and as much as I also want that, I know it’s going to hurt the moment I lay eyes on him. My heart is going to be ripped out of my chest the same way it was the morning I woke up and he was gone.
It still doesn’t make sense to me. He wanted it as much as I did. I may have been tipsy, but I know what I saw in his eyes when he pulled me away from the party. I felt the heat in his stare as he locked his bedroom door. And when he touched me, I felt something else. Something more—
“Let’s do this!” Kendall shouts over the music as the doors slide open directly into Max and Finn’s loft.
There are people everywhere, shoulder to shoulder. It looks like he’s invited everyone he knows from campus, which makes me roll my eyes because Kendall was clearly missing her invitation. Not that he doesn’t like my roommate, he just thinks she’s loud and her lack of a filter pisses him off. More so when he’s drinking.
All things I love about her.
Leading the way through the crowd, in search of my brother or alcohol, whichever we find first, I keep Kendall’s hand clasped in mine. Neither of us are tall enough to see over the crowd, my five-foot-three and her five-foot-four stature swallowed up by the large bodies around us.
I recognize almost all of them, tossing a head nod here and there when my eyes connect. Most are part of Max’s fraternity, a few I recognize from the baseball team.
As we finally step out of the throng of people and into the kitchen, I let out a sigh. The open concept of Max’s loft is great for entertaining but that doesn’t stop people from crowding together.
Case and point … the kitchen is empty. Which happens to be where the alcohol is.
“Beer or punch?” I ask Kendall, sliding around the island.
She thinks it over, rubbing the heart tattoo on the inside of her wrist as I fill my red, plastic cup with punch. She stares at my cup for a second, and I immediately know what she wants. Handing it to her, she takes a sip, her eyes widening in surprise. It’s probably stronger than either of us are used to knowing my brother.
If the drink calls for an ounce of booze, he’ll give it two. Multiply that by a hundred to make a large batch and suddenly the punch packs a punch.
“Punch,” Kendall hollers at me over the music, attempting to hand my cup back. Shaking my head, I fill a second cup and clink mine against hers. “To our last night at sophomores. May next year be even better than this year.”
And here I thought this year would be better than last year.
Nope. I was wrong.
Next year can’t get any worse, I think to myself as I spot Brady walking by.
“Hey! Where’s Max?” I ask, placing my hand on his forearm. When he turns toward me, I notice his face pales.
“Willow. I’m so sorry,” he replies, pulling me in for a hug.
“What? Where’s Max?” I ask again, pushing against his chest but he doesn’t budge. Something’s not right. I can feel it. “Brady! What’s going on? Where’s my brother?”
This time he releases me when I attempt to step away. Looking up into his gray eyes, I see his unshed tears. When he points down the hall toward Max’s room, I take off in a sprint. The door is closed, something that would normally make me pause, worried I might walk in on something I don’t want to see, but not tonight. I burst through the door, and everyone’s eyes whip in my direction.
Max is sitting on the edge of his bed, head bent, phone in his hand. I can’t see his face, his golden-brown locks hanging down and blocking my view. What I do notice is the slump of his shoulders and how they shake slightly every few seconds.
My brother is crying. I can’t remember the last time I saw him shed a tear.
“Willow,” Finn says, drawing my attention to him. Our eyes meet before I can avoid it, his flaring to life for a brief moment then calming. What I see in his deep brown globes causes my knees to buckle.
Devastation. Sorrow. Pain.
My knees give out, but Finn catches me before I hit the ground, scooping me up in his arms and holding me close. I rest my head against his chest, my body going numb.
I vaguely hear Colton, Kane, and Julian mumble their condolences to first Max and then Finn, clapping Finn on the shoulder before exiting the room. It’s just the three of us now and my body is on high alert. Not only am I still in Finn’s arms but something is wrong with my brother, and I seem to be the only person who isn’t aware of what’s going on.
I wiggle out of Finn’s arms, and he sets me on my feet but doesn’t release me. His hands fall to my hips, and he pulls me back against him chest. I try to step away, his touch too much to bear, but he only tightens his grip.
“Max.” My voice is barely above a whisper.
When he lifts his eyes to mine, I intuitively know my world is about to fall apart. They’re bloodshot and tears are still streaming down his face. He flicks his eyes to Finn’s, and I feel Finn nod. Instantly, Max is standing in front of me.
“Lo, there’s something I need to tell you.”
Fuck! He’s never this serious with me. He sounds like Dad right now when I’m in trouble or when he’s lecturing all three of us—me, Max, and our little sister, Evie—about the importance of keeping good grades and being responsible.
I stare at his mouth as he says the words that shatter my world. I don’t hear anything after that, the room spinning around me as I try to comprehend what’s happening. My body feels weak, my legs heavy as I take a step toward his open arms, but I don’t remember the feel of his embrace, blacking out before I reached him.