Chapter 66: Good Morning

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Alley

I was dreaming. I had to be, there was no way this was happening. Not to me, not with him. I’d spent all year dreaming and wanting and waking up to disappointment, and I fully expected it to happen again. He wasn’t really lying in my arms, clad in only his boxers, looking sexy and sweet. He wasn’t really nuzzling my neck, whispering soft promises of eternal love in my ear, or running his softly calloused hands all over my skin. It was just another dream… wasn’t it?

At some point during the night, as I lay tangled up in his arms, feeling his hot breath sweep across my cheek, it finally hit me: He was really here. He’d come back. I’d been stuck in sort of a dreamlike state all evening, unsure whether I trusted my eyes, ears, and lips, but eagerly drinking it in all the same. This realization struck as I was lying on my back, trying vainly to catch my breath, my heart hammering in my chest. He had been sitting up, just gazing at me, slowly running his hand across the skin of my exposed stomach. The expression on his face had been so… tender, so devoted. “I love you,” he’d said for the umpteenth time that night. I knew I would never get tired of hearing it.



“I love you,” I’d said immediately, wishing there was something better to say; words that captured what I was feeling a little better than that trite phrase. What could I say? How could I explain to him that he meant everything to me, and life without him in it was dull and vapid and just not worth living? The intensity of my emotions was frightening. I wasn’t used to love – before Alex, I’d never really dated anyone seriously. Never thought about it much. Love was just something that happened to other people; something for me to envy them for.

And I wasn’t used to being so… exposed in front of another human being. Not in a physical sense, although Taylor seemed to really enjoy the skimpy purple pajamas Louise had bought me for Christmas, but exposed emotionally. I’d never been so completely honest with another person; I’d never been so unafraid to spill my guts and confess every single thought and passion to him. He seemed to share the sentiment – we stayed up until nearly six in the morning; holding, touching, whispering, kissing, laughing, reminiscing. I was exhausted when he finally relaxed into sleep, resting on his side next to me, arm and leg thrown possessively across my body. As he murmured a sweet, soft goodnight into my ear, I felt warm, safe, elated. In love. Head-over-heels, can’t-live-without-each-other, Romeo-and-Juliet-star-crossed love.

I’d only been asleep a few blissful hours when a phone rang, shrilly breaking the heady tranquility of the room. Faint sunlight peeked in through the mini-blinds, washing everything with a muted golden glow. It took several rings before I realized what was making the noise. I wanted to ignore it, but I figured it was Louise, calling for whatever reason, and she would just continually let it ring until someone picked up or went ballistic. Taylor shifted and sighed in his sleep, but thankfully didn’t move away. I groaned softly, flailing my arm out, reaching for the source of my irritation. I was disoriented; my tired eyes felt like they were glued shut as I tried to force them open. I managed to catch a peek at the clock before my hand grasped the phone. 9:17AM. Damn you, Louise. At that moment, it didn’t matter whether she was my savior or not – she knew better than to call before ten, at the very least. I flipped it open with one hand and held it to my ear.

“You better have a damn good reason for calling this early,” I growled into the phone, not even bothering to hide my disgust at her early-morning shenanigans. “Shit, it’s not even ten yet! I just got to sleep like three hours ago!”

Silence on the other end. I wrinkled my brow, perplexed. Wait a minute. Why did my phone feel a little heavier than usual?

Oh, shit.

“Uh… I need to speak to Taylor,” said an even, masculine voice. A voice that didn’t sound entirely too happy, from my estimation. I clapped my hand over my mouth, horrified as I held the phone up and inspected it. Jesus! What were the odds in this world that Taylor and I would have the same freaking ringtone?

“Oh, God, sorry,” I whispered frantically into the phone. “I thought you were someone else…” I didn’t listen for the reply. I set the phone aside and grabbed Taylor’s shoulder, shaking him. “Taylor! Taylor! Wake up!”

He grunted and shifted again, rubbing his face against my neck like a cat, but didn’t open his eyes. I managed to squirm out from beneath him and sat up, shaking him again. “Taylor!” He rolled over onto his stomach, throwing his arm across my thighs. Jeez, I thought I was the heavy sleeper around here.  Desperate, I leaned over and dug my fingers into his ribcage. That worked.

“ARGH!” he howled, flipping onto his back to get away from me. I hopped up onto my knees and hovered over him anxiously. He opened one bleary eye and looked up at me. “What kind of ‘good morning’ is that?” he grumbled, his voice thick and sleepy. “A kiss would have been much nicer…”

“Taylor, I just cussed out one of your brothers,” I whispered. I picked up the phone and shoved it in his face. “I didn’t mean to! Oh, God, I just keep making things worse…”

His face scrunched up in an adorable expression of bewilderment and his eyes widened slightly as he oriented himself. “What?”

“Your brother is on the phone!” I hissed.

“Which one? You swore at him? Why?”

“I don’t know which one! They sound alike to me! And I didn’t mean to, I thought it was Louise!” I was panicked; embarrassed. “You have the same ring as me!” I leaned over and buried my face in his smooth, hard chest, moaning. “I am such an idiot… your brothers hate me… they’re going to tell your parents I’m rude and clumsy and an imbecile…”

He burst into laughter, his chest quivering with each breath. He lazily rubbed my back with one hand. “Oh, Alley,” he said fondly as I turned my face to glare at him. “You’re so funny.”

“You’re not seeing the gravity of the situation, Taylor,” I insisted as he took the phone from my hand, still laughing. He grabbed my arm and pulled me down beside him.

“You worry too much,” he whispered, grinning. I rolled my eyes – yeah, I’d heard that one before, and I distinctly remembered the result of listening to him the last time. But I stayed quiet as Taylor finally answered the phone. “Hello?”

I could hear the response from the other end even from where I was laying. “Taylor! Where the hell are you? What are you doing?” I felt my eyes widen as the brother launched into a long, tireless tirade. Someone was in serious trouble.

Taylor, for his part, seemed rather unperturbed. “Jeez, calm down, Ike,” he said. “Stop freaking out.” That got him several more beratings, all delivered in a colorful, shouting manner. I cringed, biting my lip. After several minutes of this, Taylor gave a long-suffering sigh and sat up.

“I’ll be back,” he whispered to me, holding his hand over the receiver. “This could take awhile.” I nodded silently, running my hand slowly up and down his back. I rose up and kissed his shoulder before collapsing back into the soft down pillow. He was still here, as he had promised… that was all that mattered to me. I watched as he started to crawl over me to get off the bed, and I admired the firm muscles in his arms that tensed and flexed as he moved. I couldn’t help but reach out and touch him again; it was like a reflex. 

He stopped, resting on his knees, and studied me for a moment, his cupid’s-bow lips curving up at the corners. He almost looked like he wanted to laugh… I cocked my head to the side, giving him a questioning look. He winked.

“Hang on, Ike,” he said, interrupting his brother. He set the phone on my nightstand and immediately bent down, pressing his lips firmly against mine. God, he was such a good kisser… My heartbeat sped up about a hundredfold as he pressed a little harder, still moving at that slow, sexy pace. I gasped softly, wrapping my arms around his neck, not wanting to let go. He broke the connection to lean down and whisper in my ear. “Now that’s how you say ‘good morning’.”

I bit back a laugh. “Oooh, sorry. I wasn’t taking notes… maybe you should show me again…”

“Gladly. Now pay attention, it’s something like this…”

This probably would have gone on for several minutes… well, make that several hours, had Isaac’s angry voice not reminded us that Taylor still had business to attend to. “Taylor? Taylor!” we heard him shout, his words tinny and faint over the receiver.

“You should probably answer him,” I murmured, squeezing his shoulder.

“I suppose,” he sighed. “Go back to sleep. I’ll be back in awhile.” Another quick kiss, and he reluctantly stood up and retrieved the phone. I watched him quietly slip from the room, his bare back glowing softly in the faint sunlight. I curled up on my side, snuggling down into the mattress. Pulling my thick comforter up around my shoulders, I sighed contentedly, unable to keep the smile off my face.

*****

I awoke again around noon. At some point Taylor had returned, sliding back into bed with me without my knowledge. His warm body was pressed up against my back, his arm snugly wrapped around my waist. I yawned loudly and stretched, leaning back against him.

“Ah, it awakes,” he teased. His hand slid up under the hem of my shirt, lightly caressing my stomach. It tickled, and I squealed and rolled away. He pouted, scooting closer to me.

I propped my head up on one elbow. “So… what did Isaac have to say?” I asked casually. “Other than the innumerable swears I heard before you left.”

“Oh, he had plenty more of those,” Taylor said cheerfully. “Probably some even you haven’t heard before.”

“What did he say about me?”

“Nothing, really.”

“Taylor,” I said, “you’re a terrible liar.”

He smiled and grabbed my hand. “I’m not lying. I think he was too fired up over me running away without telling him to specifically give you much thought. He didn’t even mention the cursing.”

“Wonderful,” I said dryly.

“So… you need to get up. And get ready. Because we have to go meet them soon. The bus is leaving this afternoon.”

Ah, leaving… of course, he had a real life now… with duties and responsibilities. He had family, fans, and music to deal with. He couldn’t just sit around and keep me company all day like he used to. I sighed inwardly. “Meet them?”

“Yes. Come on. Get up.” He latched onto my arms and began pulling me off the mattress.

“Taylor, I’ve met your brothers. Twice, actually. And I can’t say I’ve made a dazzling impression on them either time… not to mention that incident this morning.”

“And that’s exactly why you need to talk to them again! Third time’s a charm, Alley!” He laughed. I grudgingly allowed him to pull me to my feet. “Come on, we’ll even get some lunch first.”

We trooped downstairs, hand in hand. I kept sneaking glances over at him. Oddly enough, I thought him even more beautiful this morning, despite his mussed, oily hair and sleep-deprived eyes. Of course, the fact that he was shirtless might have helped that cause a bit, but still… he no longer looked the cool, collected rockstar he’d been at the session yesterday… he was just Taylor, the same boy who had stayed up all hours of the night with me too many times to count, watching silly movies and laughing and eating cake. The same boy who had held me when I cried; who had suffered a black eye and bruises while trying to protect me, who told me I was funny and pretty and intelligent and that he couldn’t imagine life without me...

He was right, we had been through so much together… he’d told me on more than one occasion that I was his best friend, a thought that I shared. Small wonder that we had both been miserable without the other. And now he was going to have to leave me again, although, granted, in a much different manner than before. I sighed.

“What’s wrong?” he asked, noticing my sudden chagrin.

“I don’t want you to leave. I wish you could stay, at least for a little while. I just got you back…”

His mouth curved into an incredibly sexy grin. “Me, too.” His eyes roamed over me as he pulled me into his arms. “Me, too,” he repeated, his expression changing into light laughter.

“What are you laughing at?” I grumbled, leaning up against him. “It’s not funny.”

“Nothing,” he said, which I knew was a total lie, but I decided not to pursue it. “Actually… I needed to talk to you about that.”

“About what?”

“Well… we’re going on break after this… so… I’ll have some free time…”

“Yes…” I said slowly, liking the direction this conversation was going.

“And, if you wouldn’t mind… I’d like to stay with you for awhile this summer…”

“Really?” I looked up at him, eyes wide.

“Yeah.” He tucked my hair behind my ear. “It’ll be like old times, sort of…” Laughter bubbled in his voice. “With a few differences…”

I couldn’t stop smiling. “Really?” I repeated.

He nodded. “I’m supposed to go home with Ike and Zac, and there’s some stuff I need to take care of, but I’ll come back as soon as I can… probably a few days.”

“How long will you stay?” I asked, hoping he would say, ‘Forever’.

“All summer.” He kissed my forehead. Well, not quite forever, but a few months was a good start… I hugged him fiercely, declaring that I loved the idea, and he laughed. “Great. So, what do you have to eat?”

“Absolutely nothing. I think there might be some freezer-burned chicken over in the deep freeze, and some half-rotted salad in the bottom of the refrigerator… there’s plenty of Ale8s, though,” I added helpfully.

He rolled his eyes. “I should’ve known.” He walked over to the phone.

“What are you doing?”

“Calling Pizza Hut, what else?” He turned and raised an eyebrow. “You still take deep dish, extra cheese, and pepperoni?”

I grinned. “You know me too well.”

*****

The delivery guy arrived a little later, giving me an extremely odd look as I paid him. I was still in my pajamas, and I was sure my hair was a wreck, since I hadn’t so much as looked in the mirror since I’d been up. I shrugged him off and brought the warm box inside, setting it on the table. Taylor attacked it as if he hadn’t eaten in weeks.

“You pig! Leave me some!” I exclaimed as he piled four pieces onto his plate.

“Pig? Me? You’re one to talk! I once saw you eat an entire box of vanilla wafers in one sitting!”

“Well…” I didn’t really have a good answer for that. “I was really, really hungry that time.”

He sat back in his chair, practically choking with laughter. “That time? So, what about that red velvet cake you demolished all by yourself? Or when Louise fixed those sausage balls for that girl’s bridal shower and you ate them all? Or what about--”

“I get it, Taylor,” I said, fighting back a smile. “I’m a huge, gluttonous heifer. A human garbage disposal.”

He winked, pressing his bare foot against mine under the table. “You have such a way with words.” He took a piece of pizza crust and slathered it with garlic butter before devouring it. Hmmm, pizza and garlic… we were both going to have fantastic breath by the time lunch was over. “So, what are your plans for the summer? Besides entertaining me, of course.” He grinned wolfishly.

I shrugged. “Going to class and going to work…” I sighed. “Tons of excitement, as always.”

“Class? Summer school?”

“Yeah…” It dawned on me that Taylor didn’t know that I was almost done with school. “I dropped the chemistry major. I’m just doing art studio. So, in order to graduate as fast as humanly possible, I’m taking two summer classes. I’ll be done in August.”

His eyes widened, and he quickly swallowed his food. “Are you serious? That’s great! What changed your mind?”

I nodded shyly, looking down at my plate. “Well… I was just sick of it. Plus, I found out Tanenbaum was going to be my advisor…” Taylor guffawed at that. “And I just thought… I can’t do something that doesn’t make me happy. And you were always telling me I should just go for it…” I felt my face reddening.

“I think that’s wonderful,” he said warmly. He leaned over and gave me a soft, slow kiss, and I found that I didn’t mind the garlic breath at all. “I really do. You’ll be so much happier.” He sat back, squeezing my hand. “So you’ll be completely done in August? What are you going to do?”

“I don’t know,” I admitted. “Probably become an unemployed bum.”

He laughed. “I doubt that.”

I was about to argue with him when we heard the front door open, and moments later, Louise breezed into the kitchen. Her expression was pure smugness. “Good morning,” she chirped at us. “And how are the lovebirds doing?”

“Just fine,” Taylor replied, matching her prissy, cheerful tone. She gave him a brief once-over, observing his shirtless form. I couldn’t blame her. I chose to remain silent, letting my still-red face speak for me.

“Excellent.” She threw her purse down on the kitchen table and collapsed in a chair. “Can I have some? I’m starved. Steve didn’t have anything to eat, either.”

“Well, you better eat it quickly,” I said. “The way Taylor’s going through it, there’s not going to be anything left…”

She laughed merrily, picking up a gooey slice and looking up at me. I furrowed my brow as her eyebrows shot up and she began sputtering with laughter. “Jeez, Taylor, you don’t waste any time, do you?” she asked. Confused, I looked over at Taylor, who was actually looking a little red-faced himself. He gave me a goofy smile and shrugged.

“What? What is it? Do I have pizza all over my face?” I demanded. “Is there something in my hair? Everyone’s been looking at my funny all morning…”

“Maybe you should go look in the mirror, sweetie.”

I stood up briskly from my chair and marched into the downstairs bathroom. Jesus, what in the world were they all laughing about? I flipped on the light, tucking my messy hair behind my ears. The tile on the bathroom floor was cold, so I quickly hopped over to the floor mat in front of the sink and looked in the mirror. My jaw fell open. “TAYLOR!” I screamed.

Huge, red splotches all over my neck… Hickeys. I clapped my hands over my throat, as if covering them up would make them disappear. Jesus! What, were we in middle school or something? I looked like I’d been mauled by a bear. No wonder the pizza guy had stared at me. And Taylor… that little twit, he hadn’t even warned me…

I heard loud laughter from the other room, mainly from Louise. I stomped back into the kitchen and crossed my arms. Taylor shrugged again and tried giving me a sweet, apologetic smile. “I love you,” he offered.

“Taylor! My neck! You’ve branded me, like…. like… cattle, or something!”

“He’s just marking his territory,” Louise piped up, obviously trying not to laugh in my face again. “The male species is very possessive…”

“Ugh!” I was so embarrassed. As I stalked past the table, Taylor reached out and grabbed me, pulling me down into his lap. “Let go of me,” I mumbled. “And stop laughing!”

His arms tightened around my waist. “What are you pitching such a fit about? If I recall correctly, you didn’t seem to mind too much last night when you were getting them…”

Despite the fact that he was very much right, I was still indignant. “Oh my God,” I said, squirming to get away from him, to no avail. “You’re such a man.”

He smirked. “Now that’s what I like to hear.”

“You know what I mean… I look like I have leprosy or something!”

“I can’t help it that you have ultra-sensitive skin!” He leaned forward, his lips pressed up against my ear, so Louise couldn’t hear. “Tell you what. We’ll go back upstairs right now, and to make things even, I’ll let you put some on me…” His tone overflowed with laughter, and I resisted the urge to smack him.

“I can’t go out in public. I can’t meet your brothers looking like this! In addition to thinking I’m rude, clumsy, and an imbecile, they’re going to think I’m a slut, too!” This was met with laughter from everyone in the room except me.

“You’re going to meet them again?” Louise asked. “Oh, this ought to be good…”

“Oh, Alley,” Taylor murmured. “You--”

“—worry too much,” I finished for him. “Yes, I know.”

“Exactly.” He lifted me up and stood, grabbing my hand. “Come on, we’ll find something for you to wear… to cover them up…”

“What, a turtleneck? In June? Like that wouldn’t be totally obvious. It’s 90 degrees outside!”

“Come on,” he said, laughing. I followed him upstairs, shaking my head.

*****

A little while later, I was freshly showered, my hair fixed, dressed in a nice sleeveless shirt and jeans. With a scarf around my neck.

“It looks good on you,” Taylor said, in a valiant attempt to make me feel less self-conscious. “Very chic.”

“I feel ridiculous,” I said, staring at my reflection in the mirror. Louise and I had spent nearly 30 minutes with a bottle of concealer, trying to cover up my Taylor-induced bruises, to no avail. The redness was covered up, sure, but the pale, thick makeup had looked funny. If I blushed, which was sure to happen at least fifty times today, then the white circles would practically leap out against my pink skin. It was a no-win situation. When Taylor had helpfully suggested that I wear his scarf (“I wear them all the time! They’re cool!”) Louise had nearly busted a gut laughing before admitting that really, I had no other choice. So there you go.

He leaned against the sink, arms loosely across his chest. He was wearing some of his old clothes, a pair of ripped-up jeans and a faded blue t-shirt – Louise had finally gone to get his boxes of clothes out from hiding, telling Taylor why she’d had to keep them from me. We had laughed, but I could tell by his expression that it hurt him – the thought of me sitting here all year, grieving for him, digging through his old things for comfort.

Now, he was watching me scrutinize my appearance in the mirror. It wasn’t just the scarf that was bothering me. As I studied my pale, slightly pinkish reflection, my curly, uncontrollable hair, I tried to view myself through someone else’s eyes. How would his brothers, his family see me? How would his fans see me? Would they wonder why Taylor Hanson, one of the most gorgeous creatures on the face of the planet, had chosen to love such a gawky, ungorgeous person? I wondered that, myself.

“What do you see in me?” I asked suddenly. “I’m so….” I trailed off, immediately wishing I could take it back – I hated sounding like an insecure, sniveling girl.

“So what?”

“Nevermind,” I said quietly.

The look he gave me indicated that he knew what I was trying to say. He unfolded his arms, grabbing my hand, and pulled me close to him. I leaned against his chest, wrapping my arms around his waist. What was I freaking out about? We were made for each other. We even fit together perfectly – when we embraced, we just sort of snapped together, like two pieces of a puzzle. I sighed, suddenly very, very depressed that he had to board that bus in just a few hours.

“I’ll tell you what I see,” he said. “I see you. Not a façade, or an attitude, or an image. Just a genuine, honest human being… and believe me, I haven’t met many of those in my lifetime. I see a girl who is hilarious, a genius, an artist… a girl who has managed to permanently embed herself in my soul. Literally, Alley Kat. You’re an intrinsic part of me now, whether you can believe that or not. And for the record, I think you’re the most beautiful person I’ve ever known. Inside and out.”

“Oh,” I whispered, unable to possibly form an answer that could even match that. It was the sweetest, most eloquent thing I’d ever had anyone say to me. And he’d even used the word ‘intrinsic’… sheesh, I really didn’t give him enough credit sometimes…

“And I’m sorry for damaging your neck,” he continued in a mischievous tone. “But it’s just so damn sexy…”

“It’s okay,” I whispered. “I… I don’t really mind.” Here comes the blushing.

He laughed, tipping my chin up, and I immediately stood on my toes, aching for a kiss. Aching for his touch; to be connected and a part of him. I loved the way his hands gripped my hips, the way he pulled me close so that our chests were pressed together, the way he sighed with pleasure whenever I combed through his soft hair with my fingers. All summer, he had said. I smiled. A whole summer of this…

“Are you ready?” he asked softly.

“No,” I whispered, dreading the few days we would have apart. Don’t leave me, not yet…

“Me, either…” He kissed me again. “But we should probably go…”

I reluctantly agreed, and we slowly walked back downstairs. Louise was in the living room, and Taylor walked over and gave her a hug, whispering something in her ear. She smiled as he let go.

“Well, goodbye, although I have the feeling I’ll be seeing you again soon. Have a safe trip back.” Taylor nodded, taking my hand again, and together we set out again for the Marriott. 

*****

“So… what are we doing?” I asked nervously. We were sitting out in the parking lot, trying to figure out the best way to get into the hotel without causing a scene. I wasn’t sure that was possible. I’d been eternally thankful for my darkly tinted windows as we had driven past the main door to find a parking space – sure enough, as Taylor had predicted, a group of girls was patiently waiting for the guys to leave.

Taylor bit his lip, thinking. “Here,” he said, pressing his hotel keycard in my hand. “You go up first. I’m in room 482. Go in one of the side doors, too, just in case. I’ll follow you up there in a minute.”

“What, are you ashamed of me?” I teased.

He smiled at me fondly. “Of course not. I just don’t want you to…” He paused. “Some fans can be vicious. Ike’s girlfriend, Miranda, won’t even leave the bus when she visits him on tour, because people scream some pretty nasty things at her…” He leaned over and squeezed my knee. “If they figure out you’re with me, and start saying shit to you… just don’t listen. Please. It means nothing. They’re just jealous.”

“I know,” I said softly. “I’ll try.” I felt a little overwhelmed. Suddenly the days when Taylor was unseen by the rest of the world seemed so simple by comparison… “I’ve been spoiled. I’d nearly forgotten that I’d have to share you with the world again after you woke up…”

He gave me a knowing smile. “You share me with no one,” he said, leaning over to kiss me. “Now, don’t forget. Room 482. Just wait on me.”

“Okay.” I reluctantly got out of the car and headed for the closest side door, giving Taylor a quick glance over my shoulder before I entered the building. Following his directions, I made it upstairs and into his room with no problems. Once inside, I threw myself on his unmussed bed and flipped on the television, trying to ignore my anxiety. He’d insisted I come along to be properly introduced to Isaac and Zac, but I wasn’t looking forward to that moment at all. I wasn’t ready, I needed time to recover my senses and plan something appropriate to say to them. I was sure they thought I was a total idiot. They probably thought I was even worse than the last girlfriend, who, according to Taylor, was a hard one to top…

A quick knocking on the door startled me. Taylor! I leaped up and ran to the door, flinging it open without thinking. “Taylor! That was quick!” I said breathlessly… to Zac, who was standing outside the door silently, his arm still poised for another knock. He simply stared at me, confusion flitting across his face for a brief moment. Be yourself, Taylor had said, when I had expressed anxiety over meeting his brothers, particularly Zac. Just be honest. He hates fake people…

 

I managed to choke out a greeting. “Hi…”

“Hi,” he said warily.

What to say, what to say… Jesus, why didn’t I ever stop and think before I acted? “I’m sorry about your pants,” I blurted out. “I’ll buy you a new pair…”

He gave me an incredulous look, and for a moment, I thought he was going to laugh. “Where’s Taylor?” he asked, not bothering to respond to my offer. He didn’t even seem that surprised to see me here.

“Um… downstairs somewhere…” I mumbled, looking down at the floor. Wait, we hadn’t even had introductions yet… I was so scatterbrained, I had expected to meet Zac with Taylor by my side, not alone… “I’m Allison. Alley. Call me Alley,” I said, feeling very stupid.

He just nodded. “Okay,” he said. “Tell Taylor to come to my room when he gets back.” With that, he turned and walked down the hall. I swallowed, slowly walking back to the bed, still a little shocked. Well, maybe it wasn’t that bad. He didn’t yell at me this time, at least…

I heard another knock on the door, and, having learned my lesson, I slowly walked up to it and peeked through the peephole. This time it really was Taylor. I slowly opened the door and he gave me a huge grin, enveloping me in his arms. “You made it! Did you have any trouble?” he asked.

“Um…” I hesitated. “Zac wants you to come to his room.”

“What? Did you talk to him?”

“Yeah, just like… ten minutes ago. He knocked and I thought it was you, so…” I groaned, handing him back his keycard. “I froze. He had to think I was a moron…”

Taylor laughed. “Well, let’s go fix that. It’s probably better to meet them one at a time anyway.” He grabbed my hand and started pulling me out the door, despite my protests. We walked down the hall to room 478, Taylor practically oozing confidence, and me fidgeting like a squirrel. As we stood in front of Zac’s door, he gave me a fond look and kissed my forehead. “Just be yourself,” he reminded me, sounding like a corny self-help guru.

“What, you mean neurotic, clumsy, loudmouthed?”

He wiggled his eyebrows. “It won me over, didn’t it?” 

I had to laugh. Taylor knocked, and a minute later Zac swung the door open, carefully appraising us both. I tried not to flinch under his gaze. He beckoned us inside, and Taylor practically dragged me into the room. It smelled faintly like stale smoke. Apparently Zac wasn’t a neat freak like his brother – although his suitcases were stacked on the bed, ready to go, the room was still a wreck. Trash, soda bottles and food wrappers everywhere, the bed unmade, with the blankets and sheets spilling over into the floor.

“Zac,” Taylor said. “This is Alley. Alley, Zac.”

“We’ve met,” Zac said.

“I know,” Taylor replied easily. “But this makes it official.”

Zac eyed me. “So, this is who you stayed with last night?” he asked Taylor, smirking. I wondered if Isaac had told him about my not-so-friendly greeting on the phone. “The one you sacrificed me to the teenies for?”

“Yes,” Taylor said, not missing a beat. “And thank you for not telling, Zac. He said you told him I was already asleep.”

Zac shrugged, looking a little uncomfortable at Taylor’s calm demeanor. I got the feeling he was expecting him to get riled up. “Well, thanks to you, he’s pissed at me now, too,” Zac grumbled. “Should be a fun ride back.”

“I’m sorry,” I said suddenly. “I’ve caused you all a lot of trouble…”

Taylor looked at me sharply. “No, you haven’t.” I gave him a look, and he smiled. “Well, maybe a little. But you’re completely worth it…”

“You may change your mind about that,” I said dryly. “We have yet to speak to Isaac. And judging from his reaction this morning, he’s going to disagree with that statement.” Zac actually smiled, bending over to heft his luggage off the bed. Taylor nudged me, winking. See? he mouthed. I wasn’t quite sure what he meant by that. It was going to take more than a few cracks at Taylor’s expense to win him over, I was sure.

“What did you need, Zac?” Taylor asked. I zoned out as Zac began digging around in a side pocket, mumbling something about needing some change for the soda machine.

“Hey, Zac,” a smooth, deep voice called, coming from the other side of the wall. A moment later, Isaac came through the doors that separated their rooms – Zac had left his side open. “Get your junk out here, we’re getting ready to load up. Where the hell is--” he stopped once inside, seeing the answer to his question. For a moment, it was quiet in the room – Taylor staring at Isaac, Isaac staring at first Taylor and then me, and Zac staring at us all with an amused expression.

“Hey, Ike,” Taylor said, as if nothing had happened – as if he’d been in his room all night, safe and sound, and not out running around with some weird girl. “We were getting ready to go find you.” Actually, I was getting ready to flee… “This is Alley.”

“Hi,” I said shyly. I don’t know what I expected – I guess I had thought he would give me a dirty look, or make a snide comment, but he didn’t. Instead, he just nodded, an odd smile on his face.

“Yes, I remember… you’re the painting girl. From outside the coffee shop.”

“Yeah,” I said, blushing, actually feeling a grateful for the scarf, as stupid as it must have looked. I wondered if either of the brothers were suspicious of the scarf’s purpose, or whether they had just assumed that I’d fallen victim to Taylor’s fashion sensibilities. “Yeah, I… um, I like to paint.”

“She’s excellent,” Taylor announced. “You should see some the stuff she has at home. It’s unbelievable.”

“Yeah, I bet,” Isaac said. “Everyone loves that one you gave us. But Taylor went and put it up in his room, right on the wall next to the mirror…”

I turned to Taylor – though I knew he had eventually discovered the painting, it was the first I’d heard of this. “You did?” I asked, unable to resist getting in another dig. “I knew you were vain, but, jeez…”

He gave me a withering look, and his brothers laughed. “Taylor,” Isaac said. “I need to speak to you for a minute.” Uh-oh.

“Hey, stay right here. I’ll be right back,” Taylor said. Stay here? I got the feeling he expected me to actually make conversation with Zac; bond with him or some such nonsense. He squeezed my hand before following Isaac through the door into the other room. I longingly watched him leave, sighing as it clicked shut. I’ll just go wait in his room, I thought… before remembering that I had given back the key. Shit. Hmmm…. Maybe I would just go sit out in the hall… or find a closet to hide in…

“You can stay here,” Zac said, noticing my discomfort. “I’m not going to bite you.” Then his lips curved into another smirk. “Unlike Taylor, I see…”

I automatically reached up for the scarf, feeling the blood rush to my face. He chuckled at my expression, but I wasn’t sure how to respond to that. I gingerly sat down on the bed, wrapping my arms around myself. Should I make conversation? Should I just keep my mouth shut?

“You know,” Zac said. “If you are such good friends…” the emphasis he placed on that word wasn’t lost on me – I got the feeling he was adding an unspoken ‘friends with benefits’ in his mind. “Then why didn’t you say anything to any of us? When you brought that painting you didn’t say a word. And yesterday, Isaac says you didn’t say anything to him or Taylor.”

I looked down at the tacky paisley comforter, thinking. “Would you have believed me?” I asked quietly. “Or would you have thought I was just another psycho fan, looking for an excuse to get close to him?”

“It depends. Are you a psycho fan?”

I snorted – accidentally, I hadn’t meant to do it. Zac gave me an odd look. “Psycho? Depends on who you ask. Taylor would probably say yes. Fan…” I trailed off, deciding not to tackle that issue. His gaze never wavered, and I drew myself up against it, determined not to back down. After a moment, he shrugged, digging through his suitcase. I watched as he took out a pack of cigarettes and a lighter, slapping the small box against the heel of his hand to pack down the tobacco. He gave me a challenging look when he noticed me watching.

“I suppose you’re going to tell me not to smoke,” he said, putting a cigarette between his lips and lighting it. He inhaled deeply before blowing out a pale, wispy stream. “That it’ll ruin my lungs or my voice or give me cancer.”

I shrugged. “Well… I’m not your mother. It’s none of my business.”

He smiled slightly, apparently liking my answer. But he said nothing, simply going into the bathroom and closing the door, presumably to smoke in peace. I sighed, wishing I were still at home, in bed… with Taylor next to me. Shirtless. Hmm… no, more than shirtless… wearing nothing but that same tender, suggestive look he’d given me last night…

My little daydream was interrupted by voices on the other side of the wall. I started, shaken out of my reverie, and listened – it sounded like… Taylor and Isaac, yelling at each other… I jumped up, running to the shared doors between the rooms, hoping to hear a little better. Zac’s side was open, but Isaac’s door was closed, as there was no door handle on our side. I pressed my ear against the cool faux wood, trying to listen. Their voices were muffled, but I could understand every word.

“Taylor, I’m just saying, that was a fucking stupid thing to do! What would we have done if you’d had another… blackout, or something? Nobody knew where you were! I didn’t even know you were gone!” Isaac, sounding considerably less polite than when he’d met me.

 

“I’m not going to have another blackout,” Taylor replied, sounding irritated. “I told you. I was perfectly safe. I was safer there than I would have been if I was here… and besides, I had to do it…”

 

“Listen, I know you like this girl, or whatever, but it could have waited--”

 

“NO, it couldn’t have!”

“What are you doing?”

I squeaked, jumping away from the door, looking at Zac guiltily. “Uh….” I said, and then gave up trying to think of a good lie. Hadn’t Taylor just said to be honest? “I’m listening to them yell at each other.”

He nodded, pursing his lips, before joining me at the door, pressing his ear against it. “What are they saying?”

I almost laughed – Zac and I bonding while eavesdropping on his brothers, how odd. “Oh… just about him running away…”

“Well, whatever. You’re here now, in one piece, thank God. We have to go. We can discuss this later.”

 

“I’m not going.”

 

“What?!”

 

“I want to stay here.”

My breath caught in my throat. What happened to the stuff he needed to take care of? Not that I was complaining, but… Zac looked at me, furrowing his brow.

“What? Taylor, no! We can’t just… leave you here!” Isaac sounded horrified. And pissed.

“Why not? We’re taking a break, anyway. What does it matter? It’s one less person on the bus to annoy you on the way home. I’ll come back when we’re ready to record again.”

 

“Taylor… fuck! What’s happened to you? You have to come back. Mom and Dad are expecting you, and you have an appointment with the psychologist that you need to go to…”

 

“I want to stay here,” he repeated stubbornly.

“Wow,” Zac said. He studied me, as if trying to figure out what in the world Taylor found so appealing about me. I thought about telling him that it was a mystery to me, too, despite Taylor’s earlier claims. “You sure must be something.”

I averted my eyes. “Not really,” I mumbled.

“He seems different today. Relaxed,” Zac remarked casually. “I guess he just needed to get laid.”

I glared at him. “Though I don’t think it’s any of your business, we did not sleep together.”

“Oh? Is that why when Ike called his phone early this morning, you answered?”

I wasn’t sure why I felt compelled to argue with him, but I did. “We slept in the same bed. Clothed. For your information. Totally innocent.”

“Innocent… I see. And why are you wearing his scarf, again?”

I narrowed my eyes. “Perhaps I’m cold.”

“Oh, of course… because it’s only 92 degrees outside…”

“Well, that is cold to some people…”

“Like who? Native tribes in Africa?”

He was obviously getting a kick out of arguing with me. I couldn’t decide if this was a good thing or bad thing. I opened my mouth to shoot off another smart remark when the door we were leaning against suddenly came open and Zac and I both fell into the other room.

“What the--” Taylor said, looking down at our sprawled figures. He still had his hand on the doorknob. If I do one more stupid thing today…I swear…  I looked up at him guiltily. I was relieved when he laughed. “Oh, Alley,” he sighed, bending down and lifting me from the ground. “I can’t leave you alone for any amount of time, can I?” The pointed look he shot at Isaac when he said this was not lost on me.

“Thanks for helping me up,” Zac grumbled, climbing back to his feet.

“Sorry,” I whispered to Taylor. “We didn’t mean--”

“It’s okay,” he interrupted me. He grabbed my hand and pulled me out of the room. “Give me a minute,” he said flatly to Isaac, before we retreated out into the hall and then into his room. Taylor sat on the bed, looking forlorn, and sighed. “I guess you heard all that, didn’t you?” he asked once we were alone.

“Well, until the end… I take it he didn’t approve your, um, plan,” I said quietly to Taylor. “Although, I can’t say I’m surprised.” I stood in front of him, stroking his hair. “It’s okay. I’ve waited a year for you… I can wait another few days…”

He looked up and gave me a crooked smile. “You can? I don’t think I can.”

I smiled, planting myself on his lap and leaning against him. “Sure we can… you’ve got my number now, right?” He nodded. “It’s just a few days… we can manage… and I don’t want to piss off your brothers, or your family, for that matter, anymore than I already have…”

“I don’t know, you and Zac seemed to be getting along well,” Taylor said dryly. “Spying on us together.”

“Curiosity loves company, I guess.” I shrugged. “He still thinks I’m a freak.”

Taylor shook his head. “Nah. He’s just trying to figure you out. If he didn’t like you, believe me, you’d know. He wouldn’t hesitate to tell you.”

“And Isaac?”

He smiled. “Isaac is too angry at me right now to think of anything else.”

“But I’m the reason he’s mad at you. I’m a bad influence on you!”

Taylor laughed loudly. “Indeed you are.” He grazed his lips against mine. “Getting me in trouble…”

“Like you’ve never gotten me in trouble…” I slid my hand around the back of his head, pressing his face closer.

“Me? Of course not…” He leaned back on the bed and pulled me on top of him, that sexy rakehell grin back on his face. I laughed, lying on his warm chest, capturing his lips with mine again, soaking in as much of him as I possibly could before he had to go…

We heard a thumping at the door. “Taylor, come on! We have to go!” Taylor swore loudly.

I slid my arms around his neck, squeezing him tightly. “Well,” I said softly. “I guess I’ll see you in a few days.” I slowly stood up, loathe to leave him, but left with no choice. He rose up, as well, and raked his hair out of his eyes. He leaned down to kiss me again, and I eagerly responded.

Taylor!”

He sighed, irritated. “I’m coming!” he shouted back. “Jesus,” he muttered. “It’s not like we have to be there at a specific time…” He grabbed his suitcase and we reluctantly left the room. Isaac and Zac were already in the hall, waiting.

“Ashley’s already downstairs, checking us out. Come on, we need to get going,” Isaac said. He nodded his head at me. “Nice to meet you, Alley.”

“You, too,” I murmured. He and Zac began wheeling their luggage down the hall. Taylor just stood beside me.

“I’m going to wait here until you’re gone,” I said quietly. “Before I go to my car. Just in case.”

He sighed. “Probably a good idea.” His arm slid around me. “I’m going to be thinking of you every minute I’m gone…”

I grinned. “Don’t do that… that’s enough to drive anyone crazy.”

He wiggled his eyebrows. “You drive me crazy, alright…” He bent and gave me one last kiss. I broke away, squeezing his arm.

“Well…” I said hesitantly, afraid for a minute that I might cry. “Call me. Let me know what day you’re coming back…”

“I will. I love you, Alley.” I murmured that I loved him, too. He started down the hall and I watched, despondent, as he turned the corner. Just a few days… just a few days… I leaned against the wall, chanting it over and over. I heard the elevator ding as it reached the floor. I sighed heavily.

A moment later, I heard him call my name. “Alley! Wait a minute, guys, hold the door…” He reappeared around the corner with something in his hand.

“Dammit, Taylor! What are you doing? We have to go!” I heard Isaac shout.

He jogged up to me. “Here,” he whispered. “I almost forgot this.” He held out a black-and-white speckled notebook, and I carefully took it.

“What is this?” I asked, bewildered.

“My…. my dream journal. Remember? I told you about my dreams, and how I had to start writing them down?”

“Yeah…”

“Well… I want you to have it. It’s all about you, anyway…” he trailed off, suddenly looking bashful. I flipped it open to a random page, scanning his messy, scrawled words.

Is it bad that the only solace I get is at night, in my dreams, in her arms? That I look forward to sleeping every night, just to be with her, just to be a part of this wonderful world that doesn’t even exist?

 

 My eyes widened… me? I blushed a little, skimming through more of the intensely private passages.

Woke up around ten-fifteen. Same dream as always – but this time I felt her beside me. Actually felt her skin – it was like silk, so soft. I felt content, happy, like I belonged there. I didn’t want to wake up. Still have not seen her face, but in my dream, I think we’re in love. I can feel it.

I looked up at him in disbelief. “I can’t take this! It’s personal,” I exclaimed. “Keep it and add more to it.”

He shook his head. “I don’t need to add anymore to it…  I have you now. I have the real thing…” He grinned.

“TAYLOR!”

I smiled shyly, holding the notebook close to my chest. “Go,” I said, pushing him. “Before you really make him mad.”

He grinned wildly and pressed a hard kiss against my lips before jogging back down the hall. I watched him leave, a goofy grin on my face, realizing that the next few days couldn’t pass fast enough.

*****

“Still on cloud nine, huh?” Ryan asked. We were sitting at the register, watching people browsing through the store.

I beamed at him. “Yeah…”

Life seemed so much brighter after June 1st. Nothing could bring my mood down. Nothing. Not the terrible world news, not the fact that I had to get up at 8AM for my summer school class, not even working at FYE. I’d voluntarily worked every day Taylor had been gone, mainly to keep me busy and make the time go faster. I thought of him every single second; it was ridiculous. I kept copies of their album right by the register so I could stare at his beautiful face all day. I kept his notebook with me, reading the passages out of it when I had a moment – reading about me. It was odd, learning that I hadn’t been the only one suffering all year. And some of the things he wrote were just… unbelievable. Taylor was an intense, passionate person, something I had always known – but getting a glimpse into his innermost thoughts sent shivers down my spine. He loved me. He loved me.

And of course, there were the phone calls.

After he’d left – once he’d finally gotten on the elevator – I had walked down the hall, to a wide window at the end that faced out over the back of the hotel. I had stood and watched them load their stuff, watched them sign autographs for the group of fans that had camped out, watched as Taylor looked up, saw me standing in the window and blew me a kiss. I had nearly cried when I saw the bus take off, but I managed to keep it together. It was probably twenty minutes later, when I was driving home, when he had called the first time.

“I miss you already,” he’d said immediately after I flipped it open, even before I could say hello. “How am I going to make it four days without you?”

I had giggled. “You’ll manage. You’ve good company for the next 20 or so hours…”

He had groaned. “Ugh… don’t remind me…” We had talked for nearly two hours, until his battery died. We kept up this pattern for three days – talk, run down the battery, charge it back up, talk again. He even called me at work… which Ryan found hilarious. After getting over his initial shock at ‘Jordan’s’ real identity, Ryan had taken every opportunity to affectionately tease me about my new love.

“So when is your little loverboy coming back?”

“Tomorrow,” I sighed. “He got a ticket directly to Lexington for tomorrow afternoon.”

Ryan chuckled. “I still don’t believe it. You, of all people, and Taylor Hanson.”

I look at him askance. “What do you mean, ‘you’? What do you mean by that? Am I not good enough for him?”

He laughed.  “No, no, kiddo. If anything, the other way around. I figured he’d be dating no-brain modeling types. And that you’d be the type to eviscerate him with that sarcastic tongue of yours.”

“He used to,” I admitted. “And I used to…” I smiled at the memory of Taylor and I adjusting to each other when he’d first ‘arrived’... “I have a hard time believing it, myself.”

Ryan smiled fondly. “Well, my respect level for them has just gone up a few notches. At least the guy has good taste.” As I grinned uncontrollably, the phone by the register rang, and Ryan picked up. “Thank you for calling FYE, your one-stop shop for movies, music, and gaming accessories…” He rolled his eyes as he went through the standard speech. After a moment, he laughed, handing me the phone. “Speak of the devil.”

I eagerly grabbed it, cupping it against my ear. “Hello?”

“Alley!” Taylor sounded excited.

“Hey,” I said softly, spinning my stool around so my back was facing the store. Not exactly private, but I couldn’t go in the back and switch to another phone – our boss was working today, and he didn’t approve of phone calls on the clock. Not that it had ever stopped me before, but… “What are you doing?”

“I’m here!”

I wrinkled my nose, confused. “Here? Where?”

“Here! At your airport! I got an earlier flight, I did stand-by and got a seat! Come get me!”

I nearly dropped the phone. “What? Are you serious?”

“Of course I’m serious!”

“Taylor…” I frantically thought of what to do. My shift wasn’t over for another three hours, but… I couldn’t just leave him there or make him wait, he’d be eaten alive by teenies if they caught wind of his presence… “I’ll be there in a few minutes,” I whispered. “Hang tight.” We hung up, and I grabbed Ryan’s arm.

“What did he have to say? Did he read you a mushy love letter? Or a song? Ooh, did he sing you a song?” Ryan was cracking up. “His phone bill must be astronomical. He’s only called here like 50 times the past three days…”

“Ryan, he’s here…” I whispered. “He got an earlier flight. I have to go get him!”

Ryan immediately shut up and stared at me. “Now?”

“Yes!” I looked around furtively. “Shit. What am I going to do? Mark is here today, he’s not just going to let me take off on a whim…”

“Take off? Hmmm….” Ryan studied my silently for a moment, thinking. “Hey, isn’t your stomach hurting?”

I stared at him. “What?” Then it dawned on me. “Oooh. Oh, yeah. Yeah, I feel really sick…”

“Good. Act it. I’ll be right back.” He jumped off his stool and disappeared into the back. I carefully wrapped my arms around my waist and leaned over, as if in pain. A moment later, Mark came through the door, followed by Ryan. He looked concerned as he came up to the register.

“Hey,” I whispered weakly… fighting back the laughter that threatened to surface. God, it was a wonder I hadn’t been fired from this place yet.

“Ryan says you’re not feeling well…” Mark said.

I shook my head. “No…”

“Do you need to take a break? What’s wrong?”

“My stomach…” Lord, could I be any more vague? “…it hurts…bad…”

“You can go lay down in the back for awhile, if you need to,” he said uncertainly. “There’s some anti-nausea stuff in the first aid kit back there, too…”

“Come on,” Ryan broke in. “She’s worked every day this week. She even came in for Stephanie when you asked! Besides, I don’t think, it’s, um, an upset stomach…” He gave me a pointed look.

“No,” I murmured. I gave Mark a beseeching look. “It’s… woman troubles.” That did the trick. I don’t know what it is about that phrase that really freaks men out, but it worked. Mark immediately backed up and gave me an uneasy look.

“Oh…. oh, okay. Why don’t you just go on home, then,” he said. “I think Ryan can handle this by himself.” Ryan winked at me from behind our boss. I could have kissed him.

“Thanks,” I murmured, slowly getting up off the stool and walking to the backroom. Ryan followed me to the back, snickering at my terrible acting. I said goodbye, thanking him profusely as I grabbed my purse and keys. I continued my ‘sickly’ demeanor until I made it out of the main entrance to the mall… then I promptly burst into a sprint, racing to my car, and to Taylor.

*****

I got to the airport, and, after arguing with the parking attendant about where to park, I raced into a space and leaped out of the car. I fervently wished that I’d had the time to run home and at least make myself presentable… but then, he had seen me looking much worse, so I supposed I would have to live with it. I smoothed out my plain blue tee and raked my fingers through my hair, trying to tame it a little, as I walked towards the entrance. I couldn’t get far inside, as I didn’t have a boarding pass, so I went and staked out the baggage claim, figuring he would be somewhere around there. I stood in the middle of the large room, my eyes jumping from face to face, looking for a familiar head of long blond hair. However, he was nowhere to be seen.

Pulling out my phone, I quickly dialed his number, nervously shifting back and forth, eyeing the other people who were waiting on loved ones. It wasn’t too crowded, luckily. He answered after one ring.

“Where are you?” I asked.

“Are you here?”

“Yes! Where are you?”

“I’m in the bathroom, hiding…” he said. I burst out laughing. “Where are you?”

“I’m at the baggage claim… waiting on you. Hurry.” He didn’t even respond to that – just hung up. I sighed, folding my phone back down and slipping it into my purse. I was practically bouncing with excitement…

He appeared moments later, coming around a corner, a black duffel bag slung over his shoulder. I bit my lip with anticipation, watching him stroll towards me with those long, lean legs, shoving his messy hair out of his face. For a moment, it felt like one of those slow-motion scenes from the movies… I let my lips curve into a soft smile, noting the other women in the airport staring at him. His eyes lit up when he saw me, and he quickened his steps. I stayed stock-still, just staring at him. I wasn’t sure I could walk…

“Alley,” he said when he was just a few feet away. “Oh, God…” I grinned holding my arms out, and suddenly I was enveloped in a huge bear hug, being lifted off the ground.

“Taylor!” I squeaked, laughing. “You’re making a scene!”

“I don’t care.” He set me down and gave me a long, sensual kiss. I could feel the eyes of the people around us, staring and wondering. “I missed you,” he murmured against my lips. He tasted slightly salty – peanuts from the plane? I nearly laughed.

“I know,” I said. “You told me. Several times. Every time you called, actually…” I giggled. “I missed you, too.”

“Well? Let’s hit it.” He slung an arm around my shoulders and began steering me towards the door. “We have got to stop and get something to eat. I’m starving…”

“Don’t you need to get any bags?” I asked. The duffel was a carry-on, I had gathered, but it didn’t look very big.

“Nah. I didn’t pack much. I fit it all in here.” He beckoned to the bag. “I didn’t need to… I’ve got everything I need, right here, with you…” A reference, I was sure, to all the clothes and belongings of his that were still at my house… but my heart fluttered all the same, picking up the subtle hint in his tone.

“Ah, I see. So you’re just gonna mooch off me for the next few months…”

He let out a peal of laughter. “Something like that, yes.” We walked out the sliding glass doors, heading for the parking garage, and he squeezed me tight, leaning down to whisper. “I’m here, Alley. Are you ready for the best summer of your life?”

“You’re so arrogant,” I said, rolling my eyes. I slid my arm around his waist and pinched his side. “But you’re damn right I am. You better not disappoint.”

The look he gave me then – smirking, sexy, sultry… could have melted the polar ice caps. “Oh, I won’t,” he breathed into my ear. “You can bet on that.”

And despite my desire to argue with him, just for the sake of it… somehow I knew he wasn’t exaggerating.