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By Suleikha Snyder, Robin Haseltine, Kerri-Leigh Grady
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2014 Suleikha Snyder
All rights reserved.
The music was brooding, dissonant, like Pearl Jam without the distinctive growl of Eddie Vedder's gravelly vocals. The Brute Squad was the grunge scene over two decades later, playing angst and corporate apathy for girls barely out of their diapers when Kurt Cobain killed himself. It spoke to Saroj on a level she would never be able to explain, words she couldn't translate for a nonspeaker. It took her back to sixth grade, putting on too-large flannel shirts and painting her fingernails black as her mother clicked her tongue and bemoaned what "Amrika" was doing to her sweet little girl.
"Arré, Saroj. What will become of you?" she'd ask in Gujarati, while Saroj pretended a few years away from Ahmedabad had made her forget the language.
Whatever Amrika had done, it was still doing now, as she gave herself up to the crashing guitars, the angry drums ... and Adam Harper, with his strong, capable fingers stroking moans from his bass.
What she'd become was a little ... obsessed with him. More than was healthy for sure. The "what if?" was always there. Even now.
And tonight wasn't going to be the night Adam suddenly realized Saroj was his soul mate. The scales weren't going to drop from his eyes. The heavens were not going to part and shower her with infinite wisdom. She wasn't going to make a teen-movie transformation into the hottest chick in the room — and not just because she was a lot of years out of her teens. It was an ordinary night, like the several hundred that had come before it. There were no stars to wish on, no mystical portents, and no fashion fairy godmothers to save the day. There was only the sound of groupies squealing and the smell of spilled beer and adrenaline-laced sweat.
And yet she still couldn't stop staring at him. Not even when the guys wrapped up and began to disperse into the crowd. It was in these little moments that she forgot she'd moved on, and guys like Sanjeev and Jake and Harry vanished into puffs of smoke; she felt like she'd never been on a date in her life.
On a high from the two-set show, Adam was a walking, talking smile as he chatted with a few of the girls who always came out to support the band. He'd pulled off his lucky Cincinnati Reds cap, and his dark hair stood up in adorably messy tufts. His grayish-blue eyes were lit with laughter, and they matched his tight, clinging shirt ... which showed its affection not by laughing along with him but by hugging him close. Saroj wanted to do that, too: plaster herself to his chest and breathe in his skin.
She'd wanted it since she was eighteen. Though perhaps just a tiny bit less now. She was older, wiser, not quite so hopeless as that doe-eyed freshman.
The first time she saw him — washing his hands in the sink of a dorm bathroom she hadn't realized was coed — she decided he was Channing Tatum, Ryan Reynolds, and Josh from Clueless wrapped up in one tall, handsome, All-Amrikan package. She'd probably blushed and stammered more from that, than discovering she would be sharing a bathroom with a bunch of guys for an entire year.
Even now, after graduation and a few years covering the local music scene, covering the band — and feigning journalistic objectivity — he stopped her heart. Stopped it. Started it. Owned it. He'd had it since college ... tucked away with the collected works of Shakespeare and his engineering study guides.
But if you asked Adam, the only thing he'd kept from undergrad was their friend Johnny Ray. They were best friends, roommates, practically joined at the hip, even though they were as different as could be. If Adam was midday, Johnny was two in the morning. Adam smelled like soap and sun; Johnny was sex and ... sharpness.
It crept up on her, the scent of him — not as overt as the offensive assault of Axe body spray, but unmistakable nonetheless, and jerked her out of her thoughts.
"Hey, Saroj. Earth to Miz Shah." The cologne was jarring, but the drawled greeting almost startled her out of her skin. Like she'd called Johnny to her side just by thinking about him. Candyman and Bloody Mary, sugar and spice. He said her name again, drawing out the "o" like a sex noise. "How you doin', sweetheart?"
Sweetheart. Seriously? Two years younger than them, the world's least committed college senior, still majoring in partying, Johnny Ray Morris played lead guitar for the Brute Squad. And games. Oh, how Johnny loved to play games. Usually the kind that fell between Spin the Bottle and Seven Minutes in Heaven. "Honestly, Johnny. I don't know if I should slap you or hug you."
"I vote neither." He slid his arm around her waist and drew her close, all flirtation and fun as he charted the path of her gaze. His lips were warm against Saroj's throat as he murmured, "How about we give the choirboy something to be jealous of, huh?" Just teasing. But his hand, inching its way up her thigh and bunching up her dress, was blazing hot and fully intent on following through.
She slapped it away. Uh-uh. That was not happening. "Stop that. The choirboy doesn't care," she pointed out, glancing over to where Adam was up to his neck in starry-eyed college girls. They were three-deep at the bar, and Johnny could probably strip her naked and nobody would notice. Nobody except her, because while Johnny Ray Morris didn't do a damn thing for her, she didn't mind the things he was doing to her. Tingles. Heat. Want. Not as wanted as Adam could make her feel, but definitely better than a battery-operated boyfriend.
No one had touched her like this lately. No one had bothered. That was what she'd tell herself later about giving in just a little. That it wasn't because she thought it could make Adam jealous, but because she hadn't been kissed by anyone in so long that Johnny's attention felt like a full-on seduction. It was simple and flattering and good. Almost good enough.
Johnny was drunk and blond and talented, and his chest under Saroj's palms was hewn from hours of weight training. He was a pretty boy, GTL-ed within an inch of his carefree life. The only reason he wasn't in the middle of all the girls clamoring for Adam's attention was because he'd slept with most of them already. Hanging out with her on the fringes was basically a night off. Even God took the seventh day to rest, he'd said to her once.
"Come on. Adam'll care," he assured her with another husky, persuasive laugh in his voice. "Believe me, he'll care."
She didn't believe him. But she still leaned into his kiss. He tasted like sin, like the Devil went down on Georgia, and it almost felt right. She hadn't made out with someone for the sheer fun of it in ages ... but Johnny Ray had other plans. He pressed her flat against the wall, angling so they were visible from the bar area. Everything Johnny did was underscored by deliberation. He had a director's eye and always mapped out the band's viral YouTube videos shot by shot. So this, too, he took charge of: putting her hands on his hips, tilting her head to the side so he could mouth her pulse and start work on a wicked hickey.
The tingles he'd kicked off inside her wanted to turn into shivers. But she held back, focusing instead on the scene and playing the part of a lovelorn heroine grabbing a little action where she could. Johnny's kiss was genuine, the enthusiastic advances of a guy who just liked women ... and if she gathered correctly from some of his late-night hookups, also the occasional guy. He made it easy to need and to take. She hadn't done anything like this in forever, hadn't giggled at the sexy absurdity of a public make-out session. It was pretty ridiculous. And pretty fun.
"You're welcome," Johnny whispered, justifiably self-satisfied.
Just as she was about to thank him properly, he was yanked backward and nearly off his feet. Like a character in a horror movie ... except the hand on his shoulder didn't belong to a monster or alien. And neither did the voice growling, "What the hell, JR?"
Saroj almost pitched forward, still scrambling for Johnny's heat, his breadth and weight. She sputtered her own, "What the hell?" as she tugged down the skirt of her sundress. "Oh my God. What are you doing, Adam?"
But he wasn't even looking at her. He never really looked at her. His attention was focused on Johnny. And it wasn't only attention. It was anger, disgust, shock, and a dozen other things she couldn't name. Johnny threw off Adam's grip and laughed, his sky-blue eyes twinkling with satisfaction. "Told you," he pitched toward Saroj.
"Told her what?" Adam asked, his handsome face a thundercloud. "What the hell is going on here? What were you doing, JR?"
Johnny's smile only got wider. "What you never will." He shrugged, hooking his thumbs in his belt loops.
Saroj tried to collect her wits. Johnny's talent had scattered most of them and Adam's interruption — who knew Johnny Ray would correctly anticipate that? — had pulverized the rest. But she was present enough to wince at Johnny's observation, to duck her head and hide behind the curtain of her hair. God. How embarrassing.
"Saroj?" Finally, Adam turned to her, gentling his voice and putting so many questions into the two tiny syllables that comprised her name. "You okay?" As if he had a right to ask after her, like Johnny had mauled her against her will.
Johnny stepped between them before she could say anything. Adam towered over him, all long limbs and broad shoulders to his compact, gym-built body, but it didn't faze him or put a stop to his sense of gallantry. "Leave her alone, man. She's had an Adam Harper-induced chastity vow for years. This is on me. I was tired of watching her be a nun for you. I thought we could have a little fun."
God save her from misplaced heroics. Could the floor just open up and swallow her whole? She'd enjoyed his lips and his hands and his body ... but Johnny Ray's usefulness was swiftly coming to an end. "Shut up," Saroj murmured, kicking at his ankle. She raised her head and swept her hair aside. "It is not just on Johnny. I was enjoying myself. I've missed fun."
Disappointment was written all over Adam's face. That's what he had for her: disappointment, judgment, pity. A nice variation on years of sympathy, compassion, and polite chitchat.
"You know what? Forget it. Screw this. Screw you," she snapped at Adam. "You're not the boss of my social life." She moved away from the wall. Let the boys hash it out; she was getting out of here.
"Saroj, wait!" Adam caught up with her in two quick strides.
"I've been waiting," she said before she could think better of it. "And it's been too damn long. Johnny Ray was up for a little playing, so I went with it. That's it. It's done. What more is there to say?"
"Wow." Adam exhaled in a huff, dragging his hands through his dark brown hair. "Wow, I'd say there's a lot to say to that."
No. There wasn't. She knew better. This was obligation, pure and simple. Some idea Adam had about honor and virtue and keeping her name out of Johnny Ray's little black book. She'd known him too long, loved him too much. Now, with the taste of Johnny's Southern Comfort still on her lips, it was finally time to let Adam go. So she shook her head and kept walking, shrugging past people until she was almost to the door.
"Saroj, stop." He didn't grab her like he'd grabbed Johnny. Instead, he planted himself directly in her path. She had no choice but to collide with the wall of his chest. Only then did he touch her, closing his fingers lightly around her wrists. "Talk to me," he said, like he actually wanted to hear the words.
"That's all I've ever done with you, Adam, is talk. And I'm tired." She confessed it in a whisper, trying to avoid the sincerity flickering in his eyes. "I'm tired of watching you across a crowded room. I'm tired of coming to your shows. I'm tired of thinking you're cute and shutting down my mom every time she suggests I find a nice Gujarati boy. I'm tired of holding on to even the tiniest bit of hope that all this talk is going to make you feel the same way as I do. And I'm tired of being tired. I'm over it."
"You're right. I don't feel the same way you do," he said. He rubbed slow circles into the sensitive skin at the base of her palms, his thumb way more seductive than a thumb had any right to be. "I don't obsess about you." He was being cruel and kind at the same time. Her throat constricted, and her eyes flooded. It was her turn to beg him to stop, but before she could, he said, "You listen to me, Saroj. I don't feel the way you do, because I don't have to wonder. I know what you are to me."
Oh, of course he did. "And what is that? Someone who gets your name up on the Gazette every few weeks? A groupie? A one- woman ego boost?"
"No." He brought her hands up between them, squeezing them. And then he brushed his lips across her knuckles. "A constant."CHAPTER 2
What the ever-loving fuck was going on tonight? The bar hadn't changed — it still smelled like smoke and beer and vodka tonics, and the world hadn't changed — it was still Earth, still present-day. But, somehow, Adam had tripped into an alternate universe, where up was down and blue was green and sweet little Saroj was ...
"A constant," he heard himself say, as he gave in to a ridiculous impulse to kiss the backs of her hands. Like maybe that would comfort her, stop her from whatever this crazy fit of emotion was. "You're my constant. You've always been with me. Don't walk away from me now."
All it did was piss her off more ... and tell him that her skin tasted soft and flowery, like whatever girlie lotion she used after a bath.
Not that he needed to think about her in a bathtub. Or in a shower. Or naked. At all. No way. He dragged his brain back to her fully dressed in the here and now, back to touching her and reassuring her and calming her down. And he failed miserably at it.
Her fingers flexed under his mouth, and she jerked her hands away. "Give me a break. We're not characters on Lost. A 'constant.' Hah." She shook her head, her dark, wavy hair clouding around her. "A constant what? A constant pain?" The Indian accent that only thickened when she was upset was out in full force. "Because that's how it is for me. It hurts, and I need to get over it. I need to get over you."
When were you under me? That old line from Friends popped into his head, and he wanted to laugh but he couldn't. He couldn't do anything but stare at her, because it was like seeing her for the first time. A girl in a pretty blue dress. It fastened around her neck, and her chest was practically bare. Except for the sparkly silver locket that pointed straight down toward her cleavage. Saroj has cleavage.
Jesus freaking Christ. None of this made sense. Nothing about this was normal. Saroj standing in front of him with her lipstick all smudged, and her big brown eyes filled with sadness — and anger — was definitely not normal. Something deep inside him twisted, like Johnny Ray's stupidity had shoved a corkscrew through his chest. It was like being punched and having the wind knocked out of him.
I need to get over you, she'd said. Why now? Why here?
"I'm sorry." He'd always known she had a crush on him, and he'd spent the last God-knew-how-many years being sorry about it — trying to ignore the way she looked at him, trying to be as good a friend to her as he could without hurting her ... and hurting her anyway. It was the lesser of two evils, right? Hurting her a little instead of screwing up her life in the long run? Girls like her weren't even supposed to be in the same room as guys like him — unless they were slumming. They were barely supposed to be friends ... and he was so damn lucky they had that. "God, Saroj, you know I care about you —"
But she didn't let him finish. Maybe she knew as well as he did that he had no idea where the sentence was headed. "Yeah, you care so much that it took Johnny sticking his tongue down my throat for you to say something." She shook her head. "That's not fair."
Fair? Nothing about this was fair. This was supposed to be a regular Saturday night playing a couple of songs, hanging out with friends, having a good time, thinking about anything and everything but the day shifts and doubles he had to pull at McAllister's this week. Making music and making rent didn't exactly go hand in hand. But he'd worked it all out somehow. He had a system. A balance. His best friend and his ... his ... Saroj ... weren't supposed to throw him a curveball.
"Sticking his ..." He winced. It was a mental image he never needed to revisit. Ever. "Kissing you wasn't exactly one of Johnny's better ideas. He had no right."
"He had every right! He's single. I'm single. If we want to horizontal tango into next week, it's our business." Saroj pushed at his chest. It should've been a shove, but she was more attitude than actual power. A tiny, furious package ... so tiny that Johnny Ray had no problem plastering her against that wall. Christ. He swallowed, rubbing his eyes with the heels of his hands. She wasn't wrong. He had no say in what she or Johnny did. So why did the idea of them together make him want to bleach his eyeballs?
"Adam." The anger drained out of her voice, replaced by what sounded like a whole mess of exhaustion. Her palm flattened, stroking up to his throat, the side of his face. She'd touched him this way hundreds of times during end-of-the-night hugs. This time, it scalded. "Don't overthink it. Don't make it more than it is. I'm sorry I unloaded on you. Just let me go home. We'll forget about this, and I'll see you in a couple of days."
Excerpted from Opening Act by Suleikha Snyder, Robin Haseltine, Kerri-Leigh Grady. Copyright © 2014 Suleikha Snyder. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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