Noah woke to the sound of a drumbeat loud enough to reverberate through his bones. “Cut it out, David,” he muttered, wondering why Schoolboy Choir’s drummer was practicing inside his skull.
When the drumming continued unabated, he opened his eyes a slit and saw white sheets with tiny blue flowers. There were even green leaves around the flowers. He ran his fingers over the sheet, felt the texture, focused on the flowers and leaves again. This wasn’t home. And he never stayed overnight with anyone.
Eyes flicking fully open even as another part of his brain identified the scent in the air—evocative and fresh and painfully familiar—he sat up. Too fast. His head swam.
He groaned and, holding his head in his hands, closed his eyes for another minute until things settled down. Then he glanced around the room.
The walls were a warm cream, the bedside tables honey-colored wood, a stained glass Tiffany lamp on one side; the colors from the lamp were reflected in the abstract painting on the wall in front of him. On his right side was a large window that looked out onto what appeared to be a private green haven. He could see the pebbled pathway, knew that if he walked down that path, he’d find himself in a painstakingly maintained Japanese garden.
Inside was a pond bordered by large stones covered in a fine, velvety moss. A small wooden seat was positioned beside a miniature maple tree, right at the perfect spot to look into the calm of the pond as a cherry blossom tree cast its shadow on the water.
Go right and he’d eventually reach the end of the garden outside the kitchen. There was a picnic table in that spot, along with two benches, under the spreading branches of a leafy green tree. Go left and, after several minutes, he’d find himself at a moss-covered wall—because this place was a haven, secret and contained.
Noah knew every corner of it… or he had. Kit had probably changed everything by now. She was always out there. She had a service that maintained the lawn out front and made sure the wooded area on her property was free of any damaged or dangerous trees, but the garden was hers.
“It gives me peace,” she’d told him once, her eyes shining and open. “I walk out there, put my hands in the earth, and the stress of the day just falls away.”
Shoving off the blanket tangled around his legs, Noah got out of bed. He was still wearing his boots, and it felt like his belt buckle had embedded itself in his gut. It made him laugh even as he winced, and the laugh had his head pounding like it had a live jackhammer buried in it.
“Shit.” Having collapsed back on the bed, he forced himself to get up, winced again. He smelled like a fucking distillery.
“Christ.” Stumbling into the bathroom, he threw some water on his face, then used one of Kit’s fluffy white towels to dry off. Not only did he smell like he’d bathed in whiskey, he looked like he’d been on a three-day bender. “Impressive, Noah.” He’d achieved that result in a single night. And Kit had seen him like this. Great. Just fucking great.
Leaving the bathroom, he walked out of the bedroom. “Kit?” he called out, gritting his teeth as his head pounded in time with his heartbeat.
All he heard was silence. The door to her bedroom—just down from his—was open. Looking in carefully, he saw her bed neatly made and piled with a ridiculous number of pillows. He’d once asked her what the point was when she only needed one for her head and she’d rolled her eyes. “Only a man would ask that question.”
He fucking missed her voice, her smile, her. That’s why he’d called her. It was coming back to him, flashes of what he’d done. He knew it would all eventually appear. That was his special curse: he could drink himself to oblivion, something he usually only ever did while alone inside his house, but he remembered everything. Sometimes it took a day before it all came back, but it always did.
He was already getting grainy, blurry images of Kit picking up a hypodermic, shock and horror on her face.
Fuck, fuck, fuck.
Walking into her sunny kitchen, he saw no sign of her. What he did see was a note propped up next to a large bottle of aspirin. He ignored the pills and picked up the note.
You’re probably still over the limit to drive, and in case you’re idiotic enough to think you’re not, I’m taking all the keys. Call my car service when you get up and they’ll take you home. I’m at the studio.
At the bottom was the phone number for the car company. He flipped it over in the hope she’d written something else, but that was all. A stabbing in his heart, he crushed the paper in his hand. He had to get the fuck out since it was clear Kit didn’t want him here. Not that he could blame her.
Having shoved the piece of paper in his pocket because he was pathetic and wanted something of hers, even if it was only a terse note, he thrust a hand through his hair and winced again at the smell of alcohol. He couldn’t go anywhere like this unless he wanted to attract attention, and that was the last thing he needed today.
Back when he and Kit had been friends, he’d left a few things in the closet in the spare bedroom. Wondering if there was a chance she hadn’t thrown it all out, he went back to the room and opened the closet.
It was empty.
There went that idea, he thought, about to close the closet door when he noticed a box up on the shelf. Pulling it down, he found his stuff. It had been thrown in there in a mess, but he had everything he needed.
A long, hot shower made him feel a little more human. Afterward, he chucked his dirty clothes into the large garbage can beside Kit’s garage—thanks to her stalker, she paid a company to come in and personally pick up and dispose of her garbage, so no one would be digging through it and discovering his clothes. He did not want to remember the night he’d almost done the one thing he’d sworn never to do, no matter how bad the hell inside his head.
Returning to the house, he began to pull on his boots over bare feet.
He couldn’t call Kit’s car service without linking his name to hers. Everyone knew Kit was friendly with the band, but if he was picked up alone from her house, even at three in the afternoon—Jesus, he’d been out of it—it would fuel all kinds of rumors. The only reason they’d escaped that during their friendship was because he’d been very careful not to put her in the line of fire.
He could call the service the band used when they wanted to party and didn’t want to drive, but the driver they usually used was out with a broken leg and Noah didn’t know the new guy well enough to trust he’d keep his mouth shut. He’d walk out except that no one walked in neighborhoods like this—he’d probably get picked up by private security before he got a hundred feet.
He knew Kit’s own security guys were professionals who never blabbed about clients; he’d ask one to run him up the road, then grab a cab once he was far enough away that his name wouldn’t be connected to Kit’s. She deserved that much at least from him. No way was he messing up her life with a tabloid feeding frenzy.
He was on his way out to see if he could touch base with one of the security team when Kit’s home phone rang. He half smiled at the stodgy male voice that came on asking the caller to leave a message. The recording had come with the machine, and Kit used it so random callers wouldn’t realize whose house they’d reached. He had his hand on the front doorknob when Kit’s voice filled the air.
“Noah, are you awake? Are you alive?”
Gut tight and breath shallow at the sign that maybe she hadn’t totally written him off, he grabbed the handset. “Yeah, awake and alive and about to bounce from your place.”
A pause before she said, “What’s wrong with your phone?”
He took it out of his pocket. “Dead battery.”
“I’m good.” He shoved a hand through his hair. “I fucked up, Kit. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have called you.”
“Yeah? So you should’ve just sat in that fleapit and shot poison into your body?” Anger vibrated in her every word. “Damn, I have to go. We need to talk. Don’t leave.”
The dial tone sounded in his ear before he could reply. Putting the handset on the cradle, he sat down on a nearby sofa and pulled off his boots. It wasn’t even a decision that he’d stay. This was the first time Kit had talked properly to him since the night he’d willfully destroyed the best thing in his life.
Self-disgust built in him, but he was used to that. It had lived in him most of his life. He’d done what he had to protect Kit, but he’d hurt her, and that made him a bastard. If she wanted to take a few shots at him, he’d stand there and let her pummel him bloody. It’d be worth it if she’d just talk to him again.
Kit walked into her house at seven that night to the smell of something delicious. Even dog tired as she was, it made her mouth water. A hot, prepared meal sounded like her idea of heaven right then. She’d been planning to eat one of the refrigerated meals she bought by the dozen.
It wasn’t that she was a terrible cook—okay, yes, she was a terrible cook, but she enjoyed trying. Except with such an intense filming schedule, she had zero time. She was either at the studio or sleeping. Thank God she only had two more days to go.
And all of that, she thought as she detoured to her room to drop off her purse and kick off her flats, was just an attempt to distract herself from the fact that Noah was in her house. She could smell him in the air, and this time, there was no alcohol. Just Noah.
Warm and intrinsically male.
Fisting her hands, she made herself remember what he’d done, remember the sight of his body moving sinuously on another woman’s. It twisted up her gut, but the sick feeling was coupled with an anger that had been growing and growing and growing. Tonight it drove her out of the bedroom and to the kitchen, where Noah was stirring something on the stove.
He looked up with a wary smile, his jaw still shadowed but his hair clean and his T-shirt white, his jeans a faded blue. She knew those clothes, had been telling herself to throw them out since the hotel-room ugliness. Pathetic as it was, in the month after it happened, she’d hurt so much with missing him that she’d even put on his T-shirt once.
“Hey,” he said. “It’s not gourmet anything, but I found a pasta sauce mix in your pantry and some spaghetti.”
“Why?” she asked, the question too violent to be kept inside any longer. “Why did you do it, Noah?”
His expression grew dark. Switching off the stove, he gripped the edge of the counter. “Because that’s what I do, Kit,” he said, his voice gritty. “I fuck women. As many as I can.”
She flinched but didn’t back down. “Don’t you do that,” she said across the distance between them. “Don’t you give me some pat, Noah St. John-is-a-bad-boy answer. Did what we had together mean nothing to you?” They hadn’t slept together, hadn’t even kissed, but the thing growing between them, it had been rare, precious. And he’d shit all over it.
“It meant everything,” Noah snapped back, his eyes blazing at her with an intensity the world never saw. “But I’m never going to be that guy, Kit. The one who makes you happy.”
“I was happy. So were you.” She hadn’t imagined his crooked, sexy, private smile or the welcome in his eyes. She hadn’t imagined the hours they’d spent talking. She hadn’t imagined the music he played for her or the way he called her Katie just to rile her up.
“I wanted you as my friend!” Noah’s eyes glittered, strands of golden-blond hair falling across his forehead. “I didn’t—don’t—want to sleep with you!”
The blow landed again, just as hard as it had when he’d said it at the motel. No, harder, because he was sober now. Feeling brittle and bruised, she gave him a tight smile. “You’ve made that crystal clear.”
Noah’s head fell forward, shoulders slumping. “Shit. That didn’t come out right.”
“Don’t worry, Noah, I get it. You’re just not that into me,” she said, mocking herself.
Noah’s laugh was broken. “Kit, I—” He shook his head. “It doesn’t matter.”
“Say it.” She needed this dream to die a final death.
His head jerked up, dark gray eyes brilliant with fury and with a need so vicious it rocked her. “Why can’t you just be my friend?” he asked, his arms rigid he was holding on so hard to the counter. “I fuck everything female that moves. I don’t want that with you.”
The bruise was so painful by now that it pulsed… but for the first time since he’d told her he didn’t want to sleep with her, she actually heard him. Maybe because she hurt so much she was numb, her mind oddly clear as a result. As his words echoed in her skull, she thought of all those hours when they’d watched old movies together, or sat in a hotel room running lines, or the day they’d gone to a go-cart track after disguising themselves so they wouldn’t be recognized.
They’d raced like maniacs, then eaten burgers that fell apart they were so huge, and Noah had laughed. No sophistication, no edge, pure happiness. He’d grinned the same way the day she’d gotten the part that had launched her career into the big time. Noah was the first one she’d told, his arms like steel around her as he lifted her off her feet and swung her around.
“I knew you’d do it!” he’d said, his confidence in her a buoyant force that had made her believe she could conquer every hurdle.
He’d been her friend, the best friend she’d ever had. He was the reason she’d tried out for the part in Last Flight in the first place. He’d told her not to call herself “just a soap actress,” had driven her to the casting call himself, had held her hand until she’d walked inside; he’d been waiting when she came out—exhilarated, nervous, and relieved that she’d made it through without embarrassing herself.
Noah’s smile had held open pride.
I fuck everything female that moves. I don’t want that with you.
The words flayed her, destroyed her, but there was also something in them that cut through the hurt and made her pause. Noah never spent any non-sex time with the women he slept with—not one ever saw him twice. He didn’t cook for them, didn’t drive them to auditions, certainly didn’t pull out his guitar and ask their opinion on a new piece. The only woman with whom Kit had known him to do all those things was… her.
Kit didn’t know what that meant, didn’t even know if she could handle being Noah’s friend while he added notch after notch to his belt, but she knew she couldn’t shove him out into the cold. The memory of the fear she’d felt on the drive to that motel burned like acid on her bones. No matter what Noah had done, how much he’d hurt her, she couldn’t imagine a world where he didn’t exist.
She’d keep an eye on him at least until the rest of the band returned to LA.
After that… Kit had no answers. All she knew was that Noah was bad for her… and that part of her would always miss him.