At least this day can't get any worse.
Famous last words, I know. Except I can't help but think it, even as I'm limping down the walkway, headed toward the guesthouse and dragging my suitcase behind me.
The suitcase makes a sound that's only slightly less grating than nails on a chalkboard as I drag it over the concrete. It's held together with twine, clothes poking out of the sides every which way, and a giant sticker peeling at the edges that reads, "Notice of Inspection." I'm holding one of the wheels in my hand, because of course as soon as I picked it up at baggage claim, a wheel went rolling off.
The suitcase looks better than I do, actually. You know those romantic comedies where the heroine falls in a fountain or gets caught in a downpour and is supposed to appear bedraggled but instead is breathtakingly gorgeous in spite of her dripping hair and clothes? Yeah, that's pretty much exactly the opposite of what I look like.
I look like I walked off the set of a horror movie. Outside of the airport, I caught my heel in a grate while I was walking and ripped it clean off my brand new designer shoe, crashing onto the sidewalk and skinning my knee. While I was hailing a cab, my umbrella had some kind of seizure, so my hair is plastered to my head; my clothes are soaked; and my black bra is completely visible through my white t-shirt. I know my shirt is transparent, because the cab driver was helpful enough to point it out for me.
I'm hoping I can make it to the guesthouse without any further catastrophe. I didn't even stop at the main house – I want to clean up before seeing anyone I know, and as soon as I glimpsed the cars in the driveway, I knew I had to avoid that place.
I've just flown back to Dallas to start my new job, working in my father's company, Marlowe Oil -- my first professional job out of college. The last thing I need is to show up at the door looking like a hot mess in front of whatever business associates my family is likely entertaining.
Sneaking around to the guesthouse is a much smarter choice in my condition.
Besides, I don't think I even have the mental capacity to make coherent conversation with anyone. All I want is a shower. Actually, make that a bath. I want a bath and a stiff drink.
At least it's not raining anymore. That has to count for something, right?
I push open the door to the guesthouse with my shoulder, trying to wrangle my suitcase through the doorway. I'm making such a commotion that it's only when I turn around, I realize I'm not alone.
In fact, not alone is the understatement of the year.
There are probably twenty people staring at me. I scan the room, taking in their faces, trying to process the scene in my brain. It's some kind of photo shoot, models and makeup artists and clothing hung on racks in the corner of the room. Strategically placed lighting illuminates the set, and a photographer is turned toward the door, paused with his camera in hand, staring at me.
I'm standing here, barefoot and looking like a drowned rat, my gaze coming to rest on the chaise lounge in the middle of the room, where three tall, thin, beautiful blondes with perfectly coiffed hair and flawless makeup and expensive lace lingerie pose around him. The boy I used to know. The boy I last saw four years ago, when we were eighteen.
He's sure as hell not a boy anymore.
He looks right in my eyes, and I swear he can see through me. Then he gives me that cocky, shit-sure of himself, nothing-ever-surprises-me grin, and I'm not certain whether the heat that rushes through me is anger or lust.
Motorcycle racer, womanizer, asshole extraordinaire. Four years ago, he was the bane of my existence. And my best friend, my confidant, my first love.
Crap. This day just got a hell of a lot worse.
"Well, now, as I live and breathe." Gaige's voice reverberates through the room. I've spent four years trying to get that sound out of my head. His voice is low and gravely, with a hint of a drawl, the product of spending his formative years at a boarding school in South Carolina -- the boarding school was prestigious and pretentious, but Gaige is anything but.
"Gaige O'Neal." The words leave my mouth in one breath, heavy like an exhale. For a split second, seeing him there is almost enough to make everything else in here fade to black, as if I'm looking at him with tunnel vision. It's the same Gaige I used to know, with that arrogant smile that made me so angry and a body made for sin. Even back when we were teenagers.
Now, though…hell, I don't know that I've ever seen anyone that looks as holy-shit-hot as Gaige does with his shirt off. When I last saw him, he had one tattoo on his shoulder, but now they snake around his forearms and biceps and cover his chest.
His very broad, very defined chest.
Gaige used to be hot, but he's transformed into something else entirely. I've made a concerted effort to forget Gaige O'Neal over the past four years, which is honestly pretty difficult when your stepbrother is a media darling, a sports figure the tabloids love. It involves going to extreme lengths: no looking at photo spreads in the sports magazines, shutting off the television interviews, ignoring the tabloid articles about Gaige and whoever his girl-of-the-moment is, shrugging and changing the subject when friends want to know what Gaige is like.
What Gaige is like…The memory of my last night alone with him sticks in my head. It never leaves me. I've revisited it God knows how many times over the last few years, replaying it like some kind of movie.