Just act casual. Just act casual.
“Hey!” I called out, my voice falsely bright as I walked up to Dawn and Donovan, looking rather… cozy outside the entrance to The Creamery. It was a place Dawn frequented, according to her Instagram, and Donovan – Donnie – was frequently her date at the ice cream/smoothie shop.
Brit – my handler, for lack of a better term – put a hand on my arm. In censure, warning, or something, but it wasn’t necessary. I really was just saying hello.
It was summer, and Dawn was taking full advantage. Cut off shorts, midriff top, strappy sandals… I swallowed hard as I took in her appearance – lots of creamy caramel skin and big natural hair – then looked at Donnie, who was, I was sure, enjoying it.
He was casual, in cargo shorts and a fresh white tee and sneakers, with a hat pulled backwards on his head. The white popped against his dark mahogany skin, and a little shiver ran over me as he looked up from Dawn, and in my direction.
“Pixie, hey!” Dawn said, with what seemed like genuine enthusiasm, distracting me from being able to see Donnie’s reaction to my presence. She stepped away from him, toward me, pulling me into a hug that was surprisingly tight. “Are you okay?” she asked quietly, looking me right in the eyes. Hers were glossy with concern, and I averted my gaze.
“Yeah. I’m fine. Thank you for asking.”
She smiled that perfect smile, the one she’d been aiming at Donnie since they worked together on that play, then turned to him, glancing between us. “No problem, not at all. I’m gonna… let you two talk.”
Dawn gave me a little nod, then walked away, leaving me standing there with Donnie and Britt, neither of whom had said anything yet. I gazed up at Donnie, looking for… something, but I was met with the pleasantly neutral expression he seemed to have mastered dealing with me.
I glanced over to Britt, widening my eyes. “Give us a second,” I said, with a subtle tip of my head, trying to get her to go away. She let out a deep breath, her face stern as she gave me a curt nod.
I rolled my eyes. “Yeah. Okay.”
She looked at me a little longer, hiking an eyebrow to let me know she was serious. I watched her walk away, then turned back to Donnie, who’d slid his hands into the pockets of his shorts.
“You look great,” he said, with a bit of a nod as that panty-melting grin of his spread over his face. I smiled back, not responding because I didn’t know what to say. It was awkward, because we both knew that compared to the last time we saw each other… “great” was an understatement.
“Thanks,” was what I settled on, clasping my hands together in front of me. “So do you, but that’s always.”
He shrugged. “I mean, I do what I can, you know. Gotta give the people what they want.”
Both of us laughed at that, which actually made my chest ache, because it had been way, way too long since I’d done it.
“Seriously though, Auri… it’s good to see you. Really good to see you. It’s been a minute.”
I nodded. “Yeah, it has.” I glanced away, looking at something over his shoulder. “Um… maybe we could have dinner or something… catch up?”
He stared at me for too many seconds before he offered a cautious nod. “Uh, yeah. Yeah, that would be dope.”
“Are you busy tonight?”
God, do you have to sound so desperate?
I took a deep breath, urging myself to calm the hell down, especially since Donnie had looked away from me, scratching the back of his head.
“Um… yeah, actually. Me and Dawn are about to—”
“Right,” I interrupted, my voice way too high, my head nodding way too fast. “You and Dawn. You’re here, together, right now. I shouldn’t have assumed—”
“I should probably get going.” I glanced at Brit, who nodded, and was already walking toward the elevator, flanked by my security. “I’ll see you around.”
I started to walk off, but Donnie caught me by the arm. The sensation of him touching me made immediate tears spring to my eyes, so I kept my back to him.
“Aurielle,” he said, making my chest ache even more. He was one of very, very few people who called me by my name.
I pulled away, putting on a smile that I hoped looked realer than it felt as I turned to face him. “I have to get this interview. And you probably shouldn’t keep Dawn waiting. It was good to see you.”
Before he could say anything else, I was at the elevator, stepping on with my team. I looked up as the doors to the elevator closed, just in time to watch Donovan turn, and walk towards Dawn.
– & –
My headspace was already fucked up when I walked into my interview with Robyn Reynolds, and I wasn’t confident that she wouldn’t make it worse. She was known for her shenanigans, but she was also known for ratings, so my manager had determined her the best person for this interview. We weren’t going on her show – this was a private interview, that would be streamed live, and I was… nervous.
I was nervous as hell.
As soon as I sat down, makeup artists and hair stylists descended on me, transforming my simple, natural look to something more high glam. It was my first appearance anywhere in a while, so I had to look my “best”.
I put on what they told me to put on, then settled into the plush chair I’d be perched in for the duration of the interview. A few minutes later, Robyn came flouncing in, along with the cameras and the film crew, ratcheting my stress level even higher.
Intuitive as ever, suddenly Britt was in front of me, bending over my chair until we were eye level. “Are you okay?” she asked, her eyes narrowed in concern.
I gave her a tight smile, and a nod. “Yeah, I’m good.”
“You sure?” she pushed, glancing back to where Robyn was getting settled into her seat.
“Of course she’s sure. Leave her alone, you’re making her nervous.”
The loud voice of Ebony, my manager, boomed over us, making me look up. As always, she had her phone stuck to her ear, scowling at Britt. But Britt wasn’t fazed.
“I’m not making her nervous – this situation is. She’s not ready for this.”
Ebony sucked her teeth. “Oh please.” She lowered the phone to her shoulder, then looked right at me. “The questions were pre-approved. You’re going to be perfectly fine. Let’s get this started.”
A few minutes later, we did just that.
Robyn started with easy questions, asking me what I’d been listening to, watching on TV, if I had new music on the way. I answered those with no trouble, and actually began to settle a little under the hot spotlights.
And then Robyn smiled.
“So. Pixie. I think we all know what the people really want to know… have you heard from L-Squared since the drama went down?”
I sucked in a breath, then glanced at Ebony, who nodded her head, and smiled. One hand still had her phone stuck to her ear, and with the other, she made a motion for me to speak up, and answer. Britt crossed her arms, and shot Ebony an ignored scowl.
“I… um… no,” I said, shaking my head. I swallowed hard, forcing myself to keep my eyes on Robyn, instead of looking away.
She smirked. “Come on, Pixie. You and L were practically inseparable before the “controversy” happened. Do you really expect us to believe you haven’t spoken to him in four months?”
“I haven’t,” I repeated firmly. “My primary focus has been my health, and my music.”
Robyn nodded. “Ahh. Mmmhmm, mmhmm. So rehab went well for you then?”
“Okay, seriously? I thought I was here to talk about my music.”
“Well, you are. Any chance of a collaboration between you and L-Squared, or is the restraining order still in place?”
“Okay, that’s enough,” Britt said, stepping forward with her hands raised. “We’re leaving. These questions are—”
“Ones that were approved by her manager,” Robyn snapped. “But we can go to something else for now. Would that make you feel better?” she asked me, but there was no real concern in her voice. I took a deep breath, then nodded, knowing that this interview was live – right now, there was no telling how many people were watching this around the world. I needed to appear strong, focused… clear.
“So, you’re looking great. Much, much better than those pictures that were leaked from the hospital. Did you have any work done?”
I frowned. “What? No! I’ve never had any “work” done.”
Robyn smirked. “Sure, doll. Now, I know that prior to the scandal that rocked your career, you considered yourself this empowering figure. Do you think that your image – highly sexual, supposedly “carefree” contributed to what happened to you? I mean, how many different drugs was it that you had to detox from? While my assistant grabs the list for me, can you tell me if drugs, alcohol, and sex are part of being “carefree”? Is that the example you’re setting for young girls?”
“You know what, fuck you,” Britt spat, stepping in front of the camera while I just sat there, stunned at the amount of venom that had just been aimed at me. Tears welled in my eyes, and I felt like my throat was closing up as Britt handed Robyn Reynolds her ass, all the while motioning for my security to grab me.
Robyn stood up at Kev guided from my seat, a firm hand at my elbow as he ushered me toward the door. “There she goes, ladies and gentlemen. American’s former favorite popstar, our sexy sweetheart turned drugged out punching bag for our favorite “trap” rapper.”
She said more, but I couldn’t quite make it out over the commotion of Britt screaming, Ebony screaming, and Robyn screaming too as Kev and Owen guided me to the door. When it opened, we were met by the flash of cameras and a mob of questions, but I already knew what to do.
Head down, handful of Kev’s tee shirt. He would guide me, while Owen made sure I wasn’t touched. I tried my best to tune everything out, not hear the vitriol behind the way-too-personal questions, about a night I just wanted to forget.
As the door closed behind us, Robyn’s voice rang out, with what were probably the lines she’d pre-rehearsed for the end of her segment, before she’d even talked to me.
“All this time, we thought the pretty girl with the powerhouse voice was just playing a role, but no. I guess “Pixie Bad Ass” wasn’t just a screen name after all. It’s who she really was.”
– & –
– Donovan –
“You have to go see her.”
I groaned in response to Dawn’s insistence, closing my eyes as I leaned the back against the leather seat. We were in a company vehicle, being driven to the airport so we could fly across the country to continue promo for a second theatre run for The Chase.
“Shit, girl. Keep those sharp ass elbows to yourself,” I complained, lowering my hand to rub my side where she’d jabbed me. I opened my eyes, turning to look into those pretty ass hazels of hers. “What’s your problem, anyway?”
Her nostrils flared. “My problem is how you’re acting like you don’t care about that girl anymore. You saw that interview just like I did, so you know how it ended. She looked terrified.”
Again, I groaned. I had seen the interview, and I had seen how it ended. She did look terrified. I did care. And that was exactly the problem. I cared way too damned much, still.
The details behind my break up with Aurielle, almost a year ago, weren’t exactly public knowledge. It was my fault at first, then it was hers, and then everything was just… fucked. For a brief time, I’d thought Dawn – my costar in my first foray into musical theatre – might be my respite from that, but… it didn’t quite happen like that.
For one, Dawn and I had good chemistry as friends – even the type with benefits – but romantically, we didn’t click. Besides that, she was only twenty years old – seven years younger than me. She was still exploring, period.
More importantly though, was the fact that no matter who I was with, no matter how I occupied my time, ultimately, my mind still came back around to Aurielle. Even though I wasn’t trying to go down that road again.
“Look me in my face and tell me you’re not worried about her. That seeing Robyn Reynolds attack her like that didn’t piss you off.”
I sighed. “Come on, Dawn. You know I can’t.”
Dawn tossed her hands into the air, letting her cell phone drop into her life. “Then what the hell are you doing here, about to get on a plane?” she asked, pointing out the window to the airport that had just come into view. “Ever since… that night, you’ve been saying you were trying to give her space, give her time. Waiting for her to come out of hiding. Well, she’s out.”
“And? What’s your point? All this time, she hasn’t reached out. For all we know, she already has somebody “comforting” her. Maybe Louis again. Maybe that’s why she got so pissed off about those questions. It wouldn’t be the first time she went back.”
Dawn rolled her eyes. “I saw how she looked at you, Donnie. The way her eyes lit up? That sure wasn’t because she was happy to see me.”
“So what are you suggesting I do, right now?” I asked, hiking my shoulders. “We have a job to do. I can’t abandon that to go running behind her. She made this mess, these are the consequences.”
“Seriously, Donnie?! How can you even sit there and say that?! She didn’t beat herself up.”
“I know that.” I scoffed, then turned to stare out the window as we pulled off the main road. “But she didn’t have to be with him. Staying with him… the drugs… she had a damn choice.”
“Okay. So she made the wrong one. But Donnie… you and I are friends, right? Don’t sit here and act like you’ve never sat in my apartment, gotten yourself drunk, and poured your heart out to me about her. You love her, and it’s been long enough. What are you waiting on?”
“Her to be clean and sober.”
“Oh please,” Dawn spat, and even without looking, I knew she was rolling her eyes. “You act like the girl was on crack or something.”
A flash of Aurielle, barely lucid, barely able to keep herself on her feet flashed in my mind, immediately followed by a memory of me begging her to leave that mess, and those people alone. We weren’t together anymore by then, but I could see what was happening to her. I could see the light leaving her eyes, the weight loss… I couldn’t watch her do that to herself. Not for him.
“It doesn’t matter what she on. Swallowing handfuls of pills because her boyfriend said it was cool, isn’t something to make light of.”
“And I’m not making light of it. What I’m saying is, you saw her, just like I did today. She was fresh, she was sober, she was clear. That girl has been through hell in this industry, and when I look at the people around her… Donnie, who are her friends? I’m not suggesting that you should watch her self-destruct, but it looks like she’s trying to come back from it. You love her. She loves you. What exactly are you punishing her for?”
I scowled, turning back to face her. “I’m not punishing her.”
“Then what are you doing?”
“I… I’m… Look, I just can’t do that shit again, aiight? Aurielle was… yeah, she was sexy, she was confident, but she wasn’t fucking… Pixie Bad Ass. She left that shit on stage. She didn’t get high, she didn’t lose control, she didn’t… she wasn’t this person that Louis turned her into. She was just… Aurielle. That’s the girl I love. This other shit… I can’t deal with.”
Dawn stared at me for a long moment, then nodded. “So… you’re protecting yourself. I get it, Donnie. And I can’t argue with that.”
She gave me a wry smile, then turned to face out the window. With Dawn, I knew to take her words at face value – there was no judgement there.
So why did I feel so damned guilty?
I pushed out a deep sigh as the vehicle came to stop in traffic, waiting to pull into the airport. I closed my eyes, and Aurielle’s face came to mind again – eyes wide, as Robyn dug into her, ripping open wounds that were still fresh.
She had to have gone to that interview right after we saw her in the lobby. Dawn had pulled up the interview and streamed it live on our ride to the airport.
I couldn’t help wondering how she was doing now.
Dawn was right – Aurielle had been through hell. But the thing was… it started with me.
When we first got together, Aurielle and I had gotten really serious, really fast. I was a dancer on one of her tours, and she’d put me on with other artists, encouraged me through interviews, hell – she’d even paid my bail when I got in trouble for doing some stupid shit to get back at my big sister’s ex.
And my stupid ass didn’t realize what I had.
My star was starting to shine a little brighter. I was feeling myself, admittedly. I was young, handsome, surrounded by a lot of beautiful women… I wanted to explore. So I did the “right” thing. Instead of doing any dirt, I broke up with Aurielle. I didn’t want her embarrassed, or hurt because of anything I was doing. She acted like it was cool at first, but then stuff started spreading about me and Dawn, and Auri got pissed.
Then she did that fucking song with “L-Squared”.
Hottest track of the summer. Record breaking sales, and downloads. Somewhere along the way, something romantic sparked, they made a sexy video for the song, and suddenly they’re black music’s newest power couple.
I didn’t like that shit, and I told her, which only seemed to push her closer to him. All his ass talked about in his music was getting high and making money, and everybody – including Aurielle apparently – ate it up. That shit became her life too. Pictures started coming out of her with bruises and shit on her arms, but she swore it was nothing. “Going too hard in rehearsal”. She stopped looking like herself, got skinny as hell, even more than her petite frame normally was. I tried to talk to her, she told me to leave her the fuck alone, since I didn’t want her.
So I left her the fuck alone, like she said.
And then four months ago, I woke up to pictures of her battered face and body, sprawled on a hotel room floor, splattered all across social media.
I tossed my head against the back of the seat again.
Maybe I shouldn’t have left her the fuck alone.
“I don’t even know how to reach her,” I said out loud, and Dawn turned to face me, a hint of a smile playing on her lips. “Her number… it’s changed. She doesn’t have the same one anymore.”
Her face spread into a full smile then. “Don’t worry. I’ll figure it out for you.”
– & –
I hesitated before I pushed the doorbell.
Britt already knew I was coming – was expecting me. I had no idea if she’d told Aurielle or not. Dawn had gotten on that plane without me, and I had a flight scheduled for in the morning, just in time to make it to our afternoon talk show appearance, if nothing went wrong. She promised to smooth it over with Kora, and I believed she would, but still… I wondered if it was a mistake for me to be here.
Maybe… this was a door that needed to be left closed.
But I rang the doorbell.
A few seconds later, the door swung open, and Britt smiled when she saw me. She was barely older than us – Aurielle was 25, I was 27, Britt was 31 – but she had a motherly quality that was exactly what Auri seemed to need.
“Come in, Donovan,” she said, stepping back to let me through. “I’m glad to see you haven’t changed your mind.”
I moved through the doorway, looking around at the apartment, which was new to me. It was smaller than the one I was used to, less flashy. Instead of the grays, and whites, and chromes, it was decorated with wood floors, and warm tones. This apartment felt more like… a home.
In the living room, Britt stopped in front of me, giving the distinct impression that she was sizing me up. She was shorter than me by a full foot, but didn’t seem hindered by that at all.
“Why are you here?” she asked, crossing her arms. “Auri gave me the impression that you’d given her the impression that you wanted nothing to do with her. So why are you here now? Curiosity? Guilt? What?”
“Because I love her.” I was able to give that answer without hesitation, because I’d thought about it long and hard. There was a lengthy ride from the airport, back into the city, and then to where her building was. A lot of time to examine my intentions… figure out what, if anything, I wanted. And ultimately, when I pulled everything else away, there was just… that.
I loved her.
Britt lifted a neatly groomed eyebrow, and ran her tongue over her teeth before she nodded. “Okay. That’s good enough for me. Come along.”
I followed her toward the hallway that I assumed led to where Aurielle was.
“Did you tell her I was coming?” I asked, and Britt stopped walking, and turned.
“No,” she said, with a wry smile, and shook her head. “I… didn’t want to get her hopes up, in case you changed your mind. You know… she used to talk about you, a lot.”
She left that to hang in the air, making sure I understood the full gravity of her words.
Britt nodded. “Yes. Used to. Aurielle and I met when she was in rehab, after the incident with that… rapper. Her sister hired me.”
“So… what are you, to her, if you’re hired? Are you like her manager, or—”
“No,” Britt laughed. “I’m… I guess a nanny, of sorts. I have no legal power over Aurielle, no access to her finances, nothing like that. My only job is her well-being, and even then, I’m only an advisor.”
I smiled. “Advisor? You flexed pretty hard in that interview. And you got her out of there.” I swallowed hard, thinking about that fear in Aurielle’s eyes. “Thank you.”
She nodded. “Well, as I said. Her wellbeing is my job, until she can manage for herself. She still has a ways to go. Still… healing.”
“Wait… what? Physically or emotionally?” I asked, not really wanting that answer.
“Both. She still has some pain in her jaw, from where it was fractured. The ribs as well.”
Something seized and twisted in my stomach, as pictures from that night flashed in my mind. “I… I didn’t realize she was still… I thought…”
“She’s a tough girl. But, back to my point… when she and I first met, she spoke about you a great deal. She was very, very much in love with you. A lot of regret, a lot of hurt. A lot of tears. She wanted to hear from you. You didn’t reach out.”
I scrubbed a hand over my face, then pushed my hands into my pockets, suddenly unable to meet Britt’s eyes. “I… I didn’t know what to say.”
“I noticed,” Britt said, and I looked up. “I saw the interviews, where they asked you about it, since the two of you had dated. You never had a comment. Never condemned his actions, never offered words of support—”
“Wait, so I’m the bad guy here?”
“Do you think you were a good one?”
A muscle twitched in my jaw, and I clenched my teeth to make myself think about my words a little longer before I opened my mouth. “Maybe this was a bad idea.”
“Or maybe it’s the best one you’ve had in a while.”
I scoffed. “Yo, what the fuck is your problem? You and Dawn, trying to make me feel guilty about this shit, like I’m responsible? Like it’s my fault?!”
“That’s not what I’m doing at all, Mr. Perkins. You see, Aurielle is a woman – it’s always her fault. At one point, she was getting more than ten thousand tweets, Facebook postings, and Instagram tags a day telling her so. Now, she didn’t have access to her social media at first, because I kept that away from her, but she’s not in prison. Of course she’s seen it now, and it all confirms that it’s all her fault. No matter what the … rapper may have slipped in a drink a few times, getting her addicted before she knew what was happening. No matter the careful manipulation of a very young woman with very few friends in a profession where it’s hard to know who to trust. It was her fault. She should have known better.”
“I didn’t say any of that!”
She smiled. “Of course not. But you thought it, with the rest of the world, and that’s human. I’m not holding you at fault for that. It was down to about fifty really ugly messages a day – before today. It shot up again.”
I shook my head. “Why are you telling me this?!”
“Because you say you love her,” she shot back, stepping into my face. “And while you may not have raised a hand to her, or put a pill down her throat, you didn’t bother to send a flower to the hospital either. You didn’t show up. So… you’ll have to forgive me if I think that was shitty of you, and decide I’m not your biggest fan.”
“So why did you let me come here then?”
She shrugged. “Because as I said… her wellbeing is my job. She stopped talking about you, because it hurt her to do so. I have watched her physically heal, emotionally grow, over these last few months. But I have not seen her get any happier, haven’t seen her eyes light up… until this morning, when she saw you.”
“I’m not here for us to get back together,” I said, taking a step backward. “I’m here to make sure she’s okay.”
“Then you’ll be giving her exactly what she needs. I think it would mean the world to her to know she has someone in her corner who is truly a friend.”
For a minute, we just looked at each other, and then Britt turned around, heading further down the hall. I hung back, watching as she knocked on a door, received no answer, and then held up a finger for her to wait while she slipped inside.
I eased up to the door, listening to the muffled voices on the other side.
“Auri. Auri, wake up. You have a visitor.”
“Wake up… someone is here for you. You didn’t hear the door cause you fell asleep with these damn ear buds in. Come on.”
I hastily stepped back, scratching my head as the door eased open again. Britt stepped out, and then right behind her was Auri.
Her face was puffy with sleep, and her short hair was matted against her head on one side. She was in shorts, and a tee shirt – my tee shirt – and… she looked beautiful.
“Wha… Donnie?” she gasped, as she registered my presence in the hall. “What are you—oh God, I’m a mess right now.” She put a hand to her hair, cringing at what she felt. “Give me two minutes, I’ll be right back.”
“Auri, you don’t have to—”
“Just two minutes!”
And then she’d disappeared back into the room.
“Cell phone, please,” Britt said, holding out her hand for it. “Just a precaution. You can leave it locked, I have no plans to go through it. Just don’t want her anywhere near social media tonight.”
After a brief hesitation, I handed it over, and Britt slid it into her pocket before directing me into the room where Aurielle had disappeared. It was a master suite, complete with a little sitting area, which Britt pointed me to.
I sat down, and Britt left, closing the door behind her. A few seconds later, Aurielle appeared in the doorway to the bathroom, with her hair brushed down, and a robe belted around her waist.
“Sorry about that,” she said, not taking any steps forward. “I just… I didn’t want to have gross breath, and crazy hair, and—”
“You didn’t have to do any of that. I just came to check on you.”
She smiled. “Yeah. I… um… I appreciate it. Seeing you twice in one day, after not seeing you for what… six months? But I guess that’s not exactly right… I’ve seen you, you just haven’t seen me.”
Auri dropped her gaze to her hands, clasped in front of her as she leaned in the doorframe. “I may have been to the theatre to see you perform once… or four times.”
She shook her head. “Nope. Not playing. I’ve seen The Chase at least four times. Last time I went, I found myself mouthing the lines. You and Dawn… you two are good together. Really great chemistry on the stage… and off. And she’s gorgeous. Talented. Sweet. I’m happy for you… and I’m not just saying that. I really am.”
I ran my tongue over my lips. “I appreciate that, Auri. But me and Dawn, we’re not together like that.”
“You don’t have to try to spare my feelings, Donnie. I’m fine.”
“It’s not like that though, seriously,” I insisted. “I’m not going to lie and say it wasn’t, at one point. But not anymore. We play it up a little for the publicity for the show, but Dawn and I really are just friends. She actually encouraged me to come see you.”
She nodded. “And here you are.”
“Here I am.”
Neither of us said anything for a while, and she stayed right where she was, looking uncertain. I hated that. She’d always been so comfortable around me before – we had a natural vibe that I’d never felt with anybody else. This didn’t feel right.
“Why are you all the way over there?” I asked, smiling at her. “Come sit with me, talk.”
Her eyebrows hiked like she was surprised, but at least she moved, coming into the seating area where I was. She sat down on the couch with me, but sat as close to the edge as possible, then still looked at me like she was wondering if it was okay to be that close.
I hated that too.
Instead of saying anything about it, I moved, getting close enough that her clean, peachy scent invaded my nostrils. It was familiar – damn near soothing. The longer I was this close to her, the more I realized just how much I’d missed the hell out of her, and wished things between us hadn’t ended up this way. But, the damage was done now.
“So… how have you been?” I asked.
Awkward ass question for an awkward situation, but we had to start somewhere. She ran her fingers through her short curls, then shook her head.
“Uh, as well as can be expected, I guess. Better than a few months ago. Worse than a year ago. I’m managing,” she said, forcing a smile to her face afterward. She cringed a little, and I remembered what Britt said about her still having soreness in her jaw.
“Have they arrested anybody?”
Her eyes went wide at that question, and I immediately regretting asking it. Before I could get any words out, she’d already started speaking.
“Um… no. I don’t think they will, either. Everyone who I know was probably there… everybody says they don’t know anything, and there isn’t any video, nothing like that. So, without a suspect, it’s pointless.”
I frowned. “What about your testimony?”
She laughed. It was dry, and didn’t hold a shred of humor, but she laughed. “What testimony? I was a drugged out pop star, barely conscious half the time. Why the hell would the police listen to me?”
I cringed. “Don’t… don’t say that about yourself.”
“Why not?” she shrugged. “I mean… you saw it for yourself, Donnie. It’s the truth. I don’t even really… I don’t remember a lot of that night. I don’t remember a lot of nights, but I know he did that to me, because I told him I didn’t want to see him anymore. I told him I was checking into rehab, that I already had an appointment with the administrators and everything. And the next thing I remember is waking up in the hospital, with my jaw wired shut, and Astrid crying.”
I dropped my head, pushing out a hard sigh. The next thing I knew, I was pulling her into my lap to hold her close. One arm around her waist, the other buried in her hair as tears broke free, and she cried against my chest.
“I don’t even know how I got here,” she sobbed. “I don’t understand. I don’t remember taking a first pill, or a second. It’s like a fog, and I just woke up one day needing painkillers just to get through the day. The stress of the music, and the tour dates, and the media, and Louis always pressuring me to party, and drink, and I just… I don’t know what happened, Donnie. It was like I wasn’t… me.”
“I know, beautiful,” I murmured into her hair, wishing there was something – anything – I could do to ease what she was feeling. “I’m sorry you went through this. I’m so sorry.”
I kissed her hair, then her forehead. Then her forehead again, and the rest of her face, and before I knew it I was pressing my lips to hers, using my hand under her chin to keep her close. She melted against me instantly, letting me slip my tongue into her mouth to remind myself how she tasted. I devoured her, not really caring to breathe, just about doing something I’d missed for so long.
But then, she pushed back.
She struggled out of my lap and stood up, staring at me before she turned and walked across the room, her hand cupped over her mouth. She wrapped a protective arm around herself as she stood at the window, and tensed when I approached her.
“I’m sorry,” I said, leaving some distance between us.
Aurielle shook her head, but didn’t turn around. “No. No, it’s nothing to be sorry about, I just…” she looked over her shoulder at me, and the tears in her eyes made an uncomfortable ache pull at my chest. “I can’t… don’t do this to me, okay? You were clear about not wanting to be together before. I don’t need the confusion.”
“Right. I’m sorry, I just…”
She nodded, then turned to face the window again. “I know. I get it. But… hey,” she said, pivoting to face me again. “Let’s talk about something else. How have you been?”
I shrugged. “I’ve been good, I guess. Busy with the show, rehearsals, press, all of that.”
“It’s a good look for you though. A great look. And you’re just getting started. How amazing is that?”
Grinning, I took a few steps toward her. “Pretty fucking amazing. And to think… what, two years ago? I was nobody in the dance world, just trying to get a shot. You saw this handsome face and just had to hire me, huh?”
“It wasn’t just your face,” she giggled. “You were talented. And… you had a nice body.”
I let out a loud shout of laughter. “Come on¸ Auri. I bombed that tryout, and you know it. The choreographer looked at you like you were out of damned mind when you called my name. And made me the lead. It wasn’t my dancing.”
“It was,” she insisted. “You had a great natural vibe on the dance floor, even if the moves weren’t exactly… “right”. I felt something for you, and we had great chemistry on the stage. Great chemistry in the video. You were the right choice, and you proved yourself after that. Danced circles around everybody else on that stage.”
I scoffed. “Yeah, yeah. Just admit that you hired me cause you wanted me, will you?”
I can’t even explain the sensation that washed over me, watching her blush and cover her smile, but not deny what I was saying. She shook her head, then leaned back against the thick glass windowpane.
“Anyway… how is everybody else? How is Fallon?”
I smiled at her inquiry about my sister. “Fallon is good, and Sean too. She’s actually pregnant, and they’re engaged.”
Aurielle’s eyes went wide, and her mouth dropped open. “Seriously! Oh, wow. That’s… that’s amazing for them. Please tell her I said congratulations.”
I scowled. “Tell her yourself. She asks about you all the time, her and my parents. They care about you, Auri. They’d love to hear from you.”
I watched a little of the happy light fade from her eyes. “I… probably shouldn’t. No confusion, remember?”
She cast her gaze downward, staring at her toes. That sick feeling came to my stomach again, as it occurred to me when we broke up, I wasn’t the only person she’d lost.
She and her sister were only children, to only children. She didn’t have aunts, uncles, cousins, none of that. When her parents died, well before she and I met, it was just her and Astrid. Until I brought her into my family.
Mama and Fallon were all about Aurielle. Once they got to know her, past her public persona, they loved her for her natural sweetness, just like I did. Loved that she would help pack boxes of lingerie if she stopped by Fallon’s shop, or swing by mama’s backyard to water her garden. And all it took for my dad was seeing that she wasn’t afraid to put a worm on a hook, and cast a fishing reel. Even he was smitten, and so was Auri.
I took that from her, at a time when I knew she was struggling with her agent, struggling with her record deal, struggling with the pressure of a level of fame she hadn’t expected. And the thing was… I’d never stopped wanting her. Never stopped loving her.
I did this to us… for nothing.
I didn’t feel like the other things that happened were my fault, but the fact was that if we were still together, it wouldn’t have happened. She wouldn’t have been around ol’ boy, I would have been there, to protect her. But I wasn’t, because I wanted to chase ass, and honestly… I thought she would wait for me.
When I broke things off, it never occurred to me that she would be with someone else. Never even crossed my mind that she would be angry, that she would seek comfort in somebody else’s arms. Especially somebody who ended up hurting her in a way that I never, ever would have.
I was… stupid as hell. It kept playing in my mind, loud and unyielding, you stupid motherfucker, why did you leave when you still wanted her? Never stopped wanting her. Still want her?
What the hell was I doing?
– & –
I tried not to think too hard about what I saw in Donnie’s eyes when I looked up, and he caught my face between his hands. I couldn’t think about it too hard, didn’t want to allow myself the hope that maybe, maybe he still cared about me as deeply as I cared about him.
“Yeah? What’s up?”
He let out a little breath, and I watched his throat constrict as he hesitated over whatever he was about to say. “I… I’m sorry, beautiful.”
I frowned. “Donnie, why do you keep apologizing to me?”
“Because I need to make sure you know. I’m sorry that I left you… that I didn’t protect you, that—”
“No,” I said, my words firm as I stepped away from his touch. “Stop it, please. This isn’t your fault. It wasn’t your responsibility. It was mine. I should have gotten help for my depression, before it got to where it did. I shouldn’t have gone back, after he put his hands on me the first time. I shouldn’t have given in to the self-medicating. I shouldn’t have sent my security that night. I should have told my sister what was happening.” I stopped to suck in a deep breath, and waved him off when he reached for me. “This isn’t on you, Donnie. I made so many mistakes. It’s my life. It’s on me.”
He shook his head. “Nah, Auri. It’s not just on you. Not when I claim to love you. I… didn’t do right by you, and I have to own up to that. When you love somebody… they’re your responsibility too. I dropped the ball. I saw what was happening with you, and even knowing that what you were doing… it wasn’t… you, I didn’t do enough. I should have called Astrid myself. Should have sent Fallon to come and see you. Should have knocked some sense into Louis’s head… should have stayed. Never should have left. Because that’s what you do when you love somebody, and I… didn’t. I fucked up, because I was angry that you moved on, and decided that I wasn’t going to interfere. That you were living the life you wanted. And in retrospect… I see how idiotic that was.”
“You did what I asked you to do,” I argued, choking back tears. “That’s one thing I do remember. Telling you to leave me alone. So I don’t get to act like some damsel in distress, here. Yes, there are parts of all of this where I was a victim. But there were also parts where nobody was forcing pills into my hand. I was wrong, Donnie. And you don’t have to try to mitigate that. Was I the only one who was wrong? No. But I was wrong. And now, I just have to move past it.”
Donnie nodded, then gave me the barest hint of a smile. “Seems like you’re doing a pretty job at that.”
“It’s a process. Britt keeps saying to give it a year, and no one will even remember, but I don’t know. I think it’s something I’ll always have to contend with. I just have to figure out how not to let it break me down. I’m not hopeless here though, don’t let me give the wrong impression. I’ll be okay.”
“I know. You talking to somebody?”
“Yep,” I nodded. “Doctor Layla Alexander, a couple times a week. She’s getting me together, and assures me that I’m making good progress, even when it doesn’t feel like it some days. We had an emergency session today.”
“Yeah… that interview was… tough,” he said, cringing. “But, that’s what I wanted to hear. What I needed to hear… that you had people on your side.”
I shrugged. “Well, I pay them to be there, but hey… whatever it takes, right?”
He chuckled. “Right.”
A moment passed where neither of us said anything, then Donnie pushed his hands into his pockets. “Well… I should probably get going. I’ve taken up enough of your time.”
No, you haven’t, I thought, but bit my lip instead of saying anything. I didn’t want him to leave. I wanted to snuggle up close, get lost in his scent, and have him wrap me in his arms. I wanted him. As much as he was willing to give me. But after everything… I wasn’t about to dare ask for that.
“Okay,” I said quietly, willing my voice not to shake. “Thank you for coming to check on me. It really… it means a lot.”
That was an understatement. It meant everything.
He gave me a short nod, but wouldn’t meet my eyes before he turned to walk toward the door. I followed, leaving a short distance between us, using it to talk myself into not crying. He was leaving. Surely I could hold them off for a few more minutes.
Halfway to the door, he stopped, so abruptly that I almost walked into him. Before I could steady myself, he’d already folded his arms around me, and once again, his lips were on mine.
“I love you,” he insisted, speaking the words right against my mouth. He repeated them as he moved his hands up to my head, burying his fingers in my hair before he kissed me again. “No confusion,” he said, when he pulled back to look me in the eyes. “I love you, Aurielle. I want you. I want us.”
Something in me broke, when he said those words I’d so desperately been wanting to hear. Any little hold I had over my emotions dissolved, and tears streamed freely down my face as Donnie kissed me again.
I threw my arms around his neck, grinning against his lips when he reached down to cup my ass, pulling me flush against his body. I felt… safe. Safer than I had in a long, long while, right there in his arms. Suddenly, my shoulders seemed lighter, and something akin to relief settled over me. Finally, I had the sense that my world was being truly realigned.
It didn’t take very long before our sweet, emotionally charged kisses evolved into something else. Donnie slipped his tongue into my mouth, licking and tasting mine, making a loose moan slid from my throat. His hands dug into my hips, pulling me closer, even though there was nowhere else to go. I was right against him, feeling his erection swelling between us.
“I’ve missed you,” he murmured, then gently pulled my lip between his teeth, nipping, then soothing it with his tongue. He dipped his head, kissing my neck, running his tongue over my sensitive skin. His hands moved up to where my robe was belted, and there, he hesitated, looking up to meet my gaze.
I took a deep, shuddering breath, then answered the question in his eyes with a nod. Fresh tears of relief sprang to my eyes as he unbelted the robe and pushed it off my shoulders, then slipped his hands under the tee shirt – his tee shirt – that I wore underneath. There was nothing I wanted more, in that moment, than to feel his touch. My nipples peaked into hard pebbles as Donnie cupped my breasts, brushing the tips with his thumbs.
Our lips met again as he walked me backwards, stopping to pull the shirt over my head, then remove my shorts, and then his clothes. The backs of my legs met the edge of the bed, and Donnie eased me down before he climbed over me, covering us with the comforter before he pressed his mouth to mine again.
He slipped his hands between us, spreading my legs apart and settling between them. I draped my arms over his shoulders again, basking in the pleasant weight of his body on top of mine.
“Yes,” I said, before he even opened his mouth to ask. “I’m sure. And I’m sure that I’m sure. Please.”
From his position over me, Donnie grinned, and a moment later, he was buried inside me. We both moaned, lost for a second in that “first time” feeling. He pushed his tongue into my mouth again as he started moving, hiking my leg up around his waist to get deeper.
“Ahhh,” I moaned, as he pushed his hips against mine, until he couldn’t move any further. His mouth went to my neck, sucking and biting as he began to stroke, awakening pleasure receptors that hadn’t been used in a long while.
I dug my nails into his back as he moved, moaning and whimpering and whispering my pleasure. Somehow, he plunged deeper, and I arched against him as he slipped an arm under me, keeping me tight against him as he stroked.
Hot prickles of bliss ignited all over my skin, centered at my core. He moved faster, delved deeper, murmured words of love in my ear that I didn’t even know I’d been missing. When I came, it was like an explosion of static, washing over me as my body tensed, clenching and milking him for his release. He burrowed himself into me hard, as deep as he could go, holding me tight until his climax was over.
We showered together, and made love there too. And then again, once we’d climbed back into my bed, ruining another fresh set of sheets. When we finally settled down, I cuddled against him, grateful to have the opportunity to fall asleep with him.
I snuggled close, inhaling his scent, basking in the warmth and strength of his arms. A little shred of doubt tried to creep into my mind, but I pushed it away. Not because I was so confident that everything was perfect now. I knew better.
I just wanted to enjoy the moment.
– & –
– Donovan –
I waited for regret to set in.
I stared down at Aurielle, her sleeping frame tucked under my arm and across my chest, waiting to feel like this was a mistake. Like I’d allowed guilt to pull me into a situation that was doomed from the start.
But it wouldn’t come.
I just felt… grateful.
The faint morning light said that it was still early, but I knew I needed to get up. As much as I wanted to stay, I still had obligations for the show, which I needed to attend to.
But still… it couldn’t hurt to lay here for a few more moments, basking in how peaceful Aurielle’s face was in her sleep.
Across the room, the door crept open, and Britt’s head peaked in. She nodded when she realized I was awake, and held up my cell phone, signaling for me to come out. She closed the door again, and I carefully Auri off of me so I could get up. I pulled on my boxers, jeans, and tee shirt, then stepped out of the room to find Britt.
She was waiting for me in the kitchen, having a cup of tea at the counter.
“An alarm was going off on your cell, and then you got a phone call. And then I got a phone call, from Dawn Oliver, trying to get in touch with you. She says to make sure you get on your flight this morning.”
I grinned. “Right. I’m gonna go get cleaned up, and say goodbye to Auri.”
Britt lifted an eyebrow. “Goodbye… for now, right?”
“Yeah,” I nodded. “Just for now. I have to do some promo for the show, but I’ll be back in a few days.”
“Excellent,” Britt said, smiling as she rose from her seat, taking her cup with her. “I knew a few orgasms would do her a world of good.”
Britt didn’t even look back, and hummed a tune to herself as she left the room. I shook my head, then picked up my phone from the counter, shooting Dawn a quick text confirming that I was coming before I headed back to Auri’s room.
She wasn’t in the bed anymore when I stepped in, but I could hear the shower.
She was singing, which made me smile.
I followed the gorgeous sound of her voice into the bathroom, and she grinned when she saw me through the glass. “Good morning,” she said, then let out a little sigh.
I frowned. “What’s wrong?”
She shrugged, then looked down at the soapy loofa in her hands. “I thought you may have left, before I woke up. But then I saw your shoes, and figured that maybe you’d just gone for water or something. But then I thought… what if he was just in such a hurry that he forgot his shoes?”
I laughed, and she laughed too, shaking her head as she met my gaze again. “So you see the type of stuff that goes on in my mind?”
“I already knew that about you, Aurielle. No surprise.” I stripped my clothes back off, then climbed in the shower with her, pulling her against me. Her wet breasts pressed into my chest as she slipped her arms around my waist.
“Do you have to leave?”
I didn’t want to, but I nodded. “Yeah. In about an hour. But I’ll be back.”
She stared at me for a few seconds, then ran her tongue over her lips. “You promise?”
Looking into her eyes, I knew that question was a lot deeper than those two words, and asking about a lot more than the days I’d be gone. It was a question of trust, and commitment. She needed stability and security, and didn’t need me around if I couldn’t offer that.
I dropped my mouth to hers, pressing her with a kiss that made her arch into me. And then, I had no problem looking her right in the eyes, and answering her question.
“Yes. I promise.”