“I was kidding, Ellie,” Tyler blurted out. “I don’t think we should go in there. We can find something else to do.”
“At ten o’clock in this town? We go in here, or we go back to headquarters,” I said, pointing at the door. Its chipped black paint was the perfect prologue to what awaited us inside.
I reached for the door again, but Tyler resisted. Just as I began a scathing review of his reluctance, he touched my cheek, looking down on me with concern in his eyes. “Ellie.”
I turned my face away from his touch. My new job and my new life were due to my stubborn pride. Not even being disowned by my parents could make me get my shit straight. My luck was better when I made my own decisions apart from external influences, but I found myself wanting to do things just to make Tyler happy—the sort of stupid, vapid shit Finley did when she liked a guy—things that definitely weren’t me. But then again, I wasn’t sure who I was anymore. Maybe Ellie two-point-oh would skip the bar to play it safe and hide from temptations at headquarters.
I frowned. “C’mon. O’Doul’s, mocktails, and people watching. We can laugh really loud like we’re drunk and slap the table a lot. No one will ever know.”
Tyler was still unconvinced, but I pulled him through the door anyway. A small group of barely legal women sat at a table by the door. A few couples were at the end of the bar near the bathrooms, and a few older local men were peppered across the bar stools. Tyler pointed to the table we had sat at when I was here with Finley and Sterling. The thought of Sterling made my skin crawl. He hadn’t intended to fuck me any more than I’d meant to be fucked when I went to his house that day, but Sterling was the embodiment of rock bottom for me, and I was okay with never seeing him again.
“Hey, you okay?” Tyler asked, sitting next to me. He patted my thigh, bringing me back to the present. I both loved and loathed when he touched me like we were that familiar, as if I belonged to him. Tyler was my new addiction, like flirting with fire on the mountain, loving the danger and waiting for the burn.
“You just look a little uncomfortable.”
“A couple of O’Doul’s and I’ll be fine.”
Tyler smirked. “Good luck getting some liquid courage with non-alcoholic beer.” He stood, leaving me alone to order at the bar.
I picked at the last bits of polish left on my nails. Finley had always been the one to make sure I had a regular manicure, even if she had to make an appointment from the other side of the country, but now that I couldn’t afford one, I sort of missed it.
My phone buzzed in my back pocket, and I pulled it out, seeing Finley’s silly, beautiful face. I pressed the red button for the second time that day and put my phone away.
“You’re looking awfully forlorn,” Tyler said, setting a bottle on the table in front of me. “Here. Drink up. Annie told me that Wick had already warned her that if we came in together to remind me not to get kicked out.”
“What an asshole. He ruined our entire night.”
Tyler breathed out a laugh. “That’s exactly what I said.”
“Really?” I asked, dubious. Tyler nodded. “We are spending way too much time together.”
“I was just thinking we needed more days like today.”
“Ellie?” a high-pitched voice called from across the room. “Oh my God! Ellie!”
I turned to see Paige weaving through tables to get to mine. She bent down and threw her arms around me. Her blue hair was now fuchsia, and she was beautiful as ever. Her tiny features remained soft as she smiled sweetly at me. She was still searching for someone, wearing a cropped tank top and frayed denim shorts to display her tattoos. Her right arm, the blank canvas, was now marked with black lace serving as leaves to a coral-colored rose.
She grinned and then pointed to her nose. “So is this.”
I frowned, unable to ignore the thought that Paige was changing too much, too fast. She was already drunk, her eyes were bloodshot, and purple circles darkened the thin skin beneath her lower lashes. She wasn’t more than twenty-two or -three, but already tired of the bullshit life kept throwing at her. We were going in opposite directions, and I wondered if I’d been the last straw. Finley had always said that I ruined people, and I could see the turns Paige was taking, all downhill.
“I’m so glad to see you,” she said, a new nose ring shimmering as it reflected the multi-colored lights above. “I went to your house. José said you took a job and moved out.”
“I’m a photographer for The MountainEar. I’m following the hotshots this summer.”
Paige giggled and nudged my arm. “Seriously. Where did you move to?” Her eyes bounced between Tyler and me, and then recognition lit her expression. “So you’re … living together?”
“Not exactly,” Tyler said. “Unless we say we’re also living with nineteen other guys.”
Paige tightened her bottom lip, but then she tried to relax, forcing a smile. “You couldn’t call?”
“I don’t have your number,” I said.
“Really? I thought I gave it to you.” I shook my head, and she blinked. “Well, I can give it to you now. Where’s your phone?”
Paige shifted her gaze from me to Tyler, and then back. She sat in the chair next to me, her shoulders sagging. “I’ve missed you. You look great. You look happy.”
Her eyes glossed over. “What are you doing later?”
“I rode into town with Tyler, actually,” I said, feeling guiltier with each word that came out of Paige’s mouth.
“Oh. Well … I could take you back. I have a car.”
I could see the hurt all over her face, in the way she looked to the floor, the way her mouth twitched.
“You warned me, didn’t you?” She looked up. “I’ve been waiting for you this whole time and you told me not to. So stupid,” she said, shaking her head and looking away. She wiped her cheek quickly.
“Paige,” I said, reaching for her.
She pulled away. “There is only one person who’s a bigger whore than Tyler Maddox in this town.”
“Taylor?” Tyler said. I could hear the amusement in his voice, and my cheeks burned with anger.
Paige laughed once. “You don’t even try to deny it. What does that feel like?”
Paige’s face crumbled, and an escaped tear fell down her cheek. “No. Not for a long time.” She stood and walked out, and I grabbed my pointless beer and took a long swig.
“It’s not funny,” I snapped. “There is nothing funny about me using her and casting her aside like everyone else in her life.”
“Whoa. I’m sorry. I thought I was on your side.”