Derek woke up dizzy and groaned, his head spinning. This morning tasted like a night he’d regret. Jesus Christ, what the fuck had happened last night? He placed his hands over his eyes, trying to get a hold of himself and piece it together.
Cindy, wait up.
Derek’s eyes flew open and he stopped breathing. Oh, no. Oh, hell no. No, no, no.
He raised his head a little and his eyes caught sight of a slim shape sitting on the side of the bed, bent forward to put on her shoes. The red curls confirmed his greatest fear.
As he was still trying to process the events, she turned and looked at him, blinking slowly, and Derek felt like, if a thousand thunders hit him all at once right here and now, it still would’ve been better than the alternative of having to live for the rest of his days knowing he’d hooked up with Cindy Bennett.
Slowly, it all came back to him.
I intend to go get drunk until I can’t remember my name.
Oh, and they had. Derek remembered that clearly. Cindy had been pretty beaten up last night, and he vaguely recalled some chivalrous instinct his mother had glued to him urging him to make sure she’d be fine. Okay, so he didn’t stand her guts and he enjoyed the hell out of making fun of her with Ray. But he’d known this girl for half his life now. They’d had classes together and he’d copied on tests from her and she’d let him borrow his notes every single time when he’d been too hungover to show up at school. And not that he’d ever admit it to anyone else, but before she’d developed that embarrassing crush on Ray, Derek had had a little crush on her himself. I mean, it would’ve been impossible not to. Cindy Bennett had been the queen of their high school.
But things had changed and this wasn’t high school anymore. And Cindy had gone from high school bee-queen to psychotic stalker. And seeing her like that last night, so broken and vulnerable, Derek felt bad for her. He couldn’t let himself shrug it off and read about some random girl dying from alcohol poisoning the next day in the morning paper.
Cindy, wait up.
From there, it all became a haze. He remembered bits and pieces, and some vague story about Ray and his new girlfriend, which he now recalled he’d have to interrogate Ray about, and about how she should’ve read the signs long ago, which sounded more than obvious to Derek, but he kept listening. And still, how the hell had he ended up sharing a bed with Cindy Bennett? And getting to the morning after. Derek never stuck around for the morning after.
“Maybe you should go a little easier on tequila, don’t you think?” Derek suggested, after seeing Cindy chug down her fifth shot.
She looked at him like this was the most absurd thing she’d ever heard.
“No,” she replied simply, then proceeded to order herself two more shots. Derek rolled his eyes at thinking how utterly useless he was being, considering he’d come along to stop her from doing something stupid, and still, there he was, supervising her in the process of doing the stupid thing.
Cindy surprised him by placing the second shot in his hand.
“I think at least one of us needs to be sober right now, Cindy,” he raised an eyebrow at her, and she scowled.
“Yeah, right. I hate drinking alone, so bottoms up, McCarter. I’m sad, and watching you babysit me is even sadder. We don’t even like each other.”
Derek rolled his eyes and chugged down the shot, glaring at Cindy.
“So you don’t like me, huh?” he retorted, and Cindy huffed.
“Please. I know how guys are. I bet you and Ray have a good laugh as soon as I’m out the door.”
Derek remained silent for a second before their next drinks arrived and as soon as those were down as well, he spoke again.
“Then how come you still do it every week?” he asked her. “Show up, I mean. From what you say, you’ve got the message loud and clear. Why keep making a fool of yourself?”
Cindy pursed her lips and for a second, Derek regretted having asked her that, thinking he might’ve hurt her feelings even more. But eventually, she smiled sadly as she drunk a shot he’d lost count of, so he mimicked the action as he waited for her answer.
“Because,” she replied eventually. “I never had anything of my own. And I never wanted anything for myself. At all. And feeling the way I feel about Ray, it kinda feels unfair that I’m denied the one thing I want for myself.”
Derek frowned at her words, and maybe he would’ve normally dropped it, since he wasn’t that good at listening to women bitch on and on about their problems, but there was enough alcohol in his system and enough curiosity in him to inquire about it.
“What do you mean, never had anything of your own or wanted anything for yourself?”
Cindy pursed her lips and smiled that sad smile again, before doing something that took Derek aback. She winked at him.
“I’m not drunk enough to start sharing personal emotional stories from my past with Derek McCarter.”
Derek chuckled and drank another shot, then winked back at her. “Yet,” he said, and it was her turn to chuckle. But then he turned serious and looked straight into her eyes for maybe what was the first time ever. “And you’re wrong, you know.”
Cindy frowned. “About what?”
“About it not being fair that you’re denied the only thing you’ve ever wanted. That’s not how things work. If you’ve been denied this one thing, it means it was either the wrong thing to want and pin for, or there’s something better in stock for you.”
Cindy smiled a small smile, her eyes never leaving his. “You mean to tell me your best friend, high school valedictorian of our class, former math genius, current law graduate and hottest librarian alive, isn’t good enough for me?”
Derek laughed whole-heartedly, finally breaking eye contact.
“I would never,” he pointed a finger at her. “I’m just saying you need to break the chain, Cindy. Move on. You might be surprised by what’s coming at you next.”
Oh, boy, had he been right. Both of them had been surprised. Because next had ended up meaning Derek himself. And he knew for a fact none of them had seen or wanted this coming.
Cindy smiled tightly at him before turning her attention back to her shoes then getting up from the bed and grabbing her jacket from a nearby chair.
“I, umm,” she stammered. “I was hoping I’d be gone by the time you woke up.”
He frowned a little, and some new memories from last night fell into place, though he remembered next to nothing after that Dr. Phil talk they’d had. But there was just one feeling he couldn’t shake and it was weird as hell. Like a word stuck on the tip of his tongue. Something he couldn’t really put his finger on—
Oh, he remembered. Bits and pieces, but he remembered. To sum up, this might’ve been the best, craziest, hottest hook-up he’d ever had.
He got up in a sitting position and rubbed the back of his neck awkwardly.
“Umm, you know,” he started, nearly wanting to slap himself hard across the face for how lame he sounded. “You, uh, you don’t have to go so soon. You could, umm, y-you know, stay a little more. We could go for a coffee, since, uh, my head is really spinning right now after how much I’ve had to drink last night.”
He forced a chuckle and she turned around while she was pulling her hair out of her jacket, the same tight smile glued to her face.
“Mine, too,” she replied. “But I should really go.”
“Yeah, but, umm, you know, we could—“
“Derek,” Cindy cut off his pathetic blabber. “I’m gonna go now, and hopefully, we’ll never have to talk about this again.”
Derek blinked at her, shocked. This was a new, surprising and unexpected position. He was usually the one delivering this speech while the girl asked him to stay. And he kinda sucked at it, but Cindy was brutal and on point. Had it been so bad for her? It couldn’t have. Because Derek had had the time of his life, and that was the little he remembered of it. She’d blown his freaking mind out. She can’t have had such a bad time.
“B-But—But this was surprisingly fun,” he tried again, but she stood her ground.
“Derek,” she snarled again. “You’re Ray’s best friend. I slept with his best friend. How cliché is that? If I stood no chance before, now it’s all gone. So as soon as I can move on with my life now, the better. Goodbye, Derek.”
She didn’t wait for his answer as she turned on her heels and disappeared out the door, leaving him gaping naked in his bed, thinking about the best and worst hook-up in his entire existence.
“So, this is the lion’s den,” Sky mused, looking around Ray’s apartment. “Well, not den. More like, Ray of Sunshine, origins.”
Ray chuckled and dropped his keys on the counter, feeling oddly self-conscious.
He didn’t trust her enough to let her out of his sight now that she’d sort of agreed to stay and stop running away from him. So, as soon as Ray closed the library, they had a long, nice, hand-in-hand walk, talking and laughing, and Ray didn’t hesitate a heartbeat before asking her to come back at his place for a cup of coffee when it started getting chilly outside.
Coming upstairs for a cup of coffee is dumbass code for hooking up, Raymond. Wake up and smell the roses, moron.
Ray shut out Derek’s voice in his head and focused on the beautiful girl standing in the middle of his living room, looking at him expectantly, a wicked smile playing on her lips.
“You bring a lot of girls in your den, Mr. Sunshine?” she asked playfully, and Ray rolled his eyes at the silly nickname.
“In perfect honesty, you’re the first girl I’ve ever brought here. I’m the keeping-to-himself kind of guy, in case you haven’t noticed.”
Sky chuckled. “Oh, I’ve noticed,” she said, and then she threw herself on the couch, looking at him all flirty through her lashes, making his breath catch in his throat. “So I’m the first girl you’ve brought home. I like that thought, yes. Come on, Ray of Sunshine, do your best. Seduce me.”
He gulped against the lump in his throat and tried to get a hold of himself, which proved to be absurdly difficult with her looking at him like that. Like she knew all the secrets of the world and yet she was content with stopping the sand from sliding through an hourglass glued to the table with the sheer force of the gravity that the weight of her gaze provided.
He sat next to her and took her hand in his, bringing it to his lips and kissing every knuckle and tracing the lines of her thin, delicate fingers, and he took his time with it, watching the sly look in her eyes soften up, turning into molten lapis lazuli, staring deep into his soul like she couldn’t figure him out. And Ray didn’t feel like there was too much to him to figure out. He was simple, and he was human. And she was storm and fire and a cloudless sky captivated by the aimless flight of a dizzy bird.
Ray leaned in and placed a chaste kiss on her lips, keeping his mouth close to hers as he spoke.
“You’re not one to be seduced, Sky. I don’t wanna seduce you. I wanna cherish you.”
She let out a breath and brought his hand up to touch his cheek so gently, so softly it physically pained Ray to be all so teased by the feeling of her skin against his. He closed his eyes for a second and allowed himself to simply enjoy it, but when he opened it he found Sky studying him with a sad look on her face.
“I’ve never been cherished,” she admitted, and Ray had the same liberating sinking feeling he had every time she decided to let him in on a little secret of the girl behind the mask. “Not once. I don’t know what that feels like. What love feels like. I’ve never been on a date or had someone sweep me off my feet. My heart has always been one steady bitch. Cherishing sounds nice, but idealistic and ghostly nonetheless.”
Ray stopped his every movement. This was the saddest thing he’d ever heard. He wanted to know more, to dig deeper, to get to the root of her insecurities so that he could kiss them all away, but he was torn between that and the reminder that pushing her might have meant losing her again, and for good. And having her around was all he wanted of her. So he settled for the next best thing. He resumed caressing her hands and kissed her forehead, then her every eye, and the corners of her eyes, and her cute, little, reddish nose, and placed about a dozen kiss on each cheek, then on the corners of her mouth, before finally capturing her lips in a kiss that consumed them both until they were breathless, foreheads leaning against each other.
“I will make you fall in love with me,” Ray decided and promised her, without thinking twice before speaking and not regretting a second of it.
Sky shook her head slightly and smiled sadly. “Ray—“
“No,” he cut her off. “Don’t talk. Just listen. I will cherish you. And tomorrow, I will take you on your first real date. Our first real date. And I promise you, Sky, I will sweep you off your feet so badly. Since I met you, you’ve been breaking me, tearing me apart piece by piece. I will show you how well our pieces fit together. I will make your heart race. I will make you fall in love with me.”
Sky blinked for a few seconds and Ray could see it in her eyes, could read it all over her that she wanted to argue with it, but her body told him she wanted to believe it. She clung to him, and she breathed him in, and her skin tingled against his and Ray knew he’d broken through her first wall and that she was granting him access to keep trying with the rest of them.
“Okay,” she spoke eventually. “Do your best, Ray of Sunshine. Lead the way.”
She smiled widely at him and Ray recognized his own words from earlier, at the library, and from their first night, when he’d followed her in the rain. So he followed the script.
“All in?” he asked, and she chuckled a little as she bit his lip, kissed him deeply, then brought her lips to his ear and replied, making him shudder with every fiber in his body.