Like people, cities had unique attributes that made it easy to recognize them. Apart from the landmarks and the Seine, I associated Paris with the ridiculous number of bakeries, the delicious food, the summer heat, and one of my closest friends.
Kennedy hadn't stopped grinning since he and Liam picked me up at Paris Charles de Gaulle. Liam was Aiden's friend, whom I met after one of our Parisian shows last fall.
I teased the hell out of him. Back then, he was set on denying being into Ellie's friend Sky. According to Kennedy, the whole secret lover boy thing had been going on since then. More reasons to piss Liam off in a friendly way.
"Kennedy, if there are paps, you'll have to cover me." I glanced around, closing the trunk of Aiden's car.
"Relax." Liam chuckled, opening the rear door of the car and getting inside. "Paris has places for those who want to get lost for a while."
"Yeah," Aiden said. "Besides, we're going to spend some days in a forest. I doubt paparazzi would camp in the bushes, waiting for you to give them content for gossip columns."
"Okay." I sighed. "I don't want to draw their attention to you guys. I'm uncomfortable being in the spotlight all the damn time. I wouldn't wish it on anyone. And I'm gonna ask this one last time: are you okay with me staying at your place, Kennedy? I told you I could stay at a hotel."
Aiden rolled his eyes. "You're our guest, and you flew all the way here just to hang out with us. Didn't you want some normalcy? Our place isn't the biggest, but now that classes are over, we hardly use the study. The couch is yours."
"What's our plan for tonight?" Liam asked.
I looked at Kennedy. "Dinner, club, drinking. Anything I've forgotten, Aiden?"
"Nothing. The girls are at home, getting your welcome dinner ready. Ellie's excited to go out. She finished her exams today."
"Sky did, too," Liam said.
My gaze shifted to the guy. A simple mention of the girl made his eyes shine. Friends, my ass.
"I'm looking forward to giving Blondie a kiss," I said, laughing at Liam's scowl. "Okay, gents, we've got some tea. So, what is it— dating, a situationship, friends with benefits, secret lovers?"
"None of the above, rockstar." Liam shook his head, staring out of the window.
"If you say so." I shrugged. "Then don't get pissed if I dance with the girl. I gave you a chance to come clean."
Those two were made for each other. Both blond, both stubborn. Both good people from what I gathered in the short time I'd known Liam and Sky. Why they lied about their feelings was beyond my understanding. Kennedy wouldn't meddle, but if I could give those two a little push, I'd use my chance.
A long drive later, Kennedy parked his car in the garage, and we headed to his apartment.
Ellie opened the door. I squeezed her in a hug first and kissed Sky and another girl, Lucy, on the cheek. Lucy was Ellie's friend, and the guy next to her Kennedy mentioned on our way home was Lucy's boyfriend, Alex.
I shook Alex's hand, and his eyes widened in recognition.
"Oh shit, you're that Jim O'Brien? The singer of—"
If he continued gawking at me with his mouth open, his jaw would hurt like a bitch.
I chuckled. "Yeah. So, I'll give you three seconds. One...two...three."
Alex raised his eyebrows, and I slapped his shoulder. "That was the time during which I allowed you to fanboy. From now on, I'm Jimmy or Jim, Aiden's friend, and nothing else."
He laughed. "Yeah, man, I get it. All that attention must suck."
"The attention doesn't suck," I said. "I just want to feel normal, spending time with my friends for a while. What's for dinner, beautiful?" I turned to Ellie.
"We made lasagna," Sky answered instead. "We also bought some wine."
"Let me show you your room first." Kennedy pointed at a door at the end of the hallway, asking me to follow him.
An art student, Ellie had recently started drawing illustrations for a fashion magazine. The room I'd sleep in must've been the place where she worked — a faint smell of paint lingered in the air, an easel with a canvas on it stood in the corner, and painting supplies covered the long desk propped against the wall.
Kennedy thrust a set of bedding and a towel into my hands.
"It looks comfy." I nodded at the couch. "I'm not gonna ask you why you've put such a big couch here, Kennedy."
"To study together." Ellie hugged Aiden and pressed her cheek to his chest. "And it's perfect for reading your books here," she said, winking at me.
The memory made me smile. I gave Kennedy a book about sex positions when he turned eighteen. I had my copy at home. Younger and curious, I wasn’t too eager to learn by doing things in the wrong way. Mindless plucking at the strings would hardly give you a melody your ears would tolerate, and sex was like music — you needed to know the basics and start from there.
Even though I knew stuff, nothing prepared me for what I felt when Ava and I made love for the first time. I didn't expect the nerves. I didn't think my hands would shake, but they did. Loving her erased the memory of other hands and lips on me. Loving her showed me what true intimacy meant.
I missed her — missed her so damn much it hurt. But I wasn’t alone. And it wasn’t about me but my friends whom I hadn’t seen in six months. I pushed my sadness aside and laughed. "Okay, so I'll ask this just in case—what kind of couple are you two, Kennedy? Heavy metal, hard rock, jazz, pop, country? I need to know what music to listen to, not to hear you getting some loving in your bedroom."
Ellie hid her face in the fabric of Kennedy’s shirt, and Kennedy shrugged. "Blast the heavy metal, Jim."
Ellie slapped his chest, giggling, and dragged him to the living room where we’d eat.
Alex chose the club we went to after dinner. Since he knew the owner, we skipped the line and headed straight to the bar. The guys and I went for shots of whiskey and cognac while the girls ordered cocktails.
"Good music," Liam said as we sat on some stools with drinks in front of us.
"It is." Alex nodded. "It's better than in many other places I've been to. At least they mix things up a bit. It's not dull."
A glance at Liam told me he cared about the blond girl dancing way more than he did about music. His eyes didn’t stray from Sky. Why the hell wasn’t he dancing with her?
I put my empty shot glass on the counter. "I'm gonna ask Blondie to dance with me."
Liam glared at me. I ignored him and walked over to Sky. “Wanna dance?”
“Sure.” She shrugged.
The notes of a slow song resounded in the club. I put my hands on Sky’s waist, and she put hers on my shoulders. I kept my distance, careful not to let our bodies touch.
I’d never dance with anyone the way I did with Ava, and Sky surely would prefer dancing with the guy she loved.
“He’s going crazy,” I said in her ear.
Sky’s mouth opened and closed.
I chuckled, squeezing her waist. “Act normal. Pretend you’re enjoying the dance. I saw you holding Liam’s hand under the table at dinner, lover girl. Why make it a secret if you love each other?”
“The song isn’t long enough to explain,” Sky said.
“I can relate.”
“You also love someone and keep quiet?”
I twirled Sky and dipped her for good measure. She was an excellent dancer. If we were putting up a show, it'd better be a good one. “I do,” I said. “Ava’s waiting for me at home.”
I hoped she was, and the little sanity I had left clung to that hope.
Sky frowned. “Ava.”
“That’s her name. Why?”
“I used to live with a girl named Ava in Marseille, but it's a common name. Never mind.”
“Wait.” I stopped moving. “My Ava lived in the south of France. Ava Morris.”
Sky laughed, pressing a palm to her mouth. “I can’t believe it! Are you for real? That’s crazy. I had no idea you were together. Well, Ava and I haven’t talked in a while, not since she returned home, but I saw her in Paris in December. How did you meet?”
I grabbed Sky’s hand and made her spin once more. “I’m staying in Paris till July. I’ll tell you all about it later, or even better, Ava can. You should text her.”
“I will.” Sky beamed. “Well, the song’s over.”
“It was my pleasure.”
Ellie and Lucy joined Sky on the dancefloor, and I returned to the bar. "She's one hell of a dancer," I said to Liam, sitting on my stool. "I’d watch her closely if she was my girl."
The guy’s jaw clenched. "Well, she's not yours."
I downed another shot. "Jeez, you don't seem happy."
"I’d be happier if you kept your paws off my girl." Liam scowled.
I felt sorry for him. Secrets sucked. Pretending you felt nothing when you were in love sucked even more. And insecurities would make anyone jealous. I slammed my empty shot glass down on the counter and hopped to my feet. "Time to have a dude to dude convo, lover boy. Let's go outside."
On the street, I walked to the bench next to some trees.
"I feel like we have to talk this shit out," I said.
Liam chewed on his lip. "Of all the girls, why her?"
"What are you to each other, Liam?"
"We're together, have been since January, and nobody knows," Liam said after a pause.
"I wouldn't be so sure." I chuckled. "Feelings are harder to hide than a boner. I didn't put my paws on her, Liam. I put my hands on her waist because that's the way to dance. And I kissed her cheek because we're friends. Why Sky? That's easy. I'm going through some shit both with my little brother and in my personal life. And there's a girl back home. Nobody knows cause I don't belong to myself, and I have to keep us secret for now. If I dance with Sky, it won't raise the girl's suspicions since they know each other, but if it's with any other girl, it’ll be all over the tabloids before we leave the club, and that's the last thing I need. I want a fucking break. I want to relax and spend time with my friends, and Sky’s only that— a friend. So, chill."
"I'm sorry. I don't fucking recognize myself. All this jealousy, God damn it. It's not even me." Liam gripped his hair and buried his face in his palms.
The vulnerable gesture made me regret teasing him.
I sighed. "It only takes one girl. Ask Aiden, who's going a step ahead of us. If we need relationship advice, he's the man. What I don't get is, why keep it secret in your case?"
Liam dropped his hands to his lap and studied them. "I don't know. It's what Sky wants. She says it's not to take the focus off our friends who are getting married, but Aiden would be happy for us. And you know what, Jim? It's fucking hard to love her in secret because I... I guess I wonder if she loves me too."
It was funny how people could be oblivious to something everyone else noticed. "I'm sure she does." I laughed. "Blondie might've been dancing with me, but you were the one she was eye-fucking. Don't be stupid. Women are a mystery, Liam. Twenty-two years old, and I haven't figured them out. Might as well die without knowing."
I rose to my feet and nodded toward the club. "Let's head back. I'm not going to dance with her if it hurts you, okay?"
Liam exhaled. "Yeah."
Hours later, I was admiring the night Paris through the cab window on my way to Kennedy's. I shared the cab with Liam and Sky, but the two lovebirds asked the driver to stop five minutes into the journey. I promised them to keep their rendezvous secret but doubted Kennedy knew nothing. If they acted the same way they did at the club, Aiden must've known for a while.
The driver stopped next to Kennedy's building. Aiden let me in as soon as I pressed the intercom button.
When I stepped out of the elevator on his floor, he held the apartment door open.
"Hey." Kennedy smiled. "Ellie's asleep, so we have to be quiet."
Aiden motioned for me to follow him inside. "Yeah. She's exhausted. It's been a difficult month because of her studies. I wanted to talk to you, but if you're tired, it can wait."
"Give me a minute to change into something comfortable."
Aiden nodded. "I'll be on the balcony."
I rushed to my room and got rid of my jeans and shirt, putting on some shorts and a tee instead.
Kennedy was waiting for me with a bottle of cognac and two snifters.
"Another party?" I grinned.
Aiden laughed. "Yeah. Sit."
We sat at a small table and grabbed our glasses. The smooth texture coated my mouth as I took a sip. I closed my eyes and hummed in appreciation.
"Extra old," Aiden said. "Great, isn't it?"
"Where's the kid who drank cheap liquor with me in my garage?" I chuckled.
"Still there somewhere. How have you been, Jim?"
My eyes roamed the view from Kennedy's balcony. The street below was empty. The lit Eiffel Tower sparkled in the distance. Everything around me was calm. Everything inside me was chaos.
"Where do I start?" I groaned, tilting my head back.
Aiden grabbed the bottle of cognac and refilled our glasses. "From the beginning."
So I did. I told him about meeting Ava the night of Ellie's accident. I spoke about my fuckup and lying about who I was and didn't forget to mention Alfie and the house I started to remodel, as well as Brian's friend's accident and my brother's trip. Although doing it hurt, I confessed that Ava and I took a break from each other.
Talking felt good, maybe because I did it with the guy I trusted. Kennedy knew me well. He knew my parents and was friends with my brother. And he'd been through enough shit to understand how I felt.
"I think it's gonna be okay," Aiden said.
"I can only hope it will be. I want her to miss me, Aiden. I want her to need me like I need her. My circumstances won't change, and I need to know she's all in despite them."
"They say guys don't need reassurance, but it's bullshit, Jim. I know Ellie loves me, but I still need to hear it. I love knowing how she feels."
"You're almost married. I'd say she likes you."
Kennedy's laughter filled the air. He downed his cognac and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "Yeah, she might like me a little. Wait here."
Aiden went somewhere. When he was back, I chuckled at what he was holding.
"Just don't tell Ellie," Kennedy said, pulling a cigar out of the box. "It's a customer's present. I don't smoke alone, but Liam and I did when we closed a deal last week."
"So, secret lover boy is your smoking buddy."
"My gym buddy, too. You're gonna work out with us, just so you know. And well, the secret part might not be accurate."
I chuckled. "How do you know?"
Kennedy lit the cigar and smirked, watching the flames lick the tip of it. "Hard not to since Liam's bedroom's under our study."
"I'm quite sure I'll sleep tonight since they left the cab to go fuck somewhere else."
"I'm surprised they didn't do it at the club. I think everyone felt the tension. Here, take it. You first."
I took a drag off the cigar. My eyes watered. "Shit, Kennedy. It's strong as fuck."
"The reason why I don't smoke that often. Give it to me."
Kennedy and I continued smoking and drinking for a while.
"I fucking miss her," I said to Aiden when the bottle of cognac was empty. "And love her. And want her like I've never wanted anyone."
Aiden exhaled a cloud of smoke and watched it dissolve in the night air. "Then tell her. Send her a drunk text and tell her. And then make sure you catch Ellie's bouquet at our wedding."