Authors: Krista Ritchie,Becca Ritchie
Tags: #Romance, #Contemporary, #Adult
Lo paces in front of me, wearing black track pants and a gray V-neck. His hair is in style, but when I first met him in college the shorter side-cut, longer strands on the top, wasn’t popular. He probably deserves credit for its ascent to the masses.
I scan him, his sharpened features and deadly gaze.
He’s someone I’d never entertain or associate myself with in college unless he was of use to me. I never really needed him though. I had no reason to use him. Still, my seventeen-year-old self would’ve said:
Good, you found the rich bastard with connections. You needed him. You used him. Now let him go.
My twenty-six-year-old self is more aware of what certain people mean to me—beyond endgames and goals and profits. My life is dull without Loren Hale. If I let him go, I’ll be searching for someone like him—sharp-tongued, trusting, sensitive and cynical—and I’ll realize that Lo exists alone, as a unique individual without a duplicate. I enjoy the darkest parts of him as much as I do the lightest ones, and I won’t leave him just to find someone with a better use.
If that hurts me in the end, then I’ll deal with the consequences. His friendship is worth it to me.
Lo puts a hand to his forehead. “How many fuck-ups are going to happen in three hours? …That was rhetorical. Put Mark on the goddamn phone.”
Ryke scratches his unshaven jaw, trying to stay rooted to the ground. His natural reaction would be to disrupt Lo, giving his brother slack from this job. He’s trying a new tactic: being supportive, not treating Lo like a fragile, breakable human being.
It’s empowered his brother more than Ryke may realize.
At the end of the day, Ryke can be cautious but he can’t make Lo feel inferior. It’s easy for Lo to look at Ryke and wonder if his older brother would excel in the same position that he’d flounder in. But he’s not floundering yet.
Lo turns his head and catches Ryke staring with even more brotherly concern. Mine is hidden.
Lo flips Ryke off while he talks. “Why the hell is our marketing director on vacation?” He shakes his head. “Who’s his assistant?”
I stiffen and tensely check my phone again. Rose didn’t reply. Across the room, she has her phone raised above her head while Daisy and Lily try to tackle her to reach the cell and Rose swats them away with her hand.
My lips start to rise.
“Well get Theo to call GBA and work this out,” Lo says, his feet slowing to a stop.
I try not to focus on that name. I haven’t talked to Theo in years, and I’d like to keep it that way.
“If the network doesn’t answer, then bombard them with messages until they do.” Lo pauses, his tone less edged. “I really appreciate it. Let’s just hope Theo can solve this before Mark returns.” Lo hangs up and nods to me. “Tell me your staff calls you for things they should be solving themselves.”
“Every day,” I say easily.
The girls rise to their feet and begin to walk over to where we stand. Rose declares, “If you read my texts, then we have to switch phones and I’ll be reading yours and yours.” She motions to her sisters and then stops a few feet from me. She places her hands victoriously on her hips.
Daisy and Lily look questioningly at each other while Ryke, Lo, and I watch them. I’d rather no one read the personal texts I send my wife, but I’m curious enough to make this trade, just as Rose would.
Lily wavers. “I don’t have anything to hide.”
Lo shrugs beside me. “Why am I going to text her when we’re always together?”
Daisy flips her phone in her palm, apparently not eager to relinquish it. “I don’t know.”
Ryke is rigid, clearly feeling the same as his girlfriend. “Let’s just fucking climb.” He finally untangles the harnesses and passes one to each of us. I don’t want to let go of the conversation that easily, but my wife bristles at the mention of climbing and I’d rather not prolong this.
Lo sets his harness down and helps Lily, squatting and holding the holes open so she can step into them. Rose has dropped her harness to the floor and unearths a bottle of hand sanitizer from her purse. I watch her squirt a glob onto her palm while I gear up.
Ryke tosses a harness to Daisy. “You want to go first, sweetheart? You can help me demonstrate.”
Rose cuts in, “Shouldn’t we just watch you climb?” She shifts her weight, perturbed by this event. She wears yoga pants and an old Princeton T-shirt, an outfit I’ve never seen her in before, and to top off this change, she starts stroking her copper ponytail. As though touch alone will revert it to the natural color.
I near her while Ryke answers, “I get bored by gym rock over real rock. You all climbing while I’m belaying is better. But if you don’t want to do it, Rose, you don’t have to.”
Rose is stubborn and loyal. If her sisters had to walk through fire, she’d be right beside them, bearing the pain. Even with the choice to back out, she wouldn’t. Solidarity, comradery—they mean everything to Rose, and through years of catalytic moments, Ryke has become a large part of our family.
So I’m not surprised by Rose’s next declaration.
“No, I’ll do it.” She nods a few times.
Lily lets out what sounds like a cross between a moan and an embarrassed gasp. We all look over, her cheeks are fire-engine red. Lo has his hands on the straps of her harness. Obviously he just pulled them tighter, putting pressure between her legs. “I didn’t do anything!” she announces, her hands wavering, like she’s debating whether or not to cower and cover her face. Lo leans down and whispers in her ear.
This is nothing new.
After tightening my harness, I squat and gather Rose’s. This isn’t the first time I participated in top-roped climbs at a gym. Ryke, Lo and I have all done this multiple times to change our workout routine. I understand the need for locking carabiners, both twist-lock and screw-gate, and I’m well-acquainted with the figure-8 knot and the basics of belaying. Only Lily and Rose have never been climbing before, and they need more instruction than the rest of us.
But Rose isn’t going to climb today.
With my back turned to everyone, I break two plastic buckles: one on the waistbelt and one on the left leg loop. When I stand, I pass the harness to Rose.
“It’s broken,” I tell her.
She frowns, examining the harness. “What? Where?”
“These are snapped.” I show her the buckles. And she lets out a deep breath and looks to the ceiling.
“Are you thanking God right now?” I question.
She rattles the harness in my face. “This is what people call fate, Richard.”
It’s what I would call a greater power. Me. Myself. And I. I’d love to claim this accomplishment aloud, but I can’t. She’ll stubbornly still climb if I’m the force behind this act. “I call it a broken harness,” I tell her.
“What’s broken?” Ryke nears, rope in hand that’s anchored to the top of the wall.
Rose passes him the harness.
“Yeah, you can’t wear this.”
Rose almost grows four inches taller with this fact.
“There are more in the back—”
“No,” she cuts him off. “Fate has told me that I can’t climb. I know it sounds ridiculous, but the broken harness was a sign that I shouldn’t do this.”
Ryke nods in acceptance. “My friend, Sully, is superstitious when he climbs.”
“How so?” I ask. He rarely talks about Adam Sully, his friend he meets around the world, mostly in South American countries to climb rock faces. I’ve never seen him before. Ryke keeps that part of his life separate from us.
“He likes to kiss his carabineers before he leaves his fucking house, and he circles his Jeep around the parking lot three times.”
I can barely hide a cringe. It seems juvenile and pointless and something Rose would make me do. And I’d definitely do it for her. “You have strange friends,” I tell him.
“I know,” Ryke says, straight to my face.
He called me his friend. This is a rare day.
Rose waves to us. “You all can sort this out. I’m going to watch from over there.” She struts towards the wooden bench that faces this particular wall, overflowing with confidence again. Through her sudden joy, she risks a few glances around the tinted windows, searching for Walter Aimes, the photographer who’s been out of sight and supposed to snap the exclusive photo of Rose’s hair.
The rest of us migrate closer to the wall to watch Ryke and Daisy demonstrate for Lily. My phone buzzes and I check my message.
How much sleep did you receive last night? Do you have less energy than yesterday, more, or the same?
This text wasn’t meant for me. I briefly look up at Daisy, who’s already ascending the wall, halfway up.
Clearly you slept poorly last night.
I send the message to my therapist who’s been in contact with Daisy. She had her first session last week and seemed to like him.
“Is that supposed to be easy?” Lily asks, watching Daisy reach the top to ring the bell. Lily shakes her head back and forth and recoils into Lo’s chest.
“You’ll be able to do it, love.” Lo kisses her on the cheek.
Another incoming text vibrates my cell.
Pretend you didn’t see that.
I type back:
Only if you give me her answers to the questions.
No. I already did you a favor by taking your cat.
My grin vanishes. We couldn’t keep Sadie around newborn babies when she has jealous tendencies and likes to claw, so I temporarily gave her to Frederick.
I did you a favor by referring Daisy to you.
I talked about Rose’s little sister during sessions with Frederick more than a few times, and his interest piqued. He likes complex personalities and disorders. Frederick isn’t one-hundred percent altruistic. He’s driven by knowledge. It’s why I like him as a friend, even if I pay for his company.
By your account, we’re even. I don’t owe you anything. And you shouldn’t be making deals with me, Connor. We’ve been through this before.
I’m not allowed to manipulate my therapist, even when it’s incredibly enticing, according to his rules. I respect that, but it doesn’t mean I haven’t tried to go around it.
We’ll talk later.
I send the message and he replies even faster.
I pocket my cell just as Lily approaches the wall. Daisy has already descended and gives her sister an encouraging thumbs-up. Lily spins around, walking backwards and points a threatening finger at all of us. It’s mild in comparison to the ones I’m used to. “Don’t laugh at me. I have very poor upper body strength.”
“No one’s going to fucking laugh at you,” Ryke tells her.
She takes a deep breath and hoists herself up to the first rock, grabbing onto it. Her shoes fit onto the one about two feet off the ground. It’s the next move that proves difficult. She has to use her upper body to lift herself higher. She struggles, her fingertips pinched over the new rock, but her shoe is too far from the purple foothold. Each time she tries to lift herself, she barely rises a couple inches.
After four failed attempts, Lo walks over and puts his hands on her ass and pushes her up with complete ease.
“LoOhmygod,” she slurs, louder than she probably intended. But it works. She reaches the higher rock, her foot now supported and her body another two feet from the floor.
Lo can’t help her anymore.
“Uhhh…” Lily looks around, eyes wide, knowing she can’t make it past this point. Her legs begin to quake with her arms, and I remember that she’s afraid of heights.
A ringing noise emits from Daisy’s cell. She holds it up. “Congrats, you rung the bell, Lil!” she calls out to her.
Lily blows out a breath of relief. “Okay…now how do I get down?”
“Just like Daisy did,” Ryke explains. “Jump and I’ll support your weight.”
“You’re only four feet off the ground,” I remind her. “That’s shorter than your husband if you need reference.”
“She knows what four feet looks like, Richard,” Rose says from the bench.
“And I promise it looks higher from up here,” Lily says, taking another breath. She closes her eyes and jumps backwards. When she lands on the ground, she dramatically falls to her knees and kisses the padding.
We all stare at her as she rises to her feet.
Her elbows flush. “I’ve always wanted to do that,” she says with a nod before running into Lo’s arms. He embraces her without question, his hands even lowering to her bottom, and he squeezes like no one is watching.
We spend the next half hour taking turns on the wall. Daisy wants to race up it so I time her on my watch. Rose even comes over to see me climb. Normally, I’d give her a hard time about staring at my ass, but she’s been alternating between washing her hands with sanitizer and rubbing her hair.
When we finish, Daisy and Lily flock to their older sister, noticing her distress. I’d like to talk to her alone, but Rose enjoys being in the company of her sisters, so I don’t steal time from them.
Daisy nudges Rose’s hip with hers. “Hey, wanna trade phones?”
“Dais,” Ryke calls out to her with caution in his voice.
“I don’t want to see the dick pics you’ve sent my sister, so don’t have a coronary,” Rose interjects, combing her fingers anxiously through her pony.
“Fucking hilarious,” he says under his breath.
The three girls walk towards the locker rooms out of earshot, and Lo, Ryke, and I stay behind to gather the equipment.
[ 9 ]
As the girls leave the main area by the rock wall, I study Ryke’s uneasy expression, and my brow arches.
He gives me a side-eye. “Don’t look at me like that.”
“You sext?” I ask. Rose was joking before, but it could be a valid theory.
“She’s my fucking girlfriend.” He throws the sixth harness onto a pile and hands me one of the long ropes to roll.
I just can’t imagine his dirty messages any more than he can probably imagine my text conversations with Rose.
Lo leans against the wall beside us, making no effort to help. “People can hack into that shit, you know.”