Exposed Page 35 read online free by Kristen Callihan (2023)

Berrylicious: Are you avoiding me? Because I went to Atlanta? Is that it?

TrueAceOfBass: No ???

Berrylicious: Damn it, Rye. Will you please be serious?

TrueAceOfBass: K

The phone rings, and I know I’ve stretched Brenna’s patience too far. With a sigh, I prop the phone on the arm of the couch and hit Accept.

“Seriously, what the hell is going on?” she starts in without pause.

I have to smile a little. She’s cute when she’s pissed. Not that I’d tell her. She’d kill me if I said so… “You’re cute when you’re pissed.” Shit. Painkillers are not my friend.

A growl rumbles over the phone. “Am I on speaker?”

“Yes.” I stare up at the ceiling. My entire right arm throbs from shoulder to fingertips while my left only burns from elbow to thumb. “But no one is around.”

“Your voice sounds weird. You’re drunk, aren’t you?”

“I’m not drunk, Bren. I’m…” In pain. Freaked out. Scared. “Tired.”

Her snort is elegant and full of disbelief.

“I swear, I’m not drunk.” I want to pick up the phone and put a little less distance between us, but I’m afraid to move. Moving tends to suck right now. “I’m sorry I didn’t respond to Michael’s texts. I must have missed them.”

Or, you know, couldn’t type. It’s been a nightmare responding to the few texts Brenna has sent. And clearly, I haven’t done a good job since she thinks I’m drunk—or high. I’ve been thinking about finding some weed and zoning out. Except weed gives me cottonmouth. Maybe CBD oil would work.

“Rye? Are you even listening?”

Right. Brenna. She sounds as irritated as a cat who’s been stroked in the wrong direction.

“You caught me napping.” I struggle to sit up and clear my head. My arms scream in protest. The pain shoots down my back and hits my hips. Shit, I feel like an old man. An old man who got hit by a crosstown bus. “I’m a little out of it.”

Her silence is so loud, I feel it against my chest. When she finally talks, her voice is crisp.

“Is this how it’s going to be now? You acting all weird?”

“Now?” I husk out a laugh. “You always accuse me of acting weird.”

She’s paranoid about fucking me. Awesome. It’s a real ego boost. She can pretend otherwise, but it’s a damn fact that she ran off to Atlanta to get away from this. From me. I still don’t know if I should be grateful or pissed. Both. Definitely both.

“You know what I mean, Rye. Now that we…”

“Bumped uglies? Did the nasty? Knocked boots?”

“Jesus. Have you been watching bad nineties teen movies?”

No, I’ve been listening to Jax. Same difference, I suppose.

“I was always partial to American Pie.”

“Yeah, I bet,” she grumps, then says with clear trepidation, “What’s going on here, Rye?”

Slowly, I flex my left hand. It protests, but I push it. Pain is a part of playing. There were nights when we’d get off stage, dripping with sweat, Killian, Jax, and I mopping blood off our hands because we’d played until our fingertips split and bled. Whip would have to ice his arms to ease swollen muscles.

But this? This isn’t just pain. It is weakness. My hands and arms lose all strength with this hideous pain, and I can’t fucking play.

What am I if I can’t perform music?

I glance at the phone where Brenna is waiting for an answer. “This might surprise you, honey, but not everything is about you.”

It comes out pissier than I want. But Brenna is used to that. It’s our normal.

She snorts, but it’s softer now. “Coming from you, that’s rich.”

I smile even though I have nothing to laugh about at the moment. “My ego is rather huge. You know what else is?”

“Your head?”

“The head is part of it,” I concede lightly, still trying to get my hand to unfurl.

“You’re such a child,” she says with an aggrieved sigh, but I hear the reluctant amusement behind it.

“But you love me anyway.” I meant it as a tease. I’ve said the same thing many times before. But now, with this thing looming between us, we both pause in awkward silence. The thud of my heart sounds overloud in my ear.

Brenna finally rallies. “You wish.”

Her standard answer. But the thought strikes a nerve this time and weasels its way into the dark cracks of my mind. I’ve never been loved like that. My parents love me, sure. But that isn’t remotely the same thing. What would it be liked to be loved by someone not required by blood to do it?

Sitting alone in my apartment, which is admittedly too big for one person, I am suddenly hollowed out by loneliness. I’ve been lonely before. Who hasn’t? But this is different. Terrifying, like I’m on the edge of a cliff and the only way out is down. It’s cold, empty, humbling. I close my eyes against it, turning my head in the direction of Brenna’s voice.


“What?” The reply is tinged with enough wariness to make me smile.

I wish she was back home. I would ask her to come over, just…hang out. Have pizza with me, watch a movie, have an argument with me, anything. But then she’d see me like this. I don’t want her pity. Or anyone’s; it would only make everything more real.

But I don’t like her current mindset on our situation. She’s got it all wrong.

I swallow past the hard lump at the base of my throat. “I need you to believe me when I say this, okay?”

I can practically hear her mind racing. When she answers, she’s back to the cool professionalism I know all too well. “Fine. What is it?”

My prickly girl. God, I want to wear down that spiky armor, find out if she’s as soft underneath as I suspect. “Whatever does or doesn’t happen between us, I’m never going to hold it against you. I swear to God. Okay?”

Another pause. This one stilted. I’ve surprised her. I can feel it in the air.

Her voice comes so soft it’s nearly a whisper. “Okay. I…I won’t either. Promise.”

“Good.” I swallow again, bracing myself for movement. With a silent grunt, I rise to my feet. The room spins for a minute, but I take a breath and let it ride. “Now, I really do feel shitty today. So, I’m gonna go.”

“You…What’s wrong?”

Could that be concern? Surely not.

“Woke up with a headache that won’t quit.” It’s partly true. I do have a headache, but it’s a mere buzzing fly in comparison to my hands.

“One of those?” Brenna knows exactly how bad it can get for me. Everyone in the band does. I’ll be laid low, hiding out in a dark room for hours. If it happens before a concert, they’ll send in a masseuse, acupuncturist, whoever they can find in the city we’re playing.

“Well, then,” she says quietly. “I’m sorry I yelled at you. And for being paranoid.”

The concession clearly cost her. Sick man that I am, I feel lighter. If anything in my life is consistent, it’s Brenna.

“Ah, Berry. I’d take you sniping at me in that bossy-boots tone of yours over silence any day.”

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