I’ve tried to like Adrian Savage, the mercurial frontman for Fugitive Summer, while serving as his band’s opening act on tour. We’re stuck together for three months, after all. And I’m well aware I’m lucky to be here.
But it’s proved impossible. He’s far too rude and dismissive a guy to get along with. And way too good at getting under my skin. In fact, at this point, I think it’s fair to say I downright hate his guts.
Global thirst trap that he is, though, I’m finding it extremely difficult not to want to jump Savage’s bones, despite how much he infuriates me. I hate myself for it. But my body is going rogue on me. It doesn’t matter, though. I’m determined to resist him.
In fact, what I’ve decided is that, as long as I’m here and stuck with him, I’m not only going to give Savage the sound tongue lashing nobody else around here has the balls to deliver, I’m going to bring that bad boy to his knees.
Falling Out of Hate with You is the beginning of the spicy, enemies to lovers, forced proximity, fake engagement romance of Savage and Laila.
Music is blaring around me as I wade through the packed party, precariously balancing six shot glasses filled to their brims. I come to a stop when I reach my four bandmates—Kendrick, Kai, Ruby, and Titus—plus, our manager, Eli.
“Grab ’em, quick!” I call out over the loud music, and, thankfully, my friends immediately relieve me of the tequila-laden Jenga tower in my palms. Once all glasses have been distributed, I raise mine to our band’s drummer and beat-maker, my best friend in the world, Kendrick Cook. “Happy twenty-fifth!” I shout. And, of course, everyone joins me in wishing Kendrick a great one.
According to Reed Rivers’ party invitation, we’re at his hilltop mansion tonight to celebrate an upcoming issue of Rock ’n’ Roll magazine—a special issue that’s going to feature nothing but the top artists from his record label, an elite group that thankfully includes our band, Fugitive Summer. But since nobody throws a better bash than our label owner—or, as my band has dubbed Reed Rivers, “The Prick”—and since most of the people we would have invited to a separate birthday party for Kendrick are here, anyway—we decided to hijack Reed’s fancy shindig to celebrate our boy’s birth.
“Do I have drool on my chin?” Kai Cook, our bass player and Kendrick’s older brother, shouts above the music, as one of the most head-turning women at the party, a reporter for Rock ’n’ Roll named Georgina~, ~walks by and waves as she goes.
Our other guitarist, Titus, nudges my shoulder. “The reporter winked at you, Savage! Go get her, Player!”
I roll my eyes. I hate that my bandmates still call me “Player,” the same way they’ve been doing since the beginning, when I was admittedly drunk on all the attention our band—and especially me—had started getting. But these days, the nickname isn’t nearly as accurate as it once was, not since an “influencer” in Barcelona made my dick the top trending topic on Twitter last year.
Immediately after sex with that spicy little Spaniard, I hopped into the shower in my hotel room, thinking she’d fallen asleep. And that’s when she snagged my wallet, snapped some surreptitious photos of me cluelessly washing up, and then promptly posted the shots, along with a detailed play-by-play of our night together. And off she went, into the Spanish night, while I continued singing a happy tune, literally, in the shower. And I swear, I haven’t been the same “player,” ever since.
It wasn’t that I was upset about the wallet. While on tour, I barely ever have anything in it. Condoms, a credit card that was easy to cancel, and my ID. Also, I wasn’t all that bent out of shape about the world seeing my naked dong or finding out, through the Spaniard’s posted commentary, that I’m a rabid fan of oral sex.
No, as cliché as it sounds, the thing that threw me for a loop was the shocking breach of trust. The realization that nobody out there is trustworthy, no matter how much it feels like they might be, in the moment. It was the realization that anything I might say or do in private, no matter how intimate it might feel in the moment, could end up as a meme on the internet.
In that moment, I knew whatever genuine connection I’d thought the woman and I had shared that night was an illusion. Or worse, if it had been real, she was willing to sacrifice it on the altar of snagging my wallet and her fifteen minutes of fame.
It was the first time I truly understood the downside of this crazy life. The loneliness and eternal separation from normalcy that’s inherent in the gig. And it changed me. I’ve never been a guy who wears his heart on his sleeve, anyway. I don’t trust easily and never have. But after that experience, I felt even more closed off and determined to keep myself under wraps.
Kai grabs my arm, like he thinks he’s keeping me from chasing after the hot reporter, Georgina. But I’m not even tempted to run after her. Kai yells above the blasting music, “I call dibs on the reporter! And you know I never do that, dude! So, you’d better respect The Dibs!”
I’m offended. Why does Kai feel the need to say that to me? I always respect The Dibs, more than anyone else in the band, other than Kendrick. Kai should know by now I don’t give a fuck which gorgeous woman I wind up with, if any. There are far too many of them in this world, and, certainly, at this party, and I’m far too good at getting whoever I want, to chase after someone who’s caught the eye of one of my best friends. Especially when I barely know the woman in question.
I’d call my general mindset in this regard “bros before hoes” or “dicks before chicks,” if our bandmate, Ruby, not to mention, my cousin, Sasha, hadn’t both made a thing about the words “ho” and “chick” being derogatory. So, maybe “brovaries before ovaries” would be the better bet? The point is that I always respect The Dibs. Although, in this instance, Kai probably shouldn’t pursue the reporter, anyway. Not because ~I~ want her. But because I’ve surmised there are extenuating circumstances.
I reply to Kai, “You never need to ‘call dibs’ with me. Just tell me you’re in hot pursuit and that’s that. But I think you’re gonna need to set your sights on someone else this time, brother. When I played ping pong with Georgina earlier to talk about my interview, I got the solid vibe she’s already with Reed. Or if not, she’s definitely at the top of his To Do List.”
“Reed?” Kai bellows, like that’s a preposterous notion. Like every woman at this party wouldn’t give her left tit to get with Reed. The guy with the big house, the fit body, the garage full of sports cars, and a bank account that puts every band member here to shame. But, whatever. My bandmates and I are drinking and having fun tonight, and roasting the bastard who takes way too big a cut of our royalties, thanks to the shitty contract we signed as puppies, before Eli started repping us, is one of our favorite drinking games.
Titus and Kai continue roasting Reed for a bit. And as they banter, I reach for my phone when it buzzes in my pocket. I wouldn’t normally check my phone at a party. But only my inner circle has this particular number, and almost all of them are here tonight.
When I check my screen, it’s a text from my cousin, Sasha, as suspected, regarding our grandma.
I shoot a brief selfie video in which I smile, make silly faces, and blow kisses to my grandma amid the noisy throng around me. And after I press send, Sasha quickly replies in all caps.
I turn around, and, I’ll be damned, one of the most famous movie stars on the planet is standing directly behind me, chatting with a group of suits I don’t recognize.
My cousin is being sincere when she tells me to have fun. But I can’t help feeling guilty she’s there on a Saturday night, hanging out with our grandma and one of the nighttime caregivers I’ve bankrolled, while I’m at a star-studded party in LA. Not to mention that Sasha works hard at a real job in Chicago—she’s a massage therapist—while I traipse around the world and swoop into town for occasional visits, whenever convenient, like I’m Weekend Daddy after a divorce.
Sasha always says she wouldn’t have it any other way. She’s ten years my senior and always says she’s gotten her partying out of her system. Plus, she always reminds me, she’s a homebody by nature, anyway. “I’m happiest when I’m hanging out with Mimi, reading or knitting,” she always says. “I like sitting still and watching TV.” And so, I bought my beloved homebody her own home last year, where she now takes care of our beloved grandma, along with the caregivers, and mostly believe my cousin when she says she’s truly not the least bit angry with me for continuing to play rockstar.
I send a quick goodnight text to my cousin, stuff my phone into my pocket, and tune back into my bandmates’ conversation, just in time to hear Titus saying, “I think it’s bullshit. I mean, yes, if you’d already gotten to know the reporter, and had done more than spot her across a crowded room, then, okay, calling dibs on her makes sense. But I certainly wouldn’t back off a woman, simply because you spotted her. And I sure as hell wouldn’t back off just because Reed ~might ~be interested. Would he extend the same courtesy to any of us? Fuck no!”
“Reed’s more than ‘possibly’ interested,” I interject. “During my ping pong game with Georgina, I noticed Reed spying on her the whole time from behind a bush.”
Everyone laughs at the imagery, except for Titus, who’s shaking his head.
“No way,” Titus says. “Reed must have been standing near a bush, looking at his phone or talking to someone you couldn’t see. I love roasting The Prick as much as anyone, but there’s no way Reed Rivers would hide behind a bush, at his own party, while surrounded by some of the world’s hottest women, in order to keep tabs on a summer internat ~Rock ’n’ Roll~.”
My eyebrows shoot up. “Georgina’s an intern at the magazine?”
Titus gestures to his pink-haired twin sister, Ruby, our keyboardist, who’s standing nearby talking to our manager, Eli. “When Ruby and I played cornhole with the reporter,she said she’d just graduated from UCLA and that her ‘internship’ with Rock ’n’ Roll is her first professional gig.”
“I never would have guessed that,” I say.
Titus nods. “Georgina is just a baby. She said she’s turning twenty-two next month.”
I’m floored. I glance at her across the packed room, where Georgina is presently talking to the bass player of 22 Goats—a sweetheart of a guy named Fish. “I never would have guessed she’s that green,” I say. “With all that swagger, I would have thought she’s large and in charge at Rock ‘n’ Roll.” I chuckle. “Well, either way, I know what I saw. Reed was ~definitely~ spying on Georgina, from behind a bush, like a goddamned stalker.”
Titus nudges Kai’s shoulder. “Did Reed spy on youwhen you talked to Georgina?”
“No. Not that I noticed.”
“And he didn’t spy on Ruby and me playing cornhole with her, either. Huh. I wonder why Reed felt the need to spy on her with you, Player.”
I wink. “I guess he’s only worried about the good lookin’ ones, eh?”
Titus flips me off as Kai flags down a cocktail server who’s walking by with a slew of margaritas, and we quickly relieve her of her entire burden. His new drink in hand, our trusty manager, Eli, bids the group farewell, saying he’s going to “schmooze” for a bit. Ruby joins our conversation, and we continue bantering and people-watching as a full band.
“So, have you decided on Savage’s birthday dare yet?” Kai asks his younger brother, Kendrick. Earlier tonight, Kendrick made Kai fanboy all over some blonde actor on a Netflix show I’ve never heard of. And ever since, Kai has been dying to watch me get equally humiliated.
For the past ten years, on each of our respective birthdays, Kendrick, Kai, and I have played a shitfaced game of “Birthday Truth or Dare.” Although calling it that is a misnomer by now, since we’ve long since taken the “truth” option off the table in our game. Why waste the chance to inflict humiliation in order to ask some stupid question we probably already know the answer to? Kai and Kendrick are brothers, after all, and I’ve known them both for well over ten years.
“Not yet,” Kendrick says, answering his brother’s question about my dare. “I’m still weighing my options.”
“Oh my gosh!” Ruby blurts. “Savage was right about Reed and the reporter! Look at Reed now, guys! He’s totally spying on her from across the room!” We look to where Ruby is indicating and discover Reed covertly staring at Georgina while she chats with the guys from Watch Party. Almost certainly, it’s Zach Rosendo—their frontman whom everyone calls Endo—who’s attracted Reed’s eagle eye this time. That dude’s definitely got a reputation as a lady killer.
“I just decided on my dare,” Kendrick declares, his mischievous gaze trained on Reed. He looks at me, smiling wickedly and rubbing his palms together. And, instantly, I know what’s coming.
“Aw, fuck. No,” I mutter.
“You’re not allowed to say no,” Kendrick reminds me.
“I know the rules, motherfucker. Do you?” I’m referring to rule number one of our game. Namely, that the birthday boy can’t pick a dare that’s likely to maim, kill, or send his victim to prison. Rule number two is that the birthday boy is king—a deity whose dare can’t be refused, as long as it complies with rule number one. And, finally, rule number three is that the dare has to be something that can be performed on the spot. In other words, birthday dares can’t be some elaborate prank or hoax that would require weeks of planning.
Kendrick smiles. “Yeah, I know the rules. And I promise no bodily harm will come to you. The only thing that could possibly happen to you, in theory, is that you’d get onto Reed’s shit list. But you’re already there. So, really, there’s no downside.”
He’s right. I’ve been on Reed’s shit list for a while now, despite all the money my band makes him—powered in large part by me, personally. All because, years ago, I hit on his little sister, Violet, at my first Reed Rivers party, without having a clue who she was. This was long before Violet met her husband, Dax, the lead singer of 22 Goats. And, frankly, she seemed pretty receptive to my flirting, as I recall. And yet, Reed’s held it against me, ever since.
“I don’t get it,” Ruby interjects. “What’s the dare, Kendrick?”
Kendrick motions to me, like he’s inviting me to enlighten Ruby.
Rolling my eyes, I say, “I’m assuming he wants me to hit on the hot reporter in front of Reed.”
“Bingo,” Kendrick says. “Let’s test your theory that he’s been sleeping with her, or wants to. I want you to hit on her, really obviously in front of him. With enough fuckboy heat you’ll lure Reed out of his proverbial bush this time. But not with so much heat he lurches at you like a cheetah and smashes your face against a wall.”
I grimace, as everyone else laughs.
“Why on earth would you force me to walk this tightrope?” I say. “You were there when C-Bomb told us that crazy story about what Reed did to the dude who’d fucked his ex.”
“What did Reed do?” Ruby asks, her eyebrows shooting up.
But, unfortunately for Ruby, she’s asking her question as Kendrick is saying, “Reed would never beat the shit out of you, simply for flirting with his woman. Flirting is way less a crime than fucking. Plus, your face makes him way too much money to smash it into a wall, regardless.”
“What the hell did Reed do?” Ruby shouts, this time cutting through the din. She looks at her twin brother, Titus, who’s laughing along with Kendrick and Kai. “You know this story?”
Titus nods. “I heard it from C-Bomb.” He’s referring to the iconic drummer of Red Card Riot—Caleb Baumgarten—who’s a good friend to our band.
“Well, he didn’t tell me,” Ruby says.
“You weren’t there,” Titus replies to his sister.
“Well, tell me the damned story already!” Ruby blurts. “It sounds juicy.”
Without further ado, Kendrick launches into telling the tale, which, in summary, is that, in the earliest days of River Records, Reed went batshit crazy after discovering the lead singer of one of his earliest bands had fucked his unnamed ex. Apparently, upon discovering the news, Reed beelined to a party at C-Bomb’s house, where the lead singer was hanging out, and promptly smashed the guy’s face into a wall. Not content to stop there, however, Reed also dropped the guy’s band from his label the next day and permanently shelved their debut album, which, C-Bomb said, was due to release within weeks. “And Reed did all this,” Kendrick says, “despite the fact that he’d already invested tens of thousands of dollars into developing the band’s music and marketing.”
Ruby explodes with shocked comments and questions, which the guys answer with relish. But since I’ve already heard this story, I let my mind and attention wander. I check out the movie star, Isabel Randolph, for a bit, admittedly feeling star-struck. As a guy with some fame myself, albeit not at Isabel’s level, I understand the inner workings of the cult of celebrity and consciously try not to let it seduce me. But, still, I can’t deny it’s kind of cool to see such a world-famous face, in person.
After a bit, however, when my interest in Isabel flags, I continue surveying the packed, noisy room. I check out several friends as they laugh and chat in nearby groups, noting, in particular, that my buddy, Fish, seems particularly smitten with his cute date. And that she looks absolutely enthralled with him. Good for Fish. Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.
I keep scanning and people-watching. Sipping my drink. But when my gaze lands on Laila Fitzgerald, it stays put.
She’s another River Records artist. One I’ve been dying to meet for some time. And by “meet” I mean “meet, seduce, and, God willing, fuck.” When I first saw Laila’s most recent scorching-hot music video, that sucker immediately went into my spank bank, where it’s been in heavy rotation ever since—and, surprisingly, it hasn’t lost a bit of its effectiveness on me over time. In fact, repeat viewings have only made me more appreciative of Laila’s sex appeal.
At the moment, Laila is standing in a far corner of Reed’s palatial living room, chatting animatedly with two beautiful women. One of them, I know—fellow artist, Aloha Carmichael. The other one, I don’t. A Black woman with confidence and high cheekbones. Someone I’d probably consider hitting on, if I hadn’t spotted Laila. As it is, though, now that I know Laila is here, there’s no other woman in the room.
With her long, sandy hair, light eyes, and peaches-and-cream complexion, Laila isn’t my usual type. On paper, she’s far more Kendrick’s type than mine. Kendrick likes girls who look like they were cheerleaders in high school. Or maybe foreign exchange students from Sweden or Russia.
But, see, the thing about Laila that makes her so uniquely appealing to me, despite her “cheerleader” packaging, is her exquisite and undeniable “fuck you” charisma. Thanks to her full lips, which she wears in a perma-pout, and the persistently naughty look in her gorgeous blue eyes that practically screams “I’m a freak in the sheets!”, Laila comes off like a first-class sex kitten. A bombshell. A siren. Which means, when it comes to Laila Fitzgerald, the phrase “not my usual type” isn’t in my vocabulary.
As I’m staring at Laila from across the room, admiring every inch of her, she jolts me by glancing over her friend’s shoulder and looking straight at me. We’re nowhere close to each other in this huge room, so, in theory, she could be looking elsewhere. But I know she’s not. I know, without a doubt, she’s staring at me with lust in her eyes, the same way I’m staring at her.
When our gazes meet, I feel an instant electricity, coursing all the way down into my balls. And by the look on Laila’s face, she feels something similar on her end.
Ruby blurts, “Reed’s a psychopath! Are you sure you want to throw Savage to the wolf like that?”
But, still, I stare at Laila, biting my lower lip seductively.
Kendrick says, “Are you kidding? It’ll be the best birthday dare, ever.” He slides his arm around my shoulders, forcing me to end my staring contest with Laila. He says, “Are you ready to entertain me for my birthday, brother?”
I clear my throat and shift my weight, trying to ease the pressure on the hard-on that’s started gaining momentum in my pants. “If you’re hell-bent on making me do this, then, yeah, of course, I’m in. Your dare is my command, birthday boy.”
Kendrick is giddy. “Where’s Reed?” He drops his arm and excitedly peers around the party, like a meerkat on a prairie. “We have to make sure he can see everything.” Kendrick gasps. “Whoa! Laila Fitzgerald is here!” He flails his arms. “I call dibs! I hereby call dibs on Laila Fitzgerald!”
I follow Kendrick’s gaze to Laila, just in time to see Reed walking up to her.
Kendrick sighs. “I’ve had the biggest crush on Laila Fitzgerald forever.” He looks at the group. “Do any of you know her? Can you introduce me?”
Please, God, no. This can’t be happening. Kendrick and I ~never~ set our sights on the same woman. Ever. I’d expect to run into this problem with Titus. We’re both attracted to women who look like they could commit murder without the slightest crisis of conscience. But not ~Kendrick~. He likes his women sweet. He likes women who aren’t fucked up and toxic and crazy. Unlike me. I mean, yes, I realize Laila is ~exactly~ Kendrick’s ~physical~ type. But can’t he sniff the crazy, sassy little freak beneath her girl-next-door exterior? Because I sure can. And I’m digging it.
Everyone around me is saying they’ve never met Laila.
“It doesn’t matter,” Kendrick says, his resolve written all over his face. “With Reed over there, I can act like I need to talk to him about the tour.” He’s referring to the fact that we just got back from the eight-month-long international leg of our world tour and will be heading back out onto the road in a few weeks for the three-month-long domestic leg.
“Yeah, I don’t think…” I begin to say. But I’m saying it to Kendrick’s back. He’s already on the move. Walking directly toward Laila Fitzgerald. “Hey, KC!” I shout. “Wait up, Kendrick!”
But it’s no use. The music is too loud for my best friend to hear me. Or maybe he’s hearing me just fine and doesn’t give a shit. Something tells me it’s Door Number Two—that wild horses couldn’t stop Kendrick from heading over to meet Laila right now.
For the first time in my life, I don’t feel like standing aside when a bandmate has called dibs. For the first time in my life, I feel like running after my friend, tackling him to the ground, and shouting, “I saw her first! I call dibs! She’s mine.”
But since Kendrick’s already halfway there, and it’s not my style to seem overeager, and since it is his birthday, after all, I force myself to stay put. I tell myself not to panic. Instead, I calmly throw back the rest of my drink and tell myself another gorgeous woman who interests me even more than Laila will cross my path, any minute now. Her friend, for instance. She’s hot as hell. The one with the dark skin, lush Afro, and banging body. But, no. Even as I try to talk myself into not giving a shit, I can feel my sights setting on Laila and nobody else.
A cocktail waitress walks by and I grab another drink. Ruby has started telling a story, so I try to focus firmly on that and try my damnedest not to obsess about what might be happening across the room. But it’s no use. I can’t think of anything else but my sincere desire and hope that my best friend in the world, the guy who’d throw himself in front of a bus for me, is, right at this moment, miserably striking out.
Unable to resist any longer, I sneak a peek across the party, just in time to witness Kendrick getting a huge hug from Laila. Reed is still there, but Aloha and the other woman are gone. And, damn, it looks like Laila is full-blown fangirling over Kendrick. Whoa. That’s not a normal introductory greeting! That’s the sort of hug fans give us during meet and greets. The kind women give their lovers when greeting them at the airport. Jesus Christ. Did I imagine that smoldering, come-hither look Laila flashed me a few minutes ago? Obviously, I did. Was she looking at Kendrick standing next to me the whole time?
I should be happy for my best friend, and I know it. But that’s not what I’m feeling. In fact, what I’m feeling is something quite the opposite of that. Something I never feel. Jealousy.
When Laila finally breaks free of Kendrick, animated conversation between Laila, Reed, and Kendrick ensues. As the trio talks, Laila’s eyes suddenly shift to me. And this time, when our eyes lock, when Laila discovers I’m already staring at her, again, she flashes me a wide, beaming smile that simultaneously takes my breath away and kind of pisses me off. She just hugged the crap out of Kendrick and now she’s trying to knock me onto my ass with that dazzling smile of hers? For fuck’s sake, Kendrick is standing right there, obviously still flirting his ass off with her, and she’s ignoring him to smile at me?
My brain feels like it’s toggling between primal desire, deep confusion, and downright anger, even as every fiber of my body yearns to return Laila’s beaming smile—to let her know I’m interested. Ready to go. Let’s do it, baby. Ultimately, however, my primary emotions seem to be protectiveness of Kendrick and annoyance at Laila for flirting with both of us. And so, ultimately, I do the thing Kendrick would surely do for me, if the situation were reversed: I clench my jaw, press my lips together, and look away, ceding the runway, free and clear, to my best friend. The birthday boy.