So I did something a little different in this chapter. I switch POVs so that we hear a conversation between Phoenix and Russell. It was originally one that I had Celeste overhear, but that changed when I reworked the chapter. I felt it was information that you as the readers needed to have though, so I put it in from Charlie's perspective. And for those of you who have been with me a while and may have forgotten, both Charlie and Chandler are able to sense emotions off people. Plus, telling it from Charlie's perspective gives you insight that you would not have from Celeste's standpoint. Hope you enjoy it!

With that, we got in our cars and I led the way back to Rodeo Drive. Especially with two vehicles, I didn't want to hassle with trying to find on-street parking, so we parked in a public garage. There were places that did valet, but I was a bit embarrassed to have anyone drive Russell's pick-up. It really did stand out amongst all the luxury cars that filled the streets.

Russell parted ways with us when we got back down to the street and the rest of us walked to the coffee shop my friends and I always met at. Once inside, I spotted Tabitha at our usual table and noted that she was alone.

Oh, please don't tell me I'm gonna have to deal with her on my own.

"You're late," she glowered as we approached her.

"Sorry, we got caught up," I replied. Unloading the surfboards and the conversation regarding the mysterious Mercedes had taken up part of the time that we were supposed to be on our way but I couldn't exactly explain that all to her. Not like she'd care even if I did. "Where's everyone else?" I asked, hoping that they were just running late.

She let out an exaggerated huff. "Bridget went to Cancun with her boyfriend, and Courtney's just, getting on my nerves so I didn't invite her. She's such a goodie two shoes little bitch sometimes."

Great! No backup. Now I really wish I'd blown her off too.

I merely nodded my head in response. Knowing how much Tabitha talked about our other friends behind their backs always made me wonder what she said about me when I wasn't there.

Without waiting for me to introduce them, and with barely stopping to take a breath, Tabitha continued.

"So, you're the guy Celeste keeps gallivanting off to see." Her hazel eyes looked over Charlie with disinterest, sizing him up as mediocre at best. She only perked up when she caught sight of Chandler. "Celeste, you never mentioned he was an identical twin."

"It never really came up?" I shrugged as I half asked. Though I realized that I had failed to mention that anyone other than Charlie would be coming with me. At least she didn't seem to mind the extra company.

She leaned back in her chair and gave them a suggestive look as she twirled a strand of her brown hair around her index finger.

Oh, great! Now what is she thinking? Nothing good had ever come from that look.

"Have you two ever considered a threesome?"

Charlie snorted a laugh as Chandler looked at her in wide-eyed disbelief at what she had just suggested. I was mortified that she would even ask that question.

So much for friends not making moves on each other's guy. Did she really not think he was off limits?

What was more uncomfortable though was that, until she had mentioned it, the thought had never even crossed my mind, now I had to fight to keep it out. I was against threesomes in general, and the thought of one with Charlie and Chandler made me even more uncomfortable.

"No, Chandler and I like to keep our bedroom affairs separate," Charlie replied for them with a smirk on his face.

What an interesting way to phrase that.

"Whatever." She quickly dismissed them as she leaned forward and shifted her focus to Phoenix. "Well, what about you, hot stuff?"

Wow. Really, Tabitha? She must be really desperate if she's hitting on any guy she sees.

He bit the inside of his lower lip and gave her a wicked grin, his aqua eyes flashed. "No thank you. I don't consort with women of your caliber."

"What's that suppose to mean?" Indignation filled her voice. She never liked being talked down to and didn't appreciate it when people rejected her outright. I suppressed my laugh when I thought of how little she would get along with Marcus and his archaic vocabulary.

"I'm not looking to hook-up with someone I just met," he clarified.

So would you hook-up with someone you knew? I once again speculated whether or not he reciprocated Harper's feelings for him. I wonder how chaste Harper would be if Phoenix ever made a move on her. A sly grin formed on my face as I imagined her being knocked off her pious high-horse of abstinence if Phoenix ever did come on to her.

"Ugh, fine. Whatever. You all look boring and vanilla anyway." She slouched back in her chair and gave a dismissive way of her hand.

Man, she's more flippant than usual today. I observed of how quickly she'd changed her mind. But then again, she wasn't used to failure whenever she hit on a guy.

Phoenix shook his head and laughed. "So, now that we've established that, how 'bout we get something to drink?"

"Yes, please!" Chandler replied as he made his way to the register alone.

"We'll be right back," I informed Tabitha as the rest of us began to follow him. She mostly ignored us though.

"Is your friend always that…forward?" Charlie asked with amusement as we got in line to order. I wanted to hold his hand but noticed that he'd stuck both of them in his pockets. Poo.

"Not usually." She'd thrown herself at guys before, but not quite like this. Something seemed off about her behavior, but I wasn't sure if I cared enough to ask her, and she probably wouldn't explain even if I did. "She said she'd had a crappy weekend, which I assume means she broke up with her boyfriend again, and I guess she's just looking for a rebound guy."

"Not it!" Chandler declared.

"Not it!" Phoenix parroted.

"Yeah, don't worry. I'm pretty sure she's taken her sight off you guys," I laughed.

"Good, 'cause I'm not interested."

The thought of 'Is there anyone you are interested in?' crossed my mind, but I kept it to myself.

"She moves fast," Charlie observed.

"Yeah, tell me about it."

We got up to the counter and placed our drink orders. I reminded them of my offer to get something to eat as well and insisted on paying for everything. I hoped it would make up for dragging them along with me.

"Wanna go back and sit with your friend while I wait for our drinks?" Chandler offered as we made our way to the pick-up counter.

I shook my head adamantly. "No, thank you. I don't really like being the only one around her, especially when she's in a mood like this."

"Then why'd you agree to come?" Phoenix inquired.

"There's usually more of us that hang out, I wasn't counting on it being just the two of us."

"Ah, I see."

"Do you even like her?" Charlie queried.

"I like her just fine," I replied as our first drink was placed on the bar and Chandler grabbed it. "I just don't much care for being alone with her."

It hadn't always been like that though. Up until our Sophomore year, I enjoyed hanging out with just the two of us. But something about her changed half-way through the year and I started enjoying her company even less. She never said what happened, and nobody bothered to ask, but her personality had changed drastically.

"Well, you're not alone. We're all here," Phoenix pointed out.

"Yeah, thanks again for coming, guys." I truly was grateful they were with me. "And sorry if she's," I thought of a polite way to say bitch. "a bit much."

"I think we can handle her." Chandler winked.

Phoenix grabbed our second drink as Charlie asked, "So how long have you known her then?"

"Since Kindergarten, really. But we started being friends more in sixth grade."

"Wow, that's a long time to know someone."

"Yeah, most of my friends I've known since middle school." I didn't mention that that was because I'd stopped talking to my elementary friends. I'd befriended Tabitha in part because of how little we'd interacted before middle school.

"Who else was supposed to be here again?"

I got the sense that he was asking questions just to keep the conversation going. He seemed interested in knowing, but it felt like he was floundering for what to say; like he wasn't used to making small talk. I was also a bit annoyed at the distance he was keeping between us. It was like he couldn't decide if he was okay with touching me or not.

"Bridget and Courtney. The four of us became friends about the same time. We were in the same homeroom."

"Cool." Charlie's drink was put on the bar and he took one hand out of his pocket to retrieve it. He didn't seem to know what to say after this and we waited quietly for my drink to be put on the bar. Once it was finally made, I grabbed it and we made our way back to where Tabitha was waiting.

"Took you guys long enough," she impatiently remarked.

"Well, there was a bit of a line and we did have four drinks to wait for," I reminded her.

She rolled her eyes and flipped her ponytail over her shoulder. "Whatever."

Phoenix pulled up another chair and we all sat down with her. The moment we did, Tabitha acted like nothing unusual had happened. There were times when I really didn't understand how blasé she could be about who she hit on, and even though she had been annoyed by their rejection, her behavior now indicated that nothing was wrong. And I had thought Charlie's mood swings when we first met were crazy. I guess I was just so used to Tabitha's that they didn't even seem that out of the ordinary.

As usual, she dominated the conversation, rambling on about how crappy her weekend had been. How she'd gone to a party, got drunk, broke up with Justin again (as I suspected), woke up with the worst hangover ever (which is what she said about pretty much every hangover she had), and on and on about how much her life sucked. I lost interest fast. It really wasn't often that just Tabitha and I would be together without having another friend with us, and it felt weird to not have anyone else there to provide her with the feedback she was wanting. Bridget was usually the one who pandered to her ramblings. Plus, when there were more of us the conversations tended to be less one-sided.

I mostly zoned her out, but she didn't seem to notice. She never looked at the people she was talking to, which often made me wonder why she needed people around to listen to her anyway when clearly she just liked the sound of her voice.

I glanced at each of the guys to gauge their reaction to my melodramatic friend. Chandler looked distracted and was glancing around the coffee shop. Charlie was doing his best to pay attention but seemed perplexed by Tabitha. Phoenix once again had that look on his face that seemed to indicate he was closely studying the meaning behind everything she was saying but appeared bewildered as well. I felt sorry for having drug them here.

I should've just told Tabitha no. Then I could've had the nice relaxing morning that I'd wanted.

I looked out the window and distracted myself with the people and cars that were passing by. Nothing really seemed to stand out as I watched the throngs go about their day. There might've been paparazzi stalking some celebrities but that was so commonplace that I didn't really care. I had come across a number of celebrities over the years, but most of them were ones that I didn't really care about. Though I couldn't help but be jealous of my friends who had met Orlando Bloom.

Tabitha stopped mid-sentence as something caught her eye. The silence caused Charlie to stir as if he'd begun to doze off. I turned my attention to look back at her.

"Now there's a stallion I'd like to ride."

Ugh, I wish she knew how stupid that sounded.

We all looked up to see who she was talking about. My jaw dropped and the guys all suppressed a laugh.

It was Russell.

What's he doing here? I thought he wanted nothing to do with my friends.

He was standing in line to order a drink.

"Damn! He's fine!"

Thankfully, she was too preoccupied ogling Russell to notice the other guys hide their faces as their laughter threatened to escape their lips. I felt uneasy with the lustful gaze she was giving him. Sure, Russell was attractive, but that didn't mean he was fair game.

But who was I to say that for sure? Maybe this whole abstinence thing was just a front because they hadn't found anyone they wanted to date yet…Would Russell be interested in Tabitha? I shuddered at the thought. Tabitha never really saw people as more than a means to an end and for whatever reason, I just felt that Russell deserved more than to be used by her.

I saw Phoenix pull out his phone and send a short text, seconds later Russell pulled out his phone and checked it. He laughed as he shook his head and typed his reply. Would he come join us, or keep to himself? I was actually a bit surprised that he'd walked right by us since we were pretty much right by the door.

"Okay, I can't let this guy get away." Tabitha stood up and walked up to Russell.

Oh, great!

"What is she doing?" I asked.

"Why are you asking us? She's your friend," Phoenix was still fighting back his laughter. I saw him glance back up at Russell just before Tabitha made contact. Was the expression on Russell's face, smug?

"What is he doing here anyway?" Charlie asked.

"He got bored, so I texted him where we were. I didn't think he'd actually come though."

I watched uncomfortably as Tabitha flipped her long ponytail and turned on her charm. She really did move fast when it came to hitting on guys. Even though I was used to it, it was still annoying.

What was startling though was that, instead of brushing her off, Russell appeared to be flirting back with her.

"Wait, now what is he doing?" I turned to the guys for answers.

"Wow, okay, I did not see that coming," Charlie mused.

"Agreed," Chandler affirmed.

"Phoenix?" they both asked.

We all looked to him and he was no longer laughing, a look of apprehension now clouded his face.

"Oh, great," Charlie remarked.

"What's wrong?" Chandler inquired.

Even I could tell that something was awry, though I wondered what had turned the situation from amusing to concerning so fast.

Phoenix sighed as he shook his head. "Honestly, I'm not sure. I went to go talk to him last night after he exploded, but he'd already fallen asleep."

"You were barely three minutes behind him."

"Yeah, I was kinda impressed. He was up before me too, so I really don't know what's going through his head right now. I just hope he doesn't do anything stupid."

"Yeah, he's never been good at thinking things through," Charlie denoted.

"Especially when he's riled up," Chandler added.

"Celeste, you were talking with him when I came out. What'd he say?" Phoenix asked.

I shrugged as I tried to recall the conversation we'd had that morning. "He just apologized for losing his temper and warned me not to hurt Charlie."


He didn't say anymore as we looked back toward where Russell had been. They were now standing at the bar waiting for a drink and Tabitha was in full-on seductress mode. She traced her fingers up Russell's arm and showed excitement at the size of his bicep, which he hubristically flexed.

Ugh! Really? Though he did have some nice muscles. An image of the shirtless Russell I had seen this morning flashed through my mind and I shook my head to clear it. I had to be careful, I really didn't need anything that would muddle up my feelings for Charlie. I wasn't as indifferent as Tabitha when it came to who I had my sights set on, but in the past, I had been known to switch when a more attractive guy had come along.

"I think I'm gonna be sick," I announced as Tabitha let out an exaggerated laugh.

Chandler hastily passed me the bag that his scone had come in. I gave it a curious look before realizing why he'd done it. "I'm not gonna throw up, it's just. Eew."

"I'm with you," Charlie agreed.

They walked back toward us, Tabitha hanging off Russell's arm and giving a fake laugh as he smiled back at her.

Why in the world is Russell going along with her? It seemed so out of character given what I knew about him. There's no way he actually likes her. Is there?

My eyes were drawn to the pastry bag that Russell carried and I became abruptly aware that my offer of food had not been extended to him, which made me feel a little bad considering the fuss he'd made earlier about having nothing to eat in my kitchen.

"Look what I found," Tabitha beamed. I liked how she said what instead of who. "This is River."

River? Why did he give a fake name? And where did he get a name like River from?

"Hey, nice to meet you guys," Russell greeted. I tried to mask the look of shock on my face.

Okay, first the fake name and now he's pretending not to know us? And not only was his accent completely gone, but he'd raised the pitch of his voice as well. I had gotten used to how it would change, but this was the first time I'd heard him speak without it at all. He sounded like an entirely different person, and his mannerisms had changed as well.

Who is this guy?

I looked to the other guys to see how they were reacting and they looked about as confused as I was, nevertheless, they appeared to be going along with his ruse. Though I did notice the subtle disapproving look that Phoenix was giving him, Russell seemed as though he didn't notice it.

There weren't any empty chairs left, so Chandler gave his to Russell and shared with Charlie. The two of them didn't exactly look comfortable, but I was still a tad jealous and wished that Charlie and I could be sharing a seat. At least I could've sat on his lap so he would have more than just half a chair to sit on. This same thought must've been going through Tabitha's mind and she seemed annoyed that she couldn't share a chair with her new plaything.

Tabitha resumed her ranting and I swear I saw Chandler roll his eyes to the back of his head as if he were saying 'ugh, not again!'. I didn't blame him, I was tired of her ramblings too. She was much happier now that Russell was here though. At least she wasn't complaining anymore, but her bragging wasn't really that much better. Russell's behavior continued to baffle me. As Tabitha prattled on, he appeared to be actively listening to every ludicrous thing she was saying. And what was worse, she was leaning against him and he wasn't pushing her away.

I looked away again to mask my annoyance and felt Charlie lean into my shoulder. I scooted my chair up next to theirs so that the three of us could share two chairs. It wasn't sitting on Charlie's lap, but it was nice to have him so close beside me. I rested my head on his shoulder and once again tuned out Tabitha's trivial banter. Instead of people watching I decided to daydream, imagining that I was back at home and still in bed with Charlie. Knowing that the circumstances would not have allowed anything to actually happen between us, I contented myself to imagining us just laying in bed and talking. I hadn't opened myself up to pillow talk since my first boyfriend but I was finding the idea more appealing now. Talking with Charlie just came so naturally that I actually craved the intimacy it brought. I wasn't really a fan of sharing things about myself but I did enjoy learning new things about him.

I nuzzled into Charlie's shoulder more and felt him tense before leaning his head to rest on top of mine.

Does touching me really make him feel that uncomfortable?

I knew he'd said before that he liked holding me, but since last night I wasn't really sure anymore. Could it have had something to do with what I'd accidentally said last night?

But wait. If that's the case, then wouldn't he be happy that I'd confessed my feelings and want to hold me more? Or did I freak him out and now he wants nothing to do with me? Or could it have something to do with them finding my book collection? I'd had at least one boyfriend who'd ridiculed me for it, calling me juvenile for my romantic fantasies. Needless to say, that relationship didn't last long. Could that thought be going through Charlie's head now? Did he think my own romantic dreams were silly? As my thoughts continued to spiral out of control I felt Charlie squeeze my knee and I turned to look at him.

"You okay?" he gently whispered.

I was a little thrown off that he had picked up on my inner turmoil. I must have been showing more on my face than I realized. I didn't really know how to answer his question though. Was I okay? Before I could think of a way to answer him, Tabitha's voice brought my attention back to her.

"So, I'm bored with sitting," she informed. "Let's go do some shopping."

"Sure," I agreed apathetically. Anything to get away from having to listen to her ramblings.

We made our way back outside and walked the short distance to the shops on Rodeo Drive. Tabitha led the way, still clinging to Russell's side while the rest of us held back. My annoyance with my friend was lifted when Charlie took my hand and walked in step with me. I truly was thankful that they had agreed to tag along and relieved that he was now touching me without tensing up. I pushed my doubts from earlier into the back of my mind and decided to enjoy the moment.

"How you holding up?" he asked as we made our way into the first store.

I looked up to see where we were and responded to his question by clinging to his arm.

He chuckled softly. "That bad, huh?"

"Not really, I'm just kinda over her pretentious act."

I did my best to ignore her over the top flirtation. It had taken all the fun out of shopping.

"Don't let her get to you," he tried to encourage.

"Easier said than done," I moped.

"I bet if Marcus were here he'd be dragging you around shopping," Chandler commented.

I could totally imagine Marcus darting around the shops, pulling out shirts, and insisting I try them on. The image brought a smile to my face.

"Would you like us to act in his stead?" Charlie inquired.

I shook my head with a laugh. "You don't have to go through that."

"Oh, but this blouse would totally compliment your skin tone!" Chandler proclaimed as he pulled a rather tacky shirt off the rack and held it up to my torso.

"Oh, yes! You must try it on," Charlie agreed, even though I was certain that neither of them had a clue what they were saying.

"Guys, you really don't have to," I appealed in vain.

"But then, how ever will we get that frown to turn upside down?" Chandler asked as he frowned and then contorted his body in an attempt to hold his head upside down. He looked utterly ridiculous and I couldn't help the laugh that escaped my lips.

I was moderately embarrassed by their antics, but mostly I welcomed the comic relief, and thankful that they had distracted me from the nausea of watching Tabitha flirt with Russell.

I searched the store for Phoenix and found him off to the side, keeping an eye on Russell while staying at a distance. It was plain to see that he was concerned about his friend's behavior. As we finished up in that store and moved on to the next, I noticed that he and Russell were exchanging texts, and I could see Phoenix's growing irritation with every new message he read. I wanted to check in to see how he was doing but decided it was better to give him some space. Though I saw Chandler talk with him a few times as Charlie stuck close to me.

At one point, I saw Phoenix look over at Russell after checking his phone. Russell actually looked as though he was challenging him in some way. Phoenix responded by shaking his head and putting his phone away with a heavy sigh.

Well, whatever was going on, his friends seemed just as confused as I was.

I really wasn't in the mood for shopping and I wasn't finding anything I liked anyway, so I got pretty bored. It was plain to see that the guys weren't really having much fun either, though the twins were keeping themselves amused by finding ways to make me laugh.

Shortly after entering the third store, I ambled over to a clothing rack and began to mindlessly look through the selection. I didn't really need new clothes, but I was never one to pass up a cute top or fun accessory if I came across one.

Tabitha practically blindsided me as she grabbed my arm and pulled me aside. "Oh, my god. Isn't River a dream?" she squealed. "I can't believe my luck finding him."

"Yeah, sure," I placidly agreed. And you didn't find him, he came into the coffee shop because we were there. I was once again annoyed that I was her only friend present that she could gush to. Though I guess I wouldn't have minded as much if it were some random guy.

"And doesn't he look just like Jake?"

I caught her reference to the character from 16 Candles, which had long been one of her favorite movies. No wonder she found him so attractive when she first saw him. I hadn't seen the similarities before, but I could make them out now that she had mentioned it. Jake didn't have Russell's deep emerald eyes though, which I felt were one of his best features. Not that I was keeping track of what part of him I found most attractive or anything. I stopped myself before I could delve further into other parts of him that were alluring.

What's wrong with me? I hadn't been attracted to Russell before now, so why was I suddenly thinking about him that way? I blamed his odd behavior and Tabitha's own attraction to him and hoped what I was feeling would pass.

"Yeah, I guess so." I mean, they're not twins or anything, but I thought I'd just let her keep believing it. I shifted my gaze to Charlie and focused on what I found attractive about him. I couldn't dwell too long there either, though, because my thoughts quickly shifted to where I knew Tabitha's were as well.

"Oh, a night with him will be just what I need to get my mind off stupid what's his face."

What's his face was what she called Justin any time they weren't dating. It was really the only way anyone could keep up with their roller coaster of a relationship.

"What makes you think you can get him to sleep with you so easily?" Cause from what I know of him, there's no chance in hell that he'd agree to it. Well, at least I think so.

"Oh, please. Just look at him!" We did. He was surrounded by the other guys and talking with Phoenix. Charlie and Chandler were standing side by side with their arms around each other's shoulders. I wonder what they're talking about. Whatever it was, I would rather be a part of that conversation than this one. "He practically screams bad boy! And we all know the bad boys make the best stallions." She really did enjoy referring to guys she found attractive as horses. I had always thought it was a stupid comparison. "I bet he's hung like one too."

Her last remark caused something in me to snap.

"Knock it off, Tabitha!" I had lost it with her vulgar comments. She had said those things about other guys before, as had I, but this time was different. I really didn't want to hear her talk anymore about getting it on with one of my friends, even if I wasn't really that close to Russell. Plus, I really didn't need that mental image further clouding my mind. At least this time my thoughts were of Charlie instead of Russell.

"What did you say?" She looked at me with indignation. I knew she'd just called me a bitch in her head and I didn't care. I was thinking the same thing about her.

"You heard me. Why do you always have to be so lewd when talking about guys?"

"What, like you're not thinking the same thoughts about your little boy toy?" she scoffed.

"Charlie's not my toy." Maybe I'd had those thoughts when we'd first met, but he had become so much more in the short time I'd known him. I still craved a physical relationship with him but I could no longer deny that I was hoping for a deeper connection with him.

"Oh, please. What else are guys good for?"

I couldn't think of a good response, I mean, until about a week ago I had felt the same, so I shifted the conversation back to her.

"I don't know. I don't really take, River as that kind of guy." I stumbled as I remembered not to call him Russell.

"Yeah, well, too bad you've got yourself the little goodie two shoes who won't screw you."

"What's that supposed to mean?" It was hard to mask the fury from my expression.

"You slept with him in the same bed last night and he didn't have sex with you. Seriously! What's that all about?" she ridiculed.

"Chandler was in the room too." The image of a threesome with them popped up against my will and I fought it back down.

"What? Why the hell was he there?" she practically screeched. "Couldn't he have slept in the other room with that other guy?" I was annoyed that she hadn't bothered to remember Phoenix's name but then quickly realized that I hadn't actually introduced the guys to her. She'd known which guy I was interested in by my proximity to him but hadn't bothered to learn who the other guys with me were. Well, she knew Chandler but only because Charlie had said his name. "Or at least sleep on a couch to give you guys some alone time."

"It wouldn't have made a difference. Charlie would've been too self-conscious having his brother in another room." Well, I mean, I assumed he would.

"Well that's stupid. Why would he care? He's not a virgin, is he?" She said it like he had some horrid disease.

"Would that really be such a bad thing if he were?" I was starting to not think it was. Even if it made having a relationship with him more challenging.

"You really wanna let someone with zero experience between your legs? I mean, come on! Would he even know what to do?" She pursed her lips and raised her eyebrows at me. I continued to fight against the rage growing inside me.

"Charlie may look sweet and innocent, but he's got some lion in him," I abruptly retorted without really thinking.

"And how would you know?"

I was briefly taken aback and had to think of how to respond. "Just because we haven't had sex yet, doesn't mean he hasn't come on to me." There was truth in what I said. In the short time I had known him, he had shown just how bold he could be. Once he got over his shyness that is.

She turned to give Charlie a look of disapproval. "Yeah, I'm not seeing it."

Who does she think she is to pass judgment on someone she doesn't know so fast? I fought back the urge to rip her hair out.

"Now River on the other hand," she cast a lecherous gaze at Russell and my fury grew even more, "I can tell that he's got what it takes to rock my world."

I glanced at Russell, who appeared to be in a staring contest with Phoenix. I wondered how Tabitha was able to pick up that he might be good in bed when I had never sensed anything of the sort from him. Granted, he was behaving differently from what I was used to, but still. I almost felt like telling her that Russell was a virgin too, but then that would give away that I knew him and she probably wouldn't be too thrilled to learn that I'd gone along with making her look like a fool. And did I really know for sure if he was a virgin? My mind flashed back to the girls mentioning that he'd dated and their reluctance to disclose the number of girlfriends he'd had. Russell really was a mystery to me.

"I still don't think he's gonna be as easy to land as you think." This much I was still fairly certain of.

"Yeah, whatever. You have fun with your silly little boy crush. I'm gonna land me a real man."

She didn't give me a chance to respond as she let go of me and made her way back to Russell.

ARGH! I screamed in my head as I clenched my fists and glared at the back of her head.

She's such a bitch!

Charlie's POV~~

In a rare moment that Tabitha let go of Russell, Phoenix swept in next to our friend.

We generally let Phoenix take the lead when talking to him cause he was pretty much the only one of us that Russell ever really opened up to. Probably because Phoenix just had that knack for pulling things out of people. He'd become really easy to talk to about things over the past few years.

"What the hell are you doing?" Phoenix muttered under his breath as Tabitha moved up to Celeste and began talking to her. I felt a sudden desire to protect Celeste from anything her friend might say, but stayed to hear what was going on with Russell. I just hope she doesn't say anything that might upset her. "You don't actually like her, do you?"

"Ah, hell no! I just wanted to give her a taste of her own fuckin' medicine," Russell's response was cocky and arrogant. His thick drawl was back, a clear indication that everything he'd been doing had been an act. One that I was all too familiar with from high school. And the return of his foul mouth was another sign of trouble. He never could control his words when he got angry. My concern for his behavior grew.

This is bad.

"What? Then why are you playing along with her?" Phoenix voiced the question that I had been wondering as well.

"She thinks she can use me to get what she wants, but I'm gonna prove her wrong."

"Why do you feel the need to prove anything to her?"

Russell shrugged nonchalantly. "'Cause I wanna. That's why."

Phoenix held his hands out palms up, a look of bewilderment on his face. I shared his confusion. "That doesn't make any sense."

"Who says it has to?"

"Then why keep up the act?"

Russell just shrugged again. He would look at Phoenix, but he wasn't maintaining eye contact.

He's definitely hiding something.

I hadn't seen him act this way since before we became friends. Giant red flags were waving everywhere and Russell seemed oblivious to them. Or at least, he was completely overlooking them. Whatever the cause, it wasn't good.

And why he felt the need to go by a pseudonym and string her along was beyond me. I tried to think of how he'd come up with the name River, but drew a blank. River was one of Harper's middle names, but that didn't really explain why he chose to use it.

Guess I'll have to wait 'till later to get an explanation.

I tried to ignore the tumult of emotions emanating from him, but it wasn't easy. Resentment, anger, fear, confusion, grief, remorse, and even regret.

G'ah! That's a lot to be coming off of one person all at once! What on earth is going through his head right now? That was one of the downsides to my heightened empathy. I could sense people's emotions, but never the thoughts behind them.

My own heart grieved to see my friend carry so much pain inside him. Pain that he refused to let anyone see. He'd been pretty pissed off the first time I drew attention to the fact that Chandler and I could sense his emotions and he warned us to keep out of his business. I hadn't bothered to explain to him how difficult that would be. There were very few people that we were not able to sense the emotions of. Celeste was one of them, though I still found it odd that Chandler could sense her while I could not. That was most likely a puzzle that I'd never find the solution to though, so I did my best to let it slide.

Chandler, who I knew was experiencing the same barrage of emotions, stood beside me, draped his arm around my shoulders, and the storm calmed down. That's better. I wrapped my arm around his back and rested my hand on his right shoulder. We both took a deep breath. Handling situations like this was always easier when we were together.

"You know, she referred to you as a 'stallion that she'd like to ride' when she first saw you," Chandler informed him, even though I was sure he knew it'd only add fuel to the fire. I almost wanted to smack him. Between the two of us, he was always the one to speak whatever was on his mind, even if it was better to keep it to himself.

Russell gave a caustic laugh. "This stallion would buck her off before she even got her foot in the stirrup."

"What the hell?" Phoenix admonished.

"What? I ain't ever gonna give that bitch what she wants."

"Then what are you doing?"

"What I was trained for." His response was full of impudence.

Trained? Chandler and I shared the same confused look.

Russell's dating history was no secret to the teens in Needles, but neither of us understood what he could have meant. Or, even more puzzling, what could have brought on this sudden relapse to old behaviors. We had at least been able to piece together that it had something to do with Celeste's collection of romance novels.

But just what could he have read last night that would've triggered this? I had been flustered by some of the things I'd read but assumed that they were tame when compared to the things I'd heard Russell confess to having done. Maybe he read something that triggered a bad memory? Who knows.

"So you're gonna remain a slave to your past?" Phoenix at least seemed to be somewhat on the same page."Correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm pretty sure you weren't 'trained' to lead girls on out of spite. You're just doing this 'cause you're pissed off and Tabitha's an easy target." A slight twitch from Russell was enough to know that Phoenix was right. That and a greater sense of guilt began to come off of him. "Projecting your anger onto her ain't gonna do shit." He fought to control his volume as he ripped into our friend. I bit back the smile at the way Russell's accent had influenced Phoenix's word choice. Phoenix wasn't really one to curse but he also struggled with his words when he was angry.

The two of them stared at each other. Russell's green eyes were cold and hard, hiding well the conflict within him. On the other hand, Phoenix's eyes blazed bright aqua, revealing just how furious he was. The emotions rolling off of him were more focused than the maelstrom surrounding Russell. He was angry, yes, but fierce loyalty, love, and compassion were behind every word he said. He knew there was poison clouding Russell's mind and he wasn't gonna let up until it had been purged, even if that meant incurring his friend's wrath. I had to commend him for his tenacity. I'd never really been intimidated by Russell, but I knew better than to start a fight with him.

"Don't think this behavior's gonna go unchecked," Phoenix warned.

"Yeah. Whatever you say, dad." Sarcasm dripped from Russell's voice as he rolled his eyes.

For a moment I thought that Phoenix was going to punch him, but did well to reel his anger in; a conscious effort that he was getting much better at. There were times I was truly marveled by the changes that occurred in him since we'd first met when we were thirteen. He had been so incredibly broken and mad at the world. Now he felt it was his mission to help others heal from their pasts as well.

I knew for certain that things would have played out differently if this conversation had taken place when we were seventeen. Though, by Russell's stance, it looked as though he was still expecting to be hit. Perhaps even hoping to be?

The burden that he carried was one that he often felt the need to atone for. He despised who he had been in high school and vowed never to return to his old ways, which is what made his current behavior all the more bewildering.

"If it's a fight you're looking for, we can have Marcus kick your ass when we get home." Phoenix seemed to think so as well, and it was a true threat. We all knew Marcus would not go easy on him. He loved any excuse to put his skills to use and always went all out. He never said it outright, but he reveled at being the best fighter among us. Not too hard really, considering that he'd had over a decade of training while the rest of us had none.

"Yeah, whatever." Russell walked off to join Tabitha and resume his charade of being flirty. However, this time with a lot less enthusiasm.

Phoenix gave a long sigh. "I'll be right back." He flipped open his phone and began to call someone.

Yeah, we definitely need backup for this. Though I wondered who he'd be calling to act as reinforcements.

Chandler hugged my shoulder before pushing me toward Celeste, who was now standing alone, staring at Tabitha's back, and looking incredibly irritated.

God, I really don't like her friend. No reply came.

I wasn't sure if I could handle touching her at the moment, but I knew she needed it, so I composed myself before walking up to her.

Celeste's POV~~

I felt a gentle touch on the small of my back and my nerves calmed ever so slightly. "You okay?" Charlie looked down at me.

I gestured toward where Russell was "What the hell?" I murmured under my breath so they couldn't hear me.

"You mean your friend or mine?" He smiled, trying to be light-hearted.

"Either of them." Charming as his smile was, it didn't really help dilute my irritation. Especially after the taunting I had just received. "I thought you guys didn't date. So why is Russell playing along?"

Charlie looked at them as well and sighed. "I wish I knew. Honestly, I'm not even sure Russell knows why he's playing along. He hasn't acted like this since high school."

"Wait, you mean that this used to be normal for him?" This information surprised me a little. Just what is his dating history like then?

"Kinda. I'd rather not go into the details though."

"Ugh, fine, whatever." Guess that'll remain a mystery. Like so many other things.

He moved his hand to wrap around my waist and I leaned into his shoulder. "What did Tabitha say to you?"

Another groan of irritation passed through my lips. "She basically called me stupid and said I was wasting my time on a guy who wouldn't have sex with me." It felt as though Charlie had stopped breathing for a moment. Had my comment startled him?

"Do you think you're wasting your time?" He looked down at me, searching for an answer.

I sighed as I turned to stand in front of him. Was I wasting my time? Well, there's one way to find out. "Kiss me." I put my palms flat on his chest and looked up at him as I pleaded. If he would just give me this, then surely I'd be satisfied, right?

Conflict flashed behind his eyes before he leaned down and gently kissed my forehead. The contact was sweet and soothing, but still.

"That's not what I meant." I formed my hands into fists and thumped his chest. Why does he always avoid kissing my lips?

He exhaled a drawn-out breath before pulling me into his embrace. I moved my hands to wrap around him as he kissed me again on top of my head. He then moved to speak into my ear.

"I'm sorry I'm not doing things like all your other boyfriends, Celeste, but I'm really trying to prove to you that I'm not them. Can't you see that?" He pulled back and tucked my hair behind my ear. "I know you prefer things to be more physical, but please, give me a chance to love you in my own way."

His words were alluring, and I truly wanted to believe them, but the voices in my head warned me to keep my guard up. A task that was easier said than done with the looks he always gave me.

He brushed the hair back from my face and I once again found myself lost in his gorgeous green eyes. "Would you rather have someone who gives kisses, or someone who defends your heart and chases away your fears?" His cliché comment drew a smile out of me and I started to pull away but he held me firm as he looked at me with an impish grin before adding.

"Nibble at your ears. Drink a lot of, no…" He looked up at the ceiling as he pondered more rhymes. Okay, he's lost it. I shook my head with a smile. He pulled me closer still as he continued. "Let you shop at Sears."

"Sears?" I pretended to pull away from him and he closed the gap between us again.

"Wish you Happy New Years! Buy you teddy bears." He gave me an Eskimo kiss as he mispronounced bear so that it would rhyme and the absurdity of it all caused me to laugh so loud that I drew stares from other shoppers. I covered my mouth to stifle myself to a giggle.

"You, are so weird."

"Well, d'uh!" His expression caused even more laughter.

Tabitha was wrong. Sure, his ideals were a bit unorthodox and archaic, but being with him made me happier than I'd been in a long time, and for now, that was enough.

I fell back into his chest and inhaled deeply. "Thank you, Charlie."

"You're welcome, Celeste." He rested his head on top of mine. "And it's not that I don't want to kiss you, I just think it's too soon."

I quietly nodded my head as I held him tighter.

If you'd just tell him you love him then he'd probably be willing to go further. The voice in my head advised. Was that a risk I'd be willing to take though? Wouldn't it just mean that I was using him like so many had used me before? Did I care?

I heard a phone ring and looked up to see who's it was. "Shit," Russell cursed without even looking at the caller ID. I guessed that the ring was set to a certain person. "Excuse me, I need to take this."

He waited until he was walking out the door before flipping open his phone and answering it, leaving a vexed Tabitha in his wake. I stifled a laugh and wished I'd had a camera to capture the look on her face.

"What the hell?" she demanded as she gestured toward the exit before turning toward me for an explanation. I could have been mistaken, but I thought I caught a glimpse of jealousy flash in her eyes as she saw the way Charlie was holding me. I simply shrugged.

"Heck if I know," I replied as I turned to stand next to Charlie, who kept his arm around my waist.

"Ugh! Could my life get any fucking worse?" Her fury boiled over as she took her frustration out by kicking a nearby display.

I wasn't sure if that was meant to be a rhetorical question, but I didn't have an answer for her either way. It didn't really seem to matter though, because she turned her attention away from us and back to shopping, albeit, with extreme indignation.

"Geez, what'd I miss?" Chandler asked as he came up and stood on the other side of me, putting his arm around my shoulders. I looked up at him and once again found it so strange to be looking at the same faces. I may not be able to easily tell them apart physically, but I could definitely tell the difference between how I felt when each of them touched me.

"Not much really," Charlie informed.

"I called Kenzie," Phoenix discreetly informed as he rejoined us.

"God, I hope she can talk some sense into him," Chandler replied.

"God help us if she can't."

"Amen!" The twins both echoed.

We resumed shopping and it didn't take long for us to realize that Russell wasn't coming back. Our suspicions were confirmed when Phoenix got another text message. He chuckled after reading it and then showed his phone to the twins.

"Wayta go, Kenzie!" Charlie laughed.

"What?" I asked, not wanting to be left out of the loop this time.

Charlie turned to speak into my ear, "Kenzie got Russell to head back to his truck."

He stood up abruptly as Tabitha made her way back over to us.

"Where the hell is he? It's been like, ten minutes." She was getting pissed that her new plaything had run off.

I was trying not to be too happy with her irritation. Serves her right!

"Beats me," Phoenix replied, even though he knew full well where he was. "But it's probably for the best that he didn't come back. I got the feeling he was just stringing you along to use you."

"I don't get used," she spat.

Sure you don't, you just use other people for your own twisted games.

Phoenix shrugged. "Whatever you say." He turned to me. "But we need to get going."

"What? So you're all gonna just ditch me?" Her irritation was growing with every word Phoenix said.

I made the mental note that she would probably not want to hang out with these guys ever again and that suited me just fine.

"Sorry. I gotta be at work this afternoon, so we need to get on the road. We left our car back at Celeste's house, so she's gotta give us a ride back."

I wasn't sure about the job part, and even though I knew he was lying about the car I remembered that they had left the surfboards at my house. Whatever the case may be I was grateful because it gave me an excuse to leave.

"Ugh! Whatever!" She didn't even say bye as she stormed off to the back of the store.

The guys all gave a collective shrug. I did kinda feel sorry for her, but I was also glad that Russell hadn't become one of her many victims.

"Shall we go then?" Charlie asked.

"Certainly," Phoenix replied.

"Do you really have to be at work this afternoon?" I inquired as we exited the store. I was elated when Charlie voluntarily took my hand.

Phoenix answered with a wink. "But she doesn't have to know that."

"Do you guys have a time you need to be back though?" I was really hoping to spend more time with Charlie before they had to leave. I pulled myself closer to him as we waited at a crosswalk.

The three of them each shook their heads. "But we probably shouldn't stay too late. Pretty sure Russell's suppose to work tomorrow and it's probably best we get him back before dark."

"Okay." The light changed and we followed the throng of people across the road.

"Hey, is there a park nearby we can go to?" Phoenix asked once we were on the other side.

"You mean like with a playground?" I wracked my brain to think of one.

"N'ah, we just need an open patch of grass."

"Oh, yeah. There's one right off Sunset, we passed it on the way here. Lots of grass." I wonder what they need grass for.

"That'll work."

"Kay, follow me then."

"Roger!" Phoenix saluted as he and Chandler fell in line behind me and Charlie as we made our way into the parking garage.

Edit, I'm a bit annoyed as I'm going back to previous chapters and noticing that Fiction Press cut random parts out. If you notice any sentences that chop in weird places or missing spaces, please let me know. These are not in my original document and I don't realize that Fiction Press has done it until I take the time to look back at what I've posted. Thanks ^_^

And as always, thanks for reading, and please leave a quick review so I know who's reading! 3