This is a rewrite of chapter fourteen from The Girlfriend Stage, where Josh and Anna-Marie spend the night under the stars. It contains spoilers from The Girlfriend Stage, so proceed with caution! Be sure to check out our bonus content page for more bonus content scenes and actions you can take to unlock even more!
Anna-Marie leads me out to my car with two sleeping bags and some pillows, and gives me directions to a spot out of town. She holds my hand as we walk up a narrow path through the woods and brush, and I have a fleeting thought about whether my car is going to be covered in pine sap in the morning, and then we step into a clearing, and there’s the open sky, filled with the thousands and thousands of stars I’d seen two nights ago. There’s a cloudy stripe up the middle of the sky, that some recess of my memory thinks must be the milky way, which I’d honestly forgotten was a thing that could be seen with the naked eye. God, how many stars must there be in that stripe, how many millions of miles away?
“Pretty nice, huh?” Anna Marie asks.
“God. Yes,” I say.
“It’s like the only thing I miss about Wyoming, most of the time.”
I look at her, or the shadow of her in the dark. She knew right where to find this place, so no doubt she’s been here before, cuddled up to someone else in the night, probably Shane. And that shouldn’t make me jealous, because it was probably before we even met, and god knows I’ve been with plenty of other girls.
But still. It does. I take a step toward her and trip over a rock—a move her Wyoming-born ex-boyfriend probably wouldn’t pull during what was supposed to be a romantic rendezvous beneath the stars.
Anna-Marie grabs my hand. “Careful,” she says.
I shrug. “Yeah, I’m clearly not an outdoorsman.”
Her hand squeezes mine. “I’m not either. But I think we can manage to stay alive out here for one night, at least. We might need to stay pretty close to each other, though. For safety.”
God, please. “I think I can handle that.”
Anna-Marie finds a spot near the middle of the clearing and I smile as I watch her zip the sleeping bags together so we can share. We slip into the bags, still in our clothes, and Anna-Marie curls up next to me, her head on my shoulder. Her skin is warm beneath her clothes, and I run my fingers under the hem of her shirt.
We stare up at the stars, and I blink at the streaks across the sky before I realize they are actual, honest-to-god shooting stars. Anna-Marie’s hand rubs my side, and I wonder if I died of some carbon monoxide leak back in the storage room and this is what heaven is like.
“I’m sorry,” Anna-Marie says quietly. “About earlier, at the grocery store.”
I wince. “About the nightmares I’m going to have from seeing Lily debase a raw sausage? Because that wasn’t your fault.”
I laugh. “Well, yeah, I’m definitely sorry about that. For both our sakes. But…you know what I mean.”
“Yeah, I do,” I say. Really, I’m the one who owes her an apology. I’ve been so wound up about everything, and I’d let it get the best of me. “I’m sorry, too. I don’t want you to think I don’t believe in your talent. Because I do. You’re incredible.” I pull her closer. “I just worry about you putting too much pressure on yourself.”
She sighs. “That may be something I have a tendency of doing. And I probably let my parents goad me on too much.” She rolls away and looks up at me, and I can see the stars reflected in her eyes. “But when I told my dad you were the best, I didn’t mean to make you think I needed you to be the best agent ever, or that I doubt your skills, or that—“
Oh, god. I hadn’t meant it like that. “Hey, it’s okay,” I say. “I wasn’t really upset about that, you know? I think it was really about Shane.”
Her body tenses, and I hope I’m not about to start another fight. Because, really, it’s none of my business if she likes him more than me. I wouldn’t blame her for not thinking I’m good enough for her, not because there’s something wrong with me, but because she’s Anna-Marie freaking Halsey and it’s hard for me to imagine who could possibly be worthy of her.
Anna-Marie grabs my hand. “I don’t want to be with Shane. I didn’t really want to be with him before, I just—I think I was afraid of what I was feeling for you. Like, um. How much I was feeling for you.”
I open my mouth, but I’m afraid to speak, as if one word could pop this bubble and reduce it to nothing but a memory. I want to believe her, want to be convinced that she feels as much for me as I do for her, but know that she doesn’t.
Still, it’s nice to hear that there’s something there.
“Yeah?” I ask, and immediately regret how desperate I sound. But, really, I am.
She nods. “I don’t do this, normally. You know, like feelings and commitment, it’s all—it scares the hell out of me. And Shane…he doesn’t scare me like you do.”
I know I brought him up, but hearing her say his name, tell me how things are better with him than me, it hurts in a deep, agonizing way, and too late, I know that she sees. I don’t want to scare her, but I probably should have thought of that before I drove all the way to Wyoming essentially uninvited. “I scare you.”
“How I feel about you scares me,” she says quickly. “Because I want to be with you, and I’m…terrified.”
Me, too, I’m going to tell her. To both things. But then she continues.
“And Shane—I don’t have feelings for him, not anymore, and that makes him safe.”
This time I manage not to flinch, even though this feels like a punch in the gut. I’ve pushed her too fast, asked for too much. I’m lucky she feels as much for me as she does, or she’d already have retreated back to Shane’s arms, where she can feel safe by feeling nothing at all. It would be one thing to lose her to someone she loved more, but if she runs from me because I moved too fast and frightened her. . .
I wonder if it’s only a matter of time.
“What exactly are you afraid of?” I ask.
She hesitates, and I think for a moment she isn’t going to tell me. “I’m afraid it will end badly. I’m afraid one day that you’ll find someone else, and you’ll leave me for her. Or just cheat on me with her, but either way, this thing that was so great will have become nothing but bitterness and resentment and pain, and I….”
She pauses, and my heart breaks.
God, this is what she’s worried about?
“I decided at some point that I didn’t ever want that. I never wanted to be my mom, or any of my stepmoms. And the thought of something like that happening with you, of losing you that way—”
Her eyes fill with tears, making the reflection of the stars swim. My heart breaks open. I’m being so selfish, worrying about my own hurt when she’s drowning in her own doubts. If she’s really that frightened that I’m going to do that to her—
I should be grateful she’s still here with me. Everything else is just pettiness. “Is it just what happened with your dad?” I ask. “Not that that isn’t enough to give someone a jaded view of relationships, but….” I can’t help but wonder if there’s more. Some previous boyfriend, someone she loved who broke her heart.
She shrugs. “I guess it was my dad, and then it just felt like everything confirmed it, you know? Joe and Patrice are still married, but it’s not like I think they’re actually happy. I don’t know if Shane ever technically cheated on me, but he would flirt so much with other girls, and there were always rumors— and really, we broke up enough whenever he wanted to sleep with someone else that it didn’t take long to see a pattern there.” She pauses. “And then there was this guy, Reid.”
I freeze. There was someone who treated her badly. I haven’t even heard the story and I already want to kill him.
Her voice shakes as she tells the story. “A while after Shane and I broke up for good. I was working at this bar over in Riverton, and I met Reid. We weren’t like serious, even though he kept wanting to be. But I already had, you know…issues with that kind of thing.”
She says this like it’s funny, but it isn’t. It breaks my heart to see her scared, even though I feel it, too. I wish I could spare her, but the only way I can see to do that would be to drive back to LA, and I’m too damn selfish. I can’t do it.
“But he was a good guy, or at least I thought he was,” she says. She takes a deep breath. “And then I found out he was married.”
Oh. “Oh god. I’m sorry, Anna-Marie. That’s—ugh.”
“Yeah. It was the worst. I mean, I liked him, but that wasn’t the bad part. It was knowing that I’d become the other woman, you know? It wasn’t my fault, I get that. But he’d used me, and he’d betrayed his wife, and god, I was just—I was just done. I packed up my stuff and just drove out to LA the next day. I’d thought about trying to be an actress—I’d loved being in plays and musicals in high school—but I guess I have Reid being a total dick to thank for pushing me into actually doing it.”
I don’t like her feeling like she has to thank him for anything. Not someone who would deceive her like that. “You do want to be an actress, though, yeah? Because you’re great at it.”
Her smile returns. “I love it. Like an insane amount.”
This is something I’ve always known we have in common. “Yeah, that’s kind of how I feel about my job, too.”
“It doesn’t help, though,” she says. “Being in the industry. Seeing people use each other and hurt each other and its all so public and…and here’s the thing. I get that I’m good-looking. I get that I’m good at what I do. But there are a thousand other gorgeous girls who could also do my job, and I can’t ever forget that. And I guess that’s what scares me the most in relationships, too. That I’m replaceable.”
One of her tears falls, and before I can brush it away, she swipes at it.
God, replaceable. Nothing can be further from the truth. I pull her closer, searching for the words to tell her, reaching past the terror that I’ll say too much, that I’ll scare her more, that I’ll drive her away. But I can’t let her open up to me like that and then just leave her believing that these fears are possible. “You are not replaceable. There’s only one Anna-Marie Halsey. Trust me. I’ve spent years looking.” Everything I feel for her is right there at the surface, and I’m scared that she’ll see, and she’ll run, but I have to let her needs be bigger than my fear. I love her, and I have to put her first. “I didn’t know what I was looking for, but you’re it.”
She doesn’t pull away. Her ankle hooks over mine, and shivers run up and down my spine.
I probably should stop there, but I keep going. “And I know you’re scared. I get that. But I’m not going to cheat on you. I wouldn’t do that. I’ve had girlfriends before—I dated my college girlfriend for over two years—and I never cheated on them, and I wasn’t even in love with them, not like—”
Oh god. Oh, shit, shit, shit. Anna-Marie gasps and her body tenses, and I know that I’ve done it. I’ve gone too far. Again. I grimace. “Can we pretend I didn’t say that?”
“Not like me?” she says.
I close my eyes. It’s out there, now, and I can’t take it back. “Yeah. Not like you.” I open my eyes again, needing to see her reaction. “You don’t have to say it back, it’s okay. But it’s true. I’m in love with you.”
Miraculously, she still doesn’t pull away. In fact, there’s something awestruck about her expression, like she’s just heard something she doesn’t quite dare believe.
“How do you know?” she asks.
Ha. I’ve humiliated myself already. Might as well make it complete. “I was already falling in love with you before this, but…it was the lobster joke. That was when I knew. Like how you laughed and it was like….it was like you get me. I knew you were what I’ve been looking for, maybe my whole life.”
She seems to melt in my arms, and instead of looking away, she draws closer, staring into my eyes, almost as if. . .
Almost as if she’s happy to hear this.
And then she’s kissing me, and her hand is sliding up my back beneath my shirt, and god, I want her, I want her so much. I want to stop talking and make love to her, to ignore the voice at the back of my mind that is screaming that she’ll feel the difference in how I feel about her, sense my frantic desperation to be close to her, even if she doesn’t love me, even if our time together is going to be far, far too short.
As if she can sense this, she pulls back, and I feel like my heart is going to fall right out of my chest. “There’s something wrong still, isn’t there?” she says.
I sigh, and run a hand through my hair. Now I’m the one who wants to pull away, to say that maybe all of this was a bad idea, and maybe we should just go back to the house and have a rational conversation in the light of day about how we should probably take this slower.
But I don’t. I can’t. Anna-Marie is like a magnet, and I don’t have the strength to break away.
Besides, it’s just the fear talking. I don’t want to leave. I don’t want to be apart from her ever again. “I seriously don’t want to admit to this,” I say, and she tenses again.
God, I’m an idiot. “I meant it when I said its okay if you can’t say you love me back. But it’s—it scares me, being in this deeper than you are. And Ben, he told me once that sex is different when you’re in love with someone. Like it means more.” I can’t look at her and say this, so I avert my eyes, staring up at the night sky. “God, this is not something I’m supposed to worry about as a guy. Which is probably sexist to even say. But whatever. I’m worried it’s going to be different for me, like even better, but it won’t be for you.”
Anna-Marie gives me this pitying glance, and I groan and flop onto my back. “It’s ridiculous, right? Feel free to mock me. In fact, I think I would feel better if you did.”
She smiles. “Well, I believe you now that Ben doesn’t watch Southern Heat. Because no regular viewer of my soap opera actually believes that sex in love is better than sex with your boyfriend’s evil twin brother.”
I laugh, and I want to kiss her, her response is so perfect. I pull her closer again, which makes my desperate, excitable heart pound in my chest. “Yeah, okay, evil twin sex sounds pretty hard to beat.”
“Or maybe all that agent and client sex you mentioned before? Does that generally happen right there on the conference table, on top of contracts about volumizer?”
Ha. “I knew saying that was going to bite me in the ass one day.”
She gives me a sexy smile. “Is ass-biting also involved?”
If only she knew. “How many clients do you actually think I’ve slept with?”
“I don’t know, Mr. ‘It’s no big deal’,” she says. “Maybe all the hot, straight, twenty-something female ones? How many of those do you have?”
I groan again, but I suppose this is fair. I’m the one who represented myself this way, knowing full well what she was going to assume. “You make me sound like a real stand-up guy, Halsey. Do you want to know the number?”
“I kind of think I need to, now.”
I cringe. “Zero. I don’t actually sleep with my clients, as a general rule.”
“What?” She laughs at me and pinches me under my ribs, and I can’t help it. I grab her ass and she squeals and laughs and laughs and it’s the most beautiful sound I’ve ever heard in the world, excepting her snort laugh, of course. “Then why did you—“
I roll my eyes. “Because I wanted to sign you. Because you’re good. And I also wanted to keep sleeping with you. Because you’re very, very good.” I’m hoping that following my awkward confession we can follow the train of this thought into territory we’re both more familiar with, but instead her face grows serious.
“Would it be a problem, then? If I were to be your client someday?”
Ouch. The rejection still hurts, even though I’m sure her reasons are smarter than anything I’ve said or done in the past few days. “You’ve made it very clear that’s not going to happen.”
She bites her lip. “Well…maybe it could. If you still want it.”
My heart stutters over this, and I sit up, holding her tight in my arms. “You want to be my client?” I probably shouldn’t sound so happy about that, but god if she’s willing to commit to me in any way—
I am so desperate for any sign that this is going to last past our return to LA that I’ll take whatever I can get.
“Well, I did tell my dad you’re the best,” she says, with a teasing tone. “And I know Brent sure as hell isn’t. He would never fight my hair-care battles. So yeah. I would love it if you’d represent me, Josh Rios, super-agent.”
I pull her against me and kiss her deeply, the cocktail of everything I feel for her swirling in my head, making me dizzy. “I’d be happy to be your agent, Anna-Marie Halsey, super-actress.” I give her a knowing look. “Clearly, that was your end goal all along, wasn’t it?”
“No way.” She leans her, her voice seductive. “My end goal is to see what’s in your basement.”
I’m alarmed by how much I want to tell her. “I wouldn’t be surprised if you got that secret out of me soon, at the rate I’ve been confessing everything else.” I brush her hair behind her ear, and stroke her gently her neck. I say this like I’m joking, but I mean it: “What kind of magic power do you have over me, Halsey?”
“It’s not magic. It’s the shadows,” she says. She puts her hand over her mouth and deepens her voice. “The shadows betray you, because they belong to me!”
My jaw literally drops, and my body quickens with this dizzying combination of arousal and desire. “Is that Bane? Did you just do a Bane impression?” I make a show of looking around for cameras. “Am I on TV? Are you real? Oh my god, you are the perfect woman.” I no longer care that I’m making a fool out of myself, I’m so intoxicated by her. “Did you hear that, Wyoming?” I shout, and Anna-Marie giggles in my arms. “Anna-Marie Halsey is the perfect woman!”
My voice echoes in the clearing, and she snuggles closer, giving me a body rush.
Then she hesitates. “Even though I’m kind of a geek, I’m not just a geek, you know? I’m still the girl who has too many shoes and reads fashion blogs and probably cares way too much about what kind of hair products I use—though clearly not as much as some of your other clients, and—”
I can’t help but laugh at that. Never has she so perfectly summed up everything I love her for. “And I’m a geek, but I’m also the guy who actually likes the industry parties and clubs, and only wears suits by my three favorite designers, and who hired a decorator to put together my living room, which means I paid like $600 for a set of mason jars full of beans. So yeah. I get it. And I never thought I’d find someone who would get both sides of me like you do.” And suddenly I’m so glad I drove to Wyoming. Otherwise I might never have known what a truly beautiful thing I had with her.
We’re both guarded people, apparently, and someone had to be willing to go first.
“We are a bit ridiculously perfect for each other, aren’t we?” she says, and it sets my heart singing. Everything about this moment is perfect, from the stars to the laughter, from the awkward confessions to the sizzle of her skin against mine. And before I can respond, she’s kissing me again with passion and longing, and my hands are slipping beneath the waistband of her jeans until she gasps and her body arches against me. I yield to the full force of my own desire, and it’s like being rolled by a wave, spun round and round until I’m completely disoriented.
Anna-Marie’s hands pull at my clothes with equal urgency, tugging off my shirt, and then my pants, her nails digging into my back with just the right amount of pressure. I kiss her neck, a strangled moan escaping from my lips, and I kiss down her collar bone and between her breasts, continuing over her perfect abdomen. Her legs spread and her hands are in my hair and her whole body arches in pleasure. I have a fleeting thought about whether or not, just two nights ago, Shane was making her moan for him the way she is for me now, and then she calls my name and it no longer matters. She’s not thinking of anyone else now, and god neither am I. My whole body is singing, just listening to her, and when I work my way up her body again, kissing each of her ribs, sucking gently behind her ear, her body is slick with sweat. Her legs wrap around me, and we move together as one, and it’s only years and years of repetition that prompts me to remember the condom.
“In my purse,” she says breathlessly, and my hands are fumbling with the wrapper while her body presses against mine, then I’m inside her, and we’re moving in tandem, and I kiss her ear lobe and before I can stop myself I’m whispering in her ear that I love her, god how I love her, and as we come together in one blinding, crashing moment, I cease to care whether she says it back, so consumed am I with the desperate desire for her to feel it, for her to know.
Anna-Marie gasps and collapses in my arms, and I crumple on top of her, kissing her throat, catching my breath. The inside of the sleeping bag is coated with our sweat and the chill of the night touches my shoulders, but inside my flesh is still burning. Her whole body wraps around me, clinging tight, and I hold her close, her face against my neck, and close my eyes, and pray never to have to let go.
She makes this soft noise, halfway between a sigh and a sob, and I’m just about to ask if she’s okay, when she speaks. “I love you, Josh,” she says.
My heart catches fire. “You don’t have to—“
But she shakes her head. “I do, because it’s true. I’m in love with you. I’m still scared, and I don’t think I’m ready for the girlfriend thing yet, and not because I want to be with anyone else, but just because. I know it doesn’t make sense. But I love you.”
I’m smiling like an idiot again, but I can’t bring myself to care. I kiss her forehead, closing my eyes. I love her, and I’ll wait. God, I’d wait an eternity for her. “It doesn’t have to make sense. I’ll wait until you’re ready.”
We both turn and stare up at the sky, watching as the stars seem to fall just for us, in celebration of us being together, like the world has been holding its breath all along, waiting. And that’s when I know—I want to be with this woman for the rest of my life. Leaving her, cheating, even wanting to be with anyone else is out of the question. She’s the only one that I want until the day that I draw my last breath.
And while I know it’s unwise, I’ve already proven that I can’t keep my thoughts to myself when it comes to loving her. “You know,” I say, looking up at the grandeur of our entire freaking galaxy, “if it’s just the word ‘girlfriend’ that’s the problem, we can always skip that part.”
Anna-Marie looks up at me, and I’m relieved to see that she’s smiling. Her whole face is lit up, like she, too, is having the best night of her life.
“Don’t push your luck, Rios,” she says.
But when it comes to her, I always do.