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Authors: Christine Hughes

Operation one night stand

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Operation One Night Stand

Christine Hughes

New York   Boston

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Table of Contents

Cocktail Recipes

A Preview ofOperation Foreplay

Newsletters

Copyright Page

In accordance with the U.S.Copyright Act of 1976, the scanning, uploading, and electronic sharing of any part of this book without the permission of the publisher constitute unlawful piracy and theft of the author’s intellectual property.If you would like to use material from the book (other than for review purposes), prior written permission must be obtained by contacting the publisher at [email protected]Thank you for your support of the author’s rights.

To my sister, Holly.

May you always find lipstick when the sexy man comes around.

Acknowledgments

I’ve been incredibly lucky and have had so many wonderful days over the course of my career and I’ve been surrounded by some of the most amazing people.Honestly, a writer’s journey is never easy, but I’ll take a bad day as a writer over a good day doing anything else—especially when my corner is filled with so much support and love.

I never could have had the courage to start writing had it not been for the unwavering support of my other half.He is my sounding board, my shoulder, my rock.I love you with all my heart, even if you think all the stories in my head are about you.As for my two amazing little people—one day I’ll let you read these books.Until then, we’ll keep looking for your stories.

To my family, I love you all so much.Thank you for everything.I would not be where I am without you.Mom—I’m sorry you had to find out your daughter had such a bad mouth.Who knew?Dad—thank you for always asking how the writing’s going and what I’m working on.Your interest is so appreciated.Nana—ahh, Super G.You are the best grandma anyone could ever ask for.Now if you’d only make me some arancinis…

Michelle Johnson would be anyone’s dream agent.I knew I fell into a pool of awesome when she took me on as a client.And the fact that she encourages snarky, NSFW storyline ideas?She is the Pinot to my Grigio.And I am ever grateful to her.

I have to thank Megha Parekh for her enthusiasm for OPERATION ONE NIGHT STAND.She scooped up this story so fast it made my head spin.I am so happy OONS found a home at Forever Romance.I’d also like to thank Dana Hamilton for her notes and suggestions during the editorial process.Next time I’m in the city, I owe both of you some cocktails.

Kitty Kat has always been the first to finish reading anything I’ve written.I hope one day to be the first to finish a book you write.

I need to thank Leslie Write, my original writing boo.I feel like you and I have traveled this road together over the past few years.I couldn’t ask for a better travel mate.

Many thanks to my writing journal, Sarah Carr.Your notes and comments helped me write a better story.I love trading story ideas and swapping chapters even if we do disagree on who makes the best coffee.Thank you so much.[email protected]!

Thank you to my bitches, Tina and Jodi.I love that you two have come into my life.Who knew I’d ever be part of a trio of cocktail mixers, rimmers, and gigglers?Don’t ever stop reminding me to take notes.Even if they don’t make sense the next day.

Miss Autumn Wrought.I’m sorry I wore the arsehole hat for so long; I figured you needed some snark.Looks like I was right.Thank you for agreeing to be my beta—still not sure if I am sharing you.And don’t worry, I’ll break your heart again.

To my friends and fans who’ve stuck with me through this journey, thank you so much.Your support has not gone unnoticed.I appreciate every single one of you and only hope that I continue to produce work that you enjoy.And if you ever see me out and about—amaretto and ginger is my drink.

Chapter One

Ihad commandeered the sofa.The beautiful, butter-yellow sofa Sarah had purchased when she first moved to her amazingly spacious two-bedroom apartment almost three years ago now probably had a permanent imprint of my ass.The cushions had become a wasteland overflowing with wads of snotty tissues, and creamy brown stains from my new, aptly named addiction—Pint of Tears—smeared the arm.My trusty sidekick, Mr.Bibbles, a childhood stuffed thing—I wasn’t sure anymore if he ever really was a bear—lay oddly contorted at my side.

For five years, Steven and I dated.Lived together.Worked together.Dreamed together.That was before it all went to shit.That was before I found him inmybed with Betsy the Intern.That was before he figured it was okay to forget about the fact that he was my fiancé.That was before I found myself homeless, refusing to ask my parents for help.I showed up with nothing but a suitcase full of crap—and Mr.Bibbles—at Sarah’s door.I didn’t even have to ask.Within twenty-four hours, my room was decorated, my bed was made, and I was moved in.

For the past six weeks, I’d lived with Sarah.My best friend, my trusty confidant, and, probably, the only person on earth who’d have put up with my shit for as long as she has.Besides the other third of our trio, Mel.My nightly crying fits, my refusal to leave the house for anything other than work, and my newly minted status as Ice Cream Dreams’s most valuable customer wore on my friends.

Every day on the way home from work, before I planted my growing ass on the once beautiful sofa and cried, I stopped at a tiny little ice cream shop called Ice Cream Dreams.They pride themselves on making any ice cream concoction to fit any mood.The first day I walked in, the girl behind the counter took one look at me and Pint of Tears was born.Chocolate on chocolate mixed with chocolate, gummy bears, marshmallow, and peanut butter.It became their best-selling ice cream flavor of the fall.Probably because of me.

Me and my ever-growing, ice-cream-eating, tear-shedding, sofa-arm-smearing ass.

I would silently curse Sarah as she invited me out every Friday.Every Saturday.I would inwardly cringe at the ten pounds I’d gained—while simultaneously thanking my speedy metabolism that it wasn’t more—as I watched from my perch on her butter-yellow sofa while she left for the gym with yoga mat in hand.

All I needed was a spoon, a pint, and a remote control.

My new life.

Sucked.

I’d taken to sitting on the couch and watching every single depressing break-up movie ever filmed.Multiple times.From black-and-whites, animated, Ryan Gosling, Jack and Rose to addictions, affairs, Ryan Gosling, Jack and Rose.Oh, and by the way, Rose, I call bullshit.Jack would have pulled your ass from the frozen waters of the Atlantic and shared some space on that door or whatever the hell you were floating on.Then again, maybe you knew something we didn’t.Maybe he deserved an icy, watery grave.Maybe you were on to something.Men.

Fuck ’em.

Sideways.

One particular Friday night, I was in the middle of another round of “Which Movie Is More Depressing?”(When a Man Loves a Womanwas winning, by the way) when I heard Sarah’s key in the lock.At the time, I wasn’t fazed.We’d gotten into a routine.She’d come home from her date or the gym or dinner out with friends, ask me how I was, ask me if I needed anything, and, when I said no, she’d say good night and go to bed.Once in a while she’d sit on the couch with me, eat out of her own pint of Support System (yeah, another flavor), and watch me as I worked on my ugly crying face.I was pretty sure it was the ugliest crying face ever.I was giving that actress fromHomelanda run for her ugly crying face money.Which is weird, because without the ugly crying face, she’s beautiful.She never would have let Jack sink to the icy depths.

Then again, better to sink than live with the daily heartbreak of a roaming dick.

Instead, Sarah walked in with backup.Melody stormed into the room, ripped off my blanket, and threw Mr.Bibbles across the room.Sarah calmly walked over, grabbed my ice cream and spoon, and placed them on the kitchen counter.

“What the hell?”I shrank into the sofa.

“This is an intervention.”

“Mel, you threw my bear!”

“Screw your bear, Caroline.Enough is enough.So Steven cheated on you.That doesn’t mean you have to become an ice cream swilling hermit!What the hell happened to you?”

“You are a hot mess, doll face,” Sarah quipped as she pulled a new pack of baby wipes from her purse and began wiping the chocolate off my face.Maybe I was.

“I’ll see your hot mess and raise you a walking disaster.At least that’s what she’ll be if this shit keeps up.”

“Leave me alone.And don’t talk about me like I’m not here.”I tried to retreat as far into the corner of the sofa as I could.Unfortunately, the more I squished in, the more tissues squished out.

Sarah hung up her coat before sitting on the coffee table across from me.“Sweetie, we know you’re hurting.But it’s time to move on.You’re still working with him, you’re reminded every day of what happened.No wonder you’re stuck.You need to get up, get out, and find a new job.Move past this.”

“How am I supposed to move past anything?I see Steven every single day.It’s not like I can magically unsee him.”I fingered the engagement ring I wore around my neck as fresh tears spilled over.I couldn’t bring myself to get rid of it.Unfortunately, Steven still worked at the law firm, so I couldn’t escape him.Who was I kidding?His daddywasthe law firm.

“I know it’s hard.I can’t imagine having to see the two of them day after day,” Sarah said, reminding me that Betsy and her welcoming vagina worked there, too.

“Every day I walk in and try to keep my head high but I keep running into her stink eye.She won’t stop fucking staring at me.”Sarah dodged my wild hand gestures.“Like I’m the one who ruinedherlife by walking in on them.”Melody held the box of tissues and I yanked a bunch out and wiped my face.“Not to mention that everyone knows Steven and I broke up.Like anyone in the office needed anything else to gossip about.”

“Fuck them.They’re a bunch of middle-aged leeches who aren’t happy unless someone else in unhappy.And fuck her.Punch her in the face,” Melody suggested.“She’s just mad she can’t fuck the boss’s son anymore.”

“Right.I know they’re still boning like they’re the last two people on earth.”I blew my nose.“Probably still doing it in the bed Steven and I bought when we moved in together.”I could no longer breathe through my nose.“I bet they have sex in the office, too.”

Fuck them both.

“I am sure they are not having sex in the office.”Sarah laughed as Melody pursed her lips and checked out her fingernails.

“You think they’re having sex in the office?”I asked her.

“Of course she doesn’t.Right Mel?”Mel didn’t answer, so Sarah threw a pillow at her.“Right?”

“I don’t think it matters if they are still boning.”

“Of course it matters!He begs for my forgiveness every single day.‘Oh, Caroline, forgive me.’‘I love you so much.’‘She means nothing.’”It made my skin crawl.“Bahhh.I want him to shut up.Just shut up!”

“Well, that’s something,” Melody piped up.

“What?”I asked.

“Mad.Mad is better than what you’ve been doing.”

“And what have I been doing, Melody?I mean besides mourning the loss of a five-year relationship with my fiancé who cheated on me?Besides walking into a work every day and having people actually stop talking the second I come within earshot?Turning it over and over in my head, trying to figure out whatIdid wrong when I know Steven made the decision to cheat, not me?”I stood and threw my tissues.“How should I be dealing with it, Mel?Tell me.I’d love to take advice from a bed hopper who wouldn’t know a relationship if it kicked her in the twat.”Immediately my hands flew to my mouth.

“Nice.”Melody smirked and Sarah gasped.

“I’m sorry.So sorry.I don’t know what—”

“Stop.It’s fine.I kind of like the sass.”Mel winked.“Glad to see you fired up over something other than ice cream and Leonardo DiCaprio’s icy death.”

“Rose should have made room,” I mumbled.

“Holy shit.Enough.I will cancel cable if you don’t stop.”Sarah rolled her eyes.

“Sorry.”

“Look, don’t be sorry.Be brave.Be strong.Be happy.Be amazing.Don’t be sorry.”Melody handed me another tissue.

“Exactly.You need to get up, get out, and meet some people.”

“People.”Melody waved Sarah off.“Pssh.She means men.You need to meet some men.You need to get your lady parts ready”—Mel grabbed her crotch—“and give them some love.”

“My lady parts are fine the way they are.”

“Shriveled up?”

“They are not shriveled up.”

“When’s the last time you had sex?”

“What does that matter?”

“The fact that you answered my question with that question tells me ‘too long.’You need to get out and meet someone.”

I dropped my head between my knees.“What if I can’t?What if no one else wants me?”

Sarah dropped onto the couch next to me and rubbed my back while Melody headed toward the back of the apartment.In that moment I knew I had hit rock bottom and there was nowhere for me to go but up.But up to where?What or who would be waiting for me at the top of whatever?

The answers were sitting next to me rubbing my back and walking back into the living room, bathroom garbage can in hand.

“Look,” Melody began as she placed the garbage can on the coffee table and sat next to it, “you’re beautiful, talented, and smart.Who wouldn’t want you?I mean, shit, you’re only twenty-eight years old and the world is your oyster!You’ve had, what?Two, maybe three, boyfriends in your life?How many one night stands?How many nights of just fun?How many nights that were all about you and what you want?Now isn’t the time to wonder who will want you, now is the time to take what you want.”

“I’ve never had a one night stand.”I crinkled my nose in mock disgust to mask the embarrassing lack of experience in that department.In truth, it had always been something I was too nervous to do, something other people did.I was a “relationship girl.”Always with a boyfriend.

“Now is the time for you to live your life.Start over.”

“With a one night stand?”

“Sure.Why not?”Sarah asked.

“That’s just not what I do.”I shook my head.

“You need to do something.Tell Steven to fuck off.Put the damn ring away.”I clutched it and Sarah rolled her eyes.“I don’t mean get rid of it—”

“I say sell it,” Melody added.

“What I mean is take it off, put it away.Kick up your heels.Step out of the shadow Steven kept you in.Christ, Care.”Sarah threw her arms up in frustration.“I need wine.Anyone else need wine?”


Page 2

“You need to ask?”Mel laughed.

“Look, I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but I can’t just go out and date someone.I can’t just go and talk to strange men.That’s not me.I’ve slept with exactly two people and both were boyfriends.”

“We are not saying you have to go bang every guy you meet but what’s wrong with a one night stand?”

“Steven said—”

“What the fuck?”Melody grabbed her hair.“Who the fuck cares what Steven said, Care?Really?I don’t mean to be a bitch here but, seriously, I am pretty sure you need to stop with the Steven references.He’s lucky I didn’t castrate his cheating ass.”

“But—”

“But what?”

“I don’t want people to think I’m a slut.”

Melody laughed.“I had a one night stand last weekend.Does that make me a slut?”Melody stared at me.

“That’s not really a good example, Mel.”Sarah handed her a glass of red before handing me mine.“You had a one night stand the weekend before that, too.”

“And the weekend before that,” I added.

Melody opened her mouth and closed it quickly before shaking her head and taking a large swallow of wine.“Look, my point is that you can.”She stood and plucked the wadded-up snot rags from the sofa and tossed them in the trash.“There comes a time when you need a reality check.Realize this truth: you’ll never be good enough for some people.Say it over and over again until it sinks into your sad little skull.”I ducked away when she rapped her knuckles on my head.“And when you realize that, ask yourself whether it’s your problem or theirs.”

The harsh bitch of reality coldcocked me across the heart.I wasn’t ready to realize anything.Fresh tears spilled down my face.“Mel, I just want to move on.I want all this past me.”

“Of course you do.And we’ll help you.Come on, get up.”Melody put down her glass and grabbed my arm, yanking me out of my seat.I looked back longingly at my spot before turning to face her.

“Drink the wine.”

I took a sip.

“No.Drink the whole thing.”

I looked to Sarah and she nodded.I brought the overpoured glass to my mouth and drank.I drank and drank until the glass was empty and Sarah took the glass from my hand.

Wiping the tears from my cheeks and brushing the hair out of my eyes, Melody continued, “We have a plan.”

“Yes.We’ve got it all figured out.”Sarah smirked as they walked me down the hall.

That plan began with a very invasive cold shower and a loofah, quite a bit of complaining on my part, and fresh pajamas.When I was finally cleansed of tears, snot, and sticky trails of ice cream, the girls sat me on the couch—Mr.Bibbles was nowhere to be found—handed me another glass of wine, and laid out their plan.I sat and listened.And drank.And tried to understand.All I ended up doing was drinking more.

“You want me to what?”I reached forward and tried to pour the empty bottle into my glass.Melody hopped up and ran to the kitchen.I held my finger to my lips until my glass was filled.I needed the silence to process this plan.

“We’ll go to a bar—” Sarah began.

“Someplace new,” Melody interrupted.

“Yes.And we’ll scan the crowd.Look for someone take-home worthy.When you find him, nominate him as the target.”

“And do what again?”

“Flirt.Pick him up.Do what you need to do.”Sarah was way too into this.

“So what you’re saying is, I walk into a bar, point at a hot guy, and declare that I am bringing him home.”

“Yes.”

“Why can’t I just get his number?”

“Because this is Operation One Night Stand, not Operation Get His Number.”

“What if I can’t find anyone take-home worthy?”

“Then you don’t.That’s the point.There is no timeline.”

“Right.We just go out and watch you troll for the one.”

“I’m supposed to marry ‘the one.’”

“Not this one.”Melody high-fived Sarah.

I rolled my eyes, stood, and paced the room.“Let’s leave that alone for a bit.Tell me about the plan.There has to be more to this plan than me getting it on with a hottie stranger guy.”I needed the subject to change, even if only for a minute.I wasn’t that girl.I didn’t sleep around.But, holy hell, I really wanted to be.

“Right.More about the plan.”Sarah refilled her glass before handing Mel the bottle.“We need to rip this Band-Aid off.We need to get free and clear of all this”—she waved her arms around, sloshing the red liquid onto the hardwood—“shit.”

“Shit.”I nodded my head and continued to pace.“Remove the shit.”I was pretty sure I needed more wine.“Pour me.”I held out my glass and Melody poured.

“Are you ready to hear this part?”

“Rip off the Band-Aid.”It was my turn to slosh.

“You need to”—Sarah paused—“why don’t you sit down for this?”

“Sit down?”I pointed to the couch.

“Yeah.That would be good.”Melody agreed.“Drink.”

The three of us drank deeply before Sarah continued.

“Youneedtoquityourjob.”

“I’m sorry—what?It sounded like you said I need to quit my job.”I laughed and took a sip.

When neither one of them corrected me and, instead, averted their eyes and busied themselves with refilling their wineglasses, I nearly choked.

“You can’t be serious?I can’t quit my job!How would I pay for anything?How the hell would I make rent, Sarah?You gonna foot the bill on your teacher’s salary?”

“Wait, wait.Settle your tits, doll,” Melody reasoned.“Are you really going to subject yourself to working alongside Steven and his fuck toy?Around all those miserable people?When was the last time you didn’t dread going to work?All the Steven business aside, when?”

“That isn’t the point.”

“It is the point.There is no way you are going to get past this unless you make a clean break,” Sarah said.

“How am I going to find a new job?”

“The same way everyone else finds a new job.You look for one.You use your network.Mel and I will help you, and I am sure your parents will help you, until you get on your feet.”

“My mom never liked Steven,” I mumbled and chewed on a fingernail.

“Neither did I,” Melody blurted.“What?I thought we were being honest.”

“We are.”Sarah pointed between herself and Melody.“We need Caroline to be honest.”

“Me?About what?”

“What you want.Do you want to stay in Steven’s shadow?Do you want to stare at Betsy the Intern all day long?Do you want to work someplace that chews away everything great about you until you become an empty shell?Or do you want to take life by the balls and live a little?”

“It’s a lot to take in so fast.”

“So fast?You’ve become part of the decor, darling.Get your sweet ass off my couch before I remove you from it myself.”Sarah smiled.

“And you think I need to have sex with a stranger?”

“I think you’re looking too much into it.”

“I don’t know.I need time to think.”

And I did think.And partake in numerous talks about the ins and outs of dating and one night stands—I mean, I had been out of the game for five years.We took a trip the next day to a hair salon and Fred Burke’s, a high-end boutique store, and even squeezed in some much needed fat burning with spin class on Sunday.In between all of it, my ice cream was thrown out, Ice Cream Dreams was asked not to sell my ice cream to me anymore, and my résumé and cover letters were revamped.All I needed to do was rip off the Band-Aid.Easier said than done.

Chapter Two

After a short train ride from New Jersey to New York, I walked into work the following Monday completely unsure about what I was going to do.

I managed to avoid both Steven and Betsy for most of the morning.Mostly because I hid from them.I still wasn’t sure what I was going to do.Even after a long phone conversation with my dad I didn’t feel any better and my dad always made me feel better; the only advice he had for me was to make a list of all the reasons I should stay at my job and a list of the reasons I should leave.It was good advice but I’d been at work for two hours and only succeeded in drawing a line down the middle of a piece of paper.I hadn’t even started on the files sitting on my desk nor had I opened one e-mail.

I shook my head and tossed my pen on the desk.Picking up my coffee cup, I made my way to the break room, intending to caffeinate my way through the next hour, when I walked into Betsy.I dropped my mug and she dropped a stack of papers.I stood staring as she knelt down and scrambled to clean up the mess.I wondered how she was able to do so without exposing at least some part of her body.It appeared her idea of business casual differed greatly from mine.

She must’ve realized I was just standing there because she looked up, annoyance smeared all over her heavily made-up face.“You think you couldhelpme since it was your fault?”

“My fault?”She really was not a good person.

“Yeah.Your head’s been up your own ass for weeks.And don’t think I’m the only one who’s noticed.”

“Up my own ass.”I counted backward from ten.

“What’s going on, ladies?”Steven looked entirely too uncomfortable as he approached.

“Nothing, baby.”Betsy side-eyed me.“Can you help me pick these up?”She arched her back and looked up at him with big, blinky doe eyes.

“Uh, sure.”Steven glanced in my direction before squatting down and quickly shuffling the papers into her hands.

“Up.My.Own.Ass,” I repeated.

“What was that?”Steven asked.

“Are you kidding me?”I lowered my voice to a fierce whisper and stepped toward Betsy.She stepped back and into a desk.“My head has been up my own ass for exactlyhowlong?It couldn’t be six weeks, could it?It could not be since I found you fucking my fiancé in my bed, could it?”

Steven placed his hand on the small of my back.“Care—”

“Don’t touch me.Do you have any idea what you did?Do you take any responsibility for what happened?”I felt the gravity of the past six weeks begin to crumble.“For weeks I’ve been blaming Betsy the Wonderslut—”

“Hey!”She interrupted and I snapped my head in her direction.

“Really?Don’t talk.”I held my hand up toward her before returning my attention to the real issue.“You asked me tomarryyou.Do you know what that means?That means you only want to be with me.That means you don’t go around sticking your dick in the office floozy.”

“Betsy didn’t mean anything.She was a mistake!”

“Steven!”The tears in Betsy’s eyes proved that she was unaware of his lack of feelings toward her.

“I don’t believe you.I was supposed to be able to trust you.I mean, what else have you been hiding over the past five years?How many times did you do this?”

Steven leaned in.“Can we talk about this in private?”

I looked around at the small group of people listening in on our conversation.“No.I’m done, Steven.I hope you and Betsy are very happy together.The rest of you”—I waved my arms—“find something else to talk about.I’m done.”

“Listen to me, Care.She did not mean anything to me.”

Betsy sobbed into her hands, turned, and quickly made for the bathroom.How she managed to stay upright on those heels was amazing.

“Looks like your girl needs some consoling.You might want to go take care of that.”I tilted my head, picked up my mug, and headed to the break room to get my coffee.

A few hours later, I was sitting in my office, cold pad Thai sitting on my desk from lunch.I’d just finished running through my backlog of e-mails and putting the finishing touches on a few of the files that needed my attention.Underneath one of the folders was the legal pad that held the beginnings of my list.

I shoved everything else to the side and centered the pad on the desk in front of me.Taking out my favorite pencil from my drawer, I leaned back, observed the teeth marks I’d placed in the never-sharpened pencil, and popped it between my teeth.

It wasn’t long before I had both lists filled with reasons.And the more I looked through and thought about it, the more I knew what I needed to do.

At three o’clock I knocked on the office door of the human resources manager, resignation letter in hand.She was kind enough to sit with me while I explained that I was leaving the firm.Band-Aid ripped.I was pleasantly surprised that it didn’t hurt as much as I expected it to.Especially since I was about to be out of a job with nothing else lined up.

I hadn’t yet locked down a job, hadn’t secured an interview, hadn’t even had a chance to look, but I knew for certain that I couldn’t work there anymore.To my surprise, it was a wonderful conversation and by the end of an hour, she had made a few phone calls, setting me up with interviews.

As I walked back to my office, I found Steven standing at my desk, legal pad full of reasons in hand.

“Excuse me.That’s mine.”I snatched the pad from his hand.

“You’re leaving?”

“Is that what you got out of that?”I smirked.

“You don’t have to leave.”

“Sweetie, you think I want to leave?You think I want to start over?Of course I don’t.But I have to.I can’t keep sitting here wondering why you did what you did, wondering what I did to cause it—”

“You didn’t do anything wrong.”

“I know, Steven.Look.I have to do this for me.”

“You hate change.”

“Yeah.I do.But right now, Steven, I hate the way I feel when I’m around you even more.”

I knew I didn’t owe him any explanation but the dejected look on his face was all the fuel I needed to cement the fact that moving on was by far a better choice than subjecting myself to working side by side with such an ass.

I was on cloud nine, contemplating all the newness about to befall me, as I watched Steven stand in my office without speaking.I glanced over his shoulder and was surprised to see Betsy walk slowly to her desk, empty box in hand.I viewed the event with an unusual amount of glee as she packed up her belongings.It truly was a popcorn moment.

I looked away for a few seconds.I felt bad for my obvious schadenfreudean thoughts.The feeling was short lived.

I plopped in my chair and spun as she walked, head down, with a tiny box in her hands, to the elevator.I knew I should be more mature about the situation, but from what I could figure, she left on her own accord.For the same reason I decided to leave.

And of course I thought she deserved a bout of unhappiness.Not as much as Steven, but she knew he was my fiancé and, as much as we should all direct our anger toward the person in our lives committing the indiscretion, she absolutely, one hundred percent,knewSteven and I were engaged.

I could not have cared less if she was good at her job, if she was a nice person, or if she was dying a slow death from a severe case of genital warts.It didn’t even matter that I had only two weeks left.Two weeks was a slow torturous lifetime in hell if she was within a hundred yards of me.And I wished her nothing but herpes and a bad case of diarrhea.And I sincerely hoped Steven suffered the same.

However, I had to keep myself from squealing with glee as I watched Steven freeze and stare as his piece of ass made her way out the door.He turned to look at me and I painted on the best “who me?”face I could muster.Inside I was doing back flips.

None of it mattered.As soon as I gave notice, the great weight of sadness lifted off my shoulders and my attitude changed.In that moment, I decided that “poor me” was no longer my battle cry.Melody and Sarah were right.I was twenty-eight, with my whole life ahead of me.Who was I to ignore that?

“Did you have to get her fired?”Steven interrupted my silent hear-me-roar mantra.

“Ididn’t do anything.I just quit my job.Looks like she had the same idea.End of story.”

“Care—”

“Steven.”I glared at him, wishing actual daggers would shoot from my eyes and hit him in the face.

“Hey!”Bobby popped his head in my door and frowned when he saw Steven.“Did you hear?Betsy quit!”

“There you go.”I waved my hand toward Bobby to show Steven that I didn’t, in fact, have Betsy fired.Not that banging my fiancé is any sort of grounds for termination.“Thanks, Bobby.You can leave my door open.”

Dropping his shoulders, Steven looked at me one last time.“It didn’t have to be this way.”

“There is no other way for it tobe.You made sure of that when you fucked the intern in our bed while I walked around oblivious with a two-carat engagement ring on my finger.Who does that?A douche bag, that’s who.Now, please, close the door on your way out.I have work to do.”

“Who are you?My Caroline doesn’t talk like that.”

“Your Caroline doesn’t exist anymore.Read the obituary.It reads: ‘Here lies Steven’s Caroline.Fucked over by a pretentious douche bag and his plastic intern.’”

I was a bit alarmed at how good it felt to tell Steven what was on my mind.His gaze fell to the floor and his shoulders sagged.He opened his mouth to speak again but must have thought better of it.

It felt even better when I watched him close the door.

As soon as he left, I picked up the phone and dialed Sarah, knowing she was on her way home.

“Did you do it?”Sarah asked in reference to part one of the plan.

“I did.And Betsy the Wonder Slut quit, too.”

“A nice extension of the plan.I wasn’t expecting that.”I heard her chewing.

“Neither was I.And I told off Steven.I am so amped.”

“Excellent.Adrenaline is a beautiful thing.”

“What are you eating?It’s awfully loud.”

“Carrots.Not everyone can eat six million gallons of ice cream in a six-week period and still have a great ass.”

“True.So listen, I’ve been giving it a lot of thought and I think part two of the plan would be good for me.”

“So you’re in?”

“I’m in.”

“Excellent.”

All weekend, I had been inundated with a three-part plan.Melody and Sarah had done quite a bit of thinking and come up with what they deemed to be a fool-proof method for helping me move on.Part one was complete.I quit my job.I’ll find a new one.Especially with help from the very kind human resources manager.

“Just so you know,” Sarah continued, “there is an addendum to the plan.Chapter one point five, if you will.You gave two weeks’ notice?You don’t have to stay longer than that, right?”


Page 3

“No.I’m done the Friday before Thanksgiving.”

“Good, because the three of us are spending Thanksgiving in Jamaica.”

“What?”

“We all need to decompress, Care.I need to get away from school, Mel needs to back away from her job for a bit, and you need, well, you need this, too.I’m not taking no for an answer.I’m booking the second I get off the phone with you.”

I guess spontaneity was the lesson for chapter one point five of the plan.“Book it.”

Part two was a little dicier, a little less old me and a lot more new me.But then again, Operation One Night Stand was a go and I had two weeks to get up the nerve to go through with it.At least I’d be on a plane out of town soon after, so I’d be able to obsess about it in a different country.

I was going to step out into the sun and live my life.And I’d spend a week in Jamaica with my two best friends doing just that.

Chapter Three

Nothing like bar hopping in late November snow.My cute beige heels already had salt scuffing the toes and my brand-new Sevens were wet at the cuff and we’d hit only two bars.Thankfully I knew the second we walked into Murphy’s I’d make good on my bet.

Operation One Night Stand was on.Melody and Sarah thought it would be fun to turn the whole thing into an actual bet.Since I had control over the who and the when, the bet was against the fact that I’d find someone on the first night.Sarah and Mel, knowing that I wasn’t the most adventurous of our group, bet me fifty bucks that I’d back out and try again another night.Unfortunately for them, I hadn’t had sex in two months and I was hurting for a good romp.Of course, I let them think they had me.Two bars down and not a single prospect?Not likely for most.Especially in a college town.Then again, I wasn’t a college girl.Four years after I finished grad school and I was still trolling the local scene for the one-nighter I’d never experienced.My life apparently sucked.That, or I was still reeling over my breakup with Steven.Or the fact that I’d just completed my last day at the firm.Whatever.Not the thing to focus on.I was on the prowl, much to the chagrin of my small, tight group of friends.Maybe Melody, who I met the first day of freshman bio, was right: maybe I was going off the deep end.

It was nearing ten o’clock and I had yet to find a suitable bedmate for the night.When it came to guys, I was picky.Not that a one night stand was a necessary thing to cross off my list.The girls found it hard to believe when I said I’d never had one and I guess, at twenty-eight, it was time.But, like I said, the second we hit Murphy’s, I spotted my target.

He was tall, with closely cropped blond hair and dark eyes and was surrounded by a group of guys.He looked older than the rest of the guys in his whole group did.Something about the way he stood.Self-confidence radiated across the bar.I had a feeling he was used to getting what he wanted and I figured that worked in my favor.It was more likely he’d see us as kindred spirits, even if it was just sex.And sex was like riding a bicycle right?No way was he going to back down from what I had planned.

We made our way to the opposite side of the bar so I could get a better look at the man I’d be sharing a bed—or a floor, a wall, a stairwell—with later.

Elbowing Sarah, I declared, “Him,” and nodded across the bar.

“Blondie?”

“Yep.”

“Bet’s on.Get ’em, girl.And remember, if at first you don’t succeed, destroy all the evidence you tried in the first place.”She nudged my ribs and ordered me a drink.Since it was a special night, I avoided my usual beer and sipped on two fingers of cinnamon liqueur on ice.

The bartender was cute and seemed to be in a good mood, so I decided to bring him in on my little plan.If it was going to go my way, I was going to need him.I’d been planning the night for two weeks.So much for one-night-stand spontaneity.Then again, Iwasa planner.

I waited until he came closer before I called him over.Up close, he was more than cute.I could picture him with an open belt and his jeans sitting low on his ass.Holy shit.I could get lost in those eyes.

Damn.

But he wasn’t the target.

“I’m Caroline.”

“Hi, Caroline.I’m Brian.Nice to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you, too.I was wondering if you could help me out.”

Eyeing my tumbler, he lifted an eyebrow, pushed his wavy brown hair out of his eyes, and responded, “Sure.What do you need?”

Looking around to make sure Sarah and Mel weren’t listening in, I whispered to my new bartender friend, “I have a bet with my girls and I can’t lose.It would kill my buzz and I need your help.So, I need to send that guy over there”—I pointed slightly—“a drink.Something fun.Sexy.”

“Sexy, huh?”

The way his mouth moved when he said the word “sexy” had me wondering what it would be like to be sprawled across the bar with Brian on top of me, those teeth scraping my skin, that tongue sliding up and down my body.Unfortunately, I had to pull myself out of my own head because I needed to focus.It was just so hard to do so when his baby blues looked at me like that.Like I was the only person in the crowded bar.

“Suggestive.”The word came out throatier than I anticipated and Brian’s eyes gleamed mischievously.

“Suggestive.Sexy.Kind of like you.”He winked and a warm tingle spread between my thighs.Was that all it took to moisten the panties these days?Jesus, I needed to get laid.I was DEFCON 1 horny.

Down, girl.

“Which one again?”

“Blond.Tall.With a bunch of his friends.”

Bartender Brian was good.He looked at my target without actually looking at him.I’d have to ask him later how he did that.

“Yeah.Something fun.A shot.Definitely a shot.”

“Got it.Be right back.”

I watched Brian mix a bunch of stuff into a shaker and pour a shot.When he brought it to the guy, he leaned in and whispered, barely tilting his head in my direction.The target lifted big brown eyes in my direction, nodded thanks as he lifted the shot, and threw it back before turning back to his friends.

Shit.That didn’t work.It seemed like a good idea.I’d have to rethink.

Brian poured another drink for some random college girl before returning to me.

“What did you give him?”My hand reached for his and he slid his fingers along the back of my hand.

“Sex Up Against the Wall.”

“What?”I could feel my ears redden.

“Like a Sex on the Beach but with a little Harvey Wallbanger.”

Again with the wink.Bartender Brian was hot.I needed some air.

“I’ll be right back.”

“Giving up already?”He stood up and crossed his arms over his chest.

“Hardly.”I winked back at him and watched a slow, sexy smile spread across his face.

I made my way across the room.I was going to have to pass tall, blond, and handsome to get to the bathroom.With a newly formed set of balls, I decided to brush past him, walking right through his little group of friends.Feeling slightly badass with my four-inch heels, I knew my ass looked great.It was my best feature.Score one for an hour a day at the gym.

I quickly tugged my shirt, making sure to expose a little more cleavage while keeping my newly purchased bra under wraps.At least for the moment.

Carefully, I kept my eyes on him.It wasn’t until I brushed against him that he looked.My hand barely swiped across his crotch.It was a fuller package than I’d imagined.

Eyes locked, I mustered whatever brash sex appeal I could and hoped I was able to convey my desire silently.I was pretty sure it worked since he put his hand on my arm and whispered, “Hi.”

I leaned in, prompting him to bend down slightly—he had at least a foot on me—and whispered the greeting back, making sure to keep my whisper breathy while grazing his earlobe with my lips.

I moved on quickly, feeling his eyes watch me walk away.I heard his red-headed friend say something about “hitting that” and I flipped my hair over my shoulder.

Once I finished in the bathroom, I avoided the target.A quick peek over at him, however, stirred the butterflies in my stomach.He was watching me.There is no better feeling than realizing someone you’re into is checking you out.

I ran into a few people I knew and quickly exchanged pleasantries before heading back to Bartender Brian.

“Caroline!Nice to see you came back.I saved your seat.”

“You did?”

“I saw those shoes.Didn’t think it would be right for you to stand on them all night.”

“You noticed my shoes?”Was he gay?

“Well, yeah.Something was making that ass swing when you walked away.”

Not gay.

Why did I care?He was not the target.

“Give a girl the right pair of shoes and she can take over the world.”

“Touché.”

Bartender Brian slid a drink in front of me.

“What’s this?”

“From him.”He nodded across the bar.Target lifted his drink and nodded.

“What is it?”

He motioned for me to lean in, meeting me halfway across the bar.Tucking my hair behind my ear he whispered, “Screaming Orgasm.”

He lingered a beat longer, long enough for me to feel his breath on my skin.When he pulled away, he smelled like cinnamon.I looked down; my original drink was empty.I ran my finger around the rim of the glass and looked at him.

Shrugging, he said, “I was thirsty.Drink up.”

Smiling, I lifted my shot glass and drank.My lips were moist and a drop of the alcohol slid down my chin.Bartender Brian reached over and wiped it away with his finger before putting it in his mouth.

A change of panties would be required if this shit kept up.

“Your turn.”

For the life of me I couldn’t figure out what he was talking about.I touched my face where his finger was a moment ago.I felt that touch down to my toes.

“Earth to Caroline.”He snapped in front of me.

“Huh?”

“Your turn.”

“My turn for what?”

“Drinks.Sexy.Suggestive.Mr.Tall Blond and Dumb over there.”

“He isn’t dumb!”

Brian laughed easily.“If you say so.What’ll it be?”

“I don’t know.I didn’t think that far ahead.Um, Slippery Nipple?”

Bartender Brian pursed his nibblicious full lips before saying, “You got it.”

He tucked his towel in the back of his pants before retrieving a cell phone from his front pocket.He turned away from me and began making the drink.He stopped a few times along the way to pull a few beers for some other customers.I watched as some slutty girl lifted herself on the bar, leaned in, and kissed him on the cheek.He dipped his head and smiled, touching her nose with the tip of his finger.The same finger he used to wipe the small bit of my drink that slipped down my chin.Who is that bitch?

I shook the thought from my head.Bartender Brian wasn’t my target but he did deliver the drink as promised.Once again Tall Blond and Dumb—er, Handsome—locked eyes with me and mouthed the words, “Thank you.”He quickly threw it back before leaning into Brian.Brian laughed and high-fived him.I wonder what they’re talking about.

“Hey!”Melody yelled in my ear.“Get fucked yet?”

She was always a bit of a close talker but when she was drinking, the closeness was magnified.Honestly, all I had to do was lick my lips at that moment and we’d be making out French style.Not that there’d be anything wrong with that.But at the moment, Melody’s tongue wasn’t on my list of things to do so I took a step back.Unfortunately, there wasn’t anywhere to go and I was practically bent backward over the bar.

“Hey, Mel.No, I didn’t.What are you up to?”

“I ran into that Jeff guy.Steven’s friend.”


Page 4

“Jeff is here?”My stomach lurched.Wherever there was Jeff, Steven wasn’t too far behind.A new start.I needed that without him.Operation One Night Stand needed Steven not to be there.I’d just finished my last day of work with him.I was beginning my new life without him.The last thing I needed was him anywhere near me.

“Yeah.Steven’s not here.Yet.”

The fact that Steven and I had broken up two months ago wasn’t lost on me.I’d barely escaped becoming a hermit.And yet, two months later, there I was with more confidence in my pinky than I’d had during any of the five years we’d dated.I was embracing my confidence and refusing to shirk away from my fears.It wasn’t easy.I didn’t expect it to be.

I wondered, briefly, if Betsy the Intern would make an appearance.Of course, she was probably crying her eyes out on Steven’s shoulder.But I’m not angry.Not anymore.I’m not even that sad.As mortified as she was when Steven publicly declared that she didn’t matter, I was even more mortified that I would ever date someone who would do something as cliché as fucking an intern.I don’t have anything against interns—everyone has to start somewhere—but come on!

“What can I get you?”

Realizing I was still half sprawled on my back on top of the bar, I rolled my eyes upward.Bartender Brian looked down at me and smiled.

“Hi.”He really had nice teeth.

“Hi.”I started to get up.

“No, no.Don’t get up on my account.”He gently placed his hand on my shoulder, effectively keeping me where I was.“So, need something to drink?”he asked Melody.I noticed her noticing him.I frowned a bit at the thought of her thoughts infringing upon the perverted scenes that ran through my head but I had to remind myself, yet again, that Brian wasn’t the target.

“Sure.What do you recommend?”Melody leaned in and purred the question like she always did.I swear to God that girl was sex in heels.

“Body shots.”

“Say what?”I, again, attempted to sit up and once again, Bartender Brian placed his hand on my shoulder and Melody clapped.

“Let me demonstrate.”

I felt like my eyes were going to roll into the back of my head as I watched him pour a shot of tequila.With a shot in one hand and a saltshaker in the other, he leaned down and licked my neck.As he did, my eyes fluttered closed and I moaned.

Yes.

Moaned.

I heard him chuckle quietly.

I wanted nothing more than the bar to swallow me.

Before I knew it he shook salt onto my neck and leaned back down.Instead of merely licking the salt off, he added lips and teeth andoh my God.

I gasped so hard for air I swear I was drowning.Then he placed a lemon wedge on my lips.

This shit doesn’t happen to me.Ever.

I didn’t see him take the shot but I heard the shot glass hit the bar top.

I held my breath and waited as he raked his fingers through my hair, then bit around the lemon wedge, scraping his teeth on my lips.He must’ve bit the lemon because drops of juice and tequila fell onto my mouth.He used his lips and tongue to clean it up.

“That was fucking hot!”Melody clapped her hands.

“Thanks.I not only serve the drinks, I use them as entertainment.”With one hand in front of him and one behind, he bowed.Fucking bowed.I was a lick away from orgasm and he’s accepting applause.

Fuck.

“A little help here.”I was not able to sit upright.Melody grabbed my hands and pulled me up.

I whipped my head around.Bartender Brian was across the way chatting up a group of guys who were with my target, and a fresh drink was sitting in front of me.A few people sitting next to me at the bar clapped as I came to my senses.A loud chorus of cheers had me ducking my head to avoid the attention.

“What the hell was that?”Sarah asked, laughing.

“What?”

“Look at you making out with the bartender!Looks like someone jumped off the celibate carousel.”

“I did not!I was not making out with the bartender.He was just, he was just—” I looked at Melody for an answer.

“Don’t look at me.Bartender Boy is hot!I say you focus on him!”

I grabbed my purse and hopped off the barstool.

“No.I made a deal and I picked my target.You’ll see.I’m going to win this bet!”

“Caroline!”

Turning around, Bartender Brian smiled as he slid another drink my way.“Pink Panty Dropper.”

“What!”How did he know what color my underwear was?

He laughed, pointed to the drink, and said, “Pink Panty Dropper from Tall Blond and Dumb.”

“Oh.Okay.Thanks.”I was a little unsteady and I didn’t think it had anything to do with the drinks.Determined not to let my focus wane, I downed the shot, slammed the glass on the table, and said, “Pop My Cherry.”

Brian reacted just as I thought he would.The look on his face was priceless.Grabbing a hold of my lady balls, I leaned across the bar, took a page from his book, and whispered, “Send him a drink.Pop My Cherry.”

Just as he had, I lingered a beat longer than I needed to, making sure to graze my lips against his cheek.Fuck it, I thought.If I am going to embrace my inner slut, I may as well bear hug her till she can’t breathe.

“Yes, ma’am.”Brian white-knuckled his towel as he walked to the back of the bar and began mixing the drink.He snuck a glance at me, smirked, and shook his head.

I needed to know my target’s name.“Bartender Brian!”

“Yeah?”He yelled over the noisy chatter of the bar.

“Find out his name!”

“I already know his name.”

“What is it?”

“Not sure if I should tell you or not.”He walked away, drink in hand, down to the other end of the bar.

“How’s Operation One Night Stand going?”Sarah placed her empty glass on the bar and sat on the suddenly vacant stool next to me.

“It’s going.”

“Get his name yet?”

“Brian won’t tell me.”

“Who the fuck is Brian?”

“The bartender.Bartender Brian.”

“Why don’t you go ask his name yourself?Maybe Brian doesn’t want you to know the guy’s name.”

“Why would he care whose name I know?”I took a sip of my cinnamon drink, remembering for a moment how Brian smelled when he drank it.

“Um.Hello?”Sarah rapped her knuckles on my head.“For such a pretty girl you are fucking dense.Brian’s into you.”

“No, he’s not.He’s a bartender.It’s his job to flirt and whatever.He gets more tips that way.”

“Tips, huh?I’ll give you a tip.Ditch Ken doll over there and get nasty with Bartender Brian.He is quite a bit yummier.”She licked her lips hungrily and growled, snapping her teeth together.

“Will you stop it?”I smacked her arm.

“I’m telling you.The bartender is the guy for you.”

“You’re just saying that so I’ll lose the bet.”

“Ugh.Caroline.Listen to me.I am your friend.Fuck the bet.I am telling you.Bartender Brian is the way to go.”

“You ladies talking about me?”

I nearly choked on my drink.How much had he heard?

“Hi.I’m Sarah.Caroline’s roommate.”

“Nice to meet you, Sarah.”Brian wiped his hands on the towel tucked into the back of his pants before offering it to her and shaking her hand.“What can I get you?”He picked up her empty glass, sniffed it, and said, “Amaretto and ginger.”

“He’s good.”Sarah wiggled her eyebrows at me.I kicked her.

“I’m pretty good at most everything I do.Right, Caroline?”His eyes sparkled dangerously.I was beginning to think Sarah was right.

“I wouldn’t know.I haven’t seen most everything you do.”

“We can fix that, you know.Say the word,” he said as he overpoured Sarah’s amaretto and splashed it with ginger ale.

“Can we now?So you’re a handyman, too?”I chuckled.

“That is, of course, unless you’re still stuck on Tall Blond and Douchey over there.”

“Still weighing my options.”

Sarah pinched my knee before she hopped down, drink in hand.I hadn’t even noticed I’d finished mine.When I placed the glass on the bar for a refill, a shot glass topped high with fluffy whipped cream was sitting in front of me.

“Blow Job.”

“I guess you expect me to swallow?”I asked suggestively.

“Well, that is the recommended ending for such a thing.”

Laughing, I was reaching for the shot when Brian’s hand covered mine.“Nope.No hands.”

“No hands?”I really should have gone out drinking more in college.

“Ooh!Blow Job shots!”Melody and Sarah appeared on either side of me, slapping their hands on the bar.“Make it three and make it snappy, barkeep!”

I locked eyes with my target.He was staring at me like this shot was going to be the one that put the nail in the proverbial coffin.I make this work and I win the bet.He made his way through the crowd until he stood behind me.Sarah and Melody exchanged a look I couldn’t interpret.

“My name is Ryan.”He stuck out his hand over my shoulder and I shook it.

“Caroline,” I said as I pointed to myself.

“Having a good time?”

“Yeah.You?”

“Yeah, sure.What do you say we get out of here?”

I looked at Sarah and she shook her head.Melody dropped her forehead to the surface of the bar.Brian stood in front of me with his arms crossed and an unreadable look on his face.Three shots were lined up in front of us.

Fuck it.

“What do I do?”

Melody piped up, “Put your hands behind your back like this.”I mimicked her demonstration.“Lean down, wrap your lips around the glass, and lift.Drink the shot.”

“Swallow.Don’t spit,” Brian chimed in, his eyes locked on mine.

Holding his stare I replied, “I never do.”

“Let me hold your hair,” Ryan offered as he gathered my curls into a manageable mess.

“Ready, girls?”Sarah asked.

Closing my eyes, I leaned down, wrapped my lips around the cool shot glass, and threw my head back.The shot glass was pulled from my mouth before I could think about it and Ryan’s mouth crashed down on mine.By the time I came up for air, Bartender Brian had moved to the other end of the bar.

I wasn’t quite sure why I was so disappointed to see him go.Not like we were athing.Regardless, a lump formed in my throat.I grabbed Sarah’s drink and downed it like it was my last.

“Easy.You okay?”Sarah whispered.

“Yeah, fine.I’ll be at our place.”

“You’re going to our place?”

“Yeah.Safer there than his, considering I don’t know him, right?”


Page 5

“You know, so many people go through life without having experienced a one night stand.You don’t have to do this.”

“Sarah.I haven’t had sex in two months.Two months!Do you have any idea what that does to a woman’s vagina?”

“Um, no.But I know what it does for the battery business.”

“Ha.Ha.Really funny.I’m at the precipice of becoming an old maid!Look around!All the girls here are young.I am old.Old!”

“Seriously, Caroline.It’s not that big a deal.You’re just going through a dry spell.”

“Dry spell?There are days I have to check and make sure my lady parts are still there.Dry spell my ass.Ladies, I’m getting fucked tonight.My door will be closed.I will be screaming.Don’t come in.”

Melody spit her drink on the guy standing next to her.Then she yelped.Of all the people in the world, she spit her drink on my ex.

“Steven.Nice to see you.”It really wasn’t.

“Uh, Care?You drunk or something?”

“Not really, why?”Actually, I kind of was but he didn’t need to know that.

He grabbed my arm and pulled me aside.“Care, do you know this guy?”He thumbed toward Ryan.

“I’m sorry.I lost the memo.When the fuck did that become your business?”

“I still care about you.”

“Right.That’s pretty funny.You really seemed to care when you were fucking Betsy.”

“That was a mistake.I am so sorry.I want to make it up to you.”

“Ha!It wasn’t a mistake until I found out!”

“Look, can we talk somewhere else?I was hoping that, you know, since we don’t work together anymore that maybe…”

“Maybe what?That we’d have another go?That we’d ever be something again?Fuck off Steven and take your dictating intern with you.”

“Everything okay over here?”Brian’s voice made me jump.I realized I had yelled loud enough to cause a scene and a number of people had stopped their chatter to hear the exchange between Steven and myself.

“Yeah, we’re good.Why don’t you mind your own business?”Steven responded to him with his usual air of snobbery.God, what did I ever see in this guy?

“Don’t talk to him like that!”I slapped away his grip on my arm.

“What, are you fucking this guy, too?”

“Too?Too?You should talk, Steven!You make me sick, you lying fucking bastard.Fuck you.”

“Knock it off, Care.You’re making a scene.”I saw him scan the bar.

“Get the hell away from me.I wear heels bigger than your dick.Take it somewhere else.No one here cares.”

“That’s enough!I think it’s time for you to leave.”Brian miraculously appeared between Steven and me; Ryan stood next to him.I thought I might faint when he reached behind him and placed his hand on my stomach, effectively shielding me from Steven’s jerk-face rhetoric.

“Fine.”Steven threw his hands up in the air.“This isn’t over, Caroline.You can’t throw away five years on a pretty boy and a fuckingbartender.”He spat the word like it was beneath him.

“No, but you can throw it away on Betsy the Intern.Just go away.I don’t want to see you ever again.”

Steven walked out with his entourage of assholes.I felt both defeated and liberated.

“I’m a bit put out that I’m not the pretty boy,” said Brian.“You okay?”

“I’m good.Thank you.”

“No problem.You’re awfully feisty.”

“That’s just the new me.”

“You ready?”Ryan put his hand around my shoulder.

“Huh?”I was a bit disoriented by the previous display and more than slightly embarrassed.“Oh, right.Sure.”

I grabbed my coat and handed it to Ryan.He obviously didn’t know what to do with it, so I took it back and shrugged on my coat.

“You sure about this?”Sarah looked at me with equal parts “go get ’em” and “what the fuck are you thinking?”

“Yeah.It’s just sex, right?Not like I’m looking for a relationship with Tall Blond and Dumb, right?”

“I just don’t want you to regret anything in the morning.”

“Then I’ll sleep till noon.”I smiled.

“If you’re sure.Call me if you need anything.”

“Will do.”I leaned onto the bar.“Brian!”

“Yo!”He turned around, delivering a drink to a thirsty patron before making eye contact.

His gaze was so penetrating, it felt like a thousand gymnasts were using my stomach as a trampoline.

“Thanks again for that.Sorry you had to get involved.”

“That’s what I do.”He rapped his knuckles on the bar.“Take care of yourself, Caroline.”What’s with the tone?

Effectively dismissed, I watched as he pulled another beer and took an order from an overly flirtatious girl who looked like she was barely out of high school.Not my problem.

“Let’s go, Ryan.”

Chapter Four

Inearly dragged Ryan out of the bar.Snowflakes fell steadily, sticking to the already slick sidewalk.I realized my shoes, no matter how cute, were not going to make it through the night.

“Hey.”Ryan stopped.“I left my coat in the bar.”

“Oh, right.Um, I’ll wait.”

“You sure?”

“No.I want you to freeze to death in the snow.”He looked at me and cocked his head.“I’m kidding.Go get it.”

He laughed and pulled me in tight.His thumb slid across my cheek and he lifted it up to show me a single drop of water.“A snowflake fell from your eyelash to your cheek.I think it’s good luck.”

“Do I blow on it?”I kept eye contact as I leaned in.I closed my eyes and blew the tiny drop off his thumb.I raised my head, smiled, and said, “Hurry.”

He grabbed my face and kissed me hard and I felt it in my panties.“Be right back.”He pulled away and jogged the half block back to the bar.

I found a bare wall between apartment entrances and leaned against it, hoping the overhang would shield me from the weather a little bit.My feet were wet, my toes were cold, and I hadn’t thought to bring gloves or a hat.I rolled my eyes at the thought.Sure, I was cold, butHello, Caroline!Hopefully you are about the have amazing sex with a superhot guy.Smiling, I closed my eyes and imagined his lips on mine again.Only when I imagined the lips they weren’t Ryan’s.They belonged to Bartender Brian.And the thought of Brian’s lips on mine soaked my panties as much as the real kiss did with Ryan.

Ryan.

Brian.

Someone was going to have to change his name.

Rifling through my purse, I found my lipstick.My fingers were cold and when I pulled the cap off, it slipped from my grip and fell to the sidewalk.

“Fuck.”I squatted down and looked around me; it couldn’t have gotten far.I was sure it was hiding by my feet in the slushy snow.

I didn’t spend too much time looking.My fingers were bright red from feeling around the cold snow and my toes felt like frostbite was going to take over.

“Lose something?”

I looked up to see Ryan standing in front of me wearing weather appropriate outerwear.

“Yeah.I dropped the top to my lipstick.”I held up the tube to show him.

“It’s freezing out and you’re worried about lipstick?”He stepped closer.“I don’t think you need it.”

“No?”My back was pressed against the brick wall.

“No.But if you need them warmed up—” He slid his hand under my ear and threaded his fingers through my hair.And then he kissed me.

His lips melted into mine and I moaned softly.Our mouths parted slightly and he gently pulled my bottom lip into his mouth.He sank his teeth in for a moment before pulling away.He rubbed his nose along mine.

“Warm?”

“Fuck.”The word tumbled out of my mouth and I slapped my hand against it.“I meant,” I mumbled through my hand, “yes.”

He chuckled before offering to carry me home on his back.

“Hop on,” he said as he squatted down in front of me.

“What?”

He looked at me over his shoulder.“Your shoes are soaked, your lips are blue.There isn’t a taxi in sight.You said you lived close, now hop on.”

I hiked my purse up on my shoulder, wrapped my arms around his neck, and hopped up as his arms hooked around my legs.

“So, where are we going?”

“Huh?”I was momentarily distracted by his stubbled jawline.

“Where do you live?”

“Oh, right.Next building.”I pointed and he headed for the stoop.

I fumbled for my keys and dropped them, like I had the lid to my lipstick.We both knelt down at the same time and bonked heads.

“Ouch.”I rubbed my head.

“Sorry.”He rubbed his.

Time stopped for a moment as we stared at each other.He held my keys and my hand reached up to his face.He leaned in and kissed me slowly as we stood.He stepped forward and backed me against the door as he fumbled with the keys.When he finally opened the door, he stepped over the threshold and lifted me up at the same time.My legs wrapped around his waist and my arms circled his neck.His hands held me up by my ass, his fingers gripping tight.The kiss was deep, rough, and needy.He stepped forward clumsily, knocking my back into the wall, and my fingernails dug into his coat.

“Stairs,” I directed between kisses.Instead of climbing them he sat, with me straddling his lap.One hand splayed wide and pulled me into him while the other snaked under my hair and grabbed a fistful.He gently yanked back and ran his tongue along my exposed throat.

He shifted his leg over so it was between my legs.He continued to pull me in and I rocked back and forth.The seam of my jeans hit me in just the right spot.Our kisses were sloppy and consuming; he wrapped both arms around my waist and I ground down onto his leg.

“Oh my God,” I whispered.

“Don’t stop, Caroline.”He wrapped his arms tighter.

I buried my face in his neck and thrust until I could feel my panties being soaked.I let out a breathy moan.

“Ryan.Holy shit!”An orgasm racked me and I held on to him tight until the wave passed.

After a few minutes he chuckled and asked, “Are you okay?”

“I’m great.Just very, very thankful for the seam of these jeans.”I leaned back with his arms still wrapped around me.

“You wear them well.”He leaned in and kissed the corner of my mouth.

“Thank you.”

“I’d like you to take them off.”

I climbed off his lap and kicked off my shoes.

“I didn’t mean here.”He leaned back on the steps and smiled.

“Oh, so I shouldn’t do this?”I unbuttoned my jeans and cocked an eyebrow.

He ran his finger along his lips.“I didn’t say that.”

I laughed, reached down, grabbed my shoes, and ran past him up the stairs.He jumped up and chased me.I had only half a flight on him.I was glad I was only going up to the third floor.

“I have the keys you know!”he yelled up to me.

“I know!”

He and I hit the third-floor landing at the same time and he followed me to my door.

“Tease.”

“I need to open the door.”

“The keys are in my pocket.”

I reached in and found something other than keys and mentally thanked the one-night-stand gods for gifting me with such a well-endowed target.

“Those aren’t keys,” he whispered when my hand gripped him through the pocket of his jeans.

“I know.”

He produced the keys and handed them to me.I turned to unlock the door and I could feel his excitement press up against me as he kissed my neck.It felt like unlocking the door took forever but when I finally did, he stumbled into the apartment behind me before he slammed the door closed and turned the lock.For a few seconds we stared at each other.The sexual tension was palpable, like tiny sparks of electricity flying through the room.One tiny word slipped from his mouth.

“Fuck.”

We collided in a tangle of hands and lips and tongues.Our coats dropped in a heap on the floor.The buttons on my shirt were too much for him and he ripped it open instead as I unbuckled his belt and whipped it out of his pants.I tossed it across the room and it hit a lamp, knocking it over to shatter on the floor.

I.

Did.

Not.

Care.

“Ryan,” I mumbled before sinking my teeth into his lip.He responded by sliding his hand down the back of my jeans and squeezing my ass.He picked me up again and started down the hallway.

“Wrong room.”My hand shot out to the doorjamb as he tried to enter Sarah’s room.“Across the hall.”

He turned around and used his foot to shove my bedroom door open.He dropped me on my bed and leaned down to unbutton my pants.He slid them over my hips hard enough to lift me off the bed.

“Panties off.”He was already dropping his pants to the floor and stepping out of his boxer briefs.

I froze.In my whole life I’d never seen anything so girthy.Instinctively my hands flew to cover my lady bits.

He reached down, pushed my hands aside, and dipped his fingers inside me.“You okay?”

“Better than.”I placed my hand behind his head and pulled him into a kiss.We both crawled back on the bed until he was able to settle between my legs.

I heard a wrapper open, then it was a few seconds before he positioned himself above me.Need took over and I thrust my hips toward him, feeling the tip of him hit me.Ryan pulled my right leg up and grabbed my ass as he pushed deep inside me.I cried out.I’d never felt anything so completely.He filled me, stretched me, and I couldn’t get enough.

“More,” I demanded and quickened the pace.

“You want more?”He smiled and pulled out before slamming back into me.

“Brian!”I yelled, and he stopped for a minute and his eyes widened.It was a second before I realized I’d said the wrong name.I tried to play it off.“Oh, Ryan!Fuck me harder!”

I am pretty sure he caught the flub but he picked up the pace and banged me until I thought I would pass out.The bed rocked and the headboard hit the wall so hard I thought pictures would fall off the wall.

“God damn Caroline.You feel so fucking good.”His voice was gruff and sexy.

I shifted position and we rolled.

I smacked my head on the nightstand.“Ow, fuck!”

We both stopped our frenzied fuck fest to laugh.

“Sex injury?”He chuckled.

“It fucking hurts,” I said between tears of laughter and pain.

“Do you need ice?”

Fuck no, I didn’t need ice.I needed sex.“I’m good.”I rolled my hips.

“You sure?”He thrust into me.

Instead of answering I kissed him and he leaned back so I was sitting in his lap.He kicked out his legs and held me steady.Once I got my rhythm, he reached around and unhooked my bra.I slipped it off and he tossed it.

“Caroline.”He grunted my name.“Caroline.Slow down.I’m going to come.”

Instead of slowing down, I held on and sped up, thrusting and rolling like a porn star.I was owning this motherfucking one night stand.

“Caroline.”His hands grabbed my hips.“Caroline.”His fingers dug into my skin.“Oh fuck!”He grabbed me and pulled me in tight as he thrust up.The muscles in his shoulders and arms tightened.I could feel his legs tense under me.“Fuck.”He dropped his head to my shoulder and shuddered.

He let go of me and fell back.I climbed off him and slid off the bed.

“Where are you going?”He reached for me.

“To get a drink.Water.You want some?”

“You have anything stronger?”

“Yeah.Be right back.”

I padded to the living room and pulled a bottle of whiskey off the shelf.I grabbed two glasses and a bottle of water from the kitchen before heading back to the bedroom.Ryan was still lying on his back, his dick limp, though he had removed the condom.Truth be told, I was a little put out that the only orgasm I had came from a hundred-dollar pair of jeans.


Page 6

“Here.”I handed him a glass before unscrewing the top of the bottle.I poured him two fingers before swigging straight from the bottle.I winced and coughed and chased the drink with half a bottle of water.

“You okay?”he asked.

“You keep asking me that.”I reached into my drawer and pulled out an oversize T-shirt.

“What are you doing?”

“Getting dressed.”

“Why?”

“Um…” I waved my arm toward his flaccid penis.

“Oh this?”He sat up and downed the whiskey.“This isn’t done.This is a break.”

“A break?”Holy shit.Steven never took a break.He pumped, dumped, and passed out.“I just thought—”

“Thought what?”He stood and crossed the room, took the bottle of whiskey from my hand, and took a large gulp.Part of me was jealous because he didn’t choke on it.“You thought we were done?No.No.No.Did I make you come?”

I shrugged.“It felt good.”

“That’s not what I asked.Did I make you come?”

“No.”

“No.I didn’t.I intend to remedy that tonight.I intend to remedy that a few times.”

My mouth dropped open and my skin tingled.Goose bumps covered me and I could feel myself grow wet at his words.

“You are going to feel me here.”He kissed my mouth.“Here.”He reached around and grabbed my ass.“And here.”He dropped to his knees and darted his tongue out, barely flicking my clit.

My knees gave out and he caught me before I fell.He handed me the bottle of water and stood.

“Drink that water, Caroline.You’re going to need it.”Ryan chuckled and walked out of the room toward the bathroom.I tilted my head and watched his bare ass until it left my sight.I shivered and chugged the rest of my water, anticipating what he had in store for me the rest of the night.

Chapter Five

Ishifted under the covers, slowly stretching my arms and pointing my toes until I thought they’d detach from my body.The soreness I was feeling lazily brought me back to a night of mind-blowing sex.My shoulders still ached from when Ryan pinned me to the wall.My hamstrings screamed and I remembered spending quite a bit of time with my legs up in the air.My hair was a rat’s nest of tangles covering the lump that had formed from banging my head on the nightstand.Falling off the bed during sex was not as graceful as it looked in the movies.My ass felt like it had been stretched in a torture machine.And to top it off?My bedroom smelled like a brothel.

Ahh.The musky smell of sex.

Last night was definitely not for the faint of heart and had it not been for the ridiculous confrontation with Steven at the bar, I may not have actually gone through with it.I was no longer a virgin to stranger sex.

I opened my eyes, thankful I’d had the forethought to turn off the lights and keep the curtains closed.Rolling over, I reached for the glass of water I always kept by the bed.

Looking up, I tilted my head slightly.What the hell is that?Attached to my slow-moving ceiling fan was my pink bra.

At least the hanging bra signified something other than the relationship I had with sweatpants, movie channels, and ice cream since Steven and I broke up.

“So, how’d it go?”Sarah startled me out of my reverie as she walked into my room carrying a huge mug of coffee and I pulled my blanket up to cover my boobs.

“Wouldn’t you like to know?”I rolled over, picked up my phone, and looked at the time.Five after twelve.“Told you I wouldn’t regret anything in the morning.”

“That you did.”She made herself comfortable on the edge of my bed and handed me a tank top she found on the floor.“So, details?”

I closed my eyes, remembering what there was to remember about Operation One Night Stand.“It was, uh, nice.”

“Nice?There’s a broken lamp in the living room and the front door was left open.I thought we had been robbed.Until I found your torn shirt on the floor.”She held up the tattered blouse with her index finger.“I think there’s more to it than ‘nice.’”

I smiled.It was more than nice.It was crazy.I leaned over my bed and picked up what was left of the new pink panties I’d bought specifically for the night.

“Holy shit, Care!When you go all in—”

“Hewent all in.”I wiggled my eyebrows at her and squealed.

“Nice!”

“I didn’t know it could be like that!I had no idea there were so many different ways to bend.Honestly.Thank God for yoga.”

“So you feel good?”

“Yeah.Sore but,” I smiled before I pulled my knees up and winced.My hand flew to my crotch.“Ouch!”I couldn’t tell what hurt worse, my vagina or my ass.It didn’t matter.I needed the pain to go away.

“What’s the matter?”Sarah jumped up.“Oh, fucking gross Care!”

Sarah leaned down and picked up off the floor what should have been the most embarrassing clue as to what actually went on last night.

“Seriously?”She turned the item over to read the label.“Lots O’Lube?”

My best friend was holding up a white tube of Lots O’Lube, complete with a bright green shamrock next to the name.

“Huh?”Instinctively, my sphincter tried to shrink back to its normal size.

So that’s why my asshole feels like someone lit a match to it.

“Ha!You little whore!”Her laugh echoed in the space.

I squeezed my eyes tight in an attempt to control the throbbing.“I think I may have overdone it.”

“You think?”

“My vagina hurts.”I flopped to the fetal position, my hands cupping my very sore lady parts.

“Just your vagina?”She cocked an eyebrow.

“No.Not just my vagina.That skin between the vagina and the asshole.I feel like it ripped.”

“Your taint?”

“Do girlshavetaints?”I shook my head.“Who cares?I feel like I’ve been stretched to max capacity.”

“That big, eh?I’ll get you some ice.Be right back.”

I placed my coffee mug on the nightstand and flopped back onto my bed.Hugging my pillow to my chest, I closed my eyes.Every touch, tug, pull, kiss, and slap of the ass from the night before flooded my brain.My stomach fluttered at the thought of his mouth on me.Eating, tasting, sucking, licking, kissing.He was a sex god.And that made me a sex goddess.At least I felt like one last night.It was perfect, until…

“Here you go.”Sarah tossed an ice pack at me and I not so discreetly wrapped it in the scraps of my tattered shirt and placed it on my crotch.

“Better?”She shoved clothes off my chaise and leaned back.

“Yeah.Thanks.”

“So,” she began, “now you’ve gotten that out of your system and you aren’t so anxious and all ‘Caroline’ about it, tell me, was it worth it?”

“Absolutely.It was amazing.And his dick was huge.I mean, like, cucumber big.And his abs, oh my God!His abs!Physically, a perfect specimen.”

“But?”Sarah knew me better than anyone.

“But I think I messed up.I don’t think I’ll be seeing him again.”

“Messed up?How?I thought it was a one nighter?Who cares if you don’t see him again?”

“Well…”

“Fess up, sister.What happened?Did you bite when you should have sucked?”

“God no!Nothing like that!I sucked like a champ, if I do say so myself.It’s just that, well…” I took a breath.“Toward the end of all the crazy, uh—”

“Fucking.”Leave it to Sarah to have the right word.

“Yeah, that.I sorta, kinda called him by the wrong name.”

“You didn’t!”Her eyes popped out of her head, reminiscent of old-school cartoons.

“Oh, honey!Well, you were with Steve a long time.God knows why, but it happens.”

“It wasn’t Steven’s name.”

Sarah sat up straight.“Well, then whose name did you use?”

“Brian’s.”

“Brian who?”

“Brian from last night.”

“Bartender Brian, Brian?”

I nodded and took a long swallow of coffee.

“What?How?”For once cool, calm, collected, say-it-like-it-is Sarah was at a loss for words.“Why?”

“I don’t know!I mean, Ryan was on top of me, pumping like a machine, mind you, and all of a sudden my brain went to Brian.I mean, for a minute I didn’t think he noticed.Brian sounds a lot like Ryan, right?”

“Right,” she said, obviously not following my excuse.

“Well, I said it, he looked at me funny, we finished—”

“Wait, you called out a different guy’s name and he still finished?”

“Well, yeah.What else was he going to do?No sense in walking away from a sexcapade likethat, right?”

“Sure, sure.I regularly allow someone to get off after they call me Lucy or some shit.Go ahead.”

“It wasn’t like that.I was totally in the moment.Totally into it.You owe me fifty bucks by the way.”I pointed at her.“I just had one little slip.Ryan whispered in my ear something like ‘I want you to have a screaming orgasm’ or something and poof!Brian was in my head.”

“Wait, hold on.What the fuck does Brian have to do with a screaming orgasm?Other than the fact that he’s outrageously hot.And sexy.”

“That’s the name of the drink he whispered in my ear.I am pretty sure that’s when he started flirting with me.”

“Not for nothing, he wasn’t the only one flirting.Just saying.”

“I wasn’t flirting!I was focused on the target!On Ryan!”

“Yeah.So focused you called out Brian’s name.”

“Shut up!”I threw a pillow at her and she ducked.

“Go take a shower.We have to meet Mel for spin class then lunch.”

“Spin class?”My body went rigid.

“Yep.No pain no gain.”Sarah let out a huge laugh, the kind that calls you an idiot without voicing the words out loud.

My stomach growled and I realized I hadn’t eaten anything since lunch yesterday.

“Sarah?”

“Yeah?”

“You think I fucked up my first one night stand?”

“Far be it from me to judge.Seriously.I’ve had more than my fair share of one time romps.But”—she stood and walked to my door—“I have never gotten anyone’s name mixed up.”

She laughed as the door closed and I threw another pillow, which bounced off the wall.Pouting, I slumped back onto my bed.Part of me was thrilled to have finally popped my cherry, so to speak, on the one-night-stand thing.But another was disappointed that it hadn’t been with Brian.Regardless of my feelings on the subject, I was a girl who’d just been banged to within an inch of her life and had the ice pack on her crotch to prove it.


Page 7

Chapter Six

An hour later, Sarah and I met up with Mel in the lobby of the gym.I, of course, felt like I’d just spent a week riding stallions when, in fact, it had been only one night.Neither the ice pack nor the cluster of pain pills I took alleviated the strange throbbing sensation between my legs.Every step felt like a cross between round five of a boxing match with my labia, a pool of fire, and the prelude to an insane orgasm.Either way, the sensation was a bit disturbing.

“Good morning, sunshine!”Melody sang a bit too loud for my taste.It may be half past one in the afternoon but I was still in no shape to be in public.

“Take off your sunglasses.You look ridiculous.It’s overcast outside and you’re indoors.”Sarah yanked my sunglasses off my face and I winced.

“What the fuck, Sarah!”

“You are not the only person to ever drink too much.Own it.For one night, you were a drunken slut.No one can take that away from you!”

“Let your freak flag fly, bitch!”Melody waved her arm above her head and swung her hips in a way that made me dizzy.

“Leave me alone,” I growled, snatching my sunglasses back from Sarah and shoving them as close to my face as I could.“My vagina hurts.”

“Ha!What?”Melody shrieked a little too loudly.“Pounded in the pussy, were we?”

“Notjustthe pussy,” Sarah mumbled.

“Yeah, shut it!”I took a long swig of my water.The bottle was already half empty and I wasn’t sure how I’d make it through an hour of Warden Suzy, our spin instructor.

“Shut up!That’s hysterical!”Melody was finding my pain entirely too funny.

“I am right here!You don’t need to mock me.For your information, it was amazing.He was—”

“Hung like a horse.”

“Sarah!”I punched her in the arm.

“Oh, sorry.‘Radiated cucumber big.’”She held her hands a foot apart to demonstrate the metaphor.

“Ladies!Get your asses in here!This is spin class, not gossip hour!”

We all rolled our eyes.Sounded like Warden Suzy was in a mood.

“Get the fuck out of here!”Melody whispered.“I need all the deets.You’ll spill at lunch!”

“As long as I don’t lose my appetite.”Sarah laughed as we entered the room.

“Get on your bikes, ladies!We need to work the weekend off your asses!I can see some of you went a little overboard.”I swear to God, the warden was looking at me when she said that.“We will remove the aforementioned excess today.Now mount up.”

In unison, twenty-two people in the room mounted their stationary bikes while I, the twenty-third, stood and stared at it.

“What’s wrong with you?”Sarah whispered, her gaze half focused on me, the other half on Warden Suzy.

“I don’t think I can do this.”

“You’ve done this almost every Sunday for the past two years.You’re good.Get on before she notices and calls you out.”

Whenever Warden Suzy called someone out, they were forced to spin next to her, facing the class.Thankfully, it had never happened to me, but I’d seen enough mortified faces to know I never wanted it to.

“But my crotch hurts.”

“Man up.”

“Fine,” I whined as I settled the too-tiny bike seat between my legs.I honestly felt like I was sitting on jagged rocks.I could barely even bring myself to wear underwear and the bike shorts I was wearing did absolutely nothing to alleviate the pain.I shifted left before leaning right.Sliding forward then nudging back, there really was no comfortable way to sit on a bike seat.Of course, after the night I’d had, the odds at finding any comfort on any seat were stacked against me.

Whether you are a man or a woman, spin class will bruise you in places you had no idea could be bruised.It is crotch torture.But once you see the transformation your body makes after a few classes, you’ll put up with the pain.And, to be fair, the pain really does lessen the more you ride.

However, after last night’s festivities, I felt like a newbie again.Biting my lip, I focused on the music and Warden Suzy’s shouts about slaying the cellulite monster and shrinking our fat asses to drown out the pain.

A bead of sweat formed at the base of my neck and slipped haphazardly down my back, absorbing into the fabric of my sports bra.

With each pump of my legs, my grunting became more and more pronounced.Sarah and Melody, on either side of me, started to giggle.I scowled and continued on.

My sports bra was completely soaked with sweat no longer confined to rogue beads of perspiration and each new drip slid down to my ass crack.I shifted to find some semblance of comfort.

“Holy fucking hell!”I yelled out, much to the astonishment of nearly everyone in the class.Warden Suzy thought, of course, that I was in beast mode.

“That’s right, Caroline!Ride through the pain!Ride, bitch, ride!”

Sarah slumped in her seat, her head on the handlebars, her body vibrating from laughter.

Melody joined in the warden’s chorus.“That’s right, bitch!Ride it like you own it!”

Of course that did absolutely nothing to take the focus off me.Warden Suzy thought I was working the bike whereas Sarah, Melody, and I knew I was about to die from the aftermath of riding a giant cock all night.

“See ladies!Do it like Caroline!Pump!Pump!”Warden Suzy was so into my grunts, she failed to see that I was in actual pain.“Feel it, ladies!Feel it inside you and ride that bitch until you own it!”

It was too much for Melody; she actually fell off her bike.Thankfully, she was on the end and didn’t hit another spinner.I don’t think it would have mattered much—she was on the floor in the fetal position laughing above the din of the music.Sarah had just stopped spinning completely, lost in the words of our revered and feared instructor.

“Fuck you,” I muttered under my breath.

“Ride, Caroline!Pump!”She snorted.

“All right, ladies!Melody get up!Time to take it harder!”

Honestly, when did spin class become so perverted?Then again, like Melody always said, having a dirty mind makes ordinary conversations more interesting.But this wasn’t interesting.It was torture.

“We’re going to do up downs.On the count of three.”

Oh, shit.

“One!”

Oh, shit.

“Two!”

Oh, shit.

“Three!Uuuup!”Warden Suzy screamed until her voice broke.I forced my legs to hold me up and bit my lip.

“Down!”

I dropped to my seat.Oh my God.I’d never felt such pain.

“Up!”

I pushed myself up.My panties were actually crawling up inside me.

“Down!”

That was it.I joined Melody on the floor, holding my crotch like it was going to fall off if I let go.

“Motherfucker!”

A few classmates whipped their heads around to stare.

“I need to get the fuck out of here,” I whispered to Melody.

Between fits of laughter she managed to agree.“Me.Too.I swear I am going to pee myself.”

On my hands and knees I crawled to my bike, grabbed my towel and water bottle, and hightailed my ass out of the room with Melody and Sarah hot on my heels.

Stumbling through the door I collided with something solid, causing Sarah and Melody to crash into me.

“What the—”

“Hey there.”

My knees gave out and the person standing in front of me caught me before I could embarrass myself anymore.

“You okay?”He looked concerned.

“Brian?What are you doing here?”Suddenly I was acutely aware of the fact I hadn’t showered and must’ve smelled like a cross between sweat and sex.The hair that’d managed to slip out of my ponytail was plastered to my face and I was holding my crotch.

He nodded toward the doors behind me.“Warden Suzy too much for you today?”His eyes flicked down to my hands.

I was still reeling from the fact that Brian, the reason my one night stand wasn’t perfect, was standing in front of me, his sweaty T-shirt clinging to biceps that hadn’t been visible through his shirt last night.

“Ah, well, yeah.You know.”I couldn’t make a coherent sentence if someone dangled a pair of Louboutins in my face.

“Hi!We met last night.I’m Sarah; this is Melody.”

“I remember,” he answered, without taking his eyes off me.“You sure you’re okay?”He reached out and touched my shoulder.

“Yeah.I’m good.”I crossed my arms over my chest in an attempt to appear casual.

“So I hear.”That playful smirk danced across his mouth like it had the night before.

“Brian!Yo!You ready, bro?”

Every hair on my body stood on end.Iknewthat voice.Stiff as a board, I turned in the direction of the person I knew to be there.

Ryan.They know each other?

“Caroline.”

“Ryan.”

“Damn,” Sarah and Melody whispered in unison behind me, and I elbowed them in an attempt to shut them up.

The wordsget out of hereran in a loop through my head over and over.

“What are you doing here?I mean, this is your gym, too?”Ryan looked as uncomfortable as I felt.

“Yeah, I, uh, spin class.”I gestured to the doors behind me.

Sneaking a sideways glance at Brian, I saw that he had yet to take his eyes off me.He was covering his mouth with his hand.He thought this was funny?

“Yeah, well, uh.Nice to see you.We have to go.Plans.You know.”

“Hi!I don’t think we met.I’m Melody.”Shoving me out of the way, she stuck her hand out and Ryan took it while staring at me quizzically.“Nice to meet you.”

“I’m Sarah.Caroline’s roommate.”Sarah pushed herself in front of me.

Ryan’s face turned an awfully funny shade of red.The tips of his ears looked like he spent too much time in the sun.

“Yeah, um.Sorry about the lamp.”

Brian’s eyebrows skyrocketed off his face as he stifled a laugh.

“No problem.People bang into things all the time.We can always buy new lamps.”

I nearly choked at the way Sarah saidbang.I tried to silently convey how uncomfortable I was but she continued.

“So, you don’t sound like you’re from around here.Where’d youblowin from?”She couldn’t hide her smile no matter how hard she tried.

Like me, Ryan choked at her choice of words.“I’m from Texas.I’m just staying with a friend until I can find my own place.”

How did I miss the accent?

Never one to pass up a chance at homing in on a new recruit, Melody stretched her neck.“Is your friend here?”

Brian coughed and held up his hand with a two-finger salute.

“You?You’re his friend?He’s staying with you?”I pointed back and forth between the two men as if doing so would somehow make the knowledge less embarrassing.


Page 8

“Yeah.We went to college together.”

I needed the floor to open and swallow me whole.

“Well, isn’t that great!”I faked a smile so plastic even Barbie would be proud.“We really, really have to go.Nice to meet you, er, uh, see you again—”

“Ryan.”Brian pointed to his friend with a look of mock-seriousness on his face.

“Yeah, I know that.Bye, Ryan.Bye, Brian.”

Ryan waved halfheartedly.I think he was still trying to figure out what the hell just happened.

“Hey, Caroline!”Brian called out.

“Yeah?”I turned.

“Looks like you don’t need those heels to be noticed from behind.”

My mouth gaped open until Sarah reached over and closed it for me.My girls on either side of me, I was ushered into the locker room to shower and get ready for lunch.

Chapter Seven

None of us spoke until we were showered, dressed, and out the door.The girls, however, did laugh at me when I stealthily tiptoed my way from the locker room to the front door.I was on the lookout for Brian or Ryan.Just my dumb luck that the two of them knew each other.No, wait.Not just knew each other.Lived together.

I must’ve been something to look at because Melody started humming thePink Panthertheme song.

Once we hit the street, I whirled around.“You two couldn’t help me out in there?You”—I pointed at Sarah—“with yourbangandblowremarks!Do you have any idea how mortified I was?”

“I absolutely know how mortified you were.That’s why it was so funny.”

Melody fell into a fit of giggles.“Ride, Caroline!Ride!”

“You aren’t helping.”

“Aw, come on.We figured you’d never run into them again.We were wrong.Chalk it up to an awkward encounter.Look, I love you like a back-alley hooker loves crack but if you can’t see the funny, you aren’t the Caroline I know.”

I sighed and plopped down on a bench, wincing in the process.The throbbing subsided but it still hurt to sit.“You’re right.”

“This shit really would only happen to you, Care,” Melody said.

“I know, right?Like I have some idiot badge on my head.”

“You don’t have an idiot badge.I promise I would have taken a butt load of pictures of it and posted it all over social media if that were the case.”

Leave it to my girls to diffuse me.I really was lucky to have them in my corner.

“Let’s eat.”

“About time.I’m starving.”

We walked the block to the café.Ordering was easy.We chose the three greasiest plates on the menu.Nothing like clogging the arteries after a night of drinking and sex followed by a quick spin in the gym.

“So, that was weird, right?”Melody pulled back the curtain to reveal the elephant in the room.

“What was weird?”I tried to act like I had no idea what she was talking about while I shoved a huge bite of medium-rare cheeseburger in my mouth.I couldn’t talk if my mouth was full, right?

“You know what.”Sarah glanced at me sideways as she picked apart her BLT.

“Ryan.Brian.Texas and the bartender?Friends.Roommates.”Melody wasn’t going to let it go.

“It’s fine, right?I mean, so what?I brought Ryan back to my place last night, was fucked sideways—”

“And upside down,” Sarah added.

“And upside down, thank you.And I screamed Brian’s name.”

Sarah got up to pat Melody on the back as she choked on a French fry.“You what?”she finally asked after she’d taken a long sip of her diet soda.

“You didn’t tell her?”I glared at Sarah.

“Not my story to tell.”She wiggled her eyebrows at me and I dropped my head to the table.

“Yes.Yes, I may have, inadvertently, kind of mentioned Brian’s name while I was having sex with Ryan.”

“Well, Jesus Christ, doll.No wonder it was so awkward back at the gym.It was like a reverse rodeo.”

“I don’t know what that is.Like a reverse cowgirl?”

“Yes.No.Look, it’s like the joke says, call a girl by the wrong name and hold on tight while she gets mad.”She laughed and Sarah and I stared at her.“No?You never heard that one.Must just be me.”

“Look, it’s no big deal.I’ll probably never see them again—”

“Um, I don’t know about you but I like the gym and I like Murphy’s and unless you plan on never hanging out with us again—”

“Look, Brian flirted because it’s his job.He’s a bartender.He’s a flirt.And Ryan, well, maybe he’ll find a place far away and I’ll never see him again.It was just one night.One one-night stand.I finally got it out of my system.”

Melody reached across the table and pilfered a fry from my plate.“You see, Care, that’s where you’re wrong.A one night stand is like this French fry here.”She popped it in her mouth and grabbed another.“You can’t have just one.”She giggled, slopped it in a pile of ketchup, and bit it in half.

“No.No, no, no.”I shook my head.“There will be no more one night stands.No more picking up random guys at a bar.No more breaking of lamps.”

“No more Lots O’Lube?”

“Lots O’Lube?”Melody’s eyes were wide.

“Shut up.No.As a matter of fact, maybe I’ll just stop having sex altogether until I get my shit straight.”

Both girls leaned back in their seats and considered me.

“Really.Thank you ladies for pulling me out of my pity party.I am sure the ice cream makers of the world were despondent over the whole thing.I just really think I need to focus on me.I start a new job when we get back from Jamaica and I don’t need to be distracted.”

“But that’s exactlywhyyou need to be distracted.What happened the last time you focused on one area of your life?Steven took it over, that’s what.And not for nothing, I’m pretty sure that guy had more dick in his personality than in his pants.”Sarah gave methe look.The one that saidGo ahead, try to argue my point.

I couldn’t.She wasn’t wrong about that.I pursed my lips.

“I agree with you—leave the relationships alone for a while, but you’re wrong if you think you can’t have your cake and eat it, too.Have a little side of fun with your work.I’m not saying go out and screw every guy in a ten-mile radius—”

“Right.Five miles should do it,” Melody piped in.

“Exactly.”Sarah continued, “I don’t want to see you in the state of mind you were in two months ago—hell, even two weeks ago.Look, you did nothing wrong.You’re twenty-eight years old, you’re pretty, and you have a great ass.”

“Thank you.”Suddenly I saw the burger I was eating nestling into my ass.My appetite waned.

“You’re welcome.So you slept with a stranger.Who hasn’t?Best part?The target has an accent.Southern is so sexy.”

“I think Texas is more southwest,” I said, lost in thought.

“Do you think he has a cowboy hat?”Melody piped in.

“Do all people from Texas own cowboy hats?Isn’t that a bit of a stereotype?I mean, not all of us from Jersey perm our hair to within an inch of its life and shellac it with Aqua Net,” I replied.

“I don’t know.That’s an eighties thing, girl.Doesn’t matter, though, Jersey girls just do it better.I wonder what he looks like shirtless with torn-up jeans and a Stetson.”

“Isn’t Stetson a cologne?”

“It’s a hat, too.”Melody winked.

“Whatever.Like I said, one night stand, who hasn’t?”Sarah reasoned.

“I certainly have.More than once.It’s fun to get validation once in a while.I mean, maybe I have a few extra pounds on my hips.I’m not the skinniest bitch on the block, but I give great head and that cancels out the few extra pounds on my ass.Then again, Iama size awesome.”Melody took another bite of her grilled cheese.“I am all for girl power, woman power, whatever.But any girl who tells you she doesn’t like to feel pretty every now and then or need occasional validation from a member of the opposite sex is a liar, doesn’t know how to give a good blow job, and probably hasn’t ever had an orgasm.Nothing worse than an orgasmless liar.”

“What are you saying?”I couldn’t follow Melody’s train of thought.It wasn’t the first time.

“I’m saying we need orgasms and to say you don’t is a lie.”

“I can see how you were saying that.”Sarah nodded.

“I guess so.”I contemplated what they had said while keeping myself busy with my soda straw.“You both have valid points.Just do me a favor and don’t let me become a slut.”

“Aw, sweetie.Who are we to judge?”

“True.”

I sat lost in thought for a bit when my phone rang.I reached into my gym bag and dug it out.I didn’t recognize the number.

“Who is it?”Sarah asked.

“No idea.Local, though.”

“Answer it.”

Right.

“Hello?”

“Caroline?”

“Yes?”

“This is, uh, Ryan.”

There’s the accent.I am quite sure my eyes bugged out of my head.

“Who is it?”Sarah whispered.

Placing my hand over the phone I replied, “Ryan.”

Melody made a crude gesture as she bobbed her head up and down, her fist in front of her mouth.I rolled my eyes.

“Caroline, you there?”

“Oh, sorry.Yeah.How are you?”I stared at my friends, who were trying to keep from laughing.

“Good.So, today was weird.Running into you at the gym, I mean.”

“Yeah.Weird.So what’s up?”

“Don’t be rude,” Melody whispered.

“I mean, what are you doing?”I made a face at her.

“Nothing.Look, I was wondering, if you’re free, I mean, if you wanted to have dinner on Friday.”

“We’ll be in Jamaica Friday.”I have to say, I was disappointed.

“Well, then the following Friday?”

“The following Friday?”I looked at Sarah and Melody again.I wasn’t sure what to do.

“Say yes!”Melody squeaked a little too loudly.

“Did I interrupt you?”Ryan sounded concerned.

“No, just a, uh”—I stood and walked away from the table—“dog.”

Melody stuck her tongue out at me while Sarah gave me the finger and barked.

“Oh, so Friday after next?”

“Yeah.Sure.Sounds great.”I was fidgety, running my hands through my hair, effectively pulling most of it out of my ponytail holder.

“Excellent.So, I’ll pick you up at eight?”

“Yeah, sure.Sounds great.You know where I live.”I was a queen wordsmith.All the great ones repeat themselves.Good thing I was starting my new assistant editor job in a week.

“That I do,” Ryan replied with what I perceived to be a bit of innuendo.I didn’t know what to do with that.

“So, okay.I’ll see you next week.”

“That you will.Have fun in Jamaica.Bye, Caroline.”

“Bye.”

I hung up and walked back to the table only to find my two best friends whispering with their heads together.

“So I have a date with Ryan.I don’t really know what to do with that.”

Melody clapped her hands.“From what I hear, you know exactly what to do with that.”

I dropped my head to the table, slowly banging it a few times.

“Ryan.”Sarah elongated his name.


Page 9

I popped my head up and looked at her.“That’s what I said.”

“Maybe it would be a good idea to practice saying his name.You know, in case you forget.”

“Nice, Sarah.”

“I’m just saying.Everyone needs a smart-ass sarcastic friend in their lives and I’m so very happy to be of service to you in your time of need.”

“Yeah, yeah.You’re always just saying.”I pushed my plate away, silently repeating his name over and over in my head.

“Come on.”Sarah stood and dropped money on the table.“We have appointments.Manis and pedis.”

“Girls, this time tomorrow we’ll be baking on the soft, warm sands of Jamaica.”

Chapter Eight

We arrived at the resort in Montego Bay just before noon and were on the beach, drinks in hand, an hour later.

“This”—Melody sipped her rum punch—“is what we needed.Fuck all that snow.Fuck all that dreary weather.We need sun.”

“You aren’t kidding.”Sarah rolled over onto her stomach after she handed me the suntan lotion.“If I had to deal with one more administrator talking to me about leaving no child behind or whatever the fuck, I honestly think I was going to shoot myself.Common Core my asshole.”

I half-listened to the two of them go on about the pleasures of a sun-filled winter vacation.My head was stuck processing the events of the past weekend.I’d finally taken the plunge.I’d had sex with a stranger.Good sex.Excellent sex.Mind-blowing, bucket-list sex.

I’d lived through the awkward next day encounter.Ryan was the perfect target.Tall, built, hot as hell.And he’d asked for a date the following week.I wasn’t sure what to do with that.Wasn’t a one night stand just that?One night?I was sure I was breaking some weird rule about the whole one night procedure.

Who said, of course, that it had to be anything more?Maybe I’d never have sex with him again.Maybe dinner means just dinner.Maybe dinner meant he felt as awkward as I did when we ran into each other at the gym yesterday.Maybe he’ll tell me he has crabs.

“Care?”

“What?”Even with sunglasses I needed to shield my eyes.Melody’s metallic swimsuit reflected back at me with the strength of an eclipse.I was pretty sure I’d go blind.

“You okay?”

“What if he gave me crabs?”I looked back at the ocean, picturing tiny little crabs marching toward me.

“You’re bald as a baby doll down there.”

“So?”

“Oh my God, Care.It’s like teaching a newbie.Crabs are lice.Lice need hair.You have no hair.As in none.As in zilch.As in—”

“You think too much.”Melody finished Sarah’s thought.

“I’m just saying.I don’t know him.I don’t know where he’s been!”

“As in,” Sarah continued, “there is no hair down there for crabs to hang on to.I was reading online that the popularity of Brazilian waxing has led directly to the decline of pubic lice.”

“So, it’s not crabs you should be worrying about.If it starts burning when you pee, or—”

“If your vagina begins to shrivel up, then you should be worried.”

The two of them were unbelievable.I was having a real and seriously minor panic attack at the possibility of contracting a sexually transmitted disease and all they could do was joke.

“It’s not funny.My vagina will not shrivel up.”Just in case, I was going to have to check later.

“Well, not now, because you used it.For a while we were wondering if you’d started collecting cobwebs down there.I was actually thinking of purchasing a feather duster for you.I figured you could get off while you cleaned.But, if you’re really worried about shriveling or crabs, one of us could check for you.Sarah, did you bring a flashlight?”

“Har, har.Cobwebs?Really, Melody?Real mature.”I searched my bag for suntan lotion and remembered it was in my lap.“Whatever.I don’t think I’m having sex with him again.”

“You know what your problem is?”

“Enlighten me, Sarah.”

“You think too fucking much.Christ, the way you talk about it, you’d think he popped your fucking cherry.This isn’t forty-year-old virgin crap.You’ve had sex before.”

“True, but it was so…vanilla.”I rubbed lotion wherever I could reach.

“So you’re used to vanilla.”Melody shrugged her shoulders.“I’d be freaked out, too, if all I ever ate was vanilla then all of a sudden someone served up hot fudge, sprinkles, nuts, and cherries.Deal with it, doll.Ryan gave you the perfect sundae.”

“He really did, didn’t he?”Lying back, I closed my eyes and thought about him.I thought about his hands, his big hands, which had held me pinned against the wall.I thought about his mouth, the mouth that touched every inch of my skin, his tongue that explored me inside and out.Thank God we had that extra room and thank God I brought my vibrator.It looked like I was going to have to make my own luck.

“This is good, right?”

“What is good?”Sarah asked.

“This.This whole me being on my own thing.Never really did this before.”

“You are going to be great.Look, you have a wonderful set of parents, a brother who loves you.I think you were so dependent on the tight family unit you had that when you finally had the opportunity to spread your wings, you chose someone you thought would take care of you.Steven was that person.I don’t think he’s a bad guy, he’s just not good for you.”

“He is a bad guy,” Melody added.

“Mel—”

“No, I’m good.You’re right, this will be good.”

“There you go!”

I looked at my empty glass.“I don’t know about you, but I need a refill.Be right back.”

I left my friends basking in the Caribbean sun as I made my way to the bar.

I immediately regretted not slipping on my flip-flops.I hopped through the sand like an idiot, then tripped over a backpack and face-planted.My face full of sand, I rolled over on my back.Typical Caroline, I thought.With a belly full of rum punch, the world spun for a moment.

“Are you okay?”

Turning my head to the side, I looked for the source of the voice but the sun glare blocked my view.

“Did you hurt yourself?”

“I don’t think so.”The owner of the voice helped me to a sitting position.I took off my sunglasses and was face-to-face with dimples.Green eyes and dimples.And floppy sun-bleached hair.And bronze skin that rippled with athleticism.This wasn’t a gym jock.This guy was lean.

“Let me help you up.”The face of the voice came into view as it blocked the sun.

He placed his hands under my arms and lifted me to my feet.He must’ve thought I was insane.I couldn’t stop staring at his dimples.I was enthralled by the fact that he didn’t even have to smile to make them appear.I blamed the rum punch for what happened next.

I lifted my hand and poked a finger in his face.Right into the left dimple.

“You okay?”

I quickly pulled my hand back and felt the rise of embarrassment heat me from my toes to the top of my head.

“I’m sorry.I don’t know what I was thinking.”My stammering attempt at an apology left much to be desired.I had defiled his dimple.I’d never prayed for quicksand but in that moment, it felt like a good idea.“Thank you for helping me up.I’ll be going now.”

Quickly turning away, I nearly tripped over the same backpack.

“Wait!”Dimples called to me.“What’s your name?”

“Um, I really should be going.Sorry again!”

Somehow I was able to make my way to the cobblestone pathway without busting my ass again.I speed walked to the nearest bar and hopped up on a barstool.Thank God for all-inclusive.

“What can I getcha?”The bartender had the slightest hint of a Southern accent under his Jamaican accent that immediately led me to believe he wasn’t a local.

“Two things.First, Piña Colada, heavy on the booze.Second, the real deal on where you’re from.”

“You can tell, huh?”Mr.Not From Jamaica busied himself with pouring the drink ingredients into a blender.

“There’s a distinct twang underneath all that ‘hey mon’ you’re trying to pass off as real.”

“I guess I need to do better.I’m from Texas.”

“I knew it!”

“Don’t spread that around.I have an image to protect.”

That image was over six feet tall and dark skinned.He ran his hands over his bald head and smiled as he handed me my drink, two slices of pineapple and a purple umbrella garnishing it.I wanted to take my straw and drink him up.

“Name’s Wes but everyone around here calls me Marley.”

“Marley?Isn’t that a bit overkill?I mean, you don’t even have dreads.”

“My last name’s Marley.”

“Wes Marley?”

“Yes.Wes Marley, no relation.And who are you, or should I just call you Nosey?”

“Caroline.I’m here from New Jersey with my two friends.”

“Ahh.Escaping the winter blues?”Wes asked as he cleaned a few glasses and ran a rag over the bar counter.

“Escaping all right.Not the winter blues, though.”My straw sucked air as I finished the last of my drink.“That was fast.”I stared at my empty glass before pushing it back toward Wes.

“So what are you escaping, Caroline from New Jersey?”He poured me another.

“Life.The old me.An ex fiancé.Reality.You name it.I’m on the run from it.”

“Well, I’ve got nothing to do.Tell me about it.”

“I did a bad thing.”Yep.Rum punch and Piña Colada and no food since six in the morning?If I wasn’t hammered now, it wouldn’t take long to get there.

“You?You look like a nice lady.”

“I did!”I crooked my pointer finger, signaling him to get closer, and whispered, “I had a one night stand.”

The laugh that boomed out of him was sure to garner looks and interest from all the pretty people on the beach.

“Shhh.There is no need to laugh.I never did that before and now, I think I’m having, what do you call it?”

“Buyer’s remorse?”Wes replied with a smirk.

“Yes!”I snapped my fingers.“Thank you.Buyer’s remorse.”

“So what led you to this buyer’s remorse?”

Over the next three Piña Coladas I spilled my guts to Wes Marley, the no-relation, not-from-Jamaica bartender.

I’d just finished my story when I heard my name.

“Care!Where’ve you been?”

Melody and Sarah walked up to the bar.

“Holy crap!Did you two fall asleep?”

“We took a little nap, why?”

“Pretty sure you’re sunburned.”I poked Sarah’s arm, the white fingerprint disappearing in seconds.

“No way.We used lotion.Besides, it doesn’t hurt.”The two of them hand-printed their stomachs.

“Caroline’s right.You two are gonna be hurting in a few hours.I suggest you get some aspirin and go back to your room.”

“Who’s this guy?”Mel gracefully sidled up to the bar.

“Thisis Wes Marley, no relation.He’s being my therapist.Let me get you two back to the room.Seriously.”

Sarah took off her sunglasses and Melody squealed.

“What?”

“Your face.You have definite sunglass lines.Do I?”Mel pulled off her ginormous, look-at-me sunglasses and Sarah’s eyes bugged out.

“Holy shit, Mel!”


Page 10

“I don’t feel so good.”Melody wrapped her arms around her stomach.

“Hopefully you don’t have sun poisoning,” Wes offered.

“Sun poi—?No, Care.I want to go lie down.”

“On it.”I hopped off the barstool and turned to Wes.“Thanks for listening.Sorry if I was a downer.”

“No problem, mon!”He replied in his best Jamaican accent.“Anytime.Seriously.What’s your room number?I’ll send them an aloe lotion I made.It really helps out the white girls from the north.”

“White girls!Well, I never!”I playfully stomped my foot before leaving him the room number.I gingerly wrapped my arm around Melody, and Sarah followed as we walked back to our room.

Within minutes of arriving, I had them each take cool showers and dress in the loosest sundresses they packed.I knew, from experience, that the pain would take a bit of time but once it hit, they’d be toast.

Each downed a couple of aspirin and just as Wes promised, the lotion he’d concocted arrived at the room via housekeeping.

By the time I’d rubbed them down with the lotion, they were asleep, my buzz had almost worn off, and my stomach was rumbling.

I felt bad about leaving them but I figured there wasn’t much I could do for them while they slept, so I placed a bottle of water near each of them, took a shower, and left to get something to eat.I could have ordered in but I really wanted to escape the confines of the room.I didn’t travel all the way to Jamaica to coop myself up in a bedroom.I’d done enough of that in the past weeks.

Wearing a long green halter dress and flat strappy sandals, I felt like a million bucks.The salty air did wonders for my already curly hair and I had gotten just enough sun to kiss my skin with a faint tan.

I walked through the small-town-like atmosphere of the resort and watched, with a little pang of jealousy, as couples walked holding hands, kissing, sharing glasses of wine.It was what I’d always wanted.Someone to share the fun with, share romance with.Steven was always too busy for fun, too stuffy for romance.In the five years we were together, we’d been on only one vacation.If that’s what one would call it.We went to Vegas for a conference.Never hit the strip once.

I shook off the thoughts that were darkening my mood.No, I was there to relax, to get away, and to have some fun.I decided to sit at the small café that overlooked the beach.

The menu was simple: sandwiches, light pastas, and wines.Perfect.I ordered shrimp over linguine with a white wine sauce and a bottle of Pinot Grigio.The breeze off the water was intoxicating.After dinner, I decided I was going to sit at the water’s edge and relax.I wasn’t necessarily stressed but my life was turning in a direction it wasn’t a few months ago.This was my time to breathe.

I was halfway into my meal, breaking a piece of bread, when someone asked, “Is this seat taken?”

I looked up.Dimples.I was lucky I had another swallow of wine left in my glass because I was pretty sure I was going to choke on the large piece of bread that was stuck in my throat.

Dimples patted me on the back to quell the cough that erupted when he arrived.“We really need to stop meeting like this.”

“Hi.”I finally choked out.

“Hi.”He motioned toward the empty seat and I nodded for him to sit.

“I’m Jim.”

“Caroline.”

“Where you from, Caroline?”I had to remind myself not to get lost in his dimples.

“New Jersey.”

“New Jersey, huh?”And he gave methatlook.The look everyone who isn’t from New Jersey gives those who are.

“And, no, I don’t know anyone named Snooki.And I’m not a mob wife or a member of the Soprano clan.”

“Hey, don’t get testy!”He laughed and held up his hands.“Your accent just sounded like you were from New York.Maybe they sound the same, I don’t know.”

“I do not have an accent!And if I do, I sure as hell don’t sound like I’m from New York.”I wanted to be mad, but barely leveled out at annoyed.His dimples were just too damn cute.

“You’re funny.”Jim took a long sip of his drink.“So what are you doing in Jamaica?”

“Skiing,” I replied flippantly.“You?”

“My brother’s getting married Wednesday night.I’m the best man.”

“So, Jim the best man, where are you from?”

“Originally?Kansas.But I go to school in Miami.”

“Kansas?Like Dorothy and Toto Kansas?”

“More like Clark Kent, but yeah.I’m a senior at Miami now.”

“College kid, eh?”I teased.

“Definitely not a kid.And who are you to talk?”

“I’m twenty-eight.My undergrad was a long time ago.”I poured another glass of wine, finishing off the bottle.

A wicked grin dashed across his face.“An older woman, huh?Looks like I sat at the right table.”

“Looks like you did, kiddo.But I really need to be getting back to my friends.See you around.”I gathered my purse and left Jim from Kansas at the table.

As I walked back to the room, I stopped at the small bar to thank Wes for the aloe.

“It was no problem.”He flashed a grin at me as he mixed a pink cocktail for a cougar at the end of the bar.

“I know, but it was really nice of you.Maybe I could repay you.Buy you a drink?”

“At an all-inclusive?”

“Right.”I glanced down at my feet.“Well, then, I’ll see you around.Maybe I can listen to your relationship problems or something.”

“Maybe, Caroline from New Jersey.I look forward to it.”Wes winked at me and I headed back to the room with thoughts of hot bartenders, sexy dimples, and one night stands swirling around in my head.

The next day was spent providing Sarah and Mel with lotion, aspirin, and more water than I thought any person could handle.Thankfully, the burns weren’t bad enough to blister, and it seemed as though Melody got the brunt of it.We left the room for the cover of tables with umbrellas and then some shopping at the two boutiques at the resort.I didn’t venture out much on my own other than to procure a few items from the convenience store.

By Wednesday, they were back in action, albeit covered up with newly purchased gauzy bathing suit covers, wide-brimmed straw hats, and sunglasses to cover the awful raccoon eyes on their faces.Thankfully, I hadn’t spent enough time in the sun to color much more than a soft base tan.

“What do you want to do tonight?”Melody asked from a tree-covered hammock.

“Dinner at the French place?”Sarah offered.

“As long as I don’t have to eat snails.”

“There’s much more to French food than snails!”I laughed as I sipped on the Dirty Banana Wes had made for me.

“Do we have to dress up?”

“I think so.No big deal.We leave in two days and you two have spent the last two in bed with sunburn.We’re getting dressed up.”

“Bossy!Fine, I’ll get dressed up.Can I at least wear my sunglasses?”

“Yes, you can wear your sunglasses.”

“Thank you.Can you get me one of those banana thingies you’re drinking?”

“Yup.Be right back.”

Keeping to the cobblestone path, I walked up to Wes’s bar and asked for three Dirty Bananas.

“Caroline from New Jersey!”Jim waved me over from a table.He was sitting with three other guys.

I grabbed the drinks, carefully balancing three between my hands, and walked over.“Jim from Kansas.Fancy meeting you here.”

“I didn’t see you around yesterday.”

“I was with my friends.”I pointed with both hands to the area where the girls sat and nodded.“They got really bad sunburn on Monday.”

“That sucks.What’re you doing later?”

“Probably just relaxing.Don’t you have that wedding tonight?”

“Yeah.This is my brother Tom and his two friends Alex and Joe.”

“Hi.”

“If you and your friends aren’t busy, maybe we could all meet up after.”

“Yeah, maybe.Well, good luck tonight.Congratulations.Nice to meet all of you.”I started walking away when Jim jumped up.

“Let me get that for you.”He took two of the drinks from my hands and walked over to the girls with me, handing each of them their drink.

“Well, Caroline, I’ll see you around.”

“Thank you.See you.”

Melody pulled her sunglasses down to the tip of her nose as she watched shirtless Jim walk away.“Who”—she paused dramatically—“was that?”

“That’s Jim from Kansas.He goes to the University of Miami and his brother is getting married tonight.”

“He’s a baby!”Sarah laughed.

“He’s hot!”Melody declared.

“He’s a child!”I countered.

“Who cares?He’s hot, seems to be available, and is totally into you.”

“Whatever.”The last thing on my mind was getting to know someone.I was not in the frame of mind to get to know anyone.

“I know exactly what you’re thinking, Care.You don’t want to get wrapped up in any nonsense.You feel like you have some sort of moral code that you’d like to keep intact, even if you busted through it the other night.”Sarah pushed a lock of hair out of my face.“What you don’t understand is that you don’t have to deal with nonsense.You don’t have to worry about breaking any rules.Do you know why?”

“Because I’m on vacation.”Injecting boredom into my voice did nothing to quell her spirit.

“And what happens in Jamaica stays in Jamaica!”Melody cheered.

“I thought it was what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas?”

“I have it on good authority that the message is transferrable.Wherever you are, it applies.”

I looked over at Jim, laughing with his brother and friends.He caught me looking and waved.

“Isn’t that a bit much?I mean sex with two guys in less than a week?”

“Time stops when you’re on vacation.Everything gets pulled into the black hole.And besides, there aren’t as many sluts as you’d like to think.Most are just women with very welcoming vaginas,” Melody said, obviously pleased with herself.

“Look, Melody and I can’t score now.We look like lobster raccoons.We need you to take one for the team and bang the baby over there.Do it for all womankind, Care.Do it for us.”

“He invited us to hang out after the wedding tonight.”

“Us?”Melody perked up.

“I thought you were a lobster raccoon?”I laughed.

“Maybe one of his friends is into that kind of thing.”

Were they really trying to talk me into having sex with Jim just so they could live vicariously through me?I’d lived vicariously through them enough for twelve lifetimes.I’d listened to their stories, pined over the sexual freedom afforded to them by their mind-set.I never thought I could be that girl.I never thought I could have random sex.But I can and I did.And it was kind of awesome.

But didn’t I already do just that?And was it really a one night stand if he and I were seeing each other again next week?Could Jim be the real and true one nighter I’d been hoping for?No strings?No awkward running into each other at the gym?No ridiculously hot roommate to lust after?


Page 11

“I’ll do it.”

“You’ll what?”

“I said I’ll do it.I need to prep a bit though.We need lunch and I need drinks.”

I’d avoided Jim the rest of the day, hoping for a bit of spontaneity.

At sundown, the girls and I headed out for our fancy French dinner.We were dressed to kill.We watched the wedding from the terrace.It was beautiful.I saw Jim in the requisite island wedding attire—khaki shorts and a white button down—standing beside his brother.I watched as the bride and groom kissed and my belly dropped.I used to want marriage with Steven.I used to want children, a house in the suburbs, and a minivan.At that moment, on Thanksgiving eve, watching two people get married on the shores of Jamaica at sunset, I had no idea what I wanted anymore.

Melody and Sarah kept sneaking not so subtle glances in my direction, probably wondering if I would go through with it.When I saw the bridal party begin walking off the beach, I summoned the lady balls I’d grown last Saturday and chugged back a half glass of wine.I waited until I saw Jim semialone, eyeballed the girls, and made my way over to him.I not so accidentally brushed up against him.

“Oh, excuse me.”

“Caroline!”

“Jim?”I pretended I didn’t know what I’d done.

“You look—wow.You look great.”He took my hand before kissing me on the cheek.From the smell of it, he was half in the bag with me.

“So do you.So, your brother got married, huh?”I looked around at the intimate gathering of what I assumed to be family and a few very close friends.

“Yeah.”

“I don’t want to intrude.I’ll let you get back to them.”I turned to walk away and he grabbed my wrist.I played coy, but inside my stomach was doing somersaults.

“You aren’t intruding.As a matter of fact, my brother and his wife are probably going back to their room.And everyone here is just going to continue drinking.”

“Oh, well—”

“Are your friends here?I can introduce them to my friends.”

I looked around and noticed the two girls were already laughing with the pair of young men I’d met earlier.

“Looks like they’ve introduced themselves.”

I made sure to make steady eye contact and slow blinked the way Melody taught me.It felt dumb and uncomfortable but it seemed to work.

“Looks like it, huh?Wanna go somewhere?”

“We’re on an island, there aren’t many places to go.”

“We could just, I don’t know, go for a walk and see where that takes us.”

“I’d like that.Let me just let my friends know.”

“I’ll grab you a drink.What would you like?”

“Wine is good.White, please.”

I hurried over to Sarah and Melody, who were half watching with obvious interest.

“We’re going for a walk.Don’t wait up.Is there anything in my teeth?”

Sarah inspected.“Nope.You’re good.”

I handed her my shoes and kissed each one on the head before hurrying back over to Jim.

“Thanks,” I said as he handed me a plastic cup, full to the top, of wine.I looked at him and cocked my head.

“I figured plastic was better than walking around with glass.I can change it for you.”

I took a sip.“Nope, this is fine.”

We stood in front of each other for minutes in silence.The longer the silence stretched, the more I drank.

Just as the situation was about to get awkward, he downed his cup of liquid courage, grabbed a towel from a beach bag, and took my hand, sliding his fingers between mine and tilting his head toward the beach.

Finding a semisecluded spot on the beach under a tree, we laid out the towel and flopped down.I stretched out my legs, flexing my feet.Jim scooched forward, took my right foot in his hand, and began massaging it.

He dragged his fingers between my toes, pushed his thumbs into the arch of my foot, and kneaded the pad of my heel with his knuckles.I leaned back against the tree and closed my eyes.It was heaven.Until my eyes shot open when he put my toes in his mouth.

I didn’t know whether to cringe or moan in excitement.I couldn’t pull it away.There was nothing I could do but shift uncomfortably, lean back, and close my eyes again.

I felt his tongue slowly leave my toes and move along the top of my foot.Much better.That was something I could get used to.His mouth played along my shin as his hands massaged my calf.Definitely something I could get used to.

His mouth reached my knee and the butterflies returned to my stomach.With every lick, the tingling between my legs grew.As his hands gently pushed up my dress and found their way to my inner thighs, I exhaled the breath I’d been holding.I could feel the scruff on his chin delicately rub against me.Tangling my hands in his hair, I pushed his head farther into me.His breath was cool against my rising heat.His tongue was soft against my firm clit.He licked and sucked until I all but passed out.

Quickly, he grabbed me by the hips and pulled me down underneath him.His mouth crashed on mine and the tongue that had explored my leg now explored my mouth.With one hand behind my head, he used the other to unbutton his pants.I reached down and pulled my dress up to my waist then gripped him, guided him where I wanted him to go.Shifting my panties over, he pushed deep into me and I cried out.

He was insatiable.The rhythm was quick, our mouths moved, frenzied with want.He bit my lip and pulled as I sank my nails into his firm ass, pulling him farther into me.He pulled the straps of my dress down so my breasts were exposed.Hungrily he took a nipple in his mouth and sucked hard until I thought I would scream in pleasurable pain.

I felt the familiar vibration rise inside me and I came harder than I ever had before.Gripping my hair, he thrust more forcefully until he emptied himself.

Breathing heavily, we lay still for a long while.He nuzzled my neck and nibbled on my earlobe.I was still quivering from the aftershocks when he suggested we go to his room.

The next morning, I tiptoed back into my room, hoping to make a quiet entrance.No such luck.

“Well, look who’s rolling in.Did the walk of shame, did we?”Sarah wiggled her eyebrows.

“Looks like she’s the only one of us who got lucky last night.”

“Shut it.I’m starving.Let’s get some breakfast.”

At the small café, I saw Jim and his family having breakfast.We locked eyes over coffee, fruit, and a dozen people I’d never met.He took a sip of his coffee, tilted his head toward the beach like he did the night before, excused himself from the table, and walked away.

“I’ll be right back.Or not.”

“Where are you going?You’re not going to finish eating?”Sarah asked.

Melody looked toward Jim and smiled.“Just don’t forget we leave tomorrow.”

Chapter Nine

On Monday, I woke up before my alarm.I rolled out of bed, looked out my window, noticing a thin dusting of snow covering the sidewalk, and sighed.The sun of Jamaica suddenly seemed so long ago.Thankfully the throbbing between my legs had all but disappeared.First-day jitters were on high alert.I fell asleep the night before alternating my thoughts between Jim, Ryan, Brian, and my new job.Maybe Sarah was right; there was more to life than singular focus.

In time, I thought to myself.I’d spent the better part of the past five years lost in what I thought was a perfect relationship.It wasn’t until I took a step back, wallowed in vats of hot fudge sundaes, and shed tears over every chick flick and romantic comedy that my vision had cleared.

Steven and I weren’t perfect.Far from it.But we projected perfection and that, in the end, is what kept us together.Our relationship made his family happy.Honestly?I think the breakup was a rebellion on both our parts.I was tired of dinner parties and galas and client meetings.Steven was tired of holding his daddy’s expectations on his shoulders.Of course, that still doesn’t excuse him from shoving his dick in the nearest undergrad he could find and screwing her in the bed where I slept.

I shuffled, still tired from tossing and turning all night, into the bathroom.The water, a few degrees below scalding, cleansed extraneous gunk from my thoughts.Jim.Ryan.Brian.Sex.Steven.Sore vaginas.Everything slowly slipped down the drain, at least for the time being.Train schedules and anxiety—but good anxiety—took over.Where would this job take me?Who would I meet?Will I love it?

I shook my head.None of it mattered.Today, I thought,I am starting over.

“Care!”Sarah’s banging on the bathroom door slammed me back to reality.“Don’t use up all the hot water!”

“Sorry!”I called back before quickly rinsing out my conditioner and forgoing the armpit shave.It was winter, it wasn’t like I was going sleeveless.

I stepped out, wrapped a towel around myself, and opened the door.

“You know, ten minutes means you’re clean, any more than that and you’re jerking off,” Sarah said as we did the enter-exit dance.

“Girls don’t jerk off!”I yelled back as I walked to my room.

“Okay, technically they jill off.Your battery-operated boyfriend proves that.”Sarah giggled before closing the door.

I stood staring at the clothes hanging in my closet.Pretty much everything I owned was business attire.I wasn’t sure if the new job was as strict in their company dress code.I wasn’t a lawyer at the law firm but I certainly dressed like one.An assistant editor job spoke, to me, of something more laid back, casual but not sloppy.Stylish, not stuffy.

I threw shirts and dresses and pants and suits all over my room until I settled on a pair of very cool gray skinny jeans, a blousy white top, and a black blazer.I popped my thick black frames on my face after I’d applied enough makeup to sufficiently erase the lack of sleep the weekend provided.

In the kitchen, I found Sarah sitting at the table with dry toast and a huge cup of black coffee.I grabbed my mug from the dish drainer and filled up.After copious amounts of sugar and cream, I sat across from her, reaching for a piece of toast from her plate.

“Morning.You’re up early.”

“Morning.I have to meet with the science department before school starts.I think they’re changing the curriculum.Again.”She shrugged.

“The trials and tribulations of a high school science teacher.”

I loved the fact that we were so different.In college, my nose was stuck in the classics like Voltaire, Dickinson, and Shakespeare, while Sarah was memorizing the periodic table and dissecting pigs.

She lifted her eyes from the notes she was looking over.“Thehothigh school science teacher.You look cute.”

“Thanks.I didn’t want to look too stuffy.You think this is okay?”

“I don’t see why not.What are you going to be doing all day?Reading manuscripts and fixing them up to become best sellers?I figured all you’d need is some comfy jammies and my grampa’s recliner.”

“I am pretty sure there is more to it than that.Eventually.Right now, I think I’m basically a secretary to the editor.”

Sarah looked down at my bare feet.“What shoes are you wearing?”

“I don’t know.What do you think?Heels?Boots?”

“Well, not that you’re an intern”—I cringed at the word—“but you’ll be working with some kids right out of college, right?”

“Not sure.”

“Well, sweetie, I think assistant is just a formality.You have loads of experience working PR at the law firm, writing briefs, all kinds of things.I think you need to walk in there with shoes that say ‘That’s right, bitches.I will own this joint.’I say heels.Ooh, maybe that cute patent leather pair you bought right before we left for Jamaica.”

I stared at her a beat.“I’m going to have to concur.”

I downed the last of my coffee and jumped up from the table.I heard Sarah mutter as I walked away, “That’s right, bitches.”


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Chapter Ten

The train ride into the city was not uncomfortable, unless of course you count the stale smell of sweat, resignation, and exhaustion.Normally, I’d people-watch, but I was too preoccupied with new beginnings.I dug my e-reader out of my bag, hoping to refresh myself with the manuscript I’d been assigned.There was nothing I loved more than reading and I wasn’t a genre snob.Give me a shampoo bottle and I’d read it.Magazine?Cover to cover.Brand-spankin’-new manuscript that the rest of the world had never seen?All day long.

Lost in the author’s impeccable world building, I barely registered the text message that chimed on my phone.Melody.

Kick some publishing ass!You’ll do great!

I smiled.I honestly had the best friends in the world.My circle was small but I couldn’t imagine my life without either Melody or Sarah.It was like the universe knew no one else could tolerate us.

Before I could reply, a new message chimed through.

Good luck on your first day.

I smiled a bit but I had no idea who the message was from.

Thank you.Who is this?

I stared at my phone.It was two more stops before I received an answer.

Someone who loves checking out your ass.

Brian.I had no idea how he got my number.I could only assume Ryan gave it to him.I couldn’t help but wonder why Ryan would give my number to his roommate.

I didn’t have much time to ruminate; my stop was next.I packed up my things, pulled on my gloves, and checked out my face in my mirror.I was pale but it was nothing a little lipstick and a text from Brian couldn’t brighten up.

I shuffled off the train, herded like cattle through tight corridors and powerless escalators.It felt like hours before I finally emerged from the massive building into the sun.I lined up with the rest of the worker bees for a taxi.I was really going to have to figure out the subway system but, at that moment, I didn’t want to go back underground.It wasn’t that far of a walk, but I hadn’t thought much about sensible footwear when I got ready earlier.Plus, trudging through the slushy sidewalks was not my idea of a good time.I was grateful to hop somewhat quickly into a cab.

It wasn’t long before I was dropped off in front of the building.Taking it in, I nearly pinched myself.Finally, a dream job I wouldn’t have to sell my soul for.Double-checking my bag and fully confident I’d make my mark with this job, I walked in through the heavy glass doors.

“Hi.Good morning.My name is Caroline Frost.Today’s my first day.I am supposed to meet with Oscar Little.”

The receptionist picked up the phone and announced my arrival.

“Mr.Little is expecting you.Take the elevator to the twelfth floor.He’ll meet you there.”

“Thanks.”

“Good luck.”

I smiled, thankful she wasn’t a twenty-year-old intern.I’d had enough of those in my life.

The twelfth floor pinged my arrival as the doors slid open and the most beautiful man I’d ever seen stood in front of the open doors talking with Mr.Little.Mr.Little reminded me of my grandfather—tall, gray, and dressed in a well-tailored suit.The other man wore Vans, a pair of distressed jeans that probably cost more than my entire outfit, an untucked white button-down, and a peacoat.I couldn’t tell his age, other than he was maybe my age or possibly a little older.With a mess of blond wavy hair, he looked as though he belonged on a beach somewhere instead of standing in an office building in the middle of the city.He reminded me, a bit, of Jim from Kansas.My lady parts woke up at the thought.

I hesitated a moment before stepping into the reception area of the floor.Standing there, a little self-conscious, I wondered how I should make my presence known, since both men seemed to be deep in conversation.So I did what anyone would do, I stepped closer and cringed as my phone went off.I shoved my hand in my bag to silence it but not before both men turned toward me.

Mortified, I kept my face down until Mr.Little said my name.“Caroline Frost?”

Straightening myself out, I tried to recover but only squeaked out a tiny “yes.”Certain my face was a million shades of red, I stuck out my hand.“Hi, Mr.Little.”

“Hello, dear.Glad to see you again.So happy you’re joining us.This”—he gestured to the Adonis to my right—“is Michael Mortimer.”

I shook his hand, lost for a moment in his piercing chocolate brown eyes, while wondering why his name sounded so familiar.

“Nice to meet you, Mr.Mortimer.”

His laugh was genuine.“Please, call me Michael.So, how’d you like my book?”

That was it!He wrote the manuscript I’d been reading.

“I thought it was great, actually.I didn’t know I’d be meeting you today.”I snuck a side glance at Mr.Little.

“Well, Mr.Little here knows I am completely hands-on when it comes to my work.I couldn’t let the opportunity to meet the person editing it pass me by since I was in town.I do have to say, I didn’t think you’d be so young.”

What was he talking about?He looked about the same age as me!

“Well, I guess that makes two of us, Mister, uh, Michael.I will do my best to take care of your book.I’ve been in contact with Ms.Page, learning the ropes.”

“Well, I am looking forward to working with you.”

“Caroline,” said Mr.Little, “we’ll have Holly show you around.She’ll get you squared away with human resources.Why don’t we meet back up at lunchtime, my office, and we’ll go over your first project?Yolanda has been on a much needed vacation.But I am glad to hear you’ve been in touch since the interview.”

“Sounds excellent.I’m looking forward to it.”

Holly was a well-put-together woman who was, if I had to guess, in her early sixties.With auburn hair, flawless skin, and sharp brown eyes, she motioned for me to walk with her.

“Until we meet again, Ms.Frost.I’d love to read your notes on my book.”Michael nodded toward me and winked.I had the distinct impression that he was checking me out.So I added a little swing to my step.

“I’ll have those to you soon.”

Leaving the two men, I felt both overwhelmed and at home.It was the first time since college that I felt as though I had some say over my direction.

Holly walked next to me as we made our way down the hall.She opened a door at the end and motioned for me to enter.A large desk topped with a fabulous flat computer screen was the only item, besides a couple of chairs, in the room.Mostly empty bookshelves lined one of the walls.

“This”—Holly waved her arm—“is your office.”

“Office?I think there is some mistake.”I stepped through the room to the window.Below, cars and taxis played chicken with pedestrians.

“Mr.Mortimer is an important client.He expects the best from the people that work with him.And since you were handpicked—”

“Handpicked?I just got the job!”

“I only know what I’m told, dear.You can place your things in here.Later you and I can go over what else you’ll need to make the space workable for you.For now, there are a few trade books on the shelves, copies of Mr.Mortimer’s first two novels and a few other things that were left here by the last assistant editor.”

“But I don’t understand.”

Holly’s eyes warmed.“I’ve learned over the years, sweetie, that when something wonderful and unexpected happens, you should never question it.Now, you can leave your things here.I’ll take you to human resources.”

The rest of the morning passed like a whirlwind.Books and files were brought into my office, I met and shook hands with everyone I’d be working with.It was the most amazing place I’d ever worked.And I hadn’t even clocked in a full day!

I had about a half hour before I had to meet Mr.Little in his office.I picked up the phone and dialed Melody’s office.

“Melody Ashford.”

“Mel, I swear to God I work in Bizarro World.Everyone here is so freaking happy, so nice.”

“Well, that’s unfortunate.”

“I know, right?I honestly am not sure if any of these people speak sarcasm or snark.”

“Imagine working in a place where people are nice.I feel bad for you.”

“See!That comment right there!I know you’re being sarcastic but the people here, I honestly think they’re too nice to see that.”

I could tell Melody thought I was off my rocker.I wasn’t complaining, not in the least.I think I was more surprised than anything else.

“Oh!And I met Michael Mortimer today.”

“And Michael Mortimer is…”

“The guy who wrote the manuscript I’ve been reading.And Mel, he’s hot.”

“Then put a bull’s-eye on his ass and make him a target!”

“I can’t do that.I work with him, or will be working with him.And besides, it’s not the point.I have an office, too!”

“No cubicle?”

“Nope.”

“Are they hiring?”

“I can check.”

“Kidding.Look I have to run to a meeting with my boss to discuss the financials of the merger.Have fun and fill me in later.Drinks at Murphy’s?”

Murphy’s?“Sure, yeah.I guess.See you then.We can discuss my date with Ryan on Friday.”

“I almost forgot about that.Yes.We will discuss.Talk later, doll face.”

“Later.”

I could feel my cheeks flush and butterflies rouse to life in my stomach.I wasn’t sure I was ready to go back to Murphy’s.I would undoubtedly see Brian.Then again, what did it really matter?

Making my way to Mr.Little’s office, I took my time and absorbed everything around me.People were laughing, smiling, and having fun.A complete one-eighty from my previous job.Working at the law firm, looking back, was like dealing with a different crisis every other minute.Always so serious, always so cold.Everyone there was looking for someone else to stand on while they climbed their way to the top.That was never my style and I should have seen it.Unfortunately I was so blinded by my relationship with Steven that I failed to see the job was slowly sucking the life out of me.I have no idea how anyone could live and thrive in that environment.

Holly waved me into Mr.Little’s office.He was on the phone but motioned for me to take a seat across from him.As soon as he clicked off, all his attention was on me.

“So, Caroline, it’s been only a few hours but how’s your first day been so far?”

“It’s been great.Better than great, actually.Everyone is so nice and helpful.And I had no idea I’d have my own office.”

“Well, it’s a small office.We try to make everyone feel at home.We like to treat everyone so they feel like part of a family.The office is just a way of our saying thank you.You came highly recommended and anything I can do to make your transition easier, let me know.And of course you’ll be assisting Mortimer’s editor.As a matter of fact, she’ll be joining us for lunch.”


Page 13

“I can’t wait to go over my notes with her.”

“Why don’t you go get your coat and we’ll meet at the elevator?Mr.Mortimer will be joining us as well.”

“We aren’t eating here?”

“No.Since it’s your first day, I figured somewhere special was called for.”

Waiting at the elevator, I heard someone call my name.

“Yes?”

A slight woman who looked as though she was barely old enough to drive ran up to me.“Hi, these arrived for you a few minutes ago.”

In the woman’s hands was a huge vase filled with a bouquet of wildflowers, my favorite.The first name that popped into my head was Brian.I shook off the stupid thought.

“They’re beautiful,” the woman commented.

“Well, thank you, um—”

“Erica.”

“Thank you, Erica.I’ll just put these in my office.”

“I can do that for you.There’s a card.”Excitement radiated in her voice.

It was obvious she was interested to know who sent them and probably wouldn’t let me leave unless I opened the card in front of her.I pulled it out and read it.

Beautiful flowers for a beautiful girl.Good luck on your first day.Call me.~Steven

Anger and annoyance vibrated through me.

“So, who’re they from?Your boyfriend?I wish my boyfriend would send me flowers.”

“What?Oh, no one.Thanks.You can keep them if you want.”I crumbled the card in my fist.

“Oh, I just couldn’t.Someone put a lot of thought into these.”

“No, really.Keep them.I’m allergic.”I felt bad lying to her, she seemed so nice.But the last thing I wanted was for my past to collide with my present and future.

“Caroline, are you ready?”

Mr.Little walked toward me.I stifled a giggle when I saw him pull on a wool Jets hat.Definitely not the look I was expecting from him.

“Absolutely.Let’s go.”

“Erica, the flowers are beautiful!”

“Oh, Mr.Little, they aren’t—” Erica responded, looking at me.

“Aren’t they?Gorgeous.”I winked at her as Mr.Little and I entered the elevator.The last thing I saw was her face break into a huge smile as the doors closed.

Chapter Eleven

On our way to the small restaurant, Mr.Little walked as if he wasn’t in a hurry, a departure from the hustle and bustle surrounding us.He made a point to comment on window decor, street vendors, and random people who caught his eye.He was certainly an interesting man.

He spoke about the company, the clients, and, more fondly, about the people who worked for him.He liked to know what was going on in his company but liked to keep distance enough that people didn’t feel as though they were being watched.A strategy that was foreign to me, coming from a work environment where movement, in and out the door, was constant and almost expected from those who worked there.

We turned the corner and, as we were passing a bus stop, I halted in my tracks.My gloved hand flew to my mouth and I gasped loud enough to cause passersby to turn their heads as they moved on.On a poster, in the middle of the city, on the side of a bus stop shelter, in his underwear, advertising some men’s brand of clothing I hadn’t heard of, was Ryan.I was so thrown off I stumbled and dropped my phone, cracking the glass face.

I’d seen this man naked.I’d done unspeakable, albeit memorable both mentally and physically, things with this man.And there he was.Full-size on a poster, in the middle of the city, on the side of a bus stop shelter, in his underwear.The facts repeated over and over in my head like a scratched vinyl record.A pair of underwear that he obviously filled out in ways many others could not stretched across his groin.

I caught myself staring, open mouthed, head tilted, with my eyes zeroing in on every muscle that, only a week ago, had stretched across my body.At hands that had touched me in ways I’d never been touched.At the mouth that…I shook my head to dispel the direction my brain was taking.

“Caroline?Caroline?Are you okay?”

A muffled voice was calling my name.It was a moment before I rejoined the present.Mr.Little had a look of concern on his face.With the Jets hat inching up his head and his face reddened from the cold air, it should have been comical.But it wasn’t.

“Caroline?Are you all right?Do you need to sit down?You look very pale.”

“No, no.Thank you.I’m okay.I just thought, I wasn’t, um, sure if I turned off the coffeemaker this morning.Then I remembered it has an auto-off function.”I hoped my stuttering lie didn’t alarm Mr.Little.Sneaking a sideways glance as I bent down and fumbled my phone back into my hands, I saw his face morph back to calm.

I wanted, more than anything, to run home and dive under the covers and refuse to emerge until Ryan was a distant memory.But I couldn’t.The butterflies in my stomach, the throbbing memory in my panties, and the perspiration sliding between my breasts told me there was no way Ryan would be forgotten so easily.The fact that I was standing in the middle of the sidewalk with my new boss staring at me kept me from bolting.

Why couldn’t I have picked up a nice, normal man?Why couldn’t I have homed in on a target that was obscure, unknown, and didn’t look so damned good in—and out—of his underwear?I decided to throw caution to the wind and planned out my first one night stand.My first true act of irresponsibility and I bring home a fucking underwear model.

Go big or go home.

Thankfully, Mr.Little was quietly whistling to himself the rest of the short walk to the restaurant.As he held the door for me, I thought I would normally be thankful for the warmth of the indoors but, truthfully, I was warm enough from my photographic run-in with my very own, honest to goodness sex god.

Michael Mortimer was sitting at a window table chatting on the phone.To his left was a thin black woman with her hair pulled severely back into the tightest bun I’d ever seen.It gave me a headache just looking at it.Her attire commanded respect.Wearing a deep navy pants suit with matching heels and a pair of wire-rimmed glasses perched on her nose, the woman studied the menu with intensity.Despite the severe outer shell, she emanated warmth and approachability.From just the one time we’d met, she made me feel welcome and comfortable.It was because of her that I knew this was the job for me.

“Yolanda!”Mr.Little called to the woman as the maître d’ took his coat.

The woman stood and stepped toward him.

“Oscar, how lovely to see you.”

She kissed the air on either side of his cheeks.

“You remember”—Mr.Little motioned for me to step forward—“Caroline Frost.She’ll be your new editorial assistant.”

I held out my hand.“Nice to see you again.I hope your vacation was restful.”

She smiled.“It wasn’t quite as restful as it should have been, but then again, when is it ever?Have you read the manuscript?”

“Yes.I brought the notes with me if you’d like to go over them.”

“Don’t be silly.We”—she motioned toward the table—“are at lunch.We will go over them when we return to the office.”

She turned from me and resumed her position at the table studying the menu.

The waiter held my chair out for me and I ended up sitting between Michael and Mr.Little, with Yolanda directly across from me.She snuck a glance at me over the menu.I smiled but her brow furrowed and she went back to the menu.

Michael put down his phone and looked at Mr.Little.“Sorry, Oscar.That was my agent.Something about foreign rights and some production company snooping around.Caroline, nice to see you could join us.Have any notes for me?”

“Oh, let’s not make this a working lunch.”Yolanda didn’t make eye contact.You’d think with the way she was scrutinizing the menu she’d have the thing memorized already.

“Oh, Yolanda.You’re no fun.I’d like to hear what Caroline thinks.”

“I really liked it.”I began, careful not to give too much information.I’d rather not piss off the woman I’d be spending the next however many months with editing a manuscript.

“You liked it?How pedestrian, darling.Are you sure you read it thoroughly?”I did a double take.Where did the nice Yolanda go?

“Not everyone can be as hard-nosed as you, my dear Ms.Page.”

If I didn’t know any better, and I probably didn’t, I’d have thought Michael was flirting with her.I had the feeling he flirted with everyone.

“If she is going to work with me, Michael, she’d better learn to be.”

Nothing like having someone talk about you as if you weren’t in the room.Mr.Little was looking at me with an expectant look on his face.What did I have to lose?

“Actually, Ms.Page—”

“For goodness sake, call me Yolanda.”She waved me off with her hand, bracelets clinking as she did.At least the smile reached her eyes.

“Okay.I did notice a small plot hole in the story.The protagonist’s wife could not have been a witness to the crime.She was out of the country.In addition, there are a few other issues I’ve taken note of and you and I can discuss those after lunch.Back at the office.”I added the last part to let her know she and I were on the same page.I would be working closely with the woman and I certainly didn’t want to start things off on the wrong footing.

I held my breath.Mr.Little was beaming at me and Michael was watching me with his chin resting on his hand.His long fingers stretched up the side of his cheek and for a moment I could focus on nothing but those fingers.They reminded me of Ryan’s.

“Well, Caroline.”Yolanda placed her napkin in her lap.“I look forward to speaking with you, at length, about the manuscript.For now, however, I think we need to order.”

I slowly blew out the breath I was holding.

“Yes.I am starving.What’ll it be?”Michael picked up his menu for the first time since I arrived.I followed suit as the waiter arrived at our table.

Yolanda ordered first.“I’ll have a cup of the vegetable soup with the grilled Brie and pear panini.Half sandwich, please.”

“Make that two.”I figured if she thought we had similar interests, even if it was just a lunch order, she might warm up to me.

Mr.Little ordered the lobster bisque and steak sandwich.I was surprised to find Michael order nothing but a plate of French fries.

“French fries?”

“What can I say?I love them.And they aren’t your regular plate of potatoes.These are smothered in cheddar, horseradish, and roast beef au jus.Of course, I have to run five miles a day in order to keep eating them.”

I took a sip of my water and Michael winked at me.I swallowed wrong and felt like I was coughing up a lung.I excused myself and choked the whole way to the bathroom.Slamming the stall door shut, I finally gained control of myself, pulled out my phone, and texted Sarah.

Change of plans.Forget Murphy’s.Meet me in front of my office building.Tell Mel.

She replied:K.

Fixing my lipstick in the mirror, I thought about all the changes in my life over the past few months.I decided then and there that I would learn as much from Yolanda Page as I could, no matter what it took.

As soon as I stepped out of the bathroom I ran into Michael.

“Hi.”God, he was close.

“Hi.”

He smelled like coconut.

“Hi.”I already said that.

“Listen, I hope you didn’t get the wrong impression about me back there.”He rubbed his thumb across his lower lip.I wanted to reach up and bite it.

Wow.He was really close.I pressed my back against the wall and shook my head to loosen the dirty thoughts swirling through.

“Good, because, well, Yolanda is an amazing editor and Mr.Little has been great to me.I wouldn’t want them to get the wrong impression about our…”—he trailed his long fingers down my arm—“relationship.”That was confusing.

I watched his mouth as he spoke with perfect pronunciation.His lips were full, giving way to beautiful white teeth.A small dimple formed at the corner of his mouth whenever he smiled.I knew he was saying more, talking more, but I couldn’t concentrate.My knees wobbled and he caught me when I buckled.

Stepping back, he looked at me and smirked.“So, it’s a date?See you at the table.”

He retreated into the men’s room and I was relegated to what felt like the walk of shame back to the table.A date?What did I miss?I really needed to rein in my sex brain when people were talking to me.Thankfully, Yolanda and Mr.Little were talking, so I was left to sit in silence.I wasn’t sure what, if anything, I would say.Was I just sexually harassed?Was Michael Mortimer just full of himself?Did I really care?After five years of being the good girl, the quiet girl, the responsible girl, was I really too terribly concerned that not one but two very good-looking men showed interest?Okay, three if you counted Jim from Kansas.And I did.

Michael arrived back at the table just as the food arrived.He was right, he did not order an ordinary plate of French fries.They were the most addictive things I’d ever tried.For the most part, I ignored his subtle—and not so subtle—come-ons.I think Yolanda, on the other hand, caught on to each.


Page 14

Other than that, lunch was pleasant and I was growing more and more excited about my role in the company.I must’ve lucked out.Apparently, it was the goal of most to work with Yolanda in some capacity.And there I was, the new girl, and the opportunity fell right into my lap.I knew I had a lot to learn and I had no doubt she’d show me the ropes, even if her demeanor flip-flopped between warm and severe.But then again, work was work and I made a promise to myself not to let it overtake my life ever again.I just hoped that thought process would fly with Yolanda Page.

Of course that remained to be seen.What was really weighing on my mind was getting the girls here and taking them to see Ryan on a billboard in his underwear.And that image beat any amount of flirting Michael Mortimer could toss my way.

Chapter Twelve

Imet Sarah and Melody in front of my building at six.I needed to show them what I had seen.Words would never be able to do it justice and I needed them to have the same reaction I had.I needed to know I wasn’t crazy.

“I have to show you something.”There was no time for greetings.I grabbed both girls by the arms and herded them up the street.I walked quickly, keeping the conversation to a minimum.I didn’t want to give it away.I needed them to see it like I had seen it.

“It’s just up here.”

“Care, really.You make us hike all the way into the city?We didn’t have to go to Murphy’s, you know.We were just busting your balls.”

“I don’t have balls.”Fewer words more walking.I was focused; I had a mission not unlike Operation One Night Stand.This was Operation Whatthefuck.

“Don’t be so literal.I’m just saying if you’re too scared to run into Ryan—”

“Or can’t handle being around Bartender Brian—”

“It’s just around this corner.”It was all I could do not to break into a run.

We turned the corner and there he was.Life-size, in his underwear, on a bus shelter, in the middle of the city.The girls, behind me talking in hushed tones, didn’t notice that I had stopped.They both ran into me.

“Care!What the hell?”Sarah questioned in her this-better-be-good voice as she knelt down to pick up her purse.

I said nothing.Instead, I pointed.

I turned to them and watched the realization form in their eyes, surprise contort their faces, and their mouths gape open.Operation Whatthefuck was a rousing success.

“Holy fuck!”Melody squealed as she wobbled on her heels.

“No way!”Sarah ran up to the poster, touching it as if she could somehow feel the hardness of his abs, the smooth lines of his skin, the girth of his dick.“I could wash my panties on those abs!”

“Right?So I’m not crazy?That’s Ryan.”

“Goddamn Caroline!You bangedthisguy?”

“It’s like when Satan decided to put the alphabet in math.Terrifying and curious at the same time.”Melody stepped toward the poster, her jaw dropped in wonder.

“Yeah.”

“He’s in his underwear,” Sarah mentioned quietly.

“I know.”

“On a bus shelter,” she continued.

“No kidding!”

“In the middle of the fucking city!”Melody exclaimed.

My thoughts exactly.Thank God we’re friends.

“When shit like this happens, Care, youdo notkeep calm and carry on.You call in sick and celebrate by getting a tattoo.”

Melody joined Sarah at the poster, inspecting every pixilated inch.Their eyes wide, they took a synchronized step back, cocking their heads to the side.They took him in.They took in their surroundings.The gravity of this turn of events was not lost on them.

I fucked an underwear model.I fucked him until my vagina was bruised enough to need an ice pack the next morning.For a moment, I felt like a celebrity, even if it was only among my friends.

“Caroline, do you know what this means?”

“Yeah, that Ryan is a model.”

“No.Well, yeah but no.It means that not only is he an underwear model, but you Caroline,you, as opposed to every other woman that passes this advertisement, have seen what’s under the briefs.The rest of us can only imagine, fantasize even, about whether or not that right there”—Mel placed her hand over his package—“is stuffed.”

I broke out in a fit of laughter.The seriousness of her tone was priceless.I could have sworn she was going to point out some cosmic fate–type piece of wisdom.Instead, she waxed poetic about the importance of whether or not Ryan’s junk was Photoshopped.

“Cucumber big,” Sarah whispered the words.

“Wait!”Melody spun around and grabbed my arms.The proximity of her face to mine was a bit unnerving.“You’re going out with him on Friday.”

Reality crashed down and I thought my heart would stop.Backing up with my hands raised in front of me in defense, I shook my head.“I can’t go out with him on Friday.I can’t go out with him ever!”

“Why not?”Sarah stopped ogling the poster long enough to ask.

“Well, because look!He’s a fucking underwear model!What the hell would he want with me?That’s too much pressure.”I bent down with my hands on my knees and forced myself to breathe.I’d never had a panic attack before and I wondered briefly if I was about to experience one.

“Um, earth to Caroline.Didn’t potato pants willingly go home with you the other night?Didn’t he call you and ask you out again?”

“Yeah, but he probably didn’t mean it.I mean, I ran into him at the gym, he probably felt bad and—”

“Stop it.Stop it right now.Knock that shit off.I don’t get the problem.”Melody truly sounded confused.I wasn’t sure I would be able to explain my newly developed sense of reticence.

“Mel, don’t try to figure me out.You’ll honestly just exhaust yourself.”Hell, I was exhausted trying to figure me out myself.

“Fuckety fuck, Care.Here we go.You know there’s a thin line between silly and stupid.Stop fucking border hopping.”Sarah jabbed her finger at me before stepping away.

“Listen, sweets, I want you to repeat after me.I am good enough.”

“Mel, you don’t get it.”I didn’t get it.

“Repeat after me.I am good enough.”She stood in front of me and placed my face between her hands, staring at me in a way that made me uncomfortable.

I shook my head.

“Jesus Christ, Caroline!You hit the fucking jackpot with this guy as far as physical specimens go.I can’t speak to his intelligence, but fuck!Look at him!Who the hell cares!Let him share your bed for a while.What’s the harm?”Melody threw her hands up in obvious frustration.

“I just don’t understand what a guy like him would see in someone like me.”

“Someone like?”Melody’s eyes bugged out of her head and I thought they’d roll onto the sidewalk.“Unfuckingbelievable.Have you seen yourself?”

Sarah grabbed my shoulders and spun me around so I was looking at myself in the glass reflection of a small store window.

I wasn’t ugly.I knew that.I wasn’t particularly tall.I wasn’t a size zero.But I was in great shape.My hair was shiny, my teeth were white.My jeans hugged my ass; I never needed to wear a bra if I didn’t want to.The sprinkle of freckles across my nose wasn’t annoying.The freckles were fun.I had my mother’s bone structure.I had my father’s eyes.I was pretty.

“I am good enough,” I whispered so only I could hear.

What the hell was I thinking?Where did that moment of self-doubt come from?Was it a residual scar from dating Steven all those years?From working in a thankless, boring job?From never having the balls to follow my heart?Why wouldRyanwantme?No, no, no.

“I am good enough,” I said with more force.

“What was that?”Melody leaned in closer.

“I am good enough.”

It felt good to say the words.

“Thank God, Care.I thought I was gonna have to get you some syrup to go along with that twat waffle attitude.”

“Twat waffle what?”

“Twat waffle attitude.Basically when a woman acts like a douche.”

“Nice.”

“Care, you have to realize who you are, what you are, and all the good that goes along with it.”Sarah grabbed my hand.“We love you and it kills us when you don’t see what we see.And, truth be told, you didn’t see anything but Steven for five years.We sat by and watched as you disappeared.We know it will take time, but we can see the old Caroline coming back.”

I smiled.“You’re right.I don’t know what I was thinking.”

“Well,” Melody began, “it’s not every day you see your most recent bang in his underwear, on a poster, on the side of a bus shelter, in the middle of the city.”

Both women were back to staring at Ryan, heads cocked to the side.

“No shit.”I was still tingling from the discovery.I pulled out my broken phone.

Looking forward to Friday.

I shoved my phone in my purse and stared at the backs of my friends’ tilted heads.I swear it was like an epiphany proving, once again, that I needed those two women in my life.They were brought to me by some random divine intervention.

“Come on.I need a drink.”

“I’m starving.”

“You’re always starving.How the hell are you still a size four?”

Melody grinned wickedly.“Lots and lots of sex.”

I laughed.“I think I’m beginning to know a thing or two about that.”

Chapter Thirteen

The week sailed on.By Friday, I’d learned more about the publishing industry and revising and editing manuscripts and contracts than I thought my brain could process.It was wonderful.Yolanda, though quite terse when she was engrossed in work, was a great mentor.Of course, her remarks would have weakened my knees a few months prior but I was able to see she was molding me.And I was determined to use the woman for everything she could teach me.I was happy to stay on her good side.

Fortunately, it wasn’t hard to figure out how to do that.I’d learned quickly that a big ego needed stroking and positive reinforcement and if that’s what it took to make Yolanda happy then that’s just what I’d do.

Michael, on the other hand, was a bit harder to read.And I couldn’t quite figure out why he was hanging around the office.One minute he was sullen and short, fitting the moody author stereotype and the next minute he was full of ego and self-confidence.When he was the latter, he was sure to hit on me in what had become typical Michael Mortimer fashion—crude, crass, and direct.There was no beating around the bush with him.He’d taken an interest in me and he was sure to let me know when the mood suited him.

Michael was a good-looking guy, and had the brains to match the exterior package, but I still didn’t know what was going on with Ryan.Not that I wanted a relationship.God!It was the last thing I needed.But if I was going to sleep around, I needed it to be with one person at a time.

By late Friday afternoon, I was at my desk packing up my things for the weekend.Streaming my favorite radio station kept my mood light, and considering I had quite a bit of reading to do between then and the following Monday, I was in a great mood.I’d hoped for an easy few days off but Yolanda wasn’t having it.It was a good thing I enjoyed the work.And at least I had a date later that night.Sarah and Melody had slammed the door on my self-doubt, effectively helping me to see excitement in new possibilities.

I kicked off my shoes and started dancing to an upbeat song.Using my pencil, I began singing into it like a microphone.

A small knock at the door interrupted me.

“Come in.”

“I’m already in.”

“Michael.I was just, uh…” I dropped my pencil on my desk and willed myself to remain calm.

“Getting ready to leave?”

“Yeah.I have a lot of stuff to go over this weekend.Just making sure I have everything.”

“Did you think any more about what we talked about on Monday?”

Monday.Monday.Monday.I wracked my brain trying to remember if there was anything I missed.

Noticing my struggle with the topic, Michael laughed easily.“I asked if you could accompany me to a dinner next Saturday evening.”

I felt like a deer in the headlights.When the hell did he ask me that?

Walking around my desk, Michael leaned in and whispered, “I asked you when we were at the restaurant.I’ll be out of town until then and I was hoping to get your answer before I left.”

My knees weakened and I remembered.He’d asked when we ran into each other by the bathrooms.And if I remembered correctly, I’d agreed to think about it.Unfortunately I didn’t remember until that moment, so I hadn’t done much thinking.

“Um, well, where is it again?”

“At some restaurant downtown.I’m supposed to do a reading or something.You don’t have to go.I mean, if you have plans.But I spoke with Yolanda and Oscar and they both agreed it would be good for you to represent the company.”

“I don’t have plans.I mean, if Yolanda and Mr.Little think I should go—”

“Well, then.Good.It’s a date.”

“Not a date.”

“I’m sorry?”A smile played mischievously across his lips.

“It’s not a date.I mean, I can’t date you.”

“Do you want to date me?”He was unbelievably close.I swore he could hear my heart speed up.

“That’s not what I meant.I meant, well, I’m pretty sure Yolanda wouldn’t like it.”

“And you care what Yolanda thinks?”

“Of course I do.Plus, I’m not really a fan of office romances.They don’t generally end well for me.”

I visibly shivered as he ran his hand down my arm.

“Calm down, Caroline.It’s just dinner, and a work-related dinner at that.I swear I’ll be on my best behavior.I’ll text you the address.Better yet, I’ll make sure a car picks you up.And wear a dress.”

He pressed his thumb against my bottom lip, grazed his teeth along his, and hesitated a moment before walking out, closing the door behind him.

I fell into my chair.I’d barricaded his advances all week and it suddenly hit me how exhausting it was.The moment I dropped the barrier, he turned my knees to gelatin.I’d have to figure out how to avoid that from happening again.I didn’t need pent-up sexual frustration at the workplace.I had enough of that every time I thought about Brian.I mean Ryan.Whatever.You know what I mean.

The train ride home was uneventful.I read some of the manuscript changes Michael had delivered to Yolanda earlier that day.I couldn’t help but feel like there was something missing in Michael’s writing.Something didn’t quite click.It was fantastic writing and he deserved the accolades he’d received but I just couldn’t put my finger on what was wrong.I shoved papers back into my bag.Maybe I needed time away from it.Plus, every time I read the damn thing a new word that was obviously spelled correctly but looked so damn wrong popped out at me and I spent what seemed like an eternity staring at it, questioning its very existence.

I hung my bag on my shoulder and got off at the next stop.Wrapping my scarf tighter around my face, I walked the two blocks back to my apartment.On the way, Ryan texted me.

Running late.Murphy’s @ 9.Rain check on dinner.Sorry.

That sucked.I was starving and I wasn’t especially interested in returning to Murphy’s.Not that I didn’t want to see Brian, but just that if I was going to be there with Ryan, I didn’t want to be distracted by the butterflies that swarmed whenever I was around him.

Sliding my key into the lock, I was met with Sarah and Melody, who were parked at the kitchen counter, full glasses of red between them.

“Hey!Pour me one.”I placed my bag on the floor and threw my coat over the stained arm of the couch I called my friend.

“Don’t you need to get ready for your date?”Sarah grabbed a glass from the top cabinet and poured me some wine.

“Rain check on dinner.I’m supposed to meet him at Murphy’s at nine.”I took a long swallow.The alcohol warmed me to my toes.“Thanks,” I said, raising my glass.“I needed this.”

“So what are we doing for dinner?”Melody asked, riffling through our stack of take-out menus.

“I thought you had a date with Nick the Dick?”

“I did but we’re playing it by ear.He isn’t a dick, Care.I just had a moment.All women have crazy moments.”

“Crazy?I think you were a step beyond crazy.”

Finishing off the bottle, Melody replied, “Don’t judge me.I was born to be awesome.Not perfect.And besides, you should talk.Weren’t you in a relationship with that couch for a few weeks?”

“Ha ha.Shut up.Sometimes even I question my sanity.Occasionally it replies.And smacks me across the face.”I threw a balled-up napkin at her.

“Dude!You almost spilled.Don’t commit a party foul just because your date got put on hold.”

“So.”I hopped up and opened the fridge.“What are we going to do for dinner?I’m starving.”

“Why don’t we just go to Murphy’s?They have great sandwiches and their French onion soup is to die for.”

I turned and closed the fridge.“I guess we can do that.Why not?I have to meet Ryan there later anyway.Let me change my clothes.Be ready in five.”

“Care, I want to borrow something to wear.I came straight here from work.”

“Sure.Come on.”

“Don’t worry!I’ll just sit here and keep the wine company,” Sarah yelled through the apartment.

Melody ran back to the kitchen, grabbed her glass, and met me back in my room.

“So how was work?”I asked as I stripped off my shirt and walked to my closet.

“Oh, you know.We’re all falling into financial ruin.The economy is going to collapse and only those with stockpiles of gold and bitcoins will make it through the apocalypse.You know, normal stuff.”

“Sounds like fun.”

“It will be.”

“What do you want to wear?”

“I don’t know.I’m hoping Nick will get off work early.”

“What does he do again?”I asked as I riffled through my closet, throwing everything that caught my eye on the bed.

“He’s in a band.”

I froze and had to mentally talk myself out of a sarcastic response.“A band?”I closed my eyes and hoped I didn’t sound judgmental.

“Yeah.He plays guitar.”

“That’s cool.”I finally collected myself enough to face her.“We should go see him sometime.”

“Maybe.”Melody held up a burgundy long-sleeved, low-cut cashmere sweater.“How’s this?”

“With your boobs?It will be perfect.”

“I do have great boobs.My plastic surgeon is a genius.Look, I know Nick isn’t anyone’s dream man but I’ve had enough relationship lemons thrown at me that I now know when to grab the tequila and salt.”She unbuttoned her shirt and threw it on my floor before pulling the sweater over her head.Stepping over to my full-length mirror, she turned to the side and sucked in her nonexistent gut.“Good?”

“It looks great.”

“I wish it covered my ass a bit more.Not everyone can have a tight butt like you.”She walked over and slapped my ass.

“Good genes.Should I wear this?”I held up an off the shoulder baby blue tunic sweater.It was fuzzy and soft.Kind of like jammies.

“Didn’t we just talk about your ass?That will cover it up.”

“Ryan’s already seen my ass.Besides, I’ll keep on the jeans and I can flip it up if I think he forgot what it looks like.”

“True.I like it.”

“Care!You got a text message.Who’s Michael?”Sarah called through the door.

“Michael?”Melody raised her eyebrows.

I opened the door and grabbed the phone.

Looking forward to next Saturday.Don’t forget—wear a dress.You have great legs.

“Michael.I’ll need at least another two or three drinks to explain about Michael.Let’s go and I swear I will fill you two in at dinner.I want your perspective anyway.”

“Why does he want you to wear a dress?Where are you going?”

“He’s an author.There’s a dinner.Let’s get out of here.I need to eat.”

“That bad, huh?”Sarah whispered.

“Um, yeah.That bad.”


Page 15

Chapter Fourteen

At six thirty on a Friday night, Murphy’s was packed for happy hour.Brian was busy behind the bar and when he turned and noticed the three of us walking in, he stopped mid martini shake and winked.

“Dinner or just drinks?”he shouted over the din of people in work attire.

“Both!”Sarah shouted back.

I would have answered but I was momentarily awed.Who knew so many arm muscles flexed when shaking a martini shaker?

“Hold on!I have a table in the back for special guests.”

“Special guests, huh?I bet he’s sending us to the back so he can check out your ass.”

“Not funny.I’m meeting up with Ryan later.”

“At least you remember his name.”

“That’s not funny.”

“It’s a little funny.”

Dropping my shoulders, I acquiesced.“Yeah, I guess you’re right.”

We followed one of the waitresses to the back of the bar, and off to the corner was a huge table for ten.It was just secluded enough to avoid most of the asshattery that was par for the course in a bar on a Friday night but close enough to the pool table to still feel like part of the crowd.

“Drinks?”

“Two bottles of Cab.”

“No problem.Specials are on the board.”

The girls had their noses stuffed into their menus.I was starving but for some reason my attention was on the bar.There were two bartenders to keep up with the drink orders.Brian had his sleeves pushed up to his elbows and I noticed the bar towel tucked into his distressed jeans.I watched as he hopped up on a stool and reached for a bottle on the top shelf.Our waitress was standing off to the side talking to a customer with our two bottles and three glasses on a tray.

“I’m having the French onion.Like I said, it’s so good.”Melody leaned back and stretched her arms over her head.

“Chicken Caesar salad.”Sarah folded her menu and pushed it off to the side of our table.

I hadn’t even looked at the menu.I picked it up quickly, but not before catching the two exchange a look.

“What?”

“I don’t know why you didn’t just go for Brian to begin with,” Sarah offered.

“He wasn’t the target.”I leaned back and crossed my arms over my chest.

“Maybe not.But he is hot.”

“So?”

“So?You haven’t stopped checking him out since we got here.”

“Oh, please.I’m just looking around for our waitress.She’s over there talking to some customer.Not sure what she’s waiting for.”

“Testy much?”

“I’m not testy.”

“I think we still need to hear all about this Michael character.”

“I second that!”Melody raised her hand.

The waitress came just in time to pour the first glass of wine.I suddenly felt like I needed the drink.

I spent the next bottle and a half explaining Michael Mortimer.I described every come-on, every subtle and not so subtle cue, and every reaction from Yolanda.By the time I was finished, I felt like I’d told a life story, and the events were only from the past week!

“So, what do you guys think?”

“You already agreed to go to the dinner thing with him?”Sarah poured another glass as I nodded.

“And he’s hot?”Melody piped in.

“Well, yeah.But is that really the point?Yolanda and Mr.Little want me to go, anyway.”

“Of course it is.Listen, Care.”Melody leaned in.It was Serious Mel time.“Take advantage of the opportunity.So what if this guy’s a weirdo?As long as he’s a decent guy, what do you have to lose?It’s not like you’re promising him anything.It’s a night out with a good-looking guy.”

“But he’s a client!”Sarah chimed in.“That alone should keep her away.Caroline doesn’t want to lose her job over this.It’s like I told you, Mel.Your boss may be hot but, for one, he’s your boss and, two, he’s married.”She ticked off her points on outstretched fingers.

“True.Both of you have valid points.I think, though, this dinner I agreed to would fall under work.Especially since my boss is sending me to represent the company.I mean, Michael’s getting some literary award and if I accompany him to the event in the name of the house then I can chalk it up to work, right?”

“Exactly.”

“Be careful.”

My friends spoke at once.At the same time, a young guy stumbled in our direction and plopped down in the chair next to Sarah.

Though he was dressed nicely, he reeked of alcohol.

“Hey, baby doll,” he slurred, his eyes half closed, as he sidled up to Sarah.Way too drunk to have been drinking only during happy hour.

“Uh, hey.”Sarah pushed his hand off her thigh.Melody leaned over and draped her arm around Sarah’s shoulders.

“What’s up, buddy?”Melody softly rubbed her nose along Sarah’s cheek.

“Just hangin’.Came over to see what you hot chicks are doing tonight.”

“Her.”Melody licked Sarah’s ear.

Sarah turned a lovely shade of crimson as she tried not to laugh.

“Oh, yeah.I’m down with that.”The guy leaned closer and his hand started kneading his crotch.Thankfully my stomach was empty or I would have vomited all over him.

“You might be but we aren’t.I’m strictly into pussy.”The way Melody overpronounced her “p” was actually kind of sexy.I emptied the bottle into my glass, sat back, and watched the show.

The guy’s eyes widened as Melody caressed Sarah’s breasts.Sarah was about to fall into a fit of laughter.Melody, on the other hand, looked as serious as a heart attack.

“Come on.There’s you, me, her.It’s a no-brainer.”

Wine actually came out of my nose.I busied myself cleaning off my face and tried not to break out into a hysterical fit of laughter.

“You know what else is a no-brainer?”Melody leaned in and ran her hands through his hair.

“What?”

Melody whispered in his ear loud enough for the rest of us to hear.“You.”

“Damn straight!”He banged his fist on the table.I think he thought she was complimenting him.

“So,” Melody continued as she licked Sarah’s face, “when the voices speak to you, do you poke them with cotton swabs?”

“Huh?”Horny butterface looked confused.

“There are some ladies over there who’d probably be more into dick than we are.”Melody nodded toward a gaggle of college girls.“Why don’t you go hit them up?Your cock won’t get wet over here,baby doll.”

The guy looked over to where Melody directed him and plastered a huge smile on his face.“Well, if you ladies change your minds, you know where to find me.”He dropped his business card on the table and walked away.

“Hey!”Melody called out to him.

“Yeah?”

“Don’t forget to be awesome, man!”

His face broke out into a lewd smile and, as he turned and walked away, the three of us broke into loud fits of laughter.

“What the fuck, Mel?”Sarah snorted as she shoved her hand in her shirt, putting her boobs back into her bra, then grabbed a napkin to wipe off her face.

“What?As your best friend it’s my duty to always pretend to be your lesbian lover whenever you are getting hit on by an ugly asshole at a bar.”

“You’re awfully convincing.”

“Aw, Care.You jealous?Next time, it’s your turn.”She wiggled her eyebrows and ran her tongue across her lips.

“Weirdo.”

The waitress came by with another two bottles and a martini glass with a pink drink, which she handed to me.

“What’s this?”I lifted the glass, smelled it, and took a sip.

“Wet Pussy.”

I spit out the sip.

“What?”

The waitress looked bored.“Yeah.Brian sent it over.Said you liked kinky drinks.So, you ready to order?”

Melody and Sarah peeked around the corner and waved to Brian, laughing hysterically.

“Well, uh, tell him I said thanks.I’ll have the cheeseburger, medium rare.”

“Fries?”

“Huh?”I was distracted by the view I had of Brian’s ass as he once again climbed the stool to reach the top shelf.

“Do you want French fries?”

“Yeah, sure.”

“Chicken Caesar salad.”

“French onion soup.”

“I’ll be back with your orders.Enjoy your pussy.”I am pretty sure that was sarcasm.

It was Sarah’s turn to spit out her drink.

“Oh my God, Care!”

“He’s just being silly from the other weekend.”

“I don’t know.”

“What time is it?”I pushed to change the topic.

Sarah looked at her phone.“Seven fifteen.Why?”

“Ryan won’t be here until nine.”

“So?”

“So nothing.Just making conversation.”I sipped my Wet Pussy.

Sarah stared at me.“So that’s what our conversations are reduced to?Commentary of the comings and goings of who you’re dating?”

“No.Don’t be an ass.”

“Care, it’s Friday night.Relax.Party on,” Sarah reasoned.

“I like to party,” I mused.

“And by party,” Mel interrupted, “she means take naps.”

“Shut up!”I laughed.They were right.I needed to be less socially awkward.

Thankfully, the waitress brought our food relatively quickly.I was starving.As I took a large bite of burger, Brian walked over, pulled out the chair next to me, and sat down.

“What’s up, ladies?Finally, the crowd is thinning out.”

I couldn’t talk.I had too much food in my mouth.I couldn’t even chew.I was sure a glob of ketchup, or mayonnaise, had made its home at the corner of my mouth.The juice of the tomato squirted onto the table.I averted my eyes, turned my head, stared wide eyed at Melody and Sarah—anything to avoid the painfully embarrassing cavewoman display of my eating a cheeseburger in front of Brian.

“You okay, Care?”Melody asked with a sweet smile on her face.I wanted to punch her.In the face.With a chair.

“That’s an awfully big bite.I didn’t know that much could fit in there.”Brian smiled at me.“Good to know.”

My response was unintelligible and ended with a spray of hamburger meat on Brian’s shirt.I wanted to crawl under the table and die.

“No one likes a spitter, Care.”Sarah pointed out.How lovely of her.I began to choke on my food.

Brian smacked me on the back and laughed.

“Drink something.”He poured a glass of wine from the bottle on the table and pushed it over to me before pulling out his towel and wiping his shirt.

I shook my head, took a sip, and managed to melt the food small enough to fit down my throat.

“Thank you,” I squeaked out.

“Anytime.So you’re meeting Ryan later?”he asked as he pilfered a fry from my plate.

“Yeah.How late are you working?”

“Closing.Fridays are always busy.”


Page 16

“I can see that.Nice drink choice by the way.”I nodded to my empty glass.

“You like that?I have plenty more where that came from, in case, you know, you need someone to help you pick up your target.”He wiggled his eyebrows at me.

It was official.I was going to die of embarrassment.

“So Brian.”Thankfully Sarah realized I was sinking and rescued me.“What do you do when you aren’t tending bar and passing along liquid sexual innuendo to our girl Caroline?”

“You know, I’m trying to give up sexual innuendos.But it’s hard.So hard.”

Thankfully my mouth was not full of cheesy meat when I laughed.

“If you leave the sexual innuendo door open, even the slightest bit, I’ll come crashing through like the Kool-Aid man,” Melody quipped.

“Then remind me to always keep the door locked!”Brian laughed.

“You’re pretty funny, Bartender Brian.It’s a scientific fact that dirty talk and sexual innuendo are the strongest foundations of friendship.”Melody was definitely on board.Anyone expert in dirty banter was tops in her mind.

“Then I’m the best friend one could ever have.Having the ability to turn any thought into a sexual innuendo is a mark of the truly talented.”

“Who knew,” Sarah asked, “the bartender was not only hot but fully entertaining?”

“I just work here.I took it over when my dad died and left it to me.It’s been mine about a year now.”

“So you’re Murphy.”

“Yep.Brian Murphy, at your service.Look, the bar’s heating up again.Need anything, let me know.I’ll stop back later.Oh, yeah, I’ll be sending a few friends back here, too.It’s my only reserved station.You ladies don’t mind, do you?”He looked at me when he asked.

“No.Not at all.The more the merrier.”Melody looked happy.She was probably hoping a guy would come back here and rescue her from Nick the Dick the Guitar-Playing Douche.

As if on cue, three guys walked to the back table.

“Shouldn’t you be working?”A tall man with easy blue eyes and ruffled red hair high-fived Brian.

“I’ll send some pitchers over.Sit, the ladies don’t mind.”

Another one of Brian’s friends, this one with dark eyes, stubble, and short dark hair, smiled.

“You must be Caroline.I’m Dan, this is Drew,” he said, pointing at the redhead, “and this is Berk.”

Berk wore a cardigan, tight white T-shirt, black jeans, and superthick black plastic frames.I liked him already.

“Nice to meet you.How do you knowI’mCaroline?”I teased.

“Ryan and Brian talk so much about you, I feel like I could pick you out in a lineup.Stand up for a minute.”

I stood.

“Turn around.”

I turned around.

Dan lifted my sweater a little bit.“Yup.It’s you.”

I stiffened and turned to face Brian.“So you’ve been talking about me?”

Brian smiled.“Well, I kept going on and on about your personality, then I realized how much of a bonus that ass was.”

Sarah snickered.

“We keep telling her she has a great ass but she doesn’t believe us.”

Dan put his arm around my shoulders.“Well, if you need reminding, just let me know.I feel it’s a public service I provide.”

“And what kind of public service is that?”Melody’s eyes were shining.Maybe Dan would be the one to untie her from Nick.

“Well, pretty lady,” Dan walked around the table and grabbed Melody’s hand, “I think it’s my duty, as a man, to point out the best features of all the beautiful women I meet.”

Gag me.Sarah and I rolled our eyes at each other but it seemed Melody was taking it all in.

“That’s quite a service you provide.”

“And may I say, you fill out that sweater very nicely.”

I prayed that Melody wasn’t falling for his lines.I cringed as she ran her fingers down into her cleavage and Dan stared like he’d never seen tits before.

Then she leaned in closer to him and said, “You know, New Year’s is coming up.I think you should save your resolution till next year.You should try out being a douche for another twelve months.”

The entire table erupted in laughter.Dan was left with a smirk.Brian clapped him on the back and took off for the bar but not before whispering in my ear, “See you later.”

Dan clutched his hand to his chest and fell into the seat next to Melody.“Touché.”

Berk stole fries off my plate while discussing the latest in financial reports.Melody was interested in his thoughts considering she worked in that industry.I guessed Dan did as well, since he followed along.

I had no idea what he was talking about.Sarah didn’t look quite as bored as I was.She was deep in conversation with Drew the Ginger-Haired Wonder.Something about him was very familiar, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.

By the time the second batch of wine and three pitchers were empty, it was a quarter to nine.

“Be right back.”I grabbed my purse and headed for the restroom.Unfortunately for me, I bumped into Betsy the Whore and spilled her drink all down her what-might-pass-for-a-dress-if-she-were-a-middle-schooler.I noticed she was with a group of her similarly dressed slut-whore friends.

“Oh.It’s you.”I started to shrug past her but she put her hand on my arm.

“I’m really sorry, Caroline.”

“I don’t really care, Betsy.”

“I think you do.I think you’re upset because your boyfriend liked me better.I’m really sorry about that.”She pouted her lips.I visualized punching her in the face.

“Oh!That’s right.You fucked my ex.I just ate half a burger.Want those leftovers, too?”

I noticed Brian watching the exchange.I also noticed Steven standing off to the side, looking on with interest.

“You’re funny, Caroline.Too bad you weren’t good enough for Steve.”

Steve?Who the fuck wasSteve?He hated that.

“You know, when you are dead you don’t know that you are dead.It is difficult only for others.It’s the same with stupidity.”

“Poor Caroline.”Betsy had the audacity to laugh along with her friends.Instead of visualizing punching her in the face, I visualized ripping her hair out.

I reached over and took Steven’s drink out of his hand, probably a gin and tonic—I was hoping for something with color—poured it over Betsy’s head, and walked away.

I didn’t look back and instead of heading for the bathroom, I made my way to the bar.

“Caroline, you’re going to scare my customers away.”

“I need a drink.”My hands were shaking.Brian placed his hands over mine to still the vibration.

“Who was that?”He nodded toward Betsy and her supersluts.

“Oh her?That’s Betsy the cock-juggling thunder-cunt.”

His laugh boomed in my ear.“Well, then.Maybe she’s just the type of customer I don’t want in my bar.Plus, any girl who can quote a Blade movie is okay in my book.”

He placed two shot glasses on the bar and filled each with Jack.“Bottoms up.”

“Another,” I said as I slammed the glass down.He filled it up.Three shots later, I really had to pee.

“I have to go to the bathroom.”There was a slur in my words that wasn’t there ten minutes ago.

“You okay?”I pulled my hand away as he tried to place his on it again.I was so pent up I wasn’t sure that physical contact was a good idea.

“Yeah.Are you?”My tone had more bite in it than intended.

“I’m good.”Brian stood and backed up.“Ryan’s here.”He nodded toward the door.

I didn’t know what I felt.Was I happy Ryan showed up?Was I annoyed?Was I frustrated about Brian?Steven?Betsy?

Ryan walked over and kissed me on the cheek before shaking hands with Brian.

“Be right back.I have to pee.”

I left the two of them at the bar and felt both sets of eyes watching me as I walked away.

Chapter Fifteen

Istared in the mirror, hands clutching either side of the sink to stop them from shaking.Why did I care so much?What the hell was it that left me feeling raw and exposed every single time I thought of Steven and Betsy?Leaning my head against the mirror, I stared down at the water flowing from the faucet and wondered why I couldn’t be more like the flowing stream.It was never in one place for longer than a millisecond, new fresh water followed in constant movement.Until it was frozen.Ice didn’t move much.Doomed to view the same scenery until, mercifully, it melted and moved away.Maybe that’s what it was.Maybe I was frozen in time.Maybe I was melting little by little, moment by moment, until I was free.Maybe it would just take longer than two months and a one night stand.

“You okay?”Melody walked into the small bathroom.

“Yeah.I’m fine.I will be fine.”

“I saw what happened.You want to talk about it?”

“Not really.”I pulled a few paper towels from the dispenser, wet them, and patted my face.

Melody pulled a compact out of her purse and handed it to me.“Okay.You don’t have to.”

Opening the small metal tin, I used the pad to swipe the redness from my face.“Who the hell does she think she is?”

Mel leaned back against the wall with her arms crossed over her chest.

I continued swiping away the evidence of tears and dark circles.“I mean, fuck her, right?She’s the one who fucked up.Not me.And where the fuck does she get off calling him Steve?He hates that.He always preferred to be called Steven.”

Reaching into her bag, Melody produced a small tube of cream blush and some mascara.I took the items and continued to fix my face.

“He fucking broke me.He fucking hid me away, and I allowed it.”

Mel stepped to the sink and handed me nude lip gloss.I painted my lips until they were too shiny.

“How the hell did I allow that?How the hell didn’t Isee?”I blotted my lips with a square of toilet paper and turned to face my friend.

“How am I supposed to become the new me if I don’t know how I became the old me?”

She pursed her lips, thinking of what to say.Mel could be crass and over the top but when it came down to it, she was thoughtful when it came to what really mattered.

“I think,” she began, “that maybe you didn’t really know who you were then, either.I think you were sheltered—”

“I wasn’t—”

“Let me finish.I think that maybe you were more sheltered than you think you were.And that’s not a bad thing.”

“I can see that.But I don’t think I should have to apologize for growing up in a great family.I shouldn’t have to be ashamed of having parents and a brother who love me.”My stomach dropped and I felt anger beginning to bubble up.

“Oh goodness no!Please don’t misunderstand me.”She reached out and placed her hand on my arm.“I think that you began to see what was out there and maybe you pulled away from his shadow a bit.I don’t think he liked that.And I think Betsy is more than willing to allow a sugar daddy to take care of her.You, on the other hand, whether you realized it or not, wanted more.You still want more.”

I turned back to face the mirror.Melody was right.Both she and Sarah have been right about all this mess.I hated that I needed the push but I was grateful for it.Every day I felt more independent, more in control of what I want.

“I think you flipped today because you hadn’t had the opportunity to flip before this.Of course it’s still raw.You were together for five years.And he broke your heart.You have every right to react.Just don’t let it consume you.React and move on.”

“React and move on,” I repeated.

“Yes.Now.You have a superhot guy waiting out there for you.A great night of fun and debauchery.Are you going to let trivial people like Betsy and Steven ruin that for you?”

“No.”

“That’s my girl.”

“No,” I said with more force.“Absolutely not.I am starting over.I am taking control of my life.Fuck them.”

“Exactly!”

“Thank you.”

“Oh sweetie, no thanks needed.”

I hugged Melody tighter than I thought possible.She was wrong.I didn’t just have a brother.I had two sisters as well, and who cared if they weren’t blood?They were sisters to me—more even, just the same.

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