Authors: Jen Meyers
Oh. My. God. This guy’s LIPS…my skin was on fire everywhere he touched me, and all I could think wasI have the BEST job in the entire fucking world.
His hands slipped under the hem of my dress, and his fingers grazed the smooth skin of my thighs up to my hips where he discovered…
“Oh, Jesus,” he groaned, his hands sliding around to grab my bare ass. “Have you been commando all night?”
“Mm-hmmm.” I murmured as I sucked on his earlobe.
He lifted me up and I wrapped my legs around his waist, my core coming into contact with his belt. As he carried me to the couch, the leather rubbed mejust rightwith his every step, almost taking me over the edge.
Leather right there? Holy hell. I might just have to buy myself a pair of leather pants.
I was ready for this. SO ready. It had been too freaking long. The last few guys had been complete duds—no surprises there, of course, but I was so glad this guy had worked out.
At least for tonight.
A girl COULD do everything for herself, you know. But sometimes a man’s touch was what I craved, what I needed.
Like what he was doing with his tongue right now on my—
Sweet Jesus. He wrapped his highly skilled lips around my most sensitive spot, and started to gently suck, his tongue undulating against me, sending out waves of tingling to the ends of my body and beyond. I swear the whole room was throbbing with me as he sucked…sucked…oh, god, SUCKED.
Swirls of sensations mixed with the anticipation of what was to come, rendering me momentarily mindless. I heard his zipper slide down, then the clink of his belt hitting the floor, and he was over me again, claiming my lips, the hard tip of him poised and ready.
“Wait,” I said, reaching for the little drawer in the coffee table. A girl has to be prepared, because god knows too many men aren’t. Like Exhibit A between my legs. I pulled out a condom and waved it around with a sly smile. “The best packages stay wrapped.”
The expression on his face froze for just a millisecond, then he revved up the charm. “Babe, I wish I could.” He shrugged like it was out of his hands. “But I’m allergic to latex.” He brought those dangerous lips of his perilously close. “What say we not worry about it this time.” And he leaned in to kiss me again.
Blocking his lips with the little foil package, I said, “They come latex-free, you know.”
“Uh-huh.” He pulled the condom out of my fingers and tossed it onto the table.
“You don’t carry any?”
“Nope.” He shrugged again, shooting me a dazzling smile.
If he’d been a cartoon character, a little twinkle of light would have sparkled from the top row of his teeth
“Seriously?” I sat up, forcing him to move back as I pulled my dress down. Lines for my next column started forming even as I stared at him in wonder.
Just when you think you’ve found a good one. Or at least a good one-nighter…
I got up, and walked over to the sink to get a drink of water, collect my thoughts, trying to decide if I could jot down a couple of notes while he was still here. Leaning against the counter, I watched him look at me in confusion.
“Babe?” He pulled his pants back on, bouncing a little to get the boys tucked away again. “Did I do something?”
I shook my head. “It’s what you didn’t do.” A sort of half smile flashed across his face and he clearly didn’t understand what was happening. Or, rather, what WASN’T going to be happening.
But it’s not like he didn’t still try.
He slunk toward me, moving across the kitchen like a panther on the prowl until he was gently slipping the glass from my grasp. His very talented fingers teased beneath my short black dress, sending spectacular shivers up my spine.
Man, he was good.
A sweet sigh escaped my lips in spite of myself—I AM only human.
“Come on, Willow,” he said huskily as he kissed my neck, his hands sliding up my thighs toward the promised land again. “I know you want me.”
Moaning as his fingers barely grazed me, I reached behind, found the drawer handle and gave it a yank. Blindly scrabbling around inside, my fingers wrapped around a familiar little square and I pulled out another condom.
What? A girl’s gotta be prepared no matterwhereshe is.
“I do want you…” I waved it in front of his face. “But only if you sheath your sword.”
With one hand still up my skirt, he reached for the little packet with the other and lifted it out of my hand.
“But babe…” He let it drop to the floor. “I’m not at my best…” I held up another, and he tossed it over his shoulder. “…when I’m constricted.” Before it hit the counter with a splat I had a third one out and ready. He slid it out of my fingers and flicked it across the room, his eyes never leaving mine. Then he lowered his voice and gave me a slow, sexy smile. “And Iwantto give you my best.”
Placing one finger firmly in the middle of his chest, I pushed him away from me in disdain. Did he REALLY think I was that stupid?
I may have grown up in a small town on the coast of Massachusetts, but I wasn’t some country bumpkin all wide-eyed in the Big Apple. I’d spent nearly half my life in Boston between college and childhood visits, so city practically ran in my blood.
In all the years I’d been writing my column, I’d come across MORE than my fair share of his type. Bullshitters, the lot of them. And I was not about to roll around in the shit this guy was shoveling.
“Night’s over, Troy,” I said. “Time for you to go.”
Honestly, I wasn’t sure whether he was telling the truth about his allergy or just making an excuse because he hated condoms. It didn’t matter either way because he clearly wasn’t putting one on.
And if it’s not on, IT’S not on.
I am not about to let him sow his wild oats—and who knows what else—in MY field…
Oh, yeah. This column was going to be a good one—at least I was getting SOMETHING out of this night.
He zipped up, walked over in a daze to pick up his shirt and slip it back on as I grabbed my phone to text The Girls.
ME: Tonight’s date? NOT a Trojan man.
SUMMER: Oh NO.
EVER: Wow, instant mood killer.
ME: Yup. No sacking of Troy tonight, dammit.
BLISS: If he won’t shield his rocket, he can leave it in his pocket.
LUCKY: We expect ALL the details tomorrow at drinks.
ME: You’ll get that and more. He just gave me my next column. I suppose I should be thanking the rat bastard, but I’m too horny and FRUSTRATED. ARRGGHH. He seemed so perfect…for a one-night stand.
SUMMER: Guess you’ll be buttering your own muffin tonight.
BLISS: Twinkling your little star.
HARMONY: Stirring your own honey pot.
I burst out laughing just as Troy said, “Uh…Willow?” Shit, I’d forgotten he was still here.
ME: Tomorrow, girls.
He stood in the doorway, unsure, a slight smile on his face, and all over again I could see why I’d chosen him—he was so damned good-looking. But there was nothing attractive about stupidity.
“Can I see you again?” he said. “Maybe tomorrow?”
Seriously. NOTHING attractive.
I brushed past him and held my door open, one hand on my hip. “I’ve already got plans,” I said. And as he opened his mouth, I added, “And I’m going to be busy for a LONG time.”
Closing the door behind him, I heaved a sigh, momentarily feeling sorry for myself. Yeah, I had a great job—I got to go on dates and then get paid to write about them. For a girl who never intended to get entangled in a long-term relationship, it was a perfect fit.
I LOVED my life…I mean, in general. Okay, tonight sucked. And the preponderance of crappy guys out there got to be tiresome at times. But it only served to strengthen my reserve that I didn’t want a man.
That I didn’tneeda man.
I mean, other than for a nice hammering once in a while.
I had NEEDS. Which were clearly not going to be met tonight.
Opening my door again, I leaned against the heavy metal framing and tapped out a text.
ME: You are NOT going to believe…
JOSH: Tell me.
The door across the hall swung inwards and he stood there grinning at me.
“Just looking at your face I can see this is going to be a good story,” Josh said with a laugh. “Column-worthy?”
“Oh my god, yes. But then most of them are.” I shrugged. “I seem to attract that.”
“You want something different? Write a different kind of column.”
“I just want to get laid. This is supposed to be the PERFECT job for that. Though lately it hasn’t been working out that way.”
He raised an eyebrow and crossed the hall in a flash so we were almost instantly chest to chest. “Well, if THAT’s all you’re looking for…”
Laughing, I placed my palms on his chest and pushed. “I’m not your type.”
“How would you know?”
“I’ve seen what—I meanwho—goes into your place. I’m not them. Not even close.”
“I kinda feel like I should be insulted by that.” But he didn’t look the least bit put off. He just smiled down at me with his not-quite-perfect teeth that only made him look more perfect.
Josh Fletcher and I had been friends from the moment we’d met. One witty comeback and I’d been platonically smitten. Not that he wasn’t gorgeous. He totally was—short, sandy blond hair, skyblue eyes, and a perpetual five o’clock shadow. Tall and built, he usually had a light dusting of sawdust clinging to his well-worn Levi’s and always smelled just faintly of turpentine and wood.
It was a good smell.
The thing is, IlikedJosh. Which was exactly why I couldn’t sleep with him. Somehow, I was never able to stay friends with the guys I dated. Probably because I snarked about them in my column…but, hey, a girl has to make a living.
Thanks in great part to my college boyfriend, my broken heart fed on the bodies of New York’s eligible bachelors, then my mind spat their bones onto the pages ofDu Jourmagazine. In between, I spun truly fantastical stories into novels in which various forms of the Perfect Man met a smart and sexy woman, fell madly in love, and they lived happily ever after. He never broke her heart or her trust, never turned into an asshole like a real man.
When it came to the romance in my life, I preferred to keep my men fictional.
My books were Romance, but in my opinion the whole category should fall under Fantasy because, come on. This stuffneverhappened in real life.
At least not in mine.
“Just count yourself lucky,” I said. “This means you won’t ever end up in a magazine article.”
He leaned close again. “What if I’d rather be a character in one of your novels?”
“Who says you’re not?”
“Really?” He looked ridiculously excited at the thought.
“Aww, you’re so cute.” I lay my palm against his face and gently tapped his cheek with my fingers. “THOSE guys are beyond perfect…and they don’t exist in real life. But,” I said, “if it’ll make you happy, I’ll name the next one after you. I’ll even make him a carpenter.”
He raised an unconvinced eyebrow. “Becausethatwill be sexy.”
“Oh, Josh.” I patted his chest patronizingly. “Readerslovesome good wood.”
He laughed. “Well, then he really will be just like me.” Then he lowered his voice seductively. “You want to do some research—up close andverypersonal—to make sure you get me just right?”
I waved him off. “Nah. I’m gonna make it all up. Improve on you. Smooth out your rough edges.”
“Improve on perfection?” Josh rocked back on his heels, his eyes crinkling at the edges as he grinned wide. “Is that even possible?”
“HA. You wish.” I mean, he was perfect. Honestly, I wasn’t going to have to veer very far from the original to make him a swoon-worthy hero, but I wasn’t going to tell him that. I nodded toward the stairs leading up to the roof. “Now, how about a beer and a REALLY good story?”
“Meet you there in five.” He turned back into his apartment and disappeared. I went back into mine to grab a sweater and a couple of Sam Adams—you can take the girl out of Boston, but you can’t take Boston out of the girl. I cast a longing glance at the couch and the possibilities it had held for me not twenty minutes ago. Things sparked to life between my thighs at the thought again, and I glanced at the clock.
He’d said five minutes. I was so freaking horny that I could take care of business and STILL be up there in three.
Heaving a sigh, I put the bottles down on the counter. This was for my own good AND Josh’s. If I went up on the roof with my engine revved and then had a drink or two…well, yeah, I couldn’t be held responsible for my actions.
And I really didn’t want THAT to happen. Not with him, no matter how beautiful he was. When it came down to it, I was not going to do anything that might jeopardize our friendship.
Besides, I’m a do-it-yourself kind of girl.
And sometimes? You just have to do it yourself.
Half an hour later we were sitting side by side, looking out over the nighttime cityscape. My lawn chair squeaked in protest as I crossed one leg over the other.
“The kicker?” I took a sip, then tilted the top of my bottle toward Josh.
“There’s a kicker?” He looked dubious, as if it couldn’t get any worse.
In my experience, though, it almost always could.
“God, yes.” I shook my head. “As I was practically shoving him out the door, imagining having a case of latex-free condoms delivered to his office, he tried to ask me out again.”
He threw back his head and laughed. “Well, you gotta give the guy props for perseverance.”
“Is that the PC way of saying he was a thick-headed, idiotic asshole?” I turned to face him for a moment. “I mean, the guy was so self-centered that he was willing to put my health at risk. Who knows how many venereal diseases he’s passed on to the women of New York…” Sighing, I sat back and stared at the gorgeous lights of the city. It sparkled at night, lit up by millions of apartments, all of these people in their own little microcosms, living separate but connected lives. “You know what kills me, though?”
“Outside of the fact that you didn’t get laid tonight?”
“Well…YEAH, there’s that. But I was thinking more of all the women who gave into him. Because it MUST work for him part of the time, you know? I mean, if it wasn’t working, he would have caved as soon as I said no, or he wouldn’t have protested in the first place. ‘Just this once, baby.’ They buy his line about being allergic and don’t have enough chutzpah to kick him out on his self-absorbed ass. I don’t know if I want to give them a hug or slap them all silly. But I’ll have to settle for a column about why ‘no glove, no love’ should be EVERY single woman’s mantra, and hope I get through to at least some of them.” I turned to look at him again. “Why are guys such assholes, Josh? I mean,you’rea guy.”
He nodded. “I am.”
“Then you MUST have some insider information.”
Josh lifted one eyebrow, then snorted but didn’t answer. Instead he took a swig of beer.
“I know what you’re thinking,” I said. “That I bring it on myself.” I lifted my bottle to my lips. “That’s what everyone says.”
He laughed, nodding. “Everyone’s right.”
Everyone WAS right. I knew that. But still…why did I get the most disgustingly rotten of ALL the apples? I mean, from the outside they looked GREAT. All shiny and pretty—seemingly perfect specimens. But once I got them home, most of them were infested with worms.
Josh reached over and patted my arm, the warmth of his hand seeping into my skin. “You’re the one picking these guys, right?” he said, and I nodded. “And you’re proving yourself right over and over again that guys suck. That’s not likely to change until you decide they don’t.”
“But they willstillsuck. Even if I were to suddenly believe, INEXPLICABLY, that men were the gift from God they believe themselves to be, it wouldn’t change anything. Troy would still be out there trying to get women to have unprotected sex with him. MY beliefs won’t change reality, Josh.”
“That’s true,” he said, leaning his head back on his chair as he looked at me. “The world will be full of people who suck no matter what you believe. It won’t changethatreality.” His eyebrows lifted and he leaned just a little closer. “But it will changeyoursbecause you won’t be finding just assholes anymore if you’re not subconsciously seeking them out.”
“Harmony believes that whatever you put out to the Universe, whatever you’re looking for, you’ll attract it to yourself, manifest it in your life. But I don’t know. Lucky’s not looking for them, but she’s found them all the same. The Girls all have. Just not as frequently as me.”
Taking a deep breath, I felt the night’s frustrations ebb. Talking things through—especially with Josh—always helped. I leaned my head back and looked up at the stars. It was a perfectly clear night, and the sky mirrored the nighttime city, twinkling with lights.
I had such a thing for skies.
Josh did, too. He’d let go of my arm and was gazing up, mesmerized.
I sighed happily. He was the best in ALL the ways.
Josh had been different right from the start. No predatory look in his eyes, just warmth and genuine interest in me as a person, rather than as a plaything. Of course, that may have been because we met on the roof of our building rather than at the Meat Market that was every bar in the city. Regardless, from that very first night, Josh and I just clicked, you know? Fit together perfectly, like we recognized something deep within each other. Like it was with me and The Girls, too.
Harmony said we’d probably known each other in another lifetime. I tried not to roll my eyes when she said things like that.
It wasn’t always easy.
The flashing lights of an airplane caught my attention, its steady movement across the night sky looking so unnatural against the background of magnificence that was space.
Josh seemed lost in thought, so when he spoke, it surprised me. “You could always give it a try,” he said. “Think about it like a science experiment. See if it makes a difference. Meanwhile, you’d be giving the rest of us a chance.”
Scoffing, I said, “Right. Like you even WANT a chance. You seem to be doing just fine without me.”
“But what if I’m just filling the meaningless days until you come to your senses and realize you’re in love with me?” He turned and made puppy-dog eyes at me.
Reaching over to slug him, I laughed. “Shut up. You sound like one of my books.”
He grinned, looking devilish and delicious all at the same time. I sent up a little thanks that I’d taken care of business before coming up here…because DAMN. Even though I didn’t think about him that way, a girl kinda had to appreciate a hot guy when she was looking at him.
“Actually,” he said, his grin getting deeper, “you happen to be my favorite author.”
I almost dropped my beer.
“You. Did. Not.” But even before I got all three words out he was nodding gleefully.
He’d read my books?
My mouth hung open in horror as my mind flitted through all the love scenes I’d written, some of which he’d now read and…oh dear god. I could feel the color start to concentrate in my cheeks, warmth spreading up my neck.
He tilted his head back as he took a long drink, then set his bottle down on the floor. “I just wanted to see what all the fuss was about. I mean, I read your column every month, why not one of your books?”
Okay, he had a point there. And, if I chose to look at it differently, it was kind of sweet of him to care enough to read a genre he’d probably never had any interest in. Unless of course…
“Wait,” I said, “you’re not a closet romance reader, are you?” I cackled at the look on his face—all his gears were turning, trying to crank out some witty response. I loved that look. “Tell me the truth, Josh. It’s okay. I won’t tell MANY people.”
“Ah, you found me out. I love all the great romance writers.” He sighed dramatically. “Especially the classics like…uh…Jane Eyre, and…”
“Actually, that’s the name of a book.”
His brow wrinkled. “Are you sure? I thought she was a writer.”
“Charlotte Brontë wrote it. You’re thinking of Jane Austen.”
“That’s her.” He slapped one hand down on the arm of his chair, making the metal rattle a bit. “I’m a huge fan. Clearly. She’s my favorite.” He winked at me. “After you, of course.”
I was laughing. “Of course. Which of hers do you like best?”
A smile threatened and he bit it back as his mind whirled. “The one with the guy…and the girl…and there’s some kind of misunderstanding because there’salwayssome kind of misunderstanding.”
“This is true, there is,” I said. “You must be talking aboutWuthering Heights.With Catherine and Heathcliff?”
He pointed at me, nodding. “That’s the one.”
“That’s not a Jane Austen novel. It’s by Emily Brontë.”
“You just said her name was Charlotte.”
“Charlotte was her sister.”
“God,” he said, raising his hands in the air, palms out. “Okay, I give up. Why do you writers have to make everything so complicated?”
“It’s what we do.” I shook my head, grinning at him. “You’re such a goofball. I still can’t believe you read one of my books.”
“What? It was good.” He shrugged. “It’s not my usual thing, but I really enjoyed it. Gave me a little glimpse inside your mind.”
I stared at him, trying to decide whether he was being sincere or making fun of me. But I think he really meant it. That kind of blew me away, and I wasn’t sure what to say.
So I didn’t. I just waved off the compliment like I usually did. Taking compliments was not exactly my forté.
“Tell me something real,” I said, changing the subject. “I’m in a reading slump. What have you read lately that wasreallygood?”
“You mean other thanyourbooks?”
“Well, I mean, those are a GIVEN.” Then I sighed sadly. “But, unfortunately, I’ve already read them.”
“True.” He looked thoughtful. “What are you in the mood for?”
“Something different. And it has to be well written—I’m all for a good story, but the language has to sing.”
“You writers aresohard to please.”
“You have NO idea.”
He was silent for a few minutes, thinking. “You like fantasy?”
“Who doesn’t?” I held up one hand and closed my eyes. “I have this one fantasy in particular, that’s my favorite.” When I opened my eyes, he was watching me with wide, expectant eyes. I scrunched up my face like I was confused and tried really hard not to laugh. “Or did you mean the genre?”
He shook his head. “No, I want to hear more about this fantasy of yours. Does it, by any chance, involve a carpenter?”
“It does now.” A slow smile spread across my face as my mind started spinning. “He wears a tool belt…and nothing else.”
He swallowed and raised one suggestive eyebrow.“Ihave a tool belt.”
“Every carpenter worth his hard wood should.”
“Only problem,” he said, “is it’s at my shop.”
Sighing deeply with mock-regret, I said, “Then I suppose it’ll just have to remain a fantasy. I guess we’ll just have to stick to books.”
He laughed. “In that case, have you read Terry Pratchett?”
“Nope.” Fantasy was actually one of my favorite genres, and I hadn’t read any for quite a while. It sounded perfect.
“Start withGuards! Guards! It’s brilliant and hysterical.”
“Suh-WOON,” I said. “Sold!” And I pulled my phone out to make a little note to look up the book later. “You sure know how to sweep a booknerd off her feet, Josh.”
The bottle poised at his lips, he said, “Never claimed I didn’t.”
A text popped up while I was typing.
SUMMER: What are you doing right now? (If you notice, I didn’t say WHO since you waged the Trojan war earlier. And lost.)
ME: SO sweet of you. I’m drinking on the roof.
SUMMER: HIIIIIIII, JOSH!
“Summer says hi.”
“Hi, Summer.” Josh leaned his head back and stared up at the sky again.
ME: You nearby? Wanna come up?
SUMMER: Noooo. Went to see a friend’s show, and am out with all these hot actors now. Wanna come play? Maybe even get lucky after all? Unless you’re already getting lucky with Josh…
ME: FUNNY. And you know that’s not a possibility. I like him too much.
SUMMER: To subject him to sex with you? How bad ARE you in bed?
I laughed out loud and Josh glanced over at me. I just shook my head, sending up a little thanks that he couldn’t see my phone screen from where he was sitting.
ME: Shut up.
SUMMER: I’m just saying it seems you’ve had PLENTY of practice if your columns are to be believed…and if your skills are lacking…
ME: I’m MAGNIFICENT, okay?
SUMMER: THAT’s my girl! You’re too much for him to handle, right?
ME: Something like that.
SUMMER: So, you coming out or what?
I glanced at Josh next to me, silently studying the stars again, and realized I had no desire whatsoever to be anywhere else.
ME: Thanks, but I’m gonna stay here.
SUMMER: Boo. But I understand. I mean, you’re sitting next to Hot Neighbor Guy. I’d stay put, too.
ME: See you tomorrow night?
SUMMER: You know it. Love you!
“Summer’s in town?” Josh said as I slid my phone back into my pocket.
“For a few days. Bliss, too.”
“Ah, The Girls are together again.”
“And it doesn’t happen NEARLY enough. I miss the good old days when we all lived here. It kinda sucks having Summer on the West Coast and Bliss always Somewhere Else in the world.”
“At least they come back regularly.”
“True.” I sighed and looked at him. “But it’s not the same.”
“Nothing ever is.”
“Right? I guess that’s life.” I shifted in my seat, feeling it wobble under my weight. We’d brought these chairs up here a couple of years ago—the kind with the ugly striped fabric wrapped over metal rods—and we were going to have to buy new ones soon. Maybe I’d do that next week. Get nicer ones this time as a little surprise for Josh. Ooh, maybe wooden Adirondack chairs. Those would beperfect. Of course, Josh could probably make them himself…which reminded me. “You know what else it is?”
“What’s that?” Josh’s eyes were closed, and the breeze lifted the ends of his hair. Little flame-red tendrils of my hair tickled my face, and I tucked them behind my ears again.
“Life’s a broken chair that won’t stay fixed no matter how many times I glue it.”
“You want me to take a look?” He stretched out his long legs and crossed them at the ankle. “I can fix it for you, save you any more hassle.”
“I don’t need saving,” I said. “But I’d love it if you’d show me how to fix it so I can do it myself.”
“Even better.” He smiled, his eyes still closed. “I’ll have to grab some stuff from my shop. Give me a couple of days?”
“Of course. Whenever you get to it. You know where I live.” The night had cooled considerably, and the wind was sending goosebumps skittering over my skin. I stood up, grabbed our empty bottles, and then reached out to squeeze his hand. “I’m calling it a night. See you tomorrow?”
“Always,” he said, his warm fingers grasping mine. He slid his thumb over the back of my hand, still holding on even as I moved toward the door. “Oh, and Will?”
“I’m glad things didn’t work out with the guy tonight.”
I cocked my head to the side, slightly bemused. “Well, that makes one of us.”
Though that little voice inside said,No, that makes two of us. Because if my date had worked out, I wouldn’t have gotten to spend the evening with Josh.
“Willow Truly, get your ass over here right now!” Lucky waved as I slowly threaded my way through the throngs of people crowding the restaurant’s bar, scouting out tonight’s prospects.
The Girls were all here—Ever Vaughn, Lucky Noble, Bliss Sullivan, Summer St. Claire, and Harmony Daniels. The six of us were like stars in a constellation. Together we were something greater and more beautiful than we were on our own. We fit brilliantly together even though we were light years away from each other in personality and life choices.
I honestly couldn’t imagine my life without them. I never wanted to.
These girls were my chosen family, and I could feel my shoulders relax just at the sight of them. Being all together always made me feel better. Grounded. Recharged. We made a point of getting together on a regular basis, but as we each got busier in our careers it became harder to pull off. Thank god it was important to all of us.
Who needed a man when you had girlfriends like these?
Not this girl.
“You guys!” I threw my arms around my best friends and almost toppled them to the floor. Laughing, we let go and gave each other the once-over. “You all look amazing…which means I’m going to have to work extra hard to get any guy’s attention tonight.”
“Shut up,” Summer said. “You look gorgeous and you know it.”
It was true. My thick, auburn hair hung silky straight—and as long as it didn’t rain tonight, it would stay that way. In hopes of meeting my next victim—I mean, date—I was wearing my favorite forest green, slinky dress. No sense in letting a good bar scene go to waste.
And yes, I did approach my job with a certainexpectation—that the guy would screw up in some way, eventually show his true assholic colors. Could I help it if they never disappointed on that front? Some took longer than others, but I’d come to realize it was inevitable.
Not that I didn’t hope for more. There was a small part of me that did—that little girl who’d fallen in love with fairytales at five years old, she was the one who always had a smidgen of hope. Of course, she’d also grown up to realize that fairytales didn’t exist in real life and that she’d be better off relying on herself than waiting for some mythical Prince Charming to come save her.
She had to make her own Happily Ever After.
Experience didn’t lie. But men sure as hell did.
I let my eyes scan the bar in case anyone stood out, but got distracted by the click of Bliss’s camera. That girl never went anywhere without it. As she swung the lens toward Summer—who totally struck a pose, then stuck her tongue out at the camera—I noticed a leather string circling her neck with a small white shell hanging from it like a pendant.
“I’m LOVING this.” I reached over, fingering the shell which felt water-smooth in my hand. “Is it new?”
“A gift.” She nodded, lowering her camera, the hint of a blush blooming on her fair face.
“Oooh,” Summer said, leaning forward. “Who is he?”
“Who said he was a he?”
Lucky laughed. “You just did. Now stop taking pics and spill.”
Bliss sighed in exasperation, but was clearly resigned to her fate. She knew she wasn’t getting off that easy with ANY of us. She lowered her camera and set it on the table.
“He’s no one,” she said, rolling her eyes.
“Is he famous?” Harmony tucked a honey gold wave behind her ear, her brown eyes dancing. “Is that why you don’t want to tell us? Oh my god…is it Bono? Your aura has been glowing for months, ever since you did that photo shoot.”
“It’s NOT Bono. Besides, he’s been married forever.”
“And OLD.” Ever shuddered.
“He’s not THAT old.” Bliss smacked her shoulder. “And, oh my god, is he sexy when he sings.”
“Agreed,” Ever said, then shook her head. “But still, it’s like dating yourfather. Or one of his old-manfriends.”
“EW.” All of us shuddered this time. Lucky, Ever, Harmony, and Summer each took a swig of their drinks as if rinsing out the nasty imaginary taste of old man.
Bliss held up her hands. “I’m not talking about it, you guys. Not yet.” She picked her camera back up.
“But when you’re ready?” I said.
“You guys will be the first to know. As always.” She pointed the lens at me, focused, then said, “Now enough about me, tell us about the guy last night.”
I smirked at her. Click. Click. Click.
“You sure you don’t just want to wait and read about it? Don’t you want to spend more time imagining sex with old men?”
An exasperated and disgusted chorus of “WILL!” rang out from the rest of them as they sat back down. The waitress appeared next to me and set down a Sam Adams and a glass at the only empty spot at the table.
I sank into the booth, sliding onto the black leather seat. “Haven’t you guys ever heard of delayed gratification?” I picked up the frosty bottle and started pouring the liquid amber down the side of the glass. “It makes everything BETTER.”
“That’s just something you say to make people feel better when they have to wait for something,” Lucky said, smoothing imaginary wrinkles out of her silky, sapphire dress. The combination of her toasted-tan skin and deep green eyes made her look like a walking ad for an exotic getaway—the perfect blend of sun, surf, and endless sky. “Being your friends, we DON’T have to wait. So spill.”
Instead, I took a grateful sip of my beer. They groaned in unison when I closed my eyes, unspeaking, like I was relishing the taste, and then started to lift the glass again. But I just laughed, put the glass back down in front of me, and filled them in on ALL the details.
Fifteen minutes later, they were laughing so loud, people at other tables were turning to look at us.
“Oh, my god,” Ever said, her ocean-blue eyes wide. “Just when you think they can’t sink any lower.”
“Right?” I shook my head. “Can I pick ‘em or can I pick ‘em?”
“Come on, Will,” Harmony said. “You’re not exactly looking for the good ones.”
“It’s because they don’t exist.”
The Girls each raised an eyebrow.
“Seriously, you guys,” I said, then turned to Lucky since hers was the heart most recently broken. “You still think good ones are out there after everything you’ve been through? AfterBen?”
“Hold on.” Summer held up her hands, palms out, mock-confusion on her gorgeous face. “I thought we agreed his name is Fuckwad.”
Lucky ran her fingers along the rim of her glass. “Okay, Ben wasn’t the best—”
“Wasn’t the BEST? He was the WORST guy I’ve ever written about. He not only went over to the dark side, he’s freaking Emperor Palpatine.”
“Okay, see you’ve lost me now that you’re speaking geek.” Lucky’s hair swayed back and forth around her shoulders as she shook her head.
“Don’t worry, honey.” Bliss patted my hand. “I understood you just fine.”
Lucky looked at me. “But they’re not all Bens.”
“Some of them are Austin,” Ever said, her head tilted to one side, a dreamy look on her face. Recently married to Lucky’s brother, Austin, she was clearly basking in that newlywed afterglow.
“Okay…BESIDES Austin,” I said. “He’s the only one.” But as I really took a good look at her, there was something more than just the honeymoon going on. She always looked good—and tonight was no exception. Her light brown hair fell over her shoulders. Her gorgeous lilac pencil dress hugged her curves perfectly. But she’d never glowed like this before. She was radiant in a way I’d never seen. The girl was lit, and it had nothing to do with her mojito. She couldn’t be— “Oh my god, are youpregnant?”
Ever bit back a small smile, and the rest of The Girls gasped. But before anyone could say anything, she was holding up her hands and shaking her head.
“No. We JUST got married, you guys!” She laughed. “Work is just really amazing.” Ever pulled a business card out of her clutch and slid it across the table to me. Over a watercolor wash of barely-there flowers were the wordsEver Aftersin gorgeous bold script. ThenEverly Vaughndown in the bottom right corner with her number and website. “Lucky’s Almost-Wedding—don’t roll your eyes at me Lucky, this time it WAS almost—it really kickstarted my new business. I’m sure Olympia Nardini is a putrid shade of green right now.”
I raised my glass. “May she rot in hell.”
“In hell!” Everyone but Ever repeated, and we clinked our glasses together.
“She wasn’t THAT bad,” Ever said, trying not to laugh.
“You’re right,” Harmony said. “She was worse.”
“God, shewasawful.” Ever tapped her pink frosted fingernails on the table. “But I don’t have to deal with her anymore, so it’s all good.”
Olympia, Ever’s old boss at Nardini Newlyweds, had unceremoniously fired her when Lucky’s dad had cancelled their account—LONG story, but let’s just say that Ever had gotten her own Happily Ever After when she’d been busy planning Lucky’s.
And I’d gotten the best column of my career. All thanks to Lucky’s ex-fiancé, Ben. The rat bastard. Or fuckwad, as Summer had said.
I nodded at Lucky. “What about you? Are you engaged again yet?” I teased.
Truth be told, we’d all been surprised Lucky had even made it down the aisle. All her previous weddings had been called off much sooner.
She narrowed her eyes, looking at me like she was the lion and I was the tasty gazelle. “No. I’m not even dating anyone right now.”
“Well, of course you’re not.” Summer’s tight black curls bobbed as she nodded her head. “It’s only been a few weeks since you ALMOST got married.” Then she turned to me, grinning. “These things take time, you know. Like at least a month.”
“Not with Lucky, they don’t,” Bliss said, then laughed when Lucky flicked some cosmo at her. “I’m just saying you’re decisive when it comes to getting engaged.”
“Just not so much when it comes to actually getting married,” I said.
“At least I’ve been asked.” Lucky pointed her finger at each of us. “Which is more than I can say for any of you. Except Ever, of course.”
“Don’t point that thing at me,” I said. “I don’t want to be asked. I LIKE being single, and I have no intention of ever getting married.”
Ever tipped her head to the side, considering me. “You talk a good game,” she said, “but I’m willing to bet you’re the most romantically-minded of all of us. EVEN Lucky. Your books speak the truth.” She nodded. “One of these days you’ll fall…just like everyone else.”
“Not a chance.” I tipped my head back, draining the last of my drink. Then I focused on the bar. “I’m going for a refill—I need a date for my column.”
Lucky threw a crushed-up napkin at me. “You’re hopeless, you know that?”
“I’m a REALIST. There’s a difference.”
“You’re a pessimist,” Harmony said. “And that’s not good for you.”
“Will…you’ve got to get over this, sweetie. It was so long ago.” Ever’s eyebrows had drawn together in the middle of her forehead.
“Seriously,” Bliss said. “Lucky’s been engaged at least a dozen times since Dr. Heartworm dumped you.”
“HEY.” Lucky slapped her palms on the table. “I’m right here, you know.” She picked up her cocktail a little too angrily, spilling some onto the table, while she mumbled, “And it’sonlybeen four.”
“I AM over it.” But a little voice inside whispered,Are you?I silently squashed it.Stupid voice. “Look, I’ve told you guys over and over again. He’s ancient history. I’m over him. Completely, one-hundred percent. And my not wanting to get married has nothing to do with him.”
My not wanting a serious relationship, though, had EVERYTHING to do with him. And, yeah, okay, obviously the marriage thing, too, but they didn’t need to know that.
The way I looked at it, I was learning from my mistakes. And I couldn’t help it if they didn’t like what I’d learned.
“But, Will, there are plenty of good guys out there. You just have to open yourself up to the possibilities,” said Harmony.
“What about Josh? He’s a good one.” Summer’s silver bracelets jangled as she reached for her glass, glinting prettily against the deep brown skin of her arms. Her long nails were the exact same mint green shade as her dress.
Everything about Summer was elegant. And nothing about me was.
I glanced at my hands, nails short and bare. It was a necessity. I had to be able to type, and long nails made that impossible. In fact, I had acrylics done once before this big swanky date, and when I sat down to work the next day it took me eight hours to type up my freaking column. I was ready to pull my own fingers off by the end of it. Never made that mistake again.
In fact, I made a point of notevermaking the same mistake twice.
“Josh is a great guy,” I said, “but I’m not his type.”
“What, he doesn’t like beautiful redheads?” Ever said.
“No. He tends towards sporty women. And I’m…not.” I was many things, but sporty wasn’t one of them. I mean, I liked a good hike as much as the next person, but I wasn’t up for a marathon. Or a softball game. Or anything involving teams.
Team. Ugh. Even the word made me shudder inwardly.
If God gave out report cards on your life, She would writeDoesn’t play well with otherson mine.I’d never been into teamwork, whether it was sports or school projects. Working alone had always suited me best, which made writing a perfect fit. Living by myself, working by myself, and hanging out with my friends whenever I wanted—it was my dream life.
I didn’t need a man to screw that up. Not even Josh. Why couldn’t my friends understand that?
“Josh would be lucky to have you, Will,” Bliss said. “Any guy would. You’re amazing.”
“Ditto.” I stood up and grabbed my glass. “Now, about that refill and a date. A girl’s gotta work.”
Amidst protests, I walked toward the bar, my eyes scanning for the next guy. Someone, HOPEFULLY, who would quench my thirst…because I was getting a little tired of quenching it myself.
“You have the worst job for having a life, you know that?” Josh was throwing his laundry into the machine next to mine, not bothering to separate darks from lights. Just everything into one machine. He did this every week and it drove me crazy every single time. It was a wonder his white t-shirts weren’t pink.
“What are you talking about? I have a fantastic life. What is it with everyone telling me it sucks? First The Girls and now you.” I shut the lid on one machine, threw the rest of my clothes into the other, and popped coins into each one. “What, exactly, is wrong with it?”
He hauled himself up to sit on his washer and began ticking things off on his fingers.
“You seek out men who are destined to disappoint, you work alone, and you work at night and sleep half of the day.” He looked at me like I was insane. “It’s like you’re trying to guarantee that you’ll always be alone.”
“Uh-huh,” I said, not seeing the problem. “Iwantto be alone. I like my life, Josh.” I narrowed my eyes at him. “And who are you to talk? You work alone in your workshop, right?”
“Yes, but clients come by to pick stuff up and I meet with people regularly, talking over designs and their projects.” He took a breath and continued. “Unlike you, I’m nottryingto become a hermit, which, granted, is not an easy thing to do in a city of millions. Though if anyone could do it, it would be you.”
“I go out at least a couple times a week to meet guys and I go out on dates all the time. I do things with you, The Girls…I’m out there a LOT.” I folded my arms over my chest, raising an eyebrow at him. “You may have noticed.”
He was shaking his head as he stared at me, clearly trying to come up with some other argument, but he couldn’t and he knew it. So he laughed and held up his hands in defeat.
“Okay, fine. Maybe you’re not a hermit.” He smirked.“Yet.”
He was quiet for a moment, watching a woman who was meticulously folding her laundry over by the dryers. Tonight he was definitely wound up about something but I had no idea what. He got this way sometimes. It was most often girlfriend-related and usually resolved itself in a few days.
He had yet to meet anyone worthy of him. I mean, the ones I’d met sure hadn’t been. Not even close. But then, I had high standards for Josh. He deserved the best.
“What are you doing tonight?” he said suddenly. “Or should I askwho?”
“HA HA. I’m working. But I have a date tomorrow.” I put detergent into my machine, then hopped up onto the one next to Josh. “What about you?”
“Date.” But the way he said it was like he was being sentenced. God, he was in a funk.
“Don’t sound so excited about it.” I nudged him with my elbow. “I mean, you’re going to have the girl thinking you want to marry her if you’re acting like this tonight.” He rolled his eyes and pushed me away. “Come on, Josh,” I said. “She must be REALLY special.”
“She is,” he said, “but she’s no Willow Truly.”
“Well, I mean, no one is.” I shrugged. “But that’s probably a good thing. For you.” I poked him in the shoulder and he swatted at my hand.
“What about you?” He turned to scrutinize me, and I leaned back a little because his gaze was a bit intense.
“Who’s the guy?”
“Just someone I met at the bar last night,” I said. “And he’s no Josh Fletcher, I can tell you that much.”
“That, I already knew.” He snorted. “You’d have better luck if he was.”
I stared at him for a moment, hopped off my washing machine, then grabbed his hand and pulled him off his, too.
“Will—” He started to protest, but I cut him off.
“Someone CLEARLY needs ice cream. You are in a SERIOUS mood, and this calls for drastic actions.” I grasped his hand in mine and tugged him toward the door. “Come on, we have time and I’m paying.”
He let me pull him out to the street, and we walked side-by-side to a little ice cream shop. This was one of the things I loved about New York City. Almost anything you wanted or needed was just down the street no matter where you were.
After the guy handed me my usual—dark chocolate chocolate chip, because this place didn’t carry my favorite…and there was no such thing as too much chocolate—Josh said, “How can you order the same thing every single time? Don’t you ever want to try something new?”
I sucked the ice cream off my spoon, savoring the rich chocolaty sweetness on my tongue. I may have even moaned in ecstasy, at which Josh rolled his eyes.
“If it ain’t broke—” I shrugged. “—don’t fix it.” I made a face and eyed his dish of maple bacon ice cream with suspicion. “WhatIdon’t get is why you would get somethingdifferenteach time. Or why anyone would put MEAT in ice cream.”
I shuddered because, seriously…ew.
“Unlike you,” he said, making a show of taking a bite and chewing a piece of bacon with relish, “I am open to the possibilities. You should try it sometime. You just might like it.”
I waved him off as we headed back down the block. “You’re not making this about me. It’s aboutyou.”A guy on the sidewalk in front of me stopped suddenly. I skirted around him without a pause in our conversation. “Now, what’s going on with you today?”
“Nothing,” he said, and put another spoonful of ice cream in his mouth.
“Something.” I walked alongside him in silence, just waiting. I’d learned long ago that if I simply stayed quiet, he’d eventually tell me.
“It was just a long week, that’s all.” He licked the back of his spoon. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to take it out on you.”
“Oh, puh-lease,” I said. “That was hardly you taking it out on me. That was you needing a little ice cream therapy…which I amalwayshappy to provide. And partake in.”
“You’re the best kind of friend, Willow Truly.”
I pointed my white plastic spoon at him. “Don’t you forget it.”
“You’d never let me.” He threw one arm around my shoulders and pulled me into his side. “So…riddle me this.”
“Ooh! I LOVE riddles.”
“I know.” He took a deep breath, like he was trying to find the right words. “What would you do if there was someone in your life you wanted to be with, but they were always with someone else?”
“A-HA!” I thrust my finger into his chest, bringing us both to a halt in front of the glass double doors of the laundromat. “So THAT’s why you’re funky today. I KNEW there was a reason. Ice cream ALWAYS brings out the truth. It’s like a magical elixir.”
He rolled his eyes and tried to push past me to go inside, but I wouldn’t let him. So he sighed loudly and took another spoonful as he waited for me to speak.
I studied his face for a moment. “Does she know you’re interested?”
He barked out a laugh. “She’s utterly clueless.”
“Why haven’t you just told her?”
Josh looked at me hard, then shook his head and glanced down the street. “It just hasn’t ever felt like the right time.”
“When will it be?”
“I don’t know.” He heaved a big sigh. “But it’s been going on for a while now, and honestly? It’s getting harder and harder.”
“Maybe there’s no such thing as the right time. Maybe you need to just do it.” I clapped him on the shoulder. “Carpe diem, baby. Seize the day. Or the girl…just not literally because that might be creepy.”
But he was shaking his head, unconvinced. “I don’t know, Will. What if I scare her away? That’s the last thing I want to do.”
“Holy shit…are you in love with this girl?”
He looked at me with one eyebrow raised, his eyes narrowed. “Maybe,” he said through tight lips.
“Oh my god, this is SERIOUS.” I laughed and he gently shoved my shoulder, a smile tugging at his lips. On impulse, I threw my arms around him and squeezed. “Josh,” I said, “you’re an amazing guy. She’d be stupid not to see that.”
He snorted, but didn’t say anything. Just tightened his arms around me.
“I’m no expert in the Love Department,” I said, my cheek pressed against his chest, his heart beating steady and strong in my ear. Such a soothing sound. “You, more than anyone, know that. But you’re going to have to tell her. It’s kind of a no-brainer.”
His chin bumped against the top of my head as he nodded. “You’re probably right.” He gave me one last squeeze, then let go. “I just can’t lose her, Will.”
Josh stared at me, his lips pressing together in an almost smile. Then he reached for the door. “Our stuff should be done by now.”
I stood there watching him walk back in, the realization hitting me right between the eyes that someday he was going to leave me. Things were going to change. There was no preventing it. He’d fall in love—god, it sounded like he already had—and his future girlfriend wasn’t going to understand our friendship. She’d probably be threatened by me, and he’d have to ease himself out of my life. I mean, maybe we’d see each other occasionally, but it would never be like it was now.
That sucked BUCKETS.
No more laundry day, or getting groceries together, or ice cream runs. I wouldn’t be able to text him all the time. No more meeting up on the roof.
And while I wanted Josh to be happy, to find the love of his life and live happily ever after, I wanted to keep him in my life, too.
I just wished I could have both.
As I pop his button and slide down his zipper, I see something I never expected to see.
How did I know they were mine, you ask, since I make a habit of telling you guys all the time that I never wear any? Because my girlfriends had my name monogrammed on them so if I ever did choose to wear them, I’d be able to tell they were mine the next morning.
I know, I know—I have hilarious friends.
“Like what you see?” he says, this shit-eating grin on his face. Like he really expects me to be turned on. Like it has never crossed his mind that some women will find it creepy that he’s been in their underwear drawer. And is actually IN their underwear.
Like THIS girl.
I’m not even sure how to handle this. My mind spins as I ease into it because clearly I cannot ignore the obvious.
“Are those…mine?” I point at them—bright fuchsia silk and lace, WILLOW embroidered in big, swooping, aqua letters right across the front.
My friends don’t do subtle.
“Sexy, right?” he says, nodding like of course I’m going to agree. I fight the pressing urge to ask if this has EVER ACTUALLY WORKED before. Clearly it has or he wouldn’t be doing it.
Let me just say this. Getting your freak on once you get to know someone is fine. But on the second date? Not so much.
So guys, keep your freak in your pants…and out of my panties. And girls…steer clear.
A thump from out in the hall dragged my attention away from my column. I glanced at the clock. Almost ten o’clock. I’d been working for three and a half hours straight. My shoulders felt tight and my eyes were tired. Slipping off my glasses, I rubbed my eyes, then stretched my arms up over my head.
The sun had long since set, and the only light in my apartment came from the little lamp on my desk, casting a warm glow across my keyboard, phone, and scattered notes. I had a habit of jotting down ideas on my phone or on random pieces of paper—whichever was closer—when inspiration hit. I’d been writing this column for over three years. After all this time, I thought in column snippets the way some people think in tweets or politicians think in sound bites, and if I didn’t write them down right away they were gone forever.
So when I finally sat down to write a piece, I spread all my notes out in front of me and wove them together into one brilliant read. Or, at the very least, an entertaining one. I mean, that’s what they paid me for.
A high-pitched giggle echoed out in the hallway, and I rolled my eyes. Clearly Josh was bringing home a date. I stared at my door, willing myself to stay put as my teeth sank into my lip. It didn’t matter who was with him or what she looked like. I’d seen enough of them already.
Tall, blonde, and tan, with arms I would die for, they all looked like they spent most of their free time at the gym.
I’d never even set foot in a gym.
It’s not like I was opposed to exercise—I walked my ass off all over this city—but I’d never had the attention span to actually make it through a workout, and I couldn’t quite fathom how people could stand the sheer boredom of lifting a weight over and over again. I mean, what was the point?
I hurried across the room and plastered my eye to the peephole.
Josh’s date was showing off her beautiful, sculpted shoulders and biceps in a pink spaghetti-strap sundress. Apparently THAT was the point.
I could pull off a dress like that, but no one would be coveting my pale, scrawny arms through a peephole.
Tonight’s Amazonian woman wrapped her well-defined arms around Josh’s neck and pressed her body along the full length of him. He let go of the key in his doorknob, and sank into the kiss with her.
And I sank with them.
My whole body sighed, letting go of all my tension so that my fingers unintentionally released the mug I’d been holding. It landed hard on my toes, then rolled to the ground unharmed.
“OW.” The breath whooshed out of me at the sharp pain, and I grabbed my injured foot and squeezed. Oh god, that only made it hurt more. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”
“That was the plan,” Josh said from the other side of my door.
Shit. I peeked back through the hole and he was right there smiling at me. His door was open behind him and the girl was gone, already inside I was sure. Probably leaving a trail of discarded clothes to follow, where he’d find her naked and waiting.
Good god, I needed to get some.
“Okay,” I called to him. It’s not like I could pretend I hadn’t been spying. “Well, have fun then. Use protection!”
“I always do. On both counts.” He knocked twice on my door and then walked toward his. “Have a good night, Will.”
I wished. He was going to get lucky tonight and I was so freaking jealous.
What did a girl have to do to get laid in this town? I mean, seriously. Was it too much to ask?
Grumbling, I picked up the mug and limped toward the kitchen. My foot throbbed harder with each step and I couldn’t put any weight on my toes at all. I snatched the kitchen towel off the oven door, filled it with ice, and hobbled over to the couch.
As soon as I’d settled into the cushions and the coldness washed over my foot—oh sweet, icy relief—my phone rang.
All the way across the room on my desk.
For a moment I considered ignoring it, but just like the part of me that had to go see Josh’s girldu jour, I had to know who was calling. It was a sickness.
Four wobbly steps in, I caught the edge of the coffee table with my throbbing toes, bringing me to my knees and eliciting a slew of curse words that would have made my sailor grandmother proud.
I crawled the rest of the way, keeping my injured foot far off the ground. Once I had my phone in hand, I just lay on the floor and answered.
“Hi, honey. Did I wake you?”
“Mom, it’s only ten, and I’m not four. Or seventy, for that matter.” My foot was throbbing so much that I rolled onto my back and propped my bad foot on top of my other knee. “What’s up?”
“Dad and I are coming to New York tomorrow. You father has an appointment on Thursday morning, and we were hoping we could stay with you.”
Immediately, I started to make a mental list of all the things I needed to do:
1. Find a boyfriend;
2. Do laundry again—needed fresh sheets on my bed for them;
3. Find a boyfriend;
4. Get groceries—the fridge was virtually bare except for a few almost-empty takeout containers;
5. Find a boyfriend.
A BOYFRIEND. My parents were a bit old-fashioned, and had it in their heads that I would only be safe in the city if I had a man around. I’d gotten so sick of them asking whether I had a boyfriend every time they called, that a year ago I’d finally said YES. YES, I DO. HIS NAME IS JOSH.
Having just spent the better part of an evening up on the roof drinking and shooting the shit with him, his name was the only one I could come up with on the spot. And that had worked out well because I could base my fake boyfriend on the real Josh and substitute his name when I told them the good bits of my mostly disastrous dates.
If you’re going to lie, keep it simple.
Look, I didn’t lie to my parents on a regular basis. I mean, SURE, they didn’t know about my column inDu Jourand were under the mistaken impression that I made a living writing ONLY novels…but that was really just a convenient omission of information, rather than an outright lie.
There IS a difference, you know.
They were two of my favorite people on Earth, and I loved them to death. But they’d been driving me nuts with all the boyfriend questions and the worrying. I mean, I could FEEL their worry a couple of states away.
So all I’d really done was ease their minds. It’s not bad to lie if it helps them feel better, right? And it wasn’t a problem because every time I went home to visit, I just said he was too busy working, and they never came to visit me here in my tiny apartment. So far it had worked beautifully.
Except now they were coming here.
“What’s the appointment?”
“A cardiologist.” She said it like it was no big deal. “Will Josh be in town? We aresoexcited to finally meet him.”
Oh. Yeah. There was that problem. Either I needed to find someone to pretend to be Josh or I had to—
“Is there something new going on with Dad’s heart? I thought the drugs had fixed it.”
“They’ve only half-fixed it.”
“What? Why didn’t you tell me?” I could hear the panic rising in my voice.
“We didn’t want to worry you, sweetheart.”
THIS from the people who worried about everything. And this was exactly why I’d created my fictional boyfriend. They had enough to worry about already, they didn’t need to be worrying about me, too.
“Your father probably needs a pacemaker, and we’ve heard really great things about this doctor, so we’re coming to her. This appointment is just a consultation. Nothing to worry about.”
Oh geez. In my experience, when someone says it’s nothing to worry about, there’s usually a LOT to worry about. My heart squeezed at the thought of losing my dad. I couldn’t handle that…I couldn’t—
Focus, Will. Stop putting the cart before the horse.
“What time will you get here?” I said, blinking back tears and forcing my voice to sound normal. Everything was fine. My dad was okay. “Are you coming by train or plane? And do you want me to meet you?”
“Our flight gets in around four. We’ll get a cab.”
“Okay. So you’ll be here by five. Maybe we can—”
“Have dinner with Josh? Dad and I are dying to meet him. It’s only right that we get to welcome him into the family.” Her voice filled with joy, and I could practically see her eyes crinkled in delight. “Have you two set a date yet?”
“A date?” Shit. I’d totally forgotten that the last time I’d been home, I told them he’d popped the question.
THIS is why you shouldn’t lie—especially if you’re a writer. Once you start making things up, it’s hard to stop. And we writers…well, we lie with flair. It comes with the job.
But my parents had been desperate for good news, for something to celebrate. My dad had been having so many health problems, then he’d had the heart attack and had needed emergency surgery. They’d been so stressed out at the time, and before I knew it, I was blurting out my engagement.
“ENGAGED!” I’d said, throwing my arms wide and smiling way too big.
“What?” my parents had said together, both turning to look at me.
“I’m…uh…engaged! Josh proposed.”
Mom had cried out “Oh, THANK GOD!” and reached for my hand just as I’d realized I hadn’t thought this little lie through because I had no ring. Her eyes landed on my bare finger, then flew up to my face in confusion.
“Oh…uh, a ring,” I’d said. “Yeah, um, Josh hates the diamond industry.” Which was true. The real Josh DID hate De Beers, the company that had a ridiculous monopoly on diamonds and charged overly-inflated prices for what was actually a really common gem. From all he’d told me, they were pretty evil. But my mom looked a little sad at the news, so I said, “And I didn’t want one anyway. I’m not a diamond kind of girl.”
Thankfully, that was also true.
The important thing when lying is to stick to the truth as much as humanly possible. That way there’s less you have to keep track of.
Of course, right now I was cursing my natural talent for embellishment as my mom tattered dreamily on about my non-existent wedding in her excitement about meeting my fake groom-to-be.
“You know your dad has always looked forward to walking you down the aisle.” She sighed happily, clearly letting her imagination run wild with my wedding day. “Did we tell you he’s been taking dance lessons just so he’ll be ready for your father-daughter dance?”
If I hadn’t already been lying on the floor, I would have fallen over. My fatherneverdanced. He had two left feet, absolutely no coordination, and no rhythm.
Not even a little.
And, GOD, he’d been taking lessons? The little girl in me melted into a puddle and I could feel tears springing to my eyes again.
And for a moment I wished it was all true. That I was getting married to someone—anyone—just so my parents could have this day. So my dad would get to be father of the bride.
I was so going to hell for this. They were going to be crushed when I told them I’d broken up with my faux beau.
Of course, I wasn’t going to do it yet. I mean, my dad had this big appointment, and I couldn’t break their hearts right NOW. I’d have to do it later.
Much, MUCH later.
Like maybe when I was forty. A sixteen year engagement is realistic, isn’t it? And I could break up with him because he wouldn’t go through with the wedding. YES. That was perfect. That’s exactly what I’d—
“Willow, honey? A date?”
“What?” I shook my head. “Uh, no. No date yet. We’re not…uh…rushing into this, Mom. We’re not in a hurry to get married.” She was silent on the other end. “We’re just happy to be together, you know?”
“Oh, of course you are!” She laughed, then said to my dad, “George, Willow’s so in love and we’re finally going to meet him.” My dad said something I couldn’t make out. “We’ll worry about that when we’re there.”
“Worry about what, Mom?”
“Oh, nothing, sweetie.” She mumbled something else to my dad. “Well, we’ll see you tomorrow night. You and Josh, both. We can’t wait!” Then she said goodbye and hung up.
I lay there on the floor, my foot throbbing. How was I going to pull this off? Either I needed to tell them or I needed to find a friend who’d be “Josh” for a couple of days.
Problem was, the best person to pretend to be Fiancé Josh…was Real Josh. But he was going to think I was insane.
Unfortunately, there really wasn’t time to find anyone else, especially if I was going to be realistic—and it looked like I was going to HAVE to be. So, I’d just have to explain the situation and make him understand. And beg, plead, or bribe him to play along.
I looked over at my door. Couldn’t ask him now. He was too busy schtupping the blonde. Besides, he was coming over tomorrow to show me how to fix the chair. I’d ask him then.
I had no other choice.
And I had to look on the bright side. He’d probably be flattered that I actually HAD created a character based on him. Right?
Oh, who was I kidding. It was going to be humiliating, and he was never going to let me live it down.
I could only hope he’d say yes anyway.
“Did you bring your tool belt?” I wiggled my eyebrows at Josh as he lugged this gigantic tool box into my apartment the next day. But then I made a big deal of looking him up and down. “You’re a bit overdressed, don’t you think?” I said. “Or did you miss the part where I said ‘a tool belt and nothing else’?”
“Shit.” He set down his load and ran a hand through his hair. “Was the broken chair just a ruse? Is this actually a booty call?” Head tilted back, he groaned in mock frustration. “Because I TOTALLY misinterpreted the signals. I must be losing my touch.”
“Oh well, maybe next time,” I said with an exaggerated wink, then pointed him toward the chair. “In the meantime, how about you teach me how to fix that loose thingie.”
“Right. I’ve glued that there spindle three times but it won’t stay put.” Hands on my hips, I blew the hair out of my face. “What am I doing wrong?”
“Other than not being clear about booty calls so a guy can come prepared?” He knelt down next to me, his eyes on the separated chair legs. “What kind of glue did you use?”
“Uh…like craft glue, I think? It said it was good for wood.”
“I’m sure it is,” he said, his hands reaching out to caress the smooth finished surface of the leg. He peeled dried glue off the end of the spindle. “But it’s not good for fixing furniture. You need wood glue. And a clamp of some sort.”
Crap. “Okay. I guess I’ll run out to get that…”
“No.” He laughed gently. “No need. I have it.”
With his head tucked down so that all I saw was sun-streaked hair, Josh reached into his toolbox and rummaged around. He had the strongest hands—thick fingers with short nails, tan skin stretched tight, a few scrapes and nicks scattered over them, a natural consequence of his work. They moved with confidence and skill, those hands, and for a moment I was mesmerized, imagining the words I would use to describe them. Phrases floated through my mind and I needed a piece of paper to write them down pronto.
He glanced up and caught me watching, so I scrambled to my feet. I grabbed a little notepad off the table and started scribbling, my face turning seven shades of red.
“What are you doing?” he said, his head cocked to the side.
“Just writing down ideas before they’re gone.”
“You turning me into one of your leading men?”
“You wish. More like the goofy sidekick.” I ripped the paper off the pad and stuffed it into my pocket. No need to have him reading it. I sat back down on the other side of the chair to see what he was doing.
“First thing is we get rid of all this dried glue.” He’d already scraped most of it off. He handed me a bottle of wood glue. “Here. Squeeze some of this into the hole.” The glue came out a thick, butter-yellow goo, and filled the little nook. “Now spread some on the end there—you want glue on both surfaces—good. And then we fit them back together.”
“And this is what I did.”
“But you did it with the wrong glue.” He grinned. “Now a clamp. We can use duct tape.” He pulled a long length of tape off the roll, and folded it lengthwise except for the two ends. “So it won’t stick to the chair,” he said. Then he wound it around the legs and pulled it tight, securing the sticky ends together. “And that’s it. Leave it like this until tomorrow, then you can just cut the tape. It’ll be like new.” He looked at me. “You know, you don’t need to break furniture just to get me over here, Will. One word and I’m yours.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.” I bent down and looked at what he’d done. “That’s ridiculously easy.”
“Yup.” He opened his tool box again.
“And people pay you to do stuff like this?”
Reaching to put away his things, he nodded. “Yup.”
“You’ve got quite a racket.” I leaned one hip against the counter, arms crossed over my chest.
He laughed as he picked up the glue and tape, and tucked them away amidst his tools. “Well, I do MORE than just fix loose spindles.”
“Oh yeah? Like what?”
“Any kind of furniture—tables, chairs, benches, shelves, dressers, desks…anything.”
“Yup. Some is my stuff, some is whatever the client wants.” He nodded toward my desk. “A lot of what I design is similar to that—sturdy and bold.”
“My dad gave that to me when I moved here. It was his.” An old beast of a thing with thick wood sides, it was plain, simple, and heavy. “I’ve loved it my whole life. He said he didn’t need it anymore, and that I did since I was going to be a writer.” I stared at the desk, seeing my dad sitting at it in my mind’s eye. “I love that desk so much.”
“It’s a beautiful piece.”
I turned to him again. “I’d love to see what you make.”
“Yeah?” He looked surprised, his eyebrows raising high on his forehead, a slight smile on his lips.
“Yeah.” I nodded. “Maybe you can even teach me how to make something? I’ve never built anything out of wood, but you can see by my apartment that I have a severe appreciation for it. Some might call it a sickness.”
It was true. My place was filled with wood—a gorgeous Amish rocking chair I’d picked up at a flea market, a huge wooden coffee table, book shelves, side tables, the little kitchen table we sat next to. No IKEA particle board for this girl. I was all about the solid wood, and almost everything was oak—my favorite. It had the most beautiful grain.
“Not sure this qualifies as sickness…you haven’t seen my place yet.” His forehead wrinkled like he was mulling something over. “Hey, if you’re really serious, I could show you my stuff now. I’ll take you to my workshop.”
My apartment was clean and ready, I’d already been to the grocery store, and my parents weren’t getting in for about five hours.
And I hadn’t asked him yet to be my faux fiancé.
“Yeah,” I said. “I’d love to.”
I only hoped I’d figure out a way to ask him soon.
The first thing I noticed when we walked in was the smell. Wood and turpentine. Just like Josh.
Already I liked it.
His workshop was at one end of this gigantic warehouse down on the Lower East Side. Huge windows at the top of the walls bathed the space in light. Work benches lined the walls, interspersed with a plethora of fun and dangerous-looking saws, drills, and other machinery that I had no idea what they did.
I reached over and smacked his arm. “I can’t believe we’ve been friends all this time and you’ve never invited me here.”
“I don’t inviteanyonehere.”
He shrugged. “I mean, every once in a while a client might stop by to see progress on something or make a design decision, but most of the time I go to them with drawings or pictures. Usually it’s just me. I like working by myself.”
“Hermit. Recluse. Loner.”
“Yeah, yeah. I already said I was wrong.”
“But this girl never tires of hearing it.”
“Ha ha.” He made a face, then turned and waved a hand toward one side of the shop, away from the tools. “Those are the finished pieces I haven’t delivered yet. Or made just for fun.”
Tables, chairs, and cabinets stood to one side. Dressers, shelves, headboards, and chests—it looked like he had it all. I moved through the maze of furniture, examining each piece, running my hands over the smooth surfaces, letting my fingers trace the decorative designs. Each piece was perfection, made with incredible skill and care.
I’d known Josh was a carpenter, but I hadn’t realized he was a craftsman. An artist. I guess I’d always pictured him putting up shelves, or installing kitchen cabinets. It had never occurred to me that he created beauty.
One little side table really caught my eye. It was so simple in design—just a table top and four long, square legs—but the design on the wood was striking. Long, inlaid stripes ran across the top and down one side of the legs. And the feel of it was satin-smooth.
Looking up, I found Josh watching me.
“This I like a lot.” My fingers traced the length of it again. “Bamboo?”
“Yeah, it is.” He grinned. “You know your wood.”
“Clearly, I know YOUR wood.” I joked.
He raised an eyebrow, and my face tingled and grew warm.
“What Imeant,”I said, clearing my throat, “was that I know my favorite cutting board. And I can also pick out oak and black walnut, but other than that, I’m lost.” I willed my face to return to its natural ghostly pallor, and turned back to the little table. “But this is gorgeous. It’s deceptively simple in design, but intricate when you see it up close. It’s stunning.”
“That’s probably my favorite. Though not my most popular.”
“You designed it?” I said, and he nodded. “Wow. That’s just…how are you not famous when you can do this?” I turned in a circle to take in all of his creations.
“Who says I’m not?”
“Wait…are you? Are you famous in furniture circles?” I grinned. “ARE there even furniture circles? Furniture of the rich and famous? I bet you’re in the furniture secret society.”
“You mean you’ve heard of the Woody Society?” He opened his eyes wide in mock surprise.
“Of course. ‘The Woody Society: Nailed or Screwed, but Always Tongue and Groove.’ Isn’t that on the crest?”
“So you HAVE heard of us.” He leaned back against a workbench and crossed his arms over his chest. “I’m impressed. And all this time I thought we’d kept it under the table.”
“Well, you know how hard it is to hide a Woody…”
He burst out laughing. “Yes. Yes, I do.”
We grinned at each other for a moment, then he slowly lowered his hands to cover his crotch.
“Yeah, right,” I said, laughing. “I’m SO sure.” I wandered back into the shop side of the space. Sawdust gathered at the base of the machines like little tan snowdrifts. Everything was covered in a fine dusting.
I wanted to say something about it or ask about the tools, but suddenly all I could think about was what if he reallywasgetting turned on. Here we were alone in his shop. He could put on his tool belt…I could just hold onto the edge of his workbench and—
Dear god, I needed to get laid, and I needed to do it SOON. I could not be getting turned on by Josh. It wasn’t right.
I mean, this wasJosh.
My date on Friday could not come too soon. I sent up a little prayer that this guy would at least make it through the sex before doing something stupid.
Otherwise I was going to have to invest in more batteries.
“Will? You okay?” Josh had come up behind me, placing a gentle hand on my shoulder as he bent down a little to search my face.
Nodding, I met his gaze. Breathe, Will. Okay, this was my opportunity. If I was going to ask, now was the time.
“My dad is still having heart problems.”
When you’re asking someone to do you an insane favor—and not think you’re crazy for lying about this in the first place—it’s best to go for sympathy.
“Oh, god. I’m so sorry, Will.” He wrapped his arm around my shoulder and pulled me into his side.
Seriously, I am SO going to hell.
I won’t lie to you—it felt good. A little too good, but I was too busy feeling nervous about asking him to really notice.
“Yeah, me too,” I said, leaning my head against his chest. I listened to his slow and steady heartbeat for a moment before continuing. “So my parents are coming into town this evening, actually, so he can go see some specialist about a pacemaker. And they’re staying with me.”
“Wow.” He leaned his chin on the top of my head. “If there’s anything I can do to help, let me know.”
Here it was. He’d opened the door, I just needed to walk through it.
I took a deep breath. “Well, actually…”
“What? Whatever it is, the answer is yes.”
I squeezed my eyes shut, feeling my face go red again as I spit it all out in a rush. “I kinda told my parents that I’m engaged. To you.” I cringed. “I mean, not YOU-you, but to a guy named Josh because yours was the only name I could come up with in the moment when I lied and told them I had a boyfriend like a year ago.” I was talking so fast trying to get everything out. “And I only did it because they were worried about me and it seemed SO important to them that I have a boyfriend. Then about five months ago I accidentally told them we’d gotten engaged, and I never thought it would be a problem—never thought my two worlds would collide—but now they’re coming here and they want to meet ‘Josh,’ and I’m wondering if you’d be at all willing to pretend to be him. My fiancé.”
I held my breath, frozen in his arms, the weight of his head still resting against the top of mine. He didn’t say anything right away.
“I based him on you, if that helps. I mean, you always wanted to be a character of mine…and now you are. Kind of.”
“Only it’s in real life and not on the page, and I promise Iwillturn you into one of my leading men. The next book is yours, I swear. I just…my parents are WORRIERS, you know? And I didn’t want them worrying about me, so I lied to them.”
“Will, I said yes.”
“And you just happen to be my best guy friend and so it was really easy to just tell them about you.” I was breathing so fast now, I was practically hyperventilating. “It doesn’t mean anything—I SWEAR—I am not harboring a secret love for you and hoping that you’ll succumb to my feminine wiles and fall in love with— Wait…what?”
“Yes. I’ll do it.”
“Seriously?” I squeezed him hard, like bear hug and a half. “Oh my god, thank you.” I paused, not wanting to say this because I didn’t want to give him any reason not to help me, but knowing I had to for his sake. “This isn’t going to screw things up with you and this girl you’re in love with, is it?”
“Nope,” he said. “In fact, it just might help.”
“Really?” I had no idea how, but honestly I didn’t care. I was just so relieved. “You have no idea how much this means to me. With my dad’s heart right now, it just wouldn’t be a good time to tell them that fake-Josh and I had broken up.” Leaning back, I looked up at his face. “And we WILL break up. I’d always planned to tell them it hadn’t worked out with us. Once things calm down for them and they aren’t worrying about me as much. You know, like when I’m forty. I mean, at some point they’ve GOT to realize I’m old enough to take care of myself.”
“It’s fine, Will.” He was laughing as he let go of me. “Just tell me what you want me to do.”
Relief flooded me, and I closed my eyes and breathed for just a moment.
More calmly, I said, “Thank you. Really, really.”
“No problem.” He grabbed my hand and squeezed. “But don’t break us up too soon. I might like to see your feminine wiles. It seems only fair since I’ve shown you my wood.”
“Willowbee!” As soon as I opened the door, my dad was reaching for me, pulling me into a tight hug. “How’s my girl?”
My eyes teared up a little.
Yes, I was worried about him—I was my parents’ daughter, after all.
“Hi, Dad.” I squeezed him hard, feeling like a little kid again. What was it about a father’s hug? It made everything feel right again, if only for a moment, and all the bad stuff faded away. I’d swear it was magical.
They should bottle that stuff up because there is nothing like a hug from your dad. Especially when you haven’t seen him for a while.
Especially when you’re worried about him.
Grabbing their bags amidst protest, I ushered them into my apartment and put all their stuff in my bedroom. Already tucked into the corner of my tiny living room were pillows, sheets, and a blanket for me.
My mom took a quick look around the apartment—which, in all reality, you could almost do by simply turning in a circle—then she bustled over and crushed me into her flowery-smelling embrace.
“So…” She glanced around again. “Where’s Josh?”
“HI, MOM,” I said, staring pointedly at her. “It’s so nice to see YOU.”
“Hiiii, sweetheart.” She spoke the words slowly, then got back down to business. “Now…where is he?”
“He’s not here right now. Obviously. He’ll be over in a little while for dinner.” I tilted my head toward the kitchen. “Which reminds me. I need to get cooking.”
“We’re not going out for dinner?” My dad sounded disappointed. “I thought we’d go to one of these places listed in my Zagat’s.” He pulled the long, wine-colored book out of his coat pocket. “I was studying it on the plane.”
“I can’t believe they still make those. Most people just google restaurants now, Dad.” I laughed. My parents were so old-school sometimes. “How about tomorrow?” I wasn’t up for pretending to be in love with Josh at a restaurant tonight. With my luck, we’d run into people I knew and it’s just not something I wanted to try to explain. Especially not in front of my parents. Staying home seemed a safer choice. Plus, I could say he had plans tomorrow and wouldn’t be able to join us. “I just kinda wanted to keep it low-key, have a quiet evening in. Is that okay?”
“Of course it is, Bee.” My dad tucked the book away and patted his pocket. “So…you want some help in the kitchen?”
In our house, Dad cooked and Mom baked. He was a marvel with a skillet and a few ingredients—he could have been a chef if he’d wanted. My mom…not so much. She made a mean carrot cake, but was not exactly gifted when it came to making meals. They were the perfect team, though. Complementing each other’s strengths and weaknesses.
Truthfully, I’d grown up believing in true love and true partnership thanks to my parents. But Life had made me realize it doesn’t happen very often, and I’d never been one to settle for less than what I wanted.
If I was ever going to commit my life to someone, then he had to be up to my standards. He didn’t have to be perfect—the only perfect guys were the ones I brought to life on the pages of my novels—but he had to be perfect forme. I had yet to date a guy that could measure up. Or even come close. So I wasn’t planning my life around finding someone to marry.
I was fine on my own. I LIKED being alone. Other people drove me crazy—there’s a reason I don’t have a roommate—I was capable and intelligent, and I had friends. I didn’t need a man.
“I got this, Dad.” I patted his shoulder and headed for the kitchen.
“So, how did you two meet?” My mom leaned her elbows on the table, resting her chin on clasped hands as she stared at Josh with great interest. “I want to hear the story.”
My eyes darted to Josh as my heart slammed into my chest. Oh god. This night was not going to be easy.
“On the roof,” I said as I reached for the bottle of wine my dad had brought. “I already told you guys that.”
Mom waved me off. “Pfft. That’s not a story. It’s one minor detail. We want to know how it all happened.”
I opened my mouth to protest, but Josh was already talking.
“About three years ago, not long after Will moved in, I was up on the roof staring at the summer stars. It’s something I’ve done ever since I’ve lived here, go up on the roof at night a couple times a week. You have to see the city from up there. It’s quieter. There’s space to think. To dream. To just be. It’s my favorite place to go.”
He got this dreamy look on his face and sighed. I’d swear my parents sighed with him.
God, he was good.
“Anyway,” he continued, “this one night I’m up there feeling sorry for myself. I hear the door open and this beautiful redhead emerges, her eyes cast upward to the stars above. She doesn’t see me because she’s so busy looking up, and I kinda loved that. She closes her eyes like she’s making a wish, and then this gorgeous smile lights up her face. And that’s when I knew.”
There was this heavy silence as we waited for Josh to continue and I realized all three of us were holding our breath. Immediately, I exhaled a little laugh like I knew what he was going to say.
I had no idea what he was going to say.
The thing is, on our way home from his workshop yesterday, I’d prepped him for this charade by telling him to do what I’d been doing—tell the truth as much as possible so you don’t get caught in a lie.
I wasn’t kidding when I told you I was a professional liar.
But here he was spinning this story out of thin air. And my parents were eating it up. I only hoped he had as good a memory as he did an imagination, and he’d be able to keep track of all the things he was making up.
“What did you know?” Mom’s voice was breathless, bewitched. I glanced at my dad and he looked exactly the same.
Josh raised his eyebrows just slightly, and said, “I knew that one day we’d be right here.” He tapped the table with one finger. “All four of us together because I knew I was going to marry that starry-eyed girl. It was love at first sight.”
“Oh, my.” There were tears in my mom’s eyes and she reached out for my dad. He gripped her hand tightly, a look of deep happiness on his face. And I could visibly see them both relax.
I was so going to hell.
My dad lifted his napkin to wipe his eyes. “That’s a wonderful story. So much better than ‘we met on the roof.’” He winked at me. “Maybe Josh should be the writer.”
“Thanks, Mr. Truly,” Josh said. “But I think my talents are better with wood—” Grinning, he shot me a glance. “—than with words.”
I rolled my eyes, laughing. GOD.
“It’s George. Call me George.” My dad beamed at him. “We’re practically family, you know.”
My mom leaned over and whispered as she patted my hand. “Oh, Willow. He’s a keeper. You did so good, sweetheart.”
Josh was charming the pants off my parents. From the moment he’d set foot in my apartment forty minutes ago, they’d been instantly enthralled.
Part of me almost wished he wasn’t turning on the charm quite so strongly because it was going to be that much harder when I told my parents we were over. But a larger part of me was thrilled. My parents looked happier than they had in months. Maybe even a little relieved. Like their biggest worry had been lifted.
It looked so good on them. My heart welled with gratitude toward Josh.
“Josh?” A woman’s voice called out from the hallway, followed by loud banging on a door. “Sugar? Are you there?”
My eyes flew to Josh’s. He stared at my closed door for a few seconds.
He was up and out of his seat in an instant. “Excuse me for just a minute,” he said, casting an apologetic look my way.
The three of us sat in silence, listening to their murmured conversation for a moment. The woman’s voice started getting louder, desperate.
“But whyyyyy? I just needed to see you tonight,” she whined.
My dad cleared his throat while my mom reached out and touched my arm.
“Is everything okay, sweetheart?” she said.
I was already nodding before she finished. “Yeah, it’s just his…uh… SISTER. I think.” I slid my chair back and dropped my napkin on the table. “You know what? I’ll just go check on them. I’ll be right back.” I backed away from the table, banging into a cabinet and nearly tripping over the garbage can on my way to the door.
Out in the hall, the blonde from the other night was practically sobbing in Josh’s arms. She had on cute little pink shorts with a matching sleeveless shirt, and her sculpted arms were even more enviable up close. They made me want to slink back into my apartment and throw on something with long sleeves.
“Is she okay?” I said quietly, not sure whether to venture any closer.
Josh nodded as she wailed “Nooooooooo.”
He mouthedSorryover her head, and tried to lead her toward the stairs, but she just cried louder.
“I can’t believe she’s gonnnne!” Her words came out in spurts between sobs.
“Oh, my god,” I took a couple steps toward them, looking at Josh. “Did someone die? If you have to go, that’s totally fine. Don’t worry about—”
“No. Her best friend got married.”
“And she moved toJersey!”Her voice rose in dismay. “Now I’llneversee her.”
“Uh…Jersey’s on the other side of the river.” I pointed west. “You canseeit from here.”
This only made her wail louder and I looked at Josh, unsure what to do.
The door behind me opened, and my parents stood there.
“Wait, are you Will?” The girl lifted her head, and looked at me. Mascara ran over high cheekbones and down her face in black rivulets. I glanced at Josh’s light blue shirt—two black splotches were smeared on one shoulder. “Oh my god, I’ve heard so much about you. I’m Stacie. Josh’s—”
“WOW!” I yelled the word, making Stacie jump a little and choke on the wordgirlfriend.I sent up a little prayer that my parents hadn’t heard her. “I’m SO glad to finally meet you, Stacie!”
Smiling crazy-bright and talking too loud, I tried desperately to think of a way to get rid of her before she said anything else.
“Well, isn’t this wonderful?” my dad said. “Not only are we meeting Josh today but also you.” He strode over to shake her hand while she looked at him in confusion.
“We’re having dinner right now,” my mom said, holding my door open. “Won’t you join us, Stacie dear?”
Her face lit up, making her look like some manic clown. “Oh, I’d love to. Thank you.”
“Of course, dear.” My mother ushered her into my apartment and murmured something about Stacie needing to go freshen up, while Josh and I stood out on the landing with my dad.
“Well, this is good fortune, isn’t it?” Dad said, clapping his hands together. “Perhaps it bodes well for tomorrow, too.” Then he followed them back inside, leaving us alone for a moment.
God, if the luck of having Stacie show up was any indication of what was to come at his appointment, then tomorrow was going to royally suck.
I was shaking my head, my mind going a thousand miles a minute trying to spin this in some way, trying to figure out if there was going to be ANY possible way to keep up the pretense that Josh and I were together when his ACTUAL girlfriend was having dinner with us.
My excessively creative mind was drawing a blank.
And panic was rising.
I couldn’t break my parents’ hearts. Not today. Not right now when my dad’s health was worrying them.
My breaths were coming short and quick the longer I stood there stuck in indecision. Josh’s hands slid onto my shoulders, warm and strong.
“I’ll get rid of her as fast as I can,” he said. “I’m so sorry about this, Will. But don’t worry. Now that she’s calmed down, it’ll be easier to get her to leave.”
“She’s in my freaking apartment. With my parents.” I pressed a hand to my chest. “Oh my god. They’re going to know I’ve been lying this whole time. I’m going to be their greatest disappointment EVER.”
He came around in front of me, cupped my face in his hands, and said, “No, you are not. You could never be a disappointment to anyone. Those two people love you more than you can possibly imagine. I saw it on their faces the moment I walked in tonight.” He leaned his forehead against mine. “It’s fine. I’ll fix it. She’ll be gone soon. I promise.” Then he stood back up. “Have I ever let you down, Will?”
“No,” I said. Outside of my dad, he was the only man who hadn’t.
“Then trust me.”
Trust him? That was almost asking the impossible of me. I had a lifetime of let-downs telling me that men couldn’t be trusted. At least where my heart was concerned.
Though we weren’treallytalking about my heart here. I mean, in many ways my parents were my heart, but this was a different kind of risk. And, looking at Josh’s clear blue eyes, I knew he was a good bet.
Inside, my mom was setting another place at the table while my dad went searching for a chair.
“At my desk, Dad,” I called out. My apartment wasn’t exactly big enough for hosting dinner parties, and we’d already maxed out the dining chairs tonight. I glanced at Josh, who was hanging out near the bathroom, waiting for Stacie to emerge, and sent up a little prayer that somehow we’d get through this evening with all my lies still intact.
But why would any god worth believing in answer prayers about lying?
Shit. I was so screwed.
The bathroom door opened and Stacie slipped past Josh before he could stop her, heading straight for the table. She sat right down at the new place setting next to my dad, then looked expectantly at first Josh, then me.
“Uh…Stacie?” Josh said. “Could I talk to you for just a minute?”
Shaking her head, she said, “No,” and started loading her plate with food. “This looks amazing, and I’m starving.” She looked at my dad. “Josh was supposed to take me out to dinner tonight, but he canceled.”
“Oh no, Josh,” my mom said as she tucked her napkin back into her lap. “You didn’t have to change your plans for us. I’m sorry, dear,” she said to Stacie. “Are you two close?”
Stacie was chewing with her eyes closed, looking like she was tasting just a little bit of heaven. “Mmmhmmm,” she said. “Very close. Aren’t we, Joshy?”
“Not for much longer we aren’t,” he muttered under his breath as he reluctantly sat back down at the table.
“Joshy?” I couldn’t hide my grin, and Josh shot me a dark look. Stacie pouted a little that he wasn’t sitting next to her, and I braced for her to say something but she didn’t.
“So, Will,” Stacie speared some salad on her fork then waved it at me, “Josh got me hooked on your books.” She leaned close and lowered her voice as if no one else could hear her. “Have you ever written about him? I mean, you two MUST have dat—”
“WINE!” I stood up suddenly, shouting the word so loudly it startled my parents. Stacie stared at me with wide eyes like she was thinking I might be unbalanced.
Frankly, I was thinking the same thing.
“Willow?” My dad had this look on his face like he wanted to ask me a question but wasn’t quite sure how to phrase it.
Pushing my chair back, I was already heading for the glasses. “I didn’t offer you any wine, Stacie. How un-hostly of me.” I grabbed a goblet and turned around. “Or would you prefer beer?”
Josh was shaking his head no, like this was the WORST idea possible. And now that I thought about it, loosening her tongue with alcohol was perhaps the stupidest thing I could do given the circumstances, but it was the only thing I could think of at the time.
Thinking on the fly? NOT my strong suit. I do so much better when I have time to plan things out. Which made me good at writing, but not so much at Life-ing.
“Wine would be great,” Stacie said. “Thank you. You are so sweet. Not at all what I expected.”
As I was trying to figure out the appropriate response to that, my mom said, “So you two hadn’t met?” Her forehead furrowed in confusion. “Are you visiting, then?” she said to Stacie.
“Visiting? Well, I came by to see Josh.” Stacie smiled coquettishly at him and then suggestively swirled her tongue around a cherry tomato and popped it into her mouth.
“STACIE.” Josh shot to his feet, his chair clattering to the floor behind him. “I REALLY NEED TO TALK TO YOU OUT IN THE HALL RIGHT NOW.” He walked around the table, gently but firmly took her arm and led her toward the door. As he was opening it, he turned back and said, “I’ll be right back.”
Stacie said, “I will, t—”
But Josh yanked her out the door before she could finish her sentence.
My parents were silent for a few moments. And I didn’t have a clue what to say.
“Well,” my mom said, smoothing her hands over her lap, “that was…”
“I’m sorry,” I said, the words rushing out of my mouth. “This is all my fault, and I…I never should have…god, I’ve messed this all up. It’s just that you worry about me and I don’t want you to worry, and I’m sorry. Josh and I—”
The door opened and Josh came back in. Alone.
My mouth hung open in mid-sentence, but nothing more came out.
“Josh and you what, Willowbee?” my dad said, a crease in his forehead. “What were you going to say?”
Josh slid into his seat next to me and nudged me with his arm. “We’re just so glad you’re here,” he said, turning to my parents. “Especially me. It’s really great to finally meet you.”
I let out a deep and slightly shaky breath, my eyes stinging a little. If I believed in knights in shining armor, Josh would definitely be one.
“So, Josh,” my mom said, picking up from where we’d left off, as if Stacie had never even been here, “tell us how you proposed to our Willow.”
“Oh…” I said, panic prickling my skin, “it’s not that interesting—he got down on one knee, and I said yes. You don’t want to hear it.”
“Of course I do.” She leaned her elbows on the table and waited expectantly.
I turned to Josh, my mind racing to come up with some story so he wouldn’t have to, but under the table he just calmly placed a hand on my knee and squeezed.
“Well,” he started, and my parents both leaned closer, ready to be enraptured again. “After that first night we met, we bumped into each other several more times up on the roof, then started making regular dates to meet there. It becameourplace even before we were dating. It still is.” He took a sip of wine amidst complete silence—my parents hung on his every word and I was too anxious to know what he would say to breathe, let alone speak. “So, on The Night, I lit up the roof with candles all around the edge, had two bottles of her favorite Sam Adams—Octoberfest—and a pint of her favorite salted caramel and bittersweet chocolate ice cream.” He paused, turning his smile on me.
Theyweremy favorites, and I could hardly believe he knew that. I mean, we’d been good friends for three years, but I guess I never realized how well he knew me.
“When she arrived, I gave her this speech about how long we’ve known each other, how she was the only person I always wanted more time with no matter how much time we spent together, and how I never wanted to be without her.” He swung his arm over the back of my chair, squeezed my shoulder, and pulled me into him. “And since she realized she didn’t want a life without me either, she saidyes.”
I nodded, mesmerized. “Well, who wouldn’t?” I took a deep breath, sucked in by his story. “That is the most perfect proposal I’ve ever heard. Wow.”
“And you said it wasn’t a good story, Will,” my dad said, clucking his tongue.
“Well…I just hadn’t ever heardJoshtell it before.” It wasn’t a lie, thank goodness, but even so my cheeks were tingling and I could feel my face grow warm. “He tells it REALLY well.”
Part of me almost wished it were true because it was possibly THE most romantic proposal I’d ever heard. Lucky had been proposed toad nauseam, but not one of them had even come close to this. And while Austin’s proposal to Ever had been all swoony and adorable…the whole public proposal thing? Nope. I wasn’t into flashy or anything that required the kind of coordination it took to put on a Broadway show.
Not that those weren’t fun—they totally were. They just weren’t me. Simple and personal, what he had just described, was my idea of perfection.
Damn. Josh was going to make some girl REALLY happy one day.
That thought should have made me feel good for him and his future wife, but it actually left me unsettled. Slightly out of sorts. I shook it off, though, ignoring the little pang in my gut, and filed this moment away to use in one of my books.
Because SERIOUSLY. I was swooning here.
I leaned back, grabbed a pen and a sticky pad off the counter behind me, and scribbledproposalon it so I’d remember.
When I looked up, my mom had tears in her eyes and she was reaching for Josh’s hand. “We are so thrilled that you found each other. George and I feel so much better about Willow being in the city, knowing that she’s not alone.”
“She’s not alone,” Josh said, his arm still around me, his hand warm on my shoulder. “Not as long as I’m around.”
I smiled at him, but this knot of emptiness and longing formed in my gut at his words…because they were not true. Iwasalone.
I wanted to be alone.
I washappybeing alone.
So why was I suddenly feeling like my life plan had a gigantic man-shaped hole in it, one that could not be filled one hot night after another?
Looking across the table at my parents, they were saturated with each other—happier together than they were apart. It felt so good sitting here with them, Josh by my side. I was surrounded by love.
And I started to wonder if maybe—justmaybe—I’d gotten it all wrong.
Maybe being alone wasn’t what I really wanted after all.
“So why are you going to a doc in New York instead of Boston?” I said the next morning as I locked my door and led my parents out to the street. “I mean, there have got to be plenty of great cardiologists there, Dad.”
“Well, you remember the Martins?” my mom said. “They were in New York when Abe started having trouble breathing. He went to the hospital and, long story short, was treated by this doctor your father is going to see. Turns out he had heart failure, just like Dad, and she put in a special pacemaker. I know we could go to someone in Boston, but we know she’s good, so why bother?”
“And New York-Presbyterian is a better cardiac hospital,” my dad said. He raised his arm to hail a cab.
“We want the best for your father.” My mom slipped her arm around my waist and pulled me close. “Plus we get to see our favorite girl and her fiancé. It was a great excuse to come visit.”
“Mom, you don’t need an excuse. You could come any time.”
“I know, sweetheart. Still. This’ll work out. Your father gets his heart fixed up right, and we get to see you.”
The ride uptown was quiet. My parents sat close together, holding hands. For all their carefree talk, worry rolled off them in waves, and I wondered if maybe another reason they came here was so I could be there with them. That maybe they needed me, too.
I reached over and put my hand on top of theirs, squeezing. My dad placed his other hand on mine, and the three of us rode the rest of the way like that. Part of me wanted to point out the sights as we went by, but it didn’t feel like the right time. They were nervous, but focused. I didn’t want to intrude. I just wanted to be with them.
When we got to the hospital, my dad checked in, then we were ushered into a doctor’s office. Sitting in front of an imposing desk, I looked around the room at the books, models of hearts, and finally the degrees hanging on the walls.
Daniel Schwartz, M.D.
Goosebumps rose on my skin at the sight of the name.
“Who did you say you had an appointment with?” I said, my voice sounding tight and panicked to my ears. “I thought you said the doctor was a woman.”
It couldn’t be the same Dan I’d known in college. The one who’d broken my heart when he left to go do his residency in Minnesota. The one who’d planned to become a cardiologist.
The one The Girls had dubbed Dr. Heartworm.
“Dr. Stidham, but they said we’d been seen by Dr. Schwartz today. Some sort of screening process, I think.”
I could feel the color draining from my face.
It couldn’t be him. This had to be a DIFFERENT cardiologist named Dan Schwartz. That was a common name, right?
There was a REALLY good chance it was someone else…and not my ex with the dark, wavy hair and deep brown eyes who’d just walked into the room and was closing the door behind him. Why had I thought it was a good idea to tag along to this appointment? My parents could have come by themselves. Why, also, was there no place to hide or just melt into the background in a doctor’s office?
I ducked my head down, staring at my hands in my lap, wishing fervently that I could disappear.
“Good morning, Mr. Truly. I’m Dr. Schwartz, and I work with Dr. Stidham.” The sound of Dan’s voice made me cringe. It really, really was him. Shit. Shit. Shit. Papers rustled and he came around the edge of his desk to sit down across from us. I lowered my head further, belatedly realizing the futility—between the last name and my flaming red hair…god, fuck me. Almost to himself, he said, “What an unusual last name…I used to know—”
He must have looked up and seen me because his words cut off sharply. I didn’t have the guts to look up.
“Hello, Willow,” he said, a distinct chill in his voice.
Face burning, I finally met his eyes, gave a half-hearted smile and a wave. “Hi, Dr. Heartw—D-D-Dan. It’s…uh…been a while.”
His eyes hardened and his jaw set.
Clearly he wasn’t entirely over it yet.
Okay, look. When Dan had dumped me cold, I hadn’t reacted WELL. After nine blissful months together and absolutely NO sign from him that we weren’t going to continue on together, get married, have babies, and live happily ever after (see? Once upon a time I’d wanted all those things, too), he’d gotten his residency acceptance, rented an apartment in Minnesota, and then, at the last minute, announced that I was not invited along. That it had been fun while it lasted, but he’d spent the night with another doctor-in-training on a visit to the Mayo Clinic, and he wanted to go there free from all prior commitments so he could explore his options.
He’d actually used those words.Explore his options.Can you even believe that?
Even worse, he’d said it the night before he left. The night before I thought we were BOTH leaving. I mean, I’d just graduated, so I’d assumed we were going together. I’d even packed up all my stuff and loaded it into my car.
You can understand why his news hadn’t gone over well.
The only bright point had been that I hadn’t yet worked up the nerve to tell my parents. For one, I knew they’d be heartbroken for me to move so far away. And even though we’d been together for my entire senior year, I’d never introduced him to them.
Maybe it was because The Girls were not his biggest fans—to put it mildly. I mean, at first they’d liked him just fine. But over time, they’d liked him less and less. I’d been worried my parents would feel the same way. What would I have done if my parents hated the love of my life?
He’d at least saved me from that.
But it’s not like that made me feel any better.
I’d been so stunned that I didn’t get out of bed for a week and a half, drowning in devastation and self-pity. Not knowing where I was going to go, what I was going to do, how I was going to live through this. The Girls had rallied around me, and bit by bit I’d swum to the surface and started to breathe again.
And then I started to write. Feverishly. Madly.
I scribbled for days, getting down everything that I felt, spewing my anger and brokenness all over the page.
What I ended up with was my very first “Yours Truly” column, though I didn’t know it at the time. Lucky coaxed me into coming to New York with her, then set me up with interviews at all the magazines, and helped me throw together an impromptu portfolio with this piece about Dan on top.
I’d gotten an offer fromDu Jouron the spot with a request that they run the article in the next issue. And they’d wanted me to write more just like it. Help women everywhere.
Getting the piece published could have been enough for me, but I wanted to be sure Dan saw it. So I sent him a copy. And then I sent copies to the residents at the Mayo Clinic and theentirenursing staff. Basically anyone and everyone that Dan might possibly come into contact with.
And from the look on his face right now as he sat across the desk from me and my parents, THAT hadn’t gone over well with him.
He stared at me for a moment, then turned and forced a tight smile at my dad. “I’m sorry you’ve come all this way, Mr. Truly, but after looking at your records, we can’t—”
“What?!” I said. “You’re refusing to help my father because of me? You can’t do that, Dan. That’s illegal.”
“Willow!” my mom said, then shot a worried smile at Dan. “She’s not usually like this…though I suppose you already know that since you… Wait. You’re Dan?”
My dad sat up straighter. “Dan, the guy who hurt my Willow?”
Fury and indignation formed a dangerous cocktail in my blood, and I stood up, placed my hands on his desk and leaned toward him. I was not the doormat I’d once been, and I’d be damned if he was going to wipe his feet on me again.
“You think what happened last time was bad?” I said. “You do this, Dan, and you can bet I will make the biggest stink ever. I have connections now. I know LOTS of people. I can and will make your life a living hell.” I was practically breathing fire. “You know what else? I should be thanking you for what you did three years ago because you are an ASSHOLE. And you saved me from you. I take back what I said about you. Not that every word wasn’t true. It was, but you did me a huge favor by dumping me. I can’t believe I ever missed you. Clearly, there was nothing to miss.”
“Willow,” he said calmly, folding his hands into his lap. “We’re not refusing to treat him. Dr. Stidham and I conferred this morning and she came to the conclusion that the procedure is not quite right for him. Her colleague Dr. Estevez would be a better fit. Unfortunately, she’s booked for months. You’d be lucky to get an appointment with her before Thanksgiving, and he needs treatment sooner. Dr. Stidham can recommend someone excellent in Boston. I’ve already contacted his office so you can set up an appointment right away.” He raised his eyebrows at me as if to saySee? I’m an adult,and I wanted to smack that smug look off his too-handsome face.
I also kinda wanted a gap to open up in the floor and swallow me whole.
Not sure which I wanted more.
I looked at his face again. The smack. I definitely wanted the smack more.
“Oh,” I said, clearing my throat and sitting down again, my face flaming for the second time in five minutes. “Well, then that’s fine. Never mind about…all that other stuff.”
As we made our way out of the hospital, my parents didn’t say anything, just held onto each other like a lifeline. Every time they looked at me, they’d put on a cheery smile, but it never reached their eyes.
It was killing me just a little bit.
And something about Dan was nagging at me, pricking my thoughts, changing how I saw what had happened between us. It wasn’t as black and white as it had felt at the time. It felt gray now. I hadn’t thought about it until today, but he really HAD done me a favor by leaving me behind, and instead of holding a grudge against him, I should have been doing a happy dance that I’d been set free.
Lines starting forming in my mind, and I pulled out my phone, typing furiously to get them all down.
Sometimes the thing you want the least, turns out to be the thing you need the most. And what felt like the worst catastrophe of your love life, was, in reality, the luckiest day of it because it got you to where you are today. The thing about hindsight is that you’re finally able to see clearly that he wasn’t the right guy for you, no matter how much you’d convinced yourself he was.
And instead of still being hurt or mad about what happened, you realize you should be thanking your lucky stars.
And so you do.
Then I tapped out a text to The Girls.
ME: One word: Dr. Heartworm.
BLISS: That’s two words. And also…HOLY SHIT.
LUCKY: One word: NO. WAY.
EVER: Two words: SERIOUSLY?
SUMMER: You guys suck at math. And Dr. Heartworm…well, he just sucks.
HARMONY: You saw him?
ME: He was the cardiologist my dad saw today.
HARMONY: That’s so nice it was someone you knew!
LUCKY: One word, Harmony: DR. HEARTWORM.
HARMONY: Oh…right. Still.
EVER: Drinks? Tonight? Because we NEED to hear this.
ME: Can’t. Parents here one more night. And then a date/work the next. Saturday? Summer and Bliss…you guys are still around this weekend, right?
HARMONY: Oh! Come take my class Saturday morning, then we’ll all go out for breakfast.
Our plans set, I stuffed my phone back into my pocket. A cab pulled up at that moment, and my dad opened the door to usher me and my mom in. I paused before I got in the car, standing face to face with him, staring into hazel eyes that looked just like mine.
“It’ll be okay, Willowbee,” he said. “It always is.”
Is it? I thought, but didn’t say it out loud. It wasn’t going to do anyone any good.
I ducked into the back seat, sliding all the way over to the door to make room for my parents, and then watched the city fly by as we sped back downtown toward my apartment.
All I could think was what if he was wrong? Because sometimes it wasn’t okay, sometimes things didn’t work out. And I just had to hope this was not one of those times.
The night breezed over my skin, cooling me, calming me, filling me with much-needed space. In this city of millions, I sometimes felt overwhelmed by the constant presence of people everywhere I went, everywhere I looked. I mean, I loved this city—its energy, its diversity, its vastness of possibility. But all of those combined to create this constant noise that got to be too much, and I craved silence and space.
Which is what I got up on the roof.
I took a deep breath and opened my eyes to the dark skies above.
My parents were tucked in for the night, worn out from this emotional day—their hopes up before the appointment, and now dashed. I wasn’t sure who was more affected—my dad or my mom. Seeing the look on my mom’s face when Dan had passed them off—god, it killed me. Dad was her world. It’s almost as if one of them couldn’t exist without the other.
Feeling that way about someone scared the shit out of me because what if you lost them?
What ifIlost him?
My dad tired too easily. So many things wore him out—simple stuff that he used to be able to do. Climbing the one flight of stairs up to my apartment, he was out of breath halfway through and had to stop to rest.
Honestly, I was more than a little alarmed watching him huffing and puffing on the middle landing as if he’d just run to the top of the Empire State building. I’d had no idea it was that bad, and I’d started going over everything I used to know about CPR—surprisingly little—brushing up mentally just in case I needed to use it.
God, please don’t make me use it.
My mom had mentioned he got winded quickly, but seeing it in person was different. Now I deeply understood my parents’ disappointment. I’d seen the cocktail of prescriptions he was already taking, and they didn’t seem to be doing much.
Or maybe they were. And wasn’t THAT an even scarier thought?
Tears welled up and my throat got tight. I couldn’t lose my dad. He and my mom had been the only constants in my life, and I was more than just a little attached to them. They were my only family, and once I lost them I was going to be completely, one-hundred-percent alone.
I wasn’t ready for this. And seeing my dad today struggling…it was scaring the bejeezus out of me.
THIS. This was another reason I refused to fall in love with anyone. It had devastated me when I lost Dan, but that was nothing to what I was feeling at the mere thought of losing my father.
And if I were to lose the love of my life, whoever he may be?
No. I just didn’t have it in me to keep losing people.
Because that’s what Life does to you. It gives you people to love, then it takes them away. One by one. It doesn’t care how long you’ve loved someone, it doesn’t care that the pain of losing them is destroying you.
Life doesn’t care at all.
I figured that if I didn’t care either—if I kept the circle of people I truly loved small and didn’t let any new members in—then there’d be less to lose.
It was self-preservation. At least, that’s what I was calling it.
“Will? You up here?”
The door opened and Josh wandered out on the roof, two beer bottles clinking gently together in one hand.
“Over here.” I brushed the tears away quickly, hoping the darkness would hide what I couldn’t just wipe off my face. I took a deep, shuddering breath and smiled, willing myself back to equilibrium.
He came over, plunked himself down into the empty chair next to me, and handed over a bottle. Wordlessly, we clinked them together and then drank.
The cold brew tasted like the night air—cool, crisp, and fresh.
I sighed. “What makes you think something’s up?”
“Well, I didn’t get called for fake-boyfriend duty tonight, your apartment sounds like it’s gone to sleep, and you’re up here hiding.”
“Fake fiancé,” I said, “and I’m not hiding. Just thinking.” I turned to him. “And have I thanked you enough yet? Because you were really wonderful last night. Your proposal story…oh my god.”
“You liked that, huh?”
“It was perfect. I WOULD have said yes to that, and I don’t even want to get married.”
He stopped and turned to me, surprise evident on his face. “You don’t? Really?”
“But you write romance novels. How can someone who writes one Happily Ever After after another NOT want her own?”
“Because there ARE no Happily Ever Afters. Not in real life.” I stood up, and went to lean on the edge of the roof so I could look out over the city. And—maybe—get away from his question. “It’s all just fiction.”
“Your parents have theirs.” His arm rubbed against mine as he settled himself beside me and leaned on his elbows.
“Except my dad’s not doing well, and if he dies…” I couldn’t finish that sentence. My throat closed and I pressed my eyes shut to stop the stinging tears. “That’s not exactly a Happily Ever After, you know?”
Josh’s warm hand closed over my arm. “Will…”
“He’s really sick, Josh. And the doc today…” Dr. Heartworm popped up in my mind again, and I laughed. “God, it was the guy who broke my heart. Can you believe that?”
I told him the whole story, including our sordid breakup and my very public response. By the end of it we were both laughing, and I had tears running down my face again. But they were the good kind this time.
“Holy shit,” he said, “remind me to never break your heart.”
“You don’t have to worry about that,” I said. “You’ll never get the chance. No one will. I learned that lesson already.”
“Well…THAT’s a healthy way to live.”
“I don’t see you risking YOUR heart.” I said, feeling a sudden burst of irritation. How dare he judge me given the revolving door that was his love life? “Seriously? You’re dating Stacie because you think she might be The One? The girl who thinks Jersey is a land far, far away?”
“I’m WILLING to risk my heart,” he said. “For the right girl, when she’s ready. In the meantime, yes, I’m having a little fun. No harm in that.”
“There’s no such thing as the right person.”
“Sure there is. And sometimes they’re even right under your nose.”
I glanced over at him and he was looking at me.
Like LOOKING looking.
And suddenly I wasveryaware of the feel of his arm against mine, from elbow to shoulder. His warmth spread through me in a way it never had before.
His eyes gazed into mine then burned a trail down my face to smolder on my lips. How was that even possible? That I couldfeelhis gaze like that. It was possibly the sexiest thing I’d ever experienced, and let me tell you, I’ve experienced a LOT of sexy things.
My breath hitched and I let my eyes focus on his mouth.
He had a really fantastic set of lips. Square-ish and a little on the thinner side, they looked like they’d feel REALLY good against mine. And against the rest of my—
NO. This was Josh. I couldn’t go there with him. It just wasn’t…
But he was leaning toward me now, and I felt as if I was being pulled closer by some invisible, irresistible force…and one little kiss couldn’t hurt. Could it?
The night pressed in on us, urging us together, and all sounds ceased. The world went silent. There was nothing but Josh. The scent of him surrounded me so that I was breathing him in, our lips getting closer and closer, my heart beating faster and faster.
And then the door to the roof creaked open behind us.
I jumped away from him, my heart hammering, feeling like I’d been caught. My face flamed red, and I couldn’t look at him.
What the hell was that?
“Willow, honey?” my mom’s voice called from the stairwell. “Sweetheart, there’s…uh…a problem in your apartment.”
As soon as I opened my door, I stopped dead.
Water poured from a gaping hole in the ceiling of my living room. Pieces of plaster dropped like cookie crumbs, scattering all over. And all I could do was stand there gawking at it in abject horror.
My parents were scrambling to find pots and pans to catch the water, which was ridiculous because there was already an inch of it on the floor. I didn’t own enough pots—hell, there wasn’t enough cookware in the city to catch the amount of water gushing out of my ceiling.
Josh had immediately jumped into action as well, whipping out his phone to dial the super as he scrambled to help my mom and dad.
At least some of us had their thinking caps on.
But not me. I just stood there.
Watching everything I owned—my whole life contained in one little space—get typhooned.
Wondering what the hell I was going to do.
Telling myself: Breathe, Will. Just breathe. I could figure this out.
After what felt like forever, the water finally slowed to a trickle. A few minutes later the super came racing up the stairs, apologizing, making sure everyone was okay.
Josh pulled on my arm, and I splashed out into the hall after him. “I told your parents to grab their stuff and bring it over to my place,” he said. “You guys are staying with me.”
I nodded even though I had no idea what he’d just said. I mean, I’d heard sounds coming out of his mouth, but my brain wasn’t capable of processing anything. It was still too busy silently freaking out over the water. I stared back into the apocalypse in my apartment.
“Will,” he said, and when I didn’t respond, he said it again. “WILL.” I turned to him, trying to hear his words, willing myself to make sense of what was happening. “Come on. There’s nothing you can do about this tonight.”
“Yeah, okay.” I pulled out my phone. “I gotta call a hotel.”
“You’re staying with me. Your mom already made up the pull-out bed.”
“Oh, Josh. You’re not going to want us all in there, in your space. I mean, your apartment isn’t any bigger than mine.”
He raised an eyebrow. “What kind of fiancé would I be if I didn’t open my apartment to my future wife and in-laws?”
“Oh, shit. I forgot.” I glanced at his closed apartment door. “I’m so sorry about this. God, I forced this on you and now you’re stuck with—”
“Will? Would you shut up, please? I like George and Grace. And I find you mostly tolerable, so don’t worry about it.” He laughed as I smacked his shoulder.
“My parents are going home tomorrow, so I’ll—”
He turned and folded me into a hug, cutting off my words. Oh my god, it felt good. I melted against him. You would have, too—don’t judge.
“You are welcome to stay with me as long as you need to,” he said. “Until your apartment is fixed. If you’d rather stay with one of your friends, go for it. But this way you’re still right here. Either way, the offer stands.” I opened my mouth to protest, but he shook his head. “Seriously. We’re friends, Will. You’d do the same for me, right?”
Would I? Yes. Of course, I would.
I nodded mutely, and followed him into his apartment.
My parents were already tucking themselves in—they’d been sleeping when the ceiling had poured itself all over my living room. They looked tired, but happy.
“It’s just so nice that Josh is right here to help, isn’t it?” my mom said, beaming at us. “He really is the best thing to ever happen to you, Willow.”
My dad patted my mom’s hand. “We don’t have to worry about you at all anymore, sweetheart.”
“Now,” my mom said, pulling the covers up to her shoulders, “don’t let us keep you two up.” She nodded toward Josh’s bedroom. “We’ll see you in the morning.”
My parents both said goodnight, but I was too busy staring at the bedroom door to respond.
I couldn’t go sleep in there with him.
“Maybe I should stay out here,” I said, grabbing a blanket and laying it on the floor. “Just in case you two need anything.”
“If you lay there, we’ll just trip over you when we get up in the night.” My dad laughed. “Will, we are old enough to know that you two sleep together. After all, you are both consenting adults.”
“DAD!” Heat rushed to my face for the eleventieth time that day. Could I blush ANY MORE often? But, come on, my father talking about my sex life? Nooo. Not something I was on board with.
“I’m just saying you don’t have to put on a show for us,” he said, snuggling down next to my mom. He waved us away. “Go enjoy yourselves. Pretend we’re not even here. And we’ll do the same.”
Josh burst out laughing.
“OH MY GOD, DAD,” I said. “Will you stop already?”
“We better do as he says.” Josh grabbed my hand and started pulling me toward his room. “Heisyour father, after all.”
There wasn’t anything I could do but follow along. Because it was my fault we were in this situation anyway.
See what happens when you lie, kids? It comes back to bite you in the ass.
As soon as Josh closed the door behind me, I felt nervous, awkward.
The room was tiny, like mine, and his bed took up most of the space. Framed in heavy wood with these gorgeous inlaid designs, it looked ENORMOUS. Who needs that big of a bed? I was trying to imagine how he even got it in here—anything to keep my mind off the fact that we’d be sleeping in it together.
“You like the right side or the left?” he said, walking over to his dresser while he pulled off his shirt.
I clamped my hand over my eyes, and turned around. “JOSH. I’m standing RIGHT HERE.”
“And, what? You’ve never seen a guy without his shirt? Get over it, Will. You’re an adult. You can handle it.” He laughed. “Besides, it’s not like I’m whipping out my tool belt.”
“Oh, yeah? And why not?”
“I like to save that for the second date, at least. Plus, I left it at the workshop…”
I rolled my eyes, though it’s not like he could see me since my back was still turned. And, YES, I was an adult. Which I proved by turning around again and peeking at him through my fingers.
His sun-kissed skin looked smooth as it dipped and curved over the muscles of his torso. God, he was beautiful. I don’t think I’d ever realized how much.
I splayed my fingers wide to better appreciate him.
He was built—years of working with wood had been good to him, but it was more than that. Clearly he worked out, and damn, but if it wasn’t working for him. And for me, to be honest. No wonder he always had a girl.
He caught me peeking through my fingers. “See?” he said, “You’re handling it just fine—you have yet to burst into flames.”
I pulled my hands away from my face, laughing, and rolled my eyes. “Well, you’d have to be HOT for that to happen.” My voice sounded nonchalant, but I was feverishly burning this image of him into my brain so I could take it out and enjoy it later. Because the only thing keeping me from bursting into flames at that moment was the preponderance of drool oozing from my every pore.
“So, right or left? Do you have a preference?”
Reluctantly ripping my gaze away, I glanced at the bed again, and panic washed over me like cold shower.
“I can just sleep on the floor…”
“Will.” He shook his head, a grin on his face. “You may be small, but you’re not THAT small. There is not enough room for you to sleep on the floor…even if I would let you,” he said. “Which I wouldn’t.”
“But…” I walked toward his dresser to check out the floor space there and on the far side of the bed. He was right. “I just…I don’t want to put you out.”
“You’re not. I like the left. You okay with the right?”
“Sure,” I said, not feeling okay AT ALL about any of this, but not really having any other options.
Just as I was about to sit on the bed, he said, “Wait!” Then he threw a t-shirt at me. “Your clothes are soaked. Wear this tonight, and we’ll get your clothes in the morning when your apartment isn’t so much like oceanside property.”
I held up the shirt in front of me. Short-sleeved and crimson, it said HARVARD in big white letters across the chest. And it would have been perfect except I had this habit of not wearing underwear.
And tonight was no exception.
Of course, I could go back to my apartment to get my own pajamas, but that would mean disturbing my parents AND wading back through the waters of destruction. I wasn’t sure I was up for that. Plus he’d given me his shirt, which was sweet and I didn’t want to hurt his feelings after everything he’d done.
“Uh…” I started to speak, but then realized there was nothing I could say that wouldn’t be embarrassing. Like I wanted to tell him I was going commando? That would be a NO.
Besides, what if he took that as an invitation?
Yes, he was gorgeous. Yes, he was single. YES, I’d been horny for DAYS.
But NO. It was JOSH.
I shook my head. “Nope. No problems here.” Except, YEP. Big problem here. “Would you, um, turn your back please?”
He sat down on the other side of the bed, his back to me. I made sure there wasn’t a mirror on his side before I tugged off my wet shirt and pulled his dry one over my head. It did feel really good, the soft, dry cotton sliding over my skin, the clean laundry smell wafting over me. I undid my bra before it could get the shirt wet, and slipped it through one sleeve. Then I pulled my phone out of my pocket and slid off my soaked jeans, letting them drop to the floor.
Air hit my lady parts and I pulled the shirt down as low as it would go. Floor-length wouldn’t have felt long enough.
Tucking the shirt under my butt, I gingerly sat on the edge of the bed to text The Girls. Josh slid under the covers, and I couldn’t, for the life of me, even spare a glance in his direction, couldn’t muster the chutzpah to meet his eyes when I was wearing only his t-shirt and nothing else.
ME: The day has gone from bad to worse. Am spending the night at Josh’s.
HARMONY: How is that worse? He’s adorable. RAWR.
ME: My apartment was a scene from The Perfect Storm and had a couple inches of water in it when I left.
EVER: Oh, no! How bad is it?
ME: Honestly, I don’t know. It looks awful, but I’ll find out tomorrow. I can’t even think about all my stuff.
SUMMER: But you’re staying with Josh? Happy ending!
ME: NO. I have to sleep in his bed because my parents think we’re engaged. Remember?
SUMMER: I don’t see the problem.
ME: I’m wearing HIS t-shirt and NO panties. I’m practically wearing a sign that says FUCK ME NOW, JOSH.
SUMMER: Yeah. STILL not seeing a problem…
LUCKY: I knew that commando thing was eventually going to bite you in the bare ass. At the very least you should always carry a pair in your purse.
BLISS: For an underwear emergency??
EVER: The only time I carry panties in my purse is when I’ve taken them OFF.
LUCKY: I’m just SAYING. It would have helped her tonight.
ME: You think I brought a purse with me? Across the hall? Have you MET me?
HARMONY: She has a point, Lucky.
ME: What am I going to do, you guys?
EVER: Adam and Eve it.
LUCKY: Let him clean your pipes.
ME: OMG STOP.
HARMONY: Get your chimney swept out.
BLISS: Make ends meet.
SUMMER: Or, you know, you could just fuck his brains out. ;-)
ME: You guys suck, you know that?
BLISS: We love you, too, Will! Have fun tonight! XOXOXO
I tossed my phone onto the bedside table, and took a deep breath. Then I very carefully lifted the covers and got in the bed. As I slid down the sheets, the shirt slid up. So I lifted my hips, grabbed the hem, and yanked it down again.
There was no way I was going to be able to sleep in the same bed with him knowing there was a possibility my bare ass could come into contact with any part of his body. My eyes stung because everything was overwhelming me and what I really needed was to just sleep, but I knew this would keep me awake all night lon—
“Would you be more comfortable with a pair of boxers, too?”
I almost wept in relief. I nodded, my throat too thick to speak.
He got up, pulled out a clean pair, and handed them to me. “They’ll be a little big on you.”
“They’re perfect.” I choked out the words, then pulled the shorts under the covers, shoved my feet through them and hoisted them up. Thank god. Unbelievable how a simple pair of underwear could make all the difference.
“You know,” he said as he got back into the bed, keeping to his side, “you could have just asked. Anything you need, I’m here. Got it?”
I nodded, turning on my side to face him. He lay with one arm on top of the covers, the other tucked under his head as he looked at me. He didn’t make any move to touch me, and I finally felt myself relax.
But I couldn’t help thinkingIt’s kinda hot to be wearing his boxers.
God, I needed to get laid. And I needed to keep my mind off his underwear. Hell, I could focus, instead, on the fact that he was being so freaking nice.
“Thank you. Again,” I said. “I can’t tell you how much—”
“You just did.” He smiled sleepily at me. “And you’re welcome. I do really like your parents, by the way. Your dad is hysterical.”
“Oh yeah, he’s a real hoot.” I laughed. “I cannotbelievehe said that.” I covered my face with my hands, feeling my face redden again. God.
“He loves you.”
Sighing, I pulled my hands away. “Yeah, he does.” My dad had always been my strongest supporter, my biggest fan. He’d always believed that I could do anything I wanted to do. “Me, too.”
“I can see that. It’s nice. Seems like so many people don’t like their parents, or are indifferent. I’ve never understood that.”
“Me neither. My parents are two of my favorite people on the planet. They always have been.”
We were silent for a few moments, and my mind drifted back up to the roof tonight. Part of me wanted to just ignore what had almost happened between us, but the other part of me knew it would just eat at me if I didn’t make sure we were on the same page. I couldn’t bear to have some misunderstanding come between us, especially something that could be cleared up with a few words right now.
“Um…about earlier?” I said. “I may have been a little…out of sorts.”
“And right now?”
“I’m a LOT out of sorts.” I pulled the covers up to my chin. “But in a really REALLY different way.”
He stared at me, then nodded. “Well, it’s not like you could help it—I am pretty irresistible in the moonlight.”
“Yeah, THAT must have been it.” I laughed, tension easing out a little more, my body starting to sink heavier into the mattress. “But see,” I said, waving my hand at the dim room, “no more moonlight. Plus, you’re not wearing your tool belt…”
“Yeah.” He stretched his arms above his head, yawned, then closed his eyes. “Don’t you just hate it when that happens?”
Nodding, I rolled over, keeping to the edge of the bed to leave as much room between us as possible. “It’s the worst,” I said. “But what are you gonna do?”
He didn’t respond, and I listened as his breathing become deep and slow. Relief washed over me because everything was fine between us. I hadn’t screwed anything up, and that thought alone was enough to let me breathe easy again. Sleep pulled at my limbs, dragging me down deeper into his bed, even as my mind replayed that moment up on the roof over and over again.
Sure, it was resolved, nothing to worry about. And yet I couldn’t help but wonder…what if our lips had met?
A part of me felt a little sad that they hadn’t.
Or maybe more than a little.
No matter how long I stared at it, my computer wasn’t becoming any less ruined.
I glanced around the room at the wasteland of my apartment and my eyes settled on the bookshelves. Of course they’d been directly underneath the deluge.
Oh god. Mybooks.And mydesk.
I hadn’t even thought about it last night. Where had my brain been? I mean, seriously. What had I been thinking? The least I could have done was rescue the books and move the desk and computer to safety. Yes, it probably wouldn’t have changed anything. Everything had gotten soaked from the start, but STILL.
Who doesn’t, at the very minimum, move her computer? Especially when her work DEPENDS on it. And she’s pretty sure the last time she ran backup was over a year ago. God, why hadn’t I learned to save my files to the cloud like every other sensible person my age?
Tears were running down my face and I was fighting to keep the panic from swallowing me whole. My life was in this room, and right at the moment my life was looking completely ruined.
My parents had left about twenty minutes ago, after offers to stay and help, lots of bear hugs and promises to keep me updated. My dad had gotten an appointment with the cardiologist in Boston on Monday and I was not about to let him help clean up my mess when he couldn’t even climb a flight of stairs.
There had also been WAY too many congratulations and welcomes to Josh, which had frankly started grating on my nerves.
When my dad had finally said, “Take care of my girl,” and Josh had responded “I will, sir,” as he shook my dad’s hand, I’d just about blown a gasket, wanting to shout, “I CAN ACTUALLY TAKE CARE OF MYSELF, THANK YOU VERY MUCH.”
But instead, I’d taken a deep breath and forced a smile. They meant well. All three of them. Josh was just responding the way guys ALWAYS did.
And my dad was…well, he was mydad. He worried. If this made him feel better, then I could play along.
Even if it was killing me inside.
Of course, it had the unfortunate side effect of making me kick my independence up a notch.
Which was why I’d brushed Josh off when he’d offered to come help me sort through the mess in here. It was MY mess, and I could handle it.
My mess. My life.
I didn’t need a man.
Okay, I was wrong. I needed a man and I needed him badly.
And apparently, the man I needed was named Darius.
“What can I help you with, Miss?”
My eyes flicked up from his nametag, and he smiled pleasantly until I pulled my dead laptop out of my bag. A couple of water droplets splotched onto the glass countertop as I gingerly put it down.
“I have a bit of a problem.”
He nodded. “I’ll say.” He glanced at my bag. “Any chance you backed everything up on an external hard drive?”
“Would I be here if there was?”
“Point taken.” He took a deep breath. “Well Miss, I’m not sure—”
“My LIFE is on this machine.” I pressed my palm on the top of it and more water squished out while I fought the rising panic at the resigned look on his face. “I’m a writer and my columns, my notes, the book I’m working on…EVERYTHING is on this.Please. You’ve GOT to help me.” I took a deep breath, willing my eyes to stay dry. I was NOT going to cry. I could freaking handle this.
My FREAKING mess. My FREAKING life.
Deep FREAKING breaths.
“What did you… How did this…uh…happen?”
“My apartment gotTitanicked.”
“Duuuude.” He whistled low. “That sucks.”
“Tell me about it. But also PLEASE tell me you can save my files.”
He looked at me, then slowly exhaled. “I’ll do my best, but I can’t make any promises.” He lifted it up, shaking his head at the water puddling out of the computer and onto the countertop. “Give me a week. This thing needs to completely dry out before I’ll be able to do anything with it. In the meantime, get yourself a new machine because this one is toast. If I can get anything off it, I’ll transfer the files onto your new one when you come back in.”
I nodded, thanked him, and tried to keep my internal panic to a dull roar as I left my life in Darius’s hopefully magical hands. Before heading back to my apartment, I stopped off at the nearest computer store. I had a date tonight and a column due next week. I had to hope the guy tonight gave me enough good material or I was going to have to recreate what I’d written about the Trojan man. And with so much having happened in the few days since, I knew that was going to be a stretch.
“Which one of these is the most waterproof?” I asked the salesman.
He smiled condescendingly. “You spill your coffee on the last one?”
My eyes narrowed. “Nah, just a whole building’s water supply.”
His eyebrows shot up to his receding hairline. “Oh…sorry.”
“You and me both.” I shrugged. If I acted like it was no big deal maybe it would eventuallyfeelthat way, too. Fake it till you make it, right? I waved my hand at the shelves covered with laptops. “Now…which one?”
Forty minutes and a thousand dollars later, I was home, facing the rest of the mess. I let in the super, plumber, and carpenter who’d been talking in the hallway outside my apartment when I arrived. I couldn’t bear hearing about how long it was going to take, so I retreated to my bedroom to set up my new computer and find something to wear on tonight’s date.
A couple of hours later as I was digging through my closet, the super called me out to the living room.
He held up his hands as soon as I appeared at my door. “Now, don’t you worry, Ms. Truly,” he said. “They will have this fixed in a day or two.
“Seriously?” God, I could have kissed him. I’d been sure it was going to take weeks to fix. This was the best news I’d had all day. The ONLY good news, actually. But, hey, I’d take what I could get.
“Maybe even tomorrow.” He looked back over his shoulder. “But your furniture… Maybe you have insurance?”
“Nope.” I shook my head. “But…who needs furniture, anyway?”
Which was mostly true. The furniture didn’t bother me.
Except for the desk. It had taken the brunt of the water damage, and I was pretty sure there was no saving it. The blond wood was already starting to warp and crack, the drawers moved in hard jerks—except for the one that had swollen shut and wouldn’t budge at all. I didn’t need Josh to tell me it was ruined.
It was beyond repair, just like my heart. That desk was like having a piece of my dad always with me. A piece of home. My safe place where I created my own worlds in my novels and my own reality in my columns. Where I didn’t have to face Life as it was, but rather Life as I wanted it to be.
Pressure was growing in my chest the more I thought about it, and I suddenly really needed to get out of there.
“So…are you guys done for today?” I said, peering over his shoulder to see whether they were still working.
“Yes. Back tomorrow at eight.”
Shit. I had to be up and alert by then? And perhaps even back home from my date’s apartment. That is, if everything went well.
Please, let everything go well.
I was all kinds of wound up—in every way imaginable—and, boy, did I need a good romp.
And if that was going to happen, I needed to pack a quick bag and head over to Josh’s to get ready. I bid the workers goodbye, then stuffed some things into a bag—including underwear and pajamas because I was not going to have a repeat of last night—and grabbed the essentials from my demolished bathroom.
Glancing at my phone, I realized I was really going to have to hurry if I wanted to make it to the restaurant in time.
I sent up a quick prayer that my date with Duke—seriously, that was his name…I know, I know, it didn’t bode well—would be a success, wishing, not for the first time, that there was a patron saint of dating.
Because if anybody needed help from above, it was those of us in the dating trenches.
The most amazing smell wafted over me as I opened Josh’s door and called out for him.
“Kitchen,” he said, then a clanging crash of pans rang out. “Shit.”
“You okay?” I came to a halt in the doorway. There was food everywhere—steaming bowls and pans covered the countertops. It looked like he’d been working for hours. “Whoa,” I said, walking into the room and pausing to inhale the incredible smell. “Whoever she is, you must like her alotto be going to this much trouble.”
“I’m just saying you’re sure to get lucky tonight after this kind of feast. Just please don’t tell me it’s Stacie. She’s a vapid twit. You deserve better.”
He laughed. “It’s not Stacie.”
“Well, it’s a good thing I have a date tonight,” I said just as he said, “Actually, this is for you.”
I was just checking out the contents of one pot as his words caught up with me.
“What?” I stopped, a lid dangling awkwardly from my hand. “Did you just say—”
“No.” He shook his head. “Never mind. Don’t worry about it.”
Don’t worry about it?
“Oh, my god, Josh. I’m so sorry.” I gaped, looking around the kitchen again. “I wish I could cancel, but it’s for work and I may have lost everything on my computer so I really need material for next month’s column.” My eyes were starting to sting and a lump was forming in my throat. “I can’t believe you did this for me. No one has ever…”
“Cooked for you?”
I shook my head.
“Really? It’s one of our best moves. A guy can hardly lose when he cooks. I can’t believe no one’s ever used that on you.”
“No one’s ever had to work that hard to get me into bed.” The words tumbled out before I could stop them. Color rushed to my cheeks, but I tried to ignore it and raised an eyebrow at him. “Wait…you were using your best move on ME?”
“Nah, I just figured you’d had a Day and could use it.”
The lump in my throat only got bigger, and I wanted nothing more than to stay there and spend the evening with Josh.
But I was a working girl after all.
“Icoulduse it.” I nodded. “And I can’t tell you how much I wish I could stay…” I lifted my bag, glancing at the clock.
“Go,” he said, waving me off. “It’s fine. Really.” He grinned. “Besides, as you can see, there will be plenty of leftovers.”
“Will, you don’t have to apologize. It’s really okay. I should have checked with you first.” He smiled, looking like it was no big deal. Ineededit to be no big deal because I couldn’t stand it if I’d hurt him. “Go.”
I smiled at him, my heart aching, every fiber of my being wanting to stay exactly where I was and never leave.
Whoa. I did not just have that thought. Okay, I needed to go on this date, because clearly I was confusing things here with Josh, and feeling things that I shouldn’t be feeling. That I didn’twantto be feeling.
About Josh or anyone else, for that matter.
Giving myself a mental shake, I slipped into the bathroom to take a shower and get ready, trying to keep my focus on tonight’s guy and off Josh. He wasn’t for me, I knew that, and getting myself confused about him wasn’t going to do either of us any good. In reality, it would only do harm.
Besides, the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to spend an evening with Duke. He was full of possibilities, many of them dirty, and I was more than ready and willing.
Two hours later, I was sitting in the swanky restaurant with lines for my column cascading through my mind at an alarming rate. But not the RIGHT kind of lines at all.
And you keep asking yourself why you’re out with Random Guy when Perfect Guy made you dinner tonight to cheer you up after the disaster that has been your life the past couple of days. Perfect Guy who went out of his way to make your life better. Simply because he wanted to.
But all Random Guy wants is to get in your pants. And even though you were pretty sure that’s all you wanted, too, now that you’re sitting here listening to him drone on and on AND ON about investments, you’re not so sure anymore.
But the problem was, I didn’t write that kind of column. My readers didn’t want to read about Josh, they wanted to read about me tearing apart Duke.
Which was fine because there was PLENTY to tear apart.
And that made me equal parts happy and sad. I mean, I loved my column and thoroughly enjoyed snarking about the men I dated. But, honestly, it was starting to feel a little stale.
Part of me kept wondering when I’d meet a guy like Josh. Odds were it had to happen eventually, right? Someone who I’d actually enjoy hanging out with more than once. Someone I could really talk to. Someone I could get to know and who’d know me.
Because that’s what it was about.
Someone knowing you.
I didn’t want marriage. I wasn’t looking for love everlasting. But I wanted someone toknowme…down to the depths of my soul.