Forever With You, Page 2J. Lynn
I’d said hello and quickly skedaddled my butt over to the bar even though I could tell they had a ton of questions, but honestly, seeing them had knocked me off guard. I wasn’t expecting to find anyone I knew and I sure as hell wasn’t expecting it to be not one but two guys whom I’d . . . well, been real close to at one point in time.
Talk about a wee bit awkward, considering I never really knew where I stood when it came to Cam and Jase Winstead’s girlfriends. I’d discovered, a long time ago, that a lot of girls inherently weren’t fond of other females their boyfriends had been involved with, no matter the seriousness of the prior relationship or lack thereof. Not every girl was like that, but most . . . yeah, most were.
Which was something I found . . . well, really fucking stupid.
Most girls were some guy’s ex at some point in their life. So they were just hating on themselves.
So I tried to stay out of their paths when we were all at Shepherd, and that worked right up until the night I’d found Teresa—Jase’s girlfriend and Cam’s little sister—screaming hysterically after she found the body of her dorm mate. Ever since then, even though Jase and I hung out casually for a little while, Teresa had been bound and determined to be my friend. It did weird me out, and reminded me of a girl I had become friends with my junior year at Shepherd—Lauren Leonard.
Ugh. Just thinking her name made me want to throw my drink in someone’s face. She had pretended to be friends with me when she really just hated my guts because the guy she dated had kissed me a year before they even met.
And it hadn’t even been that remarkable of a kiss, surely not worth all the drama Lauren brought to my doorstep.
“I could ask you the same question,” I said finally, picking up my glass.
An easy grin appeared as Cam leaned against the bar, arms crossed loosely over his chest. “You know Calla Fritz, right?”
“I know of her.” I glanced over to where the pretty blond girl stood with her arm around the waist of a guy that had military written all over him. I would know. My dad had that look. The look that screamed, I know how to break every bone in your body, but I have a strong moral code that prevents me from doing that . . . unless you threaten one of my own. The guy with russet, wavy hair was really rocking said look.
“Her boyfriend Jax owns this bar. Used to be her mother’s, but that’s a long story.” Cam paused. “Anyway, Teresa’s good friends with Calla, so when she comes up to visit her, we tag along. And since it’s so close to Philly, it makes for a good trip.”
“Oh,” I murmured. Small world. “I just took a job at the Lima Academy and I’m renting a condo not too far from here.”
“For real?” Nick said, drawing our attention and causing my stomach to dip in a pleasant, twisty way. “You’re working for Brock ‘the Beast’ Mitchell’s trainer?”
My lips twitched at the evident awe oozing from Nick’s voice. Anytime Brock’s name was mentioned, that was pretty much the standard response. Brock was an up-and-coming mixed martial-arts fighter and he was a local boy. Everyone seemed to worship him. “Yes. But I haven’t met ‘the Beast’ yet. He’s actually in Brazil right now, from what I understand.”
Nick rested his elbows on the bar, his eyes drifting over me in a blatant perusal. “So, are you a mixed martial-arts fighter then?”
I tipped my head back and laughed. “Uh, no. I took a job in the offices. I’ll be assisting their executive.”
“Nice,” Cam replied. “That’s what you majored in, right? Business management?”
I nodded, not entirely surprised that he remembered. We had been friends, and Cam was a good guy. So was Jase. Speaking of which, when I glanced over to where the crew was crowded around a pool table, it looked like Jase had Teresa in a . . . headlock?
“So how long are you guys staying up here?” I asked, taking a sip of my drink as a female bartender with pink-rimmed glasses zoomed past Nick, shooting him a look I didn’t quite understand.
Nick ignored it.
“We’re heading back Sunday.” Cam pushed off the counter. “Don’t be a douche,” he added, grinning when I rolled my eyes. “Get your butt off the stool and visit with us, okay?” When I nodded again, he looked at Nick. “You’re coming over to Jax’s tomorrow night, right?”
“Depends on what time I get out of here, but I’ll try.”
Interesting. So Cam and Nick were buddies. I was relieved to hear that. Cam was a good judge of character, and I already knew Nick was a helpful little charmer, but I felt like I could safely say that Nick wasn’t a serial murderer.
I cradled my drink as Cam sauntered back to the pool tables. My mind wasn’t made up on the whole visiting them thing yet. Maybe I would. Maybe I wouldn’t.
“Want another rum and coke?”
My lips curled up at the sound of Nick’s rich, deep voice. We’d been chatting on and off since I plopped my butt down on the stool, and he had seemed happy that I was there.
Total bonus points lottery with this guy.
“I’m good, but thanks.” The last thing I wanted to be was drunk. I smiled at him, pleased when his heavily hooded gaze dipped again. “Are you guys usually this busy on the weekend?”
I could see that small talk was something Nick excelled at, which made sense, considering his occupation. He was an equal opportunity charmer. Women flocked to him at the bar. The other bartender, the girl with the pink glasses, seemed to take it all in stride.
“Not sure if you really call this busy, but Saturdays usually bring a larger crowd.” He glanced down the bar before continuing. “So you went to school with them?” he asked, jerking his chin in the direction Cam had roamed off to.
“Yeah.” Leaning forward, I placed my elbows on the bar. “I had no idea they had connections here. Total surprise.”
“Small world,” he said, echoing my earlier thought. “But you’re not very close with them.”
It was a statement, not a question. “What makes you think that?”
“Well, if you were, I guess you’d be over there with them. Or . . .”
Nick was observant. “Or what?”
One side of his lips curled up as he folded his arms across his chest. The movement drew my attention. I was such a visual creature. Not that anyone would blame me right now. The black shirt he wore stretched around well-defined biceps. “Or you’d rather spend the time with me.”
The twisty motion in my belly cranked up a notch. “Am I that transparent?”
“In the best possible way.” He picked up a bottle. “I’m glad you did stop by. Every time the door opened last night, I looked up and hoped it was you.”
“Is that so?”
“I speak the truth.” His smile was lazy. “Did you finish unpacking?”
“Were there any more rat bastard combinations?”
I laughed. “There were a few more.”
“Kind of mad I missed out on them.”
“There’s always later.” I toyed with my glass as I met and held his stare. “So, Nick, do you have a last name?”
“Blanco,” he replied after a brief hesitation. “Do you?”
“Keith.” I grinned as he unfolded those arms. “I have another question for you.”
Moving in, he placed his hands on the bar. “Ask away.”
“Do you have a girlfriend?” My breath caught a little when he leaned in suddenly. Our mouths were close enough that we were breathing the same tiny patch of oxygen. “Or a boyfriend?”
Nick didn’t bat an eyelash. “Nope to both. How about you?”
Bonus points explosion!
“None,” I said, welcoming the tingle that swirled down my spine as his breath warmed my lips.
He tilted his head to the side, lining up his mouth with mine with
just a fraction of an inch between us. I started to feel a little flushed. “You have plans tonight, Stephanie Keith?” he asked, voice deeper and rougher.
I shook my head as my pulse tripped all over itself in a happy little dance.
Nick’s grin spread into the kind of smile I knew left a trail of women in its wake. “You do now.”
“Make sure you’re waiting for me,” he said with a slow grin, picking up two empty glasses as I rose from the bar stool. “I’m off at one. I’ll be there in twenty minutes or less.”
I didn’t respond as I backed away from the bar, giving him a little wave. There was no doubt in my mind that he would show up, and wicked excitement hummed through my veins. Smiling to myself, I wheeled around.
The girl with the pink glasses stood right in front of me, so close I almost plowed right into her. Behind the bar, she seemed much taller, but my five-foot-nine frame towered over her. A streak of pink in her hair matched her glasses, but that wasn’t all that I noticed. Up close I realized that she also had a faint black eye.
What the . . . ?
She shoved out her hand. “Hi, I’m Roxy.”
“Hi.” I took her hand, shaking it. “I’m—”
“Steph. I know. Your friends told me all about you,” she explained, and I immediately struggled to keep my expression blank as I stiffened. God only knows what they’d told her. “You went to college with them.”
“Yes.” My gaze flicked over her, to where Teresa and Jase were with Jax and Calla. Avery and Cam had already called it a night. “I was surprised to see them here.”
“I can imagine.” Roxy’s smile was warm and surprisingly real as she stared up at me. “Anyway, I heard that you had just moved here, so I wanted to say hi and that I also hope this isn’t your last trip to Mona’s.”
Okay. That was an odd statement. “I like the . . . vibe of this place, so I’d probably come back.”
“I’m thrilled to hear that.” Brown eyes brightened behind her glasses. “It’s got to suck moving to a new town and not knowing anyone.”
I nodded. “It kind of does. I don’t think you realize how important your friends are until you’re somewhere and none of them are there.”
Sympathy flickered over her face. “I know this sounds random, but every Sunday, Katie—a really cool albeit weird chick—and I get breakfast. You’re more than welcome to be a part of our threesome and sometimes foursome. Then you won’t be somewhere without any friends,” she finished with another wide smile.
Huh. She was really . . . friendly, but for some reason, I sort of felt like I was missing something. Like I walked into the middle of a conversation.
Before I had a chance to figure out how to respond to that offer, Roxy continued, “And also, Nick’s a really good guy.”
My expression started to lose some of its blandness. Was her overly friendly welcome linked to Nick? Obviously. Perhaps she liked him and had seen us chatting, making plans to get together later. There had been that weird look I’d seen her pass in his direction. Keep your enemies/competition close kind of thing? Some of the excitement that had been buzzing around in me dulled.
Goodness, I was so cynical. I was going to blame past experiences.
“Are you interested in him?” I asked, because even though I didn’t know her, I was new to this town, and the last thing I was going to do was step all over someone else’s shoes.
Roxy stared at me for a moment and then threw her head back, bursting into giggles as her ponytail swung. “He puts the ‘oh-la-la’ in the swoon, but I have a man I love very much, so no. Nick and I are friends. I just want to let you know that he’s a good guy and, well . . .” She trailed off, shrugging her shoulder. “I just wanted to say that.”
I really had no idea what to say to any of that. “Okay. That’s . . . uh, that’s good to hear.” I glanced over my shoulder, finding Nick staring in our direction. I turned back to Roxy. “Well, I’m going to head out of here. It was nice meeting you.”
“All right,” she chirped, smiling brightly. “Don’t be a stranger.”
Smiling, I stepped around her and waved in the general direction of where Teresa and Jase were and then hightailed my butt out of there. Crisp air greeted me, and I had to actually crank on the heat inside my car. Autumn was most definitely here and winter wasn’t too far behind it.
On the short trip back to the condo, my focus kept moving from the unanticipated run-in with everyone from Shepherd, to the very unexpected quick chat with Roxy, to what was most likely going to happen tonight.
I had no idea what to make of the conversation with Roxy. I still felt like I was missing something, and honestly, I wasn’t used to a complete stranger being that friendly or welcoming, especially to me. More than once I’d been accused of being standoffish and bitchy.
The truth was, it wasn’t that I was mean or unfriendly. I just generally sucked at small talk with people I didn’t know, and most important, I had a severe case of resting bitch face.
If I had a dollar for every time some random person told me to smile, I would have more money than the Queen of England.
As soon as I entered my apartment, I gathered up the boxes by the door and quickly carried them out to the large Dumpster behind the condo. As I tossed them into the opening, I stared out over the neatly manicured lawn. There wasn’t a lot of land since the tall trees were thick, stretching into the night sky, their bare branches reminding me of skeletal fingers. Turning around, I hurried across the parking lot. At night, with the sound of distant traffic, it was kind of creepy back here.
When I returned, I checked the clock on the stove and then hopped down the hall, toward my bathroom. There was time for grooming—there always had to be time for grooming.
Grinning, I grabbed a fresh razor from the cabinet below the sink and got down to business, all the while my stomach dipping and twisting into pleasant little knots. I felt a little crazy as I got ready, as if I had downed a case of energy drinks.
Nervous excitement hummed through me like a persistent hummingbird. I wasn’t unsure about what I was doing. Hell, I’d known people who’d hooked up after even less time between the first hello and good-bye. I wouldn’t be stupid about tonight. If we got to the point where our clothes came off or a condom was required, I had them if he didn’t.
The nervousness came from the fact that I was brutally attracted to him on a purely physical level. Nothing more.
A one-night stand only left you feeling empty when you expected more, and I wasn’t expecting anything beyond a really happy smile on my face from this. To be honest, I hadn’t once in my life wanted anything more from a guy except the required things, like mutual respect, safety, and sometimes, friendship.
I’d never been in love.
Not that I didn’t believe in it. Oh, I so did. But I wanted the kind of love my parents had shared for one another—that everlasting, to the end, kind of love, and I had yet to get anywhere close to experiencing it.
And until I did, I had no problem sampling along the way. I mean, would you buy a car without test-driving it? Didn’t think so. I giggled at myself.
I pulled the jeans back on, left my feet bare and settled on a cami with a built-in bra. Leaving my hair down, I padded back into the kitchen, snatching a lighter off the counter. I lit the candle I’d placed on the end table. Pumpkin spice filled the air as I walked back to the kitchen, placing the lighter in the basket.
A loud engine rumbled outside, and I whirled around, glancing at the clock on the stove. Fifteen past one. Could it be him already? I dashed over to the large window and oh so carefully peeled back the curtain and peered outside, like a total creeper.
“Hot damn,” I whispered.
It was Nick.
It was Nick on a motorcycle.
I remembered seeing it parked outsi
de Thursday but had totally forgotten about it. He’d parked right outside, near the front, and as he stepped off the bike, he tugged his helmet off. One arm went up and he scrubbed his fingers through his hair. I watched as he turned to the back, behind the seat. He started to lift something and that’s when I forced myself to turn away from the window.
Pivoting around, I took a deep breath and waited while my heart rate kicked up, doing a tap dance in my chest. Less than a minute later there was a knock at the door. Slowing down my steps, I went to the door and peered out through the peephole just to make sure it was him before I opened it.
“Hey,” he greeted me, his lips curling up. A blue plastic bag dangled from one hand and a helmet was shoved under his other arm.
I stepped back. “You said twenty after.”
He followed me, nudging the door shut behind him with his booted foot. “Or less. You’re forgetting that part.”
“Ah, I am.”
Nick lifted the bag as he strode past me, into the kitchen. “Brought us something.” He placed the bag down on the counter and reached in, pulling out two bottles. “Got an opener?”
Flipping on the overhead lights, I went to the drawer near the stove and pulled out an opener. “Apple ale? I like that. How’d you guess?”
He took the opener from me and flipped off the lids with expertise. “I figured you’d like something sweet.” He offered a bottle.
The glass was cool against my palm. “I also like it hard. . . .” His gaze cut to me, and I grinned. “My drinks, that is.”
Nick chuckled. “You seriously just said that?”
“I seriously did.” I grinned as I lifted the bottle to my mouth, taking a small sip.
He shrugged off his leather jacket, tossing it on the counter beside the bag. “I think I like you.”
“You need to remove ‘think’ from that statement,” I told him. “For it to be accurate.”
Another rough chuckle rolled out of him as he picked up his bottle. “Well, since we’re being completely honest with one another, I wasn’t really hopeful when it came to you showing up at the bar.”