Bound by duty, p.9
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       Bound by Duty, p.9

           Stormy Smith

  Chapter 8

  I circled our apartment for the fifteenth time, pacing the length of the living room and hallway, past the framed photos and cute decor we’d collected over the past few months. My mind was going in so many different directions, I just needed Bethany to get home already — before I changed my mind, yet again. Finally, I heard the entry door to the complex slam shut and her quick steps up the flight of stairs. I laughed a little at the shock on her face as I wrenched the door open. She stood on the other side wearing a look of surprise with her keys held up toward where the lock should have been.

  I grabbed her by the shoulders and yanked her in for a hug. This time, she did laugh and asked into my shoulder, “What’s gotten into you, chica?” I pulled away and couldn’t stop my grin. “I need your help, B. I’ve been an idiot. You were right. I do want to date Aidan. I like him. I really like him. You’ve got to help me get him back.”

  That Cheshire smile was back as her eyes sparkled with mischief and she rubbed her palms together. “You’ve come to the right place, sugar. No one meddles in love lives better than a southern girl,” she said, her accent heavily exaggerated. We couldn’t stop the fit of laughter that brought on and collapsed onto opposite ends of the couch to make our plan.



  I tugged at the bottom of my deep purple dress, already feeling uncomfortable with how short and fitted it was. Bethany came up behind me, smacking my hand. “Stop that now. You’ll mess up my masterpiece!”

  I was standing in front of the mirror, debating on the right shoes for my outfit, and honestly couldn’t believe the miracle B had pulled off. She was still twirling and twisting the curls she’d spent an hour on, spraying hair spray here and there. As I continued to switch from one foot to the other, trying to make a decision, she finally let out a deeply exaggerated sigh and said, “The black ones. Good gravy, Amelia, if he’s looking at your shoes I’ve failed at life.” I couldn’t help but laugh, yet it was cut short as panic set in.

  “Are you sure this is a good plan, B? I mean, did you tell Micah what we’re doing? Does he understand that we’re just going to crash their man date?” She gave me a sideways glance and hid behind my hair.

  “Ohmygod! You didn’t tell him! B! This was your plan. I can’t do this. This is stupid. He’s going to think I’m an idiot.” I kicked out my leg, effectively tossing the silver shoe I wasn’t wearing across the room and feeling a measure of satisfaction at the sound of it smacking against my closet door. Only, now I had on one three-inch heel and not the other, so as I tried to glare at my best friend for being a deviant little coward, I looked and felt ridiculous. She stifled a laugh at my glare mixed with my odd posture, so I grabbed an old stuffed animal off the bed and chucked it at her head.

  “I know. I know!” Bethany was laughing as she dodged the bear and held her hands up in surrender. “I know, girl. But, it’s all part of the plan! I’ve been on him for days about how he was such a jerk to Aidan and Aidan doesn’t seem to have many friends, so I subtly suggested they should check out Cole’s gym.” She shrugged, looking a little sheepish. “They’re both into training, right? And then I might have also subtly suggested they get some food.”

  “B? Subtle? You’re about as subtle as a shovel to the forehead.” She shrugged again and smirked, giving me a wink. “Girl, I get things done. Now, put your damn shoe on and let’s go.”



  As we pulled up to the restaurant where Micah told Bethany they’d be eating, she and I were still debating the intelligence of sending them to Cole’s gym.

  “B, you understand that my brother is going to freak out if he figures out I’m dating Aidan, right?” I groaned at the thought. “I’ve never dated anyone. You know how protective he is. You couldn’t have sent them anywhere else?”

  That was an understatement. When Cole figured out what I was doing, he was going to be furious. For so many reasons, not the least of which would be taking my focus off of wrangling my power. Which, at the moment, was pushing and shoving its way out of its box and into my system. Just to calm my nerves, I gave it a little push and let a small stream whiz through me. The eager anticipation it gave off at being close to Aidan again replaced the stone in my stomach and I was able to unbuckle my seatbelt and turn to Bethany.

  She grabbed my hand, likely expecting my nerves. Squeezing it, she said, “Girl, I know you. You always do everything everyone else wants you to do. You’ve been a grown up your whole stinking life. It’s great your brother is back in your life but don’t you forget that he disappeared on you for years, leaving you on your own. Don’t you let him make your decisions for you. College — no… life, Amelia, is about doing it your way. Even if all you do is date Aidan for the next two weeks and then decide there’s someone else better on down the line, so be it. This is your life. Your choice. You make it.”

  It was the second time in as many days I’d gotten the same speech from two women I loved and trusted. Two women who knew me. As I let out the breath I’d been holding, I said, “You’re right, B, as usual. It’s my turn.”

  As we got out of her Jeep and walked around to head toward the front door, we both realized we had no idea what we were walking in to. Esmerelda’s was something else. It was all dark red brick and looked more like it had been snatched off of the streets of London than built in a beach town in California. It was two stories with a peaked roof and wrought iron detailing. It sat at an angle on the square block, the front door facing the corner. Sitting above the door was a huge stone statue of a woman with long hair dressed in flowing robes, holding something in her hands I couldn’t quite see. I forced a smile as I turned to Bethany. “Here goes nothing!”

  The smile she returned was tentative as well, but she nodded and we walked inside.

  It was dark and it took a moment for my eyes to adjust. The entry way was lit with low lighting and the walls were hung with ornate tapestries. This truly was the weirdest restaurant I’d ever been in. As we looked around, both trying to spot Micah and Aidan, a hostess approached.

  Her eyes were cold and her tone clipped. “Excuse me. This is a private club and we don’t just allow anyone in here.” In her perfectly-tailored blazer and skirt, she looked more like a CEO than a hostess, but she stood behind the podium and made it clear that we had stumbled into the wrong place.

  I started to speak, but my voice failed me. Bethany piped up instead, her voice louder than it needed to be. “Well, hiya! We actually were invited here. Micah Clair is expecting us.”

  Grabbing my hand and giving me a look that made her intention clear, Bethany led me straight past the Ice Queen and into the main dining room. “Excuse me. Excuse me! Girls!” It took the woman a minute to extricate herself from behind her podium and that moment was all Bethany needed to locate Micah and Aidan at a table in the back of the room. Her pace quickened and just as the woman caught up to us, she caught Micah’s eye. “Well, hey there! Fancy meeting you boys here.”

  First, I saw panic. Then, a quick flash of red as he looked around the rest of the restaurant as if he were expecting someone else. In one more blink, he was all smiles for Bethany.

  There was absolutely something off with that guy. I was starting to wonder if buddying up to him might have its advantages in other ways when I remembered that Aidan was also at the table. Just as Aidan was turning in his chair, Micah finally addressed the squawking hostess. “Natalia, it’s fine. These ladies are my guests.” With just a few words and a quick cold glance of his own, Natalia completely shut down, nodded, and walked away. But, not before attempting to kill us with her death glare, which Bethany returned with her own “bless your heart” smile.

  As I turned back toward the table, I found myself eye-to-eye with Aidan. He had stood up and was simply staring. Looking me up and down, his gaze moved from surprise to smoldering in the span of a few short seconds. It stopped my breath to think I could affect someone like this. That just a little make-up, some hair sp
ray, and a dress could make him speechless. I was powerful in a whole new way.

  I allowed a slow smile to develop. “Hi.” The Pop Rocks were back and the lid had busted off of the cage inside me. All I wanted him to do was touch me so I could feel that electricity between us.

  “Well, hello yourself, doll.” Aidan’s voice was deep and thick.

  Micah cleared his throat from behind us, reminding Aidan and I that we weren’t alone and that we were actually standing in a very strange restaurant with our friends. We turned to find Micah with his arm around Bethany, both seated at the table. She couldn’t stop smiling but he was doing a terrible job of trying to hide his scowl. “Won’t you join us?” he asked, gesturing to the other two chairs. Aidan pulled one out for me and we both sat.

  “To what do we owe the pleasure, ladies?” Micah asked, a positivity I didn’t quite buy in his tone. “I don’t think I realized that you were planning to join us, Bethany.” He smiled as if he were amused but it didn’t quite make it to his eyes.

  “A girl has to keep you on your toes,” she said with a laugh. “Besides, we figured you two would be bored after all that training talk, so we thought we could liven up the party. But, truly, Micah, honey, why are you eating here?” Her nose wrinkled as she looked around.

  I allowed my gaze to roam and couldn’t disagree. There really weren’t any other patrons here and the whole place was dark and dreary. The paintings that hung on the walls looked like they’d been done hundreds of years ago. The brush strokes were thick, the paint colors dark like the rest of the décor, and the frames massive and gilded.

  As I brought my gaze back around, I locked eyes with Aidan. He still hadn’t said a word outside of our initial conversation and simply kept staring. This time though, his stare was questioning. I was sure he was wondering what my game was, but at this point I wasn’t even sure. I just knew I wasn’t ready to be out with it yet, so I looked up at him from under my lashes and did my best to silently flirt.

  “My parents actually own this place, so I come here often. It’s a private club though, which is why you had some issues up front,” Micah explained.

  “Oh, so it’s like a country club? I’ve never been to a country club like this!” Bethany craned her neck to look around, as if she were expecting sunburned baby boomers to pop out in their polo shirts and ugly pants.

  Micah continued, chuckling a little and shaking his head. “It’s something like a country club, but not exactly. You simply needed to let me know and I could have made it easier for you to come in. If you’d prefer, we can head elsewhere.” Thankfully, Micah had given his attention back to Bethany and they continued their conversation, deciding where we should go.

  “Did you have fun today?” I asked quietly. We still hadn’t looked away from each other. Aidan’s dimple appeared as he smirked. “As much as I could, given the company. The gym we checked out is cool. I signed up. But, I’m not sure exactly why I’m here. Or, why you are.” His eyes roamed again and I allowed mine to do the same. He had on a black button down, the sleeves rolled to his forearms, and the ever-present leather cuffs on his wrists. His hair was intentionally mussed and I wanted to reach up and run my fingers through it.

  Instead, I shrugged, dragging out the game. “I wanted to see you.”

  His eyebrow rose and Aidan leaned in closer to me, allowing me to catch a whiff of his cologne — alternating scents of citrus and woods. I wanted to breathe it in and hold it forever.

  “I thought you made it pretty clear you didn’t want to see me.” His words were low, barely above a whisper, and I countered with hushed words of my own. Never breaking eye contact, I leaned in even closer, very aware of where my lips and his lips were in relation to each other as I enunciated each word. “I was wrong.” His pupils dilated in response and as close as we were, I saw his eyes shift from smoke to liquid metal as they darkened.

  The screech of a chair being pulled back broke our trance and we both jerked away from each other, realizing both Micah and Bethany were getting up to leave.

  “Let’s head over to the beach. We can grab dinner on the pier,” Bethany said as if we all had just been in random conversation and I hadn’t been inches from my first real kiss. “I’ll ride with Micah! You guys take the Jeep.”

  She tossed Aidan her keys, giving me a look that screamed, “See, told ya!” I smiled in return, but as I turned to Aidan and saw blatant desire mixed with his still-unanswered questions, I realized I might have bitten off a little more than I could chew.



  In the few steps from the table out to the Jeep, I lost all of my bravado. I clutched my small purse in a death grip in an attempt to stop my shaking hands. I couldn’t turn back now, I’d started this game. Doubt crept in and all I heard in my head was, “What are you doing?” Aidan was quiet until we pulled out to follow Micah and Bethany. I could see Micah laughing as he drove while Bethany was making crazy gestures and likely telling another one of her outrageous stories.

  “I don’t get you, Amelia. What are we doing?” I noticed his grip on the steering wheel, knuckles white with how tight he held on. His voice was tense. Frustrated. I hated that we were both thinking the same thing.

  “I…uh…well, I don’t know exactly what we’re doing, Aidan.” I was fumbling. In this whole planning process I never stopped to think about what I should actually say. “I just know I want to try this. I was, um, scared before.”

  I couldn’t look at him. The words came out tiny and soft and I had lost any flirtation I’d held in the restaurant. I shifted in my seat and pulled at the length of my dress, anxious to be out from under his scrutinizing gaze. Most people wouldn’t have admitted it outright like that, but the gnawing ache in my gut told me I just needed to put it out there. There was just something about him that made me want to tell the truth. Even that feeling told me I was probably causing myself more trouble in the long run, but right now, none of that mattered.

  He was quiet the rest of the drive. Granted, it was only five minutes, but it was the longest five minutes of my life. I stared straight ahead, my nails likely doing permanent damage to my poor purse. As soon as Aidan put the car in park, I tried to launch myself out the door, but he grabbed my wrist. Instantly, his touch sparked a flame inside of me. My power popped and fizzed, filling every corner of me with happiness with just the imprint of his fingertips and the warmth of his palm seeping through my skin. I tried to keep my cool as I turned to face him — it would have been mortifying for him to understand the affect he had on me already.

  For a second, Aidan just looked at me. Then, as he smiled, he slid his hand down my wrist and over my thumb, locking my palm in his. “Okay.”

  One word. That’s all he said. One word and I couldn’t stop the stupid grin from spreading from ear to ear. “Okay,” I repeated back to him.



  I expected dinner to be more awkward than it was, but everyone seemed to let their guard down and the four of us actually got along better than I imagined. Aidan had his arm around the back of my chair, grazing his fingertips up and down my shoulder the whole time, making it extremely difficult to think straight. I had to spend a considerable amount of effort containing my overly-zealous power, which he seemed to send into a frenzy by just breathing in my general vicinity.

  “So, Amelia, I don’t feel like I know much about you,” Micah stated as we got our food. I stopped with my fork halfway to my mouth and wasn’t sure how to respond.

  Aidan actually interjected, adding, “That’s true, Amelia. We’ve been listening to Bethany go on and on with her stories about raising chickens and being a rodeo princess, but you haven’t said much.”

  He smiled and winked at B. She threw a chunk of breadstick at him in response. “You have no idea how complicated it is to stir up that much dust and still look like a pageant queen when you get off the horse. You don’t see bull riders worrying about how dirty they are when their eight seconds are up, do yo
u?” She straightened in her seat, the posture of a true queen, and looked down at him as if he were a mere commoner.

  It was Micah who laughed the loudest. “You and my mother would get along fabulously, Bethany. You’ve both mastered the ‘don’t question me’ look perfectly.” The hope that lit into Bethany’s eyes sent Micah back-pedaling faster than I’d ever seen and he choked on his own bite trying to speak. I decided to save him from himself and my surprisingly commitment-hungry best friend.

  “I moved here from Northern California. My family lives in a small community there near Gualala. My brother lives here in Brighton now, which is why I decided to come here.” I strategically omitted that they had just met my brother, unsure of how much I wanted these two parts of my life to intermingle.

  “So, are you a mountains girl or an ocean girl?” Aidan’s question caused me to sit back and ponder for a moment.

  “Definitely ocean. My favorite is when I can be a part of both at the same time. Gualala was like that. Turn left and stare at the never-ending shoreline, turn right and watch the trees reaching for the sky all the way up the mountain. But, I’ve always been drawn more toward the water.” Views entered my mind from the solitary walks I took to escape the realities of my life growing up. Standing with my palms on thick tree trunks, staring out into the breaking waves, feeling like everything else had dropped away.

  Aidan just nodded as a small smile played at the corners of his mouth. Looking into his eyes, it was like we were the only two people at the table. I had to force myself to look around. As my gaze found Micah, the questions reflecting back at me made me sit back, instantly feeling uncomfortable. “What?” I asked.

  He shook his head, seemingly surprised that I noticed his obvious expression. “Nothing. I’m sorry. My mind was elsewhere.” He quickly changed the conversation toward how we all liked school and Brighton.

  The evening finally came to a close and Aidan slowed our progression toward the cars, letting Bethany and Micah move ahead. Their hands were linked loosely and she was leaned into Micah, laughing. I took a few more steps before realizing Aidan had stopped completely.

  “Sorry! I was just watching them. I’m really happy she’s happy. He’s kind of weird, but he makes her happy.” I finally looked back at Aidan and was startled by the intensity in his eyes.

  “Have lunch with me tomorrow,” he said. It wasn’t a command, but it wasn’t a question either.

  He waited a second before starting again. “Amelia, I know that whatever is going on with us has been…well, weird, to say the least. But, I’d really like to get to know you. Just us. No one else.” His dimple appeared alongside a boyish grin. As he continued to look in my eyes, I once again got caught in his smoky stare. He brought his hand up, brushed the backs of his fingers along my cheek, and whispered, “I don’t know what you’ve done to me, doll, but I can’t help but want to know you.”

  Heat filled my cheeks and I brought my own hand up to remove his in an attempt to slow my frantic heartbeat, but I couldn’t bring myself to. I gripped his wrist and found myself leaning further into his palm.

  “Yes,” I sighed, reveling in the warmth of him. “Aidan, I want time with just you, too.” As I opened my eyes again, I couldn’t help but smirk and finish with, “But you really have to stop annoying me all the time.”

  He chuckled, took my phone from my hand, and entered in his number. “I’ll do my best, doll, but no promises.” He gave me one last smile and turned toward Micah’s SUV, tossing out, “Tomorrow. In the commons. Lunch.” The way that boy flipped from sweet to cocky never ceased to amaze me.

  I stood staring for a minute, just watching him walk away. There was something to be said for a guy who knew how to pick a pair of jeans. His stride was relaxed but he exuded masculine strength — there was no denying it. Something about him just screamed “safe” to me.

  I somehow knew that he was smiling to himself as he got to the car. I waited expectantly for him to turn around again and was surprised when he didn’t. He just got in the car, Micah backed out, and they pulled away.

  Oh, stop being such a girl, I berated myself as I pulled my way up and into the Jeep — which was not an easy task in a mini-dress. Bethany was already waiting, sneaking a peek through the side-mirrors. As I buckled my seatbelt, I finally looked up at her and she had the biggest grin on her face.

  “You are in some serious trouble, girl,” she said with a laugh. And, with that, she gave me a playful look, used her turquoise-painted nails to tap a button on her phone, and the latest Pop Diva love song came blaring through the speakers. “Subtle, B. Real subtle,” I half-yelled over the music, while I laughed.

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