Life on the Level: On the Verge - Book ThreeZoraida Cordova
Life on the Level
On the Verge: Book Three
A Division of Diversion Publishing Corp.
443 Park Avenue South, Suite 1008
New York, NY 10016
Copyright © 2016 by Zoraida Córdova
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever.
Cover Designed by Najla Qamber Designs
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
For more information, email [email protected]
First Diversion Books edition February 2016
Also by Zoraida Córdova
The On the Verge Series
Luck on the Line
Love on the Ledge
Table of Contents
More from Zoraida Córdova
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To Laura Duane, for totally getting me.
Zero days sober
“I hope the sky’s not the only big thing in Montana,” I whisper in his ear.
His full lips smile against mine.
“You’re a handful, aren’t you?” His voice is like the whiskey, burning right through me.
I pull away from him to get a good look at his face again. The dim blue light of Grizzly Country Bar frames his sharp cheekbones and strong jawline. He has dark eyes and darker hair that coils around the tips of my fingers. I’ve finally met a guy that makes my heart skip a beat.
I’ve been in town for a little less than two days, on the road to salvation. Actually, on the road to Sun Valley, Montana. Tomorrow, my life changes forever. Tonight, I’ll allow myself one last hurrah, and his name is—well, actually, I don’t know his name. But from the moment I set foot in the bar and saw him hunched over his beer, looking like he was just as lost as I was, I knew it had to be him—and only him.
I went right up to him, grabbed his beer, and took a swig from it. It was still frothy and cold. His midnight-black eyes went wide and a little angry. Then he looked me up and down, and his eyes softened. Unlike other guys, he didn’t linger at my long, suntanned legs. He looked straight into my eyes, and I didn’t look away for a minute.
“Hey, Trouble,” he said, an irresistible grin spreading across his beautiful face.
The rest of his body is solid, and even sitting down, he looks tall. I bet he’s one of those guys who rides around on horses, rounding up cows and stuff. Men aren’t built like this in New York. Salt of the earth and all that.
“Hey, kind stranger,” I said. “Can I buy you a drink, since I stole yours?”
He looked taken aback by the offer. Some guys don’t like aggressive girls, and even more girls don’t like aggressive girls. But what did I care? If he was into me, great. If he wasn’t, then it wasn’t meant to be. He looked a little nervous. He asked me my name, and I pretended the music was too loud. I loved watching him turn toward me. I asked if he wanted to sit in the corner booth for more privacy.
My heart skipped when he hesitated—just because a guy is smoking hot doesn’t mean he’s a manwhore. I put on my best mischievous smile, thrilled when he decided to follow.
And now we’re here.
I was surprised at how easily he talked about himself. I didn’t want to care. But I found myself smiling while he spoke. He was born and raised in Montana, and went to the U of M right here in town. He’s going to tell me what he does for a living, but the waitress comes over and drops off our next round. He wants to know too much. Asks too many questions. In turn, I’m super vague.
I’m from out east, I say, and he guesses New York because of the way I asked for water. I’m an only child, and an orphan. What do you know? So is he. Then we’re kind of quiet, and I feel something tight in my heart. He smiles so easily and reaches for my hand. I tell him, I’m just passing through. No, I don’t go to school. No, I don’t have friends in town.
He watches me like he’s trying to unravel a mystery, and I watch him because I want him to kiss me first. When he doesn’t, I kiss him. I press my lips to the corner of his mouth, and he watches me for a long while. It feels too intimate, but what do I know of intimacy? My skin flushes when he reaches for my long blonde curls. He brushes them over my shoulder. I see him trying to make up his mind. I see him convincing himself that this anonymous hookup is right.
“You look nervous.” I rest my back against the leather of our cozy little booth.
He chuckles. “I’m not used to putting on a show.”
A few locals nudge each other in the ribs. Waitresses eye us in their perfunctory ponytails and maroon tank tops two sizes too small, to get that perky and pushed up look. Or I should say, they eye me. It’s like I’ve taken something precious from them and kept it for myself.
My best friend Sky always reminds me that I don’t like to share. That goes for my fries and my men.
“Only when you’re sharking some dudes at pool?” I ask.
He cocks his head to the side and takes a sip of his beer. It’s local, and there’s a picture of a moose on it. It matches the moose head on the wall, among other mounted wild animals. This is the closest to nature I’ve been in a long time. Unless you count the squirrels that try to hijack my food in Central Park.
“I know what you’re doing,” he tells me, pulling my legs across his lap. “You’re trying to make me guess your name.”
It’s a funny thing—I don’t remember his name. I don’t know his birthday. I can’t figure out if his sign matches mine in any sort of astrological way. I don’t know where he got those cheekbones, that creamy skin, those callouses on his hands, or the scar right under his bottom lip shaped like a crescent moon. I don’t know any of these things, but I sure do love looking at him.
Sure, it’s not the first time I’ve been with a guy whose name I’m not too sure on. At least, I’m planning on being with this guy. At least, I know I want to. At least, until morning.
Morning. Tomorrow. Focus.
Think of the now. But isn’t the now what gets me into trouble in the first place?
“It’s not a guessing game,” I say, knocking back the rest of my whiskey. The warm, harsh liquid strikes a match down
in my belly. I can feel my head spin, my skin get all tingly. “It’s not a guessing game, because I just don’t want to tell you.”
I start to call for the waitress to get us another round, but he catches my wrist in his hand. “I think you’ve had about enough whiskey to sink a battleship.”
“No sinking,” I tell him, wrapping my arm around his neck.
Someone whistles in our direction, or maybe I just feel exposed in a way I’m not used to feeling. If I were in a bar in New York, no one would pay attention to us the way people are paying attention now. That’s the downside of strolling through a new town. Not that I intend to stay past the sentence of my self-induced exile.
“You know what I think?” I hold his chin in my hand. “I think we should take this show on the road.”
His eyes are so dark I can see myself in them. So dark, it’s like looking at the night sky. “You’re killing me.”
“Oh my god, are you a virgin?”
His lips turn in the sweetest pout. “I could be. I don’t even know your name.”
“Most guys would have told me to shut up and then packed me up in their cars.”
He frowns. I decide I don’t like it when he frowns. It makes me feel like I’ve done something wrong, and I’ve had enough of that to last me a lifetime.
“I’m not most guys, sweetheart.”
“No petnames,” I tell him.
I can see the struggle in his face. His dark eyes trace my body. My neck, my face, my legs. He lingers on my legs. It might be the early end of August in Montana, but the heat clings to the mountains, and I cling to my denim shorts. His struggle is real, and I can feel it bulging against my thigh.
I bet he’s the type that thinks of himself as a stand-up guy. He probably goes to church, but in places like this that’s pretty much a given. I bet he drives a pick up truck the color of Red Delicious apples. His hands are covered in rough skin and hard callouses, and by the way his leg muscles want to rip right through his jeans, I’d say he’s either a farm hand or maybe one of those rodeo guys. But nice. He personally thinks of himself as a nice guy.
Nice guys finish last, because I always come first.
I know I have a tough road ahead of me. I never thought that at twenty-four this is where I’d end up. In some bar off a highway flanked by mountains and valleys. I never thought I’d have hurt the people I love most in my life. I never thought I’d be strong enough to make a change. And I am going to make a change. I swear it. I just… I just need one last thing. One last moment to solidify that this is the end. This is the beginning of a whole new River Thomas.
This is my last hurrah, and he is gorgeous.
“Come on, cowboy,” I say, because I’ve decided he has to be a cowboy.
The waitress throws a check on our table. I reach for my purse to pay for my drinks, my crumpled bills threatening to spill over.
“What’d you do, rob a bank?” he asks, closing my purse before I can dig through it. “Put that away.”
When he reaches for the wallet in his back pocket, it’s solidified in my mind that this guy, Mr. Montana Cowboy, is a nice guy.
He pays and leaves a nice tip, takes my hand, and leads me through the bar. A series of hoots and hollers follow us until we walk across the parking lot. When we get to his car I give myself ten gold stars because, lo and behold, it’s a shiny pickup truck with wheels the size of boulders. He opens the door for me and helps me climb up. He tries to ask me about myself.
What am I doing here, really? Am I a runaway bride? What’s my favorite color? What’s my favorite song? Where am I going?
I want to tell him that I don’t even know anymore, but that seems like a bit of a downer, and I want to stay up.
So I get closer to him on the cool leather seat. He drapes his arm around me and tells me something about the mountain we’re passing. He says something about the school and how he played football before he graduated, but wasn’t very good. This explains the leg muscles, and chest muscles, and all the muscles.
“I was hoping you were a rodeo star,” I tell him.
“I’ll tell you if you tell me something about yourself,” he says, parking in front of a small house. It’s weird that people out here have entire houses to themselves. Makes my little rental in the Lower East Side look like a closet. Probably because it is. “It’s only fair.”
“Life isn’t fair, cowboy.”
I follow him through the entrance, kicking off my boots. Things fall on the floor when we bump into a table: mail and keys and loose change. But we don’t look down. We don’t pick anything up. We walk with our mouths pressed together. He lifts me up and carries me into a room.
Maybe there are pictures on the wall. Maybe there’s a dog running for cover. Maybe the sheets are blue.
Maybe I’m more nervous than I realized.
My hands fumble with his buttons. Why would anyone wear jeans with so many buttons? That’s why God invented the zipper.
There’s the pop of his buttons snapping, the squeak of mattress springs bouncing. His torso is a thing of beauty. Every muscle ripples as he takes his shirt off over his head. He climbs on top of me. I trace my fingers down his hard abs, and I smirk a little because I was right.
The sky’s not the only big thing in Montana.
“It does little for my confidence that you’re laughing right now,” he says.
“I’m not laughing at you,” I say, reaching for his shaft. “Just remembering something good.”
He shuts his eyes and lets out a slow hiss as I slide my hand up and down. He presses his hands on either side of me. He bends his head down so our noses touch.
“Tell me your name,” he whispers. Then nearly whimpers, “Please.”
No names. It’ll make tomorrow so much harder. Instead, I shut him up with a kiss. The weight of him takes my breath away. He holds me by the shoulders and works my lips slowly, hungrily, as if we’ve done this a thousand times before. I wrap my legs around him, feeling him pulse against my belly. He grunts and pulls himself away.
“Damn,” he says.
“Damn yourself.” I turn over onto my side and watch his spectacular ass as he walks across the room to the dresser. He looks over his shoulder. That devilish smile makes my heart race.
He puts on a condom, and returns to me in a mad dash. He buries his face between the curve of my neck and my shoulder, pressing his whole body against me. I dig my fingers into his dark curls and tug until he hisses. There’s the headboard, and I can only think that it’s a good thing there’s not just a wall separating us from his neighbors.
“You’re so beautiful,” he tells me.
I try to laugh it off. I don’t need him to tell me any of that. Guys think its flattery, like it’s something I don’t know, like I’m the kind of girl that needs to hear it all the time. But he repeats it. He holds my face in his hands, smoothing my long blonde curls back and over the pillow. I gasp when he presses into me, when he closes his lips around mine, when I’m so wound up I think I’ll just snap in half.
My other best friend, Leti, likes to tell me that I’m a terrible judge of character.
She’s only half right.
Because this guy between my legs smiles like a nice guy, but he fucks like a wild man.
I call a cab—Uber hasn’t made it to Sun Valley, Montana. The woman on the other line seems confused by my pick-up and drop off locations. I bet they don’t normally get requests to get dropped off at a bar this early in the morning.
“Fifteen,” she tells me.
I wait, hoping my cowboy won’t wake up in those fifteen minutes.
Instead, I walk around his apartment, carrying my clothes with me. There’s a box of cold pizza in the fridge. I take a slice, and my first thought is that this is the second best slice of pizza outside of New York. My second thought is that I must be that hungry.
I bet if I open the pantry I’ll find trail mix, beef jerky, and health shakes. I give myself a dramat
ic five-second count, like I’m on a game show and Vanna White is revealing what’s behind door #2. I grin. Granola bars, chocolate protein mix, and dried jerky. There’s also some dog food, and cans of assorted soups.
A strange sense of pride comes over me. Granted, this isn’t the kind of thing I should be doing. I’m in this lonely, quiet, mountain town for one reason and one reason only. When I decide if that reason is a good idea or not, I’ll shout it to the world.
Right now, I’m still trying to figure out if I made the right decision. I’ve never lived anywhere outside of New York, so this road trip has been a long one. I stopped a few times. Once in Nashville to hear real live, country music, once in Kansas City to eat a steak bigger than my head, once in Colorado to smoke a joint in the middle of the street, and then in Missoula.
My road to recovery has been paved with debauchery. Somewhere between Ohio and Salt Lake City I started to forget why I was running in the first place. That’s the only good thing about being on the road—it helps you forget, because you just keep moving. That, and the rushing sound of a car zooming down a highway, the windows open, going so fast it feels like you might break the sound barrier.
I throw out the soggy pizza crust in the garbage can. The springs of the mattress move, and my heart does a little jig. I hurry up and get dressed, realizing that I don’t have my underwear. My thong might just have to be a casualty in the War of Love.
Then I step outside, slowly, so the screen door doesn’t make noise. I walk up the street a bit, standing in the middle of the road. There isn’t a neighbor in sight. Having grown up in a sixteen-floor building knowing all the old ladies on my floor, this is just odd. Good fences make good neighbors, and in New York, thick walls make even better neighbors. But there isn’t the need for all that out here.
As the car pulls up, I hear the door behind me. A dog barks.
I wave at the taxi. (I hope it’s a taxi, and not some random car that happened to drive by.) I hop into the backseat just as my shirtless cowboy stumbles out of his house.