Goddammit, Izzy. I pressed the button on the side of my phone, checking the time. Again.
It was times like these I missed smoking—standing outside a bar, waiting for my best friend in the sticky August-in-Boston heat. Smoking gave you something to do with your hands and a weird solidarity with the other smokers hovering in doorways, sweating or freezing, depending on the season. Instead, I fidgeted and made repeated vain attempts to unplaster my hair from the back of my neck.
Though the sun had finally set on another day of the New England trifecta—hazy, hot, and humid—radiant heat still billowed up from the pavement, keeping the temperature in the city on this side of stifling. I wanted a cigarette. I wanted to be at home in Vermont where I could jump in the pond or float down the river to cool off. I wanted to be where there weren’t miles upon miles of pavement, glass, and brick exhaling their heat all night. The whole city was sticky, sweaty, and irritable.
If I couldn’t submerge myself, I at least wanted to be at our apartment, parked in front of the fan with a drink, not waiting for Izzy outside of a bar that wasn’t really a dive bar so much as a we’ll overcharge for cheap beer for irony’s sake bar. If I was going to drink crappy beer for irony’s sake, I didn’t want to pay a hipster surcharge for it.
My phone buzzed in my hand and I nearly dropped it in my rush to read the message.
Izzy: Sorry! Running late! Be there in ten!
Isolde Roth had been my best friend since we were thrown together freshman year of college by the forces of fate or the untold wisdom of the housing office. After a decade of friendship, you would think I’d have learned never to show up on time for a date with Izzy, let alone early, but I was constitutionally incapable of being late. I was raised by people who punched clocks. Habitual lateness meant losing your job, which would set off a downward spiral of ever-worsening consequences, finally landing somewhere in a gutter. My parents may have exaggerated a bit, but the lesson stuck all the same. Clock-watching bosses loved me.
Knowing in Izzy’s world “be there in ten” could easily mean fifteen, twenty, or worse, I opted to suck it up and brazen it out at the bar, hoping to get a whiff of air conditioning. I grabbed a stool where I could see the door to wave Izzy over to my rescue the second she walked in. I ordered a bourbon—rocks, in a nod to the weather—and did my best not to play with my phone. It was a losing battle. I fidgeted and checked the door every five seconds while my hands got clammy. Even though I knew she was coming, eventually, the mean girl in my head whispered that I was being abandoned, that I had finally driven my best friend away, how sad and pathetic I must look, twenty-eight and alone on a Friday night, all dressed up with no friends. Once Izzy showed up, I would be fine, but sitting by myself, surrounded by strangers, triggered my anxiety, making my breath come short and my hands sweat.
My neck was starting to ache from all the head-swinging to watch the door when not Izzy, but a tall man walked into the room. He was long and lean, broad at the shoulder tapering to a narrow waist. He was built like a runner, and I imagined the view from the rear must be fantastic. He stepped forward, and I was like a deer in headlights, holding my breath and staring. Dark, slightly shaggy hair hung over his forehead, obscuring his eyes until he lifted a long, elegant hand to push the locks away. Something about him made me think he could toss a girl around a bed like a rag doll. Which suddenly sounded like an excellent way to spend a Friday night.
He scanned the room and his gaze caught mine. Busted. I was blatantly ogling the guy. Heat crept up my cheeks, but I didn’t want to lose our spontaneous staring contest. God, he was pretty. From where I sat, his eyes looked to be the same deep brown as his hair. The corners crinkled slightly when he lifted one side of his full mouth, like it was the least surprising thing in the world to have women stare at him. Cocky bastard. I scored a minor victory when a clap on the shoulder from another guy forced him to break his stare as his friend led him away to the far corner of the bar.
Holy shit. I let out a long breath, took a slightly-too-large swig of my drink, and nearly choked as the liquid burned down my throat to pool in my belly. The choking distracted me long enough to miss that not only had he approached the bar to order, but he was standing next to me. I stared resolutely at the dark, polished wood in front of me as he ordered a beer. He took the stool next to mine while he waited. I could feel his gaze on me, but I was completely and utterly frozen, trying to talk myself through the process of breathing in and out before I fainted.
“Hi,” he said, a hair too near to me, in a low voice that made a simple greeting sound provocative and dirty, like he could boss me around and I’d enjoy every second of it. I shivered. That image and his voice were going to be burned into my brain.
“Hi,” I croaked, chancing a look up at his face.
Oh, he got better up close. His eyes were a few shades lighter than his hair, his jaw firm and dusted with a five o’clock shadow, a slightly crooked nose because no one is that perfect. And his mouth. I wanted to nibble on his full lower lip like it was my job. Obviously, I resumed staring at the bar in paralyzed silence until the bartender delivered his beer. He paid and left without saying another word to me. I snuck a peek as he turned a corner and disappeared. I was right about the view. I might have even whimpered. A little. Or a lot, considering the quizzical look from the bartender as he collected the tip his unholy hotness had left behind.
If Izzy didn’t show up soon, I was going to explode. I felt like the world’s biggest dork, clamming up like a twelve-year-old with her first crush over a guy in a bar. A guy, Jo. A human man. A fucking gorgeous human man, but still human. He must have some epic flaws to be that pretty. It was a trade-off. It had to be, or the universe was even more of an asshole than I already thought.
Izzy must have floated in while I was talking myself out of a panic attack. “Hello, Earth to Jolene,” she said, shaking my shoulder gently.
“OhthankGodyou’rehere.” I almost launched myself into her lap.
“Whoa, there, lady. I’m not that late.” She glanced at her phone. “Okay, fine, I’m pretty late, but what happened?”
“Just… Fuck, I wish I wasn’t so awkward. I got caught staring at this stupidly hot guy, then he actually spoke to me, and I kind of maybe completely lost the ability to form words,” I blurted and hung my head in my hands, another wave of embarrassment roiling in my guts in the retelling.
“What? Where is this guy?” She sat up and craned her neck, peering into the bar’s dimly lit corners.
“Does it even matter? I’ll never see him again. We can never come back to this bar. I should probably go back to our place and start collecting stray cats.”
“Oh, sweetie, we’re not allowed to have cats in our apartment. And you’ve been in Boston for a week.” She rubbed my shoulders and I relaxed in increments. “You can’t give up yet, my little Country Mouse.”
“I know. I’m tired and overwhelmed. I’ll be fine. Totally not about to pack up the car and run for home. At all. Nope.”
“You will do no such thing, Jolene Mae Whitman,” she ordered in a passable imitation of my formidable Nana.
“Damn right, yes, ma’am. Buck up, camper. Come on, this is our first night out in our new town. If you’re not going to talk to him, we can at least look.”
“No, we can’t. Because you’ll find some reason to go talk to him, drag him over to our table, and it will be Friday nights in Canfield all over again, with you trying to set me up with people, and no, thank you.”
“That was one time.”
“Dude, that was every weekend.”
“Whatever. Fine. Be that way.” She raised her beer. “Cheers to us, and especially to you, Country Mouse.”
I clinked my glass with hers and gave her my brightest, bravest smile. “Cheers to us.” I drained my drink and plunked it on the bar with a satisfying thump right as Izzy’s eyes lit up.
“No. Fucking. Way.” She hopped off her stool. “Wait here.”
I spun in my seat and watched her weave through the crowd of finance bros and grad students, toward the far corner. My stomach made a mad dash for my throat. No. Nonononononono. This is not happening.
She came back with Tall, Dark, and Gorgeous in tow, chattering animatedly.
“This is so weird. Do you live around here?”
“No, I’m closer to the hospital. You just moved in, right?”
“Yeah, I start my MFA after Labor Day.” She turned to me. “Jolene, this is Molly’s brother, Matt. Matt, Jolene.”
He held out his hand. I took it, and his warm fingers engulfed mine. “Nice to meet you.”
I mumbled something in return and ducked my gaze at the sharp, electric thrill that ran through me at his touch. I dropped his hand before it got weird that I didn’t want to let go. A burning need to know what his large hands would feel like everywhere warred with the impulse to run away as quickly as possible. Deer in headlights must have done it for him. He looked at me appraisingly, something like curiosity in the slight narrowing of his eyes.
He glanced over his shoulder, breaking the spell, letting me take a deep gulp of air now that his gaze wasn’t fixed on me.
“I should get back. It’s good to see you, Izzy.” He turned to me. “Nice to meet you again, Jolene.”
“Yeah,” I managed with a smile that probably looked more like a nervous grimace. He and Izzy stepped away as they exchanged numbers, promising to hang out sometime. I knew she’d known him since forever, but I hated how easy it was for her, how much I was always Izzy’s awkward sidekick. I picked a spot of chipped varnish in front of me.
As soon as he walked away, Izzy turned to me, eyebrows scrunched in concern. “Are you okay?”
I balled my fists and shook my head. “So that guy I choked in front of earlier? The one I didn’t want you dragging back to our table?”
She covered her mouth with her hands. “Oh my god, that was Matt?”
Izzy bit her lip but failed to suppress a snort. “I’m sorry, this is—” She burst into laughter.
“It’s not funny.”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry. It’s just…the fucking luck, right? I haven’t seen him in person since he was still all growth-spurt gangly and awkward looking. He’s the last person I expected to render anyone speechless, even if he did get hot.”
I buried my face in my hands and groaned.
“Aw, Mouse, it’s gonna be okay.” She patted my back. “I’m ordering us another round. You need it.”
My head sank to the bar and I whimpered. It was going to take a whole lot more than another round to calm my nerves, and I couldn’t afford another one, anyway. “I want to go home, Iz.”
I didn’t mean our apartment, and she knew it, but she pointedly ignored me. “Okay, let’s go then.”
Once we were outside, she slung her arm around me as we walked toward the nearest T stop.
“Ugh. Why am I such a goober?” I slumped into her shoulder.
“Oh, sweetie, you’re not a goober.” She was trying to soothe me, but I wasn’t falling for it. “You’re not. Even if you were, he didn’t seem to mind.”
“He thought I was an interesting specimen of social awkwardness,” I grumbled.
Izzy talked me down the whole way home. When we got back, she poured me a shot of bourbon and sent me to bed. I slept in fits and starts between frustratingly vivid dreams. Dreams of Matthew’s fingers wrapped around my wrists, my hips, my thighs, holding me hard enough to bruise. The phantom scrape of stubble along my inner thigh woke me, throbbing and desperate in a way I hadn’t felt in years. I’d barely been able to choke out a single word in the five minutes he’d been in front of me, and suddenly he was playing a starring role in a half-baked, rough sex fantasy that had come barreling into my psyche. I was almost too distracted by being so turned on to wonder what the hell that said about me.