Authors: Melissa Whittle
Tags: #aa romance, #series, #small town, #ptsd, #grief, #bakery, #coffee shop, #Alpha Hero Romance, #business partners, #Melissa Blue, #contemporary romance, #multicultural romance
Emma would have argued more but Abigail slapped at the screen door, stepping back onto the porch.
“You do look like shit,” Abigail said as she sat down across from the women. “Maybe there’s a reason why you don’t get up early in the morning. Screws with your internal clock.
?” She directed at Emma.
“So…how is Lucy doing with her new roommate?” Emma deflected the question.
She’d been doing her best not to obsess about Tobias’ late night visit over and over in her mind. He’d been engaged. His fiancée had died tragically while trying to save his life. He’d loved her. When she died, Brie left an abyss within him. Emma could imagine loving someone that much their death left behind a gaping absence. She had known that kind of love, even though it had been for a short time.
And Emma wasn’t heading for the hills after seeing Tobias’ skeletons. She could understand that all-consuming grief. She had wanted to make him forget it. Selfishly, she wanted to put them back in the light stage of friendship. But, who was she kidding? She didn’t want to be his friend. She wanted to be his lover.
“You’re not even listening,” Abigail said.
Emma jolted because she hadn’t. Not to a word. “The shoes are getting along, but you and Miguel are getting rocky?”
Stunned, Abigail closed her mouth. “I know you weren’t listening, but how do you know that?”
“It’s month six.” Sasha still looked tired but now amusement crinkled the corners of her eyes. “Closer to seven.”
“And what does that mean?” Abigail asked.
Sasha and Emma shared a look, and then she realized it had to be the same one that irked her when the tables were turned.
“You freak out,” Emma said.
Abigail shook her head. “I’m level-headed.”
“Not with men.” The heaviness that had cloyed to Sasha's demeanor started to lift. “You flip out and find all sorts of reasons why the relationship should end. Doesn’t mean you’re wrong; the men aren’t right for you. Just the way you go about it is one hundred percent psycho crazy. So what did you do to Miguel?”
Abigail’s expression turned mutinous. “You’re making me sound like a hysterical, too-stupid-to-live female.”
“We’re not saying you’re one,” Emma soothed. “We’re saying you act like one.”
Abigail still looked unconvinced. “We got into an argument. He’s currently sleeping on the couch.”
“Because you told him to or…” Emma waited for Abigail to fill in the blank but then shook her head. “Just relax. If the relationship is going to end, it will naturally. You don’t have to force a break up.”
“You’re a relationship guru now that you have Tobias?”
It wasn’t really a question, but Emma shifted in the comfortable patio chair. “I don’t have anyone. He’s a friend.”
That I want to be a lover
“If you looked at me like that I would think you played for a different team,” Sasha said.
Emma cut a look her way that said, “
Shut up you, traitor
.” The red curls bounced around Sasha’s tired face as she laughed and the reaction made Emma smile. “We’re becoming friends. That’s it, but this conversation isn’t about me.” She pointed at Abigail. “We’re grilling you today. I’m tired of being under a microscope.”
“But,” Abigail began, finally losing the pinched expression, “Miguel and I are old news, relationship-wise. Talking about you and Tobias is so much more interesting.”
“There’s nothing interesting going on,” Emma said, but thought
big fat lie
It wasn’t even a lie she was telling herself. In no known Universe could it be an accepted one either. What made it worse is that Tobias had been right in calling her shallow. Looking back now she could even say her relationship with Sean was surface level. It’s why when he left, it had been such a shock. They’d dated for a year, but she hadn’t known his…soul. A hint of a smile curved her lips. Tobias would be calling her Mallow about now.
Emma sighed. Maybe the worst part was Emma could see she hadn’t wanted to know Sean better, because what she wanted to see was there for the taking. She’d happily glossed over his faults. He always said he didn’t want children. Sean always did what he wanted to do, damn who he hurt in the process. He also disappeared faster than Houdini could have imagined every time Sasha and Abigail came by. He was an add on to her life. Sean had never been a part of it nor had he wanted to be. Not really.
And last night Tobias had given her something she never wanted, but had never known she needed―intimacy. He wasn’t trying to impress her. After sitting in his lap, Emma had no doubt he wanted her, but that, for him, would be a by-product of their attraction. There was a journey. The joy ride he talked about on their first date.
He didn’t see her as something to be possessed or won. She knew how to evade and deflect a man who wanted to get in her pants. Tobias wanted something deeper and undefined, at least to her understanding. How in the hell was she supposed to act?
There was no reason not to pick at the bones in his closet. There was no expectation she had to carry his baggage or vice versa.
“Now I know for a fact you aren’t listening. And you and Tobias are getting interesting. So?”
Because I don’t know what the hell is going on with him and me
. “We decided on four dishes, but I’ll figure out certain variations.” She told them the details of the business deal, all the while thinking
lie, lie, lie
. So much so a sense of shame came over her and she stopped mid-mindless stream. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
The statement shocked both women, but it was Sasha who smiled at her. “Ok. What’s going on with you and Miguel? Really.”
“You don’t want to talk about it?” Abigail sat forward in the chair; her knee knocked the table, rocking the liquid in the pitcher. “We always talk about this stuff.”
“She doesn’t want to talk about it.” Sasha’s tone was sharp.
“Well excuse the fuck out of me. We’ve been friends for ten years. I thought it was ok to talk about our relationships. How we’re feeling at that particular moment.”
“And to tell one another to back up when one of us is trying to deal with certain emotions.” Sasha’s curt tone was cutting. “Everything doesn’t need to be put under a microscope.” On a roll now, she stood, arms waving around. “Everything doesn’t need a label and to be cataloged. A shoulder is simple enough. Sitting there and listening should be what a friendship is. Not a damn battering ram every time you have a vulnerable moment.”
“Are you having a vulnerable moment you haven’t told me about?” Abigail’s voice had never sounded so calm. “Is this where the anger is coming from?”
“Ok, guys. Let’s calm down,” Emma said, and they both turned to her with a deadly glare. She sighed, shutting up.
“I’m not stupid,” Abigail said. “I know you’re keeping something from me. Emma can’t act nonchalant to save her life.”
Emma put up her hands when Sasha whirled on her. “It’s true, but I didn’t say anything.”
Abigail pounced. “I was right. What is it?” She didn’t bother to turn to Sasha.
But Emma could see the pained expression on Sasha’s face. “It’s not for me to tell.”
Abigail turned back to Sasha, but the other woman refused to spill the secret. The tone of the argument changed. Emma couldn’t keep up with the words thrown back and forth like knives, each one meeting its mark. Abigail was her usual warrior self, but even being on the sidelines Emma could see straight through to the hurt.
And Sash, goodness, no one would accuse her being taciturn at the moment. It made Emma proud to see her friend standing up for herself, but not with the words she used. Not who she was using those weapons against. When it seemed neither one were going to lose steam, Emma stood up, having had to break up plenty of throw downs.
“You and Miguel aren’t meant to be together.” Everyone froze at the words, and Emma closed her eyes, but Sasha kept going. “You know it. That’s why you’re freaking out. That’s why you’re always freaking out, because you know they aren’t the men you are supposed to be with. It’s Greg all over again.”
Abigail opened and closed her mouth. Finally she shook her head, once, twice and then moved around the table and moved toward the door.
“Abby,” Emma called out, but her friend disappeared into the house. Emma turned to Sasha. “That was uncalled for.”
Sasha collapsed into the chair, placing her hands over her face. Emma rounded the table and went to catch Abigail before she left. She caught her friend as the car engine purred to life. Abigail was behind the wheel shaking her head, but rolled the window down.
“Come back inside the house,” Emma said.
“You didn’t say she didn’t mean it.” Abigail’s voice broke on the last word. Her friend reached forward, putting the air conditioner on blast. A tactic she used to dry tears before they could fall. “I’m not going to let her make me cry.”
“When you guys get like this you always say stuff you don’t mean.”
“But it’s true. She knows it. We all know I screwed that up.” She banged her hand on the steering wheel. “We have rules.”
Agreeing wouldn’t be the thing her friend needed at the moment. Saying the best man in her life had been the guy she dumped, cruelly, three years ago wouldn’t keep the tears at bay. Sure as hell wouldn’t quell the argument the women had no business having. “Come back inside.”
“I did. We all know it. We’re not supposed to say it.” She rubbed at her eyes, but the tears started to come anyway. “And now I have this guy living with me that I know isn’t the one, but I want him to be. He treats me good. I treat him good.”
Emma sighed and leaned into the car. “But you don’t love him. That’s ok. Right now he makes you happy. That’s enough.”
“It’s not what I want, and I’m settling. Not in the way I’m telling you to settle.” Abigail sniffed and nodded matter of factly, making Emma smile. “You want an ideal.”
“You want a guy you haven’t talked to in ages.”
“My wanting him is more regret than actually knowing he was the one for me.”
“You’re insufferable,” Emma said with care.
“I am, but we agreed to never say it.”
Emma pffted. “We never agreed.”
“It’s implied in the girlfriend code.” Abby refused to relent.
She thought of Tobias and the rule to be honest. It was a dangerous and stupid rule to agree to, but something her friends could use right now. “Maybe it shouldn’t be.”
Abigail’s gaze narrowed. “What is Tobias doing to you?”
, because she was too busy being the pigheaded bastard about him touching her. About keeping him on the surface because he was everything she wouldn’t fall for.
Lie. Lie. Lie
. “You guys just need to cool down. You know how y’all get when you fight like this.”
Before the words could settle on the air, they both heard Sasha’s car engine. She hadn’t said goodbye. She hadn’t even done her usual evil look in Abigail’s direction.
“I’m starting to think you two need time-out corners,” Emma mused.
“See,” Abigail pointed at her, “before Tobias—”
“Oh, stuff it. It needs to be said, and I’m saying it.” Emma patted Abigail’s now slumped shoulders. “You’ve got other worries. You need to let Miguel know you don’t love him and probably never will. See how he takes it.”
“You should have had this talk before you let him move in. You said you did.”
“I did.” Abigail paused. “In a way.”
Emma straightened. Sasha was right. They’d crippled each other. Now if they could pull through this they would know better now. “Be clear so he can get his place back.”
“But—” Emma quelled the protest with a look and the mutinous expression was back. “I hate it when you’re right,” Abigail said.
“You hate it when anyone else is right.”
“I love you, too.”
The words put a smile on Abigail’s face. “I love you, too.”
Emma stepped back so Abigail would have room to pull out. Once again the street she grew up on went quiet. One by one the street lights flickered on, but it barely illuminated the street. Sharing the neighborhood with professors or retirees kept the crime rate down. It also meant curtains were being pushed back into place now the show was over.
Despite the turmoil, it wasn’t what had Emma feeling unease. In two weeks, day in and out, she’d be in small confines with Tobias. After last night, she couldn’t be sure where they stood. Would he want intimacy on her part? Did she want to give it to him? Emma wasn’t sure of one damn thing, except, maybe, he was the exact kind of guy she’d fall for.
The next two weeks flew by in a blur for Emma. She split her time prepping the store for the week at the college, and between Abigail and Sasha, who still hadn’t bothered to pick up a phone and apologize to each other.
Emma hadn’t realized how convenient it was for her best friends to be best friends. No checking calendars, coordinating days or watches to make sure you had an open slot. She’d never been a social butterfly to begin with, but now she was exhausted.
Crossing the campus toward the canteen, her step had purpose, because there would be coffee.
And there would be Tobias.
Coordinating calendars and watches had left little time for them to flirt, talk or for her to tease smiles and laughs out of him. The closer to school beginning, the more the traffic picked up in their stores. She’d already started to ship off her treats to Caff-aholic 1―as they agreed to call it. The numbers were in and, well, impressed was an understatement. She now needed Josh to work full time and soon she’d need someone else.
The brief phone conversations, the quick glimpses of each other as they talked across the street while trying to open their stores, well…sexually frustrated was totally another understatement.
She kept a steady pace through the thick crowd of students. The only highlight of the week would be getting another hour of sleep. She hadn’t used it that morning; because she knew parking would be hell on the first day of school. She smiled. Thankfully, the Dean had okayed her driving up to the canteen to unload everything before classes really started. That nixed the slight worry of running a kid or two over in the process. By the time she finished the prep, parking had been the hell she imagined and then there was the walk back to the canteen.