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Authors: Laura Jardine

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BOOK: Not Just a Friend
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This was a different story.

Nearly every inch of Tom’s face was covered in ink, and he looked…honestly, he was pretty freaky. Even if he was whipping up the world’s most delicious chocolate cake, she’d still have trouble looking at him.

“You have a facial tattoo,” she said. “You didn’t have one in your online picture.”

“Just got it a couple of months ago.” He sat down across from her.

She didn’t know how she could get through a full meal staring at
that
.

“Does it bother you?” There was an edge in his voice.

“It’s just…I don’t find it attractive. At all. And that’s not going to change. We should probably call it a day and go home, because I don’t see this working. I’m sure there are women who like this sort of thing, but I’m not one of them. Sorry.”

He frowned. Well, she thought he frowned. His facial expressions didn’t look quite right under all that ink.

“Society tells you that you’re not supposed to have facial tattoos,” he said, “but that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with them.”

In Maya’s opinion, there was something seriously wrong with anyone who had a tattoo like this one. What the hell would possess a person to do that? It was ugly and impractical, and it probably hurt like a bitch to get it done.

But she’d be polite. No point in riling him up. “I’m not saying it’s wrong. I’m just saying I don’t find it attractive. Might as well tell you that up front.”

“So all you care about is appearances.”

“I didn’t say that, but…” Honestly, what was the point? She finished her drink, stood, and grabbed her purse. “I better be going.”

His hand shot out and curled around her wrist. A sliver of fear curled up her spine.

“Stay,” he hissed. “I’ll show you it’s not all about appearances. You could learn a lot from me.”

“Let go of my fucking wrist, you asshole!”

A few people looked in their direction, and Tom let go of her with a sigh.

“Fine,” he said. “Go back to your shallow, superficial world. Go be judgmental somewhere else. Clearly you’re not good enough for me.”

And thank God for that.

* * * *

Half an hour later, Maya called Liam. “I’m downstairs. Can you let me in?”

“Is everything okay?” She could hear the concern in his voice. “I thought you had a date tonight.”

“I did, but it was a disaster. As usual. Could you just let me in? Please?”

Tears formed in her eyes as she took the elevator up to his apartment. She couldn’t believe she was about to cry. She hadn’t done that since the last time she’d gone to the cemetery.

It was stupid to cry over another bad date. Although Tom had tried to prevent her from leaving, nothing truly terrible had happened. And aside from her attempts at dating, her life was pretty good. It was just this one part of her life that refused to cooperate, no matter what she did.

She stood outside Liam’s door for a minute, composing herself.

Just as she was raising her hand to knock, the door opened.

“I was worried when it took you so long to come up.” Liam wrapped her in his arms, and it felt like all her problems just drifted away.

My God
. Her thoughts were super lame sometimes.

Maya stepped into his apartment, kicked off her boots, and plopped down on the couch. “You know what happened? The guy had a fucking facial tattoo. He looked perfectly normal in his picture on the dating website, but he got a facial tattoo after that photo was taken. I could never date a guy whose entire face was covered in ink.” She shuddered. “It was hideous. When I said I didn’t find it attractive, he became all defensive and called me shallow.”

She wouldn’t tell Liam about what had happened at the end of the date, about that fleeting moment when she’d feared things would go very, very badly. He’d probably freak out. Sweet of him, but it wouldn’t change anything.

“So if I got a facial tattoo…” he began.

Okay, she had to laugh at that. The thought of Liam’s face covered in ink…it was just ridiculous. She imagined him standing in front of a class looking like that and saying, “Find the slope of the fucking line!”

She wiped her eyes. “You would be hideous, too.”

“Gee, thanks.” He sat beside her and took her hand. “You okay, Maya? You look like you’re going to cry.”

“I am
not
going to cry.” Another swipe at her eyes. “I do not shed tears over bad dates. Ever. That’s just pathetic.”

He raised his eyebrows.

“Really, I’m not crying.”

“Fine,” he said. “I believe you. I know you’ll try very hard to make sure you don’t cry. You just
look
like you want to, that’s all.”

“No.”

He didn’t call her on her lie.

“My love life is one big joke,” she said. “I think I’m going to give up on dating. It’s not worth it.” The part of her that fantasized about knights slaying dragons protested, but how could she keep doing this? She exhaled unsteadily.

“That sounds reasonable.”

Not what she’d expected Liam to say.

“As my friend,” she said, “you’re supposed to tell me to never give up, it will work out in the end. All that fun stuff. That’s why I’m here.”

She hadn’t needed to come to Liam; she had other friends. But for whatever reason, she’d wanted to talk to him. Maybe because he was single too, whereas Kristy and Allison were in happy relationships—that was probably it.

He squeezed her hand. “If you’re this frustrated, maybe you should stop dating for a while. I’m not saying you should give up on men forever. Just for a few months. And maybe something will happen when you’re not trying so hard.”

She rolled her eyes. “After Justin, I didn’t pay attention to men for the longest time. And you know what? Prince Charming didn’t magically drop out of the sky, land on a horse, and save me from a tower.”

He smiled. “You are such a romantic.”

“Am not.”

“You say you’re not. But somewhere deep inside, you are. You just keep telling that part of yourself to shut up. You hide all your hopes behind a thick curtain of pessimism and sarcasm because you think it’ll make it easier to cope when things don’t work out. You pretend it doesn’t bother you much, but it gets to you more than you try to let on. And tonight, you just couldn’t pretend like you usually do.”

“Thanks for the psychoanalysis.”

“See? You know I’m right, but you’re trying to hide it with sarcasm.”

Well, he
was
right—sort of. Not that she would admit it.

She looked around his apartment. There was a stack of papers by the computer. “I’m sorry. Am I bothering you? What were you doing when I came in?”

“Marking. The first test of the semester. But I was about fifteen minutes away from stopping to watch a movie. I’m not so pathetic that I spend all my Saturday nights marking math tests.” He pulled back from her and rested his forearms on his knees. “You want to watch a movie with me? Or do something else together?”

“I’m not in the mood for—”

“I know,” he said quickly. “I didn’t expect you to be. Not when you’re on the verge of tears.”

“For the last time, I am
not
on the verge of tears.” Her desire to cry was fading with every minute, so that wasn’t really a lie. Being with Liam had cheered her up. “Do you ever go on dates? You never talk about it.”

“I haven’t been on one in a while.”

“Why not?”

“Because it requires effort, and I’m lazy.”

“I don’t think of you as lazy.”

“I do a good job of hiding it.” He smiled faintly. “Plus there was Ginny.”

Liam looked down at his hands, and she had the sudden urge to reach out and touch them. Or turn his face toward her and kiss him. She wanted to express affection, even though it wouldn’t lead to sex.

She pictured him spending a Saturday night on a date with another woman, and she felt a tightness in her chest.

“I’ll miss this,” she said, “when you finally get off your ass and make a move.”

“You’ll still have me.” He paused. “Just not in the same way.”

He seemed a little distant. Although he’d offered to hang out with her, maybe what he really wanted was to be left alone to finish his marking and watch a movie.

She stood. “I should go.”

“Don’t.” He took her hand once more. “You can pick the movie.”

Well, since he insisted…


The Princess Bride,
” she said without thinking. “If you have it.”

One side of his mouth curled up, and he pulled her down next to him. “Given the sort of novels I saw you sneaking inside your calculus textbook, I’m not surprised.”

Her face was slightly warm now. “I’m very different from how I was when I was seventeen.”

“I am well aware of that. It’s impossible to miss.”

“I’m way more jaded.”

“Again, hard to miss. But don’t tell me you’re a
completely
different person. I don’t believe that. Not for a second.”

She didn’t see any point in arguing.

“Life kicks you in the ass,” he said, “and yeah, you’re a lot more jaded. But there’s a part of you that hopes no matter what. I don’t think anything could ever extinguish that.”

She shook her head. “You make it sound like I’ve had a difficult life. But I haven’t. I’ve had an easy life in many ways.”

“Not in all ways.”

“The facial tattoo guy and the dumpster artist were minor speed bumps. Barely worth a mention. They’re really just amusing stories.”

“Justin’s worth a mention. Though that’s not what I was talking about.”

Maya knew what he was going to say, and she debated telling him to stop.

“Your father,” he said softly. “You were only twenty-four and you—”

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Okay. But I think you should acknowledge what you did. I’m not sure I could have moved back home and helped my mom raise my younger brothers and sisters.”

“I did what was needed,” she said. “You would have done the same.”

“Without any siblings, it’s hard for me to imagine. When you told me about your big family back in high school, I was jealous.”

“And I was jealous of
you
. You actually had peace and quiet at home, rather than all these kids running around and screaming.”

He chuckled. “You know what I like about you? You say the opposite of how you feel.”

It was true that even as a teenager she’d liked her big family. Most of the time.

“It’s called sarcasm,” she said. “I’m not sure if you’re acquainted with it.”

“Not as well as you are.”

He rubbed his thumb up and down the back of her hand, then he brushed the hair back from her face. And for a moment, she imagined how it could be, the two of them. For one blinding moment, it seemed like the most amazing thing in the world.

And then that flash was gone. “Let’s watch the movie.”

*

Liam turned on the TV, and Maya surprised him by lying down and putting her head in his lap. As they watched the movie, he occasionally stroked her hair and ran his hand down her side. It was almost perfect, this lazy evening at home with her.

Except she thought they were just friends.

He wasn’t going to tell her what he wanted tonight. Not when she was upset. And he wanted to do something bigger than simply telling her while they were watching a movie together.

He thought Maya would like the declaration of love that he’d planned on Valentine’s Day. The heart-shaped cake, the math card. Okay, she didn’t like cheesecake—he was glad she’d told him that. And maybe the streamers were a bit much. And if she didn’t want him the way he wanted her, she’d feel uncomfortable. There was no way around that. But if it made her realize that she loved him too, then she would find the whole thing perfect.

There were times when it was appropriate to be sappy. This was one of them.

He would do it again but with a few changes. Next weekend.

To be honest, he was somewhat relieved that he wasn’t going to tell her tonight, that he could enjoy this last night without her knowing. After he told her, there would be no going back.

When the movie was over, Maya straddled him and kissed him, her mouth so sweet, her hands going to the back of his head, her hips pressed against his. For a long time, they just kissed; he drank in as much of her as he could.

There was no doubt in his mind: this was the woman he wanted. Her touch, her beauty, her intelligence, her cynicism, her hidden optimism…he wanted every part of Maya Gregory.

His heart swelled, and he just knew.

This was the time to do it.

Screw his romantic plans. He could give her the cake and the card some other day.

His anxiety swelled too, but he wouldn’t let it get the best of him. He pulled his mouth back from hers; she leaned forward and started kissing him again before he could get the words out. He sank into her kiss, savoring her for just a little longer before she knew the truth.

When she slid her lips down to his throat, he pulled back once more.
This is it.
He opened his mouth and…

Her phone chirped. Twice.

“Don’t check it,” he murmured.

But Maya slid off his lap and grabbed the phone out of her purse. She looked at the display.

“Kristy found another guy for me,” she said. “Seth. A friend of Grant’s from university.”

“A starving artist or a criminal—which one will he be?”

She shook her head, a hint of a smile on her face. “When Kristy sets me up with guys, I have a different problem than I do with the men I meet myself. They’re nice enough, but they bore me or they aren’t terribly attractive. This time, though, I’ll give him more of a chance. Even if he’s not very interesting, I’ll go out with him more than once and see what happens.” She paused. “That might be part of my problem. I expect to feel an instant attraction instead of waiting for it to develop over time. Maybe facial tattoo guy was right.”

“There might be something to that,” he said. “Attraction can develop between people who’ve known each other for a long time. Slowly you fall in love…or maybe something happens to make you realize that you’ve loved each other all along.” When it came to how he felt about Maya, it was a bit of both. “When are you going to see him?”

BOOK: Not Just a Friend
11.36Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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