Authors: Sophie Jordan
I glanced up at him to see that he was staring at Shaw, too.
“Who’s that, Logan?” Pepper asked, following his gaze.
“That’s Shaw, Beth’s cousin. He graduated with Reece. Joined the Marines right out of high school with Beth’s brother, Adam.”
“Oh. Why do you look so surprised to see him here then?”
“Just kind of surprised he came here tonight.”
“Why?” I asked, trying not to act too interested. “Beth’s his cousin.”
“Yeah, Beth’s his cousin.” Logan looked unusually somber. Unusual for him anyway. The guy was all flirt. I hardly ever saw him serious like this. “But Adam didn’t make it back. He got killed over there, and ever since Shaw got back, he’s been laying kind of low.”
I sucked in a sharp breath and looked back across the room. Shaw had reached Beth by now. They stared at each other, neither one making a move, and the phrase Mexican standofff drifted to my mind. She didn’t grab and embrace him as she had done to Reece. Hell, as she had done to everyone tonight. The tension was palpable even watching from this far away.
“Does she blame him for her brother dying?” I asked. That hardly seemed fair, and for some reason my protective instincts stirred, which was ridiculous. Her brother was dead. She was entitled to her feelings. And what did I know of the situation? Shaw Biker Boy was not mine to protect.
“I don’t really know. All I know is that hardly anyone has seen Shaw since he got back. I heard he’s living out on the lake and working at a garage across town.”
I could confirm that he was living on the lake. I didn’t know about him working at a garage, but he liked to hang out at biker bars. I wondered if that was new for him, too. I mean I doubted that he hung out in biker bars when he went to high school with Reece, but what did I know?
I watched Beth’s lips move, but still no hug was forthcoming. Shaw’s face looked tight, strained around his mouth. Beth’s fiancé said something then and pulled her away. Shaw was left standing there alone, but not for long. Several people came up and greeted him. Whatever the tension between him and Beth, it didn’t extend to others. I continued to watch him, not missing the tension that lined his shoulders even as he talked to people. This wasn’t easy for him. Being here. He didn’t want to be here, but he had come. Why?
Then Reece was at his side. The two shook hands, Reece even forced one of those guy half hugs on him, which Shaw awkwardly returned. They talked for a few minutes and then Reece was nodding toward Pepper. Toward us.
“Oh, look, they’re heading this way.”
My pulse spiked against my throat. My first impulse was to run. I hadn’t mentioned last night to Pepper. How was I going to explain how I’d met him?
His eyes landed on me as he and Reece made their way across the room. His expression gave nothing away, but his eyes widened ever so slightly.
Then they were standing in front of us and I didn’t have time to hide . . . or think up an excuse to give to Pepper when he revealed that we already knew each other.
Logan and Shaw shook hands first. “Good to see you, man,” Logan greeted him.
“Last time I saw you I think you were about this high.” Shaw held his hand up to his shoulder.
“Yeah, thankfully that growth spurt kicked in.”
Reece made the introductions. “This is my girlfriend, Pepper, and her friend Emerson.”
He shook Pepper’s hand but his eyes were on me. Honestly, they’d been sliding to me even while he talked to Logan.
I held out my hand, prepared to let the cat out of the bag and admit that we knew each other, but I froze at his words.
“Nice to meet you, Emerson.” His warm hand enveloped mine and I felt the spark shoot straight up my arm to my chest. Every finger burned an imprint on my skin that I’m sure I would feel hours from now.
“You, too,” I managed to get out from my suddenly constricted throat.
“Glad you came tonight,” Reece said. “I heard you were back in town, but didn’t know how to get in touch with you. I haven’t seen your mom around—”
He slid his gaze to Reece. “She remarried. Moved to Boston.” And then he looked back at me, his gaze deep, probing. I pretended great interest in my drink.
Reece nodded. An awkward pause fell on our little group.
“He seems like a nice guy,” Shaw volunteered, mostly, it seemed, to fill the gap. “Works a steady job at least and cares about her. Better than my old man ever did.” He smiled but it looked a little pained on his face. I had the distinct impression that this whole encounter was painful for him.
“Well, that’s great. Your mom was so nice. She made the best cookies. I’ll always remember she had them waiting for us after soccer practice.”
Shaw shook his head with a low chuckle. Just the sound of it made my skin shiver. Which was kind of lame. Since when did a guy’s laughter do that to me? “She just got those from the bakery at the grocery store.” His eyes held mine as he uttered this. “The day-old cookies were always free for employees.” It was like he was trying to convey something, trying to make a point. What? That he was different? That we were from two different worlds? I already got that point. I got it the first time I laid eyes on him, and it had nothing to do with the fact that his mom worked at a grocery store and my mom wore Chanel.
Pepper looked between us curiously. Apparently our stare-down wasn’t going unnoticed.
“I’m going to get a fresh drink,” I announced, shaking my nearly empty cup. I wasn’t in the mood to drink tonight. I still felt the effects of last night a little too much, but it was an excuse to depart from the group.
I pushed through the crowd and stopped at the bar, signaling to the bartender. Unsuccessfully, it seemed. He was under siege from happy partygoers.
“I’ll get him,” a voice beside me volunteered.
I turned to face a cute guy. He wasn’t quite as preppy as a Dartford boy, but close. With his carefully groomed hair and sweet dimples, he was definitely safer than the guy I’d just left . . . the guy I was spending way too much time thinking about.
Determined to shake off my funk, I smiled coyly. Pepper called it my man-eater smile. Well. Boy-eater. Boys, I handled. Men, less so. But this boy was right up my alley, so I gave him all my attention and let him signal the bartender like I was too helpless to do it myself.
Encouraged, he grinned at me again, leaning close enough for our shoulders to brush. “What do you want?”
“Hm.” I glanced along the bar. Not too many choices. Beer. Wine. A margarita machine churned behind the bar, too. “A margarita.”
The frazzled-looking bartender appeared and Pretty Boy ordered our drinks. I took a moment to look around the room. Reece and Pepper were still talking to Shaw. As though he felt my stare, Shaw looked over at me. I jerked my gaze away just as Pretty Boy accepted the drinks from the bartender.
“Cheers.” He toasted his beer against my frothy cup. “I’m Jonathon.’
I finished my sip and answered, “Emerson.”
“So, Emerson. Are you friends with the bride or groom?”
“I’m a friend of a friend of the bride,” I said.
“Ah. So you’re kind of crashing the party then?” He winked at me. “A bad girl, huh?” His gaze skimmed over me appreciatively, his eyes lingering on my hair, assessing the magenta strips layered in with the dark strands. What? Did colored hair mark me as a bad girl or something? I stopped myself from rolling my eyes. It was such a stereotype.
“Do I look bad?” I teased back, trying to get into the spirit of flirtatious banter. It was my forte. Something I could turn on and off as easily as flipping a switch. It shouldn’t feel like pulling teeth.
I peered over Jonathon’s shoulder. I couldn’t help it. Shaw was here. A guy I never thought to see again, but he was here. Even from across the room, I was hyperconscious of his presence. Normal, I suppose. I spent the night with him and we didn’t so much as kiss. I was . . . curious. That’s all. The crowd shifted and I lost sight of him.
“You looking for someone?”
I shook my head. “No,” I lied and tried to fight the memory of waking in his bed. Of clean cotton sheets and the crackle of a fireplace. I lifted up on my tiptoes, peeking through the press of people.
Pepper was laughing at something Reece said. Shaw was wearing that familiar half smile. A body bumped me and I sank back down on my heels to keep my balance. The house was even more crowded than when we’d first arrived. With people pressed tight as sardines, it felt as suffocating as the busiest club. If this was just the engagement party, I couldn’t imagine what the wedding reception would be like. I hoped the venue was bigger.
Jonathon set a hand on the bar and leaned in, snapping my attention back to him. His mouth brushed my cheek as he answered, “Oh, yeah. Well. You look like a bad girl.” His fingers reached up and toyed with a short strand of my hair. “I bet you get really freaky.”
“Me?” I tsked. “Not really. I’m actually pretty boring.”
“No way. You’re too sexy for boring.”
Speaking of boring. Jonathon didn’t get any points for originality.
“You might be surprised.” My gaze strayed back to Shaw. It was as if he knew I was searching for him. His eyes were already trained on me. My face grew hot. The idea that he was watching me get my flirt on made me decidedly uncomfortable. His eyes seemed so knowing. Smug, almost. Like he knew I was only humoring this guy. Humoring myself. Like he knew the games I played with boys like this. Boys I didn’t give a rat’s ass about.
No longer feeling like flirting with anyone tonight, I faced Pretty Boy. “If you’ll excuse me, I see my friend.”
“What? Where you going?” He grabbed my arm. “I thought we were having fun.”
I smiled and lied as I slipped my arm free, “I was, but my friend had this ugly fight with her boyfriend and she needs me tonight.” It was easier to say this than wound his ego with the fact that I wasn’t interested.
I started weaving my way back to Pepper, but I paused when I saw it was just her and Reece. No Shaw. Had he left? And why did I care? I wasn’t returning to see him.
I turned in a small half circle, scanning the room.
“Looking for me?” The voice at my back made me jump. If my cup was full, I would have spilled it all over myself.
I turned to face Shaw, trying to look calmer than I felt. More composed. “Shaw?” Was that breathy little squeak my voice?
He didn’t smile. His face didn’t reveal anything as he looked down at me, his sharp gaze roving over my features like he could see something there beneath the makeup and the smile I pasted on my face like a well-worn mask.
Then his question sank in.
Looking for me?
God. Is that what he thought? “I-I wasn’t looking for anyone.”
“It looked like you were.”
Okay. So I was looking for him, but I wasn’t about to admit that. He’d told me in no mincing terms the night before that I was entirely resistible to him. Not irresistible.
. I hadn’t forgotten about that dig. I didn’t have any desire to come off as some desperate, clingy girl all hot and bothered for him.
He looked back at the bar where Jonathon stood looking decidedly unhappy after me. “Your admirer looks disappointed.”
I shrugged. “I just met him.”
“In other words, you don’t give a shit about him.”
Was I supposed to care about a guy I exchanged five sentences with? Why did it feel like whatever answer I gave would be wrong?
“You give a shit about every girl you flirt with in a bar?”
“I don’t lead girls on.”
Was he judging me? I laughed, feeling my temper stirring. Maybe I flirted and made out with my share of boys, but my reputation was more exaggeration than truth. Mostly.
I looked the long length of him up and down, clinically assessing him in all his brooding hotness. And I wasn’t the only girl looking at him. Others were checking him out, too . . . hoping he noticed them back.
Was he telling me he was so different from every other guy I’d ever met? I had rarely come across a guy who didn’t want to use me for his own needs. I knew there were exceptions. Pepper’s relationship with Reece had shown me that, but I wasn’t so arrogant as to think I was special enough to attract the exception.
I crossed my arms over my chest. “So every girl you sleep with becomes your girlfriend? Is that what you’re saying?” Silence met my question. I smiled humorlessly. “I didn’t think so. You and I aren’t so very different.”
His gaze flicked back to the bar where Jonathon stood, still looking after me. “I bet you’re one of those girls who likes to tie guys up in knots and leave them begging.”
I stepped closer, letting my body brush against his. This close, I had a perfect view of his mouth—the well-carved lips slightly parted with a breath. “Careful, Shaw, or I might think you’re actually jealous.”
My words elicited a grunt. I couldn’t help tossing them out at him even though I knew they weren’t true. I didn’t affect him that way. He’d said so himself. I knew when a guy liked me, and this one didn’t. And yet here I was. Taunting him like I wanted something.
Like I wanted him.
He turned away and started cutting through the crowd. Annoyed, I followed him, not realizing until he cleared the front door that he was actually leaving. Without even responding to my taunt, he was just walking away? I get that he didn’t like me, but c’mon. He didn’t have to be a dick about it.
I followed him down the porch steps onto the walkway and called after his back. “Why didn’t you let my friends know you already knew me?”
He turned around. Several yards separated us. “I don’t know you, Emerson.” He said that like it was the simplest reason, but there was also a ring of something else in his voice. That he didn’t even
to know me. That stung a little. Which was dumb. It wasn’t as though I was trying to win him over or something. I knew better than that.
“You know what I mean,” I said.
He stepped forward, his biker boots crunching over the snow as he closed the distance between us. He stopped right in front of me, his hands buried in the pockets of his leather jacket. I shivered, achingly aware that I’d left my coat inside and was freezing my ass off out here.