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How long did I wait for Olivia to see me? To realize that she laughed with me in a way that she never did with Ethan? That I saw her in a way Ethan never would?
I told myself that when she and Ethan broke up that she’d get it. That she’d see someone besides him.
And she did.
But that someone wasn’t me. I’d been right there waiting for her the whole damn time, but she didn’t come to me. Instead, she ran to fucking Maine and fell hard for the injured marine she’d been hired to care for. Best I could tell, the guy was a complete asshole, but Olivia was … in love. Or some shit.
Discovering that she’d found a new guy would have been shitty enough, but, incredibly, that wasn’t the worst part of that weekend. No, the real shit went down when I came home feeling like there was a hole in my chest and discovered that my “father” was, in fact, not my father.
I figure that was about the time I stopped feeling. Because, really, why bother?
I grit my teeth. I don’t know why I keep picking that scab, but I do, and because the thought of Olivia makes me feel the fool, I let anger roll over me because it’s easier than hurt.
“You’re an idiot,” I say gruffly. It’s not what I mean to say. I don’t know what I mean to say. I just can’t stand the thought of this cheerful, good person going through what I went through.
Instead of being offended, she laughs. “Good pep talk, Beefcake.”
She laughs again, and it’s genuine and bold, and suddenly it hits me: Chloe Bellamy deserves better. She deserves better than what I got.
Maybe she just needs what I never had.
A little help.
Okay, fine, I’ll confess: When I invited Beefcake to my family’s Fourth of July party, my motives weren’t entirely pure.
Like, we’re talking half-wanting to distract him from my workout, half pity invite because I was worried the guy would spend the holiday alone in his hovel making homemade fireworks.
But I’m oddly glad that he said yes.
It’s not the first time I’ve brought along one of what my parents call my “projects.” They didn’t even blink when I told them I was bringing an employee from the club.
Unorthodox, sure, but they’re used to it.
Last year it was a barista at Starbucks who put extra whipped cream on my caramel Frappuccino every morning, and had confided that she’d just moved to the area with no friends.
The year before that, it was a girl from Hungary I met at the mall who’d never seen freaking fireworks.
In high school, it was exchange students, tutors, and whomever else I worried didn’t have anyone to hang out with.
What can I say? I’m a connector.
But with Michael, it’s a little different. He’s a project invite, yes.
But he’s also the first of my projects that feels a little bit like … a friend.
Not that I’d ever tell him that. The guy’s about 84 percent scowl, and I think words like friendship would up that percentage to 90-something.
The car ride goes surprisingly quickly. Usually I ride with Kristin and Devon, but three hours trapped in the car with two guys ogling Kristin?
Just no. Hell no.
Plus, I very intentionally hadn’t told Kristin that I’d invited her tennis crush, and I’m guessing my parents hadn’t bothered to mention it to her.
How do I know?
Because I’m still alive.
Sister is not going to be pleased that I’m bringing her boy toy and boyfriend into the same orbit, but that’s her problem. Serves her right for giving Beefcake all of those come-hithers that she has no intention of cashing in.
At least she’d better not be cashing in. If she cheats on Devon, there will be some fighting words between us.
Anyway, I digress. The point is, the car ride with Beefcake?
It’s kinda nice.
I mean, granted, I had to practically bribe him to get him to speak. And he’s still a good ways off from sharing whatever’s made him so guarded and haunted.
And, yet … I like his company somehow.
Even if he is sort of stingy with the chips.
The second my flip-flops hit the gravel, I stretch, still humming The Book of Mormon sound track I’d been regaling Michael with on the latter half of the trip as he goes to pull our bags out of the trunk.
I walk around to the back of the car, not to help him, but because my eyes have caught on the black ink creeping beneath the hem of his blue T-shirt. I’m used to seeing Beefcake in his Cambridge Country Club uniform, which means the mysterious tattoo is always covered up.
I hook a finger under the sleeve of his shirt, inching it upward just as he starts to pull out my pink bag, but he realizes my plan before I can see what the tattoo is and jerks back before dropping my bag ceremoniously in the dirt with a “Damn it, Chloe.”
“If you don’t want people to see your tattoo you should have gotten it on your ass,” I say, my hand already reaching out again. “Or your taint.”
He dodges with a snarl and I relent. For now.
“Taint,” he mutters, leaning down to retrieve my bag. “Really?”
“Nice,” I say, reaching for his arm again, this time to squeeze the biceps that had flexed rather enticingly as he lifted up a bag made heavy with the books I hoped to read.
He drops my bag again, his finger jabbing in my face. “Carry your own bag.”