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I shrugged and resumed my staring.
She shook her head at me. “I have to say you really are a strange one.”
Lightly laughing at her comment and trying not to take offense, I kept my eyes glued on him. He was across the room talking to some younger guy rather animatedly, and when he stretched out his hand with a red Solo cup in it, I straightened my shoulders. “I’m off.”
She pursed her lips and grabbed my arm. “Do you want any pointers?”
Knowing I must seem like a contradiction, I met her eyes. “I got this, Claire.”
She grabbed my elbow as I started to walk toward him.
I twisted to look at her.
“Honey, my name is Stacy. Claire is my dream girl name. What’s your name, by the way?”
“Oh, I like it. Is that your dream girl or real name?”
I gave her a blank look. “Real.”
“So what’s your dream girl name?”
A smile crossed my lips as I looked over to the guy who had captured my attention since I first saw him just a few weeks ago. Xander had taken me to a frat party but made me leave when he saw me drinking a beer and staring at Ben. The guy across the room was also the same guy I had been obsessing over since he talked to me in the library a few days ago. I couldn’t believe he was here.
“S’belle,” I said to her, more sure of that than anything I had since I met her. At that moment, I stood tall and strode across the room chanting, I can be his dream girl for the night over and over.
My insides froze when I stopped in front of him. I was so nervous that when I wrapped my trembling hand around his cup, I thought I might be sick. Then I thought, I can do this. It’s my job, after all. But when our fingers touched and a heat spread throughout my body, my nerves were back.
He grinned down at me with eyes that had to make every girl look twice. He shuffled his feet and for a second I thought maybe he was nervous too, but only for a second because when I looked up into the smoldering heat of those blue eyes, I saw nothing but confidence. That one look gave me strength and I suddenly found my words. “I’ve been assigned as your little sister,” I said, feeling as if my tone came out more little girl than dream girl. But the way he looked at me, I didn’t think that was what he thought at all.
“Bell, you okay?” Dino asks, and pulls me from my memories.
“Yes, I’m fine,” I reassure him as he places the last of the food on the table.
Dino works for Tate, my boss from my day job, and for me on occasion. I glance away from what we’re doing and catch sight of Ben. He looks almost edible in his tux. He’s talking to his sister and when he lowers his chin in an almost shy fashion, I have to look away. He’s just too much to take in.
With my heart pounding, I race out onto the terrace for some air. I have to stay away from him. The way he looks at me, I know what he wants. And I can’t control the way my body reacts when he’s near. I know he’s not good for me, and that nothing but heartache can come out of the attraction between us. There’s just too much in our past to ever make this work. Two wrongs will never, ever make a right.
You and Me
As the night draws to an end, people start funneling out of the ballroom, stopping one last time to congratulate me. With each good-bye I look around, trying to spot her, but she’s nowhere in sight. It’s probably better that way. Once most of the guests are gone, I make my way toward the bar for some refuge. It’s been a bittersweet night and I’m ready for the memories it’s awoken to once again become dormant.
“The same?” the bartender asks me.
I nod. “With a lemon slice if you don’t mind.”
I’m leaning over the short glass filled with ice, sparkling water, and the scent of citrus—the scent of her—chewing on a cube, thinking about my speech and the haunting sadness that Kane, with all his money and power, died with no one by his side.
When he died no one knew the one simple important fact that mattered most to him—the one thing that made him happy. Am I headed down that same road? Fuck. Recently my sister and I came into a ten-million-dollar inheritance, and since then I’ve done nothing except build my company. Put the pieces in play to establish what I hope will become a lucrative publishing holding company.
Staring at the lemon floating among the melting ice cubes, I can’t help thinking how much things have changed over the past year. I came back to California looking to reclaim my life. But that life was long gone before I ever returned. My childhood sweetheart, the girl I was engaged to, was already in love with someone else. Then before I could even accept that and move forward, my mother died and I don’t remember much of what happened after that. I know I spent many long months drowning my sorrows and making one poor decision after another. But I was serious about no more looking back. I need to move forward.
Jason slides in beside me. “Everything okay?”
Sitting up straight, I turn to face him. “Just thinking about a girl.”
“Dahlia?” he asks.
“No, actually not her. We’re in a good place as friends now.”
“Good, I’m glad to hear it. Want to talk about the girl, then?”
“Jason!” We both turn in the direction of the voice. Serena walks toward us with her hands on her hips and a frown on her face. Her eyes narrow on the bar in front of us.