Page 8

 Jay Crownover

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Rowdy pushed a shot of amber liquid the same color as Ayden’s eyes in my direction and used a finger that was tattooed with a picture of a miniature skull and cross bones to point at the bar. “He showed up about twenty minutes ago, and she’s been acting like she has a metal pole crammed up her backside ever since.”
I swiveled my head around and swore under my breath when I saw him through the crowd gathered at the bar. I didn’t know what she saw in the guy. Sure, he was enrolled in the same school as her. Sure, he was interning with the government, doing some kind of groundbreaking research for biochemical fuels or some shit. Sure, he was all-right looking—in that dry-toast, plain-yogurt, white-rice kinda way. Sure, he was, by all accounts, a perfectly nice guy and a gentleman to boot, but everything about him screamed boring!
All of that aside, he wore a fucking sweater vest and didn’t look like he had any idea what to do with all that was Ayden Cross. She was something special, something that grown men in another era would have battled to death to win with shiny pistols or clashing swords. But this guy, this nerdy, sweater vest–wearing idiot wouldn’t even tell me to shove it where the sun didn’t shine, even though I knew he knew that I had dirty, sexy, X-rated dreams about the girl he was dating. Try as I might to tone it down, I’m sure as hell it was all spelled out in my eyes when I looked at her.
I tossed back the shot and took the one Rowdy hadn’t touched yet and downed that one too. He gave me a look and leaned back to cross his arms over his broad chest. We were about the same height, an inch or so over six foot, but he looked like he could wrestle a bull to the ground due to his past life as an all-star football player. We never really talked about why he had quit playing ball, but I figured since he had found his niche in the tattoo world it didn’t really matter, and if he wanted to tell me, he knew I would listen.
“He brought her a huge bouquet of flowers and some stupid box of chocolate or some shit shaped like a heart. I think he’s trying to pin her down for Valentine’s Day.”
A cold chill raced down my spine, and I felt my eyes harden involuntarily. “She’s supposed to come to the show at the Fillmore with Rule and Shaw.” It was big deal for the band. It was a big deal for me, and I wanted her to be there. I had just assumed she would be.
Rowdy shrugged a broad shoulder. “They’ve been hanging out for a while now. I bet it’s the night he’s planning on going all out. You know what I mean, fancy dinner, expensive gift, and the night closing with a trip to a high-end hotel room. He looks like the type and he’s been giving her the hard press for the past few months if I understand correctly all that girly jabber Cora annoys us with at the shop.”
I gritted my teeth and repressed the urge to get out of my seat and strangle the guy with his own argyle outerwear. Another tumbler was set down in front of me, along with a plateful of wings. A pitcher of beer landed in front of Rowdy, and I narrowed my eyes to match Ayden’s careful look when I noticed she was scowling back at me.
“Stop it.”
I tried to look innocent, but had to admit that even on a good day, it wasn’t a look I pulled off. “What?”
“Stop making faces at Adam. He just stopped by to say hi. I told him to come over and have a drink with you guys, but then he saw Jet looking like he was plotting someone’s murder, and decided against it.”
I wasn’t going to deny it, so I picked up the shot and let my gaze travel over her outfit. Today was the cheerleader, my personal favorite. Her tiny pleated skirt was orange and blue, Bronco colors, and it was topped off with a supertight, white sweater that left little to the imagination. She was already taller than average and when she put on those do-me heels, she was almost eye to eye with me, which made her legs—which deserved their own ode to greatness—look even better. I was lost somewhere in my own world, where those legs were wrapped around my head or my waist—I wasn’t picky—when she jolted me back to reality.
Ayden smacked me on the side of my head. “Knock it off. I don’t know what’s wrong with you tonight, but get your mind out of the gutter. Are you sure you aren’t the one who got banged up when we fell earlier?”
I rubbed the ear that had the little spike pointing out the top of it, where she had made it sting. I tossed back the shot she brought and pushed the plate of wings in Rowdy’s direction. Maybe I needed to get drunk, so I could blame my sudden need to act a whole lot of wrong on something.
“Are you bailing on the show on Valentine’s?” I heard the intensity in my tone and I hated it. It wasn’t supposed to matter what she did or who she chose to spend her time with, but it did. I wanted her to pick me, even though I knew I wasn’t allowed to pick her. She shifted on her shoes and fiddled with the edge of her skirt.
“I don’t know. Shaw will be all wrapped up in Rule, and Cora usually takes off and does her own thing. You”—she pointed a finger at Rowdy—“always ditch me for some bar skank, and Nash offered to be DD, so he won’t be drinking and will be grumpy and nasty all night.” Those eyes that flashed with every color of gold and bronze landed on me and she bit her lip. “You’ll be onstage, so that leaves me to fend for myself. Adam asked me to dinner and has a whole night planned, so I just don’t know.”
We stared at each other silently for a while, so long that it ultimately became awkward and strained. I wanted to ask her to ditch Adam and come, and I think she wanted me to ask her to ditch Adam and come, because she would do it. But if she wanted a boring, predictable Valentine’s date with a douche bag in a sweater vest, who was I to stop her? I was never going to be a guy who had an advanced degree and a five-year fiscal plan. I was never going to be a guy who valued safety and security above passion and creativity. I sure as fuck was never going to be a guy who wore argyle in public.
“Well, you should have a nice time. Let Adam take you out and give you a nice romantic night. You deserve it.” I almost choked on the words, but I got them out.
Something moved across her pretty face that I couldn’t read. Ayden was really good at that, hiding her emotions behind a flirty smile and a sarcastic comeback. Whatever it was disappeared as she picked up my empty glass and asked if I wanted a refill. I nodded silently and turned back to Rowdy. He was watching me dispassionately and pushed his full pint of beer in my direction.
“We getting shit-faced?”
I tried to exhale around the band that had tightened in my chest, and nodded sharply.
“Yep, sounds about right.”
Chapter 3
I called the Kentucky number back every day for the rest of the week and never got an answer. I called my mom and she had no clue who it might be. She insisted that she hadn’t heard from Asa in months and got mad when I asked her if he was in jail. My brother was an easy guy to take up for—charming, unassuming, and effortlessly attractive and suave. He was the kind of guy who could steal the shirt off your back while you were still wearing it and then convince you it was your idea to give it to him all along. He made you want to take care of him at all cost even though he would never, ever return the favor.
I couldn’t fathom why he would suddenly have a pressing need to get ahold of me, but it still gave me a sense of apprehension that I couldn’t shake. On top of that, I swore I had seen the same guy I thought I recognized earlier, walking in the neighborhood near the house the last two times I had headed out for a run. I was tempted to stop and ask him if we knew each other, but I still kept my distance from strangers after the attack on Shaw at our old apartment. Granted, she had been cornered by a lunatic ex-boyfriend bent on making her his by any means necessary, but I figured better safe than sorry.
I would have mentioned it to Jet, as the de facto man of the house, but over the last few days I got the impression he was upset with me and was purposely avoiding me, so I hadn’t had much of a chance to say anything to him. Something had happened when I told him I didn’t know if I was going to the show on Saturday, some subtle shift that changed things between us, and I didn’t know what it was or what to do about it.
In all honesty, I didn’t want to spend Valentine’s Day with Adam. He was such a sweet guy and he was exactly what I was convinced I should be looking for in a long-term partner. But when he had come strolling into the bar with those ridiculous flowers and that box of chocolates, just like a scene out of Pretty Woman, all I wanted to do was find a place to hide.
I knew he wanted Valentine’s Day to be a big night. He had been pressing for our relationship to get more serious the last couple times we went out, but even though I tried, and gave myself pep talk after pep talk, I just couldn’t drum up an inkling of the desire for him that I felt for Jet.
In fact, the last time I had sex with a guy was with a fellow chem major named Kyle. I had used him to try to rid myself of the memory and humiliation of Jet’s rejection the previous winter. The only purpose it had served was to make me feel worse than I had before and to remind me that good-girl sex was entirely boring and unsatisfying. That was why such a huge part of me was so drawn to Jet. Sure, his future plans, or lack thereof, concerned me, but the real reason I needed to stay as far away as possible had to do with more than that. The way he simply made me want to let it all go and just be with him made my blood freeze up and my better judgment scream and holler.
I might hate that girls wandered in and out of his room across the hall on a fairly regular basis, but I was honest enough with myself to admit that not a single one of them looked like they left wanting more or like they were in any way unsatisfied. It made me want to tie him down and have at it myself, but that wasn’t in the cards. So in the meantime I had to decide what I was going to do about Adam.
I knew it wasn’t fair to keep stringing him along if I wasn’t willing to commit to something more serious. I knew it wasn’t fair for me to try to keep fitting these perfect guys into a role I needed them to fill for my perfect vision of the future, only to ultimately deem them not right. Unfortunately, I didn’t know what the alternative was. Deep down, I knew what I really wanted, what I ultimately desired, but we didn’t fit. Jet didn’t fit into my flawless vision, and I had a feeling that trying to make him fill any other role than the one he was already occupying would destroy more than just our friendship. Jet wasn’t the kind of guy that respected boundaries.
I was sitting at a table outside the library at the college mulling all of this over and not paying any attention to what was going on around me, when a heavy anatomy book slammed down in front of me on the table. I jumped a little and glared at my best friend as she lowered herself into the chair across from me.
Shaw Landon was the opposite of me in every way one could imagine. She was short, with almost-white blond hair and leafy green eyes, and came from a background flooded with wealth and privilege. She was also shy, sweet and, as of late, so ridiculously happy and in love, it took a concentrated effort not to gag all over her.
Don’t get me wrong. I was very happy she had finally come clean about her feelings for Rule and that after some serious damage and some serious making up, they had figured out how to make things work between them. I had to admit I was a little jealous that even though they seemed to be so different, it was incidental when it came to just simply being together. I didn’t know how to do that. If I did, I wouldn’t be sexually frustrated and contemplating hurting a very nice guy for no other reason than he just didn’t do it for me or have me daydreaming about skintight pants and what was inside them.