Authors: Melissa Foster
“Shit. You’re kidding, right? My downtime is spent playing at my work. I love it. I’d go crazy sitting in some cabin with no connectivity to the real world.”
“The right woman might change your mind.” Sage took a swig of his beer.
“Dex date?” Regina tipped her glass to her lips. “Do you even know your brother? He might hook up once in a while, but this man protects his heart like it carries all of the industry secrets.”
“Can we not go there tonight?” Dex snapped. He had a way of remembering certain moments of his life with impeccable clarity, some of which left scars so deep he could practically taste them every damn day of his life. He nurtured the hurt and relished in the joy of the scars, as his artistic and peace-seeking mother had taught him. But Dex was powerless against his deepest scar, and numbing his heart was the only way he could survive the memory of the woman he loved walking away from him four years earlier without so much as a goodbye.
“Whoa, bro. Just a suggestion,” Sage said. “You can’t replace what you never had.”
Dex shot him a look.
Regina spun on her chair and then swung her arm over Dex’s shoulder. “Incoming,” she whispered.
Dex looked over his shoulder and met the stare of two hot blondes. His shoulders tensed and he sighed.
“It’s not gonna kill you to make a play for one of them, Dex. Work off some of that stress.” Sage glanced back at the women.
“No, thanks. They’re all the same.” Ever since the major magazines had carried the story about Dex’s success, he’d been hounded by ditzy women who thought all he wanted to talk about was PC games.
Regina leaned in closer and whispered, “Not them. Fan boys, two o’clock.”
“Hey, aren’t you Dex Rem?” one of the boys asked.
Dex wondered if they were in college or if they had abandoned their family’s dreams for them in lieu of a life of gaming. It was the crux of his concern about his career. He was getting rich while feeding society’s desire to be couch potatoes.
“Remington, yeah, that’s me,” he said, wearing a smile like a costume, becoming the relaxed gamer his fans craved.
World of Thieves
is the most incredible game ever! Listen, you ever need any beta testers, we’re your guys.” The kid nodded as his stringy bangs bounced into his eyes. His friend’s jaw hung open, struck dumb by meeting Dex, another of Dex’s pet peeves. He was just a guy who worked hard at what he loved, and he believed anyone could accomplish the same level of success if they only put forth the effort. Damn, he hated how much that belief mirrored his father’s teachings.
“Yeah?” Dex lifted his chin. “What college did you graduate from?”
The two guys exchanged a look, then a laugh. The one with the long bangs said, “Dude, it don’t take a college degree to test games.”
Dex’s biceps flexed. There it was. The misconception that irked Dex more than the laziness of the kids who were just a few years younger than him. As a Cornell graduate, Dex believed in the value of education and the value of being a productive member of society. He needed to figure out the release date, not talk bullshit with kids who were probably too young to even be in a bar.
“Guys, give him a break, ’kay?” Regina said.
“Sure, yeah. Great to meet you,” the longer-haired kid said.
Dex watched them turn away and sucked back his beer. His eyes caught on a woman at a booth in the corner of the bar. He studied the petite, brown-haired woman who was fiddling with her napkin while her leg bounced a mile a minute beneath the table.
. Memories from four years earlier came rushing back to him with freight-train impact, hitting his heart dead center.
“I know how you are about college, but, Dex, they’re kids. You gotta give them a little line to feed off of,” Regina said.
Dex tried to push past the memories. He glanced up at the woman again, and his stomach twisted. He turned away, trying to focus on what Regina had said.
College. The kids. Give them a line to feed off of.
Regina was right. He should accept the hero worship with gratitude, but lately he’d been feeling like the very games that had made him successful were sucking kids into an antisocial, couch-potato lifestyle.
“Really, Dex. Imagine if you’d met your hero at that age.” Sage ran his hand through his hair and shook his head.
“I’m no hero.” Dex’s eyes were trained on the woman across the bar.
. His mouth went dry.
“Dex?” Sage followed his gaze. “Holy shit.”
There was a time when Ellie had been everything to him. She’d lived in a foster home around the corner from him when they were growing up, and she’d moved away just before graduating high school. Dex’s mind catapulted back thirteen years, to his bedroom at his parents’ house. “In the End” by Linkin Park was playing on the radio. Siena had a handful of girlfriends over, and she’d gotten the notion that playing Truth or Dare was a good idea. At thirteen, Dex had gone along with whatever his popular and beautiful sister had wanted him to. She was the orchestrator of their social lives. He hadn’t exactly been a cool teenager, with his nose constantly in a book or his hands on electronics. That had changed when testosterone filled his veins two years later, but at thirteen, even the idea of being close to a girl made him feel as though he might pass out. He’d retreated to his bedroom, and that had been the first night Ellie had appeared at his window.
“Hey, Dex.” Regina followed his gaze to Ellie’s table; her eyes moved over her fidgeting fingers and her bouncing leg. “Nervous Nelly?” she teased.
Dex rose to his feet. His stomach clenched.
“Dude, we’re supposed to have a meeting. There’s still more to talk about,” Mitch said.
Sage’s voice was serious. “Bro, you sure you wanna go there?”
With Sage’s warning, Dex’s pulse sped up. His mind jumped back again to the last time he’d seen her, four years earlier, when Ellie had called him out of the blue. She’d needed him. He’d thought the pieces of his life had finally fallen back into place. Ellie had come to New York, scared of what, he had no idea, and she’d stayed with him for two days and nights. Dex had fallen right back into the all-consuming, adoring, frustrating vortex that was Ellie Parker. “Yeah, I know. I gotta…”
See if that’s really her
“Dex?” Regina grabbed his arm.
He placed his hand gently over her spindly fingers and unfurled them from his wrist. He read the confusion in her narrowed eyes. Regina didn’t know about Ellie Parker.
No one knows about Ellie Parker
Except Sage. Sage knows
. He glanced over his shoulder at Sage, unable to wrap his mind around the right words.
“Holy hell,” Sage said. “I’ve gotta take off in a sec anyway. Go, man. Text me when you can.”
“What am I missing here?” Regina asked, looking between Sage and Dex.
Regina was protective of Dex in the same way that Siena always had been. They both worried he’d be taken advantage of. In the three years Dex had known Regina, he could count on one hand the number of times he’d approached a woman in front of her, rather than the other way around. It would take Dex two hands to count the number of times he’d been taken advantage of in the past few years, and Regina’s eyes mirrored that reality. Regina didn’t know it, but of all the women in the world, Ellie was probably the one he needed protection from the most.
He put his hand on her shoulder, feeling her sharp bones against his palm. There had been a time when Dex had wondered if Regina was a heavy drug user. Her lanky body reminded him of strung-out users, but Regina was skinny because she survived on beer, Twizzlers, and chocolate, with the occasional veggie burger thrown in for good measure.
“Yeah. I think I see an old friend. I’ll catch up with you guys later.” Dex lifted his gaze to Mitch. “Midnight?”
“Whatever, dude. Don’t let me cock block you.” Mitch laughed.
“She’s an old…not a…never mind.”
My onetime best friend?
As he crossed the floor, all the love he felt for her came rushing back. He stopped in the middle of the crowded floor and took a deep breath.
It’s really you
. In the next breath, his body remembered the heartbreak of the last time he’d seen her. The time he’d never forget. When he’d woken up four years ago and found her gone—no note, no explanation, and no contact since. Just like she’d done once before when they were kids. The sharp, painful memory pierced his swollen heart. He’d tried so hard to forget her, he’d even moved out of the apartment to distance himself from the memories. He should turn away, return to his friends. Ellie would only hurt him again. He was rooted to the floor, his heart tugging him forward, his mind holding him back.
A couple rose from the booth where Ellie sat, drawing his attention. He hadn’t even noticed them before. God, she looked beautiful. Her face had thinned. Her cheekbones were more pronounced, but her eyes hadn’t changed one bit. When they were younger, she’d fooled almost everyone with a brave face—but never Dex. Dex had seen right through to her heart. Like right now. She stared down at something in her hands with her eyebrows pinched together and her full lips set in a way that brought back memories, hovering somewhere between worried and trying to convince herself everything would be okay.
Her leg bounced nervously, and he stifled the urge to tell her that no matter what was wrong, it would all be okay. Dex ignored the warnings going off in his mind and followed his heart as he crossed the floor toward Ellie.
NO WAY. NO fucking way did Dina just leave me alone on my first night in the city.
Ellie stared at the table
. You know how to get to my apartment, right? Just give us an hour; that’s all I ask
, Dina had said before handing her an extra key
Great. Dina and a guy she’d known for less than an hour might or might not be having sex while she slept on the couch.
I just need to get through the interviews; that’s it. I can do this.
Her mind weaved through the tangled afternoon of rushing to Union Station, missing her train and having to wait for the next one. Spending three hours on the train practicing for her interviews before pulling into Penn Station, exhausted and late. She was contemplating ordering a drink—or five—when very definitely male fingers touched her table. Why did they look familiar?
Ellie sucked in a breath at the sound of his voice.
Oh, God. Dex
. Her gaze followed those familiar fingertips to the large hands that had kept her safe when she’d climbed into his window late at night. Her heart remembered, thundering in her chest as her eyes traveled up his sinewy, muscled arms, and she took in all six-foot-something of him, ending at his seductive, midnight-blue eyes. Jesus, they still slayed her.
“Dexy?” His name came out as one long breath. She needed to stand, to hug him, to say hello, but her body wouldn’t obey. She was frozen in the booth like a wallflower. Ellie was no wallflower, damn it. She closed her eyes for a beat and centered her mind.
It’s Dex. Just Dex.
The truth was, Dex had never been
. But she knew better than to get too attached to anyone. Even Dex.
. Self-preservation was a skill Ellie had honed at a young age.
Ellie didn’t have time or energy to dwell on the unkindness of her upbringing. She soaked up the good memories, and knowing she was always on the brink of chaos, she swept the bad memories under the carpet with mummified silence and pushed on. No matter how shitty the day appeared—and she’d seen her share of shittiness in her twenty-five years—nothing compared to moving from one foster family to the next, all the while praying her mother would finally find sobriety and do the right thing by her. But her mother had drunk herself to death when Ellie was eight, ending her internal longing for the mother she’d never have. Admitting to the awfulness of her upbringing would be like falling right back into that needy little girl, and she was never going back there.
Dex ran his hand through his dark hair. He still wore it long on top and a little shorter in the back. And damn if he didn’t have that sexy facial hair thing going on. The hair on his chin was lighter than the hair on top of his head—closer to the color of Ellie’s. Not quite black, not quite dark chocolate. His thick eyebrows and dark lashes still shadowed his eyes, giving him that serious brooding look that had always made her heart skip a beat.
God, you’re here. And you’re hot
No. I can’t go there. Shit.
“I can’t believe you’re here,” he said, sliding into the seat across from her. “It’s been—”
“Too long.” Ellie cleared her throat to strengthen her voice. She didn’t want to rehash the details of when she’d come to see him four years earlier. She’d fought the painful memories day in and day out, tried to forget the weekend ever happened—
Oh, how I tried to forget
. But she could no sooner forget a
with Dex, much less the best weekend of her life. She hadn’t even been brave enough to return the few messages he’d left, trying to figure out why she’d gone away. The thought of hearing the pain in his voice was too much. She’d had to leave. She’d had to separate herself from him. Dex was better off without her hanging around his neck like a needy, fucked-up noose.
She dropped her eyes to the table, barely able to breathe past the guilt of what she’d done. He was right there with her again. He was always there for her—and she was always soaking him in, taking the comfort he had to give.
And breaking his beautiful heart
. She kept her eyes trained on the table to keep from…what? Begging for forgiveness? Crawling into his arms and telling him how much she loved him? How he’d scared the living shit out of her four years earlier when he’d professed his love for her?
. There was nothing she could say to fix what she’d done, and she was in no position to make up excuses or promise a damned thing, which was why she hadn’t had the courage to call him when she’d decided to return to New York. She’d worried that he wouldn’t want to see her again after the way she’d left the last time. The way she’d always left, without so much as a goodbye.