Authors: Melissa Foster
Regina checked her watch. “I gotta run.”
“Thanks for the pancakes, Regina.”
“My pleasure.” She started for the door, then turned back to Ellie. “I’m glad you’re here. Dex seemed happy to see you.”
When the apartment door closed behind Regina, Ellie let out a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding.
Fate. Fate? Could running into Dex be fate?
Ellie’s phone vibrated, and she pulled it from her pocket.
Meeting till 10. Will u be up after?
. Ellie closed her eyes, thinking about what Regina had said. The last few weeks had been stressful. From the minute she’d found out about Bruce’s marriage, she’d been on edge, and not just because he’d slammed her into a wall. She’d blamed herself. There had to be something wrong with her to not have known he was married. The clues were right there in front of her. He “traveled” all the time. He hardly ever spent the night, and if she called him in the evenings, he almost always said he was somewhere he couldn’t talk. But for the first time in forever, Ellie had opened her heart to a man. Only she hadn’t really opened it at all, had she? She’d opened her legs, but the minute she was back in Dex’s arms, she realized there was a huge difference between opening her heart and allowing herself to be physically close with a man.
She had no job, no money, and no plan. And for the first time in her entire life, she wasn’t scared to death about any of it. She walked down the hall to Dex’s bedroom and picked up the photograph of the two of them. They’d been so young, so vulnerable, and yet neither had taken advantage of the other’s friendship. Ellie pressed the photo to her chest, and she knew the fear that usually lingered in the back of her mind had not appeared because she was right where she belonged. A chill ran down her spine. Not a good chill but a
chill. No one in her life had ever stuck around. Her mother couldn’t stay sober enough to take care of her—or even to stay alive. She had never known her father, and every foster family she’d ever been with hadn’t wanted to keep her. No one stuck by her.
Ellie had boxed off her heart with barbed wire, and it had served her well—until Bruce. Fucking Bruce. She would not let one asshole define who she was. If she’d done that, she’d have lost hope years ago. Hell, she’d have given up. No. She’d made it this far, and she was going to have a happy life—even if it killed her.
She closed her eyes and breathed in deeply, then blew it out slowly.
She texted Dex with trembling fingers.
But maybe, just maybe, she had the indefinable, unfathomable
on her side. Dare she let herself believe? Her legs told her to take off. Suddenly, she was fifteen years old again, lying beside Dex in his bed.
Don’t leave without saying goodbye.
He’d made her promise. But when he’d come to her house, she’d told her foster family to say she was already gone. She’d watched him out the window. His jaw, too young for whiskers or stubble, was not too young to tremble. His soulful eyes filled with so much pain it killed her to watch. She’d had to turn away, and when she’d found the strength to turn back, he had already gone. She remembered thinking that if she didn’t say goodbye, it wouldn’t hurt. She’d never been more wrong in her life. And when she’d returned four years ago, she’d forgotten that pain, and she’d done it again.
Her phone vibrated again. She read Dex’s message.
Please don’t run. Xox.
THRIVE WAS BUZZING with the news of their release date remaining firm and Dex not backing down to KI’s manipulations. The more Dex thought about their release date, the more he believed they were doing the right thing. Dex had never given in to peer pressure. Not in high school when the rest of the kids on his robotics club team had wanted to amp up their robot with materials not included in the approved list and not when he was developing his first PC game in high school. Even Siena had tried pressuring him into being a cooler teenager. And then there was Ellie, with her quiet support, her caring nature, and her belief that every moment counted. She wasn’t like any of the other girls he knew in school. Ellie didn’t push him to go to parties or dress a certain way. She didn’t care that he chose not to play football like his older brothers had or that he never had much to say. Hell, she never asked him for a damn thing. Except once, when she’d asked him to love her forever—and he’d been all too happy to hand over his heart. Which she’d carelessly shattered.
Thinking about Ellie brought conflicting feelings. He was falling for her all over again, and the same old fears prickled his nerves. Would she really be there when he got home tonight? Was he acting like a fool, setting himself up for heartbreak again? Intellectually, he knew he should have learned from experience where Ellie was concerned and treaded carefully. Dex wasn’t stupid, at least not academically, but matters of the heart were a whole different game. He’d left pieces of his heart on the lawn of her foster family’s house. Crumbles of it formed a path from that house to his, and at the time, he hadn’t known how to respawn. If only it were a game and he’d have had a save point in place to which he could retreat—erasing the nights he’d spent with her, the love that had grown toward her. But life didn’t come with save points, and his father would allow him no time to dwell on anything—good or bad.
You’re either all in or all out
, his father had told him. He’d looked at Dex with that harsh stare of his, dark eyes piercing his already broken heart, and said,
You’re better than that, son. You’re a man. Suck it up and move on.
He’d sucked it up, but he’d never really moved on.
“I like Ellie.” Everyone had left the meeting except for Regina and Mitch. Regina stood beside Dex as he logged off of his computer.
“Yeah?” He waited for the
. Dex hadn’t dated much in recent years, or introduced many women to Regina, but the few times he had, Regina had nitpicked them until he lost interest. She’d been right each time. She had a sense about those things.
He lifted his eyes from the computer screen and put his hand on top of hers. “But?”
Regina turned and faced him, then pushed herself onto the worktable and swung her black Converse, leaning back on her palms. Her eyes roved over his face.
Dex waited for the
She’s too weird. She’s moody. She’s too something
. He could come up with a litany of things Ellie was
of. Stubborn would top that list, followed by complicated and moody. But all of it made her the beautiful, frustrating package that she was.
“No buts.” She narrowed her eyes. “Do you need there to be a
There it was. Her need to protect him.
“I don’t think so. It’s complicated.” Complicated didn’t begin to scratch the surface. “We’re not really like that, Regina. We’re friends.” Even after how much she’d hurt him in the past, he still wanted more with Ellie. But no matter how much he wanted there to be more, Ellie still had her guard up. And it was probably a good thing, because Dex’s ability to safeguard his heart against his love for her was quickly becoming nonexistent.
She slid back onto the floor and touched his arm again—a habit she’d begun when he used to stare at the computer screen and “Uh-huh” her, only half listening to whatever she said. Now he looked up at her raccoon eyes. Regina was a runner, just like Ellie. He’d always known she was, but she didn’t physically run. She hid behind her tattoos and makeup. Maybe that was what had endeared her to him. In many ways, she was a lot like Ellie.
“Sometimes friends make the best lovers,” she said and headed for the door.
“It’s not like that,” Dex hollered after her.
“Maybe it should be,” Mitch added.
He’d forgotten Mitch was even in the room. He looked around his monitor and met Mitch’s gaze. He sat with his feet up on the table, his hands clasped behind his head.
“Listen to Mr. I Will Never Date over there,” Dex teased.
“I’ll date. You find me a woman who understands my working until four in the morning, getting up at noon, living and breathing Metacritic, and having nightmares about glitches and missed release dates.” He scratched his scruffy neck.
“Maybe if you shaved once in a while, you’d find someone who would put up with the rest of you.” Dex pushed to his feet and watched his friend turn his attention back to his keyboard. “Why don’t you go home? We’re no longer a three-person team, Mitch. It’s okay to take a night off. The testing team has this under control.”
“Nah. Not now, but soon. I wanna check out the forums and see what the fans are saying.” He typed something, then sat back with a
! “Rock it out, Thrive! We can’t wait.” He scrolled down. “Hurry up!” He clicked on something else. “
World of Thieves II
is gonna blow away KI’s game.”
“See?” Dex breathed a sigh of relief. “Suit yourself, Mitch. Lock up?”
“Yeah, yeah.” He waved him off. “Give Ellie a kiss for me.”
Dex glared at him.
“What?” Mitch threw his hands up in the air. “She’s hot. If you won’t kiss her for you, I figured you might for me.”
“G’night, Mitch.” Dex played it cool, sauntering out of the office at his typical relaxed pace, while his insides were churning a mile a minute. He’d thought about Ellie all day. When she’d shown up at his apartment the night before, he’d wanted to take her in his arms and never let her go. He wanted to kiss away the pain and fear he’d seen in her eyes. But one wrong move and she’d be gone. He hadn’t been able to keep his distance. He’d fallen back into the guy he’d been the last time she’d seen him. The guy who adored her too much to let her suffer alone. The guy who wanted nothing more than for her to be in his arms, placing no demands upon her, and allowing himself to open his heart, regardless of what she might do to it. But he wasn’t a kid anymore, and she was no longer a lost girl. She was confused, and she was going through a hard time, but she was a woman, not a girl. And the feelings he’d been repressing for so long were pushing his friendly facade to the side and quickly moving to something much bigger. Hotter. He had to be careful or he’d get burned.
On his way out of the office, his phone vibrated with a text from Sage.
Hey, bro. You okay? How’d it go with Ellie?
Sage had been the only person Dex had told about the time they’d spent together as teenagers. He’d had to tell someone, and Sage wasn’t the kind of brother who would give him shit or tell him to get over her. Sage was thoughtful and empathetic. He’d listened to Dex tell him what he missed about her, what he loved about her, and what he found more frustrating than an interminable glitch in one of his projects. Sage had always been wise beyond his years, which was why Dex had turned to him when Ellie had shown up four years ago. Sage had been there to help him pick up the pieces of his heart again, but Dex had never quite recovered from the desolation she’d left in her wake.
What the hell am I thinking?
He looked at his cell phone and hadn’t a clue what to say. He went with the safe route of tucking away his feelings and sticking to the facts as he texted Sage.
I’m cool. She’s staying with me right now. Don’t ask. No clue where anything is going.
He didn’t even know how to text about Ellie without showing his emotions. Sage’s response made that loud and clear.
Dangerous territory. I’m here if u need to talk.
He texted quickly.
Dex headed back to his apartment with his shoulders hunched forward to ward off the evening chill, wondering if they’d ever had a chance at something more. Had the hurt through the years stolen any chance of a future together? Could they find their way through the missing years and navigate the circuits of change that had taken place and finally uncover their grown-up selves? And if they made it that far, would they forge a new path together, or would it all be too much?
It’s Ellie. It’s definitely too much
ELLIE PACED DEX’S apartment. She’d never been so nervous in all her life, and certainly not nervous about seeing Dex. She must be overtired. The toll of the trip, a night without sleep, and the uncomfortable interview all coming down on her at once. She’d showered in Dex’s bathroom and spent fifteen minutes with the smell of his soap soaking into her skin and permeating her senses. She felt a little naughty relishing in thoughts of him.
She’d never felt naughty in her life. She didn’t even know where that feeling came from. And when she put the feeling of
beside an image of Dex in her mind, it was new. Different. And a little scary. She’d changed her clothes twice—which was two more times than she ever had in preparation for a date with Bruce—finally deciding on her fallback outfit, jeans and a black V-neck T-shirt. Boring? Maybe. Safe and comfortable? Definitely. Now her chest constricted and her nerves twinged. She opened the door to the apartment and went into the hall. She needed air. Something. Anything to escape the feeling of being trapped.
This is stupid. Trapped by Dex?
She pushed the elevator button. Maybe a quick stroll down the block would ease her nerves. The elevator doors opened, and Dex took a step out, wearing faded jeans and a snug T-shirt beneath an open long-sleeved button-down shirt. Jesus, he was handsome. She looked down at her own clothes and thought about how alike they were—except Dex would never have hurt her the way she’d hurt him. Ever.
His smile faded too quickly. “Are you leaving?”
He looked at the apartment door, then back at Ellie. “Come on.” He motioned her into the elevator.
They rode down to the lobby in silence and then headed out onto the street.
“Where are we going?” Ellie asked, keeping up with Dex’s quick pace.
“You had that look.”
She didn’t need to see his face to know he was serious, and she didn’t need to think about what he meant. Dex knew. He always knew. She pondered how to reply, and before she could conjure up a suitable response, he broke the silence.