Authors: Roni Loren
Tags: #Contemporary, #Romance, #Anthologies
Meanwhile, Caleb is doing an excellent impression of a fish, his mouth opening and closing but no sound coming out—the yuppie guppy. Finally, he seems to come back into himself. “You wanted to make me mad, fine. Mission accomplished. Now let’s go home.”
“I’m going home with him, not you,” Natalie says.
“For what? To prove some stupid point?”
“I don’t need to go home with him to prove a point. Apparently, I’ve been missing out on the benefits of our
relationship,” she says, her tone as sweet as Karo syrup. “I guess it’s happy birthday to me after all. Good-bye, Caleb.”
The staff has come up to intercept the disturbance, but Natalie’s already pulling me with her and striding for the stairs. Wide eyes follow our progress, but she doesn’t stop until we’re back on the sidewalk in front of my bike. Her proud shoulders sag instantly, and all the breath seems to wheeze out of her.
She puts her hands to her face. “Oh my God. I can’t believe I just did that. I am
I grin. “Well, I’m sure as hell not. Holy shit, woman.”
She peers up at me, wary. “Don’t get any ideas.”
“Oh, too late, princess. I’ve got ideas.
of ideas. You don’t kiss a guy like that and expect him to forget it.”
“It was an act.” But her gaze flicks away and her cheeks go pink.
I lean against my bike. “It was hot as fuck. You can’t fake that.”
“I’m not sleeping with you.”
Ha. She wasn’t denying the hot as fuck part. “All right, how ’bout I make you a deal? I won’t sleep with you unless you ask me to.”
She snorts. “Would you like a sidecar for that ego of yours?”
“Come on, seriously. Putting aside the question of whether you’ll be able to resist my infinite charm or not, no one should spend her twenty-first birthday alone, especially after that spectacular throwdown upstairs. It’s time to celebrate.”
“No, it’s time to get a pint of ice cream and do an ugly cry. Because I guarantee you, as soon as this adrenaline wears off, it’s not gonna be pretty. You need to get out while the gettin’s good because it’s gonna be all snot and chick flicks in an hour.”
“No fucking way. This is not a tragedy. You just got rid of a dickbag boyfriend and a skank of a roommate. You, princess, are a free woman and the town is yours tonight. Plus, you told them you weren’t going home. You can’t lose that poker hand.”
She groans. “I had to add that part, didn’t I? God, I just want to curl up in bed.”
“No bed to go to except mine.”
“Always.” I grab the helmet and put it in her hands. “But there’s another option besides finding a place to crash.”
She shoots me a suspicious look, but I can tell she’s working hard to keep it together. The girl has had the shit day of all shit days. And the minute she slows down, it’s going to take her down hard. So I know what my job needs to be.
“The other option is you don’t go to sleep at all.” I pull my phone from my pocket and show her the time. “It’s almost nine. Sun’ll be up in about ten hours.”
“Ten?” She cringes. “That seems like forever.”
“If you’re going to mope around, yes. But you know what they say about time flying. All we need to do is find something fun to do each hour. Then you can walk into your place looking like the badass wild girl you want them to think you are.”
She gives me a skeptical lift of her brow. “You want to spend the next ten hours with me? We don’t even like each other.”
Wrong. “I’m liking you better all the time, princess. Come on. Get on the bike. Hour one, I’ll take you to my favorite bar, and you can tell ’em it’s your twenty-first. Everyone will buy you a drink.”
“I don’t want a drink.”
“What about cake?”
“Cake?” She perks up a little. “What kind of cake?”
cake.” I straddle the bike and pat the spot behind me. “Let’s ride, birthday girl. I want to get out of here before the cops arrive to charge you with death of a handbag and ball bashing.”
“No promises that I’m done with the ball bashing.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
She sighs, but I can tell I’ve won. Cake was the clincher. She eyes me for a moment longer then relents. “Fine.”
But before she can get on the bike, I take her hand and drag her close. Her leg brushes my thigh. She stiffens, almost as if bracing for another kiss—one I probably could take, based on the way she’s looking at me. But instead, I put my mouth close to her ear and whisper, “And don’t close your eyes this time. You’re missing all the good stuff.”
I manage to keep my eyes open for most of the ride since Monroe chooses side roads instead of getting back onto the interstate. I still hold on to him like my life depends on it—and I guess it does—but this time it’s less from fear of falling off and more about the fact that everything in my life feels like it’s crumbling around me, and holding on to something solid grounds me.
I can’t really process what’s happened. Every time I picture the cozy scene between Caleb and Rebecca, the anger rushes through me all over again, drowning me in rage. I’m sure I looked like a lunatic, kneeing Caleb, ruining Rebecca’s precious purse. Hello, Jerry Springer moment. But it was like all the little annoyances I’d tucked away throughout my relationship with Caleb had gathered together in a ball of crazy and exploded all at once.
It makes me sick to think I reacted like that. That’s my mother’s style—freaking out, making a spectacle. And she at least has the excuse of being drunk or blitzed on her pills when she has her outbursts. I acted like a psycho while stone-cold sober.
And the worst part is that it had felt so damn good to go off. Like my screwed-up genes had simply been waiting for me to go into drama-queen mode.
But regardless of how I must’ve looked, the whole thing might’ve been worth it just to see Caleb’s face after I kissed Monroe. I’d shocked him. And my boyfriend didn’t ruffle easily.
. I hope he’s still sitting at that table
reserved, completely distracted because he’s picturing what I’m doing with Monroe right now.
Because I know I planted that seed in his brain and then dumped fertilizer on it with my little show. The kiss hadn’t been sweet; it had bordered on obscene. It was definitely
how I usually kiss Caleb, and he knew it.
It had been a kiss that made me want things I shouldn’t, and I have a feeling my response hadn’t been a secret to any onlookers. Monroe had taken control halfway through the kiss, and in that moment, I’d sort of forgotten I was doing it for show. I’d lost myself. If he would’ve turned and pushed me against the nearby wall to keep things going, I probably would’ve let him.
So as we cruise along the roads of downtown Austin now, my mind replaying that kiss over and over again, the idea of a one-night stand is gaining some appeal. I’ve never had one of those. White trash girls get white trash reputations without even having to do the crime. In eighth grade, I wore red lipstick to school one day and had gotten called a whore for it. So after getting the hell out of my nowhere Oklahoma town for college, I’d honed my image and my behavior so that no one could ever make those kinds of assumptions about me again.
But I’m almost out of college now, a grown woman. And I like sex, dammit. Shouldn’t I be able to have it with who I want, when I want, even if it isn’t with someone I plan to have a long-term relationship with? The answer is obviously yes. And Monroe would probably be the perfect candidate. He’s made it clear that he’ll scratch that bad-boy itch if I have one. And he sure as hell won’t be the type trying to send me flowers tomorrow.
Hot sex with a stranger. It would be so very un-me. Which is exactly what I need right now. I want to leave that girl who has a cheating boyfriend, a conniving roommate, and broken-down car behind at the curb outside that restaurant. I’ll deal with her tomorrow.
But even with all that, I know I’m not going to sleep with Monroe.
Because there’s one line I can’t talk myself into crossing. If I ever have a one-night stand, I want it to be about me and the guy. Not because I’m trying to prove a point or get revenge or soothe my wounded pride. No one deserves to be used like that, even if he’s a willing victim.
So I’ll go have cake with Monroe, thank him for trying to cheer me up, and then I’ll suck up my pride and go home. Let Rebecca have her laugh at my expense. I’ll survive. I’ve dealt with meaner girls than her.
The bike slows as we cruise down a road lined with eclectic shops and a few bars—South Congress, I realize. Or SoCo, as most people refer to it around here. This is the part of town where the city keeps its
Keep Austin Weird
motto going strong. Caleb has always hated it, declaring that this was Texas, not California. But there’s one breakfast place a few streets over that he likes enough to brave the “hippy and hipster” zone on occasion.
Monroe parks in a lot between buildings and helps me off the bike. Before I can ask where we’re going, he clasps my hand and guides me around a building and toward another parking lot. This one has lights strung everywhere and colorful picnic benches half packed with people. Food trucks line the edges of the lot, and a guy with a guitar is playing in the front corner.
My stomach growls at the combination of smells drifting from the lot—funnel cake, tacos, bacon. All the happy food groups. “I think my stomach just realized I never fed it dinner.”
“You and me both. Some high-maintenance chick kept me late at work and made me skip dinner.” I poke him in his side and he laughs. “Come on, let’s not live by cake alone. That bright orange truck over there has these Korean pork sandwiches that are so addictive I’m convinced they’re laced with crack. And we’ll need to grab a fish taco from Bueno’s. And then I know the girl who owns Sweet Revenge, the silver one over there. She will give us the cake hookup.”
His enthusiasm is so open it almost looks out of place on him—biker dude getting excited about cake. But I find myself smiling back. “A closet foodie?”
“Closet culinary student.”
My brows lift. “I never would’ve guessed.”
“That’s because you’re wildly judgmental and put me in the box of former convict or potential meth dealer the minute you saw me.”
“Riiight, says he who has called me sorority girl and princess nonstop.”
“Fine. Are you or have you ever been in a sorority?”
My lips press together. I don’t want to answer, but I know he’s not going to let me off the hook. “It was only freshman year—”
“Ha!” he says, and tugs me further into the lot.
“But I’m no princess. No fairy godmother ever saved me from anything, there’s no inheritance waiting, and my prince just ditched me for a girl who thinks keeping up with the Kardashians is a solid life goal.”
He slows down at that and I bump into him. The humor in his expression softens into something more serious. “That asshole was not a prince. He’s a punk. The way he talked to you . . . like he wanted to
you. Like you were a task on his Day Planner to handle. Fuck that. I’ve known you for three hours and know better than to try that shit with you. You’d castrate me.”
I blink, a little stunned at his spot-on assessment of how Caleb talks to me. I’ve never put it in those terms, but
is the exact right word. And I’d let him. Maybe part of me had felt like I needed to be managed, like he’d lead me to some holy grail of fitting in with the “right” people.
“That dude was more concerned about what a dining room of strangers was thinking than he was about what you were feeling. If he really cared about you, he should’ve gotten on his knees and begged you to forgive him for being such a dick. But no, he tried to make you feel stupid and put you down instead. Your fairy godmother did show up tonight—with blonde hair, a fake tan, and a designer bag. She saved you from continuing that bullshit. You deserve better than being some guy’s Stepford girlfriend. Let Blondie take on that job.”
I can feel my eyes filling up, my emotions, which are already running high, trying to spill over because now I’m embarrassed. “You must think I’m an idiot.”
His brows scrunch. “What? How did you get that out of what I just said?”
“He’s a jerk, but I was stupid enough to stay with him.”
Monroe groans and releases my hand. “Stay right here.”
“Where are you going?”
He doesn’t answer me. Instead, he heads toward the guy who’s been playing guitar.
I panic, frozen for a moment, and then hurry after him. But my heels slow me down and by the time I get there, he’s already talking to the man and taking the microphone from him.
What the hell?
Monroe plants his Chuck Taylor on a nearby bench and propels himself up and onto the picnic table.
I’m at the edge of the table now, ready to pull him down by the pant leg if necessary, but everyone is turning our way. “What are you
He smiles down at me but doesn’t answer, just gives me the
motion with his finger. He looks out at the crowd again. “Listen up, today is my friend Natalie’s twenty-first birthday.”
“Oh my God.” Where’s a shovel so I can dig a hole in the dirt and crawl in? I try to scoot into the shadows.
“No one has sung to her yet. She’s had no cake. And worse, no alcohol. In fact, so far today she’s survived being broken down on the side of the road in the heat, has caught her boyfriend cheating and knocked that boyfriend’s nuts into his throat in public, and turned the purse of the chick he was with into a designer punch bowl.”
Eyes swivel toward me. I want to die. But someone claps, and there’s a
You go, girl
from an elderly lady at a nearby table. That makes me smile.
“And yet she still looks this hot after all that,” Monroe declares.
A wolf whistle comes from someone on the far side of the lot. I laugh and put my hand over my face.
“So”—Monroe raises his hand in a mock toast despite having no drink—“happy birthday to Natalie, one badass bitch!”
The crowd toasts back and then the guy with the guitar starts a rendition of
. A chorus of diners serenades me.
Monroe hops down from the table, singing along with them and grinning. “Happy birthday to you, happy birthday dear Nat-a-lie . . .” He leans over. “So, in answer to your question, no, I don’t think you’re an idiot.”
My hands go to my hips, and I give him my are-you-out-of-your-mind face. But I can’t help the swell of emotion that comes from the simple act of being sung to by a large group of people. There’s some weird power in that. I never really had birthday parties—even as a kid. Mom wasn’t organized enough to put something together. So I’d get a few presents and a trip to McDonald’s with my cousins. This is so much better.
I close my eyes. Because I will not cry, dammit. “If you think this is going to get me to kiss you again, prepare to be disappointed.”
“As if I would have ulterior motives,” he says, and I open my eyes to find him watching me with an amused expression.
And son of a bitch, I
want to kiss him. Because he looks so damn good standing there. Because unlike Caleb, he isn’t afraid to look silly in front of other people. Because he called me a badass and meant it.
I make a sound of frustration. “I’m still not sleeping with you.”
I step into his space, and I’m not sure who kisses who first. All I know is that before the birthday song ends, his hand is in my hair and his lips are on mine and my body is melting against his.
My lips part and his tongue is stroking mine, devouring any remaining resistance. Hungry sounds escape me, and my fingers seek something to hold on to, eventually knotting in his T-shirt. There’s a frantic edge to both our movements, like we don’t know which way to go next, like we want to do everything all at once. We’re going to bump noses; I know it. But somehow we work it all out. His hands slide to my waist, and I’m pushing onto my toes. My arms loop around his neck, and we’re kissing, kissing, kissing.
Somewhere in the background people are clapping and catcalling. And finally my mind registers where we are. There are people. We’re being watched. I break away with a panting breath. My cheeks are on fire, and I press my face into his shoulder. “Oh my God.”
Monroe seems a little blitzed for a moment, too, but takes a breath and seems to come back to himself. He releases his tight hold on me and keeps his back to the crowd. “Uh, yeah. That wasn’t exactly my plan. Should we take a bow?”
“I think we’ve done enough.”
“You’d better be talking sandwiches.”
He laughs and loops his arm over my shoulder. “Come on, birthday girl.” He gives a wave to the crowd. “Show’s over, people.”
There are a few boos.
Half an hour later, my cheeks have finally cooled, and I’m happily finishing off the last bits of a taco. “You were right. This is freaking delicious.”
“Right? Who needs Madrid when you can get this wrapped in greasy paper?”
“And now for the finale. Cake!”
“You rang?” A girl with spiky, bright orange hair and possibly more tattoos than Monroe stops at our table. She sets down two cupcakes in front of us. They’re as big as softballs and smell like baked heaven.
“Wow,” I murmur.
She nods as if to say,
Yes, I know they’re beyond fabulous.
She pushes one toward Monroe. “Blue Velvet for you because it’s new, and I need your honest opinion. Cory says people are naturally freaked out by blue foods, but I think he’s making shit up just so we put his newest creation on the menu instead of mine. It may stain your teeth blue for a while, by the way, but I think it’s worth it.”
Monroe eyes the bright blue cupcake with the fluffy cream-colored frosting. From the looks of it, he may be one of those people freaked out by blue foods.
The girl sticks a candle in the other cupcake. This one has deep red frosting. “And Blood and Chocolate for your girl because getting cheated on requires chocolate.” I must look worried because she adds, “Don’t worry, no real blood. It’s a dark chocolate cupcake with Blood Orange Buttercream frosting.”
“Right. Got it. Thanks.”
“Tyra and her brother like naming their baked goods after movies. Preferably horror films,” Monroe says, swiping his finger through the frosting on his cupcake and taking a lick. His eyebrows lift. “Damn, that’s good.”
“Right?” She seems pleased and adjusts the candle in my cupcake. “I want to bathe in that frosting.”
“Well, I’m not sure I’d go that far,” he says, but he’s taking another swipe.