“Do you know what I mean?” Tessa pauses in her dramatic monologue, but not long enough for me to actually answer.
Which is good, because the honest answer is, I have no idea what she means. For as much time as I’ve spent with the woman seated at the bar beside me, I’m starting to realize how little we actually have in common.
“You look so glum, Wolfie,” she says, teasingly squeezing my knee beneath the bar top. “But I guess all the girls like that kind of thing, don’t they?”
“Sure.” I nod, not bothering to correct her.
On the outside, I’m the poster boy for an in-demand bachelor. I’m young—relatively at least, at twenty-nine—and single, aside from the occasional hookup with Tessa when I’ve had too much to drink. I run a successful business with my friends called Frisky Business that’s put a couple million dollars in my bank account over the last few years.
But the reasons I can barely manage a smile at a pretty girl who wants to fuck me? Well, those are complex.
My friends-with-benefits arrangement with Tessa works because she doesn’t ask much of me, doesn’t demand answers about why I’m so broken. She only knows the vaguest of details because I’ve not been willing to share any more than that, but now she’s looking at me with a sympathetic expression that puts me on edge.
I don’t bother returning her smile, even as she pats my thigh and calls me a grump, laughing at her own joke. Although, is it even a joke if it’s true?
I toss a few bills on the counter, enough to cover her glass of wine and my bourbon, and rise from the stool I’ve been occupying at the bar.
“You want to get out of here?” Tessa says cheerfully.
“I think I’m going to head home, Tess.”
With a silent glare, she stands and gathers her purse.
Shit. That went well.
I escort her to the door, tipping my chin at the bartender when we pass him. Outside, Tessa lingers, shifting her weight as she turns to face me.
“Wolfie.” She touches my stubbled cheek in a way that’s meant to be sweet, but feels patronizing. “I worry about you, you know. You can’t let your past define you. None of that was your . . .”
I hold up one hand, stopping her.
Giving me a serious look, she lowers her voice as she leans in closer. “Well . . . if you change your mind—”
I take a step back. “I won’t, Tess. Not tonight. I’m tired.”
It’s not a lie. I am tired. Tired of keeping up this charade. Of pretending everything’s fine. Of putting on a mask every single time I leave the house.
With one last sad smile, she turns and leaves. I watch as she climbs into her car and drives out of view.
The disappointed look on her face should have bothered me. But tonight’s encounter was a variation of a conversation we’ve had half a dozen times lately. She wants more than I can give. She wants normal. A guy who can deliver the wild sex she likes in the bedroom, and who can hold it all together and at least pretend to be okay.
With a stony expression, I head toward my SUV.
I should feel upset. But I’ve been feeling for months that what Tessa and I have has run its course. As much as I like things staying the same, they’ve started to change. I guess I’m a creature of habit, what can I say? And the tighter she tries to hold on to me, the farther away I want to get.
Maybe all the change I’ve been through this year has unsettled me. Who knows? One of my best friends, Hayes, has settled down—with my sister, Maren, of all people. I spent this winter feeling lonely, alternating between hitting the gym and working too much.
My friends and I created an ecofriendly couple-and female-focused line of sex toys. A big-name celebrity posted about one organically on her blog, and then bam. Next thing we knew, we were flooded with orders.
Our website crashed twice that first day. We sold out of everything until we could ramp up production, and then because of the attention, media outlets started featuring us. It was quite a story . . . five male friends who wanted to make a difference in the bedroom versus the boardroom. I became a millionaire within ten months. We all did. It’s been a crazy ride.
Which means I should be happy, on top of the world. I have a successful company with my friends. I have financial freedom and more money than I know what to do with. But for some strange reason, it all feels empty. Like I missed my calling, but I’m in too deep now to turn around and do something about it.
Back at my apartment, I’m surprised to hear voices coming from the living room. It’s nearly midnight, and I didn’t think my roommate had any plans to entertain tonight. But when I round the corner and see Connor sitting on the couch with his sister, Penelope, my chest tightens.
I’ve only seen Penelope a couple of times since last spring. Once when we went to the lake house, and another time when we all went out to celebrate her graduating from college. I drank too much that night and went off on some embarrassing tangent—all but cornering her at the restaurant—telling her what a good girl she was, that she shouldn’t settle, that she had the potential to be anything she wanted to be. And I’m sure a whole bunch of other bullshit that didn’t need to be said. Penelope is smart as a whip—brilliant, really. And she certainly doesn’t need a drunk idiot, a.k.a. me, mansplaining anything to her.
“Hey, you’re back,” Connor says.
I tip my chin in their direction. “I am. Hey, Penelope.”
“Hi, Wolfie.” She treats me to a warm smile that I’m sure I don’t deserve, and my body responds by heating up a few degrees.
“Join us. Grab a beer.” Connor’s easy smile is hard to say no to, but that’s exactly what I do.
I shake my head. “It’s late. I think I’m just going to call it a night.”
This gets a laugh out of Connor. “Come on, man. One beer. Penelope came over to visit.” He runs a hand through his already messy hair.
I doubt she came to visit me, but I don’t argue with him. It’ll only raise questions I don’t want to answer. Penelope and I have never really been friendly—mostly because I find any excuse in the world to not be in the same room as her.
After trudging to the fridge and helping myself to a bottle of beer, I join them in the living room, taking a seat on the chair across the room. I can manage sitting here for a few minutes.
“How’s the new job going?” I ask Penelope.
She smiles and curls one leg beneath her on the sofa. “I’m loving the job. It’s the people that have been a challenge.”
“What’s going on?” Connor asks.
Her smile fades and she gives her head a shake. “Well, you know how I was hired as part of that management training program?”
I’m not familiar with the details, only that she had multiple job offers after graduating from college and that Connor is proud of her. Based on what I know about how they grew up, things have never been easy for them. Nothing was handed to them, and Penelope’s never been afraid of hard work. Connor has protected her every way he can, but I know it must be a relief to see her stand on her own two feet and know she can take care of herself.
“I’ve worked my ass off these past few months, and now I’m this close,” she pinches her fingers together, “to a promotion. But I have a bad feeling it’s going to go to the owner’s entitled nephew.”
“That’s not fair.” Connor leans forward and sets his beer on the coffee table.
“Believe me. I know.” Her normally even voice wavers a bit, and I meet her eyes.
They’re the same color as Connor’s—a light turquoise color between blue and green. But that’s where their similarities end. Penelope’s hair is a few shades lighter than her older brother’s dark blond, and she got practically none of the height he did. She’s only a couple of inches over five feet. And curled into herself on the sofa, she looks even smaller. Delicate somehow.
Penelope breaks the spell, glancing down at her hands in her lap. “Anyway, none of that matters because next weekend I’m going to look like an idiot, and then the promotion will probably be handed to Spencer by default.”
“Spencer?” Connor chokes on a laugh. “What a douchey name.”
Penelope rolls her eyes. “Like I said, it’s not going to matter.”
“What’s next weekend?” I ask.
“The annual company outing. It’s going to be a big bro-fest, I just know it. Everyone is bringing a plus-one except for me, and—”
“I’ll go with you,” Connor says.
Penelope laughs, shaking her head. “Yeah? No. The only thing more pathetic than going alone is bringing your older brother. God, Connor. Honestly.”
Connor crosses his bulky forearms over his chest and leans back. “Fine. Then Wolfie will take you.”
What. The. Fuck.
I expect the look on Penelope’s face to be akin to when someone suggests your cousin take you to the prom. Instead, her cheeks flush and she looks at me with a curious expression, almost like she’s trying the idea on for size.
God, just to be the focus of her attention is dizzying.
She’s gorgeous with her wide blue-green eyes, arched eyebrows, and long honey-colored hair. I shouldn’t notice things like that about her, but of course, I do. My roommate’s sister or not, she’s a beautiful woman.
This only illustrates what an absolute mess I am. The fact that my regular hookup rubbing her tits up against me doesn’t give me so much as a twitch in my pants, but looking at Penelope, who’s in leggings and an oversized T-shirt, makes my body light up like I’ve just bitten into a ghost pepper.
Not cool, man. Clearly, I’m broken.
The silence stretches on for a moment longer as both Connor and Penelope stare at me. My inner oh shit meter dings wildly like a winning slot machine in Vegas.
My heart thumps hard, and my voice has fucking vanished. Say something, dude.
“I’ll do it,” I finally mutter.
My roommate rises briefly from his spot on the couch to give me an appreciative thump on the shoulder. “Thanks, Wolfie. I’ll owe you one.”
I nod and meet Penelope’s eyes. They’re shimmering with something I can’t quite decipher.
For a minute, I think I’ve done the wrong thing by offering to escort her. I know nothing about the event, after all. But then Penelope’s full, pink mouth breaks into a happy smile.
“It’s a date,” she murmurs, still grinning at me with those mesmerizing eyes locked onto mine.
My stomach flips. “Uh, yeah. Sounds good.”
Fuck. What did I just agree to?
But the chance to see Penelope smile again? It’s a no-brainer, even if it costs me my sanity.
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