“A beer for this guy.” I motion to the bartender to bring another for my miserable-looking buddy. Jack and I have been friends for fifteen years, and I’ve never seen him this torn up over a girl. Ever. Heartbreak isn’t a good look on a man. That’s an undeniable truth.
A bottle of beer appears a few moments later, and I push it closer to him. “Drink up.”
“Thanks, man,” Jack says, taking a long swig.
It isn’t often that I volunteer to be the designated driver, but when I got the call from Jack this afternoon that his long-term girlfriend broke up with him over text, I knew he’d be drinking a bit heavier than our usual one or two reserved for Friday nights. We can’t drink the way we used to in college without calling most of Saturday a complete wash.
But tonight is different. He deserves to work out his problems with his drink of choice without worrying about getting home to our apartment safely, so I told him I’d stick to water for the evening.
“All I’m saying is she could have had the decency to say it to my face,” Jack says, wiping the beer foam off his lips with the side of his hand. “What kind of person ends a year-long relationship over text message?”
“The kind of person who doesn’t deserve you,” I say, gesturing to the bartender for another cold one. He pops the top off a bottle for Jack and slides over a bowl of bar mix for me.
Jack sighs, sliding his empty beer bottle to the bartender. “Yeah, I guess you’re right.” He groans, staring down the neck of his beer like the answer to his relationship problems is floating in there somewhere.
“Damn straight I’m right. Name one time I’ve been wrong in all the years we’ve been friends.”
He rests his chin on his fist but doesn’t answer. Either because he can’t think of a time, or because the alcohol has made his brain fuzzy, or maybe because he’s fallen into a beer-induced sleep. I look over at him to see if he’s still upright. Thank God, he is. I don’t want to have to carry him out of this bar.
My phone buzzes twice in my pocket—it’s Natalie, checking in to make sure I’m getting Jack good and drunk. Given the circumstances, I figured it was best that it was a “no girls allowed” kind of evening, but it’s been a long time since he and I have been out without Natalie. I can’t blame her for feeling a little left out.
When I glance over, I notice Jack is messing around on his phone for what has to be the tenth time tonight. Odds are good that he’s already hitting up some other girl. I love Jack to death, but he’s always been a bit of a player. I’m actually a little surprised his most recent relationship lasted this long.
“Natalie was checking in to make sure you were getting adequately hammered,” I say, holding up my phone to snap a picture of Jack and his collection of empty bottles. He sets his phone down and poses mid-chug, giving the camera an enthusiastic thumbs-up. I send the photo to Natalie as evidence that I’m doing my job.
“Man, I’m so damn lucky to have you two,” Jack says between long sips. “What would I do without you guys?”
A little bit of alcohol always brings out his sentimental side, but I’m game for a stroll down memory lane. I decide I’ll play along.
“I hardly remember life before the three of us were friends,” I admit, shoving my phone back in my pocket. “My brain must have just erased every memory prior to sophomore-year biology class.”
“The three amigos!” Jack hollers, raising his beer in a toast. “The best lab group ever!”
“Yeah, only because I carried all of our grades by doing all the work,” I tease, clinking my water glass against his beer.
“Hey, it’s not Natalie’s fault that she was so bad at biology, and that I had such a hair-trigger gag reflex looking at pig eyeballs,” he argues with a sloppy finger wag.
Four must be the magic number of beers for Jack. I’ve got to remember to give him grief tomorrow about what a lightweight he’s become.
“Yeah, I remember. That private school she transferred in from didn’t teach bio until junior year. What was your excuse?” I pick through the bar mix and flick a peanut at Jack’s head.
“Laziness and a queasy stomach, mostly,” he says after trying to bat the peanut away a little too late. It hits him square between the eyes and bounces across the floor. His reflexes are gone; he’s officially drunk. “You should be thanking me. That was the class that made you want to become a doctor. I was just letting you discover your passion.”
I’m a pediatrician, and he’s right, I love my job, so I really can’t argue. “And I was just saving you from flunking science class.”
Downing the rest of his beer, he shoots me the bird and then reaches for the bar mix to find some ammo of his own, eventually settling on a pretzel rod. I let him take his shot, lining up the pretzel like a javelin and tossing it at me. He’s obviously aiming for the “third” me that he sees and he misses by a long shot. The pretzel goes hurtling across the bar, nailing some unsuspecting sucker in the back of the head.
“And that’s our cue to close the tab.” I wave over the bartender and slide my AmEx card across the bar, which gets me a confused look from Jack.
“Why the hell are you paying?” he asks, his brow furrowed. “You just got water.”
“Yeah, and you just got dumped,” I say, scribbling my signature across the receipt and stuffing a ten-dollar bill in the tip jar. “Now, come on. Let’s get out of here.”
As I walk and Jack stumbles across the parking lot, I shoot Natalie a quick text to let her know I’ve completed my mission of getting Jack drunk and that we’re headed home. The radio starts as soon as I turn the key in the ignition—some catchy pop love song that Jack immediately switches. He stays diligent on the radio dial, changing the station every time a song mentions a girl or a kiss, or anything else even sort of related to romance.
I feel bad for the poor guy. Apparently, his ex has left his heart in freaking tatters, and this is so out of my element with him. He’s always been the love ’em and leave ’em heartbreaker, not at all the type to get dumped and feel like shit about it.
“All these goddamn love songs,” he mumbles, throwing in the towel and shutting the radio off altogether. “I’m sick of this shit. Women suck. All they do is steal your sweatshirts, cram all their shit into your bathroom, and then leave when they’re bored of you.”
Before I can form a counterargument, he’s pointing at a fast-food restaurant ahead. “Dude, let’s get something to eat.”
I don’t even bother trying to stifle my annoyance as I pull up to the drive-through, asking the girl on the intercom to give us a minute to decide.
“What do you want, Jack? A burger? Fries?”
“I want a woman who isn’t gonna completely screw me over,” he grumbles, giving the glove compartment a swift kick of frustration.
“Burger and fries, it is.”
I place his order and pull forward to pay. Jack is either too buzzed or too sad to give me shit about paying this time, but his mood lightens a bit when I pass him the bag of hot, greasy goodness packed with more calories than he’s probably consumed all day—well, except for the liquid kind of calories. Hopefully, those fries will soak up some of the alcohol in his system and make his hungover ass slightly more bearable tomorrow.
He tears into his fries with a satisfied grunt. “Fries are so good. Why would I ever even need a woman when I have fries?”
“I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that it’s probably because fries can’t get you off. Although, I will admit that I’ve eaten a steak a time or two that almost gave me a happy ending.” I pull into a parking spot nearby and settle back into my seat.
“I think I’ve gotta go on a hiatus, dude,” he says around another mouthful. “Swear off women for a while. Get my head straight.”
My gaze swings over to his in stunned fascination. “That’s cute. But there’s no way in hell you’d last more than a week. Two, tops.”
As long as Jack and I have been friends, he’s always had a girl in the picture. Whether it’s a girlfriend, a hookup buddy, or just somebody he met on a dating app, there have been very few nights in our apartment where Jack hasn’t been sharing his bed with someone. Swearing off girls will be harder for him than swearing off beer—or fries. And that’s saying something.
“Bullshit. You really think I’m that weak?”
He seems genuinely insulted, so I try a gentler approach. “Come on, man. You’ve been getting it on the regular for as long as I can remember. There’s no way you can go without.”
“I’ve got a perfectly good hand. I’ll be fine . . . women are the root of all my evils. I’m in need of an exorcism,” he says into the greasy paper bag, digging out his burger. “No more women. I’m announcing it now. Hold me to it.” He points at me with a fry.
Resisting the urge to roll my eyes, I reach for a couple of fries. “I’ll remind you of that when you meet some blonde at the gym next week and want to bring her home. You’ll fold in a heartbeat.”
“Like hell I will. How much do you want to bet I can make it a whole month without hooking up with anyone?”
Is he seriously going to make a wager on this? I’m not much of a gambler, but this sounds like a bet I’ll be guaranteed to win, so why the hell not?
“All right, how about this?” I turn in my seat to look him straight in the eye so he knows I mean business. “I’ll do it with you. No women, no sex, no hookups. I bet I can hold out way longer than you. Easy.”
Jack rolls his eyes. “Oh, sure, easy for you. You’re practically a monk.”
It’s been a long couple of months’ worth of his jokes insisting that I must be a born-again virgin with how little action I’ve been getting. Yeah, maybe I am in the midst of a dry spell, but it’s no big deal. And working long shifts in the pediatric wing of the hospital downtown certainly isn’t helping. But I’ll take whatever he’s gonna bet me, because I know what a dry spell feels like. My homeboy here has no freaking idea what he’s in for. This win will be like taking candy from a baby.
“Listen, are you for real about this bet or not?”
Jack weighs it over with a few more fries, presumably trying to decide if his hand can really cut it. “You know what? Let’s do it,” he says, pumping his fist in the air and sending fries flying throughout my car.
I love my job. I really do. Not to say that I wouldn’t mind getting laid in the near future. I’ve had a few potential prospects catch my eye, but if we’re betting on it, what’s another month of beating it in the shower?
“And whoever breaks first . . .” I chew one fry slowly, partially to build the suspense, partially to buy myself time to think of what we’re betting on. A round of drinks? Cleaning the apartment for a month? No, this is some serious shit. The stakes are high. We need to make this deal worth keeping it in our pants for.
“Whoever caves first has to do the other’s laundry for the rest of the year.”
A sinister grin creeps across Jack’s face. “Done.” He wipes the fry grease from his hands onto a napkin before slapping his hand into mine.
“It’s a deal then,” I say with a firm handshake and a confident smirk. “So you might want to say good-bye to that hookup from last year who I’ve been watching you text all night. Because that’s sure as hell not happening anytime soon.”
My own phone chirps from the cupholder and I grab it. “It’s Nat again,” I say to Jack, opening the text.
Now we’re all single. Lonely Hearts Club unite.
I stare down at her message and frown. As far as I know, Natalie is single by choice. This is the first time I’ve heard her say she’s lonely, and something inside me doesn’t like it.
Surely you’re not lacking for offers, Miss Moore.
She is a Moore, whether she likes it or not—a trust-fund baby whose father’s wealth is reported by the media much more often than she would like.
Oh, hush, you can’t comment on that.
Smiling, I can practically hear the sarcasm in Natalie’s text.
And why not?
Because you’re a twenty-nine-year-old doctor, for starters. Women line up to drop their panties for you.
I chuckle and shove another fry into my mouth.
Not interested in a gold digger.
Same. But if you know of any good guys out there, send them my way.
A weird tingle creeps down my spine. There are only two good guys I can vouch for, and both are inside this vehicle. Jack may be a player, but he’s honest and loyal to the women he dates and hooks up with. They know the deal, and are okay with the mutually beneficial arrangement. Him being heartbroken over getting dumped is new for him and says volumes about his maturity level. Me, on the other hand, I’m not entirely sure why Natalie’s words affect me the way they do, and I chalk it up to being around the heartbroken drunkard sitting next to me.
“What’s that look for?” Jack asks, his burger halfway to his mouth.
“Hmm? Oh, nothing.” I set my phone back into the cupholder. “Just texting with Natalie.”
“Good. Because now that you’ve taken this vow with me, Nat better be the only female you’re texting with these days.”
Why does the prospect of that not bother me in the slightest?
I poke my head through the bathroom doorway and call, “Coming!” Sound travels easily in my condo, so I have no worries that Cam didn’t hear me.
Moments later, I open the front door. It’s Cam, holding up a small pink box with a promising doughnut sticker on the side. As I tackle him with a hug, he saves said treats from being crushed by my enthusiasm. Before I release him, I breathe in his masculine, fresh scent. It’s comforting, familiar, like a warm cup of chamomile tea or a new spool of yarn.
We part and he takes a step back, his gaze lowering as he appraises me with a frown. “You’re wearing a towel,” he says, still holding the doughnut box above my head. Oops.
“Well, yeah, I was about to shower,” I respond defensively.
Swiping the box from his hands, I head straight for my kitchen. I haven’t eaten all morning, so I’m more than ready to dig into this pastry, regardless of whether I’m properly clothed.
“What’d you get me?” I ask, spinning the box around on my kitchen counter, eager to open it.
“Something new,” he says, leaning against the countertop.
“New?” I peel open the box. Inside sit a dozen decadent doughnuts. I select a chocolate-vanilla-swirl doughnut with frosting drizzled on top and take a nibble. A groan escapes me as the frosting melts devilishly on my tongue.
“You, sir, are bad for my waistline,” I say, scolding him through a mouthful of sugary goodness.
“Stop. Your waistline is perfect.”
I feel my cheeks grow ever-so-slightly warm. “Not according to the personal trainer I pay a small fortune to each month,” I mumble around a mouthful of pastry. “I’m going to hop in the shower, but feel free to hang out.”
I step into the shower, enjoying the way the hot water relaxes my aching muscles.
“Got plans for tonight?” Cam asks.
Through the sheer curtain, I can pick out his tall frame in the bathroom mirror. He’s leaning against the door frame, politely facing away. For a doctor who surely sees all sorts of bodies all day, every day, Cam is very aware of his presence in the living space of a naked friend. It’s cute.
“Plans? Sort of. Jack set me up with a guy from work, actually.” Excited, I find myself smiling. I haven’t been on a date in eons. I can almost hear Jack’s voice clearly in my head, correcting my assumptions about tonight’s meet-up.
“Don’t jump to conclusions. It’s not a date,” he would say. “You’re just meeting one of my friendlier bartenders for a drink. Very casual.”
Apparently, I’m pretty damn lonely if I’m allowing Jack to set me up with one of his employees. What if we have nothing to talk about? What if he’s a total waste of space and I’m left struggling to carry the conversation? I hate carrying the conversation. As I lather shampoo into my hair, an idea occurs to me. “Do you want to come hang out at the bar with me tonight?”
There’s a long pause. I wait and finish rinsing my hair.
I turn off the water and peek out of the shower. Cam turns to meet my gaze, the only thing between his eyes and my naked body a flimsy curtain. I give him my prettiest smile. “Want to help me pick out an outfit too?”
“Okay.” His voice is gruff, and his gaze darts from mine to the worn wooden floor.
Moments later, we’re in my room, me perusing my closet in my underwear, and Cam sitting at the foot of my bed, staring down at the floor, being useless.
“Sexy underwear definitely isn’t necessary,” I mutter, thinking aloud. “It’s not like he’s going to see any of that on the first date.”
“What qualifies as sexy underwear?” he asks. I look back at him with my eyebrows raised. Interestingly, there’s no humor in his expression. He seems legitimately curious.
“Well . . .” I pause, considering my next words. “Sexy usually means lace or silk.”
“So those aren’t?” he asks, gesturing to my own dull, uninteresting ensemble.
“These are cotton!” I laugh. “I got them from the supermarket. Oh, Cam. Have you ever seen a woman in her sexy underwear?” Teasing him is almost too easy, though it’s usually split between Jack and myself. And since Jack is busy at work, I guess I’ll have to pick up the slack.
“I consider all underwear sexy.”
We’re two single people, alone in a bedroom, talking about lingerie. Shouldn’t this be weird? I brush the unfamiliar thought away. Cam is my closest friend. Talking to him about this stuff is . . . well, natural. Isn’t it?
“Regardless,” I say, “I think a guy should put in a little effort before he gets any of this.” I gesture vaguely around my body’s private parts. Assuming the conversation is over, I turn back to my closet, rifling through the endless array of colors and fabrics. Why is it always so hard to find something to wear that is both casual and subtly sexy?
“Good,” he says. “I agree completely.”
The only sound is the scrape of hangers in my closet as I eliminate certain options. I can feel Cam’s body heat behind me, and I turn, surprised to see he’s joined me inside my walk-in closet.
I face him, suddenly aware that I’m standing almost naked in front of him.
His gaze drops from mine, moving over the swell of my modest cleavage to the boy shorts stretched across my hips. “Trust me, speaking strictly from a guy’s point of view, these do look sexy on you.”
My brain short-circuits. Did Cam just call me sexy?
No, he said my underwear are something a guy would find sexy. Even though they’re cotton.
“Good to know,” I manage to say, my voice coming out a little higher than I intended. I clear my throat.
His large hand reaches out and he selects a couple of hangers. “Here. Wear this.”
I accept the outfit and turn to put it on while he makes his way back to my bed.
“So, when do you deem it appropriate to put out? Are you a third-date kind of girl, or what?”
“Cam!” I gasp. I can’t help the smirk that tugs on my lips as I turn to face him.
“I’m curious.” He smiles, and his chiseled features hold a look of amusement and mischief. Or maybe it’s just simple fascination. This is a topic we’ve never covered before in all our years of friendship.
“Definitely not the first date,” I state matter-of-factly. “Maybe the second?”
“Really?” His voice is not at all judgmental. Only impressed.
“What? It’s been a long time. Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve even been fingered?”
He laughs incredulously and shakes his head. Maybe our lack of boundaries is peculiar, but to me, it’s the mark of an unbreakable friendship.
“I’m not sure I want to know every last detail,” he says. “Let’s leave some of the mystery alive in our friendship, okay?” I’m still smiling at the ease of this encounter as he continues speaking. “Although, I do appreciate when a woman makes me work for it,” he says, his mouth still curled up in amusement.
I smile, thinking about Cam working to win over a girl he likes. He’s been single for so long, I’m sure it would do him good to settle down with someone. But whenever I bring up the topic, he steers the conversation elsewhere and falls back on the same old excuses of never enough time or I work too much, or the infamous cliché of I’m married to my job. Eventually, he has to find someone to fall in love with, doesn’t he?
• • •
A half hour later, we’re sitting at a high-top table at Jack’s bar, Easy Goings. I’m wearing dark skinny jeans with a V-neck top and a leather jacket that Cam helped me pick out. Although he approved of nearly every outfit I modeled, we agreed that this was the best “casual pub meet-up” look.
“Do you want to get some appetizers?” I ask him, flipping through the menu. Although I look at the options, I already know I’ll order the same thing I always do—fried pickles. I look up, waiting for Cam’s response. “Cam?”
“What?” He seems to be assessing something behind the bar. His pretty brown eyes are narrowed in concentration.
“What on earth are you looking at?” I ask him as I follow his gaze to the mirror behind the bar.
Oh. He’s been looking at my reflection.
“Order whatever you want,” he says, glancing away from where our gazes meet in the mirror. “You know I’ll eat just about anything.”
“God, I’m actually nervous. Which is weird, right? But what if we have nothing in common?”
“Then he’s not worth your time.” Cam runs his thumb comfortingly across my knuckles. “Don’t worry about it.”
“Thank you,” I whisper, squeezing his hand. One of the bartenders delivers our drinks, and Cam places an order for fried pickles. I didn’t even have to tell him what to order; he just knows me that well.
“So, tell me about the qualities you’re looking for in a guy.” Cam grins at me. Our love lives aren’t normally a topic we cover in such detail, but I like that he cares enough to ask.
I think it over for a moment before responding. “Someone loyal. Kind. And funny. Definitely funny. Gotta make me laugh. So, what’s your type?” I ask, returning the question.
“Confident,” he says with zero hesitation. “Not too easily stressed by the small stuff. Comfortable with herself and her path in life.”
My eyes widen.
“What?” he asks, no doubt bracing himself to be teased.
“I just . . . That was very specific.”
He smiles, humming thoughtfully to himself. Even he seemed surprised by his own answer. “I guess it was specific. Someone who can eat her body weight in doughnuts is also a huge plus.”
I chuckle and roll my eyes. “Jackass.”
Our order is delivered, and I waste no time digging in.
Cam reaches out to tuck a lock of hair behind my ear. “But I also know whoever she is, she’ll have to get your seal of approval.” He smiles, leaning his chin against his hand. He looks so lovable when he’s all relaxed like that. Suddenly, I’m overcome with the desire to show my affection to this man, so I do the only thing I can think of, considering what I have to work with in my arsenal of affection. I push my plate of half-devoured pickles toward him.
“You can have the rest. You’ve barely touched them.” To that, he just smiles at me, flashing his sweetest smile. “Come on,” I say. “I feel like you’re only pretending to like them, so I don’t feel weird ordering a plate.”
“Hey, jackasses, don’t get too comfortable. Ben just got here.” Jack pulls over a nearby stool and hops up on it. “What’s going on?” he asks, grinning at us.
“I’m a little nervous that—”
Jack cuts me off with a hand in front of my face. He gestures to the appetizer plate between us and looks at Cam, his eyes wide, and shakes his head dramatically. “Dude. You let her eat fried pickles? Tonight of all nights?” He then drops his voice. “You know they make her gassy.” Cam snickers into his beer, not disagreeing with him.
“You know I can hear you,” I mutter, annoyed at how well my best friends know me.
As Cam attempts to contain his laughter, the familiar sound reminds me that I can never be mad at these goons for more than a second.
“I’m heading to the bathroom,” I say, swatting Jack’s hand away.
“Don’t fly away!” Jack calls after me. Another fart joke. Fantastic.
“I’m freshening up, you jerks!” I hold up my lipstick tube like a classy middle finger.
“That’s awesome, but I stock canned air freshener in the ladies’ room just for you, Nat. You may want to use it as body spray or some shit while you’re at it.” Walking away, all I hear is the laughter of the two Neanderthals behind me. God, I both hate and love those twits.
In the ladies’ room, I take in my reflection in the mirror, following the soft lines of each curve peeking out of the jacket Cam helped me select. He was right. I smile, all dimples and rosy cheeks. He’s never steered me wrong. I do look good tonight.
With a touch more lipstick and maybe another cocktail, I can get through this date.
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