Even if everything inside me is aching to explore her, possess her—I can’t. Because I know she would want it all. She’d want what I’ve never given to any woman before her.
She’d want all my love words.
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“Jess says you’re settling in well. I sometimes forget you lived here growing up, that this isn’t all new for you. Though, maybe it’s harder to adjust after staying away for so long? You know, when you were avoiding your past,” my new sister-in-law comments randomly. It’s the thing I love most about her—there’s no pretense with Emma. She puts her thoughts and feelings out into the world, uncensored and guileless.
I bite my lip and share an amused smile with Lauren. As Emma’s best friend, she’s hardly ever surprised by much the woman across from us says or does. Lauren goes back to looking over the volunteer schedule for the Little League baseball teams that need coaching help this summer.
I’ve been living in Landry for a couple of weeks, but prior to that, had been visiting more often lately, slowly re-establishing myself here. It was a bit of a test to see if moving back felt like coming home or self-inflicted torture. I was nervous and uncertain. As a confident nurse practitioner, these are two emotions I haven’t experienced in a while.
“Some things are new, but mostly it’s almost like I never left. Probably shouldn’t have stayed away as long as I did.” Like Emma, I was a conflict avoider. Introspective thinking usually comes from a place of deep feelings, and mine pointed toward deep discontent—with my job, where I was living, and what I felt was missing. My adolescent goals have changed over the years, but some still resonated. Like making Landry my home again.
Those old dreams changed because of one person. Well, technically two people.
“Because of the thing that happened that we don’t talk about? Or because of the Hades guy you’re always scowling at? Or wait, those are the same things, right?” Emma asks.
“Don’t worry, from what I’ve heard, no one talks about it anymore. It’s old news.” Lauren squeezes my hand, knowing the expansive reach of the Landry rumor mill. “I think it was over soon after it all went down, especially since you went off to college anyway.” It’s times like now that I remember how involved Lauren is with this town, especially considering she only moved here a few years ago. “But when Hayden moved back with his baby girl, alone, suddenly people were talking about the way he used to be. The young Hayden.” I raise my brows at her. “I mean, Hades. Sorry, forgot about our Taps drinking rule. He will always be referred to as ‘Hades’ when we drink here, even if he scowls at us for calling him that.”
Taps & Tapas is by far the most popular bar and grill in Landry, and not because it’s the only one with theme nights, a dance floor, and darts. It also has delicious food and usually great service. Even when it was Evan, Landry’s grumpiest bartender, serving our beverages.
However, now that Evan is off chasing his own goals, getting his degree, and living with his slightly crazy but adorable girlfriend, things have changed. Evan hired Hades to fill his place when he moved.
So, my previously favorite spot to drink, dance, and have fun with my favorite people is now a source of contention. Hades tainted another place in this town for me.
“The town is either tight-lipped or vague as hell about it. I need all the details about what happened and who we need to crush for whatever made you run off to college and go MIA for a while. Spill, girl. This one”—she jerks a thumb in Emma’s direction—“won’t talk. She says no one needs to know and that you’re putting it behind you. However, having a bit of a vindictive streak myself, I can tell you’ve got a dormant volcano in the emotional abyss where you push down the anger and pain. I’d like to be prepared for the impending explosion. Not that I think you shouldn’t have the explosion. Sometimes you need to blow up your life. Emma and I know that better than anyone. Moving back and facing your nemesis counts. I just don’t want to miss it. I also require the full story. It’s the teacher in me. Give me the full character arc—devastation to redemption. Avoidance to acceptance. Whatever it is—oof, one minute, ladies. I’ll be back.” Lauren shuffles out of the booth. “Don’t talk about anything interesting while I’m peeing.”
In her second trimester, Lauren is energetic, exhausted, emotional, and a whole slew of other traits her pregnancy intensified. Basically, it’s everything Lauren was pre-pregnancy but amped up a hundred percent.
A cold drink, dripping with condensation, slides in front of me right before I smell the hint of that fresh laundry and warm spice unique to one man I try to stay out of smelling distance from. I chuff the scent of Hayden Daniels out of my nostrils as he passes out the rest of the beverages to the ladies.
“Two non-alcoholic mojitos for the beautiful ladies with child and one spiked lemonade for the ornery pain in the ass. Enjoy.”
I promptly push the drink away.
“I want Ricky to bring me a new drink. I don’t trust this one.”
Did I order the spiked lemonade cocktail with the explicit intention of giving him shit? Yes.
Does that make me immature? Maybe.
Fine, it absolutely does, but I deserve to get a few digs in. If not to clue him in on my new “take no shit” attitude, but also to assert my stance on both how I feel about him and my dominance in this town. My town. He won’t push me out again.
“I work here, Princess. I wouldn’t risk my job by messing with your drink. No matter how tempting that may be.”
“See? That’s what I mean. I know you want to. You’ve done it before.”
He rolls his eyes.
“Done what? What did he do with your drink before?” Emma asks, eyeing hers skeptically.
“So glad you asked, Emma. He pissed in it. It wasn’t a drink, it was urine on ice.”
Shocked gasps surround me. Lauren’s timing returning to the table is excellent.
“Hayden, what the hell? Is that true?” Lauren gags a little.
“I was seventeen at the time and a shit. So yeah, probably true.” He turns to me, his expression bored. “Though, I wouldn’t have let you drink it. I was just messing around.”
“Yeah, you did that a lot. And my lips were on the straw, Hades. You didn’t stop me—I smelled it. That’s how I knew what it was. You laughed as I chucked it at you.”
“So dramatic.” He sighs. “First, I tried to say something, but you turned away the moment you snatched the drink from my hand. Second, I may have known about it, but it wasn’t my piss.” He continues despite my glare. “I mean, honestly, I was doing you a favor.” I gape, attempting to incinerate him with my eyes. “You learned an important lesson. You should never take a drink you’re handed. That drink could’ve been from any ill-intentioned asshole attempting to give you who knows what!”
“So, you’re saying my options were roofies or urine? That’s what you’re going with?”
“How concerned should we be about our beverages tonight, new guy?” Lauren asks. “If Evan were here, we wouldn’t need to be concerned about urine in our drinks. I’m texting him right now.”
“Oh, come on, Lauren, don’t text Evan. I know you’ve assigned yourself as his bestie or whatever, but he hired me—”
“Well, technically I hired you, Hades, and it seems there’s a reason Chloe here isn’t falling for your grinning, roguish, scruffy looks, and whatever forearm porn you keep flashing her way.” Oh God. Lauren, no, please stop.
“I don’t fall for assholes or their bullshit,” I confirm. There, that felt good.
“That’s alright, Princess. You’re not exactly my type either. I’ll have Ricky bring you a fresh drink. Just knowing you likely never took a drink from anyone else ever again is a win. Glad I could teach you a little something in the young, naïve”—he eyes me up and down—“perkier stages of your life.” He picks up the drink, raps the table briefly with his knuckles, and takes one step before I stop him. My fingers meet the sinewy forearm I’ve been trying not to stare at. Damn Lauren for drawing attention to his rough, roped, sun-darkened forearms.
“No. You don’t win. There are no winners in this situation. Unless it’s me.” His arm feels like steel wrapped in power and heat. What was my point, again? “I’m getting a fresh drink, and you are doing a piss-poor job—pun intended—justifying your teenage barbaric behavior. End of story.”
“Ah. But my life lesson stuck with you for eight years. That’s the goal, right, Teach?” He glances at Lauren. “You want your lessons to stick.”
“Okay, first, don’t call me ‘Teach.’ Only Evan gets to.” Lauren points a finger at him. “Second, he’s got a teeny, tiny point there, Chlo. But assholes still don’t get to win arguments at this table, so run along now. Oh, and I need pretzels. Emma? How’s your nausea today?”
“I’m good. The nausea passed weeks ago, but I didn’t want to say anything because you were still having a hard time and needed the companionable sympathy.”
I’m at a bar with two pregnant chicks. This first girls’ night out in Landry has gone a little differently than I pictured.
“Pretzels, a fresh drink for Princess, and a free forearm groping. Got it.” He looks pointedly at the hand still resting on his arm.
Well, shit, I’m still touching him.
I retract my hand like it had been burned.
He winks at me. “You’re welcome, babe.”
“No!” The deep sound reverberates from deep within me.
I glare at his broad back as he heads toward the bar.
“You can’t just shout ‘no’ at me anytime you don’t like something I do or say,” he calls out, not even bothering to fully turn around before disappearing into the kitchen. I catch a flash of his cocky grin right as the door swings closed.
“I don’t think you won that one, Chloe.” Emma offers a sad pat on the top of the fist I have pressed against the table.
She’s right but I say nothing. Hayden and I will either eventually get along or things will escalate.