Main Disorderly Conduct

Disorderly Conduct

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Year:
2017
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Harpercollins
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english
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Gz PRESS デジタル写真集 No.183 春日ひなた

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2020
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japanese
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Gz PRESS デジタル写真集 No.182 泉屋アイナ

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2020
Language:
japanese
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PDF, 35.51 MB
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Chapter 1





Charlie


People magazine isn’t going to name me the Sexiest Man Alive any time soon, so I don’t play the long game with girls. If I see one who interests me, I go in for the kill. Fast. Before some jerk who uses pomade or beard moisturizer gets there first.

Here is what I have going for me. One: My nose has been broken twice, I only have time to shave every other day and I’m strong as a bull. So if I’m walking down the street with a girl, no one is going to mess with her. Two: I’m capable as hell. I see a problem and it gets solved, because I don’t mind hard work and sweat. It’s a good thing, too, because I’m training to be a New York City police officer, and shit needing to be solved is part of the job description. Three: I don’t go out with tons of girls. But I damn well know what to do when I get one beneath me.

That’s not a boast. It’s just me being grateful that I know how to pay attention.

And damn.

Speaking of grateful, the man upstairs must have been feeling sorry for us fellas down on Earth when he created the blonde who just walked into the Hairy Monk, the Lower East Side pub where I’m spending this rainy afternoon with my friends Jack and Danika. The nonalcoholic beer I’m holding remains suspended in my hand as the blonde peels back her hoody and shakes out her umbrella. I’m not ashamed to say her body caught my attention first. I’m a man in my sexual prime and by prime, I mean I’m horny most of the goddamn day. So the whole overalls that end in a skirt look? It’s really working for me, because her legs are two sticks of dynamite and I’m more than willing to die in the explosion.

But it’s her face that rocks me back on my booted heels.

Whoa. My stomach knots up. Which is unusual. I train at the police academy six days a week, and I eat like a pregnant horse. My stomach is made of iron. This girl’s face, though . . . it’s like I know her from somewhere, but there’s no way we’ve ever met. Yeah, I would have remembered. Would have asked her out and possibly resorted to begging.; 

That’s another thing about me. I’m not short on confidence.

Yeah, every guy in the place—including my pal, Jack—is checking her out, but I’m willing to bet no one has the balls to go talk to her. What is it with men making women do all the heavy lifting nowadays? Are they afraid of rejection? Worst case scenario, she tells me to fuck off, flashes a wedding ring or feigns deafness. In which case, I chalk it up to a lesson learned and walk away with my pride intact, knowing I had enough brass between my legs to take a shot.

“Don’t even think about it,” I say to Jack, finally sipping from my neglected beer. “She’s mine. As far as you’re concerned, she’s invisible.”

Jack smiles like a drunk pirate into his whiskey. To be fair, that’s his default expression. Drunk, disorderly pirate. And yet women flock to him like he’s giving away free Adele tickets. “One problem with that. I’m not invisible to her, Charlie boy.”

“Good thing your ego is,” Danika mutters, from eight inches down where she’s sandwiched between us. Danika: small in stature. Large in attitude. “It’s not a matter of who calls dibs. She could very well tell you both to fuck off.”

I shake my head, still a little confused over the whole stomach knot situation. The blonde is sitting beneath a bar light now and God. God. She’s just been out there, roaming around the Earth this whole time? Her eyes are huge and full of humor. The good kind, like she’d blush over a dirty joke, then tack on an even filthier punch line. When the bartender asks what she’ll have, she doesn’t even look at the chalkboard . . . and then her incredible mouth moves and my fly almost unzips itself. “If she tells anyone to fuck off, it’s going to be me.”

Jack chuckles under his breath, which also makes him sound like he should be manning a ship with a skull-and-crossbones flag. “Now there’s the can-do attitude they teach us at the academy.”

My friend’s sarcasm isn’t lost on me. Everyone who comes into contact with Jack knows he can take or leave the academy. Whenever he makes his disdain known, I bite my tongue so I won’t break into a motivational locker room–type speech. Becoming a cop is my sole purpose in life. I go to bed at night dreaming about the badge. About making my bureau chief father and lieutenant brother proud. It baffles me when my friend doesn’t share my enthusiasm, but I’m learning to accept my freak-show overachiever status among our threesome of friends.

We’re roommates, sharing a three-bedroom apartment a couple blocks away with Jack’s childhood friend, and fellow academy attendee, Danika. Danika is the reason Jack put his unmotivated ass through just enough college to enroll in the academy. And I’m pretty sure she’d scouted me out at orientation, pegging me as someone who would help motivate her pal, and the three of us have been inseparable ever since. Despite the fact that we’re all opposites and drive one another crazy.

“You leave blondie on ice too long, someone else is going to get the honor of her fuck off,” Jack says, signaling for another whiskey. “What’s taking you so long?”

“Good question,” I mutter, tapping my beer against my thigh. “Did I shave today?”

Danika lifts a dark brow. “You’re asking us?”

“Thinking out loud. What am I wearing?”

“Look down and find out.”

“I can’t. She’s looking right at me.” And she is. The friend she arrived with is tapping away on her cell phone and gesturing, but blondie is watching me curiously through the crowd of Knicks fans, tapping a cocktail straw on the edge of her glass. The knots in my stomach now have knots. “If I do a clothing check, she’ll know I’m wondering if I look decent enough to approach her. I’ll lose all sense of mystery.”

“You are eye fucking her across the bar. Mystery solved,” Jack drawls, sipping his fresh drink. “Shit, Charlie boy. This might be the first time I’ve ever seen you . . .”

“Hesitant,” Danika, the smartest among us, supplies. “He’s right. Your caveman mentality is bent. Did you sleep on it funny last night?”

My scholarly roommate is right. And if I don’t move soon, I’m never going to live this down. Glancing over at Jack, I can already see the wise-cracks forming, preparing for delivery. What is it about this girl that makes me think twice about introducing myself?

Sure, I have no time for a relationship, now or ever. That fact is written in stone. If anything came out of approaching blondie, it would be a one-time thing, and I would make sure she knew that up front, out of respect. She might not be interested in casual, but I’m jumping the gun even having those concerns. We haven’t even spoken yet. What is wrong with my man brain? And hell if she’s not still watching me. I’m not sure either one of us has blinked in the last five minutes.

Everyone in the bar cheers, presumably because the Knicks scored, and I use the crowd’s momentum to push forward through a sea of jerseys and half-drank pints. Something crazy happens, though, and it makes my lips curve into a smile.

Blondie jumps off her stool and comes to meet me halfway.





Ever


Oh, he’ll do nicely.

I have a sixth sense when it comes to unavailable men. It has been passed down through many generations of mistresses, going all the way back to my great-great-grandmother, Babs Carmichael. She created what I secretly refer to as the Mistress Manifesto, although the rules have never been written down on actual paper. That would be tacky. No, our means of survival are stored in the locked vault of my heart, same as they are for my mother.

Those rules are as follows:

Remain independent. This little gem is what has kept our lifestyle thriving for so long. We depend only on ourselves for that pretty green paper. No gifts. No personal information exchanged that could lead to messy entanglements. No holidays spent together, especially Christmas and/or birthdays.

Never let the arrangement last past one month. We’re not made of stone. Sure, we’re using men to fulfill our needs, but even the staunchest of emotionally distant mistresses can fall prey to the right set of dimples and sweet talk. One month is enough time to get a man out of your system without either party getting too comfortable. Or in too deep. One month means leaving the man before he leaves you.

Choose only unavailable men. This is the only rule I have modified slightly to fit . . . well, me. While my mother and her predecessors had no qualms making time with married men, I believe it’s wrong. So my version of unavailable is men married to their jobs. In New York City, that is not hard to find. Walk down any sidewalk in any neighborhood, and you’ll trip over a driven market analyst with too many dollar signs in his eyes to look for your secrets. I once had a fling with a food blogger who muttered about bottomless brunches and cocktail pairings while in the throes of passion.



Yeah, blog boy didn’t make it anywhere near one month. Most of them don’t.

And it has been a while since someone captured my interest at all. My roommate, Nina, and I have been getting our catering company—Hot Damn Caterers—off the ground, so I could blame my newfound career, but mostly, no one has tickled my mistress sense lately.

This guy walking toward me from the other side of the bar? He’s making it hum. Loud.

What is it about him? He’s not pretty or polished, like the men I normally gravitate toward. Men who obviously care a lot about their appearance are too self-absorbed to be absorbed by me. This one looks like he yanked on some jeans, threw a backward hat over his bedhead and chugged milk straight from the carton. Which is totally out of keeping with his ruthlessly fit physique. Dude’s arms are like two torpedoes strapped to his torso, but he’s not showcasing them at all, like most gym rats would do. No wedding ring. His eyes are blue. A beautiful, soul-sucking blue. And they’re intent. Focused. Way too focused.

I stumble a little on my way to meet him halfway through the bar. Has my sixth sense grown faulty through disuse? A moment ago, his restless demeanor screamed unavailable. He’d been checking his watch, drinking an O’Doul’s—nonalcoholic beer, if I’m not mistaken—like a classic worker bee whose responsibilities await. Now? Now he looks ready to throw me over one of those muscle slab shoulders and carry me out of the bar.

Just as I begin to reverse directions and head back to Nina, Blue Eyes shakes his head at me. “No, no.” He crooks a finger at me. “Finish what you started.”

Whoa baby. That little quiver in my belly is bad news. Being ordered around is not my jam, but I find myself edging closer, wanting to hear more of that scratchy baritone.

It can’t hurt to see if he passes the mistress test.

Can it?

“I’m Ever,” I say, extending my hand. “I never start things I don’t intend to finish.”

“I want to believe that’s a promise, but it sounds more like a warning.” He takes my hand, and lightning shoots up to the curve of my neck. “Charlie.”

Slippery heat crawls up my inner thighs. He still has my hand and it’s so warm, his gaze so captivating and intelligent, I can’t look away. Or walk away. Like I really should be doing. “Want to play a game, Charlie?”

“I don’t know.” He gives my hand a tight squeeze, then lets it go with something that looks like reluctance. “Are we competing or on the same team?”

“I . . .” How is this guy tripping me up? I always have the upper hand in conversations with men, but this feels almost like . . . an even playing field. “I’ve never thought about it in those terms.”

“So you play this game a lot, huh?” He tucks his hands into the pockets of his worn jeans. “Since we’re issuing warnings, you should know I don’t like to lose. And if winning means you’re not going to try to run away again, that goes triple.” Seeming to catch himself, his gaze cuts away and he clears his throat. “At least not today.”

Okay, that was definitely code for I don’t do long term, right? If his signals got any more conflicting, I’d get whiplash. The test would decipher his code, though. It was sure fire. “Are you ready?” He nods. “Where do you buy your socks?”

His mouth twitches, but he doesn’t hesitate even a millisecond to answer. “Amazon.”

Passed. That question is designed to weed out men in relationships and dudes who live with their moms. No man with a significant other or living in mom’s basement buys his own socks. They just don’t. “Prime member?”

“What am I, caveman? Of course.”

God, he’s tall. And warm. He’s like a furnace. It’s a physical strain to keep myself from rubbing my face on his butter-soft-looking T-shirt to heat the cold tip of my nose. Some crazy intuition says he would let me, chuckling deep in his belly the whole time.

Get a hold of yourself, woman. It’s time for question two. He’s got his arms crossed now, face all serious like he’s taking the SATs, giving me the strong urge to giggle. “What is your favorite holiday?”

Question two sounds simple, right? It’s anything but. If his answer is Christmas, he’s the commitment type. Even if he doesn’t realize it yet, he’s going to find himself and a petite brunette in matching Frosty sweaters someday, drinking nog by the fire while his triplets rip open presents. If his answer is Valentine’s Day, he’s a goddamn filthy liar and doesn’t deserve the pleasure of your time. If he says—

“New Year’s,” Charlie answers, smiling down at me. “Not New Year’s Eve. I like the day after. It’s like the whole city is sleeping. It’s never quieter as those few hours after everyone finally passes out.”

“You can walk down the middle of Broadway and—”

“Not see one yellow cab,” he finishes for me, coming closer, including me in his warmth. “I know, right? It’s the greatest.”

“Yeah,” I murmur, feeling more than a little dumbstruck. Around us, the bar goes wild for something on the television, but we just stand there, staring at one another. I know I’m supposed to run for my life right now, but I’m paralyzed. There is a reason for the Mistress Manifesto. It prevents us women from settling. From signing on for a lifetime of cumbersome routines and potential pain. My great-grandmother gave up her independence and moved to the suburbs only to be thrown over for a younger version of herself. My whole life, my mother has impressed on me that there are no exceptions when it comes to men. Relationships don’t last, because men’s affections are fleeting.

When we’re in control of the game, we can’t get played.

If Charlie passes the test, he won’t be easy to shake when the one-month limit strikes. I know it for a fact. The longer we stand here, the closer he draws, the hungrier his expression. I need to scoot, but . . . “What do you do for a living?”

“Is this part of the game?” he rasps.

I shake my head.

“I just started at the police academy.” His tone suggests we’re discussing sexual positions, and my nerves stand up and cheer. “I’m going to be a cop.”

The pride in his voice tells me a lot. “The best cop, huh?”

His blue eyes flash with determination. “Damn right, cutie.”

There’s my elusive answer. He’s married to law enforcement. Thanking God my sixth sense hasn’t completely gone to pasture, I now feel comfortable posing question three. “Which part of the movie Titanic did you cry over?”

He’s not thrown off whatsoever by the randomness of the question. And I love that. “How do you know I cried at all?”

“Everyone cried.”

Most men give me one of two answers. They either try to be funny, insisting they cried when Old Rose threw the Heart of the Ocean into the water, because it was such a waste of money. Lame. Or they lie and say they cried when Jack dies. No, they didn’t.

Charlie doesn’t take any time at all thinking of his answer. I can see he has it stored up, ready to go, but he’s hesitating to spill. “What is it?”

He shifts the ball cap on his head, brim to the front, before turning it backward again. The subtlest of redness is visible at the top of his cheekbones. “When the old people are holding each other in the bed . . . all the water rushing around them. I might have gotten a little misty.”

Fail.

FAIL.

My heart is going double time in my chest. I’ve never gotten that answer before, but it has to be wrong. Is he a relationship guy disguised as a casual fling? I can’t figure him out. But I know a man who has a soft spot for an old, married couple isn’t opposed to being the better half of one someday. Even if he doesn’t know it yet. I know, though. So I have to walk away.

“Uh-oh,” Charlie says quietly. “That wasn’t the right answer, was it?”

“No.” I start to back away. “You were supposed to say you cried when the captain went down with the ship. Alone.”

“Cutie.” The single word is low and urgent. “Come back here.”

I’m in the middle of turning when he grasps my arm. He spins me back around, pulling me into his heat, molding the fronts of our bodies together. Zing. He’s so hard and inviting, my knees go loose and I sag. My stuttered breaths boom in my head. I only glimpse the briefest hint of dread, mixed with desperation, on his face before his mouth lowers to mine. And then we’re kissing. Oh, this is kissing. Like a Marine leaving behind his sweetheart on the tarmac. His fingers tunnel through my hair, his tongue awaits no invitation and we go for broke, right there in the middle of a bar full of buzzed twenty-somethings.

My underwear is soaked by the time we come up for our first breath. No lie, he’s the most amazing kisser I’ve ever locked mouths with. Charlie yanks me up onto my toes, walks me backward until I hit the wall and we dive back in with even more enthusiasm than before. His erection is so thick and jutting, I have to remind myself it’s not polite to climb men in public. He’s making it so hard to resist, though, groaning every time our tongues slide together, his hands twisting in the material of my skirt. A male who needs to fuck and needs it now.

“Enough bullshit about right and wrong answers,” he says huskily, right against my lips. “Just please, please, for the love of everything holy, let me take you somewhere, Ever.”

Am I really considering taking this man home with me? After he failed the test? I can’t escape the feeling that I’m venturing into dangerous territory, but his blue eyes, his hands, his . . . voice and personality are sucking me in and I can’t back away. I’m powerless.

“I don’t want anything serious, ‘kay?”

His voice is rife with conviction when he says, “Me either.”

We search each other’s faces for long moments, looking for any traces of doubt. Finding none . . . or possibly refusing to see any . . . I let Charlie pull me toward the door.





Chapter 2





Charlie


Ever Carmichael is salvation.

I’m not just saying that because she calls me big man when we’re fucking.

I’m already unbuttoning my uniform shirt, even though I haven’t even reached her building’s lobby yet. My cock is so stiff, I think I might black the fuck out before I get it inside her. Here’s the thing, though. Ever will understand. She’ll take one look at the tented fly of my standard issue, police academy pants and let her slinky, bad girl panties drop.

This woman. You just can’t fathom the magic she wields.

I don’t want anything serious, ‘kay?

She said those words to me the rainy afternoon we met. At which point angels filled the bar and started singing. I’ve had women tell me before they didn’t want entanglements or relationships, too. My long line of law-enforcement ancestry, however, has honed my ability to differentiate between truth and fiction. And Ever is the first woman who actually meant those words. Nothing. Serious.

I’m right across the street from her building now—a four-story tenement on the Lower East Side. She works nights running her start-up catering company and sleeps late, so at noon on my lunch break, she’ll still be soft from bed. Freshly showered. I’m going to fuck her lights out, I swear to Christ. As soon as I walk in the door.

In the month since we met, the urgency to be inside Ever has only skyrocketed. The need to get my hands on her smooth skin, my tongue inside her bare pussy. You don’t understand—I’m a fiend for this woman.

And guess what? That’s perfectly fine, because I can have Ever any time I need her. Now, hear me out before calling me an arrogant prick—although I admit to being one on occasion. Ever can have me, too, when she needs me. This arrangement works both ways. After a Maroon 5 concert two weeks ago, she showed up at my apartment around midnight, high on Adam Levine—or whatever he’s called—and we didn’t even make it inside. I hiked up her tiny, leather skirt and gave it to her right there in the hallway. We weren’t quiet about it, either, not that I heard the neighbors complaining.

My point being, this arrangement I’ve made with Ever is what most men don’t dare dream about or even deserve at age twenty-three. For my species, it’s usually a choice between empty hookups or committed relationships, complete with updating your Facebook, Twitter and Instagram bios, but only after deleting from all of the above any photographic evidence that you ever used your dick. Don’t get me wrong. I’m all about commitment. Right now, though, my entire reserve of commitment juice is being poured into becoming a cop. A lieutenant, specifically, just like my older brother, Greer. And eventually a bureau chief like my father, his father before him . . . and back about four generations.

This thing with Ever? It’s neither empty, nor committed. It’s a fucking unicorn. It has made me a believer in life on other planets, Bigfoot and even the Jets winning the Super Bowl again someday. Apart from the Levine Incident, we haven’t spent any time at my place, because Jack or Danika are usually home. Not to mention, I covet this little slice of heaven I’ve carved out, and I worry my roommates will make some crack to Ever about wedding bells—which is never happening—and blow the whole perfect situation to hell. Plus . . . they don’t need to know a damn thing about Ever. She’s mine. I’m hers. We’re ours.

Unofficially, of course.

I’m halfway up the first flight of stairs now. Two more to go. There’s no one around this time of day, so I give my king-sized erection a nice hard squeeze through the panel of my uniform pants, groaning under my breath when I let myself imagine Ever’s hand replacing mine, somehow knowing better than I do how I like being touched. I only have an hour before the next training session begins up on East Twenty-First Street. If I want to graduate at the top of my program—which I will, come hell or high water—I need to not only show up on time, I need to be early. Which doesn’t give me enough time with Ever, but frankly, I’m not sure an amount of time exists that would constitute the description enough.

I can see her door now. Just a thin piece of wood separating me from paradise. She’s got a welcome mat that says “Come back with a warrant,” which I’ve seen—and laughed about—before. But today it gives me an idea. Might as well kill two birds with one stone by practicing my cop approach and getting her panties wet at the same time. Coming to a stop outside her door, I’m like a jungle cat, balancing on the balls of my feet, swaying in slow motion, just waiting, waiting, for her to open that door so I can pounce. Just as I catch a whiff of chocolate and raspberry, I lift my fist and pound on the door.

“NYPD. Open up.”

The blender that was whirring a moment before silences, and I hear her light tread traveling along the floorboards to reach me. Ever opens the door, but I can only see a sliver of her goddess figure because the chain is still on. “Oh. Is something wrong, Officer?”

“As a matter of fact, there is.” I tug my ever-present notebook and pen out of my back pocket, pretending to consult the first page, which sucks, since it means taking my eyes off her for a second. “We’ve gotten several complaints about the smell of chocolate coming from this apartment. You know anything about that?”

Without missing a beat, Ever bites her lip and throws a guilty glance over her shoulder. “Maybe. Maybe not. What’s it going to take to make this go away?”

I let my gaze wander down to where her thigh peeks out through the sliver of light and feel my dick protest this delay I’ve created. I wish I hadn’t played this game, because I’m impatient for the door to open so I can get two handfuls of her ass. Short skirts. Does the girl own anything else? Forget I questioned that. What was I thinking starting this game of role-play when I’m short on time? Ever knows I’m jonesing, too, because she’s trying not to laugh at me.

Oh yeah, cutie? Two can play at this game.

I prop an arm against the door jamb and lean forward, close enough to hear her breath go shallow through the crack. “What’s it going to take?” I drop my eyes to her exposed stomach where a rhinestone sparkles from its place of honor in her belly button. “We can start with a thorough inspection of the premises.”

“Yeah?” She kind of breathes the word. “And if I don’t cooperate?”

Pretty sure I’m dying. Or I’m already dead. “Then I’m afraid I’ll have to use excessive force.”

Oh, she loves hearing me say that. Did I fail to mention Ever likes it rough? She does. She likes it down and dirty. Sweating, swearing, filthy-talking, come-to-Jesus sex that leaves nail marks on my back.

“I have to admit . . .” Ever closes the door long enough to open the chain lock, then pushes it wide so I finally have my eyes on her. All of her. And it’s just like that scene from Weird Science, when the ultimate woman—conjured up by two perverted males—is suddenly real, standing in front of them, fog twisting in the air around her. And yeah, I’m only one guy, but I’m easily horny enough for two. “I’m feeling a little uncooperative right now, Officer.”

A unicorn, my friends. Nay, The Holy Grail. I’ve found her. She was right here in the Lower East Side this whole time I was growing up on the Upper East Side. But it doesn’t matter. Because I’ve found her now. And nothing—especially some misguided desire for commitment plaguing the rest of humankind—could possibly fuck it up.





Ever


Charlie Burns, you dirty, dirty man.

Look at him. Sauntering into my apartment with that male stripper grin like he owns the place. He’s already untucking his shirt, giving me an intentional peek at those do-me abs. This proprietary attitude is what I love about him, even though I should probably hate it. He was born to win. Someone told him on Day One: Post Womb, “Charlie, you can be any damn thing you want. It’s your world.”

He’s done nothing but act accordingly.

It’s what makes him perfect for me.

My mother taught me the same thing, although the sentiment was slightly different. On my sixth birthday, she took me to the mall to get my ears pierced. As I sat there crying—little ballerina slipper earrings that had seemed so harmless when I picked them out—now punctured through my lobes, my mother said, “Ever Carmichael, you can have anything you want in this world. But don’t you dare believe a man when he says he can give it to you.”

At the time, I never imagined how often men would make those claims when I got older. It doesn’t hurt that I look like that girl. Oh, you know the one. She’s dancing in the background while Calvin Harris spins records at a Vegas club opening. Drink in hand, not a care in the world, just working the ol’ bump and grind. I managed to sneak through the assembly line with normal-sized tatas, but had no such luck avoiding a Playboy-bunny shade of blond. That girl.

Charlie is getting closer, but I’m backing toward the kitchen, because someone should have to make him work for something, right? He doesn’t know which part of me to look at first. Tits? No. Legs? Hmm . . . no. Ahhh. It’s an ass day. Should have known, considering it’s a day that ends in Y. The way he spins me around is aggressive, leaving no more room for playfulness. He pushes me forward over the kitchen table, which is unstable to begin with, and the legs kick up a groaning protest. Or maybe that’s Charlie. Yeah, it is. His calloused palms, roughened from constant training with firearms, are raking up my bottom, pushing apart the flesh, squeezing it back together.

“There’s only one way these cheeks can get any sweeter.” Out of the corner of my eye, I watch him dip a finger into my bowl of melted semisweet chocolate. When I feel him drawing a C on both sides of my bottom, I shake my head. Proprietary motherfucker. I love it. Especially when he scoops his hands beneath my knees, lifts with zero damn effort and props them on the table’s edge, putting me in a very provocative position and Charlie mouth-level with his handiwork.

My pulse grows erratic under his inspection. What thong am I wearing? Blue? No, the red satin one. Nice. An appropriate choice to accompany the chocolate. It’s like freaking Valentine’s Day on my ass right now—and this is as close as we’ll ever come to celebrating such a couple-esque holiday together.

Especially because our month is up. Today.

It has been exactly thirty days since we tumbled out of the bar together into the rain, beginning an affair that has gone by in the blink of an eye. I’ve managed to keep him at a distance, every way but sexually, but it gets harder every day. Thank God he is forever on the clock and racing back to the academy. His schedule means no cuddling, no pillow talk. And I don’t yearn for those things at all.

I don’t.

Ahhh. Wow.

I’m distracted from troubling doubts when Charlie peels down my thong. He gives my bottom a little slap that tells me without words what he wants. But I love when he commands me—perks of seeing a future cop—so I arch my back and give him a questioning look over my shoulder.

“Tilt your fucking hips and spread your thighs, Ever.” He snaps my thong against the back of my thigh. “I skipped my lunch break for this, so give me something to eat.”

That’s what I’m talking about. I’m rewarded for following his directions when he spreads a line of chocolate through my dampening flesh and licks it up with his tongue, not slowly at all. Greedy. So greedy. I fall forward onto my elbows to give him more access, and he sinks his tongue into me with a growl. Oh Godddd. My mouth is open, sucking in oxygen, heartbeat pounding like the bass of a Nicki Minaj song in my ears. “Charlie.”

Charlie’s blunt fingertips massage the inside of one thigh, right below the juncture where his tongue slips up and back, like an erotic seesaw. He nudges my clit a few times until I slap the table . . . and he finally sucks the bud between his lips. Twice, three times. That’s it for me, folks. I’m done. I’m so done. I’ve had the entire day to anticipate this, allowing myself to get worked up, and the fantasy doesn’t even compete with reality. The way he groans as if he’s the one shuddering and sobbing through an orgasm with his bottom in the air elevates it to the next level. My arm flails out on its own, knocking the bowl of chocolate onto the floor and I don’t care, I don’t care, it’s so good. I think I might be screaming that sentiment into the table’s surface, because my throat feels scraped raw.

The flesh between my legs is still clenching when Charlie jerks me off the table, back against his chest. His mouth moves in my hair while he applies the condom, whispering disjointed, erotic promises. Then a chair scrapes across the floor and he sits, taking me with him. “You’re going to lap dance me, cutie.” His fist moves beneath my backside, positioning his erection and—

“Charlie.” He’s inside me. Thick and solid. “Oh my God. Big man.”

Confident hands grip my knees and drag them wide, levering me down even farther. “Move, Ever. I’m sick. I’m sick from needing this. Needing you,” Charlie rasps against the side of my neck, baring his teeth and pressing close. “Move up and down on it. All over it. Make me better.”

Yes yes yes. I love this. I love being the only thing who can heal him. The promise of being deliverance to such a driven, self-assured guy is what keeps me answering my phone when he calls. That’s all it can be. Mutual satisfaction and nothing more. I have no choice but to enjoy, to give and take, because the feel of him is nothing short of incredible.

Big hands glide up my legs and grip my hips as I start to move. Lean forward, hold the table’s edge and start to dance. My head falls forward and I can see him entering me, his demanding erection extending from ruddy, rugged, nonmanscaped male—completely unrepentant in his masculinity—and the sight turns me on like a 10,000-watt lightbulb. I lift my head and glance over my shoulder, finding Charlie’s mouth open on a silent moan, eyes rolled back in his head. As though he hasn’t had sex in five years. As if we haven’t been attacking each other like animals for four solid weeks.

“Harder,” Charlie grits past stiff, sweat-dappled lips. “Oh fuck. Please, Ever, harder. Stop pretending you want it any other way.”

My eyelids flutter under the heat of being called out. Seen through. It should scare me—maybe it does a little—but I shove the unwanted emotion to the sidelines and ride Charlie’s lap. Knowing he wanted this particular view for a reason—it’s an ass day—I loosen my hips and let just my backside bounce up and down, my flesh glancing off his muscular thighs with a smack.

“Dammit,” Charlie grates, lifting me with a violent upthrust. “You have me so fucking close. Get the hell back here.”

He hooks his right hand around my throat, pulling me back so I’m flush with his chest, still moving, still climbing up and dropping down on his erection, my feet slipping on the floor to maintain purchase. It’s a race, a frantic straining of bodies. The same point we reach every time. His shallow breathing has turned into all-out panting, grunting, filth. That hand around my throat is cutting off just enough oxygen to make it interesting, a little dangerous. His other hand finds my clit and steals what was left of the air. I can’t breathe, I can’t think. He’s owning me.

“You won’t take your sweet time opening the door tomorrow.” The hand on my throat gives a quick squeeze, his hips undulating beneath mine. “Will you, cutie?”

My climax is even fiercer this time around. I turn my head, whimpering and moaning against Charlie’s stubbled jaw, my legs stiffening, pressing me back against his lap, taking him so deep—so deep—that he follows me onto the other side. My name is growled over and over into my hair, his fingers still stroking between my legs as heat blooms where our bodies join, signaling his release. For a brief period of time, there is nothing else. A gilded space with no sound or responsibility. An experience singular to Charlie. To us.

My eyes fly open at the mental uttering of the word. Us. Us?

I’m off Charlie’s lap like a shot.

I turn in a circle, as if I’ve forgotten I’m inside my own apartment. He’s watching me from his sprawl on the chair with a half-grin, probably too deep in postorgasmic dude-glow to notice anything amiss. Okay. Okay, good. Because nothing is amiss. It was a stupid, one-off thought from which I’ve already completely recovered.

Charlie stands and swaggers toward me, sliding a palm over the curve of my backside before stooping down to tug up my thong, move my skirt back into place. “Damn, Ever,” he whispers against my mouth, just before we both sink into a wet, languid kiss. “Damn,” he says again, before pulling away.

I give him a teasing peck on the cheek and shove him away. “I guess vocabulary isn’t part of your academy training.”

He reaches over and pinches my waist. “Smart ass.”

“Much better.”

Charlie fixes his clothing, watching me all the while. Closely. Like he’s already a cop and I’m a suspect. Not wanting him to notice anything off about my behavior, I grab some paper towels and kneel to clean up the spilled chocolate. I’m not surprised when he hunkers down to help me. For all his arrogance and commitment-phobic ways, he was raised right. But what he asks next? That’s new. “Anything you need done around the place? Creaky floorboards? Leaky pipes?”

“Leaky pipes. Really.” I lift an eyebrow, trying to make light of the unexpected offer. “Too easy.”

His laugh is as rich as the chocolate we’re cleaning up. “Come on, Ever. I know you don’t like gifts, but let me do something for you.”

A fluttering occurs in the general direction of my chest. Oh. Ohhh no. This is bad. I’m not going to pretend I haven’t gotten a little attached to Charlie. He makes me feel safe. We have fun, with the little time we allot ourselves. His lop-sided smiles are the highlight of my day. But now he’s starting to feel guilty about leaving after sex. Have I projected my sort of attached-ness and he’s just responding out of decency? Legend has it, that’s how the decline starts. Decency. Then decency turns to responsibility. Also known as The Mistress Kiss of Death.

This is why the one-month rule exists. Leave them before they leave you.

There’s nothing but earnestness in Charlie’s blue eyes trying to see right through me. But I know the stories. When a mistress becomes an obligation, instead of an outlet, that’s when the fun stops. That’s when men stop calling you, stop wanting you, and find greener pastures. Being discarded is a mistress’s ultimate fear, and I may not be a mistress in the traditional sense, but I’m no different.

My concerns are only valid with guys like Charlie. And I chose Charlie for a reason. He won’t hold me back on my path to catering company glory. He won’t hog tie me and drag me to the suburbs or slowly become a fixture on my couch. I’m aware that men exist in Manhattan whose faces don’t transform into Edvard Munch’s The Scream at the prospect of commitment. So the fact that Charlie—who has shared my distaste for couplehood on numerous occasions—is causing a flutter? That’s alarming, to say the least.

One more time with Charlie. Then I’ll end it.

“I have a super who fixes things,” I murmur around a smile, gaining my feet. “Go ahead and catch the train. I’ll see you next time.”

“Okay.” He’s still watching me as he backs toward the door. “Ever?”

“Yeah?”

He looks puzzled for a split second, but he rakes a hand over his dark, police academy crew cut and continues toward the door. “Nothing. Just . . . see you next time.”

When the door clicks shut behind him, it takes me a while to get moving again. Minutes. And when I finally kneel to finish cleaning up the chocolate, footsteps move outside the door toward the stairs, as if it takes Charlie a while to get moving, too.





Chapter 3





Charlie


I’m staring into my locker like it holds the meaning of life, instead of my smelly, black gym bag. We’ve just gone through hours of safe takedown procedures, including the arm bar hammerlock, my brother refusing to dismiss us until every recruit demonstrated the move to his satisfaction. Now the future protectors of the five boroughs are snapping towels at each other and deciding between Chinese or pizza for dinner, but I haven’t even changed out of my sweat-soaked clothes yet.

I’m not even sure what the fuck has me so baffled, but I’ve been in this weird, functioning coma since leaving Ever’s apartment. I don’t remember walking to the train or riding it back uptown, although I managed to pull together for this afternoon’s training session since my brother was running the drills. If I’d slacked off for a second, I would’ve been the recipient of one of Greer’s long-winded lectures.

Speaking of being in a coma.

Okay, let’s backtrack. Everything was fine when I walked into Ever’s place, right? Baking as usual. Dressed like a certified knockout. The sex was phenomenal, no getting around it. I’m actually starting to worry that we’ll never reach a plateau, and one day we’ll just bang ourselves into another dimension. Sex dimension. Actually, I think I might have entertained myself to porn with that title, if I’m not mistaken.

Focus, shithead.

Right. Nothing was off with Ever until she climbed off my lap. My cock springs to life in my gym shorts remembering the way she stood up, thong around one ankle, her ass red from slapping against my thighs. Christ-at-large. I can’t ask her to meet me twice in one day. Can I? This isn’t the first time I’ve kicked around the idea. More like, the four thousandth time. Since this afternoon.

I can’t shake this memory of how Ever looked at me today. When I asked her if I could fix something or help out. God, I think I might have actually spooked her. Look, I’m just as antirelationship as Ever, but that seems a little extreme. So this is where I’m getting caught up. Wanting to know why. And that’s against the rules. There’s no discussing pasts or futures. Just afternoon delight with an occasional Adam Levine meltdown. I don’t want to know where Ever’s fear of coupling up comes from, and she doesn’t want me fixing busted pipes.

End of story. Stop moping around like a fucking puppy.

The academy requires every ounce of my focus if I’m going to meet expectations. There’s no room for anything else. Not now. Not ever. Both men in my family are sans women. My mother left when I was in first grade, because she was treated as an afterthought in a house full of men with a sole ambition. She wasn’t treated right, so she left. There is no chance of me doing better when reaching the highest possible peak of law enforcement is my goal. I don’t remember a time in my life when accelerating to the top wasn’t drilled into my head as the most important thing life had to offer.

Jack straddles the bench beside me, tipping a water bottle to his lips. I can smell the vodka it contains. Everyone in our row can smell it. But no one says boo to Jack unless they want a busted lip. Unless you’re me and you’ve already taken the busted lip and given him one back. Like some asshole rite of passage that makes perfect sense unless you think about it too hard.

“What’s going on with you, Burns? You only beat everyone’s timed mile by a full minute today.” Another tip of the water bottle. “Everyone thinks I’m dragging you down with me.”

“Now, come on. That’s bullshit.” I finally drag my gym bag out of the locker. “I was at least a minute ten ahead of the next guy.”

That earns me a shove in the ribs. Fair enough.

“I guess the part about you dragging me down is also bullshit.” Since that was kind of a compliment, I peel the T-shirt over my head to avoid any bro-moment eye contact. “I would remind you that showing up without a hangover once in a while might shave a minute off your time, but that would be one less person making me look good.”

Jack snorts. Awkward moment averted. Well, mostly. Because he knows I’m not completely joking. Jack was raised in an illegal brothel in Hell’s Kitchen, where he learned quite a few handy tricks (just another reason I keep Ever away from my apartment). When his mother got too old to entertain, he got a job unloading cargo from ships on the West Side in order to support them. He understands hard work and could probably be a powerhouse if he put in some effort. I guess it’s going to take more than the promise of law-enforcement glory to motivate him. Time will tell.

“Come on, Burns,” Jack groans at the locker room ceiling. “Give up the goods. Your brother’s voice has taken away my will to live. I need something interesting to kick start my brain again.”

I pull on a fresh T-shirt with the academy logo on the pocket. Jack smirks when he notices, but I ignore him. “It’s probably nothing.”

“You ever heard the expression don’t bullshit a bullshitter?” Jack salutes me with his bottle. “Words to live by.”

“Yeah? Here’s two more words to live by. Fuck you,” I mutter. But now I kind of want to talk about what happened this afternoon. Why? There’s nothing to talk about. Is there? “I saw Ever today.”

“The girl with the golden—”

“You don’t want to finish that sentence.”

“I was going to say, ‘golden heart’,” my pirate asshole friend finishes.

“Sure, you were.” A locker slams extra-loudly behind us, and we both give the offender our best what the hell expression before going back to the conversation at hand. “She wasn’t . . . Ever today. Something was different.”

“I knew it.” Jack’s voice echoes off the lockers. “You have to hand it to the girl. She put on a good show, but they all break out their tap shoes eventually.”

“What does that even mean?”

“It means she’s doing the relationship dance.”

My eyes narrow. “There was dancing . . .” Ah God, now I’m thinking about her climbing off my lap again. Don’t even think about calling her twice in one day. “But you’re wrong. She’s the one who made the rules. Nothing serious. Her exact words.”

“Right.” Jack throws both legs onto one side of the bench and stands, leaning against the locker beside mine. “I’ve heard tell of this strategy. She was lulling you into a false sense of security. Playing the long game.” He shivers. “She sounds ruthless, man. Glad I’m not in your shoes.”

All right. This is why I should limit my discussions with Jack to fantasy sports. “You’re way off. I’m telling you, she’s a fucking unicorn.” I shrug. “She probably just had a bad day or something.” My neck starts to itch at the idea of Ever being upset, but I scratch it and move on. I have to. There are boundaries between her and I. Crossing them would mean the end of this perfect thing we’ve got going.

A relationship isn’t an option for me. I’ve seen my father and brother, watching me train from the wings when they think I’m not aware of their presence. Their speculation on my progress. I’ve got some intimidating shoes to fill, and nothing is going to hold me back or turn me into a disappointment. When my mother left, being the best became a must. Otherwise she left for nothing.

A badge is something you earn and keep. It doesn’t disappear when things get rough—no, it shines brighter. It’s a sure thing. A lasting thing. The goal is to make sergeant within the first three years of graduation from the academy, then take the lieutenant exam. Pass it with flying colors, as I’ve been groomed to do. After that, there won’t be time for anything but keeping the streets safe. Living up to my legacy. Making my small, but powerful family proud.

Have faith. Tomorrow everything will be back to the way it was. Ever will be waiting for me with a smile. I’ll have my head back in the fucking game, training to fulfill my legacy with a clear mind, free of women and relationship worries. Everything will be exactly as it should be.

But when I get home later that night, I don’t even remember the walk.





Ever


We have a job tonight. Not a huge one. But not a small one, either. Nothing is small to our business—Hot Damn Caterers—right now. My roommate, Nina, and I were clueless when we started building the company. The first thing we did was design business cards. Red ones with white script and saucy clip art. When they showed up in the mail, we set them on our kitchen table, realized we were twats for wasting precious money and split a bottle of rum.

When the hangover passed, we got our asses in gear.

Nina’s grandfather owned a donut shop in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, for thirty years, but was forced to close its doors when wine bars and designer cupcake shops moved in to accommodate the younger scene. However, he was left with the deed to an off-site bakery where the donuts were actually produced. Small in size though it is, the space is valuable, convenient and was quite generously bestowed on Nina—a top-notch pastry chef in her own right—when she turned twenty-one.

So what do I have to offer this amateur operation? In the beginning . . . not a hell of a lot. I could cook a mean cannelloni—oh yes, I could—for one person. Maybe two. But apart from an associate’s degree in women’s studies from Borough of Manhattan Community College, I had no education of which to boast. Especially of the culinary variety. So I learned and I learned fast.

I took night classes on the cheap from culinary school students looking to fulfill teaching credits. I cooked, failed and tried again until I could be useful. Food became my escape, my focus—each time I opened the oven, I accomplished something new. Now, almost two years later, Nina and I hire college students with waitressing experience to carry my creations around on trays at events, which comes with its own brand of drama, but works out for the most part.

Owning a catering company wasn’t a dream I had since childhood or even college. Manhattan is such a kaleidoscope of opportunities—fashion, finance, fedora sales—that it took me a while to catch up with the rest of my eager beaver generation and decide on one path. Once I did, it was as though culinary arts had been waiting patiently for me to discover it, before leaping into my arms like a long-lost friend.

Bottom line is, Hot Damn Caterers is something I’m proud of. Something unexpected and wonderful. It requires all of my energy, and I’m happy to give it. I’ve actually built something out of nothing. I never thought I’d be able to say that.

Lately, though? I’ve been experiencing this sort of . . . anticlimax. Not sure how else to explain the feeling of bursting at the seams to share a triumph with someone, looking around and finding myself alone. Nina is great. Nay, the greatest. I couldn’t ask for a better friend or business partner. Nina has a boyfriend, though, and I can’t even remember the last time she slept at the apartment. We see each other at the Williamsburg kitchen occasionally when Nina needs help with a large baking order, but I’ve taken on the administrative side of Hot Damn and that work is done here, in the apartment. Where the only person to celebrate a new contract with is the dust bunny beneath my bed.

There have been these moments recently with Charlie when I had the urge to tell him a story about the prior evening’s catering job. Or throw him into a chair and force my newest savory puff pastries down his throat so he can give me star ratings. Isn’t that ridiculous? Yes, it is! It’s ridiculous. The beauty of our nonrelationship is the lack of goo. We are antigoo. Charlie couldn’t be happier with the arrangement, either. He blazes a trail out of here that still smokes an hour later. The closest he’s come to tasting my cooking was licking chocolate off my ass yesterday.

It’s probably a phase. I’m twenty-two. Everyone I pass on the street is coupled up or dating online. It’s only natural that I should get the false sense something is missing. The phase will pass. Will it start when I break things off with Charlie? Over time, I think it might. Why that scares me even more, I’m not sure.

I’m piping cream cheese into these neat little phyllo dough puffs when I get a knock at the door. Huh. Nobody buzzed from downstairs. It’s too early for Charlie to show, and he never stops by without texting first. Another one of our unofficial rules. And it can’t be Nina, unless she lost her keys. Although, she’d be shouting Brooklynese at me through the door by now. Weird.

Piping bag in hand, I pad toward the door in my socks and check the peep-hole. A version of me, about twenty years older, stares back from the hallway. “Mother?”

“The one and only.”

I force myself to stop gaping and unlock the door, although I use the piping bag hand, which results in cream cheese squirting all over the ground. “Shit.” I’m in a flustered limbo, stuck between opening the damn door and trying to clean up the lake of cheese before my mother comes in and thinks I’m a slob. “Uhhh. Hold on.”

I use my shirt to clean up the cheese. Hold your applause, ladies and gentlemen.

When my mother walks into the apartment, she looks like a hummingbird deciding on which flower to land. Or maybe an adult version of the hokey pokey. She sets one foot in the kitchen, cocks a hip, backs out. Turns in a circle on the way into my living room, perches on the couch arm, stands again. Then she reaches out with toned, tastefully tanned arms. “Baby girl.”

“Hi.” I walk into her embrace, inhaling the familiar scent of Dolce & Gabbana Velvet Sublime. I step back, giving her outfit the same once over she’s giving mine. “You look amazing. What brings you to my neighborhood?”

“Oh, you know. This and that.”

This is when things get strange. My mother, who never settles, never stops chattering, gossiping or running her fingers over everything in the vicinity . . . she just winds down. And flops—flops—onto my couch. I’ve never seen her execute a move that fell short of elegant, but she’s literally slumping into the pillows, hand to her forehead. Someone has died. That’s the first conclusion I land on, but immediately dismiss it as absurd. We have no people. My father was never in the picture, my grandmother made for greener pastures a decade ago. There’s no one.

Unless. “Oh, God. Did Hula Hoop die?”

“No,” she cries, her spine shooting straight. “Why would you say that?”

Okay, so her half-blind poodle is still up and running. “I don’t know. You seem distraught.”

She holds up a hand as she visibly calms herself down. “Hula is fine. She’s downstairs waiting in my Uber.”

“I guess you’re not planning on staying long.” My throat aches as I say the words, but none of that comes across in my tone. The no commitment rule my mother taught me is a facet of our relationship, too. As a child, I remember her being somewhat warmer. Maternal with occasional flashes of bittersweet joy. She was the only Carmichael woman since my great-grandmother to disregard the three mistress rules—and she was rewarded with me in her belly. The summer she turned twenty-one, she interned at a retail buyer in the fashion district. She fell madly in love with her boss, only to arrive at work one day and find him in the back room with the lunch cart girl, rogering her against the copy machine.

The three rules cemented themselves once more for my mother after that. Not only did she come back from maternity leave and bust her ass until she usurped my father from his position as manager, she moved to a much higher level within the company, fired his ass and never relied on or trusted another man again. They are nothing more than one month’s worth of free entertainment to her and the more unavailable, the better.

Unfortunately, while my mother was out kicking ass and taking names, she wasn’t home very often as I grew up, leaving me with babysitters or interns. Whenever we spoke, it was almost always about the dangers of trusting the opposite sex. How to be independent. How to avoid entanglements.

“Are you headed out of town?” She still works for the same company in merchandising, sending her across the pond pretty frequently. “I lost track of the date . . . is it Paris fashion week or—”

“I’ve come here with something to say.” She stands and clicks over to the window on impractical high heels. “Something very important, Ever.”

At the rare use of my name, I fall back into my chair. Everything about this situation is rare, really. We don’t have heart-to-hearts, my mother and I. She informs me via e-mail or text message if she’s going out of town or relocating. That’s about it. So there’s a quickening in my pulse knowing she’s thought of me, planned a conversation for us to have. Together. “What is it, Mother?”

“Until last night, I was seeing a man. Married, yes. I know you don’t approve.” Her slim shoulders lift and fall on a breath. “He . . . ended things before the month was up. Decided to give things with his wife another try.”

“Oh.” I know better than to reach out and comfort her. Her associations with married men are a bone of contention between us, so I have to strike the right note of sympathy if I don’t want to sound like, them’s the breaks when you creep on another woman’s dude, Ma. “I’m sorry.”

She starts to wave off my apology with an impatient hand, but doesn’t follow through, her hand just . . . dropping. “Last night was the first time since your father . . . that a man ended things first. I’ve learned to choose my men very carefully, and I never failed to adhere to the one-month rule. But it had only been a week. A week.” She meets my gaze, but it flits away before cementing. “For so long, these short associations have been a constant in my life. I was guaranteed one month with no strings. But last night . . . I realized there are no guarantees in the rules we live by. Not anymore. Not even the single month I’ve gotten so used to relying on.” She smoothed a hand down her scarf. “It took being cut loose to realize something. The only thing I’ve guaranteed is my own loneliness.”

Numbness moves straight down to my toes. “Mother. I’m . . . what are you saying?”

“I haven’t been happy for a long time, Ever. After your father, I followed the rules because I was hurting. I needed to earn my self-respect back. Gain back the power I’d lost. And I don’t know when following the rules stopped being . . . fulfilling. But it’s been a while.” My mother turns, and with sunshine streaming in on either side of her face, she looks almost divine. Divine but so incredibly sad. “I’m a lonely woman, Ever. I don’t remember the last time I confided in another person. Or laughed. Actually laughed. And I think those opportunities with men have been right in front of me for the last twenty-three years, but I pushed them aside, because I was afraid of being hurt again.”

You could have laughed with me. We could have laughed together.

Those words stick in my throat as my mother comes toward where I’m super-glued to the chair. Since walking into my apartment, she has aged a decade, I would swear to it. She’s crumbling under the truth of her words, and it’s a tragedy playing out, right here in my apartment. Seeing it, hearing it, makes my stomach twist into a pretzel. “Ever, I’ve steered you down my path, telling you to stay free and committed to no one. But there’s still time to change.” She kneels in front of me—such an uncharacteristic action for my unflappable mother—and tears push, hot and full, behind my eyelids. “Find someone to grow old with, Ever. A man who’ll look you in the eye and respect you. A man who will care enough to argue with you. A man who can’t think of a better place to be than with you. Get off this path. It only leads to meals for one and no one to laugh with, baby girl.”

“But . . .” I haven’t cried in so long, my garbled voice jolts me. “You said a woman doesn’t need a committed man to make her happy. I can’t . . . how can I change when it’s all I’ve ever known?”

“Maybe it’s okay to need someone, so long as they need you back just as much.” My mother rises and lays a hand on my head. “Just promise me you’ll try. Really try, Ever.”

I’ve never been given the opportunity to make my mother proud before. My whole life, I’ve been heeding her advice, but we’ve never bonded over it. Our emotions have never collided in any way. Now I’m in the center of the impact, seeing the strongest woman I know fall down on her proverbial knees. For me. She’s humbling herself for me, so I don’t face the loneliness she’s experiencing. She’s trusting me with her advice, with her hurt, and I’m not going to squander this chance.

As a young girl, I used to yearn for my mother to come home from work and talk to me. Talk to me about anything but avoiding being tied down. It’s a long time coming, but her being here and opening up? I have a sense that it’s her unique way of apologizing. For all those times she didn’t hold me close. All those times she shut down conversations about boys, telling me to ignore them and stay smart. Be independent. She isn’t the type to come right out and issue apologies, but actions speak louder than words. And she is physically here, trying to save me from her mistakes.

If easing my mother’s concerns means dating—with the intent to become one-half of a relationship—so be it. I can do that for her. I can do that for us.

First step: end things with Charlie. My blood pumps heavily in my temples at the thought. I’m no longer abiding by the one-month rule, but that hardly matters now. He doesn’t want a serious relationship. Our whole association is founded on that fact. So . . . in order to move forward, giving up Charlie is a must. No big deal, right? Why am I thinking about it so hard?

Maybe because . . . lately, I’ve been wishing he wouldn’t run out so fast.

There. I admitted it. I’ve been secretly hoping he’ll ask to try one of my brownies. And feeling disappointed when he doesn’t text about something besides hooking up.

If I can feel the beginnings of more with Charlie . . . maybe there’s someone else out there who could inspire the same feelings. Sure, I’m skeptical, but I need to find out. Not to mention, she could be right. Letting go of my resolve to be alone could be the first step toward shaking what’s got me in a funk lately.

“Ever?”

I look up to find my mother paused at the door, hand on the knob. “Yes, Mother. I’ll try my best.”





Chapter 4





Charlie


All right. My head is back on straight. Whatever weirdness I vibed from Ever was a hallucination. Just like that time I drank too many Red Bulls at a Miike Snow concert and swore I was levitating. I’m going to have proof on my side in mere minutes, because I’m climbing Ever’s stairs, my chest expanding as I suck in the citrus aromas dangling in the air like ripe fruit. She’s going to answer the door, we’re going to screw like a meteor is headed for Earth, and this weird, shaky feeling in my stomach will bounce.

So why does my hand pause on the way to knocking? I can hear her soft humming through the door, the gentle scrapes of kitchen utensils. Homey sounds I’m not accustomed to. Ones I don’t normally absorb. And I shouldn’t. I don’t have time. When my brother, Greer, was a recruit, he slept in the locker room between sessions. When he’d found the NYPD drills to be unchallenging, he’d designed new ones. They’re not going to name a sweaty gym mat after me unless I raise my game. A lot.

I will, too. As soon as I get Ever out of my system for the day, I’ll be able to focus. Ignoring the way her hums seem to swim lazy laps in my stomach, I knock. Harder than usual. There won’t be any games played today. No flirting through the door crack. I’m going to make short work of whatever sexy outfit she’s concocted to make me insane, then ride her on my dick until she loses count of her orgasms.

She takes way too long to answer the door. The longer it takes, the more my chest feels like it’s caving in. There’s no more humming. It’s complete silence, and I’m contemplating the merits of knocking again—or breaking down the door—when she finally opens.

Immediately, I know yesterday wasn’t some fluke. Everything has changed.

“Hey, Ever.”

“Charlie.” She smiles, but it dips at the edges. “Hey.”

In red jean shorts and a tight, white, see-through T-shirt, she looks phenomenal, but for the first time, my lust is cut with desperation. There’s nothing more dangerous. A no-fly zone. A vision of Ever wrapped in yellow caution tape flashes in my mind, but I shake the image loose and focus. I see the writing on the wall here. The fun is over. But I can’t get my feet to move. Going into her apartment is the absolute worst idea, but I can’t stop myself from making it, because goddammit. This is Ever. A unicorn. I’m not just going to walk away and be left wondering what got her horn stuck in the mud. That would be rude, wouldn’t it? Not to mention unprofessional. Cops aren’t supposed to leave stones unturned.

“Can I come in?”

She nods and steps back, clearly putting distance between our bodies when normally I would be ripping off those tiny shorts by now, my cock in her hands. Fuck, I’m so hot for her. No matter what’s going on here, I don’t think that will ever change.

That’s definitely not panic making me winded and edgy. I’m just very aware that my schedule only gives me twenty minutes before I need to be back uptown.

“Would you like something to drink?”

Whoa. She’s offering me refreshments? “Um . . . no, thanks. I chugged a Gatorade on the subway.”

“Gatorade.” There is none of the usual seduction in her walk as she moves to the kitchen, sliding orange debris from a cutting board into the trash can. “I guess my lavender-flavored water wouldn’t have been a hit, huh?”

“Flowers in your water?” I shake my head. “Why?”

“The floral notes are supposed to be calming.” She closes her eyes and laughs. “It tastes like shit. I don’t get it, either. Pretty sure everyone just drinks it because they think they should. In high school, the peer pressure is over cigarettes. As grownups . . .” She flips on the sink tap. “We’re pressured to drink flower water and tolerate quinoa.”

“Tell me quinoa hasn’t invaded your repertoire.”

“It’s invaded everything,” she whispers. “It’s here right now.”

Crazy as it sounds, this is the most conversation we’ve had since meeting in the bar that afternoon a month ago. Is this why I’ve had a ball of fire in my stomach since yesterday? Had staying just this side of personal started to bother me?

Nah. Couldn’t be. We drew the line at personal for a reason. It’s what made this arrangement so ideal. So . . .

“What’s going on here, Ever?”

Slowly, she removes her hands from the sink and wipes them on a dishtowel, her eyes landing everywhere but me. “I have to end this, Charlie.”

“Yeah. Believe it or not, I picked up on that.” Although hearing it makes me feel like I’ve swallowed a glass full of rusty nails. We’re a casual hookup. No pressure. Now she’s ended it, so I should give her a kiss on the cheek and walk. Right? Yeah . . . “I want to know why, Ever.” Sauntering toward the kitchen, I seesaw a hand between us. “I thought this thing we had going was pretty fucking perfect.”

Her expression is one of shock. Really? I mean, she’s acting like a man wouldn’t be even remotely miffed over giving her up. This girl is dynamite, wrapped in Please Santa, I’ve Been a Good Boy. Hadn’t someone told her that before? I could have, if my mouth hadn’t been so busy elsewhere. Or if I hadn’t been afraid she would read something into it.

“Charlie, I told you I didn’t want anything serious. I’m tapping out.” Her hands slip into the back pockets of her shorts. “It was perfect for a while. But I . . .”

Don’t ask. “You what?”

Ever squares her shoulders. “I’m going to be straight with you.” She blows out a breath and rolls her neck, like a boxer getting ready to enter the ring. “I’ve decided to give serious relationships a try.”

Even as a two-by-four smacks into my middle, clarity descends. For once, Jack had been right. She was doing the relationship dance. I’d walked right into the trap.





Ever


You could have heard one of my mother’s Hermès scarves drop.

I can’t tell what Charlie is thinking, but I assume there’s horror involved. Take a fucking number, bro. I’m not exactly turning pirouettes at the idea of throwing my hat into the bizarre Manhattan dating ring, either. But hours later I’m still thrown from my mother’s visit. In addition to having my belief system turned upside down, the woman sort of put the fear of God into me.

The moment she’d left, I’d opened my Mac and created a dating profile on the site with the least obnoxious questions, DateMate.com. Already I had a few dudes interested. They all looked and sounded the very definition of assholes, but it was still early days. Maybe Nina’s boyfriend knows someone who is looking to engage me in an awkward conversation where a bill arrives at the end.

Shoot me now.

It’s extremely difficult to conjure faceless date candidates when Charlie is only a few yards away looking delicious. The crisp, navy uniform pants and gray T-shirt do endless favors for his body. Biceps, thighs and throat muscles vie for attention. His blue eyes are a little deeper set than usual, black rings beneath, like he didn’t get a good night of sleep. Which makes me think of naps. How he would look with his shirt off, in some freshly laundered sweatpants, burying his face into a pillow. A pillow right next to mine. Really, really good. That’s how he’d look.

I need to get rid of him before I attempt to find out.

“Look, it’s a long story and I don’t want to bore you,” I say, trying to fill the wake of silence. “Suffice it to say, someone very close to me pulled a Ghost of Mistresses Future and showed me what life could be like if I didn’t give relationships a fair shake.” My throat starts to hurt, thinking of my mother’s distress. “I don’t want to be left thinking what if. What if I’d tried. So I’m going to armor up and enter the battle.” Dismissing Charlie from my life is even harder than I’d thought it would be. “The least you can do is wish me luck. You’ll . . . find someone else.”

I have to be imagining the flash of hurt that crosses his face at those two final words, right?

Yeah, a moment later, he proves I had.

Charlie’s eyebrows lift. “You really expect me to believe all that?” He advances, rapping his knuckles on my kitchen counter. “This is the part where I say, ‘No, please, Ever, don’t date someone else. Date me. I’ve seen the light.’ Right?” He scoffs. “There’s no way in hell, Ever. We’ve never lied to each other about what we wanted. I can’t believe you of all people would pull this shit on me.”

Uh. Wow. I’ve now had my hair blown back twice in one day by the two most unlikely candidates. Charlie thinks my brave foray into the dating scene is a ploy to land him as a full-time boyfriend? Hot acid razes the back of my neck, my vision crowding together. “You’ve got to be kidding me, Charlie.”

“Kidding about what? Not wanting to officially date you or anyone else? I assure you I’m very serious. I would be serious about that if you were Kate Middleton.” There’s a touch of discomfort to his jerky movements, as though he wasn’t all that sure about his argument, but he’d committed, so now it was ride or die. “We were up front from the beginning, Ever. I don’t have time to cuddle on the couch with you and watch Fashion Police.”

“Okay, first of all, I haven’t watched Fashion Police since Joan Rivers died. It has lost its luster.” I hold up my finger and allow that to sink in. “Second, I understand you, Charlie. I know you don’t do serious. I never had these ambitions myself until this morning. I was trying to let you down gently with some goddamn lavender water and you’re shitting all over it.” I can’t believe this. I’m having a break-up squabble. As if we’ve even been dating in the first place. “I don’t want to date you. I don’t want to cuddle you. And by the way, I must really be a truly evil mastermind to trick you into a relationship with a month of no-strings sex. What a bitch I am, right?”

Charlie holds up both hands and whistles, long and low. “All right. I’m backtracking. Tracking way back. This is why everything said in a locker room should stay in a locker room. I’m sorry. I jumped to an idiotic conclusion.” He searches my face, but I have no idea what he’s looking for. Lingering signs of deception? Maybe he’s just trying to decipher the shade of red my cheeks have turned. Magenta? Crimson? “I forgot for a minute I was talking to a unicorn.”

“What?” I have the sudden urge to throw my bowl of chocolate-orange mixture through a window. “And Kate Middleton? I’m like her exact opposite.”

“I don’t know. It just came out,” Charlie mutters. “I mean, if I had to pick, it would be Pippa—”

“Please leave, Charlie.” I’m definitely not jealous of the Duchess of Cambridge. Or her sister. This whole conversation needs to be filed away in my things to cringe about at odd moments folder. “I have a job tonight. And dating matches to go through.”

Oh, real mature, Ever.

“Wait. Just wait. This is going way too fast.” Charlie drags both hands over his close-cropped brown hair, then visibly centers himself with a deep breath. “Ever. You’re making a mistake. No one has what we have.” His throat flexes. “It’s too rare to give up.”

I ignore the distant voice in my head, shouting from the back of the class to agree with him. Against my will, memories rise from that afternoon in the bar. When we met and kissed. I must have imagined the relentless sense that something huge was happening. It must have been the stupid romance of the rain or a trick of light. All he really wanted was a hookup. That’s still all he wants from me.

“I’ve made my mind up, Charlie.”

He’s in front of me before I can blink. Big, frustrated, confused, turned-on male. His eyebrows are knit tight, his breathing heavy at my lips. He presses me into the counter, his fingers digging into my waist before his right hand drops to hook beneath my knee. That thumb of his, the one that has brushed my nipples and strummed my clit countless times so skillfully, makes circles on the inside of my knee. And then out of nowhere, he jerks my knee up around his waist with a groan. My neck loses power, my head falling back. He’s hard, the shape of him mouthwatering against my stomach. Pressing, pressing, thrusting. “Unmake your mind,” Charlie rasps into my neck, a thread of desperation twining with seduction. “Ever . . . please. I wanted you to ride me today, cutie. That hot as fuck way you do it, all bouncing tits and shaking legs. Don’t you want that? Don’t you want to feel me crammed up into your wet pussy?”

Oh shit. Yeah. He knows all my weaknesses and when to exploit them. I’m feeling exploited enough right now to need an underwear change. It would be so easy to say, yes, Charlie, and let him round out my afternoon with another one of the best orgasms life has to offer, but I know I’d be disappointed in myself when he left.

Although, I would be so satisfied . . .

Eyes on the prize, Ever.

“Charlie, stop this.” I push on his shoulders twice before he budges. He stumbles back, his features tight, swiping a hand over his mouth. “I like you,” I breathe, horrified over the wobble in my voice. “I think you’re great. But we’re not in the same place anymore. I can’t give my full effort to finding someone if I know you’re going to show up and take me to bed. My . . .” Heart? No way. “My energy won’t really be in it.”

His hands are back in his hair, looking as if he might yank it out by the roots. “You’re really doing this,” he enunciates, going from shell-shocked to angry. “You’re going to be one of those girls who drags her boyfriend shopping, parades him in front of her friends at brunch and ends up with joint custody of a yellow Lab when it all goes south six months later?”

“I don’t know,” I say honestly. “That sounds awful, but I won’t know until I try, will I?”

Charlie opens and closes his mouth about eight times, but can’t seem to decide on what to say. “We have the perfect thing going here.” His finger stabs the air with a jerky movement. “You’re going to realize it the first time some chump asks you to split the bill.”

“At least there will be a bill to split.” Shit. Why did I say that? I need him to leave now. All these suppressed desires for our nonrelationship picked a really inconvenient time to reveal themselves. “See you around, Charlie.”

He plants both hands on his hips and looks down at the floor, staying that way for a few seconds, then moving toward the door. When he opens it and stalks out into the hallway, he doesn’t look back. “See you around, Ever.”

The door slams.





Chapter 5





Charlie


One week has passed since I walked out of Ever’s apartment.

Life is good. Great, actually. I feel like I can take a deep breath for the first time in ages. Birds are chirping. I’m seeing everything through clear eyes. My world is full of color! Exploding with the light.

Just kidding. I want to die.

Jack told me to go out and find a new girl. Which went really well. I made it to my building’s lobby before I got the urge to vomit. That’s normal, right? Missing your nongirlfriend enough that you almost paint your shoes with stomach sauce? I mean, I barely know a damn thing about her. She’s the hottest woman I’ve ever laid eyes on. That’s a given. She’s got a great sense of humor—at least, that’s what I’ve gleaned from our short banter sessions that preempt sex. Her culinary skills seem tight, though I’ve never actually tasted her food.

And that’s it. I shouldn’t be sitting on the last stool of a dive bar on Bowery—still in my training gear—trying to erase her voice from my head. Christ, she was moaning most of our acquaintance. So why can I only remember the times we actually talked? I keep playing that ridiculous conversation about lavender water over and over in my head, like it holds the secret to life. She was just so . . . unguarded in those moments. What else would she have said if we’d talked longer? Why had I shut her up with my mouth so many times?

“Another, please?” I ask the passing bartender. Without responding, he uncaps a Heineken and sets it in front of me. “Thanks.”

All right. After this beer, I’m done. No more wallowing. No more obsessing over how well her turn on the dating scene is going. I don’t want to know. Don’t want to think about other hands settling on her hips. Or other ears listening to jokes about quinoa. Or maybe a guy getting to the bottom of what spooked her about relationships in the first place. I’d never gotten that far.

And I shouldn’t have. I don’t want a commitment. They eventually land you in dank, smelly-ass bars with a layer of dust on the whiskey bottles, don’t they? Or pouring yourself twice as tenaciously into a job, the way my father did when Mom left.

Guilt twists in my belly, remembering the silence in my childhood house.

Yeah. No commitments for me. I just want my uncomplicated, nonrelationship with Ever back.

As if my words floated up to the atmosphere and danced right into God’s ears, a girl clomps into the hazy bar. I recognize her right away, which is a relief. My training isn’t going to waste. I’m meant to be a cop. Ask both members of my family.

Loosening the tightness from my throat, I watch Ever’s roommate—Nina, I believe—hand a dollar to the bartender and ask for change to pay the parking meter outside. There’s a restaurant supply place next door—see? More capable police work—and she’s probably picking up kitchen equipment or catering gear. Jesus, is Ever with her? I almost jump off my stool and sprint out of the bar to go see, but manage to remain seated like a normal human.

Nina had been with Ever the day we met. Thanks to my Ever-induced tunnel vision, however, I didn’t speak to her and I haven’t seen her since. But I remember two observations about her from that day in the packed bar. She’s a redhead and her hand gestures are dramatic. As her gaze cuts down toward me at the end of the bar, I see recognition dawn. Yeah, I doubt she would forget the guy who mauled her friend’s face in a packed bar, right? Somehow, just having someone acquainted with Ever acknowledge me makes me less nauseous than I’ve been in a week. I lift my beer bottle in greeting and after accepting the coins from the bartender, she comes toward me.

“Hey,” Nina says, a huge sigh pushing the words free. One of those conversation openings that alerts one party that the other party has been through some rough shit since waking up that morning. “I don’t have a lot of time, but I guess if I get a parking ticket, you can get it dismissed.”

I smile into a sip of beer. “Not until I graduate.”

Nina falls down onto a stool, propping both elbows on the bar. “You know what?” She wiggles her fingers at the bartender. “Jameson, please. Neat.”

“Shit. That bad?”

“The worst.”

Join the club, I start to say. But it might get back to Ever that I’m miserable. I want her to think I’m living it up, right? No. Shut up, Charlie. God, I hate this version of myself. This version wants to ask Nina about Ever and her activities over the last week, but I can’t do that. Women tell each other everything. But maybe I can come at it from a different angle. Nina and Ever work together, right? So . . . “Is this a work-related problem, or . . .”

“Man related.”

Uh-oh. Abort mission. If there is one guarantee in this life and the next, it’s that I will probably put my foot in my mouth. I have no experience with comforting words because I’m surrounded by men who’ve either sworn off women or go through them like water, never settling on one in particular. My roommate Danika doesn’t count, because as far as I can tell, she operates like us dudes, emoting about as often as an eclipse takes place. “A man, huh?” I’m stuck. I have no choice. “You don’t say.”

“My boyfriend broke it off this morning.” She screws up her face, nostrils flaring. “Through a direct message on Twitter.”

Okay, I don’t need experience with ending relationships to know that was fucked up. “No way.”

“Yes way.” The bartender sets the drink in front of Nina and she tosses it back in one go, following it with a satisfied ahhhh sound. “He’s seeing someone from work. I’ve suspected for a while, but . . . I thought he was losing interest because I was working too much, so I tried to be there more.” She shakes her head. “Turns out, he wanted me there less. Never. Gone. Replaced.”

“He shouldn’t have done that to you. It’s not your fault, either, Nina. It’s his.” I pick up my bottle and gesture at nothing in particular. Because I’m not seeing anything but Ever. Haven’t seen much else in a week. “Sometimes people, you know, they grow apart. One minute everything is fine—it’s fine—and the next, you’re being offered lavender water and blurting the names of the royal family.”

“Why do I get the feeling we’re not talking about me anymore?”

My sigh blows a napkin off the bar. “I’m sorry, Nina. I’m not usually this self-centered. At least, I don’t think so.”

She looks me over with sympathetic eyes. “I think day drinking in sweaty gym clothes earns you a pass. Don’t take this the wrong way, but it does my heart good knowing there’s at least one man with the capacity to be torn up over a girl.” Her lips pinch together, fingers drumming on the bar. “I tried to be the bigger person. I tried to make it work. I went camping for that douchebag. In the end, I think I deserved some respect at the very least.” She blows out a shaky breath. “Maybe this makes me sound like an evil villain, but I wish there was some way to make him suffer. Payback.”

Man, the more this girl talks, the more anxious I grow to help. I might not be a relationship guy, but I sure as hell wouldn’t two time someone, then cast her aside like she never mattered. What if someone did that to Ever?

My fists curl beneath the bar. It could very well happen to her if she throws herself to the sharks, couldn’t it? Oh, shit. My esophagus is on fire, and there aren’t enough Heinekens on the island of Manhattan to douse it. I never paid attention to the cut throat singles scene before, but now I’m forced to think about Ever ending up heartbroken like Nina. Fact: There sure as fuck isn’t a man in this city good enough for Ever. So the odds of her ending up with some ass face who doesn’t appreciate everything she has to offer? Astronomically high.

Next month, it could be Ever getting a break-up DM on Twitter. What if it makes her cry? Jesus, am I having a panic attack? Sweat rolls down my spine as Nina watches me curiously, but my mouth is too dry to speak. Because now I’m picturing even worse scenarios. Growing up in a law enforcement environment means I’ve heard terrible stories. The ones that always punch me in the gut involve women getting hurt. Physically.

There are too many bad people out there. I can’t chance Ever ending up with one. She might be smart as hell, but she barely reaches my shoulder. If someone took advantage of Ever or harmed her, I wouldn’t be able to live with it.

“What if you could? Get payback on your ex?” I’m speaking before I realize it, my words sounding scraped and raw. An idea is forming, and my concern for Ever doesn’t allow me to consider it might be a bad one. Or an intrusive one. “I’m not an officer yet, but I grew up with half the force.” I tilt my head at Nina. “Might be nice watching your ex go crazy on Twitter tomorrow because his car or bike got impounded, right?”

“God yeah. Can you even impound a bike—” She points a finger at me. “Wait a minute. I know when a man is up to something. This is about Ever.” A beat passes. “Start talking, buddy.”

Suddenly I’m being strangled by a giant. “Has she gone out with anyone yet?”

Nina rears back with a gasp, eyes wide. “I can’t tell you that.”

“Blink once for yes, twice for no.”

“Charlie.” She gives a grudging sigh, looking like she wants to smack me. I don’t blame her. But I also want to hug her when she blinks twice.

Relief rushes through my veins like I’ve been hooked to an ice water IV. All right. No dates yet. What do I do with this information? What do I want more than anything?

To go back in time. To the days Ever and I greeted each other naked. When I could lose myself in the feel of her, making sure she got lost in me right back, with none of the entanglements. When I could have her all to myself while maintaining my star recruit position at the academy. Add in this protective drive to keep her safe from the Shitheads of Manhattan and my next move is a no brainer.

Ever just needs a gentle nudge back in my direction. If I can accomplish that—safely—she’ll come back to me in no time.

I turn in my stool to face Nina, folding my hands together. My let me level with you pose. “Nina, I vow right here and now to make your ex’s life a comedy of non-life-threatening tragedies, if you give me details about Ever’s first date. One,” I rush to add. “Just one and then I will leave you alone.” I tilt my head and give her the eyes. Over the years, these blue eyes have gotten me out of detention, girl trouble and once bumped a C grade to an A in trigonometry. “I’m having a hard time moving on and . . .” So far, I’m not lying. “I think if I just have some concrete proof she’s over me, maybe it’ll be the kick in the ass I need.” Okay, now I’m lying.

Nina squeezes her eyes shut and groans. “I’m being played and I know it.”

I have this sudden vision of me, Ever and Nina hanging out together. Eating pizza out of a box while we watch a movie in their apartment. Maybe Nina has a new fella over, and we’re checking him out for new boyfriend approval. Why am I thinking of this? “Just consider the possibilities,” I murmur cajolingly. “It would be a shame if your ex received a delivery of roses to his apartment with a thank you for last night card. Especially if his new squeeze is over cooking risotto.”

“You’re the evil villain.” A glint sparks in Nina’s eyes. “I kind of like it.”

“Do we have a deal?”

She scrutinizes me. “I’m either being an awful friend or a really good one here. I guess we’ll find out.” She sounds thoughtful. “Ever is going speed dating tonight. It’s in that converted church on the Upper East Side. The one that used to be a club—”

“Then they made it a Thai fusion restaurant? Yeah, I know it.” Christ, this news is like a blow to the ribs. I’d envisioned Ever on a date with one guy. Some ex-frat member shithead with a tiny dick and no game. Instead, she is literally throwing herself to a room full of them. Not happening. “Thanks for telling me.”

Nina takes my Heineken and drains a few inches. “I told her it was a bad idea. Speed dating. It’s a shit show.” She plunks the bottle back down. “I mean, she got so many hits on DateMate.com this week, she probably set some kind of record—”

“Thanks for that.”

“Bottom line, she definitely doesn’t need to speed date.” Nina sighs and hops off the stool, then pokes me in the shoulder. “Don’t make me sorry, Charlie.”

I hold up two fingers. “Scout’s honor.”

Nina snorts on her way out of the bar. The moment the door closes behind her, I’m all over this information like a detective interrogating a perpetrator. I call Jack. When he answers, there is a woman giggling in the background. I have no idea if she’s real or if he answered the phone while watching porn. And I don’t want to know. “Charlie boy. What it do?”

“I need a favor. You near the academy?”

Another giggle. “Does it sound like it?”

“No.” I stand, pulling my wallet out of the back of my pants, riffling through it for enough to cover my drinks and throwing it on the bar. “Well, pull out and get there. Round up as many guys as you can. Tell them there’s fifty bucks in it for each of them. I’ll be there soon as I can.”





Chapter 6





Ever


Oh my God, I’m so nervous. Dating is cannibalism. I’m sure of it and I’m not even in the building yet. There are people lined up waiting to get in, as if the original Hamilton cast reunited and they’re doing one show only. Everyone is eyeballing each other up and down, appreciating or discarding. I have a serious urge to turn tail and make for the closest drinking establishment. Where people meet naturally and aren’t trying to find their perfect match. They’re just trying to find one that’ll do for a good conversation and maybe a beer-flavored kiss or two.

All the women in line are dressed in business-casual attire, carefully concocted in an Ann Taylor LOFT dressing room. I’m wearing ripped jeans, a faded Wilco tank top and flip flops, because hello, it’s hot as hell. I have no time for single button blazers in this weather. I smell like cinnamon and chocolate, though, so I have that going for me, right?

“Shit,” I mutter, twisting my hair up so I can fan my neck. “This is going to be terrible, right?” I say to the girl in front of me, hoping for some commiseration.

“With that attitude, it will be,” she answers without turning around.

Great.

I breathe in the humidity and blow it back out. An NYPD vehicle rolls by through evening traffic on Third Avenue, and there I go again. I’m thinking about Charlie. What if he swaggered past right now? What would I do? Probably something bad. Very bad. I haven’t had sex in a week, which is by no means a long time. I’ve gone for stretches that lasted nearly a year. But when you’ve been getting it as good as Charlie gave it to me? A week is a century. A millennium. God, the way he used to go down on me, as if he’d been strategizing his tongue maneuvers all day . . . there’s no way to recreate that kind of ingenuity with a vibrator. I’ve been trying all damn week.

So yeah, if he walked past me right now on the sidewalk, I would be tested. Especially if he was wearing those uniform pants that made his package look like a Christmas present wrapped in a zipper. If I texted him right now, he would meet me. He would give me the Adam Levine sex and ask me no questions, tell me no lies.

Unfortunately, I miss his laugh and those adorable eyebrow waggles more than anything. So there will be no texting, because in that direction lies ruin. He’s probably already looking for someone to be his new acquaintance with benefits. Maybe he found her already.

That jarring thought forces my eye back on the prize. I’m here to give an effort. Like the girl in front of me. She obviously knows her shit.

Tomorrow morning, I might actually have a reason to call my mother. As long as I remember that, as long as I remember I might be doing something that could make her proud of me, or give us something in common, I can face anything.

Toward the front of the line, I hear a commotion and bend sideways to check it out. There is a group of young men my age in a tight-knit pack. Like me, they don’t look like they belong in line, either. The advertisement for this speed dating event mentioned young professionals, and I’m willing to bet these guys do not fit the bill. They’re all wearing aviators and chucks. Crew cuts and shaved heads. Serious expressions like they’re on some important mission from Ray-Ban. Maybe one of their little sisters is speed dating tonight, and they’ve come to keep tabs. If that’s the case, I’m rooting for them.

The line begins to move, and the Aviator Squad slowly elbows their way into the queue, glancing back over their shoulders, probably checking out the competition. Or merchandise, I amend, when a couple of them zero in on me. I frown at one who stares a little too long, and he smiles back, whispering something to his buddies.

What the hell is going on here?

I don’t have much time to think about Aviator Squad again, because once we’re inside, a harried woman ear tags us like cattle—in the form of a name tag—and gives the women table numbers. As I walk into the dimly lit room, I hear men complaining outside on the sidewalk through an open window. I can’t make out their exact words, but once I take a seat and watch the men file into the room, the nature of their complaints becomes obvious. The dudes who were here first, patiently waiting for their turn to impress the womenfolk, were muscled out by the new, hot-shot arrivals, although a decent number of the original line dwellers have made it through.

Someone passes by and clunks a glass of house red on my two-seater table and I gulp a few sips, hoping to round the edges of my nerves as quickly as possible. And I need the rounded edges, because there is literally a giant digital timer in the corner of the room, glaring at me like an electric vampire. It’s set to five minutes. Okay, I can do five minutes with each of these guys. No problem, right? I have to make small talk pretty frequently at catering events, especially if I need to step in and make tray passes, so this should be a walk in the park.

One of them could be great, Ever.

This is the part I need to understand. I’m not dating to get it over with, so I can go home and soak in a bath. I’m really looking for someone. I have to remember that when the urge to give a half-ass effort arises. An image of Charlie winking at me through the crack in my apartment door arises, accompanied by birds chirping, but I shove it away.

“Okay.” The woman who name-tagged us stands in the center of the room, beneath a dusty chandelier. She’s been doing this a while, and it holds no magic for her anymore—that much is clear. Absently, I wonder if she’d be open to jazzing these events up with some catering. It can’t hurt to leave her a business card. “The gentlemen have been given an order of numbers that correspond with each table. They will follow the order and have five minutes to visit with each of you. The clock will automatically reset and begin after the allotted time passes. Does everyone understand?” A low murmur of voices. “Splendid. I’ll be out back having a cigarette.”

On the way out, the woman smacks the timer and it begins counting down. It’s like someone stuck the room’s energy in a light socket. As soon as the supervision disappears, the men crisscross and plant themselves at tables, reaching across to shake their first victim’s hand. When no one sits at my table, my skin gets extra-tight. Oh God, my first experience dating and an error has occurred. I’m at the dud table.

But . . . no. Two men are arguing at the center of the room, quiet enough that I can’t overhear. One of them is wearing aviators. The exchange of words lasts about thirty seconds before Aviators wins the battle and the other man storms from the room. When Aviators slides into the seat across from me, I’m highly suspicious, but I say nothing. I just sip my wine and wait.

“Hi, there,” he said eventually. His confidence melts before my eyes, probably because he’s not surrounded by his posse. “Ever.” He reads the name off my tag. “That’s a cool name.”

“Thanks.” I set down my glass and lean forward. Trying. You must try. “My mother told the nurse to write Esther on the birth certificate, but she was still floating down on pain meds, so it came out garbled.”

He laughs before seeming to catch himself and sobering. Weird. “Uh. What do you do for a living?”

“I’m the co-owner of a catering company.”

“Well, I love to eat. It’s a match.” Again, he visibly reins himself in. Which is the opposite of the point of this exercise, right? “I mean, that seems all right.”

“Yeah . . .” I send the timer a discreet glance. “What about you?”

“Unemployed,” he answers quickly. “I’m in the process of finding something, though. It’s been difficult.” He shoots the table beside us a discreet look. “I’m in a prison work release program, so my options aren’t exactly incredible.”

“Wow. I didn’t expect you to say that.” Don’t look now, folks, but tonight just got interesting. “Do you mind me asking what you were in for?”

His fingers drum on the table. “I robbed a jewelry store. I bet that’s a deal breaker, right?”

God, he looks almost hopeful. Which, ironically, almost makes me want to try harder. “Well, I don’t know.” I fall back in my seat, trying to picture this clean-cut guy in horizontal stripes. “If you tell me you were stealing an engagement ring for your sweetheart, I could be understanding. Or if you tied up the store owners and were really apologetic while you were doing it. Maybe held a paper cup of water to their lips?”

I don’t realize he’s still wearing his sunglasses until his eyebrows lift behind them. “Man, I totally get it now.”

“Get what?”

The buzzer goes off, but he doesn’t move right away. Actually, he looks as though he wants to say more, but eventually he stands. And another set of aviators takes his place. “Hi, there.”

Is that the standard issue, speed dating greeting?

“Hi,” I say back, wondering when and if they are going to refill the wine. Five minutes isn’t really enough time to learn the important things about someone, is it? I barely scratched the robber’s surface and now he’s talking to some other girl. Am I imagining it or is he still looking over at me? “Um. Are you also in the prison release work program?”

New guy chokes on a laugh. “Is that what he told you?”

“Yes,” I say slowly. “You guys came together, so I just assumed . . .”

Aviators Number Two hooks an arm around the back of his seat. “That was a cover story.”

Oh boy. “What is he covering up?”

“We’re actually paranormal experts. We’re casing this place for a future investigation.” He tips his head back and scans the ceiling, apparently looking for Casper. “You might have seen us on YouTube. The Boo Squad? We get a lot of hits.”

“Was one of them in the head?” Realizing I said that out loud, I hold up a hand. “Look, I’m sorry. That was rude.”

Was he fighting a smile?

“Honestly, though, I think paranormal expert sounds slightly better than ex-con. You might want to tell him to just be honest next time.”

The buzzer goes off and I bury my face in a palm. This is getting ridiculous. I get the feeling these guys are just bullshitting everyone for a laugh, and the possibility prods my temper. As if strangers judging your personality isn’t hard enough, now we’re being mocked on top of everything else?

When a third guy sits down in a pair of aviators and says, “Hi, there,” I just stare back. He coughs, shifting in his seat. “In the interest of being upfront and honest, I’m here to inquire about your renter’s insurance needs.”

“Oh, screw this.” Humiliation and outrage building in my chest, I toss back the final sip of wine, grab my purse and gain my feet. Nina had warned me about speed dating, and she was right. She’d said it was equal to torture, but I doubt even my seasoned friend could have predicted this. I was probably being filmed for some Internet prank show the whole time, so I guess now I just sit back and wait for someone to send me the YouTube link. Unbelievable.

As I leave the room, I swear I hear high fives taking place behind my back. I whirl around and scan the room through narrowed eyes, but no one has moved.

Walking out onto Third Avenue, I feel like I’ve just escaped from an alternate universe. My skin is clammy and my heart rate is jumpy. There’s a lump in my throat. In desperate need of a place to crawl and lick my wounds, I promptly head in the direction of a Guinness sign in the distance. The international bat signal for cold beer and good music. Anything to take my mind off my first failed attempt to meet someone and start something meaningful. Next time, I’ll be smarter. And there will be a next time. The speed dating fiasco could deter me if I allow it to. Or I can internalize the embarrassment and let it make my resolve stronger.

Yes. That’s what I’ll do.

Chin raised, I weave through the evening sidewalk crowds. People are heading to hot yoga or piling into restaurants. Probably muttering prayers under their breath that the date they’ve arranged for the evening isn’t a felon. Or someone pretending to be a felon. How strange. One day on the dating scene and I’m seeing the world through new eyes.

So when I spy Charlie buying a can of soda from a street vendor, it takes me a moment to believe he’s really there. My feet falter on the hot concrete, goose bumps racing down my arms. A tiny man plays the harp with my intestines.

“Charlie?”

He turns, nearly knocking me over with those blue eyes. The glow from a restaurant sign lights them up brighter than a beach day sky. Wow. I’d forgotten how unique his appearance is compared to everyone else. Slightly crooked nose, that crease down the middle of his lower lip, all that energy. It crackles. There’s only one Charlie Burns. Intense, charming, sexy and capable, all at once.

“Ever.” The vendor nudges his elbow, reminding him to take the change, and he pockets it, turning back to me. Scanning my face. Stepping closer. So close, I suck in a lungful of hot, summer city air. “What are you doing this far uptown?” The corner of his mouth ticks up. “Not getting into trouble, I hope.”

I have this destructive urge to tell him how hard tonight sucked. That he was right, and I already miss the uncomplicated nature of our daily booty call. I want to spill everything, right there on the sidewalk, while foot traffic bottlenecks around us. Instead, everything catches up with me at once, the way things often do after one glass of wine, before the numbing effect of number two. My mother ending up lonely and unfulfilled. How broken she’d looked. How humiliated I am over the last twenty minutes. I’ve never witnessed a loving, functioning relationship, and I have this fear that I’ve done uncomplicated so long, I’m not equipped for serious. And only Charlie understands. That has to be why I’m kind of paralyzed, standing there, no idea what to say or do. But hoping he hugs me.

Stupid, destructive hope.





Charlie