Tumble (Page 14)

“I work at the café to help pay my tuition at school. I’m going to be a dental hygienist,” she tells me. She presses the slice of lime through the neck of her beer bottle. “I had a great boyfriend and thought life was good. Apparently, he didn’t. I was too focused, according to him.” She rolls her eyes. “So now I make sure I take time for myself.”

Penn leans my way again. “She really just means she fucks me at least twice a week.”

Claire throws a napkin at Penn, making him chuckle.

The waitress interrupts us, clearing off empty bottles and replacing them with fresh ones. As my friends give Penn hell, she comes back with another colorful Razzle for me. I waste no time diving in. The rum warms my blood and knocks off the edge of my anxiety. I can feel it rushing through my body and delivering a much-needed dose of comfort.

“Who did you get to replace me in New York?” Penn asks.

“Excuse me?” I laugh.

“Who is the devilishly handsome stud whom you secretly want?”

My snort is unavoidable. “I didn’t realize that’s what you are to me, but good to know.”

“And?” he prods. “He’s a musician, isn’t he? I always felt I could’ve been a drummer.”

Claire throws her head back and mutters something to the sky. All I can do is laugh.

“Well,” I say, “you’ll be happy to know you were irreplaceable. I spend all of my free time with my friend Grace.”

“Is she hot?” Penn asks.

I turn to look at him. “She’d eat you alive, bud.”

Why I’m surprised at the sparkle in his eye is beyond me, but it’s there. Coupled with his little grin, the one that would tempt Grace in two seconds flat if she were here, I can only imagine the two of them together.

“When can I meet her?” he asks.

“So no boyfriend at all?” Dane asks, bringing my attention back to him. The sound of his voice sends a ripple of energy across my skin, and I glance up to see him looking at me.

“He really just means he wants to—” Penn starts, but is cut off by everyone’s laughter.

“Stop,” I say. Pointing my finger at him, I shoot him my best glare. It’s not a great one with the rum in play. “Don’t.”

“I’m just trying to help things along. Help the inevitable.”

“What’s inevitable is that I’m gonna kick your a*s if you don’t shut up,” Dane warns.

Penn extends his arm and shifts in his seat so he’s sitting even closer to me. It’s comical, watching his antics stir up a storm behind Dane’s eyes. It’s also gratifying.

“Can I get you all anything else?” The waitress places an oversize plate of fried pickles in the middle of the table.

“Ranch,” Dane and I say at the same time.

“And I’m full of s**t?” Penn laughs. “Please.”

“It’s salad dressing,” I point out. “Everyone likes it. Claire likes ranch. Don’t you?” Silently pleading with her, I watch the amusement roll across her features.

“Not with fried pickles,” she says. “Just with salad.”

“It’s good on a baked potato too,” Matt adds. “But these two,” he says, motioning toward Dane and me, “are the only ones I know who eat it on everything.”

Peering around Penn, I look at Matt. “It’s Dane’s fault. I was normal before he had me dipping chicken nuggets in it.”

“That’s gross.” Brittney wrinkles her nose.

“It’s really not.” I bite my lip and pull my gaze to Dane. “Do you remember when we tried it on smoked sausage?”

“And macaroni and cheese,” he adds. “I still do that, actually.”

I cringe. “Me too.”

We laugh as our friends call us disgusting and Matt orders another round of beers.

Despite the table full of people and the headlights shining through the shrubbery as people come and go, as Dane looks at me, it really feels like it’s only him and me.

My heartbeat ricochets in my chest, my blood as hot as the late summer air. I take another sip of my drink and hope it cools me off. That, somehow, it negates the air simmering between Dane and me.

I’m struck by how handsome he is. How the lines around his eyes and the sharpness of his chin create a look of masculinity and experience. Yet when I allow myself to look deep enough, I see him. The little boy who lost his mother when he was ten. The teenager who had a hard time understanding his father’s hard-nosed love. The young man who worried he’d never amount to anything. It’s this Dane who has always pulled at me.

“I think you’re being paged, Dane,” Matt says, popping a fried pickle in his mouth.

Dane pulls his gaze away from mine, but mine follows. The woman from Dogwood Café is standing inside Mucker’s and is waving at Dane. His face breaks into a wide smile.

I can feel my friends’ eyes on me as I watch him react to the pretty brunette. His hand comes up as he signals to her.

“I’ll be right back,” he says.

He glances at me before putting his cap back on the right way. Shoving away from the table, he heads to the building. I watch him join her inside, next to a table. Her hands go flying through the air in animation. He shakes his head, his face splitting in an ear-to-ear smile.

Jealousy. I haven’t felt it for years, at least not over a man. The occasional guys I’ve dated since Dane haven’t been serious enough to really get torn up over. Yet here I am, watching him interact with that woman, and my stomach is smooshing together in the undeniable pit of envy.

Of course he has someone. Why wouldn’t he? Hell, I’d want him, too, if things were different or if I lived here . . . No.

The expansive patio is suddenly too small. My shoes tap against the brick pavers, ready to flee as soon as my brain gives the go-ahead. Instead, I lift the glass to my lips and drag in a mouthful of Rocket Razzle. And then another. And then a third until there’s nothing left but sugar granules along the brim and my head is covered with a thick fog that numbs me.

Everyone at the table is watching for my reaction. I could probably play it off—and I should play it off because what does Dane talking to some gorgeous woman matter to me?—but I can’t.

I need air.

“Is there a bathroom out here?” I ask, looking at Claire.

She motions behind her, her eyes wary. “It’s back there. Go around the tiki-bar thing, and you’ll see the door. Want me to go with you?”

“I’m fine.” I push away from the table. The alcohol hits my head in a hurry, and the shrubs along the far wall tilt to the right. Penn grabs my arm and steadies me.

“Easy there,” Penn says softly.

“I’m fine.”

“Didn’t say you weren’t.” He watches me with a curious bend in his brow. “You want an escort?” He looks up with a wide grin. “I’ll have everyone know that’s the first time I’ve said that and didn’t mean anything dirty.”

My laugh sounds wobbly. “Thanks, but I’m fine. Honest.”

“Okay. But if you fall and need CPR, I won’t hold it against you.”

I keep my hand on the back of his chair, and then Matt’s, as I round the corner of the table. My instincts tell me to look toward the building and see if I see Dane, but I override them.

The inside of my skull screams with contradictory responses to this situation. One side of my brain tells me to waltz in there and stake a claim. The other side, the one that’s logical and not completely buzzed, reminds me I have no claim to stake.

My heart lobbies for another drink.

CHAPTER NINE

NEELY

The door is right where Claire said it would be. Before I tug it open, Penn rounds the corner.

“You found it?” he asks.

“It was pretty easy.” I focus on his features, not sure if I missed something. “This is the right door, right?”

He nods. “I was just, uh, coming back here to see if they stuck the chalk in the tiki bar. They hide it from me.”

I bite my lip, seeing right through his bullshit but appreciating it all the same. “You’re all right, you know that?”

“Don’t tell anyone and ruin my rep.” He makes a face as he reaches over me and pulls open the bathroom door.

“Thanks, Penn.”

“I’m holding a door,” he deadpans.

“You’re not just holding a door.” I pat his shoulder as I walk by. “I appreciate you holding the door and checking on me. Don’t worry,” I say, laughing as he balks. “I’ll never mention you being nice in public again.”

“Good. We don’t want to stir up the natives.”

The door closes, capturing me and my giggle inside the little bathroom. I find the light switch. There’s a little sink and a hand blower. The room bends into an L shape where I assume the toilet is located.

Fiddling with the lock, I try to latch it. It’s old and a screw is missing, so it hangs haphazardly. The alcohol does me no favors either. After a few seconds of sliding it around, I get it. I think.

My back hits the wall, and I look at myself in the mirror above the sink. My cheeks are rosy, my eyes a wide, steely gray. The concrete block wall behind me is nothing like what I normally see in a bathroom mirror when I’m out and about. There are no chandeliers. No white cloth towels for drying your hands. No line of women with expensive clothes and perfect makeup waiting to use the facilities.

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