Chapter Two, Unraveled

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CHAPTER TWO

Samantha

I FELT LIKE I WORE a scarlet letter. Not “A” for adulterer but “W” for widow. I thought the defining moment of my life was going to be when I married or maybe when I had kids. Instead, it came two months after the wedding, when the “casualty team” showed up at my door, expressing the sorrowful regrets of the Secretary of the Army. I doubted the Secretary of the Army knew who my nineteen-year-old husband was, and I seriously doubted the sorrowful regrets.

My reaction wasn’t very graceful. A real Army wife would’ve stood stoically by while the two Army men in their service class “A” uniforms somberly delivered the news at the door of my condo. My response was first screaming at them followed by an ungraceful collapse on the floor and finally spewing snot all over their wool jackets.

Bitsy, my sister, tried to cheer me up months later by reading Internet articles of all the other ways I could’ve embarrassed myself. “At least you didn’t stab anyone or try to burn yourself,” she pointed out. I didn’t question the veracity of those reports because it actually did make me feel better that there were a handful of people that took the news worse than I did.

At the funeral, the chaplain had held my hand, repeatedly murmuring, “You’re so young.” That was the refrain of my life now. Samantha Anderson, widowed so young. I heard it everywhere. At the grocery store, the library, and even at the stupid bar where I worked.

It seemed like people in my life placed themselves into two general camps. There was the camp, which included my family, that was ready for me to move on from the death of my best friend, only lover, and husband of two months. The other camp wanted to enshrine me as Will Anderson’s widow forevermore. I wasn’t at all sure what camp I fell into, but I knew I was lonely. I was tired of being a widow, and I was tired of bartending for a living, and I was tired of having to serve as Will’s avatar for the family he left behind. I guess I was in the tired and lonely camp.

But I set that sentiment aside today to endure my monthly luncheon with Will’s parents—David and Carolyn. Sometimes my brother-in-law Tucker showed up, but more often than not, it was just me. Last night, Tucker had called and explained earnestly that he just wasn’t up for it this month—again. His inability to have any kind of emotional investment in his family was irritating on most days, but it was enraging on days like today. As if I looked forward to the monthly lunch.

“I’m so glad you came today, Sam.” Will’s mom patted my hand. That made one of us. It was a strained meal, what with Carolyn drinking her lunch, David criticizing her for it, and both of them wondering what I was doing to uphold Will’s memory. The slight ache at my temples that had hummed in the back of my head when I woke up was spreading across the entire surface of my skull and face. I lifted a shaky hand to my temple in an effort to relieve the pain.

“Have you registered for your classes this fall, dear?” Carolyn handed me the butter dish.

“I did. I’m taking eighteen hours.”

Carolyn tsked. “That sounds overly ambitious. Will wouldn’t have wanted you to work that hard.”

I slid a dollop of butter in the shape of a flower onto my bread plate and swallowed a sigh.

“Smart to try to catch up for lost time,” interjected David. “Since your dad gets you free tuition, you might as well take as many credits as possible.” If Carolyn had said the sky was blue, I swear David would have told her it was green. Mom said that David was a great law partner, but a sucky life partner. Lucky for Mom she got David as a law partner. It was Carolyn who had to live with him every day. He continued. “If you do eighteen credit hours every semester and at least twelve in the summer, you’ll be on to law school in two years. You got a full year under your belt before you quit the first time.”

I gave David a tight smile. He couldn’t resist getting his jabs whenever he saw an opening. “Let’s just take one semester at a time.”

“You should start planning now what prerequisites you’ll need to get your major and when’s the best time for you to take those classes.” David buttered his own roll and then pointed his butter knife at me. “Otherwise you’ll be stuck waiting around an extra semester trying to finish out your degree. No need to waste more time. After all, wasn’t going to college the reason you stayed here instead of moving to Alaska?”

Yes, David, stick the knife in deeper. Twist it around. I don’t think you’ve caused enough pain yet.

“Will would be so proud,” Carolyn added.

I fought back a grimace. He would not be proud. He hated school. Why else had he escaped to the Army right out of high school? What other reason was there to spend more and more time in the ROTC during high school, playing at drill on weekends? It was because he couldn’t stand school. And he didn’t want to be a lawyer like his dad. Like my mom.

“It’ll be nice to finally have one of you kids join the firm.” Carolyn smiled at me.

“If I don’t,” I demurred, “then Bitsy for sure will.”

“Bitsy is whipsmart, but she’s only fifteen. It’ll be eight, nine years before she can join. You can be there in five, maybe even four if you apply yourself.” David waved his knife at me again. The likelihood of anyone finishing college and law school in four years was so low that I wasn’t even going to respond.

Not that it mattered to David. He could argue both sides of a topic for hours on end. I guess it made him a great lawyer, but he was a shitty dad. Reason two why Will had hightailed it out of here before the last high school bell had rung.

David must have recognized the ridiculousness of his statement because he set down his knife and leaned closer to me. “We’re just anxious to get some young attorneys in so your mom and I can take some time off.”

Carolyn leaned in on the other side, and I felt like they were squeezing me like a lemon. “Yes, dear. David keeps promising me that Austria river cruise and we can’t do that if Anderson and Miller have no associates.”

Will would’ve told you to hire some already and stop living out your fantasies through your kids.Mom has told me that I didn’t have to sit through these lunches or all the other landmark days of Will’s life with Carolyn, but if not me, then who? Tucker, who had abandoned family events long ago, showed up only at Christmas and then only for a few hours. He refused to play Carolyn’s games, as he put it. But grief wasn’t a game. My counselor had told me that everyone grieved in their own time and in their own way. Who was to say that Carolyn was somehow wrong just because it created more pain for others around her? Will had loved his mother and I just couldn’t abandon her.

“I’ll get there,” I said. That was suitably vague. I’d agreed to go back to college, but I hadn’t fully bought into becoming the legacy that David and my mom were looking for. Well, mostly David. Mom had Bitsy. And David? He had Tucker, who was supposed to have entered the firm a couple of years ago, but he’d bailed to become a tattoo artist.

“I’ll be fine, though,” I assured Carolyn. “After this summer, I won’t be working at the bar anymore. Only classes.”

The mention of the bar brought a disappointed moue to Carolyn’s face, her lips puckering and flattening. Carolyn thought tending bar was too low class but I wasn’t sure that folding shirts at the Gap was a more honorable occupation.

“What will you be studying then?” David asked. “I think literature would be a good basis for a law degree.”

Once more David didn’t need a response. He loved the sound of his own voice and it was just best to allow him to drone on about the different majors I could take to prepare me to be the best lawyer ever.

“Will would’ve loved this place,” Carolyn said in between cocktails. I nodded but inwardly disagreed again. It was like Carolyn’s vision of Will was remade into who she thought Will should have been instead of who he was. The food wasn’t even that good but Carolyn felt like Will deserved this nice restaurant. As if he was keeping a scorecard in his afterlife of how we marked his passing. Year two. Spent at a two-star Michelin restaurant. Five cocktails. Twenty Kleenexes. A deduction for lack of crying from the wife. C+.

And lunch lurched on. I looked at the clock and then the waiter. Please bring the main course, I pleaded silently but he looked away.

EXHAUSTED AFTER LUNCH WITH THE Andersons, I wasn’t prepared to face the same question that Mark, the manager, had taken to asking me every time I walked through the door. “You okay to work the bar?” He never looked at me as he asked. The floor, the bar top, the stage where the live band performed, all held more interest, but ordinarily I’d have my work face pasted on—the one with the fake smile and happy-to-be-here attitude.

Ever since I’d had the episode, Mark had been acting awkward around me. Apparently if you start sobbing just one time while salting a margarita glass, you’re marked as a difficult employee, even if you showed up on time, didn’t try to set up dates with the bar rats, and got along with the other staff.

Mark should have cut me some slack. The days around the anniversary of Will’s death were always the worst. A newspaper reporter had contacted me wanting to know if he could interview me for a two-year retrospective on the war that wasn’t a war anymore. Pass. I was still suffering the results of the nonstop coverage that had blanketed the city the first time Will died. Every year, they tried to kill him again. Or to at least make us suffer through his death again by reporting on me, his family, and the snuffing out of the promise of his young life.

It didn’t help that a photograph of his mother and me at Will’s funeral had gone viral. We’d clasped hands over the flag given to me by the Army Honor Guard during the service. Two generations of sad women captured in one picture.

Grief porn, Bitsy had called it. Just looking at the picture made hearts ache. I’d become the girl who was widowed before her twentieth birthday. So no, I didn’t want to rehash to the media about how my nineteen-year-old husband was killed by an IED or comment on the growing epidemic of young widows. I’d hung up on him before he’d finished asking his question. But ever since the phone call in February and my subsequent breakdown at the bar, Mark had been uneasy around me, giving me looks like I was too emotionally unstable to work around regular humans.

But my bar persona was pretty good, I thought. I pretended to be happy, made appropriate jokes, and flirted with my co-bartender Eve because I couldn’t bring myself to flirt with the men at the bar. I even slicked on mascara and painted my lips dark red so that I didn’t look like a sad girl who’d lost her husband before she’d turned twenty. I wasn’t the best-looking member of the staff, but I wasn’t going to embarrass any of the Gatsby’s ownership either.

“Do you think you’ll be okay?” Mark pressed, shifting from foot to foot. Didn’t he ever tire of that question? In the days and weeks following my breakdown, I understood why he asked. When I started crying, it had actually set off a chain reaction, and then the bar had cleared because it was too depressing. I got that it had been a bad night of receipts for Mark, but bringing it up every time I came into work seemed a tad excessive.

“I’m not on the rag if that’s what you’re asking.” I decided to pretend like I had no idea what he was talking about.

“Fine.” Mark threw up his hands and walked off in a huff. In a contest between which topic was least comfortable—talking about a girl’s period or a girl’s husband’s death—I guess period talk won out. I finished wiping down the bar top and putting the glasses away. Mark would return. He just wanted to shake off the horrible vision that I’d popped into his head. I smiled a little evilly to myself. Maybe he’d associate periods with death from now on and never bring up either subject again.

Mark wandered back when I’d put up the last glass. “I’m putting you at the outdoor bar. You and Eve.”

“Ten four.” I gave him a salute. Eve was a good bartender; she was able to flirt just enough to make the guys feel handsome and strong without going so far over the line that her boyfriend, a bouncer here, felt threatened. Working at the bar meant I could concentrate on a constant buzz of activity instead of how fricking alone I felt all the time.

“Let me know if you have any trouble.” Mark held the hinged part of the bar top up as I slid under.

“And then what?” I asked. When Mark just shrugged, I patted him on his biceps. He meant well, I suppose.

The band was good and it was a gorgeous evening, so the patio bar was hopping by eight that night. Our uniforms of short black shorts and tight white t-shirts that constantly got wet ensured that the bar crowd stood three to five deep at all times. Eve and I had taken to wearing tanks underneath our Gatsby’s tops to avoid giving a free show to the guys, but they still showed up. I guess hope springs eternal.

“Did you see the eye candy Adam brought in tonight?” Eve waggled her eyebrows at me as she poured two draws at once. Adam was the son of the owner of Gatsby’s. The table just to the left of the stage was always reserved for him and his crew. The patio bar was positioned on the right of the stage.

“Nope.” And I hadn’t. Despite my loneliness, actual guys didn’t interest me much. They sometimes looked at me with lust in their eyes, usually after last call they’d come up to the bar hoping that maybe Eve or I would take up the offer that had be declined throughout the night.

I turned to look over at Adam’s table, but per usual, I couldn’t see anyone. I was too short. At five ten, Eve stood a good five inches taller than me and could generally see into the crowd. I’d have to wait until the crowd moved or the band took a break.

“Mmm.” She’d spotted him again. “Tall, buff, buzz cut so short you can see his scalp?”

Eh. Eve and I had very different ideas of what was hot in a guy. Her boyfriend, Randy, was all neck, shoulders, and muscles, which was a good fit for her because she was taller. A guy like Randy felt overpowering to me. I liked them short and wiry, and none of the guys in Adam’s group were that type. His guys were all buff and muscled, as if they were some traveling men’s fitness troupe. And, worse, at least a couple of them were former military. I could just tell by the way they held their bodies and looked around constantly, as if they feared some mortar attack from the sky.

When I got back into the dating game, which I would someday when I stopped missing Will so much, I wouldn’t be with another military guy. My perfect man was someone who loved statistics more than guns and whose idea of a grand time was shopping for a new ruler or pen. Maybe he’d even be a fellow knitter and we’d sit side by side on the sofa watching Downton Abbey and knitting each other socks. Those guys weren’t coming to the bar, though. Some smart girls had already snapped them up and were hiding those treasures in their homes.

I’d shared this with Eve once and, after I’d finished my description, she’d shaken her head. “There are two rules for dating you should never forget. One, he should be strong enough so you can have sex standing up and two, never, ever date a guy who could wear your jeans. It’s terrible for the confidence when you see your skinny jeans looking better on his ass than yours. Learn from my sad dating history,” she admonished me. Randy sure fit both those rules and so did most of Adam’s crew. I was making up my own standards though and tall, buff, brawny guys didn’t meet them.

“You know him?” I asked Eve when I swung back her way after serving a couple of drinks.

“No, but I’d like to.” She bit her fist in mock appreciation of his fineness. “Since I’m taken, I guess I’ll have to leave him to you.”

“I thought I was going to be the threesome in your and Randy’s bed tonight,” I teased, trying to divert the discussion away from Eve’s supposed man candy.

“That’s a threesome I’d like to see.” One of the bar customers leaned against the bar, waving a twenty. The guys who came to Gatsby’s in their hundred-dollar bargain suits were trying far too hard, but their clothing attracted a certain type of girl, and I hardly ever saw a guy with a suit go home alone. I wondered what the girls thought when they were taken back to the guy’s apartment that he shared with three others. Probably the same thing a guy thought when a girl took off her miracle bra. Disappointment all around.

“It’s a hundred dollars,” Eve said to Mr. Suit, while tapping his twenty. “You’ll need four more of these.”

“A hundred for what?”

“If you give them a hundred, they’ll kiss.” One of our regulars who’d been sitting at the bar since five that afternoon explained the rules. When Eve and I worked, guys were always asking for sexual things. I never really understood why they hit on us. Did they think that their ten spot was going to buy our phone numbers? Or that their lame catchphrases like “”What time you getting off tonight?” were going to make us bend over and drop our shorts? My favorite was “When are you two going to kiss? I’ll pay twenty dollars for that!” just like this joker.

Eve and I once said that we’d kiss for a hundred, and since then, we’d get offered the money several times a night. I guess it fueled some fantasy. A hundred bucks to kiss a friend? Too easy to resist.

Suit Man rounded up his friends and slapped a hundred dollars on the table. “Now kiss.”

“Kiss. Kiss. Kiss.” The chant rose up from the bar. Eve finished delivering four mugs of beer and I slipped the lime wedges on a couple of tequila shots before we met in the middle. She dug her fingers into my hair and whispered against my mouth. “Someday you oughta try kissing a guy.” Then she gave me a wet kiss as I held on to her shoulders.

When we broke apart to the shouts of encouragement, I responded. “Only if I can make fifty bucks per kiss.” Scooping up the money, I stuck it in my back pocket to split later.

She swatted me on the ass and turned back to the customers. Watching us kiss made them thirsty. When Maisey, the waitress serving Adam’s table, swung by with an order, Eve grabbed her tray and started pumping her for information. I was a little ashamed to say I sidled down the bar so I could eavesdrop.

“Who’s the big guy Adam brought in?” Eve popped the caps of three bottles and set them on the tray and took to making the rest of Maisey’s orders.

“Aren’t they delicious? I’d like a go with all of them.”

“At one time?” Eve mocked.

“Like you haven’t thought about it,” Maisey retorted.

“You ain’t woman enough for all that man meat over yonder,” Eve said. “Don’t know a woman who is. But anyway, the new guy. What’s his deal?”

“Some Marine on leave for a couple of weeks.”

A Marine? Yup, totally not interested. I drifted back down to my side of the bar. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Eve toss a sidelong glance my way while gabbing with Maisey. Eve filled the rest of the order and Maisey took off. Once Maisey was out of earshot, Eve came down to see me—a naughty look on her face. She was up to something. “Take a break. Maisey says that the band is finishing up the last song of this set.” When the band took a rest, the patio usually emptied out as people went indoors to dance and hunt a different crowd. “Go on.” She started shoving me out of the bar.

“No.” I resisted but she was stronger than I was and before I knew it, I was on the wrong side of the bar counter. “Fine, I’ll be back in thirty minutes.”

“Take your time,” she sang and turned back to help some patrons.

With the band still playing a cover of “Mr. Brightside” behind me, I easily made my way to the interior of the bar and headed for the rear exit. Maybe I’d sit in my Rover and read or work a little on the layette set I was making my mother’s very pregnant administrative assistant. I’d been kind of slacking off since the good weather hit, spending more time on my tiny balcony enjoying the breeze and drinking ice tea than inside knitting, surrounded by all the artifacts of my dead husband’s life.

“Samantha Anderson, I haven’t seen you in ages!”

Teresa Bush, she of the unfortunate last name, came barreling toward me. Teresa, Will and I had graduated together. In high school, we were probably known as friends but I hadn’t laid eyes on her since Will’s funeral.

“You look great.” Her skintight sparkly red dress was a little upscale for Gatsby’s, but it matched the suits we occasionally saw wander in after work and then stay until closing. She must be enjoying a night away from her kid. At the funeral, I’d asked if she was expecting her second, and the glare she’d pinned on me had me feeling my chest for an open wound. I thought the black look she’d cast me was because I didn’t remember her kid’s name but Mom had told me later that I should never ask a woman if she was pregnant.

“You are looking…” She paused, groping for the right word. My mascara was likely making smudges around my eyes and I could feel my hair slipping out of its ponytail so Teresa was looking for an honest word to describe “mess” without being offensive.

“Like a bartender?” I offered.

She gave me a slightly superior smile, “Ha! No, good, really good. Gosh, I don’t think I’ve seen you since the funeral. It’s so good that you’re getting out and being social again.”

“I work here,” I said blandly.

“Oh right.” She tittered and then placed her hand on my shoulder to stabilize herself. “I just don’t get out very often and I think I need to sit down. Come talk to me. It’s been so long. Did you know I got a tattoo done by Tucker? Do you want to see it?” She started pulling down the bodice of her red dress. Alarmed, I looked around for Mark, thinking that he could call her a cab. It was early though, barely nine thirty. Poor girl must not get out much what with the kid at home. “Um, should I call you a cab?”

“Why?” She smiled drunkenly at me. “Are we going to go to another party? I can’t believe you’re here. You are so brave. So so brave.” She hiccupped. “If my husband had died after just two months of marriage I think I would’ve died myself. You looked so fragile at the wedding. Or funeral. Which was it?”

My feelings of sympathy toward her were fast evaporating and I needed to escape. Like David, Teresa didn’t need a response. She rambled on, telling me about her kid and how it was nearly impossible to get a night to herself and how the Mai Tais we served were delicious. I tried to look rapt while searching for a way to escape. One of my stupid reasons not to move to Alaska with Will when he went there to learn how to jump out of airplanes was that I didn’t want to be away from my friends and family. But as Teresa described a life experience a thousand miles from what I knew, the pain of regret squeezed my heart tight.

I looked around for assistance, but no one appeared available. Heck, no one even seemed to be paying attention to us as she rattled on about how much food her five year old ate and how clever he was for using a fork. No one noticed my predicament besides a tall guy leaning against the interior bar with a smile dancing around the edges of his mouth. Below the short sleeves of his T-shirt, the muscles in his arms were well-defined, and they flexed lightly as he supported his weight on his elbows. He was probably too far away to hear what she was saying, but he found something amusing about my situation.

We stared at each while she talked on and on. She’d moved past my own personal courage and her child’s dexterity to speak about her own bravery in having children given her small birthing channel. I felt Teresa wiggle her hips to draw attention to them but I couldn’t look away from the guy at the bar.

As she talked on, I watched as he pushed slowly away from the wall while maintaining eye contact. There was something familiar about him, and for a second I wondered if we’d met before. He walked so confidently, his bearing erect. His arms were held just so at his sides, as if he was ready for anything. With purpose, he strode toward me. I would have remembered this guy if we’d met before. Even in my fog of grief, I would have been able to appreciate a guy who stood an inch or two over six feet tall and whose shoulders were so broad that I wondered if he had trouble fitting through an ordinary door.

Those shoulders tapered into a lovely V that would have made any other girl’s mouth water. Good thing I was immune to those feelings. I could look, appreciate the work of art in front of me, and go home unaffected. If I hadn’t been completely unsusceptible, I’d be in big trouble but, as I reminded myself, I liked slim, short guys, not men whose jeans could swallow me whole or who could hold me up while we had sex—which short guys could do anyway.

“Hey, sweetheart.” The stranger bent down and brushed his lips against the side of my face in what seemed to be a kiss. It’d been so long that maybe it was just a puff of air against my cheek, but I thought I felt his soft lips touch my skin. Whatever it was, it raised a flock of winged things inside my stomach. “I’ve been waiting for you. Gotta introduce you to my boys.”

My gaze flitted from Teresa’s wide-eyed gaze to the stranger’s, which I now saw was hazel. I ignored the flutter in my belly and the feeling, well, lower. It wasn’t my heart rate that had accelerated. The pounding in my ears had to be from some other source. Hot males didn’t affect me like they apparently affected Teresa, whose eyes had glazed over and who might actually be trying to sniff the guy. The man signaled to Steve, the indoor bartender, who came over and led Teresa to a chair. I watched the whole thing like I was in a trance.

The stranger cupped my elbow and directed me toward the patio, but I didn’t want to go back to the patio. Strangely, I directed him down the hallway, past the bathrooms, and then turned right before an emergency exit door that was just an ordinary door, which all the staff knew, and probably some of the patrons as well. I couldn’t extricate myself from his grasp if I’d wanted to. The touch of his calloused fingers against my elbow was as powerful as an alien tractor beam.

“I, ah, thank you,” I stammered out.

“You just looked like you needed a rescue,” he murmured, his mouth inches from my head. We were facing each other, his hand still holding my elbow. I swore I could feel his breath ruffling my hair and my whole body shivered from the sensation.

“Is that your gig? Rescuing folks?”

He stuck his tongue into the side of his mouth. “Yeah, you could say that.” His eyes wandered over me, taking in my unkempt hair, mascara-smudged eyes, and slightly damp T-shirt, made wet by the constant handling of mugs, bottles, and shots.

Teresa may have been tipsy or drunk but she’d still looked immaculate. Her blonde hair, lighter than mine and perfectly dyed, had been blown out into the perfect summer beach wave hairstyle. My own hair was drawn into a simple ponytail and I was acutely aware of all the strands that had snuck out during my hours of work and how my fingers were pruny from handling all the liquids behind the bar. I wore sneakers, low ankle socks, black cotton shorts and a simple white T-shirt. Even the worst-dressed bar patron was more put together than me.

I smoothed a few strands behind my ears, an action that loosened his firm grip on my elbow, before I caught myself. What was I doing? Why should I care what this guy thought of how I looked? I tucked my fingers in my shorts pocket. My elbow already felt cold, missing his touch. I frowned at myself. This was so unlike me.

“Do we know each other? You look really familiar to me.” I looked at him suspiciously.

He smiled broadly at me. “I don’t think so but let’s remedy that. Gray Phillips, from San Diego.”

“Sam Anderson.” I took his right hand in my right hand and shook it. “From here.”

“You’re working the patio bar, right?”

I nodded, still holding his hand, enjoying the feel of it. He had a nice grip, firm, calloused, but not too rough. And it was very large. Very, very large. Like I think it could span my whole waist. Before I knew it, I was pressing his large hand against my stomach. His eyes widened and his nostrils flared at my unthinking invitation, and before my good sense could catch up with my instincts, his head was lowering toward mine.

A faint scent of spice and ocean invaded my nose, the subtle smell drowning out the heavier smells of the bar. I should be smelling sweat from the dance floor and yeast from the spilled beer or maybe even ammonia from the cleaning supplies behind me but in this little corner my senses were filled with him.

“I’ve been watching you all night.” His mouth was right above the tip of my ear and I felt something crack inside me—a fissure was forming in the mask I’d donned earlier today or perhaps his breath, his touch, his words were simply hastening the demise of the barriers I’d held between myself and everyone else for two years. Inside my body, it felt like there was an awakening, and every fiber of my being reached toward him, upward and outward as if I were a flower on the first day of a spring rain. I lifted my head to gaze up, wide-eyed and anxious with anticipation.

Some part of my brain was telling me that the storage closet was just two steps to my right and that the exit door was just beyond that. I knew my Rover was outside, and all three were safer than standing here almost in his embrace, but I couldn’t hear the warning over the pounding of my heartbeat. He bent toward me, his face serious. Even in the low light of the corner, I could see the gold flecks feathering out from the center of his eyes.

“I’m going to kiss you now.” His voice was deep and rough, and it matched the rest of his thoroughly masculine body.

“I know,” I whispered back. And I wanted that kiss from Gray, even though he ordinarily wouldn’t be my type at all. I wanted it more than I wanted to breathe. When his mouth molded against mine, it felt like bliss—as if my whole cold body had been submerged into a warm bath. If I thought I had been engulfed before it was nothing like I felt at that moment. My entire world—my thoughts, my feelings, my senses—were full of him. I tasted the mint and hops on his tongue. I inhaled the scents of cinnamon and bergamot and ocean of his faint cologne into my airways. I felt the calloused palm on my waist and then lower against the exposed skin of my thigh. His dense muscles were drawn tight under his skin and the fabric of his t-shirt and he felt as strong as a citadel. The moan that had been building since he first backed me into the wall escaped. It had been so long since I’d had the touch of a man’s hand on any part of me, and I nearly wept at the pleasure of it.

Every square inch of my body felt sensitized, as if I’d been an unlit Christmas tree and I’d just been plugged in. I wanted to feel his hands all over, not just on that patch of thigh. I needed his touch in those secret places, those places I thought had calcified. I’d thought I’d been waiting for the smooth hands of an accountant but the longer, rougher fingers pushing the hem of my shorts up couldn’t belong to a man who worked in an office.

His tongue and mouth broke from mine to leave a hot, wet path from my mouth, across my jaw line, and down to my neck. My leg lifted of its own accord and he took it as a sign to hitch me up higher until both my legs either dangled off the floor or wrapped around him. I chose to wrap my legs around him and was rewarded with a thick hard column pressing into my sex. We both groaned at the contact and I could feel his sound against my neck. The reverberations sent minor shocks throughout my nervous system. Holding me up against the wall, he began thrusting against me rhythmically, every impact of his hips making me hotter and wetter than I thought I could get.

I gripped him tighter with my legs and dug my hands into his hair, using every bit of his body as leverage. He held me up with ease, as if I were a feather. One hand was under my right butt cheek and the other was exploring my left side, pulling out my T-shirt, only to find the tank underneath. Needing his mouth back, I tugged on his hair and he took the hint immediately. He fastened his lips over mine and we devoured each other, still rubbing our lower bodies against each other as the bass from the dance floor pounded the floor boards.

Whimpering, I begged in moans and small cries for more. A familiar but almost forgotten tension was winding its way from between my legs outward. All thoughts of storage rooms and hallways and strangers were lost in the swirl of bright lights bursting behind my eyelids.

“I got you, baby,” he growled against my mouth. “Just let go.” And so I did. I closed my eyes and let those long-dormant feelings wash over me, spreading from the inside of my legs to the nerve endings in my toes and fingertips and the very top of my head. And he kept grinding and grinding and grinding against me, whispering in my ear how I was the hottest thing he’d ever held, how he couldn’t wait to taste me, how he’d die if he couldn’t be inside me tonight.

One thought on “Chapter Two, Unraveled”

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