Wicked Sexy Liar: A Not-Joe Not-So-Short Short: Chapter II


Perry

THE BRONZE BELL over the door rings as I step out into the sunshine.

Standing in the shade of Oliver’s store, I find my phone and search for his number. Not much has gone according to plan since I stepped off the plane a little over two hours ago. I’d landed to a handful of frantic texts from Mia, all of them explaining her emergency and apologizing repeatedly for not being there to pick me up. I assured her it was fine and that I’d just take a cab to the address I had for Oliver’s store, but it never occurred to me that he wouldn’t be there . . . and that someone else would.

I can’t resist another look back over my shoulder.

He’s still there, the one with the wild blond hair and the perfect teeth, watching. His eyes widen when they meet mine again and he lifts an arm in a wave, offering me another grin.

I have always been a fool for a man with a great smile, a sucker for lips and straight teeth and dimples, but there’s something else about this one; he seems so happy he makes it nearly impossible not to smile back. Whether it’s because he loves his job or Oliver, or maybe because he simply likes Tuesdays, who knows? He seems hopelessly, honestly tickled to just be there. To just be.

Someone apologizes as he steps around me, and I realize I’m blocking the sidewalk and staring at a stranger through the window. It is definitely time to go.

With my head down, I open a text window and start typing a message as I turn and walk from the store:

Hello stranger.

It takes about a minute for a bubble to appear, indicating that Oliver is typing.

Bloody hell. How are you?

I reply quickly, my hands practically flying over the screen with adrenaline.

I’m here! In San Diego!

Oliver doesn’t even bother replying and my phone rings only a few moments later.

“You’re here?” he asks, breathless. “Yes!”

“Why didn’t you tell me you were coming, Perry-Girl?” he asks. “How long have you been here?”

I laugh into my phone, Oliver’s Aussie accent as familiar as ever. “Got in a few hours ago and headed straight to your shop. It’s brilliant, Oliver. I’m very proud!”

“I—” he starts, and then pauses. “Right, I need to hug you and thank you for saying that, but in person. Are you still there? At the shop?”

“I’m down the street a bit. I’ve already been at the hotel and thought I might get a coffee.” I groan, feeling the effects of a twelve-hour flight start to weigh in my thoughts, and all along my limbs. “If I sleep now I’ll be awake all night.”

“Smart,” he says with an understanding laugh. “What street are you on?”

I stop and look around me, at the signs on the corner. “Ah . . . the corner of Fifth and E.”

“Okay, head down to Sixth, between F and G—there’s a little place called Coffee & Art. I’ll meet you there in about twenty minutes?”

“Perfect. Can’t wait to see you.”

“Can’t wait to see you, either, love.”

 

FROM THE OUTSIDE, the café isn’t remarkable. It’s built into the first floor of what I assume to be apartments, with concrete and brushed aluminum at the entrance. But inside, it’s small and chaotic, stuffed with eclectic art: photography, statues of lizards, even cabinets filled with odd curios. I order an espresso, check my phone to see if I have any emails I need to answer, and wait.

The door opens about ten minutes later and my heart almost drops in my chest.

He looks so happy.

Oliver smiles and winds his way toward me through the scuffed-up wooden tables and metal chairs and lifts me off my feet with the strength of his hug. I’ve missed him so much . . . but I didn’t realize exactly how much until this very moment.

He’s solid, and warm, and feels like home. Pressing my face into his shoulder, I remember how he smells like clean earth and fresh laundry.

I brush at my eyes when he sets me down, but he doesn’t glance away. Instead, he takes my face in his hands and gazes at me.

“Look at you.” He kisses me once on the forehead and pulls out my chair for me to sit again. “Now, tell me—” he starts to say, but I grab his hands, interrupting him with a flurry of words.

“Oliver, the store is—I can’t believe it. It was very busy and looks exactly the way you always described. I’m so proud. And look at you . . . you just look . . .” I squeeze his hands in mine, thinking back on all the stories he would share at the end of a long ride, all the “One of these days . . .” he would describe as we gazed up at the stars. “You look so happy.” This store has always been his dream, and my heart is nearly bursting for him.

Oliver looks down to where our hands are joined and shakes his head, the tops of his cheeks turning pink. “It still doesn’t feel real sometimes.”

“I can imagine,” I say with a laugh.

“It’s insane. Like, I think we can’t get any busier and I go in the next day and we are.”

“And what about this girl you’ve been seeing? Lola? Everything is still good?”

If I thought Oliver was smiling before, I was wrong. That expression had nothing on the way his face lights up when he hears her name. “It’s fucking brilliant. She’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me, full stop. Wait until you meet her, I—wait,” he says, shaking his head. He leans in, giving me a playfully scolding look, like I’m misbehaving. “I’m getting all distracted. What’s going on? How did you get here and why didn’t you let any of us know? I mean . . . Does Ansel—?”

“No. It was Mia,” I say, and watch the shock spread across his face. “Mia organized this.”

Letting go of my hands, Oliver leans back in his chair, mouth slack. “Mia? Jesus.”

I nod. “She and I have been speaking. She sent me her phone number over email, telling me that Ansel had been . . .” I search for the right word in English. “Had been guilty? Or regretting how things happened.”

“Yeah, he mentioned it,” Oliver says quietly.

“And I have, as well. So when Mia reached out to me, it felt like I was given another chance. I’ve apologized to her, but ah . . . I need to do it in person. The shame I feel at how I acted doesn’t actually fit into sentences.”

This time it’s Oliver who takes my hand, threading his fingers through mine. “None of us really blamed you—you know that, right?”

“I do.”

“We know it could have been handled better on your end, too, but Ansel has always been . . .” He offers me a sad smile and I nod in understanding. Ansel has always been impulsive, and passionate.

It’s one of the things I loved about him.

“I know,” I tell him. “And I know that he is truly happy with Mia. But I am glad that it weighs on him; it means we both want to fix this.”

“I think we all made mistakes,” Oliver says, blinking up at me. “I know Finn and I probably should have handled things differently, and I’m sorry for that, Perry-Girl.”

“You don’t have to be sorry. I don’t think I realized how difficult it was for everyone until it was over.”

“Have you and Ansel talked since he left France?”

I shake my head. “Talked? No. Yelled? Screamed? Yes. Once.”

“Things between you two were always sort of—”

“Oui,” I say. I run a hand through my hair, smoothing the strands before brushing them over my shoulder. I don’t need him to finish that sentence. Things between Ansel and me were always rocky. “Mia seems wonderful, though. Good for him.”

“She is,” Oliver says, and I can see that there is genuine affection there, not just courtesy. “He’s good for her, too.” I wonder if that’s a subtle warning, but before I can think too much on it, he continues, “So this was all her idea? Getting you out here?”

“It was. She was planning on picking me up at the airport, but there was some sort of emergency at her studio.”

“So you haven’t seen anyone yet? Not even Finn?”

“No. Your store was the first place I went. I could not wait to see it. And you,” I add with a grin.

Oliver pulls out his phone and starts texting. “We were all planning to get together tonight . . . and right . . . Mia set this all up.” He looks up from his phone, eyes gentle as he searches my face. “Still want to come tonight?”

“Absolutely,” I say. Though I definitely don’t feel as confident as I sound. Meeting Mia’s friends? Seeing Ansel just . . . like this? So soon? I had the entire trip from France to prepare, and I still don’t feel ready.

“Ansel will be there. You all right with that?” he asks, peeking up from beneath his shaggy hair to meet my eyes.

I draw in a deep breath. I try to remember that boy’s face, his presence and the effect it always had on me, and I beg beg beg my mind to truly be over him . . . not just over the idea of him.

“I think so,” I say.

“You nervous?”

“I have thought about seeing them both again at least a thousand times over the last year. I am not sure nervous is the best word for what I feel right now.”

Oliver leans forward, lifting my hands and pressing a kiss to my knuckles. “You’ll be great. I know Ansel needs this just as much as you do. He likes to pretend like he’s shitting rainbows, but we all know there’s more going on inside.”

“What a lovely analogy, Oliver. Thank God you haven’t changed.” I pause, glancing out the window. I want to see Ansel, I do, if only to clear the air a little. But the idea of having him there unfiltered feels overwhelming. I want—no, I need this night to be more than just mending bridges. I want it to be at least a little bit fun. “Is everyone coming?”

He tilts his head. “You mean . . . ?”

“Finn and his wife,” I hedge, then add, “Lola . . . and the cute guy from your store?”

Oliver’s eyebrows slowly rise. “I’m sorry, surely you’re not talking about the neo-hippie with the mohawk?”

I laugh. “He seemed sweet.”

Oliver shakes his head at me, chuckling. “But in reality, he’s insane.’ ”

I offer him a little one-shouldered shrug. “Maybe I’m a little insane, too. I’m here, aren’t I? Come on, let me have a moment where I think a boy is cute and it’s just nice.”

He studies me for a breath, and then nods slowly. “Alright, Perry-Girl. Yeah, Not-Joe always comes with us to Fred’s.”

“ ‘Nacho’?” I repeat, confused.

“Right,” Oliver says cryptically, nodding as he laughs. “Anyway, we’ll be there.” Oliver takes another look at his phone before standing and offering me his hand. “Finn’s about to lose his mind knowing you’re here, so let’s do this.”

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