I ORDER ANOTHER CAPPUCCINO and weave through the small line to get back to my seat. Most of the staff here know me by name and don’t mind when I spend hours at my favorite table: the one near the outlet that actually works. They know I like one Sugar in the Raw in my coffee and that I’ll say I don’t want a blueberry muffin but usually end up ordering one anyway.
I’m a creature of habit and have been coming to this particular shop as long as I can remember. Summers meant weekdays surfing and then relaxing at Nana’s house, and Sunday mornings at Pannikin. She’d have her chai latte and let me order a hot chocolate and we would do the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle, which basically meant Nana would do it and I would people-watch.
Even without her I’m unable to break the routine.
It’s April and despite it being the standard seventy—two degrees outside, it’s freezing in the store. I settle back into my chair and pull the cardigan out of my bag, buttoning it up before turning back to my laptop.
I blow into my coffee and look back to the screen, to the section of Lola’s site I’ve spent the last few hours coding. Her original designer had created a template full of neon colors and lots of animation, but I’ve dialed it back down to something a bit more subdued, a palette that will really let Lola’s art do the talking. Her images are geometric and bold, and practically jump off the screen. It’s strange that while I’ve been living around this art for the past eight months, I don’t think I’ve ever really appreciated how insanely talented Lola is until now.
The door opens and the air-conditioning kicks on directly over my head. I slink down into my sweater and pull my cup closer, hoping the warmth will seep into my fingers, when I hear my name.
Well, sort of.
I blink up to see Luke standing near the counter, and a rush of adrenaline shoots through my veins. His hair is messy and he’s dressed in a T-shirt and track pants, as if he’s just been for a run. Even a little sweaty—maybe because he looks a little sweaty?—he looks better than should be humanly possible. He pulls out his wallet to pay and my eyes drop automatically to the way the damp T-shirt clings to his shoulders and dips in at his waist, down to where his hip bones . . .
The chair across from me scrapes against the floor and I snap my head up to meet his eyes: brown and clearly amused to have caught me ogling him. He sits across from me, drink already in front of him, arms resting on the table, and takes his time doing his own—rather blatant—inspection. I clear my throat.
“You know it’s April, right?” he says, and motions to my clothes while he takes a sip from his iced drink.
“It’s freezing in here,” I tell him, tugging my sleeves farther down over my hands. “It’s at least seventy outside. Why do they insist on the arctic temperatures in here? So I can model my finest winter fashions?”
Luke shrugs and takes another drink before glancing at his phone and putting it away in his pocket. He stretches his neck side to side and then glances at the scarf around my neck.
I wait for him to make one of his trademark unfiltered come-ons . . . but he doesn’t. It takes me a second to place my reaction as disappointment.
But you’re the one who drew the “just friends” line, London.
“Did you make sure they put skim in your drink?” I ask, recovering. “Wouldn’t want them to sneak whole milk in that drink and ruin the salad you had for lunch.”
Luke aims his smile at me, ignoring my baiting snark.
“So what are you doing there?” He taps a finger on the top of my laptop. “Googling cheat codes for Titanfall?”
The twinkle in his eyes loosens an anxious knot in my chest.
I take a sip of my own drink and set it back down again. “Working on Lola’s website. She was having some trouble with the guy she hired and I told her I’d fix it for her.”
Luke stands and leans over the table to get a look at my screen. “You did that?”
“Yeah,” I tell him, moving over a little so he can see better. “Her art really does most of the work, I just wanted to build something around that. It’s just code and—”
“I’m an idiot, and even I know it’s a lot harder than ‘just code,’ ” he says. “Logan, that’s a great fucking site. The guys in my office just paid someone a shitload of money to build theirs and it doesn’t look half as good as this.”
I shrug and turn the screen back to me, returning to the dashboard and doing my best to look unaffected. Praise from Luke has done something strange to my insides. My stomach is warm and fluttery. I have to remind myself to keep my head down because I know this response will be written all over my face.
“Logan,” he says this time, a bit more forcefully to get my attention.
I blink up at him, hoping I can keep this overwhelming fondness tucked safely out of sight. “People pay a lot of money for work like this.”
He looks at me with the most adorably confused smile. “Then why don’t you do more of this and serve fewer Heinekens to douchebags at the bar?”
I tilt my head and consider him through narrowed eyes. “I don’t know if you really classify as a douchebag, per se . . .” I tell him.
He looks mock-hurt. “Hey—I didn’t say I was a douchebag.”
“Oh, my bad.” I look back down at the screen with an evil little smile.
Under the table he stretches his legs out in front of him and brackets each of his feet against each of mine; the sides of our legs touch. “You’re avoiding my question.”
I shrug, holding my shoulders up tight for a few breaths. “Because people want experience and a big portfolio to pay you big money. I’ve done Oliver’s site, and now Lola’s, but I don’t have a ton of experience outside of school.”
He looks down at my laptop and back up again, meaningfully. “I’m no expert but you seem well on your way here,” he says. “Lola’s going to flip when she sees that.”
I bite the insides of my cheek to keep my smile in check. “Hopefully.”
“I still can’t believe everything that’s happening with her. The comic, a movie? I still remember her drawing dicks on the outside of all my notebooks.”
I snort. “Yeah, you might want to see if you have any of those lying around because they could be worth something one day. I know I’m keeping the little panel she drew and taped to the fridge. It’s an angry cat calling me an ass for drinking the orange juice.”
“You did all of this just today?” he asks.
I nod and take another sip of my drink. “Yeah, surfed this morning but got here around nine.”
He looks at his watch and I instinctively check the clock on my computer. Eleven eleven. I want to make a wish, but my breath catches in my throat at my first instinct to wish for something having to do with this guy across the table from me. Instead, I close my eyes and make a tiny wish for my web design business to take off someday soon.
Looking back up at me, Luke says, “So you’re saying you’ve been working for just over two hours doing the thing you went to school for—and which you’re actually really good at and could possibly make great money doing—and still managed to snag a few hours at the beach . . . interesting.”
“Have you been talking to my mom?” I ask him.
“Yeah, she and I talk most days.” He waves a casual hand in the air. “Usually just about how you never call, and how you should find a nice boy to bring home.”
“That sounds exactly like my mom.”
Luke’s phone makes a soft chime and I have to tamp down the pulse of irritation I still get whenever it goes off. He looks up, pocketing his phone obliviously. “Want to get some dinner later?”
“Actually I have plans,” I tell him, closing my laptop and slipping it into my bag.
His expression falls just the tiniest amount, making me wonder if I imagined it as his eyes flicker down to follow the movement of my hands as I wrap up my cord. “Plans?”
“Fred has a date and I promised him I’d watch his granddaughter.”
“Babysitting?” he asks. “How old is she?”
“Five going on sixteen. She’s the cutest thing. Anyway, before I head over, I need to run home and shower, eat. You know.” I stand and loop my bag across my body before pushing in my chair. Luke stands and my heart takes off at the whiff of ocean and the faint clean smell of his sweat.
Dinner with him sounds nice, though.
He reaches forward to untwist my strap on my shoulder. “All right.”
We stand there, the question hanging between us. I can tell he’s not going to push . . . for once.
“You wouldn’t want to babysit with me,” I say, looking up at him through my lashes. “I mean, you’d find that totally boring, right?”
I can’t believe I just asked him this. What twenty-three-and-a-half-year-old man in his right mind would want to come along to babysit?
But this is Luke: he gives me a little one-shouldered shrug. “I did letter in dolly hair.”
Shocked, I look up at him fully now, watching the smooth line of his throat as he swallows. “You would want to come?”
He shrugs again and tosses his cup into a recycling bin. “Why not?”
“You wouldn’t be bored?”
His smile melts my heart. “Maybe, but wouldn’t it be more fun to be bored together?”
“Are you sure?” I ask. I sort of love the idea of having Luke along for the night, especially since I miss the flirty side of him and that can only be remedied with just . . . more time with him. “It’ll be tea parties and Barbie.”
“Logan, if you keep trying to talk me out of the idea, I might change my mind,” he says, laughing. Luke manages to get a few steps ahead of me and holds open the door.
“Thanks,” I tell him. “That would be . . . awesome.”
He slips on his sunglasses and follows me into the parking lot. We reach my car, and even though his eyes are hidden behind his dark lenses, I can sense the hopeful way he stares down at me. “So . . . what time?”
There are a million reasons why this is a bad idea, but as I lean against my car door, I find myself wanting to hang out with him so much it almost feels urgent. Luke is managing to break down my walls one smile at a time. Being with him feels a little like letting go of the handlebars and racing down a hill. And it also feels like being wrapped up in the warmest blanket.
How can he feel both like an adventure and a comfort?
“Six,” I tell him. “And fair warning: you have to bring pizza and let her braid your hair if she asks.”
“YOU KNOW, IF I do say so myself, this was a great idea. You’re a fantastic babysitter.” I wiggle my toes, feet propped up on Fred’s coffee table. “Don’t ever let anyone tell you you’re just a pretty face, Blue Crush.”
Luke grins at me from across the room where he’s sitting with Daisy at a small table, in an even smaller chair, in the midst of what appears to be an elaborate tea party. His usually soft, floppy hair is spiky now, tied up by fluorescent hairbands in about twenty tiny, crazy ponytails.
He leans toward Daisy conspiratorially and hikes his thumb in my direction. “I told you she thought I was pretty.”
Daisy slides a couple of decorative flowers into the mess of his hair. I laugh under my breath and sit up. “Well, how could I not? I mean, Daisy must have lettered in dolly hair, too, because yours looks amazing like that. Is she friends with your sister?”
“You said there’d be no teasing,” he tells me, and politely thanks Daisy when she offers him more tea.
“That doesn’t really sound like a thing I would say to you, Luke.”
“Fine,” he says, giving me a little wink. “Go ahead and joke, but don’t think I didn’t see you watching while she put in these ponytails. You love my hair.” He leans forward and puts a hand over each of her tiny ears before he adds, “And I remember how much you love to get your hands in it.”
“You had to cover her ears for that?” I ask. “That wasn’t even dirty.”
“The dirty part was implied,” he says, dropping his hands. “Sometimes the dirtiest things are the simplest. Like your swimsuit the other day: it covered more because you had to move and work in the water, but it was still hotter than some skimpy thing that shows sideboob.”
I can only look at him and blink. “But you didn’t have to cover her ears for that?”
“Oh, shi— crap. Sorry.”
I stand and walk over to them, and without even thinking, brush a finger over a piece of his hair that’s come loose. I think about how it felt to have my hands on his hips while I helped him balance at the beach, or how his eyes moving down my body felt hotter than the sun overhead. I quickly take a step back.
I veer us into safer territory: “You definitely get points for being a good sport.”
I expect him to make some crack about “points” meaning blow jobs or something, but instead he just says, “I’m having fun.”
“Would you like some tea?” Daisy says, lifting the plastic pot toward me.
“I don’t think so, honey. It’s pretty late and too much tea might keep us up.”
“I’m not tired,” she says, and turns back to her dolls. “And I want to keep playing with Luke. He’s nice. Don’t you think he’s nice, Logan?”
Luke snickers and I pinch his arm before kneeling at the table to smooth her hair. “He is nice. And silly goose, you know my name is London.”
“But Luke calls you Logan,” she says.
“Maybe he can come back and play again,” I tell her. “I bet we could get him to read you a story?”
“We’re gonna watch Frozen. He pinky promised.”
I look at him. “You pinky promised?”
He leans in. “I used my left pinkie. It’s the sneaky one, so feel free to veto.”
Daisy agrees to pajamas and teeth brushing if it means Luke and part of a movie before bed. I really can’t say I blame her.
We settle into the couch, Daisy on Luke’s lap and me—at her insistence—next to them. Right next to them, which basically translates into the three of us crammed into one corner, with room for at least four more adults in the space left unoccupied.
She allows him to take the bands out of his hair without much fuss, if he promises to wear her Elsa necklace and never take it off. Ever. She’s pretty insistent on this point, and it takes everything I have not to smile as he reasons with her, explaining that he works in a big fancy office and her necklace might not look okay with his suit. In the end they both get their way and find a compromise: Luke only has to wear the necklace for a few hours, as long as he holds her hand.
He’ll make a brilliant attorney one day, I’m sure.
Luke is solid and warm at my side, and the TV glows in front of us, painting the room in flickering shadow. It takes a few minutes to get her settled, but soon Daisy is snuggled up and rather pleased with herself that she’s pretty much gotten her way. Her hand looks positively tiny in his and I keep blinking down to it, marveling at how much bigger he is than her and how absolutely gentle he’s being. I try to pay attention to what’s happening on the screen—there’s a lot of snow and even more singing—but it’s hard to follow amid the crisis I’m having over his holding her tiny little hand. I never find that sort of thing sexy. I don’t. I swear.
About five minutes later, Luke’s voice breaks into my thoughts: “I think she’s out.”
I look over to meet his eyes, and in this light he’s all cheekbones and sharp jaw. The ends of his eyelashes glow against the screen.
“Is she asleep?” he asks.
I blink several times before I understand what he’s talking about. Right, Daisy. The child I’m supposed to be babysitting. I lean forward and sure enough, her eyes are closed, her breaths soft and even. “Yeah, out like a light. Good job.”
“I make a pretty good bed, but I think two slices of pizza and a movie did most of the work.”
“No, really,” I whisper. “This whole night—you’ve been amazing. You waltz in here with dinner and your dreamboat smile, all adorable and charming and made everything easy. Well done, Mr. Sutter.”
“You think I’m charming?” he says, and grins. The glow from the TV accentuates the way his face softens when he smiles, and I have to look away.
“Is that all you took out of that whole thing?” I ask.
“I also got adorable, dreamboat, and easy.”
I laugh, rubbing a hand over my face. “Of course you did.”
We watch the rest of the movie together in silence, and I check my phone for the time. It’s only then that I realize I haven’t heard his go off for what has to be a few hours now. It’s not on the coffee table, and when I think about it, I can’t even remember when I saw it last. “Did you shut your phone off?” I ask, looking around.
He leans forward to take a drink and sits back with an exaggerated sigh. “Daisy made me. She said it was rude.”
I laugh. “Well, Daisy is the boss.”
“Think of all the texts you’re missing.”
Luke laughs softly and rearranges Daisy on his lap so that she’s more comfortable. “No, it’s fine. This was . . . this was fun,” he says with a small lift of his shoulder. “Daisy was cute and you know I like hanging out with you.”
Blinking back to his face, I admit, “I have no idea why. I’m stubborn and blunt with you. Sometimes I can’t believe the things I say.” I want to lean into him, cuddle him. “I might as well just get a house full of cats and call it a day.”
He’s already shaking his head. “You’re honest with me. I like that you know where your limits are and you stick up for yourself. I like so many things about you, Logan.” He laughs and lets his head fall back against the couch. “We might be here a while. I could make you a list if that helps?”
I look down at my lap and Luke follows the movement, moving to catch my eyes. “I like that you’re strong and don’t take any of my shit. My sister doesn’t, either, and she’s probably my favorite person in the world.”
His expression falls slightly on this, like it’s not something he was planning to say and the words have surprised him.
I swallow and try to make sense of what I’m feeling, and to explain it to him.
“I like that you’re so unguarded,” I tell him. “That you say what you feel and . . . it doesn’t scare you.”
“It scares me,” he says. “But maybe I’m just happy to be feeling something for the first time in a long time. Or maybe I just hide my fear better.”
“It doesn’t seem like it. It doesn’t seem like you’re afraid of anything,” I tell him. “Except maybe sharks. And jellyfish—”
“There it is,” he says, rolling his eyes while I continue to count off.
“Turtles, starfish, seaweed . . .”
“Logan,” he says, and digs for my ribs.
“Okay, okay.” I squirm away from him. “But even then, I was really impressed. Even scared, you just . . . you did it. You got in the water.”
A beat of silence passes between us and he blinks over to the TV. “Maybe sometimes you just have to,” he says finally. His eyes shift back over to me again, and I don’t think we’re talking about surfing anymore. “Don’t get me wrong, I almost peed my pants out there, but sometimes we all have to stop thinking about what could hurt us and just . . . jump.”
His words hit me like a fist between my ribs because I am scared, and I’m most definitely afraid to jump. Sometimes I see Luke as that guy, the one I watched out for, the type of guy who walked out of a club with another girl the day after having sex with me, whose phone never stops ringing with one booty call after another.
But then he’s jumping into an ocean when it terrifies him and having tea parties, and telling me about this girl he loved so much that he would have done anything for her. He’s doing all of this to spend time with me, and it terrifies me how much I want him, because I’ve been there before and I was so, so wrong.
I know I’ve been quiet too long when Luke clears his throat and shifts next to me.
“Anyway. I was impressed,” I tell him. “It takes a lot to be bigger than your fears.”
He looks at me and smiles and heat slithers like fingers along my spine. “Thanks.”
“And for someone who’d never been on a board, you really kicked some ass.” I realize I’m rambling. I realize I’m stalling.
The air between us is crackling with charge and I don’t know how to deal.
He leans in a bit more and tilts his head to look up at me. “I had a pretty great teacher,” he says.
I shift forward and he’s so close, close enough that I can feel each breath and count the tiny freckles across his nose. He blinks down to my mouth and back up and he’s asking if this is okay, giving me time to close the distance or pull away.
I want to kiss him.
It takes the smallest effort on my part before I feel him, the barest brush of his lips, the slight catch in his breath against my own. He smells like the apple candy he won in a game of Go Fish, and my mouth practically waters, imagining if I’ll taste it on his tongue.
Without thinking I close my eyes and open my mouth and—
Daisy makes a small sound in her sleep and says my name.
We both exhale like we’ve been holding our breath, before he sits back, pushing a hand through his hair. “Am I a terrible person that I would have given her a thousand dollars to sleep for ten more minutes?” he asks.
My heart is pounding in my chest and I laugh, scrubbing a hand over my face. “I probably would have gone in for half.”
Luke shifts Daisy into my arms and trades places with me so I can have the arm of the couch before settling back against my side. We don’t talk as we turn back to the movie, and after a few minutes, I feel his finger brush absently along my wrist.
He hasn’t looked away from the screen, and I realize he’s not doing it to get my attention or pull some sort of reaction from me; he’s doing it because he needs to touch me. I wonder if his fingers itch like mine do whenever he’s around, or if he feels the same tug-of-war inside his chest.
I don’t think I’m in control of the nerves that fire and make my hand move, but with my eyes locked straight ahead, I turn my palm over and twist my fingers with his.
He doesn’t say anything, but in my peripheral vision I think I see him smile.
He tightens his grip.
I wonder if he gets that this is my wordless admission that maybe I like him. That he doesn’t completely suck after all.
Daisy is softly snoring with her head resting on my right shoulder, and after only a few moments of hesitation, I feel Luke do the same thing against my left.
The weight of him next to me—so solid and strong—feels comfortable and safe, and soon my own eyelids droop. I sink farther into the couch and into Luke, and fall asleep to the sound of the credits playing.
IT CAN’T BE long after when the front door opens.
I vaguely hear footsteps and blink several times before I can make out Fred standing in front of me, holding his phone in one outstretched arm.
“What are you—are you taking a picture?” I say, voice hoarse and groggy.
“Do you have any idea how cute you two are?” Fred asks, looking at his phone before turning the screen to face me.
“That’s super-creepy, Fred.”
I feel Luke stir next to me and he sits up with a start.
“Relax, son,” Fred says, steadying his shoulder. “I’m not some dad who just caught you making out with the babysitter.”
I realize that we’re still holding hands and I pull mine away, ignoring the way I can still feel his palm against my own. “Really creepy,” I say, handing over a still-sleeping little girl.
“She was good?” he asks, smoothing her hair.
“An angel, like always. She might be engaged to Luke, though. Fair warning.”
Fred laughs and motions that he’s going to put her to bed, and I tell him I’ll talk to him tomorrow at work.
This is the part that usually gets awkward, where Luke walks me out to my car and we stand across from each other, pretending that we didn’t just kiss and that we weren’t holding hands like high schoolers. But it seems like the potential for awkward has dissolved between us, and right now it just feels quiet, and calm.
The street is dark, and I fumble for the door handle, opening my car to set my bag inside. When I turn, Luke takes my hand, looking down at the way it fits in his. “I had a lot of fun. Thanks for letting me crash your party.”
“Are you kidding? That was the easiest night I’ve ever had with her. Usually I’m the one with braids and a tiara. Thanks for hanging out.”
There’s a beat of silence and a dog barks in the distance, and in my head I’m chanting, Don’t ask me to come home with you don’t ask me to come home with you, don’t ask me, don’t ask me . . . Because honestly I have no idea how I’d say no.
But he doesn’t, instead leaning in to place a small kiss against my cheek and letting go of my hand. “Text me when you get home?” he asks.
I nod, a little dazed at the turn in the conversation, and I can’t tell if it’s relief or disappointment gathering in my stomach.
“Yeah,” I tell him. “Sure.”
On impulse, I cup his face, and stretch to place the lightest kiss on his warm lips. Stunned, he just stands there, watching as I step back and fight an enormous smile.
His eyebrows slowly rise. “Logan, you just kissed me.”
“Only a tiny kiss.” I smile up at him and notice the way his eyes flicker to my cheek to look at my dimple.
He holds the door while I climb inside and shuts it behind me. I open the window and he leans down, resting his arms on the frame.
“I like you,” he says. I know this, but the admission is so bare that if I weren’t already sitting, my knees might feel a little weak.
“I like you, too. Weirdo,” I add, and see his smile linger as he steps back and watches me drive away.
It’s not until I’m several blocks away that I remember: he’s my friend’s ex. I don’t get to have Luke Sutter.
LOLA AND OLIVER are on the couch watching a movie when I get home. I drop my bag on the floor near the door and wave to them before walking into the kitchen to get a glass of water.
My head swims a little with uncertainty. I’m starting to really want to trust Luke. I’m starting to need his company. But the remaining roadblock—Harlow, Mia, the history of this group with Luke—seems to be the one thing that lingers, and I have no idea how to deal with it. On the one hand, I feel like Harlow is being unreasonable by even having an opinion about any of this. On the other hand, I get it. He was with Mia for so long. There are unspoken rules; he should be off-limits.
“Were you working?” Lola asks, pausing the movie.
I swallow, shaking my head. “I was babysitting Daisy.”
She stands, smiling, and joins me in the kitchen. “A wild night, then.”
“It was fun, actually.” I meet her eyes, and hesitate before admitting quietly, “Luke came along with me.”
Her eyebrows rise to the ceiling. “Well, you know he’s into you if he joins you for babysitting.”
I try to laugh, I really do, but it comes out a little strangled and quickly turns into a sob.
In my peripheral vision, I can see Oliver get up from the couch, and walk over to join us, but I just keep staring very hard at my hands cupped around the water glass so I don’t have to look either of them in the eye.
“London?” Lola asks, stepping closer and putting a warm hand on my arm. “Sweetie, what happened?”
I shake my head, unaccustomed to crying at all, let alone crying in front of someone.
“Do you want me to stay or go?” Oliver asks quietly.
“You can stay,” I manage. “I’m being ridiculous. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”
They both wait for me to explain my meltdown, and after I swallow down a few more inexplicable sobs, I tell them, “I just really like him.”
Lola’s voice is both gentle and confused. “You should like him. He’s an awesome guy.”
Finally, I look up at her face. “I mean, I like him. Romantically.”
“And I’m saying, you should. He’s amazing.”
It’s all I can really think to say. And as soon as I do, the two words hang heavily in the air between us. It should be, But Mia—except it isn’t, because Mia doesn’t care. Or, it should be, But I’m afraid—except it isn’t exactly that, either, because although part of me is afraid, a much bigger part of me wants to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Like the wise person she is, Lola also lets the words hang there. Instead of growing bigger and more meaningful, though, they start to feel small, and silly.
“I don’t reckon it’s up to Harlow,” Oliver says quietly.
Tilting her head, Lola studies me sympathetically. “Honey, have you been worried about her this whole time?”
I give her a bewildered smile. “I mean . . . yes? It seemed like a pretty big deal. You guys didn’t invite me to breakfast the other day, the picnic was fun, but strained. Even Luke noticed Harlow was acting weird.”
Lola sighs, giving Oliver a knowing look I can’t really interpret.
A toilet flushes down the hall and the bathroom door opens.
My stomach drops with realization.
“Harlow Francesca Vega. Join us in the kitchen, please.” Lola’s angry-calm voice actually sounds terrifying.
“I didn’t know she was here,” I mumble to Oliver, who gives me a sympathetic wince.
Harlow walks down the hall, brows pulled down in concern. “What?”
“How much did you hear?” Lola asks.
Shaking her head in confusion, Harlow says, “I was peeing a decade’s worth in there. I heard nothing.”
Lola turns to her, wrapping her arms around my shoulders. “London here is a mess.”
“She is?” Harlow moves immediately over to me. “Honey, what’s wrong?”
Oh, God, this is awkward.
I give Lola a look that I hope successfully communicates both help and way to put me on the spot, Castle.
Lola tilts her head to me. “London likes Luke.”
“Didn’t we know this already?” Harlow asks, stepping back a bit, and her expression is almost entirely unreadable to me. Her top lip is curled up slightly, brows drawn in tight, and it could be confusion, but it could also be irritation.
I feel like I’ve just stepped off the edge of the pool and I keep drifting deeper. It’s weird to have a group of friends influence a dating decision, but also never really speak directly to me about it. Is this what it’s like to be part of a group? Whether it is or not, it makes me feel even more on the periphery. I have no-drama Ruby, and I used to have no-nonsense Nana. Both of them always let me know where I stood. Harlow is harder: she’s up front, but she circles through a world of emotions in a day. I’m terrified of saying the wrong thing here.
“I don’t want to jeopardize friendships,” I tell them. “But I honestly have no idea what to make of your reaction to me seeing Luke. You guys mean a lot to me, and I don’t want it to be weird for Mia—”
“It’s not,” Lola cuts in quickly.
“—or you two, or anyone,” I say. “I didn’t realize Luke was Mia’s Luke, and then after I did, it felt like he was someone different. For me.”
In my periphery I see Oliver turn carefully and make his way out of the kitchen and down the hall to Lola’s bedroom.
The three of us wait for him to close the door, and we then look up to each other in our tiny triangle of awkward. Finally, Harlow leans back against the counter, shrugging a little helplessly. “I’m not really sure what to say. Do I have feelings about it? Yeah, sort of.”
This actually gets my back up a bit. “Look, ever since we first hooked up, I’ve been worried about Luke’s history with girls, worried about whether I’m willing to deal with romance again, worried about whether even hanging out with him would jeopardize my friendships with you guys. But if Mia is fine, I don’t know that it’s fair for you to be upset with me over it.”
“I agree,” she says, surprisingly nodding. “And since you hadn’t brought it up with us, I assumed you didn’t care what we thought. I respected that, and was getting over it. But if you’re asking me, then I’ll tell you: yeah, I had a knee-jerk reaction when Mia called and told me. It’s one thing for Mia to see Luke banging anything that moves, and it’s another for her to imagine him falling in love again. She’s completely in love with Ansel, but of course she had feelings about Luke finding someone, even if we all know that reaction is petty, or unfair.”
Lola blinks down to the floor at this, and my heart stretches too thin inside my chest. I get it: I would never get back together with Justin, but the idea that he loves the person he’s with now—that he’s marrying her—is irrationally painful.
“Mia called me and knew that she wasn’t being totally fair, but it threw her,” Harlow continues. “Luke and Mia started ‘going steady’ in sixth grade, whatever that means. Her accident fucked us all up—a lot—and when they broke up we”—she motions between her and Lola—“had to figure out how to support Mia best. It meant we lost Luke, and that sucks. Because he was ours, see? So yeah, I had an initial reaction, and I’m not sure that it’s the right one, but it was genuine.”
I know there’s a lot of history there—there’s a lot of history here, between all these women, and sometimes it seems easier to keep it surface-level than to really work to get to know them. But with this honesty from Harlow, I know I want friends like this. I want friends who’ll worry about my emotions, even when those emotions feel petty or small.
“I understand where you’re coming from,” I tell her. “I do, and I respect it. But this isn’t about Mia, or you, or their past. It’s about me and Luke now. That’s complicated enough.” I tilt my head, saying softly, “They broke up nearly five years ago. Mia is married. This isn’t really about her anymore . . . at all.”
“I know. I know.” Harlow nods, slowly, and opens her mouth to speak before Lola cuts her off.
“Mia’s not even here,” she says, and I’m not sure if she’s talking to me, or to Harlow, or just pointing out in general that this conversation is happening without the most important component. But then she looks directly at Harlow and adds, “And if she were, she would tell us all we need to talk about something else.”
Harlow steps forward and pulls me into an unexpected hug. “I’m sorry. I want you to be happy. I want Luke to be happy.” Bracing her hands on my shoulders, she pulls away, saying quietly, “I mean, this way we all get to keep him, right?”
“Right,” I tell her. “But I don’t really know yet what that means for me.” I smile at her, shrugging. “So it would be awesome if I could figure that out without having to worry about you getting mad at me if I decide I want more, okay?”
“Okay.” She nods, pulling me into another hug, squeezing me tighter. “But if he hurts you, I’m beheading him.”
But despite my teasing, my laugh ruffles her hair, and I squeeze her tighter, too.