IT’S NOT LIKE I’ve never done this before—had a one-night stand—but the number of guys I’ve slept with is still small enough that when I see Luke walk into Fred’s the next night, the thought I’ve had sex with him is the first thing that flashes through my head.
Thankfully, it’s there and gone, replaced just as quickly with What the hell is he doing here? Sex with a guy like Luke is supposed to mean multiple orgasms and a smile you have to explain to your friends the next day. It’s also supposed to be a one-time thing. I’m fairly certain we were both clear on that point.
I never planned on seeing Luke again, which is exactly why I didn’t bother correcting him when he kept calling me by the wrong name. It’s also why it takes me a moment to get my bearings when he walks into Fred’s with Not-Joe, Oliver’s goofy employee and one of my favorite people.
They head straight toward me, but when I do nothing more than get them drinks and go about my business, I think Luke gets it. I can’t quite make out his reaction, though, and I wonder briefly if he’s disappointed that I’m not falling all over myself to see him or asking for a repeat performance. Which—let’s be real for a second—wouldn’t be the worst idea I’ve ever had, because when Luke claimed he knew what he was doing? He wasn’t lying. Not even a little.
But I’m not looking for a repeat. I knew it last night—even when it was so good I kept thinking, I don’t want this to end, I don’t ever want him to come and this to be over—and my instinct is reaffirmed now as I watch yet another brunette sidle up next to him.
This is why hookups never work for me: I don’t like having to mentally process it all after. I don’t like questioning my behavior, questioning theirs. There are too many rules to such a game that are purported to have no strings attached.
The place gradually starts to fill. There’s a game blasting from a few of the overhead TVs, and the periodic roar of the crowd tears through the bar. It’s so busy I’ve almost forgotten Luke is even here when I turn to ring someone up and see him—and the brunette—making their way toward the exit. Together.
There’s an uncomfortable, almost stinging sensation in my chest as I watch her hook her arm through his. She laughs at something he’s said and they disappear through the door. This feeling is strange—it’s not anger, and it’s not hurt. But it is mild irritation, at best, and I’ll definitely serve him Heineken if he ever comes back.
I don’t realize I’m still watching the empty doorway until Fred moves into the space next to me.
“What’s so interesting?” he says, following my gaze.
I snap out of it. “Nothing.” I look up at Fred and grin. “Just someone proving I was right.”
“Well, that sounds interesting,” he says, and props a hip against the counter. “Guy? Girl?”
“Guy,” I say, and reach across to poke him in the ribs. I’d give Fred more of a hard time for being so nosy, but watching him tease Harlow never fails to make my life. “Don’t let anyone tell you subtlety isn’t your strong point.”
He chuckles as he steps out of my reach. “I try. And this night just went up about three hundred points on the interesting scale. Not sure I’ve heard you mention a guy since you’ve been here.”
“That’s because we’re not sitting under a dryer at the hair salon.”
Fred laughs at that and sets up a round of shots for one of the waitresses. “Not sure I have enough hair left to sit under a dryer these days, anyway,” he says, and I catch his eyes flicker back toward the door. “Too bad he left, huh?”
My fingers pause on the cash register and I look over at him. “What are you talking about?”
“The guy you were giving shit to yesterday.”
“I think we both know that doesn’t really narrow it down for me, Fred,” I say with a saccharine smile.
He snorts. “You know who I’m talking about. Cocky one with all the hair.”
“Luke is really going to like that you complimented his hair.”
“Oh, Luke. You learned his name,” he says mockingly. He continues, laughing only half to himself. “He looks like a Luke. Luke and London . . . Luke and London of San Diego and Port Charles. You could be living a soap opera, kiddo.”
I brush by him on my way to the cooler.
Fred finishes ringing up a customer and turns back to me. “So tell me. What point did he prove to you?”
I consider this while I open a bottle of Zinfandel, thinking back on what exactly it was about Luke leaving with the brunette that bothered me most. “I think it reminded me I need to trust my instincts.”
Fred’s smile softens. “We could probably all stand to do a little more of that.”
After he opens a couple of beers for two guys at the bar, Fred turns back to me. “Who was that dragging him out of here?”
I laugh. It definitely didn’t look like Luke was being dragged anywhere. “I have no idea. Random Girl Number Whatever.”
“You two know each other pretty well, then?”
Giving Fred a little warning glance, I duck down to shelve the wine bottle, saying, “Don’t you have something else you should be doing?”
He looks exceedingly pleased with himself. “Something besides mixing drinks and hassling you?”
“Unless Harlow’s coming around, then not really.” He pauses. “But I am a bartender and have been told I’m a pretty good listener if you need to talk when things slow down a little.”
I lift my chin to him in thanks and move to the other end of the bar. The thing is, I don’t need to talk. Does it sting that Luke had sex with me less than twenty-four hours ago and just walked out of the bar with another woman? A little. Not because I feel like my honor has been tarnished or I wanted more of Luke for myself, but because it makes me feel a little disposable, and, despite my better judgment, I liked him.
I’ll get over it.
A COUPLE OF hours later, I walk out of the storage room carrying a case of hard liquor and see that Luke is back. Alone.
I slow my steps as I close the distance between us, trying to figure out how I’m going to get out of interacting with him, but he looks up at the sound of bottles clanking and his face lights up.
“If it isn’t my favorite bartender,” he says, flashing me his warm smile. “I thought you’d left, London.”
I feel my own smile flicker across my mouth when he emphasizes using my correct name, and he watches me balance the box on the sink and open it, pulling out bottles and setting them on the counter. My fallback persona is bubbly, but in this job—and especially with guys like Luke—I’ve had to train myself to be a bit more reserved. So far with him I sort of suck at it.
But what sucks even more right now is I’m a captive audience behind the bar, and I just don’t know what else we possibly have to talk about.
He’s still smiling as if he’s genuinely happy to see me, and damn if that same pull isn’t still there between us, drawing the hesitation out of me.
“Here all night,” I say, and I hope my smile is the appropriate balance of friendly yet distant. “I didn’t see you come back in.”
He’s in the middle of taking a drink when I say this, and his eyes widen over the top of it.
“ ‘Come back in’?” Luke sets his beer down in front of him and spins the coaster so the logo is facing up.
My mom says when I was younger, she could always tell when I was lying or stalling for time: I’d frown and scrunch my brows together until I had this little line in the center of my forehead. Apparently I still do it; she says it’s my tell. I wonder now if Luke has a tell, too, and if that’s what I’m seeing in the subtle way he’s fidgeting. He’s been so calm and smooth all this time, seeing him like this is like watching a gazelle play cards with a lion.
“Yeah, I saw you leave with your friend. And yet, here you are.”
“You mean Dylan?” He turns his cocktail napkin so that it’s facing logo side up, too.
It takes me a second to realize he means Not-Joe. I smile, knowing I’ve inadvertently cracked an enormous mystery among my friends: Who in the ever-loving hell is Not-Joe?
“I think we both know I’m not talking about Dylan.”
Luke laughs and I know the second he’s pulled himself together because he smiles and it’s a magic trick the way the cocky-jock-curtain parts across his face. I have zero doubt Luke Sutter could charm his way out of almost anything.
“You mean Aubrey,” he says, nodding as if the pieces are finally coming together for him. “I just drove her home.”
I snort. “I bet you did.”
“I was making sure she didn’t try to drive,” he says. “Besides, you had your wicked way with me yesterday and then barely looked at me tonight. When could you possibly have noticed me leaving?”
Now it’s my turn to laugh. “Luke, it’s totally fine. There’s zero weirdness on this end because you know where I stand. I’m just giving you shit.”
“Come on now, Dimples.” He immediately reaches into his pocket and pulls out a dollar bill, stuffing it in the jar. “I was just being a friend.”
Unable to resist, I tease, “Is ‘being a friend’ code for getting your dick sucked in the backseat?”
A laugh bursts from his throat. “It wasn’t like that,” he says, and one side of his mouth ratchets up a tiny bit higher than the other. “I promise.”
I pull a bottle from the group, open it, and replace the cap with a pour spout.
“Hang out with me for a bit,” he says quietly. “Tell me a story.”
I’m pulled up short for a breath by the sweetness of this request. As much as I want to, I just can’t peg this guy.
“In case you didn’t notice,” I say, motioning to my white shirt, apron, and the bar around us, “I’m sort of working right now.”
He looks around the bar. “Yeah, but it’s slow. Only about half the tables are full and most of those are dudes eating potato skins and drinking beer. They’d only call you over to see your legs in that skirt.” He stretches on his barstool to get a better look. “I know I would.”
I swat at him with a bar towel. “Why aren’t you hanging out with your friends?”
He shrugs. “My friends are all assholes, and none of them can beat me at Titanfall.”
I bite the inside of my cheek to keep from smiling. “I’d think that’d be a selling point, given your sad performance. How’s the manly pride today?”
He leans in and grins. “I think we both know my manly pride recovered just fine last night.”
I roll my eyes, fighting a laugh, and move to step away, but he reaches for my arm.
“And totally serious for a minute,” Luke says. “Tell me how you got so good at that game. I’m man enough to admit that I got spanked, but I need you to tell me all your secrets.”
I shrug, working my arm away from his gentle grip. The feel of his hand makes me flush, and I remember how they felt curled around my hips, working my body over his. “Just a lot of practice.”
“See, now I never would have guessed that. And not because you’re a girl,” he says, holding up a hand when he seems to anticipate what I guarantee would be a brilliant feminist rant, “but because you look like you spend all your time on a surfboard, not sitting on a couch.”
“Well, I should be building my portfolio to start looking for a real job, but I’m a brilliant procrastinator,” I tell him. “The video games call to me.”
Luke considers this. “Portfolio? Where’d you go to school?”
“UCSD. Graduated last spring. Graphic design.”
He looks confused, glancing to the colored bottles of liquor over my shoulder, to the rest of the bar, and then back to me. “And yet you’re here.”
“I am,” I say, and he seems to let it drop for now.
Luke and I fucked and we aren’t really even friends, so I have to give him credit for not asking why I’m tending bar at Fred’s instead of using the degree I obviously paid a small fortune for. Points for the boy.
“What about you?” I ask. “There were some hefty stacks of books at your place.”
“I graduated last spring, too. Studied poli-sci.”
“Wow,” I say, impressed. “What about sports?”
“Soccer for fun, water polo more seriously.”
Water polo. I give myself a mental high five for having guessed this the first time I saw him, and then my heart dips a little. The UCSD men’s water polo team won two national championships while we were there. Luke has to be an amazing athlete.
I swipe a bar towel across the prep space in front of me. “Wow,” I say quietly. “Water polo. That’s . . .” Impressive.
He waves this off. “So you spend all day surfing and work here at night, somehow perfecting your man-crushing gamer talents in your downtime.”
“Pretty much,” I tell him.
“Are you woman enough for a rematch?”
I’m about to remind him that no, last night was a one-time thing, when the outside door opens and a slice of the setting sun cuts across the floor. It’s Mia, followed by towering, gangly Ansel.
I smile and she bounces on her feet, waving. It’s only when I turn back to Luke that I see he’s followed the shift in my attention, and he’s looking right at my friend and her oversexed husband. Luke’s sixty-watt smile dims and he blinks quickly down to his beer, continuing to spin the coaster beneath it.
When I turn, I see that Ansel has his arms wrapped around Mia’s front, and is steering them both toward a booth in the far corner. Luke still hasn’t said anything.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out there’s some sort of connection between Luke and Mia, especially since I did see them in conversation the other day, I recall. So I guess it’s up to me to decide if I care enough to ask.
I’m not sure I do.
“Well, as fun as this has been, I have a few more things to grab,” I say, stepping out from behind the bar.
Luke still doesn’t seem to have snapped out of whatever was bothering him, and quietly nods in my general direction.
I wave at Fred as I head back to the stockroom. Fred was recovering from a slipped disk when I started, and Harlow basically threatened to hang his balls from the dartboard if she caught him lifting anything heavier than a bottle of Bombay.
I’m still getting to know Harlow, but I’ve learned enough to know that she’s 1) nosy, 2) really nosy when she cares about someone, and 3) in possession of one hell of a temper. I’ll carry as many boxes from the storeroom as it takes to never experience that temper firsthand.
When I get back to the bar—arms full—Luke slides off his stool to greet me.
“Jesus, let me help you,” he says, taking the cardboard box off my hands.
“Thanks,” I say, and shake out my arms. “That one was heavier than it looked.”
“How many more of those do you have?” he asks, looking back over my shoulder.
“Just a few,” I tell him, cutting the tape open to check the contents inside.
“Show me where they are and I’ll help you. I helped my sister move a few weeks ago, and according to her I missed my calling in manual labor.”
“No, I can—” I start to say, but he’s already shaking his head.
“I’m not offering because of some chivalrous bullshit reason or because you’re a girl and I think you can’t do it alone—I think we both know you can probably do whatever the hell you want,” he says with a wink. “I’m offering because the sooner you’re done, the sooner I can monopolize more of your time.”
“Thanks,” I say again, ignoring the way his words make my blood vibrate in unexpected pleasure, and motioning for him to follow me. “But there’ll be no hanging out going on back there. No being a friend. Just to clarify.”
“I know, I know,” Luke says, rounding the bar and offering Fred the requisite Man Nod as we pass. I don’t miss Fred’s smug I told you so expression when his gaze flickers to me, and I give him a threatening look before ducking around the corner and down the hall.
It’s so much quieter back here, away from the sharp crack of the pool table, the clink of glasses, or shouts aimed at the TVs.
Luke peeks inside Fred’s office, and then stops just outside our tiny break room. It’s more of a kitchen, really, with a refrigerator and a microwave, and sometimes after work I fall asleep in the worn leather chair in the corner.
“Glamour, right?” I say, and lean in to see what’s caught his eye.
He looks around and shrugs. “I like it,” he says. “The break room at my office has ergonomic chairs and three different espresso machines. Honestly, I feel like an asshole just sitting in there.”
I laugh as I continue on into the storeroom. Luke follows me in, standing in the middle and looking around for a moment, before joining me where the boxes are stacked and reaching out for me to hand him something.
“Hey, can I ask you a question?” he says.
I check my list and then search the boxes for the right label. “Sure.”
“This is really none of my business, but how do you know Mia?”
I look up at him, surprised. “Mia? She’s best friends with my roommate, Lola. Why?”
Instead of answering, he asks, “You live with Lola?”
“Yeah, we were always in the art buildings at the same time,” I tell him. “We didn’t hang out much outside of school, but she moved in last summer and is quickly becoming my favorite human.”
“Other than me, of course,” he says with a grin, before helping me by grabbing a box high on the shelf.
I mumble out a thanks and go back to studying my list. Luke is sweet, definitely attentive, and a total fucking flirt.
“No problem,” he says. “So Mia is more Lola’s friend than yours?”
That’s an odd question. “I guess. I mean, we’re friends, but I haven’t known her that long. How do you know them?” I ask.
Luke shifts the box to one arm and runs a hand along the edge of a shelf. “We grew up together: Me, Mia, Lola, and Harlow. We all went to the same high school.”
When I don’t say anything in response, he looks up. He must notice the subtle lift of my brow implying and? because he adds, “We’ve sort of known each other forever.”
It feels like there’s more, but this is Luke and there probably always is.
Besides, I can certainly appreciate his desire to keep his cards close to the chest.
I turn away and go back to my boxes.
“So have you been in Fred’s before?” I ask. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you.”
“Once, a few months ago, but Dylan likes the vibe so we came back. Lucky for me you work here,” he says with another grin.
I roll my eyes but it’s surprisingly hard not to smile back. His smile is infectious.
And as if I need a reminder that his good mood is likely the direct result of a booty call, his phone goes off in his pocket. He pulls it out and glances down at the screen, and I watch the way it illuminates his face. I’d consider giving up every dollar in the car fund tonight to see what is making his eyes go wide right now.
“Good news?” I ask.
He knows he’s been caught, but I’m not sure if it’s that or whatever he’s just read that has him more flustered.
“Just a friend,” he says, pocketing his phone again.
“Uh-huh.” I straighten and check the last thing off my list, and feel him just behind me. He reaches around to take a small box of cocktail straws out of my hands and I can smell his subtle cologne, feel the heat of his arm through the fabric of my shirt.
“Thanks for letting me help,” he says, and I look over my shoulder, his face only inches from mine. This room suddenly feels way too dark and way too small for two people. Especially if those two people have had sex and aren’t supposed to do it again.
“You’re a lot of fun, Logan.”
Luke laughs, sending little bursts of warm air across my skin. “I meant in more of a general sense but, yeah. That, too, obviously,” he says, gently squeezing my hip before he steps back and toward the door. Goose bumps make their way across my body and I try to hide a shiver.
Luke Sutter is going to be trouble.