FIRST CHAPTERS: MIXED EMOTIONS
Zora Monroe rubbed her arms as she looked up at the old building wishing she had taken one more shot of tequila before she left the house. “Brr. I’m freakin’ freezing.” Her top lip curled as she sighed. “Tell me again why we couldn’t meet somewhere else…indoors, brighter, maybe less sketchy-looking.”
She and her best friend, Olivia, were at some place a few blocks off Burnside Street near the concert hall, but she’d never been to this particular spot. From the outside, it looked like any other ancient gray, unmarked hole in the wall—nothing fancy that would have caught her attention otherwise. If not for the glare of the neon lights from the Portland sign, Zora’s guard might have been raised higher than it already was.
The skimpy blue dress Oli had forced her into certainly wasn’t keeping her warm, but just the look of the building had the hairs on the back of her bare neck standing taller than the spikes of her pixie cut.
“Try to remember this is a night for celebration and not some deranged plot to get you out the house,” Oli said with a straight face. Her eyes twinkled the tiniest bit, though.
“That’s what you keep telling me.” Zora peeked at her phone. Three little irritating dots were still sitting there baiting her.
“We’re going to toast to you getting the best agent out there for your cookbook, and then we’re all going to dance and drink way too much, and, hopefully, we won’t remember any of it in the morning.”
Ah, yes. The foolproof plan.
Though she was still feigning irritation, a smile crept across Zora’s face because all of it did sound amazing. Well, except for the whole “drink way too much” part of it. She and alcohol were a slightly less greasy version of oil and vinegar: they did not mix.
“Wait a minute. Who is ‘we all?’” she asked.
To this, Oli grinned and moved forward in the line before she turned her gaze back.
“Well, Sophia’s scared about her little baby bump, and Everett goes where she goes, so they won’t make it, but…” She dragged the word out. “Kara, Steph, Remi, and Lexi said they should make it…” Her brows danced and she bit back a shit-eating grin like she was going to burst if she held in the rest too long.
“And?” Zora slowly lowered her chin to her chest, waiting for the other shoe to drop. The crisp air shimmied up her arms, causing a shiver to vibrate through her, but she maintained her focus on Oli.
“And…you’ll finally get to meet Andre.”
Zora sighed, and her arms slumped at her sides. Disappointment hummed through her body.
Andre. The dude Oli met at a concert a few months back, smashed, friend-zoned, and was apparently the perfect leftover to regift to her best friend.
“Yeah, no thanks. I’m good. Who else?”
“Oh, do you mean Mike?” She pursed her lips and lightly tugged her earlobe—a surefire sign she was lying. “No. I didn’t invite him.”
Zora squinted her eyes at Oli, reading her.
“So, Mike is coming? I saw that little lippy earlobe thing you always do.”
“No. He…was not invited.” She shrugged and pivoted back toward the front of the line.
Zora stared for a few more seconds hoping to break her. Her friend was hell-bent on keeping whatever scheme she was up to under wraps.
The only problem was, when Zora allowed herself to be talked into this skanky dress, she imagined Mike’s tongue falling to the floor when he saw her in it. If he wasn’t going to be at the club…well, that just sucked. She was going to be stuck in a skimpy getup that highlighted every one of her physical insecurities. The skintight blue dress, the clear five-inch heels, and the pancake makeup were all part of a costume, handpicked by her best friend, to supposedly boost her confidence and make her look fierce. As it turned out, it was all a big charade so she could meet a hand-me-down guy.
The thing was, Mike wasn’t just any guy. He was her brother’s best friend. Or, rather, her brother’s older, disarmingly scrumptious best friend who’d been her “pedestal guy” for years. Over those years, no one had measured up because her fun-sized kid crush had developed into an insanely good-looking, green-eyed stunner with a lean build and broad shoulders.
“So, who else, then?” Zora snapped then immediately bit her tongue because the irritation in her voice was too telling and needed to be stopped. She tried not to let her shoulders slump.
“I’ve got a few surprises up my sleeves.” Oli tossed a mischievous look over her shoulder before looking away. She knew Zora could read her better than anyone.
Again, why on earth did I let Oli talk me out of staying in?
“I’ll have you know I’m missing an eighties movie marathon for this. You know, they’re starting with Weird Science.”
“Oh ’you know, your basic high school orgy type of thing.’ ‘It’s a mindscrambler.’ ‘Hurts so good,’” Oli said in her best British accent. She was mocking Kelly LeBrock. Her thick brows dropped into a deep V, and beneath them, her brown eyes skewed into beady lasers. Everything about Oli fit the bill of sex goddess—her blunt-cut black bob, her olive-toned skin, and her full pout.
Blush pink bandage dresses worked for Oli because she had a banging body with normal-sized breasts and killer calves. She was perfection science couldn’t manufacture, but a terrible actress, nevertheless.
A sex goddess, Zora was not.
Even with her best friend’s fashion advice and styling, aside from the shimmery blue nails, none of her getup made her feel like herself. She’d tried to help Oli see that playing someone else’s cards would only leave her lost in the shuffle.
She wanted no part of losing herself for a man.
She hugged her arms to her chest and bit back the chattering of her teeth.
“Whatever, Buttwad. The fact that you quoted the movie proves my point.”
“Oh, you might miss it!” Oli put the back of her hand to her forehead in distress. “It’s been out for like thirty-five years. I’m sure you already own it, along with every other movie released that decade, so just be present and enjoy yourself, for once.”
In the midst of all the shivering and merriment, Zora’s phone pinged, and now she really was excited.
It was her turn.
After a couple of minutes, she bit her bottom lip and thought for a second before tapping out a message rapid-fire on her phone. Her thumb hovered over the small green vertical arrow while she considered whether to send it.
1. Haggis burgers are going to be the secret weapon for my cookbook.
2. I’m home with Oli on the couch binge-watching the second season of Stranger Things.
3. I’ve been forced to listen to Ev and Soph have sex for the fifth time today.
Ugh, this is too easy.
Zora could feel a serious case of side-eye coming from Oli’s general direction. Together they inched forward along the black velvet ropes. Before she could second-guess it, she pressed send. Almost instantly, the phone pinged again.
Her smile was too wide to suppress.
“You’re about to meet a fine-ass man, and while you should be practicing your stale flirting skills, you’re seriously playing two truths and a lie with Mike?”
“Relax. I’m just—“
“Keeping tabs on him? Whipped? In denial that you’re in love with him and have been since forever?”
Zora ignored Oli and read Mike’s message as a second one popped up on the screen.
Mike: #2 You suck at lying. lol
Mike: First off, if you ever plan on beating me at this game, the two truths should not be glaringly obvious. lol. Your life and your career are food, so I already knew number one was true. But, for the record, haggis is disgusting. No clue how you’re going to mix Scottish and Creole food into one book. Second, if Ev and Soph weren’t screwing like rabbits, I’d be worried they were calling off the engagement. Where are you?
Oli grabbed for the phone, but Zora yanked it back. “What did he say?”
“Mind your own business. Go back to sending your little mysterious texts.” Zora giggled and attempted to unscrew the lines of her face to give Oli a pointed look, but it did not deter the woman with balls of steel.
“Seriously, what did he say?”
Zora bit the inside of her cheek because she was dying to show Oli, but she liked to see her sweat, too. After a few seconds, Zora flashed the screen to her and Oli burst out laughing. “I love you Zo, but he’s right. You really can’t lie for shit.”
“Dummmmb,” she dragged out the word. “Even if he did think the haggis thing was a lie, why did you include me in it? Literally, my motto…my mission…my mantra is to never be home on a Friday night. The day I cuddle up on your couch on a Friday night fantasizing about the Upside Down is the day I’m officially old.”
Dammit, I knew that was too easy.
Zora yanked the phone back.
“And don’t tell him where you are. Why does he care?” Oli asked.
As if to underscore Oli’s rant and rub it in, the phone pinged yet again. Almost word for word, Mike reiterated the point about Oli’s Friday night motto then listed his own three truth-lie options before sending another message.
Mike: BTW, congrats on the lit agent. I’ll buy you a round when I see you.
Zora: Thanks!!! I still can’t even believe it.
Beaming, Zora went back to check out his latest three truth-lie options. She could feel the heat of Oli’s eyes blazing down on the screen as she tried to read.
“Shhh.” She waved her away. “I can’t hear myself think with you hovering like that.”
“When you make your choice, will you please put the phone away before you ruin the whole night?” Oli folded her arms. Now, her tone was more serious than playfully pissed.
Why is she being so touchy about the phone?
Zora had no clue, but just when she was about to delve deeper into it, the corner of Oli’s mouth lifted. “I want you to have some bubbly, get loose, and maybe try Andre on for size…pun intended.”
“You have a book agent and a hot guy chilling on ice waiting for you to uncork him.” A
squeal escaped her lips as she held up her hand for a high five.
Reluctantly, Zora slapped her hand, but Oli held onto it for a second.
“Besides, I swear you and Mike act like freaking two-year-olds—truth, lies. It’s all the same thing. I just wish you guys would go ahead and smash again. Then you can decide whether he’s worth all this torment and angst you’ve been putting yourself through. Or, maybe give someone else a chance. You’re adults now. It’s safe to stop playing games.”
“I’m not listening to you.” A giggle spilled out, but Zora only shook her head.
“Fine. Don’t admit it, but Andre does kind of remind me of Mike. He’s also a light skinned, baby faced, full-lipped brother, but less cerebral and brooding and more swaggalicious. He’s a little bit taller…and a doctor,” she said as if she was waiting for applause.
Zora peeked up over her brows. “Not following…”
“Think of the role playing you could do!” She swooned. “Plus, you are so fierce tonight. You’re like a sleek, tall, Amazon bombshell dipped in bronze. Seriously, that dress never looked as good on me.”
Zora snickered. “’Fierce’ isn’t exactly the word I’d use. Between this tight dress and these heels, I don’t even know what to say.” She shook her head in disbelief through a fit of giggles. “If Andre is so fine, why aren’t you still with him?”
Come on, tequila, kick in.
Before Oli could answer, Zora dropped her gaze back to her phone and typed the number three followed by a long-nosed liar emoji.
“You know he’s way more your type than mine.” Oli grunted. “Anyway, you can’t stop texting Mike for a night? The only lie is the one you guys keep telling yourselves. You’ve been holding each other at arms’ length for I don’t know how long. Why can’t you just tell him how you feel and see what happens? It can’t be that bad.”
“Because I don’t know if that’s how I feel.” They’d been over this. Innocent flirting and hanging out was one thing. Going after him, being vulnerable... That was another thing completely.
Anxiety and irritation were affecting her words.
“I just…I like what we have. It’s fun and comfortable and uncomplicated.” And perfect. He’s perfect. “I don’t want to mess it up, and I don’t want all that awkward insecurity and second-guessing. We’re friends…practically family.” The inflection in her voice rose to a high-pitched squeak when she said “family.”
Oli covered her mouth with a fist and pointed at her. “Ooh, now there’s a lie—a bold-faced lie.”
Zora sighed and shrugged, but Oli’s gaze narrowed.
“Yeah. Uh-huh. Keep telling yourself that. I have an eye for this sort of thing. The way you act around each other? I should snap a picture to let you both in on it.”
The thing about falling for a guy before hitting puberty is it has a way of ruining it for everyone else down the line. Oli knew it. Whether Zora wanted to admit it or not, she knew it, too. It certainly didn’t make matters any better he was her brother’s best friend.
“Look, let us be. We’re good the way we are. We’re just…having fun together. I don’t want or need a man.”
“Is that the story you’re sticking with?”
“Yes, and anyway, I don’t need any distractions. My agent—” Zora giggled at the way it sounded so surreal on her tongue. “She gave me twelve weeks to get this book ready. She wants me to find my niche and come up with a new title to go along with the pictures, recipes, and personal stories. I really don’t need a man right now.”
Well, maybe for a few things that didn’t require her to buy batteries in bulk at Costco, but, no, really, she didn’t want a man at the moment. Especially, if it isn’t Mike.
Oli turned and grabbed Zora’s hands, squeezing as she deepened her gaze. “Fine. Whatever, but just for tonight, let’s lose ourselves.”
Oh, just…lose ourselves. No big deal. Nothing to write home about.
Except that it was for Zora.
Ever since she was four, her singular goal in life had been to avoid losing herself and to stay true to the woman her grandmother raised her to be—strong against the odds. It was exhausting but worth it when she knew what being weak did to a woman. Mom. Every day that she looked in the mirror, she was reminded.
For one night and for the friends who were coming to celebrate with her, though, she could afford to let loose. Heck, she was already dressed the part.
Zora put on her game face. “Fine.”
Oli did a bouncy, happy dance and stepped forward as they reached the door. She opened her purse for the beefy doorman, then stopped to give him a sultry, batted lash look before she turned back and waggled her eyebrows at Zora.
“Work and play don’t have to be mutually exclusive,” she purred.
Zora was pretty sure that last bit wasn’t meant solely for her benefit, considering the fine specimen of man her friend was flirting with.
Zora opened her small clutch, smiling awkwardly at the bouncer. “Thanks. Anyway,” she said to Oli. “Mike and I are friends. That’s it. I’m fine by myself. Plus, he’s with Kate, and, he’s not here.”
Oli snickered. “I’m just going to mind my own business, sit back, and watch what happens.”
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