August ~ Present day
“Happy birthday, Lex!”
A few dozen faces greeted me as I descended the stairs. I smiled and tried not to think about how many fire code violations we were committing.
Our shared house near the state college campus in San Diego was small, but new. The hardwood, granite and stainless steel were perks. The fact that it didn’t reek of pot had been the real deal-maker.
As I glanced across the room I spotted the one thing guaranteed to ruin any birthday.
Jake Marsden, laughing in the middle with a circle of guys and girls sprawled on my living room furniture.
Every muscle in my body tightened.
It was nice to see familiar faces, but the dull ache in my chest reminded me many were mutual friends of Jake’s and mine. I’d gotten Ava and our roommates in the breakup at the start of the summer. It wasn’t clear where the others fell.
It was the first I’d seen him in three months, and as much as I hated to admit it, Jake looked good.
His short, dirty-blond hair was the topping on a hard body, earned from playing football at a school that worshipped sports and expected the world from its heroes.
Jake was that “first crush” guy that makes your head spin and all the other girls send jealous looks because he smiled at you. He’d been the perfect boyfriend, right through junior year of college.
Right up until he’d dumped me out of the blue.
I could still remember Jake’s voice down the line when I’d called to tell him about the summer advertising internship I’d won. That’s great, babe. Listen ... you going to New York is a good thing. I’ve been thinking lately that we’re going in different directions, you know?
I didn’t know. I couldn’t have been more surprised if he’d declared that he was actually gay and had decided to run away to become a backup dancer for Lady Gaga.
And here’s the thing. Given this was my twenty-first birthday, an almost four-year relationship was a big deal.
Basically nineteen percent of my life had been spent holding hands, making out, and fused at various bodily junctures to Jake Marsden.
I hadn’t expected to get over him instantly, but watching him laugh now had my chest tightening.
I didn’t want to be with him anymore, but I also didn’t want him in my face.
Or in my house.
I looked around for a distraction. My eyes landed on our kitchen table. Sitting in the center was a round purple cake made to look tufted with the help of fondant and pearls.
An impressive collection of mini-kegs, bottles, and cans surrounded the cake. A tiny, violet island adrift in a sea of impending bad decisions.
I reached for the hard stuff. Alright, Captain Morgan. Permission to come aboard.
“Lex! Oh my God I haven’t seen you in forever! When’d you get back from New York?” My roommate Jen descended, folding me in her toned arms.
“This afternoon. The party was a surprise.” I made a mental note to kill Ava. “A nice one,” I amended at her crestfallen face.
Then the blinding smile was back. “Good! Did I tell you I met Justin Timberlake running a half marathon this summer?”
I listened attentively to her story, reaching across the table to pour myself another few fingers.
“That sound epic. I’m sure I would’ve stalked him too, though I’m pretty sure trying to slip your phone into his pocket so you can track him is illegal.” I managed to extricate myself, making a beeline for the little-known bathroom under the basement stairs.
I wished I’d checked my appearance once more after putting on the short black skirt and strappy tank. Maybe done something to my red hair beyond leaving it down.
Did I look birthday-girl-worthy? Probably not. But with ten minutes’ notice, I didn’t have much choice. I could smile, laugh, and show everyone I was doing just fine. With luck the crowd would die down early, maybe move to the bar down the street. I might even get a chance to work on my study schedule for the fall semester that started Monday.
Winding my way through the crowd and rounding the corner, I collided with a tall form coming from the other direction. Big hands reached out to my shoulders to steady me as I stumbled backward.
I had to tilt my chin up to meet a pair of startled brown eyes. Eyes I hadn’t really seen in more than two years, since they had locked with mine across a dark patio.
“Lex?” Dylan Cameron’s gaze warmed slightly as recognition set in.
“I almost didn’t recognize you.” Two grades’ difference, though only fourteen months in age, was an eternity in high school. He was taller. He’d filled out, too, his red polo displaying muscles I definitely hadn’t noticed.
“Yeah, I’m all grown up now,” he drawled. “Just transferred here. One year on the East Coast was enough for me.” Dylan grinned. “I start civil engineering here next week. I’m fulfilling the Cameron complement of gender stereotypes. Ava sews, I build.”
I had to tilt my head back for my eyes to connect with his. It gave me an excuse to really look at him. “Well, consider me dazzled by your scholastic aptitude.”
My comment elicited a slow grin designed to make teenage girls lose their undergarments. Why do good-looking people got all the assets?
Dylan and his sister weren’t entirely different. Both had been effortlessly popular. But Dylan had somehow fallen off the map. At least, I hadn’t heard any more rumors of the kind that would have had my mother sending me promptly to boarding school if I’d been involved.
Dylan would’ve looked right at home on any movie or TV set. Though he was too pretty to play the bad boy. His jaw was too perfect. Add the long dark lashes framing chocolate eyes, and the sculpted mouth...not going to happen. But he was too edgy to play the male lead, with the messy-on-purpose hair that looked like some co-ed had been running her fingers through it.
“How was your summer?” Dylan asked, cutting off my musings. “Ava said you spent it in Miami.”
“New York. I was interning at a magazine.”
“Yeah, my geography was always shit. I was close though.”
“Very close.” I nodded. “New York’s the one with the park. And the statue.” I did my best torch-hoisting impression.
Alcohol seemed to melt the filter that came between my thoughts and my words. Dylan’s mouth twitched. “Alright, smart girl. Miami doesn’t have parks or statues?”
“Nothing near eight hundred and forty-three acres or three hundred and five feet tall.”
“Noted.” Dylan cocked his head, a full-fledged smile gracing his mouth. “You’ve been saving that one up, haven’t you?”
But I couldn’t answer because that smile?
Yeah, it did great things for him.
“The internship sounds cool,” he commented, pushing aside a chunk of dark hair that had fallen into his face.
“The gig was great. I was one of the best interns ever to grace Manhattan publishing. After three months’ practice, I could run a Starbucks order for a department of twenty from memory.”
“I don’t believe you. They’d have to be idiots to have a girl like you running coffee all day. What else did you do?” His deep brown eyes bored into mine. He was one of those guys whose intensity made you feel like you were the center of their entire world. He could’ve been thinking “I know all your darkest secrets” or “I could go for some spaghetti” and I wouldn’t have known the difference.
He seemed genuinely interested, though I hadn’t the slightest idea why. My grateful brain clicked out of party mode for the time being. “Actually, I got to assist on some major accounts and a campaign. It was way closer to real stuff than I thought I’d be doing.”
He scratched his head. “You and Ava are still planning on that clothing business thing, right? The connections must be pretty important.”
Not just a pretty face.
The fact that he remembered at all was unexpected. That he was thinking about what my internship meant for us was something else...
As if through some kind of sixth sense—the sense of doom, apparently—I looked to my left. Sure enough, Jake was heading our way.
I like to save swearing for important occasions.
Like running into asshole exes for the first time after they’ve broken up with you by phone.
I looked around wildly to find a place to hide. But my bad luck in the Jake department held, and the next thing I knew he was right on top of us.
Jake seemed to notice me only a few strides away. He came up short and looked from me to Dylan and back. I could tell from the tension in his annoyingly still-great body that he didn’t know what kind of reception he was in for.
“Hey, Lex,” Jake said finally, his blue eyes on mine. Uncertainty in them, mixed with a hint of what I hoped was fear. “How was your summer?”
I flashed the biggest smile I could muster, going for full wattage but only partly succeeding. “After you dumped me? The best. New York was amazing. Do you know Ava’s little brother, Dylan? He went to high school with us.”
Familiarity dawned and Jake extended a hand, relieved for the excuse to look somewhere else. “Hey, man. You play soccer, right?”
“Rugby.” If he knew about our history he didn’t let on. But something told me Dylan wasn’t drawn in by Jake’s easy charm.
Dylan Cameron went up another two notches in my books.
“Well I just wanted to say happy birthday, Lex,” he offered before turning and walking off.
“Let me guess ...” Dylan raised an eyebrow as we watched Jake’s retreating back. “Leading in the polls for Asshole of the Year?”
“Running uncontested, actually.” My deadpan response elicited a surprised laugh from Dylan.
The sound warmed my insides. Dylan’s voice, like his appearance, was familiar and different at once.
“Well, you let me know if you want me to lay him out for you.” Dylan slapped a fist against his other palm.
I wasn’t used to having my virtue defended, particularly not by an unexpectedly tall, dark, and broody echo of someone from my past. There was something sweet about it.
“Is this service part of the little brother lending library?” I teased. “I don’t have my own, so I get to borrow Ava’s when my reputation is in danger?”
He looked like he wanted to say something else, but his attention was drawn away by movement behind me.
“This is your house, right? I’m sensing a situation in need of some diplomacy.”
Turning to follow his gaze I saw Ava, a five-two pixie with dark hair and stormy eyes, shouting at a tall blond girl in a miniskirt. While I couldn’t hear any substance over the loud music, this looked like it could get ugly fast.
“Welcome to college. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go stop two girls from ripping each other’s hair out.”
He rewarded me with a genuine smile that nearly knocked me off my feet. “Godspeed.”
Yeah, the guy had dimples too. Because who ever said life was fair?