I tossed back the rest of my whiskey coke and winced as the liquor scorched its way to the center of my chest. Unsurprisingly, the burn didn't at all mollify the steady ache that had swallowed my heart up after its tumble down the Stairway of Love. Even in my semi-drunken stupor, I knew alcohol wasn't the solution. But I also knew calling up my ex to lament over our shattered relationship wasn't the solution either, which is exactly what I would be doing if not for Ryan posted at my side like a sentinel.
"I think I want another," I muttered.
Ryan cocked his head up from where he'd been intensely focusing on his phone screen. As he set his phone aside on the varnished bar top, the blue light cast an appreciable glow over his sharp and angled features. His full dark lips quirked in a frown.
"Another is the last thing you need, Loca. No offense." He grabbed my empty glass and set it beside his half-full pint of Bud Light.
My lips pulled down in a pout as I protested. "Offense taken. I thought we came out tonight to nurse my wounds of love. I'm only like halfway to where I need to be." Somewhere behind us, a drunk guy started singing very off-key to a Beyonce song and I couldn't mask my horror in this state of intoxication. "Jesus, he's terrible."
Indulging me with a chuckle, Ryan rolled his eyes. "I've heard you sing karaoke drunk and you're no Celine Dion, Loca."
"I mean, that's fair. Singing has never been my forte," I admitted with a sigh. "Apparently, I'm not so good at relationships either."
I knew I was getting annoying blabbering on about my failed strike at commitment, but I was only trying to relieve that damn ache in my chest that wouldn't go away. I thought having fun would do the trick but Ryan was being a party pooper tonight.
"Don't beat yourself up about it," he told me, all joking aside. "Danny was a selfish prick. He obviously didn't know what he was losing."
Ryan wasn't one to compliment so I understood that was his best shot at making me feel better. I smiled and leaned my head on his shoulder. Isabelle would have done much better at partying with me and making me forget what I was going through, but this was good too.
"Thanks," I said. "So, who were you so busy texting over there, mister?"
"My mom." He spoke just a little too quickly, his dark eyes darting away.
"That's an awfully lot of emojis for your mother."
His jaw dropped as he looked back at me. "You snoop!"
I laughed. "I just glanced over! You've been very preoccupied is all, and I got bored."
"Someone just slid into my DMs," he tutted. "I was just explaining how I felt equally attracted to his assets."
"Oooo, he must be a hunk if he's caught the attention of the hot and mighty Ryan Alvarez," I teased, elbowing him in the ribs. I meant it as a playful jab but his hiss indicated more force than intended. "Shit, sorry! Are you okay?"
He just chuckled and massaged his injury. "It's okay, Loca. You about ready to head out?"
Sighing again, I turned away from him to survey the rest of the bar. It was rather slow for a Friday night but it was also the day after Thanksgiving. Most people were probably still with their families. Fortunately for me, Ryan didn't get along with his ultra-religious family and chose not to celebrate most holidays with them. If he had been with them, I would've been left alone to agonize over my breakup and God knew that would end in disaster. I knew it was selfish of me, but Ryan always succeeded in making me feel better. He was like the brother I never had. He and our other friend, Isabelle, were the first people I wanted to call after Danny had punched a hole through my heart.
In truth, I could have just stayed with my parents and continued to cry like the world was ending. My mother would undoubtedly have tried to make me feel better with ice cream and wine, but my favorite things weren't even remotely appealing right now. Besides, she'd heard Danny's painful words in the room over when he told me, "I just can't do this, Leah. You're great, but I'm just not interested in being with you anymore."
The bastard had the audacity to break up with me at my parents' house on Thanksgiving Day, after sharing a meal with my family and acting like everything was dandy. What kind of asshole did that to someone? We'd been together for two years and, while it was my first serious relationship as an adult, I thought we really had been alright. I loved him.
How stupid of me. The first man I let into my heart left me just because. No good reason. I was still mortified and humiliated, the wounds all too fresh to bear.
Least to say, last night Danny drove himself back to Atlanta in his ridiculous, over-the-top Mercedes-Benz GT-Class and my poor father had to drive me home this morning, since I'd been left by my driver.
I shuddered and forced the memories away.
With no one but the drunk guy butchering Beyonce, there wasn't much entertainment in the bar. I also knew Ryan was probably ready to be home and not listen to me lament about the irony of being broken up with on Thanksgiving.
"Yeah," I huffed, "I guess I'm ready to go home."
Just as I reached under the bar to grab my purse off the bar hook, a dizzy spell crashed into my brain and my ass began backsliding on the stool. I felt the world go sideways while the urge to vomit seized me. Steady hands captured me and set me on my feet. Blinking through the brain fog, I caught Ryan arching a concerned brow at me.
"Maybe you're drunker than I thought," he said softly. "You okay?"
I cleared my throat and brushed off my dress, glancing around to be sure no one noticed. Of course, several pairs of judging eyes were locked on me. Jesus. Can't go anywhere without making a fool of myself.
"Thank you, kind sir," I replied theatrically, "but I think just my ego is a bit bruised."
He rolled his eyes, far more acquainted with my antics than he'd probably prefer to be. I finished freeing my purse and dug around in its cavernous pockets for my wallet.
"I already paid, Loca."
Beaming up at Ryan, who I was realizing may be the only shining knight I really needed, I fished out the leather Brahmin. "I appreciate you, you know. I would've gladly paid for my liquid therapy. But I'm still going to compensate the kind bartender for putting up with me." With that, I slapped a twenty on the counter and winked at Sarah.
She grinned at me. "You're a peach, Leah! Come back and see me."
Ryan delicately took my elbow and guided me towards the exit. "Flirting with women now?" he asked amusedly.
"Was that what that was?" I jested. "Hey, maybe I should try to switch things up. Since men aren't interested, maybe I should try swinging the other way for once."
"I think you've tried enough things for one night. And just because that asshat didn't appreciate you doesn't mean all men are like that."
Ryan was right. I was lamenting again and I hated that I couldn't shut off my pessimist valve. Locking my jaws shut, I leaned into his strong frame as he guided me through the parking lot to his car. His arm wrapped around my shoulders felt like a weighted blanket against my anxieties. A chilly wind whipped over us, nipping at my exposed skin.
Cuddling closer into his side, I said, "I wish Isabelle could have joined us."
"Oh, so I'm not enough entertainment then?"
My eyes flew up to his face but his lips were quirked teasingly. "Meanie. Of course you're enough. I still miss her, though. I mean, I would've probably been doing jello shots off someone's goober if she was here, so it may be for the best."
He laughed. "I wish you were kidding. You know she would have come if she could. She's still celebrating the holiday with that mongrel's family."
I tried to shoot him a scolding look but I misstepped into a crack in the asphalt and nearly faceplanted. Yet again, Ryan steadied me without complaint.
"You shouldn't be so mean to him," I said, hoping to play off my near-fall. "They've been together a long time and they still like each other. That's what's important."
"Well, if they liked each other consistently for a long time, then it would be a good thing. But they're in love one second and hate each other the next. It's stupid. And exhausting."
He did have a point. "Still, what's so bad about Simon?" I insisted.
"Sebastian," he corrected.
I flushed and looked away.
"Falling, tripping, calling people the wrong name," Ryan teased. "What am I going to do with you?"
"Take me home, I hope."
His deep chuckle reverberated through me, warming me again. We finally reached his sleek black BMW M4. Some of my worries wavered as I plopped into the luxurious tan leather seat. I couldn't help myself when it came to nice cars. Some people were addicted to drugs. I was addicted to the smell of clean leather and the sound of a turbo engine.
After tucking me and my absurd heels into the car, Ryan rounded the hood and took his place behind the wheel. My hands wandered over the various buttons and nozzles until I found a station on the radio I could tolerate. Then I blasted the AC to cool my flushed cheeks. Damn alcohol.
"The Offspring, huh?" asked Ryan, referring to the band playing. "I thought you didn't like rock anymore."
I crossed my arms over my chest. "I never said that."
"Then why didn't you go with me to that concert last year?"
"You know why," I grumbled.
"Oh, right! Because your lame ass boyfriend didn't want you to. See, all the more reason to get over his sorry ass."
Grinding my teeth, I sank back in the seat. He knew how pissed I was that Danny kept me from going to that concert. Alt rock music had gotten me through many challenging points in my life, and I would've given my kidney to see The Offspring perform. Instead, I'd gone to the gym that night with my lame boyfriend and pretended not to see him check out the pretty brunette doing squats. My hands quivered with anger.
Ryan must have sensed my building rage because he turned down the radio and cleared his throat. "I might have found some tickets to a Bad Wolves concert in Atlanta."
My face snapped towards his. The dashboard lights illuminated his brief smile, his white teeth glowing.
"Really?" I squeaked, trying to contain my excitement. "I mean, Bad Wolves are on a totally different level from The Offspring . . . but I would not turn it down."
He just smirked.
"Did you buy them already?" I sounded as incredulous and shocked as I felt.
"Ryan! Oh my God! When are we going?"
Chuckling, he reached over to pat my knee. "Mid-December. I'll send you the details when I get home."
I bounced up and down in my seat, the glorious effect of all that rum pumping through my system. The excitement of his news made me completely forget about my troubles for now.
But, all the commotion of my bouncing seemed to upset my stomach, though the headlights whipping by didn't help. I couldn't seem to make myself stop looking at the lights or bouncing, even though I was starting to feel car sick. Oh god. I pressed a hand to my mouth and turned away to hide it from Ryan. He would murder me if I tossed my cookies in his car.
"Are you trying not to throw up?" Ryan demanded.
I looked away from the window and caught him glancing between me and the road. His brows were bent in irritation. Lowering my hand slowly, I shook my head.
He narrowed his eyes. "I swear to god, Leah, if you throw up in my car—"
"I'm not!" I cried.
As if it heard my denial, hot bile gushed into my mouth. I pressed the window button and hung the top half of my body out of the car. Everything I'd consumed in the last month dumped uncontrollably from me.
"Ah, fuck!" he yelled. "Leah!"
Ryan went on yelling as I spewed my guts out of the car window. A headache grabbed my brain and squeezed. Then I felt an unpleasant pressure near my bum. Even after I had dispelled all the contents of my stomach, I continued to cling to the car door, hanging my top half out of the window, until we reached my house.
"Jesus Christ, Loca," muttered Ryan. "I try to do something nice and you get sick in my car."
"I'm sorry," I said. "I don't feel good."
"You don't say?"
I could hear his car door and then he was suddenly right in front of me. My stomach felt like a bag of marbles after taking a ride in a race car, all jumbled and shaken up. I was pretty sure I would vomit again if I moved even an inch.
Ryan pushed on my head, aggravating my throbbing headache. "Sit down so I can open the door," he commanded.
Some inhuman noise of protest garbled out of my throat, but I slowly lowered myself back into the seat. It seemed like I blinked and suddenly Ryan was carrying me through the living room of my house. But all the furniture and things were blurry. Squinting, I tried to focus on the familiar objects until we reached the dark master bedroom. He flipped the light switch and I actually groaned from the agony of it stabbing my retinas.
I really didn't think I drank that much tonight, but this felt like a killer premature hangover. It probably didn't help that I hadn't gotten this sloshed in ages. Yet again, thanks to Danny who never overindulged in anything but the gym.
Ryan carried me all the way to the bathroom before depositing me on the cold tile floor by the toilet. I immediately placed my head on the wall and tried to keep the disagreeable pressure in my digestive tract and the hammering in my skull at bay.
"You need to shower," he told me. "I think I smelled throw-up in your hair and it's making me nauseous."
"Sorry," I grumbled again. "Thanks for getting me home, babe."
Through my bleary vision, I could barely make out his tall, dark figure looming over me. I blinked lazily and found him now crouched in front of me. I jerked back, startled. Was only my brain operating at half-speed or was the whole experiencing a lag?
Ryan's big, coffee-brown eyes searched mine. "Can I get you anything before I leave?"
"My . . . dignity?" I asked. "But you can tell my sobriety to kick the bucket. I don't want that shit back."
His gruff chuckle made me smile. "Like it or not, sobriety is coming for you, Loca. Clean up and get some rest. Call me tomorrow if you're still feeling bad and I'll baby you some more."
"Thanks, Ryan. You're the best."
"Anytime, Loca. I mean it. I'm sorry you're so sad . . . but I think you should look at this as a good thing. You're better off without him. He was keeping you back from your full potential."
"If you're trying to make a joke about how thankful I should be now that he's gone, I'm going to hurt you."
"I would never. The timing is ironic, though."
"Yeah, he was just a stupid asshole who ended a committed relationship on Thanksgiving. I should be so thankful."
That stupid asshole had been my stupid asshole up until a few days ago. My heart clenched. After hours of drinking away my sorrows and trying to make myself be interested in other men at the bars, Danny fucking Mercer still haunted me. I could imagine his thick, chocolate brown hair all gelled back. My fingers itched as if they longed to stroke the memory of his soft tresses.
A few tears slipped down my cheeks. "I don't know if I can believe that, Ryan."
"Oh, Loca." He sighed and disappeared for a moment.
When he returned, he brought a washcloth to wipe my wet cheeks and soured mouth.
"Believe me, please," he said. "You can do better than Danny. Even if that means just choosing yourself for a while."
I pulled my knees to my chest, not caring in the slightest that Ryan could probably see right up my dress. He had zero interest in my goods, and it was comforting to have him here.
He patted my head and then stood up. "Now, I have to take myself home and go to bed. Are you okay? Can you make it to the shower or should I run the bath?"
My thoughts were elsewhere but I managed to say, "I'll be fine to shower."
He squeezed my shoulder before heading for the door.
"Bye, bitch," I mumbled. "Thank you for taking me out tonight."
"Mhmm. Bye, Loca."
The front door slammed a few moments later and I was all alone. The tears returned with more force now. I cried until my hands were soaked, my insides wringing in the hollowness. Even worse than losing the man I thought might someday be my husband, was the realization that my life no longer looked like it did yesterday. I was single again. I would never wake up beside those beautiful eyes again. I'd never again feel soft his lips over mine. This felt like a special kind of grief. Why did I love him still? After the way he treated me and what he put me through, I should have been the one happily dancing on into singledom.
The anger helped burn away some of the sadness, so I clung to it, needing to feel something other than the gaping crater in my heart. Looking back at how he occasionally checked out other women or said subtly hurtful comments about my own figure, I realized Danny had given me clues all along that he didn't want me. How could I not see it? God, I was such an idiot.
Then a more horrific thought struck me. If Danny had been with me for a year and still couldn't find enough to like about me to stay, how was I ever going to find another person? Who else would take a chance on the short, thick-hipped banker who couldn't hold her liquor?
A low meow in the doorway chased off my grim thoughts. Bending at the knees, I lowered and turned my body towards Foxy. She meowed again as she ran herself alongside me. I rubbed a hand through her silky fur, patting her little fuzzy head. She had to be one of the creepiest cats ever with pitch black eyes and matching fur. A lone white dot marked her left brow, but that was the only splash of color.
Most of the time we hated each other. She liked to destroy my underwear and claw the shit out of me. She was hard to like when she pulled those stunts.
Times like this—when she actually offered snuggles instead of claws—made me glad I remembered to feed her every day.
"A bad thing has happened to me, Fox," I told her. "Remember that hot jackass I used to bring over? The one whose leather shoes you destroyed? Well, never again. He's gone. He dumped me. And now you'll never have more men's shoes to rip apart."
She leaned into my hand and purred, closing her eyes. She rubbed her face around my palm until she worked herself into a feline serotonin daze. Oh, to be a cat.
After spending a few more minutes stroking her, I summoned the strength to stand up. My head spun right away and that damn headache came slamming back into my skull. I fought the nausea as I hobbled over to the shower and started peeling my dress off, followed by my bra and lace thong. I wasn't exactly sure what I expected to do after going out with Ryan tonight, but it was laughable that I'd thought a thong would be needed.
My gaze strayed from the mirror and I hobbled over to the shower to crank it on. I grabbed a fresh towel, set it on the hook where I could reach it, and forced myself into the plume of steam. I slid into the hot spray and breathed in the moist air, hoping it would detox whatever alcohol was still in my system. The steam had other ideas, though. As soon as it hit my brain, an unpleasant flush set in across my skin, a heat wave scorching up my body. I reached for the shower door just as my vision went dark.