Not Joe’s Not So Short Short

Surprise!! *confetti cannon* Some of you might remember this little short that appeared in the back of the Target edition of Wicked Sexy Liar. We feel very fortunate to have readers that span the globe, and know that not all of you have access to certain stores. Because of this, our awesome team at Gallery Books made it possible for us to share this little glimpse into Not Joe with you, here. Everyone go give Gallery Books and our editor Adam a great big THANK YOU!!

Now before we get started, we want to remind you that this is just a fun little short, and if you haven’t read any of the books from the Wild Seasons (Sweet Filthy Boy, Dirty Rowdy Thing, Dark Wild Night, Wicked Sexy Liar), this probably won’t make any sense, and you should probably go read them now. Go on, we’ll wait….  Back? Whew.

And just so you have the right idea going in, we should probably leave you with this . . .

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Everyone ready? YES! We hope you enjoy getting into Not Joe’s head a little and getting another glimpse of some old friends. We never intended to write Not Joe’s story, or have him be anything more than a fun little side character, but as sometimes happens, he sort of took on a life of his own. Well, have fun, and pop over to twitter of fb if you want to chat. Remember to preorder BEAUTIFUL (only 2 months now!), and don’t forget to eat your vegetables. WE LOVE YOU BYE!

 

A Not-Joe Not-So-Short Short

Not-Joe. Dylan. Goofball. Heartwarming pal. Whatever you call him, he’s been a man of comic mystery to the Wild Seasons group. Now, for the first time, enter into Not-Joe’s world—his glorious, fun-loving world—as he meets none other than Perry . . . Ansel’s ex.

Chapter ONE

Not-Joe

Man, I don’t even know where to look.

I can’t stare right at her eyes, because they’re intense—I mean, intense: all swirling blue-green and intimidating . . . But I can’t look at her mouth, either, because I’m a sucker for a good pair of lips, and this pair looks like it could deliver an insult as easily as a kiss. I sure as hell can’t look lower, because she’s fine, and poured into some little black out t like she’s stopping by the store first and robbing a bank after.

And in this very instant I realize with certainty that if it came down to making the hard decision about law versus love, I could date a bank robber.

“So Oliver’s not here?” she asks slowly, and I nod, registering I haven’t said anything else since she asked to see him and I mumbled, “He’s not . . .” and she stared blankly at me while I lost my mind over her mouth and criminal hotness.

She ducks a little, meeting my eyes, and something flips like a fish in my stomach. “Do you expect him back soon?”

Her French accent is so thick, I feel guilty making her speak English. So, on a whim, I offer the only bone I can, saying a dubious “Sprechen sie Deutsch?

To my amazement, her eyes light up.

Ja!” she says, adding in German, “This is so much easier. I feel like I am tripping over my words in English.”

“Because you are,” I agree in German.

Thanks.” She gives me a wry, flirty smile, and I realize I’m staring at her mouth again.

I thump my chest, coughing to clear my foggy brain. “So. Oliver should be back later today. Do you want to hang out here and read some stuff? I could recommend something.”

Please say yes.

Please say yes.

She looks with mild disgust around the store and then shakes her head.

And yeah, I get that reaction. The first time I walked into a comic shop, it smelled like dust and old paper, and even though Oliver’s store is as clean and organized as they come, it still gives off that overwhelming sense of color and shape and chaos. But that sense is also what made me immediately fall in love with comics. They made me feel like my eyes were moving too fast for my brain. It felt a little like being that tiny kid who decides he wants to run and just takes off, constantly on the edge of falling face-first into the sidewalk.

But kids learn how to run. For me, the feeling of awe never goes away. And I fucking love it. I love feeling like I’m tripping face-first every time I read a comic. The day things get boring is the day I die.

“No, it’s fine,” she says, eyes glued to the huge display of Lola’s graphic novel, Razor Fish. After a moment she continues, absently, “I was going to be picked up at the airport by a friend, but she couldn’t at the last minute, so I took a taxi here instead. I’ll go outside and call his cell.” She gives me a tiny smile and admits, “He doesn’t know I’m here.”

I nod like an idiot again, waving, and when she turns and leaves the store, I get that weird, bewildering sense of being yanked up by my roots. Like something big just happened but I have no idea what it is.

 

Chapter TWO

Perry

 

The bronze bell over the door rings as I step out into the sunshine.

Standing in the shade of Oliver’s store, I find my phone and search for his number. Not much has gone according to plan since I stepped off the plane a little over two hours ago. I’d landed to a handful of frantic texts from Mia, all of them explaining her emergency and apologizing repeatedly for not being there to pick me up. I assured her it was fine and that I’d just take a cab to the address I had for Oliver’s store, but it never occurred to me that he wouldn’t be there . . . and that someone else would.

I can’t resist another look back over my shoulder.

He’s still there, the one with the wild blond hair and the perfect teeth, watching. His eyes widen when they meet mine again and he lifts an arm in a wave, offering me another grin.

I have always been a fool for a man with a great smile, a sucker for lips and straight teeth and dimples, but there’s something else about this one; he seems so happy he makes it nearly impossible not to smile back. Whether it’s because he loves his job or Oliver, or maybe because he simply likes Tuesdays, who knows? He seems hopelessly, honestly tickled to just be there. To just be.

Someone apologizes as he steps around me, and I realize I’m blocking the sidewalk and staring at a stranger through the window. It is definitely time to go.

With my head down, I open a text window and start typing a message as I turn and walk from the store:

Hello stranger.

It takes about a minute for a bubble to appear, indicating that Oliver is typing.

Bloody hell. How are you?

I reply quickly, my hands practically flying over the screen with adrenaline.

I’m here! In San Diego!

Oliver doesn’t even bother replying and my phone rings only a few moments later.

“You’re here?” he asks, breathless.

“Yes!”

“Why didn’t you tell me you were coming, Perry-Girl?” he asks. “How long have you been here?”

I laugh into my phone, Oliver’s Aussie accent as familiar as ever. “Got in a few hours ago and headed straight to your shop. It’s brilliant, Oliver. I’m very proud!”

“I—” he starts, and then pauses. “Right, I need to hug you and thank you for saying that, but in person. Are you still there? At the shop?”

“I’m down the street a bit. I’ve already been at the hotel and thought I might get a coffee.” I groan, feeling the effects of a twelve-hour flight start to weigh in my thoughts, and all along my limbs. “If I sleep now I’ll be awake all night.”

“Smart,” he says with an understanding laugh. “What street are you on?”

I stop and look around me, at the signs on the corner. “Ah . . . the corner of Fifth and E.”

“Okay, head down to Sixth, between F and G—there’s a little place called Coffee & Art. I’ll meet you there in about twenty minutes?”

“Perfect. Can’t wait to see you.”

“Can’t wait to see you, either, love.”

###

From the outside, the café isn’t remarkable. It’s built into the first floor of what I assume to be apartments, with concrete and brushed aluminum at the entrance. But inside, it’s small and chaotic, stuffed with eclectic art: photography, statues of lizards, even cabinets filled with odd curios. I order an espresso, check my phone to see if I have any emails I need to answer, and wait.

The door opens about ten minutes later and my heart almost drops in my chest.

He looks so happy.

Oliver smiles and winds his way toward me through the scuffed-up wooden tables and metal chairs and lifts me off my feet with the strength of his hug. I’ve missed him so much . . . but I didn’t realize exactly how much until this very moment.

He’s solid, and warm, and feels like home. Pressing my face into his shoulder, I remember how he smells like clean earth and fresh laundry.

I brush at my eyes when he sets me down, but he doesn’t glance away. Instead, he takes my face in his hands and gazes at me.

“Look at you.” He kisses me once on the forehead and pulls out my chair for me to sit again. “Now, tell me—” he starts to say, but I grab his hands, interrupting him with a flurry of words.

“Oliver, the store is—I can’t believe it. It was very busy and looks exactly the way you always described. I’m so proud. And look at you . . . you just look . . .” I squeeze his hands in mine, thinking back on all the stories he would share at the end of a long ride, all the “One of these days . . .” he would describe as we gazed up at the stars. “You look so happy.” This store has always been his dream, and my heart is nearly bursting for him.

Oliver looks down to where our hands are joined and shakes his head, the tops of his cheeks turning pink. “It still doesn’t feel real sometimes.”

“I can imagine,” I say with a laugh.

“It’s insane. Like, I think we can’t get any busier and I go in the next day and we are.”

“And what about this girl you’ve been seeing? Lola? Everything is still good?”

If I thought Oliver was smiling before, I was wrong. That expression had nothing on the way his face lights up when he hears her name. “It’s fucking brilliant. She’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me, full stop. Wait until you meet her, I—wait,” he says, shaking his head. He leans in, giving me a playfully scolding look, like I’m misbehaving. “I’m getting all distracted. What’s going on? How did you get here and why didn’t you let any of us know? I mean . . . Does Ansel—?”

“No. It was Mia,” I say, and watch the shock spread across his face. “Mia organized this.”

Letting go of my hands, Oliver leans back in his chair, mouth slack. “Mia? Jesus.”

I nod. “She and I have been speaking. She sent me her phone number over email, telling me that Ansel had been . . .” I search for the right word in English. “Had been guilty? Or regretting how things happened.”

“Yeah, he mentioned it,” Oliver says quietly.

“And I have, as well. So when Mia reached out to me, it felt like I was given another chance. I’ve apologized to her, but ah . . . I need to do it in person. The shame I feel at how I acted doesn’t actually fit into sentences.”

This time it’s Oliver who takes my hand, threading his fingers through mine. “None of us really blamed you—you know that, right?”

“I do.”

“We know it could have been handled better on your end, too, but Ansel has always been . . .” He offers me a sad smile and I nod in understanding. Ansel has always been impulsive, and passionate.

It’s one of the things I loved about him.

“I know,” I tell him. “And I know that he is truly happy with Mia. But I am glad that it weighs on him; it means we both want to fix this.”

“I think we all made mistakes,” Oliver says, blinking up at me. “I know Finn and I probably should have handled things differently, and I’m sorry for that, Perry-Girl.”

“You don’t have to be sorry. I don’t think I realized how difficult it was for everyone until it was over.”

“Have you and Ansel talked since he left France?”

I shake my head. “Talked? No. Yelled? Screamed? Yes. Once.”

“Things between you two were always sort of—”

Oui,” I say. I run a hand through my hair, smoothing the strands before brushing them over my shoulder. I don’t need him to finish that sentence. Things between Ansel and me were always rocky. “Mia seems wonderful, though. Good for him.”

“She is,” Oliver says, and I can see that there is genuine affection there, not just courtesy. “He’s good for her, too.” I wonder if that’s a subtle warning, but before I can think too much on it, he continues, “So this was all her idea? Getting you out here?”

“It was. She was planning on picking me up at the airport, but there was some sort of emergency at her studio.”

“So you haven’t seen anyone yet? Not even Finn?”

“No. Your store was the first place I went. I could not wait to see it. And you,” I add with a grin.

Oliver pulls out his phone and starts texting. “We were all planning to get together tonight . . . and right . . . Mia set this all up.” He looks up from his phone, eyes gentle as he searches my face. “Still want to come tonight?”

“Absolutely,” I say. Though I definitely don’t feel as confident as I sound. Meeting Mia’s friends? Seeing Ansel just . . . like this? So soon? I had the entire trip from France to prepare, and I still don’t feel ready.

“Ansel will be there. You all right with that?” he asks, peeking up from beneath his shaggy hair to meet my eyes.

I draw in a deep breath. I try to remember that boy’s face, his presence and the effect it always had on me, and I beg beg beg my mind to truly be over him . . . not just over the idea of him.

“I think so,” I say.

“You nervous?”

“I have thought about seeing them both again at least a thousand times over the last year. I am not sure nervous is the best word for what I feel right now.”

Oliver leans forward, lifting my hands and pressing a kiss to my knuckles. “You’ll be great. I know Ansel needs this just as much as you do. He likes to pretend like he’s shitting rainbows, but we all know there’s more going on inside.”

“What a lovely analogy, Oliver. Thank God you haven’t changed.” I pause, glancing out the window. I want to see Ansel, I do, if only to clear the air a little. But the idea of having him there unfiltered feels overwhelming. I want—no, I need this night to be more than just mending bridges. I want it to be at least a little bit fun. “Is everyone coming?”

He tilts his head. “You mean . . . ?”

“Finn and his wife,” I hedge, then add, “Lola . . . and the cute guy from your store?”

Oliver’s eyebrows slowly rise. “I’m sorry, surely you’re not talking about the neo-hippie with the mohawk?”

I laugh. “He seemed sweet.”

Oliver shakes his head at me, chuckling. “But in reality, he’s insane.”

I offer him a little one-shouldered shrug. “Maybe I’m a little insane, too. I’m here, aren’t I? Come on, let me have a moment where I think a boy is cute and it’s just nice.”

He studies me for a breath, and then nods slowly. “Alright, Perry-Girl. Yeah, Not-Joe always comes with us to Fred’s.”

“‘Nacho’?” I repeat, confused.

“Right,” Oliver says cryptically, nodding as he laughs. “Anyway, we’ll be there.” Oliver takes another look at his phone before standing and offering me his hand. “Finn’s about to lose his mind knowing you’re here, so let’s do this.”

 

Chapter THREE

Not-Joe

 

I never miss a night out at Fred’s.

It isn’t that they serve better drinks than other bars, or have better peanuts, or the bar feels singularly amazing in any way. It’s that I like the idea of having a place. A place where, when we’re closing up shop and we say, “Beers later?” everyone knows what it means. A place where, when you walk in, someone waves and starts making your drink. I blame my mom and her love of Cheers throughout my childhood. I suppose the irony there is that hardly anyone at Fred’s—other than Luke and London—knows my real name.

I lock up the store, double-checking the back, the front window alarms, and the deadbolt once I’m out on the sidewalk. I haven’t smoked up in two weeks, but I still feel a paranoid buzz whenever I’m the last to leave at the end of the day because I know how much it matters to Oliver that everything is sealed up tight.

And if I really think about it, I would be pretty fucking heartbroken if something happened to the store. Despite my parents’ wishes that I grow up and get a job at Dad’s financial services company, I like working at the comic shop. I manage most of my parents’ investments because it’s a total trip—it’s never been intimidating. I’d played around in finance for shits and giggles since before I really understood the enormity of the responsibility Dad gave me in hopes that I would join him in the robot-world of accounting—but I don’t want to work in a cubicle or even an office for a job. I like talking to people all day, getting to read and enjoy art, watching the thriving downtown through the front windows.

This group of friends is a crazy mix of people, too. Oliver is smart as hell. He comes from a wildly broken background and basically raised himself, but you would never hear him complain about a thing or feel sorry for himself. Lola is an artist so gifted, and so humble, I think she might actually be an angel, and I don’t even believe in heaven. Ansel is a law professor. Full stop. I mean, you think he’s this goofy hot dude snacking on grapes in the corner and making jokes about getting Mia pregnant by blowing her a kiss, and then he starts talking about his work and it’s like he cyborg-shifts into Academic Superhero. The commitment it takes to get from A to Z in that career makes me trip a little. Mia is a dance prodigy teaching spastic little kids how to dance, and has the patience of . . . well, something with a lot of patience. I have no fucking idea where she gets it, but her fuse could stretch to the sun and back. Finn is this enormous, muscled dude who made me realize that, were I gay, I would definitely have a type. He can fix fucking anything, too. You name it: air conditioner, engine, stuck window, broken zipper on my jeans.

I may have done that last one just to fuck with him a little.

His wife, Harlow, looks at people and just figures them out. She’s like those people who can do a Rubik’s cube in ten seconds, but with human brains.

And London and Luke, the newest couple in the group, are really interesting people when they’re not attached to each other’s faces. She’s fit and scrappy, always down to surf, and just genuinely chill. He’s smart as fuck and has a heart the size of China. I’ve known Luke for years now, and I have to admit it’s pretty great to see him so happy. I’ve honestly never seen him like this.

And then there’s Betty—my beat-up old Saab. She’s not a speaking member of the group, but as my ride I’d say she’s up there in importance. She was my dad’s, back in the nineties, and he still thinks she’s the nicest car he’s ever owned. He drives a Tesla now, so I think he’s a bit of a dumbass to miss the Saab no matter how great she is, but then again, I’ve been told I’m an idiot for thinking Red Stripe tastes better out of the bottle than poured into a glass, so I’m not going to point any fingers.

And it’s true Betty is fun as hell to drive, but mainly because I’m never quite sure she’s going to get me to my destination intact. Always a mystery. She rattles, and stalls, and revs into the red for no reason. I could take her in to get fixed, but I suspect it would be a bit like taking a dying dog to the vet, and I’m just not ready to hear that kind of truth or to let go of her yet.

I pull into the gravel lot in front of Fred’s, and give the air outside a good thirty seconds to clear before I step out of the car so I don’t get choked by a cloud of black exhaust.

Fred waves to me from the bar when I get inside, and I toss him the latest TOON Book for his grandkid before heading toward the back. We have a booth we always claim . . . because Harlow.

Because Harlow is a reason we can give for about a hundred different things.

We have a reserved booth at a dive bar . . . because Harlow.

We don’t talk about spiders or any type of insect . . . because Harlow.

We all dutifully take our celebratory shots when they’re brought to us . . . because Harlow.

It’s only once I sit down that I remember the redhead in the store, the one with the eyes and the body. We get any number of hot women coming into the shop, but there was something about her, somewhere behind her eyes that seems to stick in my head.

And she’s a friend of Oliver’s, which conveniently moves her out of the potentially batshit category.

Fred brings me an amaretto sour and I sip on it, absently people-watching, but it’s still pretty quiet. My phone buzzes near my elbow with texts from Andrew and Daniel in the group box. They’re probably sending links to weird-ass shit or making plans for tonight, but the last thing I’m up for is their usual routine.

Especially when I see Oliver’s tall form duck into the bar, followed closely by Lola and . . . her. They come over, wearing broad smiles, and I realize as they get closer that they’re smiling so big because I’m smiling so big.

“You look like a lunatic,” Oliver says, sliding into the booth at my left.

“Yup,” I say, scooting over to make room for the lovely French lass on my right.

Lola lets her in first and then follows, eyeing me oddly.

I hear Harlow’s laugh carrying over from near the bar, with Finn close behind her, and pretty soon we are all filling up the giant, round booth.

It’s a fascinating study of personalities. Oliver looks nervous. Lola looks oblivious as she doodles on a napkin. The redheaded bank robber smiles shyly. Harlow schools her scowl, reaching forward to shake her hand.

“Hi, it’s nice to meet you,” she says, and I know her well enough to know she’s bottling some shit up right now. “I’m Harlow.”

“Perry,” the woman says quietly, ducking her head a little, almost as if she’s nervous.

And at the sound of her name, I rack my brain, searching through the fog for the memory of where I’ve heard it before.

Oh.

Oh.

Right.

“Oh,” I say aloud, nodding. “Hey, you’re Ansel’s ex-girlfriend.”

Everyone turns to look at me, as though, by speaking the truth, I’ve just cracked the seal and let out something violent.

“What?” I ask, looking around. “Isn’t she?”

“Yes,” Lola says, eyes wide in her shut-the-fuck-up face.

“Sorry,” I say, leaning in to whisper, “was it a secret?”

Perry laughs, shaking her head. “No. Mia brought me here so I could meet you all.”

I reach forward, shaking her hand. “We weren’t properly introduced earlier. I’m Dylan.”

Silence rings out and everyone stares at me, mouths agape.

What did I say this time?

Oh, right.

Harlow lets out a flat, “What.”

And then, Oliver smacks the table loudly, shouting,

“NO!” though it’s really a laugh.

“Dude,” I say, bewildered, “my name is on my fucking paychecks.”

“I don’t send those out,” Oliver reminds me with a grin. “My accountant does. I’d forgotten. Joe is just such a perfect name for you.”

“But I’m not Joe.”

“Exactly,” Oliver says.

Lola studies me, her eyes making the round circuit of my face, my hair, my clothes. “Dylan?” she says. “Yeah, all right. But Not-Joe is better.”

It’s not like I fucking care what they call me, but I know how much they enjoyed the mystery, and I’m a little sad on their behalf. It’s like I’ve revealed how a magic trick was done or something, and nobody feels good about it.

But quickly I shake that off and turn back to Perry. “How long are you here?”

She shrugs, and looks up with a smile when Fred delivers a tray of drinks to the table. Perry ordered red wine . . . she will no doubt be disappointed with the merlot here.

And indeed, she winces a little when she takes a sip, but then I watch in fascination as she gives a little shrug like eh, fuck it, and goes back for some more.

So she has good taste, but isn’t a dick about it. Nice.

“I think a week or two?” she says after she’s swallowed her second taste. “I’m in between jobs and wanted to travel a bit, so the timing of this was very good. I have not been here since our last bike trip together.”

“Wait,” I say, pulling back a little to look at her. It’s like I’m only now noticing the definition of muscle on her bare arms, the spirit of adventurousness I sense when she smiles. “You did the bike trip with Oliver?”

She nods, grinning wider now. “That is how we all met. I was friends with these boys before Ansel and I were ever romantic.”

And the second time it comes up, no one seems to startle. It’s now only half as heavy, half as weird.

“You didn’t know them before all that?” I ask.

Perry shakes her head and her hair slides forward, over her shoulder. It makes me think of water sliding over a rock, which makes me think of swimsuits, which makes me think of skin. I am totally down with this line of thinking but remind myself to focus on the conversation at hand.

“We met on the ride,” she says.

This rattles me a little. I mean, she’s probably in her late twenties, and the trip I think she’s talking about was years ago. So this tells me she is brave, too, to have come here alone—to another country—and do something so completely unknown.

“Where did you grow up?” I ask her.

“Jesus, Joe, quit hogging her,” Oliver says, tossing a balled-up napkin at me.

“He’s okay,” Perry assures him, and looks back to me. “Orléans,” she says. “But I went to secondary school just outside Zurich.”

My heart trips as I ask, “Which school?”

Perry does this cute little full-face blink, like she can’t believe I’m asking this. “Institut Montana.”

With a laugh, I tell her, “I went to Aiglon.”

She stares at me. “You also went to boarding school in Switzerland?”

London and Luke appear right when Perry says this, and London pauses as she’s sliding into the booth beside Harlow. “Wait. Dylan went to boarding school in Switzerland?” And then she slaps a hand over her mouth, staring wide-eyed at Lola and mumbling, “Shit.”

Everyone turns to look at London.

“It’s all right,” I tell her. “The great name mystery has already been revealed—and I would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for you meddling kids.”

You knew his name?” Harlow asks London, eyes wide.

“Luke and Dylan played water polo together after the great breakup of twenty-ten,” London explains with a little wince. “For what it’s worth, I felt a little sad, too, when the name mystery was solved.”

Luke pushes into the booth after London, and smiles at Perry as he shakes her hand, introducing himself. I watch her carefully, because most women have a near-audible reaction to meeting Luke—though from dating Ansel maybe she’s built up an immunity?—but she just smiles politely and then looks back to me, asking, “So why do you not speak French?”

I can see Luke watching me, like he’s reading my mind.

“I . . . um,” I start, and then blink back to Luke’s unnerving Jedi focus.

“Hey, Dyl,” he says, giving me this huge I can see you losing your mind right now grin.

“Hey, Sutter,” I say, grinning right back at him.

I mean, clearly he wants to watch this conversation, so I shrug, turning back to Perry. “My mom is German, my dad is Swiss-German. I speak both traditional German and Zurich Swiss-German, I just . . . never took French.”

But it isn’t just Luke. The entire table listens, entranced.

“What in the actual hell is your story?” Finn asks, in his deep growl.

“I was born in Switzerland but we moved here when I was about six. After that, I grew up just down the road in La Jolla, but wanted to move back for school when I was fourteen.” I poke at the ice in my drink with the thin cocktail straw. “My grandparents all live in Zurich, but I moved back here to go to college at UCSD.” I shrug. “I’ll probably move back there eventually.”

Beside me, I can see Oliver’s head jerk back in surprise.

Perry leans in a little, asking, “Was it hard to come back here?”

And when she says it like that, all quiet and personal, it feels like we are the only two people in this bar. As cheesy as it sounds, I stop noticing anyone but her. Not my buzzing phone on the table, not whatever our friends are doing next to us.

“Yes and no,” I say, and it seems to be enough, but I add anyway, “I’ll be happy wherever I am.”

She smiles, nodding like she gets it.

Like she gets me.

 

Chapter FOUR

Perry

 

I have an excellent poker face. The woman sitting opposite me does not. I suppose I can’t really blame her; if I were Harlow and someone said the things to my best friend that I said to Mia, I’d be looking at them like I wanted to light them on fire, too.

Most likely, at some point everyone at this table has thought of me as a hateful monster. And even though I probably deserve every dagger Harlow’s eyes are currently throwing my way, it takes a Herculean restraint on my part not to call her on it.

Instead, I stay quiet, my hands clasped together and sweating in my lap. Dylan sits quietly beside me, folding little frogs out of cocktail napkins, and even though I want to ask him more about his life in Switzerland, I was starting to feel like we were being rude. But I wish I could go back to that, because feeling the intensity of Harlow’s disapproval is incredibly uncomfortable.

Oliver is in the middle of a story about the time we biked through Arizona, peddling like mad through the rain and hoping we’d find shelter before one of us was struck by lightning, and I notice right when Lola reaches the end of her patience with Harlow and her eye-daggers and not-so-subtly kicks her under the table.

Harlow winces and turns her attention to where Lola has stopped drawing on a napkin, and is glaring at her.

Yes, Miss Castle?” Harlow says.

“Why don’t the two of us go get something to drink?” Lola suggests, and if I hadn’t already fallen in love with her on the drive here, I would now. She was lovely, if not a little quiet when Oliver introduced us outside her apartment, but it was easy to see that it had more to do with her own introverted tendencies than anything about me.

Dylan jumps in before anyone can respond. “But Harlow has a drink,” he points out, and I can already tell that that’s just what he does, saying whatever thought happens to pop into his head completely without filtering it.

It seems so bare, so real, like he has nothing he needs to hide, and it eases something in me every time he does it.

“Well, she’ll need another one,” Lola says, squeezing out of the booth and standing, waiting for Harlow to join her. Harlow gestures for Luke and London to get up so she can leave, then follows Lola out with a huff. I exhale for what feels like the first time since we all sat down.

“I’m also going to have a chat with her,” Oliver says quietly to me. “You good here?”

I don’t even give myself a chance to think about it because no, knowing that Harlow wants to punch me, and anticipating Ansel and Mia’s arrival any second, I am absolutely not good. To be honest, I’m not really even sure why I thought this was a smart idea in the first place.

Getting on a plane and flying across the ocean to reconcile with my ex and his new wife? I must have been drunk.

But I don’t say that, and instead put on my widest smile and nod. “Absolutely.”

“You’re a terrible liar, but I’m going to let this one slide,” Oliver says, and stretches behind Dylan to whisper in my ear. “It’ll be okay, yeah?”

I nod again and lean into him for a moment before he straightens and heads to where Lola is currently reading Harlow the riot act on the other side of the bar.

“Harlow is a hard-ass,” Dylan says, in a quiet, gentle voice that actually takes me by surprise.

“I can see that.”

He stirs his drink and sits back against the booth, watching Oliver as he joins the two women. “She loves loudly,” he adds. “Like really loud. Sometimes it’s just hard to make her shut up.” If this were any other moment, in any other situation, I would probably laugh and kiss him for trying to make me feel better.

“An admirable quality in a friend,” I say. “And Mia is her best friend. I get it.”

“Yeah,” he says, draining the last of his drink and crunching a piece of ice between his teeth. “Did you know cows have best friends?”

I pause with my own glass pressed to my lips. “I’m sorry . . . what?”

“Cows,” he repeats, as if that was where he lost me. “I watched a documentary where scientists measured heart rate and serotonin levels to determine when female cows were calm or stressed, and some of them showed lower levels of stress when paired with certain animals within the herd. It makes sense when you think about it: chill cows would definitely produce the largest amount of, or most superior, milk.”

I set my drink down on the napkin in front of me. “Wow, that’s actually . . . really interesting.”

He looks thoughtful for a moment before adding, “They can’t go down stairs, either.”

“Stairs? Is that something they were studying in the documentary, too?”

“No, frat party rush week.” When he says this, he gives me a boyish smile that makes something in my stomach tighten in a rush. “But that’s a different story.”

I’m about to say something when the door to the little bar opens and a familiar shape cuts across the light. I haven’t seen Ansel in nearly ten months, but it feels like it was only yesterday, the last time we fought and he stormed out of my flat. He looks just like I remember: tall, thin but strong, sharp jaw. Gorgeous.

My heart pounds in my chest and every conversation I’ve had with myself, every version of this moment I’d imagined over the months, seems to shuffle through my thoughts all at once.

It’s clear Mia has given Ansel ample warning, because he seems to have a tight grip on her hand as she trails behind him. He stops just inside the door and blinks into the dim light, his gaze anxiously searching the room for . . . well, for me, I suppose.

I watch, heart in my throat, as he looks through the crowd, and even if I weren’t watching his every move I’d sense the change in his entire body when his eyes meet mine. His breath catches and he takes a step back, like he wasn’t ready for the reality of seeing me, either.

Where it rests in my lap, my hand is gently covered by another bigger, warmer one. I glance down to see that Dylan has reached over, and is giving my fingers an encouraging squeeze. I blink up and he is nothing but a wide, easy smile and bright eyes. I actually wish this were another moment, in a reality where I wasn’t the crazy ex-girlfriend, because I think I could really like Dylan. There’s something . . . light about him that puts me at ease, makes me feel light, too.

I know that I could wait for Ansel and Mia to come to me, but I feel somewhat trapped in this booth, and so I turn to Dylan with a smile of my own. “Just going to . . .” I start to say, but he all but pushes me from my seat.

“Go, go. A fic I’ve been reading just updated, so I’ve got plenty to do,” he says, and begins reading something on his phone.

I’m vaguely aware of the eyes on me when I cross the room and stop in front of Ansel and Mia near the bar.

“Perry,” Ansel says. “I—”

“I’m just going to give you two a few minutes,” Mia says, but I stop her.

“No . . . please, I want to apologize.”

She waves me off and insists that it isn’t necessary, but I continue. “No, I know we’ve spoken on the phone, but it’s not enough. I was still reeling from what happened and when I saw you . . .” I say with a small laugh, “I think I lost my mind a little. I felt terrible afterward, once the heat of my anger cooled and I had a chance to really think about things. I am so sorry.”

Mia closes her eyes for a moment and then takes a step forward, enveloping me in a hug. When I put my arms around her in return, she feels positively tiny and it makes me feel even worse. She seems so small, like I could have broken her with the strength of my anger.

“There’s nothing to forgive anymore.” She pulls back and smiles at me. “I mean that. I’m sure most of us—myself included—would probably have reacted the same way.” She looks up at Ansel, wincing slightly.

I know this must be hard for her, and saying my behavior was in any way justified puts a large measure of blame on Ansel. Her husband. She is of course right, but it in no way excuses the things I said.

“You two talk,” Mia says quietly, “and I’ll just be over here if you need me. Okay?”

Ansel nods and reluctantly lets go of her hand, before turning back to me.

“I . . .” he starts in French, stopping to push his fingers through his hair. The gesture is so familiar it makes a tiny spot in my chest ache. “I had all these things I thought I would say to you if ever given the chance and now . . . my mind is completely blank.”

I know exactly how he feels. “Why don’t we sit down?” I motion to a small empty booth in the corner.

Ansel nods for me to lead the way, and I can hear his steps just behind me.

“I can’t believe we’re actually having this conversation,” I say once we’ve taken a seat across from each other. “I never thought . . .”

“I know. It’s a bit surreal, if I’m being honest. Seeing you here.”

“It was all Mia,” I say, running my thumb over a scratch in the glossy tabletop. “She wants you to be happy and knew this had been bothering you. She planned the whole thing.”

“She just told me,” he says.

“She’s wonderful, Ansel.”

“She is,” he says. “I’m very lucky she forgave me for all the things I kept from her.”

“Like me.”

Ansel shakes his head, leaning forward to rest his arms on the table. “Like you, yes. I . . . what I did was so unfair, to both of you. I can only imagine what it must have been like, for things to have just ended the way they did and then to hear that I married, and that she was living in the apartment we shared. How shocked you must have been. Then to see her at Christophe and Marie’s party. I should have been honest with both of you . . . I owed you that, Perry. After all we’d been through, I should have done better for you. I have thought about that so much these past few months.”

“Thank you,” I say. “I think a part of me needed to hear you acknowledge that.” I spin a coaster on the table in front of me. “And you’re right, it did hurt and it was hard, and yes, you should have told her about me, Ansel. And you should have told me about her, before I heard it from someone else. I’m not going to pretend that what happened didn’t hurt, but . . . you fell out of love with me, and even though that was hard, it wasn’t your fault.”

I take a moment to breathe, letting the sounds of the bar circle around us while I think of what else I want to say.

“It took me a while to realize that while we did love each other at one point, it got hard to tell the difference between what we were and what I wanted us to be. I can see that now. And I can see how asking you to stay with me was selfish. I do want you to be happy. I want both of us to be happy.”

“I would like that,” he says.

He reaches across and takes my hands between his, and to my enormous relief, it feels just like it did when Oliver did the same thing earlier.

It feels like the touch of a friend.

 

Chapter FIVE

Not-Joe

 

Perry is gone for a little while, so I listen to Lola and Harlow talking about how sad they are that London and Luke are moving. Everyone is bummed they’ll be in Berkeley but, I mean, did Germany rebuild the Berlin Wall around the Bay Area or something? Are Luke and London going to cease to exist if they are seven hours away by car? I try to remind everyone that friends moving just means a reason to travel, and long-distance adventures, but no one seems to want to hear it, so I watch one of the videos Daniel sent me.

Eventually, they grow quiet, and I can feel them watching me, curious about the barking coming from my phone.

“What the hell is that, Joe?” Oliver asks.

“Break-dancing dogs.”

For once, they seem unable to resist this, and Oliver, Lola, Harlow, and Finn all crowd in to watch over my shoulder. The internet is a fascinating place, for sure.

But when Perry starts back toward the table, I look up out of some weird instinct and our eyes meet. Most likely I just turned because I saw something moving in my periphery, but I like the buzzing feeling that I sense her somehow. Less and less frequently these days I have this sort of immediate connection with people, like our souls hook before our brains catch on, and I’d started to forget how good it feels.

I can see her teeth when she smiles: they’re white but they aren’t perfect. Her canines are sharp, one of her incisors overlaps her front tooth just the tiniest bit, but the effect is to make her look sweeter. I nod to myself, liking this new theory: people with imperfect teeth just don’t sweat the small stuff.

And as she gets closer, I can tell she looks like she’s been through some meditative revelation.

She’s still got that fire in her eyes—the one that seems to flare to life every time she blinks—but she somehow also looks serene. It’s around her jaw, in her neck and shoulders.

I push Oliver’s shoulder and pat the bench beside me. He laughs, but I mean, fuck it. If she’s only here for a few days, why not go all in and hope she wants to be around me, too?

When Oliver and Lola stand to make room, Perry slides next to me, bumping my shoulder.

“Hey,” she says, smiling.

“Hey.”

I can see Harlow and Finn exchange curious glances beside us, but I don’t bother to look over at them. Beyond just asking her how it went with Ansel, I’m tempted to ask Perry all the things I usually want to know, like what’s the scariest thing she’s ever done, or what’s the best day she’s ever had, who’s her favorite musician and what’s the worst book she’s ever made herself finish . . . but I feel an odd lack of novelty here. With a lot of women, I just want to hear stories. Have them tell me their crazy shit. Is it because I’m bored? Who knows. But here, I feel I get the meaning behind the word enraptured in a way I haven’t before. I’m not amused by her or curious about what sort of crazy she hides beneath her skin. I’m drawn to her but don’t feel hurried to unwrap it all immediately.

Don’t give it all to me at once. Let me taste you, bit by bit.

“Everything all right over there?” I ask her quietly, lifting my chin to where Ansel and Mia order a drink at the bar before turning and making their way over to the booth.

She nods. “Everything is very good, I think.” Closing her eyes, she takes a deep breath, and the way she does it without any sort of self-conscious tightening or reflex makes me want to bend down and kiss her right under her jaw, where her heartbeat throbs lightly in her neck. Then she adds a quiet, honest, “Finally.”

And it’s her unique lack of defense that keeps tripping me again, and again. She’s nothing like I expected after hearing the group talk about her now and then.

I expected sharp and thorny. I expected her to be cold and unfeeling. But she isn’t. She’s straightforward but soft-spoken, con dent but calm.

Man, circumstances make us weird. Ansel didn’t love her, and it’s cool, we don’t all fit, but I feel like she’s a prism I am holding up to the light in order to find her chipped side. I’m sure she has one; I just wonder if she’d have the same one with me.

Oliver leans in, patting her hand once and then continuing to just smile at her. He doesn’t say anything else, he just smiles and nods, and she nods back, and my heart fucking explodes.

Oliver’s eyes snag mine and he does a double take. “What?” He wipes his mouth as if he’s worrying he has some beer foam there.

“Nothing, man, you just love people right,” is all I can think to say.

This earns a nod and a smile, and Lola reaches around him to muss my hair.

“Celebratory shots?” Harlow asks, and everyone but me groans comically.

“Hell yeah,” I say. “But I’m picking.”

I’m seated in the direct middle of the round booth, so I forgo making them all get out of the booth and opt to jump over the back instead. Everyone is used to it but Perry, and she gasps in surprise, instinctively reaching out to steady me. Her hand is small, and cool, and strong around my forearm.

“I’m good,” I tell her.

Her eyes hold mine for one . . . two . . . three breaths, and then she lets go of me.

But my heart is still stumbling over itself when I reach the bar and Fred comes over, knocking on the bar top with his knuckles. “What’ll it be, Joe?”

I glance over my shoulder, quickly counting the number of heads, and then turn back to him. “Ten shots of Patrón.”

His eyebrows flick skyward in brief surprise. I’m generally a purveyor of their subpar well drink options.

“Patrón, eh?” he asks, turning and reaching for the bottle. “We’re celebrating.”

“As usual,” he answers through a laugh.

“Tonight is different,” I tell him, glancing back over my shoulder again with a grin. Perry has said something that made Harlow throw her head back in laughter, and her delighted shriek rips across the bar. “Tonight they pulled the thorn out of their foot and saw it was a diamond.”

 

Chapter SIX

Perry

 

When I wake the next morning, it’s hard to believe that yesterday happened at all. I flew to America. I saw my best friends. I finally talked to Ansel, and for the first time in what could possibly be our entire relationship, it feels like we’re on the same page and I can move on. I’m probably not going to be having dinner at their house and helping plan an anniversary party anytime soon, but we’re okay. I’m okay.

I push off the blankets and climb from the hotel bed. Feeling lighter than I have in months, I walk straight to the window and push open the curtains. The sky is bright and blue and I can see the ocean from my room. Boats bob in the harbor and the dock is dotted with people out for a run or walking their dog. Seagulls swoop across the horizon, and it’s so beautiful here it’s not hard to understand why Oliver chose this as the place to make his dream happen.

My phone chirps by the bed and I cross the room to retrieve it. I have a few emails and a handful of texts I need to reply to, but nothing pressing I have to do today but see my boys. And God, after all this time and so many miles between us, it feels so good to say that again.

I get a text from Finn as I’m on my way down to the hotel lobby. I was actually surprised to find that Mr. Serious even knew how to text; the Finn I knew would have glared and told me to make a damn call if I needed something. Now he lives in California, has an agent, there are T-shirts with his face on them, and he knows how to text? The list of things to tease him about just writes itself. He tells me he’s just a few blocks away and to head into the restaurant and get us a table.

The scent of coffee and bacon fills my nose as soon as I step through the doors, and my stomach growls. I catch the eye of the waiter just a moment later, tell him there will be two of us today, and follow him to our seats.

Finn arrives only a few minutes later, and I feel some giddiness ignite in my chest at the idea of having him all to myself for a little while. I love these guys so much. He grins back and makes his way to our table, pulling his cap off his head and smoothing his hair back down, giving me the chance to really take a moment to look at him.

Mon dieu, you are all biceps,” I say when he reaches the table, and he rolls his eyes as he takes a seat on the bench opposite me.

“Easy, Frenchie.”

“I know it’s been a while since we’ve seen each other, but when did you turn into Popeye?”

He laughs, looking down at the menu. “Does anyone even know who Popeye is anymore?”

Ignoring him, I ask, “Have you always been this enormous? I don’t remember.” I reach across the table to wrap both hands around his biceps.

Finn makes a show of looking at his watch. “When is your flight home again?”

I drop back in my seat and bring my water glass to my lips. “It’s not my fault you look like Captain America. No wonder they’ve put you on television.”

Finn turns his coffee cup over when the waitress stops at our table, and we wait while she fills it and takes his order.

“You’ve heard about the show, then,” he says carefully. He takes a sip of his coffee—black, just like he’s always taken it—and the liquid is so hot the steam curls up from the mug to disappear in front of him. There’s something comforting about this moment right here, that even after all this time he still takes his coffee the same way and is so impatient to drink it he can’t wait a few minutes for it to cool.

“Of course I heard about it. Everyone has. Oliver sent me a magazine clipping and I saw your photograph in a train station in Lille.”

“Why didn’t you say anything?” he asks, tilting his head to look at me.

I shrug. “I’m not sure. I know we had the occasional text just to check in, but I think I was still too embarrassed for more. Or maybe it was that it felt like after the breakup, Ansel got to keep you and Oliver, and I didn’t.”

He smiles and folds his arms in front of him. But his smile isn’t amused; it’s gentle, as if he’s telling me how much he loves me with that expression. There’s a moment of silence where Finn’s smile slowly turns into a frown, and the tan skin of his forehead furrows in concentration. “You know none of us blamed you, right? We thought you were a jackass and went off the deep end, but we also know you. And Ansel. We all have meltdowns.”

“I know this now,” I tell him. “And things are better.”

“Good,” he says, taking another sip of his coffee.

I love this about Finn: if you tell him you’re fine, you’re fine. He doesn’t need to get in your head or analyze every one of your thoughts; he trusts you to tell him the truth.

“I’m happy for him, for all of you,” I add. “Speaking of, tell me about this wife of yours. She’s . . .” I search for the right word, “something else.”

Finn laughs, full and loud, the corners of his eyes crinkling mischievously. “She certainly is. And marriage is good— it’s fucking great, actually.”

We take a few minutes to catch up, to talk about his father’s health and all the trouble his brothers are getting into, and then breakfast arrives: fruit and oatmeal for me, eggs and everything else you can imagine for Finn. He doesn’t waste any time before digging in.

“So you’re living here part-time, and Vancouver the rest?” I ask.

He nods and reaches for the ketchup. “At least until the show is done.”

“That sounds complicated.”

He shrugs. “It is. Sometimes.”

“How is it all going? I have to admit, I never thought I’d see Finn Roberts on TV.”

“You and me both. So far it’s good. The pay is fucking incredible, and as big a pain in the ass as it is, it’s nice getting to do the thing I love without worrying so much about money. I’ll take it while it lasts.” He takes a bite, chews, and washes it down with coffee before continuing. “You’ve been to Oliver’s store?”

“I have. I do not know a thing about comics, but I think it is amazing. It looks exactly the way he used to describe it to us.”

“Doesn’t it? And it’s never empty. Thank God Not-Joe is smarter than he looks and Olls can leave once in a while.”

“You mean Dylan,” I say, and he looks at me a little oddly, like he might not know who I’m talking about. “The cute one who works in the store?”

Finn straightens and sets his fork on the edge of his plate. “I knew who you meant.” He stares at me a beat longer. “‘Cute’?”

I shrug and take another bite of oatmeal. “Well, he is.”

“He’s also not your type.”

I laugh at how his shoulders have gone tight, how he looks ready to battle. “How do you know? Maybe that’s why things have never worked out for me—maybe what we thought was my type is all wrong.”

Finn eyes me suspiciously. “You heading over there today?”

I stir my oatmeal, ignoring the intensity of his gaze. “Yeah, after breakfast. Oliver wasn’t there when I stopped by the first time, and I know he wanted to show me around.”

“Right. Well, I can walk you over if you don’t mind.”

I laugh. He just can’t help the protective big-brother reflex. “As if I would let you get away from me so quickly.” I wipe my mouth and set my napkin on the plate in front of me.

“When are you leaving?” he asks. “Maybe we can all plan a ride before you go.”

My heart skips a beat. “I would love that! And I don’t know, really. My ticket is open-ended, but I need to put together my résumé and organize my portfolio at some point. Probably next weekend? Can we plan something before then?”

“Definitely,” he says, snagging the check before the waitress can set it on the table. “Now let’s get you over to that store so I can watch Oliver fall all over himself showing off for you.”

###

 

We go for a ride that weekend: high up into the hills, sweating our faces off. Oliver, Finn, Ansel, and me, back together again on the road, racing down the hills and yelling encouragements at each other on the climbs. It’s better than before.

We are better than before.

We meet Mia, Harlow, Lola, and Dylan afterward at a tiny café in Alpine, where we drink sharp beer and eat food that makes me want to sleep for days. Dylan brings us all bracelets he made while babysitting Fred’s granddaughter, and I put mine on, wondering whether I’m imagining how it appears to be the only one of the lot not made by a five-year-old girl.

And still . . . I don’t book a trip home afterward. An entire week flies by and I realize I haven’t even looked at flight schedules yet. Each day, I make every excuse I can to visit Oliver’s store.

I need to take him to lunch.

I need to bring him lunch.

I’m looking for Finn.

I need to borrow a phone charger.

I need to return a phone charger.

I left my sunglasses on the counter maybe sort of by accident.

Every time I walk through the door, the little bell chimes overhead and Dylan stops what he’s doing, smiles like I’m his long-lost best friend, and lets me spend the rest of his shift following him around the little store.

We talk about books and clothes and architecture and cows.

He’ll look at me and smile and it’s like I’ve stepped out from a cold chill into the warm sun.

It sounds insane, I know it does, but he’s so easy in his own skin, he makes me feel easy in mine.

###

It’s Tuesday.

The second Tuesday I’ve been here, and I arrived on a Thursday.

“So are you working here now, or what?” Oliver asks, dropping a stack of comics onto the counter in front of him.

I look up from a copy of Tank Girl Dylan left for me to read with instructions to note “the subtle nuances of her character” so we may discuss them when he returns. I didn’t even realize there were nuances in comics.

Oliver waits for an answer, but let’s be real, I don’t have one. “Honestly, I have no idea what I’m doing, Olls.”

He smiles, and I can tell he sees the internal What-the-hell-am-I-doing-next question looming in my eyes, but he doesn’t push. “I’m not complaining, mind you,” he says. “Between you and Lola hanging around here all the time, business has never been better.”

I set my book on the counter and look around the busy store. “I like being here. I like just . . . being around you all day.”

Oliver laughs as he rounds the counter, picking up a stack of mail to go through. “Right.”

“What?”

“It’s sweet, but I’m supposed to believe you’re here for me?”

I stare up at him, giving him an unconvincing, “What do you mean?”

“You spend all your time with that one,” he says, motioning to where Dylan is taking down a box from a larger stack of boxes. “I came in here yesterday and you didn’t even notice. I walked in and you two had your heads together, laughing about something you were watching on his phone.”

“He’s fun.” I look down, picking at a loose thread on my sweater. “I’ve never met anyone like him before. We can talk about the weirdest things and he manages to make it into the most fascinating conversation. He sees things differently.”

Oliver snorts. “I’ll say.”

“I mean it.” I pick up a letter from a stack of mail in front of him and hold it up. “You and I would look at this envelope and see that it’s blue and that it is an envelope. Dylan would have some story about visiting a paper factory when he was small and how they used a special dye to make this exact color blue. How it’s the same color blue as some dove that only lives in the Himalayas or something, and how just seeing that color or feeling the texture of the paper under his fingers takes him back there. To the paper factory, not the Himalayas,” I clarify.

“He’d probably also tell you about the time he got a paper cut because he was trying to close an envelope with his dick,” Oliver says. “And after watching the pair of you over the last couple of weeks, I imagine you’d probably laugh and ask him what color that envelope was.”

I drop the letter back into the pile and look out over the shop again. I’m not sure what to say. I probably would, just to keep him talking.

Oliver crosses his arms, leaning back against the counter. “You like him.”

I think about this, watching the way the muscles of Dylan’s back stretch as he bends to pick up a box, how his shirt clings to the length of his torso. Physically, he’s the opposite of every man I’ve ever been drawn to: he’s beautiful, but messy. But his heart is enormous, and his intellect seems even bigger.

“Maybe,” I admit. “Would that be so bad?”

Oliver takes a step toward me and wraps an arm around my shoulders. “Not bad at all.”

“But maybe he doesn’t think of me that way,” I say, and chew on my bottom lip.

Dylan chooses that moment to return to the front of the store, grinning at me as he bends to pick up a pile of broken down boxes and carry them to the back. He whistles, calling out, “Just carrying some cardboard, don’t mind me, pretty Perry . . .”

Oliver laughs at my side and shakes his head. “Let’s just say I don’t think that’s a problem. At all.”

 

Chapter SEVEN

Not-Joe

It’s dead for a Friday, and I’m shocked that there is no one I need to kick out of the store at closing time.

I pull my keys from my pocket, jingling them a little.

Only Perry sits at the front reading nook, with her nose buried in Nimona.

It’s a great read, but it’s also an easy read, and no way should she still be in the first third of the book, no matter how rusty her English reading skills might be.

She’s stalling.

“Hey,” I say, sliding down next to her on the couch.

She looks up, leaning her head against the back and looking at me with a calm, level gaze. “Hi.”

The last week and a half has been . . . intense.

She’s here a lot, talking to me most of the time. It’s weird to have the sense that I have this new, mysterious best friend, and I’m not totally sure why.

I’m not complaining, mind you. I’m totally fucking smitten. But I know she’s going to head back to France soon, and no matter how much fun I know she could be, I’m honestly a little afraid of how it would feel to get a tiny taste of her only to have her leave.

“I’m closing up soon,” I tell her.

She lifts her shoulder in a single shrug. “I thought you might be.”

A pause, heavy and dense, settles between us.

God. Just . . . fuck it.

“Wanna come over?” I ask.

I don’t even trip on the words, and my pulse doesn’t even race. I want it. I want her. I want more time with her, and I want her alone with me at my place, eating dinner and watching something or doing everything or saying nothing.

She nods, and closes the book with a satisfying snap, standing and walking over to slide it back on the shelf.

She’s wearing jeans, and heels, and a T-shirt that has a giant coral rose on it, but she looks like she’s got nothing on at all. It’s not like the out t is somehow obscene, because it’s not. I just mean she wears it like skin. She wears everything that way: easily.

When she returns to me, I take her hand. I’m reminded how soft and cool her skin is. And again, I have no idea why I did it, but it just feels right. She must feel it, too . . . or else she doesn’t want to hurt my feelings.

Instinct makes me want to check. “This okay?” I ask, loosening my grip.

But she tightens her fingers around mine and tugs me toward the door. “Come on. I’m hungry.”

Out on the sidewalk, she pulls up short while I lock the door with my free hand. I can feel her watching me. I can feel her attention on my face and it’s interrupted only when the wind blows her hair across her eyes and she reaches up, tucking it behind her ear.

Her hair is like copper. Slippery and fine. Metallic streaks run through it, and they illuminate in the summer evening sun.

“You’re quiet today,” she says.

“I didn’t have a banana for breakfast,” I tell her. “The one I had at home was all brown and gross, and I swear I have a ton more to say when I have one first thing in the morning.”

She nods, as if this make sense, even though I know and she knows—and the entire planet knows—it’s just me saying random shit because it’s suddenly in my head.

“Bananas are a great source of potassium,” she says, and I belt out a laugh because that is exactly the same kind of ridiculous nonsense I would say.

“Exactly.”

It gets quiet again and she tilts her head. “Why am I so comfortable around you?”

I assume she really wants an answer; Perry hasn’t been rhetorical with me very much.

So I shrug. “Maybe because you can tell I like you even though I don’t know you that well? It seems to me it only gets better between us the more you hang around.”

“Do you have a girlfriend?”

“I wouldn’t be holding your hand if I had a girlfriend.” It’s her turn to shrug. “I don’t know. You seem like a hand-holding person. I wanted to ask.”

Holy fuck, that makes a lot of sense. “Then I’m glad you did.”

We turn and she follows a step behind me to where I’ve parked Betty around the corner.

I unlock her door with my key, shaking a little, and Perry climbs in without comment. I like that she doesn’t try to make it seem like it’s great that I have a run-down piece-of-shit car. Some people pretend to think Betty is great, even though she’s pretty ugly. She also smells like crumbling upholstery, and I imagine she’s really only fun for me to ride in.

The engine roars to life, and I shift into first, pulling away from the curb before speaking.

“There’s this dude named Gerd Gigerenzer who does research on how we make decisions.” I look over at her, adding, “His whole thing is how we should use instinct and simple heuristics more often.”

Perry meets my eyes and nods, listening. She doesn’t give me the oh-here-we-go-again smile I get all the time from my friends. I don’t resent that smile; I understand it. But she can obviously tell I’m going somewhere with this, and it’s sort of cool to be with someone who seems to really want to hear it.

“He’s not talking about using probability statistics to make better decisions. He’s talking about intuition. Like, using your gut, but assuming to some extent that your gut instincts are based on life experience.”

She smiles with uncertainty. “Okay?”

“His whole thing is mostly about economics and investment,” I admit, “but, I don’t know, it just popped into my head right now, something he said once. He said, ‘If you are in an uncertain world, make it simple. If you are in a world that is highly predictable, make it complex.’”

Perry shakes her head. “I have no idea where you are going with this, but I’m listening.”

“I usually don’t know where I’m going with a lot of things, but today you’re in luck,” I say with a wink.

She snorts, and I continue as I pull out into traffic, “He basically means to use mathematical models when circumstances are predictable and intuitive models when the circumstances are complex.” I look at her and she nods in understanding. “In most ways, my life is really predictable.” I let out a little chuckle. “My days are the same, my people are the same. Every time I do something random and weird, and Oliver laughs at me, it increases the chance that the next time I do or say something random, he’ll have the same reaction. Likewise, I surf the same beaches and do tricks I probably shouldn’t try. But the more I do them and survive, the greater the chance that next time, I’ll do something crazy and survive. For most of my decisions, probability works fine.”

“Okay . . .”

We pause at a red light and I turn to look at her. “I’m in an uncertain world with you, but unfortunately I don’t really have a lot of experience to base anything off. My instinct sucks.”

I watch her swallow, her eyes wide and fixed on the side of my face as she nods, serious now.

“There’s a lot going on: who you are to Ansel and Mia, why you’re here, how long you’re here. Whether you need distraction, or are just feeling like the seventh wheel. Whether you like me,” I say. “Who you have back home, whether you’re excited to go back home.” I smile at her. “Still with me?”

She nods. “Yes.”

“So we should keep it simple.”

Her face twitches with a tiny flash of disappointment, and it makes my blood hum.

Instinct, I mean,” I add quietly, turning back and accelerating when the light turns green. When she doesn’t say anything to this, I tell her, “I like you.”

I can hear her smile when she admits, “I like you, too.” And that’s all I fucking need. Simple.

“Cool,” I say, merging onto the freeway. “Do you like Thai food?”

Perry laughs, shaking her head at me. “Are you done with your economics decision analogy?”

“Well, do you?”

Perry’s eyes narrow as she gives me a sneaky smile. “Yes. I like Thai food.”

###

We carry the takeout up to my floor, and I keep waiting to feel that buzzing tension over having a woman in my apartment, the looming will-we-won’t-we, but it doesn’t come. Perry walks in behind me but moves smoothly past, looking at the art all around her.

I know what she sees: walls covered in photographs, paintings, masks, and sculptures. Some are from my trips to different countries; lots are from friends who have traded art for my help in small ways: financial advice, fixing a car, a job referral from my dad.

She blinks away from the wall to look at my living room: couch, chair, table. They’re all hand-me-downs from my parents. My mother redecorates every five years on schedule; I have their set from nearly fifteen years ago because it still feels too nice for the small studio apartment I like to keep.

Perry looks at me in mild surprise, but I can’t quite read her expression. “It’s tidy.”

“It’s not always tidy,” I tell her.

This seems to put her a little at ease, and it makes me remember Ansel’s mild OCD tendencies.

She smiles at me. “I like your art.”

“Thanks.”

I put the food down on the dining table and move to grab some plates from the kitchen. But there’s no need: Perry picks up some chopsticks and a carton and starts to eat as she looks around.

She stops in front of a painting my friend Terra did for part of her senior art project. Perry just stands there, staring at it. It is mesmerizing. It’s a painting of a couple. He stares at her, as if he’s trying to see inside her mind. Her eyes are closed, face tilted into his cupped hand. The paint itself is thick and swirling—Terra’s trademark style makes the viewer feel both the literal and metaphorical weight of the art—and the colors are muted blues, creams, and grays. Only their lips are brilliant red.

“This is so lovely. The way he looks at her,” Perry says.

Most people remark on the color of the mouths; I love that this doesn’t seem to be what she notices.

“That’s what I like about it, too,” I admit. “She doesn’t even know. He’s not looking at her like that for her benefit.”

Turning to me, she asks, “Have you ever been in love?”

I chew a bite of noodles, thinking it over. I think back to my yearlong relationship in college with Mandy. Swallowing, I admit, “No.”

She turns to me. “Why not? How old are you?”

“I’m twenty-three.” I’m treated to a cascade of memories, all sharpened by hindsight, of me putting water polo before everything else. “And, I don’t know.” I shove another bite of food in my mouth, chewing as I think. “I had a girlfriend in college. I didn’t love her because I was stupid.”

“I have a hard time believing you were ever stupid about anything.”

“Oliver might argue with you on that point. But no, I just didn’t really get until later how great she was.”

She nods, turning back to the painting. I watch her mouth as a tiny smile flickers across it.

“Were you in love with Ansel?”

She nods again and I shove more noodles in my mouth, trying to figure out what I feel about this. Both happy and sad, I guess.

Once I swallow my bite, I ask, “Are you still in love with Ansel?”

She bends, taking another bite of food and making me wait for her reply while she chews. Maybe while she thinks. Finally, she manages, “No. I love him, but not romantically anymore. We were so toxic.”

This makes me groan. “I hate that word. It’s so buzzy.”

“Because people use it in cases where it isn’t true,” she says, laughing. “But in our case, it was. We both wanted him to feel something he didn’t, so we pretended for a very long time and were both resenting it at the end.”

I stare at her and then shiver. That’s super fucking depressing. If memory serves, Ansel was with her for a really long time, like years.

“Let’s watch some Matlock.”

“Matlock? The old man?” Perry laughs when I nod. “You get me some wine, I’ll watch some Matlock.”

I point to the selection of bottles near my dining room table and she heads there while I find the remote and start up the DVD player.

Two weeks. I’ve known her for two weeks, and when she returns with two jelly glasses and an open bottle of red, she collapses down next to me on the couch with the comfort of some combination of lover and sister and best friend.

“I like how you move,” I tell her.

She looks at me, playfully scandalized.

“I mean it,” I tell her. “You move like water, or a ninja.”

“Those are two very different things.” She bends, pouring wine into each glass, and I do my best not to let my eyes skirt over her body.

“Not really.”

She shakes her head, taking a sip and studying me. “You like the way I move.”

I inhale, realizing she has a scent: it’s soft, like an actual petal. Not some fake version of a flower. I let loose a tiny fantasy where she rubs a rose petal on her neck every morning, and then laugh. My brain is a Hallmark card.

“I like the way you move, too,” she says. “It’s like you’re sort of . . . what is the word . . .” She taps her finger to her mouth. “Dancing? Not really, but moving like this.” She does a little bouncy dance on the couch. “You are comfortable in your body.”

“It’s because I’m usually just hanging out at my apartment, naked.”

She blushes. “Just walking around, naked?”

“Yeah.” I smile at her. It’s true. “I just hang out here, drawing or reading or cooking. Watching Matlock.”

Before I really realize what she’s doing, she stands and pulls her shirt off. Kicking off her shoes, she shimmies out of her jeans and falls back onto the couch in her underwear. She grins at me, looking like a misbehaving teenager.

Hell yes.

I stand up, following suit, and shed my shorts, my T-shirt. “We’re watching Matlock in our undies.”

Perry giggles, curling in on herself. “I can’t imagine a better way to spend the night.”

And then she stretches, catlike, and curls into my side.

I’m warm, she’s smooth and cool, and I feel when our skin meets in the middle. I reach for her wine and hand it to her, and then grab mine.

Her thigh comes over my own, twisting our legs together, and when I turn, she tilts her face up to me.

So I kiss her.

It’s the soft press of my mouth to hers, and I linger, surprised by how much I like this. I’m also struck by the realization that even though I absolutely want more, she’s on the cusp of returning to the world after heartbreak, and I don’t expect her to rush headlong into anything.

She leans into me, eyes open as she sucks a little at my bottom lip, making me hum happily. I already know we’ll only smooch a little tonight, and it won’t turn wild or raw or move too fast. But the sense that there is more for us buzzes just beneath the surface, and the electricity between us makes the hair on my arms stand on end.

Perry pulls away, touching her lips and smiling as she looks at my face, and then she turns back to the television. Her head comes down to rest on my shoulder. I feel her fingers slide between mine and squeeze.

J’aime ça, c’est bien,” she whispers.

And those words I know: I like this, it’s good.

I nod in agreement, giving her a simple, “Yeah.”

 

The End

 

 

 

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