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Cut Loose (The Sublime Book 3) by Julia Wolf (1)

One

At the end of a long day, the only thing on my mind was getting an ice-cold beer served to me by a tall drink of water.

Instead of going home after work, I parked and walked across the street to my favorite watering hole. At seven on a weeknight, when I stepped inside, the dim bar was still pretty quiet.

Bar Royal was a step or two above a dive bar. The exposed brick walls and wide plank floors gave a real sense of history to the place. There were no fancy drinks, just a wide variety of mostly local beer and mid-shelf liquor. The bathrooms were a bit grungy, and I’d heard the men’s room was covered from floor to ceiling with dirty Sharpie art—though I’d never ventured inside to see it for myself.

On the way to the bar, I smiled and waved at the old-timers who spent most evenings parked in the corner reminiscing about the good old days in Baltimore. Bar Royal had been called something else years ago and then something else years before that. I had a feeling these same men had stayed in the same corner as the bar—and the world—changed around them.

“Frannie-girl! Good to see your pretty face in here, hon. Classes up the joint,” called one of the old men, Steve. He must have been in his eighties and had the accent of a man who’d lived in “Bawl-mer” his whole life.

“You’re too sweet, Steve. Be good!” I waved again.

A group of twenty-something guys with slicked back hair, wearing business attire, sat at the end of the bar. I took a seat at an empty section away from them and tried to not look in their direction. I came to drink a cold brew and eye fuck a certain bartender, not to make mind-numbing small talk with douchey guys in suits.

I tapped my nails on the wide, lacquered wooden bar and slumped when I didn’t see him behind the bar. Instead, a perky little blonde mixed the drinks. She held up a finger to tell me she’d be right with me.

“Hey, what can I get you?” the bartender asked when she finally approached.

“Whatever Sam Adams you have on tap. Surprise me.” I eyed her as she filled a tall glass with golden, foamy beer. She was cute, in an all-American cheerleader kind of way—a type I’d never been.

“Here ya go,” she said, sliding my glass toward me on a cardboard coaster.

“Thanks. I’m Frannie, by the way. I’m here way too often, which leads me to believe you must be new since we haven’t met.”

She nodded and beamed at me, exposing the whitest, straightest teeth I’d ever seen. “Hi, Frannie. Cute name. I’m Val. I just started this week.”

“Cool. So, do they have you working alone your first week?”

Just as I asked the question, a wall of a man came out of the back carrying a case of liquor. I didn’t even pay attention to Val’s answer, transfixed watching the muscles in his forearms flex as he carried the heavy load past me.

“Okay, well, let me know if you need anything else,” Val said, then skipped—literally skipped—to the next waiting customer.

I thought of myself as a girl’s girl, but maybe I was only a my girls’ girl because my eyelid twitched from how hard I had to work at resisting the urge to roll my eyes.

I drank my beer and watched the big, burly man behind the bar unload the case of liquor bottles. When he bent down I leaned forward. When he stood up I leaned back. There was nothing casual or subtle about my observation, because when it came to him, I couldn’t seem to play it cool.

He turned around suddenly with an empty crate in his arms. I averted my eyes to my beer, but when he passed me, he paused until I looked up and met his soft brown eyes.

“Hi, Frannie,” he said in his quiet, rumbly voice.

My cheeks were on fire. I never blushed, never got embarrassed, but this man flustered me in unfamiliar ways. “Hi, James.”

He stared down at me for longer than socially acceptable, and I loved it. His eyes followed my movements as I took a long drink of my beer, then licked the drops of cool liquid from my lips.

“So…” he started, but didn’t say anything else.

I tried to laugh at how ridiculous it was that neither of us could think of something to say beyond a basic greeting, but instead of coming out as a cute tinkle of feminine laughter, I snorted like a goddamn pig. My hands flew up to cover my burning face.

“Go, just go!” I mumbled. “Please allow me the dignity of dying from my extreme awkwardness alone.”

A deep rumble of laughter reached my ears.

“Okay, Frannie,” he said before walking away.

When I peeked between my fingers he was talking to a smiling Val. She touched his bicep and I wanted to leap across the bar and yank her stupid blonde ponytail.

I turned away from the bar, disgusted with myself. Six months ago, I had one horrible tumble in the sack with James. He pounded me so hard and fast, I thought I’d go right through the bed onto the floor. But, somehow, I was still smitten with him. I’d never been smitten in my whole life. I didn’t even like the sound of the word. Yet here I was, ready to gouge out the eyes of a perfectly nice woman who had the audacity to touch him.

I swallowed the rest of my beer, which now tasted warm and bitter—but maybe that was just me—threw some money on the bar and walked out.

My apartment building stood directly across the street, my walk of shame home mercifully short.

I threw the door to my apartment open and kicked off my shoes. Then I remembered how I’d been raised, so I picked them up and put them neatly on the shoe rack in the closet.

“Honey, I’m home,” I called out.

“Hello, my darling. I’m in the kitchen!”

I went into the kitchen where my roommate, Laurel, was in the midst of creating another culinary masterpiece. Girlfriend was a successful corporate attorney, master chef, and the funniest person I knew.

“What are you making me tonight?” I peered over her head.

“Tonight, I’ve prepared grilled salmon topped with avocado salsa, because you know us millennials and avocados. Can’t even buy a house because we keep buying avocados! And on the side, we have jasmine rice seasoned with lime and cilantro. Bon appétit, mademoiselle,” Laurel said in her best snooty waiter voice, not even breaking character during her millennial rant.

“Why are you the best? You win roommate of the year!” We took our plates full of delicious food to the living room and put them on the coffee table, then sat side by side on the floor. We had a perfectly good dining room table, but we usually preferred carpet picnics.

I’d lived with Laurel for a little over a year and she’d been the best roommate I ever had, hands down. I found her through an online ad, and when we met in person, we took one look at each other’s T-shirts and knew we were a match. Hers said “I speak fluent sarcasm” and mine said “I’m late because I didn’t want to be here.” It felt like we were long-lost sisters.

In fact, on more than one occasion we’d told strangers we were twins just to see their reactions. We found it hilarious to watch them glance from pocket-sized Laurel to Amazonian me, back to sunshine-blonde Laurel, then to dark-haired, Latina me again. I could almost see them doing the math in their heads, trying to add up how we could even be distantly related, let alone twins.

“I went to the bar.” I stuffed a piece of salmon in my mouth.

“When? Just now?”

I nodded. “I saw him.”

She cocked her eyebrow. “Beardo? How’s that hunk of burnin’ love doing?”

“We don’t call him Beardo anymore. James, remember?” I speared a piece of avocado with my fork. “He’s as hunky as ever. But I kind of, sort of snorted in front of him.”

“Snorted? Whaaat?” Laurel cried.

I told her the sad tale of our brief encounter. Since we usually went to Bar Royal together, she’d witnessed my interactions with James many times. I always felt uncharacteristically shy around him, but never before had I snorted.

“I think we’ll have to move, find a new bar, probably change our names and wear disguises.”

“Frananas, I don’t get you at all. You had bad sex with this dude. Like, the worst sex ever. Why does he still make you crazy like this?”

Ah yes, “Frananas,” the nickname coined by one of my best friends, Rachel. One drunken night, thinking herself clever, she combined Frannie and bananas. In my wildest dreams, I never imagined three years later people would still be calling me that. Truthfully, though, I liked the nickname, just a tiny bit.

“I don’t know! He’s so fucking handsome, with those chocolate brown eyes and that ginger beard. I want to run my hands through it whenever I see him. And before the jackhammering started, he had such potential. His kissing skills were off the charts. His oral skills could use some work, but what he lacked in technique he made up for in enthusiasm. And god, Laurel, his dick…”

“I know, I know, beautiful, giant dick. We all know! But if he doesn’t know how to use it, what’s the point? It’s tragic, really.”

I sighed dramatically. “You’re right. I’ve got to move on, get over him, and get under someone else.”

Laurel laughed. “Sounds like a very logical, well-thought-out plan.”

Pretending to take a bow, I said, “Thanks, I try my best.”