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The Perks Of Loving Lincoln by Nia Arthurs (1)

One

Desiree’s mouth watered. Her heart thudded. She looked up, identifying the cause. Ephraim was coming this way. Her eyes roved his white kicks, the black skinny jeans—tight enough to fit him well, but loose enough to identify the team he was playing for, the white shirt snug against his lean frame, and finally to the brown eyes she loved.

He broke into a smile and his dimples flashed, drawing her even deeper into her meltdown. It was unfair, really, the way he made her feel. She was powerless against him, like a newborn puppy chasing after its mother. If he told her to jump off a cliff, she probably would.

“What’s with that look Des?” He set the coffees they’d ordered on the table and then sat in the chair across from her. The move was smooth, fluid. Like a dancer’s. He wrapped his long, slender fingers around the Styrofoam cup and took a sip. The way his lips puckered around the straw did things to her…

“What… look?” She breathed, straining to follow the line of conversation when her insides were screaming for her to get to the point and confess her feelings. The urge to make things official bubbled within her, aching for release.

“Forget it then.” Ephraim set down his cup and picked up her straw. He tore away the paper covering and stuck the plastic in her drink, sliding the whole thing over to her. “I’m glad you called. I wanted to meet up with you before practice today anyway. It’s like you read my mind.”

“Of course I can read your mind. You’re my best friend, Dimples.” The familiar nickname made Ephraim smile. A thrum of excitement zipped through her body when his eyes sparkled at her as if she was the only woman in his world. “You seem happy.”

He leaned back and tilted his head to the side so she could admire the gorgeous planes of his angular jaw. “I am, but that’s usually how I feel when I’m with you.”

If she had paler skin, she’d be blushing up a storm right now. Thankfully, her brown skin was dark enough to prevent Ephraim from noticing just how much she enjoyed hearing him speak like that. Her silent fawning leaked out in the curling of her toes and the thrumming of her heart instead.

“Stop playing.” She rolled her eyes and hid her smirk by sipping her frozen coffee. “Why don’t you go first? What’s up?”

He rubbed the back of his neck. “You’re not going to like this.”

“It can’t be that bad.”

“I wouldn’t call it ‘bad’ per say…”

“Spit it out, Dimples.” When he continued to hesitate, she joked. “What’s so hard to say? Did you get back together with April or something?”

“I did.”

Desiree choked on her drink and started coughing. Ephraim sprung out of his seat and rushed to her side, slapping her back. Her body wracked even more when he slammed his palm against her and, for a second, Desiree genuinely thought she would die.

“I’m fine. I’m fine.” She held out a hand to stop him.

“Are you sure, Des? Do you need some water?”

“No.” Her eyes turned glassy, partly because of her near death experience and partly because of Ephraim’s news. Struck numb, Desiree gathered her breath and yelled, “You got back together with April? When? How? I thought you said you two were done, for good now?”

“I know I said that.” Ephraim trudged back to his seat and hunkered down. “But it’s not easy to end a three-year relationship.”

Desiree wiped her lips with a napkin. “I see.”

“Don’t worry.” His hand snaked over the table and he held her fingers. She stared at their joined hands, the perfect fit. It only mocked her now. Ephraim’s voice was soothing when he said, “You’ll always be my favorite girl.”

“Mm-hm.” Desiree was incapable of saying much else. Her head spun. Her stomach roiled. She played with the edge of her napkin until it became a squashed, crumpled mess.

Sensing her distress, Ephraim assured her, “I told April that she’ll have to get used to having you around. I’m not giving any of my friends up for her, especially not when I have one as important as you.”

“Right.” She shook her head to clear the fog. “I’m really happy for you, Ephraim.”

He arched a thick eyebrow. “You know you can’t lie to me.”

“I’m not lying.” She slipped her hand away from his and wrapped them around her frozen coffee. The condensation trickled against her palm like tears. She was barely holding herself together but managed to smile anyway. “You and April always seem to find each other.”

“I guess we do.” He leaned forward. “What did you want to talk to me about?”

I like you. I have for a while now. Even thought there was a chance you liked me back.

But she couldn’t say all that. Not now. Not ever. Desiree searched her mind for an excuse and grabbed the first one that made sense. “I’ve been playing around with a new bass line and I was hoping you could check it out. Tell me what you think?”

“Oh?” His eyebrows shot up. “I would love to. Do you have it now?”

“I forgot it,” she said lamely.

“Typical Des.” Ephraim grinned. “That’s okay. I’ll just listen to it later.” He turned his arm and checked his watch, a gift for his twenty-fourth birthday. She’d scraped and saved for two months to buy that thing. “We need to get moving if we’ll make it to practice on time. Cory’s on edge as it is.”

The chair squealed against the tiles as Ephraim got up. Desiree was physically incapable of standing. Or breathing. Or doing anything else except weeping pathetically. The last place she wanted to be right now was alone in Ephraim’s car.

“Actually, I’m supposed to meet Lincoln here soon. He’s taking me to practice.”

Ephraim’s eyes widened and he gripped the back of his chair as if he’d sit back down. “I’ll wait with you then.”

“No!” She threw her hands up to stop him. Her eyes danced back and forth. “We’re going to discuss something private. It’s related to Lincoln’s next book. He’s obsessed with keeping the details under wraps until he sends it to his editor. You understand.”

“Right.” Ephraim tilted his head. “Do you want me to at least wait with you until he comes?”

“Go. Please.” Desperation seeped from her voice and she struggled to reel it back. “I’ll meet you there.”

“Okay…” Ephraim said slowly, as if he wasn’t convinced. He backed out of the corner where they’d been sitting and tossed one more uncertain look at her. Desiree pasted a huge grin on her face and shooed him until he had turned the corner and was out of sight.

The minute he disappeared, she galloped to the bathroom and stormed through the door. The room was large and brightly lit with tiled floors and a mirror that took up over half of the wall. Desiree caught a glimpse of her brown hair in the glass but turned away before she could spy the rest of her face.

She didn’t need to see to know that her smile was fracturing with every second that passed.

Tears flooded her eyes, pounding against her eyeballs like a persistent wave against the shore. Her heart trembled, overwhelmed with emotions she could barely begin to name. Regret. Pain. Disappointment. It felt like a ball of pain was stuck in her throat.

Before she could let loose and bawl, the door opened and a few high school students stampeded in, chattering about their day, their annoying teacher, and some girl named Phyllis who had crabs. Desiree dove into the nearest stall and sat on the toilet where she could cry in peace.

Her eyes landed on a carving in the green wood that said: Kenny loves Jessica. She wondered if Kenny still loved Jessica or if he had gone back to his ex-girlfriend because ‘it wasn’t easy to end a three-year relationship’.

The carving blurred and a sob wracked her body. She wrapped a hand over her mouth to muffle it and then grabbed for her phone with the other. After pressing the number 1 on her dial pad, she listened to it ring.

After the third chime, he picked up. “Ray?”

“Lincoln…” She had to pause and let another enormous half-sob, half-groan out. “Can you come get me?”

“Where are you?”

“Silver Moon Coffee House.”

“Give me five minutes. I’ll be right there.”

She no longer had the strength to hold up her phone and it clattered to the ground. Desiree pulled her knees to her chest and cried. The high school girls fell silent. They were probably listening to the whack-job in the third stall lose her mind.

Desiree would stop if she could. And she tried. But then she’d think of Ephraim again and the tears kept coming.