Clarissa was late.
I should have expected it. She’d shown up at least twenty minutes late to our last three outings. Ever since she’d gotten engaged, it was like her mind was trapped in a wind tunnel, rendering her capable of thinking about only the following topics:
- Where her lavish wedding ceremony would take place.
- What store sold the ugliest, least flattering bridesmaids’ dresses on earth.
- Overpriced flowers. Overpriced DJs. Overpriced everything.
- What to name the 2.5 kids she was going to pop out of her birth canal in the next five years.
My best friend had developed a case of pre-marital tunnel vision. I supposed it happened to every new fiancée after her man threw a sparkly diamond her way.
Of course, I had no idea how it must feel to find yourself committed for life to another human being. In fact, I was the farthest thing from married that a person could be. Ariana Clarke: Single, with no prospects whatsoever. A spinster. An old maid. A reject on society’s heap of sad ladies who own too many cats and scoff at rom-coms for their lack of realism.
Except that I didn’t have any cats.
That was how sad I really was.
Not only was I a loner, but to add to my misery, I’d been celibate for a year. I liked to pretend it was a choice I’d made as an independent, confident woman—a way to embrace my feminine autonomy.
But that, of course, was bullshit. The fact was, I pushed people away like I was an Ebola victim in a state of perpetual quarantine.
Hell, even the battery in my vibrator had given out on me a few nights ago, like it knew I wanted to be alone.
Nope. Relationships and I were not meant to be. Which was exactly why I wanted my infuriatingly inconsiderate bestie to show up for our chick-date. The time I spent with Clarissa was my only semblance of a social life. She was my closest friend.
She was also one of the few people who knew about my past, about the life I’d lived before I’d come to New York to hide myself within its massive population. Clarissa knew my secrets, which meant that she was important to me beyond measure. Her existence made me feel like there was someone in the world who would accept me despite my flaws, my mistakes, my failings. She was a life-line to my own sanity.
I glanced down at my watch and sighed. My life-line was now twenty-five minutes late. A new record. Congrats, Clarissa. Way to shoot for the stars.
Trying not to let my impatience get to me, I peered down at the last text message she’d sent to my phone:
Come out tonight. Seven o’clock at Carlotta’s. I have HUGE news!
Huge news, for some reason, struck me as foreboding. Those two words usually referred to things like marriage and babies and running away to far-off lands without me. It never meant “Guess what? We’re going to spend more time together! Isn’t that awesome?”
Trying to shove the negative thoughts away, I let out another hefty sigh and stared out the open front window of Carl’s Pub at the bustling street beyond.
The heavy heat that had draped itself over the city for the last several days was only slightly disbursed by a few high ceiling fans, casting a breeze that made strands of loose brown hair tickle my neck. My margarita was helping take the edge off, though my skin still felt like it was coated in the sort of thick perspiration that infected every resident of Manhattan in the summertime.
Outside, horns blared. People shouted profanities at one another for infractions that should never have upset any sane person. How could anyone not love New York? The city was running just as it always had, fueled by the energy of angry, hurried people who couldn’t wait to get home, go to sleep, and start the madness all over tomorrow.
As a long line of slow-moving yellow cabs moved down the street, I took a long sip of my drink—just enough to give myself a dose of brain freeze—and turned away, my eyes moving through the bar, assessing every customer from a distance.
The place was filled with every kind of human imaginable. Young couples, giggling college girls. An old guy sitting by the bar who looked like this might just be his last drink. A gay couple was necking in a far corner, while across the room another pair was engaged in some kind of whisper-screaming brawl, their faces crinkled with rage.
Some douche-nozzle was trying to pick up a woman and failing in an epic way. Judging by her body language, she wanted nothing more than to step on his neck and grind her stiletto heel into his jugular.
I was about ready to pull my eyes back to my phone and play a quick game of Candy Crush when a solitary figure caught my eye, paralyzing me in place.
“Holy pants,” I muttered under my breath.
He was a gorgeous, glorious creature. The sort who only existed on billboards advertising underwear for men with impressive packages. And, naturally, in my most ambitious, raunchiest sex dreams.
He was standing several feet away from me, deftly ignoring the patrons who milled around him like frenzied, slightly drunk squirrels collecting nuts.
When our eyes met, everything else disappeared. The people, the ceiling fans, the very walls. Nothing existed in this surreal moment but the two of us, our eyes locked curiously, intently on one another as though we were each trying to solve a mystery that neither of us quite understood yet.
Even from a distance, I could see that the man’s eyes were light blue. Not the sort of indigo that you might see in the sky on a cloudless day, but the kind that's almost hard to look at—it was more like the shade of the sun reflecting off the surface of a glacier. All but blinding, yet exquisitely beautiful.
A dark ring surrounded his irises, which only enhanced their intensity. His brows were dark and shapely, his cheekbones sculpted. His jawline, which was as close to sheer perfection as anything I'd ever seen, was dusted with thick stubble.
He wore jeans and a white, crisp shirt, perfectly tailored to fit his slim, muscular frame like a glove. But it wasn't exactly his clothing that caught my eye, at least not at first. It was something about the way his intense stare locked on mine, inspiring a white-hot torrent of instant, carnal desire to gush through my veins like lava. Even as my breath trapped itself in my chest, my heart began to pound so hard that I was convinced everyone in the world could hear it.
The thing was, no one had ever looked at me that way.
Hell, no one had ever looked at any woman that way. I was sure of it.
The stranger’s expression dripped with sexuality incarnate. Smoldering, seductive. Piercing me to the core with pure sensuality that made my blood run hot. He was a god made flesh, and for those precious few seconds, he was mine.
As I gawked at him like a wide-eyed deer confronted by high beams on a dark country road, he extracted his right hand from his pocket and ran it through a head of thick brown hair, pulling his chin down, his stare only intensifying with the move.
That one gesture—raking his fingers through his glorious mane—reminded me that this man had fingers, that he could touch, stroke, caress. It made my body want to turn into some kind of jelly, every ounce of solid flesh melted into submissive goo.
I reached out, grabbing the table’s edge to steady myself, and did everything in my power to keep drool from dribbling out of my mouth.
“Sorry I’m late!” chirped a familiar, girlish voice, pulling my mind and eyes away from the deity and over to Clarissa, who was jogging towards my table from the front door.
“It’s fine…” I began, turning back to look for the man with the piercing eyes.
But somehow, he was already gone. Disappeared into thin air, like he’d never been anything more than an apparition, a figment of my horny imagination. I spun around, trying to work out where he could have escaped to, how he could have made himself scarce so quickly.
In the end, all I could figure out was that I must have been going insane.
Yes, that was probably it.
“No problem,” I added, throwing my best attempt at a happy smile at my bestie as I pulled my eyes back to her. “No problem at all.”
She drew up a chair and perched herself opposite me, offering up a huge grin of her own. She was wearing a cute purple dress that made her blue eyes stand out like two lapis stones set in a perfect porcelain face. Clarissa always managed to look great in a sort of effortless way that I couldn’t help but envy. Flawless skin, a cute little size-two body. She was most women’s nightmare, and the worst part was that she was so damn likeable.
“So? How are things?” she asked, leaning forward and pressing her warm fingers into my forearm, her eyebrows skyrocketing like she was expecting me to recount some exciting tale about my stupid life.
“Oh, you know. I’m about to become unemployed. In a few weeks I’ll be homeless, living under a bridge with a vagrant called Sal who smells like a dead sea otter and eating discarded candy wrappers and cigarette butts for sustenance. Other than that, things are fab.”
“Yeah, I heard about the theater. I’m really sorry. I wish I could help.”
“There’s nothing to be done,” I said, waving a hand dismissively. “Anyhow, enough about my life of glamor and luxury—what about you? You said you had news. I can’t imagine what that is, unless you’re going to tell me you’re getting even more married. Or…oh my God, are you…” I inflated my cheeks and moved my hand down to gesture a giant, swollen belly in front of my stomach.
“Pregnant?” she asked, grabbing my drink and taking a long sip. “Hell, no. Give me a year to adjust to married life, before I start popping out tiny little clones.”
“So what is it, then?” I asked, resisting the desire to look for Mr. Sexy again. Stop it. He’s just a figment of your stupid imagination, I kept telling myself. Nothing more.
“Well,” she said, leaning forward, a strange, apologetic smile on her lips that told me she wasn’t entirely sure I’d be happy about whatever she was about to divulge, “you know James is a doctor, of course.”
“Yes, I know your damned perfect fiancé is a freaking cardiologist,” I said. “By the way, have I mentioned lately that you’re an unholy, lucky-as-hell bitch-goddess? Because you are.”
Clarissa tossed a handful of long blond hair behind her shoulder and let out a laugh that told me she wasn’t offended in the least by my assessment of her life. Well, of course she wasn’t. She wasn’t allowed to be pissed, damn it. The woman was sporting a 2.5-carat diamond on her left ring finger. She was about to marry a rich cardiologist who also happened to be a super-nice guy. She had a fantastic job. She’d probably never be annoyed by anything again as long as she lived.
“I know, I know,” she said. “But there’s, um, something I need to tell you.”
“I’m waiting.” Truth be told, I was growing impatient. It was taking everything inside me not to look away, to get up and run around, searching for my Mr. Perfect. A selfish impulse, I knew. It was possible that I just wanted to escape my friend’s perfection. To press my face into Mr. Perfect’s chest and ask him to steal me away from reality, if only for a minute.
“James was just offered a position,” said Clarissa. “An amazing one, as chief of cardiology at a hospital in Chicago.”
When the words hit my ears, my heart sank like a stone, and thoughts of the sexy apparition vanished just as he’d done. “Chicago?” I asked. “As in Illinois? As in many, many hours away?”
“No, I mean Chicago, New York,” she said sarcastically, letting out a chuckle. “It’s just up the road, five minutes from here.”
I glared at her.
“Yes, Illinois!” she chirped.
“I see,” I said, pushing myself back like I wanted to distance myself from her. I couldn’t bring myself to laugh, somehow. Couldn’t quite bring myself to be happy about the news, even though I knew that made me a selfish jerk. “Wow. That means…”
“Yeah, I know.” Her smile faded. “I’m sorry I haven’t told you sooner, Ariana. I just—I didn’t want to say anything until it was a sure thing.”
“When are you moving?” I said from between gritted teeth.
“I…I handed in my notice at work a few weeks ago, so I’m heading out in a few days to look at houses. James will join me in two weeks.”
“What about the wedding?” I asked. “I figured you’d be getting married here.”
“We’ve decided to do it in Chicago,” she said. “It’ll be so much easier for us. But I hope you’ll still come. You are a bridesmaid, remember.”
“Of course I will. I’ll find a way,” I mustered, though I felt far more self-pity than joy at that moment. “Well, I’m happy for him, and for you. That sounds like a great job.” What a lie. Like I could be happy for anyone right now.
She reached out and grabbed my hand, which was sitting limp as a dead fish on the table. “I’ll come visit,” she said. “Lots.”
“No, you won’t,” I replied. I wasn’t in the mood to be coddled. “But really, it’s okay. I’m just feeling sorry for myself. I just feel so…lost. You know, with the job situation and all. No theaters are looking for set designers at the moment. Everything’s up in the air, and with you leaving…”
“I know,” she said, her tone sympathetic. “But look—you still have Marcus.”
I let a shallow smile infiltrate my lips. “Yep,” I said. “I do have him.”
Marcus was my housemate, not to mention my rock. Like Clarissa, he knew that I’d had another life before New York. He was the guy who was there every day when I came home, a smile on his face, an extra-cold beer in his hand with my name on it. He listened to me when I needed to bitch, he watched stupid movies with me, and best of all, he never tried to get into my pants.
Marcus was like a happy, loyal golden retriever who never needed to be walked and who never peed on the floor.
At least not that I knew of.
“I’ve never understood, by the way,” added Clarissa, “why you two don’t hook up. He’s handsome, smart, nice, you name it. And he literally lives in the same place as you. He’s the most convenient lay ever. You should really fuck his brains out, Ari. Just to work off some of your stress. I bet he’s good with his tongue, too. He seems like a pleaser, in his own hot-guy way.”
“Clarissa! You’re an almost-married woman! You’re not supposed to be thinking about men’s tongues,” I chastised with a shallow laugh. “Besides which, it’s not like we’re really sharing the apartment. It’s more that I live in his place. I’m basically a squatter, and he’s patient enough not to kick my ass to the curb.” The fact was, I only lived there because he owned the place and rented a room to me cheap. “Anyhow, Marcus is great, but he’s not for me. He’s too…nice. Or something. Besides, I wouldn’t want to ruin our friendship with sex.”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake, go ahead and ruin it. Maybe you should consider dating a nice guy for once.”
“I’ve never gravitated towards nice.”
“Yeah, well, that’s because you’re an idiot.”
“Yes. Yes, I am,” I said. “Listen, I think I want another drink.” I took a final swig of my margarita and slipped off my chair, desperate to pull myself away from the conversation. “My glass is empty and I’m feeling a sudden need to stretch my legs. Want anything from the bar?”
“A cosmopolitan, if you please,” she replied.
“I’m on it,” I said, grabbing my clutch purse and pivoting away to head over and place our order at the bar. I needed to get away from her for a second, to take a few deep breaths so I wouldn’t start crying. It wasn’t her fault that I was alone in this world, but I couldn’t help feeling a little sorry for myself.
My life had turned into a level five shit-show, and she wouldn’t be around to hold my hand through the worst of it.
Grasping my clutch in one hand, I raced towards the bar, my eyes scanning the room for the handsome stranger who’d provided me with such a satisfying moment of distraction earlier. But all I could see were drunken university kids and businessmen, laughing and talking way too loudly, each of them convinced that they had something highly important to say because their off-the-charts blood alcohol levels were telling them so.
When I’d reached my destination and gotten the bartender’s attention, I asked for two cosmos. It was a good choice on Clarissa’s part. Cosmopolitans were the ultimate girly cocktail: easy to drink, bright pink and delicious. Not to mention that they didn’t bloat me up like beer did.
“I’m on it,” the bartender said cheerfully, striding off to mix our two glasses of happy juice.
While he did so, I turned around to glance back towards Clarissa, who was now focused on her phone, her thumbs typing away madly. No doubt she was texting James with some sort of secret fiancée code talk about how their life was a perfect utopian fairy tale and the rest of us were pathetic wretches who don't deserve to lick their shoes.
Okay, she wouldn't say that.
The voice dragged my eyes towards the bartender, who was already gesturing impatiently towards my two drinks.
“Twelve bucks,” he said with a crooked smile.
"Right," I replied, reaching into my clutch to extract the cash. I laid the bills down and grabbed the glasses. Distracted by the swarm of thoughts that insisted on buzzing around my brain, I swung around, both cosmos in hand, and took a step forward…only to slam into something tall and hard as a brick wall.
Only it was no wall.
Not even close.