Archer knocked back another swallow of beer and leaned forward on the butcher-block countertop, forearms resting on the wood. Engagement party. This hadn’t been his most brilliant idea. Who threw an engagement party for their best friend and ex-girlfriend? Me, obviously. He took another drink.
Once upon a time, he would have fixed his gaze fixed on the woman standing across the room. She was tall, with long blonde hair, and surrounded by friends. Even in something as simple as a pair of jeans, Riley drew attention.
She was happier now than she’d ever been with him. He tried for weeks to figure out why it bugged him—they weren’t meant to be. Tonight, the light haze of alcohol offered him a unique clarity.
If it had taken her a decade to figure out who she belonged with, then he’d wasted the on-again-off-again that had been their unstable relationship, thinking it should be him. His odds of finding someone he could make as happy as she was now had to be almost nonexistent.
Zane— Riley’s fiancé and Archer’s best friend since childhood—broke away from the group and crossed the hardwood which covered the open living room and kitchen. He stopped on the other side of the island and glanced over his shoulder at Riley, before giving Archer a half smile. “Thanks for the party. I know it hurts.”
Archer set his bottle aside. He wasn’t in the mood for a philosophical discussion about soul mates or finding the one, or how many times Riley had dumped him before he figured out she wasn’t his one and only. He didn’t care that a conversation like that wasn’t manly; he was trying not to dwell. “I mean it when I say I’m okay with this.”
“Hey, boys.” Tori stepped up next to Archer. He’d met Tori through his sister. She and Jen had been in the same sorority years ago, and when Jen introduced her to Archer, they hit it off quickly. He’d owned his comic store long enough to know there were as many female fans as male, but regardless of gender, not a lot of them talked about books the way Tori did.
It didn’t hurt she had curves that wouldn’t quit, and she rocked a free T-shirt like no one’s business.
She looked at Zane. “The group over there wants to know if you really hacked old Soviet missiles and disabled the warheads remotely.” Her tone was cool.
“You’re sure they don’t want to hear a new story?” Zane turned back to Archer. “Thanks again.” He made his way back to the small crowd on the other side of the room.
Not interested in another drink, Archer resumed his vigil, holding up the counter. He shouldn’t stare—it wasn’t like he cared—but he couldn’t keep his gaze from drifting back to the happy couple. Zane dropped onto the couch against the far wall and tugged Riley into his lap. She didn’t resist, falling with a squeal.
If Archer figured out why he and Riley never found that spark, he could do things better when he met the right woman.
Her fingers traced the white suede choker around her neck. The choker—which he hadn’t seen her without since she’d gotten it—was new. The silver locket hanging from it was old; she’d had it since Zane gave it to her in high school.
That should’ve been another indicator she was meant to be with Zane.
“…and I think I’m going to see if bleach really does take the color out of Renaissance velvet.” Tori’s voice penetrated his wandering thoughts, and he whirled to face her.
“Just wondering if you were listening.”
He shook his head, to push away the past, and focused on Tori. “I’m sorry. What were you saying?”
“Don’t worry about it. I asked if you were going to spend the entire night staring.” She brushed a long strand of light-brown hair off her forehead and tucked it into the loose bun on top of her head.
“Why? Would you rather I stare at you?” Now that he mentioned it, that was a good idea.
Tori would know he was teasing. She got him, and their friendship by association had become a genuine bond. They spent a lot of time joking around, watching bad movies, and passing out in each other’s guest bedrooms.
“I’m not doing anything worth watching,” she said.
He looked her over again, this time lingering on her round hips, her full breasts, and her flushed lips. Sometimes he wondered if things would’ve been different if he’d met her before Riley. “I can wait for that to change, if you have something in mind.”
Her shy smile shifted in an instant, and she ran her tongue over her bottom lip. She took a step closer. The shrill ring of her phone cut through the remaining space between them, and her hand flew to her hip.
Disappointment speared Archer’s gut. “You’re not really going to take a work call on a Saturday night, are you?”
“I have to.” She grabbed two bottles of beer by their necks, spun on her toe, and wandered toward the back of the apartment, voice fading as she disappeared into Archer’s guest room and closed the door behind her.
He shook his head in disgust and irritation. Most of it was directed at the people who worked for her. Some days he was surprised they didn’t ask her to cut their food into tiny pieces, so they wouldn’t choke. Part of the issue was she gave in without protest, but she saw it as being a good manager.
Archer pushed away from the island. He should join the party—be a good host and all that. He picked the farthest seat from Riley and Zane, which was maybe twelve feet.
It took focus, but he managed to keep his smile in place and the conversation flowing, as the next few hours wore on. Relief wormed its way through him as people stood to leave for the night, and over the next hour or so, his apartment emptied.
With any luck, this would be the last time he’d help an ex-girlfriend celebrate marrying someone else.
Riley pushed to her feet, tottering a little before she stood straight. Her grin was wide, but it had been for a while now. She grabbed one of her arms with her other hand. “Thanks for this. For all of it.” Pink dotted her cheeks.
Zane stood behind her. As far as Archer had seen, he hadn’t had a single drop that night. At least one of the two was sober, because Riley sure as hell wasn’t. Zane rested a hand at the small of her back, expression neutral.
Riley opened her mouth again. “I’m—”
Zane whispered something in her ear. Her flush deepened, and she turned her gaze from Archer. “Nothing. Thanks again.”
“Yeah. No problem.” What were the odds the three of them could ever go back to the way things used to be, before the infinite number of times Archer and Riley dated, and the failed marriage proposal? When they were all happy being friends?
That past didn’t seem to be in his future. Within a few moments, Riley and Zane were gone, along with the rest of the guests.
“That wasn’t awkward at all.” Tori’s voice startled him.
He whirled to find her sitting on the counter in the kitchen again, kicking her legs back and forth.
“The work phone call or the Riley thing?”
“Either. Both. Can we not talk about work?”
Right. Because he’d tell her she needed to stand up for herself and make her people do their jobs, and she’d get pissed at him. Not irritating her sounded pretty good. “I mean it when I say I’m over her. It’s… What if I make the same mistake again?”
She knocked back another swallow of beer and then wobbled in her seat on the counter for a moment before righting herself. She hadn’t been this drunk when she took the call.
“How many beers did you have while you were gone?”
“Two or three. How many did I take with me? Here’s the thing about Zane. He’s arrogant, fickle, bossy, possessive, and has always been in love with Riley.” She looked Archer over, something in her gaze burrowing past his surface. She laughed. “The two of you actually have a lot in common. Except he made it work in his favor.”
Her words dug deep, until they collided with something he couldn’t identify. “Your point is?”
She set her bottle aside. The glass clanged against the granite top, but nothing sloshed inside. “I’m sorry. It’s true, you boys have a few less-than desirable traits in common, but for the most part, you’re pretty different. Everyone can see that. Who knows what made the two of them work? I sure don’t. Maybe Zane’s a better kisser.”
Knowing she was drunk didn’t stop his pride from stumbling again. His ego was going to be limping into an emergency room if she kept this up. “I kiss fine.”
“I’m not saying that’s the issue. It’s one option. It’s not like I’ve ever kissed either of you.”
“Even if I have no idea why they make a good couple, I’m pretty sure kissing isn’t at the top of the list. There’s nothing wrong with the way I kiss.”
“Prove it.” Tori straightened, some of the fog evaporating from her expression.
Archer raised his brows. He was wounded enough to be baited into the challenge. Besides, her full lips enticed him, and he’d wondered what kind of kisser—among other things—Tori was, on more than one occasion. Except this wasn’t the time to find out. “You’re drunk.”
“I’m not propositioning you, and you’re not taking advantage of me.” The slur faded from her voice. “I’m saying you’re not allowed to be the judge of your own kissing skills. If you’re so sure that’s not the issue… Or maybe you’re not as certain as you act.”
The taunt wasn’t what pushed aside the last of his restraint, but it helped. The thing that broke him was the way she caught her lip between her bottom teeth. And the heave of her chest. And the way her posture highlighted every curve.
He closed the distance between them and rested a hand on her hip. Her shirt had risen, leaving part of her waist exposed, and her skin was warm and soft against his palm. He brushed a strand of hair off her forehead, and a pleasant jolt ran through him. Tori tilted her head closer. Her brown eyes were wide and dark, almost black in the dim light, and he couldn’t look away.
He settled his other palm at the back of her neck, holding her head steady, and pressed his lips to hers. His blood roared in response. She whimpered and parted her lips, and he darted his tongue into her mouth, to dance with hers.
How have we not tried this before? He wasn’t sure where the thought came from, but he let it linger. He pressed between her legs. Her fingers dug into his chest, hot even through his shirt. Every time she touched him, his pulse increased another notch. She locked her knees around his waist, and a low groan tore from his throat.
They broke apart, both of them gasping. Her cheeks were bright red, and she danced her fingers over her swollen lips.
“Yeah, the kissing isn’t the problem.” Her voice was breathy.
She hopped to the floor and draped her arms around his neck. When she rubbed her body against him, his cock throbbed. He backed her against the counter, diving into another kiss when she pressed her lips to his again. He should pull away. She was drunk. Didn’t know what she was doing.
She raked her nails up his back, sending another wave of want through him.
Then again, it felt like she knew exactly what she was doing.
A loud bang tore through the room, and they both jumped.
Tori’s hand flew to her chest. “Holy shit.”
A car backfiring. That was all. But that wasn’t the reason his pulse raced. Reason seeped back into his thoughts. Tori’s giggles were punctuated by short pauses, before the laughter won out again. Cool air rushed in around him, soothing his heated skin but not easing the strain of his erection against his zipper.
He nestled a hand on the small of her back. “You need some sleep.”
“I’m fine.” But it took her several seconds to stand straight.
He steered her toward the guest bedroom. “Come on.”
She flopped onto the mattress and tilted to the side before sitting upright. It was a good thing they’d stopped. She was already going to regret enough in the morning, hangover-wise. He knelt at her feet, pulled off her socks and shoes, and set them by the bed. Part of him wanted to help her out of the rest of her clothes, but that would be a bad idea.
She tugged him to his feet. “You were always too good for her, you know.”
The words cut deeper than any others she’d spoken tonight, erasing the last of his lingering arousal. Unable to reply, he shook his head, helped her lie down, and then pulled the blanket over her. She snapped her eyes shut the moment her head hit the pillow, and seconds later, steady breathing was the only sound in the room.
What the hell was wrong with him?