I heard the screaming as I slid the key into the lock, but it didn’t penetrate my haze of bummed-out enough to make sense. I pushed open the door to the apartment I shared with my boyfriend, and my eyes confirmed what my brain hadn’t quite registered. James, half-kneeling on the couch, pants around his ankles, screwing a woman I’d never seen before.
Time ground to a stop long enough for nausea to surge in my gut and burn my throat.
“That’s her?” The disdain in the other woman’s voice heated my cheeks to scalding.
James scrambled to extract himself from the compromising position.
I clenched my jaw, not sure if I wanted to scream or cry. Neither. Fuck this. I turned away from the sight without a single word, and strode into the kitchen. The champagne in the fridge was to celebrate me finally getting the loan I needed, to expand my business.
Well, that hadn’t happened. And apparently, my boyfriend not cheating on me was also out of the question. I spun back toward the front door. I wouldn’t scream. Or cry. Or give these people any satisfaction. I could lose my shit once I got to my car.
“Andrea, wait.” James stepped in my path, fumbling to button his jeans.
I hated it when he called me that. My growl, combined with my expression, must have been enough to convey what I couldn’t find the words for, because he stepped aside.
“Now you get it right?” Six months together, and I could count on one hand them number of times he’d called me by my preferred name. Maybe that should have been a sign. I didn’t look back, as I slammed the door behind me—with any luck catching his finger or his dick in the process—and stormed back to my car.
My mind was numb, as I pulled back into rush-hour traffic. The only thought I could focus on was, why don’t I feel anything?
About ten minutes into my drive, it hit me. A giant, suffocating wave that knocked aside disbelief and sent tears spilling down my cheeks. I struggled to find my breath and keep focused long enough to pull off the road. I found a spot in the back of a grocery store parking lot, and sobbed until my eyes ached and my hiccups for air made my stomach hurt.
Fucking asshole had cheated on me. Was it a one-time thing, or had this been going on for a while? Since before I moved in, a few months ago? Or right about the time he started telling me work had him so stressed out, he wasn’t interested in sex?
Not that it mattered. We were over. Nothing he could say would make up for this.
Someone knocked on my car window. A guy in a red shirt with the store logo. “Are you okay?” His question filtered through the glass.
I dragged my hand across my cheeks, smearing the tears more than wiping them away, and nodded.
I nodded again and forced myself to give him a smile. I must look horrible. Puffy red eyes. Runny nose. I didn’t care. I did want to get out of here before anyone else stumbled on me, which meant finding a place to go. My best friend, Julie, was out of town, scouting new locations for our cookie business. I’d insisted we needed the money first, and I wasn’t leaving town for it. I guess the second part didn’t matter anymore, but we still didn’t have the money. Motel it was. I’d only be there for the night, anyway. That was, if the trip was still on.
A new wave of suffocating sadness, hurt, and rage blanketed me.
Fuck it. Of course it was. James was only going to keep me company. I’d go without the asshole. Give me some time away, to clear my head. I navigated to the closest motel, checked in, and moments later collapsed on my bed, champagne bottle clutched in my hand.
I’d walked out of the apartment without any of my stuff. My bags for tomorrow’s trip sat near the bedroom door. My clothes hung in the closet, and my toiletries were in the bathroom. Maybe I should have thought this through. Or not. I couldn’t have stuck around longer. My mind wouldn’t have been able to handle it. At least I had my laptop with me. I’d need that for the trip. We were—correction, I was—driving from Omaha to Las Vegas, for a national gaming competition. The plan was to meet the other two guys from my team there. We didn’t have any illusions of winning, but since we’d been good enough to qualify, and all had some vacation time, we decided what the hell? Road trip.
It was also supposed to be a romantic getaway with James. Maybe help him get over the stress of work. See if we could find that spark a new couple in their late twenties shouldn’t have to worry about missing in the first place. So much for that idea.
My palm started to ache, and I rolled my head sideways. My fingers were stiff from still clenching the bottle neck of the champagne. Then there was this failure. The bubbly set aside to celebrate a victory I hadn’t achieved—finding the funding I needed to expand my cookie business and finally make it a full time venture, so I could stop processing insurance claims to pay the bills.
A new layer of sadness drifted in, and I swept it aside. I refused to wallow. I had expensive booze, a hotel room to myself, and Wi-Fi. I was going to enjoy it.
I kicked out of my shoes, toed off my socks, and went in search of something to drink from. My quest was rewarded when I found plastic cups on the sink counter. I sat cross-legged on my bed, laptop open in front of me, and bubbly in hand.
Two hours later, I had more champagne in me than remained in the bottle, and a warm, fluffy cloud of I don’t give a fuck floated through my head. James could rot in Hell, for all I cared. Our relationship had been falling apart anyway. I saw that now.
I still needed clothes for my trip. I licked my lips, then grimaced. And toothpaste. Or maybe I’d go naked. I giggled at the thought. Go find a guy, to prove to James I didn’t need him.
My messenger chimed with two notifications. Isaiah and Kane had logged on. A grin threatened to split my face, and I sent them a joint message.
Are you in town?
They were my gaming partners, but they lived in Chicago. They were part of the grand road-trip plan. They’d stop here for the night, meet us for breakfast in the morning, and we’d follow each other the rest of the way west.
We are. Isaiah responded first. If you’re online, does that mean you’re done celebrating?
I laughed at the empty room, and sent back a LOLOLOLOLOLOL. The only thing I’m celebrating is bashe… I backspaced. Bachalar… I deleted it again. Singleness, and how good booze makes my head feel.
Geez, Andi. That was Kane. Are you all right? What’s going on?
I’m fine. They must both be in their hotel room, probably cuddled up together in bed. At least, that was the way I pictured them. The perfect guys. The sweetest, most adorable couple. I’m all warm and fuzzy. My stomach lurched. I think I forgot to eat.
What’s going on? Kane asked again.
It took me several tries, punctuated with flipping off my keyboard for being an asshole, but I managed to relate my day.
So sorry, Isaiah offered.
James was a dick anyway, Kane added.
I wasn’t sure which sentiment I appreciated more. I don’t want to talk about it. How was your drive? Are the two of you all cuddly and naked and waiting for me to stop talking, so you can get it on?
The drive was good, Isaiah said. You need sleep.
I scowled at the way he’d ignored my second question. A tiny voice in the back of my head told me I wasn’t thinking straight. What did it know? I’ll sleep later. I’m alone in a motel room, in nothing but a T-shirt and panties, and I want some sexy details to keep me company. I’ll share in return.
Even though I’d never met them face to face, I’d known Isaiah and Kane far longer than James. Long enough to know they had an open relationship and were fluid in their preferences. Sometimes they picked up a girl together. On more than one occasion—before James anyway—our late night conversations started with me getting descriptions of how exactly that worked, and ended with some amazing, graphic cybersex between the three of us. Stories about her became details of the things they’d do to me. Fuzzy images floated through my head now, teasing and wanting Kane and Isaiah to fill in the blanks.
Sleep, Andi, Kane said. We’ll see you in the morning.
*Pout* I want help putting me to sleep.
Not while you’re drunk, Andi… I could almost hear the warning in Isaiah’s words.
Fine. I scowled at the empty room, which danced around me in return, sparkly and bright. He was looking out for me, not angry, but the rejection still stung. One more favor, though?
Depends. I’d spent enough time listening to Kane over the headphones, I assumed his words were clipped at this point.
I hadn’t meant to piss him off. Can I drive with you guys this trip? My car’s not going to make it.
Of course, Kane replied. Do you still want to meet us at the same place?
There’s a coffee shop by my motel. If that’s okay. I’ll send the address.
We’ll be there. Get some sleep.
At least they were concerned about me. We said our goodnights, and I shut everything off. Sleep wasn’t my friend, though. The room swam again when I lay down, and I spent the next hour hunched over the toilet, heaving and hating the way champagne tasted coming back up. When I finally drifted off to sleep, my dreams weren’t any kinder. Images of James fucking that woman, and her, That’s her? danced through my dreams all night.
I didn’t care that I wore my sunglasses inside a Kmart. Those fluorescents were bright. My skull protested every time I turned my head too quickly. I was meeting the guys in half an hour, and I could barely think enough to grab some jeans, T-shirts, and other basic necessities, so I wouldn’t be naked in Las Vegas.
My head pounded harder at the word naked. God, I’d made a fool of myself last night. Had I really said those things to them? Remorse and my spinning gut told me yes.
I was paying for my purchases, when my phone buzzed against my hip. I squinted, to read the text message from Julie. Were you drunk FB-ing last night?
Was I? Crap. Probably.
Seconds later, my ringtone clawed its way into my eardrums. I grabbed my stuff from the cashier, gave him a weak smile, and walked toward the exit before answering. “Yeah.”
“Talk to me. Did he really cheat on you?” Julie’s sympathetic tone hammered my thoughts.
“Did I say that?”
“Not in so many words.” She clucked. “What you did was change your relationship status to Looking for someone who understands what mutually exclusive means.”
That sounded like me. “Did I at least spell exclusive right?”
“Yup. Are you okay?”
“I’m fine. I mean, no, but it hasn’t killed me yet.” I had enough time to get back to my motel, take the fastest shower in history, and scrub this layer of gross out of my mouth with my new toothbrush, before meeting the guys. I dropped into my car and took a second to luxuriate in the wonder of sitting.
“I’ll be back tomorrow. We’ll commiserate together. Whatever you want to do,” Julie said.
“I can’t. Vegas, remember?”
“You’re going anyway? Not with him, right?”
I was glad she didn’t say his name. Just the thought of James made me want to puke. “Hell, no. Isaiah and Kane.”
“What?” Julie’s tone shifted to a high-pitched, drill-into-my-thoughts pitch that would have cost me my breakfast if I’d eaten any. She didn’t think internet people were real.
“Picking me up is on their way, and they’re already in town.” I didn’t know why I was making excuses. I didn’t have a problem with them.
“I know they’re your gaming partners, but you don’t know them, and there’s a lot of nowhere between here and Las Vegas.”
I really needed to get going. And also, to not let her talk me out of this. Doubt was already asking if she had a good point. “Given the events of the last twenty-four or so hours, I don’t have a lot of respect for gut feelings right now. Look, I need to go.” I cut her off before she could toss out more logic I might feel compelled to agree with, if I thought about it too long. “I’ll text you when we stop for the night. I promise.”
“Laters.” My voice had too much cheer in it, as I hung up.
A short while later, I stepped into the coffee shop with a couple minutes to spare. The shower erased some of my hangover. Brushing my teeth helped more. I ordered the biggest drink I could get, with as many shots of espresso as were legal. The first few sips tasted funny, mixed with mint, but it was better than what had been growing on my tongue half an hour ago. I set myself up to see the parking lot, and tried to relax.
A green Explorer with Illinois plates pulled into an empty spot, and a new kind of nervous tension spilled into me. It was a silly response. I’d known these guys for more than two years. We had each other’s backs online, and our friendship was solid. Julie didn’t get that. Or maybe my stress came from the way I’d acted last night. They’d forgive me, right?
My thoughts trailed off when they climbed from the SUV. Okay, they weren’t supposed to be gorgeous. They were attractive enough in their photos, but real life always told a different story. Kane had been driving, and I got a good look at his long legs, wiry frame, and every inch of defined chest under his fitted T-shirt when he unfolded himself from his seat. His blond hair flopped into his eyes, and he raked it back.
Isaiah was his opposite in everything but height. Both almost reached the top of the car roof. But Isaiah’s jet black hair was cut short, and sunglasses covered his eyes. His long-sleeved shirt didn’t hide how broad his shoulders were, or the solid muscle underneath his clothes.
I tugged at my sloppy, still-wet ponytail. Maybe I should have put on some makeup. I had mascara and lip gloss in my purse. Too late now. They made it inside and walked toward me. I shifted my weight from one foot to the other, and gave them my best smile. How was one supposed to initiate a greeting like this?
“Andi?” Isaiah asked. With his sunglasses off, it was obvious how pale, clear, and gorgeous blue his eyes were. The stark contrast with his hair almost stole my breath.
He wrapped me in a huge hug. “I’m glad we get to meet you, finally.”
“Me too.” I squeezed back, and when he let me go, I turned to Kane. “Hey.”
His hug was more tentative. Still warm and friendly, but almost as if he thought he had to. Or maybe he was upset about last night. The memory rushed back, hazy but just as embarrassing.
“I’m sorry about what I said on chat.”
“No worries.” Kane bent at the waist and grabbed my duffel bag. “Are you doing better now?”
“I’m not wasted anymore. Better is a relative term.”
“Of course.” Isaiah squeezed my fingers. “Is that all you have?”
“I kind of walked out without grabbing anything.” My laptop and purse hung from my shoulder. It was tough to let those leave my side. I’d have to go back to James’s for my stuff eventually. It would wait, though. At least this conversation was comfortable. Any anxiety I had about meeting them in person evaporated.
“I’m going to grab us breakfast.” Isaiah gestured toward the counter. “You two get loaded into the Explorer. Do you have everything you need?”
“Coffee. Clothes. Knights in shining armor. I’m good.” My smile felt genuine for the first time since yesterday. The gnawing hurt and frustration of James cheating on me hovered at the back of my mind, but it was easy enough to ignore if I focused on everything else.
Like the fact Kane smelled amazing—woodsy and clean—when he rested a palm on my lower back and pointed me toward the car. “You should hook up, once we get there.” Teasing filled his voice. “Get that dick out of your system.”
I adored that this was his version of trying to cheer me up. Especially since it echoed what I’d been thinking last night. Of course, it was a drunk, vindictive idea I’d never follow through on, but it was fun to joke about. “Maybe. Maybe I’ll find a guy, or even two, to prove how much better off I am.”
He set my bag in the back and cradled my laptop it in a more secure section, before turning back to me. He studied my face for a moment, expression unreadable. “Exactly.”
We hit the road a few minutes later. Their drive from Chicago yesterday had only been about eight hours, and today would be the longest leg of the trip. The hope was to hit Utah before we were too tired to continue for the night. If we swapped out drivers, it wouldn’t be an issue. We could drive straight through, with all three of us here, but the competition didn’t start for three more days, so there was no reason to exhaust ourselves before we got there.
The banter flowed more easily than I expected, and I found myself sinking into the casual conversation. It was just like being online, but now I could see the way they moved their hands when they spoke and hear the inflections in their voices that the microphone muffled. I leaned back against the seat and closed my eyes, letting the July sun warm my face and chase away the last of my hangover.
“Andi.” Someone shook my shoulder, and Isaiah’s voice burrowed into my thoughts. “Wake up, Dee.”
I pried open my eyes, and shut them again when the sun hit them. My neck ached, and so did my throat. I pushed myself upright and braved looking again.
Isaiah sat next to me, brows furrowed in concern. He traced a thumb across my cheek. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
“Of course.” The words came out raspier than I intended. “Why?”
“You fell asleep while we were talking.”
“Oh, crap. I’m so sorry.” They were going to think I was a social moron if I kept doing things like drunkenly throwing myself at them and passing out during conversations.
“It’s okay. I have a feeling you didn’t sleep much last night. But we stopped, to give me an excuse to check on you.”
Geez. I rubbed my face. I’d been dreaming about… I wasn’t sure. “I’m okay.” The last thing I wanted was him staring at half-asleep, bleary-eyed me. “Where are we?”
“Denver. Are you sure?”
“Of course.” I forced myself to smile and not drag up whatever was shadowy and hovering at the back of my mind. “I need to wash my face, and stuff.”
He nodded toward a diner connected to the gas station. “We’ll be in there. Come find us.”
“Be there soon.” I climbed from the SUV and made my way toward the restroom sign. Grief nudged the back of my thoughts, and I pushed it aside. It was a fucked up dream, combined with hangover residue. Nothing more. And once I got some food in my stomach, it would stop protesting and telling me otherwise.
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