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 sighed and took another drink.
Once upon a time, his gaze would’ve been 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.
But he could see she was happier now than she’d ever been with him. He’d tried for weeks to figure out why it bugged him. They weren’t meant to be. But that night, the light haze of alcohol offered him a unique clarity.
If it had taken her a couple of decades to figure out who she belonged with, then he’d wasted every on-and-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—Archer’s best friend since childhood and Riley’s fiancé—broke away from the group and crossed the hardwood which covered the entire open living room and kitchen. He stopped on the other side of the island, glanced over his shoulder at Riley, and then back at Archer, giving him a half smile. “Thanks for the party. I know it hurts, but I still appreciate it.”
Archer set his bottle aside. He wasn’t in the mood to get into 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 just trying not to dwell. “I mean it when I say I’m okay with this.”
“Hey, boys.” Tori stepped up next to Archer at the island. He’d met Tori through his sister. She and Jen had been in the same sorority years ago, and when Jen introduced them, they’d 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 glanced 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 turned and made his way back to the small crowd on the other side of the room.
Archer resumed his vigil holding up the counter, not interested in another drink. 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.
Her fingers traced the white suede choker with a silver locket hanging from it. The choker–which he hadn’t seen her without since she’d gotten it–was new. The locket was old; she’d had it since Zane gave it to her in high school.
Maybe that should’ve been another indicator that she was meant to be with Zane. Maybe if Archer could figure out why it wasn’t him, he could do things better when he found the right woman.
“…and I think I’m going to see if bleach really does take the color out of Renaissance velvet.” Tori’s comment penetrated his wandering thoughts, and he turned to face her.
“Wait, what?” Archer blinked and stared at her.
Her full lips pulled into a smile. “Just wondering if you were listening.”
He shook his head to push away the past and focused on Tori. “I’m sorry. What?”
She brushed a long strand of dark brown hair off her forehead, tucking it into the loose bun on top of her head. “Don’t worry about it. I asked if you were going to spend the entire night staring.”
Guess I wasn’t as subtle as I thought. He locked his gaze on hers. “Why? Would you rather I stare at you?” Now that he mentioned it, it wasn’t a bad 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.
Pink spread through her cheeks. She shifted her weight from one foot to the other, eyes never leaving his. “I’m not doing anything worth watching.”
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, tongue running over her bottom lip. She took a step closer. The shrill ring of her phone cut through the remaining space between them. 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?”
She pursed her lips, her brows furrowed together, and she pulled her BlackBerry from its holster. “I have to.”
She grabbed two bottles of beer by their necks, spun on her heel, and wandered toward the back of the apartment, voice fading as she disappeared into Archer’s guest room, closing the door behind her.
He shook his head in disgust and irritation. Most of it was directed at the people she worked for; they expected too much from her, more than was reasonable for anyone. Part of the issue was she gave in without protest. Oh well, her choice.
Archer raked his fingers through his hair as he pushed away from the island. He should join the party, be a good host and all that. He found an empty chair in the circle of ten or so people. He picked the farthest seat from Riley and Zane, which was maybe twelve feet since it was a small gathering.
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 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.”
Her cheeks were flushed. 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 many times Archer and Riley had dated and the failed marriage proposal, when they were happy being friends?
That past didn’t seem to be in his future. Within a few moments they 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, legs kicking back and forth.
He joined her. “The work phone call or the Riley thing?”
She shrugged. “Either. Both. Can we not talk about work?”
Right. Because he’d tell her she needed to stand up for herself 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 just…What’s Zane doing right that I’m doing wrong? What if I make the same mistake again?”
She knocked back another swallow of beer and then wobbled on the counter for a moment before righting herself. She hadn’t been that drunk when she’d taken the call.
He had to know, “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 counter, but nothing sloshed inside. “I’m sorry. It’s true, you’ve got a few less-than desirable traits in common, but for the most part, you’re actually pretty different. Everyone can see that. Who knows what made the two of them work? I sure don’t. Maybe Zane’s just 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 just fine.”
She shrugged. “I’m not saying that’s the issue. It’s just one option. It’s not like I’ve ever kissed either of you, but she has.”
This conversation wasn’t getting him anywhere. “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.”
Tori straightened, some of the fog evaporating from her expression. “Prove it.”
Archer’s brows rose. He was just wounded enough to rise to the challenge. Besides, the flush on 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.”
Half of her mouth pulled up in a smile, the other half turned down. “I’m not propositioning you, and you’re not taking advantage of me.” The slur was fading from her voice. “I’m just saying, you’re not allowed to be the judge of your own kissing. If you’re so sure it’s not the issue…or maybe you’re not as certain as you’re acting.”
The taunt wasn’t what pushed aside the last of his restraint, but it helped. The thing that broke him was the way her lip caught between her bottom teeth. And the heave of her chest each time she inhaled. 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. She tilted her head closer. Her brown eyes were wide and dark—almost black in the dim light—and he couldn’t look away.
He rested his other hand at the back of her neck, holding her head steady, and pressed his lips to hers. His blood roared in response. She whimpered, and her lips parted. His tongue darted 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 stepped closer, pressing between her legs. Her hands rested on his chest, hot even through his shirt. Every time she touched him, his pulse increased another notch. Her knees locked around his waist, and a low groan tore from his throat.
They broke apart, both of them gasping. Her cheeks were bright red, and her fingers danced over her swollen lips. Her voice was breathy, “Yeah, the kissing isn’t the problem.”
She hopped to the floor and draped her arms around his neck. When she rubbed her body against him, his cock throbbed in response. 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. Her nails raked 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 backed away with a laugh, hand flying to her chest. “Holy shit.”
A car backfiring. That’s all it was. But he knew 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 beneath his waist.
He moved next to her, took a deep breath, and rested a hand on the small of her back. “You need some sleep.”
She shook her head. “I’m fine.” But it took her several seconds to stand straight.
“Come on.” He steered her toward the guest bedroom.
She flopped onto the mattress, tilting to the side before sitting upright. It was a good thing they’d stopped. She was already going to have enough to regret in the morning, hangover-wise. He knelt at her feet and pulled off her socks and shoes, setting 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 that night, erasing the last of his lingering arousal. He shook his head—unable to reply—helped her lay down, and then pulled the blanket over her. Her eyes snapped 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?
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