“Nice to meet you.” I smile, and her eyes move between us before she focuses on Evan once more.

“You got your girl back?” She smiles a soft motherly smile that makes me like her even more.

“Pulled my head out of my ass,” Evan replies, and she laughs then shakes her head.

“Kirk’s gonna be happy,” she mumbles, still smiling.

“Where is the old man?”

“Home, he was at the bar late. He should be here in a couple hours, if you two want to stick around. If not, you can ride over to the house. I’m sure he’s up puttering around the garage, working on his bike.”

“We’ll be here for a while,” Evan says, and she smiles and pats his cheek again. I know he and his mom are closer than he is with the rest of his family, and by close, I mean they talk, but his mom isn’t around unless she wants something. So, I’m happy to see he’s built relationships with people who are healthy and normal, relationships that are two-sided, where he’s not the only person doing all the work.

“Here.” Colton slides a beer bottle in front of me and mug of beer in front of Evan, and then leans against the bar, crossing his arms over his chest.

“So, I take it you’re good?” Evan asks, looking back toward the office, where Gia has disappeared along with Colton’s mom.

“Couldn’t be better. Well, it could be, but Rome wasn’t built in a day.” He shrugs, grinning, and Evan laughs, shaking his head.

“That, I understand.” Evan looks at me, and Colton’s grin turns into a small smile.

“Man, it’s really fucking good to see you,” Colton says quietly, the words spoken with a deeper meaning than just seeing his friend after so long. They’re spoken in a way to where I know he understands, more than most, that had Evan not gone back to check in the house, he wouldn’t be sitting here right now.

“You too, brother.” They hold each other’s gaze for a long time before each of them clears their throat and looks away. Leaning into Evan, I press a kiss to the underside of his jaw that is clenched. His eyes drop to mine and his face softens, along with his jaw.

Are you okay? I mouth, and he nods then presses a kiss to my forehead. The words I love you are stuck in the back of my throat as I sit back and take a sip of my beer. I feel so torn between the need to tell him how I feel and the need to hold on to those words. My gut actually aches every time I think about saying the three words out loud, as though by saying them, I’ll wake up and realize all of this was just a dream.

“You okay, baby?” Evan asks against my ear, pulling me from my thoughts.

“Yeah, sorry, I spaced out,” I mutter, then my eyes go to Colton and I notice him watching me closely. I give him a smile, and he returns one, but it doesn’t quite reach his eyes this time.

Oh well.

Taking another sip of beer, I lean closer to Evan and listen to him and Colton talk, and occasionally laugh or smile when they tell me stories about things they did together or things that happened when they were deployed. When Colton’s dad arrives and introduces himself, I look around. I didn’t even notice how much time had passed or how full the bar had gotten. There must be at least a hundred people here now, if not more.

“I’ll be back,” I tell Evan, sliding off my barstool.

“’Kay, baby, come right back.”

Rolling my eyes at that, I mutter, “Yes, sir,” under my breath, and his eyes darken at my words. Before I know what’s happening, I’m back in his grasp and his mouth is close to my ear.

“I’ll be sure to put that into play tonight.” His words vibrate against my ear, sending a shiver down my spine and a tingle between my legs.

“Ev.” My eyes slide closed when his teeth nip my earlobe, making me clutch onto his shirt at his ribs so I don’t fall on my face.

“Go and come back to me.” He grins, looking smug.

“Tease,” I whisper, leaving his side, hearing his laugher behind me as I head toward the restroom. Walking into the girls’ bathroom, I find Gia is standing and waiting for the one and only stall with her arms crossed over her chest, glaring at a tall brunette who’s washing her hands.

“Hey.” I smile when her eyes come to me.

“Hey.” Her face softens, and then she moves back as the stall opens up and a girl with long blonde hair stumbles out, giggling when she bumps into Gia.

“We really need an employee bathroom,” she mumbles, looking between the girl at the sink and the girl who just came out of the stall.

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