I let myself inside, tossed my bag onto the bench beside my door and collapsed face down on my sofa.
I was somewhere in between sleep and wakefulness when I heard my phone ringing from inside my bag.
I scrambled off the couch and answered on the fourth ring. Not surprisingly, it was Ashlyn.
“I have some crazy big news!” she shrieked. I shifted the phone from my ear, hoping to preserve some of what was left of my hearing.
“So spill it, doll.”
She giggled with excitement. “Oh, it’s too good. I can’t just tell you over the phone. Meet me and Aiden for drinks tonight. This is something we need to celebrate.”
“Okay. Where?” To be honest the distraction of getting out for a drink sounded good, and her giddiness was contagious. I could certainly muster up some energy for my best friend, after all.
We made plans to meet up in thirty minutes at a swanky club downtown. It was the same place we went to celebrate last term when Ashlyn’s thesis proposal was approved, and the place where she first she introduced Aiden to others, rather than keeping him all to herself in her apartment all the time. Of course, that was back when he was still known as Logan.
I peeled off my clothes and stood undressed inside my walk-in closet. I rifled through the hanging blouses and pencil skirts, but nothing seemed right. I settled on a pair of black skinny jeans and a simple black tank top, along with the tallest pair of heels I owned.
I stood in front of the mirror and twisted my hair up into a sleek bun. I hadn’t meant to dress in all black, but I supposed it fit my mood. I added lipstick and blush to wake up my look and grabbed a small leopard-print clutch, then I was on my way.
Several minutes later, I was elbowing my way through a wall-to-wall crowd at Club Aqua cursing Ashlyn’s name and regretting my decision to come out.
I should have just made her tell me her big news on the phone. I was pretty sure it had to do with the fact that her thesis was now finalized. She’d reworked it over the last year and had removed all traces of Aiden’s case from it. She’d come clean to Professor Clancy about their relationship and explained that she no longer felt right about mixing business and pleasure, so to speak. She didn’t ever want her professionalism or judgment called into question, so she spent the last year reworking her whole project. But it’d paid off. I was sure that was what tonight’s celebration was about. She’d already had a few articles published in small journals about amnesia and was really making a name for herself. It was cool to see, but that didn’t mean I needed to be out right now, getting groped and having drinks spilled on my beautiful shoes when all I felt like doing was curling up on the couch.
After passing through a crowd of girls surrounding a bridezilla—complete with a veil and tiara—who was shrieking like a banshee, I finally spotted Ashlyn, waving to me from across the room. Her smile was a welcome sight and I made a beeline straight for her.
Over the past few weeks, we’d talked a few times about the car accident we’d witnessed and Ashlyn couldn’t erase it from her mind any better than I could, so I was glad to see her looking happy and relaxed tonight. I let the tension fall away as she pulled me into her arms for a hug. I patted her back with one arm. I was never much of a hugger.
When I pulled back, Ashlyn thrust her left hand into my face, a large diamond nearly poking out my eye. “We’re engaged!” she shouted above the music.
I fixated on the ring, in utter shock and disbelief. It was a beautiful round-cut diamond, sparkling and elegant, big enough without being flashy, and set in a band studded with tiny diamonds all around it. I sucked in a breath of air despite the crushing weight I felt on my chest, and knowing I was about to burst into tears, I pulled her in for a hug, holding her longer than necessary in order to pull myself together. Ashlyn pulled back out of my arms, mistaking my tears for happy ones. I was supposed to be happy for her, right? So why did I feel like someone had just punched me in the stomach?
“Oh, sweetie! I know, isn’t it great?”
I nodded and wiped at my eyes. “Congratulations, Ashlyn.” I plastered on a smile. “Where’s the lucky guy?” She grabbed my hand and led me through the crowded bar. I couldn’t help but notice the ring felt like a bulky barrier between our hands. That would take some getting used to.
Aiden was standing at the bar, with a glass of amber-colored liquor in his hand, and he was grinning like a damn fool. “Congrats, bud.” I hugged him as well, lifting up on my toes and snaking an arm around his shoulder.
“Are you sure you’re okay with this?” His warm breath brushed past my ear.
He was either more perceptive than I realized, or he was remembering the fact that I didn’t approve of him dating Ashlyn in the beginning. “Yes. She’s happy, and that’s all I care about. And despite busting your balls early on, I know you’re good for her.” I slid up to the bar as they shared another hug. I needed a drink. Preferably something strong.
“Wine? Champagne?” Aiden asked.
I shook my head. “Double vodka soda,” I shouted to the red-haired girl behind the bar.
I took the drink with shaking hands and tossed the thin black straw aside to knock back a healthy sip.
I tried to enjoy the rest of the night, celebrate with my friends who were happy, in love, and newly engaged, but despite the upbeat atmosphere and the bottomless drinks the bartender seemed to be serving, it all felt hollow somehow. The distinct feeling that someone was watching me compounded my discomfort and caused me to scan the sea of bodies mingling behind me. My heart pounded in my chest as my gaze met his.
He was dressed in jeans and a fitted black T-shirt with the word Security printed across the chest in white block lettering. I wanted to run across the room to him, to fling my arms around his neck and inhale his comforting scent, but I stayed put, balanced on the stool, afraid that if I tried to stand, my legs wouldn’t support my weight.
The house music thumped in time with my heartbeat, and I began to feel lightheaded. Cohen’s eyes traced the length of my body, from my heel-clad feet dangling from the stool, up to my hand circling the glass I was holding. It was as though he could see right through me, to everything underneath, everything I was thinking. Everything I desperately wanted.
I realized I’d been holding my breath, waiting for him to come to me when he pressed the device in his ear, listening to something only he could hear and he set off toward the back of the club. I began breathing again once Cohen disappeared from sight. I glanced at Ashlyn to see if she’d noticed him, but she was happily chatting away with Aiden, obviously oblivious. For a moment I wondered if I’d imagined him, but I was certain I hadn’t. I’d felt his hunger for me from across the room, and my body had visibly responded, breaking out in chill bumps despite the heat of the room.
Later, when I’d followed Ashlyn to the dance floor, I’d begun to think I had imagined the whole Cohen-spotting, as there’d been no trace of him again. Aiden stole Ashlyn away from me but I continued to sway to the music, oblivious to everything but the thumping bass and my own heartbeat.
It felt good to let everything fall away, to feel the music and forget everything else. A warm hand on my shoulder snapped my eyes open. For a second I thought it could be Cohen, but the guy looking back at me couldn’t have been more different from Cohen if he tried. He was sporting a colorful sleeve of tattoos that covered his entire left arm, and a small barbell was pierced through one eyebrow. Mr. Eyebrow Stud smiled, and rested his hands on my waist, following my movements. I placed my hands on his shoulders and let him guide me. He was pressed close, warm and sexy with his bad-boy looks, and I was drunk. I took a deep breath and let it out slowly, turning myself over to the moment. His hands skimmed along my hips, holding me close and moving with me. My pulse drummed anxiously in my neck at the thought of Cohen spotting us.
I shimmied against him in time with the music and thought about how effortless it would be to flirt my way into his pants, to get him to come home with me. My brain ran through all of this in a matter of seconds, but I kept my face impassive and aloof. It would be so easy to engage in nameless, faceless, emotionless sex with this guy, but I knew that would only make me feel worse. I knew it wasn’t what I really wanted. He isn’t Cohen, a little voice inside my head pointed out unnecessarily.
When I opened my eyes, Cohen was back, watching me from across the room. Our gazes collided and held. Then his eyes drifted down to Mr. Eyebrow Stud’s hands gripping my hips and he frowned, his eyebrows knitting together. Seeing Cohen when all my defenses were down was wreaking havoc on my willpower. I wanted nothing more than to go to him. To touch him, taste him. His icy-blue gaze remained locked on mine, his expression unreadable, and I fought the urge to cross the room.
He pressed a finger to the earpiece again, listening intently and set off for the bar. Even as I danced with another man, my eyes followed Cohen’s every moment, the tense way he moved, the stiff set of his shoulders. He reached the bar, and another guy in a black security shirt. He and Cohen exchanged a few words, and then Cohen took hold of a blonde girl near them, steering her by the arm off the stool and across the crowded room, parting the sea of bodies for them as he moved.
He walked down a back hallway, guiding the girl in front of him forward with the hand at the base of her spine until they disappeared from sight. My imagination ran wild, picturing her doing to him what I did just a few weekends ago. The thought made me sick and then cold, hard realization smacked me in the face. This was just what Cohen felt like seeing Stu leaving my house. God, I was a bitch. I had no one to blame for this mess but myself. Well, fate played a hand, too. But she was cold and hard and nasty, and that would never change—no matter how hard I wanted otherwise.
The liquor in my stomach churned violently and suddenly, I had to get away. I stumbled across the dance floor, squeezing past bodies as I went, fighting my way to the restroom.
I was nearly there—alone in a back hallway when a single word pulled me to a halt.
Cohen closed the distance between us, and as soon as he was near, all of my resolve disappeared. The drinks had caught up with me, and that, coupled with Cohen’s presence and familiar scent, was fucking with my head. “You work here?” I asked, leaning closer to him, tracing the lettering stretched across his T-shirt with a fingertip.
The girl he was escorting was nowhere in sight, and I realized with a twinge of shame that he was just doing his job, probably depositing an over-beveraged patron into the restroom.
His hands darted out to steady me, gripping my hips as I wobbled in the impossibly high heels, and I clutched his biceps for support. “I thought I told you I worked security at a club.” His words were hollow, and efficient, like he wanted to get this conversation over as soon as possible.
I nodded, remembering that he had. I just hadn’t known it was this club. This place was known to be a meat market. I was sure drunk girls were constantly throwing themselves at him. I pushed the errant thought away. He wasn’t mine, and I didn’t care. But I did. Even as I fought it, I knew I did.
“What were you doing… I saw you bring that girl back here…” I stopped myself, knowing I was coming off as jealous when I had no right to be, and that there was probably a perfectly reasonable explanation.
His eyes studied mine, searching out my hidden meaning. “Were you worried I was back here fucking her?”
His words stung, and I looked down, unable to respond.
“You can let some random guy put his hands all over you out on the dance floor, and sleep with Professor Gibson but I can’t interact with females where I work?” His words were bitter and harsh, but his voice remained calm, too calm, and low, intended for only me to hear. He ran his hands over his face, his frustration evident. “Christ, Eliza. What do you want from me?” He pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes. “I’m tired of your head games. You need to figure out what the fuck you want.”
I swallowed down my nerves. “I know,” I said, though my voice came out breathy and unsure.
He frowned and shook his head. He leaned in toward me, closing me in against the wall, his height causing him to tower over me. “So what is it then…?”
I didn’t know exactly what he was asking, but I had an idea. He was inquiring about us. I looked up into his eyes, and all my resolve softened. “Cohen, please…” I breathed, barely a whisper and laid my head on his chest.
He pulled me securely to him and held me in place. We didn’t say anything for several moments, just stood together, the beating of our hearts thumping in rhythm.
“Ashlyn and Aiden got engaged,” I said, meeting his eyes.
He nodded. “I knew. He told me he planned to do it.”
Cohen’s brow creased. “Is that what’s got you upset?” His thumb skimmed along my jaw, as if to coax a response from me, but I stayed quiet. “Eliza… You are a mystery to me.”
I stared up into icy-blue eyes that held so much kindness and beauty in one perfect package. Maybe I was screwed up in the head. I trusted that Cohen wouldn’t hurt me, but it was life’s circumstances that worried me, and I was pretty sure Cohen wouldn’t want me once he found out the truth.
His eyes stayed on mine, looking worried. “You can’t be with me, but you can grind up against some guy out there, huh?” He placed his hands against my shoulders, holding me in place to monitor my reaction.
Watching him look me over, like he was inspecting me for damages was infuriating. I wasn’t his to protect, to look over. Then why did a small part of me enjoy the feeling? The way Cohen was always teasing me and his damn nicknames—I’d tried to convince myself that it all grated against my nerves, that I didn’t like it…but that was a lie. Maybe I was glutton for pain—I attracted what I couldn’t have just to torture myself.