“How’s my favorite techie?”
“I’ve had better days,” I said. “Anyway, I thought James was your favorite techie.”
She smirked and leaned against the table. “Yeah, well, he’s getting there. I’m not completely convinced he’s not still pining over you.”
I resisted the urge to roll my eyes. I really hoped James had moved on, and Simone absolutely had my blessing. From his mop of inky black hair to his muscled sleeve of ink, James was her dream man. The only problem was he’d read all the signs wrong when Blake and I had been apart. Or maybe he’d read them right, knowing I was in desperate need of a friend, of anything or anyone to fill the void that being away from Blake had created. I hadn’t known until too late that nothing would ever fill that void except for the man who shared my bed now.
“I don’t think you have to worry about that, Simone.”
She frowned slightly. “You guys never hooked up did you?”
“No.” My eyes went wide at the suggestion. “God, no.”
She laughed. “Relax. It was just a question.”
Except it wasn’t. It was an unwelcome reminder of the indiscretion that James and I had shared. Regret washed over me every time I thought of that weak moment outside the office. At the time, I had been convinced Blake was up to no good with Risa, not to mention his ex-girlfriend Sophia who had been ruthless in her pursuit of him. Everything was mixed up and confused. I didn’t know what the future held until I found myself in James’s arms, swept up in a kiss that quickly faded into the cold reality that if there would be any man in my future, Blake would be that man.
“What’s wrong, hon? You look wiped out.”
I looked up. “I am. Just work stuff. Long story.”
“Want to give me the cliff notes tonight? You can break it down into layman’s terms for me over a cocktail. You know I only understand half the shit you guys say anyway.”
I gave a weak laugh. “I’m going out of town with Blake tonight, but maybe we could grab a quick drink before we leave. Do you care if he comes?”
“’Course not. Now, what can I get you?”
I ordered and took my time with my food. Most days I’d rush through lunch to get back to work, but today I watched unhurried as people passed by the windows of the cafe, carrying on with their lives. A story hid behind every face, and I couldn’t help but wonder if I could ever trust someone outside of our team again. Naively and against Blake’s warnings, I’d trusted Max—enough to consider giving him ownership in my company before Blake funded the business instead. And Risa... she’d been hungry, eager to learn and take on all the responsibility that I desperately needed to delegate, only to use all of it against me today.
I fought the tears that threatened. If I’d let them free, they’d be full of anger at having let myself learn this lesson the hard way.
I scanned the bar for Simone. Not finding her, I chose a seat beside an empty stool. I flagged down the bartender, a little too eager for a cool drink to wash away the bullshit of my day.
As I waited for my drink, the five o’clock news played out in silence on the screens above the bar. My heart thumped as Mark’s face appeared, followed by footage of Daniel, presumably on the campaign trail. Along the bottom of the screen, the segment was captioned “MacLeod death still under investigation.” A sick feeling writhed in my gut. I wanted that chapter closed maybe as much as Daniel did now. I couldn’t imagine what was still in question after Mark’s apparent suicide. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know either. I was about to ask the bartender to turn up the sound when someone came up beside me.
I jumped slightly only to find James there offering me a tentative smile. He was wearing one of his graphic T-shirts that seemed to perfectly fit the tattooed man beneath.
“Oh,” I said. “Hi.”
He raised his eyebrows. We hadn’t really been alone, or remotely one-on-one for a long time. Work had carried on as usual, but we hadn’t talked things through the way we should have. Everything that had been left unsaid weighed on me sometimes. I’d been too wiped out from the drama of reuniting with Blake to really make time to sort it all out with James. Instead it lingered awkwardly between us, in the past but also never far from my thoughts when he was around.
“I wasn’t expecting to see you here, sorry,” I said, trying to excuse my awkwardness.
“Simone didn’t tell you I was coming?”
I shook my head, hiding my surprised expression with a slow sip of my drink. I wondered where this was all going with Simone.
I shifted uncomfortably, as if I could feel his gaze on me, studying my reaction. Did he want me to be jealous? To show me that he’d moved on? If so, all I wanted to convey was how happy I was that someone amazing like Simone held his interest. I hated to believe I’d led him on in any way, encouraged feelings I had no right to encourage in my completely fucked up state of mind weeks ago.
“How are things with you two? Getting serious?” I avoided his eyes, as if that could hide the fact that I was clearly fishing for confirmation.
He laughed quietly and shoved a hand through his wavy black hair, pushing it back away from his face as he stared down at the beer the bartender had just delivered.
“Sorry if I’m not really up for talking girls with you, Erica. It just seems a little...strange, I guess, in light of everything.”
“You’re right, I’m sorry.” God, could this get any worse?
He smiled, disarming the moment a little. “It’s fine. Anyway, Simone’s your friend, right? I’m sure she’ll give you the dirt.”
I returned his smile, a little relieved. “No, I don’t really ask her about it. It’s not my business.”
“Does she know about...us?” He motioned between us, that small gesture signifying weeks of tension and dancing around an unexpected attraction that had cropped up.
I shook my head. “I mean, kind of, but she knows I’m with Blake.”
“Right.” He exhaled.
His relief gave me a little hope that he was more than a little interested in Simone. Maybe he didn’t want her knowing about our little moment any more than I wanted Blake to. The prospect of Blake knowing roiled my stomach. He was jealous enough of James.
“How are you doing lately? You seemed pretty upset today.”
James had a way of picking up on my moods, no matter how carefully I tried to hide them behind my flimsy partition. It would do no good to hide how I really felt or to pretend all was well.