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Authors: Autumn Markus

Tags: #Romance, #General, #Fiction

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BOOK: Cocktails & Dreams
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“Well, what did you think?” Conor asked as he flopped down beside Nicholas.

“Think about what?”

“About the state of global warming.” Conor shook his head. “About applying for med school in Cali, dumbass. That’s what we went out there for, right?” He brushed invisible dust off his shirt, avoiding Nick’s eyes. “Do I need to look for a new roommate?”

Nicholas spotted a landmine ahead and decided to tread lightly. His decision to pursue med school had precipitated the only real argument that the friends had ever had, especially when Nick decided to look outside of Boston. Conor’s insane self-confidence didn’t stretch to his education, and he scoffed at anyone returning to college at twenty-seven, especially himself. One thing led to another, and soon they’d been shouting in each other’s faces. Eventually they calmed down, and an uneasy truce existed on the subject. Now it seemed that Con was ready to pick at the scab.

“Not quite yet, Con,” Nick replied carefully. “I just applied; there’s no guarantee that I’ll get accepted. But, yeah, if I do get in, I’ll go. I need to do this.”

Conor looked up at the ceiling with a disbelieving expression. “Like the son of William Cooper wouldn’t get in wherever he wanted. The schools will be fighting over you.”

Nick’s tone showed his irritation. “That’s not fair, Conor. I’ve only applied to the one school, and I’ve never used my father’s name or reputation to get anything. He’s the surgeon, not me. The fact that you would say that just pisses me off royally.”

Conor seemed to deflate. “Sorry, man,” he mumbled. “You know I didn’t mean it.” He heaved himself off the couch and started to pull his case into his bedroom. Without turning around, he asked, “When will you find out?”

“Probably May. If I get in, I’ll be moving in June or July to get settled before school starts.”

Conor just nodded his head and continued into his room, shutting the door quietly.

After a couple of days of sulking, Conor’s natural good humor started to return, though Nicholas saw him with an expression of uncharacteristic seriousness more than once. Work kept both men as busy as it always had, and the months until Nicholas could reasonably expect to hear from UC Davis sped by.

The only breaks in Nicholas’s routine were occasional visits to his parents and dreams about his mystery girl. Those only got more frustrating and frequent as time went by. Tantalizing glimpses of her filled his nights: the slope of a breast, the sweep of her inner thigh, the sweet curves of her waist and neck. It was frustrating, to say the least, and it became harder and harder for him to write her off as a blip in his sexual history. It became a relief to go to work, and the more exhausting his day, the better.

Nick was crashed on the couch after a particularly brutal shift when Conor’s booming voice dragged him from a particularly hot dream of his mystery girl in the shower.

“Mail, horndog!” Conor dropped an envelope on Nick’s chest and loped into the kitchen, nearly banging his head on the lintel.

Opening one eye, Nicholas tried to focus on the writing on the front of the envelope.
University of California at Davis
. Oh. He slowly sat up and opened the envelope:
Dear Mr. Cooper, We are pleased to inform you…

Conor’s tension filled voice came from the kitchen. “So?”

“Yeah, Con, I’m in.”

He waited for the explosion and was surprised when Conor just said, “I figured. Wanna grab some dinner?”

“Sure!” Nicholas was ready to agree with almost anything if he didn’t have to renew their argument or deal with a sulking roommate.

After a quick burger and a couple of beers at a sports bar, they walked out to look over the pond on the Common. Nick took a deep breath, realizing that he would miss this. Still, things always changed. He started ticking off the arrangements that had to be made in preparation for moving cross-country.

Conor sat down on a bench, stretched his gangly legs out in front of him, and pulled the collar of his sherpa-lined leather jacket closer to his neck. Even in May, the breeze across the water was cold. Nick sat beside him, sensing his friend had something to say.

“So. You’re really going to move to granola central, huh?” Conor snorted laughter. “That shocked the hell out of me. I was expecting beaches and babes, not…
that
.”

“You know how sexy I think Birkenstocks with socks are,” Nicholas joked. “Why else would I move to the California version of the Pacific Northwest?” He leaned against the back of the bench and stretched his legs out in front of him, as well. Shoving his hands in his jacket pockets, he waited for the next volley.

Conor snickered. “Well, maybe you’ll connect with the hottie again. Get rid of those fuckin’ blue balls.”

“Not likely.” Nicholas pushed back a lingering memory of gentle hands. “We were in San Fran, remember? Different town, and not even close to anywhere I went to school. She could be from anywhere, Con. That’s one ship that has sailed, I’m afraid.”

“Never say never, man. What was the chance you’d meet someone you knew from your past in the first place?” Conor asked, nudging Nicholas’s shoulder with his own. He looked down at his hands as he jammed them in his jacket pockets. “So you’re planning to leave a couple of months early, to get set up, right?”

“Yeah. I have to give my notice and get my crap together, but it will be fairly soon. I won’t leave you in the lurch—”

Conor cut Nicholas off, pulling an envelope out of his pocket and shoving it at Nick while still looking down. “I figure I’m never going to play for the Celtics anyway, even if I do look the part, so would you mind some company?”

A grin engulfed Nick’s face as he pulled out and read the letter inside the UC Davis envelope.

“Holy shit, Conor! You did it! About fucking time! When did you do this?”

Conor stopped fighting his own grin and let it out in all its glory. “I finally got tired of you bitching at me, so I sent out some apps. My letter came today when yours did.”

“But how—I mean, I know you’re fuckin’ smart, but—”

“Remember all those ‘extra shifts’ a while back?” Conor looked a little sheepish and shook his head. “Brush up courses and testing. I actually did really well in high school. People look at this body—” he gestured the length of his frame, and it was all Nick could do to hold back a laugh at his friend’s obvious pride in his body “—and expect dumb, but I’m not.”

“Hell, I know that, Con.”

“I know I could have gone around here,” Conor said quickly, “but I really liked what we saw this winter. Was it too chickish to apply where you’re going? I’ve never lived anywhere besides Boston, you know?”

Conor suddenly looked like a little boy, the cocky light that usually brightened his plain face momentarily dimmed with his uncertainty, nervous for Nicholas’s reaction.

Nick slugged him on the shoulder. “Hell, no! It’ll be great! You can help me with my mystery woman search—at least you might recognize her clothed.” He nudged Conor. “And I can’t imagine your taste for nasty blondes will go unfulfilled, even in Hippie Heaven. It
is
California, after all.”

A sly grin crossed Conor’s face. “I’m counting on that, cupcake.” He turned to Nicholas, and they laughed like a couple of loons.

“So?” Nicholas asked.

Conor grinned, leaning against the bench back and cracking his knuckles. “California, here we come.”

Chapter Three

J
ENA
S
ANK
D
OWN
G
RATEFULLY
on the hard bench, clutching her Starbucks cup. As morally opposed as she was to spending four dollars on one cup of coffee, she needed the caffeine buzz more and more as the day dragged on and her sleepless night caught up with her.

“Travis,” she whined, “are you
positive
you’re a guy? How many stores do we have to go into before you find the ‘perfect jeans’?” Making exaggerated air quotes as she uttered Travis’s ridiculous phrase amused
her,
at least.

Travis snorted. “What do you do? Just grab the first pair you see in your size?” He looked horrified as Jena’s face turned bright red. “You do, don’t you? Jena, Jena, Jena…”

Jena muttered something with the word “mangina” in it and pulled herself up from the mall bench with a sigh. “Let’s just get this over with.”

“Sit back down for a minute.” Jena complied, and Travis settled beside her. He started in with a lecturing tone. “Jena, ask yourself this: have you ever seen me be alone when I didn’t
want
to be alone?” She shook her head, waiting for his point as a slow smile began to spread across Travis’s face. “It’s the lure of the perfect jeans, I swear. Between my mom, four sisters, and
you,
it’s been pointed out repeatedly to me that the ass counts on a man. Perfect jeans, equals perfect ass, equals never lonely.” He seemed smugly satisfied by his logic.

Jena skeptically studied his carefully tousled mane of dark blond hair streaked with honey, his chiseled features and flawless skin with its carefully cultivated growth of stubble. “And you don’t think your perfect face and perfect hair have anything to do with it?”

He was complacent. “Sure, once the girl looks there.” He grinned. “I just want to make sure I keep her attention long enough to get that far.”

Jena slapped his head while pulling him up from the bench. “You are a sick, sick man, Travis Walker, and a danger to women everywhere.”

Travis wrapped his arm around her and kissed the top of her head as they continued down the mall. “It’s not my fault you’re up half the night, Jen. Those dreams must be something.”

“Oh, my God! Was I noisy again?” Jena felt her face flame, remembering the particularly vivid dream of the night before.

“Jena, sweet, you never shut up. You should just look the guy up, girl. I can practically assure you that he would be flattered as hell if you did. Especially when I tell him about all the noise you’ve been making.” He waggled his eyebrows at her.

“Exactly why it’s never gonna happen, doofus. Besides, I don’t even know where he lives now.”

“One word: Facebook. Or is that two words? Fuck, I don’t know! My point is that it’s not impossible, sugar. This has been going on for months now. You officially passed the fuckdrunk stage a month or two ago, hon, and now you’re into obsession. Or love.”

He looked at Jena slyly.

She shoved him toward the nearest store, and headed for a chair at the edge of the food court. “Go find your panty-dropping jeans, idiot. I’m shopped out.”

With a grin, Travis entered the store, and Jena bought yet another cup of crappy coffee from a different shop. Travis was right; this was getting ridiculous. She spent most of every night dreaming of Nicholas. Settling against the back of the chair, she closed her eyes and enjoyed a particularly vivid mental replay of the shower sex dream of the night before.

“Daydreaming again, Jena Baker?” a voice suddenly whispered behind her.

Jerked out of her happy memory, Jena blurted out, “Oh, fuck!” and jumped. Coffee flew everywhere.

She heard a giggle. “Definitely you.”

Turning, Jena was immediately assaulted by flailing arms and a huge smile, dressed in an elegant pink suit, as her friend leaned down for a quick squeeze.

“Leisa? Holy shit, you’re back?” Jena pushed a cloud of hair from her face and squeezed her assailant’s arm, the only part of her she could catch. “I thought you were in Atlanta with your company.”

Leisa shook her head. “Done with that for a while. I’ve been staying with Momma and Daddy in Little Rock for the last few days.” She grabbed Jena’s cup out of her hand and gulped down the rest of the coffee. “God, I needed that! I just got off the plane from Atlanta a couple of hours ago, and I decided that I have nothing suitable to wear to work in Hippieville. Are these people morally opposed to proper hosiery and footwear? I thought Birkenstocks were just a sick joke foisted off on Oregonians.”

Jena’s head was spinning as she tried to keep up with Leisa’s train of thought. “Atlanta? I thought you just said Little Rock. What happened to your job? Are you going to be in Sacramento or Davis? Because Hippieville only applies to one of those. And Birkenstocks are German. I think.”

Leisa giggled. “You should see your face right now. A perfect mix of confusion and self-righteousness. Hang on—you need caffeine.” She disappeared for a second and then reappeared with two large coffees. Handing Jena one, Leisa took a long gulp of her own and sighed.

“Are you sure that’s the best idea?” Jena asked cautiously. To her mind, Leisa Parker drinking coffee was like giving speed to a chipmunk—funny at first, but ultimately tragic.

“Don’t be an ass. I can handle it.” Leisa sat in the chair across from Jena. “Questions. My job is fine. I’m damned good at stock trading, if I do say so myself. I was just checking the job waters while I visited Momma and Daddy in Little Rock, but there’s not much trading to be done there, so I went back Atlanta. That was temp, so here I am, back in Sacramento, which is close enough to Hippieville for me. And I don’t give a fuck where Birkenstocks were invented. They’re ugly. Anything else?”

“Nope. You covered it.” Jena took a sip of her coffee, chuckling, and examined her curvaceous friend. “I still have a hard time seeing you as a trader, Leis. I always pictured you as a kept woman.”

“Ha ha,” Leisa deadpanned. “I have more brains than that. Kept women become
un
kept when they get old and ugly, and I like my stuff better than to risk that.” She shuddered theatrically. “I want to be so rich that other people bring the stuff to me and I just pick out what I like. Trading can get me there, baby. Until that happens, I can make anything look good.” She struck a pose with her arms behind her head, and they laughed like maniacs. “God, it’s good to see you, Jena! I’ve been missing you and my sugar pie.” She looked around, scanning for Travis. “Did he miss me, too? Never mind; I know he did, even if he doesn’t know it yet.”

Jena restrained her comments, choosing instead to swallow more coffee. Leisa had pursued Travis hot and heavy after she and Jena had renewed their college friendship, though Travis never showed any real response. When Leisa left for Atlanta, he hadn’t seemed to notice her absence at all.

Leisa kicked off her pumps and curled her feet underneath her on her chair, running a slender hand through her curly blond hair. “No comment, huh?” She smiled, settling back in her chair without a hint of concern. “You’ll see. One thing I know is that Travis wants me, deep down. But I’ll stop making you wear that uncomfortable face and just ask: what have you been up to?”

“School. Work. That’s about it.” Jena leaned back in her chair.
Wild sex fantasies and dreams about Nicholas Cooper,
she mentally added. Probably not the time to bring that up.

Leisa chuckled, draining her cup. “I still have a hard time picturing
you
working as a physical therapist, girl. Having your success influenced by how well the patients follow orders? Doesn’t sound right for Ms. Control.” She shook her head.

Remembering her loss of control on New Year’s, Jena suppressed a shudder. She answered earnestly. “Physical therapy lets me really be in control, Leis. Remember how we had to spend tons of time in the gym in college, for crew?”

Leisa groaned, slumping to the table. “My ass still hurts from those squats.”

Jena grinned. “I spent enough time with therapists during training that I discovered that I really like helping people recover from injury. Or prevent injury.
I
plan the therapy.
I
teach the patients what to do and how to do it.
I
ride their ass until I get the results I want.” Jena tapped Leisa’s still lazing head with the bottom rim of her cup. “Getting paid to work out doesn’t suck, either.”

Leisa raised her head and cast a calculated glance down Jena’s body. “You do look pretty hot. Or you would in the right jeans, anyway.”

A voice from behind Jena made her jump. “That’s exactly what I was just telling her.” Travis dropped into the seat between Leisa and Jena, holding a bag that presumably held the fabled jeans. “Why didn’t you tell me the lovely Leisa was back in town, Jena?” He picked up Leisa’s hand and gently kissed the back.

Oh. Now the Smooth-Talkin’ Man was in town. Leisa had better grab a fire extinguisher, ’cause this act had made panties all over town explode.

“She just scared the shit out of me, Trav. I had no idea that she was back. Leisa Parker, you remember my roommate, Travis.” Jena played out the script of polite conversation.

Leisa’s eyes hadn’t left Travis’s since he sat down. “How could I forget? How have you been, Travis? Your roommate situation still without benefits?”

Jena felt her jaw drop. A definite shift in Leisa’s pursuit of Travis had been made; she’d never had the balls to ask that upfront before.

Travis and Jena looked at each other and burst into laughter. “Definitely,” Travis said.

“We thought about it for about half a minute after a bottle of tequila a few months after we moved in together.” Jena pulled a face. “It was like kissing my uncle. Too horrifying to contemplate ever doing again.”

Travis noogied Jena’s head. “Yeah, but we each got an excellent wingman out of the deal, a convenient excuse to turn down the unthinkable dates, and someone to watch
Jay and Silent Bob
with when it becomes necessary.”

Leisa relaxed, stretching her arms out in a display of unconcern and very consciously displaying her breasts in their ivory silk covering. A little cat-smile appeared as she noted Travis’s piqued interest. He appeared dazed, but intrigued, by the change in her approach.

“So, Jena, what are you and this charming gentleman up to today?”

“Work, eventually. Why?” Jena could imagine the fantasies Leisa was brewing about sweaty, ripped Travis whispering dirty suggestions in her ear while he helped her pump iron. Both kinds. By looking at him, Jena guessed Travis was thinking along the same lines.

Hot damn. It appeared that Leisa was right about his being interested.

Travis finally pulled his eyes back to his roommate long enough to throw her under the Leisa Express Bus.

“Wow. This must be some sort of record—seeing two rowing friends from UO in the same year. Of course, you might remember everything about renewing your acquaintance with this one.” A teasing, crooked half-smile spread on his face. Jena wanted to smack it right off.

Leisa’s sharp gaze turned to Jena. “Who did you see, Jena? Who-who-who? And why don’t you remember them? I have to know! Is it someone I know? Of course it is—we spent all of our time at UO together. Tell me you didn’t get drunk with a nerd and sleep with him! Rich? He went after you there for a while. Or…”

Jena felt her face getting redder and redder and prayed Leisa would stop before she gave Travis any more ammunition for teasing. After thinking a minute, a slow smile spread across Leisa’s face. “I’ve got it. I only remember you getting this exact shade of red when I tormented you about one person. Nicholas Cooper.”

Travis burst into loud guffaws. “God, I love you, Leisa. She’s good, Jena. Why haven’t we gotten together before, angel?” He kissed Leisa’s hand again.

“Why, a lady doesn’t pursue, darlin’,” Leisa drawled in the accents of her Deep South home. Travis caught his breath and stared.

“Trav, wipe the drool off your chin. This kitten is deadly,” Jena ordered, and then she turned to Leisa. “And, yes, I saw Nicholas on New Year’s Eve in San Francisco. End of story.” Jena shot her deadliest laser eyes at Travis, and he had the sense to keep his mouth shut.

Leisa trailed her hand flirtatiously down Travis’s arm. Didn’t miss a trick, that one. “You should have been there, Travis. They both had the hots for each other, but neither had the ’nads to say anything. It was ridiculous. I even gave Jena the perfect opportunity to get him up to her room one night by
noticing out loud
that her roommate wasn’t around—”

“Who blew that one, Missy Never Knock?” Jena snorted when Leisa’s expression remained serene.

“Yeah, but you didn’t have to run out like your ass was on fire and your hair was catching.”

“Nice image, Leisa. Do you kiss your mother with that mouth?”

“No, but I do lots of other things with it,” Leisa drawled.

How can she get away with talking like that and not sound like a total skank?
Jena wondered, noticing the way Travis was hanging on Leisa’s every word like they amounted to poetry instead of the dirty limericks they most resembled. Oh, yeah. He was caught by his own proclivity toward aggressive women. Jena gave Leisa mental snaps for finally having figured that out.

Leisa dove back into her story. “Then, right before he disappeared, she blew the most golden chance ever. Remember that party, Jena?”

Jena nodded glumly. Yep. There it was. The stick Leisa had used to beat Jena with daily.

“Okay, so we get invited to a party at our team captain’s apartment, right?” Leisa said, a spark of mischief in her eye. “Nicholas spends the entire night with Jena, bringing her drinks, dancing with only her—the works. Then…”

Jena let Leisa’s voice fade into the background as she remembered the way she’d felt that night: nervous and excited, not sure whether to hope or to dread that Nicholas would be at the party. Even knowing that her damned mouth was bound to get her into trouble hadn’t been enough to put a stopper in her verbal diarrhea when he’d appeared beside her and handed her a cup of punch that surprised her with its liberal amount of alcohol. After nearly spitting the mouthful on him, she’d stumbled through an explanation about how she usually had no problem swallowing whatever was in her mouth…

BOOK: Cocktails & Dreams
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