Authors: Christina Lee
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary, #New Adult & College
Titles by Christina Lee
Between Breaths Series
All of You
Before You Break
Whisper to Me
Promise Me This
Promise Me This
InterMix Books, New York
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
PROMISE ME THIS
An InterMix Book / published by arrangement with the author
InterMix eBook edition / October 2014
Copyright © 2014 by Christina Lee.
Two of Hearts
copyright © 2015 by Christina Lee.
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eBook ISBN: 978-0-698-18394-0
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To my besties. You quench my soul and will remain my forever friends.
I backed the brunette against the wall, my lips at her neck. Her perfume was sweet, almost too sugary—a stark contrast to the one fragrance I’d grown accustomed to, sought out even.
always smelled exotic, like wildflowers. But I quickly forced that thought from my brain. Not that her scent wasn’t permanently etched there anyway.
I nudged the girl into the empty restroom and flicked on the dim light, which might’ve been a terrible idea given our surroundings. This same chick had been eyeing me the last couple of nights in Zach’s Bar and she wanted to hook up. Bad.
But her version of bad was different than mine.
Since I wouldn’t be skydiving or logging time around my uncle’s racetrack anytime soon, this was the rush I wanted—needed—tonight. Soft skin, a warm body, a nameless girl I’d never see again.
My fingers curved around her shoulder and then traced the low slit of her fancy blouse. When she whimpered in response, I had the urge to rip the buttons down the front. But I was pretty sure she wouldn’t appreciate me ruining her expensive shirt. I’d venture to guess that most girls wouldn’t.
“I’ve seen you at a couple frat parties,” she mumbled.
I shrugged, because I’d definitely been to my share of them. Sure wish I had access to one of their spare rooms right about now. Because being with this girl might help dull the noise in my head. Soothe the urge to lose control, to get blissfully lost in someone, to reveal the overwhelming hailstorm brewing inside me.
But I couldn’t let it happen. I could never become my dad.
Not when all he had to do was raise his hand to make my mother cower in the corner. I’d made myself a promise that the moment a woman looked at me with similar panic in her eyes, I’d be done for. As a man. As a decent human being, for fuck’s sake.
Instead, I chose not to know any girls, not to see them, really—unless they were the blurred body lying beneath me for a couple of hours. That way, I couldn’t give myself to them, not all of me. Not the terrible, disgusting, callous parts.
There wasn’t a woman alive who would understand the delicate line I towed during sex. I had constructed a whole regimen of rules and logic inside my own head. No tongue and no rough hands. And certainly never any spanking or hair pulling.
My fingers slid to the brunette’s waist as my eyes met my own reflection in the mirror, temporarily thwarting me. They were red-rimmed and tired-looking. Empty, even.
Except for what was hidden beneath.
A sharp knock startled me. The girl’s eyes narrowed in frustration.
“Wait your damn turn,” I growled into her shoulder, hoping whoever was outside the door would get the hint that it was occupied.
Another insistent rap of knuckles. “I’ve gotta pee and this is the only bathroom in this joint.”
The voice on the other side of the wall was heated, throaty, and a little too familiar. “Is there even anyone in here?”
The door burst open and Jessie stood blinking at us. I let go of the girl as if she were on fire—though I wasn’t sure why I’d done that.
I couldn’t take my eyes off her pouty red lips or her sleeve of colorful tattoos. What was she doing here? Jessie was never at the bar with the Raw Ink crew on Thursdays—she had her night class at the university.
Jessie’s eyes widened as her heel caught on the doorjamb, and she stumbled forward, almost toppling to the filthy floor. I lunged forward, grasped at her arms, and pulled her toward me, cushioning her fall.
Her head landed on my shoulder and my lips were practically nuzzled against the nape of her neck. It was the closest I’d ever gotten so I inhaled her intoxicating fragrance.
She pulled back and our eyes met—her sultry mix of browns and greens seemed perplexed. Her hair was a shiny mocha color with blue streaks and her inked skin was smooth and warm beneath my fingers.
As she straightened, her eyes darted between me and the girl and her mouth curved downward.
“Really, Nate, in a bathroom?” she said, jutting her hands to her petite hips. “Way to keep it classy.”
A line of heat climbed up my neck. She rarely called me Nate. Her nickname for me had always been Square, so hearing my name fall from her lips throttled me. I liked the sound of it—if it hadn’t been cloaked in disdain.
The brunette had already stormed into the hallway, irritation transforming her features. She tried to signal for me to follow, but my interest had already waned.
For some reason Jessie’s words rooted me in place, while my brain searched for a decent explanation.
“It’s not . . . I wasn’t going to . . .” The syllables rushed from my mouth, as if spoken by another person. A real lame-ass person.
I attempted to come up with something witty to say, given our normal playfulness, but the words stalled on my lips.
“Who cares what I think?” Her eyebrow rose, as if she couldn’t understand my reaction. She nudged my shoulder toward the door. “Just get the hell out so I can pee.”
I walked back into the bar and found Bennett and his fiancée, Avery, at the far table, along with Cory, Dex, and a few other employees from the tattoo shop. “What’s up?”
This group was tight, a family really, and were hard-pressed to let anybody in. Somehow, I’d earned their trust over the past year. Dex had a history with Jessie, but he’d come to accept my friendship with her and even appreciated our teasing.
I sat down and tried to gesture the server for a beer, but she was on the other side of the room looking harried and busy, which meant they were short-staffed again tonight.
I was waiting on Jessie to return to the table, so I could somehow redeem myself in her eyes. I had acted strange in the bathroom and I needed to rectify it. She was the only female buddy I had and I wanted to keep our friendship intact.
Who cares if she practically saw me doing some chick against a sink? She knew I’d been with my share of girls, though it’s never been right in front of her face. Big deal.
There was something raw about Jessie, unrestrained and empowering, so unlike the girls I normally hooked up with. It turned me on—and scared the shit out of me at the same time.
I could probably get lost in a girl like Jessie, let it all hang out, and that was the problem. As soon as someone like her saw me for who I really was, she’d kick me the hell to the curb, be disgusted by me or maybe broadcast all of my secrets. She was badass, didn’t take any crap from anyone, and sure as shit would never be up for getting it on in a filthy restroom.
It was way better to keep her in the friend zone. Besides, I was definitely not her type, either. She liked her dudes tattooed and pierced and scruffy.
I’ll admit, I’ve often wondered if Jessie was wild in bed. I’ve fantasized about it, even. But as soon as I crossed that line, it would be all over for me. It was in my genes and blood; my own brother was proving that on a daily basis.
Jesse returned from the restroom and gave me a sidelong glance. “Where’s your friend? I didn’t mean to interrupt you in that grimy bathroom.”
I shrugged, my voice suddenly leaving me. I need to cut this shit out. We were friends. Friends who liked to clown around with each other.
“I don’t know, Blue,” I said using the nickname I’d invented for her months ago. “I tried to do her on top of the pool table but she wasn’t going for it.”
Her head fell back and she let out a good hearty laugh. Finally got us back on the same footing. “Oh Square, that’s so nasty. Who knows what’s been dropped on that green felt.”
“It would be over for her in ten seconds flat anyway,” I said, pretending to pound my chest. “One glance at my package and she’d probably faint on the spot. Not many girls could handle all of this.”
“You keep telling yourself that, Square,” she said, while the guys in the shop cracked up. “Someday you’re going to lose a bet and have to prove it. And when we finally see your teeny weenie, you’ll never live it down.”
I stood and flexed my muscles in a show of false bravado, then winked before heading to the bar for another beer.
I took a long sip of my beer and subtly inspected Nate across the table while he chatted with Bennett. To me, he’d always just been a pretty boy getting a free ride to college from his rich daddy.
Except seeing him against the sink with that girl did something to the hardwiring in my brain. Sure, I knew he hooked up with women all the time and was razzed about never being with them long enough to know the color of their eyes.
But the way his fingers were digging into her hip and his mouth was hot and open against her throat—goddamn that had made me see him in a different light. I liked my boys rougher around the edges and he had never fit that profile, until I saw him all raw and powerful like that.
Nate looked relieved that I hadn’t teased him about it too much. I was always goading him and he usually gave it back to me good, but tonight he looked anxious, maybe even embarrassed that I had caught him in the bathroom.
I’d heard gossip that he was elusive with his conquests, not giving much away, not even genuine kisses—and that made me question why girls even sought him out.
If the rumors were true, he rarely made out with them for fuck’s sake. That’d make him one huge asshole for sure, except he didn’t flaunt it, never even spoke of it. Not unless one of us egged him on, then he’d ham it up, turn on that fake macho shit that was comical at best. Anything to keep these guys entertained. It’s what we’d come to expect from Nate.
But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to wondering about him. Wondering if there’d ever been someone real in his life. Someone who’d hurt him, made him so defensive that he now kept that part of himself tucked neatly away.
Nate laughed and clapped Bennett on the back, reminding me of how alive and unreserved he was in every other way. With his friends and his sense of humor he lived out in the open—even with his daredevil antics, how he always talked about his next rock-climbing or snowboarding adventure—but there was that one area in his life that was most cryptic.
I’d just figured he was immature, given too much too early from his wealthy family. But tonight in the bathroom, I saw a flash of something different. Something that resembled a deep ache—an unfulfilled longing in his face—a split second before he’d pushed that girl away. It was there. I knew I hadn’t imagined it.
Regardless, Nate was way too straight-laced for me with his perfectly tailored jeans and button-down shirts, even if they did hug his muscles in all the right places. And the girls he spent his time with probably all looked the same—privileged and gorgeous.
I liked at least a little gravity to the guys I dated, so I never paid Nate much attention beyond our easy and playful friendship. But tonight I’d admit it was the first time I could picture myself up against that sink, with his hot lips against my neck.
“What are you doing here tonight?” Nate asked, nudging my foot beneath the table. Damn, I needed to snap out of it before Square figured out I was having dirty thoughts about him. “You’re usually not around on Thursday nights. Don’t you have a photography class?”
I’d forgotten how perceptive he had always been as well.
“Usually,” I said, folding my napkin to give my hands something to focus on. “But we’re studying large-scale photography and tonight was independent study night.”
Nate’s eyebrows bunched together. He was good-looking, but in a boy-next-door kind of way. He had dark blond hair and whiskey-colored eyes. His body was amazing, but way too muscular for my taste. He liked to work out as hard as he liked to party.
Despite outward appearances, he fit in pretty well with this crew, who could work a ten-hour shift at the shop and then drink past midnight, only to wake up and do it all over again.
“What exactly does ‘independent study’ mean?” Nate asked, his leg going a million miles an hour beneath the table, like he needed to blow off some steam. Which is probably where that girl had come in, until I ruined it for the two of them.
Pushing that idea out of my head, I focused on my assignment. I needed to come up with the subject, stat. “I have to create a huge photo exhibit, and the professor gave us a free period tonight to begin working on it.”
“Zach’s is the perfect place to do your homework,” Dex said, smirking into his beer glass.
“You shut it,” I said and then turned back to Nate. “It’s going to be on display at the upcoming art festival, worth half of my grade, and I don’t know what the heck to shoot pictures of. Yet.”
I was going for my Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in studio art, with an emphasis in photography. I needed sixty credits to get there and was well on my way but wasn’t getting there as fast as I’d like, given the expense. But slow and steady wins the race or whatever the hell that saying was.
Like my father, my absolute true love was photography. I was excited to finally make good use of his Hasselblad 500C/M that I’d inherited when he passed away three years ago, but I had the worst creative block. So I figured a good beer would help me get some ideas flowing.
“How about pictures of the neighborhood? The only thing you ever do is people-watch at the shop,” Cory said, egging me on. He knew there was rarely any downtime at the tattoo parlor. I was one of the receptionists at Raw Ink—more like an office manager, glorified maid, or employee wrangler—and a part-time student at the university.
“I’m not people-watching. I’m just ignoring you,” I said, sticking my tongue out.
Cory was cool to work with, but kind of a mess as a person. He was gay and knew how to pick the beautiful assholes. So he was always hurting in one way or another.
Despite that, his artwork was amazing. He specialized in portraits, so if you ever wanted your grandma’s face permanently engraved in your skin, he was your guy.
Just don’t ask him to draw your current flame, his personal hot button. He’d give you a good tongue-lashing, specifically telling you how goddamn stupid you are. If you relented, he’d make you promise not to return to him when you wanted it covered up or removed two months down the road.
“Why not tattoos?” Bennett said and Avery nodded. Bennett was one of the nicest humans on the planet, easy on the eyes too, and seeing him look at his fiancée, made every girl in a ten-mile radius sulk. Together they had sex appeal oozing out of their pores and I’d guess their sex life was combustible as well.
Bennett was expert in all areas but his work in specialized lettering was the bomb. If a customer wanted a favorite quote tattooed on their skin, I’d send them Bennett’s way in a heartbeat. Avery had proof of his expertise on her own skin.
“Those photos that you hung in the hallway at the shop are amazing,” Avery said.
Oliver, the owner of Raw Ink, had asked me to take professional photos to decorate the walls. I had used the university lab to process them and then took them to a framer to get them matted and hung properly. It’d been a yearlong project. I’d asked customers to sit for long minutes, while I adjusted the angle and lighting to snap their tattoos.
“I thought of that,” I said, nodding. “But call me crazy, I want to pick something else to challenge myself.”
“Makes sense,” Dex said, talking a long pull of his beer. I noted he was taking it easy tonight, only on his second beer—otherwise one of the guys would have to cart his ass home again. Even though Dex and Cory were older than the whole lot of us, they sure acted juvenile sometimes.
“I was thinking of photographing something outdoors,” I said to the group, my eyes panning across each of their faces.
“You mean like flowers or trees?” Avery asked. “The fall leaves would be gorgeous.”
I wrinkled my nose. I wasn’t much a nature girl and I knew she wasn’t either, even though I did admire it from afar.
“No, that would be too . . . lame,” I said.
“You could always come with me to the dog park,” Emmy said, still nursing her first drink. I shook my head. Her and those darn shelter dogs. She probably cared more about them than humans.
“I’m thinking something more gritty, industrial—like maybe bikes or motorcycles,” I said. “I don’t know, been wracking my brain about it.”
“Meet me at the biker bar this weekend,” Cory said. “The entire lot is filled with sweet rides.”
He was a true motorcycle aficionado and had even inherited a vintage Harley from his uncle. He’s met some of his past boyfriends at that bar, even though that was a tough room to work if you were gay. But Cory knew how to keep everything on the down low—at least that’s how he’d described it to me.
“Not a bad idea,” I said. We’d all been to that bar with him before. It tended to bring a rough crowd. If you thought these guys were exclusive, you should meet that pack. They don’t appreciate fake enthusiasts, either.
“How about photographing buildings?” Nate said. He was studying to be a structural engineer and loved anything having to do with blueprints and construction.
Last summer, Nate had invited me to a concert at the Artisan Music Center with his cousin, Kai. We’d road-tripped there with Bennett and Avery, her roommate Ella, and Ella’s boyfriend, Quinn. On the way up, Nate would point out interesting structures and tell me cool facts about them. It had never occurred to me to photograph them, though.
“Not sure that’s my thing,” I said. “Sorry.”
“No sweat,” Nate said, his leg finally settling beneath the table.
Avery motioned for Bennett to move aside so she could slide out of her seat to use the restroom. Bennett leaned over and kissed the side of her head before allowing her to pass and she smiled endearingly at him. When she first got together with Bennett, I thought she might eat him alive. That girl was tough and I loved her take-no-shit attitude, but Bennett had softened her. I thought they complemented each other well.
“I just thought of something for your project, Jessie.” Bennett said, turning back to me. “Maybe Nate here
help you out.”
“Huh?” Nate’s head snapped up. “What the hell do you mean?”
“You have that cool internship where you get to go up on bridges and shit.”
“Seriously? I know you’re working for some firm this semester, but I never knew exactly what the hell you do for them,” I said, staring Nate down. “You’re allowed to climb on bridges?”
Nate nodded. “They have a contract with the city and my supervisor took me up on the Municipal Bridge—you know the big blue one that shines over the river downtown?”
“That is so rad,” I said, my mouth hanging open in awe.
“Yeah, you should see the view from up top. It was honestly one of the most amazing things I’ve ever done,” he said, his eyes slightly unfocused, as if he was recounting it in his head. “But no way I’d be allowed to take you up there.”
My mind started firing away, think of bridges.
“Still, that fits into my industrial idea,” I said and then snapped my fingers. “I bet I could take photos of different kinds of bridges.”
“I knew you’d think that was cool,” Bennett said.
“Great idea. But this city has got nothing on Bridgeway, over the state border,” Nate said. “It’s known as the city of bridges.”
“For real?” I said. “Never knew that. What kinds do they have?”
“They have a few smaller ones constructed like the bridges we have here downtown,” he said, his eyes lighting up. “But if you travel into the rural section, there are several covered bridges.”
“Covered bridges?” Cory said.
“Yeah, they’re timber truss bridges with a roof and siding. You see them in old movies sometimes,” Nate said. “One of them even extends over a river and it’s pretty damn cool.”
“Hmmm . . . maybe my project theme can be bridges over time,” I said, my mind already wandering off about the lighting and the settings I’d use on my dad’s camera. “Dude, you just gave me the greatest idea.”
“No problem,” Nate said, with a playful wink that made my stomach buzz.