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Authors: A.M. Madden

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The father that Jonathan was subjected to was not the same man he was back when I was twelve. That new man, the new David Stone, was nasty, unpleasant, and uncaring. As long as I needed to, I would protect my mom and brother from the man he became.

I hate dilemmas. I like no-brainers. For instance, my first choice on a weeknight when I have to work the next day would be to make myself some ramen noodles, wear my favorite pajamas, and get cozy with Jamie Dornan while watching saved episodes of
Once Upon A Time
.

Instead, I have to put some effort into my face, clothes, and hair, and then schlep my ass out to a noisy – and no doubt annoying club - all because my boss asked me to. I could have easily let her down by telling her my idea of a fun evening is fantasizing about Jamie, but I can’t do that to her. She’s been so great to me. I’ve known Andrea since college. She was my roommate, and we both majored in PR at
UMass
. After graduation, she moved to New York while I stayed in the little town Mom, and I settled in. I found a job in Boston. It wasn’t a glamorous job. It wasn’t even in my field of public relations, although it paid the bills. More importantly, it kept me close to my mom.

Mom and I were partners in crime. She was very young when she had me, making us more like sisters than mother and daughter. Mom had no one in her corner but me. Her very religious parents did not accept their teenage daughter’s pregnancy. Their alternative wasn’t an option for my mother. She didn’t want to give me up for adoption. She wanted me. She ran away to have me. Since the day I was born, it’s been her and me. For twenty-five years, we had the best relationship a daughter could ask for. She was overprotective and sometimes a bit controlling, but she had to be. She was both my mother and father. We moved around a lot. Mom would get bored and want to find some newness in her life. I was all she had. My safety was her priority.

Just as she held me the day I was born, I held her the day she died.

Everything in my world changed that day. I no longer looked at my home, job, and life the same way. I was instantly jaded and wanted a change.

I left it all behind and moved to New York.

When I appeared at Andrea’s door, she didn’t even bat an eye. When I asked for a place to live, she made up her couch. When I needed a job, she dragged my ass into her office to meet with personnel. I can honestly say that she has made my life so much easier this past year. When I showed up, she was about to release the lease on her apartment and move in with her long-term boyfriend, Rob. Instead, she kept it and let me move in rent-free until I found my way.

Within three months, I was able to take over her rent and make an impression in the company where we worked. Things were going great for me. Even when Andrea received a promotion and became my supervisor, I couldn’t have been happier. She felt it would be awkward, and I saw it as the perfect scenario. I would never take advantage of our friendship, but having a friend as my mentor was a dream come true. I was learning from the best. Andrea was phenomenal at her job, and I was following right in the path of her footsteps.

So, when your best friend, lifesaver, and boss asks you to come out on a Wednesday night to check out a new club that the firm was interested in backing, my no-brainer of an evening had to take a backseat. It won’t kill me to socialize on a weeknight. Besides Andrea and an occasional happy hour outing with the gang at work, my social life as a whole has been somewhat stagnant.

These are the times that I miss Peter the most. During the workweek, he would love to snuggle on my couch with Chinese takeout and a good movie. I met him shortly after moving to New York. He was simply a nice guy. His clean cut, Ivy League looks were what first caught my attention. His manners and acts of chivalry were what captured my heart. I was very, very fond of Peter. Was I in love with him? No. I can’t say I was. Fondness was the best I could do. It wasn’t because he lacked in any way. While with him, I felt safe and secure. I felt comfortable. That wasn’t the right reason to be with him. I used him as my crutch. If he hadn’t left, would I finally admit that I was indeed using him? Peter is a keeper, marrying material, the one you don’t let get away.

When Peter received a once in a lifetime offer to run his firm’s London office, he jumped at the chance. Having always vented about my desire to travel, he assumed I’d move with him. If I loved him, I might have. I couldn’t move across the globe with a man I was merely fond of. We parted on good terms. If I was at all confused regarding my decision, it was solidified when my tears stopped a few days after he left. I miss him, but I don’t ache for him.

“Be ready by ten,” Andrea says over the phone.

Sigh.

Ten.

Late night, work tomorrow. I love Andrea. I love Andrea!

“Okay,” I respond, trying to sound enthusiastic, but failing miserably.

“Stop. You need a night out. It’ll be fun.” Andrea knows me well. “I have a surprise for you.”

“Oh no.”

“Why the instant doubt? Have I ever given you reason to doubt me?”

I give my left eye another swipe of mascara. “No.”

“That doesn’t sound like a convincing
no
. But your answer of
no
is correct. So trust me.”

“Please tell me why I need to trust you. I hate surprises.”

Andrea gives me a laugh that sounds more like a cackle. “Nice try. I’ll tell you in the cab. Be ready.” With that, she hangs up the call, and I so badly want to get back into my pajamas.

At five minutes to ten, I receive a text from her:
Come Dow
n
.

Assuming I’m meeting a client or worse, I give myself one last once-over in the mirror to ensure I look presentable. I left my hair long and natural, forgoing my normal ponytail. I applied makeup and decided on jeans, jazzing them up with a sequined tank and heels.

Happy with my efforts, I drag my ass down to meet up with my best friend.

“Very nice,” Andrea says, giving me her thumbs up. “I was worried I’d get Ella Parker the schlub.”

“Bite me.”

When she opens the cab door, Rob leans over and smiles. “Hey, Ella.”

“Oh no.” The presence of Rob can only mean one thing. “No. No. No. No.”

“Yes.” She pushes on my ass and says, “Get in.” She gives the cabbie the name of the club and its street location.

“Andrea.” I say her name, adding at least three more syllables. “Why is Rob coming out for a work thing? Did you lie to me?”

She has the nerve to look offended. “Of course not. It is a work thing.” She turns toward the window and murmurs, “Slash other thing.”

“What was that?”

My friend faces me and smiles. “It’s Rob’s partner’s birthday. He needs cheering up.”

Fuck, another blind date.

“Really? When will you stop?”

“Never. This time I have a good feeling. I don’t know why it didn’t come to me sooner. Of course, you and Ben are a perfect match. Trust me.”

“Andrea, I’ll come, I’ll play nice, and I’ll take advantage of your boyfriend’s generosity by allowing him to buy me plenty of drinks to numb myself, but I am not going to pretend that I want to be there.”

Rob and Andrea lean forward and make eye contact, both nodding obnoxiously.

“What?”

“That’s exactly what Ben said. Trust me.”

A text on my cell forces an eye roll and a sigh.

Don’t be lat
e
.

If. I. Come.

Dick. Get your ass over here.

You’re seriously a pain in my ass.

I weigh my options. I have nothing harder than beer in my apartment.

Fuck, at least I can drink on his dime.

Even though it only takes me minutes to look presentable, I delay and procrastinate more than necessary. I’ll make Rob sweat a little.

When I arrive at the club, I’m over a half hour late. I develop an instant headache from the pounding music that can be heard out on the street.

Fucking Rob
.

If I can get through these setups without killing him, I always consider it a major personal accomplishment. I do like a challenge.

The line wraps around the block. It’s a good thing Andrea is in the promotions business because there’s no way I’d wait in that line. My badge could easily get me in, but I never advertise I’m a cop unless I have to.

There are hundreds of idiots standing out front waiting to get into this joint. The probability is slim, yet they still stand pathetically waiting for their chance. The bouncer eyes me suspiciously as I saunter up to him, instead of heading to the back of the line.

“Line’s that way, buddy,” he offers with a flick of his thumb.

“Ben Stone. I’m on the list.”

He sizes me up before glancing down at his clipboard. The man is big, but I would welcome the opportunity to show him what I could accomplish with my attitude.

He searches, slower than needed, and finds my name. Without a word, he unclips the velvet rope and grants my access. I don’t even thank him because I couldn’t give a shit.

As I walk through the dark entryway, my phone buzzes with a text.

Where the hell are you? When you get here, we’re in the back left corne
r
.

The club is dark, and the only light comes from the punishing strobes drawing attention to the writhing bodies on the dance floor. Dance clubs are not my scene. When I am in the mood to let off some steam, I prefer a local pub or a dive bar in my neighborhood.

I don’t even bother searching for Rob or Andrea. Instead, I head straight for the bar in the opposite corner. I need some liquid courage. I also want to observe from afar in case I need to make a hasty exit. Of course the bar is three deep. I eye a gap in between two chicks that are clearly on the prowl. They look up at me when I approach and sit up straighter.

“Hi, ladies. Mind if I scoot in to order a drink?”

“Not at all,” the blonde responds while smiling cunningly. She licks her lips like I’m her prey about to be eaten.

I get the hot bartender’s attention, order two shots, and proceed to down them as quickly as she pours.

“Rough day?” chick number one asks as I retrieve my wallet to pay.

“Yep.”

“Want to talk about it? I’m a good listener.”

Her pale blue eyes are fringed with the heaviest fake lashes I’ve ever seen. They give her a cartoon-like appearance as she waits expectantly for my response.

“My boyfriend just broke up with me,” I answer with a poker face, waiting for her reaction. Just as they always do when I use that excuse, her eyebrows quirk up, and her smile turns to an instant frown. I could easily use a different excuse, but I love shocking people.

“His loss,” she replies, not deterred at all.

“Yeah, I agree. I plan on finding the first hot man to forget his name.” I look around feigning confusion. “Not sure I’ll have luck. I thought this place was a gay bar.”

She places a hand on my arm. “If you’d like to switch teams for a night, I’m a great coach.”

Patting her hand, I say, “I’m sure you are.” I can feel their eyes on my back when I walk away.

I find a dark corner and inspect the room. From my location, I’m able to scan the mass of heads, looking for the two familiar heads that forced me here. I catch a glimpse of Rob leaning in to kiss Andrea’s cheek. Next to them is a stunning brunette. She is petite, shorter than Andrea. I watch like a creeper from my corner as she laughs and engages with them. Her facial expressions are relaxed. Her smile is genuine. I can’t see her below the neck, and my curiosity is getting the best of me. I watch for a few more minutes before making my way to their corner. As I approach, Rob gives me an annoyed look, and Andrea smiles widely. The brunette’s smile fades and her expression morphs into one of boredom upon my arrival.

Well played
, I think to myself. I would’ve done the same.

“Hey, Barbie,” I say before kissing Andrea on the cheek.

She smacks my arm and responds, “You’re late.”

“Traffic.” I give my normal excuse.

“Why do you call her Barbie?” my “date” asks, even before being introduced.

My response is to measure her up. The body I was curious to see doesn’t disappoint. She is smoking hot. At six foot two, she’s a full head shorter than me, even in heels. Her hair is dark brown, almost black. She’s curvy and beautiful. Perfect. Except for a scar that runs along the side of her neck, she’s flawless. I slowly drag my eyes back up to her big brown ones. Our similar coloring makes us look like we could be siblings.

I still haven’t responded to her question. She raises her brow expectantly, and then folds her arms over her chest. I watch the motion, allowing my gaze to linger on the swell of her breasts trapped under the weight of her forearms.  I continue my perusal as my eyes travel up her neck, stop at her lips, and then I finally acknowledge her glare.

The acceptable amount of time to answer her question comes and goes, and I continue to stare at her. I’m not sure if I’m trying to intimidate her, but it’s obviously not working.

In an attempt to diffuse the tension, Rob clears his throat and Andrea answers for me. “He calls us Barbie and Ken. Thinks he’s cute.”

My date laughs spontaneously, quickly schooling her features. “He’s right.”

“Oh, not you, too.” Andrea shakes her head in mock annoyance. “Ben Stone, this is Ella Parker. Ella, Ben.”

She thrusts her hand toward me, not at all intimidated by my obvious perusal of her body. I take her small hand in mine and shake it slowly.

“Nice to meet you. For the record, I wanted no part of this night…but since Andrea is my boss, I didn’t have a choice,” she admits, and I’m impressed with her honesty.

“What a coincidence, neither did I,” I throw back at her while still shaking her hand.

She pulls her hand free from mine, and continues to measure me up. “So why are you here?”

“Free drinks.”

She turns toward Andrea and asks, “If we both wanted no part of this, why
are
we here?”

Andrea shrugs and dismisses her with a wave of her hand. “You both have no clue what you want, and you need an intervention.”

“You two have a lot in common,” Rob adds, putting his two cents in.

I look directly into Ella’s eyes, and she matches my unwavering stare. “Does that mean that Ella also wants to punch you in the face?” I ask Rob, maintaining my eye contact with Ella.

A corner of her full lips quirk up, otherwise she shows no emotion whatsoever.

“Asshole,” Rob mumbles.

I drag my eyes away from Ella. “Buy us a round, or we both walk.”

“Fine, but only because it’s your birthday,” he responds with an excuse he knows will piss me off.

“Happy Birthday,” she offers. A look passes over her features, almost as if she regrets her aloofness.

“Thanks.”

Rob calls the waitress over and orders our drinks. Conversation is very awkward until the drinks arrive. Andrea and Rob both desperately try to get us to engage in small talk, but we both stubbornly refuse.

“Happy Birthday, Ben.”

“You got off easy with beer. I wanted the good stuff.”

“Starting us off slow,” he responds and quickly continues. “Ella, did you know that Ben is a Black Belt in Taekwondo?”

I watch Ella watching me. “I do now.” She doesn’t look away embarrassed or giddily as girls often do. She meets my gaze, showing no intimidation at all. This girl has balls, and it is refreshing to see.

Undeterred, Rob says, “Ben, did you know that Ella is training to be a Black Belt?” He smirks after giving us another fun fact.

Shit, that’s hot
.

I measure her up from head to toe. She’s petite. I would pay money to see her take someone my size down. The visual has my jeans feeling snug over my junk.

Andrea’s giggle forces us both to look over at her at the same time.

“See, perfect for each other. You live in the same neighborhood. You have similar personalities. Just think of how gorgeous your babies would be.” She turns toward Rob and pleads, “Dance with me?”

The two of them scamper off like the rats that they are. Ella focuses on the dance floor, slowly sipping her wine, and promptly ignores me as I stand a few feet away. I’m in quite a conundrum. If I had met her at this bar, there isn’t a doubt that I would’ve tried to pick her up. She’s my type. She’s feisty and arrogant and would make the perfect one-night stand. Damn Rob and Andrea, because now I can’t even act on my primal desires. Andrea is her fucking boss.

But…I can have some innocent fun.

I step closer, invading her personal space. She glances sideways at me as I do. “Do you dance, Ella?”

“Yes.”

I leave the insinuation hanging between us.

Being a cop, I’m very intuitive, and I’m a pro at reading people. Her cockiness and indifference is a complete front. Her eyes dilate just enough for me to know she’s attracted to me. The breaths she drags in are deep enough to contradict the bored look on her face. My proximity taunts her just enough to cause her to fiddle with the stem of her wine glass.

Refusing to step back to my side of the table, I remain in her personal space and quietly watch the dance floor. Each time I raise my beer, my arm brushes against hers. Each time the hairs on her arm stand up straighter.

After the fourth time, she says, “There is like a ten foot circumference of empty space around this table.”

I look down at her, returning her gaze for a few seconds before leaning in. “But then I’d have to shout,” I respond with my lips an inch away from her ear. Her perfume assaults me. It makes me wonder where she dabbed it when she was getting ready to come here tonight…behind her ear, on her wrists, possibly between her tits?

She turns her head, so we are practically nose-to-nose. “I promised Andrea that I’d come here tonight to meet you. I promised I’d smile and play nice. I did not promise to spread my legs and swoon from your pathetic attempts at flirting or whatever it is you’re trying to do.”

She folds her arms defiantly after I laugh at her little speech.

“Noted.”

“Good. Just so we’re clear. Like you, I also feel the least we can get out of this night is a good buzz.” She offers her hand and asks, “Deal?”

“Deal,” I repeat, taking her small hand in mine. When she tries to remove her hand, I tighten my grip.

When the music changes, Andrea and Rob return to witness me still shaking Ella’s hand. “Are you two getting along okay?” Andrea asks, grinning from the contact between us.

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