Authors: Lauren Layne
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Romantic Comedy, #Contemporary Women, #Coming of Age
Emma leaned across the coffee table and touched his hand. “I’m glad to hear that, Clint. Truly. I’ve got a feeling that this story is going to reveal a lot more about me than it will about any of you.”
“Maybe,” he said, studying her. “Or maybe it’s about you . . . and
of the guys.”
She blinked. “What do you mean?”
His smile was kind. “Just that I figure at some point, some guy must have been able to make you smile. And I always wondered if it was the same guy that made you stop.”
“You might have mentioned that your ‘casual dinner thing’ was actually a planned dinner party for
” Emma said as she made her way around Julie’s dining table, placing salad plates into position.
“I didn’t mention it?” Julie called, glancing up from where she was arranging an antipasto platter at the kitchen counter.
“Nope,” Emma said, setting down the last plate. “Must have slipped your mind.”
“Must have!” Julie said, popping an olive in her mouth and grinning.
Emma just shook her head. “Don’t even. I’m sure that pretty smile works just fine on Mitchell here, but I remain unmoved.”
“Does this smile work on you, honey?” Julie said, turning to face her fiancé, who was doing something fancy with an onion at the cutting board.
He glanced over. “Works better when you’re naked, but this isn’t so bad.”
“Is that so?” Julie said, turning to give Mitchell her full attention.
Emma watched the couple’s exchanged gazes go from playful to heated in mere seconds and rolled her eyes. “Nope. No way. Clothes stay
. Also, why am I the only one on time?”
Emma was pretty sure she knew the answer to her own question. She would not be even a little bit surprised to know that Grace/Jake and Riley/Sam had gotten held up by the very same thing simmering between Julie and Mitchell.
Grace and Jake were in some sort of newlywed bubble of hormones, and as for Sam and Riley . . . well, they had about ten years of sexual tension to make up for. Something Riley liked to remind them all of.
As for the eighth member of the dinner party . . .
Emma didn’t care one bit whether
was held up by sex or constipation or lack of taxis.
Except it wouldn’t be the last one. Because Cassidy, like Emma, lived within walking distance of Julie and Mitchell.
Cassidy, who was to be the only other single at this damn dinner party.
“Don’t look so pissy,” Julie said around a piece of cheese, having finally turned her come-hither eyes away from Mitchell. “The group of us haven’t done dinner together in forever, and this is the first time both you and Alex have been single in a few months. . . .”
“Wait, what’s that have to do with anything?” Emma asked. “I’ve made it quite clear—”
“That you don’t mind seeing Cassidy with other women. Blah, blah, we know. And he gives us the same lecture about you. But,” Julie said, nipping another piece of cheese, “it’s not about you two.”
Emma lifted an eyebrow. “Explain.”
“It’s about the ever-revolving rotation of your guys’ significant others,” Julie explained.
“Meaning?” Emma helped herself to a glass of wine on the sideboard.
that nobody wants to sit across from the person their current significant other almost married. So it’s hard to have you both over at the same time, you know?”
Emma sat on the bar stool at the counter and stole a piece of salami off Julie’s platter. “So, what, you just take turns inviting us over?”
“When one of you is in a relationship, yeah.”
“I haven’t been in a relationship for, like, three months,” Emma said.
“Right,” Julie said, holding out her hand and wiggling her fingers for Emma’s wine glass. “But Cassidy has.”
Emma scowled. “If you want me to share my wine, that little reminder is so not the way to make it happen.”
“Aha!” Julie said, waving a finger in Emma’s face. “So you
care that he was seeing someone.”
Mitchell cleared his throat. “Julie. We talked about this. Remember that whole
mind your own business
Julie sighed and went to pour her own wine. “I just—”
“Nope,” Mitchell said, pointing the knife in her direction.
“Fine,” Julie muttered. The second Mitchell’s back turned she looked at Emma and mouthed. “Later.”
Emma rolled her eyes.
Julie could talk about Cassidy until she went blue in the face.
Didn’t mean Emma had to talk back.
She was saved from any further interrogation by the noisy arrival of Riley and Sam, followed by Jake and Grace. Judging from Riley’s mussed hair and Grace’s smeared lip gloss, Emma had been spot-on about the reason for them being late.
As Julie took everyone’s coats and fielded an argument between Riley and Grace about some
contestant drama, Emma moved up beside Sam Compton.
“Your shirt’s untucked in the back,” she said quietly.
He glanced down and gave her a sheepish smile. “Sorry. The cab ride—”
Emma held up her hand. “I don’t even want to know.”
He grinned and reached around to tuck his blue button-down shirt into his jeans. Not that it mattered. Shirt in, shirt out . . . either way, Sam Compton was a ridiculously good-looking bit of man meat.
the men in the room were almost painfully good-looking. Sam was blond and blue-eyed, with this bad-boy-meets-boy-next-door charm. Emma could hardly blame Riley for being obsessed with the guy since high school.
Grace’s guy was equally appealing. Jake Malone was tall, dark, and handsome personified. He had a sort of Hugh Jackman–type confidence and copious amounts of charm with a wicked smile that promised deliciously dark deeds in the bedroom. Or so Grace told her.
And then there was Mitchell Forbes. Sex in a pinstripe suit. Well, no pinstripes tonight. But the dark-haired, blue-eyed Wall Street hotshot had a buttoned-up seriousness that should have clashed with Julie’s carefree-party-girl vibe. Instead they were living proof that the whole
thing actually worked.
Her friends had hit the relationship jackpot.
If Emma weren’t so determined not to need a man, she’d be jealous.
She was about to ask Sam how things were going with ROON—the distillery he’d established a couple years ago that had started to get national press in the past couple months—but Sam’s attention had drifted away from her.
“Yo, Cassidy. Good to see you, man!”
And so it begins.
Emma turned to look at him, only because
looking at him, would be, well, obvious. And she made damn sure that there was no outward reaction to him. No knees buckling, no knuckles whitening from where she gripped her wine glass, not even a flicker of facial reaction.
Inside something fluttered.
There was no sign of the usual suit today. He was wearing jeans like the rest of the guys, and a black sweater that fit just well enough to emphasize sculpted shoulders and a trim waist. He held a bottle of wine in his left hand and shook Sam’s hand with his right. And his eyes . . .
His eyes met hers over Sam’s shoulder. And held.
And something shifted.
It wasn’t much. Not even a smile. The glance wasn’t even prolonged.
But for two people who had very deliberately tried to live outside of each other’s orbit for the past year, it was definitely
Emma pressed her lips together as they both looked away.
The moment had been so fleeting that nobody else seemed to have noticed.
It was as though their spontaneous shared drinks a week earlier had been a turning point. Emma just didn’t know a turning point toward
Or if she even wanted it.
“I’d say you guys didn’t need to bring wine, but, of course, it’s always welcome,” Julie said, buzzing from person to person, kissing cheeks.
“I brought dessert,” Riley said, holding up a box of cupcakes.
“I told you I made dessert!” Julie said.
“Right you did. I totally forgot,” Riley said, exchanging a glance with Mitchell.
Julie caught it and spun around to glare at her fiancé. “What did you tell her?”
“I told her nothing,” Mitchell said. “No words were exchanged.”
Julie’s eyes narrowed as Mitchell took a sip of wine. “I may have sent her a
of your, um, cake.”
“I baked,” Julie announced to everyone else with a happy nod.
“That’s great, honey!” Grace replied. Then she turned her head toward Riley and spoke out of the corner of her mouth. “Good call on the cupcakes.”
Julie pointed a finger. “Just for that, you have to try the first bite of my cake.”
Julie was notoriously bad in the kitchen, probably because her efforts only ever pertained to special occasions, so she never got any regular practice.
Mitchell, thankfully, had become increasingly handy in the kitchen since he and Julie had gotten together and it became clear that her skills were not destined for improvement. And since Mitchell Forbes excelled at everything he tried, dinner tonight would be passable, if not delicious. The man was gorgeous, smart, and successful,
he could cook. Basically perfect. Emma would not have been at all surprised to learn that Mitchell was packing pure gold parts in his pants.
The group dissolved into small pockets of conversation: Julie, insisting Riley put the cupcakes out in the hallway, Sam talking to Grace about the new labels for his rye whisky, Mitchell pawning off hockey tickets he didn’t want onto Jake.
Not for the first time, Emma felt an overwhelming surge of warmth and gratitude for this group of warm, bubbling friends, even if, at times, she still felt a little alone in the group, like she hadn’t quite found her place.
She moved toward Julie and Mitchell’s plentiful wine collection and topped off her glass with something white and lovely.
Cassidy came up behind her.
She knew it was him by his smell. Which was creepy, when you thought about it, but sadly true.
Over the years she’d done a good job of forgetting his face and the sound of his voice.
She even liked to think she’d forgotten his touch, although sometimes her naughtier dreams told her otherwise.
But she had never been able to forget the way Alex Cassidy smelled.
Clean and spicy, and utterly masculine in the way that made even the most independent, girl-power woman want to press a cheek to his chest and just
“Think this is a setup?” Cassidy asked her, his voice low.
She stepped aside so he could pour himself a glass of wine. Red. Back in college, and the years just after, he’d only ever drunk beer. But adult Cassidy . . . he drank red wine. Always. He even swirled and sniffed it before taking a sip, which should have been pretentious as hell, but instead made her think of a man who knew what he wanted, and wouldn’t waste his time on anything less.
College Cassidy had been driven. Ambitious. Relentless.
Adult Cassidy was all of those things. But he was also confident.
Confident that what he wanted was always within reach.
He lifted his eyebrows as he glanced at her, and she realized she hadn’t answered his question.
“No, I don’t think it’s a setup,” she said, as they stood shoulder to shoulder, watching their friends. “Julie claims we’re both invited simply because it’s the first time in
that we’ve both been single.”
“Is that so?” he said, taking another slow sip of his drink. “So I was with Danielle for two, maybe three months..”
“Before that, I dated Doug—”
“And I was with Alexa, maybe six months ago.”
“Alex and Alexa? That’s cute,” she replied.
“I dumped her because I thought the personalized towels would be too awkward when we got married.”
“So true,” Emma agreed. “Although it must have made it handy during sex. That way, when you screamed your own name, she’d think, wrongly, that you were interested in her pleasure—”
She broke off her sarcastic jab when she caught him watching her with an almost-smirk.
“What?” she asked.
His smile grew a little bigger, and he leaned in. “You think about us in bed.”
Her mouth dropped, and he laughed outright. “You
. You think about the two of us together. How we were.”
“I can assure you—”
“Don’t bother denying it, Sinclair,” he said, clinking his glass to hers.
She glared at his back as he moved toward the rest of the group, and he turned around at the last minute.
“What?” Her voice was testy.
“I think about it, too.”
. That . . . called for more wine.
Except her glass was already full, so instead, she sighed and decided that there was a damn good reason they’d put up all that ice between them. Time to reinstall it before he made any more precarious trips down memory lane.
She joined everyone at the kitchen counter, where they’d gathered around the appetizers like vultures.
“Em, any update on your apartment?” Jake asked.
“Nope, but it’s not my problem anymore,” Emma said, picking up an olive. “My renter’s insurance check is in the mail, and I gave notice to my landlord, so even if it is all fixed up, I won’t be moving back in. I was month to month anyway, so it was an easy out.”
“Thank God,” Riley muttered. “Can you imagine the smell? Like rot and mildew and upstairs neighbor’s dirty water and
“So what’s next?” Grace asked, ignoring Riley’s rant.
Emma shrugged. “Camille’s not back for another two months, so I’ve got awhile to figure it out.”
“You better not leave the Uppers,” Julie said. “I need solidarity up here in classy-town while these hip friends of ours hang out in the Village and Tribeca.”
“Um, sorry, but whose lease in the Village did I take over?” Riley said tapping her lip. “Was that yours, Jules?”
Julie changed the subject. “Hey, Cassidy, Mitchell has something to ask you,” she said in a loud voice, quieting all other conversation.