Authors: Lauren Layne
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Romantic Comedy, #Contemporary Women, #Coming of Age
Unfortunately, today there
a good reason. Grace was right. Emma’s clothing options were dismal.
Emma looked at Riley apologetically.
“Fine,” Riley muttered, tossing back the rest of her drink. “But there will be lunch involved, right?”
“Yes, honey,” Julie said soothingly. “I’m sure we can find you a chunk of bread stuffed with pasta, topped with butter and cream.”
“Perfect.” Riley rubbed her ever flat, yet never satiated, stomach. “Maybe they can fry it.”
“I’m going to be sick,” Emma muttered, standing and gathering all of their glasses to take into kitchen.
“You’re from the south,” Riley said. “You’re supposed to be on
side on this. Don’t they eat delicious fried stuff down there?”
Emma ignored this. She didn’t like talking about her past life. Not if she could help it. Not since her engagement had exploded, courtesy of her drunken father, whom she barely spoke to these days. Not since she found out her sister, the dearest person in the world to Emma, had lied to her.
“Hey, can I ask a crass question?” Julie asked as the four of them put on their coats and grabbed purses.
“Crass is sort of
shtick, but I’ll allow it,” Riley said.
Julie looked at Emma, her expression kind. “How are you on money? I think we’re all in agreement that you need to shop, but do you need to borrow something until the insurance reimbursement comes in?”
Emma glanced around at her friends, all who looked ready to sign over their life’s savings to her, if she’d just say the word.
She swallowed, feeling unusually emotional.
Emma had never been the type to wear her heart on her sleeve. Tears and physical affection and talking about feelings had been more her sister’s territory. Emma knew that on a good day, she was reserved. On a bad day, she’d definitely heard the term
Sometimes it bothered her that just because she didn’t show her emotions, people somehow thought she didn’t have them.
And that simply wasn’t true. She felt things.
And right now, Emma was feeling an acute sense of gratefulness for this group of girlfriends who’d somehow welcomed her into their group, stunted emotions and all. When Emma had fled North Carolina seven years ago, it had mostly been about escaping the pain of her breakup with Cassidy.
But in her deep, terrifying pain, she’d shut out other people as well. Her friends had slowly stopped calling, because she never called them back. Her aunts, who’d tried to fill the surrogate mother role after Emma’s mom passed away of cancer when Emma was sixteen, had slowly given up on fretting over her.
Her father, for his part, never stopped leaving bossy voice mails demanding that she return home
. The man was determined to pretend like nothing was amiss between them. Refused to acknowledge the starring role he’d had in the demise of her relationship with Cassidy. He still called every other Sunday. Sometimes Emma picked up. Sometimes she didn’t. Maybe it was wrong, but she was still mad at him.
And then there was Daisy. Daisy, who Emma had tried desperately to be mad at, but who’d refused to stop calling and texting and writing long letters until Emma had forgiven her. Daisy had made a mistake not telling Emma the truth about Cassidy, but one of Daisy’s more admirable qualities was her willingness to admit mistakes, and, more important, to learn from them.
Still, Daisy, as wonderful as she was, was back in North Carolina.
Julie, Riley, and Grace were
. And until they’d wiggled their way into her life with their happy enthusiasm and unfailing loyalty, Emma hadn’t realized just how horribly alone she was.
“I love you guys,” Emma said, the words bursting forth. “You know that, right? I mean, I know I never say it, and I’m not all hugsy like Julie, and kind like Grace, or outspoken like Ri—”
“We know, honey,” Grace said, reaching out and squeezing Emma’s hand. “We totally know.”
Riley stepped forward and tapped Emma’s temple gently. “Guys, I think the floodwater went into her brain. She’s going soft on us.”
“So that’s a yes, on money then?” Julie asked. “We can lend you some?”
Emma said, her voice kind but emphatic. “I’m fine on money. Really.”
It was true. Her
salary was decent, if not exactly luxurious, and, if necessary, she had another source. A trust fund even her best friends didn’t know about. A trust fund Emma
because her mother had had to die in order for Emma to have access to it.
But then . . . Emma let herself smile, because the whole situation was almost fitting, in a way. Her ever perfectly coiffed mother would be absolutely delighted to know that her legacy had gone toward a new wardrobe. In fact, if Annabeth Sinclair were here right now, she’d insist on dragging Emma to the makeup counter, and probably the hair salon.
A woman can never have too many lipsticks, girls.
Emma smiled at the memory.
“Hey, let’s stop by the cosmetics department at Bloomingdale’s,” Emma said as she followed them into the hallway. “I think I’m in a beauty rut.”
“Traitor,” Riley hissed.
Emma dropped her keys in her purse and ran straight into Grace’s back.
All three of her friends had skidded to a halt in the hallway, and Emma peered around them to see why.
She promptly felt her stomach drop to the floor.
Suddenly, Camille’s smirk on that day she’d offered Emma the apartment made a
This wasn’t about setting Emma up with Benedict. The blind date had merely been a red herring.
agenda was right in front of her.
In the form of Emma’s ex-fiancé. Who was with a
“What are you doing here, Cassidy?” Julie asked, her voice half-horrified, half-amused.
Cassidy’s eyes locked on Emma’s for a half second, and she somehow knew the answer before he spoke.
“I live here,” he said, pointing to the door next to Camille’s. “I moved in last month. Camille never mentioned it? She was the one who connected me with the previous owner.”
“No,” Grace said, pressing her lips together in delight. “No, she did not.”
Emma barely heard any of this. Her brain was repeating one thought over and over:
Alex Cassidy would be her neighbor for three months.
This was not good news.
But, incredibly, that wasn’t even the worst of it.
The worst part wasn’t even that Cassidy’s fingers were casually linked with those of a pretty, shy-looking brunette.
No, the worst part was the brief pang of something Emma had long thought dead.
In all the scenarios in which Alex had imagined his current woman meeting his
woman, this one was definitely not on the list.
In fact, in most of his scenarios, the encounter hadn’t happened at all.
Not because Alex hadn’t wanted Emma to see him with someone new. He hadn’t minded that part. And Emma had made it
clear that she didn’t care one way or another if he was single, married, or dead.
But in some foolish, sentimental part of his brain, Alex hadn’t wanted to see the two women together, side by side. Didn’t want to risk letting his mind make comparisons that he wasn’t ready for. Might not
be ready for.
And, yet, here they were. Him. His new girlfriend. His girlfriend from almost a decade ago.
And three mischievous-looking
“You ladies stop by to say good-bye to Camille?” Alex asked, careful not to repeat his earlier mistake of letting his eyes stray to Emma’s. Whenever he slipped up and made eye contact, it was always like a jolt to his system. An unwelcome and unpleasant one.
The women exchanged glances, and Alex got the distinct impression he was missing something.
To his surprise, it was Emma who spoke up. “Camille lent me her place while she’s in Australia.”
Alex gave the slightest start, and from the puzzled look his girlfriend Danielle gave him, she’d definitely felt it.
“What do you mean, lent you her place?”
Emma shrugged. “My place had a little flooding accident. She said I could stay here until things get sorted out.”
“I see.” He kept his voice calm. “So you and I are—”
“Neighbors!” Julie said, in a singsong voice, making jazz-hand motions. “How . . . fun!”
Alex pulled at his earlobe in agitation.
was not the word he would have used.
And from the small line between Emma’s eyebrows, not the one she would have used, either.
Damn you, Camille.
He should have known something was up that day at the office when she asked one too many questions about whether he minded her setting Emma up on a blind date.
Danielle shifted by his side, and he belatedly realized that introductions were overdue. But Grace was already on it, moving toward Danielle with arms outstretched and a warm smile in place.
smile, Alex noted. Grace was good people.
“So nice to see you again, Danielle!” Grace hugged his girlfriend.
“Same!” Danielle said. “I was just telling Alex that it was our turn to host a dinner party.”
“Ooh, if someone said
I think you and I could be friends,” Riley said, stepping forward and extending a hand. “I’m Riley McKenna. Dinner party aficionado.”
“And what she means by that is that she eats. A lot,” Julie said, also shaking Danielle’s hand. “I’m Julie Greene. We’ve heard
good things about you.”
“Likewise,” Danielle said. “Alex says that he and Mitchell go running together sometimes.”
“Mmm, hideous isn’t it?” Julie said with a wink. “Oh, Danielle . . . this is our friend Emma Sinclair.”
“Right!” Danielle said, turning to smile at Emma. “Sounds like you’re a new neighbor.”
“Indeed,” Emma murmured, stepping forward to shake Danielle’s hand. Alex rolled his eyes to the ceiling as the two women shook hands. He would
Camille for this.
“Where are you girls off to?” Danielle asked.
“Shopping,” Emma said. “I need some new clothes. You should come!”
Apparently Alex was the only one who thought that was a singularly terrible idea, because Grace, Julie, and Riley all nodded happily at Emma’s invitation, and, God help him, Danielle looked like she wanted to accept.
His eyes narrowed on Emma and caught her placid smile, and maybe the slightest gleam in her brown eyes.
No. No. No
way. He knew that look.
“Danielle and I were just heading to lunch,” he said quickly.
Danielle smiled and pointed at his door. “Just had to come back up to grab my umbrella. We already have reservations, otherwise I’d love to come. Maybe next time? I just moved to New York from Atlanta a couple months ago and I’m
for female friends.”
“Of course,” Emma said, her voice all sweetness and understanding. “We’ll make sure to get your number from Cassidy.”
Over his dead body.
“Danielle, we should get going if we’re going to make our reservations. Ladies, have fun shopping. Great seeing you.”
“So great,” Julie gushed giving him a little wink as the four of them filed toward the elevator.
He could have sworn he heard Riley whisper, “This is gonna be interesting.”
As for Emma . . . Emma was already at the elevator, turning to wave a friendly good-bye at his girlfriend.
He waited for her to catch his eye.
Waited to see that flicker of emotion he thought he’d seen on her face when she’d saw him holding Danielle’s hand.
The elevator doors opened and she stepped in without looking back.
Of course she didn’t look back.
She never did.
As far as blind dates went, it hadn’t been horrible.
Benedict Wade was
as good-looking as he’d been in the picture Camille had shown her, although the camera had perhaps caught him at a particularly good angle, because the reality was slightly underwhelming.
But he hadn’t picked his teeth, hadn’t dominated the conversation or tried to order her entrée for her. Hadn’t bragged about his penis, hadn’t been a douche bag about the wine list, hadn’t stared at her boobs.
He was one of the good ones. One of the “worthy of a second date” guys.
Even more important, when Benedict (never Ben, apparently) offered to walk her home, Emma hadn’t wanted to scramble for some sort of lame excuse about how she had to go buy tampons or dash home to her nonexistent pet.
But when they reached Camille’s apartment building, Emma decided that this was where she was going to draw the line. At least for tonight.
“This is you, then?” Benedict said, when she stopped in front of the high-rise and turned to face him.
She smiled. “Well . . . it’s where I’ll be for the next couple months.”
He glanced up at the shiny, modern building. “Is it hard, then? Roughing it like this?”
Emma laughed. “I do sort of miss being on constant alert for roaches, but it’s not so bad.”
“I think I see what’s going on here,” Benedict said, wiggling his eyebrows. “You’re trying to lure me in early before you introduce me to your pet rat collection at your
“No, no, I think
see what’s going on here,” she teased back. “
for my cushy, short-term apartment.”
He nodded solemnly. “And when Camille comes back, I’ll woo her instead. Retain my rightful place in this building.”
Emma laughed. “Isn’t Camille friends with your mother? Isn’t that . . . wrong?”
“It’s got a certain
feel to it, I’ll admit, but it’s a dog-eat-dog world, Sinclair.”
They smiled at each other.
If it was the fifth date (give or take), the moment would have absolutely warranted a
Wanna come up?
But Emma wasn’t there . . . . not quite yet.