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Authors: Lauren Blakely

Full Package (17 page)

32

F
rom the pages
of Josie's Recipe Book

Josie's Misery Salad

I
ngredients

Lettuce

Tomatoes

Carrots

Whatever

  1. Wash lettuce. Even on days like this you don't want to eat unwashed lettuce.
  2. Slice some tomatoes like you fucking care.
  3. Cut up some carrots. Doesn't even matter if you peel them.
  4. Toss some oil and vinegar in it. Or don't. Whatever.
  5. Eat it, especially since you need to punish yourself more. You totally effed up. You know you did. Where do we even start? Everywhere. From the beginning right on through to the other day when you watched him walk out the door. Idiot. You don't deserve sweets.
33

I
'd
like to say I bury myself in work that next week, but that would do a disservice to every other day I've tended to a wound, or stitched up a knee, or removed a mustard jar from a butt.

Hey, it's a dirty job but someone's got to do it.

Anyway, work saves me.

I've always buried myself in it, but I like to think that's the only way to do the job. To give all of myself to it. I'm glad I have a job that demands everything of me. Mercy gets not only one hundred percent of my focus, but one hundred and ten percent. Maybe this is the real lucky-bastard life—to have a job I love so much that I don't even have time to think about the girl I miss. At the end of each work day, I'm relieved I've logged ten or twelve hours without thinking about her.

The trouble is my shift ends every evening.

That's when the missing begins in earnest, pain like a phantom limb, a persistent reminder of what I don't have anymore.

One night after work, Wyatt texts me to meet up with him and Nick, telling me it's softball season and I need to get my ass to Central Park.

I go, and I'm both grateful and really fucking depressed that Josie's not playing this year. Nick hits a home run; that's par for the course for him. I manage a small degree of satisfaction when I knock in two runners during my turn at bat.

That feeling fades, though, when I leave, head downtown, and check my phone. There's no note from Josie. I sigh heavily as I flop down on the couch at Max's home, absently fiddling with the screen. I could write to her. I could text her. I
should
.

But it's too fucking hard. I didn't even see her when I stopped by the apartment a few days ago to grab the rest of my things. I made sure to go when I knew she'd be at work.

When Max comes home with Chinese takeout and beer, I switch off the Josie portion of my brain and turn on the hunger lobe. That does the trick, and I do find a small degree of pleasure in knowing I'm returning to old habits. I haven't completely lost my dependable talent for compartmentalization. It's like a renaissance of sorts, as I'm remade back into the guy who isn't head over heels for a girl.

Yup. I know this dude. I can be this dude. As I put my feet on Max's coffee table, I stretch my arms, my old self coming back.

He kicks off my foot. “Dude, this isn't a frat house.”

“Josie let me do it,” I grumble.

He arches an eyebrow. “Josie doesn't make the rules here.” He grabs the clicker and flicks on the TV, scrolling to HBO. “You seen the newest
Ballers
episode? This show kills it.”

I groan and slide my hand over my face.

“What? You don't like the Rock?”

“No, that's not it.”

“Don't tell me it reminds you of Josie.”

Busted.

“Maybe,” I mutter.

“You should text her. See her. You're supposed to be friends with her. Be fucking friends with her.”

“She hasn't texted me, though, except about keys and the apartment.”

He smacks the back of my head. “What are you? Twelve?” He grabs my phone from the table and shoves it at me. “Call her. Have a coffee or whatever you do with her that doesn't involve keys or the apartment or household shit.” He sets his laser-beam eyes to high. “Or I'll do it for you.”

That does the trick. I send her a note, asking her if she wants to have breakfast tomorrow. She says she'll be leaving early for work, but suggests dinner or drinks in the evening.

We settle on drinks. And it's weird—Josie and I were never the friends who went out to get drinks. We sampled food. We saw movies. We wandered in and out of bookstores. We walked and talked and tried her bakery goods.

I don't want to get a brew with her.

But I do it anyway, meeting her the next day at Speakeasy in Midtown. She's already at the bar when I walk in. Perched on a stool, her legs are crossed, and she wears pink sandals, a purple skirt with a candy pattern on it, and a white tank top.

My skin heats up, and I have to reel in all my dirty thoughts. Mainly the ones that remind me exactly what she looks like underneath those clothes. How she feels. How she tastes. How she moves, and moans, and groans, and for fuck's sake, brain, have a little mercy on a man. Some things are not fair, like planting those alluring images in my head right now.

I walk over to her, and it's awkward for a moment. Then she hops off the stool and throws her arms around me. “Hey you.”

“Hey you,” I echo and pump a virtual fist. We can do this.

She holds up a hand like a stop sign. “Before we order, I have this for you.” She reaches into her bag and grabs a treat.

Old times. Yes. We are back to the way we were. “Can't wait.”

“It's a mini cinnamon bun. It's like a cinnamon bun met a cookie.”

“And they had babies.”

She laughs. “They totally did. They got it on in the oven and made delicious cinnamony, sugary children. Try it.”

“Bringing food into a bar. You scofflaw.”

She brings her finger to her lips. “Shhh.”

She hands the small treat to me, and it's one of the sweetest things I've ever tasted. “Your mini bun is amazing,” I say, and I'm rewarded with her smile. “And yes, I do know that sounded dirty.”

“It did, and I'm glad you said it, and glad you like it.” She leans closer, a playful look in her eyes. “Confession: I've always had a thing for cinnamon.”

This is news to me, and I'm digging that she's sharing pieces of herself, just the same as before. “That so? Tell me more.”

She shrugs lightly. “It makes me feel as if I can do anything.”

“So it's like a good drug?”

“Exactly.” She pats my knee like she used to do. “I'm glad we're doing this.”

“Yeah, me, too.” Because some Josie is better than no Josie. “Hey, have you ever made a peanut butter brownie?”

“Like with peanut butter in a chocolate brownie?”

I tap my nose. “Yes.”

“I have, but not recently.”

“Put that on your afternoon special. That would be amazing.”

She mimes writing a note, and the bartender swings by to take our orders. When he leaves, we chat, like two old friends catching up. “How's everything? How's the place?”

“Actually,” she begins, taking her time. “I already moved out. After you picked up your things.”

“Whoa. That was fast. You don't let the body get cold.”

“It just made sense.”

“Did you get a new place already? I'm jealous that your real estate mojo is that good.”

She shakes her head. “I moved some of the furniture to my parents' storage unit. Well, Wyatt moved it, since he has a truck,” she says, and I feel like an ass that her brother helped her rather than me.

“Sorry I wasn't there to lend a hand.”

A small smile appears on her face. “It's no big deal. It was easy enough. And now I'm staying with Lily till I figure things out. Since she kicked out Rob, she's got room for me.”

Lily and Josie. Two lovely single ladies living together. My radar goes off. “Are you dating again?”

She gives me a look that can only be read as
you ass
. “Seriously?”

I swallow, trying to play it cool. “Aren't we allowed to talk about that? We did before.”

She nods.

“So, that's a yes? You're dating?” Jealousy flares in me like wildfire, a hot, raging beast.

She narrows her eyes. “I was acknowledging we used to talk about dating,” she says, clearly affronted by my questions. “What about you? Are you dating?”

I huff, then scoff for good measure. “No. Hell no.”

“Then why would I be?” she asks, holding her hands out wide in a question.

“You wanted to before,” I point out.

“Things changed.” She bites out each word.

Yeah, “things” as in everything.

She takes a deep breath as if she's calming herself down. “Okay, let's start over.” She smiles cheerily at me. “How's work?”

We talk about work, and only work, like everything else is off the table. Maybe it should be. When it's time to leave, we walk out together and stand awkwardly on the sidewalk, rocking on our heels.

“Chase?”

My heart beats faster from the way she says my name. “Yeah?” I ask like that one word contains all the hope in my universe.

She smiles wistfully. “I miss you.”

The hope dissipates. I wanted more than missing. But I answer her truthfully. “I miss you, too.”

“We should do this again,” she says.

“Absolutely.”

Because we're friends and this is what we wanted. This is what we planned for.

She drops a quick kiss to my cheek before she walks away.

I'm not sure if I like our new normal any more than I liked being without her.

34

O
n Thursday night
, Max and I head to the newest Lucky Spot. Business has been booming for Spencer and Charlotte, and they just expanded their bar in the heart of Chelsea, adding on a Ping-Pong table room. On Monday and Wednesday nights, the bar hosts leagues for the sport, and Thursday is a themed night featuring Ping-Pong and champagne.

Wyatt and Natalie called everyone together for a post-wedding evening out. I'm not sure if it's their third or fourth wedding to each other, or just another excuse for them to celebrate being married. The two of them like doing that, and so the gang's all here.

That also means this is the first time Josie and I have hung out with the whole group of friends since the end of our short-lived stretch as roommates and an even briefer stint as lovers. But no one else knows about the latter except Max.

As we walk along Eighteenth Street, I remind him. “Keep it on the down-low in front of everyone, okay?”

He stage-whispers, “You mean about you having a big thing for Josie Hammer?”

“Yes,” I say through gritted teeth.

“Got it. Because no one else could ever fucking tell.” He yanks open the door to the bar, and we stroll inside, joining the crew in the Ping-Pong room.

Instantly, my eyes find her. Josie rests her hip against the green Ping-Pong table. She wears a red skirt, and little ankle boots that would look fantastic parked on my shoulders. Wrapped around my neck. Hooked around my waist.

I drag a hand through my hair and fix on a friendly smile, lest anyone catch on that I was cycling through my favorite positions.

Josie holds a glass of champagne as she chats with Natalie. The two of them watch Harper as she bounces on her toes at one end of the table, a paddle in her hand. From the other end, Nick serves the white plastic ball, and the two volley for the next minute. Nick is ferociously focused, slamming the ball back at her each time, but then Harper delivers a punishing blow to the right corner, and when Nick stretches to reach it, the ball rattles to the floor.

Harper thrusts her arms in the air. “The streak continues!”

Josie holds her flute high, toasting Harper's victory. Natalie hoots and hollers.

A new couple strolls through the doorway and into the Ping-Pong room—she's a petite blonde with wavy, honey-colored hair, and the guy towers over her, a tall and broad dude. The woman chimes in, “Nick, you can never beat her. Don't you know that by now?”

Nick pushes his glasses up his nose and shrugs. “But I can't stop trying, Abby.”

“Better luck next time,” the new guy says with a smile.

Harper steps in and introduces me to her friends Simon and Abby. After we all shake hands, Simon drapes an arm around Abby's shoulders and plants a kiss on her cheek, for no obvious reason other than he can. Lucky fucker.

As I peer around, I see nothing but couples. Natalie and Wyatt, Spencer and Charlotte, Nick and Harper, Simon and Abby. It's just the Summers brothers who are single, and Josie. The thing is, Max is happy with his status, as far as I can tell. In principle, I don't object to mine. I was never bothered being a one-man operation. Until I fell for Josie.

Now, seeing all these paired-up friends reminds me that I'm the one of us who didn't get the woman he wanted.

Wyatt drops a hand to my shoulder. “Ready to be decimated?” he asks as he hands me a paddle.

“I am ready,” I say confidently, taking a deliberate beat, “to obliterate you.”

He arches a brow, like I can't possibly be serious. But I am, because bar games and me are a winning combination. Tonight, the game has a welcome side effect. Beating Wyatt's sorry ass keeps me from staring at his sister all night.

“Bastard,” he mutters as I slam the winning ball in our second round, since he challenged me to a rematch after I pummeled him in the first. Foolish choice on his part.

But before I can trash-talk Wyatt about his second loss, Spencer's voice booms across the room. “What are you two cats doing about living arrangements now that the landlord gave you the screw?”

The man is aces at bringing up the elephant in the room, even unintentionally. Spencer looks at me, then Josie.

She pipes up first. “I'm living with a friend.”

“Lots of pillow fights and late-night gab fests?” he asks. “Or do you style each other's hair? Color it even? Bake cookies and watch HBO?”

Josie meets my gaze from the other side of the Ping-Pong table. A tiny smile lifts her lips, a private one that I know is just for me. I answer her with a small quirk of my lips, too. There's a mischievous sparkle in her eyes.

But then the hint of secrets shared is extinguished and replaced by something else entirely. Resolve? Acceptance? I can't tell anymore.

She nods as she meets Spencer's waiting stare. “Yes, that's exactly what we do. All night sessions.”

I don't know if the innuendo is for me, or just to needle Spencer. That's the problem. She feels so close, but so far out of reach.

Spencer turns to me and raises his chin. “And what about you? How's life at Chez Summers Brothers? Keeping busy watching monster truck rallies and avoiding all food that requires utensils?”

I look around for Max, but he's disappeared. “Yeah, it's one big fiesta of masculine stereotypes. Some nights we beat our chests like Tarzan.”

Charlotte laughs. “I bet you miss the feminine touch Josie brought to living together.”

Boy, do I ever.
Charlotte's words are like a punch in the chest.

Once more our eyes lock, and I try to find the answer in Josie's light green gaze. But I don't even know what I'm looking for. “Yeah,” I say, since I can't manage a joke right now.

Wyatt raises a beer. “But it was good while it lasted, though, right?”

He doesn't even know the half of it. I swallow and answer him. “It was the best.”

Josie nibbles on the corner of her lip and looks away. Harper jumps in, and her voice seems protective, as if she's watching out for Josie. “I'm sure it was.” She hoists her paddle high above her head. “Anyone up for another round? Or are you all too chicken to take on the Ping-Pong champion?”

That riles up Spencer, who grabs a paddle from Nick. As they play, Max wanders back in, his jaw set, his eyes blazing.

“Everything good?” I ask him.

He shakes his head and mutters, “Had to take a phone call.” He scrubs a hand across his jaw. “Fucking Henley Rose.”

I raise an eyebrow. I haven't heard that name in ages. “Your former apprentice?”

With a heavy sigh, he shoots me a can-you-believe-it look. “That's the one.”

Color me surprised. “The one who left you for your competitor in a fit of you'll-rue-the-day-you-let-me-go anger?”

“Thanks for the reminder of her parting words.”

“Would it be easier if I reminded you that you thought she was smoking hot, and your greatest accomplishment each day was not staring at her every single second she was under the engine or bent over the hood?”

He narrows his eyes. “Nothing ever happened with her,” he says through gritted teeth.

“So what was the call about then?”

He gives me a ten-second overview of the call, and my jaw drops. “Well, that's going to make for one hell of a tawdry tale.”

He claps my back. “But that's a story for another time.”

“I look forward to that time then,” I say, since I can't wait to hear more about the woman who drove my brother crazy once upon a time.

A few minutes later, after Harper bests her cocky brother, she circles by, pointing to a low table in the corner of the room next to some comfy emerald green chairs. “They've got Scrabble back here. Want to play?”

Max shakes his head. “Nah.”

But Scrabble is hard for me to resist, and I'm sure Harper knows my weakness. She nudges me. “What about you, Chase? You and Josie are a good combo, right?”

From a few feet away, Josie chimes in, “We're the best. We beat the Hammer twins every time.”

Harper rubs her hands together. “I can't wait to see that.” She tips her chin to the game by the chairs. “Show us how good you can be.”

Nick grabs a chair and flips open the board. “Or don't you think you can beat us, Doctor Brain?”

I have no choice. I must destroy him now. “Those are fighting words, Nick. Prepare to die on the Scrabble board. A slow, painful death wrought by triple word scores and more combinations with
J
and
X
than you can even begin to spell.”

Josie cracks up. “Yes, dear brothers. We play to kill.”

And we do.

We win with a final combination of “onerous” and the “ex” that Josie builds on our final turn.

I try to read nothing into it. It's just a two-letter word.

When everyone else is busy doing couple stuff, she rests a hand on my arm. “I'm glad we can do this, Chase. I'm glad we're still friends. Are you?”

“Absolutely. I'm stoked we're friends, too.”

But she's also something else. She's an ex, and that's a whole other thing. I'm learning being friends with an ex isn't the same as being friends with a woman.

Once you've crossed the line into lovers, everything changes. Returning to the way you were before isn't easy.

It's onerous.

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