Elle immediately dragged them all into the bathroom, where she locked the door and then climbed up on the sink—impressive given her five-inch pumps—and blocked the surveillance camera with paper towels. “Okay,” she said and pulled out the player card she’d been given. “I’m just a patron. You guys?”
Willa, Pru, Haley, and Kylie all said they were just patrons too. They turned to Colbie.
“We’re not supposed to tell,” she said.
“I get that,” Elle said. “But no way am I letting any of you out of my sight tonight for any reason. So I need to know your roles so I can make sure you stay safe.”
“And not arrested,” Pru said.
Colbie sighed. “I’m the victim.”
“Shit,” Elle said. “Okay, we can work with this. Switch roles with me.”
“Because no one’s killing you on my watch.”
Colbie felt herself oddly moved by this. “That’s so sweet.”
“The hell with sweet,” Elle said. “Spence would fire my ass, and I love my job.”
Elle swapped their note cards. “Remember,” she said, “we stick together.”
They went out to the bar and had a few drinks. By the end of the second one, Willa was wearing a silly smile. “I love you guys,” she said, slinging her arms around them all. “Thanks for loving me even though I always smell like wet dog and carry pet treats in my pockets.”
“She’s a cheap date,” Haley whispered to Colbie.
“Hey,” Willa said. “But true.”
“I usually smell like wood,” Kylie said, holding up her glass.
“Sometimes I smell like the bay and pelicans,” Pru said.
“Well, I smell amazing,” Elle said, waving at the bartender, buying them all another round before turning to Willa. “And ride or die, right? To the moon and back.”
“Ride or die, to the moon and back,” Kylie, Willa, Haley, and Pru repeated, completely out of sync but with such genuine sincerity that Colbie felt a catch in her throat.
“It’s so sweet that you guys have each other like this,” she said.
“And you too,” Willa reminded her.
“Yeah?” Colbie asked, feeling sappy. And maybe a little bit drunk as she finished her second drink. “You’d really include me after only knowing me for two and a half weeks?”
“Depends on if you’re going to make a big deal out of it or not.”
The catch in Colbie’s throat tightened and now her eyes burned too. “I’m sorry,” she whispered, waving a hand in front of her face. “I didn’t realize how lonely I was until right this very minute, being so far away from home.”
“Aw.” Kylie slipped an arm around her. “We won’t let you be lonely tonight.”
“Sure,” Willa said. “We’re a pretty good tribe to belong to. We always tell each other if there’s something stuck in our teeth, and we all carry chocolate in our purses for everyone’s various PMS days. Plus we all have our roles. Pru is the voice of reason. I’m the mom. Kylie can fix anything. Haley is our resident healer. And Elle is the protection.”
“What am I?” Colbie asked.
“You tell us,” Elle said.
Their gazes met and Colbie felt the challenge. “I’m a good storyteller.” That’s as far as she was willing to go right now, although looking into their friendly gazes—well, everyone’s but Elle’s; she was avoiding Elle’s—she felt a stab of guilt.
“That’s it?” Elle asked meaningfully.
“Hmm,” Elle said. “I’m not sure Spence needs a . . . storyteller.”
Willa opened her purse and handed Elle a piece of chocolate.
Elle sighed and ate it. After a few seconds, she looked at Colbie. “Sorry,” she said to Colbie. “Old habits, protecting those I care about.”
“Spence wouldn’t want you trying to protect him,” Pru said.
“No, he wouldn’t,” Elle said. “And he sure as hell wouldn’t want me to say he’s having trouble with work, but I’m going to say it anyway because he is.”
“Wait.” Colbie was trying to process but felt impeded by the shots. “What do you mean, he’s having trouble?”
“He hasn’t been able to concentrate or focus.”
Elle just looked at her.
Right. Since she’d come into the picture. “It’s only been a little over two weeks.”
Elle nodded. “Time that he didn’t have to spare.”
Colbie set her drink down. Was that true? And if so, why hadn’t he told her himself? He’d made it seem like everything was fine.
“You know what we need?” Willa said into the awkward silence. “Another drink!”
Ten minutes later, Colbie could admit that Willa had been right. She was feeling no pain. In fact, she couldn’t feel her toes. “Huh,” she said and looked down. But yep, her toes were definitely still there.
“What’s up?” Kylie asked.
“I thought I lost my toes there for a second.”
Kylie grinned. “You’re a cheap date too.” She looked at Willa. “We should call Spence.”
“Oh let me!” Pru said, bouncing up and down and clapping her hands. “I owe him a favor. I can hand him Colbie and we’ll be even!”
“Hey,” Colbie said, pretty sure she should object to anyone handing her over to anyone. Even if a part of her, a big part, quivered in anticipation of being given to Spence for the rest of the night.
“Are you denying you’d want to go home and ride him like a wild bronco?” Kylie asked her.
Everyone stared at Colbie, leaving her in a predicament. “If I say yes,” she said with the care of the heavily inebriated, “then you’ll all know we’re sleeping together. If I say no, then you’ll want to know why I’m not sleeping with him, and then I’ll have to admit that I am sleeping with him.”
“You do know you’re talking out loud, right?” Elle asked.
But the others were all high-fiving themselves and also exchanging money.
“I won,” Kylie said, counting her winnings. “But only because Elle didn’t bet.”
Colbie looked at Elle.
“She didn’t want to bet on something that might hurt her BFF,” Pru said. “That’s why we’re here tonight. To make sure you’re okay for Spence, that you’re not holding him back. And if so . . . well, I don’t know what. Maybe off with your head!” she said dramatically.
When no one else laughed, Pru closed her eyes, smacking her own forehead. “Right. Don’t tell Colbie that Spence asked us to be her friends or that Elle wanted us to audition her for him . . .”
Colbie blinked and then stared at the others, hating that the alcohol was scrambling her thought process, making her slow as a turtle. “Wait . . . so this wasn’t girls’ night—it was an . . . audition?”
Pru winced. “Listen, we —”
“No.” Colbie stood and grabbed her purse. And a little bit of the edge of the bar so she didn’t tip over. “What the flip?”
A warm hand helped steady her. “Whoa, darlin’, careful.”
It was Tina from the coffee shop, tall as a mountain and dressed in head-to-toe flapper girl, looking fab while she was at it. She took in the now tense group and her smile faded. “Hey. What’s wrong?”
“Colbie,” Willa said, regret heavy in her voice. “We just wanted to make sure—”
“—That I’m Spence-worthy, I get it,” she said. And oddly enough, she did. But it didn’t take away from her embarrassment and hurt that she’d been fooled. “You let me think you wanted me here.” She shook her head, feeling stupid . . . and drunk—a bad combo. “And I gushed about it,” she said. “I went on and on, and you let me.” Feeling her throat go tight, she knew she needed out of there, now. “I’ve got to go.”