“This place is a different level of fancy.”
It was our turn next, and he pulled up, but when the valet opened his door, Stone didn’t get out. He was watching me. “You don’t want to go here?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“It’s in your voice. I can tell.” He looked around, cursing, and motioned to the guy. “Sorry. Change of plans.”
“What are you doing?” I asked as the valet nodded and stepped back, helping Stone shut the door at the same time, and then we were moving forward, pulling back onto the highway.
“You don’t want to go there. I can tell. I’m sorry. Asked around. Everyone said to take you there, said all chicks would want to go there. I should’ve known. You’re different.” He sighed. “Thank fuck you are.”
I should protest, have him turn back, but he was right.
“Besides.” Stone threw me a wolfish grin. “Pretty sure we’d have our pictures sold to a gossip site.” He reached for my hand, our fingers sliding against each other. “Way you look, we would’ve been put up somewhere.”
The paparazzi buzz had settled, too. Mostly because we never went out. Stone didn’t have the time. If he wasn’t at practice or traveling for away games or at the stadium in meetings, he was watching tapes at home his place. We divided our nights. The nights before my early morning classes, we were at my place. All the other nights, we were at his, so I almost thought home—my home—but it wasn’t. And that was moving too fast. We weren’t there, but as his thumb started rubbing over the top of my hand, I started wondering if we were actually already there.
I definitely felt like I was.
It wasn’t long before I saw where he took us.
We pulled into the parking lot of the Quail.
I shot him a look. “Way to keep a low profile.”
He laughed, parking and getting out of his side. Coming around, he opened my door and helped me down, saying, “Your school knows who you are.”
A fact he’d been a part of since he kept coming to the Quail when I was working. He’d stop in, get food, give me a kiss, and then usually head out. Or he’d come in with either Colby, Jake, or both of them, and they’d sit a while. His presence wasn’t as big of an uproar. There were still a few whispers, some looks, maybe one person asking for an autograph or a selfie, but for the most part, he was right. He’d blended in, and he was also right because as soon as we walked in, a collective laugh came up from the corner booth. My housemates were all sitting there. It seated twelve, so the adjacent booth had the rest.
Nicole slid out and came over, a beer in hand. “What happened to the date?”
Stone’s arm came around my shoulder. “This is it. We’ll do fancy for Valentine’s Day, but till then, this is what my girl wants.”
He was right, and I was grinning, feeling weird about smiling so much, but it was what it was.
“Well.” Nicole’s tone turned into a warning. Her face grew somber real quick. “Then I should prepare you…”
“Is that her?!”
Coming out of the bathroom, behind Mia, was another just-as-beautiful-looking girl. Charcoal black hair. Pert nose. Tiny chin. A dimple on one side. Flashing green eyes. Megan Fox look-a-like. She stepped around Mia, her hair being tossed over her shoulder. She was finishing drying her hands and she came forward, walking as if she owned the Quail, the whole college, and the whole world.
“Hi!” She held her hand out, but her eyes were raking in Stone. “I’m Char. Finally nice to meet you.”
Nicole sighed beside me. “This is Char, Dusty.”
“Dusty. I just love your name. It’s the best ever.” I didn’t shake her hand quick enough. She transferred it to Stone, upping her smile wattage. “Hi! I’m Char.” Her eyes widened and she took a step back. “Holy shit. You’re Stone Reeves. Aren’t you?”
Stone looked at her, her hand, me, and shifted back, placing a hand in the small of my back. That was his cue he wasn’t engaging. This was all me, but he was there to support me.
I eyed Nicole. She was flashing me an apology. She wasn’t saying it, but it was there in her eyes.
A double dose of ‘oh, shit’.
Char was frowning at both Stone and me, but put her hand back to her side. “Yeah. I’m back.” She gestured to the booths behind her. “Got a cheap ticket and flew back, surprised everyone just as you guys left. They weren’t expecting me and voilà.” She indicated the bar around us. “We’re here to celebrate.”
I caught sight of Wyatt and Noel making a point to drink gulpfuls of beer.
That eased some of the knot in me, but Nicole wasn’t saying anything. Mia had followed to stand behind Char. She looked more constipated than normal, but knowing Mia, this could’ve been her trying to be supportive of a friend she was still hurt by. It was also a show of solidarity and she was there. Yeah. That’s what that look relayed on her face.
Savannah just had her mouth closed tight, her arms folded over her chest. She was sitting back in the corner. Noel on one side. Wyatt on the other. Lisa hadn’t gotten up. I noted that. How’d I miss that?
“And,” Char was talking as if none of what I was noticing was happening, as if everyone was happy-go-lucky to have her back. “Don’t worry. I won’t kick you out of my room, not just yet. You can take a couple weeks to look for a new place. My family has an apartment here, downtown. I’ll stay there. And I’m not joining C&B until next semester so it’s not like the commute’s going to be a nag. I’m sure they’ll all come see me half the time.”
I didn’t want to move out.
I knew it then, and hearing that I’d have to, I didn’t want to. I wanted to keep what Stone and I were doing. Maybe in the future, we’d have that conversation, but it was too soon. Living together was serious, and I wasn’t ready. I was enjoying what we had.
As if feeling my turmoil, Stone had enough. He asked her, “Who’s your man?”
“Your man. You got a man?”
She blinked, taken aback by how blunt he was being. “No.”
“Who’s your handler then? Who handles you in this group?”
“Uh.” She looked behind her, and hearing that, Mia stepped forward, but she was still frowning.
“I think I do.”
Stone frowned. “You don’t sound so sure.”
She was eyeing Char before a look flashed over her. Her face cleared and she was set. “Because you can’t come back and declare it’s your room again. You left us. Like, completely. We had no clue what you were doing, where you were, until the day before Dusty showed up. And we didn’t make it super easy for her to be in the house.”
Stone’s hand pressed on my back. He shifted, standing closer to me.
Mia still just looked so annoyed. She said to me, “I said it before, but I’m so sorry for being such a bitch. Now I care about you and I worry about you and you,” she turned to Stone, huffing, “you better be good to her or I will hurt you. Somehow. Lisa and I will both hurt you. We’re the vengeful ones in the group. Sav’s the prim and proper one, and Nicole’s the nice one. Char was just the bitchy one of us, but not anymore.” She turned to her old best friend, now on a roll. Her head went higher. The Greek goddess look was coming back as she straightened to her full height. “You’re back. Fine. Welcome home, but not in the house. We got Dusty now, and we’re not letting her go. You, we can work on being friends again if you apologize for what you did to us.” She twisted around, looking at Savannah and Lisa. Both were watching. We were within hearing distance, a fact that Char was noting, too, because none of the others were speaking up. Guys either. Her face was getting more and more pale as Mia went. And Mia wasn’t done. She added, nodding to herself, “Right. Yes. It’s decided. You left us in the lurch. You don’t get to just come back. As long as Dusty wants the room, and she’s got the basement room.”
Char winced, sucking in her breath. “No!”
“She gets to keep it.”
She finished, and no one said a word.
I didn’t look, but I could feel Stone’s amusement. He didn’t like hearing they’d been not so nice to me, but everything else, he’d been keeping in his laughter. Now he ducked down, saying softly enough so only I could hear, “Colby and Jake would’ve sold a jersey to witness something like that. Who’s this chick again?”
I elbowed him but fighting my own grin.
“You guys hated on me dating Brian.”
Now it was Char’s turn, and she’d snapped back. Her face was filling with color.
I had to give her props because she’d bounced back quick. She’d been pale up to the last second Mia stopped talking.
“That again?!” Mia rolled her eyes.
“Yes, that again. I loved him and you and Lisa were riding my ass, saying what a dick he was, saying I shouldn’t date him. You know how that makes me feel? Great supportive friends, huh. You made him dump me because of your bitching.”