He held up his hands and laughed, “Hey, the alcohol gods giveth and they taketh away.”
I glared at him but took the shot without comment. I’d thought it might taste a little less heinous the second time around, but it was still the most offensive thing to ever assault my taste buds.
Milo finished his own shot with no issue.
“How often do you drink this stuff?” I asked.
“Pretty often. One of my uncles works at the factory in Mexico. He sends me coupons. It’s not so bad once you get used to it.”
“If I ever get used to it . . . shoot me.”
Milo ignored me and said, “Numero tres! For this one, amigo, I want you to get pissed off. You’ve been too damn nice about this whole thing. I don’t care if it’s over a spilled drink or just how ugly some dude’s face is—but by taking this shot, you promise to let yourself get angry tonight.”
“What if I get pissed at you?”
He shrugged. “You probably will, but I guarantee it won’t be because I’ve got an ugly face.”
“Right, just that ugly shirt you’re wearing.”
“This shirt is awesome. You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
I laughed and said, “Okay, I’ll get angry. That shouldn’t be too hard.”
He clinked his shot with mine and said, “And none of that holding-it-in shit.”
I took the shot. This time it didn’t burn at all, which was worrisome. Maybe it had already corroded my esophagus. I watched him fill the final glasses and I said, “Last one.”
“Hmm . . .” Milo paused, thinking. “You’ve not been with anyone since Bliss right?”
I shook my head, and didn’t bother telling him I was never really with her either. He poured the last shot and said, “Cade Winston, by drinking this shot, you hereby swear to hook up with a girl at this bar.”
“I’ll let you be the judge of what qualifies as a hookup. As long as there is some kind of action involved, I’m sure the alcohol gods will be appeased. If you succeed, may you be blessed with extraordinary game and the best sex of your life.”
A reward. That was new.
“And if I don’t?”
He shrugged and said matter-of-factly, “You’ll be cursed to a lifetime of getting hard-ons at the most inappropriate times.”
That sounded more like Milo. I wondered if he’d spent time thinking this all up, or if it was just another day in the depraved state of his mind. I wiped a hand over my face. I had to give him one thing . . . he was good at getting my mind off my troubles. Maybe he was right. I had spent months chasing after the relationship that wasn’t, and then even more time mourning it. Who said I needed to be in a relationship? I’d done my fair share of partying and casual dating during my first three years of college. But when graduation started looming, I had thought I needed to take life more seriously, start building a foundation for my future. Look at all the good that had done me.
I was twenty-two years old. Why the hell was I in such a hurry?
I picked up the glass, my chest still warm from the last shot.
“A hookup it is.” I put the glass to my lips and tipped it back. Damn it . . . the stuff really did grow on you.
Milo cheered and slapped me on the back.
“And now, we party!”
Bliss barely crossed my mind as we made our way to a bar called Trestle. Maybe enough time had finally passed.
More likely it was the tequila.
Milo had brought the bottle with us just in case I sobered up during the journey. By the time we arrived outside Trestle, my liver was probably permanently damaged, but at least my mind was clear.
The bar sat at the crossing of two smaller streets, almost directly under a bridge decorated with graffiti. It was the kind of place that just screamed mugging . . . or hepatitis.
From the outside, the bar looked like an old abandoned brick building. The sign was even missing the r in Trestle.
The inside was a totally different story. There were old black-and-white movies projected onto the wall. Bright colored lights gave the dim bar a retro feel. Then there were the dancers. I saw Milo’s friend Sasha on the far side of the room. She stood up on a platform behind one end of the bar, dancing several feet above the crowd. Her movements were hypnotic, her long hair bouncing around her as she moved. Between the run-down exterior, the projections, and Sasha’s dancing, the bar felt like some kind of secret, underground venue.
If we had places like this back home in Texas, I’d certainly never been there.
Milo clapped a hand on my shoulder and said, “When I told you to hook up with a girl, I did not mean Sasha, hermano. She’s off-limits.”
I laughed and looked away from her. “Is she yours?”
He watched her for a moment, his eyes following her movements. “Nah, man. She’s too good for me. I meant she’s not available to be your rebound girl. She’s been run over by enough guys for this lifetime.”
I eyed him, knowing there was more that he wasn’t saying, but I let him keep his secrets. I certainly had mine.
“Stop looking at me like that, Winston. I’m not going to be your rebound either.”
I rolled my eyes. “I’m not drunk enough for those kinds of jokes.”
“Well, that’s something we should remedy!”
We moved toward the bar, but a blond girl stepped in my way. She was pretty—light curls, pink cheeks, and a low-cut top. She appeared to have had way too much to drink. She leaned forward to say something, but stumbled into me instead. I caught her around the waist and steadied her. One of her hands went around my bicep, and she giggled.
“I’m so sorry!”
She didn’t let go of my arm even once I’d righted her. She looked up at me through long lashes.
She was attractive for sure, but I kept waiting for something more to hit me. I waited for the electric zing of attraction, the pull in my chest, the pump of blood.
She asked me the usual questions, and I made small talk, but I could have been talking to a wall for all the impression it made on me. I could make a move on a girl like her. I could forget about serious relationships and just spend the night with a pretty blonde, but I had a feeling it wouldn’t make me feel any better. It certainly wouldn’t fix anything. Plus, talking to this girl felt like work, and tonight I wanted something effortless.
I kept looking toward the bar, wishing I could take another drink. Maybe if I was drunker, I would loosen up and get out of my head.
The girl, Cammie, was saying something about how funny I was. I didn’t even remember what I’d said to her.
I felt an elbow in my back and Milo said, “Here’s your chance to avoid a lifetime of premature ejaculation”
I threw a glare over my shoulder. “Can you not say that in public please?”
“Don’t be ashamed, hermano. It happens to lots of guys.”
I shoved him, but we were both laughing.
When I looked back at Cammie, she seemed to know that my attention was waning. She leaned closer and reached a bold hand into the pocket of my jeans, and came back with my cell phone. Her smoky eyes met mine before she entered her number into my phone’s memory. I marked one thing off the night’s checklist without even really trying. I smiled politely at the blonde and said good-bye. I turned to Milo, preparing to brag about how easily I’d gotten her number.
My eyes caught on something else entirely.
One of the colored lights illuminated the pale, bare skin of another dancer’s stomach. She was wearing far less clothing than Sasha. She had on sheer, black tights and a short skirt. Her shirt was lacy and short, revealing a toned stomach inked with black lines. It took me a few moments to piece together the picture that the lines made, but when I did the electricity that had been missing with Cammie started rushing through my veins.
The lines were the roots of a tree.
And the girl was Max.
Even though smoking was allowed only outside Trestle, there always seemed to be clouds of it inside the bar. Amber light fractured through the haze. That, combined with the drinking, laughing patrons below me made the whole night feel surreal. The music vibrated everything. I could feel the pulse of it in the platform below me, up through my heels, and into my legs.
As I danced I kept my eyes focused upward and away from the patrons. It wasn’t that I was ashamed. I wasn’t a stripper or anything. The dancers at Trestle were just for atmosphere. We stayed clothed. I think I wore less clothing than anyone, but that was because I split my shift between dancing and bartending, and the less clothing, the more tip.
But there was nothing more awkward than making eye contact with someone below. Sam was careful to keep the bar as pervert-free as possible, but the way we were framed up here on pedestals with soft glowing light could turn just about any guy into a creeper.
Normally I tried to lose myself in the music and just dance for me. It made the time go by faster. But tonight, my mind was so full of the day’s events that I just couldn’t seem to turn my brain off. I took two shots before my shift started to try to remedy the problem, but so far nothing had changed.
I took turns staring at various places on the wall and ceiling to pass the time. I caught Spencer’s eye over at his table in the corner. He smirked at me, waggled his eyebrows, and licked his lips.
I pretended to gag.
He shook his head and went back to scratching away at the lyrics in his journal.
This afternoon was forgotten . . . for now at least.
I smiled, swished my frilly skirt, and glanced at the front entrance as the door swung open. Another cloud of smoke rolled in through the door. Like he was stepping out of the fog, Cade appeared. My twenty-four-hour, pretend-we-met-in-a-library, mom-hugging, golden-boy-boyfriend.
He looked good.
He laughed, and people stopped midconversation just to stare, like he was a celebrity. Dark hair tumbled down into his eyes, and he pushed it back. He had the kind of hair that just begged to be touched. He was with someone, a Hispanic guy, and he was smiling so big that his teeth were like little pearls in the dark room. He’d seemed like a pretty smiley guy when we met this morning, but only by seeing this smile in comparison did I realize how faked it had all been. He had these perfect dimples that softened the hard line of his jaw, and his eyes crinkled slightly. He laughed again, and I saw at least three girls maneuver closer to him.
One of the braver girls broke off from her friends, and stepped right up to him. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, and it was too dark to read their lips.
Not that I even knew how to read lips.
She looked exactly how I pictured his type of girl. Blond, perky, and nauseating.
The complete opposite of me.
In less than a minute, he charmed her the same way he charmed my parents. She was giggling and touching his arm, falling into him, all while curling her hair around her finger. I waited for him to move in for the kill, but he didn’t. They just kept talking and talking. She was clearly giving him the green light, and he was still chatting her up like an old lady in church.
Why wasn’t he taking what she was so clearly offering?
He started talking to his friend, ignoring the blonde. She gave the kind of pout that was obnoxious on anyone above the age of five.
Some of the tension in my shoulders loosened, and I danced a little easier. I told myself that the relief I felt was a by-product of those earlier shots kicking in and had nothing to do with the blond girl he was blowing off.
Then the girl reached into his pocket and pulled out his phone. She was smug as she entered what I assumed was her number into his contacts, and I wanted to rip her stupid blond hair out. He looked over his shoulder and raised an eyebrow at his friend. The girl left, looking disappointed, and he didn’t even give her a second glance.
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