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Frowning, I take a look around his office while I try to figure him out. It’s nice. The walls are a pale sandy color. His desk is wooden and looks heavy. This desk was not bought at Ikea. This was the type of desk you bought at an antique store and had re-finished. It’s clearly mahogany (La dee dah!). And I notice the whole room is neat; not a stray paper in sight. I can’t even see my desk in Safira’s store room! It’s covered in papers, stock, and trash.

Mental note; find your desk.

There are two framed photos on the mahogany bookshelf in the corner of the office.

One is of a little girl who is so beautiful, my heart aches. Her smile is pure sunshine and she is missing one of her front teeth. She has Nik’s eyes. The frame is bright pink with purple glittery butterflies around it.

Aww, cute.

The other frame is exquisite. It is thick silver with pieces of beige mother of pearl swirling through it. The photo is an old one, a family portrait it looks like. A tall, dark haired, middle aged man stands with his arms around a short but beautiful dark haired, dark eyed woman. The woman is very much pregnant. The man looks like Nik but he is pale skinned where Nik is much darker. Most importantly are the man’s eyes. They are Nik’s eyes. I’m going to take a stab and say these are Nik’s parents.

Two small girls flank the couple, hugging them both around the legs. Hugging the two girls are two young men. Looking closer at this picture I can see Max’s cheeky dimpled smile and it confirms my earlier suspicions that Nik and Max are brothers. Both girls have their mother’s eyes; both boys have their father’s eyes. All the children got their mother’s beautiful skin tone. They are all laughing and smiling.

Wow, I love this photo.

Everyone in this picture is so happy. Like, blissfully happy. I think back to Nik and wonder what happened to his happiness.

I take another look around but there is nothing else to note except a filing cabinet in the opposite corner of the room close to the door.

No more photos, nothing at all personal, nothing to suggest he has a girlfriend or wife.

Then it clicks.

His reaction to my stupid questions. And I almost burst out laughing but manage to stop it and make a choked sound instead.

He thinks I’m coming onto him!

I mean, I can’t blame him for thinking that because he is beauty defined. And now that I’ve spent some time with him I realize I had nothing to be nervous about. He seems like a nice, well-mannered guy but still a little too broody for my liking.

An idea enters my brain and before I can think about it and verbal diarrhea spews forth.

***

Tina spends a good few minutes looking around my office. Her eyes land on the family portrait which was taken a few months before Dad died.

I realize she’s looking for photos of a wife or girlfriend.

Here we go. She’s gonna make her move. I should’ve left the damn note thing alone.

Tina makes a choked noise and I look up to find her trying to hold back a smile.

Cut her loose and no one gets hurt. She’s too cute.

She is too cute. Too cute to fuck and leave, she ain’t that type. I can tell. I spend a lot of time with girls like that and they normally have the same interests as me.

Sex without strings.

My body tenses. How do I turn her down without sounding like an asshole?

Girls like Tina hurt easy. That’s why I don’t deal with girls like this.

She’s smiling a small smile and waiting for me to say something. I don’t know what to say to her, she’s nervous as it is and doesn’t need me going all asshole on her.

I start tapping my pen on the desk. I’m thinking so hard I’m sure she can see my brain moving around through my skull!

I haven’t noticed she started to speak.

“So we can be friends, right?”

Wait, what?

I stare at her, a frown forming at my mouth.

Did I..? Did I just get Friend-zoned?

I look over again to see Tina nodding vigorously and smiling brightly.

Wow, this has never happened to me before. Girls usually come to the club knowing I got money; they ask me out or ask me to their place for a “drink”, which one hundred percent of the time ends up meaning sex.

Tina takes my silence as her cue to speak again. “I mean we work right across the street from each other. We can do lunch sometimes and, Ooh,” she widens her eyes almost comically, “we can get together for coffee at Winnie’s!”

She looks so excited at the prospect of us being friends, she’s practically bouncing up and down in her seat.

You don’t need another friend. Definitely not a friend that’s a girl; too complicated. Cut her loose, man. You don’t need this shit.

“Uh...”

Just do it! Cut her loose. This is a mistake.

I look into her sweet face and the words are out of my mouth before I realize.

“Yeah, sure. We can be friends”

What. The. Fuck?

Where the hell did that come from?

Before I can think about what just happened, Tina looks at me and smiles big. Her lips are a pale pink, not lipstick or gloss, but naturally. Her teeth are white and perfect. I tell myself to stop staring at her damn lips. So I focus on her eyes. Her eyes are slightly crinkled at the corners. Goddamn, even her eyes are smiling.

Great. Just great, you moron.

Tina stands abruptly, pushing the chair out so hard it almost flies backwards onto the floor. She snatches up one of my business cards out of the holder on the desk, smiles brightly at me and says, “Great! So I guess I’ll be seeing you around, friend!” enthusiastically waving my business card back and forth in the air like it’s a Polaroid picture. She finishes with, “I’ll be in touch.”

And then she’s out the door. I sit back in my chair and my brow furrows once more as I scratch my chin.

Seriously. What the fuck just happened?

***

I walk myself down the stairs and out of Nik’s building, thankfully remembering the way Max showed me. I make my way across the street to Safira, bound through the door grinning from ear to ear and holding Nik’s business card. Mimi looks at me, her face twisted in confusion. She looks around the store then back at me. She narrows her eyes and slowly walks over to me. She takes the business card out of my hand and reads aloud, “Nikolai Leokov. Owner. The White Rabbit.” She breaks out into a huge smile and shakes her head in disbelief.

She claps her hands together and yells, “I can’t believe it! You’re actually going out with him!” Still smiling, she pats my hand. This small action is huge for Mimi. In Mimi Land, that is a hug.

Meems knows all about my past relationship; in fact all my girls know about Jace Weathers. I don’t keep secrets from them. One girl’s night out, after one too many cherry bombs, I unloaded my past onto Mimi and Lola. They listened intently as good friends do and offered me unconditional support.

I love my girls.

They are awesome.

Mental note; make the girls cupcakes.

I feel the rush of warmth in my middle; my face softens a little but I quickly pull on a poker face and straighten my back. I prepare for the wrath of Mimi.

I overdo it a little with the cheer, smile big and say, “Actually, we decided to be friends!”

Mimi does not speak for almost thirty seconds.

I chance a look at her. She is leaning gracefully with her tall, lithe body against the counter, one leg crossed over the other. Her eyes are narrowed (stop that darling, you’ll get wrinkles) and she wears a facial expression that clearly says Are you freaking kidding me? And not in a good way.

She shrieks, “Are you freaking KIDDING me??!”

Thar she blows!

I cringe and bite my lip before returning with, “It’s better for everyone this way.”

She counters with, “Umm, No. It’s better for you.” She shakes her head slightly and looks disappointed.

That sucks.

I don’t want to disappoint Mimi.

She and Lola have been on a mission since I told them about Jace the Moron (which Natalie calls him, or The Moron for short). They both set me up on blind dates hoping I would meet a nice man and fall in love. I went on four dates in the last four months and all the guys were nice. But, firstly, I don’t want to fall in love again and, secondly, I’m happy with my life as it is.

I don’t need a man.

I start, “Meems, I appreciate your interest in my social life…”

“You mean Lack Of social life!” she bites back.

I continue “…and you’re a great friend. But I’m busy with the store and I don’t have the time for a boyfriend right now. To tell you the truth, I don’t want a boyfriend right now. I love my life. I’m back on track and loving it.”

Jumping up, she plants her butt on the counter in front of me. She leans in and whispers, “You’re my best friend.”

My throat closes up and my eyes mist. I whisper, “Honey…”

She goes on, “You gave me a chance when no one else would. I’ll always be in your debt.” She looks uncomfortable and I know telling me this is taxing her. “I know I’m not the most cheerful person and I don’t do emotions well,” she whispers so quietly but I hear the words clearly. “That man damaged you. I just want you to be happy.”

Mimi is not wrong. Jace did damage me. Not physically but mentally. I don’t trust the way I used to. It took me over a year to trust Mimi and Lola enough to tell them about myself. They know most of the dirty details of what Jace put me through. They know that loss hit me hard and, yes, damaged me.

Who isn’t damaged in some way or another these days?

I’m a glass-half-full kind of girl.

My palms start to sweat as I think about what I left behind in Cali.

I miss it. A lot.

It sucks badly but I’m glad that soon I’ll have the best part of Cali right here…Natalie!

Just another week. Almost there.

My bff is a hoot; so much attitude and sarcasm in such a small package. I love her for that; she makes me laugh all the time. Humor is my way of dealing with a plethora of things. I love to laugh. It calms me.

She’s made me laugh a lot over the past year when I really needed it. I can’t wait to see her so I can squeeze her. I haven’t seen her in a year but we talk on the phone every few days and text every day. She knows more about Jace than Mimi and Lola.

Uhh, Jace Weathers.

What can I say about Jace?

I met Jace just before I turned twenty. He was twenty three. We were both in college when he asked me out. I said yes, and we spent two wonderful years together.

He was my first in a lot of things. He was my first boyfriend, my first love and my first…you know.

I had dated every now and again. I fooled around, too, but I kept my virginity for the one.

Jace, I thought, was the one for me. I gave him my virginity after only three months together. After that first time, we did it a lot.

How great is sex?!

Pretty great if you ask me! That’s the only thing I miss about having a man.

Jace was ecstatic that I was so enthusiastic about it. It was me initiating foreplay most of the time and I kept him extremely satisfied.

After two pretty great years together, we both decided that we were too young to get engaged or even move in together. We were happy with our relationship. Most of our time was spent together, laughing and goofing off. We were happy. Well, I know I was happy.

Jace is a good looking guy. About 6 foot tall, lean and muscular. He played basketball through college. Wearing his dark brown hair in a spiked style, with green eyes and an easy smile. He stole my heart.

I want it back, you goddamn thief!

Everything was great until it wasn’t.

I hate Jace now. I actually loathe Jace. He is a coward and a big fat stupid head.

What more can I say about Jace?

He broke my heart; shattered it into a million pieces.

I mean, really, what kind of man doesn’t show up to his own daughter’s funeral?

Chapter Three

Shit just got serious

Max looks incredulous as he slowly asks, “So you’re telling me you agreed to be friends with her?”

I sit at the table in our ‘chill out’ room.

I do a lot of business dealings at the club during the day. The club consists of two floors. I own the building. There were vacant rooms on the second floor, one of which is my office. There are two conference rooms. Lastly, the ‘chill out’ room which has a huge LCD TV, cable, DVD player, computer, stereo, board games, the most comfortable sofa you’ve ever put your ass on, dining table and chairs, refrigerator, a cupboard full of snacks, and coloring books and markers (for my niece).

I’m looking down and tearing up a napkin into as many small pieces as I can.

I respond, “I know, right? What the hell is wrong with me?”

My brother looks at me and smirks. He says, “She got under ya skin.” He laughs and continues, “She is pretty damn cute. And that ass, mmm nice.”

I have the sudden urge to slap him across the back of the head. My brother Max is my best friend. Well, he is, and so is Asher who we nicknamed Ghost. We all grew up together, went to school together and towards the end of our high school years Ghost moved with us. This made Mom extremely happy because as she said his parents are ‘mala gente’ or ‘bad people’.

The whole town knew this.

Mom loves Ghost as her own son. She refuses to call him Ghost though, but he doesn’t mind. He calls her Mom and he loves her as much as I do, maybe even more.

Ghost would sneak out of gym class so nobody could see the bruises all over his body. I knew they were there but it was forbidden to speak of it. I brought it up with him once and he disappeared for a week. The next time I saw him I told him I wouldn’t mention it again but let him know he was my brother and I had his back. Always.

Asher and I are thirty four. Max is a year younger than us.

Ahh, the golden boy himself!

Ghost walks into the room followed by my cousin Diego who we call Trick They both take a seat.

Max starts, “Hey Casper, guess what Nik got himself?!” He’s practically giddy.

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