Life isn’t going great right now. In fact, let’s go with “shambles.” My job as a pediatric nurse is on the line all because I blew the whistle on an alcoholic doctor. And while he’s busy threatening me, my stand-in father is in the hospital for chest pain, my sister is under strict “no stress” orders due to her difficult pregnancy, and I can’t tell anyone anything for fear of it getting back to her.
Enter Mateo, stage left: the boy next-door turned Navy Seal badass. When it comes to keeping me safe, he won’t take no for an answer. I can’t get him off my couch, and the longer he’s around, the less I actually want him to go. It certainly doesn’t help that every glare he throws in my direction ruins another pair of panties, but I absolutely cannot sleep with my brother’s best friend. Nope. That would be really, really bad.
I’ve been in love with Julia Donovan since I was old enough to ride a bike without training wheels. I enlisted in the Navy at eighteen, just so I wouldn’t have to watch her pine after my older brother anymore. Injured and pushed into early retirement, I’m back in Sonoma for my first long stretch in eight years.
I had every intention of avoiding Julia. Of settling into a civilian life that doesn’t put me in the path of my best friend’s little sister. What’s that phrase about good intentions? Yeah… I’m well and truly f*cked. I can’t possibly walk away and leave her unprotected, not after catching that douche nozzle threatening her. So, I’m glued to her side, even if it means enduring the endless torture of being close enough to taste her and having to keep my hands to myself.
Release date: May 6, 2021
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I watch my brother-in-law spin Olive on the dance floor, her ivory skirt floating out around her like a fairy princess. There was a time when I thought none of us would get married, but here we are. Candles, flowers, plentiful cocktails, all we’re missing is a drunken rendition of the chicken dance and we can call it a night.
Lilah’s canoodling with Ben in a corner, looking like the fucking Goddess of fertility. Parker and Lukas snuck off halfway through the cocktail hour. I expect they’ll turn up any minute, disheveled and half of the buttons ripped off their clothes. I swear to God, the two of them are single-handedly keeping the safety pin market afloat. And really, good for them. I can enjoy the fact that they’ve all found their people.
It’s a nice thought; that there’s someone out there for everyone. That Prince Charming is out there, waiting for me. The cold reality is that Prince Charming turned out to be a self-obsessed asshole and most of the guys I’ve dated would turn on a dime if someone offered them a quick blowjob. Maybe I’m jaded, but in my experience, all men leave, and they usually do it with as much douche-baggery as possible. I am so much happier alone. I can rock the cool, single aunt vibe. After all, Sally is single, and at sixty-five she’s still making that shit look good.
For what it’s worth, dating is just about the last thing on my mind these days. Long hours at the hospital have sucked every drop of energy from my body, and besides the annoyance of my onetime crush schmoozing his way through my sister’s wedding, I have bigger problems at hand. I’ve been clutching my little purse all night, dreading the call that I know has to be coming.
Was I aware that the hospital’s whistle-blower protection policy was a load of crap when I submitted the complaint? Hell no. But it doesn’t change the fact that Doctor Grimaldi is a sack of human garbage. Even if my name gets out as the one who reported him, I can’t find it in me to regret what I did. The whole point of becoming a nurse was to help people. I’m not about to stand aside and let an alcoholic get away with putting anyone in danger, especially children.
The music changes and the crowd claps as Brooks gives Olive one last spin and a dip. I consciously brighten my smile as I clap along. The wedding planner is eyeing me, and as tough as I am, she is absolutely terrifying. I’d sooner shave my head than get on her bad side.
The catering staff serves dinner with the robotic efficiency of a well-oiled machine, then there are toasts, and the cake cutting. I’m doing well, hiding the stress that’s tearing me up inside. This is Olive’s day and the last thing on this Earth I would ever do is let my personal shit get in the way.
Tonight is all sunshine and rainbows. I can make it through this without batting an eyelash. Although… a drink definitely wouldn’t hurt. It has been a long, long day and the servers aren’t bringing wine around to the tables anymore.
“Want something from the bar?” I ask Asher.
“Nah,” he grunts, holding up his beer.
“‘Kay. Thanks for the chat,” I say sarcastically, patting him on the back. He’s never been much of a talker, but he seems to have reached all new levels of sullen lately.
Sally spots me on my way to the bar, hooking an arm through mine and whistling as she looks me up and down.
“God damn you make stretch velvet look good, girly.”
“Well, I’ve got you to thank,” I laugh. “You dressed me.”
Sally hoots and leans back to look at my butt. “I might have picked the dress, but you’re filling it out. Sweet Jesus. If you don’t find a man tonight…” she sighs.
“You’re the worst, you know that?” I tease, hugging her hard.
The bartender gives us a nod, and Sally asks him for two shots of tequila.
“Hard no. I’ll take a glass of champagne.”
“You’re no fun,” Sally pouts as the bartender pours me a glass, sliding it towards me. As I take it, my bag vibrates in my hand. Opening the clasp and peeking inside, I see Brenda’s name on the screen. Fuuuck. She’s my inside girl with hospital administration. I’m thankful as hell that I brought her cupcakes from Olive’s bakery for her birthday. It’s about to pay off in spades.
“Oh, I’m fun, but I’m not getting hammered with you at Olive’s wedding. I’ve got to take this call. Go find Anita and Josie. They can keep up with you, at least.”
Sally throws her drink back and scans the party. “Alright, fine. I’ll see you later.”
Abandoning my champagne and swerving through the crowd, I head for the edge of the tent as I answer.
“How bad is it?”
Brenda’s nasally voice comes through, so quiet I can barely hear her. “Well, it’s not great. Could be worse, though.”
“Are you hiding in a supply closet? I can barely hear you.” I try covering my other ear and ducking behind the catering tent to block out some of the party noise.
“Obviously. Where else could I call you from? I’m not supposed to be talking to you,” she whispers back.
“Sorry, thanks for calling. This has been eating at me all day.”
“I can imagine. So look. Don’t freak out, but they’re going to put you on paid leave until—”
“What?” I screech at the phone, blood pounding in my ears. I wish there was a better word for how I sound, but “strangled eagle,” while accurate, is even less flattering.
“Look, it’s short term. The facts and evidence are on your side, but Grimaldi is out for blood. He’s trying to make it look like this is a personal vendetta.”
“What the actual hell? I included video evidence of him drunk on hospital property. What more do they fucking need, Brenda?”
“Just time, Julia. I know that’s hard to hear, but they have to get lawyers up to speed and protect the hospital. They’ve already put Grimaldi on unpaid leave while they investigate. They’re going to ask you to come in and give the lawyers a deposition, but I wanted you to have a heads up. The hospital isn’t working against you, they’re just covering their own asses. Still, it couldn’t hurt to get a lawyer, ok?”
“Yeah. Ok. Thank you.”
She hangs up and I’m left standing alone behind a catering tent wondering what the fuck I’m going to do now. Lawyer up, I guess?
I curse colorfully to myself, but it doesn’t make me feel any better. I spent years studying and working my ass off to get where I am. I fought, scrambled, and clawed to get my position in the pediatric wing at that hospital and now it’s all going to crash down around me because I did the right thing. Administrative leave is a stain you can’t wash off, no matter why they put you on it.
Weaving back to the bar, I eye my glass of champagne before sliding it back to the bartender.
“I changed my mind. Can I have that shot of tequila please?”
He grins at me with a lecherous expression on his face as he pours a shot, spilling it over the side of the glass. His teeth are stained yellow, and his clothes are rumpled and reeking of cigarette smoke. He slides the drink toward me along with a lime wedge on a napkin. As I reach for it, I see his eyes flick down to my chest. His tongue slimes its way out of his mouth in a way that makes me skin crawl.
Trying to ignore him, I toss back the shot and bite into the lime.
“Rough night?” he asks, talking more to my rack than my face.
“I’ll take a fresh glass of champagne,” I say, ignoring his question. If I wanted to talk about my problems, it sure as hell wouldn’t be with this asshole.
“Hey Jules.” A deep, smokey voice washes over me, sending a little tingle up my spine.
I know who it is even before I turn around: Javier. My childhood crush, Javier is the older of Luis’ two sons. Mateo, the younger brother, was my brother’s best buddy and constant companion. I trailed after them, forcing my way into their games and demanding to be treated like one of the boys.
But Javier… He had the dreamiest eyes and the worst reputation on the block. He went through every girl he could lay his hands on, while I watched from afar. I never knew why he wasn’t interested in me the way I was in him, but in the long run, it was absolutely for the best. Once I saw his true, narcissistic colors, my crush died a swift and silent death. I may love a bad boy, but that doesn’t mean I’m an idiot. I haven’t thought of him like that for years, so I’m more than a little annoyed that tonight his voice is sending shivers up my spine...
Turning, my eyes hit a wall of dress shirt and a black tie. I know instantly that this isn’t Javier. My eyes climb that broad torso to the clean-shaven face of my childhood friend.
“Mateo!” I exclaim, throwing my arms around his neck and hugging him tight. Javier’s little brother, who isn’t so little anymore, hugs me back, his arms wrapping around my back as he lifts me off my feet. “Lord, you’ve gotten big,” I laugh as he sets me back down. He might be a year older than me, but we were matched for height when he enlisted in the Navy at eighteen.
His lips pull into the same small, crooked smile I remember. He’s always had a serious face. Stoic, even. But that brief smile is a dead giveaway that he’s jumping up and down on the inside.
“I didn’t think you were going to make it.” I smack him on the chest lightly, just for keeping us in the dark. We’ve seen so little of him since he enlisted that I really hadn’t expected him to turn up.
“I couldn’t miss Ollie’s wedding.”
“She’ll stab you with her decorative cake knife if she hears you call her that,” I warn him. “I missed you earlier.”
His smile grows just a fraction. “I snuck in the back right before the ceremony. You, on the other hand, were impossible to miss.”
“It’s hard to miss a bridesmaid. We get to stand up front and everything.”
Mateo runs a thumb over his lower lip, distracting me for a split second before my eyes meet his again. I’m not one for the clean shaven, uptight look but I have to admit, he’s really grown into it.
“Is everything ok, Jules?”
I look up at him sharply. “Of course, why?”
He gives his head a casual little shake. “Just checking. I passed by the catering tent a couple minutes ago and could have sworn I heard a familiar voice cursing enough to put us sailors to shame, that’s all.”
“Just work shit.”
I get the impression I’m not fooling him, but he’s enough of a gentleman to let it go.
The bartender leans over the bar with a smarmy grin as he slides a glass of champagne toward me. “Can I get you anything else, sweetheart?”
I’m about to unleash all hell when Mateo takes my elbow, gently pulling me a step back as he slides between my body and the bar. His spine straightens and he clenches his jaw as he stares the bartender down with an expression that I can only describe as “I’m gonna fuck you up in about three seconds.”
The bartender looks terrified, backpedaling so hard I want to laugh.
“I am so sorry, that came out wrong. Please let me know if I can help you with anything else, ma’am.” He books it to the other end of the bar.
“I could have handled that,” I tell Mateo, smacking his bicep with the back of my hand.
He turns to look at me, straight-faced except for a tiny twitch at the corner of his lips. “I know, Jules. I doubt there’s much on this Earth you couldn’t handle.” The twitch turns into a hint of a smile. I move to pick up the glass, but he slides it away. “I wouldn’t drink anything he poured.”
“You’re right,” I say as I reach over the bar, snagging an unopened bottle of champagne from a bucket of ice along with two clean glasses. The bartender pretends he doesn’t see me, unwilling to go toe-to-toe with Mateo. That’s useful.
“That wasn’t exactly what I meant.” Mateo runs a thumb over his lower lip again, fighting to contain the smile that I know is trying to surface.
I bat my eyelashes as I pour a drink for each of us. “I know. You’re a rule follower.”
“How do you make that sound like a bad thing?” he asks with a soft chuckle.
“It’s not. It’s very… admirable.”
“But a rule follower wouldn’t have a personal bottle of champagne.” I grin as I hand him one glass and clink it with my own, taking a sip.
“True,” he concedes. The tequila and champagne are tag teaming to soften the stress of Brenda’s call as Stevie Wonder croons the opening lines of For Once In My Life.
“God, I love this song.” Throwing back the rest of my champagne, I tug on Mateo’s elbow. “Come dance,” I demand. He resists but lets me tug him out to the middle of the tent.
“I’m a terrible dancer,” he groans, chugging his glass and setting it on an abandoned table.
“No one cares,” I laugh as he shuffles next to me, so stiff you’d think he was drinking just as much starch as he uses to iron his clothes.
His dad waves at us from his table where he’s sitting with Gran. I notice that he seems to be rubbing his elbow repeatedly. “Is Luis ok?” I ask, leaning close so he can hear me over the music.
“Yeah, he said he pulled something in his arm. Olive has him taking it easy at the bakery this week.”
I nod but keep an eye on Luis, anyway. He looks worn down. Frankly, I think he needs to cut back or retire. I can’t help worrying about him. He’s the closest thing I’ve ever had to a father.
The song ends and a new slower tempo starts up. I turn to head off the dance floor, but Mateo gently hooks a hand around my elbow.
“Oh, no you don’t. This is the kind of dancing I can actually do,” he says, pulling me back toward him. I glance up at his face, too surprised to argue as he takes my hand in his and slides the other around to the small of my back. I place a hand on his shoulder and let him sway me. The warmth of his hand seeps through the back of my dress, making my skin tingle. I don’t think I ever noticed that he smells nice, but he does. Like cedar and a spice I can’t place…
Holy shit. I definitely shouldn’t be smelling my friend. I’m sure he’s always smelled like that. It just didn’t register because we haven’t been this close since we were kids. In fact, I think the last time I spent this much time with him was the day before he left for basic training. Right before he packed up unceremoniously and with little warning.
The memory hits me harder than I would have expected. I’d almost forgotten how angry I was at him for leaving. My siblings were all off living their lives at that point. Lukas had already left for a summer internship, Asher was opening the auto shop, and Olive had the bakery. Lilah was in school and taking summer classes. As the youngest, I was still hanging around, trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life. Mateo was the only one I had left, and when he enlisted, that loss hit me hard.
“You look so worried, Jules. Am I that bad a dance partner?” Mateo breaks into my reverie and I realize I’m chewing my lip. His expression is still serious, but there’s a glint of humor in his eyes. I usually go for the roguish men. Guys with tattoos and beards, bordering on pirate levels of bad boy. Not that those have worked out great for me in the past... But as Mateo sways us in time with the music, I have to admit I’m starting to see the appeal of those military romances Parker sells.
“No,” I laugh breathlessly. “I just didn’t peg you for a slow dancing kind of guy.” A tipsy couple bumps into my back, hard, and I stumble into Mateo awkwardly. He pulls me closer, my breasts pressed against his chest as he steers me away from them, putting his body between me and the rowdies.
“You used to make me dance with you when we were little. Don’t you remember?”
“Yeah, well, I was five. I thought I was going to be Cinderella.”
Mateo laughs, a rare smile lifting his lips enough to show a hint of the dimple in his left cheek. The sound is rich and deep, vibrating through me like it was my own. “Cinderella has nothing on you, Jules.”
“Why? Because I get to keep my dress on at midnight?”
Mateo’s eyes flare as the song ends, his fingers flexing against my back before he drops my hand and steps back. He clears his throat. “Well, yeah. I mean that would probably be best.”
What the actual fuck? I pull back, stung. What the hell is he insinuating? I may not be the blushing virgin, but I’m not ashamed of myself either. I’m sure he likes his girls sweet and innocent. I bet he likes them to fall in line and follow the rules too. Basically the opposite of me.
It’s not like I was coming onto him, anyway. Leave it to Mateo to take a joke that wrong.
I laugh disbelievingly and shake my head. I don’t know where the hell my mind is at lately.
“I’ll see you around, Mateo.”
I leave him in the middle of the dance floor and march to the bar, reaching over to take a fresh bottle of champagne. I point at the bartender as he opens his mouth to say something. “Don’t fucking start with me,” I threaten before stomping off to find Sally. My pool of drinking buddies may have shrunk because of pregnancy and wedding duties, but she’s a sure bet.
Julia Donovan is a force of nature. A beautiful, pissed off force of nature. Of course, she took my awkward comment the wrong way. This. This right here is why I don’t talk to people. I’ve never been smooth or social, and every time I open my mouth, I seem to put my foot in it. Aggressively.
Grinding my teeth, I watch as my best friend’s little sister stomps away with the bottle of champagne still dripping ice water from its bucket. Internally, I’m debating going after her, but really, what’s the point? Julia has spent half a lifetime hung up on my brother, and that fact alone makes anything I do superfluous.
Gregarious, social, and a shameless womanizer, my older brother Javier is basically a panty pirate and as much as I love him, he’s my exact opposite in so many ways. I watched Julia pine after him for decades, knowing deep down that if he was what she wanted, I couldn’t be the one for her.
Not that he appreciated her. The dumbass never even looked twice. I can say with one hundred percent certainty that my brother wouldn’t see a good thing coming his way if it slapped him across the mouth.
Julia joins Sally, Anita, and Josie on the far side of the tent, passing the bottle of champagne between them. A part of me, the worst part, is just grateful she’s drinking with a septuagenarian and a pair of lesbians instead of one of the many guys who have been eyeing her all night. I know I don’t get a say in it, but Christ, if I have to watch her sneak off with Javier—or really any guy—in that velvet dress I’m going to break something.
Like a nose.
Luckily my brother is off in the corner trying to flirt with the wedding planner. I have never seen a man try so hard, despite being completely ignored. The planner’s level of focus as she watches the party with her clipboard in hand and speaks into her earpiece, would put most military personnel to shame.
I glance around the tent, trying to decide where I belong.
Everyone says that transitioning from the structure of military life to private life is difficult, but I really didn’t think that would apply to me. I’m moving back to my hometown and all my childhood friends are still here. I expected it to be easy. Familiar.
Instead, the freedom I was so looking forward to already feels like an abyss. My friends might still be here, but their lives are all drastically altered by wives, husbands, and babies on the way. They’ve all cheerfully gone on with their lives and while I’m happy for them, it’s difficult to see where I fit. I’ve just been gone for too long; my trips home were too short and infrequent. The only people I really kept up with were Lukas and my dad, and now I feel like an intruder in the life I thought was mine.
Glancing around, my dad catches my eye, waving me over to his table with a massive grin. I head toward him, my chest loosening up as I sit. Dad has always been my rock. He gets me, knows that a big party like this is always going to be inherently difficult for me, even if it’s filled with friends.
He claps me on the shoulder as I take the empty seat next to him. “How’s the knee?”
“It’s fine,” I lie. It hurts, but it always hurts, so what’s the point in whining about it?
“Julia didn’t look so happy with you. Did you step on her toes with your two left feet?”
“No. You know Julia. I stuck my foot in my mouth and she took it the wrong way.”
“Mm… You better fix it. I can’t have my honorary daughter all pissed off at you.”
“Yeah… I’ll work on it.”
Dad takes a swig from his beer before rubbing his elbow again, and I eye him suspiciously. This is the man who could be bleeding half to death and tell you not to bother wasting a bandaid.
“Still bothering you?”
“You worry too much. I’m fine. Tell me about your interview.”
“There’s not much to tell. It’s just private security. The pay is decent and I’ll be closer to home.”
“Define private security for me. How dangerous is that?”
“Now who’s the worrier? Compared to what I was doing before, it’s a breeze.” No one will shoot me in the leg, so there’s that.
Dad watches me for a beat before turning his eyes back to the dance floor. On the other side, tucked into a corner, Julia laughs at something Sally is saying as she grips the champagne bottle by the neck. I’m trying to place what’s changed about her. It’s not that she looks different. She’s always been stunning; so beautiful that it hurts to look at her, but there’s something steely and hard about her I don’t remember.
Lukas and his fiance head our direction, and my best friend drops into the empty seat next to me. He grabs my shoulder, shaking me.
“I’m so glad you’re home, man! This is going to be so much fun. If you don’t get that job, just come work at the auto shop with me. Asher’s been a crabby fuck lately.”
“Mm… As tempting as that sounds, I’m not sure I can just jump into life as a mechanic.”
“Then come sell romance novels for me,” Parker chimes in with a bright smile.
Lukas laughs, “He’s too grumpy for sales.”
“Ha! Tell that to all the horny house wives that shop at my bookstore. They love grumpy bastards. No offense, Mateo.”
“None taken,” I tip my beer toward her in a salute. “I know my brand.”
On the far side of the tent, Julia presses the bottle of champagne to her lips, tipping it up. The smooth column of her throat stretches up as she swallows and I can’t look away. Fucking torture. How the hell am I supposed to imagine her as my sister in that dress? I can still feel the curve of her lower back against my hand like a traitorous dream.
I’ve known her since we were toddlers. Lukas and I are a year older than her and were all but inseparable from the day we met. But Julia was almost always trailing after us, digging in the mud, playing in my tree house, and annoying the shit out of us. But as we got older, it got harder and harder to see her as one of the boys. Even as a lanky little tomboy, she was a firecracker with a short fuse. And once her curves started filling in… I was fucked.
“She’s like a sister to me,” became my own personal chant of self-preservation. Because even if she hadn’t been hung up on Javier, she was still my best friend’s little sister and that put her firmly out of bounds. It’s always hard to see Julia, and I knew coming into it that this wedding would be no exception. It’s just worse than I expected. A sharp reminder of everything I’ll never have.
The DJ announces the last song of the night and the bride/groom send-off. People line up to see Olive and Brooks off on their honeymoon. I don’t miss the way Javier dogs after the wedding planner or the way Julia rolls her eyes at him. Part of me hopes that the wedding planner is headed to Antarctica next and Javier will just chase her all the way there.
I drive Dad back to his house, parking in the dark driveway and peering up at the house. It’s so big and empty. I hate the thought of him alone in there all the time. Before Mom died, that house was the perfect size for the four of us, but she took a lot of the light with her and then it was just the three of us. Javier wasted exactly half a second before running off to New York on his soccer scholarship. A few years later I joined the Navy, not exactly out of necessity, but it was that, or a mountain of student debt that I couldn’t stomach. And that left Dad, rattling around alone in a four-bedroom house with half an acre of property to care for. We tried to get him to downsize, but he wouldn’t hear of it. It was the house he and Mom bought as newlyweds and I’m pretty sure nothing, short of a court order and a pry bar, would shake him loose.
Grabbing my duffle bag from the backseat, I follow Dad up the front steps.
“Thanks for letting me stay here, Pops.”
Dad unlocks the door and gestures me inside. “Happy to have you home. You stay as long as you want. You’re not cramping my style or anything.”
“Cramping your style? What would that entail exactly?”
“My style? Oh, you know. A new lady every night. Keggers, hookers, and blow.”
I can’t help snorting. “I think you mispronounced ‘a book and in bed by 5 pm.’”
I drop my duffle bag on the floor, looking around the front entryway. It’s like a time capsule of my childhood. Dad reaches out and straightens the picture of Mom that hangs by the front door, perpetually crooked. I almost wonder if he enjoys having to touch it to straighten it every day.
“Yeah, that’s probably more accurate. Doesn’t sound as cool though.”
“Well, if you retired you could get really crazy. Stay up until eight, maybe even nine o’clock.”
“Nah, Olive needs me at the bakery.”
“You got her all set up. You could train someone else and take a break. Maybe just ease back. You don’t need the money.”
“We got someone else,” he grumps. “He’s slow.”
“He’s new and slow.”
“Alright, Pops. He’s slow. Teach him how to go faster or Olive can hire another guy. You should be flattered that it would take two men to fill your spot.”
“Humph. More like three.”
“You’re prickly when you’ve had a couple beers, you know that?”
Dad laughs, gripping my shoulder for balance as he uses the other hand to untie his shoe, kicking it towards the cluttered shoe rack.
“Bah, argumentative, maybe.” He winces as he switches sides, stopping to rub his shoulder where it meets his chest, and I feel a little tickle of dread.
“I thought it was your elbow that was bugging you,” I say, reaching out to steady him as he wobbles slightly.
“It is. I just babied it too long and now my shoulder is jacked up too. It’s fine.”
“Would you stop being tough for one second?” Taking a deep breath, I pause and try to fight the urge to raise my voice at my dad. If anyone is calm in a crisis, it’s usually me. But the little worry is turning into panic. “You just rubbed your chest. That’s not usually a symptom of an injured elbow. How bad is it really?”
Dad leans back against the wall and, for the first time, I think he actually looks his age. The boyish grin is gone, and he looks tired, worn down, and fragile in a terrifying way. He says nothing, and that’s enough for me to know it must be bad.
“Sit,” I command. I use my Officer Voice, the one that brings grown men to heel. Silently my dad nods, sitting in his favorite worn out armchair, looking crumpled. Digging my phone out of my pocket, I call the only person I can think of.
“This better not be a booty call after what you said to me earlier.” Julia’s voice is sugary sweet, and she sounds tipsy, not a surprise after the way she was partying with Sally.
“It’s Dad. His arm and chest hurt.”
“Is he short of breath?” The syrupy tone is long gone and her voice has all the efficiency of a medical professional. I switch the phone to speaker and repeat the question for my dad, who shakes his head and rolls his eyes at me.
“It’s a pulled muscle. You’re overreacting.”
“Luis, I swear to God,” Julia’s stern voice comes from the speaker and my dad grins at the phone.
“No, I can breathe just fine.”
“Nausea, dizzy, lightheaded, tight jaw?”
“No, no, no, and no. I feel fine. My arm hurts, that’s all.”
“Ok, go to the E.R. so they can run tests. If you think you’re fine to drive, you can skip the ambulance. I’ll meet you there in… twelve minutes.”
“You’re not driving are—?”
“No, I have a ride. Just do what I say and I’ll see you there.”
Dad laughs, shaking his head as Julia hangs up on me. “Give me my shoes so we can get this over with. You two are a pair.”
I hold his shoes out, alternating between worry and annoyance as he slowly, stubbornly puts them on.
Julia is outside the E.R. doors when I pull up, still wearing that damn bridesmaid dress that looks like liquid velvet painted on her curves. Dad gets out, sighing heavily like this is the world’s biggest inconvenience. Julia hooks an arm through his and before he closes the door I hear him mutter, “I can walk just fine.”
“This is for me, Luis. I’m still tipsy and these heels are killing...”
The door slams and I’m alone in the silent car, watching as Julia walks him inside. She turns as they reach the sliding door, giving me a soft smile before nodding towards the parking lot. She’s always been so good to my dad and, apparently, still knows exactly how to manage him. And me.
I park and jog inside, catching up just as a nurse calls my dad back. He grumbles all the way, but follows the nurse. Julia and I fall in step behind him. She looks tired and worry is tightening the edges of her eyes, but she gives me a reassuring smile.
We follow Dad into a small room and, when I hold the door for Julia, my hand instinctively goes to her lower back. I get a flashback of her body pressed to mine as we slow danced, just a couple of hours earlier. The way her smaller hand felt in mine, her warm grasp on my shoulder and her dangerous curves pressed against my chest… I have to steady my breathing so I don’t pant after her like a dog. Julia glances up at me out of the corner of her eye as she passes into the room, back straight, chin held high. Defiance flashes in her bottle green eyes and my heart stutters.
I know better than this.
I’m not an idiot.
I know I can’t have her. She’s Lukas’ sister, but more importantly I’m not the one she wants.
Still, when she looks up at me like that… fuck.
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