NERVOUS DIDN’T EVEN BEGIN TO DESCRIBE HOW I FELT. After months of exchanging texts and emails, I finally agreed to meet the guy I’d been talking to online. I slipped onto the barstool and waited for Seth, the bartender, to finish up with his customer.
"The usual G&T for you, Hannie?" he said by way of greeting. The Newsroom was conveniently situated across from the World@War building where I worked as an investigative journalist. We reported on the ugly side of life to make people aware that everything was not always sunshine and roses.
"Please," I answered. "And a water too."
Seth’s lips lifted into a smile, accentuating the wrinkles around his eyes. "Is it my imagination or do you look anxious?"
I smoothed my palms over the material of my beige maxi-skirt and licked my lips. "Just a little," I stole a quick glance at the door. "I’m meeting someone. It’s…uh…our first date." Even as I uttered the words, I couldn’t believe I was going to meet Eric. This was huge for me. I’d basically sworn off men after a traumatic breakup five years ago. Unfortunately for me, my two meddling friends had decided they’d had enough. A couple of months ago they put my profile up on a dating website.
I was mortified!
There was no doubt, I wanted that damn profile deleted, but curiosity got the best of me and I checked the messages. As you can imagine there were a bunch of weird and perverted messages waiting for me, but there were also a few sweet ones that caught my attention. Only one stood out though.
I had to admit, it took a lot of courage to put myself out there again. At the age of twenty-eight, most people had experienced heartbreak in their lives; the difference was mine had completely broken me.
It had ruined me for any kind of relationship. Until I’d started chatting with Eric. Chatting with him had been not only easy but there’d been this odd sense of familiarity that’d had most my anxiety dissipating.
"Your liquid courage." I was so lost in my thoughts that I hadn’t even noticed Seth leaving to fix my drink. Nodding in thanks, I dragged the coaster holding my gin and tonic toward me. He eyed me carefully as he leaned in closer. “If he turns out to be a weirdo, just say the word and I’ll have his ass on the curb faster than you can blink.”
There wasn’t a single ounce of doubt in my mind that he wouldn’t deliver on that promise. I gave him a wide smile and picked up my glass. "Thanks, Seth."
Drink halfway to my mouth, I froze.
If ever someone's voice could cause havoc in my body, it was his. Sucking in a breath, I set the glass back down and hoped my imagination was playing a cruel trick on me.
Shifting in my seat, I took in the newcomer leaning against the bar next to me. The mixture of anger and hurt that rolled over me was almost too much to bear. The need to show this man that he didn’t break me—even though he did—was a lot stronger.
Straightening my spine, I pasted a smile on my face and lied through my teeth. "Brian, nice to see you."
The bastard dared to leisurely sweep his eyes along the length of my body. As much as I wanted to scoff at him, I wasn’t about to clue him in that he affected me. One look, one word and electricity was rippling through my body, my heart was racing and my palms were sweaty.
I hated it.
I hated him.
Life was cruel, I thought as he slipped onto the stool beside me and informed Seth that he’d like a beer. Out of all the places this man simply had to show up at this bar on this day. If I wasn’t so hell-bent on pretending Brian’s presence didn’t bother me, I would have laughed.
"How have you been, Hannah?" His voice was soft and smooth and yet his words pierced like a dagger.
Damn those manners my mother had instilled on me; if it weren’t for them, I could have happily ignored the six-foot-three idiot beside me. I licked my lips. “Good.” Without looking at him, I asked, “You?”
There was a long pause. Long enough to prompt me to angle my head his way. One look at him though, and I wanted to scream. He was even more handsome than I remembered. Soft brown hair a bit longer but every strand perfectly in place. The strong square jaw I used to love running my palm over sporting the beginnings of a beard.
And then there were his eyes—eyes that could see straight into my soul—they were as passionately green as the ocean turned during a storm.
“Busy,” he answered softly. “You know me, I can't sit still.” It was because of his restlessness that… No, I wasn’t going to go there.
I didn’t want to go there ever again.
Lifting my glass, I took a small sip of my gin when I really wanted to swallow it down in one go. More silence stretched. It was weird and awkward. Where the hell are you, Eric? As inconspicuously as I could, I twisted my arm to check the time, he was more than a little late now. My heart squeezed. Had I been stood up?
"You waiting for someone?" Brian’s question had me gritting my teeth.
"I am actually." A loud bout of laughter had me glancing at the entrance. Unfortunately, none of the people entering resembled the dark-haired man I was waiting for.
"Hot date?" The irritation in his voice might have been my imagination.
Reluctantly, I turned my attention back to the man who’d broken my heart years ago. I’d thought that I had put all that pain behind me, but the ache in my chest mocked me. "Look Brian, I don’t think—"
"Hannah, can we—" He started but stopped as soon as I shook my head.
"Let's not do the whole it’s-good-to-see-you thing." I glanced at the door again, praying that Eric would appear and save me from the situation. I didn’t want Brian to see that our time apart had done nothing to heal me. When I saw nothing but a bunch of over-excited college kids, I adjusted my glasses and decided to admit defeat.
Eric wasn’t going to show up, and I had no intention of sitting there and reminiscing with my ex. Pushing to my feet, I dropped a few bills on the bar next to my half-empty drink.
I started to turn when he jumped off his stool and planted himself in front of me. “Can we catch up sometime? Maybe lunch or dinner?” Why did he have to look so damn desperate?
"That would be a bad idea,” I answered honestly. “I have to go.” I was proud of myself for being able to walk out of that bar without even looking back once. I wasn’t so proud of myself for not being able to get Brian out of my mind the entire trip home.
Or for stupidly hoping it was him when my phone pinged just as I walked through my front door.
Eric: I am so sorry!!! My interview got moved up and my stupid phone died before I could call you.
Narrowing my eyes at the screen, I huffed. “Yeah, right.” After throwing the device on my nightstand, I stripped out of my clothes and took a long shower. When the water turned cold, forcing me to get out, I couldn’t decide what bugged me more: the fact that Eric had stood me up or that Brian was back in town.
Probably the latter.
Even with Brian out of my life, moving on hadn’t been easy. How difficult was it going to be now that he was back? “Ugh!” I flicked off the light and made my way to my bed. I’d just settled under the covers when my phone alerted me to a new message.
Eric: You’re mad, aren’t you?
My thumbs hovered over the screen for a beat before I typed my reply.
Me: I’m not… Maybe a little disappointed.
The dots started jumping immediately. Eric: I’m an ass.
Eric: I’ll find a way to make it up to you.
Eric: Promise 😊
“We didn’t hear from you last night.”
I almost groaned out loud. I’d hoped to hide out—aka hiding from my nosy friends—in the break room until it was time for our staff meeting. Should’ve known their bloodhound noses would sniff me out.
Keeping my eyes down, I focused hard on stirring my coffee to perfection.
“Does that mean you got some?” Siobhan asked as she sidled in beside me.
“Oh, was he as yummy as his profile picture?” Mackenzie wanted to know. I didn’t see her, but judging from where her voice sounded, I figured she was sitting at the table behind me.
These two women had been my friends for the past four years. We’d shared quite a lot over that period and yet telling them that I’d been stood up had a weird sense of anxiety rushing through my veins.
But I also knew if I didn’t tell something, they wouldn’t let it go.
With a sigh, I released the spoon, leaving it to clank against the side of my mug and planted my palms on the counter. “He didn’t show.”
“What?” Siobhan screeched. “He’s a freaking ass.”
Mackenzie was next to me within two seconds. “I’m guessing he had a fantastic excuse.” There was no mistaking the sarcasm in her voice.
“His phone died,” I offered dryly.
Siobhan scoffed, “Of course it did. I hope you sent him straight to hell.” When I didn’t answer, she spoke again; her voice soft, “You’re worth more than whatever excuse he cooked up.”
At that very moment Lulu, our editor’s twenty-year-old secretary, came storming through the door looking a little more energized than usual. "You guys need to see the piece of man-candy that just walked into Mr. Bennie's office." Her high pitched voice made my ears ring. "He is seriously hot," she gushed, fanning herself. My friends and I gave each other a look before shaking our heads. At best, Lulu could be described as ditzy and every other man that walked into the office was either hot or a piece of man-candy.
"We should probably get going before we’re late for the meeting," I said, only too happy to be done discussing my dating life—or lack thereof. Everyone hummed their approval, and we made our way to the boardroom, situated on the top floor of the building.
“No,” I breathed as I walked through the door, my steps faltering. It was my worst nightmare come to life. Sitting next to Mr. Howard was none other than Brian freaking Matthews.