He nodded his head but looked unsure, pissing me off further.

The highway was easier to navigate as there were lamps lighting up the way as well as a clearer path. The tension in the car eased to a tolerable level eventually and a conversation started between the three in the back. Ethan and I hadn’t even glanced each other’s direction since his stupid offer, and I could tell from his body language, rigid spine, crossed arms, that he did not like me.

“...and that!” Bridge said. I’d missed their entire start of conversation. Bridge whined a little. “I wish I had dressed up now too!”

“I am not dressed up, Bridget,” she laughed. “You’re just so used to seeing me in dingy ranch clothing, you now think it’s the norm, but it’s really not. I’m actually kind of a clotheshorse. I just have no occasion to wear them,” Cricket replied.

“How do you even get pieces like this around here?” Bridge asked, genuinely curious.

I glanced back in my rearview and couldn’t see anything, frustrating me to no end.

“I order them online, baby. There is no better invention than the Internet.”

I kept glancing back in my rearview at Cricket, hoping somehow her face would magically light up and I could stare at her.

“Do you have any hobbies?” Ethan asked me suddenly and I jumped. He sat coolly in his seat. No movement, not a single twitch or shift. “Nervous?” he asked, narrowing his eyes at me.

I swallowed. “What?”

“I said, do you have any hobbies?”

I collect money. Lots of it. “Not really. I was on the row team at Brown, but I wouldn’t call that a hobby,” I told him truthfully. “How about you?”

“Cricket’s my hobby,” he said possessively under his breath.

I looked over at him as he stared me down with a fierceness I had rarely seen in another man. I stared back as savagely as he eyed me, my jaw clenched and eyes narrowed. We stayed locked like that until he broke the contact, satisfied I understood what he meant, and I turned my attention back to the road. What he didn’t understand is that I wasn’t afraid to bruise his face or my knuckles. I’d never shied away from a fight. Ever.

I was notorious in high school as the guy you didn’t mess with because if you talked shit and acted like you wanted to fight, I’d give you the fight. It was easy to separate the talkers from the doers. And there were always more talkers than doers. I didn’t know Ethan well enough to know if he was one or the other, but it didn’t mean shit to me. I would throw down without a second thought. I wouldn’t hesitate. Because if there was one thing I couldn’t stand, it was people who tried to threaten bigger than they were willing to carry out. The only thing is, I thought Ethan was exactly the type of guy to follow through, not that I cared, like I said, I was willing, but I did care what Cricket would think. Very much.

The remaining drive to Kalispell consisted of Ethan and me seething at one another, Jonah riveted by Bridget, paying attention to nothing else, and the girls chatting, oblivious.

We parked in a gravel lot and my stomach fluttered thinking on Cricket, imagining her in something else other than jeans and chaps.

I turned off the engine and began to get out when Ethan stopped me. “I’ll get Cricket’s side.”

I nodded my answer and I rounded the back of the truck, passing Ethan and trying not to feel too disappointed that I wasn’t able to open her door for her. What are you doing? I asked myself. She’s not yours. She’s not yours! I felt so stupid and, frankly, I was appalled at myself. I’d kept trying to convince myself that I needed to be her friend and only her friend, but I wasn’t acting like it.

I promised myself that there would be no outward or inward thoughts toward Cricket that weren’t entirely friendly and nothing more. Yeah, good luck with that. I awkwardly stationed myself at the back of the bed, my hands stuck in the front pockets of my jeans, bunching my coat around the tops of my hips. The cold seeped through to the bone there, but I didn’t care, whatever distracted me. I briefly pulled my cap down a bit to hide my eyes, then stuck my hands back in my pockets. I stared at the ground and toed the snow outlining my boots. They’d stuck down into six inches’ worth. I kicked the mound around my toes and shook the remaining from my boots. I did this for no other reason than I knew I didn’t want to look at Cricket.

I looked up quickly toward the passenger side and was forced to watch Jonah exit the back, then hold the door and offer his hand to Bridget to help her out. Much as I hated to admit it, I was going to be the fifth freaking wheel in that night’s scenario. Despite what Jonah and Bridget defined their “friendship” as, I knew what was blossoming and felt powerless to stop it. I just wanted to guard my sister from pain. Pain I knew was coming. Pain that would make an already burdensome life more difficult, but sometimes you have to let live.

I stared hard at the ground when everyone gathered around me, then followed them, my eyes trained on their tracks.

How you gonna pull this off, dude, huh? I asked myself as I stumbled toward the front of the pub. Eventually, you’re going to have to look at her. I decided it was best if I saw her in a controlled situation, one where, say, if I fell from my damn stool, no one else, particularly Ethan, would notice.

As soon as we got through the doors, I ripped off my jacket but left my cap on to shield me. “I’ll be at the bar,” I told everyone and left their questioning glances behind before anyone could object.

I was finally able to look up and sat at the back corner of the bar top, steadying my hands on the flat of the surface and trying hard to settle my breathing.

“What can I get ya?” the hot bartender asked. I say “hot” like that was unexpected, but aren’t they all hot?

I smiled. “I’ll take a Coke,” I told her.

“Careful, it’ll go straight to your head,” she teased, making me laugh.

I dangled my keys in front of me. “Driving.”

“Good boy,” she said, winking.

She poured me my soft drink and slid it over playfully before making her way to the other end of the bar to help someone else.

I took a small sip, wishing to everything it would’ve been something stronger. I drummed my fingers on the bar, mentally preparing myself. I took three deep breaths and decided I’d waited long enough. I picked up my head and deliberately scanned the bar. Surprisingly, something with an amazing beat rang through the air causing my blood pressure to rise in anticipation. I placed my palm over my rapidly beating heart. You’re just looking, I told myself. Just. Look. I took another deep breath and kept searching.

I spotted Bridge being goofy, looked like “the lawnmower,” I think, and Jonah laughing his ass off at her. I spotted Ethan sulking in the corner, nursing a beer. My heart sped to an uncomfortable pace as I searched but couldn’t find her. I half stood half sat and peered over the heads of the crowd but still no sign.

“Whatcha doin?” I heard over my shoulder, and I stilled.

My shoulders stiffened at the ringing bell that was Cricket’s voice, and I closed my eyes briefly. I was both apprehensive and expectant. I couldn’t torture myself anymore and opened my eyes. My breathing labored as I started to turn around.

Oh. My. God.

There she was. Gosh damn it! So gosh damn beautiful I didn’t think I’d ever recover from the sight of her. I sort of staggered back into a sitting position and raked her from head to toe. I barely recognized her, and that astonished me.

Her face.

I wondered why she had to be so unbelievably beautiful, torturing myself as I memorized every inch, every centimeter, every millimeter of her resplendent face. She sported her clever grin, but this time her lips were painted a bright red and I ached to kiss them, catch them between my teeth and claim the color on my tongue, smudges be damned. The fact that Cricket probably wouldn’t have cared less made her all the more enticing to me.

Her pitch-black hair was curled, reminiscent of a forties pin-up, including her short bangs, which she’d swept to the side and pinned up.

I would remember what she wore until the day I died, down to the miniature buttons on the ankle straps of her black heels. Underneath a thin, form-fitting cream floor-length cashmere sweater coat she’d buttoned just the center of, exposing her incredible legs, she wore a tailored black, shin-length spaghetti strapped dress with a sweetheart neckline. Countless pearls wrapped around her long, slender, alabaster neck and fell strategically down to her breasts.

She was a comfortable mix of casual and dressy, looked incredibly French, and exuded an elegance that would rival any of my prep school girlfriends. She was everything I never imagined I could possibly want. She was...devastating.

She smiled sweetly at me, completely unaware she’d cemented me to my seat, shell shocked and itching to grasp her shoulders and pull her into my chest forever. I would have whispered into her ear that I couldn’t understand why I felt such an omnipotent and inexplicable need to take her with me everywhere I went for the rest of my life, even though I didn’t love her...yet. I’d beg her to let me do it, to put me out of my misery and just let me have her. I’d pray she’d accept my desperate, though seemingly baffling, request. I’d tell her I didn’t deserve her, that I knew I’d never be able to, but every day would be a monumental effort on my part to strive to.

But I didn’t say those things to her. Instead, I bit my tongue, feeling for all the world like the biggest coward. Instead, I let her lean to my left and brush my shoulder and committed the feel of her heat to memory. Instead, I let her order for herself because I’d completely forgotten my breeding and hadn’t offered her anything. Instead, I turned my head toward her hair and leaned slightly, drawing in, basically gasping in, her heavenly vanilla and grapefruit scent. Instead, I ignored my instincts to own her and let her stand silently in front of me.

“I asked what you were doing?” she asked again, unaware of my internal struggles.

I shook my head slightly and cleared my throat. “Uh, just sitting here, people watching,” I offered with a slight smile.

She gracefully tumbled into the stool next to me and faced the mingling crowd. “It’s busy tonight,” she said.

“Is it?” I asked, unable to think of anything else.

Suddenly, I felt severely depressed. I wished to tear myself away from the magnificent person seated next to me. I glanced behind me at the bar shelves and wished I could snag the only premium bottle of liquor I was able to spot and hunker down in the bed of my truck with it.

“Yes, I haven’t seen this many people out in a long time. I’m guessing the season has got more than a few restless souls to come out of hiding.” She turned and smiled at me, and I almost wished I could cleave out my eyes just so I didn’t have to subject myself to her glaringly pleasing face anymore.

I cleared my throat yet again and braced my Coke between my hands to steady them. “Uh, you look very pretty,” I purposely understated.

She looked down at herself as if she just remembered what she was wearing. “Oh, thank you so much,” she said.

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