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  • Alexis Winter

**SNEAK PEAK** Castille Hotel Boxset


Hate That I Love You

Prologue-Elise

Ten Years Earlier...


“Elise! Come on, we’re going to be late!”

I continue fluffing up my hair and straighten my dress in the floor-length mirror of my door room.

“Did you hear me? I said we’re going to be la—wow!” My roommate Tessa’s mouth hangs open as she steps into my room.

“Is it too much?” I look myself over again, a little more nervously this time.

“No! No, not at all; you look smoking! Let me guess…Nate is going to be at the party?” She leans against my door frame with a huge grin on her face.

“Maybe…I tried to subtly ask him, and he said he might stop by. Am I desperate?” I chew on my bottom lip thinking about Nate Baldwin. I’ve been in love with him since the moment I laid eyes on him at the beginning of the year.

“No, sweetie, you’ve been in love with him all year. I say go for it. It’s kind of your last chance since he’s a senior and graduation is only a few short days away. And trust me, in that outfit, he’ll be eating out of the palm of your hand.”

The hot pink dress hugs my curves like a glove, and the color pops against my tan skin. I usually wasn’t so self-conscious about showing off my curves and my long, shapely legs but knowing Nate might be there to take it all in has me checking over every inch and second-guessing my choice. I slick on a matching pink gloss and add a few more coats of mascara to make my green eyes pop. After I slip on my strappy gold heels and grab my clutch, I run downstairs to join the rest of my friends and head off to one of the end-of-the-year frat parties.

I squeeze my way through the crowds of students bumping and grinding to the loud music that thumps throughout the house, stopping to say hello to a few friends here and there but mostly keeping an eye out for Nate. He’s hard to miss: tall, dirty-blond, athletic build. He’s usually surrounded by a small crowd of women all vying for his attention and that of other popular guys, namely his best friend Vincent Crawford.

Nate and I don’t run in the same circles; we met because he needed to fill a few law credits and opted into the same tax law class as me. As a prelaw major, it was one of my core classes, and because I’d spent the summer between high school and college taking every possible dual credit class I could, I was able to start out with some upperclassman classes. I had found out through small talk that he was a business major with a focus in finance.

I wasn’t exactly outgoing; I was more of a bookworm, but the moment I saw Nate, something came over me. I turned into a freaking chatterbox reminiscent of a sixteen-year-old high schooler. He seemed amused, but maybe it was more annoyed; either way, I’d continued to talk to him throughout the semester and had invited him to, or maybe suggested he should stop by the party tonight as a way to celebrate finals being over. He didn’t seem too interested but gave me a pity smile and a ‘maybe.’ For me, it was enough.

As much as I might have annoyed him with my banal banter over the last few months, we’d kind of grown to become friends, or at least friendly. We’d chat outside of class here and there when we bumped into each other, and he’d tell me about parties around town. I had only gone to one but was too nervous to approach him for more than a minute when I actually saw him. Tonight…tonight will different, though. I am going to tell him how I feel.

“Is he here?” Tessa yells in my ear over the music.

“I haven—” I stop mid-sentence as I look over her shoulder to see Nate laughing with a beer in his hand. His head is thrown back and his eyes are squeezed shut in a genuine, gut-wrenching kind of laugh. Tessa looks at me questioningly before turning around to follow my gaze.

“Well? Go talk to him!” She nudges me toward him, but I grab her arm in protest.

“I’m too nervous. I need a drink.” We both scurry over to the makeshift bar in the living room, and I quickly grab a shot of whatever the guy behind the bar hands me and down it.

“Another,” I sputter. After two more shots and a mixed concoction of god knows what, I straighten my back, flip my hair, and make my way straight towards Nate Baldwin.

* * *

The rain patters against my bedroom window as I lay in bed well past noon. A soft knock on my door brings my attention back to reality.

“Elise? Sweetie, you gotta get out of bed. It’s been three days.” Tessa runs her hand over my hair. “And not to be rude, but you’re starting to smell.” I smack her hand away as I sit up.

“I just don’t get it, Tess. He said he’d call; he said he felt something with me too and that he’d set up a date.” I wipe away a stray tear that tumbles down my cheek.

“Well, maybe he still will? I mean, he’s probably super busy with graduation stuff and his family is most likely here. Just give it some time.”

“I sent him a few texts, and he hasn’t responded.”

“How many texts, Elise?” I can see the countenance of her face change to disappointment.

“I don’t know; just a few. Why?” I suddenly wish I hadn’t told her. Before I can stop her, she reaches over and snatches my Blackberry from my bedside table, opening the messages.

“Oh my god, Elise! You sent him fourteen texts? What were you thinking? No wonder he hasn’t called you back; you seem like a freaking psycho!”

I groan and throw my arm over my face, lying back on my pillow. “I know! I don’t know what came over me. I just got…pissed off. He acted so into me, and we slept together, an—”

“Whoa, wait. He slept with you and hasn’t called in three days? Okay, time to get up and shower, Elise. I’m going to give you tough love now; he’s not going to call you back and he’s a piece of shit pig, okay? A dude who sleeps with you and doesn’t call or text the next day is using you and you need to forget about him.”

“Wait, what about all that ‘he’s probably just busy’ stuff you just said?”

“That was before I knew he hit it and quit it, babe. Time for brutal honesty, Elise. I’m sorry.”

She pulls me off my bed as I stumble to catch myself. “Hey!” Before I can help it, I burst into tears, covering my face with my hands. “I—I gave him my virginity,” I say through broken sobs.

“Oh, sweetie.” She pulls me in for a hug and rubs my back. “Trust me, your first time is never good, and in ten years, you won’t even remember it, and you certainly won’t remember Nate fucking Baldwin. I can promise you that.”



 

Business & Pleasure

Chapter 1-Allison


Life has a funny way of not turning out the way you thought it would.

Sometimes it’s irony, other times it’s a full-blown quarter-life crisis staring you in the face at twenty-five years old…in an airport bathroom.

It’s crazy how one minute, you have your entire life planned out, and in a few short hours and a few impulsive, if not reckless, decisions later, your life has jumped the tracks and is now aimlessly barreling ahead at full speed.

I splash cold water on my face and take in a few deep breaths, hoping it will calm the symphony of butterflies in my stomach. My knuckles have gone white as I grip the edge of the sink, willing myself to stay calm and pull it together. I hardly notice the endless stream of fellow travelers coming in and out.

Once I’m calm enough, I reach into my purse and pull out a few makeup items to freshen myself up. What’s that stupid quote about giving a woman the right lipstick and she can conquer the world? Yeah, okay, show me that color, please. The woman who penned that never had a quarter-life crisis in a public restroom.

After a little self-care and a mental pep talk, I feel good enough to emerge from my hideout, if only to make a beeline for the nearest bar. I feel a buzzing in my pocket as I exit the restroom and pull out my phone to check my messages.

“Uggghhh, goddammit!” I groan petulantly as I read the ‘your flight is now delayed’ text from my airline. I even throw in a foot stomp for emphasis as I roll my eyes and grab my bag, heading off in search of that bar.

Locating a decent-looking watering hole, I pull up my bag to a barstool and dramatically flop onto the seat. The bartender gives me a nod as if to say he sees me and will be over in a moment. I don’t even need to look at the menu to know what I want.

I wasn’t a big drinker in college, despite a stressful double major and a demanding internship. I enjoy a nice glass of wine now and then, but when I need to calm my nerves or feel a buzz, I always go for a dirty vodka martini with extra olives. I rattle off my order to the bartender when he finally saunters over, barely giving him the chance to get out his pleasantries.

The bar is dimly lit, even for an airport. It’s located in a more obscure part of the terminal and seems to be the bar people go to when they have a long layover or are stuck with a shitty delay like myself. I barely have the first sip of my very overpriced martini when I feel the familiar presence of a once-popular frat boy lingering near me. Why do they all feel the need to douse themselves in enough mediocre cologne to offend anyone within a fifty-yard radius?

I set my drink back down when he leans himself against the bar, half-pressing himself against my arm as if personal space is a thing of the past.

“Looks like you could use another,” he says as he sloppily points to my very full martini glass.

“I haven’t even had a full drink of this one yet but thank you.” I smile politely but turn away quickly so as not to encourage him. This isn’t my first rodeo; I am very aware of the effect I have on men. I was blessed by the genetic gods with piercing blue eyes and naturally thick blonde hair. I’m not Barbie height, merely five-six, but I don’t have to do much to keep my hourglass figure and perky C-cups. I can’t complain, and I certainly don’t take it for granted, but it pretty much attracts douchebags like it’s their job. Sometimes I feel bad for them that they can’t seem to resist a full-breasted blonde woman. Very predictable, and very pathetic.

My friends had given me the nickname Barbie since I was about thirteen years old. At the time, I had outgrown pretty much everyone in my grade and was the only middle schooler that stood head and shoulders above everyone else and had a full chest. Unfortunately, I stopped growing that same year. When I was younger, I was mortified by the attention my body got me; it was awkward as hell to be the only fifth grader wearing a sport’s bra at recess to play kickball.

“So where you headed to? You live here in Dallas? I’d love to take you out sometime if you do. Or, hey, even if you don’t, I’d fly to take you out!” He gestures wildly as he speaks, almost too confident that his offer to take me out will surely melt my panties and leave me begging him for happily ever after.

“No, no, I’m not local, and you haven’t even asked my name or introduced yourself, but you want to take me out?” He quickly jumps in and cuts me off, thrusting his hand out to grasp mine.

“Trevor—”

I hold up my hand to stop him as I interject, “Don’t bother. I won’t remember it, and I won’t be accepting the offer to hang out. I have had one helluva day, so if you don’t mind, I’m going to drink this overpriced and watered-down martini in relative peace, ok?” I smile to soften the blow, but it doesn’t seem to help.

He rolls his eyes and backs away with his hands in the air as if to say he surrenders. Something tells me he’s probably been in trouble for his behavior in the past.

“You know, you blonde bitches are all the same. Your loss, sweetheart,” he slurs. I lift my martini glass to him with a huge grin as I turn back around to face the bar and drown my sorrows.

Relieved to no longer be gagging on the syrupy-sweetness of his cologne, I drum my fingers on the bar, unsure of what to do with myself or my time. Normally, I would be elbows deep in a design, but since I had unceremoniously walked in on my ex banging someone else, I wasn’t exactly in the headspace.

“That was a pretty brutal rejection; you seem well practiced at it though.”

I haven’t even noticed the man sitting to my left. There is an empty stool between us, but he clearly overhead my conversation with cologne boy. I turn my head to give him a snarky remark, but my words catch in my throat and I quickly down two large gulps of my martini. The liquor burns my throat, but it allows me the few extra seconds I need to gather my thoughts.

This guy looks like he walked out of a catalog called Sexiest Men Alive. I know that’s a stupid way to describe someone but imagine all those guys that are in luxury car commercials and Ralph Lauren ads. The ones that somehow look like they work on Wall Street, are a secret agent, and could also be the leader of the free world while saving babies in their spare time…that’s this guy. It looks like the Greek gods hand-carved this guy to be their fucking mascot.

He cradles a tumbler of amber liquid as he shoots me a coy smile, waiting for my response. His hair looks like waves of dark chocolate with a dusting of gray at the temples, and his eyes are the most vibrant green I have ever seen. The way his tailored suit hugs his body, I can imagine he keeps himself in amazing shape. Realizing I’m staring uncomfortably long at this stranger, I smile and shrug my shoulders at him, clearly still at a loss for forming coherent thoughts like a functioning adult.

“Cheers to a shitty day. I heard you tell Trevor over there that you had a helluva day and I can commiserate with you there.”

“Who?” I can feel my face wrinkle in confusion.

“The lovely gentleman that just approached you,” he says, gesturing with a nod towards the table of rowdy frat guys.

“Oh! Sorry, I guess I didn’t even catch his name.” I shrug my shoulders again as if this is the only form of primitive communication I’m capable of. I usually wasn’t so callous, but like I told Trevor, today is not my day.

He lifts his almost empty glass in the air towards me and then swallows down the rest of the liquor. Almost without hesitation, the bartender scurries over and offers him another drink in a fresh glass.

I raise my martini back to him and take another long sip. “The fucking worst,” I mutter almost to myself.

“Swap stories? Wallow without judgment?” he asks with a raised eyebrow and a sexy smirk.

I look down at my phone to check the time. “Might as well since my flight has been delayed for three hours.”

He slides off his stool and settles back onto the one closest to me. He leans in, holding out his hand to me. I reach my hand out to meet him, very aware of my grossly sweaty palms. Of course, he smells fantastic. Like a fucking fantasy: expensive and refined with notes of sandalwood and oud.

“Vincent Crawford.” He shakes my hand firmly as he raises an eyebrow as if to ask my name in return. A current of electricity travels through my body at his touch. Yup, this is the kind of guy who could completely fuck up your life in two-point-five seconds.

“Alison. Alison Ryder,” I say, trying not to stare at his full lips.

“Well, since I offered, I’ll go first, then you can decide how much you want to share to make me feel better about whining to a stranger.” I laugh a little as he moves the glass back and forth between his hands.

“So, I work for a luxury hotel chain based in Chicago. I am currently in the middle of an acquisition in London and another possible one in Toronto. I am actually on my way to Canada now to meet with the current owner of a hotel there, after which I go home for a week or so, then off to London.”

I sip my martini as he continues to expound on his travel plans that will be taking place over the next several months and the time it took to get everything organized.

“So anyway, my executive assistant that helped me plan all of these trips was supposed to travel with me, but today, she up and quit because she fell in love and eloped. This caused a chain reaction of events: since she quit, she didn’t confirm my travel plans with my private jet, so they ended up submitting flight plans too late to get approved. Now I’m stuck on a commercial flight, which is getting me into Toronto at an ungodly hour, if it departs in the next hour as scheduled and causing me to miss my initial meeting.”

I can see he is getting more and more exasperated, although he’s barely changed his cadence or demeanor, remaining calm. He’s clearly a meticulous and punctual man who doesn’t appreciate being late or having his schedule interrupted.

“Jesus, that sounds like a nightmare. I’m sorry. Is your boss at least being understanding about everything?”

He stares into his glass as he swirls the remaining liquor around before downing it. He shakes his head as he swallows. “Sorry, I forgot to mention, I am the boss. I own the company, so it’s just frustrating me more than normal that I am now stuck with no assistant to help me as I manage this possible new acquisition. Normally I’m very easy going, I like to think of myself as laid back, but when it comes to the reputation of my company, I can’t help but get a little riled up.”

“Hey, I get it. I’m very type-A, so I can imagine how frustrating that would be. When’s your next trip after this one? Do you have time to hire an executive assistant before then?”

“I’ll be in Toronto for four days, so I’ll have about ten days to interview and hire a new EA before flying to London for other business. I sent an email to my vice president’s secretary to see if she can help me get the ball rolling. The hard part will be finding someone willing to travel all over the damn globe almost immediately after starting. I prefer to build trust with someone before exposing them to such confidential information and putting those kinds of demands on them. Anyway, at this point, I’m just complaining. Your turn,” he says, raising his empty glass to me.

“Well, we did agree we would wallow without judgment.” I finish the rest of my martini before launching into my story.

“Funny enough, I am also from Chicago. Well—originally I’m from North Dakota, but I moved to Chicago for college and stayed because, well, it’s Chicago!” I’m rambling like a ditzy high schooler, my hands gesturing a bit wildly. I don’t know if it’s the alcohol, the frazzled state of my nerves, or the sexy stranger that has me acting completely out of character.

“I’m an associate at a very prestigious design firm, Madeline Dwyer Designs…I did my internship there through undergrad and then worked my way up from junior associate to associate…working towards senior and then partner, or maybe owning my own firm someday. My fiancé is a senior associate at a big law firm, about to be made partner. He and I have been together for six years. I met him when I was still in school. I was working through my internship and went to a local bar where the lawyers from his firm frequented. He was a junior associate at the time.” I let out a big breath to gather my thoughts and try to slow the two martinis from going straight to my head.

“So anyway, he proposed seven months ago, and we set a date for June of next year. Recently, his firm’s Dallas office took on a huge class-action lawsuit, and they needed some help so Brian, my fiancé, volunteered to go. He took a few of the interns with him, and they’ve been there for a few weeks. My boss asked me if I wanted time off to fly down and see him for a few days, and naturally, I jumped at the opportunity. I missed him and hadn’t seen him for so long.” I feel myself rambling, so I take another deep breath to steady myself.

“So, short story long, I showed up to his hotel last night to surprise him and found him with one of his interns. He had her bent over the desk in the room and was giving her the business end of a deposition, if you know what I mean!” I snort, half at my punny joke and half to emphasize my point.

Vincent smirks a little at the comment. “I did not go to law school, but I can deduce what that statement means.”

“I didn't even say a word to him; I just turned around and left the room. I was shocked and didn’t even know what to do. He followed me and tried apologizing and giving every excuse in the book from ‘it’s not what you think,’ to ‘it’s your fault because you haven’t come to visit me here.’ I just took the ring off and handed it back to him, er—maybe I threw it at him; I can’t recall. We live together, so that’s another nightmare I have to figure out when I get back. I haven’t told my sister or my boss.”

Shock registers on his otherwise passive face. “You win. Not that it’s a competition, that sounds rude, but fuck. You’ve had one shitty day. Not to pry, but did you suspect anything?”

“I wouldn’t say I suspected infidelity but…the truth is I was settling. I think I was aware of that; I just didn’t want to admit it. When I met Brian, things were great; we were young and in love and all that. But now…” I feel my words slurring together. I am wildly out of character at this point. Miss Type-A, always in control and uptight, is letting it all out to a complete stranger. I rub my hand over my face, most likely smearing my makeup. “I mean, I still love him…it just fucking sucks to put your trust and faith in someone and have this entire life planned out and they just throw you away for someone that ‘didn’t mean anything.’” I make sure to use dramatic air quotes to emphasize my point.

I look over at him as I shrug my shoulders in shame. He’s unsure of what to say, but his eyes are sympathetic to my situation.

“I feel like a privileged asshole complaining about this stuff. I’m sorry.”

He reaches out and brushes a stray section of hair behind my ear. It startles me, and I’m sure the emotion shows on my face as he pulls his hand back quickly.

“I’m sorry, I hate seeing a beautiful woman cry.” His eyes drop to my lips briefly before he turns back to face his drink.

“Well, Alison, you do have a right to be unhappy about where your life is going; privileged or not, we all deserve happiness. The important thing is, if you are unhappy, you have to be willing to be uncomfortable to change it. Otherwise, you’ll be stuck in the same situation complaining about the same things over and over. The big question now is, what are you going to do?”

I let out a deep sigh as I look up toward the ceiling. “I don’t have a fucking clue, Vincent.” I can feel my phone vibrate in my pocket again as the bartender sends me over another dirty vodka martini. I nod a thank you and reach into my pocket. “Finally! My flight is scheduled to depart in the next thirty-five minutes; looks like my delay was cut short. My section should be boarding soon.”

Vincent checks his watch and then pulls out his phone. “Lucky you. Looks like my flight is still delayed with no scheduled departure.”

I throw a few bills on the bar top and stand up to gather my things. “Thanks for being my airport therapist. It was nice to talk so freely to a complete stranger, admitting things that I haven’t even said aloud to myself.”

“Happy to listen. It was lovely meeting you, Alison Ryder.”

He gives me a crooked smile as he reaches into his pocket again and pulls out his business card.

“In case you need someone to drink an overpriced martini and have another therapy session with when you get back to Chicago.” I smile and take the card from him; our fingertips briefly touch, sending a current through my body. Just as I turn to walk away, he pipes back up.

“Oh, and if you’re looking to completely uproot your life, I’m looking for an assistant.” I laugh, unsure if he’s serious, but a little intrigued at the idea. I won’t lie: the thought of jet setting around Europe for several weeks on someone else’s dime sounds like a dream job…especially if it means spending time with him every day.

“Thanks again, Vincent. It was great meeting you. I hope you get everything sorted and can find a replacement assistant soon. Best of luck on the acquisition!”

I grab my suitcase and make my way toward my gate. I know I just met the man, but weirdly I feel a little sad walking away from him. A small part also questions if he really just hit on me after telling him I found my fiancé cheating. The thought of Brian makes my stomach churn…I feel like a piece of shit too. I’m still coasting on the realization that my six-year relationship is over and my heart’s broken while I’m fantasizing about a complete stranger.

I am technically now homeless and single…I just need to get on my flight and let my thoughts marinate in the vodka now sloshing around my brain.


 

Baby Mistake

Chapter 1-Janelle


I pull my sweater tighter around myself as I walk down the sidewalk toward my apartment.

The Chicago wind still has a chill to it even though it’s early May. It cuts right through my body and makes me shiver and wish I’d picked a heavier coat this morning. I sniffle as I push myself forward, mentally scolding myself for not putting every cent I have into purchasing a car. As the sun sets, the air gets unusually colder for this time of year. When snow flurries begin to fall around me, I roll my eyes and start grumbling to myself, but it’s all the motivation I need to get my butt in gear and pick up the pace.

Less than ten minutes later, I’m rushing into my building and up the stairs to the second story, too impatient to wait for the elevator. I let myself in and drop my keys on the table and my bag on the floor as I stand in the hallway and remove my hat and scarf. After hanging everything up on the wall hook, I pick up my bag and walk further into the apartment.

My roommate, Samantha, is lounging on the couch in the living room. “Hey,” she mumbles, not bothering to pull her eyes away from whatever she’s watching.

“Hey. Have you been outside today? It’s seriously freezing out there. You’d think it would start warming up at some point.” I grab a throw blanket off the back of the couch and wrap it around my shoulders, then sit on the vent in the floor—absorbing all the heat in an attempt to thaw my bones from the layer of ice that seems to surround them.

“I had one final this morning I had to go to.” She pushes her dark hair behind her ear as she sits upright, looking at me. “I saw Ryan Dillion today.” She smiles wide, and the smile makes her eyes sparkle with excitement.

I roll my eyes and snort. Ryan is Sam’s ultimate crush. She’s tried to attract his attention all year, and so far, he’s yet to show any interest. “And?”

“Annnnd,” her eyes stretch wide as her lips keep her smile in place, “he invited me to a party tonight!” She begins bouncing up and down on the couch like an excited three-year-old who’s just learned she’ll get ice cream for dinner.

I laugh. “That’s awesome! So, what’s the plan?”

“Okay,” she says as she settles and levels her eyes on me. “I’m thinking that you and I go to this party looking hot as hell. We’ll kick back, have a few drinks, and mingle. Then I’ll make my move. I’ll tell him thanks for inviting me and make it clear how much fun I’m having. I might ask him to dance or even ask him if he’d like to go someplace quiet to talk.” She points her finger at me, “So, if I disappear tonight, don’t come looking for me until morning.”

I hold up my hands, showing her my palms. “Ha! After last time, I’ve learned my lesson, thank you.” Last time, I did go looking for her and saw her in a very compromising position: doggy style, to be precise.

She giggles. “So, you’ll go with?”

I snort. “Of course I’ll go with. Have you ever known me to pass on a party?”

She again points her long index finger at me. “And that is why we’re best friends.”

We both giggle as I stand, taking my blanket with me. “But before I can party, I have to finish this writing assignment.” I grab my bag off the floor and head for my room. “If I haven’t come out in two hours, check on me. I’ve probably died from boredom,” I joke.

“You got it,” she says from the living room.

I close my bedroom door behind me and flop down in my desk chair as I open my computer. The document is already open and waiting for me to resume my work. I nearly growl as I scroll up to the top and read over what I’ve already written.

I love writing. I’ve always loved writing, but once I decided to get my degree in English, I quickly figured out how much I hate writing something that holds no interest for me. I can write papers on nearly any subject, but finance and business aren’t on that list. Nothing bores me more than having to do hours of research on a subject I have no interest in.

It’s going on seven when I save my document and close my computer to get ready. I step out of my room to find the living room empty. Music is blaring from Sam’s bedroom and I tap quickly on her door before letting myself in.

“I survived, if you were wondering,” I joke, yelling above the music.

She somehow manages to hear me, and she turns it down to a low muffle of background noise. “Good, I was about to come check on you. We have to be at the party in an hour.”

My brows pinch together in confusion. “We’re going that early?” I cross my arms over my chest as I lean against her doorframe.

“I’m not taking the chance of some skank beating me to Ryan. This is it, El. He’s mine tonight.” She flashes me a quick smile before holding up two tops: a skimpy black one and a skimpy pink one. “Which do you like?”

I laugh and roll my eyes. “Does it matter? Both of them will give him an eyeful, that’s for sure.”

She tosses both tops onto her bed, then turns for the closet. “Do you think I should wear my little black dress instead?”

“You wear that dress and you’ll be frozen before you get to the party,” I point out.

“True.” She picks it up out of her closet and holds it at arm’s length, studying it as she thinks it over. “Is it worth it?” she asks, more to herself than to me.

“Are frozen ovaries worth it?”

She doesn’t look at me—she just holds up her middle finger before hanging the dress back in her closet.

I laugh as I spin around for the bathroom to get a shower.

* * *

I’m leaning against the counter with a drink in my hand as I watch Sam and Ryan dance. I can’t hold back the smile on my face at seeing her finally get the guy she’s secretly been crushing on.

“Hey, beautiful,” someone says, bumping into my shoulder.

I turn my attention to a dark-haired guy I’ve seen around school a few times. “Hi.”

“I’m Chase,” he tells me, flashing a full smile that shows his perfectly straight white teeth.

“I’m—” I start, but he cuts me off.

“Janelle, right?”

I smile and nod. “That’s right. But my friends just call me El.”

“I’ve seen you around school. You’re in a lot of the same classes as me. Are you going into journalism?”

He leans against the counter, directing all his attention at me. I look him up and down. His dark hair is long and shaggy, hanging to the top of his eyebrows, and he’s dressed in snug jeans and a tight black shirt with some logo stamped on the front. He’s full of swagger and confidence, making it very clear that he’s used to getting his way with the ladies. When his smile widens, I see an adorable dimple in each of his cheeks, further confirming my former thoughts.

I move my head from side to side as I mull over his question. “Writing, yes, but reporting the news, not really. I like more freeform writing. I want to write things that interest me, not report on whatever crime has been committed. I’d love to get hired on at a big publishing house and put my editing skills to good use; however, I’m prepared to do what I need to do to get my foot in the door.”

He nods his head. “So, not aiming for The New York Times.” He smiles, and it makes my muscles tighten.

I shrug, brushing off the butterflies that take over my stomach. “I’m up for whatever. Right now, I just need to get some experience under my belt. I’ve put in for at least a dozen different internships, but I haven’t heard back from any of them yet.”

“Oh yeah? What did you apply for? I’ve been doing the same. Maybe if we put our heads together, we’ll both get some new ideas.”

I hold up my red Solo cup. “I honestly can’t tell you at the moment. All I know is the one I hope I get is the Castille Hotel Group. My sister is supposed to pull some strings for me, but I still haven’t heard back yet.”

His eyes widen. “I applied for that one too! I’m really looking forward to seeing what they plan on doing with their new magazine. I’m not really aiming for a writing career, but I like to keep my options open. And I’ve heard they’re a great company to work for. If I get in, I’m hoping it gets my foot in the door. I’d really like a chance to go into advertising. I really enjoyed the assignment where we had to write ad campaigns.”

I smile. “I did too.”

I end up losing track of Sam as Chase and I get into deeper conversations about school, writing, and potential jobs. It turns out, we have a lot in common. We both applied for a lot of the same internships, and have similar life goals. Not to mention, he’s a total flirt and pretty easy on the eyes. We both flirt and tease one another, but in the end, it doesn’t move past that. He seems like a gentleman—not some player who only comes to parties to hook up. In fact, we have so much in common that I could see our new friendship turning into a relationship with time.

It’s going on two a.m. when I sit back and notice almost everyone at the party has left.

I put down my now-empty cup and push my chair back to stand. “It’s getting late. I really should be going.”

He stands with me. “Want to share an Uber?”

I smile. “Sure!”

He pulls out his phone and arranges for an Uber to pick us up as we head outside. Again, the cold air causes a shiver to run through me.

“Here, use my coat.” He takes it off and drapes it over my shoulders.

“Are you sure? It’s pretty cold out and you’re only wearing a sweatshirt.”

He waves his hand through the air, dismissing my concerns. “I’m naturally warm. And the Uber will be here soon. I think I’ll survive.” He flashes me that cute grin that stirs my stomach.

“Thank you,” I breathe out.

“You’re welcome,” he says, raising his hand to push a fallen strand of hair behind my ear.

Something between us changes. One second ago, we were talking the way friends do, and now there’s an electric current bouncing between us. It’s warm and causes tingles to take over my body. His blue eyes seem to darken as he begins leaning closer. He wets his lips as his hand lands under my chin.

I close my eyes and lean forward. We meet in the middle, his soft lips finding mine. His hot tongue demands entrance, and I can’t deny him. He’s cute, funny, and sweet. And this kiss would be the perfect ending to our night.

As his tongue dances with mine, his hot body presses against my front, warming me, but also turning every bone in my body to jello. I melt into him, living in this kiss and forgetting everything else. His lips are soft, yet strong, and his tongue tastes like a mixture of beer and the fruity shots we’d taken earlier in the night.

When he pulls away, rather unexpectedly, he shoots me a grin. “I’d really like to see you again, El.”

I nod, blush staining my cheeks. “I’d like that too.”

The Uber pulls up, and he opens the door for me without pulling his eyes from mine. He motions with his hand for me to slide in first. Without saying another word, I do, and he takes his seat after me.

On the ride back to my apartment, we exchange numbers. When the car comes to a stop in front of my building, he opens the door and steps out to allow me to exit.

“I guess I’ll see you around,” I say, standing on the sidewalk.

He nods. “Thank you for tonight. I enjoyed the time we spent together.” His hand moves to cup my cheek.

I smile as my face burns with embarrassment. “I did too,” I say, shyly.

Slowly, he leans in, giving me one last kiss that doesn’t last nearly long enough.

He pulls away. “Good night, El,” he whispers as he slides back into the seat.

I smile and hold up my hand to wave goodbye as the car pulls back out into traffic. Unable to find my feet, I stand there, watching him drive away, happy and surprised by tonight’s turn of events.

It makes me wonder if I should have invited him inside, but he didn’t strike me as that kind of guy. He seemed perfectly happy just spending time with me, and stealing the few kisses he did.

The wind picks up, bringing me back to the present, and I turn and walk into the building when the car is no longer in view. I went to this party for Sam, but I’m sure glad I did. While I’ve never been the serious relationship type of girl, meeting Chase was a pleasant surprise. I didn’t go with intentions of finding a boyfriend, but maybe that’s exactly what I found. I guess I should wait to see if he actually calls before getting my hopes up. But the nervous feeling in my stomach tells me that I’m hoping he calls, that I’m praying for a night alone with him, and that I may have just found the guy I’ll end up with.

I let myself into the apartment, and to my surprise, find Sam in the kitchen, grabbing a bottle of water. She’s already dressed in her oversized nightshirt, ready for bed.

I pause in the doorway. “I wasn’t expecting to find you home. Things not go well with Ryan?”

“No, he has a girlfriend.”

I press my lips together. “That’s weird; I’ve never seen him with anyone.”

“That’s because she doesn’t go to school here. They’re in a ‘very serious committed long-distance relationship,’ as he puts it.”

“Damn. That sucks.”

She shrugs. “Yeah, but he introduced me to one of his friends, Seth.” She smiles. “We’re going out tomorrow night.”

I laugh. “That’s more like it. I knew you’d bounce back quickly.”

“I’m nothing if not flexible,” she jokes. “Hey, so who was the guy you were talking to?”

I walk into the kitchen and lean against the counter. “His name is Chase. I’ve seen him around school, but never talked to him. We ran into each other tonight and really hit it off.”

“Really? Like, you guys are going to see each other again?”

I nod. “I think so. We exchanged numbers anyway.”

“Look at us. This time next year, we may both be on our way to marriage.”

I laugh. “Hey now, I have no interest in getting married anytime soon. You keep those dreams and aspirations all to yourself before you jinx me or something.”

She shows me the palms of her hands. “Fine. Good night, El.”

“Night, Sam.” I watch her walk down the hallway and back into her room, where she closes the door between us.

I grab a bottle of water for myself, turn off the light, and head to my room with plans of sleeping until noon.


 

Fake It

Chapter 1-Samantha


The Chicago air has a sharp edge to it as I walk down the street toward my lonely apartment.

My legs are numb, feeling like jello from the twelve-hour shift I’ve just finished, and my entire body is worn out and weak. Lifting patients takes a toll on my body, and dealing with the rush of the emergency room always makes me feel like I’ve run a marathon.

The scent of coffee washes over me, and I feel myself perk up, excited to get a little jolt to help me get through the rest of my evening. It’s just after seven p.m. and normally I’d avoid caffeine this late, but I still have to fix something for dinner, finish up laundry, and go through the mountain of bills piling up.

I quickly dash into the coffee shop and stand in line, breathing in the sweet smell of energy as I wait. Finally, I step up to the counter and place my order: a large hot white chocolate mocha. The cashier quickly rings it up.

“That’ll be five dollars and sixty-eight cents,” she tells me with a polite smile.

I open my purse and pull out my wallet. When I open it, I find I only have four one-dollar bills. I set the wallet on the counter as I unzip the change compartment. Feeling a little embarrassed, I rush to count out the remaining dollar and sixty-eight cents. There’s already a large line forming behind me and my heart picks up with nervousness and anxiety.

I pour out the remaining change onto the counter and find the money I need with fifteen cents left over. I push the money her way, scoop up the change, and dump it into the tip jar before moving down the counter. My face feels hot and red with embarrassment. I should have put a little more thought into my impulse purchase and at least ordered a small coffee instead of a large. My bank account and money situation are getting harder and harder to avoid. I take my coffee and leave the store in a rush, all too ready to escape the coffee shop and everyone’s judging eyes.

Stepping back out into the brisk air, I take my first sip. The sweetness and warmth settle over me and my eyes nearly drift closed.

“Mmmmm,” I mumble against my cup, which I still haven’t pulled away from my lips.

I’m only a block away from the apartment when my cell phone rings. I pull it from my pocket and see El’s name flashing across the screen.

“Hey bitch,” I answer cheerfully.

She giggles. “Where you at? I just got to the apartment and you’re not here.”

“I’m on my way,” I say as I round the corner, picking up my pace. “Where are you? Inside?”

“Duh, if you think I’m waiting out in that cold air, you’re crazy.”

I laugh. “Be up in a sec.” I pull the phone away and slip it back into my coat pocket.

When I step into the apartment, I place my coffee on the entryway table and hang up my purse and coat. I take my coffee and walk farther into the apartment, finding El in the kitchen, standing over my table where all the bills are piling up.

Her eyes jump up to me. “What is this, Sam?” She’s holding a handful of bills in each hand.

I let out a long breath, causing my shoulders to fall as I walk across the floor and sit at the table. “It’s nothing.” I start pushing the bills into a neat stack.

She takes a step back and crosses her arms over her chest. Her eyes narrow on me. “You told me everything was fine.”

“Everything is fine.” I stand, bills in my hand. “Now, what are we going to binge watch?” I slide the stack of envelopes into the bread box and spin back around to face her.

“Sam, be honest with me. Are you in trouble? Do you need money? I know I put you in a difficult situation when I left. I can give you some money.”

I grab my coffee off the table and head to the living room. “I’m fine, El. I don’t want your money.” I place my cup on the end table and pick up the remote to turn on the TV.

El follows me into the room and flops down on the couch. “You need help, Sam. Griffin and I can loan you money if you don’t want to just take it.”

I let out a long, frustrated breath and sit beside her on the couch. I turn my body toward El as I level my eyes on her. “Listen, I have been struggling a little since you left. But I’m not your concern and you shouldn’t have to give me any money just because you no longer live here. I’m working, and I’m making money. I just have to learn how to juggle it all a little better, that’s all. Now, can we please forget about all this and just watch Netflix and eat junk food like we’ve been planning all week?” I plead.

She presses her lips together like she has to forcibly keep her mouth shut, but she nods once.

“Thank you.”

I click on Netflix as I make myself comfortable. I bend down and remove my shoes, and that’s when I hear her clear her throat. I look up at her to see her eyes move from me, to the TV, and back. I look at the TV and see the error message.

“Haven’t paid your Netflix bill either, I see.”

“I did, I swear! I just…didn’t pay the internet bill.” I sit back and cross my arms over my chest.

“Just let me help you,” she begs.

“No. In fact, the only help I will accept from you is you paying for the pizza we’re going to order because I bought dinner last time.”

She rolls her eyes. “Well, at least that’s something,” she mumbles, reaching for her phone to order the pizza.

Thirty minutes later, I’ve found an old DVD to put into the player just as she walks back into the living room with a big pizza box and a bag on top.

“What all did you order? That’s more than what you asked for on the phone, isn’t it?”

“Pizza, wings, cheesy bread, cinnamon poppers, and soda,” she answers, setting it all down on the coffee table in front of me.

I laugh. “I’ll get some plates, glasses, and napkins.” I stand and walk into the kitchen. I lean against the counter and take a deep breath, needing to clear my head. I hate that she had to buy dinner, even though it was her turn. But it’s something we’ve always argued over. It was our thing, and this time, I didn’t put up a fight. Honestly, if she hadn’t bought dinner, I’d be stuck eating whatever is in the fridge and pantry, which is nothing more than some questionable Chinese food from last weekend and Top Ramen.

Pushing myself forward, I get the needed items and head back to the living room where she has everything opened and spread across the table.

“Which movie did you find?” she asks, reaching for the glasses.

I sit on the couch and set our plates on the coffee table between us. “Dazed and Confused.” I smile.

She laughs. “Seriously? I haven’t seen that in forever.” She pours us each a glass of soda and hands one over.

I take it and set it on the end table next to me. “I know. I didn’t even know I still had it, but I figured I’d watch it again just to laugh at Matthew’s porn mustache.”

She giggles as she reaches for her plate.

“How’s the job going? Do you like it? Have you met any hot doctors?” She pulls her legs up onto the couch, with her growing belly holding her plate like a table.

“I like the job—love it, actually, though the hours are killing me. And every Friday, I have to work a day in the ER, which totally sucks all the life and energy from my body. But I have been talking with this sexy doctor. He’s only a couple years older than me, and he has blond hair, blue eyes, and perfect bone structure.” I close my eyes and savor the thought of him.

“Has he asked you out yet?”

I laugh. “No, he just started working there about two weeks ago. So far, we’ve talked and gotten to know each other a tiny bit. I mean, it’s a little hard to get to know someone on an ER shift, but we’ve been flirting back and forth. Nothing has actually happened yet. Not that I even expect it to. I mean, come on, he’s a doctor, and I’m nothing more than a nurse who empties bedpans and tells patients to stop pulling on their catheters. On a good day, I smell like a truck stop bathroom.”

She laughs. “Come on. You have more to offer than that and you know it. Besides, nursing is freaking hard! I couldn’t imagine having the patience and empathy it takes to care for the sick and dying day in and day out.”

“I always pictured this job being like Grey’s Anatomy or something, you know? I thought it would be fun, suspenseful, full of drama, and packed with beautiful people who take turns sleeping with each other. But so far, it’s pretty much been the exact opposite of that. I think I might try finding something in a private practice rather than a big hospital—someplace where I could be close with the other employees and patients. In the hospital, there are so many people coming in and out that you could work there for years and not meet them all.”

She nods. “You want something a little more quiet and personal?”

“Exactly! Plus private practices usually pay more and have better insurance.” I let out a long breath. “I just wish I didn’t feel so lost.”

Her brows pull together as she turns to face me. “What do you mean?”

I swallow the bite I just took. “I just want more than work and home. I have no life—and not just because the hours suck and I’m always tired, but because I literally can’t afford one. I mean, I have no internet, and I’m late paying the power, water, and credit card bills, plus there’s usually nothing to eat. The only thing that’s been paid is the rent, and that’s because it had to be paid or I’d be on the street. I just don’t want to struggle anymore. I want to be happy and find a boyfriend so I can have someone with me—someone I can talk to and vent to. Someone who understands and can comfort me. I miss being in a relationship. I can’t even remember what a penis looks like.”

Her bottom lip sticks out in a pout. “You will, Sam. You’re a great person. You’re beautiful, funny, and smart. You’ll find someone. And this struggle is only temporary. It won’t be like this forever.”

I roll my eyes and laugh. “God, I hope not!”

“But if things get too bad, please come to me. You know I’m more than willing to help you out.”

I force a small smile. “Thank you, but you know that will never happen, right?”

She lets out a quiet laugh. “I know, but still…”

We both quiet down and focus our attention on the TV, but I’m lost in thought, wondering how the hell I’m going to keep myself alive. I’ve already let go of the things I can: the internet, cable TV, and just about every subscription I used to have. I haven’t even had my usual monthly pedicure, bar trips, or shopping sprees. I’m dead broke. I guess I should be thankful I have a job to keep my rent paid for the moment. Maybe, if nothing else, I can make some money by selling some of my nicer clothes, shoes, and purses.

A deep sigh leaves my lips, and it causes El to look over at me. I just press my lips together and wave her off, far from ready to admit that I need help.

When the movie is over, El helps me clean up the food mess, and we load everything into my fridge. I don’t tell her that I’ll probably be living off the leftovers for the next week. As she pulls her coat on, she looks up at me and her eyes light up. “Hey, I may be able to talk to Griffin and see if the hotel is hiring. It could bring in a little more income.”

I cross my arms over my chest as I lean against the wall in the hallway. “I already work twelve-hour shifts. I don’t have time for a second job unless it’s on the two days a week I already have off, or maybe even something I can do from home, but thanks. Maybe I’ll look online later and see if I can find one of those work-from-home scams.”

She rolls her eyes. “How are you going to do that with no internet?”

I stick out my tongue. “I hacked my way into the next-door neighbor’s Wi-Fi, thank you very much.”

She laughs loud, then pulls me in for a hug. “Don’t let yourself starve or freeze. Call me if things get worse.”

“I will,” I promise, hugging her back.


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