The guy in black has joined me on the couch and is almost touching me, he’s sitting so close. The tangle of tattoos on his arms distracts me for a moment before I get my first good look at his face.
I draw in a sharp breath—I can’t help it. I’m staring at the most beautiful man I have ever seen. He has longish brown hair liberally sprinkled with natural gold highlights, and it’s all in a pleasing, tousled mess. I wonder what it would feel like to run my fingers through that hair, to mess it up even further. It looks soft. He has strikingly dark brown eyes framed with the thickest eyelashes I’ve ever seen on a guy. His eyes seem to flash with some kind of dark amusement, and my heart beats faster. A muscle pulses in his jaw when he swallows—God, I love a guy with a strong jawline—and I want to place my lips there, right at that pulse, and kiss him.
“You okay, Zoe?” he asks, and there’s that amusement in his eyes again.
“How’d you know my name?” I ask, and I’m pleased that my voice is steady. There’s no sense in letting him know just how much I like what I see—though I’m afraid he somehow knows exactly what I’ve been thinking. Something in the way he’s looking at me makes me blush. And I never blush.
“I make it a point to find out information that might be of interest to me.”
His voice is low and raspy and touches something deep within my core, but I force out a laugh.
“Does that kind of line usually work for you?”
He shrugs, grinning. “To be honest, yeah. It does.”
My laugh is sincere this time. “Well, at least you are honest.”
He leans back into the couch, stretching his arm across the back of the cushion so that it just grazes my shoulder. I shiver a little and hope he doesn’t notice. A quick glance around tells me we shouldn’t be interrupted. Hunter appears to have moved off while I was distracted by the sex god—I’m pretty sure I can make out his voice across the room, urging someone else to come down and feel the carpet. Ellie has dozed off. I’m not surprised—that’s her usual reaction to pot and one of the reasons I don’t often join in when she partakes. I don’t come to parties to sleep.
I smile at the sex god. Flirting with hot guys, on the other hand, is one of the best reasons to come to a party.
“I’m at a bit of a disadvantage here.” I inch my knee closer to his.
“You know my name, and I don’t know yours.”
He holds my gaze for a minute, and my heart thumps. “Maybe I’d rather be a man of mystery.”
I wrinkle my nose. “Seriously, dude. You have to stop with the lines. It’s just not doing it for me.”
He leans in, and his face is inches from mine. “What would do it for you?”
“An actual conversation.” I refuse to fall under his spell. But there’s something dangerous about this guy, something that makes me want to abandon sense and close the gap that separates us.
He watches my face for a minute before his eyebrows come together in an expression I can’t quite read. “I don’t do so good with conversations.”
He surprises me by pausing before he answers, as if he’s actually thinking about it. “I just think it’s easier not to talk, for the most part. People usually just tell you what you want to hear anyway. What’s the point?”
God, wasn’t that the truth. “Yeah,” I say. “I get that.”
We’re both quiet for a minute, but it isn’t necessarily an uncomfortable silence. It feels natural, easy, to just sit here with him while the party carries on around us.
“I know what you’re thinking,” he says.
“I doubt that.” How could he know that I’m considering dropping the whole talking thing and just making out with him for a while? No way anything more serious is going to happen. I don’t date, not anymore—it’s too complicated. And I have a feeling a guy like this isn’t really the dating type—just like me.
Making out is simple enough though. And not a bad way to spend a few hazy, vodka-fueled hours at a party. Particularly when the guy looks as good as this one does. I lean in a little, allowing the side of my breast to brush up against his arm. “Maybe you were right,” I murmur and bat my eyes at him. “Maybe it is easier not to talk.”
He looks down at me, his lips parting slightly. I’m close enough now that I could easily reach up and trail my tongue across those lips or along that impressive jawline. But his next words stop me cold.
“I don’t know, Zoe. You’ve intrigued me with this conversation idea. I’m thinking it might do it for me too.”
I purse my lips, surprised. I was sure he’d jump at the chance to avoid talking.
“So.” He leans back again and gives me a lazy smile. “What should we talk about?”
“We could start with your name.” I’m debating whether I should just get up and leave him here. My friend Everett is across the room, talking to a guy I know a little through Hunter. Surely they’d be more appropriate company.
“Do you want my real name, or my fake name?” He winks.
I narrow my eyes, not really in the mood for cute. “What do you think?”
“Well, you see, the thing is that most people don’t call me by my real name. In fact, most people don’t even know my real name. So if I give you that, it’s kind of saying something, you know? It takes us past the point of general acquaintances at a party. It makes us something more.” He waggles his eyebrows at me.
I’m not sure whether I’m annoyed or intrigued by this. I thought I wanted to flirt with him, but this feels too much like a game. Or your impression of him is just colored because now you know he probably has money.
“Let’s start with your fake name,” I say, deciding to play along. “Maybe we can work up to your real name. I’m not sure I’m ready for that level of commitment just yet.”
He nods. “Fair enough. Everyone calls me Jet.”
I stare at him. “Jet? Are you kidding?”
He shakes his head. “Nope. Jet is really my nickname.”
He furrows his brow. “You know, it’s been so long I’m not really sure. Everyone has called me Jet ever since like, Little League. Something to do with my base running skills. Oh, and the fact that my initials are J.E.T.” At my skeptical look he cocks his head. “What? You don’t like it?”
He throws his head back and laughs. “Oh, Zoe, this is fun.”
“What is?” I ask, feeling defensive.
“Talking to a girl who has no desire to please me. It’s refreshing.”
“You’re pretty damn full of yourself.”
He points at me. “See? That’s exactly what I mean. You couldn’t give a shit about what I think, could you?”
“I don’t see why I would.”
His face darkens. “I don’t see why you would either. Why anyone would.” He inhales sharply, sounding almost pained. “Yet, somehow, they do. Or, at least, the ladies do.”
I don’t like that look. It makes me feel sad, which is just ridiculous, since I barely know him and what I do know I’m not even sure I like. I try to lighten the mood by shoving his shoulder. “Oh, yeah, I’m so sure you’re complaining about all the women who are just dying to please you.”
He shoots me that same amused grin. “Are you volunteering?”
“Not even remotely, buddy.”
“It’s Jet,” he says.
I shake my head. “I’m sorry, but I refuse to call you that.”
“Well, now we’re at an impasse. You refuse to call me by my nickname yet you’re not ready for my real name either. The only other option is for you to make up your own name for me. Either way, it implies a certain level of intimacy, don’t you think?”
“I don’t know you well enough to give you a nickname.” I think for a moment. “Unless you like the sound of Cocky Ass.”
He pretends to think about that. “No, I don’t think so.”
“Well, then. I guess we are at an impasse.” I’m actually starting to enjoy myself. He may be cocky, but it’s been ages since I’ve actually flirted with a guy like this. When I hook up at parties the talking phase doesn’t usually last this long.
“I think I have a solution,” he says, holding up a finger in triumph. “Taylor!”
“Why would I call you Taylor?”
“Because it’s my last name.”
It’s my turn to laugh. “Okay. Taylor it is.”
He holds out his hand to shake mine. His skin is warm against my palm, his grip firm. I have a sudden urge to feel his hand curled around the back of my neck, and I release his fingers before my palm starts to sweat.
“So, Zoe,” Taylor says, his gaze flicking down to my legs before meeting my eyes once more. “What’s your story?”
He nods. “Yeah. What do you do? Who do you know? What do you like? Your story.”
If only my story really were that simple—a collection of answers to meaningless questions. I look down at my hands. A weight fills my stomach as I consider how I would answer if I could be honest. If I could actually tell him—or anyone—my real story.
I look up and realize he’s watching my face closely. I force a smile and nod. “Maybe too much vodka.” I hold up the bottle, glad for the excuse. From the look on his face I’m not sure he bought it, so I hurry to answer his original question. “I’m a student at MCC.” I peek at him from the corner of my eye for any reaction to the name of the local community college. If he grew up in this neighborhood I’ll bet he’s one of the kids who goes to an actual university.
When he only nods, I go on. “I’m not working right now, so I’m taking classes all summer.” I leave out the reason for my unemployment. I can imagine how he’d react to that—talk about putting a damper on our flirting.
“What are you studying at MCC?”
More details I don’t want to get into. “This was my first year. I haven’t really decided on a major yet.”
He looks concerned. “How old are you?”
“Twenty-one.” I blush again. I’m too exposed to this guy. I don’t want him asking questions about why I waited so long to enroll in classes. But his face relaxes.
“Good. When you said it was your first year I was worried you were a teenager for a minute there.”
“Why would it matter if I was a teenager?” I ask, a flirtatious note in my voice. He only grins at me, a purely wicked grin, and my face grows hotter.
“What about you?” I ask, embarrassed by my reaction. “What’s your story?”
“I work at the body shop in town. We mostly do repairs, but sometimes we get some refurbs to do, which is what I really prefer.”
That isn’t the answer I expected. “School?”
He shakes his head. “Never really saw the point.”
“So you live here all year?” It doesn’t make sense. Why hadn’t I ever come across him if he wasn’t away at school all year?
“All four miserable seasons.”
“They’re not all miserable. Spring is nice.”
“Whatever. Spring lasts about two minutes. It goes from cold as hell to hot as balls around here.”
I have to laugh at that. “I was just thinking that tonight. That spring went way too fast.” I pause. “I wasn’t ready for summer.”
“Me either,” he says, his voice soft. I look over at him. He’s staring at the ground. He looks about a million miles away. I wonder what it is about summer that he doesn’t like, but I don’t press. I know what it feels like to dread something as inevitable as the change of season.
“Can I have a sip of that?” Taylor points at the bottle in my hand. I’d almost forgotten it was there. I take a swig before passing it to him, wiping my mouth on the back of my arm as the warmth fills my belly.
“Impressive,” Taylor says, nodding at me as he takes the bottle and follows suit. “You didn’t even grimace.”
I shrug. “I like vodka.”
“Okay, so I know you like vodka and picking fights with girls at parties. What else makes you tick?”
“I didn’t pick that fight!” I say, my voice a little too loud. “That bitch got mouthy with Ellie.”
“And that’s a mistake, huh?”
“You have no idea.”
“You’re not like most of the girls I know,” he says and nods down at Ellie to include her in his assessment.
“What does that mean?”
“Well, most girls don’t chug vodka straight from the bottle. And most girls don’t actually get in fights at kegs. When a girl says she’s going to kick someone’s ass, I can pretty much always assume she’s full of shit.”
“Ellie and I don’t mess around with stuff like that. We’ve had to stand up for ourselves way too often for it to be a joke. When Ellie threatens someone, she means it.”
I nod. “Though I don’t feel the need to threaten quite as often as she does.” I meet his eyes. “But when I say something, I mean it.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.” His voice is a soft rasp that makes the hair on the backs of my arms stand up. I stare at his lips, wishing I could kiss him. Why had I been so stupid and told him I prefer conversation to cheesy lines? I could be making out with this hottie right now if I had kept my mouth shut and laughed at his little jokes like any other girl.
“How long have you guys known each other?” he asks.
It takes me a second to come back to the conversation. “Ellie? We’ve been tight for a few years now. I guess we started hanging out when we were seventeen.” I manage to keep my voice casual, as if that year, and the circumstances surrounding our becoming friends, hadn’t been any big deal. “What about you? You said you grew up with Preston? Are you guys tight?”
He lifts one shoulder. “Not particularly. I mean, I guess we were. But we don’t have a lot in common anymore.”
That’s a little cryptic. Does that mean he doesn’t live in one of these huge mansions on this side of town? Or is it simply that he stayed home and got a job while Preston went off to school?
“He’s not a bad guy, though,” Taylor says. “His parents travel a lot, so he throws a ton of parties in the summer.”
“Maybe I’ll see you at another one of them.”
He’s quiet for a moment as he holds my gaze. “I hope I see you regardless.”
His tone makes my stomach flip and all in a rush I’m frightened. Am I getting in too far here? Flirting at a party is one thing, making plans to see each other after tonight is another. To my great relief, Ellie chooses that moment to wake up fully.
She moans as she sits up. “Ugh, I have a headache. Zoe, you weren’t supposed to let me mix beer and pot. You know this.”
“I warned you,” I say. “You told me to fuck off.”
She laughs weakly, rubbing her head. “That does sound like something I’d say.” She pulls her phone from her pocket and starts to type. “Let’s find Hunter. I’m in need of sustenance. I want pancakes.”
“Mmm, pancakes,” Hunter says, as he walks up behind her. “I’m in.”
Ellie holds up her phone. “I was just texting you.”
He taps his forehead. “I could sense that my presence was desired.”
I look over at Taylor. “I guess we’re leaving.” Somehow I’m both disappointed and relieved.
“I guess so.”
I know it’s better to leave before I start getting any weird ideas about seeing him again, but I still feel a sense of letdown. I’ll never get to find out what it’s like to kiss that gorgeous mouth. To trail my tongue across that jaw…
As I start to stand, Taylor grabs my hand. “I’ll be seeing you, Zoe. That’s a promise.”
I look down at him, not knowing what to say. I should discourage him, tell him I’m not interested. But I just can’t do it. “We’ll see,” I murmur, then turn to help hoist Ellie into a standing position.
“Let’s find Everett,” Hunter says. “He’s the DD tonight. Why’s it so dark down here?” He looks around the room. “Hey, Everett!” he shouts. “I want pancakes!”
Everett’s laugh sounds from across the room, and we head off in that direction. I refuse to turn around to take a last look at Taylor. Even though we aren’t heading home yet, leaving the party takes me one step closer to my real life.
And there is no place for anything as beautiful as Jet Taylor in my real life.