Anything Between Us
I know alcohol is inadvisable after getting new ink, but tonight I’m not in a rule-following mood. As I walk into the bar and look around for my buddies, I feel Sam’s initials on my arm; the sharp, hot reminder they’re meant to be. SLP. Never forget.
He should be here. And I probably shouldn’t.
I’m fifteen minutes late, but Brent and Aidan aren’t here yet. It kind of pisses me off—I drove all the way out here to Grand Rapids to meet up with them, nearly an hour from the lakeshore town where we all grew up. They both moved here while I was gone.
It’s approaching midnight and the place is already starting to empty out, so I snag a seat at the bar—facing the door—and raise a finger to get the bartender’s attention. He smirks as he saunters over. “Got some ID on you?”
He doesn’t look that much older than I am, maybe late twenties, but his cheeks are pocked with acne scars and he’s already balding on top. I slide my ID from my wallet and hand it over. His expression smooths out like I knew it would. “Thank you for your service,” he says as he hands it back to me. “First one’s on me.”
I thank him and order a beer, wondering if coming out tonight was a mistake. I don’t exactly feel public-facing. But I haven’t seen Brent or Aidan since before this last deployment, the last one I’ll ever have, as it turns out, and I figured reconnecting with them would be another way to slide into civilian life. That’s what the adjustment counselor at the VA said, anyway. He issued the advice like a prescription, right after he asked me if I had access to firearms. He seemed relieved when I said no, which was the truth.
I didn’t mention that I got my ten-day handgun purchase permit eight days ago.
The bartender hands over a pint, and I down half of it in one long swallow. “Looks like you needed that pretty badly,” he comments.
“You have no idea,” I mutter, glancing at the door and wishing my friends would arrive. My body jitters with a restless energy that I need to drown before it ignites. I’d check my phone, but Jen’s message from earlier is right there, waiting like a buried IED. And I can’t answer her yet. I just can’t.
I down the rest of the pint and raise my head. That’s when I see her. Black hair, dark eyes, and a green dress over some very dangerous curves. She’s at the other end of the bar, nursing brown liquor in a rocks glass, rolling that thing between her palms as if the heat from her skin could change its shape.
When she sees me watching her, she arches one eyebrow and raises her glass.
My heart picks up a hungry, urgent rhythm as I silently toast with my empty glass. She looks like she’s alone there, just her and that drink, but she’s made up like she wasn’t planning to be. And there’s something deep and sad in those eyes, despite the playful smile she’s aiming at me. Did her date bail on her? Maybe she’d like some company?
I’m considering offering her mine when a heavy hand claps me so hard on the back that I nearly face-plant on the bar. My muscles go rigid with the unexpected blow, but the familiar voice booming in my ear keeps me from reflexively throwing a punch. “Back on the home front,” says Brent, grinning as I turn to him. “Great to see you, man.”
Aidan stands next to him, and they make a funny pair. Brent is built like a bear and is a few inches taller than me—he has to be about six-five—with shaggy hair and a beard to match. Aidan is lean like me, only about five inches shorter than I am.
“How long have you been back?” Aidan asks.
I glance over at the woman in the green dress, but she’s lost interest in me and is deep in conversation with the bartender. “Back from deployment for about six weeks, but I’ve only been home since last Wednesday.”
“And already sporting a new tat?” Brent gestures at my arm as he settles on the stool next to mine.
I move my hand to my lap, tilting my arm so that the bandage is concealed. “Just a small one.”
“Want to show it off?” Aidan asks as he takes the seat on my other side. “I remember when you got that one.” He tilts his head toward the tribal pattern that encircles my right biceps, a souvenir from one wild night with my older brother right before I deployed for the first time. “You kept flexing like a total idiot, trying to show it off.”
I suck a breath through my teeth. “This one’s still raw.” In so many ways. “I’ll show you once it heals.” Which it never will. “I need another drink,” I add, glaring at the bartender’s back.
“Hey! Buddy!” Brent’s voice fills up the whole place, despite the loud music. The sound turns a few heads, including the bartender’s. “Can we have a round here?” Brent’s meaty hand swirls around us, drawing invisible boundaries.
The bartender holds up a finger, signaling for us to wait as he finishes his conversation with the woman in green. Brent rolls his eyes. “He’s too busy trying to get laid, apparently,” he says, eyeing her. “Not that I blame him. I kinda wish I’d spotted her first.”
For some stupid reason, I don’t want Brent looking at her. “How’s Anna?” I ask.
The smile drops from his face. “She told me she’s thinking of buying another wedding dress.”
Aidan snorts. “And she has two already.”
With a groan, Brent says, “She’s turned into one of those bridezillas. I never thought she’d be like that. She always seemed so normal.”
I laugh. “Serves you right for settling down.”
Aidan clears his throat. “I guess I’m in for it, too, then.”
I whip around. “Seriously?”
“He popped the question a few weeks ago, and Lizzy actually said yes,” Brent tells me, sounding incredulous. “No accounting for taste.”
“You guys are killing me. I’m gone for a few years, and suddenly you’re old men?”
“She graduated from Calvin in May and was deciding whether to take a job here or in Lansing.” Aidan shrugs. “I figured this would seal the deal. Seemed as good a time as any.”
“You’re twenty-three,” I say in a flat voice.
“Twenty-four,” he replies. “I’m six months older than you are.”
“You’re both insane,” I say. I’ve known them since elementary school, but now they seem like strangers to me. From another planet. Except maybe I’m the alien.
Brent bumps me with his shoulder. “If we’re crazy, it looks like your brother might need to be committed soon, too. Have you met his girlfriend yet?”
I shake my head. “Daniel’s a player. He never lets anyone hang on for too long.” Even as I say it, I’m thinking this time might be different. My parents are both nuts over this girl, and Daniel … I’ve only hung out with him once since I got back, but he could barely wipe the woozy, shit-eating grin off his face when he talked about her. “Maybe he’ll come to his senses.”
“Still bitter about Carrie, huh?” Aidan says this cautiously, like he knows he’s on dangerous ground.
“Please.” It’s been nearly two years since she got bored of having a boyfriend in the military—the letters slowed, and Facetiming was hit or miss. Fourteen months since Aidan broke the news—he’d seen her and Cameron Bakker making out in the balcony of the movie theater on Main, like they didn’t give a shit who saw them. And almost exactly a year since I confronted her about it and broke up with her—while I was home on leave and about to deploy, for fuck’s sake. “She did me a favor.”
I believe that, but I haven’t been with anyone since we split. My eyes slide over to the woman in green again, and my stomach tightens. She’s staring at me again.
The bartender comes over and asks what Brent and Aidan want. Brent laughs when Aidan gets carded. I order another pint, and the bartender smiles. “This one’s on the lady,” he says as he serves it up.
I go still, blocking the impulse to look at her again. “Which lady would that be?” I sound like I’ve been punched in the gut, all breathless and stupid.
The bartender gives me a look. One that says I’m fooling no one. “Maybe you should go thank her.” His gaze cuts in the direction of the woman in green, but he’s blocking my view of her. He leans forward, getting in my space a little. “But if you do, I expect you to mind your manners, okay?” There’s a warning in his gaze, like she’s no stranger to him.
Brent slaps my back again. “Nate was raised right. Not an impolite bone in his body. Or maybe just the one, but only if she asks really nicely. Right?”
I jam my elbow into his flank, which is softer than it used to be. His grunt provides a brief moment of satisfaction.
Aidan pokes me from the other side. “Are you going to talk to her?” His lips are barely moving, but his wiry frame is tense with excitement. “She keeps looking over here!”
“Dude,” I snap. “Try not to wet yourself.” I take a few gulps of my beer. I need to feel that loose warmth unfurling in my bloodstream before I do anything. I don’t trust myself right now.
Jen’s last message is burning a hole right through my phone screen. I can almost feel the searing heat of guilt against my thigh. You owe this to him. Five words that gutted me.
“Fuck,” I whisper, and then I tilt my head back for another few swallows. I need something. I need this. Anything to push away the thoughts clamoring against the walls of my skull.
“That stuff’s a little weak for liquid courage,” Brent comments, signaling the bartender again. “And you look like you could use some.”
A shot appears in front of me, and I throw it back without asking what it is. Tequila, it turns out. When a second one appears, courtesy of Aidan this time, I down it just as quickly. Now the heat is in my veins, tingling and buzzing. I wipe my mouth with the back of my hand and get to my feet while Brent and Aidan snicker. I ignore their jokes at my expense because I’m too busy plotting my course over to the woman in green, who is still rolling her palms over that glass, slow and deliberate.
I make it to her side, wedging myself in behind a tangle of sorority girls probably just back in town for the fall semester. I push down thoughts of how stupid I feel by reminding myself—she bought me the beer. Women don’t do that unless they’re interested, right?
“Hi,” I say. “Thanks for the drink.”
She looks up at me, so I get to see her face up close for the first time. Her eyes are so dark that they’re almost black, like her hair, and so big I almost get lost. “You look even younger up close,” she says, amusement lacing a voice that pings a chord somewhere south of my navel.
“Past the age of consent, at least,” I say, wishing I were wittier, but I guess Daniel got all of that particular genetic gift and pretty much left me with nothing.
“Are you on leave?” she asks.
“What? How—did he tell you that?” I jerk my head toward the bartender, who is now laughing with Aidan and Brent, hopefully not about how badly I’m flailing.
Without breaking eye contact, she reaches up and slides her palm along the back of my head, sending a hard shiver right down my spine and into my groin. “High and tight. Got it buzzed right before you left post, by the feel of it.”
I don’t breathe again until she lowers her hand, and I barely manage to resist the urge to ask her to touch me again. “Are you from a military family or something?”
Her voice is doing things to me. It’s like honey, sweet and substantial. “What’s your name?” I ask.
“That’s not an interesting question.”
“Okay.” I draw it out, because what the fuck? “You’re here alone?”
“That one’s both obvious and uninteresting.”
“Did you want me to come over here and talk to you?” I ask, unable to keep the irritation out of my voice.
She doesn’t look put off by it. In fact, her eyes are glittering with a hot kind of mischief. “Now that … That is a more interesting question. And a complicated one.” She looks me over, catching her lush bottom lip between white teeth. All my blood rushes south. “Or maybe not,” she murmurs, so quietly that I almost miss it.
At a loss, I glance at her almost-empty glass. “Can I buy you a—”
“Not necessary,” she says, sliding off her stool and nodding at the bartender. He nods back. I try to translate whatever’s passing between them, but I’ve slammed four drinks in the space of about twenty minutes. Though I’m not a lightweight, I haven’t eaten since lunch, and my head is buzzing. I’d try to straighten myself out, but this disconnect between my brain and body is actually a relief. And when she takes my hand, I don’t even ask where we’re going or why. I let her guide me down a back hallway and into a room marked “Employees Only.” It turns out to be a storage room, cases of beer stacked five feet high.
She swings the door shut, leaving us with the glow of one bare lightbulb hanging overhead. I’m about to make a joke about her bringing me in here to murder me when her hands slide up my abs to my chest, scattering my thoughts like autumn leaves on a windy day. She pushes on me, backing me up. My shoulder blades meet the wall. Her eyes are on mine, and in them I see so many things, none of which I understand. But I feel her hands on me. Her fingertips slide under the neck of my shirt, and suddenly I’m all sensation, addicted and needing more. I grab her hips and pull her body to mine. There’s no finesse in what I’m doing. No technique or gentleness.
She seems to like that just fine. She pulls my face to hers and then her mouth is on mine and I’m completely gone. My hand slides down to her ass as my tongue thrusts, and her moan nearly makes me crazy. Her breasts are mashed against my chest. She’s got her hand up under my shirt, stroking up my back, feeding my frenzy.
How far does she want this to go? She doesn’t even know my name. She doesn’t know anything about me. Except that I want her, which is undeniable after her hand slips over the front of my jeans. I groan and catch her fingers, pressing them where I want, not nearly close enough. This feels insane, like it’s not really happening, but now she’s unbuttoning my jeans and dipping her hand inside. I gasp against her mouth, and I can feel her smile as she squeezes me.
“I-do you-I—” I’m stammering even as my fingers curl under the hem of her short, tight dress, inching it up. I should stop now. I should stop. But her thighs are so fucking smooth and—I pull back from our kiss and look down at her as the realization hits. “You’re not—”
“Wearing panties?” She smiles at me sweetly. In the dim light, she looks triumphant, but her eyes are shining. I want to ask her why she looks like that, but she’s stroking me up and down like she owns me.
Right now, that’s pretty much true.
“You can walk away,” she says, reaching into the low neckline of her dress. As I stare, she pulls out a little square, foil package. She taps it against my chest. “Up to you.”
My gaze flits from it to her face to her breasts, barely contained in that dress. I’ve never done this before, not like this. We’re in a dirty storeroom and I don’t even know her name. It’s not how I was raised to act. Not how I was raised to treat women.
But this woman … She seems to want it. And she came here, to this bar, on this night, to get it. So many questions spill into my thoughts, tumbling over each other, but the only one that actually escapes my mouth is:
“Does it matter to you?” She stands on her tiptoes and kisses me, slow and deep, kindling the fire inside me. She pulls her hand from my pants and puts it over mine, guiding it between her legs. She whimpers when my fingers meet slick, hot flesh.
I curse and spin us around, so she’s the one with her back to the wall and I’m looming over her, caging her body with my arms. Maybe trying to scare her a little, though I’m not sure why. But she’s right there, unafraid, giving me a knowing smile, those black eyes deep and fathomless.
“Does it?” she asks again. She’s still holding that condom against my chest. An invitation. A question. A challenge.
I push her against the wall and give her my answer.