Twist, p.1Part #2 of Dive Bar series by Kylie Scott
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To my readers, thank you
First, to all of the reviewers and bloggers who take the time to read my books, thank you. To Rose and the awesome team at St. Martin's Press, to Cate and Pan Macmillan Australia, and Catherine and Pan Macmillan UK. To Amy Tannenbaum, agent extraordinaire and keeper of my sanity, and everyone at the Jane Rotrosen Agency. To the Australian Romance Readers Association for their unfailing support. To the Groupies, go, you good things. To my claimed sister, Mish, who does everything all the time <3. To my babe, Sali Pow, love you. To my beloved husband and babies, my friends, family, and everyone who's had my back during this amazing, and at times tough, journey, thank you so much. To By Hang Le, you still haven't responded to my offer to run away together, it's beginning to get a bit awkward. Lastly, to Joanna Wylde, I have nothing to say to you.
If there's one thing I've learned over the last few years, it's this ... it takes a tight posse to keep things together and a community to make you whole. I got my posse, and I got the romance community. And for both, I am extremely grateful.
Screw playing it safe.
I stood outside the Dive Bar, hands shaking, heart crashing around inside my chest. Goddamn nerves. Let them do their worst. No way would I scurry back to Seattle and hide. Not now. Beware, beautiful hot man from the Internet. I had arrived. Yes, fate in the form of me, and a return-trip plane ticket, had come to Coeur d'Alene, northern Idaho.
Right. This was it.
I took a deep breath and fluffed up my hair (shoulder length and brown). My bestie, Val, had applied my makeup several hours earlier and the woman knew her shit. None of it would dare move. I smoothed out the creases in my dress (little and black). Shoulders back, boobs out, as per instructions. And okay, sure, my toes were turning into frozen stumps in the stupid sky-high black suede heels, and my bare legs and arms were covered in goose bumps. But never mind. Val and the girl in the shop had sworn I looked amazing in this outfit. Definitely doable and about a billion times better than normal, care of the push-up bra above and the Spanx below.
So what if I felt a little like a high-class hooker. Never mind. First impressions were important. And if Val and the salesgirl were right, this particular first impression was the way to go--as opposed to my usual boring date attire: boots, jeans, and a blouse. But then, I wasn't usually gaga about the guy in the way I was about Eric Collins. Those dates were solely about scratching an itch.
Yes, I know. Shock horror. A single woman regularly indulging in casual sex. Absolutely not even a little attachment to the male in the equation. Burn me at the stake and drown me in a river. Valerie called me an emotional coward, but I liked my life uncomplicated and largely spent alone at home dressed in pajamas. And relationships? They were one hell of a complication. Yet, here I was in northern Idaho hoping to get all sorts of involved and complicated, against my better judgment. The outside world terrified me, but Eric Collins mattered too much to just be relegated to the role of some passing Internet fancy. I had to see him, to find out why a week ago he'd up and disappeared on me. Turning up at his birthday party just added a bit of serendipity to the event.
Maybe I'd played with Bridal Barbie once too often when I was young. I don't know.
The closed sign hung in the restaurant window, the outside lights were dimmed. Inside, however, things were happening. Muted music and the sound of low chatter carried through the cold night air. Lightning crashed in the distance, the breeze picked up. Even the weather was telling me to stop procrastinating.
Despite the sign, the door was unlocked. Carry-on suitcase bumping along behind me, I ventured inside. No one noticed me at first. A good dozen or so people were hanging out at the long wooden bar, drinking and eating. My stomach turned inside out at the scent of delicious pizza. I'd been too nervous to eat anything on the flight or beforehand.
I gasped. There he was.
Holy shit, his profile photo hadn't begun to do him justice. The man put supermodels to shame. He literally glowed, his long dark hair shining beneath the lights, and his pearlescent smile even more so. (Not that I didn't admire and respect him for his mind, because I did. After all, our relationship had so far sat entirely at the platonic level of cyber-messaging. I was overdue for seeing a little flesh. So there.)
All of the tension inside me unwound, my shoulders sagging in relief. The smile on my face, however, just grew bigger and bigger. People said nobody told the actual truth about themselves on the Internet. Lying to strangers and sharing cat pictures were basically why the World Wide Web had been invented. And yes, it'd been a huge leap of faith to get on that plane. He could have been some five-hundred-pound pervert hoping to get pictures of my tits to whack off to. He could have been married with five wives and forty-three children, hoping I'd be willing to join the family and push out some more bambinos.
But no. The man was everything he'd said he was. I just hoped I lived up to his expectations. The tension inside me wound right back up into a hard ball. I'd told no lies about my thunder thighs or my modest bra size. Either he'd like me in real life or not. There was nothing I could do about it now.
First one person turned, noticing me. Then more followed, until the whole party was hushed, waiting.
"Hi," someone said. "I'm sorry but we've already closed for the night. This is a private party."
"I know," I answered, circumnavigating the tables, walking toward him. Not taking my eyes off the man for a second. Tears welled, the absolute thrill of the moment threatening to undo me. I'd never forget this night as long as I lived. He was so gorgeous, so wonderful. I'd crushed on him hard just through reading his emails, but it was this, us finally being in the same damn room together and feeling the connection between us, which sealed the deal.
Eric Collins was going down. The dude would be wooed so hard it hurt and I, Alexandra Parks, would be doing the wooing.
Once I got close, I couldn't hold back any longer. I burst into action, flinging myself at him. And just as I'd known he would, he caught me.
"Happy birthday, Eric," I said, my smile trembling from both nerves and joy.
I laughed. It sounded only slightly hysterical. "I can't believe I'm really here."
Exquisite jade-green eyes stared down at me in shock.
"So ... surprise," I exclaimed.
"Wow." A pause. Then, gazing down at me, he licked his perfect lips and said, "Do I know you?"
"What?" I asked.
A low, masculine, yet distinctly uncomfortable chuckle. "We've met before, huh?"
"Eric," I chided.
He said nothing. Just kept looking at me in confusion. As if I was a total stranger.
"Is this a joke?" I asked, my whole body stiffening in his hold. "Eric, it's me. Alex."
Absolutely positively not a fucking thing.
Everyone was watching, the same bewildered look on all of their faces. Eyebrows raised and hesitant smiles,
I stepped back from my supposed beloved's arms, doubt trickling through me, first a little, then a lot. Soon it was a whole damn tsunami of disbelief crushing my heart and mind. I was drowning, panic slowly but surely closing over my head. This is what came from stepping outside of your comfort zone. Bad things. Deeply shitty soul-crushing things. Why the hell had I ever left home?
"I don't understand," I said, voice rising in pitch and volume. "Of course you know me. We've been talking for months. Emailing."
"We met on Heartingdotcom. Remember?"
They were still watching me with blank stares. Eric included.
I glared back at him. "So you've just been stringing me along, haven't told anyone about me, and now you're just going to deny everything? That's how you're going to play this? Really?"
"Or maybe I haven't told anyone about you because I have no idea who you are," he countered, looking me up and down. Something close to doubt flitted across his face. "Hold up. Are you the chick I doggy-styled in the walk-in closet at that party in Spokane?" His smile somehow managed to be sympathetic, apologetic, and leering all at once. "Shit, you are, aren't you? I'm sorry, I should have known you right away. Maybe if you'd shown me the back of your head."
I had nothing.
"It's just sometimes it's hard to remember faces after a big night, you know? And I'd been mixing Flaming Blue Jesuses for them. You know, with the rum, peppermint schnapps, and peach liqueur, with the thinnest layer of tequila on top." He licked his lips. "I really do like those."
Slowly, I shook my head. "You didn't dog-style me in a closet."
"No? Are you sure?" he asked. "Can I just see the back of your head for one minute?"
"We didn't meet at a party, Eric," I said through gritted teeth. "Emailing. You and me. Constantly, for months."
"Come on, that's not even realistic." Eric put his hands on his slim hips. "Everyone in this room knows that's not me. My attention span just isn't that long."
"True," said someone. Lots of nods from other people. And he might be persuading them, but he wasn't fooling me.
"Right," I shot back. "So I've just been, what? Imagining all of this?"
"Depends." He smirked. "Did I start constantly emailing you around the time you went off your meds?"
"Eric," scolded one woman. Slim, redheaded, and pregnant.
"You're Nell." I gave her a finger wave. "He told me about you, sent me pictures of you all and the Dive Bar."
The woman's eyes widened.
"He never mentioned you were expecting, though. Congratulations."
"Thanks," she said hesitantly.
Next I turned to the other redhead in the room. A tall, nicely built guy covered in ink. "And you're Vaughan, Nell's brother. You're a musician. You recently got engaged to Lydia there, the lovely blonde at your side. Hi."
"Hi." Lydia's lips thinned in surprise. "Huh."
"If I'm a crazy person, how would I know these things?" I turned back to Eric, my own hands sitting on my own damn hips. "How would I know that you went to school with most of these guys? That you only lived a couple of streets away from each other when you were kids?"
Eric's mouth opened but nothing came out.
"Oh my God." A familiar gorgeous, dark-skinned woman with a head full of corkscrew curls stepped forward. "Are you one of those psychics? Mom's always watching that shit on TV. I never believed before, but..."
"Nah, she's a stalker," said Eric. "Got to be. I was bound to pick one up eventually."
"I am not a stalker." Given how tight my fingers were rolled up into fists, however, I might soon very well be accused of assault and battery.
"Do me," said the dark-skinned waitress. "Who am I?"
"You're Rosie, one of the waitresses here."
"Got it in one!" Rosie smiled. "Can you tell me anything about my future?"
"I'm sorry. I'm really not psychic."
"Oh." Her smile turned upside down. "That sucks."
"What's going on?" asked a deep, booming voice from behind us.
I spun, staring straight into the startled eyes of a man who could only be described as a blond Bigfoot, a case of beer casually hoisted on one enormous shoulder. His golden mane flowed down over his wide shoulders, a beard covering the bottom half of his face. I guess it kept him warm in the winter, but seriously. Who needed that much hair?
"Hi, bro, welcome to the crazy." Eric slapped the big man on the back. "You didn't happen to send me a psychic stripper for my birthday, did you?"
Dark shocked eyes fixed on me. Joe. It was his brother Joe, of course. The man was just a whole lot bigger in the flesh than I'd ever imagined. Not that I'd spent a lot of time imagining him or anything.
"What?" He shook his bearded head at Eric in confusion. "No. Of course not."
"A stripper?" I asked in disbelief. "Seriously?"
Eric's gaze went straight to my shoes. "You got to admit, those are some serious heels."
He had a point. Still, I highly doubted I looked like the kind of woman who wore pasties at parties on a regular basis. Let alone as if I had any dancing skills or could even attempt to climb a pole.
"All right, enough," ordered Nell. "I think this poor girl might be the victim of identity theft."
"Look, ah ... obviously something's up here. Why don't we take this into the back office?" said Joe. "Somewhere a little more private. We don't want to embarrass her."
"I think I've pretty much reached peak embarrassment overload," I said, giving him a forced smile. "But thanks."
Strange, the man's skin, the bits visible, at least, had turned a kind of ashen color. He honestly looked ready to hurl at any moment. That or faint.
"You okay, man?" asked Vaughan, also noticing.
"Yeah, yeah. Never better." It was a wonder the guy's pants didn't catch on fire. Even I could tell that one was a blatant lie.
"So you've never met Eric in the flesh before?" Nell asked. "Only online."
I nodded. "Yes. We only ever swapped emails."
With a pained look, Nell came closer, lowering her voice. "It couldn't have been Eric. I'm pretty sure he couldn't even find a computer's on switch, let alone write actual emails on a regular basis. It took him forever just to learn how to spell his own name."
Eric screwed up his forehead. "Hey. That's beside the point."
"Shush." Nell waved a hand at him. "I doubt it was him who set up the account on this dating site at all."
"I did set up the account," said Eric, distinctly unimpressed. "For fuck's sake, Nell. Stop acting like my half of the baby is going to be dumber than your half. It's not."
"Do not call my baby 'it,'" warned Nell, poking him in the chest with a finger.
And suddenly it was all clear to me. It was all horribly, perfectly clear.
"That's your baby?" I asked the sleazoid male standing in front of me. "It is any wonder you're pretending you don't know me? God. You asshole. All of those things you said to me and meanwhile, you're playing house with her."
"What?" Eric's "you're crazy" look tripled. "No. I ... shit. Joe helped me set up that stupid dating account and then I pretty much forgot about it. Didn't need it. So I told Joe..."
"Joe," Eric repeated. Then he blinked and turned to his brother.
Nell too turned to face the big blond guy.
Joe squirmed under their gaze. He had that look about him as if he wanted an emergency trapdoor beneath him to disappear into.
"You email her, bro?" asked Eric.
"Yeah." And the blond Bigfoot did not look happy about it. "Yeah, I ... we've been talking for a while. We know each other."
"No, we don't." I frowned at the man who was most definitely not my type. His brother? Yes. But him? Nuh-uh. "I know Eric, not
I pointed an accusing finger at the beautiful dark-haired man of my dreams. "That's the guy who was in the profile photo. The one I basically bared my heart to. Not you. I don't know who you are."
"Let me explain." Joe/Bigfoot's gaze intensified, focused wholly on me. His dark brown eyes were so earnest, as if he could will me to understand this shit storm. "I read your message and ... I don't know. You seemed like someone--"
"You could lie to?"
"No." He dragged a hand across his face. "Fuck. You were so funny and real and--"
"Real?" I could only shake my head, taking another step back.
"Yes. Real. At first I was just helping out my brother. Trying to get him interested in someone nice for a change. Someone who had more to recommend them than the size of their breasts." His gaze dipped to my uplifted, yet still extremely modest, chest and panic flashed across his face. "Not that you're not--"
"Don't even bother."
"But then I started to get to know you better and you were someone I could really talk to." The side-eyes he gave the assembled crowd were purely sheepish. "I guess I was lonely. I don't know."
Aw, was the poor asshole embarrassed? My heart bled for him.
"But it was Eric you'd reached out to, so..."
The man said nothing.
"Are you actually trying to tell me that your motives were pure? Seriously?" All I could do was shake my head. In wonder or horror, I don't even know. "I believed in you and you were nothing but a lie. All along, just lies."
His lips firmed. "That's not true. I'm your friend."
"Bullshit. A friend would never do this."
Murmurs circled from the people gathered round. And seriously, whatever this was, fuck it. Fuck Eric, Joe, all of mankind, the Internet, and all of my hopes and dreams. I was running straight back to my apartment and staying put. I retreated another step, my butt bumping the back of a chair. It made the most awesome crashing noise as it toppled over, hitting the floor. "Shit. Sorry. I, um..."
The faces surrounding me blurred and a rushing noise filled my head. Christ. All those personal, deeply private things I'd told him. How honest I'd been. But I was just one more stupid girl dreaming of love and a life that was somehow larger. There was nothing for me here.
Twist by Kylie Scott / Romance & Love / History & Fiction have rating 3.6 out of 5 / Based on25 votes