Truth & Temptation  Chapter One

"Anyway, I banged him like a screen door all winter. Had to stay warm somehow, you know what I mean?" I line up my shot, aim for the ten-ball, and miss wildly. Whatever. I blow imaginary dust off my pool stick before turning to my best friend, Cassidy, and to the amusement across her face. "But now it's summer and we all know how cruel Virginia summers can be. I let him go."

"You kill me," she says, cracking up and grabbing her own cue. "But he lasted longer than your usual boys, right?"

My usual boys. I consider her words and slide a strand of auburn hair out of my eyes, tucking it behind my ear. Against the wall a few pool tables over, someone changes the jukebox song to some twangy country piece that I instantly hate. "You could say that."

"You could say," she bends over the table, taking aim, "that this twelve-ball's about to hit that corner pocket." 

Half the pool hall is staring at her ass right now. Not that I blame them—she's got an awesome ass. Wish mine wasn't so flat, but blah, blah, self-deprecation's lame and I'm over it. Nobody looks away when Cassidy shoots up with a little victory dance after her ball goes exactly where she says it will. Because of course it does.

But it's my turn to laugh. "Too bad I'm stripes and you totally just sank that for me."

She pauses mid-wiggle. "I'm stripes."

"Nope," I say, grinning. "I sank the nine-ball first. Numbers over eight are striped, under are solid." I've been repeating it to myself all night. "So. Thank you for my point…or whatever it's called in pool." 

"Teag. You hit the six-ball in." She walks around the table to the place where balls return and pulls out a…nine-ball. Ha!

Nope. Wait. Looking at it the wrong way. 

It's the six-ball. Green, solid

Damn it. 

"Why didn't you say anything when I was aiming for the ten-ball?" I ask, keeping my tone as light as I can. Because there's no need to get pissed off about this. 

"You were shooting for the ten-ball?" she asks, pulling her blonde hair into a messy ponytail that's instantly, effortlessly, annoyingly stylish. "I couldn't tell."

"Oh, fuck you." I smile, forcing it to show in my eyes. See? Look, I'm not getting heated over something so stupid. 

Even though I am.

Even though knowing how stupid it is makes me even more irritated.

Great. And now she's studying my face, trying to tell if I'm actually mad. Because she knows I have…issues, and she wants to help me.

Even though she can't. 

And knowing she knows how fucked up I am and can read me the way she does? It makes me furious.

Which is stupid.

And—here we go again—knowing how stupid it is, that I'm angry because she cares about me? Yeah. It makes it worse.

God. 

My jokes about my sex life might kill Cassidy, but this? This cycle of meaningless anger I can't find my way out of is what's killing me. 

Thank the fucking lord, our friend Vera returns from the bar with our drinks.

"Finally." I accept mine and guzzle until the frostiness of the hard cider reaches the pit of my belly, quelling some of the fire there. 

"You're welcome," she says, her words short. Pointed. But her dark eyes sparkle in the dim lighting. "If I took too long, maybe next time you go wait at the bar."

"Listen. You're on the new side of this friendship, but you should know by now," I say. "You have to accept me for who I am."

"It's true." Cassidy rests her hip against the pool table, taking a sip of her beer. 

Vera slides a hand through her short black hair, lifting a brow at me. "Do you accept you for who you are?" 

Ugh. Why are my friends such friends? "I don't know, but your dad did last night." 

"My dad is dead." She blinks, and the music over the pool hall's speakers is suddenly sharper in my ears. I hate myself. 

"I'm sorry, Ver. I didn't mean it. I didn't know." I'm such an asshole. She stares at me, her eyes all wide and sad, and I want to crawl into a hole in the ground and stay there for the rest of my life. 

And then… She laughs. "He's not dead. But screw you for joking about banging him."

My breath shudders out, relief taking its place in my lungs. "Screw you for the heart attack."

"You're on the new side of this friendship, but…how the hell did you not know my father was alive?"

"I don't even know who my own father is, so why on earth would I keep track of yours?" I retort. It comes out with more of a bite than I mean it to—shocker—and when her face falls, I wave it off. I don't feel sorry for myself about it, so she sure as shit shouldn't either. "Anyway. I'm about to kick Cassidy's ass in this game—you want to take me on next?"

Cassidy blows out an exaggerated sigh, a gesture that reminds me so much of her dead brother it nearly takes my breath away. "Big words for someone who didn't even know if she was stripes or solids."

She's only teasing. 

I slice my stick toward her, stopping short of her face. She doesn't even flinch; she knows I'd never hit her. 

What she doesn't know is how hard it is to remind myself that she's only teasing, that I don't need to get pissed off at her reminder of what an idiot I am. 

She kicks my ass the rest of the game, and I end up on the sidelines, watching Vera give Cassidy a run for her money. It's fine by me because I need another drink anyway. In fact, I'll buy the next round. Only I cringe when the bartender brings me the total. And then I pull out some crumpled bills from my purse and pay it anyway. Soon, it won't matter. I start a new job on Monday.

It's why we're here tonight. There was some snazzy Friday happy hour thing across the street, and I dragged Cassidy with me because it's the company her dad works for, and he said I should come meet some people. Some people was an understatement. I met a lot. It was overwhelming and we hightailed it out as soon as it was acceptable. 

So yeah. I fight a second cringe and I leave a nice tip when the bartender brings me all our drinks, because I'm salaried as of Monday. Granted, it's an itty-bitty salary with no starting benefits, but it'll still be steadier than what I made at the salon.

Screw that place.

I grab my cider, Cassidy's beer, and Vera's ridiculous and super girlie peaches-and-cream concoction (that I secretly wish I wasn't too cheap to buy for myself, too) and turn—and nearly face-plant into the guy sliding onto the stool beside me.

"Whoa there." His voice is smooth, and he steadies me with his hands on my shoulders, and I can tell before I've even looked up at him he's going to be hot—and cocky. Because his fingers are resting against my skin with that perfect sort of pressure, the kind that says I touch tons of girls and I know how to make them respond with nothing more than a quick squeeze from my fingertips. Then I lift my face and… Wow. 

He's more than hot. Pretty, but in a rugged way. An angular chin, covered with stubble. Straight nose. Sharp cheeks. Hooded eyes that are somewhere between deep brown and midnight with lashes for freaking miles. And his hair? It's basically fine black silk—a little too long, but in that carelessly messy sort of way that actually makes it the perfect length. There's enough…I don't know? Practiced casual poise…in his expression to make me think he's a couple years older than I am. 

Plus, he's tall. I'm arching my neck to look up at him and his chest is in front of my face and…his button-up shirt's not so tight that I'd make fun of it—but it sits well enough across his chest that I can tell he works out. And he smells good. Like a woodsy sort of aftershave or something.

I mean, really. Get the fuck out of here with all that. 

 "Whoa there? I'm not a horse." Not my best choice of words, probably, but sarcasm is the best shield against guys who look like this. Plus, the only thing happening in my brain right now is the assessment of how intensely he's staring at me. It's making my neck tingle. Other places, too.

"No," he says, releasing me with one hand to drag it across his sexy mouth. "Horse isn't the animal that'd come to mind… Perhaps a fox. Or maybe a kitten. Though you look like you might bite. Are you feral, little kitten?"

"You don't take your hand off of me, you'll find out real quick." 

He waits a second longer than appropriate and, instead of letting go all at once, he slides his fingers over my shoulder and across my collarbone, letting them fall away at their own slow pace.

My skin straight up goose bumps at his touch. So I do what any smart girl would do. I walk away from him without another glance. 

Because he's the kind of guy I avoid at all costs. Pretty face, sexy attitude, smelling all masculine and honeyed enough to make my mouth water? Nope. No, no, no. Those guys are to be avoided. 

Those guys cost me my mother.

Those guys are assholes.

"That guy's watching you with so much intensity, I'm not sure how you aren't in flames right now," Cassidy says, taking her beer.

I knew it. I knew I could feel that stupid gaze across the backs of my shoulders. "Whatever. Who cares? This is a girls' night, right?"

I definitely am not going to look over my shoulder.

Oh my God, it's difficult not to look over my shoulder.

"Shots," I say, instead. "Somebody go get us shots. Stat." When Cassidy turns toward the bar, I grab her arm. "And steer clear of that dude, okay? He's too slick to be bothered with. And don't bring us whiskey, you weirdo."

She rolls her eyes. "I'm aware I'm hanging out with the girliest drinkers ever. Don't worry." 

So we have a round of lemon drops. And then another. 

He doesn't do it often enough to be stalkerish, but I feel the guy's eyes on me more than what I'd consider coincidence. 

I find my eyes on him almost as much. 

The worst is when he catches me and I look away immediately, because I freaking hate looking away, hate giving him that power. But he's got something in his stare that startles my system. Makes my skin flush and my chin go up, even though I can't maintain eye contact.

I borrowed a blazer from Cassidy for the thing tonight, but it's hanging over a stool now. I'm tempted to put it on though, because I'm too aware of how much skin my tank top flaunts. But the jacket's constricting and it's hot in here. And he's looking at me and I'm glad my skin is showing.

Wait. Not that last thing.

"I'd win a game if I could fucking concentrate," I mutter, after Vera schools me yet again. 

Whatever. Pool isn't my strong suit. Who cares? 

Plus, if the two of them duke it out all night, I don't have to worry whether or not I look dumb leaning on the table with his eyes on me. I may be in professional-looking black pants, but they're a little too small for me—and they get much tighter around my ass when I bend over. And not in a sexy way. I position myself on a stool with my back to the guy I wish I wasn't so aware of.

But after Vera gets us another round of shots, it doesn't even matter that my back's to him, because he comes to us. With drinks. The same ones we've all been drinking. Vera's concoction. My hard cider—which I take without comment. And Cassidy's beer, which he holds out with a smile a bit too wide for my liking. 

"She has a boyfriend," I tell him, my tone edgier than I intend.

"Retract the claws, kitten." His voice is silkier when it's not competing with the noises closer to the bar. So silky, in fact, it pairs perfectly with his hair. 

"I'm making sure you're aware." I squeeze my fingers tighter around the cider to keep from reaching up and running them through his locks. "Don't try to hit on her." 

Cassidy slams me with her elbow. "Dude, chill."

"She's not the one I'm hitting on," he says, his eyes on mine for so long my face heats, and Vera and Cassidy giggle.

I'm inclined to make a snarky response, but nothing comes to me when I open my lips—except the thought of how his might feel against them.

Oh. Hmm. 

I could be in a little bit of trouble here.

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