Haley Wood had the strongest urge to clock someone.
Maybe it was the three glasses of champagne talking. Or maybe it was the fact she was here, at her best friend’s engagement party, alone. Maybe it was because of the hawk-nosed man currently holding a conversation with her breasts.
Most likely it was Calista’s cousin, Stelli, practically dry-humping Haley’s boyfriend across the room.
Ex-boyfriend. Though, while technically correct, it didn’t feel right to characterize Will in that way. He was one of her closest friends. When they’d started dating, she’d made him promise that no matter what happened between them, they would remain friends. He promised. And then she broke his heart.
In all fairness, she broke her own heart, too. But it was for the best. Which was why, even as buxom brunette wrapped her tentacles around his muscular arm and pressed her overripe melons against him, she remained in place, struggling to pull air past the tight knot in her chest.
“I’m known as The Oracle down on High Street, you know. I know how to make money, lots of it and fast, you know.”
Haley dragged her eyes from the spectacle across the room to the annoyance in front of her, a friend of Calista’s fiancé, Miles. He was well-groomed and conventionally handsome. She might have been interested, if he didn’t keep helping himself to an eyeful of her breasts. Pervert. The girls did look spectacular tonight, thanks to the push-up contraction she’d bought on impulse. Without it, they would have been lost in the folds of her strapless cocktail dress, instead of riding high and proud. The vivid persimmon of the dress brought out the golden undertones of her bronzed brown skin and set off her grandmother’s antique gold pendant lay just above the cleavage which had so enraptured this lech.
His gaze flickered once more and the tip of his tongue darted out. “You know how much I made last quarter?”
She sighed. “They can’t talk. They don’t have minds of their own, you know.”
He glanced at her. “Sorry?”
“My breasts,” she said, tightening her grip on the flute, resisting — barely — the urge to fling her drink at him. Instead, she tipped her head back and let the remaining bubbles slide down her throat. “Excuse me.”
She shoved her empty glass into his hands, ignoring the puzzled look on his face, and sauntered away. Will was still wrapped up in the brunette, almost literally, and Calista and Miles were in the corner talking to some guests. As usual, her best friend’s fiancé had his arm around her, lifting his hand periodically to touch Calista’s hair or caress her arm. In the center of the Party Room, Ethan and Lainie Thomas sat at a table, laughing while their five-month-old son, Jared, was cooed and fussed over by Calista’s aunts, each jockeying to take their turn with him. She turned away from the intimate vignettes playing out before her. In a room so crowded she could barely turn without bumping someone, she’d never felt so lonely.
Her warm champagne buzz was turning into a unsettling vibration. Fresh air would do her good. Her face hot and flushed, she headed toward the side door. It opened directly into the parking lot, so people using the Party Room attached to Athena’s wouldn’t have to cut through the diner itself. She was grateful, it meant she could slip out unnoticed. She stepped into the balmy late September night and turned her head in the direction of the water. There wasn’t much of a breeze coming off the water, but she would take what she could get.
She closed her eyes and breathed in, twitching her nose at the tangy bite of salt air skimming across her face and cooling her skin. Better. She exhaled and opened her eyes, the nearly jumped out of her skin.
“Holy hell, Jules!” she exclaimed, clutching her hand to her heart. “You scared the living bejeezus out of me!”
Juliet Winslow chuckled. “Sorry, Hales. I thought you’d seen me walking up from the restaurant.”
She pointed with her thumb over her shoulder toward the the front of the building. Athena’s was on Main Street, aptly named as the major road on and off Mystic Point. Across the street was The Mystic Point Marina, where the elegant French bistro, Elan, stood. Juliet was their Executive Chef.
“Not working tonight?” Haley asked.
“I’m taking a break,” Juliet said. “But I wanted to pop my head in and say hello.”
She took in Haley’s outfit, right down to the gold peep-toe wedges she wore, and raised an eyebrow. “Damn, Hales. You look hot.”
Haley’s cheeks heated again and she shifted uncomfortably on her feet. “I feel ridiculous,” she admitted. “Like I’m trying too hard. I should’ve stuck with jeans.”
“Is it for you-know-who?” Juliet asked, tilting her head toward the door.
She shook her head. “No, I didn’t dress up for Will.” She was being honest. Will wasn’t the type of guy to be impressed by glitz and glam. He’d loved her in a Jets jersey and sneakers. Although he did appreciate some girly things, like the black satin and lace corset with matching garter belt she’d surprised him with on his birthday last June. Before he had to go and ruin everything by proposing to her.
“I knew Miles’s family and friends would be here, so I wanted to look extra nice for the rich crowd. Maybe land myself a hot billionaire like Calista,” she joked.
Juliet clucked her tongue. “Have to get over Will, first.”
“There’s nothing to get over. I’m the one who ended it, remember?”
“Yes, I remember the mistake you made.”
“It wasn’t a mistake,” Haley insisted. “We want different things in life. We’re better as friends.”
“I’m just disappointed it didn’t work out, you guys were great together.”
“We still are. As friends.” Haley nodded her head at the building, where Will was probably still being manhandled by that girl. “He’s fine about it, too. Trust me.”
“If you say so.”
“Where’s Pat?” she asked Juliet, changing the subject.
“We broke up.” Juliet shrugged a shoulder. “My hours have been too crazy to give him the attention he deserves, and honestly, if it were meant to be, I’d have felt like making the time.”
Haley nodded. Last year, she’d said something similar to Calista about Will. Calista hadn’t felt for Will what she’d thought she had, or she wouldn’t have let her parents’ problems distract her from dating him. Obviously, Calista’s gut had been right, even if she hadn’t realized it at the time. Haley was a big believer in trusting your instincts, and if your instincts told you something wasn’t right, you should listen.
“I’m going inside.” Juliet reached for the door. “You coming?” She’d hidden out long enough. “Right behind you.”
* * * * *
It was impossible not to be aware of Haley’s every movement. She was a beacon in her bright dress, a tempting siren in a shade of orange which made her skin glow and caught the attention of all the men in the room, save for the few distracted by their own lovely women. None compared to Haley, though. From her silky hair to her toned legs, to her generous heart, she was perfect in every way.
Except she didn’t believe in forever, which was inconvenient since he refused to accept anything less.
That’s why tonight found him on the opposite side of the room from her, doing his best to thwart the roaming hands of the tipsy brunette talking at him, while Haley was ogled by some creep. He should rescue her. He may not be her boyfriend anymore, but hadn’t she pleaded with him to stay friends? Friends help each other in these instances.
Speaking of which… where the hell was Ethan? He’d even take Miles, though the man was still standoffish to him because of Will’s previous interest in Calista. But they were otherwise occupied, and he was stuck politely listening to Calista’s cousin, Stelli, prattle on about her ex not being man enough to satisfy her.
“You look like you could do the job,” she said, dragging a blood-red fingernail down the center of his chest.
He flexed away from her touch and gave her a weak smile. “Excuse me, Stelli. There’s something I forgot to do.”
He slipped out of her grasp and moved toward the bar, but Haley was no longer standing there. The ogler had moved on to another conversation, and she wasn’t in sight.
“Hey, handsome.” A gravelly voice grabbed his attention. He looked down at Debbie Brands, who managed Athena’s for Calista’s parents. She held a drink in one hand and a crab puff in the other.
“Hi, Debbie. How are you?”
Debbie gestured at the room with the crab puff. “I can’t believe the Markatos family doesn’t have one single man in my acceptable age range. A lot of spinsters, widows, and desperate singles.”
He snorted, knowing exactly what she meant. “What’s your acceptable age range, Debbie?”
“18 to 70,” she said. “Though, I’m willing to stretch it to 75 if he still has his own teeth.”
Will laughed. The woman, old enough to be his grandma, had no filter. “That’s a pretty broad range.”
“A woman’s gotta have options.” She took a sip of her drink, scotch by the looks and smell of it. “Oh, well. It’s probably better I stay away from Markatos men, anyway.”
“Because they’re your employers?”
“Because judging by the number of widows here, I don’t think they could keep up with me.”
“Who can, Debbie?” Will said with a wink.
She bumped him lightly with her hip. “Wanna try?”
“Sorry, my heart belongs to another.” He looked around the room. “You haven’t seen Haley, have you?”
“No,” Debbie said, her eyes flashing with sympathy, or pity. It was all the same. “I’m sorry you kids split up. But you’ll find your way back to each other again.”
“Oh, I’ll get her back. I’m giving her what she wants right now until I figure out how.”
“Thatta boy.” She patted his arm before she circulated into the crowd.
He shoved his hands in his pocket and leaned against the bar. He never thought he’d get over Caroline walking out on him five years ago, and he certainly didn’t anticipate falling for one of his oldest friends. But he’d done both, and he wasn’t going to let Haley go as easily as she thought.
The side door opened, letting in a brief blast of sea breeze before closing again. He smiled at the two women who walked in. Haley ducked her head briefly, then met his gaze with a wary one of her own. Damn, she had the most beautiful eyes, like the color of the scotch in Debbie’s glass. How had it taken him so many years to notice them? He missed those eyes, the glimpse they’d give him of the tenderness and vulnerability within, before her shields went back up.
Tonight, she was as guarded as ever. She and Juliet made their way over to him.
“Hi, Will,” Juliet said, giving him a kiss on the cheek.
“Hey, Juliet. Haven’t seen much of you, lately.”
She blew her bangs off her forehead. “It’s been rough at Elan. A lot of changes going on since Claire’s diagnosis.”
“I was sorry to hear about it,” Will said. Claire Renault, co-owner of the restaurant with her husband, Philippe, was recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Will, who had a carpentry and handyman business in addition to the hardware store he owned, had recently installed safety rails for her.
He turned to Haley. “You look amazing.”
Her cheeks bloomed. “Thank you.”
Juliet looked between the two. “I’m going to say hi to Calista. See you two around.”
Will’s eyes were glued to Haley, not her tantalizing cleavage, though he’d earlier taken his fill. He wasn’t blind. But it wasn’t her body which interested him most. He wanted her heart.
“Haley—,” he began.
“They look happy, don’t they?” She turned away, nodding toward Calista and Miles.
He cleared his throat. “Yeah.”
Stelli stood behind Calista and blew Will a kiss. He grimaced, while Haley stiffened next to him. “Don’t let me keep you from Stelli.”
“I’m not interested in Stelli or any other woman here. Except the one standing next to me.”
She closed her eyes briefly. “I understand if it’s not possible to stay friends right now.”
“Friends,” he huffed.
“No, Haley, I get it.” He raised a hand to stop whatever words were coming next. “If being friends is the only way I can have you in my life, then we’ll be friends.”
She looked down at her feet. “I’m sorry.”
“So you’ve said.” He stared at her a moment before walking away.
She wanted to be friends? Fine. He’d show her exactly what being friends meant.
© Copyright 2017-2018 Cate Tayler. All Rights Reserved.