After talking for an hour straight, she finally takes a deep breath in and out. She must be the type to ramble when she’s uncomfortable. The more I think about this situation, the less I feel like this is a good idea. There are plenty of other options for me out there, so there’s no need for me to torture myself here. I wanted to be around happy, and I can tell that would be the last word used to describe how she feels working with me.

“I really do appreciate you showing me all of this, Emerson…”

“Em, I appreciate it, I really do. But I just don’t think this will work out.”

“Why not?” she asks, and I have to stop myself from laughing at the asinine question.

“Frankly, there’s just no reason for me to work somewhere every day where I know I’ll be despised. I’ve had enough of that in the past to last a lifetime.” Thankfully, we don’t have any customers yet, because this conversation is not work-appropriate.

“Audrey, I don’t hate you. I don’t even know you,” she says in a softer voice. I raise an eyebrow at her, silently telling her to be honest with herself and me. “Okay… okay. I’ll admit, I’m not your biggest fan, but I don’t hate you.”

Feeling like I need to busy my hands, I grab a lime and begin slicing wedges. I don’t know what kind of crowd this place draws, but limes are always necessary in a bar. I slice three before I begin talking to her again.

“Okay, so you don’t hate me. But you have to admit you wouldn’t choose to work with someone who holds distorted notions about you,” I mumble, while continuing to look down at the knife and fruit in my hands.

I hear glasses clinking behind me and then see her move on to scrub down the bar top. I don’t budge from my spot. I’ve never enjoyed confrontation, and I’m still hoping to slip out of here gracefully without causing a scene. A full five minutes pass before she decides to speak again.

“When you say distorted… are you implying that Jaxon lied?” she questions, leaning against the counter next to me.

“I don’t know if I would call it lying because I don’t know what he’s said exactly, but I do think he’s an as**ole that couldn’t even give me two seconds to speak,” I ground out between clenched teeth. I take a deep breath and let it out long and slow like Lane taught me to do when I work myself up. I finally turn to face her. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that, especially to his girlfriend. Sometimes I get carried away and say exactly what’s on my mind without a filter.”

“Do you still love him?” she asks candidly.

Her eyebrows scrunch in confusion when she says, “Yes, of course.”

“I’ve never loved him.” I turn and walk to the opposite bar top, but she follows right behind me.

“Okay, now you have to tell me everything.” I’m confused by the one-eighty in the tone of her voice. It doesn’t sound demanding or mean, more like a best friend asking for the latest juicy gossip. I turn to look at her expression and see that she has a tiny smirk at the edge of her lips.

It takes me a moment to respond and in the meantime, I stand there and observe her. We couldn’t be more opposite, she and I. I’m a brunette and she’s blonde. I consider myself tall and lanky, whereas Em is on the shorter side with curves in all the right places. Lucky bitch. In this moment, I wonder if Jace has ever been attracted to her and then I try to recant that thought. Looking at her, it’s hard to imagine who wouldn’t be.

“We look nothing alike.” The words spill out of my mouth involuntarily.

She smiles and says, “Yeah, I don’t think he has a certain type.”

“Who, Jaxon?” I really need to snap out of it, because while she must think I have Jaxon on the brain, it’s actually Jace that haunts my thoughts. “No, I wasn’t even thinking about him.” I should leave it at that.

She eyes me and says, “I don’t know what it is, but I think I like you. Even though I feel like I shouldn’t. It also makes it easier knowing you aren’t in love with my boyfriend.”

“Um… thanks?” What am I supposed to say to that? She shrugs her shoulders unapologetically and I decide to give her a little bit. “I met Jax on accident. After a big mistake, he and I ended up…” How do I say this to someone’s girlfriend?

“Having sex,” she suggests, nodding her head. “Go on…” She laughs as if it’s no big deal to talk about her boyfriend’s past sex life. Em is easy to talk to and I don’t want to like her, but I do. Kennedy is the only female friend I’ve ever had, but she lives all the way on the East Coast.

“Yeah, that. Soon after, Jax asked me to date him, purely as a buffer for his mom and brother. I guess he was going through a rebellious stage and they were always on his case. When he first asked, I said no. But after realizing I never had a chance with the guy I actually wanted, I latched onto him as an escape from my…um, less than ideal home life.”

Before Emerson can ask any more questions, the music cranks up and customers begin to pack the bar and pool tables. We work smoothly around each other. She cashes out the pool tables and I fill drinks. She doesn’t have to give me much direction because I already know my way around a bar. Occasionally, we get slammed and work as a team. Rum and Coke? She pours the rum and I dispense the Coke. Seven and Seven? She pours the whiskey and I top it off with 7-up. When a table of eight orders a round of beer, I grab the bottles out of the fridge and line them up. Em comes up from behind and pops all the tops. Somewhere along the way, we became a fully functioning team without even talking.

At one point, things cool down for a moment and a cute, little old man perches up on a barstool. “Hey Em, who’s this lovely lady you’ve got back here?” he asks.

“Hi Joe,” she smiles at him, while pulling clean glasses from the dishwasher. “This is Audrey, she works here now.” I can feel her eyes on me, probably wondering if I’ll refute her statement. “Make sure you tell your wild crew over there to be nice to her.” When she shakes her finger back and forth at him, I can’t contain the giggle.

Em hands him a Sprite and he winks at me on his way back to his table. “Nice to meet you, Miss Audrey.”

“Joe’s here all the time,” she tells me. “He’s great. If you have family issues, he’s the man to talk to. He lays it out straight, no bullshitting around. I’ve gone to him more times than I can count.”

“I might actually take advantage of that…” I say as I stare after the kind, old man.

I’ve never had grandparents. When I was younger, I use to daydream up these wonderful, make-believe families. A dad who came home from work with open arms, wanting hugs from his whole family. A mom who would help me get dressed for school dances and one day, my wedding. A grandpa who would let me sit in his lap while we drank sweet tea on the porch. I even had a grandma who pinched my cheeks and made the best peach cobbler. I’ve had these fantasies for so many years now, they almost feel real.

The night begins to wind down and our bouncer, Mark, begins to escort out the stragglers as the bar closes. Em and I walk by all the tables and pick up any glasses we missed during our earlier cleanup.

“Can I ask about your home life? Or is that rude?” Em asks while I’m scrubbing glasses.

“Are you asking for yourself, or do you plan on sharing this with a certain boyfriend?”

She laughs, “Well, this is my first relationship, so there wasn’t much for me to talk about. Jax skimmed over his past and I never really felt the need to know details.” We finish our closing duties and decide to sit down on the barstools and continue our conversation.

“Jax never mentioned me before I came up here last year, did he?”

“No…” she says with a worried face.

I hurry to reassure her. “That’s because Jax and I didn’t mean much to each other. We came to an agreement and we had fun. Things got all screwed up, but that’s it. There never was anything significant going on there.”

“I guess I can understand that. I think I just assumed since you guys were dating, that if you broke up, it would be heart breaking. I’ve only ever had one relationship and I know I’d be devastated to lose him.”

“But it wasn’t ever like that with us. Plus, we were in high school. We were both young and stupid.” I sigh at the memories and then change the subject, “Can I ask you to not tell anyone that I’m working here with you? Not Jax or Jace… I know they’ll eventually find out, but I’m just not ready. The first thing they’ll think is that I did this on purpose.”

“I can’t lie to Jaxon, but unless he specifically asks, I won’t tell.” She makes a criss-cross motion over her chest and I feel a bond forming with her.

“My parents hated me. Well, I’m sure they still hate me,” I say in a quiet voice, answering her earlier question. “They never wanted a kid, but it ended up benefitting them money-wise to keep me around. My mom was rarely home before she eventually ran off for good, but my dad… he was… violent.”

Em sucks in a quick breath and then apologizes for her reaction, “I’m sorry, go on.”

“Well, there’s not much more to it. For as long as I can remember, I was hiding bruises and cuts. Dating Jaxon was nice, only because I had a place to hide out from my house. I worked a lot too, so I spent most of my time either at the restaurant or with him. Honestly though, I would have chosen anything over being at home. I never had any friends because I didn’t want them asking questions. Jax was pretty self-involved back then, so he never noticed anything.”

“He never asked about your bruises?” she huffs out in frustration. When I shake my head back and forth, she says, “Jerk.”

That makes me laugh. “He was in high school, a teenager going through his own losses.” I start to wonder why I’m defending him. “Clearly he’s changed though.”

“That doesn’t excuse his behavior,” she replies. Is she sticking up for me? In another beat, she smiles and says, “Hey, next Saturday there’s a bonfire on the beach and lots of new people for you to meet. You should go with me.”

My mouth drops open in shock that she’s asking me to hang out with her. When I recover, I say, “I don’t know. Last time I was around your group, it was clear that I wasn’t welcome.”

“Well, since I’m the one inviting you, then you’re welcome in my book. And that reminds me, you still need to tell me about that trip last year. Jaxon and I were dealing with our own drama, so I didn’t really know what was going on.”

“Hey girls,” Mark interrupts us from the front doors, extending his arm to keep his cigarette on the outside. “Let me walk you out. There’s a big dude out here just standing by his car and I don’t like it.”

“Black SUV? Sandy brown hair and way over six feet tall?” I call back.

“Yup. He’s not stalking you or anything, is he?” I can tell Mark’s hackles are up and I’m surprised by his protectiveness, especially considering we just met.

I hop down from the bar stool and Em follows behind. When I reach the door, I stick my head out and holler, “Get over here, Lane, you’re making the bouncer edgy.” I turn back to Mark. “Thanks, but that’s my roommate. You don’t have to worry about him.”

As Lane strides across the parking lot, everyone watches. It’s hard to not stare at Lane, I’ll admit.

“Shut. Up. He’s yours?” Em says through an awed whisper.

“Well, he’s mine in the way a sister claims a brother, even though we aren’t blood-related.”

“No way, girl. If you’re single, you cannot let that go to waste.”

I nudge her with my elbow. “Em, you’re taken, remember?”

“I’m still allowed to appreciate God’s work,” she giggles. “And damn, God was in a good mood the day he made that man.”

“You’re ridiculous,” I laugh as Lane approaches. I introduce him to my new co-workers. Em and I walk back to get our purses and then return to the front.

“If we’re ever working together, I can give you a ride home,” she offers.

“Why are you being so nice to me?” I cringe at the drama of it all.

She halts in her steps. “Because, I’m starting to think that there was some kind of huge misunderstanding and I want to know the truth. You and I seem to click well and we’re going to be working together.” She shrugs as if it’s a no-brainer. “So about that party next weekend?”

“That’s all I’m asking. We work together a bunch this week. I’ll convince you by then,” she says confidently.

I laugh at her boldness. “Alright. Well, thanks Em. I’ll see you later.”

Lane eyes me curiously as we walk arm-in-arm to his car, and I know he’s about to bombard me with questions.

With my shirt draped over my shoulder, I walk into the kitchen to grab water from the fridge. “You guys going to that bonfire thing Saturday night?” I ask Jaxon and Em, who are lounging on the couch.

“Yeah, Cole and I are going right after we get out of practice. You gonna take the girls?” Jax asks with his arm tucked under Em.