This time I actually walked away, because a man who says clichéd shit like that doesn’t deserve to call any woman.
I made excuses the rest of the morning, telling myself that she was probably busy. Hell, I didn’t even know if Sara had friends other than Chloe and Bennett. I couldn’t exactly ask her that, could I? Fuck, no. She’d put her shoe in my eye socket. But what exactly did she do when she wasn’t at work? I played rugby, drank beer, ran, went to art showings. Everything I knew about her was related either to how she fucked, or to the life she’d left behind. I knew so little about the life she’d started to build here. Maybe she’d love to do something with me after the shitty day she’d had yesterday.
Finally, I shoved my spine in my back and let the phone ring.
“Hello?” she answered, sounding confused. Of course she’s confused, you ass. You’ve never actually called her.
I took a deep breath and let out the most ungodly ramble of my entire life: “Okay, look, before you say anything, I know we aren’t doing the boyfriend-girlfriend thing, and after Congressman Morton’s wandering penis I totally get your aversion to relationships, but last night you came over and were a bit out of sorts, and if you wanted something to do today—not that you need something to do (and even if you did, not to imply that you don’t have other options), but if you’d like you could come to my rugby match.” I paused, listening for any sign of life on the other end of the phone. “Nothing clears the head better than watching a pile of muddy, sweaty Brits trying to break each other’s femurs.”
“Rugby. Come watch my match today. Or, if you prefer, meet us all for drinks at Maddie’s in Harlem afterward.”
For what felt like a week, she remained silent.
I walked across the room and fidgeted with the blinds at my window overlooking the park. “Think louder.”
“I’m seeing a movie with a girlfriend this afternoon,” she began, and I felt a small tension unknot in my gut when she mentioned a friend. “But I guess I could be up for drinks later. What time do you think you’ll be done?”
Like even worse of a git than before, I made a little fist pump of victory and immediately wanted to smack myself. “Match will probably go until three. You could meet us at Maddie’s around four.”
“Do you think your team will win? I don’t want to be drinking with a bunch of depressed, muddy Brits.”
Laughing, I assured her we were going to crush them.
We kicked their asses. I rarely ever felt bad for the other team—most teams we played were American and, although it wasn’t their fault they didn’t have rugby in their blood, it usually felt great to tromp them. But this may have been an exception. We stopped trying to score about halfway through. I had to attribute my generosity in part to knowing that Sara would meet us after. But only in part. By the end of the match it felt like we were beating up ten-year-olds in the mud, and I felt a twinge of guilt.
We roared into the bar, carrying Robbie on our shoulders and yelling the words to a rather filthy version of “Alouette.” The bartender and owner, Madeline, waved when she saw us, lined up twelve pint glasses, and began filling them.
Maddie gave him the V-sign but grabbed a handful of shot glasses anyway, mumbling something about Robbie’s drunk, muddy ass sleeping alone.
I scanned the room for Sara and came up empty. Swallowing my disappointment, I turned to the bar and took a deep drink of my beer. Our game had started late; it was already close to five and she wasn’t here. Was I really surprised? And then a horrible thought occurred to me: had she been here, waited, and left?
Maddie slid a shot of whiskey to me and I downed it with a wince, cursing again.
“What’s wrong?” a familiar husky voice asked from behind me. “Looks to me like you dirty bastards won.”
I spun around on my bar stool and broke out into a grin at the sight of her. She looked like a cake topper, in a pale yellow dress and a tiny green pin in her hair. “You look beautiful.” Her eyes closed for a beat, and I murmured, “Sorry we’re late.”
She weaved a little where she stood, saying, “Gave me time to have a few drinks.”
I hadn’t seen her drunk since the night at the club, but I recognized a familiar light in her eyes: mischief. The thought of that Sara reappearing was f**king fantastic.
Her brows pinched together for a brief pulse and then smoothed as she smiled. “British for drunk? Yeah, I’m tipsy.” She stood on her toes then . . . and kissed me.
Beside me, Richie chimed in. “What the . . . Max. There’s a girl on your face.”
Sara pulled back and her eyes widened in realization. “Oh, crap.”
“Calm down,” I told her quietly. “No one here gives a f**k who we are. They hardly remember my name every week.”
“Patently untrue,” Richie said. “Your name is Twat.”
I tilted my head to him, smiling at Sara. “Like I said.”
She held out her hand and gave Richie her wide-eyed smile. “I’m Sara.”
He took her hand and shook it. I could see the moment he really looked at her and registered how ridiculously pretty she was. He immediately checked out her chest. “ ’m Richie,” he mumbled.
He looked at me, eyes narrowed. “How the f**k you land that one?”
“No idea.” I pulled her closer, ignoring her mild protest that I was going to get her dress dirty. But then she wiggled free and turned to Derek, on my other side.
Derek put his beer down and wiped a grimy hand across his mouth. “Fuck yeah you are.”
And like this, Tipsy Sara worked her way down the bar, introducing herself to every single one of my mates. In her, I saw the politician’s wife she’d almost been, but even more than that, I saw that Sara was just a really f**king sweet girl.
When she returned to me, she kissed my cheek and whispered, “Your friends are nice. Thanks for inviting me.”
“Yeah, sure.” I lost my ability to form coherent thoughts. Almost nothing in my life made me feel the way she was making me feel—so bloody good. I wasn’t full of self-loathing, but I’d been a bit of a slut, worked in investments that, let’s be honest, relied on people losing money as much as others making it, and I’d fostered few deep connections since I’d been stateside. My closest friend was Will and most of the time we just called each other names that were all variations on the word pussy.
Tell her, you dick. Pull her to the other side of the room, give her a good snog, and tell her you love her.
“Take this old blues shite off the speaker, Maddie,” Derek yelled across the bar.
And just as I was about to touch Sara’s elbow, ask her to come talk to me, she straightened. “This isn’t blues,” she said.
“It’s not. It’s Eddie Cochran. It’s rockabilly,” she said, but under his continued inspection she seemed to shrink a little. “They aren’t the same at all.”
“You know how to dance to this rubbish?” he asked her, looking her up and down again.
To my surprise, Sara laughed. “Are you asking?”
But before he could finish his sentence, she’d jerked him to his feet, and all 115 pounds of her was dragging his enormous frame to the dance floor.
“My mom is from Texas,” she said, eyes sparkling. “Try to keep up.”
“You’re kidding,” he said, looking over at us. The entire bar full of Brits had stopped talking and was watching them with interest.
“Don’t be a pussy, Der,” Maddie yelled, and everyone began clapping. She turned up the music. “Give us a show.”
Sara’s smile grew, and she placed his hand on her shoulder, shaking her head when he protested. “It’s the traditional pose. You put one hand on my back, the other on my shoulder.”
And while we watched, Sara showed Big Derek how to do a dance across the floor: two quick steps, two slow steps. She demonstrated how he was to quickly spin her counterclockwise around the room. Within one song, they were moving pretty good, and by the middle of the second, they were both cracking up, dancing together like they’d known each other for years.
Maybe that’s what it was about Sara. Anyone who met her wanted to know her. She wasn’t just appealingly sweet to me, with her innocence pushing through even given her basest fantasies. She was irresistible to everyone.
And in that moment, there was nothing I wanted to do more than punch Andy’s smug f**king face. He’d wasted his time with her, wasted her.
I stood, moved to the dance floor, and cut in. “My turn.”
Those deep brown eyes of hers darkened, and instead of posing my hands like she’d done with Derek, she slipped her arms around my neck, stretched to kiss my jaw, and whispered, “I’m pretty sure it’s always your turn.”
“I thought there was supposed to be a little more distance between us when we dance to this,” I said, smiling as I bent to kiss her.
She broke into a drunken, playful smile. “But I’m starving. I want a burger the size of my head.”
A laugh burst from my throat and I bent to kiss her forehead. “There’s a place near you that fits the bill. I’ll text you an address. Shall I head home to shower and meet you there in an hour?”
“Dinner two nights in a row?” she asked, looking more carefully eager than anything. Where was the cautious, distancing woman I knew only days ago? She’d evaporated. I suspected Distancing Sara had always been a bit of a fantasy.
I nodded, feeling my smile slip away. I was done with the pretense that we had any boundaries left. The single expectant word came out hoarse: “Yeah.”
She bit her lip to hold back the smile, but it was impossible to miss.
I’d been in New York for two months and had no real sense of what I was doing when I wasn’t at work. I ran. I had a few friends I would meet for shows, or coffee, or drinks. I talked to my parents a couple of times a week. I wasn’t lonely; I certainly had a fuller life here than I’d had by the end of my time in Chicago. But most of my life outside of work had become Max.
How in the hell had that happened?
Then again, for his part, Max never seemed surprised by anything that happened between us. Not when I coerced him into ha**g s*x in the club, or when I came to his office offering sex and nothing more, and not even when I sought him out only to break down in his shower, begging him to just take me and make everything else go away.
Even his friends were amazing. Derek was possibly the largest human I had ever met, and though he was not exactly light on his feet, dancing with him had been some of the most fun I’d had in ages . . . other than every time I was with Max.
I waved goodbye to Derek and he winked at me, reminding with a nod to where Max sat at the bar about what he’d said on the dance floor: “He’s a prick, that one.”
Under the single light of the dance floor, Derek had looked even muddier than he had when I’d introduced myself. I’d glanced down at my dress and noted a few handprints near my shoulder. “He’s not so bad.”
Laughing, Derek had patted my head. “He’s the worst, nice to everyone and never f**ks up. Always there for his mates, never comes off like an arsehole.” He’d winked. “What a f**king nightmare.”
Thanking Maddie as we left, I heard the team’s continued drunken singing from behind me in the bar as Max hailed a cab and held the door for me as I climbed in.
“See you in a bit,” he said, before closing the door and giving me a small wave through the window as we pulled away from the curb.
I looked out the back window. Max stood still, watching my cab disappear down Lenox.
We’d decided on something simple for dinner: burgers at a small, quiet place in the East Village.
Quiet was good. Quiet would help drown out the mayhem in my brain. My plan to have fun, be wild, and keep things compartmentalized had gone to hell.
I went home and showered off the mud from dancing with Derek and Max, and put on a simple blue jersey halter dress. The songs from the bar echoed in my ear, and I let myself imagine seeing his friends again: curling up with Max on a friend’s couch and watching a movie with them, or cupping my hands around a mug of coffee on the sidelines of a rugby match. Each fantasy felt like a given, but I stopped thinking about any of them when the tendrils of my mind began to analyze, worry, play devil’s advocate.
I walked out into the hall and locked my apartment, reminding myself, One thing at a time. No one is making you do any of this.
Even on this Saturday night, with people out enjoying the lazy evening sunset, it was less hectic in the Village than it ever felt in midtown. When had this place started to feel like home? Max chose a restaurant within walking distance of my building; I no longer needed to read every street sign to find my way there.