And I am eating a cronut.
I’ve had “cronuts” before. I’ve bought knock-offs at street fairs and in other bakeries, but this one doesn’t compare. The pastry is so fluffy and the cream inside is so decadent. I could die happy with this cronut in my hand.
“Enjoying your cronut?” Hunter asks me.
He’s next to me in the carriage and his arm is around my shoulders. I know he commented on my scent last time we went out and I thought it was weird, but I have to admit that the smell of his aftershave or cologne or whatever is making me a little giddy. He smells good. It makes me want him more, if that were possible.
“It’s delicious,” I say.
There was a line at the bakery, but we didn’t wait in it. We actually went in through the back and a young woman handed us the cronut like she’d been waiting for us all along. It was incredible how he got me that cronut—I couldn’t have been more impressed if it had floated through the air into his waiting hand.
“Worth another kiss?” he asks me.
I put down my cronut and he leans in to kiss me again. It’s another amazing kiss that would have made my knees wobbly if I’d been standing up. As it is, my entire body feels tingly and warm. There’s something about this man, beyond even his obvious physical attractiveness and charm that draws me to him like a magnet.
After we pull away, Hunter gently brushes a strand of red hair from my face. “That was very nice,” he says.
“Yes,” I breathe.
He smiles at me. “Maybe after this, we can go back to your apartment…”
I swallow hard. I shouldn’t be in any way surprised Hunter is pushing to come home with me—he seems like a man very much used to getting what he wants with women. But the deal is that I’ve been out with a lot of guys since I moved to the city. A lot. And I’ve established a firm rule to keep me from turning into the Whore of Babylon.
“You should probably know,” I tell him, “I don’t sleep with a guy until we’ve been dating for three months.”
“Three months?” Hunter stares at me like I told him I wouldn’t let him into my pants until after our first child was in college. (I’m not sure about the logistics of that, but you get my drift.)
I fold my arms across my chest. “It’s really not that long.”
He leans back against the seat of the carriage, still looking traumatized. “Do you make exceptions?”
“No,” I say, which is… well, mostly true. Some men are very persuasive. And admittedly, Hunter falls into that category.
I watch his face, wondering if this will be a deal-breaker for him. If it is, then good riddance. Honestly, my three month rule not only saves me from venereal disease, but is also good at weeding out guys who are more interested in a quick bang than a meaningful relationship. Looking at Hunter with his perfect features and his money and his charm, I feel there’s a reasonable chance he might take off.
But instead, he turns back to me and takes my hand in his. “Okay, three months. I can wait three months.”
I raise my eyebrows at him. “Yeah?”
“Absolutely.” He flashes those white teeth at me. “But you can’t fault me if I try to push up the date.”
I return his smile. “I would be surprised if you didn’t.”
I take another bite of my luscious cronut. Wow, this is so good. There’s part of me that feels like I should give it up to Hunter for the cronut alone. I’m not sure I’ve ever tasted a pastry quite this good before.
“Do you want a bite?” I ask him.
“I don’t like sweet things,” he says. He quickly adds, “Well, except you.”
“Oh, I’m not so sweet.”
He laughs. “Really? Is that so?”
“It’s so. I can be very bad.”
“What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?”
The worst thing I’ve ever done? I have no idea. Despite my flirting, I’ve never done anything that bad. I’ve never broken the law aside from a little underage drinking and marijuana use when I was younger. I once ran a red light by accident, but it was on an empty road. I jaywalk several times a day. I used the handicapped stall a few times in a restroom—is that illegal?
As for really bad stuff? I’m coming up with a blank. I’ve never even cheated on a guy.
Maybe I really am a sweet thing.
But Hunter is looking at me so I’ve got to come up with something.
“Um,” I say. “I once… um…”
He blinks at me.
“I told a friend that I moved out of town so I wouldn’t have to hang out with her anymore,” I say.
Actually, I didn’t really do that. But Sydney did. She told me the story, and it made me nervous that someday she’d tell me she left town, but it would really just mean she didn’t like me anymore.
“That’s cold,” Hunter agrees, “but I wouldn’t say it makes you bad.”
“How about you? What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?”
He frowns and his dark eyes grow distant. I think he has something in mind, and it’s something more than jaywalking.
I snuggle closer to him. The evening is hot, but he seems nice and cool. “Tell me.”
He’s quiet for a moment and I wonder if he will. This might be too deep for a second date. But then he says, “I left home.”
“Well, I did that too,” I say.
“Yeah, but I…” He rubs his face. “My… my father and I… we didn’t get along. To say the least. Things got… bad. So when I was a teenager, I just… left.”
Hunter’s hand is lying on his lap and I reach out to grab it. He smiles thinly at me as he gives me a squeeze. His palm is cool and dry, despite how muggy it is.
“It seems understandable that you left,” I say.
“Yes, but…” He shakes his head. “I left my mother and she… she needed me. I shouldn’t have left her.”
“Well, he was her husband.”
“I never went to see her again after that,” he says. “Never. Not even once, just to make sure she was okay.”
“You never called her?” I ask.
“Phones weren’t…” he starts to say, but then stops himself. “No. I didn’t.”
“Maybe you could call her now?”
He lowers his dark eyes. “No. It’s too late.”
I understand his meaning—his mother is gone. It’s too late to make amends for the past.
I give his hand another squeeze. I thought Hunter was just another good-looking, charismatic asshole, but it’s obvious there’s more to him than that. He’s got a lot of pain in his past.
For the first time, I wonder if Hunter and I have a future.
“So you’ve had three dates now with Mr. Hunter T. Stone?”
Gabby is eying me over her plate of pad see ew at our favorite Thai restaurant in the city. I just got a tom kha gai soup, because I’m trying to lose weight to fit into this gorgeous (pink) dress I bought last year that I discovered two days ago no longer fits me. Also, I love soup. It’s something Jamie and I have in common—he’s always got half a dozen containers of soup in his fridge.
“Actually,” I say, “it’s been four now.”
“Four!” Gabby clutches her chest. “This is getting serious now, missy!”
I feel my cheeks growing warm and it isn’t from the spice in the soup. But she’s right—it is getting a tiny bit serious. I’ve been on four dates with Hunter, each more romantic than the next, even though he now has kissing privileges whenever he wants. He’s… great. He’s like the guy in one of those Disney fairytales. Prince Charming.
“Look at you blush!” Gabby giggles. “Wow, you must really like him.”
“I do,” I sigh. “I can’t help it. He’s just so…”
I can’t even complete the sentence. Hunter is so too many things. He’s so handsome. He’s so charming. He’s so romantic. He’s so thoughtful. He’s so sweet.
He’s so rich too. Just had to throw that out there. I’m not a gold digger by any means, but holy crap, this boy’s got money. It sometimes makes me uncomfortable, to be honest.
“So when do I get to meet him?” she asks.
I freeze up. Gabby meet Hunter? “I don’t know…”
She squints at me. “Who are you ashamed of—him or me?”
“I’m not ashamed!” I cry. “I just don’t like the idea of you giving him the third degree.”
“A real man can handle the third degree.”
“I don’t know, Gabs…”
“Come on,” she pleads. “We’ll double-date. You and Hunter T. Stone. Me and Jamie.”
I feel that jab in my chest I get every time Gabby mentions Jamie. She must sense I’m uncomfortable, because she rarely does it. The truth is, I’d been hoping they stopped seeing each other. I know that sounds selfish, but it isn’t. I just don’t see the two of them being right for each other.
“I’ll ask him,” I promise.
Gabby nods. “Sounds good. Hey, you want to hear some amazing gossip?”
I raise my eyebrows at her. “Always.”
“Right, so…” She lowers her voice several notches. “You know how my friend Lynn’s husband is a police officer?”
“Well…” She leans in toward me. “Lynn gave me the lowdown on the investigation about Sydney.”
I stare at her. I hadn’t thought about Sydney for the last few days. I figured Detective Bateman was on the case and it wasn’t my concern. But now that she mentions it, I realize that I’m desperate to know if there are any leads on Sydney’s death or the identity of the mystery guy.
“So do they know who she was dating?” I ask.
“No, they don’t.” Her eyes are wide. “They can’t find the guy anywhere. But the crazy thing is… you know that woman who the detective was asking you about? Angela O’Malley?”
“Well, there’s a reason they think the murders are connected.”
I frown. “I thought it was because they both had their throats slashed in a park.”
“It’s more than that.” She looks both ways to make sure nobody is listening. (Nobody is.) “With both women, in the place where their bodies were found, there was no blood.”
“No blood,” she repeats. “They both had their throats cut, which would have caused tons of bleeding, but there was, like, no blood on the ground.”
“So…” I shake my head. “Somebody moved the bodies?”
“No,” she says. “They can tell if a body was moved after death. The women were left in the places where they were killed.”
“So where is the blood?”
“Exactly!” Gabby takes a deep breath. “Someone took the blood.”
I snort. “Why would anyone do that?”
“Think about it,” she hisses. “Why would somebody kill a woman then drain her of all her blood?”
As a phlebotomist, all I can think of is that they wanted to run a very large number of studies. “I don’t know, Gabby. Why?”
“A vampire!” she says, loud enough that a few people turn to stare at us. I want to hide. “A creature of the night. That’s what they do, right?”
“Um, Gabby?” I say. “Vampires aren’t real. You know that, right? Twilight was just a movie. And a book. Vampires don’t exist in real life.”
“That’s not necessarily true,” she says. “Isn’t there that vampire disease?”
“Porphyria,” I say. I actually learned about it in school.
“Yeah, that.” She nods. “What is that, anyway?”
“It’s a deficiency of the enzymes that turn porphyrins into heme—a component of blood,” I say. I hope that’s right—I only vaguely remember it. “So basically, you don’t have enough blood products. The treatment is to avoid sunlight and, if it’s really bad, you need blood transfusions.”
“There you go,” she says. “Maybe the killer has porphyria.”
“Oh, come on.”
“Look,” Gabby says, “can you think of any other explanation?”
“Uh, yes. Maybe the killer is some pervert who collects blood.”
She shrugs. “Yes, or they’re a vampire. One or the other.”
I’m not going to dignify that with an answer.
“Anyway,” she says, “until they find the killer, I’m going to protect myself. Look at this.” I think she’s going to pull out a can of mace or a rape whistle, but instead, she pulls on a string that was hanging around her neck. I can now see that she’s threaded a garlic clove through the string.
“Gabby!” I say. “You’re wearing garlic? Gross!”
She frowns at me. “I’m protecting my life, Brooke.”
“Does Jamie know you’re walking around like that?”
“Jamie doesn’t want me to get eaten by vampires either!”
I wish I could say I’m surprised, but I’m not entirely. Gabby’s always been very superstitious. We passed a black cat on the street once and she started hyperventilating. Another time she came to me in actual tears when she broke a mirror. I suppose believing in vampires isn’t a giant leap from all that.
Gabby fishes around in her purse. “I made you a garlic necklace too.”
“No, thank you.”
“You should take it, Brooke,” she says. “This is your life we’re talking about.”
“I’m not wearing a hunk of garlic on a string, okay?”
“Fine.” She fishes around more in her purse. “Then how about this?”
She pulls a necklace out of her purse. It’s a silver chain with a cross.
I’ve never been religious. Much like Sydney, I’m not an avid churchgoer. But something about this cross draws me in—it’s pretty, at least. I find myself reaching out to grab it from her.
“Just to shut you up,” I say as I hang it around my neck.
If I could have one skill aside from being awesome at drawing blood, it would be computer skills. Like, just general computer skills. So that when my laptop starts popping up ten windows every time I open one, I wouldn’t go into complete panic mode.
Why didn’t I pay more attention in CS class in high school?
I hate computers sometimes.
I hesitate for a minute with my phone in my hand. Usually when something like this happens, I call Jamie. He’s my computer superhero. But he and I haven’t talked in weeks. I’ve seen him a couple of times in the lobby and he just nods at me. So I’m thinking he’s not going to race up here to help me.
But my computer is popping up porn on my screen. Porn.
I’ve got to call him.
I select his number from my favorites and hold my breath, waiting to see if he’ll pick up. When I finally hear his voice, I breathe a sigh of relief.
“Jamie?” I say. “It’s Brooke.”
“I know,” he says. He doesn’t sound angry, so that’s a plus. “Your number is in my phone, remember? Caller ID.”
“Right,” I mumble. “How are you doing?”
“Uh, fine.” There’s a pause on the other line. “How are you doing?”
God, I can’t think of a tactful way to ask him to help me with my computer.
“Brooke?” he says.
“Is your computer broken?”
My cheeks flush. “Um, yeah. Do you think you could…?”
He laughs on the other line. “Yeah, sure. I’ll come up.”
Five minutes later, he’s knocking on my door. I open up for him, feeling instant relief at the sight of his kind blue eyes. His hair is a little mussed, like he just got out of bed, and he looks really cute right now. No, not just cute—actually, pretty sexy. He smiles crookedly at me and I’m so happy he’s smiling at me again that I throw my arms around him.
“Whoa,” Jamie says, adjusting his grip on his cane and grabbing the doorframe with his other hand. “Calm down, Brooke. I haven’t even fixed it yet.”
I pull away from him, feeling mildly embarrassed. “I’m just happy you’re here.”
He glances at my laptop screen. “So what’s the problem? Were you downloading porn again?”
“No.” I roll my eyes. Not that I haven’t ever downloaded porn—come on, everyone does it. “I clicked on a link in an email and… now this is happening. Like, a million windows keep opening.”
“Jesus Christ,” Jamie says as he ungracefully plops down in the chair in front of my desk. “Are you still using Internet Explorer? Didn’t I tell you to use Firefox? It’s much more secure. I even downloaded it for you.”
“Maybe,” I say vaguely.
“So do I need to delete Explorer for you to stop using it?”
He sighs, but he’s chuckling to himself. I watch him go to work on my laptop, running some sort of antivirus program. He always knows what to do. I’ve never given him a computer problem he couldn’t fix.
“How’d you learn to be so good with computers?” I ask him as I pull up a chair next to him.
He shrugs. “Dunno. My mom bought me a computer when I was in third grade and I just really got into it.”
“My mom bought me a guinea pig when I was in third grade.”
He grins at me. “How’d that work out for you?”
“Awful. She peed on everything.” I cringe at the memory. “Thanks for coming up so fast. I really appreciate it.”
“Of course,” he says, his eyes back on the computer screen. “You know I always help you. Anyway, I felt bad about being a jerk to you before. I’m sorry about that.”
I bite my lip. “You weren’t a jerk.”
“Yeah, I was,” he snorts.
He rolls his eyes. “I was. Can you let me apologize?”
I smile. “Okay, fine.”
“It was just…” He turns away from the screen to look at me. “The funeral and the bar mitzvah and… I don’t know. It was messing with my head. I acted like a dumbass.”
I hold my thumb and my forefinger about a centimeter apart. “A little.”
“I’m just glad you set me straight,” he says. “I mean, your friendship is really important to me and I wouldn’t want to mess that up.” He ducks his head down as he smiles. “Also, things are going pretty good now with Gabby, so…”
That sick feeling in my stomach again. Jamie and Gabby.
“I always thought you didn’t like her,” I say.
“Are you kidding me?” He grins. “She’s cute, she’s clever… she’s funny as hell.”
“She wears a garlic clove necklace.”
He laughs out loud. “Yeah, that’s true. But she’s agreed to take it off if the smell gets too overpowering.”
I notice the fond expression on his face when he talks about Gabby. He really does like her. If there was ever a chance for me and Jamie, it’s slipping through my fingers as we speak. I can see Gabby getting serious with Jamie. What if they move in together? What if they get married, for God’s sake?
“Anyway,” Jamie says, “I hear things are getting hot and heavy with you and that new guy. According to Gabby, anyway.”
I force a smile. “Yeah, kind of. I guess so.”
“Gabby says he’s super rich and super handsome,” he says.
“She does.” He grins. “She wants to double date with you guys, although I’m worried she’s going to fall for him or something, if he’s really that great.”
“I don’t think you need to worry,” I mumble.
“Thanks for the vote of confidence.”
I swivel my eyes back to the laptop screen. I don’t really want to talk about Hunter right now. “How’s my computer doing?”
“Just wiping the virus you downloaded,” he says. “Should be done soon. Then I’m deleting Explorer because you obviously can’t be trusted with it.”
I nod soberly. “It’s for the best.”
He pushes his chair back slightly from my desk so he can face me. “I’m glad you called, Brooke. I missed you.”
“Me too,” I say.
I look into Jamie’s eyes and feel my heart leap in my chest. Now that Hunter isn’t here with his mesmerizing smile, I realize I don’t have much desire to go out with him tonight. The truth is that the man in front of me is much more appealing to me. Jamie’s a good man—I know his soul.
I swallow hard. I want to kiss Jamie. After a few weeks apart, I’ve realized that Jamie is hard to live without. And not just as a friend. I want more than friendship with him. I made a huge mistake choosing Hunter over him that night. Is it too late to fix my mistake?
Kiss me, Jamie. Just do it.
I see the hesitation in his eyes and I wonder if he’s considering it. He’s dating Gabby, but even though he claims it’s going well, it can’t be that serious yet. We’ve known each other three years. If he kissed me, it wouldn’t even be cheating. Not really.
But then he turns his eyes back to the computer. “Looks like it’s done,” he mumbles.
I’ve lost him to her.
To be continued...