“Where are all your boob shirts?” Taylor’s muffled voice came from between racks of clothing in my closet.
“My boob shirts?” I asked, my eyebrows creeping their way up my forehead.
“Yeah. You know, the shirts that are going to give the guys we meet tonight a nice sneak peek at the killer set of girls you’re currently hiding under that ruffled school teacher top.”
I glanced down at my shirt. I thought it looked cute. “You know I am a teacher, right? And that you are, too?”
“Duh. But we’re not currently on duty. New teacher training is over, and school doesn’t start for another week. So, I’m letting my freak flag fly while I can, sister!”
Taylor and I had met a week ago during new teacher orientation. We had quickly bonded over our Southern roots, love of cheesy, made-for-TV movies, and our need to mainline caffeine to get through our early-morning training sessions. Taylor could crack me up even before my double shot of espresso had taken effect, and I thanked my lucky stars that Teach For Our Youth had placed us both in Los Angeles county. Taylor emerged from my closet, shaking something victoriously. “We have a winner!”
My eyes narrowed on the item. “That’s a camisole. I wear it under other shirts, not by itself.”
“Honey, I don’t have a lot to work with in there. This is just going to have to do. Thank goodness I brought an extra skirt with me.” Taylor crossed the room and started unbuttoning my blouse.
“Whoa there, cowgirl,” I said, pushing her overzealous hands away.
Taylor pinned me with a stare I was sure worked wonders on her students. “Carter, you are not in Georgia anymore. This is Los Angeles, and we need to look the part.” My shoulders curved in on themselves, and I plopped back on my bed, sighing.
“Come on, girl, this should be fun! We’ll get all gussied up, have a few cocktails, get our flirt on, maybe even get our make-out on.”
I let out a laugh as Taylor waggled her eyebrows in my direction. “Sorry, Taylor. No, no, no. I’m just not comfortable showing that much skin.”
Taylor’s eyes narrowed as she drummed her fingers across her berry pink lips. “I’ll make you a deal. You let me pick your outfit, and I’ll do your lunchroom duty for two weeks.”
I scoffed. Lunchroom duty was nobody’s idea of fun, but I wasn’t going out with my boobs on display for a measly two weeks’ reprieve. Taylor’s eyes narrowed further as she studied my face. “Okay, I see you’ve come to play. One month of lunchroom duty.”
A smile crept over my face. “Do your worst, Miss Lawson.”
She covered her heart with her hand. “I thought you’d never ask. Stay right there and don’t move a muscle. I’m going to get my makeup bag so I can punch up your look, just a little.” I twisted my fingers in my lap, but Taylor was back before my second thoughts could spur me out of my sitting position.
Just as Taylor dumped the contents of her bag on my bed, a knock sounded at my bedroom door. “Come in,” I called.
A head of gorgeous brown hair that caught the light appeared from around the corner. “Hey, just wanted to see what you were up to before I head out for the night.”
“Taylor, meet my roommate Lexi. Lexi, this is my friend Taylor. She’ll be teaching at the same school I am.”
“Nice to meet you,” Lexi said, extending a perfectly manicured hand. Her eyes traveled over Taylor, taking in every detail of her appearance before seeming to dub her no threat.
When I started the search for apartments, one of my sorority sisters had said she had a friend from home who lived in LA and was looking for a roommate. It had seemed like the perfect setup at the time, especially since I couldn’t really afford to live by myself on my teacher’s salary. But there was something about Lexi that had never really sat right with me. She was nice enough on the surface, and always invited me to go out with her and things like that, but she was constantly judging and evaluating the women around her. The things she said about her so-called friends behind their backs made me cringe.
“Nice to meet you, as well,” Taylor responded with forced politeness.
“What are you guys up to tonight?” Lexi asked.
“Just grabbing a drink,” I answered quickly, the last thing I needed was Lexi finding out I was friends with Liam Fairchild.
“Oh, I don’t know, just some neighborhood bar, I think.”
“Oh, well I’m going to Chateau with the girls. You should go there instead, much chicer than whatever you have planned. I know you don’t have connections there, but I can get you on the list.” This was exactly the kind of comment that was typical Lexi. Kindly inviting you out with her, while insulting your plans and lack of cool friends at the same time. I don’t think it was even a conscious dig, she was just used to the cutthroat world of Hollywood public relations.
I forced a smile. “Thanks, Lexi, but I think we’re going to stick with our plans.”
She shrugged. “Suit yourself. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Bye,” I called at her retreating back.
The door to the apartment slammed, and Taylor giggled. “She’s something.”
“I know. She works in PR, so she doesn’t really understand when people don’t want to get into the hottest party on any given night.”
“I guess that makes sense,” Taylor said as she searched through her various tubes, tins, and palettes. “Close your eyes for me.”
The soft bristles of a makeup brush danced across my lids while Taylor hummed along to a familiar song. “I can’t believe you grew up next door to Liam Fairchild. Lordy, he is sex on a stick! And that voice! That rasp could make me orgasm on the spot.”
I snorted. “When you’ve lived through all of each other’s awkward phases, including a particularly rough case of the chicken pox, no one is sex on a stick.”
Liam’s voice continued to croon over the speakers. “You can’t tell me he doesn’t make your lady parts tingle just a little bit.”
I cracked one of my eyes open. “Not even a little bit.” It was true. As handsome and talented as he was, Liam had entered brother status during our childhood and never left.
“That’s so disappointing,” she said with a forlorn sigh.
I chuckled at her obvious devastation. “Why?”
“It would just be such a great love story. Childhood best friends separated by thousands of miles, and the dream a small-town Georgia girl could never contain. The girl was left brokenhearted, weeping into her pillow every night. The boy, while sowing his wild oats, compared every girl to her, and they all came up short. Suddenly, they’re thrown back into each other’s orbit when the girl gets a job in the City of Angels. Cue the swelling of the romantic score!” Taylor’s Texas twang had gotten stronger with each word, and by the end, she was using her makeup brush like a conductor’s baton.
“I’m pretty sure you should have gone into movies instead of teaching,” I said with a roll of my eyes. Why did no one ever believe that Liam and I were only ever friends?
She collapsed onto the mattress next to me, bringing her forearm to her brow. “I know. It’s a loss for the theatrical community.”
“That’s for dang sure.” Taylor’s desire for a true love connection between me and Liam cemented my high opinion of her. Typically, when girls found out that I was childhood besties with one of the most famous musicians in the world, the first thing they wanted to know was if I could hook them up with him.
I didn’t blame them. I knew Liam was handsome, I just wasn’t attracted to him. But after I caught one of my sorority sisters going through my phone to find his number, I’d started being a lot more careful with who I shared the knowledge of our friendship with. But from the moment I met Taylor, there was just something in her spirit that let me know I could trust her.
She eyed the clock on my bedside table. “What time did Liam want us to meet him at the bar? I don’t want to be late for my first LA celebrity meeting.”
Taylor bolted to a sitting position. “Shit! We gotta hurry,” she said, riffling through the duffle bag she’d brought with her.
Taylor shoved a black piece of spandex into my hands along with the camisole she’d hijacked from my closet earlier. “Here, go put this on quick, and I’ll do your eyeliner after.”
“Fine,” I huffed and headed for the bathroom.
Taylor’s skirt was creeping up my thighs, I could feel it. I surreptitiously inched my hand between my body and the bar to try and pull it down. Taylor bounced on the balls of her feet. “This place is awesome! No name on the front door, extra cool points.”
Glancing over my shoulder, I took in the room. It screamed old Hollywood speakeasy, with tufted leather banquettes and gilded mirrors lining the walls. People were everywhere, but my eyes caught sight of a familiar head of longish, brown hair. Warmth filled my chest, a swell that felt like comfort and home. I grabbed Taylor’s arm, leaning in so she could hear me above the music. “Liam’s over there.”
Taylor followed the incline of my head. “You head on over, I’ll wait for our drinks.”
“Okay, next round’s on me.”
“No, next round is on whichever handsome gentlemen we meet,” Taylor said with a lascivious grin.
My head tipped back as I let out a laugh. “Sounds like a plan.” I wove my way through bodies, dodging precariously balanced drinks and couples making out, trying to keep an eye on Liam. As I got closer, my steps faltered, and I toddled on my heels as heat swept through my body.
Next to Liam was the most gorgeous man I had ever seen. And that’s what he was, a man. Not a boy, not a guy. He was a man. Square jaw dusted with stubble, and dark hair cropped close to his skull in a way that had my hands itching to run my fingers over it.
God, he was hot. Hot and apparently upset, because when I approached, the mountain of a man stood, and there was definitely anger blazing in his deep blue eyes. He stepped between me and the table, his incredibly broad shoulders effectively blocking any view I had of Liam. “Not tonight, sweetheart. Move along,” he said with a dismissive shooing motion. My spine stiffened, and my eyes narrowed. But before I could open my mouth, I was suddenly lifted off the ground in a bear hug.
“It is so damn good to see you,” Liam said into my ear as he lowered me back to my feet. He kept a hold on my shoulders as he pulled back. “You look gorgeous. I’m going to have to beat guys away from you with a stick.” I felt my cheeks heat and I tugged on the hem of my skirt.
Throwing an arm over my shoulder, Liam turned me to face angry mountain man. “Austin, this is Carter. My old next-door neighbor I told you was moving to LA. Carter, this is my good friend and old bodyguard, Austin.”
I swallowed my irritation and extended a hand. “It’s nice to meet you.”
Austin’s hand engulfed mine. It was warm and rough and sent tingles up my arm. “Sorry about that. I thought you were a groupie.” As apologies go, it was a pretty cruddy one. One-part half-hearted amends, one-part insult. Not to mention his jaw was locked so tight, I was pretty sure he was going to crack a molar.
Liam let out a bellow of laughter as he squeezed my rigid frame into his side. Austin tracked the movement with narrowed eyes. “Definitely not a groupie. Other than my mom, no one gives me a harder time than Carter.”
I tilted my face up to meet Liam’s eyes. “I’m not that bad.”
“Sure,” Liam replied, drawing out the vowel sound.
Feeling a nudge at my back, I turned to see Taylor holding up two drinks. “Thanks for getting those,” I said. “Liam, Austin, this is my friend, Taylor.”
“Nice to meet y’all.” She sent them both her most dazzling smile. Liam returned it with one of his own, while Austin gave more of a grimace. What was his deal?
Before the awkward introductions could continue, a tall man with artfully disheveled blond hair and lean muscles appeared at Austin’s side. “Well, who are these two stunners? And how did you trick them into hanging out with the sorry likes of you?”
Taylor giggled, and a smile came to my own lips. Liam gestured towards the handsome man. “Ladies, this is Ford. He owns this place. Ford, this is Carter and her friend, Taylor.”
“Ah, the infamous Carter. Nice to finally meet you.” Ford reached out, grabbing my hand and pressing it to his lips. While handsome, no flush of heat stopped me in my tracks.
I found my eyes seeking out Austin’s, but the fierce scowl on his face had me quickly averting my gaze and coming back to Ford. I forced a smile, trying to shake off the negative vibes Austin was sending my way. “It’s nice to meet you, too.”
The next hour proceeded in much the same way. Ford cracked jokes, and both he and Liam gave Taylor and me the lowdown on all the restaurants we needed to try, where to find the best coffee, and a list of bars and clubs we needed to avoid. But I couldn’t relax.
Somehow, I had ended up sitting between Austin and Liam. There wasn’t a whole lot of room on the banquette, and Austin was acting like I might have Ebola—one touch and he would be a dead man. As the minutes ticked on, my body grew more and more rigid. I was aware of every small movement I made. This was ridiculous. So, Austin and I had gotten off on the wrong foot, I just needed to change our course. If he was friends with Liam, he couldn’t be that bad.
I turned to face Austin and was again held captive by those incredible eyes. They seemed to dance between shades under the lights. I shook myself out my hot guy stupor. “So, how did you and Liam meet?”
“Work?” I parroted, unsure how else to respond to his overly verbose answer.
“Yeah. I was on his security detail at one of his first big gigs.”
“Oh, that’s cool. Is that still what you do?” I asked, drumming my fingers on the tops of my thighs.
The scowl was back, and it was even more ferocious than before. “No. I fight MMA. Mixed martial arts. I just used to do security to pay the bills.”
Clearly asking what he did for work was the wrong question. I tried a different tack. “So, what are some of your favorite things to do in LA? There are so many exciting things to do and see here. I don’t want to miss anything.”
Austin tipped his chin, looking down his nose at me. “I don’t think I do the kinds of things you would be interested in.”
What was this jerk’s deal? I balled my hands into fists, attempting to take slow breaths to ease my frustration. “You have no idea what I’m interested in because you’ve barely said ten words to me.”
He shrugged. I wanted to scream.
I searched out Taylor and widened my eyes at her, the universal help-me signal in girl world. She sent a perplexed look back at me, clearly not understanding my intent.
I needed out of here. Something about angry mountain man Austin had my nervous system fraying. Even though he was beyond rude, my attraction to him was a sharp and visceral thing. I hated myself a little for that.
I pushed off the leather bench, but when I did, the edge of my palm skimmed the side of Austin’s muscular thigh. He jerked back as if he had been burned. “Sorry,” I mumbled. Turning to Taylor and the rest of the group, I asked, “Do you mind if we head out? I feel a killer headache coming on.” It wasn’t a total lie. The tension I’d been feeling for the past hour was bound to give me a migraine if I stayed put any longer.
Taylor’s brow furrowed, and she stood. “Of course, sweetie.”
Liam’s gaze traveled over my face, and his eyes narrowed. He always knew when I was lying. But he didn’t call me out on it this time, he just wrapped me in a warm and familiar hug. “I’ll text you later, and we’ll plan a day for you to come hang out at the Malibu house.”
“Sounds good,” I said. I skirted around the table, avoiding Austin’s eyes and body like he was a bomb that could detonate at any moment. “Nice to meet you guys,” I mumbled without looking in Austin’s direction.
“You too, gorgeous,” Ford said with a devastating smile. I was able to give a weak one back as I grasped Taylor’s hand and turned towards the door.
The cool night air felt like heaven on my overheated skin as I marched towards the car. Taylor tugged on my arm. “What the hell is going on?”
“I just needed to get out of there. That guy was such a jerk.” He was a jerk, but something in my gut told me I might be overreacting just a little.
“I just thought he was a little dull. Hot, but dull.”
I let out an exasperated huff. “Hotness does not compensate for rudeness.” While I firmly believed that, I had never felt such a strong instant attraction to someone. And to have that same person dismiss me at every turn…it wounded my pride.
Taylor linked arms with me and started us moving again. “No, it does not. But it doesn’t hurt to have something pretty to look at right before you knee him in the balls.”