“Get ready to drool. The boys are back in town!”
Annabelle’s gleeful voice greets me as I step into the Milano’s entryway. As always, the scent of marinara and fresh-baked bread wafts over me, welcoming me back. But this time, the entryway is also flooded with the charge of her words. Her harmless statement causes the world to tilt around me, the polished tile floor rising up in waves as I navigate to her side.
She’s bent over the host stand, intently studying the floor chart like it’s a textbook. Her pale blue eyes flash to mine when I reach her side, playfully alight.
“We even get a two-for-one! They’re both on tonight.”
She taps the chart emphatically, as if I don’t believe her. As if I need proof. His name is there. Clear as day. The mere sight of those four letters has the pressure mounting in my chest, my fingers twitching with anticipation. I need to calm down. What is it about the sight of just his freaking name that has me so sprung?
I distract myself by reaching into my apron pocket to retrieve two foil-wrapped chocolates from my perpetual stash. I hand one of them to Annabelle and pop the other in my mouth, savoring the rich flavor, willing my heart to stop pounding away like a drum line.
She slowly unpeels the foil at the seams, grinning unabashedly. “And now we’ll have eye candy too!”
She’s right. This restaurant is about to become eye candy central. Both Damien and Adam are tall and athletically built, but where Damien embodies the tough guy persona, all sharp quips and smug demeanor, Adam is the type of guy who is instantly likeable, always with a smile on his face and a glint in his eye. People just want to be around him; they gravitate to his side, light up under his gaze. Adding to his intrigue, he has an almost exotic look about him, all tan skin and dark eyes with a thick head of chocolate brown hair.
“What I wouldn’t give to pull on that hair even once!” I groan.
I playfully imitate grabbing onto his locks in the throes of passion, downplaying my excitement, acting like it’s purely physical, when in reality Adam’s been under my skin since the day we met. I don’t want to just pull his hair. I want to explore his mind, make him laugh, see him smile. But I don’t tell Annabelle any of this. I can’t even begin to explain to myself why this one particular boy has gotten to me the way no one else ever has.
Annabelle howls with delight at my lewd imitation. “You might be onto something there.” She returns her gaze to the floor chart, her blonde ponytail cascading down her back as she ponders. “You could finally end the drought you’ve been in. Adam would be the perfect rebound! It’s guaranteed no strings attached. Just two months of fun and then send him on his way.”
And therein lies the problem. Every time I see him the clock resets, ticking down until the fall semester arrives and he goes away again. I don’t want to casually hook up then send him on his way. I want more. I want him and me and future. But I can only assume he doesn’t feel the same. In the three years I’ve known him, we’ve never moved beyond our playful joking, our friendly chats.
“A girl can dream,” I sigh, propping my elbows on the host stand and cradling my chin. “After all this time, I’m pretty sure I’m firmly entrenched in the friend-zone with Adam.”
“He’s a guy,” Annabelle mutters dismissively, rolling her eyes with exaggerated flair. Her dearth of experience being friend-zoned by the opposite sex leaves her remarkably unsympathetic to my concern. “Alexa Clausen, I better not see you give up so easily.”
The early hostess ends up running late so I’m covering the host stand when Damien strolls in through the door. Even in his work uniform, he looks every bit the confident frat boy. He has one hand casually tucked in his pants pocket, the other swinging languidly at his side. His tie is loose at his throat, his light brown hair tousled on his head, lips curled into a relaxed don’t-give-a-fuck smile. He nods towards me at the host stand then saunters towards the back, likely in search of some new prey to poke fun of.
And then there’s Adam, his dark head poking through the doorway. Suddenly the room is filled with him, with his energy, with his light. I drink him in, soaking in every detail. His crisp, white dress shirt fits him perfectly, lightly skimming over the muscles in his chest and arms and tapering where his waist narrows. The lightness of the shirt is the perfect contrast to his tan skin, to his dark eyes.
His gaze slowly sweeps from the floor to my face, and if seeing the four letters of his name earlier was enough to give me butterflies, seeing him now is like being hit by a freight train. It’s been three hundred days and yet everything slams back into me at once. The way his brown eyes sparkle when he smiles, how one corner of his mouth turns up a little higher than the other. And this smile is all for me.
His stride quickens as he approaches and I can’t help myself. My face breaks into an obvious grin, completely full-toothed and pinched-cheeked. So much for playing it cool.
“Look who’s back!” I call out, hearing my voice light up. Being around him instantly lifts me. This is what he does to people; it’s what he’s always done to me.
“Lex! What’re you doing up here?” he jokes, gesturing towards the host stand. “Don’t you have tables to get to? Or did you get demoted?” His dark eyes are lively when they meet mine, his smile warm.
Hearing my name in his mouth strikes me. It’s been way too long since I’ve heard him say my name. I love that he’s the only one who shortens it to Lex, that he’s made it his own. And the way it sounds when he says it, soft around the edges, a single syllable caressed by his lips, I never want to hear my name any other way.
“I’m only up here to even things out for you. People who didn’t even sit in my section started leaving me tips, so I figured it’s only fair.” I try to keep a straight face as I say the words, try to resist his pull even momentarily, but the spark in his eyes is disarming and my smile edges out. Of course it does. It’s practically written on my face the instant he comes around.
“Sounds like it’s my lucky night then. Since you and I are such great friends that means you’ll be seating me all the best tables, right?”
There it is, that word. My mind stumbles over it, lingering on the meaning. We are great friends, Adam. But we could be so much better than friends. We could be so much more. I quickly tuck the thoughts away though. I keep it from nestling on my face or in my eyes. I make my voice friendly and lighthearted when I tell him I’ll be sure to seat all the campers in his section, because that’s exactly what we are. Exactly what we’ve always been. Friends.
Our manager, Jim, rounds the corner from the bar, a scowl fixed on his angular face, his dark eyes sharp enough to cut glass. “There are dishes to run, Adam. Get away from my host stand.”
Adam backs away and innocently holds his hands up in the air, still smiling from our exchange. I catch him mouthing “Only the best” to me as he winks and walks away.
He’s barely been here five minutes and already things are right back to the way they’ve always been between us: easy. For whatever reason, being around him always comes natural. It’s not like with other guys where I’m worrying about what to say or feeling self-conscious. With Adam Westbrook I’m always laughing, always smiling. There’s something contagious about his upbeat personality. Every exchange leaves me feeling energized and wanting more.
Movement at the front door steals my attention and I find two older ladies slowly making their way towards me. Even though it’s not actually his turn, I decide to take them to Adam’s section, knowing I’ll have an excuse to joke with him if they only order side salads or a cup of coffee. As I return from the table, Damien falls into stride beside me, cool eyes sizing me up.
“You did that on purpose didn’t you?”
“You know it.”
He smirks approvingly. “Girl, you are stone cold.” If only he knew the real reason.
“Watch out,” I threaten. “You’re next.”
“You wouldn’t dare,” he mutters, breaking off towards his section.
Adam is waiting for me when I reach the host stand, eyes dancing lightheartedly, his body reclining against the deep cherry wood. “What’s up with that table, Lex? I thought we talked about this.”
I lean on the countertop beside him and blink up at him innocently. “They seem like fine ladies, Adam. Clearly the cream of the crop.”
“You definitely sat me a couple of high rollers there.” His face is completely lit up, dark eyes shining, lips pulled into a full smile.
“I was under the impression you could work your magic on anyone,” I reply sassily, egging him on, eager for more words from his lips, for his smile to last forever.
“All right.” His voice is cocky yet playful, always ready for a new game, always so sure he’ll win. “Watch and learn amateur.”
Adam greets the two women with a charming smile and their faces warm in response. He chats with them in a relaxed way, as if he’s known them both for years. I swear the guy has never met a stranger. By the time he strolls away to retrieve their drinks, they’re beaming. During their entire visit, he goes out of his way to make sure they have every little thing they need, even pulling up an empty chair to chat while they wait for their food. If I were to do that, it would seem forced and awkward, but of course Adam looks right at home.
Once they’ve gone, he brings the check presenter containing their tips over to me, unopened.
“Do the honors?”
I nod and open the book slowly, tilting the contents away from him so he can’t peak. Inside they’ve each left him a crisp ten-dollar bill. Considering they both only ate a bowl of soup, it’s a very generous tip. I burst out laughing.
“You dog! You tricked those ladies into giving you their bingo money!”
His smile turns devilish, an ornery glint blooming in his eyes. “I can’t help it really. I have a secret weapon.”
“Oh yeah? What’s that?”
He looks both ways then lowers his voice, leaning into my side conspiratorially. “I was struck by lightning when I was a kid. I’ve been lucky ever since.”
I guffaw in response, realizing immediately how unattractive that must sound. Adam is unfazed.
“It’s true.” He turns to the side and ruffles his hair. “See that?” He gestures to a small spot on the back of his head where his dark hair is less pigmented than the rest. “I was playing soccer when it happened. Storm came out of nowhere and zap!” He claps his hands together with gusto. “I call it the lucky strike.”
My laughter erupts as I hand him his tip. “Take your money, you nut. You earned it.”
Even as he turns to walk away, I can’t peel my eyes off him. Adam freaking Westbrook. We can talk about complete nonsense and it never gets old. There’s just something about him. Some connection. Some pull. He seems to bring out a side of me no one else can, drawing out the parts of me I wish were always there. When Adam is around I’m relaxed and easygoing and lighthearted. It all feels so natural, like this is who I’m meant to be. And the truth is I like it. I like the change he brings about. I like that I feel weightless, that I’m always smiling and joking, feeling bold for the first time in my life. It’s been three hundred days, but finally he’s back and the part of me that’s been dormant suddenly springs to life again.
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