Almost Just Friends
“Chin up, Princess, or the crown slips.”
Piper Manning closed her eyes and plugged her ears against the horror. She’d known this would happen even as she’d begged against it, but sometimes there was no stopping fate. She shook her head. You’ve survived worse. Just push through it. Pretend you’re on a warm beach, and there’s a hot surfer coming out of the water. Wait, scratch that. A hot Australiansurfer coming out of the water, heading for you with a sexy smile and that accent—
Someone tugged her fingers from her ears. Her best friend and EMT partner, Jenna. “The torture’s over,” she said. “You can look now.”
Piper opened her eyes. No warm beach, no sexy surfer. Nope, she was still at the Whiskey River Bar and Grill, surrounded by her coworkers and so-called friends and way too many birthday streamers and balloons, all mocking her because someone had thought it’d be funny to do up her thirtieth in gloom-and-doom funeral black.
“You do realize that turning thirty isn’t exactly the end of the world,” Jenna said.
Maybe not, but there was a reason Piper hadn’t wanted to celebrate. She’d just hit a milestone birthday without being at any sort of milestone. Or anywhere even closeto a milestone. Certainly nowhere near where she’d thought she’d be at this age.
“Hey, let’s sing it again now that she’s listening,” someone called out. Ryland, no doubt. The hotshot firefighter was always the group’s instigator.
And so everyone began singing again, laughing when Piper glared at them and tried hard not to crawl under the table. She’d rather have a root canal without meds than be the center of attention, and these asshats knew it. “It’s like you all want to die,” she muttered, but someone put a drink in her hand, and since she was off duty now for two days, she took a long gulp.
“I was veryclear,” she said when the alcohol burn cleared her throat, eyeing the whole group, most of whom were also first responders and worked with her at the station or hospital in one form or another. “We weren’t going to mention my birthday, much less sing to me about it. Twice.”
Not a single one of them looked guilty. “To Piper,” Ryland said, and everyone raised a glass. “For gathering and keeping all us misfits together and sane.”
“To Piper,” everyone cheered, then, thankfully, conversations started up all around her so that she was finally no longer the center of attention. Everyone was well versed in her ways, which meant they got that while she was touched that they cared, she didn’t want any more attention. Easily accepting that, they were happy to enjoy the night and leave her alone.
“So, did that hurt?” Jenna asked, amused.
In tune to the sounds of the bar around them—someone singing off-key to “Sweet Home Alabama,” rambunctious laughter from a nearby table, the clinkof pool balls—Piper rolled her eyes.
“You know one day those eyeballs are going to fall right out of your head, right?”
Ignoring this, Piper went back to what she’d been doing before being so rudely interrupted by all the love. Making a list. She was big on bullet journaling. She’d had to be. Making notes and lists had saved her life more than once. And yes, she knew she could do it all on a notes app on her phone instead, but her brain wasn’t wired that way. Nope, she had to do everything the hard way and write that shit down by hand like in the Dark Ages. She flipped through some of her pages: Calendars, Grocery Lists, Future Baby Names (even though she didn’t plan on having babies), Passwords (okay, password, singular, since she always used the same one—CookiesAreLife123!).
And then there were some random entries:
■ Occasionally maybe make an effort to look nice.
■ Don’t cut your own bangs no matter how sad you are.
■ Never ever, EVER, under any circumstances fall in love.
She also had a bucket list of wishes. Oh, and a secret secretbucket list of wishes . . .
Yeah, she clearly needed help. Or a little pill.
“New journal?” Jenna asked.
“Maybe.” Piper’s vices were simple. Basically, she was an office supply ho—a never-ending source of amusement to Jenna, because Piper was also a bit of a hot mess when it came to organization and neatness. Her purse, her car, her office, and also her kitchen always looked like a disaster had just hit. But her journals . . . those were pristine.
“How many journals have you started and either lost or misplaced since I’ve known you—a million?”
Piper didn’t answer this on the grounds that she might incriminate herself.
Jenna pulled out the pack of stickers that were tucked into the journal. They were cute little thought bubbles with reminders like doc appointment, empty dishwasher, and caffeinate.
“I feel like stickers are cheating,” Jenna said.
“Bite your tongue, woman. Stickers are everything.” So were pens. And cute paperclips. And sticky notes . . .
“Come on. There’re far more important things than stickers.”
“Like?” Piper asked.
“Okay, you’ve got me there.”
“And sex,” Jenna said. “And that should go above food, actually.”
“I’m going to take your word on that since it’s been a while.”
“Well, who’s fault is that?” Jenna leaned in, trying to get a peek. “What’s today’s entry?”
“A list for figuring out what’s next on fixing up the property.” Piper and her siblings had inherited from their grandparents a house and some cottages on Rainbow Lake. “It still needs a lot of work. I’m in way over my head.”
“I know.” Jenna’s smile faded. “I hate that you’re going to sell and move away from Wildstone.”
Wildstone, California, was Piper’s hometown. Sort of. She’d moved here at age thirteen with her two younger siblings, Gavin and Winnie, to be raised by their grandparents. But in the end, Piper had done all the raising. It’d taken forever, but now, finally, her brother and sister were off living their own lives.
And hers could finally start.
All she had to do was finish fixing up the property; then she could sell and divide the money into thirds with her siblings. With her portion, she’d finally have the money and freedom to go to school and become a physician’s assistant like she’d always wanted.
So close. She was so close that she could almost taste it. “I plan to come back to Wildstone after school.”
Because where else would she go? Her only other home had been following her parents all over the world, providing healthcare wherever they’d been needed the most. But her mom and dad were gone now. Her family was Gavin and Winnie, and everyone in this room.
“But why the University of Colorado?” Jenna asked. “Why go so far? You could go thirty minutes up the road to San Luis Obispo to Cal Poly.”
Piper shook her head. She’d been stuck here for seventeen years. She needed to go away for a while and figure some things out—like who she was if she wasn’t raising her siblings. But that felt hard to explain, so she gave even her BFF the ready-made excuse. “U of C is one of the really strong schools for my program. And I think I’ll like Colorado.”
Jenna looked unconvinced, but she was a good enough friend to let it go.
“Don’t worry,” Piper said. “I’ll be back.”
“You’d better.” Jenna took another look at Piper’s list. “I can’t even make a shopping list.”
“That’s because you don’t go food shopping. You order in.”
Jenna smiled. “Oh, right.”
Outside the bar, they could hear a storm brewing. The news had been talking about it all week. Wild winds pushed against the building, making the lights flicker and the walls creak, but nobody even blinked. Wildstone people were a hearty bunch.
“Paint samples!” Piper remembered suddenly, and wrote that down.
“You know you’re a bit of a control freak, right?”
When you ran your world, everyone in that world tended to depend on you to do it right. That’s how it’d always been for her. She’d been in charge whether she liked it or not. Piper chewed on the end of her pen. “I’m forgetting something, I know it.”
“Yeah,” Jenna said. “To get a life.”
“What do you think I’m trying to do here?”
Now it was Jenna’s turn to roll her eyes. “Everyone else is talking about the new hot guy in town, and you’re over here in the corner writing in your journal.”
“Hot guys come and go.”
Jenna laughed. “Yeah? How long has it been since you’ve had a hot guy in your life, or any guy at all?”
Piper looked across the bar to where Ryland was currently chatting it up with not one but twowomen. Her ex was apparently making up for lost time.
“And who’s fault is that?” Jenna asked, reading her mind. “You dumped him last year for no reason, remember?”
Actually, she’d had a really good reason, but it wasn’t one she wanted to share, so she shrugged.
“What you need is a distraction. Of the sexy kind,” Jenna said. “You carry that journal around like it’s the love of your life.”
“At the moment, it is.”
“You could do a whole lot better.” Swiveling her barstool, Jenna eyed the crowd.
“Don’t even think about it,” Piper said.
“You know what. Fixing me up.”
“And would that be so bad?” Jenna set a hand on Piper’s writing arm. “You’re the one always fixing everyone’s life, everyone but your own, of course. But even the Fixer needs help sometimes.”
It was true that she’d gone a whole bunch of years now being the one to keep it all together. For everyone. Asking for help wasn’t a part of her DNA. But Jenna did have a point. Today was her birthday, a milestone birthday at that, so she should do at least one frivolous thing, right? She turned the page of her journal and glanced at her secret bucket list.
■ Take a cruise to Alaska.
■ Get some “me” time every day.
■ Learn to knit.
■ Buy shoes that aren’tnursing shoes.
“Okay, no,” Jenna said. “You’re not sitting at your birthday party eyeing a list about buying nursing shoes.”
“About notbuying nursing shoes,” Piper corrected. “And this isn’t my party.”
“It’s your party. And if you’d told Gavin and Winnie about it, they’d be here helping you celebrate too.”
Just what she needed, to give her twenty-seven-going-on-seventeen-year-old brother and her not-quite-legal-to-drink sister a reason to party. “I told them not to come. Gavin’s busy at his job in Phoenix, and Winnie’s working hard on her grades at UCSB.”
“They’re lucky to have you, I hope they know that,” Jenna said genuinely. “Look, you work so hard keeping all of you going. But today, at the very least, you should have some fun.”
“I hear you. But keep that in mind.” She pointed to the sign hanging above the bar:
Alcohol may make the people in this place appear better-looking than they really are.
Jenna laughed but wasn’t deterred from taking in the closest table to the bar, where three guys sat drinking and talking.
“Don’t you dare.”
“Who here is single?” Jenna asked the table.
Two of the guys pointed to the third.
“You?” Jenna asked him, clearly wanting confirmation.
He took a beat to check Jenna out. She was channeling Beach Barbie tonight, with her wild blond hair rioting around her pretty face, her athletic build emphasized by tightly fitted fancy yoga gear.
“Yeah,” the guy said. “I’m most definitely single.”
“Good. Because it’s my friend’s birthday.” She turned to gesture at Piper, who froze in the act of trying to sneak off.
“Why is she hiding in the corner writing in a book?” Single Guy wanted to know.
Jenna looked at Piper. “Well, we’re not all perfect. But she’s got a lot going for her. She’s friendly . . . ish. And she’s got all her shots, and is potty-trained to boot. I mean, yeah, okay, sometimes she hides out in bars writing in her diary. But hey, who doesn’t, am I right?”
Looking alarmed, Single Guy turned back to his friends.
“Gee,” Piper said dryly. “And you made me sound like such a catch too.”
Jenna shrugged. “Maybe he’s not a diary fan.”
“Yeah. That’s definitely it. And it’s a journal.”
“Don’t you worry,” Jenna said. “I’m not done.”
But Jenna was now eyeballing the man who’d just taken a barstool a few seats down. Ohmygod, she mouthed. That’s him. That’s New Hot Guy!
He was in military green cargos and a black Henley that hugged his long, leanly muscled body. He had dark hair, dark eyes, and dark scruff, all of which went with his quietly dark expression that said not feeling social.
Jenna started to stand up for round two of Let’s Embarrass Piper.
“Don’t you dare!”
“Hey,” Jenna said to the man, who nodded in return. “So . . . you’re a guy.”
“Last time I checked,” he said.
Jenna jerked a thumb toward Piper. “It’s my best friend’s birthday.”
Hot Guy’s gaze locked on Piper, who was wishing for an invisibility cloak.
“She’s made herself a list,” Jenna said, and helpfully turned the journal his way.
Honest to God, Piper had no idea why she loved this woman.
Hot Guy read the list, rubbed the sexy scruff on his jaw, and then spoke to Piper. “Is this for you or your grandma?”
Jenna snorted. “That’s actually her nickname. Grandma.”
“Some wingman you are.” Piper snatched up the journal and closed it.
“What does the ‘me time’ entail?” Hot Guy asked.
“Pretty sure it involves batteries,” Jenna said.
“Okay.” Piper pointed at her. “You know what? You’re cut off.”
“Notice that she didn’t answer the question,” Jenna muttered.
“It doesn’t involve batteries!” Jeez. No way was she going to admit what it involved was a nap.
Jenna took the journal, flipped to the right page, and added something to her list:
■ Get laid.
Then she drew an arrow pointing at Hot Guy.
The guy nodded in approval. “Nowyou’ve got a list.”
“Keep dreaming, buddy.” Piper shook her head at Jenna. “And you. Are you kidding me? You wrote that in ink.” Which meant it couldn’t be erased. And Piper couldn’t rip it out either. You couldn’t just rip out a page from a bullet journal; it went against how she’d been coded. She supposed she should just be grateful Jenna hadn’t turned to the next page and revealed her secret secretbucket list.
Jenna turned to Hot Guy. “Listen, don’t let her bad attitude scare you. She’s all bark and no bite.”
He shrugged. “I like bite.” And his and Piper’s eyes locked. His were an intense, assessing hazel, a swirling, mesmerizing mix of green, brown, and gold. He was good-looking, but so were a lot of men. He was clearly in good shape—also not all that uncommon. But there was something else, something intangible that created an odd fluttering in her belly, and it took her a moment to recognize it for what it was—interest. Which made no sense. She wasn’t looking for anything, and he . . . Well, in spite of his easy engagement in their conversation, his eyes seemed . . . hollow, and he hadn’t cracked a single smile.
Maybe they were kindred perpetually-pissed-off-at-the-world spirits, she didn’t know. But one thing for sure, he didn’t seem uncomfortable in the least as she studied him. In fact, he didn’t seem the sort to be uncomfortable in any situation.
Around them, the bar was in full nighttime fun mode. Music, talking, laughter . . . Everywhere came the sounds of people having a good time, not a one worried about the storm building. When someone called out for Jenna to join a dart game, she slid off her stool. “Okay, so, I’m going to abandon her now,” she told Hot Guy. “Feel free to play the gallant gentleman swooping in to save the birthday girl. ’Night, Piper.”
“That’s Grandmato you.”
Jenna just laughed and kept walking, and Piper pulled out her phone to thumb in a text.
“Bet you’re telling your wingman that you’re going to kill her.”
Okay, gallant gentleman her ass. More like dark and dangerous . . . She hit send and looked up. “I might’ve mentioned she shouldn’t close her eyes when she goes to sleep tonight. But you know what? Yours is better. Hold please.” She typed a new text: Don’t forget, thanks to my dad, I know a ton of ways how to kill someone with my pen.
He read over her shoulder. “Nice.”
“You find violent tendencies nice?”
He shrugged. “Being able to defend yourself is smart.”
“You know I was just kidding about the pen thing, right?”
He cocked his head and studied her. “Were you?”
About the killing Jenna thing, yeah. But not about knowing how to do it with a pen. And yet no one had ever, not once, called her out on that threat as being real.
“Your dad military?” he asked.
“Was. He’s gone now.”
He gave a single nod, his eyes saying he got it at a core level. “I’m sorry.”
She supposed it was his genuine and clearly understanding reaction that had her doing something she rarely did—saying more, unprompted. “We lived overseas in some seriously sketchy places. He made sure I knew how to defend myself and my siblings.”
He gave another nod, this one in approval, and it had her taking a second look at him, at the calm, steady gaze that withheld any personal thoughts, at the way he sat at rest, but with a sense of tightly harnessed power. And then there was his build, which suggested he could handle whatever situation arose. “You were military too.”
He studied her right back for a long beat, assessing. “Still am.”
When he didn’t say anything else, she arched a brow, waiting for more, but it didn’t come. “Let me guess,” she said. “It’s a secret. If you told me, you’d have to kill me.”
The very corners of his eyes crinkled. Either she was annoying him or amusing him. “I’m actually a DEA agent,” he said. “But also Coast Guard.”
“How do you do both?”
“I was active duty for twelve years. Been in the Reserve for two. My DEA job schedule allows for the times I’m in training , activated, or deployed.”
Man. She thought her parents had lived dangerous lives. This guy had them beat. And considering what had happened to her mom and dad, she decided then and there that she had less than zero interest in him, no matter how curious she might be. Because seriously, where was a hot easy-going surfer when you needed one? “How often does any of that happen? The training, activation, or deployment?”
“My unit trains three days a month in Virginia. We get activated at will. Deployed less often, but it happens.” He shrugged, like it was no big deal that he put his life on hold at what she assumed was short notice to go off to save the world.
“The DEA doesn’t mind you leaving at the drop of a hat?”
“They knew that when they signed me on. I had the skill sets they needed.”
“And what skill sets are those?”
He gave her another of those looks, and she smiled. “Right. Nowwe’re at the ‘you’d tell me, but then you’d have to kill me’ part.”
With a maybe-amused, maybe-bemused shake of his head, he lifted his drink in her direction. “Happy birthday, Piper.”
She blew out a sigh. “Yeah. Thanks.”
He gave a very small snort. “You’re really not a fan of birthdays.”
“No. Or parties.”
“I’m getting that.” He was looking at her list again, and she put a hand on the journal to prevent him from flipping to the next page, which was even morerevealing, and braced herself for the inevitable comment about the getting-laid thing.
But he surprised her. “It’s way too cold in Alaska,” he said. “If that were my list, I’d be aiming for a South Pacific island.”
He met her gaze. “Maybe not completelydeserted.”
Her stomach did a weird flutter, and that scared her. She didn’t want to feel stomach flutters, not for this guy. “If you’re flirting with me,” she said slowly, “you should know I’m not interested.”
“Good thing, then, that I’m not flirting with you.”
How crazy was it that she felt just the teeniest bit disappointed? Plus, she didn’t know how to respond. Reading social cues were not her strong suit. Feeling awkward, which was nothing new for her, she slid off her barstool and tucked her journal into her rain jacket pocket, surprised to realize they were still surrounded by people, herpeople, along with music and talking and laughter, and yet . . . for the past few minutes it’d felt like they’d been all alone.
“You out?” he asked.
“I think it’s best if I call it a night.”
He rubbed his jaw again, and the sound his stubble made did something to her insides that she refused to name. “Let me at least buy you a drink for your birthday first.”
“Thanks, but there’s the storm blowing in.” As she said this, the power flickered but held. “I should keep my wits about me.”
“Doesn’t have to be alcohol.” He glanced around them at the full, rowdy bar. “Are you a first responder like all your friends?”
“Yes. I’m an EMT.”
“Well, I’m the new guy,” he said. “Zero friends. You going to desert me like Jenna deserted you?”
She actually hesitated at that, until she caught that flash of humor in his eyes. “You’re messing with me.”
She wasn’t sure how to respond to this. It’d been a long time since she’d felt . . . well, anything. Just beyond him, she could see a group of her friends playing pool. CJ, a local cop, was winning. After Jenna, CJ was one of her favorite people. He glanced over at her, caught her eye, and gave her a chin nudge.
Guy speak for Are you all right?
She nodded and he went back to pool. Ryland was still flirting with two women, and she had to wonder: What was the worst thing that could happen if she let her hair down and enjoyed herself for a few minutes? After all, it washer birthday. “Maybe just one drink.”
Hot Guy nodded to the bartender, who promptly ambled over. “A Shirley Temple for Grandma here on her birthday.”
Piper laughed. She shocked herself with her reaction, making her realize how long it’d been.
Hot Guy took in her smile and almostgave her a small one of his own. “Or . . . whatever you want.”
She bit her lip. What did she want? That was a very big question she’d tried very hard not to ask herself over the past decade plus, because what she wanted had never applied. In her life, there were need to do’sand have to do’s . . . and nowhere in there had there ever been time for what Piper wanted’s.
Which was probably why she made lists like it was her job.
The bartender’s name was Boomer, and she’d known him for a long time. He was waiting with a smile for her to admit the truth—that she loved Shirley Temples. But she didn’t admit any such thing. She just rolled her eyes—honestly, she was going to have to learn to stop doing that—and nodded.
When Boomer slid a Shirley Temple in front of her, she took a big sip and was unable to hold in her sigh of pleasure, making Hot Guy finally reallysmile.
And, oh, boy, it was a doozy.
Just a little harmless flirting,she told herself. There was no harm in allowing herself this one little thing, right?
The lights flickered again, and this time they went out and stayed out.
She wasn’t surprised, and by the collective groan around her, she could tell no one else was either. Boomer hopped up onto the bar. “Storm—one, the bar—zero!” he yelled out to the crowd. “Everyone go home and stay safe!”
In the ensuing mass exodus, Hot Guy grabbed Piper’s hand and tugged her along with him, not toward the front door with everyone else, but through the bar and out the back.
Where, indeed, the storm had moved in with a vengeance, slapping them back against the wall.
“How did you know about the back door if you’re new here?” she asked.
“I always know the way out.”
That she believed. She took in the night around them, which was the sort of pitch black that came from no power anywhere and a dark, turbulent sky whipped to a frenzy by high winds.
“The rain’s gonna hit any second,” he told her, not sounding thrilled about that.
This tugged a breathless laugh from her. “Chin up, Princess, or the crown slips.”
The look on his face said that he’d never once in his life been called a princess before. “Sorry,” she said. “That was an automatic response. My dad used to say that to me whenever I complained about the rain. Do you know how often it rains in Odisha, India?”
“I’m betting less than Mobile, Alabama, where I once spent six months with my unit training the Maritime Safety and Security Team, and we never saw anything but pouring rain. Emphasis on pouring.”
“Six months straight, huh?” she asked sympathetically. “Okay, you win.”
His lips quirked. “Ready?”
“As I’ll ever be.”
And with that, he took her hand and was her anchor as they ran through the wind to her beat-up old Jeep. She was actually grateful since the gusts nearly blew her away twice, saved only by his solid, easy footing. The man moved like he was at the top of the food chain, with quiet, economical, stealthy movements that if you knew what he did for a living made perfect sense.
She and Jenna waved to each other from across the lot, and when Jenna gave her a thumbs-up, Piper shook her head.
“Thanks for the drink,” she said, having to raise her voice to be heard over the wind.
“I’ll follow you to make sure you get home okay.”
“Not necessary, I’m fine.” Because no way was she falling for that line. There was flirting, and then there was being stupid. “And anyway, as a local, I should be checking on you to see if you get home okay.”
He laughed. And as it turned out, he had a great one, though she had no idea if he was so amused because he was touched by her worry for him, or because it was ridiculous, since clearly he could handle himself.
“I’m good,” he finally said. “Drive safe.” And then he stepped back, vanishing into the darkness.