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We ran back to the house to get dolled up for dinner. I put on one of my new outfits, a super tight pencil skirt and a sheer blue top with a black cami underneath. I curled my new hair, put on more makeup than I normally wore, and decided, just for the hell of it, to wear my awesome black boots that looked like something a Harley-Davidson model would wear. They gave my look a certain edge that I was feeling after a day of letting the real Shaw off her perpetual leash.
At the restaurant, Ayden’s slinky red dress, which made her long legs look endless, had our waiter practically drooling into our water every time he stopped by to refill our glasses. She made me try out my new ID by ordering a drink, and it worked like a charm. Before I knew it we were both feeling no pain and having a great time bouncing from club to club in LoDo and hitting the hip dive bars in Capitol Hill. I was surprised that I didn’t even need to show the fake ID at most places—turns out a tight skirt and exposed cleavage work just as well.
I was laughing hysterically at Ayden doing an impression of some guy flailing around on the dance floor. We had drawn a fair amount of attention everywhere we’d gone and had had to pay for very few drinks. At the moment a guy from CU–Boulder was telling me all about his illustrious football career, or rather he was telling my boobs about it since I don’t think he had looked up from the girls once. Ayden was rolling her eyes and trying to avoid some guy in
a banker suit who was offering to do her taxes for free if she gave him her number. It was silly and fun and I didn’t have to work hard at the flirting or being charming. I was well on my way to being wasted, so conversation was out. All I had to do was smile and sit prettily on the bar stool, two things I was apparently getting really good at. Another cosmo, which I definitely didn’t need, had just appeared before me and Mr. Football was leaning even closer to me when some sixth sense, or maybe it was my fight-or-flight response, suddenly kicked into overdrive.
I lifted my head and swivelled around on the stool, practically kneeing the leering football player. I looked around, craning my neck to see what had my skin suddenly feeling too tight, but all I saw was the regular bar crowd mixing and mingling. The football player was trying to get my attention back by running a finger up and down my bare arm; I guess it was supposed to be sexy, but now I was drunk and unnerved and I wanted him to get lost. I was suddenly ready to go, and looked around for Ayden so we could get a cab and get out of there. Before I could find her a warm hand slid under the heavy fall of my hair and settled on the back of my neck. A deep voice growled in my ear, “How in the fuck did you get in here, Casper? And what did you do to your hair?”
The football player’s eyes went huge because, well, Rule was Rule. Gone was the purple hair spiked up in a crazy mess. Now he had it all shaved on the sides and bleached out into a startling white Mohawk that was several inches tall. He had on a tight black shirt with a flaming skull in a Viking helmet on it, showing off both sleeves of tattoos, a pair of black jeans with a hole in the knee, and his heavy black motorcycle boots. He should have looked sloppy and unkempt next to the V-neck-sweater-wearing footballer, but he didn’t. He looked hot and rumpled and clearly not someone to be messed with. The footballer pushed away from the bar in a hurry and vanished into the crowd.
I was drunk, admittedly probably not the best state to try to go toe-to-toe with Rule, but I liked my hair and he wasn’t going to rain on all my birthday vibes, especially since he clearly didn’t even remember what day it was. I shook his grip loose and sucked back the tart drink in one swallow.
“What are you doing here?”
He lifted an eyebrow at me and took up the same spot the football player had vacated, looking down my low-cut top.
“This bar is right around the corner from the shop—Nash and I stop by all the time after work. I just finished with a client. I know they ID at the door, how did you get in?”
I flipped my hair over my shoulder like I had seen endless annoying girls do, only I practically fell off my stool because that last drink was letting me know just how bad an idea it had been to chug it. I grabbed the edge of the bar and Rule reached out a hand to steady me. I felt like it burned where he gripped my upper arm. Definitely should have listened to my flight response a minute ago. I put a hand on my forehead because it was warm and I suddenly felt clammy. “I need to go.” It was too hot, too loud, and if I didn’t get out into some fresh air, like now, I was pretty sure I was going to puke everywhere.
I tried to climb to my feet but the room started to spin around like crazy and I had to grab on to Rule’s biceps just to stay upright. I was so glad I opted for my boots instead of heels—I would have ended up on my face otherwise.
“Who drove?” Rule’s voice was coming from far away and he smelled really good. With a sigh I leaned into him and buried my nose in his throat. He was so tall I had to use my leverage on his arms to reach. “Seriously, Shaw, how did you get here?”
“Ayden and I, we took a cab.”
“Where is she?”
“With a banker. I need to go home.” I felt my boozy legs start to wobble and he locked a heavy arm around my waist to keep me anchored to his chest. It was nice. Not bothering to think about it, I wrapped both my arms up around his neck. He felt as good as I always knew he would.
“Her roommate is running around somewhere; wanna see if you can grab her? I’m gonna walk her to our place.” I wasn’t sure who he was talking to but a familiar voice rumbled an affirmative. The next thing I knew I was being half marched, half carried out the front door of the bar. The cold January air made me snap my head back and Rule moved me from the front of his body to his side, securing me with an arm around my shoulders. I hooked an arm around his lean waist and cuddled into him. I knew logically it was the vodka making me act crazy, but I couldn’t stop it.
“We’re only three blocks from my place. I’ll pour a gallon of coffee down your throat and shove some chips or a frozen burrito in your face and get you a cab. You’re even paler than normal and if you try to get in a car right now you’re gonna puke everywhere. Why are you drunk and dressed all sexified tonight anyway?”
I shivered a little as the wind breezed across my bare legs. I turned my cold nose into his ribs and inhaled. He smelled like the antiseptic from the shop, like cigarettes from Nash, like the hair product in his Mohawk, and underneath it all the warm, earthy smell that was just Rule. In the six years I had known him, I’d never been this close to him for this long. It was enough to send my sex-deprived and alcohol-soaked system into overdrive.
“You think I look sexy?” That seemed like the important part of the conversation. We stopped at a stop sign and he looked down at me with exasperation clear in those pale eyes.
“Shaw, every guy in the bar was circling you like you were bait in the water during shark week. You know you look good, what I think shouldn’t matter. What should matter is why you’re suddenly dressing, looking, and acting like a different person. What’s going on with you?”
I wanted to scowl up at him but that seemed too hard, especially when his T-shirt rode up in the back and my arm was brushing against nice, warm skin. I stumbled off the curb as we made our way down another block and his familiar Victorian apartment building came into sight. He pulled me in tighter to his side and I didn’t even try to hide the soft sigh that fell out of me.
“Everyone thinks I need to act a certain way—you, my parents, your parents, the girls from work, Gabe. Everybody always wants me to be this, do that, walk this line, toe that line and I’m sick of it. Maybe for just once I just want to act how I want and feel how I want to feel without someone judging me and expecting something from me in return.”
He was quiet as we walked up the front steps to the apartment. Maybe he was trying to translate my drunken speech because even I could hear that I was slurring between my chattering teeth. He pushed the door open and twisted the lock. It was warm inside so I shook off my jacket and pushed my shaking hands through my hair. I turned my blurry eyes on him and almost swallowed my tongue. He was leaning back against the door watching me with hooded eyes. He wasn’t throwing sarcastic barbs at me or ignoring me, he was just watching me. I blew out a breath and tasted the tartness of the cranberry juice across my tongue.
I took a few unsteady steps toward him. He was so tall that I had to stand on the very tips of my toes to reach his ear. I put a hand on his shoulder and one on the door beside his head and whispered, “It’s my birthday, Rule.”
I expected him to move away, to gently shove me to the side, but he uncrossed his arms and placed his hands on either side of my waist. Those pale eyes flared for a second and his mouth twisted down, making the hoop on the side of his mouth glint at me. “I’m sorry, Shaw. I had no idea.”
I shrugged it off and moved a step closer to him. “It’s okay—my own family didn’t even remember it.” I pressed so close to him that my chest was flat against his. I could feel that the close proximity was having an effect on him. If I hadn’t had to concentrate on my balance since I was on my toes I might have grinned at that. All I had ever wanted in life was to affect him, to get him to feel something, anything, other than simple tolerance for me.
“I know what you can do for me to make this officially the best birthday ever.” I wanted to sound sure, to sound sexy and sultry, but I’m pretty sure I just sounded horny and drunk. I didn’t care. I was here—the real me—the one who wanted him so desperately and always had. There was no chance at putting her back in her cage now.
I didn’t think—didn’t reason—just used the grip I had on him to pull myself up even taller and plant my mouth solidly over his. The ring in his lip was shockingly cold against my own; the rest of him was undeniably hot and hard. It was everything I had ever wanted, and even though he didn’t kiss me back, I still ranked it up there as the best birthday gift ever. I went to settle back down on my booted feet when something shifted, something changed, and Rule went from a passive recipient to something else entirely.
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