Lotus Flower Bomb

Chapter 1

"Even When the Sky Comes Fallin', Even When the Sun Don't Shine"

Natalie Meier lifted her left hand, palm down, and scrutinized the manicure that she had received only thirty minutes ago. The pale pinkness of her nails glistened despite the weakness of the winter sunset of New York City. It was Sunday evening, and the tradition of having dinner with her family had almost slipped Natalie's mind. She had been terribly distracted by her boyfriend's news that someone was moving in next door to his apartment, and the fact that the 'someone' was female immediately put up Natalie's defenses. Still, she was determined to have a lovely dinner with her family before she went to investigate the matter further.

Her heeled boots clacked against the pavement as she walked across Fortieth Street, her dark hair whipping in the wind. Refusing to let her teeth chatter, Natalie pursed her lips and vowed to never again leave the warm comfort of her home until spring break. The only thing that Natalie liked about winter was being able to layer her clothes for the most stylish looks. Other than that, she had no use for the cold, and it was with great relief that she reached her destination in Bryant Park, where the doorman quickly opened the door for her.

The elaborate decor of the Bryant Park Hotel gleamed at Natalie, making her feel right at home. Maybe she could just take up residence here, and then she wouldn't have to face the cold to get home.

"Hello, Miss Meier."

The familiarity of the hostess put a small smile on Natalie's lips, and she acknowledged the pretty Latina with a gentle nod. Right away, the hostess's face lit up, and she was quick to lead Natalie into the highly-esteemed restaurant, Koi. The fashionista hotspot had been Natalie's childhood favorite, and it had carried over into her adult life, if only because stability was such a rare thing.

Jackson Meier stood from the table when his eyes landed on his daughter, and Natalie went to his arms for a gentle hug. "Hi, Dad," she greeted. Sitting at the table was Natalie's younger half-brother, Shane, who wrinkled his nose at her. "Hey, asshole."

Shane grinned at his sister. "You're late, bitch, and I'm starving."

"How are you, sweetie?" Jackson asked while Natalie took her seat. "Hungry, I hope. We already ordered for you."

Such a statement would have pissed Natalie off had it not been for the fact that she ordered precisely the same thing every Sunday: snow crab sushi and crispy rice. When it came to food and favorites, Natalie was a complete creature of habit.

"It wasn't hard," Shane commented, a playful twinkle in his brown eyes. "Your usual plate of fish eggs has probably been waiting on you to get here since this morning."

Natalie rolled her eyes and slipped out of her coat, revealing a tan cashmere cardigan from her latest shopping spree at Barney's. She sat down beside her father at the table and proceeded to ignore Shane, who was typically easy-going but had a certain pissy attitude that was usually reserved for Natalie instead; the role reversal was rare.

"Guess what." Natalie turned her attention to her father, who was sipping a cocktail. "Will got me a kitten."

"I hate cats," Shane groaned.

Jackson put his drink back on the table and laughed lightly. "That was sweet of him, honey. What did he do to require brownie points?"

Natalie smirked. "Very funny." A special cucumber martini, her signature beverage, was promptly delivered in front of her, and she took a long drink before saying, "He actually got it for me for New Year's."

"Since when does a new year mean presents?" Shane poked repeatedly at the ice cube in his water glass with a straw; his table manners always made Natalie cringe. "And even if you are supposed to get presents for it, he's a week late."

Tipping her head gently to the left, Natalie studied her half-brother. Normally Shane was very relaxed and mellow, but tension was visible in his shoulders. Two years was the age gap between them, and Shane had just started his freshman year at Columbia University. She knew that he was going through some transitional stresses, but his mood was never this foul. "What's your problem, Shane?" she demanded, narrowing her chocolaty eyes at him. "Your love life's slacking, so you want to attack mine?"

Shane's ears turned red, alerting Natalie that she was correct. "Fuck you."

"Hey." Jackson raised his eyebrows in warning at Shane, who glowered down at his water glass sulkily. A moment later, his expression eased. "What kind of cat, Natalie? And where do you plan on keeping the little beast?"

"With me, of course." Natalie flipped her long dark hair over her shoulder. "She's the cutest little kitty in the entire world. All white, all fluffy. It'll still be a few weeks before she can leave her momma though." Natalie beamed proudly and took another long sip of her martini. "I just haven't picked a name for her yet."

"You and Will are still going strong then?" Jackson asked.

On their very first date, Will Indelicato had stolen Natalie's heart with his dark features and sarcastic sense of humor. His quiet, reserved nature was the perfect complement to Natalie's high-maintenance bluntness. The two of them had met two years ago during their freshman year of college, and Natalie was certain that nothing would ever come between them.

"Of course," she replied simply. "Will's the one."

The waiter brought their food to the table then, allowing Natalie another opportunity to observe Shane, whose face had become illuminated at the sight of food. Her brother was so damn typical; he was such a bitch when he was hungry. Now maybe he'd be slightly more tolerable.

Natalie was in the process of taking the first bite of her delectable crispy rice when she snapped her attention to her father, unable to believe that her attention had been so distracted. Now something really did not add up about Shane's bad mood. "Where's Cate?"

After swallowing the bite of food that was in his mouth, Jackson wiped the corners of his mouth with a thick cotton linen. "She wasn't feeling very well," he answered. "So she stayed home to rest."

Catherine Jacobsen had been the object of Jackson's affection for the past five years. Natalie often made her father promise that he would never marry her. After all, both of Jackson's previous two marriages had ended in quick haste. Natalie's mother had been the first, and her bitch-ass had abandoned her husband and toddler daughter when she decided that marriage and motherhood were too stressful. Less than a year later, Jackson had married a very pregnant Diana, who had popped out Shane and then popped over to Europe to have her pussy popped by a Greek painter. Marriage, Natalie had decided, was a curse for her father.

"Oh." Natalie frowned thoughtfully and stole a glimpse at Shane. As much as he disliked Cate, news of any illness should make him smug. A close inspection of his face did allude to some contentment, but Natalie saw nothing else from him. "Well...tell her that I hope she feels better."

"You can tell her yourself," Jackson declared decisively. "I'm going to stop by her place on my way home. Why don't you come with me? Cate would love to see you."

Natalie chewed her snow crab sushi slowly and swallowed carefully, shaking her head gently. "I can't. I promised Will and Bry that I'd come over and scare the shit out of their new neighbor. Some chick moved in next door today."

"You mean you're not coming home tonight?" Shane demanded.

Despite that fewer and fewer nights were spent at the Meier penthouse on the Upper East Side, Shane never seemed to adjust to Natalie being away. She felt bad sometimes, sure, that he missed her, but the little bitch was rude as hell to her face most of the time. Still, Natalie offered graciously, "I'll meet you for lunch tomorrow, Shaney."

That appeased him. "I don't want to go back to school tomorrow," Shane complained, neglecting his chopsticks and eating his sushi with his fingers. He looked up at his father hopefully. "Do I have to go to college?"

"Hell yes, you do," Natalie replied, shooting a death glare across the table. "If I have to waste my time in a fucking classroom, so do you."

"But you're not taking classes this semester," Shane pointed out. He picked up another bite of sushi and shoved it into his mouth. "I think we should have an equal playing field. Do I have to go to school, Dad?"

Refusing to let Jackson answer, Natalie shot back, "I'm taking classes. They're just for professional development."

Jackson finished off his cocktail; it was instantly replaced with another. "Have you met Jennifer yet, Natty?"

Jennifer Warner owned a small studio in Noho, where she designed sundresses and accessories. Rather than taking standard classes, Natalie, who was a junior at the Fashion Institute of Technology, was interning at Jennifer's studio for the spring semester to gain real life experience for her career. Her life dream was to have a studio of her very own, and it would be easy to have her daddy just invest in her, but too many people had predicted that, and Natalie was determined to work for her career. It was the one area of her life that she accepted no handouts or privileges.

"Not until Thursday," Natalie answered.

Shane sighed heavily and slumped back into his seat. "Fuck that. Why can't I just buy a degree? I don't want to work anyway."

The slightest of smiles hinted on Jackson's face. "You're the laziest son I could ever have." He laughed lightly and shook his head. "You need to get serious, Shane, like Natalie. She's working hard to make a name for herself."

Natalie directed her eyes to her plate, suddenly losing her appetite. She refused to look up for fear of seeing the hurt in Shane's eyes that came every time that their father compared him to her. Natalie was easily and obviously the favorite child, and Jackson was the only one who couldn't see how it affected Shane.

Jackson's cell phone vibrated from a nearby table; Natalie and Shane had made it a rule in their childhood that no distracting devices could be at the table for family dinners. "That's probably Cate," Jackson said, standing to move for his phone. "I should get going and check on her."

He leaned down to hug Natalie, but her embrace was less enthusiastic than usual. "Bye, Dad."

"Take care, Natty." Jackson left a surplus of cash on the table and slid his coat on over his suit. "I'll see you at home, Shane."

Jackson's departure was quick, and the silence was deafening as Natalie and Shane sat, unmoving. Since she was positive that her brother secretly resented her on some level, moments like these were always awkward for Natalie. She wasn't sure how to breach the distance; usually she pretended not to notice it, but it had gotten harder for her to play dumb as she and Shane had gotten older.

Natalie cleared her throat gently and peered at her brother with hidden caution. "So you haven't told me why your love life is giving you problems."

"It's not."

The shortness of Shane's response stung, as Natalie had never been used to being treated like anything less than a princess. Stubborn, she tried again, "What about school? You really seem like you're dreading it. Any particular reason why?"

"It's getting late." Shane pushed his chair back from the table and slowly raised his eyes from his plate to meet his sister's gaze. "You should get to Will's."

Natalie looked on while Shane stood and put on his coat, having returned to avoiding her gaze. She knew that things would be okay after he had time to cool down, but it was still hurtful to see him shy away from her. "Yeah, I guess I should," she murmured softly. Natalie stood and barely caught Shane's hand as he was walking past her; he hesitated and then faced her. "Love you, Shaney."

He offered her a crooked smile. "Love you too."

There was an eerie silence in the spacious Soho apartment that Bryan Drake and Will Indelicato shared. Particularly, Bryan's bedroom held an awkwardness that not even the luxurious decor could hide. He was sitting on his king-sized bed, back against the headboard and legs stretched out, pretending and very much wishing that he was alone. Staring down at the thick navy comforter, Bryan was focused only on survival.

"What's your problem with me, Bryan?" Kaylen Donavon asked, flipping her dark red hair over her shoulder with a heavy sigh. She paced the floor of his bedroom, her arms folding over her chest. "You've been ignoring me all day."

Bryan looked up from the book he'd been reading about the development of European societies in ancient times when Kaylen had walked in unannounced; he hated when she dropped by without an invitation. Irritation caused immediate tension to swell in his shoulders. "I haven't," he replied quietly. "I've been busy all day."

"Doing what?"

Bryan raised an eyebrow at her. Though Kaylen fashioned herself as his girlfriend, he had made it more than clear that they were just friends. Her constant pressure to change that fact was becoming a recurring fight for them.

She sighed again and sat down beside Bryan on the bed, the floral scent of her perfume nearly overpowering. Gently, Kaylen raised her hand and smoothed Bryan's soft brown hair; he frowned at her. "Stop it," she murmured softly, giving his hair another brush. "I'm just worried about you. I haven't heard from you all day."

"I've been finishing up homework." Bryan shrugged his shoulders, hoping the tension would ease. It didn't. "And just chilling with Will."

Inexplicably, Kaylen's hazel eyes seemed to fill with sudden hope. "Do you want to go out for dinner?"

Bryan studied the redhead in front of him. She was gorgeous, and she had so much going for her in life. Kaylen was studious, social chair of her sorority, and a volunteer for a host of charities. She had dreams of a medical career and a big family. With so many interests in her life, it was ironic that she still found so much time to care about Bryan. It drove him crazy, mostly because he knew he should want to be with her as much as she wanted him. Yet he didn't, for reasons that he didn't even understand.

"We can go get pizza," Kaylen offered, leaning into his side. "Or we can just get dessert if you want. That ice cream place on the corner has a sundae special."

"Not tonight, Kaylen." Bryan pulled away carefully, closing his book and standing up. "You've got an eight o'clock class in the morning, and I'm already pretty tired myself." He walked across the room, just to put distance between them and keep her disappointment out of his line of vision. "We can get everybody together for lunch tomorrow."

Kaylen opened her mouth to reply, but a loud thump came from behind the wall behind the bed's headboard. As far as she knew, the only thing on the other side of that wall was an apartment that had been empty for the entire two years that Bryan had lived there. Brow furrowing, she asked, "What's that?"

"A new neighbor." Bryan moved to his desk, straightening the belongings that were on top of it. His room was always meticulously organized. "She moved in today."

Kaylen's brow furrowed more. "I thought nobody was supposed to live there. Didn't your mom's realtor promise nobody would move in beside you?"

"Well, yeah, but apparently it's a favor to a friend." Bryan glanced out the window of the outside wall, which overlooked the terrace. Complete with a wooden swing and hot tub, the terrace was the favorite luxury of the apartment. The only downside was that it was supposed to be shared by both of the top-floor apartments; never before had that been an issue, because never before had anyone else lived there.

Kaylen wrinkled her nose. "I don't like that."

Silent for a minute, Bryan moved back toward the bed and offered out his hand. "Let me walk you out, Kay," he said softly. "It's getting late."

Though she hesitated for a minute, Kaylen finally took his hand and followed Bryan out of his bedroom and across the length of the apartment to the foyer. "You don't have to walk me down," she declared. "I can get a cab by myself."

Torn between wanting to let her go alone and a natural instinct to be a gentleman, Bryan hesitated. "I'd feel better if I knew you got home okay."

"Don't worry about me." Kaylen's attitude grew cold; it was visible as she tugged on her thick wool coat. "I'll be fine."

Bryan leaned in and placed a gentle kiss on Kaylen's cheek. "Be safe."

With anger evident in her eyes, Kaylen spun on her heel and exited the apartment. The door shut with a distinctly furious slam - just as it usually did whenever Kaylen left. And just as usually, Bryan's response was to roll his gray eyes, never certain why the poor girl didn't understand that he was never going to return her feelings for him.

"Looks like that went well."

Irritated further, Bryan turned his head so that he could look into the adjacent living room where Will was lounging on the couch, avoiding any type of socialization. He hadn't noticed his best friend when he'd come through the short hallway that led between the foyer and the two bedrooms of the apartment. On the opposite side of the foyer was a wide, open area, where the living room, kitchen, and dining area were located.

Will's comment was typical, as he didn't particularly care for Kaylen; rather, he tolerated her because she was a good friend of Natalie's and a somewhat friend of Bryan's. To be honest, Will didn't particularly care for many people at all. He was known to give looks that made his peers second guess themselves and feel insecure, and if he was not in the mood to speak, Will simply chose not to. Usually, when he was in the mood to talk, he was more than likely going to be a smart ass.

"Mm." Bryan padded across the thick carpet to the counter that separated the living room from the kitchen and sat at a barstool, his back to Will. He helped himself to a tumbler that was nearby, concocting a quick whiskey sour from the bottles that were on the counter's marble surface. Emptying the tumbler in one gulp, Bryan poured himself another drink. "Where the fuck is Natalie?"

Will looked up from his MacBook Air; the corners of his mouth turned slightly up into a reserved smile. Of the two of them, Bryan was by far the socialite. Girls fell to his feet in awe of his athletic build, and just one look from his sparkly gray eyes had girls promising to do whatever he wanted. Outgoing and vivacious, Bryan's reputation was remarkably different from Will's, but the two had been friends since toddlerhood when their mothers, who were best friends themselves, arranged play dates for them. Even after Will's family moved to Boston when he was twelve, their friendship remained, and Will returned to Manhattan for high school, opting to live with Bryan's family. Now the two of them attended New York University and lived on their own near the campus.

"You planning on getting her drunk too, Bry?" Will asked, raising an eyebrow.

Rising from his barstool with the alcohol in hand, Bryan grinned. "Hell yeah." Bryan set bottles of liquor and seltzer down on the coffee table, falling into the thick pappasan chair beside the couch. "I've been good all damn day. Last night I even let Kaylen whine to me about her fucking period problems. I'm getting drunk just as soon as your girl gets here, if not before." Bryan smirked good-naturedly at his best friend. "Nat will drink with me, even when you won't."

Will pulled a face; he was a notorious lightweight. "I'll drink with you."

Relaxing into the comfortable chair, Bryan let his head fall back, exposing his face to the vaulted ceiling, and closed his eyes. "Why doesn't Kaylen understand that I don't want to be her boyfriend?"

"Have you told her?"

"Isn't it obvious?" Bryan sighed and opened his eyes. "What, Will? What do I have to do to get her to understand?"

Known for his bluntness, Will lifted one shoulder in response and closed his laptop. "Just tell her. And don't do this cheek-kissing shit." His ebony eyes shot a meaningful glance in Bryan's direction. "Even I know that's confusing as hell to girls."

"She just makes me feel bad," Bryan complained, frowning into his tumbler. "I don't have a reason to not like her. I just don't. I've tried, and I can't help it."

"Well, if you want to clear the confusion, maybe you should stop having sex with her." Will stood from the couch, making his way to the kitchen where he pulled two glasses down from the cabinet. "She's the serious type, Bry. When you fuck her, she thinks you love her."

Bryan remained silent as he watched his best friend come back to the living room, resuming his spot on the couch. When Will worded it like that, it made Bryan feel even more like shit. But honestly, he was very straight-forward with informing Kaylen that it was sex without feelings; she just didn't seem to mind or maybe she didn't believe him.

After pouring himself a drink that was considerably weaker than Bryan's had been, Will relaxed back into the couch. "What don't you like about her?" he asked. "If you can't make yourself like her, what's your reasoning?"

"I don't know." Bryan ran a hand over his head, feeling stressed. "We don't have anything in common. We don't enjoy the same things."

"You've told her that?"

Bryan nodded gravely. "She just doesn't get it, I guess."

"I don't think you're telling her like it really is," Will decided, not caring if it pissed off Bryan. "You're leading her on somewhere. Girls as smart as Kaylen would understand if you gave her a clear picture."

Bryan chose to ignore that. "Will, call your bitch. She should be here by now."

As if on cue, the front door rattled, and a moment later, Natalie appeared, looking as picture perfect as she always did. "Hi, guys," she chirped brightly, closing the door and taking off her coat in one grand swoop. "What's going on?"

Will's face lit up immediately and got slowly brighter as Natalie walked toward him; she sat down close beside him, and his lips grazed hers sweetly. "Hey, babe." His arm settled around her protectively. "Did you have a nice dinner with your family?"

Sighing huffily, Natalie blew her long bangs out of her eyes. "No," she whined. "But I don't want to talk about it right now. I'm not giving them my time." Her dark eyes swept to Bryan. "I passed Kaylen on my way out. Are you two fighting or fucking?"

Bryan made a face. "Fighting."

"The fucking comes later." Will offered a crooked smile. "You know."

"Oh, I know." Natalie grinned, ignoring Bryan's middle finger raising in Will's direction, and snuggled into her boyfriend. "So I saw lots of boxes piled up next door. Tell me about the new neighbor. She's moved in officially?"

"Mmhmm." Bryan readjusted on the pappasan, letting his long legs stretch out on the matching ottoman. "Some girl from Atlanta."

"Atlanta?" Natalie reached toward the coffee table and used the second glass from Will to make herself a drink from the bottles that Bryan had deposited. "That's interesting. Did you meet her? Is she a bitch? Will I have to kick her ass?"

"We haven't met her." Will fought the urge to smile. "But she's apparently taking the room beside Bryan's. Ask him how he feels about that."

Seeing Will's smile, which tended to be rare, made Natalie instantly entertained. "Bry? Do tell."

"She's been playing loud as hell rap music all fucking day." Bryan smirked, his annoyance evident. "I've barely been able to concentrate on any of my homework, and you know I've got all my winter break reading to do that I didn't do over break."

Natalie laughed. The fact that Bryan was a history major and an English minor always blew her mind just a little bit; it didn't match his reputation in the least. "Guess you should've been more productive." She sipped her drink, still smiling. "Want me to tell her off for you?"

"Don't worry," Will laughed lightly. "Bry's been beating on the wall between their rooms, trying to make the music stop."

Eyes alight, Natalie teased, "And how'd that work out for you, Bry-Bry?"

"Fuck you," Bryan answered, pulling a face. "It didn't work at all. The music just got louder."

"Hence his foul mood," Will commented, amusement flicking into his ebony eyes.

"No wonder Kaylen looked pissed when I saw her." Natalie shook her head sadly, fighting her entertainment. She looked at Will warmly; his expression was so often detached that seeing genuine feeling there always made her admire him.

Bryan drained his glass and stood from the chair, stretching. "Whatever, I'm going to go to bed," he announced. "Night, guys."

"Sleep well, Bry," Natalie grinned.

Will watched his friend retreat to his room before pulling Natalie closer to his side. He raised his hand to brush back a lock of her dark hair. "Tell me about your family, Natty. What happened at dinner?"

A frown tugged at the corners of Natalie's mouth as she sighed softly. "Shane's mad at me," she began, "because Dad compared us as usual. I don't get why Dad doesn't see how it makes Shane feel."

Being the youngest to overachieving twins, Will could relate to Shane, though his parents were not at all as vocal as Natalie's father. "I see." Natalie rested her head against Will's shoulder, and he kissed her forehead softly. "Don't worry about it, babe. He knows it's not your fault. He won't be mad tomorrow."

"Yeah, I guess…"

Banging against the wall could be heard from Bryan's room. Will and Natalie exchanged a glance before breaking into laughter. Evidently the neighbor was still playing her loud music. "I'm predicting a homicide," Will laughed, shaking his head. "Bry won't tolerate any lack of sleep."

Grinning, Natalie laughed softly. "Nope…" She cocked her head toward Will's closed laptop on the coffee table. "Did you finish your paper?"

Will wrinkled his nose. Despite that classes for spring semester didn't begin until the following day, he was already hard at work on a semester-long chemistry assignment. "All but the abstract. I'll do that tomorrow."

Nuzzling against Will's shoulder, Natalie smiled faintly. "You're so smart, Will." She glanced up, looking deeply into her boyfriend's eyes. "What are you doing with me? You're going to cure cancer, yet you put up with my materialistic bullshit. Why?"

Used to this insecurity of Natalie's, Will rolled his eyes good-naturedly. "Shut up, Nat." He stood and offered a hand to Natalie to pull her to her feet. "Let's go lay down. I'm tired."

She took his hand, squeezing it gently and pushing aside her worries. She was Natalie Meier, she knew, and she had nothing to worry about when it came to Will and his adoration.