Chapter One

Oh, Mondays. There I was again, the same as every other day, staring at that blue tinted computer screen in my darkened office as I once again put together someone else's genius idea. The day crawled like all Mondays crawl, leaving me to want to gouge my eyes out by lunch time. After, e-mailing my latest "masterpiece" to the head of creative for approval, I left out into the wasteland of the never ending clack of the keyboards in the bullpen where they kept the interns and assistants.

Price and Keller was a huge publishing firm, and I worked with in-house marketing. This meant I spent most of my time giving life to someone else's genius idea. I made book covers, banners, bookmarks, cards, ads, etcetera, etcetera. If it went through Photoshop or Illustrator in the block of clients with last names A-F. I was the person who did the dirty work of finalizing the abstract ideas that the creative manager for clients A-F came up with. In short, I worked in the Seventh Circle of Hell with the option for promotion and dental.

They liked to keep us creative teams who worked with the same block of clients on the same floor. So, across the sea of cubicles were all of the copywriters. They were the people that came up with those neat little blurbs on the back of books and those tag lines that few people actually read. My bestie, Paige Smith, was one of those immensely gifted people. You could tell her the premise of a novel, and she could churn out a gripping summary that would make the cheapest of cheapskates part with money. She was just that good. It was rare for her to not finish her deadlines early.

So I was more than a little shocked when I found her staring at the computer screen with arms crossed, sighing as 90s Gangster Rap filtered through the room just above mute. Her face read nothing short of absolute dejection. Her little pink lip-gloss coated mouth twisted into a frown as she pouted at the screen.

"Writer's block?" I asked. She reached out, struck a key on her keyboard and the music silenced.

"Yes…no. Maybe?" She shrugged and ran her hands back through her short brown hair and sighed. Paige was the very epitome of cutesy brunette, with wide blue eyes and the tiniest most adorable pointed nose—I was a little in envy of her. She looked kind of like a modern day Disney Princess. If not for her odd obsession with 90s Gangster Rap you'd almost expect little blue birds to dress her every morning. But it's hard to envision that after listening to her scream the lyrics to Fuck the Police, while drunk off her ass. "Do you want to blow off work? I'm kind of over being here."

"It's noon," I countered as Aaron, her work-husband, rounded the corner. He looked like the Disney Prince to her Princess, only done in miniature…and two inches shorter than she was. He was all blonde hair, blue eyes with an immaculately charming smile. To put the cherry on top, he was the very epitome of a southern gentleman, with a Savannah accent thicker than molasses.

"Which of you amazingly beautiful goddesses wants to go to Triple T with me to get shitfaced?" The fatigue in his voice was real.

"Problems?" I asked quirking a brow.

"Emma, you don't know the half of it."

"Enlighten me?"

"We're going, don't listen to her. She's just going to lie to you about deadlines," Paige teased as she shut down her computer.

"I don't lie!" I gaped in indignation as I watched her grab her purse and phone.

"We know you mean well. But you always say the right thing, then follow us out the door anyway. But it's okay, Darlin'. I know it's hard to be good when you're built for sin." Aaron flashed me a thousand-watt smile and draped his arm across my shoulders. "So what's it going to be, Red?" I knew he meant nothing by the flirtation—he was both gay and married. I always thought it was a little sad that there were no pictures of his husband in his office or on his phone. But I knew why that was, Harry and Diane—his parents—were good old fashioned Southern Baptists and though he was out, he still had that small vein of protectiveness when it came to his husband. He also told me about the horror stories that happened at his last job when they found out he was gay so he had earned the right to be a little guarded.

"Fine, I'll go. See, I didn't lie." I pointed at Paige, stepping from under Aaron's arm. "Let me get my purse."

"Meet you at the elevator," Aaron called after me as I started back across the bullpen.

Twenty minutes later, we were around the corner at Triple T—which stood for The Tuck and Tape. It was a Drag bar, as in drag queens done up in glitter and almost as much makeup as I wore. They had a few things going for them: amazing entertainment, walking distance from work, the best paninis in the entire city and lastly the bartender. Granted he wasn't the only bartender so he wasn't always there, but when he was, it was a treat.

"Let me guess…" He pointed to Paige, "Cranberry Cosmo." He turned his finger on Aaron, "Bourbon on the rocks." Then it was my turn, and he smiled at me, squinting his eyes in thought. "Annd, you're going to have to help me."

"You'd think after a year of coming here you'd know my drink order," I teased, drinking in every last bit of his six-foot-four-inch toned frame. It was before five so he had a shirt on, but I knew what he looked like it without it—after five he worked shirtless, it was better for tips. So I knew that climbing up from the waistband of those jeans was a six pack most models would die for and that those well-toned arms were wrapped in tattoos of random filigree, song lyrics, roses, and skulls. Other than that he had kind smiling bright blue eyes, sandy blonde hair and the most amazing mouth I had ever seen. Aside from the tattoos and his physique he was very boy next door.

He set about making Paige's Cosmo as he multi-tasked, putting one of those big, clear, artisanal ice cubes into a tumbler and poured bourbon over it. He always made a show of it, flipping and spinning the bottles and glasses. I could watch him mix drinks all day, and I wasn't alone. Paige was also gawking, but Aaron was too busy looking at his phone and making angry noises to care. It had long been established that Jasper—the sexy bartender—wasn't Aaron's type.

"So, what'll it be? Sex on the Beach?" He flashed me a brilliant smile, with those pretty azure eyes darkened with lust. Oh, he was good.

"Umm, no. Black Cherry Mojito."

"How about I make you a deal? I give you something different, and if you don't like it, you don't have to pay for it, and I'll make your Mojito."

"What if I do like it?"

"Well if you do like it, it's still on me. But you have to give me your number."

It was unexpected enough, to say the least, I had always thought he was gay. I mean he was the bartender at a drag club, I had watched him flirt with and get hit on by guys for the last year.

"Whoa, whoa, whoa. I'm sorry, Jasper. I cannot in good conscience let you do this." Paige giggled out while sipping her drink.

"Oh?" Jasper replied as he leaned forward against the bar, leveling those baby blues on Paige.

"There's one thing you need to realize about Emilia here, and that's that she doesn't do relationships."

"I've overheard your conversations for the better part of the last year. It's been well established that your friend here only casually sees people." He then turned his attention back to me. "That doesn't mean I'm not interested."

"And what if it's just sex?" I beamed up at him, and his face faltered for a moment. He looked sad like he hadn't even considered I might say that. It wasn't just sex, but it was completely worth the look on his face to say it.

"But what about the cuddles? Sex isn't everything you know." He chuckled, turning back around to grab a few bottles off of the back bar. As he mixed the drink, a band started setting up near the stage. One of them called for him, and he sighed as he finished the drink. "I'll be right back, enjoy."

"I kind of always thought he was gay," Paige confessed as she finished off her Cosmo and pushed the empty glass away from her.

"Really? He rubberneck's every time Em wears something revealing, which is… often," Aaron murmured into his glass.

"So what's wrong?" I turned toward Aaron, with the stem of the oversized martini glass in my hand.

"Is it hubby?" Paige asked leaning on the bar.

"You know how last month I was suspicious he was cheating? Well, last night I tried to get the number of the Chinese place out of his phone…only to find it fucking locked."

"Maybe he didn't want someone to get into it at work?" I asked furrowing my brows.

"I just don't get it. I thought we were happy; guess I was wrong. Surprise, surprise." Aaron huffed finishing up his bourbon.

"It could be nothing. Don't stress, Sunshine." Paige patted his back.

"It's not just the code, he watches the damn thing like a hawk. I mean he's always been protective of his phone but now it's an obsession."

"Are you going to talk to him about it?"

"I can't ignore it."

"Well if he's cheating, fuck him," I chimed in. "Aaron, you're amazing. Whatever piece of shit he's sticking his dick in couldn't possibly compare to you."

"I don't get it. I've given him everything."

"Oh, sweetie. There's nothing to get… some idiots just can't see what they have right in front of them." Paige wrapped her arm around him as he swirled the ice cube in the empty glass.

Just then Jasper returned pulling his shirt off over his head as he walked. Behind us, members of the band and a few others at tables whistled. One of the regulars that looked just like a Barbie Doll ran up and tucked a twenty into his back pocket.

"Just for brightening up this little girl's day," she purred to him in a breathy tenor before shimmying back to the table with her friends her pretty pink sequined dress catching the light making it sparkle.

"Thanks, Bambi," he called over his shoulder as he tucked his shirt into his back pocket. Without another word he poured another bourbon for Aaron, then started on Paige's Cosmo with muscles ripping and the three of us cast into brain dead silence. "…Tie Me to the Bed Post?" I only caught the end of what he said, and my cheeks flushed red.

"I'm sorry?"

"How did you like your Tie Me to the Bed Post?"

"Oh. Yeah, it's good."

"Does this mean I'll get your number?"

"No, but you can give me yours." I beamed at him fishing my phone from my purse. He gave me his number, and I texted him. He pulled out his phone and nodded a little before slipping it back into his front pocket.

"Do you need something from the kitchen? Your standard day drinking order, maybe?"

"Yes, and it's on me. Because Aaron's husband is a twat nozzle who's boinking some low rent Justin Bieber knockoff," I said before taking another sip.

"Alright, I'll be right back."

"Holy fuck, Emma. I wish I could be a black belt in flirt fu like you." Paige laughed a bit.

"It's a gift and a curse." I beamed at her and peered down the bar at Aaron. "You okay there, champ?"

"What do you guys think about marriage counseling?" He sighed staring down at his glass.

"No! No! No! No!...No!" Paige even shook her head for added benefit. "When Mark was banging his secretary that was the first thing we did. Counseling… now ask yourself am I married now? No. I'm two years divorced and damn proud."

"Want me to get Jasper to come back and make his pecs dance?" I nodded towards the door to the kitchen.

"Maybe after a few more drinks," he mumbled. Paige leaned her head on his shoulder.

"You'll get through this. He might not even be cheating; it might be purely emotional. Kind of like what Mark accused us of."

"Darlin', I'm sorry. Here I am moping without thinking about all the bad memories this is dredging up for you." He put his hand on the back of Paige's head.

"It's fine. That's ancient history." She waved dismissively. "But if it comes down to it, I'll be there for you like you were there for me."

Rolling my eyes, I finished off my drink. That was why I didn't do the serious relationship thing. Fuck having your heart ripped out. I'd watched it happen so many times I was just over the entire concept of monogamy. The band started warming up, and Jasper returned carrying a basket of cheese sticks. Beside me, Aaron started crying, and I panicked inside. I wasn't as close to him as Paige was so not even Jasper shirtless carrying deep fried cheese could make me stay. As Jasper set the basket on the table, I snagged one before grabbing a fifty out of my wallet and placing it on the bar.

"Going so soon?" Jasper asked, his face just awash with disappointment.

"Yeah…I just remembered that I have stuff to do. I'll cover the food and their drinks so far, if there's anything left take it. If there's nothing left, just text me and I'll bring you something next time."

"Oh." He frowned.

Glancing at Aaron's tearstained face, I opened my mouth to say something but closed it. I wanted to be a good person, to be there for him like Paige was, but I couldn't. I wasn't built that way. Maybe one day I would be, but at that moment I didn't have it in me to attend the pity party.

"I've gotta go. For what it's worth Aaron, he's the king of the dicks if he doesn't realize what a great guy you are." I patted him on the back.

"Are we still on for shopping tomorrow?" Paige asked.

"Yeah."

"Bye, Em. I'm sorry about this." Aaron added frowning.

"Don't be sorry. Get really drunk… and then confront him. And if he denies it and you find solid proof… I'll help you hide the bodies." My little outburst won me a chuckle from both Aaron and Paige. That was my cue to leave. I had sat with Paige during her divorce a bit, but she knew I wasn't comfortable enough with that sort of thing. I just didn't get why they didn't leave when they found out proof they were cheating. The whole thing just seemed bizarre to me—but cheating did too. Why stay if you're so unhappy you find someone else, why try and salvage something so broken.

That night I sat in my apartment nervously checking my phone while watching television. Everyone was busy, it was Monday, no one ever wanted to do anything on Mondays. I even thought about returning to Triple T. It was essentially a given that Paige and Aaron would still be there. They could drink for hours and Monday was when they had the Madonna impersonators with the live band playing backup. Occasionally we stayed until close after slipping out at lunch.

Sitting alone in my empty apartment I sometimes wondered what it would be like to have an actual boyfriend. I hadn't had once since I was sixteen, and even then I ended it when I thought they were getting ready to end it with me. Sighing and glancing about those thoughts only served to steel my resolve not to get seriously involved with anyone. In a way I was broken, and it wouldn't be fair to drag someone into my emotional mess. Instead, I'd have my fun and keep the neuroses to myself and my friends.

It was that dedication to fun that made me tussle my long copper locks, reseat my breasts in my bra for maximum cleavage and Skype Jasper. He answered quickly, way quicker than I thought he would. I was used to the traditional thing that guys did when they made you wait to make you think they had something more interesting going on; when in reality they had near to pissed themselves when they noticed you had called. That, however, wasn't Jasper. He answered near immediately, smiling into his camera all beachy blonde hair and blue eyes. He had a shirt on, which was somewhat disappointing, and seemed to be laying on a couch with a grumpy looking white longhaired cat in his lap.

"Hey, I didn't think you'd call so soon," he confessed with a shy little smile.

"Oh?"

"Yeah, I kind of didn't think you'd call me. I mean…you left kind of in a hurry."

"Do you want the ugly parts out in the open now?"

"I find it really hard to believe that there's anything ugly about you."

"What a line. God, you flirt better than I do."

He shrugged. "What can I say, it's an occupational hazard. But it's not a line, and this isn't me flirting."

"What is it then?"

"Honesty."

"Honesty?" I giggled.

"Yeah. Bartenders know their patrons."

"You never knew my drink."

"No, I did. I'd screw it up just to talk to you more. You like black cherry mojitos with Cruzan black cherry rum, and extra cherries. Unless you've had a particularly hard day, then it's shots of tequila. And when you're just socially drinking it's Moscato."

"Bravo. Well… what else do you know about me?"

"You're a good person, and kind hearted. You don't have commitment issues, but you don't like the idea of relationships. I think you try to act tough, but the reality is, deep down inside, you want to be loved."

"And you're the guy to do it, huh?"

"I want to try." He scratched his cat behind the ears, and it started purring.

"Aren't you afraid of getting hurt?"

"Honestly?"

"That would be good."

"A little. But I've been trying to get the courage to ask you out for the better part of six months."

"I somehow find that hard to believe."

"Well, it the truth. It's not that I lack confidence it's just that…you're really intimidating."

"I'm five foot nothing practically."

"Yeah, well you also have that whole 'I don't date, I fuck' thing."

I winced recalling the hundreds of times I had sat at the bar and said those exact words when talking to Paige. "I was being dramatic."

"I know, I'm well aware that you're not the type of person to have an endless string of one nighters. That doesn't stop you from being daunting. I thoroughly expect to get hurt, but I'm okay with that. I want to get to know you better, and I'm more than willing to endure whatever to accomplish that."

"You know the Wizard of Oz?"

"I work in a drag bar. I'm fairly familiar with it, yes."

"True… Well, there's that scene when they finally reach the Great and Powerful Oz. There he is a projected face on that green velvet with all of the fire and smoke. But all of that is an illusion, and the true wizard is just some sad old man behind a curtain."

"Yeah. But in the end, the Wizard gave them all that they needed and wanted all along. I never saw him as a sad, old man. To me, he was someone wise and kind who was afraid to show people the real him."

"You're an optimist."

"Mhm." That lazy noise that left his lips made me smirk happily.

"Want to come over and drink some wine?"

"I… I'm a bit old-fashioned. I won't sleep with someone until after the third date."

I gaped at him and sighed. "Alright, when do you want to have our first?"

"Tomorrow? I get off at six."

"I can't tomorrow. I'm shopping with Paige, and then I have a date already."

"Oh." He looked so crestfallen, those big baby blues brimmed with sadness like I had just kicked his puppy.

"How about we grab coffee after I get off work? There's that place across the street in the Bronson Center. Just coffee."

"Alright then, it's a date."

"Good."

"I didn't forget about what I asked," he tacked on making me scrunch my nose a little. "Oh, that's adorable."

"Well, you know what? Fuck it. I'll tell you the truth. I left because I don't…" Falling silent I winced as my cat jumped on my shoulder. Saved by the Grumpkin. I scratched under his chin and thought about it for a while. "I'm a little broken like that. I don't understand how they feel. I don't understand why they even want to make it work. Paige and I stopped talking for a while when she first found out Mark was cheating. I think the first thing I said when she told me was that he clearly didn't love her like she thought."

"Ouch."

"Well… what should I have said?"

"Anything but that?" He chuckled, and I paused my fingers mid-pet making Grumpkin meow in protest.

"There. I figured better for me to leave and keep my mouth shut than have the inevitable fall out."

"What's the inevitable?"

"That, unfortunately, Aaron's husband doesn't really love him. If he did, he wouldn't have cheated."

"That's harsh."

"It's the truth."

"I prefer to think of it another way… but that's only because I have personal experience with it."

"Ah."

"Yeah. I was married when I was in my 20s."

"Which one of you cheated?"

"She did." His voice was tight, and I instantly regretted asking. "I'd like to think that she loved me, maybe not at the end but I'd like to think I didn't throw away five years of my life." He smiled. "There's that face again."

"I'm sorry."

"It's fine. It's been over a decade. Have you ever been cheated on?"

"No. But, it's hard to be cheated on when you don't consider yourself committed to your partners. I do my thing, and they do theirs."

"Have you ever wanted to try it another way?"

"Why?"

"To experience love?"

"Wow, you are an optimist. And I've experienced love. It's that feeling you get right before orgasm."

He laughed. "That's not love."

"Alright then, what's love?"

"Love is…wanting to wrap yourself in another person, faults and all."

"Oh god! You really are a romantic! How did that happen? Aren't guys that look like you supposed to be total jackasses?"

"What's wrong with being a romantic?"

"Nothing, but… you're… I'm sorry. Have you seen you? You look like you should spend your time laying on a beach somewhere with a surfboard. Guys who look like you tend to be the biggest dicks of them all. You're supposed to say what I say, not sigh romantically."

Again he chuckled, nervously running his fingers back through his blond locks. "I even read romance novels," he whispered scandalously.

"Do you like to envision yourself the knight in shining armor, saving the Lady from the angry Baron?"

"Wow, I take it you've only read ones from the eighties?"

Smirking I spied a familiar well-read book behind him on the table. It was a paperback copy of Pride and Prejudice with a bookmark in it no less. "Well…that and I did read Pride and Prejudice in College."

"Did you like it?"

"Did you?" I quirked a brow almost unable to keep the laughter from my voice.

"How do you know I read it?"

"Look behind you."

He turned around, and with a wince snatched the book off screen. "It was…"—he cleared his throat—"it was good." He was the color of a tomato as he kept glancing down at the book unable to look at me.

"It's okay, your secret's safe with me. I won't fault you for your lady porn." My phone beeped warning me that my battery was low. Grumbling I swiped the menu down to turn on the battery saver, only to discover that it was four in the morning. "Fuuuuck," I hissed under my breath.

"What's wrong?"

"It's four in the fucking morning."

"Shit."

"I have to go. I sit in a dark room all day if I don't get some sleep I'm going to pass out at my desk."

"Okay. Uhh… I really enjoyed this."

"Yeah, me too." We stared at each other for a moment. "Good night I guess."

"Sweet dreams."

"Really? Sweet dreams? Are you real? Or some kind of robot sent to harvest unsuspecting women's organs?"

He chuckled and licked his lips. "I can assure you, I'm one hundred percent real and one hundred percent human. I'll see you tomorrow…umm, later today."

"You know this is the first time I've sat up all night with a man that didn't involve… well…" I grinned.

"Really?"

"Yeah. It's a little weird."

"Good weird I hope."

"Okay, we can call it good weird."

"I kind of don't want to end the call."

"We don't have much of a choice, my phone's about to die."

"Alright then, see you at six?"

"Yup, six. Night." I hit the button to end the call just in time for my phone to finally give up the ghost. For a while I just laid there staring at the ceiling, processing the eight-hour conversation. Moving Grumpkin to his favorite spot on the couch I couldn't help but to think about Jasper. I wasn't the type of girl a romantic should date. I didn't want to hurt him, not only was he nice but he also made the best black cherry mojitos. I'd need to find another bar if it went sour. Maybe I shouldn't have agreed to coffee. Ah well, what's done is done.