Chapter 10

“I can’t explain in words how happy I am that you changed your mind about tonight,” Lena said, bubbling over with anticipation.

“Uh huh.”  Changed your mind really meant gave in to my incessant coercion.  If I were to keel over now all I would be remembered for is my proximity to Lena Whyte and general spinelessness.

Tonight Lena had decided to try a new bar making its debut on Main Street.  The Bobcat Lounge’s grand opening promised a huge crowd—which was apparently a good thing.  She had yet to convince me that more people meant more fun.  To me, the larger the audience meant the more eyes taking in my unconvincing performance of: Meredith Westbrook is Enjoying Herself.

Sure enough, when we pulled up to the bar there was a line of eager students wrapped around the corner two blocks down.  Sections of the line were bloated by the mass of bodies huddled together against the frigid night.

“Ugh,” Lena groaned from the seat beside me.

“Do you want to go somewhere else?” I suggested hopefully, eyeing the snow as it coated the miserable queue.

“No way!  I’m just anticipating how long it’s going to take to get drinks.”

“We could always come back next week—”

Three more people joined the row.

“But everyone will be here this week!” she whined.  “What if something major happens and we miss it?”

Heaven forbid something happen in Frostburg and us not be present; a grave injustice indeed.  We would never live through the regret.

“Fine.”

I parallel parked, reluctantly got out of the warm car, and prepared to wait in line as snow piled into drifts around us.  This had definitely been the wrong night to wear a dress.  The boots I wore did little to stem the cold seeping into my bones; my exposed knees began turning purple.  After twenty minutes of waiting—and one mild case of hypothermia—the doorman recognized Lena and waved for us to skip past the fifteen people ahead of us.

“Thanks, Hemmy,” Lena said in a sweet voice as we swept past the unfortunate grumblers.

When we entered the stuffy room my stomach dropped.  The entire crowd could have been categorized into three groups.

Group One: The little girls wearing microscopic outfits trying to score free drinks and a bed for the night.

Group Two: The men who were dumb enough to buy a round for the members of Group One.

Group Three: Us.

“Lena, you do realize we’re too old for this place, don’t you?”

She snorted. “No one is ever too old for opening night and ridiculously cheap beer.”

“How much do you want to bet that the majority of the girls here had to use fake ids to get in?”  I wouldn’t have been surprised if some of them hadn’t graduated from high school yet.

She took stock of the throng and grimaced. “True,” she confirmed in a shaky voice.

“Lena, what’s wrong?”  Her tanned skin had turned a shade of jaundiced yellow.

“This place looks like a scrap yard.”

It took me a moment to realize what she had meant by the cryptic comment.  Most of Frostburg was at The Bobcat Lounge so it made sense that there would be former “accidents” all around.  Every man close enough to notice Lena in the crowd leered toward her; some with looks of interest, others with lewd knowledge or past indiscretions.

“Do you want to leave?” I asked a little too brightly.  Home was sounding better as the seconds ticked on.

“Not yet,” she said, debating.  “Maybe soon though.  Stay close, will you?”

Where did she expect me to go?  If I left her now I wouldn’t be able to find her for the rest of the night amidst the too-crowded rooms.  Besides, I never left her; she was the one who had ditched me every Thursday thus far.

“I will.”  To demonstrate my loyalty I took a step closer to her.  “Anytime you want to go just tell me.”

Lena had never acted like this before.  Usually her previous exploits didn’t bother her enough to show outwardly.  What had changed?

She made a face; on anyone else it would have been unflattering but Lena still managed to remain stunning despite looking like she was going to vomit.

“Maybe we should go.”

I turned to agree, and she was already ten feet away, pulling her jacket from the pile of discarded garments that wouldn’t fit on the too-few hangers.  I had to run in order to catch up to her before she reached the door.

We didn’t speak after we got into the car.  If Lena wanted to talk about her wild over-reactions then I would listen.  Her continued silence proved that wasn’t the case.  She stared longingly out the window, oblivious to anything but the cotton fluff drifting to the ground.

It was a blessing that the weather was lightening up; if it continued to blizzard all night then I’d have a headache of cancellations in the morning.

“Where are we going?” she inquired, piercing the silence.

“Home?” Blessed home.

Why are we going home?”

“You said you wanted to leave…”  The rest of my sentence fell with the snowflakes.

“But I don’t want to go home!  When your boyfriend asks you what you did tonight you aren’t going to tell him that you got all gussied up just to go to bed.  We are going to go out and have fun!”

There was no point in explaining that my having fun at this point was impossible “I really don’t mind.”

If she would remember correctly she would recall that I had gotten “gussied up” to go out with my boyfriend.  The longer this night wore on the nicer the oblivion of sleep sounded.

“No way!”

“Fine.”  She wouldn’t let me rest anyway if we were to go back to the apartment.  “Where are we going, your highness?”

“Bowery Street?”

Bowery Street pub was empty except for a handful of regulars, one old man falling off his bar stool, and two gorgeous men in the far corner.  The square space was far too empty for me to hope Lena hadn’t seen them or that Alec’s sharp eye hadn’t spotted her.

“Well, would you look over there,” Lena said, her good humor returned.

“Where?”  Feigning ignorance was childish but she didn’t need to know how aware I was of the pair.

“In the corner.  It’s your best friend.”

“Lena, he’s not my friend,” I hissed through my teeth.  Remington was simply a mystery to the world—one I didn’t care to solve.

“All I’m saying is that you two sure do like being antisocial together.”

“Maybe if you didn’t constantly ditch me for Alec then we wouldn’t get stuck together.”

I was getting ditched a lot lately.  By my boyfriend, by my best friend, and by even the most remote of acquaintances.  What was going on?  Who had I wronged to deserve this treatment?

“No one makes you two converse,” she pointed out.  I laughed humorlessly; Remington and I didn’t really converse per se.  He sat in silence or made rude comments, I got annoyed, and eventually he walked away.  “I wonder…”

The inner workings of Lena’s mind were almost as much of a mystery as Remington.  “Wonder what, Lena?”

“If you didn’t have a boyfriend, do you think—”

I interrupted before she went further with her speculation.  “Moot point.”

She pouted for a second before smiling broadly at the topic of our discussion.

“He never smiles,” I mused aloud.  My face flushed as I remembered the last time I had made a similar statement.

“He’s broody,” she corrected.

I frowned at him from across the room; Remington wasn’t paying us the least bit of attention.  “It doesn’t matter.  He’s not much fun.”

“He doesn’t need to be when he looks like that.”

Alec ran to meet us, and Remington stayed right were he was, not even bothering to acknowledge our existence.

“Hey, ladies.  We figured you both would be out at the new place.”

“We were, but Lena wanted to come here so she could see you.”  She glared at me, and I grinned mischievously.

Alec’s smile broadened impossibly.  “I’m glad you did,” he said, directing his full attention to my best friend.

As the night wore on a few other groups trickled into the pub.  Some had gotten tired of the packed opening-night crowd but most had been refused admission to tonight’s hotspot.  Remington had stared at me as I had taken my seat next to him.  He had been crouched over his bottle of Bud Light like I was going to snatch it from him if he didn’t protect it.  Now he would take a drink, look at the wall, and then take another gulp.  I stared at the spot he was looking at but saw nothing interesting in the plaster—at first.  After an hour a flower appeared out of the abstraction like a magic eye puzzle; ten minutes later, a luna moth.

Two women came through the door, their hair crusted with snow.  It looked like someone had dumped flour on them.  The taller of the two girls leaned against the bar, her legs bare despite the frigid temperatures.  Of course I couldn’t judge her; I too was in extremely impractical attire.  The girl was doing her best to chat up a young man whom I recognized from the University’s baseball team.

I couldn’t help but chuckle at the games people played; there was no mirth to the sound.

Remington looked sidelong at me.

“People who try to find the love of their lives in a bar make me laugh,” I explained, not caring if he responded or not.

“Why?”

“Because they honestly think they can meet someone in a bar.”  The last word came out more condescendingly than I had meant.  After all, Lena had met Alec in a bar.

“You can meet someone in a bar.”

“But there is very little hope the relationship will last.”

“I worked as a bartender to put myself through undergrad.  One of my coworkers met his wife through work.”

It took me a minute to recover from the shock of his forthright response; it had been the most personal information he had volunteered in the entirety of our acquaintance.

“That doesn’t count,” I contradicted.

His eyebrows came together in confusion.  “Why not?”

“Bartenders are traceable.  The same goes for people in the band and bouncers.  Now the creepers on the other side of the bar, they’re the ones you need to worry about.”

“You know, you’re not making a very good case for yourself.”

In my peripheral vision I could see the corner of his mouth lift into a half smile.

Wait.  Remington was smiling?  Again?

I turned to face him full-on.  He kept the crooked smile in place.  For the second time I admitted that it was a good thing he didn’t do it very often; it was distracting.  “Oh, I’m not on the market,” I explained.

He sobered quickly and turned back to his spot of plaster.  “That makes two of us.”

I couldn’t drag my eyes from his face.

“You are unbelievably sexy.”  The compliment sounded like an accusation.  Remington thought I was sexy?  Impossible.  The guy didn’t even like me, why would he say something like that?  His face registered no emotion as we judged one another.

There was only one explanation: he hadn’t said anything at all.  I must have imagined the bizarre sentence.

A boisterous yelp from the entrance caught my attention, pulling me unwillingly away from his eyes.  When three boys stumble into the bar my stomach sank.  My body’s involuntary reaction both frightened and confused me.  Why was I getting ill at the thought of seeing my boyfriend tonight when only hours ago I had been thrilled by the prospect?

Then it dawned on me: for some unknown reason I did not want Holden meeting Remington.

It was probably because Remington was rude, and I didn’t want to deal with Holden’s reaction to a snubbing.

When Holden saw Lena, he gave her a bear hug.  She smiled warmly, her animosity from earlier had either vanished or been expertly concealed.  Alec frowned at him, standing up straighter to make himself appear taller.  From over Holden’s shoulder, Lena’s eyes met mine; hers widened as she waited for my reaction.

I stood and took a few steps toward them, hoping to avoid a confrontation.

“Mary!”  Holden twisted, catching me by the corner table.

There was no one else around me so I couldn’t feign conversation with someone besides the model in the corner.  Then it struck me that I shouldn’t have had to explain myself.  I had been speaking to a mutual acquaintance, doing nothing wrong.  Just staring at plaster and talking—and there had not been much of the latter tonight.

“Hey, Mary, come here!”

I kept a tight smile in place but it faltered slightly.  Holden was drunk; he couldn’t imagine how much the nickname hurt.  It wasn’t a big deal when Lena said it; she wasn’t being malicious.  But when my boyfriend called  me “Mary” it felt like he was disappointed in my choices that had ultimately affected him.

“You don’t like when they call you that,” a husky voice said from behind me.

“It doesn’t matter,” I responded flippantly, embarrassed at being so easily read.

“Yes, it does.”

Holden moved closer to me but continued ignoring my neighbor.

“Mary, come play pool with me.  Joel and Grant want to play doubles, and I can’t think of anyone I’d like to be my partner more than you.”

“I really don’t feel like it.”  It felt like I was going to pass out or throw up.  Who had jacked up the thermostat?

“Why do you call her that?” Remington asked with quiet authority.

My boyfriend looked at Remington, judging him with unfriendly eyes.  “Because it’s her nickname.”

I held my breath, praying Remington would choose this moment to completely ignore Holden and allow the conversation to drop.  If he took this opportunity to make his customary hasty exit, I would be forever in his debt.

“She doesn’t like it.”

Of course he would finish this conversation.

Holden looked between me and the man behind me.  I knew exactly how Remington looked without having to peek back; he was staring a hole through my boyfriend’s forehead, unsmiling and intimidating.

“Really?  It fits her so well though,” Holden sneered meanly.

“Come on Holden, I’ll play pool with you,” I choked, grabbing his arm.  The pool table, my escape, suddenly seemed a light year away.

“Why?” Remington asked, his voice low enough that only Holden and I could hear.

I dragged my boyfriend away before he could answer.  His arm was tense as I tugged him toward the adjoining room.

“Because she’s a virgin,” Joel snickered loudly.  The entire bar went silent, waiting for my reaction.

But I couldn’t react.  I deflated as I made my way to the pool table and picked up the closest cue.  They weren’t lying so I couldn’t argue the point.  I just didn’t feel like that was a fact I wanted the entirety of Bowery Street Pub knowing.

Holden snickered with his friends, only stopping when he saw my pale face.  The man standing beside me was not the one I had fallen in love with five years earlier’ that person never would have reacted like this.

“I’m sorry, Mer.” He pulled me in for a hug.  I kept myself rigid in his arms, not ready to forgive him.  He tipped my chin toward his.  Before my numbed mind realized his intentions he pressed his lips to mine.

“Woah!  What are you doing?”  I felt like wiping off my mouth as I jerked away.

“Kissing you,” he said with a playful smile; there was an edge to the obstinate look.  Holden’s eyes were focused on a point above my head—or behind me.

“Okay, let’s try this again.  Why are you kissing me?”

“Mer…” he began.  I jumped back as he reached for me, keeping my hands as a barrier between us.  “I was kissing you because you’re my girlfriend.”

“You know how I feel about PDA.”  Right now I was relieved I had never been big on public make-out sessions.

“Yeah, the same way you feel about sex.  You don’t want any.”

My face went paler—if that was possible.
“Look, I just wanted to kiss you, okay?” Holden ground out, angry at the public rejection.  Personally, I would take rejection over humiliation any day.

“You weren’t compelled to earlier today.”  He had been too preoccupied with his controller and big screen TV.  “Why now?”

“I’m through with the interrogation tonight, Meredith.”

With that said, I escaped, making my way back to Lena.  Before I said a word she had her coat and purse in hand.  Alec nodded tightly, and I ignored the motion.  He was best friends with the rudest man I had ever met so he probably wouldn’t even notice the slight.

When I thought of Remington my eyes lifted involuntarily to capture one last glimpse of him.  At first he wasn’t looking at us, but his jaw was ticking angrily.  He didn’t register any emotion when our eyes connected but he rarely did so that was no surprise.  Lena touched my shoulder, bringing me back to the situation at hand.

My best friend and I had made our way to the door when my boyfriend shouted toward our backs.

“Hey!  Wait!”

We didn’t stop or slow down as Holden had commanded.  He mumbled something unintelligible to his friends as the door slowly closed behind us and we became enveloped in the numbing wind.

Numb was good.

After dropping Lena off at the apartment, I drove straight to Holden’s place with him still in the back seat.  What I should have done was leave him stranded along Highway 68… without his shoes.

“Who was that guy?”  His question marked the first time he had spoken to me since we had left the bar.

“Which one?” I asked unnecessarily.

“The one who made the comment about me calling you Mary.”

The nickname painted my vision red, rekindling my fury.  It was a struggle to see through the haze long enough to answer his question.

How did I explain Remington?

“That guy’s name is Remington.  He’s… one of Lena’s friends.”  That worked.  After all, it was her fault I had even met the frustrating man.

“Ohhh…”  Holden’s comment was full of vulgar speculation.

“No, not that way,” I clarified.  I wasn’t sure why my boyfriend’s assumption had bothered me—or why I felt compelled to explain further.  “He’s a friend of one of Lena’s ‘Oh’s.’”  The distinction mattered.

“Whatever you say,” he snickered.

“What does that mean?”  He wasn’t forgiven for the display at the bar and was teetering on thin ice.

“It means that it’s only a matter of time before he succumbs to her … charms.”

“Not everyone succumbs.”

Holden laughed loudly, vibrating the windows.

My face remained impassive as I focused on not intentionally wrapping his side of the vehicle around a light post.  Although, it was awfully slick out…

“I don’t like that guy,” he said suddenly, just as I pulled into the driveway of his former frat house.  The paint on the gingerbreading was beginning to peel, aging the wooden structure.  “Remington?  What a stupid name.  Is his dad the president of the NRA or something?”

“Why don’t you like him?”  Hundreds of obvious reasons popped into my head.

“I don’t like his condescending tone.”

“You barely spoke to him.”

“We don’t need a full conversation for me to see that he thinks he’s better than everyone else.”

“He just comes off that way.”

I agreed with Holden wholeheartedly so why was I defending the rude man?  It was probably because my boyfriend didn’t know Remington.  Not that I knew him either, but I had spoken to him more often.  Well, more than once, anyway.

That had to account for something, right?

* * *

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