Chapter 5

Lena’s excitement grew more palpable as the week wore on.  The broader her smile became the longer my grimace remained.  She crossed off every insignificant day on her calendar with an ominous red “X.”  When Thursday rolled around again she bounced into my room at eight in the morning and fell onto my bed.

“We have a date tonight, remember?”

“Like you’d let me forget,” I said, rolling away from her.  A thousand excuses begged to be deployed but a promise was a promise.

“You’re not going to back out on me.”  It was a statement of fact, not a question.  There was no way I would survive this night if I copped out on our plans.  I wouldn’t put it past her to forcibly remove me from the house and hold me hostage in a bar, even in my current state of undress.

I hummed a response.

“Do you want to go shopping with me today?”

“Why would I want to do that?”  Shopping with Lena was a marathon of carts, dressing rooms, and purchases.  I hadn’t been properly trained to keep pace with her.

“So you can get something to wear tonight.”

“I have plenty of clothes in my closet.”  It was her turn to hum.  “Besides, you know I have to work today.  Some of us have jobs that provide necessary funds so we can live with annoying roommates.  We can’t all be college students with parents who finance every whim.”

Thursdays were typically my days off but I had traded opening shifts with Charlie for this week.  My staff had been ecstatic that I was planning to do something outside of the salon, so they had covered willingly, excitedly even.  Each of them had wished me luck numerous times, knowing I would need every ounce if I was expected to survive the night.

“Maybe I’ll pick something up for you.”

“There’s a ton of stuff in my closet.  I’ll just choose something from there.”

“What is in ‘there’ is from 1993.  You need something smokin’ hot.”

I wouldn’t be smokin’ hot even if someone doused me in lighter fluid and tossed me a match.  “Who do I have to impress?  Holden is in Jacksonville.”

“If you are going to go out with me in public then you have a certain image to uphold.”

“I don’t have to go,” I said stubbornly.

She eyed me warily then repeated her statement with more force.  “Mer, I’ll pick something up for you.”

“Fine,” I relented.  “Just make sure it’s something I’d wear some place other than in my bedroom.”  If I was going to pay for an outfit I wanted to be able to get a lot of use out of it.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” she asked blankly.

“Come on, Lena.  You know our tastes in fashion reside on two different planets.  Please shop in my galaxy.”

She crossed her arms against my request.  “You really need to learn to live on the edge,” she grumbled, resigned to my modest wardrobe constraints.

“And you need to stop trying to push me off the cliff.”

* * *

I no longer noticed the way people looked at us when Lena and I entered a room.  Now I use the term “us” because I was present.  What I really meant was Lena then me.  I was just “the one with the gorgeous blonde.”  Everyone was probably wondering what I had done to be allowed to stand next to perfection incarnate.  Of course if they knew the saint I was for enduring Lena for the duration of our friendship they’d agree I had earned my position at her right hand.

So far my evening was going passably well (and by passably well I meant I didn’t smell of spilled margaritas and no one had tried to hit on me) so I couldn’t complain… yet.

During my freshman year I had enjoyed going out to meet friends and converse about inconsequential developments in our carefree lives.  But, inevitably someone would drop a drink on my head, try to pick me up, or shove me into a door frame and ruin my night.  To date, I still couldn’t understand how the loss of basic motor skills and slurred speech could be considered attractive.

“Hello there, ladies.”

Lena and I turned in unison to face the men who decided to interrupt our night.  I groaned; Lena elbowed me and smiled prettily.

“Hi,” she offered in friendly greeting.  Her reaction made the intruder stand straighter.  He was passably attractive but a bit bulky for my preference.  His friend was even bigger.

The second man looked like a former football player who had lost his gym pass yet continued to enjoy carbs, resulting in a soft mid-section.  After one longing glance at Lena as she chatted to his friend, the man eyed me appreciatively, accepting second prize.

“I’m Billy.”

“I don’t—oomph!”  Lena jabbed me again, halting my snarky remark.  I didn’t care who he was and I was just trying to be upfront with him.  “I’m Meredith.”

“Are you from around here, Meredith?”

“Yes.”

“Me and my buddies just came up for the weekend.  Is there any place to work out in this town?”

Was he actually flexing his flabby pecs?  It took all of my control to keep from going into a fit of laughter.  “Yeah, there is.”

“Oh, well we were looking all day and couldn’t find any place,” he continued, ignoring my stunned expression.  “I hate getting out of my routine.”
I wanted to point out that he hadn’t looked very hard, but Lena was leaning toward us, showing unnatural interest in our inconsequential conversation.

“It’s a college town.  There are like five gyms in a twenty-mile radius,” I said the second sentence slowly; Billy didn’t seem to be the type of person to pick up on subtle hints.

“Huh,” he responded, no longer paying attention to me.  He was eyeing up the DJ.  I couldn’t see anything interesting about the man.  He was too old to be here and his attire looked ten years out of date but beyond that—

“Oh, man!  I love this song!”

I listened to the bass crackling through the too-small speakers.  It wasn’t surprising that I had not heard this particular tune before; my taste in music tended to avoid mainstream chart-toppers and anything with a grinding beat.

“Come on, let’s dance.”  Billy grabbed my hand and tugged me toward the dance floor.  Lena whipped around to witness Billy’s fate.  The guy she had been talking to held a conversation with her back for thirty seconds before he realized she was no longer paying attention to him.

“No, that’s okay,” I deferred politely, attempting to pull my hand from his meaty grasp.  It was nearly impossible to get a grip on the slippery dance floor.

“Come on,” Billy whined.

“I have a boyfriend,” I confessed, exasperated with the charade.  Maybe when he realized I was a dead-end then he would give up on the lost cause.

“So?  It’s just a dance.  I’m sure he wouldn’t mind.”

My heels dug into the tile.  Holden may not have minded, but I certainly did.  “I don’t want to dance with you,” I said plainly.  To reinforce my wishes, I yanked away and ran back to Lena.

She had the gall to smile.

Billy followed me like a petulant child.  “What’s wrong with your friend?” he asked Lena, his voice loud enough to carry over his favorite song.

“She’s sober,” she said sadly, as if that should have explained everything.

“And I’m not interested,” I said equally as loud.

Billy turned to glare at me.  “I just want you to know that you’re the first girl to ever turn me down.”

I inspected him from his Brillo-pad hair to the too-tight t-shirt holding him in like a cheap cotton corset.  “I highly doubt that.”

Billy’s mouth gaped as he searched for words and found nothing but stale air.  He grabbed his friend—who was snickering—and retreated to the corner of the bar.

Lena pulled me in for a hug.  “Have I told you lately that I love sober you?  There’s never a dull moment.”

“There’s only sober me.”

“Which means I love you all of the time.”

A second droll suitor moved to stand beside my best friend, attempting to bore her ponytail with some story about fantasy football.  How long would it take for him to notice that she was not even pretending to pay attention?

“Hey, Mer?”

“Yeah, Lena?”

“Guess who’s single?”  Her voice dropped lower in case anyone was trying to listen to our conversation.

“Who?” I responded belatedly.

“Look over there.”   She inclined her head toward the door.  It was hard to determine which guys she had been referring to.  There were at least twenty young men milling around making polite conversation with one another as they scoped out the selection of women present.

Then I saw them.

Two men, taller than the others, turned from the pegs where they were hanging their jackets and started toward the bar.

One had light brown hair, carelessly messed up but still managing to look put-together.  Both wore unexceptional t-shirts, each in a varying shade of blue.

But I barely noticed the man with brown hair; his friend had stolen my full attention.

The second man’s hair was a darker brown, bordering on black; the shaggy style was out of place among the sea of short crops and baseball caps surrounding me.  Even from this distance I could see his eyes were a piercing cobalt blue.  He wore a fierce scowl as if everyone around had somehow offended him.  Shivers raced along my frame when the handsome stranger looked up and caught me staring.

“Which ones?” I choked.

“Come on, Mer!  Those two who just came in are the reason I begged you to come out last week!”

Both of them are single?”  I could have sworn she had said that one of them hadn’t been interested in her.  If they were unattached, how was it possible they could resist her… charms?  “I thought you said one of them wasn’t interested in you.”

“His friend said he’s just not interested in anyone right now.”

“Really?  I wonder why?” My interest stemmed purely from my inquisitive nature, nothing more.

“I heard it was really ugly,” Lena continued, her voice lower, more serious.

The man looked miserable to be here and as out of place as I felt.  Only he didn’t belong because he was impossibly beautiful; I was just too sober.  The pair ordered two Bud Lights then searched the room for a familiar face.  The other men in the vicinity kept their heads down; Billy and his friends could barely conceal their interest, wondering who the competition was.  Scantily clad women stared blatantly at the newcomers, offers in their mascara-framed eyes.

“Oh! They’re coming over!”  Lena squealed excitedly.

I could only hum a response, annoyed at how my heart began pounding in my throat.

“Do I look okay?” she asked unnecessarily.

“You look perfect.”  There had to be something more going on here than I had first thought.  Normally Lena was indifferent toward the guys who approached her this early in the evening.  It wasn’t until she had browsed the entire selection that she crowned the night’s victor.

The two men didn’t pay attention to the other women falling over themselves.  One poor girl ran into the darker one then smiled apologetically—or seductively; either way she was offering something to the man.  But instead of accepting the gift, he glared ferociously at her until she ran back to her group of friends.

He probably only had eyes for Lena.

“Alec, it’s so great to see you again,” my friend welcomed in her clear, high voice.

The lighter of the two grinned, turning his face even more handsome than before.

“And you too, Remington,” she offered, less enthusiastic.

Wait.  She was interested in the shorter one?  Alec was quite attractive but his friend Remington made my mouth go dry—a side effect I did not appreciate.  It wasn’t like Lena to settle for the second best, even if the first had claimed to be currently off the market.

And it wasn’t like Lena to under-exaggerate.  Last week when she had attempted to lure me to the bar she had said that Remington was hot; the word was a criticism.  No phrase in the English language could sufficiently describe the way he looked.

“Alec, Remington, this is my best friend, Meredith.  Mer, this is Remington and Alec.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Meredith,” Alec said good-naturedly.  “Lena couldn’t stop talking about you last Thursday.”

If that was the case I would surely die of embarrassment over what she had shared.  Lena had no filter when it came to relating certain private details.  I had previously explained to her that no one cared about my life but it had been a waste of oxygen.  “Same to you.  I’ve heard a lot about you both.”

Lena’s eyes tightened which made me grin wider; she hated to be the first one to show unequivocal interest.

Remington stood beside Alec, reminding me of one of the straight-faced Buckingham palace guards, uninterested in our trivial formalities.  He didn’t so much as nod in greeting.

“Can I get you a drink, Meredith?  Lena?”  Alec offered.

“No, thanks.  I don’t drink,” I explained, still watching Remington watch everyone else.

“Ever?” he asked, surprised.

“Nope.”

“Lena?  I know you can’t use that excuse.”

She smiled prettily and nodded, handing me her empty bottle.  They left Remington and me standing awkwardly in the corner of the bar.

Instead of turning to the beautiful man on my left, I studied the obvious chemistry between Lena and Alec.  He seemed to be hanging on her every word, which wasn’t unusual; the smart ones paid close attention to each syllable leaving Lena’s lips.  But it was odd the way Lena seemed to do the same to him while he spoke; she didn’t look the least bit placating.

Although my friend’s reaction to Alec was intriguing, it wasn’t enough to keep me from noticing the tall, dark, and handsome man warming the air to my left.

I chuckled to myself.  Hadn’t I said last week that TDH was boring?  There was nothing boring about the stunning model beside me.  How had someone like this ended up in a little hole-of-a-town like Frostburg, Maryland?  More importantly, why wasn’t he speaking to me?

Instead of standing for the night, I moved to take up residence at the most remote table in the bar.  The top of the high-boy had a few discarded bottle labels and some rings of moisture left by phantom glasses.  There were two empty stools beside me, a silent offer to the equally silent man.

I set my bottle down on the table, intending to give my palms an opportunity to dry from the condensation.  One of the bar staff collecting abandoned drinks tried to take mine.  When he picked it up to see if it was empty I snatched it out of his grasp.

It was impossible to ignore the questioning stare burning a hole in my left side.  I peeked out of the corner of my eye, and Remington raised his eyebrow.

His silent question irked me.  If Remington wanted to know why I held onto the bottle then he could ask politely—preferably with words like a normal human being.  When another five minutes passed and he still hadn’t spoken, I relented, annoyed with the painful silence between us.  And that annoyance annoyed me further; a person needed to care to be annoyed, and I didn’t care.

“I use it as a deterrent for men whose pick-up lines consist of, ‘What can I get you to drink?’”

It was easier to snub an overzealous admirer with a drink in your hand than to explain that you don’t drink and the reasons behind the choice.

I turned to stealthily gauge Remington’s reaction but there was none.  He sat beside me as silent as ever.  At first I wasn’t sure if he had heard my explanation.  Then he spoke.

“What is it you do?”  His voice was low, husky.  The timbre oozed sex appeal.

It took a minute for his question to register.  The fact that he had completely ignored my previous statement was appallingly rude.  But, in an effort to be courteous to my best friend’s current interest’s friend, I answered him.

“Lena didn’t tell you my entire life story last week?  She forgets to filter information and has a love for exaggeration.”

“She may have,” he said, refusing to commit either way.

I guess that meant he hadn’t listened.  “I’m a hair stylist.”

“Oh.”  He turned away, marking his desired end to the six-sentence conversation.

I clenched my jaw until my teeth hurt.  The condescending tone in that single syllable had been full of purpose.  “Oh, what?”

He raised one arrogant eyebrow; I wanted to rip it off.  “That wasn’t what I had been expecting you to say.”

There was no way he was going to get off the hook that easily with such a poor excuse.

“What were you expecting me to say?”  I asked, knowing his response ought to brighten my mood.

“Something more… more…”  He searched his vocabulary for the appropriate adjective.

“Just more, right?” I supplied meanly.

Remington paused, considered, and agreed.  “Yes, actually.”

“Why is it that you people think yourselves better than everyone else?  There are jobs in this town you’d never deign to get your soft hands dirty with, ones below your obvious lofty status.  But if it weren’t for those workers you wouldn’t have clean water, designer clothes, or salon-perfected hair.”

He didn’t register any emotion as he allowed my tirade.  When I had finished I was still seething, and he looked bored.

“And by ‘you people’ you mean…?”

“Basically just you.”

“Basically just me,” he repeated softly, nodding.

Something about his blue eyes looked regretful.  But I was too tired to really notice.  Besides, he had offered no apology so I owed him nothing in return.

Breathe, Meredith.  

Where had the snide attitude come from?  Just because he was rude and unpleasant didn’t mean I had to stoop to his level.

I wouldn’t stoop.

“What is it you do?”  I asked evenly, uncaring whether or not he decided to respond.  Talking would pass the time; I was ready for my first—and only—Thursday night out to come to a close.

“I’m in my second year of medical school at the university,” he answered without thinking.

I snorted.  “Oh.”

“Oh?”

“I did expect something like that.”

“Like what?”

I should hold my tongue, get up, walk away, and keep going out the exit.  Lena would eventually forgive me for ditching her.  I had showed up, that’s all I had promised.  I eyed him warily, warring with myself.  To tell the truth or be polite?

Remington challenged me with his blue eyes.

Screw it.

“Something pompous.”

His beautiful eyes widened, and the corner of his mouth barely lifted.

Lena and Alec chose that moment to return from whatever corner they had hidden in.  I realized the room was nearly empty.  Despite my initial promises to the contrary, I had closed down the bar.

Alec and Lena exchanged gooey-eyed goodbyes.  I nodded toward Alec but ignored his dark-haired friend.  Remington said something low to Alec on their way out the door, and Alec twisted to stare at me.  Then his face broke into a cheeky grin.

What had Remington said?

“What’s wrong with you, Mer?”

Intoxicated Lena was amazingly, irritatingly perceptive tonight.

“That guy, he just… he just gets under my skin.”

“Mmm… Remington can get under my skin any day.”  I glared at her.  “What?  You can’t tell me you don’t think he’s totally gorgeous.”  She made some offensive sound resembling Homer Simpson ogling a jelly-filled, frosting-coated doughnut.

“Sure,” I admitted reluctantly.  “But the pompous, high-and-mighty attitude is a major turn-off.”

“Speak for yourself.”

It was obvious that I was.

 

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