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Hannah Jeong was halfway through a glass of Cabernet when her ex-boyfriend’s best friend strode into the bar.
“Damn.” She dipped her head, letting her curtain of black hair shield her face as she prayed fervently that he hadn’t spotted her.
Good lord, this was the last thing she needed. Her pulse quickened as she set her glass down on the table.
“What is it?”
Please don’t be so obvious, Kristen.
Even as she silently willed her friend to be chill, the other woman’s gaze swung around the bar.
Just the potential for a super uncomfortable small-talk session. Which was about as fun as getting a cavity filled.
If it was possible to slink farther down in the chair, Hannah would’ve, but then she’d be under the table.
“Oh hey, isn’t that my brother’s friend? Derrick?”
“Eric. And shush.” Hannah grimaced and searched her friend’s eyes. “Did he see us?”
“Um, yeah, he saw us.” Kristen gave a small wave and sighed. “Sorry, but he’s heading over here.”
“God, I’ll take the filling instead,” she muttered under her breath.
“What was that?”
“Oh just pondering gravity.”
Kristen gave her a what the hell look.
As if this night could be any more awkward. She was already hanging out with the younger sister of her ex, and now she was going to have to face his best friend-slash-roomie?
“Hannah. Kristen. How’s it going?” The deep voice rumbled from above them.
Well, no avoiding it now.
Hannah bit back a sigh before lifting her head and flashing a smile. “Eric. How funny seeing you here.”
“Yeah. I’m a branch auditor at a bank just down the street.” He glanced behind him and nodded at another guy who was waiting near the bar. “A coworker and I come over for happy hour now and then.”
Seattle wasn’t exactly a small town, so that was a pretty unlucky coincidence for her.
“We’re out for Hannah’s birthday,” Kristen informed him brightly.
“It’s your birthday?” Eric’s blue gaze swung to hers with an intensity that had her shifting in her chair.
“Tomorrow’s my birthday. Friday night just worked better to meet up.”
How bad would it look if she tossed back a half a glass of wine in seconds? This conversation would have been so much easier with the entire glass in her.
It wasn’t that she didn’t like Eric. He was a sweet, genuine guy she used to love to hang out with at parties.
So why was she being so freaking awkward with him right now?
Actually, she knew why. He was James’s friend and seeing him brought up a slew of emotions she still wasn’t ready to deal with.
In her mind, there was yellow “caution” tape all around Eric.
“Really? Well, happy early birthday.” His tone was warm. Sincere.
With how genuine and just overall nice he was, it was easy to forget who he was. Some of the tension eased from her body.
“Thanks. Twenty-seven, heading toward thirty at light speed.”
“Sorry, but I’m going to beat you to thirty by a couple months. September birthday and all.”
“Oh, so the competitiveness goes beyond the yard games.” The teasing comment was out before she could stop it.
For a moment, she’d slipped back into her old comfort level with him. Back in the days when she’d visit the guys’ house and spend weekends barbecuing and playing games outside.
“Embarrassingly competitive,” he admitted with a grin. “Hey, I like the new hair by the way.”
She touched a strand, forgetting he hadn’t seen it recently. Her hair had been down to her waist before she’d chopped off about six inches.
“Thanks. I had some layers put in and decided to go shorter just before summer.”
After the breakup.
She didn’t add that part. The need for change had hit her hard and in more than one way.
And why had she given Eric the detailed breakdown on her hair like he was ‘fashion dude’? She probably should’ve stopped after thanks.
“Well, I like it. It suits you.” He glanced at Kristen now. “And, hey, I hear you’re back in Seattle?”
“Yeah. I left Vegas over the summer and moved in with Blake.”
“That’s great. I’m glad the two of you worked out. You’re really good for him.”
Hannah glanced toward Kristen, silently agreeing. Blake was another one of James’s and Eric’s friends who’d initially lived in the house. The three were tight as brothers. Always had been.
They’d been in the same fraternity early in college and then had moved into a rental house. Or ‘the bachelor pad,’ as she’d called it. A bunch of grown, unmarried men sharing a house.
While the other two caught up and chatted, Hannah took a moment to observe Eric a bit stealthily.
Despite initially dreading this small talk, it was actually pretty nice seeing him again.
He really was a good guy. He’d always taken the time to talk with her whenever she’d been over at James’s. Especially when James had been distracted with school stuff.
As far as she knew, Eric had never had a super serious relationship. At least, she’d never seen him bring a girl over.
Which was weird. He was attractive enough with his sandy-blond hair and blue eyes. He was definitely the shortest of the guys, probably coming in a couple inches under six feet, but to her five-foot frame, that was still super tall.
Hmm. Maybe he was gay?
The thought crossed her mind, but she shrugged it off. While she hadn’t seen women hanging around him, she hadn’t seen any men either. He was probably one of those guys who kept his love life private.
“Well, it’s good to have you back,” Eric was saying to Kristen. “You and Blake should come over for a barbecue soon.”
Oof. That invite is clearly not extended to me.
Hannah tossed back the rest of her wine before she could stop herself. Heat stole up the back of her neck and she shifted in her seat, wishing she were invisible.
Those weekly barbecues had been a huge part of her life back when she’d been together with James.
Eric seemed to realize what he’d said, because he cursed lightly under his breath. “Sorry.” He swung his gaze back to Hannah. “I mean, you’re welcome anytime too. If that’s not too weird.”
“It’s totally weird.”
That was the wine talking now, but hey, where was the lie?
Eric’s lips twitched. “We miss seeing you.”
We? She knew James missed her. He still sent her a text at least once every couple of weeks telling her he wanted her back. She had yet to reply to one.
It’d been almost six months since she’d ended things with James. Six months since she’d gone to the guys’ weekly barbecue, something that was as routine as shaving her legs.
“Well, I mean, no pressure or anything, but I kind of miss kicking your butt at cornhole.”
That drew an honest laugh and she shook her head. “Actually, I’m pretty sure I kicked your butt.”
“You could be right on that, but I’m going to stick with denial.”
Eric shoved his hands into the pockets of his jeans, making the button-up shirt tighten across his chest. Her gaze locked on that area of his body, noting the broad shoulders.
She made the somewhat detached observation, because it was easier than making eye contact with him. She’d already seen the flash of sympathy in his eyes at one point.
“Anyway, I guess I should get back to my friend. Good seeing you both.” Eric nodded. “Tell Blake we need to meet up soon, will ya, Kris?”
Once he’d disappeared, Hannah let out a slow breath.
“I’m sorry. Was that totally uncomfortable?” Kristen asked softly. “I should’ve realized it might be.”
“It was a little at first. But Eric’s such a nice guy, I got over it.”
“Yeah, he is.” Kristen paused. “So, answer this. Was it more or less uncomfortable than having dinner with me?”
Hannah lifted her head and met her friend’s questioning eyes and grimaced.
“Hey, you’re not the one who sucked face with another girl while being in a relationship with me, Kristen. That was your brother.”
“I know. And it was a total dick thing to do.” Kristen cupped her beer and sighed.
A thought pricked, leaving Hannah unsettled. “You didn’t invite me out tonight to convince me to take your brother back, did you?”
“What? No. Just for the record, I am totally, hashtag, Team Hannah.” With a slight shrug, Kristen lowered her gaze. “Look, you’re more than just a friend. You’re like a big sister to me. Always have been. And I don’t want to lose that friendship. It’s part of the reason I made you join me tonight. I need you to know that.”
A small smile tugged at Hannah’s lips and the emotional wall she put up crumbled a bit.
Kristen had been as much of a part of her life as James had. When they’d first become a couple in middle school, Kristen had been a cute eight-year-old who’d tagged along with them whenever she could.
Hannah gave a small nod. “You’re like a sister to me too. Maybe I’m kind of terrible at showing it, but I really am glad you invited me out.”
“Here you are, ladies.” The waitress arrived with their food. “Your dinners, and one cotton candy martini for the birthday girl.”
“Oh.” Slightly confused, Hannah accepted the bright, festive drink. “Thanks.”
“Don’t thank me.” The waitress gestured to the bar area. “Thank that gentleman over there.”
Eric watched, holding his breath, as his drink was delivered.
It wasn’t crossing the line to send Hannah a drink. They were friends. They’d been friends for the last nine years or so. Most importantly, it was her birthday.
The fact that he considered her to be one of the most beautiful women to walk the planet had absolutely nothing to do with it.
The blood in his veins quickened and he clutched his beer a little tighter.
How many times had he found himself staring at his best friend’s girl? With her petite frame, light-brown skin, and long black hair, she was absolutely striking.
But it was her dark eyes, usually sparkling with warmth and kindness, which made people take notice. She wasn’t just hot, she was fun. Not to mention friendly with everyone. People loved Hannah.
As he watched her, she accepted the drink with surprise. Her gaze darted across the crowded room to him and a bright smile curled her lips. She lifted the martini glass and mouthed a thank-you.
God, that smile. It wasn’t like the forced one she’d given him when he’d first approached. This one was the genuine one that lit up her face. The one he was used to that made his breath catch.
He gave a small nod and lifted his beer in a silent you’re welcome.
“So where do you know her from?” Ted, his coworker at the bank, asked.
“She’s, ah, my roommate’s ex-girlfriend.”
“Ex?” Ted’s grin widened. “So she’s on the market?”
“No. You don’t date your friend’s ex.” It was almost a reminder to himself.
Hannah Jeong, single or otherwise, was off-limits. She was James’s ex. And if he went by the Bro Code, as a dude did, you didn’t touch your friend’s ex.
“Oh, right. There’s that rule, I suppose.” Ted nodded. “Good call. Well, her friend is hot too.”
“She’s practically engaged.”
“Damn. Hard to find a gal nowadays, I guess.”
Was it? Eric didn’t have that issue. He just hadn’t found the right girl, and life was too short to waste time with the wrong one.
“I’m just lucky I met Gina when I did.” Ted’s tone was tinged with fondness as he glanced at his phone. “Speaking of, I’ve got about ten minutes more before I should haul ass out of here and head home. She asked me to pick up chicken teriyaki on the way.”
“No worries.” Eric was used to these little post-work ‘grab-a-drink’ runs being quick. His co-workers were all married with kids, or had kids on the way. “I should head out soon too.”
Fifteen minutes later, Ted was gone and Eric was settling his tab when a female voice asked, “Eric, can you do me a favor?”
He glanced up from scrawling his signature on the bill, spotted Kristen, and smiled. “Sure. What’s up?”
“Blake got attacked while out on a call. Someone high on meth.” Kristen’s tone barely held back the franticness.
“Jesus.” He dropped the pen. Besides James, Blake was his other closest friend. His job as a paramedic sometimes put him in dicey situations. “Is he okay?”
“He’s fine. Minor head injury, they’re saying, but they’re sending him to Harborview to get checked out anyway. I need to meet him there.”
“Do you need a ride? I can take you—”
“I have my car. But Hannah rode with me.”
It sank in what she was asking. His blood pumped a little quicker. “Got it. I’ll take her home.”
“Oh, thank you.” She shifted her weight, fidgeting with her keys and shooting looks at the door. “She’s trying to call an Uber, but I don’t want her to have to do that.”
“Go be with Blake. I’ll get Hannah home safely.”
“Thanks, Eric.” She threw the reply over her shoulder as she ran toward the door.
Eric took a slow breath in, shoved his wallet into his pocket, and walked over to where Hannah still sat across the room, typing on her phone.
“Hello, ma’am, I’m the Uber you ordered.”
“But I haven’t . . .” Hannah glanced up from her phone, her brows pinched in confusion. “Oh, hey.”
“I hear your ride ditched you using the old ‘my boyfriend is injured’ excuse.” His attempt at humor was met with a wan smile. “Can I take you home?”
She hesitated, indecision blatant in her gaze.
“I’d really feel much better if you’d let me. You hear those stories about sketchy or fake Uber drivers and stuff.”
Her lips twitched. “Okay, sure. Thanks, Eric. I appreciate it. I’m ready to go whenever you are.”
He pulled out his keys and shrugged. “It’s not a problem. I was just heading out myself.”
A few minutes later, they were outside in the crisp autumn evening. It wasn’t too late, but being November, it was dark already.
The trees were half-emptied of their foliage, with the straggly limbs silhouetted in the streetlamps. Beneath their feet, the leaves that had fallen crunched softly.
This was, hands down, his favorite time of year. Not too hot, not too cold. And so much color and change.
A few minutes later, they were in his sedan, heading toward her place. She’d given him the basic idea of where she lived—it was only about ten minutes from the bar.
He gripped the wheel as his mind went a mile a minute. There were a dozen things he wanted to say to her, most probably completely inappropriate, given who she was. He struggled for something safe.
“It’s good. I love it.” Her reply was almost too quick, like she’d been thrilled for the safe conversation topic too. “I’ve been getting ready for parent-teacher conferences next week.”
“Ah, I remember those.” He grinned, memories floating through his mind. “My parents were never super happy when they left one.”
Her gaze swung to him in surprise. “Did you struggle in school?”
“Not in the way you’re thinking. I was more of a troublemaker. I was advanced but under-stimulated in the small town in Ohio where we lived. They didn’t have a lot of options for kids like me.”
“Ah, you were one of those. Well, it looks like you turned out all right.” Her eyes glinted with amusement. “So, did your parents move out here from Ohio?”
“Yeah, when I was six.” He shrugged. “My parents ended up moving back to Ohio when I started college. I fly out there a couple times of year and they occasionally make it this way, but they’re not big on traveling. Total homebodies who realized they prefer things quiet and rural.”
“Can’t say I blame them.”
And really, neither could he. Seattle was nowhere near rural. Even in the just under ten years he’d been here, the development and cost of living had gone through the roof.
Century-old apartment buildings still lingered throughout the city, but tall and shiny, brand-spanking-new apartments and condos had been built around them. If there was a patch of land that could become housing, trees that could be cut down, it was happening.
Which managed to be both a little sad and exhilarating in his eyes.
It was just the result of a region that had grown quickly with the influx of people moving to the area for tech jobs. Pushing up the demand for housing and the cost of it.
While it was definitely his dream, home ownership was still a few years away, at least for him.
It was so damn pricey and saving up for that down payment was no small feat.
“I’m the apartment building up here on the left.”
He blinked, realizing how quickly the drive had gone.
The building she referenced was boxy, sleek, and shiny black. New, just like the rest.
A bit soulless and cookie-cutter type, but undoubtedly pretty and cushy inside.
“Nice place.” He pulled the car to the curb.
“It is. I’m fortunate to live here.” Something akin to embarrassment flashed across her face. “My dad helps pay for the apartment. I mean, hello, I’m a teacher with barely five years under my belt. I could never afford my own place in Seattle on my salary.”
“Well, that’s really nice of him.”
“It is.” She sighed. “Plus, we’re Korean and my parents are super traditional. They would’ve practically disowned me if I’d ever moved in with James before we were married. But I was desperate to get out on my own, so my dad helped financially.”
And there it was. He’d always wondered why James and Hannah had never moved in together. It was almost as weird as being a couple since middle school, yet never getting engaged.
Why hadn’t they? What had James been waiting on? He should’ve locked Hannah down years ago.
“Well, I should go.” She reached for the handle and gave him a grateful smile. “Thanks for the ride, Eric. It was good to see you again.”
When would he see her next? It was anybody’s guess once she climbed out of his car. The thought sent a small stab of panic through him.
“Maybe I’ll see you at Barney’s another time.”
She hesitated, her smile tightening.
He knew it then. She didn’t want to run into him again. He was a reminder of James, and her heart was still broken. For a moment, he was sure she was about to go into a long reply, to put it into words. But then her head dipped into a tiny nod.
It was one word, but filled with a whole lot of ‘hell no.’
“Have a good night, Eric.”
As she hurried to her apartment building, his stomach clenched. Yeah, he figured Hannah was going to make damn sure she never stepped foot in that bar again.
Which was probably for the better, he told himself as he pulled away from the curb.
The last thing he should be doing is fantasizing about his best friend’s ex.
End of Excerpt