I suck in a deep breath, flooding my brain with calming oxygen. Shifting into reverse, I back up another inch, then two, pumping the brakes of my ancient Honda CRV at least six times in the process. Almost there. When I feel the light tap of my rear bumper to the front of the blue sedan behind me, I know I’ve made it. I cut the steering wheel hard to the left, pull up an inch, and let out a triumphant “Woo!”
Sure, it took fifteen minutes to parallel park, but I conquered this bitch.
On a slightly less awesome note, the lengthy process has made me late to my first class. Plus, the only spot I could find is on Silverwood Street, five blocks away from the school.
Snatching my bag off the passenger seat, I sling it over my neck, hop down to the sidewalk, and take off running. Thank fuck I’m heading down the massive hill instead of up.
At nine fifty, I walk through the front door of Grape Street Bartending School, twenty minutes after class was scheduled to start. Sweat plasters my white t-shirt to my back and trickles down my temples, but whatever. I’m here. I made it.
The teacher greets me with a genial grin and waves me in. “We just started. Come on around the bar. There’s an open station by the window.”
The L-shaped wooden bar lines the narrow back wall and the entire left side of the room, which is where the only free space is located. Making my way around, I sneak behind the other students and claim my spot by the window. I drop my bag on the windowsill and rub my damp palms on my denim shorts.
The teacher asks us to introduce ourselves, starting with the gangly kid with spiky red hair down at the other end of the bar. He says his name is Neville Cox, and he’s from Springfield, and blah, blah, blah. I have the attention span of a four-year-old hopped up on Pixy Stix.
Outside the window, a fluffy black cat strolls along the sidewalk across the street like he owns this neighborhood. He probably does. I’ll bet he disembowels all the mice and leaves them on the doorsteps of Manayunk as evidence of his mighty cat prowess. I dub him King Floof.
His Majesty reaches a shady spot and flops onto his side. Summertime in Philadelphia must be a bitch with all that fur.
The big guy to my left shifts on his feet as he starts to speak, the motion capturing my attention. He has one of those voices that’s so deep, you almost can’t discern one word from the next. Oh, but I discern them. I discern the shit out of them.
“My name is Van Woods.”
No, it’s not. It can’t be. Not here. Not right next to me, smelling like delicious, spicy citrus. Fate isn’t that twisted. She wouldn’t do me dirty like that.
Oh, who am I kidding? She totally would.
My head snaps up—way up—to confirm what I already knew. My former best friend, my first love, and the person I hate most in this world is standing right next to me, watching my freaked-out face.
The human brain wasn’t designed to process so many conflicting thoughts and emotions at one time, and I’d feel a whole lot better if I could purge some of them—preferably all over his tight, grey t-shirt.
Two thoughts dominate the rest.
First, this is the guy who, with one dangerous, irresponsible choice, destroyed my family. He destroyed me, in so many ways. Whatever future I was supposed to have was ripped away from me that night four years ago. I should be getting ready for my senior year of college, excited about what my future holds. Instead, I’m still living at home and struggling to bring in money to keep my family afloat.
Second… Ugh. How dare he look so damn good?
Van was never skinny. He was a linebacker on our high school’s football team and earned a scholarship to play at Penn State. He would’ve graduated two months ago if, you know, he didn’t go to prison instead of college.
I wonder if that’s where he grew all these crazy muscles. If I’ve learned anything from TV, it’s that inmates lift weights a lot. In the year he was locked up, before he got paroled, Van must’ve lifted all the weights. At once. And somehow grown a few inches in the process. With the addition of black tattoos covering his neck, those cannons he calls arms, and his hair cropped super close to his head, he’s like a darker, scarier version of the guy I used to know.
He’s also more attractive. Eighteen-year-old Van was hot. Grown-man Van is sexy. Like, danger-sexy.
But his lips… His lips are exactly how I remember them. Full and soft and tempting as fuck. The night of his prom, they were so confident, the way they moved with mine. I’d never been kissed like that before. Or since. The ground could’ve given way beneath us, plummeting us to the center of the earth, and I wouldn’t have noticed. It almost felt that way—like being sucked into the gravitational pull of him, my stomach racked with violent flutters from the fall, the anticipation of impact, and the indisputable knowledge that Van would catch me. Always.
I hate him so much.
Forcing my mouth shut, I stare daggers at him, right in his heart. Right where he stabbed me four years ago. He, on the other hand, looks away from me like I’m nobody to him. His brush-off hurts more than it should.
“I’m from Upper Darby, but I’ve been in Philly for a few years.” He grips the edge of the bar and leans against it. The stance is casual, but his biceps flex under his dark skin. “A bartender position opened up where I work, and my boss wants me to learn the basics.”
And there goes my mouth again—gaping wide enough to catch flies and dust motes and small woodland creatures. He works at a bar? Like, with alcohol? Is he fucking kidding me right now?
Something taps the side of my low-top Converse, and my attention zaps to the floor as his sneaker retreats from my side of the invisible line between us. He must know that boundary exists as much as I do, but still he breached it.
Oh, wait. My turn to introduce myself.
Clearing my throat, I force a smile on my face, like the world didn’t just flip on its axis, and wave. “Hi, I’m Erin Kenny. Also from Upper Darby.”
The teacher beams at me and Van. “What a coincidence! Do you two know each other?”
My insides harden and turn to ice. I throw a pointed glare at Van. “No. We don’t.”