Submission Details

Calm Like Home
Calm Like Home
KaisaClark
Romance
Yes - full manuscript is available


Alexa Clausen has never fallen. Sheís never soared. Sheís lived her entire life floating midway between passion and despondency, never experiencing those extremes. But all it takes is one evening with Adam Westbrook to draw her out of her shell, to leave her feeling bold for the first time ever. He is fiery and magnetic. He is gravitational, that inescapable pull no one can avoid. After a few chance encounters, Alexa finally accepts that she canít stay away, canít deny the electricity she feels every time he comes around. But as the intensity between them deepens, she also canít avoid the subtle hints that Adam is hiding something. His wide smile and radiant eyes obscure some burning secret, some detail of his past that resurfaces to steal his joy. The farther Alexa falls, the more she realizes just how little she really knows about Adam and how far he is willing to go to cover up the truth. Calm Like Home is a story about love and longing, growth and stagnation, discovering oneís counterpart but losing oneself, and ultimately finding that one person truly has the power to change everything.

1

Chapter 1
“Get ready to drool. The boys are back in town!”
Annabelle’s gleeful voice greets me as I step into the Milano’s entryway. As always, the scent of marinara and fresh-baked bread wafts over me, welcoming me back. But this time, the entryway is also flooded with the charge of her words. Her harmless statement causes the world to tilt around me, the polished tile floor rising up in waves as I navigate to her side.
She’s bent over the host stand, intently studying the floor chart like it’s a textbook. Her pale blue eyes flash to mine when I reach her side, playfully alight.
“We even get a two-for-one! They’re both on tonight.”
She taps the chart emphatically, as if I don’t believe her. As if I need proof. His name is there. Clear as day. The mere sight of those four letters has the pressure mounting in my chest, my fingers twitching with anticipation. I need to calm down. What is it about the sight of just his freaking name that has me so sprung?
I distract myself by reaching into my apron pocket to retrieve two foil-wrapped chocolates from my perpetual stash. I hand one of them to Annabelle and pop the other in my mouth, savoring the rich flavor, willing my heart to stop pounding away like a drum line.
She slowly unpeels the foil at the seams, grinning unabashedly. “And now we’ll have eye candy too!”
She’s right. This restaurant is about to become eye candy central. Both Damien and Adam are tall and athletically built, but where Damien embodies the tough guy persona, all sharp quips and smug demeanor, Adam is the type of guy who is instantly likeable, always with a smile on his face and a glint in his eye. People just want to be around him; they gravitate to his side, light up under his gaze. Adding to his intrigue, he has an almost exotic look about him, all tan skin and dark eyes with a thick head of chocolate brown hair.
“What I wouldn’t give to pull on that hair even once!” I groan.
I playfully imitate grabbing onto his locks in the throes of passion, downplaying my excitement, acting like it’s purely physical, when in reality Adam’s been under my skin since the day we met. I don’t want to just pull his hair. I want to explore his mind, make him laugh, see him smile. But I don’t tell Annabelle any of this. I can’t even begin to explain to myself why this one particular boy has gotten to me the way no one else ever has.
Annabelle howls with delight at my lewd imitation. “You might be onto something there.” She returns her gaze to the floor chart, her blonde ponytail cascading down her back as she ponders. “You could finally end the drought you’ve been in. Adam would be the perfect rebound! It’s guaranteed no strings attached. Just two months of fun and then send him on his way.”
And therein lies the problem. Every time I see him the clock resets, ticking down until the fall semester arrives and he goes away again. I don’t want to casually hook up then send him on his way. I want more. I want him and me and future. But I can only assume he doesn’t feel the same. In the three years I’ve known him, we’ve never moved beyond our playful joking, our friendly chats.
“A girl can dream,” I sigh, propping my elbows on the host stand and cradling my chin. “After all this time, I’m pretty sure I’m firmly entrenched in the friend-zone with Adam.”
“He’s a guy,” Annabelle mutters dismissively, rolling her eyes with exaggerated flair. Her dearth of experience being friend-zoned by the opposite sex leaves her remarkably unsympathetic to my concern. “Alexa Clausen, I better not see you give up so easily.”
The early hostess ends up running late so I’m covering the host stand when Damien strolls in through the door. Even in his work uniform, he looks every bit the confident frat boy. He has one hand casually tucked in his pants pocket, the other swinging languidly at his side. His tie is loose at his throat, his light brown hair tousled on his head, lips curled into a relaxed don’t-give-a-fuck smile. He nods towards me at the host stand then saunters towards the back, likely in search of some new prey to poke fun of.
And then there’s Adam, his dark head poking through the doorway. Suddenly the room is filled with him, with his energy, with his light. I drink him in, soaking in every detail. His crisp, white dress shirt fits him perfectly, lightly skimming over the muscles in his chest and arms and tapering where his waist narrows. The lightness of the shirt is the perfect contrast to his tan skin, to his dark eyes.
His gaze slowly sweeps from the floor to my face, and if seeing the four letters of his name earlier was enough to give me butterflies, seeing him now is like being hit by a freight train. It’s been three hundred days and yet everything slams back into me at once. The way his brown eyes sparkle when he smiles, how one corner of his mouth turns up a little higher than the other. And this smile is all for me.
His stride quickens as he approaches and I can’t help myself. My face breaks into an obvious grin, completely full-toothed and pinched-cheeked. So much for playing it cool.
“Look who’s back!” I call out, hearing my voice light up. Being around him instantly lifts me. This is what he does to people; it’s what he’s always done to me.
“Lex! What’re you doing up here?” he jokes, gesturing towards the host stand. “Don’t you have tables to get to? Or did you get demoted?” His dark eyes are lively when they meet mine, his smile warm.
Hearing my name in his mouth strikes me. It’s been way too long since I’ve heard him say my name. I love that he’s the only one who shortens it to Lex, that he’s made it his own. And the way it sounds when he says it, soft around the edges, a single syllable caressed by his lips, I never want to hear my name any other way.
“I’m only up here to even things out for you. People who didn’t even sit in my section started leaving me tips, so I figured it’s only fair.” I try to keep a straight face as I say the words, try to resist his pull even momentarily, but the spark in his eyes is disarming and my smile edges out. Of course it does. It’s practically written on my face the instant he comes around.
“Sounds like it’s my lucky night then. Since you and I are such great friends that means you’ll be seating me all the best tables, right?”
There it is, that word. My mind stumbles over it, lingering on the meaning. We are great friends, Adam. But we could be so much better than friends. We could be so much more. I quickly tuck the thoughts away though. I keep it from nestling on my face or in my eyes. I make my voice friendly and lighthearted when I tell him I’ll be sure to seat all the campers in his section, because that’s exactly what we are. Exactly what we’ve always been. Friends.
Our manager, Jim, rounds the corner from the bar, a scowl fixed on his angular face, his dark eyes sharp enough to cut glass. “There are dishes to run, Adam. Get away from my host stand.”
Adam backs away and innocently holds his hands up in the air, still smiling from our exchange. I catch him mouthing “Only the best” to me as he winks and walks away.
He’s barely been here five minutes and already things are right back to the way they’ve always been between us: easy. For whatever reason, being around him always comes natural. It’s not like with other guys where I’m worrying about what to say or feeling self-conscious. With Adam Westbrook I’m always laughing, always smiling. There’s something contagious about his upbeat personality. Every exchange leaves me feeling energized and wanting more.
Movement at the front door steals my attention and I find two older ladies slowly making their way towards me. Even though it’s not actually his turn, I decide to take them to Adam’s section, knowing I’ll have an excuse to joke with him if they only order side salads or a cup of coffee. As I return from the table, Damien falls into stride beside me, cool eyes sizing me up.
“You did that on purpose didn’t you?”
“You know it.”
He smirks approvingly. “Girl, you are stone cold.” If only he knew the real reason.
“Watch out,” I threaten. “You’re next.”
“You wouldn’t dare,” he mutters, breaking off towards his section.
Adam is waiting for me when I reach the host stand, eyes dancing lightheartedly, his body reclining against the deep cherry wood. “What's up with that table, Lex? I thought we talked about this.”
I lean on the countertop beside him and blink up at him innocently. “They seem like fine ladies, Adam. Clearly the cream of the crop.”¬†
“You definitely sat me a couple of high rollers there.” His face is completely lit up, dark eyes shining, lips pulled into a full smile.
“I was under the impression you could work your magic on anyone,” I reply sassily, egging him on, eager for more words from his lips, for his smile to last forever.
“All right.” His voice is cocky yet playful, always ready for a new game, always so sure he’ll win. “Watch and learn amateur.”
Adam greets the two women with a charming smile and their faces warm in response. He chats with them in a relaxed way, as if he’s known them both for years. I swear the guy has never met a stranger. By the time he strolls away to retrieve their drinks, they’re beaming. During their entire visit, he goes out of his way to make sure they have every little thing they need, even pulling up an empty chair to chat while they wait for their food. If I were to do that, it would seem forced and awkward, but of course Adam looks right at home.
Once they’ve gone, he brings the check presenter containing their tips over to me, unopened.
“Do the honors?”
I nod and open the book slowly, tilting the contents away from him so he can’t peak. Inside they’ve each left him a crisp ten-dollar bill. Considering they both only ate a bowl of soup, it’s a very generous tip. I burst out laughing.
“You dog! You tricked those ladies into giving you their bingo money!”
His smile turns devilish, an ornery glint blooming in his eyes. “I can’t help it really. I have a secret weapon.”
“Oh yeah? What’s that?”
He looks both ways then lowers his voice, leaning into my side conspiratorially. “I was struck by lightning when I was a kid. I’ve been lucky ever since.”
I guffaw in response, realizing immediately how unattractive that must sound. Adam is unfazed.
“It’s true.” He turns to the side and ruffles his hair. “See that?” He gestures to a small spot on the back of his head where his dark hair is less pigmented than the rest. “I was playing soccer when it happened. Storm came out of nowhere and zap!” He claps his hands together with gusto. “I call it the lucky strike.”
My laughter erupts as I hand him his tip. “Take your money, you nut. You earned it.”
Even as he turns to walk away, I can’t peel my eyes off him. Adam freaking Westbrook. We can talk about complete nonsense and it never gets old. There’s just something about him. Some connection. Some pull. He seems to bring out a side of me no one else can, drawing out the parts of me I wish were always there. When Adam is around I’m relaxed and easygoing and lighthearted. It all feels so natural, like this is who I’m meant to be. And the truth is I like it. I like the change he brings about. I like that I feel weightless, that I'm always smiling and joking, feeling bold for the first time in my life. It’s been three hundred days, but finally he’s back and the part of me that’s been dormant suddenly springs to life again.
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2

Chapter 2
“Okay, usual stakes. Loser does the cleaning at the end of the night,” I overhear Damien telling Adam as I reach the chef’s line to collect my table’s food.
With the two of them back from school, the restaurant has taken on an increasingly playful vibe. They seem to have made it their mission to keep every shift entertaining. On particularly busy nights they’ve even started making bets as to which server will get swamped and lose his temper in the back.¬†
My gaze lingers on Adam as he scans the dining room. His arms are crossed over his chest, causing his shirt to cling to the muscles in his arms. I run the risk of being caught with my mouth hanging open so I shift my eyes to Damien. His chiseled features are pulled into a calculating stare as he surveys the restaurant. Finally he nods his head with conviction, having made up his mind.
“I’m betting on Carly. That tiny girl is feisty as hell and she looks hungover. I’m guessing she won't want to deal with any shit tonight.”
Adam points towards Jim as he emerges from the kitchen. “Nah, he’s going to be the one to lose it for sure. I’ll even bet you double it's because Alexa messes up an order.” His eyes are brimming with amusement, trained intently on my face even though he’s talking to Damien.
“Now I'm going to be extra careful all night just so you lose,” I taunt, thrilled to have an excuse to be in on the game.
He grins widely and nudges Damien's arm. “Just wait, man. I’ve got this in the bag.”
“All right.” Damien eyes me ominously. “You better not fuck this up for me.”
“Like that’s even an option,” I reply sweetly. “Prepare to lose, Adam.”
Now that he’s betting against me, I’m determined to get every order right. There’s no doubt Jim will be pissed if I mess up, so the rest is on me. I pay careful attention when each table orders and double-check the computer screen before submitting the ticket. I’m already counting down the minutes until the shift is over and I can rub my flawless night in his face when I get seated with a party of twelve. Most of them have special meal requests so it’s taking me longer than usual to punch in their order at the computer. I’m nearing the end of the list, only two more to go, when it hits me. There should be three more on my list. Oh hell! I quickly try to picture the woman’s face, try to conjure any inkling as to what she may have wanted. Nothing. I’ve got nothing.
Adam spots me puzzling in front of the computer screen and sidles up beside me, leaning his back against the counter so he’s facing me. I can feel him studying my features, his eyes scanning over my face, but I refuse to look at him just yet. Maybe I can still pull this off somehow. Come on Alexa, think. What did she order?
“About done?” he asks, cocking his head to the side.¬†His voice is way too inquisitive. He must know something is up.
“Almost,” I say simply, pretending to review the order. Think!
“Kind of looks like you’re stuck.”
I can’t miss the delight in his delivery. He’s definitely onto me. My eyes slowly drift over to meet his, resigned.
“All right you caught me. I’m short an order.”¬†
“Finally!” he calls out excitedly, rubbing his hands briskly together, a conniving smile broadening his lips.¬†The corners of his eyes crinkle with excitement. “I knew you couldn’t keep it up all night!”
“Hey! The night’s not over!” I exclaim. “It’ll come to me. I just need a second to think.”
“So it might get really confusing for you if I start naming off a bunch of dishes? Was it spaghetti and meatballs? Lasagna? Chicken parmesan?” He lists entrees off in quick succession, each one coming faster than the last.¬†
“Stop it!” I squeal, but he doesn’t let up. Meal after meal pours from his lips like he’s reading from the menu.
I attempt to shush him with my outstretched palm, my fingertips splaying over his cheeks as I try to muffle his voice, giggling all the while. His onslaught of entrees carries on, his eyes radiant behind my hand, lips colliding with my skin. I pretend not to notice my entire body warming to his touch and keep my hand in place. I’ll take any excuse I can to keep my hand pressed against him.
“I almost had it!” I exclaim amidst my laughter.
When his mouth finally stills, I tentatively withdraw my palm, eyeing him with suspicion, wondering if he’s finally managed to name every dish we serve. He grins back at me innocently, biting his lip.
“I’m sorry, Lex.” He says the words slowly, his voice exaggeratedly sweet, bordering on angelic. “I don’t know what came over me.”
It’s completely over the top. We both burst into a fit of laughter, his body folding forward into mine as he clutches his stomach, my head collapsing onto his shoulder. The instant my forehead connects with his body I feel a current searing through muscle and bone, awakening every last atom within me. I freeze, terrified to move any closer, not wanting to pull away. His laughter subsides and his face tilts in towards mine. The warmth of his breath caresses the side of my face as he whispers into my ear, “Can we be serious for a second?”
Suddenly my heart is thundering in my chest. His words hang thickly in the air around me, making it hard to breathe. I’m all too aware of how close he is. If I turned my head even slightly, my lips would brush his. I wonder how they’d taste and how they’d feel pressed up against my own.
His voice is low and husky when he finally goes on, his mouth lightly grazing my ear as he says, “I really think it was the Marsala.”
My head rolls back with another swell of laughter at his unexpected comment. My eyes are tearing up from laughing so hard. I move my hand to wipe them away and that’s when I catch sight of Damien. He’s standing a couple feet away watching our exchange with arms crossed and a look that could kill.
“You better lock it up, Clausen. I'm not doing double the cleaning duty on account of your dumb ass.”
I burst out laughing again. “This doesn't count! I really think it was the Marsala!”
“You better hope so.” Adam smiles broadly and taps the key for me on the computer screen.
Even after he’s gone, I have to fight to regain my composure. I swear I can still feel him pressed against me, can feel his breath whisper soft on my skin, hear his voice low in my ear. Try as I might, a cheesy grin is practically etched onto my face. Annabelle passes me on my way back to my section and eyes me suggestively, clearly seeing Adam-euphoria written in my gaze and in my smile. Her attention makes me feel all the more ridiculous, and yet the grin refuses to dissipate.
When it’s time for the party’s food to come out, Damien and Adam help me carry it out to the table so they can watch the exchange. Eyeing the woman with the questionable order sweetly, I set the plate in front of her.
“Here’s your Chicken Marsala ma'am.”
She looks surprised for an instant and Adam's face lights up, thinking things are going in his favor. Long, silent seconds tick by before the woman finally meets my eye and replies, “Oh, thank you! This looks delicious.”¬†
Damien bursts out with a booming “Yessss!” and high fives me. Adam retreats from the table with his hands held up in defeat.¬†
“There's still time,” he says brightly as we walk towards the kitchen. “I just need to up my distraction game.”¬†
“No way, dude!” Damien cuts him off. “You can't influence the bets. Face it, you're stuck cleaning the chef’s line tonight and doing the beverage station for me. Alexa, what do you have? He should have to do your side duty too for betting against you.”
I grin widely. “Great idea, Damien! It’s just the soda machine. It won’t be that hard.”¬†
“That’s what she said,” Damien intones, not missing a beat. He can always be counted on to turn even the dullest of statements into a dirty joke.
Adam chooses to ignore him, letting out a slight groan at the added workload, but doesn’t protest further.
At the end of the shift I stick around to help Adam with all the cleaning assignments. In all actuality, staying to clean with him sounds more appealing than doing just about anything else. Damien, on the other hand, has no problem whatsoever taking off as soon as his tables are empty. He pulls off his tie and claps Adam on the back, calling out, “See yah, sucker!” before heading out the door.
I grab a washrag and follow Adam out to the open chef’s line that spans the length of one side of the dining room, not listening when he tells me I don’t need to help, and we begin wiping the surface down. Adam intentionally wipes in my way and his hand collides with mine. He grins at me mischievously and says, “Watch where you’re wiping, Clausen,” but continues to get in my way. By the time we start on the soda machine the restaurant is completely empty except for the two of us and Jim, who’s sequestered in the back office doing paperwork. I’m soaking the nozzles in hot water when Adam begins pelting me with ice cubes from the ice chest. A fat cube lands in my apron pocket, melting around my chocolates and loose change. My hand darts instinctively into my pocket to rescue the candies.
“Oh no, not the chocolates!” he cries with exaggerated distress.
“You think that’s so funny?” I smirk, tossing one at him. He sidesteps smoothly out of the way, avoiding the impact. When he leans forward to scoop more ice from the bin I try again. This time the chocolate lands in the breast pocket of his shirt. His mouth drops open and his eyes flash to mine.
“Oh, now it’s on!” he chuckles.
He scoops a cup into the ice bin and chases me down the long, narrow kitchen, lobbing cubes at my backside.
“Wait!” I squeal with laughter when I reach the end, panting on the opposite side of a steel prep table from him.
He acts like he’s retreating, turning away with slow steps, but swiftly pelts me again, three cubes at once.
Jim must hear my shrieks because he comes out of the office to investigate, hands on his hips, brow furrowed. Even on good days, Jim has more attitude than a room full of middle schoolers, his temper noticeably flaring anytime he catches people fooling around on the clock.
“What’re you still doing here, Alexa? I cut you hours ago.”
“Adam and I are doing side duty.” I try to make my voice sound nonchalant, like I wasn’t just having the time of my life cleaning on a Friday night.
“Doesn't sound like side duty. Sounds like playing. Go home.”¬†He stomps back towards the office, grumbling under his breath.
Adam sets his cup of ice down. “We’re almost done, Lex. You should go. You've given up enough of your night to help me.”¬†
“I really don't mind,” I assure him.
“Well that’s a relief,” he exhales, smiling and tossing me a washrag. “It’s nice having you here.”
It’s nice having me here. Everything inside me flutters to life at the possibility in that statement.
When we finally finish up, Adam walks with me to my car. The parking lot is mostly dark, faintly illuminated by the pale glow from the street lamps scattered intermittently between the stalls. It’s eerily quiet; the only sound is the crunch of our shoes against the pavement. When we reach my car he turns to face me, silently scanning over my features, his eyes bright yet unreadable. I wish he’d look at me like that forever.
His gaze drops and he clears his throat. “Thanks for your help tonight. You really didn't have to stay. You won the bet.”¬†
”Next time you lose I’m sticking you with all of it for sure.” I gently push his arm in jest, wanting desperately to recapture that look in his eyes, even if only for a second.
He nudges me back, a slight smile edging out.¬†“Losing tonight was a fluke.” He toes the ground by my car, his smile fading as he adds,¬†”I should’ve known better than to bet against you.”
He looks up again, a soft expression on his face, his dark eyes piercing mine. I feel his gaze ricochet through my insides, lighting me up from within.¬†We stand frozen, eyes locked, neither of us moving, until he finally turns to climb into his car, saying brightly, “Thanks again for the help, Lex. You’re a great friend.”
There it is. That word again. It cuts like a knife, searing hotly into my chest, bringing me back down to earth. All the bliss and euphoria from our night together drains away, leaving in its wake nothing but questioning and self-doubt as I watch his taillights disappear.
If I’m being honest, I don’t know why Adam would go for me. I’m plain where he’s bold. I’m muted where his whole personality is loud. I've spent my whole life in the middle, floating along midway between passion and despondency, never experiencing those extremes. Never ignited. Never magic. Never fire. That's Annabelle. I'm the simple one, the one who chose a math major because it's what's easy not because it's inspired. My whole life has been that way, always middle ground. My parents are happily married. My dad kisses my mom goodbye every day as he leaves for work. We have happy family dinners whenever my brother is back in town from P.A. school. It's always very cookie cutter. I've never broken the mold.
And sure guys have asked me out, I've dated, I've “gone for the gold” as Annabelle would say, but it's always been flat. It’s always been comfortable. There’ve been no dramatic breakups, no falling in love, just two people getting together then slowly coming apart. I've never fallen. I've never soared. I’ve never let my guard down. Sometimes it feels like my whole life I've never experienced one thing that’s truly woken me up. It’s all been so bland.
And Adam
Adam is fire. Adam is magnetic. Adam is gravity, that undeniable pull no one can avoid. He is bold and intoxicating and luminescent. Why would he go for me? Plain, simple me. I don't know who Annabelle thinks she's kidding. 
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3

Chapter 3
I take my time driving to Annabelle’s apartment, still needing time to decompress after the rollercoaster evening I spent with Adam. When I arrive, she has a massive pizza spread across her coffee table.
I dangle a bottle of Moscato in front of her. “Always keeping it classy. Pizza and wine.”
“Only one?” she pouts.
“Don’t worry, I’ve got another in my bag.”
Annabelle, Carly, and I quickly learned one bottle goes way too fast when the three of us get together. I hand her the extra bottle and step into the familiarity of her apartment, essentially my second home. It’s a comfortable, welcoming space. The lighting is muted, emanating from a floor lamp in the corner, and there’s perpetually a candle burning on the coffee table, giving off fragrant hints of sweet roses or warm vanilla. Plus she's got this killer balcony, with white French doors that lead out to it. I notice Carly is already cozied into the neutral microfiber sectional, polishing off a slice of pizza. Her petite frame fits into the tiniest ball in the corner. As she reaches forward for another slice, her chin-length chestnut hair falls loosely around her face.
I settle in beside her and pop the cork off the first bottle, presenting it to Annabelle as if I were serving her at work. She smirks and tosses it over her shoulder towards the garbage can in the kitchen, missing terribly.
“You didn’t want to inhale the rich aroma? The fine hints of pear and honeysuckle?” I ask innocently.
She scoffs at me and takes a large gulp from the glass I poured her.
“So, making any progress on cavorting with Mr. Westbrook?” Her eyes bore into me with curiosity.
I let out an involuntary sigh at the thought of him and snuggle back into the cushions with my wine and a slice of pizza.
“I’ll take that as a no. Poor girl.” She pats my foot sardonically then helps herself to a slice.
“Tick tock my dear,” Carly pipes up between bites. “Before you know it he’ll be back at school.”
“Or even worse, someone else will snag him,” Annabelle taunts. “Have you seen the way Brittney falls all over him at work? She’s practically putting out at the host stand.”
A sharp pang of jealousy hits me at the thought of little, blonde Brittney-the-hostess going on dates with Adam, riding in his car, kissing his lips. I know I have no right to feel this way. I have no claim to him, and yet I can’t push it away. It curls up thick in my chest, pulls at the back of my mind. With everything in me, I wish it were me.
Carly snickers at Annabelle’s dramatic flare. “She’s right! Better step up your game. At least for now Brittney can only picture him naked in her dreams.”
“Alexa could be the founding member of that club!” Annabelle interjects, nodding my way. I glare and launch a couch pillow at her head. She catches it, laughing. “Not that I blame you. I mean, how could you spend any amount of time with that boy and not picture him naked?”
I shake my head at her outlandish comment, knowing I have. Often. In dramatic detail. But it’s not just the way he looks that has me hooked. It’s so much more. It’s who he is beneath all that drawing me back in year after year. It’s the ridiculous stories he tells, the sound of his laughter when we’re joking, the way he brings out all the parts of me I like best just by being who he is. But no matter how easy it is to joke and play around with him, the one thing that’s never been easy is to take things anywhere beyond that.
Annabelle turns to face me, eyeing me steadily. I wonder if she knows what I’m thinking because she leans in to clink her glass with mine.
“Hey,” she murmurs. “Fuck the friend zone.”
Carly and Annabelle’s warning sticks with me long after we’ve finished our wine and girl talk. I know all too well how short his time here is. I also know I don’t have it in me to tell him how I feel. I’m horrible with words. To me, numbers are what make sense. Equations always add up, always fit together neatly. There’s no ambiguity with math, no need to string jumbled characters together in the hopes they accurately convey how I feel. There’s always a right answer, and if I work at a problem long enough, I will find it. No amount of thought or focus is going to make telling Adam I want to be more than friends any easier.
Despite my inhibition, I still eagerly anticipate every shift I share with him. Pulling into the parking lot, my eyes immediately search for his car, my whole body awakening at the sight of it, knowing he’s waiting on the other side of those restaurant walls. The black on black M3 perfectly suits him; it’s sleek and alluring and completely one of a kind.
I find myself double-checking my reflection in my rearview mirror before I go in. I smooth my long, dark brown hair into a high ponytail and make sure I didn’t accidentally smear mascara all over my face. Aside from when Adam’s back, I rarely bother with makeup. He’s the only one I’ve ever really wanted to make an impression on. Luckily clear blue eyes stare back at me from the mirror, sans smudges, and I head inside.
It ends up being a slow lunch shift. Damien decides to keep things lively by initiating a game of dead legs among all the guys on the floor. The game basically involves punching another person in the leg when he least expects it. As a result, all the guys are on edge, constantly checking their surroundings and suspiciously eyeing one another over the dining room tables. They creep around the restaurant like soldiers on a mission, never leaving their backs exposed.
Adam, however, is not playing by the rules. He doesn't even try to beat any of the other guys' legs. But he does sneak around the restaurant, hiding behind booths and standing around corners between our sections so he can lurch out at me without a moment’s notice. When I make it to the kitchen to drop off some plates, he springs from behind a rack of dishes and snags me around the waist. I swear I can feel the warmth of each individual fingertip spreading through my abdomen. He folds me towards him, circling his arms around me and playfully pounding my thighs with gentle fists. I inhale deeply, relishing his scent, wondering how he manages to smell so amazing carrying around steaming bowls of pasta all day.
“Stop it!” I squeal, swatting at his fists and laughing so hard my stomach hurts. Even my laughter sounds completely different when Adam elicits it. It’s loud and full and bubbling.¬†
“Oh shit, you’re in the game?” Damien asks, rounding the corner into the kitchen, eyebrows eagerly raised.
“No, I’m most certainly not in the game. He just doesn’t remember how to play by the rules.”
“My bad,” Adam jokes, releasing me and straightening his tie.
Annabelle struts up to me as the boys leave the kitchen, an appraising smirk spread over her face. “What was that about?”
I sigh and join her at the to-go station as she boxes up food. “Apparently I’m one of the guys now. So I’ve got that going for me.”
“That’s not necessarily a bad thing.”
“Are you kidding me A-Bel? That’s the complete opposite of how I want him to see me,” I pout.
“You don’t see him beating any other girls’ legs. I swear, that boy follows you around trying to get you to laugh like it’s his sole mission in life.”
I roll my eyes, knowing she’s exaggerating, and head to retrieve my table’s food. The chefs are still saut√©ing away, so I lean back against the chef’s line to wait. As I glance around the dining room, I notice a young host named Gabe pull Adam aside at the host stand. He’s a short, scrawny high school kid who desperately wants to be one of the guys. They’re barely within earshot, but I overhear Gabe asking Adam if he can join the game.
“Listen, man, of course you can play,” Adam says. “But I really don’t think you want to. The guys aren’t going to take it easy on you.”
“Trust me, I can handle it. I want in.”
“This shit hurts. Even for me.” His voice is protective, brotherly even, sounding markedly different from the playful delivery I’m so used to hearing.
“It looks like fun, Adam. I really want to play,” Gabe practically pleads.
Adam shrugs his shoulders, resigned, and calls Damien over. At Gabe’s announcement Damien lets out a deep snicker. “Oh shit, son! You sure?”
Gabe nods then turns to seat the latest table.
Damien watches him go. “I’m going to hit that little dude so freaking hard. He won’t even know what happened. Just boom!” He punches his palm emphatically and pretends to stagger backwards.
“What’s wrong with you? He’s a fucking kid.” The clipped sound of Adam’s voice startles me. It’s completely devoid of any joviality. It doesn’t even sound like Adam. I sneak a glance at his face, feeling like I shouldn’t be listening in, noticing the dark pools his eyes have become as he glares at Damien’s cavalier expression.
Damien reclines against the host stand nonchalantly. “Chill out, man. He said he wants to play.”
“That doesn’t mean you fucking bulldoze him.” Adam’s whole body is perfectly still as he glares at Damien. His stance is cold and stiff and radiating irritation. It’s so unlike anything I’ve ever seen from him before. I wonder what this is to him. Why does he even care?
Damien doesn’t seem at all surprised, isn’t acting like this sinister side of Adam is coming out of nowhere, when to me it’s the furthest thing from normal I’ve seen. He turns from Adam, scanning the dining room, aloof. “It’s not your job to protect him. Besides, if I don’t, someone else will. If he wasn’t ready to play he should’ve kept his damn mouth shut.”
“Clausen!” A voice booms behind me. I snap my head around to face George, the head chef. He’s scowling at me over the line from behind three neatly arranged bowls of pasta. “Take your food already. I’m not making it again because you let it get cold.”
Once my tables have all cleared out for the day, I retreat to a back table for a late lunch. Annabelle pulls out the chair across from me. As she helps herself to a bite of my pasta, she meets my eye.
“I hope you’re ready to dance your pants off! It’s almost concert day. Bring on the boys!”
Annabelle and I have markedly different motives for attending concerts. I go to get lost in the music; she goes to get lost in a sea of hot, sweaty men. Suddenly she frowns over the table at me.
“Oh wait, I forgot. You’re taken.” Her eyes settle on Adam, who takes note of her pointed stare and starts in our direction from the opposite side of the restaurant.
I tear off a piece of bread and lob it across the table at her. “Far from it.”
“Isn’t all the action you got from that game earlier today the equivalent of like second base for you?”
“You’re freaking hilarious.” I mock. “I’d hate to see what you count as second base.”
She winks at me and gives two short pelvic thrusts against the table, then walks off to check on her remaining guests. Adam raises his eyebrows quizzically as he pulls out the chair next to mine and angles his body towards me.
“What was that about?”
“Annabelle and I are going to the Foster show this week. She’s practicing her sweet moves in advance.”
“No way! I’m so jealous!”
“Of her moves?”
He bursts out in deep, throaty laughter. It’s a warm, jubilant sound that seems to reverberate in the space around me. He’s back to being the Adam I know, the serious side I briefly witnessed at the host stand completely eradicated. “Trust me, I have way better moves than that.”
“Oh, I don’t doubt it.” My eyes involuntarily flit over the length of him and I chastise myself for being so obvious.
Adam fiddles with his server book, slapping it against his open palm. “No, seriously, that’s going to be a badass show.”
“You should come,” I venture, knowing it’s a long shot. “Nothing can beat hanging out with me and Annabelle at a sweaty, outdoor concert.”
He leans forward to tap the book against my knee, eyes alight as he says, “I can’t think of anything better.”
For the first time ever I wish we didn’t joke all the time. I wish he were serious. I wish he actually meant it.
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