Sasha decided a long time ago that she would only allow herself a single night each year to go out and be wild. The rest of her time is spent at her pottery wheel or taking care of her father, who has early-onset Alzheimer’s. But this year, the long and lean stranger she chooses turns out to be more than she bargained for…
~ NATE ~
I know alcohol is inadvisable after getting new ink, but tonight I’m not in a rule-following mood. As I walk into the bar and look around for my buddies, I feel Sam’s initials on my arm; the sharp, hot reminder they’re meant to be. SLP. Never forget.
He should be here. And I probably shouldn’t.
I’m fifteen minutes late, but Brent and Aidan aren’t here yet. It kind of pisses me off—I drove all the way out here to Grand Rapids to meet up with them, nearly an hour from the lakeshore town where we all grew up. They both moved here while I was gone.
It’s approaching midnight and the place is already starting to empty out, so I snag a seat at the bar—facing the door—and raise a finger to get the bartender’s attention. He smirks as he saunters over. “Got some ID on you?”
He doesn’t look that much older than I am, maybe late twenties, but his cheeks are pocked with acne scars and he’s already balding on top. I slide my ID from my wallet and hand it over. His expression smooths out like I knew it would. “Thank you for your service,” he says as he hands it back to me. “First one’s on me.”
I thank him and order a beer, wondering if coming out tonight was a mistake. I don’t exactly feel public-facing. But I haven’t seen Brent or Aidan since before this last deployment, the last one I’ll ever have, as it turns out, and I figured reconnecting with them would be another way to slide into civilian life. That’s what the adjustment counselor at the VA said, anyway. He issued the advice like a prescription, right after he asked me if I had access to firearms. He seemed relieved when I said no, which was the truth.
I didn’t mention that I got my ten-day handgun purchase permit eight days ago.
The bartender hands over a pint, and I down half of it in one long swallow. “Looks like you needed that pretty badly,” he comments.
“You have no idea,” I mutter, glancing at the door and wishing my friends would arrive. My body jitters with a restless energy that I need to drown before it ignites. I’d check my phone, but Jen’s message from earlier is right there, waiting like a buried IED. And I can’t answer her yet. I just can’t.
I down the rest of the pint and raise my head. That’s when I see her. Black hair, dark eyes, and a green dress over some very dangerous curves. She’s at the other end of the bar, nursing brown liquor in a rocks glass, rolling that thing between her palms as if the heat from her skin could change its shape.
When she sees me watching her, she arches one eyebrow and raises her glass.
My heart picks up a hungry, urgent rhythm as I silently toast with my empty glass. She looks like she’s alone there, just her and that drink, but she’s made up like she wasn’t planning to be. And there’s something deep and sad in those eyes, despite the playful smile she’s aiming at me. Did her date bail on her? Maybe she’d like some company?