“Here you go. Whiskey, neat.” I set it on the table without looking at the customer. I’m already halfway turned to go back to the bar when I hear, “Thank you.” The voice is deep and baritone and strangely familiar, but I can’t exactly pinpoint how I know it. Nonetheless, my skin erupts in goosebumps and the hairs on the back of my neck stand on edge.
His arm shoots out and he grabs my wrist to stop me from walking away. “I know you,” he says as I turn around.
When one of the strobe lights shines our way, I see his face. It’s a face I dreamed about throughout my teenage years, most of my twenties, and even now at thirty, every time a man with jet-black hair looks my way I still think about that face. “Alex? Alex Archer?” I say, surprised.
Talk about a blast from the past.
And speaking of broody men . . .
Those green eyes framed by unfairly long lashes stare at me intensely. His hair doesn’t fall down over his eyes anymore. It’s parted neatly to the side, not one strand out of place. He’s still holding my wrist, and I wonder if he can feel how my pulse quickens underneath his touch. My girlish crush, which should have long ago been extinguished, if not by time then by the circumstances of our estrangement, hasn’t left. But he’s looking at me as if he can’t put a name to my face, which is quite a blow to my ego.
Okay, so he does remember me.
How could he not? We grew up together. Until that night twelve years ago when my house was raided and my father was arrested, he was part of my life. He was also my first kiss. My first love (although he didn’t know this). And, he’s still the kiss I compare all other kisses to. It was magical, and the only thing from that evening that I remember fondly.
The night of my eighteenth birthday.
The night of first kisses and broken dreams.
The night I was completely alone as my life was turned upside down. Literally. Feds came in, flipped mattresses and cushions, searched nooks and crannies, and questioned me for four days. I had nothing to say. Because I knew nothing. And before I had a chance to process what was happening, everything was gone: my house, cars, jewelry, bank accounts. Everything.
I shake the thoughts out of my head and focus on the gorgeous man sitting in front of me.
“Oh my God! How are you?” I lean down and give him a big, familiar hug, but it’s awkward because he’s sitting stiffly and not reciprocating the gesture.
But when has Alex Archer not been awkward? All of my friends used to tell me he was strange. Strange like his father. But I never saw it. I only ever saw the rare smile with the one deep dimple that I could always coax from him, and the crooked nose from when he fell off my horse on his thirteenth birthday, and those overly thick thighs from hours of tennis and racquetball.
I stand up and back away, feeling a bit stupid at my one-sided display of affection.
“What are you doing here?” he asks.
I smile and push my hip out, a hand at my waist. What a dumb question. “I work here.”
“Here? At a club? You’re a bartender?” he blurts out, with a look of utter disbelief.
“You always were bright,” I say with a chuckle, but he doesn’t smile back.
“How can you be working here?” He looks around, completely stunned at the idea. It’s not like I’m working at a skeevy dive bar, for God’s sake. This is a very high-end Miami Beach establishment. I make decent money.
“I’m not sure I understand the question.” Now I’m getting riled up and feeling defensive.
“You’re a Blackwood.” That takes me aback. No one has said that—Blackwood—with that meaning for a very, very long time. Here, in this city, particularly on the beach, where everyone is either a tourist or a socialite with too much new money to blow, no one gives a shit whether I’m a Blackwood or a Rockefeller.
“And you’re an Archer,” I say, matter-of-factly, but he still seems completely perplexed.
This is the guy I’ve compared every man in my entire life to. I’ve put him on this pedestal of perfection, with his amazing mind and handsome face. But as he sits there and judges me, I see the pedestal begin to crumble. Or maybe I’ve just grown wiser. Whatever the case may be, Mr. Perfect is looking more and more like Mr. Judgmental Asshole right now. And the more I think about it . . .
I’ve been trying to just survive for so long, I’ve never given myself a chance to think about what I went through. I’ve thought long and hard about my father and all he’s had to endure, but never stopped to think about myself. The worst thing about those first lonely months twelve years ago was how everyone turned their backs on me.
My friends’ parents blamed me for their sudden loss of money and I was shunned. All I heard at the time were whispers about Ponzi schemes and fraud, and embezzlement and things I knew nothing about. I was barely out of high school, focused on designer handbags, cute boys (well, one in particular), and deciding on a college. I felt terrible about their bad fortune, but it wasn’t my father’s fault. My dad explained how they had made bad investments and were trying to pin their bad luck on him.
The only thing I understood was that the allegations were about crimes that my father didn’t commit.
Unfortunately, he had to plead guilty because he couldn’t pay the legal fees to defend himself if the case went to trial, but had the Archers or any of our close family friends helped him, lent us just enough to pay the attorneys, he wouldn’t be sitting in prison right now and I wouldn’t be busting my ass serving drinks to judgmental dickheads like Alexander Archer.
Three months after the final piece of furniture was auctioned off and my house sold, I left for Florida, just as my dad asked. But it wasn’t because he asked; it was because I had nothing left in Seattle. Not one friend, not one dollar.
I was all alone and everywhere I went, I was looked at like a leper.
So why am I acting like a sixteen-year-old with a crush? The Archers were the closest friends we had, and they completely abandoned us. No. Not us. They abandoned me. Not once did I get a phone call, a little help . . . anything. For all they knew, I was dead somewhere.
With this parting thought, my attitude changes instantly.
I remember having to turn down Stanford University because I couldn’t afford it. Well, the truth is, they didn’t want me either. Not after the shitstorm that surrounded my father and our family name.
I think about the first time I met Gina—she worked with me at a fast-food chain, and she took me to a place where I could crash for free until I had enough for a real place to live. It turned out to be a free campsite somewhere in the middle of the Everglades. I was scared and penniless, but I also realized that there were people worse off than I was. People like Gina who were real survivors. Gina had been on her own since she was fourteen and had never had even a taste of comfort. Yet she always wore a smile on her face and showed me how to become a survivor too. Eventually, I was able to scrounge up enough for an old beat-up car, which became my home for a while. All because I was ostracized and this man sitting in front of me didn’t lift one finger to help. He couldn’t spare a little of his millions to help me.
So yeah . . . screw him.
“God, will I ever learn?” I mutter to myself.
I pull my hand away, turn, and go back to the bar, trying to figure out what the hell just happened while tamping down the emotions I’ve had bottled up inside for over a decade.