Read Full Package Online

Authors: Lauren Blakely

Full Package (6 page)

9

I
try
to leave before she does.

I don't want to know what she's wearing. I don't want to know how she does her hair. I don't even want to know where she's going.

Until she tells me. My hand is on the doorknob, ready to hightail it out of the apartment, since I can't be the pathetic ass who's home when his fuck-hot roommate heads out on a date.

Josie calls out to me from the hallway. “Hey!”

“Yeah?”

She walks into the living room. “I'm going to Bar Boisterous in the Fifties.”

I narrow my eyes. “Okay. Why are you telling me?”

“So you'll know where my last-known location is.”

Annoyance threads through me. “Please don't tell me you're going out with someone you think is going to dismember you.”

She shudders and wags spooky fingers. “Yes. I'll have him send my head to you in a box.”

“Not funny.”

“What if he puts a bow on top? Like a gift?” She steps closer and adopts a Vincent Price narrator style. “He's going to cut me up in tiny pieces and feed me to the wolverines.”

“Seriously. Not funny. Are you really worried about this guy?” I ask, not giving in to her attempt at humor. Though, in all other circumstances, Josie wins major points for being not just a humor consumer, but a humor producer. And that's rare. Humor producers are diamonds.

Just not this second.

She parks her hands on her hips. She wears a white top with a scoop neck and a pair of slim jeans. Her date doesn't deserve her. I don't know who he is, what he does, or a thing about him, but I don't need to. He doesn't fucking deserve this amazing humor-producing, big-hearted, glorious-chested, kitchen-talented woman. “You asked a ridiculous question, Chase.”

Sternly, I say, “You're the one who wanted to tell me your last-known location.”

“I'm just being cautious. Not paranoid.”

I relent. “Sorry.”

“But, seriously. I have a favor to ask.” There's no toying in her tone.

“Of course. Ask me anything.”
And I'll do it.

Her voice is innocent, hopeful even as she asks, “Can I call you if anything comes up?”

“Like what?”

“I don't know,” she says, fidgeting with a heart charm on her silver bracelet. “Just anything, I guess. I saw Henry once over the summer, and we had a nice time, then he had to leave town for an assignment. I don't know much about him, and usually my friend Lily, who runs the flower shop down the street from me, is my backup. But she's out with her boyfriend Rob tonight, so if anything happens, can you be my Bat-Signal?”

When she puts it like that, how can I harbor a ball of frustration over her dating? I might think she's a babe, but first and foremost she's my friend. One of my best friends. I stride across the hardwood floor, drape an arm around her, and pull her in close to reassure her.

Except . . . tactical error.

I draw a deep inhale of her hair. That ball of frustration doesn't unwind. It coils, because . . . he'll smell her tonight. He'll know her cherry scent.

My fists clench. My chest pinches. My jaw tightens.

But then, I'm just being territorial, I tell myself. I'm a lion protecting my pride.

This isn't personal. This isn't a man looking out for his woman. This is just elemental. It's basic male/female pack mentality, king-of-the-jungle shit. It's a guy looking out for a girl he cares about. My job is to be her wingman on alert. To keep her safe. “You know I will, Josie, baby,” I say in her ear.

Baby
?

What the fuck? I don't use terms of endearment. I don't utter sweet little nothings.

“Thank you,” she says as we separate. “It's just this whole online dating thing is . . .” She draws a deep breath. “It's fraught with challenges. I went out with someone a few months ago, and, well, let's just say it didn't work out.”

“Relationships have a way of doing that.”

She nods and quirks up her lips. “But I'm glad to have you to lean on.”

I tilt like the Tower of Pisa. “Lean on me.”

She nudges her shoulder against mine, and my heart beats faster. Like, way speedier than the normal resting heart rate. That's odd. But I tell myself the quickened pace comes from a simpler place—from the human desire to be needed. The best gal I know needs me to be her reliable, steady guy. That's what I'll be for her. I won't be the dude who thinks about her chest, or her legs, or her intoxicating hair. Hell, I already know that kicking a friendship up a notch can fuck up all sorts of shit.

It can ruin everything.

Including the heart.

When Josie steps away from me, the beating in my chest returns to normal. I point at her. “For you, I make house calls. The doctor is always in.”

She thanks me again, and I leave to meet my buddies at Joe's Sticks, a pool hall in the east Fifties. Max, Spencer, Nick, and Wyatt are at a table, racking up. Max claps me on the back when I arrive. “How's life on a sitcom working out for you?”

“Har, har, har.”

He thrusts a beer at me. “Three's company yet?”

I take the bottle. “Except there's only two of us.”

His dark eyes stare me down. “I can count. I can also speculate. And that little number—two—tells me it'll be even harder for you,” he says, shaking his head as he hands me a pool cue. “You're on my team. And I can't wait to say I told you so.”

“That's what I love about you. The endless well of support.”

“Always,” he says with a wink. He nods at the table. “You go first. I need my ringer.”

I say hello to the other guys and then line up my shot. I'm good at pool. It's the focus. The concentration. The same skill set as sewing up a forehead. Yes, I have excellent hand-eye coordination, and it helps me kill it at the pool table. Max is a beast, too, so we're like the one-two Summers brothers' punch.

I line up and aim. I send the white ball straight into the purple ball, which races over the felt and rattles neatly into the corner pocket.

“Nice one,” Wyatt says from the corner of the table. Earlier, he texted me that his wife, Natalie, would be busy tonight doing wedding prep with Spencer's wife, Charlotte. Yes,
wedding prep
. Wyatt and Natalie are already married, but they're getting married again. They tied the knot in Vegas a little while ago, but they're having a ceremony here in a few weeks for friends and family.

As I walk around the table, looking for the next shot, Wyatt says, “How's life with my little sister?”

“Great,” I say. Because it is.

“What's she up to tonight?”

I pause for a second, unsure if I should say what she's doing. “She's out.”

Spencer parks his hands around his mouth like a megaphone. “Code word for date.”

Nick straightens his spine and arches a brow at Spencer. “Seriously? My sister does not date.”

Spencer smacks his back. “Yup. Just like my sister didn't date,” he says, giving him a sharp I-caught-you stare since Nick's engaged to Spencer's sister Harper.

Nick holds up his hands. “Fine, fine.”

Spencer pokes Nick with the cue. “Get used to it, buddy. Get used to your sister dating. I had to get used to it with you, of all people.”

I sink my shot, then miss the next one. When Nick takes his turn, Wyatt calls out to me, “Who's the lucky guy tonight, and when do we need to beat him up?”

I shrug. “Don't know.”

He stares sharply at me. “You don't know?”

“Dude, I'm not her keeper.”

“I know, shithead. But you need to look out for her.” Wyatt points his beer bottle at me.

“Yeah, because men are pigs,” Max says, weighing in.

We all hold up our beers at that statement.

Later, Wyatt pulls me aside. “Seriously, man. Look out for Josie. She dated some guy last spring who really hurt her.”

Like a chemical reaction, that searing jealousy from earlier transforms into an entirely new substance—the wish to hurt this guy. “Who's this assfuck? The guy she's out with tonight? Henry?”

Wyatt shakes his head and blows out a long stream of air. “Not Henry. I don't have all the details. She told Natalie, but basically this guy she met online totally wooed her, and when they met in person it was clear all he wanted was . . .”

I clench my teeth. “Fuck, I hate douches.”

“Yeah, me too.”

“What happened?”

“He blew her off after he got what he wanted.”

“Classic dick move.”

“Classic,” Wyatt agrees. “I swear if she had told me who he was I'd probably have killed him, and it's not even like he committed the worst dating sin ever. But he hurt my sister. Ergo . . .”

“You want to kill him,” I supply.

“I hate people who hurt my sister. I need you to watch out for her. Just like I'd do for Mia if you needed me to.” My sister Mia's on the West Coast, working her butt off to build up her company, and she's doing great as far as I can tell from her regular texts and emails. “You're in Josie's space now, man. You're going to know better than anyone else what's going on. Be her fucking online dating profile decoder.”

I hold up a fist for knocking. “Count on it.”

This role now? This is what matters. It's a jungle out there, and if there's anything I can do to help Josie Hammer navigate her way through it, I will. I can sniff out a douchebag. I can protect her from the fuckers of the world.

When she calls me a little later, I've got my first assignment.

“Doctor Decoder at your service,” I joke, stepping away from my buds.

“He's choking,” Josie says. Loud music plays in the background, and she sounds rattled and on her way to panicked. I go into instant ER mode.

“What's going on?”

“My date. Henry. He's choking and can barely talk, and he's got an EpiPen in his hand, but he's struggling to use it. Do I just stab it in his thigh?”

Her voice is strained, understandably, jammed with the nerves I've heard countless times from others in her situation.

“Yes,” I say, all-business as I march out of the noisy pool hall. I'll text Wyatt later and let him know where I went. “It's easy. Jab it in his thigh, click it, and I'll be there in five minutes.”

“Stay on the phone with me,” she says, her voice shaky.

“Absolutely.” I hail a cab and zip over a few blocks to Bar Boisterous, keeping her calm the whole way as her date starts to breathe again.

Once inside, I quickly find Josie with a bearded hipster dude and take over for her. I help him out of the bar, and we take him to the nearest emergency room.

Even though it's a busy Saturday night, they see him stat, and it's not just because he has a personal escort with an MD. It's because Josie's date came
this
close to having one hell of a bad ending to his night.

The guy's allergic to peanuts, and there were trace amounts in the pesto sauce in the sandwich he ordered at Bar Boisterous.

Two hours later, we leave Henry safe and sound with the doctors and nurses. They'll take care of him now, and make sure he's doing fine.

The hospital doors close behind us, and I turn my attention once more to Josie.

10

F
rom the pages
of Josie's Recipe Book

Waffles with Strawberries May Lead to Unexpected Moments

I
ngredients

2 cups strawberries, quartered

2 eggs

2 cups flour

1½ cup milk

½ cup butter, melted

2 tablespoons white sugar

4 teaspoons baking powder

¼ teaspoon kosher salt

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

D
irections

1
. Preheat
your waffle maker according to its instruction manual. C'mon, you know you have the manual. This is the first time you're making waffles from scratch. Admit it.

2
. While it is heating
, prepare your batter. Add one cup of strawberries to your blender. Puree until smooth. Don't get distracted by words in recipes like “smooth,” which is how you picture Chase's chest.

3
. Add the eggs
, butter, milk, and vanilla extract to the strawberries, and blend until smooth. Add half the flour, sugar, salt, and baking powder, and do the same. Add the remaining flour mixture and blend until well mixed. Stir in the remaining strawberries. Funny thing. Strawberries remind me of Chase's favorite dessert—the yummy strawberry shortcake cupcakes I make for the Sunshine Bakery. I should really make him some. I like the way his hazel eyes light up when he eats them, as if they're the best thing he's ever tasted.

4
. When your
waffle maker is preheated, spray with cooking spray and begin making your waffles. Pour the batter into one corner and smooth into the other corners with a spatula. Cook. Remove waffles from waffle maker and set aside. Repeat until all waffles are made. Or until you decide to go out for waffles at one of the many amazing establishments in Manhattan that make way tastier waffles than even a baker can make. Bonus—no clean-up or storage of a ridiculously heavy object. Besides, having waffles with Chase is more proof of how well we fit as roomies, especially since I want to talk to him about that crazy date that just ended.

11

O
ut on the street
, Josie breathes a huge sigh of relief, then plants her hands on my shoulders. “I can't thank you enough.”

A cab squeals by, on a hunt for a fare at the end of the block. I wave away her thank-you. “Don't even think twice about it. I barely did a thing.”

She squeezes my shoulders harder, her eyes pinned on me. “No. You did everything.”

“You're the one who worked the EpiPen. You hardly even needed me.”

She shakes her head. “You're wrong. I totally needed you. Being able to call you, having you join me, taking him to the hospital . . . Chase,” she says, taking a beat, “that was everything.”

It wasn't everything, not even close, but I can't deny that my heart fucking races from the compliment. I wish I didn't like it so much.

She tilts her head. “I'm starving. Want to go to Wendy's Diner and order waffles? On me.”

My growling stomach is the answer. “Waffles on you is my dream meal.”

She nudges me and shoots me a smile as we walk along the sidewalk. “King of double entendres.”

“And I wear the title with pride,” I say, trying my best to think about waffles, not eating them off Josie. Though I bet that's the absolute best way to eat waffles.

Under the bright fluorescent lights at Wendy's Diner around the corner, curiosity gets the better of this cat. After the waitress brings water and coffee and takes our order, I stroke my chin, as if I've got a beard. “Beards. Glasses. Skinny jeans.”

She frowns in confusion. “Is that your grocery list?”

“No. But is it yours? Would I have received an
aardvark
text warning me to stay away tonight? Are you into hipsters?” I nod in the general uptown direction of the hospital. I've never thought about who she might be into before. It hasn't been a big part of our lexicon. The fact is, I'm only vaguely aware of a few dates and boyfriends she's had in the past. I am well aware, though, that of all the things I might be, a hipster is absolutely not one of them.

I'm not sure why my muscles tense as I wait for her answer. Or why I hope she doesn't have a big thing for hipsters.

She laughs and takes a drink of her water. She shrugs happily. “I don't really have a type.”

My shoulders relax. “You just like all dudes?”

She rolls her eyes. “No. Obviously I don't like everyone. But I don't have a physical type per se. Sure, handsome is nice, but it's not a prerequisite that he has tats or not, or a beard or not, or burly muscles or not, or red hair or not, as examples.”

I drag a hand through my hair, unable to resist flirting with her, even now. “Light brown hair. That'd do the trick nicely, though?”

She stretches a hand across the Formica table and rubs my hair. “Yes, and warm hazel eyes, and a nice square jaw, and strong arms, and a flat belly,” she says, letting go, and my eyes widen at the litany of compliments while my body enjoys the got-her-to-cop-a-feel moment.

“Perhaps you should write
my
PlentyOfFish profile.” I pretend to tap on a keyboard. “Type: Ridiculously handsome, chiseled jaw, eyes that melt a woman, brilliant wit, and as a bonus, great in bed.”

She laughs. “Well, now that you mentioned the bonus features . . .”

I point at myself. “Just being honest and laying out all the key features of this type of car.”

“I appreciate your frankness about the vehicles on the lot, Chase,” she says, deadpan. Then she adds, “And yes, if I do have a type, ideally he's smart, funny, kind to animals, and treats women well.”

“Also, he should be able to handle peanuts, right? Incidentally, I happen to love them.”

She laughs. “Peanut aficionado is optional. Walnut lover is better, though. If he loves pecans, then we're talking the real deal.”

“So mixed nuts it is. Duly noted.” I mime making a check mark.

“Plus, bonus points for not being a liar,” she says, taking her time on that last one as a waitress strides by, balancing three plates of scrambled eggs and bacon.

I grab my coffee and take a thirsty gulp. When I set it down, I ask, “So what's the story there? Wyatt mentioned some guy you dated.”

She sighs, looks at the table, then back up. “It's stupid.”

I slide my hand across the table and rest it on top of hers. “It's not stupid.”

She shakes her head. “It's just . . . you put yourself out there, and someone isn't who he seems. Do you know what I mean?”

Do I ever.

“Yes.”

“And this guy, Damien, was like that. I met him on an online site, and we just really hit it off. We connected on everything. Same sense of humor, same love of books. He even liked Scrabble.”

A rocket-fueled blast of jealousy rolls through me. That's
our
thing. I grit my teeth as she talks.

“We had the best time chatting online. We'd chat until the wee hours of the morning about anything and everything. He changed his status to
exploring a new relationship.
And we went out a couple of times. They were all these seemingly perfect, idyllic dates,” she says, and I hate Damien already with a bone-deep loathing. “We went to a piano bar, and even when he heard me sing under my breath, he didn't make fun of me.” She flashes a weary smile. “And you know what an awful singer I am.”

“Just mouth the words,” I whisper.

Her smile grows bigger. “He doesn't know about that. You're the only one privy to that horror story.”

During one of our college breaks at her house, while the two of us were hanging out in the living room, stretched out on her parents' couch, her feet slung over my thighs, I'd asked her for her most embarrassing moment.

“Hands down. Second grade. Music class.”

My ears perked. “Tell me.”

“Each student had to sing ‘Scotland's Burning' in front of the group, and when it was my turn, I walked into the middle of the circle, opened my mouth and sang, ‘Scotland's burning, Scotland's burning, look out, look out.' And I was sure I sounded fine. Until the teacher covered her ears.”

“Ouch.”

“The real ouch was when the music teacher said, 'Just mouth the words, child. Just mouth the words.'”

“And that was the end of your Broadway dreams.”

She imitated squashing a bug with her hand, and then she sang a line from the song. She was woefully off-key, and I joined in, committing equal musical crimes with my terrible voice.

“Don't tell my brothers.”

“It's our secret,” I'd said.

And it has been. Ever since.

“Anyway,” she says, returning to the story of Damien. “The next time, he took me to a book signing. JoJo Moyes was in town, and he knew I loved her work so we went to An Open Book, where I met her and had her sign
Me Before You
.”

My hatred for him intensifies. Josie loves that book. And I just know that somehow this douche nozzle used that information to take advantage of her. “You told me all about it last year. How torn up you were over the ending. How it made you think about so many things.”

She nods, a small smile playing on her lips. “It did. I'm not saying I agree with the choices made, but that book just touched me,” she says, patting her heart. Then she moves her hand to her head, tapping her temple. “And it made me think.”

“I liked hearing your reaction when you wrote to me about it.”

“And I liked sharing that with you,” she says, then takes a beat. “And I told him, too. How it made me think. How it made me feel.” She heaves a sigh. “So he took me to the signing. He was trying to be everything he thought I wanted, so he could get what
he
wanted.”

She swallows, and yup, I know where this story is going. And it's not because Wyatt gave me the spoiler. It's etched in her eyes and colors her voice, and I wish I could erase any hurt she's ever been through. “A few more dates, a few more kisses, a few more times rolling out the Josie Hammer red carpet.” She glances away momentarily, then she shakes her head and looks at me. “Then we slept together.”

And even though I knew that was coming, I can't control the green-eyed monster that thrashes in my belly, fighting to break free.

I can, however, control what I do about it.

“And?” I ask, keeping my tone even.

“It was good,” she says, matter-of-factly, and the creature rattles the bars, kicking and screaming. But I don't give in.

“And he didn't call the next day?”

A deep breath. A sheen over her eyes. “I waited. Stupidly.” Her voice is feather-thin. “Like my phone was an extension of my hand. I even texted him the next evening. Like a foolish girl. ‘Hey,'”
she says, adopting a too-cheery tone. “‘Hope you had a great day. I know I did. Thinking of you.'”

My stomach churns with anger. With righteous rage. “Did he ever write back?”

She nods. “Once. That night. He said, ‘Day was great.'”

The dude couldn't even say
my
day was great.

“And is that all you ever heard from him?”

“Yes. He changed his status to
available and looking
the next morning. And I never heard from him again.”

“He's one of the biggest wastes of space on the planet,” I say as I squeeze her hand. “He doesn't deserve you, and he's a complete ass for leading you on. If he walked through the door right now, I'd . . .” I search the table, and grab an orange bottle. I brandish it like a weapon. “I'd douse his eyes with Tabasco.”

She smiles. “But that'd be a waste of good Tabasco.”

I grab the pepper shaker. “Line up a dozen pepper shakers outside the door, and lurk in the corner till he tripped on them, bonking his skull in the process.”

Her smile turns to a full-blown grin. “Now you're tempting me.”

I hold a finger in the air. “Wait. I've got it. Record myself singing ‘Scotland's Burning' and hack his phone so it plays repeatedly, driving him insane with my horrible singing voice.”

She laughs so loudly she snorts. It's fucking adorable and rewarding at the same time. “If we really want to torture him, we'd make it a duet,” she says, her green eyes twinkling with the prospect of an epic prank.

I hold up my hand for a high five. She slaps my palm then weaves her fingers through mine. I squeeze back, then lightly drag my fingertips over the soft skin of her hand. Her eyes flicker with something else now, a different type of excitement, one I haven't seen from her before, but one I find I want more of.

The look vanishes too quickly when the waitress arrives.

“Waffles for two,” she says in her thick Long Island accent, snapping her gum as she serves the plates.

We thank her, and when the waitress leaves, Josie picks up her fork. “Seriously, though, what can you do? Everyone gets Damiened sooner or later. It's not like something so terrible happened to me. It just hurt, but I'm over it. I wanted you to know, though, since you asked.”

“Hey, don't discount it because it happens to others. A stomachache from the flu might not be as bad as appendicitis, but both can hurt.”

She smiles. “That's true.”

“I'm just sorry I wasn't here to kick his ass.” I dig into my waffles. “Also, this needs to be said. But . . . Damien? Wasn't that kind of an omen? Get it? Because of the movie?”

She laughs. “I'm learning to read the signs. Clearly, I have a way to go. But now you're here, and I have a live-in translator.”

“Twenty-four/seven dude-deciphering service,” I say, then take a bite of a delicious square of waffle. “What about Henry? Will you see Mr. Peanut again?”

She shrugs. “I don't know. He was nice, but there was no spark.”

I pump a virtual fist, and rein in a wild grin. “What does it take to get a second date with the inimitable Josie Hammer?” I ask as I slice another chunk of waffle. “Tell me. What is it that you're looking for in a man?”

The corner of her lips quirks up. “I want what every woman wants.”

“What's that?”

She cocks her head. Gazes right into my eyes. Licks her lips. “The full package. I want the full package.”

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