I’d just learned how to ride my bike without training wheels—and was on my way back home to tell my parents.
Only to find my dad making out in his car with a woman who wasn’t my mom.
The musical sound of the ice cream truck still made me sick to my stomach, just like ice cream, just like bikes.
“I can’t,” I whispered once I was settled on the tiny, uncomfortable, not to mention offensive little bike. “It looks like you’re going to have to push me down the stairs so I’ll be too injured to ride.” I got off the bike and shuddered.
Austin put her hands on her hips. “I’m not shoving you down the stairs.”
“A week ago you would have been all over that.”
“A week ago I was still angry.”
Her admission shocked me. “You’re not angry anymore?”
“It’s hard to be angry now that I’ve seen you operate on a breast-cancer survivor and give her back her identity,” she said in a defeated voice, suddenly staring at her sandaled feet.
I moved closer to her, taking one tentative step. “Is that why you ran?”
“You know,” I said, letting out a sigh. The sun was setting, causing pink streaks to stream through the clouds. Her house was twenty minutes away from my apartment on a good day—the view was beautiful, though, overlooking most of Seattle. “The stigma behind plastic surgery still pisses me off.”
Behind thick black lashes, Austin glanced up at me. “What do you mean?”
“That it’s bored housewives with too much money and not enough confidence who pay me to make them perfect, when really most of my cases are people who just want to feel better about themselves. Burn victims, cancer survivors, moms who have put their bodies through hell after childbirth, or even just people who want to slow the aging process a bit. It’s not what people assume. It used to make me angry, but I know what I do. Granted, there will always be the outlier, the person who suffers from body dysmorphia and tries to get surgery after surgery until his appearance borders on monstrous—but those cases are rare.”
Why was I telling her all of this?
“Why are you telling me this?” She’d always been a bit of a mind reader.
“No idea.” I shook my head. “So, where are we on the whole accident thing? A broken leg should do it.”
Austin smirked. “I’m not going to break your leg, it looks like you’re going to have to come clean and tell them you’re afraid of bikes, even the ones with streamers.”
“It’s not the bike,” I whispered under my breath. It was what it represented, just another thing stolen from me—compliments of my dad. “Maybe I’ll just fake an illness.”
“Hmm.” Austin leaned the bike against her garage door and crossed her arms, causing her lush breasts to strain against her thin white tank top. Would I never be able to have a normal reaction to her body? Ever? Already my body strained to touch hers. “We could always give you food poisoning?”
“Food poisoning would mean I’d need to take the whole day off.”
“Followed by a miraculous recovery?”
“Maybe.” I kicked the ground with my shoe.
If I wasn’t learning how to ride a bike, my time with her was over. Which meant I needed to go.
But I didn’t want to go.
Ask me to stay.
“Well . . .” She threw up her hands. “We aren’t going to solve your problems outside, getting eaten alive by mosquitoes. You want wine or something?”
We locked eyes.
Being friends with her would be impossible.
I’d always want her.
I’d always crave her.
But wine was wine, right?
“Sure.” I found myself agreeing, just like I found myself stupidly following her back into her massive house and sitting at the bar while she poured me a healthy glass of red and then one for herself.
Wine with Thatch. Everything between us had started with wine. Wine and then pizza and then a silly little line where he asked if I wanted to see his comic-book collection. I knew he’d been full of shit, but his personality had been magnetic. I was helpless, caught in his delicious web of sex.
And I’d been a willing victim.
But the guy I’d stumbled into bed with—and the guy I was currently having a nice adult glass of wine with?
Two totally different people.
Gone was the heart-stopping smile he usually chose to hide behind, and in its place, he looked stripped bare. As if he were finally about to lay all the joking aside and reveal some sort of truth.
“So, you wanna talk about it?” I asked, swirling the wine in my glass a few times before taking a slow sip.
“About?” He didn’t make eye contact.
He spit out his wine in his glass and glared at me.
“Sorry, I couldn’t help it.”
“Try.” His eyes narrowed.
With a laugh, I nodded my head toward the door. “All boobs aside . . .”
“What’s up with this whole bike thing? You looked ready to shit yourself out there, and the Thatch I know is more badass than that, so what gives?”
“I wouldn’t say badass,” he grumbled.
“You’ve swum with sharks—twice—and somehow managed to find a nice loving home for Charlie.”
He burst out laughing. I missed his laugh. It was deep, infectious, just like his smile and the crinkles by his icy-blue eyes. “What makes you think I didn’t just kill him?”
“You save lives, you don’t take them.” I jabbed a finger at him. “Surgeon.”
“Hah.” He set down his wine, and a piece of hair fell out of his sexy-as-hell man bun, kissing his cheek. I was jealous of that strand, actually wanted to rip it from his head and stash it under my pillow and have a good cry.
Okay, no more wine for me.
I scooted my glass far, far away from my body so I wouldn’t give in to temptation.
“Let’s just say bike riding is attached to some really shitty memories, and every time I touch a bike, Dora or not, the memories come back, and I’d really like to keep them locked down, you know?”
Well, that was more information than I had expected.
“That makes sense,” I finally said.
He was quiet.
“So . . .” I just had to fill the silence with my voice, didn’t I? “What’s on the agenda for tomorrow? Ass implants? Penile enlargement? More boobs?”
“How is it that you make my job sound so exciting?” A smile tugged the corners of his mouth. “And sorry to disappoint, but the last penile enlargement I did was a good month ago—we don’t get those often. Most of the guys who come in don’t fully understand the potential side effects.”
“How about total impotence? Infection? Losing all sensation and the inability to get a full erection?” He shook his head. “Yeah, not worth it.”
“Well, that just ruins my day,” I said jokingly.
“Tomorrow I have a rhinoplasty,” he said cheerfully. “And the office does pro bono work for kids with cleft palates. I’m seeing a potential patient tomorrow.”
There went my heart again, thudding to the rhythm of Thatch’s name.
I reached for my wi
ne. Bad Austin.
“That’s really nice of you.”
“It’s not their fault, you know?” he said, talking mainly to himself. He’d already finished his wine and was standing up.
I wanted him to stay.
But I didn’t know what else to do to get him to stay other than take off my top and flash him boobs and hope he’d jump at the chance to touch them again.
Sighing, I stood right along with him, grabbed the wineglasses, and managed to somehow trip over my own feet and land facedown on the ground, broken glass sticking out of my cheek.
“Austin!” Thatch was on his knees in front of me, while I was attempting to not freak the hell out over the blood gushing down my cheek.
I reached for the glass.
“Stop.” He shoved my hand away from the wound and proceeded to slowly pull out a piece of glass that was about an inch thick.
“That hurt!” I yelled, holding my hand to my face.
“Shit.” He jumped to his feet, I heard water running, and I was already feeling woozy over the chunk of glass that had just been joined with my skin.
When Thatch came back, he had a wet paper towel and was dabbing my face. It stung like crazy.
“You won’t need stitches.” His face was so close, I could almost taste him.
Tears filled my eyes as I nodded.
Tears of embarrassment.
Tears of rejection.
Great, I was just full of tears where he was concerned.
His soft hands brushed across my cheek again, and then he was back on his feet.
I stayed put on the floor, not trusting myself to get up.
He returned a few minutes later and knelt in front of me. Something cold hit my cheek, stinging a bit, and then he spread a small Band-Aid across my cheek.
“Ariel?” I asked.
“I figured Iron Man would look more badass.”
I smiled, then groaned. It hurt to even smile.
His clear blue eyes professionally examined my face again, and then he turned away—like he was afraid to look at me directly in the eyes. “It’s just a cut. Take some ibuprofen tonight, and if you have any trouble, call me tonight, alright?”
“Trouble?” I repeated. My cheek stung, and the Band-Aid tugged the skin near my mouth, making my face feel tight.
“Just call me if it hurts.” He stood and held out his hand.