There I was, in the center of a human hurricane, just trying to make my way to the bartender and order another round of drinks.
My friends and I were celebrating in this jam packed bar that smelled like the aftermath of a frat party.
As I passed by some douche who was at least five drinks past his limit, I swatted away his wandering hand that was going for my ass. He whined like a kicked puppy while his buddy just laughed. With an eye roll that could’ve won an Olympic medal, I bulldozed forward, squeezing between two mammoth bald dudes who looked like they chowed down on nails for breakfast.
Finally reaching the counter, I twisted my long hair up and let out an exasperated sigh as the cool air from the AC above the bar greeted the back of my neck like a long-lost friend. Seriously, this place was hotter than Satan’s armpit on laundry day.
“ID,” the bartender mumbled in my direction, as he slid a drink to the guy on my right.
My eyes did another Olympic-level backflip. “You know I bought a round like, what, thirty minutes ago, right?” I fished out my ID from my pocket and waved it in front of him like I was performing a magic trick.
He shrugged, grinning like a kid who’d just stolen candy from a baby. “Sorry, sweetheart, it’s nothing personal. I’m not risking our liquor license on trying to remember who I carded when.”
“Sweetheart? Really?” I shot back.
He rolled his eyes and plopped the three drinks on a tray for me. “Fine, ma’am.”
I scowled, but not at the ‘ma’am’ part. He hadn’t asked for my order. He’d remembered that from last time, but still had to see my ID. Male bartenders, always trying to flex those authority muscles like they’re the bouncers of the booze world.
“Aria Reed!” Madison hollered from across the bar. “Get your ass back here with our drinks!”
I flashed a grin as I made my way to my friends, drinks in hand, so we could continue celebrating my promotion to senior designer at Webwise Solutions. Their youngest in the history of the company. You’d think, since it was my big night, I wouldn’t be the one buying the drinks. But Lily was a barista and Madison did computer coding for some tiny company, so none of us were exactly rolling in dough. We took turns buying rounds, no matter the occasion.
“So, who’s up next?” I asked, sipping my Malibu Sunset.
“It’s your turn.” Lily Thompson was a year older than me, but with her blonde curls and petite build, I had no doubt she’d still be getting carded long after I stopped.
Grabbing the three darts from the table, I barely took a second to aim and then, in three quick movements, let them fly. Thunk, thunk, thunk. One on either side of the bull’s eye and the last dead center.
“How the hell do you do that?” Madison downed her shot of whiskey, making a face that said she’d have been better off drinking turpentine. “I mean it. How do you just turn and throw and hit it like that?”
I shrugged. “Good hand-eye coordination?”
Madison flipped me off and went to retrieve the darts.
“Soooo, Madison and I were talking…” Lily began.
I groaned. Whenever she started a sentence with ‘Madison and I,’ I knew I was in for trouble.
“We came up with a list of songs we think would be perfect for you–”
“Nope.” I cut her off like a karate chop. “I told you two, I’m not singing karaoke.”
“Tell you what,” Madison chimed in, lining up her shot. “I think you just got lucky throwing those darts before. So, if I beat you in this round, you have to sing three songs when karaoke night starts.”
“One,” I countered. I couldn’t carry a tune even if it had handles. They just wanted to see me make a fool of myself in front of the whole crowd.
“Worried?” Madison grinned.
I narrowed my eyes and glared at her. “Fine. Three. But what do I get when I beat you?”
“Next round on me, if you beat me,” Madison said, winking.
With the precision of a surgeon, Madison threw her darts. One hit dead center, one in the circle right outside it, and the last in the next circle. Not bad, but I knew I could do better.
I went to retrieve the darts, already plotting my victory, when the TV screen on the wall caught my attention. Or, more specifically, the picture and name on the screen.
My foster sister.
Who was apparently missing.
What the hell…
Jumping out of a fucking airplane wasn’t my go-to choice for a birthday bonanza, but when your best bud, Jake Mason, is all about skydiving for his big day, you don’t exactly say no. There we were, practically hugging the open plane door, waiting for our instructor to give us the green light.
“This is fucking awesome!” Jake hollered, his face showcasing the most ridiculous grin I’d ever seen.
Seeing him so pumped had me grinning too. I doubled-checked my straps like a paranoid maniac. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all in for a wild time, but skydiving wasn’t on my bucket list. Jake wanted this, though, and I’d be damned if I didn’t get a kick out of it too.
“Ready, Ethan?” The instructor sized us up, and we nodded like bobbleheads.
And then, it was go time.
Jake took the plunge, let out a battle cry, and leaped into oblivion. I got the all-clear, took a deep breath, and followed suit.
For a split second, I was hyper-aware of everything: the chilly air nipping at my face, the adrenaline buzz, the butterflies in my stomach, and the spectacular view.
And then – nada. Total brain freeze.
Next thing I knew, my feet were back on solid ground, and my chute was collapsing behind me. A few feet away, Jake was losing his shit and yelling something about being “king of the world” or some Titanic nonsense.
I just shook my head and laughed my ass off.
After wrestling out of the backpack, I ambled over to Jake and clapped him on the shoulder.
“Had a blast, did you?”
He grinned like a madman, his dark hair a windswept mess, and green eyes sparkling. “That was amazing! Almost better than sex.”
I snorted. “Fun, yeah. But not that fun.”
“I said ‘almost.’”
“Sounds like something I should tell your wife.”
Jake shoved me, laughing. “Keep your trap shut around my wife, asshole.”
I held up my hands, all innocent-like. “Hey, I’m not the one dissing your sex life.”
“I’m not – fuck you, Cole.”
“Well, that’d be one way to improve your sex life,” I shot back. “But I don’t swing that way. Your wife, on the other hand…”
Jake thumped my shoulder, hard but not too hard. “Hands off Abigail, dickhead. She’s way outta your league.”
I shrugged. “Can’t argue with that.”
Untangling ourselves from the straps and buckles took some serious focus, and as we made our way to the changing room, I clocked the brunette at the counter giving me the ol’ once-over.
I slipped out of the jumpsuit and back into my regular clothes, feeling a lot more like myself. Jake did the same, as we shared a few more laughs about our death-defying experience.
With that out of the way, we headed for the exit. Jake nudged me and grinned, egging me on.
“Go get her number,” he said, nodding toward the brunette from earlier.
“What?” I feigned cluelessness.
“The girl at the counter. She’s had her eye on you since we got here. Get her number. Ask her out.”
“Not interested,” I said, not even bothering with a backward glance.
“And you’re busting my balls about my sex life?”
I raised an eyebrow. “You’re married with two kids. You should be thanking your lucky stars for the occasional quickie. Me? I hit a bar or club, buy a hottie a drink, and we’re off to the races.”
“Abigail and I have sex more than occasionally,” Jake insisted. “And it’s still great.”
“Can we not keep discussing your sex life?” I asked with a grin as I climbed into my car. “Let’s focus on what an amazing friend I am for planning this stellar birthday for you.”
“You are, and you did,” Jake agreed. “Can’t wait to see how you’ll top it next year.”
“I’ll come up with something,” I promised. “You’re the one who’s gonna have a tough time. I already set the bar sky-high and you’ll spend the whole year trying to come up with something to outdo me.”
The parking lot at Roquette was a shitshow, and it took me a hot minute to find a spot. Thankfully, Jake’s wife, Abigail – who I actually liked despite my constant teasing – had snagged some seats for us inside. Their kids were off at the grandparents’ for the night, which was a relief because I’m not exactly a kid person.
Since I was driving, I grabbed a Scotch for a toast and a beer to nurse for the rest of the night.
“Did you enjoy your little adventure?” Abby asked after we clinked glasses.
“I did,” Jake said, grinning like a kid in a candy store.
“Thank you, Ethan, for taking him,” Abby said to me. “I love him, but there’s no way in hell I was jumping out of a plane.”
“It was a blast,” I admitted.
“Not as fun as it could’ve been,” Jake chimed in, smirking. “At least for him.”
Abby shot him a puzzled look, while I glared daggers at him.
“Ethan had a prime opportunity to hook up with a lovely lady at the check in, but he didn’t even say hi,” Jake spilled the beans.
I flipped him off in response.
“Maybe Ethan prefers someone in a more similar line of work,” Abby suggested. “Someone who’s a CFO of a Seattle-based fashion company, perhaps?”
“Are you talking about Jennifer?” Jake asked.
Abby sipped her drink, nodding. “Jennifer’s gorgeous, smart, and gets the pressures of running a business. She’s also at the point in her life where she’s ready to date seriously and find a man to settle down with.”
I paused, my beer hovering near my lips. “And you think that’s me?”
“You’re thirty-eight, Ethan,” Abby pointed out.
“I’m well aware of my age,” I said, trying to keep my cool. “And I’m not interested in a serious relationship, let alone marriage and a family.”
As Abby listed all the ways Jennifer could change my mind, a news story playing behind her caught my eye.
A missing girl from Gig Harbor.
My fucking hometown.
A missing girl named Rachel Blackwell.
The same last name as the only woman I’d ever loved.
The one who got away.