“Huh-uh. I’m not letting you work late with all this freaky shit going down.” She crossed her arms over her chest and took another few steps into the room.
I was busy looking over the latest catalog of books for the children’s section, but even if I explained what I was doing, I knew Bethany would have none of it. Especially since, truth be told, I was a terrible liar. She and I both knew the order for the kids’ section wasn’t due for a few weeks. Still, I’d needed something to keep me preoccupied. Something to keep my mind off of what my inevitably awkward night would be like with Cooper.
For a second, I tried to weigh which was worse—the bag of bloody animal parts, or the thought of that heartsick look on Cooper’s face. Even now, it was a toss-up.
Bethany leaned over to see what I was looking at, then shut the book on my hand.
“Ouch! God, what’s gotten into you?” I pulled my hand away and shook it for effect, although it barely hurt.
“I have a date tonight, and I’m not going to risk getting trapped in this library with you and brutally murdered before I get laid one last time.”
As she chuckled at her own awful joke, I blinked and then rolled my eyes. “Thanks for the vote of confidence. Look, whatever happened, it was days ago. Nothing else has happened since. We all need to stop making such a fuss.”
That, at least, was what I told myself whenever I snuggled down to sleep at night. And without Gavin beside me, holding me in his strong, protective arms tonight . . .
I suppressed a shiver. We were all being silly. It had probably just been kids playing a prank, or some neighbor mad because I’d taken their preferred parking spot again.
“Emma, come on, what else is going on?” Bethany asked. “You’re not yourself, and if it’s not the threat, what is it?”
I shook my head. “It’s fine.”
“Don’t lie to me.” She jabbed a finger into my chest. “You know that’s one of my things.”
I nodded with a sigh. “Yeah, yeah. Lying and snakes. Your two least favorite things.”
“Exactly.” She offered me a coaxing smile, then plopped into the uncomfortable chair across from my desk. “Now, spill. Is it because Gavin is away?”
“How did you—”
“I saw him on the news this morning. He did a good job.”
“Good,” I said, pushing a pencil across my desk.
I’d secretly watched him myself on my cell, but was glad that Bethany agreed with me. Bethany, who was currently staring at me impatiently.
Knowing there was no way around it, I caved. “Okay, yeah, it has a little to do with him being gone.”
“You can stay at my place, you know.” She shrugged. “You’d be cutting in on my possible booty call tonight, but for you, I’ll make the sacrifice.”
I shook my head. “No, it’s not that. It’s, well, I’m not going to be alone tonight. That’s sort of the other issue.”
“Okay.” She quirked her lips into a confused half smile. “What do you mean?”
“Cooper is staying with me tonight.”
“Ah.” Bethany gave me a knowing nod and trilled, “Awk-ward.”
“Yeah. I mean, we talked about it and he said he understood everything and forgave me, but I still feel, I don’t know, weird about being alone with him after everything that happened between us. It’s not like he just stopped caring about me. Or me him, for that matter. Just not the way he wanted me to. What if we’re eating dinner, and I look up and he’s sad or something?”
“Right.” Bethany sighed. “Yeah, that sucks. No arguments here, sister.”
“I knew I could always come to you for sage wisdom,” I said, offering her a teasing smile.
She shrugged. “What do you want me to say? It does suck. What are you going to do?”
“Pretend I have the flu and confine myself to my bedroom?”
“A good plan.” Bethany nodded. “Except, of course, if you had so much as a sniffle, Gavin would come flying back here in a heartbeat.”
I laughed. “You’re probably right. I guess I just have to be brave and trust that neither of us is going to let this be awkward, and that our friendship is strong enough to weather this.”
“And if it isn’t, you have my number on speed dial. I’m an excellent third wheel. Ask any of my sisters.” Bethany winked, and I laughed.
“Right. Okay, I’ll keep my phone close by.”
The bell on the door to the library jingled and Bethany bolted from her seat, thudding down the hall until she reached the little lobby area.
From my desk, I could hear her saying, “I’m so sorry, sir, the library is closed for the night. You can, however, use all our online services—”
“No, I’m sorry, I was just looking for Emma. Is she here?”
When the familiar deep voice reached me, my chair scraped the floor as I moved to grab my bag and jacket. “It’s okay, Bethany,” I called out. “That’s Cooper.”
I walked down the hall to find Bethany smiling up at him, her neck practically craning to see all the way to his face.
“Are all you Kingsleys so tall?” she asked in awe.
“It’s one of our many talents.” Cooper grinned, then turned his attention to me. “Hey, are you ready to go? I’m sorry to surprise you like this, but I thought it’d be best if I walked with you to the car.”
I nodded. “Sure, but you didn’t have to come all this way.”
Cooper shrugged. “I’ll know for tomorrow. For tonight, I thought we could grab burgers for dinner.”
My stomach rumbled at the idea. “Sounds great.”
And so far? No awkwardness. Just a good, warm feeling at being around someone I genuinely liked. It was nice, but I willed myself not to get used to it. The night was young.
We said our good-byes to Bethany. When everyone had left the building, I locked up behind us and we made my way to Cooper’s car. Unlike Gavin, he hadn’t opted for a driver, but slid into the driver’s seat of a silver Porsche himself after opening the passenger door for me. I guessed my driver had the night off.
I clicked the door shut and buckled myself in as the car purred to life and classic rock hummed through the speakers. “Are you sure you want to pick up greasy food in a car this nice?”
He laughed. “Life is for living. I’m not going to worry about little stuff like that.”
We got carryout from my favorite burger place before making our way back to my brownstone. As we approached, Cooper checked the windows and front door for signs of a break-in, just as Gavin had done in the days prior. Once he was sure all was clear, I unlocked the door and let us both inside.
Without asking, Cooper unpacked the food in the kitchen. He grabbed bottles of water from the fridge, then found plates in the right cabinet on the first try.
“So,” he said, setting the plates down on the kitchen table, “I want you to do whatever you would do on a normal night. I’m just here to make sure you’re safe, not to be entertained.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. I’m not going to make you watch House Hunters.”
“Damn shame. Although, not much point anymore. They always pick house number three anyway,” he teased, then picked up his burger and unwrapped it.
I laughed, surprised again by his easy, laid-back demeanor. He seemed so . . . normal. Even if he realized he’d been mistaken about his feelings for me, surely I deserved some anger? But nope. Nada. Cooper just didn’t have it in him.
Then again, I should have known better than to think a Kingsley brother would do anything I expected him to do.
With a growing easiness between us, we tucked into our food, and I savored every greasy, comforting bite as ketchup oozed from beneath the bun and onto my fingers. Closing my eyes, I sucked the salt from a fry and ate it like it was the first thing I’d had after months at sea.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone who looks like they love food the way you do,” he said with a low laugh.
“I don’t think anyone loves food the way I do,” I replied with a grin before popping another fry into my mouth.