Brake Checks & Manhattans

Brake Checks & Manhattans

Manhattans on 38th Street

Part Five

It wasn’t like she could blame the things she’d told Bryn on the bourbon. She hadn’t had but a few sips when those things had come gushing out. Well, not gushing, but for Gabe—who didn’t share things easily—might as well have been gushing. Thankfully, Bryn hadn’t made a big deal of it, of anything she’d said—whether it was copping to being unhappy with her siblings for being happy or the stuff about Harrison.

Gabe wasn’t naïve. She knew it meant something. All of it meant something, and maybe there was a connection of some sort between feeling betrayed by her siblings and the attraction to Harrison. But she also knew she wasn’t cut out for relationships. She liked Harrison; yes, dammit, she would admit she was attracted to him, and she’d spent several minutes—maybe hours—wondering what it would have been like to kiss him the night he’d come over and they made brownies together.

But she was glad it hadn’t happened. Well. She had her moments when she wished he would have kissed her, but even in her imagination, she wasn’t sure how it would have worked out. In the past, a kiss would have led to more and that would have led to Harrison waking in her bed the following morning, and that would have led to Gabe losing not only Harrison’s friendship, but Bryn and Monty’s friendship and Elise and Dex’s friendship, too. She liked sex, no question. But she loved Bryn and Elise, and she felt welcome in their lives, in their homes. She didn’t want to risk losing that for a night or two of fun.

In the darkness, when she lay awake at night, she had relived the moment a hundred times. Being around Harrison, spending one-on-one time with him was so easy. And even after that moment—the look they’d shared had almost been more intimate than the touch of his finger on her lip—even after that, when they’d cleaned up the mess and sampled the brownies they made, it was still easy. Maybe there had been a bit of tension, but it was the good kind—the kind that had made her relive the moment over and over again.

Still, she wasn’t good with relationships, and the thought of losing this easy friendship she and Harrison had grown into made her chest squeeze uncomfortably tight. Bryn could have teased her. Could have said I told you so, could have insisted on calling Elise on the spot to make a big deal of it. But she hadn’t. She’d invited Gabe to stay for dinner and treated her like part of her family.

Bryn had walked her out later that night. The rain had slowed to sprinkles, and the two of them stood in the drive by Gabe’s car. By that time, Gabe was dying for a cigarette, but they’d talked a bit longer. Gabe wondered, worried—still did—if the reason Bryn hadn’t teased her about Harrison was that she was so lost about her mom’s failing health. They hadn’t talked any more about her mom or Harrison for that matter, but they’d laughed about Bryn’s kids and then about Hollywood people. The distance between them and Hollywood was just what they needed with such big thoughts on their hearts.

Gabe hadn’t forbid Bryn to tell Elise what she’d shared. She doubted that Bryn had rushed back inside to call their friend, but part of her almost wished she could believe it. It made her heart hurt to see Bryn so sad. The three of them had a drink together two nights later, and while Elise didn’t tease her anymore than Bryn had, it was obvious from the smooth flow of conversation—Elise asked about her brother and shower and wedding plans—that Bryn had filled her in.

Though she wasn’t much of a cook—why bother when she lived alone—she had invited Harrison over, so six o’clock found her in her tiny kitchen watching spaghetti noodles boil. Wasn’t like it was difficult—no homemade sauces—but she thought she did a damned good job with spaghetti and meat sauce. It wasn’t just passable; it was good. And since she and Harrison were just friends, she didn’t have to worry over how messy spaghetti could be.

She lifted her head when she heard his knock. Wondered what her friends would say if they knew they were casual enough together now that he knocked and let himself in. Likewise, her at his place. So far, it hadn’t been a problem. Gabe didn’t foresee any involvements in her near future that might present Harrison with an awkward moment walking into her house. He didn’t seem too worried; she supposed they could cross that bridge if and when they came to it.

The thought stuck in her throat, and she was coughing when he rounded the corner of the living room and appeared in the kitchen. Tonight, he was dressed in well-worn denim and a black button-down shirt. Black boots. And the same charming smile. She’d noticed a few weeks into their new friendship that he had a chip in one of his front teeth. Part of her wanted to know what happened, but mostly, she thought mentioning his teeth might be a little bit like him touching her lip when she had brownie batter on it. Just the thought of his smile, of his teeth, made her belly feel a little fluttery. No need to stir up that tension again, even if it was the fun kind.

“Hey.” He set a bottle of wine on the island counter—barely enough room for the appliances and sink, Gabe wondered who had decided an island counter in this room was a good idea—and dropped a kiss on her cheek.

“Hi.” She drank him in and then turned back to check the sauce. “You didn’t have to do that.” She gestured to the bottle of wine.

“Wasn’t sure Manhattans paired well with spaghetti.” He shrugged and grinned a little sheepishly.

“I made dessert.” She arched her brows and decided that sounded a little flirty. Best to turn that off now.

“Brownies?”

She laughed softly and shook her head. “Cookies.”

“So, wine with dinner and a Manhattan later with cookies?”

“Sure.” She shrugged and grinned. “Almost ready.”

“Anything I can do?”

“Nope.”

“Wine bottle opener?”

“Um.” She frowned and looked around the tiny kitchen, suddenly worried that she didn’t have one.

“I came prepared.” He pulled a corkscrew opener from his pocket and flashed it at her.

“Wow.” She bit her lip, but she felt a smirk playing over her mouth. She wondered what else he’d come prepared for, or more accurately, what he might always be prepared for. How many condoms did he tuck away in his wallet on any given night? The thought made her cheeks burn, so she made a show of turning away from him to turn the burners off and get plates from the cabinet to the left of the stove.

“No wine glasses?”

She looked over her shoulder and watched him tug the cork out of the bottle. He lifted only his eyes to look at her. Gabe wondered for a moment if he was angry with her. But for what? Not having an opener? They never drank wine here.

“No.” She stared at him silently, worried that he was upset with her.

“We could drink it from the bottle,” he suggested. Relief washed over her when he offered her a lazy grin.

“Well, we could,” she agreed, “but I do have glasses. Grab the old-fashioned glasses.”

“Just don’t tell the wine police.” He stepped around her to get the glasses.

“I’m sorry.” She kept her eyes on his plate as she heaped a pile of spaghetti on it. “I didn’t realize you were bringing wine.”

“These’ll work.” He nudged her arm as he slipped back by her to the counter where he’d left the bottle. She set his plate down and then served herself a much smaller amount. “Wow. You must think I’m really hungry.”

She chuckled softly as she sat down. As small as the kitchen was, she enjoyed the intimacy of eating at the counter. Her living room wasn’t terribly big, but if she wanted, she could put a table in the corner and call it a dining room. Again, since she lived alone, it didn’t matter to her. She ate most of her meals—calling what she ate meals was a bit of a stretch—standing at the counter, and she liked hanging there with her friends.

Elise and Bryn.

And Harrison.

“You’re a guy.” She shrugged. “Don’t guys eat a lot?”

“Well, yeah.” He wagged his eyebrows as he handed her a glass. “But I am trying to watch my figure.”

“Really?” She sipped the wine and let her eyes take a ride down over his broad shoulders and chest, careful not to linger too long where his body narrowed at the hips.

“Lotta hard work goes into this body,” he reminded her.

“Oh, I know.” She nodded. They had worked out together a time or two, but that was rare. She’d seen him work his ass off, though. She’d seen him lift and run and box. Problem there was that she liked what she’d seen—the boxing bit had delivered some interesting dreams, and she had to draw the line somewhere. The next time he’d asked if she wanted to go to the gym with him, she’d begged off and said she had to work late.

“But I’ve seen a lot of food go into that body, too.” She looked at him over the top of her glass. “And besides. It’s really good.”

“You’re not eating very much.”

“Not much hard work goes into this body,” she confessed, but she was still grinning. “Therefore, I do have to watch how much food does.”

“I told you I would train you.”

She snorted as he sat down across from her and lifted his fork.

“You would kill me.”

“Gotta feel the burn.” He twisted a forkful of spaghetti and gave her the eye.

“So.” She cut her spaghetti and then raised her fork and started to say something, but he cut her off.

“Did you just—”

“What?” She stared at him innocently as he reached over the counter and closed his hand around hers.

“Cut? Your spaghetti?” He frowned at her. “Like a little kid?”

She snorted and then leaned back to get away from him when he let go of her hand and reached to slug her shoulder.

“I did.” She pushed his hand away, both of them laughing now.

“Okay. So. The next time we have spaghetti, we’re eating at my place.”

“Why? Do you have rules against cutting noodles at your house?”

“I do. And they’re strictly enforced.” He shrugged. “Sorry. You’re guilty. You’d have to be punished.”

“It’s easier to eat.”

They ate in silence for a few moments, and then suddenly, Harrison pointed his fork at her and raised his eyebrows.

“Um. You look super serious.” She shook her head. “What gives?”

“I have wineglasses, too.”

She rolled her eyes and laughed again.

“It’s more grown up,” he argued.

“I don’t like adulting. I do it every day at work.”

“Italian food should be romantic. You need wine and wineglasses.”

“Friends don’t need romance,” she reminded him.

“Good point,” he said quietly and nodded. “Still. It’s good wine.”

“It is.” She put her fork down and picked up her glass. “But I don’t know a lot about wine. You’ll have to educate me.”

“Will you call me teacher?”

“Mr. Kent.”

“No. That makes me sounds old.”

She pursed her lips and tipped her head. “Hmm. Yeah, it does.”

He laughed and twirled another big forkful, but he hesitated with the fork above his plate.

“What?”

“It’s Cabernet Sauvignon,” he started.

“Which is a dry red wine,” she continued. When he beamed at her proudly, she laughed long and loud. “I know wine. I know what I like. I just don’t know…the wineries. The good wines.”

“Okay. Do you like dry red?”

“I do.”

“Okay. This is a Sonoma wine.”

“It’s good.”

He hesitated again.

“What’s up, Kent? You’re acting weird.” She was teasing, but when Harrison put his fork down and drummed his fingers on the counter, she held her breath, afraid suddenly of what he would say.

“I have to tell you something.”

“Okay.” She nodded and picked up her glass. “Hit me. I’m ready.” She lifted her glass to him.

“I have a date Friday night.”

She stared at him silently because for a second, his words didn’t make sense. Was this a date? This felt like a date. But it wasn’t, right? Because, for one thing, cutting her spaghetti wasn’t romantic. Not to mention not having proper wineglasses.

And also, she and Harrison were just friends.

So then why had his words driven a stake through her heart?

She blinked finally and gave him a slow nod.

“Okay.”

They had plans for Friday, didn’t they? They had talked about going to a new bar downtown. Grabbing a beer. Hanging out.

“I know we had plans.” He winced. “Someone at work set this up.”

“Blind date?” She wiggled her eyebrows.

“No. I know her. But not that well. Anyway…Friday was the only night that worked for her. I thought maybe you would have mercy on me.”

“Rain check?” She shrugged. “Absolutely.”

“Either that…” He took a deep breath and tipped his head. Gabe felt the zing from his eyes across the counter. That look. So much like that night he’d rubbed the brownie batter from her lip and then they’d shared that long look and if he’d said pretend I just kissed you, she could have told Bryn and Elise in detail what that kiss felt like.

“Harrison.”

“Or you could ask me not to go.”

His voice strummed low in her belly.

She cleared her throat and summoned her guts and pulled out a laugh.

“Of course, you should go.” She hoped she sounded convincing, because she didn’t want him to go. She hated having to cancel—even postpone—plans with him for any reason, but the fact that there was another woman involved kind of hurt. She felt left out, which was ridiculous. This was how it—life—worked. Friends took a back seat to dates.

“Really?” He twisted his lips, but the look he managed wasn’t a smile.

“Yeah. What’s her name?”

“Susie.”

“Sounds cute.”

It did, too. The name. Brought to mind a prim and proper girl with pleated skirts and sensible pumps. The trouble was Harrison was too much man for a girl like that.

Gabe cleared her throat again. How the hell did she know Harrison was too much man for Susie? First of all, she didn’t know Susie, and second, she didn’t know Harrison intimately.

Well. Not biblically. But they’d grown close since they met five months ago. They’d swapped secrets—Gabe had told him about sneaking her mom’s cigarettes when she was twelve. About watching her dad with his girlfriend and being sickened by it. Harrison had told her about going fishing with his grandpa every weekend when he was a little boy. That his grandpa had passed away five years ago, and Harrison had sobbed his heart out.

What did Susie know about Harrison sobbing his heart out? Ever?

“She’s cute,” he agreed.

He didn’t need cute. He needed someone bold and lively and fun. Charismatic like him. Too big of a personality might be too much, but the name Susie sounded too timid for him.

“So, what’s the date?”

He picked up his fork again, and Gabe wondered if he was over feeling guilty now. If he had just worried about upsetting her, rather than wishing she could give him a reason to cancel his date with Susie. Because for just that one moment, she’d thought the look he gave her was more than worry over hurting his friend. She’d thought—hoped—that he wanted her to stake her claim.

“Dinner and a movie.”

She nearly choked on her wine.

“I didn’t say Netflix and chill.”

She laughed softly. “Where are you taking her?”

“She wanted to keep it casual,” he told her. “So, we’re going to The Yard.”

Gabe and Harrison had been to The Yard on a few occasions. It was a fun bar; she’d had fun there. They’d shot pool one night. Gone outside to play the cornhole and bags game once, but when Harrison had seen her shaking from the cold, he had insisted they go back inside.

“Sounds fun.” She sounded wistful, and he heard it, because he gave her another sharp look. “What movie?”

“I don’t know.” He ate more. “Any thoughts?”

“Nope.”

They finished dinner, conversation centered around wine and Harrison’s one trip to Sonoma Valley. He decided she needed to do a wine tasting, and she suggested he talk to her boss about the time off. He laughed, and Gabe tried to.

Would he kiss her? She wondered as they worked together to clean the kitchen. Would Harrison kiss Susie Friday night? Was he a first-date-kissing guy? Would it go further? Would Susie want it to go further? They apparently knew each other, but Gabe sure wasn’t going to ask him how well.

When the dishes were done, Harrison mixed the Manhattans and Gabe opened the container of chocolate cookies she’d made earlier.

“Oh.” He moaned appreciatively. “Those look good.”

She picked one up and studied it from every angle. So much easier than looking Harrison in the eyes.

“They do, don’t they?”

“Chocolate chocolate chip?”

“Added some caramel, too,” she confided. “I like caramel.”

She sipped the Manhattan he’d made her and nibbled on a cookie.

“Let’s do taco Tuesday next week.”

She nodded absently. “Sure.”

“Sonoma wine tasting next weekend.”

“’kay.”’

He reached around her for a cookie. “And maybe Italy next month.”

“That sounds fun.” She laughed. “I am listening.”

What if he and Susie clicked? And she lost her friend?

“What’s wrong, Gabryel?”

If she was going to lose him anyway, shouldn’t she enjoy it? Do it on her terms?

“Nothing.” She shook her head and propped her butt on the counter at her back. “Where in Italy?”

“Wherever you want.” He leaned on the counter beside her, but he angled his body toward her.

A few moments of quiet passed. Gabe took a big drink.

“Harrison?”

“Hmm?”

“Don’t go on a date with Susie.”

Her whisper was met with silence. Eyes on her glass, she took a deep breath and struggled to meet his eyes.

“No?”

“Please?” she whispered. “Cancel your date?”

Rather than answer her, he moved and set his glass down behind her. He cupped her chin, his thumb gentle on her lower lip.

“Gabryel.”

She nodded as he dipped his head.

The kiss was soft and sweet and the best thing on her lips all night. He feathered his fingers in her hair as he brushed his lips over hers again.

“This?” His voice was gruff. She nodded. “You’re sure?”

“Yes.”

“We’re not gonna rush this,” he told her.

“I know.”

“Because it’s gonna last.”

She nodded again as his tongue touched hers.

“Just.” She grabbed a fistful of his shirt as she kissed him back. “Be nice to her. When you break the date.”

“I’m always nice,” he reassured her. He was, too. Which was what had drawn her in. Not the stylish haircut or the sideburns on his razor-sharp cheekbones. Not his green eyes, though damned if she’d ever thought of green eyes as bedroom eyes before Harrison Kent. All of that was icing on the cake, but Gabe was most attracted to his personality.

“I know.” She nodded. “I just…I don’t know if this is gonna work, but if it’s not, I’d rather wreck us like this. I don’t wanna just stand by and watch you walk away. I know you’re not mine to give, but I don’t wanna watch you fall in love with Susie and then have her decide you don’t need to be around me. I don’t wanna get Christmas cards with your family picture, with you and Susie and your two point five kids and your dog and your—”

“Two point five kids.” Chin resting on top of her head now, he’d drawn her against his chest and put his arms around her. She felt laughter rumble through him. “How does that work?”

Aware that she’d just let her crazy out and possibly given him reason to go out with Susie, she chuckled and nodded without looking at him.

“She would sign her name with a heart above the i. And your kids would look just like you. God, what if she calls you Harry when you make love to her?”

“Gabryel.”

Again, with that low rumble of laughter.

“I’m sorry.” She bit her lip, fighting both the grin on her face and the tears in her eyes. “I wasn’t ready for this. For you.”

“But I’m here.”

She nodded. “Would you rather have Susie? She’s probably not crazy like I am.”

“Why do you think I asked you for mercy earlier?”

“I dunno. Maybe Susie’s an uptalker or plays chess. Maybe you just wanted me to talk you out of the date.”

“I didn’t want you to talk me out of it. I wanted you to not want me to go.”

“I don’t want you to go,” she whispered. “If we’re gonna sabotage our friendship, I’d rather be at the wheel and do it my way.”

“Who says we have to sabotage anything?”

“It’s been my experience,” she said quietly as she finally drew back to look at him. “I’m not good at relationships.”

“But we’ve never tried it together.”

“Are we really gonna go to Italy?”

“Honeymoon?”

She would swear she saw a twinkle in his eye, but she might have missed it when she threw her head back and laughed.

“That’s taking it slow?”

“What’s taking it slow is me. Kissing you goodbye now. And going home.”

She appreciated his words, the hope and the promise behind them. But she hated to see him go.

“It’s early.”

“It is,” he agreed. “Five months of friendship and five minutes of…Gabryel and Harrison is early. As much as I want to stay, I would rather do things right.”

She nodded. Offered him a cookie as he swallowed another drink of his Manhattan. He flashed her a grin.

“You could go home and call Susie.”

“I could. But maybe it would be better to tell her tomorrow at work.”

“It would be the Harrison thing to do,” she said softly. “What’re you gonna tell her?”

“That the moment I’ve been waiting for happened tonight, and that I’ll be with my soul mate Friday night. Well. Every Friday night.”

“Soul mate.” She raised her eyebrows and followed him out of the kitchen to the front door. “You need to get your brakes checked, Mr. Kent.”

He winced and turned back to her to drop a kiss on her cheek.

“Are you gonna call me Harry? When I make love to you?”

Stunned by his direct question, she could only stare at him with her mouth open and her cheeks on fire.

“Goodnight, Gabryel Adams.”

She watched from the front door as he nibbled on his cookie on the way down her sidewalk. When he reached the curb, he turned back to her and tossed her a wave. The weightless feeling in her chest—she knew—was her heart following him home.