A bottle floats in the ocean, the letter haphazardly rolled and stuffed inside of it hiding a message for a select few deemed worthy to read. It pitches and yaws through the waves, safely holding the contents as it aimlessly wanders. Storms pass. Lightning strikes. And yet the bottle remains the same, protecting the fragile sheet of paper from the elements. The bottle is impenetrable. The waves crash and the rain pours, but it remains the same—unyielding. Bobbing along as if the glass is unbreakable.
Until someone comes along, grabs the bottle by the neck, and throws it to the ground.
The seemingly everlasting protection that was once in place is shattered to pieces, and the letter is stolen. There’s no telling if it’s in good hands. It could be ripped to bits in the blink of an eye—soaked in acetone rendering the ink unreadable—burned until it’s reduced to ash. Of course, not all things are what they seem…but the possibility of the letter being destroyed sounds more likely than any other outcome.
I’m biased, though, because it’s me. I’m the bottle. And I just wanted to be left the fuck at sea.
Ugh. I’m being dramatic—I should rewind to the point where I stopped recognizing my life. I could go as far back as when I was packing up my belongings to follow my best friend, Claire Branson, to Salem, Virginia. The venture across state lines from North Carolina wasn’t what caused my head to spin, though, for our lives were both as normal as they could possibly have been.
Normal. We got an apartment. We had jobs. She fell in love with her bartender coworker, Luke Turner. Her ex-boyfriend and old accomplice Colton Langdon blackmailed her for a heaping pile of money that she didn’t have, leading our newfound group to set up a sting operation for the drug dealer to whom Colton was indebted. We watched a man die.
You know. Typical girl things.
Traumatic as those events were and as often as I unintentionally revisited the horror in my mind, they weren’t what caused my world to feel like it turned upside down. It was the goddamn men—and I was currently sandwiched between the two that most often sent my mind reeling.
“I found a nice place to get dinner—”
“This shit again?”
The voices came forth from either side of me, and I slowly returned my empty bottle of cider to the counter. I took my time, rotating it atop the coaster as if I wanted to view the label. I swallowed the last sip that I held in my mouth and looked toward the second voice, Liam Cohen.
My dear friend and across-the-hall neighbor’s mouth was twisted in an amused grin that stretched the scar above his upper lip. The expression softened my annoyance, but only just. I shoved his brawny shoulder, and I was certain that the resulting sway of his body was one that was put on for show.
“Will you be nice?” I admonished him, and his dark eyes damn near sparkled.
“What is it,” Liam leaned forward to speak past me, “the fiftieth time that you’ve asked her out?”
I sighed, clamping my teeth together to prevent myself from responding sarcastically, ‘This week.’
“She said no, Jay,” Liam added. “She doesn’t do—”
“Dates,” I finished Liam’s sentence for him as I twisted myself to look at James Turner. “I don’t do dates.”
The grimace on James’ face that was clearly directed at Liam vanished as I looked into his grey eyes. He smiled, his crooked nose scrunching up, and he tucked his hair behind his ears.
“I know,” he replied, confidence unwavering. “You’ve said so before.”
Liam and I spoke simultaneously.
He advised, “Let it go, man,” and I questioned aloud:
“Do you want to fuck, Jay?”
James chuckled, shaking his head in amusement for it was not the first time that I had asked him that question.
Liam groaned loudly as he lifted his half-filled beer to his lips, “Dammit, Zo’.”
“Go ahead, take me out back,” I continued, challenging James and ignoring Liam’s clear disapproval. “I’ll drop to my knees and suck you off before you can say boo, but I’m not going on a date.”
The all-knowing laugh from behind the bar brought my line of sight to Claire. Her red hair shined, the yellow neon lighting along the wall behind her illuminating her in a glow that would have looked angelic if we weren’t all sitting in the dim, dusty bar that was down the street from our apartment complex. We all adored Henry’s—the bar, that is. Although Claire and Luke were required to frequent Henry’s considering that they were employed here, the rest of our group enjoyed going here on a regular basis.
Claire smiled wide as she looked at my empty bottle and silently replaced it with a full one.
“Are we doing this again, Zoey?” she asked me with one of her brows angled up high.
Luke approached us all from behind the counter, popping two shot glasses on the bartop as he grinned at her with soft, loving eyes, inquiring, “Doing what?”
“Zoey’s offering to give your brother head,” she told him.
“Ah,” Luke voiced, scrunching up his slim nose in distaste as he poured a liquor with a milky consistency into both glasses before him. “Yeah, that tracks.”
This was our ritual.
I won’t even try to lie—I wanted James. Bad. The brown hair I could wrap my hands in…the tattoos…the muscles…the beard…it was all too enticing. I frequently imagined that I could climb his arms like tree branches and wrap my thighs around his head until he suffocated in the most glorious, glorious death imaginable, but James had made it clear over the past several months that he wasn’t interested in a one-night-stand. Or a one-morning-stand. Or a one-afternoon-stand. Any kind of stand, really—trust me, I checked. It had been so long of us rinsing and repeating this same song and dance that the man even knew my birth control regimen because damn if I could get him to cave for one goddamn second, then we wouldn’t have to waste any time before he could just fuckin’ stick me already.
But he wanted a goddamn date…and because I just don’t do romance, I was forced to turn him down time and time again.
It was a challenge, to say the least, to continually deny a man who looked like he could throw me over his shoulder and onto his bed with a flick of his wrist. Especially when I was in the driest spell of my life. I used to have sex. Glorious sex. Toe curling sex. Sex that could make one want to believe in a god. Those times were almost an entire year behind me though, and to say that I was chomping at the bit for any sort of sexual interaction would have been a massive understatement.
Luke grabbed the two drinks he had prepared from the bartop and began to walk his way behind Claire, looking at his brother with a sympathetic glance.
“Liam’s right. Let it go, Jay—it’s a bad idea.”
“A bad idea?” I interjected sharply.
Luke exhaled heavily and halted his steps as Claire chuckled, “Oh, baby, you said the wrong thing.”
Luke looked to Liam with a silent, “Help me,” and Liam shook his head vigorously from side to side.
“I—um,” Luke stammered, his grey eyes wide from his sheer aversion to confrontation. He lifted the two small glasses in his hands. “These are getting warm.”
He scurried away and Claire smirked, saying, “I think what Luke’s trying to say is that you both have…different goals when it comes to relationships.”
I grumbled, “Relationships.”
“Exactly my point,” Claire retorted with a grin and glanced at James as she said, “Zoey doesn’t want a relationship. You are a relationship guy.”
James’ eyes rolled to the ceiling. “You say this because of the wife thing.”
She snorted. “Because you were married. Yeah.”
None of us, with the exception of Luke, had met James’ illusive ex-wife, Allison. Any conversation of her would sharply drift off course with James’ direction and, according to Luke, there was no need to pry. Allison was as out of the picture as a girl who had once signed lifelong papers with a man could have been.
“Only time I’ve seen Alli in the past year was to meet up and discuss legal paperwork,” James argued. “The divorce shit is lingering, but we’ve been separated for…fuck, I don’t even remember how long at this point. Year and a half, probably.”
Claire snatched the empty lowball glass that resided in front of him.
“Right.” She poured three fingers of his preferred whiskey instead of his usual two and pushed the glass back to him as she stated, “And you haven’t had a rebound in that time either.”
He scoffed, and I cooed, “Are you looking for a rebound, Jay?”
James looked at me with a gentle smile. “No, Zoey. I’m not looking for a rebound.”
“If you were,” I replied, “you do know that I’m here, yes? With legs wide open?”
Liam choked on his beer, the sound of him sputtering with a deep cough not lost on my ears. He spoke in a few choice words, but they all turned to incoherent chatter as James leaned down to speak to me quietly.
“How about,” his beard scratched at my neck as he moved his lips, and I had to force myself to contain a shudder, “I take you out. If it goes well—and I mean if—then I’ll show you what I really want.”
He said the last few words in a gritty tone that shot a jolt right through me, and I felt my lips stretch into a wide smile. It was the most sexually forward that James had ever been with me, and the feeling was gratifying as all hell. My will to continually tell James no when it came to his dating inquiries had withered away to almost nothing over the past few months—I hadn’t admitted that aloud, sure, but it was true. And now, with the sound of his gravelly voice still fresh in my mind and resonating between my legs, any of my remaining apprehension melted away.
I whispered back in as sultry of a tone as I could manage, “Are you compromising with me?”
James’ shoulders shook in a near-silent, husky laugh, and he leaned back to view my expression.
“Took you long enough,” I quipped.
He shrugged, grey eyes dancing as he ushered me, “So?”
I traced my gaze down his body and then back up. I focused for only a brief moment on the muscles in his inked forearms. They flexed as he gripped his glass tighter, and though I was uncertain of what was written across my face, Claire alerted me to it soon enough.
“Down, girl,” she mocked me.
I glanced her way and quietly voiced, “Woof.” She chortled, shaking her head until I looked back to James and sighed. “Fine; you’re on.”
James smiled so wide that I was able to see each and every one of his teeth. “Yeah?”
Claire gasped loudly, and Liam muttered from behind me, “Oh.”
I rolled my eyes and looked to the both of them. “Y’all are dramatic.”
Liam took a final swig of his beer, set it on the counter, tapped the rim of the glass to signify to Claire that he wanted another, and grinned a lopsided grin down at me.
“See you at the wedding,” he remarked. “You’ll be the one in white, right?”
He laughed at his own joke, the dim lighting shining off of his blonde head as he threw it back, letting out a loud guffaw as I smacked his chest.
“Fuck off, Lee!”
My profanity only appeared to amuse him more, and his laughter remained until Luke appeared once again. His typically coiffed hair was hanging over his forehead, his head cocked to the side in curiosity at Liam’s fit of hilarity. He set down the two empty shot glasses that he had returned with and began to ask Claire:
“What is he—”
She slid a fresh beer to Liam and trilled over her shoulder quickly, “You owe me money.”
A wicked smile stretched the freckles across her face, and Luke’s brows pulled together.
She moved to stand before him, placing a hand on his chest and leaving it there, toying with the material of his dark t-shirt.
He smirked at her candor. “And why is that?”
Her eyebrows raised in a silent challenge for him to guess, and he squinted his eyes, slowly shifting his gaze to James.
James lifted his whiskey in a cheersing motion and as he took a large sip, Luke’s focus moved rapidly to me.
“You didn’t,” Luke voiced to me disbelievingly.
“Did you…bet money against me, brother?” James asked him with a sarcastic tone, narrowing his eyes.
I added, “Did you two bet on my sex life?”
Luke held up an index finger to us both. “The particulars are neither here nor there.” He moved his now-accusatory finger to me. “You two are…”
Luke’s words lingered in the air, awaiting my response.
I spoke on an exhale, “Going on a date.”
“And you sound so excited about that,” Liam joked from my right.
Luke’s finger was now directed to Claire, tapping on her bare sternum right above the edge of her tank top.
“That,” he told her, “does not mean that I owe you shit, love.”
She began to argue, “You said—”
“Ah, ah, ah,” Luke held his finger to her lips now, silencing her as she rolled her eyes so hard that I wondered if they would fall out of her head. “Particulars are not to be discussed in public, baby. You know the rules.”
Claire bit the pad of his finger softly and Luke yelped, clasping his hand as if she had gravely wounded him. His mock offense lasted for only a split second, immediately being replaced with an adoring gaze that could melt paint off a wall as he whispered what appeared to be, ‘Feisty.’
Claire chewed on the inside of her cheek, her smile that was attempting to be withheld creeping to her lips until her teeth were beginning to blind me. She turned to James and me.
“The particulars are not to be discussed in public,” she announced wryly.
James chuckled, clearly enjoying their back and forth, and asked me, “When are you free?”
“Did you have to do this now, Zo’?”
Liam was watching me with tired eyes as I paced through my place of employment, Zest. It was five minutes past closing time on a Friday, and because we had discussed grabbing a drink at Henry’s after my shift was over, he was waiting—none too patiently, might I add—at the front door. We had one hour between now and when James was to pick me up from the bar for our outing, and I had yet to find something to wear for the occasion. Background music having been turned off for the night, my steps echoed along the black and white marbled tile as I perused the boutique.
“Well, I couldn’t shop while Brenda was here,” I argued. “She would have asked me what the occasion was and…”
He laughed softly. “Yeah, Bee would have been all over that.”
Brenda was another one of the employees at Zest. Being the owner Noelle’s younger sister, she was scheduled nearly as often as I was, and though I desperately tried to keep my private life private, she had a way of weaseling her way into my mind. In her mid-forties, a single mother with two young children, she was constantly on the lookout for any gossip to speak of. If she were anyone else, I would have told her to fuck off long, long ago, but for whatever reason, Brenda had quickly become an exception to the rule regarding divulging details of my private life. I never gave her any information of importance, of course, as I did that for very few people, but I simply allowed her to question what she felt she needed to.
Liam knew of Brenda’s interrogating ways—in fact, he had personally witnessed it on many occasions when he would meet me after my shift was over. It was no secret to Brenda that I was, as she put it, ‘single as a pringle,’ and, at Liam’s frequent appearance, she got to questioning my relationship status. I shot her inquiries down fairly quickly. Not in my typical fuck that noise attitude—this was a work environment, after all—but, regardless, I inevitably got my point across. Her interrogation regarding the, in her words, ‘hunky, tall glass of water with the blonde hair,’ ended almost as soon as it had begun, but her vaguely lewd commentary on Liam’s attractive looks remained.
Entertaining as that commentary was, Brenda was not here to make it, which was why my steps were tapping across the tile at an alarming rate.
“Can’t you just wear what ya have on?” Liam whined. I halted my steps, glanced at him disbelievingly, and he muttered questioningly, “Or not?”
“It’s a date, Lee, I can’t just wear this.”
“What’s the problem with what you’re wearing now?” he asked. “You look fine.”
“I look fine?”
Liam shrugged. “Brown’s a good color.”
I looked down to observe my outfit—the t-shirt dress fell just below my upper thigh, the chocolate color of it offsetting the pallor of my skin that I had yet to tan in the new summer sun.
“It’s basically an oversized shirt, Liam, I need to look nicer than this.”
“What do you care, Zoey?” he questioned as he rocked back on his heels. “You could wear a paper bag; James isn’t gonna give a shit.”
“Okay, well, I give a shit.”
“Why?” He chuckled. “You like him? Are ya goin’ soft on me?”
“I just want-to-fucking-look-nice, Liam!”
As I glared at him, he pressed his lips together in a fine line. I exhaled a breath sharply through my nostrils, turned to face the rack that I stood closest to, and picked up a red dress. I held the black, wrought iron hanger up to my shoulders, displaying it on my body. The fabric had impressions of leaves adorning its entirety. What was supposed to be rather short would have been a knee-length skirt for a girl of my short stature, and the neckline was delightfully provocative—holding up the plunging décolletage were two spaghetti-thin straps that split into four separate strings along the back. With my blonde hair being cropped so short that I had little need to even tuck it behind my ears, the dress would leave my back almost completely bare. I smiled as I considered it further, holding it out at an arm’s length.
“Little too much tit, don’t ya think?” Liam voiced.
I sighed and draped the dress over my arm, saying, “That’s kinda the point.” He grumbled in response, and I retorted, “Okay, what would you choose?”
“For myself?” he returned with a broad grin that elongated his many freckles. “A short skirt that shows off my ass, thanks for asking.”
I snickered. “Do you wanna help me or not?”
His thick eyebrows pinched together. “You want me to help you pick out an outfit for your date?”
“The quicker I find something, the sooner we’ll be at Henry’s,” I reminded him.
Liam nodded, turning his head around to view the store’s entirety without moving his feet, and stated, “Green dress, front window.”
I knew the one. Olive green, it had large, pearlescent buttons down the center and a skirt that would flutter down to just above my knees. The top was modest but had a ruching to it that I knew would be a flattering cut for my ample bosom.
“That one?” I questioned. “Why that one?” Liam raised his left shoulder and then dropped it, and I pressed jokingly, “It’s because it doesn’t show off any cleavage, isn’t it?”
He exhaled loudly. “It matches your eyes.” His words struck me in a way that I couldn’t fully discern, and I paused to consider them for a beat. They still hadn’t fully sunken in when he quickly added, “You wanna look nice? Get the green dress. Now, can ya try something on so we can go? I’m thirsty.”