Groaning quietly, Penny woke up slowly. Agonized. Eyes tightly closed, her brain felt like it was ricocheting madly around her head—even just breathing seemed to be sending the thing unraveling, bouncing painfully from left to right, unhinged. Parched. That’s how she felt. Her mouth was dry. Impossibly dry. Smacking her lips together, she tried to get some moisture inside the dessert coating her teeth, her tongue…
Stretching, Penny let her eyes slowly slip open.
Wait. Her arms raised up over her head, Penny felt confused, disorientated.
This wasn’t her duvet.
This wasn’t her bed.
This wasn’t her house.
It was only by sheer will that Penny kept herself from shrieking—alarm bells jangled unerringly in her bleating brain.
What happened last night—?!
Then, almost as quickly as the question popped into her head, Penny remembered, the night before slapping itself across her memories.
She and Jake had gone out for drinks, one round quickly following another. She wasn’t even sure how many beers—urgh, how many shots?—she’d consumed. Five? Six? God…
She’d told him about how lonely she’d been feeling lately, how insecure—. “…I mean, what is it about me? The everyman friend.” She’d laughed humorlessly.
Jake had jerked his head back. “Don’t say that…”
“Why not? It’s true. No one looks at me. Well,” Penny considered with a wicked grin. “Not unless their pointing at the freak show down the road.”
“Penny—” Jake growled warningly.
“I want to be look at,” Penny pleaded. “Really looked at, you know? Desired. Sought-after. I want to be the fantasy.” Flapping her hands dramatically, she said: “I want what comes so naturally for other women.” Women like Kate, she thought, but she didn’t speak that last bit out loud.
“Well, from where I’m sitting, the view across the way doesn’t look to bad,” Jake joked with a wink in her direction.
Penny made a face. “I’m being serious here.”
“So am I.”
Confused, flustered, Penny hadn’t been sure how to interpret that. So she laughed, took it for the light-hearted comment it was most likely supposed to be. “Okay. Whatever.”
Jake sighed. Reaching forward, his hand hovering over hers, he said: “Penny, you have to know—”
She shook her head. “I mean, what do you look for in a woman?”
Jake reared back, his chair scraping against the tiled floor. “What?”
Penny persisted. “What makes a woman attractive to you? What’s your type?”
Jake looked uncomfortable. Taken aback.
Penny had waved her hand dismissively. “I’m looking for a little perspective here, and who better to ask than a man? You know what it is that makes one woman cute and another gorgeous; what makes one woman a good friend as opposed to a good…well, bedmate?”
“Bedmate?” Jake grinned.
Penny made a gesture. “You know what I mean.”
“Okay.” Jake took a deep breath, his hand dropping back down to the table. His eyes watched Penny’s hands as they ripped and shred the paper coaster before her. “I like a woman who has a great sense of humor.”
Penny stuck out her tongue. “Everyone says that.”
Jake shrugged. “It’s true. If she makes me laugh…that’s huge. Bantering back and forth. Wit. It’s so important.”
“And someone who’s kind. Considerate. Someone who can be a good friend as well as a good, what was it you said?” Jake teased. “Oh, yeah. Bedmate.”
Penny gave him a look. “Really?”
“Vague character traits? That’s what you’re giving me here? Sweet and funny? Really. What’s next: intelligent and driven? Adventurous and daring?” Penny shook her head vehemently. “No. I want specifics. What makes you tick?” Penny leaned in close.
Jaw swallowed hard.
Penny raised an expectant eyebrow.
A second passed in silence. Then another.
“Brunettes.” He cleared his throat. “I like brunettes.”
“Since when?” Penny asked with a pfft of sound. “Pretty much every girl you’ve ever dated was blonde.”
Penny considered this for a moment. “Okay. Well. What else?”
Jake held her gaze. “Dark eyes,” he offered softly. “Mysterious, exotic eyes.”
Penny nodded eagerly. “Go on.”
“A woman who isn’t afraid to take risks. Someone who believes in what she believes and who isn’t afraid to be herself, even if that makes her different from everyone else.”
But Jake was on a roll by then:
“…a woman who I know I can always go to for advice; who I want to go to for advice. Even when it’s zany or crazy. Especially then.”
Penny’s head tilted to one side. That sounded suspiciously like—
“—someone who’ll wait up for me when I ask, who’ll climb out windows for me without a second thought…”
He rushed on ahead: “…a woman who is strong and independent but who I want to protect anyway, who I can’t help trying to protect.”
Penny’s voice was thin. “But-but, you’ve always done that for me,” she pointed out hesitantly. “Shielded me from a world of ugly gossips and rumors….”
Jake smiled sadly. “And I always will. That’s my point.”
Penny looked down nervously. She wasn’t sure what was happening, but something definitely was— it was there in his voice, in the gaze he leveled her way. Frantically, she tore a new chunk off her coaster.
“Look at me.”
Slowly, she raised her eyes.
“Do you know what else I like?”
Penny shook her head slowly. “No.”
“Curly hair. Bangles and scarves and flowing skirts.” Jake dropped his eyes down to her mouth. “And red lipstick.”
Penny’s hands flittered up to her lips. “Oh.”
Reaching forward, his hand came to rest over hers, stopping her fingers mid-motion from their shredding. “Penny. Don’t you know?”
“Know?” Her voice came out like a squeak.
“How beautiful you are?”
“Don’t,” she whispered, shaking her head hard. “Don’t say stuff you don’t mean.”
Jake grinned. It was lopsided. “Why are you so sure I don’t mean it?”
Penny throat convulsed. “I don’t want to be your charity case, Jake,” she insisted. “Saying stuff just because—well, it’s almost worse, you know. People telling you the things they think you want to hear, regardless of whether or not they’re true. It’s so clichéd and humiliating.” She made a face. “The comforting friend telling the ugly, fat one she’s actually gorgeous and skinny—or what have you.”
Jake had whistled then. Long and low. “You’re way off. That’s not it at all.”
Penny hardly dared to breathe. There it was again—that note in his voice that she wasn’t quite sure how to read. Intense. Emotional. Heated. Breathy, pitchy, she risked her pride: “Then why are you saying it?”
He’d given her a meaningful look. “I think you know why. At least, I hope you do. That you feel the same.”
As the previous evening’s conversation floated over Penny’s consciousness she felt her stomach getting tight, her palms sweating…
They’d paid out after that. Neither of them had brought the conversation back up again, but it remained there, between them …
Closing her eyes, Penny watched the rest of the night through her mind’s eye, the events parading past like the reels on a feature movie presentation.
They’d stood up to leave, Jake helping Penny shrug into her light jean coat.
Jake reaching for her hand as they walked outside.
“Don’t worry,” He’d assured her as they marched up to the curb. “I had the bartender call us a cab. They should be here any minute.”
Then she was sliding inside the crummy, unclean vehicle, sitting demurely beside Jake as he raddled off the address.
They were huddled together at the steps leading up to Jake’s apartment. It was misty outside. Penny was snuggled in her jacket, teetering unsteadily on her four inch heels, the faint sound of the taxi pulling away echoing in her ears—and then he was kissing her. Just as she’d expected him to do. Just as she’d been hoping he’d do. (After all, with a telling look sent her way, he’d only proffered his address to the cabbie, hadn’t he? It wasn’t like she was so drunk she hadn’t understood that look in his eyes when he’d done it, the unspoken question mark hanging in the air, her subtle but unmistakable answer. She hadn’t offered up a second address.)
Right there, at the base of the steps, his arms winding themselves around her back, hauling her body up close to his, Jake kissed Penny.
The feel of his belt digging against her stomach; the graze of his fingers at her waist, pulling her impossibly closer; the scent of his aftershave wafting up in the still night air; the taste of whiskey where his lips clung to hers…
Penny didn’t remember going upstairs but then, somehow they were, his arms steering her toward the bedroom, her shirt falling off one shoulder as the back of her knee bumped up against the living room end table, upending her balance…his hands guiding her as she walked backward, her thoughts too consumed by his lips, his hands, those roaming fingers, to be bothered overmuch with walking. Then she felt the world dip, her body being pushed backward, her shoulders falling softly against his mattress….
Feeling her heart picking up double-time in her chest as what happened next transfixed itself upon her gaze, Penny slowly felt her head turn to the left.
And there, not five inches away from her was Jake, his black hair spiking out against his white pillow, his face expressionless in sleep, those impossibly long eyelashes resting against his high cheekbones, the beginnings of a beard shadowing across his jawline.
Oh God he was gorgeous.
Her chest shaking, quaking as the full realization of what happened settled upon her person, Penny could feel the onslaught of a panic attack take form. She was in bed with Jake. Jake.
Dammit, what had she been thinking?
What had he been thinking?
Penny felt tears crowding against her throat. Jake. And it had been glorious. Everything she’d dreamed it could be and more (and dammit, she had dreamt about this. About him and her; and, if she were honest, she’d dreamt about it pretty much since high school.)
But she and Jake were never supposed to actually happen. He was supposed to be a fantasy. Someone she could curl up to in her imagination, all the while knowing that reality would never bend so far as to allow for something so—unnatural. The cool guy and the weirdo? Yeah right. No thanks.
There is only so much disbelief the mind can handle.
Biting her lip, Penny let her eyes wander down his sleeping form. Better soak it in now, it wasn’t likely to repeat itself.
He’d been lonely; she’d been lonely. The perfect recipe for just this kind of thing. (And the copious amounts of beer probably hadn’t helped much.) More than likely, she’d been little more than his rebound from Kate.
Penny closed her eyes tightly on the pain of that thought. Still, she knew she was right. Because there was absolutely no other earthly reason Jake would have jumped into bed with—well, with her.
It’s not like he loved her. It’s not like he was even interested in her that way. No. Nu-uh. No way. He’d been lonely. She’d been lonely. This had been a means to an end. A forgone conclusion to a temporary salve.
“You stupid fool,” Penny whispered harshly to herself, her arms gripping the bed sheet tightly as she quietly tiptoed out of bed. “You stupid, stupid fool.”
Tears forming at the back of her throat, Penny made it soundlessly out of the bedroom, her arms snatching up scattered bits of clothing along the way. Fumbling toward the bathroom, she felt the smothered hysteria trying to claw its way up her stomach…
Quickly throwing on the clothes from the day before, Penny kept her eyes determinedly trained to the ground, refusing to meet her face in the mirror overhead. Refusing to see the red-rims of grief engulfing her as the broad light of day beat down; refusing to see the hurt and humiliation bearing down on her.
She’d slept with Jake.
The moment she’d been waiting for—
And now it was over.
Closing her eyes as the first tears fell, Penny chocked back the accompany cries scratching against her vocal chords. Well, she’d finally gotten her wish, hadn’t she? She knew what it was like to fall in love.
(It wasn’t like she hadn’t known it before. She’d been a little in love with Jake since that first day in the cafeteria when he’d sat down next to her. But she’d never had to admit it to herself, she’d never had to take those feelings seriously, because what would have been the point? He was so far out of her league, she was so far removed from his kind of girl—it’d always been safe before. Loving him. An illusion. Something to cling in the quiet of her mind. But not anymore.)
Now she knew: knew what it was to fall in love; to be in love.
Just in time to learn what it was like to have her heart broken.
“You deserve it,” she told herself as she slipped out of Jake’s apartment, her steps intent as she slunk down the stairs, down the sidewalk, her body pressed up tight to the building’s she passed, her feet making quick work of the distance between there and the sanctuary of her shop. Only fifteen feet…ten….five…
Bursting through the back door, her legs wobbly and unsure, Penny reached desperately for her curtained doorway, barely making it two steps inside before the sobs she’d held back finally broke loose. Sliding down to the floor, her back pressed up against her filing cabinet, knees bent up to her chin, Penny let her head fall forward, the tears spilling across yesterday’s outfit…
“You knew he could never love you back. People like Jake don’t fall for people like you.” Her lips trembled over that last word. “They just don’t.”
At last, the sobs came to a close, dwindling down to the occasional sniffle and heavily in-drawn breath. The pit in her stomach was empty now, replaced with the hollowed-out sensation that always followed a good cry.
Looking at the dark, wet patches smearing the long folds of her skirt, Penny shook her head. “Pathetic, Penny. That’s what you—”
The sudden ringing of her cell phone brought her derision up short. Heart skidding across her chest, Penny quickly fumbled the vibrating thing out of her purse. Fingers shaking, she slowly bright it up to her face, checking to see who was calling.
But it was only Kate.
Wiping away at the tracks of tears, Penny hit the ANSWER button quickly. She could actually use the distraction right now.
“Hello?” Her voice came out soft, uneven. But it didn’t matter. The woman on the other end of the line was far too preoccupied to notice the quavering tone of voice anyway.
“Penny—Oh my god…” A scratching sound muffled Kate’s words, making them garbled.
“Penny? Penny! Are you there?”
“Yes. Yeah. What’s up?”
“Where are you?”
Penny’s brow furrowed. “Uh. I’m at my office. Why? What’s—?”
“Can you get away?”
Penny’s hand went up to touch her puffy eyes. “Uh. Well—”
“Please Penny!” Kate’s voice shifted, lined with panic. “I need you…”
That decided it. “Yes. Okay. Just tell me where—” Penny heard a thunk on the other end of the line, followed by a quiet groan. “Kate, what’s going on?” Penny demanded again, straightening from her position on the floor. She’d been right. Kate was proving a mighty good distraction. “You sound weird.”
A slight pause. “They found me.”
“Who found you?”
“My parents. Phil.”
“What?!” Penny jack-knifed to her feet. “Where are you?”
“The LitLiber. In Jake’s office. Hiding.”
“I’ll be there in two minutes.”