[Note From Frolic: We are so excited to announce our Festive Four Stories! Every week in December we will have a new short holiday story from 4 of your favorite authors. This week we have the incredibly talented Katee Robert!]
Sam Knight hadn’t stopped to think that he shouldn’t pull a stunt like he just had on the side of the road. But he’d seen Cara’s old Camaro, and he’d lost all impulse control. A terrible habit for a detective to get into, but he’d never had brakes when it came to the woman sitting across from him.
She’d been beautiful in high school in a careless kind of way. Like everyone else in Ridley, her family had money and plenty of it, and she had expensive taste as a result. But she was never flashy about it like some of the kids they’d grown up with. Care wore her wealth like a second skin, like dropping a couple hundred bucks on a pair of jeans was the most natural thing in the world.
And yet she still drove the same car her parents had gifted her at sixteen. Yeah, it was nice as hell, and she’d obviously taken care of it, but hanging onto the same car for over a decade was such a Cara thing to do.
“You’re thinking awfully hard over there.” She pulled the tiny straw from her drink and set it on the napkin next to the glass. “Considering how many Hail Mary’s I’ll make you do before I forgive you for that heart attack you gave me out there?”
He grinned. “Last I checked, only priests are supposed to hand out penance.”
“Are they?” She tilted her head to the side, her long blond hair falling over one shoulder. “I knew it’d been too long since I attended Mass. I’ve forgotten the basics.”
They could go on like this indefinitely, riffing off each other. It was as if all the time spent apart had condensed in the five minutes since they’d walked into this bar—one of four in Ridley. He wasn’t quite tripping over his feet and burning with teenage angsty love for his best friend, but being in her presence was like a warm spring day. It warmed his skin and made him feel like anything was possible.
Sam knew better.
He’d seen too much of the ugly side of this world in the years since he’d left this idyllic town. Ridley was no different than the larger cities when it came to crime. This place might offer perfection to the casual viewer, but there was rot beneath the surface.
Domestic violence. Drug addiction. Abuse.
These people in their massive houses were just like every other community in existence. Not as perfect as they pretended. Not even close.
He forced his attention back to the present. There was no point taking a traumatic trip through the past when he had Cara Taylor sitting here, giving him her full attention. He took a long pull off his beer. “You back in town for your old man’s wedding?”
Just like that, the light dimmed in her eyes. She covered it up with a smile, but even after all this time, he knew her well enough to see past the sunny mask. Cara flipped her hair off her shoulder. “His fiancée decided their wedding should be the thirty-first. So I guess I’m here for both that and Christmas.”
She shrugged. “My best friend might be persuaded to send a private jet to haul me off to Europe if things get to be too much here. Or I could go back to the city.” She frowned into her drink—Crown and Coke. “New York is gorgeous this time of year. Have you been since you moved out West and became a hippy?”
He didn’t want to talk about himself. Not when she was obviously upset. But he knew Cara well enough to know she’d shut him down if he pushed too hard. Maybe he could have gotten away with it when they were sixteen, but after so many years without contact? No way. “My hippy phase didn’t last the first year.” He leaned forward and lowered his voice. “I gave it up right around the time this girl I was seeing tried to convert me to veganism.”
“Oh no. Not veganism. How dare she?” She smirked, though the expression fell away as soon as it appeared. “Are you seeing anyone?”
“No.” He refused to look into her asking. They were catching up, and that meant running the gamut in small talk questions. “You?”
“Come on, Samwise. You know me. Can’t let something as mundane as a man hold me down. I have a career to pursue, and dudes are constantly threatened by that.” She made a face. “You’d think in NYC they’d be more openminded, but I’ve found that sadly isn’t the case.”
He shouldn’t be pleased to hear she was single. He really shouldn’t. “How’s that going? My mom said something about you working with a hotshot designer or something?”
Cara leaned on the table, close enough that her citrus scent teased him. She waggled her eyebrows. “I knew it! You’ve been checking up on me.”
“Can’t help it if my mom’s a terrible gossip.” And, yeah, his mom wasn’t stupid. Even if he had forced himself never to ask about Cara, Mom always managed to toss in a casual update into their monthly phone calls.
She picked up her drink and stared at it for a long moment. “I was a dick for not giving you my new number, wasn’t I?”
“If you were, then I was a dick for not calling regularly after that first year.” He shrugged. “Life happens, Cara. We were great friends, but distance is hard enough without the kind of distraction college offers.”
“Yeah. You’re right. Of course you’re right.” She brushed her hand over her forehead. “Sorry, I’m usually better at pep than this. Being back here’s done a number on me and I haven’t even made it to the house yet.” She shrugged out of her coat and draped it over the back of her chair.
Sam went still.
Damn, she looked good. Better than good. Her long-sleeved shirt hugged her like a second skin, the black setting off her golden hair and highlighting her breasts in a way that had his mouth going dry. It took everything he had to drag his gaze back to her face.
To find her blushing.
She pressed her cherry-red lips together and finally said, “Samwise, you were checking me out.”
No use denying it. She’d literally caught him in the act. Beyond that, Sam couldn’t help being curious about how she’d react. “Guilty.” Hope springs eternal when it comes to Cara Taylor. He glanced over her shoulder. “I’m not the only one.”
“Oh. Them?” She waved away the fact that every single guy in the place had their gazes pinned to her from the second she walked in the door. “That happens a lot.” Cara said it like she was commenting on the weather. She was attractive and men responded to that. End of story.
“Guys bother you a lot in the city?” He couldn’t help the rough edge in his voice any more than he could help the sharp look he sent the idiots ogling her.
Cara raised her eyebrows. “I can handle myself.”
“I have no doubt of that.” Damn it, he was screwing this up. He had no right to feel possessive of her, former best friend or not. She’d obviously survived—flourished—in the ten years since he’d seen her last despite his not being there to watch her back. She didn’t need him now any more than she ever had.
Cara took a long sip, her gaze never leaving his face. “How long are you back for?”
“For good.” He forced himself to lean back, to give her space. “Actually, that’s not technically correct. I’m back in Ridley for the holidays, but I got a position in the NYPD starting after the first of the year.”
Her eyes went wide. “No way. You’re going to be in the city, too? Have you already found a place? What am I saying? Of course you’ve found a place. You wouldn’t be moving and starting a job the same week. That’d be crazy.”
Considering that’s exactly what he planned, he glanced away. “Yeah. Crazy.”
“Oh. My. God. Sam, you can’t be serious.” She grabbed his forearm, her red nails shiny against his skin. “What precinct are you working in? You can’t trust some of those real estate agents, especially in this market. They’ll scent your newness a mile away and take advantage of you. No. I’m going to help you.”
As much as he craved more time with her, he couldn’t have her thinking he was some helpless babe in the woods. “Cara, I’vemanaged to take care of myself in the ten years since we’ve seen each other, too.”
“Right. Of course.” She seemed to realize she was still clutching him and yanked her hand back like he’d burned her. “Sorry. I get overzealous when I’m excited.”
It took every bit of his not-inconsiderable self-control to keep his mind out of the gutter in response to that statement. He shifted, his jeans suddenly uncomfortably tight. “No, it’s okay. I don’t mind the advice. I have a short list I’m driving down to see after Christmas.” When she nibbled her bottom lip, he bit back a growl. “You, uh, want to take a look?”
“As if you have to ask!” She popped out of her chair and made it around the table in two steps to slide into the booth next to him.
He pulled out his phone and brought up the list and then set it on the table. “Here you go.”
“Hmmm.” She slid closer and leaned down, pressing them together from hip to knee. His body went tight in response, a feeling that wasn’t helped by the way her hair slide over his thigh as she shook her head. “Not this one. That neighborhood just got redone almost entirely and since it’s trendy, the prices are nearly double what they should be. Cara exited out and went to the next address. “This one has promise.”
“Oh?” His voice came out strangled. Damn it, get a hold of yourself, Knight. She’s not trying to turn you on.
But rifling through crime statistics in his old precinct did nothing to dispel the intoxicating presence that was Cara. Another head shake from her had him biting back curses. He shouldn’t be able to feel her hair sliding over his thigh through his jeans, not on the level he was, but reality had nothing on attraction.
“It’s expensive, but it’s a reasonable price range for the area. And you’ll have lots of good food within walking distance.” She lifted her head. “I remember how much you love…” Cara’s gaze dropped to his mouth and she seemed to realize exactly how close they were. “Uh.”
“Yeah.” Sam Knight, prize-winning conversationalist.
He should back away. Should give her space. Should do something to let her slip him right back into the safe zone she’d needed him to occupy when they were teenagers. Even back then, all the guys who chased after her were only looking to get her into bed, and a good portion of the girls let their jealousy turn spiteful.
Sam was her safe place. He’d never, ever done anything to jeopardize that because crossing the unforgivable line into letting Cara know how much he wanted her would put him firmly in the category of them. Someone not to be trusted. And he valued her and their friendship too much to screw it up.
That was then.
This was now.
Ten years of nonexistent communication had screwed up their friendship just as thoroughly as confessing his feelings would have.
She didn’t move away. Didn’t seem to breathe. “Yeah?”
“I’m going to kiss you now.” He reached up and sifted his fingers through her hair. “If you want me to.”
She licked her lips. “I think I might die if you don’t, Sam.”
[Check back tomorrow for chapter 3!]