You’re the One That I Want Excerpt
Nic Stinson knelt on the plush, blue couch and dug for his headset. Blood still thrummed in his ears from the long—long—run he’d taken. It hadn’t helped.
He couldn’t get the pictures to stop flashing through his memory.
Alison with the Jagweed in her car. Alison with the Jagweed in her kitchen. Alison with the Jagweed in her hot tub.
Whoever took the pictures knew just what shots to send him. There’d been no less than nine compromising locations, and Nic had forced himself to look at each one of them.
Hours later and he couldn’t stop seeing them.
“Holy shit, bro.” His brother, TJ, stood in the door of the game room, waving his hand in front of his face. “You smell like ass.”
Nic ignored him and dug between the couch cushions. Where are my damn headphones?
“I said, you smell like—”
“I heard you the first time,” Nic snapped. He finally spied his Cloud Revolver headset, shoved behind the Playstation, and snagged them with a quick move before his brother could get between him and hours of oblivion.
“Well, then, take a shower or something. Before Pamela comes in here and opens up the fire hose on this whole place.” TJ stepped inside the darkened room. Shadows played across his prominent brow—the same hard ridge and cut features he and all his brothers shared. But TJ managed to make their hard edges look classic. He wore an open-collared white shirt and a suit coat. A full tux.
He glanced at his watch. Nine o’clock. “Am I missing something?”
“Uh. Yeah.” TJ waved a black bow tie in the air. “Stockholder dinner.”
“Good. Then Roark can handle it.” Nic grabbed the PS4 controller and hung the headset around his neck.
“We should all be there.” His brother stalked over to the couch, but inched around Nic’s feet with a look of blatant disgust. “I figured you were just running late.”
Nic set his jaw and felt his muscles ticking from the run, still. He’d run too far. Too hard. But he needed TJ to leave, before a fight erupted.
“Not in the mood tonight, dude.” He set the controller on the couch. “Seriously. Just let it go.”
“What the hell?” TJ’s brows drew together. “We don’t see you for days, and I find you up here playing games?”
He wanted to argue. Nic had been at work most of the last forty-eight hours. The first forty-four, fixing a server meltdown in Japan, remotely. The last four… trying to unsee his girlfriend in various states of repose.
With her ex-boyfriend.
He for sure couldn’t tell TJ about that. His brothers hated Alison already, and he had a hard enough time pretending he didn’t care about their barbs, when he hadn’t had proof they were right.
This would make them both insufferable.
“I was working,” Nic said, grinding the words out. “And I’ve had my quota of bullshit for the day, so forgive me if I don’t rush right down to put on my tux.”
TJ kicked the couch. “You know the guys from LabTech want to meet you.”
“Then they can come by the office, when I’m working.” He didn’t meet his brother’s gaze, and hunkered down into the couch. “I mean it, TJ. Leave me the hell alone tonight.” He switched on the console, trying to ignore the incredulous stare.
He wasn’t the asshole brother. That was Roark. And he wasn’t the moody brother. That was TJ. But today, he could be both wrapped up in one, and if they didn’t leave him alone, he was going to lose his shit.
The woman he’d loved for four years had turned out to be the opposite of what he thought she was. She’d jumped into bed with her ex-boyfriend faster than Nic could hack a Wi-Fi network.
It shouldn’t have surprised him. But it had.
Everything inside him was burning. He needed to work out his aggression. Running hadn’t done it. The punching bag hadn’t done it. He needed to kill something.
TJ backed up, hands in the air, dumbass round-O mouth open. “All right, then. You can deal with Roark later.”
“Or Roark can deal with me.”
His brother’s smile was automatic and annoying as ass. “Now, that I’d like to see.” But he was gone before Nic could throw anything at him.
Yanking the headset over his ears, he selected his game and the Celtic knotwork and mournful soundtrack took over his awareness. The backstory of the Courts of Draíochta scrolled across the screen and he clicked all the way through to the login.
* * *
Dafni Gallo swung her comfy office chair to the right and tapped the screen ringing with a FaceTime call from her half-sister, who was all the way across the country in San Diego. “Lily, what’s up? Aren’t you supposed to be in class this evening?”
Her sister’s face burst onto her screen as soon as the cameras connected, smiling from ear to ear. They were so similar. Same angular bone structure. Same long dark almost black hair. Same hazel eyes—courtesy of their shared father. Apparently, Italian genes were dominant.
“My professor is out of town, mom. And I’m just checking in with my favorite sibling to make sure you bought your plane ticket for Seattle, since I’ve had mine for, like, ever. I know how your mechanical genius mind often forgets to do basic things like eat or make sure you take time to go on vacation with your sister.”
“Note to self: get Lily more siblings so she can go on more vacations and I can get some work done.” Dafni kept her voice light and teasing.
“Come oooooon. My only sister moves to Texas and leaves me alone—”
“We’ll see each other soon. The conference is…” She looked up at the calendar beside her desk. “Wow…next week already. I was waiting to buy the ticket until I bought my conference pass. I’ve been finishing this big job and got a little sidetracked.”
“I knew it.” Lily smiled, broad and happy. “You work too hard, girl.”
This familiar teasing felt good. Lily was more than just her sister—they were friends, and Dafni missed her more than anything. “I’ll go and buy my pass right—”
“I already got us passes! You’re not going to believe it. There were two full-access VIPs up at this big-time auction, and…” Lily’s features tightened. The unspoken ‘they were soooo expensive’ still hung in the air, even though she held the words back.
Must’ve asked Dad for money.
Dafni held back on her sighing and forced a smile. “I’ll book my ticket, then. Tonight.”
She didn’t love the idea of doing anything, courtesy of their father, but for Lily, she’d even hold back the bitchy comments. For Lily, she’d do anything.
The computer to her left dinged and Macon’s avatar popped up on Draíochta. She almost always had the RPG game open on her Mac desktop, ready and waiting. It was her guilty pleasure between work projects. Although, she’d put work aside to play when Macon showed up on more than one occasion.
Lily’s face scrunched up on the FaceTime screen. “You better not be getting off the phone with me for that stupid Drahk-duh game again.”
“Macon’s on. He never plays on Thursday nights. Something has to be wrong.”
“Macon this. Macon that. I swear, you need to meet the guy for real one of these days just to make sure you’re not playing with some pimple-faced-fourteen-year-old.”
“He’s not. Believe me. I’ve played with fourteen-year-olds. Macon’s not a kid.”
Her sister giggled. “Then he’s probably some sad forty-year-old hiding out in his mother’s basement.”
“He’s a good guy, Daf. I know it. And he hasn’t been around much this week…”
And apparently, I’ve missed him. It was strange to admit that. But it was the truth.
“Fine, fine. Go play with your wolf man.” Lily’s face softened and Dafni breathed a little easier. “You know I’m certainly not one to stand between a woman and her man.”
A chuckle slipped from Dafni’s chest and she tapped the screen to hang up on her sister’s call. Of course, Macon probably thought he was playing with a dude. She’d purposefully chosen a generic calling card and a male avatar in the game to protect herself from creepy assholes and horny fourteen-year-olds.
Better safe than sorry.
* * *
The music swelled and Nic sat up straighter as the rolling war drums and moving orchestral underlay of the game’s opening track brought out his inner warrior. The thrum of the beat made his heart lock into step. He saw River’s name on the list of available partners, and felt himself breathe a sigh of relief.
He didn’t like playing alone, and at least he knew River. The dude would be chill. Wouldn’t ask questions. Nic clicked on his avatar, Macon—a broad-chested, dark-haired wolf warrior who bore as close a resemblance to Nic as the game would allow. He didn’t like being something he wasn’t, even online.
Not like Alison, who had no bones about lying to his face. Nonstop, apparently. She could practically go pro in it.
A chat box popped up below the game screen.
River: Long time, no see.
He clicked through and found himself smiling. He and River had fought many battles together, in the medieval fantasy world where wolf shifter armies fought evil warlords to protect witch queens. They were brothers in arms. Twins.
They’d even chosen the same version of the wolf warrior as their avatar, so that when they fought side-by-side, they appeared as doubles. Although, when they shifted, River became a watery, shimmery silver wolf, and Nic’s wolf was black as night.
He accepted the chat invitation and sighed, keeping an eye on the hallway for his brothers. It’d be unlike them to give up after one try, and he didn’t want them to see him chatting with River.
They gave him enough shit about hiding. He didn’t need any hassle about a guy who’d become one of his best friends, over their year of game play together, even though they’d never met face-to-face.
River: It’s mostly teenage assholes on here tonight. Good to see you.
Nic laughed and typed back, Isn’t it always us and a bunch of little jerks?
River: Touché. You up for doubles? Or should we join one of the packs?
A tight feeling crossed Nic’s chest. Didn’t a part of him want to talk to River about this bullshit with Alison? Wasn’t that really why he got on the CoD game tonight? Because only River would get what a truly fucked up thing it was that Alison had done to him?
I don’t feel much like packing it up tonight. He paused. River’s friends sometimes joined them, so they didn’t always play alone, but Nic practically crossed his fingers that they wouldn’t be around. Just this once.
River: Sounds good.
They selected their portal and Nic clicked the button to say the spell that would bring them into the first Court. Once the game started, he could lose himself in the mournful music and the warrior missions and killing evil.
If only life was this simple.
River: Something’s up tonight, isn’t it?
Nic’s avatar walked around the stone circle and he armed himself with his sword. How can you tell?
River: You’re not usually here on Thursday nights unless some big shit went down. Some job somewhere that lasted for days.
His fingers froze and the memories came back. Alison, who he’d been about to propose to, had turned out to be a back-stabbing harpy. But if he didn’t marry her, then his inheritance would be void, and on top of it all, his company was getting head-hunted something pretty fierce by a big comm firm in California.
The only sanity he had was playing CoD with a random MIT grad who lived on the West Coast somewhere—Pacific Time Zone, anyway. A random guy who wasn’t such a random guy—who Nic trusted more than his own brothers—and who was smarter than the idiot teenagers on the game every night.
River had never pushed him about Alison. Not like TJ and Roark. Not like Pamela, the woman who practically raised the Stinson brothers. River was just sane, in the world of insanity that surrounded Nic on a daily basis.
His avatar walked past a big cairn, where there were usually warlord spies hiding, but River dispatched them in quick order. One sword thrust, then another, and the two spies were dead.
He waited for his friend to respond, or move, but they stood still, right at the mouth of the cairn, their avatars staring into the loamy earth pile, swords in hand. Silent.
* * *
A rock hit the bottom of Dafni’s stomach and she leaned back in her chair, staring at the blinking cursor on the screen. He’d broken up with the girlfriend. Had to be it. That shit had been getting bad for weeks.
Lily was right, she really liked Macon and, secretly, she was glad to know that the girlfriend might be out of the picture. Still, her sister had a point…it was highly probable that Macon was a balding forty-year-old sitting on a basement couch in his mother’s house in nowhere Iowa.
Even so, Dafni couldn’t help her reaction. No matter who he was, Macon was her safe place. She could talk to him without fear of judgment. He didn’t know who she was. Not really. They were just two people who enjoyed the same game. Two people that had a lot in common.
Getting closer to him—talking about his break up—could lead to more between them, and she wasn’t sure taking that next step was wise. She wanted to. She wanted more between them, but he had a girlfriend and she respected that boundary completely.
But now… what if that had changed? Would she regret not taking the chance on him more?
Yes. She. Would.
Dafni clicked into the message box.
* * *
The game went on pause and the chat box got bigger. This was the universal signal for pop open a cold one and tell me your problems, but Nic didn’t have or want beer. He wanted to claw the memories of Alison out of his head.
River: So, what happened with Alison?
He took a deep breath. There wasn’t space to tell River the whole story. Not inside the game. He didn’t want to lay out his brothers’ meddling and his broken heart with a flashing blinker on the screen, not knowing what his friend was really thinking.
It’s a long story, he clicked out on the alpha pad. Don’t want to bore you.
Another long pause and Nic’s palms started to sweat. This was why he preferred being able to use the headset, but River wasn’t in to that. He mostly liked to play the game and chat on the side—the hallmark of a true gamer.
If they’d been sitting side-by-side on the couch, he could’ve seen his friend’s body language. He could’ve known if it was cool to lay all this bullshit out. Get it off his proverbial chest.
River: Not bored. What happened?
Nic exhaled and drew a hand through his hair, rounding his shoulders. He wanted to tell someone. Needed to tell someone.
Can we chat somewhere else? he asked, sucking in air as he messaged. Can’t type fast here. Another pause that felt like a hesitation. He hadn’t known his friend to be hesitant. He quickly typed in, Or not. I really don’t want to bore you.
* * *
This was it. This was the moment. Did she go down the path or flee to the hills. Did she give this random stranger a closer peek at the real Dafni?
Skype messenger still didn’t have her real name on it, but it did have a picture Lily had taken of her in high school. Pre-Channing. Would Macon show his true colors after he got a glimpse? Would it be awkward? Would it ruin everything about their friendship?
Or was this where it had been leading to all along? This was where she wanted to go, right?
Hell, who was she kidding. She’d come this far. She’d told Lily about every interaction with Macon, and gone on and on about him for almost a year.
But she didn’t take a lot of chances. Or give strangers many chances either. Most people disappointed her. Boyfriends weren’t really her style. Macon was the first guy in her entire life who hadn’t let her down.
And he didn’t even know she was a girl.
She took a deep breath and messaged him again. “Here goes something.”