Heat Wave (A Seasons of Love story)
This title is part of the Seasons of Love universe.
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Sara Walker’s life is going nowhere fast: she has a job she enjoys but doesn’t love, friends who are too busy to hang out with her, and no boyfriend in sight. Then a phone call on a lonely Friday night changes everything, and suddenly she’s spending her weekends with Laura. Newly single and openly bisexual, Laura makes Sara think decidedly not-straight thoughts.
Laura Murphy, with her red hair, freckles, and killer curves, is any guy’s wet dream. But Laura’s done with guys for now, and it’s Sara who can’t stop dreaming about her. When Sara finally gives in to the curiosity, Laura blows her mind and pushes her further than she’s ever gone before.
But Laura makes it very clear that this is only a rebound fling, and she’s still planning to move to California. She’s more than happy to tie Sara up, but she’s not ready to be tied down. If Sara wants to keep her, she’s going to have to work hard to convince Laura that New York is worth staying for . . . and so is she.
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Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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It was barely nine o’clock on a Friday night, and Sara was already wearing her pajamas.
“Pathetic,” she said to the TV.
The TV didn’t respond, but instead launched into a commercial. Sara hit Power on the remote and flung it onto the coffee table with enough resentful force to send it tipping off the other side onto the floor.
She eyed her silent phone. No calls, no texts. Not a single person messaging her on social media.
The apartment was quiet with the TV off, and she could hear her upstairs neighbors’ loud music, the wooden floors creaking as people moved around.
Not for the first time that evening, she ran through the list in her head:
There was her best friend, Nathan, but he was on stage tonight. And, Sara added mentally, he’d probably be out with his disgustingly hot boyfriend if he wasn’t working.
Kathy from the diner was sometimes good for a night out, but she was at home with her newborn child and her still-in-the-honeymoon-stages husband.
Elena had posted on Facebook that she was going on a date.
Abby was . . . actually, Sara realized with a start, Abby probably wasn’t busy.
Sara grabbed her phone eagerly and sent a text.
Sara: wanna grab mexican and a beer w me tonite?
The reply came only a few minutes later.
Abby: Can’t sorry, waiting for Gabrielle’s performance to finish and then we’re getting dinner.
Sara fell back onto the couch cushions and sighed.
“Why the hell is everyone paired up suddenly?” she asked the empty room.
She tossed her phone onto the table (more gently than the remote) and pushed herself up. There were a few beers in the back of the fridge that Nate had brought over, and a bar of dark chocolate she’d purchased during an ill-advised trip to Trader Joe’s the weekend before. She’d been the only single person wandering around the store on a Sunday afternoon, surrounded by hipster couples holding hands and arguing about fair-trade organic kale or whatever.
All right, Walker, stop being pathetic.
It had been almost eight months since she’d broken up with Robbie. Eight months of being the third wheel at restaurants, the loner at parties. Eight months with a cold spot on the bed beside her and a regular Amazon shipment that included double-A batteries.
“Fuck it. Chocolate and beer it is.”
It hadn’t been too bad for a while. Nate had been single for a few months at the beginning of the year, and even if he’d placed gold in the Moping Olympics before winning back his boyfriend, he’d still been someone to hang out with in the evenings.
Now it was just Sara and BOB—her Battery Operated Boyfriend.
Her phone rang while she was popping the top off of the beer (while cursing Nate for not getting screw-tops), and she was startled enough to spill beer all over her hand and the floor. She set the beer down in its own puddle, searched frantically for a towel to wipe her hand with, and then dove for the living room.
There was a pause, and then a woman’s voice asked, “Did I call at a bad time?”
Sara took a deep breath and let it out. “No, I just had to run for the phone.” She pulled the phone away from her ear and looked at the display. A New York area code, but not a number she had programmed. “Um, who is this?”
The caller laughed. “It’s Laura.”
It took Sara a second to come up with a face to match the name. It wasn’t like she knew many Lauras, and those who came to mind definitely wouldn’t be calling on a Friday night to chat. “Robbie’s Laura?” she asked, trying to narrow it down. “The one who helped us out with the makeup thing a while back?”
There was a longer silence now. “Yeah, Laura Murphy,” she said slowly. “But not Robbie’s Laura anymore.”
“Oh.” Open mouth, insert foot. Sara sat down on the arm of the couch. “Sorry?”
“That’s actually why I’m calling?” Laura’s voice rose at the end, like she wasn’t entirely sure.
Sara shook her head. “I am so not the right person to ask if you’re looking for advice to get back with him.” Sara and Robbie had dated for several months, before they’d split amicably. He’d met Laura soon after. Sara and Robbie had been good together. The sex had been a hell of a lot better than good. But Sara still wasn’t sure why they’d broken things off. If she couldn’t even solve her own relationship problems, then helping someone else with theirs was a terrible idea.
“Not interested,” Laura said shortly. “Remember how you said you’d owe me one for helping your friend out?”
Sara had, in fact, said that. She hadn’t ever expected the favor to be called in, but then she hadn’t expected a professional makeup artist to drop everything and come out to Brooklyn to help Sara’s friend Abby win the heart of an internationally renowned super model, either. But the fact that Laura had kept her number all these months later was surprising.
“All right, fair enough. What do you need?”
“A drinking partner.”
“Ohhh.” Okay, so it was that kind of breakup. “Wait, what the hell happened? I thought you and Robbie were solid.”
Laura laughed bitterly. “Found his ass in bed with my roommate when I got home early from work last night. Threw his clothes out the window. Now I’m down a boyfriend and probably gotta find a new roommate too.”
“So, drinks, then,” Sara said.
“Please.” Laura sounded the level of desperate that could only be fixed by loud music and hard alcohol. “You free?”
Sara looked around at her empty apartment, her beer sweating condensation on the counter, the chocolate melting in the June heat that her tiny window air conditioner unit could never hope to overpower. “Yeah,” she said. “I could be. When and where?”
Laura rattled off an address in Astoria.
“That’s a hell of a long way to go for some over-priced drinks.”
“Yeah, I’m sure it is. But remember the part where you owe me?”
Sara sighed. Still, she could sit around on the couch smelling like spilled beer and hope her Netflix queue had something interesting in it, or she could find a clean pair of jeans and call an Uber. “All right. Gimme half an hour or so.”
“Deal. See you.” Laura hung up without saying good-bye.
Sara sat for another minute, trying to sort through what had just happened. Laura was her complete opposite in more than just the physical: bubbly and energetic where Sara was well-known for her resting bitch face. Laura had a job that everyone envied, was charming and flirty; Sara worked at a twenty-four-hour diner that had seen better days, and was more blunt and sarcastic than anything else.
But she liked Laura. Even though Laura was dating her ex. Had been dating her ex. And damn if there wasn’t some juicy gossip there that Sara wanted to get her hands on.
Okay, I’ll go, if only because my curiosity will kill me otherwise.
She tugged on her jeans and a black tank top, tied her hair up, and managed to get out the door in under ten minutes.
The Uber driver was thankfully one of those silent types who didn’t try to engage her in conversation. Sara texted Laura when she was in the car, then texted Nathan.
Sara: goin to queens to drink with my ex’s ex. pretty fucked up right? anyways gotta tell you all the deets so call me tomorrow k?
Nathan wouldn’t see the text until after the show ended, but he’d never liked Robbie much and would probably love to hear that Sara’s former boyfriend had been caught cheating.
The driver pulled up in front of the address Laura had given her, and Sara climbed out into the muggy evening. It was still hot and humid even though the sun had set, which didn’t bode well for the rest of the summer.
But the bar had AC, loud music that hit Sara like a solid wall when she walked in, and a crowded group of half-drunk twentysomethings. In other words, it was exactly what Sara needed tonight.
She spotted Laura pretty easily; the other woman had found two spots on the end of the bar and claimed them both. Unfortunately for her, some guy wearing a polo and a pretentious haircut had also spotted her and was leaning over the empty chair.
Sara moved closer until she could hear the conversation over the music.
“. . . let me buy you a drink at least?” the guy asked. “C’mon, you look lonely and someone as good-lookin’ as you should never be sitting alone at the bar.”
Laura glanced over at him briefly, then turned back to the TV above the bar. “I’m fine.”
Polo was either drunk or stupid. “You waiting for your boyfriend? What kinda guy makes his girl wait so long? You’ve been here for like fifteen minutes. I saw you when you came in, been watching you.”
“Stalker much?” Laura asked, still staring at the TV like it was the most fascinating thing she’d ever seen.
“Hey, don’t be like that,” the guy said.
Sara loudly cleared her throat from behind him. The guy didn’t look up.
Laura turned her head, though. She gave Sara a combination eye roll and shrug that said, Can you believe this guy?
“Hey, dude, fuck off,” Sara said.
The guy finally turned his head, temporarily abandoning his one-sided conversation to glare at Sara.
Sara was only five six, but she knew how to appear taller. She worked in a diner that catered to construction workers, night-shift security, and cops. She could hold her own against guys much bigger than Polo here.
“What’d you say?” the guy asked.
Sara pulled her shoulders back, jutting her chin up. “I said get lost,” she responded. “You’re blocking my chair and annoying my friend.”
“Hey, she’ll tell me herself if she wants—”
“She shouldn’t have to.” Sara took a step forward, crowding into the guy’s space until he had no choice but to step back. He watched her wide-eyed as she slid into the empty seat.
Laura gave her a smile and a buss on the cheek like they were old friends, taking the chance when their cheeks were pressed together to say, “This guy’s been bothering me since I sat down.”
“Want me to get security?”
“Nah, it’s fine.”
They turned back to the bar, arm to arm. Sara rolled her shoulders, waving the bartender over. “God damn but I need a drink.”
Polo still was standing awkwardly behind her. It was pretty obvious that he wasn’t sure how to react.
Sara glanced over her shoulder. “Shoo.” She brushed him away like he was a bad smell, and Polo finally left, looking lost.
“I’m so sick of men right now,” Laura said after giving their order.
Sara took her beer with a smile and nod. “Totally understandable, though you can’t deny that they have their uses!”
Laura tilted her beer toward Sara, and they clinked the necks together. “Thanks for coming out tonight,” she said.
“Of course. Never thought Robbie would cheat though.”
Laura grimaced and took a pull from the beer. “Me either. But there you have it. Fuck men.”
“Cheers.” Sara hefted her beer and took a drink. “Fuck men.”
If Sara had worried that they’d spend the entire night talking about Robbie while Laura tried not to cry, she was pleased to be proven wrong. Laura set her bottle down and launched straight into a rant about how the only sports on in the bar were baseball and soccer and she was so ready for hockey to start back up in the fall.
Sara rolled her bottle between her hands and let Laura talk, adding her own comments in when there was a pause, but mostly content to relax and watch. Laura was fiercely passionate, her eyes bright in the dim light of the bar and her hands flying about as she punctuated a point.
A few guys hovered at the bar next to her, their eyes flickering over Laura while they waited for their drinks. She didn’t appear to notice.
“Damn it.” Laura drained her beer and set the empty bottle on the bar. “I needed to get out tonight. You wanna dance?”
“With you?” Sara’s eyebrows went up.
Laura laughed and winked. “Yeah, with me,” she said. “That a problem?”
Sara had danced with friends before, in groups, but the look in Laura’s eyes said she was asking something completely different. “I thought you . . . with Robbie . . .”
It took Sara longer than she wanted to admit to process the statement. “Oh.” She felt heat rush to her cheeks at the awkward response. “Sorry. I’m not judging or anything, just surprised.” Abby was bisexual—or something like that, though Sara still struggled to remember the labels she used—but she’d never heard anyone say it so casually. “I’m not. Bi, I mean. Not that there’s anything wrong with it,” she rushed, and her face was almost hot enough to catch fire. Thank goodness the bar was dark enough, maybe no one would notice. “I’m straight though.”
Laura stared at her for a second, then tilted her head back and laughed. Every guy within a twenty-foot radius turned to watch. Hell, Sara couldn’t blame ’em . . . Laura looked almost bewitching, mouth curled up and red hair glowing in the dim lights.
“Sorry.” Sara hid her face behind her bottle.
“Oh, no, babe, it’s okay. I wasn’t hitting on you. Just trying to get you to keep me company tonight, so no one would bother me.”
“Oh.” She paused, remembering what Laura had said before. “So, you’re off men completely, then? Like, you’re a lesbian now? Because of Robbie?”
Laura shook her head, sliding off her stool and stretching. “Nah, still bi.” She gave Sara a long once-over, then caught her eye and winked. “But I’m thinking I’ll be sticking to the ladies for a while.”
Sara wanted to protest, but Laura was tugging her off the seat and onto the floor, and she let the music sweep over her until she could ignore that tiny part inside of her that had perked up at that look from Laura and was suddenly craving more.
The following week started off the same as it always did, and even a night out over the weekend wasn’t enough to shake Sara out of her routine. She worked five days a week, and usually filled in a sixth when someone was sick or they were unexpectedly short-staffed.
She enjoyed working at the diner well enough, although it wasn’t what anyone would call a glamorous job. But her boss was a gruff old New Yorker who treated every employee like they were family, and Sara had been employed there for years, starting as a waitress on the midnight to breakfast shift and slowly working her way up to day-shift manager.
She gave Kathy a wave as she clocked in, and the other woman cocked her hip on the counter. “Table Three is complaining that his eggs are overcooked. He wants a refund.”
Sara sighed. “Did Table Three order his eggs well-done?”
Kathy produced her order pad with a flourish. “Why yes, Ms. Walker, I do believe he did.” She flipped through the pages dramatically, stopping at the order. “White toast, coffee, and two fried eggs, extra hard.”
She held the slip out for Sara, who took it. “This is the third time in two weeks he’s demanded a free breakfast.”
“Fourth.” Kathy rolled her eyes and frowned. “George gave it to him last Saturday morning when you were off.”
“All right, let me go talk with Table Three.”
Dealing with irate customers was her least favorite part of the job; Sara wasn’t a people person by any definition of the word, but she’d learned over the years to interact with customers, even come to enjoy it on some level. Being management was great for other things—she loved getting to work behind the scenes, sorting out the orders and doing day-to-day accounts—but she was also responsible for any problems with customers. It was fine when the customers were polite, understanding of an honest mistake, but the complainers and assholes were the worst. Still, it was part of the job, so she sucked it up and braced herself for an argument.
Thankfully, George, the owner, had known what he was getting into when he promoted her. He wasn’t going to be surprised when she made their cheap-ass customer pay for his eggs, before kicking him out of the restaurant.
The guy finally left ten minutes later, after arguing and yelling in Sara’s face. She’d stood there calmly, arms crossed, and had offered to go get one of the police officers who was currently enjoying a cup of joe at the bar. He’d finally slammed a ten on the table before storming out.
Sara handed the ten over to Kathy. “Can you ring him up? I think he’s accidentally overpaid by a dollar. So nice of him to leave a tip.”
Kathy grinned and took the bill. “Absolutely.”
It was a small victory, but Sara took them where she could find them.
Thankfully—or, maybe, unthankfully—the rest of the week was boring. Sara worked her shifts, she counted out tills and made sure the schedule for the next month was posted, and she took care of the dry food order when it came in.
Just another week in the life. But after going out on Friday night, dancing and drinking with Laura like she was in her early twenties again, she found herself wishing for a little more excitement.
* * * * * * *
“Hey, you running late?” Sara tucked the phone between her ear and her shoulder and tugged a takeaway menu off the fridge. “I’m starving.”
Saturday night had been planned for weeks. She and Nathan were going to stay up all night and marathon a series of super-bloody horror movies until they were too terrified to sleep. Nathan didn’t have a show that Sunday, so they were going to order in and spend some quality friendship time together.
There was a rustling on the other end of the line. “Sara?” Nathan asked. He sounded preoccupied, and Sara could hear a deeper voice, muted, talking to him. His partner, Jason, no doubt, which meant . . .
“You haven’t even left home yet?” It was already after eight, when Nate had said he’d be there by half past seven.
“What are you talking about?” Nathan seemed to pull the phone away from his mouth, because he said something that she could barely make out.
Sara exhaled slowly. “Nate, it’s Saturday.”
Nathan made a questioning noise.
“Saturday night. Ordering in, a pint of Ben & Jerry’s in the freezer, as many horror movies as we can stand before we get nightmares? Ring a bell?”
“Oh, shit.” Nathan suddenly sounded a lot more present in the conversation, and Sara could practically picture him sitting up straight, blue eyes wide with surprise.
Nathan cursed again. “No. I just got caught up in something.” She could hear Jason in the background clearly, trying to figure out what was going on.
Sara sighed. “It’s okay, Nate. Don’t worry about it.”
“Sara, I’m so sorry.” Nathan seemed frantic. “Gimme half an hour, I’ll get my shoes on and call a cab and—”
Sara shook her head even though he couldn’t see it. “Don’t worry about it.” She wasn’t surprised, but she wished she could be.
Sara forced as much false cheer into her voice as she could manage. “Hey, it’s fine. You and Jason don’t get to spend a lot of time together. Besides, we’re still on for next weekend, right?”
The silence answered for her.
She could hear Nathan swallow. “Jason surprised me with tickets to fly to California. We’re, uh, going to see the redwoods and spend a week at the coast.”
“Nate.” A wave of anger and panic washed through her. “It’s moving day.”
Nathan had known about this for months. He’d all but moved in with his boyfriend when they’d gotten back together in March, though he continued to pitch in toward rent. But with the lease on her current apartment ending, and no best friend to split the rent with, Sara had found a one-bedroom on the other side of the neighborhood that was just barely within her budget.
“Shit, Sara.” Nathan sounded genuinely upset at least. “Look, I’ll talk to Jason, maybe we can reschedule or—”
“Don’t worry about it.”
Sara rolled her shoulders, trying to expel some of the tension that had suddenly appeared. A headache was starting to build up a rhythm in her left temple, and she desperately needed to end the call before she said something she’d regret. “I’ll figure something out. You go enjoy your evening, and we’ll catch up when you get back from your trip, all right?”
She hung up before Nathan could protest again, and silenced the phone when he called back a moment later.
Immature? Absolutely. But she felt justified in being a bit petty tonight.
She was still gripping the phone, but managed to relax her fingers long enough to unlock it and pull up her contacts. I need to get out of here, to get my mind off this mess for a few hours.
Her coworker Kathy had texted her earlier about going out, but Sara had turned her down, saying she had plans. Now she pulled the text back up and tapped out a quick message.
Sara: my plans just got canceled. wanna meet up at that wine bar by your apt?
Kathy replied a minute later.
Kathy: sure but only have time for maybe one glass, gotta be up early tomorrow for church.
Thankfully Kathy didn’t live too far away, and Sara slipped on her shoes and ducked out the door, walking the half-a-dozen blocks to the bar they’d met at several times before. Kathy had started working at the diner not long after Sara had, and they’d bonded over being the only two women on the overnights.
Kathy was waiting when she stepped into the crowded wine bar, and Sara had to weave through the tables to join her.
“You look exhausted,” she said by way of greeting.
Kath toasted her with her glass—already half-empty, and she hadn’t been waiting that long—and nodded. “Baby’s still not sleeping through the night. Vince has her right now, but he was a bit terrified at being left in charge for an hour.”
Vince, Kathy’s husband, seemed like someone who was a bit terrified of just about everything, although Sara kept that opinion to herself. Kathy’s husband came by the diner sometimes to pick her up, or to grab a few meals to go when she was working late.
“He still out of a job?” Sara flagged the waiter and ordered whatever red was on special that night.
Kathy nodded, lips pressed together. “Yeah,” she said. “And it’s nice because he takes Olivia over to his mother’s during the day, does work around the house, but . . .” She sighed and then took a fortifying sip of her own glass. “I get the feeling he’s not even trying to find work.”
Sara nodded, not sure what to say. It was clear that Kathy and Vince were in love, and their newborn daughter was the light of their life, but Kathy struggled with their relationship at times—Vince wasn’t exactly the kind of guy who took the initiative. “Tell me about Olivia, then.” It was a topic guaranteed to cheer Kathy up, and maybe one that would distract Sara from being forgotten that night.
They spent an hour chatting and catching up, Sara smiling appropriately when Kathy pulled her phone out to show off a dozen pictures of her baby. But if she’d hoped for a distraction, she was mistaken.
Instead, she felt lonelier, sitting at the table with Kathy, listening to her friend talk about her amazing little family. Another person who was happy with her life—despite the way her husband drove her crazy at times—and deeply in love. Sara didn’t even have a best friend who could remember plans they’d made. The thought burned, and the wine wasn’t enough to soothe the ache it left in her chest.
When the bill came, Sara waved Kathy away and grabbed it.
“I’ve got this,” she said, ignoring the pinch in her chest at the overwhelming relief that flushed across Kathy’s face. She knew finances were tight at her friend’s house, but hadn’t realized things were bad enough that a few glasses of wine were a weighty expense. “You go give Olivia a big kiss for me and get some sleep, all right?”
They walked to the door together and Sara waved good-bye, watching Kathy head down the street before leaning back against the side of the building.
It was only half past nine. Still early on a Saturday night, and the sidewalks were just starting to fill up with people heading out for the night.
She thought about the previous week, meeting up with Laura and dancing: a surprisingly fun night. She was pulling the number up in her phone before Kathy was completely out of sight.
“Sara Walker,” a voice purred on the other end. There was low music in the background, like she was standing outside of a bar. Sirens and horns honking confirmed it.
Laura laughed, and Sara could tell immediately that she was drunk. “I wondered if I’d scared you off last weekend.”
“Not scared,” Sara countered.
Laura made a low noise. “So how can I help you on this lovely Saturday night?”
Sara hesitated, realizing suddenly what she was doing. Calling a random woman on a Saturday night, someone she wasn’t even really friends with, and asking her to go out for drinks? She wondered if that made her appear as desperate as she felt. “Never mind. I didn’t mean to bother you. You sound busy.”
“But I’m not. I went out with a few people from the theater, but the lightweights couldn’t hold their booze and are already heading home to sleep it off. So I am all alone and the complete opposite of busy.” Her voice dropped. “Are you calling to ask me out, Ms. Walker?”
A drunk Laura was clearly a flirty Laura. Sara blushed, thankful no one was around to see it. “I was wondering if you wanted to grab a few drinks with me.” She added quickly, “As friends.”
Laura laughed. “Yeah, all right, Straight Girl.” The nickname sounded more fond than insulting. “Where are you?”
They figured out a place to meet, and Sara felt strangely relieved when she put her phone back into her pocket.
* * * * * * *
Sara held up a finger to the bartender, signaling over the pounding bass for another.
“That’s your third one in half an hour,” Laura said.
Sara gave the bartender a wide smile as he handed her the requested shot, then turned to stare pointedly at Laura. “First of all, you’re one to talk.” Laura had been flushed and bright-eyed with alcohol when they’d met up, and had gone straight to the bar here to get another drink. Sara was only playing catch-up. “And, second, you have no idea how badly I need this tonight.”
Laura motioned for her own shot and toasted Sara with it once the bartender slid it over. “All right, let’s do this.”
They knocked the shots back at the same time, and Sara reveled in the way the burn of the tequila obliterated the burn left over from Nathan’s forgetfulness.
When she set the glass back on the bar, Laura was watching her closely.
Sara did not want to dance. She wanted to sit there and have another drink and catch glimpses of Laura lighting up as she shared gossip from the theater and bitched about her roommate’s betrayal. But Laura didn’t give her a chance to protest; she wrapped a hand around Sara’s wrist, and pulled her off her stool. Sara was so distracted by the sudden warmth radiating up through her arm that she didn’t even notice Laura dragging her onto the dance floor until it was too late.
The pressure at her wrist vanished, then was replaced by two spots of heat at her waist. Laura was guiding Sara’s hips in time to the music, her own body only inches away from Sara’s.
“You have the body of a dancer,” Laura said.
Laura laughed. “Sorry, thinking aloud.” She leaned in closer. “Now dance with me, and tell me what’s bothering you.”
So Sara danced. And with her mouth pressed next to Laura’s ear, the music creating a strangely intimate barrier around them, she explained about her call with Nathan, the way she was tired of being lonely and forgotten, and her worry about the upcoming move.
The music changed, becoming slower. Instead of stepping back, Laura shifted so she was looking Sara in the eyes, their faces only inches apart. “There’s an easy solution to this.”
Laura nodded, and her hair brushed Sara’s cheek. She didn’t seem to notice, or maybe just didn’t care, but Sara was hyperaware of the space between them—rather, the lack thereof. “I’ll come help you next weekend.”
Sara blinked. “You will?”
“But you barely know me. That’s a lot, to ask someone I don’t really know to spend their entire Saturday helping me move.”
Laura laughed, and Sara could feel the heat from her breath, the way the laughter vibrated through her body. “That’s why you’re not asking. I’m offering.”
“Say, ‘Okay, Laura’ and smile and offer to buy me a drink in thanks.”
“Okay, Laura.” Sara’s smile was absolutely genuine. “Lemme buy you a drink. Fuck it, lemme buy you all the drinks you want for the rest of the night.”
Moving day might be a week out, but Sara had to survive that week first. She worked every day, coming in at five to help prep for the breakfast rush and managing the diner until lunch, when George took over, at which point she tucked herself into the office to do the big weekly order of dry goods, and to count tills. Not that she could complain; it was a huge improvement on the shifts she used to work, which had alternated between late nights and overnights.
But now she was in charge of running the place for the day-to-day operations, and she found herself getting more out of the job than she’d ever thought she would. She’d never gone to college like Nathan, and never thought of herself as particularly book-smart like Abby, but she’d found something she was good at. And keeping track of the accounts and scheduling was unexpectedly challenging . . . in a good way.
At least, most days it was.
George had picked up on her improved mood, apparently. On Tuesday, he stuck his head into the office just before lunch. It was July fourth, and the diner was open despite the holiday to take advantage of the people off work and the tourists in town, so Sara was spending her day hiding from the crowds in the back room. “Shouldn’t you be out getting a prime spot for the fireworks on the river or something?”
Sara rolled her eyes. “Pass. Too many people, not worth it for some flashy lights and loud noises.”
George shrugged and nodded. “Fair enough.” He moved around behind the desk to grab a stack of papers, and paused to lean over her shoulder while she was counting a stack of bills. The diner’s owner was around often, alternating between paperwork in the back office and wiping down tables or washing dishes. Sara sometimes wished that she wasn’t spending her life working in a diner, but George was by far the best boss she’d ever had. “You never look so relaxed as when you’re back here doing the boring admin stuff.”
“Not right this second I don’t,” Sara responded. “And it’s not boring. Besides, you only ever saw me sweating from running around and trying not to slap a customer for calling me ‘honey’ or ‘baby.’ Nothin’ relaxing about that.”
George laughed. “Fair enough. Something we need to talk about?”
“Tills are off again.” Sara tossed down a pen in frustration. “Either one of your new hires can’t count change, or you’ve got someone skimming a bit off the top.”
George hooked a leg around a chair and sank into it, leaning back and glancing over Sara’s work.
“What do you think?”
Sara shrugged. “It doesn’t look like a lot on the surface. Ten bucks on one till, and four on another. But it’s been going on for two weeks now, and you’re out probably over a hundred bucks.”
George cursed under his breath. “Sounds like someone’s stealing. Any way to tell who?”
“The waiters use whatever register is available to ring up customers.” Sara bit off a frustrated sigh. “It makes it almost impossible to pin down.”
“Can you figure it out?”
“I’m looking into it. Give me a week to do some digging and see what I can find?”
A nod. “Yeah, let me know.”
* * * * * * *
What was going on at the diner was weighing on her, but Sara forced herself to shove it to the side. She had her own problems to deal with . . . like the fact that she was moving at the end of the week, and still had to finish packing up her entire apartment.
She came home from work each evening and continued the slow process of boxing up her possessions. George let her take boxes from the food orders, and over a week her apartment transitioned from comfort to sterile emptiness.
She’d been relying on Nathan to help her box things up, and to carry the furniture that she wasn’t keeping—like his bed and dresser—down to the curb for trash pickup. Instead, she sweated through the evenings, pulling furniture apart and dragging it piece by piece down the stairs before the next morning.
As moving day got even closer, the stress fueling Sara’s anger at Nathan grew.
In the back of her mind, she knew that she shouldn’t be this upset. But every item she added to the box marked FOR NATE added fuel to the fire. It was only the reminder that she wasn’t alone in this—that Laura had offered to help her out—that kept her sane.
She and Nathan had been through a lot together. They’d met when Nathan had been in college and Sara had been on her own for the first time. She’d literally tripped over him in Central Park one day when he’d been stretched out on the grass studying, and instead of getting pissed at her inability to watch where she was going, Nate had grinned and introduced himself.
They’d been inseparable ever since. Nate used to joke that they could get married and reap the tax benefits, back before he’d gone and fallen in love.
He was her best friend, and she’d forgive him for anything. But the fact that he’d forgotten about her now . . . that hurt. And forgiveness would take a little longer.
* * * * * * *
By Saturday, she’d almost finished packing. She woke up early that morning to get the last few boxes sealed, and was in the process of taking her bed apart when someone knocked on the door.
Sara leaned back on her heels. “It’s open!”
She tilted the headboard against the wall and heaved to her feet, pieces of metal frame in hand, and turned to find Laura watching her intently.
Watching my ass, Sara realized, if Laura’s faint blush and the way her eyes snapped up to Sara’s face were anything to go by.
“We’re here.” Laura cleared her throat.
Sara couldn’t help but smirk. She knew exactly what Laura was seeing: short shorts, a spaghetti-strap tank top riding up her back, hair pulled up in a messy bun. The outfit had been chosen in concession to the heat wave rolling through the city, but Sara was surprised to find herself thrilled by the attention. She couldn’t ignore how her body reacted to Laura’s sensual gaze.
“Good to see you.” She moved the pieces of her bed on top of a stack of boxes and propped her hands on her hips. “Wait, ‘we’?”
Voices trailed in from the hallway.
“I brought help.” Laura held the door open and stepped inside, leaving room for the two guys behind her.
“This is Ethan.” She pointed to a guy who practically filled the entire doorframe. He waved sheepishly, moving his bulk into the apartment and immediately zeroing in on the furniture and boxes marked HEAVY. “He’s a lighting tech at the theater. Doesn’t talk much, but can bench-press your couch without breaking a sweat.”
“She’s not exaggerating.” The second man stepped inside the door, grinning.
“And this is Tony.” Laura rolled her eyes fondly. “He talks too much, but I’m pretty sure he’ll be useful. At the very least he can pick up lunch for us.”
Tony flipped Laura the bird, but he was still smiling.
Sara recognized him; she’d met him back at New Year’s, when she’d tried to play matchmaker and get him to pull Nathan out of his post-breakup funk.
“We’ve met,” Tony told Laura. He hesitated, then added, “At Preview Night for the show.”
Laura accepted this with ease, continuing, “And Noelle is down by the truck, making sure you don’t get ticketed for being double-parked.”
But Sara was only half listening now because Tony had a frown on his face that said, Please play along.
Laura dusted her hands together before Sara could figure out what was going on. “Let’s do this.”
Sara watched with amazement as Laura put everyone to work. Tony and Ethan vanished immediately with the couch while Laura assessed the rest of the boxes.
“Hey,” Sara said. Laura glanced up. “Thank you. For bringing your friends over. For . . .” For being here when my own friend bailed on me to spend the week with his boyfriend.
The smile Laura gave her was bright and easy. “Anytime.” She pointed to a stack by the door. “Should we start on these? We don’t want the boys complaining that we’re not pulling our weight.”
Moving was the best kind of workout. Sara walked up and down the flight of stairs, boxes straining her muscles until they ached.
And while they sweated and took turns going up and down the stairs, they talked.
“The plan is to get you entirely moved by 2 p.m.” Laura motioned for Ethan to take a box of books as she spoke.
Sara hefted another box, staring around the apartment incredulously. It wasn’t like she had a lot of belongings, but there was enough to fill a truck. “A little optimistic, don’t you think?”
Laura didn’t answer until she was down the stairs and handing her own box to Noelle at the truck. “We need to be at the theater by four, so that will give us enough time to go home and shower.”
Tony stretched and used his shirt to wipe his face dry. “The joy of being the boss,” he cut in, “is that I don’t have to be in until five.”
“Wait, you have a show tonight?” Sara hefted a box in her arms, staring at Tony incredulously.
He laughed. “Yeah, but not until much later. Plenty of time now.”
“You’re all crazy.” Sara said the words fondly. “But I still feel bad that you’re exhausting yourself here before the performance tonight.”
Noelle took the box from her hands and arranged it in the van. “You’ll notice that it’s only the backstage folks here today. Doesn’t matter if we’re exhausted and bruised, because we’re not on stage.”
“Yeah, about that.” Tony came up behind her with another box that Ethan had brought down and handed him. “Your best friend is off enjoying the beach while we’re sweating our asses off in New York? I hope you’ll give him a ton of grief about that later.”
Sara bit her lip, not sure what to say, but Laura came to her rescue. “Didn’t you hear?” Her tone was lighthearted, but Sara caught the look she shot Tony. “Nathan was so excited about his trip that he forgot about helping Sara move altogether. Such a blond.”
“Hey!” Noelle laughed. “Watch it with the blonde comments.”
Laura grinned. “Yeah, yeah, you’re the exception. Besides, you’re not a real blonde.”
“How would you know?” Noelle wiggled her eyebrows—which were a more natural shade of light brown—and they all laughed.