CHEESY ON THE EYES
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“Oh my gosh, Jaden. You are so bad!”
I bristle at the name the girl just practically cooed, my eyes shooting straight toward the entrance to Slice.
Jaden, my ex, stands in the doorway with the girlfriend I’ve heard whispers about. The tanned, long-legged beauty grins up at him, and he looks at her like she hung the moon.
He used to look at me like that.
My hands begin to shake, and I wish they wouldn’t.
Logically, I know I shouldn’t be affected by him anymore. We’ve been broken up for some time, and he’s usually off galivanting around the world so I don’t have to see him. Even so, it’s a small town, and everyone is aware I haven’t seriously dated anyone since him—just like they know he’s managed to snag some social media influencer as his latest victim and is just here for the summer to show her off.
I’ve managed to avoid a face-to-face confrontation with him since they started dating, but it appears my luck is about to run out.
My eyes scan the crowded restaurant, hoping to find someone nearby I can use as a dummy date so I don’t look so damn pitiful still sitting by myself.
Like a gift sent from above, a guy sitting two booths down rises. He looks vaguely familiar and I’ve likely seen him around town before, but I can’t place where I’d know him from.
I say a quick prayer that he’ll take pity on a desperate woman and wave my arms like a crazy person, thankful Jaden’s girlfriend has them distracted as she fawns over some girl’s purse.
The guy quirks his brow, looking over his shoulder to check and see if it’s him I’m waving at or not.
When he looks back at me, he points to himself, and I nod vigorously, beckoning him closer.
“Shh!” I hiss. “Lower your voice!”
“Oh, you’re right. My bad. Silly me.” He smirks, and I want to smack it off his lips. “Can I help you with something?”
“Yes.” I point at the bench opposite me. “Sit.”
He glances at the papers spread out across the table, then at the empty seat, and then back to me.
“Uhhh…is this, uh, a game or something?”
“What?” I shake my head, shoving the papers back into my folders haphazardly, clearing them off the table and tossing them onto the seat next to me. “No, it’s not a game. I need your help. I—”
“Are you in trouble?” He cuts me off, leaning closer, his voice now a hushed whisper. “Are you hurt? Is someone following you?”
“What? Oh my god, why are you asking so many questions? Just freakin’ sit before he thinks I’m insane!”
His eyes bounce between the couple at the door and me.
To my surprise—and relief—he sits.
His legs brush against mine as he slides into the spot directly across from me. He stretches his hand out, palm open.
I scowl down at his outstretched hand. “What do you want? Money?”
“Oh my god, why are you asking so many questions? Just freakin’ give me your hand before he thinks you’re insane!”
Holy shit. He’s mocking me.
This stranger is mocking me.
I narrow my eyes at him, and he grins, gesturing for me to follow his instructions.
To my surprise, I do.
I place my hand in his, not missing how rough and calloused his touch feels. He flips my hand over and, with his index finger, starts tracing lines over my palm.
Now my hands are shaking for a whole new reason.
His fingertip glides over me gently, so softly I almost wonder if I’m imagining the contact.
I study him as he studies my hand.
Though his hair is mostly tucked beneath a baseball cap he has spun backward, a few light brown curls peek out around his ears. He’s wearing a distressed, army green shirt I’m sure has seen better days, yet it still molds to his athletic build perfectly. Dark blue eyes that look bright against his sun-kissed skin follow whatever it is he’s doing with his fingers, his thick lips parted as he watches his movements.
“And this line,” the stranger says, his smooth, deep voice drawing me in like a fly to a trap, “means when I grow some balls and finally ask for your hand in marriage, you’ll say yes before I can even get the full sentence out. Fate is that sure of us, baby.”
Hold the phone…marriage? What the—
My attention snaps to Jaden, who’s now standing at the end of the table with his new girlfriend. His eyes dart between mine and my hand, which the stranger is still caressing.
“This is an…interesting surprise.”
The disdain in his voice is hard to miss.
Funny considering I’m the one who should be pissed off. He’s the one who ruined a four-year-long relationship I was certain was heading for a lifelong commitment with his inability to keep it in his pants.
“Jaden,” I force out through gritted teeth.
The tension is palpable, and not an ounce of it is sexual. There’s bad blood between us, that much is clear.
Jaden clears his throat. “Thea, I’d like you to meet my girlfriend, Casey.”
“Oh, did things with Liz not work out? Pity.” I paste on a brave smile, turning to his girlfriend, who doesn’t deserve my wrath. “Hi, it’s nice to meet you, Casey.”
She gives me a small smile, obviously uncomfortable with this entire exchange. “Likewise.”
“And you are?” Jaden brazenly asks the stranger, without any pretenses.
“Oh, gosh. Where the hell are my manners?”
The stranger slides from the booth, standing to his full height.
I wasn’t paying attention to his stature before, but standing next to Jaden—who is no small fry—this man looks like a giant. He has to be at least six foot three, if not taller.
He sticks his hand out to my ex, towering over him. “I’m Sullivan.”
Sullivan? Huh. Interesting.
“Sullivan.” Jaden tries the name out on his lips, glancing down at the outstretched hand with distaste but doing the right thing and slapping his palm to it.
“Yep. I’m Thea’s boyfriend.” Sullivan grips his hand tightly, using his other one to cover them and shaking Jaden’s firmly enough to knock him off-kilter. Then he turns to me, that same smirk from before making his lips curl with mischief. “But hopefully more soon.”
He tosses me a wink, and I try not to glare at him.
“Jaden. Nice to meet you.” He clears his throat, dropping his eyes to where Sullivan is still clasping his hand tightly. With one last squeeze, Sullivan lets go. My ex scans between me and my supposed new boyfriend, eyes curious and untrusting. “I, uh, wasn’t aware you were dating anyone, Thea.”
“It’s new.” I shrug.
“New but already talking about marriage?”
“What can I say?” Sullivan answers for me, his bright white smile looking so damn genuine it’s almost scary. “When you know, you know, right?”
“Uh, right. Sure.” Only Jaden doesn’t sound sure at all. If anything, he sounds a little jealous, not that he has any business feeling that way.
“Well, it was nice to meet you, Thea.” Casey gives the stranger a shy grin. “You too, Sullivan. We’re meeting some friends for lunch, and I see them waving us over.”
“Oh, sure. Don’t let us keep you waiting.” Sullivan waves them on. “I’m sure our pizza will be out any second.”
“You eat pizza?” Jaden questions me. “Since when?”
My mouth goes dry, eyes widening.
Fuck. We’re caught.
“Dessert pizza. My girl’s got a sweet tooth I need to help satisfy. Right, babe?”
I’m shocked at his correct guess, and so damn thankful for it too because Jaden’s lips tip up in a small smile, looking at me fondly.
I used to crave that smile, used to miss it so much it hurt.
Now, I’m just annoyed by it.
“I remember those days. She’d turn into an ogre if she didn’t have her sweets.” He snorts. “Good luck with that beast.”
Without another word to us, Jaden directs his girlfriend—who is polite enough to throw us a sympathetic smile—toward their friends.
When he’s out of earshot, I breathe again.
“God, that was close.” Sullivan exhales heavily, clambering back into the booth, scrubbing a hand over his face. “Look, I’m just gonna say it—you dodged a bullet with that one. Guy is a total douchebag.”
“How would you know? You just met him.”
“I can read people. It’s a gift—or a curse.” Sullivan lifts his shoulder. “Whichever.”
“Right,” I say slowly, watching as he sinks lower into the booth, getting comfortable.
He drags a menu from the holder at the end of the table, propping it against the table in front of him. His eyes scan the pages. “Did you want to do the Brownie Cosmo or There’s Cookie All Over My Pie? Both sound damn good right about now.”
I blink at him.
Is he serious?
He continues to scroll over the menu, dark brows pinching together as he looks the options over.
When I don’t answer, he peeks over the menu. “Thea?”
Oh hell. His deep voice caresses my name just as effortlessly as his finger touched my palm.
He waves a hand in front of my face. “Earth to crazy lady.”
I snap out of my haze, shaking my head and clearing my throat.
“Sor—” I catch myself before I apologize, because I have nothing to apologize for. What the hell is he doing? “What are you doing, dude?”
He grins at the moniker. “It’s Sullivan, Sully for friends.”
“We’re not friends.”
“Right, I forgot—we’re dating.” Another stupid smirk. “Soon to be more if I play my cards right.”
“You can leave now, you know. He’s gone.”
Sully leans across the table. “Except…he’s not, is he? He’s still in the restaurant, just a few booths away. He’d see me go back to my seat.” He sits back with a satisfied smirk. “I guess we’re in it for the long haul now.”
I groan. “Son of a…” He pulls the menu back up, but I know his smile doesn’t fade. I can see the crinkles at the corners of his Aegean blue eyes. “Now, did we decide brownie or cookie? Ah, screw it. Let’s do both.”
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