Forget Me Chapter 1
I’d forgotten everything. Except his pretty eyes.
Blue and round, though the tequila had dulled the details. I couldn’t recall the exact shade or if they had flecks in them. Just blue. And glasses. Clark Kent glasses. The pendant light that hung over our heads glinted off the lenses.
The shape and color of the frames were fuzzy in my memory, but I was ninety-two percent certain they weren’t round and metal like Byron’s. Even as drunk as I was, I’d have run the other direction.
How long had I stared into his eyes while we sat at that Divisadero Street bar? It felt like hours, but the tequila. So much tequila.
A flash of memory: blue eyes crinkled in concern and a big hand gripping my arm to steady me on the stool. And another flash, though this one flitted away from me, just out of reach. His gaze burning into me, serious and intense. Something pressed into my hand.
I looked down at my palm like it would still be there. But there was nothing except an ugly plastic ring, the light-up fake diamond as big as a walnut. When I tapped it, it flickered weakly in neon pink. As Bree’s maid of honor, I’d laid down the rule: no vulgar swag at her bachelorette party. But one of Bree’s other friends had brought a sack full of plastic crap. And after a couple shots of tequila, I didn’t care about the rules. I wrenched the ring off my finger and dropped it onto the counter.
Damned hangover. I rubbed my temple, but that did nothing to soothe the tightness around my brain.
Although I didn’t remember much about his appearance, I remembered how last night’s mystery man made me feel. Interesting. Cared-for. Safe. And I’d laughed so hard my stomach muscles were still a little sore.
Actually, that might have been from the puking.
The buzz of my phone against my kitchen counter set off a new pain somewhere in the vicinity of my molars.
I plucked the cheap fuchsia sash off of it—the script on it read, “Hot Mess,” and hadn’t that turned out to be true?—and tossed it aside. I scraped the phone off the counter and squinted one eye at the display. Bree. I stabbed the answer button.
“Why are you up so early?”
She groaned, and her voice came out hoarse. “Had to hug the throne. You drank as much as me. How are you?”
“Same.” How was my breath? I couldn’t show up to my presentation smelling like regurgitated tequila. I cupped my hand over my mouth, breathed out, and sniffed. Minty fresh. I jammed a pod into the coffeemaker and hit the brew button.
“Mimi,” my best friend whined, “wasn’t this easier in our twenties?”
“The drinking part or the hangover part?”
“Both. I remember going out on Saturday night and then drinking mimosas at Sunday brunch. Now just thinking about champagne—or orange juice—makes me want to hurl.”
“I guess a lot of things are different now that we’re over thirty.” Like the weird rash around my mouth I’d had to cover up with an extra layer of foundation. The one that looked suspiciously like beard burn, though I definitely didn’t remember kissing anyone. “Hey, do you remember much from last night?”
“Ugh, not really. Especially after the third round of tequila shots.”
Third round? I strained my sluggish memory, but it was a blur of Bree’s head thrown back in laughter, the other girls’ giggles, and those glasses framing a pair of twinkling blue eyes.
The coffeemaker light blinked off, and I picked up my mug. The bitter scent of it made my stomach seize. I set it back on the counter. “Did you have a good time?”
“Yeah. Thanks for coming out. I know you had a lot going on with your brother’s engagement party yesterday.”
“I wouldn’t have missed your bachelorette party for the world. We’ve been friends too long for that.” We’d been best friends since we’d met in the theater showing The Incredibles. Both our families had refused to watch it with us. It was the third time for me, the fifth time for her. We’d bonded over how much we identified with Violet, though we hadn’t known how to express it then. As our friendship deepened, we’d obsessed over Spider-Man, Henry Cavill’s Superman, and every one of the Avengers.
So even though I didn’t usually waste time at parties, I’d rearranged my entire weekend to fit in both Ben’s party and hers, working late on Friday night to finish up my presentation.
“Thank God we have a day to recover before we have to go back to work,” she said.
I hummed and pulled my presentation out of my satchel, just to check it one last time. The crisp pie charts, the line graphs showing my projections. There was nothing for perfect Larissa to find fault with, and we were going to wow her boss, Jackson Jones. Who also happened to be an executive at Synergy, where I worked.
“Oh, no,” Bree said. “That’s not an I’m-going-back-to-bed hmm. That’s an I’m-going-for-a-ten-mile-run hmm.”
I chuckled. “You know I hate running. Actually, I have to work today.”
“On a Sunday?”
“It’s for the foundation. We have a brunch meeting in the Mission in half an hour, and I’m presenting next year’s budget to Jackson Jones.”
“Wait, you’re not even getting paid for this?”
“No.” Though someday if I copied my little brother and turned my passion into a paid job, I could have an occasional day off. “Hustle culture, you know.”
“Ugh, don’t give me that bullshit. You’re a mensch. You’re doing it for—for the kids.”
I knew she’d almost said for me. It was true that I’d started volunteering for the foundation for my best friend. For the time I’d heard that jerk, Anthony Anker, call her Blinky Barbie on our first day of seventh grade. I’d wanted to get up in his face, try out the punch my brother had taught me the summer before, definitely make sure Anthony never made fun of my friend’s tic again, but Bree had held me back, told me he wasn’t worth getting detention over. But all these years later, I’d kept up my volunteer work because I truly loved the work the foundation did for kids with Tourette’s. Kids like Bree had been.
I’d just opened my mouth to break up the tension with a joke when she said, “Did you think about what we talked about last night?”
Staring at my poster of Doctor Strange, I scanned back for a memory of anything other than tequila and screams of laughter and dancing. Dancing? “You’re going to have to refresh my memory.”
“You don’t remember?” Shit, she sounded hurt. “We talked about how you’re the last single person in our friend group. You promised to try to—”
“Doubtful.” I twisted my mug on the counter until its handle was at a precise 45-degree angle. “You know how focused I am on my career now. And on the foundation. I don’t have time for distractions.”
“A distraction like Byron, you mean? That guy was a douche canoe. There are tons of good guys out there, Mimi. Guys who’ll help you and won’t steal your promotion.”
“I don’t need help. I can succeed all on my own.” The words came out sharper than I’d intended.
“I know, I know. All you need is smarts, drive…”
“And confidence,” we finished together. My mother had said those words about a million times.
“Your mom got married,” Bree said.
“She’s the top environmental lawyer in the state. I’d never compare myself to her. And just because you’re a week from saying ‘I do’ doesn’t mean it’s right for everyone. I want to establish myself in my career first.”
“And scratch that itch with one-night stands?”
I lifted my chin even though she couldn’t see me. “There’s nothing wrong with my no-strings hookups. I get all the benefits, none of the arguing over whose work function we have to go to and where we spend the holidays.”
“It’s kind of nice to have someone to spend the holidays with, you know.”
I eased a hip against the counter. I hadn’t missed the way Mom’s eyes had gone soft when my brother showed up at her Hanukkah party with his fiancé. They’d worn matching ugly Hanukkah sweaters. Even my cold, black heart had melted a little at how adorable they were together.
Me? I couldn’t exactly ask one of my hookups to come to my parents’ party after I’d slipped out of his apartment before dawn and stopped replying to his texts.
“What, you want me to show up to your wedding with a plus-one?”
“No!” Her laugh was high and strained. “We already gave the final count to the caterer. But you’re deflecting. Even Ben—”
The intercom dinged, saving me from my best friend’s speech about how even my little brother had finally found lasting love. She was right about all the coupling-up. A week never went by without the arrival of an invitation to a wedding or a bridal shower or an engagement party. If someone sent me a birth announcement, I was going to puke. Again.
“Sorry, Bree. Someone’s at the door.” It was probably Ben dropping by to check on me. Though last I’d seen him at his engagement party yesterday afternoon, he’d been pretty tipsy himself.
“Good luck with your big presentation. I know you’ll rock it. Call me after?” She made a kissing sound before I disconnected.
I walked to the intercom. It was just like Ben to bring me a sack of breakfast pastries to soak up the alcohol. My stomach gurgled.
“Hey,” I said into the speaker as I buzzed him up.
I opened the door a crack and headed back toward the kitchen to tuck my presentation into my satchel. Then I froze. Ben still had a key. Why would he use the buzzer?
When I whirled back around, the answer filled my doorway. Six-foot-something of tanned skin, blond hair, a clean-shaven jaw that could cut glass, and eyes the color of the Pacific Ocean on a rare sunny day. Ben’s friend, and his fiancé’s cousin, Mateo. I stared at his muscle-rounded shoulder where his too-tight black T-shirt clung to it. Looking at his face was like staring into the sun. Eye-searingly bright and beautiful. Too handsome to be real. And today I didn’t need a distraction that came in the shape of a flirty Thor look-alike.
“Good morning, bella,” he said, stepping into my apartment.
I wrinkled my nose at the faint scent of cigarette smoke that wafted in with him. I’d known Mateo long enough not to feel any flutters in my belly. Everyone in his world—male, female, old, young—got a flirtatious nickname. He was an equal-opportunity player, and it meant nothing.
Case in point: at Ben’s party yesterday, he’d chatted up Marlee, Ben’s work-bestie. She was the most beautiful woman I’d ever met, all smooth honey hair and fashion sense. But she was taken, and Mateo knew it. Still, I’d caught him looking at me over her head a couple of times. Like he wanted me to notice that Marlee was the kind of person he spent time with. Never someone like me. With me, he was silent and aloof.
In fact, why had he come here this morning? He’d never been to my place, not even with Ben.
“Why are you here?” I crossed my arms. “Fresh out of swimsuit models to seduce?”
His sparkling grin drooped. He looked…hurt? “I came to check on you. Are you feeling all right this morning?”
“Fine,” I said. “Though I’m actually in a—wait. What do you know about last night?”
His dark-blond eyebrows scrunched down. “Don’t you remember?”
I thought back to yesterday. I’d been buzzed already when I’d dashed from Ben’s engagement party to join Bree’s bachelorette party in progress. Had Ben noticed and sent Mateo to watch over me? It was the kind of thing my little brother would do.
I didn’t remember seeing Mateo at the first bar. Or the second one. I remembered the booth, the round table spread with shot glasses, Bree snort-laughing, sparkling plastic tiaras, holiday lights blinking around the window, and the room spinning around me as the drinks kept coming.
“No. Why? Were you there?”
The corners of his mouth turned down. “You don’t remember?”
“Should I?” I’d definitely have remembered if he’d been at the bar. Bree’s friends would have made him the king of their court. They’d have flattered him, touched him, flirted with him in a way that made me itch. They didn’t know Mateo like I did. He might be fitness-model gorgeous, but he was about as deep as a puddle.
He seemed to deflate. Then he pasted on a shadow of his usual teasing smile and held out a white bakery bag. “I brought you breakfast.”
My stomach roiled. “No, thanks. Hangover. I need coffee.”
“No.” He brushed past me. “You need carbs. Sugar. Do you have any ginger tea?”
I scurried to catch up with him, but his broad shoulders and the stink of cigarettes filled my entire galley kitchen. My throat burned. I didn’t have time for another visit to the toilet. I waved my hand in front of my face. “Sorry, but you smell like smoke, and”—I swallowed—“I’m afraid my stomach isn’t settled enough for that. Thanks for dropping by, but…”
His face fell, but he set the bag on the counter before he shoved open the kitchen window. Huh. I’d thought it was painted shut.
“Better now?” He stood beside it for a moment as if he could air himself out.
I took a deep breath of the cold, fresh air. “Better. Thanks.”
“Now, for your stomach.” He opened an upper cabinet. “You need something with ginger. Or prickly pear?”
Prickly pear? “No. I live in the real world where we drink coffee when we’re hungover. Thanks for coming, but I need to get ready.”
“Ready?” He shut the cabinet and turned toward me. “You look perfect.”
“Thank you.” The words came out flat, automatic. He said that kind of shit to everyone. In my oversize black sweater and jeans, I wasn’t anything approaching perfect, not compared to a demigod like Mateo. Obviously, he kept up his physique with daily workouts. He was the kind of guy who’d drink kale smoothies with his equally hot underwear-model partner. Who talked about supplements and reps and flipping prickly pear.
Not that there was anything wrong with that. It was just different. I preferred to work out my brain with spreadsheets, fueled by a bag of salt-and-vinegar chips. Hard pass on kale.
“I need to go. To a meeting. I’ll eat there.” I squeezed around him into the kitchen to shoo him out.
“Yes, your meeting with Larissa and Jackson. Shouldn’t you eat first?”
“My—my what? How do you know about that?”
He looked down at the bag and mumbled something.
Right. Ben must have mentioned it at the party yesterday. Get a couple drinks into him, and nothing was a secret. Not that my foundation meeting was a secret, but it definitely wasn’t any of Mateo’s business.
“Okay, so, good chat, but I’m sure you’ve got some muscles that need sculpting.” He didn’t. They were absolutely perfect, but his ego didn’t need any stroking from me. “And I’ve got to leave.”
“You’ll deal with Larissa’s bullshit better if you don’t show up hangry. Try these. They’re delicious.” He reached for the bakery bag, but when his arm brushed mine, he jolted. The bag knocked against my cup of coffee and tipped it. Dark-brown liquid gushed across the counter, straight toward my papers.
“No!” I leaped to pick them up, but Mateo’s solid body blocked my way. Coffee soaked into the papers, melting my perfect pie charts and smearing my lovely line graphs. “Shit, Mateo. That’s my presentation for”—I checked the clock on the wall—“for my meeting that starts in fifteen minutes!”
“Can you print new ones?” He grabbed the kitchen towel and blotted at the papers, but all that did was transfer the stain to my pristine ecru towel. Panic tightened my throat.
“Don’t! Stop.” When I grabbed his arm, he flinched. The wet paper ripped.
Even if I could magically dry the paper in fifteen minutes, a pie chart held together with Scotch tape wasn’t going to impress anyone. My presentation, and my chance to impress Jackson Jones, was ruined.
“I—I’m sorry, Miriam.”
My body heated, and my anger boiled over. “Dammit, Mateo. I’m going to be late, and now I have no presentation. Get out of my way.” I tossed the papers in the trash. I didn’t have time to go to the office and reprint them. I’d have to show them on screen. Except—
Horror dawning, I looked down at the coffee. It had breached my satchel. With my laptop inside. When I yanked it out, coffee dripped from the corner.
“Shit!” I snatched the ruined towel from Mateo and blotted at the edge. Please, please, please, start. I set my laptop on a dry part of the counter, flipped it open, and pressed the power button. A few pixels lit, then the screen went black.
I mashed the power button, and this time, nothing happened at all. “Goddammit!”
His face was paler than my kitchen towel. “Can I do anything?”
I ground my molars. “Get. Out.”
“I—I can ask Lito—I mean Cooper—to get you a new laptop—”
“No!” He might be Mateo’s favorite cousin Miguelito, but to me, he was Cooper Fallon, my boss’s boss’s boss. No way could he learn that I’d ruined my Synergy laptop. His temper was legendary, and even his soon-to-be sister-in-law might not be safe from one of his infamous tongue-lashings. “Just go.”
“Go!” I pointed at the door.
He folded into himself and shuffled away. My apartment door clicked shut as I stuffed my deceased laptop into my soggy satchel.
Despairing, I glanced at the clock again. I’d definitely be late. Neither Larissa nor Jackson Jones would be impressed. And tomorrow, I’d have to ask my boss for a new laptop.