JUST FRIENDS PREVIEW: Chapter 1

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Coming September 22nd!


Chapter 1


Rachel Taylor woke up with the sun in her face and some guy’s morning wood pressing into her back.
Ah hell no.
Funny thing, morning memory is. One moment a woman is thinking about all the work she has to do in a day. The next? She’s kicking out a guy who was never supposed to stay the night. Let alone try to cop a feel before he made his way out the door!
Harry was a guy she picked up from a dating website. Okay, a dating app. Because that somehow makes it better. They had met a week before with the understanding that it was only a casual setup. She wanted sex, he wanted… well, he wanted sex, too. But what Rachel assumed to be a run of the mill hookup date turned into a preliminary let’s check out how hot she is before I go fuck someone else date. Which should have been Rachel’s first red flag that she should never let this guy anywhere near her bed.
Whoops.
Desperation had won out in the end. Doesn’t it always? She cursed her debilitating libido that forced her to make the saddest decisions. Harry wasn’t only lackluster in bed, but he was also so damn smug that Rachel woke up choking on his fumes more than once that night. Too bad she had been too drunk on a lack of self-respect to realize she needed to kick the bastard out before daylight broke.
Too late.


“Hey, babe.” Of course he hadn’t bothered to remember her name. “Beautiful morning.”
He leaned back in her bed with his tentpole pushing her comforter up. Not as impressive as it sounds. Rachel scoffed in disbelief as she dragged her half-naked body out of her bed and marched into her bathroom. “I’ve gotta get to work in about half an hour!” she called before shutting the bathroom door. That was his signal to get the fuck out of her studio apartment.
Harry, however, took more convincing than that. Didn’t he have some office to get his ass to? Right. It was Saturday. For some reason, people often didn’t work on Saturdays.
Rachel had never known such freedom. She was self-employed, and that meant working twelve hour days. Every day. What the fuck was a Saturday?
What she meant by having to get to work was picking up her large black bag and heading over to her favorite place to get work done. But she couldn’t lock up her apartment until Harry was gone, and the man was barely dragging himself into her bathroom by the time Rachel started throwing on a denim shorts and a plaid shirt.
“I’ve gotta get going!” Maybe if she upped the testiness she would inspire Harry to move his ass too. Yet he took his time in the bathroom, and Rachel only had so much else to preoccupy herself with. Like brushing her hair and pulling it back into a no-fuss ponytail. Sunglasses? It would take at least ten minutes to find those. “Sorry, no time for breakfast.”
This wasn’t her first time throwing a straggling man out of her apartment. They clung to her like the flies they were. The only thing Rachel couldn’t figure out is if she were covered in honey… or vinegar. Some men were into hurting themselves.
Finally, she managed to kick a half-dressed Harry into the hallway and lock the front door to her apartment behind her. Her large bag slid down her arm as she fumbled for her keys. “What do you need all that for?” Harry asked with a yawn. “Going on a trip?”
She shoved her key into the lock. “I have to carry my office around with me.”
It wasn’t light, either. Sure, at first, Rachel often though that it wasn’t a big deal, especially if she didn’t bring her netbook with her.
Then the fatigue settled on her shoulder. Then the pain.
That’s why she kept her café radius to only a half mile. At least she lived close to downtown. Plenty of options, unless she slept in so late that half of them were closed by the time she got up. That morning she had done an admirable job of being up by eleven. She would miss most of the lunch rush by the time she reached Opal’s. Assuming Harry didn’t slow her down.
He wanted a hug when they reached the sidewalk outside. A. Hug.
“Maybe we’ll do this again sometime,” he said while Rachel struggled to shove her sunglasses on her face. “Dunno. I’ll get back to you. It will depend on how much regret I have.”
Rachel looked up from her bag. “What?”
“You know how it is. Morning after regrets. If I don’t have too many later, I’ll hit you up for another date.” He patted her on the shoulder. “Later, babe. Have fun on your trip.”
The man hadn’t reached the end of the sidewalk before Rachel dropped her bag in utter, miserably offended disbelief.

***

Opal’s Café wasn’t named after anyone called Opal. According to the owner, it was named after the nearby marina and the pretty white yachts bobbing up and down on summer days. It was made apparent from the modern photographs of vessels lining the café’s walls.
The proximity to the marina wasn’t why Rachel often stopped by, however. The place was relatively cheap and big enough that a woman could park her mobile office at one of the tables for a few hours and nobody would give her any dirty looks.
The fact that Rachel’s best friend Parvati was the lead barista on Saturdays helped. Rachel could have her way with free refill tea. Every. Saturday.
Parvati was the first one to greet Rachel as she walked through the door. The café was empty enough that she leaned against the counter and granted her friend a warm, welcoming smile… which quickly turned into a grimace when she saw Rachel’s sorry state.
“Date didn’t go well, huh?”
Rachel dropped her bag and slumped against the counter. “I don’t know where to begin.”
Parvati lowered her voice. “Was the sex at least good?”
“Not good enough to put up with some of the other shit.”
“That bad, huh?”
“Hon…” Rachel pinched the bridge of her nose. “Smallest dick I’ve ever seen. Not sure what he was so proud of the whole time.”
“My God.”
“Anyway.” Rachel stood back up. “Gonna put that one behind me and get to work. I’ve got a Tuesday deadline staring me down, and I’m only halfway done.”
“But this is like… your seventh shitty date in a row.”
Rachel grunted. “It’s not that bad.”
“Wait. Scratch that.” Parvati pointed her nose toward the ceiling. “It’s your eighth one. I forgot that guy you hooked up with in the back of a bar.”
“So, not a date?”
“Girl.” Rachel didn’t have to order her usual. She met Parvati over by the register while her friend went to work brewing her the same tea she always drank. “Maybe it’s time to stop dating for a while. Or at least hooking up with guys the moment you get desperate.”
“So within the first five minutes?”
Parvati brought the teacup over, careful to lower it without spilling a precious drop. “You’re never going to find a boyfriend that way.”
“How many times have I told you that I’m not looking for a boyfriend?” Rachel popped open her wallet and pulled out her loyalty card. “Or a girlfriend, for that matter.”
“Wasn’t going to say anything.” Parvati punched her friend’s card. “That’ll be $2.45.”
Rachel was still shaking her head by the end of the transaction. “You’re right, though. I need to stop going out with every semi-attractive guy who flirts with me. For a while, anyway.”
“Make it to the end of the summer?”
“Hmph.” Rachel snatched her teacup off the counter. “I’ll think about it.”
She took up her favorite little table by the wall, far from most of the distractions while also giving her enough room to unpack her office supplies. Notebook. Dictionary. Folder full of print-outs. Laptop. Enough pens, pencils, and erasers to stock a classroom. The only thing she almost forgot were her reading glasses. Kinda hard to read small-print Japanese without them.
Rachel had been making her living as a freelance translator for over three years. It wasn’t the dream she had graduating college, but there were only a few careers a woman could get with a Japanese degree. Besides translating, teaching was her only feasible option. She had put in her time teaching abroad. Now she subjected herself to picky clients who didn’t pay her enough for some of the shit she was forced to translate.
Like legal documents. One of her best recurring clients was a lawyer who worked with different offices around the world. For some reason, he kept coming up against the Japanese legal system, and Rachel was the only one fast enough and within his budget to get him “good enough” translations. He hadn’t complained yet, anyway. Only when she was a wee bit late because she spent more time flirting with people on dating apps instead of getting work done. Imagine that. I’d rather pump myself up with promises of sex than translate Japanese family law. Talk about something that sucked the romance out of life.
Damnit. Parvati was right. Rachel was on a crash course to burn out. How many more bad dates could she take before she gave up altogether? Besides, men were distracting her from getting her damn work done, and these were not men paying her rent in any way. They barely paid for dinner half the time!
Rachel opened her day planner. What day was it? Right. June 11th. Damn. Already June? Where the hell was the year going?
She flipped to August. Then September.
Nah. August was good enough. Ten weeks. If she could stay date free (let alone sex free) for ten weeks, then perhaps she’d be a bit rejuvenated. Either that or she would completely break down from the lack of attention. I make it sound like I get laid every weekend. If she put her mind to it and lowered her standards…
Loneliness really wasn’t a good look on her.
August 31st marked the ending date of her experiment. Either she’d lose her fucking mind, or she would realize she could live without a damned date and start making better personal decisions. Besides, it gave her more time to focus on her translations. Rent needed to be paid in that expensive city. Rachel’s bank account wasn’t the healthiest around… especially when she added up how many private student loans she was still paying off every month. Blech.
All right. Family law time. Rachel popped in her earbuds and cranked up Spotify on her phone. Whatever had been playing last time was good enough now. Anything was better than the silence of the relatively empty café.
Rachel always worked with her back toward the wall. Gave her a false sense of privacy in a public space. It also let her keep an eye on Parvati, a young South Asian woman who was flirted with at least fifty times a day. Rachel knew her friend’s mother. There was no way Mrs. Singh approved of her daughter deflecting a million suitors every single day she went to work.
So it was no wonder the next customer looked right at Parvati proudly assembling day-old muffins and cookies for display. And it was no wonder Rachel ended up staring at him.
Because dear Lord. The man was gorgeous.
He was that tireless blend of chic and casual. The kind of guy with enough style and money to throw anything on and still look like a million dollars. The man in question wore a breezy white long-sleeved shirt, the top three buttons undone to show a hint of dark chest hair. Tanned skin marked his large hands and chiseled jawline. Or at least until Rachel started to appreciate a man who hadn’t shaved in a day and still looked perfectly put together. Even his jeans were tailored to his muscular legs, and his leather sandals suggested he spent a lot of time down at the marina. Or maybe that was the tan.
He gazed at the displays through a pair of large, round sunglasses. He removed his wallet from his back pocket and moved on to the case, where the freshly made baked goods were kept. He rubbed his stubble while checking out the drink menu.
It was only then that Rachel noticed the canvas bag hoisted over his shoulder. And that was only because it bumped against his ridiculously hot ass every time he bent down enough to see what was on the bottom row of the case. Lemon cakes, Mr. Nice-Ass. Lemon cakes that Parvati bakes herself… for people… who like lemon… Her train of thought was more than derailed. It had exploded, all passengers dead.
Please get your stuff to go. Please get your stuff to go. Rachel did not need this man walking into her life the moment she decided to be celibate for the rest of the summer. Not that she believed he would ask her out the moment he saw her. A man like that? Hmph. No way. Rachel wasn’t Queen of the Homely, but she was definitely not in this guy’s league, either. He screamed the type of guy who could bag supermodels with only a flashing smile.
The metal music drowned out whatever he said. Parvati pulled one of the lemon cakes out of the case and started a latte. The customer paid in cash, leaving five dollars in the tip jar.
Rachel kept her face pointed down but her eyes following the man’s every move. He was not getting his stuff to go.
He was sitting by the front window, pulling out a drawing pad and a collection of colored pencils. Parvati brought him his latte and mouthed “Oh my God this hottie!” to Rachel.

She let her eyes linger on the self-assured man as he began sketching, chin propped up on his left hand and his latte cooling beside the window. Once, she was under the impression that they had made eye contact. But they both looked away at the same time, the man in boredom, and Rachel in one last effort to get her ass to work. That Tuesday deadline wouldn’t wait for her to stop slobbering over the hottest artist to hit downtown on a lazy Saturday morning.

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