Home > Work in Progress (Red Lipstick Coalition #3)(12)

Work in Progress (Red Lipstick Coalition #3)(12)
Author: Staci Hart

“I mean, I’m funny, but I don’t know if I’m that funny.”

Another eruption of giggling broke out before she blew out a breath, her face flushed for a new reason—humor. When she caught her breath, she met my eyes and said, “Thomas Bane, you are ridiculous.”

My brows flicked together. “Ridiculous good or ridiculous bad?”

But she shook her head, turning for the door. “Just absolutely ridiculous.”

And inexplicably, I was a hundred percent certain that was a good thing.

The Smirk Factor


My entire walk home was spent processing one thought: Did Thomas Bane almost kiss me?

I thought the answer might be yes, as evidenced by the lapse in time when he’d stepped into my space, the way his eyes darkened to blackest ink, his lips parting just a little, just barely, just enough to send an inadvertent radio signal that practically screamed the word kiss.

The memory of his body underneath mine was its own separate catalog of details. He was huge, a beast of a man, hard as stone and hot to the touch. I meant that, too. He radiated heat like a power source. As if something vital and alive existed inside him that couldn’t be contained by skin or muscle or bone, so it waved off of him and over me, intoxicating and arresting.

It was no wonder that he’d found fame. In fact, it seemed that he had been born to be adored, admired. Admonished. Everyone wanted to know everything about him, good or bad, true or false. If they really got their hands on him, the frenzy was so deep, they’d rip him apart like carrion. He was perhaps the most famous author at that moment in time simply because he’d been living in the public eye, making waves, making headlines for six years.

His gravitas was overwhelming under the best of circumstances, something about him so striking and imposing that it captured the attention of anyone and everyone who came in contact with him. When he walked into a room, you knew. You felt it, the tug, the draw, the allure of him too strong to resist.

And yet, he’d found a way to make me feel completely comfortable and at home. Well, maybe not completely, but that was as close as I got to comfort with a stranger. I’d forgotten for a minute who he was. The spell he put on people broke for a moment, and the man underneath was as real as I was.

But then he’d almost kissed me. And seconds later, I was sprawled on top of him with his arms around me. His very large, very strong, very masculine arms.

And with that, the spell was back, and I was reminded just how out of my element I was.

As I unlocked my front door, twenty thoughts were on my tongue, waiting to fly out the second I located my friends. But when I pushed the door open with hope all over my face, I found nothing but an empty brownstone.

I sighed, pulling my key out of the door and closing the noise of the city out behind me.

Claudius, my cat, strutted down the stairs with his eyes on me and mouth stretching in a meow as if to rebuff the insult at the implication that I was alone. I picked him up when he got close enough, holding him to my chest.

“I love you, but you give terrible advice.”

He meowed again, and if I spoke cat, I was pretty sure it would have translated to, Fuck you.

The house was so quiet. Too quiet. Someone should have been home—Rin studying, Val relaxing before heading to work, Katherine…well, Katherine was still at the library. But Rin was probably at Court’s or the museum. Val was at Sam’s.

If Katherine went out to dinner with a guy instead of coming home to relieve me of my thoughts, I really might go ahead and pitch myself off the roof.

Everyone was moving on. Growing up. Finding love.

For eight years, the four of us had been an inseparable unit. We’d met freshman year of college as assigned suitemates, and when Val had sat us all down with cheap liquor and made us get drunk together, we’d forged a bond that carried us into our adult lives.

Deep down, I’d always known our time together was temporary. Because life was fluid, ever changing, never the same for long. It was a string of seasons, good times and bad, happy and sad, one after the other.

But above that deep-down knowledge was the naive hope that we’d somehow stay together forever.

It’d be so much easier than what I was facing now, which was loneliness. Katherine was next to find love, I was sure. And where would that leave me? Alone in my parents’ brownstone with nothing and no one to truly call my own.

Claudius nipped at my finger, and I yelped in surprise.

“Except you. You’re the only man I need in my life,” I assured him.

He purred, ignoring my lie.

We walked into the kitchen, and I set him down next to his food dish. The kitchen was beautiful, one of my favorite rooms in the house, stocked with all the amenities any of us could want. Particularly me, given my propensity for baking.

I smiled. Baking. That would make me feel better.

I began to gather ingredients, grateful I’d gotten fresh blueberries with my last order. Lemon-blueberry muffins would set the world—and my mood—to rights.

My parents had purchased the house as an investment, gutted it, and offered it to me and my friends to live in. The library was extensive, our rooms bright and open, all the details of the old Victorian kept intact, just spruced up. The tall windows. The thick molding. The exposed brick.

I loved this place. But it was far too big for me alone, no matter how many cats I decided to adopt. And someday, I’d have to leave.

Discontent settled in my stomach.

I wondered where I’d go, what I’d do. Home to South Dakota wasn’t an option even though I missed my parents. New York was my home far more than my actual home.

No, I couldn’t leave the city. Maybe I’d just downsize. Dad would try to insist I stay. But standing there in the kitchen in the big, empty house, I knew I couldn’t. My loneliness echoed in all the empty rooms.

I sighed and reached for a lemon to zest, reprimanding myself for being such a baby and reminding myself that I’d already shifted in the direction of my ambitions. Someday, I’d be sitting in an office, telling an author I wanted their story. Someday, I’d be brave and bold, just like Rin had been when she started working at the museum or like Val when she’d decided to ask Sam out. We all had something we wanted, something we wanted to change. And now, it was my turn.

That would take all my energy anyway. I’d be fine alone, too busy to care.

I patted myself on the back, feeling great. I could so be alone. I didn’t need anyone.

A key slipped into the front door, and when it opened, Katherine strode in, weighted down with bags.

“Oh, thank God,” I breathed, dropping everything in my hands carelessly on the countertop. I hurried around the island, wiping my hands on my apron and rushing Katherine.

Her eyes widened when I flung myself at her, hugging her with all my strength, her arms pinned to her sides. She stiffened in surprise.

“I’m so glad you’re home.” It was almost a whine.

“You don’t say.”

I let her go, beaming. “How was your day?” I asked as I took one of her bags. It was heavier than I’d expected, and I lurched so I didn’t fall over. “God, what’s in here, dumbbells?”

“Books. I’m putting together a class at the library and needed to source some material.”

I oofed as I lugged the bag to the couch. “Some material, not all the material.”

She set the other bag next to the one I’d taken, glancing into the kitchen. “What are you cooking?”

“Muffins. Wanna help?”

“Not really. But I’ll sit with you, as it seems you have something you want to talk about.”

My face softened, eyes watery and wide. “Would you?” The question was a sad little quiver.

The corners of her lips flicked in her version of a comforting smile. “Sure. Now, tell me what happened.”

My shoulders slumped as I dragged myself back into the kitchen. She sat across from me as I picked up the lemon again.

“Do you…do you ever wonder what will happen to us? I mean, once Rin and Val move out.”

She frowned. “I just assumed we’d keep living here. Together. Is that not the case?”

“No, of course it is,” I assured her. “I just mean…well, you’ll find someone too, I’m sure. And where will that leave me? Alone with no one but Claudius to talk to.”

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