Never in a million years would anyone have expected me to be the third wheel. The single lady with a capital S. Not a man or even a potential relationship in sight. Nada. Zip. Zero. But as I drove back to The Fancy Paws Society & Rescue, my brain automatically kept circling me back to the topic I hated most of all. The thing I feared above all else—including tarantulas—being alone.
My knuckles were turning white on the wheel from gripping it so hard. My two best friends in the entire world were happily settled with the men of their dreams. Piper had gotten her second chance with her former—and now current—fiancé, Elias Galanis, and Ivy was head over heels in love with the Army veteran, Jacob Westbrook.
I glanced in my rearview at the two crates of newborn kittens with their feral mothers. Hearing the small peeps and mews melted my heart, causing me to smile. I sighed, bringing my attention back to the issue at hand.
Me. My life included the cat rescue, a small yet successful website design company I ran from the comfort of my loft apartment, and gaming well into the night. Most days, I looked forward to when I switched my monitors from Photoshop and logged into the online game Star Horizon. There, I’d most likely find the one person other than Piper and Ivy who knew me the best.
Yes, trusting someone online, who I’d never met in person and only used their gamer tag of Zepher133 for a name, might not be the smartest thing to do, but this person and I went way back. I smiled just thinking about him. I knew he was a male because he’d told me of some girlfriend issues through chat in the past. The way he’d spoken of his other male friends outside of the gaming world made it quite clear he had the opposite hardware than me.
My left pinkie pushed up on the turn signal, letting traffic know I needed to get over. I quickly skirted through the lunch-rush traffic and made my way down the off-ramp toward the rescue. Z, as I’d come to call him, and I met during the first week of the game’s release in one of the lobbies waiting for a raid. Our outrageous sense of humor and ability to back each other up in combat kept us talking early into the following morning.
I bit my lower lip. Could online friends be real friends? Especially at my age? I wasn’t exactly in that demographic of kids these days who appeared to only have online friends. Nope. I was an adult. Someone who should be well adjusted and settled down like my two besties were.
Muscle memory took over, and I managed to make it to the rescue while lost in my jumbled thoughts. Brooding over Z would have to wait until later. Right now, I needed to get these kittens and their very spicy mommas in Piper’s and Stacie’s capable hands. A few of them were showing signs of dehydration from fleas, and for a kitten, that could spell disaster.
The chime above the back entrance chirped, letting Ivy at the front desk know someone had come in through that door. We usually kept it unlocked for the volunteer staff and me to enter and exit. The ring camera gave Ivy peace of mind because she could see who came and went. I stuck my tongue out at the little device as I went by.
When I got to the front lobby after passing through the short hallway that included Piper’s office, I saw Ivy rolling her eyes at me.
“I take it you saw me?” I smirked, setting the two crates down on the floor.
The stunning woman with jet-black hair and perfect bone structure wrinkled her nose at me. “I’m waiting for the day when you actually moon me.”
Pretending to be horrified, I placed a hand over my forehead in mock shock. “My dearest friend, I’ve only ever mooned you once in college, and alas, I was three sheets to the wind.”
Ivy giggled, leaning over the counter to see the kittens. “I believe Piper deleted the evidence from her phone, but I can neither confirm nor deny that.”
“Those Alpha Chi boys had it coming.” I reached for the intake forms resting on the counter. “They TP’d our house over Layla Rogers not putting out. They deserved retaliation.”
“A wet confetti machine was very innovative of you,” Ivy agreed.
I handed the first sheet back to Ivy to enter into the computer to start the charts for each kitten and momma cat based on markings and gender. “I thought so.”
Back in college, I’d been known as the wild child of our trio. I still dressed in a mixture of sixties vintage and nerd chic. For as much as ruby red lipstick, thick blond hair, and my impressive C’s did to make me appear feminine, I was still a tomboy at heart.
Nasty rumors started at my old high school because the popular girls were jealous I could be friends with the jocks and labeled me as “easy” and a “slut.” Coming from a small town in West Texas, moving all the way across the state and starting over at A&M was the fresh start I’d needed. And I met Piper and Ivy along the way at freshman orientation.
Ivy and I continued our usual, fill-out-the-form-and-pass-it-over-the-counter routine for a good five minutes before Piper or Dr. McCallister, soon-to-be Dr. Galanis, joined us.
“Oh my goodness, a litter of torties,” she cooed, kneeling to inspect her latest patients. Torties, or tortoiseshell, referenced coat pattern and coloring. They came in a variety of colors but weren’t seen that often. “How long did the caller say they were under her unit?”
“Three days,” I supplied, giving Ivy the last of my paperwork. “She noticed how thin the momma was and got worried the babies weren’t getting what they needed.” Motioning to the crate Piper was looking into, I added, “Both litters still have their eyes shut and are covered in fleas.”
The redhead nodded, rising to her feet and taking one crate while I lifted the other to help her bring them back to quarantine.
“How is everything coming together for the wedding?”
My question made Piper beam in excitement. It was nice to see my usually stoic friend so giddy.
“Just a few months left to go.” She almost squealed, which was very unlike Piper. “We just have to taste test wedding cakes, and I’m pretty sure we’re all caught up on things to do.”
After Elias popped the question a second time, Piper called Ivy and me into her office. She didn’t want to choose between us being her maid of honor, so we were both technically filling the role. Ivy took over the planning side of things while I focused on keeping Piper calm and having fun. It worked to each of our strong suits and made our friend feel less guilty.
“So long as it contains no nuts, I’m good.” We set each crate on the medical-grade steel table in the back quarantine room. “There’s only one set of nuts I wanna see, and that’s the poor unfortunate soul I’m gonna tag and bag before the night is out.”
Piper tossed her head back and laughed, opening the first crate’s door. Momma number one hissed as the vet reached inside to cautiously pull out a black and caramel tort kitten.
“I’ve asked Elias which of his doctor friends are available for you.” She flipped the tiny kitten and checked its sex. “He told me to tell you he’s got a list.”
Little did Piper know, my lady business and I were in a slump. This happened every now and again. I had no issues going out to bars, finding hot guys, and bringing them back for a fun time. It was few and far between, but a small yet growing part of me wanted something more than just a fun, alcohol-hazed fuckfest with a dude I’d find mentally lacking in the morning. So long as they kept their mouths shut, we were good. The moment they sobered up and started talking about our second date, I either bolted or showed them the door.
“Thanks, but I’m not looking for anything serious right now.” That had become my tagline. But it was a lie. I wanted to look for something serious, and that terrified me.
“Today is your half day?” Piper asked, her focus completely on the kittens she pulled out one by one to inspect. Stacie helped, silently listening to our conversation. She’d pitch in advice if she felt inclined to, but she mostly enjoyed hanging back and observing people and animals.
“Yup, I have some logos to wrap up this afternoon.” I started to back away from the cute fluffballs on the table. If I didn’t leave now, I never would.
Along with being the resident “rescuer” in the title of this establishment, I also ran a small web design company on the side. I managed The Fancy Paws Society & Rescue’s social media accounts and website, but that was a part of my job. We didn’t get calls to come collect cats every day, so I needed something else to do.
Since my degree was in website development and design, with a minor in digital marketing and promotion, I’d been working for myself since undergraduate school. I now had a decent pool of clients who supplemented my salary from the shelter.
“Have fun.” Piper gave a wave over her shoulder, and Stacie smiled at me.
“Oh, you know it,” I replied.
After a brief farewell to Ivy, I hopped back into my own vehicle, not the shelter’s truck, and turned the radio up. It stayed on a classic rock station that played 70s, 80s, and now, sadly, 90s. Whenever I heard the Backstreet Boys or Boyz II Men come on, I was reminded I wasn’t young anymore.
I squirmed in my seat. Twenty-eight wasn’t what I would consider old, but it was older than I would’ve liked to be. Luckily for me, my drive-home soundtrack consisted of Bon Jovi, Queen, and Rush. Unlike Piper and Ivy, who lived outside of Dallas, I lived in a downtown loft apartment.
When I pulled into the parking garage and took my reserved spot close to the elevator, I caught sight of my new neighbor dismounting from his motorcycle. Swallowing hard, I watched without being too creepy.
He’d moved in two months ago, and we’d only briefly met each other in passing or while in the mail room, but damn was he sexy. His long, tapered fingers splayed on either side of his red and black helmet and removed it, revealing jet-black hair that fell into his equally dark eyes. Tall and athletically built, he was my wet dream come to life.
I didn’t know what he did for work, per se, but whatever he did, he wore a suit most days. His matching red and black riding jacket flexed over his broad shoulders. After a few more moments of gawking at him, I exited my car.
His gaze met mine over the hood, and our eyes locked. I froze.
One thick, well-manicured brow arched up as he studied my face. It wasn’t in a judgmental way … no … it was in a way that made me think he’d never really seen me before. His perfectly kissable lips parted, but I spun on my heel, breaking our connection before he could speak.
My heart pounded in my chest, and I felt the back of my neck heat with anxiety.
The one man to completely render me mute and dumb just had to be my neighbor. My very attractive and successful neighbor. He’d only given me his last name, Henderson. And if he was related to anyone at the Henderson & Richards Law Firm group just a few blocks away, my lady bits had chosen a man way above my pay grade.