Hookup Master

Read the Excerpt

Chapter One

Nessa

I’m stuck in the friend zone. Again. What is it with me and guys?

I unload drinks from my cocktail tray, stealing glances at Zach and that woman.

The same blonde comes into Blue Casino every month like clockwork. She’s beautiful, with short platinum hair tucked behind her ear in an overgrown pixie. Tonight she’s wearing stilettos and a skintight black micromini dress. It’s hard to tell, with the invention of Botox and fillers, but she seems older. Maybe mid-thirties.

Bartender Jimmy, in the sports bar where I work evenings, shakes his head. “Doesn’t deserve you, girlie.”

“What?” I shove the last empty glass to him. “I just find it fascinating.”

Blondie hands Zach a plastic keycard. He stares at it, then glances up.

Right at me, because I’m looking. Again.

Our gazes lock, and for an instant, guilt flashes across his face.

I swivel my head toward the bar, my hands shaking. Crappers.

“Sure you find it fascinating.” Jimmy chuckles, wiping the counter.

Pretty sure everyone suspects I have a crush on Zach Elliott. Except Zach. Or maybe he knows and doesn’t care. Zach is my buddy—my buddy I want to make babies with.

I sigh and pinch my eyes closed, fighting the frustration I’ve lived with for more than a year. Zach takes special care to make sure we’re only friends. It’s humiliating. I pine while he passively rejects me.

The woman he’s standing with walks off, and he flashes his hands to the cameras in the ceiling to show the house he hasn’t any cards or cash tucked up his sleeve. He prepares to leave his blackjack table. To follow her. Like he does every freaking month.

Why her? Why not me?

The worst part is that Blondie isn’t even Zach’s only conquest. He hooks up all the time. I usually don’t see him in action, thank God, but I hear about the women leaving his house at all hours. He flirts with everyone. Except me. Me he treats like a sister.

I slam my tray on the counter, and Jimmy lifts a brow. “Sorry,” I mumble.

Keep it together, Nessa. I can’t let it get to me anymore. I’m not acting like myself, and that’s just messed up.

Jimmy’s right. Zach doesn’t deserve my heart. Only, I know him. He’s sweet and funny, and wonderful. There are jerks who only care about hooking up and who treat women like dirt, but that’s not Zach… though his behavior isn’t exactly glowing right now, as he prepares to meet with Blondie.

I press my hand to the center of my chest. Hurts so badly. Why do I do this to myself?

I need to take a page from Zach’s handbook. I should get out there and date. I won’t do casual sex. Been there. The one-night stand during my senior year of college left me so empty it put me off dating for a long time. But I’ve been obsessing over Zach for a year and half, ever since I graduated from San Francisco State with a useless communications degree and moved to Lake Tahoe with a friend.

My friend moved on. I haven’t.

Zach was one of the first people I met when I arrived, and initially, I felt this spark between us. I’d catch him eyeing me that way—with heat and longing—right before he’d wash the expression from his face and call me by some juvenile nickname.

He treats me like his little sister, and it’s enough to make me lose my mind. I’m ready to pull my hair out. Which wouldn’t be a good look. My long black hair hits my waist, and it’s my best feature. Something is holding Zach back, and I’m tired of running up against that wall. The best thing for me would be to move on and stop daydreaming about what will never be.

I deliver a tray of new drinks, and out of bad habit, look for the person who’s driving me bizonkers.

Zach still isn’t at his blackjack station. And unfortunately, I know what that means.

My stomach cramps, my elbows pressing my sides. The movement tips my tray and the napkins resting on top tumble to the ground.

“Need a hand, Ness?” I look up into Sal’s bright blue eyes.

Sal is a local who comes in to catch whatever sports teams are playing on the big screens. He and a group of regulars meet up every week. Sometimes twice a week.

I hunch over, gathering the napkins. “I’ve got it, Sal. Thanks.”

“Everything okay?” His expression is warm, concerned, as if he sees something in my face that has him worried.

Sal’s a good guy, and he isn’t bad looking. He’s about my age, with killer blue eyes, tanned skin, and sandy blond hair. Unfortunately, he takes Tahoe Bum to a new level with frayed jeans where the hems drag on the ground, and his T-shirts are so thin from wear that they’re almost see-through. But those things aren’t why I can’t see myself with him.

I can’t see myself with anyone except Zach. And that needs to change.

“Yeah, just a crappy night.” I toss the napkins on my tray and stand.

Sal wraps his arm around my shoulders. “Grab a drink with us tonight, Ness. We’re heading to Farley’s in a bit.”

Farley’s is a hole in the wall a couple of streets over. The indoor Cornhole game is a big draw among the locals.

I never take up offers from men who hit on me at Blue, which happens often, given my uniform. A sequined bustier and satin hot pants will do that to a girl. But Sal and his friends are laid-back. They seem more concerned with the beer left in their longnecks than the pretty women who pass through. They’re not looking to fulfill their sexy waitress fantasies.

Sal’s gaze drifts up and holds. I look over to see my friend Mira walking in, which explains why even Sal’s head turned. He may be laid-back, but he is a male.

Mira is insanely beautiful. A man would have to be dead not to notice her. Too bad she’s taken. She’s in a serious relationship with my friend’s brother, Tyler. Mira is what you’d call feisty. No one here thought a guy could reach past the feist and find her soft core, but Tyler proved up to the challenge. They seem really happy together. And I’m not jealous that all my friends have suddenly settled down. Not at all.

Okay, a little.

Mira’s gaze skims the people in the bar, searching. I wave her over.

Sal smiles at me. “Let me know if you want to come,” he says, and turns to his friends.

“Hey.” Mira drops her cell phone in her purse. She must have just gotten off work. “I’m checking to see if things are still on for tacos tomorrow night.”

“Aren’t they always?” Zach hosts a taco dinner every Wednesday at his place. It was one of the first things he invited me to.

I ball up the napkins that fell, which are useless now that they’ve touched the ground.

“Everything okay?”

“Yeah.” I smile weakly. “I’m just in a pissy mood.”

Mira’s face scrunches in confusion.

Okay, so I’m not usually cranky. Still, a girl has a right to be in a bad mood every once in a while. Maybe I’ll take Sal up on his offer. I could use a change of scenery. Watching Zach leave with that woman grated on my nerves.

I step to the side and pull Mira with me. “I’ll cheer up. I’m just having one of those days. Sal invited me for drinks after work to blow off some steam.”

Mira sizes up Sal over my shoulder. She had a tough upbringing, born into a drunken, drug-addicted home. She’s overcome a lot, which has made her a really good judge of shady characters. “Cute, but…”

“I know. He could use a makeover. It’s not like that, though. Sal’s a regular. We’re friends.”

“Still, you want me to tag along?”

“Nah, I’ll be fine.”

Mira squeezes my arm lightly. “Nessa, are you really okay?”

I haven’t outright told anyone about my crush on Zach, though they may suspect something. We’re all friends, and talking about my true feelings could make things awkward.

“I’m fine. I’ll see you tomorrow at Zach’s?”

“Yup. I even made cookies for dessert.”

“Holy cow—” I reach up and press the back of my hand to her forehead. “Do you have a fever or something?”

Mira laughs. “No. Tyler and I were in the mood for cookie dough last night. We ate half a container and only stopped when our stomachs rebelled. I made cookies with the rest of it.”

“So this is store-bought cookie dough?”

She makes a funny sound in the back of her throat. “Of course.”

“Phew, you had me worried there for a moment.”

Mira chuckles and walks away. “I’ve been cooking lately,” she says over her shoulder. “Look out, I’ve turned domestic and shit. The next taco dinner may be at my place.”

Oh boy. Zach is the only person in our small group of friends who can cook. Mira at the stove is a scary prospect. Her new position as an assistant to a top executive at Blue is perfect for her. She loves bossing people around in HR. But cooking? She’s never cooked for anyone, as far as I know. Maybe she’s been experimenting on Tyler. If so, the poor guy has been taking one for the team.

I walk over to Sal and nudge his arm with my elbow. “Hey there, I think I will join you guys tonight.”

“That’s my girl.” Sal grins.

“I get off at midnight, so in about an hour. Does that work?”

“Of course. The guys might head over early, but I’ll stick around and wait for you.” He nods to the television screens. “They’re about to show sports highlights again.”

I wrap up my shift and mentally prepare to block Zach from my mind for an evening—longer, if I can stick to my convictions and move on.

Forgetting there could ever be an us.