Once Garrett and Phoebe were outside on the balcony, he led her to a somewhat secluded spot next to one of those tall outdoor heaters that restaurants used to warm their patios. The beat of the music and the buzz of conversation drifted to them, faint but unobtrusive.
He welcomed the chilly air, hoping it would cool his overheated body. Phoebe, however, shivered. Glad that he had thought ahead, he draped his jacket over her shoulders.
With one hand, she gripped the lapels together over her heart. Her other hand was wrapped around the stem of a plastic wineglass full of golden liquid.
She stared up at him, her face clearly visible in the bright lights from nearby skyscrapers. He’d never seen her wear so much makeup. Smoky gray eyeshadow covered her lids, and her dark eyelashes fanned outward, giving her eyes a feline tilt. Slick red gloss shined on her mouth, drawing his attention to the shape of her lips and the tiny brown freckle just above them.
“You look different,” he blurted out, struggling to reconcile her sultry appearance with the fresh-faced co-ed he’d known.
Bright pink color bloomed on her smooth cheeks. “I know.”
A million questions ping-ponged in his head, but the one that came out surprised even him. “Why did you cut your hair?”
She didn’t reply for a long moment. Finally, she said, “Long hair is a hassle.”
“Yours was beautiful.”
Her lips turned down. “And you don’t like short hair.”
“I like yours,” he replied sincerely.
I like you. I don’t care if you have long hair, short hair, or no hair.
He moved closer to her, powerless to resist her pull. She was a magnet, and he was a piece of metal.
A chilly wind blew over them, tossing several curls into her face. He brushed them away, tucking them behind her ear before tracing the delicate shell. She sucked in an audible breath, and he dropped his hand, wondering if now was the right time to say all the things he’d wanted to say three years ago … before she’d disappeared without a word.
As he debated what to do, Phoebe said, “I didn’t expect you to be here.”
He smiled wryly. “I didn’t expect you to be here, either.”
Awkward silence welled between them, reminding him of their stilted conversations when their marketing professor had paired them up on the first day of class. Even though he and Phoebe had been in the same MBA program, they hadn’t uttered more than two words to each other before that day. She’d been easy to overlook, and he hadn’t given her more than a passing glance.
“How do you know Jake and Kyla?” she asked.
He didn’t want to talk about Jake and Kyla, but he answered nonetheless. “I ran into Kyla in the hallway of my hotel, and we struck up a conversation.”
He omitted the part where he’d asked Kyla out. He wasn’t sure why he felt compelled to gloss over it. He had no reason to feel weird or guilty. Jake and Kyla hadn’t been together at the time. Garrett was single and unattached, and Kyla was the whole package: smart, sweet, and sexy.
“Kyla introduced me to Jake,” he continued, “and now we’re all friends.”
“Do you live in San Francisco? You always said you’d never leave Seattle.”
“I still live there, but I travel to the Bay Area a lot.” Bracing his hip against the railing, he looked down into her eyes. “I wondered what happened to you.”
When she hadn’t shown up for their graduation ceremony, he’d worried that something had happened to her. He had checked with her academic advisor, and the older woman had assured him that Phoebe was fine, but had elected not to walk the stage.
He had suspected that she’d wanted to avoid seeing him. After all, she had ignored all his efforts to contact her. She’d obviously regretted their night together.
“Have you been in San Francisco this whole time?” he asked.
She looked away, glancing out over the city’s twinkling skyline. He let his gaze trail over her profile. He’d spent hours studying her when he should have been studying class notes, and he had memorized the feminine tilt of her nose and the lush curve of her lips.
“I moved here ten months ago,” she replied before taking a sip of wine.
A droplet shimmered on her lower lip, and she licked it away in an unintentionally sensual move. She was completely unaware of her sex appeal, and her innocent actions drove him crazy.
As she lowered the wine goblet from her mouth, he noticed the red imprint her lips had made on the plastic rim. If he kissed her right now, would her bright lipstick mark him too?
He wanted to kiss her … to lick into her hot mouth … to nibble her plush lips and suck on her wet tongue. But he wanted something else even more: answers.
“Why?” he asked, his voice little more than a growl.
Her gaze shot to his. “Why did I move here?”
He shook his head. “Why didn’t you return my phone calls or texts?”
She took a hasty step backward, wobbling a little on her high heels, and lost her grip on her goblet. It plummeted to the ground, splashing wine around their feet.
Hooking his arm around her waist, he steadied her. As she placed her palm on his chest, right over where his heart pounded out a fierce rhythm, he said, “I thought we were friends, Phoebe.”
He didn’t bother to try to disguise the hurt in his voice. He wondered if she could hear it. She had been an important part of his life, and he’d mourned the loss of her friendship.
She looked down, and he stared at the feathery flare of her eyelashes resting on her pink cheeks. “We
were friends,” she murmured.
“Then why the hell didn’t you call me back? Or at least send a goddamn one-line text to let me know you were okay.”