Love Thy Neighbor

By: Belle Aurora

Prologue
 The wedding


The White Rabbit is packed with wedding guests. I look to the bride and groom.
So happy.
I smile and watch my very pregnant best friend, Valentina, dance with her brand spanking new husband, Nikolai. The song Tina chose for their first dance as man and wife is ‘Amazing’ by Cassie Davis.
It’s perfect.
Nik holds Tina close, rubs his nose gently up the length of hers and whispers something against her lips. Tina smiles and responds with closed eyes. I roll my eyes.
What dorks.
Love sure does funny things to people.
Tina met Nik just over a year ago and spent the beginning of their friendship denying her feelings for him. They remained friends for a while, but anyone with a brain could see the sexual tension between them was so thick you could slice it with a knife.
To cut a long story short, my sweet best friend watched Nik for two weeks through the windows of her store, Safira. Nik would come outside of the club he owns, The White Rabbit, for a cigarette break. Tina would watch his scowling face and become sad.
Tina doesn’t like to be sad.
So she decided to anonymously send Nik some candy with a note attached. Talking about this now makes Tina laugh. Truth is, she was mortified when Nik sent his brother, Max, over to the store to fetch whoever wrote the note. You see, Tina wrote the note unknowingly on Safira stationary. And the rest is history.
Together, they make a whole.
You would never guess from looking at Tina the sorrow and tragedy she has gone through in her short life. Losing her mom and daughter in the same accident left her hollow for a long time.
It left me hollow too.
See, we lived in Cali. We grew up together. Our parents are Croatian and friends which somehow meant we were automatically friends, too. So, I spent most of my childhood looking out for sweet little Tina who doesn’t have a nasty bone in her body. I love her more than anything. She believes I saved her life when I moved in with her after her daughter and mom passed away, but the truth is, she saved mine.
There is nothing more heart-wrenching than watching your dearest friend deteriorate before your eyes. Tina became a hollow shell, and living in Cali was only making her worse, so she moved to New York. I lasted two years before I packed my shit and followed her down. Living without Tina close by is something I never want to experience again. My heart was shrinking by the day.
I’m not what you would call a ‘nice person’. I tolerate people on the best of days.
Don’t get me wrong, once you pass the friendship barrier I’ve got up around me, you’re in.
But Tina is a part of my heart. She helps me be a good person. She makes me want to be a better person. Going through what she has, she should be a shrew. But she’s my everyday reminder that life goes on and you have to go with the flow or risk being sucked into a vicious current.
I glance over at the bar. Lola and Trick are wrapped up in each other. Not unusual.
Lola loves Trick with all her heart, but Trick is having a hard time committing to her. I’m unsure why. She’s smart, loyal and loving. Trick is funny and a total knucklehead, but he’s lovable too. You can’t help but laugh at his awful jokes. There’s more to Trick than he’s letting on, but until he lets it loose, we won’t know.
My eyes continue to scan the room. Max and Mimi sit with Ceecee, Max’s daughter. Max and Ceecee are laughing at something, and Mimi is scowling. She’s obviously being made fun of. A smile spreads across my face. Max and Ceecee live with Tina and Nik, so I see them a lot.
I love them both.
Max is a good friend and really great at talking people off their metaphorical ledges. And Ceecee is so adorable, you just want to eat her up. She was left a paraplegic after an accident when she was just a baby. So they’re another good example of how life goes on and can be good again.
Mimi, or Meems, has completely transformed since I got to New York. She was as surly as they come. Not at all a touchy-feely person. Ever since we’ve been hanging with the guys, she’s smiling and laughing more.
The guys are what we call…well, the guys. The group consists of Nik, his brother Max, their cousin Trick an old childhood friend, Ghost.
Ghost.
Damn the man.
Yeah, damn him.
Ghost is somewhat like me. He’s not a people person either. In saying that, we aren’t friends.
 The man is a royal pain in my ass. He chooses the perfect moment of every occasion to whisper something in my ear that’s always enough to make me lose my shit.
It doesn’t take a lot to make me lose my shit.
Ghost, whose real name is Asher, and I had a ‘moment’ last year. If a ‘moment’ includes being dragged down the hall of a club, having your panties ripped off, then being fucked on a conference table while you beg and scream for more, then, yes, we shared a moment. It was a one-time thing, though. We’ve never spoken about it, but it was the best sex I’ve ever had in my entire life. And I’m no stranger to sex. I love sex, and I’m not afraid to have it as long as protection is used.
I wouldn’t say I’m a slut. I’m just in touch with my inner slut. And, let me tell you, she rocks.
You’re such a dumbass.
I hate myself for looking out for Ghost. Even if it is on the sly.
The man is insufferable. A total dickhead. No manners what-so-ever. None.
So why can’t you stop thinking about his winkie?
God. I suck.
An arm comes around my shoulder and squeezes. I look around to see my father and mother flanking me.
“Such nice wedding, no? I so happy for Valentina.” My dad’s English is not good.
He’s lived in America for thirty years and still has a heavy accent. He isn’t the only one. Tina’s father, Marko, is very much the same. Working with Croats and having the majority of your friends being Croats, they forgot to be American. Even a little.
My mom nudges my dad and says, “Boris, don’t talk wedding things in front of Natalia. You know how she is.” Mom’s English is pretty darn good. She’s a little dramatic. Not that I blame her. Raising three hot-headed girls will do that to you. My dad has been trying to marry me off to a nice Croatian boy since I was eighteen, and whenever he works marriage into a conversation, I normally just walk away with him still flapping his lips.
Dad glares at mom. “Ana…”
Mom cuts him off with a firm, “Boris.” Dad pouts and looks away.
Mom 1 – Dad 0.
“I can see Nina over by the bar. I think I’ll join her for a drink.” I remove myself from my father’s clutches and walk away.
I walk two steps and hear my dad yell out, “Pamet u glavu! Nemoj mi sramotit!” I smirk. I’ve been hearing this since I was a child. It basically means Use your brain and Don’t embarrass me. Every Croatian child hears this growing up, and most likely, still does. I’m almost twenty-nine and am still hearing it!
My sisters are at the bar chatting, and very obviously flirting with the handsome blonde barman.
He is actually handsome.
Not hot exactly. He looks classy.
I’ve seen him several times, but don’t know his name. We all meet up at The White Rabbit every Saturday night to drink and unwind. Nik made us girls permanent VIPs. We have our own booth and everything!
I smirk internally and decide to be a real bitch. I’m going to spoil their fun.
I put on my best sultry smile, walk in-between my sisters and lean over the bar towards the barman.
 “Hi.” I tilt my head and search his face as if I’m really just seeing him for the first time. “I’m sure you’re new. I would’ve remembered you if I’d seen you here before.” I lightly chew on the nail of my pinky finger, accentuating my naturally pouty lips.
The barman stares at my lips, swallows and replies a choked, “Hi.” He clears his throat and tries again. “Hi. Actually, I know you, Nat. I see you every Saturday night with the Safira party.”
I put on my best humiliated face and lean even closer, so he can see my cleavage. “I’m sorry. Maybe I can make it up to you…”
“Stefan. But everyone calls me Sheriff.” He takes my hand and kisses it.
I take his hand, kiss the tip of his middle finger very lightly and run it along my bottom lip. Stefan’s mouth parts slightly and his body tightens. He looks to be in pain. I whisper, “Let me make it up to you sometime…Sheriff.” Then I wink and walk away, leaving my sisters fuming.
Ha-ha…Take that, ya whores!
My sisters and I have a love-hate relationship. We love to hate each other. We all look alike, have the same attitude and are extremely short-fused. But we love each other to death, and if someone hurt one of my sisters, they’d have to answer to me. Or my fist. Repeatedly.
I make my way to the restroom. As soon as I walk in, I hear retching.
“Everything okay in there?” I yell out.
“Fine! Bean doesn’t like mama dancing around too much.” Poor Tina.
I chuckle. “Either that, or it’s an attention seeker.”
Tina chuckles and retorts, “Just like Aunt Nat!”
I pull out the fakest laugh I can, which sounds a bit like an old man’s guffaw. Tina bursts out laughing in the stall, but she quickly starts retching again. The poor thing gets morning sickness all day long. I remember her being just the same when she was pregnant with Mia, Tina’s daughter who died a few years back.
“Do you want me to get you some lemonade?” I ask.
She groans and replies hoarsely, “Yes, please, honey.”
Before I leave, I check my reflection in the mirror. I love my hair. It’s long and slightly wavy. It used to be a deep magenta/violet, but I recently dyed it a vivid red. With my red pouting lips, green eyes and curvy body, I could easily be mistaken for Jessica Rabbit. And I love playing the role of seductress.
I exit the restroom and head back to the bar to my unhappy sisters. Once there, they both glare at me. “What the feck was that about, slut?” My older sister, Nina, spits.
“Yeah, he went all goo-goo over you, and now he won’t come back here, tramp!” My younger sister, Helena, sneers.
Ahh, feel the love.
When a person looks at us together, they can tell we’re sisters. We’re only a year apart from each other. The only difference between us is Nina’s hair is dyed blonde and Helena’s hair is dyed black.
 Nina is a hairdresser and has her own salon in Cali. I hate having to pay to get my hair done in New York when my sister is a hairdresser. Helena is still studying. She wants to be a physical therapist.
“Back off, whores. It was totally obvious what you were doing. Stop embarrassing yourselves.” I say out the side of my mouth.
Anyone looking at us would see three sisters smiling and having a nice chat. No one would guess what we were really saying to each other. Every cuss word and insult is uttered with the utmost affection though, I promise.
Nina smiles and wraps an arm around my shoulders. “He was totally into me. Back off, hag.”
Helena fake laughs and lightly pushes Nina. “Oh please, he didn’t want you, Nina. No one wants a girl with a moustache.”
We all burst out laughing and wrap our arms around the others’ waists. We really do love each other. We just have a weird way of expressing it.
I joke, “Maybe we should do the sister act. You know, if you want one of us, you have to take all of us.”
Nina replies, “Oh, yeah, because one hoe isn’t enough. He needs three.”
Helena teases, “Sure. We could invite mom and dad to watch.”
All of us stop and blink at each other. At the same time, we scrunch our faces and mutter, “Ewww.”
Stefan comes past our side of the bar, and I yell out, “Sheriff, I need some lemonade. Stat. The bride is retching again.” He stops suddenly, turns, and the lemonade appears in front of me like magic.
I take the bottle, kiss my sisters’ cheeks and head back to the restrooms. I pass the lemonade under the stall, and Tina cheers, “Hooray! No more vomit breath.”
I chuckle and ask, “Do you want me to stay with you, sweetie?”
She answers immediately and firmly, “No! There’s nothing worse than listening to someone vomit. Actually, there is. Smelling someone else’s vomit!”
I give in. “Okay, well, I’ve got my cell on me if you need me.”
As I walk out the restroom door, someone crashes into me from behind. Hard. I teeter and almost fall, but strong arms wrap around my middle and hold me firmly.
My head sways and I suddenly feel lightheaded. I close my eyes and breathe deep.
Oh, damn.
I know that scent. I fantasize about that fragrance. My eyes flutter open, and I look up to focus on the rat bastard.
Ghost looks down at me with what appears to be concern in his eyes. “Okay, pretty girl?”
I hate that I love how he calls me that.
Still in a daze, I stupidly croak, “You smell good.”
A round of applause, please. Bravo.
My back is pressed up against his stomach and chest. He isn’t built like Nik. Ghost is more slender than Nik, and almost as tall and strapping. He has the lean, muscular physique of a swimmer, although his arms are built bigger than a swimmer’s. The feel of the ridges of his abs in my back makes my vajayjay dance. His messy blonde hair sits atop his head looking perfectly styled, even though he runs his hand through his hair every five minutes, and he looks outrageously handsome in a tux and bowtie. His warm brown eyes are dancing.
He replies in a husky, soft voice, “Oh, yeah?” He leans down and buries his nose in my hair. He breathes me in. “Well, I gotta say, you smell good, too, pretty girl.”
I quickly straighten and spit, “God, why are you such an asshole?!” Before he can respond, I’m gone.
That was a little uncalled for.
Shut up, brain.

The evening begins to slow. People are leaving the wedding reception. It’s almost two a.m.
 I’m seated at the bar, talking and flirting with Sheriff who has opened up to me quite a bit.
 He’s easy to talk to, funny and attractive. I take a moment to ponder why I never noticed this before.
Then I take a closer look at him. He’s blonde, brown eyed, tall and muscular.
Ghost.
He looks like Ghost. That’s why.
I don’t want an imitation Ghost. I’ve had the real thing, and I know how good it is. There’s no faking that.
Stefan reaches over and takes my hand. He says, “Sorry, Nat. I got to clean up. It was great talking to you. Hope I get the chance again this Saturday.” He kisses my hand, and I smile softly at him.
“Me too. Don’t be a stranger, Sheriff.” I reply.
I’m about to stand when an arm goes around my waist. I look up and see Ghost frowning down at me. His bowtie is undone and it hangs around his collar.
So hot.
He orders, “Dance. Now.”
Then he tightens his hold around my waist and drags me to the dance floor. We’re the only ones on it. He takes my hands, winds them around the back of his neck and steps closer to me. He holds me tight with one hand on the middle of my back, while the other is half on my lower back, half on my ass. He has me wrapped up.
I’m unsure what’s going on right now, so I react the only way I’m programmed to.
In anger.
I blink then hiss, “What is wrong with you?”
He blinks. His brow furrows and his eyes flash, then he hisses right back, “With me? What the fuck is wrong with you?”
Ouch.
I don’t like Ghost being angry with me. What did I do now?
“Nothing’s wrong with me. I’m having a ball.” I roll my eyes and sigh. “Are we going to do this every single time?”
Ghost stops swaying us and says sharply, “I don’t make it this way, Nat. You do. Ever since we… You’ve been ten times the bitch you normally are. What you don’t get is,” he leans down and whispers, “that does something to me. It makes me wanna soothe the tiger in you. Bend you over another table and pound you into submission. Because that works with you.” His lips brush my ear. “From a tiger into a mewing kitten. And I like that side of you. I like all sides of you, pretty girl. You think you’re putting me off with this supreme bitch act? Nope, all you’re doing is making me hard.”
I lean back, look into his eyes and croak, “I think we should avoid each other.”
He shakes his head slowly and smirks. “I think we should fuck again. Tonight.”
My stomach dips and my core moistens just thinking about the possibility of having Ghost again.
Get the hell out of his clutches, stupid!
I lower my head and shake it. I whisper, “No. It was a mistake. Never to be repeated. I got to go. Please leave me alone, Ghost.”
Ghost stiffens and replies quietly, “If that’s what you want, pretty girl.”
I look up into his eyes and still. He doesn’t look angry. He looks hurt and resigned.
I don’t understand it.
My heart squeezes and I beg, “Please, Ghost. We’re not good for each other. We need to start avoiding each other.”
His brow furrows as he nods. His arms loosen and he walks away from me.
Ghost walking away from me leaves me feeling alone and bitter.
Why did I do that?
Because you’d fall for the broken man which would leave you lonely, regardless.
Oh, yeah.
Thanks, brain.
 


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