The Exception(7)

By: Adriana Locke

“I’ll have the ensalada de pollo,” I told the waiter over the sound of clinking glasses and silverware.

“What about you?” Julio looked at Kari, straightening his nametag absentmindedly. A group of men at a corner table began cheering, taking Julio’s attention from Kari. The entire restaurant broke out into laughter, which only encouraged the men, and they waved as they danced in their seats and began humming along with the music.

“I’ll have that, too,” Kari replied as the commotion in the corner settled down. She took a sip of the large strawberry margarita sitting in front of her. Julio took our menus and retreated to the kitchen. The smells of spices flowed out of the archway; my stomach rumbled at the appetizing aroma.

“I’m so glad you came home! I have missed this so much,” Kari said, sipping her drink again. “I would have been mad if you had gone to Heather’s. Just so you know.”

“I’ve missed this, too.” I relaxed back into my chair, enjoying the peaceful feeling that was starting to settle over me.

My conversation with Decker earlier that day had cemented the direction of my thoughts. I had stood up to him and survived, and that was a tipping point for me. I realized that the past was the past. I couldn’t change it, but I could learn from it. And that’s what I was going to do. I would go forward—tentatively, maybe, but forward nonetheless.

Just be rational this time. Think things through. I have to think with my head and not my heart.

“No, you didn’t,” Kari said, flipping through the little drink menu on the table. “You were too far up Decker’s ass to miss me.”

“I’m not arguing with you.” I flashed her a cool look, warning her not to press the issue.

“I don’t want to argue with you, Jada. But do you realize how bad he was for you?”

“Obviously. I walked in to find our neighbor bent over my dresser, yelling out my husband’s name while he slammed into her from behind. I’m pretty sure I get it.”

Kari made a face. “Well, I hope so. I’d hate for you to be missing him because I’d have to kick your ass.”

“The alcohol is making you bold. I swear I will make the waiter take your margarita if you don’t stop.” I shook my head, seriously considering my threat.

“Aw, let’s not do that,” a deep voice rumbled behind me. “Tequila usually makes her fun.”

My head whipped to the side as Kari choked on her drink. Max stepped into my line of sight and reached over and gently patted her back, a smirk finding his lips as he looked down at my sister.

His long legs were clad in a pair of dark jeans. He had a black t-shirt stretched across his broad chest and a black baseball cap sitting backwards on his head. His dark green eyes were trained on my sister.

“What are you doing here?” Kari asked, regaining her composure.

“This is a restaurant. Logic would say I’m having supper.”

“Oh,” Kari said. “Well, okay. I just wasn’t expecting to see you tonight.”

“I’m sorry to disappoint you.”

“No! You’re not disappointing me.” Kari’s eyes went wide as she reached over and grabbed Max’s arm, making his smirk grow wider. “Um, do you want to join us?”

Kari’s eyes darted to me, silently asking if that was okay. I nodded faintly.

If nothing else, this should be entertaining.

Max glanced at me and winked, knowing he had just won a small battle. “I’d love to join you.” He sat down and took his hat off, placing it on his lap.

I briefly questioned if this run-in had been a total coincidence, but pushed it out of my mind when Max motioned across the restaurant.

“Hey, man! Over here.” Max waved an arm over his head before turning his attention back to us, his eyes shining. “I was meeting a friend here for a beer and a bite to eat. I hope y’all don’t mind.”

The little hairs on the back of my neck stood at full attention. I had the overwhelming sensation that I was being watched. I felt vulnerable—like prey on the verge of being captured.

I looked to my tablemates and their eyes were focused across the room. I glanced at the neighboring tables. Women’s heads were all turning like dominos; all gazes were focused on the same spot.

What the hell is going on?

“Hey, Max.” The voice to my left was low and rumbled through me. I dropped my gaze to the floor, trying to still my pounding heart.

His voice was smooth, confident, with a touch of grit—the kind of voice you could listen to all day and never hear enough. The air was infused with a spicy, earthy scent—notes of cedar and possibly tobacco lingering in the air. The combination was heady. Whoever was standing beside me was pure, unadulterated male.