“How is it you’ve never played beer pong?” Liam asked. He leaned over the small round table, chin resting in his hand, his bright blue eyes focused intently on Ava.
“I don’t know. I’ll whoop your ass at darts, though,” she shrugged with a laugh. She toyed with the frayed edge of her denim jeans.
“But seriously. Never. You’ve never in your life played beer pong? I feel like you’re just messing with me now.”
“No, alright? Jeez. I haven’t done everything that everyone else has done.” It was easy to get defensive whenever he pressed her about any odd things from her past. She didn’t want to snap at him, but sometimes she felt like she had no choice.
Liam grinned, completely undeterred by her flash of anger. He reached out and grabbed her hand, threading his fingers with hers. “Then I guess I need to show you?”
Ava’s frustration melted away at his touch, but she hesitated. “I am supposed to be working. Dee might need me…”
“Really? If you’re scared of getting beat, just say so. Don’t put this on Dee,” he replied with a twinkle in his eye.
Ava looked around the nearly empty bar and giggled. A handful of locals sat by themselves in the dark recesses of the bar, sipping beer from sweating bottles. “Okay, what do we need?”
“I’ve got this.” Liam slammed his hands down on the table and jumped to his feet. Ava laughed and followed as he vaulted over the bar. She couldn’t help but admire his lithe, athletic body, biting her lip as she wondered what he looked like naked.
It wasn’t the first time she’d had such intrusive thoughts about him. Every night he came into the bar to see her, she became more and more distracted by him. Despite Dee’s warnings to steer clear, Ava never got the sense that Liam was any real trouble. He put up a tough front, but deep down she could tell he was a sweet guy. Flirty, sure, but he never pushed the boundaries, never made her feel uncomfortable.
If anything, I’m the one who casually brushes his leg or arm, she thought as he bounded back over the bar.
“We’ll practice first, but once you get the hang of it, I’m not taking it easy on you,” he warned.
Ava grabbed the red cups from his hands and stood close. He had to look down his nose at her, his charming grin widening. “I’m warning you… I’m a natural at things like this,” she whispered.
He leaned close, his lips brushing the soft skin on her ear. “And I’m warning you, I’m a very, very sore loser.” Liam walked away without giving her a chance to respond, which was probably for the best. Ava’s mind had gone completely blank except for the throbbing need to feel those lips on other parts of her body.
They set up the cups in a triangle of ten on either side. Liam filled his side with beer while Ava started off with water. He explained the basic rules and said they’d deal with the nuances as they came up.
“I go first,” he declared, snatching the orange ping-pong balls from the table.
“And why is that?” she demanded with attitude and a smile, a hand on her hip.
“Age before beauty, of course,” he relied with a wink. In quick succession he tossed both balls into two separate cups in front of Ava. “Drink up!”
Ava rolled her eyes, pulled the balls from the cups and downed the water. “Alright, my turn.”
Just as she was about to throw, Liam jumped forward as if he’d suddenly remembered something. “Remember, keep your elbow back, don’t let it cross the table.”
She checked her positioning, concentration completely thrown off. “Alright…” she said taking a step back. As she brought the ball back again, Liam waved his hands once more.
“Oh! And don’t forget to hold the ball between your fingertips.”
Ava let out an exasperated sigh, threw him a look, and repositioned herself to throw. Just as the ball was about to leave her fingers, he called out again.
“And whatever you do!”
It was too late, the ball went wide as Ava was distracted. Liam had to duck out of the way as the orange ball sailed past his head and rolled under a far table. “What? What now?” Ava cried with a laugh.
“Whatever you do, don’t miss,” he replied with a smirk. Ava threw the second ball directly at his face, declaring him a cheat. He caught it with one hand, retrieved the other, and came around to the other side of the table. “Let me actually show you how to throw.”
As Liam settled in behind, Ava knew exactly what he was doing. She hadn’t been in the real world long, but she could see an excuse to get close for what it was. She suppressed a secret smile as he put a hand on her hip in the guise of repositioning, glad he was actually making a move.
After spending more than enough time explaining how to throw a ball into a cup, Liam stepped away but kept a hand on her side. Ava’s heart thumped wildly in her chest at his touch, his body heat deliciously inviting more than a casual encounter.
“Let’s make this game a little more interesting, especially considering you’re playing with water.” His cobalt eyes searched hers, a piece of his hair falling out of place.
“All right, what do you want to wager?” Her breath caught in her throat at some of the ideas flitting through her mind.
“I win, I take you out tonight after your shift ends. A real date.” His expression was still playful but Ava could see in his eyes he was earnest, even a little scared she might say no.
She tilted her head and gazed back up at him. “And if I win?”
“Whatever you want,” he said quietly.
The tension between them was exquisite torture. Hovering along that brink between wanting something and finding the courage to actually reach out and grab it. “Okay, deal. I’ll let you know what I want when I win.” The moment extended another few pounding heartbeats before Liam’s hand dropped.
“Then I guess it’s game on,” he said with a smirk.
As it turns out, Ava was not a natural at beer pong. Liam, with hours and hours of drunken practice honed in bars across the state, swept the table in five turns. After he sunk the last shot, he leaned forward on the table and shrugged.
“Looks like we’ve got a date to plan for later.”
Ava’s stomach fluttered at the thought as she nodded. “Looks like it.” And how exactly does a date with a man like Liam end? she wondered. “Why don’t you reset the game. All that water, I have to run to the bathroom real quick.”
Even with no alcohol in her system, Ava felt lightheaded and tipsy. She floated through the bar to the bathroom, blissfully dreaming of what the rest of the night might bring. As she stepped into the dingy ladies room, her good mood took a big hit.
Standing at the sink, a tiny mini-skirt riding up to the edge of her pert ass, was the last person she wanted to see. Sarah. She glanced at Ava in the reflection and resumed applying her red lipstick. Her lip curled but she said nothing.
Ava thought she’d take the high road, despite her gut hatred. “Hello,” she said as she walked past to one of the stalls.
“You and Liam looked a little chummy in there,” Sarah replied.
Ava paused, wondering how she’d missed Sarah coming in let alone watching them play beer pong. “I guess. He was showing me…”
“Yeah, I don’t care,” she said putting a hand up to stop her. “Consider that the last thing Liam’s ever going to show you.”
Ava stood there dumbfounded, wondering if maybe she’d just misunderstood. “What are you talking about? You two aren’t dating or anything.” But as she said it, a lump formed in her throat. Maybe this is what Dee was trying to warn me about?
Sarah turned and cocked her head to the side, grinning like she felt sorry for Ava. “Dating? No, but we do have a certain… arrangement. One word and he’ll never speak to you again.”
While not exactly a hothead, there was something about this blonde bombshell that just pressed all of Ava’s buttons. With her temper barely under control, she closed the distance between them, showing she wasn’t afraid of any of her threats. There was a niggling spot in the back of her head that wondered if Liam hadn’t been completely honest. Sarah’s perfectly plucked eyebrow arched as she crossed her arms.
“Why don’t we let Liam decide what he wants?” Ava said evenly.
“Sure, why not? But I think he should know exactly what he’s choosing,” she replied, looking Ava up and down with derision. “I’m guessing he doesn’t know about the hole you crawled out from. I’ve known Liam for a long time, honey, and I know he doesn’t have time for any freaky cult refugee who saw her first laptop last month.”
Ava’s mouth fell open in complete shock. It took every ounce of willpower to stop herself from launching a full attack on Sarah’s face. The only thing that held her back was the knowledge that she’d twist it around to benefit her in some way.
Sarah’s face shifted into a plastic smile. “Oh good, I’m glad we understand each other.” She reached out and patted Ava on the shoulder and spoke in a sickly sweet voice. “Have a good night, okay?”
When the bathroom door slammed shut, Ava gripped the sides of the sink with both hands and silently screamed in frustration. When she looked into her own reflection, she was shocked to see the rage plain on her face. That bitch is going to ruin everything between me and Liam, just when things were starting to come together. I was just starting to feel normal…
Running her hands under the cold water, Ava tried to reassure herself. Maybe she won’t tell him? Maybe he won’t care? “Maybe you should get back out there and make sure,” she whispered to herself.
But Sarah had already managed to wriggle her thin little arms around Liam. He saw Ava return from the restroom, gave her an eye roll and a grimace, and nodded towards the bar as if to say, Let me just deal with this shit first.
Ava did her best to keep her expression neutral, but was seething inside. Despite her best efforts to conceal it, Dee saw the situation plain as day.
“Don’t you worry about her,” Dee said nodding towards her sister. “She likes to play with new toys. Once she gets sick of one, it’s on to another.”
Ava grabbed a bar towel and got to work drying the pint glasses. “That’s not what I’m afraid of,” she whispered, turning her back to the bar so she could face Dee. “She threatened to tell him about… you know.”
Dee’s expression fell, a look of practiced disappointment she reserved only for her sister. “She does that, I’ll beat her down myself.”
They both watched as she pulled Liam over to a booth, pinning him inside. Even from the other side of the bar, Ava could see her fake tears for what they were. “Why did she come on these rescues anyway? She obviously doesn’t care?”
“Daddy says she needs to give back to the community or he’ll cut her off. Simple as that. She figures picking trash off the side of the road is beneath her, so when your sister approached the church…” Dee paused as Sarah let out a fake sob, her face falling in her hands as if distraught. “Come on, ignore her. She feeds on the attention.”
Ava did her best to do just that, but the bar was so slow, she quickly ran out of distractions. It was nearly impossible to keep her eyes from the booth. A few times Liam caught her glance and made a face, but that only encouraged Sarah to pile it on thicker. Within a half an hour, she was practically crying in his lap. Ava tried not to notice when Liam scooted out from the booth and headed towards the bar.
She threw the towel over her shoulder and crossed her arms. “So much for beer pong, eh?”
“I know. I’m really sorry, but I’m gonna need a rain check on that date,” Liam said as he leaned on the bar.
“Something, huh?” Ava asked with more than a smidge of attitude. She glanced towards Sarah who primped her hair by the door.
“I need to go help out a friend. I owe him a favor.”
Ava squinted at him, not sure if he was telling the truth or an incredible liar. Or maybe he thinks I’m that stupid… “Him, huh?” she asked with another meaningful glance towards the door.
“I mean it. I’ll make it up to you, I promise.” Liam grabbed both of Ava’s hands and gave them a kiss. “Promise.”
Sarah tossed a wink over her shoulder as Liam held the door open for her, a parting shot that said, I win.