“Hello.” They stood awkwardly together outside Bluffton as her things were removed from the train. Abbie twisted her rings, needing something to do with her hands. There had been no kiss in greeting, not even a peck for show.
“How are you?” she asked. He wouldn’t give her his gaze.
“Fine, and you?”
“I’ve been better,” she said. Based on the look on his face, her honesty surprised them both. Edward recovered quickly and started down the hall. She touched his elbow hesitantly. Slowly, he came to a stop and turned to face her, arms crossed.
“Look,” she said quietly, “I’m not going to embarrass you. There’s no reason for anyone to know that we’re fighting. Let’s just put on happy faces and get through this.”
“Agreed. As far as they know, our situation is unchanged.”
“I haven’t told anyone, either,” she said. His eyes met hers, and the mélange of emotions she saw there was almost dizzying. “But it isn’t unchanged, is it?” she said softly.
His gaze hardened. “I’m not doing this with you now.” He turned and strode down the hall. Abbie followed Parker into the game room, where two of his friends were already waiting.
“Lieutenant Saint you already know . . .”
“Good to see you again.” She really was happy to see him, but her smile was forced and she knew it wasn’t reaching her eyes. He gave her a friendly nod in return.
Edward gestured toward the other man. “And this is Simonson.”
“Simonson.” She got a handshake, but no eye contact. He kept his black hair shaved close to his head, and though he was black, his skin was much lighter than Parker’s—redder, too. “Great to meet you, Sam.” At the use of his first name, Abbie was rewarded with a fleeting glance in her direction and a tight-lipped smile as he looked away.
“Simonson’s afraid of princesses, Abbie, don’t take it personally,” Saint said, grinning. He’d stopped calling her ma’am after he’d tasted her cookies on board the transport.
“I’m not afraid,” Sam countered, “I just don’t want to—”
“A. Look at them? B. Speak to them? C. Touch them? D. Acknowledge their presence, by accident or on purpose? The answer is E, all of the above.” This came from James, who had strolled in while the others were being introduced. He stuck his hand out, and his V-neck T-shirt shifted so she could see some of the scars on his chest.
“I’m Arron. You may call me James, Lieutenant, or Arron. I also answer to Sex God.”
Without batting an eye, Abbie volleyed back. “Sorry, I’m saving that nickname for someone else.”
“Who, Edward? But he’s a god as yet unworshipped, love, whereas I’m tried and true. I deserve it much more. But any god worth his salt appreciates loyalty, so may your devotion be rewarded.” He crossed her like he was offering a benediction as he spoke, and despite everything, it made her giggle. “What are we playing?”
“If we bowl, everybody can play,” Simonson offered.
“Oh,” James cried, “I love how my avatar looks in his little shirt with all the flowers and the parrots!”
Saint and Parker protested, but Abbie interrupted.
“I can just watch, I don’t mind.”
Parker scowled and opened his mouth to speak, but he was too slow.
“Fair princess,” James began, “art thy sensibilities too fragile, too feminine for all those pointy pins and large balls?”
“Look, I know you guys are usually blowing things up and storming castles when you play. You don’t have to play kids’ games for my benefit. I’m just here to hang out.”
“Kids’ games?” Saint asked, perplexed.
“You know, bowling, table tennis, Frisbee with the cute little dudes with no arms who bounce around.”
All four men crossed their arms simultaneously, and it made Abbie want to step back.
“Don’t blame her,” Parker sighed. “It’s my fault for not educating her.”
Abbie crossed her own arms, feeling ganged up on. “What?”
“Those games are not just for kids.”
Simonson shook his head. “Not the way we play them.”
“But Abbie can’t drink, mates . . . ,” Parker put in, and there was murmured sympathy. I’d pay money to see them trying to play Frisbee drunk . . . They’d probably put a controller through the screen.
“I’m not in the mood to murder anything,” James said, “not with Sunshine here watching. We can’t reveal Edward’s true nature until they’re wed. Let’s race go-karts.”
Saint grunted his approval. They stuck her in the middle of the long couch and put a controller in her hands.
“What does each button do?”
Parker sat down next to her, still keeping a careful distance. “It’s better if you figure it out as we go. We’ll do some practice runs.”
“No, I like a plan of attack. I need to know how it all works first.”
“But you’ll remember it better if you learn it by touch. Don’t worry about the letters. Your brain is pattern-seeking, you’ll pick it up. Guys, back me up here.”
Saint shook his head slowly. “Side against a woman, they never forget it.”
Abbie lifted her hips and pulled out her phone out of her back pocket.
“What are you doing?” Parker asked.
“Looking up a schematic with directions.”
“Oh no, you don’t.” He plucked the phone from her and tucked it under his leg.
“If you think,” she said, diving for him, “that I’m afraid to go down there . . .”
“Stay away from his face,” James said, cruising through the setup menu. “Our royalty have standards to maintain. We revere that face. Maim him elsewhere.”
“Yes, but I need some of those other parts to maintain a dynasty . . . Woman, stop.” He grabbed her wrists and held her away, and her traitorous heart started to beat faster, because he was touching her. A hundred years had passed since that happened.
“You also need a willing wife to create a dynasty, Your Majesty.”
He shoved the controller back into her hands. “Pick an avatar.”
She glared at him, but he leaned closer and pressed his forehead against hers.
“Trust me, Abs.” It’s an act, she told herself. It’s just an act. The tenderness that should’ve made her feel warm and fuzzy just made her tense; she did not want to be kissed in front of “the guys,” but she wanted him to stop withholding himself, too.
Growling, she turned back to the screen. She scrolled through the characters until she found one that suited her: a dragon.
“Wow,” Simonson said. “I did not see that coming.”
“She doesn’t have to pick a princess, idiot,” said Saint.
Abbie sniffed. “I’m going to torch my fiancé. Only virtually, of course.”
“You sure about that?” Saint smirked.
She stared at the giant screen. “Mostly.”
“Well, your passive-aggressive revenge will have to wait a bit,” Parker said, “because I’m going to coach you through the first few rounds. Now, when the start whistle blows, you’re going to move that little stick on the right forward.” It was counting down from five on the screen, and she only had a moment to find the stick with her thumb before they were off. “You’re the bottom right-hand square.”
“I see it,” she said. “Now what?”
“Now you want to pick up stuff to chuck at the other players.”
“How do I do that?”
“Run over those little exclamation point boxes.” Parker put his arm behind her on the back of the couch, and she jumped when his fingers traced her upper arm lightly.
“That’s distracting, hon.” But he’s touching me. I should’ve let him.
“Sorry.” He moved his fingers, but left his arm where it was.
“I’m distracted, and he’s not even touching me,” quipped James.
“Okay, I picked up some kind of bomb thing. How do I chuck it at James?”
“Oy! Why me? Simonson’s in the lead!”
“Well,” said Parker, “first, you’ll have to catch up to someone. You’re last.”
“Damn it. You said this was practice!”
“It is practice. Good news, though; they’re about to lap you, and then you’ll be able to lob stuff at them as they go by.”
“Doesn’t that mean they could also lob stuff at me?” she asked.
“Yes, but we won’t,” said Saint. “It’s not worth it.”
“Economics, love,” James said. “When you’re a threat, we’ll bomb the Jersey out of you, promise.”
“Also, Edward said he’d demote us if we weren’t nice to you,” Simonson added.
“Did you? That’s sweet, babe.” Her heart swelled with hope.
“Don’t say it,” all three of his friends yelled, and Abbie laughed, running her go-kart off the road.
“Oh no! I crashed . . .”
“It’s all right, the mechanic will pick you up in a minute.”
“But now I’m even farther behind . . . I need more practice.” She paused, thinking, then took a chance. “Will you get me one of these?”
His voice betrayed his surprise. “A gaming system?”
“Yeah, then we can play when you come. And maybe I can coerce Kurt into playing with me if he ever shifts out of jackass mode.” Yes, I want to play with you, Parker. We’re still friends, we’ll figure this out. Don’t give up on me, on us, she silently begged him.
“Yeah, sure, makes sense.”
His friends fell quiet for a few minutes, each man attempting to destroy his friends, leaving Abbie untouched as she navigated the curves of the track, Parker quietly offering more tips as she mastered each new skill. She finally got a shot off on James and he cursed.
“I was about to win!”
“Bam! Who’s the sex god now, sucker?” Abbie crowed.
“Broward?” Saint muttered.
“Hashtag un-queening,” Abbie muttered, and during the ensuing hysterics, she finally pulled into the lead.West, The Un-Queen, Chapter Thirty-Five.
And yes, in case you’re wondering, all these guys get their HEA’s! (Edward’s just takes two books, because…well, because ABBIE.) Find all five books in the series here: The Borderline Chronicles.