Corey by Tarin Lex

One

Aris

“No. Way,” Corey says through gritted teeth. “I’m not leaving two seventeen-year-old girls alone in the mall.”

“Okay first of all, Aris is eighteen,” my bestie, Megan, points out. Standing with her and her brother in the food court, I’m not sure which is more rousing—the smell of fresh-baked cinnamon swirls wafting toward us, or the look of fierce protectiveness on her brother’s face.

Corey’s jet eyes slide to me, narrowing. “Since when?”

“Today,” I answer.

“No one told me,” he says. “Happy Birthday, Smiles.” His lowered voice is rumbly and warm and makes my legs feel weak.

“Thanks.” I bite back a too-big grin.

Clearing his throat, he looks at Megan, muscular arms folded over his chest, looking big and immutable as Wylder Peak.

And that’s a mountain.

“Second of all,” Megan snarks, “you’re being ridic. This mall is safe, we’re smart. Nothing bad is gonna happen to us just because my big-shot SWAT brother isn’t trailing us like a puppy dog.”

Corey wrinkles up his face. “A puppy dog?”

“You know what I mean,” Megan sniffs. I stifle a giggle behind my hand. Corey’s dark, intense eyes flicker to me then away. It’s enough to paint my cheeks pink.

Geez. Now I’m the one who’s being ridic. He looked at me…so? It’s bad enough I’ve been harboring this insane crush on my best friend’s older brother for three years. One split-second moment of direct eye contact should not send a flush of heat all over my skin.

“Alright, fine.” Meg whirls to me, lowering her voice. Not so low he can’t still hear. “What do you think, Aris, should I go with a plunging neckline”—she draws a V down her chest with her fingertips—“or a thigh-high slit”—she winks, pretending to hike a dress up her leg—“hmm, maybe both…”

Tense silence follows. I peer over at Corey, who’s frowning at the both of us.

“I’ll make myself scarce,” he grumbles. Smart man. I have to school my eyes from training too hard on his backside, his broad, hard shoulders and those dark jeans that do very, very nice things for his butt, as Corey turns and stalks away.

I settle for the cinnamon swirls, since I can’t have him.

“The plunging neckline,” I answer Megan, once her brother is out of earshot. “Definitely.”

“That’s what I was thinking too.” Grinning victoriously, she twines her arm with mine as we head for the treats. “Let’s find you a leggy one then.”

“Um, no thanks.”

“Ah.” She smiles knowingly. “Going for the plunge then?”

“Yeah, that’s going to happen.”

“Oh…honey,” Megan sighs, her way of gently admonishing me for feeling insecure.

I shake my head. “Don’t start.”

She agrees to behave. We load up on the sugary carbs, maybe not the wisest choice right before we’re about to try on prom dresses, but it’s instant gratification, and I already know how I’m going to feel after this whole shopping thing is over. Like crap. I’ll make better choices another day.

Today, I just want to get this over with and come out alive.

I haven’t been looking forward to trying on gowns, but I am excited to go to prom. After Megan’s on-again/off-again relationship ended in a blowout fight, she’s sworn off guys. I’m her perpetually single BFF who’s never even been kissed. So we agreed to be each other’s prom dates, so we know we’ll have fun and won’t be let down.

“How much time do we have?” I ask.

Meg shrugs, licking the gooey sides of her cinnamon bun into submission. “How long is a piece of string?”

I giggle at that non-answer. We both know we won’t last long here.

We’re lucky Corey was available to drive us today. With prom two weeks away, time is ticking and the best dresses are probably gone. Meg doesn’t have a car yet, and mine’s in the shop for a couple more days. I don’t really care about having flashy, expensive things, but I do love to drive. Someday it’d be nice to own a car that doesn’t break down every couple of months.

“Corey won’t get called out?” I check, as we head into the dress shop.

“That’s always a risk.” She spots a gaudy red frock and beelines over to it. “Oohh.” Her eyes sparkle with mischief.

“No,” I snort. She pouts. “Divide and conquer?”

“Okay. Let me know if you see anything that looks like—me.”

She agrees to do the same for me, something pretty but not too attention-grabbing; flattering without…flaunting. There’s no hiding my curves. Believe me, I’ve tried.

Megan is easier. Tall and thin, clothing is literally made for her. I’m glad we’re going to prom together, but I do feel bad for her that she won’t be going with Dustin. She only ever imagined going with him. Then a month ago, he broke her heart. Again.

I hate shopping. As I scan the racks I try not to let my thoughts spin back to Corey. It’s futile. Not just because I like him so much, but also because I do have to wonder how we’ll get home if he gets called out. Like Megan said, there’s always a risk. I know too, from experience.

Corey’s job on the Fort Montevallo S.W.A.T. team—working alongside my stepdad, Shane—can be demanding and stressful. He never seems stressed though. Corey has a calm, steady presence that’s also very acutely aware. It would be silly of me to wonder if he’s figured out about my crush. Of course he has. Probably since it first sprang to life. The guy seems to know everything.

So his earlier concern makes me feel a bit wary. Maybe we should’ve let him tag along…for safety reasons.

I find one halfway decent dress and head for the dressing room. Megan comes in hauling a load of them. We have the exact opposite problem. She’ll choose her favorite of a dozen dresses that look amazing on her. I’ll pick the one that looks the least bad on me.

“Stop that,” she chides, apparently hearing my thoughts. “Stop that right now.”

I roll my eyes. “Anything for me in there?”

“Yes. Two, actually!” She passes them to me and we head into our separate stalls.

“Meg?” I ask.

“Yeah, honey?”

“We’re totally safe in here, right?”

I hear her puff out a breath of air. “Yes. Stop worrying. In fact”—she clamors around, getting situated with her bounty—“consider this an official no-anxiety zone.”

I nod, looking in the mirror. I take a big breath and try on the first dress. It looks like a rainbow threw up on me.

“Besides,” says Megan, “I have my mace with me.”

“Oh my god”—laughing, I step out of the hideous gown—“remember when you first got it and we wanted to see how bad it really was, so we totally maced ourselves?”

“We’re idiots,” Megan chortles. “How are those self-defense lessons going with Shane, by the way?”

“Frustrating. He’s so much nicer to his regular students.”

“It’s a father-daughter thing,” says Megan. “My dad was a nutcase teaching me to drive.”

Outwardly, I chuckle. Inside, her words are kind of…heartwarming. It’s been almost seven years since Shane met my mom. We are like father and daughter. Even though I still normally call him Shane. He’s father to my five baby brothers and sisters, the closest thing to a dad I’ve ever known. And he’s a dang good one.

“Well, I wish it was easier. I’d feel better if I at least knew a few moves.” I’ve always had a little anxiety, but ever since my mom and I were mugged a year ago while Shane was on duty, it’s gotten worse. I’m afraid of everything, strangers, Corey, calories, tulle

I change into dress number two.

“Why don’t you just ask my brother?”

“Ask me what?” My body hums in response to Corey’s warm masculine voice on the other side of the dressing room door.

I still, studying my reflection in the mirror. The second dress Megan chose not only fits, it actually looks…good.

Meg opens her stall door. “Aris wants to learn self-defense.”

“Nice dress,” Corey compliments.

“I think it’s the one. Aris? You make up your mind?”

“Yes. I think so.”

My bestie squeals. “I bet it’s one I chose. The red one right? Eep! Let’s see it!”

I step out, staring first at the floor. Megan gasps. I lift my gaze to Corey’s face, his dark eyes wide. “Wow,” he exhales. “You look amazing.”

“Thank you.”

I watch as Corey dryly swallows. “I’ll wait out here while you guys change. Smiles,” he adds, “we’ll talk about those self-defense lessons.”

My nerves are buzzing with excitement as I get back into my regular clothes and carry the dress to the checkout counter, where Corey and Megan are waiting. The salesclerk rings me up while I dig around for my debit card.

“Oh, shoot.”

“What is it, honey?” Megan says.

“I left my debit card in my other purse.” I shake my head, my earlier excitement now deflated. Figures this would happen. Only because it’s the perfect dress to wear to prom.

“I can spot you—”

“No you can’t,” Corey cuts in. She throws him a look. “You’re already over the budget Mom and Dad set.” He fishes out his wallet and pulls out a credit card, handing it over to the salesclerk.

“You don’t have to, Corey.”

“Your dad would kill me if I let you leave here with nothing to wear to prom,” he counters. My heart clenches. My dad. His sister. What the hell is the matter with me, crushing on him? This guy is double off-limits.

Heat crawls up my neck. He’s already done so much, driven us here, offered to teach me self-defense. Even if I wasn’t harboring a planet-sized crush on my best friend’s brother, I don’t like the thought of being more in his debt.

But what choice do I have right now?

“Thanks. I promise I’ll pay you back.”

“No.” The corner of his mouth kicks up in a smirk. Dangerous, that smirk. Even worse is the way Corey then dips his head to my ear to whisper, “Happy Birthday.”