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The Friend Zone / (by Abby Jimenez, 2019) -

The Friend Zone /   (by Abby Jimenez, 2019) -

The Friend Zone / (by Abby Jimenez, 2019) -

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: 809
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The Friend Zone / (by Abby Jimenez, 2019) -
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2019
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Abby Jimenez
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Teddy Hamilton, Erin Mallon
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upper-intermediate
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09:32:32
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128 kbps
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mp3, pdf, doc

The Friend Zone / :

.doc (Word) abby_jimenez_-_the_friend_zone.doc [1.11 Mb] (c: 14) .
.pdf abby_jimenez_-_the_friend_zone.pdf [1.74 Mb] (c: 22) .
audiobook (MP3) .


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This book is dedicated to all the people who lifted me up while I was writing it. And Stuntman Mike. ONE Josh I glanced down at the text while the light was red. Celeste: Im not giving you a dime, Josh. Go screw yourself. Goddamn it, I muttered, tossing the phone on the passenger seat. I knew she was gonna do this. Leave me with my finger in the dam. Shit. Id left her the contents of the whole house, and all I asked was for her to pay half of the Lowes bill. Half of three thousand dollars worth of appliances Id generously given her instead of selling them, despite the card and payments being in my name. And of course, I was somehow the asshole in all this for leaving the state for a new job three months after wed broken up. I had it on the highest authority she was now hooking up with some guy named Brad. I hoped Brad enjoyed my Samsung stainless gas range with the double oven. Asphalt-scented heat drifted in through my open windows as I sat in Burbanks slow-moving morning gridlock. Even on a Sunday, there was traffic. I needed to get my AC fixed if I was going to survive in Californiaanother expense I couldnt afford. I should have walked to the grocery store. Probably would have gotten there faster at this rate, and I wouldnt have wasted gasanother thing that cost twice as much as it did in South Dakota. Maybe this move was a bad idea. This place would bankrupt me. I had to host my best friends bachelor party, there were moving expenses, the higher cost of livingand now this bullshit. The light turned green and I pulled forward. Then the truck in front of me slammed on the brakes and I hit its bumper with a lurch. Fuck. Youve gotta be kidding me. My day had been officially ruined twice in less than thirty seconds. It wasnt even 8:00 a.m. yet. The other driver turned into a Vons parking lot, waving out the window for me to follow. A womanbracelet on her wrist. The wave somehow managed to be sarcastic. Nice truck though. A Ford F-150. It still had dealer plates. Kind of a shame Id hit it. She parked and I pulled up behind her, turned off the engine, and rummaged in my glove box for my insurance information as the woman jumped from her vehicle and ran to look at her bumper. Hey, I said, getting out. Sorry about that. She turned from her inspection and glared up at me. Yeah, you know you have one job, right? Not to hit the car in front of you? She cocked her head. She was small. Maybe five foot two. Petite. A dark wet spot cascaded down the front of her shirt. Shoulder-length brown hair and brown eyes. Cute. Impressive scowl. I scratched my cheek. Irritated women were a particular specialty of mine. Six sistersI was well trained. Lets just have a look, I said passively, putting on my calm-in-a-crisis voice. See what were dealing with. I crouched between the back of her truck and the front of mine and surveyed the damage as she stood over me, her arms crossed. I looked up at her. I tapped your trailer hitch. Your truck is fine. Mine had a small dent, but it wasnt anything major. I dont think we need to get our insurance companies involved. I couldnt afford to have an accident on my driving record. It wasnt good for my job. I pushed up on my knees and turned to her. She leaned over and tugged on the hitch. It didnt wiggle. Fine, she said, obviously satisfied with my assessment. So, are we done here? I think we can be done. She whirled, darting around to the passenger side of her truck as I started for the grocery store. She dove into the cab, her legs dangling from the seat as she leaned in on her stomach. Her flip-flop fell off into the parking lot with a plop. She had a nice ass. Hey, she said, twisting to look at me as I walked past. How about instead of staring at my ass, you make yourself useful and get me some napkins. Busted. I put a thumb over my shoulder. Uh, I dont have any napkins in my truck. Think outside of the box, she said impatiently. Feeling a little guilty for openly admiring her assetsor rather for getting caught doing itI decided to be helpful. I went back to my truck, opened my gym bag, and grabbed a tee. When I handed her the shirt, she snatched it and dove back into the cab. I stood there, mostly because she had my favorite shirt, but also because the view wasnt anything to complain about. Everything okay? I tried to peer past her into the front seat, but she blocked my line of sight. A small, light brown dog with a white chin growled at me from the window of the back seat. One of those little purse dogs. I scoffed. It wore actual clothing. I spilled coffee in my friends new truck, she said from inside. She lost her other flip-flop to the sweltering parking lot and was now barefoot, her red-painted toes on the running board. Its everywhere. So no, its not okay. Is your friend a dick or something? It was an accident. She pivoted to glare at me like I kicked her dog. No, hes not a dick. Youre the dick. You were probably texting. She was feisty. A little too cute to scare me though. I had to work hard to keep my lips from turning up at the corners. I cleared my throat. I wasnt texting. And in all fairness, you did slam on the brakes for no reason. The reason was I needed to stop. She turned back to the mess. I suspected the reason was she spilled coffee on herself and hit the brakes reflexively. But I wasnt going to poke the bear. Well trained. I slipped my hands into my pockets and rocked back on my heels, squinting up at the Vons sign in the parking lot to my left. Okay. Well, good chatting with you. Leave my shirt on the windshield when youre done. She climbed into the passenger side of the truck and slammed the door shut. I shook my head and chuckled all the way into the store. When I came back out, she was gone and my shirt was nowhere to be seen. TWO Kristen Shawn planted a chair smack in the middle of the fire station living room and straddled it backward, facing me. He did this so he could harass me as close as humanly possible. I sat in one of the six brown leather recliners parked in front of the TV. My Yorkie, Stuntman Mike, stood in my lap, growling. Shawn bounced his eyebrows at me under his stupid pompadour hair. Sup, girl. You think about what I said? He grinned. No, Shawn, I dont have any Mexican in me, and no, I dont want any. The fire station captain, Javier, came down the hallway into the kitchen as I leaned forward with a hand on my dogs head. Shawn, I want you to know that if I needed mouth to mouth, and you were the last paramedic on Earth, I prefer donations made to the ASPCA in lieu of flowers at my funeral. Javier laughed as he poured himself a coffee, and Brandon chuckled over his book from the recliner next to me. Shawn, get lost. Shawn got up and grabbed his chair, mumbling as he dragged it back to the table. Sloan breezed back in from the bathroom. She had on that white linen skirt she got when we were in Mexico last summer and sandals that laced up her calf. She looked like Helen of Troy. My best friend was gorgeous. Blond, waist-length hair, colorful tattoos down her left arm, a glistening rock on her ring finger. Brandon was her firefighter and equally hot fianc?. It was Sunday. Family day at the station when the four guys on shift got to bring their friends and family to have breakfast with them if they wanted to. Sloan and I were the only takers this morning. Javiers wife was at church with his daughters, and Shawn didnt have a girlfriend. Imagine that. Technically I was here for Josh, the fourth member of the crew, though Id never met him before. Brandons best friend, Josh, just transferred from South Dakota to be the stations new engineer. He was Brandons best man, and I was Sloans maid of honor for their April 16th wedding in two months. Josh had missed the engagement party, so it was some all-important thing that we meet each other immediately. I checked my phone for the time. I was starving and getting irritable. Breakfast was on Josh today. He hadnt shown up yet though, so nobody was actually making anything and all Id had was coffee. He was already pissing me off, and I hadnt even met him yet. So, Sloan said, sitting in the recliner next to Brandon. Are you going to tell me where you got the shirt? I looked down at the black, mens Wooden Legs Brewing Company T-shirt Id knotted at the waist. Nope. She eyed me. You left for tampons, and you came back wearing some random shirt. Is there some particular reason youre hiding this from me? Brandon glanced up from his page. He was a pretty level-headed guy. He didnt usually let things work him up. But explaining that Id christened his new truck with my black Sumatra drip would probably earn me a stern disapproving look that would somehow be worse than if he cussed me out. I opted against it. Id cleaned it up. Id managed not to damage the bumper in the fender bender Id caused slamming on the brakes when I spilled it everywhere. What he didnt know wouldnt hurt him. Since my top was already ruined, Id used it to clean up the mess and changed into Parking Lot Guys shirt instead. Its Tylers, I lied. It smells like him. I just missed him. I put my nose to the top of the collar and made a show of breathing in. Damn, it smelled good. That guy had been kind of sexy. A nice body under those clothes, I could tell. Good-looking too. That clean-shaven boyish face I always gravitate to. I needed to get laid. I was starting to fantasize over strangers. It had been too long. Tyler hadnt been home in seven months. Sloans face went soft. Awwww. Thats so sweet. Its sad you cant be with him on Valentines Day tomorrow. But just three more weeks and youll have him for good. Yup. His deployment will be done and well officially be living together. A twinge of nerves twisted in my gut, but I kept my face neutral. Sloan smiled and put a hand to her heart. She didnt much like Tyler, but she was still a romantic. My cramps surged and I clutched my stomach with a grimace. I was in the throes of another epic period. This, coupled with hunger, the events from earlier, and the 3:00 a.m. police drama at my house that I wasnt telling Sloan about, had me in a fine mood. I was so tired Id just tried to plug my charger into my coffee cup instead of my phone. Sloan checked her watch and then wordlessly rummaged in her purse and shook two Aleve into her hand. She handed me her glass of water and gave me the pills in a well-rehearsed routine wed perfected during our five years as roommates. I swallowed the pills and turned to Brandon. That book any good? Its not bad, he said, looking at the cover. Want to borrow it when Im done? Then he peered past me and his eyes lit up. Oh, hey, buddy. I followed his look to the door and my jaw dropped. The handsome jerk from Vons stood there with bags of groceries. Our gazes met from across the room, and we stared at each other in surprise. Then his eyes dropped down to myhisshirt, and the corner of his mouth turned up into a smirk. I stood, putting Stuntman on the chair as the guy set down his groceries and walked toward me. I held my breath, waiting to see how he was going to play this. Brandon laid his book over the arm of the recliner and got up. Josh, this is Kristen Peterson, Sloans best friend. Kristen, Josh Copeland. Well, helloits so nice to meet you, he said, gripping my hand just a little too tightly. I narrowed my eyes. Nice to meet you too. Josh didnt let go of my hand. Hey, Brandon, didnt you get a new truck this weekend? he asked, talking to his friend but staring at me. I glared at him, and his brown eyes twinkled. Yeah. Want to see it? Brandon asked. After breakfast. I love that new-car smell. Mine just smells like coffee. I gave him crazy eyes and his smirk got bigger. Brandon didnt seem to notice. Got any more bags? Want help? Brandon asked. Sloan had already dived in and was in the kitchen unbagging produce. Just one more trip. I got it, Josh said, his eyes giving me a wordless invitation to come outside. Ill walk out with you, I announced. Forgot something in the truck. He held the door for me, and as soon as it was closed, I whirled on him. Youd better not say shit. I poked a finger at his chest. At this point it was less about the coffee spill and more about not wanting to reveal my brazen attempt at covering up my crime. I didnt lie as a rule, and of course the one time Id made an exception, I was immediately in a position to be blackmailed. Damn. Josh arched an eyebrow and leaned in. You stole my shirt, shirt thief. I crossed my arms. If you ever want to see it again, youll keep your mouth shut. Remember, you rear-ended me. This wont go over well for you either. His lips curled back into a smile that was annoyingly attractive. He had dimples. Motherfucking dimples. Did I rear-end you? Are you sure? Because theres no evidence of that ever happening. No damage to his truck. No police report. In fact, my version of the event is I saw a hysterical woman in distress in the Vons parking lot and I gave her my shirt to help her out. Then she took off with it. Well, theres your first mistake, I said. Nobody would ever believe I was hysterical. I dont do hysterics. Good info. He leaned forward. Ill adjust my story accordingly. A calm but rude woman asked for my help and then stole my favorite shirt. Better? He was smiling so big he was almost laughing. Jerk. I pursed my lips and took another step closer to him. He looked amused as I encroached on his personal space. He didnt back up and I glowered up at him. You want the shirt. I want your silence. This isnt a hard situation to work out. He grinned at me. Maybe Ill let you keep the shirt. It doesnt look half-bad on you. Then he turned for his truck, laughing. THREE Josh In honor of the new-guy-cooks rule, I made breakfast for the crew on C shift. A Mexican egg skillet, my specialty. I was on probationthe probie. Even though I was five years into the job, I was only five shifts into this station. That meant I was the last one to sit down to eat and the first one to get up and do dishes. I was practically a servant. They had me cleaning toilets and changing sheets. All the grunt work. Sloan and Kristen opted to help me, and Brandon took pity on me, so they all stood in the kitchen wiping counters and scraping food off plates while I washed the dishes and Shawn and Javier played cribbage at the table. Kristen had glared all through the meal, but only when she didnt think anyone was watching. It was kind of funny, actually. I kept ribbing her. From what I gathered through my prodding, shed told everyone the shirt was her boyfriends. I wasnt going to say anything. Brandon didnt need to have the thunder stolen from his new truck by learning it had already been defiled, but I was drawing untold amounts of enjoyment from giving Kristen shit. And she didnt take any of it lying down either. She matched me tit for tat. So, Josh, you drive the fire truck, huh? Kristen asked casually, wiping down the stove. I do. I smiled. Are you any good at it? No problems stopping that thing when you need to? She cocked her head. Nope. As long as someone doesnt slam on the brakes in front of me, Im good. Glare. Smirk. Repeat. And Sloan and Brandon were oblivious. It was the most fun Id had in weeks. Sloan handed me the cutting board to wash. Youll be walking Kristen down the aisle at the wedding. She smiled at her friend. Shes my maid of honor. I hope you walk better than you drive, Kristen mumbled under her breath. I grinned and changed the subject before Sloan or Brandon asked questions. Whats your dogs name, Kristen? The little thing had sat on her lap all through breakfast. Occasionally his head popped up over the table to look at her plate, the tip of his tongue out. He looked like a fluffy Ewok. His name is Stuntman Mike. I raised an eyebrow over my sink of dishes. Tarantino? She raised hers. Youve seen Death Proof? Of course. One of my favorite movies. Kurt Russell as Stuntman Mike. And your dog has issues? I asked. The little Yorkie wore a shirt that read I HAVE ISSUES on it. Yes, theyre mostly with Shawn. I chuckled. Sloan swept cilantro stems into her hand and tossed them in the trash, and Brandon pulled out the bag and tied the top. Kristen has an online business called Doglet Nation, Brandon said. She sells merchandise for small dogs. Oh yeah? Like what? I asked, setting a casserole dish into the rack to dry. Kristen pulled out the coffee grounds and dumped them into the compost bag. Clothes, bags, gourmet dog treats. Sloan bakes those. Our big-ticket item is our staircases though. Stairs? Yeah. Little dogs usually cant jump up on a high bed. So we make custom staircases that match your bedroom set. Stain, carpet, style. And people buy that? I set the last bowl to dry in the rack and peeled off my rubber gloves. Uh, yeah they buy that. Why would you drop a couple grand on a nice Pottery Barn or Restoration Hardware bed, only to have some hideous foam staircase next to it from PetSmart? I nodded. I get that, I guess. Which reminds meIm out a carpenter, she said to Sloan. Sloans brow furrowed. What? Since when? Since Miguel quit on me last week. He got a union job at Universal doing set work. Dropped me like I was radioactive. I have three stairs on order. Sloan shook her head. What are you going to do? Kristen shrugged. Put an ad on Craigslist. Hope the guy doesnt end up being some kind of pervert out to kill me to sell my organs on the black market. I snorted. Brandon nodded at me as he put a new bag into the trash can. Josh is a carpenter. Hes pretty good at it too. Sloan looked at me. Really? Brandon was already fishing out his cell phone. I knew what he was pulling up. The tiki bar Id built in my backyard. Celestes tiki bar. Brads tiki bar. Look, he said, handing around the phone. He built this. Sloan nodded in approval. Then the phone went to Kristen, and she glanced at it before her eyes shot up to mine. Not bad, she said begrudgingly. Thanks. But Im not looking for any side work, I said, waving them off. I didnt need to build dog stairs for pennies on my day off. The living room of my new apartment was still full of boxes. Yeah, who needs an extra two hundred dollars for three hours of work? Kristen said, flipping a hand dismissively. Not Miguel apparently. I froze. Two hundred dollars? Sloan sprayed the counter with lemon-scented all-purpose cleaner. Sometimes its moreright, Kristen? It depends on the style? Kristen stared at her best friend like she was telling her to shut up. Then she dragged her eyes back to me. The stairs run four to five hundred dollars apiece, plus shipping. I split the profits fifty-fifty, minus the materials, with my carpenter. So yeah. Sometimes its more. Do you have a picture of the stairs? I asked. Kristen unenthusiastically handed me her phone and I scrolled through a website gallery of ridiculous tiny steps with Stuntman Mike posed on them in different outfits. These were easy. Well within my ability. You know, I think I do have time for this. Ill do it if you dont have anyone else. A few of these and I could pay off my Lowes card. This was real money. Kristen shook her head. I think Id rather take my chances with the organ thieves. Sloan gasped, and Brandon froze and looked at Kristen and me. Is that right? I said, eyeballing her. How about we talk about this over coffee. Kristen narrowed her eyes and I arched an eyebrow. Fine, she said like it was physically painful. You can build the damn stairs. But only until I find a different guy. And I will be looking for a different guy. Sloan looked back and forth between us. Is there something you guys want to tell us? I caught him staring at my ass, Kristen said without skipping a beat. I shrugged. She did. I have no excuse. Its a great ass. Brandon chuckled and Sloan eyed her best friend. Kristen tried to look mad, but I could tell she took the compliment. Kristen let out a breath. Give me your email address. Ill shoot you the orders. When youre done with them, let me know and Ill generate and send you the shipping labels. And Ill be inspecting every piece before you take them to FedEx, so dont try and half-ass anything. Wait, you dont have a shop? I asked. Where am I supposed to build these? Dont you have a garage or something? I live in an apartment. Shoot. Well, it looks like this wont work out. She smirked. Sloan stared at her. Kristen, you have an empty three-car garage. You dont even park in it half the time. Cant he work there? Kristen gave Sloan side-eye. I grinned. He can. A loud beeping came over the speakers throughout the station followed by the red lights. We had a call. Kristen held my stare as the dispatcher rattled off the details. Too bad. I could have hung out with my cranky maid of honor a little longer. No luck. Brandon leaned in and kissed Sloan goodbye. The girls would probably be gone by the time we got back. Well finish cleaning up, she said. Get my number from Brandon, Kristen said to me, crossing her arms over her chest in a way that I think was meant to keep me from offering her a hand to shake. Since the call was medical, we didnt have to put on our fire gear. So Brandon and I headed straight for the apparatus bay where the engine was parked. I could feel Kristens eyes on my back and I grinned. She hated me. An ongoing theme with the women in my life at the moment. Besides Celeste, all six of my sisters and my mom were pissed that Id moved. Even my little nieces were giving me the cold shoulder when I called. Seven and eight years old and theyd already mastered the little-girl passive-aggressive equivalent of Im fine. Whatd you think of Kristen? Brandon asked through a grin as we climbed into the engine. She seems cool. I shrugged, putting on my headset. Brandon and I had spent a year together in Iraq. He knew me well. Under normal circumstances, Kristen was my kind of woman. I liked petite brunettesand women who tell me to go fuck myself apparently. Just cool? he said, putting on his headset. Is that why you were checking out her ass? Javier took his seat, chuckling to himself at Brandons comment and Shawn hopped in, catching the tail end. Kristens hot as fuck. I check out her ass every time shes here. He put his headset on. That dog bit me once though. We all laughed and I fired the engine to life. Shes not into me. Shes got a boyfriend. And Im not looking right now anyway. I hit the switch to open the garage door. Im not done paying for the last one. Literally. FOUR Kristen The interrogation began on the drive home. What the hell was going on between you and Josh? Sloan asked as soon as we pulled out of the fire station parking lot in her crappy Corolla. Since when do you get offended because a guy looked at your ass? I didnt. Nothing offended me except for cauliflower and stupidity. I just didnt want this particular ass-man anywhere near me because if he looked, I was going to have a very hard time not looking back. Josh was the human version of ice cream in the freezer when youre on a diet. He was my type, and I was sex deprived and not a particular glutton for punishment. Few men could spar with me when I was at my saltiest, and running that gauntlet was practically foreplay for me. I didnt feel the need to torture myself unnecessarily by subjecting myself to it on a daily basis. If I tell you the truth, will you tell Brandon? Where do your loyalties lie now that youre engaged? She laughed. Tell me. I came clean about the spilled coffee and the shirt. Oh my God, she said, turning on Topanga Canyon Boulevard. Brandon can never know. Like, ever. I scoffed. Yeah, no kidding. He loaned me his truck for five minutes for an emergency tampon run and I manage to spill coffee in it and get into a minor accident with his best friend. Id have taken Sloans car, but it was impossible to start. It came with a volley of instructions. Jiggle the key while pumping the gas, put your shoulder into the door to get it open, dont let the screeching belts startle you. I hadnt wanted to find myself bleeding to death in a grocery store parking lot because I couldnt get the engine to turn over. I could have spilled coffee and gotten into an accident in her car and nobody would have been the wiser. I could have totaled it and it would have probably been an improvement. Why does Brandon get a new truck and a motorcycle and you have to drive this piece of crap? I like my car. Sloan twisted her lips up on one side. Joshs cute, huh? If I didnt have a boyfriend, Id get under him. She gasped and looked over at me, wide-eyed. Sloan was a lot more sexually conservative than I was. Shocking her was one of my favorite hobbies. I never missed an opportunity. I shrugged. What? I havent gotten laid since last year. And this shirt smells incredible. I dipped my nose back inside the neckline. Like testosterone and cedar. And did you see him washing those dishes? He looked like Mr. February in a sexy firemen calendar. Guys like that are the exact reason why my grandmother always told me to wear clean underwear in case you get into a car accident. She shook her head. I swear to God youre a man. I wish I were a man. Then I wouldnt have to deal with all this faulty plumbing. I cramped again and winced, rubbing a hand on my stomach. She looked over at me as she stopped for a red light. Is it getting worse? It was getting worse. No, same as always. Sloan didnt need to know the truth. She was the kind of person who carried other peoples problems on her shouldersespecially the problems of those she loved. I had no intention of telling her what the doctor said until she was back from her honeymoon. Let her be ignorant and happy. It didnt need to ruin both our lives. * * * Tyler called while I was going through my emails, an hour after Sloan dropped me off at home. I was still cramping and feeling generally like shit. I stared at the chiming phone for four rings before I picked it up. Hi, babe. I put more enthusiasm into my tone than I felt. That was the thing about military relationshipsyou didnt get a lot of calls. Maybe one a week. You had to take them when they came, whether you felt like taking them or not. And today was a not. Hey, Kris, he said in that sexy accent of his. A little French, a little Spanish maybe? All his own. I got the care package. Youre a lifesaver. I set my laptop on the coffee table and went to the kitchen with Stuntman trotting behind me. GoodI worried it wouldnt come in time. Got here Friday. I cant wait until I can get chocolate-covered espresso beans whenever I feel like it. Yeah. I grabbed a bottle of Clorox and a rag and opened the fridge. Usually I paced when I was on the phone. But I cleaned when I was stressed. Stress won out. I started pulling out Tupperware and juice cartons and setting them on the floor, holding my phone with my shoulder. Ill buy some so youll have them in the pantry when you get here. The pantry. It would be our pantry. I dont know why this weirded me out so much. I dragged the trash can next to the fridge and began tossing old take-out boxes. Its Valentines Day tomorrow, he sang, poking me. I made a dismissive grunting noise into the fridge. I hated Valentines Day. He knew that. Total waste of money. I hope youre not planning on sending me flowers, I said dryly. He smiled through the phone. What would you like me to send you then? Something practical that Ill get use out of, like a dick pic. He laughed. So whats going on at home? he asked. I reached to the far end of the top shelf to pull down a two-liter bottle of flat Sprite. Not much. Hey, do you know anything about working with wood? I opened the bottle with a pith and turned it upside down in the sink and waited for it to drain. No. Why? Oh, its just Miguel quit, I mumbled. What? Why? He got another job. I need a new carpenter. I have this one guy, but hes not the best option. I muscled the rack filled with condiments from the door. He doesnt have a workshop like Miguel so he has to do it out of my garage. I dont know the first thing about woodworking, Kris. Hey, if you put an ad out, wait for me to get home before you do interviews. There are a lot of perverts out there and youre home alone. My mind went to my 911 call this morning. I wouldnt tell Tyler about that. It would just worry him, and there wasnt a thing he could do about it. I carefully unloaded the mustard and ketchup bottles and started washing the empty rack in the sink. So whats the game plan when you get out? How long until you get hired, you think? It wasnt like he had to worry too much about finances. Tyler came from money. But if he didnt have a job to go to every day, I didnt know how Id handle all the togetherness. Wed been dating for two years, but hed been deployed the whole time. Id met him at a bar when he was on leave. Long-distance was all wed ever known. Two weeks of leave every year, full of sex and eating out, was one thing. Having a live-in boyfriend who was going to sit around and hang out with me for an indeterminate amount of time was something else entirely. The whole damn thing triggered me. I was going from having a man who was almost invisible to having one that would be here 24-7. And this was my idea. Hed wanted to reenlist and Id told him if he did, I was out. I couldnt do another deployment. But lately I was afraid I couldnt do this either. Its not that I didnt love him. It was just a huge change. Ive got an interview with the State Department as soon as I get back, he said. Might take a while before I get in. And Ill get to spend lots of time with you until Im out of background checks. My lips pursed. I put the shelf upside down to dry. Yeah. Maybe we can rent a cabin up in Big Bear or something while we wait. Catalina Island. Make it fun. Think bigger. Why stay in Cali when we can go somewhere weve never been? He loved to travel. I smiled, weakly, and went in for the next rack. Stuntman barked. He got excited when the fridge was open. I never fed him human food, but I think Sloan had been sneaking him pieces of turkey whenever she was here. Is that my little arch nemesis? he asked. That dog better not bite me again. I pulled on the shelf. It was stuck. Or what? Or hes going to the pound. He laughed. He was kidding. But it annoyed me just the same. How do you deal with armed insurgents when you cant handle one four-pound Yorkie? I gave the shelf a hard yank and it came away from the door with a clatter of condiment jars. If that fat ass is four pounds, Ill eat my helmet. He chuckled. I laughed and felt myself soften a little. Hes just fluffy. I know. Im just playing with you. You know I love your dog. He paused for a moment. Mi amor? Our game. My lips twitched into a smile and I stayed silent. I set the condiment rack down on the kitchen table and closed the fridge door. Amore mio? he said in Italian. Still, I waited. I wanted one more. Maybe two. Meine Geliebte? German maybe? Mon amour? Ugh. That did it. The French always got me. Tyler had been a military brat. His parents were diplomats and had been stationed all over the world. He knew four languages by the time he was old enough to talk. Now he knew nine. He was an interpreter. He was also one of the most intelligent men Id ever met. He specialized in simultaneous interpretation, a skill set all its own. He knew Arabic and Farsi too, which made him a particular asset in the Middle East. Theyd lobbied hard to keep him in service. It said a lot about his feelings for me that he was willing to leave all that. I put my back to the fridge door and slid down to the floor, a grin on my face. Yes? I know youre nervous about me coming home. I can hear you cleaning. He knew me too well. And youre not? I mean, lets be honest herethis is a little crazy, right? Weve never spent more than fourteen days together at a time and now were moving in together. What if I drive you insane? What if on day fifteen you want to kill me in my sleep? What if I want to kill you in yours? On paper it made perfect sense. He didnt have a place of his own. Why get one? Hed be over here all the time anyway. And if he was going to be over here, shouldnt he pay rent? This move-in thing had been in the works for six months. Tyler and I had decided on it back when Sloan and I moved out and I got my own place. It was hardly a new development. It just felt like it was barreling toward me all of a sudden. Kris, the only thing insane would be me spending another two years half a world away from you. It wasnt just you who couldnt handle it anymore. Its going to be great. And if its not, youll tell me to go fuck myself and make me move out. I snorted and put my forehead into my hand. God, what the hell was wrong with me? Tyler, do you ever see yourself acting crazy, but you cant stop because youre not a quitter? Youre the least crazy woman I know. Its my favorite thing about you. Its normal to be nervous. Its a big step. He changed the subject. How are you feeling? Do you have a surgery date? Two and a half months from now. The week after Sloans wedding. Im not anemic anymore, I added. Good. I wish I were already there to take care of you. Oh yeah? Are you going to buy me pads when I need them? I asked wryly, knowing this errand was an affront to his very manhood. Men were so dramatic about buying feminine products. I never understood what the big deal was. Now, lets not get ahead of ourselves. I rolled my eyes with a smile. Lucky for you, theres only one need I want you to take care of. Im climbing the walls. He laughed. As long as youre not climbing anybody else. My mind flickered traitorously to Josh. Tyler didnt have anything to worry about. I didnt cheat. Never had, never would. Cheating was a completely avoidable scenario as long as you operated with the barest amount of common sense. Like not putting yourself into vulnerable situations, such as hiring a hot fireman-carpenter to spend hours working in your garage. Josh would be an endurance test of my willpower. Look, Kris, I gotta go. Ill try to call you again in a few days. No more stressing. I cant wait to see you. And Im gonna tear you up when I get there, he added. Now he had me in a better mood. Of course, how much he could tear me up depended entirely on where my wacky cycle was at the moment. But I liked the offer. I cant wait. I grinned. I love you. I love you too. We hung up and I surveyed the chaos Id pulled from the fridge. Stuntman sat in the middle of it, looking up at me. His little white chin looked like the beard on a nutcracker. This is fine. Its all going to be fine. But I spent the next three hours scrubbing the kitchen just the same. FIVE Josh Two days after our fender bender, I knocked on Kristens door. Yapping started on the other side. Id just gotten off my shift, and I had a heaping pile of building materials in the bed of my truck. Brandon let me raid his garage for power tools. Thank God. This job was temporaryI didnt need to be buying shit. Kristen opened the door, wearing a pink robe and a green mud mask. Hey. Come in. Stuntman Mike bounced off my shins. I reached down to pet him, and she stopped me. Dont. He bites. Weve already met. He let me hold him at the station, I reminded her. Hes got a misplaced sense of ownership over me and his memory is stored in a brain the size of a peanut, she mumbled. Wait a few minutes until he calms down. Then itll be safer. I looked down at the little fluff ball. He growled and wagged his nub of a tail at the same time. I followed her into the house and leaned down and gave Stuntman Mike a pat while she wasnt looking. A teetering stack of FedEx boxes sat piled by the front door. The coffee table was covered in carefully organized piles of paper. A laptop sat in the middle of it with a beer next to it, still cold. The glass bottle was perspiring. Already drinking, huh? Its breakfast time. I had a Pop-Tart with it, she grumbled. I snorted. Her house was clean. Sparse, but clean. Smelled a little like bleach. There was a huge vase of flowers on her credenza. From the boyfriend for Valentines Day, I guessed. I hated that holiday. Just an excuse to spend money on overpriced shit. I was glad I was single for it this year. Heres the garage. She opened a door off the laundry room. A tiny lacy black thong hung from a hanger over the dryer at eye level. I looked at it longer than was probably appropriate. I hadnt been with anyone since Celeste. Id been too busy and worn out from the new job and the move. And to be honest, Id been enjoying not having to deal with a woman. It was a reprieve. It had been my experience that all women, even the ones youre only having sex with, are on some level exhausting. I wasnt in any particular hurry to get back to it. I came up behind Kristen and peered into the garage over her shoulder. It was cavernous and mostly empty except for a few containers stacked against the far end and a newer black Honda parked in the last bay. She hit a button on the wall and sunlight shafted under the opening garage door. She turned to me, the green mask starting to crack around the edges. Bathroom is down the hall. Sodas are in the fridge. Holler if you need something. Ill get you a fan. Its a hundred and fucks degrees out here. She left me standing there. Well, the reception was chilly, but at least shed let me in. I backed my truck up and started to unload, and she came down the stairs and set a fan in the middle of the floor. Then she walked out into the driveway, green mask and all, and put my folded shirt into my hands. Here. I washed it. Thank you. A car rolled by and the driver stared at her. I looked back at her with an arched eyebrow. Dont you care what people think? Do I look like I care? No. There you go. She turned and went back into the house and I smiled after her. Kristen had crossed my mind a few times over the last two days. Id actually found myself somewhat looking forward to coming over and getting further abused. Id asked Brandon about her boyfriend. Not straight outId asked him why she didnt have him build the stairs. Just an excuse to find out more about her. Brandon only met him once, almost a year ago. Didnt have much to say about it, other than the guy seemed all right. But he did say Sloan didnt seem to like him for some reason. Id pressed for more, but he just shrugged and said she wasnt a fan. Two hours later I poked my head into the living room. Whered you say the bathroom is? Shed changed into sweats and a T-shirt and she lay on the couch with a heating pad on her stomach. Her mud mask was gone. She answered with her eyes closed. Down the hall, second door. Put the seat back down. She winced. You okay? Fine. She didnt look fine. She looked like she was having the period from hell. Have you taken anything yet? I asked. I took two aspirin at four a.m. Even her words sounded painful. I looked at my watch. You can alternate with Motrin. I have some in my gym bag. I went out to the truck and got two pills and brought them back with a water bottle from the fridge and handed it to her. She took them gratefully. You get a lot of calls for period cramps? she asked, lying back against the cushions, closing her eyes. No. But I grew up with enough women to know the drill. Also, Im a paramedic. You shouldnt be taking aspirin for cramps. Aleve or Motrin is better. Yeah, I know. I ran out, she muttered. Im going to get some lunch. Want something? I figured if I was going to eat, might as well ask her too. She opened an eye and looked at me. No. Then she sat up with a grimace. I need to go to the store. What do you need? Ill get it. Im going out anyway. She clutched the heating pad to her belly and eyed me. You dont want to buy what I need. Trust me. I scoffed. What? Pads? Tampons? I have six sisters. This isnt my first rodeo. Text me what you want. I turned for the garage before she could object. I couldnt care less about buying the stuff, and she didnt strike me as the kind of woman to be embarrassed by feminine productsor anything, for that matter. She wasnt. She sent me a long list. It was all heavy-duty. Ultra this and overnight that. I grabbed her some Motrin too. I stopped at McDonalds and got her food, figuring she was probably too sick to make something for herself. When I got back, I dropped the bag of tampons at the foot of the couch. Thanks, she said, sitting up to peer into the top of the bag. Ill write you a check. Ive never met a guy who was willing to buy that stuff. What, your boyfriend gets worried the cashier will think hes got his period? I said, plopping onto the couch next to her with the McDonalds bag in my lap. She gave me a little smile. She already seemed to be feeling better. The Motrin must have been working. I started pulling food from the bag. Fries, I said, putting the red container in her hand. And a hot fudge sundae. I put that in the other hand. She looked from her hands back to me in confusion. My sisters always wanted something salty and sweet when they were on their periods, I explained, digging out the rest of the food. Fries and hot fudge sundaes. Theyd send me out to McDonalds. I bought it on autopilot. Theres a Big Mac and two cheeseburgers too. I didnt know what you wanted. Her face softened, and for the first time since Id met her, it looked unguarded, like she just now decided to like me. I must have finally tamponed my way into her good graces. Six sisters, huh? Younger? Older? she asked. All older. My parents stopped when they finally got their boy. Dad said hed cried from happiness. Wow. No wonder you ply menstruating women with ice cream. I bet when their periods synced they sat around glaring at you and making prison shivs. I snorted. Big Mac or cheeseburger? Cheeseburger. So, howd you meet Brandon? she asked, setting the sundae down on the coffee table and eating one of the fries. I handed her a yellow paper-wrapped cheeseburger. The Marines. She arched an eyebrow. You were a Marine? Once a Marine, always a Marine, I said, taking the Big Mac and opening the box. She looked me up and down. How old are you? Twenty-nine. Same as Brandon. Stuntman Mike jumped up suddenly from the couch and started barking frantically at nothing. He startled the shit out of me, but she didnt even flinch, like this was a daily occurrence. He stared at nothing, seemed satisfied that whatever it was was gone, and then he spun a few times and lay back down. His shirt today read I MISS MY BALLS. How old are you? I asked. Twenty-four. Like Sloan. She was mature for her age. But then I always thought Sloan was too. Hmm. I took a bite and chewed thoughtfully. You seem older. A sideways smile told me she liked that I thought that. How are you liking the new fire station? she asked. She must have seen the answer on my face. Really? Its shitty? She seemed surprised. I shook my head. I dont know. Its all right. What? Tell me. I twisted my lips. Its just at my old station, we didnt get shit medical calls. I mean, we only got, like, three a day How many do you get here? Twelve? Fifteen? Its a busy station. But the calls are bullshit. Drunk homeless guys. Crap that should be a trip to a walk-in clinic. I went on a call yesterday for a stubbed toe. Well, most people are pretty fucking stupid. She ate a fry. My granddad used to always say, Even duct tape cant fix stupid, I said, putting my straw in my mouth. Hmm. No. But it can muffle the sound. I burst into laughter and almost choked on my soda. I liked her wit so much more when I wasnt the brunt of it. You know, I never thought about firefighting being like that, she said after Id gotten hold of myself. Its so romanticized. Every little boys dream, she said sarcastically. I looked into my fry box. It is not what everyone thinks it isthats for sure. Id questioned all my life choices in the last week. So far there wasnt much that I liked about any of it. Reduced to a probie, paying through the nose for everything, running calls to put Band-Aids on idiots. Except this was turning out to be interesting Why did you move? she asked. I shrugged. I had a breakup. My girlfriend of three years, Celeste. Figured a change of scenery was due. Thought I might like the busier station. And it was getting a little too much living so close to my sisters. I realized that I liked them better when I was deployed, I said dryly. The breakup her idea or yours? She unwrapped the cheeseburger and took out the pickle and ate it first. Then she dragged the bun on the paper to scrape off the onions. Mine, I said. And why? She took a bite. A lot of reasons. The biggest one being that she didnt want to have kids. I did. It wasnt negotiable. She nodded again. Thats a big one, she mumbled. There were a lot of big ones at the end. I also didnt much enjoy supporting her shopping habit or her inability to actually work in any of the many career paths shed chosen. She was a perpetual student, jumping from one pursuit to another and never graduating. Paralegal, vet tech, dental assistant, nursing assistant, EMTshe was the most partially educated waitress in South Dakota. How about you? Boyfriend, right? I asked, looking around her living room for a photo. When Id gone to Sloan and Brandons to pick up tools, Sloan had photos and art and shadow boxes all over the place. Kristen didnt have anything on her walls. Maybe Sloan took it all in the move. Yeah, Tyler. Hes coming home in three weeks. Moving in. Hes a Marine too. I took a swallow of my Coke. First time living with someone? I lived with Sloan. But yeah, first time living with a boyfriend. Any tips? I pretended to think about it. Feed him and give him lots of sex. Good advice. Though Im hoping thats what he does for me, she said, laughing. Her laugh transformed her face so instantly I was immediately taken by how beautiful she was. Natural. Long thick lashes, smooth flawless skin, warm eyes. Id thought she was pretty the other day too, but a scowl is an unflattering filter. I cleared my throat, forcing myself to look away from her. So doglets, huh? I nodded at Stuntman Mike. He had his head on her lap. The tip of his tongue was out. He didnt even look real. Like a stuffed animal. You know, he doesnt seem like the kind of dog youd own. She looked at me curiously. What kind of dog do I look like Id own? I dont know. I guess I just had a preconceived notion about what kind of people own dogs like this. Paris Hiltons and little old ladies. Is he the reason why you started the business? I took a bite of my Big Mac. Yeah. There were things I wanted to buy for him that I couldnt find online. So I started making them. People go nuts for their little dogs. The business does well. That I could believe. Just with the amount of orders shed already given me, I could tell she made a decent living. It was pretty impressive. I tilted my head. Theyre kind of useless though, arent they? Little dogs dont really do anything. She scoffed. Okay, first of all, he can hear you. Second of all, hes a working dog. What, a personal support animal? Everyone seemed to have one these days. Doesnt count. A dog that hangs out with you isnt a working dog. Thats not a job. And what exactly would count? she asked. A police dog. A search-and-rescue or service animal. A protection dog. A hunting dog. She looked at me, dead serious, and put a hand on Stuntman Mikes head. Hes a hunting dog. Im pretty sure thats an insult to hunting dogs everywhere. I dug for my cell and pulled up a picture of my buddys Lab with a duck in his mouth. This is a hunting dog. She looked unimpressed. Yeah, thats a dog that hunts ducks. Stuntman hunts women. I snorted. What? Im serious. Hes lady bait. I glanced at him. He was pretty cute. She put her cheeseburger on the coffee table and pulled her dog into her lap like a floppy teddy bear, cradling him like a baby. His tongue rolled out and hung from the side of his mouth. How about this? The next time you go to the store, take him with you. I shook my head. I cant take him to the store. Why? Uh, because hes not a service animal? She laughed. Stuntman can go anywhere. Hes wearing clothes. Hes not a doghes an accessory. I chewed a fry thoughtfully. So I just walk him in on a leash? No, you put him in a bag. I shook my head with a laugh. Im cool buying tampons, but Im not walking a tiny dog into a store in a purse. Its not a purseits a satchel. And if this were entirely dignified, dont you think all the guys would be doing it? Its a core part of the strategy. Men dont own dogs like this. They own dogs like that. She pointed to my phone. Its adorable. Trust me. Youll be a chick magnet. I didnt care about being a chick magnet, but I liked the idea of having an inside joke with her for some reason. Okay. Youve piqued my interest. Ill test your theory. And if Im right? Then Ill tell you that you were right. She twisted her lips to one side. No. Not good enough. If Im right, you pose in some website pictures with my dog satchels. I need a male model. Oh God, what have I gotten myself into? Somehow this whole deal feels like Im the loser. I chuckled. Whatever. I was a good sport. How are you the loser? Im giving you the opportunity to use my highly trained hunting dog to lure scores of women into your bed. I smirked. You know, without sounding like an asshole, I dont really have a hard time getting women. She tilted her head. Yeah, I can see that. You have the whole sexy fireman thing going for you. She waved a hand over my body. I took a drink of my soda and grinned at her. So you think Im sexy, huh? She pivoted to face me full on. Theres something you should know about me, Josh. I say what I think. I dont have a coy bone in my body. Yes, youre sexy. Enjoy the compliment because you wont always like what I say to you, and I wont care one way or the other if you do or dont. * * * Two days later I was back at the station. Id just sat down in the living room after cleaning up the kitchen by myself for half an hour. The rest of the crew liked to hit the gym after dinner. There werent enough weight benches for everyone. As the probie, I had last right to anything, let alone the limited workout equipment, so TV it was. Brandon came into the living room with a water bottle and dropped into a recliner. Shawn lost the book I loaned him. What book? I asked, flipping the channels. Devil in the White City. I swear to God, every time I loan that guy something, he either loses it or damages it. Did you check the bathroom? Its the first place I looked. Keep an eye out for it, yeah? I bet he set it down in the apparatus bay or something. Im probably going to have to buy a new copy, he grumbled. Whyd you let him have it? He waved a hand. Eh, I dont know. Shame on me, right? He shook his head. Hey, hows the side job? I smiled, thinking about Kristen. Shes cool as hell. She hung out with me in the garage a few times both days, just bullshitting. Shes hilarious. No offense to Brandon, but Kristen was turning into my favorite co-worker. And if I had to get bossed around, Id rather it be by her any day. He laughed. Uh, I was asking about the job. But I can see where your minds at. He grinned like hed just won some bet. I knew youd like her. I gave him a sideways smile. What do you know about her? Brandon was probably the one guy friend I could talk to about this. He wouldnt give me shit. And God knows Id sat through enough talks about Sloan. He shrugged. What do you want to know? Everything. I dont know. Just tell me what youve seen. Youve known her as long as youve known Sloan. He thought about it for a second. Well, lets see. Shes smart. I could see that about her. Good with math. Id watched her figure out the totals on a few phone orders in her head, tax and all. Shes competitive. Doesnt like to lose. The couple of times Sloan and I hosted poker, Kristen played and she made it to the final table both times. And those guys are pretty good. Shes driven. How solid do you think her and her boyfriend are? I asked. Theyre moving in together, so its serious, right? This was what I really wanted to know. He gave me a raised eyebrow. I know shes faithful to him, buddy. I wasnt implying that I hoped she would cheat. But now I was curious. How do you know? I mean, Ive never seen anything to lead me to believe shes ever messed around on him. And she doesnt seem like the type. Shes too principled. I liked that she was loyal. A lot of women cheated when their men were deployed. I saw it often enough when I was on tour. The long separations took their toll. It said something about her character that she stayed the course, but at the same time, I didnt like that it meant they were probably pretty serious. You think shell marry him? He grinned, shaking his head. All right. He picked up the remote from the arm of my chair and put the TV on mute. You want to know what I think? He leaned forward with his elbows on his knees and clasped his hands, going into squad leader mode. He was about to level with me. I think shes not as into this guy as she could be. Now here was something. I sat up. What makes you say that? I dont know. A hunch. Body language. Sloan. Any relationship that doesnt have the best friend behind it is going to have challenges. And I didnt get the impression Kristen was super in love with him. It seemed one-sided between them. Thats just what I got when I saw them together. But that was almost a year ago. Things might be different now. I tapped my finger on the armrest and stared at the Marine Corps tattoo on Brandons forearm. Mine was on my chest. Wed gotten them at the same time. She doesnt have any pictures of him in the house. Not one. Girls like to put up pictures. It had to mean something that there werent any. Eh, theres plenty on her Instagram. I deflated again. He gave me an amused smile. Look, buddy, you know how it goes. You come off tour and you dont have a place of your own so you move in with your girl. It could just be that. Convenience. Or it could be theyre really in love. You want my advice? I waited, looking at him. Stick around. One of two things is going to happen when this guy comes home. Theyll either break up or theyll get married. And if they break up, youll be the first to know. Theres no deadline. You like hanging out with her. He shrugged. So hang out with her. Be her friend. Her friend. I could do that. That was easy enough. Anyway, what choice did I have? SIX Kristen I stood in the door of my garage, holding a plate, looking at a shirtless muscular back bent over a half-constructed staircase. This was why I hadnt wanted him here. I knew it was going to be a problem. I had a boyfriend and I was attracted to this guy and now Josh was going to be out here, half-naked and sweaty every time I needed something from the garage. This was a pleasant upgrade from Miguel, for sure. Josh had been working for me for a week. Hed already done five orders and hed done them well. He was a fairly decent carpenter. I got four more orders last night, just enough to keep him busy and shirtless in my garage until he went back to his real job for a forty-eight-hour shift the day after tomorrow. He turned and gave me one of his million-dollar smiles. Straight white teeth, crooked upturned lips on one side. His hair had that messy thing going on, like a grown-man version of a cowlick. Then he saw what I was holding, and he deflated like a popped balloon. I made my way down the steps and shoved the plate in front of him. I made lasagna. He looked at it suspiciously. I couldnt cook. I didnt pretend I could. He was well aware of this. This was a Stouffers lasagna that Id heated up, so technically I did make it. Id made a few things Id shared with him over the last week. Some very soggy mac and cheese, a sad-looking sandwich, and a hot dog Id boiled in water. I mean, if I was cooking for myself, I wasnt going to not offer him some. That would be rude. After all, hed fed me once and he was in my home. Or maybe the rude thing was making him eat my cooking. I couldnt tell which was worse. Thanks. He took the plate. It smells good, he said almost hopefully. He always ate what I gave him, but hed also brought a lunch today and announced it loudly when he got here. Want to come inside and eat at the table? I asked. He checked his watch and wiped his head with the back of his hand. Id set up the fan, but it was still easily eighty-five out here, even with the garage door open. Sure. He handed me back the plate and turned to put on a shirt while I watched the contoured muscles of his broad back disappear under the gray fabric. I averted my eyes when he turned back to me so it didnt look like I had been staring the whole time. On the way inside, Stuntman jumped at his feet. Josh scooped him up and held him for a minute, letting him lick his face. The little thing was a roller-coaster ride of emotions. He seemed to take to Josh though. He hated Tyler. In fact, I was worried how it would play out once Tyler moved in. Stuntman wouldnt even let him sit on the bed. Even thinking about how that was going to go launched me into a manic cleaning spree. I wondered if Stuntman would let Josh sit on the bed. I bet he would. That thought made me want to clean too. Josh washed his hands in the kitchen sink, grabbed a Coke from the fridge, and pulled up a chair at the table. He took a bite and made a face. What? Its still a little frozen. He gulped hard, wincing. I got up, collected his plate and stuck it in the microwave. He wiped his mouth with a napkin and swallowed some soda, looking like he was trying to get the ice crystals from his teeth. Why dont we make a deal? While Im here, Ill do all the cooking. I shrugged, leaning on the counter. Id be offended if I wasnt so fucking practical. He laughed and his dimples creased. God, he was a good-looking man. I, on the other hand, looked like a bum. My guilt response to the attractive male in the house was to make as little effort at looking presentable as humanly possible. I had no way of controlling what thoughts about Josh ran through my head. That runaway train had already left the station. But I could control what I projected. My clothes were my outward way of saying, Nope, not interested, while internally my imagination was naked and disrespecting my relationship with Tyler in every way possible. My hair was in a sloppy pile on my head and I had dressed like I was about to play a mean game of volleyball. I picked the shirt with the hole in the armpit on purpose. Hey, I wanted to ask you for a favor, Josh said. Can I use your guest bathroom to take a shower later? Josh, naked in my shower. Sure. Ive got a date, and I dont want to have to drive home and back. And do we have Stuntman to thank for this date? I asked, hoping I sounded adequately unaffected by this news. As I should be. The microwave beeped and I handed him back his plate. You were right. Hes a hunting dog, he mumbled. What was that? I couldnt hear you. I grinned. He gave me a sideways smile. Hes a hunting dog. Are you happy? Hed taken Stuntman to the Home Depot on my challenge and hed come back saying only, Let me know when you want to do the photo shoot. He put an exploratory finger into the center of the lasagna, testing the temperature, and seemed satisfied. He put his finger in his mouth to suck the sauce off it and started eating. I put my own plate in the microwave and leaned back on the counter to wait. My cell phone pinged. Sloan: Are you behaving yourself with your cute carpenter? I grinned mischievously. Kristen: Nope. He just put a finger in my lasagna. Sloan: WTH?! I snorted. Sloan: Okay, now my eyelid is twitching. Thanks. Triggering Sloans nervous eye twitch was like hitting the bell on a strongman game. I loved it. Youd think after twelve years shed be desensitized to my sense of humor, but she never failed to get flustered. Sloan: Remember, you can look but you cant touch. Unless you break up with Tyler I narrowed my eyes. Shed love that. Kristen: Not a chance. Sloans prejudices against my boyfriend boiled down to, I just dont see it. It wasnt him and me she couldnt see. It was him and us. I guess I kind of got why. I mean, Tyler didnt ride a motorcycle. He didnt hunt. Didnt care for poker. Preferred an expensive glass of wine to whiskey or beer. Liked theater over movies. Brandon and he had very little to discuss the one time they met except for the Marine Corps, and Tylers job was so specialized they couldnt even really connect on that front. Tyler didnt fit into Sloans vision of our future, full of pool parties and barbecues. He was more of a cocktail-party and charcuterie-plate kind of guy. I didnt like charcuterie plates. They always had weird stuff on them. I took my lasagna from the microwave and sat down across from Josh. That party is coming up soon, he said. Do you mind if I got ready here then too? Its thirty minutes in the wrong direction if I go home. Sloan had a dinner party planned for stuffing wedding invitations into envelopes and putting together the wedding favors. It was a mandatory bridal party activity and in typical Sloan fashion, she wanted everyone dressed to the nines to take pictures for Instagram. Sure. Wanna share an Uber? I want to drink. Yeah, sounds good. I smiled. I liked that we were going together. Aside from being fodder for my fantasies, Josh bore the distinction of being one of the few people who didnt annoy me. I liked spending time with him. A dangerous circumstance to be sure. My cell phone rang and I answered it, leaning over in my chair to grab my order clipboard off the counter. I wrote the order down and hung up. Josh gave me an amused smile. Wow, youre so different on the phone. So professional. I only cuss on business calls when Im upselling my Son of a Bitch and Crazy Little Fucker shirts. Josh chuckled and cut another bite of lasagna with the side of his fork. What did they order? Any stairs? A part of me hoped he asked because he liked coming over and wanted a reason. That same part of me purposely dropped lasagna on my shirt as penance. If I had one more inappropriate thought about Josh, I was going to have to see if I had some old curlers to put in my hair. He has my stairs in every room of his mansion already, I said, wiping the red sauce stain with a napkin. Dales my best customer. Hes got six Maltese and millions. He owns a strip club in downtown LA. Spent two years in prison for tax evasion. I love the guy. Every month he orders twenty-four shirts for his dogs. He likes me to deliver them in person. His handsome brow furrowed. You deliver goods to a felon by yourself? I gave him a cocked eyebrow. Hes eighty-three. Hes lonely. And how dangerous can an arthritic old man with a ponytail and a dog named Sergeant Fluff McStuffs actually be? He chuckled. Fluff McStuffs? Do all little dogs have stupid names? He took a drink of his soda. I balled up the saucy napkin and picked up my fork. You should name any dog according to how it will sound while yelling his name and chasing him down the street in a bathrobe. He laughed so suddenly Coke dribbled down his chin. He choked a moment and I handed him a napkin. So have you planned the bachelor party yet? I asked once hed recovered. Im working on it. Its not for another month and a half, so I have time. How about you? He was still smiling and shaking his head. Were going to a day spa first. Then Hollywood in a limo to go barhopping. And Im making her a suck-for-a-buck shirt, I said. His forehead wrinkled. A what? Hold onIll get it. I went to my room and grabbed the shirt Id been working on. When I came back out and held it up, he stared. Are those Life Savers? Id sewn the candies onto the shirt every inch or so apart. Yeah. Random guys pay a dollar per candy and they have to bite it off her. The ones on her nipples are five dollars. Shes going to hate it. He started laughing again. Where are you taking Brandon? I draped the shirt carefully over the back of a chair and sat back down. He chewed thoughtfully. Im thinking Vegas. No strip clubs. Maybe a nice resort, a round of golf. A steak house. This job is definitely helping me with the budget. Youd never find Brandon in a strip club. It spoke to their friendship that Josh knew that. I could see Brandon going to be a good sport, but that wasnt his scene. He was kind of introverted. He didnt like dancing, wouldnt go near a karaoke bar. Hed probably like a straight-razor shave. Maybe a bourbon tasting. He gave me an approving nod. I like that. Anything else? Can you get a motorcycle? He loves his bike. Hed want to ride there. That earned me a dimpled smile. Youre good at this. Im full of ideas. Too bad theyd never let us do something fun for the walk down the aisle. Sloan wants it all dignified. I rolled my eyes. What did you have in mind? I dont know. Something viral videoworthy. Maybe the lift from Dirty Dancing or something. We still could. It could be a surprise. You know theyd love it once they saw it. I eyed him. Do you have those kinds of dance moves? Hell yeah, Ive got those moves. Nobody puts Baby in the corner. Let me know when you want to start practicing. God, those dimples. The corners of my lips turned up. You and I might just be the perfect best manmaid of honor match ever. He smiled at me a flicker of a second too long and something fluttered in my stomach. I couldnt help but think we were well matched in more ways than one. And mismatched in the worst way possible. SEVEN Josh Why Id decided to go on this date was beyond me. There was nothing wrong with Amanda. She was beautiful and nice, but my heart wasnt in it. Kristen had been right: Stuntman Mike was a hunting dog. He was like a decoy, a call, and a retriever all in one. I had stopped at a sandwich place before the Home Depot. It was by a yoga studio where a class had just gotten out, and Id been approached by almost every woman within a fifty-foot radius. For being such a crazy shit, Stuntman Mike sure was in his element with the ladies. The little dog was all swagger and charm, letting them hold him while he licked their faces. Kristen had dressed him in a shirt that read I LOVE MY DADDY, and it had tipped the scales. Amanda and I sat at a bar about ten minutes from Kristens house. Id asked her to drinks instead of dinner so I could bail if we didnt hit it off. She wore a pink, fitted dress and she smelled like peaches. Long brown hair, killer legs, nice eyes. Too much makeup. Ordered some fruity, skinny martini with an umbrella in it. Doesnt eat cheeseburgers. She put the tips of her fingers on my knee. Im going to run to the ladies room. She bit her lip, her hair falling in a cascade over her shoulder. They have really great salads here. Want to get a table? She winked at me and slid off the stool. The ice cubes clinked in my tumbler as I took a swallow of my old-fashioned and watched her walk to the bathroom. I wondered what Kristen was doing. I pulled out my cell phone and scrolled to her number. She picked up on the second ring. Hey. Whats up? she asked. I could hear her fingers tapping on her laptop. Whatre you doing? I leaned on the bar. Invoicing. Same thing I was doing when you left half an hour ago. That was quick. Unless youre calling me to see if you and your date can use my guest room I smirked. Can I? If you change the sheets, she said without skipping a beat. So whats our story, then? Im your sister? Ill need details if Im going to wingman you properly. And if she ends up being some crazy bitch who keeps showing up over here looking for you, Im taking a hundred dollars off your paycheck per infraction. My laugh made the bartender turn around. I dont need your guest room. But thanks for the offer. Ill keep that in mind. Shes in the bathroom. Youre calling me while shes in the bathroom? Oh my God, youre bored as fuck. I chuckled. I just spent twenty minutes listening to the benefits of an organic, vegan diet. I havent eaten dinner yet, and Im craving pepperoni now. Im, like, ten minutes from you. Want to share a pizza in a half an hour? I could eat. I grinned. The color pink approached from my peripheral vision. Text me what you want on your pizza, I whispered. Gotta go. I hung up and swiveled back to my date. I just got called in. I pulled out my wallet and put a few bills on the bar. Im sorry to have to take off on you. She looked disappointed, but she seemed to believe me, which at the very least lessened my guilt at running out on her. I should have never asked her out in the first place. I just wasnt ready. I wouldnt make that mistake again. I picked up a pizza and some Stone Brewing dark ale and headed to Kristens, actually looking forward to going back over. It occurred to me that this was what I should have been doing tonight from the very beginning. I didnt have to work at hanging out with her. When Kristen opened the door holding Stuntman Mike, she was in curlers. If I ever had any question whether she was remotely into me, her complete and utter lack of an attempt to impress me was the answer. She did not give a fuck. I actually liked that she was herself in front of me. But the implication didnt thrill me. It meant her feelings toward me were totally platonic. For all intents and purposes, I might as well have been the gay friend, or a brother or something. I was friend zoned, hard, and this was the proof. The more I got to know her, the more this bothered me. She must really be serious about Tyler. She plopped down onto the couch and put her laptop on her lap. Wanna watch something? After moving her neat invoice pile, I set the pizza down on the coffee table. Sure. I sat down next to her and opened a beer for her. There was something intimate about being in her house at night. The energy was different. The light was dimmer, and things seemed quieter. And I wasnt there to work, which was a definite change in dynamic. She took the beer I opened for her. Thanks. She gave me the remote. Ive gotta finish this billing though. How about Death Proof?? I asked, opening the lid on the pizza box. Youve already seen it, so you wont miss anything. Perfect. I scrolled through Netflix and found it. We sat there with Stuntman Mike between us wearing his BITCHES LOVE ME shirt, drinking beer and eating pizza through the first half hour of it. Then she did a final tap on her laptop and shut the lid. So what was wrong with her? she asked, propping her feet up on the coffee table. Who? Your date. I shrugged. Nothing in common. And Im just not ready to date, I think. Then whyd you ask her? She looked at me, balancing her beer on her thigh. She was a yoga instructor. Yoga pants. I bounced my eyebrows. Well, you are an ass-man. Plus, I was being mobbed. I panicked. She snorted. Do you realize how bendy she probably was? She took a swallow of her beer. You messed up, dude. I smiled, putting my beer to my lips. Eh, Ill be all right. Besides, women like that are too much work. The better looking they are, the crazier they are. Id had far too much experience with this. Thats not a universal rule. Sloan is hardly crazy at all and look at her. I shook my head. I dont know. She seems like she could go off the deep end if the right guy pushed her. Brandons just too mellow to unleash the fury, I think. She laughed. I loved it when she laughed. Like a little reward. Well, your yoga instructor was a vegan, so at least you know she wouldnt have boiled your rabbit. You smell good, by the way, she said, like an afterthought. Thanks. She smelled good too. When shed given me back my shirt, some of her perfume still clung to it, even though shed washed it. Tart apples. I didnt want to admit how many times Id put that shirt to my nose. I didnt want to admit that Id wished a few times I could put my nose to her neck to see if it smelled different on her skin. I reminded myself that she was taken. The good ones always were. What I had sitting next to me was the cool girl. That rare woman who was gorgeous without being nuts. The girl in high school who hung out with all the guys, but she never dated any of them because none of them was mature enough for her. That girl who had a boyfriend who went to college and picked her up in his car after school. She could beat you at beer pong and had a football team who would kick your ass for saying one wrong word to her, but shed never let them because she could handle herself. What? she asked. Youve never seen a woman in curlers before? I was staring. Just sitting there, staring at the side of her face like a fucking creep. I was just wondering what you were like in high school. Less sarcastic. Skinnier. I smirked. Drama club? Sports? Orchestra. I pictured you as head of the debate team for some reason. She nudged me. What about you? I wasnt into sports. I just kind of got through it. Not very memorable. I drank my beer. What kind of guys did you date? She looked back at the TV. College guys, mostly. I knew it. A cell phone rang from the end table to my right and Kristen bolted up straight. She put her beer on the coffee table and dove across my lap for her phone, sprawling over me. My eyes flew wide. Id never been that close to her before. Id only ever touched her hand. If I pushed her down across my knees, I could spank her ass. She grabbed her phone and whirled off my lap. Its Sloan. Ive been waiting for this call all day. She put a finger to her lips for me to be quiet, hit the Talk button, and put her on speaker. Hey, Sloan, whats up? Did you send me a potato? Kristen covered her mouth with her hand and I had to stifle a snort. Why? Did you get an anonymous potato in the mail? Something is seriously wrong with you, Sloan said. Congratulations, he put a ring on it. PotatoParcel.com. She seemed to be reading a message. You found a company that mails potatoes with messages on them? Where do you find this stuff? Kristens eyes danced. I dont know what youre talking about. Do you have the other thing though? Yeeeess. The note says to call you before I open it. Why am I afraid? Kristen giggled. Open it now. Is Brandon with you? Yes, hes with me. Hes shaking his head. I could picture his face, that easy smile on his lips. Okay, Im opening it. It looks like a paper towel tube. Theres tape on theAHHHHHH! Are you kidding me, Kristen?! What the hell! Kristen rolled forward, putting her forehead to my shoulder in laughter. Im covered in glitter! You sent me a glitter bomb? Brandon has it all over him! Its all over the sofa! Now I was dying. I covered my mouth, trying to keep quiet, and I leaned into Kristen, who was howling, our bodies shaking with laughter. I must not have been quiet enough though. Wait, whos with you? Sloan asked. Kristen wiped at her eyes. Josh is here. Didnt he have a date tonight? Brandon told me he had a date. He did, but he came back over after. He came back over? Her voice changed instantly. And what are you two doing? Remember what we talked about, Kristen Her tone was taunting. Kristen glanced at me. Sloan didnt seem to realize she was on speaker. Kristen hit the Talk button and pressed the phone to her ear. Ill call you tomorrow. I love you! She hung up on her and set her phone down on the coffee table, still tittering. And what did you two talk about? I asked, arching an eyebrow. I liked that shed talked about me. Liked it a lot. Just sexually objectifying you. The usual, she said, shrugging. Nothing a hot fireman like you cant handle. A hot fireman like you. I did my best to hide my smirk. So do you do this to Sloan a lot? I asked. All the time. I love messing with her. Shes so easily worked up. She reached for her beer. I chuckled. How do you sleep at night knowing shell be finding glitter in her couch for the next month? She took a swig of her beer. With the fan on medium. My laugh came so hard Stuntman Mike looked up and cocked his head at me. She changed the channel and stopped on HBO. Some show. There was a scene with rose petals down a hallway into a bedroom full of candles. She shook her head at the TV. See, I just dont get why thats romantic. You want flower petals stuck to your ass? And whos gonna clean all that shit up? Me? Like, thanks for the flower sex, lets spend the next half an hour sweeping? Those candles are a huge fire hazard. I tipped my beer toward the screen. Right? And try getting wax out of the carpet. Good luck with that. I looked at the side of her face. So what do you think is romantic? Common sense, she answered without thinking about it. My wedding wouldnt be romantic. It would be entertaining. You know what I want at my wedding? she said, looking at me. I want the priest from The Princess Bride. The mawage guy. I took a swallow of beer. Id put my wife in a chair when Im supposed to pull off her garter, and Id dance around her to Stuck in the Middle with You like in Reservoir Dogs. Yes! And Id want my husband to show up at the last minute all red like in The Hangover. The pictures would be awesome. I turned back to the show with a smile. This is the date I should have been on tonight. This was a date I would have gone home with. Hey, she said, leaning her head back on the couch and looking at me. Im sorry I was rude to you when we first met. I chuckled. So youre going to stop giving me shit about my driving? No. Youre a horrible driver. I meant that stuff. I laughed. I had a bad week. You caught me on a really rough morning. Why? I took a drink of my beer. She paused for a moment like she was debating whether or not to elaborate. Well, you know Miguel quit on me. And my period was pretty crappy. I havent really been sleeping, and that morning I met you, someone tried breaking into my house Wait, what? My mood changed in an instant. I sat up and set my beer on the coffee table. Someone tried breaking in here? Who? My reaction seemed to surprise her. Look, you cant tell Brandon about this. Sloan doesnt know. Shes all into these crime shows and her imagination would just run wild. I dont need her freaking out on me. Did you call the cops? Of course. Did they catch him? She shook her head. They found a couple of cigarettes in the backyard and a beer can. It was three in the morning. Stuntman started barking. I walked the house and came around to the back door just in time to see the doorknob jiggle. The door was locked and they took off when I turned on the porch light. What? The look on my face must have been as pissed off as I felt. This was not fucking okay. She was here by herself, all 110 pounds of her, and somebody tried coming in here to do God knows what to her. Do you have an alarm system? A gun? Why was she so fucking blas? about this? No. But soon Ill have a Tyler. Nothing better than an armed Marine, right? I frowned. You shouldnt be here alone. Ill be fine. She waved a hand at me. I didnt tell you to get you all worried. I just wanted you to know why I lost it on you. It was kind of the final straw in a week from hell. There was that and then Miguel quitting, and I was just exhausted and annoyed and youre such a bad driver, hitting people at intersections Have the police followed up with you? Has anyone else reported break-ins? No. But last night She stopped like she caught herself. I waited. Last night what? I found another can and two cigarette butts out there this morning. My jaw clenched. That was it. Im staying the night here until Tyler comes back. I was dead serious. And no wasnt an option. Her face went soft. While I appreciate the gallantry, youre at the station half the time anyway. And on those days, you go to Sloans. If you dont, Im telling Brandon whats going on. She blinked at me. Look, if this were one of my sisters, I would hope that someone would do the same thing for her. You shouldnt be here by yourself with nothing but the dog equivalent of a rape whistle to protect you. This fucker obviously knows youre here alone. What if he would have gotten inside? Or grabbed you while you were walking the dog? I got up. Where are you going? Were going. Im not leaving you here while I run home. Run home for what? To get my gun. EIGHT Kristen Josh put a hand out to me, his face stern. I didnt take it. This isnt open for negotiation. Lets go, he said, unblinking. I didnt budge. Tyler is not going to be okay with this. The next time he calls, hand me your phone. What? Was he serious? Any man who would allow his girl to be unprotected in this situation is either uninformed or an asshole. Which one is it? Damn, he was good. I pressed my mouth into a line. Hes seven thousand miles away. He doesnt need to worry about something he cant do anything about. Thats how you managed military relationshipsyou kept the bad things from each other. He didnt tell me when an IED went off under a Humvee or when a suicide bomb detonated at a checkpoint, and I didnt tell him when a creeper was coming into my yard at night to have a beer and a smoke. We kept our conversations light and fun, and that was the rule. Otherwise you lost your mind. Thats what I thought, he said. Im not leaving you alone here. So you have a few choices. Call Sloan, tell her whats going on, and stay over there until Tyler comes home. Get a hotel. Or let me sleep here, in the guest room. He looked at me, stone-cold serious. This is no different than having a roommate. Theres nothing inappropriate about it. You cant be here by yourself with this shit going on. I let out a resigned sigh. Of course he was right. And honestly, I was pretty scared. The first time I was moderately bothered but just figured it was a onetime deal. But this morning really freaked me out. Id been super jumpy when Josh left on his date and I was alone in the house again. Id been stress cleaning all day. I couldnt go to Sloans. A pipe had burst in her guest room last week and the bed was still dismantled. I wasnt sleeping on a sofa and I wasnt paying for a hotel. Fuck that. Lets go, he said. Do I have to put on a bra? Because if I have to put on a bra, Im not going. I blinked at him matter-of-factly. I also wasnt taking the curlers out, for reasons already covered. My comment earned me a break in the serious expression. I let him pull me from the sofa and I made him wait while I popped two more Motrin for the road. I was on day eleven of my period and there was no sign of it letting up, but at least it had finally downgraded from ultras to regulars. I tried to see the silver panty liner whenever I could. * * * Joshs apartment was a studio full of boxes. He had a mattress on the floor with a sleeping bag for a blanket and a single lamp next to it that constituted all the furniture in the room. It smelled faintly like him: clean cedar. He was opening boxes labeled bedroom while I waited, leaning against the kitchen counter. You still havent done much unpacking, I said, looking around. I peeked into a cabinet by the microwave and found it empty. He closed the lid to the box he was in and ripped open the next one. I work forty-eight-hour shifts and then I go to your place and build stairs for tiny dogs. I havent exactly had time. He pulled out a black metal box and unlocked it. He reached in and came out with a small hand cannon. Wow. Thats a big gun. You know, youre not the first woman to tell me that. He smirked, shaking out a few bullets from a box and loading it while I watched. Goddamn it was sexy. My phone pinged. Sloan: Is Josh still there? I thumbed in a reply. Kristen: Sloan, some serious alpha male shit is going on right now. I need to focus. Sloan: What are you talking about? Kristen: Hes pulled out his gun and hes showing it to me. Its HUGE. Ill call you tomorrow. I turned off my ringer, imagining the horrified look on Sloans face and grinning to myself. I looked back at Josh. Brandon should come help you unpack. He put the gun back into the box. Its fine. Its just clothes. Ill get to it eventually. Celeste took everything in the house. He stood up. You let her? I asked, sliding open a drawer by the sink. A single plastic fork and two ketchup packets sat inside. This place is depressing. No wonder he hung out after he was done working in the garage. I didnt feel right leaving her with an empty house. She stuck me with some bills that I would have liked to leave her too, he said, looking around the room like he only now realized how the place must look. Shes dating a guy named Brad. I scoffed. Brad? I bet he wears pink cargo shorts and smells like Axe body spray. He laughed and leaned against the counter across from me, crossing his legs at the ankles. I cleared my throat. My futon really sucks. Are you sure you want to do this? Not that I wasnt appreciative of the gesture. I would feel better having him there. If Tyler wasnt moving in, someone like Josh would be the perfect roommate. He had a stable job. He was gone half the week, so Id still have alone time, and he was really cool to hang out with. The attraction I had to him was a major issue. I couldnt live long-term with a guy Id want to hook up withbecause I probably would. It would just be way too convenient. But Id always liked the idea of a male roommate. Id never had the option because Id lived with Sloan right out of high school, which was great. But in another universe, I would totally have lived with a man. He crossed his arms over his magnificent chest. Yes, I want to do this. If something happened to you because I didnt, I couldnt live with it. I cocked my head, my curlers shifting. When did you stop drawing penises on stuff? He snorted. What? Like, how old were you when you stopped drawing penises on stuff? I was just thinking how great a guy roommate would be and I realized the only downside would be finding penises drawn in the steam on the bathroom mirror. His dimpled smile made me grin. I just drew a penis on Brandons truck the other day. I laughed. So men never outgrow it. Nice. He smiled at me. Is this really what youre standing there thinking about? Welcome to my brain. Strap in and keep your arms inside the ride at all times, I said, peering into a drawer Id pulled open with my finger. Inside sat a photo next to a spare set of car keys and a pen. I picked up the picture. It was framed by four sloppily painted Popsicle sticks, like a kid made it. The magnet had broken off the back and sat in the drawer. It was Josh, on his hands and knees with a boy on his back riding him like a pony. I laughed and he cleared the space between us and leaned against the counter next to me. My nephew, Michael. Two years ago. He gave me that for my birthday. My smile fell the tiniest bit. You like kids, huh? Love em. He was standing just a little too close. He crossed his arms and it made his muscles push out and press into my shoulder. God, he smelled good. That yoga instructor messed up running him off. If she would have just shut up about tofu, he might be over there instead of here. Her loss. Do you want a big family? I asked, already guessing the answer. Oh yeah. I loved growing up in a big family. I want at least five myself. I kind of thought Id have kids by now, actually. Why dont you? He shrugged. Didnt get out of the military until I was twenty-two. I wasnt ready yet. And then I was with Celeste. She never wanted kids, but she was a lot younger than me. I thought maybe shed change her mind as she got older, you know? And she didnt. He shook his head. Nope. She was fucking pissed at me for breaking things off too. Thats why I gave her everything. It wasnt her fault. I was the one who changed the rules. I just couldnt stay in a relationship that was a dead end like that. I see. A dead end. And are you going to make your wife give you all these kids you want, or are you going to adopt some of them? Nah, I want them the old-fashioned way. A disappointment I had no right feeling dropped into my stomach. He looked at me with those deep-brown eyes. How about you? Big family? I shook my head, looking away from him. Im an only child. But do you like kids? Wanna have them? I handed him back his photo, hoping he couldnt see the crack in my heart through my eyes. Yeah. I do. It wasnt a lie. It also wasnt ever going to happen. NINE Josh She hadnt been kiddingher futon really did suck. Hard as a rock. When we got back to Kristens, I changed into pajama bottoms and a T-shirt. I was standing over the brick of a bed, debating whether the couch was a better option, when she knocked on the door. She stood in the hall in her curlers, wringing her hands, with Stuntman Mike at her feet looking up at me. I thought for a second shed seen someone in the yard and had come to tell me. Josh? Can you come to my room? My wolfish grin broke some of the tension on her face. Oh, stop. Theres a spider. I need you to kill it. Please. Before it disappears and I have to burn my whole house down. I laughed. Should I get my gun or? She bounced nervously. Josh, Im serious. I hate them. Please help me. I pulled a few tissues from the box on my nightstand. You know, you seem too fearless to be afraid of spiders. A black widow killed my schnauzer when I was a kid. Embracing a lifelong debilitating fear of spiders is cheaper than therapy. She stopped in the doorway of her room like there was an invisible force field, and I almost bumped into her back. Well? Where is it? She pointed to the wall on the other side of her bed. It was a decent-size spider. I could see why she was distressed. Her room was surprisingly girly. I dont know what I was expecting. She had tons of throw pillows and a soft-looking blanket draped off the footboard. It smelled like the perfume shed had on the day she wore my shirtgreen apples. Stuntman Mike climbed a mahogany staircase that matched her bed frame and plopped down on the pink floral bedspread with his tongue out. The brown spider scurried a few inches and Kristen spun and did a little jumpy thing, burying her face in my chest. Id never liked spiders more in my life. I put my hands on her shoulders and delicately moved her out of my way. What would you have done if I wasnt here? I asked, as I pressed the tissues to the wall firmly, ending the siege. I would have gone to Sloan and Brandons. She squeezed herself against the door frame as far as she could go while I walked the dead spider to the toilet in her guest bathroom. I flushed the tissues and turned to her. Let me get this straight. Youll pack up and leave for a spider, but you have a prowler in the backyard and that you just ride out? My priorities feel straight. She looked around me at the toilet like she wanted to make sure it actually went down. That spider looked pregnant, by the way. Thank God you called me when you did. She flapped her hands and squeaked a little and I laughed at her. I crossed my arms and leaned in the bathroom doorway. We got a call for a spider last week. Believe it or not, it was one of the least stupid calls we went on. I actually get that. I was close to calling 911 myself. I chuckled at her. Well, thank you, she said. If I can ever return the favor, let me know. Like, if you ever need a porch plant killed, Im your girl. I smiled and we both just stood there. Neither one of us made a move to go, even though it was late. A mischievous grin crept across her face. Are you tired? I liked the glint in her eye and I had no intention of ending this night if she didnt want to, no matter how tired I was. No. Do you want to go TP Sloan and Brandons house? My laugh made her eyes dance. I know its a little tenth-grade retro, she said. But Ive always wanted to do it. And you cant TP a house aloneits a rule. Well have to show up there tomorrow and help them clean it up. Pretend its just a lucky coincidence, I said. Can you borrow a tool from Brandon? I can text Sloan in the morning to tell her were going to pick it up. Shell cook if she knows were coming. Then well get breakfast and atone for our sins. She grinned. A half an hour later I was crouched behind my truck two houses down from Brandons, game-planning with Kristen. She still hadnt taken out her curlers. If they wake up, she whispered, we scatter and reconvene at the donut place on Vanowen. Got it. If youre captured, no matter what they do to you, dont break under interrogation. She scoffed quietly. As if. I cant be broken. She snatched her roll and darted from behind the truck. We made short work of it. Operation TP Sloan and Brandons was completed in less than five minutes. No casualties. We got back into the truck laughing so hard it took me three tries to get the key in the ignition. Then I noticed shed lost a curler. I got unbuckled. No curlers left behind. Its Marine Corps policy. We got out for a recon mission on Brandons lawn. I located the fallen curler under a pile of TP by the mailbox. Hey, I whispered, holding it up. Found it. She beamed and jogged across the toilet-papered grass, but when she reached for the curler, I palmed it. Youre injured, I whispered. Youve lost a curler. The medics can reattach it, but Ill need to carry you out. Get on my back. I was only about 50 percent sure she would go for this. I banked on her not wanting to break character. She didnt skip a beat. Youre right, she whispered. Man down. Good call. She jumped up and I piggybacked her to the truck, laughing the whole way. Those thirty seconds of her arms around my neck made my entire night. Once we officially made our getaway and were driving from the neighborhood, she turned to me. Hey, you wanna see something cool? I wanted to do anything that meant I got to spend more time with her. Yeah, sure. Okay, turn left here, she said. Its a surprise. We drove a few miles and then she directed me into a vacant parking lot in a strip mall on Roscoe Boulevard near her house. Park there. This is it. I pulled into the empty lot and put the truck in park. Well? Whats the surprise? None of the businesses were open. It was almost 1:00 in the morning. She unbuckled herself and sat facing me, her legs tucked under her on the seat. Her eyes sparkled. Look. She pointed out the windshield to a run-down pawnshop in front of the truck. What? You dont know what that is? She grinned. I looked back at the storefront. Just a tired shop. Nope. What? She leaned over and whispered in my ear, I aint through with you by a damn sight. Ima get medieval on your ass. My eyes flew wide. No fucking way. I jumped out of the truck and stood in front of the pawnshop, examining the windows and sign. She climbed out after me. Is this? I asked in awe. Yup. The pawnshop from the gimp scene in Pulp Fiction. I grinned up at the yellow sign. Wow. I know. I knew the movie had been filmed in California, but it never occurred to me to look for the landmarks. Are there more? I asked. Yeah. Theres the street where Butch runs over Marsellus. And the outside of Jack Rabbit Slims is actually a vacant bowling alley in Glendale. We could drive by that sometime if you want. Most of the landmarks are gone though. The restaurant from the Honey Bunny scene, the apartment where Vincent gets killedall torn down. I furrowed my brow, but not because of the demolished landmarks. This was the best date Id ever been on. And it wasnt even a date. I looked at her, balancing on the balls of her feet off a concrete parking lot divider. She had no makeup on. Sweats. Hair in fucking curlers. Hell, she didnt even change out of the shirt with the enormous lasagna stain on the front before we left the house. And she was a thousand times better than the drop-dead gorgeous yoga instructor from a few hours earlier. Fun. Witty. Smart. Beautiful. The cool girl. And nothing that I could have. TEN Kristen My cohabitation situation with Josh was on day five. I stayed in Moms empty beach house the two days he went to work. It wasnt ideal. My inventory was at my house and I had to be there to get any work done. The commute was two hours. But he was rightI couldnt be in my house alone at night. It just wasnt safe. Josh and I had developed a sort of routine. We ate almost every meal together, watched marathons of shows, took turns walking Stuntman, and did late-night food runs. I had planned to stay away from him as much as possible, but there was only the one TV in the living room and the coffee table was my unofficial office. And if we both needed to eat, it didnt make any sense to do it separately. So we just kind of fell in together. Every morning hed patrol the yard for evidence of my creeper. It was seriously fucking hot. Then hed make us eggs and wed sit at the kitchen table talking until he had to get to work. He had just come back over for another two-day stretch. I sat on the steps of the garage talking to him. I wore a tie-dyed shirt Id made at summer camp, like, nine years ago with Sloan. I also wore the matching scrunchie. Id been digging deep to maintain my homeless-chic wardrobe. It was becoming more and more necessary. I liked him. I liked him a lot. He was fun. When he left for his two-day shift, I missed him. Big-time. This wasnt good. I needed Tyler to come home. Josh was telling me about a call he went on, and I zoned out watching him carve an ornate design into the side of a step. I loved that he worked with his hands. It was beyond sexy. I wondered how those hands would feel on my bare skin. Strong and rough. I thought about that stupid piggyback ride so much youd think it was foreplay. The press of those back muscles and the warmth of his skin against my breasts. The way he smelled. How easily hed lifted me. I bet he could do push-ups with me sitting on his back. Then I imagined him doing push-ups over me while I lay on a bed under him. God. Im going straight to hell. I stuck a finger in a tiny hole at the waist of my shirt and made a tear. Tyler called. Coincidence? Or did he feel the threat from halfway around the world? I gotta take this, I said. The phone call was like an emergency broadcast test breaking into one of my favorite shows. Id sit through it because I had to, waiting impatiently for it to be over so I could go back to watching what I was before the interruption. It sucked that I felt that way. I liked talking to Tyler. I just didnt like talking to Tyler when it meant it took away from talking to Josh. I knew this was wrong. I knew it was unhealthy. And I also couldnt stop myself from feeling this way. I hit the Answer Call button and got up and went out to the sweltering sunbaked driveway, out of earshot. Hey, babe. Hi, Kris. What are you doing? Hanging out with Josh in the garage. What are you doing? Getting ready to see you. Eight days. I could hear the smile in his voice. Yes. Eight days. Then it would be the Tyler Show I was watching. I know. I cant wait, I said, forcing enthusiasm. I studied a crack in the driveway and rolled my foot over a dandelion growing from the crevice, smooshing it onto the concrete, bleeding yellow and green. Have the cops gotten back to you? Any updates? Once the danger had been neutralized by Joshs presence in my guest room, I came clean to Tyler about the attempted break-in. No, I havent heard anything. And Josh is keeping his hands to himself? he asked. I gazed into the garage and Joshs eyes flickered away from me like hed been watching. I wondered if Josh ever thought of me the way I thought of him, or if my attempts to turn him off were successful. He seemed to enjoy my company, but he never crossed any lines with me. That was a good thing. Because if he ever did, Id have to make him leave. Permanently. Josh is very well behaved, I said, telling the truth. I mean, I wouldnt have even agreed to this if he wasnt Brandons best friend. He was prescreened. All true. I left out the part that I had a major crush on him and was enjoying my time with him more than I should. What does that guy look like anyway? Tyler asked. Josh? Hot fireman. No point in lying to him. Hed see for himself soon enough. And Tyler was never shocked by my bluntness. Not hotter than me, I hope. He was giving me that cocky grin of his right through the phone. The guy knew he was gorgeous. He didnt sound particularly worried. Its kind of a crapshoot, actually. The two of you would really rake it in at one of those save the children fund-raisers where the guys get auctioned off. Id go broke at that fund-raiser. For the kids, of course. He laughed. Well, tell him I appreciate him looking out for you until I get home. I will. So whats going on over there? I wanted to change the subject away from Josh. Oh, Ive got a story for you, actually. I arched an eyebrow. Tylers stories were great. Montgomery? Hansen, he said. He had two buddies over there, Montgomery and Hansen, who never failed to produce good stories. Hansen just got back from leave. You wont believe what this guy did. Tell me, I said. He launched into an animated story about Hansens exploits and I smiled, remembering why Tyler and I were able to make a two-year long-distance relationship work. He was great on the phone. I breathed a sigh of relief that I felt drawn in again and wasnt impatient to hang up and get back to Josh. Hes got three squad cars and a Bentley parked in front of his house at three in the morning, he said. Fucking Hansen. I know. He had pictures of the whole thing. I could imagine him shaking his head, those piercing green eyes laughing. The guy kills me. He chuckled. I sighed. What are you gonna do when youre not hanging out with these guys anymore? Both Hansen and Montgomery had reenlisted. He went quiet for a beat too long. Well stay in touch. Im not worried about it. But something in his tone had flattened. Hey, I was thinking we could take a trip to Spain when I get back. Id love to show you where I lived when I was a kid. We talked for a few minutes about Spain. Then the phone muffled, like he was talking to someone else. Kris, I need to get going. Ill give you a call in a few days. Tyler? Whats up? I shot a look at Josh. I really need you to come home. I miss you. I miss you too, Kris. Talk to you in a few days. We hung up and I stood in the driveway for a moment, looking in at Josh. I did miss Tyler. The thing was, even though I missed him, I couldnt really remember him. Tyler dimmed for me during these separations. It was like a dying fire. But it always blazed back up the second he was with me again. And I knew at least some of what I was feeling for Josh was because what I felt for Tyler had become fuzzy and hard to recall over so many miles and so much time. Josh was present and clear. Of course he felt more distracting to me. Right? Tyler was a season I hadnt seen in eight months, and Josh was brighter than the sun at the moment. Thats all it was. It wasnt that Josh was anything special. How could he be? Josh and I had a divide between us so large we might as well be a different species. He wanted an enormous family, and I I just needed Tyler to come home. Thats it. I needed him to come back into my life and blot out the sun. I needed an eclipse. Josh looked over at me and gave me his stunning, dimpled smile, and I felt my disloyal heart reach out for him. Yes, I needed an eclipse. But then Id just be in the dark, wouldnt I? ELEVEN Josh Kristen and I never touched. Not since the piggyback ride almost two weeks ago. I wanted to touch her. Hell, I thought about it almost constantly. But her boundaries were well laid. She never sat too close. I never caught her looking at me. She never gave me even the smallest indication she was interested. And why would she? She had Tyler. The second day Id stayed the night, hed called, and I heard her tell him the entire situation about the prowler and me staying in the guest room. She was honest with him. He didnt seem to get upset. He trusted her. He had every right to, at least as far as I was concerned. I clearly wasnt a threat. How had I gotten myself into this? Falling for an unavailable woman. And thats exactly what Id done in the last two weeks. Id fallen. Id fucked up. I was going to pay for this when her boyfriend came back and it all ended. I should have been more careful, spent less time with her, said no sometimes when she wanted to hang out. I should have gone on dates, looked at other options. But I couldnt do it. Even as I felt myself tumbling down this rabbit hole, I couldnt stop myself. I didnt even fucking want to. Today shed taken off for a hair appointment at 10:00 in the morning and hadnt been home all day. We had Sloan and Brandons wedding invitation thing later tonight. It was boring without her here. Shed left Stuntman Mike, wearing his DOGFATHER shirt, and hed become my work buddy. He mostly slept, but once in a while hed jump up barking at phantom sounds. It kept things interesting. At 5:00, Kristen still wasnt home when I got in the shower in the guest bathroom to start getting ready for the party. But when I came out, dressed and ready to go, my breath caught the second I rounded the corner. She sat at the kitchen counter, looking at her phone. She was a fucking knockout. Shed been pretty before, even under her baggy T-shirts and sweatpants. But now? Dressed up? My God, she was sexy as hell. She wore a black fitted cocktail dress and red heels. Her hair was down and curled and she had her makeup on. Bright-red lipstick. When she glanced up, I tried to act like I hadnt been frozen in the doorway. Oh, hey. Will you zip me up? she asked, sliding off the stool still texting. She didnt even give me a second look. I cleared my throat. Uh, yeah. Sure. She turned and gave me her back, still looking at her screen. The zipper to her dress was all the way down and the lacy top of a light-blue G-string peeked out. Her perfume reached my nose, and I could almost taste the tart apples on my tongue. Fuck. This is torture. I pulled the zipper up, my eyes trailing the line of her spine. No bra. She was small on top. Perky. She didnt need one. I stopped to move her hair and my fingers touched her neck as I gathered it to one side. I had the most incredible urge to put my lips to the spot behind her ear, slip my hands into the sides of her dress, around her waist, peeling it off her. She has a boyfriend. Shes not interested. I finished the job, dragging the zipper to the top. Shed looked at her phone the whole time, totally unaffected. Kristen wasnt shy or conservative. That much Id seen over the last few weeks. She probably didnt even think twice about any of this. But I practically panted. I was getting a hard-on just standing there. I hoped she didnt look down. She turned. Okay, I got an Uber. Hell be here in five minutes. She looked up at me full-on for the first time since Id come into the room. You look nice. I stared at her. Thanks. You too. My heart pounded so hard I thought she might be able to see it through my shirt. The tips of my fingers buzzed with the memory of touching her skin. Stuntman Mike strutted over to me and plopped at my feet. I reached down and scooped him up, happy to have something to distract me. Hey, little guy. Kristen beamed, dazzling bright-red lips over perfect, straight teeth. God, he really likes you. I just cant get over it. Yeah, we hung out all day today. I kissed the top of his head. I liked him, but this was for her. I loved the way her eyes always sparkled when I was affectionate with her dog. I pressed him to my cheek, and she melted. She sighed. He doesnt like anyone. He hates Tyler. Yeah. I get that. Because Im starting to hate Tyler a little myself. TWELVE Kristen The party was at Luigis, under the stars. We had the entire outdoor patio of Sloan and Brandons favorite Italian restaurant for our night of activities. First wed do dinner followed by a few hours of stuffing wedding invites into envelopes and putting together the favorsa hundred and fifty small jasmine-scented votive candles. Each one needed a label, a box, tissue paper, a hangtag, and a ribbon. The caprese salad, chicken marsala, and penne pasta were served buffet style beneath a white lattice dripping with grapevines and fairy lights. Frank Sinatra crooned over the speakers. The whole thing was so Sloan. She was doing her Pinterest obsession proud. We were all seated at a long wooden farm table with fresh flowers and flickering votive candles every few feet. Sloan and Brandons mom and his sister, Claudia, took the end of the table. Sloans cousin Hannah got stuck next to Shawn, where hed probably hit on her the whole night. Josh sat by Brandon, and I ended up next to Sloan, across from the two of them. It was a perfect March night. The air was fragrant and warm. And the spot on my neck where Joshs fingers touched methat was still warm too. God, he looked incredible tonight. It took everything in me not to stare at him. The second I saw him, I think an entire ovary detached and floated down into my useless uterus to wait. I was done lying to myself. Over the last week Id come to terms with the fact that I was more attracted to Josh than I was to Tyler. By a landslide. By a tsunami. And that was saying a lot because Tyler and I didnt exactly lack chemistry. And it wasnt just Joshs body. It was him. There wasnt anything about him I didnt like. I wished there were. He was easygoing and funny. My moods didnt scare him. He just kind of shrugged them off. He was down for anything. We hated all the same stuffartsy indie movies with endings that didnt have any closure, pineapple on pizza, daylight savings time. Sometimes he said something right as I was going to say it, like our brains worked on the same wavelength. Every day I searched for some fatal flaw so I could stop having these feelings. Sometimes I purposely grilled him on things, just to see if his answers would irritate me. It never worked. I felt good today. I wasnt cramping or bleeding for once. My nineteen-day period was finally gone, and Id spent the afternoon getting waxed and polished at the salon. I did it because I knew I was going to this thing with Josh tonight. I was supposed to be dressed up, and for once looking half-decent wouldnt betray my feelings for him. I wanted him to think I was beautiful, just one time. Even if I was just teasing him, just to see if I could. Josh and Brandon were deep in conversation across the table, going on about duck hunting, and Sloan leaned in and whispered over her tiramisu. Josh has been looking at you all night. I picked up my sangria and took a sip. As if he intended to prove her claims, Josh glanced at me and smiled. If I was a woman who blushed, I would have. I hadnt talked to Tyler in days. Hed called yesterday and I didnt answer because I was watching Casino with Josh and didnt want to stop hanging out with him to talk to the man I should be talking to. It was shameful. But I only had two more days until Tyler came home. That was it. And then Josh would vanish back into the garage. An imaginary clock had been ticking in my mind for days, and I was panicking again that Tyler was moving in. Only this time it had more to do with losing Josh than worrying Tyler and I wouldnt work out. I nudged Sloan. Bathroom. I slid my chair out and set down my wineglass. Sloan got up and followed, the red petticoat swishing under her polka-dot dress. Once in the safety of the ladies room, she cornered me in front of the sink, grinning. That guy is so into you. Her pause dared me to deny it. Maybe he was a little into me. It didnt matter though. Unchallenged, she went on, her eyes twinkling. And you know what else? Brandon wont talk about it. You know what that means? It means Josh is saying stuff to him that he doesnt want to tell me. She looked positively thrilled at this bit of information. I couldnt look her in the eye. I stared at the colorful collection of tattoos on her arm. I like him, Sloan. Like, a lot. I havent felt this way in a really long time. Maybe ever. I glanced back to her. She broke into one of her dazzling beauty-queen smiles. Are you going to break up with Tyler? And there it was. I shook my head. No. Josh and I are never going to be a thing. She wrinkled her brow. Why not? It would be awesome. Me and Brandon, you and Josh. The Ramirezes and Copelands could buy houses next door to each other, raise our kids together I scoffed. Well, that escalated quickly. As if I hadnt thought about how easy it would be. How perfect. But it was impossible because I was no different than his last girlfriend. I needed to tell her. I couldnt keep this from her anymore. Not now that Josh played into it. I should have told her weeks ago, but Sloan couldnt compartmentalize like I could. It would upset her. I mean, it upset me too, but I was able to accept it as one of the shitty things that happens in life that you cant change, and go on with my day. But I couldnt explain why I couldnt be with Josh without coming clean. And I really needed to be able to talk to her about this. Sloan, theres something I need to tell you. Her beautiful expression fell. She knew my tone. She knew this was bad. I tucked my hair behind my ear. You know Ive had to give up a lot because of my periods. She knew. Wed been friends since the sixth grade. She was well aware of my three-week-long menstruation nightmares. I got an ulcer junior year from taking too much ibuprofen for the pain. Id missed prom because my cramps were so bad I couldnt even stand up. Shed driven me to the ER more times than I could count. I didnt want to drop this on you before the wedding, and Im sorry if it messes with you. I rallied myself to just say it, to tell her what Id been dealing with for the last six weeks on my own. Im having a hysterectomy. Sloans face broke instantly. Her hand flew to her mouth. What? Id finally gone for the nuclear option. I was done hemorrhaging for weeks at a time, suffering needlessly, not living my life. Enough was enough. They dont normally recommend one for women my age. Its elective. But the fibroids are severe and affecting my quality of life. The chance Ill ever be able to actually carry a baby is almost nonexistent. How did it get so bad? she asked, almost in a whisper. Sloan, its always been this bad. She looked away from me, her eyes searching the floor. Oh my God, Kristen. Oh my God. Why didnt you tell me? II would have gone with you to the doctor. I would have Then her mouth opened and her eyes came back up. Youll never have a baby, she breathed. I shrugged. Id never have one anyway. She looked stricken. But there is a chance you could get pregnant someday, right? Even if its a small one, theres still the chance. If you do this Sloan, my uterus is a wasteland. It always has been. Its been one thing after another since my very first period, and now its a fibroid-riddled holocaust too. I have the womb of a fifty-year-old and Ive tried everythingyou know I have. I spent the better part of the last six months bleeding myself into anemia again. The IUD I got as a last resort hasnt done a thing. I still have bleeding and cramps almost all the time. The birth control pills that were supposed to help made the tumors get bigger. Thats it. Im out of options. The defeat moved across her face as the reality of what I was saying settled in. This wasnt some spontaneous thing Id decided to do on a whim, and she knew it. Id weighed my options. Id seen multiple specialists. Id read the grieving my uterus brochures. Id talked with other women who were having the same issues and had gone through it. Im not going to get better, Sloan. I looked down at my stomach and smoothed my dress over the small, firm, distended mound that was my abdomen. I looked three months pregnant. That had been the final straw. The thing that tipped the scales. The tumors had begun to distend my uterus. Google searches had shown me women with my condition with stomachs so full of growths they looked six months pregnant. That was it for me. The final insult to my injury. I couldnt let this continue until it got that bad. Id given up enough dignity already. The doctor said they could get so big theyd make it hard to breathe. Push my other organs around. Look. Look at my stomach, Sloan. She stared at the triangle between my fingers. When? Her brown eyes blinked back tears. April. I scheduled it for the Thursday after your wedding. Ill still have my ovaries so I dont go into menopause. I can do a surrogate pregnancy if I can ever afford it. So theres that. She sniffled. Id carry a baby for you. And you think Brandon would go for that? She pulled a paper towel from the dispenser and pressed it under her eyes. Im sure hed be okay with it. I doubted that. Brandon was a good guy, but I didnt picture him being cool with his wife carrying another mans baby or loaning her body to something so serious for so long. It wasnt entirely her choice to make. Id already looked into it. It was no small thing in gesture, cost, or practice. A professional surrogate would run me around fifteen to twenty thousand dollars and the in vitro another twelve grand. The success rate for IVF was only 40 percent, and my insurance wouldnt cover a dime. So basically, barring a lottery win and a lot of luck, my rust bucket of a womb was going to leave me barren and childless. Id probably end up being that crazy aunt who wore veiled hats and smelled like mothballs with ten small dogs. I smiled at Sloan, even though I knew it didnt reach my eyes. Well, lets cross that bridge when we come to it. Tyler doesnt even want kids. But I appreciate the offer. Tyler doesnt want kids? she asked, furrowing her brow. I shook my head. She blinked at me. Are you serious? Why are you with him, then? You want kids, Kristen. I looked away from her. Kristen! Sloan, stop. What the hell are you doing? Why are you settling? The bathroom door opened, and some lady came in. She smiled at us, and Sloan and I stood there awkwardly while she went into a stall. Im not settling, Sloan, I whispered. The man is a ten. Hes driven and ambitious. Hes smart. He makes good money. We have things in common. And lets be honest hereI have to choose a man that doesnt want kids. Thats just the reality of my situation. Josh wants kids. He broke up with Celeste because she didnt want them. And in the best possible case, if all the stars align, maybe I might have one. One baby, if Im rich and lucky. Tyler and I are just more compatible. She stared at me. Oh my God, youre doing the thing. The spreadsheet thing that you always do. You dont pick a boyfriend like you pick what car to buy, Kristen. She crossed her arms. You dont love Tyler, do you? she hissed quietly. Youre not even remotely in love with that man. I knew it. I knew it when I saw you guys together the last time he came out. I do love him, I insisted. Was it some head-over-heels, sappy Sloan-and-Brandon thing? No. Was it what I felt brewing for Josh? Definitely not. But it was love. It felt a little faded at the moment, sure. But thats because hed been gone so long. It would come back into focus. It always did. I was mostly sure. She shook her head. Love is not a checklist of pros versus cons. Its a feeling. What are you doing, Kristen? What I was doing was being smart. Tyler made sense for me. He was the path of least resistance. He was exactly the kind of man I needed. And what if I am being a little rational about Tyler? More people should be rational about their relationships. If they were, we wouldnt have so many single moms with deadbeat baby daddies and cheating spouses who destroy their families. What the hell is wrong with being practical and looking at things logically? Break up with him. She pressed her mouth into a line. Break up with him before he moves in. The woman came out of the stall, washed her hands, and Sloan and I stood glaring at each other in silence. The lady tore off a towel, dried her hands, and left. Why? I asked once the door was closed. What is the point in breaking off a perfectly good relationship with a decent man I care about whose lifestyle fits my own? Uh, happiness? So you can maybe have a shot with Josh? Or someone like him who wants kids? How can you act like this isnt something you want? Who cares if its something I want? I threw up my hands. Its completely irrelevant. I cant have it. She glared at me. So I move on Josh. And then what? We fall in love? Why? So he can maybe decide to settle? So he can date me for a few years until he feels resentful enough to leave me? After wasting a few good years when he could be with someone who can give him a family? Or worse, he stays and always wonders what if? Gives up on what he wants? Thats assuming hed even look at me twice after he finds out I dont have a fucking uterus. She shook her head. At least give him the chance to make the decision himself. What if hes okay with adopting? I blew out a slow breath. He did make the decision, with the last one, who he loved and was already living with. And that man doesnt want to adopthe wants his own kids. I asked. Okay, well maybe you can get pregnant. Youve never tried. You cant know if you dont try, and you cant try if you dont have a uterus, she snapped. I cocked my head. I never used protection with Tyler. Not once. Not with any of my serious boyfriends going back to junior year. Ive been playing baby Russian roulette for eight years, and I dont see any kids running around. I threw my arms out and looked around the bathroom. And its worse than its ever been. The puff of air she let out told me she knew she was losing the argument. Justhave an honest conversation with Josh. Maybe No. For the first time since wed started talking about it, anger bubbled inside of me. Do you think discussing my deficiencies as a woman with a man that Im half in love with is something I want to put myself through? My voice cracked at my admission, and I needed a moment to regain my composure. I bit my lips together until the tightness in my throat went away. Why would I tell him, Sloan? To humiliate myself? To have him look at me with pity? Or worse, to get rejected? Theres not going to be any rejection, because I wont be making an offer. Theres no point. Id like to spare myself this one indignity, if thats okay with you. We stood in silenceher looking wounded and me trying to understand why something so rational felt so shitty. I let out a long breath. Do I have feelings for Josh? Yeah. I do, okay? Hes fucking wonderful and I fucking hate that I cant pursue it. But I cant. I can never guarantee that I can give him kids. In fact, I can almost guarantee that I cant. I know how this goes and Im not going there. My pause let the words settle. When I continued speaking, my voice had gone so weary I didnt even recognize it as my own. This isnt a man who wants one or two kids, Sloan. He came from a huge family. You know what he told me the other day? Bitterness rose in my chest. He said he wants a whole baseball team of kids. Its all he wants. And its the one thing I cant give him. Not really. Not in any way thats close to what he has planned for himself. I bit the inside of my cheek until it hurt and I looked away from her. He couldnt sit with me in the bathroom and watch the little pink line show up on the stick or put his hand to my belly and feel his baby kicking. He wouldnt be able to come with me to ultrasounds or hold my hand while I push. This is a man who wants to be a daddy, Sloan. And Im never going to be a mommy. It just is what it is. Her bottom lip trembled and she looked like she might start sobbing. Sloan was always the emotional one. This was why I didnt want to tell her about it. Now it was going to cast a shadow on what should have been a carefree time for her before her wedding. I should have never said anything. It was selfish of me. I sighed. Sloan, youre a romantic. You have some vision in your head of us being pregnant together and the four of us going on vacations and pushing jogging strollers around the block. Youll just have to adjust. She swiped at her eyes with her thumb. I hate this. I hate that you have to give up so much. Im not. Dont think about what Im giving up. Think about what Im getting back. The thought of never having to have another period for the rest of my life makes me want to fucking cry from happiness. Im so ready to be done. She looked so miserable youd think she was having the hysterectomy. I hated it and I loved her for it. I put my hands on her arms. You know what I really need? I just need you to listen and support me. Thats it. Tell me you can do that. Please. Be my friend. I need you. She nodded, closed the space between us, and hugged me. The familiar smell of her honeysuckle perfumeof my best friendgrounded me, and I realized how hard it had been not being able to talk to her about it, or tell her how Josh made me feel. Sloan? I said after a moment, my chin over her shoulder. Yeah? I TPd your house with Josh. She sniffled. I know. I laughed a little and squeezed my eyes shut. The Josh thing would have been so cool, she whispered into my ear. It would have been cool. But men like Josh werent for me anymore. Theyd never be for me again. Men who wanted pregnant wives and big families, sons that looked like their dadsthese men werent the ones I could choose from. I could have Tylers. I could have more dogs. A bigger career without kids to distract me. I could have more disposable income and a clean house without crayon on the walls and dirty diapers to change. I could be the cool aunt. But I couldnt have children. And I could never, ever, have Josh. THIRTEEN Josh Sloan and Brandon had said goodbye to their guests. Just Kristen and I stayed behind fulfilling our maid-of-honor and best-man duties helping them load the finished wedding favors and invitations into Brandons truck. Kristen, Sloan, and I stood on the patio watching the busboys blow out candles and clear the table while Brandon signed the charge draft. Good party, Kristen said to Sloan. We got it all done. Brandon handed the check to the server and came up behind his fianc?e, wrapping his arms around her shoulders. Sloan smiled, leaning into the kiss he put on her cheek. Kristen got out her phone, and I watched her pull up the Uber app. Want to go get something to eat before we go home? I asked her, hoping shed go for it. Wed been working on our projects for the last three hours, so it had been a while since we ate dinner, but my invite was just an excuse to stay out with her because I wasnt staying the night tonight. Or any other, probably ever again. The backyard intruder had been apprehended. Some kid from the neighborhood, fucking around in peoples yards. I hadnt told her. I needed to, but I just couldnt bring myself to say it yet. The second she knew they caught the guy, I wouldnt have any reason to sleep over tonight. I had work the next two days and when I came back, it would all be over. Tyler would be home. This was my last night with her. I tried not to let the disappointment darken my mood and ruin the little time I had left. Sure. But I cant find an Uber, she said, looking at her screen. The nearest one is twenty-three minutes away. The bars must be getting out. You can take my car, Sloan said, hugging Brandons arms to her chest. We took two cars over since I had to get here early. Ill just ride home with Brandon. Kristen shook her head. Im not driving that thing. I can handle it, I said. I can drive anything. Can you? Kristen eyed me. Ha ha. Give me the keys. I have work tomorrow. I havent had anything to drink besides the champagne toast. Sloan handed them over and we said our good-nights. Something was off with Sloan. She gave Kristen a hug that was a little too long to be casual, but Kristens face was unreadable. So where do you want to eat? I asked as we walked out into the parking lot to the click of Kristens red heels. Tacos. I know a late-night place. This made me smile to myself. She always knew exactly where she wanted to eat. She wasnt one of those women who gave you the I dont care speech and then rejected every suggestion you made. When I pointed this out to her last week, she said shes already thinking about what she wants for dinner while shes eating breakfast. I loved that about her. I loved a lot of things about her. When I opened her door for her, it creaked miserably. Sloan drove an old Corolla. It looked like a car youd find in a junkyard. It was a serious piece of shit. The door on the drivers side stuck, and I had to muscle it open. I got it started, but just barely, and I pulled out of the lot to the squeal of belts. Kristen pointed for me to turn left. I looked at her. She was so beautiful tonight. The subtle hints of gold in her hair, the depth of her eyes, the fit of her dress. I had to drag my gaze back to the road. Everything okay with you and Sloan? You guys spent a long time in the bathroom earlier. Fine. She looked out the window. She wasnt going to tell me. I dropped it. Hey. I forgot to tell you something, I said reluctantly. She turned back to me, and I thought I saw the flicker of something sad or tired in her eyes. Tell me what? Ill be out of your hair tonight. Today, when you were out, your neighbor across the street brought his son over. Apparently he and his little friend were stealing beers from his dads fridge and drinking them in your backyard. They tried to get into your house to steal liquor. The good news is youve got a kid whose dad is making him mow your lawn for the next month. I looked over at her, and the expression on her face looked like disappointment. Disappointment. Could she feel the same way about this that I did? Was it possible she didnt want me to leave either? Oh. Well, Im glad the mystery is solved and youre off the hook, she said. Can I be honest? I paused, debating what to say. I liked hanging out with you. It was the closest thing that I could bring myself to say to her without feeling like I was crossing a line. I liked hanging out with you too, she said quietly. The silence between us was heavy. Why did I feel like we were breaking up? I guess in a way, we were. The two of us as we knew it was about to be over. On Monday when I got to her house, Id have to meet this guy. Shake his hand. See them together. I didnt think I could do it. I really didnt. I was going to give her my notice. Id help out until she found someone, but I couldnt stick around after this. The taco place ended up being a food truck. It sat in a vacant parking lot in the seediest part of Los Angeles with poor lighting and grass poking out from the cracks in the asphalt. It made me wish I had my gun. Tents on the sidewalk lined the outside of the lots fence, and the streetlight over the entrance flickered. Are you sure you want to eat here? I asked, turning off the engine and scanning our surroundings, not liking at all what I was seeing. Buildings with broken windows, graffiti on the walls. I responded to calls to areas like these frequently. None of them good. Stabbings, overdosesrapes. Why? You dont have to parallel park. Whats the problem? I scoffed. Really? Parallel parking is the only thing that would keep you from eating here? Look at this place. These are the best tacos in the city, she said, getting unbuckled. And dont pretend you know how to parallel park. We both know how well you drive. She grinned at me. An old homeless guy who had been sitting on the inside of the fence shambled toward the car. Nope. Lets go. I said, turning the key in the ignition. It made a weak cranking noise that I didnt have time to process because Kristen opened the door and got out. Shit, I mumbled, quickly following. The door didnt close all the way when I slammed it, but I didnt have time to fix it. The homeless guy was almost to the car, and Kristen waswalking toward him? Hey, Marv, she said as I bolted in front of her to put myself between them. I threw an arm across her chest and a hand out to stop the toothless mans advance. Hey, Marv said, ignoring me and talking around me to Kristen like I wasnt there. She rummaged in her purse and handed him two dollar bills over my arm. Enjoy your food. Your doors open, son, the guy said before shuffling back to the fence. Kristen turned to me. Hes the guy who watches the lot. Come on. She motioned to the taco truck. My heart still thrummed in my ears. Are you serious? The guy who watches the lot? I followed her, looking over my shoulder back at the man. Yeah, its a thing. Kinda the Skid Row version of valet. He picks up trash, keeps the shady guys out. He does a good job. Look, no needles anywhere. And that guyll shank somebody for so much as looking at our car. Not that its anything to look at. She gave me a crooked smile. I shook my head. You have no survival instincts, do you? You deliver dog sweaters to a felon, hunker down when youve got a prowler in the yard. Now youre paying off homeless guys who watch the lot. Hey, my instincts are spot-on. The prowler turned out to be a nonissue. And anyway, I already know how Im going to die. We stopped in front of the truck window. The generator made a whirring noise, and the scrape of spatulas on a sizzling grill clinked from inside. How? I asked. Spider bite. Or being sarcastic at the wrong time. I chuckled as two more cars pulled into the lot in quick succession. A nice SUV and an older model Honda. The rest of my guard dropped. Do you like everything? she asked. Onions? Hot stuff? The smell of cooking meat drifted out of the window, and a gray-haired man in a dirty white apron waited for our order as moths fluttered around the light over the whiteboard menu. I eat everything, I said. She ordered for us, and I paid, putting a twenty through the window before she had a chance to object. This isnt a date, she reminded me, trying to hand over her own cash. She never let me pay. Yeah, but you paid for our protection, I argued. She didnt look pleased, but she accepted my excuse. I watched her standing there, and a twinge of regret that this wasnt a date washed over me. I couldnt believe I had to give her up. When our food came out, she gave three tacos to Marv and we sat on the hood of the car to eat. That was pretty sexy back there when you went Marine Corps on that guy, she said as she pulled off her heels and chucked them through the open sunroof. I wouldnt have let him touch you. I wouldnt let anyone hurt her, ever. She took a sip of her Sprite. I know. Thats what was sexy about it. For all her claims that she found me sexy, it did me no good whatsoever. She didnt want me. None of this would continue once her boyfriend was here. I wouldnt be able to take her out for tacos or show up with pizza. I wouldnt even be able to sit in her living room with her. I wondered if this thought had any effect on her, or was she just happy that her boyfriend was going to be home? Probably that last one. I sat looking out over the lot, a sucking sense of loss pulling on my heart. She was like a unicorn. A mythical creature. An honest, no-drama woman who didnt bullshit and drank beer and cussed and didnt care about what people thought of her. She was a unicorn, tucked in the body of an attractive woman with a great ass. And I couldnt have her. So I should just stop thinking about it. We finished eating and got back in the car. I didnt want to take her home. Or rather I did, but not to drop her off. I considered asking her to go do something else, just to make it last, but it couldnt be anything that felt like a date. She wouldnt agree to that. But I didnt know Los Angeles. I had no idea what was open. And there was only so far I could take this without it verging on inappropriate for a woman with a boyfriend and healthy boundaries. So I reluctantly prepared to take her home. This was it. The last time Id have her alone. The final moments. Id had all I was going to get. I turned the key in the ignition and the engine didnt turn over. My eyes flitted to hers and I tried it again. The cranking turned into a click. Shit, I said, rejoicing internally at the idea of being stranded with her in a dodgy parking lot in the middle of the night. Do we need a jump? she asked, peering at me with her pretty brown eyes. Probably, I grumbled, doing my best not to seem pleased at this development. I got out and flagged down the guys in the Honda still eating in their car. One unsuccessful jump start later and I was calling a tow truck. Im going to give Brandon so much shit for this. Sloan should not be driving this thing, I said, getting back into the drivers seat to wait. That part was true, but for the sake of extending our night, I couldnt be happier that Sloan drove a piece of crap. I had to slam the door three times to get it to shut, and I was more than happy to do it. Shes sentimental. This was her first car. Sloan can never bear to part with anything. She lowered her seat all the way back until she was lying down, and she turned on her side to face me, her arm tucked under her head. She still has the ticket stubs from the first movie we went to, like, twelve years ago. The way she was lying showed off the curve in her hips. I could almost picture her like that next to me in bed. Her lipstick was gone, but the stain was still on her lips, making them look pink and supple. I wanted to put a thumb to her mouth, see if it felt as soft as it looked. She looked out of place in this shitty car with torn, faded fabric on the seat under her, duct tape on the glove box. Like an elegant leading lady right out of a black-and-white movie, dropped into a scene that didnt make any sense. I tore my gaze away, afraid shed notice me staring. Lie down with me, she said. We have what? A forty-five-minute wait? Might as well be comfortable. I lowered my seat and stared up through the sunroof at the Los Angeles version of starsthe planes lining up to land at LAX. We sat in silence for a minute, and I thought of that scene in Pulp Fiction, when You know what this feels like? she asked. That scene in Pulp Fiction, when Comfortable silences. When Mia Wallace says, Thats when you know youve found somebody really special. When you can just shut the fuck up for a minute and comfortably share silence. She made a finger gun at me. Disco. We smiled and held each others gaze for a moment. A long, lingering moment. And then, just for a seconda split secondher eyes dropped to my lips. Thats all it took. In that moment, I knew. Shed thought about kissing me just then. This isnt one-sided. It was the first hint Id seen that she was interested. That she thought of me as more than just a friend. Encouraged, my heart launched into rapid fire as I started debating my options. The boyfriend. My threshold for being respectful to this lucky, absent bastard was evaporating. I was going to make a move on her. If I didnt, Id never forgive myself for not trying. If there was even the slightest chance she might be into me, I had to try. But how? Should I just try to kiss her? Would she tell me to go to hell? Probably. What if I slid my hand over hers? Would she yank it away? She would. I knew she would. I needed something else. Something less. More subtle. Something that could go either way to test the waters. Something that could lead to something else. Hey, I give a decent foot massage if your feet hurt. I nodded to the center console where her heels still sat after being dropped through the sunroof. To my surprise, she pivoted until her back was against the door, and she swung her legs over into my lap. She put an arm behind her head and leaned back. Go for it. Those heels were killing me today. I grinned inwardly that my strategy worked and put my back to the door while I took her tiny foot in my hand. Im a foot massage master. I dont be tickling or nothing, I said, giving her a Pulp Fiction line. She snorted. Im exfoliated and pedicured. Someone should touch them. I thought about what Vincent Vega says in the movie, that foot massages mean something. That men act like they dont, but they do and thats why theyre so cool. This meant something, and I knew she knew it. She was as familiar with that movie as I was. She had to be making the connection. And shed allowed it. I reveled in the chance to touch her and at the unspoken meaning behind her letting me do it. So, Foot Massage Master, what other tricks do you have in your bag? she asked, giving me a sideways smile. I pressed a thumb into her arch and circled it around with a smirk. Im not giving you my trade secrets. What if I need them? She scoffed. Your gender doesnt have any secrets that every woman hasnt already seen by the time theyre twenty. I arched an eyebrow. Ever heard of the naked man? She rolled her eyes. Oh God, the naked man. That ones the worst. I laughed. Why? Because it works? She scrunched up her face. I have to admit it has worked on me in the past. I mean, the guys naked. Half the work is done for you already. Its kind of hard to say no. But when it doesnt work, its so cringey. I tipped my head from side to side. Its risky. Ill give you that. You have to know your audience. But big risks can reap big rewards. Waiting for your girlfriend to leave the room and then stripping naked to surprise her when she gets back is so unoriginal though. You men have no new material. I swear you could go back twenty thousand years and peek into a cave and find cavemen drawing penises on everything and doing the naked man and the helicopter. I pulled her foot closer and laughed. Hey, dont knock the helicopter. Its the first move we learn. It can be a good icebreaker. The helicopter should be banned over the age of eight. Im just going to spare you the illusion right now. No woman is sitting around with her girlfriends going, Gurl, it was the sexiest helicopter Ive ever seen. Totally broke the ice. I chuckled and ran my hand up her smooth calf, rubbing the muscle. I pictured that delicate ankle on my shoulder where I could kiss it, run my palm down the outside of her thigh, pull down those light-blue lace panties She smiled. Have you ever seen the buttback whale? No. Now thats a rare sighting. I took her other foot and started working on it. What is it? Its when youre in a pool or a lake or something and you You know what? She waved me off. Its just better if you see one in person. Im not going to ruin it. I laughed. What? You dangle buttback whale in front of me and then just take it away? She shook her head. Its too magical. If I tell you, its just going to take the wonder from it when you finally see one. I started to tickle her. Tell me. She shrieked and tried yanking her foot away, and I held her tighter. What is the buttback whale, Kristen? Okay! Okay! Ill talk! She twisted and giggled and I stopped tickling her, but I kept her foot. Her dress had inched up her thighs in the struggle, and I gave the bare skin an appreciative glance. She saw me do it. She smirked at me and tugged the fabric down. All right, the buttback whale is when you pull your swim trunks down under the water and then you come out like a whale breaching the surface, flashing whoever is in the pool with your butt. I grinned. How have I never heard of this? She shook her head. No idea. You men are always looking for ways to moon each other. Im sure it was a mans idea. Im going to do it to Brandon the next time Im in a pool with him. She put her arm back behind her head. Oh, well make sure you give me a heads-up. Its been years since Ive seen a buttback whale. She gave me a wry grin. I hoped it meant she wanted to see my bare ass. When I pressed both thumbs into the ball of her foot, she bit her lip. Damn, youre good at that. You should see what I could do with the rest of you. I kept circling my thumbs. So what about you? Any tricks of the trade? She snorted. Im a woman. I can go into a bar penniless wearing sweats and a questionable rash and come out with leftovers and a buzz. I was laughing at this when her cell phone rang. She reached for her purse and fished out her phone. Its Tyler. She didnt answer it. She turned off the ringer. Youre not going to answer it? She didnt answer the last time he called either. She didnt make eye contact with me as she put her phone back. Nah. When she finally looked at me, we gazed at each other for a moment. Why? I asked. One little three-letter word. Such a loaded question. I didnt want to talk about Tyler. I wanted to talk about why she was ignoring him when she was with me. The first time had been noteworthy. But this was a statement. Even if she was busy, she still should have answered, just to make sure it wasnt an emergency. He was in a war zone. She pulled her feet from my lap. I just didnt think youd want to sit here and listen to me on the phone. She shrugged. I wasnt buying it. I called bullshit. And what about the other day? Thats two calls you missed. Its hard to call on deployment. We were watching a movie, she said defensively. A weak excuse. A movie wed both seen half a dozen times. We werent even paying attention to it when hed called. Wed been talking. Why arent you answering his calls when youre with me? She was too honest to deflect a direct question. I might be reaching. I might hate the answer. I might be totally out of line, but I had to ask it. I had to know if time with me was as important to her as it was for me. For me, even the seconds mattered. She stared at me, her lips slightly parted. I could see her struggle with the answer. Tell me. Then she looked over my shoulder. The tow truck had pulled into the lot. FOURTEEN Kristen Thank God. Saved by the tow truck. Josh gave me a long look before he put his shoulder into the door to get out and meet the driver. I knew this wasnt over. He was going to keep asking. I couldnt do it. I wasnt going to lie, but I wouldnt answer. The truth wouldnt be fair to anyone. What was the point in telling Josh I was hoarding every moment with him? Why? My feet still tingled where hed touched them. It radiated through my body like electricity, turning on everything as it went up. The memory of his strong, rough palms made my breath shudder. It was too easy to imagine those hands slipping under my dress. Id wanted him to touch me, and hed offered me a chance to let him do it. I couldnt say no. Id let him because it was all Id ever get. I put my heels back on, grabbed my purse, and got out to join Josh by the truck. He watched me as he talked to the tow truck driver, and I felt his eyes on me like they were hands. It was getting chilly. Past midnight. I stood hugging my arms as Josh signed some paperwork on a clipboard. He turned back to me and closed the space between us as the tow truck guy started hooking the car up to the hoist. Cold? Josh peeled off his jacket before I could answer and threw it around my shoulders in a halo of his cologne. I had to fight to keep my face neutral. The jacket was warm from his body, like it was him wrapped around me. Thanks, I said. Im sorry this happened. You have work tomorrow morning. Ill be okay. He rubbed my arms over the jacket, trying to warm me. He never touched me, and now hed touched me twice in a matter of minutes, like some unspoken boundary had dissolved. I wished he would slip his arms around me. He looked like the kind of man who gave great hugs. Bear hugs. The kind that enveloped you. For a second I wanted to ask him if I could hug him. I bet he wouldnt say no. But Id already played with enough fire for one day, and that would be crossing a line. The foot rub had been crossing a line. But God, I wanted the hug. I wanted it so badly the pull toward him felt physical, like the ocean dragging against your ankles when the tide pulls back. But I had to maintain boundaries. For so many reasonsTyler being the least of them. Josh nodded to the car. Im having it towed to a shop by your house so we can get a ride with him and then just walk the rest of the way home. The tow truck guy spoke over the sound of clinking chains. You kids are gonna have to lap sit. I got my dog with me. My eyes flicked to Joshs, and I shook my head quickly. No. I cant sit on your lap. The words were coming out of my mouth before I knew what I was saying. But I couldnt. I really couldnt. If I sat on his lap, the temptation would catapult me. Ill look for an Uber. I started punching into my phone, opening the Uber app. What? Are you serious? he asked. Yeah. We dont fit in there, so no choice. He made an impatient noise. Look, Ive gotta be at work in a few hours. Im still an hour from getting home if I leave right now. Can we just do this? I shook my head, staring at my phone. I got an Uber. Then the driver immediately canceled the trip. Fuck! It was the area. Nobody wanted to come to this part of downtown this late. It was too dangerous. Then go. Ill be fine here. Ill call a cab. Joshs eyes bored into me. I could feel them, but I didnt dare look up. Kristen, were practically in Skid Row. Im not leaving you here. If you stay, I stay. And if you make me stay, youre making me lose sleep. I looked up at him, my eyes pleading. I cant sit on your lap, I said again. I didnt bother with an excuse. I didnt like to lie. Let him think this was about Tyler. He raked a hand through his hair, shaking his head. I dont get this, Kristen. Youre way too practical for this. We have a ride. Hes here. Now. Well be at your house in fifteen minutes. I dont care if you sit on my damn lap. Ive got a boyfriend. Not an excuse. Not a lie. Completely factual. Well, Im not going to tell him this story if youre not. Lets go. He started for the door of the tow truck, his tone final. It was wrong. It was wrong because how much I wanted it made it wrong. A fifteen-minute ride sitting on Joshs lapit would be an eternity. And I would love every second of it and hate myself for it. I looked around desperately, like a cab might suddenly appear from the shadows. Instead, the taco truck tapped its horn as it drove past us, leaving the lot. Even Marv had disappeared. The vacant lot with its dim lighting and wall of tents immediately looked menacing. We didnt even have a car to sit in and wait while I tried to get a taxi to come get us. He was right. We had to take this ride. I let out a breath, steeling myself for what I had to do. Josh got in first, sliding in next to an old white-faced golden retriever who took up most of the cab. I was hot suddenly. Really hot. I took off his jacket and folded it over my arm and climbed in after him. He pulled me onto his knees, strong hands on my waist, and I draped the jacket over my lap. Josh leaned over to close the door, his chest pressing into my body, and I held my breath at the contact. Fuck, I cant do this. It was sensory overload. So much of him at once I felt dizzy. I wanted to leap off his lap and into the parking lot where I would be safe from myself. But he was the sun. His gravity was too strong, and now that I was so close, I couldnt get out of his pull. He slammed the door and sat back against the seat while I perched sideways on his knees, my back stiff, trying to keep my breathing steady. He made an exasperated sound, like I was being ridiculous, and pulled me closer until my shoulder pressed into his chest. He wrapped the seat belt around us, folding into me as he did, and buckled it in. The cab smelled like dog and gasoline. And Josh. His breath tickled my cheek. There. Is that so bad? he asked, his voice low. It was terrible. So fucking terrible. Because it was wonderful and it was so much more than I could handle. He was warm and firm, and he smelled incredible. It made me want to rest my head on his shoulder and nuzzle his neck with my nose, and if I did, and he tipped his head down, Id kiss him and there would be no stopping me. I couldnt even look at him. We were so close together that if I did, I was afraid our lips might touch. I tried to relax. I leaned back into him, acting like none of this was a big deal while I secretly obsessed over every point of contactthe back of my thighs on his, the hand that he had set on his knee where his fingers absently grazed my leg, the arm he had casually wrapped around my waist. It felt like we sat there for hours before the guy got in and started the engine. Part of me relished every second, sitting there so close to Josh. The other part of me was torturedteased. If things were differentif my uterus didnt make us an impossibility, if I didnt have a boyfriendId have kissed him right there where he sat, in front of Tow Truck Guy and Old Dog, and I wouldnt have thought twice about it. But things werent different. They were what they were. The truck lumbered out of the lot and Josh held me in place, the muscles of his strong arm keeping me steady. The roads were empty, the occasional cop car the only sign of life. I tucked my hair behind my ear and licked my lips, not knowing where to look. I glanced over at Josh, expecting his eyes to be forward, looking out the windshield, but instead they looked at my mouth. So I looked at his. Our gazes flicked back up at the same moment, and our eyes locked. Oh God, Sloan was right. He was into me. And I was into him. And now he knew it. The truck swayed and the driver fiddled with the radio, and Josh looked at me, his brown eyes hooded. I could feel his soft, warm breath on my face, the steady in and out of his chest, and my resolve wavered. I couldnt hold my ground. How could I? I couldnt even pull my eyes away. His lips parted and the arm encircling my waist wrapped around me another fraction. The fingers by my leg slid over my knee until his warm palm cupped my bare skin. The movements were subtle. So minor they almost seemed insignificant. The tow truck driver wouldnt even have noticed it if hed been looking right at us. But to Josh and me, they were milestones. Questions and answers. Risks and permission. When I didnt make him stop, his eyes dropped back to my lips, his expression darkening in a way that made me lose my breath. He wants to kiss me. Would he do it? Right here in this tow truck? Yes. He would. Because if I were him, unattached and without reasons not to, I would too. My already pounding heart launched into fluttering. If he leaned in, I was physically incapable of turning away. I would let him close the space between us and press his mouth to mine. I wanted to know what he tasted like. What his lips would feel like touching me. I was losing sense of time and reality as everything closed in around us and became him, smaller and smaller, nothing but his face, those eyes, his head tilting, noses touching, breath on my bottom lip Youre not a cheater. I jerked back before I lost the power to do it, turning my face hard to the windshield, gasping for air. The spell was broken. He pulled his hand away from my knee. His grip around my waist loosened. I could feel the disappointment in the set of his body. I wondered if he could feel it in mine. Finally the tow truck pulled into the parking lot of the auto shop. I unbuckled us and scrambled off him, hopping out as soon as the wheels stopped turning, and started walking the three blocks toward my house without waiting for him. Kristen, stop! I kept walking. He had to deal with the tow truck driver, and I needed to put space between us and that ride. I needed to put Tyler between us, where he belonged. Tyler, who didnt care if I couldnt give him kids. Tyler, who wouldnt be affected one way or another if I had my uterus yanked. I pulled out my cell phone to play the message he left me, hoping the sound of his voice would smack me back into reality, ground me again, make me realize that no, I didnt want JoshI wanted my boyfriend. But it wouldnt. Sloan was right. I had settled. Because anything less than Josh would be settling. How did I get here? How had I fallen so far into this fucked life that I didnt even want? I was a frog in a pot of boiling water. I dialed my voicemail, struggling to catch my breath, emotion sucking up all the air. I called to hear Tylers message like it was my duty. Like it was something unpleasant I had to get through out of sheer obligation. Hi, Kris Would Tyler and I share comfortable silences? Would he annoy me when he was here day in and day out? He would annoy me because he couldnt be Josh. Because he would make Josh disappear. And it would change the way I felt about Tyler. It wouldnt even be fair to him, but I knew it would happen. I would resent him. My throat got tight. I was a horrible person. It was traitorous to feel this way about another man, but I couldnt stop the landslide. I couldnt remember what Tyler smelled like. Couldnt remember the way his arms felt around my body. Everything was Josh. I probably wont be able to call you again for a few days and I really hoped we could talk tonight I forced myself to keep the phone pressed to my ear, forced myself to endure the decisions Id made as they tumbled over me and buried me in rubble. Every choice was another stone on the pile. The hysterectomy. Boulder. Asking Tyler to move in. Boulder. Spending so much time with Josh, letting myself fall in love with him. Boulders, heavier and heavier. Ive been trying to reach you and havent been able to get you on the phone I wrapped my arm across my stomach and walked as quickly as I could in heels. I knew Josh was behind me somewhere and I needed more distance. I ran up my front steps and dug my key from my purse, got the door open, and pushed inside holding the phone to my ear with my shoulder. I was going to lock myself in my room and not say good night to him. I couldnt be face-to-face with him again. Not alone. You mean so much to me, Kris, and I love you As much as I recognized that Tyler wasnt what I really wanted, I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that he was the only safety net I had between me and Josh. That he had to stay in place, or Id plummet. There was no question in my mind. If there was no Tyler, I would crash into Josh so hard my heart wouldnt survive the impact. I just needed Tyler to get home. Now. I needed him to protect me from myself and remind me why we were together. To distract me and make me fall back in love with him and I reenlisted. I stopped so fast my heel wobbled and I almost rolled an ankle. What??? My fingers fumbled, and I dropped my cell with a smack on the hardwood floor. I scrambled to pick it up, and I held the phone in front of me with shaking hands and played the message again on speaker. Then I listened a third time just to be sure I heard what he said. He reenlisted. He broke up with me. It was over between us. No more net I became an instant danger to my own heart. I tossed the phone onto the sofa, took off my heels, and bolted to the door. Josh was already coming up my steps at a jog. As soon as he saw me in the doorway, he started in on me. You cant go walking around alone in the middle of the night, Kristen. Its not sa I collided with him, throwing my arms around his neck, and crushed my lips to his. He didnt even pause. Not for a second. He kissed me back. His mouth was urgent and didnt ask questions, like he knew this moment was a gift and he didnt want to risk having to return it. But I needed him to know. I broke away, gasping for air, my forehead to his. Tyler and I broke up. He left me a message. He reenlisted. I told him if he did that, we were through. And he reenlisted. I didnt care. In that intoxicated moment, I did not give one fuck that Tyler and I were over. He studied my face for a split second before he answered by kissing me again. He was like slipping into warm sheets. It was everything safe and perfect. All the tiny, stolen, fragmented pieces of him that Id collected over the last few weeks, his smell, the feel of his breathing against my body in the tow truck, the contours of his shirtless chest in the garage, the roughness of his hand on my bare knee, the study of his mouth when he wasnt lookingall came together into a familiar and exhilarating rush as he pressed against me and kissed me. Hands plunged down my back to cradle my ass and he ground into me. Only sex. Thats all it can be. Do you have a condom? I breathed. He shook his head, trailing his lips down, ravaging the side of my neck. I tipped my head back and closed my eyes. I havent been with anyone in over six months and I have an IUD. He kissed me roughly under my jaw. Have you been with anyone since Celeste? No. His eyes came back up to mine and I could see the desire, like smoldering embers in his irises. And Im good without one if you are. This man wanted me. We wanted each other. I was in that rare window of time when the bleeding had stopped. That once-a-month respite from my period hell. And Im in love with him. I was going to sell my soul to have him. I would fly too close to the sun. But I would do it with conditions. Okay, no condom. I dont like them anyway. But Josh, this is just sex. Nothing else, I whispered. You have to agree or it stops now. My eyes drowned in his. My breasts pressed into his chest, his breath rolled over my lips, his hands pulled me into him, and I was small and protected, nestled into his firm body. It was better than the hug Id envisioned. It was paralyzing. Say yes. He didnt answer. He smiled against my lips, wrapped my legs around his waist, and carried me straight to the bedroom, devouring my mouth as he staggered through the door. My dress pushed up around my hips and his hands held my naked thighs against him. The straining in his pants, pressed into my panties, drove me almost mad. I felt like a crazed animal. I wanted to rip his clothes off him with my teeth. He set my feet down in the middle of the room and I tugged at his shirt, desperate to run my hands along his bare chest. He kicked out of his shoes and peeled off his shirt, and his warm masculine scent ensconced me as I grappled with his belt buckle. The metallic clink was like a mating call that made us both frantic. I fumbled with the zipper and he took over, his fingers quicker than mine, pulling his pants down. He sprung free and I gasped. Oh my God The man was a bull. It was the most beautiful penis Id ever seen. I stared at it, holding my breath, wondering if it would even fit. If this was a Copeland family trait, no wonder his mom had seven kids. Id never put this away. Id make this damn thing my screen saver. My wide eyes came back up to his, and he bounced his eyebrows and grinned. Then he turned me and gathered my hair to the side of my neck and kissed along my shoulder, pressing the length of that enormous thing against my ass as he unzipped my dress, letting it fall around my ankles. I panted like a dog in heat. Dont touch my stomach, I breathed. I have this thing and it makes it bloated and He nodded against my neck and his hands came around to cup my breasts, grinding into me again from behind. I ground back. He moaned, slipping a hand down the front of my panties. Tell me what you like, he whispered against my ear, moving against me. Oh my fucking God What didnt I like? It had been so long and I was so deprived I was afraid he was going to finish me right there. My body began to tremble at the build. I couldnt take it anymore. He seemed to sense it because he pulled his fingers back right before I disintegrated in his hand, and he laid me down on the bed, sliding over me. He hovered on his forearms and ran a thick, muscular thigh up between my legs until it hit my core and I sucked in air against his lips. Oh my God, he was so good at this And he fucking knew it. He smiled and kissed me, his tongue darting in my mouth, his rough hands canvassing my skin like he wanted to feel every inch of me. I did the same. It felt so good to touch him. My eyes had spent so much time learning his body, and my hands wanted to map him. I ran fingers along his chest, over the curve of his broad freckled shoulders, down the muscles of his back, along the valley of his spine. I breathed in his scent as I grabbed his firm ass and pulled him into me and he groaned, rubbing hard against my leg. I couldnt believe this was real, that I got to touch him, that he was kissing me, that there was nothing between us but my thin G-string. His bare skin pressing into mine was the most exquisite feeling of my life, a million nerve endings connecting with his, little electrical shocks that merged into one huge surge. He sat up and kneeled between my legs, picking up my foot and putting it on his shoulder. The view was fucking spectacular. The definition of his chest continued down with a line of hair into a V muscle that pointed at his divine penis like an arrow. I reached out and took him in my hand and his breathing went ragged. My gaze came back up to his hooded eyes. He kissed my ankle and I watched him do it, biting my lip, stroking him, my need unraveling into something so starved I wanted to beg him to have mercy on me and just fuck me already. I thought of the way hed touched me in the car, his strong hands massaging my calf, and I couldnt help but feel like he was continuing something he started earlier. He ran his palms from my ankle, behind my knee, up my thigh, and he hooked my panties in his thumbs and pulled them down and off. Then he balled them in his hand, shut his eyes, and put them to his nose, breathing in. When his eyes opened again, theyd gone primal. He came at me like a wild animal. He lowered onto me, his jaw clenched tight, every muscle of his body tense, and I lifted my hips. He held my gaze as he eased himself in, slow and deliberate, and I wrapped my legs around his waist, feral with need, frantically urging him deeper. One Two I wasnt going to last a minute and it was all overload, his naked body pressed to mine, the feel of him inside me, rhythmically thrusting against my core, deeper and deeper, his quivering breath over my collarbone, his hips grinding between my legs, his scent, his sounds, the heat of his skin, the rocking of the bed, the moaning in my throatmy back arched and I fell apart at the same time he did, clutching at everything, pulling him into me, pulsing with his release. He collapsed on top of me and I was decimated. I lay there like a rag doll, twitching with aftershocks. He gasped for breath, his face by my ear. Holyfuckingshit, he panted. I just nodded. I couldnt even speak. Id never had sex that good. Never in my lifeand Id had my share of good sex. It was like wed been foreplaying for weeks and Id been sexually malnourished, starving, waiting for him to feed me. He looked up at me after a few moments, the storm in his eyes quieted, and he kissed me slow and languidly while he caught his breath, putting soft pecks along my jaw, brushing the hair off my forehead with his fingers. I loved it. It was so sweet and tender. And I couldnt allow it. Can you get me a towel? I asked, putting a stop to it. He kissed my forehead. Sure. He got up and I watched him walk across the room, his perfect naked body silhouetted by the light coming from my bathroom. He came back in a second later and smiled at me as he handed me a towel. My heart yearned for him. I wanted to cuddle with him. I wanted him to stay. Okay, time to go. He got under the covers. Nope. He scooted in and threw an arm over me. What do you mean nope? Were done here. Thank you, and go home now. This was the price. The payment for what I stole. I couldnt have it all. I tried lifting his arm off me. It weighed, like, a million pounds. God, he was muscly. He rolled me onto my side, pulled my back into his chest, and snuggled me. Nope. Im staying the night. You took time off my sleep schedule. Im not driving a half an hour to my apartment just to lose more sleep before a forty-eight-hour shift. Well, youre sleeping in the guest room, then, I said, pulling at his hand. He went into a vise grip over my rib cage. Nope. Your futon sucks. It wasnt that I didnt want him there. I did. Id never wanted anyone to stay the night more in my life. And thats exactly why he needed to leave. This had to be sex and only sex. This wasnt a relationship. It couldnt be. Ever. I could never let him mistake it for one. I had to be crystal clear about that. I was a dead end worse than Celeste, and if he ever developed feelings or things ever got fuzzy, Id have to end it. He needed to go. Josh, were not cuddling. This is a sex thing. I tried to wriggle away from him and he laughed, nuzzling my neck. Knock it off. Were two grown-ass adults. We can share a bed for a night. And Im not cuddling youIm using you as a body pillow. I gave him side-eye that he couldnt see. Well, Im not making you breakfast in the morning. Thank God. I smirked. Fine. Stay. But dont go catching feelings. I mean it. We are not a thing. Got it? Using me for sex. Got it. He pulled me closer and kissed my shoulder. Stop! Good night. I could tell he was smiling. I gave up my struggles and tried to relax. The rise and fall of his chest moved rhythmically against my back, and with every exhale, I sank deeper into him, like I belonged there. Like I was loved. I squeezed my eyes shut, trying to push the feelings down. This was a bad idea. I didnt know if I could compartmentalize this like I thought I could. Especially if he was going to be pulling this shit. And why was he pulling this shit? Didnt guys prefer noncommittal sex-only situations? Didnt he say he wasnt ready to date? I was making this easy for him. My tired mind drifted off into sleep, and while I was somewhere in the fog, buried in his strong arms, he put his nose to my hair and breathed in. FIFTEEN Josh We stood in her kitchen eating cereal, looking at each other. She ate hers out of a measuring cup because she likes the handle. It made me smile. Dont smile at me. She gave me a warning glare. Shed been feisty from the moment she woke up. It was adorable. Her hair tumbled wild around her face, still curled a little from the party, and she wore nothing but an oversize sweatshirt that bared one shoulder and the light-blue lace G-string Id gotten to take off her last night. She was beautiful. So fucking sexy. I cant even smile now? I grinned at her. My heart was so damn happy. Waking up with her was like Christmas when you see you got everything you wanted. I woke up with a grin on my face, and then shed gotten up and jumped me again. It had been a good morning. I need to make sure youre clear on the rules here, she said over her cereal. This is a booty-call situation. Thats it. Friends with benefits. Yeah, shed said that last nighta few times actually. Id been so focused on the sex part of that statement I hadnt really processed the rest of it. Id been a little distracted at the time. Now that we were clothed, and my brain was working properly, I was ready to address this. What if I dont want to be just friends with benefits? I smiled at her. Then well only be friends. Her face was stony. Wow. Okay. Was she really bent on this booty-call thing? Id half thought she was just giving me shit last night with the whole thanks for the sex, get out now bullshit. She liked to give me a hard timeit was her thing. I didnt think she was entirely serious. I decided to poke her. Oh yeah? So we can see other people, then? I took a bite of my cereal with a smirk. Something flashed in her eyes. Of course. Bone whoever you want. She shrugged, looking away from me. I studied the side of her face. Her forehead wrinkled the way it did when she was frustrated. It bothered herI could see it. So if it bothered her, why was she insisting on it? Well, we should probably start using condoms, then, I said casually, calling her bluff. Fine. We probably should have used them anyway. She put her cereal in the sink. This was not the answer I had hoped for. She didnt like condoms, so Id been expecting something snarky along the lines of, Well, Im not the one who wants to see other people. Now Id just talked myself into using a condom. Fuck. I set my cereal down on the counter. Well, youre on birth control. And of course, if we agreed to be exclusive, we could keep Nope. Condoms are fine. She walked out of the kitchen, and I watched her go with a wrinkled brow. But I didnt have time to get further into it with her. I had to be at work in twenty minutes. Id slept all of two hours last night. I was exhausted and work was going to suck because of it. It had been worth it. I washed my bowl and went looking for her. She sat on the couch with Stuntman Mike, her laptop on her lap. I gotta go to work, I said. Id talk to her about this later. I put my hand on the back of the couch and leaned down to kiss her, and she jerked her head back. No. We dont kiss unless were fucking. The comment gave me a small, unexpected jab in the heart. Why? Because this is a sex thing, Joshua. It will only ever be a sex thing. Were not dating. There are not going to be any public displays of affection or hand-holding or any of it. If you cant deal with that, then lets stop this right now. I stared at her, and she looked back at her screen, emotionless. Okay. I straightened up. Well, Ill see you in a few days. For sex. Bye, she said, talking to her computer. I gave her one more lingering look. She never raised her eyes. A wall. An enormous wall had suddenly come up between us. What the hell? I didnt understand it. Could she actually be serious about this? She didnt want to date me? At all? Ever? Why? This wasnt some girl I wanted to call at 2:00 in the morning to bang and leave. I liked her. I more than liked herI wanted to be with her. Id been hoping this was the start of something between us. If shed wanted to be exclusive, I would have slapped on the boyfriend title in a second. Could this be about Tyler? I mean, I guess I just thought by how quickly shed thrown herself at me that she wasnt too upset over the breakup. We hadnt talked about itI certainly wasnt going to bring up Tyler if she wasnt, and she hadnt broached the subject. She didnt really filter, so if hed been on her mind or the breakup was fucking with her, shed say it, right? But the only thing she was saying was that she didnt want me. It ate at me the whole way to work. Once I got to the station, Shawn put me through a two-hour list of shitty probie chores. By the time I had a chance to talk to Brandon, he was working out. The gym was a large gray-carpeted room off the apparatus bay. One treadmill, a bike, and an elliptical that nobody ever used sat in a row facing a mirrored wall. Three weight benches, a punching bag, and a rack of weights lined the other wall with a view of the fire engine through a large window. I grabbed a cup of water from the watercooler by the door and took a weight bench next to where Brandon sat doing curls. Hey. Sloans car broke down on us last night. Stranded us in a fucking parking lot in Skid Row. I leaned forward with my elbows on my knees, holding my water cup between my legs. And I hooked up with Kristen. Brandon finished his set. Well, I cant say either thing really surprises me. He pivoted to face me and grinned, bouncing his eyebrows. I took another swallow of my water. She broke up with her boyfriend last night. Good. He started doing curls on his other arm. Sloanll be happy. Well, Im glad someones getting what they want out of it. She doesnt want to date me. Sex only. Okay. Whats the problem? He set his weight down with a thump. I thought you didnt want to date. Didnt you blow off that yoga instructor? This is different. I like Kristen. A lot. And we get along. We get along fucking great. And the weird thing is I know she likes me tooI can tell. Something doesnt feel right. I finished my water and crushed the cup, tossing it into the trash can by the towels. Hmm. How was the sex? he asked. I scoffed. Fuck, it was the best sex Ive ever had. Not even kidding. Shed pounced me like a hungry tiger that escaped its cage. The way she smelled, the way she tastedeven thinking about it made my dick twitch. Shawn came through the door and tossed a gym towel onto the weight rack. What up, fellas? Brandon and I nodded at him. Just ask her what her deal is, Brandon said. Its probably because she just broke up with whats-his-face. Kristens pretty blunt. I dont imagine her not telling you exactly what shes thinking if you asked. Shawn sat on the other bench next to Brandon. You talking about Kristen? Sloans friend? Shes single now? Shes hot as fuck. Id hit it. He lay down and scooted under the weight bar. I grabbed his towel and threw it at him. Hey, asshole, shes taken. Shawn laughed, dragging the towel off his face. Not by you. Yes, by me. Sort of. He paused with his hands on his barbell and looked over at me. Damn! Youre crushing that? Shes gone slumming, bro! I gave him the finger. Brandon chuckled. Do you want me to ask Sloan? No. Kristen and Sloan would see that shit a mile away. Dont ask. Dont tell her what I said, yeah? He picked his weight up and started doing curls again. Just see how it goes. Give it a few weeks. Shawn grinned. Cant nail that shit down, huh? I ignored him and stood up to grab weights for my barbell. I wasnt getting into this with him. Relationship advice from Shawn was the last thing I fucking needed. Hed had his car egged by girls so many times wed had to start locking the gate to the fire station parking lot. Shawn grunted through his set and put the bar back on the rack with a clang. She probably wants to get back with the ex. He reenlisted. Its why they broke up, I said, wanting to put that theory to bed. Hes not coming back. Brandon spoke up. Her idea to break up or his? Hers. Or maybe his. Im not sure. He reenlisted knowing shed leave him if he did. I hadnt thought of that. Even if shed broken up with him, her hand had been forced. So in a way, hed done the leaving. Shit, maybe that changed things. Shawn sat there catching his breath. Hes gonna miss those care packages and titty pics and come begging. Trust me, dude. And in the meantime shes gonna revenge fuck her way through her contacts list. He reached down and grabbed his water bottle, taking a drink. Looks like she just got to the js. Jealousy surged at the thought of Tyler trying to get her back. Now I wished I had brought him up earlier so I knew how she felt about it all. Brandon chuckled and switched arms. She probably just needs time, bud. Shawn snickered, scooting back under his bar. She probably just needs the d, and not just yours. Fuck you, I said, tightening my weight on the bar. Brandon laughed. Come on, its been what? Twelve hours since they broke up? You cant expect her to just dive right into another relationship, no matter how amazing you might be. Brandon had a point. But maybe Shawn did too. Shed been tied down for two years. Maybe she was happy to be single and wanted to see what else was out there. I didnt like that. At all. I didnt like anything Shawn was pointing out. Suddenly my forty-eight-hour shift felt too long. The red lights flashed through the gym. We had a call. All three of us were up in an instant. The voice of the dispatcher came over the loudspeaker. Person down. Engine ten respond to sick person at four thirty-seven Palm Drive with medic unit six hundred seventy-four. We streamed out of the gym into the apparatus bay and climbed into the engine as Javier came out of the crew quarters. I almost got to eat a sandwich, Javier said, getting into the front seat with the laptop. I climbed into the drivers seat. Shawn sat behind me next to Brandon and put on his headset. Hey, Javier, Joshs fucking Kristen. Javier paused midseat belt and looked at me. Really? Isnt she engaged? I turned on the ignition and the engine rumbled to life. No. She broke up with him last night. She doesnt want to date me though. And Im not fucking her. I like her, asshole, I said over my shoulder. Shawn snorted. Naw, shes fucking you. Hey, man, for real thoughif youre a dick in a jar, you better not rock the boat. I put on my headset. What? I hit the button to open the bay doors and turned on the lights. Youre a dick in a jar. Chris Rock? Break in case of emergencies. She had an emergency, dude, Shawn said. If you start getting all stage-five clinger, shes gonna replace your ass and get a new jar. Brandon laughed. I think what hes saying is to give her space. Javier opened up the laptop. Normally Id disagree with any and everything Shawn says, but as an old married guy with two grown daughters, I have to agree with him. Its too soon. Let things happen naturally. Javier looked at the laptop and got the specifics for the call. Vague. Sick person, possibly unconscious. More bullshit. A toothache. Drunks. So, so many drunks. Hell, this call was probably a drunk. Sick person was the universal code for no idea, but probably someone shit-faced. I closed the bay door behind us and fired up the sirens. Shawn didnt drop it. Hey, maybe shell get a brown jar next. I got a jar she might like. Oh yeah? I said, turning onto Victory. They make jars that small? The guys laughed and Javier talked to his screen. I met the love of my life at nineteen. Never got to play the field. Kind of wish I did. Be single. Date around in the meantime. Ive dated around, I mumbled. Nobody was like Kristen. Witty, beautiful. Smart. She made me laugh. I loved talking to her, loved seeing what she thought about things. Over these last few weeks, shed become my other best friend. And dating around wasnt an optionit was a waste of time. We pulled up to a tired apartment complex. When we got inside, I was right. More bullshit. A lady pretending to be unconscious after a fight with her husband. She wanted him to think hed given her a heart attack. A nice little guilt trip. These theatrics seemed to be a relatively common affliction here. Id gone on five calls like this since Id gotten to California. Someone pretending to have a medical emergency to get attention. A waste of time and resources. We didnt get calls like this in small-town South Dakota. We got a fraction of the calls they did here, but when we did get them, they were legitimate. People didnt call 911 unless they needed to fucking call. They didnt use us as props for their dramas. Small-town people had pride. I couldnt wait to tell Kristen about this shit. She loved hearing about my calls. It was the first thing we caught up on when I would come back over after a shift. Shed have something hilarious to say for sure. Last week Id single-handedly wrangled three drunks into the back of an ambulance, and shed called me the Idiot Whisperer. On the way back to the engine with the crew, I spoke low to Brandon. How do you stay so fucking patient with these people? Brandon shrugged. Its just the job. You do your best to educate them when you can. Does it work? No, Shawn said with a laugh, and Javier chuckled behind him. I shook my head. You know, I considered the Forest Service before the move. Im starting to think I should have looked more into that. Shawn snickered. What? You wanna be a fucking gardener? The Forest Service isnt that bad, Brandon said, loading his gear back into the engine. Not having to deal with people? I said. Being outside, in nature? Whats not to like? Shawn climbed into the engine. Youre just fucking clearing brush. Smokey the Bear shit. And thats worse than this? I asked. We just revived a woman who wasnt unconscious. At least Id be actually accomplishing something. I climbed back into my seat and put on my headset. Javier had snagged someone from the complex about the trash in front of the fire hydrant, so we all sat and waited. Fuck. What was I doing with my life? Did I really want to do this shit for the next twenty years? I didnt know if I had the patience. Sure, I got to go on some cool calls sometimes. I delivered a baby last week, and I put out a car fire. But most of it was crap like this. And the probation made it worse. I could have applied for the Forest Service. Maybe tried Northern California. Lived near wine country and the redwoods where I could have hunted and owned some land. But then there was Kristen. If Id moved somewhere else and come here for Brandons wedding and met Kristen then, I would have wished I lived here by the time the night was done. I knew I would. She was special. She wasnt just some girl. I think Id known that the day I met her. I pulled out my cell phone and scrolled to her name, looking at the blinking line, waiting for me to type a text. And tell her what? She wouldnt even let me kiss her goodbye this morning. Why would she want to hear from me? My whole life was one big probationary period at the moment. I was in limbo, waiting to see if things got better. There was only one way to get through it. Put my head down. Do a good job. And do what Id been told. Id just have to bide my time. SIXTEEN Kristen Joshs forty-eight-hour shift gave me withdrawals. I felt like some sort of addiction had started, and now I craved him. I needed to see him like a fix. I actually got in the car to drive past the fire station like a stalker, and I had to talk myself down. I debated texting him but decided against it because why? So we could be closer? Get to know each other better? If anything, I should have been figuring out ways to see him less. Looking for another carpenter, maybe even breaking off this booty-call thing altogether before I was in so deep Id never get out. Ugh. What have I done? I texted Sloan to see if we could have lunch, but her stepmom was throwing her a small bridal shower at her dads house in San Diego, and she was going to be gone both days of Joshs shift. I didnt want to drop the whole I banged Josh thing on her over the phone. So I sat through my two days without him, alone, watching the clock and missing him as I scoured my house from top to bottom. When his shift at the fire station was done and he finally headed back over to work on the orders I had for him, I waited for the sound of the garage door opening like a dog waiting for his master to come home. Id done my hair and makeup and dressed in normal clothes for once. Nothing too cuteleggings and an off-the-shoulder shirt. I didnt want to send the wrong message. The message that broadcasted how I really felt. Once I knew he was here, I scampered back to the living room sofa and put my laptop onto my lap so he wouldnt know Id been waiting like some kind of fangirl. It was so lame. Hey, he said, coming into the doorway with a smile. Stuntman bounced at his feet wearing his IM LITTLE AND I HATE EVERYONE shirt. Josh crouched and petted him. I brought you a breakfast burrito. Oh God. How had he managed to get more attractive in the past forty-eight hours? He looked so cute in his jeans and gray T-shirt with that messy hair and the fucking dimples I loved, and the man had a damn burrito for me on top of everything. Not to mention now I could picture him naked. My heart thudded just looking at him. I wanted to run to him and jump on him, wrap my arms around his neck and kiss him. Hey, I mumbled, looking back to my screen. He set the food down on the coffee table, his cologne and the smell of sausage teasing me. Thanks, I said, pretending to write an email. He waited for a long moment as I tapped at my keys. Well, I guess Ill get to work I didnt breathe until I heard the laundry room door close. Then he spent the day in the garage. I didnt hang out with him like I usually did. He asked me if I wanted to get lunch. Of course I said no. And of course I totally wanted to. He didnt try to touch me or kiss me. He was trying to follow my rules. I hated my fucking rules. At 4:00, he came back inside and sat next to me on the sofa. Im on my period, so He snorted. Good to know. Thanks for the info. He opened a Coke with a pith. So whatre we watching? I stifled a smile. Im just returning emails. I wasnt really paying attention. I closed my laptop and slid a hand across his thigh. You know, we can do other stuff I was used to getting creative with my sex life. Three-week-long periods didnt give me much choice, and I didnt see why my partner had to abstain in the meantime. And I really wanted to touch him. Even if it was just sex. I just wanted to be close to him. But when I reached for his belt buckle, he stopped me. No. If youre not having fun, neither am I. Who says I wont be having fun? I smirked, trying to get my hand free. He held it firm. Kristen, no. Thats not why Im here. I looked at him. Then why are you here? He gazed at me with those deep-brown eyes. To hang out with you. You said were friends with benefits, right? This is the friends part. I want to spend time with you. My heart tugged. He has to go. Well, I have plans tonight. So I cant hang out with you, I said, sitting back into the sofa. The corners of his lips went down a fraction of an inch. Okay. When are you leaving? Want to get some dinner? Or watch something before you go? I got up. Im leaving now, actually. The light drained from his eyes, and I instantly wanted to throw my arms around him and take it all back, ask him to stay and snuggle with me on the sofa and eat Chinese food out of takeout boxes and be my boyfriend. But I couldnt. This. Could not. Be. A. Relationship. He pushed up from the sofa. All right. Ill see you tomorrow, then. He didnt look at me before he left. I buried my face in my hands. What the fuck was I doing? I had to cut him loose. This was torture. This was ridiculous. I just wanted to be normal with him. I wanted to treat him the way he made me feel. Give him all my attention and kiss him and hug him. Tell him Im in love with him. But that would be me luring him into a dead-end attachment that would be a waste of everyones time. Or worse, him rejecting me once he knew the truth about my health issues. And neither of those was acceptable. With Josh, I could have a sex-only arrangement with strict boundariesor I could have nothing. I grabbed Stuntman, got in the car, and went to Sloan and Brandons house. She opened the door wearing her painting shirt, her hair piled on her head in a messy blond bun. Oh, hey. She went back to her stool in front of her easel in the living room. She was an artist. This painting was of a little girl in a poppy field. Wheres Brandon? I asked. She pointed the remote to the TV and muted her crime show. Hes in the garage. I slept with Josh. She whirled on me, eyes flying wide. What?!? Yeah. I dropped onto the sofa, clutching my dog. Tyler and I broke up. I slept with Josh. It was fucking incredible. His penis is glorious. Im dick whipped and in love with him, and I dont know what to do. I think I fucked up. She looked absolutely horrified. The color drained right from her face. She didnt know what to do with dick whipped, I think. Shed never had a one-night stand or even slept with someone who wasnt her boyfriend. I gave her a minute. I knew shed catch up. Once she rallied, she sat down next to me. And you think you fucked upwhy? I put my face into my hands. I like him so much. So much, Sloan. And hes all sweet and wants to hang out with me. He asked me if we could be exclusive. I told him no, that its purely a sex thing for me, which its totally not. But what else can it be? I looked at her, and I could feel the desperation practically seeping from my pores. I mean, if he actually likes me, I have to shut this thing down. We cant be together. He wont be with someone who cant give him kids. Id rather die than tell him Im about to have my uterus taken out. And Im not in the business of leading men on, right? So I should end it, shouldnt I? Right? She stared at me like Id gone mad. God, Ive never seen you like this, she breathed. Maybe I had gone a little crazy. This was not my normal MO. Guys didnt get me worked up. Ever. Sloan was in virgin territory with me on this. You know what he did the other day? I went on. I went to FedEx to drop off some boxes. And when I came back, he was in the kitchen with Stuntman. I guess he knocked over a soda and Stuntman walked through it, so he needed a bath. So Josh washed him, and I come into the kitchen and hes standing there, no shirt, with Stuntman wrapped in a towel, and hes cuddling my wet dog. I swear to fucking God, Sloan, Ive never seen anything sexier in my entire life. The man is literally perfect. How is it possible that Ive managed to find the perfect man and I cant have him? She rubbed my back, looking at a loss for what to do. I put my forehead into my hand. I hate my uterus so much. Sex makes me bleed. Ive been spotting for two days. And as if that wasnt bad enough, I had to tell him to ignore my swollen stomach. It was fucking humiliating. She looked sympathetic. Well, what did he say? I scoffed. Nothing. He didnt give a shit. The dude was about to get laid. He probably wouldnt even have noticed it, but I felt like I had to explain it anyway in case he did, and found himself wondering if he was boning a pregnant chick. The beginnings of tears tickled the back of my throat. I got up and went to the bathroom for a tissue. I blew my nose and flushed it down the toilet, and the toilet handle came off in my hand. I came out and held it up. Sloan rolled her eyes and got off the sofa. Her house was a fixer-upper. Brandon was doing the repairs. He did a good job, but the place broke as fast as he could fix it. She took the handle from me, and we stood there in the hallway, flanked by framed photos on the walls, having a silent exchange. We could practically read each others minds. She hated this was happening to me. She wished she could take it away, make it better. But she couldnt, and she didnt know how to even start. So what are you going to do about him? she asked. I dont know, I whispered. You know whats so messed up? My eyes started to sting. He fits. Like, the first time I met you and we just clicked, you know? Thats Josh. He clicks. And I was okay with this until him. I was at peace with my decision. And now The unfamiliar lump that accompanied tears swelled in my throat. That tightness that I so rarely experienced because I was seldom moved to cry. The universe is laughing at me, Sloan. As soon as I think this cant get worse, its like, Hold my beer. At every turn the kid thing keeps coming up, just in case I forget how much it matters to him. These constant little reminders that I dont have what he needs. My mind went to Josh holding Stuntman in the towel. Then I thought of him holding a baby there instead. But it wouldnt ever be mine. That wouldnt be my husband giving our baby a bath in the kitchen sink. Hed only get that moment with someone else. That did it. The sobbing burst out of me. Sloan had me in her arms in an instant. I wasnt an emotional person. In the course of our friendship, Sloan had only seen me cry once after a cramp-induced trip to the ER, and that was more from pain and frustration than despondency. This was a violent shift in our dynamic, the moment when Dad breaks down and wide-eyed Mom has to comfort him. Sloans maternal instincts kicked into crisis mode, and she clutched me to her, shushing me and whispering in my ear, the way my own mom would never do. Id borne the decision for this hysterectomy with stoic practicality. But I couldnt do that with Josh. I just couldnt. There was absolutely nothing practical about the way that man made me feel. I let myself just fucking cry. And it made me feel out of control and hopeless. Someone knocked on the wall. We turned to the sound to see Brandon poking his head around the door into the hallway. Oh. Uh, sorry to interrupt. Josh is here. Is it cool if he stays for dinner? Josh came up behind Brandon, holding Stuntman. My dog was licking his cheek. Hey, Sloan. Kristen. His smile fell the second he saw my face. I swiped at my tears, fled to the bathroom, and closed the door. SEVENTEEN Josh The crying caught me by surprise. It never occurred to me she might be that upset about breaking up with Tyler. I just thought Stupid. Of course she was upset. I dont even know why Id been confused about this. Shed dated him for two fucking years. He was supposed to move in with her, for Gods sake, and hed reenlisted without talking to her and broke up with her in a damn voicemail. Shit, no wonder she didnt want anything serious with me. She was probably so messed up over Tyler she couldnt even think straight. I was probably just some rebound thing for her. Shawn was right. I was a dick in a jar. I felt like an asshole, asking her to be exclusive. Id thought wed had something, for a moment. That maybe she was into me too. But now I felt like Id imagined the whole thing. Misinterpreted every signal. I should have listened to what she was saying instead of trying to grasp at things that didnt exist. She told me before any of this happened that I needed to be able to handle a sex-only situation, and this was clearly why. And then I showed up here, the day after Tyler was supposed to come home, when it was probably really starting to hit her and she was trying to cry about it to her best friend. I should just give her space. I should leave. Im gonna go, I said to Brandon, putting down Stuntman Mike. I didnt intend to intrude on her night. I didnt know she was at Brandons until I pulled up and saw her car in the driveway. And if I was being honest, after seeing her with makeup on and her hair done when Id gone to her house, I was relieved to know that her plans had been with Sloan and not some other guy. Especially after everything Shawn said. But that wasnt the only reason I was happy to see she was hereI was just happy to fucking see her. Id thought about her the whole time I was at work, and then when I finally came back over, it was such a disappointment. Before, I could sit with her on the couch and bullshit with her. And now, I guess I needed a reason just to hang out with her in the living room. Now we had rules and everything felt stiff. For a brief moment I wished wed never hooked up. That wed stayed friends until she was over this joker, and then maybe I wouldve had a shot with her, free and clear. Because right now I felt like Id lost that thing between us, that easy friendship that was there before we crossed that line. Sure, Id gotten sex out of it, but I wasnt sure it was worth the trade-off. Not like this. Sloan came around the corner into the living room. She looked weary. Babe, the handle to the toilet broke off. She put a metal piece in Brandons hand. Ill fix it as soon as Kristen comes out, he said. Sloan looked over at me as I pulled my keys from my pocket. Are you leaving? Yeah, Im just gonna head out. She glanced back at the bathroom and then looked at me full on. Josh, stay. She spoke low. Stay for dinner. Something in her eyes implored me. I looked back and forth between her and Brandon. He had no fucking idea what was going on. He was as lost as I was. He looked at his fianc?e like he might be able to glean the information from the side of her face. Are you sure? I asked. Very sure, she whispered, shooting a look back at the bathroom. Maybe I was a distraction? Maybe Sloan felt like I could get Kristens mind off Tyler? I had no illusions that Sloan didnt know wed hooked up. Kristen would definitely have told her. So Sloan knew what she was asking. I didnt want to leave. I wanted to be wherever Kristen was. And if Sloan thought it was okay that I stay, thats what I was going to do. I stayed. Brandon and I headed back to the garage. He had a few projects I could help him with, and the house felt like it was zoned for the women at the moment. What do you think that was about? Brandon asked as soon as we were alone. He was talking about Sloans intervention, not Kristens crying. Given Kristens recent breakup, the crying was understandable. I sat on a stool at the workbench and shrugged. I think shes fucked up about Tyler and Sloan thinks Ill get her mind off it. His brow furrowed and he reached for his beer. He held it in his lap and tapped it absently with his pinky. I dont know. Im a little surprised Kristens having this reaction to it, if Im being honest. Ive never seen her like that. Not even when her grandmother died. Shes pretty tough. He pulled on his beer, looking as perplexed as I felt. We sat there, both of us looking confused, like wed stumbled into some sort of foreign female territory. Usually if I walked into a crying-woman situation that I wasnt directly the cause of, Id back away slowly and let the ladies work it out among themselves. But it bothered me that she was hurting. I wished she would talk to me. Fuck, she used to talk to me. Brandon looked at me. What happened when you went over there today? I shook my head. She was the same. Kind of cold. Kicked me out. Said she was on her period so we couldnt have sex. Do you think it was an excuse? he asked. No. I believed her. If Kristen didnt want to have sex, I had no doubt in my mind that shed just come out and say it. I didnt think the period thing was made up, especially because shed offered me alternatives. But that was twice in a month. Maybe she had issues with her periods. My sister Laura did too, and she used the same heavy-duty stuff Kristen did. Brandon set his beer down and went back to looking at the busted kitchen cabinet door he was working on. Help me with this thing. Im going to try to fix the hinge. He had an impressive workbench with neon Corona beer signs hanging over it. Two large, red, rolling tool chests sat against the wall next to cabinets hed built himself for all his power tools. It was a good thing he was properly equipped, because the house hed bought with Sloan needed work. We fiddled with projects for a half an hour. I kept looking at the door that led into the house. I knew Kristen was on the other side, making dinner with Sloan. I could feel her. On an impulse I got up. Ill be right back. I walked in to the smell of garlic and basil and found Kristen sitting at the kitchen table with Stuntman Mike. Sloan stood over a steaming pot. The girls both froze immediately. Kristen and I stared at each other for a moment. Can we talk for a second? I asked, nodding to the living room. Sloan shot her a glance. Kristen stood, setting down her dog. Sure. I followed her into the living room and she turned to me, her arms crossed. What? Well, I said, crossing my arms too. You and I are going to be spending a lot of time together in the next few weeks with the wedding and everything. I think we should talk about the elephant in the roomyou following me over here. I got her. Her lips twisted into a reluctant smile. Her eyes were puffy. Red. She looked sad and beaten. I wanted to pull her into my chest and hold her, tell her Tyler was a fucking dick for leaving her. The urge was so intense I had to clench my fists to keep myself from reaching out. But I sensed she wouldnt let me if I tried. I didnt like the helpless feeling it gave me. I realized, looking at her, that as much as it fucking sucked that all I was to her at the moment was a booty call, Id take whatever she was willing to give me. If she wanted nothing but a friend with benefits right now, thats what Id be for her, because the way I felt about her wouldnt let me refuse any chance at getting closer to her. I cleared my throat. I didnt know you were going to be over here. I wasnt trying to crowd you, I said a little more seriously. I know. She looked away from me, her smile falling a bit. Josh, Im not sure us hooking up again is a good idea. Her eyes flicked back to me. Shit. I could respect her wishes if she wanted to back out for her own reasons. But if she thought she was sparing me any grief while she got over Tyler, I needed to set her straight. Do I get any say? I asked, tipping my head a little to catch her eyes. You dont want anything committed right now. I get that. Lets just keep things casual. We like hanging out with each other. The sex is good. Lets not overthink it. She looked up at me. And you would be okay knowing that its never going to lead to anything else? Why she felt the need to slap the word never onto it was a little much. Shed get over Tyler at some point. But it made sense that she didnt want to put a time stamp on it. And I had the feeling if I even alluded to the possibility of us one day being more, she would bail. For now at least, yes, I was fine with the current arrangement. I could wait it out. My expectations are managed, I said. And youre going to see other people. She said it more as a statement than a question. Like she was confirming that I was aware this was an expectation of hers and I had to agree to comply. If I feel like it, yes. I wouldnt feel like it. And I will see other people. So you understand that. This was harder. But I reasoned she would see other people whether her and I were hooking up or not, so it didnt change my decision. And part of me thought that if I stuck around, she wouldnt date anyone else. Shed enjoyed the sex as much as I hadthat was pretty fucking obvious. Id just have to meet all her needs, a duty I was more than willing to fulfill. Youre single. Id expect you to date other people too, I said. She studied my face for a moment, like she was searching for a reason to say no. She must not have found one. Okay. If you think you can handle it, she said. Neither of us moved. We watched each other. One of our comfortable silences. My eyes openly roamed her beautiful face. Her thick lashes, dark hair that just grazed her delicate shoulders, a long, graceful neck. Full lips. I wished I could kiss her. And the funny thing was she was staring at my mouth too. But her expression was pained. Like just looking at me hurt. Damn, Tyler fucked her up. I hated that fucking guy. Sloan called out from the kitchen. Dinners ready. Kristen turned without another word. I followed her in the soft flurry of her tart-apple perfume and took the chair next to her at the table. Stuntman Mike plopped on the floor between us. I leaned over, petting his head, and whispered to Kristen. I hear this place has great food. Why dont we eat here more often? If I was here to cheer her up, I was going to do just that. Her face softened. Its hard to get a reservation, she whispered. She glanced at my lips again before her eyes came up to meet mine. I know a guy, I said. Although I heard they had to close for a few days after the place got vandalized a couple weeks back. She raised her eyebrows. Oh yeah? I nodded and looked over at Sloan before continuing, my voice low. The worst TPing Canoga Park has ever seen. No leads. Probably an inside job. She smiled, and I saw her mood lift before my eyes. Brandon came in from the direction of the bedroom and sat down, sliding something across to me. Look what I got. Sloan moaned, setting a Caesar salad in the middle of the table. Oh God. Not that thing. What is it? Kristen asked, eyeing the circular wooden box. Its a turkey pot call, Brandon said, scooting in his chair. Yeah, and hes been practicing with it for weeks. In the house, Sloan said, putting a bowl of pasta on the table and sitting down. Gobbling, all day long. Brandon gave his fianc?e an amused look. Hey, if I dont practice, Im never going to get better. Sloan smiled. Uh-huh. But in the living room though? When Im painting? She passed the French bread. Hes usually so quiet. Hes right, I said, picking it up to get a better look. He needs to practice. It takes skill. It was a nice pot call. Wood with a turkey feather carved into the round lid and a matching cedar wand to make the scratch noise. The kind of thing you pass down to your son one day. I nodded in approval. Nice. You know, there are turkey-calling competitions, I said to Sloan. People compete on a national level. Really? Its that hard? Sloan asked, serving herself pasta. Oh yeah. I took off the lid and ran a finger on the black scratch surface. There are tons of different sounds they make. The kee kee run, the spit and drum, yelps, purrs, cackles, clucks. You have to practice or you wont get any birds out there. Sloan grinned at Brandon. Well, he does keep my cooking blog pretty busy. I guess Ill have to just put up with him. Brandon picked up her hand and kissed it, and both Kristen and I smiled. Kristen turned to me. Do you know how to use it? Her question was a white flag. She was making an effort to talk to me. Brandon picked up his beer and tipped it at me. Josh is actually great at that. Thats why he always bags a bird. He was wingmanning me for Kristen. I just hoped she found dead turkeys sexy. Kristen smiled at me. A genuine smile. Have you hunted all your life? Yup. I put the lid on the pot call and handed it back to Brandon. Kristen poked at her salad. Then she looked back up at me, her eyes innocent. Is it true that vegetarian is a Native American word for bad hunter? Brandon laughed so suddenly he choked. I smiled at her, happy to see her coming back to her old self. You know, I still dont have a car, Sloan said over her pasta after Brandon stopped laughing. You two broke my Corolla. Kristen snorted. Really? Youre going to put this on us? The hamster probably died. What hamster? Sloan looked confused. Kristen skewered a crouton. The one running in the wheel under the hood. Brandon and I laughed, and Sloan pressed her lips into a line, trying to look angry, but she couldnt keep a straight face. How can you let her drive that thing? I shook my head at Brandon. I told her, I dont know how many times, that Ill buy her a new car, Brandon said, still chuckling. Sloan shrugged. I dont want a new car. That was the car I learned to drive in. I had my first kiss in that car. Brandon gave her a mock serious look. Well, then it definitely has to go. Sloan smiled at him and leaned over and kissed him fleetingly on the lips. I watched my best friend look at her for a moment after she went back to her food. He really loved her. I remembered the first time he started talking about her, three years ago. We were sitting in a duck blind in South Dakota, and he went on for hours about this woman hed been seeing. Id never seen him so into someone. I made a mental note to talk about that during my best-man speech. Hey, didnt you two meet on a call? I asked, trying to recall the story hed told me. At a hospital or something? Sloan smiled sweetly at Brandon. Yeah. I only gave him my number because he was in uniform. I grinned. Cant say no to a man in uniform, huh? I twirled my fork around my pasta. It was incredible. Some kind of venison Bolognese. Sloan was a great cook. Kristen and I really should eat here more often. No, I can, she said. Its just I figured they wouldnt let a felon or registered sex offender into the fire department. Brandon chuckled. I was pulling the rig up to the emergency room entrance when I saw her coming out. Back when we had an ambulance at the station. Now I remembered the story. The rest of the details positioned themselves. Sloans roommate was in the ER, and shed been there with her. That had to have been Kristen, then. Wasnt it you in the ER? I asked, looking at Kristen. Kristen was the last person to go to the ER for nothing. In fact, she was one of those patients you could never get to go to the hospital when they actually needed to. Stubborn to a fault. Mom called it strong-woman syndrome. Most of my sisters had the affliction. Kristen didnt look up from her plate. I passed out at a pep rally. My brow furrowed. Why? I was anemic. She said it without emotion, but I noticed the way Sloan watched her as she told the story. Anemic. Bleeding. Were her periods that bad? When is your car going to be fixed? Kristen asked, changing the subject. Its ready now, Sloan said. I just need someone to drive me to go get it. Brandon cant. Hes helping his sister move tomorrow. Well, I can bring it to you, I offered. Kristen, why dont I drive home with you tonight? Ill leave my truck here, and I can stay the night at your place. After Im done with tomorrows orders, Ill pick up Sloans car and drive it back. It was like the whole room held their breath waiting for her answer. Sure, Kristen said, shrugging. Forks went back to clinking on plates. I was sure Id be forced into the guest room, but Id banked on her practicality and won. She knew Id be there tomorrow morning early anyway. We had a ton of orders. And why deny Sloan her car? Id spent the night there plenty of times already, this wasnt anything out of the ordinary. I clearly knew her well enough to anticipate her thought processes. So why, then, had it been such a surprise to me how upset she was about Tyler? EIGHTEEN Kristen Just when I thought I might have the strength to get out, Josh pulled me back in. Wed played games at Sloans until almost midnight. Sloan forced Josh and me to be on the same team. We destroyed her and Brandon at charades. By the time Josh and I left together, a half an hour ago, we were back to our old prehookup selves, laughing and joking. All the weirdness was gone. Id just brushed my teeth and changed into shorts and a tank top for bed when he knocked on my bedroom door. When I opened it, the crooked smile on his face told me immediately that male trickery was afoot. Joshua. What can I help you with? He stood there in a white T-shirt and gray flannel pajama bottoms. Do you mind if I ask you a question? He grinned mischievously. What? His masculine cedar scent mixed with the mint from his toothpaste and teased me from the doorway. It was intoxicating. I tried to hold my breath. Do you have problems with your periods? The question took me so by surprise I immediately thought Sloan had said something to Brandon and hed told Josh. But he went on before I could ask. Because theyve done studies that show sleeping next to a man every night can regulate your period. Did you know that? Now, Im pretty busy, he said, looking down the hall and then back at me, his dimples popping. But I think I can offer you my services tonight in exchange for not having to sleep on your futon. I stifled a smile. This sleepover was your idea. You knew youd be in the guest room. He made a show of straining to look around me into my room. Hmm. Can I check your smoke alarm? He leaned in the door frame and crossed his arms in that way that pushed out his biceps and made his chest press against his shirt. My ovaries swooned. Damn, it was too bad I was spotting. Id drag him right to bed and cash in on this friends-with-benefits deal if I wasnt. I put an arm across the door and fought the urge to smile, pressing my lips into a line. My smoke alarm is fine. Can I have the dog? I scoffed. Why the fuck would I give you my dog? So I wont be lonely. He gave me a mock sad face. Well then Ill be lonely. You can solve everyones problems by just letting me in. If you turn me away, Im just going to come back doing the naked man, he said seriously. I snorted. Heaven help me if he came back with the naked man. I was in no way strong enough to turn away a naked Josh. Im spotting. I reminded him, hoping that would shut him down. Tyler wouldnt come near me with a ten-foot pole if I was bleeding. Id had to be pretty creative to keep our sex life satisfying when his leaves fell within my three-week-period window. His eyebrows shot up. Spotting only? Yeah. He crashed into me, arms around my waist, lips right into my neck. I dont care about spotting, he whispered, kissing under my ear. His sudden proximity knocked the emotional wind out of me. I care, I breathed, hands on his chest. Do I? I do, right? Well, stop, he said huskily, smiling into my neck. He backed me into the bed, his strong arm guiding me down. When he slid over me, I was hypnotized. Rendered completely helpless. And he wasnt lying about the spotting. He really didnt care. * * * I woke up the next morning naked with my cheek stuck to Joshs bare chest. I lay there for a moment, the light cracking through my blinds, listening to the sound of his steady heart beating. I wanted to give myself another few moments of happiness before I had to kick him out of my bed and pretend I didnt care whether he was there or not. He stirred and I closed my eyes and pretended I was still asleep. His body shifted like he was looking down on me, and I heard his heart pick up a little. I knew if I looked up, he would smile and I could kiss him good morning. But I wouldnt. Because thats not what fuck buddies do. Lips gently touched the top of my head, and his arms tightened around me. It was sweet and tender. And a bad sign. He said he could handle this, that the sex-only thing was okay for him. But Id have to keep an eye on him, end it if I thought he was getting too attached. My stomach growled. I wondered what time it was. There was a cafe that I bolted upright. What day is it? I looked desperately for my phone. Josh propped himself up on his elbows and looked at me, his hair messy. March eighth. Tuesday. Why? I found my phone on the charger: 10:13 a.m. Shit! I swung my legs out of the bed and crashed painfully into the nightstand with my hip, stilling the wobble with my hands. I scooped up Stuntman from the end of the bed and pushed him out the sliding glass door before running to the bathroom. Oh my God, how could I forget? I had no Tyler, just-fucked hair and my naked carpenter in my bedroom with less than twenty minutes to get my shit together. One hand jammed my toothbrush in my mouth while the other one turned on the shower. I got in before the water had a chance to warm up and brushed my teeth while I wet my hair in the frigid stream. The shower door slid open and Josh got in next to me. Whoa, this is freezing. I spit into the drain. This is not your shower. Get out. He laughed, grabbing the soap. I have to use a separate shower now? You dont even let your poor exhausted fuck buddy clean up after he spends the night servicing you? He lathered his chest, grinning at me. Normally, Josh naked in my shower would be the realization of a long-running fantasy, but this morning he was just taking up room where I could be hurriedly shaving my legs. Whats the rush, anyway? he asked. I bent down to grab my shampoo and bumped his thigh with my forehead. When I came back up, he was smirking at me. My mom. I have brunch with my mom, I said, scrubbing my hair frantically. I forgot. Shell be here in fifteen minutes. She thinks Tyler is coming with me. She doesnt know we broke up. I snatched the soap from him, rinsing my hair while I washed my body. This was a nightmare. A fucking nightmare. Josh, you need to be in the garage when she gets here. I cant meet your mom? No. Dear God, no. Hi, Mom, Tyler and I broke up, but heres my fuck buddy, Josh. Isnt he cute? Lord help me. My hands were actually shaking from the adrenaline. Im getting pretty cold over here, he said, slipping his hands around my waist from behind and kissing the side of my neck. I wiggled. Josh, I dont have time for this. I told you this wasnt your shower. Okay, okay. He let go of me with a laugh. He wouldnt be laughing if he knew Evelyn. You sure I cant meet her? Im good with moms, he said, while I smacked conditioner in my hair. No. You cant meet her. Just I viciously scrubbed my face and rinsed, doing a quick spin to get the soap and conditioner off. Then I jumped out, grabbing the closest towel. Just dont come out. And dont let Stuntman back in the house either. He hates her worse than he hates Tyler. I tripped all over the bathroom, plugging in my hair dryer, slapping on lotion, putting on mascara. Josh got out and went into the bedroom to get dressed. Ten minutes. I had ten minutes. If my hair was wet, shed know I had forgotten. Shed be worse if she knew Id forgotten. Ugh. She was going to give me so much grief about Tyler. Well, it was only a matter of time. Or maybe, You ruin all the good things in your life. Whatever it was, it would be tinged with disappointment and judgment and I didnt have enough warning to get into the right headspace to deal with her. Id been so distracted, and Tyler was the one whod saved the date in his calendar. And of course she wouldnt call me to confirm or let me know she was on her way like a normal person. Shed prefer it if I fucked up and got the date wrong or forgot. I turned on my hair dryer. Dry faster, dry faster! Damn it, why did I even wash it?! At 10:29 I came out of my room, ready to answer the door. She was never late. Shed be here exactly at 10:30. But when I came down the hallway, putting in my earring, Mom was already in the living room. Talking to Josh. NINETEEN Josh The hair dryer was still running in Kristens room when the doorbell rang on my way to the garage. I called down the hall, but she didnt hear me. Figured I might as well make myself useful, so I answered it. The woman on the front porch wasnt what I expected. She could have been Kristens grandmother. Maybe she was her grandmother. She looked like she was pushing seventy. Still good-looking though. Kind of regal. I saw Kristens high cheekbones, petite frame, and large eyes. Her gray hair was pulled tight into a neat bun. She wore pearls. When she saw me, she gave me a raised eyebrow and looked me over like I was a wine list that didnt have her year. Well, hello. Is my daughter available? Her eyes flicked coolly to my wet hair. Shell be right out. Come in. Im Josh, her carpenter, I added, giving her a hand to shake. Evelyn Peterson. She shook my hand firmly and then looked around the living room while she fished a small bottle of hand sanitizer out of her purse and squirted some into her palm. It was a little rude, but I watched this with amusement. I saw where Kristen got her scowl from. Evelyn did not look pleased. I hope you dont take the state of this house as evidence of a poor upbringing, she said, rubbing her hands together and eyeing an empty beer bottle and dirty plate on the coffee table. Kristen grew up with a housekeeper, but Id like to think I instilled a sense of pride in her. She wrinkled her nose at one of Stuntman Mikes half-chewed bones on the floor. Even if its not always apparent. Kristens house was spotless. Youd be hard-pressed to find a dust bunny under the couch. Who gave a shit about a beer bottle and a plate? She moved around the coffee table and picked up a green dachshund sweater from a stack Kristen had been inventorying. It read I SEE YOU LOOKING AT MY WIENER. Evelyn grimaced and set it down with two fingers. My mom would have thought that shit was hilarious. Evelyn wasnt a wiener-joke kind of lady, I guess. I was starting to get a little uncomfortable. Too pretentious for my taste. Still, I was kind of her host at the moment, and I had to entertain her until Kristen took over. Uhcan I get you something to drink? A water? I asked. Her steely gaze settled back on me. Thank you, no. Where is Tyler? Im not sure. I just work here, I said. It wasnt my place to tell her about the voicemail breakup. She narrowed her eyes. Hmm. Kristen came around the corner, her hand to her earring, and she stopped cold when she saw us together. Then she did something I have never, in the entire time Ive known her, seen her do. She turned red. I was beginning to think I needed to send out a search party, Evelyn said curtly. I braced for Kristens snarky retort, but to my surprise she didnt reply. Instead she stiffly kissed her mom hello. And where is Tyler? Evelyn gave Kristen an air-kiss. I hope were not going to be late. You know how I hate being late. She glanced at a diamond watch. Kristens eyes flicked nervously to me. Actually, Tyler wont be coming. We broke up. Evelyns lips pressed into a line. She waited a long beat before she replied with a cool, I see. She turned to me. Joshua, would you care to join us? Our reservation is for three. Kristen spoke quickly. He has a lot of orders I believe this was my brunch invitation, Evelyn said. Youve deprived us of our threesome and failed to inform me in advance so I could make the proper arrangements to fill the seat. Id like to invite Joshua, and its my invitation to extend. Her tone had a finality to it. I looked at Kristen. Shed gone totally silent. Kristen, silent. This alarmed me more than I could comprehend. Something protective told me not to leave her alone with this woman. This Tyler thing seemed to be some sort of hot button between them, and I got the impression a buffer was needed. Maybe thats why she asked. The empty chair might piss Evelyn off and just make things worse. Sure, Id love to come. Alarm ripped across Kristens face. I looked down at my clothes. Im not sure Im dressed for it though. I didnt know where we were going, but both Kristen and Evelyn were in dresses and heels and I was in jeans and a Burbank Fire T-shirt. I didnt have anything else to change into. Evelyn sighed. Youll fit right in with all the other underdressed millennials there, I suppose. Im sorry Kristen didnt make it possible for me to give you more notice. She turned for the door. Oh, Kristen? You really should put your trash cans where they cant be seen from the street. Curb appeal matters, dear. Evelyn came in a black Town Car with a driver. On the twenty-minute trip to the restaurant, she picked lint off Kristens dress and commented on her damp hair. In between the nitpicking, I learned she was a tenured law professor at UCLA and a judge. Man, she was uptight. I wondered if she ever hugged Kristen as a child. I couldnt picture it. I couldnt even imagine her smiling. Come to think of it, she didnt even have laugh lines. Just two deep wrinkles between her eyebrows where she drew them down. Kristen seemed paralyzed. It was the weirdest thing. I kept looking at her, trying to figure out what was wrong with her. She reminded me of a cornered animal so frightened that its fight-or-flight response had shut off and it just sat there, frozen and terrified. The restaurant was in Simi Valley, and I was definitely underdressed. The other millennials were no help. They were in sport coats and button-downs. A hostess led us to a white linen-covered table with a small vase of roses on it by the window. Well have menus, Evelyn said to the hostess in a bored tone. I dont trust buffets, she explained. Too many people pawing at it. Kristen and I shared a look. The buffet looked incredible. We both wanted to hit that up. It had a damn ice sculpture on it and a Bloody Mary bar. A fat prime rib sat on the carving table and iced crab legs and shrimp flanked the omelet station. But I didnt want to be rude. I was a guest. And Kristen didnt look like she planned on arguing either, so we took our menus. I dont know why Evelyn let Kristen have one though, because when the server came, Evelyn ordered for hereggs Benedict. Kristen didnt comment, but I happened to know she hated poached eggs. She didnt like runny yolks. And she definitely didnt like being told what to eat. I didnt get this dynamic at all. Kristen was sitting there, but she was nowhere to be seen. Her flame was completely extinguished, like her mom drained all the fire right out of her. Our drinks were delivered. I sipped an orange juice, and Kristen took a long swallow of her mimosa. Evelyn pulled artificial sweetener from her purse and squeezed it into her coffee. So, Kristen. What did you do to run off Tyler? What the fuck? My hand tightened around my glass. Kristen carefully set down her champagne flute. How do you know it wasnt me who broke things off? Evelyn looked amused, like the question was absurd. Was it? Kristen sat rigid. A student in the principals office. He reenlisted. I see. Evelyn set her spoon down on the saucer. Well, I cant say this surprises me. Something angry flashed in Kristens eyes, but she seemed to push it down. She pressed her lips together for a second. And why is that? Evelyn raised her coffee cup to her lips and took a sip. Well, a driven man like that wants the same in a partner, wouldnt he? She turned to me. And Joshua, what is it that you do? Or do you build dog merchandise full time? The question was condescending. For all she knew, I did build dog merchandise full-time. And what the fuck was wrong with that? Im a firefighter and paramedic. Do you have any higher education? Why did I get the feeling the question was meant to be insulting? She had to know not many firefighters also held doctorates. An associate degree in fire science was about the norm. But if I had to guess, anything under a four-year degree wasnt going to impress her. I couldnt care less. I was proud of what I did for a living. But she clearly meant to highlight what she considered to be a shortcoming. I never went to college. I went into the military after high school. And then the fire academy, of course. Evelyn spoke over her coffee. And how long have you been sleeping with my daughter? Mom! Kristen stared at her, openmouthed. I sat back in my chair and dragged a hand down my face. Well, Kristens bluntness was definitely hereditary. Evelyn set her cup on the saucer and put her hands together. Really, Kristen. We dont need to play games. Were all adults. She gave me a disapproving glance. I do hope this wasnt the reason why Tyler decided to search for greener pastures, however. For once I thought you were on the right track. Kristen flushed again and my hackles came up. Was this lady for real? I didnt have anything to do with him breaking up with her, I said, feeling a little indignant. And neither did she. Its been hard on her, and Im surprised youre not more concerned about how shes feeling at the moment. I felt Kristens wide eyes on the side of my face. I went on. And if you bothered to ask her, shed tell you that he broke up with her in a voicemail like a coward. Maybe that would knock that joker off the pedestal Evelyn seemed to have him on. Evelyns expression remained placid, and she didnt get a chance to reply because the server came and started setting food down in front of us. Kristen looked at her eggs with dismay. She was pretty picky about her food, and she got cranky when she didnt eat. I got the feeling shed muscle through this because her mom seemed to have some sort of mind control over her, but shed hate it. You know what? Fuck this. I picked up her eggs Benedict and gave her my French toast. Kristen doesnt like her eggs like that, I said to Evelyn, not even trying to mask my annoyance. Kristen looked at me like Id just given her one of my kidneys. I put a hand under the table and squeezed her knee. Evelyn watched the whole thing with unmasked distaste. I couldnt fucking believe this was Kristens mom. How did this lady raise someone so cool? If it wasnt for the uncanny family resemblance, Id think this was some elaborate joke. Evelyn draped a napkin over her lap. Joshua, you might find my impatience with my daughter a little confusing. You havent known her very long. The thing that you dont realize is that Kristen has a tendency to self-sabotage. I highly doubt that, I said, my jaw tight. It wasnt her fault Tyler reenlisted. She chuckled. You would. But then youre the most recent proof, arent you? Kristens fork hit the plate with a clatter. I realize youre disappointed that Tyler and I broke up, she said with sudden vehemence. But it is none of your business. Who Im fucking is none of your business. Evelyns eyes smoldered. Of course. Why would anything you do be my business? I raised you to be a prosperous person, poured myself into your development, and youve spent the last five years systematically undoing everything I instilled in you. First you stopped playing piano, turned your nose up at Juilliard. Then you walk away from Harvard so you can play house with Sloan. You discarded the elite college education I paid for by dropping out of law school to sell clothing for dogs Piano? Law school?? Harvard??? Evelyn scowled. Now youve botched the only relationship Ive ever approved of. But of course, continue on, Kristen. See how far you can fall. You could have been making a respectable living, for Gods sake. I was beginning to lose my fucking cool. She does make a respectable living, I snapped. Shit, she made twice as much as I did, easily. Evelyn sent me a cutting glare. Our opinions on what constitutes a respectable occupation are likely very different, young man. And Ill thank you to stay out of it. Like hell Im staying out of it. She started her own successful business from the ground up. She gets to be her own boss and she gets to do it from her living room. Id think youd be proud. Yes, its not exactly a meth lab that Im running, Mother, Kristen said, smirking into her mimosa. Theres my girl. I put a hand on her shoulder. Well, no ones saying you should give up your hobbies, honey bunny. Kristen choked and spit her drink back into her glass, and we both launched into laughter. Steam came out of Evelyns ears and she glared at us. Kristen descended into a giggling fit, leaning into my shoulder. The spell was broken. She was back. Evelyn dabbed at her mouth with her napkin and raised a finger at the waiter. Well, its good to see that youve found someone to celebrate mediocrity with, Kristen. Kristen grinned up at me, still laughing. We do know how to celebrate, dont we, Joshua? Im all worn out after last nights celebration. I chuckled, wiping at my eyes. I slid my plate away from me and dropped my napkin onto it. Ready to go? I pulled out my wallet and tossed some bills onto the table. Thank you for the invite, I said to Evelyn as I pushed out my chair. Kristen? I gave her my hand. She didnt move. Come on, Kristenlets go. Dont stand for this shit. She took my hand with a sideways grin and got up. Mom, this has been fun, as always. Then she grabbed the money I put on the table, tucked it into my back pocket, gave my ass a squeeze, and led me by the hand out of the restaurant. TWENTY Kristen We burst from the restaurant into the warm noon air and made our way past the valet down the sidewalk to the fast click of my heels. Jesus, was she for real? Josh asked, still laughing a little. We walked along a row of boutiques and salons. I didnt think people like that really existed. I scoffed. Oh yes, shes for real. Sloan calls her the Ice Queen. He shook his head. Why do you let her talk to you like that? You dont actually believe that stuff, do you? He looked at me, his thick eyebrows knitted. I believed I disappointed her. And it was hard not to take what she said to heart. I did drop out of law school. I gave up on piano, which I was somewhat gifted at. Turned down scholarships. Considering what I could have been doing, what I was probably capable of if I wanted to apply myself and live a life I hated, yeah, I could be considered a disappointment. She had a point. I didnt answer him. Kristen. He stopped me on the sidewalk and put his hands on my arms. Hey, you know that nothing she said was true, right? I looked him in the eye. She wasnt wrong about all of it, Josh. I was nothing if not self-aware. He took a step closer and his warm eyes anchored me. None of what she said about you is true, he said seriously. Youre one of the most driven people Ive ever met. Youre smart and successful, and Tylers a fucking asshole for breaking up with you like that. That shit wasnt your fault. Tyler. Hed been calling almost every day since he broke up with me. I wasnt interested in hearing what he had to say. I couldnt decide if the ruling emotion was guilt for falling in love with Josh while we were together, or fury that Tyler had ended two years by breaking all his promises and letting me know via voicemail. He had to have known he was going to leave me, and hed probably known for a while. He hadnt been any more forthcoming with his plans or reservations about our relationship than Id been about my growing love for Josh. I had feelings about this, and zero desire to explore them. So I did with Tyler what I did with most of the shitty things in my life. I put him where I kept my hysterectomy and my childhoodin its own little room. I tossed Tyler into his storage space, pulled the string on the light bulb, shut the heavy metal door, and latched the lock so I wouldnt have to look at the things that hurt, and I could go on with my life unaffected. It was why I didnt cry. It was how I lived using only the left side of my brain. But for some reason, compartmentalizing today didnt seem possible. I knew it the second I saw Josh standing in my living room with Mom. It was like things that happened with Josh couldnt be locked up. They just smeared all over, messy and impossible to put away. The feeling was a little terrifying, like Id lost my defense mechanism and I was naked and unarmed. With Joshs eyes looking into mine, I was emotionally exhausted and actually a little embarrassed about what happened todayand I didnt get embarrassed. The tightness in my throat threatened to turn into crying. Crying. Again. For the second time in as many days. I didnt even recognize myself anymore. He put a hand to my cheek as his stare wandered my face, and I was afraid he was going to kiss me. I was afraid because if he did, in that raw moment, I wouldnt be able to stop him. I had to keep that stuff under control. For both of us. I couldnt let lines blur. But the side of his mouth came up into a smile. Youre hungry. Come on. He pulled me into the nearest cafe. Like, seriously. The nearest one. He didnt even look at the menu on the easel. What? I said, horrified as he dragged me inside by the hand. Arent we going to at least check the reviews? What if it only has three stars? He held up two fingers to the hostess and turned to me. You kill me, you know that? On one hand you embrace danger at every turn, and on the other you wont risk getting bad pancakes. And anyway, Im buying. I shook my head. No, Ill pay for myself. Were not on a date. I know. Dont worryIm not trying to slip a date past you. He made a face like the idea was crazy. Id just like to buy you breakfast. I like feeding you. Why? He grinned at me and put his hands on my shoulders. Because youre a lot nicer to me when youve eaten. Its more for me than you, really. I cracked a smile and we followed the hostess through the restaurant to a table in a tiny enclosed patio. We had the space all to ourselves. It was actually a little romantic. Mismatched bistro chairs and reclaimed wood tables with little vases of carnations on them. The patio was full of potted plants. Several fountains trickled along the vine-twisted brick walls that enclosed us. Throw pillows with Aztec patterns in the booths, Christmas lights strung over us. Intimate and lovely. I was still going to check the reviews though. Once wed ordered, Josh started hitting me with questions. I think the brunch from hell was starting to process. I dont think I appreciated my mom enough, he said, taking the garnishes off his Bloody Mary and sliding them across to me on a napkin. What was it like growing up with a mom like that? I nibbled on the pickle spear. Like that brunchbut for eighteen years. She reminds me of that lady from that movie He snapped his fingers. The one with Meryl Streep? I scoffed. The Devil Wears Prada? She might be the devil. Nobodys ever seen them in the same room at the same time before. He chuckled and I smiled weakly at him. God, he was my hero. In the last thirty minutes, Josh had done the modern-day equivalent of slaying a dragon. He saved me. Twice. Once from the Ice Queen and then again from starvation. Food was my currency. Hungry was an emotion for me. I felt that shit in my soul. I looked at the napkin he gave me. He liked all this stuffcelery, pickles, olives, shrimp. Either my hangry was truly terrifying or he gave it to me because he was taking care of me. He hadnt eaten yet either. He was hungry too, but he didnt even keep an olive for himself. Josh was going to make a very good daddy one day. He was selfless and principled. Brave. Loyal. Hed make a good husband to someone too. I thought about how hed given me his French toast earlier, and I had to clutch my heart through my dress. You okay? he asked, watching me squeeze my chest. I nodded. Yeah. Its just that youre perfect, and my heart hurts. Hey His eyes narrowed at my hand, and he reached for it over the table. Howd you get this? He ran a thumb along the purple mark just above my knuckles. The touch gave me butterflies. Oh, it was a freak Pop-Tart accident while you were at work. His thumb stilled, and he looked at me like I was about to tell him I was kidding. A Pop-Tart accident? You got injured making a Pop-Tart? I pulled my hand back and feigned indignation. Yes, I did. The middle of those things are like molten lava when theyre hot. And me and this particular Pop-Tart had a run-in. His eyes danced with amusement. We really need to keep you out of the kitchen. I shrugged. So I cook the way you drive. Whatever. He laughed. Hey, I said, after a moment. Im sorry she was insulting. It was meant to hurt me, not you. He held his glass on the table. Youre very different around her. Yes. Because she has the key to every room. Id never been able to keep her out. Or lock her in. I let out a long breath. Its like the second Im in her presence, Im six years old, disappointing her at her dinner party with my Mozart concerto. How long did you play the piano? I reached down and pulled the backs off my heels. Fifteen years. Every day for three hours, six days a week. Sunday was for tennis and whatever other activity she made me do. He raised his eyebrows. Wow. Why did you stop? I stopped because she forced it on me. He took a drink. Were you any good? Well, Id hope so. You spend three hours a day doing anything for fifteen years, you better be good at it, I said, eating an olive. I would play for him if he asked. And I didnt play for anyone. Piano was symbolic for me. The shackles of my childhood, the chain I cast off when I finally had some control of my own life. Picking it up again, even though I was good at it, felt like acknowledging that her tyranny had merit. So my stilled fingers were my rebellion. But for Josh? To have him look at me with admiration? I would play for Josh. It was such an odd feeling wanting him to be impressed with me but simultaneously hoping he didnt like me too much. You got into Harvard? And you were in law school? he asked. I sighed. Yes. I didnt see why I had to leave Sloan to go to Massachusetts just to get a degree I didnt even want. So I went to UCLA. I was in my first year of law school when I dropped out. Obviously my mom was pissed about it, I mumbled into my coffee cup. You didnt want to be a lawyer? He gave me a dimpled grin. Arguing for a living? You? You were born for it. I smirked. I prefer to argue for fun. Plus it had been too hard sitting in classes as my periods got worse and worse. The cramps, the anemia. Working from home was just easier on me. And I enjoyed having my own business. I was finally having fun with my life. Your mom is older than I pictured. How old is she? he asked. Sixty-seven. She got pregnant with me when she was forty-three. A complete shock. She didnt think she could get pregnant. Shed had the same issues I did but less severe. I basically ruined her life. Her career, her retirement plansall put on hold. Id been a twin. Shed lost my brother in the fourth month of her pregnancy. If she had to be stuck with a baby, at least it could have been the boy so my dad could pass down the family name. But no. Shed gotten the girl instead. I disappointed her before I was even born. How differently Josh and I had grown up. His parents had tried for a boy. He was exactly what they wanted when he came. And he was probably loved and cherished by every member of his family. Like he was loved and cherished by me. We were watching each other. Enjoying one of our comfortable silences. He was adorable. His hair was a little messy, his T-shirt tight over his broad chest. For a moment I thought about whether or not I could keep doing this. I didnt know if I could. Because even if I was successful at keeping him from loving me, I was failing miserably at not loving him. I thought about waking up with my face pressed against his heart this morning, how hed managed to finagle himself into my room last night. Josh was my drug, my dealer, and that really toxic friend whos always pushing you into breaking your sobriety. He was like that puppy that you swear will never sleep in the bed. Its so fucking cute, but you have to be the pack leader and lay down the law. Then it starts crying from the laundry room and you end up giving in the very first night. What are you thinking about? he asked. Drug dealers and puppies in laundry rooms. He laughed. Of course you are. What are you thinking about? Im thinking that your dad must have been pretty cool. He took another sip of his Bloody Mary. What makes you think that? He shrugged. A hunch. You lost your dad, right? Yeah. When I was twelve. He had a heart attack. A few months before I met Sloan. What was he like? A little like you. I let out a slow breath. He was fun. And laid back. Youd have to be to live with a woman like that. He was a literature professor. Mom had listened to him. He softened her. And when he died, shed gone from difficult to impossible. Our food arrived, and I breathed a sigh of relief. I didnt want to talk about me anymore. My Spanish omelet actually looked pretty good. I pushed my hash browns over with the side of my fork and moved the toast so nothing touched. Whats your family like? I asked. He grinned and puffed air from his cheeks. Well, lets see. My parents are insanely in love. Dad worships the ground Mom walks on. Theyve got twelve grandkids so far, so holidays back home are like a Greek wedding. My sisters are all fiercely independent and competitive with each other. They fight over pretty much everything, but theyre super cliqued up. Right now theyre all united in their crusade to get me to move back home. He salted his eggs. Hey, Tyler didnt let her talk to you like that in front of him, did he? I took my first bite. It was perfect. I felt my mood improve almost immediately. No. She didnt talk to me like that with him. She liked him. It had been a reprieve. Id finally done something right. Why? he asked, putting ketchup on his hash browns. Tyler was sophisticated. She liked that. Oh, he said flatly, and I realized what I had implied. But Josh wasnt sophisticated. He didnt like the theaterhe liked movies, like I did. He preferred hunting, not art galleries. Pizza and beer to tapas and wine. And he was perfect. Do you miss your family? I asked, changing the subject. He shrugged. Im glad Im not there every day. It could get to be a bit much. He took a bite and chewed for a moment. You know what I think the trick to dealing with family is? Ive been thinking about this a lot lately. What? I said, spreading strawberry jam on my toast. Marrying your best friend. He wiped his mouth with a napkin. You marry your best friend, and at family gatherings you deal with your shitty relatives together. You laugh about it and have each others backs. Share looks and text each other from across the room when everyone else is being an asshole. And nobody else really matters because you have your own universe. He held my eyes for a moment. Thats what I want. I want someone to be my universe. Hed have no problem finding that. No problem at all. Josh could have any woman he wanted. After all, he was the sun. Warm and vital. He would be the center of a big family one day, just like he wanted, and theyd all adore him. And I was just some passing comet. Momentarily distracting. Useless and unimportant. I was nice to look at, fun to observe, but Id never give life or be the center of anything. Id streak through and be gone, and Josh would forget me before we knew it. TWENTY-ONE Josh It was three and a half weeks to Brandons wedding, two weeks since brunch with the Ice Queen. Kristen and I had fallen into a new normal. When we hung out, it was like before. Friends only. No touching. No kissing. And occasionally, as long as we had sex first, shed let me sleep in her bed and hold her. But only if we had sex. To her, the holding afterward was all part of it, I think. The second we left the bed, we had to shift back into friends-only mode. Of course this just made me that much more intent on making sure we ended up in bed. Not that I needed another reason to have sex with her, but now I was on a mission. I wished I could put an arm around her on the couch when we watched TV or kiss her when we passed in the hallway, but her rules were rigid. Id tried holding her hand once on a walk with Stuntman Mike and she fucking lost it on me. Didnt talk to me for three days, almost broke things off over it. Said I didnt get what friends with benefits meant. After that, I didnt try to make moves on her outside of her rules. She obviously wasnt ready for an emotional relationship. It fucking sucked. But what was I going to do? It hadnt even been a month since Tyler. I guess I couldnt blame her for being hesitant to let me get close to her just yet. She asked me all the time if I was going on dates, like she needed to make sure I was keeping up that end of the bargain. At first I was honesttold her no, I wasnt seeing other people. But she got really worked up about it. Really fucking worked up. Said if our arrangement was keeping me from dating, we should end it. I think she felt bad she wasnt ready to commit to me and didnt want me to miss out on finding someone who was. She knew I wanted to get married, have kids. That I already felt late to the game. So I lied. Id say I was meeting someone for drinks and then Id just go home for the night and sit around. Maybe go to the gym. When shed ask me about my fake date, Id just shrug and say we didnt have a connection. That seemed to placate her. But the weird thing was, as much as she pressured me to see other women, I didnt think she was seeing other men. She only ever sent me orders from her laptop. So when I was at the fire station and I got an order at 10:00 at night, I knew she was at home sitting on the couch going through emails. Not on a date. Then Id wait an hour or so and reply with a dumb question about the order. If she replied right away, I knew she was still sitting on the couch working. She always replied. On my days off, when I came over, she never did anything other than hang out with me. She never left the room to take calls, and she didnt disappear for mystery appointments or give me any reason to believe she was keeping to her promise that shed date other people. So why, then, didnt she want to be exclusive? Because by all accounts, I was the only man she was with. And that was a good thing, because I didnt think I could handle it if I wasnt. I was just patiently waiting for her to move on from Tyler. I wasnt really sure I was actually making progress, but at least things didnt seem to be getting worse. There was something to be said for that. It was a little after 5:00 p.m. when a black SUV pulled into the driveway. Since I worked with the garage door open, Id become the unofficial doorman for Doglet Nation. I signed for all the packages. This didnt look like a delivery though. The driver was a man in sunglasses. He got out, and something told me I wasnt going to like who this was. The guy was good-looking. Taller than me. He worked outthat much was obvious. He was well dressed, maybe my age. He came straight into the garage with a confidence that told me he had official business here. Someone whod been here before and had a right to come back. You must be Josh, he said, taking off his glasses and offering me his hand. He had an accent. Not exactly Spanish, something else. More exotic, foreign. He wasnt a client. No way this guy owned a purse dog. Im Tyler, he said, shaking my hand. Is Kristen around? Hot, thick jealousy seared through me. This was Tyler? This guy looked like an A-list actor in a goddamn action movie. How the fuck had Brandon not said something about this? It was all I could do to keep my expression flat. Shes in the house. Is she expecting you? I crossed my arms over my chest, not making any move to take him inside. He looked toward the door that led into the laundry room. No, he said, his voice lowering. She is not. He seemed to notice my rigid posture, and he sized me up. You were in the Marines. He eyed the Marine Corps tattoo on my bare chest. Infantry, I said. Gunny sergeant. He outranked me. But then I wasnt a career military man like he was. But he outranked me with Kristen too. He seemed to be aware of this. Something in his eyes made me feel like I was the help. The lowly security guard giving him shit about his badge at a building he had full security clearance in. His green-eyed stare was cool. I want to thank you for staying with my girlfriend while the police worked out who was coming into the yard. It made her feel safe to have you there. Possessiveness gripped me. Ex-girlfriend. Shes your ex-girlfriend. His jaw flexed. I didnt like this fucker. I didnt like that he was the reason why Kristen wasnt open to dating me. I didnt like that she obviously cared for him more than she cared for me. I didnt like that he was better than me, and I didnt like that hed hurt her. I glared at him. He glared back. Nice to meet you, he said stiffly, and he started for the door. I put a hand to his chest. Ill take you in. He looked down at my hand, and I watched him bristle. Make a move, asshole. I fucking dare you. Give me a reason. His eyes came back up slowly, and I saw my own hatred reflected in his stare. He knew. He knew Id had her. And he was the one whod probably get her. But in that moment we had an understanding. This was my house. At least right now it was. And if he wanted to go in, it would be me who took him. I made him stand there for a tense couple of seconds before I turned for the door.

  • The Five Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts /   :    (by Gary Chapman, 2010) -   The Five Love Languages: The
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