“I’m so proud of you, Dylan-honey.”
I smile a little self-consciously as I look into a pair of blue-green eyes almost exactly the same as the pair I was staring into last night.
Aside from the hair that Diana Chase wears longer than her daughter Claire, and the wrinkles spreading out from her eyes and bracketing her mouth, Diana and Claire are the spitting image of one another. But that is where the similarities end. Diana is a free-spirited artist who sees staying in one place too long as the ultimate stagnation.
Well, she viewed it as the ultimate stagnation until the she moved to Oakleigh nine years ago. That was Austin’s final year of high school, the same year Austin and I met. I think Diana always intended to move away once Austin graduated, but seeing how close Austin and I were, and how settled Claire was with Kara and her friends at high school, she stayed. Diana has moved house plenty since then, but she hasn’t moved from the area. I’m pretty sure that’s because she wants to stay close to her daughter.
It wasn’t as if I set out to make a regular date of visiting Diana every Sunday. It just sort of happened after I promised to look after Austin’s family. After a couple of impromptu visits around afternoon tea time on a Sunday, Diana insisted we make it a regular thing and I readily agreed. Claire’s mum is an easy woman to talk to. She lives to paint. It’s her passion and I admire her a lot for having the heart to follow her dreams in a world that begs people to conform.
The fact that the admiration I have for her is mutual doesn’t hurt my friendship with Diana, either. Austin and Claire’s mother has always had a soft spot for me. It’s fair to say that Diana understands me far better than my own mother. Diana regularly refers to me as her second son, and considers me part of the family, which probably went a long way towards strengthening my friendship with Austin over the years.
And how did I repay nine years of solid friendship? I slept with Austin’s sister. Diana’s daughter. Then I left her before the sheets had even cooled. It’s probably good I’m leaving the country because Austin is more than likely going to demand I leave and never come back once he finds out. Was risking it all worth it?
Unexpectedly, my heart speeds up as memories from last night overwhelm me; the way Claire turned up at my bar without underwear on, the way her lip gloss and the butterscotch schnapps tasted on her tongue as she kissed me, and the way she clung to me as I drove myself inside her over and over until I met the most pleasurable end. I only had the smallest taste of what she has to offer last night, and it wasn’t anywhere near enough.
Leaving her the way I did, right after we’d finished screwing each other’s brains out, wasn’t the plan when I decided to go home with her. But the way she looked up at me as we were both coming down from the high of sex caused my heart to squeeze in my chest, my stomach to flip, and lust to tighten my belly once more.
I’ve never needed a woman like that, not right after sex. The combination of unfamiliar sensations freaked me out. And realising I was experiencing those unfamiliar sensations with Claire freaked me out even more. Claire takes everything too seriously. And even though she said casual was fine – even though she acted like it was no big deal that I high-tailed it out of there right after – I know it was a big deal for her.
I always knew deep down that sleeping with Claire would turn my world upside down. It was a mistake, to be sure, but it’s one I won’t be able to resist repeating, hence our Thursday date.
If I was an honourable man, I would call her and tell her to forget Thursday and forget about us having fun together. If I was a decent guy, I would put a stop to the guaranteed clusterfuck us being together will bring.
Clearly, I’m not a decent guy.
“This world trip of yours is going to be the making of you,” Diana says. “You’ve been talking about it for the past five years.”
“Yep, I have, and it’s taken me this long to save up for it.”
She reaches forward and covers my hand with her own. “Following a dream is the most rewarding, satisfying, and terrifying thing you’ll ever do. Does Austin know you’re going yet?”
“No, I haven’t spoken to him since I booked the ticket.”
“Well, he’ll want to know.” She sits back and looks at me, her eyes suddenly piercing instead of gentle and warm. “And so will Claire, though I warn you she won’t like it.”
“Knowing Claire, she’ll be pleased to be rid of me,” I joke.
“Knowing Claire, she’ll be devastated you’re leaving,” Diana corrects me. “But she’ll do her best to hide it.”
I swallow. “She’ll be fine.”
Austin and Diana are well-acquainted with the way I stir Claire, as well as Claire’s temper where I’m concerned. Since I’ve spent so much time with the Chase family over the years, Claire’s mother and brother have seen our sometimes playful, other times antagonistic, relationship, so Diana’s comment is more than a little bit surprising.
“Don’t underestimate the effect this will have on her, Dylan. Claire hates change. Loathes it. She’s never been as adaptable as Austin, her father, or me. No matter how antagonistic your relationship towards each other may be at times, you’ve been a regular and consistent part of her world. Your leaving is going to be hard on her. It’s going to shake her sense of security.”
“She’ll be fine,” I repeat.
I need to believe that now more than ever, especially after what happened last night. And still, I know there is some truth to what Diana is saying. Maybe I’ve known all along that my leaving would be difficult for Claire and that’s why I’ve put this trip off for so long.
Sure, I’ve been taken my time so I could save up for the trip, but I could have gone years ago if I really wanted to. I would have had less money, but there is always plenty of work abroad for an Aussie bartender.
Who am I kidding? I’ve been waiting. Waiting for Claire to be okay. Waiting for her to settle down with her dream guy in her dream house according to plan. But the years have flown by and I’ve realised there is no putting off my trip anymore. The New Zealand job offer felt like the universal blessing for me to go.
And now, instead of seeing Claire settled down before I leave, I’m participating in an impractical and destructive sexual relationship at the end of which I plan to bolt – not just from her bed, but from her life.
Shit. Shit. Shit.
Stupid, stupid, stupid.
I have to end it.
“Don’t leave it too late to tell her,” Diana says. “Give her as much time as you can for her to adjust to the idea.”
“You’re right,” I say, standing up. “I have to tell her. The sooner the better.”
Diana waves her hand dismissively. “Well, don’t leave, then. She’ll be here any tick of the clock.”
Sweat prickles under my armpits as my heart thuds too heavily in my rib cage. “Claire’s coming? Here?”
Diana frowns. “Yes, I invited her to dinner. Is everything okay between you two?”
I try to smile, but considering the effort I have to put into making my lips curve upwards, I’m pretty sure it looks as off as it feels. “Just the same as always.”
And I’m a dog and a liar.
“Have dinner with us, Dylan. That way I can make a toast to your trip, and you can talk to Claire about it. Save you driving all that way to see her.”
While Diana’s suggestion makes perfect sense, the idea of seeing Claire here has me panicking for multiple reasons. One, Diana obviously has no idea that I had sex with her daughter last night and I prefer to keep it that way. Two, I have no idea how to act around Claire now. I’ve been going out of my way to annoy her for years and it will look strange to Diana if I stray from the usual script and don’t tease her daughter when she arrives. Three, Claire already knows about my trip. And finally, I just realised I have to end this thing between us.
How am I supposed to do that in front of Diana? I can’t.
And how am I supposed to sit across from Claire and pretend I’m not about to pull the plug on this thing we started last night? This thing that completely rocked my world. She’s going to be pissed at me. Worse, she’ll be upset, maybe even hurt. And the fact that I’m going to hurt her will be all I’ll think about over dinner if I stay.
But if I leave now, that’ll raise too many questions. If this was any other night and Diana offered me the chance to dine with her daughter, I would have jumped at the chance to see Claire and put that irritated look on her face. And I just told Diana I was going over to Claire’s place to tell her about my trip. How would it look if I left before she got here?
“Sure, I’d love to stay for dinner. Thanks.”
“Excellent. Much more convenient for you.”
“Besides, I wouldn’t mind bending your ear about a few things if I could.”
Immediately, I’m on alert. “Of course. Shoot.”
“I’d usually talk to Austin about these things, but he’s been so busy recently. I can’t help feeling he’s a little more distant than usual. I miss him.”
I make a mental note to kick Austin’s arse over the phone next time we speak. Mother and son are close, and it sounds like Diana needs Austin right now. I’d help if I could, but even though Diana likes to refer to me as family, I’m not.
“What’s going on?” I ask.
“Well, you know I always worry about Claire.”
Yes, I know that. Claire’s main goal in life is to live her life the opposite way her parents lived theirs. That’s caused both parties involved a lot of grief at times.
I nod, encouraging Diana to continue.
“She’s been working herself closer to death. The only reason she doesn’t work Sundays is because the bank is closed. Thank God for small mercies. She stays late every night, trying to get a better deal for the customers at the bank, and while I admire what she does for them, she’s wasting her life away.”
Diana’s words rub me on the raw as I think about Claire working herself into an early grave the way my father did. The last thing I want to do is bury another person in my life because their priorities are so far out of whack it isn’t funny. The fact that it’s Claire she’s talking about, however, sends an additional wave of terror through me.
“She goes in early. Stays late. She’s working all those hours of overtime. And when she isn’t at work, she’s dating those stuffed suits. They never seem to make her very happy.”
I nod again, showing I’m listening, but I haven’t heard anything outside the norm. That’s what Claire does. Diana isn’t a fan of the men Claire dates, but that’s because she’s certain her daughter needs someone to balance her out. Austin disagrees, and I have his back on that one.
“Austin’s always approved of her choice of boyfriends,” I remind her.
“Well, there’s a surprise. He doesn’t want to think about anyone with a personality defiling his baby sister.”
I just about choke on my coffee.
“Austin has tried to play the role of father since Darren left for India, but I know that Darren would hate the men she dates just as much as I do. Face it, Dylan, she doesn’t date anyone memorable or interesting.”
That’s not true. I remember the name of every man Claire has dated, starting with the guy she ended up dating a week after I rejected her. His name was Howie Cupps. His blond hair was too long and too greasy, he wore glasses, and he was the president of the math club at school. Austin approved, though, and so I shut up and went along with it.
“They suit the life she’s trying to live, Diana.”
Diana gives me a motherly look. “If you have children one day, you’ll understand that sometimes they don’t always want the things that are best for them. When they’re Claire’s age, you do your best to step back and hold your tongue, but when your daughter is beyond miserable, you find it harder and harder to sit back and do nothing.”
“I don’t think Claire’s miserable.”
“Then take a closer look,” Diana says. “She’s lost weight, and she’s already so tiny. I begged her to come for dinner tonight just so I could feed her a decent meal. She doesn’t get enough sleep. Those bags under her eyes aren’t small enough to be covered with foundation anymore, and she’s so damn pale. I don’t think she gets any sun at all. She’s probably completely Vitamin D deficient.”
I chuckle, aware it’s half-expected, even while I’m chewing over everything that Diana’s just said. Claire’s friends staged an intervention, and now it sounds like her mother is attempting to do the same. The people closest to her are worried about her and that’s reason enough for me to pay serious mind to the idea.
I’ve always thought Claire was living her life the way she wanted to, but maybe things aren’t quite as good as I’d like to make them out to be. Claire did tell me she wasn’t enjoying herself much at the moment. She deliberately sought me out for that very reason. She wanted a break from routine and her plans. She wanted to have fun.
As for Diana’s other concerns? I haven’t noticed Claire being pale. Then again, it was night-time both times I saw her this weekend. As for her losing weight? Claire has always been slender, but there might be some truth to it. Maybe Claire is skipping lunch to fit more work in. Which is an abhorrent thought. One should always take the time to eat and enjoy their food. And as for the circles under her eyes? I’ve seen those firsthand, right along with the misery in her eyes.
Yup, there’s a good chance I’ve been so busy trying to avoid temptation that I’ve imagined Claire being happy with her suits when she clearly wasn’t. I’ve missed some very important cues. I’m a dumb arse.
Diana studies me carefully, waiting for my response. “Even if you’re right, I don’t know what you think we can do about it.”
“Not we,” she says carefully. “You.”
“You know how to have fun, Dylan. You know how to live life and make the most of every opportunity. Show my daughter. Take her rock climbing and abseiling. Help her to relax and unwind before you leave. Teach her how to live one day at a time.”
“Even if I wanted to do that, I’m not sure why you think Claire would ever listen to me.”
Diana stares me down. “You get under her skin and that’s the way you like it, but don’t try to fool me; the two of your care deeply for one another.”
“Yeah, she’s like a sister to me.”
The words taste false and stale, and Diana looks anything but convinced.
“I see how she looks at you and how you look at her. You two can lie to each other all you want, but don’t bother lying to me. I see right through it.”
Her eyes are piercing, and I get the feeling she’s seen through every act I’ve ever put on in front of her where Claire is concerned. “You’ve never said anything about it before.”
“I didn’t see the point before now. I’ve always known you were going to leave on this trip of yours one day. As much as I would have liked to have seen you kids together, I knew that if you were involved, it would have broken Claire’s heart to see you leave.”
Guilt and shame wash through me. Why did I let myself sleep with Claire? Whatever happens next, I’m going to hurt her.
“Dylan, please,” Diana says, moving forward so she’s perched on the edge of the couch and can cover my hand with her own. “Claire needs a friend.”
“She has friends, Diana. They all look out for her.”
“But they’re not like you. She needs your friendship. I’m asking you to do this as a favour. For me.”
I open my mouth and close it again. What am I supposed to say? “Okay.”
She pats my hand. “Good.”
“I’ll try, but you know Claire is stubborn. There’s a good chance she’ll laugh in my face when I tell her I want to be her friend.”
There’s an even better chance Claire is going to slap me upside the head when I tell her I have no intention of sleeping with her again. I’m not, however, going to mention that to Diana. The woman loves me like a son, or so she says, but even Claire’s mother doesn’t believe I would be a good bet for Claire romantically speaking.
“I know you can be just as stubborn,” Diana says. “Don’t take no for an answer.”
Claire needs my friendship more than she needs me as a lover. As for how to break the news that I’m not going to continue what we started last night? I need to work that one out quickly.
A/N: Thanks for reading! 🙂 Please like, share or leave a comment if you enjoyed the chapter, or please just keep reading.