I’m tinkering with my bike in the driveway of the house I share with Mike when Austin rolls up.
I stand, brush my hands down my pants, wiping off the grease, and try to look like I’m not scared. I think I’m pulling it off. Mostly. Austin knows how to cause maximum damage in the shortest time possible. I’ve seen him bring some big, tough men to their knees.
But if I must go toe to toe with my best friend, I will for Claire. Losing my friendship with Austin is the highest price I’ve ever paid for anything, but I meant what I said earlier. I would do it all over again. Life is too short to have regrets. Of course, I will always regret fucking up my friendship with Austin, but I won’t regret how it happened. Leaving this life and not knowing how Claire Chase tastes, feels, loves, would be a far bigger regret.
Austin gets out of his car and walks up to me.
“You can stop looking so shit-scared. I’m not going to hit you. I might think you deserve it, but I don’t think Claire would forgive me if I gave you a black eye.”
I don’t move, just wait to hear what’s coming next. The man in front of me is like a brother to me, and under different circumstances, I’d be ecstatic to see him and have some time with him. Now I don’t know if we’ll ever be hanging out again.
“Have you got time to talk?” Austin asks.
“You want to go get a beer?”
It’s midday, but if that’s what Austin wants, then I’m up for it. “Let me get my wallet.”
“So, sounds like my little sister blackmailed you into being with her.”
“Don’t let her fool you. She’s wily, Claire is, but she never put a gun to my head. When she first propositioned me, all I could think about was how much you’d hate me agreeing to her terms, but she was determined to “have fun”, something the girls have been giving her a hard time about.”
“Bet Kara is behind that, huh?”
I can’t help smiling at the subtle way my friend brought Kara up.
“Yeah. She and the rest of the girls told Claire she needed to take a timeout from her list for the sake of her sanity.”
“For the sake of her sanity?”
“I didn’t see it at the time, but your mum did, and so did her friends. Claire hasn’t been living. She’s been…”
“Trying to turn her life into the ordered structure she’s always wished for.”
I nod. “And in the process, I think she lost part of herself.”
“I told her I don’t like it – the two of you sleeping together. I’m never going to like you messing around with my little sister.”
“I’m not messing around with her.”
“What would you call it when you’re sleeping with her and then leaving in close to a month?”
I keep my mouth shut. It might look one way to Austin, and I myself have been concerned about how Claire might handle this kind of relationship, but Claire has surprised me every step of the way. She’s easily gone along for the ride, proving I worried needlessly.
The only thing I was right to worry about was Austin’s response to the two of us together. But I dealt with it differently today than I might have even a month ago. Today I’m confident I did the right thing diving into something with the one woman who has always appealed to me above all others.
“I can’t take it back, and I wouldn’t if I could.”
When I said those words earlier, it fired my friend up. Now the words seem to have the opposite effect. Austin sits there, studying me across the table.
“At least tell me you’re not fucking other chicks on the side.”
“How can you even ask me that?”
“You’ve never been a one-woman man.”
“Well, Claire’s changed that.”
Austin looks shocked, but it’s nothing compared to what I am. I test the words out in my head.
Yes, it’s the truth. I can’t remember the last time I even seriously looked at another woman. Sure, I flirt with the ladies who come into the bar, but it’s nothing serious.
Claire has my undivided attention.
“I mean, it’s easy to be with her and not be with other women. She’s hardly the first girl I’ve had sex with more than once. I’ve had regular girlfriends.”
“Who never last long. How long has this thing been going on with Claire?”
“I don’t know. A couple of months.”
“And you’re going to keep going till you leave?”
“I swear to God, if you hurt her or break her heart, I’ll kill you. You know that, don’t you?”
“I’m not going to hurt her or break her heart. I’d never do anything like that. You should know that.”
“As I said, I don’t like it…”
“But can you accept it, or is our friendship over?”
Austin sighs, nursing his beer as he leans back. “I might have myself to blame for this one.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I’ve always known there was something between the two of you. I’ve stood in your way, trying to prevent it because I knew it could never work. But the two of you are like magnets attracting. Can’t seem to stop it. I think trying to keep you apart only made your…chemistry all the more intense.”
I can’t help but laugh at the disturbed look on my friend’s face. “Maybe.”
“I can’t think about that anymore.”
I nod. If I had a sister, I wouldn’t want to think about it, either. Claire is, in fact, the closest thing I’ve ever had to a sister. I’ve thought of her as family, which completely conflicted with the sexual attraction I had towards her.
“So, are we cool?”
Austin nods once. “Providing I don’t have to tear you limb from limb for hurting her, I guess we are.”
I’d already resigned myself to the fact Austin might not forgive me. I’d accepted it as the most likely outcome. So to have it all out in the open now and have my friend say all is good with us…I feel lighter – like I’ve dropped the concrete block that was crushing my chest for too long.
“So, you’re down with Ms A-lister for the next couple of days?”
“Yeah. She has a premiere tomorrow. Obviously I’ll be working, but tonight I thought I’d take her to Brody’s.”
“Are you trying to make her your girlfriend or something?”
I only meant it as a joke, but my mate isn’t laughing it off.
“Holy shit.” I sit up straight. “You’ve fallen for her. Ms Hollywood.”
“We can’t be together while I’m working as her bodyguard, but…”
“Wow. My mate and the celeb.”
“Not a word about it, okay? We have to keep things hush hush.”
“What’s Kara going to think? She’ll think you’ve given up on her.”
“I don’t care what she thinks.”
Austin’s expression isn’t quite as carefree as his words. However, I’m not going to push him on it. Denial seems to be a permanent fixture in Kara and Austin’s relationship.
“You going to invite Claire to Brody’s tomorrow?”
“I want her there. I don’t want to see you macking on my sister, though. Got it?”
“Macking, seriously? Who says that?”
Austin points a finger at me. “Promise me.”
I sigh. “I promise I won’t stick my tongue down your sister’s throat while we’re in front of you.”
But I have a back room at Brody’s that is plenty big enough for making out in.