Chapter One

May 2002

 

Do you see the scene playing out at the end of the table? It’s like a sappy love story. My older brother, Sean, is reluctant to let his best friend go. She’s my roommate too, and she all but flutters her lashes over her beautiful green eyes as she leans into him.

Yeah, I’m pissed. I’m pissed because she’s gorgeous and even though she makes every attempt not to be, she’s popular. She’s tall enough that she doesn’t need to wear heels but she does because I told her they show off her amazing legs. They really are amazing legs because she does martial arts every day, which also means she’s super skinny with this athletic build guys find really attractive. And on top of it all, she has a really nice rack.

I know that I sound jealous. I; a brunette at just five feet and half an inch without heels, and with a scrawny adolescent frame that unless primped and polished for two hours each morning looks like I belong in freshman year, am not jealous of her. I’m not. I swear. It’s just sometimes, it’s hard to be around an award-winning former television star who’s in hiding, because she’s beautiful, stunning in fact, and she’s funny and therefore a bright shining light that draws the attention of us mere mortals like we’re bugs.

Every guy in this bar has checked her out or stopped by to say ‘best wishes’ to the birthday girl. But has she noticed? No. Why? Because my brother, Sean, is putting some serious moves on her and they haven’t stopped with that giggly flirty laugh since he and his wife got here. Seriously, if Ashleigh turned those doey-green eyes on her boyfriend once in a while instead of my brother, my married brother, then said boyfriend wouldn’t feel the need to covertly come on to me!

“You honestly like the puppy?” Sean grins at her as he brushes her brunette bangs from her eyes. “She was Stephi’s idea.” His grin grows wider at the mention of his three-year-old daughter. “I’m sure she’s hoping you won’t like her and then we’ll have two puppies.”

That’s another reason I’m pissed. My brother could have had the decency to tell me his plans for Ashleigh’s birthday present. I live with Ashleigh. So now I live with Ashleigh’s mutt, Luca. Okay, it’s not a mutt. It’s a twelve-week old golden retriever pup and she’s adorable but I don’t like dogs. It stems from a traumatic experience with our family pet and my brother knows this.

“Are you kidding?” Ashleigh gives his shoulder a gentle shove. “I love Luca. She’s an awesome present, Sean. Best one I ever had.”  Jeez, they might as well be making out in front of us.

This is where life seems totally unfair to me. Ashleigh and Sean have the gall to carry out their affair right in front of their better halves. Yet I feel guilty whenever an uninvited finger traverses the inside of my bare thigh, but is there any wonder Ashleigh’s boyfriend has made a move on three separate occasions tonight? She treats him like he’s invisible.

I can’t even fantasize about him without feeling the need to berate myself but surely what’s good enough for them is good enough for us? And I know he’s good. No… Actually, he’s out of this world and his touch sets my stomach on fire.

To be honest, Mr. Wayne Wandering-Hands Swift is the perfect specimen of the male human race and we’ve already done our fair share of things we shouldn’t have a couple of weekends back … yes I know … but I suck at being a decent human being… it’s my only crowning glory, I’ve won the title of world’s worst friend. Would it help if I told you I’ve never ever done anything like this before? Ever? And I guess I wouldn’t have done this if he wasn’t so… so… charming. Yes, that’s the word. Wayne Swift could tame a rabid lion and get it to purr like a kitten.

I so badly want to tell Ashleigh. The guilt is eating me up inside. But Wayne was supposed to be at work when it happened. So I can’t tell her the reason her boyfriend was AWOL when her stepdad died in a car accident was because he was in bed with me. Do you see what I mean about sucking as a decent human being?

It’s the first time in my life I’ve ever given in to temptation like this. I’ve never taken what I wanted and not thought about the consequences or anyone else and look what happened. I know the cosmos didn’t kill her stepfather because I slept with her boyfriend—those things had already happened in Los Angeles and we were in New York— but she needed him to get on the next flight and to be by her side and he didn’t and he wasn’t. Why? Because he was in bed with me.

Like I said, I’m the worst friend in the world. And what makes it even worse is… now I can’t stop thinking about how much I’d like to have more drunken meaningless sex with my friend’s guy. I mean, it’s not like Ashleigh wants him anyway. She has my brother!

Bad girl, Julia! You cannot have Wayne. He’s Ashleigh’s. So just settle a few inches further away from your roommate’s man’s wandering hands and put your purse between you like a barrier.

My discreet slide is distracted by my brother’s wandering hands. His gaze is locked onto Ashleigh’s as his hand travels toward her face. I clench my jaw to stop it from hitting the floor. I’m sure my eyes are about to pop from both their sockets as I watch the tender moment.

“You should see the other guy,” Ashleigh whispers.

Her voice is barely audible above the other voices in the bar for this early Friday evening and the music hasn’t even kicked in yet. She’s kept rather muted about the training session that earned her a black eye. It’s not like her. Bruises like these should be worn with pride. They’re battle scars.

Wayne clears his throat.

“Sean, its fine.” Ashleigh pulls away from his touch and steps back. She looks anywhere but at our table.

I find myself looking at Wayne as my no longer discreet attempt to create distance between us continues. He nods at me and I gasp. He knows about them. Unfortunately, my leg bumps fiercely with my brother’s wife on the other side of me. I clatter into the table almost sending everything flying, but Anna doesn’t notice. She just continues to glower at the law student in her husband’s arms as though the rest of the world doesn’t exist at all.

I wish I hadn’t been dragged into this tonight. I’m dateless amongst these so-called happy couples and I feel like an undercover agent. I could blow the lid on all the secrets and destroy happily ever after for years to come. I didn’t want to be the fifth wheel tonight. But when it’s your friend’s birthday, a few beers before she flies to Los Angeles to be with her mom and twin sister is practically law in our little group of friends. So… what’s a girl to do?

“Aren’t you going to LA this weekend, Wayne?” Anna asks him as Ashleigh picks up her purse and overnight bag.

He shakes his head in reply. “I’m working this weekend.” Anna nods. They both work in the public sector. Anna’s training to be an OBGYN and Wayne’s a police officer. It’s like they’re on the same wavelength from those four little words.

Truth be told, Wayne has never been invited to LA. In the four years I’ve known Ashleigh so far, there haven’t been any men who’ve met Ashleigh’s family. They’re famous and she’s very strict about keeping her life in New York separate from her life in Los Angeles. So, no men have been to LA, except Sean. But, of course, they’re just good friends.

“I couldn’t get leave.” Wayne climbs to his feet and turns to Ashleigh. I forgive his lack of chivalry tonight. I’d expect the least he could do is take the heavy weekend bag for her. But he fell over earlier this week and broke his wrist, so one arm is currently in a cast. “Sweetheart, do you want me to come to the airport with you?”

“No.” Ashleigh smiles. “That’s okay.” She gives his cheek a gentle caress. Her eyes soften. You know, I believe Ash tried, really tried hard, to love Wayne but her heart belongs to Sean. It always has. “Will you make sure Julia gets home safely?”

Wait, what? Oh no! She can’t ask him to do that. What she doesn’t know won’t hurt her for now but… oh the temptation… Down girl!

Wayne slouches on to the thick mahogany arm of the bench seat. I can’t tell if he is disappointed she doesn’t want him around or relieved to be off the hook. “If that’s what you want.”

“I don’t want you to be late for work again,” she snaps. “The captain’s on your case because of the other weekend and you know what airport traffic is like.”

Ashleigh has one of the shortest fuses I’d ever known. If you knew how, and I didn’t, you could push Ash over the edge with just a few words. But she’d only returned from LA at the beginning of the week to take her exams and now she’s going back. Who knows when she’ll return?

Ashleigh sighs, sidles her way between Wayne’s thighs as Sean slides into our booth on the other side of Anna. The green eyed monster in his eyes is highly amusing. Does my brother honestly think no one can see it?

“Please don’t be mad at me, Wayne,” Ashleigh whispers.

“I wish you’d let me in.” With a tender hand, the same hand that had discreetly traveled my thighs, he brushes the bangs away from Ashleigh’s eyes as though he’s trying to erase Sean’s earlier touch. “You don’t have to do this all alone.”

“I know.” Ashleigh closes her eyes. “But I have to be strong for Mom and Mimi. So I can’t let you in right now or I’ll —” Her voice closes over. She swallows. “I can’t. You know.” She chokes on a sob.

If her tears were real my heart would have broken for her. Honestly, it would.  But Ashleigh never shows any sign of weakness without reason. So she’s playing the role of needy girlfriend because that’s the side Wayne wants to see. I’m not saying my friend is calculating or manipulative. She just keeps things very close to her chest and people see one version of her until she completely trusts them and after six months, Wayne still isn’t completely trusted.

Both Sean and Wayne stand up at the same time. I find my brother’s overprotective nature towards Ashleigh amusing. I do. It’s as though he trusts no one else to take care of her. And his expression at this particular moment is camera worthy because isn’t this what boyfriends are for? So Sean has to step back and he doesn’t like it one bit.

“Aw, sweetheart,” Wayne whispers into Ashleigh’s ear as he pulls her away from our table. He glowers over his shoulder at Sean. He’s warning Sean to keep his hands off Ashleigh from now on. “Let’s get you somewhere quieter.”

So I watch Wayne lead Ashleigh away, thinking about the double standards of this whole evening and wondering if any of it is really worth the heartbreak I saw in Anna’s eyes. Because I know her pain really well. I’ve been in her shoes, which makes what I did with Ashleigh’s guy so much worse.

My last boyfriend was the greatest guy in the world. I really thought we were heading up the aisle and then he dumped me. It came out of the blue. He said he’d found someone hotter than me. Those were his actual words. He really did a number on my self-esteem. We’d been living together for two years and I’m an intern at a fashion label. I didn’t understand how he found someone better looking than me.

I don’t mean to sound conceited but I work for one of the biggest fashion labels in the world. I always look like I’ve stepped off the front cover of a fashion magazine. It’s my job to look that way. Short of dating the model on said front cover he can’t get much closer to H.O.T. But guess what? He was dating a model.

So, I’d been dumped, my spirit broken and I had nowhere to live. The thought of going back to my parent’s was unbearable so Sean asked Ashleigh if I could stay in her guest room until I managed to sort out something more permanent. We were dorm buddies our freshmen year, but the thing she has with my brother made our friendship stutter. He’s her ‘best friend’ ever and there’s just no competing with that, but now that we live together she’s become something more permanent in my life rather than just my roommate. It’s great having a girlie friend to do pamper days with. And Ashleigh, being from a celebrity-filled family in LA, knows how to do a pamper day!

I still avoid socializing with my brother though. He hasn’t grown out of telling tales to our parents and I’m trying to avoid Wayne also. He knows how to make my body sing. And that is all Wayne wants from me, of this I’m sure. So now that Ashleigh’s gone I can make a run for the nearest exit.

“For God’s sake, Anna, what the hell have I done wrong now?” Sean’s tense snap draws my eyes away from the drink’s coaster to my brother. He wasn’t paying attention to me. Only Anna.

“I want you to stop seeing her.”

“First you make excuses to stop Ashleigh from being around our daughter and now you’re dictating when I can see her? This is getting ridiculous.”

“So you’re choosing Ashleigh over us?”

“You make it sound like we’re having a sordid affair.” Sean dismisses her as he picks up his drink. I shift awkwardly in the silence. Beside me, Anna stares at Sean. Her expression says everything her lips don’t. “Anna, for the last time, she’s just a friend,” Sean grumbles as his eyes meet mine. “I have not and will not sleep with Ashleigh.” He looks at me as though it’s me he’s trying to convince, not his wife. “Why won’t anyone believe me?”

Because it’s obviously not true? “I’m, um.” I scramble from the bench seat. I do not want to hang around for this one. What happens between Sean and Anna has nothing to do with me. “I’m going to the bar.”

How could anyone believe him? It is obvious my brother is as much in love with Ashleigh as she is with him. I’d walked into our apartment frequently and found them together. Only this week I’d interrupted them twice in one night.

Ashleigh was babysitting Stephi, Sean’s daughter, because Anna was out of town visiting with her sick mother for a few days. Stephi was napping in the bedroom and Ashleigh was cooking. When I arrived home from work Sean stood behind her, his hands on hers showing her how to slice onions. Onions for Christ sake! If that wasn’t a move then I’m a fairytale princess and Prince Charming is about to sweep me off my feet.

And then later that night when I returned home from the gym they were dancing to a slow rumba beat. Yes, hot and steamy Latin music. I was not impressed. I saw the look in my brother’s eyes when I walked through the door. It was a mixture of relief and regret. They shouldn’t be that close for a married man and his female best friend. Talk about putting me between the devil and the deep blue sea!

A twenty dollar bill outstretched my hand before I could pay for the three drinks I’d ordered. “Add a house draft to that.” I look up at the owner of the proffered bill. “Thought you could do with an extra pair hands.” Wayne smiles, waving the cast. “Well, hand.” He mutters and then glances over at our table. “Besides, didn’t feel like interrupting the lover’s quarrel.”

I took a second to look back. Sean and Anna are still deep into their heated discussion. “Ashleigh.”

“Figured.” Wayne sighs. “I’d be okay with it if my girlfriend didn’t reciprocate his feelings.” My eyes snap back to Wayne’s. “It’s hard not to see it when they’re together, Jules.” He sighs again. “Which is always.”

“Then why do you put up with her? You deserve better than that.” Damn it! But I swear my motives are pure. I am not trying to break them up. “Everyone does.”

“C’mon, Jules, she doesn’t need this crap from me right now.” Wayne shrugs. “We both know it’s over; why do you think she’s pulling away instead of leaning on me at a time like this? Do you expect me to be a total bastard and break it off just a few weeks after her dad died?”

“But you’re willing to cheat instead?” My brow arches. “I think you and I have different definitions of a total bastard.”

“In that case you’re no prime example of a best friend.”

Okay, so as the other guilty party in said cheating, I guess I deserve that and I’ve tried talking myself out of feeling guilty. I’ve told myself Ashleigh doesn’t deserve Wayne. She was always studying, or making excuses not to see him and lying to him so she could see Sean instead. He wouldn’t have looked elsewhere in the first place if she’d been a better girlfriend over the last few months. But still, I live with Ashleigh and as attracted to Wayne as I am, I can’t steal Ashleigh’s boyfriend.

“I’m trying to politely ignore your advances because it can’t ever happen again,” I say, looking away. “Regardless of how good it was or how much you’d like to, we can’t do that to Ashleigh, okay?”

He leans closer and whispers into my ear. “It wasn’t good, Julia.” I can’t believe he is insulting me and yet my body hums with awareness. He stands really close. Every nerve ending reaches out toward him, begging me to touch him. “It was phenomenal.” My head spins. “So I’d really like to spend the whole day in bed with you again sometime soon.” Did I grip his t-shirt to stop him? Yes. And to keep my balance? Yes. And to feel his firm chest beneath it? Hell yes! “What’s it going to be, a night? A week? A month? Tell me, Julia, how long are you going to torture us both?”

My head falls forward against his shoulder as my resolve melts. Oh, for about a minute if he keeps talking like this. My entire body, mind and soul, and even my heart are on his side in this. How is that possible? How is it possible to want something so much, to know that something feels so right when it’s morally wrong? It is unjust on so many different levels. And I just want to give in to the temptation and take what felt like is mine already.

“What’s going on here?” God damn my brother! No wait. Sean’s my savior. Don’t I want to stop sucking at being a decent human being? And don’t I want to ditch my world’s worst friend title? So I don’t want to do this to Ashleigh, do I? “Jules, are you okay?”

Is this lying to get out of a worse situation still sucking at being decent? Who cares? From the scowl he’s sending Wayne right now he’s seen straight through me anyway. “Seanie?” I whine, fake a stumbling lean towards him and drape my arm around him.

“Jeez, Jules, have you been downing shots up here? You’re wasted.”

No, I’m not. Not by a long shot, but I pull away from Wayne and what I really want. “Can you take me home?”

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