When Justin McCormick was fourteen, a dirt-bike crash had put him in the hospital for two weeks, but even three broken bones and a concussion hadn’t hurt as much as loving his best friend’s widow did now.
And yet, here he was, parking his truck next to her geriatric Volvo and walking up the exterior staircase to the apartment over her landlord’s garage, just like he’d gotten back on that dirt bike. Knowing there was a chance he’d get banged up again, but willing to take the risk.
Unlike with the dirt bike, though, there wasn’t any chance about it. Justin knew he’d get banged up again every time he showed up on Claire’s doorstep. He knew it would hurt, but even if he didn’t have an empty Dunkin’ Donuts bag full of crumpled-up receipts he had to drop off with her, he would have stopped by. He always did. Because they were buddies. Instead of weakening after Brendan’s accident, their friendship had only gotten stronger.
Claire opened her apartment door to him just as he reached for the knob, her pale blue eyes alive with excitement and her long, blond ponytail swinging as he flashed her the friendly smile he’d been perfecting since the day they met. A friendly smile so perfect, in fact, Claire had never guessed—through two years of dating Brendan and three years of marriage and two years of widowhood—how Justin felt about her.
“You brought me doughnuts?”
“Receipts.” He handed her the bag and laughed when she scowled at the contents.
“Work disguised as doughnuts? That’s just mean.” She walked over to the corner of her apartment that served as her office and tossed the bag on her desk. “I should give Moxie your sandwich.”
The massive tortoiseshell cat in question wound between his feet, pausing to headbutt his shin before Justin picked her up and scratched between her ears. “You don’t even like doughnuts that much.”
“I like them more than I like handfuls of filthy, torn receipts you’ve scrounged from under the seat of your truck.”
“Watch it or I’ll start to think bookkeeping’s not your true calling.”
“Of course it is.” She gave him a smile that would have struck him dumb if he didn’t have so much experience resisting it. “There are only so many jobs I can do in sweatpants.”
He set Moxie on the couch and moved toward the kitchen in search of the food Claire had said would be waiting. The only thing she did better than keep books for local small-potato contractors was cook.
Since he’d warned her this would be a quick stop, Claire had thrown together some sandwiches. But they were thin-sliced honey ham with Swiss cheese on homemade whole wheat with butter and spicy mustard, just the way he liked it.
She knew how he liked everything and most of the time knew what he was thinking before he even said it out loud, but she didn’t know how much he loved her. It puzzled him sometimes. He couldn’t see how, unless she was refusing to see it. Maybe she did know, but she’d never feel the same and the pretense preserved their friendship.
While dumping some chips onto her paper plate, Claire looked at him and asked, “How are things going with…Trish, was it?”
“Yeah, Trish. But we broke it off a few days ago.”
“You mean you broke it off.” The look she gave him was a familiar one, full of womanly disgust. “What was wrong with her?”
She wasn’t you. “It wasn’t going anywhere. I did us both a favor.”
When she reached over and touched his arm, it took all of his willpower not to pull away. “At the rate you’re going, you’ll run out of fish in the sea, you know.”
She was a touchy-feely kind of person, always touching his hand or grabbing his arm or resting her hand on his shoulder, with no idea how agonizing it was for him. He felt the warmth of her palm through his shirt and he ached to feel it against his bare skin.
“We still on for Friday?” he asked, even though he’d told himself earlier in the day he was going to tell her he couldn’t make it.
“Yeah. Since my only niece is turning three, I can’t back out.”
“Do you mind if we take my truck so I can stop and have the tires changed? Since we’ll be going through Manchester anyway.”
“That’s fine, but if you’re driving, I’m paying for the gas. Pizza tonight?”
“Yeah.” Tuesday night was always pizza night. Pizza and pool at the local pizza house on the night least likely to have a bunch of kids running around. It had been a tradition forever—just Justin and Brendan in the beginning. “I have to pick up the contract for plowing that new plaza, so I’ll swing in and pick you up.”
Taking a bite of her sandwich, she stretched her legs out under the table. Her ankle brushed his, but she didn’t pull it back. She just rested it there, comfortably and without any clue it was slowly killing him inside.
He had to cut her loose.
Not totally, maybe, but he needed to put some distance between them. He’d been telling himself that for months, as her natural humor and joy for life gradually overwhelmed her grief and she became more like the Claire he’d known—and loved—for years.
No matter how often he told himself to distance himself, though, he couldn’t bring himself to do it. The thought of not having Claire in his life anymore hurt. And the question he couldn’t answer was whether living without her or continuing to live as her best friend hurt more.
* * * * *
Nothing made Claire want to bust out the butt-wiggle dance like snowflake graphics dancing across the weather forecast grid portion of the evening news. The snowflakes were a couple of days away and they weren’t going to amount to much, but it was a start.
Snow meant plowing and plowing meant she’d get to see more of Justin. He was a roofer by trade but, like a lot of guys whose work crapped out during the winter months, he plowed snow to make up the difference. Since his house was in the middle of nowhere and most of his client base was in town, he’d crash on her couch for power naps between plow runs. And, if she didn’t have any work backing up on her desk, she’d ride along and keep him company while he cleared driveways and parking lots.
Now that the procrastinators had gotten their last-minute roof fixes and her customers weren’t quite ready to start freaking out about taxes yet, there was a window of several weeks where they could play a little harder than they worked and she intended to take advantage of it. Starting with pizza and pool tonight.
First, she had to get some work done, though. Starting with the new bakery that had managed to make a horror show out of their books in less than two months of business by deluding themselves about their accounting abilities. Shaking her head and muttering under her breath, with frequent breaks to explain to Moxie yet again why she couldn’t lie on top of the papers, kept her busy for several hours and she only stopped because it was almost five o’clock and every Tuesday at five, Penny stopped by.
Penny Danvers’ dad owned a plumbing outfit that employed Penny’s three older brothers, as well as a few other guys. Penny worked in the office, answering the phone and handling most of the paperwork, and she could keep basic books and balance the checkbook, but payroll was beyond her. So every Tuesday she dropped off the information and on Thursday afternoon she picked up the checks.
Right on time, Penny knocked twice and let herself in. She was a very tall brunette who practically crackled with energy and, while Claire had considered her a friend for years, she could be exhausting.
As always, Penny dropped the folder of timesheets onto the desk and then wandered over to drool over the framed photos of Justin Claire kept on the bookshelf. “When are you going to take pity on me and hook me up with him?”
“When I don’t like you anymore and want to see you curled up in front of a Meg Ryan movie, bawling into a pint of Ben & Jerry’s.”
“You’re so sure he’s going to break my heart. How do you know I’m not the one?”
“Justin doesn’t have a one. He has many and I don’t want you to be one of them.”
Penny turned and gave her a speculative look. “Or maybe you want to keep him for yourself.”
A blush heated Claire’s face and she looked down at the papers on her desk while shaking her head, hoping her hair would hide her pink cheeks. “Don’t be stupid. He’s my best friend.”
“He was Brendan’s best friend.”
“So…” So what? “It would be weird.”
“What’s weird about it? You already know you’re compatible in almost every way. Why would sex be any different?”
Sex. With Justin.
Her body tingled like an extremity that had fallen asleep and was waking up in a blaze of pins and needles. And that’s all it was, she told herself. Her sex drive’s sudden fixation on Justin was just its way of letting her know it was ready for a man again, even if her heart wasn’t.
She forced herself to laugh and look straight at Penny. “For somebody who wants to be hooked up with him, you’re awfully pushy about me sleeping with him.”
She shrugged one shoulder. “I don’t necessarily want to keep him. Just play with him for a while. But I’d deprive myself of the toe-curling pleasure of multiple orgasms to see you happy, because I’m a good friend that way.”
This time Claire’s laugh was genuine. “Gee, thanks. What makes you think sex with Justin would be toe-curling and multiorgasmic?”
Not that it mattered, of course, since she wasn’t going to have sex with her best friend, toe-curling or otherwise. There was too much between them and the only thing she’d end up with when the alleged multiple orgasms were over was no best friend.
“The guys with commitment issues are usually the best in bed,” Penny said, and Claire wondered if she spoke from experience or if she’d read it in a magazine. “They have a lot of experience with a lot of different styles on a lot of different models, if you know what I mean.”
She didn’t even want to think about that. “You’ve known him longer than I have, anyway. Why do you need me to hook you up?”
“We travel in different circles. Always have.”
Penny was the reason she’d met Brendan and Justin in the first place. Claire and Penny’s senior year at UNH, they’d ended up roommates and friends. One weekend, Claire had gone home with her instead of heading to her parents’ and they’d gone to a party. A few minutes with Brendan had been all it took.
Since Penny was giving her a funny look—like maybe she thought Claire wanting Justin all to herself wasn’t just a joke—she decided to wrap it up. “The checks will be ready by the usual time Thursday.”
Once Penny was gone, Claire straightened her desk and fed Moxie. Then she did a little housekeeping and her thoughts turned to Justin.
She couldn’t quite put her finger on what it was, but something was definitely wrong with him. Even though they were practically best friends, she suspected he was hiding something from her. And whatever that something was, it probably wasn’t very good.
He’d be there any second to pick her up, so she slid her driver’s license and debit card into her back pocket and clipped her cell phone to one front pocket while dropping her keys into the other. She’d wait to pull on her favorite fleece pullover until he pulled into the driveway.
On her way through the apartment, she paused as usual and looked at the row of photos sitting atop her bookshelf—the ones Penny had been looking at—her gazing coming to rest on the silver frame just to the left of her formal wedding portrait.
It was a double frame, holding two 5×7 photos side by side. On the left was a picture of Brendan and Justin standing in front of the elementary school on their first day of fourth grade. Both of them grinned at Brendan’s mom, who’d held the camera, obviously excited to be embarking on a grand new school year together.
The photo on the right, taken at her reception, was her favorite picture of the two guys together. They both looked outrageously handsome in their tuxes—both tall and athletic, but Brendan was blond and fair-skinned, while Justin had darker hair and the tanned complexion of a man who worked outdoors. She’d looked at the photo a hundred or more times since Brendan died.
This time, though, her gaze lingered on his best friend. The photographer had captured them laughing and Justin’s honey-brown eyes practically sparkled out at her from the frame.
She’d been noticing his eyes a lot lately. The warmth in them when he looked at her. The something—almost sadness—in them when she caught him watching her. And he watched her a lot.
No, she wasn’t sure what was up with him, but she had to admit—even if only to herself—that she watched him a lot, too.
It was a natural thing, she told herself. With a little over two years for her heart to come to grips with Brendan’s death, her body was awakening again. She missed sex and Justin was a very good-looking guy. It was only natural she’d sometimes wonder what it would be like if he touched her—or so she tried to convince herself.
She jumped when the chime on her cell phone alerted her to a new text, as if she’d been caught doing something wrong. Grabbing her sweatshirt, she pulled up the message as she locked her door behind her.
She rolled her eyes and slid the phone back into its holster. Justin hated texting. He claimed his hands were too big and his fingertips too callused for the small buttons, but she loved his hands. They were the working hands of a capable man, strong and rough, and for a few seconds she found herself wondering what they would feel like against her soft, naked skin. Then she shove the errant, confusing image away and went down the stairs to the driveway.
He smiled at her as she climbed up into his truck and pulled the door closed. “Hey. We might need two pizzas. I’ve been thinking about it all afternoon.”
While she’d been thinking about him. “If we get two, you can have mushrooms on yours and we’ll both have leftovers for supper tomorrow.”
The smile spread into a grin. “You might have leftovers. I’m starving.”
He used his mirrors to back down her driveway, but to see down the busy main road, he twisted his body to look out the back window of the truck, resting his arm across the back of the seat. He’d done it a hundred times, but this time she was aware of how close his fingertips were to brushing her shoulder. This time she had the urge to shove his pile of paperwork and business cards and supply house slips onto the floor and slide to the middle seat, into the shelter of his arm.
She didn’t, though. Instead she looked out her window and cursed Penny for putting the thought in her head.
* * * * *
Justin had a slice of pizza in one hand, a pool cue in the other, and was trash-talking Claire’s shot when the Rutledges walked through the front door. Brendan’s parents saw him immediately through the big window to the game room and he felt the same quick flash of shame he’d felt every time he saw them since Brendan had introduced them to Claire. Then he smiled and waved with the hand holding the pizza.
Claire turned to see who he was waving at and he didn’t miss the way her face lit up. There had been no in-law drama surrounding the Smith-Rutledge wedding since the families had hit it off almost as well as Claire and Brendan. It was storybook, really. Except the ending. The ending had sucked.
“I forgot Tuesday was pool night,” Judy Rutledge said as she and Phil turned the corner into the game room.
Claire kissed them each on the cheek, then it was Justin’s turn to get a kiss from Judy and a handshake from Phil. They’d been like second parents to him since they’d moved to town the summer before Brendan and Justin started fourth grade and struck up a friendship. The Rutledges had a family room, two televisions, a never-ending supply of freshly baked cookies and no time limit on video games, so the boys had hung out there a lot more than at the McCormick house. Justin’s mom worked a lot of hours at her hair salon and was just as happy to have her only child out of her hair as much as possible.
“All ready for Christmas?” Phil asked, because that was the usual conversation opener two and a half weeks before the big day.
“No,” Justin and Claire said together.
Claire laughed. “I’m going to get a Christmas tree on Saturday and I’ll probably get around to shopping next week. Maybe.”
Judy shook her head. “I expect to see you both Christmas Eve.”
“Wouldn’t miss it,” Justin said. That was the plan. An appearance at the Rutledge family Christmas Eve party, then he and Claire at her place, watching National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. It was a tradition.
The Rutledges went to order their take-out and since Chris Jones was just walking in, Claire handed her pool cue to him and went to sit with Judy and Phil while they waited.
Chris had youth and a pretty face on his side, but not much in the way of book smarts. And his work ethic was a little iffy at best, too, which Justin knew since he employed the kid off and on during the summer. When Chris’s beer and video-game money ran low, he’d help out on a roof or two, then take off again.
“Must be about time for you to head north,” Justin said. In the winter Chris worked and lived at one of the fancy resorts because an almost freakish natural ability to teach rich people to ski was another thing he had on his side.
“Monday. But for the fifteenth, I managed to score a few hours off in the middle of the day. You in?”
“Hell, yeah.” That was the day the gates were officially opened on the snowmobile trails. “A few hours is better than nothing. I’ll text you when I get there and we can head out.”
“So you get with that yet?” Chris asked, and Justin realized he’d been watching Claire through the window as she laughed at something Judy said.
He forced his attention back to the pool table. “I told you, it’s not like that.”
“I don’t know what the problem is. She’s hot and you hang out more than a married couple.”
“We’re friends, Chris. It’s possible for a man and a hot woman to be friends without having sex.” It wasn’t easy, but it was possible.
Judy and Phil poked their heads in to say goodbye when their food was ready and Justin gave Chris a warning look behind Claire’s back. That subject was closed, at least as far as the other guy was concerned. It was never closed in Justin’s mind.
“Who won?” Claire asked, grabbing another slice of pizza from the tray.
“Me,” Chris said. “Smoked him, actually. His mind must have been on something else.”
Since her back wasn’t turned, he couldn’t send another glare in Chris’s direction, so he concentrated on keeping his expression neutral. “I let you win. Figured your ego could use the boost.”
“Whatever, dude. Claire, you in?”
“Rack ’em up.”
Since watching the two of them play really meant watching Claire bend over the table to line up her shots, Justin lined some quarters up along the edge of the pinball game and set about taking out his frustrations on the metal ball. The action was loud and fast and just what he needed to distract himself from the game behind him.
Until Claire moved up beside him to watch and he smelled the slightly tropical scent of her soap and shampoo and imagined he could feel the warmth of her body standing so close to his and the metal ball went down the chute with an electronic flushing sound of failure.
“Good timing,” she said. “I just kicked his ass, so you’re up again.”
“Be right there.” He picked up the quarters he hadn’t used and shoved them back into his pocket, taking the opportunity to adjust the crotch of his jeans.
Time to have another talk with himself about cutting back on the time he spent with Claire. Tomorrow.