Fake Boyfriend Breakaways: A Short Story Collection, page 10
I roll my eyes even though Jordan can’t see me. “It’s not that simple, Jord.”
“It really is.”
“No. It’s more complicated than algebra.”
“That’s pretty fucking complicated, but I don’t see how.”
I sigh. “There’s something you don’t know about Ash. About his ex-boyfriend … the one before Taylor.”
“The big secret that wasn’t so secret?”
“What NHL star has a roommate?”
My mouth dries. “A few actually. Especially those who come up from the AHL. They don’t start out on a lot of money.”
“But I’m right, aren’t I? Ash was with your brother? I knew something was up when I’d come to visit and Ash would be all vague about the guy he was seeing and why I couldn’t meet him. For a while there, I thought he was lying about having a boyfriend so we wouldn’t cross lines like we did in college, but then when he said he was moving in with your brother, it all clicked. Because if Ash needed a roommate, why wouldn’t he live with you? I stopped asking after that, and he never told me the truth. He never needed to.”
“Well, yeah. Hence complicated.”
“Does your brother know how you feel?”
“Fuck no. I’m not stupid.”
Jordan huffs. “That’s debatable. But if you want to uncomplicate things, talk to your brother.”
“It’s not that easy.”
“Yes, it is.”
The front door to my parents’ house opens, and Ma pops her head out.
“Jordan, I gotta go.”
“I guess catching up while I’m still in town is out of the question?”
“Umm, at this stage, probably.”
“Figured. Hopefully next time I’m in Boston, Ash won’t hate us and we can pretend today never happened.”
We end the call, and then Ma approaches, eyeing me suspiciously.
“Why are Ollie and Clark in there staring out the window like two little gossips? What’s going on?”
And so the fun starts.
Something twinkles in Ma’s eye as if she already knows what I’m gonna say. “Oh, honey. I’m so happy you’re finally addressing your repressed feelings.”
I shake my head. “What?”
“Please. You and your brother both have the same look of longing when you want something. Ollie has always stared at Ash that way. Well, until recently. You didn’t start until after college. Right around the time he got together with Ollie.”
“You have way too much time on your hands, woman.”
There’s that evil chuckle again. “No, hon, I have to make sure my five boys turn into respectable men. That’s a full-time job.”
“Your youngest is twenty-four. Maybe it’s time to retire?”
“Pssh. Bite your tongue. You boys will always be mine to torture.”
“I’m sure we’re all grateful.”
She glances back at the window my brother and his boyfriend were no doubt watching Ash and me from, and then she steps closer to me. “Just promise me one thing.”
“Talk to Ollie before anything happens between you and Ash … if it hasn’t happened already?” She raises an eyebrow.
“Ash and I will never happen, Ma. I wouldn’t do that to Ollie.”
“Then what was”—she gestures to the curb where Ash and I were talking—“that all about?”
“He … kinda … sorta … walked in on me and another guy.”
“Oh.” Ma blinks, and I think I’ve genuinely surprised her.
“Oooh, Queen Know-it-all didn’t see that coming, did she?”
Before Ma can kick my ass for sassing her, a car pulls into the driveway. My brother Nic and his wife get out of the car with their two kids.
“Saved by my big brother.” I grin. “Wait, were they already coming over, or do you have telepathy now?”
“They were coming over to see Ollie, but this conversation isn’t over,” Ma promises.
I bet it isn’t. “Can you just promise me something?”
“Can you let this thing settle between Ash and me before you go pulling any big parties or announcing this to the whole damn family?”
Ma smiles. “Of course, hon. Take all the time you need. But just so you know, the minute you’re ready …”
I nod. “Huge coming-out party, I know.”
“The biggest. Ollie didn’t let me throw him one.”
“Can’t imagine why considering he’s a public figure and all.”
She pinches my cheek. “Well, lucky for me at least one of my sons is an underachiever.”
“Oh, stop it. You know I’m joking.”
“You’re the worst mother ever.”
“I know! The reason we had so many kids was because we wanted to keep going until we found one we liked.”
Yep. We’re definitely dysfunctional, but in the best possible way.
The following day, I head downstairs to the shop and find Ash already inside. He’s … cleaning. Which is weird, because we recently hired someone to do that for us so we don’t have to.
He looks up from where he’s wiping down the glass display where we keep our line of jewelry for piercings.
“What are you doing?”
“Being neurotic. What are you doing?”
I laugh, but it’s awkward. I hate that it’s like that between us now. “I’m wondering if we’re okay.”
“I just don’t get it.”
“Why didn’t you ever say anything? I know what you told me last night—why you never told me—but what about your ma? Your brothers? You don’t think Ollie would’ve understood?”
“Ollie? Did you see the way he looked at us when I turned up yesterday? He’s probably already assumed we’ve fucked behind his back or whatever. The last person I was going to tell was Ollie. And I never told anyone else because there was literally no point. Until Jordan came along, I thought you were like … a magical, sexy unicorn. No other men did it for me the way you did, and I assumed it was a you thing. It just turns out, I wasn’t seeing past you to notice other guys. Kissing Jordan made me realize I definitely am bi.”
I cock my head at him. “Shame?”
“Yeah, because if it was a me thing, I’d totally create a new sexuality called Ash-sexual.”
“I’d sign up.”
We both chuckle, but then Ash looks pained again like he did last night.
“We should get to work setting up. Our first clients are due any minute.”
“No, what’s wrong?”
“I think … I think I need time to get used to this. Like, we’ve always joked around, and normally you saying something like you’d turn Ash-sexual wouldn’t make my chest burn. But now it does, and …” Ash shakes his head.
“And what, Ash? Please talk to me.” My heart stutters.
“It’s all too much. Everything is too much. Taylor called this morning wanting to talk. He wanted to see if I’d come to my senses and would take him back—”
“You can’t,” I say, my voice stern.
“Oh, I can’t, can I? You know how I love being told what to do.”
“No, I’m serious, Ash. Take time away from me, clear your head, but not with him.”
“He’s all wrong for you.”
Ash rounds the counter. “Did everyone think Taylor was wrong for me? Why is it when you’re with someone, and you think everything is great, no one tells you how ungreat they think it is until you break up? All Mom and Dad did last night was tell me how wrong Taylor was for me.”
“You want to know why I never told you Taylor wasn’t good enough for you? Because no one will ever be good enough for you. I thought my brother could be, but not when he chose his ca
Ash takes two steps back. “That’s just it, Max. Neither can you. Otherwise you would’ve said something years ago. It’s too complicated. You’re … you, and I’m me.”
“I don’t know what that means.”
Ash sighs. “Neither do I. I know it’s going to be hard—staying away from each other when we work so close, but I can’t … I need to …”
I nod. “I’ll give you whatever you need, Ash.”
Everywhere aches as I go to my workroom and shut the door behind me.
I didn’t know it was possible for my heart to break more when it came to Ash, but apparently I’m wrong, because I realize there’s a lot more obstacles blocking us than just my stupid brother.
This is why I never said anything back in college.
Years of unexplored and repressed feelings were bound to explode like this.
It was inevitable, and now it’s finally here.
I don’t think either of us are prepared to deal with that.
The idea of working with Max day in and out is daunting at first, but I underestimate the power of busy days. Before I know it, Max and I have gone three weeks with barely speaking.
Our shop has been doing well, picking up momentum, and we’ve been making a name for ourselves ever since we opened five years ago. Ollie’s fame helped—being the brother of the co-owner, he was able to plug us whenever he could without anyone being suspicious of him and me as a couple—but since he came out and has become a massive role model and public figure, our business has exploded even more.
Being busy with clients is a good distraction from Max but exhausting with the long hours. Traveling back to Milton every night to stay with my parents makes it harder; I’m used to living five minutes away from work, but my only other option is to move back in above the shop.
That’s not going to happen. I need time away from Max, not to push us together and share a nine-hundred-square-foot box.
Working in the very room next to his is hard enough. I can hear his laugh, his polite banter, and the buzzing of his tattoo gun as he does what we were born to do. I swear I can hear us syncing as we put ink to skin.
I miss him already.
This is so fucked. I’m fucked. It’s not going to be possible to stay away from him.
I thought packing my feelings back into the box where I kept them all throughout adolescence would be easy. I’ve done it once before; I could do it again. But it’s completely different now, because he was never a real option before.
Knowing my childhood crush, my best friend, the first and only guy I’ve ever pined for is in the room next to mine, close but not close enough, far but not far enough, and now knowing he reciprocates my feelings … it kills me that I can’t go in there and just be with him.
I hate this.
After saying goodbye to my last client who I called Dragon Left Ankle because I forgot her name, I hear Max finishing up with his, so I hightail it back to my room and close the door.
I would’ve run out the front seeing as I’m done for the day, but I still have cleanup to do.
My phone buzzes on my desk, and Jordan’s name pops up on the screen.
I grunt. Guess I can’t keep ignoring his attempts to get in touch with me. For some reason, Max and Jordan hooking up felt like a betrayal on both their parts—Max for keeping his sexuality a secret from me, his supposed best friend, and Jordan because … I dunno … possessiveness and jealousy maybe. He always asked if Max and I had ever hooked up, and I’d have to tell him repeatedly that Max was straight, but he had to have heard the hurt in my voice. We were both crushing on Max, and I guess I’m pissed that he was the one to crack him. Which is ridiculous, because I know that’s not what happened, and I know that’s not how sexuality works. No one broke Max. No one turned him.
I answer the phone before I lose my nerve. “Hey.”
“Yes, silent treatment broken.”
“Don’t make me hang up.”
A long sigh comes through the phone. “I don’t know why you’re pissed at me. You can have Max now. I was nothing, and you’re his everything.”
“You don’t know why I’m pissed? Seriously?”
“What, because you and Max still hadn’t gotten your act together after how many years of friendship? You were engaged to be married. I figured he was fair game. Okay, and I also didn’t think he’d cave, but he did, and this might make me an asshole, but I don’t regret it, because you know how much I wanted him in college.”
Gah, I want to stay mad, but I don’t have a right to be. I have no claim to Max. Ever. Being with Ollie closed that door for us.
“But for what it’s worth, I am sorry if it hurt you,” Jordan says. “I know ‘it meant nothing’ are just annoying words that mean about as much as the gesture, but it’s the truth. Nothing is a giant wake-up call like being ditched right after kissing someone.”
I can hear the rejection in Jordan’s voice—a rarity for him.
“Do you know how easy all of this shit would’ve been had you and I had any romantic chemistry at all?”
I laugh. “Right? We’d be married with kids and a happily ever after.”
“Shame you kiss like a dead fish.”
“Fuck you, I do not.”
“Feels like it,” Jordan mumbles, and then the line goes quiet. “Are we cool?”
The need to be mad at him dims, because it’s not his fault Max and I are both idiots. “We’re cool.”
“Good. Because now I can yell at you. You’re avoiding Max? Why? And don’t use Ollie as an excuse, because you guys haven’t even spoken to him and been up-front.”
I’m stunned silent for a second. “Y-you know about Max’s brother?”
“I’m a perceptive fucker.”
“Wait, how did you know I’ve been avoiding Max?”
“Max told me.”
For years, I’ve been the middleman between Max and Jordan, because they never really got along.
“What, one make-out session and suddenly you’re best friends?”
“Not even close. All we talk about is you. He keeps asking if you’re talking to me yet. If I know anything. If I think you guys could even remain friends after this. You both need to pull your heads out of your asses and fucking talk. Why are you avoiding him?”
“God, you sound like him. It’s not complicated at all. What do you want, Ash? Forget consequences with family drama, forget your business, forget all outside things. What. Do. You. Want?”
“Max,” I blurt. “It’s always been Max. Forever and—shit.”
“Forever and shit? Might I suggest you work on your speech before making a grand gesture?”
He’s been there in front of me forever and ever. We’ve already promised our lives to each other, but we’ve just been too dumb, preoccupied, or stubborn to fucking say up front what that means.
I want Max to be mine.
But it can’t happen. Max has made it super clear he won’t go behind Ollie’s back.
“Jordan, we can’t go there. This could tear his whole family apart.”
There’s a knock at my door, and Max’s voice makes my heart stutter. “Ash?”
“Jord, I have to go.”
“Please don’t hurt him? I’d hate for him to have to fly to L.A. to mend a broken heart by worshipping my co—”
“It’s time to hang up. Bye.” I end the call.
With a deep breath, I pray for the courage I need to do … something. I don’t know what.
When I open the door, my eyes lock on his lips. They look so damn kissable. So inviting
His black wifebeater highlights his tattooed muscles and amazing physique, but the sweet look of innocence on his face is my Max. The Max I fantasized about every day from when I was eleven until I told my poor heart to give him up.
Only, I didn’t give him up. My heart didn’t move on. It’s as if a protective layer trapped Max inside so I could delude myself into being happy, but it has only taken one day of unfortunate events and then three weeks of it simmering at the forefront of my brain to uncover those feelings I thought were lost long ago.
“So, uh”—Max runs a hand through his hair—“I held Ma off as long as I could, but tonight’s the night.”
“Your big coming-out party?” I ask.
He nods. “I’d really like for you to be there.”
“I … uh … umm …”
“Think about it?”
“Yeah, o-okay, I can do that.”
“Uh, no. I mean, I’ll think about it.”
I hate the disappointment in his gaze and the way he holds his head low as he walks away.
We need to learn how to act around each other, which is so fucking weird, because it has never been like that between us. Even when all that shit went down with his brother, even when we both went through those awkward teen years and I was popping boners whenever I went near him.
It’s never been like this between us, and it hurts more than any breakup, fight, or disagreement with anyone I’ve ever dated. Including when I walked away from Ollie.
I need Max in my life like I need my next breath.
Which is why I can’t go to his coming-out party.
There’s no way I’ll be able to hide that from his brother. Ollie knows me too well.
“You coming next door for some typical Strömberg antics?” Mom asks from the guest room doorway. Unlike the Strömberg matriarch, my mom converted my childhood bedroom into a guest room the minute I went off to college. Max’s mom has kept the guys’ rooms pretty much the same except the room in the attic. It’s weird but kinda cute at the same time.
“Uh, I dunno if I’m up for that.”
“It’ll be a good way to forget about Taylor.”