I’d like to tell you I have my shit together. That I have it all figured out.
But if you saw me standing here right now, on the sidewalk in my boxer briefs—for God and everyone to see—you’d know I’m totally full of shit.’d like to tell you I have my shit together. That I have it all figured out.I’d like to tell you I have my shit together. That I have it all figured out.
My now ex-girlfriend stands on the balcony of her second-floor apartment, glaring down at me, dressed only in a peach-colored silk robe. Her hair is loose and her face is red with anger, but there are no tears.
“You bastard!” Samantha cries out and throws another armful of my clothing over the balcony. One of my socks gets stuck on a tree branch.
I grab my T-shirt from the sidewalk and tug it on. It’s May, but it’s still chilly in the mornings, and the cool air nips at my bare skin.
My shoes are thrown down next—one at a time. One bounces into the street, and I wait for a city bus to pass before I retrieve it.
I look back up at Samantha, bracing myself for what comes next. In her hands is my laptop bag. Fuck. Complete with my laptop, because I’d come here straight from work last night.
A few of the neighbors have stepped onto their balconies to see what all the noise is about. Swallowing my pride, I tip my chin at Mrs. Hendrickson from apartment 202 and smile. Her eyes widen in surprise.
“Jesus, Sam, be reasonable,” I call out.
My laptop bag comes sailing over the balcony next and lands with a loud crack on the sidewalk. There goes my laptop.
I have no fucking clue where this Samantha came from. She woke me up this morning with sex—seemed like a good sign, right? We’ve only been dating for two months, but I thought things were going well. Turns out, I don’t know shit about shit.
Maybe she wanted one last ride? Something to remember me by?
Fuck, I was so wrong.
I scrub my hands down my face.
“You’ll never commit,” Samantha says, her voice trembling with rage.
That’s not true. I’ve eaten the same brand of cereal for the past twelve years. I know a thing or two about commitment. But I decide now isn’t the right time to point this out to her.
After we had sex this morning, she curled up on her pillow, gazing at me with a soft expression. “Where do you think this is going with me and you?” She touched my chest, her fingertips tracing lazy circles on my skin.
I told her the truth, that I wasn’t sure but that I liked hanging out with her. Apparently, that was the wrong answer.
She sat up suddenly, tugging the sheet up with her to cover her naked chest. “That’s what you think this is? Hanging out?”
“No, of course not,” I said, instinctively backpedaling.
“I’m almost thirty, Hayes.” She squinted at me.
I’m almost thirty too, but I wasn’t sure what our ages have to do with anything.
“I want more,” she said, frowning. “A relationship. A real commitment. Marriage. Babies. A family.”
Things went south fast after that.
I’ve known her for two months, so I thought what we had was just casual. I haven’t even introduced her to my grandmother yet, who lives with me. Hell, Samantha has only been inside my apartment once. She’s never spent the night, a fact she reminds me of regularly with disdain.
Another neighbor peeks his head out of his window, a coffee mug in one hand, a yipping dog in the other.
Cars drive by, some slowing down to watch the drama unfold. I can’t say I blame them. This is certainly the most exciting way I’ve started a Friday morning in a long time.
Finally, my jeans are tossed over the balcony, and I rush to catch them. My cell phone is still in one pocket, miraculously intact. I tug on my jeans and shove my feet into the pair of Vans I rescued.
Without another word, Samantha marches inside and slams the sliding glass door.
Mrs. Hendrickson heads back inside too.
Show’s over, folks. Nothing more to see.
After snagging my laptop bag from the sidewalk, I head off down the street. I stop at the gas station on the corner and buy myself a shitty cup of coffee before I go find my car. Samantha’s neighborhood is in a bustling area of Chicago. There’s never any parking. But I got lucky last night, and my car’s only two blocks over. Wrapping a hand around the warmth of my cup, I head in the direction of my Lexus.
Once I reach my car, I chuck the laptop bag with my busted computer into the back seat. As I pull out into traffic, my cell phone rings. I assume it’s Samantha, thinking maybe she wants to continue telling me off, and I almost don’t answer. But the name on the screen says WOLFIE.
I let out a silent groan and answer on speaker. “Hey, man. What’s up?” I ask after downing another mouthful of the awful coffee.
“Need you to do me a favor,” he says in his gruff voice. No hello. No good morning. Typical Wolfie.
But the bastard knows I’d do anything for him. Just like he would for me. Which is the reason why I let him get away with his caveman behavior.
“It’s my first day off in like two years, asshole.”
“I know, I know,” he says with a chuckle.
I roll my eyes. “What’s the favor?” It’s no use arguing with him. I’m going to do whatever it is he needs me to do.
“I need you to go check on Maren.”
Except for that.
Maren is Wolfie’s younger sister. She graduated last year with a degree in social work. She’s a good girl. Wants to help others. Make a difference in the world.
The problem is, I’ve never felt about Maren Cox the way I should have. I feel cagey when I’m around her, like a lion at the zoo, right before feeding time.
“You there?” Wolfie asks at my silence.
He lets out a long sigh. “She’s sick. Says she’s staying home from work today. Swing by her apartment and check on her for me?”
I’m reminded of all of the other times Wolfie or Maren have called me like this, needing a favor—like when she locked herself out of her apartment, or when her car broke down on the side of the road, or that time her pet goldfish died and she couldn’t bring herself to flush it. What a fucking hassle.
I remember her as a kid with a toothy smile and big eyes, always trailing a few steps behind us and calling out for us to wait up. Of course, Maren looks a whole lot different these days. She’s twenty-five now, and she’s grown into quite a woman. Every time I’m near her, I have to force my gaze away from her full breasts, her lush mouth, and those long, toned legs of hers.
I was there for her on the night of her twenty-first birthday, holding her hair back when she puked out the car window. I was there when she had her heart broken for the first time, when her fuck stick of a boyfriend dumped her after six months of dating. I pulled her to my chest with an annoyed sigh and she tearfully broke down, making me feel even worse.
But that was nothing compared to the pain I felt when I learned he’d broken up with her only after punching her V-card. I wanted to hunt him down and castrate him. I wanted to make him suffer. But of course I promised a heartbroken Maren I’d do no such thing. Instead, I had to watch her cry over that dick bag for weeks.
“Why can’t you go?” I ask, even though I already know the answer to that question.
Wolfie lets out a sigh. “Inventory day. Caleb, Connor, and Ever have all been here since five.”
I swallow, feeling shitty about it because I should be there too.
I own a toy company, Frisky Business, with my best friends. Yes, those kinds of toys. The very adult kind. Our business is my passion, but I haven’t taken a day off in years. My partners insisted I do it—take a long weekend to myself. Practically forced my hand.
“There’s no one I trust more,” Wolfie says.
He’s like family to me, and that means Maren is too. I made a vow to him, and I’d never break his trust.
They had it rough growing up. Wolfie did everything for Maren. When their dad drank away his paycheck, it was Wolfie who got a second job his senior year of high school. While the rest of us played video games and messed around on the basketball court, he was bussing tables at the diner to pay for her ballet classes and new school supplies.
“Yeah, I’ll go,” I say after a long pause.
As loyal as Wolfie is, he’s always been a loner. The dude rarely calls or texts unless he needs something, but he’d also be the first to sign up if you asked him for a favor.
“Thanks, man. I owe you one,” he says.
I grunt and end the call. Fifteen minutes later, I pull into the parking garage under my building.
My grandma and roommate, Rosie, smiles at me when I unlock the front door and enter the kitchen. “They actually talked you into it, huh?”
“They made you take a day off.”
“Oh, right.” I push my hands through my hair. “Yeah, they did.” I let out a humorless chuckle.
She pours a cup of coffee and hands it to me. “Thought you’d be sleeping in. You’re up early.”
I nod and accept the coffee mug, deciding to spare her the story of my breakup this morning. “Wolfie asked if I’d go check on Maren. I guess she’s sick.”
Rosie makes a contemplative noise. “You’re a good friend.”
She chuckles and pats my forearm. “I have plans with Marge later. We’re going to the farmer’s market.”
“Be careful.” My grandmother still drives, and I have mixed feelings about that.
She chuckles again. “Don’t worry so much. Are you going to see that girl of yours today?”
I shake my head. “We’re not seeing each other anymore.”
Rosie raises one thin silver eyebrow at me. “You go through ’em fast. I sure hope you know what you’re doing.”
Me? Not a fucking clue.
After I finish my coffee, I feel more human. You’d think Sam dumping me in such a spectacular fashion would have thrown me off, and it has a little. But it’s less about Sam and more about the fact that I’m starting to notice a pattern.
None of my relationships have lasted more than a few weeks, a few months at most. And the only common denominator is me. And Sam had a point—I am almost thirty, which isn’t exactly old, but it’s old enough.
Why can’t I ever seem to make things work? The answer to that question nags at me, but I’m not ready to hear it.
Inside my bedroom, I shut the door and head into the adjoining bathroom. I crank the faucet to hot and step under the spray of water. Soaping myself up, I wash the scent of Samantha from my skin.
After I’m dressed in a clean T-shirt and another pair of jeans, I grab my keys and phone. I press a kiss to my grandma’s cheek and head out.
Maren’s apartment is in a neat tidy row of older homes that were turned into duplexes in the eighties. The rent is reasonable, and street parking is plentiful. I park in front of the brick building and climb out.
I knock on her door, and after a moment, it opens. Maren is dressed in a pair of yoga pants and a T-shirt, her long dark hair tied up in a messy bun. She’s five foot five, but barely comes to my chin.
“Hayes.” She smiles when she sees me, lifting up on her toes to hug me. Wrapping her arms around my neck, she pulls me close.
I touch the middle of her back, patting it once, and then release her, needing to put some distance between us.
If she knew all the dirty thoughts I have when she presses her soft tits to my chest like that, she wouldn’t come so willingly into my arms. But Maren’s always been affectionate. She’s like that with everyone. I don’t think she understands the meaning of personal space, so I try not to read into it.
Smiling at me, she asks, “What are you doing here?”
“Wolfie sent me. He said you’re sick.” But she doesn’t look sick. Her cheeks are rosy and she’s still smiling.
Maren’s eyes widen and her cheeks flush. “Um, no. I’m not.”
I shift my weight on her front porch. “He said you called into work sick today.”
She meets my eyes again. They’re the color of bright emeralds and golden autumn leaves with melted milk chocolate in the very center. Technically, the word is hazel, but it’s much too simple a word to describe all the life and depth I see when I look into her eyes.
There are a lot of things I feel about Maren. Confusion. Misplaced lust. And irritation—because I’ve never felt about this girl the way I should have.
“Well, that part’s true.”
“Care to fill me in?”
She groans. “You might as well come inside.”
I follow her into her one-bedroom apartment. It’s not fancy, but it’s clean and always neat. A gray couch sits in the living room on top of a colorful rug. Plants in mismatched pots are lined on the windowsill, and her tiny kitchen is spotless.
“Coffee?” she asks.
When Maren heads into the living room, I think I detect a limp, but she lowers herself to the couch before I can be sure.
I sit down beside her. “Talk to me, dove.” It’s a nickname I gave her ages ago because she’s as beautiful and innocent as a white dove, and it stuck.
“It’s totally embarrassing.” She frowns, pulling her plump lower lip between her teeth.
Her mouth is literally perfect. I want to kiss it. And then fuck it.
See my problem?
If Wolfie knew the thoughts I have about his sister, he’d cut off my balls and shove them down my throat. And I’d deserve every second of it. Everyone knows that sisters are off-limits, and we live by a strict bro code. We have to—we’re not only friends, we’re best friends, and we run a business together. Keeping things appropriate and PG are my only options.
I smirk. “You want to hear embarrassing? I’ll tell you about my morning and why I was nearly naked on Halsted Street, if you tell me yours.”
Her eyes widen. “What the hell,” she says with a laugh.
“Want me to go first?”
I tell her about how Samantha pushed me from her bed, then banished me from her apartment when I was only in my boxers. I tell her about the neighbors who watched from their windows. The kids in their pajamas pointing and laughing.
But if I was expecting any sympathy from Maren, that’s the last thing I get.
She chuckles into her fist, her eyes dancing on mine. “I swear, Hayes, you have the worst luck with women I’ve ever seen.”
You can say that again. “Believe me, I know.”
She shakes her head. “One of these days, I’m going to take you under my wing and teach you how to be a proper boyfriend.”
A deep laugh falls from my lips. “Any place, anytime. But first, why don’t you tell me why you’re skipping work today and lying to your brother?”
Her gaze drops to the floor. “I had a little accident.”
My heart thuds once. “A car accident?”
Still avoiding my eyes, she shakes her head. “A waxing accident.”
Narrowing my eyes, I say, “A what now?”
She lets out a nervous laugh, and her pretty cheeks blush again. She touches one with her hand. “I wanted to save some money. So instead of going to the waxing salon like I usually do for my bikini wax . . . I bought one of those at-home kits. But I think the wax was too hot.”
Fuck. Me. If I thought my morning started out rough, it’s nothing compared to the agony of having to sit here and face this gorgeous girl telling me she burned her pussy with hot wax.
“Shit. Are you okay?” I ask, barely managing to get the words out.
She chews on her lush lower lip. “I’ll be fine. I’m just a little sore. And don’t you dare breathe a word of this to my brother.”
I hold up both hands. “Believe me, I don’t go around talking about your vagina with your brother, and I have no plans on starting anytime soon.”
This gets a grin out of Maren. “It’s mortifying enough that you know.”
I nod in agreement. Because now I’m picturing Maren’s smooth, bare pussy, and definitely feeling a little homicidal over the idea that she did this for some undeserving guy.
“You don’t have to be embarrassed around me,” I say, opening up my arms to her. “Come here.”
Maren moves nearer on the couch, sighing as she leans in close enough to rest her head on my chest. My heart thumps out an uneven rhythm as her scent—vanilla and fragrant shampoo—surrounds me.
Her trust in me is like a silent punishment, something I have to endure, because being near Maren isn’t easy for me. A thousand pornographic thoughts I won’t let myself entertain come at me from every angle. Shutting them down is like a full-time job, one I’m very good at.
When I release Maren from the hug, she sits up, and I raise one eyebrow.
“Want me to take a look?” I ask, mostly kidding.
“Are you insane?” She gapes at me. “No!”
I shrug. “Trust me, this isn’t easy for me either. I just . . . what if you have third-degree burns or something. You might need medical treatment.”
Her gaze darts away from mine again. “It’s not that bad. Just a little pink. And tender.”
I lick my lips. Hearing Maren use words like pink and tender to describe her pussy is actual torture.
Want me to kiss it and make it better?
I clench my jaw and fight for control. Years of pent-up sexual frustration churn in my gut.
“You want to talk about your latest breakup?” she asks, probably desperate to change the subject, and I know I am. “About . . . Samantha?” Maren says the name like a question, like she isn’t sure of herself.
I sigh and lean back on her couch. “Not really. What’s the point?”
She shakes her head and lets out a small sigh. “You go through women faster than I go through underwear.”
I lick my lips. “Well, not anymore I don’t. I’m done.”
She gives me a dubious look, like she can’t quite believe the words coming out of my mouth. To my group of friends, I have a reputation as a Casanova. Not a player, exactly, more of a serial monogamist, bouncing from one girl to the next. But that needs to change.
“I need a break. No more relationships. No more women.”
As I say the words, I know they’re true. I do need a break from women. If I can’t focus on a relationship, I shouldn’t be dating anyone. It’s as simple as that.
Maren’s posture straightens as though I have her full attention. “For how long?”
“As long as it takes.”
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