Jay Bradshaw. My boyfriend’s best friend.
He was never supposed to be anything more—until he was.
When my college boyfriend betrayed me and left, breaking my heart, Jay picked a side. He chose me. He stayed, and for the past six years, he’s been my rock, my anchor, my compass…
Now we’ve grown up, finished school, and have careers. Me as a nurse practitioner; Jay as a doctor. He’s been everything I needed, but now I want more.
I can’t stop thinking about him, and I’m done hiding it.
It’s time to find out if he wants me, too.
A friend. Not a lover. That’s who Mia Waters is to me.
I’ve tried damn hard to make sure our relationship stays that way. I’m the shoulder she leans on, the last one to talk to her before she goes to sleep at night… And after six years, she means more to me than my own family.
The moment I met her, I wanted her. But she belonged to someone else, so I pushed the need down. I didn’t take what I wanted. I’m not that guy. Her happiness meant more.
Until now. Until she asks me a question that shatters our unspoken boundaries. Have you ever thought about having sex with me? Six years of keeping her at arm’s length, and I can feel myself starting to give in and lose control with her.
I can’t let it happen. There are reasons I didn’t get close. She hasn’t let go of her ex-boyfriend, not really. And she has no idea about the lies I’ve told her.
What if she finds out about me? What if she finds out who I really am?
Read an excerpt from Bend
I’m going to ask him tonight.
The thought keeps popping into my head, as unwelcome and persistent as an earworm. It’s the same kind of urge that makes you buy something you don’t need and can’t afford. Or makes you snack when you’re not hungry.
Or makes you say something you know you shouldn’t.
I’m lounging on my couch with a bottle of Red Stripe in my hand, feet propped on the coffee table next to the empty box of the pizza we just polished off while watching an episode of House, M.D. on Netflix.
Beside me, just a few inches away, Jay is stretched out and relaxed, his eyes on the flat-screen. His tight-fitting black tee and khaki cargo shorts are standard attire for him when he’s not in his hospital scrubs, and because it’s his day off, his square-jawed face shows a shadow of scruff that matches the black of his short-and-tousled hair.
It’s Friday evening, and this is how we like to unwind. Nothing unusual there. Except tonight I’m antsy and uneasy, restlessness creeping under my skin, and as the mellow, melancholy music of the final scene fades into the end credits, it hits me that I can’t summarize what I just watched.
“Well, that was a bullshit episode,” Jay announces, reaching for the bottle of beer on the side table by his armrest.
“Was it?” I pick up the remote and hit the Stop button. “Guess I wasn’t paying that much attention.”
My best friend slants me a glance, looking exasperated. “It made no sense. Millions of people have mitral valve prolapse. Very few of them are even at risk of developing endocarditis. And the aneurysm stuff was ridiculous. The vascular study was negative, but they rush him into surgery anyway, just in case the study was wrong? That hospital must have some seriously good malpractice insurance.”
I let out a snort-laugh. Mostly to cover up the fact that I have no idea what he’s talking about. Because my mind was elsewhere. “I think we’ve discussed before how pointless it is to expect medical accuracy from a TV show.”
Jay’s lips soften in a self-deprecating smile, his pale eyes twinkling. “I just don’t think it’d be that hard for them to get it right.”
No, he wouldn’t, would he? I realize in a flash that his reactions and rants afterward are almost the best part for me, because it’s Jay being so…Jay.
I shrug. “They know the majority of their viewers won’t know the difference and the drama of it is more important for their ratings.”
“Which explains the BDSM angle?”
He arches his eyebrows at me, and something curls and then unfurls inside me. BDSM? Maybe I should’ve paid better attention. And am I imagining the traces of heat in his eyes, the hint of flirtation?
Yeah, that’s probably just me projecting.
“Right,” I agree. “Because sex sells.”
Jay keeps his gaze on me for another moment, and then he averts it, lifting his bottle back up to his mouth.
I’m going to ask him.
Is this the opening I’ve been waiting for? I definitely wouldn’t be going too far off topic.
My stomach twists, and I chicken out. Then I’m scrambling for what to say, finally blurting out, “Speaking of domination…Mario Kart?”
He gives me a teasing smile. “Sure. If you’re in the mood to be spanked.”
Oh, my God. My breath stutters in my chest. Was that intentional innuendo?
“In your dreams,” I somehow manage to shoot back, deciding it best to pretend he means it figuratively. Grabbing the remote again, I turn on the game while Jay plucks the Wii controllers out of the little side table drawer.
I want to ask him. How do I ask him?
As we press the buttons to set up our characters and choose the racetracks, a safer approach occurs to me, a way to test the waters. Casually, I say, “By the way, Angela, my friend from work, keeps asking me to introduce you to her.”
Jay frowns, though he doesn’t take his eyes off the screen. “Why?”
“Because she’s seen the pictures I’ve posted of you on Facebook, and she thinks you’re hot.”
Which is more or less true. Angela, a nurse in the ob-gyn office where I work, likes to talk about hooking up with guys more than actually doing so, but I have no doubt she’d go out with Jay if given half a chance.
“She sounds kind of desperate,” Jay responds with a grunt. “What’s wrong with her?”
“Nothing,” I reassure him, because my favorite coworker is a beautiful, outgoing, and fun woman—who really doesn’t need me to play matchmaker.
And Jay would probably already know what she looks like if he were on Facebook, but he’s not. He says that’s because there’s too much drama and ugly behavior on the social media site, but I’ve always suspected it’s somehow related to the reason he always goes all vague and evasive when I ask him about his family.
With a twist of my lips, I add, “Unless you have something against dating single moms.”
Jay throws me a squinty look. “She has a kid?”
“She has two. And two ex-husbands.”
“Yeah,” he says, rolling his eyes, “I’m not that brave. Not looking to meet anyone, anyway.”
He’s not? I suppose I knew that, because as far as I’m aware, he hasn’t even been on a date in a really long time.
And for some reason, I feel like this was exactly how I wanted him to respond to this topic.
On the TV, the countdown begins, and then our vehicles take off down the racetrack to the sound of revving engines and fast-paced music. I navigate the track with little effort, because we’ve played this so much that the motions have programmed themselves into my fingers, and I’m pretty sure it’s the same for Jay.
This is our drug of choice on weekend evenings. While other people in their mid-twenties are out partying, we stay in and play video games that we take way too seriously. Is that weird? Maybe. But at least we’re being weird together.
Ask him, ask him, ask him.
Well, it got me nowhere to mention Angela—whose talk about Jay was the first thing that put this idea into my head—but maybe I can still get there from here?
I’m winding up my courage with a quiet, deep breath while my cartoon character on the screen keeps pace with his, and then the words tumble out. “I actually realized I get annoyed when she talks about wanting to meet you. Which reminded me of this article I read online about a study done at a college in Canada that showed men and women can’t be just friends.”
“Uh-huh,” Jay says, smirking with his eyes still glued to the TV. “I thought we’d had this discussion already, too. You were supposed to stop believing everything you read on the Internet.”
“I don’t,” I retort, turning my controller along with the curves and bends in the track. “But that’s not the point. It was a scientific study. I just thought it was interesting.”
Jay snorts. He does that a lot. “How exactly are horny college students interesting or even relevant to anything?”
“It made me think about it, that’s all.” I’m trying so hard not to sound defensive. He can smell weakness like sharks smell blood. “I mean, we’ve been friends for, what…six years?”
For a while the only sounds in the room are the frenzied bleeps and dings from the TV speakers. I have no idea if he’s thinking about the answer or if he’s just concentrating on the game. We’ve reached the trickiest part of this track, and I’m right on his ass. If I can just get a useful weapon to take him out, or if he’ll make the tiniest of mistakes, I’ll pass him and take the lead.
“More like five,” he says eventually. “The first year you were dating Fuckface, and we weren’t exactly friends back then.”
“Right.” Fuckface is my ex, Matt Nolan, who was Jay’s dorm roommate and best friend when we met. Matt, my ex-boyfriend from college who cheated on me and pulverized my heart, so yeah, he earned that nickname and then some.
But Matt has nothing to do with this conversation.
This conversation that I probably should end now while I still can. Before I say something that can’t be unsaid.
The thing is, I have a really hard time not speaking my mind. It’s a genetic condition that I inherited from my grandma. Jay never believed me when I used that excuse…until he actually met her.
Ask him. Now.
I swallow hard. And then I say, “So in those six or seven years or whatever, have you ever thought about having sex with me?”
The couch cushions bounce. He’s clicking furiously on his game controller, as if he lost his grip for a second. I don’t dare look at him, even though I’m dying to know how he’s taking it. Maybe I can just play it off. Idle curiosity, right? I mean, if friends can’t ask each other questions like that, what’s the point in being friends?
The pizza really isn’t sitting well. Shouldn’t have had pepperoni. I always regret pepperoni, and then I forget. What do you call that? Selective memory?
I sneak a sideways glance at him. Well, I try to be sneaky about it, but he catches me. Because he’s staring at me. He’s completely still, rigid even, and he’s looking at me with his mouth set in a thin line, a blank look in his eyes.
His pale eyes that sometimes look blue and other times look gray, but always sharp and direct—soul-burrowing eyes, gleaming with an intense intelligence. They’re a perfect reflection of his personality, those eyes, and meeting his gaze can be a lot like looking at the sun. Usually I can only do it for a second before I have to turn away.
“What the hell, Mia?” He’s looking back and forth between the TV and me. “Are you serious?”
Somehow we both manage to stay on course. Shaking my controller to get the speed boost while my character’s making a jump, I decide I might as well go all in. “Yeah, I am. Because the other thing the article said was that most men in the study were attracted to their female friends, and they thought the attraction was mutual. But most of the women were not attracted to their male friends, and they had no idea the men actually wanted to have sex with them.”
A peek at Jay shows him with his attention on the game, jaw clenched and slowly shaking his head. “I’m gonna change your Wi-Fi password.”
“Sure. Because that’s the only way I can get on the Internet. Could you just answer the question?”
“No.” He sounds sullen. And then he erupts. “Motherf—ahhh!”
He’s taken a turn badly and is falling off the track. My character zooms into first place, only seconds away from the finish line. I can’t help but throw him a triumphant grin as I win.
With a glare at me, he tosses his controller aside, gets up, and stomps off. The bathroom door slams shut, and I roll my eyes. Still, in all fairness, I can’t judge. I would probably have thrown an equally embarrassing tantrum if our roles had been reversed. We’re both sore losers.
Jay comes back out of the bathroom—a powder room for guests that lets me have a master bath attached to my bedroom, the main reason I chose this apartment complex. I like my private stuff private. The open floor plan, vaulted ceiling, and oversize kitchen with a small solid-surface island didn’t hurt, either.
As he goes to the kitchen, I pick up his controller and press the buttons to see the final game scores. My fingers feel kind of numb. Maybe we can just pretend this never happened? The conversation, that is. Beating him…that I reserve the right to gloat about for the foreseeable future.
I don’t want to forget about it, though. I’ve been itching to talk about it for a reason.
I hear my fridge smack shut, some rummaging in a drawer, and the clinking of metal on glass. Jay saunters back into the living room carrying another bottle of beer, and the leather creaks as he throws himself back down on the couch.
A knot of tension settles between my shoulders. “Was that the last one?”
He pauses with the beer halfway to his mouth and, looking sheepish, holds it out to me. “I’ll share it with you?”
“You’re so rude.” My tone doesn’t reflect it, but I’m genuinely annoyed. Why, though? It’s not like he hasn’t raided my refrigerator before. I don’t care, and he knows that.
“You’ve got a real job,” he points out, moving the bottle up to his lips. “I’m still a starving resident.”
Can’t really argue with that. I got my APRN certification last year, and now I’m working as a women’s health nurse practitioner. It pays well—really well—much better than Jay’s second-year emergency medicine residency at the university hospital, but it’s on the tip of my tongue to comment that he’s hardly making minimum wage. I’m not looking for a fight, though, so I don’t.
Plus he has a brutal student loan payment that leaves little extra for unnecessary stuff. Like alcohol.
And honestly, I really don’t give a crap about the beer. I’ve got enough self-awareness to recognize that I’m irritated for an entirely different reason.
“When you start raking in the big bucks,” I say lightly, “I’m going to expect some payback.”
“I’ll take you out to dinner. Someplace fancy, with tablecloths.” He flashes me his quick, lopsided smile—that I’m-too-charming-for-you-to-really-be-mad-at-me smile. Grabbing a coaster from the small stack on my coffee table, he sets the bottle down. My heart does a little happy flip. He’s not a coaster kind of guy. He thinks they’re for ridiculous, overly fussy people. But when he’s at my place, I never have to remind him to use one.
Snatching his controller back from my hands, he asks, “Ready to play?”
“No, I’m done.”
“Okay.” He shoots me an inscrutable look. “Another episode of House then?”
“Nah.” I pick up my universal remote and flick the power button. “I want to talk about this.”
Jay scowls at me for a second, and then he looks at his wristwatch. The sleek stainless steel Omega watch was a med school graduation present from his uncle, and it’s a beautiful, expensive watch, but still. He never leaves his cell phone out of reach long enough for him to really need a watch, and right now he’s just using it to make a point.
“It’s getting pretty late,” he says. “I’m working tomorrow. Yamada asked me to switch shifts with him.”
Funny. He wasn’t in a hurry when he wanted to keep playing video games or when he suggested watching TV. If he thinks I’m going to let this go that easily, he’s smoking something. “Are you secretly attracted to me?”
He finally turns his full attention on me. No more evasion. If only he wasn’t giving me the stink eye to trump all stink eyes in the history of the world. Coldly, he asks, “Why are you doing this?”
I shrug. “I just want to know.”
He sighs. Picks up the beer and takes a big swig, then sets it back on the table. Slouching down farther on the couch, he rubs his eyes and says, “How can I answer that?”
“Uh. With a yes or no?”
He lets his hands drop, and this time when he points his head toward me again, he just looks miserable. “If I say yes, everything will be awkward. We’ll slowly stop hanging out until we’re not friends anymore. But if I say no, you’ll get all butt hurt about it and wonder why I don’t think you’re attractive. I can’t win.”
Ugh. My leg twitches. I really want to kick him. “Why can’t you just tell me the truth? I’m a big girl. I can handle it, I promise.”
“No,” he snaps. “Jesus.”
I’m biting the inside of my cheek as I watch him reach for the bottle again. He tips his head back, and his Adam’s apple bobs as he downs the rest of the beer. So much for sharing. My blood pressure rises—the back of my head starts throbbing, and I’m breathing as if we’re at ten thousand feet.
Well, if I drop the subject now, he’ll win. I never let him win, not without a fight. My next thought is hard to vocalize, though, and while I’m saying it, I feel like I’m marching naked into a high school cafeteria: “But what if you say you have fantasized about having sex with me, and I say I have, too?”
For a few seconds, he just gives me this blank, intense look that sends a shiver down my spine. Then something flashes in his eyes, and my gut churns when I recognize it. He’s pissed. And when Jay is pissed, he gets mean.
“You’ve fantasized about having sex with yourself?” he bites out. “Isn’t that what your vibrator is for?”
My cheeks are burning. No, I’m not being bashful. This is Jay. I’ve asked him to buy me tampons before, for Pete’s sake. It’s just that I’m really not emotionally or intellectually prepared to actually have a fight with him.
“You knew what I meant,” I say as calmly as I can muster.
He opens his mouth, and my heart almost stops while I wait for him to say whatever’s on his mind. But then he just shakes his head, pushes up off the couch, and says, “I’m out.”
Oh-kay. I’ve screwed up this time, haven’t I? Screwed up bad.
I jump up and follow him to the door. Is it too late for damage control? “I’m not trying to ruin our friendship or anything.”
“Could’ve fooled me.” He shoves his tanned, bare feet into his flip-flops.
“Are we still running on Sunday?” I ask as he opens the door.
Stopping right outside, he turns back. He rests his elbow on the doorframe and leans in, leveling a deadpan look at me. “Are you going to drop this topic?”
Am I? I suppose I should. This is my chance to let it go. He’s obviously willing to forget all about it.
But I can’t. I just can’t. Not when he’s standing there in the cascading light from the porch lamp, looking exactly like himself—tall and athletic Jay, dark-haired and pale-eyed Jay, the smartest and nicest guy I’ve ever known. My best friend, without a doubt.
My best friend, who I really want to fuck.
I swallow hard and answer, “Probably not.”
He sighs. His lips curl. Yup, he’s still angry. “I’ve got a long day at work tomorrow. I’ll text you.”
I keep the door open with my shoulder as he jogs down the stairs and strides away on the paved walkway, disappearing in the darkness. It’s humid out there tonight, and it smells like rain—a sweet and pungent aroma that we don’t experience a lot in SoCal, especially with the drought of the past few years. There’s a nip in the air, and it’s too cold for the tank top I’m wearing with my short jean shorts. Goose bumps start at the back of my neck and spread down my arms.
Come back. The words become a chant in my head. Come back, come back, come back.
Come back and kiss me.
Come back and tell me you want me.
He doesn’t, though. Of course he doesn’t.