Chapter 23 – Under The Table

I expected…something. A very practical tub of water to jolt me out of this delirium maybe. Fuck safety? Fuck tequila.

For the last two days, Brent and I acted like any couple in the early stages of a relationship - we seemed to have a problem keeping our hands off each other. Not that we were making out every five minutes or so. Brent has never been big on public displays of affection. Well, I've never seen him being overly eager to return the clingy advances of his bunnies. But for some odd reason, he was just…different with me. A bold statement, I know, but having known him for the better (bitter?) part of three years, everything he did these days was already leagues away from his normal asshat behavior; a constant arm around my shoulders, fingers sometimes grazing the skin on my back where my jeans met my shirt, occasionally linking his hand with mine, kissing my forehead at random moments.

While I recorded everything in my brain in great detail as my nerve endings were shot to hell.

He's been touchier than normal ever since this whole thing started but we were touching each other now of our own volition. The tension was driving me crazy. I could tell it was making him nuts too. There were moments when we grin at each other from across the table and end up just staring while the rest of my old crowd hooted and hollered about something we weren't paying attention to.

That, right there, was enough to freak me out. A classic rom-com cliché scene. Come on. I've never had that kind of crazy connection with anyone, even with Justin. It was the sort of complete horse shit that 13-year olds fell for. And I was too old to believe in the hot-arrogant-guy-falls-for-bitchy-frenemy fairy tale. But I had no idea what to expect because we were breaching unknown territory. I've never been on the business end of a matchstick.

I broke eye contact, i.e. eye fucking, each and every time. I had to. I was at the point of not caring where our actions would lead us and it was that slight moment of recklessness that always made me pull back and think about what we were doing. Because that's who I was. I always found the crooked tile that threw off the whole floor design. The cynic in me continued to take an almost indignant stance that it was all too good to be true. If I returned any of the gazillion messages Toni left on my voice mail, she would just cement the idea that I was in over my head. Why was I stressing about it anyway? Brent and I haven't even talked about whatever the hell this was yet.

Yeah, that might be the only thing that was holding me back from jumping the guy.

I still had no idea how he felt about me. Okay, I knew he wanted to sleep with me. But I didn't know if he felt anything more than that. Malcolm was right. I was scared shitless that Brent would run away if I told him how I really felt. Maybe all we had was an intense urge to bang each other.

But everything in me screamed that there was something there, that we had something more if we only gave it a chance.

My phone rang in my hands, interrupting my melodramatic thoughts.

"What the fuck, Del!"

I held the phone away from my ear and squinted at Toni's picture on the screen. "We haven't spoken in days and that's the first thing you say to me?"

"And whose fault is that? You haven't returned any of my messages. But I'm not calling about that. Have you seen your Facebook feed lately?"

I snorted. "Toni, it's six in the fucking morning. It's not exactly a priority. Besides, I haven't checked it for days. What's happening?"

"Nothing. There's just a picture of you and Brent kissing like there's no tomorrow in some bar. Again, what the fuck?"

I winced. "Who posted it?"

"Your friend, Diane. So you're really doing this, huh?"

"That picture was days ago."

"That didn't really answer my question."

I bit my lip. I knew Toni wouldn't take this lightly. Hell, I wasn't taking it lightly myself and if I was being completely honest with myself, I didn't really want my friend's opinion about me to change. So I wanted to delay the inevitable truth-telling.

"I don't even know what you're asking me. Anyway, it was just a kiss," I said dismissively.

"I believe there are about 200 comments on your wall that would like to disagree with you on that."

I rolled my eyes. "People have too much time on their hands is what it is." I stood up to reach the top cupboard shelf for my favorite cereal. "So what's up with you? Tell me all about what you've been doing."

Toni remained silent. I pulled the phone from my ear to check if the line was still on. "Toni?"

"Del, you know you can trust me right?"


"So cut the crap and get over this denial thing you seem to think is a cool look for you."

I looked up at the ceiling. Goddamit. "Fuck you and your one-track mind, woman."

She laughed. "Del, we've been friends for years. I know a lie by omission when I hear one. So spill."

Caught. I blew out a breath I didn't know I was holding. "Promise not to freak out."

"Holy shit, you're kidding me. Are you pregnant?" She yelled.

I groaned in frustration. "Pregnant? Fuck, would you just listen to me?"

"I am listening. You just sounded like you were about to announce some life-changing event."

Life-changing. Huh. How...theatrical but still somehow apt. "Remember two years ago, when we made that 9-ball bet with a couple of truckers at that dive bar in Jersey that I could pocket all balls in under five minutes?"

"Yeah, we bet the clothes on our backs. I'll forever blame the three bottles of Jack for that night. I was ready to leave your ass in the last ten seconds because you were still prepping to shoot the ninth." She laughed. "Anyway, what's that got to do with what we're talking about?"

"Well, my life right now kind of feels like those last ten seconds."

There was a long pause.

"Okay, it's waaaay to early for euphemisms, Del. Explain."

"Toni, I think…I think I'm seriously fucked this time." I could hear the panic in my voice. "I'm losing it so I really need your help to get out of here. I need to get away. Make up some story that my parents would believe on why I have to cut my vacation short. I can't stay here. I need you-"

"Whoa, hold up," Toni cut me off. "Take a deep breath, girl because you're starting to sound crazy."

"Thank you for stating the obvious!" I cried. I immediately regretted it because I think my brain just short-circuited.

She sighed. "So I guess it's time to check yourself in at Norwalk General's psych ward, huh?"

I closed my eyes in response, recalling our long-ago conversation when I was still confident that I would survive this experience with my heart intact. I knew Toni couldn't see me but I just couldn't bring myself to confirm the horrifying nightmare that just came out of her mouth.

"I can hear you spiraling." She chuckled. "Melodramatic much? Well, you can't say you didn't see this coming. I did. You're always forced to be in each other's company. You had to know feelings would eventually develop."

"You knew this how? In one of those cheap romance novels you always read?"

Toni pretended to gasp in outrage. "Adelle Trinity Martinez, how dare you. As if you don't keep hundreds of Judith McNaught novels under your bed."

"I don't," I clipped out. "They're arranged neatly on my bookshelf."

We both laughed, abating the tension a bit that had my body stretched taut.

"Del, it's not the end of the world. It's been what? Three, four weeks? Maybe that's not even real. What made you think it's different anyway?"

"I don't know," I hedged. "I mean, nothing's really different but nothing's the same either. I don't know how to explain it. He's still an asshole but…it's almost like he's changed how he handles me. I'm used to him touching me all the time whenever Mac and Lori are around but he does that now even if they're not there. He," I paused. "He didn't have sex with me when I got drunk the other night."

There was a long silence and then Toni burst out laughing. "You're in serious trouble if you're lamenting over a lost opportunity for an orgasm."

"Fuck you," I said flatly. "It was an example of how much our relationship has changed. I mean, I can't be the only one affected by whatever this is, right? I don't know. Maybe I'm really going crazy. Delusional. What the hell was I thinking?"

"Maybe you're right. So you fell for someone who's all wrong for you. No, wait. Actually, you guys are a match made in heaven with your commitment issues."

"Who said anything about falling? Toni, this is Brent we're talking about. I'd rather poke my eye than have serious feelings for the guy."

But even as I said it, I could feel beads of cold sweat trailing down my spine as the full range of my feelings filtered through my mind. It was not a possibility I was ready for so I shut it down immediately.

"Sure," she said, disbelief laced in her tone. "Then why are we having this conversation?"

"I just like him, okay? There's a huge difference. What am I going to do, Toni? I'm not supposed to like him. We're supposed to just play our roles and be done with each other in a few months."

"Note that you've said 'supposed' twice in the last 5 seconds," she stated. "Is it the sex?"

"We haven't had sex since the night of Malcolm and Lori's engagement party."

"Holy hell, you really like him," she whispered.

"Not helping, Toni," I said loudly.

"Okay, so you like him. Weird but not completely calamitous. Own it. I've been watching you run for years whenever the guy you're dating is already too into you or vice versa. So just, you know, see this through."

"Malcolm and Lori said the same thing. How much of a tease was I?" I mused. "And Brent and I are not dating."

Toni snorted. "Enough to make some guys wonder if you're batting for the other team. And you and Brent are practically dating anyway. Accept the fact that he got under your skin, babe. So does this mean you're not into Malcolm anymore? Because I can't say this enough - I never understood why you had such intense feelings for him. He doesn't deserve that much attention yet you've built him up to be some kind of ideal boyfriend or something. If he's your ideal then any guy should be better-"

"Okay, Toni, I get it," I said through gritted teeth. "For the record, I never said he's my ideal boyfriend. I just thought that we'd have worked because of our history so maybe he'd treat me differently. And…I don't know, he understands me like no other guy I've ever dated. So I compared every guy to him."

She groaned. "For the record, you just described a fallback plan. He's a routine, Del. A bad habit you need to break. You've got this skewed version of Malcolm in your head. Like he'd somehow change for you. It's ridiculous. Every rom-com film known to man will tell you you're being ridiculous. You've got to stop holding yourself back for someone who will never return your feelings, Del."

I sat dumbstruck then I laughed. My life was so fucked that I was getting lessons on how not to screw up my love life further from someone who ran faster than me from relationships. "Thank you for handing me my ass, Toni. Yes, I'm an idiot. I should have realized this ages ago but there you go. You don't have to worry about me still having feelings for him because obviously, I wouldn't be worrying about Brent. Well, myself, really."

She chuckled. "Look, you're in this already so what the hell. I know I'm not the best person to talk to about relationships and I get how you feel because I run faster than you." Wow, did she just read my mind? "But I think you're ready to get hurt when things don't work out with someone you actually took seriously."

"Preach. But why Brent of all people? Jesus," I cursed.

"He's hot," she quipped.

"I know."

Toni burst out laughing. "Excuse me for celebrating the moment you finally agreed with me on Brent. God, I kind of hate you right now. All that manflesh within your reach."

"You talk like you don't have a man waiting on your bed right now."

"You know what I mean," she chided. "Hey, maybe it'll work out, Del. Maybe he'll forget about that bitch and be with you instead. Sparks could not have flown higher in that picture."

I laughed humorlessly. "Not a chance in hell. You forgot that he orchestrated this entire thing to get Lori. You don't have to make me feel better. I get that I'm in deep shit. That's why I asked you to get me out of here."

"I'm not going to enable your insanity. Grow a spine and deal with it."

"Fine," I growled. "I'll get over this. I have an entire semester to do it."

"Or you could just tell him how you feel and boink each other to end all boinks thereafter."

"I admire your colorful vocabulary," I said wryly. "Okay, I'll let you get back to Drake. I'd hate for you to hold his blue balls over my head."

She laughed. "As long as you're okay now. Are you okay?"

I shrugged. "I will be. See you when I get back."

We said our goodbyes and I stared up at the ceiling again, even more confused than before Toni called.

"What's so interesting about our ceiling, honey?"

I almost fell off the stool at the sudden intrusion. What is with people and interruptions today? "Ma! Don't sneak up on me like that."

I twisted in my seat and spotted my mother on the open doorway of our kitchen. She was already suited up in her regulation knee-length pencil black skirt, a matching jacket and a white buttoned-down blouse underneath. A quick look at the wall clock above the fridge confirmed that it was half past six. She always left for work at this hour.

Eyes behind glasses scanned my face in amusement. "I don't sneak around in my own house." She walked across the kitchen and pulled the fridge open. "Besides, I thought you heard me. Heels are known to make a sound on tile floors."

"How long have you been standing behind me?" I was afraid she heard a word of my conversation with Toni.

"Long enough to wonder if you were wishing for breakfast to fall on your face."

I expelled a quiet sigh of relief. She shook her head as she inspected the fridge's contents, probably frowning at the amount of take-away boxes I lodged in there in the past week. Ma loathed Chinese and I loved to tease her with my food choices.

I grabbed the cereal box and milk carton beside the bowl in front of me and pretended to concentrate on splashing the right amount of milk onto a hefty mound of cereal. I didn't want to meet the knowing eyes of my mother once she tore her eyes away from the stacked cartons. Her bullshit radar knew no bounds.

She put down her laptop bag on the table and poured herself a cup of the coffee from the fresh pot I brewed half an hour ago. "Thanks for this."

I shrugged, continuing to mix my cereal and milk. "No problem. I woke up early."

"A miracle. What are you doing up at this hour on your vacation?"

"Nothing. Just thinking about stuff."

"You mean stuff like your boyfriend."

I rolled my eyes, finally looking up. "It is highly possible that I could be thinking about school or what I'd do after graduation. After all, you're spending an exorbitant amount of money on me for higher learning."

"Yes, it is. But you already know what you're going to do after graduation. You even know what firm you'll be in after law school. That's not what's got you so worked up." She raised an eyebrow as if to punctuate her speech.

"You're not omniscient," I grumbled.

"No, I'm not. But I do know my own daughter." She smiled. "So tell me, what are you thinking about?"

"I'm just…on the fence about something."

Well, hell. I practically launched myself into the proverbial trap. Damn mother and her misdirects. Though she didn't give any outward sign that she knew something was wrong, I felt the slight change in the air. Birds actually chirped. She was gearing up for a cross-examination. And I was on the witness stand this time.

Thanks, mouth.

She eyed me over the rim of her favorite mug, feigning indifference. Cookie Monster glared at me from her hands, acting like her alter ego. "Hmmm. Seems like it's something big. Anything I can do to help?"

I shook my head and busied myself with shoveling food into my mouth. "It's not a big deal."

"People usually say that when it is."

"Well, it's not."

"Sure, dear." She was using that passive-aggressive tone that I hated. I knew that she knew that I knew what she was doing.

"Stop it, Ma. We're not in a courtroom. Don't treat me like a witness."

"On the contrary, I would've had my answer 5 minutes ago if I did treat you like one." She tapped a finger on her cup. "And you should never say things like that in a court of law. It just puts you immediately on the defensive."

I pretended to take in my surroundings. "I swear this was a kitchen minutes ago. When did it suddenly turn into a classroom?"

She gave me a thin-lipped smile. "And being sarcastic is also a tell-tale sign to your opponent that they're getting to you."

I held my hands up in surrender. "Okay, fine. I give up. You're the master of mind games. I should call you headmaster from now on."

"I pity your future professors at law school. Remind me to send them a gift basket before the start of each semester." She shook her head, chuckling under her breath. "Whatever it is you're hiding, you can tell me when you're ready. By the way, as I've mentioned earlier this week, your father and I will be flying out to New York at 10 this morning. Don't forget to-"

I slapped a hand to my forehead. It was just then that I noticed the suitcase she had rolling behind her. "Right. It's Friday."

"-leave the keys for the housekeeper. I left money by the phone for the boy who mows our lawn. Please give it to him this afternoon when he drops by," she continued as if she hadn't heard me and only stopped to check her watch. Upon seeing the time, she placed her unfinished cup on the sink and reached for the handle of her laptop bag. She turned to me with a wistful look on her face.

"Your father and I would be heading straight to the airport from the office. He's still upstairs snoring so you still have a chance to say goodbye. I'm going in early as usual to finish some paperwork. I'm sorry we didn't spend a lot of time together this week, Del. I wish you came home earlier or you didn't spend the summer at school at all. You could've gone with us to Hawaii-"

I got up and squeezed her shoulder to stop the rant that I've already heard a million times. "It's okay, Ma. I understand the demands of your job."

"Did you just stealthily make me out to be the guilty party here?"

I widened my eyes. "Where would I learn stealth, Ma? I mean, I've only grown up with lawyers who like turning dinners into debate tournaments."

"Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit." She laughed. "And speaking of demands, you're going to have to deal with the same thing when you join the firm, dear."

I flashed her a cheeky grin. "Maybe. But I can always not get married so I don't have to juggle a job and a family."

"And Brent is okay with that?"

I burst out laughing. "Ma, we just became a couple. I'm pretty sure neither of us is thinking of wedding bells." My eyes went wide with realization. "Oh my God, I can't believe I forgot to tell you. Mac and Lori are getting married. That's why he took her on this trip. So he could introduce her to the family."

"Yes, I heard from Christie about a week ago. Couldn't stop talking about it. Lori's a nice girl. But aren't they a bit too young to get married?"

I shrugged. "Their choice. I'm not sure Mrs. BB shares your opinion of Lori. Family dinner the other night was kind of hell."

My mother laughed. "Stop calling her Mrs. BB. Oh, she likes her. Christie just expresses her…affection differently."

I raised my eyebrows. "Didn't seem that way. Anyway, yeah, they're doing it after graduation."

"Hmmm." She looked at me thoughtfully. "And how do you feel about that?"

I stared back at her. If she had asked me this a month ago, I would've broken down, crying. "Am I supposed to feel something? I told you nothing's going on between me and Malcolm."

"Of course," she said, eyes twinkling. "Because of Brent."

I sighed and rolled my eyes. Props to my mother for reverting the subject to Brent just when I thought she'd get caught up in asking about Malcolm and Lori.

"Do you know why I always question every boy who showed interest in you?"

"I already do. You want me to be an old maid and die alone."

Her lips quirked into a droll smile. "I wanted to see how you'll react when I interrogate them."


I stared at her. "Explain."

"With the others, I could tell that you ran them through my standard questions. What their parents did, where they were from, etcetera. You had them down pat. The answers were so rehearsed that I had to throw you off sometimes with an odd question or two. The boys practically sweated blood by how much you gouged them with your eyes when they missed an answer. Even that boy you dated for a few years got the same treatment. But with Brent-"

A car screeched by and she paused to glance out the window for a moment before turning back to me, eyes rolling. "Kids these days. Just the other day, I saw a sedan fly into a curb because the driver didn't have the foresight to break for a particularly large street bump-"


"Oh, right. Brent." When her eyes twinkled, I realized that she tried to distract me on purpose just to see if she had my attention. Shit. Head-fucking-mastered.

"You wanted him drawn and quartered. Like you were also curious about his answers too. Why is that?"

Double shit.

I pretended to check my fingernails to school my face into a blank expression before looking up. "I have no idea what you're talking about. If my dates sounded rehearsed, that's certainly out of my control."

"So you're saying you never prepped them?"

"That's not what I'm saying."

"Why prep them and not Brent?"

"I never said I didn't prep him."

"You're going to make a fantastic lawyer." She raised her eyebrows. "Or at the very least, a wily criminal."

"Well, thanks for the boost in confidence, Ma."

"Brent isn't merely just another boy, huh?"

I furrowed my eyebrows. "No, Ma. He's my boyfriend. Of course, he isn't just another boy."

"You do love your word play." She grinned and pecked me on the cheek before moving towards the door that led to the garage. "Well, I'm off. If you need anything, just tell Mary when she picks up the keys later. Don't forget to lock up the house when you go out tonight. Have a safe trip back to Connecticut. Call me before you leave for school."

"Okay, Ma." I was already on the sink, washing the dishes.

"And Del?"

I looked up and found her watching me, a knowing expression on her face. "It's okay not to be sure all the time. The best things in life always catch us off-guard. Going with your gut doesn't guarantee you safety but it does bring you happiness."

Then she was out the door, not giving me a chance to react.

I reacted anyway. "Walking out after delivering some thought-provoking line isn't even popular in movies anymore, Ma!" I called out.

"You still thought it was thought-provoking!" She shot back, mocking me with her laughter.

How the hell do mothers always know everything?!

"Ha!" I exploded as I pushed the last button of Lynyrd Skynyrd's 'Free Bird' into the plastic guitar I was gripping. "Fifty bucks, please. You died halfway through that solo."

"Now that's just plain stealing. I didn't know you were going to go fucking expert on me," Brent grumbled while pulling his wallet from the back pocket of his jeans, still looking like a badass even with the toy guitar dangling awkwardly from the strap around his neck. "Guitar Hero sucks ass right now."

I clucked my tongue at him. "Don't be a sore loser. Hand it over." I grabbed the folded bill he tucked between his index and middle finger and stuffed it into the back pocket of my shorts. "What song do you want to play next?"

Dead silence. I turned and found him eyeing my legs. "Brent."

He looked up, his dark gaze penetrating. "This is unfair. I can't concentrate with you wearing shorts like that. They're too…short."

My mouth went dry. I hurriedly reached for the controller to hide my heated reaction to his words. "Sucks to be you, man." And then I rolled up my shorts another inch.

He groaned in response. "Fuck."

I laughed. "Okay, how about 'Cliffs of Dover'? That's easier for the likes of pussies like you."

We've been egging each other on for the past two hours at the basement of my house after Malcolm and Lori left. We were just binging on junk and playing pool, when Lori suddenly got the bright idea about going on a museum tour.

A museum tour. Please. I could tell that she just wanted to get him alone. Sing it with me – afternoon delight.

Malcolm wanted to stay when he saw me unearthing the Playstation from the cabinet I kept it in. But upon seeing the firm set of Lori's jaw, he kept his mouth shut and meekly followed her to the car while Brent and I snickered the whole time.

Brent held his hands up and dropped into the couch behind him. "I give up. You win. Let's watch a movie. I can't take the ego-bashing anymore."

I tugged the strap off my shoulder and put the guitar down on one of the side tables. "Okay, but I get to pick the movie," I said, grabbing the remote beside the TV screen.

"Please not The Notebook."

"Are you kidding me? I was going to say the Titanic," I deadpanned, positioning myself on the couch by his side.

"At least update your ultimate chick flick movie to, say, this century."

"I think the story's great…the characters…"

He glanced at me and when I couldn't say anything more, he raised an eyebrow. "Do you even know the names of the characters?"

I bit my lip to keep from laughing and shrugged. "Who cares? DiCaprio is hot."

He shook his head. "You and about the rest of the world." He snatched the remote from my hand and thumbed through the list of movies on Netflix. "Fine. The Titanic then. News flash: It's going to be a sinker."

"Your attempts at figure of speech amuse me," I drawled. "I was just kidding. Choose something else. I have no desire to see the dadbod today. I want explosions and shit."

"I thought you were a chick flick kind of girl."

I snorted. "Just because my favorite movie is a chick flick doesn't make me a 'chick flick kind of girl'," I said, my fingers scratching the air with quote marks. "And what does a chick flick kind of girl look like anyway? I like all kinds of movies. You can't tell me you don't like some chick flicks. Or you're just afraid to admit it because it'll hurt your masculinity or something."

"Whoa. Rant?" He threw me a disbelieving look and laughed. "I swear to God, the smallest shit gets a rise out of you."

"Because you say the stupidest shit sometimes," I muttered. I forgot all about my mini-outburst a second later when Brent picked John Wick. "Oooohhh I haven't seen that yet. Nice choice."

I kicked off my flip-flops and lay back on the couch. I had to grab a throw pillow to put under my back so I wouldn't get a crick in my neck. I had no idea why my parents bought a couch that was practically a bed already.

"This is a really great couch," Brent commented as he leaned back, casting an arm on top of the backrest behind my head.

"The couch is for giants, dude. My feet are nowhere near the ground," I grumbled as I fluffed the pillow behind me.

"Well, I like it. I think I'm going to buy one just like this when we get back home."

"Said no college student ever-" I got disrupted when a couch pillow hit my face. I shoved Brent to the far side of the couch, laughing. "You oversensitive, douche!"

"Shut up and watch the movie."

I shook my head, still smiling. We both looked up when the doorbell chimed.

"What time is it?"

Brent checked his watch. "Two. Why?"

"That must be the lawnmower guy. Stay here. I'll get the door."

"And the popcorn," Brent called out as I bounded up the stairs.

I grabbed the money my mother left on the glass table by the foyer and opened the door to a boy who was about to ring the doorbell again. An impatient boy judging by the annoyed look on his face.

"Sorry, I was at the basement. You the one who mows the lawn?"

He took one look at me and his mouth fell open. When he didn't say anything, I frowned and looked down at myself. I didn't have any food stains on my clothes, did I?

While I was busy checking for any obvious spatters on my shirt, he finally stuttered a greeting, "H-hi."

I looked up and flashed him a bright smile. "Hi. You're here for payment, right?"

He nodded. He couldn't have been a day older than 14. By the way his shirt hung awkwardly on his frame, how it was both too big and too small for him, he was going through a growth spurt. "I didn't know you were home."

The kid said it like he knew me. I didn't know him from Adam. I eyed him warily as I gripped the doorknob. "I didn't know I was supposed to inform strangers."

"Oh." He cleared out his throat, a faint blush staining his neck. "I live a few blocks from here. You used to babysit me when I was seven."

Images of me chasing down a giggling little carrot top for stealing cookies before bedtime flashed through my brain. My eyes widened in shock. "Shawn Lafferty? Oh my God, I didn't recognize you!" I stepped outside and pulled him in for a hug. He was only half a head shorter than me and in a few years, I bet he would eclipse me completely. "How are you? How are your folks?"

He smiled and flushed a brilliant shade of red, almost mirroring his hair and making his freckles stand out. "I'm okay, Del. Parents are fine too. I haven't seen you for the last three summers."

I made a face. Yet another reminder that I wasted a lot of precious time pining over my best friend. I nudged his ribs with my elbow. "If I didn't know any better, I'd think you've been stalking me."

I didn't know a person's face could go any redder but Shawn certainly beat the odds. Huh. I guess he still hasn't gotten over his crush on me. I wanted to tease him about it but I was afraid of him dying of mortification on the spot.

"I…uhh…I wasn't. I was just…you know…I haven't seen you-"

I chuckled. "Chill. I know what you mean." I handed him the money. "Here. Thanks for mowing the lawn. Knowing my mother, she probably had you doing it twice a week."

He nodded, aqua blue eyes lighting up as he laughed. I noted the difference that a smile made on his face. If he got over his shyness, the little shit was going to be a heartbreaker someday.

"Pay's great. Your mom gives big tips."

I shook my head, laughing with him. I was about to ask him about school, when I saw movement out of the corner of my eye.

"Preying on kids now, Del?" Brent's sarcastic voice shot out from the doorway. "Hey man, what's up?"

I glanced behind me to find him with his hands over the top of the door, making his biceps stand out in sharp relief under his loose green shirt. A sliver of tanned skin peeked between his low-slung jeans and shirt as it rode up, hinting of the deep V between his thighs. A foggy memory of me tracing that V with my tongue as he fisted my hair popped in my head. I almost lost my breath as I tried to shove that sudden piece of recollection from that night to the back of my mind. Jesus Christ, when will I ever forget that whole event? Just when I thought I already put the whole thing behind me, my mind finds a way to fuck with itself.

Shawn looked at Brent then back at me. "Hey." His eyes noticeably cooled as he assessed Brent from head to toe. I understood his frosty appearance a moment later when he asked, "Where's Mac? You know, your boyfriend?"

I almost smiled at how he was silently judging me. I cocked my head to the side. "You remember Mac?"

"Of course," he said, still frowning. "He always told me where you hid the cookies."

I rolled my eyes and gestured to Brent. "This is Brent, my boyfriend. Brent, this is Shawn, a neighbor I used to babysit."

He crossed his arms and nodded at Shawn while the latter raised both eyebrows in surprise. "I thought…Mac was always…"

"What? He was always what?"

"He was always looking at you," he muttered. "I mean who would willingly babysit a kid without money involved?"

I turned to find Brent watching me, an invisible wall flying between us as a guarded expression overtook his face. A wall that I haven't seen for the past few days. Shawn's admission should have made me happy that I wasn't alone in my feelings for Malcolm. It just confirmed everything Brent kept on insisting was true about what my best friend really felt for me. Instead, I was worried about how Brent would react, if I should even pacify him when we've been avoiding the topic of us like the plague.

I spoke to Shawn, still staring at Brent. "Mac and I were never together. We're just friends and we'll stay that way."

Brent narrowed his eyes at me when he caught the tail-end of what I said. But his body visibly relaxed, the hardened set of his jaw easing and the lines of tension leaving his shoulders. He wasn't smiling but he didn't look like he was holding his breath anymore. It probably seemed like muted jealous rage to Shawn.

I focused my attention back on my neighbor, who was regarding us both anxiously, realizing that he probably said too much. "When did you suddenly grow up, huh? Ballsy little shit." I punched him on the shoulder playfully and laughed.

He shook his head and gave a guilty smile. "Sorry, I have trouble keeping my thoughts to myself. Mom told me to just shut up and listen since I'd get more information that way."

I nodded in approval. "Your mom is a wise woman," I said as I began shuffling back to the house. "Anyway, we have to get back to our movie. It was nice seeing you, Shawn."

I barely registered Shawn saying goodbye and taking off because I was locked into a staring contest with Brent. I knew that whatever would happen from here on out would dramatically change our dynamic. I felt the onset of a panic attack as I thought about what to say to him.

This is really it. What if I'm just deluding myself? I can't do this! This isn't what I signed up for-

Brent grasped my hand and tugged me inside, effectively shutting up the voice in my head. The sound of the door closing seemed to set off an EMP bomb in the house. The silence between us was so absolute that I could hear the carpet fibers bending as we strode down to the basement. I muted the TV, plunging us into an even more awkward silence. We both sat on opposite ends of the couch and stared, waiting for each other to speak.

I had a tendency to over-analyze a situation but, fuck, this wasn't exactly a regular one. I prayed for sanity because I was seriously considering that I may not be alone in wanting to take our relationship to the next level. Or at least, making it real. To reach that point though, I have to actually admit I had feelings for him.

Fucking feelings.

Confessions were pretty heady stuff in movies; even I bought a line or two. Who can forget Melvin Udall's unexpected compliment ("You make me want to be a better man.") or Holden McNeil in the throes of unrequited love ("If this is a crush, I don't think I could take it if the real thing ever happened.")? Personally though, I was not in a hurry to witness the funeral of my dignity and pride. But I knew that it was time to deal with our shit. If all Brent wanted from me was a quick fuck, then it would be better that I find out now and just screw this out of our system than down the road, when my feelings would practically leak out of me.

But if that was all that he wanted, why would he even bother with the slow seduction, charming my friends to the point of me being frequently subjected to envious stares, making me lose whatever ground I had on the road to skepticism because I was starting to believe we were possible?

Because he had to make it look believable for Malcolm and Lori.

And therein lay the problem. I didn't know if he still wanted Lori. That was enough of a bitch-slap as far as reality checks went.

I cleared out my throat. "So I guess it's time to talk, huh?"

"I guess so," he spoke gruffly, dark eyes never leaving mine.

"Twenty questions?" I asked. "I still have seven left."

He smirked. "And I have eight."

I frowned. "I thought you weren't counting."

"No, you said you weren't counting."

I laughed, unease distorting the sound. "Right." I surveyed the rest of the room to dodge his eyes and rubbed my forehead to take pressure off the headache that was beginning to build.

"You always do that."

My gaze cut back to him. "What?"

"That." He gestured to my hand. "You always rub your temples when you're uncomfortable. That's how I know when you're pissed. Ever noticed how I try to piss you off even more when you're already wound up?"

"I thought that was just pure luck on my end," I said dryly.

He chuckled, leaning back on the cushion behind him. "I know you get off on our arguments so I gave you an outlet."

I couldn't count the number of times we blew up at each other. And he was right. After every fight, I always came out more energized. In his own fucked up way, he was helping me. I didn't know if I should be thankful or get even more pissed off.

I decided to go with the happy medium. Happily pissed off.

"Oh yeah? What, you're controlling my moods now?" I growled.

"No. I just know how to handle you, Del," he said, staring straight into my eyes, all traces of humor gone.

I inhaled a sharp breath and closed my eyes. "What the fuck is happening?" I mumbled under my breath.

"Fuck if I know," he grunted.

I opened my eyes cautiously and peered at him as he ran a hand through his hair and scowled at the TV. A muscle was ticking on his jaw and he looked ready to jump off the couch at any second. I have never seen him so unhinged. Generous description but this was his version of coming apart at the seams. Even when we were balls-to-the-wall hurling insult after insult at one another, he was still in control, often laughing at my attempts to make him cower; a fact that drove me to go below the belt with my verbal attacks sometimes. I could imagine the thoughts swirling in his head right now; they were probably similar to mine.

We hated each other.

We wanted to destroy each other's lives.

There was nothing more satisfying than driving each other nuts.

In no parallel universe could we be right for each other.

But I wanted him. And he seemed to want me too.

My nerves grew taught when he turned and caught me watching him. And everything just came to a head at that point.

We both opened our mouths at the same time.

"So I like you."

"I can't stop thinking about you." The words sounded like they were torn from his throat.

Holy shit. Did he just…?


We sat, staring wide-eyed at each other for a moment before he groaned and spoke up to the ceiling. "Thank fuck."

I snickered into the pillow I was holding against my chest, a legion of butterflies dive-bombing in my stomach. Brent ripped the cushion from my hands and pulled me into his lap a moment later. He cupped my face as he captured my lips with his. His kiss was feather-light, unhurried. He knew I wouldn't be running away anytime soon, now that we finally stopped denying our attraction to one another. But the kiss changed gears when I opened my mouth to let him in. His tongue swept in to tangle with mine as his hands travelled from my back down to cup my ass. Arousal spiked through me in sudden bursts when I ground onto the crotch of his jeans. We both groaned when he hiked me up further and repeated the motion. When we started creating a rhythm, I tore my lips from his.

"Brent," I panted.

"Hmm?" He leaned up and rained small kisses on my neck, tracing a path to my jaw. "What?"

My eyes rolled back to my head and my shallow breaths receded into short pants when he started using his tongue, all the while continuing the movement of his hips.

"We're not done yet."

"Oh I know, sweetheart," he said, his voice guttural as he reached up under my shirt and quickly unclasped my bra. I closed my eyes when he started kneading my breasts with his large hands.

"No, I meant we haven't finished talking yet." Fuck, was that my voice? It sounded breathy as all hell.

"You really want to talk now? I've been dying to get you to kiss me without the fear of a slap in my immediate future."

Despite my heated state, I laughed. "Just a kiss, huh?"

"Would you rather I be crude and say I want to fuck you in every room and every piece of furniture in this whole house?"

I flushed at the thought of Brent taking me on every flat surface we could find. He grinned when he saw my face. "Turns you on, doesn't it?"

"You cocky bastard."

"Your cocky bastard."

Heat spread to different zones in my body at the casual way he threw around words of possession. It should have irked me but it didn't. I liked the thought of him belonging to me and vice versa.

"That's why we need to talk."

"Okay, fine. Let's finish this talk in your room," he whispered into my ear, taking the lobe between his teeth and lightly tugged.

Christ Almighty.

I knew we wouldn't be able to get through our hormones if I didn't bring out the big guns. "Lori," I choked out.

At the sound of her name, Brent sighed and leaned his forehead on my shoulder. "Way to kill a hard-on, Del."

I shrugged, heart still racing a mile a minute, but I shifted off his lap and back to the couch. His reaction alone was enough to extinguish the fire that burned hot in my blood a moment ago.

"Do you still like her? Did you ever?" I hated how my voice sounded so small just then.

Brent fixed me with a hard stare before snaking an arm around my shoulder and pulling me into his body. He grabbed my right hand and started playing with my fingers, intertwining our hands and letting mine go. Again and again. The push and pull of our fingers were almost hypnotic.

"Yes, I did," he said in a clipped voice. I stilled my movement. I didn't expect his words to hurt but they did. I started sliding my hand back to my side but he grabbed it again, silently asking me to hold on.

"I can't change that, Del. Just like I can't change our past. We were pretty excellent at torturing each other. Our friends probably deserve to win the lottery for putting up with our shit."

I nodded, snorting in laughter.

"But I never really understood my feelings for Lori. Sure, I know stuff about her that people other than her close friends wouldn't notice. But…it feels different with you."

"You said you were in love with her."

His eyes shuttered. "I think I grossly misinterpreted that feeling."

I stiffened. "Maybe you're just grossly misinterpreting your feelings for me too. What if you change your mind? In all the years we've known each other, we fought 90% of the time. How do you know this is real?"

He tipped my chin up to meet his dark eyes. I recognized the possessive glint in them but there was a touch of gentleness that I've never seen before. "I don't know where this is going or how far we're going to take it. I know it's real because you make me feel, Del. I didn't grow up believing in stuff like this. Relationships just seemed like a by-product because the end goal was something superficial. Money. Sex. Whatever. I didn't expect to feel anything for you. It's strange as hell caring about someone other than myself. I've told you stuff that I've never told anyone else, my best friend even. You make me laugh even when you're trying to plot my undoing. You rile me up on a daily basis and you're second to none at driving me crazy. But I like you, Del. More than I'm willing to admit."

Holy shit.

Talk about a chick flick speech. And by the way he was shaking his head and rolling his eyes, he realized it too.

"This is painful, dude," he stated.

I burst out laughing. "Yeah, no shit. Should I be insulted that you consider having feelings for me painful?"

"A little bit." He grimaced and tunneled his fingers through his hair. "I'm the one doing all the talking."

I smiled at him. "I'm not great at speeches. I just said I like you. What more do you want from me? Or does your ego just need stroking?"

When his face took on an indifferent mask, I instantly knew that my jibe was a bad call. "Look, I know I'm never going to measure up to Malcolm or whatever but-"

"Shut up," I said softly. "You're more than that."

In the short time that I've come to know the real Brent, I found that he liked putting on different faces for people. Arrogant douchebag, player, party boy – they were layers of protection so no one got too close. I knew because I was just like him. I preferred the pretension of apathy because it was better than feeling anything real that could potentially get me hurt.

I directed my gaze away from him and heaved an anxious breath. It was unnerving; knowing I was going to bare all for someone I never considered trusting before.

"In high school, it never occurred to me that I liked Mac. We grew up together so I can't exactly pinpoint how I transitioned from bailing him out of trouble to falling in love with him. Ever since Justin, I just wanted peace and quiet, you know? I hated how he wasted time tearing down my walls, only to end up fucking with them. Don't get me wrong. He wasn't my one great love. Looking back, our relationship wasn't one for the books but I did love him. He was my first everything. First kiss, first love, first…" I coughed awkwardly and Brent smirked. "Yeah, you know what I mean. After what happened with us, I just found the whole relationship thing tiresome. So I ran whenever someone I'm dating wants something more than I'm willing to offer. I guess all that running made me see that Mac was the one thing that was constant in my life. He became a habit." I paused to cover Brent's clenched fist with my hand. "Although my feelings for him were real, it got to a point where I was just using him as a crutch to avoid people. There was no way I'd get hurt since he would never feel the same way I did. I always ran to Malcolm because he was safe."

I angled my head toward Brent and stared at him, clutching his hand. "I'm tired of safe, Brent."

He didn't respond immediately, eyebrows furrowing in deep thought. I wasn't expecting a movie-kiss moment but my little speech surely deserved an acknowledgement?

"You're tired of safe." He raised an eyebrow at me. "Who am I, your skydiving instructor?"

I squinted at him. "You're completely missing the point."

"What point? You were talking about how you were using Malcolm to avoid other guys. I don't really know how that correlates to me."

I pulled my hand from his grasp and folded my arms. "You don't get it."

"Then tell me."

"So you really need me to spell it out for you," I said dryly. He continued to stare at me so I sighed. "You freak me out. I like you but I'm clueless on how to actually handle a relationship with you. How do I know you won't get bored and turn to someone else once we hit the two-month mark? Or, God forbid, go back to pining after Lori?"

"I told you-"

I held up a hand to silence him. His eyes expressed his frustration but he backed off. "I know all this but I couldn't stop my feelings anyway." I laughed and averted my eyes from his, feeling self-conscious. "I thought I was going crazy, that maybe I'm just hard-up for sex or something. I don't like taking risks, Brent. Not even for Malcolm. But with you, it just seems easy." I looked back at him. "Like there's no other choice but to just let go."

Brent just stared at me, looking like an anvil struck him on the face.

"Sorry," I muttered. "Do I need to buy a greeting card with the perfect lines so I can accurately express how I feel?"

He burst out laughing.

That was not the reaction I was expecting.

"No." He pulled me back into his lap, still grinning at me. "That was perfect."

Author's Note:

Chapter title – "Under The Table" by Banks

As usual, if you spot any brands/titles, I don't own them.

I know. I'm a bitch. You should all be tired of my apology notes already. To make up for the waiting game you've all been doing, I made this chapter especially long. I actually fused two chapters in here. I'm really, really sorry guys. Some of you have taken to leaving several reviews to remind me to post the rest of the story. I have not forgotten. It's just hard to work up the creative juices when my mind is focused on work most of the time. It's true what they say; every writer's biggest enemy is discipline haha

Again, sorry for making you all wait. No, this is not the end yet but it's almost done. I might consider publishing it. I have ZERO ideas on how to go about that but some of you might know a thing or two (: Thank you all for being patient with me. I owe all of you for keeping this story alive. Without your input (and pressure hehe), Adelle and Brent's story might have already fallen by the wayside. Thank you! (: