“I don’t have much time, Baby Franco, so let’s hear it.”
My lips pinch at the nickname, something he’s called me since I was twelve, the blatant reminder that I, above all freaking else, am the baby of my family—his chosen family, that is until he washed his hands of us, unlike the faded nightclub stamp smeared along his knuckles.
It’s whatever. He showed, didn’t he?
Sure, he threw himself in the chair across from me, without so much as a one-armed hug, and buried his face in his phone before bothering to look at me, but again, he is here, which is more than I can say for the last several years.
Who’s counting, right?
It went from seeing him every single day—as one does when their bedroom is directly across from your own— to every other, to once a month then twice a year, and as of yesterday, he broke an entirely new record for us. It’s been almost three years to the day since the two of us have been in the same place, at the same time, and even then, it was for no more than a wave through a dusty Mazda window, which, considering his apartment is less than a ten-minute drive from my own, is telling.
And, apparently, it’s not long enough for him if the annoyed sigh pushing past his cherry ChapStick-covered lips clues me into anything. I’ll wait him out, though, because I need his undivided attention in order to ask what I brought him here to ask, so I sit back, waiting for the moody man to look up.
Several more moments, a couple seat shifts, and a flash of a frown later, he finally does. Dark, hazel eyes rimmed in gold meet mine and the hint of irritation rising in my throat simmers.
My gaze softens, a small smile pulling at my lips at the direct sight of my brother’s best friend.
Best friend turned foster brother turned ex-best friend, that is.
As if his thoughts mirror mine, as if I’m nothing but a reminder of the friendship he lost, Crew winces, flicking his attention away.
“When was the last time you woke up this early?” I tease, glancing at his disheveled hair and last night’s hoodie.
A ghost of a grin tugs at the corner of his mouth, but he doesn’t quite let it loose. “Been a while.” A single beat passes, a second sigh leaving him as he leans forward, arms crossed flat on the tabletop.
Crew’s eyes skim over my upper half in a long, slow pursuit, and with each passing second, the deeper the creases along his forehead become. “Your hair’s different.”
“Oh.” Subconsciously, I reach up, running my fingers through the soft caramel-colored strands. “Yeah, I thought it would be fun to go a little darker.”
I nod, squashing my hands between my thighs to keep from touching it again. I had forgotten what I’d changed about myself since the last time he saw me. Chopping my long dirty-blonde hair and going brunette had been a random, rash decision, but I love it. It’s short, hanging just above my collarbone, sleek and spunky. My hair never held curls anyway, so now it’s ten times easier to jump up and head out the door, not like I ever spent too much time trying to do much more than that, but still. My life had become a monotonous merry-go-round—a boring circle I wanted out of—with new hair, I at least saw something new in the mirror each day.
I also stopped wearing—
“And no more contacts?” It’s as if he reads my mind.
An anxious laugh escapes, and I uncross one leg, recrossing them the opposite way beneath the café table.
“My dad has to take me off his insurance when he retires this summer, so I finally gave in and had laser eye surgery.”
“You’re afraid of needles. And doctors.”
My mouth opens and closes, his sharp memory a surprise, and I give a small shrug.
“It was … embarrassingly terrifying but needle free, and I can’t really afford to pay out of pocket right now, so it was kind of the only option.”
And I was suitably sedated, plus or minus a Xanax or two.
His brows pull in close, and he gives a slow nod.
For a moment, he simply stares, seemingly lost in thought, but his grumpy little glare comes back, and he looks at his phone again.
If there’s one thing about Crew Taylor that drives me mad, it’s his ability to live in the in-between, where you show no sign of being happy or glad, mad or sad, serious or playful.
You name it, and his signals are crossed. He can go from calm, cool, and collected to ripping a dude out of a chair with no warning and serving up a fresh fistful. You never knew how he feels until the moment he’s ready for you to.
He and my brother were opposite in that way.
Memphis wore his emotions proudly. If he was upset, he wanted you to know. Happy, he was eager to share why. On more than one occasion, I witnessed him walk up to a total stranger and ask if they were okay, simply offering them someone to talk with. He would say he felt they needed it, and so there he was, an ear for anyone who needed one. Of course, it worked both ways.
The source of Memphis’s anger was made unmistakably clear, but it was Crew who would step in when that happened. It was part of the reason he and Crew fit so well as friends: what one lacked, the other made up for in spades.
Not to say they weren’t similar; they were. Their likes and dislikes were matched, be it games or food, clothes or hairstyles. Both were silly and shameless, outspoken, and athletic, so much so, they’d bet on who could get a random girl’s number at the fairs or school football games.
Baseball was their game of choice, so they ate up all the attention they could snag under the Friday night lights.
There was so much bait tossed their way; it’s a shock they didn’t puke.
Pretty sure I gagged a time or two.
But there was always a different kind of shadow that hovered over Crew, and sometimes, he couldn’t quite step out from under it.
“I don’t have a lot of time,” Crew complains with a quick flick of his gaze.
“You don’t have work until seven.”
His head snaps upright as my lips smack closed, my eyes bulging, but only for a second.
I’m about to apologize when his familiar chuckle warms the air, and this time, while it only holds for a split second, his grin slips free, the small scar along his chin becoming more defined, revealing a new one just left of the other.
Yeah, he’s textbook ‘take me to bed,’ as the headline would read if you opened a book cataloging men and the thoughts they induce on sight.
He’d be the first photo featured.
His skin is forever tan, body trim yet toned, though looking at him in his hoodie, his shoulders seem to span wider than before. His dark brown hair is still short on the sides, a pile of lazy waves on top.
Just how I like it.
Crew leans back, crossing his arms. “Been checking up on me, huh?”
“I’d say old habits die hard, but I’m not old, and I don’t see this one dying.”
His eyes hold mine. “Tell me why you asked me to come here, Sweets.”
Man, I haven’t heard that one in a long time. Little does he know not much has changed. I still have a solid stash of snacks—all of the sugary nature—in my bag as we speak. That’s what he called me before, ‘Baby Franco,’ and after, on the rarest occasions, of course. Like when he was drunk and goofy.
Like when he—
The lift of his dark brow snaps me out of my thoughts, and I remember why I called him here.
Not that I forgot. I obsessed over it. Stressed over it.
Ate three pounds of chocolate and got sick over it…
Each time I tried to talk myself out of calling him, it worked. I mean, it had been a long time since we talked.
So, I texted him instead.
“Right, so…” I sit up in my chair, folding my hands and laying them on the table, holding his eyes with mine. I square my shoulders, give a curt nod, and grin.
“I want you to take my virginity.”