Falling for My Friend by Theresa Paolo

 

Chapter 1

Gandhi was right. “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” The quote played on repeat in my head as I drove farther away from a visit to my childhood home and back to college. Coming home had always filled me with mixed feelings. I’d been happy to see my sister, but other than Kat, there wasn’t a whole lot of great memories inside the walls.

There was, however, a lot of regret. I would never forgive myself for refusing to grant my mother’s dying wish, and deep down, I knew it was because I was weak. I couldn’t bring myself to go sit with her and watch her life being cut short. Watch her being taken away from me. Even though she held on and waited for me as long as she could.

But honestly, what sick bastard would want to watch their mother die?

So while being home from school was nice, I was happy the more distance I put between me and my hometown. The distance made it easier to forget about my past. Easier to pretend I didn’t hold the title for the worst son in the world when I wasn’t surrounded by pictures and memories.

I turned onto Kingston Street and into the driveway of my new home for the semester.

Carter, one of my four roommates, came onto the porch and nodded in my direction before making the trip to my car.

I slid out of the driver’s seat and stretched my legs since I didn’t stop once in the four-hour trip. “Mr. California,” I said, calling Carter by his nickname because of his never-fading tan and dark blond hair.

“Justin, my man, nice of you to show up.” Carter whacked my trunk like it was bongos, then turned, ready to give me a smack on the back, but he stopped dead. “Whoa, someone hit the gym this summer.”

Carter was always a few inches taller, and before the summer, his biceps were double my size, but now they were the same. Mine might have been even bigger. Fuck yeah.

“You look like you stopped going,” I joked and punched his stomach.

He held his shirt up and patted his abs. “Solid rock right here, baby.”

“Not as solid as this.” I held up my own shirt. Total douchebag move, but I couldn’t help myself. When it came to his body, Carter was an arrogant son of a bitch.

“Are you guys going to whip out your dicks next?” Aaron vaulted himself over the porch railing and landed with barely a thud. His hair fell into his eyes, and he pushed it back, holding it as he walked.

I once heard a girl say Aaron was a walking book boyfriend because of his black curly hair, tanned skin, and green eyes, whatever the hell that meant. All I knew was it must’ve been a good thing because he got more ass than a toilet seat.

Carter looked at me and shrugged, his hand hovering, ready to rip his zipper down.

“I’m good,” I said before Carter let his pants fall. He stopped, but only because there were no girls around to see. If there were, I would have bet the little money I had, he’d be standing on our front lawn in his birthday suit.

“Let’s get your shit in the house.” Aaron pushed his hair off his face. “Then you can help with the party setup.”

“Party setup?” I asked.

“First one of the semester. Kicking it off right.” Carter pumped his fist into the air. He was determined to make our house go down in Rutford University’s history.

I popped the trunk and pulled out my suitcase. I had already made a trip with my sister’s boyfriend, Josh, a few weeks ago to bring the bigger stuff.

Aaron grabbed my duffel. “What the hell do you have in here? A dead body?”

“Probably just his sex doll,” Carter said with a stupid smirk. “Let me guess, blonde wig, big mouth?”

I shoved his shoulder. “Better looking than any of the girls you bring home.”

Aaron snapped and pointed at Carter. “The last girl was pretty hot.”

Carter laughed. “Too bad she didn’t shut up.” He looked over his shoulder and smiled. “Keg’s here.” He jogged over to the truck that pulled up and handed the guy his fake ID. It was the one I made him our first week of freshman year, sealing our friendship.

The guy didn’t even give it a second glance before hopping out of the truck and opening the back.

Aaron slapped my shoulder. “Come on. Reggie and George are inside, fighting over where the foosball table should go.”

I picked up my suitcase, the twelve pack, and bottle of tequila Josh left me, and walked into my new home.

***

By eleven, there wasn’t a single room that wasn’t filled with people. Music cranked out of a speaker set up in the corner of the kitchen, and a crowd began to form around the foosball table that George and Reggie finally decided to put in the living room.

I opted out of a keg stand and settled on a half-filled red Solo cup. My first class started tomorrow, and I wanted to hit the gym before. The last thing I needed was a hangover.

“I bet you five bucks you can’t get that chick’s number,” Carter said to Reggie. They were constantly making bets, and neither ever pussied out.

Reggie smirked, his black eyebrows twitching with confidence. “Piece of cake.” He strutted over to Amy, a tall blond with an ample rack. He slid his arm up the door frame, flexing his bicep, and leaned into her, whispering against her ear.

She laughed and swatted his chest. The man should be studied for his effectiveness. I watched as he practically charmed her out of her tight black dress right there in the doorway.

Her friend, a much shorter brunette who looked like she just got out of bed in her jean shorts and baggie gray Rutford sweatshirt, rolled her eyes, grabbed a bottle of tequila—my bottle of tequila—off the shelf and sashayed toward the door.

I couldn’t quite pinpoint it, but there was something in the way she didn’t give a shit about the people around her. The way she wore flip-flops, unlike every other girl here who practically towered over me in their ridiculously high heels.

Her long brown hair hung in her face as if she was trying to block the world out, but for a moment she looked up and the miserable scowl on her face morphed into a beautiful smile that lit up her entire face. While she was pretty before, now she was gorgeous.

The smile quickly faded, and her head fell forward, her hair going right back in her face. Something strange tugged at my gut at how easy it was for her to go from radiantly happy to resigned misery.

“I bet you five bucks you can’t get her number.” Carter pointed to the retreating girl’s frame.

Normally, I wouldn’t take the bet. I didn’t need to prove anything. This time, though, I couldn’t resist. In a matter of seconds, I could see that this girl had many layers, and I was intrigued enough to want to peel them back. And if anything, maybe I’d get to see that beautiful smile again.

I smacked Carter on the shoulder. “You’re on.” I pushed through the crowd, looking for the tequila stealing brunette, and spotted her sitting on the couch.

She took a swig from the bottle and she swallowed. The skin on the bridge of her nose bunched up, creating adorable wrinkles.

I sauntered over and plopped my ass right next to her, giving her a slight nod and a wink. “Hey.” Not as smooth as Reggie, but I had my own game, more of a subtle approach.

“Uh, hi?” She sounded less than enthused, but I wasn’t deterred.

I turned to say something, words of pure wisdom, but she held her hand up at me. The fresh, vibrant smell of strawberries wafted toward me and my mouth watered at the sweetness.

“Let me stop you right there, bub,” she said. “I don’t know what you think you’re going to accomplish by talking to me, but I can guarantee I will not give you my number, and I definitely will not sleep with you.”

Stunned into shock, my head snapped back, but I quickly recovered, not allowing her to see me skip a single beat. “What makes you think I was planning on either of those things?”

She all but snorted at me. “Why else would you be over here?”

I could tell her that she was a beautiful woman and I just wanted to talk, but she already told me she wasn’t the type who would care. So instead of flattery, I chose indifference. “You stole from me.” I snatched the bottle of tequila out of her hand and took a swig, relishing the familiar burn. “This is mine.”

Her dark brown eyes widened. “Oh. It was just sitting there. I thought it was up for the taking.”

I flashed her my best smile. The one I’ve been told is irresistible—granted it was by an eighty-year-old woman, but that had to count for something, and shrugged. “It was.”

Her eyebrow arched, and she cocked her head slightly. “Then back to my original question. Why are you over here?”

“Because nobody should drink tequila alone. Thought you might want a friend.”

A laugh escaped her pretty lips, and she shook her head. “I don’t need a friend, thanks.”

I handed her the bottle, and though she hesitated, she accepted the offer. “Everyone needs a friend.”

She tilted the tequila to her mouth and winced as the liquid slid down her throat. “Not me.”

“Sure you do.” I relaxed into the cushions. “My name’s Justin.” I focused my eyes on her, taking in her delicate features, and waited for her to humor me with a response.

She exhaled loudly. “Sara.”

I clapped my hands together, catching a few people’s attention. “Now that we know each other’s names. We’re friends.”

A dark eyebrow rose at me. I wonder if she knew how cute she looked right now? “Just like that?”

Reggie repeatedly told me my persistent use of quotes was a turnoff, but I couldn’t help myself. “‘Wishing to be friends is quick work, but friendship is a slow ripening fruit.’”

She let out a puff of air that bordered on a laugh. “Okay, Aristotle.”

My eyes snapped to her and for a moment I just stared at this mysterious woman who stole my tequila, tried to get rid of me and somehow knew exactly who I quoted. “You knew that?” No one ever got my quotes. Ever. Not even my sister. If I wasn’t intrigued before, I was now.

She ran her fingers through the light brown strands of her hair. A shitload of brown leather bracelets with silver and turquoise weaved in poked out from under her sleeve. “Who doesn’t?”

Literally every person I knew.

With the bottle of tequila in hand, she stood. “Did you want this back?”

Still stunned, I glanced up at her, standing with the bottle held up and her head tilted slightly. Her hair brushed her shoulders, and I had a flash of my fingers sinking into the soft strands.

“Hello?”

I shook my head, bringing myself back to reality.

“Did you want this back?” she asked again.

This time, I shook my head and managed a smile. “Think of it as a gift to a friend.”

She rolled her dark brown eyes at me, but I could detect a bit of playfulness in the gesture. “We’re not friends.”

I flashed a cocky grin. “We will be.” She got up and sauntered away, her hair trailing behind her. I stood and called out after her, “So I guess that means I’m not going to get your number then.”

She held the bottle up and waved goodbye as I watched her disappear into the crowd.

I turned on my heel and headed back to claim defeat. Though I didn’t feel like I lost. She not only spoke to me, she told me her name. Sara. The name floated around my head.

Carter smiled. “Pay up.” He raised his hand to me. The triangular Celtic knot tattoo on his forearm pointed at his palm.

I straightened my shoulders, not willing to admit to my defeat so easily. “How do you know I didn’t get it?”

Carter didn’t skip a beat, nodding to me. “Show me the number then.”

Making a show out of it, I stuck my hand in my pocket and slowly pulled it out, only to reveal it was empty. “I don’t have it.”

“Then you failed. Pay up.” He waved his fingers.

“‘I have not failed. I’ve just found ten thousand ways that won’t work’,” I responded.

“Are you speaking your history crap again?”

“It’s not crap. It’s Thomas Edison,” I mumbled.

“The light bulb guy?”

It was a little more complicated than that, but regardless, I couldn’t hide my shock that Carter knew that tidbit. Maybe I should’ve given Carter a little more credit. Still, Thomas Edison wasn’t just the light bulb guy. “Among other things.”

“Whatever. You still owe me five bucks.”

I opened my wallet and slapped a five into Carter’s hand just as Reggie came over and held up a napkin with a name and phone number written in red lipstick.

“Pay up,” Reggie said with an arrogant smile spreading across his face, nearly touching the two diamond studs in his ears.

Carter handed my five to Reggie. “You win some. You lose some.”

“You actually going to call her?” I asked.

“No, but I’m going to try and get her in my room tonight.” He punched our shoulders before pivoting back to Amy.

By one in the morning, the crowd dwindled, and I was ready for bed. The garbage overflowed in the can, and I knew if I didn’t take it out, it was never going to happen.

The air outside was still warm, as if summer wasn’t ready to let go. Winters around here sucked, and I wasn’t looking forward to the months of cold. The school never closed, even if three feet fell overnight. Which wasn’t as unlikely as it sounded.

I moved toward the trash, kicking a can on the way. It rolled into the bushes, and I went to pick it up. I heard the moans first, and when I bent down, I saw her—my tequila robbing friend.

I moved closer. Sara leaned on her right side, hands splayed on the ground in front of her. Her sweatshirt tossed to the side, a skin-tight tank top leaving little to the imagination. She was thin, almost too thin, that her delicate limbs could barely hold her up.

I didn’t want to judge. Maybe she was sick, or just naturally thin, or maybe it was more complicated than that. Despite her lack of weight everywhere else, she still had a killer rack. Two perfect mounds that pushed up just right in her top.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

Her head swayed to the left, her long brown hair just centimeters away from the puddle of puke. “None of your business.”

“Now that’s no way to talk to a friend,” I said. “Besides, you’re throwing up in my bushes, so I’d say it’s definitely my business.”

Her eyes landed on me. “Not you again,” she groaned.

I grabbed my chest. “You break my heart.”

“Is that all?” she asked, sarcasm lacing her words.

She started to stand, then gave up. My gaze caught on the blood dripping down her knee.

I stepped closer. “This is the making of a beautiful friendship right here. I can just feel it.”

“The only thing I feel is your foot on my hand.”

I jumped back and reached down for her. “I’m so sorry. Are you okay?” I held her fingers up to make sure I didn’t do any damage, but before I could tell, she ripped her hand away and stood.

“I’m fine. You can leave now.” As the last of her words left her mouth, she fell back to the ground. “Please, just leave,” she grumbled, embarrassment etched across her face in shades of crimson.

I was about to walk away and get her friend—who I knew was shacked up in Reggie’s room—when her head bobbed forward a little more. Her hair fell completely to the front, revealing the creamy skin of her neck and a tattoo.

My eyes focused on the words in black ink just below her hairline. The two words spoken by Caesar when he realized his friend and confidant took part in an epic moment of brutal and total betrayal.

Et tu?