“Maybe we should talk about what happened.”
“Nope. No way. Not gonna happen.” I shook my head emphatically to really hammer home my refusal. “You promised me, Matt.”
“I know, but,” Matt gave me an uneasy look, “it’s starting to affect our working relationship.”
“It isn’t,” I said. “You only think it is because normally something like this would affect our working relationship. But it isn’t, and it won’t, and you promised you’d never bring it up. So, stop breaking that promise.” I dusted the sandwich crumbs off my pants and held out my hand. “Give me your trash, I’ll throw it away.”
“I didn’t know, Mia, I swear. I wasn’t trying to lead you on or anything like that,” Matt said quickly. “I feel terrible that you thought it was something more, and I know it’s my fault for -”
“It isn’t your fault,” I said. “You didn’t flirt with me any more than you flirt with other women. I took a chance and it didn’t work out. No big deal.”
“Mattie, it’s fine,” I said. “Please, you promised.”
“If you want another partner -”
“I don’t.” I made myself look at him. “But if you do, I’ll understand why.”
“I don’t,” Matt said. “You’re one of my best friends, Mia, and I don’t want to be in this ambulance with anyone but you.”
“Then we’re good,” I said. “I’ll be right back.”
I grabbed the trash, opened the door and hopped out of the ambulance. I took my time walking to the trash can, even though technically our lunch had ended five minutes ago. I needed the extra few minutes though. My shame was a living, pulsing thing inside of me and for about the hundredth time in the last month, I wished I could go back and change what I had done.
I couldn’t though. I didn’t have a time machine that could whisk me back a month and tell my past self to absolutely, under no circumstances, go to Matt’s house wearing nothing under my coat but pasties, a barely-there thong, and a smile.
I tossed our lunch trash into the can and took another deep breath. It was what it was. I had taken a chance on love and got shot down. It happened, right? The ironic thing was – Mattie felt way worse than I did. I hated myself for doing that to him, but I also couldn’t bring myself to have a conversation with him about it. It just brought back the deep humiliation from that night.
“Mia?” Matt’s voice called out. “We got a call.”
Thankful for the distraction, I turned and jogged back to the ambulance.
* * *
“You want Ranch dressing or Thousand Island?” Isabelle asked.
“Either is fine. Where’s Knox tonight?”
Isabelle pulled the chicken out of the oven, lifted it out of the roasting pan, and set it on the cutting board. “He and my brother are doing some kind of guys night. Which means they’re probably eating cheezies, drinking beer, and playing video games. Poor Luna. I invited her to come over here and hang out with us, but she has a bit of a cold and didn’t want to pass it on.”
As Isabelle grabbed the knife to carve up the chicken, I heard my cell phone buzz. I pulled it from my purse and said, “I’m happy for you, Isabelle.”
She smiled at me over her shoulder. “I’m happy for me too. I know it’s only been a couple of months since Knox and I got together, but man, I’m just happy. You know? And he is too… I can see it in him.”
“The entire town can see it,” I said with a grin. “You two are adorable together.” I checked my message and quickly sent off a return message.
“Who ya textin’ with?” Isabelle plopped down next to me and handed me the platter of chicken. “Help yourself. Max…no. Back to the living room, big guy.”
The big mastiff cross who had suddenly shown up in the kitchen, snorted loudly before staring longingly at the pile of chicken sitting on the table. He was big enough to just help himself, but instead he heaved a loud sigh before ambling back out of the kitchen.
“Thanks, Isabelle. This looks really good.” I added some chicken to my plate and then poured a bit of dressing on my salad. “I was texting with Elijah.”
Isabelle paused with a forkful of chicken. “You guys are friends now, huh?”
I shrugged. “Well, we always knew each other. You can’t work as an EMT without getting to know the firefighters, you know? But the gym I joined is the same gym he goes to, so I see him there. He helped me out with the machines when I first started and gave me some tips on lifting with free weights. We usually act as spotters for each other if we’re there at the same time.”
My best friend was giving me a weird look and I said, “What? Why are you looking at me like that?”
“You sure that Elijah only wants to be friends with you?” She asked.
I nodded. “Yep, no doubt about it.”
“Why do you say that?”
I laughed and waved my fork at her. “Girl, have you seen Elijah?”
“Of course I have.”
“Well then, you know why. The man has the body of an ancient God. Do you know I once saw him bench press three hundred and seventy-five pounds? It was incredible, Isabelle. That guy is like, Superman strong. His muscles have muscles.”
“I know what he looks like, Mia, but what does that have to do with anything?” Isabelle asked.
“Uh, a guy like him would never go for a girl who looks like me,” I said.
“Stop it. You look fantastic,” Isabelle replied.
“I’ve been going to the gym for nearly two months and I’ve only lost ten pounds,” I said. “Ten freaking pounds.”
“One, you looked amazing before you started going to the gym, and two, it isn’t always about weight loss. Weren’t you just telling me the other day that your clothes fit better, you’re stronger, and,” Isabelle gave me a smug look, “you have more stamina than you did before. Right?”
“Yeah, I do. Still,” I stared down at my muffin top and the way my thick thighs touched, “I’d be happier if I lost another twenty pounds or so.”
“You don’t have to lose twenty pounds to get Elijah Thomson.”
I swallowed my bite of salad. “Why are you so insistent that I should be trying to get Elijah Thomson?”
Isabelle stabbed another piece of chicken with her fork. “I think he has a secret crush on you.”
My mouth dropped open, and I stared at Isabelle before bursting into laughter. “No, no he doesn’t.”
“I don’t know.” Isabelle ate her piece of chicken. “Remember that night I got super drunk at Ren’s Bar, before Knox and I started officially dating?”
“I remember,” I said.
“I danced with Elijah that night, and he was checking you out the whole time we were on the dance floor. He was jealous that you were dancing with Matt.”
I ate some more salad. “Nope, you’re wrong.”
Isabelle gave me an indignant look. “I’m not.”
“You are. Isabelle, I love you, but you were completely hammered that night. You saw what you wanted to see. Trust me, Elijah isn’t into me. We’re just friends, nothing more.”
“I think he -”
“We’re just friends,” I said firmly. “Believe me on this.”
Isabelle rolled her eyes. “Maybe you only think that because you were wrong about Matt. Just because Matt only wants to be friends, doesn’t mean that every guy in your life does.”
“Oh God,” I groaned, “why does this keep coming up today? First Matt and now you. Can we please not talk about the most humiliating moment of my life?”
“You and Matt talked about it today?” Isabelle dropped her fork, her enthusiasm for her chicken buried under her enthusiasm to hear all the dirty details. “Why the hell didn’t you say something when you first got here?”
“Because we didn’t talk about it,” I said. “Matt tried to talk about it, and I shut him down. He promised me that night that we would never talk about it again, remember?”
“I still can’t believe you went to his house wearing nothing but a thong.”
“There were also pasties,” I protested. “Besides, you told me to make a move, Isabelle!”
“Yeah, but I was picturing something a little less big,” Isabelle said solemnly.
“Now you tell me.”
“Well, if Matt didn’t take one look at your mostly naked, smoking hot body and want to bang you right then and there, then he’s obviously not the one for you. Your tits are a man’s wet dream. Hell, even I fantasize about them sometimes,” Isabelle said.
I laughed and rolled my eyes. “Thanks, I think? It’s been so long since I’ve had sex that if you weren’t with Knox, I might try and convince you that we should give it a go.”
“Vibrator just ain’t doin’ it for you, huh?” Isabelle replied.
“Nope. But it’s all I’ve got. That reminds me – do you have a couple of D batteries I can steal? Charlie’s magic vibrations aren’t so magical anymore.”
“Oh God, now you’ve named your vibrator? We definitely need to get you laid, girl.”
“Tell me about it.”
Isabelle reached out and took my hand, squeezing it gently before letting go. “Seriously, though, honey. Do you think maybe you only see what you want to see when it comes to other guys because of what happened with Matt? I know what it’s like to be secretly in love with someone, you know that I do, but -”
“I’m not in love with Matt anymore,” I said.
Isabelle gave me a cautious look. “Do you really believe that, or are you just saying what you think I want to hear so I’ll shut up?”
I gave her a faint smile. “I’m telling you the truth, and you know what? It makes me feel even worse.”
“What do you mean?” Isabelle asked.
I sighed and set my fork down before taking a sip of wine. “I’ve spent the last two years in love with Matt. I finally work up the courage to tell him how I feel, he rejects me, and a month later, I’m not in love anymore.”
“Well, that’s a good thing, isn’t it?” Isabelle said slowly. “It’s torture to be in love with someone who doesn’t love you back.”
“Yeah, I know,” I replied. “But what does it say about me that I can just fall in and out of love so quickly?”
“Well, you’ve always been very practical and level-headed.” Isabelle picked up her fork again. “Maybe, it’s just your survival mode kicking in. Your brain is telling your heart to knock it off, so you aren’t miserable for the rest of your life. You know?”
“Maybe,” I replied.
“Are you telling me though, that if Matt suddenly changed his mind, if he realized that he was in love with you, that you wouldn’t go out with him?” Isabelle said.
I thought about it for a few minutes before shaking my head. “No, I wouldn’t. The look on his face that night, Isabelle. It wasn’t – it wasn’t disgust, thank God, but…the dismay on his face and in his eyes…”
Another wave of humiliation rolled through me at the memory. “I’ll never get that image out of my head. It was like I had hurt him – hurt our friendship – so badly.” I gave Isabelle an earnest look. “Honestly, at this point, I’m just glad that we still have a friendship. I came stupidly close to ruining it. I think, I hope, that the reason I could stop loving him so quickly is not because I’m shallow and awful, but because deep down I know how important my friendship with Matt is. After you, he’s my best friend. And I think, maybe, that being with Matt in a sexual way would end our friendship.”
I sat back in my chair, staring at my half-eaten salad and chicken. After a few moments, Isabelle added more wine to our glasses before lifting hers up. “A toast to Mia. For being a damn fucking adult and knowing exactly who she is.”
I smiled a little and clinked my glass against hers before taking a sip. “Not sure if that’s completely true, but I’ll take it.”
“I think you might be wrong about Elijah though,” Isabelle said.
“One more word about Elijah having a crush on me and I’ll stab you in the thigh with my fork. I swear to God, Izzy.”
Her nose wrinkled. “You know I hate being called Izzy.”
“Yeah, well, stop trying to make Melijah a thing.”
Isabelle laughed so hard that Max wandered back into the kitchen to stare at her. “Melijah?”
I grinned at her. “What? All the cool kids mash their names together.”
“You would make a fun couple.” Isabelle tossed Max a piece of chicken and he caught it with a quick snap of his jaws that belied his age.
“Just friends,” I said. “Elijah could have any woman he wanted in this town. He’s not gonna choose me.”
“Could he, though?” Isabelle said. “I’m not trying to be mean, but Elijah isn’t the best-looking dude in the town.”
I frowned at her. “There’s nothing wrong with the way Elijah looks.”
“I’m not saying there is,” Isabelle replied. “He’s not the Hunchback of Notre Dame or anything, but if you look at him objectively, he might have an incredible body, but his face…”
“What about his face?” I said.
“If he were a woman, he’d be what guys call Butterface,” Isabelle said bluntly. “You know, because the body is incredible, but her face…”
“I get it,” I said irritably. “God, people are horrible. What exactly are they saying about Elijah?”
“I have no idea if anyone says anything. If they’re smart, they won’t,” Isabelle replied. “He could crush them with one fist. You know, my brother might be bigger, but I think overall Elijah is stronger than Ash.”
“He is,” I said. “Elijah is, like, ridiculously strong. He spends so much time at the gym – it’s insane.”
“Explains the body, then,” Isabelle said. “Again, he’s not ugly, but he isn’t handsome either so your belief that he could have any woman in town isn’t exactly accurate. Plus, he’s just as friggin quiet as Ash, so it’s not like he’s out there charmin’ the ladies. Right?”
I shrugged. “He is pretty quiet. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. Elijah is just like all the other guys in my life – only interested in friendship.”
“Phillip wasn’t like that,” Isabelle said.
Now my appetite really did disappear, and I pushed my plate away before draining most of my wine in one big gulp. “Don’t remind me.”
“I’m sorry,” Isabelle said.
“It’s fine,” I sighed. “I’m learning to accept that men either plant me firmly in the friend zone, or they put me on a damn pedestal and then dump me when I fail to live up to their expectations.”
“Phillip’s been your only serious steady boyfriend,” Isabelle said gently. “Just because he did that doesn’t mean that every guy will.”
“Maybe,” I said.
“What Phillip did wasn’t fair, Mia,” Isabelle said. “The friggin’ Pope couldn’t have lived up to his expectations.”
“Maybe,” I repeated. “Anyway, I don’t want to talk about this anymore. Let’s finish eating and then go for a walk before it gets too cold.”