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Authors: Laura Jardine

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BOOK: Not Just a Friend
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“Lucky for you, I don’t have high hopes that this will work out. After all the jerks I’ve dated, how can I? It’s like hoping for a goddamn shooting star.”

Maya hadn’t been like this in high school. No, she’d seemed cheerfully optimistic back then. But given what had happened, he could hardly blame her.

And no one was the same person at thirty-one as they were at seventeen.

“My other friends are right, though,” she said. “I should give it a try.”

“Do your other friends know about me?”

She shook her head, and he sighed in relief. He didn’t like the idea of anyone knowing about him and Maya. They’d probably make assumptions that weren’t true.

“Where’s Tyler taking you?” Liam lay back, hands behind his head.

“Cajun restaurant on Bathurst.”

“If it goes well, then this might be the last time I see you.”

She frowned. “Not the last time I
see
you. But possibly the last time I see you in bed.”

Yeah, he’d miss this a lot if Tyler turned out to be a better guy than she expected.

“What do you want?” he asked. “Not with me, but with another man, if you get your shooting star. Do you want to get married? Have kids? Maybe six of them?” She was the oldest of six.

“Oh, God.” Maya scrunched up her nose. “I don’t want to get pregnant six fucking times. Can you imagine? Once or twice is enough for me.”

He laughed. “I don’t think much about being pregnant since it’s something I’ll never experience.”

This was how it always went. They had sex, and then they stayed in bed for a little while, talking as they slowly got dressed. Nothing weird about having a half-naked conversation with your friend, right?

Well, when he thought about it like that, it
did
sound a bit weird. But it didn’t feel weird. It felt perfectly natural, though it was different from being in bed with a girlfriend.

They were just friends. Who had sex.

“You want kids?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“But do you want teenagers? Maybe that’s the better question.”

“I wouldn’t teach high school if I hated teenagers.”

“I suppose. But that’s the part that I dread the most.” She pulled the quilt up to her chest, like she was settling in to talk for a while. “Frank, for example. He was a goddamn nightmare as a teenager. And now he’s going to be a father.”

“Which one’s Frank?”

“Number three. The one who’s married. You wouldn’t think it if you met him now, but he used to be a real pain in the ass.”

“His wife’s pregnant?”

“Yeah. So I was told last week.”

Maybe that was why Maya seemed particularly keen on this guy who’d asked her out, even though she said she didn’t expect it to work out. Her sister-in-law’s pregnancy probably brought up all sorts of thoughts about her ticking biological clock.

Liam, on the other hand, was in no rush. He would meet the right woman someday. But for now, he would enjoy his no-strings-attached sex.

Feeling like he should be more encouraging, he said, “I hope Tyler’s not a thief or drug dealer.” Despite her history, the odds should be in her favor. Less than half of men were criminals, right?

“No shit. So do I. But if he is, I hope he tells me that upfront, rather than hiding it for two years.”

“Not sure that’s the kind of thing a guy would mention right away. ‘Hey, I’m involved in the illegal ivory trade. Want to meet my mother?’ That would sure go over well.”

“If a guy says he wants me to meet his mom on the first date, I will run away screaming.”

“Good call.” He paused. “Maybe it won’t work out with Tyler, but I’m sure you’ll meet someone soon.” Yes, that was better. Be positive.

He usually
was
positive. It was just hard when everything working out for Maya meant he would be missing out on sex. But it was nothing more than that.

Of course it wasn’t.

She snorted. “Where are the happy pills all my friends are on?”

“I’d give you the information for my dealer, but I thought you were staying away from drug dealers. And the illegal happy pill trade is quite dangerous.”

She chuckled. “I’m sure it is. I bet it involves riding unicorns and picking flowers and watching the sunrise.”

“Don’t forget sliding down rainbows.”

“How could I forget about the fucking rainbow slides?” Maya hit her forehead with her palm. “I had a total brain lapse. There
must
be rainbow slides.”

Sometimes it was hard to believe this was the girl he’d loved back in high school. Well, the girl he’d thought he loved. It was probably more of a youthful infatuation.

She’d changed—of course she had—but sometimes it seemed like she’d turned into a completely different person in the process of growing up.

Yet in those moments when he thought she’d changed so much, he could see glimpses of the girl he’d known. He’d thought she was funny then too, but swear words hadn’t been part of her vocabulary. At least not in calculus class, which was the only time he’d had much chance to talk to her.

Maya knew he’d had a crush on her. She hadn’t known back in grade twelve—a result of him being far too chicken to tell her, though he’d come close. But when they reconnected, he was no longer the shy boy he’d been, and it was easy to talk about the past.

“In high school, I thought you were sweet and cheerful and smart and beautiful,” he said. It was the sort of thing they laughed about now.

“Sweet and cheerful. Oh, the horror.”

“You were more optimistic, too.”

“It’s hard to be
less
optimistic than I am now.”

But he knew that part of her remained, even if just a little. If she were truly hopeless, she wouldn’t bother dating, and she wouldn’t smile when a guy called her back.

None of his previous romantic affection for her remained, however. They’d recently had sex, and now that they were done, he didn’t feel the need to pull her close and hold her all night.

But pulling her close and sliding inside her once more…

Liam was still an optimist, and maybe this date with Tyler would be all unicorns and flowers and rainbows, and this was the last time he would be in bed with Maya Gregory.

So he’d take advantage of it.

He lifted up the bottom of her tank top.

“I don’t know why you put this back on,” he murmured.

Chapter 2

Maya sat alone at a table in South Plate, a glass of some kind of bourbon cocktail in front of her. It was just after seven. Tyler should be here any minute. As she waited for him, she went over her disastrous dating history.

Yeah, that was exactly the way to psych herself up for a date.

When she was younger, she’d had a thing for bad boys. Men she thought she’d be able to change but couldn’t. After she dumped a guy when he refused to shut down his dog-fighting ring, she decided she was done with that. Five bad boys? That was enough.

Not that it turned out any better with “normal” guys.

Her next boyfriend was an accountant, just like she was.
Good
, she thought.
Nice and boring
. He seemed like a decent guy, but six months into their relationship, he was fired for stealing from his employer.

Then she figured that if she wanted a boyfriend who obeyed the law, a policeman would be a good way to go. Justin even gave talks at middle schools about drugs and peer pressure. He couldn’t be a criminal, could he?

After two years, he proposed to her, and she said yes. Everything was wonderful…until he cheated on her with his neighbor. But he was so, so sorry and promised it would never happen again. She stupidly believed him.

Then she saw his picture on the front page of the paper when he was arrested for dealing crack. That was it. She was taking a break from men. What was it about her that seemed to attract criminals?

Maya looked at her empty glass and then at her watch. Tyler was ten minutes late.

Maybe he was cooking meth in his basement. Maybe he was waiting for a big shipment of crack that was behind schedule. Or maybe he was buying his wife diamond earrings before having dinner with Maya and pretending to be single.

She sighed. Given her dating history, none of these possibilities seemed all that far-fetched.

“Can I get you another drink?” the waiter asked.

“Uhh…sure,” Maya said.

When her drink arrived, she took a large swallow and pulled out her phone.

He’s still not here
, she texted Kristy.

There could be traffic or a subway delay
, Kristy said.
Wait a little longer.

Maya checked the TTC website. No subway problems. Damn.

She felt ridiculous. Her date was fifteen minutes late, and she was already assuming he was waiting for a shipment of crack because there were no subway delays.

But if it doesn’t work out, I’ll find you someone else
, Kristy said.
One of Grant’s friends
.

Now Maya had something to look forward to.

Not.

The men Kristy set her up with were invariably nice and boring. Zero chemistry. It seemed Maya was wired to only like men who were bad for her.

Well, she wasn’t the only woman with that problem.

It was seven-twenty now. Still no sign of her date. She had another sip of her drink and read the menu again, though she’d already decided on the blackened catfish.

If she ever got to eat here, that was. But if Tyler didn’t show up by seven-thirty, she might order without him rather than leave. It looked—and smelled—delicious. At least he’d picked a good restaurant, though perhaps she should reserve judgment until she’d tried the food.

The restaurant might be like the Justin: it looked good on the outside but was actually full of shit.

“Hello.”

She startled at the greeting and looked up. It was Tyler.

“I’m sorry I kept you waiting,” he said. “I had to wait forever for a streetcar, and when I took out my phone to call you, the battery was dead.”

She gave him a tight-lipped smile. The date wasn’t off to a great start. But this was the first guy who’d asked her out in years, so she ought to give him a chance.

“I’m so sorry,” he went on. “Really, I am.” He smiled sheepishly. “You look lovely tonight.”

Tyler took off his winter jacket and sat down across from her. He was wearing a button-down navy shirt, which looked quite smart on him. He was a tall man—more than six feet—and he had strong features, dark blond hair with just a bit of a curl, the beginnings of a beard. The sort of man any woman would find attractive.

Maya had a sip of her drink and hoped his tardiness would be the only strike against him.

* * * *

Half an hour later, they were finished with their appetizers and everything was going well. But Maya couldn’t shake the feeling that there must be something wrong with Tyler.

She’d met him at a colleague’s housewarming party the previous Saturday afternoon. He’d asked her a bit about her job, told her he was a financial analyst, and then they’d talked about movies for a while.

“So you’re a financial analyst,” she said now. “Where—”

“Oh, I quit that job on Tuesday,” he said with a wave of his hand.

“You…quit.” She had a bad feeling about this. “What do you do now?”

“I’m an artist. I raid dumpsters, and I make beautiful junk art out of what I find.”

“You…raid dumpsters.” Maya couldn’t believe she was having this conversation.

Actually, she
could
believe it. It was the sort of thing she expected from a guy who asked her out. In fact, it was a step up from dealing drugs or running a dog-fighting ring.

“Do you sell your work?” she asked.

“Not yet. But I will. Don’t look at me like that. I couldn’t work at that job another minute. It was stealing my soul.”

She’d always hated that expression. Such melodramatic garbage.

“What do you do for money?” Maya hoped he wouldn’t expect her to pay for both their meals.

“I have savings. Those should tide me over until next January. But I expect to be making a decent living as an artist by April.”

“Really? That’s optimistic.”

He glared at her. “You’re trying to crush my spirit. Like everyone at my old job.”

Just her luck that when a man finally asked her out, he was a financial analyst turned dumpster diver who said things like “steal my soul” and “crush my spirit.” Why was her love life so pathetic?

“I’m not trying to crush your spirit,” she said, holding back laughter. “I’m just trying to be practical. It’s difficult to make a living as an artist. If you didn’t like your old career, fair enough. But surely there are other options.” Options that did not involve making beautiful—or, more likely, not-so-beautiful—junk art.

The waiter came over and served a plate of catfish to Maya and steak to Tyler.

Thank God
. Here was some distraction from this horrible conversation.

Tyler ignored his food, however. “I’m certain my current project will make me lots of money. If you saw it, I’d bet you’d agree.”

Man, he sure was full of himself. “What’s your current project?”

“Glad you asked. I found an old microwave, and I’m going to fill it with discarded computer mice and TV remotes and cellphones.”

“And that’s it?”

Tyler reminded her of the flakes Kristy used to date before she met Grant. No way was Maya going on a second date with a guy who was raving about his work in progress involving a dead microwave, and who was convinced someone would pay him good money for this so-called art.

No, at this point, she was staying just for the story. Just to see how much worse it could get. And the fish was excellent too. Yes, he had picked a good restaurant. But that was all she could say for him.

Tyler folded his arms over his chest. “Of course there’s more to my project than
that
.”

“Of course there is,” she murmured. “Are you going to wrap the entire thing in aluminum foil and—”

“Plastic wrap, actually. I thought of foil, but I want something transparent.”

“Then spray paint it and stick an old satellite dish on top? Maybe cover it in glue and dump the contents of a vacuum cleaner bag on it? A toilet paper roll as a final touch?”

BOOK: Not Just a Friend
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