Dare to Look © Kyra Fox Author
I knock softly and walk in without waiting for an answer. The light from under the door is a sure sign he’s awake, probably hunched over a book. It’s half past midnight, which means it’s our time.
“Hey, Tris.” Brian swings his legs over the side of his bed. “I didn’t know you were sleeping over, is Zoe here as well?”
“Yep. Impromptu slumber party,” I answer as I shuffle in my borrowed pink flannel pajamas to sit next to him, tripping over the too-long bottoms.
“You’re such a klutz.” Brian laughs, and I pout.
“It’s not my fault. The pants are too big because Phoebe’s taller than I am.” I sit on the bed next to him. “Anyway, you’re supposed to catch me.”
“I promise to always catch you when you fall.” Brian crosses his heart. “Or bandage you up if I’m not quick enough.”
I swat his arm with a roll of my eyes, and we both laugh.
These nighttime heart-to-hearts are our little secret haven. Brian is up studying and reading, and I’m a night owl, so we always end up talking into the small hours until one of us dozes off.
“What were you working on?” I grab the papers and frown, struggling to understand from the title.
“I’m reading about neuronal plasticity, learning, and memory.” My frown deepens, causing Brian to chuckle.
“This is what you’ve been doing instead of coming to the Fall Fiesta with us?” I toss the papers back on his bed and sigh. “You’re going to be a college student in a few days, you can give up the studying for one night and just be a sixteen-year-old.”
“And what would I have done at the dance?” he challenges me, and I lean forward with a grin.
“Danced, B.” I poke his stomach with my index finger, and he shoos me away with a huff.
“With who?” he retorts. “I’m not exactly part of the high school mini-cosmos if you haven’t noticed.”
“With me, for one, that’s what friends are for.”
“I thought you went with Victor.”
I have to stop myself from cringing. Despite Brian’s genius status putting him ahead of us academically and making him an outsider to our social circles, he’s protective of our trio of girls. It makes sense, considering the other two-thirds of the trio are his little sister, Phoebe, and baby cousin, Zoe.
I’m sort of an appendix, I guess. Even so, if Brian knew I ended up kneeing Victor in the groin today, he would be upset that he wasn’t there to take care of me.
Sometimes, it’s hard to remember he’s just nine months older than me.
“So? You’re more important than Victor.” I shrug.
“Thank you.” A smile warms his face as he leans back on his palms.
“Nervous about college?” I mimic his position, and he nods.
“I feel a bit like a lamb walking into a lion’s den,” he admits. “Real-life stuff, not so much my forte.”
“Then become a lion.” I wink at him, and Brian just snorts. “Better yet, become something fiercer than a lion.”
“Like what?” he raises an eyebrow in question, and I shrug.
“Thought so.” He swings his legs, they’re almost long enough to touch the carpet.
“You just need a kickstart to get the firsts off your list.” Then an idea occurs to me, and I sit up, turning my body to face him fully. “Okay, I’m going to do you a solid, but you owe me big time.”
“Uh, okay…” He sounds almost scared, but I’ve already placed my hands on the back of his neck, my thumbs on his jaw, locking his head into place so he won’t attempt to dodge me. Looking into his caramel eyes, I take a bracing breath and lean forward, Brian’s eyes darting around the room as my lips press against his.
I count to five and pull back.
“There. First kiss—check.” I jump off the bed and turn to Brian with a smile. His face is beet red and frozen in shock. “You’re on your own with the rest, though.” I turn and continue toward the door.
“Trista.” He stops me just as my hand touches the doorknob, closing the gap from the bed to where I’m standing. He hesitates for a moment, eyes searching mine, and then, without a word, cups my cheeks, tilts my head back, and presses his lips back to mine.
He kisses me ever so slowly, it’s almost intoxicating, and I melt against him, my hands instantly back at his nape. I gasp when I feel the tip of his tongue at the seams of my lips, and he takes my reaction as an invitation to slide it into my mouth. I answer with the same tender strokes of my own tongue as they dance, a somewhat wet and fumbled waltz, but in perfect sync with each other.
When we finally come up for air, I’m pressed against the door, and I’m sure I’m just as flushed and out of breath as Brian is. We stare at each other in shock, the air heavy with questions and unspoken words.
“Now, I can check it off the list,” Brian finally says, breaking the silence, his voice unusually deep.
“I’ll let you know when I’m collecting that debt.” I tap my nose twice and reach for the doorknob, only to realize we’re still cozied up against the door, and I can’t open it. Brian’s cheeks bloom red when he’s hit with the same realization, and he jumps back, putting space between us.
“Goodnight, B,” I whisper as I leave his room.
“Goodnight, Kitten,” I hear him whisper back, and I let my smile slip as I shut the door behind me, my hand rubbing my chest as an unfamiliar warmth spreads through it.
“That was weird,” I mumble to myself before going back to Phoebe’s room, where my two best friends lay fast asleep.
“I just kissed Brian,” I whisper as I settle onto my designated mattress. “And I think I liked it.”
I wait for a stir, and when all I hear is soft breathing, I keep going.
“I’m so confused, what should I do?” Still no response, and I sigh.
It’s better this way, in any case. I’m never going to fall in love, never tie myself to a person in a way that can shatter me if they’re suddenly gone, and I don’t want to accidentally hurt Brian and ruin my friendships with Phoebe and Zoe.
My hand is rubbing the spot over my heart again as the warmth transforms into a dull ache, and I stare at the ceiling as tears sting my eyes, though I can’t figure out why.
It was a one-time thing, I was helping a friend, that’s all, I tell myself.
I was just being a good friend.
About ten years later
“Shut up!” I throw my alarm across the room, which means my cell phone just went flying over the rail of my gallery bedroom down to the sitting area.
“Fuck…” I mutter into my pillow and force myself out of bed. I hate mornings. But hey! At least it’s Friday.
Today marks week forty-three since I moved to the City of Angels, away from my friends, my family, my entire life. Him.
All the others I can do without, sort of. I’m gradually getting used to being so far away from the people who make up the puzzle of my existence. His absence screams volumes, every day getting louder, until I can’t hear anything else except the overbearing silence of solitude.
“There you are.” My phone landed square in the middle of the couch, waiting unscathed, and I smile triumphantly. “That’s the last time that happens.”
Empty promises and blatant lies, and my phone seems to know it, because the second I hit deep sleep again on the couch, it rings. The picture of the only person I’d answer at this ungodly hour flashes on my screen. His kind brown eyes smiling at me from a photo I took of him cooking at our joint home in Boston, before he realized I had my camera out and managed to run away and hide.
The sun blazes in the sky as I step out of the LAX terminal. It’s a warm seventy-one degrees, and I’m dressed for spring in Boston, which means I need to lose a couple of layers or risk getting drenched in sweat. Grimacing, I remove my jacket and unbutton my oxford shirt. Keeping only my undershirt on, I squirm uncomfortably at how tight it feels all of a sudden without anything covering it.
I’m still not sure what my next move here is.
“Maybe she’s realized a few things, now that she doesn’t have you down the hall.”
Those fateful words have been echoing through my mind constantly for the past few months, ever since my cousin so easily threw them out to the world. But never so loud as when I set foot on LA soil, closer than ever to the girl they were spoken about.
Zoe, my cousin, is Trista’s best friend. Has been since birth. They’re joint by the hip, the two of them and my little sister, Phoebe. All my favorite girls, as I fondly refer to them. So, logically Zoe would know what she’s talking about.
I had five-plus hours of being trapped on a plane to run the decision through my head again and again, rationally trying to find a reason not to tell her I’m in her city. I’m a smart guy, very smart. MENSA smart. But in all things Trista Edwards, my big, and at times overbearing, brain refuses to cooperate.
Letting out a long breath, I release a sigh of acceptance to my fate. I take my cell off flight mode, hesitating for another half a minute before pressing the phone symbol next to her photo, the one I discovered she changed her contact to before she left. Almond eyes of startling bright blue looking at me with cat ears and whiskers.
“Hey, Kitten.” I smile at her sleepy voice. It’s 8 AM on a Friday, and I assumed she’d be up for work. I should have known better; mornings are not Trista’s cup of tea, to put it mildly. “Guess who just landed in LA for two weeks?” her shrieks of joy have me laughing and moving my phone a few inches away from my ear.
“How? Why? When?” Trista’s still squealing as she shoots her string of questions.
“Last minute thing. Candice came down with the flu, and I had to cover for her at a convention.” I start answering but get the distinct impression Trista isn’t really taking it all in, so I skip to the important bit. “Anyway, I have an official dinner Sunday, cocktail dress type of thing, you up for joining as my plus one?”
“Of course! Oh my God, I still can’t believe you’re here!” I listen to her excited rambling with a broad smile. God, I’ve missed her. “We should go dancing, B, I want to take you out tonight.”
“Sure, dancing sounds great. I’ll text you my hotel details.” She lets out an excited squeal and I laugh. “See you later, Kitten.”
I hang up and inhale a lung-full of warm LA air, fortifying myself for the evening ahead, telling myself this is just about seeing an old friend. It’s a complete coincidence that my convention is in the same city as Trista. Never mind that I wasn’t even interested in the weeklong event, followed by another week of schmoozing potential investors, until I heard where it was located.
Hell, we were roommates for three years and close friends for almost eight; I’m allowed to miss her.
But I can’t quite silence Zoe’s words softly echoing through my head.
“Maybe she’s realized a few things…”
It’s time I find out, and if nothing has changed in the year we’ve been apart, then it’s high time I get over Trista Edwards.
“So, walk me through it again.” Lauren Banks, my closest new friend in LA, hops onto my desk, shimmying her narrow hips until she’s comfortably seated.
We work in different departments at Garderobe fashion magazine, though our work frequently overlaps. I’m in photography and graphics while Lauren works in wardrobe. She’s really a fashion designer, but needed a job that paid the bills. Her great eye for style landed her a coveted gig with the country’s largest online fashion magazine.
I look at the lean woman poking an unappetizing pile of celery sticks with her flawlessly pink manicured finger while hungrily eyeing my cream cheese bagel. Lauren’s only two years older than I am, but mature beyond her years. Raised by elderly grandparents after her parents were killed in a plane crash, she had to grow up too fast, too soon. Like too many people I know.
Sighing, I push the plate with the bagel to Lauren, who feigns appall at the thought of eating carbs for all of three seconds before realizing we’re the only two left on our floor. She picks up the bagel and takes a large bite.
“What am I supposed to walk you through again?” I lean back and look into Lauren’s deep-set upturned hazel eyes, perfectly smoked in shades of gray and pink. Her blonde hair, a good few shades lighter than my honey-toned mane, has been blown out into seamless waves flowing all the way down to the middle of her back. Her five-feet-five-inches stature comes with a toned slim body which packs in a perky personality and sharp tongue.
“Brian Jenkins, your best friend’s older brother with whom you’ve been close friends for almost eight years, with whom you also lived for three of said years, the same Brian Jenkins you once kissed…”
“That was over a decade ago. How is it relevant now?” I cut her off, regretting ever sharing the memory of that kiss with her. Also wondering if the excessive use of ‘whom’ is a form of mockery.
“…the same Brian you’ve stated has ‘the sexiest brain of any man you’ve ever met—’” she continues, adding air quotes for some reason. “—and a scorching hot bod, which you tend to describe in great detail after one too many tequilas, I might add, called you at 8 AM on a Friday to tell you he just landed in LAX and is staying for two weeks?” Lauren gives me a pointed look.
“And…?” I know where Lauren is going with this, but I’m not going to give her the satisfaction of making it easy for her to get there.
“What is he doing here?”
“He’s speaking at a genetics convention about his research and then meeting with potential donors.” Simple question, simple answer. But Lauren raises an eyebrow.
“And he didn’t know about the convention before this morning?”
“Brian hates this sort of thing. The woman who co-runs the lab with him caught the flu, so he had to sub for her literally at the last minute. So no, he didn’t know he was going to be at the convention until, like, yesterday when, I assume, he was scrambling to pack and get logistics done and other such crap.” I’m aware I sound a bit pissy, but Lauren is doing what everybody else who learns about my relationship with Brian does—automatically assumes we’re secretly in love with each other and it’s just a matter of time before we put a ring on it and live happily ever after with our brown-eyed, blond-haired kids. Not that I’ve ever imagined what our kids would look like.
They would be kind of beautiful, though… Hypothetically speaking, of course.
I huff at myself for going there. There was a time I could afford such thoughts, but much to my regret, that just wasn’t our fated path.
Lauren must have sensed she crossed a line because she swiftly changes the subject. “Where are we going?”
I narrow my eyes. “We?”
“Yeah, it’s Friday night, I want to go dancing too. Jason and I haven’t been dancing in ages. Hell, Jason and I haven’t been out in ages.” Jason is Lauren’s college boyfriend. He’s…well, he’s an asshole, no way around that one. “We can shoot a message to some of Jason’s friends from the firm, that way it won’t feel like a date.”
Lauren has her serious face on, but I catch the gleam of mischief that sparks in her eyes. She’s challenging me to say I want to be alone with Brian, to affirm that this is more than just a reunion between friends.
“That sounds like fun!” The only satisfaction I feel from saying that is Lauren’s deflated look.
I do want Brian all to myself, not because of what Lauren was insinuating but because I miss talking to him, laughing with him, and sharing everything with him. He had been my rock for the better part of the past eight years, and when I moved to a new state completely alone, it wasn’t easy being so far away from him. I got so used to him always being there for me, and I was finding it more difficult than I realized to get unused to having him nearby.
And ever since that surprise wakeup call this morning, there’s a little part of me that doesn’t want to succeed at getting used to a life without Brian Jenkins.