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Genre: Contemporary, Military, Romance
You never forget your first love. No matter how hard you try.
The day of his high school graduation after getting caught making out with a boy in his parent’s kitchen, Benny Quintaña left his best friend (and unrequited crush) Mikey behind when he stormed off in a righteous teenage rage and joined the Marines.
One dishonorable discharge and a few alcohol-soaked years later, things are looking up. He’s almost a year sober. He has a new job in a new town where no one knows his history of failure. He’s totally got this.
When the smoking hot masked man he hooks up with in the bathroom of a club turns out to be his ex-best friend Mikey, Benny's world explodes. When he meets Mikey's four-year-old daughter and realizes he loves her as much as he still loves Mikey, Benny realizes he’s screwed in more ways than one.
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The map on Chris’ phone directed them deeper into the Fossil Ridge neighborhood than Benny had ever gone. It led them down unnecessarily curvy streets that had been named Lois Lane and Sunny Court, presumably without a trace of irony.
When they pulled up in front of Mikey’s house, Chris threw the car into park and craned his neck out the window to get a good look. Benny leaned forward to try and see around him.
“That sure is some Stepford Wife looking house,” Chris commented.
Benny nodded. Mikey lived in a two-story brick and wood sided house with an attached two-car garage. A front porch, too narrow to be anything but decorative, ran from the door, past a picture window, and to the edge of the house. Red geraniums in planter boxes lined the porch railing. The lawn was perfectly green and evenly cut.
If you took away the lawn and replaced it with rocks and cactus, it would be a twin to the house Benny had grown up in. This was a serious house; a grown up house. When had Mikey become a grown up?
The answer was obvious even to Benny: the second Jasmine had been born.
“You gonna be okay?” Chris laid a hand on Benny’s shoulder.
“Yeah. It’s good.” He started to get out of the car, but Chris stopped him. “What?”
“You really like this guy.” Chris stared at him.
“Yeah? I mean. He’s my best friend. I’ve kind of known him forever.” And he was waiting inside. Benny reached for the door, but Chris stopped him with a hand on his arm.
“You knew him. When he was a kid. You haven’t seen him for like eight years. You don’t know what he’s like now.”
Yeah, but now I know how he looks when he comes, Benny thought but didn’t say. He picked at the threads in the hole of the knees of his jeans. “It’s Mikey. I know him.”
Chris sighed, searching for the right words. “But you like him, like him, right? And you guys are dating? Not to sound like a fourteen-year-old girl. And this -” He waved at the house out the window –“this is a big deal. This is real. He’s got a kid. You can’t just pop in and out of a kid’s life. That stuff, it hurts them. It really hurts.”
The wistfulness in his voice told Benny, Chris had intimate knowledge of that kind of hurt. He’d known Chris had grown up with a single mom. Chris seemed to have an ‘uncle’ story for every situation that never failed to crack Benny up. He’d never thought about how living with a rotating cast of men had affected young Chris.
The weight of Chris’ words knocked him back into his seat. He ran his fingers through his hair, straightening out the curls as he went. “I know. I mean, I know he has a kid. But, God, I just found him again. And he said she’d be asleep. So it’s not like I have to meet her today. We’ll have time to be just us for a while. I think we’ll be taking it slowly.” Maybe the more he said that the more he could believe it. He wanted to want to take it slow. That was the normal, healthy way. But all he wanted to do was to grab on to Mikey and never let go.
“Well, that’s good. You want to wait until you know it’s got a decent chance of working out.” Chris nodded approvingly.
Not work out with him and Mikey? Benny didn’t know what that even would look like. Now that he had Mikey back in his life, he wasn’t going to lose him again. “It’s fine. Mikey and I were friends, are friends. And we always will be from now on. No matter what happens.”
Chris looked at him skeptically, then his expression softened. “I hope it does. I know it will. You deserve a good friend.”
“I’ve got you now.” He knocked shoulders with Chris and smiled.
“You wish.” Chris fought a smile.
“Nope. We’re friends. I’ve worn your sweatpants. Slept on your couch. You’ll never get rid of me now.”
“So, you’re like bed bugs?” Chris asked seriously.
“I’m exactly like bed bugs. And I bite.”
“That I remember. Now get out of my car. I have work to do.”
Benny reached an arm around Chris and pulled him into a hug. “Thanks, babe. I owe you one.”
Chris rolled his eyes. “See you tomorrow.”
Benny got out of the car and walked slowly up to the door. He heard Chris driving away as he tried to peer through the etched glass oval on the dark wood front door. All he could make out were shadows. He rang the bell.
“I’ll get it!” a high sweet voice rang out.
Oh, no. The kid was supposed to be asleep. Fuck. Benny quickly tugged the wrinkles out of his t-shirt and ran his hands over his face, he really should have shaved at some point this week. Not that he was in any danger of growing a beard.
A dark shadow came closer to the door. “Jasmine. Get back in bed,” Mikey’s deep voice rumbled.
Ooh, Mikey’s dad voice was kind of hot.
The door pulled open, and Mikey stood there in faded blue jeans that looked they would be soft under Benny’s fingers and an old t-shirt from their high school. His hair hung loosely around his face, the ends of his locs brushing his collarbones.
He shoved them behind his shoulders with the back of his hand as he pulled the door open. “Hey, come on in. Obviously, we’re a little behind schedule tonight.”
“Who is it, Daddy?” The little girl Benny had caught a glimpse of at Pride stood at the foot of the stair in a pink nightgown covered in hearts and a matching pink scarf on her head. She stared at Benny, her eyes wide.
Mikey motioned for Benny to come in all the way and shut the door. “This is my friend, Mr. Quintaña.”
What? The last person who had called him that had been wearing a uniform and telling him he was no longer welcome in the U.S. Marine Corp.
“You don’t have any friends,” Jasmine stated.
“I have friends, Miss Smarty-pants, now say goodnight and get in bed. I’ll be up in a minute.”
“Goodnight, Mister Quintaña.” She pronounced it Quin-ee-anna. Close enough for Benny.
“Good night, Jasmine.”
She looked at him suspiciously, head tilted, hands on her tiny hips. “How do you know my name?”
Benny suddenly remembered getting the exact same look from another member of Mikey’s family. “Oh, my God,” Benny burst out. “She looks just like Vanessa! I thought she was a mini-you, but she’s a mini-Ness.”
“You got that right, attitude and all,” Mikey laughed. He turned back to Jasmine. “He knows your name because I told him about you. Now. Bed, or no tv tomorrow.”
“Yeah, yeah. I’m going.” She stomped up the stairs as if she weighed a hundred pounds, tiny dreadlocks bouncing with each step.