Not Just a Friend

Toronto, Book 3

Laura Jardine

 

Chapter 1

“If he asked for my number, there must be something wrong with him.” Maya stuffed a bite of waffle into her mouth and waited for her friends to contradict her.

“Don’t say that!” Kristy’s fork clattered to her plate. “There is nothing wrong with you.”

“It’s not that I think I’m a bad person,” Maya said. “But past experience has taught me that any guy who’s interested in me is somehow defective.”

Take her ex-fiancé, for example. Justin was a police officer, but it later turned out he was also a drug dealer. And he cheated on her. Yeah, Maya sure knew how to pick them. Her previous boyfriend was fired for stealing from his employer.

Allison asked for a coffee refill then said, “You’ve just had some bad luck. Don’t let it stop you.”

Maya sighed. “I don’t know.”

“Come on.” Kristy reached across the table and placed her hand on top of Maya’s. “You’ve hardly dated in the past four years.”

And everyone she’d met for a first date was someone Kristy had set her up with. Les and John and Anton. Although they were all nice enough, Maya hadn’t been on a second date because none of them had interested her. Not only was she unable to attract men who weren’t losers, but she'd never liked the nice guys anyway.

She sure was great at this dating business.

At least today she had lots of strong coffee and a big plate of banana waffles with whipped cream to comfort her. Plus a couple of friends she’d known since university. Brunch at the cheap diner near campus was something they still did occasionally. Life wasn’t all bad.

“I’m telling you,” she said, “there’s got to be something wrong with Tyler or he wouldn’t have asked for my number.”

“But you’re going out with him,” Kristy insisted. “When he calls—”

“Hell, maybe he won’t even call. That wouldn’t surprise me.”

“I bet he’ll call,” Allison said.

Maya snorted. “What makes you so sure? You don’t need to say stuff like that to make me feel better.” She drowned her last waffle in maple syrup. “Either Tyler won’t call, or he’ll call and prove himself an asshole. Hopefully sooner rather than later. But fine. If he calls, I’ll go out with him just so I can say I did.”

“It’ll go well,” Kristy said. “You’ll see.”

“I need some of your happy pills.”

Maya wasn’t quite as hopeless as she acted. The Justin debacle was a long time ago now, and she had a kernel of hope that maybe, just maybe, it would all work out for her. Kristy and Allison were in happy relationships, as were three of her younger siblings. And a guy had asked for her number the other day. There was hope. Maybe just a little, but there was some, wasn’t there?

But she didn’t say that out loud, even to her closest friends. That wasn’t who Maya Gregory was to the world. Not anymore.

Nope, she was a pessimist. That was how everyone thought of her.

She had good reason to be a pessimist after all of her crappy relationships. It would make sense for her to give up on love. But for some reason, she couldn’t. It was pathetic.

In the past few days, she’d had a few fantasies about Tyler. One involved a dramatic rescue from a tower, dragon slaying, and galloping across the countryside on a white horse or unicorn—she was flexible. So, for good reason, she kept her imagination under lock and key.

Nobody but her knew she hadn’t completely lost hope. Yes, for a couple years, she’d had no interest in dating. But now she thought she might be ready to dip her toe into the dating pool or get locked up in a stone tower guarded by a dragon—assuming she was assured of rescue.

That was the problem with relationships: there were never any guarantees.

Still, maybe love wasn’t something that everyone but her could have. Maybe she could have it too.

“Why did you just roll your eyes?” Allison asked.

Oops. Maya had only meant to mentally roll her eyes at her corny thoughts, not do it for real.

“I was reminded of a lame joke my brother told me,” she said. “That’s all.”

Allison looked at her suspiciously but said nothing.

And speaking of her brother…Maya remembered her non-Tyler-related news. “Frank called the other day to tell me that Robyn’s pregnant.”

“Oh my God!” Kristy leaned across the table to hug Maya, her hair dragging through the syrup on her pancakes. “That’s so exciting! You’re going to be an aunt!”

Maya let her friend hug her. “You know it’s not me who’s pregnant. It’s my sister-in-law. In case that wasn’t clear.”

“Still. That’s wonderful!”

“Just make sure,” Allison said, “that your brother doesn’t drop by unexpectedly with the baby on a regular basis and assume you’ll babysit for eight hours.”

“I thought Jo was better about that now,” Maya said.

“She is. Just saying you should be clear on what you’re willing to do from the beginning.”

“Don’t worry about me. I have no trouble telling people off.”

When Maya had seen Justin’s face on the front page of the paper, she’d decided she wouldn’t take shit from anyone. Even before his arrest, she’d put up with far too much crap. Those days were over.

Kristy glanced out the window. “Does it bother you? That your younger brother has a kid on the way and you—”

“Haven’t had a relationship in four years?” Maya shrugged. “Whatever.”

It did bother her, though. Made her realize that if she wanted to have a family someday, she should get moving on this dating business.

One of her New Year’s resolutions was to go on a few dates and hopefully find a non-criminal boyfriend. Not that anyone knew about her New Year’s resolutions. She told people that New Year’s resolutions were stupid, but in reality she had some of her own.

The year wasn’t off to a bad start. Eleven days in, and a guy had already asked for her number. Well, she shouldn’t hope too much. That would probably lead to disappointment, a recurring theme in her life.

“You don’t miss dating?” Allison asked. “What about having sex?”

“It’s not worth the hassle.”

Maya didn’t point out the obvious: she didn’t need to date in order to have sex. And speaking of sex…She snuck a peek at her watch. Another ten minutes, and then she would leave.

“You need to be somewhere?” Kristy asked.

“I have errands to run,” Maya said.

Her friends seemed to believe her, but they shouldn’t.

Errands? That was a total lie.

* * * *

Maya pulled on her tank top. “A guy asked for my number yesterday.”

“Really?” Liam said.

She hit him over the head with a pillow. “Yes, really. Why is that surprising?”

He laughed as he grabbed the pillow out of her hands.

“You just said that to piss me off,” she muttered.

“I’m not surprised a guy asked for your number. But I’d be surprised if you gave it to him.”

“Which I did.”

“I thought you weren’t interested in dating. Hence our arrangement.”

“I’m convinced that if he asked me out, he’s got to be defective.” Still, there was that stupid kernel of hope. “But my friends think I should go.” Yes, blame it all on Kristy and Allison.

“I’m your friend too, and I don’t think you should go.”

Maya leaned over the edge of the bed and picked up her jeans, though she didn’t put them on right away.

“Because if it works out,” Liam continued, “I’ll have to find someone else to sleep with.”

“True. But it’s not like I’m never going to date again just so you can have sex on Sundays.”

He put a hand to his chest. “That hurts.”

“Oh, poor you,” she said, patting his shoulder. “My friends are right, though. I don’t want to be single forever, so I should start dating, much as I dread it. I have horrible luck with men.”

Maya had gone to high school with Liam. They’d had a few classes together but weren’t particularly close, although apparently he’d had a crush on her. Then, more than ten years later, they ran into each other on the subway and started hanging out. One day, missing the physical part of being in a relationship, she propositioned him. And now they did this every Sunday afternoon.

Liam was cute. He wasn’t a smoking-hot guy with chiseled abs, and he was a little on the short side. But as she studied him now, in his boxers and nothing else…Yes, he was good-looking. Short brown hair, glasses—he was cute in a nerdy way. And he was perfect for casual sex. It was better than she’d thought it would be with someone she didn’t love. For now, it was a good arrangement.

But it wasn’t what she wanted to do forever.

He wrapped his arms around her waist and rested his chin on her shoulder. “You want to do it again?” He slipped his hand between her legs. “I think we—”

Her phone rang. She slapped his hand away and reached over the side of the bed for her purse.

“Don’t get it,” he said.

She ignored him and pressed Talk. “Hello?”

It was Tyler.

Her heart sped up, and she couldn’t help but smile. Because maybe, just maybe, this was the beginning of everything working out for her.

A woman could hope. Even if she never admitted it out loud.

*

Liam figured he should give Maya some privacy for her phone call. But he couldn’t motivate himself to leave the bedroom. From the way she was smiling, he suspected it was the guy who’d asked for her number.

He shouldn’t be upset. It wasn’t like he wanted to date Maya himself. Yes, once upon a time she’d occupied his every thought. But that was a very long time ago now, when he’d barely been old enough to drive. Those feelings hadn’t resurfaced when he’d run into her a couple years back. A silly teenage crush. That was all it had been.

But he enjoyed their Sunday afternoons together. No man would be indifferent to losing regular sex, right?

Yeah, it made perfect sense for him to be a little annoyed, even though as her friend, he should be happy for her.

He just didn’t understand why he was quite so pissed off.

Liam slid his hand up to Maya’s breast, and she twisted away from him. He moved with her, sliding his hand inside her tank top and bra and rolling his finger over her nipple.

She turned toward him and mouthed, “Stop it.”

He held up his hands in surrender.

Maya was pretty, even though she frowned more often than she smiled—though that made it even better when she did smile. She was slender, a little shorter than he was. Long, pale brown hair, which she’d grown out since high school, and a light dusting of freckles.

It was no surprise that another guy had asked her out.

“Next Saturday would be great,” she said into the phone. “Sure. Seven is good…Okay…Why don’t I meet you there?”

Take her out for sushi, he wanted to tell this guy. She didn’t like sushi, so that would get the date off to a bad start. Really, he shouldn’t be so selfish.

“Yes…See you then.” She slid the phone into her purse.

“So you have a date next Saturday?” Liam said.

“It would have been nice if you’d let me have that phone call in peace.” She glared at him. “If you’re really my friend, you should want me to have a successful date with Tyler.”

“I do want you to have a successful date. I just don’t want to stop having sex.”

“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 much 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.