The first free story on the new site, as voted for by you guys. As always, a new part will be posted every Thursday. Enjoy!
Claire has been in love with her childhood friend Noah since she knew what love was. When they started sleeping together, she thought it was the first step to everything she’d ever wanted. Noah ripped that illusion apart with a few well-chosen words, and she fled their friendship – and the city – to avoid the aftermath. Years later, as her relationship with another man grows serious, has Noah finally seen what he gave up?
Love, Late – Part 1/10
“I love you.”
Noah looked like she had hit him with a brick. The look on his face was something she’d never seen before in almost twenty years of knowing him, surprise freezing over into something cold and unfamiliar.
Claire bit her lip, pulling the sheet up to hide her chest. “Aren’t you going to say something?”
“Jesus.” Noah shook his head, lifting the covers off and getting up out of his bed.
Even in the tense situation, the sight of Noah naked made Claire’s mouth dry. She could
see the red marks of her nails on his shoulders, the faint wet mark of her mouth on his neck. The reminders of what they’d just done seemed somehow out-of-place, inappropriate in a world where he could look at her like that.
“Noah?” she tried again, hating the weakness of her voice.
Noah ran his hands through his hair, tousling the damp black locks into disorder. Something unreadable crossed his face. “Claire, I think we need to end this.”
It felt like something was crushing her chest. “Why?” she managed to choke out. “Why would you say that?”
Noah sighed, moving to slip into a pair of pants. Claire wished she could do the same, but her clothes were crumpled far across the room. Noah had stripped them off her while they were still at the door, pinning her against the wall and suckling at her breasts until she begged him to take her to bed.
“Listen,” Noah said, sitting down on the edge of the bed. “We had a deal, right? This was just supposed to be sex.”
Claire nodded unwillingly. That had been the deal when they’d made it. But that had been over a year ago, a year of nights out and nights in and a thousand phone conversations. How could it be just sex now?
She opened her mouth to ask him, but the look on Noah’s face froze the words in her throat. He looked so calm, so certain. She knew that look. He’d looked like that when he was telling his parents that he would be attending law school, not taking over his dad’s store. He’d looked like that when he’d told her that he’d find a way to convince their high school to let her practice cooking in the cafeteria.
She had never, ever seen him change his mind.
The certainty of what she’d lost choked her. She found herself nodding along numbly as Noah continued to speak.
The next day, Claire was lying on her couch staring at the ceiling, trying to figure out how it had gone so wrong. The sound of the front door closing alerted her to her roommate’s entrance. She didn’t move.
Jenny’s head of curly brown hair popped into her vision, her friend leaning over the arm of the couch to peer at her. “Wow, Noah really wore you out! Get it, girl.”
Claire rolled over on her side and threw her arm over her face. “He broke up with me,” she mumbled.
“What?” Jenny chirped, already moving to put her coat away.
“Noah broke up with me,” she repeated. Nope, saying it twice didn’t make it any easier to say.
Jenny stopped in her tracks, one arm out of her coat. “What? Excuse me, I must have misheard that. What did you say?”
Claire sighed, dropping her arm to meet Jenny’s wide-eyed gaze. “Don’t make me say it again.” Her voice cracked. “Please?”
“Oh my god.” Jenny’s coat dropped to the floor, swiftly followed by Jenny herself as she
sat down cross-legged by the couch. “Are you okay? When did it happen? Oh my god, does Alex know?”
That last question made Claire’s eyes widen. Shit. She’d almost forgotten about Alex. “No, and don’t you tell him, either. I’ll break it to him after he’s back at school, that should give him a few months to calm down.”
Jenny looked unconvinced. “You really think that’s gonna do it? I remember the speech he gave when you two started up. Hurt my sister and die, wasn’t it?”
“In agony,” Claire corrected. “He said that Noah would die in agony, writhing like the worm that he was.” It had been a memorable speech, though she hadn’t appreciated it at the time. She was the big sister, thank you very much.
“That English degree is paying off for him, huh?” Jenny said admiringly. “You wouldn’t think that he’d been kicked out of high school for picking fights.”
Claire groaned, dropping her arm back over her face.
“Was it about the London thing?”
“I didn’t even get the chance to tell him. I was going to, but we… got distracted.
“Uh huh. I’ll bet you did. That man looks at you like he wants to eat you alive.”
Claire flinched, pulling herself up into a sitting position. “Well, not anymore.”
“Are you sure that’s what he meant? What happened? Weren’t you going to tell him you loved him this weekend?”
She’d forgotten that she’d told Jenny about her plans. She’d been going to surprise him over a romantic dinner at her place—she already had the lobster and scallops in her fridge. Jenny had been her willing test stomach for several practice meals. She’d fussed over the plating and the menu for days, wanting everything to be perfect, even if she knew that it was silly. Even though Noah loved everything that she made…
A drop of wetness hit her cheek, and she brushed it away. Well. She and Jenny could eat them. Lobster and scallops were salt water animals, after all. Perfect for crying into.
“I did.” It came out in a croak, and Claire cleared her throat before continuing, “I did tell him that I, that I loved him. That’s why he broke up with me.”
“He said that it had only been supposed to be sex. That it was still just sex for him.”
“What?!” Jenny repeated, her voice rising.
“He said…” she had to steel herself to continue. “He said that he should have known I wouldn’t be able to handle it like an adult. That he’d never have done it if he’d known I’d be like this.”
Jenny’s mouth worked uncontrollably. She clambered to her feet. “Right. Forget Alex, I’m gonna go punch him in the nose. What a fucking jerk!”
It surprised a laugh out of Claire, though it still felt raw. Of all the things Noah had said, that one had hurt the worst. She wouldn’t have traded the last year for anything. It had been the culmination of fifteen years of friendship, of slowly growing into a woman next to Noah and even more slowly realizing that she loved him.
And he wished that it had never happened.
Another tear dripped off her cheek, scalding and bitter. Jenny plopped onto the seat beside her, her arm going round her shoulders. “Oh babe. I’m sorry. I thought for sure he’d say it back. Hell, Paul bet me 20 bucks that you’d be engaged by Christmas.”
“You’re going to owe Paul some money.”
Jenny shook her head. “Nope. He bet that you’d be engaged by Thanksgiving. Everyone knows you two are forever.” She saw Claire’s expression, and her own softened. “Oh, Claire. I’m an idiot, don’t listen to me.”
“No, it’s okay. I thought we were forever too.” She always had.
“Are you absolutely sure…” Jenny’s voice trailed off.
“Well, maybe it was just the heat of the moment, you know? Maybe if you went over there today, you could get him back.”
Oh god, Claire wanted that to be true. More than anything, she wanted to be able to wake up in his bed and see him smile at her and forget that this whole thing had ever happened.
But she couldn’t even believe it as a fantasy. When she pictured seeing Noah again, all she could see was his face when he told her to leave. His stormy gray eyes had been as flat and as unforgiving as concrete, and the kiss he had placed on her forehead just before he closed the door had felt like goodbye.
“No,” she told Jenny, trying to muster up a smile. “It’s definitely over. Sorry.”
Jenny sighed. “No, I’m sorry. It’s just that I’ve never seen two people as good together as you two. You made me and Sam look like strangers.”
Claire dropped her head to Jenny’s shoulder. “It’s okay. It’s not like this didn’t surprise me too, right? I guess Noah will be the only one who saw this coming.” Her mouth twisted. “Well, him and anyone else he’s slept with.”
“What!” Jenny’s high-pitched shriek almost blew out Claire’s eardrums. “Are you frigging kidding me? He cheated on you? Lead with that, Claire! Oh, that scuzzbucket!”
“Calm down, Jenny. Take deep breaths,” Claire said, bemused at the sudden reversal. It was a nice distraction from the pain the memory caused.
“Oh, Alex is going to kill him dead,” Jenny breathed. “And I wanna watch. Are you sure I can’t tell him?”
“No!” The last thing she needed was for Noah and Alex to have a bare-knuckle brawl in the streets. If there was a surer way for the whole town of Salisbury to hear about things, she didn’t know it. “I don’t even know for sure if he cheated, anyway. Apparently, it wouldn’t even have been cheating because we ‘weren’t exclusive’.”
Jenny shrieked again.
“Sorry, sorry,” she said, purposefully lowering her voice. “But that is some gold medal bullshit right there. You weren’t exclusive? Okay, then why did he nearly break Tony’s wrist when he hit on you last month? Huh?”
“There’s no point arguing with me, I’m on your side,” Claire pointed out. “I thought we were exclusive too.”
The thought that he might have been sleeping with other people gutted her, burning in her belly like a sickness. She couldn’t help but obsessively go over all the nights Noah had been too busy to meet her. She’d thought nothing of it—he was a lawyer now, and that was something that made people busy, right? She’d had her share of busy nights too, attending culinary school or working at the catering company.
But maybe they hadn’t all been work nights. Maybe some of those nights had been spent with another woman, another woman’s hands on him, another woman’s mouth on his. And then—and this was the part that stung—the next day, there Claire would be. Bright eyed and smiling and so glad to see him.
It made her feel sick.
“Forget him,” Jenny said bitterly. “He’s a sleazebag. Soon you’ll be in London, eating amazing food and meeting amazing guys. Who needs Noah Fowler?”
She did. The response came unbidden, a soft sad cry that went nowhere.
“I’m supposed to be cooking amazing food, not eating it.” Claire leaned into Jenny’s hug. “I think you’re missing the point of chef training.”
Jenny somehow managed to shrug without letting her go. “You say potato, I say pah-tat-oe. Either way, you should eat some potatoes. Preferably fried and served on top of some British guy’s abs.”
Claire laughed, and it almost felt real.