Romance

Friends Don’t Fall in Love by Erin Hahn (Excerpt)

Friends Don’t Fall in Love by Erin Hahn

  1 CRAIG TAKE YOUR TIME (SIX YEARS EARLIER) It takes me approximately five minutes to find Lorelai Jones, recently spurned country music princess, let loose in Nashville. She’s perched effortlessly at the end of a shiny bar top and appears to be up to her gorgeous eyeballs in tequila and righteous fury. As expected. And as the Good Lord intended, really. Nothing will make a man take a full step back, clutching his chest, like the sight of a stunning woman, indignant, haughty, hot as hell, and ready to throat-punch the next asshole who has the nerve to tell her to shut up and sing. She’s a goddamn vision. I pause at the entrance to Georgie’s, the seediest of seedy dive bars off Broadway, to give my eyes time to adjust. The contrast inside to the glowing neon outside is almost poetic, if not most certainly ironic as fuck. Everyone, and I mean everyone, is looking for Lorelai: her cowardly sycophant agent, her second-rate bandmates, every country music news outlet from CMT to Square to Sirius to TMZ … everyone except the one fucker who ought to be hunting her down on his hands and knees, her ex-fiancé, Drake Colter. But since my partner is off being a supreme dickhead, rejecting his almost-wife as publicly and soundly as possible in the barely eighteen hours since she bravely played Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s “Ohio” to a sold-out stadium crowd, calling out legislators to challenge the Second Amendment after yet another devastating mass shooting … well. Since all that happened, I’m here. At Georgie’s. I rub my hand against my face, catching on stubble, and grimace. I’m not the one who should be here, but somehow I always am. Can’t help it. It’s what friends do, and if there’s anything I am, it’s one hell of a friend. Lorelai still hasn’t noticed me, so I take a deep breath, straighten my shoulders, and wipe the exhaustion from my features, replacing it with good old-fashioned shit-eating charm. Because that’s me. Irreverent goofball. Backup bass player. Best-friend trope in the flesh. (What? I’ve read romance. Well, I’ve read the “aliens fucking” ones, anyway.) Lorelai’s head is thrown back in a loud cackle, her long slender throat exposed and the Jose Cuervo fumes rolling off her smooth skin in those wavy little heat waves. She’s shimmying to some Halsey, which is the first clue that something’s really wrong (as if I needed confirmation). Halsey is for bottles of overpriced Cabernet on my loft balcony while the stars wink overhead; she’s for deep conversations and sarcastic avoidance. She’s not for bar-top shimmying and forced hilarity in a dingy dive where the clientele is ninety percent bikers. I make my way to the electronic jukebox and swipe my debit card, picking Tom Petty’s “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” as well as loading a bunch of Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, and George Strait in case we’re here for a while. The familiar opening guitar riff kicks in and it’s as if Lorelai’s been struck by lightning. She freezes in place comically, spinning her head around, searching, until she locks eyes with who she’s looking for. Me. I ignore the sharp pang in the region of my long-dead heart and hitch a half-cocked grin before making my way to her side and, forgoing the stool, hopping straight onto the bar top next to her. “Had to be ‘Ohio,’ huh? Should have just gone for the full-frontal assault and pulled out ‘Southern Man’ to really do the thing properly.” She snorts into her glass, making the ice cubes clink. “Might as well have done. I was going for subtle.” “Fun fact: subtle and stadium aren’t as synonymous as you think.” She makes a face. “Where were you with that wisdom two days ago?” I accept my beer from a harried Georgie with a nod and raise my brow to my friend. “Would it have made a difference?” She doesn’t respond. Doesn’t need to. It is what it is. Lorelai can’t change, and I wouldn’t ask her to. Before she became famous for country crooning, she was a schoolteacher. She’ll never be able to shed the trauma of hiding twenty-five eight-year-olds in a tiny bathroom during active shooter drills every other month all while knowing if someone ever threatened her students with a gun, she would place her own tiny body between that person and them without hesitation. That shit doesn’t fade just because you sing to arenas full of people and accept gold statues. It imprints on your DNA and bleeds out in every interaction. Lorelai Jones couldn’t hold on to that mic night after night and stay silent about her biggest heartache. And I love her for it. So instead of criticizing, I take a long draw from my beer and say, “‘A Boy Named Sue.’” A relieved pretty smile spreads across Lorelai’s flushed face and she immediately picks up on our favorite game of Best Song Ever Written. She thinks a minute and says, “‘Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.’” “Hell,” I mutter. “I handed you that one.” I concede that round and start another. “‘Night Moves.’” “‘Tennessee Whiskey,’” she counters. “‘Jolene,’” I fire back. This time, she concedes my win with a tilt of her head, her dark waves falling over her shoulder. There might be better songs than “Jolene.” Arguably, Dolly Parton’s “Coat of Many Colors” or even “9 to 5” are mighty contenders. That Lorelai doesn’t even try is plenty telling. That’s not what we’re about tonight. “Next round’s on me,” she offers, tipping back the rest of her drink. I work to catch up, gulping my beer down. If Lorelai wants to sit in this bar and get drunk, then that’s what we’ll do. * * * An hour later, Georgie’s is packed to the rafters with inebriated bodies and the off-kilter soundtrack of a cover band that is quite literally ruining the originals. Not that Lorelai cares about the travesty that is Lynyrd Skynyrd being played with a calypso backbeat. She pulled me to the suffocating dance floor three songs ago and hasn’t let up. If I’m being honest, I’m an excellent dancer, so I don’t mind much. Typically, when we’re back in town and hitting up the local bar scene, I’m too beat down with exhaustion and jet lag to hold cohesive conversations with pretty girls, so I’ll cheat and head straight for the dance floor. What I lack in physique, I more than make up for in rhythm. Many a hookup was born out of my ability to two-step. Which is a good thing, because otherwise, I completely missed out on the three tenets good old southern boys are supposed to excel at: hunting, football, and/or rodeo. I’m an embarrassment to my hometown. A proud vegetarian who couldn’t catch a fucking yoga ball if you threw it directly at my head. But I can roll my hips like the devil himself blessed me. And according to my older sister, he has. It’s not a lot, but it’s what I have, and you can be damn sure I’ve learned to use it to my advantage. Except with my current partner, who is at least two drinks ahead of me while also weighing seventy pounds less. I twirl Lorelai out and drag her back in. Her entire body accidentally on purpose brushes against me before she grabs my hips with her small hands, steadying herself on wobbly legs, and lets out a breathless giggle. “Do it again, Huckleberry.” Yep, proof in the pudding right there. We’re at least four shots in when “Huckleberry” comes out. Back when I first met Lorelai Jones, I told her my name was Craig Boseman, and she immediately shut that down, saying, “No way. I can do Boseman. Bose, even, but definitely not Craig. My first singing coach was a Craig, and he was a dick.” Eventually she found out my middle name was Huckleberry. (Yes, like Finn. Yeah, I know, I can’t believe I can’t catch a football, either. All the key elements are right fucking there.) Whenever she’s feeling really good, she calls me Huck, and when she’s feeling really, really good, like “three sheets to the wind” good, she calls me Huckleberry. Consequently, Drake has always hated the name. Because Drake hates fun. I wink, rolling my hips in an exaggerated effort, and she throws her head back, smoky peals of laughter erupting from her golden vocal cords before she starts singing along to the band, outshining them from the middle of a crowded bar where no one cares she’s someone trending on Twitter. Damn, she’s fun. The band transitions into the next tune, and it’s something sultry, sexy, and way too familiar. Lorelai freezes in place as the singer breathes into the mic, doing a terrible imitation of Drake Colter’s signature raspy tenor. Even in the dim glow of the bar, I can see the color leach out of Lorelai’s flushed face. Her eyes grow wide and her pulse flutters against her long throat. I immediately take action, stepping into her space, my hands grasping hers, still fisted against my hips, and I lean close to her ear. She’s mostly drunk, so what I’m about to tell her probably doesn’t matter. She’s likely to forget this in the morning. I’m counting on it, actually. But for the moment … it’s the one thing I can think of that might snap her out of her heartache. “Want to know a secret no one else knows?” I have to imagine it takes all the strength she possesses to jerk her head even the tiny bit she gives me, but it’s enough and I press even closer, my lips a hairsbreadth from the delicate shell of her ear. “Drake didn’t even write this stupid song. I did.” She pulls back as though electrocuted and blinks, absorbing my dead-serious expression. I lift a shoulder, still clasping her hands. “I wrote all of them, actually.” Her lips form around the words all of them, and I nod. Her dark brown eyes dart back and forth between mine, searching for the truth, and I let her. After a beat, she presses herself against me, her slender arms wrapping possessively around my neck. “You wrote this beautiful song. You wrote all of them.” I feel myself heat at her reaction, but it feels good. To be honest for once. To admit the truth, even if she won’t remember it in the morning and even if no one else will ever know. “Yeah. Don’t tell anyone. I have a rep to protect.” Because I’m the good time and Drake Colter is the serious musician. I’m just your average country boy with average looks and average style and average stage presence. You’d never in a million years suspect I was the words behind Drake Colter’s star. Which is why our arrangement works so well. Lorelai snorts against my neck but doesn’t move back to place space between us. Which she should do. Or I should. There should be space between us, is all I’m saying. But she doesn’t and I don’t. In fact, she bucks against me, and reflexively I tighten my hold, wrapping her in both my arms, one slipping into the mythically soft hair at her nape and the other dipping to brush just under the waistband of her jeans. And it feels fucking amazing. Don’t think. Whatever you do, don’t think. Her whispered “Thank you” caresses the heated skin under my collar. I’m not sure what she’s thanking me for exactly. Thanks for finding her? For getting drunk with her? For practically dry humping her in the middle of a dive bar? “Take me home, Huckleberry.” I freeze in place, head to toe, because she’s not asking me. That was a declarative sentence. A softly spoken demand. But she can’t possibly mean what I think she means. Lorelai Jones and I have been friends for years. Close friends. Best friends, even. We’ve never crossed that line. Have I thought about crossing the proverbial line? Hell yes. Have you seen Lorelai? She’s gorgeous and funny and sweet and talented, and for sure my dickish partner can’t come close to deserving her. Not that I ever said anything, but the fact remains. Still, we’ve never been like that. We go out and dance and drink and let loose and then she leaves with Drake and I leave with someone else, and that’s how it’s always been. Lorelai’s hand slips from my neck, her fingers dancing along that same feverish skin of my open collar and down my front until she stops, cupping me through my suddenly tight denim, making her intent crystal clear. A hiss mixes with a surprised moan somewhere in the back of my throat and I work to keep my body still, my thoughts battling wildly against booze and hormones. “Please, Huck?” “We’re pretty drunk, Lorelai.” She grips me harder and I press against her hot hand, feeling dizzy. “We’ll sober up on the way.” “Yeah, but will you even want to, sober? Let’s just stay here and dance,” I suggest, and it’s not even halfhearted. It’s quarterhearted at best. She pauses, seeming to consider. Then she removes her hand from my cock and tugs my head down to hers, ever so slightly, offering me an out. I don’t take it. I don’t want to, and anyway, it’s only one night. Just one time, and then we’ll never talk about any of this. Not about my secret and not about what’s about to happen between us. I drag my mouth against hers once before opening up to taste her completely. Tequila sparks on her tongue as it tangles with mine, and her fingers tug on the ends of my hair. My hips roll against her all over again, but this time it’s for real. No more games between friends. We exchange breaths and I swallow her tiny gasps. Even as buzzed as I am, I know we’re getting too public, so I take her hand and pull out my phone, calling us a ride. “You’re sure?” I ask once we’re outside the bar. “I can always drop you off.” “Haven’t you always wondered?” I don’t ask her to clarify. Instead, I hesitate, rapidly sobering up. I mean, hell yeah, I’ve wondered. Not only that, I’m pretty fucking sure we’d be great together. But once we know for sure … once I know for sure … Copyright © 2023 by Erin Hahn

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