Here's the first chapter of To Not Date My Best Friend. In this chapter we have our introduction to our characters years after their friendship has blossomed. This is written from Andy's perspective. Trigger warning for physical assault.
A piercing shriek filled the air and yanked me into the present. I blinked several times and frowned at the woman on the ground, staring up at me, her eyes wide and mouth slack.
“Let me help you.” I extended a hand to her, but she pulled away, fear creeping over her features.
“Leave me alone.”
“Hey!” Dave, one of the guys who worked at the gym, rushed over and reached out to help up the woman. “What happened here?”
“I… I...” I shook my head, searching for the memory, but nothing. Fear crept up my spine, and I took a step back, only to bump into another body. A man had snuck up behind me and was standing way too close. I was all boxed in.
“I’ll tell you what happened,” the guy behind me said. He smelled ripe, like he hadn’t bothered to take a shower last night and had come to the gym to work out, piling up sweat on top of sweat. “This asshole tackled her to the ground all because she touched him.”
“I didn’t,” I mumbled, but from the look on the woman’s face, I had. I just didn’t remember.
“Is this true?” Dave asked the woman.
She nodded, moving closer to Dave. She looked on the verge of tears, and my stomach churned.
“It was my stupid fault.” She sniffled. “I was gonna ask him out for coffee, but when I said ‘hi’ he didn’t respond, so I touched his arm. He freaked out. I shouldn’t have touched him.”
“You should know better than to tackle a woman, asshole,” the guy at my back said. “You love hitting on women?”
“Scottie, back off. I’ll handle this.” Dave signaled to another of the gym workers who came over. “Can you check Maggie out and make sure she’s okay? I need to talk to Anderson—it’s Anderson, isn’t it?”
I turned to the woman. “I’m sorry,” I said hoarsely.
“Give us some space, Scottie,” Dave said to the man, who still lingered as if he were spoiling for a fight.
“Someone needs to teach him a lesson.” Scottie walked away, muttering under his breath.
When we were alone, Dave planted his hands on his hips. Even with my pumping iron several times a week, Dave still outweighed me by a lot of muscle mass. The tank top he wore put his bulges on full display.
“What the hell happened, man?”
I licked my dry lips and swallowed. “I don’t know. The last thing I remember was getting up from the bench press to grab my water bottle. Next thing I know, she’s screaming.”
“You gotta do better than that, Anderson, or I’ll have no choice but to revoke your membership. We can’t let this sort of thing slide where you attack other members.”
“I swear I don’t know what happened. I just… blacked out.”
Seconds ticked by as Dave observed me as if trying to decide whether I was being honest. “Look, we respect our members’ privacy. We see you come, we see you go, and you don’t interact with anyone, but that’s fine. Of course, the other guys find you a little weird, but that’s not a crime, right? You start assaulting our members—a woman, no less—and we have no choice. We have to let you go. I’m going to need your membership card. If luck’s on your side, she won’t want to press charges, but I wouldn’t blame her if she does. We don’t hit women, man. That’s just low.”
But I didn’t hit her. She touched me, and I reacted. The defense lined up in my brain, but my tongue felt heavy. This was the one place I’d found to burn off energy, lose myself, forget the past, and live in the moment. Now it was just another thing I had lost.
“I understand. I’ll get dressed and hand in the pass on the way out.”
I felt several eyes boring into me. The gym wasn’t as full today as on some days, but still one too many people had witnessed me “attacking” a woman who just wanted to ask me out for coffee.
On my way out of the workout area, I glanced around for any sign of her to apologize again. Maybe I could make her understand it was a misunderstanding—that I would never intentionally hurt someone, but that would require me digging into my past, and I only revisited those memories when my shrink made me.
I didn’t bother to shower or change, since I lived only a few blocks away. I grabbed my gym bag out of the locker and took out the membership pass that gave me around-the-clock access to the facility. At the front desk, I handed over the card to the receptionist, who stammered an apology that I couldn’t be refunded the rest of my membership fees for the year because I was getting kicked out based on my demerit and nothing that the gym had done.
Harsh words were on the tip of my tongue. It was fucking March. If I couldn’t use the facilities, they should refund at least some of my money, but one of the gym guys hovered close by as if they’d placed him there in case I attacked another woman. My stomach roiled, and bile rushed up into my mouth.
As I marched out, the sun warmed my face. I always went to the gym in the early afternoon before the crush of people leaving work crowded the place. The one time I’d made a mistake of visiting the gym at that hour, I’d found people came in groups to convince themselves they were doing something healthy when instead most of them just socialized and did the bare minimum. I’d made it a point of never going back at that time.
Now that was over with, I would have to explain to my wife why I no longer went to the gym. Not something I was looking forward to. She was already walking on eggshells around me. I pounded down the steps and slung my bag across my chest. Maybe Mal wouldn’t be home, and I could stave off the conversation about what had happened.
I must have walked a block when someone shouted behind me. I turned around. Great. That guy, Scottie and another man hurried to me. Shit. If trouble had a face, it looked exactly like these two. I ducked my head and kept walking.
“Hey, woman beater, I’m talking to you.”
A woman walking toward me made a detour and crossed the street, almost running into incoming traffic. Shit, she must have heard those assholes. I gritted my teeth and turned to the two guys coming after me. They wanted to act as if they were standing up for that woman, but they had bullies written all over them.
“Look, I already apologized,” I said. “It’s all a big misunderstanding. I didn’t mean to tackle her. It… just happened.”
“So you just beat women without meaning to, you sick fuck? Maybe try someone your own size for a change.”
I gestured to the man beside him who had yet to speak. “That’s why you brought a friend? Because it takes two of you to take one of me?”
Scottie’s face turned red. “No, I brought a friend to show you how it feels to be outmatched.”
He swung his arm and punched me right along the chin. I could have dodged it, but he was right about one thing. I’d frightened that poor woman, so maybe this was atonement somewhat.
I stumbled back, my ears ringing, but before I could upright myself, my arms were jerked behind me, and another fist landed in my gut. I doubled over into another fist. Fuck. He held nothing back. I tugged on my arms, but his friend’s hold was too tight.
“You’re nothing but a fucking bully, Scottie,” I groaned, my stomach hurting. “At least what I did was accidental.”
“Hey, hey, I’m calling the police!” a man cried.
Scottie punched me again, right in the kidneys, and I pissed myself a little.
“It doesn’t feel so good, does it?” he yelled in my face, then nodded at his friend. “Let him go. That should teach him a lesson.”
He released me, and I dropped to one knee, sucking a deep breath until I no longer felt like I was going to puke. Grimacing, I climbed to my feet and took a step.
“Hey, the police are on their way,” the guy from earlier shouted.
I ignored him and kept walking, a hand around my stomach. I would be sore as hell later, but it wasn’t like it was the first time I got my ass whopped. This was tame compared to what I’d been through.
When I got home, Mal’s car was parked in the driveway. Just my tough luck she hadn’t left yet. The house next door looked tempting. I had the spare key. I could stay there until Mal left. Then I could crawl into the comfort of my home and wallow in a bottle.
No, I couldn’t do that to Mal. Not after everything else. I walked in and closed the door quietly behind me, then lingered in the hall, listening to sounds of her puttering around in the kitchen.
“I know I canceled dinner last night, Phil, but he had a terrible night. I couldn’t leave him alone.”
Great. She was discussing me with the man she was cheating on me with. Not that I had a problem with it. It was for the best. He could make her happy. I hadn’t for a long time, and now that I was broken, that only made it worse.
“You don’t see what he’s like when he’s had one of his episodes. I don’t know whether he’s going to be violent or fall apart, and the worst part is that he doesn’t remember any of it, so how can you be mad at him?”
I’d heard enough. Although my gut still hurt, I straightened up and strode into the kitchen. Mal shrieked.
“Andy, I didn’t know you were back.”
“Just did.” I screwed off the cap of my water bottle and dumped the water down the sink. “Don’t let me interrupt your conversation.”
Mal blushed, and for a second, clips of her rosy cheeks and her laugh filtered through my mind. She was still as beautiful as the day I’d met her. Strawberry blond hair, intense blue eyes, and a heart-shaped face. We’d gotten married the week after we both graduated from college. For the first few years, everything had been good between us until I started taking my trips. We argued more, and then I found out about the affairs.
At least now she had someone steady on the side.
“I’ll see you in a bit, Phil,” she said. “I’ve got to go.”
“You didn’t have to do that on my behalf.”
“I didn’t. I’ll be spending this weekend with Phil and his kids. Are you going to be okay?”
“Why wouldn’t I be?”
She sighed. “You know what I mean. Last night was intense.”
I turned my back to her and washed out my drinking bottle. “I don’t remember.” After my episodes, I just woke up drained and hoarse, my body aching all over. She was the one who had to listen to me go through them.
“I can cancel the weekend. Do it some other time.”
“Don’t be the martyr, Mal. You have nothing to be sorry for.”
“Then why do I feel guilty anyway?”
I placed the water bottle in the dish drainer and faced her. “You don’t. You have every right to be happy and find what I’m not able to give you.”
“But maybe I gave up too soon. I could have tried harder.”
“No, you couldn’t have.” I wiped my hands and walked over to her. Taking her face between my hands, I kissed her forehead. “I’m the one who’s sorry for making you feel you have something to apologize for. I just have one thing to ask you. Don’t discuss me with Phil. He doesn’t need to know my shortcomings.”
She flushed. “I’m sorry. I won’t.”
“Thank you. I need to go take a shower.”
“Andy.” She stopped me. “Aren’t you going to explain about that bruise on your face? Were you in trouble?”
“It was just a misunderstanding. I’m fine.”
“Have you turned off your phone again?”
Her sigh was clear across the room. “You got some calls. One’s from a local station. They want to interview you about what happened in the Middle East.”
I continued walking. She knew better than to tell me that. I hadn’t accepted a single request to interview me about what had happened to me almost two years ago. I barely had the guts to talk to my therapist about it. The rest of the world would just have to keep wondering.
“It might help to talk about it openly.” Mal followed me out of the kitchen.
“I already pay for a shrink, Mal. I don’t need one at home too.”
It was unfair to her when she was only trying to help. I didn’t need her help, though. Not for this. The only reason she stayed in this house was out of guilt. Some days, I wished she would make up her mind and go.
I climbed the stairs to the second floor and followed the hall to my bedroom, the first turn on the right. The bedroom we used to share was at the end of the hall. I closed the door behind me and kicked off my trainers. I undressed and headed straight for the bathroom. Showering took longer than usual. Each time I turned or bent, my stomach hurt. Purplish bruises were already forming, spanning the breadth of my skin.
At least I never had to see those assholes again.
After showering, I made my way downstairs to prepare something to eat. The house was quiet, and a peek out the door revealed Mal’s car was gone. A silver Honda was parked in the driveway next door.
I fought the instinct to cross over to the house. Just as I was ruining Mal’s life, I did nothing but destroy his.
Mal had already made me a turkey and cheese sandwich. How could she still be so thoughtful when she was fucking someone else?
I waited for jealousy and anger to take over, but nothing came. It hadn’t been her fault. She’d said she didn’t want me to go away, and I did anyway. Still, I would have appreciated it if she had broken off our marriage instead of cheating.
The living room was Mal’s domain, but the den was where I spent most of my time. The walls, once adorned with photographs, were now bare. I turned on the TV, which was on a nature channel, but I kept it mute, preferring my own company. I sank down in the love seat and mechanically ate the sandwich. Nothing in life had flavor anymore.
He walked in, a bright smile on his face. He must have changed out of his work clothes since he got home. Instead of the high-end fashion he wore to work, he was dressed down in a pair of forest-green shorts with the hem rolled up and a white shirt. A pair of flip-flops on his feet and a charmed anklet around his left ankle complemented his casual outfit. His pierced eyebrow rose as his grin widened.
“There you are!”
Baz glowed. He always did. No matter how dark my skies were, his wide dimpled smiles always brought the rainbow. Baz was where happiness dwelled, and his presence was the only thing that brought me joy, and it scared me.
He lifted his arms, brandishing a bottle of wine and two wine glasses.
“What’s that for?” I asked.
“Guess who’s getting their first article published in Flare magazine?” He made a squeak and giggled. “Moi!” His smile turned into a frown. “What happened to your beautiful face?”
“An accident.” I brushed off his concern. “And congratulations. I didn’t know you wanted to write for the magazine.”
“I didn’t want to jinx it, so I didn’t tell anyone until I was certain it would be accepted.”
“I thought you wanted to become a stylist.”
“I do, but I can diversify, right?” He thrust the bottle of wine at me. “Now you open this for me, you gorgeous hunk. You’re not on any medication right now, are you?”
“Nope.” And thank fuck. I hated swallowing those pills. They were nothing but a reminder that something was wrong with me.
“Good. Because we’re going to finish this bottle of expensive wine I’ve been saving up for such a day as this.”
I removed the red tape and unscrewed the cork. “I’m so happy for you.”
“I was nervous. When Chloe called me into her office, I thought it was to tell me that my piece was absolute shit, but it turned out she loves it.”
“You always doubt yourself. I don’t know why. You’ve more skills than merely being an assistant.” I poured the wine into both glasses he held out.
His cheeks flushed, and he raised his glass. “Here’s to a new journey ahead.”
I drank to his toast, but I didn’t see any new journey ahead for me. He downed his wine, grabbed the bottle, and topped up his glass, then sat next to me, leaned back against me, and propped his legs over the arms. The couch wasn’t that big, so he was pressed up against me.
Funny how close he was—close enough his scent tickled my nostrils—but he didn’t send me into a panic. Baz was my best friend, my safe space. He didn’t badger me about my days but pried enough to let me know he still cared. It was his normalcy that I craved hearing about so I could forget my own crippling life.
“Tell me about this article you wrote.”
“It was about relationships and compatibility. I’m sure you don’t want to hear about that, but listen to me go on and on. How was your day?”
“Same. I went to the gym.”
He tilted his head back. His bright blue eyes stole my breath away. “Your body’s fucking perfect. You’re like a muscle god. I don’t know why you spend so much time at the gym.”
“My body’s not perfect.”
“Could have fooled me.” He reached behind me and felt up my stomach, and I groaned. “What’s wrong?”
I couldn’t look him in the eye and lie, so I glanced away. “Worked too hard at the gym.”
“Hmm.” He swung his legs down to the floor and slid off the love seat. He put his wineglass on the floor and wedged himself between my legs on his knees. “I don’t believe you. Let me see.”
He grasped the hem of my shirt, but I covered his hand with mine. “It’s nothing, Baz.”
Baz gave a little tug, and I made the mistake of looking into those honest blue eyes. “Let go, Andy.”
I released his hands, and he raised my shirt. He frowned at my discolored stomach. To give him credit, he didn’t overreact. He brushed his hand lightly over my skin, and my flesh tingled where he touched.
After all these years…
“Did you see a doctor?” he asked softly.
“It looks worse than it is.”
“But what if there’s internal bleeding?”
I took my shirt out of his hands and lowered it. Seeing him on bended knees between my parted thighs, his eyes full of concern, and his plump cheeks pale, screwed with my mind.
“What happened?” he asked.
“It was my fault.” I dropped my head back against the rest and closed my eyes. “I blacked out at the gym, and a woman touched me. She was lying on the ground when I came to, Baz. They suspended my gym membership, and two guys who saw the whole thing followed me out and decided to teach me a lesson for what I did to that woman. Their intention was pure.”
“Fuck intentions, Andy. You would never knowingly hurt anyone.”
“But I did, and nothing changes that. You didn’t see the way she looked at me, Baz. She was terrified. Like I was a monster.”
“No, Andy, you’re not a monster.” Baz rose to his feet and climbed onto my lap, straddling my thighs. He wrapped his arms around me and pulled my head to his chest. What should have felt weird only made me feel safe. “You are not a monster. You’ve been through a rough time, and it’s taking you a while, but you’re getting better. You’re my best friend in the entire world. Aren’t you?”
I placed my hands on his waist, the softness of his curves anchoring me. He’d always been great at giving hugs. Over the years, he’d gotten me used to the concept of men hugging and comforting other men, one awkward affectionate gesture after another.
“Aren’t you?” He nudged me.
“Yes, yes, I am.”
“And I have excellent taste, right? There’s no way I’d be friends with a monster, so never let me hear you call yourself that ever again.”