‘Well, what do you want?’
Every argument ended with that question and the impatient, condescending tilt of her mother’s neat, blonde brow. Charlie didn’t have an answer. She just knew what she didn’t want: anything her family did. Eventually she figured the process of elimination would work it out. Her parents couldn’t accept that.
‘While you live in our house, you’ll do as you’re told.’
That was always Dad, the final word on any disagreement. It was like living with the Cleavers if they had science degrees. His was the no to sleepovers with her friends, parties at school or a year out before she had to decide anything.
‘I’ve left home, Uncle Miles. Can I stay with you?’
Charlie loped downstairs in sleep-shorts and an old t-shirt, white cotton gone grey and with a hole under the arm. It was heady to be a slob. To wear what she wanted and get up when she wanted. She headed over to the fridge and grabbed a carton of orange juice. When she closed the fridge again she found herself face to face with a confused looking girl.
Big hair, big eye-lashes and big - Charlie glanced down briefly - everything else. One of Bass’ over-night conquests. Usually he’d shooed them out by now, but sometimes he passed out first.
‘Um, hi,’ the Bassbette said, twiddling her hair around her finger.
‘Hey,’ Charlie said, taking a swig from the carton. It was gross, but she was the only one in the house that cared about scurvy. ‘Good night?’
‘Oh, I guess...’ the Bassbette was still staring at her. Big brown eyes flickered from Charlie’s hair to her mouth and then eyes. Oh god, did she think Charlie was, like, Mrs Monroe or something? Before that idea had time to blossom into something terrible, the Bassbette wriggled her finger back and forth between them. ‘Did we…? I mean, did you...’
It took a second for that particular ball to drop. When it did Charlie choked on her orange. ‘Oh, god no. My uncle or Bass. Not me.’
The Bassbette sighed in relief. ‘Thank God, you look about 15.’
That got a frank appraisal from her toes to her sleep ruffled ponytail. ‘Really?’
After escorting the still vague Bassbette out to her car, Charlie went upstairs and got changed for her morning run. She liked running, but it wasn’t much help with the ‘what do you want to do’ question. It wasn’t like you could make a career out of running away.
Although Mom always did say that Bass could go professional in running away from commitment.
Charlie followed her usual route, down the block and through the park, and by the time she got him Bass was up for the day. More or less. She snuck a glance at him under her lashes as she headed through the living room: bare feet, jeans dangerously low around his hips and a bare chest. He looked like the man every mother warned you about.
He had been the example that Charlie's mom used, actually.
'Morning, Charlotte,' he said lazily, knuckling sleep out of his eye. The coffee machine gurgled encouragingly behind him. 'Up early.'
'It's half eleven.'
He grinned through a jaw-clicking yawn. Like I said, up early.'
She rolled her eyes at him on the way by, he just smirked and scratched his belly. His hand slid down, thumb hooking in his his jeans. Charlie tripped over her own feet. She caught herself, heat scalding her face, and he laughed at her.
Ugh. She wasn't sure if he was just laughing at her for being a klutz or because he had caught her gawking. Neither was great.
It wasn't her fault. Bass Monroe was just...disconcerting. It wasn't that he was good-looking. Her boyfriend was good-looking, but Jason just lacked that almost aggressive self-confidence that bagged bimbos by the handful. And Jason was...nice, not dangerous and bad for you and...
She was staring. Bass was definitely smirking.
Charlie tugged the elastic band out of her hair, letting her hair flop over her shoulders, and stalked upstairs. When she'd moved in with her uncle - and yeah, she'd seen the fraught glances over the turkey and heard the rows, but her Dad was her Dad - she'd not really expected to have to share the space with Marine McSexy back there. Him and Miles' had fallen out years ago - over something - and it was only last year that Bass had gotten back in touch.
Only apparently, Bass now lived here and for an old guy he was...hot.
Boyfriend, Charlie reminded herself firmly. Nice, patient boyfriend - even if he was one of the things she didn't know if she wanted.
She went into her room, flopping out on the bed and called Danny. He had that careful 'mom is here' note in his voice, and asked all the mom-expected questions 'when are you coming home?' questions, like he was 8 instead of 18. Mom questions, not Danny. Charlie cut the call shut. If she wanted to talk to Rachel, she would have called Rachel.
'Why are you here?' Charlie asked, perching on the arm of the couch. Bass was sprawled out on it with a half drunk bottle of beer on his chest. For once he was wearing a shirt but his feet werestill bare. It was weirdly distracting. He had nice feet and all, but they were just feet. He glanced away from the TV and raised an eyebrow at her.
'Could ask you the same question,'
She shrugged and slid down onto the couch, Bass equably moving his feet to give her room. 'I don't know where else to go.'
'Maybe neither do I.'
Charlie gave him a sceptical look. 'You've been places, done stuff, already.'
'Yeah, well, I’m not doing that stuff anymore,' he shrugged. She thought about asking. Miles would never tell her what he used to do, but she had a feeling that Bass might. In the end, she didn't. It probably wasn't her business. 'And since I don't plan on dying just yet...'
'You could work for Uncle Miles in the security firm.'
He snorted and took a swig of beer. 'Tried that before. It was a bad idea.'
Fixing someone else's life looked much more fun than trying to fix her own. Charlie pulled her legs up under her and stared at Bass thoughtfully. He watch her with that amused, tolerant expression that made her feel like he thought she was still a little kid. It gave her the twitchy, anxious impulse to prove him wrong. She leaned forwards and snagged the beer from his hands, taking a swig from it.
'Are you old enough for that?'
'I'm 21,' she said irritably. 'I am old enough for anything.'
Something slid through his pale eyes and Charlie had to squelch the urge to squirm in place. He wasn't looking at her like she was a little kid anymore. Heat flushed up from her stomach as he propped himself up on his elbow and...took his beer back.
'Old enough to buy your own beer, then.'
Charlie let out a relieved - definitely relieved - breath. She twisted the ends of her hair around her fingers. ‘You could join the police.’
He grinned at her over the mouth of his bottle. It made Charlie’s breath hitch. God, he was pretty when he smiled.
‘Really,’ he said.
He just shook his head and filled his mouth with beer. That meant either Miles, or Rachel, had been involved. Knowing that just made Charlie more curious, but Bass wouldn’t be drawn.
Miles was late.
For the sixth time in an hour, Charlie peered out her bedroom window. No cherry red mustang in the drive way, no laid-back uncle shrugging off questions about where he’d been and definitely no time to get home for a family Sunday dinner.
She could have called Jason - he would have come to get her, even if they were currently, technically, on a break - instead she went and tap-hammered on Bass’ door. That was probably something she should think about, but not today.
After a long few minutes she heard him groan, curse and the creak of him getting out of bed. He yanked the door open, warm air and the stink of sweat, beer and Bass filling Charlie’s nose, and blinked at her, from her ferociously straightened hair to her pretty, strappy sandals.
‘I don’t want to fight with my mom,’ she said defensively.
His gaze made the way back up to her face and he shrugged bare shoulders. He was one to talk. All he was wearing was a dragging sheet twisted closed at his hip, the smell of last night still on his skin.
‘You look properly suburban,’ he said. ‘Congratulations.’
He started to swing the door over, Charlie blocked it with her shoulder. ‘I don’t need your approval. Just a lift.’
That request got her a distinctly dubious look. She gave him her best pleading look in return.
Bass growled, a low, irritated sound that started somewhere low in his chest, and glared. She dug her heels. 'One lift.'
'Learn to drive.'
‘I can drive. Just not...right now.’
That amused him enough to lift the corner of his mouth and one eyebrow. ‘That sounds like a story.’
‘It’s not,’ Charlie insisted. ‘It’s 20 mins away.’
He scruffed his hand through his hair, making his curls stand on end. ‘Charlotte…’
‘You can stay for dinner,’ she bargained. ‘Watch mom’s face.’
That made him snort. ‘I know your mother. She’d put ground glass in my pie. Fine. Just let me get dressed.’
He turned round and headed back to the bed, letting the sheet drop. Charlie caught a quick, startled breath at seeing his ass, tight and hard muscled still, with a stippling of scar tissue running down one thigh.
‘Close the door, Charlotte,’ he said, not looking round. ‘Or come in. One or the other.’
She closed it, and then stared at it for a minute, wondering what he would have done if she’d gone in. Her mind came up with enough ideas that she flushed and ducked downstairs, grabbing a soda out of the fridge. She turned it nervously in her hands, fingers sliding through the chill condensation, until Bass loped downstairs in jeans and a t-shirt with no holes in it.
‘I’m taking the bike,’ he said, looking at her with an oddly challenging expression. ‘You ok with that, Charlotte.’
‘In for a penny, in for give Mom an aneurysm,’ Charlie shrugged. ‘You have a spare helmet?’
‘The bikes gets me a lot of girls,’ he said.
She took that as a yes. It wasn’t anything as recognisable as a Harley, just an old modded out black bike that thrummed between Charlie’s thighs and vibrated between their bodies. Charlie clung to Bass, arms wrapped tight around his lean waist, and tried not to think about sex or the clench of her thighs or how she’d not really wanted to go to this dinner anyhow. Not really.
It was a nice suburban home. There were two cars in the drive, both sensible, safety tested rides, and a well-manicured lawn. Bass pulled up onto the drive behind Mom’s Ford and swore softly under his breath, voice ragged.
‘Just get off the bike, Charlotte.’ His voice was tight. Angry or…
Charlie did as she was told, pulling her hiked up skirt back down over slim thighs. She caught Bass watching out of the corner of his eye, teeth worrying at his lower lip.
‘I’m not a little kid,’ she said.
Bass heaved a sigh and sat up, moving like something hurt. ‘I can see that,’ he said roughly. ‘Your uncle would kill me-’
‘He’s dating someone who’s only five years older than me,’ Charlie said, stepping closer. ‘And he doesn’t tell me what to do.’
She brushed her hand over Bass’ shoulder, feeling the clench and heat of muscle under his old grey hoodie. It was soft against her fingers as she twisted it around her fist.
‘Your mom hates me.’
‘I’m not asking you to marry me.’
‘What are you asking?’
She didn't know - not really. It was just that he listened to her and he a scar on his thigh she wanted to lick and he'd dragged his hungover ass out of bed to do her a favour. So Charlie kissed him, dragging him in closer and feeling the scrape of stubble against her lips. Despite his protests his hand came up hook around her hip, pulling her in until she was straddling his leg. She wrapped her arm around his neck, burying her fingers in his hair, and moaned over his tongue as he nipped her lips apart with sharp white teeth.
He was too old for her, too experienced and too...whatever he’d been doing after he argued with Miles. There were a whole lot of reasons this was a bad idea, but after months of thinking in negatives this was a positive.
She didn’t know what the hell else she wanted to do, but she wanted to kiss Bass.
She was so distracted she didn’t hear the door open, not until her mom’s strangled yelp cut through the suburban din of lawnmowers and kids.
Charlotte Anne Matheson!’