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21 February 2023

“This is a really bad idea.” When she got no response, Charlie looked over to make sure she wasn’t talking to herself and as she saw how engrossed Danny was in his program, she decided she might as well have been. “Did you hear me?”

“No, it’s not.” Another thing she was used to having happen. Her little brother sometimes heard her and answered in his head without bothering to voice the words out loud. Sometimes she worried about him but sometimes she worried about herself more, because she knew there were times when she heard his response, even when he forgot to say them.

“How is it not?”

“Well,” Danny glanced over from his laptop to hers, studying the profile she was creating. “Just because you’re setting it up, doesn’t mean you have to ever use it. Wait, you’re not using your own name, are you?”

“Of course not.” Charlie glanced at the screen. She’d picked the alias Karen Ross but it just felt a little wrong and she clicked up, changing Ross to Roth, then to Rothwell. Her alter ego was twenty-two, 5’4,had short dark hair, brown eyes and liked kayaking, reading, Thai restaurants, beat poetry and music from the 1990s.

“Or your real mail address either. Because it’ll tag your real name to it.”

“Shit.” She minimized the window, created a new email using the fake user name and filled in the proper fields in the form. “Why am I doing this again?” Danny shot her an exasperated look and she groaned. “Danny,” she said as the page shifted to a list of questions, “did you realize that to complete this I have to fill out a questionnaire on what I’m looking for in a guy.”

“So just fill it out.”

She scrolled to the end of the section, her eyes widening. “It’s 300 questions. Oh, look, then there are another 300 on what I’m like.”

Danny’s look softened. “Well, almost everything else you have to pay to join the site. Please, Charlie.” If getting five people to join one of twenty websites at his recommendation was enough to get Danny entered to win a link to watch Star Wars: Episode X, two months before the official release date she knew she’d always be one of the ones he counted on to be a sucker. Even if she was pretty sure the whole thing was a scam. But he was right, she never had to use it. As for what she wanted and what she was like. Well, she knew what she wanted, even if she could never have it. And she knew what he was looking for, even if he’d never see it in her.

 

14 February 2028.

There was something about getting dumped on Valentine’s Day that cut, even if Charlie hadn’t been sure why she’d accepted Kurt’s invitation to coffee in the first place, six months ago. They were in two of the same classes at University of Illinois and he’d been decent looking with acceptable hygienes. She couldn’t even blame him for canceling their dinner plans and saying it was probably best they not see each other outside class any longer – she was pretty sure the brunette in his math class might have something to do with it – but she sat at her computer, staring at her mail, wondering what it took to meet someone who would be right.

A new message landed in her inbox – the one she saved for searches she didn’t want her name attached to --five new matches for a dating site she’d forgotten why she’d ever joined – something for Danny, she recalled vaguely. She’d spent the last five years deleting the emails automatically but she stared at it, suddenly not sure why she hadn’t bothered to cancel it. She felt her cheeks redden in humiliation as she typed SEBASTIAN into the password field and signed in relief when it came back with YOUR USER NAME AND PASSWORD DO NOT MATCH. PLEASE TRY AGAIN.

It had been an ugly phase, in love with a man old enough to be her father and probably considered her the closest thing to a daughter he’d ever had. But she’d grown up, gone to college and realized there were more men in the world than her Uncle’s best friend. Her fingers moved almost of their own accord and she typed CHARLOTTEMONROE and suddenly she was in, cheeks flaming as she realized what she had done. She might have been better, but old habits were sometimes hard to forget. She moved to find the option to delete the profile completely but the pictures of one of the guys came up, blond curly hair and bright blue eyes. It wasn’t him – he didn’t need dating sites to find girls – but this guy was cute and he was somewhere in Chicago.

 

12 April 2028

Having a 27-year old alter ego with a journalism degree and a motorcycle was a little addicting, Charlie decided. It wasn’t that she wanted to lie on purpose, but she had listened when Uncle Miles had lectured on safety and whack jobs and internet security. She’d chatted with a few of her matches, but most of them had bored her and she often told herself that she was going to delete her profile. These men could be anyone. But part of her loved the fact her mother would have had a fit if she had known about it, her father would have lectured and Miles would have yelled, asking if she wanted to get raped and her body dumped in an alley. But one of the day’s matches caught her eye with his sideways smile, brown eyes looking at her like she was something special, even if it was a picture so he was more looking at the photographer that way. His name was Grant and she was impressed with the profile had written – talking about how close he was to his sisters, how much his parents meant to him and why he loved hanging out at the beach and cooking Italian food.

 

4 July 2028

“Charlie,” Miles yelled from the deck. “Put down that damn computer and come help me out here.”

“Just a second,” she called and he stomped into the living room, pulling the cord from the outlet.

“What’s with you? You’ve been on that thing all afternoon.”

She glared at him, typing, ‘Got to go, will write more later – Karen’ before pressing send on the message and shutting down her mail. “Stop being a dick,” she said mildly. “And plug me back in.” When she shoved the computer onto the desk he reconnected her to the wall.

“What are you doing in there? Do I need to have a look?”

“I’m pretty sure you’d need a warrant for that. And I doubt you’ll get one.”

“Leave her alone, Miles,” her mother said, coming out of the kitchen with a plate of raw burgers and two unopened beers that she handed to Miles. “Now go be useful and grill something other than your niece.”

From the corner, his sandaled feet propped up and a scratch pad at his elbow, Bass Monroe grinned and Charlie tried to avoid looking at him. She may have decided to get over her crush on him sometime before she reached legal drinking age, but not watching him was a hard habit to break. He stood, twisted his shoulders to crack his back and pushed himself out of the chair.

Rachel jerked towards him like she was afraid he would fall and Bass glared at her, before clearly forcing a smile onto his face. “It’s okay, Rachel,” he said, ignoring the cane that was propped in the corner and walking towards the patio. “Miles, Charlie, come on. Let’s go barbecue. I’m starving. Ben got the good charcoal, didn’t he?”

“Yes, he did,” Rachel said. “Make Miles give you one of those beers. He doesn’t need both of them.”

Perhaps part of her obsession, Charlie realized, was the fact they had so nearly lost Bass when she had been fifteen years old. He and Miles had been jumping out of an airplane for a training mission when Bass’ chute caught a cross-wind, folding into itself, and his secondary had failed to even open at all. He should have died but he had landed in a tree that somehow managed to break his fall without impaling him. However, the tree had been forty feet tall and he’d sustained a skull fracture, a broken hip and shoulder as well numerous other smaller bones when he had landed on the ground under the tree. Miles had arranged to transfer to the same base Bass had been recovering at – teaching grunts, Miles called it. It had been almost three years before Bass had healed enough to even get a medical discharge and Miles had simply chosen not to re-enlist. Since they had both joined at 18, they had enough time in to retire from the Corps with twenty-one years.

There had been long-running tension between her parents and Miles – since she had been twelve --but they had all set it aside to be there for Bass when they thought he might die and by the time Bass was walking, Charlie could tell all three of them had decided just to pretend her mother and Miles’ affair – back before she had even been born – had never happened.

Miles had chosen to take a second career as a police officer with Illinois State Police, Bass had moved in with him while he continued to recover and Charlie had gotten to consider her Uncle’s house practically a second home. Her father was more accepting of it than her mother; Ben had forgiven Rachel long before she’d forgiven herself. As Charlie had grown older, and she and Rachel had clashed more often, even Rachel grew to welcome the extra space that Charlie spending time with Miles and Bass had created for them both.

“Are you sure you should be walking on your own yet?” Rachel asked and Bass glared at her.

“Rachel, it’s fine. Doc says I need to work it a lot. It was just a couple of bone spurs that needed removed. There isn’t anything wrong with the joint. I only have the cane because sometimes the stitches pull a little before it’s stretched out enough.” It was also a part of life, Charlie realized, that Bass would need random surgeries for the rest of his life. Most of the time it was easy to forget he had ever been injured. He took MMA because he said the adaptation of so many forms of martial arts were perfect for maintaining flexibility and he had even competed in the local cage circuit. He rarely won but he was also usually competing against people half his age and without of his type of injuries. Few opponents left the ring without being stained with their own blood. But sometimes he would show up with a cane or a wheelchair or a new set of bandages and he would limp for a month or two before going back to being one of the most graceful people she ever watched move. She wondered sometimes how much pain he was in on a daily basis but he never said a word around her and if Miles knew he also didn’t share.

“I just worry about it. About you.”

“Thank you, Rachel,” he said, stepping in to kiss her on the cheek. “And I’m grateful. But please, this is a good thing. Damn bone spurs were hurting every time I turned my leg wrong. Now they’re gone and once the incisions heal, I’ll be just fine. Now, be a darling and don’t nag. I get enough of that from Miles.” There were times, Charlie wondered, if her mother fussed so much over Bass because she couldn’t fuss over Miles. The two of them had reached a point where they could talk, interact, be in the same room and have civil conversations but Charlie had noticed that sometimes – when they thought no one was looking, they would watch each other. Never where the other could see it, she realized. But though the affair had ended, she was pretty sure the walls they had built between them were for their own protection.

“What you need,” Rachel snapped, “is to get married. I know you and Miles think you’ll die if you have more than 16 kilometers between you. But you both enable each other in your bad habits.”

“Sixteen kilometers?” Bass looked genuinely puzzled.

“Ten miles.” Rachel clarified. “It doesn’t really work to use miles as a measurement of distance when I’m talking about Miles. Kilometers sound less awkward.”

“Only you, Rachel. Besides, wives would make me give up fighting and probably put him in AA.”

“Exactly my point.” Rachel’s tone was dry.

“Well, I do have a dating profile,” Bass said, his voice teasing and Charlie turned to look at him, startled at the same time Rachel snorted.

“Picking a wife is totally different from finding a weekend hookup. I’ve seen that profile. The only wife you’re likely to get off that is someone like that Tiffany-Amber character from all those military cartoons Miles used to email Ben.”

Bass’ grin widened and he leaned in to kiss Rachel again. “Apparently I’m better off with just me and Miles.”

“It would be different,” Rachel continued, “if you two were gay and were a couple. I’d be totally accepting of that.” She paused, looking hopeful but Bass’ sigh was long suffering, as if this were an argument he was tired of having. Which, Charlie decided, he probably was. She had been thirteen when she had decided that her Uncle and Bass were lovers and she had tried to explain it to them that they didn’t have to sleep in separate rooms when she was visiting because she already knew. Miles had stomped around yelling at her while Bass had laughed so hard he’d gotten hiccups. “At least I wouldn’t have to worry about you then.”

“You don’t have to worry about me now. I’m good, Rachel. Really.” He turned and pointed at the notepad. “I’m working on a new book.” It was one of Bass’ quirks that he wrote the first draft of his books on paper and then retyped them from memory. He claimed that doing so forced him to edit more severely and it wasn’t until he had finished the second time that he would retrieve his hand-written draft and compare the two, taking the best from either version.

“Really, what’s this one?” Charlie asked. Bass and Miles had both gotten their Bachelor’s degrees while they were in the Corps– a few classes at a time over nearly a decade. After Bass accident -- while he had been assigned to a medical transition unit to recover – he’d used some of his spare time to get his Master’s in psychology and work on his first book. His first had been about losing family, his second --published a few years later -- about when situations forced a new direction in life.

Charlie had expected when she had read them that Bass would talk about his own losses but he had chosen to fill his books with examples and studies of people in situations very similar to his own. They might as well have been his own story, Charlie had always thought, but it allowed him to distance himself, never talking about his own emotions. She often wondered if he tried to use it as a shield to keep the world away. Anyone who read one of Bass’ books would know him well at the end of it but they probably wouldn’t be aware of it.

“The bonds between people who work together and how it effects their family situations. It primarily focuses on law enforcement and military – go figure.” Bass consulted with the Illinois State Police on internal matters with police officers and also for criminal cases. The result was that he and Miles worked together frequently, though she knew the last time Miles had to go in for mandatory counseling after shooting an armed gunman, he had been sent to someone other than Bass because of potential conflict of interest.

“Hey,” Miles called from the back deck, “Am I going to get some help out here or not? Rachel, can you ask Ben for a clean plate for the burgers. And another beer please?”

Charlie followed Bass onto the deck, the wood slats warm under her bare feet, the smell of roasting meat filling the air. “Did you drink both beers already,” she asked as Rachel came back with the plate and the beer.

“No. But,” Miles grabbed the beer off the table and took a swallow, “I had opened this one for Bass.” He jerked his head towards the beer Rachel held. “But I figured I’d be nice and give him the cold one.” He took the plate from Rachel, nodding his thanks. “These are about done. Does Ben have anything else he wants grilled?“

“I don’t think so,” Rachel said. “And Danny is about finished with the salad.“

“Great. These will probably be finished up in less than ten minutes.”

 

Charlie sat between Miles and Bass for the fireworks, leaning on her Uncle’s shoulder. It was practically their tradition that Miles sit between her and Danny. Even being twenty-two didn’t change things that much, Charlie realized. Danny – the one more likely to try to distance himself from “tradition” as he got older – was actually sitting closer to Miles than Charlie; though Charlie knew it was because he was stealing swallows of Miles’ beer whenever he thought Ben and Rachel couldn’t see him since they were both on the other side of Bass.

She gradually became aware of the way Bass was shifting, like he just couldn’t get comfortable and she wondered how much his hip was hurting him. Rachel murmured something about a pillow but Charlie heard Bass’ whisper he was fine. He had one hand in a fist under his left butt-cheek, she realized, reaching his right hand around to try to press against the hip but the way they were sitting together on the bench didn’t leave him much room to swing his shoulders. A white starburst lit the sky and she saw his face twist for a moment before the sky went black again. She had cut her arm once, and remembered -- when it was healing -- how everything had sometimes felt like it was pulling apart and how pressure had helped.

He stiffened when she slid her hand between them, cradling the curve of his hip where she could feel a layer of bandage under his jeans. He jerked his head to glare at her but then he took a deep breath, as if he had been in pain and hadn’t realized how much until it was gone. Her smile was tentative but he nodded and she felt his shoulder relax against her and she looked back up to see green, gold and purple explode above them.

 

Miles decided it was safest not to drive home even though he had only drunk five beers over six hours. Charlie knew Miles was aware exactly how many extra DUII patrols were on the road for the holiday; though Miles and Bass had always been hyper vigilant about drinking and driving. Bass had offered to call a cab but Ben had told them to just stay in the spare room so it was nearly two in the morning when Charlie got herself and her computer up to her room to log back onto her mail. She and Grant had stopped using the dating site mail months before and she was curious about his family dinner. To her surprise, there was no mail from him –unusual for him not to get back to her within just an hour or two. It wouldn’t have been that her abrupt ending had offended him, she decided. He’d sent her few messages that had ended practically mid-sentence then explained later he’d had some sort o f work crises – he programmed computers – and had to go unexpectedly.

 

6 July 2028

Dear Karen: Glad to hear you had friends you were able to spend the day with. I feel kind of bad I couldn’t invite you to join my family but I’ve seen what my parents do when my sisters bring home a new boyfriend (let’s not even talk about what I’ve done to them) and I really don’t want to expose you to that on a holiday. My older sister’s husband decided we should all play bocci ball (not sure how it’s spelled). It’s a terrible game, practically pointless. Yet oddly entertaining when we are all intoxicated and as the day went on (and I admit, I got intoxicated) it was suddenly incredibly fun. Think I could get you to play it with me sometime sober? I want to see if it’s only something that’s fun when alcohol is involved.

You were starting to tell me about your motorcycle when you ended your letter. I only hope it was because you were going to do something enjoyable and nothing was wrong.

I know we had talked about meeting and agreed holidays were a lousy time and excuse. So now that we’re done with 4th of July, what do you think of giving it a try?

Charlie felt her skin prickle. She wondered what he’d think that she was really blond and twenty-two. But he was only 35, so it wasn’t an insurmountable age gap. She hit reply, trying “does Saturday, 2pm at the Cherry Avenue Coffee work for you?”

He must have been still in his mail because the reply was nearly immediate. “See you there.”

Charlie logged out before she could lose her nerve and cancel on him, rising slowly to go do what she always did when she was about to do something stupid.

“Danny.”

 

8 July 2028

Charlie was nearly late. She was using Bass’ book as a source for the research paper in one of her two summer classes and she was rereading it when she saw the clock at one-thirty and she had a twenty minute drive to the coffee shop near the university that she preferred. But she rushed through a thirty-second shower, two minutes of brushing her teeth and a pair of jeans paired with a pain black fitted t-shirt. After a moment’s hesitation, she grabbed a charcoal gray sweater-jacket from her closet. It may have only been coffee but she’d lost count of the times their simple messages had turned into hours of back and forth conversation about the most pointless of items so there was no point in not being prepared in case it turned into dinner.

A quick check of her purse confirmed her glock was seated in its holster; he may have seemed nice on paper, but nothing wrong with taking precautions. Traffic wasn’t as bad as she had feared but parking was nearly a nightmare and she ended up finding a spot four blocks away. The shop was fairly full when she walked in but she didn’t see Grant so she pulled her phone to send Danny a “Just arrived. No sign yet” message. He knew the location and if he didn’t hear from her at every half-hour mark he had the number to call the coffee shop. If no one answered or couldn’t confirm she was still there, he would call the police.

She bought an iced tea so she could justify taking the last empty table, a corner two-seater, after a moment pulling the book from her purse. She heard the door open and looked up, nearly dropped her book when she realized it was Bass in the doorway. She felt a flush of rage at Danny for sending him, though she was at least grateful he’d told Bass, not Miles. He didn’t have the cane, but he was limping slightly and she watched him survey the room. She could tell when he first noticed her because his gaze went past her then jerked back, eyes widening and then he smiled. “Charlie? What are you doing here?”

So, she realized, not sent by Danny after all. Which meant she still had a chance to pull off her meeting if he were to order his coffee and leave. “I’m just meeting a friend,” she said, trying to turn the book where he wouldn’t recognize it.

“Yeah, me too.” Bass glanced around the room again and sighed. “I don’t see her yet. Mind if I wait here with you?”

She did mind. Bass was better than Miles, but he’d still ask awkward questions when Grant showed up but he’d ask even more if she refused; even if the sight of him shifting his weight off his left hip and the almost minute tremor at the corners of his mouth hadn’t given away the fact he was in pain.

“Of course not.” He sank into the seat almost a little too fast and she glared at him. “Where’s your cane?”

“In the car. First date. Figured I’d save it for the second date. Hey, is that my book?”

“First,” she snapped, “stop trying to change the subject. Second, I can’t believe that you’re being shallow enough to date a girl who’d care that you need a cane because you just had surgery. And third, since when do you do second dates?”

His smile turned into a grin and he laughed. “You listen to your mother too much. I do second dates all the time.”

“Taking them to breakfast the next morning doesn’t count as a second date.” He laughed again, leaning back in his chair.

“Wow, Kid. What a high opinion you have of me. Yeah, I counted breakfast as a second date. . .twenty years ago. But I am 44, broken and not quite the womanizing drunk your mother thinks I am. Actually, scratch that. It’s not so much that she believes it as she needs to believe it. If she can convince herself that Miles and I are just a pair of delinquent reprobates she can feel a lot better about her own choices. And to be fair, Miles does a good job playing up to that when he’s around her. You saw him last week. Now, you visit enough to know he’s not like that when he’s not around her. Well, okay, he is like that. But he tries to act a little more mature.”

Miles did tend to lose a decade or so of mental age when he visited, Charlie realized. She had always assumed it was because he was still uncomfortable despite the seven years of being reconciled but what Bass was saying made sense at the same time.

“But that still doesn’t explain the cane,” she shot back. “Let’s hear your smooth story for that one.”

After a moment Bass shrugged, “Okay, I got nothing. Except I do still have some pride.”

How was it, she wondered bitterly, that she could think of him as nothing more than an extension of her family for months – or at least tell herself that was how she saw him – and one sentence could make her recall exactly why she had worshiped him her entire existence. One sentence, the bitterness barely sliding around the smile, which made her want to prove to him how much he still had to be proud about. It was stupid, immature and probably the results of hormone surges, she told herself firmly but she still reached out to take his hand. He squeezed hers back and smiled and she sighed as she let go of his fingers. She hated touching him because it meant that she would eventually have to stop and that was always the worst.

“Okay, so you never explained,” he countered, “why you’re reading my book? Again. Because I know you’ve already read it at least twice.”

“I’m taking a couple of summer classes and I’m using it for one of my research papers.”

He glared at her suspiciously. “You’re not switching to a psych major are you? Because trust me you –“

“No,” she cut him off. She’d originally started for a computer programming degree but it had taken exactly six weeks to determine she had neither the natural aptitude nor desire to compete with her peers for grades. Danny – starting college in the fall – would be able to blow them away, but she just didn’t care enough. She’d passed all her classes but the next semester she’d focused on pre-law; however it held about the same appeal as computer programming. It wasn’t until the day she’d dropped in to bring Miles a notebook he’d forgotten and he’d taken her with him to the crime lab on their way to lunch that she had fallen in love with evidence processing. She had focused so heavily on her science classes ever since that she was behind on a few core courses that she was trying to cover during the summer. “Still forensic pathology.”

“Good. You’re a lot like Miles. You constantly need to be moving. Just sitting, listening to someone talk about their feelings, would drive you crazy.” The door opened again and they both looked over at it but it was a couple in their late teens, holding hands and laughing at something.

“So,” Charlie asked. “How long have you known this girl you’re meeting?”

“A couple of months.” He hesitated, then added, “She works for my publisher. So she knows a little about me and the whole re-occurring surgery thing. But we agreed to this date a few weeks ago – before I went back in about the bone spurs and I just didn’t want it to get in the way.”

“How does it get in the way?” She tried to force herself to breathe normally and not starting hating some unnamed girl who may not have been the shallow tramp Bass’ picture was making her imagine. He sighed then leaned in close.

“Because when people know you’ve been hurt it’s like their afraid to be them self. Like they think it will make you uncomfortable. Tell someone you twisted your hip playing basketball and you’ll be fine in the morning and no one thinks anything of it. Tell them you had to have surgery from a broken hip falling out of an airplane and you’ll get stories about how they understand because the same thing happened to their cousin’s best friend’s brother-in-law’s neighbor’s uncle and they start talking to you different, treating you different. Granted, they do it trying to prove that there’s nothing wrong with you and that they UNDERSTAND. Do you know how sick I am of people understanding me? How many bad dates I’ve sat through because if I’d have been healthy we’d have had our cup of coffee and parted but she’s so desperate to prove she’s not walking out on me because I’m crippled we end up going out multiple times and we’re both bored out of our skulls.”

“You don’t ever exploit it to get laid?” she asked and was rewarded with his grin.

“Okay, yeah, maybe at first a little. Well, more than a little. But getting laid is supposed to be a challenge, not a default. And she’s usually so afraid she’s going to hurt me that’s not as much fun as it could be either.” She could swear he almost blushed. “And that’s enough on that topic. I draw the line at talking about sex with you, Charlotte.”

Which wasn’t true. She’d gotten all the technical details from Ben and Rachel but the actual practical questions about lust when she’d gotten her first serious boyfriend at eighteen had just gotten her a book and a lecture. Miles had freaked out when she’d tried to ask him about it but Bass had been in the next room – which she hadn’t known or she wouldn’t have dared. He had come out and they’d talked for hours on what was and wasn’t things she should be comfortable about while Miles had paced in the background and eventually loosened up enough to participate.

The end result had been she had dumped the boyfriend she was with because he had been pressuring her too much to have sex with him. She’d not actually lost her virginity for another six months to a Greek exchange student. When she’d told Miles and Bass about it the next day it had been Bass who had been the one to verify they’d taken appropriate precautions and convinced her to get an IUD. They’d stayed together until Leftaris had gone back to Greece at the end of the year and they even still sent each other the occasional message but while they had cared about each other, they had both known it was a temporary arrangement. It had been Bass who had brought her chocolate ice cream the evening after he flew home and cautioned her not to take another lover too quickly.

“So who are you meeting?” he asked and she hoped she didn’t start blushing.

“He’s in my chem class. We got assigned to a project together and hit it off pretty well. Not sure if it’s a first date yet or not. I guess it depends on if we have anything to talk about other than class.”

Or if he could handle the fact she wasn’t quite who she represented herself. Though the motorcycle part wasn’t quite a lie. She had gotten her license years ago and was trying to work up the courage to ask Miles if she could just buy the old BMW cruiser he had in a corner of his garage that he sometimes let her borrow. He and Bass had ridden extensively when they’d been younger and Bass still took his bike out sometimes like he had something to prove but Miles rarely used his anymore. Charlie sometimes thought Miles missed riding more than he let on but he was afraid Bass would want to go with him, even if it was a bad day.

She snuck a look at her watch, a little surprised it was fifteen after two and Grant hadn’t showed up yet. But parking had been bad, she reminded herself. She tried to recall the exact wording on her message and if there was any way he could have confused the location. She pulled out her phone, logged into her mail and checked to make sure there was no new message from him but there weren’t.

Bass was also frowning as he checked the time and he saw her looking at her phone. “Your date late too?” he asked and she nodded.

“Yeah. Just making sure he hadn’t said he couldn’t make it.”

Bass shook his head. “Back in my day we texted someone when we wanted to know where they were, not checked mail.”

“Yeah, so,” she challenged, “why aren’t you texting?”

She was surprised when she saw what might have been a faint blush on his cheek. “Your uncle, now. Miles always insisted on calling people. I’m not ever sure he even really knows how to text that well even now.”

“What we’re doing is practically the same thing as texting, we’re just not limited to, what was it, 50 characters per message?”

“One-fifty, thank you very much. Be right back, I’m going to get something to drink. You want anything while I’m up there?” He was glaring at her like he was afraid she was going to offer to go order for him and she slid her cup across the table.

“Just another iced tea.” He nodded and rose, barely limping as he walked to the counter but his tread was too deliberate and if he was really feeling alright his grace would have been unconscious. If it had been practically any other of her acquaintances she’d have declined their offer of a drink but Bass was family and her independent streak that had driven away more than one boyfriend didn’t extend to him. While he was gone she sent a quick message to Danny reading, “No show yet.”

He came back with two iced teas and a cookie he split between them and she took her half, smiling her thanks as he pulled a notepad out of the portfolio he’d dropped on the floor. The sugar in the cookie made a pleasant counterpoint to the astringent bitterness to the iced tea. She’d started drinking her tea unsweetened at fourteen – when she found out he did too – and while she’d choked it down at first, stubborn habit had eventually given way for real preference. She’d patterned a lot of her habits after what he and Miles liked but she’d also been a child at the time so she figured that made it not too stalker-crazy.

“So how’s the book coming?”

“Good. I’ve got nearly a hundred case studies to work on, which helps. And this one is about both positive effects as well as the negative so it’s a lot less depressing than either of the other two books. Figured it was time to write something a little lighter. I swear Miles practically took my bootlaces away from me when I was writing ‘Loss.’”

“Can I read it sometime? Before it’s published, I mean.”

“Of course. So you said you were using ‘Loss’ in a research paper?” The title of his first book was ‘Survivor Guilt: A Guide to Adapting to Life After Tragedy’ but Bass had always referred to it as ‘Loss’; the official title had been one picked by his publisher. His second book was ‘Reclaiming Life: A Guide to Starting Over.’ Bass simply called that one ‘FML’. He had joked on more than one occasion that he should have just called it ‘Shit’ because that was what was going through his mind as he fell, but apparently the latter made an awkward working title. “What’s the theme of your paper?”

“The theme is actually narcissism. My partner and I are writing pro and con positions.”

“Not sure how that’s going to help you.” He gestured towards the book. “I don’t think I mention narcissism.”

“My partner has the pro and she’s writing about how it helps people to know they are special. I have the con and I’m focusing on negative things people do when they think they’re are. Drunk driving in particular.” He winced, though he covered it quickly, taking a sip of his tea. “I’m including quotes about what it does to people when they have a run-in with someone who thought they were more important than the rules.” The young man who had killed his entire family in an alcohol related crash had only been twenty-three years old, though that was a detail she’d gotten from Ben since his family wasn’t in the book other than on the dedication page.

“Okay, yeah, I guess that would be relevant,” he said softly, taking another drink of his tea.

“Sorry, hope you don’t mind. I can find something else if you want me to and –“ she stopped as he held up his hand and shook his head.

“No, Charlotte, I don’t mind.” He was nearly the only person to call her that since most people called her Charlie to keep from getting her mixed up with her grandmother. Even he had been calling her Charlie more often recently but if he was stressed he would often fall back on the old habit. “In fact, I’d be interested in reading it after you’re done with it.”

“Sure,” she said. “I’d like that. I’m not nearly as good a writer as you are but I’m not the worst in my family either.”

“Yeah,” he agreed, “Miles doesn’t always use complete sentences. It’s like he gets bored and forgets we can’t read his mind. His boss finally asked if I would start reading his reports before he submitted them just to make sure he wasn’t leaving things out.”

“Danny’s even worse,” Charlie laughed. “Miles has at least gotten better over the years. Danny sometimes throws in computer code in place of actual English. And he doesn’t say things out loud and expects me to know what he thought of telling me.”

He bent to scribble something on his notepad as he laughed and Charlie went back to her book --his book, really. She was midway through the chapter when the door opened again. She thought for a moment it was Grant, but the dark haired man who came in went straight over to the group in the middle of the room and they shifted to let him grab a chair and join them. She glanced at her phone and was surprised to see it was almost three and there was still no message explaining his absence.

“Well,” she said slowly. “I think it’s official. I’ve been stood up.” There wasn’t even anyone there at the shop who was alone, looking like they were trying to find someone, even if he hadn’t recognized her from the fake picture she’d submitted with her profile.

Bass glanced down at his watch and sighed. “I believe I have also. Too bad, I think I could have liked this girl.” He sounded almost a little sad as he stood, stretching. “Well, at least I got to have more fun being ditched than I normally even have on a date.”

“Same here.” She grabbed both their empty cups, taking them over to the trash before he could. “Though I’m sure I’ll get a message,” she said, walking back to the table to grab her purse and book, “with a perfectly reasonable explanation for why Grant couldn’t make it.”

Bass grabbed her by the shoulders and for an instant she thought he’d stumbled but the fingers digging into her collarbones weren’t putting any weight on her. “What,” he snapped, his voice quiet but there a tone to it she hadn’t heard in ten years, “did you just say?” His face, she realized, had gone white.

He was going to leave bruises, she realized. “My friend, Grant. And I know you’re probably going to say something about I shouldn’t see him if he stands me up but sometimes life happens and. . . .” She didn’t have to be good at reading lips to see his forming the word, ‘Shit,’ twice before he let go of her abruptly and took a step back.

“I’ve got to go,” he said quickly, suddenly looking anywhere but at her and she looked around the coffee shop to see people staring at them curiously and she felt her own knees go weak.

“Grant. As in the Civil War General.” She didn’t need his slow nod because she already knew. “Fuck.”

“My life. Yes.” He slowly sank back into his chair, then bounded back to his feet – albeit a little slower than usual. “So, are we going to yell at each other here or shall we go back to my place and do it.”

He couldn’t mean, she thought, what that sounded like. “Your place.”

“Good. We need to talk.” They walked out the door together and he turned north while her car was parked south. As she walked back to the car she wondered how she could have somehow have been communicating with Bass since April and not known it.

It had been easy, she realized, since his layer of lies had been as deep as her own and she wondered how he planned on explaining the fact that the family he pretended to be so close with was actually dead. Except, she realized, there were some elements of her own family in the characters he had represented to her and how much had it helped him to get to pretend to be normal to one person; Normal, whole, uninjured, unscarred by war and death and loss. Just as – for once – her representation of herself as someone older, independent, family free had allowed her to not feel like she was sometimes living in their shadow, no matter how much she loved them.

Her car was hot from sitting closed in the summer heat and she rolled down the windows rather than just waiting for the AC to kick in and she sent a message to Danny. “No show. Going to Miles’ place.” She pulled out into traffic, feeling her stomach clench. This, she knew, was not going to be pretty. But, while she had to admit that he did get a certain amount of leeway trying to pretend to play paternal figure, if he thought this was going to be all a one-sided lecture, he was in for a few surprises.

 

Bass met her at the door of his and Miles’ house, two glasses of water already in his hand. “Okay,” he said, walking into the living room and she followed him. “This,” he said, handing her over the water, “is probably going to be the most difficult conversation we’ve have ever had. And that includes the incident when you were twelve and the sex talk when you were 18. Both of them, actually. But I think we’re beyond the point of pretending it didn’t happen. Maybe we just figure out how? And why?” His look was a little hurt and even more curious. “Starting with, Charlie, why the hell are you on a dating site pretending to be 27?”

“Danny was trying to get a link to watch the newest Star Wars movie, before it was released. He found an site that said they’d sent one if he could get five people to join their partner website. That was the only one that didn’t require payment. It was about five years ago. I said I was 22. It just automatically adjusts the age. I had been deleting the messages from up to when Kurt dumped me on Valentine’s Day.”

“Kurt was an ass.”

“I agree. But it still stung and I ended up messaging this guy named Robert for a few weeks. Then Bradley. But none of them actually got beyond a few messages until Grant.”

“How were you going to explain being 22 instead of 27 and the fact that nearly nothing on your profile matched your real life?”

“Tell him the truth. I set that profile up when I was 17 but I couldn’t exactly say I was 17 and I never meant to use it. How did you plan to explain yourself?” she asked, and was rewarded with a blush and a glare.

“Do you know how dangerous those things can be? What sort of men can get into them?”

“Public place, gun in my bag. Why do you think I get coffee there? It’s the only shop near the University that doesn’t have ‘No firearms’ posted at the door.”

His phone rang and he pulled it out, hitting the silence button but then he glanced at it and opened it. “Hey, Danny, what’s up?” He was still for a moment, then added. “Yeah, she’s here. I don’t know when Miles will be home but we’ll probably all grab dinner. You want to come over? Okay, yeah, some other night.” He hung up, dropping the phone onto the coffee table. “Still using Danny as your backup, huh?”

“Worked for years. Why change tactics now.” He almost smiled, but then slumped onto the couch.

“Well, shit, Charlie. I. . .okay, I can see we both have a perfectly good reason to be pissed at each other. So would you be willing to just drop that part and figure out how we’re not going to try to avoid each other for the next decade until this is just a dim memory?”

It took her a moment to realize what he meant and she felt herself blush, even while she felt sorry for him. She’d had years to get used to the idea she had a crush on Bass; had filled out her profile with him in mind when she’d written it both on wanting a man like him and being the sort of woman he’d want. But for Bass, with equal amount of time thinking of her as Miles’ kid niece, this may well have been the first time he’d ever had to deal with thinking of her as a person he would consider having a relationship with.

The easiest, least humiliating course would be to start laughing, crack some sort of joke and pretend to find the whole thing ironic. His expression plainly showed that was exactly what he wanted her to do, but Charlie also realized he wouldn’t be as edgy if he wasn’t feeling something he didn’t want to explore. “I know what I was doing on there. But what about you? No hiding behind your usual excuse that you were looking to get laid because I find it hard to believe you’d message back and forth for nearly four months for that.”

“Would you believe it was research for the book? Professional relationships getting in the way of personal ones. And it’s been a really long time since I’d have a real relationship.”

“Bullshit. You don’t put yourself in your books.”

“I don’t cite myself. But have I ever written anything that I haven’t experienced first? You know better than anyone that I don’t.”

“You’re not that much of an asshole.”

He laughed, the sound bitter and he glared at her. “Yes, Charlotte, I really am. You just don’t get to see it very often. Not everyone else is that lucky.” That look she recognized, on both he and Miles. It meant she was very close to something they didn’t want to discuss and were trying to change the subject any way they could.

“Again, I’m calling bullshit. I’ll accept that may have been why you got the account but why talk with me for so long before we met. If you wanted to see how that worked, you’d have had ‘Karen’ meeting ‘Grant’ a few months ago. She got to you, didn’t she?”

The flash of rage that he immediate cloaked with a smile showed how close she’d hit. “Maybe a little. But since she was really you, it’s not much of a surprise, since I’m practically your uncle.”

“You have never been my uncle.” Normally she’d have slit her own wrists than try to deny Bass’ place in the family and right how she was willing conceded he was Miles’ brother, even Danny’s uncle. But not hers.

“Fuck, we’re not back to this again, are we? Damn it, Charlotte, I thought you’d gotten over that stupid crush on me when you were seventeen.” At her look of surprise, he rolled his eyes. “Yeah, I knew about it. I’m not blind.”

“You sure about that?” she snapped and he sorted. “Just because I got better at hiding it does not mean I ever got over it. Though I admit, I sometimes managed to make myself think I had.”

“And you’re Miles’ niece.” She should have taken bets with herself, she though, on how long it would take him to play the Miles card.

“So?”

“So? Charlotte, I love you, you know that right? You and Danny and Rachel and Ben. You’re my family. But Miles? Miles is my brother. And I would NEVER do anything to hurt him.”

“Don’t you mean again?” He jerked like she’d slapped him, which, in a way, she realized, she kind of had. He’d still not been out of the coma after the fall when Miles’ high school ex-fiancé had heard about the accident from old neighbors and had called, confessing to Miles that she had broken up with him because her parents had forced her to when she’d gotten pregnant after a fling with Bass. Connor lived in New Mexico, working with his Uncle on a cattle ranch. He and Bass talked occasionally, but the two weren’t particularly close.

“I would never,” Bass continued, clearly choosing to ignore her, “do anything to hurt him. Because without him, I don’t have family. Oh, Ben and Rachel like me well enough but do you think I mean anything to them other than just being a friend of Miles’?”

“Remember when I was twelve and ran away?”

He snorted. “How could I forget? You took five years off my life when you went missing?”

“Remember how Mom and Miles were when they found I knew about their affair. They’d been pretending it hadn’t happened for years –Dad including. But as soon as they knew I knew, she and Miles stopped talking and Mom freaked whenever Dad talked to him. I think the only reason I was still allowed to visit was I said I’d run away again if she didn’t let me. Well all that ended when you fell. Miles called and less than a day later we were all on a plane headed for South Carolina. When he picked us from the airport, the three of them could barely look at each other. We went straight to the hospital and you were still in that coma and we all took turns so you guys would never be alone. Dad and I were there at night. Mom and Danny were there during the day. Miles just never left at all. The hospital had visiting hour rules but the nurses never said anything to us about it because I think they were a little scared of Miles. Though I think he was more polite to them than he’s ever been to anyone in his life. By the time you woke up and we knew you were going to be okay and you’d probably even walk again and everything, it was like they’d had enough time to just let everything go. Mom cried, after Dad told her about Miles’ call. And I don’t think it was for Miles.” It was her mother, which really meant anything was possible, but she decided not to mention it. Besides, Bass knew Rachel well enough to make his own conclusions.

“And if you think that would mean anything to them if they ever found out we were sleeping together you’re more naïve than I thought you were?” He was trying to make her mad, she realized. It was a classical Miles/Bass move when either of them wanted to make someone else lose focus.

“So it’s okay that I slept with Leftaris, and Steven and Michael.” Three lovers in four years, none of them lasting more than six months. Leftaris had been the easiest of the three – he’d gone back to Greece. Steven and Michael had both broken up with her because they said she was too distant. She’d been thinking of sleeping with Kurt but he’d dumped her first. The sex itself was fun but the emotional baggage that seemed to come with it was what bothered her. “But it’s not okay that I sleep with someone I really care about?”

“Not when it’s me.” He ran his fingers through his hair, making the short curls stand up and she almost smiled.

“Fine, then all I want to hear is you’re not interested. That’s it.”

“You’re Miles niece. Ben and Rachel’s daughter.”

She took a deep breath, exhaling slowly as the anger boiled up and his eyes widened a little at whatever he saw in her face. “And that,” she said slowly, “is at the heart of why I didn’t tell the truth about myself on that site. I love my parents. I worship Miles. And yet, they are not the definition of who I am. So yes, maybe I made up this fantasy life where I’m not bracketed by them and maybe it is all a lie because they’ll always be there, even when I’m sick of them. But that doesn’t mean I’m not more than just Miles’ niece and Ben and Rachel’s daughter. And you still haven’t answered the question.”

He snorted, face twisting. “You ever want to be more than Miles’ niece and Ben and Rachel’s daughter, you certainly don’t want to be with me. Most people bring new relatives into the family. Me? You’d just be doubly stuck with the same people who already drive you crazy.”

He had a point, but he still hadn’t answered and she was actually starting to wonder how long he could talk around it. She honestly didn’t know if he was scared of admitting it or if he really just didn’t see her that way but she realized she wanted to know, even if she didn’t like the answer. “So which is it, Bass? You think you’re doing the right thing here or you really don’t think of me like that?”

“I never thought of you like that.” His voice was sad, blue eyes locked with hers and she wondered if the way her breath caught was because it hurt or if she almost was relieved that he had finally answered the questions she should have asked years ago so she could move on.

She smiled at him, nodding slowly. “Okay then. That’s all I needed to hear.” She walked over and leaned down to kiss him on the cheek. “Tell Miles I said hi but I decided not to wait. I’d promise never to mention this again but I’ll be honest, I’ll probably want to joke about it. Just not now.“

He nodded as she straightened, grabbing her purse off the coffee table. “Will you come over in a couple of days? Miles is off on Wednesday. We should have dinner or something. Drag Danny away from his computer.”

“I’ll do that,” she promised and smiled at him. “Look, I’m sorry if I embarrassed you and things will probably be a little awkward for a while. But I really did need to know.”

“No, awkward was you asking Miles if he’d ever slept with Rachel when you were twelve. This. . .this was something else. Though even I’m not quite sure what.”

“You’ll figure it out,” she teased. “You’re the psychologist. I’ll bet you’ve forming some neat little theory already.”

“Hero worship combined with pity. It would be wrong to take advantages of that on so many levels I can’t even count them.”

She started to laugh but then his words penetrated fully and she dropped her bag back onto the table.

“Wrong to take advantage? So you did think about it? Even for just a second?”

His glare was vicious and it had been nearly anyone else she either would have ran for the door or been grabbing for her gun but this was Bass and she wasn’t afraid of him, even if she sometimes wondered if she should be. “Charlotte, I think you need to go now,” he snapped and she almost smiled.

“Is that what you really want?”

His glare gave way to a growl and he pushed himself off the couch and began to pace the length of the living room. His walk gave away more than his face because he wasn’t moving like he was in pain but she knew he had to be and if he wasn’t feeling it, that meant he was thinking too hard to even notice his body. “Is that what I want? Yes. It is. And then I want to go back and undo everything since April and that stupid message last week suggesting that we meet because I really thought. . .because it would be best.” She wondered what he had started to say and she moved to stand a few feet away from him when he stopped and glared at her again.

“Yes, that probably would be best. But it did happen. So if you do want me to go, just tell me, and I will.”

She had always loved that she could sometimes hold entire conversations with Bass just by looking into his eyes. It wasn’t the same type of communication she had with Danny, but it was something special in its own right. His anger faded as their gazes locked and she could see him asking her not to do whatever she was doing so she wasn’t surprised when he reached out and pulled her roughly against him. He put her face into his chest, his head against her hair and she honestly wasn’t sure what he was going to do but he whispered, “Charlotte, please,” against the top of her head as his arms circled her shoulders.

“Please what?”

“Please go before I do something stupid.”

She looked up at him and smiled. “You do know that was the wrong thing to say to someone who’s waited for a decade for you to do something stupid.”

“I’d have gone to jail for the first six of those years.” He sounded more like he was trying to convince himself than her. “You should go.”

“Look me in the eyes and tell me that’s what you want.”

For an instant she thought he was going to say it when he pushed her away from him, but he half turned away from her. “What I want? How the hell can I even begin to describe what I want? How wrong it is. Fine, you want to hear that I want you? Yes, I want you. You think I didn’t notice that you weren’t just Miles’ kid niece anymore. That you were smart, that you could make me laugh when even Miles was getting on my nerves. That there were times I wanted to quit when I was doing rehab and just accept I’d be broken for the rest of my life and then you’d come in and toss me those stupid gloves and tell me to get up and spar with you.” He was nearly yelling, still not looking at her and she put a hand on his shoulder. He turned his head so that his cheek was resting on her hand. “Do you want to hear that I nearly kissed you on Tuesday when you put your hand on my hip? That only the fact that your entire family was sitting there with us was the only reason I didn’t tear your clothes off right there? It may have started off with you having some childhood crush on me and me reassuring myself you’d get over it but do you know what it feels like to have someone worship you and you want to be person they think you are?”

She said nothing and he finally turned, wrapping his arms around her again. His eyes were shiny as he bent his head. The kiss was gentle, his lips barely touching hers. She responded, moving her hands to his shoulders and one of them drifting to the back of his neck.

It didn’t have any of the normal awkwardness of the first kiss – which was fitting since she had kissed and been kissed by Bass for most of her life; just never quite like this before. One of his hands went to her hip, the other around her back and he parted her mouth, tongue sliding against hers. She could feel his heart pounding where they were pressed together.

Her knees were starting to feel shaky when her phone rang – Danny’s tone – and Bass reached down to pull it out of her back pocket and hand it to her.

“I’ll call him back later?” she murmured, worried that if she stopped, he’d panic but he moved his mouth from her lips to her ear.

“Please answer it now. Because if you don’t, he’ll call me next. And if I don’t answer, he’ll either call again, come over or call Miles. And none of these sound good to me.”

It was a more positive response that she had expected, but Bass, she recalled, very rarely did things half-heartedly. “Hey,” she said, as she answered, trying to breath normally and not squeak. Bass had his face against her shoulder but other than his breath washing over her skin, he was still.

“Hey, Charlie, wanted to see how you were doing? Grant tell you why he was a no show?”

“Danny, can we not talk about this right now? I went to Miles’ and I’m talking to Bass and I’m just fine. Promise.”

She wasn’t expecting Danny’s derisive snort. “Yeah, because that’s good for you?”

Bass moved his head slightly to be closer to the phone and he looked like he was about to pull away from her. “Why do you say that?” she asked.

“Charlie, anytime anything ‘s wrong, you always go running there. Because we both know that, no matter how upset you are, ten minutes with Bass and you’re just fine you since don’t care about anyone the way you care about him.” She started to speak but he cut in again, “It’s really almost too bad. If he’d ever realize you’re not twelve anymore, I think you’d both be happier.”

Bass’ eyes were huge and she glared at him as he started to step away. “So, if I were to tell you I was planning on dragging him to bed as soon as I hang up the phone?”

The snort came through the speaker perfectly clearly. “And I’d say he’s either in the kitchen or the bathroom if you’re saying that out loud. You don’t have the balls, Charlie. You’re too worried he’s going to reject you and he’s too worried he’d be taking advantage of you. Which is why I’m pissed this Grant-dude stood you up. I thought this guy had a chance.”

Bass pulled back enough to mouth “you let Danny read them?” and she shrugged.

“Some of them,” she breathed, holding the phone away. “Not all.” She turned back to the phone. “What do you mean?”

“Because a lot of the things this guy said reminded me of Bass. I figured if you found someone life him, you’d at least be happy.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” she said softly and even Bass was staring at her phone in surprise.

“Because now that I’ve said it, you’re going to start comparing them and Grant isn’t going to last long. I probably should just have kept my mouth shut but people don’t blow off my sister without paying for it.”

“Danny, can I call you later?”

“Yeah, sure. Love you, Charlie.”

“Love you too.” She disconnected and Bass took the phone and tossed it onto the couch behind her.

“I don’t think,” he said softly, “I’ve appreciated what a monster that boy is.”

“Most people don’t. He’s so quiet that everyone assumes he’s the sweet one and I’m the headstrong one. But Danny always did what he was told because he said that meant he could do whatever else he wanted and get away with it because everyone just assumed he didn’t know any better.”

She leaned in to kiss him again, this time not allowing him to be gentle and he growled, low in his throat as she yanked his shirt from the waistbands of his jeans and ran her palms along the muscles of his back. He let go of her to reach around behind him, linking their fingers together then bringing then up to kiss her knuckles “Maybe,” he sounded hesitant and she wasn’t sure if he was or just thought he should be, “we should just take things slowly?”

She shook her head, “You heard my brother. He told me I didn’t have enough balls to drag you to bed. Do you really expect me to walk away from a challenge like that?” By the way he grinned she was pretty sure he realized she was joking. If he hadn’t been kissing her just moment before, Danny would have been right, she wouldn’t’ have dared. She stepped away from him and he let their fingers slide apart. She turned her head as she walked towards the stairs. “So I’m going to bed. Your move, Monroe?”

She felt a little sick to her stomach as she reached the steps and hadn’t heard him follow but then he was behind her, moving quickly even if she could hear the irregular pattern of his limp.

She had her shirt off while she was still in the hallway but she didn’t drop it until she was in his room. The thick gray carpet was springy under her feet and she kicked off her sandals. She’d always loved the spare elegance of his room, the dark, heavy wood antiques that didn’t quite match exactly. He threw back the blue and brown bedspread and she seated herself on the gray cotton sheets, watching him as he pulled off his shirt, hand hesitating at the waistband of his jeans. She reached out to trail a hand down his arm, to the heavy M inked into his left forearm. He sighed at her touch, then stepped out of his pants. A square of white bandage, taped in place, showed above the blue fabric of his boxers and she moved her hand to touch the edge of it.

“Will this be okay?” she asked, as she realized she might possibly be pushing him to injure himself even more. “Because if –“ He stepped closer, leaning into kiss her and run his hands down her back, fingers caressing her skin along the line of her bra.

“It’ll be fine, Charlotte,” he purred into her ear. “My range of motion will be a little more limited than usual, I will admit. But not enough to stop me. Granted, I’d probably better be on top because I really don’t want to get a knee into my hip until after the stitches come out.”

She nodded, letting his mouth work along her neck and ear, her nerves tingling with the contact. He angled her backwards until they were both on the bed; her on her back, him on his right side leaning slightly over her. She was still wearing her pants and she started to unbutton them but he stopped her. “There’s plenty of time for that. Let’s not rush.”

“It’s got to be after four. Miles usually gets off at five on Saturdays.”

He chuckled as he moved his mouth to the curve of her shoulder, nibbling gently. “Miles has a date with one of the bomb techs. We’ll be lucky if we see him tonight. She’s hot. At least he thinks she is.”

“And you don’t?” she teased.

He shrugged. “Not really my type.” It sounded good, except over the years she’d stumbled over more than a few of his “friends” and he had never really seemed to have a type. None of them had lasted longer than a year; most had been gone within one to two months, though rarely with any dramatic exits. They had all just sort of drifted away, as if realizing there was more than what they wanted to deal with.

He groaned as she moved her hands to knead his shoulders and he slumped against her. “Damn, that feels good,” he whispered against her ear and she smiled, moving one hand to massage the base of his neck and up into his scalp. His body was nearly as familiar to her as her own. She couldn’t remember a time she hadn’t known him, even when it had just been quick visits with Miles on leave. In the last seven years, where she had spent nearly as much time at his and Miles’ house as at her own, there had been plenty of nights with the three of them sprawled on the couch watching movies – her usually in the middle since she claimed they talked to much seated next to each other; really it had been a not so subtle way to be next to Bass. Even after she had tried be more discreet and not find reasons to touch him there had always been a casual familiarity to their contact. She’d even seen him naked. She had been seventeen and had come over to talk to Miles after a fight with Rachel. Bass had walked out of the downstairs shower, bitching something about if Miles was going to take the towels out of the bathroom to wash them than he really needed to put some back. He’d frozen in the kitchen doorway as she’d been too shocked to even be mesmerized. Miles had thrown a dishtowel at him and Bass had stammered something neither of them could remember as he had backed out of the kitchen. Miles hadn’t quit laughing for the rest of the day.

But this, she realized, as he moved his hands against her shoulders, was something totally different. She could feel his erection on her leg, though he was being almost deliberately slow about the way his tongue moved against hers. She caught a handful of his hair and pulled him closer, and he bit her lip gently, pulling back to kiss her on the tip of the nose.

“Charlie,” he whispered, “what’s wrong? You’re as edgy as a cat.”

She smoothed her fingers along his back, lips forming a protest that he was wrong but she exhaled deliberately. “I. . .I’m scared you’re going to change your mind. All this, you can blow it off – rationalize it as a bad idea with no real harm done and just go one pretending. . . .” she broke off as he started to laugh and her hands fisted at his shoulders, starting to shove him away but then his mouth was hard on hers and his hands were wrapped in her hair, pulling her head back to nuzzle his way along her jaw until he was breathing in her right ear.

“Fine. But if we do it your way now, can we do it my way next time?” She nodded quickly, not even trusting herself to speak at his promise of ‘next time’ implying this wasn’t just something he was going to pretend hadn’t happened and he smiled at her. “Okay, one other thing to discuss, before we go any further. And this isn’t normally something that I’d even leave open for debate but you’re also special so I’m considering bending a few of my own rules. I don’t have any condoms. So I can go rummage through Miles’ room and see if he has any. . .or. . .I know you have an IUD and I also know you get checked regularly.”

“Two months ago,” she rasped, feeling her skin heat but while Rachel had been the one to talk to her about it, Miles and Bass had been the ones who had insisted she follow up with regular check-ups.

“Mine was six months ago but there hasn’t been anyone in that time.”

“Me neither,” she whispered back and was surprised to feel his smile curving against her neck.

“I know. But there’s still a –“ This time he was the one to break off as she levered herself onto her shoulder, dragging his head to her mouth. His hands dropped to her waistband and she shimmied her hips to help him drag jeans and underwear off together. He rolled his hips on top of her as she pulled at his boxers and she had only a few moments to savor the feel of his bare skin against her before he was pushing inside of her almost roughly. She felt her body stiffen around him as she realized she was tenser than she thought and she felt a shock of pain before he was in. He cradled her face as she focused on trying to breathe and relax, grateful that he wasn’t trying to move and he leaned in to kiss her gently on the forehead.

“You okay?” he whispered and she nodded, afraid to say anything and he leaned in closer. “Liar.” One hand moved to her back to unclasp her bra and he dipped his head to run his tongue along her nipple. She could see lines of tension in his own face, probably from the effort of just holding still. “Now do you understand why I wanted to take my time? You. . .you’re still scared I’m going to change my mind, aren’t you?”

“Not as much anymore,” she whispered back and he shook his head.

“You don’t have to worry about that. I’m not going anywhere.”

She shuddered a breath, sliding her hips and he gasped, warm air washing over her chest and up her neck and he appeared to take that as an invitation to start rocking his hips against hers. She felt herself adjust around him and he pulled partway out then thrust back in. This time there was only the sensation of flesh-on-flesh and the knowledge that Bass – Bass – was inside her and she was the one who gasped as he whispered, “Charlotte,” into her ear.

 

His way – she discovered in what she guessed was about an hour later – was much slower. A long torture session of his fingers and tongue and teasing caresses at her entrance until she literally was begging to him to be inside her.

They were in the middle of making love a third time – him touching her like she was made of spun glass – when her stomach growled and he pulled out of her, laughing. She moaned in protest but he dragged her partway into a sitting position as he threw his legs across the bed to land on the floor. “Come on, you. We’re going to take a breather.” He smirked at her whimper. “Good sex should involve sandwiches anyway.”

He stretched and Charlie leaned back, admiring the view. She finally stood, knees wobbling a little, the faint scent of their sweat clinging to her skin. “I need a shower,” she commented as he dug around on the floor finding his clothes.

“I’d join you but I think I’ve stretched a few stitches. I want to give them time to harden up again before I get them wet. I’ll make us dinner. Chicken okay?”

“Yes.” She’d have agreed to just about anything he would have suggested, she realized as she reached out to trail her fingers along the edge of the bandage at his hip. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. I’m not.” He pulled her against him, bending his head and kissing her for a long time. He stepped back abruptly, one hand smacking her gently in the middle of her bare back. “Now, go get your shower or I might change my mind about dinner.”

“I’d be okay with that,” she teased and he snorted.

“I’m not. I’m hungry.” At her expression he softened and leaned in to kiss her again on the right temple. “Later. We’ve got all night.”

Charlie turned away, walking naked down the hall, making sure to roll her hips, aware he was watching her. She usually used the downstairs shower – the one next to the guestroom she and Danny took turns using when they visited but she picked Bass’ bathroom. It had the same spare furnishings in blues, browns and grays like his room; he and Miles both seemed to avoid collecting personal items. She wrapped her hair in a messy knot on the top of her head, rummaging through his drawer and coming up with a pen and pair of tweezers to hold it in place.

She stepped under the steaming spray, lathering herself with Bass’ soap. It was some generic gel that smelled faintly of ginger root and vanilla and she scrubbed it into her skin. She turned the water off wrapping in one of his gigantic, soft blue towels that nearly went around her twice.

She was trying to decide if she wanted to go downstairs in just the towel when she heard the scrape of a key in the lock and Miles’ voice in the living room followed by Bass calling some kind of answer from the kitchen. The pit of her stomach felt like someone had kicked her but she clenched her jaw, reminding herself that she and Bass were both entitled to do whatever they wanted and Miles was the last person to criticize anyone’s relationship but she also admitted part of her fear was in not knowing if Bass was going to feel the same way.

She darted across the hallways into his room and picked up her clothes that were still strewn around his floor. The edge of a faint purple bruise showed at the corner of her shirt by her shoulder – she’d been right, she realized, when she had thought his grabbing her in the coffee shop would leave marks – but her sweater was in the car. She wondered if Miles would think it was from her martial arts practice – she’d acquired enough bruises from it over the years. At least it didn’t look like a hickey.

She loped down the stairs, greeting Miles with what she hoped was a cheerful, “Thought you had a date?”

“I did.” Miles took a swig from a beer and Charlie grabbed it from him. One of his hands reached up to bat at a damp curl and she shrugged.

“It was hot today and I wanted a shower. I felt sticky. What happened?”

“Danny called. Said you had some kind of date of your own stand you and you’d sounded weird when he talked to you. He was worried.”

“You cancelled for that?” Charlie couldn’t decide if she was more irritated or touched by the thoughtfulness of her male relatives. “How’d you explain that to your date?”

“She’s got a younger sister. And her niece is four. She understands.” Charlie looked past Miles’ shoulder to where Bass’ face was showing profound irritation as he pulled a bag of chicken breasts from the freezer.

“Well thanks, Miles, but you could have just called me first.”

“I did. You didn’t answer. Four times.” Probably, she realized, because her phone was most likely still somewhere in the couch.

“Huh. I didn’t hear it.”

“In fact,” Miles reached over to grab his beer back from her and took a long pull from the bottle, “Neither of you answered.” He still looked annoyed but not particularly suspicious and Charlie reached past him to grab an apple from the bowl on the counter.

“I’ll have to check my phone,” Bass commented. “Did you eat? I was about to throw some chicken on the grill. Do you want some?”

“Yeah, sure. We hadn’t left the office yet when Danny called. He was at some kind of geek club meeting – his words, not mine – or he said he would have come himself.” Charlie crunched on a bite of apple as Miles took another swallow of his beer and turned to look out the window to the small grill on their back deck. Bass dumped six chicken breasts into a glass bowl and put them into the microwave. “So tell me about this guy?”

“Not much to tell. We were supposed to meet and things didn’t go according to plan.”

“And yet you didn’t call me.” He sounded almost hurt.

“I figured it could wait. I came over and Bass was here. I’m fine.” She took another bite of her apple and glanced over at Bass.

Their eyes met for a second before he turned back to the microwave. It was barely even a look but Miles sat up in his chair, glaring at both of them. “Oh, son-of-a-bitch. What the hell?”

“Miles?” she asked around her apple.

“You two are sleeping together.”

“Excuse me?” Bass said, sounding both polite and confused. The confusion, Charlie decided, was probably genuine. Even she didn’t know what Miles had picked up to determine that.

“You two. Are sleeping together. Don’t lie to me.”

“Wasn’t planning on it,” Bass said mildly, as the microwave beeped.

“How could you do this?” Miles half-yelled and Charlie assumed he was talking to Bass before she realized he was glaring at her.

“What?” Bass looked as startled as she felt.

“You heard me, Charlie. What on earth made you think this was a good idea?”

“Miles – “ Bass started to say but Miles held up a hand.

“I’ll get to you in a minute. Charlie,” there was a hint of pleading in Miles’ voice, “look, I know you’ve had a crush on him for years. I can sympathize with the whole loving someone you can’t have. It’s hell. I get that. But what’s he supposed to do when you’ve moved on?”

“You think that’s what this is?” she asked, suddenly angry. When he didn’t reply she exhaled. “Really, Miles?”

“Look,” this time Miles’ voice was gentle and Bass was looking at her uncle like he couldn’t decide to be amused or annoyed, “You have someone ditch out on you and you come here. I’m flattered. Hell, I love it. But you’re feeling rejected? Unwanted? And the dragon-slayer over there,” he turned to glare at Bass, “decides to make you feel better. I can see how things could lead where they did.”

“That’s not quite how it happened,” Bass said but Miles ignored him.

“So it’s all good now. But what about tomorrow when you hear from this guy and he’s got this great excuse like his dog died or he was taking his elderly neighbor to the doctor. Where does that leave him?” He waved his hand in Bass’ general direction.

“You really think I’m that shallow?” she asked and he sighed.

“Charlie, you forget. Fourth of July. I have never seen you spend as much time on your computer as you did then. You even paid more attention to it than you did him. That tells me something.” When she didn’t reply he shook his head, “Fine, have your fling or whatever and enjoy it. But don’t ask me to pick sides because either way, I’m going to get caught in the middle. We’re his family, Charlie.” His voice went soft. “All of us. And you,” he turned to Bass. “What happened to that woman you’d been telling me about? The one you said you really liked?”

“I was planning on meeting her today,” Bass said softly.

Miles turned to glare at Charlie again. “Did you even stop to find out what was going on with him first before you went running to him to console yourself? He can’t say no to any of us, Charlie. And maybe it’s my fault for assuming you understood that. Family is sacred to him. It’s so easy to take advantage that if we’re not careful but that’s not fair to him.”

“Miles, can I talk now,” Bass asked and Charlie could hear the hint of laughter to his tone. “I appreciate the concern. But I can take care of myself. Really.” The look Miles gave him indicated he disagreed but he scrunched in his seat and kept silent. “So I go to meet this woman for coffee – and you’re right -- I really liked her. But when I get there, there’s no sign of her. But Charlie’s there. Meeting some date of her own. We talk for a while, realize we’ve both been stood up and we’re getting ready to leave when she mentions her friend’s name is Grant.”

Miles frowned, sitting up again. “Wait, didn’t you use the name Grant a few months ago when you were trolling around some support group trying to find people for your book?”

“Grant McClellen. Yeah. Just at the meetings though. Anyone I picked to interview I told them who I really was. But in this case it was Grant Jackson.” Bass and his obsession, Charlie thought fondly, with the Civil War.

Miles turned back to glaring at Charlie again. “Wait, what were you doing on a dating site pretending to be 27?”

“Set it up,” she responded, the patter seeming nearly familiar, “when I was 17. Ask Danny to explain. It was actually something for him. I didn’t start using it till after Kurt dumped me. You showed Miles?”

He shrugged. “Well, you let Danny see mine.”

Miles glanced between them, face a study in confusion and disbelief. “What the hell?”

“Much milder language than what we used when we figured it out,” Bass laughed.

“I’m not stupid,” Charlie said softly. “I get what family means to him. But I think you also understand what he means to me.”

Miles looked between them before he stood up. He glanced at his beer then shoved it down the counter towards Charlie and pulled out his phone. “I’m not sure I see this ending well,” he said, “but I can’t say either one of you is wrong to try.” Charlie heard the faint sound of a woman’s voice and Miles replied, “Hey, it’s me. Look, I know what I told you but it turns out I didn’t get the whole story and I think I need to be out of the way tonight. Are you still available for dinner?”

Bass walked around the counter to wrap and arm around Miles’ shoulder, murmuring, “Thank you, Brother. I appreciate it.”

“Alright, thanks. I’ll be by in about twenty minutes.” Miles hung up and then glared at Bass. “Not if you hurt her you won’t. I’ll make that fall seem like a fond memory.” He glanced over at Charlie. “And you. . .even I don’t know what I’ll do to you if you do the same to him.” Charlie laughed as she stepped into his hug. She followed Miles into the living room as he grabbed his coat from the back of the couch and then he leaned down to pull her phone from where it was half-buried between the cushions. “Call your brother. Huh, two missed calls from your Mom.”

She snatched at the phone, catching it as he tossed it to her and she scrolled frantically. There were the four missed calls from Miles –he apparently hadn’t exaggerated that – as well as five from Danny along with a handful of her brother’s messages ranging from the generic, ‘you doing okay?’ to ‘you have five minutes to get a hold of me or else I’m calling Miles!’

The only communication from Rachel was a message that had come through about 4:30, a simple, ‘Not sure what you’re doing for dinner but I’m making spaghetti if you want some.’ She glared at Miles. “Liar.”

He smirked. “Made you look. His grin was teasing and he leaned over to kiss her on the side of the head. “Night, Kid. See you in the morning.”

“If you bring bacon, I’ll make waffles for breakfast. Bring your bomb-tech.”

“I’m keeping you two as far away from each other for as long as possible.” He walked out, key sliding in the lock behind him.”

The kitchen was empty but she could see Bass out at the grill and she grabbed Miles abandoned beer as well as a fresh one from the fridge and walked out the door. She handed him one of the beers and he took it, sliding his other arm against her waist and pulling her close to him. “Well,” Bass said, taking a sip of beer, “he took that better than I thought he would. In fact, from my perspective, it was nearly painless.”

“So if you’d have known he was going to yell at me instead of you, would you have slept with me sooner?” she teased and he leaned over to kiss her on the top of the head.

“I’m glad I didn’t. Feels more right this way.”

The smoke coming off the barbecue made Charlie’s stomach rumble but she stood on her toes to kiss him. “Think maybe we can skip dinner?”

“Not a chance. I’m starving.” At her look he grinned. “We’ll eat fast. Hey, like I said, there’s no rush. We have all night.” His arm tightened around her. “Actually, we’ve got a lot longer than that.”

 

14 July 2028

Charlie ran down the stairs, her backpack on her shoulder and her overnight bag slung over one arm. “I’m going to Miles’,” she yelled in the direction of the living room where she knew Ben and Danny were working on a project together. She had spent Saturday and Sunday nights there, Monday at home, Tuesday and Wednesday with Bass and Thursday again at her parents. If she had packed everything she thought she needed, she was prepared to not be back until sometimes Tuesday.

“Charlie,” her mother surprised her, walking out of the kitchen. While Rachel had an office and a lab at the University Research Center, she maintained some of her best inspiration came from sitting at her kitchen table.

“Hey, Mom, what’s up?”

“Rachel glanced at the bag and the backpack. “Where did you say you were going?”

“To Miles.”

She saw the speculation in Rachel’s eyes and braced for whatever was coming but Rachel’s tone was surprisingly gentle. “Charlie, I understand it’s awkward being this age and still living at home and I’m trying to respect that because I don’t want you to move out. But. . .if you’re going somewhere, I’d rather know about it. I know I may be the last person you want to talk to about where you’re going. . .but if something happens. . .I’d rather know.”

“What do you mean if something happens?” She felt the defensive edge to her tone and Rachel stiffened.

“There are bad things that happen in this world, Charlie.”

“Yes, I get it. Bad people. It’s part of why I have a permit to carry a gun.”

She didn’t understand the look that Rachel gave her. “Not just bad people. Bad things. And if something ever happened where I couldn’t just call and. . .never mind.” Rachel took a deep breath. “Just understand that sometimes there are things that you may never understand. I pray you’ll never know what I’m talking about -- I think I fixed it so you never will -- But this isn’t just a normal mother over-protective thing.”

There was something in Rachel’s face that was desperate and Charlie lowered her bag to the floor and stepped closer to touch Rachel on the shoulder. “I’m going to Miles’. I swear. I’ve got that paper that I’m working on and since I’m using ‘Loss’ as one of my main sources, Bass has promised to take a look at it. Yes,” she added, “my professor knows I know the author.” The paper was mostly done – though Bass had offered to read over it – but she decided to let Rachel assume she needed to do more on it than she did.

Rachel looked conflicted, but took a deep breath. Charlie recognized the expression that she was preparing to say something she already knew her daughter didn’t want to hear. “Charlie, do you have a minute?” She raised one eyebrow expectantly, a silent ‘bring it’ that preceded most of their arguments and Rachel sighed. “I’m happy you and Miles are so close and you and Danny practically live out of his house nearly as much as here.” Danny had been a less frequent visitor lately as he’d started spending more and more time working on projects that required computer equipment that was not exactly portable. Her brother had been surprised when she had finally told him what had actually happened on her ‘date’ but since he’d been the one to notice ‘Grant’ had sounded like Bass, he had taken it better than she had expected. “In fact, I’m pretty sure if wasn’t for that you probably would have moved out and I’d be lucky to see you a few times a month. But I’m worried about Bass. From what Miles says, it sounds a little like he’s got a new girlfriend and I think –“

“When did you talk to Miles?” Charlie asked. It was an unwritten rule in the family that Miles and Rachel rarely spoke directly, even if it was clear that they were communicating on some level whenever they were in the same room.

“Your dad was talking to him yesterday. He had it on speaker. Miles was telling him about some trip he’s planning to the zoo tomorrow with some co-worker and her niece. For Miles to be doing something like that, it usually means Bass had a girlfriend and Miles is trying to give him space. I know we think of him as our family too. . .and he is. But he has every right to find someone to make him happy. We’re almost enough – goodness knows what he’d have done without us. Or what we’d have done without him. But if he can have that and also find –“

“It’s me,” Charlie said softly, almost regretting the words as soon as she’d said them as Rachel’s eyes widened.

“For how long?”

“A week.”

Rachel opened her mouth and Charlie braced for the lecture but suddenly her mother had her arms wrapped around her. Charlie stiffened for a moment, then hugged Rachel back.

“Are you okay?” Rachel asked as she stepped away and Charlie glared at her.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Rachel held up her hands, palms out.

“It’s a question, Charlie. That’s all. Are. You. Okay?

“Why wouldn’t I be?” She could hear the snap in her tone but Rachel didn’t seem to notice. “Oh, is this where I get the ‘you’re too young to know what you want and this is just a crush and you’ll get over it’ talk?”

“No.” Rachel’s voice was soft. “Think about it Charlie. In all the years, have I ever brought that up?” Oddly enough, Charlie realized, despite all the arguments she and Rachel had ever had, that one was stunningly absent and she wondered why she’d never noticed it. “You may not want to hear we’re alike. And I’ll admit there are a lot of ways you’re more like the Matheson side. But when you fall in love with someone -- really fall in love – you don’t just get over it. And that you do get from me. But what I meant is that sometimes the adjustment from wanting something to actually getting it is harder than you think. And you end up driving it away without meaning to because you don’t know how to stop fighting for it. To the point where you’re fighting him.”

Charlie took a quick breath as it felt like Rachel’s words hit her like punches. But her habits that had caused past boyfriends to flee – some nearly screaming literally – usually got a laugh from Bass and a sarcastic comment about being like Miles but he seemed to understand. “I think we’re doing okay,” she said quietly. “Really.”

Rachel looked a little skeptical but then nodded. “Does your Dad know?”

“I’m pretty sure he doesn’t. Danny does.”

“Of course,” Rachel said drily. “Maybe. . .maybe we can talk again when you’re back.”

“Sure,” Charlie agreed, hefting the strap on her bag back onto her shoulder. “Sometime Tuesday I think.” Rachel nodded and suddenly Charlie burst out, “Danny was coming for brunch on Sunday. You and Dad should come too.”

Rachel nodded, her eyes shiny and Charlie felt herself being caught in another hug. “Take care of him,” Rachel whispered. “And make him take care of you too.”

“We do,” she whispered back.

Rachel was sniffing as she stepped back. “You’d better. I love you, Charlie. Have a good weekend.”

“I love you too, Mom,” Charlie said, hesitating a second before grinning. “And don’t worry. I’ll have a great weekend.”

Rachel rolled her eyes – Charlie really didn’t blame her for that – and then sighed again. “Really, you’re worse than Miles sometimes. Go on, get out of here. I’m going to go break the news to your Dad, unless you want to do it yourself. “

“Nope. Better you than me.”

She was tossing her bags in the trunk when her phone rang and she felt her face split into a grin when she saw Bass’ name on the ID. “Hey, you,” she said, the familiar conflicting emotions of excitement and calm settling over that she got whenever she talked to him. It wasn’t calm, she decided, even if it felt similar. Contentment was probably more apt.

“Hey. Just wanted to tell you I should be home around four. You told your Mom.” It wasn’t a question and Charlie groaned.

“That was fast. It was less than five minutes ago. What did she say?”

“Just ’I may love you but you know what I’ll do to you if you hurt her.’ And then she hung up. Didn’t even wait for me to reply.”

“Wait, was it a message or a call?”

“Oh no, this was a call. I thought I knew ever tone Rachel had. This one. . .this one was new. And it scared me.” He was being humorous but she could hear the seriousness behind his words and she turned to glare at the house behind her.

“Don’t worry about it. I’ll talk to her and –“

“Charlotte,” he cut her off, and she could hear the laughter in his voice, “don’t you dare. It was sweet. And besides,” he paused, his voice dropping. “If I don’t hurt you, I don’t have to worry about it.” Every nerve ending in her body responded and he purred, “See you in two hours.” He hung up before she could reply. She felt her throat tighten and she shut the trunk to walk around to the driver side. It was going to be a long two hours. But she forced herself to breath slowly. Compared to more than two decades, two hours was nothing.