Jace tipped his head back, taking a long swallow of his bottled beer. Ridley watched his best friend’s throat ripple as he drank, his skin the toasty brown that came from baking in the summer sun. It was June, one of the hottest months of the year in Ashe, Kansas, and today they’d escaped to the lake to find relief from triple-digit temperatures.
Jace had just climbed back aboard the twenty-one-foot Bayliner after taking a dip to cool off, and rivulets of water ran down his chest and collected at his waistband. Ridley helplessly tracked a droplet of water over firm muscle until an elbow jabbed into his ribs.
His twin sister, Ronnie, shook her head. “You’re being obvious.”
Ridley winced, glancing toward Jace from the corner of his eye. He was busy trying to haul one of their other friends off the side of the boat. Lena squealed as his arms locked around her, lifting her up.
“At least he’s oblivious,” Ridley said.
“He can’t be as oblivious as he seems,” Ronnie replied. “He probably just doesn’t want to embarrass you.”
Ridley hoped that wasn’t true. The only thing worse than pining over a guy was for the guy to know about your crush that wouldn’t die. It made Ridley feel like a juvenile. It was one thing when he crushed on his best friend at sixteen, but now he was twenty-six. He should be capable of asking out a guy who interested him, and of moving on if the guy wasn’t inclined to return his attraction.
Instead, he was stuck in the unrequited love phase he’d entered when he was a high school sophomore.
Ridley wasn’t quite a living cliché. He wasn’t in lust with his straight best friend. Jace was gay. Jace was gay but uninterested. And why should he be? He was gorgeous: sun-streaked, caramel-colored hair, green eyes, and a toned body. Contrasted with Ridley’s plain brown hair, brown eyes, and ho-hum build — not to mention his lack of athletic skill and nerdy interests — there was no comparison.
Jace was suddenly at his side, throwing one arm over his shoulders and the other over Ronnie’s. “My favorite people,” he crowed. “You ready to go for a ride?”
He nodded behind the boat, where a wakeboard floated on the surface.
“Pass,” Ronnie said.
Jace’s green eyes shifted to him. “How about it, Rid?”
“It’s like you don’t even know me. If I want to end up facedown in the water, I can jump the fuck in.”
Ronnie giggle-snorted, well aware of his clumsiness. Jace, with his natural athletic grace, just shrugged. “It’s fun. I’ll take you with me, if you want.”
Ridley eyed the board. “That doesn’t look built for two.”
“He can hold you,” Ronnie suggested, that she-devil. He sent her a look of betrayal. His body being held up against Jace was the last thing he needed. Ridley already had to push down unwanted physical response every time he saw him.
“Hey, Tim!” Jace called to the owner of the boat and wakeboard. “We can double up on the board, right? Rid needs a helping hand.”
Beside him, Ronnie muffled a laugh, spinning around to put her back to Jace. Ridley glared, thinking that if Jace wasn’t oblivious, it was probably because Ronnie didn’t have a subtle bone in her body. He never should have told her about his feelings for Jace, but he’d been telling Ronnie everything since he was three years old. He was fairly sure even if he didn’t, she’d be able to read the truth on his face.
“Seriously, Jace, I’m good here.”
“You should go,” Ronnie said, not even managing to keep a straight face. Having a twin was overrated.
Ridley opened his mouth to object when another voice chimed in.
“I’ll go with you!”
A slip of a guy with black hair, bright blue eyes, and swishy hips bounced over to Jace, looking at him as if he was the stuff of wet dreams. He beamed a bright smile up — a long way up because he was five feet six inches at best next to Jace’s six-foot-two frame. “Can you take me?”
Jace smiled crookedly. “Uh, sure.” He flicked a glance at Ridley. “If you’re sure, Rid?”
Ignoring Ronnie’s increasingly painful jabs to the ribs, Ridley shrugged. “Yeah, whatever. I’m cool.”
Then he watched with burning envy as the pretty boy who’d tagged along with Lena openly flirted with Jace in a way that Ridley could never do, not without risking their longtime friendship. As Leo squealed and clung to Jace, making the most of his opportunity to touch wet, naked skin, Ridley gritted his teeth.
Just another day in the friend zone. Leo wasn’t the first guy Ridley had watched Jace flirt with, and he wouldn’t be the last. But it sure as hell wasn’t getting any easier to stomach. Not even the immediate capsizing of the wakeboard, dumping them both into the lake, could entirely revive Ridley’s sinking mood.
* * *
The next morning, Ridley and Ronnie went to The Early Bird for brunch. They’d lived together for four years, ever since Ronnie broke up with her long-term boyfriend. She’d dated Hank since high school and seemed in no hurry to find a replacement. She had fun playing the field almost as much as Jace did.
The day before, they’d returned to shore exhausted by the sun and dehydrated from too much alcohol but in good spirits. Especially Jace and Leo, who’d left together despite Leo arriving at the dock in Lena’s car.
Ronnie had declared a need for pizza and ice cream, and Ridley had let her soothe his ego with junk food and cheesy sci-fi movies. It was easier than trying to pretend he didn’t care. She’d only see right through him, and she wouldn’t even need the X-ray technology he used at work to do it.
“I need coffee,” she groaned as they joined two tables pushed together to accommodate all of their friends. They’d started the Sunday brunch tradition around the time their friends started returning home from college and a few new people joined their circle. Most of the crowd was there because of Jace — who attracted people like moths to a lightbulb — and Ronnie, who was adorably awkward but also impossible not to love.
“Hi, Ridley,” Mandy said with a smile. “Sit here?”
Okay, Ridley had a few friends in the bunch, and one admirer of his own. Mandy had been smitten with him since senior year of high school, and unfortunately, she hadn’t moved on to more viable boyfriend candidates.
Her cheeks pinked when he smiled in her direction. “Please tell me I don’t look like that with Jace,” he muttered out of the side of his mouth.
Ronnie smirked. “Worse.”
Ridley shoved her playfully toward the buffet. “Get your coffee so you can be the nice twin again.”
“I’m never the nice twin,” she called back as she went. “You know that!”
“She’s right,” Jace said, strolling in with bedhead and wearing yesterday’s board shorts and sun-bleached tank top. “You’re too nice for your own good, Rid.”
“Save me that seat, Mandy,” Ridley said. “I need to clog my arteries.”
“You got it!”
He headed for the buffet, happy for once not to sit next to Jace in his morning-after ensemble. He didn’t want to smell sex on him while eating his pancakes. He should probably count himself lucky Leo wasn’t in attendance, being Lena’s friend. Lena was on a far end of the table, chatting away with two other 911 dispatchers Ronnie worked with, so he hadn’t come with her either.
Ridley had seen the 911 setup once; the dispatchers weren’t paid as much as other emergency professionals, but their three-screen display and list of protocols were intimidating. Ronnie loved it, though. She was easily bored, and the job kept her mind engaged at several levels.
“Dude, that Leo was a real firecracker,” Jace said as he trailed Ridley to the buffet. “I thought I was going to need your services.”
“What?” Ridley choked.
Jace took one look at his face and cracked up.
“Not like that.” He held out his arm, where a large bruise had formed. “Shower sex gone wrong. I slipped while holding him and cracked my arm on the edge of the shower door. Thought I might have broken it.”
Ridley gingerly gripped Jace’s forearm above the bruising and turned it for a better look.
“Sex injury. You wouldn’t be the first.” Ridley smiled despite his irritation. Jace hooking up wasn’t new, and if Ridley hadn’t come to terms with that reality by now, he would have lost his mind. “I didn’t think Leo would be your type.”
“What, hot? Hot is definitely my type.”
Ridley grabbed a plate for each of them, handing over one to Jace before loading bacon, scrambled eggs, and pancakes onto his own.
“Leo’s kinda, I dunno, small? I thought you went for jocks with muscle on top of muscle.”
Guys completely unlike Ridley.
Jace shrugged as he added a serving of fruit to his plate, along with half the portion of bacon that Ridley had selected.
“I’m not that shallow. I like lots of guys for lots of reasons.” He waggled his eyebrows, then glanced down at Ridley’s plate. “Jesus Christ, it’s hard to believe you work in health care. You trying to kill your heart?”
“I work in radiology, not nutrition. But I can tell you how to avoid a broken wrist — or even a bruised one.”
“Let me guess: No more shower sex with feisty men?”
Ridley deadpanned, “Nonslip bath mats.”
“Uh, I was in the shower.”
“I know,” Ridley said, laughing as they returned to the table. “I meant inside the bathtub.”
“Or just stop trying to have shower sex,” Ronnie said as they took their seats. “It never ends well.”
Jace snorted, sending Ridley a look as if to say, See? I knew you were thinking it.
Ridley wanted to argue that he and his twin had totally separate brains with their own opinions, but he didn’t get the chance.
“I like shower sex,” Mandy announced, then blushed when they all looked at her. “What? We’ve all done it!”
Jace pointed at her with his fork. “Truth. Plus, look how cute Leo is,” he said, pulling out his phone to show a pic of them kissing. Selfies already?
Ridley’s gaze locked on the phone screen. He’d always assumed he wasn’t Jace’s type. He wasn’t a jock, and he had two left feet. He had some muscle, but nothing like the ripped guys that Jace preferred. But if Jace liked the trim Leo ...
Conversation flowed around Ridley as he concentrated on shoveling in food. He made small talk with Mandy, careful not to encourage anything beyond friendly chitchat. He thought he’d kept a pretty good game face, but when Jace went to the bathroom, Ronnie leaned in.
“You okay?” she asked quietly.
“Yeah. Why didn’t he bring Leo today?”
She shrugged, but Mandy answered. “Leo doesn’t live here. Lena said he was just passing through. I guess he’s her cousin, and he was home for a family reunion.”
A relieved breath gushed from him. Ronnie raised an eyebrow, but she knew the score. Ridley finished his coffee, lost in thought.
Jace’s interlude with Leo was painful, but it also made Ridley see his situation in a new light. Was it possible Ridley could have a shot with Jace if he tried? Maybe he just needed to find a way to get Jace to see him as something more than the nerdy friend he’d met in high school.
How to accomplish that was the ten-thousand-dollar question.