The only thing worse than not being able to tell your best friend you
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"One kiss. That's all it'll take," Fynn said from across the journalism classroom as he sifted through a cabinet stuffed with old archives.
"That sounds either super Prince Charming-y of you or borderline rapey." I scrunched my eyebrows at him from where I was packing up a box filled with mementos from my editor's desk.
"Ugh." He groaned, looking at me with those fierce blue eyes of his. "Do you always have to be so ... you?"
I snorted, dumping a carton of red pens into my box. "Yeah, Fynn. Pretty sure I'm always going to be me."
He rolled his eyes and went back to hand-picking back issues of the school's newspapers he wanted to keep.
"Why do you want to kiss Katy 'Killer Boobs' anyway?" I asked, my chest tightening a fraction. "Besides where she got her nickname, obviously."
"Please," he said. "You know I'm not that shallow. She's wicked hot, sure, but there's more to her than that."
"And you would know this from all the in-depth conversations you've had?" I arched an eyebrow at him.
He tilted his head at me, his signature you are annoying me to no end look on his face. "We've talked ... enough."
"Ha!" I shook my head. "You've had like, what? Two conversations in all of our four years of high school?"
"That's all it takes."
"She's more than her looks, I promise you. One time last year, I was driving behind her on the way home from class. She made her dad pull over in the middle of a busy intersection to pick up a stray kitten stranded on the side of the road —"
"And her golden hair billowed around her perfect face as she gracefully scooped up the tabby cat and you fell in love." I tried not to make a gagging sound as I finished the story I'd heard ten times before. Katy Evans wasn't the most vapid of the popular girls at our school, but she was still at least 50 percent Regina George.
"I never said I loved her."
"The way you've been talking about her all day sure makes it sound like it. You've barely filled up your box." I glanced down at mine, which was almost full. Hefting it onto my hip, I carried it across the room to the empty table next to Fynn. Usually the surface was covered with drafts of that month's paper, red marks covering them in sharp lines and circles. Staring down at the clean surface, a strange weight tugged at the center of my chest. "I can't believe we're done here."
His eyes found mine before looking around the room. "It went by fast, didn't it?"
I nodded, recalling the first day we'd walked into this room freshman year. Fynn had held the door open for me, more out of habit than an attempt to be a gentleman, and had announced to the seniors that I was their new editor-in-chief. Of course, I hadn't earned the position yet, but I had by the end of the year — which quickly made him the star photographer.
Not that being my best friend made it happen — the boy had a knack for capturing the most stunning images imaginable — but we'd been friends since kindergarten; there was no way I wasn't giving him all the prime stories to cover.
An easy grin shaped my lips as I thought all the way back to the first day I'd met him. Don Trainer — who would always be the school bully — had stolen my favorite red crayon and snapped it in half, laughing the way only evil maniacs could as I cried my eyes out. Fynn had shoved him so hard his butt hit the activity mat with a thud loud enough to stop my tears. He then took my broken pieces of crayon to the teacher and asked for tape. He returned it to me, a thick bandage of scotch tape around its middle. We'd been inseparable since.
"What are you smiling at?" he asked, nudging me with his elbow. The move shot a thrill of warmth through my chest.
I blinked a few times, mentally cursing the rapidly approaching graduation ceremony forcing my mind to overrun with memories. "Just thinking about how you've always been the Prince Charming sort."
"What are you talking about?"
I shrugged. "We became friends because you valiantly rescued and restored my favorite artistic tool."
"Seriously?" His eyes widened as he shook his head. "You're talking about your crayon? That makes me a prince, but wanting to sweep a girl off her feet doesn't?" I pressed my lips together. Not when it is the absolutely wrong girl.
"Why don't you like her?" he asked.
Other than the fact that she has your attention in a way I never will? "She's ..." I wanted to say she was superficial and couldn't understand his unique sense of humor. That she would never drop everything to have a zombie marathon with him like we did every Sunday. That she wouldn't respect the silence that surrounded him — blocking everything else out — when he set his sights on the perfect shot. The hope in his eyes killed any smartass comment about to spew from my mouth, though. I wanted him to be happy. I'd always wanted that. "I don't really know her well enough, I guess."
He nodded like that explained everything and pulled out another old issue of the newspaper, holding it up to examine the cover photo.
"I remember when you took that," I said, snatching the paper out of his hands and gazing at the impeccable shot of a bald eagle that had landed on top of a snowbank just across the road from our school. Its dark-chocolate feathers contrasted against the pure white of the snow as its talons dug into the icy mixture.
The sight of the bird had been a majestic sort of event — we were the Hampton Eagles — and seeing it in the wild like that had stunned us all. Of course, Fynn had captured its beauty with multiple shots, never once scaring the bird off. He had that sort of power with a camera — to become so still he practically melted into the scene. I loved watching him work because he shifted into this intense calm, yet the passion he had for the gig was fiery in his eyes.
"I swear, the closer I got to that bird, the more he contemplated plucking my eyeball out for an appetizer." He chuckled.
"Gordon had put twenty bucks on that happening," I said, laughing at the memory. I took that bet and used the winnings to buy Fynn lunch. "But you kept on snapping photos."
"How could I not?" He shrugged and put the copy of the paper into his box. "Not something you see every day."
"I bet it will be for you," I said. "Your camera will take you places none of us will ever see."
"Didn't realize we were in a serious mood today," he said, playfully nudging me again.
I shrugged. "Last day."
I swallowed hard, my eyes trailing the room. I'd interviewed Lennon Pryor in here plenty of times about the progression of his band — one of my faves, Ignited Hearts. And Jade would keep me company on nights Fynn and I were late on the final copy for the paper, studying her math textbooks like she wasn't already a genius on the subject. Zoey always brought the coffee to keep us fueled, and Gordon would stop by with grub from his dad's shop sometimes. Knowing we'd never do any of that again pinched something in the back of my throat.
Fynn's eyes held mine in a gaze that screamed he could read me as easily as a setting on his camera. Of course he could be perceptive about my thoughts on graduation day, but not on the secret I kept locked in my heart.
"Anyway," he said, clearing his throat as if the knot in mine had somehow jumped into his. "This is where it's taking me tonight." He shoved his iPhone at me. "This is my shot."
"Lennon's party on the Lake." I read the bold lettering out loud. A picture of Lennon's mom's massively huge lake house — more like a mansion — took up half of his latest Snapchat. "You took this picture for him?"
He shook his head. "No. This is my shot with Katy."
"You're going to this tonight?"
"Nope. I've got too much work to do here." I gestured to the room.
"Braylen," he said, groaning in a way that made my insides flip. "School is officially over. And it looks like you're all packed." He eyed the full box beside me. "We're going."
He rolled his eyes. "Not only is it going to be the most epic party in all of our combined years of school, but Katy will be there."
Something sharp twisted in my stomach. "Exactly. You can woo her all you want. I don't have a reason to go."
"Other than the fact that all our friends will be there? Plus, Lennon is playing. You blare his music every morning while you get ready for school."
Damn, why does he have to know everything about me? I shrugged, trying to play off the fact that he could know so much about me without having a clue how I really felt.
How could I tell him I didn't want to go because the idea of watching him drool over Katy all night made me feel like vomiting and crying at the same time? I couldn't, because he could never know just how much I really cared about him.
Fynn had been my best friend since ... forever. Admitting I was totally in love with him would send him running — he'd put me permanently in the friend zone a million years ago. Our one kiss at Zoey's party freshman year proved that much — it was part of a game, but it had meant way more to me than it had to him. He'd made it clear that night it should never happen again, and I'd agreed. I would rather have him in my life as a friend than nothing at all. But that didn't mean I had to willfully watch as he hooked up with another girl.
"Okay, fine," he said, his tone switching from sharp to pleading. "I need you."
Heat flared in my stomach with those three simple words. "What?" I asked, my voice barely a whisper.
"I can't just bombard Katy at the party. Any loser would do that. I need you to run interference for me. Talk me up, get her interested. Get her to approach me."
My mouth dropped. "You want me to be your ... wingman?" That warm melty heat turned to roaring anger. "And besides, why the hell would she talk to me anyway?"
"You're the editor of the school newspaper —"
"Was," I corrected him.
"Regardless. You know everyone and everyone knows you. Curse of the gig. She'll listen to what you have to say."
I pinched the bridge of my nose. "Why now?" I asked instead of whining, why me?
"It's been three months since she broke up with Don. Grace period is over."
"God, you really are a prince."
"Stop calling me that," he said, pinning me with those blue eyes I'd never been able to resist. "This is my last shot before she goes off to college."
I sighed, the breath forcing itself out of my lungs as he stepped closer to me. His thick black eyelashes moved in a slow blink as he studied me, looking down from the entire foot of height he had on me.
He didn't need my help. Fynn was gorgeous, right down to the toned muscles he kept solid from track, and he was beyond talented with a camera. He told the best jokes, knew when to be quiet, and was one of the small fraction of guys in the whole school who actually listened — instead of pretending to pay attention to what you were saying while in reality just staring at your boobs.
But, as his best friend, who was I to deny him?
"Please, Braylen?" he asked, his hands on my shoulders. "I'm there, you're there. Right?"
My mouth went dry and I swallowed hard. Invoking our secret phrase was such a low blow.
The words were a pact we'd made years ago, only using them in the situations in which either of us desperately needed the other person there.
I'd unknowingly started it when the most popular group of girls in our sixth-grade class had invited me to go to a haunted house with them. Despite being terrified, I agreed. Fynn had been my only friend back then and I was dying to be noticed beyond my talents for spinning a story. I went with high hopes of securing a new lunch table — knowing I'd bring Fynn with me — only to discover they'd invited me as a joke.
They pretended to like me for as long as it took to get me lost in the corn maze of Puchaty's Haunted Farm and Pumpkin Patch. Abandoning me there after a snarky remark about knowing better than to talk to one of their boyfriends. I had interviewed him for a story and our conversation started and ended with nothing but questions about his upcoming baseball game. They didn't care, though. For some unknown reason, they saw me as a threat, and after many failed attempts to find my way out of the maze, I'd texted Fynn in a panic.
Once he'd shown up, he talked to me on the phone until he found me deep in the maze, my arms wrapped around my knees and tears streaming down my cheeks.
"I'm s-sorry," I'd stuttered as he dropped to the ground to meet my eyes. "I know your uncle flew in and you're supposed to be having an epic family weekend."
He shook his head, wiping the tears off my cheeks. "Don't. Those girls are stupid. And I'll always be here when you need me. Doesn't matter where I am or what I'm doing. You say the word, okay?" I wiped the snot from underneath my nose and nodded. "Same for you."
He smiled. "You're there, I'm there." He helped me to my feet.
"You're there, I'm there," I repeated.
That was the first time I'd realized how deeply I loved Fynn, and it had only grown every day since.
Now, with him asking me to be his wingman, I wanted to remind him that Katy "Killer Boobs" had been part of the same group that had left me in the maze to be murdered by Jason Voorhees. Of course, in all fairness, that was years ago, and, beyond when I interviewed her for feature pieces in the paper, I really didn't know a thing about her.
I sighed. Fynn using our phrase were the only words in the English language I couldn't deny.
"Fine," I said. "You're there, I'm there."
A mega-watt grin spread across his face. "Thank you," he said and pulled me into a hug.
I was hesitant at first, but slowly wrapped my arms around his middle. This hug shouldn't have been any different from the fifteen-thousand other hugs he'd given me in my life, but it was.
His bonfire-wood and soap scent tickled my nose in a way that made me want to bottle the smell and take a bath in it. My stomach did involuntary flips as his hard muscles pressed against every soft curve I had. And the way he held me, without any patting on the back as friends so often did, and with no intention of letting me go too soon, made me wish for things I knew I wasn't allowed to have.
"You're the best," he said, gently pushing me backward to look me in the eye. "Do you know that?" I smiled softly at him but couldn't muster a response.
With what I have to do — hook up the boy of my dreams with the girl of his? I'm not the best. I'm screwed.
He jolted before me, glancing at the clock on the wall behind us. "Shit, we're going to be late!"
I spun around, barely able to blink away the stars from my eyes that his embrace had made shine. "Where did the last hour go?" I said, quickly shutting the box and following him out of the room.
"That's what happens when you're having fun," he said, leading the way down the hall toward the auditorium where throngs of seniors piled in.
Right. Fun. Listening to him talk about putting the moves on Katy was so not my idea of fun. Though, neither was sitting through the graduation ceremony.
"All the parents are already seated in their section," he said, waving his free arm at me while he held one of the doors open. "Hurry up!"
"Why? It's going to be the same speeches like every graduation ceremony ever. Good times. Good luck. Good-bye."
"As long it isn't me on stage, I don't care." Fynn shuddered. "The school could offer me a full ride to any college I wanted and I still wouldn't get up there."
I chuckled. Stage freight had been a real and tangible terror for him since he'd botched the words to "This Land is Your Land" in our second-grade history production.
"But you never know," he said as I walked slowly past him. "This ceremony could be different."
"Always the optimist." I patted the center of his chest.
"That's what you love about me." He smirked that damn smile and my knees wobbled.
I refused to look back or comment on his statement. How could I? He was right in more ways than he even realized.
Excerpted from "Love in the Friend Zone"
Copyright © 2017 Molly E. Lee.
Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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