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When Justin McCormick was fourteen, a dirt-bike crash had put him in the hospital for two weeks, but even three broken bones and a concussion hadn't hurt as much as loving his best friend's widow did now.
And yet, here he was, parking his truck next to her geriatric Volvo and walking up the exterior staircase to the apartment over her landlord's garage, just like he'd gotten back on that dirt bike. Knowing there was a chance he'd get banged up again, but willing to take the risk.
Unlike with the dirt bike, though, there wasn't any chance about it. Justin knew he'd get banged up again every time he showed up on Claire's doorstep. He knew it would hurt, but even if he didn't have an empty Dunkin' Donuts bag full of crumpled-up receipts he had to drop off with her, he would have stopped by. He always did. Because they were buddies. Instead of weakening after Brendan's accident, their friendship had only gotten stronger.
Claire opened her apartment door to him just as he reached for the knob, her pale blue eyes alive with excitement and her long, blond ponytail swinging as he flashed her the friendly smile he'd been perfecting since the day they met. A friendly smile so perfect, in fact, Claire had never guessedthrough two years of dating Brendan and three years of marriage and two years of widowhoodhow Justin felt about her.
"You brought me doughnuts?"
"Receipts." He handed her the bag and laughed when she scowled at the contents.
"Work disguised as doughnuts? That's just mean." She walked over to the corner of her apartment that served as her office and tossed the bag on her desk. "I should give Moxie your sandwich."
The massive tortoiseshell cat in question wound between his feet, pausing to headbutt his shin before Justin picked her up and scratched between her ears. "You don't even like doughnuts that much."
"I like them more than I like handfuls of filthy, torn receipts you've scrounged from under the seat of your truck."
"Watch it or I'll start to think bookkeeping's not your true calling."
"Of course it is." She gave him a smile that would have struck him dumb if he didn't have so much experience resisting it. "There are only so many jobs I can do in sweatpants."
He set Moxie on the couch and moved toward the kitchen in search of the food Claire had said would be waiting. The only thing she did better than keep books for local small-potato contractors was cook.
Since he'd warned her this would be a quick stop, Claire had thrown together some sandwiches. But they were thin-sliced honey ham with Swiss cheese on homemade whole wheat with butter and spicy mustard, just the way he liked it.
She knew how he liked everything and most of the time knew what he was thinking before he even said it out loud, but she didn't know how much he loved her. It puzzled him sometimes. He couldn't see how, unless she was refusing to see it. Maybe she did know, but she'd never feel the same and the pretense preserved their friendship.
While dumping some chips onto her paper plate, Claire looked at him and asked, "How are things going with...Trish, was it?"
"Yeah, Trish. But we broke it off a few days ago."
"You mean you broke it off." The look she gave him was a familiar one, full of womanly disgust. "What was wrong with her?"
She wasn't you. "It wasn't going anywhere. I did us both a favor."
When she reached over and touched his arm, it took all of his willpower not to pull away. "At the rate you're going, you'll run out of fish in the sea, you know."