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The Dinner Party

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It was a relief when darkness fell. Bass had been struggling all night not to glance over to where Charlie sat, lest Miles notice and kick his ass. Lately, it had been getting harder and harder for Bass not to devour Charlie with his eyes whenever he, Miles, and Charlie spent their evenings sitting around the fire pit. The three of them had started this ritual months ago. It was unclear when it became a regular thing, but now whenever they had nothing else going on in the evening, they would wind up on the front porch of Miles’ and Rachel’s home, knocking back booze, smoking, and shooting the shit.

That first night, when Charlie had plopped down to join him and Miles, Bass had been skeptical. Sure, Charlie was sexy as hell (not that he could particularly enjoy it with Miles around), and there’d always been this intriguing chemistry between them, but what would he be able to talk about with a twenty-something girl hanging around? Typically, when he shared the company of a woman her age, there wasn’t a lot of conversation going on. But when he tried to subtly hint that Charlie should leave, Miles had given Bass a death glare, so he shut up about it. And she stayed.

Now, the nights Bass looked forward to most were the ones when it was just him and Charlie. They were the least frequent, since they were always at Miles’ house. But sometimes, Rachel would put his brother’s balls in a vice and not let him come out, or Blanchard would have Miles staying late at work or out on a mission. As the weeks had gone by, on nights Bass knew Miles was busy, he found that his heart was beating just a little bit faster, and the tension in his chest was just a little bit tighter as he wandered over to the house at the usual time, around twilight. And if it turned out that Charlie was there, too, either already waiting with the fire going, or just coming up the sunset-lit road, the explosion of joy he felt got more intense the more time went on.

Bass told himself it was just nice to have another friend. Charlie really was like mini-Miles, and Miles was basically his soul mate. So if he liked hanging out with Charlie a lot, so what? It didn’t mean anything. It couldn’t. Which is why Bass was glad when darkness fell. Because lately, he couldn’t seem to stop himself from admiring the way the golden light of the fading sun played through Charlie’s hair. Couldn’t stop watching her reactions to his jokes, desperate to make her crack that toothy grin of hers. Couldn’t stop studying her when she got lost in thought, wondering what was going on behind those electric blue eyes of hers.

Miles had already caught him once that night. Bass had been enraptured by the sight of Charlie catching her lower lip in her teeth, wondering what that lip would feel like between his own teeth, pressed against his own lips, wrapped around his… THUD. Miles had kicked his foot, hard, into Bass’ calf, where his leg was propped up on the edge of the fire pit.

“Ow, what the fuck?” Bass had yelled, but he knew exactly what the fuck. Still, he played dumb.

“Stop staring, jackass,” Miles had spat dangerously, not believing Bass’ denials for a second.

“Staring at what, into space? Goddamn,” Bass had grumbled, glaring at Miles, who glared back but let it go.

Bass’ leg was still throbbing. It was going to bruise. Fucking Miles. Except Bass knew he completely deserved it. He had no business staring at Charlie, let alone wanting her. And just in case he ever started to forget, every week or so, Miles made sure to remind him of that fact, violently or otherwise. Bass always acted exasperated, but in truth, he was grateful to Miles, for not letting him forget. Because sometimes it got to be too easy.

It didn’t help that not only were he and Charlie hanging out regularly after hours, Blanchard also had them working together all the time. A while back, Blanchard had heard the story of how Bass dragged Charlie all the way from New Vegas to Willoughby (or Charlie dragged Bass, depending on who was telling the story). Blanchard had laughed and laughed at the image of them, as he put it, “cruising through the desert like Thelma and Louise,” and he’d made a point of putting them together on their next assignment. And the next. And the next. And when they kept having great success, he kept doing it. Even Miles couldn’t argue with the results. Instead, he just glowered a lot.

Bass leaned forward and grabbed the cool end of one of the branches sticking out of the fire to light a cigarette. Once he had it going, he held it in his lips and said, “So Miles,” then took a drag and exhaled it out, finishing his question, “What the hell is going on in there?” The sounds of metal clanking and cabinets slamming had been coming from inside the house all night. Miles kept wincing, but he hadn’t offered an explanation. Bass could stand the suspense no longer.

Rolling his eyes, Miles made a growling noise in his chest. “Don’t ask.”

“He just did,” Charlie pointed out helpfully. Pulling out a cigarette of her own, she gestured to Bass to lean forward. He did so with a mixture of dread and excitement, knowing what she intended. Bass obligingly inhaled as she lit her cigarette off his, their faces only inches apart. This woman was trying to get him killed. Sure enough, when Bass sat back up and glanced over at Miles, his best friend wore a pissed off expression.

“Well, Charlie,” Miles said in an exaggeratedly nice voice that he only used when he was extremely irritated. “Your mother has decided it would be a good idea to host a little diplomatic dinner party tomorrow night. And oh by the way, you two assholes are going to be there, so don’t even try to make an excuse.”

Charlie smirked. “Wouldn’t dream of it,” she said innocently. “What’s the big deal? It’s dinner.”

“Dinner with the devil,” Miles corrected her. “The Nevilles are in town for the week, and we’re serving them fucking turkey.”

Bass snorted, but didn’t comment. Typical Rachel. She hated Tom and Julia Neville more than Miles and himself combined, but instead of ignoring their visit, she intended to roll out the red carpet. In the months since the end of the Patriot War, Rachel had snapped out of whatever guilt-induced funk she’d been in after the Tower. Now she was a scheming, climbing political operative, working her way up through the administrative ranks of the Texas government, pushing Miles to move up on the military side. Bass knew that she envied how well-connected and respected the Nevilles were. It made sense that she wouldn’t pass up the opportunity to schmooze with them while they were in town from D.C.

“Tom Neville?” Charlie repeated in disbelief. “He’s coming here?” Bass detected a hint of fear behind the disgust in her voice, and it filled him with rage. He had not forgotten, nor forgiven, the little incident where Tom had nearly shot Charlie because he—and she—had thought she’d killed his son, Jason. Somehow, Jason had survived, but they only learned that weeks later.

“Yes, he is, and I don’t like it any more than you do, so save the complaining.” A mischievous look stole over Miles’ face, and he added, “But don’t worry. Your favorite boy band member will be there, too. Apparently Nipples is riding along with his folks, for lack of anything better to do.” Miles threw a grin over at Bass, who faked a grin back. Miles didn’t take Jason Neville seriously at all. Bass, unfortunately, did not have that luxury. He watched Charlie’s reaction to the news of Jason’s visit, wanting to see if she seemed too eager to see the young man again.

But, like the master intelligence operative she was, Charlie gave up nothing, just rolling her eyes at Miles’ use of the tired old nickname. “Really, Miles, if you’re that jealous of how built Jason is, I’m sure he would give you some tips,” she said sweetly. “There’s no need to resort to petty name-calling.”

“There’s no need to be built, when you’ve got experience and skills, kid,” Miles retorted. “Ain’t that right, Bass?”

“What?” Bass said, startled. Was Miles seriously talking up Bass’ experience and skills to Charlie, in comparison to Jason’s? Granted, Bass completely agreed that whatever fumbling attempts the Neville boy might make to pleasure Charlie would be completely obliterated by Bass’ considerable talents, but why would Miles be saying so?

“In a fight? Experience and skills over gym muscles?” Oh. Fighting. Miles was talking about taking Jason down in a fight. Right. As Bass’ brain struggled to catch up, Miles waved a hand at him dismissively and said to Charlie, “He agrees with me.”

“Of course,” Bass finally said. “But Charlie’s seen me fight, you don’t have to tell her.”

“Hmm,” Charlie said, meeting Bass’ eyes. “Yeah, I guess it was impressive how you took down that big monster of a guy when we were in New Vegas.”

Bass smirked at her, acknowledging the compliment. “Yes, if only the rest of the heist had gone off as smoothly as the fight, we could have saved ourselves a lot of trouble.” Charlie made a face at him, and he just grinned. It had become a running joke between them, that it was entirely her fault the diamond theft had gone sideways. When in reality, they both knew that he was only alive to tell the tale because of her.

“Yeah, you two strategic geniuses really killed it on that one,” Miles noted. “Bringing back five whole guys from New Vegas. It’s a wonder we didn’t win the war right then and there.” He paused to sip his drink. “Seriously, though, this stupid dinner party thing. You guys will be there?”

Charlie shrugged. “Sounds like I don’t have a choice.”

Bass nodded. “You need me there, I’m there,” he replied. “Frankly, I’m surprised Rachel is actually going to let me into the house.”

“It was a close call,” Miles agreed. “I guess your status as one of Blanchard’s closest advisors outweighed… everything else.”

“Right,” Bass said flatly. It was never good when he and Miles talked about Rachel’s feelings toward Bass. Bass got bitter, Miles got defensive, and best case scenario, things between them got tense for a few days. Better to just drop it.

“Hey, why don’t you ask Anya to come, too?” Miles said, obviously also happy to change the subject.

“Anya from work?” Bass asked. “Why would I do that?”

“Uh, because she’s been practically wearing a neon sign that says, ‘Hey Bass, ask me out,’ for weeks now?” Miles said. “And besides, it would probably impress her to be at a dinner with the Nevilles.”

Bass frowned. That was part of the problem. He didn’t want to go out with anyone who would be impressed by having dinner with the Nevilles. Well, in truth, he didn’t want to go out with anyone other than… He glanced up at Charlie. She was staring at the fire impassively, seemingly lost in her thoughts, not appearing to have heard their exchange. But Bass knew she had.

“Come on, man, it’s a good idea,” Miles urged him. “Nice dinner, nice conversation, she’d be putty in your hands.”

Bass bit back the urge to say it took a lot less effort than that to make a woman putty in his hands. Rachel had Miles so whipped, it was pathetic. Did Miles really think that Bass needed to wine and dine a woman if he just wanted to get her into bed? Or that he was somehow interested in Anya just because she seemed interested in him? This was stupid, but he couldn’t see any way around it.

“Fine, whatever, I’ll ask her,” Bass conceded. As soon as he did, Bass noticed a frown ghost across Charlie’s face, gone as soon as it appeared. Then he noticed the look of satisfaction on Miles’ face, and he realized he’d been played. Miles knew perfectly damn well that Bass didn’t care about seducing Anya. But Miles also knew that Charlie didn’t know that. The throbbing in his leg where Miles had kicked him suddenly intensified, and Bass grimaced.

Point taken, Miles, he thought. Staring into the fire, he shoved his feelings for Charlie down deep, telling himself that was enough, he was done. Yet, not two minutes later, his eyes were drawn to her yet again, to the play of firelight on her cheekbones, the shadows dancing across her features making her look like a goddess. Dropping his eyes again, Bass sighed. He hoped this dinner party didn’t turn into a complete disaster.

* * *

Bass was tense as he walked up to the Mathesons’ house the next night. Showing up alone had seemed like no big deal when he blew off Anya. He’d originally asked her to join him, as Miles had told him to, and she had enthusiastically agreed. But that afternoon, he’d told her he didn’t want to subject her to the Nevilles for their first date, that he’d take her out properly some other time instead, just the two of them. She’d accepted this so readily, he almost felt bad about having no intention of following up. But at the time, he’d just been relieved to be able to attend the dinner party alone. Now, he felt awkward about it.

Frowning, Bass knocked on Miles’ door. It was strange not to just barge inside as if he owned the place, but somehow it seemed more formality was called for. He cursed Rachel for putting him in this position. He couldn’t remember feeling this particular flavor of nervousness and eagerness since the night he picked up his high school prom date.

The door opened, and Bass’ heart leapt. Charlie stood there, looking like Charlie but… more. Instead of her usual tight jeans and dirt-encrusted tank top, she was wearing a stunning navy blue off-shoulder dress. It was snug but not too tight, hugging her curves perfectly, and long enough at knee-length to be sophisticated, rather than trashy. Most stunning was her hair – instead of hanging down in its usual long style, it was swept up in a way that showcased her delicate collar bones and the curve of her shoulders. Bass was overwhelmed with the urge to taste and smell all that exposed skin.

Charlie met Bass’ eyes with a startled glance, apparently seeing something in his reaction to her. Bass struggled to think of something to say and finally mumbled, “Hey.”

“Hey,” Charlie replied. She still stood in the doorway, not stepping back to let him in, apparently frozen in place, too. They stared at each other for a couple more long seconds. Bass noticed a glint of silver at her throat and finally spoke.

“Nice necklace,” he commented. But damnit, somehow he couldn’t just stop there. He had to… before he thought through what he was doing, Bass reached up and brushed the thin chain with his rough fingertips. He heard Charlie’s sharp intake of breath, felt her warm skin beneath the necklace. He slid his fingers down to lift the pendant on the end of the chain, ostensibly to inspect it more closely.

“C for Charlie?” he asked, raising his eyes from the necklace to look into hers. Mistake, he immediately realized. He had stepped closer to her, so they were just inches apart, and he was still touching her softly. And suddenly, what he desperately wanted was to cup her face in his hand, pull her toward him, and kiss her. And from the vulnerable, expectant look on her face, it wouldn’t be entirely unwelcome. Bass looked at her soft, pink lips and unconsciously wet his own. Charlie inhaled deeply, and suddenly their bodies were nearly pressed together.

In an instant, panic rushed through him, and he stepped back just before he gave in. At the same time, Charlie backed away from the door. “Uh, yeah. Well, kind of. Found it with my grandma’s stuff in the attic. C for Charlotte,” she explained in a rush. “Come on in.” Charlie turned and walked down the front hallway, throwing a glance back at Bass to make sure he was following.

Shit, Bass thought, running a hand over his face. What the hell was that? Charlie got a little bit dressed up and suddenly he was ready to ravish her against the front door of her parents’ house? (In his own mind, Bass never bothered to keep up the charade that Miles was only Charlie’s uncle.) What was wrong with him? Had it really been that long since he’d gotten any action that he turned into a fumbling idiot for the first pretty girl in a hot dress he ran into?

But even as he berated himself, Bass knew that wasn’t it. It hadn’t been that long since he’d been with a woman, by any means. And if needing to get laid was all it was, Anya had seemed more than willing. But he hadn’t wanted Anya. Tonight, he’d wanted to see Charlie. He’d been looking forward to it so much, that when her appearance exceeded his every expectation, he’d been completely caught off guard.

Steeling himself, he followed Charlie into the living room. He would not indulge these ridiculous feelings any longer. He’d had a momentary lapse, allowing himself to reach for intimacy with Charlie. It was ridiculous. He told himself to be a man and stop acting like a lovestruck schoolboy.

Thus resolved, Bass walked into the living room, finding the Nevilles already there. He welcomed Tom with a menacing smile and a handshake, both men trying their best to crush the other’s bones in his grip. Julia, he greeted with a chilly embrace, tamping down a shiver as she pressed her cheek to his. Bass then turned to Jason.

Taking the measure of the younger man, Bass was filled with a mixture of nostalgia and envy. Jason had dressed up for the occasion, wearing tan slacks and a pressed button-down shirt with an evening jacket. Bass well remembered the days when he, too, was in the prime of his life, when wearing great clothes for a night out made it feel like the world was his for the taking. Sometimes it didn’t seem like that long ago. But seeing Jason there, Bass felt the weight of every one of his forty-seven years. And he felt even more foolish about his momentary weakness with Charlie. At best, he was a broken-down soldier with a ton of baggage, even without the side-by-side comparison with Jason to remind him just how unworthy of her he really was.

Jason stepped forward, extending his hand to Bass, “Sir,” he greeted his former general respectfully.

Bass clasped Jason’s hand and nodded. “Good to see you, Neville” he replied. “You look like you’re doing well.” To Bass’ relief, they were interrupted by Rachel, who said that the table was ready, if they could all come sit down, please. She avoided meeting Bass’ eyes as the group moved into the dining room, obviously still not comfortable having him in her home.

Bass tried to hide his reaction when he realized Rachel had seated Charlie and Jason next to each other. His first inclination was to think, what a bitch, but then he caught himself. What was she supposed to do? he thought. Sit her only daughter next to the twice-her-age ex-dictator who happened to be secretly obsessed with her? Any issues Bass had with the seating arrangement were purely in his head. So he kept his mouth shut and sat down across from Jason. The seat next to Bass was conspicuously empty.

“Where’s Anya?” Miles asked him from the end of the table as they were all taking their seats.

“Um…” Bass’ eyes flicked up to Charlie involuntarily. Looking back at Miles, he said, “Yeah, I told her not to come. Didn’t want to give her the wrong idea. Dinner at the best friend’s house, you know, might have made her think…” He trailed off.

Rachel rolled her eyes. “Right, wouldn’t want a woman to think you were interested in actually getting to know her.” Bass opened his mouth to sling a nasty retort, but she added, sounding frustrated, “Now we’re going to have too much food.”

Bass was somewhat abashed. Maybe it had been rude of him not to bring Anya at the last minute. Damnit, he hated when Rachel was right. He started to apologize, but Jason spoke first.

“Not to worry, ma’am,” he offered. “As my mom will tell you, I eat enough for two, sometimes more. Nothing will go to waste.”

The tension at the table dissipated immediately. Rachel looked mollified, and Julia looked pleased, launching into a story about how much Jason had eaten as a young boy. Bass was impressed. The kid was smooth, no question about it.

Rachel passed around dishes of potatoes, corn, garden greens, rolls, and the turkey Miles had promised. It all looked and smelled delicious. Bass had eaten countless fine meals as President of the Republic, but since the Tower, the vast majority of his food had been eaten from metal bowls or cans while sitting on the ground. Eating in a real dining room, from a table with a lace tablecloth and elegant blue and white china, was an admittedly nice change.

“This is great, Rachel,” Bass addressed her, hoping she wouldn’t throw his words back in his face.

Rachel’s shoulders visibly tensed, but when she saw that Bass was being sincere, she just replied, “Thank you, Bass,” in her usual crisp, cold tone, still not looking directly at him. Oh well, he’d tried.

“Hear, hear,” Tom agreed enthusiastically. Picking up his glass of wine, he held it out in a toast. “And if I may?” Miles looked confused that Tom seemed to be asking him for permission, and made a gesture of acquiescence. “To good friends. Good allies,” he emphasized, smiling devilishly. “May we always be at peace. And if war finds us again, may we fight back to back, our swords never to clash again. To strong alliances.”

The dinner guests repeated the words in a murmur and took sips of their drinks. Bass and Miles exchanged a look that said they’d both sooner trust a snake than Tom Neville, but there was no point in saying so.

As the meal and the conversation rolled on, Bass did his best not to stare at Charlie. It wasn’t easy. The golden candlelight illuminating the table was doing amazing things to her face and hair. He gritted his teeth against it, how beautiful she was. It hurt to look at her; it hurt not to. Bass crushed a roll in his fingers unconsciously, then quickly put it down. He tried to listen to Julia telling Rachel some gossip about the California ambassador’s wife, but his ears were focused only on Charlie’s laughter, ringing out across the table. She’d had a few drinks during dinner, Bass had noticed, and it had loosened her up. Apparently, she was enjoying the company of young Neville.

The hell of it was, Bass couldn’t blame her, at all. Even Bass liked him. Jason Neville was a good man. He’d been raised with military discipline, and it showed. He looked you in the eye when he spoke, pulled out chairs and held doors for women, and had impeccable table manners. Tom and Julia were crazy as bedbugs, but they’d somehow produced a kid who was intelligent, ambitious, and respectful. A little too respectful, as there had already been a couple of awkward moments when Jason had instinctively referred to Bass as “General.” He’d managed to stop, but still had to tack a “sir” onto every comment.

Bass glanced over at Charlie and Jason for the dozenth time that night, and he had to admit to himself that they looked good together, even as a possessive fire in his belly rebelled against the idea. Both were attractive, healthy, battle-tested and stronger for it. Jason’s dark head bent down next to Charlie’s lighter one to say something only for her hearing, and again within Bass the hot anger rose.

Bass tried to reason with himself. He had no reason to be jealous. Charlie was never for him, regardless. Miles had made that perfectly clear. Bass should be happy that a decent guy was around for her—better than her running off with some war clan scum or ending up alone. But he wasn’t even close to convincing himself. No matter what rationality would suggest, when Jason reached over and laced his fingers through Charlie’s, Bass was seconds away from cutting the younger man’s hand off.

He stopped short when he noticed that Charlie hadn’t pulled away and was sort of smiling. As if she liked it. Well, fine then. Let her like it. Bass took a deep swallow of wine, then spoke.

“So, Jason,” he said. “What are you doing in Washington these days?”

Jason dropped Charlie’s hand and glanced at his mother with a frown. “To be honest, sir, not a whole lot. There are a few positions available that would fit with my experience, but… certain things have prevented me from actually taking any of them.”

“That’s not fair,” Julia cut in. “Just because I don’t want to see you take something less than the absolute best you deserve, you make it sound like I’m sabotaging you!”

Jason sighed. “I have to do something. People are starting to think I’m lazy or too entitled to actually contribute anything. That I just want to sit around and coast on your and dad’s coattails.”

Julia shook her head. “That’s absurd. You’re not going to be some coffee-fetching lackey, and that’s final. We’ll know when the right thing comes along.” Tom had remained silent throughout the exchange, tension evident in his face as he slurped his drink.

Bass spoke up. “Well, maybe I can be of some help?” Charlie and Jason looked over at him at the same time, and his heart lurched at the synchronicity of the gesture. Of course they were perfectly in tune with each other, he thought bitterly. Aloud, he asked Jason, “How would you like to work with us, here in Willoughby? We have lots of new recruits, and a few old dogs like myself and Miles here, but there’s plenty of need for young officers like you.” Bass glanced at Miles, whose mouth was full, but who nodded in confirmation.

“Sir, it would be an honor,” Jason replied, with just the right amount of deference and enthusiasm. “You know I was well-trained in the Militia, and in Washington, I’ve been--”

Julia interrupted, “Wait, Sebastian, what kind of work are we talking about, here? Jason has a great mind for strategy. He doesn’t need to be out on a drill field yelling at kids to do pushups.”

“Mom,” Jason said sharply. “I’m sure Gen—uh, I’m sure he wouldn’t offer anything that wouldn’t be up to your standards. Please. You know as well as I do that it would be good for me to get out of Washington.”

Julia pursed her lips but said nothing more.

Bass grinned, his somewhat mad grin that signified danger more than happiness. “Great. It’s settled then. Why don’t you come over to the office with your dad tomorrow? He has a meeting with Blanchard, and you and I can work out the details of your assignment.”

“Thank you, sir,” Jason said.

Bass nodded, and as he turned back to his plate, he caught Charlie’s eyes. She was no longer smiling, he noted. She stared at Bass with an unreadable expression for several long seconds. He looked away first.

Once the group was finished with dinner, Rachel urged everyone to get up and stretch their legs while she cleared the table and put the finishing touches on dessert. She waved off offers of help from Julia and Charlie, but when Miles got up to leave the room, she gave him a withering glare, so he stayed and started stacking plates. Bass rolled his eyes at his brother and moved into the living room, where he sat down alone. He heard the Nevilles step out to the back patio, Julia already talking a mile a minute about Jason’s proposed move to Texas.

Bass didn’t know where Charlie was. He told himself he didn’t care and tried to lose himself in watching the low flames in the fireplace. But his heart began racing when he heard her steps approaching. She paused at the threshold for a second before entering and sitting down on the other end of the couch. The movement caused the hem of her dress to slide a few inches up her toned thighs. Bass imagined how it would feel to slide his hand up the smooth flesh, then tore his eyes away.

“Having fun tonight?” Damnit. He’d meant to let her be the first to talk, but for some reason he always had to say some shit to her. Stupid shit, mean shit, cocky shit. Whenever Charlie was around, he couldn’t help himself.

She smirked. “It’s my mom’s dinner party.” She twirled her finger in mock celebration. “Woo hoo. I get to wear the dress she forced me into and make awkward conversation all night.”

Bass snorted. “You didn’t seem to mind the company too much.” Charlie’s eyes snapped to his, looking panicked and trapped. “Jason,” he explained, as it somehow seemed necessary. As soon as he did, Charlie relaxed.

“Oh,” she replied. “Yeah, what the hell was with you offering him a job here in town, by the way?”

Raising his eyebrows, Bass said, “I thought you’d be glad.” But even as he said it, he was thrilled that apparently, she wasn’t.

Charlie glared. “And why would I be glad?”

Bass put on his best master of the universe, asshole smirk and said, “I don’t know. Seemed like you two were getting pretty friendly. Hated the thought of you missing out on that.”

Charlie just studied him with a frown for a few seconds, then sat back on the couch, crossing her arms and legs in front of her defensively, staring quietly into the fire. Bass felt like a jerk; he’d meant to get to her, and it seemed like he had. Why did it always feel like he wanted to push Charlie over the edge, and then he felt terrible when he actually succeeded?

He was trying to think of what to say to diffuse the tension he’d unnecessarily created, when Charlie spoke instead. “What was that, when you got to the house tonight?” Her voice was husky and low.

Bass inhaled sharply at her question. She couldn’t be asking about… “What do you mean?” he asked carefully.

Not looking at him, in fact pulling her arms tighter around herself, Charlie asked again, “What… what was that, at the door? What were you thinking about?”

Bass for once didn’t have a snappy retort, as he helplessly cast about for an answer other than the truth: that he’d been heartbroken at how beautiful she was, had desperately wanted to kiss her and a whole hell of a lot more; that he wished in the most acutely painful way that she had been dressed up like that for him; that he wanted to have her on his arm, for her to be his, not just that night, but every night. That the force of all those things had nearly knocked him the fuck over when she opened that damn door, looking better than any dream his feeble mind could have come up with.

Instead of answering her, instead of saying any of that, Bass got up from the couch. He could sense Charlie tensing behind him. She was afraid he would just walk away, but he wouldn’t. He wasn’t. Bass crouched down in front of the fireplace, grabbing the poker and moving the logs around, adding a few more to the fire so that it burned brighter and hotter. As he did, he became aware of Charlie getting up off the couch and moving to stand beside him.

Slowly, Bass rose to his feet. Now they were standing side-by-side, looking at the fire rather than each other. She was close enough to touch, close enough that Bass swore he could smell her. Goddamnit. He was afraid that if he moved, he would grab her and kiss her. Afraid that if he talked, he would tell her everything he’d been fighting for too damn long.

One of the logs suddenly cracked and split, falling into the bed of embers and shooting up a cloud of sparks and smoke. “I love it when it flares up like that,” Charlie said quietly.

“Yeah.”

“You haven’t answered my question,” she reminded him.

“What was I thinking when I saw you tonight,” Bass repeated. Charlie nodded.

Giving in to temptation, Bass stepped around so that he was facing Charlie. He lifted a hand and brushed it, feather light, against the contour of her clavicle. Continuing, he dropped his hand down to gently finger the low neckline of her dress, where it stopped just above the curve of her breast. Meeting her eyes he answered, “I was thinking that you’re a vision in this dress.” Her breath was coming fast, but she didn’t break from his gaze.

Bass dropped his hand back to his side. “And then, I was thinking, that I shouldn’t be thinking that.”

She tilted her head up to him, her body postured in what he’d think was clear invitation if he didn’t know better. “Why not?”

Bass sighed regretfully. “Charlie.” Her name on his tongue was a rebuke, a wish, a thousand words in just one. He heard the Nevilles reenter the house. “We should go back.”

Charlie didn’t step away, still looking up at him expectantly. So he stepped around her, even as his body urged him to stop, and he walked back to the dining room, alone. Quickly, he sat down in his chair before he could turn back around and take Charlie in his arms, damning everyone else and the consequences. A few seconds later, Charlie came in and sat down in her seat next to Jason, a stormy affect over her demeanor.

Cups of coffee and small plates with strawberry-covered cake sat in front of each person, and they all dug in, making politely appreciative noises.

“Rachel, this is simply amazing,” Julia proclaimed, and Rachel’s blue eyes shone with pleasure at the compliment. “And, Charlie, did you have a hand in this, as well?”

Charlie opened her mouth to answer, but Rachel cut in first with a harsh laugh, “Charlie? Bake? You have to be kidding me. I’m not sure she could even find the oven!” Maybe it had been meant as a lighthearted comment, but there was enough venom in it that it was obvious. Bass stomach twisted in anger at having to watch Rachel tear Charlie down, yet again.

Charlie blanched and said dully, “Sorry, mom. You’re right, I never learned to bake. Didn’t exactly have anyone around to teach me.” The words fell like stones in the suddenly-quiet room. Charlie’s expression was defeated as she ran her fork through her food.

He couldn’t take it. “Yeah, Charlie’s got the campfire cooking down to an art, though,” Bass remarked. “First time I had her roast rabbit, I couldn’t believe it. Amazing.” He watched Charlie, hoping his words would wipe that miserable expression on her face. Thank God, it worked, as she smiled slightly and rolled her eyes. Encouraged by this, Bass continued, “Not to mention her skills at heating up a can of beans.”

At that, Charlie actually laughed. “Well, compared to you who burns them to a crisp somehow, yeah, I guess I’m pretty good.”

“Okay, that was one time, and I told you, I forgot I’d put them in the fire,” Bass defended himself, happy to be the butt of a joke if it made Charlie feel better.

Julia raised her eyebrows. “You two cook together often?” she inquired skeptically, primly placing a bite of cake in her mouth.

Bass shrugged, and Charlie answered, “We’re out on the road a lot, since we get a lot of assignments together. Blanchard seems to think we’re some kind of dream team.”

Miles snorted loudly. “If you needed any more proof that the man is out of his mind.”

Julia ignored Miles, asking Charlie, “And you like that, do you? Working in the field?”

Charlie nodded, “Love it. Don’t think I could handle sitting in an office all day.”

“But surely your mother would prefer if you did something less dangerous,” Julia countered. “Your uncle, too.”

Leaning back in her chair with a wide smirk, Charlie replied, “Honestly, what my mom and Miles prefer doesn’t really matter.” Both of them looked at her reproachfully, and she defended herself, “What? You have to admit you haven’t exactly earned the right to tell me what to do. I take care of myself. Make my own decisions.” With these last words, she glanced up at Bass quickly, meeting his eyes for a fleeting second. It was long enough. The significance of her look hit him in the gut, and he picked up and drained his coffee cup to hide any reaction.

“I know what you mean,” Jason said, earning a disapproving look from Julia. “At some point, you have to do what’s best for you, not what your parents want.”

“My, my,” Tom broke in. “Sounds like these two young people have it all figured out. You two are just perfect for each other, aren’t you?” His tone was mocking, and Jason flushed slightly at his comment.

No one seemed to know what to say to that. Julia finally changed the subject, asking Rachel where she would recommend for shopping in her free time during their visit. Bass watched Jason and Charlie’s interactions for the rest of the meal, but the flirtation between them had all but disappeared. Jason was apparently embarrassed by his father’s commentary.

As for Charlie, Bass could have sworn he caught her looking at him almost as much as he was looking at her. He began to get nervous that someone would notice, but only Miles would be watching, and he’d had a full bottle of wine or more so wasn’t paying attention to much of anything. But that didn’t mean Bass was going to be reckless. He knew that if he didn’t get away from Charlie, that’s exactly what would happen. So as soon as he possibly could, Bass excused himself from the table. He said he wanted to head over to the office and get the paperwork arranged to get Jason commissioned in the morning. He insisted that nobody get up, that they continue to enjoy the company, and he slipped out, breathing out in relief as he did.

* * *

Hours later, Bass had completed his memo to Blanchard about adding Jason Neville to their ranks as a junior officer, and had filled out the necessary forms. He’d moved on to reviewing reports of troop movements, but he was having trouble concentrating. He chalked it up to the several tumblers of whiskey he’d consumed since sitting down at his desk, but that wasn’t the only problem. He couldn’t get Charlie out of his mind. He had purposely left the party early in order to avoid her, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t killing him, wondering if she was with Jason Neville right now. And if she was, were they just talking, or were they doing something more? Did he have his hands on her? Bass’ fists clenched at the very thought. If that little punk had his fucking hands on her… Charlie was his, goddamnit, no one else’s.

His train of thought was interrupted by the sound of footsteps in the hallway outside his office. Bass’ hopes lifted--only a few people even knew he was there, and only one of them would possibly be looking for him. Sure enough, seconds later, Charlie appeared in the doorway. She was still wearing the dress. From across the room, standing with her hip cocked to one side in her high heels, she looked like heaven. Cheekily, she rapped on the doorframe, silently asking permission to enter.

What restraint, what honor, what hesitation Bass had been holding onto evaporated in that moment. He had a hard enough time controlling himself around Charlie on normal days, when they were alone in his office, working, and she was just in her bland, baggy duty uniform. Here, now, there was no prayer. Bass let his gaze linger on Charlie for a few moments before he slowly rose to his feet. Standing with his hands braced on the desk, he said in a low voice, “Come in.”

Charlie obliged, walking forward with a certain slinkiness in her step, stopping about five feet into the room. Bass walked toward her, then past her, stepping around her to push the door to his office closed. It shut with a loud click in the quiet room, and when he threw the lock, the bolt sounded with even more portent. There was no mistaking what he’d done. He stood still for a few seconds, waiting for his pulse to slow, his adrenaline to even out.

Stepping back into the room, Bass walked theatrically back over to his desk, standing behind it and moving some papers around uselessly. Finally, he asked, “What are you doing here?” At this point, it was all but obvious why Charlie had come to his office in the middle of the night. But on the small chance he was wrong, he couldn’t let her know what he was really thinking. And given the tenuous hold he had on his control right then, that meant being an asshole, as it so often did.

Charlie had been watching him silently, and she finally spoke up, ignoring his question. “You get Jason’s paperwork finished?”

That had not been what he wanted to hear. Bass’ neutral expression morphed into a spiteful grin. “I did. Is that all?”

“No,” Charlie said, sounding frustrated. “Are you really doing this for me? Because you think it’s what I want?”

“Doesn’t matter now. It’s done,” he said dismissively.

Charlie put her hands on her hips. “It does matter. Why do you think I would want Jason to move here?”

Bass laughed meanly. “Oh, please. You were practically throwing yourself at him, at dinner. I may be old, but I’m not blind.”

Charlie glared, “Throwing myself at him? Seriously?”

“Yeah, seriously. For one thing, I saw you – hell, everyone saw you – holding hands with him. What do you call that?”

Biting her lip, Charlie looked unsure of how to respond. After a second, she said, “I know you saw me.”

“What?”

“I know you saw me holding hands with him. I… I wanted you to see it. Wanted to see what you would do.”

When Bass processed the meaning of her statement, dark lust poured through him, and something animalistic deep inside roared in triumph. Still, he remained outwardly composed. He strode out from behind the desk, stalking toward Charlie. Clicking his tongue chidingly, he said in a low, dangerous voice, “Were you playing games with me, Charlotte? I think you’ll find that that was a mistake.”

Charlie shook her head, not moving as he circled her. “Not playing games. Just wanted… wanted you to do something. Didn’t seem like you ever would.” She eyed him defiantly.

Bass laughed, a smug, sinister sound. He stopped behind her. “Sweetheart,” he murmured into her ear. “If you wanted something from me, all you ever needed to do was ask.” Charlie began to twist around to face him, but he put his hands on her hips and stopped her, keeping her in place. “Ah, but now it’s too late for you to get off that easy.” He smirked at his own double entendre.

Deliberately, Bass ran his hands up her waist, over her body, until they rested just beneath the swell of her breasts. He felt her heart racing through her rib cage. She felt so fragile like this, her small frame pressed against him as he held her. The pleasure of finally touching her, even just this much, already had him half-hard. And he was just getting started.

“Tell me, Charlotte,” he continued. “How long have you been waiting for me to… do something?” She didn’t respond right away, so he tightened his grip and demanded, “Charlotte!”

She sucked in a breath and admitted, “A long time. Months. Longer. I don’t know.”

Bass growled, deep in his chest. “All this time, you’ve been toying with me? Knowing you wanted me, never letting on?” He pulled her back hard against him, letting her feel his arousal against her ass. “Why would you do that, I wonder.”

Charlie shook her head. “I didn’t… didn’t think this would work. Us. Didn’t think you saw me that way. And then Miles…”

At that, Bass whirled Charlie around in his arms, his eyes searching her face. “What about Miles?” he asked.

“He was always telling me to stop thinking about you. Stop looking at you. He picked up on it, somehow, what I was thinking. And he was constantly telling me I was going to get my heart broken, that you didn’t care about anyone but yourself, that you’d never want more than a one-night stand.”

Bass’ throat squeezed shut at the news of this fresh betrayal by Miles. How could his brother have done this, knowing how both he and Charlie felt? When would he ever learn not to trust Miles Matheson?

But here Charlie was, anyway. Despite what his brother had done. Which raised the question: “Then why are you here?”

Charlie looked into his eyes. “I guess I realized it was all bullshit. Everything he was saying. I know you, and I know what I want. I don’t care what Miles says, anymore.”

It was enough. Bass couldn’t hold back any longer. Cradling the side of Charlie’s neck in one strong hand, he lowered his head and kissed her. Charlie met him eagerly, opening her mouth to him, kissing him back deeply. Bass’ fingers curled in Charlie’s hair as the kiss spun on, his free hand caressing her body gently. He felt her leaning into him, losing herself in his embrace.

When they finally parted, Bass kissed his way down her neck, to the collar bone he’d been dying to taste all night. He finally did, licking a hot stripe across it, her skin sweeter than he’d dreamed. “You’re not off the hook, yet,” he warned her. “I don’t care what Miles said or did. You’ve been very bad, keeping me in agony all these months. Do you understand?”

Charlie squirmed as Bass kissed and sucked the sensitive skin of her neck. “You’re the one inviting Jason Neville to come move here to be with me!” she said indignantly. “Seems like you did it to yourself.”

“Forget about Jason Neville,” Bass commanded in a low, dangerous tone. “I don’t want to hear you say his name again.” Without warning, Bass turned Charlie in his arms again, holding her back against his chest. He moved his hands over her body again, causing her to inhale deeply as he ran them over the fabric of her dress. “From now on, the name on your lips will be mine alone.” He knew it was risky, being so possessive, so demanding with Charlie, who rejected any attempt, by anyone, to control her. But fuck, he couldn’t help himself, not anymore.

So he was more than pleased when she just moaned, “Bass,” arching into him. He could see the arousal on her face, in the way her lips were parted, her neck bared to him.

“You want it, too, don’t you?” he crooned. “You’re dying to be mine. For me to claim you.” She just exhaled a shuddering breath, not agreeing, but not denying it, either.

Leaning around Charlie, Bass hooked his foot around the leg of one of his visitor chairs and turned it toward them. Wordlessly, he put his hand on the back of Charlie’s thigh, urging her to rest her foot on the chair. She did, then stood there, spread and open for him, waiting.

Bass pulled up her dress inch by inch, exposing her legs, her ass, her hips, until it was bunched around her waist. He let out a low growl when he saw the small, flesh-colored lace thong she wore underneath.

“Who did you wear these panties for, Charlotte?” he asked. “Was it because you knew Jason Neville was coming over? Were you going to show these to him?”

“No,” Charlie breathed. “They were… for you.”

“Don’t lie,” Bass snapped, smacking her ass hard. Charlie huffed out a breath and glared slightly, but still leaned into his palm where he rested it on her ass cheek. “Why did you wear these?” he asked again.

“Why do you think,” she retorted, breathing hard. “Thought about you while I was putting them on.”

“Did it make you wet, the thought of me undressing you? Finding these barely covering you?” He ran his fingers lightly over the lace between her legs, and she whimpered softly. “I can feel your heat,” he murmured in her air. “Feel how wet you are. How you want me.”

Bass ran his finger down the middle of her slit, and she remained motionless, waiting to see what he would do next. He slipped a finger underneath the thin lace of her thong, the feeling of her slick flesh intoxicating. Finding her tight entrance, he circled his finger there, but did not push inside. Charlie whined, trying to grind down on him, but Bass pulled away just enough to deprive her of what she wanted.

“No, baby,” he soothed her with his words even while working her up with his fingers. “Not inside. When I’m inside you tonight, it’s not going to be my fingers. But you have to wait.” He swiped his finger back up over her clit, and she cried out in pleasure. Feeling her trembling in his arms, Bass thought—hoped—she was close to coming for him already. He mapped her every reaction, and his many years of experience served him well, as he circled his finger, just one, over her wet, sensitive pussy. Her attempts to control the pressure and angle were useless as he still held her pinned against him, but he knew what she needed better than she did. A satisfied smirk stole across his face when he felt Charlie quake in his arms as she tipped over the edge, her swallowed moans somehow even sexier than the screams he’d been trying to elicit.

That accomplished, Bass released Charlie at last, and she stumbled back from the chair, her two feet on the ground again. Impatiently, she kicked off her high heels and turned to face him. “Damn you,” she glared, pulling her dress back down. “Been wanting to do that long?” With her heels off, she was her usual full head shorter than him, and it killed Bass like it did every time, knowing that in that tiny woman burned such fire and heat.

“Yes,” Bass said simply, his voice low. “And not just that.” He stepped toward her, crowding her, he knew, but he couldn’t help it, and she didn’t seem to mind. She stepped backward, having no choice but to avoid getting knocked over. Finally, he backed her into the edge of his desk. Fortunately, he wasn’t much for knickknacks, as only a few papers and a pen cup went flying as he pushed them out of the way then hoisted her up onto the edge. Charlie’s eyes sparkled as she half-smiled at him. He stepped between her legs, and she opened them eagerly, her dress riding up her thighs once again.

“On the desk?” she asked. Bass just grunted in affirmation, leaning down again and kissing her deeply, taking advantage of his leverage. He ran his hands over her body, feeling her breasts, squeezing one, finding a protruding nipple and pinching it hard. Charlie worked the buttons on his shirt open, running her hands over his chest and stomach, and then…

His knees buckled slightly as he felt the sudden pressure of Charlie’s hand along his now rock-hard cock, palming him through his pants, squeezing his shaft eagerly. “Fuck,” he whispered against her lips, suddenly not the one in control. He breathed raggedly into Charlie’s ear as she stroked him, then he could hold out no more. Reaching down, he impatiently opened his pants, freeing his aching cock.

“Bass,” she said, and hell if that wasn’t awe in her voice, and good: if she liked what she saw and felt, he was fucking glad about it. And then he was done thinking as Charlie licked her palm and slid it against his cock again, the slick sensation lancing pleasure through his body. Summoning his concentration, Bass ran his hands up the lines of Charlie’s thighs to her hips, grasping the edge of her tiny thong. Charlie released him and wiggled cooperatively as he pulled the small scrap of fabric down, pocketing it, as any sane man would.

Bass had touched Charlie earlier, but this was his first time seeing her naked pussy, spread before him in the lamplight. He needed to be inside her. Taking himself in hand, he stroked his rock-hard cock along her wetness, brushing over her swollen clit, up and down. Charlie threw her head back and closed her eyes, moaning, shifting her hips into him, needing him, too.

“No, baby,” he said, clinging to control. “Open your eyes.” She did, meeting his, a question and impatience evident in her expression.

Bass positioned himself at her entrance, the tip of his cock just nudging into her. “Watch,” he rasped, and did as he said. Charlie immediately understood, looking down to where they were joined. “Watch me fuck you for the first time,” Bass half-moaned, pushing inside her slowly, watching his cock disappear into her silky heat. He heard Charlie whimper, knew she was watching too, watching herself be filled up by him. When he bottomed out inside her, buried deep, he groaned in satisfaction and held still there.

Charlie looked up and met his eyes in wonder. The moment lasted one second, two, then Charlie bucked her hips against him, and it was done. Bass pulled out and swiftly slammed back into her, fucking Charlie with all the desperation and pent up need that he’d been carrying for all these months. Charlie’s hands had been braced on the desk, but she quickly brought them up to cling to his shoulders, holding him close to her as she took him deep.

“Goddamnit,” Bass cursed, feeling himself growing impossibly hard, his orgasm building quickly. He should back off, draw it out, but she was so tight, so hot. She’d reached one hand down and was rubbing her own clit, chasing a second climax. “Feels so good inside you, baby. So fucking good.”

“Bass,” Charlie cried, and he could feel her nails digging into his shoulder. “Fuck, don’t stop. Don’t stop.” Her voice grew high-pitched and frantic as she begged him for more, and he gave it to her, all that he could. Her fingers on her clit stilled as she gasped, and Bass felt her pussy spasming around him as she came again with a low moan. He could hold out no longer, and came, too, his cock erupting still buried inside her, filling Charlie with his cum. He rode out every last pulse, driving into her deep. When he was spent, he pulled out gently, bracing his hands on the desk on either side of her.

They were both breathing heavily, but Bass couldn’t help kissing Charlie again, tasting the sweetness of her mouth. Then he stepped away, so she could hop down from the desk. Bass did up his pants and thought to offer Charlie the handkerchief from his pocket. She took it, and he turned away slightly to give her privacy.

After a few seconds, she asked, “You want this back, or…” Charlie looked skeptical, and he took the cloth back with a smirk. They looked at each other for a moment, and Bass wasn’t sure what to say. He wanted this, wanted her, from now on, so whatever he said had to not fuck up any chance of that happening. So instead, he went with silence.

“You okay?” Charlie finally asked sarcastically. “Not like you to be so quiet.”

Bass smirked self-consciously. “I’m good,” he replied. “You?”

“Yeah,” Charlie grinned. “Pretty good. Really good, actually.” Relief surged through him at her words. “Not necessarily looking forward to walking all the way home in those goddamn heels, though,” she added, gesturing over to where they lay on the floor.

“Shoulda worn your boots,” Bass commented.

Charlie rolled her eyes. “Yeah, well. I wanted to look good.” For him, he knew she meant. Damn.

“You did,” he said simply. And, not to let her hint from earlier go unnoticed: “If you don’t feel like walking home, my place is closer.”

Charlie avoided his eyes and bent over to get her shoes, and Bass could tell she was embarrassed, “That wasn’t what I meant, I wasn’t trying to get you to invite me over.” She tugged one of her heels onto her foot too quickly and half-stumbled, catching her balance awkwardly by grabbing a nearby chair.

Bass resisted the urge to steady her, knowing it would just embarrass her more. “Okay, whatever you want,” he said mildly, then added, “But… my place really is a lot closer. And I make good coffee.” He tried not to care about what her next words would be, refusing to think about how badly he wanted to wake up with her in his bed, now that the possibility had been dangled in front of him.

“Hmmm…” Charlie said, now standing up straight, both shoes on. “You know I’m a sucker for coffee.” Bass watched her watch his reaction, and, apparently satisfied with what she saw, she smiled slightly. “Alright, let’s do it. Lead the way.”

* * *

The next evening, around twilight, Bass was more eager than usual as he walked toward Miles’ and Rachel’s house. Waking up with Charlie that morning had been just as amazing as he’d hoped; the sex had been even better, and the look on her face after he kissed her goodbye when she went to leave for work was the best of all. She’d looked happy, and excited, and damn if Bass wasn’t going to do whatever he could to keep that expression on her face all the time. He couldn’t wait to see her again.

But it wasn’t Charlie Bass saw waiting for him at the fire pit. It was Miles. Bass struggled to keep his temper under control. He’d known that Miles would probably be there, and he knew he should probably talk to him sooner rather than later. He just hoped he didn’t lose control, or that if he did, it wouldn’t be in front of Charlie.

“Hey,” Miles said as Bass approached. When Bass didn’t sit down, Miles looked at him, and immediately asked, “What’s wrong?”

Bass paused for a few seconds. He couldn’t act like everything was normal. Might as well just out with it. “You knew Charlie had feelings for me.”

Miles’ face dropped, and he, too, stood up, facing Bass squarely. “What?” he said incredulously, but Bass could hear the lie in his voice.

“You knew I wanted her, and you told me to stay away from her, and that was fine,” Bass said, fighting to keep calm. “But you knew she wanted me, too? And you let us think… you told her…” Emotion closed Bass’ throat and he broke off, finally choking out, “What the fuck, Miles?”

“What are you talking about, Bass,” Miles said in that low, smooth voice that only spelled danger. “What do you mean Charlie wanted you?”

At that, Bass laughed bitterly. “You had to know it wouldn’t work forever,” he said spitefully. “That eventually we’d see past your bullshit. It just makes me sick it took this long. Because I trusted you. We both did.”

Miles’ mouth tightened, and he nodded. “I see. So you finally went for it, huh? Decided, fuck our friendship, fucking my niece was more important?” The fury was building in Miles’ voice, and Bass recognized the tension in his muscles that meant he was coiled to fight.

“She went for it,” Bass said flatly. “All your fucking lies about what a piece of shit I am, she saw through it. She came to me. Last night.” Miles stood in silent shock, and Bass had to ask, “Why? Why’d you do it?”

Miles scoffed, actually having the nerve to smile sarcastically. “Yes, why?” he mused. “Why would I not want my niece getting involved with the black pit of violence and chaos that is General Sebastian Monroe? Might as well throw her off a fucking cliff while I’m at it.”

Bass’ stomach sank as his brother’s words cut through him. After all this time, everything they’d been through since the Republic, this was still what Miles thought of him. All those nights sitting around the fire, all the shared meals and drinks, all the laughs… at the end of the day, it was still this crap. Miles would never forgive him; or rather, Rachel wouldn’t, and Miles followed her lead because it was easier that way.

At least now he knew. Shaking his head in disgust, Bass muttered, “Goodbye, Miles,” and turned away. It wasn’t the first time he’d said goodbye to Miles for the last time, and a small part of him knew that this one probably wasn’t actually the last, either. Still, it had a feeling of finality as he walked away from the fire pit, from the man he’d once again been foolish enough to think was his friend.

Bass’ heart sped up as he saw Charlie coming down the road toward them, just a few dozen yards away. She smiled widely at Bass, but he couldn't bring himself to smile back. Her brow then furrowed as she saw he was going the wrong way. They met in the middle, and he spoke before she had a chance to, his words coming out in a torrent.

“I told Miles. I’m sorry if you didn’t want me to, I just… I couldn’t. And him and me, we’re finished. I’m not asking you to pick between us, I just can’t be around him anymore. Not now, maybe not ever. Okay?” Not waiting for her response, fearing what it would be, Bass brushed past Charlie, walking quickly, leaving her standing behind him in the street.

A few seconds later, he closed his eyes in gratitude when he heard the crunch of Charlie’s boots on the dirt behind him. She jogged a few paces to catch up, then fell into step beside him. He looked at her curiously, cautiously, wanting an explanation but not wanting to ask what this meant.

Charlie shrugged. “Your coffee really was pretty good,” she said lightly, knocking her arm into his.

Bass allowed himself a small grin and nodded. “Think I’ve got some whiskey, too,” he offered.

“Now you’re talking,” Charlie said, clearly trying to cheer him up. She tucked her arm into his. As they walked back toward his place, the sun setting ahead of them lighting their way, Bass realized that having her by his side felt even better than he’d imagined.