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It took me twenty minutes to actually get in the shower. I sat on the toilet seat for those twenty minutes, listening to Clay as he sighed and huffed. I supposed he gave up on waiting for me and left my room because when I came out, he wasn’t there. I wasn’t sure what he was doing or what he was thinking, but what I did know was that I was a coward.

I could have it all and I could have him…but something was stopping me. As I showered, I realized what was stopping me was myself. Because deep in my heart, I knew Aria. And she loved Clay with her whole heart, but she also loved me. But when you grew up the way I did, with your mother passing while you were young and your father wanting nothing to do with you…well, it was easy to cling to familiarity. And I supposed I was afraid that if we told Aria, the dynamics would change. I was scared of seeing what could happen if we let go of the lies, the fear, the hiding and allowed ourselves to be us, unapologetically.

I changed into new clothes and went back downstairs. I found Clay in the kitchen, sipping another beer as he sat on a barstool. He was still shirtless, but he had on his red shorts again, bless his heart.

“Hey,” I murmured from the mouth of the kitchen.

He looked me up and down in my sweatpants and T-shirt. “Hey,” he said.

I stepped deeper into the room. “Got another one of those for me?”

He nodded, climbing off the stool and opening the fridge to collect a beer. After popping off the lid, he slid it across the counter to me and I picked it up, taking a swig.

“Look, I’m sorry for freaking out.” I shifted on my feet. “You were right about the possibility of feeling abandoned. But you have to understand where I’m coming from with this, Clay. You and Aria are pretty much all that I have. I mean, other than Kandy and her family, but that’s different.”

He nodded, eyes softening as he studied mine. Mine were filling with tears, so I lowered my gaze.

“What I’m saying is…I don’t want to fuck this up. I don’t want to lose the only family I have on this earth; that’s why I’m okay sacrificing my feelings. Because it brings stability. And if we throw a wrench in it, I’m afraid we won’t be able to fix it.”

Clay sighed, then walked around the counter. “Come here,” he said, opening his arms to me. I stepped into them and he closed them around me. As he held me, I couldn’t help sighing and melting into him. He still smelled faintly of his body wash and deodorant, and a wave of nostalgia hit me. I’d smelled his body wash as a teenager for years and secretly used to love when he walked through the house, all fresh and clean. I’d fantasize about laying on his chest and sniffing him.

“Listen, Frankie…if you’re not ready to tell Mom anything, then I won’t tell her. I’m sorry if I scared you by saying that. But I am tired of hiding it…and I don’t want what we’re doing to end.”

I nodded into his chest.

“But you should know that no matter what happens, you will never lose us. We love you so damn much. You’re our family.”

I smiled into his chest that time.

“I’m just so tired of hiding who we are and what we want,” he went on. “I don’t know if I’m just maturing more or what, but the older I get, the more I realize my soul mate has been right under my nose. Sure, we started out as friends, but you can’t deny it’s turned into more.”

“I don’t deny it,” I whispered. I picked my head up and looked into his eyes. “We should tell her tomorrow.”

His eyebrows shot up. “Tomorrow?”

“Yeah. I planned on visiting her tomorrow, taking her some food. We should go together and tell her.”

Clay nodded. “Okay. Are you sure?”

“No,” I said, laughing. “But if I don’t do it now, I never will.”

“Okay.” He smiled and nodded again. “Okay, if you’re sure, we can do that. But I’m gonna be honest with you, I have a feeling this news will make her day.”

“How could it possibly make her day?”

“Oh, come on! You don’t remember how she used to joke about us being boyfriend and girlfriend before your mom passed away? She was practically setting us up!

“Was she?” I laughed at that. “I don’t remember that at all. Besides, that was before life got real.”

“I guess you wouldn’t remember. It was so long ago, but I remember because I used to tell my mom it would never happen. I was all boyish about it,” he chuckled. “Little did I know, she was right.”