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Beyond the Pale by Jennifer Millikin
Available Now | Contemporary Romance
Read it now as part of Kindle Unlimited
CLICK HERE: http://bit.ly/beyondthepalebook
My whole life I’ve known Finn Jeffries and Brady Sterling would be my undoing.
The three of us were inseparable, but growing up with two boys as your best friends comes with it’s own certain type of growing pains.
As a child, Finn was wild and free, and grew up to be a devilishly handsome man with a smirk that frustrated me as much as it did other things to me.
Brady was brave and loyal, and the kind of man he grew into didn’t surprise me a bit: devoted and gallant, with a handsome, trustworthy face that made my heart beat faster.
We went our separate ways for college, but now it’s eight years later and a pact we made back then has brought us back to our hometown.
Back to the complicated situation we ran from.
Back to the love triangle we never really escaped.
I love them both, and it’s time for me to make a choice.
I’ve always known one of them would be my forever, I just never knew which one.
And I still don’t.
I’ve been staring at my phone for three minutes, the pretty green succulents staring back at me. If this was a hey how are you doing call, I wouldn’t be nervous. But this is a point of no return call. I think my nerves are justified.
It’s been eight years since we’ve all been together. In the beginning, we didn’t aim to be apart for so long. It happened naturally, the way a river freezes over drop by drop. College was more demanding than we anticipated it would be, and with none of us going home to Agua Mesa, it was harder to plan a visit. Then Brady went to law school, Finn and I got jobs, and somehow days and months floated by until they became years.
Though we haven’t been together physically, we’ve kept in touch. We text, we call, we see each other’s social media posts.
Just thinking about talking to them brings a smile to my face. Finn’s voice is wry, like he’s always on the edge of laughing or flirting. It makes it seem like no matter what it is he’s talking about, it’s not that bad.
Not Brady. Brady’s voice is strong and commanding, but kind. If loyalty and conviction had a voice, it would be Brady’s.
I call him first, simply because his name comes first in my contacts.
“Lennon?” He sounds worried, which he should be. We haven’t talked on the phone in a while. If his name was the one flashing across my screen, I’d be beside myself.
“Brady, hi. How are you?”
“Worried about you.”
“Were you worried about me before I called?”
He chuckles. “Not really.”
“I’m fine,” I assure him.
“Are you sure about that? We haven’t talked in a long time…”
The reason why hangs in the air between us, somehow traveling across the miles between Dallas and Chicago.
I clear my throat. “Um, yeah. It has been a while. But I promise, I’m fine. I’m calling to tell you that my mom died yesterday and I’m going back to Agua Mesa.”
Brady blows out an audible breath, some of it sneaking into the phone and making a whooshing noise.
“When are you leaving?” he asks, and I hear new background noise. Something slamming. Maybe a cabinet?
“As soon as I can get a bag together. I’m driving out.” No need to mention that it’s cheaper to drive.
“Then I’ll see you tomorrow afternoon.”
“I’ll be there, Lennon.”
My lips purse, and my heart surges. I’d told Laine he would remember our pact, that it still applied, but even as I said it, I felt a twinge of uncertainty. We’re adults now. That pact was made with teenage hearts. Back then we didn’t understand commitments to anyone but each other. Now there are jobs and lives and… significant others?
“Thank you, Brady.” There’s relief in my voice.
“Did you think I wouldn’t come?” His voice is low. The rumble of it warms my heart.
“No, no. Of course not. I knew you’d come if you could.”
“I’d be there even if I couldn’t.”
I smile. He’s still so sweet, so loyal. Never one to shy away from a declaration. But the best part about Brady? He means it.
“I better get going,” I tell him. “I need to pack.”
“And call Finn?”
“Yep,” I answer, guilt blossoming in my belly. There’s nothing wrong with me calling Finn and then packing, but not telling Brady my exact reason for getting off the phone makes me feel like I’ve done something wrong.
“So you called me first.” Satisfaction colors his tone.
I groan playfully. “Your name comes first in my contacts.”
I laugh and tell him goodbye, then scroll to Finn’s number. My thumb hovers over his name as his face floats in my mind. His perpetual smirk is the first thing I see. It’s like he knows something juicy, and if you’re lucky enough, he just might share it with you.
I press his name, and the phone rings. Once, twice, three times. He answers on the fifth ring.
“Well, well, well.” He pauses, exhaling a heavy breath. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”
“What are you doing right now?” I’m asking because his breathing is still heavy, and oh my god what if he’s… you know… with a woman right now? He wouldn’t answer in the middle of that, would he? Except this is Finn I’m talking about, and anything is possible with him.
“I didn’t know computers could give you such a workout.”
“Very funny, Miss L.” He pauses again, and I imagine him gulping water from a bottle. “What’s up?”
“My mom died, and I was wondering if you feel like coming to Arizona?”
Finn’s quiet for a moment before he speaks. “You’re in luck, Lennon. I’m already in Arizona.”
Surprise jerks my head back an inch. “You went home… without us?”
“I’m in Arizona, but not in Agua Mesa.”
This makes me feel better. On a realistic level, I know he can go wherever he damn well pleases. All three of us can. But that agreement we made is something I hold onto, a symbol of how much we all still matter to one another.
“Why exactly are you in the great state of AZ?” I make my voice casual, trying to fight the feeling of longing that has sprung up in my belly. I feel the girlish urge to twist a phone cord around my fingers and bat my eyelashes. Of course, there is no phone cord to twist because this isn’t the nineties.
“You might know if you visited me every once in a while.”
Hurt trickles into the lightly admonishing tone he’s using. Finn doesn’t let anything slide. He’s not afraid to call me out. Or anyone else, for that matter. He once challenged my mother, adding another log to the fire of dislike she felt for him.
“Do you think of me, Lennon?” His voice lowers, his tone husky.
My belly swirls again. “Of course. Every day.”
“You sure about that?”
A lick of anger flickers in my core. It’s a common reaction around Finn. He has always possessed the ability to bring the emotion to the surface. Funny how I can’t remember a time when Brady has brought that out. Brady keeps me steady. With Brady, I know right where I am.
If they were colors, Brady would be a calm, cool blue. Finn would be a fiery orange-red.
“Don’t be dumb.” I say it cheekily, and Finn laughs, a deep, singular sound.
Sass is my defense mechanism. It’s how I handle discomfort. And guilt. And just about anything unpleasant.
Finn clears his throat. “I guess I’m supposed to say I’m sorry for your loss.”
“Do you want me to?”
“That depends on whether you want to.”
“I don’t want to.”
Despite the macabre topic of conversation, our banter has my lips curving upward.
A sound comes through the phone, something like the crunching of gravel.
“Where are you?” I ask.
“I’ll tell you tomorrow.”
“Um hmm. Tomorrow. When I see you in Agua Mesa.” His voice slips over me, sliding into my heart, reassuring me.
“Really?” Hope swells in my chest.
“Did you think I wouldn’t come?”
I blink at his words. They are the same words Brady used with me only minutes ago. For all their differences, their hearts are loyal as hell. It’s why I chose them, all those years ago. Or maybe they chose me. I’m not sure anymore.
I shrug, even though he can’t see me. “It’s been a long time. Eight years.”
“Eight years,” he echoes. “Are you ready to go home?”
“Not even close.”
Of the three of us, Finn will have the hardest time going back. He’s the one with the impressive juvenile rap sheet. I’ll be subject to the dubious glances from the congregation of Joyful Noise Bible, but I can handle it. My mom just died, so their sympathy will be automatic, if also a bit begrudging. And then there’s Brady. Nothing awaits him except for a bevy of middle-aged women hoping to set him up with their daughters. Who wouldn’t want their precious daughter with someone who’s not only a lawyer but the son of an esteemed federal judge?
I blow out a hard breath. “Well, get ready. Because we’re going right into the belly of the beast.”
I smile. “I’ve been called that once or twice.”
“True,” I agree, eyeing the gigantic suitcase Laine let me borrow. “I better go. I need to get packed and on the road.”
“Drive safe, Miss L.”
“Will do. Bye,” I say, then blurt, “Finn, wait!”
“Tell me something I’ll never believe.”
The game started when we were young, and it stuck. Finn recites a fact, something so outlandish it sounds fake, and I decide whether or not I believe it. Usually I had to look on the internet to investigate its validity. My research always ended up pointless; Finn never told me anything that wasn’t true.
After a moment, Finn says, “Female elephants form a tight circle around another female when she’s giving birth. They do this because the birthing female is vulnerable to attack, so their circle is meant for protection.”
Tears spring to my eyes. I believe him. And if it’s not true, I don’t want to know. It’s too beautiful.
“I’ll see you tomorrow, Finn.”
He pauses for so long I wonder if he has hung up, then softly he tells me goodbye.
I hang up and stare at the suitcase. Those two phone calls, plus the fact that I’m headed to Agua Mesa as soon as I can gather my things, has left me emotionally exhausted. Too bad I don’t have time for exhaustion. Placing my palms on either side of me, I hoist myself off the bed and into action. Before long, I’m packed, and then I’m holding back tears as I hug Laine goodbye. It’s her fault. She’s the one who started crying, and I can‘t look at her tears without producing some of my own.
It’s just for a week, I tell her. Two, tops. I can’t imagine it will take me any longer than that to make arrangements and go through my mother’s house.
At least, I hope it doesn’t.
Jennifer Millikin is a contemporary fiction author of five full-length novels and a contributor for Scottsdale Moms Blog. When she isn’t writing she can be found cooking, hiking, or in downward dog.
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