Here is part 2 of my new short story, Better Than Engagement, featuring Matt and Aaron from Better Than Good. This segment features a brief appearance by Jack and Curt from Better Than Friends (don’t worry…you’ll see more of them later 😉 ). Check back for part 3 next week!
Enjoy! Lane xo
Part 2- Better Than Engagement
The condo smelled amazing. I draped the dry cleaning bag over the edge of the sofa before making my way into the kitchen. I didn’t bother greeting the chef. He wouldn’t be able to hear me over the Drake song pumping through the speakers anyway. I hurried to adjust the volume before my eardrum burst or a neighbor pounded on the door. Aaron spun around in surprise, holding a knife in one hand and a tomato in the other.
“Dammit Matty, you scared me!”
I chuckled at his wide-eyed expression and raised my hands in surrender. “I’m sorry. Put the knife down…or at least the tomato.”
Aaron rolled his eyes and tossed both on the counter before throwing his arms around my neck and sealing his lips to mine. “Hi.”
“Hi yourself. How was your day?”
“Busy. Did you remember the dry cleaning?”
“Yeah. I left it on the sofa. Whatcha making?”
“I’m—Yikes! I have to stir.” He pushed out of my arms and hurried back to the stove. “I’m making the spaghetti Bolognese you like. I had grand plans to do arroz con pollo y plátanos, but the photo shoot ran late and I didn’t have time to run to the market, shower and make dinner. I’m not even sure I have all the spices I need for the adobo anyway. Pasta will have to do. Want a glass of wine?”
I ran a soothing hand down his back, noting he hadn’t shower or changed from his work clothes yet. Aaron didn’t have to wear a suit everyday like I did but he definitely wore business couture as befitting the assistant art director of a prominent DC fashion magazine. Today’s ensemble was well-fitted charcoal trousers and a pink oxford shirt with white cuffs and a pair of Italian loafers I knew for a fact cost more than everything else he had on put together. My guy had very expensive tastes.
A bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon and four wineglasses sat on the counter nearby. A plate of cheese and crackers was artfully displayed next to a short stack of black cocktail napkins and a huge candle. Our condo boasted an open design so the kitchen flowed seamlessly into the spacious living room. I glanced toward the dining area and noticed that the table was set and the geometric brass chandelier overhead was dimmed. A beautiful spring floral arrangement I was pretty sure hadn’t been there this morning graced the center of the round table. I grabbed his apron from the hook on the cabinet door and moved back to Aaron who giving me a rundown of his day as he spiced his sauce.
“…she wasn’t excited about me getting the assistant directorship so I have to do my best to win her over. Marsha is a tough cookie. If she wasn’t so damn good at—what are you doing?”
“You forgot your apron. Stand still,” I said as I slipped the cotton strap over his head and cupped his package.
“Behave. I’ve got a lot to do and they’ll be here in fifteen minutes.” He smacked my hand but countered the reprimand with a kiss and one of his beautiful megawatt smiles that always turned me inside out.
I moaned theatrically. “What’s the occasion? Everything looks so… fancy.”
“It’s nothing special. We were supposed to get together to celebrate my promotion last week, but Jack had to work and I thought it would be nicer to do something at home anyway.”
“It’s a Wednesday night,” I said in a flat tone, stating the obvious.
“So?” Aaron rinsed his hands and pointed at the wine meaningfully before picking up the knife and tomato he’d abandoned earlier. “Jack owns a bar. He can’t commit to weekends. You know that. We’re not old fogies. We can handle a midweek dinner. Shoot. Do you have to go into work early again tomorrow?”
I shook my head as I pulled the cork from the bottle and set it aside to breathe. Then I snuck a cracker from the marble cutting board and leaned against the counter to study my boyfriend. His hair fell over his eyes but I could tell he’d had a stressful day from the rigid set of his shoulders as he chopped tomatoes like a ninja warrior. He was a bundle of excess energy. Not the good kind.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“You look stressed. It’s Curt and Jack, babe. Order a pizza. They’d be fine with—”
“Pizza is only appropriate for casual get-togethers. This is supposed to be nice.”
I rolled my eyes and reached out to poke his side playfully but the reflection of unshed tears in his gaze stopped me in my tracks.
“Aaron, what is it?” I set a firm hand on his elbow.
“Huh? Nothing. They’ll be here soon and the salad isn’t done and—”
I moved my hand to his wrist and tightened my grip until he let go of the knife. I was mildly amused when he rounded on me with a pointed finger and switched from English to Spanish. The fiery Latin thing was really fucking cute… and sexy as hell. But when the tears threatened to spill, I was instantly alarmed.
“Hey, hey, hey…talk to me, hothead. What’s going on?” I pulled him against me and held him tight, resting my chin on his head. I threaded my fingers through his hair and kissed his temple. Our size difference made it easy for him to burrow close. I easily had him by five inches. “Aar?”
Aaron sighed and clandestinely swiped at the corner of his eye before stepping backward with a reassuring smile.
“I’m fine. I just had one of those days. One of the models accidently ripped a dress in the fitting and the designer had a cow. It took an hour to calm them both down, which meant everything after was behind schedule. I was one minute late to a meeting with Marsha who made it clear she was unhappy about the sixty second delay. Then of course, she hated the spread. The lighting was wrong. The backdrop was hideous and the models looked like they all needed a meal. I couldn’t decide if I wanted to clobber her or just fucking cry. It took everything I had to keep it together.”
“I’m sorry, baby.”
“Thanks. I’m not overly concerned. I know I’ll prove myself eventually. But I didn’t have time to make the dinner I wanted to. And don’t ask me about the refinance paperwork. I felt like throwing it in the trash after my conversation with your mother. Roommates don’t share the mortgage, do they?”
Oh fuck. That explained everything.
Aaron grumbled under his breath in Spanish as he dumped the tomatoes into a salad bowl with more force than necessary. I let out a deep breath then moved to the wine and poured two generous glasses. Mother discussions required alcohol.
“What did my mom say?”
I handed him a wineglass after he set the salad bowl in the refrigerator and untied his apron ribbon. He took the glass and clinked it against mine then offered a wan smile.
“Nothing overt. You mother is the queen of subtle insults. Sometimes I wish you were Puerto Rican. We don’t do subtle. If we’re angry, we don’t beat around the bush and talk about something vaguely related to what really pisses us off. Not that I have to guess with her. She hates me.”
“She doesn’t hate you, Aar. She just has a hard time understanding us. She needs time to—”
“It’s been four fucking years! How much time does she need?” He set his glass down with enough force to crack the stem. “Whatever. It’s the same old shit. I shouldn’t have picked up the phone without looking at the caller ID. She was pleasant at first. She asked about my recipe and who was coming over. Then she said she could tell I was in a rush. If I’d been smart, I would have said goodbye but I was too wound up after my day and I didn’t take my out. Instead…I gave her a little TMI.”
“What did you say?”
“I said I wanted to get the sauce going so I could look at the loan paperwork like I promised Matty. And yeah…I said Matty.”
“She got chilly very quickly. She reminded me Matthew was a lawyer who undoubtedly would be more than capable of handling his own mortgage. And then she made up some lame excuse to get off the phone so she could hang up on me.”
Truthfully that didn’t sound like a horrible exchange but I was getting smarter at this boyfriend thing. Just because I didn’t find something offensive didn’t mean Aaron felt the same.
“You don’t get it, do you?”
“Uh. No. I don’t think she meant it meanly, babe. She—”
“Bullshit. She hates when I call you Matty and she hates knowing my name is on any legal form associated with you. It’s a reminder the novelty of me hasn’t run its course for you yet. She wants to get to know a daughter-in-law to be, not waste time with the overly fabulous gay man answering her son’s phone. You mother can’t stand that I’m still part of your life after all these years.”
“You aren’t part of my life, Aar. You are my life.”
This time Aaron’s smile was incandescent. It was warm and sunny enough to make this cold evening in mid March feel like a warm summer day. He snaked his arms over my shoulders and kissed me breathless. I swore I saw stars when he pulled back to study me with a sexy grin.
“Sometimes you know exactly the right thing to say. I love you, Matty.”
“I love you too.”
We shared a sappy smile as we stared at each other like lovesick fools. It was a perfect moment. The kind you think you might always remember. The kitchen smelled heavenly, the house was beautifully lit with candles and Drake had given way to the Chainsmokers song I’d just learned how to play on my guitar. In retrospect, I should have sung to him and danced him around the island to make him laugh. Or even offered to play the song so he could sing along. A whimsical change in focus would have kept things light and happy. More importantly, it would have saved me from saying something stupid to effectively ruin everything.
But no… I opened my big mouth instead.
“You know, I’ve been thinking we should make this legal anyway.”
Aaron immediately stiffened in my arms and pulled away. He picked up his wine glass and twirled the burgundy liquid lazily before giving me a look I couldn’t read well. It was wary and somewhat guarded.
“What do you mean by legal?”
“You know… like get married.” I shrugged and reached for my own wine. I downed half the glass in a way that would have made my college buddies cheer my name wildly if we’d been in a beer-guzzling contest back in school. My significant other, however, was not impressed. Unfortunately, I didn’t think my manners were the problem.
“Are you asking me to marry you?”
“Uh… yeah. Sure. Why not?”
My mouth was dry. My heart was beating like a drum. I’d been thinking about this a lot lately but fuck, marriage was a big word. So was wedding and husband. I was suddenly scared shitless. Jesus, did I just propose? It wasn’t too warm in the kitchen, but I was sweating and nervous as hell. And Aaron…well, he looked pissed. Or maybe even hurt.
I set my glass down and then gently caressed his chin with my thumb. “That wasn’t smooth. I can do better. I—I love you and I want to marry you.”
“This is how you’re going to ask me to marry you? To prove something to your mother or to make signing a set of loan documents easier? I’m not a legal afterthought, Matthew. Don’t you dare try to neatly tie up your commitments with my signature on the dotted line because it’s more convenient than—”
“You’re not convenient at all! I mean—” I raked my hand through my hair and pursed my lips. “I didn’t mean that. C’mon, Aar, give me a break. I’m not trying to be a jerk. I’m sorry my mom hurt your feelings. I’m sorry you had a rough day. I’m trying to tell you I lo—”
“Stop. Just leave it for now. Jack and Curt are going to be here soon. We can talk later. I’m frustrated and I’m not being fair and… I’m sorry.”
I furrowed my brow but nodded in acquiescence. I didn’t want to leave this conversation here but he was right. At the rate I was going, I’d end up putting my other foot in my mouth before the doorbell rang anyway. Later was good.
Later was only good in theory. The problem was I couldn’t stop thinking about what we’d said. My mom, loan papers, his day, my day… none of it was significant. And it certainly didn’t explain an impromptu marriage proposal. Was I serious or was it an impulse offer I had no business making without carefully thinking through first? I was glad Curt and Jack were there to provide a friendly diversion in the aftermath. I needed a break from my thoughts.
“This is fantastic, Aaron. I need the recipe,” Curt gushed as he twirled spaghetti noodles around his fork.
“Thank you. I was going to do something fancier but time was not on my side tonight,” Aaron said.
Aaron grabbed a piece of garlic bread from the basket in the middle of the table, broke it in two and set one half on my plate. It was one of those quirky things he always did. He was big on sharing food. It could be a bite of something amazing he’d ordered at a restaurant that he wanted me to try or whatever was left on his plate at home. Food was a big deal to Aaron. He loved cooking for friends and family and he was an excellent chef. In a way, it was a creative and emotional outlet for him. It relaxed him and allowed him to do something for the people he cared about most. Needless to say, I never cooked. The kitchen was Aaron’s domain. Toast and cereal were my culinary limit these days. And Curt wasn’t fooling anyone at this table. He was just like me.
Jack snorted in amusement and dabbed at the corner of his mouth with his napkin. “Curtis honey, what exactly would you do with the recipe? Use it as a bookmarker for the cookbooks you never open?”
“Ha. Ha. The recipe is for you. Not me, smartass,” Curt huffed primly.
He yelped a second later when his boyfriend pinched his arm in playful retribution. Jack captured Curt’s wrist before he could pull away and laced their fingers together. Then he raised their joined hands and kissed Curt’s knuckles like a leading-man in a romantic movie. I smiled at their antics. They were a cool couple. And in many ways, they were as different as Aaron and me.
Curt and Jack were polar opposites. Jack was tall, dark and drop dead sexy. And he was fourteen years older than Curt. He owned two businesses; a motorcycle shop for sales and repair and a gay bar that catered to a masculine crowd. It wasn’t a leather bar or a bear hangout but they didn’t play disco music or invite drag queens to lip-synch either, which meant it wasn’t necessarily Aaron’s kind of hangout either. Or Curt’s.
Curt was infinitely more conservative than his tattooed, laid-back boyfriend. He was fanatical about timeliness and deadlines. We’d been good friends since we were roommates in law school at Georgetown. Curt’s cautious nature was offset by a self-deprecating sense of humor and a friendly demeanor that drew people to him. He and Jack had been together for a couple years now. Perhaps they looked like an odd match to outsiders, but they definitely fit.
The intricate design of the tattoo sleeve on Jack’s left arm against Curt’s white button-down oxford shirt made me smile. I glanced over at Aaron, knowing he was probably thinking the same thing, albeit in a mushier way.
I was right. The look on my man’s face spoke volumes. It was the starry-eyed look of a true romantic.
I knew that look well. Aaron got it when he saw old people holding hands or young families pushing strollers and juggling dog leashes. It was the one he’d get at the end of any Hugh Grant rom-com regardless of how many times he’d watched the movie. An Adele song could occasionally do the trick too. But his best gooey looks were the ones he reserved for me. When I played a love song on my guitar and dedicated it to him like I was a rock star on a stage instead of the dork sitting at the end of the sofa. Or when I brought him flowers or held the door for him or brought him a cup of coffee on a Sunday morning. Little things I did without thinking that made him beam at me like I was a freaking hero.
No wonder he looked so damned disappointed earlier.
I messed up. If I wanted what I thought I did, I had to do it right. I had to be… romantic. Fuck.