Better Than Most
A name Georgia Whittier would prefer never cross her lips again. Not only was her older brother's best friend her first love, her first everything, but he broke her heart for a reason she still hasn't fully accepted. To make it worse, Georgia couldn't properly nurse her broken heart, because nobody knew about the love affair.
A decade has passed, and Georgia is all grown up. She's twenty-seven, a college graduate who had a real world job. Had. Her small hometown of Green Haven isn't flush with teaching jobs, but she knew that when she moved back home. She's making ends meet with odd jobs, and has rediscovered her old love of West Coast swing dancing. Life isn't great, but it's good enough.
Until Rhodes returns to Green Haven. For good.
As much as Georgia would prefer to banish him from her life, she can't. See: Brother's best friend. Now Rhodes is everywhere. Her brother's wedding. At a family barbecue. On the sidewalk across the street while Georgia waits in line at the post office.
And that broken heart Georgia thought had healed? It hasn't. Because Rhodes is just like before. Better, even.
Georgia is determined to keep Rhodes at arm's length, even when he's buying her blackberry orange jam at the Sierra Grande farmer's market. Even when he's holding eye contact a beat too long. Especially when she finds out the old note she wrote him is still sewn into the brim of his baseball hat.
The hat he still wears.
Every day it gets more difficult for Georgia to refuse her heart.
But if what Georgia wants is a reason not to fall in love with Rhodes again, she need look no further.
Rhodes is holding onto it. All these years he's kept the truth of why he left her a secret, but secrets have a way of revealing themselves.
And this one? It's a doozy.
Three Months Ago
Eleven years since Rhodes left me, and all I want is for him to stay gone.
But there he is now, in the flesh, his charcoal gray suit hugging his muscular thighs, his white shirt stretching across planes of hard muscle.
He looks infuriatingly good, standing across Emmett and Victoria Jones's backyard, relaxed and confident and smiling. Like he doesn't have a care in the world. Like he doesn't care that I used to be his world.
He's shaking my brother's hand, congratulating Jake on his nuptials. Seeing them together like this, dressed up and hair perfectly done, makes me think of before. But it's silly of me, letting nostalgia take over and invade my thoughts, my emotions. There's no need for it. Nostalgia is a long road to nowheresville, with a guaranteed stay at the heartbreak hotel.
A beaming smile broadens my brother’s cheeks, joy darting from his gaze like little bursts of fireworks. His elation makes me happy, because it is beyond deserved. Jake has been a single father since I was a freshman in college. His life was full of his son, Robbie. He didn't date, ever. Until Colbie showed up in Green Haven and we all watched the sparks fly, I thought my brother might be a perpetual bachelor.
And now Jake's gone and married Colbie and invited his stupid best friend Rhodes with his dumb wavy light brown hair and his idiotic carved cheekbones and his obnoxious blue eyes.
I down half my glass of champagne and muster up a smile for my new sister-in-law as she makes her way over to me. It’s not difficult to find a genuine smile for Colbie, not when she’s radiant like she is presently, her cheeks flushed and her eyelashes darkened by the two thick coats of mascara I applied a few hours ago. She'd opted to do her own makeup, but when it came down to it, her hand was too shaky to wield the wand.
She nudges me. "We're officially family."
I nudge her back. "Officially, yes. But we already were." I love Colbie. I especially love the way she came into our lives and showed Jake what he was missing. God, how that man needed someone.
Colbie's gaze moves across the yard. "I can't believe what a good job you and Victoria and Greer did with the setup and decorating. It doesn't look like my dad’s backyard anymore."
Colbie's stepmother, Victoria, and her half-sister, Greer, and I spent the last week transforming the backyard into an 'earthy but make it chic' space for their wedding and reception. Colbie wanted buttercups for the centerpieces running down the middle of the two long, rectangular tables. We'd managed to get those and place them in glass vases, surrounded by greenery and candles. I made a last-minute run to a home store for faux candles when we realized the local fire danger level had increased to 'Extreme' due to lack of rain. We'd all agreed the last thing we needed was to be the cause of a fire.
Colbie's appreciative gaze drifts from all the wedding decor details, landing on my brother. And Rhodes. She gestures at the two of them, looking thick as thieves in the corner, with her champagne flute. "I'm looking forward to getting to know Rhodes better. I barely know him, and he's Jake's best friend."
He might be Jake’s best friend, but he was mine too, and nobody knows it. It’s not easy to let Rhodes belong to Jake, and not claim him as my own. I’ve been forced to hide my grief over him, and the loss of us, all this time. Secrets don’t always have a definitive end point. This particular secret is ongoing.
Colbie would know Rhodes better if he weren’t constantly traveling for work, going from crew to crew where he's needed. He’s a lineman, a career he’d never talked about until he suddenly left for trade school.
Jake offers updates from time to time, and last I heard, he was in New York. A memory, clear as day, assails me. Jake sings 'New York' in his God awful voice. Rhodes smirks, looking at my brother while secretly looking just beyond Jake's head, to me.
"Act fast," I murmur, watching Rhodes gesture as he speaks. Every moment I spend cataloguing his motions is a wallop to my heart. "I'm sure he'll be gone again soon."
"Not this time," Colbie replies, her carefully placed side swept bangs drawing over her cheek as her head shakes. "He's back for good."
My stomach drops. "He's... what?"
Colbie tears her adoring gaze from my brother. I must have an awful look on my face, because her eyes crinkle with concern. "He's back. No more travel."
I school my features, aiming for nonchalance when I say, "Oh, I didn't get the memo." My throat is doing this inside out thing where it feels like all the air has been siphoned from it. My heart? I don't even know what that's doing, only that suddenly I feel it too much, but also not at all.
I need Rhodes to be gone. I need Rhodes to be a traveler.
What I do not need is Rhodes to be in my little town of Green Haven, walking my streets, eating my breakfasts at Honeybee.
Interloper. Intruder. Trespasser. Various, but similar, words to describe him, all in an effort to mask the one badge I refuse to award him. Heartbreaker.
Colbie places a palm on my bare shoulder. "You good?" Her eyebrows draw together as she searches my face. She is stunning always, but especially today.
I nod once, then lie. "I'm good."
I am not good. I do not know how I will survive Rhodes living in Green Haven again.
For the remainder of the reception, I become a master of knowing where Rhodes is so I can avoid him. My hyperawareness takes me out of the moment, keeping me tethered to Rhodes in a way I don't like.
It’s made worse by the fact he doesn’t look my way. He doesn’t acknowledge me.
I don't want to live in reaction to him.
What I want more than anything is to no longer care.
It has been years since we were together, and sometimes it feels like it didn't happen at all. Especially since nobody knows about it. If a little sister and her big brother's best friend fall in love, but nobody knows about it, did it really happen?
I visit the powder room inside the house, dipping my hands in the cool running water and dabbing it on the back of my neck. The outdoor air temperature is perfect, but I’m flushed anyway, heated by my warring thoughts. Happiness for my brother, sickened by my prolonged proximity to Rhodes.
Sweeping open the door, I step from the half-bath and stop short. There he is, all six foot two of him. Masculine. Gorgeous. A presence I struggle to reject. He released his hold on me so long ago, but it has remained, fortified by time and memory.
His gaze locks on mine, and all I can do is remember how his blue eyes changed from cornflower to denim when he said I love you.
Of all the details about my time with Rhodes, that has been the one to plague me. Those eyes held sincerity. Love. Our ending felt wrong, because those eyes held our truth.
Now, electricity zings through the connection of our gaze. My skin prickles. He steps toward me, and the small movement breaks the moment. My flattened palm shoots out, stopping him. I hurry down the hall, away from him, spilling myself and my tangled emotions out the front door.
I cannot, will not, allow Rhodes an inch of space in my life. He will sit over there, in a removed place as my brother’s best friend, the way he has been for years. The way he always will be.
Pulling my phone from my purse, I send a quick text. I need a distraction. I need to remind myself that I’ve moved on. Rhodes no longer owns my heart.
Rhodes and Georgia are a relic, a way back when, teenage hormones and naïveté.
I’m no longer sixteen and heartbroken. I’m a woman. And this woman is going to prove to herself that she’s been over Rhodes Porter for a very long time.