Betting On Love: A Forbidden Bad Boy Romance (Fighting For Love Book 6)

2

Brad opened the door to Hank, who brandished a bag at him. “I brought burgers from Joe’s.”

“Best ex-roommate ever.”

Hank had moved in with Eric, his boyfriend, almost a year ago now. Brad suspected that Eric was planning on popping the question, but with everyone focused on Matthew and Jake’s wedding, anyone else thinking of proposing was probably waiting until that whole deal was finished.

“So, what’s the news?” Brad asked as Hank got out the food.

He had only been to Joe’s a couple of times, but he knew all about Hank’s friend group, thanks to Hank talking about them all the time when they’d lived together. Brad wasn’t a local, originally. He’d grown up in the city, but his mother had moved out here while he was beginning college, and he’d grown to like the place while visiting during the holidays. So when he’d graduated, he’d settled here.

He’d kind of liked the idea of being in a place where everyone knew who you were and you were friendly with everyone. Of course, he’d then proceeded to make friends with only one person, Hank, and not really get close to anyone else for the last however many years.

Hank sat down while Brad got out silverware. “You won’t believe it,” Hank said. “Preston got kicked out of the bar.”

“What?” Brad had never met Preston, but he’d heard a lot about him, and a lot about all of Hank’s other friends as well. It almost felt like Brad knew them already.

“I know,” Hank said with a grin. “I didn’t think Luke would ever get around to it; he and Preston go way back.”

According to Brad’s understanding of the group, Luke, Travis, Preston, Jake, Davis, and Hank had all gone to high school together. Luke, Preston, and Travis had all been buddies, pranking people, throwing toilet paper at Old Man Murphy’s house, ending up in the back of the squad car, that kind of thing. Hank hadn’t been super close to them, but he’d known them all, and had been one of the boys who had his heart broken by Luke.

There was also Ross, who’d grown up with them, but he’d moved with his mom to the city when he was fourteen, so he hadn’t spent high school with them, although he’d visited when he could.

“Did he and Luke ever date?” Brad was trying to remember.

“No. I mean, they fooled around, but it was just sort of an … experimentation thing, you know, when you’re a teenager and attracted to someone and you want to explore and see where it goes.”

Hank shrugged. “But Preston was really quiet back then. I mean, he always got into trouble, but he and Travis didn’t really talk to people. Travis had Lance, and that turned into a romance, but Preston talked to Luke instead. Never got romantic, but … obviously, Luke’s protective of him.

“He’s let Preston get away with a lot more shit than most bar owners would. It’s been years now of Preston getting into fights. Travis used to as well, before he got with Lance. Lance has really calmed him down.”

“Well,” Brad offered, “most deep-seated issues with aggression are a result of not dealing with the actual problems in your life. You let the small things get to you because you’re actually struggling with something much bigger that you just don’t know how to address. Sounds to me like his relationship with Lance was Travis’s big issue, and now that it’s resolved, he doesn’t have that aggression anymore.”

Hank nodded. “That makes sense. But whatever the reason, you know, he and Preston would go at it. They always were kind of like, you know, wolves or something, that play by fake fighting each other? Preston would go after Lance, and Travis would get super pissed, and it would become a big fight.

“Now that Travis isn’t playing that game anymore, Preston’s been getting into fights with everyone. And Luke just finally had it. Kicked him out, told him not to come back.”

“Is that the end of their relationship?” Brad asked. Cutting a toxic person out of your life was important. But when someone who was clearly a good friend to Luke had an aggression issue, it worried Brad if Luke suddenly shut the guy completely out of his life. It would probably only make Preston worse.

“No.” Hank shook his head. “Preston’s still allowed to hang out with us. He’s good when it’s just us. Something about strangers and the bar, though, so he’s not allowed back in until he cleans up his act, or something. I don’t know the details.”

“Your friend Luke sounds really patient. I hope clear boundaries were established.” That was one of the keys to getting a healthy relationship with an aggressive person, and helping them to learn that it wasn’t okay to inflict their anger on people.

“Yeah, I think so. You’re one to talk, though.” Hank raised an eyebrow. “Have you talked to your mom yet?”

Brad’s mom was the reason that he didn’t really have a whole lot of friends. He’d had a ton, back in the city. But when he’d met Hank, and had learned that Hank and all of his friends were gay…

Well, it was kind of hard to tell your mom that no, you were the token straight friend, ha, ha, you totally weren’t gay at all.

Especially when it wouldn’t be true.

Brad knew that he wasn’t exactly being the most … courageous person in not telling his mother that he was gay. It was just that he’d always gotten that vibe from her. The It’s okay as long as it’s not you vibe.

“She’s all for gay rights,” Hank pointed out, taking another bite of his burger.

“Yeah, for other people,” Brad replied. “Like, it’s okay if people are gay, that’s great, fine by her. But the way she talks about it, it’s like it’s okay for people to climb Mt. Everest, or run away and live in a hippie commune. It’s great when they do it, but she definitely doesn’t want me to do it.”

“You don’t know that until you tell her,” Hank said. “You don’t know anything for certain until you try. Isn’t that what you tell students who want to give up?”

“That’s about believing in your ability to control your own emotions. I can’t control my mom.”

“I say that my point still stands.” Hank jabbed a french fry in the air in Brad’s direction. “You don’t know how anyone is going to react until you try it. Eric didn’t act at all like I thought he would, about pretty much anything, when we were getting together.”

“You two had hate sex in his office. I’m not sure if you’re the best example here.”

“Just tell her,” Hank said. “What’s the worst that could happen?”

“She could never speak to me again.”

Brad was close with his mom. She wasn’t just someone he saw during the holidays, or called once every couple of months. He saw her every Sunday for brunch at the Bluebird Café. They went out to see comedy movies together, because they had the same sense of humor. She was his friend.

There’d been bumps in the road, of course. But after Dad had died about five years back, all those bumps hadn’t mattered anymore. What mattered was being with each other and not wasting a minute.

He couldn’t lose someone he loved that much.

“You’re telling me you like how things are now?” Hank asked gently. “When she sets you up with girls, and asks when you’re going to settle down, and hints about grandchildren?”

“She tried to set me up with another one today,” Brad admitted. “Apparently her name is Ginger, and she’s a really sweet girl, a dog trainer, and so on.”

“And what excuse did you give her this time?”

“The one that I usually give her; I’m too busy to date, and I don’t feel comfortable going out with someone that somebody else has set up for me.”

“Too busy my ass,” Hank mumbled around another bite of food. “You’ve got more free time than anyone I know. You’ve got to come and play football with us one Saturday.”

“You’ve got even numbers.”

“Not if Seth doesn’t play. He’s busy with extracurriculars on the weekends now. Davis is our referee, usually, so it’s even.”

“Judging from what I know of Davis, he prefers to referee.”

Hank snorted. “You’re avoiding the point. The point is that I have a group of about a dozen guys who would love to meet you, and who would be awesome friends to you and fill the social void in your life. Because you do have a social void. You can’t tell me that you don’t.”

Brad sighed. He knew that Hank was right. He got a lot of fulfillment out of his work as an anger management counselor. Well, what work he got as part of his hours for his masters program.

He wasn’t teaching his own classes yet, but he was assisting and sitting in on a local one for the needed credit. He’d wanted to be a counselor since he was a young teenager, and he was always secretly glad to prove wrong everyone who’d said he’d get too stressed and quit.

But work wasn’t the same as a social life. He wouldn’t be friends with the people who took his classes, and he couldn’t be. There was a line of respect and a certain amount of distance that had to be maintained.

“You know that I don’t want to push,” Hank added quietly.

Hank was not the type of guy who waltzed in and demanded things. Brad had actually almost laughed when Hank had told him that his family had asked him to be their spokesperson to the new development guy and get the construction company to leave them alone. But he wasn’t afraid to speak his mind, either.

“I know you don’t,” Brad said.

“You’re my friend, and I want to see you happy.” Hank raised an eyebrow. “How can you be happy if you’re not being yourself?”

Brad idly moved his french fries around. “It’s not really that big of a deal.”

“Sure it isn’t. What are you going to do, wait until she dies or something?”

Brad glared at him. Hank shrugged. “I’m just saying.”

Brad finished his meal and pushed the container aside. “Look, I’ll think about it, okay? It’s not something you can just tell someone out of the blue.”

“It kind of is.”

“I’d rather have it just sort of naturally come up in conversation.”

“Great. Next time she tries to set you up with someone, tell her that you’re not interested because you’re gay. Wow, look at how that naturally came up in conversation!”

Brad glared at him. “You’re an asshole and I don’t know why I ever became friends with you.”

“You love me,” Hank said smugly. “Don’t deny it. And if that’s not enough of it ‘coming up naturally’ for you, are you waiting for her to ask if you’re gay? Are you hoping that she’ll figure it out on her own?”

“Maybe,” Brad admitted. “It would definitely be easier that way.”

“You have to fight your own battles at some point,” Hank said. “You’re so good at fighting everyone else’s battles for them; you need to apply some of that to yourself as well.”

Brad could argue the point, but he knew it would be splitting hairs. He didn’t really fight people’s battles for them. Instead, he talked them through figuring out why they had such anger, and how to address it. But he couldn’t actually do anything for them. That was the point of anger management.

But he knew what Hank really meant. Brad spent all of his time helping others to find the courage within themselves to let go of their anger and face the problems that led to their unhealthy coping mechanisms. And he was well aware that his own coping mechanism of avoidance wasn’t the healthiest out there.

He just … wasn’t ready.

He didn’t know if he would ever be. To risk seeing the person he loved most in the world possibly lose that light in her eyes and become disappointed in him…

Mom would never turn him out. She wouldn’t stop seeing him. But she’d be disappointed.

And that would be a wall between them, a wall that he couldn’t stand to have. It was a cliché, but his mom was his best friend, and he’d already lost his dad. He didn’t want to have any awkwardness keeping them apart.

“Honestly?” Hank added, finishing up his own food and throwing the containers into the garbage. “I don’t think you’re giving your mom enough credit. I’ve met her, she’s a great person. And she knows I’m gay.”

“But you’re not her son.”

Hank sighed, clapping his hand on Brad’s shoulder. “Just think about it, okay, man? I care about you, and I want to see you happy; and you’re a lot of things, but I don’t think as you’re happy, really happy, as you could be.”

Brad nodded. “Thanks, Hank. I know it’s just because you care.”

“You’re damn right.”

Hank moved over to the living room. “So, you want to play some Skyrim?”

“Eric didn’t come tonight?”

“He was too tired after work. Which is why I’m here. I get to spend an evening with my best friend.” Hank grinned, plopping down onto the couch and holding up a game controller. “C’mon.”

Brad smiled, getting up and joining him on the couch. “Alright.”

He set aside the issue of his mom for another day. He’d get around to dealing with it. Eventually.