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

9

“I just have one more question,” Brad said.

Preston tried not to groan.

He knew that Brad was just trying to help. In fact, he was surprised by how much Brad genuinely cared. He let Preston rant about his coworkers and the development of the town into a damn suburb. He talked with Preston about sports. And he always looked like he was genuinely listening when Preston talked about the important things.

Like his dad.

Preston had never wanted to be like his father. Dad was a rat bastard. And he’d worked hard not to let alcohol ruin his life, the way it had Dad’s.

But it looked like while he’d handled the alcohol part well, he hadn’t thought to handle the anger. Dad’s anger, he’d always thought, had been a product of drinking. Preston hadn’t really thought about the correlation between how he felt and how his dad had felt. But even without the beer, it looked like Preston had picked up on Dad’s way of dealing with life.

Yay.

Brad seemed optimistic, though. There was a determined gleam in his eyes, like this was a huge obstacle course, and he was going to help Preston get through it to the finish line.

Preston didn’t feel like he was a notch in Brad’s professional belt, so to speak. Another person that Brad could check off on a list as cured. He felt like Brad honestly was excited to see Preston succeed in life.

It was … pretty moving, actually. Nobody besides Luke and the rest of the gang had ever cared enough about him. Luke and the others had grown up with him; of course they cared.

But someone he’d only just met? Someone who was still kind of a stranger to him? Willingly learning about Preston, asking about him, caring about him and wanting to help him?

It was unexpected, and really nice.

So he didn’t groan and just listened.

“You said that you spent a lot of time in Joe’s growing up,” Brad said. “And it was a place where you felt safe. And you also didn’t have a good relationship with your dad, so coming home probably wasn’t fun. And you only seem to really get angry at the bar, and around strangers.

“This is just an idea I’m throwing out there, but could it be that you’re so angry because Joe’s feels like your safe place, and when other people—people who are strangers—come into it and cause problems, you feel like your safe place is threatened?”

Preston stared at him. Well, gaped at him was more accurate. That … that made a lot of sense.

He’d grown up at Joe’s, and he’d always thought of it fondly, with more nostalgia than he thought about any other place, including high school. He had a lot of good and important memories there. When he thought about the happy times in his childhood, he thought about the bar.

“You don’t get so upset anywhere else,” Brad went on gently, “because no place else has such importance to you, or feels as safe. And when you’re other places, like at the park playing football, you’re not interacting directly with strangers, either. You’re only with your friends, with people who make you feel safe.

“Anger is just a symptom. It’s what we do when we fear that something or someone is going to take what we care about. In this case, it seems like you’re afraid of someone invading what you consider your safe space. Especially someone who’s a stranger, someone you haven’t deemed a safe person.

“You see something similar in people who’ve suffered physical abuse—if a person they don’t know well tries to touch them, there can be an instinctive reaction to punch the person, or otherwise attack them. The person being touched usually doesn’t even have the time to consciously choose to attack the person—they just do it, automatically.

“Here’s where we see I’m no therapist, because a therapist wouldn’t tell you this, and would try to get you to figure it out yourself.” Brad shot him a gentle, fond smile. “But I’m not, so I get to actually tell you what I’m thinking.”

Preston found himself smiling back, both touched and amused.

“I think that you need to start addressing your relationship with your dad, and the fact that you’re more possessive of Joe’s than you thought. When we don’t feel happy in our lives, we create safe spaces for ourselves. But your safe space can’t be a place that’s public, because it’ll feel constantly invaded, and it sets you off.”

“Joe’s is the only place I really feel happy,” Preston admitted—something he’d never said out loud to anyone before. “I don’t even really care about my own home.”

“Then maybe you should take some steps to care about your home,” Brad suggested.

“But why? All the people I care about are at the bar.”

“True, but isn’t being away from people and having alone time just as important? Maybe you could start inviting friends over to your place for dinner, or offer to host poker night, or a viewing party for an important football game. Your safe space needs to be a place that you have control over. Otherwise, you’re going to feel constantly violated.

“When people get rowdy or annoying or insulting at the bar, it feels like they’re getting that way at you, specifically, at a place that’s sacred and special to you. And that’s not healthy for you, and not fair to them. So you’re going to have to create a new place for yourself, because clearly, this can’t continue the way it has been.”

Preston mulled that over in his head. “Do you really think that just talking about something can actually fix it?”

“The talk needs to be followed by action,” Brad said. “So, for example, we’re going to talk about your dad and how he handled things. That’s great, but it’s only half of the equation. You also need to act on it.

“So you need to start consciously thinking about your choices, and doing better than what your dad did. You need to employ your calming exercises when you feel that anger rising up in you.”

“I don’t know if I can,” Preston admitted, his voice thick. He hated saying that. He hated sounding vulnerable.

“It’s a habit,” Brad replied gently. “Like brushing your teeth. You just have to get into doing it regularly.

“Soon, it’ll be a reflex. Especially when you don’t have the reasons for the anger to be there in the first place. When you don’t have a big thing that’s bothering you under the surface, the little things don’t bother you as much.

“It’s like when you’re dating someone. You end up having big fights over little things, because you’re not really talking about a major issue.”

“I wouldn’t know,” Preston said. “I’ve never seriously dated anyone.”

Brad looked genuinely surprised. “But you’re…”

“A mess,” Preston said, although he felt a rush of heat at the idea of what Brad might have been about to say. “I can’t handle getting a drink with my friends, how could I handle dating someone?”

Brad looked upset at that. “You shouldn’t sell yourself so short,” he said. “You have such a low opinion of yourself, and I don’t think you even realize it. And that’s really not fair to you. You’re a good person, Preston.”

Preston was shocked to find that his eyes got warm and a little wet when Brad said that.

It was true, he realized. He didn’t think all that much of himself. And why should he?

He was working a dead-end job that he was somehow managing to keep after getting fired from all of his other dead-end jobs. He’d only barely graduated high school. The only thing he’d ever been naturally good at was picking fights. He wasn’t particularly charming, or driven, or any of the other things that his friends were.

Yet Brad seemed to think a lot of him. Despite what a shit person he’d been when they’d first met, Brad saw in Preston so much more than Preston saw in himself.

“Thanks,” he said quietly, hoping that by keeping his voice low it wouldn’t betray how overwhelmed he was feeling.

Brad smiled encouragingly at him. “Do you want to date someone?”

Preston could appreciate that Brad was shifting the conversation away from anything directly connected to Preston’s anger. That was pretty much how their sessions went. They’d talk about casual things, and then Brad would take an opportunity to move the discussion onto the topic of Preston’s anger and related issues, and then afterward keep them on lighter matters for the last bit of the session.

But Brad didn’t know that he’d touched a bit of a raw nerve. Preston’s dating life didn’t make him angry. Just … reminded him of how lonely he was compared to his friends. How much he wanted what they had.

“I just mean in the general sense,” Brad added, cheeks going pink. “I wasn’t asking if there was anyone specific.”

Preston smirked at him, amused by Brad’s backpedaling. Brad was cute like that. He’d be serious and calm and in control, and then suddenly he’d say something, and he’d start blushing and get awkward.

It was easy to imagine Brad when he was younger, being mostly awkward like that, both socially and physically, before he’d learned how to control his body and what he was thinking and turn it all into calmness and grace.

Preston cleared his throat. “I, uh, I would like to date someone. All my friends have paired off by now. Feels like I’m the only one left, y’know?

“I mean, I know I’m not the only one. There are plenty of single guys, gay and straight and otherwise, who are around. But I don’t really know any of them, and I don’t hang out with them.

“At first it was Jake and Matthew, and I mean, half the time they hardly even act like they’re a couple. They’re very low-key about it. Especially Jake. But then bam, Luke and Adam got together, and they’re the cutest fucking couple ever. They’re sort of like the parents of our group, I guess you could say. They wrangle the rest of us.

“And then it was just … everyone. Hell, even Ross started dating Adam’s paralegal, and none of us thought Ross was ever going to get with anyone. Not that he’s a massive player or anything, but he’s always sort of kept to himself, dating-wise, and after his mom died we all thought it would be forever before he opened up to someone.

“But now, even he’s got somebody. And I just… I don’t know what to do with that. We’re all really different personalities too, y’know? Travis and Davis are polar opposites. Luke was in the middle of a damn custody battle, and possibly getting foreclosed on, when he met Adam. Yet they’ve all somehow managed to find someone, and I’m just… left.”

Brad cocked his head at Preston. “Is it possible that you feel left behind? Not just in your dating life, but with careers and life in general? They’re all moving on, and you’re not, so all you have left is the bar, and once that’s gone, you feel you’ll have nothing?”

Preston pointed at him. “You really should be a therapist.”

“Hell no. Are you kidding? I’m struggling enough with this anger management thing; can you see me trying to help, like, couples going through counseling? I’d be awful; I’d just get impatient.”

Brad blushed and laughed self-deprecatingly as he said it, and Preston found himself smiling back, his chest warm.

And that was when he realized … oh, crap.

Just his luck.

Out of all the people that he could’ve possibly gotten a crush on. Out of all the people that he might have been attracted to … it just had to be the one person he couldn’t possibly have.

His anger management coach, who was still in the closet.

Well, fuck.