Updated: Feb 5
Usually Mac prided himself on not eavesdropping on his roommate’s conversations, or anyone’s conversations. The first reason was that he knew it was rude to listen for words that someone did not intend for him to hear. The second reason was that he really didn’t care what other people talked about when he was not around. It didn’t keep him up at night wondering what other people thought of him. Well, most people. There were a few who made the shortlist, but there was really only one name and one person his thoughts revolved around, like moons held in a planetary orbit.
“Is Maggie okay?”
That was the sentence that tuned him in. He heard her name, two syllables, even over the water pouring into the glass in his hand, and all the other sounds faded out as he listened to whatever was coming next.
Why wouldn’t she be okay? She was beautiful and smart and wildly creative. Her heart overflowed with love for the people in her life. She didn’t let fear or anxiety hold her back from her dreams. She was dating her best friends older brother—the man he knew she’d loved her whole life—and if that knowledge made him feel like his insides were being cut into ribbons with shards of rusted metal…well, that was something he needed to deal with, not her. Because more than wanting to date her, to love her, to support her, Mac wanted Maggie to be happy.
So he shouldn’t eavesdrop—it was one thing to want Maggie to get everything her heart desired, and another thing to witness it—but he couldn’t stop himself from moving closer to the doorway and slowing his breathing to hear the other person’s response. If something had happened to Maggie, his heart would not start beating again until someone answered Audrey.
“She’s fine,” a familiar male spoke. “She was walking by the time I dropped her off, so I doubt it’s broken.”
“Broken?” Audrey asked, “What did you do? Push her off the mountain?”
“Of course not,” Dean said. “We got caught in the downpour and she tripped. Like I said, everything seems fine, but I thought you might still have those crutches from when you broke your foot.”
“You said she was fine.” Even from the kitchen, Mac could imagine Audrey crossing her arms over her chest and glaring at her brother, eyebrow raised in defiance. Dean might be older, but Audrey didn’t take any crap from anyone. Especially not from people she cared about. The jackass was definitely someone she cared about.
Okay, that wasn’t fair. Dean wasn’t actually a jackass. Mac actually liked the guy just fine. Until he’s shown up at the County Fair with his arm around Maggie’s waist. Not that the two instances were related. They weren’t.
“She is. It was just a small hike and a nasty wrench. I doubt it’s even sprained,” Dean soothed, “but she’s a nice girl and I thought this might help.”
“Let me check the basement,” Audrey said with an audible sigh, and Mac listened as her footsteps tapped out of the living room.
He wasn’t going out there. He wasn’t. Maggie was okay, and even if she wasn’t, he didn’t have any right to take care of her. It didn’t matter that he’d wanted those rights. It didn’t matter that he never would have taken her on a trek through the wilderness—a picnic, maybe, where she could sit in the warm sun. It didn’t matter that he wouldn’t have left her alone if she was hurt. She wanted to be with Dean. He needed to respect that. Tearing into his own goddamn living room to rip her boyfriend a new asshole was not considered respecting her relationship.
Mac set his glass down on the kitchen table and flexed his fingers to relieve the ache. He hadn’t realized how tightly he’d gripped the glass. He stepped sideways until he could see through the archway and into the living room. Dean had dropped onto the loveseat and was scrolling through his sleek, fancy phone. While only ten minutes away, his girlfriend was injured. Maggie was hurt.
He was in the living room before he realized he had moved. Dean glanced up from his couch with a twist of a smile and a nod.
“Hey man,” Dean said, eyes narrowing when Mac refused to respond. “What’s going on?”
Dean put his phone down on the couch and stretched his arms along the back. His muscles flexed under his tailored shirt as his smile slipped.
“Just came to check on my sister.”
Mac snorted and crossed his arms over his chest. “With Maggie,” he clarified.
“I thought you might have heard us,” Dean said. He stood up, stretching out to his full height. “Say what you want to say, man.”
Even with several feet between them, it was impossible to ignore how tall Dean was. He practically blotted out the overhead light, a behemoth with golden hair and piercing eyes and carved muscles. In contrast, Mac had a beard. He was compact. He wondered if Dean had carried Maggie in his arms after she’d hurt herself, or if he’d left her behind to get help. He wasn’t sure which scenario pissed him off more. Mac would have carried her.
“You let her get hurt,” He growled. Mac’s muscles might not have been gym-perfect, but pulling iron ore had some advantages. He was seventy-five percent sure he could take Dean on in an arm wrestle. And one hundred percent sure he could have carried Maggie wherever she needed to go. Like to a doctor. Or here, to his home. Where he could take care of her and she didn’t have to climb to the second floor just to get to her apartment.
“I didn’t let her do anything,” Dean said, frowning. “Maggie makes her own choices.”
And wasn’t that sentence loaded? Mac flinched as the words hit like buckshot.
“She doesn’t hike. She doesn’t run. You took her out of her element and she was injured on your watch.” Mac’s blood boiled in his veins at the thought. His nails were digging half-moon gouges into the skin of his biceps. “Did you even consider a date that was more her style? Did you think about her at all?”
Dean moved toward Mac and Mac had to tip his head back to look up at the taller man. There was a solid chance he was going to end up with a black eye, courtesy of his brother’s future brother-in-law.
“You say that like you know her,” Dean’s voice dripped with challenge. “Like you care about her. I’ve known Maggie for years. Don’t imply that I don’t care about her.”
Do you? Mac wanted to ask. The words right there on the tip of his tongue. Do you care about her? Do you love her? Do you measure your days by her laughter and heartbeats? Do you know which series she re-reads whenever she’s had a bad day? Do you know how fucking brave she is for going after what she wants, even when it terrifies her? Do you know how easily you could break her heart? Do you care?
“You have a funny way of showing it,” he said instead. Mac dropped his voice as Audrey knocked something over in the basement, her muffled cursing coming up the stairs in bits and pieces. He was probably crossing about ten different ethical boundaries here. Not that Mac cared, but it would be better without an audience. “Where were you when she and Shay were getting harassed at the store? Where were you when she was shivering at mini golf? When she fell on her ass at the fair? When she hurt herself cooking for you? Cooking food she doesn’t even eat?” The rage was slicking through his veins, oily and pungent and staining his thoughts and breaths. “Where the fuck were you when some creep put his hands on her?”
“Some guy did what?” Dean looked outraged, which was fair, Mac thought. Why should he be the only one boiling over at how careless this man was with a piece of Mac’s very heart?
“She looks at you with hearts in her eyes and you couldn’t even be bothered to answer her texts and pick her up.”
“Wait just a damn minute, Mac—”
But Mac wasn’t waiting another second. He’d been watching this man date the woman he loved for weeks now. Watched him do nothing to deserve her. During a rational moment, Mac could admit that Dean wasn’t a bad guy, but how dare he claim the right to be Maggie’s person when he couldn’t even notice that she was changing herself for him?
“Don’t tell me you care when you don’t even notice the tiniest details of her life. When maybe, just maybe, she wasn’t comfortable enough to tell you.”
Mac’s chest heaved. At some point he’d dropped his arms and his hands had balled into white-knuckled fists by his sides. His muscles shaking as he gulped in breath after breath. His head pounded and his mouth was dry, like he hadn’t had a sip of water in a week. Maybe he should sit down. Or leave the room. His ears rang, and he had the sneaking suspicion that he’d been yelling the whole time, despite not wanting Audrey to overhear anything he had to say. He was out of control and he’d snapped. Maggie liked Dean. Maggie was happy with Dean. He’d let his fear and his jealousy blind him to the fact that she wasn’t his to fight for.
“You said someone grabbed her,” Dean said, his posture deflating. “Was she—were you—” The taller man jammed his hands on his hips and sucked his lower lip into his mouth, worrying it with his teeth. The furrows between his eyebrows deepened as he dropped his chin to his chest and Mac felt the anger bleed out of him like someone had poked him full of tiny holes. Well, most of it.
“I was there,” he told Dean. “She took care of herself, but I was there. I brought her home.”
“Thank you,” Dean said. He stepped closer and closed a hand over Mac’s shoulder. “Seriously, thank you.”
Mac nodded and looked away. He didn’t want to make eye contact accidentally and have Dean read every one of his true feelings on his face.
“For what it’s worth,” Dean said, ducking his head to meet Mac’s gaze, anyway. “I do know that she’s important. I do care about her. I do love her.”
Mac’s stomach turned. He swallowed past the lump in his throat.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I shouldn’t have implied otherwise.”
God, that apology burned on the way out. His gram had raised him right, enough to know that saying sorry was necessary, even if he didn’t regret it. Dean needed a wake-up call.
“You care about her too,” Dean said and Mac’s body locked down frighteningly quick. He’d been here before. Accused of having feelings for someone else’s girl. Staring down someone bigger and angrier. Someone waiting for him to slip up and say the wrong thing. And yet… every other time this had happened, his response had been to deny, deny, deny. Even in high school, when Jessica had been the only person he could think about, he’d known better than to tell people. And when he had said something, look how that had turned out. He’d lost everything.
No. Maggie was everything. She wasn’t just the sun; she was the moon and all the stars as well. She was all six of the infinity stones. She was worth the truth, no matter how much it was going to hurt when Dean hit him.
“I do,” Mac said quietly, and then louder added, “a lot.”
Dean didn’t pull his fist back and drill it into Mac’s face. He didn’t shove against Mac’s chest, or snarl out his anger. He simply nodded.
“Do you know her?” He asked, head cocked to the side in a way Mac had seen Audrey do countless times.
Did he? He knew she told everyone yellow was her favorite color, but it was actually any shade of purple. He knew she said she preferred the 1995 version of Pride and Prejudice mini series because it was longer and more nuanced, but that her favorite scene was Mr. Darcy’s hand flex from the Keira Knightley film. He knew she could recite the beginning of Little Women by heart, but that she lied about reading Jane Eyre all the way to the end. That she was terrified of birds but still brought handfuls of oats to the park so that little kids had something safe to feed the ducks. He knew she scraped her bottom lip with her teeth when she was nervous or trying to figure out what to say.
She featured in every dream, every hope, every fantasy. Not some fuzzy idea of her. Maggie. The real woman.
“Yes,” Mac said to Dean. “I do.”
The taller man smiled. A wry twist of the corner of his mouth, but a smile just the same.
“Interesting,” Dean said, rocking back on his heels. “I’m not surprised you have feelings for her. Babs is a great girl. The question now is, what are you going to do about it?”
There was nothing he could do about any of this. Maggie had made her choice, and it wasn’t him. It was Dean. There was no fight to have. No war to wage. Not this time. Was there?
Footsteps sounded on the basement stair and Audrey pushed the door open. She swiped a strand of sweaty blonde hair out of her eyes and froze, eyeing the space between Mac and her brother.
“I didn’t find the crutches,” she said, “but I can go pick some up if she needs them.”
Dean shook his head. “She was walking just fine when I dropped her off, but I’ll check in on her again tomorrow.”
Audrey’s phone was in her hand before Dean finished talking, fingers feverishly typing.
“No need,” she said, glancing up. “I’m meeting her tomorrow. I can take her anything then.”
Mac looked between the siblings and frowned. What if Maggie needed something sooner? What if she needed help now? She didn’t even have bandaids in her damn apartment.
“She needs a first aid kit,” Mac said, and Audrey smiled at him.
“That’s very thoughtful, Mac.” She patted his forearm, which he wasn’t really a fan of, but it was okay because he had the perfect kit for her to take to Maggie. Pink. Travel-size. With an elastic bandage included. “So, what have you boys been chatting about?”
“Nothing,” Mac said at the same time Dean said, “Just figuring a few things out.”