Title: Friends without Benefits
Author: Evelyn Fenn
Publisher: NineStar Press
Release Date: 03/21/2023
Heat Level: 1 – No Sex
Pairing: No Romance
Genre: Contemporary, ace, aro, non-binary, coming out, in the closet, over 40
Academic Clare is in a rut. She is in her forties, her job is stressful, and she feels worn down by the personalities and politics in the university department where she works. She has also just broken up with her latest boyfriend.
During one of their regular get-togethers, Clare’s oldest friend shows Clare a newspaper article, pushing her into an exploration of what it means to be asexual.
As Clare figures things out, she meets homoromantic couple, Tristan and Matt, nonbinary Ollie, student Jack, aromantic Janice, and Matt’s cousin, Natalia.
Follow Clare and her new friends through a series of misadventures as they road trip, take part in Pride, suffer a series of misunderstandings, and forge new relationships.
Friends without Benefits
Evelyn Fenn © 2023
All Rights Reserved
I bagged a table. U get the drinks LOL!!!!
Clare keyed a quick ok, pressed Send, and dropped her phone into her bag. No matter how much she liked Louisa and how much she usually enjoyed their Tuesday evening get-togethers, Clare wasn’t looking forward to tonight. Only three days before, Clare had broken up with her long-term, long-distance boyfriend, and Louisa was sure to want details.
Clare took a fortifying breath and jogged up the steps that led to the pub’s front door.
The Quill and Scholar, a favourite hangout of postgraduates and lecturers, buzzed with the after-work crowd. Although the pub appeared older than the university, it had opened less than thirty years before when it had capitalised on a fashion for bottled lagers. Since then, the Quill had moved with the times, catering for fashions for real ales and craft beers and, most recently, craft gins.
When she had been a student, Clare had eschewed the Quill’s designer labels in favour of happy hours, Boddington’s, and flavoured schnapps served in test tubes by the chain pubs a couple of hundred yards down the road. Although Clare had never developed a taste for bottled beer and she hated gin, she liked the Quill’s ambience and décor. Plus, nobody could go wrong with the house Chardonnay. Besides, these days, the kinds of places marketed to undergraduates made her feel old.
Clare loosened her scarf, shoved her hat and wrist warmers into her jacket’s pockets, and fought her way through the crowd towards the bar. The room was full of people, many of whom she knew by sight and some by name.
Mikey, an astrophysics postgraduate who moonlighted as a barman, greeted Clare, and said, “The usual?”
He sighed theatrically. “One of these days I’ll get you to branch out. Some of our botanicals are amazing.”
Clare nodded and, not meaning it, said, “One day. Not today.”
While she waited for her drinks, she waved at Sam, an occasional drinking buddy, who was in the throes of writing up her doctoral thesis.
Clare exchanged notes for drinks and change, and then, holding her glasses aloft, she set out to find Louisa.
Clare and Louisa had nothing in common beyond a host of shared memories from their undergraduate days and a friendship that had endured across the years. Clare’s dad had once described Louisa as having more neck than a giraffe. On another occasion, he’d said, “That lass has got more front than the esplanade at Blackpool!” Given that Louisa had, when eight and a half months pregnant, worn a white dress as she headed down the aisle for her second marriage, seeking a blessing in the church of a god she didn’t believe in, Clare supposed Dad might have had a point.
Clare had taken an excessively long time to realise that Dad had a crush on her best friend. Mum thought it was hilarious. She had tried to explain it more than once, but Clare still didn’t get it.
Even though he’d only met her a dozen times over the years, Dad often asked after Louisa. Clare would say that she was fine, and Mum would laugh, kiss the top of Dad’s balding head, and say, “You can dream so long as you don’t trade me in for a younger model or buy a motorcycle!” Then Dad would colour slightly and answer that he was only being polite and that he wanted to spend the rest of his life with the mother of his children.
Clare slalomed her way through the crowd and up the wide, wooden staircase that led to the first floor, where the rooms of the converted Victorian villa were smaller, quieter, and cosier. Her favourite, a former bedroom with a large bay window that offered good views along the busy street and thus afforded great opportunities for people watching, was at the front of the building.
Today, Louisa hadn’t been able to bag seats at the window and, instead, had parked herself at a table pressed against a wall, where she was now frantically working the screen of her smartphone.
In her business suit and heavy bling, her overcoat and accessories neatly arranged on a neighbouring chair, Louisa stuck out like a gemstone among pebbles. She had allowed her knee-length skirt to ride up slightly, thus emphasising her long, slender legs, and revealing kneecaps along with a hint of thigh. Thanks to genetics, a lot of self-discipline, soft lighting, and hair dye, Louisa passed for a good decade younger than her forty-and-a-few years. Louisa also dyed her eyebrows and eyelashes; Clare hadn’t known people did such things until they’d shared a flat in their second year at uni.
Even this late in the day, Louisa’s makeup appeared flawless. She wore matching vermillion lipstick and nail polish, the latter almost certainly the result of a mani-pedi, and her eye shadow and eyeliner looked as though they had been applied by a draughtsman.
Clare slid Louisa’s usual in front of her. Louisa glanced up and gave her the barest of acknowledgements as she continued working her phone.
The immaculate nail polish glittered with reflected light as she finished typing and sent a message. “There. Done. I’m all yours.”
“Oh, yes.” Louisa brushed Clare’s concern away. “Just a teensy crisis at work. All sorted now.”
Knowing Louisa and the general nature of her job, Clare was certain that, whatever the crisis had been, there would have been nothing teensy about it. Only major crises got escalated as far as Louisa, who had always been able to make light of the most catastrophic emergencies. Clare envied her insouciant self-confidence.
There was a pattern to their evenings together. Glass one would carry them through an exchange of war stories and a sympathetic hearing of each other’s colleague-related character assassinations. Sometime during drink two, having got all their work angst out of their systems, they would move onto subjects of greater mutual interest. Glass three was when they got to the difficult topics, the ones that laid souls bare. Today was going to be at least a three-glass evening. They wouldn’t get to—let alone through—the interrogation otherwise.
Sure enough, when there was barely an eighth of an inch of liquid at the bottom of Clare’s second glass, and Clare’s perception was blurring around the edges, Louisa asked, “How were the in-laws?”
“You know. Gavin’s parents. The people you went to visit at the weekend? The parents of your SO?”
SO. Significant other.
“My insignificant other, you mean,” said Clare, doing her best to copy Louisa’s style of banter. “We split up.”
There was something in the way Louisa said, “Oh,” that made Clare bristle. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Well. You and Gavin. You’ve always struck me as a couple more in word than deed.” Clare tried to hide her shock at Louisa’s astute observation by gulping the dregs of her drink. “Did you even do it with Gavin? Ever?”
Clare’s silence spoke volumes.
“What was wrong with him?”
“With…him?” Clare asked. “You tell me. You set us up.”
“I don’t know him that well. So, tell me. What’s wrong with him?”
“Nothing, as far as I know. We went out a few times. We didn’t click.” She stood up. “I’ll get the next round.” If they were going to have this conversation, she was going to need that third glass, and maybe another after that.
Meet the Author
I lived in five different cities, spanning two continents, before leaving crowds and commuting behind and settling somewhere that official statistics describe as “Very Remote Rural”.
I have made up stories for as long as I can remember, and I have been writing them down for almost as long. I cut my creative writing teeth on fan fiction in the days of paper fanzines and, later, online. I had fun but eventually grew tired of playing in other people’s sandpits. Turns out, it’s more fun to create sandpits of my own.
I have worked in the public, private, and voluntary sectors, with roles ranging from number crunching and lecturing to mucking out cowsheds and toilet cleaning. I currently hold down a day job while daydreaming of writing full time. Find Evelyn on Twitter.
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