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Authors: Jolene Betty Perry

After All (5 page)

BOOK: After All
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“See ya,” I called down.

“I hate it when Dad goes out.” Marie slumped when we hit the dark living room.

My heart jumped. “Does it happen often?” I shouldn’t be curious but I couldn’t help it. Not after the twinges of jealousy that crept in when he left.

“Almost never.” Marie shook her head. “He dated one lady not long after Mom, well, Jessica, left but that’s pretty much it. I don’t think she was good for him.” Marie looked at me with a smug smile, like she had information that she probably shouldn’t have.

“Oh.” There was no point in poking around in my neighbor’s life. “Well, I’m off.”

The front door opened just as I was about to grab the handle. “Ugh.” Brandt said. “Next time someone from work wants me to go out with them, make me tell them no, please?” He didn’t even pause as he walked past us and slouched down on the couch.

“Bad was it?” I laughed a little as Marie and I exchanged glances. I should not have been so relieved at the news.

Older.

Kids.

Busy.

And probably not interested
.

I’d have to repeat those things often if I was going to maintain my sanity around him.

“Doesn’t even come close.” Brandt’s eyes closed. He didn’t move as he continued to talk. “She apparently used to dance, like in middle school and knew all the steps and was analyzing the whole thing. I might have been able to enjoy the talent, even though the ballet isn’t totally my thing, but ugh…”

“Sorry,” I said. “ Gabby’s pretty, though.” I tried to be nice.

“Gabby all dressed up doesn’t hold a candle to you.” His voice and body were so relaxed. He hadn’t moved from his slumped position.

I stopped breathing because even though a couple hours ago I wanted him to notice me, it felt like a lot. She was stunning.

“What?” His head came up a little, and he opened his eyes.

Marie and I both stared.

Now I was feeling pathetic and confused. “I should go.”

“Hey, Ash.” Brandt smiled. “I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable. I'm sorry if I did.” He stopped and looked briefly away before looking at me again.

My cheeks were hot, and my reaction should not have been so drastic. “Good night.”  I turned to Marie. “Thanks for watching my movie with me.”

“Thank you.” Marie gave me a hug before I went for the door.

“Hey, Ash?” Brandt was slowly pulling off his bow tie, still slumped on the couch. “Really. I'm sorry.”

“Right. It’s fine. Totally okay.” Way too late to save me from being uncomfortable. I waved and walked out the door.

That was bizarre. How could he sit there so relaxed and give me one of the best compliments of my life? I was flattered and confused. Did you tell someone you thought they were beautiful with only friendship in mind? Did you
have
to have something more? Was that just something a nice guy would say to a friend? I just felt like an idiot about it all. And that was made worse by the fact that I didn’t think I should have felt like an idiot. I probably shouldn't have run away.

* * *

A flash of blond flew out of the house next door.

Trevor stopped when he saw me. “Ash! You’re home!”

“Early.” I shrugged glad to see him because it beat thinking about another day with another stack of cases that broke my heart.

“I’ve got a basketball game at the high school! You should come! Just around the corner!” He held up his shoes. “Coach is gonna kill my ass because I forgot my shoes!” And he took off at a run.

“Language!” I yelled after him. I was smiling. A real, feel good smile after my day, and it was amazing.

And huh. Trevor’s game. Might be fun.

But what if Brandt was there? What did I say after his compliment the other night? Did I
not
go because of Brandt? Or
do
go because of Brandt? The warmth of his smile, and the perfect dimple in his left cheek, and his floppy hair… It was stupid to like someone so much that I barely knew. I dashed up the front steps, hoping Amy and Kenneth were home, and needing help.

“What’s with you?” Amy laughed as I burst through the front door.

“Trevor invited me to his game.”

“That’s so cute. You should go.” Amy pulled the wrapper off her Snickers bar, making me realize how starving I was.

“But after the other night and what Brandt said about me... And what if Trevor gets some weird idea that I like his dad? Or Marie? I don’t know if she’ll be there. Or what if I’m just totally intruding on what should be a family thing? And if Brandt does come, will he think I’m just trying to weasel my way in with him like that woman he took out the other night? I mean, I want to spend time with him, but I don't want to be pushy, and it's just...” The thought of Brandt ever saying “Ugh” about doing something with me sent a sharp pain through my gut.

I didn’t hear Amy’s laughter until she was standing right in front of me. She held out her bar. “Bite.”

I leaned forward and took a large bite, closed my eyes, and enjoyed the sugary sweetness.

“Trevor asked you to his game.” She rested a hand on either of my shoulders.

“Yes.” I stared into her serious blue eyes as I swallowed.

“You want to go?” She cocked a thin brow.

“Might be fun.” I kept chewing, letting the chocolate and peanuts and caramel swirl around in my mouth.

“Stop thinking so much and just go. If anything feels weird, tell him you need to take off. Why do you have to make everything so complicated?” She shoved the last of her Snickers in her mouth.

“Okay.” I pushed out a breath as I swallowed the last bit of my bite, nerves still in full force. “Okay. You’re right. He invited me. I’d like to watch him play. Might be fun to see Brandt again. This is no big deal.”

“No big deal,” Amy agreed, but I could tell by her smirk she was loving my freak out.

“Okay. No big deal…”

 

Six

Brandt

 

Trevor had another comp team basketball game and it was pretty much the perfect distraction to the disaster I’d made of my life.

I ran over the conversation with Ashley a million times, and my only conclusion was that I was so glad to see her after spending the night with Gabby that I made a total ass out of myself. I was sure that Ashley had run home screaming about the nutcase next door. Or I was totally overreacting to a random compliment that somehow made Ashley uncomfortable. At least I knew where she stood with me, and it was not a situation I should even think about moving forward in. Which I realized was a lot easier when I wasn't next to Ashley than when I was.

To make matters worse, Gabby had stepped it up a notch, inviting herself into my office for lunch, which is when I normally made notes on the morning session and did the few administrative things that had been dumped on me.

Our date was a week ago, and I wasn’t sure how much longer I’d be able to put her off… Or how much longer I’d be able to put off the conversation where I had to tell her—
I don’t think I’ll ever be interested in you that way
. I dreaded going to work the day after that conversation happened. As soon as I stepped into the gym, I scanned the bleachers for Marie, who I found right away…next to Ashley.

So much for avoiding possibly disastrous situations.

A strap of her black and white striped top poked out from underneath Trevor’s large hoodie, and my eyes were drawn across her collarbone. For the briefest second, I imagined what it would be like to be the guy who could run his fingers along the straps of her shirt. To slide it off her shoulders. To kiss her…

I swallowed hard, pulling my nerves back into control. My mouth dried out as I made my way up the bleachers still unsure how big an ass I was after the other night. And once again, when faced with her, all my reservations about age and kids and me not being ready for a relationship sort of flew out the window.

“Trevor invited me,” she blurted as I sat, keeping Marie between us. Ashley would probably want the distance.

“I’m sort of amazed you’re willing to sit through this and you probably made his week, so thank you.” Gratitude flooded me as it the obvious hit me—she wasn’t here for me. She came for Trevor. I glanced again at the straps of her top and the soft skin it exposed.

“Trevor hooked me up with some team gear.” She turned in her seat and leaned in front of Marie to show me Trevor’s team hoodie but I couldn’t see past her.

“Did you smell it before you put it on?” I laughed amazed at how normal I sounded.

“He promised it was clean.” Ashley smiled and seemed relaxed, and I wondered how much time I’d spend watching Trevor versus her. Any weirdness I’d worried about having with her, wasn’t there. Just my own nerves coming into play.

“So, how’s our boy doing?” I asked, realizing too late that saying ‘our boy’ was not my smartest move.

“Great.” She shrugged as she looked out at the gym. “He’s really good. Comp teams this time of year, right?”

“Yep. He’ll play on any team that’ll have him.” Money was tight though, and at some point I’d have to make Trevor pick a sport because gear for baseball, basketball, football, soccer, track… It all got expensive.

Marie pulled out her phone and typed into it a few times with a smile. My gut sank. Alex. I knew it wasn’t healthy to hate a person, but…

“Okay.” Marie stood up, taking away my buffer between Ashley and me. “Dad, can I have some money for snacks?”

“Where’s your allowance, Marie?” I sighed. It was supposed to teach her responsibility, but instead she generally used it up within the first two days. Sometimes sooner.


Please
, Dad?” She held out her hand with her pathetic puppy dog look, and I knew I didn’t have it in me to argue.

I reached into my pockets. “I have eight bucks, that’s it, and I want a Root beer.”

“Thanks.” She turned to Ashley, once again looking pleased with herself. “What do you want?”

Ashley held her hands up. “You don’t have to—”

“What do you want, Ash?” she asked again, her eyes a little wider that time with the teen impatience coming out.

“Same as your Dad, I guess.”

“I’ll be right back.” Marie trotted down the steps leaving Ashley and I alone in the stands. Not
alone,
but alone.

“It was really good of you to come.” I scooted over so we were sitting next to one another, and second-guessed that decision the moment I stopped. Was I going to be her Gabby? The thought turned my stomach.

After my brief conversation with Marie and Trevor about dating the other day, I guessed that if I sat too close to Ashley, it would be all they talked about for the next few days. And I was well aware that I was giving way too much thought into…whatever this was.

Ashley breathed in next to me, and I wondered why. She’d done the same thing at my house countless times, and I wanted to know if it was part of a memory, or if I smelled weird, or what it meant for her…

“It’s a nice distraction from my day,” she answered so late that it took me a moment to remember what I’d asked.

“Yeah, Trevor amazes me. I don’t know where he got it from.” It felt like a good invitation to watch Trevor instead of over-analyzing everything Ashley did.

“You’re athletic." She grabbed my bicep and I barely resisted the urge to flex. Mostly. 

“I run. There’s a big difference.” I watched Trevor take the ball from the opposing team, run it down the court, and score an easy layup. Even with his gangly limbs, his body awareness was astounding.

“Maybe.” Ashley’s eyes were on the game, and I was beginning to wonder what had happened to Marie.

“I think he handles his mom being gone a lot better than Ree.” I leaned forward, elbows resting on my knees. There was no way I was getting into the whole horrible story, but with Marie’s attitude people often got the wrong idea.

“Or he just hides the loss of her better,” Ashley said slowly. She spoke slowly enough that I knew she was probably curious.

“Could also be true.” I nodded slightly, and something I kind of knew, but didn’t love to think about. Trevor was my easy one. Marie was the one who kept me up at night. The idea that Trevor needed just as much from me, but didn’t know how to ask, was exhausting. And that exhaustion filled me with almost as much guilt as them losing their mother. They were my kids. I should never get tired of making sure their life was good. As good as I could make it.

“Marie said she’s been gone a long time.” Ashley stared at her lap, maybe realizing how personal she’d gotten.

As I thought about all the things that might have come up with Marie’s attitude, well, and just the whole situation, I began to panic about what had been said. “What else did Marie say?”

“That she worries about her never and thinks about her less, or something to that effect.” Ashley shrugged, and I watched her for a moment longer to see if there was anything else.

I pulled in a deep breath. “Yeah, it’s not easy for them to have a mom who isn’t around at all. They haven’t gotten so much as a card from her. And there’s not a thing I can do about it.” And it killed me every day.

“Sorry,” she mumbled.

Everyone was sorry, except for the woman who should have been.

Ashley leaned her head over onto my shoulder and now it was me who was breathing in—a faint smell of something both fruity and spicy. My eyes ran over her strong legs, and I itched to take one of her hands in mine. Just to see. As quickly as her head rested on me, it jerked away, and I felt the loss as if she’d been resting there for an hour.

Our eyes locked, and I wished everyone else away. I wished for it to feel okay to ask her out. To know if I was too old. If my family was too much. And again, the answer was in the question. Of course she was too young, and of course it was too much. And of course I was too old. It didn’t change the fact that I wanted a chance.

“I’m ba-ack!” Marie held a tray of drinks, and her interruption allowed my heart to keep working.

She’d probably saved me from an embarrassing moment, question, or both. I carefully watched the rest of the game, doing my best to avoid any direct eye contact with Ashley.  Because I needed to leave her alone.

“Dad!” Trevor waved as the crowd started to disperse at the end of the game. An easy win for his team, but always entertaining.

“Good job!” I stood up and stepped down the bleachers toward Trevor.

“I got Ashley here.” He wagged his brows a few times as I stepped next to him.

I sighed. “Trevor…”

“See you after I shower.” He slapped my shoulder and gave Ashley a wave on his way to the locker room.

When I glanced up at Ashley, her eyes were unfocused as she stared across the gym and I made my way back toward her even though I knew better.

Alex waved from the side of the gym with that smug dentist’s kid smile, and Marie pushed around me.

I opened my mouth to speak, but she beat me to it. “We’ll be in the school, and five minutes. I know.”

“Fine.”

Ashley still looked lost when I sat next to her. “You’re a world away up here.”

“Yeah.” She leaned back until she was resting on the seat behind us.

“Care to share?”

“I was just thinking about how different your kids’ school life is than mine was.” Her smile was more thoughtful than anything else. “I mean, this isn’t even a school event, but it all feels so good, and… I don’t know what I’m trying to say.”

“A trouble-maker, were you?” I teased, realizing her high school wasn’t all that long ago. That she was closer to my kids’ age than my own. That I was maybe turning into one of those creepy guys who drives teenage cars and wears bad toupees with fake tans. Was I old enough to be that guy? I wasn’t sure if trying to date Ashley was worth the risk.

“No.” She smirked. “I was too crafty to get caught, but I’m still amazed once in a while that I made it out of there.”

“There, where?” I asked suddenly curious about her past, and not wanting our time near each other to be over.

“Oh,” She paused. “Just Vegas.” Then stood abruptly enough that I knew she was avoiding. “I should go.”

I opened my mouth to ask if I’d offended her, but what even was this? It definitely wasn’t like when Carson came to watch the games, but it didn’t feel like a date either—not when she’d come for Trevor instead of me.

This was all happening backward. I figured that if I met someone I was interested in, we’d spend a lot of time together before bringing the kids into it. But here… It was like she was closer with them than to me, and maybe that’s how it should be. Maybe by living next door and enjoying their company, she’d be a part of our lives…just maybe not as much a part of mine.

Trevor grabbed Ashley in a hug when she hit the bottom of the bleachers. He’d made it out of the lockers in record time, and I had no doubt Ashley had something to do with that. “It was really cool of you to come.”

“Thanks.” She gave him a mock punch to the chest. “You were pretty awesome. Want your sweatshirt back?”

“Nah.” He shook his head. “You can bring it next time you come for dinner. Maybe in a few days?”

Trevor glanced up at me just long enough that I knew he was pushing this—it was such a Marie thing to do.

Oh, no. Where were Ree and Alex? I jogged down the bleachers trying to figure out the most likely place he dragged her off to so he could stick his tongue in her mouth. Or worse… I wasn’t ready to be dealing with this.

“You can’t invite me to your house, Trevor. Not without talking to your dad.” Ashley glanced my way with enough of a smile to stop me for a moment.

I touched Ashley’s shoulder on my way around her to find Marie. “We’d love to have your for dinner.”

Where was my daughter?

“Ash!” Marie called as she ran toward us—thankfully no Alex in tow. “Can I ride with you? Trevor’s always smelly after a game.” She wrinkled up her nose.

“No, Marie…” I started.

“It’s fine,” she said. “We’re headed to the same place. And it can’t possibly take more than three minutes to get there.”

I braced myself for the protests I knew would come. “I walked."


Dad
.” Trevor’s voice had the same exasperated tone that Marie had down so well.

Ashley raised a brow and looked at each of us in turn. “I’ll give everyone a ride home as long as no one makes fun of my car.”

“The old focus is a classic.” I held in my smile. Terribly.

She slugged me lightly on the arm. “Be nice or you’ll be walking.”

And a gesture that should have been friendly, made me want more. Made me feel like I did when I was sixteen.

Marie’s age.

And that stopped me from saying anything in return.

In what felt like seconds we were in her car, and Trevor was giving us a play by play of the game we just watched. Then we were parked and climbing out, and I still didn’t know how to make sure Ashley feel okay about coming to dinner.

BOOK: After All
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