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Authors: Jolene Betty Perry

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BOOK: After All
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When we finished, Brandt turned his music on for cleanup. The Steeple house was warm in a way that no place I’d ever been was warm. Warmth from smell, comfort and love. Marie and Trevor headed for the living room once the dishwasher was loaded, and I still held the aloe on my hand, afraid to move. Or using it as an excuse to once again be quiet and absorb my surroundings.

“Hey, Dad. Guitar?” Marie looked at him with a wide-eyed, smiling face I knew he wouldn’t say no to.

“Sure.” He glanced back at me. “You okay?”

“Yep, I’m good. Your
voodoo magic
is working wonders.”

He chuckled in response.

Brandt let the kids walk ahead and he waited for me to make the few steps to him.

“Let me see.” He took my arm carefully in his again. He leaned over in front of me, putting our faces so close that the warmth of his breath brushed against my cheek. He rested my hand in his and the nervous tingling was back in full force, blurring my thoughts and making me weak enough to lean against the cabinets. “It looks a little better.” When he looked up at me we were so close, it would have been so easy to move just slightly and feel our lips together. I craved it. I started to close my eyes as Brandt leaned in but paused.

"I find you very hard to read," I whispered as my eyes dropped to the floor between us.

"Maybe because my brain is moving in too many directions at once."

My eyes found his. "And what is your brain working so hard on?"

The pause was brief, but felt like an eternity as his dark eyes turned conflicted. "You.”

I breathed in again as I leaned closer, anticipating the moment his lips touched mine. The briefest touch of skin on skin sent a rush of heat through me, just enough to make me know I definitely wanted more.


Dad
!” Marie called from the other room.

Brandt was gone in a second, leaving me once again, breathless in his kitchen. What was that? And more importantly—how did I make it happen again?

* * *

His fingers moved so fast across the guitar strings that I couldn’t process, but the music felt mellow, slow. Not rushed or forced like I’d expect from the speed. Ree sprawled on a large chair glancing at me once in a while and then back at her dad… And then at me… Her smile widening each time. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that she was glad I was here. That made two of us.

I watched Brandt for any sign of our nearly-kiss. When our eyes finally did catch, there was nothing but friendship in his easy smile and my heart sank. I shouldn't have been looking for more than friendship around his kids I guessed, but I wanted
something
. At least nothing felt awkward. I had the same peaceful feeling I always got in his house, and I slid deeper into the warm, leather couch as Brandt’s fingering ended up in his version of
There Are Places I Remember.
I closed my eyes and pulled my green hoodie more tightly around me. This song was one of Josh’s favorites.

“This makes me miss Josh,” I mused out loud half forgetting I was in the company of people who never knew him. Music was the best memories I had of him. All my rock n’roll t-shirts were because of him in some way or another.

“A friend of yours?” Brandt asked as he started his next tune.

My chest weighted down because I knew there would be no explaining what Josh was to me.

“Something like that.”

I suddenly wished I hadn’t said anything. I tried to make a half smile but instead let myself relax. The house smelled like earthy spices as always and also a little like the dinner we’d just finished. I began to imagine this night as my normal, and not just theirs. It was a stupid thing to want, but I still did. The problem was that the reality was always so much less than the dream… Though, I was there, in their reality, and I felt more at home than I remembered feeling. At least not for a very long time.

It had been a hard week, and I let my eyes close as Brandt’s fingers continued smoothly across the strings of the guitar.

Eight

Brandt

 

 

Saturday morning, and Ashley was still asleep on my couch. I’d agonized last night whether or not to wake her up, but this morning, I was glad she was here. It felt like a big step of trust for her to fall asleep at my house, and the fact that she was still here was just a reminder of close we were all becoming. Though, the barely-kiss was a... Wow. It was a blatant reminder of what I'd been missing out on. And the idea that I could maybe have some of that with
her
...

And then, what did I do last night? Tried to play it off like nothing happened, and then she fell asleep before we got a chance to talk.

Her breathing was deep and even, and she’d curled up on her side, pulling the small down comforter around her like a cocoon, letting her dark hair spread out behind her. Her short bangs touched her perfect eyebrows, and I just kept staring in a way I wasn’t able to do when she was awake. She was beautiful. And I was officially creepy.

The desire to scoot in behind her on the couch and have my arms wrapped around her as she woke was almost overpowering. I imagined her taking my hands, and pulling my arms around her, bringing us together. Smiling as she laughed and asking me to put on some Lennon. Her smooth lips sliding over mine…

I felt fingertips on my shoulder, and jumped, my heart nearly leaping from my chest. I spun just in time to see Ree clasping her mouth to hold in her laugh.

“Dangit, Ree,” I whispered. “You have to stop sneaking up on me like that.”

“Sorry,” she whispered back.

Marie headed toward the dining room, and I followed, knowing she’d want to talk and trying to figure out how I was going to explain the fact that I’d been staring at Ashley.

“Hmm.” I sighed as I sat down, rubbing my forehead with my fingers until finally running a hand over my hair. I leaned back and slouched in the chair, waiting for Marie to jump in.

When our eyes met Ree’s smile filled her face.

“What?” I whispered, even though I knew she was on the same track as Trevor.

She opened her eyes wide and looked toward Ash asleep on our sofa.

I shook my head. “Don’t think it, Marie. Don’t think it. I know how you are when you get something into your head.”

“But—”

“No buts. She’s ten years younger than I am. She’s just starting a new career. No, she hasn’t
finished school
to start a career. The last thing she needs is to get involved with someone like me.”

My words cut deeper into me than I wanted them to, because they were all true. And I wasn’t sure what to do with the obvious answer of how I needed to leave her alone when that was the last thing I wanted to do.

“She puts up with Trevor and I okay.” Marie’s stubbornness was coming through in spades this morning.

“Ree…” I closed my eyes having no idea what to say.

“You like her Dad. Admit it.”

Honesty. “I’d be a moron not to like her. She’s smart, sweet, funny, pretty, and easy to be around. But that doesn’t mean that—”

“Nope.” Ree folded her arms. “That’s all I need from you.”

I opened my mouth to protest when Ashley rolled over.

“Morning!” Ree chirped loud enough to be heard across the space.

“Sorry.” Ashley jumped up and started rolling up the blanket.

“Don’t be.” I was frozen to the spot, watching her be so normal in my house. Wondering what it would be like to have a lot more moments in this house together. “It’s not a big deal.”

“It is for me. I never sleep in strange places.”

  I stood, and started messing around in the kitchen, moving around but accomplishing nothing. “I was just about to whip up some pancakes. Wanna stick around for breakfast?” I wanted her to stay. Wanted to find some time to talk the way I’d wanted to talk with her night before. Excuses to touch her. Check her hand. Feel her skin. Make another moment where our lips could touch.

I
was
turning into a teenage boy.

She finished folding up the blanket and set it on the couch—her eyes never coming close to meeting mine. “I think I’ve intruded enough. I’d better get back. I’m helping with my first trial next week. It’ll take me all weekend to put it together.”

My gut sank when I should have been relieved. I should have smiled at her differently, or made some kind of show that our barely kiss was okay. At least... I thought it was okay.

“Don’t worry.” Marie stepped forward. “I covered you up. I don’t want you to think my dad was watching you sleep like some sort of stalker or something.”

I coughed a few times to Marie’s obvious reference to where I was standing this morning.

“Okay.” Ashley looked from me and back to Marie, maybe confused. “Well, thanks for the couch.”

I half leapt into the room where she stood, knowing she was about to leave, and not ready for it. Not ready for her presence in our house to be gone.

“No problem.” I tried to put on a relaxed smile. “And maybe you’ll be able to stick around for pancakes next time.”

Ashley’s head snapped up to look at me. “Do you plan on serenading me to sleep on your couch again?”

I sucked in a breath. “Uh, no, I…”

“You’re off the hook, Brandt.” She smirked. How did she seem to be forever unaffected, when I felt like a bumbling idiot around her?

“Right.” I scratched the back of my neck just to give myself something to do.

“See you.” And just like that she disappeared.

I swung my arms to try and disperse some of the tension from being unable to breathe with her in my house—from the weight of anticipation pouring through me. “Ree?
Really
?”

She giggled. “Couldn’t help it, Dad.”

“Try.” I laced my fingers together and rested my hands on my head. “I need to run.”

* * *

Monday morning Ashley and I ran into each other again on our run, and then planned to run together on Tuesday, and this morning, Friday, had been the fifth day this week. We seemed to have fallen into a rhythm of friends. She didn't bring up the dinner and the kiss, and neither did I. Just like always, when I was away from her, all the ideas that she wasn't a good idea made perfect sense, and then every morning when she smiled at me as we met for our run, I forgot them again. But it didn't seem to matter because either she or I or both of us had done something to stick us firmly in friend territory.

I told her about the classes I taught and the therapy sessions I did, and she talked about her cases and how interesting it was to work with Donetta. That it was harder than she expected. We had some of the same “clients” and then we’d talk music and I could go on for hours once music was a topic. So could she.

And then, every morning, when we got back, I stopped at my house and she ran to hers… It was okay. It was… I didn’t know what it was. I knew I wanted something I felt like I couldn’t have, but I couldn’t stop wanting it, her, and I couldn’t seem to step away, even though I knew I should. Being friends with her should have been enough, but it wasn’t. The more I was around her, the more I wanted to be—selfish or not.

* * *

Gabby jogged up behind me on my way to lunch. I’d been disappearing out of the office every chance I got to avoid her. Pathetic, but effective.

“Can I join you?” she asked brightly as she rested a hand on my shoulder.

I stood and stared at her, and she was all wrong. Tried too hard with my kids. Pushed too hard with me. Her hair wasn’t dark and she didn’t have bangs. There was too much makeup on her face, and something just…lacking. There was nothing quiet or mysterious or subtle about Gabby. She’d all but propositioned me, and it’s just not what I wanted. What kind of moron was I that I went running every morning with a girl I couldn’t have? And that now, when faced with someone I could have, I was thinking about my running partner?

“You okay?” Her head cocked to the side.

I heard the distinctive whine of my brother’s Ferrari screech into the parking lot behind me. I’d never loved him more than in that moment. “Fine. Yes. But I have plans today.”

“Right.” She blinked a few times as Cooper’s car halted next to me, and I thought maybe, maybe something had finally gotten through.

I jumped into his car before he had time to give me an invite, gave Gabby a slight wave and said to him, “Get me out of here quick.”

Cooper cackled as he peeled out of the parking lot. “Just tell her you’re not interested you big schmuck.”

I slumped in the seat and ran a hand over my hair. “I don’t think that would work.”

“Then do her already. I bet with that kind of enthusiasm, she’d be great in the sac.” His brows wagged like the twelve-year-old he sometimes seemed to be.

I cringed, which was honestly the last straw needed for me to realize that I wasn’t doing either of us any favors by not telling her how I felt…or didn’t feel.

“Why are you here, Cooper?”

“Because normally I hear from you, and your kids haven’t been by, and you haven’t been by, and I wanted to harass you because I get bored during the day.”

BOOK: After All
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