It was funny how he got lost every time he tried to find Jackie and Ian’s new home. It never ceased to elude him. Was he supposed to turn down Dolby St., or was it Hanover? They were so close together and he never could remember because everything in the fucking suburbs looked exactly alike. So, he chose one and then fifteen minutes later sighed. Fuck, it was Dolby. Then he had to circle back around the entire township, just to make it back to the right street, because her house was in the middle of a cul-de-sac, in the middle of said suburbs.
Like the center of a fucking labyrinth.
Part of him missed the days when going over to Jackie and Ian’s meant driving over to that old two-bedroom apartment he’d shared with them for a little while. It reminded him of college, when they would all hang out. Just Nuke, Ian, Jackie and him drinking into the wee hours of the night and laughing about life, talking about nothing and everything. He missed those times. It was just one of the many things he missed that had faded away into bittersweet memory.
He sighed and smiled as he finally found the right street and turned into the cul-de-sac. He parked on the curb in front of their house so he wouldn’t take up room in their driveway. He could see Ian playing with Preston in the front yard. He was swinging him around in a circle while the little guy squealed and kicked his legs out. Jackie was sitting on the front porch, laughing at the way Preston did a dizzy side step when Ian set him down, just before he toppled over in a diaper clad heap.
It hit him like a punch in the gut. The last time he’d seen such a happy little familial sight was when he took Nic to visit his parents just before he went on tour. His sister had been standing on the porch, his nephew Casey on her hip while she kissed his brother-in-law goodbye.
He sat still for a moment, leaning his head back against the headrest briefly before waving to Ian and Jackie while he turned off the car.
Sometimes it was like torture. Sometimes never knowing when the remembrances would come — bittersweet and filled with regret — was what bothered him the most. He supposed on this particular occasion it was to be expected. This was the first time in a while he’d seen the past in the flesh.
Unbuckle your seatbelt. Get out of the car. Remember, you’re over this. And she’s not here anyway.
To confirm it, he checked the street as he got out and slammed the door. Her new car, which she’d gotten to make the trips out here to visit Jackie and Ian, wasn’t there and neither was her boyfriend’s motorcycle. An involuntary sneer curled his lip, but he didn’t realize it was there. So what? Her new guy had a bike. Big whoop. He had a number one album. He sighed internally at the spike of residual jealousy that hit him. This wasn’t a competition. And if it were, Travis would have won no matter how much money Gabriel was making, or how many albums he’d sold. After all, wasn’t he the one who’d ended up with Nicole?
Jackie’s smile broadened as he drew closer, but she didn’t get up from her seat. Gabriel found himself smiling at her blatant but secret power trip, his hands tucked into the pockets of his jeans as he strode forward. He was coming up on the sidewalk by the mailbox to their house, and though Ian was surprised at his appearance, she obviously was not. She’d expected him after all, and she took a sip of her lemonade to hide her smile at Ian’s shock.
“What’s up, man?! What the hell are you doing here?” Ian lifted Preston up into his arms, a broad grin on his face as his longtime friend approached. He shifted his little boy to the side so he could bring Gabe into a brisk but warm embrace.
“Had a feeling if I didn’t show my face soon, someone was gonna hunt me down and break my fingers.” Gabriel smirked over Ian’s shoulder, to which Jackie raised a warning eyebrow. “And how you doing little guy, huh? How are you?”
Preston smiled a big, toothless grin, dark eyes sparkling as he studied Gabriel’s face and grabbed his upturned nose. Gabriel laughed, reaching out for Preston’s nose, which only made him giggle and say, “Pa-pa! Gra-buh!” followed by something else in excited gibberish that he was trying to get his father to understand. He reached for Ian’s nose, then Gabriel’s again, before laughing and grabbing his own. Gabriel loved kids because of stuff like this. So easy to please.
Gabriel righted himself, laughing at Preston’s melodic squeaking noises and coos before saying, “It’s real good to see you, dude. How you been holding up?”
“Good, good,” Ian said. He looked a little older and yet happier. “Can’t complain. Got promoted at work, and sometimes Jackie lets me leave the house while she plans my total domination.”
“I mean our wedding, baby, the happiest day of my life.”
Gabriel cracked an invisible whip, to which Jackie said, “I heard that,” as she got to her feet.
He froze in his tracks at the familiar voice, as did Jackie when she followed his startled gaze behind her to where Nicole came out of the screen door.
Just for an instant as the door slammed, she didn’t see him. One second in time where he could see her the way she was now without shock marring her pretty face. It was a strangely timed moment. He’d been hidden behind Ian just as she was coming outside. She was so distracted by Jackie’s exclamation that she didn’t notice him until a moment later. But in that instant of unadulterated movement, when she wasn’t stiff with recognition of him, she looked…
It was like the wind was whooshed out of him, and he was left silently praying for more air. She was in a simple gray t-shirt, dark blue shorts showcasing those long, creamy legs, a glass of lemonade in one delicate little hand. She was barefoot, her shorter hair parted down the middle and thrust behind her ears. So simple was the picture she presented, and yet he couldn’t take his eyes off her. He could barely muster up the impetus to do anything but stare, even though his mind was screaming at him to move, to speak.
Dark eyes found his. Locked on his. Widened. What was in them he couldn’t quite measure. A dollop of anguish, a teaspoon of anger.
A pinch of happiness.
A handful of lust.
He wondered if his eyes were half as revealing, if they were saying what he was thinking after being caught with his heart unshielded from the sight of her.
God, I miss you, sweetheart… miss you so fucking much…
She was still as a statue, full lips slightly parted. The first thing she seemed able to do with any semblance of cognition was quirk her lips upwards into the beginnings of a smile. Then her lips slammed shut. She blinked, swallowed, took a shaky step forward.
And tripped on the first step of the porch, a nasty, awkward trip that made her slip and grab the railing. A trip that splashed the glass of lemonade she was holding all down Jackie’s treacherous back. Yeah, treacherous was the perfect word for this run-in with the past. In an instant the sound of glass crashing and splintering accompanied a shrill high pitched, “Shit!” followed by Jackie’s shocked form shaking out one arm while gripping her own spilled lemonade. She spun her gaze to her younger sister and Gabe knew what Nicole was witnessing.
Fire. Brimstone. Death in a tiny package otherwise known as her older sister.
“Oh my God, Jackie, I’m so sorry—”
“Ah, ah! Stay there, dummy!” Jackie yelled to which Nicole halted movement like a bloodhound on the scent; one foot was in midair, the other wobbling as she tried to gain balance. “You’re barefoot and I don’t want you cutting yourself.”
He could see her swallow. Jackie said something about getting a towel.
“I can get you a towel,” Nicole offered, which Jackie laughed off dismissively.
“Say ‘hi’ to Gabriel. I’m gonna go change.” Jackie said. Then, to Ian, “Baby, get a broom and dust pan for me, would you?”
“But…” he gestured to Preston. It would be quite a feat to sweep up glass while toting a one year old around, and it would make more sense for her to just get it herself, or let Nicole get it.
Jackie chose to ignore this logic in favor of blatantly staging a reunion. “It’s cool, I’ll take Preston while you go sweep this up.” Of course that’s not all that passed between the two. They must have thought Gabriel was blind as they proceeded to have a private conversation with their eyes and subtle gestures. It bordered on telepathy.
Nicole laughed and lifted her shoulders in a helpless shrug for Gabriel’s sake, probably noticing the same thing. He watched as Jackie grabbed Preston and Ian hopped the railing of the porch steps so he didn’t track glass into the house.
A moment of painful silence passed between them. Gabriel cleared his throat. Nicole nibbled her bottom lip.
“Some things never change, huh?” she joked using a sweeping gesture to point out her broken handiwork all over the bottom step.
Gabriel laughed, thankful for the burst of levity that cut into the pounding in his chest. He maneuvered carefully around the broken glass that kept her stranded on the second to last step. Broken pieces, a metaphor for everything between them, glittering in the noonday sun. He looked down at the shards before them, then up at her as he approached the same railing that Ian had jumped. She gave him a smile that matched his sheepish half-grin perfectly.
“Can I get a hug now?” he asked softly. His voice quavered and he had to will his hands not to shake.
She nodded and leaned over the railing to embrace him. The look in her eyes when he grasped her waist instead and lifted her in the air did familiar and powerful things to his body. Her fingers dug into his forearms; her eyes searched his. He watched her tongue swipe across her lips, eyed the creamy smoothness of her legs as she tucked them into her chest. He brought her easily up and over the obstacle separating them, and the closer she came the more he felt transported back to the way things were.
Her hands were shaking, her slick palms sliding against his forearms. He set her down gently on the grass in front of him, his fingers sliding around until they rested lightly on her back. She brought her arms up to rest on his shoulders. Her fingers caught on the fabric of his shirt; he could almost feel the softness of her skin under the flimsy, worn cotton of her t-shirt. Everywhere their bodies connected he felt heat. When he finally wrapped his arms around her it was like drowning, sinking into the past.
A flash of her fingers on his skin, her nails digging in as she sighed against his neck just before her lips found his. The sound of her moan. The sound of her laugh. Soft skin, gentle kisses. The way it felt to be trusted, needed, and wanted. How safe and scared he felt being loved by her.
He could almost feel himself back there, falling asleep with her fingers woven into his, the life lines and love lines on their palms flirting with forever.
He was being battered by a phantom, a ghost of what used to be that he couldn’t fight or cage. How could he when it was in the very ether surrounding them? He looked away from her eyes, knelt down a bit to keep his hips away from hers. But her breasts still felt like a firebrand against his chest. Her breath against his neck still did things to him, things he’d convinced himself she couldn’t do anymore when distance made it easy to deceive himself.
And her hair. It was shorter now, but still soft, still the sweet scent of lilacs that made his eyes close over unshed tears as he suppressed a moan of pleasure.
The embrace was so comfortable, but it hurt, too. As soon as he touched her, as soon as he felt her body against his, he knew she was right. And he knew he was so very wrong.
Some things never did change.
Then the moment was gone, if only because Ian had mercifully ventured outside to sweep up the glass and announced his presence by loudly clearing his throat. Gabe lifted his head, watched her look at Ian over her shoulder with a chuckle. Then she turned back to him and rolled her eyes. He gave her an answering smile he hoped said something like, This isn’t breaking my heart at all. When she released his shoulders and stepped back a bit, his hands lingered for a second before falling away from the curve of her hips. Distance again. A blessing and a curse.
“How ya been, babe?” she whispered. He saw the second she realized what she’d said. That old endearment stung like a whip and it was probably written all over his face how much he missed hearing it.
“Great!” He stuffed his fists back in his jeans pockets. “Really great. How about you?”
She shrugged a shoulder and gave him a crooked grin. “Well, I’m a published author now. Or, at least I will be once the book gets out there on shelves. Got some good reviews coming in though.”
The excitement on her face was infectious. He found himself smiling so hard his cheeks hurt. “Yeah, I know. Jackie told me and I told her I want the first copy. I knew you could do it, sweetheart…”
Her eyes wavered a bit as soon as he called her ‘sweetheart’. So did his smile. He should have remembered to be careful. He should have been used to the idea that this was what they were now. Familiar strangers. But that was feeling more and more like a lie. It was starting to feel like all the time apart was an illusion. All the time apart was a horrible nightmare, and this was when he would wake up. Any minute now they would all start laughing and the ruse would end. He would wrap his arms around her and walk her into the house, whispering in her ear all the things they would do when they were alone just like he used to. Any moment now he would touch her and not hold back. She would touch him and not pull away.
Times like this he wished he’d never discovered how much she’d wanted him once upon a time. Maybe he wouldn’t realize so painfully what was missing, what he’d lost, how addicted he used to be to her desire and love for him.
Used to. That was the important part. He’d moved on. So had she. Yet, still, something like this could remain. Must be like a star, when the light had long since burned out, yet the glow remained to tease fallible human eyes from a distance. Even Jackie and Ian could see it. Everyone would probably be able to see it.
But it was still dead. And they were going to let it stay that way.
“All done. Perfectly safe now,” Ian said. He nodded to Nicole and Gabriel. Nicole was the first to disengage from their sad little stare down, gingerly taking the steps before walking into the house and becoming a soft silhouette against the shadowy glow of the entranceway.
“Come on in, man,” Ian said, giving him a world of unspoken support and understanding when he patted him on the back and ushered him into his home.
Nicole licked her lips as she stepped inside, out of sight of him, and towards the bathroom, her legs weighted down like sandbags were wrapped around her wobbly ankles.
It was like she’d borrowed this body and had forgotten what it contained, the potential hidden within her skin and running through her veins. Then he showed up again and it was like waking up from a dream. Like remembering what your limbs, your heart and your breath were for.
She rushed inside the bathroom, closed the door, and leaned her back against it, forcing herself to catch her breath. Her thighs tightened and she felt the telltale slickness that always accompanied his presence. She wrapped her arms around her waist, touched the curve of her hips where his fingers had so brazenly ignited her body’s responses. Her breasts were still tingling from being pressed against the warm expanse of his defined chest. He smelled unmistakably like him, like the soap he used and that masculine scent underneath that reminded her what his sweat tasted like, what his skin felt like under the blunt edges of her teeth when she needed more than just a taste.
God, she didn’t want to go back in there. She thought she was over this. In a slight panic she remembered his eyes on her. There was a time she would have died to have him look at her like she was something special. Now she wished that magic would fade away. It made her wonder what she looked like when her eyes had met his. She ran to the mirror.
She looked half-spooked, half-ravenous. Wide-eyed. Breathless. Lips parted. Chest heaving.
She might as well say, “Take me! Take me now, big boy!” It would be less obvious than her pathetic attempts to hide what she was thinking and feeling. She’d never been able to hide things well, not from him. He must have seen everything, probably smelled her lust coming off her in waves.
This couldn’t be happening. No, scratch that; she wasn’t going to let this happen. She had a guy waiting for her out there, someone who had helped her heal when this lust and all the love that got tangled up in it hadn’t been enough to save her from a broken heart. He was going to pick her up in a few hours for fuck’s sake.
Travis. A different man entirely. Black hair to Gabe’s dark brown. Blue eyes to his molten chocolate. Deep, animated voice to Gabe’s raspy rumble… a rumble that still sent quivers over her skin…
“Ugh, get it together already,” she whispered, almost desperately. “You’re so over this.”
That one little word, whispered in the back of her mind was enough to make her start drowning in her own fears.
What if she wasn’t healed up from this? What if she was never going to be?
It didn’t get any better when she forced herself to calm down, put on a brave face, and left the bathroom after practicing enough fake smiles to make a beauty pageant contestant wince. It didn’t get any better as conversation picked up speed and Ian asked Gabe to be his best man at his wedding. It didn’t get any better when he graciously accepted, and promised to be there no matter what, especially since his schedule dictated he’d be in town until the spring.
And it didn’t get any better when Gabriel asked her more about what was going on with her.
How did she say something like this and not make it sound like she was trying to gloat, to hurt him? Hell, who was she to think that’s how he’d feel about her moving in with her boyfriend anyway? He’d had plenty of time to get over her. He had a life of his own to worry about.
“Well, I’m moving into a new place,” she said softly, tucking one leg beneath her on the couch, while gripping the other one to her chest like a security blanket.
“Oh, yeah?” Gabriel said, pulling her out of her nervousness with a lopsided grin. He seemed genuinely happy for her, just like he had about her book. “No more Mrs. Habberdash, huh?”
She laughed at that, though she still felt Jackie’s eyes on her like a laser over Preston’s head, and could see Ian busying himself with sipping his drink. Maybe she should take a cue from her sister and be blunt and brief. Real friends were real with each other, and that’s what they’d agreed to be. This was really no big deal.
“Yeah, I’m moving in with Travis,” she said in a clear, crisp voice. “By the end of this week, actually. Pretty exciting…”
Her ability to speak, to smile at him, vanished.
The look on his face. The quiet shock. The way he cleared his throat before smiling broadly. That smile was beautifully tragic. It wavered around the edges then pulled taut like his body language. It didn’t reach his eyes, and in that moment she wished she didn’t know him so well. She could read him as easily as he must be able to read her. Maybe if she hadn’t been looking for it, she might not have noticed at all. But she had. She’d seen everything he tried to cover up and more.
“H-he, um… he can’t stand her either,” she stammered out. “Mrs. Habberdash, I mean. Travis can’t… And it was time you know? To get a new place, take the next step.”
“Wow. Big step,” he whooshed out. He cleared his throat again and said, “Congratulations, Nicole. I’m really happy for you.”
Her mind kept whispering it. This time she wasn’t sure who it was condemning. Was it him, for saying he was cool with her leap into the future with another man? Or was it her, for believing she’d completely left her feelings for this one in the past?