This was crazy. He’d been fighting these feelings for years. He’d known it wasn’t going to be easy to see Ally again, but he’d really hoped after five years his crazy crush on her, or whatever it was, would have diminished. The fact she and Carter were together had put her firmly off limits. But that was no longer the case.
Now she and Carter had split, nothing stood in the way of pursuing her. Except, of course, friendship. His friendship with Ally. His friendship with Carter. Friendship was the only thing he had.
Despite Jack’s current annoyance with Carter, he was still a friend. A friend who had stood by him during one of the most difficult times of his life. He could not put the moves on his friend’s ex-girlfriend. That was one of those unwritten laws of friendship.
Blowing out a long breath, he stood up. “I’m going to turn in now.”
Ally nodded, looking confused and concerned. “Yeah. Sure. Me too.”
He carried his empty bottle into the kitchen and set it on the counter as she turned off the stereo and the lamps. Then he followed her upstairs.
It was almost like they were a married couple going to bed. He’d follow her into her room...
Stop. Stop with the horny thoughts. With a terse “good night” he marched into his own room and shut the door forcefully. Jesus.
He threw himself down on the bed. How was he going to stay here with her? She’d seen him looking at her mouth. Staying with her in her home, all cozy and intimate, was going to be beyond difficult.
Then a thought flashed into his head. Ally wasn’t with Carter, but what if she was with someone else? She hadn’t said anything, but then...he hadn’t asked. His gut cramped.
Tomorrow he’d go to a hotel if he still couldn’t get hold of Carter. It would be safer. Much safer.
By morning, he was still determined to do that. This time, he got up before Ally, so he started coffee and poked around in her cupboards for food. She’d bought some cereal – hey, Fruity Os! His favorite. He hadn’t had them in years. He poured himself a big bowl, added milk, and went into the living room to see if he could find some cartoons to watch.
What a trip. It was like being a kid again, eating Fruity Os in front of Sunday morning cartoons. He was still sitting there, bare feet on the coffee table, remote in hand, when Ally came down.
“You already ate?” she asked, yawning. “I’m sorry, I really slept in today.”
“That’s okay. I found the Fruity Os.”
“Well, I’m glad you enjoyed them.”
She wore a pair of snug black athletic shorts, and a tank top hugged her upper body. He had to drag his eyes away from her breasts, their perfect shape outlined by the white tech fabric.
“I’m going for a run,” she told him.
“You still run? That’s great.”
“I sit at a computer all day. I have to get some exercise somehow.”
“Listen,” he said, leaning forward on the couch. “I’m going to get a hotel room for tonight. I don’t need to put you out any longer. You probably have stuff to do and I don’t want to get in your way.”
She rolled her bottom lip under her top teeth and nibbled on it. “You’re not in my way.”
He hesitated. “Are you sure? I know you and Carter aren’t together now, but...I don’t want to get in the way if you’re seeing someone else...”
Her eyes widened. “Uh...no. There’s no one else.” She started to say more, but snapped her mouth closed.
“Are you sure I’m not in your way?” Why was he even asking? He should just go.
“I’m sure.” She looked like an athlete, auburn hair in a ponytail, her legs slim and muscled, her butt firm, abdomen flat. Funny, she’d never been athletic, although she’d always had a nice body. She obviously worked at staying in shape.
Seeing her dressed in the skimpy running outfit didn’t help his rising urge to grab her and put his hands all over her. He gulped and went for more coffee while she went for her run.
They spent the rest of the day apart, Ally working, Jack reading her book – loving her book, really; snooping through old photo albums for pictures of his friends – Carter, Brittany, Ally, even one of him that Carter’d taken after grabbing his camera away from him.
When Ally walked into the living room later that afternoon and stretched her hands way over her head, her snug white tank top lifted up and revealed her smooth, firm belly. Jack’s mouth went dry and his body clenched.
“Did you get a lot done?” he croaked.
The corners of her mouth tilted down. “Not as much as I’d like.” She blew out a frustrated burst of air. “So. I guess we should go.”
“I don’t have anything for Sarah.”
The idea had come to him while he’d been sitting there.
“I don’t think she’d expect anything. Remember, you’re just an old friend of her mom’s visiting her.”
“Yeah.” He swallowed. “Okay. I’m ready.”
He remembered how to get to Pasadena and between the two of them, they found Brittany’s house, a small bungalow in a nice, middle class neighborhood with a park at the end of the street. As they walked up to the door, Jack’s armpits prickled with sweat and he licked his dry lips. Ally glanced at him, and the warm support in her eyes made him straighten his spine. They rang the doorbell.
Brittany opened the door and greeted them enthusiastically, like they were all old friends - which they were – but an underlying tension belied their camaraderie. She showed them in to her living room where a small girl curled up on the couch watching television.
Jack stopped and stared at Sarah, trying to act naturally.
“This is my daughter, Sarah,” Brittany said. “Sarah, can you turn off the TV?”
Sarah reached for the remote and clicked it off, rolled to her feet off the couch. “These are my old friends from high school, Jack and Ally.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Sarah said with an ego-bruising lack of enthusiasm. Smaller than Jack expected, a pair of capri pants and a t-shirt hung on her thin frame. A baseball cap covered her hair and her big eyes dominated her small face. Blue eyes, like Brittany’s...and like his own, he supposed. He swallowed.
“Nice to meet you, Sarah.” He wanted to say so much more, but he had to act casually, as if he was indeed just an old friend visiting.
“I’ll go outside,” Sarah said.
“No, that’s okay, baby,” Brittany said quickly. “You can stay here with us while we visit. Come sit here with me.” She patted the sofa cushion beside her, and Jack and Ally took a seat in armchairs.
“I should offer you a drink...coffee? Iced tea?” “Iced tea would be great.” Jack needed a drink to wet his parched mouth and throat. He tried to drag his gaze away from his daughter to reply to Brittany.
“Me, too,” Ally said with a smile.
“I’ll be right back.”
Brittany disappeared into the kitchen and Jack returned his gaze to Sarah. He sucked air into his lungs. “So, Sarah,” he began. “How old are you? Nine?”
“Yes.” She gazed back at him solemnly. She hadn’t smiled since they’d walked in the door – was she always so serious?
“That means you’re in grade...four?”
“I’m going into grade five.”
“I see. Do you like school?” She shrugged, picked at the hem of her T-shirt. “It’s okay. I missed a lot this year because of...because I was sick. It was hard to catch up.”
“Oh. I didn’t know you’d been sick.”
Sarah glanced toward the kitchen where her mother was clinking glasses, but just nodded.
“So you must be happy it’s summer holidays.”
She nodded again, looked down at her fingers playing with the T-shirt. Jack glanced at Ally, licked his lips again. “Your mom says you’re a good student.”
She lifted those huge blue eyes to look at him, still no smile. “I guess.”
Jack started to feel very warm and a little desperate. Brittany returned with three glasses, handed one to Ally and one to Jack. “Do you want some tea, baby?”
Sarah nodded. “Yes, please.” Well, she was polite, anyway. Brittany handed the third glass to the girl, then disappeared again, and returned with a drink for herself.
“Well,” she said brightly. “This is so nice to see both of you again after all these years. Tell us abut your job, Jack. I’m sure it’s been very exciting.”
Exciting, yeah, but not appropriate for a nine year old to hear about. He talked generally about some of his travels and what he’d done, checking out Sarah’s response from time to time. She looked...bored. Great. He was a boring dad.
A fist grabbed all his insides and twisted. God, why couldn’t they just tell her who he was, so he could abandon the edgy pretence and just be himself?