Jennifer managed to make it home from work in record time, in spite of the usual Friday commute traffic. She ducked into town just long enough to get a full tank of gas, then raced home to grab some clothes to last her the weekend.
Throwing her suitcase and laptop in the trunk of her car, she jumped in and roared down the driveway, gravel flying everywhere as she raced to hit the road. She was eager to see Andy after putting up with Real Life since she’d gotten back from the Nest last Sunday. She’d made it through the workweek, barely, spending as much time daydreaming of him as she did working. It was a wonder and a joy to her, this feeling of anticipation, of being eager to see someone. It had been so long, she’d almost forgotten what it was like.
Time seemed to both drag and fly as she made her way down the familiar roads to the little side road she’d inexplicably followed last weekend. As the scenery changed, she found herself holding her breath, saying a little prayer that she’d find it again. She sighed in relief as the Crowe’s Nest and Tavern came into view.
Pulling into the driveway, she parked off to the side where a few other cars were, knowing she’d be staying for a couple of days this time. As she stepped out of her car, Jeff Mitchell came out to greet her. “Hey, Jennifer! How ya going, love? Andy’s been climbin’ the walls waitin’ for you today.”
“Hi Jeff!” She gave him a big hug, and he returned the embrace with a laugh. “I got here as fast as I could, but some of us have to work, you know.” She winked and he giggled. Retrieving her stuff from the trunk, she carried the laptop while Jeff took the suitcase. “You’re such the gentleman, Jeff.” He flashed her a cheeky grin, and she giggled. //Bet he wishes *I* was a gentleman.// They walked up to the Nest, pausing in the lobby to greet Peaches and retrieve the key to her room. Jeff walked her as far as the door to her suite, room 333.
“I’m gonna scoot, love. I’ve got bar duty tonight so Andy can be with you.” He smiled as she grinned happily. “I’ll send him on over, he’ll be here in two tics.” He bounded away.
“Thanks, Jeff!” She called to his retreating form, admiring the gorgeous view of his backside as he started down the stairs.
She settled in, unpacking the things she’d brought, and setting up her laptop on the table by the window. The sun was just starting to go down, and she stood at the little alcove, watching the changing colors of the sunset. A quiet knock on the door made her start, and she walked over to answer it. “Andy!” The breath was knocked out of her as he hugged her tight, squeezing her hard against him. He lifted her off of her feet, and she wrapped her arms around his neck. She held on for dear life as he swung her around in his joy, stopping only when they were both so dizzy they fell down on the bed. Laughing, watching the room spin, she couldn’t remember being so happy.
Andy leaned up on his elbow, gazing down at her. His eyes were a clear light green, shimmering with emotion as he lowered his head, lips claiming hers for a long, poignant kiss. “I’ve missed you, love.” He whispered, placing light kisses on her nose, cheeks, and eyes before tasting her lips again.
She wriggled under him, lifting his shirt to caress the smooth firm muscles of his back. Tilting her head to the side, she groaned as he nuzzled her neck, his tongue teasing the sensitive skin behind her ear. “I’ve missed you too, Andy.”
They kissed and caressed each other slowly, neither wanting to rush this reunion. Piece after piece of clothing made its way to the floor, accompanied by giggling, soft laughter, and the occasional groan or sigh. As the room faded into darkness from the setting sun, the shadows of their bodies on the wall merged into one, mirroring the feeling in their hearts.
Andy woke up to darkness a little later, wondering what had brought him awake. There was another knock on the door, louder this time. Swearing softly, he moved Jennifer off of his chest, smiling as she grumbled at losing her warm pillow. He grabbed his jeans, trying to hop in them and cross the room, managing to get them on before he reached the door. Opening it a crack, he saw Colin outside, holding a covered basket. “Oh, yeah – the food! Thanks, mate!”
“No worries, Andy. You’ve got to keep up your strength, and make sure your lady gets some dinner.” Colin winked at him, giving him a good natured slap on the shoulder. It was good to see Andy with someone. He’d been floating around the place all week, humming and whistling enough to drive everyone to distraction. “I’m off, mate. Tell Jennifer I said hello.”
Andy thanked him again and brought the basket inside, hoping Jennifer was still asleep. He tiptoed over to the bed, but saw she was sitting up, the blanket tucked under her arms, looking at him sleepily. “Who was that?”
“Colin. He brought some food by, and said to tell you hello.” Flipping on a small lamp, he placed the basket on the table. “Are you hungry?”
“Famished.” As if to make a point, her stomach rumbled, making them both laugh. She slipped out from under the covers, and Andy stood watching her as she picked up his faded blue shirt from the floor. “Do you mind?” She smiled as he shook his head, and pulled his shirt on, laughing as she realized it came to her thighs, barely. She walked over to the little kitchen in the suite, pulling out plates, silverware, and glasses for their meal.
By the time she got back to the table, Andy had laid out a pretty light blue cloth over the table, placing a bud vase with a single white rose in the center, a white candle burning on either side. “Wow!” She was stunned. “That’s beautiful. And a white rose, you remembered! Thank you.”
Andy smiled tenderly at her, taking the dinnerware from her hands and placing it on the table. He took her face in his hands, gently tucking her hair back behind her ears like he’d seen her do numerous times. “You’re welcome, sweetheart. Every time I see a white rose, I think of you.” He kissed her softly, liking the way she curled into him. He chuckled, and she pulled back, wondering what he found funny. “Ah love, look at us… I’m only in my trousers, and you’re only in my shirt…” He giggled. “Together we make up one set of clothes.”
She laughed with him, playfully swatting his shoulder. “Yeah, silly. We’re two halves of a whole.” Still chuckling, she went to turn on the stereo as Andy set the table. Soft strains of a country song filled the air, Jennifer having stocked it with her favorite CD’s earlier. She paused, listening. It was “And We Danced”, the song they’d first danced to the night they’d met. Andy turned, his eyes meeting hers as he recognized it too. They shared a smile, remembering their first night together. It was less than a week ago, but their time apart had seemed so long, making it feel like much more time had passed.
They sat down to eat, and shared a simple, wonderful dinner. Annabella was a wonderful cook, and Jennifer made a mental note to see if she could get the recipe for the chicken from her. The wine was excellent, from Australia, Andy told her with a grin. He shared more of his stories with her, making her laugh. She had a question for him. “Okay, Andy. One thing has been driving me crazy. Why did you have a plastic dinosaur on the dash of your car?”
He grinned at her. “Well you see, one day I was over at my sister’s, looking after my nephew, Graham. We were going to go for a ride to the park, and he brought along this toy dinosaur, wanting it to go for a ride, too. He put it up there, but it kept falling down, making him cry. So I whipped out a bit of glue, put a few drops on the feet, and Bob’s your uncle, he stayed put. He’s been there ever since.”
She shook her head, confused. “I didn’t realize you had a sister, Andy. And a nephew! There’s so much about you I don’t know!”
Smiling, he took her hand in his. “We’ve got plenty of time, love. I’ll be happy to tell you anything you like. I do have a sister. In fact, I have two, one older and one younger, both with families. That’s why my parents think I’m such a bounder. I never settled down to one place, one job, or…” He blushed. “One woman.” He looked her in the eye. “Maybe I just never found the right one.”
“Oh, Andy.” She came around the little table, sitting in his lap, wrapping her arms around his neck. “I wish I could have met you sooner. I know it’s not realistic, or real life, or whatever it is that makes this place what it is, but I do know that you’re the most special, sweet person I’ve ever had in my life. I’m so happy and honored that you want to spend time with me.” She kissed him deeply, letting her actions match her words. He stood up, keeping her wrapped in his arms, carrying her to the bed. Everything was forgotten but each other as they made love late into the night.
Andy woke her the next morning. She looked at the sunlight coming in through the windows. “What time is it?”
“Nearly eight, love.” He looked startled as she jumped up, swearing. “What’s up?”
“I promised East I’d go riding with him today, remember? I’m going to be late if I don’t hurry. You know how I hate to be late!” She raced around, pulling her jeans and boots out and searching for the top she wanted to wear.
He shook his head, watching her. “You shoulda told me, love. I’d have gotten you up a while ago, but I figured you’d want to have a lie in after last night.” He stopped her as she was bolting for the bathroom. “Sorry.”
She smiled up at him. “It’s okay, Andy. I forgot to say anything to you.” She kissed him on the nose, then ducked into the bathroom.
He chuckled, finishing his cleanup of their dinner and mess from the night before, not having to be quiet anymore. While she went riding, he was going to get some work done. He had a little surprise planned for her this afternoon.
She got herself ready in record time, throwing on her TOFOG cap and pulling her hair out through the back. Andy smiled as they left her room and headed over to the stables. “What?”
“I was just thinking how cute you look.” He loved how she could look so feminine in a dress one minute, and be a tomboy the next, in a baseball cap and boots.
Laughing at him, she kissed him goodbye as they reached the entrance to the barn. He wrapped his arms around her, giving East an eyeful before they broke apart. “I’ll come find you at the Tavern when I’m back, okay?” She chuckled as he nodded and trotted off towards the Tavern.
East was smiling as she walked into the barn. “G’day, Jennifer.”
“Hi, East! I’ve been looking forward to this all week!” She linked her arm in his as they walked back towards the end of the barn. There were two horses tethered just outside, one a sleek stallion, all tacked and ready to go. East’s horse, she figured. The other was a cute little paint gelding, brown over white, with the sweetest face she’d ever seen. He looked to be about 15 hands high, a perfect size for her. “He’s beautiful, East! What’s his name?”
“I don’t know. He just arrived a couple of days ago, and I figured he was yours. Thought you’d like to tack him up yourself.” He gestured to the tackroom. “Didn’t know what type of saddle you’d prefer.”
“I used to ride both english and western, but I’ve thought about trying an Australian stock saddle. I’ve heard they’re comfortable, and they don’t have that awful horn that the western ones do.” She grabbed a curry comb, brush, and hoof pick from the box, setting to work getting her horse ready for their ride. He was a sweetie, with perfect manners. His name would come to her in a bit, she was sure.
As she worked, East leaned against the rail, watching her. “You’ve been around horses a lot.” It wasn’t a question, but a statement.
“Yes, I grew up riding every summer, and got a pony when I was 10. I had a horse for a few years, too, until I moved to the city and couldn’t keep him. I’ve worked as a trail guide, a riding instructor, and a burro packer.”
“Burro packer?” He gave her a strange look.
“Donkey, you know, long furry ears, skinny tail, stubborn?” At his grin and nod, she continued. “I spent a few summers at a children’s camp, teaching them how to work with and pack the burros for an overnight trip.”
“That sounds like an interesting job.” He had a distinct laugh in his voice, and she gave him a mock glare.
“Hey, I like the donkeys! They’re stubborn, yes, but they’re also loving and loyal and…” She broke off as he held up his hands in surrender, laughing. “I’m ready for the tack. Do you have a stock saddle that would fit?”
He nodded and went off to get the saddle and bridle for her. She went to her gelding’s head, blowing softly in his nose and kissing that perfect soft spot between his nostrils. He whuffed and snorted softly, putting his head against her chest and pushing, making her lose her balance slightly. Laughing, she scratched his neck. “You’re such a sweetie.”
East returned, carrying her gear, and she took it from him with a “Thanks”. She saddled her horse, then put the bridle on, adjusting it to fit. Untying the lead rope and knotting it around his neck, she tightened the cinch and swung up into the saddle, adjusting her stirrups and making sure she was comfortable. East was ready to go, having mounted his horse a moment before. She nodded that she was ready, and they walked out of the barn area, East guiding them towards the open hills.
It was a joy to be riding again. Her gelding was beautiful, very smooth and responsive. East gave her time to adjust to being in the saddle again, then with a questioning look, nudged his horse faster at her nod. She followed, and in no time they were cantering down the trail, open hills to either side. They let the horses run for a while, pulling them in after a time to let them rest. She liked the Australian saddle, finding it as comfortable as her old western one, but letting her feel the horse more, similar to the English tack.
It was unexpected how she and East were both quiet. Neither one of them was inclined to chatter, both content to ride and enjoy the morning. It was like being with a close friend, a deep comfortable silence that neither felt compelled to break.
They rode for a couple more hours, East showing her some of the beautiful trails through the woods, a campsite by the stream, and her favorite, an old stone cottage nestled in a valley. //I’ll have to bring Andy out here sometime.// She smiled, unable to picture him on a horse.
Deciding on one last gallop before walking back to the barn, she and East raced their horses side by side down the road, Jennifer laughing in exhilaration as her sweet gelding moved gracefully beneath her, eager to please his mistress. East laughed with her, and they shared a brief look of total understanding at the beauty and power of the moment.
Slowing, they walked their horses, letting them cool down before they reached the stables. She smoothed her horse’s mane, fingering the hair into place. He was beautiful, sweet, and graceful. They stopped at the hitching post, and Jennifer winced as she dismounted. After five years of not riding, she was understandably a little sore.
She took the tack off, carrying it into the barn herself. If she was going to ride on a regular basis, she wanted to take care of things herself. East nodded his approval as she brought the brush and hoof pick with her on her way back out. Taking her time, she made the gelding gleam as she removed any trace of sweat from their ride, then made sure he hadn’t picked up any rocks in his hooves. She untied him, ready to put him back out in the pasture. East followed her out, showing her how to latch the gate, since he and Mannie had designed it themselves to keep the horses safe.
Jennifer was grateful for his trust, knowing he didn’t let just anyone play with his horses. He’d already given her permission to ride anytime, and she was planning to do just that, hoping to squeeze in a ride tomorrow before she had to return home. She let the horse out in the pasture, feeling her heart skip a beat as he paused to nuzzle her before trotting off to join the others.
East walked her back to the barn, and she thanked him for the ride and the company. He smiled, blushing slightly. “Tell Kath I said hello.” She giggled as he blushed deeper.
“Thank you, Jennifer. I will tell her. Come and visit your gelding again.” He gave her a small wave as she turned to go.
“Butterscotch, East. His name’s Butterscotch.” At his inquisitive look, she elaborated. “He’s golden, soft, smooth, and very sweet. It fits him, I think.” At his understanding nod, she grinned and headed for the Tavern, wanting to find Andy. She needed a shower before they went anywhere, unless he wanted her to smell like a horse all day.
She found Andy in the storeroom, moving supplies. She giggled, remembering his accident with the beer keg the night she’d arrived. Waiting until he’d put down what he was carrying, she snuck up behind him, giving him a fright as she pinched his bum with one hand, the other grabbing his shoulder. “You scared me!” He tried to look at her accusingly, but ended up just smiling happily. “Did you have a nice ride?”
“Oh, Andy, it was fantastic. East brought me this beautiful gelding who was sweet and wonderful. I’ve named him Butterscotch, and we had a great ride. I want to ride him every day when I’m here.” She was positively glowing, and Andy smiled, happy that the morning had given her that much pleasure.
“Glad to hear it, love. I missed you.” He kissed her nose. “Are you ready for lunch?”
“I need to take a bath. I smell like a horse.” Andy pretended to sniff her and sneeze, and she tickled him, both laughing like children. “You goof. I just wanted to let you know I’m on my way to clean up. Want me to meet you back here?”
“Sure, that would work out just fine.” He gathered her in his arms, giving her a sweet, lingering kiss. “Hurry back.”
Smiling and waving, she ducked out the door, nearly running into Jeff as she came around the corner. He smiled at her as she went out the door, thinking what a nice sheila she was. She’d sure made Andy a happy man.
Jennifer jogged back to her room, eager to see what Andy had in mind for the afternoon. After a quick shower, she decided on shorts and a tank top, since it was so nice outside. She finished getting ready and went back over to the Tavern. Andy was hanging out with Jeff, both of them laughing over something Jeff had said. //They’re like brothers, they’re so alike.// Jeff’s hair was longer, and he was more self-assured, almost cocky sometimes, but he was one of the nicest people she’d ever known, and a true friend to Andy. She hopped up on one of the barstools, greeting them both.
Andy came around the bar, taking her hand. They waved goodbye to Jeff as he led her outside, taking a path towards a grove of trees not too far away. Walking into the shade of the trees, she admired the dappled patterns on the ground. Everything was so pretty here, it was like a little slice of paradise.
She stopped in surprise as they came to a warm, sunny clearing. At one end was a stone bench, and he led her towards it. He pulled a picnic basket out from under the edge, and she giggled. He was always doing sweet things for her. They settled in for a picnic, enjoying the sunshine and the lazy afternoon. After they’d eaten, he sat on top of the table, taking his shirt off to enjoy the sun, and Jennifer lay down, her head in his lap, staring up at the clear, blue sky.
They stayed that way for quite a while, chatting, laughing, sharing stories. In the way of new lovers, they wanted to know everything about each other. Andy began to run his fingers through her hair as they talked, caressing her scalp. She lifted one arm above her head, touching his warm skin. Their caresses gradually turned more sensual, and they abandoned themselves to the moment, making love in the sunny grove.
The afternoon wore on, the shadows starting to lengthen, and the clearing taking on a bit of a chill as it got later. They decided to walk back, making plans on the way to spend the evening in her room, watching movies.
They walked into the Tavern, Jennifer laughing at one of Andy’s jokes. He wanted to grab a few things from his room before they spent the evening in her suite. She was looking forward to a quiet evening alone with him. She chuckled, thinking of the vanilla scented bubble bath she’d brought. It matched the lotion she wore that Andy loved so much. He thought they were going to watch movies, but she had other plans. Well, maybe just one movie. She chuckled to herself.
He paused just before the stairs as two men came in the door. Andy was still introducing her to some of the residents of the Nest that she hadn’t had the opportunity to meet on her last visit. She turned as he started to make the introductions, and froze, looking up into a pair of blue-green eyes. Eyes that she saw in her dreams. The familiar smile, the deep, masculine voice tinged with that sexy Australian accent, all embedded in her memory. She felt the rest of the world fade as she looked up at Terry Thorne. From far away, she heard Andy say her name. It was like being in a tunnel, everything was so distant. Feeling a hand on her shoulder, she shook her head, making an effort to concentrate. Almost automatically, she smiled, extending her hand, gasping at Terry’s touch as he gripped her hand in greeting. Another man, another handshake, less familiar face. //Jeffrey Wigand.// She felt detached from everything as they said their goodbyes and moved off, carrying what looked to be camping gear.
Andy was telling her that they’d been gone for two weeks, Terry teaching Jeffrey to hunt. He laughed, asking if she could imagine such a thing, and from somewhere within, she found a smile. //Terry. He’s here. Just up those stairs. I can’t believe it.//
They went up the stairs, Jennifer following like a puppet. She felt stunned. She sat on the edge of the bed as Andy rummaged through his clothes, putting a few things in his gym bag to bring to her room. They left, heading back out the door and down the path to the hotel.
She went up to her room first, Andy going to make arrangements with Annabella for dinner. She undressed down to her bra and panties, curling up on the bed and hugging her pillow, mind whirling. Andy knocked and came in, putting his bag down in the corner and kneeling on the bed. He curled up behind her, taking her in his arms. “Tired?”
“Mm. Hm.” She mumbled something that he accepted, and he snuggled up against her, content to rest if that was what she wanted. Jennifer lay there for a little bit, then slowly eased up off the bed, trying not to disturb Andy. She walked over to the alcove, staring out the window at the beautiful sunset, thoughts whirling in her brain. //What if I’m supposed to be with Terry? He’s the one who caught my eye. It wasn’t Gladiator or Mystery, Alaska, it was Proof Of Life that sent me full-flight into the search for more RC films. Terry was the reason she knew about the Nest, or even Andy for that matter. So why had he been gone the weekend she first arrived? Why did she fall into Andy’s arms so quickly? Was it the comfort? Was it the fact that she’d been achingly lonely since Rob had left? Or was there something deeper there that she was not ready to face?//
Deep in thought, she didn’t hear Andy come up behind her, and she jumped as he wrapped his arms around her, curling his chest into her back. He started to nuzzle her neck, and she almost subconsciously moved away from him ever so slightly. He noticed the movement, though. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing.” She turned to smile at him, but she knew it was forced.
So did he. “Something’s up. You’ve been acting funny ever since…” He trailed off, pulling back to look at her. “Ever since we ran into Terry and Jeffrey.” Searching her face, he tilted her chin to look her in the eyes. “That’s it, isn’t it? Terry Thorne.” She looked away, unable to meet his steady gaze. “Shit. I can’t believe this.”
He turned away, going to sit on the edge of the bed. “Every time someone new arrives, I hope they’re here for me, but each time, they go off with someone else.” Running his fingers through his hair, he sighed. “I thought, well, I felt you were different.” His eyes met hers, full of pain. He stood up, his anger and hurt apparent in the almost rough way he grabbed his things. Her heart went out to him, and she took a step towards him, reaching out her hand. He shook his head, stalking out the door, nearly slamming it behind him.
She ran for the door, pulling it open and looking down the hallway, but it was too late. He was gone. //Oh, God. What have I done? I never wanted to hurt him.//
Slipping quickly into a light dress and some sandals, she made her way over to the Tavern, the sunset fading quickly into darkness as she walked. There was no answer at Andy’s room. //You expect him to sit there and wait for you?// Coming back down the stairs, she noticed that the bar was empty, so she walked up and sat down where she could see the door. Jeff Mitchell came out from the back. She forced a little smile. “Hi Jeff. How ya going?”
He smiled at the Australian greeting. “Not too badly. How about you? Where’s Andy?” Her face fell, and Jeff reached out to put his hand over hers. “Let me get you something to drink, and you can tell me about it.”
Four Long Island Ice Teas later, Jennifer was feeling decidedly better. Never mind the fact that the room was swaying just a bit. She felt good. //Who needed men, anyway? What had she been thinking? Andy and Terry were both different sides of the same coin. Right?//
Sliding off of the barstool, she made her way unsteadily towards the door. A walk. She needed a walk. She went out the door, not noticing someone standing at the foot of the stairs, watching her. Walking merrily along, she took the little path down to the beach, wanting to take off her shoes and go barefoot in the sand. A figure silently followed her, keeping distant so as not to be seen.
She reached the spot where she and Andy had spent the night last weekend. Feeling a bit queasy, Jennifer decided to sit for a while. She watched the waves break on the shore. //I wonder where he is.// She touched the driftwood log, remembering what it had been like there for them. How safe she’d felt in his arms, how cherished and adored. //When was the last time you felt that way? Even Rob didn’t care for you like that. How can you just walk away?//
An overwhelming sadness filled her. She had loved and lost, and now she’d lost again, letting her imagination run away with her better judgment. She’d gotten so fixated on Terry that she’d lost sight of the one who’d become more important to her than anything or anyone in a long, long time. Hot, salty tears filled her eyes, streaking down her face to fall in the sand. She buried her head in her arms and cried.
Feeling a light touch on her shoulder, she looked through tear-blurred eyes at a pair of brown loafers. Her eyes traveled upward, taking in tan slacks, a white tank top over a highly powerful, muscular build, and a clean-shaven, handsome face framed by a short crew-cut. She shook her head, confused. “Are you okay, miss?” The deeply masculine voice was hauntingly familiar, but without the Australian twang. He knelt down in front of her, concern in his eyes.
“Bud?” She whispered. He nodded, handing her a handkerchief. She dutifully wiped her eyes and blew her nose, feeling like a child again. He sat down on the sand next to her, offering her a shoulder to lean on. Literally. The sobs came again as she buried her head against his chest.
Gradually, her crying quieted, Bud stroking her hair and rocking her gently. //Oh, God. She felt awful. Inside and out.// Wiping her eyes and trying to regain control, she quietly apologized to him. “I’m sorry, Bud. I’m sorry.”
“Shh, it’s okay. Do you feel like trying to walk back now?” He moved away slightly, just enough to see her nod of agreement. He helped her to her feet, keeping an arm around her in support.
The moon was high overhead as they slowly made their way back down the beach towards the hotel. As they walked, Jennifer introduced herself, and filled him in on what had happened, how she’d come to the Nest expecting to see Terry, but had ended up with Andy. //What a way for Bud to meet me. I’m so embarrassed.// Bud said little, choosing to listen and offer what comfort he could. For all his forbidding, muscular frame, he had a heart of gold underneath. She felt totally safe with him, and protected.
Finally reaching the hotel, they slipped in the back entrance, Jennifer not wishing to be seen looking like she knew she must look. They made it up two flights of stairs before the events of the night and the effects of the alcohol finally took their toll. She sagged against Bud, unable to find the energy to walk up that last set of stairs. He picked her up, cradling her like a child, almost effortlessly carrying her up the stairs to the entrance to her room.
He paused, not wanting to intrude. “It’s okay, Bud.” She was almost asleep against his chest. He carried her inside, closing the door behind them and moving to lay her down on her bed. Covering her with the blanket, he sat in a chair by her bedside, wanting to make sure she was sleeping peacefully before he left.
Neither one had noticed Andy standing in the hallway, a stricken look on his face as he saw Bud carrying Jennifer into her room. He waited, but Bud didn’t come back out. Turning to go back down the stairs, Andy paused one last time, looking at room 333, then walked slowly down, the overhead lights glinting off the tears running down his face.
Andy made his way down the stairs, the pain in his heart unbearable. //It just wasn’t fair!// Angrily he wiped the tears that were streaming from his eyes, willing the pain to stop. No one was around as he walked back to the Tavern. He still couldn’t believe what he’d just seen. First Jennifer starts acting funny after they run into Terry, then she ends up spending the night with Bud. Andy shook his head. What a fool he’d been to believe she was there for him, that he was good enough to have that kind of connection with someone like the “popular” Boyz had with their women.
Hearing voices on the stairs, he decided to go to the storeroom for a while. He didn’t feel like dealing with anyone right now, and no one ever went in there this late at night. Opening the door, he made his way to a corner of the room, curling up and letting his anguish flow.
He lay that way for some time, alternating between pain and anger, love and hate, feeling his world fall apart. A snide voice startled him out of his thoughts. “How pathetic.” Sid 6.7 stood there, his garish green suit almost black in the extremely dim light. “Why are you crying, Andy? Did your little girlfriend decide she wanted a real man for a change?”
Andy stood up, fists clenched. “Go AWAY, Sid.”
“Look at you. I can’t believe you thought she’d stay with such a little boy.” Sid laughed and stepped back as Andy swung a punch at him. “Go back to the nursery, you pathetic excuse for a man.”
Andy lunged at him, throwing blows that Sid brushed aside. Picking Andy up by the collar of his shirt, he threw him back down in the corner. “Leave the women to the real men, Andy. Play with Jeff Mitchell, he likes little boys.” With one last derisive laugh, Sid turned and left as quickly and silently as he’d come, leaving Andy sobbing on the floor.
He lay there all night, curled up in a fetal position, the pain and hurt so strong he didn’t want to move. He finally fell into a fitful sleep, only to be awakened a short while later by a hand on his shoulder. “Andy, mate… Hey are you okay?” He cracked one bloodshot eye open to see Jeff Mitchell crouching down next to him, a concerned look in his eyes.
“Leave me alone, Jeff. I don’t want to see anyone right now. Did Sid send you here?” He tried to turn over, but Jeff’s grip on his arm stopped him.
“Sid? Haven’t seen him at all. Bud came and woke up Colin and I at the crack of dawn this morning, mate. Don’t you know we’ve all been looking everywhere for you?” Jeff sat down on the floor next to him.
Andy groaned at the mention of Bud’s name. //Great, first he spends the night with Jennifer, then he lets everyone know we’ve split up.// “Look, Jeff, I’m in no shape to talk about this right now.” He turned towards his friend, and Jeff gasped as he got a good look at the devastation on Andy’s face.
Jeff sighed. “Awww, man, Andy. C’mon, let’s go up to my room.” He laughed at the look Andy gave him. “You know me better than that, mate. You can hide out there if you want, and I’ll tell everyone I haven’t seen you. You can get cleaned up, and we can talk. Deal?”
Andy looked down for a moment. He couldn’t hide here all day, someone would find him sooner or later. “Deal. Thanks, mate.”
Jeff smiled. “No worries. Let me check and see if anyone’s about. Two tics!” He dashed out of the room. Andy slowly got up, realizing how stiff and cramped he was from being curled on the cold floor all night. By the time he felt steady on his feet, Jeff was back, motioning him to follow. They made their way up to Jeff’s room without being spotted. Jeff stood at the door, ready to duck back out. “All safe now. Make yourself at home, and I’ll be back with brekkie.”
Andy sat on the edge of Jeff’s bed, trying to decide what to do. He needed a shower, that much was certain. Making his way to the bath, he pulled off his dirty clothes, leaving them in a pile on the floor. He found a clean towel in the closet, and turned the shower on full blast, stepping in and letting the hot water pound his tired, aching body. Wishing the water could wash away the ache in his heart, he shampooed his hair and soaped his body, standing under the water for a long time again as he rinsed off. Shutting off the tap, he made sure the shower wasn’t dripping, remembering Jeff’s particular fixation about not having the tap run.
He stepped out of the shower, wrapping the towel around his waist and walking out to the bedroom. Jeff was back, with the promised breakfast. He’d laid out a shirt and shorts for Andy to borrow, since they were the same size. Andy hesitated. He knew he shouldn’t feel uncomfortable around Jeff. After all, they were “brothers” of a sort, and he knew Jeff wouldn’t ever make a pass at him. Well, he was pretty sure he wouldn’t.
“Better get changed, Andy. You’re dripping.” Jeff flashed him a grin, realizing what the problem was. “I won’t peek, I promise. Although it’s nothing I haven’t seen before, mate.” He laughed as Andy blushed. “We’ve got the same body, remember?” Jeff shook his head as Andy’s blush deepened. Sighing, he turned away. “I’ll just go for a moment.”
“No, wait. You’re right, Jeff. I’m bein’ daft.” Andy dropped the towel, reaching for the shorts and pulling them on. The shirt was next, and Andy slipped it over his head, tugging it into place. He walked over to the little table where Jeff had put the breakfast, joining him and tucking in to the food. He was more than a little hungry, he realized. He and Jennifer had never made it to dinner, and after their fight he’d gone for a walk to clear his head. He’d gone back to try and talk with her, only to see Bud carry her up the stairs and into her room.
The pain returned full force, and he pushed his plate away, hunger gone. Jeff saw the change in him. “You ready to talk about this, mate?”
Andy nodded, and began to tell him the whole story. How they’d run into Terry, Jennifer had started acting funny, finally the confrontation, ending with him running off. He paused, not wanting Jeff to know how Jennifer had spent the night. //He probably already knows, if Bud was the one who told him I was missing.// He told Jeff what he’d seen, and how he’d gone to the storeroom to be alone.
Jeff sat quietly, listening. He’d heard three different parts to this story, and it was time he told Andy what he knew. “Look, mate. There’s something you need to know. Jennifer told me a good bit of this at the bar last night.” Andy looked at him in surprise, and Jeff continued. “She was good and set on getting drunk. She felt awful about hurting you.” Andy grumbled an “I bet”, but shut up when Jeff glared at him. “I don’t know what you thought you saw last night, but Bud came to find me and Colin early this morning, saying Jennifer had cried herself to sleep and you were missing. He didn’t spend the night with her, Andy. Not like you think, anyway. And Jennifer’s head over heels in love with you, if what she was saying is any indication.” Andy shot him a pained look, but Jeff kept talking. “She may not fully realize it yet, but that girl is nuts over you, and from what you’re telling me, I think you feel the same way.”
Andy nodded, unable to find his voice. So she’d been upset. Really upset, from what Jeff said. He knew she didn’t drink that much. If she’d had that much to drink, it stood to reason that someone like Bud would help her back to the room. If he really hadn’t spent the night, then… “I need time to think about this, Jeff.”
Jeff nodded. “I know, mate. I know. Been there. I’m gonna go out for a bit, make it look like I’m still looking for ya. Catch a lie down, if you want.” He moved to the door, pausing to look over at Andy. “Give her a chance, Andy. This place is a big adjustment. You know how a lot of the women are attracted to more than one of us. We’re like pieces of a big puzzle, unique but still the same. I have a feeling once she gets over her little crush, she’ll realize who it is she really cares about. That’s you, mate. I guarantee it.” With that, he ducked out the door, leaving Andy to think on what had been said.
//Ow. Ow. Ow.// Jennifer moved gingerly on the bed, the bright light hurting her eyes for a moment. //Ugh. What an idiot I am.// She slipped off the edge of the bed, making her way to the sink and running some cold water. Gingerly, she rinsed her eyes, looking in the mirror to check the damage. Puffy, very puffy, red and swollen. //Oh crap.// Luckily, she didn’t get hangovers. If she hadn’t cried her eyes out, she’d be fine. She rummaged in the side cupboards, finally finding the tea bags she was seeking. Soaking them in cold water, she went back over to the bed, pausing to turn on the stereo before lying back down, wet tea bags over her eyes.
She lay there, trying not to think about Andy. It was like trying not to breathe. He had become so important to her, and she’d let him walk away. As she tried to fight the new wave of tears that threatened, one part of her brain registered the CD player on the stereo changing songs. She’d put Faith Hill in last night, the CD ‘Breathe’ was a favorite of hers, and she knew every song on it by heart. It was a beautiful, romantic choice, and one she thought would have set the mood nicely for last evening. //Before she’d seen Terry and become a blithering idiot.// Smiling sadly, she listened to one of her favorite songs.
If I’m not in love with you
What is this I’m going through
And if my heart is lying then
What should I believe in
Why do I go crazy
Every time I think about you, baby
Why else do I want you like I do
If I’m not in love with you
She got that odd feeling of art imitating life, the same feeling she’d had dancing with Andy that first night.
And if I don’t need your touch
Why do I miss you so much
If it’s just infatuation then
Why is my heart aching
To hold you forever
Give a part of me I thought I’d never
Give again to someone I could lose
If I’m not in love with you
//Does he even know how I feel about him? Do I dare to hope he still feels the same way after what’s happened?//
Why in every fantasy
Do I feel your arms embracing me
Lovers lost in sweet desire
Why in dreams do I surrender
Lying with you baby
Someone help explain this feeling
Someone tell me
If I’m not in love with you
What is this I’m going through
And if my heart is lying then what should I believe in
Why do I go crazy
Every time I think about you baby
Why else do I want you like I do
If I’m not in love with you
There was the answer she’d been looking for. She was falling in love with Andy, and she needed to find him and make him understand. Terry might have brought her here, but her heart and soul were Andy’s, claimed that first night when he’d held her and kissed her, breaking down all the walls she’d put up around her heart.
She jumped up out of bed, showering and dressing in record time. The tea bags had helped her eyes and with careful makeup, you had to look closely to see that she’d been crying. Grabbing her car keys and tucking her wallet into the pocket of her jeans, she went out the door.
Where to look first? Jennifer went into the Tavern, thinking to try his room. Bud waved at her, and she went over to sit with him, remembering how kind to her he had been last night. “Hi, Bud.”
“Hi Jennifer, how are you feeling today?” Bud stood up as she sat down, always the gentleman. “I’m glad to see you up and about.”
“I’m doing okay, Bud. Thanks again for everything.” She looked down at her lap, embarrassed. It wasn’t often that she let herself lose control, but she was lucky that it had been Bud who’d found her. “Have… have you seen Andy?”
“No, he hasn’t come back yet. Colin and Jeff Mitchell are out looking for him now.” Bud took her hand in his big ones, offering what comfort he could. “Jennifer, we all make mistakes. It’s hard for us, being here and waiting for the ones we have a connection with to show up. Andy’s seen a lot of people find their special someone. You’re the first one he’s…” He paused, as if trying to make her understand. “I know it was Terry that drew you to the Nest, but you need to look in your heart and see what, or who, you find.”
She sighed. “Oh, Bud. I’ve made such a mess of this. I did come here for Terry, or so I thought. He was all I could dream about from the first time I saw his movie. I don’t know why things happened with Andy the way they did.” Shaking her head, she continued. “That first night, when I walked in, Andy was there to listen to me. I was tired and angry and frustrated and… Well, I know that’s no excuse, and maybe it was wrong. He offered comfort, and I took it.”
Bud squeezed her hand, understanding. “You obviously needed it.”
She nodded. “I did, more than I realized, I think. That doesn’t make it right. What I didn’t expect was to feel like I do towards him. He’s healed so much of my pain, just be being there for me and accepting me as I am.” She looked away, unable to meet Bud’s eyes. “When I saw Terry last night, it was like someone had punched me in the stomach. To be honest, I’d forgotten he was here, at the Nest. I didn’t mean to hurt Andy. He deserves better than that.” Her eyes glimmered with tears as she continued. “Oh, Bud. I’m falling in love with Andy. I’ve made such a mess of things. What do I do?” She sighed. “Maybe I should leave the Nest. That might be for the best.” She started to get up.
“No.” Bud stopped her. “Give it some time. Give him some time. He’ll see that you really do care, and he certainly cares about you. Jeff and Colin are both sure of that.”
Sighing, she looked helplessly at Bud. “I’m trying, Bud. I really am. Lord knows I’m not the most patient person, but I’m willing to wait him out, or chase him down and sit on him until he’ll listen to me.” She looked away. “I just hope it’s not too late.”
Colin came in, spotting Jennifer and Bud sitting at the table. He slid in the booth next to her, giving her a quick hug. “Haven’t found him yet.” Jeff Mitchell was next in the door, looking like he’d been running, all sweaty in his footy shorts and tight shirt. He came over to the booth as well, grinning as Bud reluctantly moved over to let him in. “G’day Jennifer, Colin. Ta, Bud.”
Jennifer sighed, looking from one handsome face to another. “You guys are enough to kill a woman, you know that?” They all blushed, and she laughed. It was so cute when they did that! “Colin, Jeff… I’ve just been telling Bud that I have to find Andy.” She looked down at the table, feeling like a royal heel. “I made a mistake last night, a big one.” She didn’t notice Jeff tense up, watching her intently now. “You might as well know…”
Colin took her hand. “Whatever it is, love, we’re here for you – me, Jeff, Bud, the guys, and Chelle and the other girls. We all kind of stick together, and you’re one of us now. We’ve all seen what you and Andy have between you, and that’s not something that just goes away.”
Jennifer looked gratefully at him. She didn’t think she’d ever heard the soft-spoken man utter more than a sentence or two at a time. Chelle was a lucky woman. “Thanks, Colin. You all know most of the story, I guess. It’s a bit of a shock, being here with all of you. It’s hard for a girl to keep her sanity with so many handsome and sweet guys around.” She chuckled as they all blushed again. “Anyway, you know what I mean. I’m not the first to come here and be a little confused. Last night, I pushed Andy away, thinking I’d made a mistake. I’m so sorry that I’ve hurt him. Guys, the truth is I’m falling in love with him.”
“Jenn…” Jeff looked her in the eye. “Is that all?” She nodded, a little confused. Inwardly, he relaxed, sure now that she hadn’t slept with Bud. “What are you going to do about Terry? He lives here, and you’re bound to have to deal with him at some point.”
“I honestly don’t know, Jeff. He’s not even aware of what’s happening.”
“Yes, he is.” Terry’s deep voice startled all of them. “Bud came to me late last night to have a chat.” He nodded at Bud, who returned the gesture. “I think Jennifer and I need to talk privately.” His tone of command was obvious, and Colin, Jeff and Bud all got up to leave, each giving Jennifer a glance of encouragement.
“Thanks guys, for everything. I owe all of you so much.” She waved as they left. Feeling bereft without her protectors, she looked down, afraid to look Terry in the eye.
Terry put his hand over hers. “Would you like to take a walk?” His voice was gentle, and she looked at him, nodding, too stunned to say a word.
Jennifer and Terry made their way away from the Tavern, heading towards what looked like a garden. She was silent, not knowing what to say. She sighed, and Terry looked over at her, a question in his eyes.
She sighed again, and they stopped at a little stone bench, roses on either side framing a trellis that formed an archway above their heads. Looking up, her eyes met his, and she noticed how alike to Andy’s they were, yet different. More… weary, sad, older somehow.
Terry took her hand, encouraging her to talk. “Why don’t you tell me what’s going on? I’ve heard some of it from Bud, but I’d like to hear your story.” He smiled at her, the same sweet, encouraging smile he must have used with the kidnap victim’s relatives.
“I don’t know where to begin, Terry. This is all so confusing. I came here last weekend, by accident, and when I realized where I was, I figured I was here because of you. It was late, and Andy was alone in the bar.” She smiled, remembering the broken keg and Andy covered with beer. “We got to talking, then we danced, and one thing led to another. I’ve enjoyed his company, and could fall in love with him, but when I saw you…” She looked down at her hand in his, embarrassed to continue.
“I was away last weekend, love. I’m sorry I wasn’t here for you.” He put a finger under her chin, raising it to look her in the eyes. “I knew I brought you here. And you could feel it too, I could see it in your eyes when we met. What do you want, Jennifer? You have to be the one to decide.”
“I don’t know. I thought I did, but now I’m not so sure. How can you love two people at the same time?” Jennifer felt the tears well up and fought to stop them. She looked horrible when she cried, and she didn’t want Terry to see her with puffy eyes and a red nose.
Terry’s arms went around her, pulling her into his chest. They sat like that for a long while, neither one wanting to break the silence that hung between them. She felt like she was torn in two. This morning, she’d been so sure she was in love with Andy, but now, here in Terry’s arms, she felt an attraction to him, the pull that had brought her here.
Andy sat on Jeff’s bed, head in his hands. He knew he couldn’t stay there forever, but he didn’t want to leave just yet. By now the whole place probably knew about what had happened, and he didn’t want to deal with the pity he’d be sure to get. “Poor Andy”, they’d say aloud, but they’d be thinking “Thrown over for another guy”. He turned as Jeff came in the door.
“Howzit going, mate?” Jeff sat on the bed next to him, concern evident in his eyes.
Andy looked over at him, feeling weary to the core. “I’m alive, mate. Wish I weren’t, but here I am.” Jeff was one of his best mates, and he knew he could trust him. “I guess every bastard and his dog is talking about this, right?”
“I’ve had a word with Colin and Bud. They know you’re safe, and they’re leaving it at that. Other than the four of us, no one knows.” Andy looked away at the mention of Bud’s name. Jeff put his hand on Andy’s shoulder. “It’s not what you’re thinking, Andy. I know she didn’t spend the night with Bud.”
Andy shook his head, unable to say anything. He knew Jeff was being nice to him and trying to cover up the truth. He’d seen Bud go in her room and not come out. The rest was just details. Part of him felt guilty, because he knew Jennifer wasn’t the slut he was painting her in his mind, but the part of him that hurt, that ached to his very core, was content with lashing out at the person who had caused his heart to break.
Standing up, he paced restlessly around the room, Jeff looking on sympathetically. “Jeff, mate, I don’t know what to do. I want to go and talk to her, but if she doesn’t want to see me, I… well, I… I just don’t know if I can handle that.”
“Andy.” Jeff stopped him. “She does want to see you. That’s why I came up here, to tell you what she said to me, to us.” At Andy’s hopeful glance, he continued. “Bud, Colin and I all had a talk with her.”
Andy turned away, unable to bear what he was sure to hear. “I can’t. Don’t tell me.” He stood at the window, looking out but not really seeing anything. Jeff had a nice view, overlooking the rose garden. He stiffened, his heart clenching as he spotted two figures walking. //Jennifer… with Terry.// Great, just what he needed to see. Shoulders slumping, he leaned his head against the window, feeling the tears start again.
Jeff saw Andy go rigid, then sag against the window. Walking over and putting his arm around his friend, he looked out the window, seeing what Andy must have seen. Jennifer and Terry, sitting beneath a beautiful rose archway, Terry holding her in his arms.
Andy turned, tears falling freely now. “She wants to see me, eh mate?” His voice was bitter, hard. “Looks like she wants to see everyone EXCEPT me.” Laughing hysterically, he went to the door. “Maybe she’d like a crack at you, Jeff. She thinks you’re cute, so have a go at it.” He slammed out the door.
Jennifer let her head rest against Terry’s chest, feeling the rise and fall from his breathing, listening to the beating of his heart. She couldn’t remember when she’d been so confused. She stirred slightly, and Terry moved back, concern in his eyes.
She peeped up at him, trying to gauge what he was thinking, but the hostage negotiator was good at masking his feelings. “Terry?” She moved closer, not able to put words to what she wanted. Maybe if they touched, if they kissed… maybe then she’d know if what she was feeling was real, or just an imagined emotion left over from how strongly she’d fallen for him after the movie.
He seemed to sense what she couldn’t verbalize, and he moved closer, softly stroking his long fingers against her cheek. She gasped at the touch, the jolt from their contact surprising her. His lips slowly covered hers, warm and moist, and she kissed him back, feeling the current spread through her body. Pulling back, she took a shaky breath. “I’m not ready for this, Terry.”
He cupped her face in his hands. “I’m not going to push you, Jennifer. We need to get to know each other.” He smiled at her. “Maybe we can start again, next weekend?”
She nodded. “I need to get going, anyway. It’s nearly sunset, and I have to go home and get ready for work tomorrow.” She wasn’t looking forward to the drive home, and the week ahead stretched out before her. Last time she’d been so excited about the following visit, she couldn’t wait to return. Now, she wasn’t sure if she even would come back. //What a difference. Last week, Andy was kissing me goodbye, and this week, it’s Terry.// They stood to walk back, Terry’s arm around her shoulders, as much for comfort as for caring. Colin and Bud were waiting for them in the lobby of the hotel, making sure Jennifer was okay. She reassured them both, then waved them away, telling them she’d be fine, and to go hang out with their women.
Terry walked her up to her room, kissing her goodbye at the door. He was giving her the space she so desperately needed. Jennifer’s mind was whirling as she packed what she’d brought for the weekend. She was exhausted after her trying night, and she frankly couldn’t take any more at the moment. She needed to find Andy and talk with him, and she needed to talk with Jeff, so he could tell Bud and Colin what she’d decided.
Picking up her little suitcase and laptop, she walked out to the car. Hearing her name being called, she looked up to see Jeff Mitchell running towards her. “Jeff! I was just going to look for you.”
Jeff stopped, panting. “We’ve got trouble.”
Jennifer felt her knees go weak. “What is it?” She was afraid she knew the answer. Something had happened to Andy, and it was all her fault.
“Andy’s done a runner.”
She shook her head. Andy had been missing since last night. “So you still haven’t found him?”
Jeff flushed. “Uh, well, he was in my room all day.” He couldn’t meet her eyes as she glared at him, hurt and anger competing for attention. “I found him this morning in the storeroom, and let him stay in my room so he could have some time to think.” Jeff grabbed her shoulder as she turned away. “I didn’t mean to mislead you, Jenn. I wanted him to calm down so you two could talk.”
“So what’s the problem?” She still didn’t understand.
“He saw you and Terry in the garden.” She groaned, sinking to the ground next to her car. “Andy was upset all over again, and ran out the door. I can’t find him, and I mean anywhere.” Jeff crouched down next to her. “We’ve got to find him. He’s very distraught.”
Jennifer stood up, realizing that Jeff was right. They needed to find Andy. There was no telling what he’d do if he’d seen her and Terry together. Jeff told her where he’d looked so far, and they tried to think of some place, any place that he’d go and hide. It was almost dark, and they decided to keep together, neither knowing what they’d do or say if they actually found him. They stopped by the storeroom for flashlights, and then went out the back door, not wanting to be seen by anyone in the Tavern.
Several hours later, she and Jeff had searched everywhere with no luck. She’d called her mom to tell her she’d be late, so she wouldn’t worry. Jeff had gone to check the storeroom again in case Andy had doubled back, and she decided to go to the stables. Not that she expected to find Andy there, but she needed to cry, and curling up against Butterscotch seemed like a good idea. Animals always seemed to understand when you were upset, and they didn’t care if your nose got red. They loved you anyway.
Making her way back to the stall, she spied a ladder leading to the hayloft above. Just for the heck of it, she climbed up and looked around. Hearing a noise in the corner, she reached for the camping lamp that was just off to the side. East and Mannie wouldn’t allow oil lamps in their barn, for good reason, but the battery operated ones put out a good light.
She turned it on, the hairs on her neck standing up as she realized she wasn’t alone up there. “Andy?” She called softly.
“Go away.” The harsh growl came from the farthest corner.
Undaunted, she made her way over there, seeing Andy curled behind a hay bale, wearing what looked to be a pair of Jeff’s shorts and shirt. “Andy, come on. We need to talk. Let’s go someplace warmer.” He looked miserable, and she knew he must be cold.
He glared at her, eyes bloodshot. There was a bottle of port on the ground next to him, empty. “What part of GO AWAY don’t you understand?”
She stopped in her tracks. This wasn’t the Andy she knew. This was an angry, bitter, drunk stranger. She tried again. “Andy…”
He stood up suddenly, lurching towards her, grabbing her shirt. “So, you thought you’d come up here and torment me some more, Jennifer? I trusted you. I loved you. And what do I get? You rooted Bud, then you probably went and rooted Terry too, didn’t you?”
She squeaked in surprise and fright as he pushed her back against the wall of the barn, pinning her down. His vicious words continued to cut her. “Why not Jeff? He’s banged sheilas too, did you know that? I’m sure there are others who’d want to give you a go. You’re decent enough.”
//He thinks I’ve slept with Bud?// She didn’t understand. “Andy, you’re hurting me.” She tried desperately to get through to him. He wouldn’t really hurt her, she’d been through that when she was younger, and knew Andy wasn’t the type to hit.
“Hurting? Let me tell you about hurting. You think you’re the only one for me? There’s other women here I fancy, you know. Look at Evelyne, she’s a cutie. I quite like Lady, too.” He kissed her roughly, seeking comfort in the only way his confused brain knew how. She’d ripped his heart out, but he still wanted her so badly.
God help her, she felt a bolt of desire flare through her as his lips punished hers. She dropped the lamp as his hands clamped down on her arms, holding her tight. He continued to kiss her as if he was drowning and she was his air.
His body was pressed full length against hers, trapping her against the wall. She responded to his brutal kisses, seeking the Andy that loved her. He brought his lips to her neck, teeth biting the sensitive skin. His desire was hard against her body, his hips grinding into her, making her want him, in spite of his force. Feeling her body start to react to him, he grabbed the waistband of her jeans, ripping them open and dragging them down.
She gasped as she felt the cool air on her skin, realizing that he was far beyond reason and control. “Andy…” He brought his lips back to hers to silence her, one arm holding her steady while the other fumbled with his shorts, yanking them down. In one swift, fierce motion, he joined their bodies, finding her ready for him despite the situation.
This wasn’t love, his brain clamored. He shoved the thought aside, caught up in the excruciating need to make her his again, to claim her and brand her with his essence, marking her as his own. “This is what you want, isn’t it?” His voice was harsh in her ear. “You came here for this and you don’t care who gives it to you.”
She felt him reach his peak, his body jerking violently, almost growling in his release. She understood what he’d done, what he’d needed to do. It hurt her to her soul to realize she’d driven him to this, and that he would probably never forgive her, or himself.
Wrapping her arms around his neck, she held him as he shuddered. He raised his head to look at her, eyes lucid for the first time. “Oh God.” His whisper tore at her heart. “What have I done?” He stepped back, letting her go, taking in the scene as if he’d just walked in. She sagged against the wall, feeling the rough boards for the first time.
There was genuine anguish in his eyes as he fell to his knees on the hay-littered boards before her. “Jennifer… Oh no… Oh God… I’m so sorry.” He buried his head in his hands, unable to look at what he’d done.
A voice came from down below, startling them both. “Jennifer? Andy? Are you up there?” Jennifer recognized Jeff’s voice, relief flooding through her. This was more than she could handle alone. “We’re up here, Jeff.” Hurriedly, she yanked up her jeans, fastening them as best she could. Andy had rolled to the side, pulling up his shorts and standing up.
Jeff found them like that, Andy standing a few feet from Jennifer, looking like he’d been rolling in the hay, face suffused in guilt. And Jennifer… he sucked in his breath. She was leaning up against the wall, lips swollen and bruised, bloody bite marks on her neck. She shook her head slightly at him, eyes pleading with him to not blow up here. Andy was looking at him, not watching as she mouthed “Later.” He had a good idea what had transpired, and if it was true, he knew Andy would have a hard time forgiving himself.
He forced a smile, taking Andy by the arm. “C’mon, mate. You look like the dog’s breakfast. Let’s get you to your room.” They made their way down the ladder, Jeff going first, then Andy, Jennifer bringing up the rear.
Once they were down on the ground, Jeff handed Jennifer his jacket and baseball cap, indicating she should cover up. She nodded, understanding. //I must look a fright. I hope we don’t run into anyone.// They went back towards the tavern, Andy silent, walking quietly between the two of them like a small child.
Ducking in the back, they’d nearly made it to Andy’s room when a voice stopped them. “I see you found him.” Oh, no… bad luck, it was Bud. Jennifer kept her head lowered as they tried to ease by, but the cop was too observant. His eyes bored into Andy as he moved Jeff’s jacket aside, taking in the marks on her neck, and her swollen lips. “We’ll talk in a minute.” He glared at Jeff and Andy. “Get him inside.” He grabbed Jennifer’s shoulder as she started to go in with them. “Not so fast.”
Sighing, she turned, nodding. He took her across the hall to his room. She sat, without being told. “It’s not what you think, Bud.”
“I know what it looks like.” His voice was quiet, vibrating with barely suppressed anger.
“Look, Bud. I’m not saying what he did is right. But he didn’t force me. I could have stopped him if I’d wanted to.” She held his gaze, trying to make him understand. “He’s going to have a hard time forgiving himself.”
Bud’s fists were clenched. “I’m gonna pound him.” He stood up, but she stopped him with a light touch on the arm.
“Listen to me, Bud. I’ve been in an abusive relationship. I know what it’s like. Andy is NOT that way. I’d know, and I think you know what I mean. He’s hurt, angry, and very drunk. Don’t blame him for something that’s my fault.”
Bud looked at her long and hard, eyes searching her face, seeking the truth. Sighing, he nodded. “I believe you.” He glanced away, then back at her. “You really know what it’s like?”
She knew what he meant. “Yeah Bud, I’ve been there.” She went to him and wrapped her arms around his waist, hugging him hard. His arms wrapped around her shoulders, returning the embrace, each seeking and giving comfort for an experience that both had shared in their own way, and could never forget.
She pulled back, smiling through a glimmer of tears. “I’d better go help Jeff.”
Bud nodded, opening the door for her. “If you need help, let me know.”
“Thank you, Bud. For everything.” She smiled again and went to Andy’s room, knocking softly then entering.
Jeff turned, hands extended to stop who he thought was Bud. Seeing Jennifer, his hands dropped. “I thought Bud was coming to kill Andy.”
“We had a talk. He’s not happy, but he’s not going to do anything.” She looked over at Andy, who was lying on the bed, wrapped in the covers, seeming haggard even in sleep. She moved next to Jeff, whispering in his ear. “Is he okay?”
Jeff nodded, indicating they should go outside to talk. Once the door had shut behind them, he filled her in. “He finally flaked out. I’m guessing he’ll be like that until at least mid-morning.”
“I don’t know what to do, Jeff. I want to stay, to talk with him, but I need to go home. I’m a contractor, if I don’t work, I don’t get paid.” She sighed, torn between her responsibilities at home, and the man in the bed who was hurting because of her.
Jeff hugged her. “Look, Jenn. I know you have to get home. Andy will understand. He’ll feel even worse if he knows you missed work because of him.”
“There’s something I need to know, Jeff. Why would he think I’ve slept with Bud?”
Jeff sighed, looking down. “He saw Bud carry you into your room the other night. Then he waited for him to leave, and when he didn’t come back out, he thought the worst.” Jeff took her hand. “I know that Bud carried you to bed, made sure you were asleep, then went to talk to Terry. I tried to tell Andy, but he wouldn’t listen.”
“So that explains why he thinks I’m sleeping with every guy here.” She smiled wryly. “He’s going to have to listen to me sometime.” //But will he believe me?//
Jeff nodded. “We’ll try and talk with him this week, okay?” At her nod, he decided to ask her the big question weighing on his mind. “Are you coming back?”
She looked away. “I don’t know, Jeff. I promised Terry we’d talk next weekend, when things have calmed down a bit, but after this, I’m not sure if I want to come back. I’m so confused. I care for them both, but I can’t have them both. It might be better if I stayed away.”
“I don’t want you to go, but I understand. I’ll make sure Andy’s okay.”
She was crying again, tears running down her cheeks as she hugged Jeff, maybe for the last time. Andy deserved to be happy, and she could only make him miserable now. He’d never believe she wasn’t sleeping with half of the Boyz, and even if he could trust her again, he’d certainly not forgive her.
She walked down the stairs and out of the Tavern, barely able to see through her tears. She found her car keys and got in her Sentra, driving away. //I won’t look back.//
Andy let out a pitiful whimper as he tried to open his eyes, the sunlight making the room too bright for him to bear. He pulled the covers over his head, burrowing down into the pillows as he tried to remember why he felt so lousy. In a sickening whirl of images, it all came back to him, how he’d lashed out at Jeff after seeing Jennifer and Terry together, then raided the storeroom, a bottle of Port under each arm as he’d gone to the only place he could think of where no one would expect to find him. He’d gotten himself good and pissed, taking turns mentally berating himself and then Jennifer.
A small sob escaped him as he recalled the rest. She’d found him, tried to talk to him, and he’d raped her. Well, not quite, she’d kept telling him she understood, and her body had welcomed him, but he couldn’t abide the last clear image he had of her, seeing her leaning against the wall, face and neck bruised and bloody from his drunken passion.
Vaguely he recalled Jeff finding them, helping him back to his room. Heart pounding, he felt a wave of nausea rise up. He bolted for the bathroom, barely making it in time. He didn’t know how long he was there, the sickness seeming to come from the very center of his being. The last thought he had before oblivion claimed him was how good the cold tile of the floor felt against his heated skin.
He was walking along a tree-lined path, heading towards the grove where he and Jennifer had made love that sunny afternoon. Everything was just as he remembered it. Entering the grove, he could see her there, on the stone bench, waiting for him. Sunlight wreathed her reddish-gold hair, and as he got closer, he could see the welcoming look in her eyes, that look she had just for him. She held out her arms, reaching for him. He stepped into her embrace and….
He felt someone shaking him. //No no no no no// He didn’t want to wake up, Jennifer was there, waiting for him, he needed to be with her.
The shaking grew more insistent. A voice now, calling his name. The dream faded away, and Andy felt like crying. Jeff was there, helping him up, putting him back in bed. He’d closed the curtains, so the room’s light was bearable, just barely. “Jeff?” His voice came out in a croak. Jeff brought him a glass of water, and Andy took a long drink, hoping his stomach would hold still for a while. He tried again. “What time is it?”
“It’s nearly 5, mate. You’ve been flaked out the whole day.” He smiled sympathetically at Andy’s groan. “I wanted to make sure you were alright before I subbed for you at the bar.”
Andy groaned again. “Ta. I owe you.” //Too much.// He sat up slowly, reaching for the water again.
Jeff turned to go, stopping at the door. “I’ve passed it around you’re stuck in bed with a wog, Andy. Only Bud knows what happened in the barn, Jennifer somehow stopped him from coming over and floggin’ you, but I’d stay away from him for a while.” At Andy’ s nod, he left, shutting the door softly behind him.
He wanted to die. That was all there was to it. He’d let his pain and anger get the better of him, and he’d hurt the woman he loved in the process. Bud would probably never speak to him again, and he was sure Terry would be the same way after he found out what had happened. He owed Jeff much more than a night or two at the bar, he’d been a true mate to him, helping him even though he’d been a total wanker to Jennifer.
For the first time in days, he sat and thought, not about the self-pity that threatened to consume him, but how she must feel. Things had happened fast between them, and a lot of the girls found the Boyz to be overwhelming, especially when they first arrived at the Nest. Why should she have been any different?
He’d seen her with Bud, yes, but Jeff had tried to tell him what had really happened. She’d been walking with Terry in the garden, too. Hardly incriminating, he realized. It was natural that she want to talk with him, he’d drawn her here, but suddenly Andy realized that sometimes the initial attraction might not develop into a true bond. He knew he wasn’t the one to bring her here, but the connection between them was palpable, almost a living, breathing thing in itself.
“Shit.” Andy cursed to himself, thinking what a fool he’d been. If only he hadn’t taken off when she first met and reacted to Terry. If only he’d talked things through with her instead of letting his fear of being rejected again take a hold of him. If only he hadn’t done what he’d done in the barn. If only….
He knew she was gone now. It was Monday, and she had to work. The earliest she’d be back would be Friday, five long days away. He didn’t think she’d ever forgive him for what he’d done, but he was going to try… take a crack and win on her. He loved her, and hoped that somewhere deep inside she still cared for him, even just a little.
With that thought, he let himself drift back into sleep, making a promise to himself to talk with Jeff the next morning.
Jennifer sat at work, sighing for probably the fiftieth time. She was wearing a turtleneck to hide the marks Andy had left. She’d been over and over the events of the last weekend in her mind, and was no closer to coming to a conclusion, or a decision.
She wasn’t sure if she wanted to go back to the Nest. She’d miss Jeff, and Bud, certainly. Terry was a complication she needed to mull over, even though she cared for him, and wanted him. Yes, he’d been the first one she’d fallen for, and she did want to spend some time with him. She needed to know if what she felt for him was real, or just an attraction that would fade with time. Andy, well… he was a raw spot in her heart. She loved him, she knew that as surely as she breathed. She didn’t think he’d ever come near her again after what had happened. She’d already forgiven him, but could he forgive himself?
Her own guilt was eating her alive, remembering the stricken look on his face when she’d admitted to being attracted to Terry. She couldn’t imagine what went through his mind when he saw her with Bud. Jeff’s explanation of how Andy had seen them made her squirm. It was clear Andy had been on his way to talk with her when he’d seen Bud carrying her to her room. //Why couldn’t things ever go smoothly???//
Finding herself sighing once again, she resolved to put it aside for now. If she did go back to the Nest on Friday, she’d spend some time with Jeff. Maybe his friend Lisa would be there, they could all talk about footy and hockey and just have a good time. That sounded like what she needed in her life, hanging out with friends and relaxing, living for the moment.
Andy decided he’d have a talk with Jennifer when she came back, if she came back. The week went by quickly as he immersed himself in work, trying not to think too much. He’d finally had that long talk with Jeff he’d needed, and thought he’d gotten a few things straightened out in his mind. It was Friday afternoon now, and he was working the bar all weekend. Jeff’s friend Lisa was here, and they were planning on watching some footy, Jeff had said something about teaching her about the game.
He sighed as he watched more and more people come in the Tavern. It was starting to get dark, and the couples were beginning to come in for drinks before dinner. Some of the lurkers had been flirting with him, and he thought about exploring that further, but somehow he couldn’t bring himself to pursue any of them. Anxiously, he kept trying to see if *her* car was in the car park, but it was getting too busy for him to keep peeking out the door. Jeff came down briefly to stock up on food and drinks. Andy gave him a questioning look, but Jeff shook his head. No sign of her, he’d probably see her before Andy did.
Jennifer sat in her car, letting it idle in the driveway. She’d packed some clothes, put them in the trunk, and here she was, unsure if she wanted to head towards the Nest. Lisa had assured her that she’d be welcome to watch the footy, and frankly, she needed a break from her mom. Taking a deep breath, she cranked her new TOFOG CD and pulled out onto the roadway….
Jennifer saw the lights of the Crowe’s Nest and Tavern up ahead. She’d almost been hoping that this time the magic wouldn’t work, and she would find herself on an ordinary road. No such luck, she had to face her problems, and was here to do just that. She’d spent all week unable to sleep, seeing images of Andy in her mind when she tried to rest. First, however, she was going to relax and enjoy herself.
She pulled into what was becoming her “usual” spot in the parking lot, popping the trunk and reluctantly shutting off the strains of ‘Swept Away Bayou’ that were coming from the speakers. Pulling out her suitcase, she made her way up to her room in the hotel, waving to Peaches as she went past the lobby.
Stopping at her door, she chuckled as she saw a little scrap of paper tucked into the crevice of the doorjamb. “Jeff’s room, footy’s on.” Smiling to herself, she dropped her stuff inside the door, then locked it, heading right back down the stairs. She passed Tina and John in the hallway, both dressed for an evening in one of the Nest’s formal dining areas. They chatted for a couple of moments, Jennifer excusing herself before either could ask her about Andy. She didn’t know if word had gotten around about she and Andy falling out, but she didn’t want to answer any awkward questions right now.
Heading for the sanctuary of Jeff’s room, she paused at the entrance to the Tavern. If Jeff was off for the night, which he obviously was, then Andy would most likely be at the bar. Johnny, Arthur, and Kim always took turns helping on busy weekend nights, but she wasn’t sure if she could manage to sneak past without being seen.
Just as she was about to go inside, Lachlan came out of the door, stopping as he saw her standing there, indecision written clearly on her face. “How ya goin’, luv? Can I help ya?”
She looked thoughtfully at him, wondering if she could trust him. He seemed nice, and she had nothing to lose, right? “Hi Lachlan. Can you tell me if Andy’s at the bar?”
“Oh yeah, luv. He’s been there all evening.” He gazed at her, his face open and honest. “You don’t want to go inside, do ya?”
“No, I don’t. We had a… a misunderstanding last weekend, and I need some time. I was going up to Jeff’s room to watch some footy.”
His face lit up, and he smiled. “Tell ya what, I’ll distract Andy and you can sneak up the stairs. It’ll be easy.”
She laughed, thinking how thoughtful he was to do that for her. “That’d be great, Lachlan.” She kissed him on the cheek, and laughed again as he blushed. “You’re so sweet!”
He winked at her and ducked inside, motioning for her to wait just inside the door. He walked over to the bar. From where she was at, she could just barely see what was happening. He spoke with Andy for a moment, then Andy went back into the storeroom. Lachlan made a little waving motion with his hand, and she took the hint, scooting across the room and up the stairs before Andy returned. She didn’t notice the flash of purple further down the hallway as she knocked on the door to Jeff’s room.
Andy kept trying to look for Jennifer, but he hadn’t seen her come in. Lachlan had come by at one point, asking him for a bottle of Dalwhinnie, and he’d had to get it from the storeroom. Other than that, it was just the typical Friday night routine. Kim was giving him a hand tonight, when he wasn’t chatting up a cute little blonde that had arrived earlier.
He looked up as Sid slid into a seat at the bar, smirking as usual. “Sid. What are you doing here?”
“What does it look like, junior? I’m here for a drink, or maybe some female company.” Sid’s smile took on an evil cast. “I see your little girlfriend’s taken up with a new friend.”
Andy tried to conceal the pounding of his heart at the mention of her name. “Oh give it a rest, Sid. She’s not even here.”
“That’s funny. I was sure I saw her earlier, going into Jeff’s room.” Sid gave a little giggle as Andy’s face blanched. “Quite a few of the guys were going to stop by there tonight. I wonder which one she’s with now?”
Andy felt sick to his stomach. Was it true? Was she there, in Jeff’s room? Lachlan had mentioned watching the footy, and he’d heard from Johnny that he and Steve might swing by.
Sid slipped off the barstool, figuring he’d done his work for the night. “She’s kinda cute, Andy. I might see if she’s still looking for a real man.” One last smirk and he was gone.
Lisa answered Jeff’s door, giving Jennifer a hug as she entered. They took a seat on the couch, Jeff slipping in the first of the Aussie Rules football matches, then snuggling in between the two women. They sat like that for a while, Jeff explaining the rules, and what each player was doing, and why. He was the perfect host, plying her with sweet cider and lots of popcorn.
A knock sounded at the door, and Jeff hopped up to answer, grinning as Lachlan came in, bearing a bottle of good Scots whiskey. They settled in again, Jennifer sitting on the floor in front of the couch, Lisa sandwiched in between Jeff and Lachlan. She was enjoying the companionship, and the footy. She was surprised at how she could follow the game, once she got the knack of what was happening. Feeling a very pleasant buzz, she decided to visit the restroom while she could still walk in a semi-straight line.
Jeff had been meaning to mention what had happened between Jennifer and Andy to Lisa. “Lisa, I’ve got to tell you something. Lachlan, you should hear this too.” Jeff motioned both of them closer to him. After looking behind him to make sure the door of the loo was shut, he said, “Andy and Jennifer had a bit of a row last week. I think we need to get them back together.”
“That explains why she didn’t want to see Andy tonight. She had me distract him while she came up here.” Lachlan had wondered about that but didn’t feel like he should ask Jennifer for the details.
“What happened, Jeff?” Lisa was concerned. Jennifer was a new friend but they had alot in common and Lisa hated to see her hurt. “She seemed alright last week.”
“Here’s the short one, Andy thinks she’s having a go with half the blokes here.” Jeff looked at the shocked faces of the people sitting next to him. “‘Struth. First he saw her with Bud then with Terry and jumped to all the wrong conclusions.”
“Why in the world would he think that?” Lisa asked. Jennifer was a sweet lady.
“‘Cuz he’s young and naive and no one has ever come to the Nest for him. That’s why.” Lachlan was sure of that.
They all turned when they heard a noise from the bathroom. “Well, can’t talk now. But we need to do something.”
“I need another drink if I’m going to play matchmaker.” Lachlan stood and walked towards their makeshift bar.
Lisa turned to Jeff, “There’s more to it, isn’t there?”
“Yes, but I’ll tell ya…” He stopped in mid sentence as he heard the bathroom door shut. Both he and Lisa sat up straight, a guilty look on their faces.
As she returned, she noticed Jeff and Lisa talking together, Lachlan pouring himself another drink at the table doubling as a makeshift bar. Walking up to him, she gave him a friendly smile, thanking him for his help earlier.
“No worries, luv. It was a lark.” He gave her a quick little grin, picking up the freshly made bowl of popcorn.
Feeling very lighthearted from all the cider she’d been drinking, she took a couple of pieces of popcorn off of the top and threw them at him, laughing at his surprised look. She took off around the couch, afraid of his reprisal. Next thing she knew, he was right behind her, armed with a handful of popcorn. She shrieked as he flung it at her, half of it falling over Jeff and Lisa. “That’s it!”
Lisa jumped up, grabbing handfuls of popcorn and throwing it at Lachlan, Jennifer, and Jeff. Next thing they knew, they were running around the room, a virtual snowstorm of popcorn flying through the air.
Jeff snuck out a foot, tripping Jennifer, laughing as she fell arse over tit. She grabbed him with her legs, dragging him down to the floor, reaching a hand to his ribs. //Oh goodie, he’s ticklish!!!// She pounced on him, tickling madly, Jeff shouting for help. Lisa joined in the fray, Lachlan jumping on all of them.
Andy just stood there, too dazed to respond, as he watched Sid walk away. Taking a deep breath, he walked over to Kim. “Watch things here for a bit, mate. There’s something I haveta look into.” At Kim’s nod, he untied his apron and headed up the stairs. He paused outside of Jeff’s door, hearing the sounds of the tele, and above that, giggling and laughter.
Opening the door, he stopped, dumbstruck at the sight before him. A tangle of bodies moved on the floor, sounds of wild laughter and shrieking ringing in his ears. It looked like a cross between a rugby scrum and Twister, arms and legs flying everywhere.
There was a sudden silence as they became aware of the open door, and Andy recognized Jeff and Lachlan, both men half kneeling, half lying on two others. Lisa poked her head out from around Jeff’s back, her legs pinned by Lachlan. The other person wriggled out from under Lachlan, shaking her reddish-blonde hair out of her eyes.
Jennifer and Andy both gasped as their eyes met, hers widening in surprise. Andy stood there for a long moment, noting the way Lachlan was practically laying on top of her. He looked away, unable to believe he’d spent all week trying to come up with a way to woo her, only to find her happily playing with Lachlan.
“Andy!” She squeaked, blushing profusely. She cleared her throat, trying again. “I, uh, we, uh…” She trailed off, trying to think of a way to explain. Jeff, Lisa, and Lachlan had all scrambled up, and were trying to look innocent. She tried another tack. “I thought you had to work tonight.” Inwardly she winced. That didn’t sound any better. It sure wasn’t how she’d imagined their first meeting since… well, since last weekend.
He turned to go, stopping as she put her hand on his shoulder. “Andy, wait.” He couldn’t look at her. It hurt too much. “We were just goofing around. Don’t take this the wrong way, please?” She was looking at him, her eyes pleading with him to believe her.
Andy looked over at Jeff, who nodded, confirming what Jennifer had just told him. “I have to get back to the bar.” His voice softened as he saw she was becoming upset. “Can we talk soon?” A little smile played about his lips as she nodded, and he left, feeling like there might be hope for them after all.
Jennifer watched Andy close the door behind him, leaving her to look over at Jeff, Lisa, and Lachlan. They were all watching her, and she blushed. “It’s okay, guys. Really!” They observed her warily as she started picking up the mess from the food fight, then Lachlan and Lisa joined in, the three of them getting the mess picked up quickly. They nearly had another tickle fight as Jennifer and Lisa ganged up on Jeff, but he fended them off, grabbing a shirt and waving it like a flag of truce. Laughing, they all settled down to watch more of the match.
A couple of the other guys dropped by for a while. Jennifer smiled, finding herself sitting on the floor between Colin and Johnny, her back between Jeff’s knees, up against the couch. //Talk about surrounded by gorgeous men!// Giggling, she just *had* to lift up the arm of Colin’s shirt so she could peek at his tattoo. He blushed, playfully slapping her hand away. Johnny slipped his arm around her, and she snuggled against him, feeling all warm and cozy. It was easy to feel comfortable and protected by these men, especially the ones she’d had a soft spot for after watching their movies.
After a bit, Colin took off to go see what else was happening around the Nest, and Johnny got a call from Kim, asking him to relieve him at the bar so he could spend some time alone with the little blonde.
Finding herself alone on the floor once again, she excused herself while Jeff switched the tape to another match. Another bathroom break, how many drinks had that been? She chuckled. //And I used to tease my ex about his numerous trips to the loo.//
As soon as the bathroom door closed, Lisa motioned the two men closer. “We’ve got to help Andy win Jennifer back. You can see it just looking at them that they are crazy about each other.” Jeff and Lachlan nodded their agreement.
“What ya have in mind, luv?” Jeff questioned.
“How about a nice romantic dinner together?” Lisa could picture it in her mind. A small intimate table, candlelight, a bottle of nice wine chilling. “We’ll surprise them. Lachlan, you can take Jennifer out tomorrow. Give her one of your special deluxe tours of the Nest.” She pointed to the almost healed cut on her forehead, “Without the blood, of course.”
Jeff laughed at Lachlan’s contrite expression. He knew that the pilot still felt sorry about the accident that had caused Lisa’s injury. “What am I supposed to do?”
“Your job is to help Andy. And you’ll probably have to sub for him tomorrow night because I think he’s supposed to tend bar.” Lisa was starting to get excited about this. “Oh yeah, that’s it. We can set something up in Jennifer’s room while she’s out with Lachlan. Something romantic, beautiful flowers, soft music, etc.”
“So how long should I keep Jennifer gone?” Lachlan wanted to make sure he had his part down.
“As long as possible,” Jeff piped in.
Lisa added, “I’d say, somewhere around 6:00 or 6:30.”
The trio of schemers didn’t notice that the door of the bathroom had opened and Jennifer stood there, watching them talk. Lucky for them, they were keeping their voices low.
Jennifer took her time, freshening up, but she realized she was just plain tired. She’d had a long day, and the unexpected appearance of Andy had just seemed to drain her of all her energy. She decided to call it a night, resolving to get some things done in the morning.
As she came out of the restroom, she noticed the three friends deep in conversation. She paused, clearing her throat. “I’m going to head to bed, guys. I’m rooted, as you Aussies would say. Thanks, Jeff, for letting me come over and watch the footy. It’s been fun!” Looking over at Lisa, she smiled. “We’ll have to return the favor with a few hockey games.” She turned to Lachlan. “Night, Lachlan. Thanks for everything.”
“No worries, luv.” Lachlan stepped forward. “If you’d like, we can go for a ride in my plane sometime. How about tomorrow?”
Jennifer laughed. “No, thanks. I don’t do heights. The back of a horse is as far off the ground as I like to get.”
Lachlan grinned, a sudden idea occurring to him. “How about a ride on my petrol pony? I’d love to take it for a spin.”
“Oh, I’d love that, Lachlan!” Her eyes lit up. “That sounds like fun.”
Smiling at her, he nodded. “Alright then, I’ll come get you after brekkie.”
Giggling, she gave him a quick hug, then hugged Lisa and Jeff. “Thanks again, you two. It was great. I’m sorry to be so tired.”
She left down the front stairs, returning Andy’s little wave as she glanced in the bar on her way out the door. She mentally chided herself for avoiding him earlier. //You really need to have a long talk with him, silly.// She wanted to set things right between them, but there was still the matter of Terry to work out.
Lost in thought, she walked back to the hotel, wondering how she was going to solve this whole mess she’d found herself in. Turning the corner of the hallway, she ran smack into a very solid chest. “Oof.
Sorry!” She looked up and gasped. “Terry!”
“Jennifer, are you okay?” Terry looked down in concern. “I didn’t realize you were there, love.”
“No, I’m fine.” She rubbed her nose, laughing ruefully. “I wasn’t paying attention to where I was going.”
He slipped an arm around her, guiding her back down the hall. “At least let me walk you to your room. Have you been here long?”
Guiltily, she nodded. “Yeah, I got here a few hours ago.” He raised one eyebrow as if asking her a question. “I was over at Jeff Mitchell’s room, watching the Aussie rules footy with a few people.” She stopped, turning to look at him. “I just needed to relax tonight, Terry. It’s been a long, confusing week for me.”
He looked at her, face neutral. //I wonder if I’ll ever know him well enough to read him?// “It’s okay, love. I can imagine you’ve had a rough time of it lately.” He smiled at her, his eyes a bright azure, and she suddenly felt breathless. “How about spending the day with me Sunday, followed by dinner that night? In the formal dining room?”
Stunned, she nodded. “I’d like that. Oh, umm, Terry… I didn’t exactly come prepared to…” She broke off, embarrassed. //I don’t even *own* a formal dress.//
He gave her a little grin, and they started up the stairs to her room. “S’okay, we’ll take care of that. Let’s meet for brunch, spend the afternoon together, and then meet up again for dinner.”
“That sounds wonderful.” The dining room was a better option than the food at the bar. The last thing she wanted was to go to the Tavern with Terry. Andy would be working, and she didn’t want him to see them together. It wasn’t fair to either man to put them in that situation.
They stopped at her door. Terry gently took her chin in his hand, looking in her eyes. “See you Sunday then, love. I’m looking forward to it.” Leaning down, he placed a soft kiss on her lips. She felt her pulse quicken at the touch, and he increased the pressure slightly, sliding his tongue out to lick her bottom lip.
He pulled back, giving her a small smile, not wanting to rush things. With a wave, he went back down the hallway, turning to give her a little wink before heading down the stairs.
She leaned back against her door, feeling her heart pounding in her chest. He could stir her passion with one little kiss. //Oh my.// Fumbling with the keys, she managed to open the door, stopping as she saw a little envelope that had been pushed through the crack at the bottom. She wondered if it had been there earlier, but she’d been in such a hurry to get to the footy party she might have missed it.
Opening the envelope, she pulled out a card. On the cover was a black and white photograph of white roses, arranged in a heart. Hands shaking, she opened the card and read the note inside.
I know words cannot describe the anger, pain, and sorrow I feel at what I have done. Please know that for every hurt I have given you, I have inflicted it upon myself a thousand times more. You are my every breath, my every waking thought, my very soul. Please try and find it in your heart to forgive me.
Tears starting in her eyes, she sank down on the edge of the bed. //Oh God.// The pain in her heart was nearly unbearable. They needed to talk, and soon. How could she forgive herself for letting him continue to hurt over something she’d already pardoned him for? She undressed and crawled into bed, but as tired as she was, it was a long time before sleep claimed her.
Jennifer stretched, glancing at the clock as the morning sun came in her window. Urk, nearly 9 a.m., not like her to sleep in so much, but then again, she didn’t know what time she’d finally fallen into a restless slumber. Sighing, she recalled the note from Andy that had sent her reeling. He cared so much for her, that was obvious.
Rolling out of bed, she took a shower and got ready, pulling on her usual weekend garb of jeans. She rummaged through her suitcase, looking for her short crop top. She normally didn’t wear it, but since the sun was shining, she might as well work on her tan a little. //As much as I ever tan with my fair skin, anyway.// Looking one final time in the mirror, she studied the woman looking back at her. Reddish-blonde hair, blue-green eyes, curvy, athletic figure… What a difference from the unhappy, overweight person she’d been a year ago. Mentally shaking herself, she stuck her tongue out at the reflection and headed out the door, grabbing her sunglasses on the way out.
Realizing she’d never eaten breakfast in the hotel, she went down to one of the smaller dining areas. A blonde waiter came by to take her order, and she smiled as she recognized Rick, Jeff’s good friend. Most people knew he and Jeff were lovers, but they kept it subtle, realizing that not everyone would be comfortable with their relationship. It didn’t bother Jennifer, and she let Rick know that right away, asking after Jeff, and giggling when he blushed. It was slow right now, and Jennifer managed to chat with Rick a bit. He was really nice, and she enjoyed their little talk.
Her breakfast arrived in no time, and she dove into the Eggs Benedict, a favorite of hers. As usual, the food was fantastic, and she chuckled to herself. Good thing she didn’t live here full-time, or she’d end up gaining all her weight back. Just as she was finishing up, she spotted Lachlan looking for her. //The man’s got great timing!// She waved and he came on over.
“G’day, Jennifer. Ready to go for a ride?” He smiled, eyes glancing over her appreciatively as she stood to join him.
She blushed, still unused to the looks she got. “Morning, Lachlan. Yeah, I’ve been looking forward to this!”
Lachlan grinned, looking like an eager little boy. “My little ‘pony’ is right outside. I took the liberty of packing a picnic lunch. Is that okay?” At her nod, they walked outside, Jennifer stretching and reveling in the warm sunshine. He gave her a sly little wink. “Are you sure you don’t want to go flying?”
“Oh, no way! I don’t like heights, and after Lisa’s little accident, there’s no way I’d want to go up there…” She broke off as a little spasm of pain crossed his face. “Lachlan.” His eyes met hers. “I’m sorry. I know it was an accident, and you didn’t mean to hurt her. I think you’re a wonderful pilot, but trust me, I’m doing you a favor by not flying with you. I really, really dislike heights. I can’t even go on a ferris wheel at the fair.” He cocked his head in a silent question, and she nodded. “It’s true.”
Laughing, he shook his head, trying to understand what that must be like. “Well, Jennifer, let’s shoot through then.” He started up the motorcycle, and she climbed on behind him, snuggling up to his back and wrapping her arms around his waist. They started off, and she reveled in the feel of the bike, the wind, and the speed. He noticed how comfortable and relaxed she was, and asked if she wanted to go faster. Tightening her grip on his waist, she nodded, and he gunned the engine, sending them flying down the road. Unable to contain herself, she let out an exuberant yell, the exhilaration of racing the wind rushing through her body.
They rode around most of the morning, Lachlan taking her on a long tour of the area surrounding the Nest. At one point, she started to think the landscape was familiar. She pointed Lachlan down a long blacktop road, staring in confusion as it ended at a row of mailboxes. Further on was a little yellow building, a truck scale out in front. Lachlan slowed, then stopped. “I’ve never seen this before.”
Jennifer shook her head, tears welling up in her eyes. “Its… its where I grew up, Lachlan.” She took in the little farming ranch with amazement. “We moved from here when I was fourteen. My dad was diagnosed with cancer, and we needed to move to the city so he could be near the doctor.”
Lachlan turned to look at her. “Is your house nearby, luv?” She nodded, unable to speak, pointing to the right, down a row of houses. He started the bike, and went slowly down the dirt road, a pasture on their left, houses on the right. She tapped him on the shoulder when they reached the end of the row, gesturing for him to turn left.
They rode slowly down a tree lined lane, a green park on one side, a field of crops on the other. At the end, a house, the house where she’d spent the first thirteen years of her life. It still looked the same, but then, since it was her imagination that had brought it here, of course it would be stuck in time.
She felt the tears start to trickle down her face as she slipped off the motorcycle and walked around, seeing for the first time in years the front yard, the patio, the tree outside the front window that had been her haven when she was upset. Her mom’s rosebushes were blooming, and she inhaled the sweet scent of her favorite lavender rose. Memories of her childhood swept through her mind, all the happy times she’d spent here flooding through her. She walked over to the carport, remembering the year the cement had been put in to act as a floor. Kneeling down, she looked and saw a tiny handprint, that of a small child, with her initials and the date etched below. Gently, she touched it, lost in her own world.
Lachlan came up behind her, kneeling and touching the indentations in the cement. “Yours, luv?” She nodded, her vision blurring through her tears. He moved closer, wrapping his arms around her, letting her cry on his shoulder.
“Why, Lachlan?” Her voice was barely a whisper. “Why did we find this?”
“I’m not sure, luv. I think maybe you needed to come here.” He brushed away the tears still clinging to her cheeks. “Do you want to look around more? Stay for a bit?”
Slowly she shook her head. “No, that’s okay. I’d been back a time or two since we moved away, but each time something else had changed, until the last time I went I swore I couldn’t ever go back. It was too different, and it hurt too much to see the changes. Maybe now that I was able to see it like I really remember, I’ll be okay.”
He gave her a long hug, putting his arm around her as they walked back to the bike. “While we’re here, why don’t we have lunch?”
She smiled. “That would be great. I know just the spot.” They unpacked the food, carrying it over to an area around the side of the house. There was a pasture on one side, the house a few feet away on the other, and in a break in the fence, there was a series of steps, the top step almost the width of a picnic table. Lachlan looked over and saw they continued down the other side, acting as a way to get in and out of the pasture without having to open or close a gate. Jennifer giggled as they set up the food. “My pony used to come and beg for treats when I was here.”
“You like neddies, then?” Lachlan smiled as he watched her, imagining her as a little girl. She shot him a puzzled look, making him giggle. “Horses, luv, horses.”
“Oh! I love them. I got Shado when I was ten, and she was my best friend.” She chuckled. “I was the only girl here on the ranch for a long, long time. That’s why I’m such a tomboy, I grew up around boys.”
He laughed, and they settled in to eat their picnic lunch. Why was it that chicken, potato salad, and fresh rolls always tasted the best when eaten outdoors? The weather was perfect, and they both relaxed in the sun when they’d finished, stretching out on a blanket on the grass. Jennifer stretched her arms above her head, using them as a pillow as she gazed up at the clear, blue sky. She didn’t want to go back to the Nest, but she knew they couldn’t stay out here all day. Poor Lisa, Jennifer didn’t want her to think she’d run off with Lachlan.
A soft touch on her stomach made her start. Lachlan was gazing down at her. “Don’t fall asleep, luv. You’re already starting to turn a little pink.” He poked a finger against her skin, emphasizing the color change.
“Mmmm. Yeah, you’re right.” Sighing heavily, she sat up, noting she was getting more freckles on her shoulders. She wasn’t a true redhead, she did tan a little, but it took a very long time, and she rarely was able to get more than just a light bit of color.
They packed up their little picnic, and Lachlan started the bike. “Want to drive?”
She paused, surprised. “I’d love to, but I don’t know how.”
Lachlan waved her in front of him. “It’s easy. I’ll show you.” She climbed on, and he slid on behind her, lifting the kickstand and holding the bike upright. He showed her the controls, explaining the clutch and the gas. After a few false starts, she got the heavy motorcycle moving, and from there, the shifting was easier. They practiced up and down the dirt roads, starting and accelerating, then slowing down and stopping, until she was maneuvering it easily and with more confidence.
They drove back to the Nest, Lachlan relaxing and letting her take control. She didn’t go as fast as he did, but it was such an absolute freedom to be in charge of the powerful vehicle. As they pulled into the driveway, she spotted several of the guys on the porch of the Tavern. Colin’s eyes widened in shock as he saw who was driving, and Lachlan gave them a jaunty wave.
Stopping in front of the hotel, she slid off the seat, completely relaxed and happy for the first time in days. Impulsively, she threw her arms around Lachlan, giving him a big hug. “Thank you SO much for today, Lachlan. It was wonderful!”
He laughed and hugged her back. “My pleasure, luv. Let’s do it again sometime.” She nodded, grinning madly. She looked up as Jeff and Lisa came out the front door of the hotel, and she felt Lachlan tense slightly. //Interesting. I wonder how close he and Lisa are getting?// She called out a greeting, and they came over. Lachlan told them about his riding lessons, and Jennifer shared her experience with her old house.
They all chatted for a bit, then Jeff, Lisa, and Lachlan decided to head over to the Tavern. Saying her goodbyes, Jennifer made her way up the stairs to her room, reveling in the day. Idly, she wondered if she should get a motorcycle. That was definitely an experience she wanted to repeat.
As she opened the door to her room, her eye was caught by something under the door. She swung the door open further and gasped. The room was completely darkened, lit by candles everywhere. The air seemed to flicker, and as she moved into the suite further, she realized that the walls were covered with a shimmering, silvery material, almost iridescent, that reflected the candlelight all around. There were white rose petals scattered about the table and floor, filling the room with their soft scent. The little table by the alcove had been decorated with a dark blue cloth, and had its own candles and white roses in a vase, with a smattering of petals next to the place settings. Next to the table was a bottle of wine chilling in a bucket, and the stereo was on, Faith Hill playing softly.
Whirling at a soft touch on her shoulder, she looked up to see Andy standing there, achingly handsome in a navy blue suit, holding out a single white rose. “For you.”
She slowly glanced around the room again, then back at him. “Did you do this?”
He nodded, a small smile playing around his lips. “Yeah.” Ever honest, he added, “I had some help too.”
Jennifer remembered Jeff and Lisa leaving right as she and Lachlan pulled up. So that’s what they’d been up to! Turning to Andy, she slipped her arms around his neck, hugging him tight. “It’s beautiful, Andy. Thank you.”
His arms went around her waist, pulling her up against him, murmuring softly in her ear. “Not as beautiful as you are, but you’re welcome, luv.” It felt so good to hold her again, and he didn’t want the moment to end.
She held him for a long minute, feeling their hearts pounding together, then pulled back slightly with a small laugh, looking at his suit, then down at her jeans and top. “I’m not dressed for your surprise, Andy.”
Putting a finger across her lips to silence her, he took her hand, leading her to the bedroom. She gasped as she saw a dress laid out on her bed. “Oh! It’s gorgeous!” She gingerly reached out a hand, gently brushing her fingers over the silky material. It was a pale lavender two-piece, a top and skirt. There was a little pair of sandals on the floor underneath, the straps so small and delicate she wondered if they’d stay on.
“Put it on, luv.” Andy’s voice caught as he anticipated how she’d look in it.
Laughing shakily, she carefully picked the dress and shoes up, taking them into the bathroom. “Be out in a bit, then.” She stripped out of her clothes and hopped into the shower, grabbing the vanilla shower gel on impulse. Finishing her quick clean up, she got out and dried off, rubbing in the matching vanilla lotion. //Andy loves this on me.// Throwing on a touch of makeup, she paused as she looked at the dress. It was so totally ‘her’, and so like Andy to know what she’d love.
Taking a deep breath, she released the skirt from the hanger. Slipping it on, she was relieved to find it fit perfectly over her curves, hugging her waist just right. It started just below her belly button, showing off the little white gold and sapphire butterfly she wore at the top of her navel. The A-line swept past her hips, ending just above her ankles, overlaid with a shimmering silver mesh.
The top was next, hugging her full breasts, held up by two small spaghetti straps, and tying behind her back in a bow. It was decorated with simple beadwork, a beaded fringe falling from underneath to tickle her stomach.
Last came the delicate sandals, the touch of a heel making her a teeny bit taller. She stood to look at the effect, the lavender setting off her fair skin and making her eyes seem more blue. She imagined the look on Andy’s face when she walked out of the bathroom.
Turning to shut off the light, she opened the door, moving out to the living room. She paused in the doorway, Andy’s back to her as he gazed out the window. He looked pensive, and she wondered what he was thinking. She must have made some small noise, and he turned to look at her.
His eyes lit up as he gazed at her. “Ah luv, you look simply radiant.” He was stunned, to him she was the most beautiful woman in the world. He’d just been thinking how much she’d come to mean to him, and what his life at the Nest would be like if she were to leave.
Blushing, she walked over to him, sliding her hand underneath his jacket, placing it over his heart. She leaned up on tiptoe, brushing her lips over his. His heart was pounding under her hand, and his hands slipped to her waist, encircling the bare skin there. Her lips traced a path across his cheek, slipping along his jaw line and teasing the sensitive skin beneath his ear.
Andy groaned as she nuzzled his neck. She knew exactly what he liked, where he liked to be touched. His body was on fire, and he fought to control it. “Jennifer, luv… you keep that up and I’ll have to take that dress right back off your lovely body.” His voice was low, husky with desire, and it sent shivers down her spine.
“Mmm, tempting thought, Andy.” Her eyes searched his. “I’ve missed you.”
Andy’s hands tightened involuntarily on her waist, her words easing the ache that had been wrapped around his heart. “I’ve missed you too.” He gave a little smile, just the left corner of his mouth turning up slightly.
Her heart skipped a beat. //I love it when he does that.// “Why don’t we have some wine, and we can talk.” Her tummy chose that moment to growl, and they giggled together.
“Sounds like you could use some food too, luv. I’ve ordered tea, it should be here soon.” He escorted her to her seat, pulling the chair out for her as if they were in the formal dining room. It was fun to be all dressed up, especially with such a handsome man.
She thought guiltily of her date with Terry tomorrow, and how they would be doing this same thing. Pushing the thought aside, she smiled at Andy as he poured her a glass of wine. Taking a sip, she was surprised by the sweet white wine, again her favorite. “That’s nice, Andy. A sweet white, you remembered.”
He leaned down, whispering in her ear. “I try and remember *everything* you like.” He winked at her, hinting at the full meaning of his words, and she blushed. There was a quiet knock on the door, and he went to answer, bringing back a tray of food. Lifting off the cover, he put two small Caesar salads next to each of their places. Next, he placed a plate of deep fried calamari on the table. She giggled as she saw it was all tentacles, tiny little squid legs almost resembling spiders.
He slid another plate on the table, in front of her this time. Her dinner – prime rib, so rare it was nearly mooing, with steamed broccoli, cauliflower, and yellow squash on the side. //He really does remember what I like!// His plate was next, a dinner of lamb and potatoes, covered in a light gravy. They chatted while they ate, staying away from what they really needed to discuss. Neither one wanted to break the spell they seemed to be under. It was like the first weekend they’d spent together, the laughter coming easily, eyes meeting frequently, desire barely concealed under their banter.
Finishing her meal, Jennifer leaned back in her chair, sipping another glass of wine. She felt lighthearted, studying Andy in the glow from the candles. She reached out and picked up a rose petal from the table, inhaling its scent and running it over her lips, the soft texture sending a little tingle of awareness down her body.
Andy sat still, watching her. His lips had parted slightly, and desire flickered in his eyes. She had his full attention, and she decided to play with him a bit. Taking a sip of her wine, she let it linger on her tongue, licking her lips slowly. His gaze fastened on her mouth, and she could see his breathing quicken. Dipping a finger delicately in her wine, she took a drop of the fragrant liquid and put it in the hollow of her throat. His eyes darkened with barely contained longing. Encouraged, she touched the wine again, this time drawing a line from her throat to the top of her cleavage, pausing to peek up at him as she wiggled a finger down between her breasts.
With a groan, he rose from his chair, coming to kneel on the floor in front of her. His eyes met hers as he leaned forward. Instead of kissing her lips, he let his tongue trace the line of sweet wine she’d drawn, tasting the heady combination of her skin and the alcohol. Her head fell back as he continued to lick and nibble her skin, moving slowly up her neck and throat to finally claim her lips in a soul-searing kiss.
She moaned quietly, wrapping her arms around his neck, and he slipped an arm under her, lifting her up to carry her into the bedroom. He laid her down on the bed, kneeling to remove the little sandals. Kissing each toe, he made his way from her feet up her legs, no patch of skin untouched by his gentle, loving caresses. She giggled as he tickled the sensitive backs of her knees, and he raised his head to smile at her.
He took his time, undressing her slowly, every touch full of the love he had for her. He wanted her to know she was the most important thing in his life. His eyes shone as he leaned above her, and what she saw reflected there took her breath away. Reaching up to run her fingers through his hair, she drew him down for a passionate kiss. She slid his jacket off, unbuttoning his shirt and tracing her fingers over his chest and shoulders, pushing his clothing to the floor. They continued until they lay naked together on her bed, the room growing darker as the candles started to burn down.
Andy made love to her, slow and easy at first, then strong and wild as their ardor and passion rose with each touch. Whispering words of love in her ear, he claimed her body and soul.
Jennifer awoke to the sun streaming through a break in the curtains. Groaning, she shut her eyes, snuggling back into Andy. He was spooned up against her back, one arm cradling her possessively. He nuzzled her neck, whispering a “Morning, luv” in her ear. She cuddled closer, mumbling a reply, and he began to kiss her shoulder. “What do you want to do today?”
Her eyes snapped open as full realization hit her. “Oh no! What time is it?” Pulling away and leaping up, she glanced at the clock. She relaxed slightly when she saw it was only 8:30, still time for her to shower and dress to meet Terry.
Andy was looking up at her, clearly puzzled as to why she jumped out of bed. “What’s up, luv?”
She paused, looking down at him. //How the hell can I tell him I have a brunch date with Terry after what happened between us last night?// Sighing, she knew she’d have to come out and tell him the truth. “I’m meeting a friend for an early lunch, then we’re going to spend some time together and have dinner tonight.”
“Aww, luv, I was hopin’ we could spend the day together.”
He was sitting up now, bare chested, hair ruffled by sleep, and she wanted to crawl right back into bed and kiss him all over. “I know, Andy, but I made plans before we, uh, made up last night.” She looked at the room, still draped in silver, the candles burned out.
He nodded. “I can’t expect you to break your plans. You said you’re meeting a friend? Lisa?” She shook her head. “Jeff then?” Again, she shook her head. Andy shot her a suspicious glance, starting to worry. “Jennifer…”
“Look, Andy… don’t freak out, okay? I… well, I… uh, promised Terry two days ago that I’d spend some time with him.” She started at the floor, bracing for the explosion she knew was coming.
Andy jumped off the bed, hurt and anger on his face. “Terry? TERRY? Dammit, Jennifer, how can you bloody go and be with him after we… after last night? Didn’t that mean anything to you? It sure as hell meant something to me, it meant everything to me.” Voice breaking, he turned away, reaching for his clothes.
She couldn’t believe this was happening again. “Andy, wait… listen to me.” He didn’t pause, pulling on his clothes. She tried again. “I meant to tell you last night that I was spending some time with Terry today. He asked me the other night, and I didn’t have any plans, so I said yes.” Grabbing his arm, she tried to look him in the eyes, but he kept his head turned away. “Andy, last night *did* mean something to me! Do you really think I can be with you like that, then go be with someone else?”
Angrily, he pulled his arm away. “I don’t know, Jennifer. I wish I could say I do, but I honestly don’t… You’ve…” His voice dropped to a whisper. “You’ve never even said you love me.”
“Oh, God, Andy. You know I care for you.” He made a sound that sounded like a strangled sob. “I never, ever say that unless I’m absolutely sure, it’s not something I can just blurt out.”
“So you don’t love me. You think this is all for fun. I’m just a toy to you, someone to play with on the weekends.” He grabbed his jacket from the arm of the chair, turning to go.
“You know that’s not true, Andy. I’m falling in love with you. Ask Jeff or Lisa, they know how I feel. I can’t say those words unless I’m positive…” She broke off as he walked away from her. Following him as he went into the other room, she felt her heart clench as he went to pull open her door. “Andy…”
He turned to look at her, pain and anger in his eyes. “No, don’t … leave me be.” He left, closing the door behind him. He walked about three steps away from the door and paused. What if he was wrong and she really was meeting Terry as a friend? He’d be throwing away their wonderful reconciliation and his only chance at happiness.
Turning to go back, he paused at her door. Why couldn’t she say `I love you’ to him? She said she had to be sure, but what did that really mean? He stood there, racked by indecision.
Jennifer watched him leave, part of her wanting to run after him, but part of her realizing that he needed to learn to trust her. She hoped to spend time with a few of the guys at the Nest, and if Andy flew off the handle each time, she wouldn’t be able to deal with that.
Sighing, she decided to clean up the remains of their romantic evening, then go get ready for her brunch with Terry. She’d made a promise, and she intended to keep it. Spending time with him was the only way she could be sure of her feelings. After all, she couldn’t love both of them, could she?
Andy stood at her door for a few long minutes, his thoughts a jumble in his brain. Deciding to go back to his room to reconsider his options, he went down the hallway, lost in thought. He nearly collided with Cort as he turned the corner. He mumbled a “G’day, Cort.”
“Hi, Andy.” Cort took in his slightly rumpled suit and still sleepy countenance. “How are you?”
Andy stopped, his face betraying the confusion he felt. “Not too well, mate. Just when I think Jennifer and I have made up, she goes and tells me she’s spending the day with another bloke. What do I do?”
Cort knew the question was rhetorical and that Andy didn’t expect an answer. “Why don’t we go and talk it over?”
Andy nodded and they walked over to the Tavern together, Andy filling Cort in on what had happened the last few weeks. He desperately hoped the older man might have some insight to share.
Jennifer slipped on a pair of sandals, tucking her hair behind her ears and making sure her sundress looked okay. Terry had called a moment before to make sure she was ready, and he’d be there any minute to take her down to brunch. At his knock, she opened the door, marveling again at how handsome he was. Dressed casually in a polo shirt and jeans, he was the epitome of masculinity. //No wonder I fell for him the second I saw him on the screen.// He greeted her in his sexy voice, his Australian accent sending shivers down her spine. She knew that most of the Boyz talked like that, but for some reason, it sounded different on him. Maybe it was because it was his first chance to use his normal speaking voice in an American movie, or maybe it was his maturity, but whatever it was, it seemed to vibrate in every nerve of her body.
They walked down to the main dining room, where a nice brunch was served every weekend. There were already several people there eating, and most waved a hello, although Jennifer was acutely aware of the shocked looks from some, seeing her with Terry, not Andy.
Guiding her to a table apart from the main area, Terry was the perfect gentleman, pulling out her chair before sitting down. Rick came over to tell them about the specials, and take their order. Giggling, Jennifer ordered the Eggs Benedict, and Rick chuckled. Terry looked at her questioningly, and she smiled at him. “It’s my favorite, and I always order it. Rick probably only asks me in the off chance I’ve changed my mind.”
Rick nodded. “She’s right, if it was different, I’d probably fall down in shock.” He took Terry’s order, and winked at Jennifer as he turned to go. She flashed him a grin.
Terry watched the exchange, a small smile playing about his lips. “You seem to get on well with him.”
“Yeah, I like Rick. He’s nice. I like most of the people I’ve met here. You guys are simply amazing. If you were ever all gathered together, I think I’d faint.”
Terry chuckled. “You’ll get used to us soon enough. Then you’ll be saying `Oh, another RC look-alike? Big deal.'”
Laughing, Jennifer shook her head. “Sure, like that’s going to happen.” She looked up as Rick brought their order. “What do you think, Rick? Will I ever become blasé about all these gorgeous guys here?”
“Can’t ever have too many handsome men around.” Rick joked.
Terry threw up his hands in surrender. “You have me outnumbered.” He smiled at her as they started to eat. The food was excellent, as usual. Jennifer loved the way the Hollandaise sauce seemed to melt in her mouth. They kept up a casual banter throughout the meal, Terry putting her at ease, sharing some stories of his K & R days.
After they’d finished, he led her outside. She was dying to know what he had in mind for the day, but he just shook his head and smiled. “It’s a surprise.” He took her over to a Toyota LandCruiser, opening the door for her.
She gave him a startled look. “This is what you drove in the movie.”
“Yeah, love. It appeared with me, the same way East and Maximus found their horses.” He closed the door, walking around and hopping in the driver’s seat. “Ready?”
Cort and Andy slipped into a small booth at the Tavern. Cort had listened to Andy’s side of what had happened, and to his credit, he hadn’t skipped the details, even the thorny ones, like the incident in the barn. Cort knew a lot about forgiveness, and from hard experience, how difficult it was to forgive yourself.
“Andy, first of all, you need to give yourself some time. You’ve done some things that you have trouble living with, but you need to forgive yourself and move on.” Andy started to interrupt, but Cort cut him off. “Second, you need to realize that Jennifer’s going to be spending time with other people here. If you can’t control yourself and let her have her friends, your relationship won’t last.”
Andy hung his head. “I know, mate. I’m just afraid that… well, that she will find someone else.” There, his final confession.
“I don’t think you’re giving her enough credit.” Cort gave the younger man a sympathetic smile. “I know it’s difficult, but you have to give her the freedom to be herself. If she loves you, and I think she does, she’ll come back to you.” He excused himself, as it was nearly time for the Sunday service.
Jennifer sat back and relaxed as Terry drove. If he wasn’t going to tell her what they were doing, then she was going to enjoy the surprise. They came to what looked like a small town, and she chuckled as he pulled into the parking lot of a little outdoor mall nestled off the main street. “This is really cute, Terry!” She got out and looked around at all the quaint little stores. It was picturesque, resembling a postcard.
Smiling at her delight, Terry wrapped an arm around her waist as they walked down the row of shops, Jennifer stopping frequently to peer in the windows. They reached the end of the first side, and as they turned to go along the side, he tugged her into a little store that had some nice clothing on display. She shot him a sidelong glance, beginning to discern what he was planning.
He wandered over to a rack of cocktail dresses, leafing through them, then pausing. “Jennifer?” She turned, catching his eye, and he held up an adorable black dress. “What do you think?”
“Oh, I love it!” She came on over, and he held it up to her.
“Why don’t you try it on, love?” He smiled at her look. “I told you not to worry about dinner tonight, right?” She nodded. “Give it a go.” He put his fingers to her lips as she started to protest. “Please, for me?” Taking the dress, she was whisked into the dressing area by a very sweet sales lady. With some trepidation, she tried it on. She hated trying on clothes. It was a remnant from when she’d been in an unhappy marriage, and seriously overweight. She held her breath as she slid the dress over her head, but Terry had chosen perfectly, and it fit like a dream. The black set off her fair skin, the cut of the dress showed off her full bosom, the hem was short the way she liked it, but not too short. Twirling in front of the mirror, she could hardly believe that *she* was the girl reflected there.
Terry came to the doorway, asking if the dress was okay. “It’s perfect!” She called out. “Do you want to see?”
“No, surprise me tonight.” Terry’s voice carried suppressed laughter, and she wondered what was so funny. She heard him talking, presumably to the sales woman, as she slipped back into her own dress. As she came out of the dressing room, she handed the dress to the lady, who carefully wrapped it in a garment bag and handed it to Terry. He smiled and thanked her, and Jennifer was sure the woman blushed. //He *does* have a way with women.// He took her arm and they walked back out to the little mall, casually strolling along, window shopping and chatting.
Andy sat in the booth in the Tavern, watching Cort leave for church. The older man had made a good point, if he went off in a jealous huff every time Jennifer went out with one of the guys, she’d throw him over in no time. It hurt him that she hadn’t yet told him she loved him, but maybe that was something that would come in time. Last night, he’d certainly felt she cared for him. Smiling slightly, he remembered the look in her eyes as he held her. If she did come to trust him enough to say those words, he would know they were from her heart.
He decided to catch a lie-down, then head to work at the bar. Cort was right, he needed time to just let things take their course.
It was early afternoon when they finished darting in and out of the shops. Jennifer had picked up a few little things for her room, and some earrings to wear with the dress that evening. They agreed to head back to the Nest, and Terry pointed the LandCruiser back towards home.
As they walked into her room, she noticed a note slipped under her door. She opened it, almost afraid it was from Andy, but she breathed a sigh of relief when she saw it was from Lisa, letting her know there was a hockey game afoot, and that she was welcome to swing by if she wanted.
Terry saw the silly grin that must’ve appeared on her face. “What is it, love?”
“Would you like to drop by and watch some hockey with me?”
She giggled as he shot her a surprised look. “Hockey? I’ve never been to a match, but it sounds interesting.” He smiled, and she suddenly felt worried. “I’ll go if you will come watch rugby with me sometime.”
Relieved, she laughed. That was an easy bargain. “You’ve got a deal. Will you be warm enough?” She looked at his short-sleeved shirt.
“I’ve got a jacket in the car, I’ll go grab it. I’m assuming you’re going to change?” At her nod, he smiled and went out to get his jacket. Jennifer changed into jeans and a black turtleneck, pulling on her Boston Bruins Ray Bourque jersey that she’d tucked into her suitcase. She paused, realizing she didn’t really have a good reason for bringing it, but she’d packed it just the same. Funny how things work, she thought.
They made their way to the ice rink, Jennifer filling him in on the basics of the game. They arrived to find Jeff, Lachlan and Lisa already there, John out on the ice, warming up with the city league teams. Jennifer looked at Jeff in surprise, taking in the Ducks jersey he wore. He shot her a `don’t you dare say anything about this jersey look’, and she giggled.
Lisa turned to see Jennifer there, but her eyes widened then narrowed as she saw Terry standing next to her. She went and said something to Lachlan, who came on over. “G’day Jennifer. Terry.” He looked at the other Aussie. “Let’s go get a beer, mate.”
Terry saw Lisa heading in Jennifer’s direction, and figuring the girls wanted to talk, went with Lachlan to pick up some beer for the two of them.
Lisa came over as the guys walked away. “So, Jennifer, did you have a nice night last night?”
“Oh, Lisa, it was wonderful! One of the most romantic nights of my life.” She smiled, remembering the evening. “Andy told me that you and Jeff helped. Thank you.”
“I’m glad you had a nice time. Imagine my surprise to find you accompanied by Terry today.” Jennifer’s eyes widened as Lisa’s tone turned sarcastic. “So Andy’s been kidnapped and Terry’s helping you negotiate for his release? That’s the only explanation I can think of after all the work Andy did to get you back.”
She could hear the thinly veiled anger in Lisa’s voice. She tried to explain. “It’s not like that at all. I made this date with Terry before Andy and I made up. And Lisa,” she knew she sounded plaintive as she continued. “I’m crazy about Andy but there’s just this thing with Terry.”
“I don’t know how to describe it. I fell hard for Terry in Proof of Life, but when I came here, I met Andy. We hit it off instantly, and before I knew it, I was falling head over heels in love. Then I met Terry.” She sighed. “We share some kind of connection, too. I wanted to spend some time with him, to explore my feelings. I don’t want to be with Andy wondering `What if?’ I need to be sure I make the right decision, I don’t want to hurt anyone.” Running a hand through her hair, she hoped Lisa would understand. “Does that make any sense?”
Lisa hugged her. “Sure it does. It’s hard to be attracted to two men at the same time. I don’t envy you your decision. They are both great guys.” She gave Jennifer a quick smile. “Makes me kinda glad my only problem was falling in love with a gay guy.”
Both of them laughed, and the tension eased. “Come on, let’s grab a beer and teach these Aussie blokes something about hockey.” She looped her arm through Lisa’s. Joining the guys, they settled down to watch some good hockey and drink beer.
After the game, which John’s team won, of course, Jennifer was feeling tired and tipsy, and decided she needed a nap. She couldn’t recall how late she and Andy had been up, but sleep was definitely next on the agenda. Terry walked her to the hotel, giving her a light kiss and reminding her he’d pick her up at 8. She nodded, and went in to fall in a heap on the bed, the alcohol putting her right to sleep.
Jennifer paced her room nervously, glancing at the clock. It was nearly 8, and Terry would be there any minute. She had on the dress he’d bought for her, and the earrings she’d picked out. //I hope I’m doing the right thing.// Her nap had been restless, and she’d gotten up early to make sure she was ready. Luckily, she’d taken the next day off from work, so she didn’t have to leave tonight.
She’d had a good time with Terry all day, and she was having trouble understanding why she was so nervous about dinner. She didn’t go out often to events where she had to dress up, and she wasn’t totally comfortable with the thought of a formal dining room, but there was more to it than that.
If she were to be totally honest with herself, it was the whole Terry/Andy situation that had her knickers in a twist. She kept comparing the two men, when there really was no basis for comparison. They were two very different people, and she was attracted to both of them for different reasons. Andy made her feel happy and carefree, and they had spent hours just talking about anything and everything. He was more than a lover to her, he was becoming her best friend.
On the other hand, Terry made her feel womanly and mature, and she liked the conversation and humor they shared. She was enjoying getting to know him, and didn’t want to just give that up. Sighing, she put her thoughts aside. The two men were like chalk and cheese, and it was no use trying to figure things out right now.
A knock on the door disturbed her pacing, and she gladly answered, knowing it was Terry. He looked dashing in a dark gray suit, the color bringing out the blue in his eyes. He smiled appreciatively at her, complimenting her on the dress.
Taking her arm, they went down the stairs to the lobby, passing through to the formal dining room. Terry had made reservations, and they were seated immediately. Everything was nice, elegant and understated, from the white linen tablecloths to the silverware, candles, and flowers.
Looking at the menu, she was a bit overwhelmed by the choices there. Terry took her hand. “Do you trust me?” At her smile and nod, he grinned. “Let me order then, love. Do you like seafood?” She nodded again, liking the twinkle in his eyes. He spoke quietly with the waiter, who left, returning with a bottle of Fetzer Sundial Chardonnay.
Jennifer was starting to relax, the wine and Terry’s company making her feel warm and tingly. She got him talking about his son, and his parental pride was obvious. Then the topic turned to the Nest, and how strange and yet wonderful it was to have a place for all of them to be together.
Their appetizer arrived, and she exclaimed in delight at the lobster stuffed mushroom caps with brie and tarragon. It was excellent, and she teased Terry, praising his good taste.
She reflected on Terry’s ease and manner, wondering what such a man was doing with a girl like her. He glanced at her as she sat lost in thought for a moment. “What are you thinking, love?”
“I’m wondering what I’m doing here.” Her answer was simple and honest, surprising him.
“With me? Or at the Nest?”
“Both. You have half of the lurkers swooning at the sight of you, Terry. Why are you here with me?”
“I like you, Jennifer. Do you think the connection that brought you here would be unnoticed by me? I feel it too, love. I can only wonder if things might have started differently if I hadn’t been out camping when you arrived.”
Her reply was interrupted by their dinner, crab alfredo over linguine with asiago butter rolls. Everything was wonderful, and she complimented him again. He flashed her a wicked grin. “I hope you like dessert, love.”
“Oh?” She giggled at his nod.
“Just wait.” His smile was contagious, and they both laughed. She loved the way he made her feel like she was the only woman in the world. The wine was starting to go to her head, and she thought back to the kiss they’d shared the other night. He certainly knew how to make her pulse race.
He looked like an excited little boy as a tray was brought over. The promised dessert, white chocolate silk pie with a dark chocolate truffle crust, and two snifters of Disorrono.
“Oh, Terry!” Taking a bite of the pie, her eyes closed in bliss as the flavors caressed her tastebuds. The amaretto tingled on her tongue, melding perfectly with the taste of the chocolate.
He smiled at her delight. “So you like it, then?” He winked, and she laughed.
“It’s wonderful. What a combination!” She wondered what other experiences this worldly, skilled man could show her. This was something she didn’t want to end right away. She slowly finished the dessert, savoring each bite.
They sat and talked a while longer, finishing the wine. Terry suggested a walk, and she agreed, needing some fresh air to clear her head. He put his arm around her as they went outside, and she leaned her head on his shoulder, slipping her hand under his jacket and around his waist. It was a beautiful, bright night, and they walked to the moonlight garden, its beauty taking her breath away.
Pausing to look down at her, he reached up, tracing her jaw with his fingertips. She felt her heart begin to pound as he followed the contour of her neck, sliding his hand down to the base of her throat. Looking up at him, she caught her breath as their eyes met. Ever so slowly, he lowered his head towards hers, his hand gently caressing the back of her neck as his lips met hers in a hot, wet kiss.
She gasped as he kissed her more passionately, his tongue slipping between her parted lips to taste her mouth. He pulled her closer, her body feeling boneless as she melted against him. She returned his kiss, exploring him in turn, until they broke apart, breathless, their pulses racing. “We’d better continue this someplace more private, love.”
He kept his arm around her, stopping to kiss her frequently as they walked up to the Tavern. She had a moment of uneasiness as they went in, knowing Andy was at the bar, but he didn’t see them as they made their way up the stairs to Terry’s suite.
His rooms were sparsely furnished, but very tasteful. She smiled to herself, seeing the laptop in the corner and thinking of the Keeper list. Terry took off his jacket, and the tie followed, leaving his shirt open at the neck. //He’s so handsome.// Her head was spinning from the wine and Terry’s kisses, and she sat down on the couch, cuddling into Terry as he took a seat beside her, cradling her in his arms.
She lay there, compliant, as he began to nuzzle her neck, tickling the sensitive skin of her neck with his tongue. Senses reeling as he kissed her, she arched her body against his, wanting more. Terry slid down on the couch, tugging her down until she lay underneath him. Still fully dressed, they made out like teenagers, stoking the fire of their passion until each thought they would explode.
She made a small cry of protest when he lifted off of her to remove his shirt, wanting his hot, sweet mouth back on hers. She felt the cool air on her skin where his warmth was a moment before, and it seemed to clear her passion-clouded brain. What was she doing? She’d told Andy that she was just going to spend some time with Terry. Was this what she really wanted, a roll in the hay with him? The attraction was undeniable, and her body was more than willing, but she knew Andy would never forgive her if she slept with another man.
Terry had his shirt half-unbuttoned, and she reached to clasp his hands in hers, stopping him. “I can’t,” she whispered. She sat up, shaking her head to try and clear it. Terry reached for her but she pulled away, standing. “Oh God, I’m so sorry, Terry. I didn’t mean… I’m not a tease… but I can’t do this.” She felt awful, looking down at Terry sitting there, watching her with passion and confusion on his face. “I don’t know what to say. I like you, and I’m attracted to you, but…” She broke off, unsure of how to tell him that she’d finally realized just how important Andy was to her. “I’m sorry.”
He stood, gathering her in his arms. “It’s okay, love. I think I understand.” He held her for a moment, releasing her when she stepped back. A sad smile matched the wistful look in his eyes. “Are we still on for the rugby?”
She nodded, her eyes swimming with tears. Terry walked her to the door, hugging her goodbye. She fled the Tavern, seeking the comfort of her own room.
Andy was still at the bar when he saw Terry walk in the door. He made himself busy, wiping down the counter in preparation for closing, looking up only when Terry sat down on one of the stools right in front of him. “G’day, Andy.”
The last thing he wanted was to talk to Terry, but he couldn’t just ignore him. “G’day Terry. What can I get ya?”
“Schooner of VB, mate. Ta.” Andy brought him the beer, turning to find something else to do. Terry’s quiet voice stopped him.
“She loves you, Andy.” Terry was looking at him steadily, watching his reaction.
Andy didn’t know what game was being played, but he wasn’t having any of it. “Sure, mate. Whatever you say.”
“Trust me on this one. She’s crazy about you.” Andy glanced at him, afraid to ask him to continue. Terry exhaled softly. “Look, mate. She’ll come to realize on her own that the bond she has with you is real.” He stood to go. “Give her some time.”
Andy stood with his jaw hanging down as Terry walked over to join some lurkers at a booth. Time… there was that word again. He sighed, wiping the same spot on the bar over and over. Everyone kept telling him Jennifer was crazy about him, so why was he the one that was so unsure?
He finished up and locked down the bar. The Tavern never really shut, but he was officially off duty for the night. He went to his room, still pondering what Terry had said.
Jennifer threw herself down on her bed, her heart aching. She’d wanted to see if the feelings she had for Terry were real, but all she’d ended up doing was hurting him. She’d enjoyed the evening, and his company, but it had taken nearly falling into bed with him to realize that she didn’t love him the way she loved Andy.
She knew Andy needed to hear her say those words to him. He’d never truly believe she wouldn’t go away or find someone else unless she confessed her love. Glancing at the clock, she saw it was nearly 2am. He’d be finishing up at the bar. Maybe it was time they had their “talk”.
Changing into jeans and a t-shirt, she ran back down the stairs and over to the Tavern. She didn’t notice Terry sitting with some girls in the corner booth, but his eyes widened as he saw her go by and run up the stairs.
She paused at Andy’s door, unsure now if she was doing the right thing. He wasn’t asleep, she could see the light was on from underneath the door.
Andy was lying on the bed when he heard a quiet knock on his door. Wondering who it could be, he opened the door. He stood there, numb with shock, his eyes meeting Jennifer’s blue-green ones.
“Can we talk?” She saw the surprise in his eyes, but he nodded, moving aside so she could come in. He was wearing only his jeans, feet bare, and he looked tired.
He crawled up on the bed, patting the space beside him. “C’mon up.”
She lay across the bed, raised up on one elbow. “I don’t know where to start. I owe you an apology. I know you were upset that I was with Terry today, but there’s more to it than that. I’m sorry for confusing you and hurting you in the first place.”
He reached out and took her hand. “Luv, it’s not all your fault. I’m sorry too. I’ve… I’ve been afraid you were going to leave me, and I let my jealousy get in the way of letting you be yourself.”
“Andy, I know you’ve been hurt before. I never wanted to make you jealous. I was so confused by what I was feeling. Things happened between us so fast, and I wasn’t expecting to fall in love. My feelings for Terry made things worse, and I’m truly sorry.”
“And now? How do you feel about Terry?” He watched her, afraid to breathe.
“I like Terry, Andy. We get along well, and we have some things in common. BUT…” He’d looked away, and she touched his face, turning it back so she could look him in the eye. “But I don’t feel for him what I feel for you.” She was shaking, her heart pounding.
He moved close to her, kneeling on the bed, and she rose up on her knees so they were facing each other, their bodies barely inches apart. “What do you feel for me?” he whispered.
She took a deep breath. “I love you.”
Andy closed his eyes for a second, relief and love flooding his being as he heard her say the words he needed to hear. He blinked back tears, overcome with emotion. “Tell me again…”
She wrapped her arms about his neck, pulling him close. “I love you, Andy.” His arms slid around her, crushing her. She laughed, feeling free. “I love you… I love you… I love you.”
Andy stretched lazily, trying not to disturb the woman sleeping next to him. The sunlight was shining through the window, and he looked down at her, eyes full of tenderness. It was no surprise she was still asleep. They’d made love all night long, murmuring their feelings over and over.
He placed a soft kiss on her temple, and she stirred, smiling drowsily. Turning over, she snuggled into his chest. “I love you”, she whispered, falling right back into slumber. He pulled her close, placing his cheek on her soft hair and letting her breathing lull him back to sleep.
A while later, his phone rang, awakening them both. He answered with a groggy “Hello?” It was Peaches, asking if he was going to make the supply run today. He mumbled an affirmative, and hung up.
Jennifer ran her hand over his chest. “Time to get up?”
She shot him a teasing look through her lashes, and he chuckled. “Sorry, luv. I have to make the supply run. Wanna come?”
Nodding, she watched as he stood up, his naked body softly golden in the morning light. He caught her staring and smiled. “You keep looking at me like that and we won’t ever make it out of here.”
“Oh darn.” She threw a pillow at him, Andy laughing as it fell harmlessly at his feet.
“C’mon, luv. Let’s grab a quick shower.”
They spent the day together, nearly inseparable. Their love was so bright, so apparent, that soon word made its way `round the Nest that Andy and Jennifer had made up. She’d lost track of the people that came up to them throughout the day, everyone noting the joyous glow on both their faces.
All too soon, the day came to an end, and Jennifer had to get back to her home. She and Andy spent long minutes at her car, kissing goodbye. He could hardly wait until Friday night, when she’d be back to spend another weekend with him.
It was Wednesday, and Andy was hanging out in the Tavern, chatting with Lachlan and Colin. Jeff Mitchell ran in the door. “Andy, didn’t you hear the phone? Peaches has an urgent call for you.”
He jumped up, sprinting behind the bar, his heart sinking. It had to be bad news. Grabbing the ringing phone, he answered. “Crowe’s Tavern, Andy here.”
“Hi Andy.” Jennifer tried to sound normal, but she knew he’d pick up on her anxiety.
The other guys had come over, wondering what was amiss. “Jennifer, luv. What’s wrong?” He could hear the barely suppressed tears in her voice.
“I’ve been laid off, Andy. They let the whole department go.” Her voice shook.
Andy closed his eyes for a moment, feeling her pain. “Oh, no… luv, I’m so sorry. Are you there now?”
“Yeah, they gave us a week’s notice. I don’t know what I’m going to do!” Her voice rose, sounding panicked.
He tried to reassure her. “Shh, luv. It’s okay. Can you come tonight? We can talk things over.”
“I’d like that, Andy. I feel better just hearing your voice.” She did sound a little more calm.
“I’ll see you later then, luv?” He wanted to wrap his arms around her and ease her pain.
“I’ll be there as soon as I can. Thank you. I love you.” She’d whispered the last three words, making him smile.
“I love you too. Ooroo, luv.” He hung up after she said goodbye.
Jeff, Lachlan, and Colin stood there, clearly concerned. “What’s happened to Jennifer?”
Andy didn’t know who asked… he was a little dazed. “She’s lost her job, mates. Been made redundant.” He nodded at their cries of disbelief. “She was worried it might happen, with all the goings-on in the high-tech industry, but her manager kept assuring her their department would be fine.” He smiled ruefully. “I guess she was wrong.”
“What now, mate?” Jeff looked at his friend anxiously. Lisa wasn’t going to be happy to hear about her friend’s misfortune.
“She’s going to come by tonight so we can chat.” Andy sighed. She’d been so happy with her job, her only complaint had been it kept her from being with him all week.
Jennifer drove to the Nest, anxious to see Andy. Her brain hurt from all the hard thinking she’d had to do. Her options were few, and the likelihood of finding another job right away was virtually none. The whole valley had been rocked by massive layoffs from all the high-tech firms, and the lines at the job fairs were growing daily.
He was waiting for her as she pulled into the parking lot, wrapping her in his arms the second she was out of the car. “Ah, luv. It’ll be okay.”
She sniffled into his chest. “I know… I know… it just came as such a shock.”
Walking inside, they stopped to say hello to a few people that were hanging around. By the concerned and sympathetic looks shot her way, she knew most of the guys probably had heard her news.
Andy whisked her away to his room, pouring her a strong Amaretto and diet Coke. They sat at his table, going over her options, Andy offering suggestions where he could. It was looking like she’d have to give up her apartment and move in with her mom. He could see the thought of that was choking her. She and her mom got along, but didn’t have an easy time living together. He smiled inwardly, remembering Jennifer telling him that she and her mom were too much alike, both headstrong and stubborn.
He sat up suddenly, an idea hitting him like a lightning bolt. “Why don’t you move in here, luv?”
“What?” She stared at him in shock and surprise.
“Come stay here! You can set up an internet connection and do freelance web design from here.”
She sat still, stunned. “I don’t know, Andy. It’s… that’s… well, a big change.”
He stood up, starting to pace the room, excited now. “Think about it! It’s perfect! You can do your freelance work, since it’s all virtual, right?” At her nod, he continued. “We can see each other all the time, and maybe…” Blushing, he broke off.
“Maybe what, Andy?” She could see by his expression that he was unsure how she was going to take what he wanted to say.
“Maybe we could, uh, stay together.” He held his breath, waiting for her reaction.
She slowly stood up, coming over and putting her hand on his chest, over his heart. “I think I like that idea.”
A few weeks later, she was settled in. She’d made an arrangement with Peaches, a high-speed net connection was in place, and she and Andy had moved into the huge, empty attic at the Tavern, all the guys pitching in to turn it into a spacious apartment.
Whistling to herself, she trotted down the three flights of stairs to the bar. She’d been upstairs working on a web site, and she needed a break. Andy was working tonight, and she thought she’d drop by to say hello. She chuckled to herself, thinking that going up and down three flights of stairs was a good way to keep in shape. As she rounded the turn to go down the last set of steps, she stopped in shock as a huge chorus of “Surprise!” came at her from below.
The whole entryway and bar was awash in white and blue, streamers and balloons everywhere. She took in her friends down below. Andy was waiting for her, and surrounding him stood Jeff, Lachlan, Lisa, Erin and Jake, Colin and Chelle, Cort, Bud, and Terry. Her vision swam and the remaining faces blurred as tears welled up in her eyes, but she was sure everyone was there. Trembling, she reached the bottom step, and Andy wrapped her in a bear hug, swinging her around, and placing her gently on the floor. “Happy housewarming, luv.” He kept his arm around her as they made their way into the bar, and the wonderful people that lived at and visited the place she now called home again surrounded her.
Picking up the Colorado Bulldog that Erin had ordered for her, Jennifer turned and rested her elbows behind her on the bar, holding her drink delicately in front of her. Grinning nearly from ear to ear, she took in all of the people milling about and socializing just to welcome her. “Oh God, I can’t believe you did all of this for me!” she exclaimed to Andy as he snaked his arms around her waist. All he could do was smile in response.
“So, Jennifer,” Erin began, easing her way up to the bar as Jake wrapped an arm playfully about her neck. She giggled and managed to fend him off, ordered a couple of beers for herself and Jake, then turned back to Jennifer and Andy. “How on Earth do you think you’ll manage living here with all of these handsome men around? I mean, we just got here for a long vacation, and already I’m floored!” Picking up one of the bottles that Arthur slid across the bar to her, she shot him a dazzling smile and thanked him. Turning back to Jennifer again, she lowered her voice a titch.
“Don’t get me wrong, I love Jake like I’ve never known I could love a man, but MOMMA…the bodies around this place could drive a woman crazy if she looks too much, ya know?” Jake reached behind Erin and across the bar to grab his beer, and as he leaned forward he nipped playfully at her earlobe. She giggled again and he sat on the barstool directly behind her, resting both elbows on her shoulders as he took a drink of his beer and amusedly listened to the conversation.
Andy frowned slightly at the mention of other men, but Jennifer turned slightly to face him and give him a kiss on the cheek, reassuring him soundlessly that he had nothing to worry about anymore. “Yeah, I know what you mean, Erin.” She giggled, seeing one handsome face after another in the crowd. “It’s going to be a real hardship, but I’ll get through it somehow.” She winked, laughing, Andy nuzzling her neck.
Erin laughed with her, knowing exactly how she felt. “Well, Jake and I plan on staying for quite some time too, so if you ever tire of all of these handsome faces, you feel free to drop by and see my ugly mug anytime you want. Got it?” she winked and flashed Jennifer a smile. Jake caught what she had said about being ugly, and just to stop her from talking nonsense he swooped down on her like a hawk, wrapping both arms around her shoulders and practically devouring her neck as she dissolved into peals of laughter.
“Don’t let her fool ya Jennifer, she’s a doll from head to toe, and she’s all heart besides,” Jake said, lifting his face from her neck as her giggles continued. “And I’m not just saying that because she could probably kick my ass from here to Kansas City if she really wanted to,” he winked playfully, and Jennifer and Andy both raised their eyebrows as they giggled in response.
She spent the evening talking with as many people as she could, even briefly meeting the elusive Hando. He’d looked her over, given a neutral “G’day”, then vanished into the throng. As the crowd slowly dwindled, Andy came over to make sure she was okay.
“Can I steal the guest of honor?” He smiled as she nearly fell into his arms. It had been a long few weeks. Maybe now Jennifer could rest for a bit.
“I think I’ve thanked every person in this place but you, Andy.” She smiled up at him. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome, luv. Let’s go.” He wrapped his arm around her waist, holding her close.
As they made their way up the stairs, a flash of purple caught her eye. There *was* one resident she hadn’t met yet. “Hello Sid.”
The cyber-character stepped forward, smiling. “Hello, neighbor.”
“Nice to meet you.” She yawned. “Sorry, been a long day.” As she and Andy turned to go, she looked back at Sid. “Oh, Sid?”
“You were wrong. Andy is more of a man than you’ll ever be, and the only the man I need.” She slid her arm around Andy, her head on his shoulder as they walked up the stairs together to their home.
Why do I go crazy
Every time I think about you baby
Why else do I want you like I do
If I’m not in love with you