Never in a million years.
But earlier in the evening, he’d had her close enough to take into his arms.
And she still had the same effect on him. Still made his heart skip, still made him forget everything on his mind, still had command of every ounce of his attention.
She still owned his heart.
In his mind, in his heart, he’d wanted her to tell him that she needed him, that she loved him still, as much as he did her.
She didn’t do that.
She was doing great. Her words exactly. She had her life under control, living it the way she wanted it. She was happy.
Far from how he’d been feeling, despite the time that had separated him from her since the last time he’d had her in front of him. Despite the distance they had both purposely put between each other, meant to heal the wounds.
He shook his head, clearing his mind as Nick’s voice rang in his ears. “What, man?”
“I said I could handle it on my own now. Go see if anyone else needs help.”
“Oh. Right.” He handed Nick the box he was carrying and turned to walk away.
AJ turned to face Nick. “Yeah?”
“Be honest with her.”
“All right. You can NOT be bored. You’re not allowed to be bored. Not right now.”
“Did I say I was bored?”
“San. You’re looking bored.”
“Brian, I’m NOT bored.”
“Honey,” Leighanne addressed her husband. “She isn’t bored.”
“I thought so,” Brian sighed. “I really was hoping that was it, though.”
“What are you talking about?” Sandra asked her friend.
“I’m not gonna risk making you mad,” Brian began. “But I can see it in you. You can’t stop glancing over at him.”
“San,” Leighanne said, “Why can’t you guys just talk? Just strike up a conversation and see where it goes.”
“I don’t think we can do that anymore,” she sighed. “I really don’t wanna run the risk of getting into an argument. You saw how our last public discussion ended.”
He was running low on the stuff, to be honest, and if he had to go around cleaning the last traces of the party that night any longer, he’d go crazy. Brian wasn’t helping much either, standing there helping Sandra with a trash bag. HE should be doing that.
They were in a deep discussion, however, and from the looks of it, they weren’t going to finish up anytime soon.. unless Sandra got more annoyed than she looked right then and left herself.
He watched her as she shook her head insistently, and Brian was apparently trying to get her to see something his way. Finally, Leighanne, bless her heart, dragged Brian away.
And then she sighed heavily, dropping an empty cardboard box to the floor, and looked in his direction. Their eyes met, and whether she’d meant to or not, she was looking directly at him, and he was suddenly moving closer to her.
“Need some help?” he asked her.
“That’d be nice,” she smiled. “So talk to me, J. How have you been lately?”
“I’ve been... good. Really good.”
He wasn’t going to be able to pull this off. Already, his first lie had come off totally unbelievable. That was not what he had meant to tell her.
“That’s great,” she replied, grabbing an armful of fallen streamers and stuffing them in the large trash bag AJ held open. “I’m happy you’re doing so well. You deserve nothing less, you know.”
“As do you,” he told her, and as she looked up at him, he clearly saw the last traces of the sadness in her as her facade came back into play.
‘Better not even ask,’ he thought suddenly, ‘I don’t wanna intrude on a life that’s not a part of mine anymore.’
“Can you lock up?”
AJ grinned at Howie. “Don’t trust Nick with the duty?”
“I don’t trust Nick with these keys, even,” he chuckled. “But don’t tell him I said that.”
“I’ll lock up, man. You go home and rest. I’ll call you in the morning.”
“Cool,” Howie nodded. “Have you seen Sandra anywhere? I wonder if she needs a ride home?”
“I don’t, thanks,” she spoke up, walking up the last few steps to the top floor of the building, “Nick’s got that duty tonight. Although, seeing him passed out across four chairs down there, I think I’ll be doing the driving.”
The place looked cozy, Sandra noted, looking around. Howie had his office up there, complete with a small bedroom for the nights he stayed there working till dawn.
“Geez, Howie, why don’t you just live here?” she remarked, eyeing the place. “I mean, look: living room,” she gestured to two large, plush couches in one corner of the large office, “Kitchen.. well, the fridge anyway, bathroom, and a bedroom through that door. I say you’ve got it made here, man.”
“You just wanna keep me from living next door to you, don’t you?”
“Well, kinda. yeah. I thought I had escaped that when I moved out of my mom’s place, but then there you go, following me and buying that house next to mine.”
“Yeah, yeah. You really DO wanna get rid of me, don’t you?” Howie grinned. “Since that day you moved in, you didn’t like me. Admit it.”
“Of course I didn’t like you,” she shot back. “You had COOTIES. And you liked to hang out with Mario. Why would I have liked you then?”
The bickering stopped as AJ’s laughter filled the air.
“You two will never quit, will you?” he asked, trying to control his laughter.
“When he grows up, I’ll stop.”
“I think you mean when YOU grow up--”
“I already did,” she said, suddenly growing serious. “I’m not what I used to be. Not anymore.”
AJ felt bad at her serious tone. He couldn’t help but remember the things they went through... what made her leave him, and ultimately change.
“How long has it been going on?”
“Three months.” He couldn’t lie to her now. Not that he should have in the first place.
“Three. And I barely find out NOW? AJ, I’m not some stupid little kid you can lie to like this.”
“What are you gonna do about it?”
“I’m leaving. Breaking it off, however you wanna look at it, but you and I are NO MORE. I don’t ever wanna see you again.”
AJ sighed. From there, it had gotten worse. He’d shot back at her, they yelled.. and parted, once and for all, on really bad terms.
Which was why he was surprised she’d accepted his invitation, let alone his call, that day a few weeks back... and that she was standing before him just then.
“Well, I think the change is a good thing,” Howie was saying. “I mean, this past year you’ve done a lot of growing up... and even though it was kind of forced on you, the maturity you’ve obtained is impressive.”
“Thanks,” she nodded. “I tried my best.”
“Hey! Where’d everyone go?!”
Howie groaned. “Up here, Nick!”
Moments later, Nick had joined them, a concerned look on his face.
“I need to go. Like, NOW. One of the dogs is sick, and my mom said she’d meet me in the emergency room.”
He looked at Sandra then, “San. If you want to go now, I can drop you off on my way and--”
“I can drive her,” AJ said aloud. “Not a problem, Nick.”
Nick and Howie joined AJ in waiting for a reaction from Sandra. Finally, she nodded.
“Yeah. Okay. It’s fine, Nicky. Go.”
That said, Nick drew her in for a hug before bidding everyone farewell.
“Well,” Howie began, looking from Sandra to AJ. “I guess we should call it a night then.”
“Yeah,” Sandra agreed. “I guess we should.”
“K, well, J.. you’re still gonna lock up, right?”
“Right. I just need to get a few things done real quick up here, and we’ll be out.”
“Great. Goodnight guys, and thanks.”
[Part 03 | Story Index | Part 05]