Chapter 67: Pretty In Pink

Taylor

June 25

Sometimes, I just can’t believe my good luck.

How many people in this world can say they’ve found their soul mate? Literally? Ironically, the worst thing that ever happened to me is also the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I’ve had people ask me countless times if I’m angry about losing two years of my life, if I wish I could go back in time and prevent the accident from ever happening. I used to say yes. Nowadays, my answer is, and always will be, unwaveringly, “No.”

That thought – that “what if” – is sometimes too much to take. The chain of events that led to our meeting, living together, and eventually falling in love was nothing short of amazing. What if I’d never had the accident? Say, if the harness hadn’t come undone, or if someone had caught me as I fell? Or, if instead of going rock climbing at all, I’d gone to see a movie with Zac instead, like I was supposed to? I would have never met her. And what if I’d never met her? I’d be lost. Still going through the motions, dating disposable women, missing out on love and friendship. The thought of both of us, two halves of this relationship, walking this earth alone was just cruel.

We belonged together… I had never been so sure of anything in my life. I may have only been back for three weeks, but it was more than enough time for me to solidify the thoughts I’d had in my mind even before we confessed our feelings. I loved her, and I wasn’t going to let her get away…

A loud, manic beeping startled me. I’d been lying awake for nearly thirty minutes, careful not to move and wake her before her alarm went off. I raised my head sleepily off of her shoulder, looking at the clock. 8:15AM. Ugh. She had early class today… maybe I shouldn’t have kept her up so late last night…

As the beeping continued, she stirred and groaned. I shifted off of her slightly so that she could lean over to hit the snooze button. Once the source of our annoyance was silent, she sighed and settled back into the pillows, closing her eyes. She fell immediately back asleep – of course, the girl had a talent for sleeping anywhere, anytime – but I laid awake, just listening to her breath, waiting for the inevitable. Nine minutes later, it came: the alarm went off again, and I laughed as she growled in irritation, cursing several times, and angrily slapped at the box.

“Careful, you’ll break it,” I murmured as she rubbed at her eyes.

“Good,” she mumbled sleepily. “I hope it shatters into a thousand pieces.”

I laughed, squeezing her softly. She closed her eyes again and smiled faintly, slowly running her fingers up and down my bare arm. This, this was heaven – waking up every morning, tangled up together, simply unable to stop touching one another. I remembered wanting this so badly when I lived here before – watching her sleep, resisting the urge to scoot closer or push her hair away from her face. Being able to finally do it was unbelievably satisfying.

She yawned loudly, stretching her arms over her head. “How many more weeks in this summer session? Two? Just two more weeks of this…” she said. “Then I can go back to being lazy…”

“Go back? I don’t think you ever left…”

She laughed and pinched me. “Look who’s talking. I have to get up and go to a class for four hours, and you get to stay here in bed, all warm and comfy.”

“It’s not so warm and comfy without you in it…”

She snickered at my pitiful tone. “You’re so corny.” With that romantic statement, she rolled out from under me and sat up, still grumbling. “Anything that starts before 11AM should be outlawed…” She swung her legs over and started to get out of bed. Before she could completely stand, I suddenly stretched up, sliding my arm around her waist. She gave a small cry of surprise as I pulled her back down with me. “Taylor!”

“You know,” I whispered, wrapping both arms firmly around her. “You could stay here with me…”

“What?!” She laughed. “Taylor, I have class.”

“Skip it. Stay here with me…”

“I can’t just skip it for no reason… it’s a summer class, they go extra-fast… it’s the equivalent of, like, three regular-semester classes…”

“It’s not for no reason!” I nuzzled the side of her face, pressing my lips close to her ear. “Don’t you remember what today is?”

“It’s Friday…”

“And?”

I caught her grin from the corner of my eye. “Garbage day?”

“Noooo….”

“Independence Day in Mozambique?” She was trying not to laugh.

I rolled my eyes, propping up on one elbow to look at her. “How do you even know that? You know more useless trivia than anyone I’ve ever met…”

“Well, I’m sorry that not everyone can have an intellect as dizzying as mine…. But at least that explains why you have yet to beat me in a game of Trivial Pursuit…” I dug my fingers into her side for that one, and she squealed, grabbing my hand. I smiled, resting it on her stomach.

“Since you’re being a brat about it, I’ll just go ahead and remind you. It’s the 25th.  June 25th… Two years ago, I came into your life, bringing sunshine and joy with me…”

The loud peal of laughter that followed that statement was not quite what I expected. “Yes, of course. An anniversary, of sorts…” she said. She rolled over onto her side and faced me, smiling. “And last year on this day, we got half-drunk and attacked each other like hormonal teenagers on their prom night.”

“Care to do it again?”

She pressed her lips together, fighting back laughter. “Later. For now, I have to go to class…” She leaned over and gave me a gentle kiss on the cheek, ignoring my protests.

“Alley…” I hopped up and leaped over her, straddling her waist with my arms on each side of her head, effectively trapping her. She raised her eyebrows at my behavior. “Come on,” I murmured. “It’s just one day…”

“Like I said, one day is like three days during this session… it’s just a few hours, Taylor… I’ll be back for lunch.”

“But--”

“I have to do well in this class! It’s my last one!” She laughed, reaching up to push back my hair. “Now is not the time to get lazy with my GPA…”

I grabbed her hand, holding it, and just studied her thin fingers for a moment, a sudden thought rushing into my mind. What color would go with her light skin? Gold, white gold, platinum? Smiling, I kissed her palm, before slowly scooting back, away from her face. It seemed it would take more than a verbal argument to get her to stay… I stopped when I saw the hem of her shirt. Grinning mischievously, I hooked my fingers under it and started to push it up, revealing her stomach. “Taylor? Taylor, what are you doing?”

“Me?” I asked innocently, lightly running my hand over her smooth skin. “Oh, nothing.”

“Taylor, I have to--” she stopped suddenly, sucking in her breath sharply as I bent my head and carefully kissed the skin next to her navel. I laughed softly as I felt her hand slide into my hair, her fingers tightening around the strands. I kissed a path all over her skin, pushing her clothing a little further back. I heard her take a ragged breath. “Taylor…”

This time, it wasn’t a protest. She has basically four ways of saying my name – one for indignation and annoyance, like when I’ve eaten the last Twinkie without telling her. One as a warning, like when I’m driving and purposely slam on the brakes, making her spill her soda. One full of laughter – and to be honest, this is the most common – when I’ve done or said something stupid. But my favorite, by far, is this one: when her normally boisterous voice catches and grows soft; needy. When I can tell, just by her tone, that she’s enjoying it just as much as I am.

“Stay,” I murmured against her skin.

“I can’t…”

“You can…” I crawled forward, kissing my way back up to her neck. I pushed her wayward curls away and pressed my lips in the ticklish spot just above her collarbone.

Taylor.” Uh-oh… the warning. I sat halfway up, grinning sheepishly at her pointed look. “It took me two weeks to get rid of your last little love marks…”

“That’s what scarves are for…” I laughed as her expression soured. “Alright, fine. I’ll leave your neck alone…”

“It’s 8:30! You’re going to make me late!”

I sighed, collapsing beside her. “Fine. Go on, and just leave me here, alone…” I said, pouting.

She grinned. “Okay. See you later,” she said with fake cheerfulness. With that, she hopped out of bed, laughing, and dashed out the door before I could stop her. Grumbling, I rolled over into the spot where she had been laying – her pillow and the sheets were warm. I rested on my side, closing my eyes, and listened to her get ready. The bathroom door clicking closed. The faint rush of water in the pipes as she brushed her teeth with the sink on. The tuneless melody she was humming.

It was all so… normal. Average, yet extraordinary. I opened my eyes, focusing them on her nightstand, where an old dog-eared copy of To Kill a Mockingbird sat. I smiled – who, other than teenagers forced to in English class, reads stuff like that? She was so wonderfully nerdy. I knew she could never take that as a compliment, but it was true.

How much longer am I here? I thought. Until late August? We still had two months left until I had to go back, but it seemed like our days together were just whizzing by. More time… I wanted, needed more time with her, but it seemed our summer would be over all too soon… unless…

No, I couldn’t… I mean, we’d only officially been together for three weeks… and three weeks wasn’t enough time, was it? Was it?

“Taylor, have you seen my sandals?” She interrupted my train of thought, walking back into the room with a thoughtful look on her face. I watched her dig around under the bed, under her dresser table, in the closet. She finally stood up, hands on hips, looking perturbed. “I don’t understand why I keep losing them…”

“Come here and I’ll tell you where they are.” I crooked my finger at her.

“Mmm-hmmm, I bet.” She winked at me, strolling out of the room, muttering to herself. After a moment, I rose out of bed and followed her. She had gone downstairs. I slowly walked down the steps as quietly as possible. I snuck into the living room, where she was sitting on the couch, putting her newly-discovered shoes on. She was wearing a tank top and jeans, typical Alley-wear nowadays, and her hair was pulled back away from her face.

“Sure I can’t change your mind?” I murmured. She jerked in surprise, grinning at me as I slid next to her.

“Taylor… believe me, I want nothing more than to stay here and be your little love slave for the rest of the morning… but I’ve got a ton to do. They’re having open studio next week, and I’m only, like, half-done with my final project…”

“Love slave, eh? Hmmm… that gives me some interesting ideas…”

She laughed. “I’ll be back around one.” She stood up, straightening her shirt, and looked down at my boxer-clad form sprawled across the couch. She smiled at my pitiful, begging look. “Awww, Tay...” She leaned down and kissed me. She tasted faintly of Crest Cinnamon Rush toothpaste. “Be good,” she murmured against my lips.

“Aren’t I always?”

She laughed. “Of course you are.” Raising back up, she cupped my face affectionately. “I love you.”

It didn’t matter how many times I heard her say it – I still felt that uncontrollable rush run through me. “I love you, too,” I replied softly. I watched her leave, listened as the door slammed shut, listened as her car started up and drove off. Sighing, I reached for the remote, too lazy to even get back up and head upstairs. I flipped on the television.

There really is nothing on TV in the mornings. Well, nothing that I would watch, anyway. I mechanically flipped through the channels, pausing periodically when something would catch my eye. Maury Povich was on – I watched with interest for a few minutes as some skanky girl listened to the results of her baby’s paternity test. When they cut to commercial I kept flipping. MTV? Yeah, right. ESPN, Travel Channel, Bravo… QVC. I paused.

Two nondescript women were standing in a brightly lit studio, gushing over some sort of jewelry. “This one she’s sure to love, guys!” exclaimed the shorter blond. Her friend nodded vigorously as they held up a ring for the camera to zoom in on. An engagement ring… I blinked, hard, and sat up. My heart sped up in my chest as I watched the screen, unable to look away…

 The clock dinged, indicating it was now 9:00AM, startling me out of my reverie. I quickly flipped the channels before deciding to just turn the thing off. Okay, Taylor. Calm down…

There was an old newspaper lying on the coffee table, so I reached over and picked it up. Maybe reading about health care reform or box scores would get my mind off of her… I picked up the first page, scanning over it, before chucking it to the side. I flipped through each section, adding it to the pile when nothing caught my eye. I picked up the last page, and a black, shiny piece of paper fluttered out, into my lap. A free-standing insert. For Helzberg Diamonds. I stared at the ad. So much for getting my mind off her…

I silently looked up toward the ceiling. Is this a sign? Are you trying to tell me something?

And so, sitting on her couch, wondering, with the faint taste of her still on my lips, I felt a rush of boldness. I suddenly knew what I was going to do for the rest of the morning.

*****

“Louise! Get up!”

I had gotten ready quickly, showering and dressing in record time. I was standing in Louise’s room, poking her still figure. Being something of a light sleeper, she opened her eyes immediately, staring at me.

“What? What the hell do you want? This is my one day to sleep in this week, Taylor. This better be good.”

“I want you to take me shopping.”

She sat up in bed, giving me a look of disbelief and complete exasperation. “You’re fucking kidding me. I am not getting up to take you to buy more unnecessary shirts, or shoes, or jeans, or whatever it is you’re wanting. You have plenty. Now let me get some sleep!” That said, she dropped back down and covered her face with her pillow.

“No… not shopping for that… this is a little more important.” I fidgeted nervously.

“Important? I doubt it,” she said, her voice muffled through a layer of down and cotton cloth. “Why don’t you wait until Alley gets home later? You’re her responsibility, anyway…”

“She can’t go with me. I need you to go with me.” I sat on the bed next to her, wringing my hands in my lap. I was already feeling a little lightheaded at the prospect of what I was about to do. Impulsive? Yeah, you could say that.

Louise removed the pillow and looked at me curiously. “Why? Where are you wanting to go?”

“Um…” I swallowed. “A jewelry store.”

She furrowed her brow. “A jewelry store? What, are you wanting to get your ears pierced, Taylor, and you’re afraid she won’t approve?” She snickered at that.

“No… I need to buy something… it’s, um, for her…” I sat patiently and waited for Louise to figure it out.

“Jewelry? She never wears anything, Taylor. Not even a ring, or brace--” she stopped suddenly, her eyes growing huge. She stared at me for a long moment before continuing. “Oh my God.”

I nodded, suddenly feeling shy. “Yeah,” I said softly. “So… will you help me pick it out?”

She practically leaped out of bed. “Give me twenty minutes.” I smiled nervously as she dashed out of the room to get ready.

What am I doing? It’s too soon…

Part of me agreed with that statement – but the other, larger part, didn’t. I stood up from Louise’s bed and went downstairs to wait on her, hoping she would hurry before I lost my nerve.

Louise is a woman of her word – she’d gotten dressed even faster than expected, and so an hour and a half later, we were in Cincinnati, standing in front of an elegant counter at Tiffany’s. It was a surreal atmosphere, everything bright and shiny and sparkling. I suspected we would both be temporarily blinded before leaving.

When I had expressed my bewilderment at driving an hour out of town just to go to a jewelry store, Louise had looked at me with disbelief. “If you’re going to do this, you’re going to do it right, Taylor,” she’d said. “We’re going to Tiffany’s.” And, since she was driving and had better knowledge of these things, I’d agreed. Although I really wished I had dressed a little nicer. In an effort to blend in, I’d worn a plain t-shirt and jeans, and had pulled my hair back into a ponytail. Louise had given me one of Steve’s ball caps, and I had it pulled down low out of my eyes. So far, so good – although truthfully, I wasn’t too worried. I doubted many of our younger fans would be frequenting a store like this.

“I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it!” she whispered excitedly to me as a man behind the counter approached us. “I mean, I knew you would ask her eventually, but this is even sooner than I expected…”

“Well,” I said nervously. “I don’t know when I’m going to ask her. Not just yet. I may wait awhile. I mean, we’ve only been together, technically, I guess, for three weeks…”

“And how long have you been in love?” she asked pointedly. “Almost two years? That’s more than enough time…”

“Can I help you?” The man, older and gray-haired, stood in front of us, a questioning look on his face. I noticed the way his eyes looked me up and down, absorbing my slightly bedraggled appearance.

“Yeah,” I said softly. “We need to look at… engagement rings.”

“I see… do you have anything in mind?”

I looked at Louise, suddenly helpless. She grinned broadly at me before answering. “Hmm… not really. Something beautiful but tasteful. Not tacky.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Okay. Let’s start with the setting. Did you want to see a particular metal?”

“Not gold,” I said. “Not her style.” I nodded resolutely, pleased to contribute my meager two cents.

“Platinum,” Louise said.

“Okay. What sort of cut?”

“Um… round?” I said hesitantly. Louise rolled her eyes.

“We’ll look at a princess cut, brilliant cut, and emerald cut,” she said, sounding smug and confident. I looked at her with amazement. What the hell did she just say?

The salesman nodded again. “Size?” He directed all his questions at Louise, realizing that I was too much of a dumbass to be of any real help.

“She can wear my ring,” Louise said, “and it’s a 6 ½.”

“Okay. Do you have a… price range you’d like to stay in?” I noticed the subtle way he looked down at my ripped jeans as he said that. I narrowed my eyes.

“No,” I said firmly. “Show me everything.” His eyebrows rose almost imperceptibly, but he said nothing else. As he left to go find a key to open up the cases, I turned to Louise.

“He thinks I’m a hobo.”

She laughed. “Can you blame him? You look a little out of place here, Taylor… even I’m dressed better than you, and that’s not saying much.”

I scowled. “Well, I didn’t realize we were coming here. I should have--” I was cut off by Louise’s cell phone. She fished it out of her purse and answered it.

“Hey, hon! What’s up?” Hmmm, must have been Steve. She listened for a minute. “Oh, no, sorry, I can’t… I’m in…” she hesitated. “I’ve got a lot of errands to run. I’ll eat lunch with you tomorrow.” She paused. “Okay, I love you, too. Bye.”

“I see how you are. Won’t even tell him you’re hanging out with me, eh?” I said. Unlike their other friends, particularly Ryan, who was not afraid to ask me anything and everything, Steve didn’t seem to have much interest in getting to know me. I had been informed by Louise and Alley both that he wasn’t much of a fan, to put it mildly. That didn’t particularly bother me, but he could at least tried to be friendly, in my opinion… since I was currently sharing the same house as his girlfriend, and all.

“Don’t want him getting jealous,” she said, winking as she slipped the phone into a side pocket on the purse.

“Haha. Don’t want him to hate me any more than he already does.”

“He doesn’t hate you. He’s just a little confused by the whole thing.” She shrugged. “I think he’s a little freaked out.”

Yeah, I pretty much figured that. “Yeah. I can tell.”

“Plus I think he’s a little irritated that I ‘kept’ you from him. That I kept the ‘secret’.”

“Well, you could always tell him the truth,” I said dryly. “That’d freak him out even more.”

“Yeah, and then he’d have me committed. So I don’t think we’ll go that route.” She looked over, motioning with her hand. I turned to see our salesman coming back towards us. “Anyway, don’t worry about it. He’ll get over it eventually. He’s really a very likeable person…” She giggled and grinned.

“Sure, sure, whatever you say…”

The salesman opened up the case, placing several opened boxes on the counter. He pointed to each, explaining the various nuances and features of each one, but I had stopped paying attention. The third one from the left… what had Louise said? Beautiful but not overdone? Yeah. That was the one.

“What do you think, Taylor?” Louise asked. “What else do you want to see?”

“Nothing,” I said, shocking them both. “I’ve made up my mind.”

*****

“I can’t believe I just did this.” We were back in the car, on the interstate, heading home. I was holding the black velvet box in my hand, staring at it. The rush of self-assurance I’d had on the way up had all but disappeared. What was I doing? What was I thinking? “It’s too soon. I shouldn’t have done this. She’s going to freak out…”

“Taylor, shut up.” Louise was getting irritated with my lack of self-confidence. “God, you two kill me. You love each other! You’ve already lived together for a year! There is no reason for you to think this is too soon…”

“But,” I fumbled with my words. “We lived together, but she didn’t know how I felt about her until the very end… So, I mean, as far as dating goes--”

“I don’t want to hear it, Taylor.” She leaned over and turned on the radio. “I’m not listening to you.”

I sighed, flipping open the little black box, and staring at its contents. According to Louise and the nice salesman, it was indeed platinum, with a Lucida diamond. Whatever that meant – I’d just thought it was pretty. I swallowed, gently running my finger over the shiny, silvery band. There was so much at stake, wrapped up in this little black box, and I wasn’t just referring to the thousands of dollars I’d dropped to pay for the thing…

“Do you think she’ll like it?” I asked softly. She never wore jewelry, so I wasn’t sure what kind she would like… Louise and I had agreed that gold had seemed too flashy for her, though… platinum was nice. And expensive. And the diamond was very pretty – sort of a squarish-shape, not big and tacky, but not too small.

“It came from you, Taylor,” she said. “So of course she’s going to love it.”

“That’s not a real answer.”

“Yes, it is. Now. Let’s move on. When are you going to ask her?” I remained silent, still staring at my new purchase. “Taylor?” she asked when a few minutes had passed. “Have you thought this through at all?”

“No,” I admitted.

She rolled her eyes. “Jesus.”

“What? I haven’t had time to plan… I don’t know what to say…”

“I do. Just four words: ‘Will you marry me?’”

“But--”

“There is nothing complicated about that! What is your problem?”

It was a good question… one I didn’t have a clear answer for. I kept giving the ‘only three weeks’ reason, but I knew that wasn’t the real problem. I wanted to marry this girl, there was no doubt in my mind about that – but I was worrying more about her reaction. We were both so young… but whereas I felt like I’d grown up fast, and lived a hundred lifetimes in my 21 years, I knew she still felt young, barely out of childhood. I was ready to settle down – but she hadn’t even gotten started yet. She loved me, I knew, and she would probably accept my proposal… but was it the right thing? Or would I be trapping her, leading her into a life she didn’t want?

I really wondered why I hadn’t considered these things before I went to wake up Louise.

“I can’t explain it to you,” I said tiredly. I was tired of arguing with her. She would tell me I was silly, or stupid, or both… I was sure that I couldn’t make her understand. “Not right now.”

She looked infuriated. “Taylor--”

“Please. Just…” I closed the box and covered it with my hand. “I’m going to ask her, I promise… but not yet. I have to wait a while…”

Wait? Then please explain to me why you woke me up at nine o’clock this morning with a frenzied look in your eye!”

“I was watching QVC and they were showing engagement rings,” I said sheepishly. “I’m very susceptible to advertising, Louise…”

“I am going to murder you when we get home.”

“About that…” I said. “Can you drop me off at campus? I want to go see her.”

“I’ll drop you off if you take that ring with you.”

Louise….”

“Dammit, Taylor.” She scowled, letting loose a string of colorful curses under her breath. “I don’t believe this… Fine. I was planning on going there, anyway, to look around in the bookstore.”

“And are you planning on staying home tonight?” I asked, realizing that I had no tact whatsoever.

“What? Me, live in my own house? I wouldn’t hear of it, Taylor…” she said sarcastically. “No, honey, I was going to stay with Steve tonight. I have a bag already packed. I’m one step ahead of you.”

“Good,” I said.

She glared at me. “Ungrateful, as usual. Ungrateful and a chicken.”

I looked over, giving her my best puppy-dog look. “I’m sorry, Louise. Thanks for taking me today… I really appreciate it…”

“You’re not welcome, Taylor. Not yet.”

*****

I stepped outside of the car, after giving my new purchase to Louise for safekeeping. “Just keep it for me, until I’m ready,” I’d told her. Her reply had been less than pleasant about that, much less, but eventually she’d given in, promising to stow the ring away until future notice. I would have kept it myself, but I had no place to hide it – Alley was notoriously nosy, and the thought of her discovering it before I was ready was nerve-wracking.

I surveying the art building – it was old, neglected, and looked close to the point of being condemned, to be honest. Alley had mentioned that the art department tended to get the shaft compared to other majors, and looking at the building now, I could see where that claim stemmed from. I stepped inside, checking a large letterboard just inside the door. Scanning the list of names, I found her professor, Dr. Ryan, and a room number. 207. Smiling smugly, I strolled down the dimly lit hall, looking for a staircase.

I found 207 with relative ease. Standing just outside the door, I could hear music – “Yellow Submarine,” – along with laughter, talking, and voices loudly singing along. Class? It sounded more like a party. I had planned to wait outside the door for her, but it certainly didn’t sound like I would be too much of an interruption. I peeked my head in the door. There were people scattered all over the place – some at tables, with chalks and pens. Some standing in front of easels, smeared with paint. Some just standing around chatting. A dark blond girl was taping up scraps of newspapers and magazines onto a wall, forming some sort of weird collage. The professor was nowhere to be seen. Nor was Alley.

“Excuse me,” I said softly when a guy in an MC5 shirt walked close to me. “I’m looking for Allison.”

“She’s over there, on the other side of the room,” he said, pointing to the back wall. “See where that window is?”

I did. “Yeah, thanks, man,” I said. I eyed my surroundings, readjusting the baseball hat over my eyes. When I was fairly sure I wouldn’t attract too much attention, I quickly strolled across the room.

She was set up near the corner, an easel and stool next to her. A black smock was tied around her waist and neck. She must have been working on that final project she mentioned… although, truthfully, it didn’t look like she was doing much work… instead, she and another girl were chatting animatedly about something. I stopped and watched, smiling, as Alley began laughing hysterically at something the other girl said. She couldn’t see me, as I was out of her peripheral vision, so I enjoyed the moment, just observing…

It was short-lived, though, as the other girl noticed me staring and stopped talking. I began walking towards them when Alley turned around. Her eyes widened when she saw me.

“Tay--” she exclaimed, and then stopped, apparently realizing she shouldn’t call any attention to my presence. She waited until I was just a few feet away before trying again, in a much lower voice. “Taylor, what are you doing here? How did you get here?”

“I came to see you,” I said, enveloping her in a hug, careful to avoid the smeared paint on her smock. “Since you left me all alone this morning… Louise dropped me off.” I carefully avoided mentioning the whole side trip Louise and I had taken.

She tightened her hold around my neck. “Awww, I’m sorry…” she kissed my cheek and pulled back. “But I had so much work to do! And I’ve gotten so much done today…”

“Yeah, you really look like you’re working,” I teased.

“I have been working!” she protested. “Besides, don’t you worry… I’ll make it up to you later.” She wiggled her eyebrows at me, grinning. She was in a great mood, and it was infectious – I felt my anxiety dissipate a bit.

“Ah, yes… I do believe I was promised a night of drunken passion…”

She laughed, cheeks pink. “Not so loud, Taylor!”

“Why? Are you embarrassed of me?” I asked slyly, echoing a question she’d asked of me weeks earlier. She gave me a look of disbelief, before turning around as if ignoring me. I leaned over and pinched her arm. “Hey, let’s go get lunch somewhere. My treat.”

“Your treat, eh? Hmmm…” She pursed her lips and studied me, as if thinking. “Depends… can we get dessert afterwards?” she asked loftily.

“Is ‘dessert’ a euphemism for something else?” I arched an eyebrow at her.

She rolled her eyes, fighting back a smile. “Men… just let me clean up here and we’ll go.”

“Okay.” I pulled her stool away and sat on it, watching as she started cleaning up her workstation. I glanced around the room – so far, so good. The room was still loud and cluttered; I had gotten a few glances here and there from other students, but largely they chose to disregard me. “By the way… your apron is cute,” I said mischievously.

“It’s not an apron! It’s a smock!” She eyed my headwear. “Nice hat, by the way… Steve’s, I’m guessing?”

“You got it. I’m sure he’d love to know that I’m wearing it right now.”

“He’ll be alright.” She untied her smock, rolled it up in a wad and tossed it a hamper over in the corner. “Ready?” I nodded, and we quietly left, hand in hand.

*****

“I think it’s going to rain,” Alley commented. We were in High on Rose, a local restaurant downtown, seated at a small table next to the window. She had her chin propped up in one hand, staring outside at the dark gray clouds.

“Really?” I said. “Wow, how could you tell? I think you missed your calling. You should have gone into meteorology…”

She narrowed her eyes at me and pressed hard on my toes with her sandals. “Smartass.”

I smirked. “Oh, you know you love me.”

“I do.”

God, it was just so perfect to be able to say things like that… so comfortable. There had always been a small worry in the back of my mind that somehow, we wouldn’t be able to be ourselves, just because our feelings were out in the open. That certain things, like simple conversation, would be awkward or hesitant. Of course, that had been completely unfounded. She still cursed me when I took too long in the shower, and I still teased her about her laziness. We still fought over who drank the last Ale8. We were still the same. Different, yet the same.

“I’m starving,” she said. Wow, big surprise there. “Let’s get an appetizer. What do you want?” She opened up one of the small paper menus and began studying it intently.

“I want you,” I purred, leaning forward and nudging her foot with mine.

She continued studying the menu. “Hmmm. Well, I don’t see that listed here, Taylor. I guess you’ll have to pick something else.”

I laughed, snatching the menu out of her hand. “Lemme see that.” I flipped it open, searching for the drink listing. “Let’s get a drink instead. You know, to celebrate…” I wiggled my eyes at her.

She gave me a flat look. “Taylor, I’m not 21 yet.”

I snickered. “Oh, that’s right. Still just a child…”

“You are only eight months older than me!”

“But older, nonetheless…” I smiled at her scowling expression. “Tell you what. I’ll order something, and we’ll share. What do you want?”

She slowly took the menu out of my hand, smiling sweetly. “Let me just see here,” she said. She was quiet for several minutes. As she read through the drink list, I couldn’t help but stare at her left hand, the fourth finger… imagining the beautiful ring I’d just bought adorning it. It would look good on her. Fuck, it would look great on her. Taylor, you wimp… just fucking ask her, already… yet I couldn’t. My bravado had disappeared somewhere between Tiffany’s and campus. Where was Louise when I needed someone to prod me into action?

“Okay, I’ve decided,” she announced. “I want a Pink Lady.”

I nearly choked. “What? Of all the drinks you could possibly want, you want that one? Sorry, no can do.” There was no way in hell I was ordering anything called a ‘Pink Lady’. No fucking way in hell…

“Yes,” she said sweetly. “That’s what I want. And since I obviously can’t order it, you’re gonna have to. You promised!”

She had tricked me. Of course, I should have known. She wasn’t one to let teasing go unpunished… “No way.”

“If you love me, you’ll do it.”

“That’s blackmail! Alley--” I started, but the waitress interrupted, sweeping up to our table with a pen and pad in her hand. She smiled cheerily at us.

“Hey, you guys ready to order?” she asked brightly.

“Yes!” Alley said immediately, before I could wave the waitress off. “I’ll have the monte cristo and fries. And a Coke.” She eyeballed me, grinning wildly.

“And for you, sir?” Our waitress was looking at me, waiting for my response.

“I’ll have the double-decker club and fries, with water.” I looked at Alley, who had both elbows on the table, chin resting on her hands expectantly. You owe me for this, Allison Krzyzewski. “And… uh…. I want a drink, too.” I produced my ID, hoping she wouldn’t look too closely at the name.

She picked it up and studied it for a brief moment before handing it back to me. “Okay, sir… what would you like?”

“I’ll have…” I trailed off for a moment. “A Pink Lady,” I mumbled.

“What was that? Sorry, I didn’t catch it.” The waitress bent down closer to me to hear.

“A Pink Lady,” I said through gritted teeth. Alley bit her lip, laughter evident in her eyes. She was enjoying this way too much.

“Ooookay…” Our waitress had a small smirk on her face that I didn’t like. She took our menus, folding them and tucking them under her arm. “I’ll have that right out for you.”

“Thanks so much,” I mumbled. As she walked out of sight, my so-called girlfriend cackled with laughter.

“That was great. Just great.”

“You owe me,” I said. “I wouldn’t make a fool of myself for just anyone, you know.”

“Oh, you didn’t make a fool out of yourself. Not really…” she giggled. “At least she didn’t recognize you.”

“Yeah, that would be fantastic. I’d get on our site and all the forums would be talking about my penchant for fruity, girly drinks…” She sweetly reminded me that the only opinion that should matter was hers, and I rolled my eyes, grabbing her hand in mine and agreeing.

My drink arrived shortly thereafter, much to her delight, and it was indeed very pink. And creamy. With a bright rainbow-speckled umbrella sticking out of it. Alley managed to smother her laughter until our waitress walked away before grabbing the cocktail glass and taking a sip. “It’s wonderful,” she announced, winking at me. “Thanks, Taylor.”

“You are so very welcome.” I grabbed it from her hand and took a drink for myself. She looked mildly surprised when I did so. I arched an eyebrow. “Hey, I paid for it. Might as well enjoy a little, too.”

Our food arrived, and we were relatively quiet as we ate. Outside, it had finally begun to rain, a heavy summer cloudburst that made the windows smeary and fogged. I studied the streets outside, watching people fight with their umbrellas or scurry by with newspapers over their heads. I smiled at one little girl who escaped from her father’s grasp and immediately ran to a puddle, stomping around. My brothers and I used to do the same thing when we were little – it drove Mom crazy.

The waitress brought our check, setting it down in the middle of the table. I thanked her, picking it up, and then noticed she was still standing there, as if waiting. I looked up. “Excuse me,” she said hesitantly. Suddenly she produced a pen and a hastily ripped sheet from her ordering pad. “I hate to bother you, I mean, I know you just want to eat in peace… but I’m a huge fan. Could I get your autograph?”

Of course.

After she left with my signature and my dignity, I turned to Alley, glowering. “Do you want me to tell you now how you’re going to make this up to me?” I asked as I fished some money out of my wallet and placed it with our check. “Or should I wait until later?”

She grinned. “Now.”

Somehow, I knew she was going to say that. “You. Me. Home. Alone.” I stood up, grabbing her hand. “Now.”

*****

It’s amazing how quickly things can escalate. How a simple look can lead to a kiss… and a kiss becomes making out…. And how ‘making out’ turns into ‘wanting to strip her bare and ravage her’. It’s all her fault, really. For once, I wasn’t the one being bold.

Not that I’m complaining, or anything.

We were on her couch, bodies and lips smashed together; breathless. We’d barely made it in the door – she’d given me that adorable grin as we’d gotten out of the car, and it was all I could do to wait until we’d made it safely inside, away from the eyes and ears of the neighborhood. I had grabbed her around the waist, kissed her, and somehow we’d ended up here. Me on top of her, pinning her small body against the plush leather. Her little hands roamed suggestively across my back and neck, sliding under my shirt. I wanted to touch her, too, but couldn’t – I was propped up on my elbows, trying not to suffocate her with my weight. I leaned in closer, aggressively covering her mouth with mine.

“Mrm…” she made a noise low in her throat and I backed off. She took a deep breath. “Taylor.”

“Yes?” I whispered, hoping her next words would be something along the lines of ‘take me now’. Her face was flushed, her eyes half-lidded.

“Your belt buckle is gutting me…” She laughed softly.

“Oh.” What a letdown. I smiled at her, raising up to my knees. “Well, we’ll fix that.” I undid the clasp, my eyes never leaving hers, and pulled the belt out of the loops. I threw it into the floor with great fanfare, and immediately pounced on her again. “Better?” I murmured between kisses.

“Much…”

We continued on in this manner for several minutes, the house silent save for our heated breathing and the soft sound of rain outside. Suddenly she stopped again. “What is it?” I asked warily.

I knew by the look in her eye that I was really going to like what she was getting ready to say. Her lips curved up impishly. “Your shirt…” she murmured.

“Yes?”

“It’s… hmmm… chafing me. I have sensitive skin, you know…”

I nodded somberly. “Yes, of course. Let me just fix that, too…” I rose up again, slowly, and crossed my arms, grabbing the hem of my shirt. As I removed it and tossed it in the floor with my belt, her grin widened. “Better?”

“Mmm-hmmm…” She reached up for me, her hand running leisurely down the front of my chest. God, do you have any idea what you’re doing to me? Something told me that she did. I gazed down at her, suddenly overwhelmed. God, I wanted her so badly… was that wrong? Only three weeks; I’d bought a ring but had lost the nerve to ask, yet I wanted to take her to bed, regardless?

Apparently I was taking too long deciding what to do. She struggled to sit up under my weight, and so I scooted back off her legs so she could regain her balance. She got on her knees, crawling towards me, and into my lap. “Taylor,” she murmured sweetly as I pulled her as close to me as humanly possible.

I love you. God, I love you more than anything… I buried my face in her neck, gently kissing it. Her lips were next to my ear, her breathing soft. “I adore you,” she sighed softly. And that’s when I lost it. The combination of her body pressed against my bare skin, her lips nuzzling my ear, and those three huskily whispered words…

I moved my hands down, gripping her waist. I couldn’t stop myself – my fingers grabbed the soft material of her shirt, and I slowly began tugging it up. I waited for her to protest – for some indication that we should slow down, take it easy… but it didn’t come. She kept her hands loosely on my shoulders, looking me straight in the eye. As I pulled the material up past her stomach, revealing the bottom of her bright pink bra, she silently raised her arms for me to pull it over her head.

My hands were shaking as I lifted the shirt up and off. It immediately joined my clothes in the floor. She lowered her arms, resting both her hands on my chest. I just stared at her, not believing what was happening – I won’t lie, I had told others many times that my desire for her was not about sex, which was true, but I had been dreaming of this moment since… well, let’s just say a long time. She offered me a tentative smile, and I smiled back.

“Pink is really your color,” I murmured, sliding my thumb under one strap and rubbing her skin. “You should wear it more often.”

“Me? Pink?” She laughed, moving her hands up onto my shoulders. “Nah…”

I leaned forward and kissed her, feeling nearly dizzy from the intensity of her response. The next few minutes were a blur – I felt delirious; drunk. At one point I managed to break away, desperate to say something meaningful; to articulate these extreme emotions welled up inside me. “I…” I started, my voice hoarse. I wanted to say a million things to her – I love you, I need you, I want you – but I had trouble forming the words. Me! The guy who, by all accounts, is never able to shut up, was currently at a loss for words…

“Let’s go upstairs,” she said softly, speaking for me. I nodded, pushing her hair back away from her face. I stood, pulling her up with me, clinging fiercely to her hand.

We barely made it out of the living room – not content with simply holding her hand, I turned around and kissed her again, and we stumbled down the hall, tripping over each other’s feet. The thought occurred to me that we might not even make it upstairs. She was giggling, trying to regain her balance, one arm wrapped tightly around my neck and the other flailing out to keep her from falling. There was a large area rug in the hall, and I found myself faltering on the upturned corner and crashing into the wall, taking her with me. She yelped as we hit one of her paintings, jarring it loose. I managed to reach my arm out and stop it before it hit the ground.

“Taylor!” she laughed, grabbing the frame out of my hand and gently setting it against the wall. “Clumsy…”

“Clumsy? Me? Oooh…. Not even going to comment on that one…” I said. “Who spilled Coke all over herself yesterday on the way to the theater?”

“That was your fault, and you know it! Slamming on the brakes… you little bastard…”

“You’re so affectionate. Not ‘honey’, or ‘sweetie’, but ‘little bastard’…”

“I mean it in the nicest way possible…” She backed away from me, tugging on my arm, and we started down the hall again, with some success. Though I wasn’t yet sure how we were going to make it all the way up those stairs… especially when I felt her hands move down and grab my hips, tugging on the waistband of my jeans…

The front door is just by the staircase. It’s a pretty convenient place for a door, I suppose, as you can easily swing by the window and see what’s outside on your way up or downstairs. However, as soon as I heard the key turning in the lock, and the voices of Louise and Steve just outside, I mentally cursed the architect who came up with the stupid idea of putting the door there. And then I mentally cursed Louise and Steve. Several times.

Alley gasped, her eyes widening as she heard it as well. She backed away, staring at my shocked face for a moment before leaping away from me and darting out of the line of sight. I froze, suddenly unable to move, vaguely aware that she was dashing up the stairs, which was really the only option for hiding. The door swung open, and I just stood there, with no earthly idea of what to do. What is proper protocol when you have unexpected guests and you’re in the middle of seducing your girlfriend?

“So, I was telling Ryan and Tracy about it, and she thought that we should go together and try to--” Steve stopped mid-sentence when he saw me. Well, I couldn’t blame him. I probably would have, too, if I’d walked in to see a flushed, mussed, half-dressed man waiting in the hallway. His eyes fluttered upward, towards the top of the steps – I was pretty sure that he’d caught a glimpse of Alley racing out of the room. His mouth fell open, sort of like a fish, and he, too, remained silent and still.

“Hey, what’s wrong?” Louise walked in after him. They were both slightly damp from standing in the rain. Her eyes widened slightly when she saw the source of his concern.

“Hey,” I offered weakly.

“Taylor,” she hissed. “Your… pants….” She did a sort of fluttering, beckoning motion towards my lower half. I looked down, horrified when I saw that somehow the button was undone and the zipper was down, revealing my boxers. When did that happen? I hastily fixed it, aware of the deep red blush spreading across my cheeks and neck.

“I’m… just gonna go wait in the car,” Steve said slowly. He waste no time in disappearing. Great. If I’d thought he was freaked out before, I was sure that was nothing compared to now.

Louise folded her arms and looked at me, smirking. God, was there nothing that fazed this girl? “Well. Busy day, I see. I’ll just be a minute, I needed to stop and get my checkbook and my duffel… I didn’t think you all would be home yet. And certainly not… doing this… in the hallway…”

“You could have knocked!”

She gave me an insulted look. “Taylor, I live here. You’re the one who’s intruding.” She eyeballed me. “Too chicken to give her the ring, I see, but not too chicken to give her something else. Of course. Men. I should have known.” She sighed and walked upstairs. I waited at the bottom until she came back down, wanting to make absolutely certain of when she left. She hopped down the stairs, bag on her shoulder, checkbook in one hand, and something else in the other.

“Here. Don’t want you doing anything stupid,” she said, grabbing my hand and pressing a pack of condoms into the palm. I closed my eyes, letting the humiliation wash over me as I stuffed them in my pocket. She shook her head and rolled her eyes. “I’m outta here. See you tomorrow, Taylor. That is, if you’re dressed by then.” With that calm, flippant statement, she waltzed out the door, laughing. I closed the door behind her, turning the deadbolt. After giving myself a moment to regain my dignity yet again, and failing miserably, I walked upstairs and into Alley’s room, where she had been hiding.

“I am never going to be able to look Steve in the eye again.” I stood just inside the door, hand against my forehead, horrified at the events that had just transpired. Alley, however, was turning an interesting shade of purple. Her hand was clapped over her mouth, and she was laughing so hard that I worried for a moment she might not be breathing properly.

“Oh my God,” she gasped, doubling over. I noted, with disappointment, that she had put another shirt on. So much for our sexy little escapade… “Taylor, you--”

“Why are you laughing?” I demanded. “God, that was so embarrassing… I think that was worse than the drink incident…”

“I KNOW!” She fell on the bed, burying her face in her hands. “Oh, Taylor, your face…was just classic…”

“You left me! You fed me to the wolves!”

She rolled over, eyes widening in disbelief. “Taylor! I was in a state of undress!”

“So was I!”

“Yeah, but guys running around with their shirts off isn’t a big deal.” She grinned at me and started giggling again. “Although I imagine it didn’t leave much to their imaginations.”

“No, especially not when you somehow unzipped my pants without me knowing…”

“What? Me? I did no such thing…” She rolled over and buried her face in the comforter, shoulders shaking.

I feigned a heavy sigh. “Of course not. I suppose it just magically unzipped itself…”

“Stranger things have happened…”

I sat down on the bed next to her, chuckling. “True,” I agreed, affectionately ruffling her hair. She looked up at me, her face finally fading into a warm pink glow, and smiled.

“Like you, for example…” she said.

“Oh, so I’m strange?”

She grinned. “You said it, not me…”

I laughed, leaning back until I was lying beside her. “Well, that makes me a perfect match for you, then, doesn’t it?” I closed my eyes, smiling softly.

“It does.” The bedsprings squeaked, and I felt a rustling beside me. A moment later I felt her soft fingers tracing my jawline.

“Some anniversary,” I mumbled. Not one, but two lost chances… and Louise was right, I was a chicken… “Sorry, Alley…” It occurred to me that she probably didn’t quite realize why I was apologizing.

“The day’s not over yet.” I opened my eyes then, warily looking over at her. Interesting… she had that wicked look on her face again. I sat up slowly, feeling my heart resume another hard, pounding rhythm.

“Oh?” I asked, raising one eyebrow at her.

Suddenly my mortification didn’t seem like such a big deal, after all… especially when she sat up and slowly started to remove her shirt, to match my current underdressed condition. “Mmm-hmmm. In fact, I think it may just be getting started…”

“I see… Well, let me help you with that...” I quickly sat up, reaching for her.

She smiled as I pulled her shirt off for the second time that night. “Ever the gentleman, Taylor.”

“Of course. I’m always willing to lend a hand…” The frenzied, uncontrollable lust I’d felt earlier in the night didn’t return. Instead, I was filled with something a little easier to deal with – just a warm, unslaked sense of love for this crazy, kooky girl who somehow made me feel like my life was complete. And who was getting way too good at embarrassing the hell out of me. “What kind of boyfriend do you think I am?”

One side of her mouth curled up in a tempting smile. “One that’s entirely too clothed...”

I immediately declared that I could fix that, too, if she cared to help. She agreed, and we spent the rest of our day solving that problem, interruption-free.