Chapter 70: On The Way Home

The following Friday

Taylor

What a crazy, crazy week.

In the six days that had passed since I finally got the balls to ask Alley to marry me, I had met more relevant people – relatives and friends of Alley’s – than I knew ever existed. Classmates, co-workers, cousins, hell, even that art professor she’d had in class, all stopped by the house at some point, offering presents, hugs, and various goodbyes. Though we had decided that only a select few would be specifically told of our engagement (in order to try and control the wild Hanson fan rumor mill), nearly everyone she had ever known was told that she was coming back to Tulsa with me indefinitely. Which meant that the past week had pretty much been one long, extended going-away party. I mean, I’d always known that Alley made friends easily – she was just so cute and clueless, it was impossible not to like her – but I’d never expected a mass turnout of well-wishers like I’d just seen…

“That smells good,” I said to Louise, wandering into the kitchen. We were planning one last dinner party tonight, for the Sorrells to say their goodbyes, before leaving tomorrow. Louise, naturally, was cooking for it. I crept closer, trying to get a good look.

“Taylor! Get out of the way!” she shooed me with her hands, looking slightly frazzled. “Don’t you have anything to do?”

“No,” I admitted. “I’m all packed…”

“What’s your fiancée doing, then?” Louise arched an eyebrow at me, a hint of a smile on her face.

I grinned goofily. “Actually… I don’t know. She’s been awfully quiet for awhile…” Without listening to Louise’s response, I meandered back into the hallway. I could hear music coming from upstairs – sounded like CCR, ‘Proud Mary’. I turned the corner and loped up the stairs, heading towards John Fogerty’s raspy, throaty voice.

She was in her room, stereo blaring, several suitcases opened and scattered across her bed. I leaned on the doorframe, smiling softly, watching her sing along. I kept my eyes glued to her. Whether it was from disbelief, or shock, or just good old-fashioned desire, I couldn’t seem to tear my gaze away. I just liked to look at her; observe her.

“What?” Alley asked, looking up and noticing that I was just staring. She had been emptying her drawers, carefully folding up the clothes she was taking to Tulsa. I took a step inside, grinning lazily. She held a t-shirt up against her chest, creasing it into a little square. “Why are you staring at me?”

“Because I can,” I murmured. Because you’re mine… “You look so domesticated,” I said with a laugh. “Alley, laundry? That’s practically an oxymoron…”

She glowered at my sarcasm. “Shut up and help me. This is taking ages…”

“Yes, ma’am…” I walked in the room, picking another shirt up out of the pile she’d thrown in the floor. I held it up, inspecting the design on the front. El Zoso. Of course… I chuckled, folding it and tossing it into one of the suitcases. “Jesus, how many suitcases do you need?” I asked warily, eyeballing the three on the bed. “I didn’t even know you had that many clothes…”

“Listen, some of those are yours, Mr. Fashion Plate…” she replied, poking me in the ribs. “I think you have more than me to take back…”

Well, as much as I hated to admit it, there was probably an element of truth to that. I hadn’t even realized how much junk I had accumulated here until it had come time to gather it up and pack it. I didn’t answer, loathe to tell her she was right. Instead, I just leaned over, giving her a slow kiss, hoping that would divert her from conversation.

Luckily, she’s always been one to be easily distracted. I straightened back up, smiling warmly at her, loving the way her face blushed with pleasure. I turned back to the laundry, continuing to fold and pack.

“Okay,” she sighed a little while later, cramming her last shirt on top of the already-squashed stack inside the biggest suitcase. I raised an eyebrow as she forced the lid down, sat on it, and wrestled with the zipper.

“You’re gonna break it,” I remarked. She grunted in irritation as the zipper caught on something and refused to budge. “You’ll never get it closed…”

“I know what I’m doing,” she muttered. “Watch me.”

“The last time you said that, you ended up falling off the couch and knocking over the lamp on the end table…”

Suddenly there was a loud, quick buzz, and I watched, amazed as she hopped back onto her feet, smiling smugly. Damn, she’d actually gotten it closed… the sides were bulging out, and the zipper seams looked strained, but yep, it was closed… she dragged it off the bed and wheeled it over by the door.

“I stand corrected.” I bowed to her, and she laughed, pinching me in the stomach. I retaliated by wrestling her back onto the free space on the bed and tickling her until she squealed for mercy. When she started gasping for breath, I stopped, trapping her with my weight. I looked down at her flushed face, smirking.

“Give up?” I asked smugly.

She squirmed, pushing on my chest. “I can’t breathe, Taylor!”

“You’re breathless? Hmmm… I do seem to have that effect on women…”

She sputtered with laughter. “Get off me!”

“That’s not what you said last night…”

Taylor!” she shrieked. I laughed merrily, kissing her hard on the lips and standing back up. I offered her my hand.

“Alright, alright…” I sighed. She grudgingly accepted my hand and I lifted her to her feet. She readjusted her shirt and carefully appraised all the luggage.

“Well, that’s enough packing for now,” she said.

“Enough? You barely did anything!” I exclaimed. I eyed the other suitcases on the bed, which were only half-filled.

“So? Everybody’s gonna be showing up soon… and I want to shower.”

I was tempted to ask if I could perhaps join her in the shower, but quickly realized that if that happened, we would most likely not be dressed and ready by the time everyone arrived. I sighed reluctantly as she gave me an affectionate hug and strolled out of the room to find some clean towels. Sitting down on the bed, I quietly looked around her room, which had actually been cleaned in preparation for her departure. Though Alley hadn’t packed everything of hers to take – honestly, in my current living situation with Zac and Ike there simply wasn’t enough room, not to mention having to immediately explain to them why my ‘girlfriend’ was bringing everything but the kitchen sink – her shelves and dresser looked a little bare. The closet had thinned out. The enormous pile of shoes that usually rested by the closet door was gone. It had all been packed away, ready to make the trip home…

Sighing, I walked out, glancing backwards at the half-empty room as I left.

*****

“Hey, Taylor.” I turned to see Ryan standing behind me, holding a Miller High Life in one hand and scratching absentmindedly at his stomach with the other. I had only expected the Sorrells tonight, but Louise had informed me that Ryan and his girlfriend, Tracy, were stopping by. I, personally, was glad for the male presence in a houseful of women. “You look tired, man.”

“I am… all this packing and planning has worn me out…” I laughed, pulling out a chair. “Sit down and talk to me. She’s still in there talking.” I beckoned with my head to the living room, where Alley was still being fawned over by our guests, which included Louise, Ellen, Joanna, and Tracy. The husbands had already gone home, as they were getting up early in the morning to go fishing or some nonsense. So that left me, Ryan, and an overzealous group of women. Needless to say, I was worn out. “I think they’ll be in there all night, squealing over her…”

He laughed loudly, clapping his hand on my shoulder. “Yeah, probably.  But can you blame them? It might be a long time before we see her again, after you take her away from us....” He smiled broadly to let me know he was joking, although I felt a guilty tug in my chest. “But yeah, I think she’s had a good time tonight.”

“Yeah… I have, too. I’m glad you all came.”

“Of course. Wouldn’t miss it.” He finished off his beer and set it down on the table. “Well, let’s go see what they’re talking about.” He stood up. “Come on.”

I followed him over to the den, and we both stopped just inside the room, watching the small gaggle of women chatting and laughing. Alley was right in the middle of the group, on the couch, the center of attention. Ryan and I were silent for a minute, both of us just watching her. Tracy had grabbed her hand, angling it to get a better look at the ring I’d bought for her. Alley’s face was a light shade of pink, slightly flustered by all the attention, and the grin on her face lit up the room. I crossed my arms loosely, unable to stop the faint tugging at the corners of my lips.

“Look at her,” Ryan murmured, chuckling. “You’ve made her so happy…”

“She’s made me happy,” I replied, my cheeks flushing with embarrassment. Totally corny, as Alley would have said… but, yet, it was true…

“I can tell.”

As if she could feel us watching her, Alley turned around. Seeing me, she smiled broadly and fluttered wildly with her hand. “Come here!” she said. “Where have you all been hiding?”

“Just around,” I answered, walking into the room. Alley immediately shoved Louise over, beckoning for me to sit next to her. Louise grunted in irritation but moved, giving me a flat, irritated look as I wedged myself between them, half-squashing her in the process. Alley immediately grabbed my hand, squeezing it tightly. Ryan perched on the arm of the couch, watching us with amusement.

“So are you excited?” Joanna asked. She was sort of directing the question at both of us, though I assumed it was really meant more for Alley. “You’ve been to Tulsa, haven’t you, Alley?”

Alley smiled. “Yes, and yes…” She looked at me askance, smiling.

“Me, too,” I offered, which for some reason, caused everyone to laugh.

Ellen sighed, the slight crow’s feet around her eyes crinkling up. “God, you girls have grown up so fast… I was just getting used to the idea of you two living here on your own, and now Alley’s moving off and Louise is almost done with school…”

“Thank God,” Louise said. “That place is killing me.” Alley laughed gleefully, presumably because she was already done. I smiled sympathetically at Ellen, who hadn’t gotten the reassurances she was looking for.

“We’ll visit often, I promise,” I said. “And you all will have to come out to see us sometime, too…” Ellen smiled back, looking somewhat relieved. “And don’t worry about the plane tickets… I’ll take care of them.” I felt Alley press a little harder on my palm, her way of silently thanking me. Ellen protested, as people offered gifts generally do, but I waved her off, assuring her it was not a big deal.

Tracy leaned over, abruptly switching subjects. “Well, this is a little off-topic, but I just have to say… Taylor, you have excellent taste,” she said, beckoning to Alley’s sparkling hand. “It’s gorgeous.” She turned to shoot a look at Ryan, and he glared at me, presumably for setting the bar too high. I shrugged, fighting back a smile.

Louise snorted. “He had a little help…”

“Whatever!” I scoffed. “I chose that one by myself, thank you…”

“Yes, but I was the one who took you to Tiffany’s in the first place… I don’t even want to know where you would have ended up if not for me…”

I sighed. “Okay, okay…” I said reluctantly. “Thank you, Louise. You’re right.”

She smiled smugly, like she always did. “That’s what I wanted to hear.”

Everyone laughed, and I relaxed back into the couch, removing my hand from Alley’s and wrapping it comfortably around her shoulder. She leaned into me, looking up and meeting my gaze. I had to resist the urge to lean down and kiss her, as I was sure our audience wouldn’t appreciate a blatant public display of affection.

“So, Taylor,” Ellen said, smiling at me warmly. “How did you propose?”

I froze, hoping my face wasn’t flushing as red as I thought it was. From the corner of my eye, I saw Louise smother a laugh. Well, it appeared that she already knew the story, though that wasn’t too surprising, considering Louise knew everything… But I’d been so relieved about finally doing it, I hadn’t even thought about people wanting to know the details of the proposal itself, so I wasn’t quite sure how to answer that.

Well, Mrs. Sorrell, I stripped your ‘daughter’ bare and took her to bed to make love to her… then, when we were done, but still undressed, I finally blurted it out…

However, I was fairly sure that wouldn’t go over too well. Not with this crowd, anyway…

“Well,” I hedged, frantically trying to think of a PG-rated version I could relate. Or hell, even PG-13 would do… “I, um…”

Thankfully, Alley decided to answer for me with a perfect stretch of the truth. “We went downtown for a walk,” she said suddenly. Well, I guess we had, although that had been afterwards… “And when we were in front of the fountain down by the library… he got down on one knee…” She looked at me slyly, and I nodded eagerly. Yeah, sounded good to me.

“Yeah,” I said. “Very, um, traditional.”

“Oooh!” Joanna sighed. “That’s so romantic.”

“It sure is,” Louise said dryly. “Straight out of a romance novel…”

I hoped no one noticed that I was on the verge of breaking into laughter. “Yes,” I managed to say. “Well, you know me…”

“I certainly do,” Louise replied, eyeing me.

Luckily, Ellen asked Alley another question, distracting everyone from the whole proposal topic. I settled back and relaxed, relieved to be out of the questioning line of fire for the moment. I was content to sit and listen to the others talk; to listen to them reminisce and remember. And to not have near-discussions about mine and Alley’s sex life…

When the clocked chimed at eleven o’clock, Ryan stood up, stretching. “Well, kiddo, we’re gonna head out of here,” he said. He came forward and leaned down to give her a hug, which she readily accepted. “FYE’s not gonna be the same without you…”

Alley grinned cheekily. “I know. It will be a barren wasteland, devoid of any excitement…” Everyone laughed, and Ryan stood back up, shaking his head.

“Something like that,” he said. He turned to me, holding out his hand. “Taylor, take care of her, alright?”

“Oh, I will.” I accepted his hand, firmly shaking it. “I will…”

As Ryan and Tracy left, the others slowly stood up. “I guess we should go, too,” Joanna said. “You all need to get some sleep. You’ve got a long drive tomorrow…” The others agreed, slowly wandering out of the room, heading for the door. Alley followed, yanking on my hand.

We walked them to the front door. Both women embraced Alley, talking a mile a minute, reminding her to call and keep in touch. I stood back, feeling a little awkward and intrusive, but then I found myself immersed in hugs, as well. First Ellen reminded me to be careful driving, and next Joanna complimented me again on such a ‘perfect, gentlemanly proposal’. I managed to choke out an ‘I will’ and ‘Thank you’ to their respective statements as they went out to their cars. We stood on the porch, waving, until they drove off.

“Taylor,” Louise said once they had gone. “You’re too much. Too much.”

“What?” I said defensively. Alley, meanwhile, just laughed.

Louise rolled her eyes. “I’m going to bed. I’m worn out.” She eyed both of us as she opened the door to go back inside. “Don’t stay up too late,” she said, sounding eerily like her mother. “You’ve got a long drive tomorrow.” We followed her inside. Louise immediately started up the stairs, but stopped halfway up. “‘Gentlemanly proposal’,” she repeated incredulously. “If they only knew…”

*****

We sat out on the back patio a little later, eating ice cream and staring up at the dark, starry sky. I’d scooted over on the lounge chair, and she was lying right next to me, resting her head in the crook of my shoulder. We had been quiet for awhile, content to listen to the crickets chirping rhythmically.

“What are you thinking about?” I asked softly, taking both our empty bowls and setting them off to the side.

She sighed, snuggling closer, and I rolled over on my side, resting my arm on her stomach. “Lots of stuff…” she murmured.

“Such as?” I prodded. I watched her eyes flutter as she looked straight up, staring into the darkness.

“Life… and how odd mine has become…”

“Odd?” I repeated. I grinned. “What’s odd about it? Whatever do you mean?”

“Oh, right… I forgot, everyone has invisible friends, don’t they?” She laughed softly, rolling over to face me. I wrapped my arm a little tighter, pulling her closer.

“Perhaps...” I murmured. “Anything’s possible…”

“Right...”

I leaned forward, brushing my lips against hers, loving the way she immediately relaxed against me. The way she sighed and closed her eyes, sliding her hand down to grasp mine. As she pressed her lips harder against mine, obviously unwilling to break apart just yet, I decided against asking any more questions for the time being.

When she finally pulled away, she remained quiet, which was very odd, for Alley. She was on her side, facing me, but she wasn’t looking at me… rather, her eyes appeared to be directed at something behind my back. I lightly ran my hands over her waist, wanting to ask what was wrong, but afraid of annoying her with all my questions.

After several minutes, however, she voluntarily let me know what was on her mind. “This is the last night I’ll spend in this house,” she said quietly, barely breaking the silence.

I felt a sudden pang then, at her words. She was right… we hadn’t yet set a date, but I had pretty much intended for her to stay with me until we were married… and when and where that would be, I had no idea yet… “Are you sad?” I asked gently.

“A little.”

I wasn’t really sure what to say – ‘I’m sorry’ just didn’t seem right… I couldn’t deny that I felt a little guilty, stealing her away from the only home she’d ever known. Taking her away from the Sorrells, especially Louise, who had practically mothered her ever since her dad had died; away from her hometown, from her friends… it was a lot to give up. All of that for me. For a guy who was leading her into a life that, really, no sane person would want…

I opened my mouth, unsure of what to say, but she suddenly grinned, pressing her fingers against my lips to silence me. “I know what you’re thinking, Taylor,” she said. “And don’t.”

“What?”

She suddenly pushed on my shoulder so that I found myself lying on my back. I laughed, surprised, when she suddenly crawled over and planted herself on top of me, her chest pressed against mine. She folded her arms and rested her chin on them, smiling.

“You’re worth it,” she said, her voice a little stronger. “Yes, I will miss it here… and the people… Louise…” She reached out with one hand, carefully stroking my hair and tucking it behind my ear in that way that drove me crazy. “But… I love you, Taylor. I need you; I’ve already experienced the proof of that all last year... I don’t care where we are, as long as you’re with me…”

                               

“Really?” I asked, somewhat timidly. I grabbed her hand with mine, lacing our fingers together.

“Of course… besides, Taylor. My life here is so boring… it’s time I had a little excitement…”

I chuckled. “I doubt that… you’re always getting into some sort of trouble or another…”

“Who? Me?” She gave me a faux-shocked look, and we both laughed. I smiled affectionately, pulling on one of her curls.

“Yeah, you…” I murmured. She shivered slightly as the chilly late-night breeze picked up, and I wrapped my arms around her and managed to sit up, keeping her in my lap. “Let’s so inside. It’s starting to get cold.”

She rested her head on my shoulder. “Mmm, okay…” she sighed. Then giggled. “If you carry me…”

I groaned loudly. “You’re killing me here,” I teased. “By the time I’m supposed to carry you across the threshold, I’ll be totally worn out from carrying you everywhere else…”

“Sounds like you better be putting in more hours at the gym, then, doesn’t it?” I laughed at her sweetly sarcastic reply and agreed that I probably should. She firmly hooked her arms around my neck as I stood up, hitching her into my arms. As I headed towards the door to go back in, I felt reassured. She loved me. She was mine. And we would, somehow, make all these changes work.

*****

The next morning, I woke up to find Alley already out of bed. As I blinked to rid my eyes of sleep, I saw that she was shimmying into her jeans, her back facing me. She’d already put a fresh shirt on, and her hair was neatly tied up in some sort of twist, with a clip. I was totally confused, and not just because of the sleepiness.

What? Alley, already awake, and not even noon? We weren’t even planning to leave until early afternoon… What was wrong with this picture?

“What are you doing?” I murmured, propping my head up on one hand, lazily watching her.

She turned, surprised to see me awake. “Getting ready, what’s it look like?”

“Already? It’s only 10:30…” I laughed at her sour look.

“I still have a few things to get packed. And I couldn’t sleep… I was too excited.” I smiled at that, and she winked, walking over and tugging on my arm. “Come on, you should get up too. Go shower. Wash that greasy hair. Get ready.”

I scoffed, reaching up to feel the messy strands. “My hair is not greasy!”

“Whatever! You look like a baby-faced version of Kurt Cobain…” She laughed, chucking me under the chin. “Smells like Teen Spirit, indeed…”

“Kurt Cobain, eh?” I mused. “Hmmm… not bad. Maybe I should grow some scruff, too…” I rubbed my chin thoughtfully, trying to imagine myself with a goatee.

She looked horrified. “Taylor, honey, no.”

“Why not?” I demanded, feeling a little insulted. “It might look good!”

“I can tell you right now, with absolute certainty, that it would not look good. It would look ridiculous…”

“Why?!”

“Just promise me you won’t…” She grimaced. “If you do, I’m going to stop shaving my legs…”

I snorted. “You’ve already stopped shaving your legs…”

She bristled at that. “I haven’t had a chance to buy a new razor yet!”

I sputtered with laughter. “Why? Because they’re so hard to find?” I rolled out of bed, enveloping her in a bear hug. “It’s okay,” I murmured into her neck. “I love you, grizzly legs and all…”

“That’s comforting to know,” she said dryly. She pecked me on the cheek before pushing me away. “Now hurry and shower.”

“I’m going, I’m going…” I wandered out of the room, a towel and change of clothes under my arm.

Once I had showered and gotten dressed, I went back into the bedroom. Alley was wrestling around with one of the enormous suitcases, and sadly, it appeared that the suitcase was winning… I had to laugh out loud at the frustration clearly evident on her face.

“Having some trouble there?” I asked sweetly.

She turned around, her eyes lighting up. “Taylor! Will you carry this for me?”

“What?” I exclaimed. “What’s wrong with you?”

“Come on… please? It’s so heavy…” She gave me a sweet, begging look, and I finally relented, like I always do. She smiled triumphantly, no doubt because of how completely whipped I was. Ridiculous. I briefly thought of Dad, who still gave into Mom’s every whim after over thirty years of marriage… I studied Alley’s grinning face and sighed. Might as well get used to it.

I grabbed the handle of the suitcase, preparing to lift it so that I could carry it down the stairs. Except, my arm nearly came out of the socket as I did so…  Holy shit, the thing was heavy. No wonder she hadn’t been able to handle it, I was pretty sure it weighed more than she did…

“What is in here?” I demanded. “Concrete?”

“Yes, Taylor, concrete,” she said, rolling her eyes. “Just stuff…”

“Jesus,” I muttered, heaving the luggage out into the hall. I gave serious consideration to just flinging it down the steps, to save some effort, but I was pretty sure that would elicit a negative reaction from her. I grasped the handle tightly, slowly dragging the suitcase behind me on the way down. It thumped loudly with each step it hit.

“Taylor!” she shrieked. “Be careful!”

“I am… I can’t help it that you’ve apparently crammed your entire wardrobe into this one piece…” I managed to make it to the bottom, and nearly fell as the suitcase came lurching after me. Louise appeared in the hallway, having come from the kitchen to see what the ruckus was, and she stared at me.

“What the hell did she pack?” she asked incredulously.

“I don’t know, but it weighs a ton,” I muttered. I stopped for a moment, shaking out my arm. “Jesus Christ…”

“Well, I’ve made you all lunch before you go… your last meal from me.” She smiled sadly. “It’s almost ready.”

“Sounds good.”

After lugging Alley’s suitcase out into the car, and nearly giving myself a hernia trying to get it in the trunk, I went back up to her room to carry down the rest of our luggage. Since I’d packed everything of mine to take back, as well, all in all, it totaled three large suitcases and two mid-sized duffels, all packed to the limit. She helped me carry the rest of it down – apparently nothing else was as heavy as the first suitcase, which I thought was sort of strange – and we loaded the car up.

“Are you ready to eat?” I asked, realizing immediately what a stupid question it was. “Louise said it’s almost ready…”

“Great,” she said enthusiastically. She was in a good mood, which surprised me somewhat. I guess I had been expecting more of a melancholy tinge to her attitude, sort of like I’d seen last night. I led her back inside, and we went to the kitchen, sitting down at the table and waiting on our lunch.

“Perfect timing… the bread just got done,” Louise said. She smiled at Alley, bringing her over a plate full of pasta with alfredo sauce. Two neat slices of garlic bread adorned the sides. “I made your favorite…”

“Awww…” Alley eagerly took the plate and set it down, immediately sticking her fork in and swirling it around the noodles. “I’m going to miss this… real food…”

“No real food?” Louise asked, snickering as she handed me a plate. I immediately dug into it. “You’re not going to cook for Taylor?”

“Of course,” she said, taking an oversized bite of her pasta. “If by ‘cook’ you mean ‘call Pizza Hut’…”

I sighed, reaching over to ruffle her hair. “Thanks, honey,” I said dryly. “Maybe we should invest in their stock…”

Louise sat down with us with her own dish. “So, what’s your travel plan for today?”

“Well… neither one of us wanted to make another one-day trip to Tulsa,” I said, “considering how cranky we all were after the last trip there…” I grinned, and Louise chuckled.

“Yes, I remember…” she said. “Both of you acting like brats…”

“Actually, as I remember it, Taylor was the one whining all day,” Alley said through a mouthful of food. “Whereas I was the one trying to engage him in conversation…”

“You call harassing me conversation?” I asked. “Because that’s how I remember it…”

“Hush, both of you,” Louise said. “Taylor, please continue.”

Alley grinned as I rolled my eyes and kept talking. “So we were thinking about stopping in St. Louis, or somewhere in that area… it’s about halfway.”

“Well, you call me when you get there, okay?” Louise said. Was it my imagination, or were her eyes starting to look a little glassy? I kept my gaze evenly on her, refusing to look away until she returned the favor. After a minute, she finally gave in, giving me a tight-lipped smile. Amazing… Louise, the sarcasm queen, on the verge of tears? I gave her a slow, understanding nod, hoping it conveyed my apologetic message.

“We will,” Alley said brightly, completely oblivious to our silent interaction. When neither of us replied again, she shrugged and dug back into her fettucine with gusto.

******

“Take care of Chester for me, okay?” Alley was clutching my hand, staring morosely at Louise. “He’ll be so lonely…”

We were out by the car, ready to leave… everything had been packed and loaded… we’d double-checked to make sure nothing was left behind… our cells were charged, the car had a full tank of gas. Alley was reminding Louise all the things she had to take care of in her absence, which included, of course, the gigantic tub of fur she called a cat. I’d assured her that once we had our own place, Chester would be back with us, but for the time being… well, my brothers probably wouldn’t appreciate a strange pet on top of a strange girl suddenly coming to live with them…

“I will, sweetie… he’ll be fine.” Louise gave her a reassuring hug. When she released Alley, she looked at me. “Taylor, can I talk to you for a minute?”

I nodded, and she pulled me off to the side while Alley went back inside to get a drink for the road. “Yes?” I said once Alley was out of earshot.

“Well, Taylor… this is it.” She folded her arms and studied me, smiling softly.

“Yeah,” I said, suddenly feeling a little shy.

“Take good care of her,” she said softly.

“You know I will…”

“Yeah, I know.” She stared down at the ground for a minute, as if thinking. “This is going to be so weird. She’s just always been there, like, under my wing… getting in trouble, caught up in some sort of drama…”

I laughed softly. “Yeah, she seems to be a magnet for that sort of thing.”

“Obviously. You’re proof enough of that…”

“Thanks,” I said dryly.

She shook her head, a soft smile on her lips. “Finally. After everything we’ve been through… after all my work… here you are. Engaged to be married…”

I grinned goofily. “Yeah… thanks, Louise. You know we owe you…”

“You better believe it,” she said. “I expect big things from you all in the future…” She paused, her eyes glinting mischievously. “Namely, in the form of nieces or nephews…”

“Why? So you can spoil them and turn them into brats?”

“Of course… someone’s gotta do it…”

“Well,” I remarked dryly. “Although we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves here, I’ll tell you that you’re going to have some competition from my mother in that department.”

We heard the front door slam as Alley trounced back outside, a can of Coke in her hand. Louise looked over at her, and then back at me. “Alright,” she said, indicating that our conversation was over. “Give me a hug, Taylor.”

I obliged, leaning down and embracing her loosely. “Thanks, Louise,” I said gently. “For everything.”

“You’re welcome,” she said.  I started to pull away, but she kept me close, whispering in my ear. “And Taylor?”

“Yeah?”

“If you break her heart, I’ll kill you.”

I didn’t laugh.

“I know,” I replied, straightening up as she let go of me. “And I would deserve it.” Alley came up to join us, and I nodded my head at Louise. “I’ll wait in the car. Bye, Louise… I’ll see you later.”

She gave me a small wave as I walked around the side of the car, heading for the driver’s seat. “Be careful,” she said as I opened the door. I replied that I would, and planted myself inside, shutting the door. I was tempted to turn around and watch their goodbyes, but I kept my eyes forward, absentmindedly running my fingers over the hard leather steering wheel. Her words kept running through my mind – this is it…

A few minutes later, the passenger side door opened, and Alley collapsed inside, setting the Coke in the cup holder as she shut the door. Looking beyond her, I could see Louise slowly walking back toward the house. Alley turned to face me, smiling tremulously, the only sign that she still harbored some anxiety about what we were about to do. I smiled back, immensely relieved that she hadn’t started crying when saying goodbye to Louise. I hated to see her cry…

“Ready?” she asked, cutting into my thoughts.

I nodded, leaning over and pulling her head close. I slowly kissed her, wishing I had a meaningful way to tell her that I would do anything in my power to make her feel comfortable with our new life. And that, really, I was willing to give up plenty for her, just as she’d done for me… “Alley,” I said softly. I wasn’t quite sure how to form those words.

“Hmmm?” She looked at me, curious. I knew I must have looked nervous.

“Thank you,” I said quietly. “You’re giving up a lot. I know you say it’s okay, but…” I paused, pressing my forehead against hers. “I just want you to know… if our situations were different, switched, whatever… I would do the same for you.”

She laughed a little. “If I was rich and famous, you’d come mooch off me?” she asked. “Thanks, Taylor…”

“You’re not mooching off me…” I smiled in spite of myself. “You know what I mean. I’d do anything for you, you know that?”

She actually started to blush. “I know,” she murmured.

“Good.” I kissed her gently again.  “I love you.”

She leaned into me, squeezing the top of my hand, the metal of my ring – her ring – digging into the soft skin. “I love you, too,” she declared, her lips fluttering against mine as she spoke. “Let’s go.”

“We’re going…” I chuckled, leaning back in the seat and starting up the ignition. As we pulled out of the driveway, I glanced down, beckoning to her can of Coke. “What, no Ale8? You should have gotten one… You won’t be able to get those in Tulsa…”

She lifted her can, smirking, pulling back the ring-top. It whooshed open and the liquid fizzled a little as she took a sip. “I think I’ll be alright,” she said airily.

*****

At almost seven o’clock, just before we reached St. Louis, we agreed to stop and eat before attempting to find a place to stay for the night. I was still in the driver’s seat, tapping my hands rhythmically against the wheel, humming along to the classic rock station I’d chosen for part of our drive. Alley had spent the majority of the trip attempting to read, listening to her headphones, or sleeping, but once she realized we were about to stop somewhere, she started paying attention.

She was lying sort of sideways in the seat, and I could feel her studying me. I turned, meeting her eyes. She offered me a sweet smile in return, and I immediately reached my hand out, clasping it with hers. “Taylor?” she asked softly. “When are we going to tell your parents?”

Good question. “I don’t know,” I admitted. “I’ve been trying to think of the best way to tell them to minimize the shock value, but I really haven’t come up with a plan yet…” I paused. “They want us to come over for dinner Tuesday night…”

Tuesday?!” Alley exclaimed. “So soon? That doesn’t give me any time to prepare!”

“Prepare?” I repeated, laughing. “You don’t need to prepare. But at any rate, at least you’ll have all day Monday to worry about it…”

“That’s not funny, Taylor,” Alley said, looking perturbed. For some unfathomable reason, she was absolutely terrified that my parents would hate her. Though I had repeatedly assured her that my entire family would love her, especially when compared against previous girlfriends, she was pretty much inconsolable. “What if they freak out? What if they think I’m an idiot? Or not good enough for you?”

Well, though the ‘freaking out’ could potentially happen, I decided not to tell her that. “Alley, you worry too much.”

“You always say that…”

“Because it’s true. They will love you. I promise. Guarantee it.”

She sighed, leaning into me, resting her head on my arm. “I’m glad you’re so confident.”

I turned and kissed the top of her head, smiling. “I’ve got enough for both of us.” Up ahead on the interstate, one of the familiar green exit signs came into view. CASEYVILLE, 2 MILES. “Hey, let’s stop here. There’s some restaurants listed on this sign up ahead…”

Alley sat up, still clinging to my hand, scrutinizing the sign as we passed it. “Well?” I asked when it was out of sight. “Where do you want to go?”

“Cracker Barrel,” she declared.

Cracker Barrel? Of all the restaurants available, you want to go there?”

“Yes,” she insisted. “I want something greasy and smothered in gravy. Besides, I won’t be getting my good southern food for awhile, I’m sure…” She sighed, obviously distressed at the thought.

“I’m pretty sure there’s a Cracker Barrel somewhere in Tulsa, honey… not to mention numerous other restaurants that can serve you a heart attack on a plate…” I eased the car down the off ramp, looking around to see which way to turn. “Like the Delta Café… I think you’d like it.”

“Mmm…” was her only reply. I navigated us onto the main highway. The restaurant was just down the road a bit, and minutes later I was pulling into the parking lot.

“Here we are,” I said. “Ready for grease and gravy.” I squeezed her hand and let go, throwing the door open, ready to get out and go inside. I was halfway out when I noticed that Alley hadn’t moved. She was holding her hands loosely in her lap, staring down at them. “Hey,” I said. “You okay?”

She looked over at me, her expression wistful. “I should probably take off the ring.”

“Why?” was the response that immediately popped out of my mouth, without thinking. As soon as I said it, however, I answered my own question. Because I was Taylor Hanson, and there could be fans anywhere, and those fans could have cameras… and a flurry of pictures of Alley wearing an engagement ring could start a whole sequence of ‘scandalous’ events that would ultimately lead to one of my brothers ringing my neck. Right… until my family at least knew about us, the rest of the world didn’t need to find out…

I sighed heavily, crawling back in the car. “You’re probably right,” I said quietly. “For now…” I watched, feeling deflated, as she slowly removed the platinum band. God, why did my life have to be so complicated? Having to hide things, having to shield her from the overzealousness of some people was so frustrating. She held the ring in her palm, unsure of where to keep it for the time being, until dinner was over and we returned to the car. I glanced down at her bare neck, thinking.

“Here,” I said. I slowly undid one of the long leather necklaces from the tangle I generally wore around my neck. “It will fit under your shirt… that way, you can still wear it…”

She actually smiled at that, immediately taking it from me and stringing the ring on. She held the ends of the necklace up so that I could fix the clasp for her, and once that was done, she carefully tucked the necklace under the collar of her shirt. “Thanks,” she murmured.

“Thank you…” I gave her another slow, firm kiss. “Okay, are we ready?” She nodded, and we strolled inside.

*****

Later that night, after a meal of biscuits, gravy, and chicken that had been fried no less than twice, we went on down the interstate a little more, wanting to get on the other side of St. Louis before stopping. It was about another hour of driving, especially as traffic was heavy around the interchanges. We’d seen a newly built Marriot all alone right off a nearly-empty exit ramp, and we’d chosen it to stay at, since nothing had been built around it yet, giving a little seclusion.

Alley had called Louise as soon as we’d checked in and gotten to the room, assuring her that we’d managed to make it in one piece. After she’d hung up, she’d immediately gone to the bathroom to get ready for bed, while I lay back on the comforter, resting my eyes. As I listened to her start up the water, I decided to make a few calls of my own.

I rolled onto my stomach, reaching one arm over the edge and into the duffel bag next to the bed. I fished around in one of the side pockets until I felt my phone.

I picked it up and scrolled through my list of names. ISAAC CELL. I hit ‘dial’. It rang several times before he picked up.

“Yeah?” Isaac sounded distracted. Probably messing around with something on the computer, as he was prone to do.

“Hello to you, too, Ike,” I said dryly. “What’s going on?”

Instead of answering my politely question, as most normal people would have, he immediately went into paternal mode. “Where are you?”

“Just outside of St. Louis… halfway there, basically.”

He groaned. “I still don’t see why you all drove… what is it, thirteen, fourteen hours? On a bus, that’s bad enough, but in a car…”

“Well, she has to have something to drive when she’s here…” I hadn’t quite clarified for Isaac exactly how long Alley would be staying. I had successfully managed to be specific enough to answer his questions, but vague enough so that he didn’t really know what was going on. “I mean, if we’re gonna start practicing again, I don’t want her to be stuck at home.” Not to mention that there was no way all the luggage we’d brought would be accepted by an airline…

“I guess,” he said, still unconvinced. “Though she could have driven yours, or rented a car… but anyway. So what time do you expect to get here tomorrow?”

I shrugged, which was rather stupid, as he couldn’t even see me. “Evening. Seven, eightish? We were planning to sleep in a little before heading back.”

“Okay.”

“How’s Zac?” I asked hesitantly after a brief pause.

“He’s Zac, what else can you say?” Isaac replied.

“Is he pissed that I’m bringing her?”

“No, not that I can tell,” he said. “He hasn’t really said anything about it, though.”

“Okay.” I sighed. “Well, I’m gonna get off here and call Mom, I guess… she’s probably going into conniptions by now…”

“Of course. She’s already called here twice today, asking me when you’re supposed to get back.”

I smiled. “Alright. See you tomorrow, Ike.”

I hung up and immediately dialed my parents’ number. Someone picked up midway through the first ring, giggly and breathless. “Hello?” came the excited, feminine voice in my ear. Jessica.

“Hey, Jess,” I said. “What’re you doing?”

“Oh.” The disappointment was comically obvious. I had the feeling she’d expected it to be someone much more interesting, like the guy she’d had her eye on before I’d come back to Lexington. “Hi, Taylor.”

“What’s with the unenthusiastic greetings?” I asked, pretending to be insulted. “First Isaac, now you… my esteem is starting to suffer…”

She snorted. “I doubt that. I’d say you have plenty of that to go around…”

I rolled my eyes. “Whatever. Let me talk to Mom or Dad.”

“Hang on.”

Moments later, I heard my mother’s calm, soothing tone speaking quietly to someone as she approached the phone. There was a slightly scratchy sound as she picked the phone up off the counter. “Hello?”

“Hey, Mom… it’s me.”

“Taylor!” she exclaimed, her voice bright and warm. “Where are you?” Funny how when she asked the question, it sounded so much sweeter and less like an accusation.

“St. Louis. We’re halfway there,” I said. I couldn’t help but laugh a little at her excited tone. “We’re driving the other half tomorrow. Didn’t want to do it in one day…”

“Probably a good idea,” she agreed. “That’s a pretty long drive.”

“Yeah…” I toyed with the comforter, tracing one finger along the diamond-patterned stitching along the top.

“So, how was your little vacation, Taylor?” I didn’t miss the amusement in her tone. Though Mom had been less than enthusiastic about me disappearing for the summer, particularly with a girl she’d never met, I’d given her a pleading, impassioned speech the day I left, similar to the one I’d given Ike and Zac just before taking off to find Alley on the day I remembered. Surprisingly, after seeing how desperate I was, she’d stopped protesting, merely telling me that she supposed I had to do what I had to do. “And how is Alley?”

For some reason, hearing her speak Alley’s name always made me smile. I’d called my parents regularly during the summer, just to ensure them that I was still doing well, and Mom had commented once that I’d spoken of Alley so much she felt like she already knew her. “She’s good. A little tired from today... And so nervous about meeting you all…”

“Nervous?” I had expected Mom to laugh, but she sounded concern. “Why?”

The shower stopped running, and I heard movement in the bathroom. I fidgeted with the phone, rolling onto my side to be a little more comfortable while I talked. “You know… she’s just afraid you all won’t like her.” Before she could reply – I knew, undoubtedly, that she was having mental images of the last girl I’d brought home, Jennifer – I rushed on. “But you all will love her. Seriously. Mom…” I trailed off. “She’s… great. Funny. Smart. Cute…”

Mom laughed, presumably at my nervousness. “I’m sure we’ll find that out for ourselves, Taylor. Are you still bringing her over on Tuesday?”

“Yeah…” The bathroom door opened, and moments later, Alley appeared, clad in a towel, her hair soaked and combed flat against her head. She stopped when she saw me on the phone, smiling hesitantly. “We’ll be there. Probably about six.” I winked at Alley, beckoning her closer. She slowly walked over and sat on the edge of the bed. I rolled and sat halfway up, gently resting my free palm against her bare back.

“Good. Well, your father and I are anxious to meet her,” Mom said. “Since she’s basically all you’ve talked about all summer…”

I grinned. “Sorry… I guess I can’t help it.” I slowly ran one hand up and down Alley’s back. She turned her head, looking over her shoulder at me, giving me a quizzical look. “Well, I think I’m gonna go get ready for bed,” I said. “We’ve got another long trip ahead of us tomorrow…”

“Okay, honey, get some sleep. Be careful driving,” Mom said. “Call me tomorrow when you all get to Tulsa.”

“I will.”

“Okay. Goodnight. I love you.”

“Love you, too, Mom…” I slowly hung up the phone, setting it aside on the nightstand. “Just checking in with the family,” I said to Alley. “To tell them what time we’d be getting there tomorrow.”

She merely nodded, picking at a piece of lint on her towel. “Okay.”

I sat up, scooting next to her. “Relax,” I said. “You’re worrying again.”

“I can’t help it. It’s in my neurotic nature…”

I laughed, letting my arms creep around her waist. She loosened up, letting me pull her into my lap. “I’ll break you of that habit one of these days.”

“We’ll see…” She leaned against me, her wet hair soaking the fabric on my shoulder. She yawned. “Ugh, I’m so tired…”

“You?” I scoffed. “Who drove all day today?”

“I drove for an hour!” She giggled a little. “Sorry, Taylor.”

“Yeah, yeah…” I let my hand creep down until it was resting on the top of her thigh. Of her prickly thigh, as she hadn’t shaved again tonight, either. Jesus. Maybe I would grow that stubble, just to see how she liked rubbing up against sandpaper. “And it was the scariest hour of my life… so I guess I’ll be driving again tomorrow…”

“Shut up.” With that sweet statement, she scooted off me. I watched as she rummaged through the duffel, getting out her pajamas. She lifted them out – the purple polka-dot pair, the ones that made her look so irresistibly cute, my favorites.

I rested my head in my palm, watching her. “You don’t have to wear those, you know…”

She looked up, laughing, her eyes crinkling up in a smile. “Insatiable,” she remarked, slipping into the bright pajamas. “But I think you need to get some sleep, Taylor… if you’re going to be driving again all day tomorrow…”

I grumbled at being denied, but finally agreed. “Fine. Not even married yet, and already you’re using sex against me…”

She laughed again, climbing into bed next to me. “I drive a hard bargain.”

*****

As I’d predicted, around seven o’clock the next day, we were home.

Alley, naturally, had fallen asleep about five hours into the trip, despite my best efforts to keep her awake to talk to me. I’d finally given up and consented to turning the radio up a little louder, singing along to keep from getting bored. As we’d gotten closer, it was like I’d gone into auto-pilot or something. One moment, we were on I-44, hundreds of miles from home, and the next, it was like I was pulling into the driveway at the apartment I shared with Isaac and Zac, with no real memory of the hours in between. As I shut off the ignition, I peered up at the windows, checking to see if either of my brothers had noticed our arrival. So far, not yet.

“Alley.” I gently tapped her shoulder. “Wake up.” No response, naturally. I slowly slid my hand behind her neck, massaging the soft skin there. “Alley!”

“Mmmm…” She leaned against my hand, murmuring softly.

“Get up!”

“What?” she mumbled groggily. She slowly leaned forward, rubbing her eyes. I laughed and ruffled her hair.

“We’re here.”

“What?” She snapped to attention, blinking frantically to orient herself. “Already?”

“Already?” I snorted. “You slept for the last half of it…”

“Good.” She yawned and leaned back against the seat, staring forward at the brick buildings in front of us. “So… this is your place?”

“This is my place. My temporary place…” I leaned over and kissed her cheek soundly. “Come on, let’s go in.”

We got out of the car, trudging back to the trunk to unload all of our stuff. As I eyed the suitcases piled up inside, I briefly wondered where the hell all of it was going to go. It wasn’t like the apartment was all that spacious… I started lifting the bags out, setting them on the sidewalk.

Sighing, Alley removed her ring, once again, but this time tucked it into her pocket. She was wearing a tank top today, with a lower-cut neck, and the necklace wouldn’t fit under the collar. “I guess I have to hide this again, for awhile,” she said.

“Not for long… I promise.” I smiled at her sadly. She returned the expression, and I moved closer, grabbing the handle of the suitcase she was trying to lift out. “Oh, God, this is the heavy one,” I grumbled.

“You said that about all of them…”

“Yeah, but this one I really mean it.” I managed to drag it out, propping it next to the others. I wiped my forehead – Jesus, I’d worked up a sweat. This was ridiculous.

“Hey,” a deep voice called to us. I looked up to see Isaac walking toward the car. He’d cut his hair shorter, I noticed, and spiked it up. He smiled broadly when he drew closer – of course, Isaac has always been the epitome of polite when around company. “Need some help?”

“Yeah,” I said. “We’ve got… uh… a lot of stuff here.” Not to mention the bags in the backseat we haven’t yet taken out…

He eyed the suitcases. “I’ll say.” Turning to Alley, he gave her a cheery sort of half-wave. “Hi, Alley.”

“Hi,” she replied shyly. “How are you?”

“I’m fine…” He grasped the handles of one of the suitcases and threw a duffel over his shoulder. “I’ll start taking stuff up to your room,” he said, wheeling it away

“Okay,” I called after him. “We’re right behind you.” I turned back around. “See?” I said to her. “You ready?”

We both grabbed some luggage – me with the heavy one and her with the lighter duffels, the lazy thing – and  went inside. Alley trailed behind me, looking over every room as we passed through – the foyer, the kitchen, the den.

“Don’t worry, you’ll get a tour,” I said, prodding her when she’d stopped to scrutinize a bookshelf loaded with pictures against the wall. “Come on.” I led her through the hallway to the staircase. I groaned, looking up at the thirteen steps that I was going to have to climb with the two-ton load pulling on my arm. Grabbing the handle with both hands, I started up. When I had struggled halfway to the top, an amused voice startled me.

“Having some trouble?” I stopped and looked up to see Zac, leaning over the rail, smirking at me. I narrowed my eyes.

“No,” I replied coolly, loathe to admit I wasn’t strong enough to handle it. “Not at all. And hello to you, too.”

He shrugged. “Well, I was going to offer to help you, but if you’re gonna be a jerk about it, nevermind…” He switched his attention from me to the annoyed blonde girl who was currently standing one step behind me, waiting on me to move my ass so she could get to the top. Well, that was probably going to take awhile…

“Hi, Zac,” Alley said.  I looked back at her, smiling at her initiative. She looked like she wanted to say more, but wasn’t sure how to form the words. Instead, she poked me in the back. “Taylor… come on.”

“Hi,” Zac replied simply, choosing the ‘less is more’ approach.

“Taylor, move,” she said impatiently. “You’re blocking the stairs.”

“Do you want to carry this up?” I asked her. “Because that’s what’s about to happen if you keep pushing me…”

“Shit,” Zac said. “Here.” He suddenly came around the banister, clomping down the steps to us. Before I could protest, he’d lifted the suitcase out of my hand. He grunted slightly and cursed at the weight, but I watched, embarrassed, as he dragged it up with more ease than I had. He disappeared into my room, presumably to set it down. Alley, meanwhile, had started giggling.

“It’s okay, Taylor,” she said. “I still love you, whether you’re a weakling or not…”

“Weakling? Weakling?” Oh, no. We would not be having any of that. Despite the fact that she was carrying two bags over her shoulders, I turned and grabbed her around the waist, hoisting her up like a child. “I am not a weakling…” The bags banged up against my hips as I took us up the steps.

“Taylor!” she hissed, squirming against me. “Put me down!”

“I thought you liked to be carried…” I smirked at her. “Careful what you wish for…”

We went into my room, passing Zac, who gave us both an odd look. Alley thanked him, trying as always to be polite and get on his good side, but we didn’t hear his reply over the sound of the bags slamming against the door frame and Alley squealing at me to put her down. Once inside, she finally wriggled out of my arms, jumping to her feet and tossing the bags down on the bed. She paused, looking around at my walls, taking in the various pictures and posters I’d strewn up. Not nearly as decorated as her walls, but not plain, nonetheless.

“My painting,” she said immediately. She dashed over to it – just as I’d told her, I’d hung it on the wall, next to the mirror. She stopped a few feet from it, hugging her arms close and studying it. “I haven’t seen it in… years…” she murmured, reaching out with one hand to feel the surface.

I smiled, going over to join her. Wrapping an arm around her waist, I leaned against her back. “Yeah… unbelievable.” I rested my chin on top of her head. “How in the world did you keep it hidden from me?”

“I have my ways,” she said sweetly. “Louise did a pretty good job of keeping you distracted…”

Louise? Of course… all those times she’d dragged me out of the house to see movies, or eat somewhere, or go shopping with her… all excuses to give Alley some alone time. “How long did it take you?” I asked.

“Um…” she thought for a minute. “A long time,” she admitted. “More than usual. Six, seven weeks, I think?”

“Seven weeks?!” Holy shit, it had been a labor of love. I wasn’t sure I even had the patience to work on one single thing for that long…

“Yeah… I got it done before your birthday. It was supposed to be your birthday present…” she trailed off. “But then I saw your brothers, when we last came here, and, you know…”

“Yeah…” I murmured. “Amazing how it all works out…” I thought of the day I’d discovered the painting, back in December… and how the dreams, the memories, had started coming back after I’d taken it home. How it had been the catalyst, really, for our eventual reunion. I hugged her close. “I love it. When I first saw it, it took my breath away…”

She snickered. “You take your own breath away? Wow, you are arrogant, Taylor…”

I pinched her stomach, laughing. “Stop twisting my words.”

She turned in my embrace, leaning against my chest, and smiled up at me, the first real, genuine smile I’d seen all day. For awhile, anyway, I could tell her apprehensions about meeting my family were far from her mind. “So am I getting a tour now, or what?”

*****

Later, after our ‘tour’, dinner, and some idle chit-chat with my brothers, Alley and I went up to my room to unpack. Truthfully, despite not having seen my brothers for a few months, I didn’t really feel like talking to them just yet. I was too tired from the drive, too excited about Alley finally coming here. It was so odd, seeing her sitting on my bed, in my chair, brushing her hair in my bathroom, and not vice versa as it had been for so long. Odd, but so perfect…

It had gotten pretty late when we started unpacking – nearly eleven o’clock – and though we were both pretty worn out, we decided to get as much done as possible before we went to sleep. After about two hours, we’d managed to get the bed cleared off and most of the bags and suitcases emptied. And, of course, I’d spent most of that time trying to ease her fears about meeting my parents, which was just over a day away. She’d been alright for awhile, as the upcoming dinner had seemed to slip her mind, but once it got late and we were alone again, she began worrying over every little detail…

“Taylor, I have nothing to wear,” she said suddenly, staring down at one of the shirts in her hand. “Nothing nice, anyway…”

“You don’t need to dress up!” I said. “What do you think we are? My family lives in jeans and t-shirts…”

“I want to look presentable,” she said pointedly. She looked down at her current outfit, the tank top and jeans. “I look… like, gross…”

I rolled my eyes. “You do not look gross, honey. But if it will make you feel better, we can go shopping tomorrow and get something new…”

“Shopping? With you?” She stopped, turning to look at me.

No, with Zac,” I said. “Of course with me!” She looked unconvinced, and I sighed. “And I promise we will go for you and you only… I won’t buy anything.”

For a moment, I thought she was actually going to refuse. Finally she laughed and shrugged. “Oookay… if you say so…”

I decided to ignore her obvious crack on my shopping tendencies, and changed the subject. “So what do you think so far? Of your new home?” I asked, pulling out a stack of shirts. We’d pulled the drawers of the armoire open, and she was trying to cram both of our wardrobes into it. Which was somewhat difficult, considering there really had barely been enough room just for my clothes to begin with…

“I guess it’ll do,” she said, turning around and grinning at me.

“For now,” I supplied.

“Yeah… although adjusting to three men in the house is going to be a little difficult…” She grimaced. “I had enough trouble adjusting to you…”

“Me?” I laughed. “What’s wrong with me?”

“Nothing… well, other than your tendency to hog the bathroom, but…” She laughed and cut me off before I could shoot back an indignant reply. “I’ve never lived with anyone but my father, or with Louise and her parents… like I told you, I grew up in a small family. I wasn’t used to other people… particularly a man…”

“Your father was a man,” I pointed out with a smile.

She rolled her eyes, but chuckled. “You know what I mean.” She stopped for a minute, resting her hand on the top of the armoire, watching me pull the rest of the clothes out of the suitcase. Once it was empty, I tossed it to the side. “I think he would have liked you,” she said.

I looked up at her serious tone. “Oh?”

“Yeah…” she said shyly. “I think he would have approved.”

I wasn’t sure what to say, but I could feel a blush creeping across my cheeks, and I figured that was probably sufficient enough answer. “Good,” I finally said. “I wish I could have met him. Really met him.”

“Yeah… me, too.” She had a strange sort of smile on her face, a cross between wistfulness and affection. After a minute, she seemed to snap out of it, walking over to me and grabbing another stack to put away.

The heavy suitcase I’d chosen to leave in the floor, as I really didn’t want to attempt to lift it onto the bed, and I wasn’t about to go get Zac to do it for me again. I unzipped it and lifted the lid. The only thing I saw, at first, was several pairs of jeans. I grabbed them, wondering how the hell denim had become so heavy, when I found my answer. As I lifted the pairs out of the suitcase, I saw what they had been covering up.

“ALLEY!” I shouted, staring down at the cases of Ale8 she’d hidden underneath the clothes. Jesus Christ, no wonder it had been so heavy… three boxes of 12-pack cans weighed over twenty-five pounds alone… “What the hell is this?”

She sauntered over, looking down. “Oh, that’s my Ale8 stash, to tide me over,” she said cheerfully. “Since I couldn’t get them in Tulsa, you know…”

I stared at her. “You mean to tell me that you hid these, knowing they weighed a ton, didn’t tell me, and then made me carry it all over the place?!”

“Well, technically, Zac carried it part of the way, too…”

“You are such a sneak!” I exclaimed. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I figured you’d make me put them back, considering we didn’t have a lot of room…” she said.

“I didn’t even know they came in cans… good grief…”

“Well, I couldn’t pack bottles, they would have broken… especially the way you manhandled that suitcase around…” I scowled at that, but she continued before I could reply. “And I had to have them, Taylor… you don’t understand…”

“Jesus Christ,” I said in disbelief. “You’re like a drug addict, or something… what are you going to do when these run out? Drive back to Lexington and buy some more?”

Noooo…” she said condescendingly. “That’s what UPS is for…”

“What?!”

“I can have them delivered!” She grinned wildly, as if this was the best news she’d heard all year. “It’s on their website! They take orders!”

I buried my face in my hands. “You’re insane,” I said finally. “Totally insane.”

“Probably so,” she agreed readily. “But insanity loves company, doesn’t it?”

“Whatever,” I grumbled good-naturedly. God, she was so weird… and I loved her for it. I eyed the cases. In a strange way, I felt a little reassured by the soda discovery… she’d found a way to bring part of her home to mine. “So… you planning to share these?”

“It depends…” she replied loftily, grinning in a way I found entirely too attractive. “If you apologize, maybe…”

“An apology?” I asked, moving closer to her. I briefly turned to check and make sure I’d closed and locked the door. “Is that all?”

She fought back a smile at my not-so-subtle tone. “On second thought… I just thought of another condition…” Reaching up and pulling my head down, she began whispering in my ear, her voice husky and low. I smirked, sliding my hand around her back, under her shirt. I was suddenly very glad we’d taken the time to unpack and clear off the bed…

She pulled my face into a deep, slow kiss, meeting my eyes as we pulled apart. “As you wish,” I murmured.