AN: So I know that I haven't updated anything since June, and I really do want to apologize for that. Life seems to get in the way, and, now that the semester has started up again and I'm an RA at my school, things are just more hectic than ever before. I realized that I needed to write something, anything, so I wrote this story. It was definitely tough to do because I feel like my creative well has dried up, so you'll have to let me know how I'm doing. If this one-shot goes over well, I'm planning on trying to update Keeping Up Appearances and A Queen's Descent after this. So please, please, PLEASE let me know how I did with this story! Thanks so much for sticking with me even after my lack of updates. You guys rock!
Just a Crush
The definition of a crush never included how long one's crush on another necessarily lasted.
Or, at least, that's what Noelle told herself day after day and year after year for over ten years.
So what that the object of her crush was a charming, ridiculously attractive and intelligent womanizer? So what that she'd seen him with all manner of women—his bimbos of the week as she'd dubbed them—coming and going since the start of their sophomore year of high school?
She knew him. Only she knew him, she told herself. After all, she'd been there when the rest hadn't been. She'd been there when, at the age of five, he'd built her a sandcastle when they'd gone to the beach and called her his princess. And hadn't it been she, Noelle Gray, who'd been his best friend and best confidante when his parents had divorced? But, more than anything, she'd held fast to that cherished memory she had of him when he'd asked her to marry him. At the innocent age of eight and a half, he'd solemnly promised her that he'd marry her on the day they both turned twenty-six. Luckily, they shared a birthday, and, at the age of eight, that twenty-six year mark seemed so far away that she'd agreed enthusiastically and then blushed when he'd leaned over and pecked her cheek to seal the deal.
And so it was that Noelle watched the years pass and felt the wrenching pain when he slowly drifted away from the quiet, mousy girl she'd been and into the social circles of their peers who had been so impossibly beautiful and confident in high school and so much more exciting than she. The promise he'd made her was the only thing that sustained her at times for she believed him and believed that he would come back for her.
They had grown up as next door neighbors, which had made their friendship that much easier to solidify. But, as the years passed, it had also made it infinitely easier for her to note the sheer number of girls that had come and gone in all manner of dress and undress. And always, there had been a satisfied look on his face as he'd watched his harem come and go.
After high school, they'd gone off in different directions—he to UC Berkeley in the north, and she to the East Coast to NYU. Even there, even after months had passed since she'd seen him, even though she was surrounded by and alluring to the sheer variety of attractive men in the city, even then she thought only of him.
But now, with her twenty-fifth birthday behind her, she began to despair that he might not even remember the promise he'd made her in the third grade.
He still lived in their hometown—she would know, she told herself. She'd run into him weeks before at a wedding reception when his mother had remarried. If it were possible, she knew that he'd grown even more handsome with his dark waves of hair falling over his forehead and those brilliant blue eyes that twinkled when he'd smiled at her.
"Noelle, how have you been? You look great!" He looked genuinely happy to see her, and she wanted to melt on the spot. In fact, she may have if it hadn't been for the voluptuous redhead clinging to his arm and looking bored.
Feeling ridiculously plain with her brown hair pulled back and wearing a green dress that was shades less glamorous than his date's, Noelle steeled her spine and managed to smile back at him. "I'm fine, Ryan. It's really good to see you. Congratulations on your new stepfather."
The corners of his eyes creased appealingly when his smile grew. "Yeah, I'm really happy for Mom. Brett's a great guy." He paused for a moment. "I really feel like we need to get together and catch up sometime soon. Lunch sound good?"
Her heart leapt. "Of course. I'd really like that." She beamed at him as her insides did somersaults.
They'd exchanged numbers, but he'd yet to call her. She wondered if he even remembered that he had her number.
"Oh, come on, Noelle." Her best friend, Casey, sighed exaggeratedly. "It was something he said to you almost twenty years ago. Are you really going to hang onto something an eight year old said?"
Noelle shrugged and turned to stare out the window at the miserable January weather. Central California was rather dreary at this time of the year, and it certainly matched her mood. Perfect. "I know it sounds really crazy, but I can't help it. I really thought giving him my number was a sure thing."
"He's a man, Noelle. There's no sure thing with men." Casey slid an arm around her shoulders. "I know that you think the world of him, but look at his history. The guy has had more girlfriends than anyone else I know. Yeah, he's great to look at, he's smart, and he's pretty frickin' sweet, but that doesn't mean he's the guy for you."
"You mean I'm not the girl for him."
"Did I say that?" Casey asked defensively.
Noelle sighed. "You didn't have to. I can see it for myself. I'm nothing like those women he's always with, and I never will be. Logically, I shouldn't be this hung up on him, and I know that. I'm sure any psychiatrist would tell me that I'm stuck on him because he was a part of my formative years, and I have an unhealthy attachment to him." She shrugged again. "I just don't care about any of that. I know that he's the one for me. I've always known it, and I can't explain it." She turned to see her friend's concerned face. "You should know how I feel."
"I do—but I'm marrying that guy I was sure of," Casey pointed out. "I hate to be a killjoy, but Ryan probably doesn't even remember that he has your number."
And that, Noelle thought, was something that she wouldn't be able to change, no matter how hard she tried. So she spent the next few months trying to convince herself to get over Ryan Westingford.
She'd never admit, not to anyone, that there was still a part of her that waited for him anxiously and hopefully as her twenty-sixth birthday crept closer.
Two and a half months before her birthday, Noelle found herself in a bridal boutique, surrounded by wedding gowns….and she couldn't have been more miserable. For Casey's sake, she tried to be as lively and positive as possible.
Obviously, Casey knew better. "Oh, Noelle." She sighed as their eyes met in the full-length mirror she stood in front of in a champagne-hued gown. "I know you're upset, but I'm really glad you came with me anyway."
"You're my best friend, Case. Of course I'd be here for you." Noelle made herself objectively study the gown Casey wore and smiled. "This one might be the one."
Knowing that Noelle was trying, Casey felt a well of love and appreciation for her best friend gush through her. She smoothed a hand over the skirt and smiled back. "I think so, too. Sam's eyes are going to pop out of his head when he sees me."
"Absolutely. What a lucky, lucky guy." Needing it and knowing Casey probably needed it as well, Noelle moved to stand next to Casey and enveloped her in a hug. "You're going to be the most beautiful bride ever."
Casey hugged her back before nodding to the clerk who'd been helping them. "I'm going to let them take their measurements so that they can hem it. In the meantime, why don't you go pick out a dress? I know you had your eye on that gorgeous one with the cap-sleeves."
Noelle's brows furrowed. "Casey, why would I pick out a dress?"
"Well, you never know. Maybe Ryan will come to his senses and realize he's madly in love with you." At Noelle's expression, Casey shrugged. "Hey, never say never, right? Go get it, Noelle," she urged, nudging her friend towards the racks. "It'll be my wedding gift to you."
Now, Noelle was sure her jaw was dragging on the floor. "I can't let you do that!"
Casey merely smiled. "Of course, you can. I've got a bank account the size of the moon, remember? If I can't help out my best friend, what would be the point? Go get it, sister."
It took her nearly fifteen minutes of internal debating before Noelle did just that, though, as each day passed without Ryan, she was sure she'd never wear the lovely gown.
Casey's wedding was to be held two days before Noelle's birthday, and, though she'd apologized a million times, Casey was certain that Noelle was still upset. Noelle assured her that she was fine, that she knew it was the only time that Sam, Casey's fiancé, could take time off from work, and she wasn't in the least bit upset.
The rehearsal dinner was held the night before the wedding, and, after, Noelle returned to her apartment, crawled into the comfort of her bed, and cried herself to sleep.
Ryan wasn't coming.
She no longer held any illusions about it and knew that she was learning, the hard way, that not every childhood dream comes true. At least, she told herself, she'd been lucky enough to work in a job that she loved, have family and friends that she loved, and, if and when she wanted, find someone who would love her and be with her for the rest of her life.
Although, she wasn't sure when she'd actually be ready for that last part.
The morning of the wedding, she woke to warm June sunlight streaming in through the curtains and slanting across her bed. For several minutes, she just lay there, unwilling to move. If she didn't face this day, she thought, then maybe she wouldn't have to face the next day and, especially, the day after that one.
For the first time in her life, she was not looking forward to her birthday.
"God, Noelle, you're pathetic," she whispered to herself. "It's Casey's day today, not yours. Get out of bed and do this for her. She's been your best friend through thick and thin, and you owe her."
She had to repeat the sentiment four more times before she finally kicked off the covers and slid out bed.
Four hours later, her hair had been made up, her makeup was pristine, and she wore the pale blue gown that Casey had designated for her bridesmaids to wear. Instead of thinking of herself, she had launched completely into her role of maid of honor. While Casey sat serenely in a chair in a side room in the church, Noelle ran around making certain that every detail had been seen to and everything was going according to plan.
"Where are the bouquets?" she snapped at Casey's cousin, who'd been in charge of picking up the arrangements from the florist. When the nervous young woman stuttered out an answer and pointed to the collection that lay in a box nearby, Noelle thanked her curtly before bustling off to take care of things.
Finally, minutes before the ceremony, only Casey and Noelle were left in the room while Casey's father waited outside for the signal from inside the sanctuary.
Noelle turned away from the door where she'd been trying to keep track of the proceedings. "Yeah? Did you need something? Did you forget something?"
Casey shook her veil-clad head and smiled. "I just wanted to tell you that you are the best friend I could've ever asked for. Seriously."
Noelle's face softened, and she hurried to give Casey a light hug. "I'm lucky that we found each other in that awful freshmen year bio class, too."
"I'm glad we dissected the frog together. You were the best lab partner," Casey told her. Noelle caught the glint of tears in her eyes and shook her head.
"Don't cry, don't! You'll ruin your makeup!" she scolded, waving her hands in front of her friend's eyes, trying to dry the tears. "Don't you want Sam's jaw to drop to the floor when he sees you?"
Casey gave a watery laugh. "Sam's jaw drags on the ground when I wear a bathrobe. Noelle." She gripped Noelle's wrist tightly, her voice suddenly serious. "Promise me something."
Noelle frowned. "Of course. What is it?"
The door creaked open as Casey opened her mouth to speak. Her father poked his head in, his eyes already misty. "Honey, it's time."
"I'm coming, Dad. Just give me a second." When her father nodded and slipped out again, Casey turned back to Noelle. "You have to promise me that, no matter what happens today, you won't be angry with me."
Noelle's frown deepened. "Case, what are you talking about? There's nothing to be angry with you over, and we really have to get out there."
"I know, but I just wanted to make sure to tell you that."
Suspicion flickered in Noelle's mind as she tugged Casey towards the door. Then, just as they stepped through the door and into the hallway, she stopped in her tracks. "Casey, what did you do?"
Casey shook her head and nudged her forward. "No time now. You'll miss your cue. Go!"
By the time the ceremony got underway, Noelle had forgotten all about her suspicions as she watched the lovely rituals take place. Sam had, indeed, looked shocked and in awe when he'd seen Casey walk down the aisle, and Casey couldn't have beamed any brighter than she had throughout the entire ceremony.
Everything had gone off without a hitch, and then it was time for the reception.
It wasn't until all the couples were dancing after the bride and groom's first dance that Noelle began to feel out of place and lonely. Suddenly, all of the doubts and sadness of that morning and the previous night came flooding back. There she was, standing amidst all the joy and celebration, and she wanted nothing more than to burst into tears and crawl into a hole. She knew she was acting irrationally, but telling herself that didn't help the situation any.
It didn't bring her Ryan, that was for sure.
Suddenly, the music seemed too loud, the low hum of voices and laughter grated on her nerves, and the scent of flowers was nauseating. She needed to escape and began to slip through the other guests and headed towards the French doors leading out of the ballroom.
Just as her hand gripped the doorknob and turned it, her other wrist was caught in a firm grip. Noelle froze before turning slowly to see who was holding her. Her eyes slowly shifted from the hand on her wrist to the suit-clad arm, and up into the face of Ryan Westingford.
"Hi," he said quietly, his expression solemn.
She swallowed the lump in her throat. "Hello."
His hand slid from her wrist as his fingers laced with hers, and he tugged them both through the doors and onto the wide outdoor terrace. With the door shut, they could hear the faint strains of music playing, but, for the most part, only the sound of the wind rustling through the nearby trees could be heard.
She wondered if he could hear how furiously her heart pounded. Never in a million years had she imagined that he would be here, that she would be standing with him on a moonlit terrace on a warm June night. But, there they were.
When he didn't say anything, just continued to study her, she shifted uncomfortably. "Ryan, what are you doing here? I didn't know Casey had invited you let alone knew you."
"Casey and I don't know each other," he began. "So you're right about that. But, we both know you…which is why I'm here."
Noelle took a small step back. "I'm afraid I don't understand."
Ryan had yet to let go of her hand, and his fingers tightened briefly on hers before he let it go and turned away to look out at the view of the valley. "I asked you to marry me when we were eight, Elle," he began quietly. The sound of the nickname that only he had ever called her, made her stomach flop wildly.
"I know," she whispered, and the soft breeze carried the words to him so that he turned to face her.
"I didn't know that you still believed in what I'd said then. I thought for sure that you would've forgotten all about it." He shoved a hand through his hair and sighed. "I mean, after we went separate ways in high school, then college, I just didn't expect that you would even want to look twice at me."
Her brow furrowed. "What do you mean?"
"I mean-" He broke off and let out a frustrated puff of breath. "I mean that I haven't exactly been the type of guy I expected you to fall for or even take notice of. I'm no angel, Noelle."
"So?" Ryan turned to face her again, his eyes searching her face for…something. "So…I guess you really don't get it. Noelle, you're so innocent, so perfect, and I'm not. I'm not even close, and you're an angel. What were you doing thinking of me for all these years?"
His question sounded more like an accusation, and she felt taken aback. "Excuse me? Are you saying you think I'm an angel, and that you're something like the Devil? And that, for whatever reason, that means that you and I are a bad fit? Am I getting that right?"
Her voice had grown stronger, and Ryan blinked, as though seeing her for the first time. "Yes," he replied slowly. "More or less something like that."
"Wow, you really are an ass, aren't you?"
Noelle cut him off. "Oh my god! Here I've been for the past twelve years, pining over you and thinking that you'd probably forgotten all about me, and now I find out that you hadn't forgotten me; you just thought we weren't a good match because—because…because it's like we belong in different classes!"
"Of course, I hadn't forgotten you," he snapped, taking hold of her shoulders and not letting go even when she tried to shrug him aside. "How could I forget you when you were right there, right next door for all those years? I thought for sure that you'd decided I was beneath you because of all the partying I did, and all the…" he trailed off.
"All the girls?" she finished for him.
"Yeah." He sighed. "You deserve so much better than me, Elle."
She shook her head. "I know you, Ryan. Do you think you could really change all that much from when were younger? I knew everything about you, front and back, for the first thirteen years of our lives. How much do you really think the girls, the parties, and the popularity changed who you are deep down?" she wondered, poking a finger at his chest.
He grabbed hold of the hand that had poked him and squeezed it. "I don't know. I just don't know." He sounded weary now, and Noelle knew just how he felt. Emotional scenes were draining.
Several minutes of silence passed as they stood there, not looking at each other as his hand continued to grip hers. Finally, she spoke again. "So…Casey invited you to her reception, and you came. Why'd you come? What did you think it would accomplish?"
He was quiet for so long that she thought he hadn't heard her. And then he answered. "Initially, I thought I would just come here and tell you that, while I didn't think we could be anything more than friends—even if I internally feel the complete opposite—I didn't want you to hang onto the idea of us being a couple now or in the future."
Ryan's thumb rubbed circles on her skin as he studied her face once more. "You were really cute when we were kids, you know."
Thrown by the non sequitur and surprisingly flattered as well, Noelle struggled to answer. "Ryan, I-"
"But," he continued, cutting her off, "as cute as you were then, I never thought you'd be this beautiful."
"Oh, please." His words hurt because she knew they weren't true. After all, she'd seen him with all those other women, hadn't she? She was a plain robin compared to how flashy and gorgeous they'd all been.
"Seriously beautiful," Ryan murmured. His free hand came up to cup her cheek, and his fingers caressed her skin softly. "When I saw you at my mother's wedding reception, it felt as though someone had slammed a sledgehammer into my gut. 'There she is,' I thought. 'What on earth am I going to say to someone that lovely?' I fumbled everything so much in that short conversation with you."
Noelle wanted to cover her ears. She didn't need to hear these lies from him now. He'd been with dozens and dozens of women over the years, and he expected her to believe that he found her somehow more stunning than any of the hordes he'd had? No way.
"Ryan, please don't. Please don't do this to me," she whispered, tears clawing up her throat to shine in her eyes.
"I owe it to you to hear this," he replied quietly. "I can't leave you thinking that you mean nothing to me. You've always meant so much to me, even when it seemed like we were strangers. I just-" he sighed. "I just didn't know how to tell you without sounding like a complete tool. The way I am right now."
Her breath hitched, but she bore down and kept her voice steady. "Why couldn't you just tell me? Why did you leave me alone all these years? Why did you spend all your time with those fake bimbos? Why?" Her voice rose at the end, and she tried desperately to keep the tears from falling.
"Because you deserve better than someone who left you because he thought there were was someone better than you out there. There isn't," he added softly. "There's never been anyone better than you, and I've had a hell of a time admitting that to myself, especially lately."
Noelle's mind spun with his words, with their implications, and she had no idea what to say or do. She looked up and into his eyes, their azure hue darkened now with emotion. Not letting herself think about it or overanalyze it, she leaned up and pressed her lips to his softly.
When she pulled back, he blinked down at her. Then, without warning, his lips swooped down onto hers and spun them both into the magic of their first, and perhaps last, kiss. His hands held her face firmly, yet gently, as though she were fragile glass that he didn't want to drop. His lips made her dizzy, and she threaded her fingers through his hair, her body straining against his.
Seconds or hours later—they didn't know which—they slowly pulled apart, but only enough to look into each other's eyes.
"So…now what?" she whispered, half-afraid that he would leave her, even after what they'd just shared.
Ryan rested his forehead against hers, breathing her in. "I'm freaking out here, Elle. I've wanted to do that since eighth grade, and, now that I have, I don't know where to go from here. You scare me."
"I do?" Shock colored her features, and he pressed his lips to her forehead.
"I'm not sure what I feel for you, and I have no idea how much of it is because of our past and how much is what I feel now," he explained. "All I know is that it's much more than I've ever felt for anyone or ever expected to feel for anyone. I know I can't ask or expect you to believe me when I say that, but-"
Noelle kissed him lightly. "I do. I do believe that." Then, she slid out of his arms and took a few steps away, leaving him baffled and frowning at her. "It just occurred to me that I have no idea how I feel about you either. I thought I was hopelessly and helplessly in love with you…but now I'm not sure at all." A smile tugged at her lips. "What I do know is that you can't keep that promise you made when we were eight."
"I know. I've wanted and dreamed of marrying you for years, but I really don't think we can. It's pretty irresponsible, isn't it?" she thought aloud.
Ryan shoved his hands in his pockets and blew out a breath. "Yeah, I guess it is."
"It occurs to me that we have a lot of catching up to do on each other's lives, Ryan. Aside from your mating habits, I have no idea who and what you are now, and vice versa."
He winced a little, but smiled cautiously when she grinned. "So what are you suggesting?"
"This." Noelle moved close to him and took his hands in hers before she knelt. His eyes widened, and her grin widened. "Ryan Westingford, hopefully the man I'll spend the rest of my life with, will you be my friend, my boyfriend, and my confidant?"
Now, his grin grew to match hers, and he knelt to her level. "Noelle Gray, I would be completely and thoroughly honored to do so—but on one condition."
Her brow knitted with confusion. "What's that?"
His smile flashed wickedly in that outrageously handsome face. "Will you let me marry you on our twenty-seventh birthday?"
Her breath caught in her throat. "How can you be so sure?"
"Because I already love you, and, logically, that's the next step."
She threw herself into his arms and smiled against his neck. "Okay. Yes!"
When their lips met again, the thought passed through her mind that, while most crushes were temporary, she was overjoyed that hers had not been. If she and Ryan were lucky, it would be forever.