Disclaimer: Characters in this story are not real. Some facts have been changed – distances between geographic places, medical facts etc. just because I needed to. This is my first story, reviews are very much appreciated!
Nick Mitchell's mind went blank, other than that one exhaled word that seemed to use up all the air in his lungs, and his heart started doing crazy things in his chest as he watched her come through the door of his friend Rob's office.
"Rob, please tell me you have Danny Peterson's file," she said with a nod of apology for interrupting as she headed for the tall file cabinet in the corner.
Rob leaned back in his chair behind the desk. "Yeah, top drawer." As she wrenched open the overloaded cabinet, Rob made introductions. "Hey, Casey, this is Nick. He was my roommate at UNC." To Nick, he said, "Casey's a physical therapist here at the hospital too, and Gwen's best buddy since grade school. She's also the one who introduced me to Gwen, hence my eternal gratitude and willingness to store her files at absolutely no charge."
Casey smiled distractedly at Nick as she started going through the contents of the file drawer. "Nice to meet you. Do you live around here?"
Nick tried not to stare, and found that he had to clear his throat before he could answer the simple question. "No, I live in L.A. now. I'm just back home for a few days and promised myself I would stop by and see Rob. It's been way too long."
"That it has," Rob grinned in agreement. "You know how it is, California boy goes off and forgets his old friends." He sighed dramatically, and Nick managed to look away from Casey long enough to roll his eyes. They'd only been talking for about ten minutes, plenty long enough to see Rob hadn't changed a bit in the last two years, when her soft knock had come on the door. Rob had looked up and Nick had turned in his chair, and that was it. The frustrated slamming of the drawer brought Nick's eyes back to her.
"Well, Roberto, it's not here, and they're already waiting in the gym." Her hands went to her hips and she looked around the disorganized office. "Where else can I look?"
Rob frowned for a moment, then brightened. "Oh yeah." He picked up a file from the top of his desk where it had been laying, right in front of him, and held it out to her. "Here." Nick hid a smile at the disgruntled look on her face.
"Gee, thanks," she said sarcastically, taking the file and flipping open the cover to confirm it was the one she needed before closing it again and heading toward the door. "And don't forget about dinner tonight."
Rob grimaced but Nick saw a hint of a smile behind it. "Every now and then, Casey and Gwen feel this wild urge to experiment in the kitchen," Rob explained to him. "They try out weird new recipes on me and see if I die."
Casey turned and walked the last few steps backward. "Yeah, and it hasn't worked yet," she retorted, playfully sticking her tongue out at Rob as she turned and disappeared into the hallway. "Bye, Nick," they heard her call back.
Nick stared at the empty doorway. "Yeah… bye." For a moment or two he had this crazy hope that maybe she would have forgotten something and would reappear, but she didn't and finally he turned around to see Rob watching him, a knowing grin spreading across his face.
"Problem there, Mitchell?"
Nick turned back and settled into his chair, feeling anything but settled as he stared unseeingly at his friend. "So it's really true."
"When they said you just know."
"When you meet the one you're going to marry."
Rob's brows shot up in surprise and he leaned forward in his seat. "Whoa! Slow down there, buddy. Marry? This is Casey you're talking about."
"Yeah, and? She's not married already, is she?"
"No. But she's also not the type to fall all over you because you're famous. In fact, I'd bet a hundred bucks she's never even heard of you."
"Fine with me," Nick replied, glancing hopefully back toward the door. "In fact, I hope she hasn't."
"So do I, because if she does find out, there's no way she'll ever agree to go out with you." Rob's smile turned into a smirk. "And it's gonna be pretty hard to convince her to marry you if you can't even get her to date you first."
Nick shook his head. "I know, you think I'm crazy. But I'm telling you." He couldn't stop glancing toward the door once more, just in case.
"Well, we'll have to see about that, won't we?" Rob asked.
"What do you mean?"
"You just invited yourself to dinner."
Okay, so he was cute. Casey guessed that must be the reason why the other women in the clinic hung out around the front desk giggling and waiting for Rob's friend to leave. Personally, she'd never been the giggling and drooling type, and she certainly wasn't going to start now. Besides, Rob would fall over laughing if he saw her acting like that about a guy. She hurried to the gym where the Petersons were waiting and went to work. By the time she'd finished with Danny, Rob was busy with a patient of his own, the gaggle of ladies had dispersed, and the cute friend was gone.
Casey consulted her schedule, picked up the next file on the growing stack, and continued her day.
Nick ran his other errands quickly and drove back to the hospital, and was there waiting when Rob clocked out at five thirty sharp. Since he'd never been to Rob and Gwen's house, having already moved to Los Angeles a few months before they got married, he followed Rob's truck in his rental car. The house Rob pulled up in front of was a bungalow style, with wicker chairs gracing a wide front porch and light spilling warmly from the windows. Together they went up the walk, onto the porch and into the house. "Honey, we're home!" Rob called out, stepping aside to reveal his guest.
Gwen, rolling out dough at the kitchen counter with Casey minding the stove, let out a squeal and came running. "Nick! What are you doing here?" As she gave him a hug, Rob quickly bent and whispered into her ear. She looked between the two of them, puzzled, then shrugged and smiled happily. "Can you stay for dinner?"
"Absolutely. Hope it's okay that I'm crashing the party."
"You bet. It's Caribbean food tonight. Come here and meet my friend Casey." She grabbed his arm and led him toward the open kitchen where Casey was stirring something in a saucepan.
"Actually we met this morning when I dropped in on Rob at the hospital," he told Gwen. "Hi, Casey."
"Hi again," Casey said with a smile. "So you got dragged into the evil experiment, huh?"
"I'm always up for an adventure," he said. "Especially when there's food involved."
Rob slipped behind Casey and tried to stick a finger into the pan, and while Casey was busy shouldering him away, Gwen led Nick into the hallway with the excuse of showing him the house.
"Okay, what's going on?" she asked quietly as Rob and Casey pushed each other around the kitchen, laughing like sparring siblings. "Rob said if I tell Casey who you are, he's divorcing me."
Nick chuckled. "He wouldn't dare. But I don't want to be a celebrity tonight. Can we just say I'm a friend and leave it at that?"
She shrugged. "Sure, okay. But while it's just you and me for a second, I want details. What's it like, really? Being famous, having thousands of screaming fans? And money!"
"It's weird. Great at times, but sometimes I feel like I'm dreaming, or maybe living somebody else's life."
"Oh Gwendolyn," Rob called sweetly from the kitchen. "If you don't get out here and cook this food, I'm leaving you in the morning."
Gwen rolled her eyes. "Yes, dear."
Nick grinned, and they went back to the kitchen together. "I do like your house though," he said, leaning on the counter and taking a look around as Gwen went back to helping Casey.
"Me too," she said. "It's practically perfect, since the last owners fixed it up before they sold."
"And what, just five minutes or so from the hospital? Wasn't it tough finding a house so close?"
Rob answered for them both. "Heck no. Actually, Casey's the next house down the road, and she called us the second this one went on the market."
"Yep," Casey put in. "I'm not only the next door neighbor and assistant cook, I'm also the real estate consultant. How handy can you get?"
The oven timer beeped, and Rob and Nick were drafted to set the table while the ladies finished the meal. The food was delicious for the most part, but surprisingly spicy and there was plenty of laughter as they all tried to 'take the heat'. It wasn't long until Nick felt at ease, and yet he was aware every moment of Casey sitting beside him at the table.
She was different than the girls in LA, but appealingly so. The little wrinkle in her nose when she laughed, the way her shiny brown hair swung softly to her shoulders when she turned her head. Unlike the bleached-blonde nip-and-tucked girls, this girl was real. More cute than pretty, a modest figure with not a hint of silicone anywhere, even her uncapped teeth charmed him. His eyes were drawn to her over and over again and he barely noticed that talk had turned to some of the young patients at the clinic until Gwen made an apologetic face in his direction. "Sorry, they always end up talking shop."
"It's okay," he answered quickly, sitting up straighter and hoping he hadn't been staring. "I kind of miss working with kids myself."
"Oh, are you a PT therapist too?" Casey asked, looking chagrined that she hadn't known.
"No, I majored in psychology. But I interned with a guidance counselor in a high school for six months, and I loved it."
"So what are you doing now? Something else in psychology?"
Nick glanced quickly at Rob and Gwen as he answered, silently reminding them of their promise to keep his secret. "I'm trying my hand at music for a while, while I have the chance. That's why I'm living in L.A."
"Yeah," Gwen interjected. "And that's why he's never around any more. How long are you home for, anyway?"
"Just til Saturday, unfortunately," he answered. "I was hoping for a week, but I have to take what I can get."
When they had all finished eating, Rob stood to clear the plates and suggested they all try a new game they'd discovered, and Casey and Nick helped him while Gwen fetched the game from the closet. Rob insisted on partnering with his wife, claiming he didn't want to sleep on the sofa if his team beat hers, but Nick knew from his sly glances that he was being paired up with Casey. Not that he minded. He met Rob's eye and Rob smiled innocently, and Nick laughed aloud.
"What?" Gwen asked.
The game was fast and competitive and the cozy room was filled with bursts of laughter and boasting to the end, with a narrow victory by Rob and Gwen. Gwen stood with a stretch and asked if anyone needed some more soda, and Casey looked at the clock on the wall and winced. "Good grief, it's after midnight, and I've got an eight o'clock rounds to go to!" They all helped put the game away, then Casey slipped on her jacket and grabbed a pan she had brought, and started for the door. "I'll talk to you tomorrow, guys. And Nick, have a safe trip back home,"she said with a wave.
Nick knew he should say something, or do something, but before he could get his thoughts together the screen door banged closed behind her and she was gone. She was going to disappear forever, just like that? He stared helplessly at the door, turning only when Rob cleared his throat behind him. "What?" Nick demanded, angry at himself for sitting there like an idiot and letting her walk away.
Rob rolled his eyes impatiently. "Well come on, Mitchell, don't you know a gentleman always walks a lady home?"
Gwen snorted. "Yeah right, since when? I've never heard you offer to walk her home, hon."
"No, it's okay." Nick jumped to his feet with a grateful grin at Rob for providing him with an opportunity he couldn't refuse. "I'm going." He went outside and down the walk, and when he saw Casey already yards ahead down the country road he picked up his pace. "Hey, Casey?' he called after her.
She turned and waited as he caught up. "Did I forget something?"
"No, I just... " He felt his cheeks reddening and was glad that the nearly-full moon wasn't any brighter. "I thought I'd walk you home, if that's okay."
"Thanks, but I'm fine. I do this walk a lot."
"I'd like to anyway," he said carefully, asking her permission. He didn't miss her brief hesitation but she agreed with a nod, and Nick fell into step beside her as she walked on. "So, you've known Gwen for how long?" he asked, awkward now that it was just the two of them.
"Since I moved here in second grade. She was the first one to talk to me, and we haven't really shut up since."
He chuckled. "I like Gwen. Rob fell for her like a brick, and I got to watch the whole thing. It's pretty neat to see them all married and settled down now."
"Were you at the wedding?" she asked with a slight frown. "I don't remember you."
"No, I'd just moved to L.A then, and things were... a little crazy."
They walked on in silence, Nick searching his mind for something else to say. He'd never been the shy type although he did tend to blush at the drop of a hat, and the guys in the band would give him a hard time if they could see him now, fumbling and stuttering like a teenager. Thankfully Casey asked about his counseling internship, and he filled several minutes talking about it until he realized he'd been blabbing away and fell silent again, embarrassed. "It sounds like you really enjoyed it," she smiled.
"I did." He wanted to kick himself for his awkwardness. She probably couldn't wait to get away from him.
"Well, we're here," she said, and Nick looked up. Her house was similar to Rob and Gwen's, an old-fashioned cottage-style, but hers had a pretty porch rail and a porch swing hung near one end. "Thanks for the company."
"My pleasure." As she started up the porch steps, he knew it was now or never. "Casey?"
She turned back. "Yeah?"
"Uh… I was wondering if… maybe I could see you again before I leave."
She looked at him uncertainly. "I thought you were leaving on Saturday."
"Well, yeah, I am. Does that mean no?"
"No, not necessarily. I just don't get how you plan to do this 'seeing me again' thing when it's really already Friday morning now."
"Yeah, I guess it is, isn't it. Well, I'm not doing anything tomorrow night! Or, tonight, I guess. Friday, I mean." He grimaced. "I just... really had fun with you tonight. Please say yes."
Something in his face must have shown how much he was hoping she would, because she smiled a little embarrassed smile as she lowered her eyes. "I'll probably be bringing some work home with me tomorrow, some quarterly reports I have to get done. But maybe… if you want, you could bring over some takeout or something."
He grinned. "Takeout sounds great. What would you like?"
"Chinese? Mr. Yen's is the best." She explained where to find the restaurant. "Seven, or is that too late?"
"Seven's good. I'll be here." They said goodnight and she went into the house. Nick watched until the door closed behind her, then started back down the road. He laughed at himself for the big stupid grin on his face, but let it stay there until he got back to Rob's and then wiped it away.
He stepped inside to find Gwen relaxing on the sofa with her feet up while Rob did the dishes. They both looked up when he came in, and Rob said, "Well?"
"Great weather tonight," Nick replied calmly. "Clear sky, big moon..." Rob kept looking at him expectantly until he finally grinned and gave in. "We're having dinner tomorrow. Happy?"
Gwen raised her eyebrows. "Who, you and Casey?"
"Of course him and Casey. So when's the wedding?" Rob asked as Nick sank down onto the other end of the sofa.
Gwen sat up straight. "What wedding? Am I missing something here?"
Rob snickered. "Haven't you heard? Nicky and Casey, sitting in a tree - "
"Shut up!" Nick glowered at him, then turned back to Gwen, embarrassed. "Okay, so I might have said something about Casey maybe being my Miss Right. But don't you dare tell her, Gwen."
"I know, I know. Or else you'll divorce me in the morning."
"Smart woman," Rob laughed from the kitchen and returned to his dishes. Gwen leaned back into the cushions and tucked her feet under her, a worried frown on her face.
"Nick, you be nice to her. She doesn't accept many dates, and she doesn't know you're famous. If she did, I'm pretty sure she would've said no."
"I know, Rob said the same thing already," he said. "That's part of why I didn't want her to know. I'm not trying to hide anything exactly, I just wanted a chance to get to know her like a regular guy and see if she could like me for myself. I don't get much of that these days." He nudged Gwen's knee. "And don't worry, I'll behave." He smiled and got to his feet. "I'd better go. You guys have work tomorrow, and I've got radio interviews all morning. Thanks for dinner." Gwen rose and gave him a hug, telling him to come by any time he was in town, and Rob walked him out to his car, making sure he knew his way back to the highway.
Nick drove back to his mom's house in Raleigh with the window down and the wind blowing his hair. His mom had already gone to bed when he arrived but had left him a note about leftovers in the fridge, which he ignored. He went quietly to his old bedroom and climbed into bed, expecting to fall right to sleep after his long day, but instead he lay awake for some time.
It was nice being home again, surrounded by familiar things, familiar people. Feeling like a normal person again, anxious for tomorrow to come because he had a date.