Kris blew out a big breath, trying to calm her nerves, without even realizing it until Brian took her hand and squeezed it. "Don't be so terrified," he laughed. "It's just my brother."
"I know, but it's the first time I'm meeting any of your family," she reminded him. "And the way you always talk about Travis, I feel like... I don't know..." Of course she knew. She was afraid that if Brian's brother didn't like her, Brian might start re-thinking things. She shook her head. He wouldn't do that. He was the nicest guy she'd met in... a while.
The PA system announced the arrival of Flight 1062, direct from Chicago, and Brian stood anxiously, craning his neck to see past the crowds of people waiting in the busy terminal lobby. "I wish they'd let us wait at the gate." He sat again, disappointed. "Hard to believe I haven't seen him in almost two years."
Kris rubbed her hand on his leg, the one that was bouncing anxiously up and down. "That's what happens when you pick a college in California and he picks one in Chicago."
"Still. Two years is forever." He popped up again as more people came past the security barrier, and Kris smiled watching him. It was cute to see him this excited. All the way to the airport he'd been talking about Travis, his little brother by only fourteen months. Things they'd done in high school, trouble they'd gotten into together. Travis was popular with girls, Travis was athletic. Travis was majoring in engineering, full scholarship. Travis held the state record in the 100 meters. Or was it the 200?
"There he is!" He reached back and pulled her to her feet, then stepped forward into the crush of people. Kris took another deep breath, her eyes following his back as he reached out and grasped his brother in a bear hug. People pushed around them, blocking Kris's view, and even stretching up onto her toes she couldn't see them. Not until Brian appeared again, leading someone toward her, his face one big smile.
"And this," he announced proudly, stepping aside, "is Kris."
The eager, curious grin she glimpsed on Travis's face faded away the second he got a good look at her. Kris's heart sank, but she stuck out her hand and smiled, determined to hide her nervousness. "Great to finally meet you." Her hand dangled awkwardly in the air as Travis just stood there, staring at her with a confused frown on his face, and in that moment Kris understood perfectly. It was obvious, wasn't it, that he was wondering what a guy like Brian was doing with a girl like her.
Brian was looking back and forth between them, his smile fading too, and Kris quickly stuffed her hand into the pocket of her jacket, blinking quickly. She wouldn't cry, wouldn't run, wouldn't feel any more stupid than she already did. She pasted on a smile she couldn't feel and asked,"Ready? Let's go." And without giving them a chance to answer she stepped out, leading the way toward the exit doors.
Brian grasped Travis's arm firmly and dragged him after her. "What's wrong with you?" he hissed.
"What do you mean, what's wrong with me?" Travis protested weakly.
"Standing there looking at her like she's a big disappointment."
"I didn't - " Travis began, but Brian cut him off with a shake of his head.
"I can't believe you! If that's how you're gonna act, you can head back home right now." He released Travis's arm with a rough push. "You almost made her cry. And I've never seen her cry, not once." He left Travis to catch up to her, and Travis stepped up his pace to keep up. He caught him just as Kris turned and signaled to Brian that she would be just a minute and disappeared into the ladies' room.
Brian moved out of the way of the flow of people and leaned against the wall, glaring at his brother. "So, what's it gonna be? Do I put you on a plane or what?"
Travis raised his hands apologetically. "Look, Bry, I'm sorry. I didn't mean anything. I was just... surprised."
Travis shifted uncomfortably on his feet. "I don't know," he lied, not sure what else he could do.
"You gonna keep acting like an idiot around her? Because if you are..."
"I'm done," Travis said, shaking his head. "I'll be charming from here on out, I swear."
Kris stared at herself in the mirror over the sink as women came and went behind her. She'd known the tears were going to find their way out whether she liked it or not, so she'd ducked in here to let them have their way. Now she wiped her eyes and sighed at her reflection. Look at her. No wonder Travis had reacted that way. Brian was so handsome, and outgoing, and she was... plain. Nothing special. She'd failed the test, without even opening her mouth.
She turned on the cold faucet and splashed her face, then wiped it dry and turned away from the mirror. Might as well get it over with, she thought, and stepped out the door.
Brian pushed off from the wall as she came out. "Ready?" he asked cheerily as he reached out and took her hand, and she slowly let out the breath she'd been holding.
They headed for the exit, and Travis moved to Kris's other side. Catching Brian's pointed glance his way behind her back he cleared his throat. "So..." he said. "You go to UC with Brian, huh?"
Sheesh, he thought in frustration, help a guy out here. She obviously had no idea why he'd reacted to her the way he did, and although he knew he must have seemed like a total jerk, he couldn't help feeling a little disappointed. He stepped forward to get the door, holding it as they went through and stepped outside after them. "Brian told me you grew up in Chicago."
"Kinda funny that I live there now, where you grew up, and you're out here in my neck of the woods." This time he got no answer at all, and he caught Brian's eye and gave him an I'm-trying look. It just happened that it was harder to make small talk with this particular girl than Brian could possibly know. Oh, there were things he wanted to ask her, all right... just not with Brian right there. Because he'd recognized her right away.
Brian's car was only a few rows down, and before he could offer to sit in the cramped back seat, Kris had already taken it, leaving shotgun for him. Brian led the conversation as he drove toward the exit, asking Travis about how school was going, trying to draw Kris in with comments about her courses, but she responded only with short, quiet sentences. Thank goodness it wasn't a long drive.
Brian pulled up into the drive of the small rental house he shared with a friend and shut off the engine, then popped the trunk and helped Kris climb out from the back. Leaving Travis to get his bag from the trunk alone, he drew Kris into the house. "Hey. You okay?" he asked gently, putting his hands on her shoulders and making sure she looked him in the eye.
"No you're not. Don't pretend."
She pulled away. "It's okay, Brian, I'm fine, really. Your brother's here, and you're excited to see him. I was thinking... maybe I'll head on home."
"No, Kris." He caught her hand. "Stay, and we'll grill just like we planned. The burgers are all ready and everything. I don't know why he acted like that, but he's a good guy. Really." He laced his fingers with hers. "Try again. Please?"
Kris looked up at him, saddened by the worry in his eyes, and she gave him a smile and nodded.
"Thanks," he said softly, leaning down to give her a sweet kiss just as Travis came in the door and stopped short.
"Oops," Travis said with a guilty grimace, looking away. "Sorry."
"No problem." Brian grinned down at Kris, gave her another kiss and a reassuring squeeze around the waist, then moved away and took Travis's bag from him. "Josh is at his folks this weekend, so you can have his room. Lemme just put this away and wash up while you start the grill. It's out on the back patio, ready to go." He left them and headed down the hallway, and Travis and Kris stood there alone.
"Well. Guess I have a job to do," Travis said, rubbing his hands together and heading for the back door.
"I'll get the food," Kris offered, heading for the kitchen, and when she had gotten the platter of meat from the fridge she snuck a look out the back window. What if Travis didn't think she was good enough for his brother? Brian was a really nice guy, and he treated her like a queen. But he loved his brother, and blood was thicker than water. She didn't want to cause trouble between them. She either had to make this work, or...
"Hey, Kris?" Brian came up behind her and wrapped his arms around her waist. "I just realized we forgot to stop for the soda on the way home."
"I can go get it," she offered.
"No way," he grinned. "I'm afraid if I give you the keys, you'd never come back." He looked over her shoulder out the window. "Seriously, though. You won't leave if I leave you alone here with him for five minutes, will you?"
She smiled, feeling a little guilty for being tempted to do exactly that. "No. I won't leave."
"Good. I'm outta here." He gave her cheek a quick kiss, then dug in his pocket for his keys. "Be right back. Pepsi or Coke?"
"Do you really have to ask?"
He backed away, smiling. "Not really."
Travis heard the screen door squeak open and looked up. Kris was coming toward him, a heavy platter of meat in one hand, a couple of bags of buns in the other. "Almost ready for this?"
"We've got burgers and brats. What'll you have?"
"One of each would be great." Travis helped her set her load down, then looked back toward the house. "Where's Brian?"
"On a soda run. He'll be right back."
"Oh." Well, this was his chance then. He steeled himself, not sure if he was doing the right thing. "So, can I talk to you for a minute then?"
"You are talking to me."
He gave her a look. "I'm serious." Her tension was obvious, and he knew just how she felt. Well, no, he was way more nervous than she was.
"Okay. What do you want to talk about?"
"You ever been to Billy-Bob's, on 59th?" He shook his head. "No, scratch that. I know you have."
She frowned. "What are you talking about?"
He set down the tongs he was holding and turned to face her. "Last March you were in Chicago, and you went to Billy-Bob's. You and a bunch of other girls."
Kris nodded, looking puzzled. "It was Melinda's birthday, my sister. I was home on spring break, and she was turning 21. But how..."
He watched her, looking intently at her, and he saw her eyes change when it hit her. Her hand rose to cover her mouth and her voice was a whisper. "That was you."
"That was me."
She started to turn away, to bolt, but he caught her wrist and held tight. "Don't run off. Not again. Please."
She shook her head, her eyes squeezed closed.
"I went after you, you know. I ran outside but you were gone, and I didn't know which way you went."
He smiled wistfully. "You didn't recognize me at the airport today, I could tell. My hair's longer now, and it's always kinda dark in Billy-Bob's. Your friends called you Kristin, so when Brian kept talking about Kris I didn't even think... But the minute I saw you today, I knew."
She looked away. "You looked familiar, but I thought it was just... Brian's pictures, on his bookshelf there's one of the two of you... ohhh crap."
"You said that already." He realized he was still holding her wrist, and he let it go. "So what do we do now?"
"Nothing. It was one dance, a year ago, for pete's sake."
He snickered softly. "It was two dances, and one really incredible kiss."
"It was a mistake."
He shrugged and picked up the tongs again, poking randomly at the coals. "You took off like a shot. I figured you probably had a boyfriend, or a fiance or something. But I also knew you couldn't have faked a kiss like that." He looked up at her again. "You felt it just like I did."
"No." She backed up slightly, her face reddening. She was lying, and he knew it. And she knew that he knew. They were still staring at each other when the door creaked and Brian stepped out.
"Hey, guys. Is ev- " The words died in his throat when Kris turned and pushed past him into the house.
"I gotta go. I'll call you later."
"What? Krissy, wait!" He started to go after her, but as the door slammed closed he turned back to his brother, his face furious. "What did you say to her?"
Travis poked at the charcoal again while his mind raced for an answer. But Brian grabbed him by the arm and spun him around to face him, and the tongs went flying into the grass.
"WHAT DID YOU SAY TO HER?"
"Nothing!" Travis shouted back. "I mean, I said... aw, dammit, Brian!"
"Fix it." His brother's voice was hard. "It took me two months to ask her out, and I'm not gonna let you mess it up in two hours."
"Fine. I'll fix it."
"How?" Travis gestured toward the house. "She's long gone by now."
Brian shook his head. "She walked over here from the dorms. Out the front door, turn left. You're Mr. Track-and-field. Catch her."
Kris was halfway home, those stupid tears streaking her cheeks again. Who knows what was going on back at Brian's? Travis was surely telling him the whole story, probably laughing as he explained why she'd run out like a scared little girl. Telling him she was the kind of girl who would make out with a perfect stranger, when nothing like that had ever happened to her before. She hadn't even known Brian then, not really. But of all the people in the world for her to have kissed, why did it have to be Travis? Why, God?
Her friends had all seen him watching her that night, trying to look like he wasn't, and they teased her and pushed her to ask him to dance. But before she could get up the nerve, she looked up and he was there, asking her. With all the girls' eyes on her, she'd had no choice but to say yes. Not that she really minded. He was awfully cute, and what could one dance hurt anyway? They talked a little as they danced, speaking loudly to be heard over the music, and they seemed to click right away. They talked about random things, he made her laugh, and there was a definite attraction between them. Still, when the song was over she was going to thank him and go back to the table and that would be it. But now a different song was playing, a slow one, and somehow she was still there, with him. At some point he'd taken her hands in his and now he draped her arms around his neck and circled his around her waist, gently drawing her closer. Unable to help herself she came willingly, resting her cheek against his shoulder. Her senses were overwhelmed - by the music, the smell of his skin, the firm heat of his hands on the curve of her back.
And then he stopped moving, she pulled back, and he just... looked at her. Really looked at her, as if he could see deep inside her. So deep that she could feel it all the way to her toes. Before she could see it coming, he was kissing her, and it was a kiss like you'd see in the movies. A gentle, lingering, knee-buckling kiss. A kiss that made her heart pound with the rightness of it. The music stopped, she opened her eyes and he was there staring down at her, breathing raggedly and looking as shaken as she felt, and for a moment neither of them moved. The club, the crowd, the noise were all gone and there was only the two of them, and he lowered his mouth toward hers again. Just then the next song started with a jarring crash of drums that tore her from her daze, and she'd jerked herself out of his arms and ran. Like she was doing now. Running away. Like she'd done when she moved halfway across the country for college, like she'd done all her life whenever things got too intense. It was her best thing.
She didn't realize she'd stopped walking until she heard the footfalls behind her. She turned to see Travis, slowing his run to a walk, breathless and windblown. She was tempted to run for it, but she had a feeling he would follow her and she knew she couldn't outrun him, so she braced herself and faced him. "What?" she demanded.
"I'm sorry, okay?" Travis bent at the waist for a moment to catch his breath, hands on his knees. "Maybe I shouldn't have told you. You didn't remember, and I should've let it stay that way."
"Too late now."
"No kidding." He straightened, then looked around them and pointed to a low stone wall at the corner. "Can we sit for a minute?"
"Maybe I don't feel like sitting." She crossed her arms over her chest, realizing from his soft chuckle that she was pouting like a child, and she let out a resigned sigh. "Okay, fine." They walked to the wall and he waited for her to pull herself up before he followed, careful to leave a safe amount of space between them. "Say what you want to say so I can get away from you."
"Jeez, Kristin. Are you always this rude?"
Her head snapped up to protest, but he sat there grinning at her, teasing, and the words disappeared and her mouth closed itself.
"I know," he conceded, raising his hands in surrender. "I was rude first, at the airport, and then I dump all this on you, and I probably deserve anything you want to dish out. I just couldn't believe it when Brian moved out of the way... and it was you. My brain went numb for a minute, I think."
"That's completely stupid."
"Maybe it is. But that's what happened." He kicked his heels against the wall a few times, then he met her gaze and shrugged. "I'll do whatever you want, Kristin. I'll make up some excuse and go back to Chicago early if this is too weird for you, or I'll just stay away from you while I'm here. You tell me what you want me to do, and I'll do it."
Kris stared at the ground as she thought about the options he was presenting. It was tempting to tell him to go back to Chicago, to solve the problem quickly and easily. But of course, it wouldn't solve it, not really. Brian had been so excited for her to meet his brother, and for his brother to meet her. And now he was probably back at home, alone, the big day gone to hell, confused or angry or... disappointed. And Travis was here trying to smooth things out. The ball was in her court, but her thoughts were all jumbled, especially with Travis sitting right there beside her. What was it about him that made her brain.. what had he called it? Go numb?
She inched herself a little further away, thinking that might help. "I don't know what I'm supposed to say."
"Then let's start with door number one." He turned his body toward her, drawing one leg up, and the space felt small again. "You want me to leave town?"
Kris hesitated, knowing what her answer had to be. "No. I wouldn't do that to Brian. He wants you here."
"But you don't."
"I never said that." Silence hung heavily between them. "He just wants us to be friends." She looked up at him. "We could try that, right?"
Studying her face, Travis was badly tempted to say no. Could he be friends with this girl, when he was dying to touch her, to kiss her, to stay on this stupid wall for hours and just talk to her? Back in Chicago, he'd been so sure she'd felt the same insane attraction he did that night, but she was never going to admit it now. And did it matter any more, now that she and Brian were going out? He closed his eyes against the struggle in his head, then opened them with a sigh. "Sure. Why not? So we'll go back and eat a burger, and try just talking about normal stuff like people do."
She gave him a small, uncomfortable smile. "I guess that'd be good start."
"Okay then." He rubbed his hands over his denim-covered thighs once or twice, hoping she wouldn't notice the damp streaks they left behind. He jumped down from the wall and held out a hand to help her down, and she took it without thinking. She slid down and when she was steady he meant to let go, really he did, but then he found he couldn't. Their eyes met with something that felt to him like an electric shock, and he couldn't look away.
"Oh, hell," he breathed. "This isn't gonna work, is it?"
She couldn't seem to look away either. "I don't think so."
He dragged her toward him with a groan and his mouth covered hers, and it was like that first kiss all over again. All-consuming, brain-numbing, and absolutely... crazy. He tore himself away and stepped back quickly, shoving his hands through his hair so he wouldn't reach for her again. "God, Kristin. I can't do this." He could feel himself shaking. "I dreamed about you after that night. And now here you are, I found you, and I can't..." He backed away further, and his eyes were anguished. "I'm sorry. I'll leave tomorrow."
"Don't." She looked as surprised as he was that she'd said it, but there it was, out and hanging between them. "Don't leave."
"I don't know why not. Just don't." Then she was coming toward him, he met her halfway, and in a heartbeat he was crushing her in his arms again, kissing her with everything he had. And she was kissing him back, just as desperately. The feelings he'd felt for the first time, the only time, back at Billy Bob's were flooding through him again. She pulled away, too quickly, and he grabbed her shoulders hard. "Don't you dare run," he demanded breathlessly.
"I won't." She buried her face against his neck and he held her tight, feeling their hearts pounding together.
"So, what happens now?" he asked finally.
"I break up with Brian," she said softly, guiltily, as if any of this was her fault.
"He knows, you know." She looked up at him questioningly, and he smiled down at her. "About my dream girl and our one fantasy kiss. I told him the day after it happened."
He shrugged. "It was important."
"He'll hate me."
"He'll hate both of us. But only at first." He reached out and stroked her cheek. "I don't suppose you've got a couch I can sleep on tonight? I may need a place to crash."
"How can you be so calm about this? He's your brother!"
"How do you know?"
"Because he told me to keep looking for her. And he said if I ever found her, I shouldn't let her get away again."
Kris raised up on her toes for another kiss, which he gladly gave. "And?" she asked.
He smiled contentedly and drew her into his arms again. "And, he was right. Never again."