Four years was a long time. Or a short time. Actually, it really was relative. And standing there, frozen at the doorstep of his best mate's manor, it couldn't be any more clear to him.
Mack Harlow could hardly believe the time between this moment and one he privately deemed as his last really was four years apart. It felt like nothing, only a few hours ago, that he's seen that face - but at the same time, his eyes greedily drank in the sight of her, until he firmly pulled himself together.
But then she turned her head and their eyes met.
This time he stopped breathing. For God's sake, he wanted to yell at himself, but he was immobile, just outside the door. The biting wind was nothing against the back of his exposed neck. His hands weren't as cold as they were seconds ago, but maybe the blood that was supposed to be in his brain rerouted to other parts of his body, warming his chest, without his permission, because it really was so long ago. Long enough for everything in his life to change.
She looked nervous as she turned and began to walk, but with every step, the warmth in her eyes lightened her face until she was only a few steps away, eyes so tender, smile so genuine, that it was all he could do from yanking her into his arms and keeping her there.
"You're blocking the door." Her voice still held her usual traces of laughter. A voice that, apparently, still made his hands clammy and mind go cloudy.
Mack barely glanced behind him at the other guests, but he did manage to look away from her. Inwardly he cringed. He could only imagine the look on his face. She only needed to breathe and he'd be in knots.
"Mack!" His best mate, Billy Colm, walked towards him in obvious haste. Billy looked anxious, definitely guilty, and slightly apprehensive. He didn't stop walking before he grabbed Mack into a tight, welcoming hug. "I didn't know she'd be here," Billy whispered into his ear before he released him, and then loudly, "It's been too long, my friend."
"Too long," Mack said dryly, and almost compulsively, turned to his right. She lost her wide smile, but the look on her face was almost . . . fond. Mack felt like his saliva was acid in his mouth as he tried to swallow. "Hello, Kennedy. You look lovely this evening."
Kennedy's smile still brought light to her eyes, especially when she was amused. "You're too kind," she quipped, as if it were still a private joke between them. She always said he'd find something nice about the most horrible of her days, an impossible feat she firmly believed, but he wasn't lying. To him, genuine beauty wasn't reflected in physical attributes. It was how she was inside, the very core of who made her person, that would always shine through.
Resigned, Mack drew her to the side of the hallway. He didn't even remove his coat, but he needed to go through the pleasantries quickly. "How are you?"
Her eyes softened, as did her smile. That damn fond look. He clenched his jaw in irritation, but forced himself to look pleasant. Now that the initial shock of seeing her unexpectedly was ebbing away, he felt - and welcomed - the familiar feeling of frustration.
"You know me, I'm always fine."
Do I? he wanted to ask, but kept his mouth firmly glued together. He could only manage a brittle smile down at her. Kennedy Tasca looked the same, but different, somehow. Or maybe he wanted to see something different about her, to find that she wasn't the same girl deciding her future four years ago - a future that didn't involve him - and effectively making him feel . . . alone. The word left an unpleasant taste in his mouth, and even mentally he hesitated to describe himself with that word.
Kennedy appraised him and her smile narrowed until it was only a slight tilt of the end of her lips. "I won't pretend that nothing happened," she said softly, and he almost felt her pulling away. Instantly his irritation vanished, and the need to have her close almost overcame him. "I'll find you later, though, maybe to exchange contact information for that conversation."
His voice sounded far away. "What conversation?"
Her smile was almost sad. "Closure." Her eyes lowered. "Your closure." And before he could say anything, she flashed a smile and walked right past him. Mack was seldom at a loss for words, but Kennedy always managed to stun him into silence.
It was almost so typical he wanted to laugh. She knew him almost as much as he knew himself. She could probably see that she wouldn't have to beg if she wanted him back.
He found her, not thirty minutes later, unable to stay away. Her slim shoulders and slender torso was covered in a simple cream coloured silk blouse with black collars paired with a black A pencil skirt that hugged her hips. What caught his attention was her heels. She's always hated wearing them, but loved the way it looked on her.
Kennedy was listening politely to an older man in his fifties, presumably talking about his business ventures. It was really what anyone talked about here despite its excuse of a holiday party. Long ago, he managed to convince her to attend a few with him and it was only her polite nature that kept her from abruptly ending the conversations she was sucked into. Mack was always rescuing her when he managed to draw himself out of his own business talks.
It was the only thing he was able to save her from. Mack kept his distance for now the opportunity to observe her without denying himself, for a little while. It gave him a bittersweet feeling to note that she was different from the girl he met in the library. Her hair was always in a ponytail and bun, and the only reason he noticed her was because he always caught glimpses of her in the café on the first floor of the library. He worked in the building across the street and enjoyed the coffee there, maybe a bit of quiet time if his schedule allowed it.
It was during these quiet times that, every other day or so, there was this girl who always wore the same solemn, almost worried look on her face as she waited in line. Sometimes she sat in an empty seat to check her phone and reply to missed calls and messages. Mack didn't talk to her until she, by coincidence, sat where he was.
"Is anyone sitting here?" a polite voice roused him out of his thoughts, and he saw brown eyes framed by brown spectacles, gazing at him expectantly.
"Go ahead," he told her.
It was anticlimactic, their meeting, compared to what he grew to feel about her. He often wondered how such a typical encounter could start something so wondrous and heady, how someone was even capable of feeling this way about someone else.
He smiled bitterly. He wondered, all right. Especially how it was possible for anyone to feel like he did when she left. Going back to the same schedule and routine. Seeing the same people everyday. The only difference was that she wasn't there, and if he was perfectly fine before he met her, what would it matter if she was suddenly gone?
He didn't believe that she made him whole. She just made his world so much brighter, and taking her away was . . .
Mack forced himself out of his brooding thoughts. It didn't matter anymore.
"Excuse me, Mr Pavetti," Mack said politely, touching her elbow in that familiar way before his hand smoothed down to the small of her back. "If I could interrupt, Ms Tasca is needed by the hostess at the moment."
"Oh, no problem at all." Mr Pavetti smiled down at her. "It was nice talking to you, my dear. Come find again so we can continue."
"Thank you, Mr Pavetti," Kennedy said sincerely with her own warm smile, and allowed him to lead her out of the room and somewhere more private. An empty hallway would have to do.
"Well?" Mack's back was rigid and he crossed his arms over his chest. He didn't want to scowl, but he was tense, disoriented, and he was torn between pulling her close and pushing her away. "What did you want to say?"
Kennedy blinked. "Wow, that was actually only -" she checked her wrist watch, "- twenty minutes."
He felt his ears burn. "Thirty minutes," he said tartly.
Kennedy smiled at him this time. "I missed you, too."
He swallowed hard, unable to rebuke her statement. He was too old for games of denial. He missed her, but it didn't mean he wanted her here. Instead, he sighed and lowered his arms to his side. He was thirty-five years old and, right now, he felt every inch of it. All the disappointments and misery in his lifetime, represented in this woman in front of him.
But the sick part was, he wanted it all, if it meant that he could have her again. Feel her against him, her laughter against his lips, her weight in his arms, the way she saw the world and the way she made him see it, too.
"You look well." She did. He wondered if she found what she was looking for. "How have you been?"
"Like I said, I've been good." Her eyes softened. "But how have you been?"
"That's it?" Her eyebrows rose. "I haven't seen you in over four years, and that's what you give me?"
Mack bore his eyes into her as his lips thinned. "Kennedy."
She smiled resignedly. "You never were one for playing games. I want to say 'I'm glad you're still the same' but I don't know it for sure. So if I'm annoying I'm probably subconsciously testing the waters."
He didn't want to hear that. "What are you doing here?"
"Being gone for so long made me realize just how much home this place is to me."
Chills went down his back. Just what he didn't want to hear. Everything rational inside him told him to let it go, but the hope rekindled almost as soon as she said those words.
She didn't know she was holding her breath until she started to feel light-headed. A hand strayed to the wall behind her in an effort to keep herself upright, but at that moment, she wanted to collapse on the nearest chair and put her head between her legs.
Alana Nolan was hardly a woman who could be labeled as sensitive, and considering what she knew about his past, she'd have thought she'd be better prepared for the real thing.
She gave up deep breaths and tried for quick, shallow ones. Eventually, she managed to get her breathing under control, but the pesky ache in her chest seemed to settle in. She headed straight for the kitchen, but more specifically, to the wine sitting on the counter.
"Are you okay? You look pale." Therese Colm appeared at her side, concern written on her face. "Do you want to sit down? Maybe you should've stayed home." She fluttered around her anxiously, guilt practically oozing out of her pores. "It's just, I get so nervous when Billy holds these gatherings. You'd think I'd get used to this lifestyle after four years of marriage, but I still need my best friend."
Alana felt herself relaxing as Therese rubbed her back as she sat on the nearest stool. "I'm not sick. Maybe it's just after-effects," she added when she caught Therese's doubtful look.
"You were sick for over two weeks. Mack told me you looked terrible when he went to visit you."
A jolt ran through her at his name and she felt herself tense against her will. Thankfully Therese was still fretting over her to notice.
"Yes, well, he always did have a penchant for sweet compliments," Alana said dryly, and without a thought, drank her whole flute of wine in one go. The fluid rushed through her system, and for a blissful moment, it was all she focused on.
"Did I mention that he's coming? Mack usually drives to his parent's house for Christmas, but I managed to convince him to stay this year."
Alana kept quiet as the pieces fell into place. It made sense. The betrayal she felt at what she thought was his lie bled into a different one that made more sense to her. She wished it didn't, and maybe then she could focus on the anger of a lie rather than this bullshit she was feeling.
Therese's voice lowered. "If you see him, don't tell him. Do you remember Kennedy?"
Alana forced herself to nod when Therese stopped expectantly. Of course she remembered. Everyone thought he was way in over his head for a woman seven years his junior. Billy was especially worried because he'd never seen his best friend so crazy for anyone in his life. Alana had known him two years before he met Kennedy, and even she could see the difference the girl had caused.
"Well, she came back to town a week ago. She's still the same funny, genuine girl, but different. But I do think she misses Mack. She asked if she could come today to see how he was."
"There's something called telecommunication."
Therese only rolled her eyes. "Come on, Alana. Do you really think Mack would take her call?"
"Yes," she said simply. "He could put on a front, but deep down he's just a . . ." she stopped as she realized what she was doing and gritted her teeth together. Pathetic. She was thirty-six years old, an ugly divorce under her belt, and here she was acting like someone she swore she'd never be again. Didn't she learn anything? Apparently not. "Anyway, I saw her. And Mack. He stole her away from Mr Pavetti."
"Oh, he's very nice."
"Alana!" Therese gasped as her eyes darted around them cautiously. "You're not the one who has to see him a lot."
Alana smirked genuinely for the first time since she saw Kennedy and had realized the implications of the night. "I know."
"So he's talking to her? Billy owes me twenty dollars. He knows his best friend, but he doesn't know how love can bend even the most stubborn of people."
Alana's smirk died and she cleared her throat. "That's debatable."
Therese cast her a reprimanding, but fond look. "Pessimist."
She shrugged. "Realist."
An old dance and tune, they fell into a companionable silence. Alana was too old to sit and twiddle her thumbs together, so she got another refill of wine and thought through the inevitable confrontation. Like she said, she was a realist, and she knew that if she wanted to get out of this relatively unscathed, she needed to make it clear to the both of them.
Alana didn't need hindsight to know that they shouldn't have started what they did. Mack was too wounded, and Alana fell in love too easily. At least, with people that managed to breach her self-erected walls. But Mack didn't just breach them - he completely obliterated them. She could appreciate the absurdity of the situation where he didn't even have to try, either; but the fact of the matter was, in the end, she was the idiot who got hurt.
But how was she supposed to know it'd turn into this? Mack was too wounded to fall in love again, but so was Alana. Her four year long abusive marriage was not without repercussions, but also a lot of valuable lessons in life. She trusted Mack, and knew that making love with him would be nothing like what her bastard of an ex called a loving union. Since she'd long ago gotten comfortable with her sexuality years after the divorce with few, but trusted, partners, how was she supposed to know that this was going to be different?
The fact that they had to keep it a secret had nothing to do with it, either. It was a mutual agreement to keep it from their close friends. Sex was sex. A physical outlet with a partner you trusted. Of course, in hindsight she figured that with her past, more than a few times together would result in attachment, especially if he was her friend foremost.
"You're pale again. If you start to feel feverish, let me know."
Alana smiled at her friend's concern. "It's Christmas, Therese. Even if I felt sick, I would force myself to feel better just for tonight."
"But still -" Therese's eyes drifted to the entrance. "Oh, Mack!"
He approached them with the same steady pace. But his eyes were riveted on Therese with predatory intensity that Alana knew she'd be getting it.
He stopped next to Alana's stool, and she resisted the urge to distance herself further. "Billy would have warned me, but you would have thrown me into the sharks."
Therese had the decency to look guilty. "Did your conversation not go well?"
He momentarily looked confused. "How'd you know we talked?"
Alana lifted her flute and leaned back against the counter with forced casualness. "Sorry, I didn't know I had to keep it a secret. Next time though."
Mack stiffened noticeably, cast her an inscrutable glance she could read perfectly, and turned back to Therese. "That's none of your business," he said finally.
"So it went well?"
He ignored the hopeful, enthusiastic response from Therese and turned to her. Alana was already setting her wine down.
"Mrs Long wanted to see us, Mack. I told her I'd find you." Alana smiled easily and grabbed his hand with familiarity that, right now, made her want to vomit. "I'll be back, Ther. Do try to mingle, even if you have to talk about your love for writing."
Therese looked despondent. "You sound like Billy."
She released his hand as soon as they were out of Therese's line of vision. Alana absolutely hated herself for thinking for Mack, for making sure that his precious Kennedy didn't see him holding hands with someone else lest she get the wrong idea.
Alana saw Kennedy talking with a stout looking woman, but only because Mack's eyes seemed to automatically seek the younger woman. She was prettier than Alana remembered. More mature, more sophisticated. She remembered how well-put they looked together, too.
Alana chose the backyard for its lack of bright lights, other than the one hanging over the doors. She figured it wouldn't take too long, so she ignored the cold biting at her skin, and shook her head firmly when he made a move to remove his outer coat.
"You're always one step ahead of me."
His dry voice kept her focused, and she took a deep breath of the frigid air to ground herself. "I've had this talk more times than I care to count."
He smiled, like she expected he would, but not with the same genuineness that she knew Kennedy was capable of.
Stop it! A terrible hopeless anger overcame her and she very nearly broke right there. Instead, she found her steel and even managed to look into his eyes.
"Even though nothing is guaranteed with her, I know it wouldn't feel right to continue what we have when she's back." Alana watched his face go unreadable, and she sighed. "Mack. Kennedy being back . . . you know that you don't owe her anything. Being in love with her, or her being in love with you - it doesn't guarantee a spot in each other's lives." The truth of her own words was so piercing that she had to stop. "If you're afraid, it's okay. If she really loves you, then she'll do whatever it takes to earn your trust back." As she should, Alana thought.
Mack merely gazed at her for a few beats longer and this time gave a little laugh as he shook his head. "Did I say one step? I meant one hundred. I hardly said anything to you, too."
Alana shrugged. "Hey, I know how happy you were with her."
Mack smiled genuinely this time and put his arms around her. She gave him a pat on the back and stepped away. "Did I mention how amazing you are?"
She forced a coy smile. "A few times in places we shouldn't discuss."
Mack laughed, and she smiled at the sight. The gleam was back in his eyes, and she almost had a half-baked notion of shaking his hand, like what they had was some sort of business transaction.
"I'm not that easy," he said, honestly this time, and more seriously. "I . . . don't know how to feel about her here. I don't want to go through that again. Losing her the first time was hard enough."
"I know," she said quietly. "There's no rush."
Alana almost didn't make it that day, but she figured that she could go in, wish him a happy birthday, and get the hell out. The last she heard was that he and Kennedy were casually dating, but from what Therese told her, he was happy, if not a bit cautious.
She rapped thrice on his door, and a few moments later, watched it swing open. Mack stood on the other side, a familiar solemn look on his face as he gazed at her.
"I thought you were sick," Mack said by way of greeting.
Alana couldn't help but give him a dirty glare. "Yes, I am doing well, thanks for asking. Happy birthday."
An exasperated look came on his face as she passed by him. "I meant . . . Thanks." He paused and scowled at her impish look. "You had a fever. Again."
"I'm thirty-six, Mack. I can take care of myself." She rolled her eyes, and smiled. "Speaking of thirty-six, how does it feel to be?"
"You sound like a teenager. How does it finally feel to be eighteen?" he mocked with a slight laugh. "Did you want me to pull out my parents' supply of alcohol and drink it when we know they're asleep?"
"Oh, good. So you did manage to get it open."
They grinned at each other before Mack gestured for her to follow him. As always, his place was neat, but she spotted a few differences here and there. Alana felt a strange chill pass through her when she realized just how often she was at his house. She managed to convince him to purchase a few things, like the frame that held his most cherished picture of his family, the last one taken before his older sister passed away from cancer. Or the center table in his living room she gave her input on to seal the purchase. She'd often complain that his pillows were either too soft or too stiff, so one day she surprised him by buying several ones that were perfect for sleeping. At first he argued with her, but after a night sleeping past his alarm clock on said pillows, he had no more complaints.
"You're early. I wasn't expecting anyone until seven."
Alana glanced at her watch. It was four-thirty. Exactly as she planned.
"Yes, well, I wasn't planning to stay long. I just wanted to drop buy with your present and wish you a happy birthday."
He stopped a few feet from the counter and turned to her with furrowed eyebrows. "You have plans?" he said carefully. No surprise. She often made her friends' birthdays a big deal. He spent a good part of last year, especially in bed when she would discuss it, to convince her to let him plan his own birthday. He was too old to make a huge fuss, he would argue. Her retort was, 'All the more reason!'
"Yes. I've been meaning to tell you, but . . ."
He had his arms crossed. "But?"
Alana didn't think this was going to be as difficult as it was. "But I could never find the time," she said, and continued with a more forceful tone. "Well, anyway, I have an appointment tonight that I can't miss."
"So come after," he said without missing a beat.
"We'll see," she said noncommittally. His stare was beginning to make her uncomfortable, but Alana gazed back into his eyes, trying not to give off a challenging air. She was often told how stubborn she was, and Mack was no exception. They'd had tons of arguments over dinner, especially over her work ethic. He was no stranger to late nights in the office, but even he claimed that she practically seemed to breathe her career. She refused to believe a word he was saying, even when they did start to make sense to her.
"Okay," he said finally. "I know you'll try to make it."
Alana barely resisted rolling her eyes, and out rightly ignored his cheeky grin. She plucked his list from the table, and took the task that weren't marked as done. Her verification with the catering company took a while, mostly because of Alana and her nitpicking ways, but when she put down the phone, she realized Mack was staring at her.
He'd leaned against the center island with a glass of wine in his hand, his face inscrutable. But they'd shared the most intimate of gestures that she was able to tell that he was amused just by the tiny quirk of his lips.
She sounded defensive even when she tried to sound flippant. "What?"
"You did it again." His eyes crinkled. "Jeez, Alana. You have a way of getting under people's skin."
"Listen, we had this conversation a million times before. If I'm going to pay crazy amounts of money for something, I have the right to know exactly what's going -"
"It's actually my money -"
Her temper sparked. "You know what I mean!"
"- and I didn't exactly say it was a bad thing."
At that, she felt herself deflate. "Oh. Well. Try not to sound so condescending next time," she practically demanded. She strode toward the oven and peered at the glass. After bustling around the kitchen uselessly, she knew she couldn't avoid his stare anymore.
She automatically looked up from the fridge pinned with a few of motivational quotes she vaguely recalled slapping on there during Mack's dismal weeks. She'd probably swipe it. Alana didn't know what she was doing, but she had a vague notion that she was attempting to erase what they had together. Rationally, she knew that she was blowing this way out of proportion, but she couldn't shake the chill off her back that by the fact that she's almost stamped herself into his life.
She pointed to the quotes to keep him from talking. He looked serious, and a prickle of unease went down her spine. "I can't believe you still kept this."
His eyes drifted to where she was pointing. "I can hear your voice at the back of my head whenever I read them."
She smiled at that. "I can be annoying when I set my mind to it."
"Alana, what's wrong?"
"What do you mean?"
"Don't give me that. You're as skittish as a deer." He was quiet for a moment as her brain went into overdrive, trying to find a plausible excuse for her, admittedly, uncharacteristic behaviour. When he spoke again, his voice was soft. "You know you can tell me anything."
She cleared her throat. While she didn't regret opening to Mack about her ugly past, she always felt unbearably uncomfortable whenever he brought it up. It also had nothing to do with the bad memories that came with it. She wasn't ashamed. While she wished she never went through what she did, there's also nothing to be done about it except grow from it. Accept what has happened and know that she was a strong woman. But Mack had a way of touching her soul just with the way he looked at her. There was no pity, no disgust, no judgment. All she saw was . . . love and concern.
"Yes, I know." She cleared her throat again. "It's just a little awkward," she said honestly. "I mean, I knew that when we started what we did, it -" meant nothing to you, she almost said, but couldn't quite manage it, "- I mean, while it was enjoyable, it wasn't serious. With you dating Kennedy again, I think I need to step away for a while. Just so I can find a rhythm that-" doesn't involve you in my life.Shit. She rubbed her face. "You know . . . Just to . . ." She sighed, resisting the urge to knot her hands together in her nervous manner. "I'm not explaining this very well."
"No." His voice had an ominous edge to it. "No, you're not."
When she risked a peek at his face, she was surprised to see a cold expression.
"Look, Mack. This is no reflection on you or Kennedy. While what we had meant nothing, I still don't want to risk any subtle sign you or I may indicate that -"
"We've been around plenty of our friends while we were -" He stopped, frustrated, but ploughed on. "What difference does it make now?"
What difference, indeed. For one, Alana didn't like to share. And the fact that she felt like she had a right to Mack, well, that was a sign for her to step back. She also didn't like to feel inferior to someone as genuine as Kennedy. She knew the inferiority stemmed from the fact that she was in love with Mack and she was crazy jealous, so she figured that being away from him was a wise move on her part. She wasn't running, she was merely reassessing.
But all she said was, "It makes a difference. I'm sorry, Mack. I didn't want to have this conversation with you on your birthday, but I do think it's for the best."
His jaw clenched. "So what, you decide what direction our supposed friendship goes, and I have to sit back and take it?"
Alana was taken aback. "I mean . . . wait, what? Mack, it's the most rational decision that we can make."
"No. It's really not."
At that, she gaped, and felt the first spark of indignation. "Hold on. Don't you think what you're saying is a little selfish? Do you really expect me to be here, front row seat, while you fall in love with Kennedy all over again?"
Mack straightened. "I'm selfish? You actually think that taking away one of the best friendships I've ever had is supposed to be comforting?" He sounded bewildered, but she couldn't see past the red growing in her eyes.
"Listen to yourself, Mack. Subjecting me to watch you with Kennedy isn't exactly a gesture of friendship."
"I thought what we had meant nothing?" he said sarcastically.
She felt the contradiction of her words, and started to panic. "It didn't."
"Then what's your problem?"
Didn't she just explain it? But she couldn't go through with it again, not with the way her emotions were on overdrive.
"I just told you!" she snapped, and grabbed her purse off the table. "I'm sorry. I can't be around you right now." She stopped in front of him, and refused to be swayed by the anger and hurt swirling in his eyes. She studied his face for a while, because it felt like it was going to be a long time before she was able to stare into his eyes without feeling like she was being ripped apart. "This is one of the best friendships I've ever had too," she said quietly.
He swallowed hard. "Then why are you doing this?"
She only kissed his cheek. "Happy birthday, Mack. I'll see you around."
Author's note: You know my one shots and how ridiculously long they are. This is part 1 of 2.
Hey guys . . . can you drop a few words on what your most favourite thing in the world is and why? :D I really miss writing, but I'm scarcely inspired nowadays. I don't know why it took me so long to turn here. Anyway, hope you liked part 1! Happy Thanksgiving! xx