The sight of her crush leaning against her car, waiting for her after school would've been the highlight of the average girl's day, if not her entire week. Unfortunately, Nola O'Donnell was too practical to allow flights of fancy to carry her away, even for a moment. Seeing her crush, arms crossed over his chest as he waited for her, his dark hair waving in the stiff breeze, only filled her with dread. Because Gideon was not only the guy she'd liked for half of forever, he was also her best friend's older brother and next-door neighbor, and there weren't many reasons why he would seek her out at school.
None of them was good.
Figuring she would need the moral support, Nola wished Bridget was there, but her best friend's photography class was on a field trip for the day. The books in her arms grew heavier with every step Nola took closer to her car, and she was ready to drop them by the time she reached Gideon. When, without a word, he reached to take them from her arms, she was more than happy to relinquish them. The back of his hand brushed against her breast during the transfer, which was something that, under normal circumstances, would have set her on fire.
Today, she barely noticed it as he opened the door to her backseat and set her books inside. Next, he lifted the strap of her messenger bag off her shoulder, careful not to take any of her long blonde curls with it. He hadn't spoken a word to her, and although there were a million thoughts and questions racing through her brain, she couldn't articulate a single one.
Instead, she took the opportunity that being so close to Gideon provided. She admired the way his thick black lashes spiked around his eyelids, setting off the unusual amber hue of his eyes. She memorized the way the dark shadow of his beard was just beginning to show beneath his lightly tanned skin. She absorbed his touch when he took her upper arms gently in his hands, this thumbs making soothing sweeps against the tender skin of her biceps.
Feeling brave, she put her hands on his chest. Her eyes closed, she focused for a moment on the beat of his heart beneath her palm, on the rise and fall of his chest as he breathed. Everything was going to change in a minute, she knew that much, and she wanted to remember this—a perfect moment where she could pretend the boy she liked actually liked her back.
Since he wasn't aware her crush on him still existed, Gideon didn't know exactly what she was thinking. He did know, however, that whatever she was doing, he wanted her to have these last few seconds of peace before her world changed forever. Something wistful lurked in her eyes when she opened them to meet his, but it faded quickly, replaced by resignation.
It killed him. She was eighteen years old. That fatalistic look shouldn't be one that appeared so at home on her face.
God, what else had he missed? Had they all missed? How bad had it gotten in the last two years since her mom died? He had something of an excuse, having moved out of the house at the beginning of the school year so he could be closer to campus, but his parents and Bridget still lived right next door. Why hadn't they realized she was suffocating under the weight of going to school, taking care of her little brother, and worrying about her father?
And here he was, about to make it worse. For a moment, he wished he hadn't volunteered to break the news. But it was too late to do anything about it now.
Except... "Let's go somewhere else." He could put it off another couple of minutes.
"Just tell me, Gid. I can't wait another second. I'll go crazy."
He took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. "Nola, I'm so sorry, honey," he said, subtly tightening his grip on her arms. "They found your father's car in a canal this morning. It had been there for hours. They think he must've been knocked unconscious in the crash—"
That morning when leaving for school, she'd thought nothing of the fact that her father's car wasn't beside hers in the driveway. Because he worked late at the bar, and frequently drank too much after closing, there were nights he just slept in the empty apartment above O'Donnell's.
"No. No. No." She shook her head, her eyes pleading as they filled. "No. No. Gideon, no." She stiffened, as if preparing to pull away, and then she just crumpled against his chest, her hands fisting convulsively in his shirt as she sobbed. "You're wrong. They're wrong. They are. They have to be."
When he had announced he wanted to be the one to tell Nola of her father's death, his parents were concerned about how he would handle it. They had asked him if he was sure, and though he hadn't been, this was something he had to do. It was what was best for everyone involved. After all, with both her parents dead and no other close family, Nola would need his parents' support. It went without saying that she would need Bridget's. If Nola decided to shoot the messenger, Gideon had decided it would be best if he took the bullet.
As it turned out, telling her was easy. Comforting her, on the other hand, was ripping him to pieces. He clearly had underestimated how much he cared for this girl. He knew he cared—obviously, the normal people don't know someone most of their life and not care about that person—he just hadn't expected to feel for her so strongly. As more than his little sister's best friend, which was how he always thought of Nola, but maybe as his friend in her own right.
"Tell me what I can do," he whispered against her hair when she quieted, burying his hand in its depths to rub his fingers against her scalp. "Name it, and it's yours."
"This is enough for now," she replied quietly in a voice destroyed by her sobbing. "This is more than enough."
Gideon was glad she felt that way because he felt entirely inadequate.
Over her shoulder, he noticed a group of students hovering worriedly on the sidewalk. He recognized a couple of them as being friends of Nola and his sister, though he couldn't recall their names. When he told Nola of their presence, she shook her head and said she didn't want to talk to them yet. Gideon understood, asking her if she wanted him to let them know what was happening. She said yes, and he was glad for something tangible to do. Holding up a finger, signaling for the others to hang on, he settled Nola in the passenger's seat of her car before crossing to speak with her friends.
"Is Nola okay? What's going on? It's not Bridget, is it? Or Liam?"
The questions came from different people, faster than he could pin down the owners of the voices. He found a smile somewhere for the group at large; he hoped it looked at least marginally reassuring. "Bridget and Liam are fine. Nola's dad died this morning." There were multiple exclamations of dismay, which he waited to quiet before he continued, "She's not really in the mood to talk right now, as I'm sure you can understand. Maybe you guys can give her a few days before calling to check on her." He thought about that for a moment and then amended his request. "In fact, maybe you should call Bridget to check on Nola tomorrow or the next day, and see if she thinks Nola's up to accepting calls."
"Of course. We totally understand. We don't wanna bother her when she's grieving," one of the girls said. "But could you tell her how sorry we all are, and if there's anything we can do, let her know she just has to name it."
Gideon nodded. "Of course. I'll let her know." With a warning to be careful driving home, he left the group and returned to Nola's car.
They were halfway to their neighborhood when Nola suddenly gasped and sat up in her seat. "Oh, my God. Liam."
"Hey. Hey. Don't worry. Mom and Dad are picking him up from school for you."
"No. I mean, well, good 'cause I completely forgot about that. But—" She massaged her forehead. "What am I supposed to tell him? God, he's just a little boy. How am I supposed to tell him his daddy's dead?"
Gideon reached for her hand and gave it a squeeze. "You don't have to, you know. My parents will do it if you ask them to. They already said so."
"That seems like such a cop-out. Can I really do that?" Gideon sensed she wasn't actually seeking an answer, so he remained silent while she worked through it. "I want to. I really do. But I can't. I need to be the one to tell him. I don't think I'd forgive myself otherwise."
Even as she said it, she wondered if that was the motivation behind Gideon being the one to tell her about her father. He certainly didn't have to be. And, even if he hadn't volunteered, Gideon didn't do anything he didn't want to do. The opposite, in fact—Gideon did what Gideon wanted, regardless others' opinions about it. That quality was one of the reasons she liked him so much. He was unapologetically himself, at all times.
"How'd you get up to the school, anyway?"
He shot her a quick frown. "I was parked right next to you."
Nola's brow furrowed. His car was an emerald green boat of a Caddy, but she sure as hell hadn't noticed it parked beside her. She supposed that went to show how out of it she had become once she noticed Gideon's presence.
"I totally missed it," she admitted. "Sorry you had to le—" Her sentence cut off as she noticed the smirk playing around the corner of his mouth. She reached over and punched his arm, laughing softly at his joke. "Hey. Jerk. Pickin' on me."
"Sorry, I couldn't resist." The lopsided grin on his face told her he wasn't at all contrite. "Made you smile, though."
She nodded. "Yeah, well, you can always make me smile."
She bit her lip as the thought left her mouth unbidden, and she turned her head to look out the window. Sometimes when she talked to Gideon, she accidentally said things she had intended to keep to herself. It didn't used to matter—except when she and Bridget were trying to go behind his back about something—because he knew about her crush, and blurting out embarrassing things was part-and-parcel of her infatuation.
Now that she was finally getting people to believe her crush was gone, she tried not to let anything too revealing slip. She was too distracted to come up with a reasonable explanation, so if he teased her about liking him again, the cat would be out of the bag. Thankfully, if Gideon found her comment illuminating in any way, he didn't remark on it.
"Must be my boyish good looks and irrepressible charm."
Her mouth twitched. "Oh, I don't think it's your charm that's irrepressible." She added, under her breath, but loud enough for him to hear, "More like your sex drive."
"Burn! Who's picking on who now?"
"You have to admit, you kinda walked right into that."
"I will do no such thing," he said, sounding affronted.
Nola's retort died on her tongue as the sign for the gas station next to the entrance to their subdivision came into sight through the windshield. She sighed, letting her head fall back to hit the headrest. For a few brief, blessed moments, she had been able to forget what was happening in her life. She couldn't forget anymore, and very likely wouldn't be able to for quite some time.
It wasn't until she again felt the pressure as Gideon squeezed it that she realized he still held her hand safe within his own.