The Last One To See You Naked

Ian parked his car in the driveway and walked to the ancient garage, opening the squeaking door in search of the golf clubs Jake said he could borrow.

"Hey, what are you doing?" A voice yelled out from the back porch and Ian turned in surprise, not expecting anybody to be home because Jake told him he'd be out of town and couldn't participate in the charity golf tournament.

Ian's jaw dropped when he saw Jake's sister Regina standing on the back step in pajama bottoms and a sports bra glaring at him. He hadn't seen her in years.

"Gina?" Ian asked with disbelief.

"Oh, Ian," she replied when she recognized him.

"I don't believe it," Ian exclaimed, still gawking at her.

"What are you looking for?" Regina wanted to know.

"Jake said I could borrow his golf clubs," Ian explained.

"I think those are our grandfather's clubs," Regina replied, squinting at him through the sun as she raised her hand up to shield her eyes.

Ian realized he was gawking but he couldn't help himself. Regina stepped off the porch stairs and slowly walked toward him. Ian wanted to melt when their eyes met.

"Jake's not here," Regina explained when she reached him.

"He didn't tell me you were going to be here," Ian replied, looking at her like she was ghost.

"It was last minute," she said with a shrug. "I needed a place to hang low for a while."

Ian stood frozen, gazing at her with wonderment and for a moment he thought he had stopped breathing.

"How long has it been?" Regina asked with a bemused look on her face.

"Ten years at least," Ian replied. "Becky's wedding, I think."

"That's a long time," Regina stipulated.

"Too long," Ian complained.

She smiled, causing Ian to nervously break eye contact because he wanted to grab her into a hug but wasn't sure if he should. There was a warmth to her that radiated from her face and her smile felt so tender that Ian wanted to plant his lips on her mouth.

"You're looking pretty good." Her voice sounded the way he remembered.

"You're looking better," Ian replied with a grin.

She laughed with delight. "Oh, Ian." She pulled him in a sincere and meaningful hug and he was relieved that she was willing to do what he couldn't bring himself to do. "I should have known you'd still be here."

"Where else would I go?" Ian asked sarcastically.

"Where ever you wanted," she answered.

"Like you did?"

"Well, maybe not the exact same way!" She said with embarrassment.

"But now you're back," he observed.

"Just temporarily." Regina's smile momentarily disappeared and the look on her face was one of sadness.

Ian tried not to look disappointed by the news. "What happened to the ball player?"

Regina groaned with annoyance. "Still playing ball," she revealed tiredly. "Out in the bush leagues of the great Northwest. I couldn't take it anymore. Moving around every year. Waiting for him to come off the road. Wanting him to give up the dream. I finally figured out that he was never going to give up the dream."

Ian thought he saw a tear come to her eye.

"Sorry," he said with sympathy.

"I never thought he'd stick with it this long," she sighed. "It felt like I gave up my life for his."

"It's good to see you," Ian said, the shock of her unexpected presence beginning to wane.

"Are you sure?" She tested.

Ian offered her an amused smile as his reply. He thought Regina looked the same as he remembered her, her hair maybe styled a little differently and perhaps shorter than when she ran off with the ballplayer leaving Ian behind crushed and defeated to go it alone.

Regina's eyes narrowed as she studied him. "I won't pretend that what I did to you wasn't horrible," she sighed. "I wouldn't blame you if you still hated me."

"I never hated you," he told her, his voice shaky.

In truth, he had fantasized about this moment for years - the opportunity to tell her to go to hell, to call her names and beseech her reputation and her character but now that she was standing in front of him all he wanted to do was hold her.

Her voice sounded hurt. "Yes you did."

He smirked sheepishly. "Maybe a little," he confessed.

Her eyes squinted again. "We never had closure."

Her observation was so irrelevant that Ian wanted to laugh. He wondered if he should just beg her to take him back. It was only then when he became aware that Regina was in her sports bra. He stared at her trim stomach and her naval and wondered if her pajama bottoms could fit any lower on her curvy hips. And the sports bra did nothing but highlight her wonderful breasts.

Ian had been Jake's friend forever and because Regina had been Jake's sister even longer it was natural that she would be friends with Ian too. Then, in high school, they realized they liked each other in a special way so they started dating and Ian eventually fell in love with her. Their relationship was something wondrous and perfect and he never experienced anything like it with anybody else after Regina ran off.

Marty McMunn was a few years older than them, a Greenville High School athletic standout who played in the amateur Serguci League in the summer. He was drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks and Regina shocked everybody when she chased after the ballplayer without so much as a 'sorry' left behind for poor Ian.

Ian saw her briefly at their classmate Becky's wedding a few years later but it was so hard on Ian that he skipped the reception, overwhelmed by the raw emotions that came rushing back to the surface. Now, ten years removed from that bitter experience, Ian was feeling more melancholy and nostalgic than anything else. He was also relieved that the hate, angry, bitterness and resentment he felt toward Regina for all those years had seemed to have gone away.

Ian was glad he had a hard time remembering those negative feelings now. He never stopped missing Regina or thinking about her during her absence. Jake stopped volunteering information about his sister because Ian became obsessive about any and every update. Ian's friendship with Jake eventually suffered because it became just too awkward between them. That's probably why Jake didn't bother mentioning Regina's status when Ian called out of the blue to borrow the golf clubs.

"I don't want closure," Ian said aloud when he came out of his thoughts.

"Oh." Regina sounded hurt.

"It doesn't matter anymore," he explained. "It all happened a long time ago."

"Okay," Regina agreed although it didn't sound like she actually believed him.

"I don't like thinking about it," Ian told her, daring to gently reach out and touch her elbow in an awkward gesture of acceptance.

"I understand," Regina said bravely. "It's not a problem. I'm glad you're able to let it go."

"It took a while," Ian admitted in a mutter.

"I'm sorry," Regina said uncomfortably. She suddenly seemed to realize she was outside in pajama bottoms and a sports bra. "Anyway," she said. "It was nice seeing you again. I'm sure the golf clubs are in there somewhere." Regina gestured toward the garage before turning and heading for the house.

Ian was torn between finding the clubs and chasing after Regina, unwilling to let her go a second time. He glanced toward the garage and realized he hadn't golfed in years. He had already paid his admission fee so it wasn't as if his presence at the tournament was necessary.

Ian sucked in his breath and slowly walked toward the bungalow. He had been in there many times when Jake and Regina's grandparents lived there but only once since Jake took over the house.

"Gina?" Ian shouted as stepped onto the back porch and stuck his head through the kitchen door. "Gina?"

"I thought you wanted the golf clubs?" A confused Regina said when she stepped into the kitchen. "What are you doing in here?"

"I don't know," Ian confessed as he crossed his arms over his chest and sighed.

"Did you want to say something else to me?" Regina challenged.

Ian frowned pondering her question. "I don't know."
Regina smiled. "Did you miss me?"

Ian blushed. "I tried not to," he said.

"I missed you," Regina revealed as she took a seat at the kitchen table.

"You did?" Ian asked with surprise, slipping into the chair across from her.

She nodded with embarrassment. "There were many times when I was stuck alone in some run down apartment or motel room waiting for Mac to come back from some road trip. I'd be feeling lonely, asking myself what the hell I was doing and then I would think about Hillsboro and everything I enjoyed growing up. All the fun times we had."

"I'm sorry it didn't work out so well for the two of you," Ian said.

"No you're not," Regina rebutted. "Jake told me how I ruined you."

"Doesn't matter now," Ian shrugged.

Regina sat back in her chair and gave him a long look. "I'm thirty-three years old having suffered through a dozen years of disappointments and misery," she sighed. "It matters to me."

"You look good," Ian blurted out.

"How are you doing?" She wanted to know.

"Fine," he lied.

"Did you go to work for your Dad?"

"Wasn't that my destiny?" He asked sarcastically.

Her eyebrows rose. "Didn't you want that to be your destiny?"

He wanted to tell her that she was supposed to be his destiny but there was no point in making her feel guilty. Regina smiled with sorrow almost as if she had read his thoughts.

"Are you glad to be home?" Ian asked instead.

"I've been gone a long time," Regina confessed. "But I've always thought about this place."

Ian felt comfortable as he sat across from Regina because it was suddenly just like the old days when they hung out together shooting the breeze.

"How come you didn't go to your parents?" Ian wondered. "They still in North Carolina?"

"I don't need my mother criticizing my relationship problems," Regina answered, rolling her eyes. "Plus I wanted to make sure Jake wasn't running our grandparents place into the ground!"

Ian laughed. "Looks like he's keeping it up okay."

"I would have evicted him otherwise!"

"But you're only here temporarily?" Ian asked.

Regina shrugged. "I don't belong here anymore."

"Where do you think you'll go?"

"I haven't exactly figured that part out yet," Regina admitted. "But Jake said I can stay as long as I want."

"What have you been doing all this time?" Ian asked. "Besides the ballplayer, I mean."

Regina groaned as she stood and went to one of the cupboards. "You name it, I've done it," she said, pulling a bottle of vodka from the cupboard.

"It's 8:30 on a Saturday morning, Gina," Ian said with surprise when he saw the bottle.

"We have orange juice," she replied as she grabbed two glasses and put them on the table along with a package of donuts. She got the orange juice from the refrigerator and filled the glasses half full with the juice before filling the rest of the glasses with vodka.

"Cheers," Regina remarked, lifting her glass in a salute.

"Welcome home," Ian grinned as he clicked his glass to hers. "So, you've been a jack of all trades?"

"More like a jack off of all trades," Regina replied with a sigh. "Waitress. Cashier. Traffic director. Bartender. Home aide. Salvation Army bell ringer. Laborer. Pool cleaner. Maid. Hot dog vendor. Janitor. Ditch digger. Cafeteria worker. Factory gopher. Cab driver. School bus driver. Stripper."

"Stripper?" Ian's eyebrows went up.

"Yeah, don't tell the ballplayer," Regina remarked. "I only did that one when he was out of town."

"Geez, Gina!"

"It was easy money," she said with a shrug. "Minor league ball players don't make a whole hell lot of dough, Ian," she justified. She gave him a hard stare. "Sorry I shattered your hometown girl next door image of me."

"I can't believe half of America saw you naked before I did," Ian pouted.

"At least I wasn't a call girl prostitute," Regina offered. "And it wasn't half of America. Just a bunch of low life truckers and local perverts outside of Tacoma."

"You don't still do that, do you?" Ian asked critically.

"No, once you get on the other side of thirty you're an old woman compared to the young college kids making their fast buck shaking their asses up there," Regina explained.

Ian sighed as he took a long swig of the spiked orange juice. What happened to the sweet Regina he used to know?

Regina was having second thoughts telling him about the stripping but it was too late now so she took a long sip from her glass as well.

"You were going to go to Green College and become a teacher," Ian reminded her. "That was supposed to be your destiny."

"I sure did blow it, didn't I?" Regina replied knowingly.

Ian felt sad about the change in her attitude and outlook. The Regina he knew growing up was idealistic, positive, excited, grounded, and directed. Now she was cynical with her naïve innocence replaced by life experience and disappointment.

"Sorry I let you down," Regina remarked sensing his disapproval.

"Everyone thought you were going to be the next Mary Poppins," Ian told her.

Regina laughed. "You always did put me up there on the pedestal, Ian," she complained.

"Because that's where you belonged," he argued, remembering how special and unique he saw her.

"I guess I took a hard fall," Regina replied, taking another sip from her glass.

"Do you have any regrets?" Ian foolishly asked.

Regina rolled her eyes at the dumbness of his question. "What do you think, Ian?" She asked acidly.

"It doesn't matter," he answered simply. "Life happens."

Regina stared at him with disbelief. "You're going to sit there and tell me that it's okay that I ran off with somebody and ruined my life and did everything wrong?"

"I would never tell you that," Ian admitted.

"I wish you would," she said sadly. "Then I wouldn't have to feel so guilty."

"What matters is now," Ian told her.

"You're not the one who has to live with your mistakes."

"I've lived with your mistake all these years," Ian rebutted.

Regina eyed him with sorrow. "I know. I don't know why you're even talking to me after what I did."

"I'm grateful to see you again," he said. "I never thought you'd come back."

"Me either," she confessed.

There was an awkward silence as the two sat at the table nursing their drinks trying to come to terms with the situation they found themselves in. Ian wondered why Jake hadn't brought the clubs to him in an effort to protect his sister from this very moment. Or could Jake have had an alternative motive in mind? Maybe Jake wanted Ian to bump into Regina in an effort to prevent her from making another mistake.

"Are you going to go back to him?" Ian asked.

"I don't know," Regina answered truthfully. "As miserable as I've been, I've invested all this time and effort into the relationship. He'll stop playing, eventually, right?"

"Maybe he'll still make it a career though," Ian floated. "Coaching. Managing. What else does he know?"

"It's true," Regina sighed. "It's been his whole life."

"You'll still be a baseball widow," Ian warned.

Regina sighed with that realization. "I think he's the oldest guy in Triple A. He's played for eight different organizations and at least fifteen different teams these past fifteen years."

Regina refreshed her OJ with a bit more vodka. Ian really couldn't blame her.

"So, what else are you doing besides working for your father?" She asked.

"Not much," Ian admitted.

"You aren't seeing anybody?"

"Not right now," he said. "There's been a few over the years. Nothing serious or particularly long lasting."

Regina didn't need the insight to know that wounded Ian never got over her and that was why he wasn't with anybody now. She adored him growing up and she figured maybe they would end up together, her teaching at Hillsboro High, him groomed to take over his Dad's furniture store. They'd buy some cute house in town, have Saturday morning breakfast at Johnny C's Diner every week, and live happily ever after.

But that was before Marty McMunn swept her off her feet. He noticed her hanging around Beano Field with Ian when he was playing for the Giants in the summer Serguci League and Regina was flattered that a Green College baseball star became aware of her. Regina started dating McMunn (behind everybody's back) and when Marty became a low draft pick of the Arizona Diamondbacks the spring of Regina's senior year she threw caution in the wind and followed after him the day after she graduated from high school.

"I never even said goodbye to you," Regina acknowledged, glancing at Ian with guilt and shame.

The pain of that day came rushing back into Ian's memory and psyche. "I thought Jake was kidding when he first told me," Ian sighed. "When I realized it was true, I was crushed, humiliated and rejected."

"You would have tried to talk me out of it," Regina explained defensively. "It was easier just to leave with the happy memories."

"So, that night before, at the graduation party, when you were being so nice and sweet to me, affectionate and close, you were really saying goodbye?"

Regina nodded her head yes.

"I thought you were seducing me," Ian sighed. "I thought you finally decided to sleep with me."

"I'm sorry I hurt you," She said.

"I never really trusted people after that," Ian revealed.

"I don't blame you," Regina replied. "If I could take it back, I would."

"Because it didn't work out with the other guy?"

"Because what I did was wrong."

What was Ian supposed to do with this revelation now? Was it to late to fall in love with her all over again after her betrayal? Her running off had repercussions that were still affecting Ian's life and as wonderful as it was to be sitting across the table from her now, how did he know she wouldn't be back with the ballplayer in a matter of days?

"I learned a lot of valuable lessons because of what I did," Regina told him.

"Like what?" Ian asked cynically, refreshing his glass with some more vodka.

"That bonds, relationships, friendships and the past are important," she answered. "That once you violate somebody's trust you become an untrustworthy person. That once you make a decision or choice you have to live with the consequences even if you thought it was going to be different."

Ian thought Regina was as pretty as ever as he observed her from the other side of the table. Sure, she was older than that fateful high school graduation night but she was much more mature and seasoned. Her figure had filled out and she had a look of confidence and self-assuredness about her.

"I've thought about us having this talk more times than I can count," Regina told him. "I always knew what I would say to you but I was never sure what you would say to me in return. Sometimes I thought you'd reject me and insult me and try to hurt me."

"I would never do that," Ian said.

"I know," Regina said knowingly as she stared at him. "I knew you would be as nice as you always were even though I don't deserve it."

Regina's voice broke and for a moment Ian thought she was going to start to cry.

"You don't owe me anything," she told him.

Ian gazed at with fascination. "I know," he teased. "You owe me!"

She groaned and rolled her eyes. "I'm not that easy, Ian" she replied seriously. "Besides, I'm still trying to figure out why I came back here like this."

"I can wait while you figure it out," Ian replied.

. "You sound like you did when we were teenagers," Regina realized. "You were always telling me you'd wait while I figured it out."

"I'm still waiting," Ian said.

Regina felt a familiar warmth pass through her that she hadn't felt in a long time. How she missed hanging out with Ian like this. How many times did Ian sit in her kitchen over the years eating her mother's brownies while dividing his time between Regina and Jake? And there were those times when Regina came to Ian's house, sometimes with Jake and sometimes alone to watch a movie or do homework together. And even here at her grandparents' bungalow was a nice place to be spoiled and attended to. She missed those days.

Regina gazed into Ian's eyes hoping not to give away her feelings. She and Marty were always fighting, almost non-stop in recent years it seemed but Regina couldn't remember one single fight, argument or disagreement she ever had with Ian. He was her perpetual cheering section and even now, their first time together since her betrayal, he was willing to pretend none of that ever happened.

Ian leaned across the table with a smirk on his face. "I've never had vodka for breakfast before."

"I'm corrupting you," Regina replied with just the hint of a smile. "That was another reason why I had to leave him. I was finding excuses to drink at all hours of the day or night."

Ian frowned. "Geez, Gina, you really did change, didn't you?"

"Mary Poppins would be so disappointed in me," she cracked.

So, are you trying to get me drunk?" Ian teased, keeping his face as close to hers as he could.

"Maybe you should be trying to keep me sober," Regina replied.

Ian pulled her orange juice glass away from her. "I can do that."

"But why would you want to?" She countered, sliding the glass back to her.

"Did you get in any trouble because of your drinking?" Ian asked, finally sitting back in his seat.

"You mean besides becoming a stripper, getting a DUI, waking up with hangovers and experiencing more than enough blackouts?" Regina asked.

She thought about it for a moment and put the cap back on the vodka bottle.

"You don't have to drink while you're here," Ian told her. "Red's Tastee Freeze can solve all your problems."

"Or a milk shake at Johnny C's," Regina smiled in agreement. "But you won't be offended if I tell you I never want to step inside Beano Field again."

"I understand," Ian replied. "I haven't been to a game there since you left."

"Another consequence of my selfishness," Regina realized.

"You were young," Ian reminded her.

"I was stupid," Regina countered. "Young and stupid, blinded by love, lust and bliss. Mac was convinced he'd be in the majors within five years and we'd be millionaires."

"And you believed him," Ian sighed.

"He had a cup of coffee with the A's at the end of one year," Regina said. "That got us out of debt but then he went and bought a brand new expensive sports car and we were broke again when he ended up back in the minors the next spring."

"Well, at least you had your five minutes of fame," Ian said. "The Dispatch did a story on it. 'Major McMunn' was the headline."

"He was a mess when he got sent back down," Regina revealed. "That's when it really started getting rough for him and between us. He's thirty-seven years old and convinced he's got one more chance. Most guys are out of baseball at his age."

"I guess he'll keep playing until they won't let him play anymore."

"He's a left handed relief pitcher," Regina explained. "Somebody will keep signing him."

"I suppose," Ian agreed.

Regina stood and brought the OJ container back to the refrigerator and returned the vodka bottle to the cupboard. Ian noticed her bun cheeks shaking through her pajama bottoms as she reached up to return the bottle. She turned and leaned her rear against the counter edge while looking at him. Ian returned her stare without saying anything and after a moment Regina cleared her throat, suddenly feeling awkwardly uncomfortable as she remembered their history, her past, her mistakes, and now this unlikely reunion. She was ashamed for behaving the way she did, for hurting him the way she did.

Marty Mac had convinced Regina that he was going to be a star and she got caught up in the excitement of that possibility - the money, the luxury, the fame. She was also crazy for him and thrilled to have won his attention and interest. The first few years was a romantic adventure, traveling the country from baseball town to baseball town, sharing small dumpy apartments, surviving together living the dream and waiting for the promises that never came.

The dreams slowly turned to frustrating disappointments, set backs, struggles, resentments and fights. In the beginning, Regina drank because Marty Mac drank but over time she was drinking whether he was around or not and two years ago, when she woke up naked in a strange man's bed after a night of bar hopping while Marty Mac was on the road, Regina realized she had hit bottom. She knew Marty cheated on her over the years but she had remained faithful until that night and she never forgave herself for betraying everything she stood for. By the time she finally left the ballplayer, the couple was barely talking and the sex had ended months earlier. Her dream had turned into a nightmare and Marty Mac refused to wake up from his.

Now Regina was standing in the kitchen of one of her favorite childhood memories - her grandparents house - staring at the only boy who really loved her in her youth. She knew from the way he was looking at her now that Ian still loved her.

"This is kind of strange," Regina let him know.

"Kind of," Ian agreed.

She nodded her head. "So, where are you living now?"

"Believe it or not, in the apartment above the furniture store," Ian laughed. "We were having tenant problems so I moved into the big apartment."

"Short commute," Regina grinned.

"Because I work and live in the same building sometimes I have to force myself to get out once in a while," Ian said, slightly embarrassed at how pathetic his life had become. "A movie in Greenville. A show at the Community Arts Center. Reading a book on one of the benches along the bike path. Otherwise, I'd be Howard Hughes. A head case recluse."

"What about friends?" Regina asked.

"I really don't have any," Ian admitted. "I have co-workers. Acquaintances. People I know. Family. But I haven't had a real friend since you left."

"That's sad," Regina sighed, wiggling her mouth with guilt.

"You were the best friend I ever had," Ian told her.

"What about Jake?"

"Jake still acts like he's eighteen even now," Ian complained. "I'm like fifty."

Regina laughed. "If you're fifty, I'm eighty!"

"You look good for eighty!" Ian teased.

Regina studied his face for a moment. "I haven't had many friends either," she said softly. "We were never in one place long enough to make friends. Teammates were always coming and going. We were in a new place every other month. Or living out of motels. You know," she said, giving it some thought. "The best friends I really made were the girls I stripped with, to tell you the truth. I was a little older and I was a mentor and adviser, really. How strange is that?"

Ian finally got out of his chair and crossed the room, standing in front of her. He lifted his hand to her cheek, sensing her sadness and loneliness, the same sadness and loneliness he felt. "I'm still your friend," he whispered, leaning in and kissing her on the cheek.

"You really don't want to be doing this, Ian," Regina told him.

"Doing what?" He asked innocently.

"Trying to pick up where we left off," she said.

"Not even temporarily?" He asked.

She groaned and gave him a hug. "You're a jerk," she laughed.

Ian smiled and for a moment it was as if she had never left.

"I'll go get dressed," Regina announced, breaking the embrace. "We can go for a walk. It's a nice day out there."

She led him into the living room where he took a seat on the couch while Regina disappeared up the stairs. The bungalow wasn't that much different from the way Ian remembered it as a kid when Regina and Jake's grandmother served them ice cold lemonade in the summer and steaming hot chocolate in the winter. The grandparents were nice people and Ian enjoyed his visits here.

Jake had replaced the old television console with a flat screen television and the hi-fi with an elaborate stereo system but most of the furniture and decorations were still circa 1967. Even the kitchen looked like it was stuck in a time warp with the older appliances still in use and the original cupboards still on the wall.

Regina returned wearing khaki shorts, leather sandals and one of her grandfather's old 'Hillsboro Heating Company' tee shirts. Ian stood and smiled, having flashbacks to so many moments in the past with similar images of her coming down the stairs either here or at her own house.

"All set?" Ian asked.

"Yep," Regina smiled, also feeling like she had just stepped into a time warp and transported back to a happier time.

They used to ride their bikes around town or take walks downtown so heading out the front door on a pleasant summer day and taking a stroll down the familiar street was a wonderful sensation.

"It's been a while since we've done this," Regina said with nostalgia.

"It's never too late," Ian said as he reached out for her hand. She accepted his in a squeezing hold.

They reminisced about the neighborhood and various families who once (or still) lived in the houses they passed. Three blocks later, they were on the street they grew up on. Regina's house had been sold, of course, with her parents now in North Carolina and they stood in front of the attractive colonial for a few long moments remembering how it used to be when she and Jake lived here with their parents.

"It doesn't look much different," Ian offered.

"The shrubs on the side are gone," Regina noted with disapproval. "My mother's rose bush has also disappeared."

Regina looked sad as she stared at her memories of childhood before them.

"We could knock on the door and ask the owners if we could see the inside," Ian told her.

"No," she sighed. "I'd rather remember it the way it was."

Ian squeezed her hand and they walked four houses down to his childhood home, an older ranch still occupied by his parents.

"I don't think I'm ready to see them yet," Regina said nervously.

"They're at the golf tournament," Ian said. "Valley Furniture is one of the sponsors."

"Shouldn't you be there?" Regina frowned.

"I'd rather be here," he smiled, squeezing her hand while leading her up the driveway into the back yard where the old tire swing still hung from the large tree branch.

Regina giggled when she saw it and she trotted ahead of Ian to get first grabs, just like when they were kids.

"We sure did spend a lot of time here," Regina said as Ian positioned himself behind her and pushed her on the tire swing.

Regina looked amused and Ian felt at peace. He hadn't realized just how much he missed moments like this until now as he listened to her happy laughter and shrieks as the tire turned in the air. Ian laughed when he saw the wonderment on her face and he was as contented as he had ever been at this very moment.

"This is fun," Regina said gaily.

Ian wasn't about to argue as he happily pushed her on the swing. He must have stood there for fifteen minutes giving her gentle taps each time the swing came back to him and Regina's delightful laughter was loving music to his ears.

"I'm going to jump!" Regina finally announced.

"You'd better slow down first," Ian advised.

"I'm going to fly!" She dared.

"You don't want to hurt yourself," Ian warned.

"Here I go!" Regina shouted and before Ian could stop her, Regina went flying out of the tire and sailed through the air before landing on her two feet but then spilling over and crashing to the ground in a thud.

"Ouch!" She half cried half laughed.

"Are you alright?" Ian called as he ran to her.

"I guess I can't fly the way I could when I was eight," Regina observed as she moaned and laughed at the same time, lying sprawled on her back staring up at the sky, breathing hard.

Ian knelt down beside her. "Where does it hurt?" He asked

"Everywhere!" She moaned.

He leaned over to examine her when Regina lifted her head and kissed him on the lips. "I'll live," she informed him.

Ian laughed before standing and reaching his hand out to help her to her feet, trying to pretend the kiss was no big deal when in reality his heart was in his chest and his lips were tingling.

"I guess we are old," Regina moaned as she stood and wiped the grass and dirt from her knees and hands.

"Do you want to go inside and wash up?" Ian asked.

"You have a key?"

"Of course," Ian said as he led her to the back door, Regina walking with a slight limp.

The interior of the house was pretty much the way Regina remembered it although she hadn't been inside the home in more than fifteen years. The kitchen had been refreshed with a large new metal refrigerator and a new range but the table was the one she remembered from their many sittings over the years. The rest of the house was just as familiar as Ian led her past the photos on the staircase to the second floor and the master bathroom where he handed her a wash cloth and she washed off her knees before washing her hands under the hot water faucet.

Ian then directed her down the hall past his sister's old bedroom (now a guest room) to his former room at the end of the hallway, now converted into a computer room although there was a couch in there for them to sit on.

"Oh, wow," Regina exclaimed when she saw that it was no longer the bedroom she remembered.

"Kind of sad," Ian admitted with a sigh. "I think my parents were letting me know I wasn't coming back when they cleared my old room out."

"I cried when I learned my parents sold the house," Regina said as she collapsed onto the couch and glanced at him. "Jake moved all my stuff into my grandparents' cellar but I haven't looked at any of it yet." She sighed heavily. 'The past is really gone, isn't it Ian?"

"Time marches on," Ian agreed as he sat next to her. "We can't pretend it hasn't."

"As much as we'd like to?" Regina wondered.

"Yeah."

Regina noticed a photo of him, her, and Jake that had hung in his bedroom for years was still hanging in the same place on the wall of the computer room. The image made her heart sag but then she felt Ian's eyes on her and she turned to see him staring at her with affection and satisfaction.

"I'm sorry," Regina said with a small smile.

"You don't have to keep apologizing to me, Gina," he told her sympathetically.

"Not just about that," Regina replied. "I'm just kind of sad about everything. Growing up. My parents moving away. Your parents removing your past. You and Jake not such great friends anymore."

"Stuff happens," Ian replied.

"I shouldn't have left the way I did," she said slowly. "I probably shouldn't have left at all."

"Stop beating yourself up, Gin," Ian said. "We all make choices. We all do things we wish we could take back. We live our lives. Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn't."

"I need our friendship, Ian," Regina told him bluntly. "I feel so alone."

She slumped into his chest and he welcomed her into his arms, feeling her go limp after she wrapped an arm around his waist. Ian rested his chin on the top of her head feeling warm intimacy. It was as if they were back in high school again watching a movie together on the couch.

"I'm still in love with you," Ian whispered as he played with her hair.

"I know," Regina said quietly. "I don't know if that comforts me or scares the hell out of me."

He tried not to panic. "It's supposed to make you feel good."

"I do feel good," she said. "We're like a couple. It's obvious we're comfortable with each other but let's face it, this is hosed," she said.

"Does the ballplayer know where you are?" Ian asked as they cuddled together lying spread out on the couch, Ian pushed against the back with Regina lying on her side facing him.

"He told me he didn't care where I went," Regina replied. "I think he had a Baseball Annie waiting in the wings."

"So you're not expected back?"

"I'm not sure," Regina admitted. "I mean, most of my stuff is still there."

"It's just stuff."

"I guess," Regina agreed. "I threw the important stuff into a couple of trash bags that I took with me when I left."

"It hasn't been the same here without you," Ian told her.

She wrapped her arms around him in a hug and neither of them moved or spoke as they fell asleep – perhaps because of the vodka but most likely because of the peaceful serenity they were both feeling and enjoying. They didn't stir until they heard voices and commotion downstairs and Regina awoke with a start, like a kid caught doing something inappropriate.

"Oh no!" She said with anxious fear. "They're home!"

"So what?" A startled Ian asked, rubbing sleep from his eyes as he tried to get his bearings.

Regina sat up on the couch. "They might get the wrong idea," she worried.

"And what wrong idea would that be?" Ian frowned.

Regina stared at him trying to figure out what she meant but then she realized that Ian was right.

"We're thirty-three years old, Gin," Ian reminded her. "We don't answer to my parents."

"Okay," Regina said, sucking in her breath. "Let's go say hi."

Ian laughed as he climbed off the couch, pulling Regina up with him. They walked down the stairs to find his parents and his sister Olivia and her two young children all standing in the kitchen talking and laughing. All five of them looked up at the same time when they saw the unexpected presence of Ian and some strange woman in the house.

"You scared me!" Ian's mother said, holding her hand to her chest. "What on earth are you doing here?"

Then she seemed to recognize the woman standing by Ian's side.

"Regina!?" Ian's mother said with disbelief.

"Hello Mrs. White," Regina nervously. "It's nice to see you again."

"Oh my…." Mrs. White responded before taking Regina into her arms in a joyous hug. "Look at you."

Ian exchanged glances with his grinning father while Olivia shook her head with disapproval as if to say 'you're playing with fire, bro'.

"Who's that?" Olivia's son Henry wanted to know.

"An old friend of your Uncle Ian's," Henry's grandfather explained.

"An old girlfriend?" little Kimmy giggled.

"Shhh," Kimmy's mom said.

"Hello, everybody," a blushing Regina said when she broke from Mrs. White's embrace. "Nice to see you again."

"It's been a long time," Mr. White said with a smirk.

"Yeah," Regina agreed with an awkward smile.

"We were out talking a walk," Ian explained. "You know, through the old neighborhood. We stopped by to freshen up."

"Well, I'm glad you did!" Mrs. White said with enthusiasm. She was in her mid fifties now but still in fine shape, appearing younger than her years because of her treated hair and liberal amounts of make up. "How long have you been home, Ginny?"

"Just a few days," Regina acknowledged. "I'm staying with my brother in our grandparents' old place."

"How are your folks doing?" Mr. White asked. "We sort of lost touch with them when they moved away."

"They're fine, thanks," Regina smiled. "The business is doing well in North Carolina."

"Good," Mr. White smiled.

"You home for good?" Olivia asked with interest.

"She's not sure what she's doing yet," Ian spoke up.

"Well, we'll have to have the both of you over for dinner some night soon," Mrs. White said. "Ian, we weren't too happy when we didn't see you at the tournament but I guess you're excused now that I see why."

"Sorry, Mom," Ian said sheepishly. "I knew you guys could handle it."

"I think we raised around ten grand," Mr. White reported.

"Great, great," Ian replied. "Well, we should continue with our walk," he said. "I'm glad everybody got to see each other again."

"Don't be a stranger, Regina," Mrs. White urged as the group walked the two toward the front door. "Feel free to come back anytime. Jake too."

"Okay, thanks Mrs. White," Regina said warmly, giving Ian's mom a peck on the cheek before she and Ian slipped out the front door.

They waved at Ian's family who waved back as Regina and Ian walked down the street.

"See, that wasn't so bad," Ian laughed.

"Olivia thinks I'm a piece of shit," Regina groaned.

"Well, I was semi-suicidal in the days after you left," Ian said in defense of his sister. "Liv spent a lot of time talking me off the bridge."

"Sorry," Regina said guiltily.

"I told you to quit apologizing!" Ian laughed, taking her hand in his again. "I'm just glad you're here with me today."

Regina smiled with contentment. "What do you think they're talking about back there?" She wondered.

"Oh, my mom is telling my niece and nephew all about me and you as kids," Ian predicted. "And my sister is telling my father that I'm a moron and my father is telling her that he always liked you so who cares?

"Really? Your dad likes me?"

"He blamed the ballplayer," Ian replied. "Not you."

Regina sucked in a deep breath and sighed. "He didn't kidnap me," she said. "I left because I wanted to go."

"What did your parents say?" Ian wondered.

"They weren't very happy," Regina revealed. "I think one of the reasons they decided to move the business was because they were embarrassed about what happened and didn't want to be the parents of the girl who ran off with the ballplayer."

"Geez, it wasn't as if it was all over CNN," Ian laughed.

"Yeah, but it was still scandalous in a small town sort of way," Regina replied. "And when my grandparents decided to go with them it all worked out for Jake."

"But not so much for you," Ian observed.

"The house was left for both of us," Regina shrugged. "I could make Jake sell it and get half but then we'd no longer have our grandparents house in the family."

"But you'd have money," Ian pointed out.

"I've been broke most of my adult life, Ian," Regina replied. "There's more to life than money."

"I know," Ian smiled.

"I've been thinking about how one decision in somebody's life can affect so many people," Regina said as they continued their walk. "Would I be teaching at Hillsboro High now if I hadn't left? Would we have stayed together? Would my parents and grandparents not moved?"

"You can't change history," Ian replied.

"Maybe my grandparents would still be alive though," Regina sighed. "They never would have been in that tour bus accident if they hadn't moved to North Carolina with my parents."

"Don't do that to yourself," Ian urged forcefully. "You have no idea what would have happened in an alternative universe. And nobody has that much power over life patterns. Most of what happens is fate and chance. Things happen because they happen - not because of what we do or don't do. Maybe you'd be dead if you stayed here. Who knows anything about the universe and karma?"

They had reached downtown, a place they rode their bikes and walk to frequently in their younger days. Other times, they'd take the bus to Greenville and roam Main Street there. Hillsboro had The Pizza House, Johnny C's Diner, Johnson's Book Store, Fontaine's Family Grocery Store, and the Thrift Shop - Greenville had the movie theater, Donovan's Department Store, Harp's Candy Shop, and Denny's.

Regina took inventory of the changes in the store fronts - some businesses she remembered were gone, replaced by new shops, including a new drug store, a Subway, and a specialty bakery. Ian filled her in on some of the changes - she couldn't believe that Johnny C had retired but she was glad to hear that the new guy - Navy retiree and Hillsboro Native Birdy Braft - was a good guy who kept all of Johnny C's traditions going.

Had Ian not told her of the change, Regina never would have known about the new ownership when the two stepped into the diner for a late afternoon milk shake and pie like the old days.

"I've probably eaten in a hundred diners in fifty towns across America," Regina smiled once they were set in one of the booths. "There's only one Johnny C's."

Ian smiled. "It's why being home means so much," he said.

"In some ways, I feel like I've missed so much being gone," Regina remarked. "But in other ways, it feels like I never left."

"Some things never change," Ian agreed. "But I sort of envy you for getting out of here, at least for a while. You've seen a big chunk of America,"

"Too much, sometimes," Regina remarked. "Don't get me wrong. We live in a large and wonderful country and I'm grateful for all that I saw and experienced but it doesn't matter where you're living if you're not happy."

"That's because there came a point when you weren't happy with the ballplayer," Ian theorized.

"Yeah," Regina sighed. "So, Ian, there it is," she stated, sounding slightly embarrassed. "You know all my faults, mistakes, and secrets. Leaving my friends and family. Striking out at love. Stripping. Becoming a semi quasi drunk. Coming home without a clue or a plan. Pretty pathetic, huh? And here you sit, the same Ian I always knew. Can you throw me a bone? Do you have any secrets, scandals, blunders, or arrests you can share with me!?"

Ian smirked sheepishly knowing there really wasn't any dirt he could offer up. His world came crashing down when Regina left and he moped around comatose for a year or two, sleep walking his way through two years at Blue County Community College while working at the furniture store and then transitioning into a full time position with the business, slowly working his way up from delivery guy to salesman to Associate Manager. His work became his existence and while Ian's romantic life suffered because he never got over Regina (or her betrayal) he wasn't about to drop that bomb on her now.

"My biggest fault was not going after you," Ian told her.

Regina was surprised by his response. "Why didn't you?" She wondered.

"Because I couldn't take your third rejection," he answered truthfully.

"Third?"

"The first was seeing the guy behind my back," Ian said. "The second was running off with him. I couldn't risk traveling across the country only to have you reject me a third time. You made your choice, Gin. I had to accept it."

"Wow," she said falling back in her seat. "You were always so brutally honest."

"If I had it to do over again, I would have tried," Ian admitted.

She smiled at the thought.

They finished their milk shake and apple pie and left Johnny C's, walking to Valley Furniture on Third Street, a huge, long, aged building with an attractive modern store front and display window. Regina always thought the outside rear of the building was ugly - the second floor only went back maybe a third of the way and it looked kind of stupid, almost as if it had been lifted from another building and dropped there. But the inside of Valley Furniture was clean, attractive, well kept and friendly and the place didn't look much different from the last time Regina had been in there.

Ian and Jake both worked at Valley Furniture as teens and Regina even put in a summer as an office associate, one of her favorite jobs. It was fun working with her boyfriend and brother and Ian's Dad was the perfect boss.

Ian checked in with the duty sales staff to see how the day went before leading Regina up the stairs into his apartment at the front of the building, offering a nice view of the street below. Regina was impressed at how attractively decorated the place was and the taste Ian displayed. All of the furniture was showcase left overs or pieces damaged in shipment. Regina smiled when she saw the photo of her, Jake and Ian in their caps and gowns taken on high school graduation night. It was the last time she had been truly happy and the next day everything changed when she left unannounced.

"Everybody hated me for what I did," Regina sighed as she collapsed onto the couch. "My family never forgave me for leaving without telling them first."

"It came as quite a surprise to everybody," Ian said.

"Anyway, I'm sorry," Regina said heavily.

"I told you not to keep apologizing," Ian reminded her.

"I've been thinking about that crack you made earlier about my stripping," Regina told him as he took a seat next to her on the couch. "How you never got to see me naked."

'Its okay," Ian smiled. "I'd rather be the last one to see you naked than the first anyway."

She smiled at his comment. "You should have been the first and the last," she admitted and that made Ian feel redeemed.

"How did it happen anyway?" Ian wondered. "You just wake up one morning and say 'Gee, I think I'll become a stripper."

"Shut up," Regina protested, punching him on the thigh. "I hung out with one of the other player's wives," she said. "She was doing it on the side. Told me whenever I was ready to let her know. So I finally took her up on the offer, mostly out of boredom, loneliness and tired of having no money."

"You were one of the most modest kids in our class," Ian recalled. "It just seems so unlike you."

"Things change, Ian," Regina replied. "People change. Circumstances change. Viewpoints change."

"I still really can't believe you actually did it," Ian confessed.

"Well, my friend became my coach and cheerleader," Regina revealed. "She kind of taught me a humility-free stripping approach."

"What the hell is that!?"

"Have a few drinks first," Regina sighed. "And then just walk the walk. Be confident. Strut your stuff. Chest out. Head up. Proud and confident. It's all about attitude." She sounded like she had memorized a bunch of talking points. "Take it slow. Be a tease. Seductive looks over the shoulder. Every motion staged sexily. Don't be nervous. Be in control. Courageous. Smile. Look like you want to be there. Eye contact is important. Wear a costume and perform an act that's going to keep the interest and attention. Play with the audience. Seductive and sexy. Finesse. Stripping is like unwrapping a present and the prize inside is you. Every time you peel off a piece of clothing what's hidden inside is that much closer so draw it out as much as possible."

Regina noticed that Ian was staring at her with a stunned look of disbelief on his face, as if he couldn't believe she had done any of this type of seedy behavior.

"I pretended I was stripping for the ball player," Regina revealed. She paused for a beat and then added quietly "Or you."

"Yeah, right," Ian replied, rolling his eyes.

"The more time I spent with the ballplayer the more I realized the horrible mistake I made," Regina told him. "The worse it got with him the more I thought about you. How badly I cheated you. Not just on you but cheating you out of a happy life with the only girl you ever loved."

"It's okay," Ian muttered.

"No it's not," Regina said forcefully. "Anyway," she said, standing from the couch while slowly and playfully pulling off her tee shirt. "The art of stripping is to shrug the straps off nice and slowly." She did that with her bra while turning her back to him and looking over her shoulder keeping eye contact. 'Unfasten the bra but hold it over your breasts." She smiled while turning and facing him with an unbelievably sexy expression on her face.

Ian laughed nervously when he saw her exaggerated look staring back at him.

"With one arm across your chest and holding the bra in place use your other hand to pull the bra out from beneath, nice and slowly." Regina dropped the bra while keeping one arm covering her breasts. "Then take your arm away (which she did), stroking your fingers across each breast as you go and now you're into full stripper mode."

She arched her back with her breasts out as a red faced Ian stared at her bare breasts for the first time ever.

"Play with and touch them, lifting them in both hands, kneading the nipples," she said as she demonstrated and Ian couldn't believe he was getting a private and personal up close stripping lesson. He felt ashamed and turned on at the same time.

Regina slowly and sexily took off her khaki shorts in a stripper's fashion and stood before him in just her undies. "Now comes the pay off," she said. "It's all in the stance, really," she said as she opened her legs, putting one in front of the other with her heel lifted "Now comes the grand finale. Put your hands completely inside and lift the elastic up and away from your legs, giving a side-on view," she said as she turned her body. "Then slide your hands and panties down your body, keeping them lifted away from you. As your hands move down, your body follows. Once your undies are past your knees, let them fall to your feet."

Regina did what she described and Ian swallowed hard when he saw her in her natural beauty.

"Of course, the natural temptation is to rush off stage but you're not supposed to," Regina said. "You're supposed to parade around touching and caressing your body, showing off, taking a victory lap."

"Regina..." Ian said nervously as he stared at her prancing around the room. "You didn't have to do this."

"I know," she replied as she fell onto him on the couch. "I wanted to." She burst into tears and he held her tight trying to comfort and console her.

"Shhh" he said quietly. "It's okay."

"You were my first love," Regina told him. "But I denied you everything. Mostly my honesty. I've been a fake and a fraud ever since. Especially when I was stripping. I wish I could take it all back."

"Everything that happened doesn't matter much anymore, Gin," Ian countered. "Here we are, together again, you willing to show me everything after all this time. I'm going to be the last one to see you naked." He leaned over and gently but meaningfully kissed her. "I love you. It was worth the wait for you to come back."

Hours later, Regina slipped out from under the sheets of Ian's bed and headed for the bathroom and Ian sighed happily as he watched her leave. When she returned a few minutes later, Ian gladly welcomed her back into his bed.

"You know," Regina said as she nestled against him. "Had we had sex like this back then I definitely never would have left," she purred.

Ian laughed with satisfaction as he clung to her, kissing her on the forehead. "That's my biggest regret," he confessed. "That we didn't."

"I know," Regina said as she rolled on top of him and initiated making love to him again.

For fifteen years, Ian fantasized about Regina's return - not that he believed it would ever happen. He hoped she'd show up on his birthday - or her birthday - or Jake's birthday; or perhaps on a snowy Christmas Eve like in some romantic movie. He had a dream about her at least once a week - she was always happy to see him and telling him how much she loved him. The dreams felt so real that when he woke up Ian felt cheated all over again.

When he saw her for real - back in Hillsboro coming out of her grandparents house like a dream - Ian honestly believed it was a mirage at first and he spent the rest of the day in a fog of happiness, contentment, satisfaction, and renewal. He honestly didn't care why she left or who she left with. The only thing that mattered was that she was home and with him just like he always hoped and wished for.

It was morning and Ian opened his eyes fearing she would be gone - that it had all been a dream so he was relieved to find Regina still asleep as he spooned her from behind. She finally began to stir, turning her head to see him staring at her.

"Good morning," she smiled.

"Hello," Ian said contently.

Regina kissed him warmly before slipping out from underneath the sheets and Ian admired her beauty as she looked around for her clothes before realizing they were in the other room from her striptease show.

"You know," she said, covering her nudity with one of the sheets. "I never stripped for someone I knew before," she said with some embarrassment. "I just wanted to let you know that you were the only one..."

"It's okay," Ian said, keeping his eyes glued on her.

"What are we going to do now?" Regina wondered as she glanced around at the surroundings and the situation they both found themselves in.

"Brush our teeth," Ian said, wrapping the other sheet around him and leading her into the bathroom.

Ian felt comfortable enough to take a leak while Regina stood at the sink peering at herself in the mirror. As Regina washed her face and used her finger to brush her teeth, every memory Ian had of her - real and imagined - flashed through his mind as he joined her at the sink and washed his hands.

"Do you want to take a shower with me?" Regina asked seductively.

"Can't think of a better way to start the day!" Ian beamed.

An hour later, Ian was in the kitchen cooking breakfast for Regina's and it felt like it was always supposed to be like this. This is what he had waited all his life for - having Regina completely - romantically, emotionally, and physically. Maybe the sex happened fast but Ian would argue that it was fifteen years late. He was finally complete.

After sharing the simple but delicious breakfast Ian realized that his car was still at Regina's house. He was scheduled to work the noon to five shift at the furniture store but there was time to walk Regina home.
They nearly floated home together as they held hands and enjoyed the sunny Sunday summer morning. There was a car in the driveway which surprised Regina when the reached Jake's bungalow.

"I thought Jake wasn't coming back until Tuesday," Regina said.

They walked through the back kitchen door to find Jake sitting at the kitchen table reading the Sunday paper. He barely glanced up when his sister entered the room with his estranged friend. Jake's long wavy blond hair sat on his shoulders and his tanned face looked almost golden.

"Hey Jake," Regina said cheerfully. "You're home early."

"Didn't work out with Gail," he mumbled.
"I'm sorry," Regina said with sympathy.

Jake rubbed his forehead and frowned as he glanced up at the couple and gave them a disapproving look. "You two didn't waste any time."

"It just happened," Regina explained. "Really."

"I need to head back," Ian spoke up, feeling a little uncomfortable by Jake's cool reception.

"Okay," Regina said brightly, giving Ian a kiss on the cheek. "Call me later."

Ian nodded his head in agreement and started for the door as Regina disappeared from the room. "See ya," Ian said to Jake as he left the house.

"You haven't seen her in fifteen years and you sleep with her on the first night?" Jake accused as he followed Ian out the door.

Ian felt his chest tightened. "We didn't plan it," he said lamely, knowing that he had planned it for fifteen years.

"What are you going to do when she leaves again?" Jake demanded.

"She'd never do that," Ian replied dismissively.

"You sure?" Jake challenged.

"Could you move your car so I can get out?" Ian asked.

"Remember the Who's We Won't Get Fooled Again?" Jake wanted to know.

"I'm supposed to take relationship advice from you?" Ian asked sarcastically. "You've been through more women than Wilt Chamberlain."

"Hey, I know the first frigin' rule," Jake rebutted with annoyance. "Never give a broad who dumped you a second chance."

"I thought you might be supportive of this," Ian protested. "That's why you had me come over for the golf clubs."

"I told Regina to go to North Carolina," Jake growled. "She wouldn't listen. I forgot about the golf clubs or I would have brought them to the store. Trust me, the last thing I wanted was for you two to get reacquainted."

"Don't you want what's best for your sister?"

"My sister doesn't know what's best for her," Jake countered. "Trust me Ian, this is not going to turn out well," he warned.

"Just move your car," Ian said angrily.

"You know, the reason I stopped hanging around with you is because you turned pathetic," Jake snarled. "I see you haven't changed."

Ian climbed into his car and when Jake gave him the finger before returning to the house Ian backed his car onto the grass around Jake's vehicle and headed back to the furniture store incensed at Jake's attitude.

Did Jake honestly believe his own sister could be so cruel and insensitive to actually leave again? Ian couldn't fathom how Jake could be so suspicious and untrusting. Ian was certain that Regina never would have returned to Hillsboro or let him in the house if she wasn't interested in picking up where they left off all those years ago. Ian firmly believed that Regina wanted the same thing he wanted and that it would play out with a happy ending. Hillsboro was where Regina belonged now and she would never walk away again.

Ian thought about his unfolding fairy tale all day during work. Last night had been a dream come true, making love to the only woman he ever loved, waking up with her in the morning only to make love again in the shower. The dream unfolded perfectly but was there any truth to what Jake had said? Should Ian be holding his breath waiting for everything to come crashing down? He refused to think that way. He had no regrets about last night and he had no concerns that Regina might betray him again.

Regina came to the store at closing time which made Ian beam with happiness. After closing the store, they went upstairs to Ian's apartment. Regina brought vegetables to make a salad and Ian grilled up some chicken. He decided not to tell Regina what Jake had said because he didn't want to come between them. It must have been hard on Jake not to see much of his sister either these last fifteen years. Ian knew that Jake went out to visit her a few times and that the family usually got together in North Carolina. There had been a few embarrassing scenes when Ian begged Jake to take him along which was another reason why Jake distanced himself from their friendship.

"What, you going to talk baseball with her boyfriend?" Jake had sarcastically asked one time.

Ian stood at the stove cooking the chicken while watching Regina chopping the vegetables, a large smile on his face.

"What?" Regina asked when she felt his eyes on her.

"Nothing," he grinned. "This is nice."

She smiled happily. "Yes, it is," she agreed.

"I'm glad you're here," Ian told her.

"This is what I thought about a lot," Regina admitted. "Doing things like this, together."

"Yeah," he agreed.

"I asked you this morning what we were going to do now," Regina reminded him. "I don't get the sense that my brother was thrilled seeing us together again."

"This is none of his business," Ian said with annoyance. "We're lovers now. Consensual. Mutual. Happy. You're entitled to make your own decisions and choices."

"So?" She asked again. "What are we going to do now?"

Ian turned the chicken over in the frying pan. "We're doing it," he answered.

She nodded in agreement.

"Do you have any thoughts about what you might want to do?" Ian asked as they continued to prepare the meal.

"What do you mean?" Regina asked.

"How long you might stay with Jake? What kind of job you might be thinking of getting?

"Is everything alright, Ian?" Regina asked, tossing him a look. "You sound kind of stressed."

He glanced at her. "Everything's fine," he said warmly but then he took a deep breath. "I'm just….." his voice trailed off.

"What?" Regina asked with concern

"Nothing," Ian said quickly. "I'm just thinking about stuff now that you're back."

"Like what?" She asked with interest.

"Like maybe you could move in here," Ian suggested nervously.

Rebecca smiled with appreciation. "Jake was probably right, you know," she said.

"About what?" Ian asked with worry.

"That this is moving pretty fast," she said.

"We have fifteen years to fill in," Ian replied.

"I want it to be easy getting back what we were supposed to have to begin with," Regina told him. "Don't you?"

"Of course," Ian assured her, but Jake's words of warning wouldn't get out of his head. "It has been a long time though, Gin."

She stopped making the salad and stared at him. "Are you having second thoughts?"

"No, of course not," he said strongly. "But for a long time after you left I hurt."

A moment of silence passed between them as Regina waited for Ian to say what he needed to say.

"Are you really ready to pick up where we left off?" He needed to know.

"I thought last night answered that," Regina said defensively. She studied him for a moment. "Did Jake say something to you?"

"No," Ian lied.

"If I didn't want to be with you right now I wouldn't be, Ian," Regina told him.

This was getting awkward and weird fast. Stupid bastard Jake. Why did he have to say anything? Ian wasn't sure how to proceed with all of this. Should he just throw caution in the wind and go with the flow, forgetting what Jake implied and trusting Regina at her word. She was here with him now and wasn't that all that mattered.

"I'm glad you're here," Ian told her sincerely. "Let's finish getting the meal ready."

"Sounds good," Rebecca replied. "Just don't pressure me about stuff, Ian," she requested. "I'm still trying to figure everything out."

"Okay," Ian said with a smile.

"Look Ian, we've slept with each other and that makes us lovers," Regina told him. "Don't worry about anything else, okay?"

"I'm crazy for you," Ian told her. "I love you."

They enjoyed the dinner the prepared and when they were done cleaning up they ended up on the couch making out, Ian kissing Regina so deeply that she felt like they were seventeen again (before the ballplayer came into her life). The intensity of his passion made Regina want to melt.

Ian broke from the kiss and gave her a mischievous grin. "Okay, so I'm in love with you," he announced happily and Regina nodded with understanding. "I trust you," he added with meaning and Regina gazed at him knowing what he was saying. She kissed him happily.

They avoided hanging out at Regina's grandparents house because of the cold shoulder Jake gave them. Regina usually showed up at Ian's apartment when he was done with work. They'd either have dinner there or go out for a meal, and then to a movie afterward or for a walk since Beano Field was off limits. Sometimes Regina spent the night with Ian and sometimes she didn't. Her project was getting her grandparents' house organized by cleaning out crap Jake hadn't bothered doing himself, going through her belongings in the cellar, and generally giving the house a thorough overhaul. She said Jake treated her okay when she was at the house as long as they didn't talk about her relationship with Ian.

Regina started casually looking for a job and Ian encouraged her to find something she wanted to do and liked and not just grab a job for some money. She was positive and forward thinking about finding a job in Blue County. Ian let her use his car whenever she needed it for job interviews.

Nearly a month passed since Regina's return and Ian all but forgot about Jake's dire warnings. Jake obviously had issues of his own and Ian figured he tried to make them Ian's but Ian had never been as happy as he was with Regina now. It was almost as if the fifteen years absence had never happened and they were now living the life they were always meant to be.

Regina didn't show up for dinner one evening as planned. Ian thought maybe he got the time or place wrong and he called Regina's cell but there was no answer so he drove over to the grandparents' house to check up on her. He found Jake sitting on the living room couch with the vodka bottle on the coffee table in front of him, one glass in his hand, a second empty one on the table.

"Gin!?" Ian called up the stairs.

"She's not here," Jake informed him.

"Oh," Ian said with confused disappointment.

"In fact, she's gone," Jake said, giving Ian a pathetic drunken stare. "You'd better start drinking," he advised.

"What are you talking about?" Ian frowned.

Jake lifted up the sports section of the Greenville News and Dispatch. "The bastard got called up," Jake announced.

Ian grabbed the paper and saw the small article. "MacMunn pitching for Padres."

"He called last night," Jake revealed. "Told her to be on the first flight to San Diego she could find."

"She didn't go," Ian insisted as he dropped the paper on the coffee table.

"She went, pal," Jake groaned, sitting up and filling the empty glass with vodka before handing it to Ian. "Drink quickly."

Ian felt his head began to spin. His stomach dropped to the floor and his heart went cold, stopping in mid-beat.

"She wouldn't do this to me again," Ian said with disbelief. "She just couldn't be that cruel."

"She stuck with the guy for fifteen years, Ian," Jake said, shaking his head. "You think she was going to miss the ride when he finally made it to the show?"

"He made it before," Ian said weakly.

"Sounds like he's going to stay for a while this time," Jake replied. "I don't think Gina could pass that ride up. After fifteen years, she probably figured she deserved it. Earned it."

Ian took a long swig from the glass before collapsing onto the easy boy recliner. "Damn," was all he could think to say.

"Sorry, man," Jake offered. "Love blows."

"I was supposed to be the last one to see her naked," Ian said with defeat.

Neither spoke for the longest time as they sat drinking. Ironically, this is exactly what they did the first time Regina left, sitting in Jake's car down by the Blue River drinking at twelve back of beer Jake got from a friend. To say that Ian was crushed and confused would be an understatement. To be rejected a second time hurt twice as much and Ian had never felt anything so painful. But, although the pain was worse the second time, at least he was older, more experience and more mature to handle the situation.

"Fool me once the joke's on me, fool me twice the joke's on you," Jake advised and Ian subscribed to that theory.

The first time Regina left, Ian convinced himself that it was all on him – that there was something wrong with him, that he didn't have what Regina wanted or needed. This time, Ian was certain it was Regina who had the problem. She led him on, she used him, and she left him again. There was no excuse for that level of cruelty, especially after sleeping with him multiple times.

"I'll never mention her again," Ian vowed once he was drunk enough.

"Me either," Jake replied. "She's my sister and I love her but she's messed up in the head when it comes to this stuff."

Ian drank until he passed out and he awoke in the morning still sitting in the lazy boy although Jake had thrown a blanket over him. Ian stumbled home with the worse hangover of his life and the next few weeks were hell. His family spared him the torture of asking questions or making any comments when they learned that Regina had left for a second time. Ian had difficulty focusing on anything of substance and he dragged himself through the days in search of his self respect and dignity.

Strangely, he visited with Jake nearly every night. They went golfing together and hung out at the Duffy's Tavern drinking beer. Ian was grateful for the companionship and to have his old friend back in his life although the word "Regina" was never mentioned between them.

Ever so slowly, Ian managed to get his life back on track. He started flirting with women when he was out with Jake. Once on the golf course they teamed up with two women and played nine holes as a foursome and then hug out at the clubhouse afterwards having drinks and schmoozing. Jake's recipe for curing a broken heart was broads, broads, and more broads. It seemed every night Jake was introducing Ian to a new woman and having that distraction made it easier to forget about Regina, at least for a little while. The Dispatch would occasionally print an update on the ballplayer's stats and status and once in a while Ian would catch Padre highlights on Sportscenter but he really didn't give a shit about that asshole and he tried not to think about the asshole's girlfriend.

One night Jake and Ian picked up a couple of Green College coeds and brought them back to Jake's place for a drunken night of wild sex, the first time Ian had been so decedent in his life and he enjoyed the crazy night until he realized he was having sex with a girl in the same bed Regina had slept in when she was there.

Ian hadn't whined or pined about Regina to any of the women he had been with, choosing to believe that he hadn't wasted fifteen years of his life waiting for a girl who was never going to stay anyway. Jake was right - never allow someone to reject you more than once. Ian no longer believed in second chances, fate, fairy tales or redemption.

Of course Ian couldn't keep up Jake's pace of drunken perversion forever and after a few months of wild sexual craziness he started passing on the flings and one night stands and nameless pick ups, instead returning to a more routine life, now more prepared to move on from the painful experience of Regina and start anew.

As devastated as Ian was over the double dump he somehow managed the courage to go to counseling to try to figure out how he could have been duped a second time. He continued to hang out with Jake for golf but Ian no longer partied at night and eventually he met a nice woman through his sister that turned out to be something Ian thought might go somewhere with patience and time. Toni was a few years older than him, a professional woman (nurse) who had been divorced for several years but was now ready to start fresh which was something Ian wanted too.

Toni was cheerful and good humored and Ian enjoyed having someone grounded and confident. Toni was as tall as Ian with sandy blond hair usually pulled back in a ponytail and a stark complexion that made her stand out even at a distance. They went on a few easy and non-stressful safe dates and seemed to get along well. Toni was the first woman Ian felt comfortable enough to actually confess the Regina saga to after they had been going out for a few months in a guardedly semi-romantic way.

"I was supposed to be the last guy to ever see her naked," Ian sighed when he concluded his sad sack story.

Toni was sympathetic to Ian's tale of woe but she didn't spend a lot of time thinking about Regina. Toni understood why Ian had trust issues and she was patient giving him the time to recover at his own pace. She was in no hurry to jump into a serious relationship either given her messy and angry divorce after a four year rocky marriage but she enjoyed Ian's company and she found him to be an interesting guy. He had a good job with his family's business which meant stability and grounding and Ian was impressed by Toni's independence. He also liked having a new start and a do over, a clean slate to begin all over in his newly discovered Regina-less world.

It was ironic that Ian spent most of his life thinking about and obsessing over Regina but since the second betrayal he all but blocked Regina from his collective memory. Her second departure cut him to the bone and the grief was so deep and thorough that it was easier to deny it ever happened and pretend that Regina never came home to rip his heart out.

Ian didn't think he could hate and resent somebody he once loved the way he despised Regina. What she did to him seriously caused Ian to question his confidence in humanity although Toni reminded him that it was an individual's failure and that he shouldn't suspect all women of being two-faced backstabbing heart breakers.

Toni came to dinner at Ian's parents' house and Toni and Ian met Toni's parents for dinner at the Greenville Grille. Toni's folks were happy to see their daughter with a new guy after the hell she went through with her ex and Ian's parents were hopeful that Toni could help their son finally and forever let go of Regina.

Toni and Ian were compatible and they enjoyed each other's company but their relationship wasn't exactly romantic in the intimate sense of the word. One of the frustrations Ian had with Regina during their teenage dating period was that she was modest and chaste in her attitudes so sex was off the table - another reason why her decision to sleep with The Ballplayer hurt so much.

Now, as a man in his thirties, Ian couldn't help but feel the same frustrations with Toni. True he was passive in his attempts to be romantic and physical with Toni, partly because of jumping into bed with Regina their first day back together and partly because of his three month binge of sexual antics with Jake. Mostly, however, he was nervous taking a chance and a risk again. He liked Toni a lot but the thought of things going wrong - or her leaving him - made him apprehensive, nervous and reserved.

Toni wasn't in a big hurry to jump into bed with a new man after her bad marriage. She too had her trust issues and she wanted to be sure that Ian was the kind of guy who was in it for the long haul and not just looking for some temporary respite from the pain of his previous relationship (or whatever it was). They took it slow - innocent hand holding, warm embraces and hugs, and chaste kisses good night.

Toni was a Greenville native and she still lived in Greenville, working as an ER Nurse at the Blue County Medical Center in Greenville. Being a Hillsboro native, Ian enjoyed showing Toni some of his home town's secrets and treasures and Toni did the same when Ian visited her in Greenville. She shared a nice downtown apartment with a good friend so they usually went to Ian's place to socialize. He continued to avoid The Bullpen Tavern sports bar because of all the baseball stuff so the more sedate Duffy's Tavern was a nice place to bring Toni for a drink.

Ian introduced Toni to Jake and he gave Ian a thumb's up on his new romance, happy that his friend had finally moved on after the debacle with his sister. Toni didn't seem to be concerned that Jake was Regina's sister, having heard the whole soap opera several times during their months together. She was glad that Ian was friends with Jake again because Ian didn't seem to have any other people in his life other than his family and a few acquaintances at work.

Summer had given away to autumn and as Thanksgiving approached Ian and Toni were able to tease each other about the big rivalry football game between Greenville and Hillsboro. They actually went to the game together (played in Hillsboro, won by Greenville) which was a lot of fun. Toni shared Thanksgiving Dinner with Ian and his family and then they went to her parents' house later for desert and coffee.

News came that The Ballplayer was returning to Greenville as a guest speaker at the Greenville Athletic Alumni Association dinner and to give out the annual Serguci Awards at another event. In the small world department, Toni had gone to school with The Ballplayer.

"He was a couple of years ahead of me," Toni said when she first heard Ian's story of love and heartbreak. "He was kind of an asshole. I went to nursing school at Green College and he was a major dick on campus there too."

"Well, now he's a major league dick," Ian lamented.

Ian was freaked out about the prospect of The Ball Player coming to Greenville and he asked Jake if Regina was coming too.

"I haven't heard from her," Jake revealed truthfully. "I doubt she'll be looking you up, Ian. I'm betting she didn't tell The Ballplayer about what went on when she was here."

For the first time since getting together, Toni finally confronted Ian on the subject of Regina.

"You know," she said as they drove home from Jake's house. "I'm seriously considering giving you the opportunity of being The Last Guy To See Me Naked," she said. "But I need to know if you're really over Regina because I'm not getting naked for you and then having you do to me what she did to you."

"I'm over Regina," Ian proclaimed.

"Well, I'm a Greenville Athletic Alumni Association member," Toni let him know. 'Four year Field Hockey all star," she bragged proudly. "Why don't we go to the dinner, listen to the asshole, and accidentally bump into the girlfriend just to make sure?"

"Because I might kill her," Ian answered truthfully.

"I need to know, Ian," Toni stated urgently. "We've been doing this safe teenage dance of avoidance and Chastity for several months now as we've gotten to know each other but its getting to the point where we both need to either fish or cut bait."

"You want me to go into harm's way?" Ian sighed.

"It's the only way to know if you've really let her go."

"I want to be with you, Toni," Ian said as he pulled the car to the curb in front of her apartment building.

"Prove it," Toni dared. "I don't mean to be a manipulative bitch about this, Ian, but I'm not getting burned again. I won't hate you if you want to bail but I'll definitely hate you if you lie to me."

"I want to be with you," Ian said again. "Get two tickets to the dinner."

"You sure?" Toni asked with surprise.

"I want to prove it to both of us," Ian announced.

The Alumni Dinner was held at the Greenville Elks that could feed several hundred in one sitting. The Ball Player sat at the head dais with several other Greenville sports heroes and representatives. Jake called that afternoon to confirm that Regina was in town. He had lunch with her at Serguci's Italian Family Restaurant in Hillsboro but the subject of her traitorous and unforgivable behavior was carefully avoided.

"She talked about San Diego and watching games in Petco Park with other wives and girlfriends," Jake reported. "They're taking a cruise after the holidays before spring training. The Ball Player signed a one year contact with the parent club so he should be on the major league roster again next season."

"Great," Ian mumbled.

"I didn't tell her you were going to be there tonight," Jake let him know.

"Good," Ian smirked. "It will be fun to...surprise her."

"You're not going to screw Toni over on this are you?" Jake worried.

"No," Ian vowed.

"You sure?" Jake challenged.

"Before I met Toni, I wanted to kill your sister," Ian admitted. "Seriously, Jake. If I had a gun that first night I would have gone out to San Diego and blown her head off."

"I don't blame you," Jake replied.

"But a funny thing has happened these last few months," Ian realized. "Toni has shown me that I am worthy and that I can love again. I want to have the satisfaction of showing Gin that I'm so over her it isn't funny."

"Well, it only took fifteen years," Jake said sarcastically. There was a pause and then he added "You don't have a gun, right!?"

Ian laughed. "No, I have my girl," he grinned. "That's even better."

"Enjoy the revenge," Jake said with encouragement.

Ian felt slightly nervous but strangely confident when he waltzed into the Elk's Hall with Toni on his arm. She overdressed intentionally, wearing a stunning skin tight white dress that barely covered her ass and made her breasts look like canon balls. Ian was amused by her over the top statement and he felt special being in her company.

They sat with some of Toni's friends and classmates near the back of the room but Ian was able to spot Regina sitting at the VIP table next to the dais with some of the other spouses of the dais folks. He knew there was no way she was going to notice him way in the back but he still felt vulnerable and exposed. He also felt anger and resentment which was actually a good thing because at least he wasn't running to her table pleading for her to take him back and that he forgave her for everything.

Ian concentrated on Toni and the conversations at their table, proud to be associated with her. The catered meal was tasty and The Ball Player's speech was fairly interesting although semi-egotistical and self centered. When the event concluded and people began to mingle, Toni grabbed Ian by the arm.

"Come on," she said. "You can introduce me to The Princess."

Toni practically marched Ian to the dessert table where Regina was standing. It happened so quickly that Ian didn't have time to react or think. Regina was wearing an attractive and expensive summer dress but it was much more modest than what Toni was stuffed into. Ian noticed that Regina had a new hair style, more jewelry, and a different make up style, all benefits of The Ballplayer being a major leaguer no doubt.

Regina looked up with a start when Toni nearly threw Ian into her. "Oh!" Regina said, obviously caught totally off guard, never expecting to see Ian at the Greenville Athletic Alumni Association dinner.

"Hello, there," Toni spoke up when Ian couldn't get any words to come out of his mouth.

"This is Toni," Ian managed to spit out. "We're dating."

"Looks like Ian is going to be the last one to see me naked," Toni said as she leaned into Regina and said it softly so nobody else could hear.

Regina was definitely taken aback and she threw Ian a sad, almost pleading look. "I know you definitely hate me now," she said.

"Actually, I pity you," Ian replied forcefully, feeling empowered and in command for the first time ever when it came to how he interacted with Regina. "You may be with a major league ball player but you'll always be just a stripper displaying her stuff," he said.

It was the meanest, cruelest and most spiteful thing he ever said to another person and Regina physically recoiled from the remark, not so much from what was said but the fact that Ian had been the one to say it.

"You're right," Regina said, her eyes tearing up as she gave Ian a look of resigned submission.

"Hey, Reggie! Come here!" It was The Ballplayer summoning Regina to join him with some of the VIPS on the other side of the room.

"Goodbye, Ian," Regina quietly said as she walked away.

"You okay?" Toni asked as she put her hand on Ian's shoulder.

"Yeah," Ian replied, feeling unburdened and free for the first time in a long time. "She stripped me of my dignity, self-respect and self-esteem but you've given it all back to me." He gave her a kiss and Toni smiled.

"Why don't we get out of here?" She suggested. "I think it's time you finally get to see me naked."

"Am I going to be The Last One To See You Naked?" Ian asked with a smirk.

Toni laughed as she wrapped her arm in his. "I hope so."

.