Part 4 of Love, Late
Claire has been in love with her childhood friend Noah since she knew what love was. When they started sleeping together, she thought it was the first step to everything she’d ever wanted. Noah ripped that illusion apart with a few well-chosen words, and she fled their friendship – and the city – to avoid the aftermath. Years later, as her relationship with another man grows serious, has Noah finally seen what he gave up?
He looked the same. It was a stupid thought – it had only been three years, not thirty – but somehow she thought he would have changed.
In her mean moments, she’d hoped that when they met again – and she’d always known it would be when not if, since they shared four generations of family within a single zip code – he’d be a wizened shell of a man. She’d even hoped that he’d be the rare exception to his family history men aging well – bald would be too much to hope for, but surely a little thinning spot would be doable.
Instead, there he stood, looking just as good as he had the night he kicked her out of his bed and his life. His dark hair remained resolutely full and gorgeous, his diamond blue eyes glowing like stars above his high cheekbones and full, sculpted mouth. She knew the taste of that mouth, knew it as well as she knew what he looked like under that clean dark suit, and it made her throat dry.
More than that, though, he looked like Noah. Her Noah. Her best friend. She’d known his mind and his soul better than she knew his body, or thought she had, and loved them twice as fiercely.
“Hi,” she managed to say, hating that it came out like a sigh.
“Claire,” he said again, sounding almost disbelieving.
Unlike everyone else she’d met since she’d come back, he didn’t move to hug her. She told herself she was glad, ignoring the short spike of disappointment that ran through her like a cold wind.
“You look good,” she said, and then hated herself. That was what she said? Not ‘I hope you miss me’. Not ‘who are you again?’. No. ‘You look good’, that’s what she went with.
A muscle in Noah’s jaw twitched, his eyes moving over her from head to toe. “You too. You look… good.”
Despite herself, it felt good to hear it. Noah had always told her how beautiful she was, said that he had to fight off half the boys in town before she was out of high school. Things like that had kept her going in those years before her breasts popped out and her freckles went from embarrassing to sexy.
“Why are you…” she started to say, and then cut herself off. No point admitting that she’d asked about him. “I mean, I thought I heard that you were living over in Bakers now.”
His smile was a bare twitch of the lips. “I am. I’m in town for the wedding. My mother needs me to help bring in the catering.”
She’d thought that might be it, but hearing it still sunk her heart. So did the mention of his mother. God, Gloria. Claire hadn’t talked to her since she left, too afraid to find out what she might know about what had gone on.
“Gloria’s still doing the wedding, then? I heard she had a hip replacement a few months ago.”
Claire jumped when Jenny’s voice piped in, “Oh, it doesn’t slow her down. She’s got a whole town worth of spare legs while she’s recovering. And of course Noah’s here almost every weekend to help out, aren’t you Noah?”
Noah didn’t quite manage to avoid the elbow to the gut, absorbing it with a light huff of air. “Yes.”
Not surprised, Claire nodded. Whatever she’d thought of him—and boy, it’d run the gamut—she’d never denied that he was a good son. When his father died, he’d picked up the slack in the house, in two weeks going from a kid who liked to stay inside to read to a budding junior handyman shadowing half the town to find out how to take care of the house. Not that Gloria had needed help, not back then, but she’d found it as charming as everyone else.
Claire had found it noble.
“I’m glad she’s going okay,” she said around the lump in her throat. “I’ll have to go and see her, since I’m in town.”
That brought Noah’s eyes back to her, the lambent blue piercing through her. His voice was rough when he said, “She’d love that. She’s in a new place, so I’ll take you by, if you like. How long are you here?”
“I…” The invitation hit her like a blow. The thought of being in a car with him was terrifying.
“She’s here for a week,” Jenny put in brightly.
“But she’s going to be very busy.” Jason frowned at Jenny, leaning forward on the bar like he was thinking about vaulting over it. “You know, with her boyfriend coming in and all.”
Without thinking, Claire’s eyes flew to Noah’s face, but if she’d hoped to see some reaction to the mention of her boyfriend, she was disappointed. His handsome face remained impassive, the only reaction a flicker of his eyes to Jason before they returned to Claire.
“Are you too busy, Claire?”
His eyes seemed to pierce through her, and under the steady regard of those familiar eyes she found she couldn’t refuse. “Not too busy for Gloria,” she said with a resigned twist of her lips.
“Good.” After a pause, he added, “I’m sure she’d like to meet your… boyfriend as well. She’s wanted to meet him for years.” His tone was cold.
Claire laughed. “Years? We’ve barely been dating for three months.”
Noah’s face went blank, emotion draining out of it like a plug had been pulled. Again, his eyes went to Jason, who suddenly found something to be very busy with at the other end of the bar. Jenny looked satisfied.
“Only three months,” Noah repeated softly, and something in his tone sent shivers up her spine. “So your family hasn’t met him yet.”
“Nope. You can tell because we’re still dating, huh?” Alex had been the end of a lot of her relationships before Noah—he’d never quite gotten that it was supposed to be the overprotective older sibling, not the younger one.
“Claire.” Would she never get used to hearing him say her name. “While you’re here, we need to talk.”
She smiled at him, glad that he’d taken the initiative to say something. She wasn’t sure that she would ever have been brave enough to do it.
“Okay. That sounds good.” She swallowed before she added, “I’ve missed you, you know.”
Noah’s tongue moistened his bottom lip. “I’ve missed you too.”
Her smile grew wider. It was good to hear. Sometimes she’d wondered. Wondered exactly how wrong she’d been. “Yeah. Let’s talk. It’d be nice to have my best friend back.”
Noah’s brows drew together like black lightning. “Friends. No, Claire-”
“I know, I know,” she cut him off with a laugh. “Men and women can’t be friends, right? I regret ever showing you that movie. Just give it up, buddy.”
She thought she heard Jason laugh from the other end of the bar.
Noah took a step closer, looming over her, blocking out the rest of the bar with his broad shoulders. “Claire, I think that we should talk now. Alex—”
“Alex is getting married!” Jason said loudly, suddenly back at their end of the bar. He plonked four beers down in front of them. “A toast to Alex!”
Claire eyed him strangely. Man, a lot had changed since she left town. When she’d left, Jason was more likely to curse Alex’s name than toast to it—he’d been one of the first victims of Alex’s over-protectiveness, which at that age had been expressed in the form of a half-brick lobbed at his groin while they were making out. Still, she could hardly refuse to toast her own brother. The wedding needed all the luck it could get, given the participants. She’d lobbied heavily in favor of elopement — not for everyone, mind you. Just them.
“Only a sip. I’ve got to drive out to the airport to pick Richard up at eight.” The reminder was half to herself, as the first sip of beer burst on her tongue as if it was trying to say welcome home.
God, she’d missed the local brand, home brewed by the high school Chemistry teacher and everybody’s favorite extra credit project. Some had called it undrinkable, but the locals knew—that was its charm.
“Where are you two staying?” asked Jenny, picking up her own beer. “Surely not at your house. I can only imagine what that’d be like, with all the wedding preparations going on.”
“Ha. No chance. I think they’ve turned my old bedroom into some kind of staging area. Mom told me that I could sleep there as long as I hadn’t developed an allergy to feathers… and as long as I didn’t roll over. No, we booked rooms at the B&B.”
“Rooms,” Noah murmured, half to himself.
Claire felt her cheeks flush and knew her freckles would be standing out against her skin. It was no business of anyone else if they weren’t sharing a room, but she still felt a ridiculous urge to explain. The urge grew as the silence stretched, as she could feel Noah’s eyes on her. It’s not because of you, she wanted to say.
Before she could succumb, Jason said, “Didn’t you say you had to pick your boyfriend up at eight? It’s twenty to now, and you know the roads…” He stressed the words strangely, especially considering that he’d talked to Richard on Skype more than a few times.
Still, his point was valid and Claire half-jumped, half-fell to her feet, stumbling over the stool on her way. Warm hands fell on her shoulders, steadying her, and her heart skipped a beat.
“Thanks!” She tilted her head up to look at Noah, meeting that blue, blue gaze. “Guess I’ve lost the knack after all.”
His eyes were dark as he looked at her, his mouth half-open as if to speak. But maybe she’d been wrong about that, because he closed his mouth without saying a word.
“I have to go,” she said softly, still lost in his gaze. It was okay to still think that he was beautiful, she decided. That wasn’t a romantic delusion, after all—it was just a fact. Had his eyelashes gotten even thicker? It was an affront to women everywhere.
“I know.” His voice was just as quiet. His hands tightened for a moment before he let her go, the spots where he’d been touching suddenly cold.
“You’re going to be late,” Jason put in loudly. “Go, go!”
Jenny sent him a poisonous look.
Claire dragged her gaze to him with an effort. “Oh… yes. Thanks, Jason. We’ll meet up later?”
“Of course!” Jenny chirped. “I’ve got loads to tell you. You wouldn’t believe what’s been going on.” She slanted another look at Jason.
Jason laughed, a short forced bark. “Well, I’ve been talking to you almost every day, so I don’t have much gossip. But I still want to hang out, so don’t forget to leave some time for me, okay?”
“You just want to look at her breasts in person,” Jenny said snippily. “What, being an online perv isn’t good enough for you?”
Jason turned to retort to her, but his face froze as his eyes moved past her to stare at something behind Claire.
“I’m going!” Claire broke in. “Geez, you guys never stop.”
Before she could leave, Noah reached out to stop her, his fingers brushing the small of her back. “Give me your number before you go.” He paused. “To arrange a time for you to see Gloria.”
“O-kay,” Claire said shakily. “But you could just get it from Jenny.”
“Nope! Don’t have it. You only gave us your Skype ID, remember?”
Oh yeah, that was right. She’d gotten a new cell phone in London, and back then it was either long-distance charges or rent. Still, she didn’t have to worry about that now – she made a good living.
She dug one of her precious business cards out of her pocket and presented it to Noah. The moment felt strangely ceremonial, and her stomach flipped when he picked it up almost reverently. She kept her eyes on it until it disappeared into his breast pocket. Strangely, so did Jason and Jesse.
“I’m going,” she said again, a tremor in her voice. As the door closed behind her, a clamor of voices suddenly rose behind her before being even more suddenly cut off.