Being alone with Howie last night and having that conversation with him was nerve-wracking but inevitable. But Leighanne had actually convinced herself she could go the entire trip without being alone with Brian. She didn’t know why being with him scared her so much, but it seemed to twist her inside out. She squinted through the storm down the path at her son and started to make a run for it. “He’s fine.” Brian said pulling her back under the tree. “Howie’s got him. You can’t try to head down the hill in this and you know it.”
Leighanne looked down suddenly realizing that Brian’s hand was holding hers. Brian noticed at about the same time and dropped it with an apologetic look. Leighanne looked out at the storm wishing she could escape somehow, but the hail was nearly the size of golf balls so she leaned back against the tree in defeat.
The little beads of ice danced a safe distance form them, but even the thick branches of the evergreen they sat under could only do so much against the rain that was coming down in sheets. Leighanne didn’t notice the wet hair that was hanging in her eyes, or the thin shirt she’d been wearing that was now clinging to her form. She didn’t even take notice when her teeth began chattering from the sudden chill of being completely drenched. All of her attention was focused on doing anything she could not to look at the man standing next to her. So far so good too, but now that Brian was done covering their gear with a tarp they were standing there in a deafening silence.
Leighanne was not going to be the one to speak first and she hoped that Brian wouldn’t have the nerve either, but she knew something was up just by the way they’d ended up alone and practically out of sight of the rest of the group. She knew she was in trouble when the first sound Brian made was the sound of a deep breath and a hard swallow. “Leigh?” His timid voice caused her to flinch. “Do you ever think about that night?”
Leighanne was suddenly grateful for the rain streaming down her face; otherwise the moisture that crept into her eyes would have been a lot more noticeable. “No.” she admitted, “Not in a very, very long time. At least not until this week.”
“I think about it.”
“I can understand why.” Leighanne replied still staring out into the rain. “But do what you have to, to make your peace. I don’t sit at home dwelling on the past and you shouldn’t either. It was a long time ago and you shouldn’t feel guilty about it anymore.”
“The only thing I ever felt guilty about was that I couldn’t make you understand. You never gave me the chance to explain.”
Brian was staring at Leighanne; she could feel him watching her, but she still couldn’t bring herself to face him. His voice stayed soft, but sounded just a little more determined now. “I think about that night a lot, everyday. And when I’m asleep it’s in my dreams. Even after the way things ended I don’t regret being with you, I can’t. I love you.”
Leighanne gasped from the sharp pain the shock of his words caused. Once upon a time she would have died to hear him say those words, but now she didn’t know what to think. She finally turned to meet his eyes and they seemed so sad it was almost pathetic. “Brian.”
Brian shrugged helplessly. This was beyond his control and suppressing it only seemed to make the feelings stronger. He needed desperately to get it off his chest. “I always did, long before you came to me that night. And apparently I always will, because seeing you again, having you right here in front of me…”
Brian instinctively took a step closer to Leighanne. Leighanne wanted to back away, but she felt her body pulling itself closer and closer to him and she couldn’t make it stop. His eyes still held power over her and as much as she wanted to fight it, part of her needed to feel his lips against hers just once more.
The internal struggle Brian was having as he watched Leighanne anticipate his kiss was unlike anything he’d ever felt. His heart and mind were in agreeance as to what he should do, what he needed to do, and yet his hand reached up and brushed the wet locks away from her face. He felt weak as his fingers graced her soft skin, just as he did in his dreams, but as he leaned forward his lips found their way to her forehead.
Leighanne squeezed her eyes tightly shut as she was overcome with emotion. Her entire body began to tremble and though his soul was tortured, twelve years of habit took over and Brian pulled her into his arms in a very fatherly way. Leighanne clung to him and cried, forgetting for a moment that he was the cause of her heartache because she needed the comfort he offered so badly. “I’m sorry.” Brian whispered.
Leighanne pulled away from him and got her sobs under control. “You can’t keep doing this to me,” she said, “It’ll kill me.”
Brian cast his eyes to his feet, letting a few tears fall, and Leighanne looked out to the storm that had already turned into just a light rain. She threw her backpack over her shoulders and as she synched it in place she turned back to Brian. “I’m sorry Brian, but please, just stay away from me.”
Leighanne began making her way down the mountain in the drizzle, spilling more tears as she walked away from him. Kristin, Howie and Baylee watched her curiously as she walked past them, failing to notice their greetings. Baylee started to catch up to her until he felt a hand on his shoulder. He followed Howie and Kristin’s gaze to where Brian stood frozen beneath the tree and frowned in confusion. Howie smiled gently and turned his gaze back to Leighanne. “Your mom might need a few minutes to herself right now.”
“What happened between my mom and Father Littrell?”
Howie really didn’t want to try and explain Leighanne and Brian’s history any more than he actually knew how too, so he did the only thing he could think of. “Hey, did you know that you have cousins?”
The change of subject worked for the time being and Baylee stared at his father with wide eyes. “I do?”
“Yup.” Howie smiled, “And aunts, and uncles, and even grandparents. Get moving and I’ll tell you all about them.
Howie helped Baylee get his pack back on and then guided him down the hill flashing a look of relief to Kristin as they went. Kristin smiled and then waited for Brian to catch up before following the rest of the group.
Not even ten minutes later, the tiny storm cloud had dissipated leaving pellets of ice on the now muddy ground, and the sky was just as brilliantly sunny as it had been twenty minutes before. As they hiked, Howie and Baylee were both relieved to finally be talking to one another and even really starting to enjoy each other’s company.
Kristin and Brian brought up the rear and Kristin spent most of that time trying to get Brian to tell her what just happened. Brian never let up though; he was a pro at keeping things to himself. He’d tried once to open up and let a friend share the burden of his problems and it ended him up on the best-seller’s list across the United States. After that he was quite convinced that he would never trust anyone ever again.
Leighanne walked quietly at the head of the party while Nick and AJ followed closely enough to keep an eye on her and yet far enough to give the poor woman some space. “Do you think she still loves him?” AJ wondered aloud, “After all these years? Even after he broke her heart?”
“I hope not, for her sake. If you ask me she’s better off with Howie.”
“Howie?” AJ snickered, “Are you kidding me?”
“Why not? They had a kid together.”
“And I wouldn’t have believed that in a million years if the kid weren’t the spittin’ image of the guy. How the hell did that happen anyway?”
“Beats me.” Nick shrugged, “Brian messed up Leighanne pretty bad and Howie got a little weird when we went to school. He was never really the life of the party to begin with, but I think he was depressed or stressed out or something. Talk about a couple of downers. We always stayed really good friends, but for a while there right before Leigh went AWOL I could barely stand to be with either of them for very long. Misery loves company I guess. That’s the only way I can explain the two of them hooking up.”
The pair got quiet again as they pondered the situation. They each watched Leighanne with puzzled looks until AJ’s thoughts escaped his mouth again. “What about you man, how come there’s no Mrs. Coach Carter?”
Nick rolled his eyes, “I didn’t see you booking a room for two this week either. Come on Mr. Hot shot writer man, at least tell me you got to hook up with Lindsay Lohan once or something.”
“I live in Seattle dumbass, not Hollywood.” AJ laughed, “Besides, you know me. The closest thing I have to a steady relationship is the morning cashier at Starbucks.”
“You sly dog. Found a way to get free coffee did ya?” Nick sighed, trying to remember the last time he got laid. “You know who’s probably getting all the play? Howie. The guy’s friggin loaded. He’s probably got some big yacht off the Miami coast full of honeys just waiting for him to come back.”
“I’d buy it.” AJ agreed, “Hell the guy scored Leighanne without a penny and you and I tried to do that for years.”
“Leighanne doesn’t count. She was rebounding.”
AJ watched Leighanne again and frowned. “She looks like she’s still rebounding.”
Nick looked up and watched Leighanne kick a rock as she passed it. “Na, that’s just Brian. You try spending ten minutes alone with the guy and see how you’re feeling afterward.”
The idea alone was enough to sober AJ up and destroy his playful mood. Nick only had a split second to question the frown before AJ asked one more question. “How long do you think we should let her stew?”
Nick looked ahead again and sighed. “You’re probably right. Maybe we should catch up to her.”
Nick and Brian picked up the pace, catching up to Leighanne, and at the same time each took one of her arms in theirs. “What do you want you guys?” Leighanne said rolling her eyes at their cheesy grins. “I am not dishing the dirt for the gossip queens.”
“We’re insulted.” Nick teased.
“Yeah! Maybe we just miss seeing that pretty smile on your face and came to bring it back.”
Leighanne tried to pout but still she cracked a smile at the goofiness of her friends. “You two.” She said shaking her head. “It’s like we’re back in high school.”
“It’s kind of nice though, don’t you think?” AJ asked, “Having us all back together again. Well, most of us.”
“Nice?” Leighanne laughed bitterly, “I don’t know if nice is how I would describe the last day and a half.”
“Maybe not for you,” Nick joked, “But I’m stuck in this boring town all the time and having everyone back has been entertaining to say the least.”
“Well I’m happy to entertain.”
“Seriously though,” AJ laughed, “I’m proud of you, bringing Baylee out here, facing Howie.”
“Confronting Brian.” Nick added dying to know what had just gone on between the two of them.
“Forget it Nick.”
“Aww come on Leigh! You can’t just leave us in the dark. Something obviously happened back there.”
“Nicky if you really want to know so bad, then go ask Brian because I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Yeah right. If he asks Brian anything, he’s gonna ask him with his fist.”
Leighanne stopped walking and looked at her friends with a puzzled expression. “You mean you have a problem with Brian now too?” She asked feeling sad at the thought, “Does the man have any friends left?”
“Doubtful.” Nick grumbled and then turned to AJ. “I know why Leigh’s pissed at him, but what’d he do to you?”
AJ glanced back up the path where Brian and Kristin were now walking with Baylee and Howie, and suddenly he felt as if her were in some kind of war and had to take a side. “He didn’t do anything, it was me.”
“You?” Nick and Leighanne gasped at the same time.
AJ shrugged and then sighed heavily. “I sort of used him as a character in one of my books and he’s pissed at me for it.”
“That’s not so bad.” Nick shrugged. “Hell I’d be honored if you used me in one. Just make sure I’m the man.”
Nick laughed, but AJ couldn’t join him. Leighanne began thinking back on all of AJ’s books, trying to recall the one he was talking about. She’d read everything he’d ever written but couldn’t think of any of that that sounded like Brian. “No man, I deserve it. I was a jerk. I never should have written it, and then the damn thing had to turn out to be an award-winner.
“A Cry For Help?” Leighanne gasped in disbelief. “He can’t be Bobby?”
“Who the hell’s Bobby?” Nick asked, but his question went ignored as Leighanne stared at AJ.
“I didn’t mean to, it just sort of happened.” AJ shrugged shamefully, “I guess I never expected him to find out. I didn’t know priests could read books besides the bible.”
“Yeah well, something tells me Brian isn’t the most holy of holy men.” Nick spat while he fumed over the “advice” the so-called preacher had given his best friend years back.
AJ was now dying to change the subject and he tried to lighten the mood. “Well apparently priests can read my books, but jocks can’t.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Nick frowned.
“You know what it means.” AJ laughed, “Name one book of mine that you’ve even picked up.”
“I picked up one long enough to notice it was written by your evil twin Alexander.”
“Watch your mouth dude, before you get a beating. My publishers made me use it. I guess AJ sounded too juvenile.”
“Kind of like the writing?” Nick snickered.
“Kind of like your mom!”
Nick and AJ got wrapped up in a playful argument long enough for Leighanne to walk ahead of them, drowning in her own thoughts. Nick and AJ meant to cheer her up but all they’d done is remind her of Brian. And now it was worse, now she wasn’t angry with him, she felt sorry for him.
AJ’s award-wining book truly deserved all the praise it received. It was by far Leighanne’s favorite of all AJ’s work because it seemed to come from his soul, and now she knew why. Leighanne began to think back on every memory she had of Brian since the day she’d met him. Every conversation, every look, and every action he’d ever taken. Everything seemed different now. If even half of what AJ wrote in that book was true, then suddenly everything about Brian made sense.
Nick looked up just in time to see Leighanne bat away tears from her eyes. “What’s wrong with her?”
Nick looked back at AJ when he didn’t receive an answer and was confused to see that AJ was now just as upset. AJ walked ahead a little ways suddenly feeling the need for some space as well, and Nick just let him go, watching him curiously. “Damnit I’ve got to start reading more books.”