Friday Sneak Peek – You and Me, Baby

This week’s sneak peek is one of my favorites! I say that almost every week, don’t I? But, y’all, this one is about Aiden Pearson, and he was so, so, SO much fun to write. His story is a redemptive one, and I love how his transformation from the inside out made him into an endearing guy. Pistol winks and all.

You and Me, Baby is just $3.99 on Amazon or FREE with your Kindle Unlimited subscription. Even if you’ve already read this one, you should totally read it again. This is one I go back and read myself just for fun. “Right in the feels. You and me, Baby Jesus.” Ha! I just love Aiden!

Check out the first part here…

Couple with umbrella kissing at night alley.

 

“So, I quit my job.”

This was how Aiden Pearson gave his family the big news. He’d been planning this announcement for all of forty-eight hours, which was precisely the amount of time it had taken to pack up from his last trip to Tokyo, to finalize all the details with his exit papers from the company, and to arrange for his home in New York to be packed up and shipped out to Texas, which is where he found himself on Christmas morning.

Forty-eight hours. He’d spent forty-eight hours thinking through how he’d explain it, and this was his very best attempt.

Not that he thought the delivery of the news would matter as much as the reality of it. An hour into Christmas dinner, he was even wondering if anyone would care at all given the good news both of his siblings were bringing to the table.

Very literally. They’d brought their bits of good fortune to the dining room table and slapped it down alongside his mother’s (overcooked) turkey and loads of casseroles and sides that he couldn’t even identify.

Merry Christmas and good tidings.

Yes, good tidings. Aiden’s younger brother, Adam, had been the first to spread the good cheer around by announcing that he and his wife, Eve, had accepted a new, more prestigious ministry position than the one they already had as dirt poor seminary students doing internships. Oh, yes, they were moving on up but not to the east side or a deluxe apartment in the sky either one. They were moving to Seattle to plant a church there, and the entire family was, as was to be entirely expected, thrilled to hear the news.

Adam and Eve – they’ve finally got a piece of the pie and all. (Which was ironic, given their names and the whole issue of the fruit in the Garden and all.)

Then, there was Aiden’s younger sister, Amelia, whose smile was so many megawatts bright that Aiden had nearly shielded his eyes earlier when she’d bounded into the house, holding her left hand out and shaking it in everyone’s faces. Maybe the wattage was less about her smile and more about that giant rock that her brand new fiancé, Caleb, had just put on her finger. Caleb was smiling pretty big, too, as Amelia spent most of the meal telling the whole family all about the wedding that she was planning for March, just three months away, right there in their hometown, at the church where their dad was still pastor, and glory, Aiden, it’s going to be EPIC, she’d chattered on and on.

Everyone was so excited about the news from his siblings that the table had erupted in much merriment and celebration. His parents were asking all kinds of questions about demographics in Seattle, Adam’s plans for doing seminary by extension, Eve’s dissertation, the dress shopping Amelia had ahead of her, about the house she and Caleb were buying, and all the details for flights, for rooms, for all the planning that was ahead.

Oh, what a Christmas! What a great holiday!

Fa, la, la, la, laaaaa….

They were good and distracted, in other words. So distracted and overcome with joy that Aiden felt it was just the right time to interject his own news. (Maybe they wouldn’t even hear him, huh?)

“You quit your job?” his mother asked, regarding him with no little amount of surprise and blowing that possibility completely out of the water. “Glory! Are you insane?!”

…. la, la, la, LAAAAAA!

“I most certainly did quit, and I am not, to the best of my knowledge, insane,” he said, grinning broadly at them all, hoping his good attitude would soften the blow. “See? It’s a merry Christmas after all!”

He didn’t feel so merry as he said it, though. But to tell the truth, he hadn’t felt very merry for a long while.

Okay, so things hadn’t always been bad for Aiden Pearson. Not at all. No, once upon a time, things had been too good to be true. He’d been working for an electronics company during his first year at college, making enough cash to support his extracurricular activities (drinking mainly), and he’d been a natural born salesman. He was so good at selling gadgets, in fact, that he’d caught the attention of his manager’s manager, who passed his name along to someone even higher and so on and so forth until Aiden had been surprised by a phone call that had come from corporate one morning, offering him a job as a PR trainee in a very exclusive intern program. It had all been very surreal, especially since he’d answered the call in a groggy, half-inebriated state, carrying on the conversation as professionally as he could despite the fact that he was in bed with a girl he didn’t recognize, looking around a room decorated with kitten posters (what in the world?), and wearing no pants. Wearing nothing, actually, so things could only get better from that point on.

And things had gotten better, so quickly that Aiden had justified dropping out of college, knowing that the more time he spent focused on selling those gadgets would reap greater dividends (i.e., money) and that it would be supremely stupid to waste any more time in class. The extra time made his climb up the ladder almost like a sprint, as he anticipated the day when he’d be in charge of the whole PR department. He knew it would happen, given his work ethic, his personality, and the way that he wasn’t tied down to anyone, any place, or anything.

Over time, he’d earned that position. PR executive. What it earned him, though, was extensive travel all over the world, stress of a magnitude that had him staying awake with worry most nights, and the unique problem of having peaked in his career in his twenties, which was a depressing prospect, especially as he turned thirty, then thirty-one, and on and on, wondering in the back of his mind if this was all that life was about…

This wasn’t a reason to quit. None of this was a reason to quit a job he was lucky to have, a job that most men his age would kill for, and a job that he never really felt qualified to do. There was no good reason to quit.

Which is why Aiden hadn’t quit.

No. He’d been laid off.

As it turns out, all the PR spins and storying he managed couldn’t save a company that had experienced stock and shareholder corruption the likes of which Aiden had never fully comprehended. Through no fault of his own, he was out of work before he could even wrap his mind around what had happened to the company that had defined his adult life and who he was.

You do the right things and work hard, and because people make selfish, dumb choices, your whole life gets thrown into upheaval.

Such is life.

Aiden was careful with the way he spun even this chain of events, though, determined to come out on top, like always.

“Yes, I quit,” he told his mother.

There was silence around the dinner table.

“But why?” his mother asked, never one for letting silence linger. (He wasn’t one for letting it linger either, honestly.)

“It was time for a change,” he said, shrugging, thinking that it was true enough. The change had been forced on him, of course, but there was no time like the present to branch out and see what else was out there.

“You don’t have anything else lined up then?” his dad asked.

He would have, had he quit like he said he did. Honestly, though, he hadn’t had time to do much of anything between losing the job and coming here. He was going to regroup as soon as possible, but he couldn’t do much when it was Christmas.

He wasn’t irresponsible. Not when it came to work, at least. But he could tell as his parents watched him with concern that this looked bad.

“I don’t,” he said. “But how hard can it be, finding another job? And, hey, I’m back at home, so that’s good, right?”

No. No, it wasn’t good, judging by the look on his mother’s face.

“You didn’t finish college,” she said. “How are you going to find a job without a degree?”

Yeah, he’d thought about this. Which meant that he’d already prepared an answer for this very question.

“Well, I found the last job without it,” he said. “How hard can it be?”

“Yes, you found that last job,” she said. “A job you quit for no good reason!”

“Yeah,” he said, nodding at this, not wanting to tell the real truth. “But that’s the thing. I have skills. Marketable skills. There’s got to be a place around here where I can put them to use.”

“Small town,” his father murmured. “Might be harder than you think. Maybe you should look somewhere bigger?”

The thought had crossed Aiden’s mind, but since he was coming home for Christmas anyway and couldn’t afford the rent on his place in New York without the salary he’d been making (there were financial incentives to be made in traveling all the time), he’d figured the smartest thing to do would be to move back here, where housing was dirt cheap and he could slowly spend what he had in reserves while looking for the next thing.

“I may end up somewhere bigger,” he conceded. “But for now, I want to catch my breath. I don’t even know if I’m coming or going.”

That was the truth, too. Life had been fast and rushed, and this, being here, felt like he could catch his breath, at least.

Home.

His mother frowned at him, then looked over at his father. “This is a thing, you know.”

“What thing is that?” his father asked softly.

“Grown men, coming home to live with their parents!” she exclaimed.

Oh, this.

“I’m not going to live here forever,” Aiden started. “Not even a whole week probably –”

“That’s what you say now,” she said. “But I know how this thing works. It’s called a failure to launch. Extended adolescence. And I’m done raising children, Aiden. I’m just –”

“I thought moms were supposed to be more welcoming,” he said, just a little insulted by this outburst. Not like his mother didn’t have outbursts all the time already (she was a piece of work honestly), but this was connected to him, about how she didn’t want him living here.

“I was plenty welcoming for eighteen years,” she said. “But I’m done now. You can’t live here!”

Aiden looked around the table, his mouth slightly open. “Did I say I was going to?” he asked. He looked over at his siblings. “Did you hear me say that?”

“No,” Amelia said diplomatically. “But I can see where Mom’s coming from. I’d be done with you, too.”

Wow. What a welcome.

“Well, now I know how the Baby Jesus felt,” he said sourly. “No room in the inn and all.” He shook his head at this. “Right in the feels. You and me, Baby Jesus.”

“That’s just a little blasphemous,” Adam murmured. “But nicely done, Aiden. You know, what with it being Christmas and all, and you using that story like that.”

“Thank you,” Aiden muttered. Then, looking back at his mother, he sighed. “Well, Mom, can I at least stay here until I can find a place? Or do you want me sleeping in the rental car?”

“You don’t even have a car,” she said as if this further made her point.

“I didn’t need one in New York,” he explained.

“How are you going to afford rent and a car payment when you don’t even have a job?!”

How indeed.

Maybe coming back home hadn’t been smart after all.

“I have enough money to buy a car outright, so there will be no payments,” he said. “And rent houses around here are cheap. Dirt cheap. So, no worries there. And I’m going to start looking for work first thing tomorrow morning.”

Surely this would be comforting to her, to them all, as they watched him with concern.

He’d just lost his job. No big deal.

Quit, he reminded himself. He’d just quit his job. That’s what they needed to know so that they wouldn’t start feeling sorry for him, for coming back home, without even a car to his name or a place to live either one…

They already felt sorry for him, judging by their expressions.

Well, everyone but his mother felt sorry for him.

“John, where did we go wrong?” she asked, looking over at his father for help. “Where did we go wrong with this one?”

Wonderful. Welcome home, Aiden.

He took a breath. “I think I’m going to go out for a while.”

Before anyone could stop him, he got the keys to his rental car and made his way out into the chilly night air.

 

Where to go in a town with nothing?

Aiden wasn’t entirely sure when he started driving.

Granted, the town wasn’t that big. Once he got out of his parents’ neighborhood, he found himself facing the only real major roadway in town. There were plenty of residential areas to turn off onto, a tiny downtown with failing businesses, and even an industrial side of town, but for the most part, the entire town was on this main road. His choices at the intersection were limited to going west and driving over an hour until he got to a real city or driving east, where his hometown had claimed all of two miles.

Yes, the town was two miles long. Big time, in other words.

“I do believe I’ll turn east,” he told himself, pushing buttons to stop the endless chattering of the GPS lady who kept trying to re-route him back to the airport. “Maybe you know something I don’t,” he told her as she demanded he make a U-turn. “Maybe I should get out of town, but –”

He stopped talking when he saw the billboard.

Oh, no. Really?

He recognized the guy on that billboard. Travis Collins, one of his old buddies from high school. They’d been on the football team together, the baseball team, the wrestling team, the basketball team, just about all the teams their small town boasted. When you came from a town this size, you played it all, and Travis, though not the greatest athlete, had been the funniest guy ever. Crude jokes, vulgar speech, and lascivious thoughts – the guy was a real winner, in teenage boy terms. He and Aiden would sit on the back row of church together all through their high school years, keeping count of every phrase or word that Aiden’s father used from the pulpit that could be taken in a dirty way.Their minds were so far in the gutter that they usually got up to ten in thirty minutes.

Of course, Aiden never let anyone know what he was thinking. Preacher’s kid. Have to act a certain way, say the right things –

“Travis, you buttface,” he said to the billboard as the car inched closer to it, “what are you doing wasting away in this town?”

Perhaps he wasn’t wasting away though. The picture was from the waist up, with Travis leaning against a brick building, his arms crossed over his chest, and a grin on his face, the words Collins Construction right next to him.

Did he own his own business now?

“Crazy,” Aiden murmured, suddenly feeling even worse about himself. If his idiot high school buddy owned his own business, that made it even more pathetic that Aiden was unemployed now and living at home.

Temporarily. Aiden could hear his mother screeching her protest even now.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he said, wondering again how he was going to find work here. There was a great possibility that he’d have to commute into the city because who around here would be hiring? And what kind of skills did he even have that would be helpful, even in the next town? He was made for international business, for big important client meetings in a huge city. What had he been thinking when he’d packed his bags and come here?

There just wasn’t another place to land. Friendships and relationships were shallow everywhere else, and in a very real sense, Aiden had realized, with the loss of this job, that he didn’t have much of anything or anyone. Because of some stupid mistakes by other people at work, he was facing a crisis of sorts in his own life.

He turned the GPS lady back on.

“Anything is better than the soundtrack I’ve got running through my head,” he muttered, as his new companion told him, in a very proper voice, to turn left on Maple Street so as to make a U-turn.

He followed her instructions but stopped short of the U-turn because there on Maple Street was a half full parking lot, right up next to the town’s one and only old, greasy spoon restaurant.

They had a bar.

“Hallelujah,” Aiden said, parking the rental car and vowing to make this a merry Christmas after all.

 

“Take one down, pass it around…”

Two hours later, Aiden squinted, trying to remember just how many bottles of beer there had been.

“A whole lotta beer on the wall,” he sung softly to himself, making a general estimate.

He scratched his head. On the wall. That was a funny saying. Why was the beer on the wall? Why would you take it down and pass it around when it would make better sense just to drink it all yourself?

Kids’ songs didn’t make sense. Kinda like that song about a baby falling through the trees in its cradle. (And furthermore, why was a song about a drinking party a kids’ song?)
Aiden got a little philosophical when he was drunk. Some guys got angry, and some got loopy. Not him. He could solve the world’s problems after a few beers. Couldn’t solve his own, unfortunately, as he’d sat here at the bar, watching the crowds come in, enjoy, and leave, wondering what he was going to do with his life now if things didn’t work out as easily as he hoped they would.

Maybe beer didn’t make him philosophical. Maybe it just made him depressed.

This depressing thought was reason enough to grab another drink.

He looked down the length of the bar, searching for the guy who’d been serving him most of the night, but he couldn’t find anyone there. Frowning, he turned around in his seat to see if there were any waitresses maybe, waiters, anyone who worked here…

He’d turned halfway on his stool just as she was turning back to the front of the restaurant.

Her.

He recognized her.

That wasn’t saying anything shocking, as he should have been able to recognize most of the people in this town. But what was saying something was that she recognized him, too, given the way her eyes widened slightly as they met his.

Then, her lips settled into a thin line.

“You!” Aiden yelled, causing her to take a deep breath and look around apologetically at the other diners before she made her way over to him, resignation in the movement.

She’d already seen him then, and she’d been avoiding coming over to his side of the restaurant.

Why, though?

Well, who cared, honestly. The good news was that she couldn’t keep avoiding him, not with him yelling for her.

Smart guy, Aiden.

“I remember you!” he shouted. Outright shouted it, because he was feeling good at the remembrance.

And wow. She looked good, too.

She was wearing her long brown hair down, just like she had back in high school. Probably impractical for working in a restaurant, but it sure did look nice. It gave her a distinctly feminine look, which was only enhanced by those curves she wasn’t hiding in her jeans and a T-shirt, her stance as she finally stood before him casual and relaxed.

Her blue eyes, though, looked angry.

Still hot, though.

“You remember me?” she asked, her expression stony, cold.

“Louise,” he said, pounding the table. “Your name is Louise.”

She tilted her head at this and studied him for a long moment.

He’d gotten it wrong, hadn’t he?

He let his mind click through the other possibilities. Unfortunately, feeling good like he did also made his brain work a little slower.

“Uhh… Linda?”

She just stared at him.

Not a Louise or a Linda. Hmm.

“Liz? Lisa? Lucy?”

Still a nope.

It was right there, right on the tip of his tongue. He could see her, there at the high school library, studying, shooting him a filthy look when he and his friends would come in and take over the table nearest to her, spreading out all their textbooks as they waited for the nerds who were going to come and tutor them, coaches’ orders.

Laney. Lynn. Or…

“LAURIE!”

He shouted that one, too, but only because he knew he had gotten it right. Laurie Roberts. Hot diggity.

And wow. She was hot! She just got better and better looking the longer he sat here staring at her.

“Aiden Pearson,” she noted, still frowning at him.

“You got it on the first try!” he laughed. “Laurie Roberts. You were always smart like that.”

“Yeah, well, that was one of us, at least.”

Wait a minute. Ouch.

He looked to see if she was joking. She wasn’t, judging by the unfeeling expression on her face.

Did she just call him stupid?

Quite possibly. (And wow, maybe she was onto something because he couldn’t rightly figure out if she’d meant to insult him so spectacularly. Congratulations, Aiden. You are stupid!)

Laurie Roberts. Hot and smart.

“Good for you,” he said, raising his bottle to her, noting that it was nearly empty. “I’ll need another one of these.”

“Yeah, I don’t think so,” she said. “I’m cutting you off.”

“Why? I haven’t had too much.”

“Oh, yes, you have.”

Well, maybe. But who was she to be making that call?

“Am I missing something here?” he asked.

“Pardon?”

“Do you spend evenings hitting the bar, policing guys on the number of drinks they can have?” he asked. “Because if so, Laurie, you need to get a hobby. But you didn’t have many of those in high school, did you?”

Ooohhh. And that sounded like an insult. Not intentional, but she’d been a little snippy with him. Guess it was fair and all…

“I’m working, you idiot,” she said. “And I came over here to ask you if you’d like to order something to eat. Might make you a little less drunk, although I’ll likely still have to call someone to drive you home.”

But Aiden wasn’t listening. He’d latched onto just one thing that she’d said.

“You work here?” he asked. He glanced over the restaurant. It was a dive, honestly, and not a classy one at that. Poorly themed, greasy menu, mediocre alcohol, and surly waitstaff.

Laurie frowned at him again.

See? Surly.

“Yeah, what about it?”

“Wow,” he sighed. “You were smart in high school. I wouldn’t have pinned you for staying around here and waiting tables.”

She visibly hardened at this, even more than she already had been.

“Nothing wrong with working an honest job,” she said.

“Oh, nothing at all wrong with it,” he said, thinking about his own lack of work. “A job is a good thing. I would have just figured that you’d done something more with your life.”

Even tipsy (okay, drunk), he could tell that he’d said the wrong thing.

“Forget that I said that,” he said.

“Aiden, I’m going to do my best to forget this entire conversation,” she hissed. “And we don’t need to have any more conversation. Just tell me what you want to eat.”

Well, she was even ruder now.

“Have I offended you somehow?” he asked.

“Well, let’s see,” she said. “You just told me that I’m not living up to my potential.”

“Oh, I know,” he said. “And I apologized for that. But before that. When you first came over here and I couldn’t remember your name. You were mad at me.”

“I wasn’t mad at you,” she said, shaking her head.

“Well, you weren’t happy,” he said. Most people here were happy to see him. Aiden Pearson – hey! Where’s that guy been?! Pull up a chair, crack open a beer, and let’s talk about where you’ve been and what you’ve been doing and who you’ve been with and –

Oh. Oh, wait a minute.

Laurie narrowed her eyes at him.

Who you’ve been with…

Some people weren’t always glad to see him. Women, mainly. Women who he’d been with, then not been with again, to put it in its most delicate terms.

One night stands. (Not so delicate, that term. But truth is truth.)

He wasn’t a bad guy. He wasn’t a particularly good guy either, though.

Maybe she was hacked off because once upon a time, he and Laurie had…

She was hot, after all.

“Laurie,” he said, lowering his voice. Or at least attempting to. He was probably still yelling. It was hard to tell with all he’d been drinking. “My apologies.”

“You already apologized for what you said,” she waved him off.

“No, I’m apologizing for the past,” he said.

She looked confused for a moment. “And by that you mean…?”

“You know,” he said, raising his eyebrows. “The. Past.” He looked at her meaningfully.

“Wow, you’re drunk,” she said. “I don’t even know what you’re talking about, Aiden.”

“You know,” he said. “Me, you… you know.”

He could use more graphic terms, but he was going to refrain. Being a gentleman and all, apologizing to the lady for having never called after he’d had his way with her.

A gentleman.

“You know…” she said slowly, imitating him. “And by that you –”

Her eyes widened.

“Oh, no,” she said.

“Oh, yes,” he said. “I know why you’re upset.”

“Oh, no, you don’t.” She shook her head. “Trust me. NOOOOOOO.”

What?

“You mean, we never…” He raised his eyebrows again.

“First of all,” she said, her hands on her hips, “what kind of pig are you if you can’t even remember something like that?”

“Apparently it wasn’t very memorable,” he said, feeling a little insulted by the pig label.

“Second of all,” she said, ignoring this, “ewww. Eww, eww, eww. It never happened, Aiden. And it never will happen. Not if you were the last living, breathing man on Earth.”

Well, then.

“Now, what’ll it be?” she asked. “Cheese fries? A steak? What?”

“Another beer,” he said. Losing his job was one thing. Disappointing his family was another. Having a waitress at a dive bar in a town in the middle of nowhere tell him that she wouldn’t have him if he was the last man on Earth was the limit, though.

He needed a drink.

“No,” she said. “Can’t serve you any more tonight.”

“I really need this, though,” he said, needing it more and more with every word she spoke.

“Why is that?”

“I’m having a quarter life crisis,” he said, squinting at her.

“You’re a lot older than twenty-five,” she said, frowning.

“Okay, so I’m redefining myself,” he corrected. “Like most people do in their twenties.”

“You’re actually in your thirties,” she kept on.

“Blast it, woman,” he said, frowning right back at her. “I’m trying to have a moment here!”

She looked at her watch very deliberately.

“You’re going to have to speed the moment along,” she said. “Kitchen’s going to close soon.”

He blew out a long breath, wondering what he was going to do tonight. He couldn’t go back to the house and face everyone, could he?

Merry Christmas.

“Why are you all even open on Christmas?” he asked, stalling for time and honestly wondering.

She shrugged. “Because there are guys like you with nowhere else to go.”

“I have somewhere else I could go,” he said, without adding, but I don’t want to go there.

“Well, good for you,” she said, echoing his earlier sentiment. “Then, I take it that you don’t want any food if you have somewhere else to be.”

Sure did. Or at least, he’d pretend to. Quarter-life crisis nothing. He stood to his feet… and the room wobbled just a little.

This didn’t escape her notice as she watched him carefully.

“Hey, Aiden, can I get your keys?” she asked.

Why would she want his keys? Was she thinking he was too drunk to drive?

No, that wasn’t concern on her face. He couldn’t rightly tell what that was on her face because she had the same unfeeling expression that she’d had most of the evening.

So, he assumed the best. Because he was drunk and all.

Maybe now that he was standing and she was getting a good look at him, she’d decided that the last man on Earth wasn’t such a bad deal after all.

“You wanna come home with me?” he asked, grinning. “I feel like we hardly know one another, but sure. Maybe we’d better go back to your place, though, because the whole family is at mine, and…” He looked at the table.

Where did his keys go?

He looked over at her. “I don’t know where my keys are.”

“I’m not surprised,” she muttered. Then, before he could even ask her if they could just take her car instead, she had her hands in his front pockets.

“Well, hello,” he said, wishing for a brief moment that he’d stopped drinking a couple of beers ago because he really wanted to be completely and fully aware of what was going on as she was digging around his jeans –

She pulled her hands out a few seconds later, holding his keys and shaking her head at him with just a hint of exasperation.

“Do you have someone I can call?” she asked.

“You can call me,” he said, thinking that she just got hotter and hotter the longer he was here. “Maybe we can go out sometime.”

“A friend who can pick you up maybe?” she asked, not even acknowledging the question. “A family member?”

A family member who could pick him up… hmm…

Caleb would do it probably. Adam maybe. They’d probably even refrain from telling him just what they thought about his choices. But the lectures he’d get when he got home…

“I’d rather not,” he said. Understatement of the year, probably.

“Anyone you’re still in touch with around here?” she asked.

He hadn’t been back in years. He hadn’t kept in touch with anyone from back home, apart from family.

But still, his mind went to that billboard he’d seen driving over here. Travis Collins, big time construction guru. They’d been good friends a long time ago. Surely things couldn’t have changed that much. He could almost picture Travis giving him a pistol wink, just like he had back in the day, in and out of football practice, the weight room, all those years at the high school…

“Travis Collins,” he said.

Laurie looked at him doubtfully. “You’re friends with Travis Collins? Still?”

“Yeah,” he said. “Of course I am. Talk to him every day practically.”

Exaggeration. But still.

“He talks to you every day?” she asked.

Maybe she wasn’t buying this.

“Why is that so hard to believe?” he asked.

“He’s just… different than he was,” she said.

What in the world was she talking about? How was Travis different? The two of them had been close back in high school and hadn’t talked since then, but how would she know any different?

And how different could Travis be if he was still living here, living his old life like normal?

“Well, yeah, I know all about it,” he said. “Tight. Travis and me. We’re tight.”

Laurie studied him for a long moment, then took a breath, sliding a phone out of the back pocket of her jeans.

“Travis, Travis, Travis,” she murmured. “Easy to find, at least.” After another few clicks and swipes on her phone, she held the little device up to her ear. She twirled Aiden’s keys around her finger as she waited and as he squinted, hoping to make her face a little less blurry –

“Travis,” she said, relief in the sound. “This is Laurie at the Dive.”

The Dive. They’d changed the name of this place. It was… well, what was it before?
Aiden couldn’t remember. But wow, the new name fit. He’d never forget it.

“Did she?” Laurie was smiling now, talking about something entirely different than Aiden and his woes. She gave a small laugh.

Well, maybe Laurie and Travis were an item.

Aiden frowned. Maybe Travis needed his butt kicked. Seriously, they weren’t even friends anymore, really. If someone was going to compare the level of Travis’s worth as a friend against Laurie’s hotness, then Laurie was obviously coming out ahead. Way ahead. Aiden would kick his old friend’s butt if it meant winning Laurie over. No one even really believed that old saying about bros before –

“Ho, ho, ho and all, I know,” Laurie said. “But I’m glad she enjoyed it. It was my pleasure.” She took a quick breath. “Hey, I’ve got a situation here and need your help. You remember Aiden Pearson?”

Aiden prepared himself. It had been years…

“The very one,” she said, smiling. “He’s here, right now, drunk.”

“I’m not drunk,” Aiden corrected her.

“Yes,” she continued on, ignoring him. “And you’re the only person he’s still in touch with around here. You’re tight, he said.” She listened for a moment, then laughed again.

He was totally going to kick Travis’s butt now.

“Would you?” she asked. “Why would you do that for him?” There was genuine confusion in her eyes as she looked back at Aiden. She listened for a few more moments, murmured, and then said, “Well, okay. But let me at least drive him out there for you. It’s Christmas. You should be home with your family.”

Oh. Family. Travis had a family, a wife and probably a whole horde of children, which meant that the odds of him and Laurie having something going on were relatively slimmer. No butt kicking necessary after all. Aiden felt himself stand up straighter, knowing that Laurie surely didn’t have anything going on with Travis after all.

Good.

Not like she had anything going on with him either, but –

Hey, she’d just said she was going to drive him! He didn’t know where they were going, but he was cool with it. Laurie, driving him somewhere…

He gave her a thumbs up, which she answered with a confused look.

“Well,” she said to Travis, “as long as you’re sure. You may get to explain some things to your bunch in the morning when he wakes up with a hangover and quite possibly pukes everywhere.”

Please. He could hold his alcohol better than that. No puking. Not going to happen. And apparently, he was going to wherever Travis kept his wife and kids.

Not home. Good.

“Okay, I’ll be by in a few minutes then,” she said, nodding again. “Thanks.”

She pressed a button to end the call and looked up at Aiden.

“It’s your lucky night. You just got a Christmas evening invite to stay with Travis.”

“Told you Travis and I were tight,” he said.

“I guess you did,” she murmured in response. “Though I don’t see how that’s possible, given who he is and who you…”

She narrowed her eyes at him.

What did that mean?

“Anyway,” she said, shaking her head, “it’s time to get you out of here and out of my way.”

That didn’t sound like she was enjoying this time with him. However, she had said that she was going to drive him, so…

“I’m looking forward to spending the drive with you, Laurie Roberts.” He gave her his best smile. And then, because he was feeling good, he gave her a pistol wink.

She rolled her eyes before turning to the door and walking away. “Okay, you’re done.”

But he was only getting started as he followed her out to her car.

 

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