There were constants in his life. The Estevez Festevez, ironic t-shirts, Bobby Cobb never being understandable to the human ear and the disorder in which he suffered known as the Laurie Keller syndrome.
He'd always been in love with her. From the very first moment his mom had introduced them, he'd been caught by that long blond hair, those laughing blue eyes, and lips that were just ... yeah. She'd given him that cursory look that all his mom's friends gave him, polite but distant, like he was too young to acknowledge but not unfamiliar enough to ignore.
It had taken them three months to speak beyond a greeting. Six months for her to look at him while he was talking and a full year before they had actual conversations - although most of that was just him rambling about humidifiers and Harry Potter movies while she made appropriate "I'm paying attention" noises.
And then it happened.
She'd been talking about one of her loser boyfriend's at the time, wondering if she should stay with him and he'd wanted to gnaw off his arm because he didn't get it. Didn't get how she kept dating douchebags when she was worth so much more.
And it burst out like vomit – everything he felt: "Why are you with this guy? Seriously, how can a woman who is so gorgeous, and confident, and who needs, like, three cops to take her down, be with someone who doesn't even know her birthday – July 18th ... by the way."
Then she looked at him. Looked at him like she'd never seen him before, like she was re-evaluating everything she thought she knew about him and seeing something more.
It had given him a jolt, having those sparkling blue eyes focused entirely on him, because even though he'd known her for a full year he'd never been the single focus of her attention.
They'd broken some barrier that day, moved from acquaintances to friends so easily that it was incredible to him that he'd ever felt intimidated by her. Laurie was a million incredible things but slowly he'd started to forget that she was completely out of his league.
He leaned against the patio door frame making a quick survey of the wedding reception happening in his mom's house at that moment.
The house was packed. Jules Cobb – Ellis – Ellis Cobb – Cobb Ellis – whatever, hadn't gotten her big wedding but she'd be damned if fifty of her closest friends – or you know, her therapist, dentist, that dude that always stopped by her office to eat the free peppermint candy on her desk – wouldn't be there to celebrate her marriage to Grayson.
The cops had just left after giving them a fine for the horse situation – having an illegal wedding on the beach was one thing, but bringing a farm animal to the party? That was taking things too far.
He heard Holly giggling and he glanced towards the kitchen. He hoped that Tampa wasn't trapped in some gas station washroom somewhere while she was taking tequila shots with his dad.
He wasn't sure where his mom or Grayson had disappeared to and that was fine by him, he thought, stopping that train of thought before he could fully scar himself for life – although with Jules and Bobby as his parents that shipped had sailed a long time ago.
His eyes swung back outside like magnets. He just couldn't stop himself from finding her when she was in the room.
Laurie was sitting by the pool, her yellow dress rucked up to her knees, her feet resting in the water. Eyes closed, head back, face to the sky, she was ... glowing. How did she do that? How did she light up everything around her like that? Make the whole room brighter just by being there?
There were people milling around the yard but he could have easily gone to join her. Easily slumped down beside her and relaxed. Except nothing with them was easy anymore.
Even though they'd mouthed apologies to each other on the beach, that long ago barrier was newly erected and he wasn't sure who had done it, him or her.
She'd made him feel like that little kid again in Napa. For the first time in a long time, he remembered that she was a beautiful, sexy woman who could have any guy she wanted. Now he wasn't sure how to get them back to that comfortable, easy place that had been like home for him.
He took a deep breath and turned away no longer feeling in the party mood. He considered going back to his place but the prospect of driving across town wasn't particularly attractive.
Easing through the throng, he headed for the stairs, his eye catching a half-full bottle of red on the coffee table. The thought of drinking more alcohol made him want to gag but the blissfulness of being numb for the rest of the night was sounding pretty good at the moment.
Mentally shrugging he grabbed it. Carpe diem and all that crap. Seize the wine and forget everything. That had to be a Cobb family commandment or something.
He didn't hear the scratch on the door over the sound of Jurassic Park on his tablet. He took a swig of wine, wiping the back of his hand over his mouth, just as Laurie walked in.
He jerked up, startled. "Dude! What did I tell you about walking in my room without knocking?"
"Dude, you're twenty-one now. Get it together." She eased around the drum set to flop down on the beanbag chair. "It's not even your room anymore," she said under her breath.
Ignoring her aside, he put down the wine bottle and stopped the movie. "What's up?" he asked even though he knew why she had come.
An uncomfortable silence filled the room as she tried to catch his eyes while he did his best to avoid hers.
"For the record," she said suddenly, "you have nothing to be embarrassed about when it comes to your man parts."
His face flushed red. "Oh my God," he croaked.
A tiny giggle came from her direction and he slowly raised his eyes to look at her. Laughing eyes met his. "Being an authority on this type of thing," she said, "I'd say you're at least in the top 75 percentile."
"Kill me." He raised his eyes to the ceiling. "Just strike me down right here."
Her laugh came out louder this time and even though he wanted to sink into the ground and disappear, the sound of that tinkling laugh made the corners of his mouth tilt up slightly.
"There it is ... a smile."
He lowered his gaze to her face and saw that she was staring back at him. "That was me trying to break the ice. Did it work?"
"A little," he conceded. "But let's keep talk about my 'man parts' to a minimum ... better yet let's just not talk about them at all."
She smiled slightly. "Deal but... " Her smile dropped. "We should talk about what happened in Napa."
Breaking her gaze, he leaned his head back against the couch to stare at the ceiling. The last thing he wanted to do was talk about Napa. The last thing he wanted was confirmation that his feelings were completely one-sided.
"Can we put a proscription on all Napa talk forever?"
"I don't know what that means but I'm gonna say no."
"Then I think we're at an impasse."
"Stop trying to talk smart and look at me." When he didn't raise his head she wheedled, "Trav..."
"I'm sorry," she said suddenly.
His head jerked up in surprise. "For what?" he asked incredulously, his eyes finding her face. "For what? You don't return my feelings, I get it, but I don't need your pity."
"That's not why I'm apologizing. I..." She sighed heavily and shook her head. She got up and moved to sit beside him on the couch. "What you said about me ignoring it. Your feelings. I didn't mean to do that."
She took a deep breath and he could practically feel the vibrations of it, she was sitting so close. He wanted to touch her, feel her head on his chest like that night of the storm, but that barrier, that stupid barrier between them was still there.
"I just don't want anything to change or get weird between us," she said. "You're so important to me, Trav. All my relationships with guys, every single one of them has fizzled out. But you and me – I don't want this to go bad."
He understood that more than anyone, she meant everything to him, but he'd already broken the seal. It was too late to go back.
"Laurie." He shifted his body to face her. "I can't keep pretending that I don't feel what I feel about you. It's too hard. Thinking about you all the time. Watching you with some other guy like it doesn't bother me. It bothers me." He picked up the bottle of wine and took a swig. "As much I want to be there for you, as much as I want to be your friend, I can't. Not right now."
"Are you ... dumping me?" she asked in disbelief.
She yanked the bottle from his hands and gulped down the rest of the wine. "Cause it kinda feels like you are."
A flash of heat shot through him as he watched her red lips circle the opening. If only those lips were ... He shook his head. This needed to stop.
"We're not dating," he said through gritted teeth.
"What does that have to do with anything?"
"Everything! It has everything to do with it," he said angrily, jerking to his feet. "You want me to make you feel good, be the guy who would do anything to see you smile. You want me to be with you without actually being with you. And you know what? I'm sick of it."
Eyes narrowed, she tossed the empty bottle on the couch and got to her feet. "Well, I'm sorry, Trav," she said sarcastically. "I'm sorry for holding a gun to your head and forcing you to be there for me all these years."
"That's not wha—"
"This is just like the time my foster brother left me a jar of dirt after he left for Romania. And I was like, what the hell? Who does that? So I dusted that bitch. Then I get this letter from him – turns out he left me his grandmother's ashes and he was so mad when he found out what happened, like it wasn't weird to leave some old lady's kibbles and bits as a parting gift!"
"This is nothing like that," he said dragging a hand over his face in frustration.
"This is hard for me too, you know?" she said suddenly, changing gears so fast that it would have given him whiplash if he didn't know her moods so well. "It's – it's not like I haven't thought about it."
His eyes widened in surprise. "Thought about what?"
"About ..." She looked away. "About us."
"What about us?" he asked softly.
"Do I have to spell it out? Because I'm not good with words, it could take a while."
"But thinking about stuff is totally different from doing them. You think this is what you want, Trav, but I don't think you're ready for me."
He stared at her, comprehension suddenly stunning him into silence. He'd been waiting for her this entire time, waiting for the moment that she would finally see him, but he'd never stopped to think that she was also waiting for him. Waiting for him to grow up.
He'd declared his feelings in Napa but he'd never really put himself out on the line before that. He'd never shown her that being with him would be worth it for her. He'd never given her a chance.
"Maybe I'm not," he said finally. "Maybe we should find out."
Her eyes shot to his face. "What?"
Heart thundering in his ears, he took a step towards her. "Let's find out right now."
He reached for her, cutting off her speech, slid his hands around her waist and pulled her forward. The element of surprise was working for him because she allowed herself to be pulled. He would never have stood a chance otherwise.
He smiled tenderly at the thought, caught the confused look in her eyes, and smiled wider. She didn't know what to make of him and he liked it. It was about time that he made her feel unbalanced.
Maybe it was the red wine spurring him along – liquid courage could be a beautiful thing – but he didn't tremble, too much, when he felt her body press against his.
Their eyes snagged for a moment, and something bemused and probing flashed in her blue eyes. She wanted this; maybe she'd never admit it but...
He bent his head, brushed his lips against the corner of her mouth, smiled when she twitched slightly in surprise. Laurie unsure? Why did he like the thought of that so much?
He let his mouth trail down her jaw, felt the way her body stiffened and softened beneath hands sliding caressingly up her back. Then he was raising his hand, curving it around her neck, capturing her mouth with his.
The shock of it gave him pause for a single moment, then he was sliding his lips over hers, tasting the cherry of her lipstick. She tasted good, heart racing, soul-crushing good.
He edged her mouth open, sank into it, felt the warmth of her breath, the tease of her tongue and wanted to sink into her even further.
She was touching him now, fingers gliding through his hair, tugging softly, and he took a second to enjoy the victory before he let himself unravel in her hands.
Somehow, they ended up back on the couch, her legs straddling him, his hands hot against her thighs, squeezing them, sliding her dress up, up...
"Whoa, buddy. Didn't know anyone was in here!"
It took them both a second to realize that Bobby and Andy were standing in the doorway.
Laurie jerked out of his arms and was on her feet in moments. She ran a hand through beautifully mussed hair and he felt a wave of satisfaction as she struggled to catch her breath.
He made to get up and then looked down at himself. He flushed as he reached slowly for a pillow to cover his lap.
Andy was grinning at him lasciviously, his dad was giving him the thumbs up, and it all sort of made him want to die. He glared at them both and his dad took the hint. He grabbed Andy by the collar and dragged him out of the room.
He glanced back at Laurie. She was looking at him again, teeth pressed against her bottom lip and it made him want to pull her back down and finish what they started.
"That shouldn't have happened," she said, running another hand through her hair. "And it can't happen again. I'm with Wade. I care about him."
He looked away, wanting to ignore her words but knowing he couldn't. "I'm not going to wait forever," he said finally.
"But I'll wait a while."
She watched him underneath thick lashes, a smile tugging at her lips.
He smiled back slowly. Some things were worth waiting for.