Our December (Book 1)
A Place To Run (Book 2)
Stronger In Your Hands (Book 3)
Clark's Story (Book 4)
Some people have a bucket list, that famous list of things to do before they die. Clark has a list too, and it can be summed up in a single word: Love. For Clark, love is what his friends, Alex and Jared, share. This is what he wants with Stevie.
Stevie holds his heart, but Clark struggles to convince her of his sincerity simply because she can't let go of her past enough to have faith to truly trust another. He is beset with jealousy over his best friends for the first time. Everything looks so easy for Alex and Jared while every step forward he takes with Stevie, seems to result in two steps back.
Frustrated and on the verge of defeat, Clark’s bitter hopelessness spills over into other parts of his life. Unable to abandon his dreams and move on, will Clark’s unconditional love for Stevie cost him everything?
Love Lane Books | AllRomance E-Books | Smashwords | Amazon (US) | Amazon (UK)
Chapter 1 - Thanksgiving Plus
"I don't see why we can't have the kind of Thanksgiving dinner normal people have."
Clark didn't try to hide the smile his twelve-year-old daughter's complaint brought to his face. Clark and Stevie had shared Thanksgiving with Alex and Jared since they were just out of high school. Admittedly, not the in the most traditional way people celebrated the holiday, but Jared and Alex excelled at doing things different than most people.
Annie tossed him a cutting look. "Don't laugh at me, Daddy. It's rude." She continued covering the trays of deviled eggs spread out on the long counter in front of her.
Eight trays double stacked, twenty-four eggs in each one. Clark wondered if it would be enough, Annie's deviled eggs were popular. His mother started letting her help in the kitchen after Clark and Stevie had adopted her at the tender age of six.
"I'm not laughing, baby." Clark lied through his teeth. "You don't think we're normal?"
The slightly slanted, tawny colored eyes didn't belong in the face of a child, but the way they rolled at his question was one hundred percent preteen.
"Do you?" Annie snapped on the last lid and turned to face Clark, her expression defying him to lie. Her bobbed hair swung even with her jaw line. Golden brown, it shone in the sunlight streaming through the kitchen window.
Clark considered the annual Thanksgiving dinner they were preparing to attend at Alex and Jared's—the day of the holiday sans meat—as tradition, and Jared, demanded. Turkey came on the scene the day after, Thanksgiving Plus they all called it. Jared was a stickler for tradition, not popular mainstream type traditions but those created by life's experiences. Things that meant nothing to anyone outside their circle became treasured moments in the hands of Jared Douglas.
"We're better than normal." Clark winked at his daughter. "We're like normal-plus"
Annie giggled. "Daddy, you're silly."
She took off the apron she wore to work in the kitchen, sky blue with a rainbow embroidered on the top and the pocket. His mother had taught her to sew simple items the year before, and Annie had been embroidering for a couple years. Stevie called her a girl's girl, and it did seem Annie had the determination to master any task or talent traditionally considered female. When encouraged to stretch beyond those interests, she would laugh, shake her head, and remind them there were plenty of people around the house to do boy things. Considering she had four brothers it was hard to argue with her logic.
Clark watched her stack the carriers next to the huge bowl containing the salad Stevie had prepared earlier.
"Did you have fun making the eggs with Grammy yesterday?" Clark's mother, modern in every way, took an unfathomable delight in Annie's feminine ways and encouraged her at every turn.
Annie's smile lit her face and the sunlight spilling into the room dimmed.
"Yes! She made the cornbread pudding stuff, and she showed me how to get the mashed potatoes just right. I'm going to make them at Christmas."
Feigning disappointment, Clark gasped in horror. "No eggs?"
Annie's little girl giggle sounded like music to his ears. "Don't worry, Daddy. I'll make the eggs, too."
Clark's huge sigh of relief brought another peal of laughter. Annie's suddenly serious expression appeared like a cloud covering the sun.
"Daddy, when I was shopping with Grammy yesterday I saw Grammy Ross." Small white teeth worried her lower lip. Clark's heart gave a twinge of concern and he moved around the counter to stand beside his daughter.
He leaned against the surface. "Oh yeah? How is she?" Alex's mother tended to be a sore spot for him. Any mention of her filled him with anxiety.
Annie shrugged one small shoulder. "Okay, I guess. I asked if she was coming to have dinner with us. She said she made other plans, but to give Uncle A a hug. That's all." Annie dropped her gaze and laid the apron on the counter top. "Nothing major."
Clark reached out and tucked her hair behind her ear, and with a gentle finger lifted her chin until their eyes met once more. "It's not all. What's bothering you?"
"She never comes. Nana is there, and Grammy and Gramps. Gramps Ross always comes unless he's sick. But she never comes and she never sends Uncle J a hug."
Observations, but no questions. Clark sighed. Kids and their timing. Even prepared for this moment, it was difficult. The twins had noticed by the time they were eight And, unless there was a miracle, he'd have this conversation twice more in coming years.
Having nothing to do with Janet Ross would be his first choice and Stevie agreed with him. However, Alex and Jared did not. Janet had limited contact with Alex, never cutting him off completely, but she pretended Jared didn't exist. It infuriated friends of the couple.
"We won't be reduced to her level. And cutting her completely out of our lives will only make her more angry and bitter. She loves your family and as long as she… behaves… we think you need to let her know the kids. We can't change how she feels, but we can give her the respect she denies us, because we are better than that."
Alex's words, tinged with resigned sadness that tore Clark's heart, made him want to hit something. He could argue, but faced with the fact that he and Stevie loaded up the kids twice a year and went to visit her mother at the mental institution, made any argument he made against having Janet Ross in his life a little lame.
The rules were never discussed, but Janet seemed to know instinctively where the boundaries lay. When they visited, she talked to the children about Alex, treated them with love, and never mentioned her feelings about homosexuals, or Jared. The strategy worked fine for the younger kids. When they got old enough to recognize the slight for what it was, things changed. The twins' feelings for her turned from love to tolerance, much as she exhibited towards Alex. Clark felt sure the same thing would soon happen with Annie.
"Well, angel, Grammy Ross doesn't think Alex and Jared should be together." He began the speech he'd prepared and committed to memory for the situation.
Annie turned out to be more intuitive than the boys, latching on to his meaning immediately. "Grammy Ross is one of those people?" She sounded horrified. "But Daddy, Uncle A and J have been together forever. Doesn't she care that they're in love?"
Clark pulled her into a tight hug and Annie buried her face in his chest. "No, she doesn't care. She thinks it's wrong."
Annie's thin arms squeezed hard around Clark's waist. "But she's his mom, doesn't that hurt?"
Clark had to regroup. Annie's reaction, so different from the twins' frank 'that's stupid' before they moved on to something else, left Clark speechless. He heard a sound in the doorway and looked up to see Stevie standing there, concern written on her face. He gave her a small, tight smile.
"It does hurt, Annie. But people don't always think about feelings when they have strong ideas about something. Uncle Alex thinks Grammy Ross can't help how she feels and he forgave her a long time ago. So did Uncle Jared. They are a little sad, but they still love her."
Annie pulled away, her little face fierce, hands fisted at her side. "Well I don't. I'll never forgive her and I'll never love her again. She's mean."
Clark ran a hand through his short hair.
Stevie gave him a sad glance and moved to wrap an arm around Annie's shoulders in a comforting hug. "It's okay, sweetie. It's fine for you to feel that way. Mommy and Daddy kind of feel that way, too, but we have to think about Uncle Alex and Uncle Jared. They are sad and hurt, and we have to try to make that easier for them, so we try our best to do what they want. It's very hard to forgive someone when they hurt people you love." She pressed a kiss to Annie's hair. "Now, it's almost time to leave, will you go get Jens? I think he fell asleep behind the door again. And blow the whistle for the twins, they're in the shop."
Annie nodded and sniffed, rubbing her face with the paper towel Clark handed her. She hurried away to do what her mother asked.
"That was unexpected." Stevie sighed, leaning into Clark's side. He wrapped his arm around her waist.
"Mom didn't tell me they saw Ms Ross yesterday." He couldn't keep the tight anger out of his voice.
Out of them all, he struggled the hardest to comply with Alex's request. Clark's eyes slid closed and he trembled against his wife. "I hate her, Stevie. I hate her so much. I try to be forgiving like Alex and Jared, but I just want to smash her face in. And now she's hurt Annie."
Stevie pressed a kiss against the pulse in Clark's neck. "Janet Ross is a lesson they need to learn. Our kids live in a little isolated world of love and acceptance. They hear about things—hate and prejudice—but they never see it firsthand. At least Grammy Ross is a lesson we know is coming and we're ready for it." She snuggled against his side, voice resigned. "Their first experience with hate would blindside them wherever it comes from. At least this way, we aren't caught off guard, too."
Clark rolled his eyes. "Um, yeah, not really buying that either, but thanks for trying."
He laughed with Stevie just as Alexander and Jared, nicknamed Xander and Jay to keep everyone sane, barreled in through the laundry room. The fourteen-year-old boys, the first of Clark and Stevie's five children, were four years old when the couple began fostering them. They had gone to meet little Alexander not long after being approved as foster parents. A surprise awaited them in the form of a twin brother no one warned them about because child services planned to foster them separately. The small boys had huddled together, watching Clark and Stevie through wide scared eyes. After seeing the way the children clung together it seemed anticlimactic to learn that young Alex's twin was named Jared, making it that much harder to leave him behind. The twins' case worker had been beside herself with delight when they requested to foster both boys. Two years later the young woman had been their staunchest supporter when they filed to adopt.
When Xander and Jay were eight Annie came into their lives, a bright cheerful six-year-old who'd been in the system since birth. Foster children often got shifted from home to home in an effort to make room for them all, but when Annie landed in the Johnson household on her sixth birthday, sans front teeth and eager to be a part of a family, Clark and Stevie never let her go. They adopted Annie before her seventh birthday.
Kels—Kellsey—had been the first child they took in as an infant. He joined their family at only a few months old, given up by a young mother who wanted and tried to keep him, but couldn't provide adequate care for him. The open adoption ensured Kels' mother received a yearly update. Stevie faithfully kept a journal for her, filled with pictures. His birth mother moved out of state, but a gift always arrived for him in the mail, accompanied with a thank you note soon after Stevie sent the update.
Clark and Stevie adopted little Jens at birth. He came to them as a struggling, scrawny crack baby. Offered the chance to foster him first and allow the state to pay for his extensive medical care, Clark and Stevie refused, anxious to give the sick infant the security of his own home. Under their loving care, Jensen had grown into a chubby, dimpled two-year-old with the odd habit of napping behind open doors. Their home bursting with children of all ages, Clark thought they were done, but he noticed Stevie watching a tow-headed little girl in the mall with a familiar expression on her face. He expected any day for her to suggest they had room for one more. He thought they probably did. Annie would love a sister.
His heart aching with love for his wife, Clark pressed a kiss against her temple.
"Is it time to go?" the boys demanded in unison.
Annie appeared from the living room, balancing Jens on her hip and holding the hand of five-year-old Kels.
Stevie looked at their children and turned to Clark, eyes shining. "I love Thanksgiving."
"Why's that?" Xander demanded, though he was more interested in the food than conversation. "Ow!" He glared at Annie, who had smacked him when he tried to pry open one of the egg containers.
Clark moved between the battling siblings. "Because it was on a Thanksgiving, many moons ago, I won your mom's heart." Clark winked at the kids and the older boys groaned.
"Dad, we really don't have time for all that mushy stuff. It's time to load the car." Jay tossed his hair out of his face. His light hair and pale skin were a contrast to Xander's swarthier complexion and dark hair. Despite their differences in looks, their temperaments made them like two peas in a pod. They put words into action. Grabbing dishes, they hurried out to load the back of the SUV. Clark bemoaned the gas usage in the thing, but with such a big family, they didn't have much choice when it came to transportation. At least they didn't own a mini-van.
Stevie moved to take the baby. "Clark, help the boys. Annie and I will get the little kids' gear and load them in the car."
Clark's family had the routine of loading up to go somewhere down pat, and before long, Stevie was settled in the passenger seat fastening her seatbelt. Clark tossed her a grin, and with a look in the rearview mirror, double checking the kids were all in place, he started the engine.
"You know what?" Annie asked as they backed out of the drive way.
"What, baby?" Clark caught her gaze briefly in the rearview mirror.
"I was thinking. I'm still mad at Grammy Ross, but it's sad, too. It must be really lonely being so mean."
"From the mouths of babes." Stevie whispered.
Clark swallowed hard and focused on driving. Not once had he tried to imagine how Janet Ross might be affected by her own behavior. For the first time, he had a glimmer of understanding why Alex could forgive her.
But he still wanted to punch her face.
* * * *
"We're here!" Stevie called out, her family crowding through the back door, hurrying through the mud room into Alex and Jared's huge kitchen.
Coming in the door landed them beside a kitchen fully enclosed with long expanses of counter space. At the far end of the room, just beyond the cabinets lay the formal dining area where the table had been expanded to its full length, seating sixteen. Stevie had no idea where Alex and Jared kept the extra chairs and extensions for the table since, without the extra leaves, it normally seated eight. No doubt Alex had designed some secret cubby and Jared had built it with one hand tied behind his back, during a fifteen minute break from work while he whistled show tunes. She shook her head, amused at her thoughts, herding the smallest children out of the path of the older ones.
A family room lay to the right of the dining area. A huge TV took up one wall, a fireplace directly under it, already lit and adding a cozy ambiance to the room. The overstuffed furniture arranged in front of it made a cozy place to watch a movie or hold a conversation. Behind that grouping, things got more active with smaller chairs and huge ottomans encouraging game play. Beyond those lay a foosball game and air hockey table. The back wall contained floor to ceiling shelves filled with books. Sci-fi and fantasy paperbacks were tucked in with architect books and carpentry manuals.
Stevie closed her eyes and took a deep breath. It smelled like Thanksgiving, despite the distinct lack of turkey. The lingering scents of leather and beeswax, part of the smells that made the house as much a home to her as the one she'd built with Clark. The kids felt the same way, quickly making themselves at home in their uncles' house. Kels grabbed a handheld video game from the shelf where he'd left it during a visit several days before. The twins deposited food on the counters and turned expectant eyes to where Jared leaned against the counter, talking to Alex while he julienned carrots. Annie came in, her carefully folded apron perched on top of the Tupperware containers of deviled eggs. Clark entered last with the huge bamboo salad bowl, a bag of salad 'extras' hanging from his arm. Jens tugged Stevie's shirt demanding to get down.
Alex laughed, looking around at the chaos. "What's that? You're here? I wouldn't have guessed." He moved out of the way, making some room. "Hi, Annie, just stack those over there. When everyone gets cleared out, I have room for them in the fridge.
Jared glanced at the older boys. "The shop's open." With whoops of delight, they headed for the sliding glass doors leading outside. Jared's carpentry shop, the size of a small house itself, stood in the backyard. He laughed and leaned over to pick up Jens when he tugged Jared's pant leg. "Hey there, little man."
"'Lo, Red." Jens sighed with contentment and wrapped chubby arms around Jared's neck, hugging him tight.
Things quieted and Stevie watched the twins racing across the backyard. "You spoil those two."
Jared glanced from the one in his arms, to the one playing Pokémon, and beyond into the yard where Xander and Jay were just disappearing into his shop. He gave her quizzical look of feigned innocence.
Stevie gave in with a quiet chuckle. "I meant the twins, but I see your point."
"Spoiling is what uncles do best." Jared admitted. "I'm headed out there now. I'll make sure they don't cut anything off or scroll saw their clothes." He kissed Alex's cheek.
Frowning, Jens pushed at Alex. "Mine Red." He poked out his bottom lip.
When Alex looked inclined to argue, Jared disarmed him with a raised brow and a mouthed 'later'.
Satisfied, Alex ruffled Jen's baby-fine hair. "Sure kid, whatever you say."
"If you ladies don't mind, we'll get out of your way." Clark laid his hands on Stevie's hips from behind and pressed a kiss under her ear.
"Go." She made shooing motions with her hands.
"Funny." Alex threw Clark a narrow-eyed glance that promised payback.
Clark grinned. "I thought so. Come on Jared, let's see what sort of nightmare you've got my boys tangled up in this week."
Jared followed him towards the door, protesting. "What happened last time was not my fault!"
"Good heavens, we're like a hurricane. Why do you keep inviting us back?" Stevie sagged against the nearest countertop.
"A harmless hurricane, so not so bad. There's this huge rush of arriving, then the semi-calm of the visit and then the huge rush of leaving. And then, finally, the calm after the storm. You're the one trapped in the car with them." He grinned wickedly.
Stevie rolled her eyes and picked up some of the egg containers. "Pantry fridge?" she asked.
Alex nodded, and grabbing a few more boxes, followed her. The pantry door stood right next to the fridge and opened into a large room filled with dry goods, kitchen gadgets on the shelves and, on the back wall, all the cleaning equipment for the house. On the right were solid metal doors. One led to a small walk in freezer and the other, a twin of the first, opened into a walk in refrigerator. Stainless steel racks lined the walls, with plenty of empty space for the containers of eggs and the bowl of salad.
Back in the kitchen Stevie closed the pantry door, laughing. "Any woman in America would kill for a pantry set up like that in her kitchen."
Alex glanced at the door as he returned to his carrots beside where Annie chopped celery. "I suppose." He slid his gaze to Stevie. "You know Jared and I will put one in for you anytime, all you have to do is give the word."
"What else needs to be done?" Stevie had little hope Alex would allow the clumsy change of subject. "Did you do the cheese and crackers yet?"
"Nope. The crackers are in the pantry and the cheese is in the bottom drawer of the kitchen fridge." He waited a beat. "You're avoiding the subject."
Stevie retrieved the boxes of crackers and dug out the cheese. She lifted a large silver tray down from on top of the refrigerator and went to work filling it with various types of cheese and crackers. "Guilty. We can't afford something like that." She laughed. "It's an incredible expense, Alex."
He crunched a carrot. "I didn't say anything about paying."
Annie looked at him, wide-eyed. "I don't think Daddy would like that, Uncle A. He says youdotoomuchforus."
The way she ran the words together like one big word made Alex's lips twitch with suppressed laughter. He glanced over at Stevie and she raised a brow and shrugged. "We aren't a couple of guys with high-end jobs and no one to take care of but ourselves. I know you mean well, but we are doing just fine. Me staying home with the kids might not make us rich, but it's the right decision. I love homeschooling. You wish you got to stay home and play all day with such fun little people."
"Sometimes I do wish just that," he confessed, turning back to his vegetable plate with a wistful smile.
Busy cutting bread into cubes to toast for the next day's stuffing, Annie paused to look up, her expression thoughtful. "When are you and Uncle J gonna have some kids?"
Alex looked stricken. His mouth opened and closed, but nothing came out. Enjoying his discomfort, Stevie stifled a giggle and offered no help.
Annie's face flamed. "I don't mean like that. I know what… that babies… I'm not stupid." She closed her eyes and breathed deeply once, twice, and opened her eyes. "I meant adopt, like Mommy and Daddy. We're all 'dopted. You and Uncle Jared can do that. You could get a big girl like me; she can be my cousin-sister. Don't get a boy, they always like Uncle Jared." She went back to chopping her bread. "Do you like your apron?"
Alex blinked and laughed "Yes, I do. Very much, thank you." He tightened the knot he'd tied in the front after wrapping the long strings around his waist twice. The brown apron sported a slightly lopsided turkey embroidered on the bib.
"Good. When you get my cousin-sister, I'll teach her to sew and she can make you nice things all the time." Annie looked thoughtful. "Would you like to get a kid?" She piled the bread into the baking sheet and began to spread it out.
Alex leaned close, his voice dropping to a whisper. "It's a secret so you can't tell, but I'd get one tomorrow if I could. Uncle Jared isn't so sure." Alex reached for the broccoli, his movements very precise.
Stevie grew still, watching Alex with some concern. Alex and Jared rarely had differencing opinions on anything major.
"Oh." Annie frowned, and then glanced up. "Mommy, can I put the pan in the oven?"
"If you're careful." Stevie watched Annie put on oven mitts. Alex kept a pair hanging by the stove for her. He used regular pot holders, but insisted if Annie wanted to use the hot oven she use the mitts. With the bread safely in the oven and the timer set, she turned back to Alex. "What will you do?"
"Annie," Stevie cautioned. Her daughter didn't always know when to let a subject go.
Alex flashed Stevie a reassuring smile. "It's okay." He turned back to Annie. "We'll have to compromise."
Annie looked delighted. "Oh! The day after tomorrow?"
Alex looked puzzled. "What?"
Annie giggled and hugged him hard. "Mom says Uncle J never holds out more than one day when you ask for something." She beamed up at him, grinning and mischievous. "Just kiss him lots." Her voice dropped to a whisper. "That's what Mom does."
Alex feigned a look of horror. "Your mom kisses my Jared?"
"No!" Annie squealed with delighted laughter. "She kisses Daddy. Uncle J doesn't even like girls."
Stevie watched the two continue to play, bantering back and forth. From outside, she could hear the sounds of the boys. Through the glass doors she could see Jared and Jens playing 'Red-plane', Jens' favorite game in the whole world. He flew, arms outstretched, safely tucked under one of Jared's arms. The twins hammered something, laughing and shouting. Kels looked up from his game at the fun going on outside and tossed it aside. He ran outside shouting for his daddy to catch him. Everyone wore jackets against the crisp fall air, and a few red and gold leaves still clung to the huge old maple tree.
The sun caught in Clark's hair as he scooped a laughing Kels into his arms and joined the game of Red-plane. He turned to look at the house, and though Stevie knew there was no way he could see her watching with the glare of the sun on the tinted windows, he grinned and whispered something to Kels. They waved furiously before taking off again.
Her heart so full it felt like it might burst, Stevie thought again how much she loved Thanksgiving. The timer chimed and Stevie turned to supervise Annie removing the toasted bread cubes from the oven. Alex's arm slipping around her waist surprised her and Stevie turned to meet his eyes.
"Thanks for sharing your family with us, Stevie." His expression was so serious she repressed her natural reaction to tease.
"We're all family Alex, you know that. We always have been."
Chapter 2 - Back Home
"Stevie's home." Clark lay in his bed, blankets pulled up to his chest, hands clasped under his head, staring at the ceiling. "Stevie's home." He said it aloud once more, tasting the words trying to give them meaning, but they sounded flat to his ears.
He didn't know what they meant. Stevie was supposed to live at Haven Home for at least a year though she was doing well enough to come home over Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Clark sighed. He knew that, after being attacked and almost killed by her mother, going to live somewhere people could help had been the right choice for Stevie to make, but accepting she need someone besides him had been hard. Now, without notice, Stevie had come home. There hadn't been anything but a hurried call from Alex earlier telling Clark she was back, like a warning. Clark wondered if he needed to be warned. He guessed he probably did. Showing up at Jared's and finding Stevie there would have been a bit of a shock.
She'd written him a few times since she left. Chatty, friendly letters that did nothing to feed his starving heart, and yet there'd been an undertone to the correspondence. A loneliness he could identify with, one that kept him holding on, when any sane guy would have given up.
Letting go wasn't part of Clark's makeup. The slightest hint Stevie needed him, made moving on impossible. Getting away to work out of town over the summer had given him the space and time he'd needed to gain some perspective, but if Alex had expected him to come home ready to hit the dating scene at last, his best friend had been severely disappointed. Living and working with a playboy like Justin White had been an eye opener after hanging out for so long with Alex and Jared. Clark had come away with a clearer picture of exactly what he wanted and it couldn't be found hanging out in a bar.
He wanted Stevie.
Clark closed his eyes, remembering Stevie before the attack, her smile and how she had teased him. After what happened she'd changed, the incident had sapped the joy from her. Clark thought if he could give that back to her, help her rediscover that flashing smile and the laugh that warmed his heart, they'd have a chance. If there was any justice in the world, his love for her would be good enough.
With a sigh Clark threw off his blankets and sat up. He doubted anything about him would ever be good enough for Stevie. No matter what Alex and Jared said, Clark remained convinced part of the blame for what had happened to Stevie belonged to him. He'd promised to keep her safe, and failed spectacularly. If he'd paid closer attention to her instead of focusing on himself, he might have saved her.
Never mind the clues something had gone wrong were clear only in hindsight. He should have known. Stevie depended on him to protect her and he hadn't. The last time he saw her, Stevie had been a shadow of herself… Clark closed his eyes tight refusing to give in to the emotional storm that threatened, knowing in the next few hours he'd be face to face with his failure.
With a deep breath, Clark forced thoughts of personal recrimination from his mind. How he felt didn't matter. Stevie mattered. She needed his support and friendship and she'd get it—no matter what it cost him. He'd go for a run and then head over to Jared's, just like he'd planned before Stevie came back into the picture.
Despite the fact it was still dark outside Clark shed his sleep pants and pulled on a pair of shorts and a tank top. Stepping into his jogging shoes, he grabbed a jacket. Summer lingered but early mornings held a reminder that fall was just around the corner.
His heart just wouldn't shut up. He didn't deserve her, but he ached for her. God, he'd missed her. She loved the fall. The crisp air and the brightly colored leaves, while so many other people saw the season as the herald of the cold, dead winter, Stevie saw only the beauty. Clark barely restrained from slamming the front door and waking the house. Doing so wouldn't close off the avalanche of memories knowing Stevie was home had caused. Starting a slow jog down the walk way in front of his house Clark looked up in surprise when Alex fell into step beside him.
Alex grinned and they hit a familiar rhythm, feet hitting the concrete of the sidewalk the only sound in the night. It was a weird time, too late for crickets and too early for birds. Clark wondered if the frogs at the lake in the park were sleeping too, and then he wondered why he was thinking about frogs sleeping. Obviously having Stevie back in town, breathing the same air, had already fried his brain.
"How'd you know?" Clark asked as they took the turn towards the park.
Alex gave him a sideways glance of exasperation. "How could I not know?"
Clark had to give him that. Literal running had always been his escape from things he wanted to sprint from mentally. "How's she look?" They turned onto the running path that wound through the park and picked up speed slightly on the packed dirt instead of concrete.
"Better than when she left. She's back for good, not just a visit. Jared's kinda mad she quit counseling so soon. He thinks it's a bad decision."
Clark frowned. "And you left her there?"
The sun pinked the horizon, birds began to wake up, and a frog croaked. Oblivious to the world around him Clark imagined little Stevie, alone in the face of Jared's displeasure.
Alex shrugged. "She's the one who came home early. Let her deal with it. It's not like they were going to have it out in front of me anyhow." Alex glanced at Clark, his expression amused. "When I get back she'll be in bed and have her job back. Jared'll be sitting at the table drinking and brooding. Fun times. So how are you?"
Clark slowed to a stop staring at Alex's back as he moved ahead. What the heck?
Alex looked back over his shoulder and frowned at Clark, standing in the middle of the path. He jogged backwards until they were even again. Running in place, he studied Clark's face. "What?"
"Jared drinking at six in the morning? Dude." Clark felt stricken, maybe the whole world had gone crazy.
Alex laughed. "Tea or OJ. It's Jared, you idiot. Did your brain die?"
Clark wondered the same thing as they started jogging again. Maybe it was the result of the fact he felt like he needed a drink. A strong one. Bad. "Do you think she'll want to see me?"
"You guys didn't break up or stop being friends. She knows you're back from that job. I'm sure she expects to see you."
"Can't break up with someone who never wanted you to begin with." Clark snorted a laugh realizing how he sounded. "God, how pathetic am I, anyhow?"
"Hella pathetic." Alex jogged out of reach, managing to dodge the half-hearted swat Clark took at the back of his head. "Stop worrying so much, it's going to be fine."
Clark shrugged but kept moving. Somehow physical exertion helped dull the edge of his concern. "Easy for you to say. You actually get to have sex."
"So could you if you weren't so damned…" Alex hesitated but Clark jumped right in.
"That's one word for it. Clark, you could get out and date a little," Alex said, his tone cautious.
Clark had heard and rejected the advice before. "You didn't."
"Well, no, but Stevie isn't Jared."
Just the way Alex said Jared's name told the story. Stevie wasn't Jared. No one was Jared, or even came close in Alex's opinion. Clark ran alongside his best friend in silence. As they approached the lake, he jogged out over the grass to a stop. He looked out over the water thinking about Stevie. Clark turned back to Alex, meeting his friend's concerned gaze.
Clark gave a half smile of reassurance. "I guess that's the problem. She is to me."
Alex's brow furrowed and he nodded. "Okay, I get it. Guess I've been out of line with the whole 'get dating' thing. I should have realized. It's going to work out, Clark, you'll see. She looks great."
Relieved to have Alex's understanding at last, Clark turned back to the view, watching the sun rise over the breeze ruffled water. Their shoulders brushed, but the silence kept each lost in his own thoughts. Clark wondered if the days ahead held a chance for him to show Stevie his heart, and if she'd want it if he did.