I'll Be Waiting by Michelle Ziegler

“Well, that’s just not a good idea.” Angela bit the top of her pen before crossing out more doodles. No one needed, or rather, no one should see that.

“What?” Rebecca asked from behind her.
I'll Be Waiting
I'll Be Waiting by Michelle Ziegler
Angela glared over her shoulder. “What? What? Stop sneaking up on me.” She inched her fingers over to cover up a few scribbles that shouldn’t be seen by her best friend. “You said it was a bad idea. So, what was a bad idea?” Flicking her eyes over the paper, Angela went with something close to the truth. “Spin the bottle would be a bad game idea for Nic’s send-off party.” Rebecca snorted. “Uh, yeah, that was probably a bad idea after junior high. So really, what was the bad idea?” Angela nibbled the inside of her cheek. She couldn’t actually answer her over protective best friend. Rebecca took the caring thing to a whole new level. The comment about spin the bottle had been an idea that should never have left Angela’s head. Unfortunately, she’d been in her own little fantasy where she’d finally been able to kiss Nic’s warm and soft lips. His scent was the same as always, something deep and woodsy. Her day-dream had coiled itself until desire settled in the pit of her stomach. What could she say? Her imagination had improved after years and years of daydreaming. Terrible party game ideas had only manifested after she’d grown desperate and needed to figure out how to actually have a chance with Nic, Rebecca’s brother. He was off limits for a million different reasons. It hadn’t stopped Angela from pining away for the past who knows how many years. “Just about anything I am thinking is a bad idea.” She stopped and quickly back tracked. “For the party. Anything I am thinking for this party is a bad idea.” Rebecca laughed. “I’d doubt that. You are a great planner and you’ve never thrown a bad party.” “Really? The last party I planned was back when we were ten.” Angela set the pen down on the table, swiftly followed by her forehead. “Why does he have to go on another deployment?” Rebecca shrugged. “He feels a sense of duty, I guess. I don’t know. He doesn’t talk to me much about it. Maybe if we could get him to find the right woman, he’d finally stay. I think he can retire from the Navy in a few years.” The room suddenly lacked any and all air. Angela’s hand flew to her chest as she gasped for breath. It never seemed to hurt less that Rebecca couldn’t see Angela as a possible match for her brother, or that she’d been in love with Nic since before a training bra had actually been necessary. She pinched her eyes closed and tried to wipe away the mental pictures of him finding someone else, kissing anyone but her. “Right. Yeah. Great idea. You work on that, and I’ll finish writing down what we need for his party.” The air slowly came back to her, but the ache in her chest made a deep breath impossible. “Angela, can you try this for me?” Looking up, she shook her head to clear the hurt and pain from her face. “Yes. Sure. Try what? Should I be worried?” “Ha,” Rebecca said. “It’s a sandwich recipe I found on Pinterest. Thought it might be good for the party. It’s pretty easy to make. Here, take it.” Angela eyed the golden brown square. It looked edible, but it wasn’t like either of them were gourmet chefs. History had proved itself over and over again with a few bouts of food poisoning and multiple kitchen fires. “Oh, good grief. It’s not going to bite you. Try it. Right now it’s warm, and my concern is what if it’s cold.” Angela hesitantly picked it up as the fridge open behind her. “Better get me a soda or something, just in case this doesn’t go well.” Nic’s laughter boomed through the kitchen. “Bec’s cooking again? Remind me to eat before this shin dig.” Angela’s lips twisted into a grin. She tried to hide her amusement and her excitement at Nic’s voice. Chapter Two Nic’s stomach rumbled. He intended to eat his sister out of house and home before being sent to the desert, where he’d be lucky to survive off the awful crap the military qualified as food. “Hey, Angela, any more of that banana bread you baked?” “What? Ouch.” He turned to find Angela rubbing her knee. “What? Did the table attack you?” She scowled, something that might have been menacing if it had been his sister. “No. You’re a jerk and you scared me.” “I think you’ll survive, though. So, back to the bread thing. Do you have any more?” She shook her head and her glower turned into a grin, one that always hit him right in the gut. He’d kill to take that smile with him, or at least the promise that she wouldn’t smile at anyone but him until he returned. “I just brought you two loaves. I don’t even think your mother or sister got any.” He leaned against the counter. “They don’t need the calories. Ask them.” He stopped as Rebecca’s fist met his shoulder. “Well, you don’t, that’s what you tell me every freaking day I’ve asked to go for ice cream. How often am I even home? So what? Ice cream is out, but bread is okay?” “Whatever.” Rebecca rolled her eyes at him and he couldn’t help himself. He yanked her over and mussed her hair. That always got her riled. Rebecca growled. “You are such a jerk. Keep eating all that bread and you’ll need a diet, you ass. You’re such a bad brother. Angela, I’ll be right back. Watch him. I have to go fix my hair.” She stormed out of the kitchen. Nic shook his head. “I’m heading to a desert. I gotta get the goods while I can, little sis.” “Nic. You shouldn’t do that to her. She has enough emotional issues, don’t remind her that she thinks she’s fat.” He sighed “Yeah, yeah. I know. She’s just such a control freak. Sometimes I’m glad I’ve been stationed three hours away, or she’d be driving me crazier. You’d think she was the older sibling.” He rubbed the back of his neck as he eyed the coffee pot. One more thing his sister seemed to control was Angela. He couldn’t stand it, but if the past proved anything, he would lose that argument again and again. His chest gave a painful reminder just how much he hated the situation of being able to date nearly any girl he’d ever wanted, except the one right in front of him. Giving up on figuring out what to eat, Nic headed for the coffeepot. He was really going to miss good coffee. If the government wanted better results during their missions, perhaps they should spring for the good stuff. “Maybe you should save some room for water in the pot?” He set the bag of grounds aside. “The only way to make coffee is to make it strong. You know better than that, Ang.” He flashed her his best smile, the one that usually got results. Not her, though. He walked around half naked and noticed a flush to her cheeks, but nothing else. The woman had the strongest resolve he’d ever met, and damn it if it wasn’t frustrating as hell. He filled the coffee pot and poked the brew button. Turning to face her once again, he bit his lower lip, the pain giving him a distraction from where his thoughts wanted to go. Mentally, he swore as he realized his brain would wander no matter what he wished it would do. The only way he’d ever have Angela would be in his fantasies. “So, are you a plus one?” He quirked a brow. “A plus one?” “Yeah. Weren’t you seeing some dippy girl?” She paused, and he took in the flash of pink racing across her cheeks. “Sorry. I meant, some beautiful and leggy blond?” He couldn’t help it. A laugh shook him from head to two. “A dippy girl, huh? Is that what you thought of her?” Angela nibbled her lower lip and her brow creased. The action brought his attention to her full pout. Her lips were amazing. No dippy girl had ever had a mouth like hers. It begged to be kissed. “Crap. Sorry. That’s not what I meant to, I mean. Oh, for the love. Sorry. I’m sure she was Nice. I just couldn’t remember what Rebecca had said her name was. Let’s face it, I didn’t think she’d stick for long anyway.” A twinge hit him in the gut. “Yeah, well, what’s there to say? I get bored easily.” Angela nodded. “Yeah. You get bored and leave a trail of broken women behind you. Anyway. Plus one? Yes or no?” He rolled his eyes. “They aren’t broken. They know when they get into a relationship that I don’t have any plans for the future. I take it one day at a time.” Or just waiting for you to get over my sister’s crazy no dating me rule. “Yes, Nic. That’s all great. You’ve told me this time and time again as I sit and listen to you about the breakups. Or worse yet, you ask me to breakup with them for you. I don’t appreciate that by the way.” Nic scoffed and reached into the cabinet for a mug. “One time I asked you to breakup with a girl for me and I’ll never hear the end of it.” He could actually feel her crossing her arms behind him. He knew her well enough to know her face was contorting into a million different expressions trying to settle on the right one to intimidate him. It never worked. She wasn’t scary. “Well, it still was low. I don’t care if you were a trillion miles away. You could have waited until you got back.” Nic shifted his weight and leaned against the counter. “You know why. Next time a guy proposes to you over mail and you’ve just spent the last few days sitting in a ditch, I’ll make you figure it out on your own.” Angela scowled and then seemed to lose a battle. A smile spread over her lips and her eyes lit up. “Yeah. Okay. It was kind of sad and funny all at the same time. I mean, who thinks about marriage after three months, especially when you had tried to break it off before you left. She was Nice, but a little clingy, I guess.” He smiled back. “Thank you. Every guy needs an Angela to stroke his ego, or whatever it is you do.” She waved him off. “So, plus one or not?” Turning to the coffee pot, he grabbed the carafe. “No. No plus one.” He glanced over his shoulder, trying to see her reaction. He was shipping out in two days. You’d think she’d finally just get over her fear of his sister. Like Rebecca would ever abandon her right arm and best friend. Angela had been around for as long as he could remember and, in the last few years, he’d noticed Angela. Really noticed her. Apparently, Rebecca has seen her as well, realized he had a thing for her and stopped the chance of a relationship by playing on Angela’s guilt and her unshakable loyalty. He couldn’t see Angela’s face and it was for the best. He didn’t want to get his hopes up anyway. “Well, I better go get dressed I suppose. I told Bec I’d pick up a new propane tank and I still need to hit the gym,” Nic gritted his teeth. He needed gym time. Sleeping in the same house as Angela always made his resolve crack and splinter to a point he itched to knock down her bedroom door. She was supposedly moving out of Rebecca’s house, and he hated that, but it would be a hell of a lot easier to stay here if she did. Chapter Three Angela checked her email for any additional RSVP’s. She clicked through a few and rejoiced each time it wasn’t a girl. She’d extended all the invites as requested from Rebecca, from Rebecca and Nic’s mom, and from Nic himself. He’d actually only asked for his best friend. Angela practically jumped for joy at the news. She tapped on her keyboard, adding items to the to-do list. This was his second deployment and it wouldn’t be any easier. At least they could have a BBQ to help him say goodbye to everyone. Too bad there wasn’t much that would help her. She recounted the responses. They’d need to get more hamburger buns. Angela glared at the one name she’d hoped wouldn’t RSVP. Too bad Rebecca had insisted on inviting his ex, or one of his exes. The girl didn’t deserve him and she didn’t deserve to be there either. Not on the last day Angela would see Nic for months. Rebecca waltzed back in and grabbed a seat. “My mother wanted me to pass along she is bringing her deviled eggs. I tried to talk her out of it, but well, you know how that goes over.” Angela stretched as she took a break. “Whatever. Most of the food will be inside on the counters anyway. Too many bugs and the heat is bad this summer. Besides, people sometimes like her eggs.” Rebecca smiled. “That’s why I love you. You always make everything work. Sort of the go with the flow kind of girl. I, on the other hand, thought about threatening my mother with having her invite revoked for ignoring our menu requests.” Angela shrugged. “You know it would crush her. Besides, she’s already replied to the e-invite with foods from the list as well.” “Some days I think you’d be a better daughter than me. So, how many people so far?” Angela smiled. “It’s easier for me to be her daughter since my parents are pretty difficult to get along with. Anyway, it looks like twenty-seven so far. That includes you and me. It’s probably pretty close to a final count.” She sighed. “Oh, Lord. Now what?” Rebecca asked as she swiped Angela’s soda. “Gee. Help yourself.” “Thanks. I will. And what’s that sigh all about?” Angela rolled her eyes. “Why did you insist on inviting his most recent ex, what’s her name, Jo or whatever. Thank goodness you didn’t go down the list and invite all of them. This would be a bigger disaster.” Rebecca shook her head and pushed back the can. “It’s Josie, and she called me a couple of weeks ago. I agreed to have lunch with her. After all, I was somewhat friends with her before she decided to date my brother.” Angela couldn’t hide the surprise. Her pulse kicked up a notch, and she lost all feeling in her extremities. So not what she wanted to hear. Everything was heading southward. Straight for suck-island. “And what? She felt the need to rekindle your friendship?” Rebecca gave her a sideways glance. “Uh. No. Well, yes. See this is why I hate him dating anyone I know, or want to keep in my life. She practically begged me to help get Nic back. He apparently won’t answer her calls.” Angela’s jaw popped as her teeth were clenched. “Well, I think he’s done with her. Hence the breakup and not answering her calls. I went and saw him right after the breakup and he seemed fine. I don’t think she meant much to him.” Before she’d realized it, Angela had mangled a pen cap she didn’t even remember picking up. Oh, well. Rebecca glanced at her, skepticism written across her features. “Right. Okay. I know you care for him as much as I do, but at least she’s pretty normal. I figured I’d invite her. If she can get his attention again, maybe he’d see he made a mistake. He’ll be gone for a while, might as well let him make sure. And again, if he realizes he has someone back home waiting, maybe he’ll retire sooner rather than later.” Angela took a few deep breaths. She’d hidden her feelings and the horrible ache in her chest that she didn’t want to admit ran deep. It would destroy her friendship with Rebecca if she ever acted. This was not the time to out herself either. Nic was deploying again, and Rebecca was her best friend. It was best to not rock the boat, not since they needed each other as they went through another stint of worrying about Nic’s safety. “Fine. Whatever. This might make the party awkward, because of course, she RSVP’d yes. I know he’s over her.” Angela thought back to her last trip to the base and his apartment. She’d met him and a few of his friends at a bar for the night. Nothing had happened, no matter how much she needed it to, but he’d confessed that this latest girl hadn’t been any more right for him than the last four. She always wanted to believe there was more to his words. Her imagination worked overtime some days. Wondering if maybe he was trying to tell her despite how many women he came across, none would be right because she was the one he desired. “Angela? Hello?” “Huh? Oh. Sorry. Were you talking?” Rebecca scrunched her eyebrows together and pursed her lips. “What is wrong with you?” Straightening in her seat, Angela nibbled at the inside of her cheek. “Nothing. Sorry. Just preoccupied. This whole thing seems to have taken on a life of its own. It went from a casual BBQ to nearly a huge party. We need to get another speaker for outside. I don’t think one will do it.” Rebecca appeared to buy her friend’s absence. “Oh, good idea. Alright. We’ll, I have to go grab the last minute food additions so I can grab that as well. I’m heading out. Text me if you think of anything else.” “Sounds good. Shutting down. I’ll start prepping the food for tomorrow while you’re out.” Angela closed the screen to her laptop and pushed it away. Her heart ached more than it had yesterday. Saying goodbye sucked, and it was worse when she said goodbye to the man she knew would always be the love of her life, even if he never knew it. Chapter Four Music filled the tiny house, spilling into the backyard and enveloping the guests. Angela smiled at the turnout. Nic certainly was popular. Four other soldiers flanked him as they’d sauntered onto the patio, their presence commanding attention. Nic walked over and grabbed Angela, picking her up in a bear hug. “Hey there, Tink.” She rolled her eyes and slapped at his hands until he returned her feet firmly to the ground. “You know I hate that nickname.” He chuckled. “Yeah, yeah. I just love the look on your face. Besides, you had to be the cutest Tinkerbelle ever.” She licked her bottom lip. “I was ten and don’t forget your sister conned you into being Peter Pan. I could call you Pan. Do you really want to be reminded that you wore tights?” His chuckle turned into a full laugh. “Awe, calm down. Don’t embarrass me in front of the guys.” As she faced him, her breath caught in her chest. Could he be any better looking? Last night, sometime between cutting watermelon and making rice crispy treats, it hit her just how badly she would miss him this time around. “No. I promise I won’t embarrass you,” Angela replied. Their gazes met and her lungs revolted against breathing. She could drown in the deep blue of his eyes. Her brain repeated how much she didn’t need to lose Rebecca. She tried to remember the drama and trouble Rebecca had caused Nic’s previous girlfriends. Her heart struggled to care. Pushing her desperate longing aside, Angela paused and nibbled at her lower lip, a smirk forming. “You generally need no help in that department.” His eyes twinkled. “Nice comeback. It only took you half a minute to come up with it. Thanks for the vote of confidence, Ang, or should I call you Tink?” Angela turned away from him. She couldn’t risk losing herself again without risking doing something stupid. “So. I. well.” Good. She was an articulate, pinning, nut-job. Before she could finish her thought, a tall skinny blond bimbo sidled up next to Nic. “Nicy. I’ve missed you.” Angela chuckled as Nic’s features went slack. “Angela?” he said through clenched teeth. She shrugged. “It wasn’t me. Promise.” “Nicy, why don’t you answer my calls?” Josie asked. Her finger traced Nic’s jaw before he batted her away. Angela was thankful at that moment for not having a drink; she’d have spit it out at the look on Nic’s face. She couldn’t watch this. As she turned, she whispered to him, “Blame your sister.” Chapter Five Nic rolled his head from one side to the other, trying to release tension. “Josie? What are you doing here?” He peeled her off his arm and grabbed Angela’s. She had let his sister do this, she’d help him out of it. Josie glared. “Your sister and I ran into each other the other day. She mentioned this great little party over lunch. I had to say goodbye.” Nic hadn’t a clue what was going through the girl’s head. “Yes, you could not have come. Break ups usually give you an out for not go to the other person’s party. A breakup is a pretty decent goodbye.” Her thin lips stretched into a line. God, he hated her lips. He’s always felt like he was kissing a skeleton or something. Nic glanced next to him, his eyes finding Angela’s mouth. Honestly, Josie was beautiful, but she would ever be Angela. He imagined the feel of kissing her, the warmth of her mouth against his. His pants seemed to tighten at the idea and he quickly envisioned kissing Josie again to tame the beast. Being around Angela, wanting her and not being able to touch, kept him in a steady state of frustration. “Now, Nic. We both know you broke it off because of this deployment. I want you to know, though, that I promise I’ll be fine. I’ll wait for you. Really.” Josie shifted toward him and he stumbled back. “Ouch! I’m still here, remember?” Angela started to topple. He reached out and grabbed at her shoulder before Angela could fall over. “Yeah. Sorry.” He quickly took hold of her upper arm and pulled her in front of him. Josie nearly ran into her. “Oh. Gee’s, Nic.” Angela swatted at his hand on her arm. “Uh. Hi, Josie. Apparently, he just had a stroke. We should probably go get him some water or something. Nic, are you feeling dizzy?” Keeping a straight look on his face, Nic went along with Angela. “Yeah. Dizzy. Water would be great.” Josie looked like she’d just sucked a lemon, but she backed away. “Oh, okay. Well, come right back. I’ll be here.” Angela turned around, forcing him to release her. She pushed him quickly away and toward the patio doors. Once inside, she turned on him. “Don’t you ever put me in the middle, ever, ever again.” Nic suppressed the laugh bubbling up inside. “If she comes over again, I need my buffer. So yes, I will literally be putting you in the middle each and every time. It’s your fault my sister invited my most recent stalker.” Angela’s eyebrows shot up, and she poked her finger into his chest. “Oh, no you don’t. You’re the one leaving a trail of broken hearted woman behind you. I told your sister you wouldn’t want her. It’s not my fault you didn’t tell her that yourself.” He backed up into the counter and stopped, leaning against it. Fighting with Angela was always amusing. “Right. Because I had any indication my nut-job sister would decide inviting an ex was a great idea. Aren’t you my wingman?” Nic regretted his words as he watched the light in Angela’s eyes dim. What the hell had he done now? “Wing man. Right. Of course. I was supposed to tell you when your sister did something stupid, or help you at the bars. Right. Got it.” She backed away from him slowly, babbling. She only did that when she was hurt or nervous. Nic reached out, and she sidestepped his grasp. “Ang. What did I do now?” He pulled back his arm and rubbed the horrible tightness behind his pecks. That woman could drive him insane and he hated to see her upset. He could handle the riled up Angela, the one who spit fire. He couldn’t handle the version that made him realize he’d failed to protect her. “Ang, I’m not sure what I said, but yes. That’s what friends do. You’re pretty much the best friend I’ve ever had.” His eyes caught movement at the door. “Hell. You’re way better looking than Banks here,” Nic nodded to the door. Angela turned to greet one his brothers. Nic had served with the hard-ass for more years than he could count. He trusted the SOB with his life until he saw the look on Banks’ face when he saw Angela. Nic stopped and assessed what he’d missed. Angela wore a strappy, yellow number with some kind of pink flowers. There were a few buttons that drew his attention to her cleavage, an area he’d tried to avoid, along with her butt, her hips, her mouth, her eyes, and her hair. Crap, he sucked at this platonic thing. Clenching his jaw, he attempted to squash out the pain growing in his groin and the heat settling in his stomach. “Banks. Don’t you have somewhere else to be? There’s a tall crazy blonde out there that you are welcome to.” His friend laughed. “Yeah. I saw her and then I saw you duck in here with this one.” He flashed Angela a smile that made Nic’s blood boil, the heat in his stomach racketing up a few notches. “Angela, maybe we can finish up the conversation we couldn’t at the bar last time you came down.” Nic studied her face; he didn’t want to see anything there but indifference. He knew it was wrong to stop her from meeting a guy that might actually be good for her. Guilt should have hit him every time he talked down any guy she dated. He’d been the cause of a lot of breakups, but what would he do if she dated Banks? His brother in arms and one of the best men he knew. He’d seen something at the bar and had an easy time ignoring it. What the hell could he do here, though? Angela smiled at him and gave Nic a sideways glance. “You are such a flirt, Banks. Go grab a couple of beers and we’ll be right out.” A searing pain shot through his skull as Nic watched her reach up and whisper in Banks’ ear. Nic had no idea how long he’d stood there when Angela’s face appeared in front of his. “Nic? Breath. You’re not breathing. Why aren’t you breathing?” He shook his head and stood straight. His biceps ached, and he realized he’d tensed his entire body. “Let’s go back out to the party,” was all he managed to say. Angela turned to the door, sliding the screen aside. “Come on. It’s your party. After you.” He rocked his head side-to-side trying to release the pressure in his muscles. “Yeah. Right. Sure.” Chapter Six Nic took a long pull from the bottle. The icy cool beer flowing down his throat hadn’t done anything for his mood after the first three bottles and, odds were, the next this one wouldn’t help either. He’d probably hurt tomorrow. Might as well let his body feel the way his damn heart would if Angela didn’t turn away from Banks. All rational thought came to a halt as he watched her shapely legs run around the party. She’d been catching his attention ever since he’d been stupid enough to actually notice her tonight. At least she wasn’t with Banks anymore. He knew she was beautiful inside and out, but no one else was supposed to see it. The fact she’d been his little sister’s best friend up until the last few years and then crossed into being his friend as well should have made him stop wanting from wanting more. The trouble was, they were treading some gray waters. She was the person he called any time he was bored, tired, excited, anxious, or hell, just anytime. The beer grew bitter the longer the night went on. Her yellow dress now scorched into his corneas. No matter where she was, he knew and, at the moment, she was once again with Banks. Angela laughed and her hand touched his chest. This wasn’t going to work for Nic. Not even a little. “Nic, are you okay?” He studied the pair a few seconds longer before turning to the voice behind him, another of his brothers in arms. “What? Yeah, sure.” The guy chuckled and slapped him on the shoulder. “Does Banks know your attempting to murder him with telepathy?” “Man, what are you talking about?” Nic tried to brush off the idea that someone had noticed what he was doing, whatever it was. Jealousy that accurately described the wretched nausea. He was so damn jealous, he should have been a dark shade of green. “Why don’t you just go tell her?” Nic licked his bottom lip and took another sip of beer. The attempt to reign in his frustration, fruitless. “Mind your own damn business.” His brother clapped him on the back one more time and mumbled, “At least tell Banks, and try not to kill him before we lift off. We need his ass.” “It’s not his ass that is going to be in trouble if those hands don’t remain on the beer,” Nic grumbled. His friend laughed unchecked and Nic’s face heated to a boiling point. Chapter Seven Out of the corner of her eye, Angela caught movement. She removed her hand from the solid man in from of her. He was a warm body, a very good looking warm body. There was no sense of loss after she stopped touching him, though. There hadn’t been a lot of comfort either. She turned in the direction she’d seen the blur, the last thing she needed was someone getting sick on Rebecca’s plants. Her eyes flew open as a very pissed off male charged at her. “What the—?” “Angela, I need to see you.” Nic reached for her arm. Surprise and confusion flooded her as his hand clamped down forcefully on her wrist. “Ouch. Nic. Let go.” He grunted a few words and loosened his grip a bit. “Oh, sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you.” This wasn’t a Nic she recognized. “Okay, Nic. Sure. Uh, Banks I—” Nic cut her off abruptly. “Banks, she has something to do. Go over and get some feel good hugs from someone else.” Angela stumbled as Nic gave a tug for her to follow. What is the heck was wrong with him? Fear replaced surprise. Did he just get bad news about his deployment? Had his ex done something stupid? A myriad of questions raced through her head and she forced her feet to keep up. Nic stormed into the kitchen. “What are you doing with him?” His voice practically shook. Angela paused several steps behind him. “What? Who?” Nic ran his hands through his hair, his back still toward her. The muscles so tense, they showed through the dry-fit shirt he had on. Moments passed. Hesitantly, she approached him. “Nic? Are you okay?” He turned to her, his face red and his eyes, the beautiful eyes she’d memorized, appeared sadder than she’d ever seen. “Banks? What—” He stopped himself and took a deep breath. “What do you think you are doing with him?” Angela never got angry, but the idea he was questioning her about a guy, about Banks. Someone he swore was one of the best guys he knew, really hurt. He wasn’t allowed to act like a brother. She didn’t want a brother, but he couldn’t be anything else. “Nic. You aren’t my guardian and you aren’t my brother. I’m an adult and you’re a big boy. I think you can figure out what I’m doing.” If she didn’t know him so well, she’d have missed the rage that flashed across his chiseled features. “Don’t you talk to me like that, Angela.” She eyed him, his fists clenching continuously by his sides. “Oh, my God. Back off. You’ve always told me what a great guy he is, but what? Is it that I’m not good enough for him? What am I, too much a train wreck for someone like him? Your sister seems to think so, why not you? Fine. You know what? Whatever. I’ll leave him alone.” Her jaw started to ache, forcing her to release the muscles clenching her molars. “What the heck are you talking about, Angela?” His voice sounded calmer to her. Too bad she was already too angry and hurt to care. He’d always steered her away from guys, always pointing out the bad choices she was making, but this time, she knew she’d made a good choice. He might not have caused butterflies to swarm her stomach like Nic did, but he was nice and safe and he was a warm body to fill the void. “What? This time, it’s not me making the bad choice? This time, it’s Banks you should be warning off. I have to go do something.” She spun on her heel. “What? What do you have to do? Get back here. I’m talking to you.” His voice echoed down the hall to her room. She started to slam the door as a thud sounded against it. “Damn it, Ang. That hurt.” Nic rubbed his head. His foot remained in place against the base of the door, keeping her from closing it. “Oh, crap. I’m sorry.” “Move over. Let me in,” he said, ignoring her apology. Stepping away, she riffled around grabbing clothes off her bed and tossing them into the closet. She didn’t really care what Nic saw, he’d seen her room worse, but at the moment, she hadn’t a clue what to do with her hands. “Ang, stop.” The door closed behind him. He approached her, determination in his step. Her heart beat against her ribs harder and harder with every inch. He moved in and grabbed her hands. “Stop. Just stop.” The words a growl to Angela’s surprise. “I’m sorry. I’m not handling this right. I’m not doing anything right.” She studied the lines of his face. Her fingers ached to trace and memorize the planes. “What Nic? What aren’t you doing right?” Her voice sounded breathy to her own ears. He moistened his lips and her body reacted to the seemly innocent action, watering at the idea of touching her lips to his. She crossed her legs, attempting to stave off the sensations he invoked, trying to squelch down the feelings running through her body like a runaway train. “This. Angela. You. I’m messing this up.” The words made little sense to her. Her mind derailed for a moment and went down the less traveled path. Does he think of me as more than just a friend? “I’m sorry, Nic. What are you talking about? How does someone mess another person up?” She bit her lower lip. Her eyes flitting across his face, trying to remember each line, every inch that made Nic handsome in his own way. Her heart ached knowing this was goodbye again. She prayed it would only be for a few months and he would return home in one piece. “I don’t know. Just us. Whatever us there is or could be. I don’t know.” He paused and her stomach twisted. “I uh…I have something for you. I’ll be right back.” He turned and practically sprinted out of her room, hollering back. “Stay, Angela, I mean it.” Angela’s gaze scanned the space. She was excited to move soon. She finally had a down payment and couldn’t wait to have a chance to start a life of her own. Not that she wanted a life separate from Nic, but she needed to get some space to finally see her life for herself, and maybe find someone. Rebecca was too close for her to discover what she’d really want in life. Blowing out a breath, Angela flopped onto her bed, forgetting the idea of cleaning. She fidgeted with a loose thread on her bedspread, trying to wrap her mind around Nic’s crazy behavior. She’d never seen him act that way. Sure, they’d had fights, but this one had been different. He seemed the eye bulging crazy-mad, rather than just mad. She swallowed down hopes of what any of it could mean. He wasn’t hers and never could be. Rebecca made it very clear where she stood on Nic and Angela dating. It was off limits, or Angela would lose her best friend. Nic seemed to jump back into the room and she instantly noticed the difference. The air was electrified by his mere presence. Angela sprang up from the bed. Something was changing and she didn’t know what. Her heart, ever the traitor, beat out of control. The sight of him in the doorway, the boy-next-door with edge, always made her weak in the knees. He would forever be the man she’d compare every other man to. Nic was her fantasy. The anger that had stained his face a moment ago had disappeared, replaced by something else. As he stepped closer to her, she noticed tenderness in his eyes. Her breath caught with each stride. The nearer he came, the harder it was to breathe. Time stopped. She couldn’t look away. He reached out to her and traced the fingertips of his free hand up her forearm. Chills pebbled her skin where his touch had been. He cleared his throat and glanced down, breaking the spell. “Here.” He practically thrust a roll of fabric at her. She blinked quickly and reached for it. “Okay. What is this? Am I supposed to sew you something for deployment?” He rubbed the back of his neck. “Just open it.” Angela did as asked, squelching a smile when she saw what it was. “It’s the shirt I borrowed the night last time I was with you,” she said. He shifted his weight. “Yeah. It is. I thought maybe it would remind you of me.” Her eyes darted around his face, confusion clouding her thoughts as his cheeks tinted red. “Or rather, you know. It was the shirt you wore when you needed to get over that last breakup. I thought it would give you comfort, a reminder of a good time.” The confidence he always exuded was betrayed by his eyes. Angela’s heart nearly stopped. Bringing the shirt to her nose, she took a deep breath. It smelled like him. What did this mean? Why would he give her any false hope? If her heart weren’t so disillusioned by the idea that he might secretly love her, she may been angry he was giving her reason to hope. “I don’t think I understand. I mean, yes. It will remind me of something much more positive, but still. You don’t have to.” How could she say it would remind her of him when she wasn’t allowed to want Nic. He stepped closer to her and placed his hands on her forearms. She closed her eyes as the warmth of his body comforted her. “I don’t have to, you’re right. The problem is when it comes to you, I want to do anything and everything to see you smile.” Her heart skipped in her chest. “And, Ang?” A feather light touch traced her cheek. “When I get back, I hope you’re the first one I see.” No words could ever express the explosion of joy, desire, and longing within her. She opened her eyes to take him in one last time to tide her over for however long it took him to return home. “As long as you promise to come home, I’ll be waiting.”

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