The tone of the event hadn't been one that encouraged people to get wasted and hang around, so by nine thirty or so, most everyone had left. Alex saw that Dean's father, Joel, was getting up out of the chair he'd been in most of the evening, so she walked over and gave him a big hug.
"I'm sure glad I got to spend some time with you this evening," he said as he patted her back. "Make sure you send me some emails when you get a chance."
She smiled. "You know I will, but I told you, you need to get a social media account so you can see everything I'm doing. Being stationed in Italy I think I'll have more time and ability to keep up with that sort of thing."
"Oh, Alex, I'm an old man. I don't have any use for that sort of thing."
She pointed at herself. "Your use is right here. Keeping up with me."
"I'll think about it," he said with a wink. As Dean's father, Joel Troyer had become like a grandfather to Alex over the years. He'd always taken her to breakfast on her birthday, gave her ten bucks for every A
on her report card, and even taught her how to drive a car. She adored him.
Watching Dean and Charlotte say goodbye to Joel and discuss going over to his place for lunch the following weekend, it suddenly hit her that she would be leaving in less than forty-eight hours. Alone.
A weight came over her then, her legs suddenly feeling as if they might give out. Turning, her eyes flickered around, looking for somewhere she could retreat to and find a moment of privacy. Her eyes burned, her vision beginning to blur, as she finally saw the door to the left of the bar. She took off, her heels clacking along the wood floor so loudly in her ears.
Sucking in a deep breath she opened the door, relieved to realize it was the small retiring room that vendors used to hold their gear and eat dinner, and nursing mothers used to evade the crowd. Two sofas faced each other, and Alex collapsed onto one of them, her face instantly falling into her hands.
Her chest heaved in and out with gasping breaths as she tried to get her emotions and her thoughts under control. This was the second time this week this had happened. She assumed it was a panic attack, and each time it had come out of nowhere. She pinched her eyes shut.
The sound of the door opening made her want to groan. Why right now?
"Alex?" a deep voice said.
She turned her head, still keeping it rested against her hands. "Hey."
Taking her word as an invitation, Jake stepped in and closed the door behind him. "You okay? I got worried when I saw you rush in here. I'm sorry I've been behind the bar for so long."
She gave him a weak smile and sat up straight, grateful the interruption had seemed to force her lungs to get control. Had he been watching her? "I'm fine, Jake. It wasn't your job to babysit me tonight."
"I didn't mean it like that," he said. She knew that and regretted saying it. The last thing she wanted was to hurt his feelings after he'd been so sweet tonight.
"I'm sorry. I just..." Blowing out a deep breath, she tried to hold in her tears as he sat down on the sofa across from her and leaned his elbow on his knees.
His brow furrowed as he looked at her intently.
"I can be doing really well. Feel happy and normal, but then the sadness just hits me out of nowhere. Like...for a moment I'd forgotten that Nate is dead, and then I remember. I remember everything. The pain. The fact that I'll never see him again." Her voice broke on the last few words, and he got up and moved to sit beside her.
Instantly he wrapped his arms around her. Without hesitating she turned into his chest and let her arms snake around his waist. That was all it took for the tears to flow. The strength of his body made her feel safe enough to break down, her shoulders shaking with her tears. And still he held her. She'd almost forgotten what a strong man—who wasn't her brother or her dead fiancé—felt like, and just for a moment she let her eyes close and pretend that she was holding
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