“I’m sorry, what?”
A frustrated sigh met my question and I fought the urge to take my annoyance out on the owner of the said sigh.
“For the third time,” Ryan grumbled, “Do you want to see one of the movies that are on the syllabus? Or do you want to do a book report first?”
I stared at him blankly, having no idea what he was talking about. The entire concept of studying for my classes seemed inconsequential these days. Ever since Teagan had dropped on me that his ex-girlfriend would be moving to Florida, my concentration levels were crap. In the past week I had missed several classes and fallen behind on my homework. My Russian class was one of those. Judging by the look on his face, Ryan wasn’t very pleased with this. He sighed loudly again and I realized I still hadn’t answered him.
“It doesn’t matter to me.” I pulled out the assignment paper and studied the options we had.
“Okay. What the fuck is going on here?”
I whipped my head around and stared at him in shock. “Excuse me! What did you just say?”
He slammed his textbook shut so loudly that it echoed through the library. He shot the library aide a dirty look when he received a loud shush for it. I raised an eyebrow at his actions as I waited for an answer.
“Look, it’s like this,” he began. “For the last week or so, you have been totally out of it. You’re spacy, not paying attention to anything anyone says and you’re completely not paying attention to anything I just said, are you?”
“Wh…” I floundered around for a moment before I slumped in defeat. “No, I’m not. I’m sorry.”
He studied me for a long moment in silence. I found that I couldn’t meet his gaze for long and I dropped my eyes from his. Under his continued regard, I found myself fidgeting. Finally the scrutiny got to me.
“What?” I demanded
Ryan narrowed his eyes. “Don’t what me, sugar.” He sat back in his chair and crossed his arms over his chest. “What’s going on with you?”
I flushed at his question. “Nothing!” I burst out. At the aide’s loud shush again, Ryan huffed a breath and scratched his chin.
“Yeah, I don’t think so. I think,” he said, as he shifted in his seat, “that this has something to do with Aldridge. He’s been just as out of it as you.” He gave me a considering look. “Does this have to do with him having a kid?”
I froze and looked at him in shock. How did he know about that? Teagan and I had kept quiet about it. We’d discussed it and decided it was no one’s business. My surprise must have shown because he shook his head.
“There are no secrets in college, sweetheart,” he stated. “But just so you know, Aldridge having a kid isn’t something that everyone knows.”
I frowned. “Then how do you know about it?”
He chuckled as he looked down and picked at something on his jeans. “Honestly? I heard it from your brother.”
My jaw dropped at his announcement. I quickly regained my composure, but felt anger replacing the shock. What the hell? Connor was spreading his best friend’s business?
“Easy, Aislinn,” Ryan cautioned. “It’s not what you think. I overheard him while he was on his phone.” He picked up the assignment paper and glanced it over before he continued, “And I haven’t said anything to anyone.”
I blinked in surprise. “You didn’t?”
“No, I didn’t.”
I sat there, confused. “Why not?”
It was his turn to look at me in surprise. “It’s not my business. If Aldridge wants people to know, he’ll tell them,” he informed me. “At any rate, it doesn’t change the fact that you’re acting like a space cadet. So, what gives?”
I hesitated before answering and he waved me off. “Don’t worry about it, sugar.” He tossed the paper back down on to the table and stood up, scraping his chair back loudly. “For the record, I’m a pretty good listener. So if you ever want to talk…” he trailed off.
I gave him a tense smile in response.
“Yeah, that’s what I figured,” Ryan said with a frown. “I’ve got practice. Pick what we’re doing for the first assignment and email me.” He gathered up his stuff and I had the distinct impression he was upset. I watched him, bewildered, as he tossed his book and papers into his backpack.
“Yeah, sure, I can do that,” I assured him. He paused and gave me a long look before he sighed.
“You know, Aislinn, the worst part is that you don’t even have a clue.” He pulled the backpack strap up onto his shoulder. “I’ll talk to you later”
I watched as he walked off completely confused. After he exited the doors, I glanced around the room in a daze. A lock of hair fell out of my ponytail and into my eyes. I pushed it out of my way impatiently. It was then that I saw how badly my hand was shaking. At that moment I could honestly say I didn’t know which had shook me up worse – Teagan or Ryan.
* * * * *
The ringing of the phone that night broke my concentration and I frowned. I had managed to force myself to start on some of the work I was behind on and now I was being interrupted. A quick glance at the number calling, however, had me answering the phone excitedly.
“Where in the hell have you been?” I demanded
A brief silence followed before Penny replied with a soft, “I’m sorry.”
“You’re sorry?” I repeated in disbelief. “You disappear on me for almost two months and all you can say is you’re sorry?”
“I know –“
“No you don’t know,” I cut in. “I had no idea what the hell was going on. Do you have any idea how worried about you I’ve been?” I took a deep breath. “What the hell, Pen?”
“I just… I needed some time, that’s all”
“Time for what?” I demanded
“I needed time to deal with what happened with Connor.”
That answer stopped me in my tracks. “What?”
“Ash, you have no idea how hard it’s been,” she explained. “You and Teeg are so happy, so in love… it killed me that I couldn’t have that with Connor.” I heard her swallow hard. “For five years I’d hoped that it would happen. Then it seemed like it would… But that was shot all to hell,” she muttered.
“I’m not understanding here,” I informed her.
“I needed to separate myself from him completely. I realized that when I helped you move. I needed to move on,” she answered.
“And to do that you had to disappear on me? Not tell me anything?” I was pissed. I had never been so angry with her before.
“I should have told you what was going on. I’m sor – “
“Don’t you dare apologize to me again, Penelope Sutters!” I cut her off.
“You’re angry with me,” she observed quietly.
I snorted. “Gee you think?” I knew I was being a smart ass, but I couldn’t help it.
“It won’t happen again. I promise,” she said. “I’ve missed you”
I felt myself begin to cave. She was my best friend and I could kind of see where she was coming from. Kind of. I was still pissed off at her though. And I told her as much. “You’d better not ever do something like this again, bitch! This fell into the total ‘not cool’ category.”
“I know,” she said, abashed. “But I have some news for you…”
The excited expectation in her tone alerted me that something big was coming. I scooted back on my bed until I could brace myself on the headboard. Once settled, I sucked in a deep breath and took the bait. “So what’s the news?”
“Well,” she then paused for dramatic effect. “I’ve been seeing someone!”
I could have woken up at that moment with my lips stapled to my forehead and been less surprised. “Um, what?” I had to have heard her wrong.
“Aislinn, I know you heard me,” she scolded. “Stop that!”
I pulled the phone from my ear and checked to confirm that it was Penny on the phone. I drew my eyebrows together when I saw it was her number. I had stepped into an alternate dimension or something. “I’m not sure I actually did hear you right. You said you’re seeing someone?”
The sigh she heaved over the phone spoke volumes. “Yes, I’m seeing someone. A guy even,” she joked.
“But you always said you’d only go out with…” I trailed off as I realized what I had been about to say. Unfortunately she picked up on it before I cover it up.
“Do not,” she told me firmly, “even bring that up, okay?”
I gave a jerky nod before I remembered that she couldn’t see me. “Yeah, sure. Not a word, I promise”
“Thank you!” She let out a breath that I suspected she’d been holding.
In the silence that followed, I cast about to find something to break the sudden awkwardness. My thoughts finally centered on what she’d said. “So, are you going to tell me about him?”
It seemed that was all she needed to launch into extolling her guy’s virtues. I sat through the next thirty minutes as she went on and on about some dude named Landon. While he seemed like a great guy based on what she was telling me, I was only partially tuned in. The surprise of her truly moving on from Connor had me reeling still.
“What’s wrong, sweetie,” she asked me abruptly.
I floundered around for a moment, cursing the fact that I hadn’t been paying attention. When nothing came to mind the old standby seemed an excellent option.
“Cut the crap, Ash. I know you too well.”
She had me there. “Yeah I know you do,” I admitted with a sigh.
“So spill it,” she demanded. “You better go ahead and tell me now. Otherwise, this can get painful.”
It may have sounded like a threat, but I was well aware that it was a promise. Penny had the secret now, she could be relentless. That was the problem when you had a friend like her; she could beat out the CIA when it came to ferreting out information. She’d definitely missed her calling as a special agent. With a sigh, I gave in.
“A lot has happened since I last saw you Pen,” I picked at the fringe on my throw pillow absently. “I don’t even know how to start.”
“The beginning is a pretty good spot,” she stated.
I let my head fall back and rest against my headboard and stared up at the ceiling. I squinted at the small stain that I spotted on it and gathered my thoughts together. When I heard the red head’s deep sigh, I just decided to rip the Band-Aid off.
“Teagan has a kid,” I blurted out.
Now I won’t lie, I had imagined several times how this conversation would go. Shocked anger, surprised indignation… it had run the gamut of outcomes. I did not however, expect what I got.
Utter and complete silence.
“Hello? Penny?” I pulled the phone away and glanced at it to make sure that I hadn’t lost the call. The quick look showed that, no, we were still connected. “You there?”
“You’re screwing with me, right?” she finally responded. “Right?”
“I’m being totally honest right now.” I answered her.
“What the hell?” There was the reaction I expected. “I mean, I just… what?” the shocked disbelief dripped from her words. “He has a kid?” she practically yelled.
I nodded before I remembered that she couldn’t see me. “I’m one hundred percent for real right now. He just got the DNA results back and the kid’s his.”
“Oh my God!” She paused and I could picture the look on her face. I had a feeling I’d probably matched the one I’d had when everything first happened.
“Okay, wait. Hold on a sec, I need to take this in for a minute.” I listened to her take several deep breaths before she continued. “Wow! This is major, Ash. Like, hardcore serious. How are you? What do you think about all of it?”
That’s part of what I loved so much about her. She always saw to the point. “Well, I was all right at first. Surprised of course. But now, I just… I don’t know.” I pursed my lips for a moment then heaved a sigh. “It’s complicated.”
“It’s complicated,” she drawled.” “Uh huh. So what’s complicated with it? Besides everything about it, that is.”
“I was dealing with it all pretty well, you know? Teagan and I had talked it out, he explained who the mother is and what she was to him. I mean, it was a lot to take in, but I love him. I had to accept it; it’s what you do when you care about someone,” I told her.
“So what happened?” she prodded.
“Teagan got the DNA results and we found out for certain that she’s his. He has a daughter by the way,” I clarified. “Anyway, I was expecting that. It was finding out that his ex, Lauren, is moving out here from Seattle that’s made things complicated.”
“What?” she screeched. “Are you shitting me?”
“God, I wish I was,” I said.
“Why? Why is she moving there?”
I closed my eyes, squeezing them shut tightly as my fingers clenched at some of the fringe on the pillow. I realized what I was doing and forced myself to relax and open my eyes. I swallowed hard then answered, “The lawyer said it’s because she wants to finish her degree up out here.”
“Oh really?” Penny said with patent disbelief. “But you don’t think that, do you?”
I hesitated before I answered as I really thought about my response. “No, I don’t,” I admitted.
“Because it doesn’t make sense!” I blurted. “I mean, she waits five years to file for support and then she does a mid-semester transfer? You don’t just do that!” I finished, breathing heavy. “I think there’s a hidden agenda.”
Penny was quiet for a moment and then exhaled before speaking. “I think you’re right, hon.”
Out of everything she could have said, those were the last words I would have expected. Those five words rendered me speechless. The only thing I could do was open and close my mouth and make strangled noises as I struggled to form words. Speech was beyond me at that moment, however.
“I know I should probably tell you that you’re overreacting and stuff,” she carried on, oblivious to my shock. “I can’t though. When you explain it like that, you’re right. It does sound fishy.”
“Uhh…” I honestly didn’t know what to say. I was so used to her telling me that I was crazy or being over the top that I didn’t know what to say when she wasn’t doing that.
Penny gave a wry laugh. “You okay, hon?”
I finally snapped out of my consternation. “I’m not sure.” I shook my head and smirked. “I never thought I’d see the day you’d agree with my doom and gloom. I don’t know how to react.”
I could hear her shifting around over the phone before she responded. “Well, I never thought I’d see it either,” she confessed. “But you made a good argument.”
“That doesn’t make me feel better for some reason,” I stated. “I’d really rather you told me I was crazy.”
“I’m sorry,” she really didn’t sound it, however. “I think honesty is better here. Have you told Teagan what you think?”
“Not yet,” I said as I shook my head. “I don’t know how to. I don’t want to add to the stress he’s going through right now.”
“That’s understandable,” she acknowledged. “You need to tell him, though. You two need to be on the same page.”
“I know,” I admitted. “He just has so much on him right now. It’s his senior year and he has work and lacrosse…” I trailed off. “I don’t know how to bring it up.”
“Well, you better figure it out,” she retorted. “This isn’t something you should sit on.”
“Okay I’ll make sure I do it soon,” I promised.
“You better, bitch. Otherwise I’m coming down there and smacking some sense into you!” she teased.
I snorted at that one. “What? You gonna break my nose too?”
Penny burst into laughter. “You got it, chica!”
We talked for a few more minutes then said our goodbyes, being sure to make plans to talk again soon. After she hung up I sat there lost in my thoughts. I didn’t know what to do. Penny was right; I had to be honest with Teagan. But the thought of that conversation made my stomach churn.
* * * * *
“So, I found out some stuff today,” Teagan announced. It was two days since my talk with Penny and I still had not spoken with him about my concerns. I turned from where I had been washing the dishes to look at him. One glance told me that this wasn’t going to be an easy conversation. His hair was messier than usual, telling me he had been running his hand through it like he did when stressed. His face was tight from tension and his gray eyes reflected a worry that concerned me.
“What are you talking about?” I asked, immediately on guard.
He sighed deeply and leaned against the counter beside me. He crossed his arms over his chest before glancing at the tiled floor. I watched as he chewed on his bottom lip and my anxiety went a little higher. “Teagan?”
He lifted his head and stared at the wall for a moment before he finally spoke.
“Lauren called me today.”
I froze in mid-rinse of the dish I had been washing. I gaped at him in disbelief. “I’m sorry, what?” There had to be a misunderstanding here. He did not just say what it sounded like.
He nodded, still not looking at me. “That’s sort of how I felt.”
I carefully set the plate aside and then sat my hands on the edge of the counter. “How did she get your number?”
“From my father, apparently” He sighed and shook his head. “It seems in these situations, you have to be very clear what info can and cannot be shared where he’s concerned.”
I frowned and stared down at the soapy water as I took in what he said. “What did she want?”
“She said that she wanted to talk to me before she got out here next week. That she wanted to know what my life was like before she brought Corrine into it.”
I snorted. “She’s about five years too late on that one, isn’t she?” Then what he’d said registered. “Wait, what? Next week?”
He nodded. “Yeah, they’re going to be here next weekend.” He lowered his arms and shoved his hands in his pockets as he shifted his weight. “She wants me to have dinner with them when they get in.”
My eyes narrowed as I read between the lines. “Let me guess. Just you, right?”
The way he sighed and his head lowered told me what I needed to know. “Teagan, look… I think we need – “
“I told her about you, Aislinn. She knows about you and that I’m with you,” he interrupted. “So, if that’s what you’re worried about, don’t be.”
I studied him in silence. He somehow managed to look defeated and tense at the same time. Despite his words making me feel better, it was time that I said my piece.
“I appreciate that. It makes me feel better. Really,” I began with. “But that’s not what I was going to bring up. Baby, I suspected before and now I’m sure; she’s up to something.” I turned to fully face him. “None of this makes sense!”
“What?” I would have laughed at the confused look on his face if my anxiety levels hadn’t been so high.
“Really?” I glared at him. “I know you’ve had a lot going on, okay? But you can’t tell me that you haven’t really looked at all of this.” I gestured at him in impatience. “She shows up after five years to tell you that you have a daughter, she moves out here with no notice, she calls you out of the blue? None of that seems odd to you?”
He raised a hand to rub the back of his neck while not responding.
“Seriously?” I threw up my hands in frustration.
“In my defense, I’ve had some crap going on lately,” he snapped back.
I shot him a look. “You’re always telling me to watch out for motives and stay alert.” I reminded him. “Well, now I’m telling you, be careful. This whole thing screams ulterior motive.”
He shook his head and snorted. “You’re being paranoid, baby. Lauren might have been wild, but she wasn’t manipulative.”
I scowled at him, incredulous, “Jesus! What the… What’s wrong with you?” I demanded.
“What?” he asked, his forehead furrowed in confusion.
“You were an asshole player that went through girls like someone with the flu would go through tissues!” I exclaimed. “You changed. How do you know she hasn’t changed, too?”
He looked at me in surprise. I raised an eyebrow in response. “That’s what I thought,” I fumed. “You hadn’t considered that, had you?”
He shook his head and opened his mouth to say something. I held up a hand to stop him. “Don’t,” I ordered. “Don’t try to justify it, just fix it. You need to be careful where she’s concerned. You can’t trust her. Not yet anyway.”
“You’re right,” he agreed. “I didn’t think about it and I should have.” Teagan reached over and tugged me to him. “I guess it’s a good thing I have you around to watch my back, huh?” he said with a grin.
I balled up my fist and thumped him on his chest. “And don’t you forget it!”
“You know,” he said as he wrapped his arms around my waist, “I do believe this classifies as an argument, wouldn’t you agree?”
I was confused but nodded. “Yeah, I guess so, why?”
With that he flashed me a cheeky grin. Before I could react, he bent his knees, slung me over his shoulder and strode toward to the door. When I shrieked in surprise and beat his back, he silenced me with a quick smack on my rear.
“Quiet,” he ordered.
“What the hell are you doing?” I demanded, clutching at his back as he started up the stairs. I watched Zver lazily lift his head to look at us as we passed, but layback down. I glared at the traitorous animal.
“We had a fight,” he said in a tone one would use if they were speaking to a child. “Now it’s time to make up.”
“Oh,” I said as what he said sank in.
“Yeah, Oh.” With that he entered his room and shut the door. Had anyone been watching, they would have seen my grin at his words. I might have also shoved the door shut for him.