Starting today, every Friday I'll be posting my next free read EXTREME CLOSE UP:
Five years ago, talented photojournalist Jack Templeton took off for Iraq without even saying goodbye to his two best friends, Ally and Carter, after he saw them kissing. In love with Ally himself, he couldn’t bear to stay. Now a call from his high school girlfriend has brought him home. He needs his friends and hopes they’ll support him like they did in the past, although he dreads seeing them as a couple. But things have changed since Jack left. As his problems worsen and he realizes his feelings for Ally haven’t diminished, he struggles with choices between love and friendship, loyalty and betrayal, and saving a life...
My last story, INSATIABLE, attracted a lot of hits to my blog and got a couple of good reviews from readers at Web Fiction Guide Listings Insatiable, so I'm gonna do another one!
Leaving the way he had five years ago was one of the hardest things Jack Templeton had ever done. Since then, the things he’d seen and done had changed him, toughened him...hell, damn near killed him. And yet, coming home might be the hardest thing ever.
Jack checked the address he had for his friends, Carter and Ally. He wasn’t familiar with this part of Los Angeles. Garden City, California where he’d grown up was about a million miles away. He took another look at the map that he’d gotten from the rental car company at LAX and frowned. Yeah, this was it.
He wished he had a better reason to come home. His life was so screwed up right now, he still couldn’t believe it. He’d taken off five years ago to get away from an unbearable situation, and now he was coming home to just as big a mess. After the phone call from Brittany, the mother of all bombs might as well have exploded in his life.
He sat in the parked car for long moments while he worked up the nerve to go in. His stomach tightened with apprehension, his jaw ached. He glanced at his watch. Eight o’clock on a Friday evening. He hadn’t called ahead, so he had no idea if they were even home.
Their home. He rubbed at the tight ache in his chest brought on by thinking about Carter and Ally living together. His mouth tensed with determination. Ally and Carter had been his best friends – they’d be overjoyed to see him again, no doubt. He was just being an idiot.
He climbed out of the car and slammed the door shut, then walked up the sidewalk toward the building, one foot in front of the other, hands thrust in his jeans pockets. The older building had been converted to condominium units, maintaining the Spanish charm and character. The neighborhood wasn’t as upscale as Jack would’ve thought Carter would choose, but decent.
A basket of colorful flowers swayed beside the front door in the evening breeze. Ally’s touch, no doubt. Her favorite color – scarlet. The bright blooms matched the red door. He framed the image into a photograph with his eyes and his imagination - the vivid, saturated crimson of the door and flowers hot against the creamy stucco. Nice.
Again he hesitated before ringing the doorbell. Never mind watching bombs explode, seeing people killed, hearing people cry as loved ones died in their arms…watching Ally and Carter together was going to be the biggest test of his strength he’d ever experienced.
He pressed the button and waited, leaning against the wall. At first he thought he might get a reprieve, that there was no one home, but then he heard the locks on the door clicking.
The door opened and there was Ally.
She stood in the door, backlit by the light inside the condo, her hair a fiery halo, her slim body vividly outlined. It was as if the depth of field was shallow, Ally in perfect focus, everything else blurring out. His breath choked him, his heart pounded so hard he thought it might come right out of his chest.
She stared at him in complete and utter astonishment.
“Jack?” She slowly shook her head, her long, auburn hair sliding like silk around her shoulders.
“Ally.” He forced a smile. He studied the picture she made in the doorway. Her hair had grown longer, her body more rounded and curvy. He used to tease her in high school and college about being a skinny beanpole but now ...wow.
Her eyes had always done him in, hazel eyes sparkling with green, gold and brown, and had the ability to see right inside a person. Those eyes now stared at him, wide with shock and disbelief.
“What are you doing here?” Then she blinked. “God, that sounded rude.”
“But a perfectly good question.” He tried to sound light-hearted and friendly. “I’m home.”
Again, she shook her head slowly, then apparently realized they were still standing at her front door. She stepped back and held the door for him.
“Uh ...come in ...”
“Sorry I didn’t call.” He stepped inside, his gaze moving around. “I didn’t know if you’d be home on a Friday night.”
She gave a little laugh that he didn’t know how to interpret.
His initial impression of their home was color – vibrant and alive, like Ally.
He walked in further and Ally shut the door behind him. She led the way into the living room, furnished in an eclectic mix of antiques, refinished junk and new furniture. His photographer’s eyes took in the red walls and patterned carpet on the floor in shades of butter yellow, pale blue and red. Furniture upholstered in stripes, checks and solid red and yellow fabrics could have been wildly garish, but instead looked warm and comfortable.
“Nice place.” Especially compared to the tents and shacks he’d slept in over the years. Of course, there had been five-star hotels in Paris, London and Cairo as well, but not so often.
“Thank you.” She pushed a hand through her hair and continued to stare at him. “Please, sit down. Can I get you a drink ...?”
Yeah, he could use a drink right about now. “That would be great. Whatever you’ve got.”
Hey, she remembered his beverage of choice. “Sure.”
She disappeared through another door and he took a seat on the sofa. His gaze moved from framed photographs on the wall, over a display of ruby, topaz and sapphire-colored glass bottles, to an overflowing bookcase. A fat candle sat on the ancient trunk that served as a coffee table, burning with a lazy flame and filling the air with an exotic floral scent – jasmine? – that took him back to the Middle East.
Ally returned with two bottles of beer. “I didn’t know if you’d want a glass,” she said. “I can get you one...”
He shook his head and took the proffered drink. “No, this is fine.”
“You always drank from the bottle,” she murmured. She sat in a chair across from him. She took a quick sip from her own bottle and looked at him...coolly. Hell, her gaze could inflict frostbite.
He’d expected a warmer welcome from his best friend after being away for five years. After all, it was him struggling with this whole deal, not Ally.
“Where’s Carter?” he asked, tipping the bottle to his lips. The sharp cold fizz tickled his throat as he drank.
Again she stared at him with confusion. “Carter? I have no idea.”
Now it was his turn for his mouth to drop open. “Huh?”
She and Carter had been living together for almost five years. Yet she didn’t know where he was?
She still stared at him, those amazing eyes pinning him there, and he started to sweat. “You don’t know where he is?” he asked stupidly.
She shook her head slowly, her slender brows drawn together. “Carter and I split up almost two years ago.”
Holy shit. That was not what he’d expected. He struggled to keep his face expressionless even as something - gladness? relief? – fizzed up inside him.
“I’m...I’m sorry,” he finally managed to say. “I had no idea.”
Why the hell not, was his next question. He and Carter had kept in touch over the years by e-mail. Not every day, or even every month, but he’d heard about Carter and Ally moving in together, Carter’s promotions in the prestigious law firm he worked for. He definitely would have remembered Carter telling him that he and Ally had split up. Weird.
“Well, how would you? Since we never heard from you.” The ice in her voice and her words took him aback.
He swallowed hard and gulped down a healthy swig of beer. “But I did keep in touch with Carter.”
She shook her head, a crease between her eyes. “No, you didn’t. You just took off without even saying good-bye, never told us where we could reach you, what you were doing. You could have been dead, for all we knew.”
“Carter knew where I was,” he told her with bewilderment. “I e-mailed him. I e-mailed him a lot.”
She stared at him, eyes huge. “No. He would have told me. We talked about it.”
Now he shook his head. “I don’t know what’s going on,” he said firmly. “But I did e-mail Carter. He wrote me back with your news. I knew you two had moved in together.” He rubbed his forehead. “But he never told me that you’d split up.”
“I don’t get it either,” she said, her voice still frosty. “But it doesn’t matter. You never e-mailed me.”
That was true. Painfully true. They’d been best friends and he’d never contacted her once since he’d left.
“I’m sorry, Ally.” He made the apology but didn’t want to offer any more explanation. She looked at him with an almost hurt expression on her face.
“Never mind.” She waved a hand, sipped her beer. “It doesn’t matter.” She still looked unsettled and ...well, pissed. “So, tell me why you’re here, suddenly showing up out of the blue.”
He pressed his lips together and looked down at the beer bottle clasped in his hands, the glass icy smooth beneath his fingers. “Well. I have a bit of a problem. Hell, that’s an understatement.” He thrust a hand through his hair, looked everywhere around the room but at Ally. “I have a huge goddamn problem.”
EXTREME CLOSE UP Chapter 2