Jack followed behind Ally, admiring the curve of her butt in her jeans despite his muddled thoughts. His gut churned for a myriad of reasons. He was curious about seeing Ally and Carter together, curious and afraid, worried he would see something between them that he’d rather not see. He was also damn interested in what Carter had to say about the e-mails they’d exchanged over the last five years and his failure to tell Ally. And how would Carter feel, ringing the door of the home he had once shared with Ally?
“Ally,” Carter said, stepping into the hall, his voice surprisingly warm but cautious. “I haven’t seen you for so long. You look beautiful as ever.”
“Thanks.” Her voice as frosty as the beer she’d been drinking. “How are you?”
“Great.” Carter’s gaze moved around Ally to Jack. “Jack! Buddy! I can’t believe you’re here!”
He moved to him with open arms, and they exchanged a male hug, Carter slapping Jack’s shoulder.
“Man, you look good, too,” Carter said, studying Jack.
Jack smiled tightly. “Thanks. You too, bud.” Carter hadn’t really changed much at all, other than the expensive haircut, Patek Phillippe watch and quality clothing. He was dressed casually in chinos and a golf shirt but Jack could tell they’d cost a bundle.
“You’ve bulked up, buddy,” Carter commented, eyeing Jack’s shoulders and chest. “I can’t believe you’re here.”
“Come in, both of you,” Ally invited, and led the way into her living room. “Would you like a beer, Carter? Or something else?”
“Do you have any Scotch?”
“Maybe.” She went to a small cabinet that housed a bar, found a bottle and poured a glass of amber liquid for him.
“Thanks.” He took the drink and seated himself in an armchair. Jack sat on the couch. Ally went to get another beer for her and Jack, and both men watched her leave the room, then looked at each other. A million unspoken thoughts and questions filled the silence.
“How was San Diego?” Jack asked casually, crossing one ankle over his knee and leaning back into the couch.
“Uh...fine. Great. Things went well there. Big corporate case I’m working on right now.”
“You’ve done well at...what’s the name of the firm? Chipman, Barratt?”
“That’s right. And, yeah, I’ve done pretty well.”
“That’s great. It’s what you always wanted.”
“Yup.” Carter paused. “And you too. Photography’s going good?”
Jack nodded slowly, lips pursed. Did Carter even know successful he’d been? They’d exchanged e-mails but, not one to brag, Jack couldn’t remember if he’d told Carter about all the awards he’d received, the big money his photos commanded. Whatever.
Ally returned and handed a bottle to Jack, then sat beside him on the couch. She sat close beside him on the couch. He didn’t mind, but wondered if Carter noticed.
“So,” Carter said, looking at them with a smile. “This is pretty amazing, isn’t it? The Awesome Threesome together again.”
Jack showed his teeth in a grin, and saw Ally nodding beside him out of the corner of his eye. Their old high school nickname brought back memories – the three of them working on the yearbook together, the school newspaper, going out together as a big group with Brittany, Jenn, and Ally’s boyfriend Jeff all through high school. They’d shared a lot of fun times, but some rough ones as well, and both good and bad had bonded them.
“What brings you back to the States, Jack?” Carter lifted his glass to his mouth.
“Well, that’s a long story.” He glanced at Ally, met her gaze, turned back to Carter. He was too impatient. He needed to know.
“Before we get to that, Ally and I have been wondering ...why the hell didn’t you tell her about all my e-mails?”
Carter blinked, his face neutral, blinked again. He looked at Ally and she stared back at him, waiting. Then he gave a wry smile. “I should have known you’d ask about that. I’m really sorry about that, Ally. I only did it to protect you.”
“Huh?” She frowned.
He nodded, leaned forward, glass between his hands. “I knew how hurt you were that Jack took off without even saying goodbye. When he finally e-mailed me about where he was, I just thought it was better to not say anything.”
“How could you possibly think that?” she whispered, eyes dark with confusion and pain.
He shrugged, leaned back in his chair. “It seemed the best idea at the time. You were hurt, angry...I thought it would just make things worse if I told you Jack had contacted me, but not you.”
Jack shook his head. “I assumed you would tell her,” he said. “I asked how she was doing, told you to say hi from me. You never once mentioned she was pissed off at me, or hurt.”
Carter looked surprised. “I didn’t?” He shrugged. “I don’t remember you asking about her. You’re going back quite a few years, Jack.”
“Yeah, that’s true. So you’re saying you thought you were doing Ally a favor by not telling her about my e-mails?”
“Yeah. That’s right.” He glanced between Jack and Ally. “You two have obviously talked about this. When did you get into town?”
Jack smiled slowly. “Friday night.”
“Ah.” Carter would now know they’d had ample time to compare notes about what had happened. He nodded. “I’m sorry if I caused any problems, really I am. I had no idea. I just thought I was looking out for you, hon.”
Carter’s use of the endearment for Ally jabbed at Jack. His fingers tightened on the cool smooth bottle in his hands.
“I really thought it was best.” Carter looked so apologetic and concerned that Jack almost relaxed a little. Carter seemed sincere and it sounded plausible enough. But Jack wasn’t quite the blindly trusting fool he’d been five years ago.
Jack waved a hand, forced a smile. “Water under the bridge,” he said lightly.
He felt Ally glare at him and knew she wasn’t prepared to forgive and forget that easily. Amusement curled through him despite the tension. Ally wasn’t quite the little peacemaker she’d always been. And if she wanted to be pissed off at Carter, Jack was good with that. He could sense her animosity and if he was completely honest, he’d rather she felt that way about Carter than any other...softer...way.
“I’m also curious about why you never told me you and Ally had split up,” he told Carter.
Carter’s mouth twisted in a crooked smile and he lifted a shoulder. “Well. That wasn’t something I was really happy to talk about. It was embarrassing. It was...well, I was kind of messed up after that. I...took it hard.”
Jack felt Ally tense up even more beside him. He nodded. “Yeah, I can understand that, I guess.”
“Carter, what do you mean, you took it hard? You were the one who cheated.” Ally’s mouth was a straight line and her hazel eyes flashed. One corner of Jack’s mouth kicked up.
Carter shrugged. “I made a mistake, Ally. I told you that. It didn’t mean I didn’t love you.”
Jack did so not want to hear this.
“The truth is...” Carter smiled with a mix of sadness and embarrassment, met Jack’s eyes. “I kept hoping Ally and I would get back together. I guess I thought if I didn’t tell you we’d broken up, it would be like it never happened.”
Ally just shook her head. “That’s ridiculous. We barely even talked after we split. Only to sort out legal stuff about the condo.”
“Well, I know you didn’t believe me,” Carter said. “But I was still in love with you, Ally. I told you that.”
She nodded. That much was apparently true, at least. Ugh.
“Well,” Jack said, not wanting the conversation to go that direction. “Anyway. The reason I’m here is...” And he told Carter about Brittany and Sarah. Carter looked as shocked as he and Ally had been to hear Jack was a father and hadn’t known it for nine years.
“Holy shit,” Carter said slowly, gripping his glass. His eyes moved around the room. “So, out of the blue she contacts you and drops that bomb on you?”
Jack nodded and told him about Sarah. “Anyway,” he shrugged. “I had to come home and I thought it would be good to see you again.”
“Well, yeah. Of course. Listen, man, let me know if there’s anything I can do. You’re going to need a lawyer. She’s probably looking for support for the last nine years, which you do not have to pay, since she didn’t even tell you about the kid.”
Jack stared at Carter. “I don’t need a lawyer.”
Carter met his gaze. “You will. This could get ugly. You have to know she’s after money.”
Jack shook his head. “No. I don’t think so.”
“I didn’t get that impression, either,” Ally said, her gaze moving back and forth between the two men. She nibbled her bottom lip. “I think she just wants Brittany to know her father.”
Carter laughed. “You two are so naive. Just because Brittany was a sweet little teenager, just because she’s an old friend, doesn’t mean she she’s not after something here.”
Jack and Ally shared a dubious glance. Jack should have known Carter would have a different take on this whole situation.
“Well, I’m here if you need me, buddy,” Carter said. He set his empty glass down on the table. “It’s been great seeing you again, too bad it’s under such difficult circumstances. How long are you here for?”
“I don’t know.” He and Carter both stood, the visit apparently at an end. “Depends on when Brittany decides to tell Sarah who I am. A couple of weeks, at least. Hey, I’ll call you this weekend. Maybe we can get together again.”
Jack walked Carter to the door, Ally hanging behind them, apparently content to let him play host with Carter.
When the door closed behind Carter, Jack turned back to look at Ally. How was she taking this? Did she still have some feelings for Carter, despite her assertions that they were over a long time ago.
Extreme Close Up Chapter 17