“I know you don’t want to be here, but I’m happy you are,” Oliver told her as he draped his arm over her shoulders. “I hate that we don’t spend time together anymore.”
“I know. Me too,” Andi admitted. “But I’m glad I came out tonight to help you celebrate your dirty thirty. It seems like just yesterday we were graduating from high school.”
The mention of high school nearly brought tears to her eyes. Memories, both good and bad, began to play like an old movie reel in her mind. Shaking her head, she tried to clear them away. She wasn’t there to reminisce about the good old days she was there to help her friend celebrate his birthday.
“You know, it doesn’t have to be that way. We were all friends once, we could be friends again,” Oliver said optimistically.
Even though Oliver knew all about what happened between her and Braeden, he still hoped they’d be able to go back to the way things were. After the disastrous night at the restaurant, Braeden had distanced himself from Declan even more, refusing to go over to their house, even turning down tickets to sporting events. Braeden started spending the little free time he had with Oliver instead, which apparently led to one drunken night where Braeden bared his soul. To say Oliver had been surprised was an understatement. When Oliver confronted Andi about it, she broke down in tears, even though almost a year had passed.
Since the moment Oliver found out about what happened, he’d tried his hardest to get them all back together. He’d even offered to clear up what happened in the restaurant, but Andi turned him down. If things were going to ever change between her and Braeden, they were going to have to be the ones to initiate it. Not their friend, no matter how well-meaning he was.
“No, we can’t. Too much has happened. Too many things have changed. It’s okay though. I’ve got a lot to keep me busy,” Andi lied.
What she wouldn’t give to go back to the way things were. She hated that she no longer hung out with the guys. She felt responsible for the fact that they never hung out at her house anymore. And she knew without a shadow of a doubt that she was the reason that her brother’s relationship with Braeden had deteriorated into something more akin to frenemies instead of the best friends they used to be.
“Thanks again for letting me bring a friend even though she ended up bailing at the last minute.”
“Hey, you could have brought ten friends as long as it meant you were going to show up. I’m glad Erin had a sleepover tonight so you couldn’t use her an excuse to get out of coming.”
“Hey, I wouldn’t have…”
“Yeah you would have, but I get it. I won’t take it personally. I know this can’t be easy for you.”
Andi leaned into Oliver as she took a deep breath, then let it out slowly. It wasn’t easy for her. Not by a long shot. She had no idea what to expect when she saw Braeden again. It would be the first time since the night of his celebration. Over the last five years he’d done everything he could to avoid her. He was so desperate not to see her that he stopped attending Erin’s family birthday parties and instead opted to take her out for dinner just her and Uncle Braeden. The first year he’d done it, Andi cried herself to sleep. The second year, she got angry, but that barely masked the pain. After that, Andi tried not to care and eventually, she was able to fake indifference.
“Oh fuck,” she barely heard Oliver mutter over the music pumping through the club speakers.
Andi didn’t need to follow his gaze to figure out what had caused Oliver’s body to tense up. She actively fought against looking over toward the stairs that led to the VIP section they currently stood in. She knew what she’d see and if Oliver’s murmured curses were any indication, it was her worst nightmare. Not only had he shown up, which duh, of course, he would, but he’d brought a date. For the first time in her life, she was going to be forced to see Braeden with someone else.
Bile rose in her throat, coating the back of her tongue. If just the thought of seeing it did that to her, she could only imagine what would happen when it was right in front of her face. Andi tried to pull away from Oliver, but he tightened his arm around her shoulders. She looked up at him, her eyes pleading with him to let her go.
“I’m so sorry, Andi. I didn’t know he was going to bring someone.”
She shook her head, tears filling her eyes. “I…I can’t stay, Oliver. I’m sorry, but I can’t. I don’t want to…”
Placing a kiss against the top of her head, Oliver pulled her in for a quick hug, then let her go.
“I get it. I’m sorry. If I had known…”
“It’s okay. Happy birthday, Oliver,” she said quickly before fleeing toward the back VIP staircase.
She hurried down the stairs, her movements blurry behind a sheen of tears. She heard someone calling her name behind her, but she didn’t stop to see who it was. The back staircase led to the far end of the dance floor close to where the hall to the bathrooms was. Knowing that she was about to break down, she opted to head toward the ladies room first. She could hide out in there for a while until the tears died down, then she could make her way across the crowded dance floor toward the exit.
Andi made it halfway to her destination before someone grabbed her arm and spun her around. The music was so loud in the club and she’d been so lost in her thoughts she hadn’t heard anyone approach her. She was so caught off guard she didn’t have a moment to react before she was face to face with the one person she didn’t want to see.
“Didn’t you hear me calling for you?” Braeden asked as he leaned into her.
“Let me go, Braeden, please,” she begged, her eyes dropping from his face to the floor. She wasn’t ready to see him. It hurt too much.
“Andi, look at me. I just want to talk to you.”
The words shot a bolt of anger through her body. “Oh like I wanted to talk to you all those years ago. The night you ripped my heart to pieces. Yeah…not sure I want to go through that again.”
He cringed at her words but didn’t let her go. “Look, I’m sorry about that night. I…I thought you were going to push me away again, so I did it first.”
“I was going to tell you that I wanted another chance and you made me feel like all I was to you was a warm place to stick your dick.”
“Jeezus Andi. I didn’t know, okay. I’m sorry I was such an ass that night, but that’s in the past. I want to move forward.”
“Move forward? Really?” Andi scoffed. “What does that even mean to you, Braeden? You brought a date, so does that mean you’re looking to move forward with her? If so, you’re in the wrong place.”
“I only brought a date cause Oliver said you were bringing someone with you,” Braeden yelled as he let go of her arm and ran a hand through his disheveled hair. He gripped the back of his neck as he started pacing in front of her.
“I was only going to bring a friend from work, but even if I was bringing a date, what was your plan? Bring another woman into the picture to make me jealous? To maybe see what I’d been missing out on? What part of playing games says moving forward to you, Braeden?”
“Fuck, Andi. I’m not trying to play games. I just…I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know how to get things back to the way they were.”
“Maybe we’re not meant to.”
“That’s bullshit and you know it. I knew at thirteen that I was going to marry you and I’m still as sure of that now as I was then.”
“Too much has happened…”
“I don’t believe that.”
Andi sighed. “Go back to your date, Braeden. Forget I was even here.”
“You know I’ll never forget a single thing about you, Andi. One day we’ll get this right. I promise you that,” he said before walking away.
As she stood in the hallway near the ladies room, Braeden’s words played on a continuous loop in her head. She felt the hope that had once crumbled to dust in her chest start to knit itself back together. She had no idea if he was right, but she wanted him to be. More than anything, she longed for the day that his promise could become a reality, but she wasn’t going to hold her breath. She’d go on living her life, as usual, knowing that whatever was going to happen would happen.
But she wouldn’t forget what he said or how it restored something he’d stolen from her five years earlier.