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Alex stepped onto the old wood-and-metal freight elevator in the Stag distillery. The party upstairs was already well underway, leaving her alone to try and recall how her brother, Dean, had taught her to use it. She pulled a small lever, tugged at the door to make sure it had latched, and then pushed the big red button. The well-used gears groaned as it began its ascent.
Conversation and soft music filtered down through the wood floor and stone walls. Alex closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She’d told herself on the drive over that she would not think about how she was supposed to have gotten married here just a couple of weeks ago. Hard to do when she could hear the tinkle of glass and the laughter of people milling about. Just like they did at a wedding reception.
The Stag hosted a lot of events and receptions. Although Alex’s brother and his two partners, Jake and TJ, had gone into business to make small-batch liquor, fate had its own agenda, and they’d also ended up becoming one of the most successful wedding and event venues in the Kansas City metro. It was the perfect business model that no one had seen coming. They set up their distillery in a gorgeous old building with an amazing second floor where they could hold events and serve their liquor. Nearly every Saturday they earned themselves new customers.
Tonight, however, they were celebrating themselves. After half a decade in business, they were uncasking their signature distilled products. The bourbon and whiskey had been aging in oak barrels for five years, waiting for them to debut it to their customers. Until this point, they’d been selling unaged white whiskey and vodka.
Even Alex, deployed for most of this time, knew they’d been a great success. Tonight was a big deal, and even though her current personal circumstances were nearly crushing her, she was grateful she could be here to celebrate with her brother.
Her left thumb began to roll her engagement ring around on her finger. Someday she was going to have to take it off. But this was not that day. Tomorrow seemed just as unlikely.
Inhaling another deep breath, she blew it out slowly, the sounds of joviality getting louder. Was it stupid to make your first public outing after a personal tragedy a party located in the place that was likely to bring the most pain? Probably, but Alex was nothing if not strong-willed. And after the horrible argument she’d had with her brother this afternoon, she knew it was necessary to apologize and make things right. She also wanted him to see that she was not, as he put it, “too broken to handle life on your own right now.”
The elevator ground to a halt and her eyes flew open. She pulled the door open and stepped into the expansive second floor of the Stag. Thank goodness there were so many people for their sake, but the sight of the crowd made her hesitate. Instantly she felt the need to search out her brother, panic settling into her chest.
Taking another step, she decided to focus on the room. It was so beautiful, the imposing antler chandelier sparkling in the center and the massive stone fireplace taking up the west wall. Her heart rate began to rise as her eyes flittered around the room, seeing the centerpieces that Charlotte and Dean had brought this afternoon for the tables. Why had she agreed to let them use things that had been made to decorate her own wedding reception? It had seemed logical at the time, but seeing them now, she realized how silly it had been. Now she had to see them looking exactly how they would have looked on her special day. The temptation to turn around and get back on the elevator was so strong her legs began to shake.
“Alex,” a voice called out from the crowd.
She glanced forward to see Jake, one of the co-owners of the Stag, heading in her direction. His grin was only for her, and her entire body sighed with relief at the sight of him. This was what she needed—someone she knew—and she felt a smile form on her lips.
“How are you?” she asked as she pulled him into a hug. The connection felt like being tossed a raft after treading in a deep and lonely ocean. She realized she was incredibly dramatic these days, but she felt justified.
“I’m good,” he said as he pulled back and looked down at her. “I wasn’t sure if you were coming tonight.”
She sighed. “I almost didn’t. Honestly, this is the first time I’ve put makeup on in weeks. I nearly forgot how to do it.” Her attempt at lighthearted humor fell flat when his brow furrowed.
“I’m so sorry about what happened, Alex. I can’t even imagine what you’ve been going through.”
“Thank you. I’m a bit of a wreck.” Would she ever learn how to respond to those sentiments eloquently? When your fiancé was tragically killed, no one showed up and handed you an owner’s manual on how to go on. A quick lesson in knowing how to handle the kindness and sympathy of friends without losing your shit would have been helpful.
Sensing her discomfort, Jake nodded toward the huge bar that anchored the north end of the room. “Would you like a drink?”
“More than anything,” she said.
He took her hand and led her to the bar. She was glad to see Jen, the bartender, laughing with a man seated at the bar. Although Alex didn’t know Jen well, they’d met a few times and she was a familiar face that greeted her with a warm smile.
“Alex, it’s so good to see you. And you look beautiful this evening,” Jen said.
Alex forced a smile. “Thank you.”
Jen made a quick introduction to Jordan, the man she’d been chatting with. He apparently owned a bar across the street. “Can I make you something special?” Jen finally asked.
“Sure. Surprise me,” Alex said.
She was grateful that Jake stood with her, quietly telling her who many of the guests were and how the evening had gone so far. Eventually TJ, the third owner, and his date came over to say hi, and now that Alex had her drink, she sipped quietly, drifting in and out of the conversation. Jordan was inviting all of them to his bar the following weekend to hear a band play, and the only thing that Alex could think about was that she wouldn’t be in town and wouldn’t have been interested even if she was. Coming to this event tonight was hard enough, a bar was out of the question.
Her thoughts drifted to Monday morning, when she would get up early, head to the airport, and embark on her final yearlong deployment. This time to Vicenza, Italy. A beautiful country she should have been looking forward to exploring as a married woman.
Alex was in the Army, Nate had been in the Air Force. The military had brought them together. It was their life until this point. After so many years in the Middle East they’d been so excited about spending a year at Camp Ederle—a final adventure before they came home and settled down into family life.
After Nate’s accident, she’d been informed that she could choose to extend her leave or change her orders and stay in the States. Specifically Fort Bragg, where she’d been years ago. At the time the idea had appealed to her, because she hadn’t been able to fathom going to Italy without him. Job or no. But the more she thought about it over the past week, the more she realized it was exactly what she needed to do. Nate would have wanted her to see all the places they’d discussed visiting. And to be honest, she had no other plan and staring at the same walls was not doing anything to help her feel better.
Informing her brother of her intentions earlier in the day hadn’t gone over well. She knew he was just worried about her, and she couldn’t blame him, considering she’d spent the past few weeks in a state of crisis. But could he blame her? She’d just lost the love of her life. Multiple weeks of greasy hair and puffy eyes felt absolutely appropriate. But she knew if she stayed here living in her brother’s apartment, that’s exactly what she would continue to do, and that was unacceptable.
Getting dressed tonight, putting on makeup, doing her hair—all of that had been difficult. Several times she’d had to talk herself out of just crawling back into bed. But now that she was here, looking somewhat decent, interacting with humans—sort of—she knew she’d made the right decision. Moving on, healing, required putting one foot in front of the other. Even when it felt impossible. And she’d probably need to keep repeating that over and over again.
A gasp from the bar pulled Alex from her thoughts. She looked up just in time to see Jen darting toward the end of the bar gripping her hand. TJ was calling Jen’s name, chasing after her as she headed for the restroom.
“What happened?” Alex asked, leaning toward Jake.
“I think she cut herself.”
“Oh no. I hope it wasn’t too bad.”
“Me too,” he said, looking around. After a second, he touched her arm. “I’m sorry to leave you for a minute, Alex, but I’m going to step behind the bar and fill in.”
“Oh, of course. I’ll be fine.”
He made his way around the bar, leaving her standing there with the woman TJ had abandoned without a word. Alex glanced at her—Brooke, if she recalled—and tried to think of something to say. The look of irritation on her face didn’t inspire a conversation, so Alex was relieved when she heard a familiar voice call her name. She turned to find her brother.
“I was afraid you wouldn’t come,” he said.
She smiled. “I couldn’t miss this. It’s not every day your brother celebrates opening five-year-old bourbon he made with his own hands.”
“And it’s not every day said brother needs to beg your forgiveness for acting like an insensitive jackass.”
Alex’s shoulders slumped, and her lips began to tremble the slightest bit. “Dammit, Bean.” She reached out and wrapped her arms around him. “I was trying not to cry here.”
“Aw, Buzz. I’m sorry,” he said, rubbing her back gently. Using their lifelong nicknames was a sure sign that things would be okay. She’d known that they would be, but fights with anyone she loved made her feel panicky. What if something happened and words of anger were the last thing that had passed between them? “Please don’t cry. Just tell me you forgive me.”
“Of course I do. I forgave you the minute the conversation was over.” She could feel the tension leave his body and she pulled back to look up at him, wiping at her eyes just in case.
“You sure? Because I was really out of line.”
“Yes, you were. But in your defense,” she said, smirking at his look of surprise, “I know I surprised you with my change in plans.”
“Very much so.” He nodded. “I was looking forward to finally having you around.”
She pushed the tears back once more. “It’s only a year, Dean. I know you only want what’s best for me.”
“But you’ve got to let me figure that out. Even if it ends up being the wrong decision. Or I get hurt.”
“I know that, Alex. And everything you tried to tell me earlier makes perfect sense now that I’ve thought about it. It is best for you to stay busy, to keep doing what you’re good at. And what better place to heal a broken heart than a beautiful country like Italy? You’re a strong and intelligent woman, and I was being selfish wanting to keep you close so I could make sure you’re okay.”
Her lips quirked. “How many times did Charlotte have to repeat all that until it sank in?”
“About twenty,” he said, looking unsurprised that she’d called him out. “And she’ll probably have to keep saying it for the first couple of weeks you’re gone.”
Alex shook her head. “You’re hopeless. But I love you for caring so much about me.”
Before he could reply, they were interrupted by TJ. “Jen cut herself. I need to take her to the Emergency Room.”
Dean’s brow furrowed as Charlotte walked up beside him. “How bad is it?” Dean asked.
“She’s okay,” TJ clarified. “But she needs stitches.”
“Where is she?” Charlotte asked.
TJ nodded toward where he’d just come from. “Men’s restroom.”
Charlotte’s eyebrows went up, but she took off without questioning it further.
“I don’t know how long this will take,” TJ said to Dean.
“Don’t worry about it, man. We can handle this.”
“I’ll stay and help also,” Alex added.
TJ nodded and then stepped forward and gave Alex an awkward one-armed hug. “Thanks, Alex. And it was so good to see you.” He pulled back and smiled at her. “Good luck in Italy. We’ll all be thinking about you.”
“Thank you, TJ. Let us know how Jen is.”
He nodded and was gone. For the rest of the evening, Alex felt a lot more at ease. Tension between Dean and her always sucked, although considering he’d practically raised her after her dad and their mother passed away when she was thirteen, they’d had their fair share of it over the years. It wasn’t an easy position he was in, wanting to be the cool big brother, but also feeling the need to step up and be the only parent she had.
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 Nathan.
* * *
Two mornings later, her eyes were still puffy from tearful goodbyes as she fastened her seat belt and pushed her handbag under her plane seat. She was just about to shut her cell phone down when she received a messenger notification.
She opened it, surprised to see that it was from Jake. They didn’t have each other’s phone number, so this would have been his only way of contacting her—unless he’d asked Dean, which she couldn’t see him doing.
JAKE: Hey. You may have already left but wanted to tell you to have a great time and a safe flight.
Biting back a grin, she ignored the flight attendants speaking up front and replied.
ALEX: About to take off. Thank you!! Take care of my brother.
JAKE: Will do. Stupid question, but can you use this app in Italy?
ALEX: Not stupid. And yes. This time I can use my cell most anytime and I splurged for an international plan.
JAKE: Cool. Let me know when you’ve landed safely.
ALEX: Okay. Xoxo
She waited, watching to see if he replied and wondering if he’d be weirded out by her kisses and hugs. Hopefully he knew that was just her style. She was a hugger, and she also appreciated him worrying about her. It was nice to have a trio of guys looking out for her. Finally, she figured the conversation was over, which was fine, and turned off the phone. Glancing out the window she smiled to herself. His message had made her feel a lot better. Everything was going to be okay. This year deployed in Italy would be good, and for the first time, she felt optimistic.
Copyright © 2018 by Nicole McLaughlin