Taking a Chance on Love

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Chapter 5

The following weekend arrived, and the baseball season got underway.

Jessica hadn’t planned on going to Josh and Henry’s first game, but there she was, turning into Greendale Park’s parking area on Saturday, driving around looking for a spot.

She found one not too far away from the baseball diamonds, and pulled in. Locking up her car, she started towards the park, scanning for Josh and Henry’s team.

Spotting their team’s blue and white uniform on the fourth diamond, she adjusted the direction of her steps, headed for the stands on their team’s side.

Rounding the fence encircling the diamond, she spied her parents sitting halfway up the stands.

Her mom waved at her when she saw her. She waved back, closed in on the bleachers, and climbed up and sat with her folks.

“Hey.” she said, sitting down on the ridged, metal seat beside her mom, dropping her small purse between her feet.

Her parents returned her greeting, and she joined them in looking out over the players warming up.

Since all the players had baseball caps on, and many had the same build as Henry and her brother, she had to go by the numbers on their backs to find them.

She found Josh’s number twelve first. He was throwing the ball back and forth with Jason.

Henry, number five, was paired up with Rick.

With her eyes hidden behind her sunglasses, and with the distance between them, Jessica took the opportunity to let her gaze linger on Henry. She watched him toss the ball back and forth, her thoughts replaying the interactions they’d had in the last two weeks since their almost kiss.

The few times Henry and Josh had come into the bakery, Henry hadn’t teased her, or said anything to rile her up.

All she’d gotten from him was a ‘hey’, and his order.

He was being very restrained and Jess couldn’t believe it, would never admit it, but she missed him bugging her.

How stupid was that?

It wasn’t like having someone drive you up the wall every chance they got was fun.

But, stupid or not, Jessica actually missed throwing barbs back and forth with Henry. It was all she’d done with him for the last thirteen years. Losing that interaction with him now, was a little like reliving the loss of their friendship all those years ago.

She’d been so hurt, so confused, when Henry had cut off their friendship, when he’d started antagonizing her. And now, his almost kissing her, then acting like nothing had happened, had her feeling confused and hurt again.

After a few minutes, the players from both teams stopped warming up and went to their respective benches. The game got started, with Josh and Henry’s team up to bat first.

Jessica’s eyes followed Alan, the first batter up, out to homeplate where he took his batting stance... but her gaze didn’t stay on him. It sidled back to his team’s bench... and to Henry.

“Good eye, Josh. Good eye.” her dad praised from two seats over, and Jessica shifted her gaze to the diamond, and her brother who was now up at bat. The pitch was sent, and the ump called a ball.

Two more pitches, and Josh walked to first base.

The next batter up was Rob, and he got a good hit. He got himself to third, and Josh home. Unfortunately, the batter after him was struck out, and that was apparently the third out.

Jess guessed she’d missed some action while she’d been chewing over her situation with Henry.

The teams switched places and Josh took up position at second base, while Henry jogged out to left field.

Jessica’s gaze followed Henry, a new appreciation rising within her over how well he filled out his uniform, the tight fit of the shirt and pants showing off his well-honed physique.

The boy she’d known had been on the skinny side. Cute, but gangly. On the tail end of his teen years, he’d grown into his body, developed some nice muscle.

She’d obviously seen the changes in him... but she hadn’t noticed until now. Henry had opened her eyes, had her looking at him in a new way.

Jessica’s lips formed into a thin line.

He may want to act like nothing happened, and Laura may have advised her to do the same, but she couldn’t do it.

She needed to talk to Henry.

Despite her leaning towards the possibility that he had almost kissed her because he liked her, a small part of her still found it hard to believe that he hadn’t just been messing with her. She needed to know for sure, because if he had been messing with her, she was gonna kick his ass.

***

Henry wasn’t surprised when he noticed Jessica with her parents in the stands. She always showed up to a few of Josh’s games, and Josh always went to a few of hers.

He couldn’t tell where her attention was because of her sunglasses, but his skin prickled with awareness, his body telling him her eyes were on him.

He did his best to ignore that awareness, focus on his immediate surroundings and the game.

It was the bottom of the fifth and he was out in left field. The first batter up had been struck out, the second was currently at one strike, two balls.

The next pitch was sent.

It looked good from where Henry was standing.

The batter swung, made contact, sent the ball soaring towards him. He jogged in a few feet, got underneath it, easily made the catch.

Two out, one to go.

Rick, over at first base, made the third out, keeping the score at five to three, for them.

Nice.

By the end of the game, the score hadn’t changed.

Starting off the baseball season with a win was a great way to start.

Josh and Henry shook hands with the other team, collected their gear, and headed over to the bleachers, found George, Linda and Jessica loitering behind them.

“Good game, you guys.” George praised, Linda and Jessica echoing his words.

“Thanks.” he and Josh said in sync.

Henry’s gaze went to Jessica, taking in her pink T-shirt, her jean shorts, sliding down her beautiful, toned legs.

Why did she always have to look so great?

The five of them started slowly towards the parking lot, chatting as they went, arriving at George and Linda’s car first. The Marlin’s got in and headed off after a little more chatting, and he, Josh and Jessica continued on.

A little further down the row of cars, Josh stopped and gestured to his truck in the next row over to the left.

“That’s me.” he said.

Henry’s nerves jittered to life at the fact he was about to be left alone with Jessica.

It would be their first time alone together since he almost kissed her.

“Alright, man.” he said, pausing beside his friend, playing it cool. “See ya later.”

“See ya.” he said. “See ya, Jess.”

“See ya.” Jess replied.

Josh seemed to hesitate for a moment, maybe realizing he was leaving them alone and worrying about how good an idea that was. But he must have decided to let them deal with each other, because he started towards his truck.

Henry and Jess continued on, silence falling between them. She broke it a few moments later, her eyes on Josh’s truck as it left the parking lot.

“So,” she said, a slight hesitancy in her voice. “... uh, Josh asked me if something happened between us...”

Henry cursed Josh’s nosiness.

“Yeah,” Henry replied, glancing at her briefly. “He asked me too.”

Jess came to a stop, turned to him. He stopped as well, faced her, his nerves not just jittering now, but jangling.

“What did happen, Henry?” she murmured, her head tilting to the side. “Were you just messing with me?”

Shit.

Uncomfortable, Henry shifted his weight from foot to foot.

He was stuck between a rock and a hard place. Either he used the excuse Jessica had just given him - yes, he’d just been messing with her, taking his asshole-ness to a new, insulting level - or, he told her the truth.

He didn’t like either of his options, but... man... he was tired of being an asshole. He didn’t have the energy just then to keep it up.

“I wasn’t messing with you.” he murmured.

Jessica’s eyebrows lifted, her head came back to center.

“You weren’t?” she asked, her voice a mixture of surprise and disbelief.

He shook his head.

“You...” Jessica paused, her eyes narrowing on him. “... like me.” she stated, seeking confirmation.

He nodded.

Jessica’s brows dropped, furrowed. Her arms crossed over her chest. She obviously doubted him.

“If you’re messing with me...” she said, irritation in her voice now.

Henry cut her off.

“I’m not messing with you, Jess.” he repeated.

But he couldn’t blame her for thinking that. Why wouldn’t she, after the way he’d treated her through the years?

Her lips thinned, as she apparently decided whether she should believe him or not.

Silence fell. The sounds of the baseball games still being played in the park filled the dead air.

Henry waited for Jessica to speak.

“You like me.” she stated, obviously still questioning that. “... since when?” she asked quietly, brows still furrowed, arms still crossed over her chest.

Oh, boy.

Why had he gone with the truth?

Didn’t matter. He had.

The question now was, how much of the truth was he sharing? Did he tell her his feelings were new... or did he tell her he’d liked her since they were kids?

“A while.” he replied, keeping it vague.

“How long’s ‘a while’?” she asked, arms unfolding, hands planting on her hips.

Oh, ya know... thirteen years.

“A few...” he paused, considered saying months. “... years.” he admitted.

Arms falling to her sides, Jess gaped at him.

If he wasn’t so nervous, he would have laughed at her expression.

“You’ve liked me for a few years?” she exclaimed incredulously. “Why didn’t you ever say anything?”

“Because...” he murmured. “... nothing can happen between us.”

She frowned as he continued.

“Because... if you and I got together and things didn’t work out... I wouldn’t just lose you.” he paused. “I’d lose Josh. And your folks.”

***

Jessica couldn’t believe what she was hearing. Henry had feelings for her. Henry had had feelings for her for years.

She was so stunned by the years part, it took her a moment to take in what he’d just said about why nothing could happen between them.

“Oh.” was all she managed to come out with for a response.

She supposed he wasn’t wrong. His concern was valid - when a couple split up, more often than not, family and friends shunned a person’s former “better half”.

It was a fair argument against the two of them acting on any attraction between them. An argument he’d held to for years, apparently. And she guessed she understood. He and Josh weren’t just friends, they were brothers. Of course he wouldn’t want to risk their relationship.

The butterflies that had been kicking up a storm in her stomach since she’d taken this rare moment alone with Henry to ask him about that Sunday, settled down, their wings weighed down with disappointment.

“Fair enough.” she added, after standing there mute for a moment.

She couldn’t think of anything else to say.

Henry just nodded, a resigned look in his eyes.

After a moment, the two of them quietly and awkwardly started towards their cars, went their separate ways with murmured ‘see ya’s’.

Alone in her car, Jess frowned at her steering wheel, feeling very out of sorts.

Learning that Henry liked her had surprised her, filled her with excitement. Learning that nothing could happen between them had sucked that excitement right back out of her.

Starting her car, she tried to look on the bright side - at least Henry hadn’t been messing with her, so she didn’t have to kick his ass.

***

In his truck, Henry blew out a breath, very much feeling off balance after admitting his feelings to Jessica.

Over the last two weeks, he’d started to think he was going to get away with not having to talk about their little moment on her parent’s sofa. That Jess was going to let it go.

That had been foolish of him.

He plugged his key in the ignition, put himself in reverse, and pulled out, passing Jessica’s car on his way out of the parking lot.

That she’d seemed disappointed when he said nothing could happen between them, brought him both pleasure, and pain.

Jess was interested in him!!... and that made the fact that nothing could happen between them, even harder to swallow.

***

Jess shoved her phone into the back pocket of her jeans, her gaze going to the door at the tinkling of the bell.

Her last customer had left several minutes before, taking one of their raspberry pies with him.

She hadn’t had anything to do once she’d sent them off with a smile and a ‘have a nice day’ except wait for her next customer, so she’d been scrolling her feed on Twitter.

It had been a couple of weeks since she’d talked to Henry at the ballgame.

A couple of boring weeks.

She’d done all the usual things. She’d worked, hung out with Laura, had dinner on Sundays with her family (Henry hadn’t come either Sunday), saw Josh and Henry at the bakery most mornings...

... speaking of the devil.

Seeing who had just come in with the tinkling of the bell, she straightened from the counter, schooled her expression.

At the sight of Henry, her stomach clenched with nerves, while other parts started humming.

Stupid parts needed to cut it out.

The attraction that had sparked the night he’d almost kissed her, had only grown since she’d learned he’d been harbouring feelings for her for years.

Where a couple of months ago, having to be around him would have brought on a sigh of resignation... an expectation of irritation... now, it brought on tingles and nerves.

She’d been doing her best to ignore and dampen these feelings, even as they sprouted, repeating to herself what Henry had told her - that nothing could happen between them.

Her feelings should have been quelled easily... they were so new, so unexpected... but they persisted.

The little troublemakers.

Over the last couple of weeks, since they’d talked at the baseball diamond, the irritation she’d grown accustomed to feeling towards Henry, had faded to the back of her mind, while memories of their childhood friendship had been dusted off.

And her new feelings for Henry had found a place to root themselves in those memories of her friendship with him.

To say she was confused was an understatement.

“Hey, Jess.” her brother smiled, approaching the counter, Henry at his side.

“Hey.” she echoed with a smile of her own, playing nonchalant to the hilt.

Henry didn’t need to know how frazzled he had her - especially since he seemed composed.

She took Josh’s order, a danish and coffee, and while her brother was getting his java, she took Henry’s.

“Here ya go.” she said, bagging and handing him his muffin.

“Thanks.” he said, accepting the item.

He picked up the paper cup she set on the counter and joined Josh at the coffee station across the room.

The two of them came over, paid their bill and left...

... and the humming in her stomach died off once they were gone.

Her poker face fell away.

Frustration filled her. These feelings she was having for Henry needed to go away. But, they were hanging on.

Jess had thought a lot about what Henry had told her - why nothing could happen between them - the last couple of weeks, and though she’d initially accepted the excuse he’d given her for why they couldn’t get together, she now questioned it.

Henry was basically family. He and Josh were more brothers than friends. He had to know he was stuck with Josh for life. And he had to know she wouldn’t let her family give him the cold shoulder. He knew her, knew she wasn’t a vengeful person.

If they took a chance and things didn’t work out between them, she was sure their split would be amicable.

Well...

... unless they broke up because he cheated on her. Then, the gloves would come off and he’d get an ass kicking.

The bell over the door rang again, drawing her attention. She looked after the mother that came in with her two kids, getting them an assortment of cookies. While she did, a thought occurred to her, a new possibility for what had kept Henry from acting on his feelings.

His parent’s divorce had not been pretty, she mused. Henry had started spending a lot more time at their place when that had been going on. His sadness had been palpable.

Such a difficult family event could deeply scar a child. Maybe Bill and Joan’s hostile split had made Henry afraid of love, afraid of commitment...?

If that was the case, she had another reason to hope her feelings went away.

If Henry was afraid of commitment, it wasn’t a good idea to take a chance on a relationship with him.

If he couldn’t overcome his fear, they’d be gambling on a losing hand.

***

His insides turbulent, Henry sipped at his coffee while Josh drove them from the bakery to the job they had lined up for today, their fifth deck of the season.

His heart ached a little after seeing Jess. Every time he saw her, the battle going on between his head and his heart, tipped a little more in favour of the latter.

That voice in his head that had been telling him for years to maintain his distance from Jessica - that the risk was too great - was losing volume.

Maybe it was true that fifty percent of couples broke up... but it was also true that fifty percent of couples stayed together.

Maybe he and Jessica would be one of the lucky ones. Maybe they’d stay together for the long haul. Maybe... they’d be really happy. Maybe... they’d build a wonderful life together.

He frowned, his hopeful thoughts taking a darker turn.

Or... maybe he and Jessica would split up, like his parents had. Maybe they’d end up hating one another. Maybe... he’d end up losing her, and Josh. And George and Linda.

‘Better safe than sorry’ started drumming through his head.

He really couldn’t argue with that classic advice.

***

As much as she hoped it would, Jess’s attraction to Henry didn’t melt away as the long, hot days of summer ticked by.

The bakery became a hot house, the temperature reaching the low nineties even with the air conditioning running.

As she had several times over the last few weeks, when she was done work she drove straight from the bakery to her parent’s place to take advantage of their pool.

Pulling into the driveway, she wondered if Josh and Henry would show up, thought it likely they would - it was a real squelcher today.

She told herself, unconvincingly, she’d rather they didn’t come. She didn’t know what to do about Henry, so she’d rather avoid him.

But, really, she hoped to see him.

“Hello?” she called, letting herself into the house. She toed off the sneakers she wore for work, set her purse on the shelf in the front hall closet.

No one answered.

A look out the window in the kitchen, revealed her parents were out back, her dad in the pool, her mom on a lounge chair.

She headed downstairs and into the bathroom, changed into the bathing suit she kept here. On her way to the patio door, she grabbed herself a towel from the linen closet.

“Hey.” she said, stepping outside.

Her mom looked over her shoulder at her, smiled in greeting.

“Hey.” her dad said, treading water in the deep end.

“You been in?” she asked her mom, dropping her towel on an empty lounge chair.

“Just got out.” her mom replied.

So the water was at least in the high seventies.

Jessica crossed over to the pool, the patio stones a little toasty on the soles of her feet, lowered herself down the ladder into the shallow end. She immediately dunked her head under, smoothing her hair back when she resurfaced.

Ahh.

That was refreshing... even though the temperature of the water was probably ticking up into the low eighties.

She grabbed some pool noodles, draped her knees over one, tucked a second behind her back and under her arms, and a third behind her neck. She went horizontal, closing her eyes, blocking out the sun, as she floated.

Her dad got out of the pool several minutes later, claimed a lounge chair by her mom. All was quiet until the patio door slid open a while later.

Jess looked over, as did her parents, to see Josh stepping out of the house.

Her heart kicked.

Had Henry come with him?

Her heart kicked again a second later when Henry stepped out behind Josh. Her gaze left her brother, bulls-eyed on him.

The two of them were already changed into their swimwear, Josh in dark blue board shorts, Henry in black.

“Hey.” Josh said, hands on either ends of the towel hanging around his neck.

His ‘hey’ was echoed by her and their folks.

He and Henry ditched their towels and approached the pool, and Jessica closed her eyes, did her best to look indifferent to their presence.

The delicious image of Henry’s tanned, muscled chest appeared on the backside of her lids.

She wasn’t seeing anything she hadn’t seen hundreds of times before. But now... she was looking. Now... she was wanting.

“Watch out, Jess.”

At her brother’s voice, she opened her eyes.

He and Henry were standing at the edge of the pool, waiting for her to get out of the way so they could jump into the deep end.

She met Henry’s gaze for a second, saw her own discomfort - and want - mirrored back at her in his eyes. She quickly looked away, started paddling herself into the shallow end. From there, she was only hit with a trickle of spray when the two of them jumped in.

They both sighed in pleasure when they resurfaced, just as she had when she got in.

Closing her eyes once more, she tried to relax, tried to ignore her body’s reaction to Henry’s presence.

That was a no-go. Her libido was wired now that he was here, her senses tuned to him.

A part of her had been wishing he would resume being an asshole with her. She’d thought maybe with some help from him, she’d be able to get over this attraction to him.

But, he hadn’t. He’d just been quiet around her.

The jerk.

Now, instead of being annoyed with him for deliberately, and repeatedly, provoking her ire, she was annoyed with him because he wasn’t and because she couldn’t stop thinking about him.

Maybe she should kick his ass after all.

***

Henry’s gaze kept returning to Jessica all through dinner.

Linda had insisted he stay after he and Josh had gotten out of the pool. He hadn’t been able to refuse. Though he couldn’t be totally comfortable with Jess there, he enjoyed these dinners at George and Linda’s.

Taking a sip of his soda, he surreptitiously peaked at Jessica over the rim of his glass. When he found her eyes on him, the fizz in his mouth was instantly paired with a zing in his belly.

Their gazes held for a brief moment before Jessica dropped her gaze to her hamburger.

He flicked his gaze around the table. No one had noticed their little moment. Probably because it hadn’t looked like anything. It had been a meeting of eyes, nothing more. Yet, it had filled him with energy.

Unable to help himself, he looked over at Jessica once more. Her eyes weren’t on him, so he let his gaze linger on her. She’d pulled her wet hair back into a ponytail after they got out of the pool, changed into jean shorts and a T-shirt.

The T was a boring basic grey, but what it lacked in color it made up for with fit, hugging her curves lovingly as it did.

He pulled his gaze away from her. If he kept staring, someone was going to notice.

He turned his attention to his burger, took a bite, chewed, challenged himself to keep his eyes off Jess for the rest of the meal.

And a challenge, it was.

This was the most time he’d spent around her since the last time he’d had dinner with the Marlin’s almost two months ago now.

Had it really only been two months since he’d almost kissed her?

It felt like longer.

Probably because he still wanted the kiss they’d never had.

At the sound of Linda’s voice, his gaze went to the far end of the table. She’d asked Josh how work was. He tuned out as Josh replied, took another bite of his burger, feeling more and more glum.

Over the last two months, he’d missed spending time like this with the Marlin’s, but he probably wouldn’t be doing so again for a long while.

Being around Jess for a longer stretch of time like this, was too uncomfortable.

***

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