There he was: Alex Carter.
He was leaning against the side entrance of the diner with one foot pressed up against the glass door. He was wearing a black suit with a black tie, which he loosened now. Alex, A.J, or whoever the hell he said he was, craned his neck muscles and rested his head on the door. He stuck his hands in his pockets. Even from here, I could see that he was trying to control his breathing.
How had I not noticed it was him before? Granted, the only time I’d seen him was when he was wearing a helmet, but still…
The hair was what gave him away. It was still that same wild mess of chestnut curls. It was the kind of hair that always grew too fast and never stuck to where it was supposed to.
We’d been roughly the same height when I last saw him. Now Alex was the same size of the doorframe. How could it be possible to grow that much in seven years? And those muscles. I used to be able to beat him in arm-wrestling contests without blinking.
How was this possible? How could Alex James Carter be A.J Lawson? And how could I not have known?
I was still holding the phone in my hand when I heard Wren yell, “Nora, don’t you dare do what I think you’re about to do. Nora! Don’t do anything rash! Remember who he is….”
I left the phone on the front seat and got out of the car. I dug my hands into the pockets of my jeans and walked across the parking lot. The wind ruffled through my white chiffon top.
I couldn’t stop staring at him. My eyes traced his face, his jawline, the long length of his torso. Two girls passed his frame and I saw them check him out. Was he really that attractive? I mean, I’d heard rumours…
I flaked out a few metres from him. I turned around and pretended to be reading the menu outside the diner. I could feel my hands trembling in the inside of my pockets.
Serious, Nora, I mentally told myself. Pull it together.
But this was Alex, and I had imagined this moment for seven long years. I had so many questions, I needed so many answers. More than anything though, my hands were shaking because I feared that the Alex Carter I had known might not exist anymore.
There was only one way to find out.
I squared my shoulders, stepped away from the menu and gave a large sigh. With all the might I could muster, I walked the final few metres towards him.
Taking the same position as he did, I leaned against the wall next to the side entrance. My hands were still in my back pockets.
“Bad day?” I cringed at my conversation starter. I almost wished he hadn’t heard it.
A.J’s head rose and he began to move his neck slowly from side to side, trying to locate my voice. When he finally found it, I was greeted by dark blue eyes. My heart gave a powerful jolt.
Alex Carter was the only boy I knew with eyes that blue.
I watched them now as they lightly skimmed my face and as they then made their way down the rest of my body. There was something in those eyes of his. Maybe it was curiosity, or maybe it was something else entirely.
Finally, when I felt like my heart couldn’t race any faster, he drawled, “You have no idea.”
“Do you want to talk about it?” I asked quietly.
A.J shuffled on his feet; he gave out a small laugh, and then turned on his side. He was now directly facing me.
“No,” he said in a low voice. “I want to talk about you though.”
“Ha!” The line was so ridiculous that I had to laugh. Still leaning against the wall, I turned my body to face his. “Who are you, Edward Cullen?”
A.J’s eyebrows raised. I tried out my best husky voice, which basically just made me sound like a German middle-aged man. ”I want to talk about you though. Does that line work on anyone?”
“Yes, actually,” A.J said defensively. He shot me a hostile look as he rolled his shoulders back. “You’re really denting my credibility here.”
I noticed a small smile creep up onto his lips.
“Well, happy to help,” I said. I leveled him a look. “You seem like the type of guy who needs shooting down once in a while.”
Something glinted in A.J’s eyes as I said that. He came closer to me until our noses were inches apart. It felt like two children sharing secrets in a playground. He raised an eyebrow and said, “So you think I’m attractive?”
Damn. I blushed, but managed to keep a steady tone as I replied, “Did I say that?”
“Nope. But I can tell.” There was a look of satisfaction on his face. It was like he’d won a bet or something.
“Didn’t anyone ever tell you that when you assume you make an ass out of you and me?”
“Poetic,” A.J said softly. He ran his tongue across his teeth. “I think I need to write that down.”
God, he was so different. I wasn’t sure whether I liked it. It seemed like A.J cared about a select number of things, and most of those things related to sex.
“Nice try,” I said cautiously. I leaned back from him. “But it’s still not going to work.”
The intake of A.J’s breath was sudden. He folded his arms and asked me in a leaden voice, “You got a boyfriend or something?”
Yeah, my subconscious was screaming, yeah I do. And just so you know, he happens to be your step-brother and archenemy.
I knew this was the moment I was supposed to confess all.
“Something like that,” I shrugged.
It wasn’t a lie if I didn’t tell him the truth, right?
“Do I know him?” A.J asked.
“Why do you care?” I replied quickly. Hopefully, he’d get distracted by the question and not force me to answer him. I really hated lying.
“Just curious,” A.J said quietly.
Was he playing with my hair? Oh God, was he flirting with me?
I deflected his hand quickly. “Well, just curious, it’s none of your business.”
A.J leant back slightly as if he’d been hit in the face. He squinted at me like he was staring up at the sun.
“What’s his name?” he asked.
When he realized I wasn’t going to give him an answer, A.J sighed. He turned to place his back against the doorway and rested his head on the glass behind him. He dug his hands into his pockets.
Looking out into the carpark, he said, “Well, whoever he is, he can’t be all that great if you’re standing here talking to me.”
The guy who told me he loved my Christmas gifts was officially dead.
“Did anyone ever tell you that you’re a giant ass?” I asked.
“That was a deflection. It must mean I’m right. Tell me, in what way is your boyfriend not fulfilling your needs?”
“You’re insufferable.” I rolled my eyes and folded my arms. I pushed myself off the wall and began to walk away from him.
This conversation wasn’t going anywhere. After all of these year, it wasn’t the kind of talk I’d hoped to have with Alex, or whoever the hell he was now.
“That bad?” A.J called out. “Must be the bedroom then. Hate to break it to you, sweetheart, but that stuff can’t be cured.”
No. He. Didn’t.
The need to defend Seth’s honour was great, but I knew that A.J was only baiting me so that I would turn around and talk to him again. It was what he did. I’d seen it time and time again. He baited people.
I spun around, looked into his eyes, and said calmly, “I’m leaving.”
Apparently, this didn’t process with A.J. He launched himself off the door and sauntered towards me.
With his hands still in his pockets A.J said in husky voice, “If you physically unsatisfied, I reckon I could teach you a thing or to.”
My heart lurched. His eyes were practically burning into me. Yep, I had concluded that he was definitely flirting with me. I needed to leave. Suddenly I was aware of the real reason I had come here tonight: to pick Seth up. It was only now that I realized I’d left my phone in the car. What if he was calling me? What if he walked out of the diner right now? I needed to wrap this conversation up pronto.
At least I’d gotten closure: Alex Carter no longer existed. The boy who had replaced him, A.J Lawson, was an insufferable jerk who I didn’t have time for.
My childhood had officially been ended.
“In your dreams, sweetheart,” I said, smiling a fake smile.
“Sweetheart is my thing, sweetheart.”
Oh, he was good.
“Then get a new thing. It’s corny as hell anyway. Someone of your calibre should be able to come up with something a little bit more…satisfying.”
I smiled at the response my comeback got. He looked like he’d been winded.
His recovery was swift, however. After a few seconds, A.J plastered on a menacing smile and came ever closer towards me. “Wow, you got me hot under the collar there, princess.”
“Don’t call me princess,” I said hotly. I began to back away and moved towards the parking lot.
A.J didn’t seem the least bit phased by my retreat. He followed me down. “Why not?”
“Because that’s not my name,” I said exasperatedly.
I needed to get to the car.
I felt his hand grab my forearm and haul me backwards. My feet were flush with his. I stared up into his face and he asked quietly, “Then what is your name?”
I shook his arm off, “None of your damn business.”
This was the worst idea I’d ever had. If Wren could see me now...
A.J Lawson was exactly how Seth had described him. I’d been hoping that underneath all of that egotistical nonsense, my childhood friend still existed. My hopes had been dashed a long time ago.
“I bet you I can guess,” A.J prompted as I didn’t say anything.
“I doubt it.”
A.J gave me a look as if to say: oh honey, I know a lot of girl’s names. I dreaded to think how many were on his cell phone.
When did he get like this?
“Casey?” A.J began. He looked at me hopefully.
“What am I, a cheap hooker?”
“I don’t live in the library.”
“Sweet, but I’m not a church girl.”
A.J laughed quietly. He gave me a once over. “I can tell,”
What was that supposed to mean? I folded my arms as we faced one another off in the centre of the carpark.
“Am I even close?”
I noted a small amount of exasperation in his eyes. He shook out his hair, and said quietly, “I’m A.J, by the way.”
Here we go. This was what I had come here for. Answers. Information. Maybe this wasn’t so pointless after all.
“Strange name,” I asked subtly. “What does it stand for?”
A.J winked at me, “That’s for me to know, and you to find out…”
Yep, I was wrong. This was entirely pointless.
“The lines just keep getting better and better,” I mumbled as I turned away from him.
I began walking towards the car. I searched around in my back pockets for the keys.
“Only for you, princess,” A.J called out.
I called back, “Nice, well, the night is still young and…”
“Ha! Are you really going to walk away from this without asking for my number?”
I turned around when I was two feet from my car. A.J was still standing in the centre of the carpark. He had his arms thrown out into the air as if he was trying to catch something.
“Yes,” I replied. I finally found the keys and used them to unlock the car. “And believe me, it won’t be that hard.”
“Words kill, princess. Do you know how many girls would kill to get one-on-one time with me?”
Oh, no, he was walking towards me again. I opened the door, getting ready to climb in.
I should have just left right then, but something about A.J screamed challenge.
I wanted to answer him.
“Probably the entire waiting list at the STD clinic,” I replied. I smirked slightly at my insult. You could tell I had an older brother.
I shrugged and levelled a look at A.J. “Hey, by all means, phone them up.”
A.J stopped dead in his tracks. For a moment, I thought I’d gone too far, but then I realized that the look on his face was not one of anger. It was bewilderment.
It was that same gaze from childhood: the one where he looked at me as if I’d just fallen out of the sky.
“Who the hell are you?” he demanded.
I opened my mouth to say it. I opened my mouth to tell him. Eleanor Pierce. Eleanor. My mind was screaming at me to say those few syllables; to string a sentence together with them included. But I couldn’t do it. It was better if he didn’t know.
This had been a stupid idea anyway. The Alex Carter I had known was long gone.
I was left with his ghost and a pile of rusty memories. The person standing in front of me was not him.
I needed to let go of this.
“Well, that’s for me to know and you to find out…” I replied dryly.
“Seriously?” A.J continued to walk towards me.
“I’m just repeating your words, princess,” I said lightly.
He stopped two feet away from me. The car door I was standing behind was the only thing separating us.
“I’m going work it out, you know,” he said.
“Good luck with that. The yellow pages went out of stock ten years ago.”
A.J raised an eyebrow at me. “There are these things called Google and Facebook.”
“Oooh, I’m so scared.”
“You should be.”
I hoped he couldn’t tell just how fearful I was. I had a Facebook account, but all it contained were pictures of my turtle, Sammy. I’m pretty sure Google didn’t have much to say on me. After all, I’d never been good enough at anything to appear in newspapers or school websites.
The only problem was Seth: he loved taking photographs. I guess I was banking on the fact that Seth and A.J didn’t know much about the other half’s social life. Considering how much they hated one another, that seemed reasonable.
“Catch you later, A. J,” I said as I got into the car. I shut the door and started in the engine. All the while, I tried to ignore how badly my hands were shaking.
“Hey,” A.J hit the car window lightly. “You’re not really going to leave, are you?”
It was then that I realised this didn’t happen often to A.J Lawson. He probably had girls fawning over his every move, and here I was, trying desperately hard to get away from him.
When he realized I was serious, A.J stepped away from the car.
I tried to ignore the way he had looked at me as I sped out of the diner and onto the road.