A Stand-Alone Romance
Carly Holbrook and Brian Westbury are weeks away from their high school graduation. The young couple plans to marry before they head to college, and their future seems bright with promise. Everything changes one spring night when their six closest friends, including Brian’s younger brother, are killed in a fiery car accident that Carly and Brian witness. The trauma leaves Carly unable to speak, and Brian is forced to make unimaginable decisions about a future that once seemed so certain. With Carly incapable of going forward with their plans, Brian leaves home and Carly for good. Fifteen years later, disturbing new clues indicate the accident that wrecked so many lives wasn’t an accident at all, bringing Brian home to face a past and a love he’s never forgotten.
“Tupelo Honey” played on the jukebox. The scratchy drag of the needle over old vinyl, the cocoon of Brian’s strong arms, the musty smell of mold in Toby’s dark-paneled basement, the whispered giggles of the other three couples as they swayed to Van Morrison, and the easy comfort of doing what they had done forever filled Carly with contentment.
The seemingly endless New England winter had yielded to soft, fragrant spring days and long, lazy evenings. With her career as a high school cheerleader finished with the close of basketball season, Carly was free to relax and watch Brian play the game in which he truly shined. An imposing tight end and adequate point guard, he was a graceful, elegant pitcher with a fastball no one saw coming and few could actually hit.
Colleges interested in adding that smoking fastball to their bullpens had tried to recruit him, but the only thing Brian Westbury had ever really wanted—other than Carly Holbrook—was to be an attorney. So when they had both earned academic scholarships to the University of Michigan, he said no to the baseball offers so he could focus on securing the grades he would need in the prestigious undergraduate pre-law program to get into a top law school. He had his sights set on Harvard and had told only Carly that, lest he have to explain if he fell short of his goal. But he wouldn’t. Carly, who planned to study elementary education, believed in him and was confident he could do anything he set his mind to. That was Brian.
Glancing up at him, she found his eyes closed and his soft dark hair still damp from the shower after his game. As if he could sense her watching him, he opened his hazel eyes and gazed down at her.
Anticipating being alone with him later sent a tremble rippling through her.
“Let’s get out of here,” he whispered in her ear.
“Not yet,” she said breathlessly. “We can’t be so obvious.”
He smiled. “Like they don’t know.”
Across the room, Toby was wrapped around Michelle, while Brian’s brother Sam, a year younger than the rest of them, made out with Jenny. Sarah held up Pete, who looked like he had fallen asleep to the gentle cadence of the song. Since the eight of them spent every possible minute together, the others had coupled up over the years out of convenience more than anything. But Carly and Brian were the real deal, and everyone knew it.
Michelle had been Carly’s best friend since before they could remember, growing up as they had next door to each other. They had collected Jenny and Sarah in elementary school and added the boys in eighth grade. Brian and Carly had been a couple from the very beginning, despite their parents’ worries about how serious they were at such a young age.
Yes, the eight of them were cliquey. Yes, they held the others in school at arm’s length, which was why they worried so much about Sam being all alone next year. But they made no apologies for friendships that transcended high school and caused others to look on in envy.
Carly returned her attention to Brian.
He sang along with the song, his lips close to her ear.
Filled with melancholy, she tightened her arms around him. Spring was usually her favorite time of year, with everything in bloom, the days growing longer, school winding down, and summer vacation looming on the horizon. This year was different, though. Soon they would graduate and go their separate ways. Toby had received an appointment to the Naval Academy and would be the first to leave home. Pete planned to take a year off from school to travel, Sarah was on her way to Smith, Jenny to cosmetology school, Michelle to the University of New Hampshire, and poor Sam faced one more lonely year of high school.
Carly and Brian had taken the money their parents had given them for college living expenses and rented an off-campus apartment in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It was the sneakiest thing either of them had ever done, and she lived in constant fear that they would get caught.
Even in 1995, a good Catholic girl didn’t live with her boyfriend, at least not without a significant amount of guilt to cast a pall over the arrangement. But the thought of spending every night in his arms was worth all the worry and guilt. She had been saying a few extra Hail Mary’s every week at confession, hoping the prayers would help to ease some of the guilt, because she had no plans to back out of plans they’d had for what felt like forever.
The phone rang, and Toby disentangled himself from Michelle to answer it. He returned a few minutes later to pull the plug on his father’s vintage jukebox. “That was my sister. My parents just left her house.”
The others sprang into action to get rid of any evidence they had been there. Carly collected empty soda cans. They’d tried to score some beer earlier, but none of their older siblings had been around to buy it for them. That was fine with her since beer usually made her sick the next day.
“We can go to our house,” Sam said, glancing at Brian for confirmation.
Brian nodded. “Our folks will be out late.”
“Cool,” Pete said with a big stretch and a yawn.
“Did you have a good nap?” Carly asked him with a teasing grin.
He rested his arm on Sarah’s shoulders. “Sure did. Sarah is the best pillow.”
Sarah poked his ribs, and Pete smiled at her.
“Let’s get out of here,” Toby said nervously. His mother had “issues” that made her unpredictable, and none of them wanted to be around when she got home.
“Thanks for indulging me, Tobe,” Carly said.
“No problem. I know how much you love the jukebox.”
“I think I’ll miss it more than anything else next year,” Carly said with a wistful glance at the vintage jukebox that had gone silent and dark.
“Gee, thanks a lot, Carly,” Michelle joked. “I’m feeling the love.”
They took a last look around to make sure they had left nothing behind and then followed Toby upstairs to the ranch house’s cluttered kitchen. Outside, Brian tossed Sam the keys to the station wagon they shared. “We’re going to walk,” Brian said.
“Is that what it’s called these days?” Sam asked with a snort. “Walking?”
“Shut up and unlock the car,” Brian said to his brother.
As the others piled in, Brian grabbed his backpack from the front seat.
“Let’s go get a pizza first,” Pete said. “I’m starving.”
“You’re always starving,” Jenny replied.
Indignant, Pete said, “So?”
“Save some for us,” Brian said, taking Carly’s hand.
Michelle tugged at Carly’s free hand, trying to pull her into the car with them. “Come with us,” Michelle said with a pout on her pretty face. “You can shag him anytime.”
Carly blushed as Brian eased her out of Michelle’s clutches and closed the door.
“We’ll be right along,” he called as Sam backed the car out of Toby’s driveway.
“Sure you will!” came the loud chorus from inside the car.
Brian laughed as they watched the others drive away.
“So embarrassing,” Carly muttered, hiding her blazing cheeks behind the curls that framed her face.
He laughed as he put his arm around her. “What? That they all know what we’re going to do? Who cares?”
“I care.” Despite significant effort on the part of the guys, none of the other couples had “gone all the way” yet, which was just another thing that set Brian and Carly apart. They had held out until the beginning of their junior year when love and hormones and rampant desire had finally won out over guilt and fear of pregnancy.
Raining soft kisses on her face, Brian said, “We don’t have to. We can catch up to them at Ricardo’s.” He kissed her everywhere but where she wanted him most. “Just because I’ve been counting the minutes all day until I could get you alone doesn’t mean—”
She reached up to anchor him in place and molded her lips to his until the sound of an approaching car compelled her to let him go.
He took her hand, and they dashed into the woods behind Toby’s house just as his parents pulled into the driveway.
“That was too close,” Brian said with a laugh.
“We are so going to get caught one of these days.”
He led her along the well-worn path he had traveled since he was a kid. “We haven’t yet.”
“Our luck will run out eventually.”
“Never,” he said with the confidence of a young man who had known nothing but success in his brief life.
As daylight turned to dusk, anticipation propelled them along the path to their favorite spot by the lake, inside a huge weeping willow’s waterfall of branches. The heat of the day clung to the soft ground under the blanket Brian pulled from his backpack.
He tugged the T-shirt over her head as her fingers flew over the buttons on his shirt. Unhooking her bra and pushing it out of his way, he gasped at the feel of her breasts against his chest.
She remembered that chest before the soft dusting of dark hair had appeared, before the strong pectorals and tight abs, before the boy had become a man. Carly reached for him, and they tumbled onto the blanket in a rush of passion that never failed to take her by surprise. They had gotten good at this. After fumbling through it at first, they had figured out how to bring each other the kind of pleasure that left them weak and panting and always, always wanting more.
When she pushed a hand into his shorts, he gasped against her lips. “Wait, Carly. Wait. Slow down.”
She moaned in protest as he caressed her small but firm breasts.
He hovered above her, his eyes finding hers in the final golden burst of sunlight that filtered in through the curtain of willow branches. “I want to remember this.”
Puzzlement turned to breathlessness when he nuzzled her breast.
“All day today,” he said, making lazy circles around her nipple with his tongue, “I thought only about being here with you. Mr. Allen called on me in trig, and I had no idea what he’d been saying because I was already here, doing this to you.” He drew her into his mouth, and her back arched off the blanket in response. “How am I ever going to concentrate on my classes at school when we’ll have our own place and a real bed with no worries about being caught?”
Carly found it difficult to think about anything but the heat of his mouth on her breast. “Maybe it won’t be as exciting when we don’t have to think about getting caught,” she managed to say.
His eyes had gone dark with desire when he glanced up at her. “It’ll be every bit as exciting.”
She wove her fingers into his hair. “Bri,” she whispered. “I want you. Right now.”
He moved fast to get rid of their shorts and wrapped the blanket tight around them.
Carly raised her hips, seeking him.
Brushing the curls back from her face, Brian leaned in to kiss her. “I love you.” He filled her slowly and with more patience than he should have had after waiting all day.
“I love you, too. So much it hurts sometimes.” She worked her legs farther apart in the tight confines of the blanket and took him deeper, so deep she couldn’t say where she left off and he began.
“It’s not supposed to hurt,” he said with a smile as he kept his hips still, possessing her as only he could. Gazing down at her, he touched his lips to hers.
She squirmed under him, asking for more.
“Carly,” he gasped. “I can’t wait.”
Clutching him to her, she said, “Don’t. Don’t wait.”
With a moan, he flexed his hips and cried out. “Sorry,” he whispered, still breathing hard as he lay on top of her.
She skimmed her hands over his back, which was slick with sweat. “For what?”
“You didn’t, you know . . .”
“I don’t care.”
“Give me a minute, and I’ll make it up to you.”
“You don’t need to.”
His eyes danced with amusement. “Are you saying no to having an—”
“Stop!” With her fingers over his lips, she silenced him as her face heated with embarrassment. “Do not say it.”
He laughed. “What am I going to do about you and your hang-ups?”
“Live with them?”
“How about I marry them instead? Will that make it better?”
Carly stared at him. “What did you say?”
“Let’s get married. You’re freaking out about living together, so let’s make it legal. Then you won’t have to spend the next four years worrying about getting caught.”
“But, Brian,” she sputtered. “Our parents will have a cow.”
“We’re going to do it eventually, so why not now? We’re both eighteen. There’s nothing they can say.”
“They’re helping us with school expenses,” she reminded him. “What if they refuse to do that if we get married?”
“Do you really think they would? I think my parents would rather we get married than live together on the sneak for the next four years. And have you thought about the summers? We’ll be back to doing it under the willow tree.”
Carly nibbled on her lip as she thought it over. “Do you mean it? You really want to get married? Not just because of my so-called hang-ups?”
“I can’t believe you’d ask me that. I dream about being married to you, Carly. I can’t imagine waiting four more years until we can do it. We don’t have to tell anyone that we’re married if you don’t want to.”
She shook her head.
“You don’t want to get married?”
“Of course I do. You know I do. But I don’t want it to be a secret.”
“Carly Holbrook, I love you more than anything, and I will for the rest of my life. Will you marry me?”
“Yes,” she whispered. “Yes, I’ll marry you, Brian.”
He hugged her tightly. “We’ll talk to Fr. Joe after mass on Sunday.”
“We should tell our parents first.”
“Probably,” he agreed. “So does this mean we’re officially engaged?”
“I guess it does.”
He kissed her lips, her neck, and then her breasts. “Good because I want to give my fiancée an orgasm.”
His lips pressed against her belly, he laughed softly. “I can see that getting engaged didn’t help with the hang-ups.”
“It might take a while,” she confessed.
“We’ve got the rest of our lives to work on it.”