I dropped my hands to my sides, closed my eyes, and breathed deeply, then exhaled slowly. I was soaking in the 80 degrees, absolutely loving the sunny weather. I opened my eyes and observed the country scenery outside of the canopy.
I felt hand rest on my hips, then, and slide around to my stomach. "Well, hello, my love," Aaron's voice whispered in my ear, his lips lightly pressed against my ear. "It looks really nice out here!"
I rolled my eyes and turned in Aaron's embrace to face him. I kissed him on his cheek. "Yeah, well, you know my parents. Go big or go home. I still can't believe they insisted on this."
He feigned shock. "You mean, most parents don't throw 'conviction parties' for their child?"
"You know, that's a good point," I playfully punched his arm. "More people should have big parties when their child's batterer slash almost rapist slash stalker gets sentenced to the slammer for 80 years."
He intertwined his fingers in mine and we started walking up towards my parents' house. "Well, I don't believe that was the wording on the invite."
I sighed again. "Oh I know. They're calling it their annual summer barbeque. However," I stopped in my tracks and grabbed both of Aaron's hands, "it is a little suspicious that they haven't had this barbeque since the summer after my senior year of high school. It's just going to be awkward because of how blown up the trial ended up being in the news. Everyone knows, and I'm hoping no one will ask."
He placed both hands on either side of my face, kissing my forehead. "Well, you just give me the look, and I will come rushing to your aide." He winked at me.
I laughed and we headed inside my parents' house to see what we could help with.
"Hey, lady!" Sarah called out to me. I grinned at her. "Annual barbeque, huh?"
"I guess expect an invite next year, since it's now annual!"
She laughed. She side nodded her head towards the guy at her side, and she blushed. "Aleah, this is Justin."
"Ah! So this is the infamous Justin! I've heard so much about you," I teased as I obviously winked three times at Sarah.
"Aleah!" Her blush deepened.
"Well, I sure hope they were all good things! Aleah, it's nice to meet you." Justin's voice was silky smooth and he stuck out his hand to shake mine.
Since Sarah's breakup with Matt, she'd had a hard time, but Justin was a co-worker that had been her shoulder to cry on. I hadn't been the best friend, nor roommate, because of everything I was dealing with. Apparently they had just become "officially exclusive" the night before, and I hadn't met him, yet. She had just signed a lease for a rental house, and was going to be on her own within the next couple of weeks. At first I was really hurt and thought she was moving out because of how crappy a friend I had been. Turns out, that wasn't the case at all, I found out later.
*** Two Weeks Prior***
"I promise this won't take long, Aleah."
I was annoyed. Aaron and I were supposed to be going to dinner and we had reservations. It was a newly opened restaurant that I'd been dying to try. He insisted on stopping by the detective's bureau because he "forgot to do something that would only take a minute." He had stationed me at his desk.
I pulled out my phone and started scrolling through Facebook, hoping that whatever he needed to do would really only take a minute. I crossed my leg and admired my new Michael Kors heels I had just splurged on. I loved them. I set my phone on his desk and leaned down to rub a smudge of dirt on the side I must've accumulated somehow, already.
When I looked up, Aaron was standing in front of me with one of his hands behind his back. I narrowed my eyes at him suspiciously. "So, whatcha doin?"
He reached out with his visible hand and pulled me up to him. He withdrew his hidden hand and produced a single red rose. A smile started to warm my face. "Aleah, I need to ask you something."
I felt butterflies in my stomach. I wasn't sure where he was going with this. And his apparent nervousness etched all across his face wasn't easing those butterflies.
"Aleah, the reason I brought you here, to my office," he flourished his hands around, "is because this is the very first place we ever met, when you were in here visiting Brad. I don't want this place tainted with negative memories and thoughts because of why you were here and because of what my job required of both of us. I love you, and want to wake up to you every morning, and would love for you to be the last thing I see before I go to bed every night. So, Aleah, will you move in with me?" He grinned hopefully at me.
"Oh, Aaron, I would love to!" As he handed me the rose, that's when I noticed a key tied with a delicate white ribbon to the stem of the rose.
Fast forward a couple hours to dinner, and it turned out Sarah wasn't moving out. She was going to rent my house from my parents. Aaron had already discussed it with her and my father.
"I still have so much packing to do!" I exclaimed to Sarah.
"This weekend, we will have a packing party. You know, I'll help. I'm sure we can convince Aaron and Justin to help, too, with the persuasion of pizza and beer."
Justin chimed in, "Pizza and beer? I have no idea what you guys were talking about before that, but whatever it is, I'm in!"
Aaron who had just walked up and introduced himself to Justin added, "I'm on-call this weekend, but as long as I'm not called out, you know I'll be up there!"
I smiled at all of them. "You guys are the best. I'm going to call Victoria, Maddie, and Elena, too, and see if they would want to join in."
I heard a voice sing out from behind me, "My ears are ringing!"
I hugged Victoria, welcoming her to the party. We made small talk, and went through the normal greetings. Victoria lightly gripped my upper arm and quietly asked if she could pull me aside for a minute.
I followed her just outside the edge of the canopy. "Hey, Aleah, I know this is the last thing you probably want to talk about, but I just wanted to tell you I'm so happy that Luke was convicted and sentenced for as long as he was. I also wanted to tell you I'm sorry I was distant the past couple of months. Going through everything was hard, and I've been unsettled. I had to do some of my own healing and working through all of the feelings from the past and present. I just am sorry I couldn't be here for you. I..."
I cut her off. "Victoria. You do NOT need to apologize to me. If anything, I should be thanking you. I don't know that he would've gotten such a tough sentence had you not testified against him. I don't know if there's anything I could ever do to repay you."
She looked down at her feet. "It was nothing Aleah. I was happy to do it. I'm thankful for the friendship that we've started growing. You have been more of a friend to me over the past year, and been there for me more than Luke ever truly was."
"Victoria, you deserved to be treated better. Luke is the most manipulative person I've ever met, and I'm glad we both are rid of him. However, I also am sorry these circumstances are what started our friendship."
She hugged me, and I hugged her back tightly. I don't know that Victoria and I would ever be best friends, but we definitely had a unique friendship that I had come to value.
"Who is that?" Victoria asked.
I turned my head to see a body coming out of the backdoor of the house. I squinted against the sun. "Well, I'll be..." I muttered.
There coming down the steps of the back porch was my brother. "Tom!" I yelled at him and waved above my head.
He smiled and strode over to me. He had grown up. A lot. Although he was still young. He would be 21 this upcoming fall.
"I didn't know you were coming home this summer! Where's Miriam?"
"You, of all people, should know that I wouldn't miss mom and dad's 'annual barbeque,'" he air quoted. We laughed. "And Miriam and I broke up. But no need to waste my breath over that right now. Who's your friend?"
"Oh! Sorry! Tom, Victoria. Victoria, Tom." They shook hands.
They started making small talk, but I wasn't hearing what they were saying. Because at that time, I noticed another person coming down the stairs of the porch.
"Excuse me, guys. I need to go talk to someone," I said to Tom and Victoria, though I hadn't taken my eyes off of Zach, and I don't even know if Tom and Victoria heard me.
Zach looked good. Really good. Even though we had the last conversation we did where we parted ways, and even though I loved Aaron, there was still twang in my heart every time I saw him. His hair had lightened in the sun, and he looked tan.
We made eye contact and he smiled. He wrapped me into a tight hug. "Aleah."
I smiled widely at him. "Zach! Don't tell me you came back just for this."
He chuckled. "I didn't, though I definitely would have." He ran his hand through his hair. "So, how are you?"
I frowned at him. "Zachary Andrews. I know you a whole lot better than that. What are you not telling me?"
"Can't get anything past you, Aleah. I'm moving back home."
"Yeah. Here. I'll be starting med school in Omaha in the fall."
My heart skipped a beat. "Oh! That's... I mean, congratulations!
"Thanks, Aleah. Maybe we can get together soon?" He smiled, but his smile dropped and he looked past me.
I looked to see Aaron approaching us. He walked up and put an arm around my shoulders. They exchanged minimal pleasantries until Zach excused himself to go find his parents who were milling about.
I took a long sip of my mixed drink. The party had all but faded as a memory into the evening. The sun was setting, and Aaron and I were sitting on the steps of the porch, watching the day melt into night. He was leaning back beside me, drinking a beer. We were just sitting in silence, enjoying the perfection of the day. Aaron grabbed my hand and pulled it back to his lips, and he kissed it lightly, holding it to his mouth for a few seconds.
"I love you, sweet girl."
"I love you, too.