My eyes cut back to the fan in front of me, and I dutifully sign her jersey and pose for a picture. I do that three more times, each time not able to resist glances back at Vale as she eats in solitude.
When the last autograph is handed out, Max and Grant start for the door, but I stay pinned in place, indecisive. One more glance at Vale.
“Hey guys, I’ll catch up to you in a bit,” I call out, and they both turn to look at me inquisitively. “If I’m not there in fifteen, order without me.”
I wait for them to leave and then turn toward the restaurant. I’m sliding into the booth seat opposite Vale before she even notices me. Her head jerks up, and at first I don’t get even a hint of recognition, but then she breaks out into an easy smile that catches me off guard. I was quite sure I’d be getting daggers.
“Hey,” she says as she sets her fork down on her plate.
“Rabbit food for dinner?” I ask with a cut of my eyes down to her meal before looking back up at her again.
“Have to keep my girlish figure,” she quips.
I chuckle and stretch my legs out, making sure to spread them wide enough so they don’t touch her. I don’t think I could handle touching her.
She looks at me with vague curiosity and a touch of wariness. I decide to go ahead and put her totally at ease.
“I’m sorry about Saturday,” I tell her with my eyes holding hers. “I shouldn’t have come on to you like that. Shouldn’t have been such an asshole and said those things.”
“Oh,” she murmurs in soft surprise, and I can see her shoulders relax a little.
“And I’m really sorry for outing us to Tad,” I say with what I hope is a charming smile.
She returns it hesitantly but says, “Todd.”
“Whatever. I’m sorry about that. I know it’s not stress you need right now.”
Vale’s eyes hold me for a moment, then drop to her plate. She picks up her fork, toys around with a piece of lettuce covered in blue cheese dressing. “Todd and I broke up Saturday night.”
“Oh, fuck,” I groan, actually sorry over the fact that I caused that. Well, wait…no, I’m not sorry, but I keep that to myself.
Her face raises and she gives me a smirk. “It wasn’t because of you.”
Hmmm…I don’t like that either. I kind of want to be the cause of her dumping the toad.
“Actually,” she says with sober eyes, “I just sort of realized he wasn’t the one.”
“Bad kisser, huh?” I say jokingly.
“Good kisser,” she says, and I wince internally. “But he proposed to me, and that sort of put things in perspective.”
My eyebrows raise sky high, as I had no clue things were that serious. “Proposed? As in bended knee, ring, and marriage?”
“Well, he sort of blurted it out in the parking lot of my apartment, but in fairness to him, I think he was nervous.”
For some reason, that makes me sad. Sad that a man that wanted someone like Vale to spend the rest of her life with him didn’t have the decency to make it good for her. This thought confuses me somewhat, because I’m not sure why Vale holds any vested interest for me. Outside of not wanting to cause her undue stress while she’s going through this stuff with Dave, I’m not sure why I’ve got some protective instincts rising within me.
Vale takes a stab at her salad and an idea strikes me. “Hey, you want to dump the roughage and come eat pizza with me and a few of the guys? We’re going to grab a few beers after to celebrate our victory.”
She gives me a sweet smile and shakes her head. “Nah. That’s not my sort of scene anymore.”
“So, what is your scene now?” I ask curiously, wondering exactly how much the party girl I once knew has changed.
Her shoulders lift with silent laughter and her voice is dry. “Nowadays, it’s getting a good eight hours of sleep, which I’m actually looking forward to tonight.”
“I can understand that,” I say sympathetically. The girl is a workhorse, caught by circumstance and obligation to keep her and her dad afloat. “But what about before you moved here?”
“Hmmm,” she says thoughtfully before taking a dainty sip of her water. “Let’s see…I like to read—sci-fi and paranormal thriller stuff—and I used to spend a lot of time with my dog, Piper. We’d go hiking a lot. She’s a Lab and loves the water, so we’d spend a lot of time at this local lake that was near my house.”
“Where is she now?” I ask, intently curious now that for the first time Vale seems to be holding an easy conversation with me. A brief thought filters through my head, and that’s to hit her up with what she meant Saturday night about loyalty to herself, but I instantly quash it. It’s not the time. Maybe it won’t ever be.
Vale’s eyes go sad and I have a sudden urge to reach out and grab her hand. I curl my fingertips into the edge of the wooden table to resist as she says, “I had to leave her with Avery. Todd wasn’t a dog guy, but Avery gladly took her for me.”
“Where is Avery these days?” I ask, a sudden flush of guilt going through me that not only do I not know where Avery is, but I don’t know where Oliver is either. We just simply lost touch.
“She’s still living in Sydney. Married to a boat mechanic. They have a little boy who’s three.”
“Wow,” I say, almost stunned at how much has changed when sometimes it feels like it was just yesterday that we were all together. I cough slightly, almost hating to ask because it lets Vale know how much I left everything firmly behind. “And what about Oliver?”