She paused for breath and to wipe away the tears falling unchecked down her cheeks. “I was so jealous of you, Chloe, when you showed up. Brandon was always running to help you, sleeping in your bed. You knew it…I mean, hell, you apologized every five fucking seconds. And I think my jealousy stemmed from the fact that you guys were close…you’ve known each other and been friends for years. Not only that, but…you’re fucking gorgeous!”

She laughed and I just shook my head at her. She held her hand up when I would have voiced my protest, and I shut up, allowing her to continue.

“In the long run, Brandon did what was best for him, and for me and Jackson, too. And yes, God, it still hurts and I’m still so pissed off at him at times, so much that I just want to throat punch him! But, again, he did do what was best.  For all of us. Regardless, I love him, and I always will. He’ll always hold a special place in my heart, and the woman who finally lands him is just gonna have to deal with it, because I’m not letting go of his friendship. I can’t. Trust me, I’ve went back and forth about this whole thing many times since he walked away. Emma was ready to castrate him because of it; she kept saying that he had made such a big deal about making it work and everything…and then just left it all behind when things got hard.”

“But, he didn’t!” I interjected loudly, shocking both myself and Allie.

She quirked her eyebrows at me and cocked her head. “Well, yeah, Chloe, he kinda did,” Allie said softly.

I shook my head, still unsure as to why I was forcing the issue, but…I just couldn’t let her think differently. Unable to stop, my mouth opened and the words poured out, memories overtaking me…

My sixth shot of tequila went down way smoother than the first five for some reason. Giggling, I slammed the glass back on the bar and turned to Brandon, who was brooding beside me. “So…Mr. Serious. What the fuck is your deal?”

“Excuse me?” he growled, turning his head towards me with a scowl.

“I said, What. The. Fuck. Is. Your. Deal?” I enunciated each word slowly, pausing for emphasis between each of them. And then I had to ruin it with a stupid little giggle again.

He rolled his eyes at me and shook his head. “You’re drunk, and I have no idea what the hell you’re talking about.”

I sighed and motioned the bartender for another shot. He nodded in acknowledgement and I turned back to Brandon.

“I may be feeling pretty good right now, but damnit! I deserve it!”

He chuckled beside me. “And why is that, sunshine?”

I blinked at him, shocked at the fact that he’d used the nickname he’d given me back when we were younger. He hadn’t used it in years…but then again, I really hadn’t seen him in years.

“You’re changing the subject, which I will allow at the moment. But we WILL revisit that issue. Anyway, I deserve it because I’m starting over. I’m leavin’ behind the stupid, weak, broken me that let that mother fucker beat on me like a punk ass bitch! That’s why!”

I crowed the last words, the drunk crowd around me throwing up their hands with their drinks in them and cheering me on. I grinned at Brandon and raised my own glass, the seventh shot of tequila that the bartender had finally placed in front of me with a shake of his head, and then threw it back, swallowing down the smooth but fiery liquid like it was water.

Brandon just shook his head at me and smirked. “Hmm…tequila brings out the sailor in you, huh? You’re gonna regret that in the morning, sunshine. You’re done now.”

I shook my head at him from side to side, making sure to punctuate my response to his order with a nice, juvenile, “Nu-uh!”

He sighed and turned away briefly, only looking at me when I spoke again.

“I may be getting drunk…” I cut off as I shook my head, the alcohol definitely starting to fuzzy up my brain. “Or AM drunk…but I want to know what’s up with you. You’re so damned moody and this was your idea, might I remind you.”

I huffed and signaled the bartender for another, growling at Brandon when he waved at the bartender and shook his head no. I nodded at the bartender, signaling again for another shot. When he ignored me and listened to Brandon, who overrode me once more and shook his head no, I couldn’t help but growl at him and then stumbled off my bar stool, intending to head back to the hotel.

I heard him holler at me to wait and, in a reflexive move, threw my hand up at him without stopping. Okay, so maybe I didn’t throw my hand up…maybe it was more of a one-finger salute…and not a nice one, either.

I heard laughter all around me and grinned, high-fiving the woman to my left that hollered, ‘Right on, sister!’ as I paused at the door, suddenly remembering that I didn’t pay my tab.

A delicious, lust-inducing scent washed over me and I felt the press of a hot, hard chest against my back right before I heard Brandon growl, “I paid the tab; keep walking.”

I wanted to argue and ignore him. I really did, but the fuzziness in my head decided at that moment to affect my balance and I stumbled, catching myself clumsily on the door as it swung open with my weight.

“Jesus…” Brandon bit out behind me before he wrapped his arm around my waist and hauled me against his side. “You shouldn’t have had that many shots, Chloe. Especially since we’re heading back home tomorrow.”

I couldn’t help my childish words, blurting out, “Well you drank a bunch of beer!” My tone was petulant, and I found myself stomping my foot and pulling away from him, stumbling once more.

I heard him curse under his breath before my world turned upside down as he scooped me up and threw me over his shoulder to continue the walk back to the hotel. I wiggled and shouted at him to put me down but he ignored me, slapping my ass smartly once and growling at me to be still. I finally complied, bracing my elbow against his back and propping my chin up on my hand like I didn’t have a care in the world. Hell, if he wanted to break his back carrying me the whole way, far be it for me to dissuade him.

He walked in silence for a bit and then I heard him mutter, “Yeah, I had a few beers, got a little buzz, but I know when to quit. Unlike SOME people I know.”

I sighed. I knew I shouldn’t have had so much but the memories of everything just overwhelmed me. Silence reigned once more until we got back to the hotel, and even as I fumbled in my back pocket awkwardly to fish out my room key. He took it from my hand and let us into the room, dumping me gently on the bed. I sat up on the edge of it and looked up at him as he stepped back.

“Will you stay for a while? Please?” I asked, not ready at all to be alone. I could feel panic creeping around the edges of my consciousness, memories threatening to overtake me now that loneliness was imminent.

He regarded me solemnly before he nodded, sitting down beside me. I leaned my head on his shoulder and mumbled, “Thank you. For everything.”

“You’re welcome. I’m glad I could help. That’s what friends are for, right?” He smiled down at me and nudged me with his shoulder. “I should thank you, though. You know, for not really pushing me for answers.” He laughed shortly and amended his words. “For not pushing me more than you have tonight.”

I laughed and lifted my head to look at him, my laughter dying as I asked, “Why did you do it, though? I mean, I know you just keep saying that it was the right thing to do because Allie and Jackson love each other so much more and deeper and all that shit, but…she told me you guys made such a big deal of it working out. It makes no sense that you walked.”