A/N: Just one final part after this. Thanks for reading!
Part 7-The Truth
Haley groans slightly as she shifts beneath the covers and then groans at the ache in her back. Opening her eyes, she's surprised to find herself surrounded by masculine blues and tans rather than the sage green walls she's grown accustomed to in the guest bedroom. With a quick look around, it becomes quite obvious that she has somehow found her way into Nathan's bedroom. Despite the darker hues of the decor, the room is bright with the early morning sun and Haley can tell that she's been there for quite awhile. There's a navy blue blanket covering her, she realizes, and she's propped against a mound of dark brown pillows. Confounded by the situation, Haley pushes herself upright and begins to roll out of the king-sized bed, but her feet don't even touch the hardwood floor before she is overcome by an intense wave of nausea. Gasping, she claps a hand over her mouth and then leaps out of the bed, making a beeline for the en suite bathroom. Nearly sliding across the tiled floor, Haley drops to her knees before she very gracefully empties the contents of her stomach into the toilet. Trembling against the involuntary heaving, she rests her palms against the cool porcelain and takes several deep breaths to try and ward off the cold sweat that's beading on her skin. Her breaths are ragged and hurried, and she wishes desperately that she could fast-forward just an hour or two-to the moment when the terrible feelings will have passed.
She's still hunched in the same shaky position when a cool hand presses against her back and she feels her tangled hair being brushed away from her face.
"You're okay," he murmurs soothingly as he rubs her back. "You'll feel better soon."
Startled, she jerks around and sees Nathan resting on his knees beside her. His expression is one of concern and of sympathy...and maybe a teeny bit of remorse.
Haley gulps and then looks up at him through heavy eyes. Although she can't help but feel excited by his concern for her, she's also mortified. Yeah, this is the way to win him back. Drink yourself into a stupor and then puke all over his bathroom floor. Quickly, she averts her gaze and focuses her attention on the sporadic pattern of the floor tiles.
"Feel better?" he asks after several moments pass. His hand is still rubbing her back and Haley wonders if he even realizes he's doing it.
"A little bit," she returns quietly. She pushes back from the toilet and rests against the wall, her head cocked tiredly as she watches him. "What am I doing in your room?" Total panic flashes momentarily over her features. "Oh God! Did I like...sneak in here last night?"
Nathan raises his eyebrows in amusement at her theory. "No," he answers slowly. "But you definitely had too much to drink."
Recalling her pity-party from the night before, she feels her cheeks heat up with shame. She's certainly not adverse to the occasional cocktail, but she's never been one to drink glass after glass of wine. Hell, she's usually a bit woozy after her first glass! She groans slightly and then rubs firmly at her temples. "Uh, you think?" She shrugs and adds, "It was a terrible day. And you never answered my question. How did I get here?"
Nathan reaches down to button the cuffs on his shirt and, for the first time, Haley notices that he's dressed and ready for the day.
"I was worried that you might get sick after downing that bottle of wine," he explains. "I brought you here just in case. Obviously a good plan."
"Obviously," she repeats wryly. Looking back in the direction of the bedroom, her gaze fixes on the rumpled sheets. "And where exactly did you..."
Nathan says nothing, but he gestures over towards the window where a chenille blanket and a pillow have been tossed haphazardly.
Haley flushes. "Right. Sorry." She pauses awkwardly. There's something intimate about the situation-about watching as he gets ready-and suddenly she feels as though she's intruding. "You know, you could have just taken me back to my ro...I mean, the guest room. I would have been okay."
He stares intently for several moments, to the point that she feels the need to squirm under his probing eyes. "I was worried," he remarks softly. Pushing himself to his feet, Nathan offers his hand and helps her back into the bedroom where she sits tentatively on the edge of his bed. "I'm sorry about yesterday," he admits. "I was a jerk."
"You don't owe me anything," Haley cuts in, shaking her head.
Nathan shakes his head. "I was just really busy, Haley. It's not like I was avoiding you."
"Oh really?" Haley challenges. "So you always work sixty hour weeks?"
"It's been more than sometimes, Nathan," she remarks quietly. "Look, you don't owe me anything, but I'm asking you to tell me the truth. At least be honest with me. You've done everything short of moving out to try and avoid me. I know it and you know it. I guess I just thought you'd change your mind." Looking down at her hands, Haley chews thoughtfully on her lower lip. "Maybe I should go."
Surprised by the comment, Nathan's eyes immediately narrow. "Oh, so that's it? I'm a jackass once and you're going to run away? Even in high school you were tougher than that. Way to prove yourself, Haley."
"That's not what I meant!" Haley remarks firmly. "But if it was, I would be totally justified. I just meant...maybe I should find somewhere else to stay. This is just too hard-not just for me, but for you too."
Frustrated by the whole situation, Nathan releases a loud breath and shakes his head. "No," he argues. "Don't do that. Look, I'll try. It's just...you're right. This is really hard for me, Haley. I'm not sure you understand just how difficult it is."
Haley gives him a chiding look. "Believe me, Nathan. I know exactly how hard this is."
Nathan watches her for a moment. Not for the first time, he considers how perfect she looks on his bed. All night long, he'd been unable to fall asleep with Haley so close. Instead, he'd spent much of the night just enjoying her presence. He caught himself pretending that she was his wife and that she'd just had too much to drink at a company party. He'd allowed his mind to drift toward the fantasy of having a little blue-eyed girl and brown-eyed boy sleeping just down the hall. Fantasy, sure, but it had felt pretty damn authentic.
"I'm sorry," he utters finally.
She cocks her head in surprise and frowns at his sudden remorse.
"You're making an effort and I keep shutting you down at every opportunity," he clarifies. "I'm sorry."
Haley softens slightly and nods. "Thank you."
"I'm going to try harder," Nathan remarks with resolution.
The next few weeks are relatively uneventful. While there are no measurable blow-outs, Nathan is still rather distant. He's more willing to make conversation, but their interaction never ventures beyond the territory of casual friends. Still, Haley is determined. In fact, she's spent much of the past several weeks exchanging emails and phone calls with a number of influential people in an effort to prove the level of her commitment to Nathan. The fruits of her labor had finally arrived that day: a nondescript envelope that had been sandwiched between the water bill and a coupon book in the day's mail. Glancing over at Nathan, Haley can't help but smile. Hopefully this will make the difference.
At the moment, they're both lounging in the living room while some old Adam Sandler movie plays on television. Aside from the occasional chorus of their combined laughter, the room is dead silent. While she appreciates the gentlemanly manner he has adopted, she can't help but wish that he'd demonstrate something beyond brotherly affection for her. Sure, things have been eons better than before her regrettable wine-and-dine-party-for-one, but their recent relationship is reminiscent of the one she'd always had with Lucas. A wonderful relationship, sure, but not even close to the type of relationship she yearns to share with him. When she wants kisses, she gets a friendly shoulder-squeeze. When she wants him to give her a full, leering once-over, she gets a half-hearted nod of approval. When she wants a romantic candle-lit dinner, she gets Kentucky Fried Chicken and ESPN Classics. With a subtle, sidelong glance, Haley sees that Nathan is focused intently on the plasma screen. Releasing a little huff of air, she lets her shoulders sag. Once again, he doesn't even notice her.
Nathan is watching Haley out of the corner of his eye, and he frowns slightly when he hears her release a tiny sigh of what sounds like frustration. Gritting his teeth, he forces himself to remain focused on whatever shenanigans Adam Sandler and Chris Farley are up to on screen. The truth is that Nathan wants nothing more than to climb onto the couch, pull Haley into his arms and hold her for the rest of the night. He wants to be able to touch her and smell her and love her. He wants to be able to say all of the things he never thought he'd want to say to a woman. But he can't. The boundaries have been set and the lines have been drawn. Sure, she claims that she wants him for the long haul, but look at what happened the last time things had gotten intense. As torturous as it has to have her so near without touching her or kissing her, he knows it'd be worse to have her run again. So he keeps it light and friendly. Non-threatening.
Alone in the recliner it is.
His Blackberry vibrates loudly against the surface of the end-table. Snatching it up, Nathan sees that he has a text from Jake. He rolls his eyes when he sees the message: Made any progress with your girl? Nathan immediately begins composing a response.
The look of intense concentration on Nathan's face suggests to Haley that he's thinking quite hard about something. She decides to break the silence and lighten the mood.
"So Brooke's going to be here tomorrow," she announces with a cheerful smile as she picks up the remote and mutes the TV.
"Tomorrow?" Nathan responds . "Already? I knew she was coming, but time has flown by. You guys have any exciting plans?"
Disappointment threatens Haley's pleasant mood, but she pushes it out of her mind. "Actually, we were planning on going out tomorrow night. I thought you said you were going to come with us. I was hoping you would come along to save me from humiliation in case Brooke falls madly in lust and leaves me sitting alone like a loser."
Nathan frowns distractedly as he types on his Blackberry. "Huh? Oh, sure," he smiles absently at Haley. "I remember you mentioning something, but like I said, I just lost track of time. Just let me know where and when and I'll be there, okay?"
Nodding, Haley lets out a dejected sigh and settles back on the couch.
Nathan taps the few characters and skims the final message: None. But having her with me is better than not having her at all.
Satisfied, he presses the send button.
He knows now that he never should have sent that text message.
At least, not to Jake. He's on his way home from a practice with his youth-league team when his phone begins ringing. It's only after he's arrived home and ignored Jake's call four times that he finally apologizes to Haley and takes the call in his office.
"Do you love her" Jake asks for the millionth time.
"Shut the hell up, man!"
"It wasn't a trick question, dumbass."
"Screw you, Jagielski," Nathan mutters irritably. "If you called just to give me shit, I'm hanging up."
"You think that's bad?" Jake taunts. "You should hear the things Skills and Tim say."
"Talking trash behind my back? That's ballsy."
Jake chuckles, "There aren't many opportunities to trash-talk the great Nathan Scott. We've got to get our kicks while we can. Come on, man. You send me some sappy, puppy-dog text, and you think I'm not gonna call you on it? This has gone far enough. You're both dancing circles around your issues and it's causing nothing but pain and anxiety. Peyton and I feel like we've got our own up-close-and-personal soap opera going on."
"Well, I'm so glad I could provide this opportunity to entertain you," Nathan responds wryly.
Jake quickly redirects the conversation. "You never answered my question."
"It was a stupid question. Of course I love her. More than anything or anyone I've ever had or known. You really think it would be this hard if I didn't?"
"To be honest, I don't really know why it's so hard for the two of you. You love each other, you're living in the same place, you're both responsible adults...what's the problem?"
"I don't know what to do next. I mean, I told her I was going to make more of an effort. But how much more of an effort to do I need to make. Are we supposed to be a couple all of a sudden? Do we date? I don't want to scare her off, man. And as much as she says she's ready for the long-term..." he trails off doubtfully.
"Why don't you talk to her about that? It affects her too. Just remember, man. She's just as gunshy as you are at this point. You're terrified she's going to run off. According to Peyton, she's terrified you're going to change your mind."
"I couldn't change my mind about Haley even if I wanted to," Nathan mutters quietly.
"So let her know that."
"So...honesty, huh? That's a novel approach." Nathan sighs heavily.
Jake chuckles, "Crazy, huh? Oh, and Nate? I'd get to work on that if I was you. Peyton says Brooke will be there tomorrow. Brooke has a way of getting people to lay their cards on table...whether they're ready or not."
When Brooke rings the doorbell the next day, Nathan can't help but smile at the sight of Haley, who is so excited to see one of her best friends. As much as Brooke drives him crazy (and it's a lot) he finds himself thinking that it might be nice to make her visits more of a regular thing if it means Haley's face will light up like this each time.
Two seconds later, Nathan is wishing that he'd had the foresight to purchase some earplugs. All he knows is that there's a lot of girly-squealing, bouncing, hugging, and then more girly-squealing. As much as he adores Haley, the squealing is giving him a headache. And Brooke's haughty little glares aren't helping matters.
"You look awesome!" Brooke exclaims. "I wasn't sure what to expect after you've spent so much time with the Jackass King over there."
"Nice to see you too, Brooke," Nathan remarks dryly.
"Oh, so you're speaking English again," Brooke responds brightly. "Some of your buddies gave me the impression that you'd gone all caveman there for awhile. You know, speaking in a series of grunts and taking a baseball bat to your own house. And then when Haley called me crying so many times..."
"Brooke!" Haley hisses warningly.
Sorrow flickers briefly over Nathan's features. He shouldn't be surprised, but it's troubling to know for sure that his treatment of Haley had forced her to turn to Peyton and Brooke for comfort. For quite awhile now, he's liked to think of that as his job.
"So?" Brooke turns to Haley. "Are we going out tonight? I really want to make an appearance at this one club..." The conversation fades away as the two women head upstairs.
Within a matter of hours, Nathan is seated on the couch, his knee bouncing impatiently as he waits for Haley and Brooke to make their way downstairs. Although Brooke has a hotel room for the duration of her stay, she and Haley had opted to get ready together, so Nathan has been plagued by the sounds of their giggles all evening. While he's happy for the opportunity to spend the evening with Haley, he's realizing more and more that Brooke is going to make it very difficult for any real talking to take place. Releasing a heavy sigh, he tilts his wrist to look at his watch, but he's interrupted by the sound of Brooke's husky voice. "Don't get your panties in a bunch, Mr. Punctual. We're ready."
Nathan stands and turns to see Brooke in her usual number: something short, tight, and black that exposes legs and cleavage galore. He's not, however, prepared for the sight of Haley in a strapless, cranberry concoction that manages to exude class while simultaneously oozing sexuality. Nathan begins to say something, but he realizes that his throat's gone dry and he has to swallow before he can continue. "Wow. God, Haley. You look...wow." He shakes his head in an effort to clear his mind, but he's flummoxed again when he sees the shyness in her smoky eyes and the slight curve of a smile on her glossy lips.
"Thanks," she replies.
A loud cough breaks the tension in the room and Brooke steps directly in front of him. "And what about me?"
"You look like someone who really needs to get laid," Nathan remarks bluntly.
Brooke's brow furrows for a moment, and then she nods in satisfaction. "Excellent!" she chirps. She turns to Haley and murmurs, "I really do."
In her usual take-charge manner, Brooke leads the trio in the direction of the front door, but Nathan reaches out to stop Haley. Startled by his touch, she looks up with wide-eyes and pauses.
"You look really amazing," he murmurs softly. Letting his hand trail down the length of her arm, he smiles when he sees her shiver ever-so-slightly in response to the contact. Then he lets his hand fall to hers. Their fingers twist together almost instinctively and Haley smiles at the comfortable pressure of his hand around hers.
The drive to the club is silent. Brooke is in her rental car since she's planning on going back to her hotel for the night, which leaves Haley and Nathan in his Range Rover, their hands still entwined over the center console.
"You really do look beautiful," he finally remarks solemnly as they wait at a stoplight. And then slowly, as though he doesn't want to frighten her, he leans over and presses a soft kiss to her cheek. Lifting a hand to a wavy tendril of hair, he brushes it back behind her shoulder and takes her hand in his once again.
She's surprised, but she turns to him with a grateful smile. "Thank you," she replies shyly. Recognizing an opportunity to open up the lines of communication, Haley chews slightly on her lower lip and hesitates before finally speaking again. "Look, Nathan," she adds uncertainly. "I was hoping maybe we could talk later. There's...something I want tell you. It's a good thing...I think. But I want to share it with you."
Nathan watches her curiously for a moment and then nods. "Okay," he agrees. "We'll talk tonight when we get home. I think we definitely have some decisions to make."
Home. It's such a simple word, but Haley can't help the way her heart jumps when he refers to it as though it's something they share. And decisions? But he'd said it with a smile on his face. So they must be good decisions, right? Relieved, Haley smiles at him. For the first time in a long time, she's starting to think that maybe things will actually fall into place. Maybe things will work out for the best. Maybe there is such a thing as happily ever after.
It's still early-barely nine o'clock-but the club is unbelievably crowded with bodies packed shoulder to shoulder across the dance floor. The dancing crowd forms a collective wave of motion across the dance floor as the music pulses and the low lights flicker, and there's a cluster of people hovering around the bar as they wait for the opportunity to order new drinks. Nathan is still holding onto Haley's hand when they walk in, and he only lets go to place a protective hand at the small of her back.
"Stay close," he murmurs in her ear. "I don't want to lose you in here." Haley nods in response and then laughs out loud when she looks over at Brooke.
Brooke is nodding her head in time with the beat of the music and tosses a sly smile towards Nathan and Haley. "Now this is what I'm talking about!" she exclaims, raising her voice to be heard over the music.
Nathan chuckles to himself when he sees that Haley is a bit more skeptical, but he gives her a gentle nudge when Brooke attempts to drag her to the center of the dance floor. Nathan laughs at the look of terror in her eyes and gives her a playful wave. "Have fun! I'll get us some drinks!" Within a few moments, he sees that she's dancing-although less provocatively than most in the room-and giggling with Brooke. Since Nathan has long since given up any hope of ever possessing a shred of rhythm, he opts to make his way over to the bar and take his chances with the thirsty mob.
As he waits patiently at the bar, Nathan can't help but follow Haley with his eyes. Despite the huge number of people surrounding her on the dance floor, his gaze is almost immediately drawn to her. Sappy as it may sound, he feels a subtle wave of calm wash over him when he is able to keep an eye on her. Unfortunately, he's focused so intently on the sight of Haley's laughing face that he doesn't notice the brunette lolling drunkenly behind him. Just one tiny mis-step later, and she's stumbling right into his back, her drink seeping into the fabric of his shirt.
"What the hell?" he exclaims in shock. Turning around, his shock deepens when he realizes that the offender is someone he knows.
Turning at the sound of his name, Nathan is surprised to see Lucy Abbott, an entertainment reporter for the Charlotte Observer, watching him curiously as she sips from the drink in her hand.
Although perfectly nice at first glance, Lucy Abbott has been hounding him ever since his move to Charlotte. Touted as the Perez Hilton of Charlotte, Lucy is frequently seen rubbing elbows with some of the biggest singers, actors, and athletes in the country. Unfortunately, she's also the writer of some of the most scathing and scandalous articles ever published. More than one reputation has been ruined by Lucy's version of reporting, and Nathan happens to know that she'll dig until she finds dirt. Even more frightening-if she doesn't find any dirt, she'll make her own. The last thing he needs is for Lucy Abbott to know anything about his personal life. He's managed to keep a low profile over the past several months, and he certainly doesn't need to be the subject of some shitty human-interest story on triumph over tragedy. Of course, if he blows her off, he's likely to end up on tabloid covers beneath the double entendre, "NATHAN SCOTT: WHAT AN ASS."
"Nathan Scott? Is that you?" Lucy trills with excitement in her eyes.
"Lucy," Nathan greets easily, a forced smile on his face. "How are you?"
"Fine," she replies cheerfully. "A little surprised to see you here. I thought you'd mentioned that you weren't really into the club scene anymore."
Nathan nods. "Yeah, that's right. I had my fill when I was back in Phoenix. Actually, I'm kind of a third-wheel tonight."
"You're a third-wheel?" Lucy flirts boldly. "I doubt it. But since this is such a rare occasion for you, why don't you let me buy you a drink? I'd love to catch up!"
Nathan glances towards the dance floor in search of Brooke and Haley, but he can't spot them anywhere. Finally, he looks back at Lucy who is eagerly awaiting his response. He's slightly taken aback by her forward approach. "Uh..." he stalls as he searches for an excuse to refuse. "
"One drink," Lucy promises. "I'm not asking for a ring."
"Sure," he shrugs casually. "One drink can't hurt."
He orders his drink from the bartender and then seats himself on one of the barstools.
"You know, I have a friend who's a contractor...he did some work at your place and he tells me there's a mystery woman who supposedly had you demolishing your house. She must be quite a girl," Lucy comments bluntly.
Nathan smiles wryly.Fucking contractor can't keep his mouth shut. Leaning down, Nathan gets as close as he can and then whispers, "Well, you are the queen of rumors, Lucy. I'm sure if you heard it, you probably also started it."
She raises a hand to her chest as though offended. "Well, there's no reason to get nasty, Nathan. I was just concerned for your wellbeing. I can't imagine any woman worth her salt treating you so horribly. Besides, you could stand to get some publicity, you know? You've all but fallen off the face of the earth."
"That's just the way I like it," Nathan replies.
Lucy tosses her hair and laughs. "Don't be ridiculous! Nobody likes being nobody! And our readers are craving some juicy gossip on you. Who are you here with tonight?"
The woman I'm head over heels in love with, he wants to say. Instead, he replies tightly, "Some friends. Just some friends."
Examining her reflection in the mirror, Haley opts to touch up her lip gloss while Brooke is indisposed. She's twisting the cap back onto her gloss when Brooke makes her way up to the sink.
"So, things seem to be going pretty well between you and Nathan," Brooke comments slyly.
Ignoring Brooke's teasing gaze, Haley nods. "They're definitely improving. I think he's finally realizing that I'm here for the long haul." She gives Brooke a secretive grin. "And I got some good news the other day."
"And you're holding out on me? What is it?" Brooke demands.
Tugging something from her clutch, Haley hands it to Brooke and watches excitedly as Brooke's eyes widen.
Haley nods. "I was afraid it wouldn't work out, but it did. Now I just have to tell Nathan."
"This is really big, Haley," Brooke comments. For a split-second, her vivaciousness fades the tinest bit and her voice is serious. "I'm happy for you. Lucas would be thrilled too. I just hope that you guys can have the kind of relationship I wanted to have with Lucas. You love each other. You can still be together, so you should be together."
Haley's eyes sparkle happily and she nods. "You know what? It's taken a long time, Brooke, but I'm happy for me too. Maybe it's time you work on being happy...even without Lucas. He'd want you to find someone else."
The solemnity fades away and the vivacity returns. "Oh, but I have someone," Brooke remarks. "I have a lot of someones!"
"You know what I mean, Brooke," Haley comments firmly.
Brooke nods. "I'm just not there yet," she explains. "Not yet." She takes a deep cleansing breath and her perky smile is restored. "But you are, my friend. Let's get out there."
Placing everything back into her clutch, Haley nods. "Let's go find Nathan before he thinks we've abandoned him."
The two are arm-in-arm when the emerge from the ladies room, and immediately they begin searching for Nathan. Brooke manages to spot him first, but she isn't quick enough to disguise her indignant huff from Haley.
"What?" Haley questions with a laugh. Following Brooke's eye line, Haley has the perfect view of Nathan. Well, the perfect view of Nathan smirking charmingly at the brunette at his side. Waiting for a moment, she hopes to see Nathan give the woman the brush-off or give her a sisterly pat on the arm. Instead she watches as he leans down and whispers something into the other woman's ear.
Rolling her eyes, she hands her purse to Brooke. "Hold this for me." Then she straightens her shoulders and marches with confidence in the direction of the pair. The brunette pulls back as Haley steps in and offers her hand. "Hi, I'm Haley."
The other woman is clearly taken aback, but she nods and smiles politely. "I'm Lucy. Nice to meet you. Are you...?" she glances coyly between the two, "Oh my God! You're Nathan's girlfriend, aren't you? So it's true! Nathan Scott is really off the market?"
Smiling, Haley steps forward and starts to press herself into Nathan's side. She opens her mouth to respond, but Nathan cuts her off.
"Nope," Nathan breaks in loudly. "Haley is just an old friend of mine. She was actually my brother's best friend." He turns to face Haley. "This is Lucy Abbott from the Observer," he explains casually before taking a sip of his beer.
Haley feels her heart drop and she knows her face has fallen right along with it. After everything, after all of the progress she'd believed them to be making, he's introducing her as 'the old friend'. He's flirting with another woman and making it clear that she's nothing more than an old buddy. And why not? The other woman wouldn't blow him off when he proclaimed his love for her. The other woman probably wasn't waist-deep in trust and commitment issues. Staring at Nathan with a look of hurt and resignation, she watches as he nods at something Lucy says. He's totally oblivious.
"I, uh..." she stammers dumbly. "I think I left my lip gloss in the ladies room." She glances at Lucy. "It's my favorite color and...you know how it is. Excuse me!"
Shaking her head in a valiant effort to ward off her tears, Haley hurries back across the club to where Brooke is standing with a hilariously flabbergasted expression on her face.
"I need your keys," Haley says in a low voice. "Give me your keys."
Surprised by the command, Brooke pulls her rental car keys from her purse and hands them over to Haley.
"What are you doing here? Show the bitch who's boss!" Brooke urges.
Not trusting her own voice, Haley reaches out to give Brooke's wrist a squeeze and then whispers, "I've got to get out of here. You can make sure he gets home, right?"
Brooke looks a little shell-shocked, but she nods. "Yeah, of course, but...Haley, I don't think you should. Haley!" Something You left your...purse." Haley is already halfway out the door by the time Brooke manages to finish the sentence.
Nathan looks over at the sound of Brooke yelling Haley's name, and turns to Lucy. "Look, print what you want to print. I don't have time for this shit. I've got better things to do than play your games. If prying into other people's business and then subjecting them to public scrutiny and humiliation is your calling in life," he makes a grand sweeping motion, "have at it." Turning abruptly, he leaves Lucy standing with a scowl on her face, and he knows he's probably not going to want to read the Observer anytime soon.
As he approaches Brooke, he glances around for Haley and grows concerned when he doesn't see her nearby. Brooke, however, looks like she's about to explode. Her foot is tapping rapidly, her arms are crossed over her chest, and her jaw clenched. When Nathan finally reaches her, Brooke balls up a fist and socks him in the arm. "Are you fucking kidding me?"
Nathan looks surprised. "What?" He glances around curiously, "Where did Haley go?"
"Uh, she's long gone," Brooke mutters. "Asshole."
"Could you cut the huffing and puffing routine, Brooke? What the hell is going on? What are you talking about?"
"Well, what did you expect, Nathan? You're all over her all evening, and then suddenly she looks over to see you showing off for some drunken bimbo. Then you actually introduce her as your old friend? You're going to ruin this, Nathan. You're going to wreck her. I mean, how long do you really think she's going to stick around with you treating her like shit?"
"Lucy?" Nathan scoffs skeptically. "Jesus, Brooke, she's the gossip writer for the Charlotte Observer! She was digging for dirt because she's been trying to do a piece on me for ages!" He rakes a hand desperately through his hair as he realizes just how badly he may have fucked up. "Damn it, I didn't want her to know about Haley because...well, after everything we've been through to get to this point, I don't think being the focus of public scrutiny is the best thing for us right now. Besides, she is an old friend. We haven't discussed becoming anything more."
Broke feels a pang of sympathy when she sees just how torn up Nathan really is. "But you guys are more," she points out gently. "Maybe if you'd try talking to her, you'd understand that! Instead, you're too busy trying to put her in her place...or some other shit. Whatever," she finally mutters. "If Haley bails on you this time, I'm right there with her. Maybe she'll find somebody who doesn't treat her like dirt."
Nathan opens his mouth to argue, but then he stops and considers the past several weeks. Has he really been so horrible? As his mind sorts through all of the missed dinners, the ignored questions, and the avoided conversations, he realizes that he has. Haley had taken a leap of faith on him, and he'd made her feel like a fool.
"Where are my keys," Nathan demands suddenly and he begins searching his pockets for his keychain. "Where did she go?"
"Oh great, so you're just going to leave me here?" Brooke complains sulkily. "Some friends. How am I supposed to get back to my hotel?"
"Call a cab," Nathan suggests distractedly. "Just tell me where the hell she is, Brooke."
Huffing indignantly, Brooke picks up Haley's clutch and slams it into Nathan's chest. "I don' t know where she is, but here's what I do know. That's her purse. Why don't you do yourself a favor and take a quick look inside. There's an envelope that might interest you. You can even tell her I told you to read it! Anything to get off the Naley merry-go-round of drama!" With a huff, Brooke storms off and leaves a bewildered Nathan staring cluelessly into a black sequined bag. The envelope is crumpled and has obviously been handled quite frequently, but his curiosity is piqued when he sees the small crest embossed in the upper left-hand corner. He doesn't even need to read what's inside to know what it means.
And it changes everything.
The valet seems to be taking an eternity to retrieve the Range Rover, especially since it's not even ten-thirty and Nathan's the only waiting for his car. Glancing impatiently at his watch, he finds himself wondering if the you parking attendant is having a little too much fun driving the luxury vehicle. When the SUV finally brakes to a stop at the curb, Nathan tosses a ten at the kid and leaps into the driver's seat. Pressing a button on the instrument panel, he says very clearly, "Call Haley," and listens as the phone rings. He drums his hands anxiously on the steering wheel as he waits for her to pick up, and then he sighs in relief when she finally does.
"What's up, Nathan?" she greets him tiredly.
"Thank God! Where are you?" he exclaims immediately. "You just take off and abandon me here with Brooke? What the hell, Haley? If you wanted to leave, you should have told me."
"I'm sorry," she replies emptily.
Nathan can't help but frown at the lack of energy in her voice. "What's going on, Haley? What's wrong with you?"
"Nothing's wrong," she answers. "Actually, I think I'm finally figuring things out."
"What does that mean?" Nathan asks sharply.
"It means that I get it," Haley explains defeatedly. "I'm not going to bother you anymore."
Nathan is troubled by her statement and tries to repair the damage the evening has done. "Haley, the Lucy thing...it's not even close to what you think. Just let me explain and-"
She's silent on the line, and then he hears a loud gasp followed immediately by the piercing squeal of tires on asphalt.
"Haley?" Nathan calls into the phone. "Haley!"
Her voice is wobbly, but it's there. Nathan glances toward the sky and says a quick prayer of thanks before responding.
"Haley! Baby, are you okay? What happened?"
He can hear her take a deep breath as though she's trying to keep her composure. "I'm okay," she promises. "I'm out on the back roads. Something ran into the road. I'm fine," she insists. "I'm fine."
Then she falls apart.
"Tell me where you are, Haley. Tell me where you are so I can come get you."
It feels like forever before he spots her car pulled onto the shoulder of a narrow, two-lane road. His tires skid slightly on the loose gravel, but he throws the car into park and is tugging Haley from the driver's seat of her car in a matter of seconds. Her eyes are puffy and her mascara is smudged, so he gently wipes at the dark circles with his thumbs. For the first time since she's been back, he takes the opportunity to look at her-to really look at her. She looks exhausted. She looks broken. She looks like someone who has given up. A surge of guilt overwhelms him as he realizes he's the reason for her current state. He's been so determined to avoid blindly falling for her that he's given her the impression that he just flat-out doesn't give a damn about her. He resists the urge to let out a string of curse words. Nothing could be further from the truth. Right here, in this moment, with Haley looking skittish and wide-eyed, her petite frame looking frail and burdened, he realizes that none of it matters. He's going to love her and adore her and desire her for the rest of his life. So what the hell is he waiting for?
"Are you crazy? What the hell were you thinking?" Suddenly he's screaming like a madman, waving his arms and crying out his frustrations. Then, before he knows it, he's sobbing along with her. "What if you'd been in an accident? Do you even know what it would do to me? I don't know what I would do if something happened to you! Do you get that?"
"I'm sorry!" she screams at him. "I'm sorry! How many times can I say those words to you?"
"Come here," he murmurs finally. Letting out a sob of relief, she jumps into his arms and buries her face in the crook of his neck. With one arm wrapped around her narrow waist, he lets his free hand tangle in her hair as he whispers soft words of comfort in her ear. "Now what the hell were you talking about earlier...about not bothering me anymore?"
"I can't do it anymore," she murmurs sadly. "I just can't. I'm sorry, Nathan. I'm so sorry for everything. I want to be with you so much. I love you so much, but please don't make me do this anymore."
"Do what, baby?"
"See what I'm missing. Watch you and be near you when you won't let me have you. If I can't have you, I just need you to tell me."
"Shhhhh..." Nathan hushes her. "Don't cry, James. You should know by now...you already have me. You always will. And you damn well better keep bothering me. No one else does the job like you do."
Haley nearly laughs with joy at the sound of the nickname she hasn't heard in months. Taking his words to heart, she tries her best to regain her composure and dry her tears. "I'm so tired," she mumbles finally. Instinctively, she pulls him even closer and nuzzles against his chest.
"I know, baby. I know."
"Don't let go of me," Haley whispers urgently as she clutches him as close as she possibly can.
"I've got you, James. Don't worry," Nathan nods. "Let's go home."
A curling strand of steam is rising daintily from the oversized mug of hot chocolate as Nathan carries out of the kitchen and into the living room.
Haley is stretched out on the couch when Nathan comes in, and she smiles when she sees the small pile of marshmallows atop the hot beverage.
"Keith is going to send one of the guys out to get Brooke's car in the morning," he tells her.
"Thanks," Haley smiles. She takes a cautious sip of the cocoa and smiles at him gratefully. There's something so soothing about a mug of hot chocolate-even in the midst of summer.
"So Lucy is a gossip writer?" Haley questions, still trying to understand the situation that had brought them to blows earlier in the evening.
Nathan nods and seats himself next to her on the couch, casually draping his arm across the back of the couch. "She's the gossip writer for the area. She's been trying desperately to find something on me ever since I moved here. I was trying to prevent you-us-from being that something."
"I'm sorry," Haley murmurs.
"Don't be," Nathan insists. "It as a misunderstanding. I should have just let Lucy think and write whatever the hell she wanted. I really was trying to protect you...protect us."
"I know that now."
Nathan watches her closely for a moment and then inquires hesitantly, "Can I ask you another question?"
Taking another sip of cocoa, Haley looks at him over the rim of the cup and the nods as she lowers it to her lap. "Sure."
"After everything...what changed your mind about us?" Nathan asks curiously.
"Lucas," Haley replies quickly and honestly.
She laughs at the look of confusion that flickers over his face. Finally, she pushes herself up from the couch and shuffles out of the room for several long moments. Nathan sits baffled, wondering where the hell she's disappeared to, until she reappears and nestles herself back into her nest on the couch. In her hand she holds a crumpled piece of paper that's obviously been read on a frequent basis. She handles it as though it's some priceless artifact as she gently hands it to him.
She explains, "I found that a couple of days after you left Palo Alto. I was moping and Emily called me on it. She asked me what the hell was wrong with me. She wanted to know why I would send you away when being away from you was obviously so painful for me. You have to understand..." she pauses as she tries to collect her thoughts. "I thought I was incapable of being in a relationship. The last relationship I'd been in had destroyed practically every relationship I'd ever had. I didn't ever want to go through that again. I didn't ever want to lose myself in another person like that again. So I was sitting there feeling sorry for myself and Emily went stomping out of the apartment. When the door slammed behind her, it caused a frame to fall. When I went to pick up the frame, I found this. Lucas must have left it for me the...the last night I saw him. I guess it fell behind the bookshelf."
"What's it say?" Nathan questions curiously.
Haley motions at the letter. "Read it for yourself."
Nathan nods and slowly unfolds the letter before reading the words aloud.
Look, buddy, I know you're upset with me right now and I get that. It's just that you're my best friend in the world, Haley. You're the best person I know and you deserve to be with someone who celebrates that. Matthew isn't that guy, Hales. When we were sixteen, I told you what kind of guy I wanted for you. I told you that I wanted someone who would take care of you and respect you and share with you. I still want that for you. I still want you to find someone who lets you pick the movie, who makes sure you're never cold, who doesn't mind if you eat off his plate. That guy is out there, Haley. He could be right in front of you, but you may not even realize it because you're so busy looking for the grand gesture. It's not about the grand gesture, Hales. It's about the everyday moments.
I'm sorry that you're upset with me and I'm sorry that you think I don't respect the choices that you make. But I'm even more sorry about the fact that I never see you or talk to you anymore. I miss you, Haley. I miss my best friend and I'm hoping that when you read this, you'll realize that all I've ever wanted is the best for you.
I love you, Hales. You're my best friend in the world...no matter what.
Give me a call as soon as you can.
Haley's eyes are flooded with tears by the time Nathan finishes reading Lucas's words.
"He knew," Nathan finally utters.
"Knew what?" Haley asks.
"You asked me awhile back why I was so interested in spending time with you."
"Yeah," Haley prompts him.
"It was Lucas," Nathan explains. "The night of the accident, we were out having a few drinks and he brought you up. For the first time in almost five years, he made a point of bringing you up in a conversation."
"What did he say?"
"What's eating you?" Nathan questions gruffly as he watches Lucas staring off into space for the umpteenth tiime.
"I'm worried about Haley," Lucas responds honestly.
"Haley?" Nathan echoes. "What could you possibly be worried about her for? If there was ever a chick who could take care of herself, it's Haley James."
"I'm not so sure about that," Lucas replies. "She's in a bad relationship right now. I just can't help but think..."
"You're one of the best guys I know. You realize that, don't you, man?" Lucas asks.
"Haley is one of the best people I've ever met. She deserves someone just as good as her."
"What are you saying?"
Lucas gives Nathan a pointed look and Nathan immediately begins shaking his head. "No way, man. No way."
"He wanted you to rescue me from my relationship with Matthew," Haley realizes. "He wanted you to show me how things could be."
"It was the last thing he ever wanted from me," Nathan nods. "And after the accident..."
Haley nods in understanding.
"I figured maybe we could be friends if I was lucky. But then..." he trails off allowing Haley to fill in the blanks. "Goddamn Lucas," he mutters. "He was right once again."
Nervous about her reaction, he slowly looks up and is surprised to see a fresh sheen of tears in her eyes. She's biting her lip and she's shaking slightly, and he doesn't quite know what to make of her reaction.
"Hales?" he murmurs worriedly. A look of obvious confusion mars his handsome face.
Taking a breath, she tries to explain, "You always put a blanket over me when I'm taking a nap."
Nathan stares at her, baffled. "I'm sorry?"
Laughing softly, Haley shakes her nead and continues, "You watch The Notebook with me even though I know you hate it. You try your hardest to keep the kitchen clean, even though you aren't always successful. And when I ask you if I can have the croutons from your salad, you always give them to me even though they're your favorite."
"I'm going to need you to tell me what you're trying to say, Hales."
She looks up uncertainly and nods. "It's what I've been trying to tell you ever since I got here."
"What?" he asks.
"Do you remember the time when I told you that Lucas talked to me about what to look for when it comes to true love?"
"And if I recall correctly, you told me that it was a bunch of sappy crap that never actually happens in real life."
With a sheepish smile Haley reaches out to tug on his hand. When he kneels next to the couch, she leans in and presses her lips against his. Finally she pulls away.
"I was wrong," she admits softly. "I'm in love with you, Nathan."
He exhales suddenly and feels a weight lift from his sagging shoulders. He's heard the words before, but this is the first time he's been certain of the feelings behind them.
"Thank God!" he breathes. Giving her hand a tug, he pulls her up and into his arms. She lowers herself into his lap and feels his lips brush lightly against her neck.
"I love you, Haley," he whispers.
She shivers slightly and nods.
"I love you too."
Haley's index finger is tracing a series of invisible loops and curls across the muscular plains of Nathan's shirtless chest. They've been talking all night long and her eyes are starting to get heavy, but she doesn't have any desire to let this momentous night end. With a deep sigh, she forces her eyes open and looks up at Nathan.
Nathan notices as Haley turns her dark eyes up to his. Smiling, he leans down and presses his lips to her head. About an hour ago-sometime around midnight-he'd suggested that they head for bed, but he hadn't been about to let Haley out of his sight when they'd finally gotten it together. Instead, he'd simply waited for her to change into her pajamas, and then he'd scooped her up to carry her to his own bedroom. They aren't doing anything exciting. Nothing physical at least. But then, that's what Nathan loves so much about Haley. Sometimes it's enough just to share space with her. Right now, it's more than enough.
Her soft voice is a welcome sound.
"Can I ask you something?"
Nathan nods. "Anything."
Haley pushes herself up onto one elbow and looks him in the eye. There's some trepidation in her expression and he knows she's having a hard time actually wording her question. Reaching over, he brushes a comforting hand down the soft skin of her arm, and she smiles gratefully at the gesture.
"Will you tell me about that night?"
"What ni-?" he starts to question. Then, "Oh."
Haley looks nervous, as though she's afraid she's asked too much of him. Still, he knows how much it must mean to her, and he knows how much it took for her to even ask.
"It was the night we made it into the playoffs," he starts off. "Luke was in town, so we were out celebrating with the guys and Luke had a little bit too much to drink. I wasn't drinking since I knew I wanted to keep my mind focused on the playoffs and my game, but I was glad Lucas was having fun. He was a real pain in the ass that night, actually. Kept moaning and groaning about missing Brooke. Finally, he was totally shitfaced and I decided it was time to go. And Jesus, Hales, I offered to drive. I was trying to be responsible, you know? Do the adult thing for once. He'd been drinking."
"I know," Haley agrees quietly. "I know."
Nathan nods, his breaths becoming shallow. "It all happened so fast. We were talking, just joking around like we always did. And he was telling me about his trip to visit you when suddenly we were rolling over, just flipping, and it seemed like the car was closing in on us." Nathan shakes his head, his eyes closed as the horrible events of that night flash through his mind's eye. "I was yelling for him. I just kept yelling his name and waiting for him to tell me he was alright..." He chokes slightly on the words and he knows he should feel mortified that he's got tears running down his cheeks like some kind of a baby, but all he feels is relieved...relieved that it's Haley who's with him. In the next instant, her arms are wrapped tightly around his neck and her lips are whispering soft affirmations into his ear. He holds onto her as if for dear life and breathes in the scent of her. "I didn't know where I was or which way was up, but I know I had to get to Lucas. And I couldn't. I couldn't do anything. The next thing I knew, I was waking up in the hospital. I knew he was gone before they even told me. The nurse's face said it all."
The couple remains locked in the comfortable embrace for several long moments before they both pull away and brush hastily at their damp eyes.
Nathan isn't ready for Haley's next words though.
"It's my fault," she remarks simply, looking down in shame.
"What's your fault?" Nathan is starting to feel a bit like the coyote chasing the roadrunner as he continues his line of questioning.
"The accident. Lucas dying. It's my fault."
"What do you mean it's your fault? You weren't anywhere near the accident." Not like I was, he thinks.
"No," she agrees. "But I was the reason he was traveling in the first place."
"So it's your fault because he was visiting you? Haley, that doesn't make any sense."
She squirms slightly, as though she's uncomfortable, and she wrings her hands nervously under Nathan's baffled gaze.
"Lucas was taking care of me in California."
"Why would he be taking care of you?" Hell, Haley's about the most self-sufficient woman he knows. He can't imagine her needing anyone to take care of her.
Haley brushes another tear from her cheek and gives a halfhearted shrug. "Because I'm pathetic and needy. And pretty much the worst friend ever."
"Okay, I know I don't know you very well, but pathetic and needy are the last words I would use to describe you." Nathan rolls his eyes. "Stubborn and independent, maybe. And the Haley James I've gotten to know is a far cry from being the worst friend ever."
"Oh, but that's where you're wrong." Haley remarks firmly. "I pretty much became the kind of girl that I've always despised and pitied."
"What are you talking about?" Nathan frowns.
Haley leans toward Nathan suddenly and reaches over him to snatch her cell phone from the nightstand where she'd placed it earlier. Navigating through the phone with a few taps of her fingers, she hands it over with a particular photo filling the display. It's a snapshot. Haley and another guy-a good looking guy. Matthew. A gorgeous Haley is grinning as Matthew holds her, his cheek against hers and his arms around her waist. His fingers tighten around the phone and Haley quickly pries it from his fingers before he can do any damage. "Relax," she urges, "I'd forgotten about it until just now. And I'm deleting it as...we...speak." Holding the phone up, he sees that the photo is gone and nods in satisfaction. Falling back against the pillows, he opens his arms and waits for Haley to continue once she's comfortably resting against him.
"I told you about Matthew, but I didn't tell you the whole story. See, I met this guy. This charming, good-looking, intelligent guy who always knew exactly what to say to sweep me off my feet." She rolls her eyes and lets out a bitter laugh. "He made me believe things about myself-ridiculous things. He'd tell me how beautiful I was and how intelligent and adorable I was. And I just ate it up. Just couldn't get enough. I guess I'd been waiting for so long for someone to say those kinds of things to me, as soon as it actually happened, I ran with it. I think...I think I kind of felt like I deserved it. Since I'd always tried so hard to be a good person and to help others. I thought meeting my Prince Charming was like my...karmic payback, you know? Like it was the universe's way of saying, 'Hey, Haley James! Thanks for being a nice girl!' Which I now realize is both ridiculous and stupid."
"So how does that relate to Lucas?"
"Well, I got carried away. Swept up with Matthew and his glamorous life. Of course, it's obvious to me now that he was never the guy I thought he was. He was manipulative and deceitful and emotionally abusive. I started to cut ties with my friends and family-including Lucas. I was so caught up in school and in Matthew that I started to ignore the friendships I'd had for a lifetime. I'd let phone calls from Brooke and Peyton go to voicemail. And I'd take forever to return phone calls from Lucas. Until I took lunch to Matthew at his office one day and found him fucking one of the junior partners against the wall."
Nathan jumps slightly at the sound of such vulgarity on Haley's tongue. "Holy shit," he mutters under his breath.
"You know what's really sick? Even after that, I was convinced that I fell short in some way. I really believed that I had driven him to cheat on me. I just fell apart. Completely and totally lost it. Well, Brooke and Peyton couldn't reach me and started to get worried, so Lucas came out to check on me."
Haley stops, watching him expectantly as she waits for a reaction. She's not prepared, however, when Nathan begins laughing.
"You're laughing? You're laughing?"
"Hell yes, I'm laughing. You mean to tell me that Matthew was actually stupid enough to cheat on you? He had you and he blew it? Because that's some funny shit. Boy, I bet Lucas wanted to kick his ass."
"And he did," Haley confirms meekly. She pauses at this point and Nathan can see that she's drumming up some very painful memories.
"Hales," he whispers as he reaches out to brush a comforting hand over her shoulders.
Haley shakes her head and chokes back a sob. "No," she says hoarsely. "I need to say this. I've been holding this in for too long and I need to say it."
"What is it?" Nathan questions encouragingly.
Haley squeezes her eyes shut and Nathan feels tug on his heart when he sees the tears squeezing from the corners of her eyes.
"I was mad at him! He came out to check on me and then he defended me against a guy who was mistreating me and I got mad at him!" Haley's voice becomes loud and shrill as she grows slightly hysterical. "He was my best friend in the world, Nathan. All he ever did was look out for me. I yelled at him and told him to stay out of my life. I slammed the door in his face and then the next thing I knew, I got the phone call from Karen."
Nathan is frozen in place, stunned by the revelation. Suddenly it all makes sense. Haley's detachment from people. Her desire to help Karen. Her unwillingness to venture into another relationship. The puzzle pieces all fall together in a neatly interlocked package.
"Jesus, Haley," he murmurs worriedly.
Haley gives him a tearful glance and shrugs. "So now you know."
"Baby," Nathan whispers soothingly as he pulls her into his arms. "You've been carrying this weight around with you for all this time?"
Haley nods silently, her tears moistening the skin of his shoulder.
"I wish you'd told me this sooner. We could have talked about it together."
"Nathan, you don't understand," Haley starts.
"You think I don't understand?" Nathan echoes disbelievingly. "Haley, I was driving the fucking car! I was in control of the vehicle."
"You weren't that guy who decided to get behind the wheel after a few rounds," Haley reminds him. "He's the one who's responsible."
"No," Nathan agrees. "I wasn't. But neither were you."
"Noted," Haley finally responds.
"Well," Nathan starts, "you were right about one thing."
"What?" Haley questions curiously.
"You didn't get Matthew because you deserved a Prince Charming. If there's anything I've learned over the past few years, it's that we don't get what we deserve. I mean, you think I really deserved to play in the NBA? Hell no."
"Nathan, that's not true," Haley argues.
"Yeah, actually it is. I know what kind of guy I was in high school. And I know what kind of girl you were. You do deserve all the best things in life. But unfortunately-or maybe fortunately in my case-that's not the way the world works. For some twisted reason, I've been one of the luckiest bastards in the world." He looks at her lovingly. "Thank God."
Taken aback by the look of total adoration on his face, Haley cocks her head curiously. "How do you do that?"
Haley turns her face up towards him, her eyes glittering with unshed tears. "Make me feel like I should be adored...cherished? No one's ever made me feel that way."
At the sight of her, Nathan swallows and tugs lightly at the tie around his neck. "And that's a damned shame," he finally replies. "Because you're amazing."
Her eyes widen at his husky tone of voice, and her breath hitches when she sees the earnestness of his expression. "Thanks," she whispers simply.
"I mean it, Haley. You astound me. I can't understand how any one person can be so brilliant and beautiful and good. It seems like an impossibility. And yet, here you are in front of me."
She moves forward, her steps small and uncertain, until she's standing in front of him and letting her fingers pluck at the buttons on his shirt. She lifts her head slowly, her eyes rising to meet his, and he catches his breath at solemnity he sees.
"You're so beautiful, Haley," he chokes out.
"So are you," she murmurs in a low voice.
The sound of her voice is more than he can resist and within seconds, he's leaning in and pressing his lips against hers. He tenses for a moment, anticipating her rejection of his sudden advances, and he nearly shouts in in relief when he feels her lift onto her tiptoes and open herself to him.
Wrapping his arms around her small frame, he allows his fingertips to trace every line and every curve of her soft body. The touches are electric and it quickly becomes apparent that they're working their way towards an explosion of epic proportions. While his movements are fast and frenzied, hers are graceful and collected, and he watches eagerly as she tugs her camisole over her head and then shimmies out of her cotton shorts. He sucks in a quick breath at the sight of her in nothing but her lacy black panties.
"Matthew was a fucking idiot," he chokes out as she stands before him, her fingers fiddling idly with the ends of her long hair. "God, I've never wanted anything more than I want you."
"Then what are you waiting for?" she questions coyly.
"Hell if I know," he grins.
Lunging forward, he reaches out and tugs her down to the mattress, her squeals and laughs piercing the quiet in the room.
The glowing display on the clock reads 4:37.
Nathan's arm is curled around her waist and their feet are tangled together beneath the sheets. Nathan's breaths are rhythmic and forming even puffs of warm air against the back of her neck. Just a couple of hours ago, she'd thought that she'd never felt more protected-Nathan had been unbelievably gentle and considerate, and the feel of his body over hers, the heat of his skin pressed so closely to hers, the fluttering sensations of his lips as they became familiar with her body. Well, the experience had been heady, to say the least. But this? Well, the afterglow is pretty fantastic as well.
"What is it?" Nathan groans sleepily, his arm tightening around her middle to pull her even closer.
"Nothing," she responds innocently. "Go back to sleep."
But it's too late. Nathan is already rolling her over to look her in the eye. "Don't do this to yourself, James."
"Do what?" she wonders naively.
"Haley, you can't run away from happiness. If you're meant to have it, it's going to catch up with you. And for some godforsaken reason that I can't comprehend, you seem to be happy with me. And I know I'm happy with you. So while I don't deserve it or you, I'm going to ride your coattails and think of it as a kickback, because you, baby, deserve every bit of happiness in this world. And if I'm not mistaken, what we did just a little while ago resulted in a whole lot of happiness. For both of us. Now," he announces. "Are we going to sleep or not?"
"Yes," Haley agrees. "Sleep."
Rolling back over, she curls up and allows Nathan to pull her into the cocoon of his larger form. It takes several minutes, but soon she's feeling the rhythmic puffs of breath against the back of her neck again. When a few more minutes pass, the small gusts turn into rather large snores. And as she listens to the rattling in Nathan's throat, her smile grows wider and wider.
So this is happiness.
He awakens to the sound of her quiet breaths, and it's the most soothing thing he thinks he's ever heard. Smiling to himself, he leans over and presses several gentle pecks to the lightly freckled skin of her soft shoulder before rolling out of the bed and tugging a t-shirt over his tousled head. Shuffling sleepily down to his gourmet kitchen, he immediately begins raiding the refrigerator and cupboards as he attempts to put together some sort of breakfast. She's definitely going to need sustenance after the night they'd had.
She's still sleeping by the time he returns and he can't help the smirk that appears on his face when he sees her resting on her stomach, the sheet resting at the curve of her waist. Setting the tray on the nighstand, he leans down to press yet another kiss to her temple. This time, the feel of his lips is enough to stir her and he scolds himself inwardly for being so affected by the sight of her sleepy smile. She doesn't say a word, instead holding her arms out in invitation.
"Hey," he greets quietly.
Her smile widens. "Morning."
"How'd you sleep?"
Haley lets out a blissful sigh and tightens her arms around his neck. "Deeply," she replies contentedly. "For the first time in a long time. You?"
"I don't think I've had a good night's sleep since that night at your house," he admits. "Of course, the next morning wasn't nearly as pleasant as this one."
Haley pulls back to look him in the eye, regret all over her face. "I'm sorry," she murmurs. "I was just...really messed up. After everything I'd been through with Matthew and then losing Lucas and...it terrified me to even think about another relationship. Even one with you."
"And now?" Nathan prompts.
Haley smiles and then presses her lips to his. "And now the only think that terrifies me is not being with you."
"What are you going to do, Hales?"
"What do you mean?" Haley questions curiously, turning over to meet his gaze.
He smiles softly and trails his fingertips up and down the silky skin of her arm. "I mean, you still have a year of law school last time I checked."
Haley nods solemnly. "What do you want me to do?"
"I want you to do what's going to make you happy."
"You make me happy," Haley replies playfully as she leans in to press a kiss against his lips.
Pulling back, Nathan shakes his head. "I'm serious here, Haley. We've got some choices to make. Listen, I think you should know...I saw your acceptance letter from Wake Forest University."
Haley's dark eyes widen in surprise. "You did? How?"
"After Brooke was finished giving me an epic tongue-lashing, she told me to read it. I did."
"And?" Haley probes curiously.
"And I think you're amazing. I think it's amazing. I can't imagine wanting anything more than to have you here, and I'm unbelievably grateful that you would even consider moving back out here."
"But...?" Haley prompts him worriedly.
"But I don't want you to do anything you'll regret," he admits. "I don't ever want you to regret me."
With a loud laugh, Haley shakes her head and then smiles brightly. "This isn't something I've taken lightly, Nathan. It's something I put into motion quite awhile ago. Professor Rosen, one of my favorite professors, used to teach at Duke. Since she has a former colleague who now teaches at Wake Forest, she managed to call in a few favors and pull a few strings. Wake is going to grant me Non-Matriculant status, which means I finish my third year with them, but I still receive my degree from Stanford." She smiles sheepishly. "Look, I know it's still a ridiculous commute, but it's only for a year. And Wake is way closer than Stanford, right?" Her expression sobers and she reaches out to take his hand in hers. "Nathan, the only thing I would ever regret at this point in my life would be not doing everything within my power to be closer to you. That's the truth."
"Wait a second," Nathan interrupts. "You're telling me that you've already decided this? You're transferring out here? I thought you just applied for a transfer on a whim. I mean, I figured I could take a leave of absence for the year and find some work in California until you finished."
Haley is surprised. "You would do that?"
"Of course I would do that," he nods.
Haley considers the gesture, but shakes her head. "Let me do this for us, Nathan. Please."
Nathan is silent for a moment before he tugs her up into a hug. He presses kisses against her neck and her nose and her cheeks before finally landing on her lips. "It's only a year," he agrees. "And we can get you a little studio apartment there for when you need to stay...or for the occasional afternoon rendezvous. Even geniuses need a study break." He pauses. "What do you say, Haley James? Build a life with me?"
Haley gives a solemn nod. "There's nothing I'd like more."