"Oh, don't give me that." Chloe sat back and glared at him. "I don't want to hear about how you had it so hard growing up. Like I didn't? Or Mark?"
"I don't see either of you involved with someone, let alone engaged or whatever," Shane pointed out.
Chloe toyed with her napkin. "I almost got engaged, while I was away." She looked up with a sad smile. "We were this close. It was going to be so romantic. Then I walked in on him and some woman, a waitress from a café we went to I think."
Shane felt like a complete jerk. "Chloe, I'm sorry. I didn't know."
She shook her head and blinked away a few tears, then dabbed at her eyes with a napkin. "It's okay. It's not like I told you, or anyone."
"Want me to get Mark to go beat him up?"
Chloe snorted out a laugh that she tried to hide behind her hand. "You're not offering yourself?"
"Mark likes that kind of thing more than I do, but I can if he's not available."
"You're terrible." Chloe shook her head but couldn't hide a smile. "Anyway, yes, it sucked, but the point is I took a chance. I'll take another at some point. Mom's a mess, and you got the one-two punch with her and your dad, but I refuse to let her history dictate how I lead my life."
"Is that why you came back from Europe?"
"Yeah." She nodded and sighed. "I would have had to come back anyway, but I left sooner than I'd originally planned. After that I wanted to be with people I could trust, like you and Mark."
"I wish you'd told us." Shane squeezed her hand. "We could have helped."
"You did," said Chloe, "you just didn't know it. Now I guess I'm here to help you."
"I'm not sure you can, but I appreciate it," said Shane.
"I can make the effort," she said.
He chuckled. "Morgan told me a couple of times that I was worth the effort, but now I'm not so sure."
"She's right," said Chloe. "You just need to believe that you are, and that the two of you together are."
"I'm trying, Chloe. I am. She's absolutely worth it, I'm just not sure I am."
She smiled. "I know. But you are. Look, Shane, you have something great with Morgan. Like I had, or thought I did, with that guy. It sucked when it ended, it really did, but before that, it was great, and someday I'll find someone who won't cheat on me, and all the crap will be worth it."
"You're insanely optimistic," he said.
"Maybe, but you're just insane. You have what I want right in front of you and you keep looking for ways to run away from it. Come on, Shane, run towards it instead. You may not think so, but you deserve someone like Morgan, someone who makes you happy."
"All right, let's say you're on to something," said Shane. His sister's enthusiasm was contagious but he was still wary. "I don't know what to do. I mean, I apologize, yeah, but then what next?"
"I'm not exactly sure," said Chloe. "But it seems to me you need to show her you're ready to take a chance and go to the next level, whatever that is."
"Hey, what's wrong?" Casey asked Morgan.
"What? Nothing." Morgan shook her head and tapped on the keyboard as she reviewed some files.
Casey scoffed. "Right. Nothing. I have to ask you fucking everything twice, and you look like someone kicked your pet alien puppy."
"No puppies, alien or otherwise. My building doesn't allow pets," Morgan said, keeping her eyes on the screen.
Casey was right, and they both knew it, but Morgan wasn't sure she could afford to break down.
"Shouldn't you be out front?" asked Morgan, tapping some more keys. "Wouldn't want someone to come in and walk off with our inventory."
"It's fine. Morgan. What. Is. Wrong." Casey tilted her head. "It's Shane, isn't it? I haven't seen him here in a while. You haven't mentioned him. Shit, did you guys break up?"
"No, we didn't." Morgan sighed and pushed back from the desk. "I don't think. We just—he just needed time to think about things and I didn't want to add any pressure."
"What things?" demanded Casey. "What pressure?"
"Case, I appreciate your concern, but I really don't want to get into it right now."
"You're damn well going to get into it sometime, because I need to know if I have to go and whack him upside the head."
"Ah, yes. Casey's patented method of knocking sense into people."
"When necessary, fuck yes."
"Again, the thought is nice, but it won't help. He's got to figure this out for himself," said Morgan. She just hoped he figured out that he wanted to stay with her.
In the end, and it didn't take long, Morgan caved and told Casey what had happened. To her surprise, Casey laughed and leaned back in her seat.
"I didn't think it was funny," said Morgan, "but okay."
"No, it's not that. It's not funny. I'm just glad it's no worse than that. I'm really sorry, it sucks to be in that phase of things, where you don't know where it's going.
"Don't know, and can't control it," said Morgan. "Yeah, it's not fun. I don't like waiting but it's all I can do."
"What do you want?" asked Casey.
"Romantic that I am, I want him to decide he loves me and all that jazz," said Morgan. "Then we can figure out what's next, and I think that will be the harder part."
"Yeah, it usually is."
"But I can't do the hard part myself," said Morgan.
"Have you told Sexy Shane that you love him?" Casey grinned at Morgan's glare.
"No," said Morgan, and it was a decision she'd started to regret. It felt like she hadn't been entirely honest with him. "I didn't want to pressure him."
"The truth is not pressure," said Casey. "You should tell him."
"Maybe. I want to give him a little time, but yeah, maybe I need to move things along."
It had been several days since she'd walked away from what had felt like a pointless conversation. She wondered whether it was her fault it had been pointless. She didn't want to pressure Shane, that was true, but now she regretted not telling him. If he couldn't handle it, it would have been better to know at the time.
Instead, she was worried, she was having stilted conversations with Shane instead of the easy, warm talks they usually had, and worst of all, she felt like she was losing him and didn't know how to stop it.
"It is funny how the two of you are so good together, but can't figure this out," said Casey, "but I'm also confident you'll work it out."
"Where would I be without you?" Morgan said, smiling at her friend.
"Single, obviously," said Casey. "Come on, come out and talk to people and you'll figure out what to do. You'll just wallow back here."
"God forbid I should wallow," said Morgan, but got up to follow Casey out to the store.
She forced herself to put everything with Shane aside, figuring a solution would occur to her if she just let the situation sit in her subconscious. It was what she often did when she was blocked on a story or picture, and she hoped it would work now.
It took some effort, but by forcing herself into work, Morgan managed to divert her thoughts. She chatted with customers, took some orders and recommended some books. A group of four kids, two boys and two girls, came in after school and she took the time to teach them how to play Magic.
The last made her feel better than she had in days, reminding her of how it felt when she'd found the game, and how it had led to her friendship with Casey and eventually the store. Morgan had always been open about her love of science fiction and fantasy, and that, she thought, was why she and Casey been successful. Honesty, openness and not just a little willingness to take risks.
That's what I need to do with Shane, she realized. I need to be honest, to be open and give him the chance to do the same.
"You look like you have a plan," Casey said.
"I think so," said Morgan.
It was a slow point in the day, later evening but a couple of hours until the store closed. She usually enjoyed this time, to chat with Casey or page through new releases, but today she wished she could leave early and see Shane. However, she had no intention of leaving Casey alone in the store. Her plan was to text Shane and see if they could meet, and then she'd lay it out.
"Going to let me in on it?" asked Casey.
"I will talk to Shane. That's the plan."
"Good plan, and you got it ready just in time." Casey nodded towards the door. "Look who's here."
Morgan turned and saw Shane and her plans and resolve fled. Her stomach filled with butterflies and her throat went dry.
"Hey," said Shane. "Hi, Casey."
"Hi." Casey nudged Morgan.
"Hi." Morgan cleared her throat. "I didn't expect to see you. I was about to text you. Or call maybe. I—" She stopped herself. She hadn't been this nervous since her book signing.
"Is this a good time to talk?" asked Shane. "I know it's a usually a little slow this time of day, so I hoped it would be okay."
Morgan could see he was nervous, too. He had one hand in a pocket, fingers drumming on his leg. That made her feel a little better.
"Yeah, it's fine." Morgan nodded. "Do you want to go back to—"
"Marry me," Shane said.
Morgan stared at him. Whatever she'd expected him to say, this was not it. Casey was stunned, too. "I—I—what?" Morgan managed.
"Sorry. I know it's not very romantic or anything, I just—" Shane huffed out a breath. "Remember I'm not so great with words, okay?"
"Okay." Shane closed his eyes, waited a moment, then fixed them on hers. "When we first met, I didn't think we'd be any kind of a match. I thought we were too different, but my brother told me I might be wrong, and I should take a chance. So I did.
"I miss you. I'm sorry about our fight, or whatever it was. You were right, I have been letting things get in the way of me, of us, moving forward. So I thought and decided, the hell with my instincts, the hell with my better judgment. I love you, and I don't want to lose you, so I'm willing to get married. Big ceremony, small, whatever you want, I'll do it."
Morgan put a hand on the counter to steady herself as a storm of emotions rose up. She tried to parse what he said, to count to ten before responding, to try to make some sense of it.
"You're 'willing to get married?'" she repeated. "Even though it goes against your instincts and better judgment? Even though it took your brother to, what, challenge you to take me on a date? Was it a double-dog dare?"
Shane started to speak but Morgan saw Casey's small head shake advising him not to. He remained silent.
Morgan was so angry she felt hot. She wanted to yell at Shane, but also run in the back room and cry. She hated feeling so confused.
"You know," said Morgan in a tight voice, "I really was about to call you. I wanted to talk to you and get all the cards on the table. I wanted to tell you that I love you, because I was afraid to before. I didn't want you to think I was pressuring you, but I thought we'd never get anywhere if we weren't honest."
"You're right," Shane said. "We do need to be honest, I needed to be honest and—"
"If you're being honest, then you're saying that you were reluctant to go out with me, reluctant to get involved, reluctant to love me, and now reluctant to get married. Gosh, I can't imagine why I'm not jumping at the chance."
"Morgan, that's not what I meant," said Shane.
Morgan knew she didn't have much time before she fell apart, and turned to Casey. "I'm sorry, I have to go. I don't like to leave you alone, so close up early." Before anyone could say anything else, she grabbed her things from the office and left through the back door.
Casey broke a long silence. "You're right, you know. You are shit with words," she said.
"I don't understand," said Shane. He stared at the back of the store as though he expected Morgan to come back in so they could start again. "I thought that's what she'd want."
"You thought she would want what you don't?" asked Casey. "Hoo boy, Shane. You are fucking messed up." She sighed. "Go sit in the game room. I'll close up and be there in a minute."
On autopilot, Shane did as Casey told him. He wandered into the game room and dropped into a chair.
It had seemed like such a great idea after talking to Chloe. He loved Morgan, and when people were in love, they got married.
It didn't always work out—didn't he know that first-hand—but it was what people did. Some people didn't, he knew. More people these days didn't get married, or didn't right away, and just made a commitment to each other, he knew that. He felt like a marriage added weight to that commitment, made it more serious.
He'd thought Morgan would want that, and that he'd show he was serious about her by offering to get married. It looked like he'd thought wrong.
"What the fuck was that?" Casey slid into a chair across from him. "You've been seeing Morgan for months. Do you not know her at all?"
"I guess not." He slumped in the chair "Like I said, I thought it was what she'd want."
"I repeat, what makes you think she would want something that you don't?" Casey said.
"It's not that I don't want it. Exactly. Sort of." Shane squirmed in his seat. "I love her, Casey. I want to be with her."
"So, be with her," said Casey. "It's not that hard."
"It looks like it is. She doesn't seem to want to be with me."
"Shane, you just told her that you want to be with her despite every fiber of your being saying it's a bad idea. Surely you can see why that wouldn't go over as well as you thought."
Shane thought, then narrowed his eyes at Casey. "Why aren't you cursing?"
"You curse all the time. I figured you'd be furious at me, and calling me every name in the book. But you've hardly done it at all."
"Odd as it may sound, this doesn't feel like the time," said Casey. "If Morgan's mad at you, no need for me to pile on."
"I'd think that as her best friend, piling on would be required by a code or something."
"At times, sure," Casey allowed, "but this isn't one of those times. You didn't aim to hurt Morgan intentionally. If you had, I might have to brick you up alive in the storeroom or something. You just fucked up."
Shane gave her a wry grin. "There, you cursed. Now I feel better."
"Good. Now, do you see why she might have taken your offer—ugh—the wrong way?" Casey gave an exaggerated shudder.
"It came out all wrong. I am shit with words, like you said."
"What were you trying to say?" Casey asked with a sincerity and concern he hadn't been expecting.
He tried to organize his thoughts. "I was trying to say that I love her, that I want her in my life, and I was willing—"
"Wait, stop, stop right there." Casey held up a hand. "You're willing to do something? Or you want to?"
"Isn't it the same?"
"No." She shook her head. "I am willing to take Astrid to a club to see some random alt-country performer. I don't want to, but I'm willing because I love her and I can use it for future leverage. I want to marry her, I want to promise to be there for her through the ups and downs because she means everything to me and I am worse off without her in my life."
"Wow," said Shane. Casey was surprising him left and right tonight.
"Shit." Casey looked at him. "I really ought to tell Astrid that, huh?"
He chuckled. "Yeah, you should. That's a no-brainer even for me."
"Your turn," said Casey. "I'm being all emotionally open here, and damned if I'll be the only one."
"I am petrified that if Morgan and I make some kind of commitment, it will fall apart later and I will lose her," Shane said in a rush.
"Is that all?" asked Casey.
"I thought it was kind of a lot. I don't hear you voicing those kind of doubts with Astrid."
"Because everybody has them and I thought they went without saying."
Shane sighed. "Casey, I have watched both of my parents fall madly in love, get married in ceremonies that would embarrass a Kardashian, and then burn it all down the minute something goes wrong. And then, in a move that blows my mind to this day, do it all again. They never learn."
"That it takes work, I guess. That there's more to it than Vera Wang dresses and Armani tuxes and six white puppies pulling the rings down the aisle in a cart." He raised a hand as Casey's jaw dropped. "Swear to god. I have pictures. Anyway, all I see is them ignoring the doubts, covering them with frosting, and then falling victim to them. I don't want that to happen to me. Or to Morgan. I hate the idea of hurting her."
"Then don't," said Casey. "I know you can't promise you never will, no one can, but you'll try not to, I know that. That's the important part, that's what takes the effort. Knowing things can go wrong and making the effort to fix them when they do."
"What if I can't?"
"Then you can't, which sucks. But you won't know if you can't until it comes up, and why would you cut yourself off before anything bad happens? Because the flip side is, it might never happen."
"Fuck that," said Casey. "Look, is your life better with or without Morgan in it?"
"With," he said with no hesitation.
"Do you want her in it? You're willing to take the risks because you want to take the risks? Because you think she's worth it?"
"Then go fix it and tell her, dumbass," said Casey. "Honest to god, you people would be so fucking lost without me."
Shane laughed as he hugged her before he left. She was right.
"Shoo, sweetie." Brianna kissed Evan on the cheek. "We're having a girls' night. Go see what's-his-name."
"You can say his name," said Morgan.
"I am very confused," said Evan. "But I'll go."
"Good, maybe you can talk some sense into him," said Brianna.
"Who wants hot chocolate?" asked Jenna as they moved into the kitchen.
Morgan laughed. "Shouldn't that be later? We've been here for what, half an hour?"
"It's never too late or too early for hot chocolate," said Jenna.
"Go for it, Jenna," said Brianna. "There are marshmallows in the cabinet over there."
"Awesome." Jenna went to the stove after retrieving the marshmallows.
"Look at us," said Morgan. "I can't remember the last time the three of us did anything like this."
Both of her sisters had stepped up to support her after the mess with Shane. Morgan didn't even know what to call it, and "mess" seemed most accurate. She alternated between missing him and being angry at him, and occasionally was both at the same time.
"Me either," said Brianna. "Guess we'd better start recording. Pics or it didn't happen, right?"
Morgan laughed. Where had this sense of humor been? "I think I'll just go with the memories."
Jenna brought over three mugs of hot chocolate. Or at least Morgan assumed there was hot chocolate under all the marshmallows. Not that she was complaining.
"So what's the status of the wedding?" asked Jenna.
"We're changing up." Brianna bit her lip and glanced from Morgan to Jenna.
Morgan tensed. Brianna had been different lately, but she wasn't sure how deep it went, or how far to trust her sister.
"What's the change?" asked Jenna.
"Well, we're locked into Fiji, although they've let us move the date. But we've decided that will be our honeymoon, and the wedding will be closer to home." Brianna gave a tentative smile. "We haven't picked a date yet for the wedding, and I guess we may even do the honeymoon first. But I was hoping to talk to you guys and find a date that works for everyone. Or at least for as many people as possible.
"That's wonderful." Jenna beamed. "Thanks so much, Brianna."
"It's great," Morgan agreed. "I appreciate it. I know it must be a hassle to rearrange all of this."
"It is, kind of, but I admit I brought it on myself," Brianna said. "I went a little crazy, for all kinds of stupid reasons. Which brings me to the other reason we're here. I wanted to apologize to both of you, for everything." She glanced at the others, then studied her hot chocolate.