(Please see the first section for notes and disclaimers.)

"What a slime ball. He didn't even ask if you had some place to stay
for the night or anything," Josh grumbles.

I shrug. "He wasn't going to get what he really wanted tonight, at
least not from me, so it was time to move on."

"What is it with you girls?" Josh asks irritably as we climb back
into the car.

"Excuse me?"

"You and Donna. Or, more specifically, you and Kyle, and Donna and
Dr. Freeride? How do attractive, compassionate young women who
normally display a great deal of intelligence let yourselves get
suckered by creeps like that?" He jerks his thumb back toward the bar.

For some inexplicable reason I feel the need to defend Kyle—or maybe
myself? "Look, he's not all bad and there was a time when he was
incredibly sweet to me. I imagine the same is probably true for Dr.
Freeride."

He shakes his head. "I just don't get it. Don't you want to be with
somebody who will, you know, stay nice, not just start out nice?"

I have to laugh at that one. "Well, if it were easier to tell the two
apart, I mean, if you guys would all wear signs labeled `Nice Guy'
or `Not a Nice Guy,' it'd be a big help."

He chuckles, watching me out the corner of his eye as he drives back
toward the hotel.

"Besides," I say, resting my elbow on the windowsill and looking out
at the darkened city, "the good ones are all married, gay, otherwise
taken or confirmed bachelors like yourself. Everybody knows that,
Josh."

My joke is met with silence and when I look back over at him, I see
his face in profile, silhouetted by the lights of the city and
oncoming traffic. His expression is introspective, almost sad.

"Josh, is something wrong?"

He inhales sharply, as if startled out of his reverie. "What? Oh,
it's nothing." He starts to brush me off, but then reconsiders. "Is
that what you really...I mean, do people really think of me as
a `confirmed bachelor?'"

I fight back a grin, wondering what in the world is bothering him
about this? Isn't that exactly what he wanted? Hasn't he bragged that
many women have tried, but none have succeeded, in tying down Josh
Lyman? "You mean you aren't?" I tease.

"No," he says defensively. Then he shrugs. "Well, I guess I've just
never really thought about it that way before. I never intended to
stay a bachelor. I just never intended to find somebody and settle
down either. I've always had other priorities. I mean there were
girls, sure, but not just one girl, not the girl. I guess..." he shrugs
again, letting his sentence trail off.

It's at this moment that I realize that for all his huff and guff,
for all his power and influence and bravado and easy charm, Josh may
just be lonely. And I can't stand that thought. It saddens me to
think of him that way.

<><><>

By the time we reach the hotel, we have silently agreed to lighten
the mood and return to our familiar banter. During the elevator ride
up to our floor, our road trip conversation comes back to me. There
is just enough alcohol in my system to encourage the giggles that
overtake me just as the elevator door opens.

Beside me, Josh sighs heavily, knowing instinctively what has
inspired my fit. "Not that again."

This, of course, makes me laugh that much harder. I have to lean
against the wall and hold my side to remain upright.

"Shh! Would you be quiet?" Josh whispers fiercely. "It's late and you
sound like a drunk woman."

"I am not drunk, I will have you know," I manage as I gasp for
air. "I'm just imagining you—"

"Ah!" He throws his arms up in disgust and stalks down the hallway. I
run after him and clutch at his sleeve, giggling the whole time. "I
wish I'd never told you that," he says over his shoulder.

"Josh! Come on, laugh with me," I pant, brushing at the tears in my
eyes. "I'm just trying to imagine, I mean, I can just picture—"

A fresh gale of laughter overtakes me as I unlock my door. I turn
around to look up into his very disapproving frown. I do my best to
sober my expression before saying, "Three words: Josh in tights!"

I burst out laughing again and before I know it, Josh scoops me up
off the ground without effort. I squeal and push my hands against his
chest, but his arms are like a vise. He charges through the doorway
and kicks the door shut before striding across the room. I can't help
observing at this point that Josh has most definitely been working
out. He's not bulky by any means, but the chest and arms against me
are—strong, fit. About the time that realization strikes, Josh drops
me unsolicitously on the bed.

"You're crazy," he says, towering over me.

In response I pull the very mature stunt of sticking my tongue out at
him. I follow it by blowing a raspberry for good measure. The stern
expression on his face starts to crack. He fights his traitorous
mouth, refusing to smirk at me.

"Come on," I taunt, "you know it's funny. Admit it."

"Never."

"Liar."

"Okay, that's it. You're going to pay for that," Josh says, and
lunges toward me. I scream and try to roll away, but he pins me down
and tickles me until I can't breathe.

"I give! I give! You win," I pant, doubled over and holding my sides
with both arms. His dimples are out in full force as he collapses
next to me, arms flung over his head. I suppose I've been pretty
absorbed in the woes of the Seaborn clan lately, but I have not
missed how tired Josh has looked. I note with tremendous satisfaction
that he actually looks more relaxed right now than he has in at least
a week. Maybe our short trip to New York did him some good after all.
I'd call that a bonus.

When I look back over, Josh is watching me. "Aren't you sleepy?" he
asks, stifling a yawn.

Actually I am, but I lie here for a minute longer, unwilling to say
anything that will disturb the moment. I can't fight my own yawn,
though, and cover my mouth while nodding.

He grins. "I thought so," he says smugly.

Then he takes me completely by surprise by lifting himself up on one
elbow and bending down to kiss me lightly on the cheek. In the brief
moment when he's that close to me, it's like my mind takes a snap
shot—of everything; his scent, his dark eyes on my face, the warmth
of his breath, the gentle pressure of his lips. His one simple action
leaves me momentarily speechless.

Just as quickly as it happened, he's up and halfway across the
room. "Goodnight, Bri," he says softly. "Get some sleep, `cause wake-
up call's at six. I've got to get back early or Leo will have my
head."

I summon my wits long enough to respond, "Does this mean you're not
going to put on your tights for me?"

"Not on your life," he groans, shutting the door behind him.

Well, this is just friggin' fabulous. I'll once again have a full-
fledged crush on Josh by morning. Hell, I'm already there.

Okay, Sabrina, pull it together. This is stupid and you know it and
you've been down this road before, remember? You got over it before;
you'll just have to get over it again. And quickly—as in before
tomorrow morning at six. Neither of you has time for this
complication right now, and there is no way that somebody like Josh,
let alone the Josh, would see a graduate student, a mere girl really,
as anything other than his little sister. The little sister to pat on
the head and joke with, but absolutely nothing more. No chance. This
is not why Leo sent him with you and you're going to have be a grown
up here.

There. All better. Right? Kyle who? Okay, I've got to stop this.

I pick up the clicker and begin flipping through the limited channel
options. It doesn't take long to figure out that there's nothing on,
so I look around for something to read instead. It doesn't take long
to exhaust those options either, and just as I think I'm going to be
up all night and bored to tears, my cell phone rings.

I rummage through my purse for it. "Hello?"

"Hey."

"Hiya, Samshine." I debate launching immediately into a full recap of
my evening with Kyle, but he doesn't give me the opportunity.

"You sound perky," he says, in a tone that lets me know he's got
something he wants to tell me. Our sibling radar is pretty foolproof
in that respect.

"What's up?"

"Dad called," he replies somewhat ominously.

"That's not good news?"

"Well, yes and no."

"Uh-oh. What happened?"

"Well, he talked to me for a few minutes, mostly about the usual
fare, and then he asked to speak to Mom." It is obvious from his tone
of voice that this is where the `bad news' part comes in.

"And?"

"He ordered her home. I only heard her part of the conversation, of
course, but apparently he was pretty harsh. She's really upset."

"Oops. I-broke-a-nail upset, or Rodeo-Drive-is-out-of-Red-Door upset?"

"And the choice behind door number three is...?"

"I don't know why he yells at her like that. You and I both know
Mom's enough to drive anybody crazy, but her heart's in the right
place most of the time."

"Yeah. He even bought her ticket. I have to take her to the airport
tomorrow at two. Will you be home by then?"

"Yeah. Josh has to be in the office by noon."

"Good. Will you ride to Dulles with me?"

"Why? So she can nag me all the way out there, just to get in a few
last digs before she goes home?"

"Bria, please? For me?"

Well, that's all it takes and he knows it. "Of course."

"Thank you." He pauses a minute before asking, "So how did your
meeting go?"

"My meeting," I chuckle.

"You know what I mean. Did you see Britton?"

"Yes, I met with him, and I want to go over the details with you and
Josh both. I think Josh heard most of it, though, judging by his
reaction. We could be on to something. I don't want to say too much
yet, but I'm really optimistic about this, Sam."

"Are you okay?" he asks quietly, and I can hear the concern in his
voice.

"Yeah. I'm fine. And no, he's not here, and no, I'm not going to
start dating him again. And yes, Josh is next door like the good
watch dog he is, and yes, we'll be home late tomorrow morning."

"You'll forgive me for feeling a little overprotective, won't you?"

"Probably, but I'll have to think about it some more." I smile,
because we both know there's really no question about it.

"You do that and let me know tomorrow, `kay?"

We hang up and I finally feel ready for bed. I'm going to need my
beauty sleep tonight, despite the fact that my swirling emotions will
likely make that difficult. Sam, Josh, Lisa, Kyle, and now Dad
yelling at Mom and having to deal with the aftermath tomorrow—it
could be a very long night, followed by an even longer day.

THE END

TBC in Chapter 9: Say Hello and Wave Goodbye

 

 

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