"I'm so sorry about what happened, Alex. I can't even imagine what you've been going through."
"Thank you. I'm a bit of a wreck." Would she ever learn how to respond to those sentiments eloquently? When your fiancé was tragically killed, no one showed up and handed you an owner's manual on how to go on. A quick lesson in knowing how to handle the kindness and sympathy of friends without losing your s hit would have been helpful.
Sensing her discomfort, Jake nodded toward the huge bar that anchored the north end of the room. "Would you like a drink?"
"More than anything," she said.
He took her hand and led her to the bar. She was glad to see Jen, the bartender, laughing with a man seated at the bar. Although Alex didn't know Jen well, they'd met a few times and she was a familiar face that greeted her with a warm smile.
"Alex, it's so good to see you. And you look beautiful this evening," Jen said.
Alex forced a smile. "Thank you."
Jen made a quick introduction to Jordan, the man she'd been chatting with. He apparently owned a bar across the street. "Can I make you something special?" Jen finally asked.
"Sure. Surprise me," Alex said.
She was grateful that Jake stood with her, quietly telling her who many of the guests were and how the evening had gone so far. Eventually TJ, the third owner, and his date came over to say hi, and now that Alex had her drink, she sipped quietly, drifting in and out of the conversation. Jordan was inviting all of them to his bar the following weekend to hear a band play, and the only thing that Alex could think about was that she wouldn't be in town and wouldn't have been interested even if she was. Coming to this event tonight was hard enough, a bar was out of the question.
Her thoughts drifted to Monday morning, when she would get up early, head to the airport, and embark on her final yearlong deployment. This time to Vicenza, Italy. A beautiful country she should have been looking forward to exploring as a married woman.
Alex was in the Army, Nate had been in the Air Force. The military had brought them together. It was their life until this point. After so many years in the Middle East they'd been so excited about spending a year at Camp Ederle—a final adventure before they came home and settled down into family life.
After Nate's accident, she'd been informed that she could choose to extend her leave or change her orders and stay in the States. Specifically Fort Bragg, where she'd been years ago. At the time the idea had appealed to her, because she hadn't been able to fathom going to Italy without him. Job or no. But the more she thought about it over the past week, the more she realized it was exactly what she needed to do. Nate would have wanted her to see all the places they'd discussed visiting. And to be honest, she had no other plan and staring at the same walls was not doing anything to help her feel better.
Informing her brother of her intentions earlier in the day hadn't gone over well. She knew he was just worried about her, and she couldn't blame him, considering she'd spent the past few weeks in a state of crisis. But could he blame her? She'd just lost the love of her life. Multiple weeks of greasy hair and puffy eyes felt absolutely appropriate. But she knew if she stayed here living in her brother's apartment, that's exactly what she would continue to do, and that was unacceptable.
Getting dressed tonight, putting on makeup, doing her hair—all of that had been difficult. Several times she'd had to talk herself out of just crawling back into bed. But now that she was here, looking somewhat decent, interacting with humans—sort of—she knew she'd made the right decision. Moving on, healing, required putting one foot in front of the other. Even when it felt impossible. And she'd probably need to keep repeating that over and over again.
A gasp from the bar pulled Alex from her thoughts. She looked up just in time to see Jen darting toward the end of the bar gripping her hand. TJ was calling Jen's name, chasing after her as she headed for the restroom.
"What happened?" Alex asked, leaning toward Jake.
"I think she cut herself."
"Oh no. I hope it wasn't too bad."
"Me too," he said, looking around. After a second, he touched her arm. "I'm sorry to leave you for a minute, Alex, but I'm going to step behind the bar and fill in."
"Oh, of course. I'll be fine."