Episode 7: "24 Candles"
Part One

Lana's Place, El Patio Apartments

Lana opened the door, glad to find Jake standing and smiling before her. With it being her 24th birthday, she expected to see him present her with a messily wrapped box but instead, he asked her for a glass of water. She took note of his sweaty tank top and shorts and remembered that he was to stop by after his usual morning jog. He followed her into the kitchen and sat down while she prepared a glass for him.

"Had a nice run?" Lana asked, filling the glass half full with ice before the chilled water from her pitcher.

"Yeah, but I really need to get up earlier. It gets too damn hot here now, even around nine AM." Jake chugged the glass of water, leaving only the ice behind in the glass. "Thanks, I needed that." He sighed with content. "So, what are you up to today?"

Lana raised an eyebrow. She thought that Jake had remembered her birthday. After all, it was Jake who has thrown her a birthday party for the past three years. His gifts, ranging from horseback riding lessons (His first gift to her) to an incredibly expensive leather bound journal, were the presents she looked forward to the most. Perhaps he has a surprise up his sleeve..."Well, I'm meeting Stacia for lunch at Palm Terrace Plaza. We'll probably just end up at the Pub later on. What about you?"

"I don't know if I'm going to In Field Fly tonight. The Tempests have a game at 8 PM and I'm going to cover that for the Tribune."

Lana tried to hide her disappointment. "You mean I won't be seeing you at all tonight?"

Jake frowned, confused by her question. "No, but you can pass on one night without me, can't you? I'm going to working and if I don't do well with this coverage, Donovan will snatch this away from me like all the other big stories."

"But what about after the game? Or after you submit your report?"

"Lana, I probably won't leave the Tribune until midnight, and I'm leaving early in the morning for the Tempests' three-game series in Jacksonville. I'll need to get some rest."

Lana rose from the table and picked up Jake's empty glass. Turning her back to him on her way to the sink, she felt compelled to outwardly question if he had forgotten about her birthday. The fact that she knew the Tempests' hectic schedule that week confirmed Jake's honesty, not to mention ruling out any possibility for a party. She couldn't help but suppress her selfishness to consider Jake's priorities before her own.

Part Two

Palm Terrace Plaza

"Lana didn't look too cheerful, did she?" Adam asked Stacia after Lana said good-bye and left their table. "I mean, she's usually quick with the quips, but she seemed a bit slow." He dipped his last french fry in ketchup before biting into it.

Stacia shrugged. "It's because of Jake. Gosh, I wish she'd just move on already. She thinks he makes her happy, when in all actuality he does nothing but plague her thoughts with false hope."

"Jake can't help it if he's swamped with work. Give the brother a break, geez. Besides, it's not like they're together or anything. She'll turn 24 whether he's there to celebrate with her or not." Adam rolled his eyes.

"My sentiments, exactly. I hate that she believes her happiness depends on Jake's feelings toward her. But you know Lana. She's too proud to admit her diehard romantic spirit has got the best of her. She won't think, she'll just feel. And I pity her, she loves him so much that I think she's going to make herself sick."

"Speaking of sick, mama's worried sick about us. Are you finally ready to have dinner with my folks?"

"Adam, sweetie, do we have to talk about this now?"

"Why the hell not? We're alone, we have time, and we have no reason to put it off. What are you afraid of? I've already met your parents, and we're fine!"

Stacia had envisioned meeting his parents before, with them questioning her entire life. She hated for them to touch upon sensitive subjects about which she knew she could not lie. Though she told Adam everything, there were still dark secrets she had not revealed to him... subjects she purposely avoided for they raised suspicion about history she would much rather erase. Yet she could find no excuse to balk and found herself acquiescing to his request. "Fine, fine, I'm free at the end of the month. We can have dinner with them then."

Adam smiled and squeezed her hand. "There, now. That wasn't so hard, now was it?"

You have no idea, Stacia thought glumly.

Part Three

In Field Fly Sports Pub

"Bryce, this is Lana. Lana, this is Bryce." Simon snickered. "But it looks like you two already know each other REAL well!" Lana playfully punched him in the arm and laughed. She turned to Bryce and smiled.

Bryce shifted uncomfortably on his bar stool but managed to produce a slight grin in return. He had not been able to forget his encounter with Lana on the Blount Building elevator and he found himself once again at a loss of words. He swayed forward slightly, catching the intoxicating scent of her perfume, and he nearly slipped off the stool.

"Whoa, watch yourself. It might be a good idea to slow down on the mugs, huh?" Lana laughed, her dark blue eyes glittered. "Yeah, Simon, we've met, numerous times."

"Yeah, but he hasn't given you anything for your birthday!" Simon raised an eyebrow at his cousin. "So what is it, cuz? A bruised shin, or a matching Amstel Light scented tank top to match her martini-smelling evening wear?" He guffawed at his own lame joke.

"Ha ha, funny," Bryce shook his head. He cleared his throat. "It's your birthday today?" Lana nodded. "Well, happy birthday. Here's hoping it went well and for many more to come," He held up his beer mug.

"Hear hear!" Simon agreed, clanging his mug with Bryce's. Lana raised her glass, nodded with appreciation, and accepted the toast. She thanked them and excused herself from the table. She headed to the bar and ordered herself another cosmopolitan.

"So, where's Jake?" Bryce joined Lana at the bar, motioning for the bartender. "Please put her drinks on my tab, will ya, Paula?"

"You don't have to do that," Lana tried to stop him from paying for her drink.

"It's okay, besides, it's your birthday, and I didn't get you a present." Bryce smiled and Lana could feel her face flushing hot.

"A present isn't necessary, really. But thanks very much." She sighed. "Jake's at the Tempests' game, so he couldn't make it tonight."

"Bummer, well, you have the rest of your friends here. You can still have a helluva good time."

"Yeah, but I don't. It's weird because the last three years, Jake's thrown me the parties. He's like the birthday maestro, so to speak. It's what I look forward to every year now."

"Change can be nice, though. You can start a new tradition here. Tonight. I'll buy you..." Bryce looked around the bar. "A hurricane glass, with drink of course, and you can start a collection."

Lana laughed. "That's all right. The cosmopolitan is fine, really. Besides, I have work tomorrow and I shouldn't be drinking too much."

"A cosmopolitan it is, then. Who says the party can't go on?"

Lana had to admit, she felt much better than she had earlier. "You're absolutely right. Happy birthday to me!" She grinned gleefully.

Bryce smiled back, gazing deep into her eyes...proud of the twinkle he instilled within them that night.

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