When 5 a.m. rolled around, Luke was already outside bringing in the bread delivery. It was part of his normal routine: up at 4:45, bring in the bread after 5, then fire up the grill and the fryer and get everything set to open at the diner at 6. He'd also find time for a quick shower and breakfast for himself.
But this time, Luke was up earlier than normal and already had the diner set for the day. To be perfectly honest, he hadn't slept all that much. He tried. God knows, he tried. He'd done nearly everything he could think of to try to get his brain to shut off, to not think about Lorelai Gilmore marrying that schoolteacher of hers in just a few days. But something about their conversation when he delivered the chuppah stuck with him, and he worried.
There had been many times in the week where Lorelai wrestled with her decision about whether or not to get engaged at all that he wanted to tell her not to get married just because someone was pressuring her into it. It had to be her decision. All of it. He didn't want to be the one to bring that wobbling stack of cards crashing down. So he did what he always did around her: be there, be her friend, and try to let her go.
Granted, Luke's advice would had been very good friend advice. Still.
He wasn't sure what took him to the front windows of the diner. The town square looked like a living fruitcake – covered in tulle and bells and all sorts of wedding finery that made his heart ache. He had well and truly made his bed, and he was going to be a man and deal with it. It was his own fault for never making a move, for being just a hair in taking Rachel's advice.
Luke flipped the blinds open and saw the Jeep sitting outside, idling at the stoplight. He frowned, glanced at the clock on the wall. Just after 5 a.m. Other than when Rory had temporarily broken up with Dean, he had never seen either Gilmore up and about at this time of the morning. Lorelai was allergic to mornings, she always insisted. He thought of Lorelai's father and was out the door before he realized it.
Rory saw him and waved, causing Lorelai to look out the window herself. Her eyes lit up, and instead of pulling away when the light turned green, she swung to the curb and rolled down her window. "Hey there, Luke!"
"Is everything all right?"
"Oh! Yeah!" Lorelai said cheerfully as beside her, Rory subtly shook her head. "We're going on a road trip! Me and Rory! Hitting the open road and taking us wherever it may."
"Aren't you getting married this weekend?" Luke asked as Rory frantically increased the shaking of her head.
Lorelai's smile never dimmed, but the light in her eyes did. "No."
Luke hoped, he really hoped that his true reaction wasn't showing on his face. That of complete and utter weak-kneed relief. Of dodging the proverbial bullet. He wanted to pump his fist in the air and celebrate, Taylor's noise ordinances be damned. But that wasn't what Lorelai needed. So he gave her a sober look and said, "I'm sorry."
"So am I," Lorelai replied quietly.
Concerned, Luke frowned at the Jeep. When was the last time it had been serviced? He ought to know, he was the one who usually made sure Lorelai took it to Gypsy's for servicing. He sincerely hoped Lorelai hadn't pulled the spare tire to make room for shopping bags again. "Are you OK to drive?"
"Yeah! Hey, since you're here, we can get some coffee for the road!"
"Sure, come on in and I'll make you some." Luke stood aside so Lorelai could climb out of the car and made her way into the diner. He stopped Rory before she could follow, flicking a quick glance at the door. He didn't have long before Lorelai realized they had hung behind. "How is she really?"
"I don't know." Rory's brow furrowed in that look of intense concentration that she gave to solving particularly intricate puzzles. "Mom just burst into my room after you left last night saying to pack, that she was calling off the wedding. She started crying about not wanting to try on her dress every night, and I knew she was serious. So here we are."
Shit. Luke's stomach sank to his knees, and he stared through the window at Lorelai. She was standing at the counter, bouncing on her toes, probably seconds away from going behind the counter and starting the coffee herself. Something he said caused this, and now everything was going to be a giant dramafest. There was no way Lorelai could be in any shape to drive.
He knew what he had to do almost before he fully acknowledged it.
"C'mon," Luke told Rory and held open the door for her. He immediately went behind the counter and started the coffeemaker.
"What were the two of you doing out there, counting cracks in the sidewalk?" Lorelai's voice had that false cheerfulness infused into it, trying to pretend that nothing was wrong when in fact, everything was.
"Something like that." He didn't even wait for the pot to fill. He stuck one mug under the spout, replacing it with another when it was full. He set the pot underneath when the second mug was filled and handed the mugs to Lorelai and Rory.
"Hey, go cup needed, mister! Road trip, remember!"
"We both know you'll down that first one in five seconds and want another," Luke informed Lorelai. He flicked a glance in Rory's direction, hoping she would understand. "Are you sure you're in any shape to drive?"
"Tip top shape!"
"How much sleep did you get?"
When Lorelai caught her bottom lip between her teeth, Luke knew it wasn't enough. That combined with the smudges under her eyes just solidified his decision. Granted, he hadn't slept much either, but better him than her. "You're bound and determined to do this, aren't you?"
"I have to, Luke," Lorelai said in that same soft voice she used when she said her engagement was off. "I just …" Her attention shifted to the window, to the ridiculous tableau that was to have been her wedding party. "I can't stay here."
He knew the feeling. He knew it all too well. Still, he couldn't let her just leave either, not in the emotional state she was in. He couldn't wave her off, because he would spend the entire time climbing the walls with worry about her and Rory. Rory would keep her sane, but the images of those two winding up in some ditch haunted him.
"All right," Luke said. "Give me 20 minutes, and I'll be ready."
Lorelai's brow wrinkled. "For?"
"I'm going with you."
"You don't need to do that! We're fine, aren't we, Rory?"
Rory hesitated just a bit. "Actually, Mom," she said, "it might be good to have another driver along."
"You two think I'm crazy." Lorelai pushed off her stool, and he was relieved to see the anger flashing in her eyes. At least it was something. It was better than the deadened look he'd seen the previous evening. "I'm not. I just need to get away. Out of this town. Out of this state."
"We're not disputing that, Mom," Rory said gently. "Luke's right. We shouldn't go alone. It'll be fun!"
"You," Lorelai said, turning on him, "never go anywhere."
"Maybe I should start." Turning on his heel, Luke ordered himself to stand his ground as he went into the kitchen and shut off the grill and fryers. He checked the refrigerator and groaned. There was a good bit of perishables in there. Cesar could take them home to his sister and her kids. He went back into the dining area, where Lorelai and Rory were having a hushed conversation.
"Help yourselves to the donuts and muffins," he said with a wave at the glass dome he had filled just a few minutes earlier. "Just fill a couple bags with what you want, and I'll be right back." He fled before either could respond, but the satisfied squeals told him that the food distraction ploy had worked.
Luke found his old duffel bag, frowning at the holes. It would have to do. He packed so fast he nearly forgot underwear and toothpaste. He was heading down the stairs before remembering both and had to go back for them. That would had been embarrassing. The toothpaste he could cover, but the other …
Eighteen minutes after he made his declaration, he was back in the diner with the Gone Fishing sign in hand. He had called Cesar, gave him the next few days off with pay, and asked him to come clear the refrigerator of the perishables, along with the bread. Whatever he didn't want, he could take to the food pantry.
Luke propped the sign in the door and motioned to Lorelai and Rory, who had taken it upon themselves to fill large go-cups with coffee and relieve him of all the muffins and donuts. At least, he thought a bit ruefully, they wouldn't go to waste. He locked the door behind them and found his gaze going to the sign with his name on it. Lorelai was right. He couldn't remember the last time he had taken any sort of vacation, and now he was going on a blind road trip with the Gilmores. They finally did it. They finally infected him with their special brand of crazy.
He tossed his bag in the back of the Jeep and just stared at all the luggage. "What the hell is all this?"
"Only girls pack light!" Lorelai called from the driver's seat. "Get a move on, I want to put this town behind us!"
Climbing into the front passenger seat, Luke hoped they weren't all making a huge mistake.
"Did you get it?" Rory hissed outside the gas station somewhere on I-90 in Massachusetts.
Luke looked over his shoulder and hastily showed his contraband to his partner in crime. The past few hours had been filled with a lack of music, his and Rory's increasing worry that Lorelai was going to drive them straight into the Atlantic Ocean, and Lorelai's too-cheerful phone call to Sookie. He noticed that Lorelai had used the very vague "we" when talking about the road trip and was thankful for her discretion. The town would probably put two-and-two together soon enough, especially once Miss Patty managed to track down Cesar. He respected the hell out of his cook, but he had a mouth that could rival Eastside Tilly's.
Rory nodded with approval at the thick Rand McNally atlas he purchased while Lorelai was using the bathroom. She hastily opened it, tracing her finger down one page of Massachusetts. "Here we are. I think we're heading for Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Oh God, we have been driving in circles for the past few hours."
Rory was right. Portsmouth was three hours from Stars Hollow, and they'd been gone nearly half a day. Luke looked at the map over Rory's shoulder, his gaze sliding up I-95 until he was studying the Maine coast.
"I have an idea," he murmured, almost to himself, but Rory heard him and latched on.
"I love ideas," she said fervently. "Please tell me you have a plan. A detailed, organized plan. With an itinerary. I need an itinerary, Luke!"
"I said I had an idea," he stressed, a bit concerned about Rory. Granted, they were both worried about Lorelai's sudden flip out, but he didn't need two hysterical Gilmores on his hands. "Look, instead of driving around in circles, let's just pick a place and not tell your mom. That way she still gets her spontaneity and we actually know we're not going to land without gas in the middle of moose country."
"I like this. Keep talking. Talk fast. She probably got distracted in the store, but we don't have long."
Luke tapped the map along the coast of Maine. "Bar Harbor. My dad took us there once when I was a kid, before my mom died. I mean, it's something, right? I kinda remember it. Seems like the type of place your mom would like." Actually, it reminded him a lot of Stars Hollow, except with a beach. Still, it was better than driving aimlessly around Massachusetts. "From where we're at, it'll take us about five hours to get there."
"Perfect. I love it. She's coming." Rory snapped the map shut and shoved it in her book bag.
Lorelai narrowed suspicious eyes at Luke as he navigated up US Highway 1. "Spontaneous," she reminded him.
"Absolutely spontaneous," he replied, eyes focused on the darkening road ahead of them.
Bullshit. Lorelai grunted and turned her head to look out the window. The ride, at least, was gorgeous. She hadn't counted on Maine when she got into the car hours earlier. She also hadn't counted on the extra passenger, whom she suspected was heading to a planned destination. Now, as the exhaustion she fought all day set in, she didn't mind either. She saw Luke and Rory huddled over something that suspiciously looked like a map when they stopped outside of Boston.
Oh, who was she kidding? They had literally driven in circles for hours because she was merely reflecting the trajectory of her brain. An endless spiral of guilt and relief, which seemed at odds with each other. It was Friday night. Her wedding ceremony was originally scheduled for Saturday morning. Before last night, the thought of her wedding made her stomach churn with nausea. Now, it was replaced by her old best friend, guilt. A tear slid down her cheek, and she swiped a hand over it.
Luke's voice was pitched low, and she found a partial smile. Rory shifted in the backseat, where she had curled up to sleep. "Yeah."
"No, you're not."
"No," she acknowledged. "I'm not."
"But," he said with confidence, "you will be."
Her smile turned genuine. "Yeah. I will be."
Luke blinked his eyes open, the ceiling fan above him twirling in a slow, lazy circle. Moonlight streamed through the windows. He rolled over to stare at the small alarm clock on one of the bedside tables.
Old habits die hard.
He sat on the edge of the bed and stared at the TV sitting on the mini fridge across the room. There was no reason for him to get up, but he was done sleeping. He actually got a solid seven hours of sleep. There was crap all on TV at this time of morning, and he hadn't thought to toss a book in his duffel bag. Rory probably had an entire library packed away, but she was in the other room with Lorelai asleep.
They had seriously lucked out. The inn Luke remembered from his childhood had long closed, but Lorelai insisted on pulling over at every B&B until they found one that had two available rooms. A minor miracle given the time of year, but the owner explained that a family reunion had been canceled at the last minute. The rooms were available for four days, so they took them.
He debated showering and taking a walk outside when he heard the soft knock on the door. Frowning, he opened it a crack to see Lorelai standing outside. She was dressed in a thin, long-sleeved shirt with matching pants and clutched her cell phone to her chest. Summer pajamas, he realized, averting his gaze when he realized the shirt left little to the imagination when it came to her breasts.
He stared at the floor and swallowed hard. "Are you OK?"
She pushed her hair behind her ear, worrying her lip. "Did I wake you?"
"No, this is when I normally get up." Dirty, Luke realized after a second, lifting his gaze in time to see her smirk. He rolled his eyes and held the door open. Do not look at her breasts, he instructed himself as she strode in and sat on the edge of the bed.
"Do you always dress like that?" Lorelai asked, setting the phone on the mattress.
She gestured to the T-shirt and sweatpants that he wore. "It's August, Luke."
"Not in here. Ceiling fan. Air conditioning." He dug clean clothes out of his duffel bag.
"Do you have a thing against exposing your legs?"
"What do you wear to bed in the winter? Skiing gear?"
"I'm ignoring you now," he informed her and went into the bathroom with his clothes. He firmly shut the door on her laughter.
Luke came back out a few minutes later to see her laying on the bed, and his heart leaped. It was shortly followed by a dose of reality that reminded him that he had no right to be thinking of her in any sort of manner other than friendship. It wasn't why he was on this stupid trip. He was her friend. Nothing more. That was it.
He almost believed it.
He took the chair next to the bed, resting his elbows on his legs as he watched her. Her eyes were closed, and she breathed softly. Sleeping. Of course. Lorelai needed it just as much as he had, more than him really. He considered that walk again and had just pushed to his feet when her eyes blinked open.
"I wasn't sleeping. I was thinking."
Luke sat again. "About?"
"Rory wanted to talk about Max."
"Ah." He stared at his hands, not quite sure what to say. Way out of his league. This entire thing was out of his league.
"She insisted that I loved him, that I was just running scared. And she unloaded on me. I mean, she has every right to unload on me and be angry. I imagine everyone's angry with me right now."
Lorelai gave him a small smile. "No. You're not."
Luke held her gaze, hoping that she believed him. "Betcha Sookie's not angry,
"She's disappointed. I could hear it when I called her earlier." She sighed. "That's the universe vs. Lorelai Gilmore. I'm either pissing people off or disappointing them or doing both at the same time." She wrapped her arms protectively around herself.
"Hey, stop that." He moved to the bed, ignoring the warning signs going off in his brain like fireworks. He found himself patting her leg, filing away the warmth of her thigh in some deep recess of his memory.
"But it's my fault! All of this! I never should had accepted his proposal. I never should had let it get this far, but I kept telling myself this was the best thing for me and Rory. Especially Rory. Max is a good guy. Just not for me." Tears slid down Lorelai's cheeks. "You have no idea how much I wish I loved him. But I didn't. Instead, I'm just failing at everything."
Luke couldn't just leave her like that. So he pulled her into his arms, and she nestled her head beneath his chin. He rubbed her arms and her back. "You're not failing. Look, what if you realized this after you married, huh? Then all of you would be miserable."
She sniffed into his chest. "What if Rory's right?"
"Rory's sixteen. Sixteen-year-olds sure as hell don't know what love is."
Luke thought he knew what love was. He really had with Rachel. And god, he had loved her and held out hope for so long. But now he was stroking Lorelai Gilmore's back in a strange B&B in Maine because she had run away from her wedding, and the feelings he had shoved into a corner of his heart were fluttering about like a fly that refused to be swatted. They were far, far different than the ones he had for Rachel. They felt more intense. More real. Just more.
He slowly became aware that he was actually holding her, so focused on trying to help her that he didn't realize the danger that having her in his arms would prove. She felt good. No, she felt amazing.
She felt right.
He felt the low rumble of her words against her chest. "I did. Well, I learned when I was 16. I didn't have a clue until I held Rory for the first time. That's what I want, you know? To love someone just as much as I love her. I tried with Max, but I felt like I was just disappointing him the whole time."
Lorelai sniffed again and pulled away, not recognizing that she practically imprinted herself on him. Luke would drift to sleep every night for weeks on the memory of the smell of her shampoo and the feel of her hair beneath his fingers. "Just … what you said," she admitted. "Being with someone who gets you and all your crap, who doesn't try to change you. And I realized then that Max was doing that. And he was pushing and pushing, and I didn't like the person I was changing into. It was married or nothing with him, but I thought 'what if this was my only chance?'"
"It's not going to be your only chance. You'll get it. I know it." He knew of that as sure as the sun rising that morning.
She smiled, and he ached to reach for her hands or touch her in some way again. But he couldn't. He was her friend, and he wasn't going to be one of those putzes that pushed her to feel a certain way.
"Rory insists I'm going to regret this."
Lorelai shook her head.
"Then, you won't." Just like he really hadn't regretted Rachel leaving when she did, recognizing that he had finally moved on with his life.
She smiled down at Luke, and those aching, fluttering feelings simply intensified to the point where he just couldn't find words. "I'm glad you came with us," she said.
"Me too." Oh good, his vocal cords still worked.
"And don't think I didn't notice the map, Rand McNally."
Luke laughed. And laughed. And laughed until Lorelai joined in and his stomach hurt and he hadn't felt that free in a very long time.
So going on a road trip with her daughter and her coffee provider had proven to be what she needed to start to get over Max. It wasn't so much getting over him, but wading through the guilt of letting everything proceed for so long before putting a stop to it. Lorelai didn't want to think of the money lost from the failed endeavor, so she didn't put up that much of a fight when Luke pulled out his wallet to pay for the room. He pointed out that he didn't pay for gas, and she gave up the fight despite the fact that four nights at a B&B in Maine were far pricier than a few tanks of gas.
They spent the four days crawling all over Maine, including visiting the flagship L.L Bean store in Freeport at 2 a.m. just to say they did so. Lorelai never imagined a trip spent with Luke, or any guy really. The closest she'd come were the few trips out to California she had taken with Rory to see Chris. As close as she'd been to marrying Max, Lorelai couldn't imagine trying lobster with him on the Maine coast or listening to him grumble about the retail outlets in Freeport. They went up into the nearby mountains to take in the breathtaking views, and Luke taught her and Rory how to fish. They managed to catch one, which they immediately set free after Luke told them they couldn't take it home for a pet, despite them naming it Winston. Winston sailed back into the Atlantic a free fish that day.
On the way home, Lorelai recognized the exit signs and took them on yet another detour - this one semi-planned. A couple hours later, she was peeking through a classroom door, watching Rory sit in on a Harvard lecture like she belonged.
She beckoned to Luke, and with a resigned sigh, he peeked over her head. His voice of reason had been ignored as the girls had first talked their way into a dorm room, then the lecture hall as they had explored Harvard like that personal playground.
"Look at her. She really belongs." Lorelai's voice was reverent, filled with every hope and dream she ever had for Rory.
"Yeah, she does." Luke's voice sounded as awestruck as she felt, and his hand landed on her shoulder. They remained, riveted as Rory leaped into the discussion. She was not even 17, but she looked and acted mature enough to easily pass for a college freshman. Lorelai's heart ached just a bit. Despite everything with Chilton, it had been the right move.
She felt movement behind her and looked over her shoulder to see Luke pulling her camera out of his coat pocket. "Where'd you get that?"
"When you shoved it in my hands and asked me to change the roll of film." He hushed her and carefully aimed the camera over her head. He brought Rory into focus and hastily snapped a couple pictures before shoving it back in his pocket.
Lorelai was going to make 17,000 copies of that photo and paste it all over Stars Hollow.
Rory's excited chatter filled the car on the way back to Stars Hollow, and it allowed Lorelai to remain comfortably ensconced in her thoughts. She ceded control of the driver's seat to Luke and spent the drive sorting her feelings into neat little boxes. Or as neat as they could be given they were her emotions. Rory would be in that lecture hall in less than two years. She would be alone. She needed to start sorting out the rest of her life. She needed to do something for herself, to build her own life. Around the Connecticut state line, she made her decision and held her tongue.
She dozed off near the Willington Rest Area, and her thoughts drifted to warm skin, heated kisses, and lingering touches. In her dreams, she saw blue eyes darkened with passion and smelled coffee and the slightly woodsy cologne that was as familiar as danishes on a Wednesday. His hands on her waist were firm, guiding her as she rode him. She looked down into face she knew so well and whispered his name.
She started awake, recognizing the Hartford skyline zooming past. Oh God. Oh my God.
"You OK, Mom?"
Lorelai whipped her head around to stare at her daughter in the backseat, absolutely refusing to admit that her engagement was barely a week broken and she was having sex dreams about the guy who prevented them from driving in circles until the Jeep plunged into the ocean or a ditch or was beset upon by moose. And she just apparently moaned his name in front of him and Rory. Well crap.
"Sorry, kid, just dreaming."
"Coffee," Lorelai lied, and they both bought it. She hastily looked at Luke out the corner of her eye, then quickly glanced away, willing her heart to settle. It had to be because of this weird family-like road trip. And how he held her as she cried all over him, because she couldn't with anyone else. And how they had stood like two proud parents, beaming at Rory as she sat in on a Harvard lecture. Her life was a mess, so her subconscious latched onto the safest, most steady thing in her universe outside of Rory, and that was the man sitting next to her.
She was still internally panicking when they pulled up in front of the Crap Shack and saw the chuppah sitting on the front lawn.
"Aw geez, I forgot about it." Luke sprang from the car so fast, he probably broke a few Guinness records in the process. "I can't believe I left the stupid chuppah on your lawn, just sitting here, mocking you. I'll take it down now."
"No!" The word burst out as she scrambled out of the Jeep after him. "It's OK, Luke, really!" She looked at the elaborate arch and didn't see Max at all. "I'm going to keep it."
He had the poles in his hands, prepared to lift it. "What?"
"Yeah. It's beautiful, and you made it for me, and it doesn't have to be a wedding chuppah. It can just be a beautiful archway in our yard. I'll grow stuff on it."
Luke peered at Lorelai around the side of the chuppah, brow furrowed for a moment before he nodded. "I'll move it wherever you want."
Rory emerged from the back seat. "Hey, I know we just got back, but can I go see Lane?"
"Sure, kid, go ahead. I'll get Mr. Brawny to take the bags in the house."
As Rory headed down the sidewalk, Lorelai watched her daughter walk away from her and knew that one day all too soon that it would be permanent. "I think it's time to make a move," she said, not sure if it was to Luke or to herself.
He had the back of the Jeep open, muttering under his breath about how they managed to acquire even more junk during their days away. "Meaning?"
She faced him. For a split second, her mind dove back into that dangerous place - one of heated skin and shared touches. "I'm diving in. Sookie and I are finally going to open that inn."