“Ready?” she asks.
I stand and tip my hat to Nana. “Always a pleasure, ma’am.”
Her only farewell is a frown.
Jenny walks to her grandma and kisses her cheek. Then I hear her whisper, “Don’t let Momma smell that bourbon on your breath. She’ll send you to bed without supper.”
Nana cackles and taps Jenn’s cheek with love.
We walk toward the truck, but pause at the bottom of the porch steps when Jenny’s momma comes out. Despite the deep laugh and worry lines that wrinkle June Monroe’s face, she’s a good-looking woman—attractively full figured, long blond hair with streaks of silver.
She gives me a tight, forced smile. “Stanton. You’re lookin’ well.”
“Thanks, June. It’s good to be home.”
June doesn’t hate me as much as her mother does, but I wouldn’t say she particularly likes me either. Unlike Wayne, Jenn’s daddy—I’ve always been the son he never had. But I doubt either one is thrilled to have me back, disrupting the grand wedding plans. Ruby still lives with her parents too—five kids and counting—so I imagine the Monroes would be happy to have at least one of their daughters married off and out of the house.
“Jenny,” her mother says, high pitched with warning, “we have the dress fittin’ this afternoon. Can’t be late.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll be back before Presley gets home from practice.”
I hold the truck door open. Shutting it behind Jenn, I climb into the driver’s seat and we head to the river.
• • •
On the drive, I go over in my head what I’m going to say, like I do the night before a closing argument. Jenny sits on the plaid blanket, cross-legged, while I stand, thinking better on my feet, both of us holding open cans of beer.
“You could’ve sprung for bottles,” Jenn says, squinting at the can in her hand.
“I was being nostalgic.”
She lifts her shoulder. “Nostalgia tastes better from a bottle.”
She turns her face, catching the sun, and I spot her freckles, scattered across the bridge of her nose, along her cheeks, so tiny and pale they can only be seen when the light is just right. And it feels like yesterday that I was counting them, here, after a long swim and an even longer screw, while she was asleep, covered in nothing but my shadow.
She raises her hand to take a sip and the small diamond twinkling on her left hand stomps on my memory like a big motherfucking elephant.
“Did you forget to give him the ring back? After you told him you made a mistake?”
Her eyes tighten. “Is that how you want to do this, Stanton?”
I can almost see Sofia’s notes on her yellow pad, telling me to treat this like a case, and Jenny just any other witness. I need her talking—to know how this happened so I can tear it apart piece by piece.
“No, it’s not,” I relent with a sigh. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
A small smile comes to her lips. Just a little sad. “Because I knew you’d try to talk me out of it.”
Hit the bull’s-eye on that one, didn’t she?
Jenny licks the beer from her lips, and in a regretful voice says, “I should’ve told you. You deserved to hear it from me. My momma mailed out your invitation because she said I was draggin’ my feet—and I was.” Fair-lashed blue eyes move over my face before meeting my gaze. “I’m sorry, Stanton.”
I pick up a stone, bouncing it in my hand. “Apology accepted—as long as you don’t go through with it.”
She tilts her head, watching as I skip the rock. “I heard you brought someone home with you.”
I can visualize the chain of communication that sent that tidbit to Jenny’s ear in record time. Miss Bea telling Mrs. Macalister, who works at the pharmacy. Mrs. Macalister whispering to old Abigail Wilson when she drops off her heart medication, because Abigail’s half-blind and can’t drive anymore. Abigail Wilson phoning her cousin Pearl, who just happens to be best friends forever with none other than June Monroe. I wonder if June let Jenny walk in the door before telling her, or if she called her while she was driving home from work.
“She’s a friend.”
Jenny scoffs. “What kinda friend?”
“The kind who comes home with me when my girl says she’s marrying someone else.”
With the flick of my arm, another stone skips across the water. “I told you mine, you tell me yours. Who the hell is this guy?”
She plays with the sand, scooping it up then letting it fall between her fingers. “After high school, JD went to college in California. He moved back here last year, when his daddy was diagnosed with cancer. We ran into each other one day at the hospital and he remembered me. He visited every day, and when I was there we’d talk. Then talkin’ turned into coffee in the cafeteria, then dinner after my shift.” She pauses, thinking back, her voice going soft. “It was bad in the end. When his daddy passed, JD took it real hard. I was there for him. He . . . needed me. It felt nice to be needed. After he didn’t need me anymore, he still wanted me. And that . . . felt even nicer.”