Colorful Chinese lanterns hang from strings above a line of white rosebushes, framing in the stone patio. A bonfire roars further down, lighting almost the whole yard. I search through the groups of people standing on the grass and—fucking finally—I spot Jenny. She’s talking to tiny, brunette Jessica Taylor—a former member of the cheerleading squad. But most important, JD is nowhere to be seen.
Time to turn on the charm.
I pass Sofia my cup of Jack Daniel’s. “Can you hold this for me?”
She follows my line of sight. “Sure.”
I snap off the stem of a full white rose and show it to her. “What do you think?”
Her grip on the cups tightens. “I think she’ll love it.”
“If all goes as planned, I’ll be gone for a while. Marshall will take you home if you want to go sooner, okay?”
Sofia stares down at her shoes. “Okay.”
I wink. “You’re the best, Soph. Wish me luck.”
But as I walk away . . . she doesn’t.
Jessica Taylor greets me with a hug. Jenn eyes me warily. I hold out the rose to her. “A peace offerin’.”
Her face thaws just a bit, her pretty pink lips forming a reluctant smile. “Thank you.”
Jessica laughs. “Lord, I wish I was as friendly with my ex. He can’t be bothered to even give me rat poison.” She shakes her head. “But you two always were the perfect couple. Remember that football game junior year, after Stanton scored the winning touchdown? And he came trottin’ off the field, straight to you, Jenn? Picked you up and kissed you in front of the whole school—like somethin’ straight out of a Drew Barrymore movie?”
Jenny’s eyes warm and I know she remembers, the same as I do.
I’d been late picking her up, we’d argued. One word led to another, and by the time we got to the field she was swearing she’d never speak to me again. My romantic gesture dispelled her of that notion, and she spent that night after the game in the backseat of my truck, speaking all kinds of wonderful words like, yes, more, again.
Jessica moves on to refill her drink, and I don’t stop staring into Jenny’s eyes.
“JD fully recovered?”
She snorts. “Like you care, but yes, as a matter of fact. Carter brought some herbal compresses by the house for him—cleared up the rest of the swellin’. He’s inside the trailer right now, gettin’ more.”
My smile turns tight. “I’ll be sure to thank Carter for that.” Then I lean closer. “Why don’t we—”
I never finish the sentence.
From behind us, on the patio, there’s a whistle, hollering, and rowdy catcalls. I turn and look toward the noise—to see it’s being directed at Sofia. From four assholes I’ve never seen before, whose names I don’t know, but wouldn’t mind reading on a couple of headstones.
Then one of them reaches out and grabs her ass.
When they say so mad I saw red, I never knew that you actually see red—but that’s just what happens. My vision tunnels, bordered with hot crimson. I don’t remember walking away from Jenny, I don’t recall crossing the yard. The next thing I’m aware of is my hand around a scumbag’s throat—slamming his head up against the side of my brother’s double-wide.
“Touch her again, I’ll rip your fuckin’ arm off and shove it up your ass.”
His hands claw, trying to pry my fingers off—I just tighten my grip.
Then Carter’s next to me. “Easy, Stanton, we’re pacifists here. You need to settle down, brother.”
When the dickhead’s face turns an acceptable shade of purple, I let him go. He holds his neck, heaving and gasping. And I snarl at my brother, “Don’t tell me to settle down. Tell your friend to watch where he puts his fuckin’ hands.”
With one hand on his chest, I pin the grabby prick to the wall of the trailer one last time, for good measure.
Then I wrap my arm around Sofia and lead her away. Her eyes glow up at me softly. “You know I could’ve handled that.”
“I know. But you shouldn’t have to.”
And I don’t leave her side the rest of the night.
• • •
At 1 a.m. the party is still going strong. Sofia’s silly, happy drunk—sitting next to me on a lawn chair, teaching Sadie naughty words in Portuguese. After six or seven Jack and Cokes, I’m pretty shit-faced myself. Carter runs out from the side of the trailer, calling me over, telling me to hurry. I hold my hand out to Sofia and we follow him around to the front. My brother puts his finger to his lips and jerks his head toward my truck.