The tavern is a small place, with wooden floors, a worn oak bar, a few scattered square tables, and two pool tables in the back room. Five of us sit together at a table—Jake is having a loud, raucous time with Ruby Monroe, Jenny’s sister, and Brent seems more relaxed without having to dodge the wandering, underage hands of Mary Shaw.
I excuse myself from the table and head to the ladies’ room. When I walk back out, I stop in my tracks. Because through the crowd I see Stanton rise from his chair and walk to the jukebox. He fills it with quarters from his pocket, and the twinkling sounds of piano keys override the noise of conversation in the crowded bar. He strides to where Jenny and JD are sitting side by side, and his lips move—asking a question I can’t decipher. JD nods his head and after a moment, shakes Stanton’s outstretched hand. Then Jenny stands and together they walk to the dance floor. Willie Nelson’s mournful voice fills the air singing “Always on My Mind.”
I watch as he takes Jenny in his arms—the strong, beautiful arms that have held me, made me feel cherished with their warmth. The arms I’ve gripped in pleasure and passion more times that I can remember. He gathers her close to his chest, the chest I laid my cheek on just last night, lulled to sleep by the sound of his steadfast heartbeat.
And together, they sway.
I don’t feel the tears rise until they’re blurring my vision and streaming down my face. My throat constricts, and the purest of pain squeezes my chest like a cruel vise.
I can’t do this anymore.
I know it now. I can’t stand by and pretend to help him fight for her.
Because I want him to fight for me.
More than anything.
For him to want me—not just as a friend or a lover. But as his forever.
Like she is.
Jenny looks up into his eyes. Their expressions are tender as they speak, and I thank God I can’t hear the words. Then Stanton raises his hand to touch her face . . . and I squeeze my eyes closed, blocking the intimate gesture.
A moment later I’m heading for the door. Self-preservation compels me, Willie’s lyrics of love and regret chase me, but I don’t look back.
Outside, the air is moist, thick—I gulp it in with pathetic hiccups and seek the comfort of my own arms, wrapped around my waist.
Brent’s voice approaches from my left, coming closer as he calls my name again. I don’t try to hide my . . . sadness? That’s not a strong enough word. Devastation hits the nail on the head. I feel like a building that’s about to collapse, the foundation I built, the structure and support that I thought would keep me standing falling away beneath my feet. And Brent sees it all.
His head angles in sympathetic reflection, but what strikes me most is—he’s not surprised. Not even a little.
He sits on the sidewalk bench and pats his lap. “Looks like somebody needs a ride on the therapy train. Hop on. Tell Dr. Brent all about it.”
There’s no shame as I perch myself on his thighs.
“He doesn’t dance,” I whisper.
Brent nods slowly. Waiting for me to continue.
“But he’s dancing with her.”
The words sound completely ridiculous said out loud, but I don’t care. The dam breaks, and my face crumbles. “I thought I had a wall, you know? I didn’t think I’d be the woman who wanted more. I’m an idiot, Brent.”
A low chuckle reverberates through his chest. “You’re not an idiot, sweetheart—that designation belongs to the blind southerner you’re crying over.”
I raise my head and look into Brent’s forever kind blue eyes. He’s always reminded me of my brother Tomás. They share that same comforting attitude that makes you feel that anything coming their way, no matter how devastating, will be handled.
“How can he not know?” I ask. “Why can’t he see how hard this is for me?”
Brent brushes my long hair off my shoulders. “In fairness to Stanton, you’re a good actress. And . . . sometimes it’s hard for guys to read between the lines. To pick up on all the things that aren’t said. Some of us need it spelled out.”
Brent holds me for a few minutes more as I soak up his calm, making it my own. Then I drag my fingers under my eyes, wiping away the melting mascara that probably makes me look like a raccoon.
“Soph?” That voice comes from the shadows behind us, deep with worry. I feel him move closer, without turning to look. “What’s wrong? What happened?”
Having all of Stanton’s attention, sensing his concern and knowing in my heart that he’d rain down hell in my defense—I admit it feels good. For a moment. But it’s only an emotional crumb. One that used to satisfy me, but now will only end up magnifying the emptiness. Leave me starving for all the things he doesn’t feel for me.