I stare Caiden Brenner down over my younger sister Blaire’s shoulder. The beating early September sun in the courtyard of Town Hall is roasting me alive in this monkey suit, but I hardly notice. I’m too busy trying to get into my soon-to-be brother-in-law’s head.
“I do,” Blaire answers when the Justice of the Peace asks if she takes Caiden to be her husband.
I’ve decided Caiden isn’t the devil incarnate—that would be my ex-best friend, Nate—but I’m still struggling with what Caiden did to my sister four years ago, when he was twenty-five and she was barely seventeen.
But Blaire is shining in a way I’ve never seen her shine, and it’s more than the way she looks today—totally gorgeous in her bright blue sundress and black Converse, her long black hair tucked up in a bun on top of her head. It’s that, each time her eyes connect with Caiden’s, I see the visible change in her. All her sharp edges dull and something peaceful softens her face. Not only does she love him, she trusts him. For Blaire, that’s huge.
So maybe I need to trust him too.
I glance at Mom and Dad, seated in the short row of chairs under the small gazebo next to Caiden’s mother. Blaire and Caiden insisted on immediate family only at their civil service. They’re having a barbeque later at Graffiti Park for a few close friends and extended family.
I turn back in time to hear Caiden echo Blaire’s “I do,” then Blaire spins and look expectantly at me.
“What?” I ask.
Her expression turns decidedly more exasperated. “Jesus, Marcus.”
My eyes widen when it hits me what she’s waiting for. I pat my pocket and feel the ring there. I fish it out and hesitate.
Blaire’s glare could melt steel as she holds out her hand for it.
I swallow the acid rising up my throat and slip it into her palm. She’s really going through with this. She’s marrying the man who went to prison for statutory rape.
I’ve been hard on him. I know that. But all Blaire and I have ever had is each other. She’s always had my back, but I let her get hurt twice on my watch—once by Caiden, and then by Nate. It’s just been in the last few months that she’s seemed to find herself again after everything that happened. As much as I wish it were me that brought her back, I know it was Caiden. I need to cut him some slack.
I close my eyes and take a deep breath as they exchanging rings, and when I open them, they’re kissing.
When he finally lets her go, Blaire turns to me. She gives me a wary once over. “Just so you know, you suck as bro of honor.”
I duck my head and rub the sweat off the back of my neck. “You should have picked Zoey.”
Her eyes narrow. “I picked you, Marcus. I wanted you.”
Fuck. I really need to get over myself.
Just as I’m thinking this, Caiden slips to Blaire’s side and holds out his hand to me.
“Thanks for your support, Marcus.”
I split a glance between Caiden’s hand and my sister. Her gaze is unwavering, as usual, but under her hard exterior, I see a deep vulnerability in her eyes.
The moment of truth. Either I accept my new brother-in-law into the family, or break my sister’s heart.
I squeeze Caiden’s hand. Hard. “Welcome to the family. Just know this: You mess with Blaire, I will kill you.”
Blaire gives me her signature smirk, then tugs her groom closer and kisses him. “He messes with me, I’ll kill him.”
Caiden’s face beams as he looks at her. “Of that, I have no doubt.”
“You two are on grill duty at the reception,” she says, poking me in the chest. “And I expect you both to come away un-charred.”
I shake my head. “Can’t make any promises, sis.”
“That was lovely, Blaire,” Mom says, joining our small circle.
I glance around and find Dad already at the door. Social situations are his nightmare. This should be enough to drive him over the edge. But to his credit, he seems sober.
There’s an awkward moment where Blaire and our mother negotiate their way around a brief hug, then Mom backs away. “You said Zoey’s getting everything ready at the park?”
Blaire nods and pulls her phone out of her bra, glancing at the screen. “She says they’re ready anytime we are.”
Mom looks warily toward where Dad is shifting on his feet. “I might need to drop your father off at the house on the way. He’s not feeling well.”
Of course not. He’s already had to say hello to Caiden and his family. The thought of having to interact with more people at the reception is probably making him physically ill.
There’s a glint of disappointment in Blaire’s eyes, but it passes quickly as she thinks about it and comes to the same conclusion I have. “We’ll see you over there,” she says grasping Caiden’s hand and starting toward the parking lot.
Despite the “no gifts” decree, a handful of people wait near a pile of wrapped presents on one of the picnic tables under the small shelter when we arrive at Graffiti Park. The shelter has silver and blue streamers twisted around the poles and looped from the eaves, and the five picnic tables underneath are covered in blue paper table clothes with silver balloons tied to the benches. In the center of the middle table is a cake shaped like a penis in between two boobs. Blaire’s best friend Zoey’s contribution, no doubt.
Blaire leaves Caiden and I in the dust, where we’re carrying the gas grill from the back of my pickup truck across the grass to the shelter, and makes a beeline for Zoey. Her face is something between a scowl and a grin as she surveys the cake. “You know I’ll never be able to show my future children pictures of my wedding reception now.”
“But you’ll never forget it,” Zoey answers with a self-satisfied grin, wrapping Blaire in a hug. “Love you, girl.”
Next to me, Caiden’s feet stall and I yank the grill out of his hands when I keep walking. When I look back at him, he’s giving Blaire a stunned stare. But then a grin slowly spreads across his face.
“I guess this works,” I say, straightening out the grill next to the edge of the shelter.
His eyes snap to me as if he’s just remembering I exist. “Oh…sorry.”
I tug off my jacket. “So you guys are doing the whole kid thing?” I ask, tucking my tie inside the royal blue shirt I bought to match my sister’s wedding dress in a show of solidarity.
He glances at Blaire again and bobs a nod. “It appears that way.”
I crouch down to screw the gas line into the grill. “You haven’t talked about it?”
He shrugs as he pulls open a box of frozen Costco burgers. “Not specifically.”
“Kids makes it permanent,” I say in warning.
“Our marriage vows made it permanent,” he counters with more than a little irritation in his tone.
A hand brushes over my back. “Hey, good lookin’.”
I turn at the Texas drawl and find my date, Deanna, standing there in a tiny green dress and killer heels. She’s pretty in the Barbie sense: blond and blue with a heart-shaped face, copper skin, and an amazing body—long and lean with curves in all the right places.
I use the word “date” loosely. She’s the woman who stole my job at Oak Crest High. I know she was teaching in Texas for four years before coming here—the reason the school board cited for hiring her over me. Experience. Which means she’s at least three, maybe four years older than me. But what started as mindless frenemy sex a few weeks back has turned into a regular thing. When she invited herself to my sister’s wedding, it seemed a little heartless to tell her no.
She wraps her arms around my neck and sort of hangs off me. “How was the ceremony?”
I glance at Caiden, where he’s firing up the grill. “It was good.”
Deanna smiles at Caiden and holds out her hand. “I’m sure it was ten yards of romantic. Congratulation.”
He shakes her outstretched hand. “Thank you.”
I watch her walk over to Blaire and introduce herself. Maybe that’s something I should have done, but I feel like this thing is already taking on a life of its own, and her getting all chummy with my sister makes me a little nervous. I busy myself getting everything ready then take up my position next to my new brother-in-law when he starts throwing burgers on the grill.
“Listen, Marcus,” he says, tearing open a package of hot dogs. “I get that I’ve never been your favorite person and I can respect your reasons for that, but I need you to understand that Blaire is my life. I’ve given up everything for her and I’d do it all again if it meant the same result.”
“You can prove it by not fucking this up,” I say with a wave of the barbeque tongs between where Blaire is hugging some Berkeley friends who have just arrived and him.
“I can’t predict the future better than anyone else,” he answers, his eyes raising from the grill to his new bride, “but I can swear to you I’m going to do everything in my power not to.”
We cook and, at Zoey’s direction, people start filing past for burgers and dogs. Once most everyone is served, Caiden grabs a burger off the grill for Blaire and brings it to her. They sit across the picnic table from each other, and even though they’re talking to other people, their eyes keep straying to each other’s.
Deanna and Zoey seem to hit it off and are deep in conversation about shoes when I slip away from the shelter. On autopilot, my legs start up the hill toward the playground where Blaire, Nate, and I used to spend all our time as kids.
As I walk, I loosen my tie and flick open the top button. Near the top of the hill is a bench nestled into the shade of some big oaks. Nate and I carved it up pretty good back in the day. Which makes me wonder about him.
We haven’t spoken since I decked him after he cheated on Blaire. It’s been four years. He came back to town to live with his parents after we graduated college, and since it’s a small place, I saw him here and there, but it’s been a while. With any luck, he’s moved on.
I start toward the bench, but then see it’s occupied. A woman is laying on her back, her knees bent and her head propped on a backpack with a book in her hand.
I shove my hands in my pockets and look farther up the hill, toward the playground. There are a few benches up there, but they’re occupied by parents supervising their kids on the massive wooden play structure. The only free bench is facing into the afternoon sun, about twenty feet across the open, grassy area from the one the woman is occupying. I head over to it and plunk down on the end. I glare through the blinding sun at the woman on my bench before leaning onto my elbows and resting my face in my hands.
If you’d asked me five years ago where I thought I’d be right now, it wouldn’t have been here, coaching girls water polo at my old high school and working at the local gym. This is so not where I saw my life going. After living large for four years of high school and four more at college, I guess I started to feel charmed. But there’s nothing charming about crashing on a friend’s couch for the last six months because it’s all I can afford. I’ve only been out of UCLA for a year and I feel like I’ve already hit a total dead end, but I’ve got no one but myself to blame for that.
As the sun dips behind the tops of the trees surrounding the bench across the way, I sit up straight and look at the woman who stole it. There’s a second I wonder if she’s homeless, because her wardrobe has a definite secondhand vibe—a faded army-green tank with pale pink stripes under a baggy red cardigan, tattered jeans which are probably too short because they’re rolled halfway up her shins, and plaid Vans with no socks.
She rolls her head my direction and catches me staring.
I divert my eyes, but then blow out a disgusted laugh. I never would have done that back in college. She’s hot. I can see that from here. A hot girl makes eye contact, I would have held her gaze. I would have sent the message loud and clear with my eyes that I was interested.
When I glance up, she’s gone back to her book. I shove up off the bench and cram my hands into my pockets as I amble slowly toward her.
She lowers her book and sits up when she sees me, combing a hand through her thick strawberry blond corkscrew curls, and it strikes me that she looks vaguely familiar. Her face is thin and, at the bottom of a smallish nose that curls up slightly at the end are a pair of full, pink lips that tend to curl down. There’s the faintest hint of freckles smattering her cheeks and nose, and it’s kind of a turn-on that she’s comfortable enough in her own skin not to hide them behind layers of makeup. But it’s her charcoal gray eyes that snag all my attention. They’re large and round, but not innocent.
“Nice day,” I say, looking toward the shelter down the hill, wracking my brain trying to place how I know this woman. Maybe from the gym?
She closes her book and nods.
“Mind if I…?” I gesture at the now vacant end of the bench.
She gives me another wary nod.
I lower myself onto the spot her feet just occupied, and now I’ve got nothing else to say. I should have stayed on my own fucking bench. I give her a second to bail me out, and when she doesn’t, I gesture to the book. “Good book?”
She lifts the book and shows me the cover. The Metamorphosis. “It’s okay.”
I pull it from her hand and read the description on the back cover. “Pretty dark.”
She almost shrugs, more with her face than her body. “I found a list of the twenty-five most controversial books of all time. Making my way through the ones that interest me.” In the corner of my eye, I see her wave her hand at the book I’m thumbing through. “That’s number ten.”
I look up at her. “What are numbers one through nine?”
“Lolita is number one. I’d already read that, though, as well as number two, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, number four, The Grapes of Wrath, and number nine, The Perks of Being a Wallflower.”
“So, what new books have you picked up because of the list?” I lift The Metamorphosis. “Other than this?”
She looks at the book in my hand rather than me as she ticks off on her fingers. “I skipped American Psycho, which is number three, but I’ve read the rest: And Tango Makes Three, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Tropic of Cancer, and The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie…which I have to say was pretty dry.”
“That’s a pretty impressive reading list.” I set the book down on the bench between us. “So, you’re not a Rushdie fan. What did you think of the others?”
“And Tango Makes Three was cute. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was depressing, and The Tropic of Cancer was…” She trails off and gives me that face shrug again. But this time she’s blushing through her freckles.
It’s been a while since I read it, but my recollection is it’s full of graphic sex. She’s embarrassed to talk to me about it, and for some reason that sends a rush through insides that settles in my groin. My gaze trials over the lines of her face, down her long neck, then trickles over her body. She’s on the tall side and athletic, with breasts that are a perfect handful, a flat stomach, and long, toned legs that I’d suddenly kill to have wrapped around my head.
“And what’s the verdict on this one?” I ask, handing back The Metamorphosis.
A shadow passes over her face as she looks at the cover. “It’s…thought provoking.”
“What thoughts is it provoking?” I ask, laying the innuendo on thick and hoping I’m not the only one feeling the attraction.
The thought passes through the back of my mind that hitting on another woman while my date is just down the hill is a pretty skanky thing to do, but there’s something compelling about this girl. The idea that I might never see her again tugs hard at my gut. I can’t let this chance to find out who she is slip by.
“Have you read it?” she asks.
I lean in and shake my head. “Should I?”
“It’s a little out there,” she says with an unsure squint.
“Why don’t you save me the trouble and give me the SparkNotes,” I say, looping my arm behind her and resting it on the back of the bench.
She gives me a curious look, and I feel her body tense under my arm.
I give her my best cocky smile and arch an eyebrow. I intentionally let my fingers brush her shoulder and am rewarded with a shudder. “Unless you’d prefer I leave?”
A sly smile curves her pink lips as she lowers her lashes, and the rush in my groin intensifies.
“The SparkNotes…” she says, picking up the book between us. I take the opportunity to slide closer. “This guy Gregor wakes up one day to find he’s a giant bug…which I get is a little weird, and there’s no explanation as to why, but the upshot is that everyone is pretty grossed out by him and all his family seems to care about is that he can’t do his job anymore, so he can’t contribute to the finances. He can only speak bug, so because they can’t understand him, they assume he can’t understand them when they say they wish he’d just go away. But he can’t leave because he has nowhere to go, and also because his father threw an apple at him and injured him pretty badly, so he hides in his room and eventually just dies.”
“Seriously?” When I take the book back and turn it over to read the jacket copy again, I notice it came from the county library.
“Seriously,” she answers, earnestly.
I lift my eyes to hers. “So a happy ending, then,” I say, my voice full of sarcasm.
“Yeah, right.” Her eyes lower to the book in my hand. “I don’t really understand why it’s the tenth most controversial book of all time, but it’s a pretty true testament to human nature. Gregor is messed up, so instead of trying to help him, people just wish he’d go away.”
There’s no mistaking the mix of disdain and sadness in her tone. I only realize how intently I’m staring at her when she turns her face away. Does she feel that people wish she’d go away? And, if so, who is making her feel that way and why? Is she “messed up?”
The overpowering need to know sweeps through me in a rush that forces a shuddering breath from my lungs.
“So, what’s next on the list?” I ask, handing the book back.
“Brave New World,” she answers, her eyes lifting to mine again.
I cuff a laugh. “That one I have read. Another uplifting story.”
“So I hear.” She glances down the hill in the direction I came from. “So, what’s going on down there, anyway? Someone’s birthday?”
My gaze follows hers. “My sister’s wedding reception.”
“In a public park?” she asks, her eyebrows raising in surprise.
I nod. “Graffiti Park is special. We spent a lot of time here as kids.”
“Graffiti Park? That’s really the name of this place?” she asks, looking around.
“I have no clue what the real name is. That’s just what we’ve always called it.” My thumb brushes over where Nate carved my name into the back of bench we’re sitting on at least ten years ago.
She squints toward the shelter below and shades her eyes from the last of the afternoon sun. “I don’t see a bride.”
I point to Blaire. “The one in the bright blue dress.”
“That sort of flies in the face of tradition, doesn’t it?” she asks, still watching.
“That’s my sister. She’s never cared much about social conventions. If you search YouTube for her valedictory graduation speech from Oak Crest High four years ago, you’ll see what I mean.”
Her eyes snap to mine, wide and curious, and her gaze knocks the wind out of me. “What did she say?”
“She basically told the whole world off. But that was because her now husband,” I say with a jut of my chin at the gathering below, “had just been arrested for statutory rape.”
Her eyes widen even more. “Oh my God!”
“She’s always insisted they were in love, and the age difference shouldn’t matter. It was her giant ‘fuck you’ to society.”
Her head cocks to the side as she watches the party below. “I like her already.” She turns back to me. “Won’t they miss you?”
I press myself against her shoulder. “I’m disturbing you?”
A sardonic smile ghosts over her features as she lifts the book. “I was in the middle of reading the thoughts of a dying giant bug-person and not thinking that was at all weird, so I’m obviously already very disturbed.”
I can’t stop staring, because she’s suddenly stunningly beautiful. Her eyes flash, looking momentarily more black then gray, and there’s a long, deep dimple in her right cheek, which is the only one I can see because of the angle of her head. I’m dying to know if there’s a matching one on the other side.
The smile fades under my scrutiny and when she drops her gaze to the book between us, a cascade of strawberry corkscrews hide her face. “Sorry. Stupid joke.”
“No!” Damn. A little too eager there, tiger. I work to lower my voice. “I mean, it wasn’t stupid. It was funny.”
I just forgot to laugh because your smile knocked me senseless for a sec.
She lifts a knee to her chest, hooking the heel of her sneaker on the edge of the bench. Her knee pokes through the long crosswise tear in her jeans. “It’s okay, my sense of humor’s pretty dry. Not too many people get me.”
“Your sense of humor is refreshing,” I say. “And as for people getting you, most people don’t pay enough attention to anyone but themselves to ‘get’ much of anything.”
I look down the hill at Deanna’s voice. She’s at the shelter waving her hands over her head to get my attention. There’s a sudden cramp in my stomach at the thought of her coming up here.
“Looks like you have to go.” I’d swear a catch a hint of disappointment in her tone.
“Looks like.” I stand and shove my hands into my pockets. “My name is Marcus, by the way.”
She smiles and something roguish flashes in her eyes. “I know.”
Fuck. I do know her. Everything felt so relaxed and comfortable between us. I hate that I might have just fucked that up. Before it gets totally awkward, I blurt, “I’d be up for maybe getting a burger at Sam Hill sometime, if you’re into that.”
She nods, but that wary glint is back in her eyes. “Yeah…sure.”
I fish my phone from my pocket. “Can I get your number?”
She reels it off and I type it in. “Girl who stole my bench,” is say with a cocky grin as I type it in to contacts. I turn my amusement on her. “Or is there something else I should call you?”
He gives me a questioning tip of her head. “Addie.”
I know that name. Someone I went to high school with, maybe? My brain chugs harder trying to put the pieces together as I type it in. “Got it,” I say, holding up my phone. “I’ll give you a call.”
She squints at me. “Okay.”
I start backing down the path. “Enjoy my bench,” I say with a wink.
She lifts the book in a wave. “See you Monday, Coach.”
Suddenly I see her face under a navy blue swim cap with the Oak Crest Cougar on the side. The jolt of electric panic almost knocks my legs out from under me and I stumble, just catching myself before I go down.
Because she’s on my fucking team.
I ran tryouts Wednesday and Thursday. Practices just started yesterday. I’m still trying to get the new girls’ names. She said Addie, but my roster says Addaline, I think. All I can remember for sure is she’s a senior transfer and mostly keeps to herself.
“Fuck me,” I mutter, then hear myself. I hold up a hand. “I mean…” I trail off in a cringe. “Sorry for the language.” Because I’m not supposed to swear in front of a fucking student.
But fuck. My mind reels, replaying everything I said and did and trying to figure out how to backpedal out of this. “So, we’ll talk about a…team dinner…for bonding and whatever…at practice on Monday.”
Just shoot me now.
She tips her head and bites her lips, fighting a smile. “Sounds good, Coach.”
After what feels like a small eternity, I shake myself loose from her gaze and start down the hill without saying anything else. I can only dig myself deeper at this point. But the whole way, all I can think about is that, as shitty as my life is at the moment, it might have just gotten shittier.