Authors: Christa Maurice
He hadn’t said anything about her complicated love life since the day she’d sobbed on him in her office, but now his gaze narrowed on her face. “You’ve been out of sorts for the past few weeks. Do you need to take some time off?”
“No. I’m fine.” She flashed him a smile. “I just want to get to Maureen’s salad before it’s gone.”
The corner of his mouth twitched. “All right.”
Tessa turned to the table and found herself elbow to elbow with Brett, who was unwrapping a plate of brownies. “I swear,” he was telling Suzi, “they’re perfectly dull, boring brownies.”
“I can’t have a bunch of stoned guests.”
“You’re just jealous because you can’t have any because of your condition.” He patted her belly.
Tessa ground her teeth. Suzi was married to somebody else, and Brett still couldn’t keep his hands off her. What a jackass. What had she ever seen in him? She scooped some salad onto her plate.
Suzi swatted his hand away. “Don’t you know it’s rude to touch without asking?”
“Don’t you know I’m rude?”
Suzi walked away, laughing. She really did make it hard not to hate her sometimes.
Tessa picked up a handful of carrots. Brett would say something. They were side by side. Close enough that his body heat caused shivers on her skin. The last time they were together had been two months ago. He wouldn’t be able to resist at least talking to her.
Brett tucked the plastic wrap under his brownie plate and walked away.
That bastard. How could he snub her like that? Especially when he knew she wouldn’t chase after him. Not with everybody here.
She shouldn’t have been so hard on him last time. Dumping him like she did.
She carried her plate to the wall along the back of the garden and sat down. Brett was a terrible bet. Just terrible. Right at the beginning of his career, he probably looked at his association with her as marketing. Getting Jason to produce his album was the tip of her iceberg. Legal advice. Connections. Simple association would get him press.
“You usually need a fork to eat that.” Jason sat down next to her and held out a plastic fork.
“I wanted to thank you for sending BroRide my way. They’ve been a lot of fun to work with.”
She shoveled salad into her mouth.
“I thought they’d be trouble, and you were going to owe me, but they’ve been pretty well behaved. Brett is great with the kids, too. He’s a regular Mr. Mom.”
“Great,” she said, around her food.
“He’s been asking a lot of questions about you. I think you have an admirer.”
“Great,” she muttered.
“He seems like a good guy.” Jason stared across the yard.
“I’m sure he’s a peach.”
“When he started asking questions about you, I started thinking.”
“That’s a first.”
“You know, Cassie’s the best thing that ever happened to me. Cassie and the girls.” He didn’t appear to want to rise to the challenge, so Tessa followed his gaze.
Bear was tossing Jason’s younger daughter Sonya in the air while Maureen and Cassie watched. Tessa decided she should ask Maureen why they never had kids. Her biological clock had to read about the same time. Brian had started family number two with Suzi. His two from his marriage to Bonnie were eleven and nine now. Once he got custody of them, he’d have that big happy family feeling. Marc and Alex, following their five-year plan, would start having kids next year, and barring unforeseen circumstances, would have one, and another one on the way, before their fifth wedding anniversary. Ty was going to keep bumbling through his life the way he always had. Candy would be arriving any time now with her two adoptees. Helen’s children were all grown and gone, but in the early years they’d run around these backyard parties, too. Jody…where the hell was Jody? She always came to these things. Maybe now that most of them were happily married, she’d lost hope of bagging a member of Touchstone and was looking for a job with a band that had some unmarried members.
“Are you listening to me?” Jason asked.
He sighed. “We’re just worried.”
She focused on him. “‘We’ being?”
“Not just Cassie. Mom, too. And me and the others.”
“But mostly Cassie.”
“No, dammit. Not mostly Cassie.” Jason glared at her.
Should only take two or three good nudges to frustrate him into going away. “Cassie and Suzi then.” Suzi would fit. She’d made a mysterious visit to the office a week or so ago to talk about the custody thing, but the conversation had turned to what Tessa was looking for in a man quickly. Why was it, once a woman was married, she wanted to make sure all the other women in the world were equally saddled?
“Not just Cassie and Suzi, either. When Brett started asking questions, I realized you’re the only one who never even tried to have a relationship.”
“What do you mean I never tried to have a relationship? I’ve dated a lot of guys.”
“Like hell.” Tessa chased a kernel of corn off the edge of her plate.
“Name one guy you dated for more than a year.”
“Just because I’ve never dated anyone for more than a year doesn’t mean I haven’t dated seriously. What’s up with you, being so nosy? It’s my life. Get out of it.”
“Now I know why you’re alone. You’re fucking impossible to be around.” Jason stood up and stomped away.
Only one nudge. Huh. She set aside her unfinished salad. Everyone else had gathered up near the house, leaving her alone at the bottom of the yard. Jason leaned over Cassie, talking to her rapidly. Cassie kept casting glances down the garden with much the same expression as when the girls were fighting about something stupid and she was asked to intervene. Cassie wouldn’t be as easy to shake.
Tessa tossed her plate out on the way back up the yard. So Brett had asked Jason about her. Probably Suzi, too. Their original arrangement hadn’t been so bad. All she needed to do was explain to him that she’d been premature in ending things. All work and no play did make Jill a dull girl, after all. And while that was cooking along nicely, she could set in motion the adoption of an orphan from some poor country someplace. Why go through pregnancy when she could rescue a ready-made kid from grinding poverty?
Maureen stopped her at the bottom of the deck stairs. “So what’s up with you and Brett?”
Tessa blinked. “Me and Brett?”
“Sure. A little bird told me he was quite interested in you, and another one told me that he’d been into your office a couple of times.”
“A little bird?”
Maureen shrugged. “You know how it is.”
“Yeah. I do.” She started up the deck stairs. How many people had he talked to? Her brother. Suzi. Honestly, that was all he needed. One was all he needed. Her love life wouldn’t make it into the gossip rags, but it would make the rounds among this group fast.
Brett leaned on the railing, talking to Marc about the recording, but as soon as she appeared, Marc needed a fresh drink. Huh. Brett raised one eyebrow at her, but the corners of his mouth turned down. “You want something? Or someone?”
“Why did you talk to people about me?”
“Because I wanted to know more.”
“Why? All we had was a carnal meeting. Remember?” She glanced around to make sure no one was close before hissing, “Two bodies going bump in the night?”
“I changed my mind.”
Tessa smirked. “Well, it takes two to tango, and you are dancing alone.” She pushed away from the railing.
“Dammit, Tessa, can’t you see that I love you?” Brett snapped.
Her shoulders drew up as her chin sunk into her chest. Her stomach turned to lead. Either her hearing had failed or the entire party had stopped in its tracks. No, she could still hear traffic on the street. She opened her eyes, which she didn’t remember closing, and looked around. Everyone was staring at her. Everyone. Leaving that reception with Brett had been the dumbest thing she’d ever done. Stupid little boy. She turned back to him.
He’d straightened from the deck railing, but instead of anger in his eyes she saw bewilderment and pain. Stupid, stupid little boy. Without thinking, she snatched at his hair to drag him away. Brett jerked out of her grasp, losing a few strands to her fingers.
Tessa gritted her teeth. Stupid, stupid, stupid little boy. Didn’t he realize everyone was watching them? She stomped into the garage. What had she been thinking? Not just going away with Brett the first time, but continuing to sleep with him? Looking forward to seeing him? Clenching her hands until her fingernails dug into her palms, she paced between Brian and Suzi’s cars.
The garage door opened and closed. “If you wanted to talk to me, you could have asked instead of trying to drag me in here by the hair, cavewoman style.”
“I don’t want to talk to you.”
“No, you don’t, do you?” He leaned on the door, blocking most of the light through the window. “You just want to fuck me.”
She did. Her legs ached to be wrapped around his hips. More than that, she wanted to feel his arms wrapped around her shoulders and hear his voice whispering in her ear.
“You know what? I think you’re right.” Brett walked around Brian’s car to the inside door. “Suzi said we could talk about why you couldn’t love me all day and never get it right, so I asked Jason about you. I thought if I knew what you wanted, I could give it to you, and you’d love me, but I think I’ve figured it out. You don’t want anything or anybody. You want to be alone on your own little emotional island.”
“Nice pop psychology.” God, she hadn’t wanted to say those words. They’d just come out. Like they’d always come out when some guy hit too close to the mark.
“Enjoy your island.” Brett walked out of the garage. Abandoning her.
Must be nice to be a guy and just walk away.
Bastard. What did he know about her island? Outside, she heard his car start and pull out. He didn’t squeal his tires or make a big deal out of it, just drove away. If he’d given her five minutes she would have…would have…
Probably reamed him out for being immature and trying too hard. Asking questions of everyone she knew. What kind of middle school wooing technique was that? And always hanging around. He had to be the most persistent son of a bitch on the planet.
Tessa swallowed hard and went back outside. They had all returned to their conversations, but she felt like she was under a spotlight. On the way past the cooler, she grabbed a Sprite and carried it to the picnic table where Marc and Sandy were discussing marketing for the next album. They glanced at her but didn’t veer off their topic. She’d started to think she might escape the third degree when Suzi sat down next to her.
“Brett leave?” Suzi asked.
“Yeah.” Tessa took a sip from her pop to show how little she cared about the comings and goings of Brett Cherney.
“Oh.” Suzi nodded. “Did you two sort everything out?”
“What was there to sort out?”
Marc peered into his half-full cup. “Damn, I must be dehydrated or something. Anybody else need a drink? Okay. See ya.”
Connie took his place, followed by Jason.
“He’s not a bad guy,” Suzi said.
“I’m aware of that.” Tessa took another sip of her pop. With two siblings here, there was little to no chance of escaping with dignity. “Look, Brett and I were fuck buddies for a while. He took it too seriously, so I kicked him to the curb.”
“He wasn’t the only one who took it seriously,” Sandy said.
Tessa glared at him. Didn’t he know he was supposed to keep his trap shut? One little moment of weakness, and it was going to haunt her.
“What do you mean?” Suzi asked.
Sandy gave her an enigmatic smile, which didn’t help matters at all.
“I can’t believe you tried to grab him by his hair,” Connie said. “What were you thinking?”
Jason made a face at her. “We haven’t let you get away with that shit for, like, twenty years.”
She had tried to grab Brett by the hair. That had been her solution for handling the guys when they were younger. Especially when they were drunk. The only member of Touchstone she’d never done it to was Marc because he was older than her.
“That’s gonna be hard to make up for.” Connie rubbed her finger across her lips.
“Why would I want to make up for it?” Tessa asked.
“You don’t want to make up with him?” Suzi clasped her hands in front of her.
“It was fun, but it’s—” Her throat closed, and she couldn’t draw breath. Over. Absolutely, unequivocally over. He’d never given up before today. Every time she’d told him to get lost, he’d come back. But today, the tone of his voice, the fact that he didn’t peel out in a fury…
“I’m sure you could offer him a convincing apology,” Sandy said. “If you left right now.”
“I don’t want to apologize.”
“But you need to.”
Tessa thrust out her chin.
Jason reached across the table to squeeze her hand. “Tessa, someday you have to trust somebody. You can’t imagine what you’re missing out on by never letting anybody in.”
Tessa licked her lips, wanting to say something sarcastic, but for once, nothing would come. She stared at the tabletop. “He’s a bad bet,” she muttered. Her throat thickened.
“Not that bad a bet, kiddo,” Sandy said.
“He’s a playboy.” Tessa pulled her hand away from Jason.
“Not anymore.” Suzi shook her head. “He quit all that stuff about a month before he went to WVA to record.”
“And he’s been a model citizen while he’s been at my place.” Jason snorted. “I guess I should have known something was up.”
“I don’t know where he lives.”
“You were sleeping with him, and you don’t know where he lives?” Connie asked.
“Wait, I’ll get the address for you.” Suzi ran into the house.
“What do I say?”
“I was a bitch and I’m sorry,” Jason said. Connie swatted him. “What? Are you trying to say she didn’t act like a bitch? She was treating him like a child.”
“What’s the conference about?” Cassie asked, stopping behind Jason and draping her arms around his neck.
Jason put his hands on his wife’s arms. “We’re trying to get Tessa to go apologize to Brett.”