You're so Bad
I swear under my breath as my phone buzzes. Even though it’s face-up on the coffee table, next to the sweating beer that’s waiting for me to finish dessert, I can see his name.
Colter ASshole, changed when I was drunk and never updated to the proper capitalization.
I’m in my pajamas at six-forty on a Saturday night, eating a pint of ice cream while watching a bad dating show with my grandmother’s Corgi. The last person in the world I want to hear from right now is my ex-boyfriend. Shouldn’t that be understood?
It doesn’t help that my grandmother, whom I live with, is gussying herself up for the wrap party for a made-for-TV movie she appeared in. I mean, no girl wants to be out-foxed by her grandmother. Nana was a background actress, an extra, but she’s never been the type to blend in. If I told her that, I’m sure she’d insist no granddaughter of hers could possibly be a wilting violet either, but I feel like one lately, down to my fading, overgrown purple pixie cut and the zit on my cheek.
Sighing, I stuff a final spoonful of ice cream into my face and then present Bertie, who’s snuggled up next to me, with the remainder of the pint, holding the bottom for him. Vanilla, purchased so I could share, because I am this dog’s bitch. Fine by me. I’d rather be his bitch than some man’s girlfriend.
“I shouldn’t look, should I?” I ask him. “It’s just going to piss me off, isn’t it?”
He’s nose-deep in the pint and clearly could care less. Fantastic. Not only am I talking to a dog—I’m talking to him and he’s not listening.
Still holding the pint mostly stationary for Bertie, I lean forward and ditch the spoon in favor of the phone. I unlock it with a finger while paying half-attention to the douchebag on the screen—a guy with teeth so white they could probably be seen from space. He’s saying something about the dangers of opening his heart to new love, as if it’s a real boo-hoo hardship to be presented with multiple hot single women who want to bang him. It’s called Time to Settle Down, and the premise is that Tooth Guy has gotten too old to continue being a playboy. So they’re giving him one last hurrah before he has to propose to one of the ten women living in his temporary harem with him.
“I dislike you,” I say, pointing the phone at him. Bertie grumbles at me because I jostled the pint I’m still holding. I could put it down for him to feast on, but it’s cozy having him this close, so I’d prefer for him to stay.
Finally, sighing, I look at the phone.
Colter: When do we get to meet him, Bean?
I’m tempted to text back that he doesn’t get to call me that anymore, and I didn’t particularly like it in the first place, but I’m silenced by his next message. A photo that was taken in my basement several weeks ago. It’s of my grandmother and one of the much-younger friends she made while filming the movie.
Leonard has wavy brown hair, slightly too long, and hazel eyes with long lashes. He’s tall, muscular, and tattooed, although he really missed the mark in choosing which ones to get, because I knew within five minutes of meeting him that “trouble” should be scrawled right in the middle of his forehead. It’s this air he has–like he’s always five minutes away from making his next mistake or banging someone in the bathroom of a Wendy’s. Of course, that would be a mistake for whoever he’d tricked into banging him. The man may be gainfully employed, but he has the air of a vagrant. A hot vagrant. The kind who might trick a single mother into taking him home, only to run off with her…
I don’t know, people don’t really have silver silverware anymore, do they?
Besides, from what little I know about his past, he’s the kind of guy who throws grenades and then runs—not exactly the sort of person you want to hang your hat on.
Still, credit where it’s due. My grandfather ran off a while back to shack up with his much-younger water aerobics instructor. When my grandmother told her new friends about it, Leonard offered to take that photo—and a few more—with her so she could pretend she’d attracted a partner even younger and hotter than Grandpa Frank’s pretty young thang. Up the photos went on social media, and my grandmother has spent the past several weeks deflecting thirsty questions from everyone she knows. She’s loved every minute, but as far as I know she’s declined to explain herself to anyone.
Is Colter trying to get the goods on my grandmother?
He’s not the type of guy who likes gossip, as a rule. So is this coming from Bianca?
Yes, I decide, that tracks.
She always did enjoy gossip. It was all fun and games until she turned on me and swooped in on my boyfriend.
Teeth on edge, I mute Mr. Whiney Pants on the TV, and type:
Me: What do you mean?
Colter: I’m happy for you. I’ve always known you’d meet the perfect person when the time was right.
The ice cream container escapes my grip, and Bertie grumbles at me again before inelegantly jumping off the couch, his little Corgi legs really no help to him.
I fumble with my phone as I try to figure out an appropriate response.
Me: Are you under the impression that there’s something going on between me and this man?
Colter: Very funny, Bean. Your grandmother has been spreading the word. She says he’s a great guy. A doctor, huh?
A doctor? That should have been his first clue it was a lie. The only “doctors” who look like Leonard are strippers in white coats.
Colter: You’re bringing him to the wedding, I hope. AND the sten party.
“Nana,” I shout, my voice unhinged. I get up off the couch. “Nana!”
“For God’s sake, child,” she chides, emerging from the back hallway. Bertie pauses in his ice cream massacre to wag his nub tail at the sight of her. She does look good in her blue sequined gown, her hair swept up in an elegant do. I’d be more appreciative if she hadn’t just screwed me over.
I shake the phone at her. “Did you tell people that your friend Leonard is my boyfriend?” I hiss. “My doctor boyfriend?”
She pales in the way of someone who knows they fucked up.
“Maybe a few,” she admits. “I didn’t appreciate the way they were talking about you. My friend Marsha said something about it being a pity you didn’t drag Milquetoast to the altar while you had a chance, and I might have lost it a little. They’ve all been asking me about the photos, and I–”
“You made him a doctor,” I say, because I really can’t bring enough attention to that point. “Who the hell would even believe that?”
“Have you met Dr. Rose?” she asks, pretending to fan her face. “He’s a smoke show.”
I have no idea who she’s talking about—indeed, there’s a fifty-fifty chance she’s making it up—so I just scowl at her. “You’re evading the point. Colter knows, Nana. Someone told his mother, and now he wants to meet my boyfriend. The doctor.”
“Pediatric surgeon,” she corrects, but from the way her eyes have widened I can tell she wasn’t expecting her game of telephone to go so far.
I continue to scowl at her. “Well, he expects my pediatric surgeon boyfriend to come to his wedding,” I say through my teeth. “And the sten party.”
“What the hell is a sten party?” she asks, her lips tipping up as if she’s prepared to be amused.
This is why I haven’t told her yet. Normally, I’d laugh with her, because it’s truly ridiculous, but my tone is tight as I say, “Colter and Bianca are having their bachelor and bachelorette parties together. They’re just that in love. I told you I had something going on next weekend.” I wave a hand. “It’s an all weekend thing. It’s supposed to be fun. I guess a lot of people are going.”
Including a lot of people I know. People who have given me the cold shoulder for months, as if my bad luck might be catching. If it seems perverse of me to want to go to such a thing, let it be known that I don’t want to go. Nor do I want to be Bianca’s bridesmaid, let alone her only bridesmaid. But if I tap out, it will be seen as a message. I’ll be a victim. I can’t let that happen.
Her lips thin. “What on God’s green earth prompted you to say you’d do any of this?”
The iron-clad sense of dignity she gave me. The flat-out stubbornness I’ve had since the cradle.
I stare back at Nana. “Maybe the same thing that prompted you to make up such a stupid lie.”
“I didn’t want to let them embarrass you.” She props a hand on her hip. “As if you lost out by not marrying a man who works for his mother.”
“So you decided it would be better for you to embarrass me,” I say, suddenly beyond done with all of it. “Don’t you think it’s going to be worse when I have to tell Colter that you made it all up?”
“So don’t,” she insists. “I can’t think why it would be any of his business in the first place.”
“And if he sees Leonard making out with some other woman in a Wendy’s restroom?” I’m not sure why the Wendy’s thing keeps coming up. I’m not even hungry, although they do have good fries.
“That seems highly unlikely.” Nana sniffs. “Milquetoast would never deign to set foot in a fast food restaurant.” Shifting tactics, she says, “Why don’t you come with me tonight? It’ll be fun. Your friends are going to be there. You need to get out more.”
“You mean your friends,” I say tightly, although it’s not entirely true. Leonard and I may not have formed a beautiful friendship, but I have gotten acquainted with another of my grandmother’s extra friends, Delia. My friend Rafe is also engaged to Sinclair Jones, the star of the movie, who was Nana’s in with the casting director. Sinclair is the one who organized the party tonight. She’s also the person who is making my dreams come true.
My work dreams, to be clear—it’s not a threesome situation. I’ve been trying to be a full-time clay artist for years now, but I’ve never made enough money. Up until now, it’s always been the second and less well-paying of my jobs. For a long time, Rafe and I worked together as personal trainers, both of us wannabe artists who couldn’t make the cut. A good fifty percent of my clients were men who wanted to watch my ass in my lycra shorts. But Sinclair’s new art collective, The Waiting Place, is paying me a modest salary for teaching. Started paying me last month, in fact, even though it’s September and we don’t open until October 1st. That, in addition to what I’ll get from selling my art there, will mostly pay my bills. Same for Rafe, although realistically he won’t have to worry about the bills much now that he’s marrying a movie star.
Quitting the gym was a banner moment, but it happened a few weeks ago, so I’ve already burned off the high.
“I’m wearing novelty pajama shorts,” I object.
“You can change.” She shrugs. “Or not. Pretend it’s a fashion statement. For God’s sake, it probably is. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if—”
“Just go, Nana,” I say, suddenly exhausted. “Have fun.” I lift a finger. “But don’t you dare tell Leonard about any of this. He’d find some way to twist it to his advantage.”
She clucks her tongue. “You’ve got that boy all wrong.”
“The only reason he posed for those photos with you was because he liked the thought of causing trouble. He admitted as much.”
To be fair, I thought it was fun too. Right up until I got a text about my pediatric surgeon lover.
“Did you give him a different name?” I ask.
“I felt it was best to stick as close to the truth as possible.” She says it with a straight face, as if she hadn’t promoted him from being a construction worker to a pediatric surgeon.
“So I’m madly in love with Leonard the pediatric surgeon?” I ask, groaning as I consider what to tell Colter. Is Nana right? Is it possible I don’t have to correct the story? Maybe I can just tell him Leonard’s out of town or working for a Doctors Without Borders office in Mozambique or something. It sounds like a fake excuse, but better that than admit he’s fake.
“I don’t want to leave you like this,” Nana says worriedly, sharing prolonged eye contact with Bertie as if they’re both worried about me and are working out a strategy for my betterment.
“I’d prefer it if you did. I’m going to be pissed about this for at least twenty-four hours. Possibly twenty-four years, depending on the fallout.”
She nods slowly. “That’s fair. I’m still going to hug you, though.”
Sighing, I walk into her open arms, and breathe in her perfume—a different scent than the one she wore for fifty-some-odd years, because after my grandfather left she declared she was embracing new beginnings. At the time, I figured that was just the kind of shit people said after something bad happened, but she’s held do it. When Rafe’s fiancée said they were looking for extras for her film, Nana was first in line, and then she learned crocheting from a YouTube video and started making sweaters for Bertie. Finally, the cherry on top–the three thirty-something friends she made on the movie set. Delia, her boyfriend Burke, and Burke’s friend. Leonard.
My grandmother’s switching things up from her perfume to her social life, and I’m stuck in a rut. If anything, I’m digging my way in deeper.
Nana swats me on the ass. “You need to be a little bad for a change.”
“Not the party line you gave me when I was a kid,” I tell her as I retreat to the sofa. Bertie, the little traitor, trails her to the door. “Have fun, Nana.”
I’m still pissed, but I don’t like the worried look in her eyes as she glances back at me. It’s been there for months because of my grandfather, and now it’s back because of me. Maybe it never really went away.
“I feel the need to point out that my career is going great for the first time ever,” I call out as she leaves and shuts the door behind her.
She doesn’t dignify that with a response, so I slump back into the cushions and turn on the volume. Whiney Pants is now making out with someone on the beach. Maybe it was the teeth that did it for him.
“Come to Mama,” I say and grab the beer waiting for me on the table. It’s starting to feel like a two beer kind of night. Maybe three.
I’m near the bottom of it when a knock lands on the door.
Bertie stirs to attention in the dog bed he settled onto after Nana left, then darts toward the door, suddenly barking up a racket. I follow him, feeling cautious suddenly, because Bertie doesn’t typically bark at people.
“There is a life alert in this house,” I call out as I make my approach, “and I’m not afraid to use it.”
Then I look through the peephole, and the air whistles out of me.
It’s him. Leonard. He’s wearing a button-down shirt that covers all of his tattoos. But nothing conceals the mischief in his hazel eyes or the chaos of his always messy hair. Still. This is the closest to looking like a doctor he’s ever going to get.
“No need to use the life alert,” he says through the door. “I’m a pediatric surgeon.”
I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. I definitely shouldn’t open the door—and yet, it’s the exact thing I find myself doing.
I probably shouldn’t be here.
Maybe that’s exactly why I came.
I’ve been good lately, doing and saying what I should. Sometimes it feels like a pair of too-tight boxer briefs strangling my balls.
Ten minutes ago, I was in a very sweet vintage Rolls Royce on the way to a wrap party for the movie in which I was human scenery. I was with my buddy Burke and his girl, Delia, both of them dressed to the nines—Burke in a tux and Delia in one of her colorful dresses you can’t look at too long if you want to keep your eyes working right. I was feeling pretty fly, because I was dressed in pants that didn’t have a single hole in them, and I’d convinced the driver of the car to let me have a turn behind the wheel. There’s nothing that makes my blood sing quite as much as doing something I’m not supposed to. The driver, a geezer with a huge mustache, had moved over to the passenger seat. He had all the marks of someone who was feeling regret, but hey, he’d offered.
When we picked up Constance, I could tell there was something off with her. Normally, she would have nearly shit herself over being in a car like that—same as me—but she barely said two words. Then, a couple of street lights later, she confessed to the whole shebang…
And I nearly wrecked the car.
Here’s the truth: I’ve got a thing for Constance’s granddaughter. Shauna’s small but athletic and curvy, with short purple hair and an attitude that makes her ten times as sexy. Then there’s her art. She’s a clay artist, and most of the bowls, mugs, and vases she makes are monsters. Sharp teeth. Tentacles for hair. You name it. They’re cool as hell, and the fact that monsters live inside that pretty little pint-sized woman interests me.
And I’d just been hand-delivered an excuse to spend time with her.
Nothing can happen between us, of course. I might have started talking to Constance on the movie set out of boredom, but she’s become important to me—important enough that I don’t want to fuck up our friendship to see if her granddaughter tastes as good as she looks.
Not that I’d be offered the chance.
This thing I’ve got for Shauna isn’t mutual. If anything, she’s taken a dislike to me. Still, I wouldn’t mind getting to know her better, even if it’s as bad of an idea as it was for the driver to let me take a turn behind the wheel.
Speaking of him—he shrieked, “Pull over now, sir”—and then threw us out as soon as I’d parked at the curb.
Once we’d all filed out in our finery, he shouted, “You’ll never rent from us again,” which we all agreed was fair. I don’t like it when people mess with my toys either, and it was a very nice car.
Burke said he’d grab us an Uber, but from the way he was eyeing me, he probably already knew what my next move would be. He let me stew on it though, though. My buddy was raised by a couple of rich assholes, so he can be bossy as hell, but he knows what makes people tick. Getting bossed around doesn’t it do it for me. So he doesn’t tell me like it is, even if the answer’s as obvious as mustard on someone’s face.
Still, I could tell he wasn’t surprised when I announced I was bouncing on the wrap party, on account of I had to go see my girlfriend.
“Say hello to Shauna for us before she knees you in the balls,” he said with a smirk, wrapping his arms around his girl.
“Oh, she wouldn’t do that,” Delia said, because she is both sweet and naïve. I have every expectation that Shauna might punch me if she opens that door. She certainly won’t be rolling out the red carpet to welcome me.
“I can’t say I’m sorry for any of it,” Constance said as a group of tourists pushed past us, arguing about directions. They were wrong, but I felt no need to say so.
“Nobody thought you would be,” I said.
She shrugged, looking delighted with herself, and Delia and Burke shared this knowing glance you only see between two people who’ve been foolish enough to fall in love.
“Stop it with the lovesick glances,” I said. “I got a weak gag reflex.”
“Yes, me too,” Constance added. “All of this pecking and mooning is all very good when you’re young and everyone’s pretty, but wait until you’re in your eighties and everything sags—”
“Good God, Constance,” I said, giving her arm a gentle shove. “I just got done saying that thing about the weak gag reflex.
She laughed wickedly. “Tormenting you makes me feel young again.”
A woman walking by with a stroller gave us a worried look, like she thought our crazy might be catching. When I saluted her, she nearly broke into a ran.
Burke rolled his eyes at us, although he should have been used to us carrying on. It’s what we did the whole time we were on that movie set. There’s not much fun to be had when you’re told to sit or stand places like you’re a potted plant, so Constance and I made our own fun.
“We weren’t mooning over each other,” Burke objected. “We’re not surprised, is all. We had a feeling something like this would happen.”
“What, that Constance would send a photo of me around to her friends and say I’m Shauna’s pediatric surgeon boyfriend?” I asked. “That’s a very specific thing to have foreseen. Maybe you should bail out on L&L Restoration and start a phone psychic business.”
L&L Restoration is the house flipping business that Burke and I are running.
To be clear, he’s the one with the bones and business smarts to get this ball rolling. I’m as broke as the day I was born—and if I had any business sense, I’d have a bank account with a few zeroes in the balance.
I didn’t ask Burke to put that kind of trust in me, and part of me didn’t want him to. It’s a burden, someone else’s trust. Especially when you have to bust your ass to be worthy of it. At the same time, he’s giving me a chance to make something of myself. I can’t throw that away, even if sometimes, in the middle of the night, I wake up wanting to pack my bag and drive off to somewhere where no one is dumb enough to give me responsibilities.
“The psychic thing sounds like fun,” Delia said. “Maybe it could be a side hustle.”
“Look at you making jokes.” I grinned at her, pleased as punch. “I’m rubbing off on you.”
“Yeah, probably for the best if you take an uber away from here, so we can make sure that stops,” Burke said.
So that’s exactly what happened. They went on their merry way to the party, and I headed over here to talk to Shauna.
I found myself whistling in my uber, because Constance had just given me the best gift possible—an excuse to get into trouble and pretend I was doing it as a favor to a friend. Maybe she’d known I’d react this way. She’s a wily one, my friend.
That’s what brought me to this moment: standing at Shauna’s door, reporting for fake boyfriend duty.
When the door swings open, I can feel a grin stretching my face. Shauna looks like she just crawled out of bed. She’s wearing boxers from a cartoon that got cancelled when we were kids and a T-shirt that very obviously doesn’t have a bra under it.
Hallelujah, the sight of her beaded nipples through her shirt is better than a shot of fine whiskey.
“Did you convince Nana to do this, Leonard?” she asks through her teeth.
I lift my hands up, palms out. “Hell, no. If I’d come up with it, I would have given myself a cooler job.”
“This is a disaster,” she mutters.
“Probably,” I agree. Her pint-sized dog ambles up and settles at her feet, giving me the evil-eye. I’ve always had a thing for dogs. Never got another one after I lost my girl Gidget, but that doesn’t mean I don’t like them. Dogs don’t truck in bullshit. A dog likes you, you know it. A dog hates you, you know it. There’s something to be said for that.
Unfortunately, this particular dog hates me. Maybe he’s right to. If Shauna weren’t Constance’s granddaughter, and I didn’t like Constance more than I do the majority of people, then I already would have tried to fuck her.
“You gonna invite me in?”
She snorts and puts a hand on her hip. “No. We can talk out here on the porch.”
“You aren’t concerned about your neighbors overhearing?”
She glances pointedly at the empty porches around us. There’s something wrong about an empty porch in the thick of summer, like a hand that’s gone unshaken.
“You never know when people are listening,” I say. “Why, this one time—”
“I’m having a beer,” she blurts. “Do you want a beer?”
“I’ll never answer that question with a no,” I say, parking myself in one of the two rocking chairs on her porch. It’s pretty nice out here, and I can’t say I regret missing the wrap party for the movie. Not when the alternative is porch sitting with a beer and a sexy woman.
She seems to think about as much of me as her dog does, but it’s not off-putting. I’ve always had a thing for women who can see right through me.
Shauna disappears through the door, muttering to herself, and I swear to Christ that little dogs growls at me when he catches me watching her ass disappear into the house.
“I come in peace,” I mutter, then get to rocking. He must decide it would be too much trouble to try to nab me in the balls, because he disappears into the house through the open door. A minute or so later, Shauna comes out solo with two cold ones and shuts the door behind her. She hands me one of the beers before sighing and settling into the other rocking chair.
“That sigh of defeat isn’t like you,” I comment after I take a swig of the beer.
She lets out of pfft of air that flutters her bangs. They’re dark at the root. “How the hell would you know? You know nothing about me. You’ve been to my house all of two times.”
“Three. I came by a couple of days ago to help Constance move her dresser when she got a bug up her ass about trying feng shui. You weren’t home, but Bertie came running out with your bra in his mouth, so it felt like you were spiritually present.”
Another pfft of air. “She’s taking this whole post breakup life reinvention thing too far.”
“You think?” I ask after taking a swig of beer. “Maybe you haven’t been taking it far enough.”
She glowers at me, and I can’t help but laugh. Based her expression, it was definitely the wrong thing to do. “What? Constance likes to talk, so yeah, I’ve heard a thing or two about your ex. Seen some pictures too.” I cock my head. “You really wanted to marry that guy? He looks like someone who sells used cars. The really bad ones that won’t get you two blocks.”
A snort escapes her, like she wanted to laugh but didn’t let it happen. “He and his mother run a craft store, actually.”
I shrug. “Crafts, cars. Same difference. He looks like a salesman.”
“You’re one of those people who uses ‘literal’ for things that aren’t literal, aren’t you?”
“Nah, that’s a five-dollar word. I prefer not to blow my load that quickly.”
She shakes her head and then takes a swig of beer, her expression too sad for my liking. “You don’t know me, Leonard. And you don’t know Colter. You barely even know my grandmother.”
I ignore the sting of that last sentence and say, “I forgot that was his real name. Why didn’t his parents save everyone some trouble and just call him Douchebag? Because they all but ensured he’d be one with that name.”
“You don’t have to get involved,” she says with a sigh. “This is my life, and my grandmother had no right to tell you anything about it. But, for the record, it’s incredibly weird to me that you’d want to be friends with a woman in her eighties. You know she doesn’t have any money to speak of, right?”
That accusation doesn’t sit well either, but I don’t let it show.
Raising my eyebrows, I say, “My best friend is a millionaire. If I wanted to steal from someone, why go any further? Hell, Burke and I are in business together. It would be easy.”
She rubs between her eyes and curses under her breath. “That was a shit thing to say. But you have to admit it’s weird that you and my grandmother—”
“Oh sure, it’s weird as hell,” I say, rocking. “But she’s my friend, no question. And being a good friend to her, I obviously care about her personal life. So your business is my business. I’m going to help you.”
Her nose crinkles with amusement, and fuck me, it’s cute. “What are you going to do to help me? Put a hit on Colter?”
I lift my hands. “Whoa, that’s not the kind of trouble I like to get into. But if you decide you’d like to stir up a little shit and get even, I’m your guy.” I grin at her. “Let’s give these jokers a wedding to remember.”
“You really want to go with me?” she asks, seeming surprised. Her hands lift to her hair and try to straighten it for some reason. It’s a losing battle. “I figured I’d pretend you were off saving lives overseas or something.”
“I’m going to save you from the trouble of making a shitty lie and give you a better one.”
She makes a sound like a growl and runs both hands through her hair, instantly making it messier—and hotter. That sound does things for me too. “What’s the point? I don’t even like Colter anymore. It might have taken me a while to realize it, but Nana’s on to something with the whole milquetoast thing. To be honest, I have no idea how I let things go on so long. I definitely wouldn’t want to be with him if they broke up. So shouldn’t I just keep pretending I don’t care?”
“Why don’t you start off by telling me what happened?” I say.
She angles her head and gives me an almost sly expression that I like more than I should. “I thought you already knew everything.”
“Probably about 75%, but Constance always thinks she knows more than she does. Except about cheese. She knows a lot about cheese.”
She gives me a blank look, decides she doesn’t care about the cheese, and then shakes her head. “My story is more pathetic than epic.”
“All the better. I live for other people’s pathetic stories. It makes me feel better about my own life.”
Shauna swigs her beer, then says, “I don’t know why I’m telling you this.”
“You’d be surprised by how often I’ve heard people say just that. I’m guessing it’s because you need to talk to someone, and I stumbled along at the right time.”
She nods slowly. “I met Bianca at a craft fair about six years ago.”
“You sell your stuff at craft fairs?” I ask. I like the thought. It’s…wholesome, and Shauna’s not a wholesome kind of broad. There’s something wicked about her, like she’s just waiting for someone to push her over the edge, or maybe up against a wall…
I get a flash of her like that, her head tipped back, her throat begging for my lips and teeth, her tits—
Constance’s granddaughter, I remind myself.
“What the hell else am I supposed to do with a hundred mugs?”
I shrug. “Your grandmother said you were part of some sort of art collective with that actress. Sinclair.”
“I am, but we haven’t really gotten up and running yet. The grand opening for The Waiting Place is on October 1st. Sinclair’s been busy with…” She waves her hand.
“That shitty movie your grandmother and I were in?”
“Exactly. So certain details needed to…well, wait.”
“What’s the deal with the name, anyway? Reminds me of the clink.”
“You’ve been to jail?” she asks, wide-eyed.
She nods slowly, chewing on that, then says, “It’s from a Dr. Seuss book. We’re a bunch of artists who are going to teach people at all different levels of ability to craft. The focus will be on helping people find their form of artistic expression.”
“You gonna show me how to make an ashtray?”
“Why am I not surprised you smoke?” she says, rolling her eyes.
“Only 420.” The look she’s giving me says she doesn’t think that’s any better, and maybe it’s worse. It helps me settle down, but I’m not about to say so. I don’t tell people about the dreams. Not even Burke knows, and he’s the person I’ve told the most. “So what happened at the craft fair?”
“Bianca was there too, selling her handmade pompoms.” I laugh. She continues speaking as if I hadn’t. “She calls them Queen Bee Pompoms, maybe you’ve heard of them.”
I laugh again. “I sure as shit haven’t.”
She shrug, but there’s a slight smile on her face. “They’ve become pretty big over the last couple of years. Anyway. I’d seen her around a few times before, but this time we got to talking. We sort of hit it off. Fast forward four years. A little while after I started dating Colter, she met this guy Carter. We weren’t as close by then, because her business had started taking off, and mine… Let’s just say I was working at a sweaty-ass gym to pay for my shitty studio space before Sinclair came along. Bianca had found other friends, but we did a lot of couple stuff together for the next year and a half or so. And then she and Carter—”
“Has a type, huh?” I ask.
This gets me a small smile. “They broke up, and she asked me to go out for drinks with her. Lift her up, you know? Obviously I wasn’t going to say no to that.”
“What she’d do, roofie you?”
She gives a shake of her head, her lips turned up. “No, she got me drunk and told me about Carter being an ass, then asked me to tell her all the things that bothered me about Colter. Turned out there were a lot.”
“Like what?” I ask, unable to help myself.
She looks at her beer, then takes a sip. “He wanted me to be more like him.”
That gets me a laugh. “Maybe. And he didn’t get my art. He encouraged me to make something more commercial. Bianca had been on that party line for a while. Maybe they were already fucking.”
Probably, but I don’t say so. “They’re wrong. I don’t even like art, and I like yours.”
Her mouth lips up slightly. “Thanks. Anyway, she convinced me to call him out on a few things over text, and it led to this huge fight. We decided to take a break, and the next thing I know, Bianca’s calling me up. She’d never planned on it happening, she said, but she and Colter had hit it off. They were in love, and she’d do anything to get me to forgive her. Anything but give him up, obviously.”
“Huh, ballsy,” I say.
Shauna shoves my arm and frowns at me.
“Shitty too.” I lift my hands. “But there’s no denying she’s got some balls. That means you’ve gotta to show her yours are bigger.”
“Those pompoms she makes are fucking enormous. I don’t know if mine are bigger.”
She surprises me into laughter, and it’s even more of a surprise when she laughs with me. I feel a twinge of…something, but maybe it’s just that old impulse to ruin things. I’ve got a good thing going, being friends with Constance. I don’t want to fuck that up.
I shake off the thoughts. “When did she make that call to you?”
“Eight months ago,” she says, rocking aggressively in the chair. “They got engaged after three months of dating. Colter and I were together for two years.”
“Amateurs. So what are we going to do to destroy their joy?” I grin at her. “Tie-dye the wedding linens, crash-bomb the cake, fill them with crushing doubt? Ooh, you want me to seduce the bride?”
She shoves my arm. “Why would I want you to do that? Then she’ll think she can steal anything she wants from me.”
“Huh. Guess you have a point. Too bad. I’m envisioning Bianca as this Type-A blond chick. You’d be surprised how wild they can be.”
“You’re gross,” she says, giving me a look of disgust.
“Never claimed otherwise. You didn’t say I was wrong about the Type-A blond thing.”
“This is a bad idea,” she repeats, back to that old party line.
“Probably. If you don’t want to do it this way, you can always say you’ve changed your mind about being in their wedding. Might want to add that it was pretty fucked up of them to ask in the first place.”
“I won’t give them the satisfaction,” she says tightly, and the look of determination on her face reminds me of her grandmother. Constance is one tough broad, and I respect the hell out of her. Shauna too. “Especially not Bianca.” She purses her lips for a moment, thinking, then says. “I haven’t really told anyone this part, but it’s like we’re playing a game of chicken, and she’s daring me to be the one who taps out.”
“She wants a reaction from you.”
“Yes,” she says, leaning forward. “She wants me to cry and put up a fuss. I don’t understand why, because we were close before shit went down, but it seems like she wants to destroy me. I mean…there’s the wedding date for one thing—”
“What do you mean?” I ask. “That it’s so soon?”
“Sure,” she says, blowing out a breath that makes her bangs sway. “And then she asked me to be a bridesmaid. And not just any bridesmaid—her only bridesmaid, which makes me the de facto maid of honor. She said it was because I’d introduced them. But it goes deeper than that. She’s having all these wedding-related events at places I love, and she’s inviting me to them. That’s fucked up, right?”
“I can’t give her what she wants.”
“No, you definitely can’t let her see you break,” I agree.
She sighs and takes a sip of her beer. “It still hurts, though. I mean, I thought she was one of my best friends.”
“You get manicures together?”
She rolls her eyes, then lifts a small, undecorated hand. “I work with clay, so nothing ever stays on my nails. I keep them bare.”
There’s something sexy about her bare hands, no rings or polish, just her soft, smooth skin and a small scar near the base of her thumb.
“But sure, we did some girly shit if that’s what you’re getting at. We also drank bourbon and closed down bars, had crafting competitions, and made up scavenger hunts for things we could find around town. We were friends. We let each other in. I mean…she had this competitive streak that could be a bit much, and sometimes she could be mean to people, but I never thought she’d turn it on me.”
“Maybe she feels bad about the whole thing, and it’ll boost her ego if you flip out and act crazy. She could be trying to drive you to it.”
“Maybe,” she grumbles.
“You seem like you care more about what she did than what Dumbass did.”
“Because I do,” she says, picking at the skin near her thumbnail. I’m tempted to stop her, but I don’t. “He wasn’t right for me, anyway, so it was just a matter of time.”
“But you thought she was forever.”
She nods, her jaw tight. “It hurts worse because I have to keep pretending I’m bored of the whole thing.”
“I’ll bet you give a good bored face,” I comment.
“You should know, you’ve seen it plenty.”
I laugh, because she really is something else, then rub my hands together. “On to Plan Chaos. You know, I’m not so good at planning. I’m more of an on-my-feet kind of guy. What do you say we take as it comes? Seed little bits of fucked-up fun wherever we go without looking like we’re the bad guys. And, of course, I’ll be the most devoted doctor boyfriend you could hope for.”
“What do you want for helping me?” The look on her face says she won’t accept that I want to help her for no other reason than it’s exactly what I want to do. That I like Constance and her.
“Pay me in clay. You can teach me how to make something.”
She gives me a you’re-full-of-shit look. “You want to learn how to use a wheel?”
I lift my hands. “Chicks dig a man who can use his hands.”
“Fine,” she says with a sigh. “Why do I think you’re going to want to make a huge clay dick?”
“Because you’re an excellent judge of character,” I say with a bark of a laugh. “So when’s the wedding, sugar?” Sugar tits almost comes tumbling out, but I have some self-control.
She bites her lip, and it looks so damn luscious, I feel a sucker punch to my chest. There’s no denying I want her. I’ve wanted her since the first time she threatened me with physical harm, within minutes of meeting me, but that’s not what this is about. It’s been too long, is all. I’ve been in Asheville for a couple of months now, and I haven’t brought a single woman home. I’d told myself it was going to be different here—I was going to be different—and the first step is to stop repeating old patterns. Still, there’s a pretty big damn difference between a man’s hand and a soft, wet—
“It’s not just the wedding.”
“Oh?” I ask, cocking my head.
“There are events all next weekend. They’re calling it a sten party—stag and hen.”
“There’s an event on Friday night, then an adult sleepover at Camp Smileshine on Saturday. And we wouldn’t want to forget the photos at the flower farm the following weekend. The wedding is two weeks later at the NC Arboretum.”
“Smileshine?” I ask in disbelief. “Sounds like a place where people go to get murdered by killer clowns. What if their relationship falls apart over the sten weekend? Then we won’t have to do that other shit. Maybe I can infiltrate enemy lines, find out if Douchebag is dicking around on her.”
She laughs. “I guarantee you he’s not. She’d kill him.”
“That would solve our problem, wouldn’t it?
I get another laugh from her, which makes me feel pretty damn good.
“I don’t necessarily want to ruin the wedding,” she insists. “I’m cool with them getting married and making each other miserable. I just…” She blows out a frustrated breath. “I can’t back down, like I said, but I if I have to be subjected to all of this bullshit, I wouldn’t mind making them a little uncomfortable.”
“I can do that,” I say, wanting the gig more than I should.
“You’re really going to do all of this shit with me?” she asks in disbelief. “For a couple of clay lessons?” She shakes her head. “I’ll pay you, Leonard.”
“Sure, whatever,” I lie. I’m not going to take a cent from her. It’s not that I have an objection to money, but her money? Hell, no. If I take it from anyone, it’ll be Ole Douchebag. If I told her that, though, she’d deny me.
She turns in her rocking chair and studies me for a long moment, our eyes locking. “Thank you for being good to my grandmother,” she finaly says. “even if I don’t understand why. Doing the movie helped her a lot…even with the trouble.”
The trouble being that someone in the crew tried to kill Delia. It’s made what would have been your average D+ romantic comedy into something people are excited about. I’m just glad she’s alive. I was the one who saved her from that fucker, and sometimes when I wake up at night, my heart racing, it’s because of that, not all of the stuff that came before.
“You don’t need to thank me,” I say slowly, trying not to be drawn in by those lips, slightly parted, or that messy lilac hair. Her big brown eyes are still watching me, seeing God knows what. “It’s like I told you. I like Constance. She’d be hard not to like.”
“I agree with you there,” she says with a slight nod.
“She raised you, huh?” I ask softly. I know that much from Constance. Shauna’s parents died in a car wreck, and she moved in with Constance and the asshole formerly known as Mr. Constance. “You were lucky.”
She nods again. “She’s the best. My grandfather’s a bit of a disappointment. But what can you do?”
“You’re one of those women who think all men are fuckers, aren’t you?” Admittedly, from what Constance has told me, Shauna’s ex isn’t a prince among men—he’s just one of those posers who likes to seem like one.
A side of her mouth lifts. “Maybe I’d like someone to prove me wrong. But no, I don’t think all men are like that. Rafe, Sinclair’s fiancé, is one of my oldest friends. He’s not a fucker.” Her gaze doesn’t leave me. “What about you? What are Leonard Smith’s parents like? It’s hard to imagine you as a kid.”
Smith isn’t the last name I was born with, but I’m used to going by names that aren’t mine. “My father’s someone everyone would be better off not knowing, and my mother thinks he’s the second coming. I guess they’re kind of like Burke’s parents, except shittier and much poorer.”
My friend Burke’s parents aren’t a gold standard, so she’ll understand what I mean.
I’ve only been back in Asheville for a few months, but I lived here for a long stretch eight years ago. Burke’s folks ran me off. I found out they were responsible for a building collapse that killed people, and instead of copping to it, they tried to cover it up. When I figured it out and confronted them, they hired a private investigator to dig into my past. He connected the dots of who I was, and they told me a truth I couldn’t deny—I had no iron proof, and no one was going to believe a piece of shit like me. They offered me a payoff, and I took it.
When I realized they had someone following me around, I figured they were looking to rub me out. I didn’t tell any of my friends because I’d figured Burke would side with his parents, and our buddies would, naturally, side with him. So I ran. And I kept on running until Burke and our friend Drew found me and brought me back.
Now, the secret about the Burkes is out. Burke found the evidence I couldn’t, and his parents are going down. Even if they don’t get jailtime, they’ve lost their shine. Fucking good.
My father makes them look like they should be sainted.
Delia seems alarmed by this, which she probably should be, so I add, “He’s in jail, and by the time he got arrested, he didn’t have any friends left besides my mother. He’s not going to bother anyone anymore.”
I’m not sure why I offered up so much information, but the words are already out, so I slap the arm of the rocking chair, and say, “Well, this has been a pleasure, sweetness and light. We better exchange phone numbers so we can get our story straight before next weekend.”
“Are you going to keep calling me stupid names?” she asks.
“Until I find one that feels right, little bit.”
She rolls her eyes but takes out her phone. Our fingers touch, and there’s a little zip, like the kind you get when you mess around with an electric socket, except more pleasant. It’s unexpected, but I shake it off, smiling when I see the little goblin on her lock screen.
“No wonder he doesn’t like me messing with you,” I say. “He figures he’s got it locked down.”
I give her my number, and she sends off a text. I pull out my phone when it vibrates and grin at the middle finger emoji in my inbox.
I snap a photo of her, catching her with one eye half closed, the other wide open, then save it to my contacts under Light of My Life.
She leans in to see, then skewers me with a glare that makes me laugh. “I’m going to take one of you too.”
She gets her phone out and snaps it, then glowers. “Why the hell are you so photogenic?”
“One of my many blessings. When’s my first clay lesson?”
Shauna studies me for a moment before answering. “You were serious about that?”
“My buddy Danny’s birthday is coming up in October. What better gift that a foot-high clay dick? He’ll love it. It’ll be the centerpiece of his home.”
Her lips twitch. “Sure. I’ll teach you. How about we see if you show up to the first sten event first?”
“You’re on,” I say, holding my fist out for a bump. She gives it to me. “In the meantime, I better read the idiot’s guide to pediatric surgery.”
“Yeah, I’m pretty sure that doesn’t exist. Maybe just pretend you don’t like talking about work because it brings up hard memories.”
Hard memories are something I know a thing or three about. I nod. “You got it, boss. Text me about the first nightmare event. I can’t wait.”
She smiles at me, and I feel a tugging in my gut. Maybe because this is the first time she’s smiled for me, and I like it.
“It’s at the event space at Buchanan Brewery.” She rolls her eyes. “My favorite brewery, not hers.”
“You like that campground too?”
She shakes her head. “Nope, she comes by that one honestly. I hate camping Get this, though. We’re all going to be making pom poms on Friday night.”
“There you go,” I say with a grin. “Our chance to prove, once and for all, that your balls are bigger.”
Releases from August 28-30:
Apple Books: https://apple.co/3NQlSfn
Google Play: https://bit.ly/46LnaRu
Releases on August 31st to Amazon and KU:
Amazon Worldwide: https://mybook.to/youresobad