“This house certainly is manly,” she announced, checking out the framed sports paraphernalia housed in the built-in cabinetry. “Where’s the bearskin rug?”

“You’re hilarious. I’ll be sure his decorator calls you for tips.”

She shrugged, smiling at me over her glass. “Hey, he has good taste in women, right? That’s all that counts.” She raised her glass in a toast, and I leaned forward, clinking mine against hers.

“Amen. So, what’s going on with you and Trey?” Trey was Becca’s latest boyfriend, a tennis-playing premed major who had all of the family credentials that Becca’s parents required.

“Ugh.” Becca flopped into the closest chair, kicking off her heels and tucking her feet under her butt. “He is such a spazz. Did I tell you he took me to Applebee’s yesterday for dinner? Applebee’s. Like we’re f**king high schoolers.” She gestured wildly, as if the Apocalypse were imminent now that she had been forced to eat with the middle class. I stifled a laugh and nodded somberly, trying to emphasize with her difficulties.

“So anyway, I think I’m going to break it off with him. He’s just so...young, you know? I need someone like Brad, someone mature. Has Brad ever taken you to Applebee’s?” She didn’t wait for a response, just sighed exasperatedly and sipped her champagne. “What about you two—how’s everything going?”

I played with my glass, trying to figure out how to answer the question. I answered, as truthfully as I could. “It’s going great, Becca. Things are different with him, different than any other guy I’ve dated. I’ve never had a more stressful relationship—so much has gone on with us, but despite all that, I think he might be it for me.” I blushed, hating the words as they came out of my mouth.

Her mouth dropped open. “It? Like love? Are you sure? You’ve only been exclusive, what? Two weeks?”

“About that, and I am. When I’m with him, it feels natural, like he is the other part of me that I have been missing out on this whole time. He is so...everything. He makes every other guy I’ve ever met seem lacking.”

“Wow. This is huge. I thought after the whole Luke debacle, you had decided to be single for a while. Now you are all ready to settle down for good?”

“Don’t tell Olivia. She’ll get all weird on me.”

Becca nodded, her eyes bright. “Don’t worry. That is so great, Jules, I am so happy for you.” She got up, leaning over to give me a quick hug, then perched on the arm of my chair. “So...does he have any cute friends?”

* * *

BRAD MADE THE call, to a number he hadn’t dialed in over nine years. The phone rang so long he expected voice mail, but then a gruff male voice answered.

“It’s Brad. We need to talk.”

“When?”

“Tonight.”

“Come to the house. We’ll talk there.”

“Alone.”

A sigh. “If you want.”

Brad ended the call and tapped the phone to his lips, thinking. His father’s voice hadn’t changed much in nine years.

* * *

WE FINISHED THE bottle of champagne and then trekked to the front door. I hugged her goodbye, promising to set her up with a hot rich lawyer soon. Closing the door behind her, I turned to head upstairs and almost ran into Martha’s large mass.

Arms folded over her chest, she looked at me with something akin to skepticism. “So, that’s your friend, huh?”

I grinned at her, dipping sideways and around. “She’s...different. Don’t judge me because of her.”

“Now what are you trying to say? I don’t judge anyone.”

I stopped, spinning around, and gave her a look of skepticism. “Oh, puh-lease. I know Becca is an airhead. But she’s my airhead, so leave her alone.”

She snorted, and I laughed, heading to the kitchen, which I had now decided, with its large teak table, was my favorite room in the house. Heading to the fridge, I opened the door and stuck my head in.

Brad’s refrigerator was the most beautiful thing on the planet. Other than its Sub-Zero fanciness and brilliant blue lighting, it was perfectly organized, with matching stacks of Tupperware containers filling its shelves. Martha had the food organized by day, and though today’s spot was empty, yesterday’s leftovers included shrimp salad, pork tenderloin and baked macaroni and cheese. I was starting to see why, after fifteen years, Brad kept her around. That, and the fact that she apparently guarded a treasure trove of secrets. I grabbed the mac and cheese container and scooped half of it onto a plate, popping it in the microwave.

Martha settled in on a stool, watching me. “Now, you know I’m about to fix dinner. You could just wait.”

I licked the cold remnants off the spoon, watching the plate rotate in the microwave. “I’m just getting a snack. Don’t worry, I’ll eat your delicious dinner, too. What time are we eating?”

“Oh, whatever time that boy gets home. Have any idea when that will be?”

“I don’t think he’s eating with us. He said he wouldn’t be back till late.”

“Oh. Well, in that case I’ll make jambalaya. You like jambalaya?”

“Of course. I’m not big on spice, though.”

“Oh, mine isn’t spicy, just good. I’ve been wanting jambalaya for months now, but Brad doesn’t like it, and it doesn’t seem right to do all that work for just me.” She slapped the counter, happy, and heaved to her feet, headed for the fridge.

Thirty-Seven

The doorbell rang at 6:00 p.m. Martha and I were in the kitchen, window shades drawn, laughing over a story she was telling about Brad’s teenage years, when we heard the chimes. We both froze, the grape I was about to eat dropping to the floor. A look came over her face, hard and determined, and she grabbed my arm. “You wait here.”

“What?” I hissed. “Don’t answer it!”

She waved me off, grabbing a hand towel and wiping her hands on it as she walked to the door. “Who is it?” she drawled, Southern and unintimidating.

“It’s Stevie.” The voice was muffled by the heavy door, but understandable.

“Stevie? Joe’s boy Stevie?” Martha demanded, standing by the door with her hands on her hips.

Every gangster movie I had ever seen flooded through my mind, and I wished she would move away from the door before they shot through it. I tried to wave at her, but she ignored me completely, focused on the door.

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