Page 24 of Tight

Blake Gadsden: Married Marianna Nichols last March, I was a bridesmaid, along with eighteen other emerald-ensconced beauties.

Russell Shaverton: Our high school quarterback. 3 brain cells. 100 good intentions.

Clive Summerbell: Last month, I opened a savings account for him. He once cheated on Janice Weiland but nobody talks about that.

And … finally … the man whose hand still rested on my shoulder. John Bingham: My high school sweetheart. The man I lost my virginity to fourteen years ago. Prom king. Once proposed marriage in a field by his grandfather’s pond with a tiny solitaire. I said no; it didn’t go over well. My father still hasn’t recovered.

I smiled, tilting my head back and narrowing my eyes up at John. “John. What are you boys doing here? Shouldn’t you be keeping the streets safe?”

“Already handled.” He flashed a smile back, the fingers of his hand moving slightly, a caress against the skin of my shoulder.

Brett’s eyes met mine as he stood, the group of men stepping back slightly as the air became more crowded. “I’m sorry, I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting you. Brett Jacobs.” He held out his hand, my shoulder spared for a brief moment as John reached across, my eyes watching their hands meet.

“Brett, this is John, Russell, Hank, and Blake.” I zipped around the circle. “Boys, this is my boyfriend, Brett. He’s in town for Chelsea’s wedding.”

“Is that so?” John put his hand on the table, lifting his leg through as if he was going to sit down.

I smacked his leg, stopping the moment. “We’re having dinner, John. Give us some privacy.”

“I’m just being friendly, Ril.” He dipped his head toward me, and I scowled in response.

“I know friendly. Ya’ll git. I heard someone’s stealing DVDs from Rick’s. Go investigate.”

“All those trips to Tahiti got you outta the loop. We snagged Sharon Marzola for that last week. Caught her red-handed via stakeout.” He winked proudly at me, like I should be impressed. “You done eating?” he nodded at Brett.

“Yes.” Brett’s mouth twitched as he glanced at me, and I laughed, well aware that he—damn the social consequences—would not be addressing John as ‘sir.’

“Russell, show the visitor some Quincy hospitality.” John nodded to the plate, and I reached out, stopping the skinny arm before it escaped with Brett’s dirty plate and silverware.

“We got it. John, stop it.” I stood, suddenly too close to him, and folded my arms.

“I’m just following orders, princess.”

My eyes literally rolled themselves. “I’ll take it up with the chief.”

“If that’s what you want.” He shrugged, shaking his head briefly at Russell, whose hand dropped underneath mine.

“It was nice to meet you guys.” Brett settled back down, dragging his plate closer.

“Thanks for stopping by. I’m sure we’ll see you all tomorrow.” I glared at John and slid back onto the bench.

“I’m sorry about that.” I said the words softly, as soon as the glass door clanged shut behind the foursome.

He laughed, ripping a piece of bread in two and dipping it in the butter. “Don’t. It was entertaining. I take it you have a history with the blond?”

“Yeah. High school sweethearts.”

“He single?”

“Yes.”

“Should I be worried?” He set down the bread.

I smiled. “No. But go easy on him. He hasn’t had to see me with anyone for a while. It’s ... strange for him. Hearing the stories and now, seeing you here.”

“What are the stories?”

“Oh, you know. Dark, handsome stranger whisking off innocent, sweet, loved-by-all Riley Johnson. Corrupting her weekends before sending her back a ruined woman.”

“Oh, is that what they’re saying?” His mouth curved.

I nodded, widening my eyes. “Oh yes. It’s quite the scandal.”

“Loved by all?” His skeptical look made me laugh.

“Loved by most,” I conceded. Crap. We were back in the love territory, and I swear it was by accident. My heart picked up, a knot suddenly tight in my abdomen.

“What was all the fighting over my plate? Is that some kind of hazing ritual here in the South? Clearing someone else’s dirty dishes?” I loved the way his eyes smiled. I felt like they didn’t do that when we met.

“Oh. They wanted your prints and DNA.”

The eye smile thing he’d had working stopped. “For dating you?”

I played with the fork in my mouth, testing the strength of it with my teeth before releasing it. “Yep.”

“Isn’t that a violation of some cop law—can’t they be fired for that?” He was pissed, and I raised my eyebrows at him.

“I stopped it, Brett. Besides, I’m not certain it was all John’s doing. My father is probably behind it.”

“Your father? What does he have to do with them?”

“He’s their boss. Quincy’s Chief of Police.”

I’d never really seen the reaction to my father’s job before. Not from a prospective love interest. And I didn’t know if I hadn’t seen a reaction because they didn’t exist, or because the reaction was diluted through a phone call or word of mouth. But there, in Beverly’s restaurant, Brett recoiled. Physically retreated away from me as if I was contaminated.

“What?” I leaned forward, unwilling to let him separate us. “It’s not that big of a deal.”

“It just seems like something you would have mentioned.”

“Why? I haven’t told you my mother works as a pharmacy tech. Will that also cause you to break that bench in your haste to escape?”

He leaned forward once again. “Don’t be ridiculous. I was just surprised.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know. You’ve never mentioned your parents.”

“Neither have you. And you haven’t asked,” I pointed out.

He ran a hand through his hair, glancing to the right, his eyes meeting with Dorothy Riepenhoff, who raised her eyebrows at him as if waiting for his response. He glanced from her to me, his eyes imperceptibly squinting as if to question her invasion. I hid a smile behind a gulp of tea. He was the one who wanted to visit Quincy.

“Plus, you love me. So you can’t really run now,” I offered, watching his eyes flip to mine. There. I brought it up. Before we even left the restaurant. Pretty good for a girl who’d recently accused herself of being afraid of commitment.

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