Part of me was irritated by her question, but I kind of understood what she was getting at. My attraction to Carson was a shock. I was the only one not surprised by it. “I like him, Julie. I really, really like him. And I can’t figure out why I didn’t see it before.”
“I can give you a few good ideas,” she offered cheerfully.
“I’ll pass.” I sat back, grinning. “But seriously, I think he’s freaking perfect.”
Julie laughed as she propped her elbows on the table. “You really do like him! Look at your cheeks. They’re red with love!”
“Shut up.” I tossed my balled-up napkin at her.
She smiled. “I think it’s great, though. Don’t tell your brother I said this, but Carson’s hot. He’s got that whole Latin-lover thing going for him.”
“Oh, jeez.” Placing my hands against my red cheeks, I giggled.
“Seriously, though? Carson really is a great guy. That boy’s a keeper.” She sat back, grabbing the check. “And there’s another benefit of going with him.”
My mind went straight into X-rated territory. “Details?”
Mischief filled her eyes as she tilted her head to the side, sending long, straight blond strands over her shoulder. “The expression on your parents’ faces when you break the news.”
A sound rose from my throat, equal parts laugh and groan. “Mom’s going to—”
“Flip the hell out,” Julie finished for me. Sympathy crossed her face when she saw my look. “Don’t worry. She’ll get over it. Eventually. It only took, like, a year for her to warm up to me.”
“That’s really reassuring.” I slapped the credit card down on the table. “But you know what? I really don’t care. Carson’s…he’s worth them stroking out.”
A slight shadow fell over our table. I turned, and my smile froze on my face. I almost didn’t recognize the short, sleek brunette hairdo and the perfect face marred by exhaustion and sorrow I couldn’t begin to fathom.
“Ms. Winchester,” Julie said, straightening. Her eyes bounced to me, her gaze wary. “How…how are you?”
Her dull blue eyes slid from Julie to me. “I’m doing great, considering my daughter was murdered.”
My brain emptied. Struck mute by her sudden appearance, I couldn’t do anything but stare. Cassie’s mom. My best friend’s mom. Face pale, Julie shifted. I wanted to turn away, close my eyes in desperation. My mouth just wouldn’t work. And I knew I needed to say something. I had to.
Finally, my brain kicked on and my voice came out choked and hoarse. “Ms. Winchester, I am so, so sorry about Cassie.”
Grief darkened her blue eyes, but something darker and stronger churned behind that. “You are? Both of you?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Julie agreed. “It’s terrible….”
Ms. Winchester smiled tightly. Her lower lip trembled from the effort. “You looked very sorry when you were shopping for dresses.”
The feeling of being watched had been because of her—Cassie’s mom? What was she doing, peeping at us while we shopped? She continued before I could really digest it.
“Did you two have fun? Enjoy making plans for prom?” Her eyes fixed on me. “I assume you’re going with Del.”
My mouth opened, but Julie cut in. “Actually,” she said, “Sam and Del aren’t together.”
Ms. Winchester didn’t look surprised. “Sam? Tell me, Sam, how is that you’re out here, buying prom dresses, while my daughter lies cold in her grave?”
“You’re just like him,” she said, eyes glistening. “I told her to have nothing to do with you, but she didn’t listen.”
I flinched. “Like who? Who am I like?”
Cassie’s grandfather appeared suddenly, grabbing Ms. Winchester’s arm. “That’s enough. You’re making a scene.”
“I don’t care,” she spat back, wrenching her arm free. And she was making scene. Everyone in the cozy diner was staring. Locals. Tourists. No doubt this would be all over school by Monday. I wanted to fade into the cushion at the same time I wanted her to answer my question.
Julie started to stand. “I think we should go, Sam.”
I rose on weak legs. “Ms. Winchester, if I remembered anything, I swear I’d tell—”
“How can you not remember?”
Her hand snaked out, connecting with my cheek. The smack reverberated through the diner, and the sting was fiery hot. Eyes watering, I put a hand to my cheek, stunned.
Tears ran down Cassie’s mom’s face unchecked. “My baby had problems, but she didn’t deserve that. You were her best friend, her only real friend. And she’s dead and you’re shopping for prom dresses. How can you live with yourself?”
Living was hard, but I was alive and that had to count for something. Right now, it was harder than normal. When I got home and my mom saw my freshly slapped cheek, she went through the roof like a rocket.
“We should file a police report, Steven.” She followed my father around the kitchen island. Little pieces of hair stood out from her twist like a dozen tiny fingers lining her temples. “How dare that woman hit our daughter?”
Dad grimaced. “I think contacting the police isn’t the best course of action right now.”
“I have to agree, considering it was the mom of the girl they think I killed who smacked me.”
“Samantha!” Mom whirled toward me, face aghast.
“What?” I threw my hands up. “It’s true.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Have you been taking your medication?”
“Yes,” I grumbled, sitting down on the stool. A step outside the kitchen, Scott was eavesdropping. Not as if it was necessary. Anyone within five miles of our house could hear Mom. He made a face at me when our gazes met.
Dad leaned against the bar, lowering his head so we were eye to eye. “Are you hurt?”
I shook my head. “No. I’m just surprised.”
“Your entire cheek is bloodred.” Mom placed her cool hand against it. “Hitting our daughter is unacceptable.”
Pushing off the counter, Dad placed his hand on Mom’s lower back, but she quickly stepped away. “I think it’s best if we let this just die down,” he said, dropping his hand to his side.