She looked up to me, something expectant in her expression. My heart twisted in my chest, an inexplicable jealousy gripping at my guts. I was glad she was happy. I really was. It was just a shame that she wasn’t happy with me.
“Yeah,” I grumbled. “Me, too.”
That was when a man sauntered up to her and slid his arm over her shoulder. I’d never seen him before, but introductions were unnecessary. He’d spiked his short blond hair with a bit of gel and was dressed casually in a pair of khaki shorts and a blue V-neck shirt with the local baseball team’s logo splashed across the chest. There was a beer in his hand, and the tip of his nose and his cheeks were flushed a light pink.
“Who’s this, babe?” he asked, a little louder than necessary. Was he seriously drunk at a baby shower? Surely I was imagining things.
“Chris, this is Joe. He’s my–”
“The neighbor,” he concluded, cutting her off rudely. Chris stared at me, puffed his chest out slightly to appear bigger than he was. It was almost amusing to watch, like a puppy attempting to size up an adult Pitbull. “I’ve heard a lot about you,” he continued after taking another swig of beer. “Terri literally never shuts up about you.”
Terri swallowed hard and cast her eyes down to the floor. “What?” she mumbled nervously. “That’s not true. Stop teasing me.”
Chris snorted. “Whatever. Can we get this over with already? Your Aunt Matilda’s really stinking up the place.”
Terri opened her mouth as though to respond, but Chris turned sharply and wandered over to grab himself a snack. She cleared her throat and forced a polite smile, but I could see right past her front. I knew Terri well enough to know that something was off, but I didn’t know if it was my place to say anything.
“Let’s start opening presents,” suggested Mrs. Cato. “Everybody, let’s gather around.”
I scooted off to the side, not feeling particularly comfortable being surrounded by all these people I didn’t know. Social gatherings really weren’t my thing, and it didn’t look like Chris had left enough beer for everyone –judging by the several empty bottles already discarded to the bottom of the blue recycling bin in the kitchen.
A woman sidled up next to me, casually leaning against the same wall. She was a pretty little thing with olive skin and long brown hair that reminded me of dark chocolate. She was short, the top of her head just reaching my shoulders. The woman didn’t seem as interested in the party as the rest of the guests, though she didn’t exactly seem displeased to be here.
“I’m Angela,” she said, voice thick like amber honey.
“Joe,” I answered bluntly.
“How do you know Terri?”
Angela raised a perfectly arched brow. “Man of few words, I see. I like that.”
“So tell me, Joe, you come here often?”
“Sometimes. Not a lot lately, though.”
“How do you know Terri?”
I shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot. “I’m her brother’s best friend. I’m her friend.” A frigid shiver snaked its way down my spine. It didn’t feel right to sum up what we had as a friendship. As things stood, we couldn’t be more, but we definitely weren’t anything less.
“You single, Joe? I’d love to take you out for a drink some time.”
“Are you flirting with me?”
“What if I am?”
“We’re at a baby shower.”
“Is there a rule that says we’re not allowed to flirt?”
“I’m not interested,” I stated firmly, maybe a little harsher than was necessary. “Sorry,” I added for good measure.
She rolled her eyes and scoffed before walking away. “You’re loss.”
I watched in silence as Terri opened gift after gift, smiling bright and laughing sweetly. The gifts ranged from little baby shoes that fit in the palm of her hand to soft burping clothes to a massive box of diapers. The entire time, the little pacifier I’d given Terri remained on her lap, something she kept just for her and not to share.
“The hell was that?” whispered Chris in my ear.
I recoiled at the scent of alcohol on his breath. “What?”
“She was hot,” he mumbled. “I’d tap that.”
A boiling rage shot straight up from my stomach to my head. “You’re with Terri.”
I clenched my fists so hard my knuckles turned white. “What?”
“That woman was clearly an eight. Hell, I’m feeling pretty generous. Eight and a half. Terri’s a solid seven.”
My mouth fell open, but no words came. I stared at him in disbelief. “Who the fuck do you think you are?”
“Calm down, bro. I’m just kidding.”
“No, you’re not. And I’m not your bro.”
“Fuck, you’re such a buzz kill. I wish I didn’t have to be here.”
I frowned and pressed my lips into a thin line. “If that’s how you really feel, then why are you here?”
Chris scoffed. “Terri’s parents are paying me to. Do you honestly think I’d put myself through this,” he gestured about the space, “deliberately?”