“Okay, first off,” Rowan says, stirring her orange juice with a straw, “Shawn is Adam’s best friend, not Joel. Joel is more like . . . a mascot.” She grins to herself and stops stirring. “And second, you’re different lately.”
“Am not,” I argue, casting an exaggerated smile at our server when she interrupts our conversation to set down our food. Rowan immediately snatches up the syrup and soaks her pancakes. Then she hands it to me and I do the same.
“Are too,” she insists. “You care what Joel thinks of you. You never care what anyone thinks of you.” She pours a second coat of syrup on.
“Joel is a game.”
“And what’s the prize if you win?”
I’m about to say something smart when my mouth clamps shut and my eyes get wide. Rowan starts to turn around, but I jerk her arms forward. “Don’t look.”
“Why?” she says, and I struggle to think up a believable lie.
“Jimmy just walked in,” I say, pulling a name out of thin air.
“Who’s Jimmy?” She starts to turn around again, and I jerk her forward again. Leti is turned all the way around in his seat, but he’s not the one I’m worried about.
“A guy I screwed around with a few weeks ago,” I lie. “He won’t stop calling me. I need you to get me out of here.” My foot knocks at Leti like a woodpecker under the table, and the expression on his face slowly turns to one of realization. I toss my purse on top of the table. “Leti, can you get our pancakes in boxes and pay with my card?”
He nods and slides out of the booth to let Rowan out, and I wrap my arm around her shoulder, spinning around like a seasoned body guard shielding her from paparazzi. I keep her pinned against my side until we’ve emerged through the double doors into the bright morning sunlight, and then I start telling her all about the fictitious Jimmy.
When we pass a silver Cobalt on the way to my car, I amp up the story to distract Rowan from noticing. “And THEN,” I say, throwing my hands in the air, “he had the NERVE to tell me I’d never forget him! Like HELLO, if you stopped calling me every two minutes, maybe I could!”
Rowan chuckles and continues walking, oblivious to the car or the way my heart is pounding in my chest. “Sounds like he really likes you.”
“Him and a million other guys. He had his chance, but he was all hands, Ro. And not like Joel’s hands, because those are just . . . well, Adam plays the guitar, so you know.” She blushes, and I continue rambling. “But this guy’s hands . . . God, it was like making out with the Hamburger Helper guy!”
She laughs hysterically, and my heart slows just a little. When we get to my car, I unlock the doors and she gets in. I open the driver’s side but pause before sliding in next to her. “Shit,” I say, “I forgot to tell Leti which card to use. My Visa is maxed out.”
She reaches for the handle to get out. “I’ll tell him.”
“No!” I force a smile at the startled look she gives me and add, “I’ll do it. In and out, real quick. Don’t move. I’ll be right back.”
I jog back to IHOP, slip just inside the front doors to wait for Leti, and take my purse from him when he hands it to me.
“Her ex?” he asks, and I nod while flipping through my keys to find the sharpest one. Brady broke Rowan’s heart into a million pieces when he cheated on her—and ground those pieces into dust when he did it again—and I’ve been itching for payback ever since. He’s here with a girl, and he’s lucky Rowan was with me or I would have scratched his eyes out right in the middle of IHOP.
With a jagged key pinched between my knuckles, I smile at Leti and say, “Smile and pretend you don’t hear this.” As we pass by Brady’s Cobalt, my key digs a deep, screeching gash into the silver paint, all the way from front to back, and Leti and I smile like lunatics. By the time we hop into my car, we’re both laughing hysterically.
“What?” Rowan asks, her eyebrow raised as she stares back and forth between us.
“Nothing,” I say, starting the car and shooting Leti a smile in the rearview mirror. I begin backing out of the spot and add, “Thanks for getting me out of there, Ro. Love you.”
I smile at the confused look she gives me but lose it less than a half-minute later, when Leti abruptly recalls what we had been talking about back in IHOP.
“So,” he says, his big head popping between my seat and Rowan’s, “Bowl.”
“I could crash this car right now, you know.”
My warning just makes him laugh. “Really? That’d be better than just admitting your feelings?”
My head snaps in his direction with a look that should make him flinch. Instead, his smile widens and I’m the one who looks away. “What feelings?”
“Mushy ones. Probably feels like butterflies. Or mashed potatoes.”
There’s a chirp at my right as Rowan barely contains a giggle, but I ignore it and let my foot weigh heavier on the gas so I can limit the amount of time Leti has to annoy me. “Yeeeah, I don’t have any of those,” I say, but I can feel his bright-as-ever smile burrowing into the side of my head.
“What about Joel? I bet his stomach is fuuull of mashed potatoes.”
“Joel has never had mashed potatoes in his life,” I counter, immediately cursing myself for going along with Leti’s stupid mashed-potatoes analogy.