“Did I hit a nerve, big brother? Wanting what Caleb has again?”
I stand up and make to walk past him, but he grabs my upper arm. I struggle to free myself, but he squeezes until I still.
His mouth is next to my ear. “Maybe I should tell him that I’ve already had what’s his.”
I yank myself free.
“Get out of my house.”
He sets his glass down and winks at me, heading for the door. “I think I’ll go visit my baby niece today. Buh-bye, Leah.”
The door closes. “Son of a bitch,” I say. I mean this literally. I march back to the kitchen and pick up the phone. I needed to get out, do something, but ... not something destructive. I pass by Katine’s name and pause over Sam’s.
“What’s up, g*y man?” I say into the receiver.
“That’s kind of offensive, Leah.”
“I was thinking we could do a little shopping today. Maybe lunch?”
“Just because I’m g*y doesn’t mean I’m going to be your flaming sidekick.”
“Oh, come on. You like wine! We could get some wine … go to Armani…”
“I’m busy today,” he says. “I have to run errands.”
“I’ll come with you. Come pick me up.”
He sighs. “All right. But, you better be ready when I honk.”
“You will come to the door like a gentleman,” I say, before hanging up.
I go upstairs to change and come back downstairs just in time to hear the obnoxious wail of the horn on his Jeep.
I sit on the couch and smooth out my dress. I will not be summoned outside. I wait for a minute or two, expecting to hear his knock, but instead, I hear the Jeep pulling out of the driveway. Before he can leave, I jump up and race outside.
“You’re such an asshole,” I say, throwing myself into the front seat. He pulls a face at me to show his displeasure.
“I’m not playing games with you, Leah. Don’t you get tired of always trying to win?”
“No,” I snap. “That would make me a loser.”
He shakes his head and turns up the music to drown out anything else I might want to say. I sit quietly and smoke. I don’t know where we are going, but I’m glad to be out of the house that’s saturated with way too many memories. I want … I need to be Caleb-free for a few hours. Get back to my roots.
I turn down the radio. Fuck Coldplay. What the hell type of spell do they have on everyone? Artsy fartsy juju. When Caleb comes home I’m going to make him throw away all of their CDs.
“Let’s do something fun.”
Sam runs a hand down his face. “I will take you home right now, and you can sit in your big, empty house and stew about your small, empty life. Do you understand?”
“God, you’re a killjoy.” I pluck a piece of tobacco from my tongue and flick it out of the Jeep.
His words hurt me. Sam is a straight shooter, but right now I need to be coddled and told that I’m pretty.
Ten minutes later, we pull into the parking lot of a Wal-Mart.
My feet, which are resting on the dash, immediately come down. “Oh, hell no! I am not going in there.”
He shrugs and gets out of the car. “Sam!” I call after him. “Wal-Mart gives me hives.”
After a few seconds, I scramble out of the car and chase after him. I follow him to the back of the store where he throws a dozen green light bulbs into a cart and wheels maniacally toward the food section.
“Why do you need all of those Perriers?” I watch as he loads bottle after bottle into the cart, arranging them along the bottom so they won’t break.
“They’re for Cammie,” he says.
My eyes bug. ”You — are you … do you have to take them to her?”
“Yes, we’re going there next.”
I skip behind him in a panic as he makes his way toward the register. “Can you drop me at home first?”
The last thing I want to do is see that smug blonde face of hers. Bitch.
“We’re going there after this. She’s throwing a party and forgot to pick this stuff up.”
“Aren’t you the good, little cousin,” I grumble under my breath. Why did I let him convince me to come? I should have just stayed home like I wanted to.
As the stuff rolls along the conveyor belt, I toss on a package of mints. When Sam looks at me, I shrug.
I sit in coiled anxiety for the entire fifteen-minute drive. I eat mint after mint until the box is empty and my tongue is raw. Sam snatches the container from me, his eyes wide.
“Are you crazy? These are Altoids, not chocolate.”
I sit on my hands and look out the window. We are in Boca. Cammie’s house is in an upscale, gated neighborhood. Sam stops outside of a house with flowerboxes on the windows and jumps out. I scoot lower in my seat, though the open aired Jeep provides little place to hide.
“Hey,” He kicks the side of the car where I am sitting. “A little help.”
I glance over at him in disbelief. Did he really expect me to help him carry bags in there? He did. Oh shit.
He carries the bags to the side of the house and opens a gate that I presume leads to the backyard. I can do the backyard. I lower myself to the ground and grab a couple of bags from the trunk. I am mildly curious about what this party is for, anyway. As soon as I round the corner into the backyard, I walk into Cammie.
She gives me one wide-eyed look and screams Sam’s name. He comes running, his arms loaded with boxes.
“What is this?” Her voice is high pitched. “What is Dirty Red doing here?”
I shove the bags at her. Sam drops his boxes and gives Cammie a dirty look. “Caleb left her,” Sam says, putting an arm around my shoulders. “Be nice.”
“He did not leave me,” I assure Cammie.
Cammie puts her hands on her hips. “I don’t care who left whom. Put those damn bottles over there.” She points to a table, and I carry them over. I sneak a look around. The yard is spacious. There is a pool in the shape of a lima bean and a hot tub. Men are setting up rented tables across the lawn, shaking out white linen tablecloths.
I jump. A man comes up beside me carrying a huge speaker. He sets it on the table and smiles at me.
I eye him uncertainly. I’m not sure if I’m going to get yelled at for talking to him. Cammie is mildly insane. He is attractive. Everything about him is dark, aside from his blue eyes. I wonder idly if he’s part of the set-up crew for the party.
He extends his hand toward me, and without thinking, I take it.
“And who are you?” He asks when I don’t offer my name. He’s smirking at me like he thinks I’m funny.
“She’s no one.” Cammie comes up beside us and yanks our hands apart.
“Cammie!” he chides. He looks at her fondly, and then back at me. Her boyfriend? No. Cammie is not this guy’s type.
Cammie screams Sam’s name. He comes trotting around the corner, eating a bag of chips. “Take her home!” she says, giving me a dirty look.
The man cocks his head. He points to Sam and seems to be trying to make some kind of mental connection. When his eyes return to my face, he appears to have put the pieces together. His whole face lights up.
“You’re Leah,” he says in amazement. He’s wearing eyeglasses. I want him to take them off so I can see his eyes better.
“And you are?”
He’s re-extending his hand. Before I can re-take it, Cammie smacks it away.
“Dude,” she says, pointing at him. “Let’s not play this game.”
He ignores her. “I’m Noah,” he says.
I’m overtaken by his kindness. I’m overtaken by his — Oh, God! Olivia’s husband!
I compose myself before I audibly groan. This is a party for Olivia. I am at her best friend’s house, staring her husband in the face. Oh. My. God.
“I better go,” I mumble to Noah’s delighted face. Cammie is vigorously nodding her head. Noah is shaking his.
“You don’t look half as crazy as I thought you’d look.”
Did he really just say that?
“Olivia said something about a redheaded gargoyle with fangs.”
I blink at him. So, she’d told him about me. I wonder if she mentioned the little apartment-trashing stunt … or the driving her out of town stunt … or the trial? For some strange reason, I don’t want him to think I’m a bad person.
“Noah,” Cammie says, shaking his arm. “Can you not engage with the enemy? We have things to do.”
“She’s not the enemy,” he says, never taking his eyes from mine. “She’s a dirty fighter.” Yup, he knows. I feel like I’m in a trance. If this guy told me to drink the Kool-Aid, I would probably do it. Fuck it. I would absolutely drink the Kool-Aid.
Olivia married sexy Ghandi. No wonder she loves her husband. I clear my throat and look around the yard. “So, is this party for her?”
Cammie squeals somewhere in the background, Noah nods. “Yes, her birthday. It’s a surprise.”
How nice. No one throws me birthday parties. I swallow hard and step away from the table.
“It was nice meeting you,” I say. “Sam?”
He’s at my elbow in a second, steering me toward the gate. I glance over my shoulder at Olivia’s husband. He’s messing with the speaker. Cammie’s hands are flailing about, no doubt expressing her sentiments about me as he ignores her.
Hot damn. What does this woman have that I don’t? Why do men like Noah and my husband fall in love with her?
The pressure at work changed after I found out about the doctored Prenavene results. It was like he knew I had unfurled his secret, and he was out to make me pay. The attention I had always desired from him was suddenly there. Except it wasn’t the warm, fatherly love I’d hoped for. He became hostile and demanding, often insulting me in front of people. There were a few times I’d look up to see him staring at me; the look on his face so acutely angry I’d feel lightheaded. I longed for the furrow I’d hidden myself in when he hadn’t known I existed. It was safer out of his eyesight. The most important question was: how had he found out?
It was Cash. It had to be. I'd asked her detailed questions about the trial run. She must have squealed to my father. And what made it worse was the way my father was treating her — like a long lost f**king daughter.
The caka hit the fan a week before my birthday. My father called an emergency family meeting at the house. Caleb thought it was weird, but I knew what was coming. I thought about prepping him in the car on the ride over, but thought it would be better coming from Charles Austin, the pharmaceutical fraud. That way I could play innocent and pretend I knew nothing about the shenanigans.
When we arrived at the house, everyone was waiting for us in the family room. I slid into a loveseat with Caleb, who was surveying the gathering with mounting suspicion. He looked at me to see if I knew anything and I shrugged. My sister, who was sitting next to my mother, looked at me with sudden realization on her face.
“You’re pregnant, aren’t you? That’s what this is about.”
I shook my head, shocked at her lack of emotional thermostat. Nothing bad ever touched my sister. I felt a moment of jealousy that reached twenty shades of green.
“Johanna’s not having a baby,” my father said. “This is something more serious, I’m afraid.”
For a minute, I wondered what could be more serious than a baby. Would he even let my baby call him Grandpa? Caleb was tense beside me. When Daddy said the bit about the baby, Caleb grabbed my hand and squeezed.
My father looked at Caleb when he spoke. That’s the way it was with him. If there was a man in the room, that’s who he’d look at — even if he was about to inform his wife and daughter about his imminent demise.
I listened to the whole thing, clutching my husband’s hand as if it were the only thing tethering me to my sanity. Despite the anger I felt for my father, I hoped he wouldn’t be in too much trouble. Was that possible when you did something like that?
He took us through the trials, and when he admitted to doctoring the results, I felt Caleb go rigid. He ended his story with a nice fist to my stomach.
“I’ve been indicted. They are going to look at Johanna as well.”
Caleb jumped up. “What? What does Leah have to do with this?”
“Her signatures are all over the paperwork. None of the testing could have been done without her signature. The same goes for the releases.”
I made a noise that sounded like strangled fear. Caleb looked down at me, his eyes lit like two burning amber balls. He narrowed them. “Is this true? Did you know what was going on?”
I shook my head. “I just signed what he told me to sign. I didn’t know anything about the real results.”
His head whipped back to my father. “You’re going to tell them — “ he pointed a finger. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Caleb point his finger at someone.
My father was already shaking his head. “It won’t make a difference, Caleb.”
I felt my worth at that point. A penny. I was a sidewalk toss away — a grimy piece of metal stuck to the bottom of the cup holder, couch cushions, old wallets and under the fridge between a shriveled grape and an unidentified hair — that was me. He saw no value in me, except to use me when he came up short.
Caleb’s voice was hard rock grinding itself into gravel. I couldn’t make out what he was saying until it was too late. I heard the words She’s your daughter, right before he lurched forward. I saw the tremor of shock pass across my father’s face, as my beautiful, russet haired husband threw a punch that would have had Tyson nodding in approval. My sister and my mother started screaming. I covered my ears. You’d swear they had never seen a man get put in his place. I wanted Caleb to hit him again, mostly for not loving me, but also because I was officially in a barrel of deep trouble.