“He’s weak.” Mother takes a seat next to me on the park bench and settles a bag of shopping at her feet.
“He won’t show it, though.” She stares across the road at the coffee shop, the same as I do. “Who do you watch?”
The answer presents itself.
We observe in amicable silence as Phoebe follows her mother through the automatic door, her head down and takeaway cup in hand. She limps slightly, wearing flat shoes for a change.
“I thought you took your brother out last night to woo her.” Mom frowns.
She tilts her head, polished black ponytail sliding free of her wool-clad shoulder. “She seems pained.”
“That’s because she is.” I sigh and reach for a smoke before remembering why I came into town to begin with: for more. Fuck it.
Mom leans forward and reaches into the woven bag at her feet, presenting me with an unopened pack. “I sensed I needed to.”
I understand. I get the same unshakeable feelings about random things as well. “Thanks.” The plastic tears from around the box, my focus still on Phoebe as she ambles toward the family car. “She made me angry.”
“Everybody makes you angry.” Mom fusses with the edges of her coat before setting her hands atop her lap. “You’re not in the kindergarten sandpit anymore. You should have outgrown this.” The sun shines down on her raven locks, catching the umber highlights that we share. “What did she do?”
“Took something that wasn’t hers.”
“A little of an over-reaction on your behalf, wasn’t it?”
I sigh, figuring Mom will work it out herself sooner or later. “Phoebe took the junk food Leo and I bought Amy.”
Mom draws a deep breath, gaze locked on Phoebe and her mother. The wounded cheerleader reaches for the car door and then recoils as though it gave her a shock. “Never liked her, even back when she would prance around playgroup as though she owned the place.”
“She still does.” I smirk.
Mom grins, tilting her head toward me. “I’m not talking about the daughter.”
Phoebe’s mom starts the car and then promptly exits the vehicle to pop the hood. Steam spurts from the engine bay.
“You’re wicked,” I tease before popping an unlit cigarette between my lips.
“Aren’t we all?” My mother reaches down for her shopping and then rises from the seat. “Make it right, Tristan. Your father won’t tolerate much now that he needs to reserve his energy.”
I light the stick and then shield my eyes with one hand to look up at her. “What will he do if she can’t provide?”
Mom hesitates, fully aware of what I allude to. “I don’t know.”
The issue in question emerges from the small fruit-seller on the corner, a box of passionfruit in her grasp. I flick my middle finger at Kasdeya before Mom notices.
My sister snarls in response.
I might be next in line to head the family, but it’s that bitch who holds our lineage in her incapable hands.
A baby. That’s all we need. New life.
The one thing she’s unable to create.
“May I help you?” The shrink tilts her head as she approaches the stoop, frowning at my position seated on the top step.
“Perhaps.” Elbows atop my knees, I hold my wide-legged stance and block her entry into the house. “Why are you here?”
“I could ask you the same, considering this is my house.” Messenger bag slung over her shoulder, she stays a respectable distance from me, car keys jangling between her fidgeting fingers.
“You answer first.”
“Maybe I would if you gave me a more definite question than ‘why are you here?’” She gestures around herself. “You could have alluded to why I stand on my front yard, or for all I know you might question why I recently moved to town.”
“Which do you think it is?” I hate shrinks. Always with the mind games.
“I’ll place my bets on the latter.” She cups her free hand to the opposite elbow and dangles the keys off a lazy finger. “You were at the Friar house this morning.”
“Nope.” I reach between my boots and lift a dry leaf off the cracked timber. “Don’t believe I was.”
“Yes, you were.” Gina’s mom turns and nods toward the Mustang. “I saw your car.”
“On the street,” I correct. “But not at the house.” The leaf litter crunches between my fingertips.
She watches the debris as it flutters to the ground. “We’re going to play like that, are we?”
“Just following your lead, Doc.”
She purses her lips, gaze tracking my movement when I rise to my feet. “What interest is it of yours why I’m here? At home, in this town—any of it?”
“You went to school with my father, right?” I descend each step with a casual drop and circle behind her before I continue. “Graduated a year early because you were knocked up.”
“Donovan.” The penny drops, as does her tone. “I don’t know how I missed the resemblance.”
“Then you understand why I want to know.”
“Because if you’re anything like your father, you believe the world owes you everything.” She grins spitefully.
I warm to her. “Perhaps it does?”
“You know, if you’d like to discuss this further, my rates are two hundred per hour.” Her bright gaze drops the length of me as I circle back to stand before her. “Shall we book you a session?”
“Appreciate the offer, but I don’t need therapy.”
“Your current attitude begs to differ.”
“That’s all a matter of perspective, isn’t it?”
“How so?” She tilts her head and for the briefest flash, I see it: Gina.
“If you knew what I did, then you’d be inclined to agree with my family’s viewpoint on this shithole of a town.”
“The town has only ever been a shithole because your family refuses to leave.”
My lips quirk up on one side. I take a moment to regard her and see why it is my father speaks so lowly of her: beauty. She has the effortless look of a woman who would never betray your trust, the genuine kindness to her eyes that probably has clients divulge more than they intend.
She’s sweetly deceptive. Just like her daughter.
“What do you think you’ll achieve?” I reach into the pocket of my coat and tug out the pack of smokes. “What good comes out of making people relive their darkest hour?”
“Closure.” The brash bitch reaches out and takes the unlit cigarette from my fingers. “I’d rather you didn’t when you’re near me.”
I tilt the pack her way so she can stash the stick for later.
She slides the smoke alongside the others without breaking eye contact. “What good do you think will come from letting people’s wounds remain unhealed?”
“Who says they’re open and festering?” I shunt the pack away and opt to keep my hands in my pockets. “Life is pretty quiet around here if you ask me.”
“Good thing I’m not then, considering you seem blind to what’s right beneath your nose.”
“Enlighten me.” I cross my arms and widen my stance.
She points toward me with one of the keys on the set still in her hand. “The crime rate grows. Murder and assault are ridiculously high for how few people live in Salvation. Numbers continue to climb, and yet nobody can explain what it is about this town that seemingly drives people mad.”
“Maybe it’s their own narrow-minded ignorance?” I shrug. “Fuck knows, that would drive me to commit a crime.”
“Such as assaulting a teenage girl?”
“What did she tell you?” Prickles wash across the back of my neck—a sensation I’m unaccustomed to getting from a woman.
“Nothing.” The bitch smirks. “You just told me.” She sidesteps my position and heads for the stoop, hesitating at the foot of the steps. “The only thing Phoebe told the Sheriff was that she was assailed on her walk home last night.” Gina’s mom smiles, shaking her head. “I asked myself at the time what sort of boy lets her walk home alone. But now I wonder what sort of girl chooses to protect an arrogant piece of work like you.” She pauses. “Or perhaps, it isn’t a choice?”
“Thanks for the assessment, Doc.” I jerk my chin and turn for the car.
The sound of my name on her cherry lips stills my feet. “What?”
“Stay the hell away from my daughter.”