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Things We Left Behind: Chapter 13


An Electrifying Dinner

Lucian

I pulled my Range Rover into Knox’s driveway behind his truck. The lights were on in the big house, casting a glow that cut through the winter gloom. I’d loved coming here as a boy. The freedom Liza J and her husband, Pop, had allowed. Entire summers were spent here swimming in the creek, sleeping under the stars, climbing trees, daring each other to do the stupid shit of boyhood.

Of course, once we discovered girls, our priorities had changed.

The old timber house had changed as well. Since Knox and Naomi had moved in, there was a tidy order that had never existed before. There were candles in the windows and boughs of pine looped through the porch railing.

They’d gone all out for Christmas, their first as a family. It had been admittedly spectacular. I couldn’t blame Knox for the sleigh and reindeer on the roof. If I’d had a chance at a family like that, I’d probably go crazy overcompensating for all the holidays I hadn’t had as a kid too.

I got out of the car and debated smoking my cigarette now. Grabbing a last few quiet moments before going inside. It had been a feat of sheer willpower not to smoke it after leaving the library. The odds were I’d need it after dinner.

Sometimes I enjoyed these loud, casual gatherings, and other times I felt like a ghost haunting a happy family. As boys, Knox and Nash had accepted me for who I was. As men, we could pick up and put down our friendship at any time without consequences or hurt feelings.

But with Naomi and Lina now added to the mix, the relationship seemed to take on more responsibilities. If I disappeared to Washington or New York or Atlanta for weeks without contact, I had no doubt Naomi would track me down, demanding to know if everything was okay and when she could expect me back. Lina would, at the very least, expect a heads-­up on my departure and a general timeline for my return. Both would take it personally if I went weeks or months without reaching out.

Women complicated things. And not just for the partners they chose. For everyone connected to their partners.

The front door banged open, and Knox ambled out just as headlights cut across the driveway. Muted music filled the night air over the rumble of engine.

Sloane’s Jeep pulled in behind my vehicle. The lights and engine cut out, but the music continued. It was “Man! I Feel Like a Woman.” I sighed. Some things never changed.

Knox reached me. He was wearing jeans and a thermal shirt in charcoal gray with one chewed-­up sleeve.

“You didn’t tell me she was coming,” I said, hooking a thumb in the direction of the Jeep.

The song ended and the driver’s side door opened. Sloane slid to the ground, her cowboy boots landing with a clomp.

“Whose Rover?” she called out to Knox.

I stepped around the hood and watched her recoil.

“You didn’t tell me he was coming,” she snapped.

“This is exactly why I’m standing out here instead of opening my goddamn front door to you two,” Knox announced.

“What are you grumbling about now?” Sloane demanded, storming toward us. She was wearing leggings and an oversize ruby-­red sweater that matched her lipstick. Her hair was half up and half down, with the length of it hanging in thick, careless waves. Casual. Touchable.

“Waylay and I had to listen to Naomi talk to herself for an hour about which one of you to uninvite tonight,” Knox explained.

“I believe the term is disinvite,” I said.

“Fuck you,” Knox replied.

“I don’t understand the conflict. I’m Naomi’s friend and her boss. Ergo, I win,” Sloane said testily.

“Yeah, well, Luce here is my friend. And apparently Naomi is worried about him,” Knox added.

I ignored the smug look on Sloane’s face. “There’s nothing to worry about,” I insisted, both annoyed and oddly comforted that someone out there was worried for me.

“Besides being a soulless cadaver hell-­bent on bringing misery to all,” Sloane added.

“Just you, Pixie. I only live to destroy your happiness,” I said.

“That right there is the reason I’m freezin’ my ass off in my driveway instead of making out with my wife. So this is what’s going to happen. The three of us are going to go inside, and you two are going to behave like adult humans with impulse control. Or else…”

Sloane’s eyes narrowed. “Or else what?”

She always had the wrong reaction to challenges like that.

Knox’s grin was wicked. “I’m glad you asked. Since I don’t want Naomi to know about this and since I can only punch one of you in the face and since I’m a little bit afraid of you”—­he pointed at Sloane—­“I had to get creative.”

He held up two small boxes with wires running out of them.

Sloane was already shaking her head. “No. Nope. No freaking way.”

“Oh, yes freaking way,” he insisted.

“What are those?” I asked.

“Well, Lucy,” Knox continued conversationally. “These here are transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation machines, a.k.a. TENS, a.k.a. period cramp torture devices the girls at Honky Tonk deploy during their Code Reds every month. They tape these sticky pad things onto a guy’s stomach and proceed to shock the shit out of him to show him what they go through on a monthly basis.”

Sloane scoffed and crossed her arms. “You’re not seriously saying you plan to electrocute your dinner guests.”

“I’ll be honest. I don’t care about dinner or our friendship that much,” I said, pulling my car keys out of my pocket.

Sloane put her hands on her hips in triumph. “Good riddance.”

Knox snatched the keys from me. “I don’t think you’re hearing me. Naomi has decided you both can’t be invited to the same social shit. Which means she’ll schedule twice as much social shit to make sure both of you pains in the ass get the same amount of quality fucking time with us. And I don’t want more social shit. I don’t want more quality fucking time. I want you two to put aside your petty ‘we have a secret feud that we won’t talk about’ bullshit and make my wife forget that you can’t stand each other.”

“This is ridiculous,” I insisted.

“No. You’re fucking ridiculous for making me do this. So either you both go in there strapped up to these toys, pretend to be adults for the evening, and make my wife happy, or you both go the hell home and think about how stupid you must be for making me the fucking voice of reason in this scenario.”

I glanced down at Sloane, who seemed to be weighing the ridiculous options.

“What’s for dinner?” she asked, eyes narrowed in calculation.

“Tacos.”

“Dammit,” she muttered and grabbed one of the TENS units.

“You’re joking.”

“I’m hungry, and I’m proving to the bearded barber here that I’m a better friend than you are,” Sloane announced. She pulled up the hem of her turtleneck, baring her smooth stomach.

“I’m not doing this,” I told Knox.

“I’m not forcing you. You know the choices and the consequences. But I meant what I said. It’s both of you or neither. And if I go back in there and have to tell my wife that you two couldn’t even agree to not be assholes for however long it takes to shove a bunch of tacos into your face, she’s gonna be upset, and that’ll make me fucking furious. I’ll have no choice but to make it my mission in life to destroy you both,” Knox threatened.

“What’s the matter, Lucifer? Afraid of a little pain or afraid you won’t be able to control yourself?” Sloane taunted with a challenge in her eyes.

Swearing, I yanked my belt free and untucked my shirt. “For the record, these better be the best tacos I’ve ever had, because I’m not convinced this friendship is worth it.”

Sloane’s green eyes skimmed over the skin I was baring as I slapped the two adhesive pads to my abdomen.

“Get it out of your system now, ’cause Waylay is sitting between you two. If my girl catches you being dicks to each other, she gets to shock the shit out of you.”

As we marched toward the house, I comforted myself with the fact that it would be Waylay, not Knox, behind the controls. Besides, how bad could period pain be?


Lightning bolts of agony raced across my abdomen and down my legs. I slapped a palm to the table, rattling glasses and silverware.

Piper yipped and Waylon grumbled about their exile on the other side of the dog gate.

Waylay snickered, and all conversations ceased as everyone turned to look at me.

Knox looked smug. Sloane’s shoulders were shaking with silent laughter on the other side of Waylay’s blond head. Everyone else looked concerned.

“You okay there, Lucy?” Nash asked from across the table.

“Fine,” I rasped as the pain dissipated.

Sloane dabbed at the corners of her eyes with her napkin. “I believe you were saying my voice reminded you of a rabid chihuahua. Did you want to continue that thought or—­”

Her napkin and salsa spoon fell to the floor as Sloane’s entire body tensed. She let out a high-­pitched squeak.

“What’s going on?” Naomi asked from Knox’s right.

“Nothing,” Waylay, Knox, Sloane, and I announced at the same time.

We all managed innocent smiles that didn’t seem to be fooling anyone.

“Naomi, what did you say our reception colors are?” Lina asked, drawing her attention to the other side of the table.

“I didn’t insult him, you little punk,” Sloane hissed to Waylay.

“You were baiting him. That’s just as bad. Trust me. I’m basically the queen of trash talking on the soccer field,” Waylay informed her.

“You have to have my unit dialed up higher,” I accused. It had felt as if my insides were in danger of exiting my body.

“Actually you’re only at an eight. Knox and me figured Sloane had an advantage seein’ as how she’s a girl and has had her period for a few decades.”

“Exactly how old do you think I am?” Sloane asked, then shook her head. “Never mind. Just tell me what mine is set at.”

“You’re a nine.”

Sloane punched the air in victory. “Yes!”

Naomi was watching us again. I held up a taco and gave her a friendly nod. “Take me to a ten,” I told Waylay when Naomi looked away.

“I don’t know. Knox said the girls aren’t allowed to use level ten at the bar anymore since Garth Lipton almost pooped his pants.”

“Take me to ten,” I insisted tersely.

“There’s nothing heroic about shitting your pants, Rollins,” Sloane said under her breath. Her body went rigid again, and the taco she was holding exploded when it hit her plate. “Gah! Waylay, I wasn’t insulting him. I was giving him advice.”

“It sounded like an insult to me. Besides, you swore, and that’s a dollar for the swear jar, which means Aunt Naomi gets to spend extra time in the stupid produce aisle.”

“Waylay, how are your tacos?” Naomi called.

“They’re good. They’d be better without all the slimy weird vegetables in them, but I guess I can suffer through that part,” the kid said.

“Garth Lipton is forty years older than me,” I said to Sloane over the top of Waylay’s head.

“I’m just looking out for you. You could barely handle an eight. I’d hate to see what a ten would do to you. I mean, I’d love it. But I’m being the bigger, more mature adult here,” she whispered back.

“Just because you can’t handle a ten has no bearing on my endurance. I’ll be fine.”

“I am a woman. Two weeks ago, I had cramps so bad I had to lie down on the floor of the public restroom at the mechanic’s garage. And then I had to get back up and go do my job for eight hours. I was born to handle a ten.”

“You two aren’t saying mean things, but your tones are getting kinda snippy,” Waylay warned.

“Take me to a ten,” I ordered.

“Fine. Tens all around. I’ll show you how to handle it,” Sloane snapped.

“I hate to point this out because I’m definitely having fun here, but I think you guys are losing sight of the reason Knox is letting me electrocute you.”

First Knox, now Waylay. The voices of reason were getting less likely as the evening wore on.

Sloane glared at me over Waylay’s head. I glared back.

“Bite me,” she mouthed at me.

“You’re not my type,” I mouthed back.

“Is everything okay down there?” Naomi asked, sounding nervous.

“Fine except for Lucian scowling at me like a—­” Sloane grunted, her face contorting in pain. “Worth it,” she wheezed.

“You’re such an idiot,” I told her. And then I was doubling over, my face hovering over my plate of tacos as an excruciating current of pain tore through me. “It’s in my kidneys.”

Waylon and Piper were barking frantically now.

“Knox Morgan! Why is our daughter electrocuting our guests?” Naomi shrieked.

My friend held up his hands. “Daze, there’s a perfectly logical explanation for this.”

“Jesus,” Nash muttered. “I don’t know which one to arrest first.”

“You know what? I think I’ll go get the cobbler…and more alcohol,” Lina said, getting up from the table.

“I’ll help,” Waylay said, escaping the room before a punishment could be dealt out.

“I’ll supervise,” Nash volunteered.

We got to our feet and began ripping off electrodes. My legs felt like they were made of brittle wood. One wrong step and I’d collapse. There was an echo of pain in my lower back.

I took Sloane by the upper arm and steered her toward the back door. “Outside,” I said tersely.

“But I want to watch Naomi tear Knox a new one,” she complained.

“You have a lifetime of opportunities for that.” I dragged her outside onto the deck and shut the door. It was cold and dark. The naked trees cast skeletal shadows over the snow from the stingy light of the crescent moon.

“Did level ten fry your brain?” Sloane asked, slipping out of my grip.

“We’re calling a truce,” I announced.

“That’s not how that works.”

“I’m forty years old. I run a multimillion-­dollar business. I own property. I pay taxes. I vote. I cook. I get the goddamn flu shot every year.”

“Congratulations. Where can I send your gold star?”

“We’re adults,” I said, pointing to the window where it appeared chaos was still reigning. “And that in there was the latest performance in a long line of immature shit shows that we’ve starred in together.”

Sloane crossed her arms and looked down at her feet. Her boots were brown with purple stitching. “I’m not saying you’re right. But you’re not exactly wrong.”

“This has to stop.”

She puffed out her cheeks. The light from inside made the stud in her nose twinkle. She looked like a mischievous forest fairy. “I know.” She turned away from me and moved to the railing. “I hate that every conversation with you has me regressing to a teenager with no impulse control. It’s embarrassing.”

“I hate that I let you get under my skin. It’s infuriating,” I admitted.

She gave the night sky a small smile. “So you admit to being partially human.”

“I’ll deny it if you repeat it.”

She hugged her arms tighter around her and hunched her shoulders against the cold. Slowly, I moved closer until my arm brushed her shoulder, lending her some of my heat.

“What are we supposed to do? Just forgive and forget?” she asked.

“That’s not possible,” I said dryly.

She let out a short, bitter laugh. “Tell me about it.”

“We have to come up with some sort of solution. For them.”

We both glanced over our shoulders to the kitchen where everyone was gathered around the island with coffee and cobbler.

“They look really happy without us,” Sloane observed.

“Then we’ll find a way to keep them happy with us.”

“Let’s start with no interaction between us when we’re in the group,” she suggested. “I don’t think we’re ready for polite small talk.”

I hated to admit it, but she was right. It was safer to just avoid each other until we developed a tolerance.

“Fine. And if for whatever reason one of us doesn’t feel they can stand the sight of the other for a particular event, we make prior arrangements to stagger our attendance.”

“That is such a rich-­person-­fancy-­dinner-­gala thing to say. No offense,” she added quickly, then winced. “This is going to be harder than I thought.”

“It’s a habit. Nothing more,” I insisted.

I wasn’t about to allow a habit to control me. Unironically, I pulled my daily cigarette from the breast pocket of my shirt and produced my lighter.

Sloane looked pointedly at the cigarette as I lit it. “Some habits are harder to break than others.”

She had no idea the struggle I’d endured that afternoon after our exchange in her office. I’d wanted nothing more than to soothe away the flood of anger with my daily dose of nicotine. My fingers had itched to hold the filter between them; my ears longed for the scratch of the lighter.

But I’d refused to give in.

A reward. Not a crutch.

A reward was a marker for an accomplishment. A crutch was a symbol of weakness. And I had no tolerance for weakness, especially not within myself.

“In the future, if you feel you can’t control yourself and the need to insult me is too overwhelming, we’ll deal with it privately,” I suggested, exhaling smoke toward the moon.

“Me?” She turned and looked up at me. “You didn’t even make it through your first taco tonight before cracking like an egg.”

“Yes, well. It’s over now.” I both loved and hated it when I had her undivided attention. I forced myself to look away from her.

“From now on, to me you’ll just be the vaguely racist, misogynistic, hard of hearing uncle everyone avoids engaging with at Thanksgiving.”

“And you are nothing more than Naomi and Lina’s annoying invisible friend I pretend to acknowledge when they insist on setting a place at the table for you,” I said.

Sloane stepped away from the railing and held out her hand. “Deal?”

I covered her hand with mine. It was so small, and delicate in my grip. “Deal.”

It would be so easy to break something so fragile. It had been so easy to break. I hated that we both had that knowledge.

Snap.

Her red lips curved wickedly as we shook. “I’d say it was nice knowing you, but we both know that’s a lie.”

I dropped her hand and turned my back on her, willing her and the sound that haunted me to disappear.

I waited until I heard the door open and close, leaving me alone in the dark on the deck, before I took a long drag on my cigarette.


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