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Things We Left Behind: Chapter 3


Margarita Talk

Sloane

I stomped through the snow, cutting across Lucian’s driveway and then my own. As always, conversations with the infuriating man left me eternally irritated. Over the years, we’d done whatever necessary to avoid each other. Yet today of all days, I’d ended up alone with the man not once, but twice. It was amazing we’d both survived.

I let myself in the front door and shrugged out of Lucian’s glorious coat. I hung it in the entryway closet and kicked off my boots while thinking about a shower and pajamas. I didn’t want company. I wanted a quiet night during which I could let out all the messy emotions I’d managed to—­mostly—­keep locked down all day long.

I opened the glass doors of the study just off the foyer. For years, it had served as Dad’s office. I’d intended to turn it into a library or reading room when I moved in but hadn’t gotten around to it yet. There were a lot of things I hadn’t gotten around to doing.

It was a cozy space with a coffered ceiling and large bow window that protruded out onto the front porch. There was a freestanding desk and rickety set of box store bookshelves behind it. The room still felt like him. There were still a handful of photos and awards on the shelves along with a dusty set of law journals.

I sat down in the chair behind his desk and managed a watery smile at the familiar squeak. I could always tell when a case was bothering him. He’d lock himself in here after dinner to pore over files and think while rocking back and forth, back and forth.

I switched on the desk lamp. It was a hideous yard sale find featuring a faded woven shade that was constantly shedding threads and a heavy brass base etched with fanged merpeople. My mother insisted it was a travesty of interior lighting. Dad insisted it cast adequate light and was therefore perfect.

That was my father. Always finding the good in even the ugliest places.

The rest of the desk was bare except for an outdated calendar blotter and an empty pen holder. There were colorful sticky notes dotting the calendar page.

Pick up dry cleaning.

Order anniversary flowers! Bigger this year!

Tell Sloane about that book.

I skimmed the tips of my fingers over his choppy handwriting. Grief was a thousand tiny knives behind my eyes. Tears welled, and this time, in this safe space, I didn’t fight it when they began to fall.

“I miss you, Dad,” I whispered.

My heart ached with the knowledge that my father would never again sit in this chair. He’d never again make a ridiculous dad joke that would have Mom collapsing with giggles. He wouldn’t be here to watch Chloe tear through her presents next Christmas. He wouldn’t meet any new members of the family.

If I got married and had kids, how would I ever share with them what he meant to me?

Great, I thought as I dragged Lucian’s stupid, still soggy handkerchief out of the pocket of my dress. Now my heart was breaking into tinier, sharper pieces, and my misery was illuminated by this god-­awful lamp.

The sob I’d held in all day wrenched its way out of my throat. I took off my glasses and let it well up inside me.

I’d lost the greatest man I’d ever known.

Everyone needed me to be strong, to be okay. My mother and sister, my friends, my town. They didn’t need to be worried about how deep this chasm of grief went. But tonight, right now, I could allow myself to be what I was. Devastated.

Tears spilled hot and fast down my cheeks. I hugged myself around the middle and just let them come. Like a volcano erupting, I cried as if I were splitting in two.

I was supposed to feel some measure of relief. Dad’s suffering was over. He wasn’t in pain anymore. His consciousness wasn’t being stolen from us minute by minute by cancer and drugs. He was free of suffering. But I didn’t see an end to my own. Because I would miss my dad for the rest of my life.

I blew my nose noisily.

I’d felt like this only once before. When I’d lost another man—­a boy really.

Lucian.

His name floated to me over my own snotty sniffles. Despite our differences, he’d shown up today. He’d stayed throughout the services and the luncheon, saying all the right things to my mother and sister. He’d also bizarrely forced a burrito on me, then picked a fight. Fights, I corrected.

The doorbell rang.

“Dammit,” I muttered.

I wanted to be alone. Maybe they would go away. I could just sit here in the dark and wait them out.

But a nudge wouldn’t let me. Someone might need something. Or maybe my garage was on fire and someone was trying to save me but I was too busy crying my face off to notice.

I blew my nose again, then sniffed the air.

The bell rang again, and I swore under my breath. Scrubbing a fresh tissue over my makeup smeared face, I made my way to the door and put my glasses back on.

I found a stranger standing on the front porch, hands in the pockets of his jeans. He was midtwenties at best guess with tight curly hair. He wore an earring, a Georgetown Law sweatshirt under a wool coat, and an apologetic half smile.

“I’m so sorry to bother you. Are you Sloane?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I rasped, then cleared the messy emotions out of my throat. “Yes.”

“Your dad told me a lot about you and your sister,” he said, bobbing his head and swallowing hard. “I probably should have called first, but I had an exam I couldn’t miss and drove straight here afterward. I feel terrible for missing the funeral.” He shoved a hand through those short curls.

I stared dumbly at him. “Do I know you?”

“Uh, no. You don’t. I’m Allen. Allen Upshaw.”

“Were you a friend of my father’s?”

“No. I mean, I like to think we would have been. He was actually a mentor. The reason I got into law school…” Allen trailed off, looking about as miserable as I felt.

I took pity on him. “Would you like to come in? I was just going to make some coffee or tea.”

“Sure. Thanks.”

I led the way down the hall, through the atrium, and past the dining room to the cavernous kitchen. The previous owners had combined the main kitchen and catering kitchen into one huge room with more cabinets and countertops than I would ever know what to do with. The walls were papered in an old-­fashioned but charming plaid and adorned with solemn gold-­framed still lifes of food.

“It looks the same but different,” he observed. “I was here a few years ago before your parents moved to DC.”

“None of us was ready to let go of the house so I moved in,” I explained, turning on the coffee maker. I gestured for him to take a seat at the turquoise breakfast nook table my sister and I had helped my mom paint one summer weekend a thousand years ago.

Allen shook his head. “I can’t believe he’s gone. I mean, I feel bad feeling bad when you must feel a thousand times worse. But he was such an important part of my life these past few years.”

“It makes me feel better knowing that he mattered to so many people,” I assured him. “Cream? Sugar?”

“Both, please. Is Mrs. Walton here?”

“She’s spending the night with friends.” I put a mug that said I Put the Lit in Literature under the spout and opened the fridge.

He blew out a breath. “I’ll catch up with her next week. I just can’t believe he’s gone.” He winced. “Sorry. I feel like I’m appropriating your grief.”

“It’s our grief,” I assured him, putting his coffee in front of him and making one of my own even though I didn’t really want it.

“I don’t know if you know, but he came into my life when I needed him most.”

“How did he do that?” I asked as the coffee maker spit out another cup.

“I used to want to be an architect, and then when I hit fifteen, I did some dumb stuff,” he said, cupping the mug with both hands.

“We all do dumb things as teenagers,” I assured him, taking the chair across from him. I had done a few spectacularly stupid things myself.

His lips quirked. “That’s what your dad said too. But my dumb stuff had consequences. Consequences my mom paid for. That’s when I decided I was going to be a lawyer.”

“Good for you,” I commended.

“I met your dad at a community job fair. I was on my own after high school, sleeping in my aunt’s basement, and was working two jobs trying to save up for law school. Simon made me feel like it was possible, that I could do it. He gave me his card and told me to give him a call if I needed any help. I called him that night.” Allen paused and smiled wryly.

My heart squeezed.

“I blurted it all out. How I’d screwed up, how my mom paid the price, how I wanted to make it right. Simon listened to my story and didn’t judge me. Not once. And when I got done telling him why I was such a mess, he told me he could help me. And he did.”

It was so exactly like my father. The lump in my throat was back. I took a sip of coffee to loosen it. “Wow,” I said.

Allen rubbed his eyes with his fingers. “Yeah. He changed my life. He invested hours in me. Helping with scholarship and grant applications. He introduced me to his favorite professor at Georgetown. He was the first person I called when I got accepted. And when I still came up short, after my savings and all those grants and scholarships, your dad made up the difference for the first year.” He stopped, his eyes going damp.

Pride filled my chest, wrapping itself around the pieces of my broken heart. My father wasn’t just a good man. He was the best. “When do you graduate?” I asked.

“May,” Allen said proudly. Then his face fell. “Since my mom couldn’t be there, your parents were going to go.”

My heart hurt for him.

For my mom.

For me.

There would be a Dad-­shaped hole in every event from now on.

I reached across the table and squeezed his hand. “I’m sure my mom is still planning to go. She loves graduations and weddings and baby showers. Anything with a party really.”

“My mom was like that too,” he said with a sad smile. “Someday I’m gonna throw her a huge surprise party for everything she did for me.”

He talked about his mother in an interesting mix of past and present tense that made me curious. “Is your mom still…around?”

He looked down at his coffee. “She’s in prison.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“It’s my fault. But I’m gonna make it right.”

“I’m sure she’s really proud of you,” I said.

His smile was stronger now. “She is. She really is.”

I knew firsthand how good that parental pride felt and felt another pang.

Allen glanced at his watch and grimaced. “I should be getting back. I have another exam tomorrow morning.”

“Are you sure? The snow looks like it’s really starting to come down.”

“The highways are clear and I’ve got four-­wheel drive,” he assured me.

I walked him to the door. “It was really nice to meet you, Allen.”

“You too, Sloane.”


I waved Allen off and had just enough time to clean up the coffee mugs and start crying before the doorbell rang again. It was still echoing throughout the house when a barrage of fists banged cheerfully against the wood.

“Seriously? Can’t a girl have an emotional breakdown in some peace and quiet?” I muttered into a soggy tissue.

“Let us in before we freeze our asses off,” Lina yelled through the front door.

“We brought hugs and tequila,” Naomi called.

“Naomi brought hugs. I brought tequila,” Lina corrected.

“Shit,” I murmured under my breath before sticking my head under the faucet in the kitchen and washing away all signs of my crying jags.

They entered the house like two beautiful, energetic whirlwinds toting grocery bags and pitying looks. Lina looked glamorous in a royal-­blue parka and fur-­trimmed boots. Naomi was pretty in a pink puffy jacket and earmuffs.

“Why are you here?” I asked as they shed their winter layers.

“Lucian tattled and said you were spending the evening alone instead of at your sister’s,” Naomi announced cheerfully, her perky ponytail bouncing.

“That interfering son of a bitch.”

“Don’t worry. Naomi retaliated by unleashing the Morgan boys on him to ruin his solitude,” Lina assured me.

“I didn’t ruin his solitude. I made sure that he had the emotional support he might need,” Naomi corrected.

“You have to have emotions to require emotional support,” I pointed out.

“Lucian is pretty upset about your dad’s death. They were close,” Naomi said.

I wanted to argue, to question her. But I didn’t have the energy. I changed the subject instead. “Where’s Waylay?”

“My little tech genius is sleeping over at Liza J’s to fix her smart TV again,” Naomi announced.

Double shit. If overnight child care arrangements had been made, I wasn’t getting rid of them that easily.

Naomi slid her arm around my shoulders and steered me toward the staircase. “Why don’t you go upstairs and take a shower? We’ll get dinner started.”

Forcibly shooed upstairs, I slunk down the wood-­paneled hallway on the second floor to my bedroom where I proceeded to take the longest shower in the history of indoor plumbing. I spent the first half of the shower passive-­aggressively taking my time in hopes my friends would get bored and leave. When it became clear from the scents of garlic that wafted into the bathroom that this was not going to be the case, I spent the second half crying quietly until I felt as if I’d washed enough emotion down the drain to appear normal for a few hours.

I combed my wet hair and entered my bedroom, crawling onto the window seat. Outside, the snow continued to fall. Knox’s pickup was parked in Lucian’s driveway. I hoped he was having a miserable time with his retaliatory forced socialization.

My stomach growled and I realized I hadn’t eaten since Lucian’s burrito delivery that morning. Except for the French fries I’d stolen off his plate…and out of the bag in the car.

I returned to the bathroom, slapped on some moisturizer, then reluctantly headed downstairs to the kitchen.

My friends had topped store-­bought pizzas with hot sauce and banana peppers—­my favorite. There were two packs of cookie dough on the counter as well as three bags of chips with an assortment of dips. It looked as though Naomi had brought all the fixings for Honky Tonk margaritas, which she was pouring into five bucket-­sized glasses.

“Nothing says mourning like post-­funeral margaritas,” I observed.

“Mourning looks like whatever you want it to look like,” Naomi insisted. She had changed out of her clothes and was wearing red thermal pajama shorts with a matching long-­sleeve shirt and fuzzy, knee-­high socks.

“It can be getting drunk and going sledding at 1:00 a.m. Or it can be pizza, cookies, and a binge watch of Cougar Town,” Lina said. She too had changed into pajamas, but hers were silky and black. Her fuzzy flip-­flops had delicate puffs of fake fur that Meow Meow was glaring at from the center of the breakfast nook table. I wandered over and stroked a hand down the cat’s back. She flipped over onto her side with a grumpy grunt and grudgingly accepted my affection.

“You’re not seriously abandoning snowstorm sex with your men just to spend the night with me, are you?” I asked my friends.

“You shouldn’t be alone tonight,” Naomi insisted, nudging a margarita in my direction.

“I like being alone,” I argued. Being alone meant not having to pretend to be okay. Being alone meant not having to be messy and emotional in front of any witnesses.

“You’re welcome to be alone with us,” Lina announced.

“I thought you’d be on my side.”

Her smile was sharp and her eyes sparkled. “You have no one to blame but yourself. You and Naomi forced me to give up my lone she-­wolf ways.”

“Technically, first prize in that endeavor goes to Nash. But Sloane and I did earn the silver medal,” Naomi agreed.

“So you’re saying I’m trapped in this codependent circle?” I asked, picking up the proffered margarita.

Lina nodded. “Pretty much. You might as well surrender now.”

The pizza did smell good. And it would probably be rude if I didn’t have at least a little tequila. “Well, since you’re already here…”

Lina dumped two slices onto a paper plate and held it out. I took it and sneaked a warm, cheesy bite while my friends plated their own meals.

The doorbell chimed again.

“Go away,” I called.

But I was drowned out by Naomi and Lina cheerfully yelling, “Come in!”

We were all halfway to the door when it opened and Naomi’s best friend, Stefan Liao, and his biker barber boyfriend, Jeremiah, strolled inside. With his sweater and blazer, Stef looked as if he’d just finished a photo shoot for a New England old-­money fashion label. Jeremiah, on the other hand, looked more like a hot, hipster biker with a man bun, scarred boots, tight denim, and a David Bowie T-­shirt.

“Ladies. I see you’ve started without us,” Stef said.

“I told you the dress code was casual,” Naomi teased.

“You look like your rich uncle Bartholomew has a yacht docked in Martha’s Vineyard,” I observed.

“You know Stef. He doesn’t do casual,” Jeremiah said with affection as they both shrugged out of their coats.

“There’s nothing wrong with looking good. Now, I believe I was promised a margarita the size of my face,” Stef said.

“Someone’s got good taste,” Jeremiah said, plucking Lucian’s coat from the closet.

“Well, well, well. Who does this beauty belong to?” Stef demanded, stroking a hand over the cashmere.

Shit.

“No one,” I said quickly.

“Is that Burberry?” Lina asked, reaching for the label. “Please tell me you’re sleeping with someone who has really good taste.”

I should have just left his damn coat on his damn kitchen counter.

Naomi buried her face in the fabric. “So soft! And it smells amazing.” Her head came up, a frown pinching her mouth. “And familiar.”

Stef, Jeremiah, and Lina each took a whiff.

“Lucian,” they said together.

All eyes returned to me.

I turned my back on them and took my margarita and pizza into the living room, a space crowded with mismatched furniture, a six-­foot fireplace with actual marble angels holding up the mantel, and built-­in cabinetry crammed with family history.

My friends followed on my heels like a flock of rabid ducklings.

“Please tell me I’ll find his pants upstairs under your bed,” Lina said.

“Please tell me you can barely walk because he unleashed his undiluted reservoir of manly testosterone on you,” Stef demanded.

“Please tell me you two finally realized how you really feel about each other!” Naomi squealed.

I dropped onto a striped wingback chair that had been worn teddy bear soft by two decades of family rear ends, placing my dinner and drink on the brass-­topped side table. “Oh my God, weirdos. He gave me his coat to wear this morning because it was cold and he wanted me to stay warm enough to listen to him yell at me.”

Naomi gasped. “He yelled at you at your father’s funeral?”

“That sounds about right,” Jeremiah said.

Lina winced. “Yeah, he’s not exactly known for being warm and fuzzy at the office.”

“The man would yell at me at his own funeral,” I pointed out.

“This story just took a lame, nonnude turn. I’m getting that margarita,” Stef announced and headed in the direction of the kitchen.

“What was he yelling at you about? Do you want me to kick his ass at work tomorrow?” Lina asked.

Lina had quit her often dangerous, always-­on-­the-­road job as an insurance investigator and was now consulting part-­time with Lucian’s team while she and Nash planned their wedding.

“I can ‘accidentally’ shave his head next time he comes in for a cut,” Jeremiah offered.

“I’d rather do the ass kicking and head shaving myself. What does his research team research anyway? Ways to torture baby pandas?” I asked Lina, hoping to change the subject.

“I haven’t been brought into the inner sanctum yet. But so far, no signs of baby panda torture.” She settled herself into the pilled blue armchair in front of the fireplace and draped her legs over one arm.

Naomi perched on the couch and neatly arranged the coasters on the wood plank coffee table between stacks of books and trays of candles.

Stef returned with two gallon-­sized margaritas and handed one to Jeremiah. They joined Naomi on the couch, Jeremiah comfortably slinging an arm around Stef’s shoulders. Everyone stared at me expectantly.

If they wanted a story about Lucian, they’d come to the wrong woman. “What?” I asked snarkily.

“We’ll give you two options. You can either talk about your dad, or you can talk about Suit Daddy,” Stef said.

“I think I want to start a family.” I blurted out the words and then immediately shoved half a slice of pizza into my mouth to prevent me from speaking again.

Lina choked on her margarita.

“Option number three then,” Jeremiah said, eyebrows winging high.

“What made you start thinking about that?” Naomi asked.

I shrugged and continued to chew aggressively.

“Don’t answer. We’ll guess,” Stef offered. “Let’s see. Sloane decided it’s time to start a family because she’s already pregnant by a time-­traveling Italian billionaire.”

“I see you gave that audiobook I recommended a try,” I said around the pizza in my mouth.

“Maybe it’s just that she’s in her late thirties and a well-­meaning gynecologist said it’s ‘now or never,’” Naomi offered, glancing down at her plate.

“Bingo,” Lina said and pointed at Naomi with her pizza crust. “See, Stef. You and Jer have penises, which fire sperm. Sperm doesn’t have the kind of expiration date that eggs do. The longer we wait to have kids, the harder it can be to conceive. If you were heterosexually inclined, you could be firing full test into the vaginas of twentysomethings on your eightieth birthday.”

Stef grimaced and took a dramatic sip of margarita. “Uh, gross.”

“Do you want to start a family, or do you feel like you should start a family?” Naomi asked me.

“I think I want to,” I said. “I held my cousin’s baby at the funeral today, and it must have kick-­started my dormant ovaries or something. Mom and Dad wanted nothing more than to have a big, messy, intergenerational family. But Dad only got to enjoy one grandkid before he died because I was too busy being awesome at my job.”

“Guilt isn’t a great reason to start a family, my sexy little librarian,” Stef pointed out.

Jeremiah nodded. “I’ve gotta agree with Stef. And not just because we’re dating. Family is a big deal.”

Jeremiah would know. He came from a large, loud Lebanese family.

“I don’t want a guilt baby,” I scoffed. “It’s just I put so much time into building the professional side of my life, I forgot about the personal side. I want a hot husband who rubs my feet on the couch and knows that I put hot sauce on my pizza. I want to complain about spending Saturday mornings at soccer games and bake three dozen cupcakes at midnight because my self-­centered preteen forgot to tell me she volunteered me.”

“Do you have any baby daddy potentials?” Lina asked.

“Are you considering prioritizing a partner or a baby first?” asked the ever-­practical Naomi at the same time.

I took a contemplative sip of my margarita. “Ideally? A partner. But do I really have time to meet someone, force them to fall in love with me, and then get knocked up before my eggs turn to tiny balls of dust? Then again, if I start with kids, I might limit the dating pool and miss out on my perfect husband. On the other hand, if a guy is turned off by kids, then he wouldn’t be the kind of husband I want.”

My mental gymnastics were exhausting.

Things would be so much simpler if I walked out the door and met the perfect guy tomorrow. But in reality, if I walked out the door, the only man I was going to run into was a surly one in a suit. The man I loved to hate.

“Okay, that was a lot,” Lina said. “Let’s take it one step at a time. Are you on any dating apps?”

“No.”

“Seriously?” Stef asked. He and Jeremiah shared a baffled couple glance.

“How do you meet men?” Jeremiah asked.

“I don’t know. Organically?” I hedged.

“Well, organic doesn’t get the job done in this day and age,” Lina announced.

“I’d like to point out that you met your fiancé by arriving in town and kissing his brother.” I turned to Naomi and Stef. “And you two met your respective men by walking into a coffee shop and a barber shop.”

Stef tipped his glass at me. “Then you can start walking into every establishment and kissing every human with a penis in a fifty-­mile radius, or you can download an app and build a kick-­ass dating profile.”

I groaned.

“Is there anyone in town you’d consider dating?” Naomi asked, pen poised over paper.

“Where did you get that notebook?” I asked.

“She carries it in a thigh holster,” Stef quipped.

I scraped my hands over my face. “I can’t even think of a single man in this town that I’d be willing to sleep with. Anyone close to my age, I’ve known since kindergarten. No offense, Jeremiah.”

He winked. “I get it. It’s hard to be attracted to a guy once you’ve seen him pick his nose and wipe it on his construction paper Thanksgiving turkey.”

“What about Suit Daddy?” Stef asked.

I opened my fingers over my eyes to glare at him. “Not in this lifetime.”

“Give me three good reasons why,” he challenged.

I dropped my hands. “He’s unbelievably rude. He’s selfish. He’s so stubborn and controlling that everything has to be done his way or he loses his damn mind. He’s got the whole rich and powerful thing going, which means he’s absolutely corrupt. He’s involved in politics. And not in the ‘I want to make a difference in the world’ way. But in the ‘I want other rich, powerful jackasses to owe me favors’ way. He can’t connect with other human beings because he’s a soulless robot out to make the biggest pile of money for himself so he can hoard it all like some kind of goblin king.”

My audience was blinking at me.

“Anything else?” Lina asked, trying her best to hide her amusement.

“Yeah. That stupid coat is worth more than my Jeep,” I said, pointing at the coat closet. “I googled it.”

There was another long stretch of silence. “So we’ll put Lucian in the no column then,” Naomi said before writing something down in her notebook.

“Fine. I’ll download a dating app,” I acquiesced.

“That’s my girl. I’ll be your ‘swipe right’ expert,” Stef volunteered.

“I’ll be your ‘swipe right’ straight consultant,” Lina said, hefting her margarita glass in my direction.

“I don’t want to make any assumptions. Is Mr. Right definitely a Mr.?” Stef asked me.

“As much as I would have zero qualms making out with Alicia Keys after she serenades me with a ballad, I can’t live without the dick.”

“Man with penis,” Naomi said out loud as she made another note. “What else are you looking for in a man?”

“Um, I guess he should be funny and kind and generous. And it would be nice if he was into gardening to help me keep up with the backyard. Obviously he should like kids…and books.” The cat pranced into the room. I patted the arm of my chair. Meow Meow shot me a look of derision and flounced out as if I’d insulted her. “And bad-­tempered cats,” I added.

“Anything else?” Lina asked.

“Good in bed. Really good in bed,” I amended. “Oh, and I’m kind of into reading glasses.”

Stef sighed approvingly. “Hot nerds are so hot.”

“You’ll have beautiful little nerd babies,” Naomi predicted, hugging her notebook to her chest.

“I need more pizza.”

“I need another margarita,” Stef said.

“I’ll make a fresh batch and bring the pizza out here,” Jeremiah volunteered.

All four of us watched his excellent rear end as he exited the room.

“Really nice catch,” Lina said to Stef.

He sighed. “I know.”

“Okay. I think I want to talk about something Dad adjacent,” I announced.

“Hold on. Let’s set the mood,” Lina said before hitting me in the face with a throw blanket.

Naomi clicked the remote for the fireplace and then tiptoed around the room, lighting the candles I had scattered everywhere. Stef nudged a box of tissues toward me. Everyone sat back down and stared raptly at me.

“You know how we’ve been talking about starting some kind of community foundation with the proceeds of the sale of your house on Long Island?” I prompted Naomi.

She nodded, pen hovering over her notebook.

“Well, Dad left both Maeve and me a little money, and I was thinking about how I could use it. What if we created some kind of free legal aid initiative?”

Naomi’s eyes danced in the firelight. “I love it!”

“We could organize local attorneys to provide pro bono services. A lot of the bigger firms encourage their associates to do freebie work. They’d eat up the positive PR,” Lina pointed out.

Naomi and I shared a knowing grin.

“What?” Lina asked.

“You said ‘we,’” I said.

She grimaced. “Shut up. Don’t make me regret befriending you pains in the ass. Besides, my last bonus was embarrassingly huge. I guess I wouldn’t hate putting part of it toward a good cause.”

“Great. Now I’ll look like Scrooge McCheapskate if I don’t cough up some cash too,” Stef complained.

“We won’t judge you,” Naomi promised.

“Yes, we will,” I said.

“Fine. I’ll pony up. But I hope you know this means downsizing my real estate budget.”

“What real estate budget?” Lina demanded.

Stef shrugged and looked at his suede boots. “I maybe kind of am starting to possibly consider the idea of someday broaching the subject about moving in with Jeremiah.”

Naomi let out a high-­pitched squeak and was immediately shushed by Stef.

He looked furtively over his shoulder in the direction of the blender sounds. “Zip it, Witty!”

“Sorry,” she whispered, eyes shining.

“I knew things were getting serious since you’re here all the damn time,” Lina pointed out.

“Well, they’re serious for me, but I don’t know how serious they are for my hot, bearded, barber boyfriend.”

“He’s crazy about you,” Naomi insisted, her voice still squeaky.

“You two hot dudes are head over heels for each other,” I said, keeping my voice low.

Stef looked both hopeful and nauseated. “We haven’t really discussed a future. But I want us to have one. What do I do? Ask if I can move into his bachelor pad, which by the way looks like it was furnished by some renegade rebel motorcycle gang? Seriously, who has a diamond-­plate steel coffee table? You can’t even slide a wineglass across it. Besides, won’t I come off like some crazy stalker if I’m all like ‘Hey, can I move in with you?’”

“I’ll be honest. The whole spending fifteen days a month here when you technically live in New York is a lot more crazy stalker-­y than buying property here,” I pointed out. “Honestly, I can’t believe you let me ramble on and on about my ovaries and my dead dad for that long without bringing this up.”

Stef snorted. “I know. Geez, Sloane. Stop making everything about your recently departed father already.”

We were all still laughing when Jeremiah returned with the blender and the pizza.

“What’s so funny?” he asked, handing me the entire pizza tray.

“Oh, I was just telling everyone what Knox did during the last snowstorm,” Naomi said innocently.


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