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“Are you going to be okay?” Sean’s face, full of concern, was closer to mine than it had been a moment ago.

“Yes,” I said automatically. “Fine. I need to go home, though. I should start dinner.” A meal likely to be eaten alone, if Trey went over to Colin’s. As usual.

“Sure,” he said. “Sorry I’m not much help.”

He did look sorry. In fact, he appeared absolutely dejected. “All you’ve done is try to help,” I told him, feeling a little spark when he perked up. “Can I ask one more favor of you?”

“Yes,” he said. “Anything. Happy to do it.”

“I’m throwing a garden party next Saturday night. Will you come?”

A slow grin. “A garden party? Do I have to drink tea?”

“Do you like tea?”

He laughed. “You know? I do. With lots of milk.”

“I think I can provide that.”

“Then yes,” he said, and I instantly felt a mix of dread and anticipation. “I’ll be there.”

“Good,” I said.

His eyes grew serious. “Is it really?”

“Yes,” I said, and, to my surprise, it was.

CHAPTER 20

“Trey tells me you’ve been forcing him to get behind the wheel of a car. I don’t think it’s beneficial to force a child outside of his comfort zone.”

Charlene, Colin’s judgy mother, had called me out of the blue. Why couldn’t she prefer texting? Everyone was a texter these days.

“How I parent my child is my business,” I countered, trying to keep my tone mild. “Trey needs to complete driver’s education, or he can’t graduate. If he doesn’t—”

“I don’t think you’re seeing the big picture,” Charlene interrupted. “You are traumatizing him.”

“His father’s death traumatized him. I’m giving him a little necessary push to start living again.”

She sniffed. “Putting undue pressure on a child will only strengthen his resolve to rebel.”

“Does this work with Colin?”

“What?”

“When Colin’s father died, did you take your own advice?”

A beat. “Colin’s father is still alive.”

“Exactly.”

Another beat. “I guess you made a point.”

“I did. A pointy one. I hope it hurt. If not, I can drive the sharp end in even further.” Had I really just said that? My heart fluttered. I hated confrontation.

“Trey just seems depressed,” Charlene said, softening her tone. “I’m trying to help. I’m sorry if . . . I’m sorry if I overstepped. Okay, I did overstep. My concern is real, though. Even if I might have chosen the wrong words to express it.”

Whoa. Condescending Charlene’s apology sounded real. “I’m sorry if I snapped at you. I’m doing the best I can. Can you please accept that I am?”

“I suppose.”

“You suppose?”

“Okay, yes. But I can’t ignore the fact that your son is hurting.”

“I can’t either. I live with it every day.”

I could hear Charlene breathing on the other end, but her response took a little time. “I’m sure you do. Again, I’m very sorry. Will you accept my apology?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Well.”

“Well.”

I could have hung up and put an end to all the awkwardness. Instead, I said, “I’m having a garden party next Saturday. Would you have any interest in coming?”

“You’re too nice,” Mykia said when I got off the phone. “I would have torn her a new one.”

“I did a little damage, I think.” I passed mugs of coffee to the girls around the table—Mykia, Jackie, and Glynnis. I thought about inviting Rhiannon, but Byron seemed pretty taken with her, and Glynnis was having a difficult time with it. It occurred to me that friendship should come above all that. Was Rhiannon a friend? I sensed she could be. I would invite her next time. Glynnis would just have to suck it up.

Mykia stirred some cream into her coffee. “Did you invite the jerk next door yet?”

“Nope. I’m waiting for the right opportunity.”

Jackie snorted. “There is no right time with that guy. Just go over and ask. He’s going to say no anyway.”

“Probably,” I admitted. “If I ask him, he’ll be less likely to call the cops on us. Technically, I’m supposed to get a permit from the board to host a party larger than ten people.”

“I don’t understand suburban living,” Mykia said. “Not one bit.”

“But the police will already be here, right?” Glynnis said, her cheeks blooming pink.

I tried to hide my smile but couldn’t. “You’re right. That is, if Sean comes.”

“Oh, he’ll come,” Mykia said. She in no way attempted to hide her grin. “I’d bet my truck on it.”

I could feel my blush. Embarrassed, I collected some dishes and brought them to the sink. My garden, green and mostly healthy, was all I could see out of the small window above my sink. It resembled an Impressionistic painting—a wash of green, red, brown, and yellow, softened by the summer sun.

“Paige,” Jackie said, pulling me from my reverie. “I think your neighbor is out, and he has company. This might be the right time you were looking for.”

Mr. Eckhardt sat with military stiffness in his Adirondack chair, flanked by Miss Khaki and Label Lover. They each clutched a glass of lemonade. Label Lover had scooched her chair slightly closer to Mr. Eckhardt’s, and she stretched out her leg so it nearly touched his. Miss Khaki couldn’t stop staring at Label Lover’s Michael Kors sandals and brightly painted toenails.

I called hello over the fence, and they all startled. Mr. Eckhardt slowly balanced his glass in the grass. Then—surprisingly—he helped both ladies to their feet in a gentlemanly fashion.

“Nice day, isn’t it?” Oh, geez. I could come up with something better, couldn’t I?

“It’s too hot,” Miss Khaki said. “Bill’s lemonade is the only thing making it bearable.”

“There’s no such thing as too hot,” Label Lover said, talking over her rival. “Right, Bill?”

Mr. Eckhardt squirmed. “I do like the heat, but the grass can’t take too much of this sun.”

Wow. The diplomat.

Label Lover leaned over the fence. “I’m sorry your garden isn’t working out.”

“What do you mean?”

She gestured grandly at my backyard. Her red fingernails matched her toes perfectly, the color of fresh blood. “This is a mess. We’ve been more than patient. I haven’t filed a complaint with the board because Bill asked me not to, but my patience is wearing thin.”

I looked at Mr. Eckhardt, but he wouldn’t meet my eye. “Do you think my garden has promise?”

“I suppose everything deserves a chance. I still think the tomatoes won’t make it, but the herbs look promising.”

I beamed at him. Couldn’t help it.

“Everything deserves a chance,” echoed Miss Khaki. She gazed at Mr. Eckhardt with dreamy eyes.

“We need to be practical,” Label Lover said, scowling. “This will be an absolute eyesore in a few months.”

“Why don’t we deal with that later?” I said. “Let’s enjoy it for the moment. I’m having a party on Saturday. A garden party. I’m extending the invitation to the three of you.”

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