“Ha! That’s kind of a pun,” said the woman I ran into at the grocery store on a regular basis. She’d guzzled two margaritas in about ten minutes, and her consonants were beginning to slur. But what did I care? These were women I’d smiled at, chatted about harmless topics with, and never, ever bothered to invite into my home. If they wanted to get blotto, then good for them. I figured I owed it to them.
I turned away from them just as a small group walked into my yard. Charlene, carrying a huge bowl of salad, greeted me with a surprising kiss on the cheek, then Rhiannon and Byron arrived, joined by Seth, whom I’d invited but I did not think was going to come. I hugged them all warmly and sent them in the direction of our makeshift bar. Lukas sauntered in next, wearing skinny jeans and his omnipresent leather jacket, though it had to be at least ninety-five degrees in the shade. He kissed my cheek, and then studied the backyard garden with a mix of awe and confusion.
“What do you think Petra Polly would say about what I’ve done?” I teased him.
Lukas grew serious and thoughtful. I felt almost ashamed at my tone—he was truly attempting to answer honestly. “I think she’d say you were going for the brass ring.” He smiled at me, a genuine grin that reminded me so much of Big Frank it nearly took my breath away. “I’ve got to say I hope this doesn’t eat up all of your creative energy,” he added. “But it might do the opposite. It might spark something that will rejuvenate you, Paige.”
Disappointment gnawed at my gut. I needed refreshing? “Do you think I’m in a slump?”
“Look, I paid attention when my dad told stories about his employees. Do you remember what a great storyteller he was?”
I nodded, my eyes filling with tears. “You always felt like you were really there,” I managed.
Lukas briefly touched my arm. I could tell that even casual warmth was difficult for him, and I appreciated the gesture. “The stories about you, well, my dad always got great joy out of telling them, because they always ended well. You came through. An impossible deadline, a difficult client, a technical apocalypse—you somehow managed to always get the job done. He had total faith in your abilities.”
“And you don’t share the same faith?”
“Things change. People change. And I haven’t seen anything yet to confirm it.” He smiled again to soften the blow. “I’m waiting until the day I have my own Paige stories to tell. I don’t have the same performance skills as my father, but I think I’ll be able to get the point across.”
“I will take that as a challenge,” I said, and I meant it. “I’m good at what I do, Lukas.”
“You were very good,” he said. “Now let’s see if you can be again.” He glanced at the relaxed, laughing group at the bar, generously helping themselves to drinks. “It’s not just that they’re young, you know. Talent needs energy. It needs life. They’ve got fire running through their veins.”
And probably a few other things, I thought, but I nodded in agreement. “I’ve got some fire. It might not be roaring, but it’s there.”
“You’ve got embers,” Lukas said before heading to the bar. “Find a way to reignite them.”
Sean arrived at dusk. He wore khakis and a light blue polo shirt that enhanced everything—his coloring, his build, the fine dusting of hair on his strong forearms.
“He gets cuter every time I see him,” Jackie whispered.
I felt like a teenager at her first dance. The fluttering in my stomach started the moment I saw him walking up the driveway, and it turned into a full-scale tsunami by the time he kissed my cheek and handed me a bunch of pink peonies. My flush was as bright as the flowers.
“You look nice,” he said.
“Doesn’t she?” interrupted Jackie. “I picked out the dress. Well, not in the store. We found it in the—”
“Officer Doherty doesn’t need to know my shopping habits,” I said, shooting Jackie a reminder of Sean’s profession.
Her mouth made a small O, and she excused herself to get a drink.
“My coworker,” I gave as an explanation. “But she’s also my friend. I’ve worked with her for seventeen years.”
“That’s a long time,” he said, stepping a little closer. “Some marriages don’t last that long. Mine didn’t.”
The mention of his divorce must have slipped out, because I watched as his features closed up, one by one. His glance broke away from mine to the bar. “I’m going to get a drink, too. Would you like something?”
I shook my head. I noticed Trey watching our interaction, a stricken look on his face. Shit.
I followed Trey into the kitchen, calling his name in a low voice, as not to bring attention to the argument I was certain was brewing. I should have talked to him more about dating. I should have warned him that Sean was coming and that I considered him a new friend. Because that was what he was, right? But given Trey’s reaction, I was sure the expression on my face told him so much more than I was willing to admit.
“Why is he here?” he said when I caught up with him. The anger in his voice I could take, but the hurt made me want to hurl myself off the roof.
“I invited him,” I said lamely. “He’s become a friend.”
“Sure. A friend,” Trey said, the sarcasm so heavy it put pressure on my chest.
“I can do that,” I said. “Have friends. I’m allowed.”
“What about Dad?”
“I would have loved your father until I took my own last breath. You know that. But I don’t get that option anymore, as much as I want it. Be honest. Do you think he’d want me to be alone?”
Trey worked through that idea. I knew he hated the idea of me being with anyone else, but I also knew that he was old enough to recognize that he would soon be moving on to his adult life, and I’d be left behind, the years stretching out like one lonely, narrow road.
Trey lowered himself onto a kitchen stool. He hunched over, and I resisted the urge to rub his back like I did when he was a scared toddler who was afraid of the monsters under the bed. “You’re different,” he said. “You’re changing.”
“So are you,” I said gently. “Tragedy makes permanent changes. Some good, some bad, I suppose.” I placed my palm to his back, marveling at the fact that my hand looked so small against the broad expanse. I once held him in the crook of my arm. “Trey, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with seeking companionship. We’re all built for it. No one likes to be alone.”
“I guess.” He glanced at the gathering outside. “Is that why you had this party? Do you think these people are going to help you feel less alone? Because they’re not.”
“I have to try.”
“Colin’s dad always talks about how important it is to decide where you’re going to put your energy. I think you’re putting your energy in the wrong places. You’re being totally random.”
I had to concede the possibility that he had a point. My decisions, previously so well thought out, seemed rash and made in an effort to push back the scary emotions rising to the surface. Was it all a Band-Aid? I wasn’t sure. I wanted to think of the garden as an affirmation of life, as a new path toward fulfillment.
“I don’t think that’s true,” I told Trey. “I really don’t.”
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