Page 16

Talk about a one-two punch.

The birthday party had started off fine. Wild squealing mayhem, sure, but that was par for the course. Toward the middle of the festivities, however, she’d started to feel like one of the kids. At one point, the hostess had patted her on the head and handed her punch in a Dixie cup. Georgie totally understood her being hired to entertain the kids, but lately she’d become so much more aware of the division between herself and the other adults. While they all stood off to one side sipping sangria and swapping handyman recommendations, she was relegated to eating half-slices of pizza at the kids’ table. The parents didn’t mean any harm—they were lovely people.

They just looked at her and saw a clown. Only a clown. Not a businesswoman.

Or even a fellow grown-up.

Right on the heels of Travis invading her fireplace appointment and needling her sorest sore spot, even the laughter of children hadn’t soothed her troubled soul.

This was just a little act of rebellion, but she’s over it now.

Teeth grinding, Georgie hopped up onto a stool beside Rosie. She wasn’t sure she’d ever felt as helpless as Travis made her feel—and that was saying something. She’d been an idiot to think he could see her as a friend. An equal. Good thing she’d revealed Dale’s true identity and given herself an excuse to avoid Travis until the day she died. Oh my God. Had she actually done that? Knowing Travis would prefer not to see his best friend’s little sister as a sexual object, she’d thrown it in his face, banking on the awkwardness sending him running.

On second thought, maybe she’d revealed the secret so he would be forced to treat her like an adult. One who schedules her own fireplace work, dammit. Too bad she hadn’t unmasked Dale before he’d made her feel the size of a thimble.

“You look pretty depressed for someone dressed like a clown,” Bethany remarked from her lean against the kitchen island. “Did the party mother give out Super Soakers and pin a target to your back again?”

“No. And we don’t talk about the Great Drenching of 2017.”

“Right,” Bethany drawled, pushing away from the kitchen island. She went to the freezer and took out a chilled bottle of tequila and three frosty little shot glasses, setting them down on the polished granite with a flourish. “I was going to propose we make it a tradition to open every Just Us League meeting with a shot of Patrón, but I didn’t realize it would be so necessary. You both look like the bachelorette who didn’t get a rose.”

Georgie sent a glance in Rosie’s direction, noting that the other woman did, in fact, seem kind of . . . frozen. Graceful though she was, Rosie’s arms were crossed loosely at her middle, her shoulders in an uncharacteristic hunch. The only one of the three women who appeared upbeat was Bethany. Nothing new there, though. Bethany embodied the term “upbeat,” whether discussing a five-hundred-dollar scratch-off win or a cheating ex-boyfriend. Positive or negative, her poise never slipped, especially in her element. And her sleek, sophisticated all-white kitchen was most definitely Bethany’s element.

“I second this tequila proposal,” Georgie mumbled. “Pour generously.”

“But of course,” Bethany said, uncapping the bottle and sliding golden liquid into the icy shot glasses. “Bottoms up, ladies of the league. We have much to discuss.”

Rosie, Bethany, and Georgie clinked glasses, each having various reactions to the liquid bite as it went down. Bethany smiled, Georgie grimaced, and Rosie gave a hoarse cough.

“So,” Rosie croaked. “What other traditions did you have in mind, Beth?”

A smile tickled the edge of Georgie’s mouth. “You’ve got it all planned out already, don’t you?”

“Only a loose framework.” Bethany held up the bottle one more time and both women wordlessly slid the glasses back in her direction. “Let’s start by sharing one good thing—and one bad thing—that happened to us this week. I’ll start, since it’s my brilliant idea.” She shook back her blond hair. “Good thing: I finally told Stephen I want to head my own flip.”

Rosie reached across the island and patted Bethany’s hand. “Good for you.”

“Bad thing: he told me no.”

Georgie made a sad game-show noise. “I bet he didn’t even give you a reason.” She dropped her voice several octaves. “Reasons are beneath Stephen Castle.”

“Not one fucking reason. Unless you count caveman grunts.”

“I’m sorry.” Rosie twisted her shot glass on the island. “What now?”

Bethany took her second drink. “Now I consider . . . pursuing my goal outside of the Brick & Morty fold.”

Rosie’s jaw dropped, mimicking Georgie’s. “Competing against the family business?” She blew out a breath. “Everyone in town knows Brick & Morty rules the Port Jeff real estate scene. You’re a brave woman.”

“I think you mean crazy,” Georgie said. “Beth. Are you really ready to look Dad in the eye and see the shock of betrayal? The business is everything to him. To the whole family. Quitting or pursuing another line of work is one thing, competing is another.”

“Yeah, well.” Bethany shrugged. “Maybe when they dismiss me so easily, I feel betrayed.” She shifted in her heels. “You know?”

“Yes,” Georgie rushed to say, something hot twisting in her chest. “Actually I know exactly what you mean. I’ve been dismissed more times than a software update reminder.”

Bethany didn’t say anything for a moment. “You’re right. I’m sorry.”

Georgie was afraid if she dug deeper into that apology, she’d burst into tears, so she packed the moment away for later. “I’ve got your back with Dad. Together we will withstand the force of paternal disappointment. I mean, I’m a fucking clown, so I’m basically immune to disappointment at this point.”

The three of them laughed—and Bethany poured another shot. Georgie had been only half joking about her father’s disappointment. But the fact was . . . no one had ever asked Georgie to be a part of Brick & Morty. If she wanted a position, they would find one. No doubt about that. But every vital position seemed to be covered. The last thing she wanted was for them to humor her by inventing some glorified secretary role. Their mother did the bookkeeping, their father provided guidance even in retirement, Stephen managed the flips, Bethany staged. If they needed a clown to juggle on the curb to attract potential buyers, Georgie was their girl. For now, though, she was the odd woman out. The kid sister who’d always left the heavy lifting to the adults and big kids . . . and in their eyes always would.

“Rosie.” Georgie used her knee to nudge the only married woman among them. “You’re up, lady.”

“Already?” Rosie’s groan turned into a laugh. “I sound like a broken record. Nothing has changed. Nothing ever changes in my life. Nothing bad or good even stands out this week.”

“Try,” Bethany said, shuffling aside the empty shot glasses to lean across the island. “There had to be something.”

“Mmm.” Rosie closed her eyes and took a long breath. “Bad: I sprayed a customer in the eye with perfume during the early shift. They ducked at the wrong time and . . . wham. I’m lucky they recognized me from church or I could have been fired.”

Bethany and Georgie traded a wince.

“Good . . .” Rosie trailed off for a few seconds, her hands bunching in her skirt. “I bought a newspaper and circled ads for vacant restaurant spaces.”

“That’s amazing!” Georgie shook Rosie gently. “Are there any good ones in town?”

“Yes, but . . .” Rosie rolled her eyes. “The amount of work I’d have to put in to make it what I envision is just overwhelming. And expensive.”

“What about a lease?” Bethany asked.

“No.” Rosie showed a rare flash of determination. “When I finally do this, I want the place to be mine.” Her eyelids fluttered down, shielding her eyes. “We’ve got money saved, Dominic and I. He hasn’t touched the money he earned while serving. And Brick & Morty pays so well.” She smoothed her sleeve. “My parents left me some, too. Considering I hid the newspaper under the mattress so Dominic wouldn’t see it, I’m a long way off from asking to use what we have saved, though.”

Georgie frowned. “How would he react?”

Rosie started to answer, then closed her mouth. “I have no idea anymore. I think I’m afraid to tell him I want something. Anything. Or all the other things I want . . . that are missing . . . will come pouring out and I won’t be able to take them back.” As if alarmed she’d revealed too much, Rosie looked at Georgie with a silent plea. “Your turn.”

Her problems seemed to pale in comparison to Rosie’s. But as always, Georgie’s impulse was to lighten the mood any way she could. “Good: I got asked out on a date.”

Bethany smacked both hands down on the island. “What?”

“Thank you for acting like I just announced I’m joining the PGA Tour.”

“Shut up. It’s just that you haven’t been on a date since . . . Have you ever been on a date? You know what? I’m digging a hole. Never mind.” Her sister dragged the shot glasses back out to the forefront and started pouring. “Give us the details.”