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He gathered me against him, and as my head lay against his chest, his body shuddered. I knew exactly how hard this moment had been for him. I had felt the same walking down to the beach when I knew I had to tell him about my past, what I had done when I was pregnant.

We would clear this up, together, and move forward. I wouldn’t think of any other possibility. This boy was not his. She was an opportunist and a liar. I pictured her in a hot-pink halter and slinky miniskirt, used up, pathetic, and looking for a chump who would believe her story. I would not let her use Gavin. When this test was done, I’d boot her out of his life, whether I was sick or not.

23: Gavin

When I rolled up to my apartment later that night, Corabelle tucked away at the hospital watching The Lion King with her parents, I was surprised to see Mario sitting on the hood of his ’72 Mustang.

He waited for me to kill the Harley, still in his shirt from Bud’s. “So, how’d she take it?”

“Corabelle?”

“You got another honey to break the news to?”

He was making me crabby already. I turned up the sidewalk.

“Dude, chill. I’m just asking how she took it.”

I stopped. He’d proved a better friend than I expected with everything going on. “Not great at first, but she came around.”

The wind howled around us, and he stuck his hands in his pockets. “That’s good.”

“So you came here to ask me that? I’m working tomorrow.”

“No, I’m here to get you out, stop moping, drink a beer.”

“No way. Corabelle’s in the hospital. Rosa’s out there somewhere with that kid.”

Mario turned me around on the sidewalk. “All the more reason to get out.”

“I should study. I’m behind.”

“Later. You’re due a night out. You’re just going to sit in that apartment and stew.”

He was right about that.

“I’ll cover the first round. Unless you order some bullshit highbrow import.”

I laughed. “Right. I’m all highbrow.” Hell, it felt good to laugh about something, to blow everything off. Corabelle had been right. I needed some normal life.

He opened his door. “Get your ass in here. We’ll toast to your fancy-ass new job title. Then tell me more about this firebrand hooker you dragged stateside.”

I sank into the half-collapsing springs of the passenger seat. “I’m hoping I never have to see her again after this test.”

He turned the ignition and the Mustang rumbled. Damn, I missed having a car. I could have used the extra money from my promotion for that, but it was fine to use it on helping Corabelle.

Or else it would go to child support.

Mario cranked up Nine Inch Nails at ear-splitting decibels, which went a long way to redirecting my attention. He rolled down the windows despite the chill, laughing when mine got stuck halfway and wouldn’t budge.

“It’s always the mechanics who have shit for cars,” I shouted over the music.

Mario banged the steering wheel in time with the cymbal smash. “We’re going to get fucked up!”

He pulled into a space in front of our usual pool hall. My anxiety ratcheted up. All the hookers I used to frequent knew this place, and I’d run into one or the other more than a few times. One in particular, Lorali, had made quite a show of stripping half-naked in the corner, and at this point in my life, I lived in fear of her repeating the performance.

“Maybe we should pick another place,” I said.

“Don’t be a pussy,” Mario said. “I know what you’re thinking, but I can handle all the women.”

“You haven’t had a piece in months, Romeo.” I flung my door open.

He came around the car and snared me with an elbow around my neck. “It’s no good to be wingman to a hooker lover. I’m too poor.”

I shoved him aside to get loose, laughing. “You can’t even pay to get laid.”

“I’m promoted. I’ve got money now.”

We crossed through a cloud of smokers and entered the half-empty hall. “Probably not going to be too many chicks on a Monday,” he said, heading for the bar.

I was happy to see it so empty. Fewer people meant fewer chances for a disaster.

I headed for the cue racks to find a stick that wasn’t too thrashed. A number of the serious players were sitting around, league teams and gamblers alike. There weren’t a lot of women, another good sign that the night would go easy for me.

Mario returned with the beer as I shoved quarters in the machine to release the balls. The crack of a cue was familiar and calming. Even the smell of chalk and beer helped settle out the day.

I racked up for the first play and took a long pull on the bottle as Mario started working the table. He’d clear a good number before his first fail, if he was having a decent night. I half watched him, half listened to the room, when a laugh made the hackles on my neck stand up.

I wasn’t especially good at picking out voices, but that particular little-girl giggle was pretty damn familiar. I circled the table. “We’ve got to get out of here,” I told Mario.

“What are you talking about? I’m going to kick your ass here. I’ve nearly cleared the stripes.”

“Fine. Kick it. Candy’s here and I’m not dealing with her tonight.”

“Was that the one who got nekkid?”

“No, that was Lorali.”

“I can’t keep up with your hookers.” He leaned back over to take a shot.

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