His mom held her delicate hand out to me. The bones in her fingers felt fragile, obvious to the touch. “Hi, Anne. I’m Lori. And this is Neil. We’re so happy to meet you.”
“Hi, Lori. Nice to meet you too.”
Pleasantries done with, I slid into the booth, Mal following close behind me. His jeans-clad thigh pressed against the length of mine and a hand covered my bare knee. After dithering around in my wardrobe, I’d gone with a navy knit dress and ankle boots. A touch of conservative mixed in with a dash of ass kicking for good measure. Maybe it’d been a poor choice. What did I know about the families of rock stars? Neil wore a dress shirt and tie, Lori a white linen top and pants. I hadn’t exactly expected piercings and leather, but white linen? I’d have spilled something on myself within the first two minutes given the way my hands were shaking.
“Hey,” Mal said, leaning closer.
I definitely didn’t want to f**k this up, but a heavy lump of dread sat in my stomach. Things weren’t great with my own mother, so what were the chances I’d manage to charm his? My hands were clammy, sticky with sweat. Honestly, put me in a stressful situation and I could rival a rhino for perspiration issues. Assuming rhino’s had perspiration issues.
Mal laid a gentle kiss beneath my ear. “Breathe, pumpkin. All good.”
“Yep.” I gave him two thumbs up.
“Yeah, okay. Not good.” He looked around, held out a hand. A waiter rushed over. “Hi. Can you get her a … look, whatever you’ve got that’s potent, okay?”
“How about Rocket Fuel, sir?”
Mal clapped his hands together. “Why, that sounds delightful! Excellent, Rocket Fuel it is. Make it a double.”
The waiter’s eyes went wide. “Uh, yes, sir.”
Photos had been spread across the table, a veritable sea of blond-haired babies. Chubby faces and starfish hands were abundant. Lori gave me another warm smile. “These are all our grandchildren.”
“I didn’t realize Mal was an uncle.”
“Eight times over, sweetie.” His mother started pointing out faces, naming names. Given his three sisters were such prolific breeders I made a mental note to stock up on condoms. Wherever he and I were at, we definitely weren’t ready for Mal Junior, despite his joking. I didn’t even know if I wanted to have children. They fell firmly under the ‘maybe someday’ label.
Lori’s anecdotes about her grandchildren saw us right through ordering and dinner. She talked while we all ate. Sips of Rocket Fuel loosened me up considerably. So far as I could taste, it consisted of every kind of white liquor with a dash of lemonade. The drink should probably be either illegal or set on fire to burn off some of the alcohol. I laid off it after an inch or two, leaving it for Mal. He stole from my plate and sipped from my drink and I loved it, the intimacy and sense of togetherness. It probably was just plain old thievery but the way he did it, fake distracting me with a smile or wink, made the game worthwhile.
I was so easy for him.
“So you have three older sisters,” I said. “You know, I can definitely see you as the youngest child.”
His mother guffawed. She might have been little but she laughed big. It spoke well of Mal’s childhood. The adoration in her eyes when she looked at her son just backed it up. I couldn’t even remember what my mom sounded like laughing. It’d been too long.
“Why?” Mal asked, glaring at me down the length of his nose. “Are you saying I’m loud and immature? Because it’s just plain rude to point that shit out, pumpkin.”
His mother cleared her throat in an obvious language warning.
Mal sat with his arm stretched across the back of our bench. He’d put on a black Henley to cover his tats, and a dry pair of Chucks. I tried not to look at him too long, terrified of going crazy eyed in front of his parents. Memories of what we’d gotten up to in the bath simmered too near the surface.
“Explain yourself,” he ordered.
“All I’m saying is that you’re a natural performer. It just makes sense you’d be the youngest.”
“Right.” He cocked a brow, his gaze shifting to his folks. His hand, however, shifted higher on my leg, sliding up beneath my skirt. I grabbed hold of his fingers, squeezing them hard in warning, before he could make a move for anything important. Only a quirk of his smile betrayed him. “Anne’s the oldest. You should see how she is with her sister, Mom. Protective doesn’t cover it. I’m surprised the girl isn’t bubble wrapped.”
His mother smothered a smile.
“I am not overly protective,” I said. “She’s twenty. She’s an adult now. I respect that.”
“Do you?” Damn, I liked him teasing me. I liked the familiarity in his gaze. “Ben said he was afraid for his life when you caught him checking her out. He was wondering if he needed to protect the family jewels.”
Lori made another admonishing noise at the mention of testicles but Mal just charged on. “He said you looked ready to annihilate him.”
This information I liked much less.
“He talked about Lizzy?” My eyes narrowed, all good humor long gone. I didn’t even want Ben Nicholson to know she existed. “She’s too young for him. She needs to be concentrating on school.”
“Relax, momma bear. So happens, I agree.” Mal smiled broadly, rubbing the back of my neck, soothing me instantly. Christ, his hands. As much as I liked his parents, hopefully this wouldn’t be a long, drawn-out dinner. Short and sweet was the way to go. Mal and I had things to do.
“We’ll keep Benny boy away from your baby sister,” he promised quietly. “Don’t worry.”
“What about your mother, Anne?” asked Lori. “Where is she?”
I flinched and Mal’s fingers paused against my neck. I didn’t need to see what look he was giving me. What I needed was to move the conversation onward and upward. “She’s, um … she’s back in So Cal. She’s fine.”
“And your father?”
“He left. Many years ago.” It was better than saying “Fuck knows.” And why sugarcoat it, right? Facts were facts. I picked up my remaining half slice of sourdough bread, nibbled at the crust. It was nice but I was full. We needed something neutral to talk about but the now-empty dinner plate offered no inspiration. My brain wouldn’t cough up a damn thing.
“You two staying for the first few tour dates?” asked Mal. I could have kissed his feet for the save.
“We’ll see,” said his dad.
“Of course we will. At least the first,” Lori corrected. “We love seeing you and the boys play. How are they all? Jimmy feeling better?”
“He’s good, Mom. They’re all doing good. Davie wants to introduce you to Ev as soon as possible.”
His mom happy sighed. “I would love to meet her. I always knew David would settle down first. He’s such a sensitive soul, more so than the rest of you.”
“I’m sensitive. I’m nothing but a big ball of mushy sensitive stuff inside. Tell her, pumpkin.”
“Your son is very sensitive,” I dutifully recited.
“That didn’t sound believable.” He gently tugged on a strand of my hair, moving in closer. “My feelings are hurt. You’ve wounded me. Kiss it better.”
“Apologies.” I gave him a brief but sweet kiss on the lips.
“That the best you got?” He rubbed his lips against mine, trying to lure me in deeper. “You should be ashamed of yourself. I think you can do much, much better than that. Why, you missed my mouth entirely.”
“Later,” I whispered, doing my best to keep things below an R rating in front of his parents. But damn, it was hard.
“Such a pity you weren’t home when we dropped by your place earlier, Anne,” said Lori. “But you have a lovely little apartment.”
“Malcolm just needs to stop breaking your furniture and causing floods.”
Mal groaned. “A man needs to be free to bounce on beds and bathe as he sees fit, Mother.”
“You’re twenty-seven-years old, honey.”
“Isn’t it time to start acting like a grown-up?”
“I pay my bills, see to my responsibilities. Beyond that, does it really matter?” Mal sat up straighter, staring his mom down with a smile. You couldn’t help but get the feeling they’d had this conversation many times before.
“Funny,” said Neil, talking for the first time in forever. “Could’ve sworn I heard two voices in that bathroom.”
“Thin walls,” Mal and I both said at once. Yeah, my smile … I highly doubt it was even the tiniest bit believable. Excellent.
His dad grunted.
Lori tried to cover her smile by dabbing her lips with the napkin.
Shit. We were so busted.
“Eat more, hon.” Neil pushed Lori’s plate closer to her. The rest of us had wolfed the excellent food down, but Lori had barely touched hers.
“I’m not all that hungry.” She patted his hand.
The fingers rubbing my neck froze.
“But …” Neil leaned in, whispering in her ear.
After a moment Lori shut him down with a quick kiss. She put on a bright smile, a fake one. It was an expression I knew well. Hers wasn’t bad, but it still jarred. I guess I hadn’t expected it from her. What was going on here? Of course, there could be a hundred and one explanations. Couples fight.
A rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday” broke out on the opposite side of the room. A large group of people around Lizzy’s age were starting to get seriously loud. The host on the front desk watched them with wary eyes.
“Malcolm, you have to bring Anne home for the party so she can meet your sisters,” she said. “We’re having a big family get-together next week in Coeur d’Alene and you both have to be there. It’s between the Seattle and Chicago shows, so the boys all have time to come.”
“That’s where you’re from?” I asked Mal without thinking. A real girlfriend would know these things. But Mal and I hadn’t gotten around to discussing normal everyday stuff yet. Though the past wasn’t a topic I tended to encourage. Fortunately, Lori didn’t appear to be concerned.
“Yeah.” He nodded, eyes fixed on his dad.
“What’s it like?” I asked.
His gaze stayed on his parents and he wasn’t smiling. “Trees, lake, a couple of good bars. It’s nice enough.”
“It’s lovely, especially in fall,” said Lori enthusiastically. “You have to come, Anne.”
“I’ll see what I can do.” I moved restlessly in my seat. Something had changed. Both Mal and his father seemed subdued, preoccupied. Neither would meet my eyes. The atmosphere in the booth had cooled and I didn’t understand why.
“You’ll make sure she comes, won’t you, sweetie?” Lori reached over and squeezed Mal’s hand, ignoring whatever weirdness had come over the table. If anything her smile was larger than before, like she was making up for the lack. “We’ll have a wonderful time showing you around.”
“Sure,” Mal said, his voice hollow. Someone had flicked a switch and turned him off. He simply wasn’t there anymore. I recognized that too.
“We better get back to the hotel,” announced Neil. “Don’t want to get tired out.”
Lori smiled glumly. “I suppose so. Say, do you think it’s really haunted, Anne? I saw something about a ghost tour. Wouldn’t that be a blast?”
“It sure would.”
From his pocket, Mal pulled out his mobile and fired off a text. “They’re bringing the car around.”