My appetite is gone. Especially as Aaron leans his forearms on the table, practically hunched over to force my attention to him.
“What have you been up to, Lily?”
I shrug and then spit out, “Why would you want to even come here?” It’s almost been three whole years since I’ve seen him. Why now?
“I heard your boy was out of town. I thought I’d check up on you, make sure you were safe and doing okay.”
I glare. “I’m fine.”
He nods, his eyes skimming the length of me. Thank God, my body stops at the edge of the table.
“Did my mother really call you?” I ask tensely.
“She called my friend first. She seemed a little desperate to get you hooked up, and I told her I was available.” He flashes an ugly smile. “I have nothing better to do.” And so the truth comes out.
“That’s why you’re here? You’re bored?”
He shrugs. “Now that I’m almost graduated, Loren has nothing on me. And I think me and you—we have unfinished business.”
I go cold and look to Rose for backup, but she’s in a heated discussion with her younger date. Well…she seems to be educating him about the stock market, as though he said something inane and she has to correct him.
Daisy is watching me carefully, but I don’t have the heart to explain my history to her. Not now anyway. Plates of sea bass slide onto our placemats, and I stiffly pick up my fork. I can’t eat, not until I let some words loose.
“I’m not hav**g s*x with you,” I immediately blurt.
His eyebrow quirks and I realize that might not have been the “unfinished business” he had in mind. And then he says, “We’ll see.” Okay, maybe it was. Or maybe he’s just planning on cornering me, putting me in some provocative situation and then snapping a few pictures, taking a video, and then sending them to Lo.
Daisy butts in. “Hey, back off. She has a boyfriend.”
Aaron snorts and says to Daisy, “Do I look like I give a shit?”
“I do,” a new voice enters. And this time, I internally cheer at the sound of Ryke’s deep, threatening tone. He slides into the seat between Daisy’s date and Aaron, closing the circle. He wears a fitted charcoal suit with a skinny black tie. His brown hair is styled, but he’s not clean-shaven. How did he get invited to a Fizzle event? Better yet, why would he accept it and come here?
I don’t really care. I’m just glad he is.
“Who the f**k are you?” Aaron spits.
Ryke motions to a server and points to his placemat, silently asking for food. Then he faces Aaron with narrowed eyes. If Lo were here, I think he’d appreciate the backup. We’ve never had it before, and I have to say, it’s kind of nice.
“Loren Hale’s brother,” Ryke tells him.
Aaron chokes on a laugh. “Bullshit. Lo’s an only child.”
“Then don’t believe me. I don’t really f**king care. But you start messing with his girlfriend, and then I will care.” A server places his plate in front of him, and Ryke digs into the mashed potatoes, not giving Aaron any more attention.
Aaron looks back to me, and his eyebrows jump up, but he mouths, later. No, I don’t like later. He even winks.
Shivers run down my arms.
Daisy squints at Ryke. “Why are you here?” she asks over her oblivious date, still texting. “Did my mom call you?”
Ryke cuts into his fish. “Nope. My father did.”
I frown. “What?” That makes no sense. Jonathan Hale basically blamed Ryke for Lo’s decision to go to rehab, leaving him with an empty house. Why would he want to invite him?
“Yep,” Ryke says. “He called me up, spewing some shit about how we should put the past behind us. But he’s an awful f**king liar.” He swigs his water. “He wants information about Lo, but like hell I’m giving it to him.”
I try not to acknowledge Aaron, but I don’t like the way he’s listening so intently, digesting our families’ secrets and filing them for later. I sip my own water to clear my throat. “So why come?”
Ryke points at me with a knife. “Knew you’d be here. Knew Lo wouldn’t.”
Ah, yes, he doesn’t trust me. “What confidence.” I love Lo enough to restrain myself.
I glance at Aaron, who stares a little too forcefully.
But without Lo to hide behind, my only defense against Aaron is to run. And I’m not as fast as Loren Hale. Not even close.
Daisy keeps leaning on the legs of her chair. “I’m confused,” she says, tossing her rose-shaped napkin on the table.
“Eat,” I tell her.
She sighs and picks at the fish.
Thankfully, the lights begin to dim so we’re not the main focus in the room. Aaron turns around, back facing me, so that helps ease the tension in my shoulders. The stage brightens, and I try to relax in my chair and concentrate on my father.
He walks onto the stage and mans the glass podium. The ballroom quiets, except for the sound of silverware hitting dishes. He looks rich. How else do you describe a man worth billions? Even in his fifties, his gray hairs are masked by brown dye. He always has a genial smile, the kind that makes him seem approachable, even if he’s usually too busy to greet. I love him for what he’s given me, and I think he’d buy us the world just for the chance to see us smile.
“Friends, family,” he says, “I’m so glad to have you all here today to celebrate this special occasion. I founded Fizzle in 1970 with an extremely ambitious—and somewhat naïve—plan to create the next best soda that could rival the likes of Coke and subsequently Pepsi. With the help of angel investors and some faith, Fizzle became a household name in just three short years.” Everyone claps. I join in, admiring my father for his drive and passion. I can’t imagine coming out of college and starting my own business with such fortitude and strength. I’m not him. Or Rose. Or my mother.
I’m just so very lost.
He holds up a hand to shush us, and the noise settles to silence. “Almost fifty years later, Fizzle products are sold in more than two-hundred countries. Just in the United States, we’ve taken away the title of the northern soda of choice from Pepsi. By next year, we plan to steal southern hearts with our brand new soda. We believe the taste and contents of this drink are unlike any Coca-Cola product and we’ll have diehards choosing…Fizz Life.”
He steps back from the podium and a screen behind him shows an animated graphic of a Fizzle commercial, a gold background with dark colored bubbles rising up. A silver can spins in the center with gold writing that reads FIZZ LIFE, white bubbles decaled at the bottom. No black on the can at all.
“Fizz Life is zero calories, aspartame-free. It’s naturally sweetened with a recipe blended by our food scientists.” Servers with gold-plated trays begin to walk around the room with cans of Fizz Life, passing them to the tables. Our waiter sets down a can in front of my plate. Hundreds of people begin popping the tabs, air expelling and carbonation bubbling, the noise so very true to the soda company’s name. “This is not only the healthiest soda on the market, but it’s also the drink of the future.”
The tagline: Fizz Life, Better Life flashes across the screen. Underneath sits my father’s exact words: the drink of the future. Maybe it is.
Daisy holds out her drink to me. “Cheers.” I clink her can with mine, and she turns to her date to do the same, but he’s scrolling through his Facebook app. Ryke already has his open, sipping the new soda.
When he notices her date and her chagrin, he says, “He’s a winner.”
The guy doesn’t even realize he’s being talked about.
“First place, pure bred,” Daisy agrees, raising her soda before throwing her head back, taking a very large swig.
I sip mine a little. The flavor tastes different than Diet Fizz and Fizz Lite. Not sweeter or bitter. Just…different. Good different, I think. I could most definitely grow to like this one more than Diet Fizz.
“Wow that tastes really good,” Daisy says. “I totally had my doubts.”
Ryke nods in agreement. “Not bad.”
I glance at Rose to see how she likes it, but her can sits untouched by her uneaten plate of food. Her fingers pinch a full champagne glass. But I just looked over there and it was half full. Which means this is a new one.
Maybe I’m hyperaware of alcohol now, but I feel like she’s drinking more than she normally does. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her drunk or even “composed” drunk—which is what I imagine she would be, the kind where you can barely tell. Sort of like Lo. But not.
Her eyes sear holes into our mother’s back, her table adjacent to ours. This is not good.
My father continues to talk about the soda and the company’s history and each investor individually.
I don’t think I can help Rose. Not because I don’t have the strength to, but I’m almost a hundred-percent positive she would never let me. She does not see me as her equal. I am the damaged, broken sister, the one who needs repair. If I act as though she needs help, then she’ll freak out. I have to find someone that she’ll actually listen to without becoming incredibly defensive.
I make a sudden decision, silently hoping it’s the right one, and pull out my phone from a little pocket in my dress and start texting.
Where are you?
The reply only takes a few seconds. Not surprised. At my house. Everything okay? – Connor
I type quickly. No. I need you to come to the event. Rose isn’t doing so well.
My phone begins to buzz repeatedly in my hand. Connor is calling me. Before I stand from the table, I glance at Aaron. He no longer watches the stage, but his eyes set on me. If I leave the ballroom, will he follow?
I can’t answer the phone at the table. So I have to take the chance. Just as I rise, Aaron begins to push his chair back, about to stand too.
But then Ryke points at him with his knife. “You follow her, and I’ll slit your f**king throat,” he deadpans. That was a little unnecessary, but the warning works because the longer Aaron looks at Ryke to see if it’s a bluff, the longer Ryke digs into his food. I can’t even tell where his head is at. Neither can Aaron. My enemy scoots closer to the table, leaving me alone for now.
And I thankfully weave around the tables and out the grand double doors.
I already missed his first call, but the phone still rings incessantly. I answer. “Hi.”
“What’s wrong?” Connor asks, his voice deep with worry that I’m not used to. He’s always confident and poised and self-assured. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” I say with a nod. “It’s Rose that I’m concerned about.” I falter, trying to pick the right words. “I don’t know if you realized, but my mother set her up with someone tonight. And she’s more pissed than I’ve seen her in a while…” I wonder if I should mention the drinking.
“Wait…what? That doesn’t make sense,” Connor says. “Samantha told me that she would be going to the event alone.”