“Three weeks?!” I said, my voice rising. I paused, feeling the nerves in my gut. Mama didn’t need my opinion right now; she needed my support. “Three weeks! Wonderful!”

Mama and Mike left a few hours later, after a game of Zombieland with Emma, complete with their own ketchup scars. Tristan, Emma, Zeus, and I sat on the couch for a while before Tristan pushed himself up on his elbows and looked my way. “Want to go shopping for my place?”

We still hadn’t finished adding the small touches to his house—the things he claimed he didn’t give a crap about, like throw pillows, paintings, and all the small decorative things I loved. “Yes!” I chimed, always looking for a reason to go shopping.

“Those are ugly, Tick!” Emma said, wrinkling her nose at Tristan’s choice of purple and mustard yellow throw pillows for his couch.

“What?! These are great!” he argued.

“They look like poop.” Emma laughed.

I had to agree with her. “It’s almost as if you thought, ‘Ooh, let’s make my house completely hideous after Lizzie and Emma worked so hard to make it amazing.’”

“Yeah.” Emma nodded. “It’s like you thought that.” She flipped her hair over her shoulder. “You should just really leave this to the experts like Mama and me.”

He laughed. “Tough crowd.” Emma stood on the back of the shopping cart and Tristan took her shooting around the corner, bumping straight into someone. “Sorry!” Tristan apologized quickly before looking up.

“Uncle Tanner!” Emma squeaked, jumping off the cart running over to Tanner to wrap him in a hug.

“Hey, kiddo,” Tanner said, giving her a squeeze before putting her down.

“What happened to your face?!” Emma asked.

Tanner looked my way. I stared at his bruises from the night before. Such a big part of me wanted to comfort him, but another part wanted to slap him across the face for what he’d said to Tristan about his family.

“Tristan, do you think you could take Emma over to the paintings and have her pick out some artwork for you?” I asked.

Tristan gently placed a hand on my forearm. “Are you okay?” he whispered.

I nodded. They walked off, but not before Tristan apologized to Tanner. Tanner didn’t utter a word to him, but the moment Emma and Tristan left, it seemed he had a ton of comments to spit my way.

“Are you serious, Liz? Last night he attacks your friend and now you’re running around the store with him as if you are some happy family? And you sent him off alone with your daughter?! What would Steven—”

“Did you say it was his fault his family is dead?”

Tanner narrowed his eyes. “What?”

“Tristan told me.”

“Liz, look at my face.” He stepped in closer to me. My throat tightened as I stared at his black and blue eye. He pulled up his shirt to reveal his left side, which was badly bruised. “Look at my ribs. The man you just sent off with your daughter did this. He fucking attacked me like a beast, and you’re sitting here asking me what I said to him? I was drunk; I might have said some stupid things, but he snapped out of nowhere. I saw it in his eyes, Liz. He’s completely mad.”

“You’re a liar.” He’s lying. He’s lying. Tristan is good. He’s so good. “You should’ve never said anything about his family. Never.” The heels of my feet spun me away from Tanner, and I yipped when I felt his tight grip on my forearm. He forced me to face him once more.

“Listen, I get it. You’re mad at me. Fine. Be mad. Fucking hate my guts. But I know there’s something off about that guy. I know there’s something wrong with him and I’m not going to stop until I find out what it is, because I care too much about you and Emma to let anything happen to you both. Yeah, okay, I said some shit I shouldn’t have said, but did I deserve this? It will only be a matter of time before you say something wrong and he snaps on you.”

“Tanner,” I said, my voice low. “You’re hurting me.”

He dropped his tight hold from my arm, leaving red marks on my skin where his fingers had been. “Sorry.”

When I reached the artwork section of the store, I found Tristan and Emma arguing over what to buy; of course, Emma was right. Tristan smiled my way and stepped toward me. “Are you okay?” he asked again.

I placed my hand against his cheek and stared into his eyes. His gaze was soft and gentle, reminding me of all the good things in the world. While Tanner saw hell in Tristan’s stare, I only saw heaven.

It had been three weeks since my birthday, and slowly everything was going back to normal. That night we were driving to Mama’s town for her wedding that weekend, and before we could leave, Emma had somehow talked Tristan and me into getting her ice cream in twenty-degree weather.

“I think mint ice cream is nasty!” Emma said as we walked back from the ice cream shop, Tristan holding her on his shoulders. She was eating a plain vanilla cone, dripping ice cream into his hair every now and then.

As a few drops fell to his cheek, I leaned in and kissed them away, then gently kissed his lips.

“Thanks for coming with us,” I said.

“Mostly I just came for the mint,” he replied with a playful smirk. The smirk stayed on his lips until we walked closer to our houses. When his eyes met the steps of my porch, the playfulness left his eyes and he lowered Emma off his shoulders.

“What are you doing here?” I asked Tanner, who was sitting on my porch with papers in his grip.