She found her mama in the kitchen, engaged in a furious standoff with Jake. Or, rather, Mama was furiously trying to stare a hole in the side of his head. Jake was making coffee. Her mama turned to her and her entire face fell. It would have been comical under difference circumstances. “Jessica, you cannot wear that.”
Jake finally looked up. His gaze skated from the top of her head to her toes and back again. “You look good, Jessie.”
“You would say that.” Mama pressed a hand to her chest like she was having a heart attack. “Jessica Jackson, go up to your room right this instant and change. You look like a hooker going to a funeral.”
Enough was enough.
Her mama blinked and swayed, her hand moving from her chest to her throat. “Excuse me?”
It was bad enough that she was going through with the reunion, and that Jake was her date instead of some stranger who would have played his part and faded into the ether. But to come home and have her mama trying to cram her back into the girl she’d been was too much. It was a dress cut two sizes too small, ripping at the seams and choking the life out of her.
Words bubbled up, words that would hurt her mama but that might be necessary all the same. She couldn’t do it. She couldn’t take that final step, no matter how necessary. “We have to go. Jake?”
He hesitated, and she didn’t have to see his face to know exactly what he was thinking. He wanted her to stand up for herself. He’d always wanted her to stand up to her mama.
Not now. Not like this. Not when twenty-eight years of pent-up frustration and hurt meant she was likely to say something unforgivable and ugly.
That wasn’t how she wanted to take back control of her life.
Take back? Honey, that would mean you actually had control at one point.
Without another word, she turned and walked out of the kitchen, down the hall, and out of the house. Footsteps echoed after her, the sound she knew as well as her own stride.
Jake didn’t touch her. He stopped the barest inch away. “The reunion isn’t until tonight.”
“I know. Isn’t there some kind of luncheon or something?”
“You didn’t read up on the information?”
She headed for his truck, but he got there first and opened the passenger door for her. “Jake, it’s a damn miracle that I’m here at all. So, no, I didn’t read up on the itinerary.” She flung herself into the truck. “Take me somewhere. Anywhere. Please.”
“Okay, love. Let’s go.”
Jake didn’t have a destination in mind when they set out from the Jackson house. They didn’t have anywhere to be until tonight, and the day stretched out in front of him, too full of possibilities and empty of plans. How many times had they done this—nearly bolted from her house, jumped into his beat up old Chevy, and driven until the shadows disappeared from Jessie’s eyes? Until he stopped worrying about whatever test was next so he could keep his GPA high enough to get the scholarship he’d been so desperate for.
Until all the world narrowed down to the truck cab, the sun-warmed wheel beneath his hands, the girl next to him, usually with her feet propped up on the dash as the wind teased her honey blonde hair.
So much had changed, and yet nothing had changed.
He stared out the windshield. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard you tell your mama ‘no’ before.” Jennifer Jackson was a force of nature, and she had centered her entire life around giving herself a second chance through her daughter. The woman had been so busy pruning Jessie so she could shove her into a box of Jennifer’s choosing that she hadn’t stopped to ask her daughter what she wanted. He and Jessie had more than one fight over her inability to stand up for herself.
She leaned back against the seat and closed her eyes. “We are all products of our parents, but ultimately it’s up to us to break the mold.”
He snorted. “Did you read that in a self-help book?”
“No, my therapist told it to me.” She opened her eyes, the spark of anger in them calling to him despite his best intentions. She held herself too rigid, as if she really were as brittle as he’d suspected. “Come on. You might as well get it out of your system.”
He twisted to look at her fully. “What the hell are you talking about?” She’d made a leap of topic without bringing him along.
“Therapist. Shrink. Poor, crazy Jessica Jackson.”
His snort turned into a full out laugh. “Nice pity party you have going there.”
The spark of anger flared brighter. “It’s not a pity party. I was a total jackass and a terrible person, and I trampled on anyone in my way while I was trying to get ahead. That’s not something you can just turn off without help.”
“You keep saying that—that you were a terrible person. You weren’t.”
“Yes, I was.” She gave him a look like he was a few colors short of a rainbow. “Maybe the teenage hormones and sex have fogged your memory, but I was even worse than Regina George in high school. I made her look like a saint.”
“Who’s Regina George?” She reared back, and he snickered. “Joking. Fuck, Jessie, you make it too easy. Yes, I remember that movie. You dragged me to it in theaters and then bought it the second it came out on DVD.” He took a left turn onto the highway. “And you were a bit of a bitch, but it was fucking high school. Who cares?”
“I bet Leah Camacho thinks differently.”
As he remembered it, Leah Camacho had given as good as she’d gotten. Neither of them had ever told Jake what went wrong in their friendship in junior high, but it had caused a spectacular feud in the way only small town drama could. “She moved away. Colorado or something. I don’t think she’s been back since.”
“Probably because I traumatized her so thoroughly.” Jessie shook her head. “I hated that girl. “
“Because she was one of the only kids unwilling to kiss your ass.” He smirked. “I’m sure she got over it.” He was lying through his teeth. He clearly remembered Jessie making a spectacle of Leah in front of the entire cafeteria. More than once.
“Sure.” She slipped on a pair of sunglasses. “Look, you might have pulled some magical whatever to get past your anger at me, but I highly doubt Leah freaking Camacho is as Zen about the whole thing.” She made a face. “I don’t suppose she’s skipping the reunion?”
“Word has it that she’s coming.”
“Word.” She shook her head. “You don’t even live here anymore. How do you have access to the rumor mill?”
Jake passed a van full of kids going ten under the speed limit. “You know very well that my mama hears everything worth hearing about Catfish Creek.” Marie Davis owned a little hair salon down on the main drag of town, and most of the female population between thirteen and eighty-five walked through those doors once a quarter.
Of course, Jessie had never been a patron. Her mama dragged her to Dallas every time her bottle blonde needed a touchup.
“The only difference between hair stylists and therapists is that therapists can’t talk about your conversations after the fact.”
“I like your hair.” He blurted it like he was sixteen again and had no idea what he was doing. Jake took a deep breath and said in a less abrupt way. “The brunette suits you.”
“My mama cried when she saw a picture on Facebook.” Jessie twisted the end of a lock around her finger and inspected it. “She dropped what she was doing and called me right then to tell me what a terrible mistake I’d made and demand I go back to blonde.”
“When was that?”
“Five years ago.” She let her hair drop. “A lot of stuff happened that year—or, rather, in March of that year—and few of them were good. It threw things into perspective for me and made me realize that most of the things I thought were so important didn’t matter at all. I’ve been trying to do better since.”
/> Trying to do better—and dragging around a ton of emotional baggage in the way of guilt.
Jessie finally looked around. “Where are you taking me?” She frowned. “You aren’t going to drop me on the side of the road and make me hitchhike back into town, are you? Because I’ll end up murdered, and you’ll never forgive yourself.”
Jake barked out a laugh. “One, I would never do that to you, even when I was so angry I couldn’t see straight. Two, murdered? Really?”
“Yes, really.” She crossed her arms and slid further down in the seat. “My friend Brooklyn listens to true crime podcasts when she’s stressed out—and she’s always stressed.” She shuddered. “So. Many. Murders.”
She’d mentioned her friends before. “Brooklyn and Cara?”
“Tell me about them. You’ve known each other long?”
“Seven years.” A ghost of a smile pulled at her mouth. “I was in the interview process with a new client who wanted her breasts insured. Don’t give me that look—it isn’t as abnormal as you’d think. Anyway, she’s kind of a diva so she wouldn’t come into our office like a normal person.” Jessie scrunched up her nose. “Now that I think about it, even at the company I work for now, most of our clients are divas and make us jump through hoops even though they’re the ones who called us.”