“A true word.” He touched her chin with two fingers, looking for all the world like he was going to kiss her, but then Jake gave himself a shake and took a large step back. “Your mama has retired to her room again.”
Disappointment soured her stomach, but she pushed the reaction back. “What was it this time?”
“Something concerning Drew.” He held up a hand. “I don’t know what about, and it didn’t sound serious, but your mama took it badly.”
Jessica still didn’t know why her brother had chosen to move back here after fighting so hard to get out, and the few times she’d brought it up, he’d changed the subject so blatantly, she’d have to be an idiot to keep pushing. Maybe I should have pushed anyway. It made sense that their mama had turned her sights on Jessica’s brother since she’d stopped returning her calls.
Guilt tried to rise, but she shoved it down next to the disappointment. Drew was an adult. If anything, he had always been better able to deal with their mama’s crap than Jessica was. He was the one who’d saved her when things got too tense at the dinner table, or when their mama dragged her shopping and then complained about the size of her hips or how she’d put on a few pounds. Drew excelled at drawing the fire to give Jessica a reprieve. “I should call him.”
“Yes.” She dug her phone out of her clutch. “This will just take a minute.” The phone rang and rang, and right when she was about to hang up, her brother answered. “Hey.”
“Why would you say something’s wrong?”
The fact that he’d just evaded her question spoke volumes. Drew was the steady one. He didn’t dance around anything, no matter how uncomfortable the subject. Jessica swallowed hard. “Is this about Mama? Do I need to call Dr. Pepper?”
He huffed out a laugh at their old S.O.S. code. “No, Jess. It’s fine. I’m just distracted.”
She almost asked what had him so distracted, but she and Jake were in danger of being late, and she’d promised to keep the call short. Still, she hesitated. “You’d tell me, wouldn’t you? If we did need to call Dr. Pepper.”
A pause, painfully silent. “Sure. Yeah, I would.”
Her brother had just lied to her. It struck Jessica that while she’d been doing the equivalent of hiding out in LA, the world of Catfish Creek had been going on without her. It seemed silly that she hadn’t really thought about it, but this town had a way of feeling stagnant. Or maybe it just felt stagnant because I was a teenager under the thumb of my mother.
It wasn’t that Catfish Creek was too small. It was that she was too restless.
Would it fit better now?
She didn’t know. It was too much to think about—and that wasn’t even getting into the tangle that was Jake. So she forced a smile into her voice. “You have a good night, now.”
“You too, Jess. Try to have fun at the reunion.”
Not likely. “Mm-hmm. Bye.” She hung up and turned to find Jake watching her. “What?”
“Is something wrong?”
“I don’t know.” She answered before she could think too hard. “He sounded weird, but he said he was okay. I don’t know if the weird is from Mama or from something else.” Her plane ticket back to California wasn’t until Sunday, two days from now. She’d take the time to corner her big brother and figure out what was going on before then.
Tonight… Tonight was about her and Jake and making amends with her past.
Easier said than done.
“Should we go?”
Jake nodded and offered his arm. “Yeah, let’s get this show on the road.”
And with that rousing comment, they were off.
When Jake said “show,” he meant “shit-show.” He had his own reasons for not wanting to attend the reunion. It started the second they walked through the door.
Karly Stocker let loose a shriek when she saw him. “As I live and breathe! Jake Davis, you look like some kind of fancy movie star.” Her big blonde hair had enough hairspray in it to withstand a hurricane, and she’d erred on the side of 80s blue eye shadow. She handed over his nametag, which he stuck to his jacket with a grimace. What was the damn point of having a masquerade if they had nametags?
“I’ll be needing one as well.”
Karly’s expression did such a quick one-eighty, it was a wonder she didn’t give herself whiplash. “Jessica Jackson. I didn’t think you were going to show up.”
“The one and only.” Jessie slid up next to him, and he obligingly put his arm around her waist. He didn’t even blame her for putting on a show. Karly got under his skin like none other, and the way she’d been eyeing him made Jake feel like he was in a meat-packing facility.
“I didn’t realize that y’all…” She motioned between them and then made a visible effort to recover her smile. “I’m engaged to Jason St. Dalton. Isn’t this ring just glorious?” She flashed it close enough to his face, she almost took off a piece of his nose.
“Jason St. Dalton.” Jessie put a wealth of judgment into the name.
Karly flashed her an ugly look. “You have something to say, might as well get it out. I can see you chewing on it, and we both know you’re not one to couch your opinions in something resembling class.”
Jake tensed, but Jessie squeezed his arm and gaze her best pageant smile. “Oh, honey. Bless your sweet heart. That boy already went and had himself a marriage and a few kids. You never did manage to be first for anything worth having.”
He grabbed Jessie’s nametag out of Karly’s slack grip and towed her away before they could get kicked out. “Damn, love. Retract the claws.”
“Crap. You’re right.” She pressed her lips together and glanced over her shoulder. “She just brings out the worst in me. There are a lot of things I regret about high school, but taking Karly Stocker down a notch every chance I got isn’t one of them.
Bobby Fischer stumbled up to them before they made it ten steps, barely stopping before he ran into Jake. From his rank breath, he had hit The Grange before coming here. “Jake motherfucking Davis. The myth! The man! The legend!”
Jake tensed even as he told himself to relax. “Hey, man. How’s it going?” He’d known he’d have to deal with the kid he used to be—superstar football player, destined for the NFL. For as many people had moved on from high school, there were just as many who saw it as the best years of their lives.
Bobby was one of the latter. “Who cares about now? Do you remember that touchdown pass you threw to get us to State? And then we pa
rtied at Jeremy’s mom’s place all weekend? That was the best.”
A hand lacing with his made him aware of the rest of the room. Jessie shifted closer to him, glaring daggers at Bobby. “Robert Fischer, what a pleasure.”
He sobered. “Jessica Jackson. You have some nerve showing your face here.” His gaze raked over her in a way that made Jake see red. “You’re still hot, though you got kind of fat.”
Her grip tethered Jake when he would have gone for Bobby’s throat. She smiled in a way that was sugary sweet and cut right to the bone. “I’m not the only one. Or is that a keg you’ve smuggled in here?” She turned that smile on Jake. “Shall we?”
“Yeah.” He nodded at Bobby. “See you around.”
“I thought you got rid of that bitch. Guess some things never change—you’re still thinking with your Johnson.”
Jessie towed him deeper into the gym. It had been converted into a slightly more red, blue, and gold version of itself. The lights were dimmed enough that one could almost overlook the fact that they were in a gym, rather than a ballroom. They were close enough, he could hear her muttering under her breath. “Johnson. Who the hell uses Johnson anymore? It’s a dick, or a cock if you’re going above and beyond. God, I can’t believe you hung out with that idiot.”
She stopped. “What?”
“I shouldn’t have let him talk to you like that.”
“Oh, please.” Jessie rolled her eyes. “I’ve had worse things said to me on a weekly basis. I live in LA, remember? I was too ‘fat’ for them at eighteen. I’m a behemoth now.” She held up a hand. “I don’t think that about myself. You don’t think that about me. Who the hell cares what anyone else thinks?”
He didn’t… But it pissed him the hell off to think that Bobby might have hurt her beneath that shiny armor she wore. He pulled her into his arms, inch by inch, and she let him. Jake rested his face against the side of hers. In her heels, she was only an inch or two shorter than he was. “You are beautiful, Jessica Jackson.”