Beach Read

Page 49

“Oh.” I stepped back from him. There was something disorienting about remembering the rest of the world existed when his hands were on me. “So you need to skip one of our research nights?”

“Well, the thing is, I also really need to get out to see New Eden soon if I’m going to keep drafting,” he said. “So since I can’t go on Friday, I was hoping I could do it on Saturday.”

“Got it,” I said. “So we skip Rom-Com 101 this week and take a Lit Fic field trip?”

Gus shook his head. “You don’t have to go—I can do this one on my own.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Why wouldn’t I go?”

Gus’s teeth worried at his bottom lip, the scar beside his cupid’s bow going even whiter than usual. “It’s going to be awful,” he said. “You sure you want to see it?”

I sighed. This again. The old fairy-princess-can’t-handle-this-cruel-world song and dance. “Gus,” I said slowly, “if you’re going, I’m going too. That’s the deal.”

“Even though I’m skipping out on Romance Hero boot camp for the week?”

“I think you’ve done more than enough line dancing this month,” I said. “You deserve a break and a Fourth of July party.”

“What about you?” he said.

“I always deserve a break,” I said. “But my breaks largely consist of line dancing.”

He cleared his throat. “I meant Friday.”

“Friday what?”

“Do you want to go to Pete’s on Friday?”

“Yes,” I answered immediately. Gus gave his trademark closed-mouthed smile. “Wait. Maybe.” His expression fell and I hurried to add, “Is there a way to …” I thought and rethought how to phrase it. “Pete’s friends with my dad’s mistress.”

“Oh.” Gus’s mouth juddered open. “I … wish she’d mentioned that when I asked her if I could invite you. I wouldn’t have agreed if I’d realized …”

“I’m not sure she knows.”

“Or she was trying to get a promise from me by omitting important information,” he said.

“Well, you should go,” I said. “I’m just not sure if I can.”

“I’ll find out,” Gus said quickly. “But if she’s not?”

“I’ll come,” I said. “But I’m definitely bringing up rocks to Maggie.”

“You’re sick and twisted, January Andrews,” Gus said. “That’s what I love about you.”

My stomach dipped and rose higher than it had started out. “Oh, that’s what it is.”

“Well,” he said. “One thing. It seemed too crass to invite you to my aunts’ house and then bring up your ass.”

USUALLY WHEN I went to a party, I used it as an excuse to buy a thematically appropriate outfit. Or at least new shoes. But even after selling a good amount of furniture, when I logged in to my bank account on Friday morning, the site practically frowned at me.

I texted Gus. I don’t think I can come to the party as I have recently discovered I cannot afford to bring even a single serving of potato salad.

I watched the “…” appear onscreen as he typed. He stopped. Started again. After a full minute, the symbol vanished and I went back to staring the basement door down.

I’d held off sorting through the master bedroom and bath and taken down pretty much everything (including the things nailed to the wall) on the first floor, and that left the basement.

Inhaling deeply, I opened the door and gazed down the dark staircase. Cement at the bottom. That was good—no reason to suspect it was finished, full of more furniture whose removal I’d have to coordinate. I flicked the switch, but the bulb was dead. It wasn’t pitch-black by any means—there were glass block windows I’d seen from outside that must’ve let in some natural light. I brandished my phone like a flashlight and descended. A few red and green plastic tubs were stacked along the wall beside a metal rack full of tools and a stand-alone freezer. I wandered toward the rack, touching a dust-coated box of light bulbs. My fingers furled around the lid, tugged it open.

One of the light bulbs had already been taken.

Maybe the one that had burned out on the basement stairs.

Maybe Dad had come down here to do something else and realized, like I had, that the switch wasn’t working. He’d taken the bulb out and climbed halfway back up the stairs to where he could replace it without going onto tiptoes.

This time the ache was like a harpoon. Wasn’t the pain supposed to get better over time? When would handling something my dad had touched stop making my chest hurt so badly I couldn’t get a good breath? When would the letter in the gin box stop filling me with dread?


I spun toward the voice, truly expecting to find a ghost, a murderer, or a murderous ghost that had been hiding down here in the belly of the house all along.

Instead I found Gus, backlit from the hall light spilling down the stairs as he leaned down to see me from under the partial wall that lined the top half of the steps.

“Shit,” I gasped, still thrumming with adrenaline.

“The door was unlocked,” he said, padding down the steps. “Kind of freaked me out seeing the basement door open.”

“Freaked me out hearing someone’s voice in the basement when I thought I was alone.”

“Sorry.” He looked around. “Not much down here.”

“No sex dungeon,” I agreed.

“Was that ever on the table?” he asked.

“Shadi was hopeful.”

“I see.” After a beat of silence, he said, “You know, you don’t have to go through all this. You don’t have to go through any of it, if you don’t want to.”

“Kind of weird to sell a house with dusty tools and a single box of light bulbs in it,” I pointed out. “Falls in the gray zone between fully furnished and empty as shit. Besides, I need the money. Everything must go. It’s a fire sale, of sorts. In that this is my alternative to lighting the house on fire and trying to score the insurance money.”

“That’s actually what I came to talk to you about,” he said.

I gaped at him. “You were going to suggest we burn my house down as part of an arson insurance scam?”

“Potato salad,” he said. “I should’ve mentioned that there is absolutely no need to bring anything to Pete and Maggie’s Fourth of July party. In fact, anything you bring will just end up sitting underneath a table that’s already too full of everything they’ve provided and then they’ll send it home with you at the end of the night. If you try to leave it as a gesture, you’ll find it in your purse, hot and moldy, three days from now.”

“They’ll provide everything?” I said.


“Even White Russians?”

Gus nodded.

“What about rocks? Will there be rocks, or should I bring my own? Just as casual conversation starters.”

“I just realized something,” Gus said. “You’re no longer invited.”

“Oh, I’m definitely invited,” I said. “They won’t turn someone with rocks away.”

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