Char was frowning at both Stone and me, but put her hand back to her side. “Yeah. I’m back.” She gestured to the booths behind her. “Got a cheap ticket and flew back, surprised everyone just as you guys left. They weren’t expecting me and voilà.” She indicated the bar around us. “We’re here to celebrate.”
I caught sight of Wyatt and Noel making a point to drink gulpfuls of beer.
That eased some of the knot in me, but Nicole wasn’t saying anything. Mia had followed to stand behind Char. She looked more constipated than normal, but knowing Mia, this could’ve been her trying to be supportive of a friend she was still hurt by. It was also a show of solidarity and she was there. Yeah. That’s what that look relayed on her face.
Savannah just had her mouth closed tight, her arms folded over her chest. She was sitting back in the corner. Noel on one side. Wyatt on the other. Lisa hadn’t gotten up. I noted that. How’d I miss that?
“And,” Char was talking as if none of what I was noticing was happening, as if everyone was happy-go-lucky to have her back. “Don’t worry. I won’t kick you out of my room, not just yet. You can take a couple weeks to look for a new place. My family has an apartment here, downtown. I’ll stay there. And I’m not joining C&B until next semester so it’s not like the commute’s going to be a nag. I’m sure they’ll all come see me half the time.”
I didn’t want to move out.
I knew it then, and hearing that I’d have to, I didn’t want to. I wanted to keep what Stone and I were doing. Maybe in the future, we’d have that conversation, but it was too soon. Living together was serious, and I wasn’t ready. I was enjoying what we had.
As if feeling my turmoil, Stone had enough. He asked her, “Who’s your man?”
“Your man. You got a man?”
She blinked, taken aback by how blunt he was being. “No.”
“Who’s your handler then? Who handles you in this group?”
“Uh.” She looked behind her, and hearing that, Mia stepped forward, but she was still frowning.
“I think I do.”
Stone frowned. “You don’t sound so sure.”
She was eyeing Char before a look flashed over her. Her face cleared and she was set. “Because you can’t come back and declare it’s your room again. You left us. Like, completely. We had no clue what you were doing, where you were, until the day before Dusty showed up. And we didn’t make it super easy for her to be in the house.”
Stone’s hand pressed on my back. He shifted, standing closer to me.
Mia still just looked so annoyed. She said to me, “I said it before, but I’m so sorry for being such a bitch. Now I care about you and I worry about you and you,” she turned to Stone, huffing, “you better be good to her or I will hurt you. Somehow. Lisa and I will both hurt you. We’re the vengeful ones in the group. Sav’s the prim and proper one, and Nicole’s the nice one. Char was just the bitchy one of us, but not anymore.” She turned to her old best friend, now on a roll. Her head went higher. The Greek goddess look was coming back as she straightened to her full height. “You’re back. Fine. Welcome home, but not in the house. We got Dusty now, and we’re not letting her go. You, we can work on being friends again if you apologize for what you did to us.” She twisted around, looking at Savannah and Lisa. Both were watching. We were within hearing distance, a fact that Char was noting, too, because none of the others were speaking up. Guys either. Her face was getting more and more pale as Mia went. And Mia wasn’t done. She added, nodding to herself, “Right. Yes. It’s decided. You left us in the lurch. You don’t get to just come back. As long as Dusty wants the room, and she’s got the basement room.”
Char winced, sucking in her breath. “No!”
“She gets to keep it.”
She finished, and no one said a word.
I didn’t look, but I could feel Stone’s amusement. He didn’t like hearing they’d been not so nice to me, but everything else, he’d been keeping in his laughter. Now he ducked down, saying softly enough so only I could hear, “Colby and Jake would’ve sold a jersey to witness something like that. Who’s this chick again?”
I elbowed him but fighting my own grin.
“You guys hated on me dating Brian.”
Now it was Char’s turn, and she’d snapped back. Her face was filling with color.
I had to give her props because she’d bounced back quick. She’d been pale up to the last second Mia stopped talking.
“That again?!” Mia rolled her eyes.
“Yes, that again. I loved him and you and Lisa were riding my ass, saying what a dick he was, saying I shouldn’t date him. You know how that makes me feel? Great supportive friends, huh. You made him dump me because of your bitching.”
Lisa was pushing out of the booth, a finger in the air, and she was coming in real hard. “Brian Caldriona is an idiot and he was not worthy of dating you. And he proved that fact. He rebounded by banging Vallia Cortega.”
Char sucked in her breath again. “He didn’t.”
She looked at Mia.
Who nodded, her hand resting on her hip. “He did. Week after you left for Greece, he went through half her sorority house.”
Another sucking in of air. “That piss ant. He knows I hated her. That’s why he banged her.”
“See.” Both Lisa and Mia. At the same time.
Char’s mouth pressed together, fury was tightening her face. “But whatever. I can destroy him before lunch tomorrow. You. Me. Us.” She waved between the three of them. “I need you guys back. It was so hard being in Greece without you guys. I mean, yeah. My new boyfriend chartered a boat for us and they had chocolate-dipped strawberries and would make us truffle fries at our request, and their coffee was divine and the wine and cheese, don’t get me started, but I didn’t have you guys. I needed you guys.”
Nicole tugged on the back of my dress, motioning to go back a few feet.
Stone read the situation and leaned in. “Grabbing a table just for us, some beer and food. Find me?”
I nodded. That was always easy. He’d be surrounded by at least a couple guys. It happened every time. They all wanted to talk football, and especially with Stone Reeves.
Nicole indicated the girls. “Don’t worry about Char. Those three will make up, probably tonight. They’re halfway there, but Mia meant what she said. We’d all talked about it a couple weeks ago because Char sent an email, hinting she was coming back. We took a vote. Three to zero, but not about if we’d kick you out for her. It was if we’d find a room somewhere in the house for Char. Mia was the holdout because she didn’t vote. She didn’t know what she wanted.” Her eyes trailed past my shoulders, going to the girls again. “Looks like she decided. Char’s not in until she majorly kisses ass. Between you and me, Char will be our sixth roommate by next semester. That’s just how those three are, hot and cold, but usually always hot together. And again, that room is yours for as long as you want it.” She turned, finding Stone and nodding at him. “Unless you and he are moving in together?”
I wasn’t ready. I just wasn’t ready.
“I think if that happens, it’ll be later, much later. Like senior year later.”
“Good.” Nicole seemed relieved. “I have to ask. It’s been on my mind, but I know you’re going for marine biology, but I don’t know. Your cooking, it’s fucking phenomenal. You could go to culinary school and be a personal chef. I mean, you got the hookup.” She went back to watching Stone, who, as I knew would happen, was now talking to two guys.
Had I thought about being a chef? Yes. Stone suggested the same thing a week ago, but the marine biology thing stuck deep in me. It was my vow, and who knew. Maybe I’d do both at some point. I didn’t know, but I didn’t have to make that decision.
I had time.
I had lots of time.
And I felt good knowing that.
Instead of answering Nicole, I went over to Char.
She stopped talking, blinking at me. “Yes?”
“You owe me a full month’s rent.” I narrowed my eyes. “And if you don’t pay, I can make your life hell.”
Her mouth opened but held there.
Mia clamped a hand on her arm. “Don’t even think it. We will back her up in a heartbeat, Char.”
Char’s mouth closed. She nodded to me. “You’ll get the check tomorrow.”
“Good.” I grinned at the rest. “Now, excuse me. I’m going to go sit with my boyfriend.”
And that’s what I did. As I went, I heard, “Blue!” Looking over, Joe slid a beer toward me. I reached out a hand just in time, and the mug slid right into my palm, splashing a little. He tipped his head. “Nice to see you enjoying life right now, but can you take a shift in two days? You never answered my text.”
A second laugh from me. I was letting more and more of those out. “Thanks, Joe. And yes. I’ll cover the shift.”