Georgie tightened her hoodie strings as she walked into the torture palace, also known as Fun ’n’ Flirty Fitness. She’d been inside this place once before for an introductory yoga class—and that time had also been her sister-in-law’s fault. Kristin couldn’t seem to stop getting certified in things. Yoga. Zumba. Life coaching. Seriously. Pick a lane. In Stephen’s ongoing quest to keep Kristin as happy as a frolicking bunny, he’d issued the demand for his sisters to make an appearance at Kristin’s first official night as a Zumba instructor. The timing could not be better.
She signed in at the front desk and moped down the hallway, wishing she’d gotten lucky and contracted malaria. An infectious disease was the only way Stephen would let her off the hook, although he’d probably still be pissed about her canceling. The Castle family operated by a strict set of unspoken rules that must never be tested. One, their mother was a saint and must be treated thusly and obeyed in all things, lest the sky come crashing down. Two, when their mother wasn’t around, Stephen was next in line to the throne. It had been that way since Georgie was a child, and even though she thought it was bullshit, following his directives was as deeply ingrained as the Bob’s Burgers theme music.
Georgie stopped in front of the dark, empty aerobics room, wondering if she’d gotten the day mixed up. No, no. It was definitely Tuesday. The day Travis was supposed to come over and help her realize her dreams of fireplace glory.
The pressure in her chest had been growing stronger since this afternoon. By now, it felt like a pair of pliers was digging into her heart. God, I’m such an idiot.
She’d worn her hair down and everything. Made a cheese plate. Cleaned.
Just thinking about it made her want to die.
In a burst of much-needed movement, Georgie slapped on the light in the aerobics room, tossed her duffel near the stacked mats, and plopped cross-legged in the center of the floor. Maybe Zumba would be good for her. She could sweat out some of the shame.
She turned her head and caught her reflection in the mirrored wall, jolting when she saw the girl with tearstained cheeks. A girl who’d cried for an hour over a man who thought of her as a dumb little sister, just like everyone else.
Georgie had stuck her business degree diploma in a drawer and become a clown for a reason. Making people laugh and spreading joy made her happy. Especially when it came to children. Perhaps her youngest-sibling status made her relate to little kids more. They were talked down to and dictated to about their wide-eyed naivete, just like her. Whatever the reason for her unusual career path, Georgie adored children and dreamed of having her own someday. Performing at birthday parties and bat mitzvahs never failed to be the highlight of her week.
She adored being a clown. She didn’t appreciate being made to feel like one, though, and it seemed to be happening more and more lately.
The twist in her chest intensified, just in time for Bethany to waltz into the room in a toss of blond hair and a flash of dazzling white teeth. “Hell? Party of two?” She dropped her black Chanel bag in a pile with Georgie’s ancient gym duffel, falling into a perfect stretch beside her younger sister on the floor. Effortlessly glamorous. That was Bethany. “What’s wrong?”
“Are you sure? You seem even more depressed than this situation warrants.”
“I said it’s nothing.” Georgie spread her legs in a V and crawled forward, enjoying the vicious tug in her hamstrings. “Shouldn’t the instructor be here first?”
“Changing the subject. Noted.” Bethany poked her in the side. “You have your period?”
“Why even remark on it?”
Bethany shrugged. “Just making conversation until you tell me what’s wrong. You blow-dried your hair. I know it wasn’t for this shit show.” Bethany leaned into Georgie’s line of sight. “Tell me.”
“Travis didn’t show up to look at my fireplace today!” Georgie exploded, pressing fingers to the ache in her chest. “I don’t know why I expected him to remember. It’s not like it was set in stone. But he remembered brunch when no one else did. I thought . . .”
“Wait. Whoa, whoa. Back up. Travis who? Ford?” Bethany did an exaggerated double take. “What is wrong with your chimney and why is that philandering asshole going anywhere near it?”
“It’s my fireplace, not my chimney—and don’t call him that.”
“Why not? You didn’t go to high school with him, Georgie. He plowed through half the senior class. Before midterms. What happened after graduation is well documented. He more than lived up to the title of philanderer.” Bethany’s love-hate relationship with men showed through in most instances, but apparently hate was edging out love in her post-breakup state of mind. “He’s the one the assholes look up to. I know, because I’ve essentially dated all of his wannabes. It’s going to get even worse now that he’s back in town.” Visibly calming herself, Bethany tilted her head at Georgie. “But I digress. Please tell me why you’re fraternizing with Travis Ford.”
Georgie might regret unburdening herself in front of ballsy ball-breaker Bethany in the morning. Right now, though, the humiliation wouldn’t be contained. “I’ve been in love with him as far back as I can remember. Obviously there’s no chance of him being interested in me like that. I’m not delusional, but he seemed like he needed a friend and so do I. We hung out a few times.” She gave Bethany the sister death glare. “Nothing happened, so please don’t tell Stephen any of this.”
“Ugh. I knew you were going to say that.” Bethany tapped her fingers on her knees. “Really, though. He shouldn’t be sniffing around you in any capacity. Stephen would shit a Cadillac.”
“Everyone seems to think so.”
“Is this . . . Zumba?” asked a soft, hesitant voice from the doorway.
There stood Rosie, Dominic’s wife, thus sealing Georgie’s utter embarrassment. Especially in the face of Rosie’s quiet but stunning beauty. In this garish light, Georgie was a paste monster, whereas the department store perfume girl glowed golden brown. She didn’t even have to wear a sports bra, just one of those spaghetti-strap tanks with a built-in panel that Georgie had always been too self-conscious to try out. Rosie pulled off the abbreviated attire with ease, but as usual, she seemed a little uncomfortable in their company. Possibly because her husband was an employee of their family business. At the annual Brick & Morty picnic, Georgie had exchanged small talk with her—and God knows, rumors of her marriage being on the rocks had reached everyone—but they’d never really had an in-depth conversation. She’d always regretted that. Especially since Rosie seemed to lack confidantes, just like her.
“I could just . . .” Rosie tucked her loose black hair behind her ear and backed into the hallway, shoulders hunched. “No big. I can wait out here.”
“No,” Georgie called, desperately trying to dry her eyes with the sleeves of her hoodie. “Come in, Rosie. How much did you hear?”
Every line of her body uncomfortable, Rosie came in and perched slowly on the stack of mats. “Oh. A little.”
“All of it, huh?”
It took Georgie, distracted by their newcomer, a moment to realize Bethany had gone dead silent. She returned her attention to her sister to find Bethany frowning. “Is this why you wanted help picking clothes? Sounds like you might be hoping for a little more than friendship.” Bethany shifted. “You should have told me the truth.”
“I wouldn’t exactly call us confidantes.”
In a million years, Georgie never expected her sister to seem so devastated. Bethany swept through life without a hair out of place. Her role at Brick & Morty was to stage houses, and the final product never failed to elicit gasps from potential buyers. Books stacked according to color. Tasteful pendant lighting. A bowl of buttered croissants and a vase of fresh flowers on the table to make people feel at home. Georgie’s sister never missed a beat, except when it came to choosing men. Right now, though, under the hellish glow of aerobics lighting, Bethany looked like she’d been struck dumb.
“You make a joke out of everything, Georgie. It’s hard to tell sometimes whether you’re genuinely upset or being sarcastic. But I’m your big sister.” Her voice was just a touch uneven. “You’re supposed to come to me with this shit, especially—but not limited to—unrequited love.”
A wrench dropped in Georgie’s stomach. “I’m sorry. But it’s not like you talk to me about your male-related fiascoes, either. I have to hear it from Mom.”
Bethany stared. “I’m embarrassed by them. Every man I date either cheats or can’t commit. Or is already way too committed to his mother. Or PlayStation. I might break up with them, but I’m still being rejected. It’s not exactly something I want to talk about.”
“I would love to hear about your embarrassment.” She waved a hand when Bethany arched a blond brow. “You know what I mean.”
Her older sister chewed her lip, appearing thoughtful. She laid a hand on Georgie’s arm, leaned to the side, and nodded at Rosie. “If you’re finished trying to sink into the exercise mats, you’re welcome to join us, Rosie. Georgie only bites if you take the last strip of bacon.”