“But I think I will,” she said in a drawn-out whisper, edging into the sunlight.
Travis watched in exasperation as Georgie passed in front of the plateglass window, while pretending to be on a down escalator. “Is she always like this?”
Again, that weird roll of discomfort tried to pass through him, but he batted it away. “Your sister.”
“Oh, Georgie? Pretty much.” Stephen’s voice came from right behind Travis, prompting him to turn and shake the other man’s hand. “You still look like shit, but you’ve moved to a step above corpse.”
“Yeah? I’ll rebound.” He forced a grin. “You’ll look like shit forever.”
Tight-lipped and grim-faced, Stephen wasn’t a man given to laughing. His snort was his closest mirth indicator. With a chin jerk, he stomped back toward his desk and took a long sip of what appeared to be a fruit smoothie. “Saw you talking to a girl outside.” His stare was baleful. “Did she land the coveted first date?”
Travis dropped into the chair facing Stephen’s desk. “Come again?”
“Kristin tells me there’s something of an informal competition brewing in Port Jeff. Now that you’ve finally emerged from your hovel, I’m guessing it’s game on.”
A vein started to pound behind Travis’s eye. “Let me get this straight. There’s a competition and the object is to date me?”
“What I do is the opposite of dating. I do not date.”
“I didn’t either until I met Kristin.” He nodded, obviously preparing to tell Travis the same story he’d related several times over the phone and would probably tell another nine hundred times throughout his life. Christ, his best friend was already such a dad. Travis couldn’t even commit to a toothpaste brand. “She was on vacation in New York, visiting from Georgia. Saw her crossing an intersection in Manhattan. I pulled over, asked her to lunch, and she never went home.”
“I told you before, bro. That sounds more like kidnapping.”
Stephen let that go without comment. “What can I do for you, Travis? I’m guessing you didn’t come here looking for a job.”
There was a pinch in his chest at the prospect of signing on for a daily grind. Forming a routine. Those things meant devoting himself. Having people count on him. Being on a team. When a man’s usefulness ran out, Travis knew very well what happened, but he had no choice. Rotting away in a one-bedroom wasn’t an option, no matter how much he wanted it to be. “Actually, I did. Come here to look for a job.”
His oldest friend sat forward in his chair. “I know how many zeroes were attached to those contracts you signed, man. You don’t need the work.”
“Need? No.” Georgie’s voice caught him off guard for the tenth time that day. The guy we all looked up to is a drunk slob. “I just need something to keep me busy until I figure out my next move,” he said quickly, trying to dispel the words in his head. “Wasn’t so long ago I used to swing the hammer for extra cash during summer vacation. Your father taught us carpentry at the same time. Anything I forgot, I can relearn on the fly.”
“I hire serious candidates only.” Stephen steepled his fingers. “Men looking to grow with the company and be in it for the long haul.”
“I don’t offer the long haul to anybody.”
A muscle twitched in his friend’s cheek as they faced off across the desk. Finally, Stephen picked up a pen and wrote something down, sliding the piece of paper across the desk toward Travis. “Here’s the address of our current flip. This is where you’d be working to start.”
Travis held up the note, giving it a cursory glance. And then he read it again, a pit yawning wide in his stomach. “This is across the street from . . .”
Regret darkened Stephen’s eyes. “I know. It’s a pretty fucked-up coincidence,” he said. “That going to be a problem?”
“Nope. Ancient history.” He shoved the paper into his pocket and stood. “See you there.”
He knew if he turned around, Stephen’s expression would call bullshit, so he kept walking, doing his best to ignore the foreboding in his gut.
Georgie gave her blueberry compote a final stir and stepped back from the counter, wiping sticky hands down her apron. Bacon warmed in the oven alongside Belgian waffles. She’d stayed up late whipping cream with her new hand mixer and had taken only seven finger swipes out of it since waking up this morning—but who was counting? In an exciting twist, she’d timed everything right for her first time cooking for more than one—painfully single—person.
It was her first time entertaining in her new home, period.
Georgie still couldn’t believe it. She had a house now. Granted, the Castle family business thrived on the art of sniffing out real estate deals, so she’d bought the two-bedroom ranch for a song and it still needed a lot of work. But it was hers. Not bad for a birthday party clown. Speaking of which, she had a dozen phone calls to return as soon as this brunch ended. Port Jefferson had exactly one clown and she was in high demand. It was how she’d managed the down payment on the house. Unfortunately, half the calls were from new customers who wanted a cotton candy machine, pony rides, magicians, princesses.
And she’d have to turn those jobs down.
A familiar hint of panic crept into her throat. Her fledgling clown business, along with some help from her parents, had put her through college, but it no longer seemed as sustainable. She did her best to keep the act fresh and cater to new trends, but kids’ birthday parties were a competitive racket. Parents wanting to outdo each other were beginning to look outside of Port Jeff for their entertainment needs. What was Georgie going to do about that? With a mortgage to pay, the future of her one-woman show had begun weighing more and more heavily on her mind.
Don’t worry about it now. Not when there’s compote to be consumed, parents and siblings to impress, and mimosas to drink. And Travis.
As if she could forget about Travis and his big, beautiful, brooding self.
Would he come?
No. Of course he wouldn’t. He’d barely given her the time of day when she was a kid. What made her think this guy who’d been wined, dined, and invited to the White House would be interested in having brunch with a girl who’d chucked rotting food at his head? Still. It didn’t hurt to imagine him waltzing through the swinging door of her kitchen with that amazing animal grace, that tongue tucked into his lower lip as if he just had to utilize it at all times. Guh.
Pressing her hand to her pounding heart, Georgie checked the clock on the oven. She would find out if he’d show soon enough. There was only ten minutes to go until everyone started to arrive.
Telling her nerves to hit the road, Georgie took the pitcher of mimosas out of the fridge, arranging it at an artistic angle on the kitchen table. She couldn’t stop herself from taking her cell phone out and snapping a few pictures in portrait mode.
“Okay,” she muttered under her breath. “I’m one of these smug foodie people now.”
Before she could post the picture to Instagram, the phone dinged with an incoming text message. It was from her sister, Bethany.
B: Can’t make it. That asshole community theater director broke up with me during the appetizers last night and I self-medicated with Cuervo. Rain check next week?
Georgie slumped into a kitchen chair, her fingers poised to reply. She typed a message imploring her sister to come, then deleted it and sent a thumbs-up instead. No big deal. Stephen and Kristin were coming, weren’t they? Her brother could eat enough to feed a small village—a way better brunch guest than Bethany, the perpetual dieter.
Fifteen minutes later, the pitcher of mimosas had started to sweat. A check of the waffles in the oven confirmed they were beginning to dry out. She paced the kitchen with her cell in hand for another five minutes before sending a text to Kristin.
G: You guys coming to brunch?
Ten seconds later her phone dinged.
K: What brunch, sweetie?
Georgie’s eyes closed slowly, the phone dropping to her side. The brunch had been so unimportant to her brother, he hadn’t even remembered to tell his wife. God, now if her parents showed up, her father would shuffle the floor like a loose end. Without Stephen around for Brick & Morty shop talk, his restlessness would be obvious, even if he tried to pretend otherwise. Her mother would poke her husband and send him dagger eyes until he relaxed, but did Georgie want to inconvenience them?
Quickly, she fired off a text to her mother.
G: Mom, we’re moving brunch to next weekend. I overslept.
She tacked on a befuddled emoji for good measure.
Her phone buzzed.
M: Are you sure, honey? We’re halfway there. I can help whip something up.
G: I’m sure. Go split your favorite pancakes at the Waterfront, instead ;)
That was it. All that work and no one was coming.
She pressed the pads of her thumbs into her eye sockets and sighed. She’d been holding out hope that buying the house would force everyone to recognize her as a fellow adult, but maybe such a feat was impossible this late in the game. Her parents loved her, but they’d been exhausted by the time their third child came along. Whereas her siblings were given careful attention and had their paths carved into the family business, Georgie had been left to figure shit out on her own. Since they’d always thought of her as the family clown, she’d embraced it. Whether she loved her job or not, maybe her career choice had guaranteed their seeming lack of esteem.