“Sorry, I was showering. I’ll get everyone under control.”
“Just showering?” Bethany narrowed her gaze. “I call bullshit.”
Their mother waded in between them. “Girls. This is about uniting us ladies, isn’t it?” She clucked her tongue. “Bickering sends the wrong message.”
“Mom, our meetings are ninety percent bickering.”
“It’s how we communicate,” Bethany agreed.
Vivian shook her head. “Sad.”
More women swelled in from the porch, squashing everyone closer together. Above their heads, Georgie could see the white serving tray coming back empty. Kristin appeared a moment later, looking out of breath. “Well, those went over like a house on fire, Miss Rosie! They’re hankering for more.” A glint of steel flashed in her eyes. “Meanwhile, no one has even touched my corn muffins.”
Bethany swiped a hand through their huddle. “Look, I’m glad so many women are interested in joining the club, but we have to whittle down the pack. We can’t accommodate this many people effectively.”
“On it,” Georgie said, climbing onto a stool and giving a two-finger whistle. When every head whipped in her direction, self-consciousness tried to nudge her back down. A few weeks ago, she would have been terrified to stand up in front of all these women. But then she thought of all the progress she’d made with her entertainment company. Thought of how she’d spoken up at family dinner and made her opinion matter. Lastly, she thought of Travis and how they’d formed a team. It might not be forever, but right now she could feel his presence at her back. “First of all, thank you, everyone, for your interest in joining the Just Us League.”
“Fuck them all!” someone yelled from the back of the room.
Georgie gestured to her mother to make her a mimosa. “This is going to be tough to hear, but I need everyone to be honest.” She paused. “I’m not sure how Kristin lured you here. But if you’re here for the free food, please take a slice of pizza or an empanada and go about your day. No lookie-loos.”
Half the room headed for the door, slices in hand.
“Thank you for your honesty.”
Her sister gave a sigh of relief, giving a lazy spin in the newly vacated space around her. Vivian appeared disgusted as she handed Georgie a glass of champagne and orange juice.
“The Just Us League was formed by Rosie, Bethany, and I because we wanted to accomplish something. Individually and together. We have goals. If you can relate . . . if you need help doing the same—and are willing to actively support other club members—we’d love for you to stay.”
“I thought this was about saying sayonara to the menfolk!”
Georgie was pretty sure the woman who yelled that statement was one and the same with fuck them all lady. “That’s not all it’s about . . .”
“Careful . . .” Vivian murmured out of the side of her mouth.
“I mean, certainly, if there is a negative influence in your life, you should, um”—Georgie took a long sip of her mimosa—“examine that.”
A hand went up in the living room. She looked familiar to Georgie, but she couldn’t quite place her. Still, she smiled, encouraging her to proceed. “Kristin told us all that this club is about empowering ourselves. But she also confirmed the rumor that you’re dating Travis Ford. He was at a family dinner and everything.” She crossed her arms. “It’s no secret Travis goes through women like water. How are we supposed to listen to your advice when you can’t even follow it yourself?”
A murmur went up around the room.
Bethany took a position in front of Georgie. “Bad form calling her out in front of—”
“No,” Georgie said, patting her sister’s shoulder. “It’s okay. She’s right. But seriously, Kristin, you’re, like, two seconds away from getting voted off the island.”
Kristin slumped against the kitchen wall and stuffed an empanada into her mouth. “Oh,” she sniffed. “These are so much better than my corn muffins.”
No sooner had Kristin taken her second bite of the empanada than Stephen came striding into the house—once again with wet hair. He said nothing as he hustled his wife out the door. And his scowl ensured that nobody tried to stop him.
With the interruption over, Georgie faced the room again. Yes, the plan had been to convince the town, her family, and the press that she was dating Travis. She’d engaged in deception with open eyes. But standing in front of this room of women who were looking to her for guidance? She couldn’t find it in her to lie anymore. So she told the truth. “He cut down a branch from the tree I used to climb as a child. And when I got home yesterday, he was in my backyard sawing and sanding. Turning it into a new fireplace mantel for me.”
Gasps went up around the room.
“I know, right? So . . . people make mistakes. Like organizing a dating competition when the prize has no interest in being won,” she said, giving some of the offenders a pointed look. “Sometimes when you don’t know a person, it’s hard to understand why they do things, right?” The pounding started in her chest. “I’m not asking you to change your opinion of Travis, but I’m asking you not to let someone make it for you. That is the purpose of this club. We’re not about cutting people out of our lives. We’re about refusing to accept anything less than what we deserve. About realizing that we’re all important here despite mistakes or bad relationships or lackluster careers. Even someone with the nickname Two Bats. No one ask me if it’s accurate.” She refocused on the woman in the crowd. “To answer your original question, I’m not asking anyone to follow my advice. We’re all here to learn and grow. Starting now. Who is with us?”
Georgie almost fell off the stool when everyone started clapping. They were with her, Georgie Castle. Could it mean they viewed her not only as an equal, but as a mature voice of reason? She’d been fake dating Travis in order to force everyone to view her through a different lens, but she’d ended up doing it on her own without even realizing it, hadn’t she? She’d found a new way to make people listen.
She climbed off the stool, only to be wrapped in a bear hug by Bethany. “All right,” her sister shouted over her head. “Who’s ready to kick ass and take names?”
Everyone converged on them, champagne glasses lifted in a salute.
“If you’re serious about being a member,” Bethany continued, “you can all start by signing up for the Tough Mudder on Friday.”
Another dozen women blew out the front door.
Travis stared across the street at his childhood home.
The rain had let up, but it still tapped from the roof of the rusted detached garage, probably due to a leak. Beer cans littered the yard, courtesy of local kids. A tree root came up through the walkway, cracking the concrete in half.
He wasn’t sure how he’d gotten there. Only that he’d been restless as soon as Georgie left him this morning. So he’d gotten in his truck and driven there. To the scene of his nightmares.
Upon pulling up, his first thought had been a wish that he’d waited and brought Georgie along. His stomach would still be tied up in knots, but they wouldn’t be nearly as tight. She would say the exact right thing. Would read his mood and know when to push, to pull, to do nothing.
With a growl of irritation, he crossed the street and walked into his yard for the first time since he’d left for Northwestern. Since he’d walked out with a suitcase full of the essentials and never looked back. His boots kicked through the gravel, rain landing on his shoulders. Again, he wished for Georgie’s presence. But overall, it wasn’t so bad. Those nights he’d sat outside waiting for his father to get home—or for his mother to pick him up—the yard had seemed so huge and dark. Now? Now everything looked smaller than his memories. Like the set of a bad play.
Even though his name was on the deed, he didn’t have a key. Opening the door was no problem, though, since the hinges were disintegrating with rust. One kick of his boot and the thing swung open. A cat went streaking out through his legs, issuing a loud yowl. Travis took a few seconds to center himself and stepped inside.
The house layout never made sense to him—and still didn’t. There was no entryway or hall. The house simply began with the kitchen. All the furniture was gone, but the terrible green floral wallpaper had stood the test of time, and the floor was yellow with age. The house remained silent, except for the patter of rain on the roof, and Travis half expected to hear the tinny cackle of a television studio audience coming from his father’s room down the hall. That’s where the old man always stayed, leaving Travis to his own devices. Occasionally, they would cross paths on the way to the bathroom, and he swore the frown lines on his father’s face deepened every time, the bitter cascading off him in waves.
“Could I do better than this?”
A mental image of his wretched apartment before Georgie helped him clean made Travis doubtful. Something was prodding him, though. A need he’d never felt before to put down roots, without the visage of his youth haunting him and telling him it wasn’t possible. Why now? Why was he suddenly anxious to shed this final piece of his past so he could start building something new?