“You wish,” she said, dropping the sock into her garbage bag. “We soldier onward. Especially now that you’ve drawn attention to my lack of dates. I have to keep busy now or wallow in pity.”
“Stop.” Travis wiped an unknown substance off the coffee table. “I’d say the problem is everyone in town knows your brother and doesn’t want to piss him off.”
“Again, I assure you, my brother wouldn’t even notice if I started dating.”
Travis watched her work for a moment, remembering not only brunch but the conversation with Stephen in the minivan. “Is it that bad, Georgie?”
She straightened, looking so young and vulnerable that he wondered what was wrong with him, spending time alone with her. Noticing things about her. “Is what that bad?”
Why the hell was he involving himself in this? Travis didn’t know, but he couldn’t seem to stop himself. “You, uh . . . seem to get left out a lot. Or not considered as much as you should.” He went back to cleaning the table. “Starting to think you weren’t exaggerating.”
When Georgie was silent for a few beats, he looked up to find her staring into space. “Remember when you were at my house the other day and you said it’s no one’s fault, you made yourself a joke?”
“Yeah,” he rasped.
“It’s a little like that for me, too. The family was already solid when I was old enough to be part of the conversation. Like all little kids, I got shushed a lot, so I had to be persistent and annoying to be heard. A pest.” She shrugged. “I’m older now, but the dynamics are the same. I guess it’s easier to let them remain than to try to change them. Because what if I failed? Or what if I really am a pest?”
Travis wanted to tell her she wasn’t a pest, despite his own treatment of her. The words were right there on the tip of his tongue, but what if saying so made her comfortable around him? Made her rely on him or view him as a friend? He didn’t want a friend right now, did he? Didn’t want anyone too close. “Families are complicated,” he said, even though it didn’t sound good enough. Wasn’t reassuring in the way her words had been for him. “They probably don’t even know they’re hurting your feelings, baby girl.”
She sighed. “No, I think you’re right about that.”
“I’ve been on teams where one voice always seems to get passed over. When I played on the Hurricanes, they brought a guy up from the minors. A vet. I mean, this guy was in his forties and still grinding. He was dismissed by all the new talent, including me, as an old man. A guy who took decades to be relevant.” He rolled his shoulders. “Right after the injury, I sat beside him in the dugout for several games, and I realized . . . this guy knew more about the game than all of us combined. Pointed out things I never would have seen on my own.” Georgie watched him silently from across the room. “You shouldn’t give up or stop demanding to be heard,” he said, needing to leave her in a better place and having no idea why. “Maybe you just need a different way to make them listen.”
Georgie gave a slow blink. “Thank you for that.”
Refusing to acknowledge his relief that he’d apparently said something right, Travis grunted and went back to tidying. A couple hours later, the credits rolled on the movie to the sound of Madonna’s voice, and Travis realized he’d been standing in the middle of his living room, broom forgotten in hand, for the last twenty minutes. The apartment was pretty damn close to spotless. Where was Georgie?
He found her sprawled facedown on the foot of his bed. Fast asleep.
Travis expected to be annoyed. Instead, he stood there noticing her lack of one sock, as if she’d kicked it off in her sleep. No toenail polish. Her face was pressed to the bedspread and turned to one side, smooshing her face into a pout. If he had any kind of functioning heart left in his chest, he might have found the whole picture she made kind of adorable. Since he didn’t, though, he really needed to figure out how to get her the hell out of there. They had already spent way too much time together. Letting her stay the night at his place crossed a line—and no one on God’s green earth would believe Two Bats had done nothing more with Georgie than clean.
“Hey.” Swallowing a surge of guilt, Travis nudged her shoulder. “Georgie. Wake your ass up.”
“Have you seen Dale?” Georgie muttered in her sleep, clearly nowhere near awake. “I need Dale.”
Georgie’s eyes flew open. Her legs scrambled, but she was too close to the edge of the bed, so her knee found no purchase. She flopped onto the floor before Travis could drop the broom and catch her. “Ouch.”
All right. There might have been a dime-sized portion of heart left rattling around inside of him, because the sight of a sleepy, disoriented Georgie with half her ponytail loose had him kneeling before he could think better of it, one of his hands lifted to run over her hair. “You all right, baby girl?”
She yawned so big, he could see her tonsils. “Are we done cleaning?”
For the second time that night, he got the urge to laugh. “We’re done.”
“I should go.”
He swallowed hard. “It’s for the best.”
Travis helped Georgie climb to her feet, having no choice but to grip her waist when she swayed. Not speculating on what’s under her overalls. No, sir, not me. He was ready to insist on driving her home, but she reanimated by the time they reached the front door, like she’d never been asleep at all. It was kind of freaky, actually. Before she could walk out, she turned back and threw him a smile. “I saw you watching the movie.”
“No, you didn’t.”
“Good night,” she called, going down the stairs. “The rats should leave you alone now.”
He sighed. “Thank you, Georgie.”
“Me and my fireplace will see you Tuesday.”
When Travis closed the door, he could feel the grudging smile trying to mar his face.
Shaking it off with a curse, he stalked off to bed.
Who the hell was Dale?
Georgie circled a garment rack, browsing through hangers of old clothing. When she came to a gray T-shirt with the Port Jefferson High School logo, she tugged it out of the jam-packed row and held it up to face the woman behind the register.
“Hey, I think this used to be mine!”
She got a thumbs-up in return, before the thrift shop owner, Zelda, went back to reading her romance novel. Thus was their dynamic. Sometimes Georgie wondered if Zelda would rather have a completely empty store than have to deal with a customer interrupting her book. In a few minutes, the older woman would finish her chapter, dog-ear the page, and be ready to talk. That was just her process. Georgie was well used to it, considering Second Chance Zelda’s was where she’d been buying her clothes for years.
Being the youngest of the Castle family meant Georgie’s wardrobe growing up consisted of hand-me-downs, from Bethany and Stephen. She’d attended school in patched-up jeans, faded sweaters, and sneakers from five seasons ago. Not that her parents couldn’t afford to buy her new clothes, but Morty Castle came from humble beginnings and didn’t believe in fixing something that wasn’t broken. His credo was what made him so successful in the house-flipping business. Making necessary changes only, focusing on curb appeal and sprucing existing features, had served him well.
Had that logic served Georgie well? Classmates had definitely poked fun at her oversized or unfashionable clothing more than once, but as with most small towns, the past popularity of her siblings had helped curb the bullying. It didn’t hurt that local phenom Travis Ford was a close friend of the family. And finally one day, Georgie reached a point where there were no more hand-me-downs. They’d literally all been handed.
Almost five years had passed since she’d ridden shotgun in her mother’s station wagon on the way to Zelda’s for the first time. The back of the wagon was loaded with decades of Castle kid clothing, ready to be donated. They’d planned to venture to the mall afterward to finally buy Georgie some threads of her own choosing, but she got no farther than the overloaded racks of Zelda’s. It was too late. Secondhand clothes had become her comfort zone. Soft, old camp T-shirts, flannel, discontinued jeans. What could be better?
Lately she’d begun to wonder this very thing. What could be better?
Georgie had two uniforms: a clown costume and thrift shop rejects. Was that part of the reason her family didn’t take her seriously? Because she still dressed the same way she had in elementary school?
She ran her finger down the pleat of a floor-length skirt, letting it drop.
After chewing her lip for a minute, she slipped her cell out of the pocket of her jeans and pulled up her contacts, running her thumb over Bethany’s name. Asking her effortlessly chic sister for fashion advice wasn’t high on her to-do list, but she didn’t have anyone else to call. After graduating from high school in Port Jefferson, people had two options: stick around and marry someone local, or leave for college, club your mate over the head, and drag them home. If you were Port Jeff born, you always ended up back on its shores. Unfortunately, both of Georgie’s closest childhood friends hadn’t quite managed to club an unsuspecting gentleman yet and were still living single in vastly different zip codes.