“I don’t like to feel sedated,” he countered. “I want to be present.”
“I don’t want you to suffer,” I argued.
“It’s not your decision to make.”
After a ten-minute argument, in which I badgered him to call Grant and failed to convince him, I dragged myself to the open kitchen area, joining the rest of the family. I left Dad in Clementine’s room, too angry to look him in the face. When I got to the kitchen (more chandeliers, crème-and-gold countertops, flower-patterned fucking everything, and no trace of actual food), I stopped dead in my tracks.
Booger Face was sitting on the counter, dangling her purple sneakers in the air, laughing in delight. Mad was twisting Clementine’s unruly orange hair into a french braid, blabbering about warrior princesses. Amber was side-eyeing them behind her flute of champagne, not even pretending to listen to my mother’s litany of every store in town that had run out of the sandals she was after. Julian, who stood next to his wife, gave me a death stare, his white-knuckled hold on his champagne nearly smashing the glass to dust. A stab of petty glee prickled my chest.
Madison was giving them no reason to suspect we were less than two lovebirds. Good. So good, in fact, I had to remind myself why having a girlfriend, even if it was sexy, capable Madison, wasn’t a good idea:
Girlfriends wanted to get married at some point. Most of them, anyway.
I didn’t want to get married at any point.
If I were to date Madison—which, again, would never happen—I would be suspicious and resentful. I’d make her miserable beyond belief. Losing her for the second time would be embarrassing to the point I’d have no choice but to punch my own face.
Punching myself in the face, deliberately, was very low on my to-do list.
I sauntered into the kitchen, dropping a kiss on Clementine’s crown of crazy orange hair. I wrapped my arm around Madison. “What’s good?”
“Everything!” Mom turned to me, her voice shrill. “Everything is great. The banana bread looks delicious. Thank you, Maddie.”
“Looks awfully similar to the one they sell at Levain down the road,” Amber muttered into her drink. Her short red minidress was perfect for a pelvic examination or amateur college porn.
“Been hitting the bakery often, Am?” I deliberately swept my eyes along her toned, fit frame just for shits and giggles.
She turned the color of her dress, narrowing her eyes at me. “Actually, I lost three pounds. I’m doing this new hot sculpt yoga class five times a week.”
“Your accomplishments know no bounds.”
“What about you, Maddie—do you exercise?” She turned to my fake fiancée, smiling at her sweetly.
Madison, pretending to be oblivious to her host’s passive-aggressiveness, snapped Booger Face’s braid in a thin pink elastic. “Not unless you count walking from the living room to the kitchen to fetch some ice cream while The Walking Dead is on commercial break. I really should switch to AMC Premiere, but I need the physical activity. And there are so many commercial breaks.”
I stifled a grin, delighted by Mad’s response to a paling, thoroughly annoyed Amber.
“Wow. I can’t imagine my life without working out.” Amber played with her diamond necklace.
“It’s a terrible existence,” Maddie agreed easily, “but someone’s gotta do it.”
I wanted to kiss her.
I wanted to kiss her bad.
The fact I technically could, because she was my so-called fiancée, didn’t help matters. I knew Martyr Maddie wouldn’t slap me in the face if I tried to kiss her publicly, but I couldn’t muster enough assholeness to go from rude and surly to straight-up bastard.
The meal was buffet-style. All the dishes were still in their prepacked catering containers, spread across the massive U-shaped kitchen island. As with everything Julian and his wife did, it was beautifully impersonalized.
There were honey-glazed crab cakes and artichoke bottoms stuffed with crabmeat, miso-marinated Hawaiian butterfish and cucumber bites. This time, Mad took a chance on most of the dishes. It was Clementine who sat in horror in front of her plate, her big green eyes staring at the heap of dead sea creatures.
“But Mom . . . ,” she kept saying. “Mommy. Mommy. Mom. Mommy.”
“Jesus Christ, Julian, just give her some Cheerios,” Amber finally snapped, when it was obvious she couldn’t continue telling Katie her story of how she’d been mistaken for Kate Hudson at Saks Fifth Avenue.
“But I don’t want Cheerios.” Clementine pouted, her brows diving down. “I’m tired of eating them all the time. I want Grandma’s pancakes.”
“Grandma doesn’t have that special grandma mix.” Mom dropped her utensils on her plate, her eyes softening. Clementine spent a good amount of time at my parents’ house, and Mom braved the kitchen to treat her granddaughter to the one thing she made by herself and didn’t ask the cook to fix—instant mix pancakes.
It was my understanding that Amber and Julian’s relationship was an endless string of arguments, with Julian getting kicked out of the house frequently and Amber crying herself to sleep on a weekly basis. My parents tried to shield Booger Face from this reality as much as they could.
Madison watched the exchange with thinly masked alert. I could see the wheels in her brain turning. She didn’t want to overstep, but she didn’t like Amber’s treatment of Booger Face. I didn’t think anyone did. That kid lived off cereal, Pop-Tarts, and air.
“What mix do you usually use?” Madison turned to my mother, placing a hand on her wrist. “For the pancakes?”
“Okay, so flour, sugar, eggs, water, milk, and salt. Hershey’s Kisses if you have them too. Where’s your pantry?” She turned to Amber, her eyes daring her host to refuse. Yet again, I found myself hard. Was there anything Madison did that didn’t give me a raging erection? I tried to think. I hadn’t been hard when she’d assaulted the banana bread publicly. Although, if I was being honest, she’d still looked fuckable. Tie-able, too, though.
Amber smiled politely. “She can eat what everyone else is eating. In our household, everyone is having the same dish or no food at all. It’s a parent thing. You wouldn’t understand.”
Right under the belt. I looked over at Madison, who kept her smile fresh and sweet.