“Easy, girls. We’re all on the same side, here,” Camille said while I crunched.
Camille and Abby traded knowing glances, and then Abby leaned on the counter next to me. “That’s what we all say. So … are you going to bring that camera to my wedding?”
I looked at the two of them gazing back at me expectantly. Finally, I nodded twice, slow and emphatic. “I’d be honored.”
“America is going to shit,” Camille warned.
Abby seemed amused. “My best friend. She’s planning the whole thing. She doesn’t like it when I interfere.”
“Travis and I eloped, so I sort of owe her one. I don’t want to plan it, anyway, but if we have a photographer in the family now…”
Abby excused herself to the next room where the Maddox boys were sitting around a table staring at the cards in their hands. Abby leaned over her husband’s shoulder to check his hand of cards and whispered in his ear.
“They’re cheating!” Trent said, pointing all four fingers at Travis and Abby.
“We quit playing your wife, Trav,” Tyler said. “If you don’t knock it off, we’ll stop letting you play, too.”
“Fuck all of you. You’re just jealous,” Travis said, kissing Abby’s cheek.
Tyler glanced at me for half a second before returning his attention to his cards.
My stomach sank. Travis and Abby, disgustingly happy and shameless in their PDA, were where Tyler thought we were headed. That was why he refused to believe me or even listen. He knew Travis and Abby had survived whatever they’d been through and thought we could do the same.
I hopped off the counter and tugged on the handle of the fridge, seeing bottles of Sam Adams lined along the shelf in the door. I grabbed one and popped the top, taking a swig. My body instantly relaxed, and I let my worries and guilt slip away.
I shook my head, beginning to voice my doubts, but Tyler interrupted. “Yep. We’ll be going back to Colorado for my birthday, though. Taylor’s decided he wants to throw a party.”
Abby’s mouth pulled to the side. “I hate that you guys live so far away. You could sell insurance here, you know.”
Tyler shifted, and I saw recognition flicker in Abby’s eyes. She was a human lie detector. She knew they weren’t being honest.
“Yeah, but what we do is good money, Abby. And we like Colorado.”
“You boys are doing well. Keep doing what you’re doing if it’s what you love,” Jim said. He and Abby traded glances.
“Does anyone know the Latino gentleman who’s been parked out front in a rented Lexus for the last half hour?” Jim asked.
Abby ran to the window to see, and the boys’ expressions immediately turned severe. Chairs grated against the faded, chipped tile floor of the dining room as they stood to walk across the small house, between the sofa and television, to look out the windows. They discussed the driver for a moment, none of them recognizing who it was, but they all seemed sure their dad was correct that he was staking the house.
I wondered if it was Trex, and Tyler was feigning ignorance, but he wasn’t that good of a liar, and Abby didn’t seem to pick up on it.
I walked up behind Tyler, peeking over his shoulder, immediately cringing. “Holy fuck.”
“What?” Tyler said, turning to face me. “You know who that is?”
The Maddox family turned their attention on me, and I recoiled, sick with embarrassment. “It’s Marco.”
I looked up at Tyler from under my lashes, humiliated to even say the words. “My sister’s lady sitter. She must have sent him to keep an eye on me.”
Tyler pointed at the window. “I’ve seen him before.”
“Yeah, he took Finley and me home from the bar once.”
“No, I’ve seen him outside the magazine … outside my apartment. He’s been watching you for a long time.”
My expression morphed from confusion to disbelief to rage in a matter of moments, and I pushed past Tyler and out the door, stomping toward the Lexus. I could see the panic in Marco’s eyes as I crossed the street and yanked open his door.
“What in the ever-loving fuck are you doing here?”
Marco tossed the tabloid magazine in his hand. “Ellie! What a surprise!”
I shook my head, pulling my phone from the back pocket of my jeans. I held it to my ear, getting angrier with each ring.
“I can’t believe you’re not coming to Thanksgiving,” Finley answered. “I can’t believe you’re washing your hands of this family! They’re just trying to help you!”
“Send Marco home. Now, or I’m calling the police.”
“I’m standing right next to him … in Eakins, Illinois! What is wrong with you?” I yelled.
I heard quick footsteps coming closer, and turned to see Abby jogging across the street, before she draped Tyler’s coat over my shoulders. She crossed her arms across her middle, glaring at Marco. Her breath puffed out in a white cloud like a bull ready to charge. For the first time since I’d left the Alpine barracks, I felt like there was an army behind me.
“Ellison,” Finley began, “you won’t call us. Half the time we’re asking each other if anyone has heard from you or if you’re even alive. If you won’t answer or return my calls, you force my hand! I won’t apologize for loving you!”
I sighed, holding my hand to my face. “You’re right. I haven’t called. You still don’t get to send your goon to stalk me. Do you have any idea how humiliating this is? Tyler’s entire family is witnessing this!”
Abby touched my shoulder. “This isn’t the worst thing they’ve seen. Don’t be embarrassed.”
“I miss you. You’re my best friend. I feel like I don’t even know you anymore.”
“She’s crying?” Marco said, horror in his eyes.
“Tell Marco to come home. I’ll check in at least once a week, I promise. I just … I’m not one hundred percent yet. I’ve relapsed.”
“Ellie … we can help you with that. We want to help. There are amazing places you can go. Just say the word…”
“I can do it on my own.”
“Maybe you can … but why, if you don’t have to?”
I mulled over her suggestion, wanting it as much for me as I did for the people who loved me. I glanced back at the Maddox house. “I’ll think about it.”
“Happy Thanksgiving, baby sister. We miss you. We wish you were here … even Mom.”