“Ew, what the fuck is that?” Finley asked.
“Beer,” I said, holding up the can. “Want some?” I asked, some of it still in my mouth.
“No. You’ve developed some atrocious habits Mother will definitely not be impressed with.”
“Well, I don’t plan on seeing her, so I’m good.”
“That’s harsh. They were only trying to help you.”
I finished the can and opened another.
Finley’s nose flared. “I can see it worked.”
I gripped the top of the open refrigerator door with one hand and held on to my can for dear life with the other. “Fin. I love you, but you can’t stay here. Find a hotel, go to the house, but I need you to go.”
Finley stared at me, stunned at first, and then heartbroken. “How did this happen? How did we grow so far apart? I feel like I’m standing in front of a stranger.”
“We can talk tomorrow, but I need to do this in small doses. At least at first. I have to start packing. I have a lot to do, and it’s not fair for you to just drop into my life right now.”
She nodded, gesturing to Marco. He packed up his things, and then rushed into my room to do the same for the few items she had unpacked on her own.
The wheels banged down each step as Marco pulled the rolling luggage down the stairs to the car. I hugged my sister, and she held on an extra second before turning for the door.
Once she grabbed the knob, she glanced back at me over her shoulder. “There’s something else. You’re trying to protect me from something. Don’t think I don’t see it.”
She bit her lip, and then disappeared behind the door.
The party was already in full swing when I stepped inside Taylor and Tyler’s apartment. I recognized a few faces—Jubal and who I assumed was his wife. Watts, Smitty, Taco, and Sugar from the fire station were there, too.
Tyler jogged up to me, offering a hug and a long kiss. “Wow. You look amazing. Stunning.”
“Thank you,” I said, looking down at the strappy, sequined romper and high heels Finley had let me borrow. “I’m sorry I’m late. I was messing with all of this,” I said, gesturing to my hair and makeup, “and then Finley called. She wants to talk to me tonight.”
“I think so,” I said, grabbing his arm when one heel wobbled.
The apartment was dimly lit, undecorated except for a single light in a corner casting a rainbow of tiny circles on the walls and ceiling. The speakers were booming what I recognized as music from Tyler’s playlist, and I wondered if the neighbors would call the police or let the thumping of the bass slide because it was New Year’s Eve.
“Not a bad way to bring in your birthday every year,” I yelled into Tyler’s ear.
“It’s like the whole world is partying with us!” he said, pulling me through the crowd by the hand to where Taylor stood with Falyn.
She was gorgeous; the sparkles in her ivory dress were reflecting the light from the corner, her full, blonde hair and freckles giving her the perfect balance of sex kitten and girl next door. I tried not to stare at her lips and recall that Tyler had tasted them once, even though there had been a time not so long ago that I wouldn’t have minded tasting them myself.
Just as Tyler moved to introduce us, the crowd parted and Paige appeared, looking nervous but hopeful. Her hair was silver now, in a freshly trimmed pompadour. She had more tattoos and piercings than I remembered, the sweet innocence long gone from her eyes. She handed me a beer in a red Solo cup, tapping hers to mine.
“It’s been a long time,” she said.
“Shitty. How have you been?”
“Still a drunk,” I said, taking a big gulp. “But the Internet says I’m a functioning drunk, so I’ve got that going for me.”
She shook her head and smiled. “Always so funny.”
Tyler kissed my cheek. “I don’t mean to be rude, baby, but Taylor’s…”
“Baby?” Paige said, tucking her chin. “What are you? A couple now?”
I cocked my head, surprised at the sass coming from such a tiny package. “Actually, we are,” I said.
Paige choked out a laugh, and then continued to giggle, covering her mouth and then waving her hand in front of her face.
Tyler and I traded glances, and then he leaned in to whisper in my ear. “I didn’t invite her. I guess she lives in this building now.”
“Oh,” I said, nodding with wide eyes. “Great.” I downed my drink, and then Paige took it, reaching behind her and then producing another.
“Baby,” Tyler warned. “There’s a fine line between functioning and just drunk.”
“It’s New Year’s Eve,” Paige said. “What is your problem?”
The door opened, and Finley walked in, staring wide-eyed, fascinated with all the bodies in the tiny space. I took another drink, tossing back half the glass before I saw Sterling step inside, too.
I choked, and Tyler patted my back while I swallowed the contents still in my mouth and then coughed.
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph fucking Stalin,” I said, shaking my head in disbelief.
Finley waved emphatically and then pulled Sterling through the crowd. He looked as sick about the impending disaster as I was.
“What do I do? What do I do?” I said, panicking.
“Keep me from killing Sterling?” Tyler said. “That should keep your mind off Finley.”
I looked up at him, watching him glower at Finley’s date. I gulped down the rest of the beer Paige had brought me and handed my cup to Tyler. No amount of alcohol was going to get me through the next few minutes.
“Ellie!” Finley said, throwing her arms around me.
“Fin … you’ve been drinking,” I said, making great effort not to make eye contact with Sterling.
“A bit of celebratory champagne,” she said, holding out her left hand. A large diamond sparkled on her ring finger.
I grabbed her fingers and pulled them closer, and then I narrowed my eyes at Sterling. He shook his head, begging me not to make a scene.
“I don’t understand,” I said. “You’re not even dating? You haven’t since college.”
Finley’s smile faded, and she pulled her hand from my grasp, returning to her reserved self. “Sterling and I have known each other for a long time, Ellison. Daddy and Mother are extremely pleased. I thought you would be, too.”
“Maybe if this made any sense,” I said, still glaring at Sterling.
“You haven’t talked to me in a long time, Ellie. Sterling and I have become quite close and…”
“Hey!” Paige said, bringing me a fresh cup. I chugged it, handing it back to her.
“Thank you, Paige,” I said, wiping my mouth.
I touched my sister’s arm. “Finley, there’s something you need to know, first.”
“Fin, we should go. This clearly isn’t a good time for Ellison,” Sterling said.