Thomas looked him up and down and then breathed out a laugh. “What the hell are you wearing, Trenton?”
A half smile dimpled one of Trenton’s cheeks, and he gripped Thomas’s shoulder. “It’s all part of the plan. Come in!” he said, moving his hand in small circles toward himself. “Come in!”
Trenton held open the door as we walked inside.
Cardboard renditions of breasts hung from the ceiling, and golden confetti in the shape of penises were sprinkled all over the floor and tables. A table sat in the corner, crowded with liquor bottles and buckets of ice filled with various brands of beer. Wine bottles were absent, but there was a cake in the shape of very large pink breasts.
Thomas leaned down to speak into my ear, “I told you it wasn’t a good idea for you to come here.”
“You think I’m offended? I work in a field that is predominantly male. I hear the word titties at least once a day.”
Thomas conceded, but he paused to look at his hand just after patting his little brother’s shoulder. The body glitter covering Trenton’s skin had rubbed off on Thomas’s palm, and it shimmered under the disco ball above. Thomas was immediately horrified.
I grabbed a napkin off a table and handed it to Thomas. “Here.”
“Thanks,” he said, half-amused and half-repulsed.
Thomas took my hand. The glittery-wadded napkin was mashed between our palms as he pulled me through the crowd. Loud music assaulted my ears, the bass humming in my bones. Dozens of men were standing around, and there were just a handful of women. I instantly felt sick, wondering when I would run into Camille.
Thomas’s hand felt warm in mine, even with the buffer of the napkin. If he was nervous though, it didn’t show. He greeted several college-aged men as we crossed the room. When we reached the other side, Thomas held out his arms and hugged a portly man before kissing his cheek.
“Well, hello there, son,” Jim Maddox said in a gruff voice. “It’s about damn time you came home.”
“Liis,” Thomas said, “this is my dad, Jim Maddox.”
He was quite a bit shorter than Thomas, but he had the same sweetness in his eyes. Jim looked upon me with kindness and almost thirty years’ worth of practiced patience from raising five Maddox boys. His short and sparse silver hair was now multiple colors from the party lights.
Jim’s hooded eyes brightened with realization. “This is your girl, Thomas?”
Thomas kissed my cheek. “I keep telling her that, but she doesn’t believe me.”
Jim didn’t shake my hand. He pulled me into a full-on hug and squeezed me tight. When he released me, Thomas hooked his arm around my shoulders, much more cheerful to be amid his family than I’d expected.
Thomas pulled me into his side. “Liis is a professor at the University of California, Dad. She’s brilliant.”
“Does she put up with your shit?” Jim asked, trying to speak over the music.
“That’s what I keep telling him, but he doesn’t believe me,” I said, nudging Thomas with my elbow.
Jim laughed again. “Professor of what, sis?”
“Cultural studies,” I said, feeling a bit guilty for yelling at him.
Jim chuckled. “She must be brilliant. I haven’t a clue what in the Sam Hill that means!” He put his fist to his mouth and coughed.
Thomas kissed my cheek and then left us alone to track down the water. I wasn’t sure if I’d ever get used to his lips on my skin. I hoped I never would.
“How long have you worked for the college?” Jim asked.
“This is my first semester,” I said.
He nodded. “Is that a nice campus out there?”
“Love it. I lived in Chicago before. San Diego’s weather is preferable.”
“I am,” I said, trying to mouth the words precisely so that I wouldn’t have to yell so loud.
“Huh,” he said with a chuckle. “I sure wish Tommy lived closer. But he never really belonged here. I think he’s happier out there,” he said, nodding as if in agreement with himself. “How did you two meet?”
“I moved into his building,” I said, noticing a woman speaking to Thomas by the beverage table.
His hands were in his pockets, and he was staring at the floor. I could tell that he was being purposefully stoic.
Thomas nodded, and she nodded. Then, she threw her arms around him. I couldn’t see her face, but I could see his, and as he held her, his pain could be felt from where I stood.
The same deep ache from before burned in my chest, and my shoulders pulled in. I crossed my arms over my midsection to camouflage the involuntary motion.
“So, you and Thomas…this is new?” Jim asked.
“Relatively new,” I said, still staring at Thomas and the woman clinging to him.
Trenton was no longer dancing. He was watching them, too, almost exactly parallel from me.
“Is the woman with Thomas…is that Camille?”
Jim hesitated, but then he nodded. “Yes, she is.”
After a full minute, Thomas and Camille were still wrapped in each other’s arms.
Jim cleared his throat and spoke again, “Well, I’ve never seen my boy so happy as when he introduced me to you. Even if it is new, it’s in the present…unlike other things…that are in the past.”
I shot a small smile in Jim’s direction, and he pulled me to his side with a squeeze.
“If Tommy hasn’t told you that yet, he should.”
I nodded, trying to process the dozens of emotions swirling within me at the same time. Feeling such hurt was quite surprising for a girl who was happily married to her job. If I didn’t need Thomas, my heart didn’t know it.
THOMAS’S EYES POPPED OPEN, and he looked directly at me. He released Camille, and without telling her good-bye or even giving her a second look, he walked past her, sweeping up a bottle of water on his way to where Jim and I stood.
“Did you interrogate her sufficiently while I was gone, Dad?” Thomas asked.
“Not as well as you would have, I’m sure.” Jim turned to me. “Thomas should have been a detective.”
Despite the uncomfortable proximity to the truth, I held a smile.
Thomas had a strange expression as well, but his features smoothed. “Are you having a good time, honey?”
“Please tell me that was good-bye,” I said. I didn’t try to keep Jim from hearing. It was an honest request, one that I could ask and still keep our cover intact.
Thomas gently took me by the arm and brought me to an unoccupied corner of the room. “I didn’t know she was going to do that. I’m sorry.”
I felt my expression crumble. “I wish you could have seen that through my eyes and then hear you say she’s in the past with my ears.”
“She was apologizing, Liis. What was I supposed to do?”