“I knew there would be conditions. I don’t want anyone holding anything over my head. I left my parents, Taylor. I can walk away from you.”
His brows pulled together. “Don’t you think I know that?”
I sighed. “I want to go to Eakins, and I don’t want something like petty jealousy getting in the way of that.”
He took a step back, his expression changing. As if his anger was just barely contained, he kept his voice low and controlled as he said, “I’m not jealous. I fucking hate that his mouth was on yours. I’ve never felt that heated toward one of my brothers, ever, until tonight. I’ve been trying to play this off, but whatever this is … it’s not petty, Falyn.”
I shifted. “It was just a stupid kiss, Taylor. I was overly friendly because I mistook him for you, and it piqued his interest.”
Taylor looked away, his jaw working under the skin. “I know it wasn’t intentional. Doesn’t make me feel any better.” He sighed and then rubbed the back of his neck. “I’m gonna … I’m gonna go. You make me feel … not myself.”
My casual demeanor only made Taylor more agitated, and he approached me, stopping a few feet away. “I know what I said before, but I like you.”
He nodded, pensive. “Not for lack of trying.” He backed away and pushed through the door.
The turn in conversation stunned me. In an effort not to screw up, I’d screwed up. My feet slogged toward the back until I heard a quiet low voice in the darkness.
“Hey,” Chuck said from the last barstool. He took a drink from a beer can.
“Jesus!” I squealed. “That’s the second time someone has scared the shit out of me today!”
“Yep. Just had to meet a delivery truck running late. Finally got everything put away. You know how Phaedra is about order.”
“Where is she?” I asked, knowing she would usually be at the café to help when a truck came after-hours.
“She’s not feeling great. I think she’s still shaken up about ole Don. His obituary was in the paper today. The funeral is on Monday. You should go.”
He shook his head. “I’m not. Phaedra was hoping you’d go with her.”
I brushed my bangs from my eyes. “Yeah. Yeah, I’ll go.”
“Yeah, you. And now, I am, too. Is that boy bleeding from you or something else?”
I sighed and sat on the stool next to Chuck. The darkness and emptiness seemed to amplify our voices.
“He got into a fight with his brother. They’re twins. His brother kissed me. I thought it was Taylor. Taylor punched him. The brother hit back. It’s messed up.”
“He’s going to take me home with him sometime. To Eakins. I think.”
Chuck crunched the empty can in his hand. “Does he know?”
“No,” I said simply. When Chuck made a face, I raised my hands, palms out. “He doesn’t want to know.”
“Not that you’d tell him if he did.”
“I know. I know. He’s going to figure it out eventually.”
“That’s not what I was going to say. If that’s really what you want, Phaedra and I want to help.”
“We’ve talked about this. You’ve already done too much. You’ve given me a job and a place to live.”
“You barely let us do that,” he said, arching a brow.
“Thank you for even considering it. But Taylor is the plan.”
“And you’re a good kid. I think he probably deserves to know what he’s in for … and you probably know that, too. I’m sure that’s difficult since you’ve spent so much time not talking about it. But the fact remains the same. If he’s going to take you out there, he should probably know to hold your hand.”
I thought about that for a moment. “You’re worried about him not knowing … not for him, but for me.”
“It’s going to be a rough trip, kiddo.”
“I hear what you’re saying,” I said. “I’ll sleep on it.”
“Night.” I trudged up the stairs. My legs felt like wet noodles, complaining every time I tried to move them.
I wondered if Taylor was as sore as I was. Tomorrow would be even worse—for more reasons than one.
The end of the next shift approached quiet and slow, no low roar of conversations. The only voices breaking the silence were from employees and five customers.
“It’s almost September,” Phaedra said, scowling at the wet sidewalk and the raindrops streaking down the front windows. “Why in the frickity frack is it raining so much?”
Chuck shook his head. He was caught up with the entrees, having the rare opportunity to venture out into the dining area during dinner hours. “We need the rain, remember, honey?”
Phaedra sighed and headed for the back. “I’m going to make some pies. Kirby, go home.”
Kirby huffed in defeat, pulling at her apron strings. “Good thing I have my car back.” She grabbed her keys and purse before leaving out the front door.
I plodded behind the bar, looking for something to clean.
“Yeah?” As soon as I looked up, I swallowed back the rising panic.
Kirby was standing in front of her hostess podium with Taylor.
Taylor laughed once, a dozen emotions scrolling over his face, none of them amusement. “Hey, Ivy League.”
I noticed one strap over his shoulder. “What’s with the backpack?”
He set the pack on a stool toward the center of the bar.
“I brought you something.” After a short pause, he tugged on the zipper, pulled out a small white sack, and set it on the bar.
“A present?” I said, trying not to show my nervousness.
I made a face. “I don’t speak hotshot. What does that mean?”
“There’s enough moisture on the ground that the local guys can handle the area. I’m leaving.”
“But … you said you were here until October.”
He shrugged, defeat on his face. “I can’t stop the rain.”
I stared at him, speechless. The passing rain clouds were becoming night clouds, darkening the sky.
“Don’t give me any shit about your present, okay? For once in your life, don’t be a huge pain in the ass.”
“I guess I’ll see you around.” I pulled the sack off the counter and put it behind the bar.