“Who gives two fucks and a shit about someone who might think less of you because your mother died?”
“I’m serious,” I said. “You should have told me.”
He stared at me, hurt. “Really? We’re going to hinge our friendship on sharing? Because I only have a vague idea of why you’re here.”
He pointed at me. “That look on your face right now is why I didn’t tell you.” He began unpacking our things, pulling them out of the bags as if he hated them.
“You’re lucky I didn’t ask your dad where she was. I would never have forgiven you.”
He sighed. “I didn’t think about that. You’re right. I’m sorry.”
“I should tell you one more thing,” he said.
I braced for it, crossing my arms over my middle.
“My dad doesn’t know what I do. He made us promise a long time ago that we wouldn’t go into a line of work that could put us into danger. He was in law enforcement, and Mom asked him to give it up before she passed. It’s kind of a pact we made with each other.”
“So, you applied for a hotshot crew?” I asked in disbelief.
“No. While we’re here, Tyler and I sell insurance.”
“Yeah. He’s usually on different shifts. Just don’t mention it, okay? I don’t want to upset Dad.”
“You all have a pact to be safe, but your baby brother fought in an underground fight, and you and your twin fight wildfires. What is Thomas? A spy?”
“No, he’s an ad exec in California. He’s a type-A personality, always doing what he’s supposed to do.”
“At least one of you is.”
He held out his hand. “We should probably go back down.”
I stared at his outstretched fingers and then shook my head. “I don’t want to give them the wrong idea.”
A deep line formed between his brows, and his cheeks flushed red. “Give me a fucking break, Falyn. You’re here. Can we stop playing the game?”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
He took a step toward me. “I’m done pretending that you didn’t say what you said.”
“On the phone the other night. Granted, you were drunk, but … this isn’t just me. I’m not alone in this.”
Taylor’s family’s laughter floated up the stairs and down the hall to where we stood.
The scowl on his face made me wince. He opened the door, waiting for me to lead the way.
Travis was standing behind Abby at the stove, his arms wrapped around her, bending over to nuzzle her neck.
They both stopped their giggling and swaying back and forth long enough to look at me, making me regret the interruption.
With the fork in her hand, Abby pointed at a stack of brown glass plates. “If you’d like, you can set the table.”
Taylor passed me and picked up the plates, gesturing with his head for me to follow. I grabbed the silverware and trailed behind him into the next room where Jim sat alone.
Taylor set a plate in front of his dad, and I placed Jim’s knife and fork down. Abby hadn’t set out spoons, but I didn’t imagine a soup course would be served. Any home where I felt I belonged wouldn’t have courses—or maids or life-changing selfish agendas.
Travis came in, positioning hot pads on the table, and Abby quickly followed, lowering a glass casserole dish with several juicy, heavily spiced pork chops. They were young but clearly in love, always sure to kiss or touch when they passed one another.
Taylor pulled out a chair next to Jim. “Have a seat.”
The maroon fabric was stained and faded, but the cushion was nicely worn in, just like Taylor’s family.
Jim pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. He smiled at me, the slightly swollen skin under his eyes pulling up.
When the bowls of mashed potatoes, white pepper gravy, and snap peas were on the table, Jim nodded. “Looks good, son.”
“I got me a good one,” Travis said, smiling at Abby.
“Yes, you did,” Jim said, winking at his daughter-in-law.
Once Jim took a bite, I picked up my fork and dug in, not realizing the three bites of Taylor’s sandwich I’d mooched on the way to Eakins hadn’t been enough to tide me over like I thought.
“Oh God, this is good,” I said, closing my eyes.
Phaedra was a good cook, and I always ate well at the Bucksaw, but eating from the same menu every day made someone else’s home cooking feel like eating out.
Her gray eyes pierced straight through mine into the deepest parts of me. I couldn’t blame her for wanting to protect her family from anyone unworthy. They’d been through a lot, and any woman important enough to bring home deserved a thorough evaluation.
“Only some things. But what I cook, I cook well,” I said.
“Like what?” She grinned sweetly as she chewed.
“Does Taylor get up early enough for breakfast?” Travis teased.
Everyone looked at me.
Abby’s eyebrows shot up, and then she looked to Travis. “Oh.”
“Baby,” Travis said, “pass me the salt and pepper, would ya?”
Abby reached over and handed the small glass shakers to her husband. He seemed too young to be wearing a wedding band. They both did, yet those rings and their marriage seemed natural, as if they were always meant to love each other, working toward their forever.
Abby pressed her lips together, trying not to smile. “Not that I didn’t fight it.”
Travis shook his head while he chewed. “Christ, did she ever.”
“I’m going to go out on a limb and say you enjoyed the chase,” I said.
The room filled with laughter, deep tones from the Maddox boys and Abby’s lighter cackles. It made me feel more at ease—the conversation, the laughter, the inflection of the back-and-forth. It felt like the dining area at the Bucksaw.
“So, you can relate?” she asked.
Taylor looked at me, hope in his eyes.
When I didn’t answer, he looked to his brother. “So, how did you guys get from there to now?” Taylor asked. “Just … out of curiosity.”
Travis and Abby traded knowing glances. Travis took a bite of pork chop, and Abby rested her chin on her hand, smiling at him, so in love.
“We didn’t wait until we worked out our shit,” Travis said after he swallowed. “Otherwise, I’d still be chasing her.” He leaned over and kissed Abby’s cheek. “And thank fuck that’s over. Being with her and then without her felt a lot like dying slowly—with a little bit of crazy thrown in for good measure. You’ll see.”