Beauty & Melancholy

Calla Jane Weary wanted nothing more than to be on her own with the freedom to make her own mistakes. Until her choices broke her and sent her back home filled with shame. Keeping secrets and wondering how to reconnect with old friends, Calla navigates her homecoming with help from her older brother Toby. Not to mention all five Lacey brothers.

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The protective family she had taken for granted, and had grown to hate as a teenager, becomes a welcome refuge as Calla finds the strength to stand on her own two feet.

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If you missed the first few chapters, no worries, you’ll find them below.  As of October, I’ve released eleven chapters — my November newsletter will include chapter twelve.

Beauty & Melancholy: Chapter one
I had perfected the art of avoidance over the last four years.  Specifically of my home town.  Not going home was both the easiest thing in the world, and the most painful.  

College provided a plethora of reasons for me to stay away.  

If by reasons I meant excuses.  The drive was too long.  I had too much homework.  A paper due.  A test or study group to attend.  My job off campus took up all my free time.  I had my reasons to stay away.  

It started out an exercise in finding myself, in being Calla Jane Weary on my own.  Just a girl.  A girl without a big brother, without a broken family, without the horde of Lacey brothers.

I loved my big brother more than anyone in the world.  Toby.  He was smart and fun and always always looked out for me.  When things turned ugly with Daddy, he put himself in the way to protect me.  He paved the way for me at school and in town.  Sheltering me was a job he took seriously.  To say he was overbearing would be an understatement. 

I loved my family as well.  I didn’t want to, but I did.  I tried to turn my heart off, and tell myself I didn’t care for them.  The lies I told myself were never enough to convince my heart.

Mama was long gone, having taken off when I was a toddler.  My sketchy memories of her were more like photographs than reality.  Toby was seven then, and more impressionable.  Mama just up and left with no preamble one day.  Decided she didn’t want to live in a tiny house with two children and a drunkard husband.  We never saw her or heard from her again.  I didn’t miss her so much as the idea of her – the idea of a mother.  It was a powerful thing, the longing for a mother’s arms to hold me.

Daddy was good enough to us when he was sober.  Which was plenty when we were young.  By the time I was in high school he was drinking frequently.  I suspected he was doing some kind of drugs as well.  Toby stayed living at home longer than necessary, going to the community college, and working full time to boot.  He never had to say why he did it.  I knew it was for me.  He waited until I graduated high school and went away to college myself, before he got out from under that roof.  My brother gave up whatever dreams he had for himself to make sure I wasn’t left alone there.  It was a gesture too big to be paid back.   

I’d heard that Daddy was doing AA and trying to stay sober.  Only after a DUI and some jail time.  Toby said that Daddy was trying, that he wanted to set things right.  But everything was too broken for that.  I wanted nothing to do with that life.  Loving him wasn’t enough for me to want to see him again.

Then there were the Lacey brothers.  A five pack set of rowdy and rambunctious boys.  No one ever spoke of them without cracking a smile and retelling a story of something stupid one of them did.  Only they never said it was stupid.  It was a hundred other adjectives that boiled down to them being badass.  Those boys were legends in this town.  Every one of them.  I blame their Daddy – he started it all, him and his own troop of brothers that moved in and took over and made a name for themselves.  Of course my brother had to go and be best friends with one of them.  From the time they were in second grade Toby and Oz were best friends.  Stayed that way all the way through school and even now as mostly grown men.  The thing with being friends with one brother, is that you get the rest of them.  Package deal.  The Lacey’s took Toby in like he was one of their own – having him stay over all the time, bringing him along on trips, helping him and supporting him in any way they knew how.  All five brothers were tight knit and stuck together even when they went their separate ways.  Toby became part of that from a young age.  

Which meant I became part of it at an even younger age.

I don’t remember a time there wasn’t Oz.  For me, it was like having two big brothers.  I knew Toby was mine because he had my dark brown hair and eyes, he had Daddy’s cleft in his chin, and he stood between me and whatever the world had to offer.  Just in case.  I knew Oz was mine because he held my hand when I was scared, when I was left behind, when I needed more than just a protector.  I claimed him as my own, and he let me.  He never looked at me the way Toby did, like I was too little, and too weak, and needed someone to look out for me.  When Oz looked at me it was like I was sweet, and a little precious, and like all I needed was his hand to hold.  

I fell in love with the person he saw when he looked at me.  With the way he looked at me.

The other brothers all took me in too.  I was the little sister they never knew they wanted.  Five boys filled up a space, even one as big as theirs, and you’d think there was no room for an extra couple kids.  But they all had best friends that came into the mix.  And they all had me.  

I used to love it.  I was part of something good.  Something great.  I had this place where I could go and I was safe – my belly was full, and I didn’t have to worry about Daddy hitting Toby.  Anywhere I went, people knew my name, and knew to treat me carefully because they knew the Lacey boys were watching.  I did used to love it.  I loved walking the halls at school and waving hi to any one of them that was still there and having that feeling of acceptance.  I was popular by proxy.

It came with a price.  For one, they scared off any would be suitor.  I dated a couple times, off and on, some guy brave enough or dumb enough to take me out.  Mostly I was surrounded by these guys that loved me, but weren’t interested in me, and wanted to keep me a little girl forever.  They knew how guys were – being those kinds of guys themselves – and no one was good enough for me.  The biggest rule of all was that none of them dated me.  It was forbidden.  I was family.  

The price was that I was lonely in a life full of loving people.  The price was that I was in love with Oz and he would never look at me as more than his best friend’s little sister.

I went away to college, to some place that a Lacey boy had never gone to school, and I became my own person.  Free from their protection.  Free from what everyone thought they already knew about me.  Boys weren’t scared to talk to me because they thought Toby or Oz would kick their asses.  I could break free and live my own life.  I avoided coming home to visit as much as possible, because I knew if I went home and I talked to Oz, I would be hopelessly caught up with him again.  Without even trying he ensnared me in a net that I found nearly impossible to escape.  I stayed away because I would never have gone back home anyway – not to the house I grew up in or the man that I called Daddy.  

It became even easier to stay away after I met Gary.  

After all that time away, I was headed back.  To stay.  Every mile that brought me closer made me sick.  Excited.  Afraid.  Curious.  Ashamed.  I was a mixed up toxic mess of emotions.  

Somehow Toby convinced me to move in with him.  My brother’s place; in his extra room.  He peppered me with claims he was happy to be roommates and share the same house again.  Happy to see me every day, he said.  Happy to give me a place to come home to, he said.  I agreed to it, I think, because I was still trying to figure out the mangled leftovers of my heart after Gary.  I knew I would fall back into a life with too many watchers.  But I had decided maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing after all.  I had decided maybe I needed watching over.  I didn’t trust myself.  

 

Toby’s house was a rental on the beach.  We had lived in town growing up – a mere five miles from the coast that felt like a hundred.  

I pulled in under the house raised on stilts.  It was a typical old beach house.  Sand blown peeling paint – a pale shade of blue bleached by the sun until it was almost white.  A driveway of broken shells.  I stood and stared out at the water and let the crashing of the waves welcome me home.  I had stayed away too long and I had missed this place with a ferocity that I hadn’t realized until too late.  The water my veins, the sand my skin, the blinding sun my heart.  I belonged here.  

I didn’t make it all the way up the stairs before Toby was coming down to meet me.  In a rush of gloriously tanned skin and a broad smile, he scooped me up.  In his arms, I was truly home, wrapped up in his anticipation and assurance.

“Sissy.”  He swung me around until I was sure we would both fall down the stairs.  I screamed.  “Damn, I missed you.  Let me carry this.”

He took my bags from me.  I let him, because they were heavy, and because it felt good to hand off some of the weight.  

The look he gave me said it all.  I knew he was sorry for the last four years, and that he felt guilty for not being there.  It was me that had kept him at arms length.  Especially after I got involved with Gary.  It was my fault.  I was sure my own guilty expression was evident.  We had a lot to talk about, Toby and me.  For now it was enough to be here.

“Go on up.”

He let me walk up first and followed behind.  It was this thing he always did on stairs.  In case I fell, he could catch me.  I remember him explaining when we climbed the lighthouse a million years ago, my legs wobbling as we walked the tight spiral of stairs up and up and up.  I smiled through the traitorous tears that were welling in my eyes as I made it to the balcony.  

“You’re gonna love it here.  Living at the beach is a dream.”

We had gone up the steps at the back of the house, the ones rooted in sand, leading up to a balcony off the living room with a view of the crashing waves.  He slid a glass door open and beckoned me inside.  I followed as he carried my things across the downstairs and up to my new bedroom.  The downstairs had only a long galley kitchen, a long living room that looked out to the water, and a bathroom that was always in some state of sandy and gross.  Upstairs were two bedrooms with a bathroom that he actually kept clean.  Thank goodness for small favors.  The design of the house was so that each bedroom was equal.  One on the east, one on the west, so that they could each have windows that looked out over the beach to the south.  They each had windows that looked out over the two lane road and across to the houses on the other side, too.  The bathroom was one of those Jack and Jill ones, with a door into each of our bedrooms.  A pass through.  A buffer between the rooms that guaranteed no privacy at all.  

“You have more stuff in the car?”

“Yeah.”

I sat down on the end of the bed.  It was a small room, but bigger than the dorm room I’d shared with Emily the last four years.  Last time I’d been here, this room had been filled with his work out bench with weights and pulleys that looked designed for torture.  And his drum set.  Now the room held an antique dresser with dark wood carved with swirls like vines, and an unmatched wardrobe with pale blonde wood and glinting crystal knobs.  The bed was a full size mattress and box springs on a basic frame.  He’d even put a little night stand on one side with a lamp that I would bet came from Target.  Tears threatened once again.  I looked out the window at the beach that was so alive outside my window.

“Everyone’s coming over later.  A welcome home.”

“By everyone you mean the Lacey’s.”

I tried to keep any bitterness out of my voice.  Toby didn’t know I had had a crush on his best friend.  

“Not all of them.”  He laughed as he sat down on the floor.  Dropped straight down and kicked his legs out across the wood floor.  “Bear will probably drop by.  Oz will obviously be here.  Rod is off doing some shit, training or whatever.”

Bear was the oldest.  Bernard Lacey.  Five years older than me, and one year older than Toby and Oz.  He followed in his father’s footsteps and went into the family business.  They owned a bunch of hotels and restaurants all up and down the Gulf Coast.  It meant a lot of travel.  It meant suits and ties and calming the fuck down.  At least most of the time.  

Oz was Oz, and I knew he was doing more and more with Lacey Garner Corporation these days too.  I wasn’t sure he’d ever fully commit to that life.  He wasn’t so good at sticking with one thing for very long.  

Roderick was the middle brother.  Two years older than me, and right between my age and Toby’s.  He was the biggest trouble maker of them all.  Last I’d heard he was training to fight, and I didn’t pretend to understand the draw or the details, but I knew he needed an outlet for all his energy.  

“Sawyer?”

Toby nodded.  He was the Lacey brother my own age.  We’d been best friends since forever.  Or at least until I stopped talking to him after my freshman year of college.  

“Hey, Calla, don’t be upset.  He’ll come because he wants to see you and because he wants to pick up where you left off.”

Was it that simple?  Sawyer and I could just go back to being close friends after I dropped him for the controlling boyfriend that couldn’t understand our relationship?  Gary didn’t understand the concept of platonic friends.  He’d thrown a fit every time I talked to Sawyer.  It was a shitty move, but I pulled back, and I stopped talking to my best friend.  I gave all of myself to Gary.  I broke so many ties I wasn’t sure they could be repaired.

Sawyer was a sculptor with his own gallery.  I had come down for the opening, but I snuck around and didn’t let him see me, so he didn’t know I’d come.  Last I’d heard he was working on a big piece for the city to go in front of the library.  It was kind of a big deal.  College was something he’d tried for a year, but he hated it.  Instead he struck out and did his own thing.  He did his own thing right here, with his brothers and family, without me.  And I was jealous.

“Milo will show, too.  How long has it been since you’ve seen him?  You’ll faint.  He’s big as Bear.  No lie.”

Toby was stretched out on the floor of the bedroom.  His legs were long and covered with soft dark hair; crossed at the ankle.  He tapped his fingers on the floor in a continuous rhythm.

The baby of the family, Milo Lacey had it worse than me with overprotective big brothers.  They put a stop to his shenanigans and acted like the fool hypocrites they were.  He had tagged along with Sawyer and me plenty though.  Because I didn’t mind not being the youngest for a change.  Because he was a sweet kid.  Milo was graduating high school in a few weeks.  It worked out well my school let out almost a month before his, so I would be home for the event.  

“No way!”

“Yes way.”  He stood up and looked at me with those deep brown eyes that matched my own.  He posed like a muscle man and flexed his arms until I was smiling and shaking my head at him.  “Now, come on, let’s finish unloading your shit.”

With a laugh at his antics, I followed him back down.  My feet walked my body around like I wasn’t on the verge of falling apart.  I wondered how long it would take for the house to feel like home.  Or if it ever would.  How long would it take to wear out my welcome?  How long before I wanted to run again?

Unloading took no time.  Three trips up the stairs with bags and boxes.  That was it.  I spent the rest of the afternoon holed up in the room unpacking.  There was a closet, but I put my clothes in the wardrobe.  Because Narnia.  I didn’t have sheets to fit a full size bed.  I made room for my things in the bathroom we would share.  I could just see the fights that would ensue with this set up.  It was like being children again as I imagined the way he’d pout after I moved his stuff around.  I checked the locks on both doors until I was satisfied that I could take a shower without him barging in to pee.  And flush.  

I didn’t have much in the way of clothes.  Partly because I was never into fashion, and blamed my beach bum childhood for that.  Mostly because I didn’t have the money for it, especially in college.  Back living at the beach, I wouldn’t need much.  I could live the next month in a swim suit or sundress with no problem.  I was actively not thinking about the job searching or the potential interviews in my future.  I wanted – needed – a chance to settle after the storm before moving forward with that part of my life.  I was floundering, and I knew it.  I was also unequivocally sure that putting off finding a job was the right answer.  I was in no shape to make life decisions just yet.  Including picking out clothes for a party which would feature a lot of people looking at me.

 

Me:  Help!

Emily:  I would, doll face, but I’m a million miles away.

Emily:  What’s up?

Me:  I’m home.  At Toby’s.  EVERYONE is coming over.

Me:  Wardrobe crisis.

Emily:  LOL

 

I waited, staring at the screen of my phone while little dots indicated she was answering me.  In the meantime, I paced the room.  When I passed the window for the nine hundredth time, I noticed it wasn’t a window but a door.  I slid it open and walked out onto the tiny excuse of a balcony.  Goes to show my head was up my ass and I had been paying zero attention to anything.  Having my own balcony should have been the first thing I noticed when I stepped into the bedroom.  Gauzy curtains fluttered behind me in the constant salty breeze coming off the water.  My fingers clutched the rough wood railing, as I let the beach begin to sooth my jangled nerves.  Waves threw themselves again and again onto the white sand.  The sun was near setting, and only a few stragglers remained on the shore.  Birds circled, diving through the air, and sank to snatch at unseen treasures in the water.  I breathed in the salty air and let it heal me.  

 

Emily:  First thought was the dark skinny jeans and your open back white tank top.  But it’s hot as hell down there, right?  So forget the jeans.  Your pink flippy skirt is killer.  You’ll slay them all.  

 

Emily had been my roommate all four years of college.  We were paired together randomly as freshman.  She was a sorority girl pep squad glitter happy bundle of blonde energy, and not my type at all.  Somewhere along the way we became friends, and we stuck together through the years.  She was what I would call my best friend.  Or at least my best girl friend.  My only girl friend.  Gary didn’t approve much, but then he never did.  The thing with Emily though was that she was my roommate, and he couldn’t do anything to keep us apart.  All the weeding he did, removing each person from my life that wasn’t him, didn’t apply to Em.  She saw both sides of him before I did, and liked to call him Scary Gary.  

 

Me:  Thanks.  

Me:  Miss you already.

Emily:  Me too.  Send me pictures of those gorgeous boys all coming to see you tonight.  

 

She included an emoticon of a devil, and a drooling smiley.  That was Emily.  

It wasn’t even officially summer yet, but I had to agree it was too hot for jeans.  I had driven home in cut offs and a t-shirt, and looked precisely like I had woken up at dawn and driven half the day.  I opened my bedroom door to the landing at the top of the stairs and yelled down to the lower floor.

“I’m taking a shower.”

I don’t know why I felt the need to tell Toby of my whereabouts other than to keep him from messing with me.  

“Thanks for the news flash.  Now I’ll know to send the guests up to you when they arrive.”

I could hear his laughter float up the stairs after his words.  My answer was a choice word back down to him before slamming my door.

I dressed in the pink skirt that fell just above my knees, and the white tank that tied around the neck, and around the middle of my back, and that was it.  Em had bought it for me and called it my Going Out Top.  The one sexy piece I owned.  No bra.  Just a slip of silky fabric draped over the front half of me.  I pulled my hair into a high knot and didn’t bother securing the waves that pulled free to tickle my face and neck.

Beauty & Melancholy: Chapter Two
Voices and movement became evident beneath me.  The party started in a trickle that quickly became a flood.

I stalled only a little, with a swipe of mascara, and a quick dab of lip gloss.  I slipped on sandals, but threw them back into the bottom of the closet which held the remainder of my boxes.  Things I never intended to unpack.

Beach house.  Sand as a yard.  Shoes were not a necessity.

Joy flooded me at the prospect of a life in which shoes were not necessary.

My stomach writhed with nerves.  I craved the strong arms and watchful eyes of my brother and our friends so strongly now.  With distance between us, and with Gary always there to tell me no, I had let years come between us.  Now I ached with longing for the ones I had left behind these last few years.  Still, I nerves claimed me.  Toby and the Lacey’s had every right to be mad at me.  The idea of hurt on their faces tore me apart.  Worse, the idea of fake smiles caused inexplicable pain in me.  Then the idea of their notorious anger directed at me, made my fingers shake.  I had to force myself to leave the room and move down the stairs.

The spring sun had set on our early evening, and darkness cloaked the beach around the little house.  The doors and windows all swung open letting the cool breeze rush through the space.  A barbecue like any other.  It was my family – my chosen family – come together.

My lips stretched into a wide smile as the scene came into full view.  Milo and Sawyer were using lacrosse sticks as swords and battling across the living room.  Toby’s voice reached me from the kitchen, talking too loudly over the clacking of the sticks, about a keg of beer.

Yep.  Home.

Standing at the bottom of the stairs, I watched Milo and Sawyer play fight, knocking into furniture and making a heck of a racket.  Milo had changed considerably, as Toby had said – big as his biggest brother.  Tall, broad chest, huge arms.  But the same sweet smile and blue eyes.  Sawyer was different too.  He’d grown his hair long and it hung golden at his shoulders, swinging around his face as he fought with his brother.  They were glowing – in their element – and smiles cracked their faces wide open.

“You’re gonna break those, then Bear and Oz will have to kick your asses, and it will ruin my party.”  I had to break the silence.

I had to make them look at me – to test the waters and see their reactions.

Of all the brothers, I knew Milo would be the easiest win.

Sawyer, I wasn’t quite so sure of, but figured we’d work it out later.

The one I who scared me the most was still no where to be seen.  Maybe he wouldn’t come at all.

No, Toby said Oz would be here.  He was probably in the kitchen with his best friend.  Or outside manning the grill.

“CJ!”

Milo tossed his lacrosse stick at Sawyer – who caught it with his left hand while he still held his own in his right hand – and ran at me.  Scooping me up with ease, he spun me around and around.  My little Milo was a man now.  Or nearly.  It was hard putting the lanky fourteen year old I had left behind in the brawny body of this eighteen year old.

“Hey, Miles.  Milo.  You’re …”  He sat me down and I took him in.  I looked to his pale sky-blue eyes that were bright beneath his brown brows and sandy hair.  He was the only one with their mother’s blue eyes.  “Well, look at you.  You’re all grown up.”

He shrugged like no big deal.  The way he looked back at me, like he was enjoying the view, was new.  With a shake of my head, I  slapped him across the chest.

“Stop checking her out.  Geez, Miles.”  Sawyer shoved his brother out of the way and took his place in front of me.

My eyes stung with unshed tears.  My heart burned with pain and guilt and elation.

“Hi, Callalily.”  He hugged me.  Tight.  His arms were around me and it felt like a million types of forgiveness.  His breath moved in my hair and grounded me.

“Hi, Sawyer.”

“I missed you.  So much.”  He still held me.

“Me too.  I’m sorry.”

I spoke into his chest.  He was the slightest of all the Lacey’s.  Which meant he was only six feet two, and less than two hundred pounds.  My nose filled with the salty-air, bubblegum scent of Sawyer Lacey.

“So you’re done with him?”  He asked in a grim tone.

He said him like he was really saying the evil prick that hijacked your life the last 3.5 years.  If he only knew the truth, there would be so much more venom in that one word.

“Very done.”  I admitted on a breath.

Sawyer nodded as we pulled back from each other.  Looking at him was very much like looking at Toby in that it was achingly familiar.  Like I knew his face better than my own.

“I’m glad you’re home, Calla.  Really glad.”

He left one arm around me.

“You seeing anyone, Saw?”

“Nah.  Couple blokes.”

He had taken to calling the guys he dated blokes back in high school.  It was funny and it stuck, and it was so like him.

“Anyone coming tonight?”  I hip bumped him as I asked.

I almost said:  so I can meet him, or so I can approve.  I bit back the words as I tasted the tang of hypocrisy and irony in my mouth.

“Nope.  Tonight is about you.”

I stayed snuggled into his side while he walked me toward the kitchen.  I wanted to drag my feet to delay the inevitable – I wasn’t ready for more.  Not yet.

“You want a drink?”  Milo asked, too eager and bouncing around like a hyper puppy.

“Not from you, little boy.”  I winked and giggled, and he made a show of looking offended.  “It occurs to me that we are all of drinking age.  Except you.  Ha!  It’s not me and Sawyer anymore.”

Our laughter tangled together in a way that was new and old, fresh and familiar.

“Shut up.  Like you’re so much older than me.”

I was four years older than Milo.  Just like Oz and Toby were four years old than me.  It wasn’t that much older.  Not really.

Not now.

We rounded the corner, out of the living room and into the kitchen.  It was packed with bodies.  I had been so focused on Sawyer and Milo, letting them distract me, I hadn’t paid attention to the other voices.  Bear and Oz were both in there with Toby.  Also Mike and Liam, boys from school a few years ahead of me.  They’d always been around too, just not as much as the Laceys.  They were all talking over each other and drinking whatever beer was in the sweating keg on a pedestal in the kitchen.  It was a chorus of male voices and stories that interlaced, and laughs that rang out loud.

Everything stopped when Sawyer ushered me into the room.  Each set of eyes drank me in.  The silence was weighted – heavy with worry, curiosity, and expectation.

“Well, shit.”  Bear was the first to speak.  To break the spell that had stalled time.  “Look at you, all grown up.”

“Funny.  That’s what I said to Milo.”  My voice sounded wrong, too high and pinched.

“Y’all aren’t kids any more.  That’s for sure.”  Bear grunted, his face uneasy.

His eyes grazed over my body and I felt the burn of it.  Bear was only a year older than my brother, but he had always seemed so much older.  He had always been the leader of them all and set the pace.  The peacekeeper.  Kept the boys in line when needed, urged them on when needed.  He was the biggest of them, too.  Six five, burly.  Blonde curls cut close to his head and sea green eyes.

He hesitated, unsure, then stuck his hand out.

“Are you crazy?”  I laughed.  “I am not shaking your hand.  Jerk.”

I moved from under the security of Sawyer’s arm and threw my arms around Bear.  He hugged with a tentative pat to my back.  His broad warm hand on the bare skin of my back.  His embrace immediately stiffened around me.  My sexy going out shirt might prove to be too much for this crowd.  The other boys in the kitchen hadn’t seen the open back – not yet.  Saw didn’t care.  Milo was probably drooling somewhere behind me.  The others?  They’d lose their shit after they noticed.  Bear cleared his throat, and as we pulled apart, his face was a warning.

Mike and Liam muttered cursory greetings, time having carved a wedge between us, making things awkward.  They gave me brief and friendly hugs.  Liam’s eyes lingered a little too long; I rolled mine at him.  They went out back, to the deck, to the arrival of a few other friends.  Set up camp out there, giving me a wide berth, and giving me time alone with the brothers.  A few girls I sort of knew from school were flocking around the guys like vultures.

“Calla.”

My name on Oz’s tongue was a dangerous drug.  It worked it’s way into my system and made it impossible to feign indifference.

He moved into my space and gazed down at me.  Oz has always been my favorite Lacey – not that I didn’t love them all.  And I was certainly closest to Sawyer.  But I had loved Oz for so long and in such a different way.  I felt sure it all leaked out from my eyes as I looked up at him.

“Hey, Ozzie.”  I managed, my tongue thick with emotion.

“Jitter.”

I shook my head.  No one was into nicknames like this bunch.

Bernard was always Bear.  Except to Miles who called him Big.

Oscar was Oz to most, and Ozzie just to me.

Roderick got shortened to Rod, but he was also known as Pod.  His bigger brothers called him Pod when he was born, because he was the baby then, and like a little bean pod.

Sawyer became simply, Saw.

Milo was Miles.  And Baby Bro.  And Little Kid.  Or just Little.  And a string of other terms of supposed endearment to remind him of his place.

They all had names for me too:  Calla, Callalily, Jitterbug, or just Jitter.  CJ, for Calla Jane.

“Don’t call me that.”  I half joked, stricken to hear Jitter cross Oz’s lips.

I watched a crease form between Oz’s bright green eyes.  Green like spring grass.  We were on rocky ground at best.  But then, it was me who had crushed on him, not the other way around.  He should be like another big brother, right?

“Sure, okay.”  He nodded and his face was too solemn.  “Um … so can I talk to you for a minute?”

I nodded.  When I turned to head back upstairs, it was met with gasps in response to my shirt.  Shit.

“Calla Jane Weary, what the hell are you wearing?”  My brother choked out.

“Shut up, Toby.”  Oz answered for me.  “She’s not a kid any more.”

His words were spit out harshly, which sent a trickle of fear down my spine.  Fear which had nothing to do with Oz.  Or with my brother.  I tried to shake it off and bury it too deep to ever let it fully resurface.

Beauty & Melancholy: Chapter Three
I had grown up with violence.  I knew it intimately from inside my own home.  From the place were I hid in my room and listened as Daddy and Toby fought.  I still fell right into it without seeing it coming with Gary.  Even though I was stronger now, and putting distance between myself and the last few years, the sound of an angry voice still effected me.  It wasn’t rational so much as reactional.

Oz must have seen how I faltered – he took my hand as he had so many times before when I was afraid.

When Oz held my hand, I was truly home.  I relaxed into the fingers that wound through my own, then I led him up to my room to talk.

“I know this isn’t the time.  I should wait.”  He paced the small room and wouldn’t look at me.  “You just got home.  And, I …”

“It’s okay.  What is it?”

I opened the sliding glass door.  The heat in the house had risen and made the room an oven.  Breeze off the water stirred the curtains, the air, and me.  I stood in the doorway like it was an escape route.

“I need to know what happened.”  Oz finally spit out.

“What do you mean?”  I knew what he meant.

I wore a mask of friendliness and mild confusion.  I had spent the last few years learning to lie.  Learning to hide behind a mask wiped free of emotion.  Hate

Oz forcibly dragged in a breath.  Then he stopped moving, and he looked right at me.  I shivered despite the heat.

“This guy …”  He took another deep breath.  Oz teetered on the edge, working to stay level headed, to stay in control.  “What I’ve heard from Toby, and Sawyer, I just need to know what happened.  I need to hear it from you.”

“Why?”  My hand went to my chest, as if it could clutch my beating heart.

Why did he care?  Even Toby hadn’t asked for the details.  As soon as I agreed to come home, to live with him, to take some time off, he let up.  He stopped asking questions.  He was content to know I would be here with him and that he could make sure I was safe.  That was enough for him.

“Why?”  His deep voice hummed in my ears.  Oz closed the distance between us, leaving a buffer of space, but not enough.  The heat of him washed over me along with the lemon and mint smell of him.  It was intoxicating.  “God, Calla, you are …  I need you to tell me he didn’t hurt you.  I need you to tell me you’re home for good and never seeing him.  It doesn’t matter why, I need to hear the words.”

He was forceful.  His words powerful.  But Oz was all strength wrapped up with gentleness.  It was different than Gary.  He had been strength all wrapped up with cowardice.  A bully.

“I don’t want to talk about it, Oz.”  I turned away from him, so that I faced the beach.  More people had arrived to the party, and their voices floated up to us.  A party for me, and I was upstairs alone with Oz.  Not for the first time in my life.  The familiarity hurt more than anything else.  “But, yeah, it’s over.  I’m home.  At least until I can get a job and my own place.”

Oz moved in closer until my back pressed against his chest.

“You in this shirt will be my undoing.”  He growled the words low and close.

I sighed and leaned back more firmly against him.

Oz.

I was forbidden fruit.  Toby had been very clear that none of his friends were to ever try anything with me.  Bear had taken up the same song.  Oz had sung it along with them, but then there was that night.

That one night.

A time when I thought maybe, just maybe, he was saying it to keep other guys away so he could have me for himself.  Turns out I was immature.  A foolish girl full of wishful thinking.  I had left and didn’t look back.  And I never let myself think too much about Oz.

“We better go back downstairs.  Before Toby comes up here looking.”  His voice was all gentleness now.  A rumbling that I could feel in my own chest.

“Right.  Can’t risk getting caught.”  I sounded about as bitter as I felt.

Which was to say a lot.  I pushed past him and stomped down the stairs.  I acted like the bratty little sister.  I felt myself sliding back into a role that was all wrong, and all right, and I couldn’t figure out which it was more.

“Toes.”  Yeah, Toby was Tobes that somehow became Toes.  It wasn’t his favorite.  Which is of course why I said it.  “You better have something other than skank ass beer for me to drink.”

I rounded the corner into the kitchen.  The not open floor plan was not my friend.  I couldn’t see what was happening in there before rushing in.  Mostly everyone had gone outside.  But people were floating in and out and filling all the space of the small house, the deck, and the beach down below.  In the kitchen, Toby was giving Miles shit, up in his face yelling at him.

“What the hell?  Back off, Toby.”  I yelled in shock.

I shoved my way in, which was not generally a good idea with this bunch.  Any guy who tried to step in-between a fight would be the joint target of those involved.  Not me.  They all worked so damn hard to look out for me that they all but tip-toed around me.  No punches would be thrown if I was too near.

“Calla, he …”  Toby was breathing hard.  His eyes sharp daggers aimed at Miles.  Maybe something had changed while I was gone.  Maybe they didn’t get along.  I wouldn’t even know something like that – the revelation was a knife into my side.  “I overheard him saying shit he shouldn’t be saying.”

Toby lifted me up and moved me out of the way.

“Oh, come on!”  I wailed and I heard laughter behind me.  Several voices.  We were drawing attention.

Toby looked Miles right in the eye.  He stabbed a finger at him as he spoke.

“Don’t ever fucking look at my sister like that again.  And if you ever talk about her like that again, I will kill you.”

Toby stalked off leaving a visibly upset Miles standing there.  Well, shit.

“Ignore him.”  I moved in closer to Miles who for real would not look directly at me.

I turned to the people meandering and hoping to catch a fight, or some gossip at least.

“Get the fuck out.”

I saw wide eyes that I had the gall to banish people who had come to see me.  Whatever.

“Miles.  Come on.  Look at me.”  He wouldn’t.  Not really.  “Toby gives that speech to every guy in a hundred mile radius.  It’s bull.  I’m a big girl.  I can take care of myself.”

It felt like lies.  That last part especially.  I stuffed that all back down, far away, where it belonged.

He sort of smiled, and sort of looked more in my general direction.  Miles, the baby of the group, the one who had always looked up to me, he stood there towering over me and clearly scared of my brother.

“Tell me what you said.  I could use a pick me up.”  I pitched my voice to be flirty.  I cocked a hip to the side and looked up at him until he looked back down right at me.  I smiled and waited with a tap of my toe.

He let out a small laugh, and it was like a sigh of relief.  I guess he thought I’d be pissed or something.

“I was just telling Buck that you looked hot.”  His cheeks pinked with his words.

“I have a feeling that’s the abridged version.”  I batted my lashes, and he smiled but tried not to and it was cute.  “Thanks for that anyway.”

“Like you don’t know.”  Miles said it like a joke, like it should be obvious.

“Maybe I don’t, Milo.  It doesn’t hurt to hear it every once in a while.  Just don’t let Toby … Or Oz … Or Bear overhear you.  Duh.”

“Good thing Rod isn’t here.  I can’t take on all of ‘em at once.”

He laughed.  I laughed.  It was all good.

“Now, escape while you still can.  There are few girls out there that don’t have an army trying to keep her virginal.”

Milo’s eyes about fell out of his head.  It was too easy.  I would have to reign it in before I led him on.  I saw the way the girls at the party watched him.  He was a Lacey.  He was worth looking at and worth getting to know, and if he liked you, he was oh so worth being on the inside.

Being with them, it was like being in an exclusive club.  All these other people, they were friends who came to parties, who you smiled at and laughed with, but they weren’t really in.  I was.  And I had almost forgotten what it felt like.

Like royalty.

The aura around me, the don’t touch buffer which surrounded me, had been something I had grown to hate.  Now I was happy to find myself back in it.  I wanted to be held at arms length just now – from anyone that wasn’t on the inside with me.

I pilfered the kitchen and found makings for my favorite drink.  Toby did not let me down.  Of course he would remember.  It brought a smile to my lips as I doused vodka into lemonade with a dash of cranberry juice.

Back in the day, he would let me drink only if it was at the Lacey’s house.  He figured if he was there, then it was okay.  Plus he always cut me off after like two drinks, and always sent me to bed early.

I made the rounds at the party.  I smiled and said hello and thank you so many times my face and head hurt.  I went around a few times before I gave up and plopped on the sofa in the living room.  Right under the wobbling ceiling fan.  The noises from the party around me became the soundtrack for a movie I didn’t remember choosing.  Mike and a couple other guys were playing a video game from the other sofa.

Toby’s living room was long, running the length of the house.  He had set it up like two smaller living areas – one with the giant flat screen and game system.  The other with a huge square coffee table that he had made for board games.  Two book cases overflowed with every board game you could remember existing.  No one was over here on the board game side, just yet, so I took a minute to decompress.

The noise from the party was a racket and coming from every direction.  Hot dogs and hamburgers were being passed around.  The smell, rather than enticing, was nauseating.

“Want another drink?”

I didn’t open my eyes.  I held out my cup.  I knew Oz’s voice without needing confirmation.

He took my cup without a word.  House rule:  no one served Calla Jane except one of them.  I was never to take a drink from anyone else.  Ever.  Oz sat down beside me when he came back and put a warm hand on my thigh.  It scorched through the fabric of my skirt.

“Why are you hiding?”  He asked, voice laced with concern.

“I’m not.  I’m resting.”  I shifted so I sat closer, exhibiting zero self control.  He let me align my leg with his without shifting away.  “It’s been a long day.”

“Have you eaten?”

“No.”  I had to laugh, a little, a breath of it through my nose.  “I’m not hungry.”

“When can I see you again?”

His voice was darker.  I opened my eyes and found his face above where mine rested against the back of the couch.  Oz was so beautiful.  I touched his hair, soft like velvet along my fingertips.

“Maybe you should talk to my brother about that.”  I said the words in a strained voice.

I didn’t say it to be mean.  I just said it because sometimes the truth had to be said.  Otherwise everyone was going around ignoring it.  If I’ve learned anything, it’s the truth will come out eventually.  And for all those who had been wandering in ignorance of it, the truth was a sobering and lethal thing.

“I don’t care what he thinks, Callalily.”  Oz scoffed, sounding convincing.

“Yes, you do.”  I shook my head and sat up, putting distance between us, my legs tucked beneath me.

“You’re right.  I do.”  Oz’s head cocked to one side.  His eyes flicked down to my legs but only for a second.  “I just care more what you think.”

“I don’t know what I think.”

“I want to see you.  We can hang out.  As friends.”  He attempted to shrug, to look nonchalant.

He failed.  Friends sounded like a toothache that he talked around, denying the pain.

“Friends?”  Always friends.  “Sure, Ozzie.  Friends.  Let’s do lunch.”

I got up and sauntered off.  I left him there on that couch because if I didn’t get up, I would have said or done something stupid.  I couldn’t afford to be stupid.  I said lunch like it was my own tooth ache.

I went out to the balcony and sat on Sawyer’s lap.  He welcomed me into the space with no fanfare.  It was easy.  I needed easy.  Listening to him talk with the other people around us was easy.  But I wasn’t really paying attention.  I was tired.

I was twenty-two and I was tired.

**

“Come on, sweetie, let’s get you to bed.”

I heard the voice.  I felt the rocking movement of being carried.  I was too far gone to fully wake up.  In my head I was thinking I should refuse this treatment – that I should walk by myself.  But I couldn’t make my eyes drag open.  With a deep sigh, I turned into Sawyer’s chest.  He cradled me and carried me up the stairs and to my bed.

“Stay.”  I got my mouth to work and say the word that was begging to be set free.

“Okay.”

Saw’s weight dipped the bed next to me, and his steady warmth encompassed me as I curled up.  I drifted back to sleep with Sawyer’s gentle hands rubbing my back.

He was gone when I woke up.

Beauty & Melancholy: Chapter Four
Days passed with nothing of substance to fill my time.  

I’d kiss Toby’s cheek when he left for work.  He called it his dayjob.  Back when I’d been in high school and he’d been putting himself through the local community college, he had learned to fix cars.  He became a registered mechanic and damn good one at that.  He then worked his way up to manage the shop.  At one time he had been interested in buying it and having his own place.  I’d have to ask him if he was still thinking of doing that.  

My brother was also a fantastic drummer, playing in a descent band with semi-regular gigs around surrounding towns.  But, music wasn’t enough to bring in the money it took to survive.  

Hence the day job to pay the bills.

I would sip my coffee as Toby drove away, and I would let the loneliness settle in and around me.  

I read obscene numbers of books.  

I took walks along the beach – only while it was still early enough not to be brutally hot.  

I rearranged the things in my room.  More than once.  

I drove to the boardwalk and browsed all the tourist traps.  People recognized me and smiled.  Most waved but didn’t come over.  A few had got in a hug and asked if I was back for good.  To which I had no answer.

I texted with Emily.  She had taken a job that started right after graduation.  Packed up and moved to Chicago.  We had fallen into the habit of taking pictures of everything and sending them to each other.  Everywhere she went, she shared it with me.  Every person of interest, I saw their mug.  I did the same for her, showing her the beach, and the house, and my friends.  She insisted Bear was the hottest of the brothers.  And lamented – as did many a girl – that Sawyer was gay.  She kept her mouth shut about Oz.  I had made it clear my feelings for him – on more than one drunken sob fest – and she knew better than to open that can of worms.

I grew bored and started searching online for jobs.  I didn’t submit my resume.  I wasn’t ready to take that step yet.  

Days slipped by until I lost all track of time.

“Chicka chicka.”  Toby’s voice echoed through the house.  

Damn, was it already after five?  I had gotten lost in a novel and wiled the hours right away.    

“Boom boom!”  I called the answer back as I headed to my door.  

It was our version of Marco Polo we’d come up with as kids.  

“Get your ass down here.”

“I’m coming, Cranky Pants!”

I bounded down the stairs with quick easy steps.  Contrary to what I’d thought when I moved down to the coast, I had very quickly gotten used to living with my brother.  I even liked it.  He kept to himself mostly, and so did I.  When we did come together, it was easy.  Fun.  Almost like I wasn’t broken.  Or like maybe I could be fixed one day.  

Toby, not being a homebody like me, went out almost every night.  Usually with the guys.  Sometimes with a girl, or a different girl, or to pick up a girl.  I tried not to keep track.

“Tell me you’re coming to the show tonight.”  He called out as I rounded the corner to see him.

He was dirty from work and smelled like oil, or motors, or tires.  Something like cars and hard work.  A smell that I had been associating with Toby for a very long time.  

“I don’t know.”  My shoulders moved in a shrug and I moved around Toby for the sink.  You couldn’t drink enough water with the relentless heat and salt of the beach.

I bit my lip and he stared hard at me.  He had a fierce you better shape uplight in his eyes.

“Calla.  You have to get out of this house!”  He was almost but not quite yelling.  I felt that thing again, that almost fear, writhing deep in my stomach.  “You haven’t seen me play in years.  You have to come.”

I took a small step back, my breath snagged in my chest making me choke.  I looked at him, and I wasn’t sure what he saw in me as he looked back.  But his whole demeanor changed.  Like he was the one who was scared.   

My heart had spiked, an immediate over-reaction, and my palms itched.  

Fight or flight – which for me was always flight – roared through my system like a freight train.  It blotted out any sense of reason.

“Why are you afraid of me?”  He asked in a timid voice, carefully not entering my space, though his body leaned toward me.

His purposely soft voice held an accusation that stung.  The hurt and confusion on his face was painful and prickled at my skin.

I was not afraid of him.  Not Toby.  I knew without a doubt he would never hurt me.  He would die before he hurt me – or let me be hurt.  I was still trying to figure out how to re-train my body not to tense up when I encountered heightened emotions.  

Not that I could – or would – divulge that level of information to my brother.  Part of moving back down to the beach had been to force myself to move forward with my life.  Leaving the bad parts behind where they belonged.

“I’m not. Afraid of you.”  I morphed to Fresh Face Calla.  Innocent smile.  Wave of a hand.  Hopeful he couldn’t hear my thundering pulse.  “I mean, obviously.”

“No.  Uh uh.”  His eyes stared at my face, trying to get a better read on me, “Don’t try to brush me off.  What the hell?”

I bit my lip to keep it from trembling, as I didn’t want to cry.  

“Nothing.  Really.  I was just …”  I cleared my throat and tried to keep my mask in place.  “What time is the show?  Should I go ahead and get ready?”

“We go on at nine.”  He stated simply, letting me change the subject, but not ready to let it go.

His voice stayed weird.  His eyes were taking in my every movement, my every shift of body and emotion.  I knew he saw through me – I just wasn’t sure what he saw there.  

“When do you need to be down there?  Can we go to dinner first?”  My trying-to-sound-natural voice sounded false as it lingered between us.

“I’m playing at Shooters and Crab Shack is next door.”  Toby grumbled, still watching me, still weary of my reaction.

He was still speaking in a weird tone.  I couldn’t figure out what it meant exactly.  I smiled too much, like a lunatic.  

“Okay.  Cool.  I’m gonna …”  I pointed up the stairs.  “I’m gonna invite Sawyer.”

“Calla.”

I paused at the top of the stairs and looked back down at my brother.  The constant in my life.  My always protector.  I felt swollen with the guilt of having flinched away from him; at having made him feel bad or like he had done something wrong.  

“I’m sorry.”  His gruff voice carried up to me.

“For what?”  I asked, but didn’t want to know.

Don’t say it.  Don’t say it.  Don’t say it.  

This was one of those truths that I had tried gracefully to ignore.  One that was ready to come out and bite me in the ass.  

“For not being there.  For not …”  He sighed and as he did, looked older.  More than his twenty six years.  “For not protecting you.”

“It’s not your fault, Tobe.”  

I sort of smiled.  I definitely escaped from his gaze and hid in my room.  

 

I went with skinny jeans despite the heat.  A ruffled olive green tank top that fell loose over my hips and showed just enough cleavage.  And my worn the hell out brown birks.  I pulled my hair into two french braids and let them hang over my shoulders.  I may as well play up the whole little sister thing.  It was working to my advantage these days as far as I could tell.  

I rode with Toby in his million year old Ford Ranger.  No a/c.  

“God, can’t you fix this thing?”  I complained, fanning my pits with my hands, knowing it wouldn’t keep me from sweating.

He laughed, “Of course I could.”

“Ugh.”  

The windows were rolled all the way down, which you’d think would help, but no.  Instead it suffocated us with hot humid air.  Little pieces of my hair flew free from the braids and whipped across my face until I gave up on looking decent.  

“You might have to get a ride home.  From Sawyer.  Or Oz.”  Toby tapped his fingers on the steering wheel and stick shift, always finding the beat.

“Oh, are those two my only approved chaperones?”  The question popped out automatically, laced with snark.

I was happy to be home, and happy for the safety and security that come with it.  I couldn’t help the attitude that bubbled from my lips when my brother said that stuff.   

“Yes.”  He answered with total seriousness.  

“Why can’t you take me?”  I picked at a loose thread on my jeans.  Why did I wear jeans instead of shorts?  My legs were sweating, my knee pits probably had stains.  And Toby didn’t plan to bring me home from our outing.

“I’m playing the second set too, with a different band.  I’ll be there late.”  He didn’t look at me, paying attention to the road and the stupid beach traffic.  “You won’t want to wait for me.”

“Oh.”

He did that sometimes – played backup or fillin with other bands.  He knew all the local bands and they all knew him.  It was all good, but did leave me with limited options.

Short drive down the beach to the boardwalk, and we were there.  When we walked into the Crab Shack, I spotted Oz and Sawyer at a table by the windows.  Evening sun slanted long shadows across their handsome faces, and threw them into deep relief.

“You invited Oz to dinner?”  I half-heartedly complained.

“Obviously.”  Toby shook his head at me.  “He’s playing with me tonight.  What’s the big deal?  You’re being so weird.”

“Shut up.”

I shoved him and he pretended it had an effect on him, swaggering a few steps.  Sawyer typed away on his phone, looking unaware of our approach.  Oz watched me, tracing my every step, and didn’t bother with being inconspicuous.  I wanted to be mad, or indignant.  Instead, I felt happy.  

All the same, I took the seat beside Sawyer.  I knew better than take the one by Oz.  That would throw the earth off it’s axis.  

We stuffed ourselves with seafood.  Quality seafood being yet another perk of living at the beach.  Talk moved from the show that night, to Sawyer’s project.  The sculpture he was designing for the library sounded unbelievable and I couldn’t wait to see his progress.  We talked about Lacey Garner Corp, and what Oz and Bear had been doing at work.  Talk came in an easy natural flow, except that the topic never ventured toward me.  After a while we had that whole elephant in a room thing going on, and I didn’t know how to fix it.  

“Why no date, Saw?”  I batted my eyelashes as I asked, to which he smiled sweetly.

“I thought you were my date tonight, CJ.”  

I giggled at him, then stole his rum and coke and took a few sips.  

“Now, now, now, none of that.”  He yanked it away from me and downed the remainder.

We all laughed together, and our voices blended into something all at once familiar and achingly strange.  Sawyer threw an arm around my shoulders to hold me close, and our chairs bumped together.  He threw Toby a roguish wink.  Toby looked like he wanted to be mad even though he knew better, while Oz looked legitimately mad.  Not that I knew why – I’d been tucked by his little brother’s side since forever.  

“What are you thinking about?”  Sawyer’s words were soft in my ear.

As soon as we tipped our heads together and whispered, Toby and Oz ignored us.  They hated when we got all mushy on them.  

“I was remembering when you told me you were going to marry me.”  I hadn’t been thinking about the exactly, but something like it.

“Ah.  Young love.”  He sing-songed his reply, and batted his eye lashes back at me.

Together we sighed and leaned in close enough we touched.  

It had been fifth grade.  About the time I had started looking at Oz like more than a brother.  Too young to know what my feelings were, but crushing hard on him all the same.  I’d had a crush on Bear the year before and didn’t think too much about the switch.  Crushes were meant to be unrequited.  They passed.  

But it was different from the start.  Like I loved Oz too much and the idea of not having him always in my life caused pain I couldn’t describe the right way.  When I had told Sawyer, he looked real serious and said, “I’m going to marry you, Calla Jane.”  It was the sweetest thing my ten year old self had ever heard.  

“I should have learned then what my love life was going to be like.”  I let it slip out dark and brooding.

“Why would you say a thing like that?”

Sawyer tipped my chin up so that I faced him.  We had a tendency to exist in our own private bubble – at least that hadn’t changed.  I heard my brother and Oz talking about their set and about chicks.  I focused on Sawyer, and tucked his long hair behind his ear.  

“Well, it’s not like you’re going to marry me.”  I managed a laugh, but I could still taste the darkness.

“I would if you wanted me to, Calla.”  His lips barely moved as he spoke.

“As if.”  I pulled slightly away, forcing a margin of space between us.

“There are different kinds of love.  You know I love you.”  Sawyer’s words were tinged with sweetness, a fine coating of sugar, but I didn’t want any just then.

“I do.”  Of course I knew he loved me, but it didn’t matter.  I nodded my head, but kept the distance I’d created.

“So what did that mean?”  Sawyer focused solely on me, digging deeper.  “What’s your love life like?  Hmm?”

“A disaster.”

I gave him a shaky smile.  But then I turned away.  I couldn’t look at the fire in his eyes.  

“Maybe I’ll find a guy tonight.”  I announced a little too loudly.

I said it to change the subject.  Sort of.  At least to the present instead of the past.  I said it because I thought it would be normal for me to be interested in finding a boyfriend.  I said it to cover the fact that I had zero interest in finding a guy.  Or at least any guy other than the one giving me the evil eye across the table.  

“Um, no.”  Toby rolled his eyes and did his best gross out face.  

“You are such a neanderthal.  I am twenty-two.  Not to mention single.  You can’t expect me to go to a bar and hang out half the night and not speak to the opposite sex while there.”  I rolled my eyes hard to make the point.

“You have him.”  Toby pointed at Sawyer.  

I sagged, knowing there was no hope, while Sawyer laughed.  

“I give up.  I’m joining a convent.”  I threw my hands in the air and nearly knocked over my glass.

“Now that is more like it.”  Toby made a point of looking pleased, like he had solved some world crisis single handedly.  

“Leave her alone, Toby.”  Sawyer didn’t speak up for me much, not where our brothers were concerned.  I guess maybe he didn’t need to, usually, because they were always on the same side.  “Calla’s a grown up.  She doesn’t need a babysitter.”

Toby let it go.  But not without giving me a significant look.  A look that said this wasn’t over.  A look that said he knew something was up and we would have to talk it out.  And soon.  I added it to the other topics of conversation queued up and waiting for us to discuss.

Beauty & Melancholy: Chapter Five
Shooters promised a good time on appearance alone.  It had this big thatched roof, a tiki vibe, and sat at the end of the boardwalk.  The breeze off the Gulf blew through the open air design, making it impossible to forget you were at the beach.  The bar sat like an island in the center, and frozen drinks were their specialty.  Barstools circled the island of blenders and alcohol, tall chairs lined the perimeter.  Strictly no tables, leaving mostly the small stage and big dance floor.

“I’m sitting at the bar.”  I called out to whoever was listening, and beelined to a row of empty seats with a good view of the stage.

I plopped down onto a stool, and Sawyer took residence on the one next to me, where he’d be behind me once the band started.

We had an hour to kill before they played, with nothing to do but drink and talk.

The waitress came over in a hot pink v-neck and the shortest shorts ever.  Like jean underwear, pockets hanging out, and miles of leg exposed.

“Oh.  My.  God!”  A squeal, and two seconds later I realized I knew the waitress.  “Calla Jane!  I heard you were coming back.  You know how this town talks.  I couldn’t make it to the shindig when you arrived because I was working.  I’m always working.  How the hell are you?”

Rachael Adams.  We’d gone to school together, and I hadn’t seen her in four years – since graduation.  She looked nothing like the girl she was when I left.  Her hair used to be long and brown, now it was in a page boy and streaked with blonde.  Her nose was pierced with a little silver hoop, and a smattering of tattoos adorned her arms and chest.

“Rachael.  Wow.  It’s been forever.  I’m good.  How are you?”  I met her rambling with some of my own, flabbergasted at how much things can change.

I stood up so we could hug across the bar as best we could.

“Oh, I’m good.  Same ol’ same ol’.”  She waved her hand, and I doubted her words somehow.  “What can I get you to drink?”

“Fruity frozen whatever.”  I laughed and gestured to the bay of blended icy drinks.  “Something with berries.”

She took Sawyer’s drink order too and went to work behind the bar.  She slid our glasses into place with a friendly smile, barely pausing.

“I’ll catch up with you soon.”  She promised as she turned away.

Rachel stayed crazy busy, flitting around the place, taking orders, making drinks, working behind the bar and everywhere all at once.

“She has a kid, you know?”  Sawyer said in a low tone.

“I did not know.”  Turned out I didn’t know anything about the place I’d once called home.

“Yep.”

I spun to face Sawyer, and watched as he pulled his hair back into a messy man bun.  Total hottie, and he knew it.  He winked when he saw me checking him out.

“Liam Murphy is the dad.”

“What!?”  I nearly spit my drink on his face.  “Liam?”

He nodded.  His jaw set and his face grim.

“It was a mess.  They went out all of about three times.  Couple months later, she’s pregnant and saying it’s his.  He wasn’t so sure.  But you know, just because Rach dresses like this for work, it doesn’t mean she sleeps around.”  He rolled his eyes at the double standards of life.  “Anyway, they did tests.  Liam is dear ol’ dad.  He was this close to severing his rights.”

Sawyer held his thumb and first finger not so far apart.  I was taken aback by the deluge of news, and the emotions it stirred in my chest.  I’d known Liam forever.  Unplanned pregnancy happened, but I couldn’t see him not taking responsibility.

“You better believe we all gave him his ass in his hands.”  Sawyer shook his head as he remembered the events that must have transpired.  “It was rough for a while.  They were always fighting.  But in the end, that baby is a piece of sweetness, and Liam fell for him.”

He laughed and got this gooey look on his face.

“Babies are easy to fall for.  It’s the squishy thighs.”  I said it like I had a clue.

He nodded and took a long drink.  Silence stretched between us, thick and awkward.

“So spill it.”  Curiosity shown in Sawyer’s face as he sipped and asked, breaking the tension.

“Spill what?”

“Give me the last three plus years.  Lay it all out.”  He watched me intently, wanting to hear everything, as if I hadn’t dropped him.  As if he didn’t hate me.

“Every one keeps asking me to talk, to explain, to … whatever.  But I can’t.”  I stumbled over the words and felt heat flood my skin.  “I left all that behind and I don’t want to revisit it.  School was good though.  I can tell you all about my classes.  And my roommate Emily.  You’d love her.  She’s like Legally Blonde come to life.  I wanted to hate her and just couldn’t manage.”

He soaked up every word I offered him.  Like he knew he might not get any more.

“I’m sorry, Saw.  I mean, really, really sorry.  If I could go back …”

I let my apology hang there, unable to go on.

“If you decide to talk.  I listen pretty good.”  He gave me another wink and acted unaffected.

We talked about the easy topics, and we waited, and we drank.

The bar was packed – standing room only – when the band took the stage.  Oz played bass, off to the left, and looked oh-so-serious the whole time.  Toby played drums, in the back, and showed off by twirling his drumsticks and catching them between songs.  During songs.  Paul McDonald played lead guitar and did the singing, front and center, and loving every second of it.  He was a real showman, and always gave the crowd what they came for.  More than just good music, he joked around and was so at ease on stage it drew you into the performance.

There was a short break between sets with radio hits piped in to keep the dancers happy.  The band came out and mingled with us common folk.

I jumped up and threw myself at my brother.  He hugged me and kissed my cheek, and mercifully didn’t let me fall down as I staggered.

“I see you are having a good time.  Aren’t you glad I made you come?”  Toby laughed in my ear.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah.”  I rolled my eyes as he steadied me on my feet.

“Calla, girl, so sorry I missed the bash the other night.”  Paul stuffed his hands into his pockets, and smiled widely at me, “You are looking fantastic.  Old age agrees with you.”

Paul was a shameless flirt, and I didn’t mind a bit at the moment.  He seemed familiar and harmless.

“Thank you, Paulie.”  I gave him a little curtsey because I was a little drunk.

“Who was that loser tourist you were dancing with during out set?  You owe me the next dance.”  Paul followed that with a suggestive lift of his brow.

I flicked my eyes to Toby, and to Oz.  To what?  To check and see if it was okay?  Old habits die hard.  I immediately brought my eyes back to Paul, and ignored the stunned looks I had found on the other faces.

“Yes.  Absolutely.  I would love to dance with you.”  The words came out a little too forcefully, shocking every one.

Paul nodded at me and looked pleased as well as a little surprised, like he hadn’t expected me to agree.

“I’m out.”  Sawyer stood behind me, hands cupped over my shoulders.  “I have an early morning tomorrow.”

“Oh, but you’re bringing me home.”  I turned to tell Paul our dance would have to wait until some other night.

“I’ll bring her home.”  Oz offered, to the rescue like old times.

“Text me when you get in.”  Sawyer lifted and lowered his hands a couple times on my shoulders, and I soaked up his touch.

“You’ll be asleep.”  I reminded him.

“I don’t care.”

“Okay.”

Paul took Sawyer’s seat and ordered whiskey.  He ordered me another drink although I was pretty sure I’d had one too many already.  I thanked him and sipped it slowly.

Toby took off into the melee.  He was looking for some girl he’d met the week before.  Or something.  Plus he was due back on stage in like fifteen minutes to play with the next band.  Oz lingered.  He didn’t sit.  He stood there like a guard which was more than a little awkward.

“Dude, you’re making me nervous as fuck.  Sit down.”  Paul muttered, looking nervous as he said.

Oz grunted and took the stool on my other side.  He didn’t look at me or speak to me, and I wondered if he was annoyed that I was making him wait to take me home.

But he had offered.

Paul told me about some upcoming gigs.  He even asked me if I’d come.  I said yeah, or sure, or maybe, or probably.  It was easy enough to agree because Toby would be there, and because I had nothing else to do.  Paul had always seemed so effortlessly confident.  Like the Lacey brothers.  Only poor and never quite on the inside of the group.  But gorgeous with messy black hair and startling blue eyes.  As he sat there talking to me, he seemed a little keyed up, tapping his fingers and swirling his drink.  He looked past me to Oz more than a couple times.  He was either worked up because my guard dog was keeping such a close watch.  Or he was just that taken back by my giving him the time of day.

The next band was technically speaking a bigger deal, although I didn’t like them as well.  Their sound was a too experimental for me.  I knew all those guys as well.  Toby, on the drums of course filling in, Sam on keyboard, a guy that went by Blade on bass, and Saint Joe on lead.  Saint Joe had a very real reputation and it was anything but saintly.  I steered clear without having to be told to do so.

“Dance?”

I nodded and Paul escorted me to the dance floor with a hand hovering at my waist.  People were swaying, sliding, bumping, grinding.  He put his hands around my hips gently, like I might disappear from his grasp.

“Are you nervous?”  I asked, oddly fascinated by Paul with his hands on my hips.

“Maybe.”  He admitted, then tipped his head away a little.

I stared at him with this incredulous look on my face.  He was so real.  So honest.  It all felt like a mirage of dancing and smiling and drinking.

“Why on earth would you be nervous?”  It made no sense.  Rather than put him on the spot, I decided to be funny.  “I’ll spoil the ending for you:  I’m not going to sleep with you.”

It was a joke as much as it was the absolute truth.  But I figured he knew that much going into it.  Plus there was Oz watching us.  And Toby watching us.  But I was joking.  Ha.  Ha.

Paul’s face went serious, and he didn’t seem to find it funny.  “Obviously.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”  I acted offended, even though it made no sense.

“Nothing, Calla.”  He shook his head and tried to regain the easiness that had been between us seconds before.

I looped my hands up over his shoulders.  The song moved fast around us, and we were like sixth graders shifting side to side, talking more than dancing.

“I wouldn’t try, that’s all.”  He finally admitted.

I wasn’t sure if I should feel insulted.  I think I felt insulted.  Was it our watchers?  Or was it me?

“You are so far out of my league Calle Jane, I’m lucky to have this dance.”

“What?  No way.  That’s crazy talk.”  I shook my head at him.  Then I smiled, a real smile that took no effort.  The lights on the floor changed, and his eyes changed with them.  Kaleidoscope eyes.  It was dizzying.  “You’re the lead singer.  You’re ridiculously good looking.  You could have any girl here.”

“That’s not entirely accurate.”  He shook his head at my declaration.  “You might have had too much to drink.”

“Probably.”  Definitely.  “But I stand by my assessment.”

We danced then.  Found the rhythm and each other.  I knew Paul.  I was safe with him.  So I could press my body along his and enjoy the feeling of his touch without fear.

By the third or fourth song I was thoroughly drenched in sweat, and dear Paul didn’t seem to mind.

“That’s enough.”  Oz towered over me.  Over his friend and bandmate Paul.  “I’m taking you home.”

“The hell you are.”  I reeled back, cross at the interruption.   

I stomped my foot, fully willing to stand up to Oz, but Paul took a step to the side.

“Sorry man.  No harm, no foul.”  He spread his hands out, continuing to put space between our bodies.

“Paulie, no, it’s okay.”  I protested the interruption.

He leaned in for a half-second, “some other time, Calla,” he kissed my cheek then turned and walked away.

I turned back to Oz, who was visibly upset, and barely holding his shit together.  “Calm down.  We were just dancing.  What is your problem?”

Without an answer, Oz ground his teeth, and stared at me like I should know why I shouldn’t dance with Paul.  But when I opened my mouth to tell Oz how wrong he was to storm over and be a brute, and cut me off.

“I’m taking you home.”  He grunted.

I swear, like an overgrown ape, he grunted at me.  I stomped again, upset, but quickly losing steam.

“Come on, Jitter, you’re wasted.”  Oz attempted to use a gentle voice with me, and even reached out to take my hand.  “Dancing with Paul McDonald?”

The edge of malice to his voice was my undoing.  I opened my mouth to yell, but only released a sob.  Tears on my hot face, I pushed away and through the crowd toward the exit.

Beauty & Melancholy: Chapter Six
He picked me up and tossed me over his shoulder, where I landed with a thump and my stomach fell into my throat.  How many times had he done this when we were kids?  The familiarity punched in my gut more than his shoulder.  It was usually to carry me kicking and screaming and throw me in the deep end of his swimming pool.  It was usually with me laughing as I squealed in delight at him.

It took a good second or more for my sloshed brain to catch up with my position.  I beat my fists on his back.  He carried me right through the crowd – which parted for the spectacle that was my life – and outside to the parking lot.

“Put me down, you asshole.”

He kept walking.  I assumed toward his car.

“I’m gonna throw up.  Put me down.”

He slowed and lifted me off his shoulder.  I slid down his front, and my breasts ran along his chest.  Where we touched there was heat, not of a gentle sort, but like being lit on fire.  Oz did not seem immune to the motion.  Nor did he seem amused.

“Come on.”  He grumbled at me with tight eyes and flat lips.

He took my hand, and I let him because I was a glutton for punishment.  Because I had known my fate all along.  I thought maybe I had gone along with Paul’s flirting and dancing to determine this outcome, which pissed me off.

He opened the door to his sleek black BMW and settled me into the passenger seat.  It smelled like leather.  Like lemon and mint and heart break.

“I hate you.”

I breathed the words as Oz took his seat.  He went very still, and I wished the words back even as they were passing my lips.

“No you don’t.  You love me.”

He said the words, and it wasn’t even the first time he’d said them.  There had been those times throughout our lives with a glint in his eyes he’d easily stated you love me and knew it was true.  Now, in his dead voice, it sounded insulting.

“I heard it’s a fine line.”  I seethed, and let my words slip out full of venom.

Between love and hate.

“Exactly.”  He met my vitriol with his own.

I watched the beach pass in a blur out the tinted windows that made the night blacker.  The lights of the boardwalk, of the condos and the hotels that he owned, they all disappeared as we passed.  I didn’t say a word while he drove me to Toby’s house.  My house.

He parked; the wheels crunching over the broken shells.  Without getting out of the car, he rolled the windows down so that we were bombarded with the salt and humidity of the beach.

“I’m sorry.  I don’t hate you.”  My voice was weak.  I was so, so close to breaking open.

“I know, Callalily.”  Like mine, the anger had all drained from him, leaving an open wound.

We sat there for a long time.  For a few minutes or for an hour.  We sat there and he held my hand and we were just there together.

“Go upstairs and go to bed.”  He finally said, his voice low as the waves crashing around us.

“Come up with me.”  I couldn’t get out of the car and leave him.  No way could I pull myself so far from him.

“That’s not a good idea.”

“Yes, it is.”

He followed me up the stairs and into my brother’s house.  I flicked on the kitchen light and downed a glass of water.  He had one too.  I had never swallowed so loudly as I did in the stillness of that room that night.

I took his hand for a change, and pulled him up the stairs, right into my room.   

“Please.”

It was all I said.  It was all I needed to say.  He nodded and came all the way in.  I took off my sandals, and settled on the edge of my bed.  I patted a hand on the spot beside me, until Oz sat next to me.  The weight of my past and my present combined and pushed me down, leveled me.  Sifting through it all took too much energy, so I settled for focusing on the immediate problem, and how I ended up carried out of Shooters.

“Did I say I was sorry?”  I offered up what I had left in me.

“Yeah, Calla.”

“Why were you so mad?  Paul and I, we were just dancing.”  I’d done nothing wrong, that much rang true for me, but I wanted to understand what happened.

I had this flash of a memory.  It came unbidden into my head.  A night Emily had dragged me along to one of the bars that kids from school frequented.  She was looking to dance and have fun, and wanted me to come along.  I did.  At some point I danced with a guy.  It was far more innocent than my dance with Paul, a nothing sort of incident.  Out of nowhere Gary popped up and tore us apart.  He hit the guy and threw a fit.  I left with him if just to appease his anger and hopefully avoid more of a scene.  No matter what I said, it wasn’t good enough.  It wasn’t the right thing.  He was so mad and kept saying I had crossed the line.  He called me a slut.  A whore.  Easy.  Words that stung as much as his hands when they hit me.

I knew this was different, what transpired with Oscar.  I knew that, and yet, I was still back there, trapped in my own worst memories.

“I didn’t like it.  I couldn’t stand seeing his hands all over you like that.”  Jealousy colored his voice.

No, he wouldn’t be jealous, it was probably all in my intoxicated mind.  I was far more drunk than I’d been in a long time.

“Nothing was going to happen.”  I said the words, knowing they were true, but still unsure why I needed to say them.  My head still warred with my past.

“You don’t know Paul, Calla, not really.”

“He knows me, Oz.  It would never have gone too far.”

Oz sighed and his shoulders slumped.  He was upset, and I didn’t understand exactly why, and I didn’t know how to fix it.  But that’s what I did, I fixed things.  I made peace.  I soothed anger.  Or I tried.  I had to because otherwise I got hurt.

“Calla, you can’t do that.”  He stood up and as if he couldn’t keep still.  That was more like him.  Which set me slightly more at ease.  But his voice was hard.  Pressing.  “You can’t let a guy feel you up like that, right in front of …”

He struggled to keep his breathing even.  I stood up because sitting there suddenly making me anxious.

“Enough with the big brother over protective nonsense.  I am not a little girl anymore.”

I said it softly.  I didn’t yell.  I just said the words that needed to be said.  Settle things once and for all.

“You haven’t been a little girl for a while now.  I of all people am very well aware of that.”  His voice rose with his anger.  I couldn’t keep up.  My head spun dizzily.  I didn’t typically throw up after drinking so I wasn’t sure why I felt like hurling.  “Do you know how guys will look at you when you act like that?  What they’ll think they can do to you?”

“Stop.”  My voice wavered and tears bubbled up from nowhere.  Or from somewhere in my past where I had this conversation too many times before.  “I didn’t do anything wrong.”

How dare he judge me.  Place blame on me and my actions for causing something that didn’t even occur.  It was madness and I was swept up in it, back and forth between our argument and my past.

He took a step toward me, his body precipitously close to mine.  I moved back automatically, my heart rate ratcheting up, and blood pumping adrenaline into my veins.  He regained that step, insistent he be at my side, one hand reaching out to me.  My body scrambled to get out of his reach, acting out of practice, with no conscious though necessary.

“What are you doing?  I want to apologize.  I didn’t mean for you to cry.”  Oz and his voice strangled me.

He would be my undoing.  I was certain of it.  I should have come in alone when he suggested it in the first place.  This was my fault for inviting him up.

“Go ahead then, apologize.”  I said the words like a dare, while I kept my distance.

My eyes kept vigilant watch on his hands.  On his stance.  As if I could predict his next move.  Just in case.  I hated when fear took control and ruled me from inside out.

“Calla, I’m sorry.  I was being a jerk.”  His voice was pitched as if he was talking me down off a ledge.  Maybe he was.

He tried again to close the space between us.  When I jumped, he flinched.

“Seriously, what the hell is going on?”  Oz turned soft.  His words were too soft.  Too gentle.

“Nothing.  I need you to leave me alone.”  I ground out the words through my teeth, unable to relax all my tensed muscles.

“Like hell I will.”

I cried.  My hands shook.  I fled down the stairs because I needed to move.  But feeling Oz come down after me made me run.

Like prey, I ran.  Like a predator, he gave chase.

I repeated in my head:  This is Oz.  He would never hurt me.  It wasn’t enough.  The chase fueled my fear and spiked my heart rate until I couldn’t make sense of anything.  All I knew was that I had to escape.  That there was no escape.  Only wide open beach, dark night turning my surroundings pitch, and the waves crashing relentlessly to the shore.

“Calla!”  He called after me as I tried to disappear down the stairs from the balcony and onto the beach.

It’s hard to run on the beach, physically more demanding than solid ground.  My feet sank and squeaked in the sand.  I couldn’t breath.

He caught me.  Of course he did.  He grabbed me and wrapped himself around me, my back to his chest.  A tight bear hug hold that I had no chance of getting out of.

I didn’t fight.  I relaxed so that he held up most of my weight.  I knew when to stop running; when there was no chance of escaping.  When to fold.

“Calla.  Baby.  What’s wrong?”

I sobbed.  He spun me within the circle of his arms and I soaked his shirt with my tears.  One hand rubbed my back and the other was in my hair.  Oz would never hurt me.  I breathed, and I repeated the words I knew to be true, and slowly the panic ebbed away.  It took a long time for me to stop whatever crazy had taken over my brain and to regain rational thought.  With that gone, all I was left with was embarrassment.

“I’m going to bed.”  My words were stiff.  I pulled away from Oz and the warm night felt very cold without him wrapped around me.  “I’m sorry for that.  I don’t know what that was.  Clearly I drank too much.”

I could blame the alcohol, yes, it was because I drank too much.  I walked back to the house on stiff legs, all the while knowing Oz followed right behind me.  But he let me go.  Didn’t say anything about my behavior, or try to stop me from going upstairs alone.

He slept on the couch.  Knowing he was down there made me feel safe.  Which was warped.

I was so messed up.

 

I woke to a pounding head and cotton mouth that tasted like death.  I groaned and somehow made it to the bathroom to brush and pee.  I made it half way down the stairs before I remembered I might run into people – that I didn’t live alone, and besides which Oz had stayed the night.

When I heard Toby and Oz talking in hushed tones, I stopped and  listened because they were talking about me.

“I’m worried, man.”  Oz said.  His voice was morning-gruff.  I didn’t imagine he slept well last night.  “Have you noticed her acting strange?”

“Yeah, yeah I have.”  Toby sounded less worried than Oz.  Tired of the conversation, or unwilling to talk too much about it.  “But she’s coming off this long relationship with that asshole.  She just needs some time to adjust.”

“What do you know about this guy?”

“Nothing, really.  I met him a couple times when I went up there to visit her.  He was a jerk.  Controlling, you know?”

I sank down and sat on the stairs.  To keep my hands busy I worked tangles from my hair and braided it.

“How could you let her be with him?”  Oz was demanding.  Angry.  But I didn’t feel any fear this time.  Just sadness.

“Because she’s not a kid.”  Toby lowered his voice to a strong whisper, like he knew I might hear him.  I almost felt guilty for sitting there and listening.  “Because there was nothing I could do.  Don’t put this on me.”

“I’m sorry.  You’re right.  It’s on all of us.”  He so easily took the blame off my brother and onto his own shoulders.  “We all knew something was wrong.”

“She’s here now.”

I stood up and stomped the rest of the way down.  When I came into the kitchen they were smiling like a pair of cheshire cats with mugs of steaming coffee.  I knew I was red-faced, blushing from the appalling events of the night before, and from their words.  I pretended it was because I wasn’t properly dressed.

“I didn’t know you’d be here, Oz.”  I sort of gestured to my skimpy pajamas.  And hoped that would do for an explanation of my flamed cheeks.

“Ah, you know me, always around.”

Not so veiled message there.  But maybe I didn’t mind.  If I could keep control of myself in the future and not flip the hell out, him being around might be lovely.

I poured myself a cup of coffee.  Toby sat on the counter, looking at once like a little boy and a grown man.  Oz leaned against the opposite counter, blinking back concern and not doing a good job.

“What are you guys up to today?”  I asked an innocent question, in hopes of soothing the mood.  They looked at each other before looking at me.  Uh oh.

“Pool party.  My house.”  Oz said simply.

“Pool party?  We live at the beach.”  I laughed, as I always did when they planned a pool party.

“So?”  Oz shrugged.  He dared me with one look to try and get out of the party.

“Alright, alright.  I’m in.”  With a shrug, I took my coffee and spun around.

I left them and hoped they didn’t go back to talking about me.  I spent a couple much needed hours to myself, sitting on my balcony reading, picking out clothes, and letting the butterflies go wild in my belly at the prospect of a good old fashioned pool party at the Lacey’s.

Beauty & Melancholy: Chapter Seven

Oz lived in a Condo just down the beach last time I went to his place. Through most of college and a little after. Toby and I spent countless hours there. Even back in the day, when I was still in high school, and they were trying to shield me from their bad boy ways, I was still hanging around them. I had Sawyer at my side, and we did our own thing just on the outer orbit of their thing.

I knew he’d bought a house since then, but I hadn’t been to it.

“Hey, Toes, am I riding with you?” I asked, double checking, and fighting nerves.

“We can walk, Jitterbug.” Toby smiled and pointed west.

“Say what?” I cocked my head and my hip at him. “Why didn’t you say so?”

“I don’t know. I forgot you didn’t know. It’s like ten houses down.”

“Huh.” Made for a easy trek.

I shouldered a tote bag of supplies, then we went out back and walked along the beach. Toby’s was the last of the small houses in a tightly packed row. After that they got huge and more spread out. Go figure. Oz was made of money. I was so used to it, I sometimes forgot about it.

“This one.” Toby pointed at the next in a row of amazing houses.

“Holy shit.”

It was the most beautiful shade of aqua blue with white trim. Wrap around porch, and I mean all the way around. Screened in areas. Adirondack chairs everywhere. Three stories. Three on top of the stilts.

My favorite color. His house was my favorite color.
I wore a simple cotton tank dress in that exact hue to the party. I matched his freaking house.

“Ye-ah.” Toby muttered, not saying anything more about the colossal beach house we trudged toward.

Toby and I had made our peace with the wealth of the Lacey family a long time ago. We would never have that kind of money. But you couldn’t let money get in the way. The Lacey’s worked hard, every one of them, and I couldn’t begrudge them something like that. Those boys were born into that family and didn’t pick it any more than we picked the family and poverty that we were born into.

You get what you get.

We weren’t the first ones to arrive. People milled all around in brightly colored swimsuits, smelling of sunscreen, and obviously having a great time.

“Calla.” Oz rushed at me. But stopped short, then kept a respectable distance. He looked at me like he wasn’t sure if I was still freaking out on him. “You want something to drink?”

“I don’t think I should do any more drinking.” I laughed in a way that said I knew I was an idiot. “Just water, thanks.”

“Rod’s in town.” He said with excitement.

“Awesome. I’d love to see him.”

Rod was the middle one, the fighter of the bunch – more so than the others, with more demons in his closet, and more kinetic energy to dispel. He’d always been a little more closed off, too. But I’d always loved him a little extra for it. Like I thought he needed it.
We found him playing pool in the game room. I snuck up from behind and goosed him while he was making a shot. It was risky, and I knew it. I loved the sound of Oz guffawing in the aftermath.

“What the f—?” Rod spun, startled and looking for the culprit. But like I knew would happen, as soon as he saw me, all that melted away.
“Damn. CJ, you look good. Real good.”

“You too, Pod.”

“You do know I don’t let anyone call me that.” He winked. I pretended to swoon. Oz grunted.

“You are a monster.” I pointed at his oversize muscles. “Do you eat small children for breakfast?”

He laughed, handed off his pool cue, and walked off to the side with me. I felt special that he’d rather be with me than finish his game.
Of course I’d ruined his game anyway.

“Only every other day.” He admitted like it was a secret.

I batted my hands at him and he pretended to fight me.

“You’re a big ol’ softy. But don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone.” I said through my laughter.

Something like peace spread in my chest, seeing him smile and be playful. It dispelled the last of my nerves from seeing so many people and feeling like I’d let them down.

We sat on the little half-wall that separated the area with the pool table and the area with a zillion game consoles.

“I’m the big bad wolf, CJ. Didn’t you know?” He voice was gruff, and I detected an element of honesty in his words.

“No. I know the truth.” I nodded at him, meeting his eyes.

Rod nodded his head, believing me. In the background, all but ignored, Oz stormed off.

“What’s up with him?” His brother asked with a tip of chin.

“No clue.” I shook my head. But couldn’t lie. “We had a fight last night. He’s probably still pissy about that.”

“Uh oh. Fighting with Oz? That’s not like you.”

“Why is this my fault?” I joked, but the truth of it stung.

“Didn’t say it was. In fact I’m willing to bet it was his fault. Oz is an asshole where you are concerned.”

“What is that supposed to mean?” I nearly shrieked and forced myself to calm down.

Rod looked around like he was making sure no one paid us any attention. No one there cared that I was talking with Big Bad Rod. No one in that particular room knew me well enough to care. One girl kept giving me the stink eye like I was overstepping some line with her man. I knew better, and ignored her.

“Dude is worse than Toby.” Rod admitted with an eye roll. “Always triple checking that his own brothers aren’t doing anything stupid or some shit with you. He’s wound up tight about you. It’s worse now than it was before you left and it was bad back then.”

“He just takes the whole big brother thing overboard. You all do.” I waved away his concerns. I’d had a lifetime of being looked out for and could do with a little less.

“Nah. It’s different with him. I don’t think it’s a big brother thing with him.”

“You’re wrong. Oz would never …” I couldn’t finish the sentence. There was that one time.

Right before I left for college. One time when we crossed that line. But it was a one off thing that meant nothing to him. A mistake he’d never repeat. It was only me who felt those feelings and fought the heart break of leaving.

“Calla.” Rod was serious. And he never called me Calla. “I don’t know what happened. I don’t know what’s got you so spooked. But Oz is on the look out. He’s not going to back down.”

I nodded, but didn’t want to talk about Oz anymore, or my mistakes in college.

“This is a pool party. I didn’t see a pool.” Time for a subject change. We were there to have fun after all.

“Oh, I know this one.” His eyes lit up as he stood over me and I knew what was coming. “I’ll play Oz.”

I saw the mischievous glint in his eye for a split second before he scooped me up and my face sailed over his shoulder. I cracked up laughing and went along with it.

“March!” I smacked his ass and he high stepped.

We drew attention, heads swiveling to watch us go. I giggled and he wiggled me around, and we played our parts.

“Roderick. Put her down.”

I heard Oz’s voice. I knew did too, but he didn’t seem phased by the anger in Oz’s voice. Maybe it wasn’t anger so much as worry. I waved at him as Rod kept walking right on by.

“Nope. I am a man on a mission.” Rod called back as he proceeded to the pool.

Oz trailed along after us. I chose to watch Rod’s hips move, or the floor grow after each step, rather than crane my neck and watch Oz follow. We went down from the game room, to the first floor. Rod paraded us through a crowded living room, a should have been formal dining room that had guitars hanging on the walls, and right on outside to a deck.

“You’re going in, CJ.” Rod warned me.

I tensed for just a second in anticipation before we hit the water. I expected Rod to toss me in. But he jumped right in with me still slung over his shoulder. I had sucked in enough air just in time. We sank like the fully dressed idiots we were, but Rod kicked a few times and we lifted right back up to the surface. I had become tangled in his arms. My dress twisted and floated up around my arm pits.

“Good thing I have on my swim suit. You jerk.” I laughed through my false anger.

Oz stood just back from the edge of the pool. His face was a horrible mix of emotions that read like anger, or jealousy, or pain. I needed to talk to him. Soon. I had to really talk to him. We needed to figure out what was going on and fix things. I missed him.

He was standing right there, and I missed him.

I pulled my dress up and wiggled my body down below the water to remove the wet cloth.

“You know,” Rod moved into my space very quickly, pitched his voice low, and talked so that his breath was in my wet ear. “Oscar isn’t the only Lacey brother watching you right now.”

“What?” My eyes darted around us.

He pulled back. We were treading water in the deep end with people all around us. I hadn’t even seen any of the other brothers at the party. Not that I had been looking exactly.

“Just saying.” He gave me a wink then turned away.

Rod swam to the edge with practiced ease. I did notice how all eyes went to him and his near perfect body.

“You getting out or staying in?” He asked and didn’t seem to notice people staring.

“I think I’ll stay in.” But I launched my wet dress at him. “Hang that somewhere to dry, would you?”

“Yes ma’am.”

He stripped out of his dripping t-shirt and rung our wet things out, leaving a trail of water across the deck. The pool was up a level from the ground. set in a deck. I hadn’t thought about it before, but now it seemed strange. But then maybe they don’t just let you put a pool in ground at the beach. It wasn’t huge, the pool, but big enough. Normal sized, probably. The pool at their parents house was much larger. But they lived on the bay, not the gulf. They said they got enough of sand and tourists at work – at all the hotels scattered along the southeast coast – they didn’t need it when they went home.

I let myself float, the water a little cold, the sun very hot, and my body caught between the two. I kept my eyes closed because the sun burned bright.

I stayed in until I was sure my top half would be burned. I stayed in until my heart slowed to match the soft sway of the water. People were in the pool, playing, talking, laughing – but they gave me a wide berth. Either because I looked too far gone to interrupt, or because they knew I was the off-limits little sister.

When I finally came out it was to remember I didn’t have a towel. Great. I looked around thinking I could track down Oz, since it was his house, and use one of his. It didn’t take long to find him. He was standing just inside the doorway back into the house, drink in hand, talking to a few other guys. His eyes found me and I knew he’d stationed himself there to keep an eye on me. Ludicrous.

“Ozzie!” I shouted to him as I walked toward the house. I’d worn a two piece because I wanted a little sun, and because I didn’t want to be one of those girls that hated her imperfect body. Although I did.
“Oz-zie!”
I whined. When I stepped under the shade of the deck above, I felt cold. My skin erupted into a million chill bumps.

“What’s wrong?” He rushed to me flooded with concerned.

“Nothing, silly boy. I need a towel. I forgot mine.” I gave him a smile, and kept pretending things weren’t awkward between us.

He let out a burst of air and shook his head. He ducked his face down like he was embarrassed. It was a strange thing to see on someone normally so confident in every aspect of his life.

“Hold on.”

I watched Oz walk over to a rack just a few paces from where we stood and fetch a pristine white towel. When he got back to me he loosed it and swung it around my back.

“Better?” He made a point to look at my face, and I almost wished he’d taken the time to check me out instead.

“Yes.” I felt like an idiot. And also not. Oz was right there and being sweet and I was dazed from the sun. “Did you steal these from the hotel?”

He brought a finger to his lips and shh’d me.

“You are such a naughty boy.”

I smacked his chest and he gave me the notorious Lacey Bad Boy Smile. I swooned a little in response – which is what they’re going for when they flash that thing at you.

“I doubt your dress is dry.”

“That’s okay.” I shrugged. I wrapped the towel around my waist, like a boy, and tucked it tight to secure it in place.

Oz’s eyes drank me in. So much better than I’d imagined, sending my body into shivers and speeding up my heart.

“Enjoying the show, asshole?” Toby came up and shoulder bumped Oz. But he laughed in a good natured way which told us he didn’t suspect that we were anything other just the same Calla and Oz as ever.

“She’s beautiful, what can I say?” He wouldn’t apologize for looking.
“Uh, no.” Toby made a face. I stuck my tongue out at him. “I’m making a beer run. You are severely low on drinks, brother.”

“Send Milo.” Oz said with a shoulder shrug.

I was halfway to pointing out that Milo could not purchase those particular drinks seeing that he was all of eighteen.

“Milo is drunk.” Toby said in an amused tone.

“What the hell? How did that happen?” Oz seemed honestly shocked. I didn’t answer with snark on that one. Too easy. Toby didn’t either. We both looked at him like, duh. “I mean, how did you let that happen?”

“Shit. Don’t put that on me.” Toby laughed a little. Big mistake.

Oz lunged at him. Toby saw it coming and spun to the side. But not in time. They went flailing onto the deck. I took a couple steps back. This? I was not afraid of this. I had seen them fight plenty enough times. I rolled my eyes as they took swings at each other. The two of them managed to regain footing only to land themselves in the pool. Everyone was crowding around and cheering.
It was a testosterone circus.

Beauty & Melancholy: Chapter Eight

I rubbed my legs dry and went into the house, desperately in need of a bottle of water.  I found Milo and a couple of guys his own age acting a fool playing a drinking game at a table in the breakfast nook.  

“Hey, Milo.”  I said with an extra saccharine tone.

 Didn’t want to set off alarms about Toby and Oz duking it out, or that his brother was about to shut this shit down.  

“CJ.”  He stammered, “I mean, Calla.”

His eyes went wide as they took in all my exposed skin.  I gave him a second then cleared my throat which helped him remember his manners.  His cheeks flamed red, and it was kind of adorable.  He was this big giant of a guy now.  Easily pass as twenty rather than eighteen.  Yet he was still this adorable little boy that I’d known since he was born.  God how I loved to take care of him.  By the time I was five and he was one, I took it upon myself to act like his mama.  Thankfully his mama appreciated it and thought I was sweet.  

It made my brain hurt to put the past with the present and find the guy in front of me.  So much had changed in the last few years.  I felt like there was a gap in my mind.  

“Your brother is kind of pissed.”  I mentioned in a low voice.

“Which one?”

And wasn’t that just the question.  He looked around, and he seemed a little scared.  

“Oz.  But you shouldn’t be sitting here doing this if you’re scared of getting caught.”  I laughed at him.  His friends were finally not looking so obviously at my breasts and bare stomach.  Geez.  “Did I teach you nothing?”

“So you’ll help me?”  

“Avoid getting your ass kicked by Oz?  Not sure I can pull that off, but we can try.”

He leaned over the table to his buddies, made a serious face, and said, “Scatter boys.”

They hopped up like their pants were on fire, but they were laughing and being ridiculous.  Falling all over each other and being entirely too loud, like the obnoxious teenagers they were.  

“Pull it together, boy.”  I smacked his shoulder for emphasis.

Milo stood up tall and he towered over me, so I made a show of how far I had to tip my head back to look at his face.  He broke down and laughed.  He went to grab me, but pulled his hands back.  I saw him scan the room, again looking like he’d get caught.  

“I’m sure Toby is still outside with your brother.  You know, you don’t have to be scared to talk to me, or look at me, or whatever.  I’m just me.”

“Yeah, and your brother, he’s your brother, and I know where the line is drawn.”

“Stop it.  Don’t be stupid.”  I grabbed his hand.  It was warm and timid, also big and a little calloused.  I dragged him out to the wrap around porch, on the opposite side of the house of the pool and the ruckus.  I dropped his hand when we found an unoccupied spot to tuck away.  “Do you remember when I would sleep over?  You’d climb into bed with me.  It was no big deal.”

He cracked up laughing.  Holding his belly and bent over laughing.  I waited impatiently for him to stop.  

“That is not the same thing!”  He could hardly talk through the laughter still bubbling from his core.  “It’s different now.”

“I don’t care about that.  I’ve been hugging, and hand holding, and cuddling with the lot of you my whole life.  No reason that shouldn’t include you.”

His laughter died down.  He looked at me like he cared a whole awful lot about what I was saying.  Like maybe he was relieved to hear me say it.  I suspected he would still be afraid to get too close with me.  I guessed it was different with the others, the older brothers.  They could pick me up, swing me around, toss me into the pool.  It had been established across too many years that it was platonic.  With Milo being admittedly attracted to me, and being on rocky ground with my sudden reappearance right when he had become an adult, it did feel different.  Not that I was saying so.

I laid back on a lounge chair, and closed my eyes.  I opened the towel and let it fall around the chair to dry a little.  

“Do you hang out with these guys often?”  I asked without looking at him, taking the pressure off his answer.

“No, not often.  I mean, I see them all the time.  But I’m still at home, and they’re all scattered.  I have my own friends.”

He sounded defensive.  I understood the plight of the youngest sibling.  

“Hey, you and me, we have to stick together.  Us babies of the family have to help each other out.”

I heard him move and shift in the chair next to me.  His voice was lower, softer, when he spoke again.

“Tell me about college.  I’m still not sure I want to go, and it’s only a few months away.  What’s it like?”

Milo wasn’t asking about my personal life, or about the jerk boyfriend he had no doubt heard about.  He was asking about college.  I could talk about that without getting all weird, right?

I told him about living in the dorms.  Sharing a room, and a bathroom with a relative stranger.  I told him about standing in long lines, and never getting the exact schedule you’d spent so long perfecting.  I told him about buying the books that cost an arm and a leg.  I told him about eating in the cafeteria and about having all sorts of free time unsupervised, which was strange sometimes.  

“It sounds cool.  I’m not sure it’s for me though.”

“You don’t have to go to college, Miles.”  I propped up on my elbows and looked over at him.  He was lying down too, with his eyes closed.  He peeked and gave me a half smile when he found me looking down at him.  “Half your brothers didn’t do college.  It’s not the only path.”

“I don’t know what I want to do with my life.”  He sat up and the force behind his voice told me this was something he thought about a lot, but maybe didn’t talk about much.  “I don’t have any clue.  I am the only one with no ambition.”

“Milo Branford Lacey.  Don’t you ever say that again.  You are not in competition with those goons.”  I sat all the way up too, the seriousness propelling my back straight.  “Plus, it’s not like all of them got their act together at freaking eighteen.”

We both looked out at the next house down the beach.  I knew we were both thinking of Rod.  He spent a good few years in trouble.  At twenty-four he was just getting his life together and had found the thing he loved to do, the thing he was good at, the thing that kept him sane.  I didn’t understand living a life training to fight, but it worked for him.  

“I think Bear was the only one who knew out the door what he wanted to do.”

“Exactly.”  I shrug.  “You’re young.  Hell, I just finished college, and I still don’t know what I want to do.”

“Really?”

“Yes, really.”  I laughed through my words, but it was the full truth.

We both stood and stretched, moving to the railing.  The breeze was stronger there and it made my hair fly around my face.  

“I was thinking about enlisting.”  He uttered in an unsure voice, as if trying out the words.

That’s the one thing he could have said that would take my breath away.  Like my lungs didn’t work right.  My uncle – my dad’s brother – had been in the army.  He died in active duty when I was just a baby.  It was his ghost that haunted my dad.  

The thought of Milo putting his life at risk scared me.  It was that mama bird thing, always watching out for the baby Lacey brother.  I forcefully swallowed the welling of fear.

“Oh yeah?”  I couldn’t look at him.  Though I forced my voice to remain normal.  “Navy or Airforce?”  

There were two bases near us.  Military guys crawling all over the town – all over every nearby town.  One of those branches seemed the logical choice.

“Airforce.”

“Wow.  That would be …”

“What’s wrong?”  He spun around me to face him.  He touched me and it was not awkward.  It was not too personal.  It was normal and I was relieved at that at least.  “You don’t think I should?”

“Oh, Milo, it’s not that.  It’s just scary.  But if that’s what you want to do, then do it.  You’ll be amazing.”  I could picture him in uniform, and finding his place within the ranks.  “I would be worried is all, but that’s just me being a worrier.”  

I tried to laugh it off, but we went silent again.  Letting his confession and my worries settle around us.  The party was still going on and we should go back in before we we’re missed.  

“Hey, Calla?”

“Yeah?”

“Don’t tell them.  Okay?  Not until I decide for sure.”

“Of course.  I won’t say anything.”

He nodded.  It was too solemn and seemed wrong on his youthful face.  

“I’m gonna go find my dress.”

“Alright.  I’ll help you.”

We walked together around the exterior of the house, around the massive wide porch.  There were screened in rooms with doors to pass through, and open air areas, and just the porch was bigger than Toby’s whole house.  

Good god.  The pool was apparently the place to be at the moment with bodies every where.  

I spotted my dress slung over the back of a lounge chair, and Rod’s t-shirt on the chair beside it.  I pointed and Milo and I moved through the crowd.  He put his hand on my low back.  Gentlemen, the every one of them.  I really did love each and every one of those Lacey boys.  

***

I managed to stay out of trouble the next few hours.  I let Toby sucker me into playing an old school Mario game, which he only did for bragging rights.  I was notoriously bad at video games.  Which meant he probably did it for the laughs.  

I wandered room to room to deck to wherever and found people to mingle with and to kill a few hours.  It was fun, but by the end of the night, I was exhausted.  Tired of talking.  Tired of drunk people.  Nothing like being Sober Sally to find drunk people obnoxious beyond belief.  There was nothing amusing about the slurred words or increasingly stupid ideas that spread like wildfire.  The latest of which involved a bonfire on the beach.  Which was illegal.  Thankfully Bear was still around and played the Big Brother card to shut that one down.  

“Toes, I’m heading home.”  I announced to Toby at a reasonably early hour.

My brother was sitting on a lounge chair looking out over the starlit beach.  There was a pretty girl in the chair next to his.  Not a girl I knew.  I gave her a little smile when I walked up and interrupted their obviously intimate moment.  But I knew better than to leave without telling him.  

“I’ll walk you,” he offered with a nod.

“No thanks, big bro.”  I took a few steps away and waved.  “I’m good.  It’s just a few houses down.”

“Grab a Lacey to take you.”  Toby hollered after me.

I gave him the finger.  He laughed, but it was more because of shock.  Certainly not because he was in agreement with my attitude.  

“I’m serious.”

“Yeah, yeah, I’ll find a Lacey to babysit me.”

I had no intentions of doing any such thing.  I half thought my brother would know I was gonna skip out on my own – and he’d end up coming after me.  But he didn’t come, and I was able to drift away from the big house on the beach with all the good times making it shine like a beacon in the night.  

I stood in the sand a couple hundred feet back, nearer to the water’s edge, and looked at the house.  It was so beautiful.  If not slightly wrecked from the chaos of too many people.

“What are you doing out here alone?”

I swallowed my surprise and nodded as I accepted my fate.  

Of course a Lacey found me.  

Beauty & Melancholy: Chapter Nine

No just any Lacey brother:  Oz.

Toby had probably texted an all out alert to find some one to walk me home.  As if I were a child.

“I was heading home.”  I said, though it was obvious.

“I’ll walk you.”

“You don’t have to do that, Oz.”

“I want to.”

“Okay.  Whatever.”  I sighed.  Resigned to my fate and unwilling to fight when we both knew I wanted to see him.

We turned to walk back up the beach toward Toby’s house.  My arm brushed his, and before I knew it, his hand took mine.  I hadn’t known I was drifting until he anchored me.  His hand felt right.  I let myself lean into his body as we moved slowly across the sand, our pace indicating a desire to stay together longer.  

All too soon we had reached the backyard of Toby’s little beach shack.  

“Thanks, Oz.”

My hand was still in his – because no way was I letting go.  I turned to face him.  As I looked up at him, I wanted him to kiss me.  Maybe I always wanted him to kiss me.  

“So,” he said, trailing off.

“Yeah.”  I mumbled, unsure of what to say.

We both let out jolted breaths of semi-laughter.  I looked down at the sand that was too dark to see.  Our feet were shades of grey and darker gray in the night.  

“I want to ask to come up with you.  But …”  He cleared his throat and shifted from one foot to the other.  I thought he would say something about my brother.  “But I don’t want a repeat of the last time I followed you up.”

“Me either.  I’m sorry about that.  Sometimes I …”

How could I explain?  How could I explain without telling him all the sordid details?  I couldn’t.  It was that simple.  So I didn’t.  

“Sometimes you what?  Because seeing you with that look of fear on your face was painful.  Seeing that you were afraid of me?  It hurt.”

“I said I was sorry, Oz.  I wasn’t scared of you.  Not really.  I just had a moment.”

“So can I come up?  Try again?”

“Yes.”

I was nervous.  Not afraid.  

We made it all the way up to my bedroom.  He, if possible, looked more afraid to enter than last time.  Like my demons had become his demons too.  

“I’m tired.  Lie down with me.”  The invite had to come from me, so I let it slip out.

Oz only barely hesitated before sliding beside me on the bed.  I had bought sheets at the big tourist shop, the one with the big shark’s mouth as the front door, because they had cheesy tiki huts and umbrella drinks on them.  I also ordered some higher quality sheets from Amazon.  But I liked these fine.  

I curled into Oz.  He laid on his back and stretched his arm out so I could tuck into the space there.  I pressed my face into his chest, and hooked a knee over his legs.  He was very still.  Too still.

“Is this weird for you?”  My voice was muffled because my jaw was crushed into his broad chest.  I didn’t bother lifting up before speaking.  

“Weird is not the word I would use, no.”

“Which word would you use?”

Had we always spoken in such riddles?  Or was that a new development?

“I’m afraid if I say any of them, they’ll scare you.”

“Never.”

I wasn’t afraid of Oz lying beside me, or anything he could say into the stillness of my room.  I was only afraid of sudden anger, of outbursts directed at me.  But he didn’t know that.  He was working with no facts and figuring it out as he went.  

“Calla.”  Oz shifted so that our bodies were even closer; sealed together.  His out stretched arm curled around me and held me.  His breath warmed my hair and sent tingles across my scalp.  “This is a dream.”

It took nothing to tilt my head, to lift my chin and twist a little, and to find his lips.  It was a small movement that took little effort.  Yet it took a lifetime of wanting, and a lifetime of denial.  In one second I had pressed my lips softly to his.  

Our lips coming together, soft as it was, changed everything.  Our bodies molded together.  Electricity coursed through my system and woke up parts that had been in seclusion for too long.  The earth held it’s breath, paused its spinning, and began anew to fit the two of us more perfectly together.  

His response was immediate.  Oz’s lips moved firmly against mine and pushed for more.  I moved, or he lifted me, and he was easier to reach.  Our mouths opened for exploration and for deepening this thing between us.  

I thought of our last kiss.  Not to compare or anything.  It just came to mind.  The one and only other time his lips had come together with mine.  It was the summer after I graduated high school.  I was leaving for college soon.  We had spent a lot of time together that summer.  I had crushed so hard on him, but he had kept things as they always were – he had been a wonderful friend and additional big brother.  Until the night we had fallen asleep on the beach after trying to stay awake all night for a meteor shower.  When we woke up, alone, and cloaked in darkness, he had held my face tenderly and kissed me.  That kiss had told me goodbye.  It was salty as tears and put an ache in my chest.

This kiss was not a goodbye.  It was a claiming.  I could feel how he wanted me, and I gave all that I got.  I poured every bit of my own wanting into that kiss.  My hands moved over his body.  Oh, how I had always wanted the freedom to let my fingers twine in his hair, to let my palms roam over his arms, pecs, abs, hips.  His hands got the memo of freedom too, and quickly laid claim to my body.  One hand went to my head and held me ever closer to the kiss.  The other slid down my neck, lit flames along my arm, and grasped around my waist.  

Those hands around my waist were the dream come true.  It felt so right, the most right of anything that had ever happened in my life.  I think that feeling must have poured out from me and into the kiss.  We came together like our lives depended on it, crashing and caressing.  

After a good old fashioned make out session, we slept curled together in my bed with my corny tourist sheets.  I let myself pretend that it could be that way forever.  That it could be Oz and me, together.  

 

With the dawn of a new day, reality forced it’s way back into my thoughts and my life.  Oz wasn’t in the bed, though the sun was barely bringing the beach to life outside my window.  My heart fluttered in a strangled panic.  He left?  But maybe he went downstairs for coffee.  I had squirmed out of my dress last night, and then slept in my bikini.  I pulled on a t-shirt and cut off shorts before heading downstairs.  Off chance that Toby was in the house and he didn’t need to see me half naked.  

I found Oz sprawled on the couch.  The one in front of the big flat screen that played a muted forensic cop show in the background.  I kneeled beside the couch and rubbed his arm.  My intent was to wake him.  Also to memorize the feel of his skin, and the shape of his muscles.  

“Ozzie, what are you doing down here?”

I whispered the words.  I kept my voice quiet so I didn’t startle him, so I didn’t disrupt the peaceful silence that was the beach house this early with only the crashing of the waves as background noise.  Maybe also so that if my brother was upstairs he wouldn’t over hear us.  But I refused to focus on that last thought.  It sneaked its way in whether I actively thought about it or not.  I was not going to keep things with Oz a secret.  At least not if there was a thing with Oz.  Figuring that out was the first step.

He smiled in his sleep.  I ran my fingers over his handsome face, memorizing those lines as well.  

“Good morning.”

Oz whispered too.  Because I had?  Or because he didn’t want to get caught either?

“Good morning.  You didn’t answer my question.”

“Toby texted to make sure I got you home safe and sound.  He was on his way back with the girl from the party.  I came down here so he would find me on his couch and not in his little sister’s bed.”

He moved in the groggy way of the morning and rubbed a hand over his face, over his hair.  I watched him blink the sleepiness from his bright green eyes.  

“We should probably talk.”

I saw the alarm in his eyes.  Such a tough guy, and scared to talk to me?   

“You regret it, don’t you?”

“Me?”  I stood up and spoke at full volume.  “Shit.  Sorry.”

I sat on the coffee table so that I faced him where he sat on the couch.  Our knees bumped together.  

“No, I don’t regret it.  Of course not.”

“Good.  Me either.”

“Okay then.”

“You’ll want to talk about him.”  Oz pointed up the stairs toward where my brother slept.  My brother that had always been loud and clear about the no dating his little sister rule.  My brother that loved Oz like another member of his family and would feel betrayed if and when this came to light.  

“We have to tell him.  I mean, not about last night specifically.  But if we …”  I didn’t look at his face any longer.  I wrung my hands with my worries.  “If you wanted …”

“I want.”

I smiled but I wasn’t sure he could see it with my head down as it was, so I lifted up a little to peek at him.  He was smiling too.  The sweetest smile that held so many promises for us.  

“He’s gonna be pissed.  Let’s wait just a little while.  Make sure.”

“Oh, I’m already sure, darling.”  The left side of his mouth lifted higher into a crooked smile that sent me soaring.  “We can wait a little longer.  We have a few other things to talk about anyway.”

“But first:  coffee.”

I had a suspicion what he would want to talk about.  I wasn’t ready to go there.  I wasn’t sure I would ever want to open up about my ex or our relationship.  I would have to play avoidance and distraction.  Two games I was pretty darn good at these days.  Even with myself.

He let the serious topics drop and joined me in making a pot of coffee.  He was planning to head home soon and do some damage control.  A full day of clean up was probably in the cards.  I joked that he could afford a team of maids to come out and do it, but he looked offended.  Sure, the Lacey’s had money, but they weren’t afraid of hard work or getting their hands dirty.  He said he could clean up after himself.  I had to respect that about him.  

“Dad is back in town for a few days.  You and Toby should come to family dinner tomorrow.”

“Oh yeah.  As Toby’s sister?  Or as a family friend?  Or what?”

Oz gave me a look that told me exactly what he thought about my sass.  So much for letting it go.  He set his fresh mug of coffee on the counter.  Steam swirled up from it.  In an instant he had his hands around my waist and lifted me so that I was sitting on the kitchen counter.  He stepped in close, pressing between my thighs.  I gasped at his sudden closeness.  

“As whatever the hell you want to be, so long as you’re there.”

Then he kissed me.  Right there in my brother’s kitchen, as if getting caught wasn’t a very real possibility.  I had never been a cheater, and never understood the power of secrecy.  I was single, so it wasn’t cheating.  But doing the forbidden thing and the threat of getting caught thrilled through me.  It gave the kiss an urgency.

Beauty & Melancholy: Chapter ten

Toby didn’t come down.  Our secret was safe.  I never saw the girl he’d brought home either, and figured he’d sent her packing in the wee early morning hours.  He wasn’t known for serious relationships.  That was Bear, if any of them.  And oddly enough, Rod, who we all thought would marry his high school sweetheart – before she cheated on him, broke his heart, and shattered his world.  He hadn’t bothered with letting anyone in since then.  As far as I knew.  Toby was upfront, and I knew he would treat any girl he was with respectfully.  In fact it was Oz that was more known for reckless behavior.  I’d seen him hook up with countless girls.  It didn’t seem to matter if he told them he wasn’t interested in seeing them again after – most of them were still pissed and hurt and threw a fit.  Which was why he didn’t bother with keeping them around.  The boy wasn’t into drama.  I felt like things between us were toeing precariously close to drama.  

Oz went home.  I sat on the balcony and called Emily.  I filled her in on everything.  On my freak out as well as on last night.  

“Damn, I wish I was there.  I need to find a job down there.  Chicago is stupid.”

“No it isn’t!”  I giggled into the phone and relished the sound of her voice.  I hadn’t known I would miss her so much.  “But you should come down.  Is it too soon to take a vacation?”

“After less than a month?  Um, yeah.”  She laughed too and it was musical.  “I could come down for the 4th of July.  I get off that Friday and Monday.”

“Oh my god.  For real?”

I had to stand up.  The idea was that big.  

“Yes.  I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before.  I’ll book my flight today and send you the details.  A four day weekend at the beach sounds perfect.”

“Awesome.  I can’t wait for you to meet … every one.”

“I can’t wait to meet Oz either.”  She knew what I meant.  I was so transparent.  It was a wonder Toby hadn’t been suspicious for the last decade.  “Which of these boys do I get?  Because the way I see it, you have a few to spare.”

We laughed and discussed the Lacey brothers.  And my brother.  

“What about Daniel?”

“Daniel is focusing on his career.”  She did a horrible mocking on his voice, all snooty and terrible.  “Which is code for studying his ass off in grad school.  Also code for long distance relationships suck.”

“I’m sorry.”

Why hadn’t she told me?  I had probably been too selfish, talking about my own problems too much.  

“Nah, it’s alright.  We weren’t that serious.”

“No mid westerners catching your eye up there?”

“Ha.  No.  The accent doesn’t work for me.”  She laughed too loud.  “I’m kidding.  Sort of kidding.  But no, I haven’t met anyone.”

“Tell me about your job.”

The sun moved up high, high, higher into the sky until it was overhead, tracking our time on the phone.  Emily took the job up there because it was a good offer with a good company.  She took the job because for something straight out of college it was a smart move.  Plus she said she’d only ever lived in south Georgia, and then central Florida, so she figured she needed to see more and experience more while she was still young.  Before she settled down.  Behind the perky tone I suspected she would be moving south before too long.  

I hung up with her when my phone battery was dying.  Which was about the time Toby came back to life and was rummaging around the kitchen making a hell of a racket.  

“Good night last night?”

I came in from the sliding glass door and caught him by surprise.  He cursed after spinning and seeing me there.  I stood leaning against the far end of the kitchen, just at the doorway.  

“You could say that.”

“Me too.”

“Really?  Didn’t seem like you were having that good a time.”  

Toby was opening cabinets and setting out pots and pans and ingredients.  He was extremely preoccupied.  

“What the hell are you doing?”

“Cooking.  What does it look like I’m doing?”

“I’m sorry.  I wasn’t aware you knew how to cook.”

“Funny, coming from you.  I kept you fed, didn’t I?”

His tone and his words were light.  We knew our lot in life, or the one we’d been handed as kids.  No need to dwell on it.  But somehow hearing it triggered a bolt of pain at the unfairness of it – sometimes that was the way of it, unexpectedly bowled over by emotions unearthed by nothing in particular.  

“You did a great job with all that Tobes.”

He paused long enough to give me a look and a little bit of a smile.  

“I guess you turned out all right.”

“Asshole.”

I threw an abandoned dish towel at him.  He caught it in the air when I didn’t think he’d even seen it coming.  

“Hey, so Oz wants us to go to family dinner tomorrow.  Bernie is in town.”

“Cool.”  He nodded at me.

“What are you making?  I’ll help you.”

It will be like old times.  It will be just you and me together, taking care of ourselves.  You and me holding the world together by the seams.  

“Lasagna.  I need ricotta.  I’m gonna run to the store.  You get started with the sauce.”

“Grab some white wine.”

“Since when do you drink wine?”

“Since I don’t know, for the last couple years.”

“Hmm.  I think you’re supposed to drink red with lasagna.”

“Oh my god.  How would you even know?  Shut up.  I like white.  Something sweet like a moscato.”

“Alright, alright, whatever.  I’ll be back in twenty.”

I should have started the sauce immediately.  I sort of did.  I stood at the cutting board with the ingredients laid out.  I put on a pot with olive oil swirled over the bottom.  But I didn’t do anything else.  Yet.  

 

Me:  Will you come over?

Oz:  Miss me already?

Me:  Sadly, yes.  Toby is at the store.  He’ll be right back.  We’re making lasagna.  

Oz:  I have to finish up here.  I’ll come up soon.  

 

I set my phone on the counter.  Face up so I could watch for any incoming messages.  I began to prepare the sauce in earnest.  I lost myself in the job.  

Toby was not in fact much of a cook.  Or wasn’t back in the day.  He taught himself the basics – learning through trial and error and Google.  Daddy checked out on his responsibility in feeding us by the time Toby was in middle school.  Toby took over, and there was no going back.  We ate a lot of pb&j and grilled cheese.  As I got older, we started doing dinner together.  We’d have our books spread across the table in the kitchen, doing our homework at the same time, and we’d cook.  We learned a few basic meals.  Lasagna was always his favorite comfort food.  

“I wasn’t sure which one to get, so I got three bottles.”

“You are such an overachiever.  That must have cost a lot.  I’ll pay you back.”

“No.  You won’t.  I told you, Calla, I don’t want your money.  Not for rent or food or any of it.”

“You don’t have to take care of me any more.”

“Calla.”

I scooped the last bit of chopped veggies into the bubbling sauce.  I faced my brother, the sweetest guy I knew.  He was so stern, so serious, as he looked at me.  Not like I was still a child, but like I was still his.  

“I want to do this.  Stay here as long as you want.  I missed you, you know?”

“I missed you too.”

I could not stop the tears that fell from my eyes, leaving hot trails down my cheeks.  

My phone chimed, and I jumped.  I grabbed it as fast as possible to keep Toby from seeing it.  Just in case it was Oz.  Of course that made the fact I was hiding something glaringly obvious.  

“What are you hiding?  Who texted you?”

He didn’t sound mad.  In fact it was more a mischievous voice, and I suspected he might wrestle the phone from me.

“No one.”

“Did you meet a guy last night?”

“Sort of.  I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Why?  Who is it?”

Now he sounded suspicious.  

“Don’t be all crazy about this, okay?  I don’t know if anything is gonna come of it.”

“Alright.”  He seemed to think too hard about it for a minute while he emptied his grocery bags.  It was mostly beer and wine.  Plus the ricotta and a block of parmesan.  “It isn’t Liam, is it?  I don’t trust him.”

“Liam is one of your best friends!”  I smacked him.  “But no, it isn’t Liam.”

“Good.  I’d hate to kick his ass.”

“Oh, hey, I invited Oz to join us.  He has a few hours of clean up first.”

“Sweet.”

How was that for a segue?  Speaking of your close friend that I may or may not be having a thing with, he’s coming over in a couple hours.  La, la, la, nothing to see here.  Thankfully my brother trusted me, or trusted Oz, and would never think we’d get together.  

Meanwhile we cooked lasagna, and I became more and more antsy.  By the time we slid the dish into the oven – in a fancy french dutch oven dish that Mama Lacey gave Toby years ago – I was about to crawl out of my skin.  I claimed to need a shower.  Which was true.  Which felt like a lie.  I took my time, willing Oz to arrive sooner.  It would never be soon enough.  

While I was squeezing the excess water from my hair with a towel, and wrapped my body in another towel, still in our bathroom, Toby knocked.  

I knew it was Toby because he said, “Chicka chicka.”

“Boom boom.”  Our version of Marco Polo.

I yanked the door open and flooded him with steam.  

“What?”

He worked so hard not to look at me that it was amusing.  

“I want to talk.”

“Right now?  Really?”

“No.  God.”  He backed up a step.  I laughed at him and gave him a smirk.  “Before anyone else arrives.”

“Who else is coming?”

“I don’t know, but if Oz is coming, then chances are a few others will come too.”

That was true.  A closer family I never knew.  It was insanity.  I was fortunate to be part of it, to have been taken into the fold at a young age.  

“Give me a few minutes.”

So much for spending the next half hour obsessing over the perfect cute but casual outfit.  I threw on simple flat front khaki shorts and a navy blue sleeveless top with white polka dots.  I hurried to get the conversation with Toby out of the way.  I figured it was most likely a warning about whatever guy he thought I was sort of dating.  Or he’d insist he meet the guy.  

I found him in his own room, wearing nothing but khaki cargo shorts.  He was my brother and I didn’t spend much time bothering to look at his physique, but he was objectively hot, and everyone knew it.  With his shirt off the well defined muscles of his arms, chest, and abs were on prominent display.  He was obviously still working out on the regular.  Of course I guess working on cars took some degree of strength and helped matters.  

“What’s up brother man?”

I made myself at home on his bed.  His unmade sloppy rumpled mess of a bed.  He had the softest slate blue sheets and an old multicolored quilt.  Nothing fancy.  

“Make yourself at home.”

He grumbled and pulled a t-shirt over his head.  He sat next to me, sinking a bit into the mattress.  We adjusted so that we both sat with little kid crossed legs, facing each other.  

“I know this is probably shitty timing.  The way I figure, there is no good time.”

“You’re freaking me out.  Just say it already.”

I knew he wasn’t kicking me out, not after our conversation that morning.  That only left so many topics that he would bring up.  I was narrowing them down.  Actively avoiding the toughest ones, even in my head.

“The other day, when I was asking you to come hear me play.  I thought maybe I’d imagined the way you flinched and moved away from me.”  He paused and looked at me with a mix of guilt and worry.  I hated that he felt bad when he’d never done anything to deserve the way I’d acted.  I hated where this topic of conversation was headed.  “I didn’t want to understand the fear I saw on your face.”

“You’re right, Toby, this isn’t the time.”

“I told myself it was nothing.  But it kept eating at my mind.  Then Oz said you were acting weird.  I’d seen him that night, carrying you out of Shooters like a toddler.”

“Maybe the problem here is that you two shouldn’t treat me like a child.”  My voice was strained and my fingers scrunched Toby’s soft quilt tight into my fists.  

“No, Calla.  No, I don’t think that is the problem at hand.  He told me when he raised his voice you flinched.  He didn’t give me all the details.  I think he felt too bad about overreacting and about scaring you.  He wanted to know if I’d noticed you acting strange.”

I had overheard that very conversation.  I wouldn’t put it past them to have discussed it more than once.  Hatched a plan to be my undoing.  Shit.  I was in trouble.  

“What is it you want to know, Toby?  The food will be ready any minute.  And Oz is coming over.  I’d rather not cry just now.”

“I’m sorry, Calla Jane.  I’m sorry I wasn’t there.  I should’ve visited more and insisted you visit.  I should have seen what was happening.  I think I did see it and I didn’t want to interfere.”

“You?  Not interfere?  Hardly.”

“I know I have been the most over bearing big brother in the history of time.  I had to take care of you mostly by myself and I did it the only way I knew how.  You were so small, and so precious.  I just wanted to protect you.”

Sure enough I started to cry.  Hot silent tears that ran in a continuous stream.  I just sat there and let him talk.  He clearly had a lot more to say.  

“When you went off to college, I knew you were trying to get away from that.  From me.”  Toby’s voice hitched slightly.  I thought he might cry too.  

“What?  No!”  I crawled too him.  I held his hands in my own.  “Never.  I did want to be on my own.  To see what it was like, or to prove that I could do it.  But not to get away from you.”

He didn’t directly respond.  He gave my hands a squeeze.  

“I knew you were grown up and I had to let you go live your life.  So I stepped back.  I wish I could take it back because I knew all along something was wrong with the way things were with Gary.”

I stiffened when he said the name.  The tears were different then, more staggered and raw.  Walls flew up in my mind, blocking the truth from full view.  I tugged at my shorts and smoothed my shirt.

“What did he do to you?”

Toby whispered the last question.  His face was pinched with worry.  His whole body reflected the way he felt – like I might run, like I might break down, like I might tell him that his worst fears had come true.  

“Oh, Toby.”  I sighed.  I stopped the tears.  I refused to shed another tear over Gary or over those years of my life.  It was part of my plan in coming home and finding myself again.  “You are the very best big brother in the whole world.  I was the luckiest girl to have you looking out for me.  The thing is, you can’t blame yourself.  Not for anything that has happened – or will happen – to me.”

“Thank you.  I appreciate that …”  He cleared his throat like all his worry was lodged there.  “But I want you to answer the question.”

“I just want to forget.  Some times I wish I could have a college years do over.  Erase it all.”  I sighed.  It was a weighty thing.  It was easier to say the words than I had thought it would be.  “Some times I think it’s just a part of my story, a life lesson that will serve me in the future.”

“Was he just the controlling prick I thought he was?  Or was it worse?”

Toby had put a crack in the walls.  The more words that squeezed through, the wider the gap became.  Until all the words tumbled through at once.

“Worse.  A whole lot worse.  You would think after growing up with Daddy as a shining example of the wrong sort of guy, I wouldn’t have stepped right into a life of …”  I realized that by comparing Gary to Daddy, I had told him a lot more than if I had given him precise details.  I saw the anger that altered his face and hands and breathing.  He worked to stay calm, at least outwardly.  I did the same.  “You know what?  I doesn’t even matter.  It’s in the past.  I can move on now.”

Toby crushed me to him.  We had always been fairly affectionate siblings, but never overly so.  He didn’t hold anything back in that hug.  It was fear and redemption, guilt and forgiveness, love and protection, all rolled into one.  

“I love you.  I hate what you just told me.  I changed my mind, and I do not want to hear the details.  Unless you need to talk about it one day.  I think if I heard that he actually did any one of the things I’m imagining, I would track him down and kill him.”

“That’s why I didn’t tell you.”

“Don’t say shit like that.  Calla, god.  You have to tell me that stuff.  You have to let me help you.  Don’t hide.”

“I’m here.  It’s over, and I’m here now.”

Here, away from Gary, and starting over.  That was about all I could promise.  

He nodded and I could see that he was still buzzing with a surge of emotions.  The Calla and Gary cocktail of terror.  I knew how that shit felt.  It wasn’t easy to swallow.  

“Can you do me a favor, Toby?”

“Of course.  Anything.”

“Don’t tell … any one.”  I decided last minute not to single out Oz.  It might not come off strange since he’d admitted that he and Oz had talked about this very thing.  Figured it was safer to lump the group of them together.  I didn’t want him to talk to any one about it any way.  

“I won’t tell any one.  If Oz asks, I don’t know, I don’t want to lie to him.”

“Tell him it’s not your story to share.”

“I don’t know anything anyway, not really.”  He was teetering on that thin line between wanting to know more, and wishing he didn’t know at all.  He was digesting the news.  “Telling Oz won’t make much difference.  One more brother on your team.”

Right.  Brotherly love.  I nodded and my mouth was too tight to smile.  

“Speaking of, we’d better get downstairs.”

“Go on.  I’ll meet you down there.”

Beauty & Melancholy: Chapter Eleven

There was no altering the awkward that was the rest of that day.  Oz showed up all talking loud and swearing about the state of his house and the clean up.  He and Toby cracked open beers and for a few minutes acted like everything was normal.  But Oz kept looking at me, and I kept blushing when he looked at me.  I was worried what Toby would think so I kept saying random nonsense that fell flat and killed the mood further.  Toby kept watching me like I might cry or run away.  Oz was watching Toby and I could tell he knew something was up – but for all I knew he thought I’d told him about us, rather than about Gary.  We sipped our drinks and we made the worst small talk possible and we relished the lasagna.  

By the end of dinner, Toby was dead set on going out.  Probably just in effort to fix the awkward.  

“Let’s go to Bell Ringer.”  Toby threw out the name of a bar that featured fights – boxing and MMA.  It was a place Rod introduced us to since he was immeshed in the fight scene.  “Or we can go across the bay to the that little dive bar with the fifty cent wings.”

“You just ate like half a lasagna.  How can you want wings?”

He shrugged.  Boys.  Toby – and all of the Lacey’s – ate like they were still growing boys.  They were so active and burned a million calories a day, so they could eat as much as they wanted.  Hungry.  All.  The.  Time.  That’s probably the real reason Toby learned to cook.  I had eaten the smallest portion possible of the food, and hoped they hadn’t noticed.  

“Rod’s not fighting.  He’s trying to go pro, so he doesn’t mess around with Bell Ringer any more.  But he might be down with going.”

“Cool.  Cool, yeah.  We’ll get Bear in on this, too.”  Toby looked at me with a bright too happy expression.  “And Sawyer, too.”

“I’ll call Saw.”

I got up and walked out of the room.  Out of the house.  I couldn’t stand not being relaxed next to Oz.  I couldn’t stand the look of pity on Toby’s face.  I wanted to scream.  

“I am so glad you called.”

“And why is that?”

“I would say I love the sound of your voice.  But the truth is, I was about to head out and I want you to come with.”

“Funny, I was just going to ask you to accompany me – and most of your damn family – to Bell Ringer.”

“That is not what I had in mind.”  His laugh was good natured and familiar.  It felt like home.  I wished I could reach through the phone and lay a hand on his chest to feel the movement of his laugh.  “I’ll change into something less suitable.”

“Thank you.”

“No worries, sweetheart, watching hot guys fight sounds like a good time.”  I could hear him rummaging through drawers, muffled swooshing.  Hangers clacking.  “Why do you sound less than thrilled?”

“I had this awful personal talk with Toby.  Now things are weird.  Plus, I might have made out with Oz.”

That last part was a rush of barely audible words.  I was as far as I could be from earshot while still at the house – downstairs making friends with the cars and the utility room.  

“About damn time.  You two for real or what?”

“I don’t know.  We decided to give it some time, at least figure out if it’s gonna stick before alerting the media.”

“Understood.  My lips are sealed.”  I heard keys jingle.  “Now what’s this personal demon expelling that went down with Toby?”

“I don’t have it in me to rehash that one.  Not tonight.”

“Gotcha.  I’ll be there in 15.  You can ride with me.  Or we can both ride with those two bozos.  You pick.”

“See you soon, Saw.”

I stalked back through the living room.  Toby and Oz had ended the awkward the best possible way – by playing a video game that included racing and shooting.  

“I’m changing clothes.”

I made the announcement to grunts and vague responses.  I made the announcement to keep them from seeking me out, worried I had fallen off the balcony or been swept off in a rogue wave or something.  

I had been to Bell Ringer only once.  

I didn’t remember enjoying the experience.  It was back when Rod was still fighting there.  I’d come home for Christmas – the only year that I did come home.  They guys had all dragged me with them.  Watching Rod fight had been scary.  Not fun.  Plus Gary had called repeatedly.  We fought via phone calls and text all night.  Tonight was a do over. 

Lately every thing I did was a do over.  

Sawyer showed up in jeans with more holes than fabric and more than a few paint splatters.  A soft green t-shirt that matched his eyes.  His long blonde hair pulled back into a man bun.

“You look good enough to eat.  I’m so lucky I get to show up with you.”

I ignored Toby and Oz playing their game.  I pretended I didn’t hear Oz swear under his breath as Toby beat him at something.  I was a distraction.  

“Don’t you know it.”

Sawyer pulled me into a hug.  

“You look good too.”  

I didn’t miss the way his eyes went from me to Oz and back again.  I smacked him.  I mouthed the words, knock it off.  He laughed.  It was one of those moments when we felt right.  Connected.  Like it used to be.  Maybe I didn’t need a do over with Sawyer.  

I had gone with short shorts and kept on the same polka dot shirt.  I opted for heels to dress things up and make my legs longer.  I rarely wore heels.  Already I was hanging onto Saw to keep from falling over or twisting an ankle.  

“Bear’s in.  He’s coming up in a few.”  

“Cool.  You guys coming over tomorrow?”

“Yep.”

“Of course.”

They turned off the game.  Toby went upstairs to brush his teeth.  Oz stared at me.  Sawyer kept laughing at seemingly nothing.  

“Is your dad in town for Miles’ graduation?”

“No.  I mean, he will be in town for that.”  Oz cleared his throat.  Like normal conversation was weird.  Or like talking about his family was weird.  I hated that every thing was weird.  “But he’ll be back out of town first before coming back home for that.”

“Do they have anything big planned?  I haven’t heard.”

Sawyer sat down on the couch.  He eyed me like I should sit between him and Oz.  No way.  I wiggled and tugged at my shorts.  My thighs were too fat for shorts so short.  I wanted to change.  

“Pretty sure the plan is dinner at The Bistro right after.  He refused a party.  Said he’s going with Buck to some party in town.”

“What?  He’s crazy.  Your graduation parties were epic.  How could he turn that down?”

I acted astonished.  Because at first I was.  After I thought about it, I understood.  I might turn it down too.  I had only been part of the Epic Lacey Graduation Bash because of Sawyer.  It was technically his party.  Not mine.  Pretty much our whole class was there.  They let us have free reign over a whole floor of The Looking Glass – a highest end Garner Lacey hotel made mostly of glass and mirrors.  Each graduation held a different party, with a different huge surprise, and an equally fantastic turn out.  

“Ah, you know, Miles is trying to do his own thing.”

“It’s a lot of pressure having you guys come down the line first.”

I kept my voice pitched so that my words were light.  Not about me.  But I felt two pairs of Lacey eyes on me just the same.  

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Oh, come on.  Sawyer, you know I’m talking about, right?  It’s hard.”  I shrugged and played with my hair.  I felt too exposed with them both looking at me.  “Oz, you only had Bear ahead of you.  But can you imagine having Bear, you, Rod, and Saw all come along first?  It’s intimidating.”

I didn’t want to say too much.  I didn’t want break confidence.  I also didn’t want them to read too much into it, thinking I was talking about myself.  

“Yep.  I get it.”  Sawyer clapped his hands then clapped his brother on the shoulder.  “One already followed in Dad’s footsteps.  One was teetering between that and being a rock star.  One was already the loose cannon finding himself through beating people up.  I had no choice but be a gay artist.  All the other roles were taken.”

I laughed.  It felt good.  Oz laughed too.  Because his brother was right.  And funny.  Or because he heard me laughing and it loosened him up.  Sawyer had a way of being sarcastic and self deprecating in a way that made you feel good about him and yourself.  

“Right.  So what’s left for Miles?”

They were silent then.  I could only think of his confession to me that he might join the Airforce.  The knowledge was a tightness in my chest.  But I had come around to it.  I still thought it was scary – the idea of losing him.  But I understood too.  He would be a good soldier.  

“Bear said he’ll meet us there.”  Toby bounded down the stairs with a fresh t-shirt on.  One without a stain from the red sauce in the lasagna.  “He’s picking up Rod on the way, and that makes us not on the way.”

“Let’s roll.”

We all went together.  I almost insisted Sawyer and I ride separately.  Then he could bring me home.  Or I could go back to his place with him.  Now I was stuck with Toby and Oz.  Of course that was why I went along with the plan.  I wanted to be stuck with him.  

Sawyer drove anyway.  Because Toby’s car was a piece of crap.  Because I hated Oz’s back seats.  The boy loved his Beamer, but those low seats made me feel like I was shrinking.  I didn’t want to drive.  I avoided it when possible.  Sawyer drove a big nice SUV, so it was the best choice.  

I claimed Shotgun.  Best friend rights.  But Toby tickled me until I scrunched into a ball.  During which time he hopped into the front seat and laughed with glee.  

I rode in the back with Oz.

We held hands.  Our knees touched.  We didn’t talk because we didn’t have to.  Not then.  

Bear and Rod had secured us the VIP seats at Bell Ringer.  

There was a bar.  There was the fighting ring.  There were scattered tables and seats.  Then there was the VIP raised lounge area with fewer people and our own waiter.  A guy with red hair and freckles and a grin that only showed up for Sawyer.  

They flirted.  Girls came near for Toby and Oz and Bear and Rod.  I drank vodka and tonic and sipped it slowly.  Trying not to get fall down drunk.  I watched the boys flirt.  The fight hadn’t started yet.  The buzz was building for it.  

“It won’t be a great fight.  They aren’t evenly matched.  Stewart is a lethal beast that gets his jolly’s on spilling blood.  Wallace is methodical and new.  People want to see the gore.  But I’d rather they made a different pairing.”

Rod filled me in while the girl he’d been talking to sulked off to rejoin her friends.  She had come on too strong from the start.  He didn’t like it that way.  Not that I knew anymore what Rod liked in his girls.

“Oh yeah?  That doesn’t even sound fair?  Why would they agree to do it?”

“The money is good.”

“Even for the poor guy that’s gonna get killed out there?”

“He’ll get some big incentive from Marshall.”  He shrugged.  “The owner.”  He answered my unasked question.  

“Is that why you don’t fight here anymore?”

“My trainer would kill me himself if I so much as thought of fighting right now.”

“He sounds tough.”

“Absolutely.  He keeps me in line.”  Rod was serious.  

The others weren’t paying us attention.  I was glad that I had sat near Rod.  Sawyer was watching the crowd.  I could almost see him breaking down the scene into colors and lines in his mind.  It was the way he was, the way he thought.  Toby was doing some heavy flirting with a girl that was all but drooling.  Her friend was hanging on Oz.  He didn’t look interested.  But I knew he couldn’t send her away without raising red flags.  If we weren’t ready to come clean, then he had to go along with the normal night out agenda.  Bear was alternately playing on his phone, drinking whiskey, and looking weary.  He tolerated the pretty girl that came up and batted her lashes at him.  

“Good.”  I smiled and it felt too foreign.  “Maybe I should meet him.”

“You want to learn to fight, CJ?”

“Maybe.”

I shrugged.  I hadn’t been serious.  But then, maybe I was.  It was the way Rod talked about the guy – with reverence.  The Lacey boys were tough critics.  If he had won the loyalty of the family’s hardest nut to crack, then he was some one worth noticing.  But learning to fight back, to throw my own punches, did have it’s appeal.  

“Come by the gym next week.  Take a look and see what you think.  You can learn the moves without ever putting them to use.  Yeah?”

“Yeah.  Yeah, I’ll come by.”

I bit the inside of my cheek.  I caught Oz looking at me and gave him a smile.  

I texted with Emily.  Pictures and blurbs about Bell Ringer and the fight.  

“I need girl friends.”

“Hell yeah you do.”  Toby waggled his eyebrows.

“What, we aren’t good enough for you?”  Rod intoned.

“It just occurred to me that I’m sitting here with all boys.  Again.  And the only girls that enter the area and looking to hook up.  I need a girl that is neutral.”

They laughed.  

One by one all the girls that had been flirting with the guys ended up walking off.  We were too interested in our own conversation and not paying other people enough attention.

“Oh, that reminds me, my college roommate Emily is coming down for Fourth of July.”

Toby’s eyes flicked up.  He gave me a little nod.  Oz looked concerned.  Anything college related was reason enough for him to feel concerned.  

“Oh good, I like Emily.”

“You don’t even know Emily.”

“I know enough.”  Sawyer gave me attitude.  “A little social media stalking goes a long way.”

“You did not!”

“Obviously, I did.  Years ago.”

“Oh my god.”

I shook my head at him.  

The other’s were oddly silent. 

“Why are you guys being weird?”

I looked from one guilty face to another.  

“No!  You did not all stalk my friend.”  I got some shrugs and some nods.  “You are all terrible people.”

“She’s gorgeous.”  Toby said the words and it pissed off the girl that had thought she stood a chance.  After he didn’t apologize, she stalked off.  “You can hook us up when she’s in town.”

“No.  Absolutely not.  You are not sleeping with my friend, then ditching her.”

“That is not what would happen.”

Toby looked actually offended.  I was too appalled to think straight.  Such a damn hypocrite.  Ugh.  

“Dude, come on.”  Bear drawled out the words to him.  “She doesn’t hook up with your friends.  You don’t hook up with hers.  It’s fair turn about.”

Shit.  He was right.  It was what I had been thinking.  

But then there was Oz.

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