Even when my heart was breaking, I smiled. No matter if I was sad, angry, or scared, I had a smile plastered on my face. My older sister Raven called it a coping mechanism. She heard the term on Oprah and it sounded right, but all I knew was I smiled even when inappropriate.
My grandfather once slapped me for smiling. At my little brother’s funeral, he hit me in front of everyone and said it wasn’t the time for my silly smiles. Raven screamed at him and punched his neck because she wasn’t tall enough to reach his face. She even tried climbing on a chair to hit him. By then, people were freaking out. My mother was crying and my grandmother ran off because she was afraid of my grandfather’s temper. The preacher struggled to settle everyone down, but it was no use. The funeral was ruined. Through the chaos and my tears, I kept smiling like I couldn’t stop myself.
There were very few things capable of making me genuinely smile since Raven ditched town six months earlier. Since then, I’d made new friends like Bailey Johansson who was loud and rough like Raven. I had also bonded with the Smith sisters. During Farah’s wedding, I found something really worth smiling over.
His name was Aaron.
While I never went as far as writing his name on my folder in class, I did think about doing it. Ever since I met him at the wedding rehearsal, I was forever wondering about Aaron. The first time he walked into the room and I noticed the cobra tattoo up his neck, I was fascinated. My interest only grew when I saw him smile and his blue eyes lit up in the most beautiful way.
Over and over, I tried to talk to Aaron at the rehearsal dinner. I planned to make another move at the wedding reception, but he brought a date.
Hopes dashed, I returned to my dull life in Ellsberg. My newest friends were living these wild lives with sexy men. Well, not Bailey who couldn’t keep a man past a few hookups. Even with her crappy romantic options, she was miles ahead of me in the exciting life department.
All I did most days was work the morning shift at Denny’s before hurrying to my two afternoon classes at
. I could only afford two because
I was paying my way through college. Despite my irritation at how long it would
take me to get a degree, I knew it could be worse. Hampton College
No one in my family ever finished college or even worked in an office. They were all waitresses or janitors. My mom did marry a rich man with a business, but she had to give up a lot to keep him. I didn’t plan to end up like her.
I wanted an office job and a man who wouldn’t tell me what to eat and how to dress. I wanted to be strong and free. Even if I ended up alone forever, this would be better than being someone’s slave.
My sister refused to be a slave too, yet she had horrible taste in men. So Raven bounced from one loser to the next. Now, she was in
with her latest turd. While I missed Raven more than I could express to her or
anyone else, I resented how she left Ellsberg. Most days, I blamed my stepdad
Larry. When I was honest, I blamed Raven for leaving me behind. California
No longer alone, I had a chance at a new direction in my life. Hopefully this new direction might one day include the gorgeous and artistic Aaron Barnes.
The one downside to my friendships was agreeing to activities I didn’t enjoy. Like bowling.
Bowling had always bored me. Raven and I had been in a league for a while with the girls from our roller derby team. On more than one occasion, I faked an illness to get out of it. I sucked at bowling and didn’t find it the least bit entertaining. Yet, I readily agreed when Farah invited me to join the crew at one of the local alleys.
Tucker Johansson called us the crew now. Everyone was pairing up and he seemed relieved about this fact. Claimed it felt good not to be the only whipped guy around. He made this announcement again while rubbing his girl Maddy’s pregnant belly.
Nearby, Cooper refused to admit he was whipped. However, he looked pretty domesticated with Farah on his lap feeding him nachos. She even wiped his mouth like she was practicing for when they had kids.
Judd and Tawny stumbled in late. With his dark hair tussled and her cheeks flushed, I sensed they stopped on the way for a quickie. Yep, everyone was in a state of bliss except for me. Oh, and Vaughn who was the only one who really liked bowling.
Ignoring all the whispering couples around him, Vaughn taught me to bowl while I faked like I cared. We were both on the outs and I suspected he wanted to find a new buddy now that Judd was attached to his angel. Every time Tawny laughed, Vaughn’s frown darkened.
“You should be happy for them,” I said as he guided me towards the alley.
“I am. Fucking overwhelmed with happiness. Now, pay attention.” When I flinched at his tone, Vaughn sighed. “It gets boring when your best friend is busy mating like a rabbit.”
“My best friend ditched me too, so I found new friends. Maybe you should too.”
“Crap no. Sounds like too much effort.”
I grinned. “You could play with Bailey. Here, she comes.”
Vaughn didn’t even glance at the arriving blonde who threw her hands in the air.
“I got dumped again! Men suck! I hate them all!” she cried, enjoying a hug from Tawny. “Who wants to set me up now?”
“I thought you hated men,” Tucker mumbled with his mouth full of a hot dog.
“I do, but one of them has got to work, right? Everyone in the world gets someone good, but I get shit. It’s not fair. I’m nicer than anyone ever.”
This comment elicited laughter from the crew including Vaughn who took my bowling ball and rolled it for me.
“Look,” he said,” you got a strike. I’m an excellent teacher.”
Vaughn and I eyed each other, thinking the same thing. Could we make a go of it and become a couple like everyone around us? We came to the same conclusion. Never going to happen. While I thought Vaughn was gorgeous, I felt the same way about the Johansson brothers and Judd. Besides gorgeous, they didn’t interest me. Only Aaron interested me, but I couldn’t have a single conversation with him.
Vaughn glanced over at a happy Bailey who loved all of the attention and pity she received after getting dumped. He was thinking if he could make something with her. Based on his eye roll, she wasn’t an option either.
Noticing Vaughn’s fresh tattoo on the back of his forearm, I had an idea.
“Where did you get your tat?”
“Aaron’s shop. You want to get a tat?” he asked, grinning as if this was hilarious.
“I have one,” I said, rolling the ball into the gutter. “It’s not finished though.”
“My brother interrupted the tattoo and I never had the money to get it done again.”
“No, I meant how come you’re such a bad bowler? Is it genetic?” he asked. “Like do you come from a long line of people who can’t make a ball roll in a straight line?”
“I try, Pixie Dust.”
“Don’t call me that.”
“How come?” he said, grinning wider now.
“I’m not talking to you anymore.”
“Oh, don’t be like that. Chicks love when I give them nicknames. One of them got a tattoo of the name I gave her. Do you want to know where she put that tat?”
Laughing, I shook my head. “Is it expensive to get a tat at Aaron’s shop? I hear he’s good and I’d like someone to fix it that won’t make it worse.”
“Let me see your tat!” Bailey cried, suddenly behind me. “Wait, it’s not on your ass, is it?”
“Titty tas?” Glaring at her, I waited until her smile faded. “Are you really mad?” she asked, panicking now.
“No, I just wanted to mess with you.”
“Oh, well, thank you for that learning experience.”
Vaughn and I laughed, but Bailey was busy yanking at my shirt to look for the tattoo.
“It’s a tramp stamp,” I said to keep her from pulling up my shirt in a public place.
“Oh, I have one of those. Mine is classy though. It’s Hello Kitty.”
Instead of responding to her classy comment, I prepared for the teasing as I lowered the back of my jeans just enough to display my wingless butterfly.
“What a pretty worm,” Bailey said, doing her fake nice thing again.
“My stepbrother showed up and made the guy stop. My stepdad doesn’t like tats and told me I couldn’t get one.”
“Men suck,” Bailey said, nodding supportively then frowning at Vaughn. “Why do you suck so much? Too much ball toxins?”
“Sounds about right,” he muttered, rolling another strike. “Girls get PMS. Guys get ball toxins. Common knowledge. Are you two going to actually bowl? I’m the only one doing anything.”
Farah instantly rushed over and rolled a ball into the gutter. “We’re participating. We like bowling.”
Bailey snorted. “Hell, I lie better than that.”
Cooper joined Farah and glanced at the alley. “I could bowl, if I wanted. I just don’t want to.”
“Liar!” Bailey cried and Cooper faked like he might backhand her. She just rolled her eyes. “He sucks. Worse bowler ever. Old people bowl better. No offense to old people,” she added, looking at the nearby league of senior citizens.
Cooper ignored Bailey and wrapped an arm around Farah. “This is fun. I’m glad we’ve made a habit out of it.”
Vaughn frowned and his blue eyes darkened. “I’m not a charity case, so you don’t need to play with me once a week to keep me from bawling myself to sleep.”
“Sure, champ,” Cooper said then looked at me. “You have a tattoo of a worm?”
“It’s supposed to be a butterfly,” I said as Bailey turned me so her brother could enjoy my lame tat.
Cooper reached for the tat as if to run a finger over it. Before he touched me, Farah smacked his hand lightly.
“Don’t touch other women,” she growled.
Glancing back at them, I saw Cooper get his horny expression. I was apparently in the middle of a game they played. Gross.
“Do you know how much it would cost to get it fixed?” I asked as Cooper ran his finger over Farah’s pouting lips.
Without looking away for his wife’s face, Cooper shook his head. “I’ll pay. Just tell Aaron I said what I said. He’ll be cool.” As if a light bulb went off over his head, Cooper glanced at me. “You should go soon. Very soon. Can’t leave it undone for much longer or it’ll get weird. Yeah, go this week.”
Frowning, I noticed Bailey eyeing her brother. Her blue eyes got wide and she nodded.
“Yes, soon. So soon. Well, maybe not too soon. I don’t want to be alone.” When Tawny appeared next to her, Bailey decided to be nice and said grudgingly. “Soon, I guess.”
“What are we talking about?” Tawny asked as Judd rolled a ball, knocked over a few pins, then frowned like he might knock the others over with his angry glare.
“Aaron’s going to fix her tat,” Bailey explained while Cooper and Farah wandered off.
“He’s an artist,” Tawny cooed. “He made this angel on Judd.”
After Tawny showed me Judd’s arm, she put her hand back to where she had a gorgeous tattoo of a fallen angel.
“He’s very talented,” she added.
“I’m excited to get my butterfly finished.”
“He’ll do a great job,” Bailey reassured, taking a ball from Vaughn and rolling it into the wrong alley. “Oops.”
“Be nice or I won’t be nice,” Bailey warned, glaring up at him.
“I love feisty women,” he said, smirking down at her.
“Not interested. Blond men are usually stupid. Just look at my brothers. Anyway, I don’t want a dumbass loser. I want a smartass winner.”
“You deserve nothing less,” I said and Bailey smiled at me like I was amazing.
I did feel amazing. Not only would my tattoo get fixed, but I also had an excuse to talk to Aaron. I didn’t know if Aaron would enjoy the conversation as much as I did, but fate was no longer standing in my way.