“When was the last time you even got laid?”
Intentionally ignoring the bug in my ear, I sucked down most of the juice pouch in one gulp, relishing the burn as it hit my stomach.
The only good thing about being stuck in the Rockabilly’s roller rink in the middle of the day was the vodka and cranberry juice that I’d smuggled in after I cut open some juice pouches, poured the mixed drink in, and then sealed them with my hair straightener.
If it weren’t for that, I would have ditched my annoying sister and my niece and run for the hills. Or back to Birch. Whichever came first.
At least I didn’t have to drive myself home.
“Virginia Davidson,” the irate voice said from in front of me. “Are you listening to me?”
I opened my eyes, tiny yellow straw in my mouth, and blinked innocently at my sister. “Nope.” I went back to slurping my almost-empty juice pouch. “What is it?”
My older sister, Ella, the devil who’d convinced me that going with her and my niece, Lyla, to a party, stared at me expectantly. With a dramatic sigh, I put down the drink and waited for her to repeat whatever it was that she’d said in the first place.
“I asked if you wanted me to set you up with the new guy at work, and then gave you shit because you were ignoring me and asked when the last time you got laid was.” She raised one blond eyebrow and waited for an answer. When I didn’t immediately give her one, she huffed and then flipped the curls she’d probably spent all morning on over her shoulder. “You know you’re not getting any younger. If you want to have a family, you should start on it sooner rather than later, at least that’s what Mom would say.” She rolled her eyes. “I think you just need to loosen up, and maybe let someone tickle your itch.”
I hadn’t had enough to drink to deal with her nosiness, and I sure as hell didn’t want to talk about it in the middle of a public space.
With narrowed eyes, I studied her and the way she fidgeted under my scrutiny.
“You asshole,” I said finally. “You really fell into Mom and Dad’s hole of wanting to marry me off, didn’t you?”
She flushed, and I knew I caught her.
“I’m not old,” I snapped. Then, just for good measure, I grabbed my drink pouch and finished it off with a little burp. “I’m not even twenty-five yet. I literally just finished my degree and started my job. I’m not you, Cinderella. I didn’t find the love of my life at eighteen and have a baby girl at twenty. And it’s not a bad thing that you did. I’m just not you. I want to live my life. I want to explore a little bit.”
“Try telling that to our parents.” She propped her head up with her hand, resting her elbow on the table we’d been sitting at for an hour. “They equate happiness with marriage and babies. I don’t even think you should settle down, personally. You haven’t really lived yet.”
“I’m just not ready,” I told her. “I’ll handle our parents. Again. But I need my big sister to have my back.”
“You’ve got it.” Ella winked. “Now that the requisite guilt trip has been repaid, and you’ve got a plan to get our parents off your back, we can move on.”
Reaching into my purse, I pulled out two more drink pouches. “Want one?”
She held her hand out, suspiciously staring at the watermelon-flavored container. “Why does this look different than it should?”
I popped my straw into mine and slurped loudly before answering her. “Because I found this thing online to make adult ones. Just try it.”
She followed suit and then gasped, choking after taking too big of a gulp. “Nia, what the hell?”
“I told you.” Snickering, I set my drink on the table. “Adult drinks.”
“I didn’t think you meant vodka,” she hissed. “I have to drive. I can’t have this.”
“More for me.” I held out my hand. “You said this would be fun. Not us sitting here for hours while Lyla ditched us for her friends.”
At nine, Lyla was just getting to the point that she didn’t want anything to do with her parents, or any other adult for that matter. Which meant Ella was constantly dragging me to go to the ends of the earth with her to different activities. The month before, we’d had to go all the way down to Portland for a gymnastics competition. And next week, I knew that Ella was going to ask me to go with them to some martial arts thing so that Lyla could get her next belt.
“What’s going on with Rich?” I took her drink and set it on the table, waiting for her to wrap her mind around my intrusive-as-fuck question.
Technically, I’d only put about one shot worth of vodka in each pouch, so if I was careful and didn’t drink them all at once, I’d be okay by the time the party was over and Ella drove us back to Birch.
“He’s working,” she hedged. But I saw the way she started to pick at her cuticles with one hand and the way her fingers clenched and pressed against the table with the other hand.
“Liar,” I whispered, right as a breathless Lyla popped up at the table.
Without even looking at her mom or me, she burst into laughter and clutched the chair we’d saved for her. “You guys have to get on skates.” Her breath was coming in short gasps, and Ella was already reaching into her bag for Lyla’s rescue inhaler. “Seriously.” She gasped again. “It’s fun.”
Instead of panicking like I wanted to, I reached over and brushed the loose blond hair from her face, revealing her hazel eyes, and brushed it behind her ear. “How long have you been struggling?”
“Just now.” Her face had already started to turn bright red. “Came. Right. Over.”
Ella held out the inhaler, without the familiar spacer that I’d seen Lyla use since her asthma diagnosis when she was six months old.
“Here, baby girl. You know what to do.” Ella’s fingers trembled while we both watched Lyla grab the inhaler and use it like a pro.
Puff. Then a deep breath to make sure she got enough of it.
Another puff. Another deep breath.
The longest thirty seconds of my life dragged by. At least the longest thirty seconds since Lyla’s last time needing her rescue inhaler.
When Lyla’s cheeks turned back to normal a minute later, and her chest stopped rising so dramatically, I took a deep breath but the sense of calm that settled over me had nothing on the utter relief that seemed to fall from Ella’s shoulders in waves.
“I hate this,” she muttered when Lyla started chattering to herself and reached for a snack.
I took my sister’s hand and squeezed, offering her the silent support I knew she needed from me. After all, she didn’t just ask me to go to everything under the sun for Lyla just to watch her. Ella needed the help. She needed a second set of eyes on our girl.
“Mom, seriously.” Lyla turned on us suddenly. “It’s just asthma. I’m not dying.”
Her hazel eyes flashed with annoyance when Ella opened her mouth to argue, so I stepped in.
“You know, I’m pretty exhausted and your mom has been keeping me company.” I raised an eyebrow. “After all, she’s been my sister forever. You’re just her daughter.”
Lyla huffed and then leaned forward and hugged her mom. “But she likes me more than you. So you can suck it, Auntie Nia.” And while her mom was distracted by her hug, Lyla stuck her tongue out at me.
“Are you almost ready to go?” I ignored her sass and sipped on my drink.
“I’m not done skating yet, Mom.” She pulled away. “Can we stay for a little bit longer?”
When a man in a familiar blue uniform walked right by our table, I choked on my drink and stuffed it back in my purse like it was a giant bottle of vodka. Then I turned to watch the Maine State Police Officer walk by, smiling at the way his ass hugged his uniform.
“We should stay,” I told Ella, interrupting whatever they were saying. “Just for a little bit.” I turned back to Lyla with a wink.
Taking her chance, Lyla skated off before Ella could tell her to stop.
“What’s that all about?” Ella speared me with a suspicious glare. “You never volunteer to stay for longer when I’m ready to go.”
“Because.” I scooted my chair over slightly so I could watch the hot cop take a seat with another guy a dozen or so feet away. “I think she deserves a little space. And you didn’t tell me what’s going on with you and your husband. Do you guys have big plans for your ten-year anniversary?”
“No.” Ella froze up immediately. “We don’t have any plans.”
“That doesn’t sound right.” My words came out as a murmur, while I reached back into my purse for my contraband. “You always do something big for your anniversary.”
Ella rubbed her forehead with one hand and tapped the table with Lyla’s rescue inhaler with the other. “I don’t know what to tell you. We don’t have plans.”
“Cinderella,” I said her nickname again, only this time not with annoyance. “You gotta come clean. Might as well be with your baby sister.”
Since the day she’d met Rich Prince, her very own Prince Charming, I’d started calling her Cinderella. And since that day, she’d rolled her eyes and told me that I annoyed the shit out of her.
“Things haven’t been right since Royal did what he did.”
I shuddered at the mention of Rich’s brother, a monster if I’d ever known one. He’d been arrested for stalking and trying to murder a girl that I’d gone to high school with.
“Poor Kennedy,” I muttered. Her story had been all over the news for weeks, and it was heartbreaking what she’d had to deal with at Rich’s brother’s hands.
“I know,” Ella whispered brokenly. “Rich has really had the weight of the world fall on his shoulders. And his parents think that Royal can’t do any wrong, you know. It’s just been hard.”
I watched her, ignoring the noise of other conversations around us, and focused on the tiny details I hadn’t picked up on before. The bags under her eyes. The tense way her lips pressed together. Even the way she clenched her jaw together, and I found myself inspecting her skin to make sure she wasn’t wearing too much makeup.
“He’s not taking it out on you, is he?” My question hung in the air as the songs playing for the skaters shifted, and I watched the flare in Ella’s eyes. “If he is, I’ll gut him and feed him to some lobsters down in the harbor. I’m sure I can buy a lobster trap big enough for his body.”
Her laugh caught me off guard. “Oh,” she wheezed. “No. Rich would never hurt me, Nia. He’s dealing with the added stress of people thinking he’s just like his brother, and that’s following him home. Not only that, but his parents want him to defend Royal in court.” She picked up her drink, not the adult one I’d given her earlier, but the massive bottle of water she’d been sipping on all day. “He said no, and now there’s a huge rift in their family.”
Relieved, my eyes drifted away from my sister and over to the cop again, who was staring with clear disdain at a group of people having a party. Then our eyes locked for a second before he turned back to the man across the table from him. He ran his left hand up to his head and I wouldn’t be ashamed to admit that I noticed the complete lack of a wedding ring.
He laughed at whatever the man next to him said, and I think my panties started melting at that moment. He had dimples. Perfect dimples that I could see clear as day.
“Earth to Nia.” Ella snapped her fingers in front of my face. “What are you looking at?”
She followed my line of sight and snickered. “I thought you were done dating uniforms.”
“Just cops,” I answered with a smile. “Eddie Stryker ruined that for me. That asshole had the audacity to call me a tag chaser when one of his buddies asked me out, not knowing we were dating. Like that’s my fault.” I rolled my eyes. “But I can still check out a hot guy, can’t I?”
It was a good thing I didn’t date cops. And that I was there with my sister and niece. Because he was just hot enough to make me change my mind. At least for a night.