Eight years ago…
“I don’t feel so good, Cass.” My best friend and perpetual partner in crime, Scarlett Bodine, looked up from her hands and knees. She wiped her mouth on the sleeve of her t-shirt.
I stripped the just-in-case hair tie off my wrist and fashioned her long, dark hair into a sloppy knot. “That’s ‘cause you puked up half a bottle of Jack and a couple of beers, Scar,” I reminded her. “You shouldn’t have taken Zirkel’s bet.”
Wade Zirkel had stupidly bet Scarlett he could outdrink her. He was still passed out in the dirt back at the bonfire.
“I’m hungry,” she moaned. “Wait, no. More puke.”
As Scarlett heaved up her dinner of cheese sticks and coffee into our old Sunday school teacher Mrs. Morganson’s hedgerow, I patted her shoulder and drunk dialed my choice of designated drivers.
Bowie picked up, his voice husky. “Y’all need a ride, don’t you?”
Just a couple of words and I swear my heart did a swan dive into my belly full of Jack Daniels.
“Maybe I’m calling to listen to your pretty voice.” My super sexy flirting was ruined by a hiccup.
“You owe me $10.”
It wasn’t the fee for the ride. It was the bet we’d made not four hours ago when I’d picked up Scarlett. I was home for the summer fresh off my first year of college, eager to show off my sophomore self to my best friend in the world. And maybe her older brothers. One in particular.
I’d been doodling that man’s name on my notebooks since elementary school. My crush on him was woven into the fabric of my childhood. In kindergarten, when I’d learned to write my own name, I’d insisted on the spot that my teacher show me how to write Bowie’s, too. In junior high, I’d developed an obsessive interest in the high school baseball team thanks entirely to their all-star pitcher, Bowie.
“I got your damn ten dollars, mercenary. Now, get your ass down to Mrs. Morganson’s before your sister poisons her boxwoods with regurgitated bourbon.”
“Ah, hell. Be there in five. I’m holding you personally responsible if Scar tosses up in my back seat again, Cass.” He hung up.
I smiled and undid one extra button on my shirt.
“Fix your hair,” Scarlett instructed from the ground. “Can’t land a man with drunk hair.”
Scarlett was aware of my friendly feelings toward her brother. We had a plan. I was going to entrap Bowie with my feminine wiles, marry the man, and then Scarlett and I would be real-life sisters.
I was calculating with a stubborn streak wider than ten miles, at least, according to my mom. With Scarlett’s take-action-without-minding-the-consequences attitude in my corner, Bowie didn’t stand a chance against my long game.
I’d switched up my strategy from the hand painted sign-carrying preteen at every home game to the leggy, cleavage-displaying, ambivalent college girl. I flirted lightly as if it were mere habit and pretended that I had handsomer fish to fry than Mr. Bodine.
I didn’t. There was not a handsomer fish in all the water in all the world than Bowie. And I had a good feeling about this summer. I was bourbon-confident.
By the time Bowie pulled up in his SUV, I’d managed to drag Scarlett to her feet and wiped her face.
He climbed out in well-worn jeans and a clean polo. My stomach did a weird slosh. It was his casual, first-date outfit. It either hadn’t gone well or I’d interrupted. Either way, he was here, and I was happy.
I’d gotten used to watching the man of my dreams date other women. Hell, I dated and had a damn good time doing it.
But I was confident that someday Bowie and I would end up together. My confidence was telling me that this summer might be that someday.
He shook his head and grinned his crooked grin that he’d been smiling at me for our entire lives as he took in our drunk and disheveled selves.
“Looks like you girls are havin’ a good night.” He opened the back door.
“Throw her on back here.”
“Bow, I want pancakes!” Scarlett said, throwing her arms around her older brother’s shoulders.
“Jesus, Scar. You smell like puke and hot dogs.”
“Cheese sticks,” I corrected, shoving Scarlett into the back seat and rolling her window all the way down. Bowie and I spent some quality time together over Christmas break cleaning Scarlett’s last puke fest out of his door pocket.
“I had a corndog, too,” Scarlett sang. “Junior was makin’ some in the microwave.”
“That’s probably why you just destroyed Mrs. Morganson’s shrubbery,” Bowie observed.
Scarlett thought that was hilarious and laughed until she hiccupped.
“Where to, trouble?” Bowie asked, settling behind the wheel as I buckled myself into the passenger seat. Trouble was his pet name for me. It was meant ironically since I was never in trouble. I’d never be calling someone for bail money on dollar shot night at The Lookout. Not with my dad presiding as sheriff over our sweet little slice of West Virginia. I was the good girl. The smart girl. The criminal justice major who planned to come back here and serve my town. I was the best friend who got Scarlett out of her messes of trouble.
Bowie was like me. Practically a choir boy. Secretly, I thought maybe he was doing his best to make up for his parents while I was living up to mine.
Scarlett warbled a little song in the back seat.
“Let’s get some food in her,” I suggested, leaning back in the seat and sighing.
Bowie nodded at the waters he’d thoughtfully stashed in the cupholders. “You know the drill.”
“Hydration,” I twanged. I opened Scarlett’s bottle for her and handed it back. “Drink up, buttercup.”
Bowie opened mine for me, and I drank deeply. I wasn’t much of a heavy drinker. I had better things to do than go around getting shitfaced all the time. But Scarlett sure could be persuasive when she got started.
But the fact was, I was always there to hold Scarlett’s hair.
I always called Bowie, and he always came.
It was who we were.
The 24-Hour Eats Diner was our go-to place to shove fried foods down to soak up the varieties of alcohol underage drinkers were inclined to ingest. It was far enough out of town that we didn’t have to worry about running into any Sunday school teachers or father sheriffs. Best of all, it was completely empty.
I slid into the booth and was surprised when Bowie shoved in next to me, leaving Scarlett the whole other side to herself.
My heart did that familiar tap dance when he was close to me. No matter how many boys I dated, none of them ever made me feel that cocktail of nerves and anticipation that he served up for me. It was almost embarrassing how eager my body was just to be close to his.
I opened my menu and pretended to study it. In my peripheral, I gave Bowie the once over. What was it exactly about him that got me? Was it habit? Had I just loved him for so long there was no other way to feel about him?
He was tall like his brothers but leaner. Gibs and Jame were two sides of the same lumberjack coin. Flannels and facial hair. But Bowie was a little more stylish with his haircut and his clothes. Dark hair, gray eyes. That nice, almost-straight nose that had the slightest kink in it from a baseball knocked back at him after the pitch. He’d made the catch, got the out, and earned two black eyes for it.
He was leanly muscled everywhere from the line of shoulders to the tapered waist. I knew, from up close visual inspection, that he had those abs that were all the rage in Misty Lynn’s mama’s collection of Playgirl magazines that she’d charged us a buck a piece to look at in seventh grade.
But Bowie was more than a sexy-as-hell body. There was so much going on behind those sterling silver eyes. When he looked at me, I felt like he was trying to decode my DNA. Like he wanted to know everything. It left me breathless and the exact opposite of the apathetic, available woman I was trying to be.
He was smart. He was kind. He was quiet. He was steady. He was good. Deep down, movie star hero quality good. I’d be stupid not to love him.
I just didn’t know if he loved me.
The signs pointed to a strong maybe. I’d been keeping a running tally for about three years now, every look, every comment, every stray physical contact. My instincts were telling me that the man had feelings. But I preferred a black and white, definitive answer.
“I’m havin’ pancakes and waffles,” Scarlett decided. She was lying down on the booth bench, holding her menu aloft over her face.
“You want coffee?” I asked her as our usual late-night waitress approached.
“Yes, please,” Scarlett called.
“What’ll it be?” Carla the rockabilly poster girl asked, peering at us through her purple cat-eye glasses. We were in here, drunk and a little disorderly at least once a quarter, yet she’d never shown us the slightest bit of recognition, forcing us to increase the percentage of her tip to astronomical realms. We’d left her fifty percent last time. I thought that would at least get a “the usual?” out of her.
“Coffee, water, pancakes, and waffles, please,” Scarlett ordered from her repose.
“Water and the veggie omelet,” I decided. I didn’t need caffeine coursing through my system when Bowie’s arm was resting on the back of the booth an inch from my shoulders.
He ordered his eggs and sausage and coffee while I tried not to think about how close that arm was to touching me.
Carla wandered off in no hurry to plug our order into the system.
“Y’all have fun tonight?” Bowie asked me.
Let’s see, I’d done shots with Scarlett and three summertimers—what Bootleggers called the outsiders who flocked to our hot springs and lake every summer. Then I’d picked the cutest summertimer and showed him a two-step by the fire that had both our heads spinning. I’d gotten into a debate about recidivism with a fellow criminal justice major. And now I was sitting here with Bowie Bodine’s arm almost around me.
“Yeah. It was all right,” I told him. “You have a date tonight?”
He gave me one of those long, quiet looks. “Yeah.”
“Have fun?” I asked, blasé as you please. Cassidy Tucker couldn’t be bothered to care about his date, no sir.
“It was all right.” He echoed my own words with a slow grin.
He shifted, taking up more space in the booth. When his knee brushed mine, I considered swooning and then decided against it. It should take more than the accidental brush of denim to impress me, I decided.
Scarlett snort-laughed at something that was only funny to her in her alcohol-addled mind, and Bowie and I shared an amused look. I was finally an adult. Nineteen years old. I’d long clung to the idea that Bowie had never made a move on me because I was too young.
It was either that or he was physically repulsed by me.
But I was pretty sure that wasn’t it. I was no big-boobed, bleached-blonde Misty Lynn Prosser. I had my own long-legged, freckled-nose appeal. It was a damn shame it was taking Bowie so long to realize it.
Our food arrived, and Bowie’s arm disappeared from the back of the booth. I was a little relieved seeing as how the “will he or won’t he touch me” debate would have raged in my head until I’d bitten through my tongue or lip. It’d happened before. There’d come a day when I’d probably choke to death on something because I was too distracted by his presence to chew my dang food. As a safety precaution, I’d taken to eating less around Bowie.
Scarlett popped back up on the other side of the booth and gave Bowie a ten-minute, breakfast carb mouthful rundown of our evening. “Cassidy, what was that guy’s name that you were dancin’ with?”
Even drunk, my Scarlett was a schemer. She said it as innocent as you please, but I saw her eyes skim Bowie’s face, looking for a reaction.
I reached for my water. “Blake.” I was almost sure of it. Or maybe it was Nate? Hell, his name wasn’t Bowie and that was that.
“Looked like you two were gettin’ real cozy,” she purred. My best friend was a tiny little fireball with an evil, calculating mind. I loved her to bits and pieces.
I lifted a shoulder as if my own dating exploits were too boring for comment.
Bowie was suddenly very interested in his plate of food. I didn’t know what that meant, but Scarlett was grinning like a jack-o-lantern on Halloween.