Over the next week, Stella and I fall into a rhythm together. She brings me lunch every day that I’m stuck in a hay field, sometimes in a tractor, and sometimes on horseback. Supper is always ready and on the table when I practically crawl through the doors begging for a shower, except for the days when she’s in the hay field with me. Then, she usually orders pizza and begs the place to deliver, promising that she’ll pay extra for every mile they have to drive, or whips up more sandwiches. I don’t look forward to those nights because a guy can only eat so many sandwiches before he’s sick of them, and I’ve about reached my limit. Tomorrow is the 4th, and Mr. Hawkley has given me today and tomorrow off so I can help Stella set up her party at the lake. I didn’t realize they owned a plot on the lake even though there isn’t a house on it. Since it’s supposed to rain a little next week, I finished baling what I had cut today, and am not planning on sitting in a tractor for at least a week. Thank god for rain. Bryndle is home from Panama; got here yesterday after Mr. Hawkley drove to Atlanta to pick her up. I’ve never seen a pair of sisters be so different, yet the same at the same time.
They both have long, blonde hair, but Bryndle has brown low-lights while Stella’s is pure blonde. They both have long legs, but Stella pulls them off while Bryndle looks like a gangly pre-teen to me, probably because I’m a little biased toward Stella. They have similar laughs, but Stella’s still makes my heart skip a beat, even after getting to know her over the last week. They both love their father, but Stella goes above and beyond in caring for him, even though he’s a perfectly capable middle-aged man. From what I can tell, Bryndle has spent the entire day today inside watching TV. Stella has been everywhere getting ready for tomorrow, and she even found time to bake two batches of cookies: one chocolate chip and one no-bake. She smacked my hand when I snuck one of each, but she smiled the entire time she was glaring at me when I hurried out of her reach with the chocolate chip cookie in my mouth and no-bake in my hand. The fridge is also full of Jell-O salads, and there’s a huge brisket thawing in one corner that Mr. Hawkley is supposed to smoke tomorrow. I can’t tell you how excited I am for that one.
“Beau!” I hear Stella shriek my name from the bathroom, and I’ve never heard her voice sound so terrified. I abandon my mission to steal another cookie, and sprint down the hall to the bathroom where I push open the door to see Stella standing on the toilet pointing at a bath mat. “It’s under there.”
“I’m sure it’s nothing.” I reply, walking calmly over to the mat and bending down to pick it up.
“No! It’ll come out if you pick it up!” She screeches again, and I wince before continuing to lift up a corner. “Ahh!” She screams when I uncover a tiny garter snake. I smile and pick the little guy up while Stella continues to scream at me to put the monstrosity outside. She finally steps down from the toilet as I carry the little snake out to the garden and let him go. “You better wash your hands, Mister.” Stella glares from behind the counter when I walk back inside.
“I can’t believe you’re afraid of snakes.” I chide, heading to the sink to wash my hands before she plops a bag of potatoes in front of me.
“I’m not scared of snakes when they’re not IN MY BATHROOM. But, just for that comment, you’re going to wash, peel, and cube every single one of those.” She glares, getting out a paring knife and heading to the stove.
“What are these for?” I ask, leaning on my elbows on the sink while I wash the potatoes.
“Half of them are for stir-fry tonight, and half are for a potato salad for tomorrow.” She answers, and starts browning some hamburger.
“Bryndle! Come here please!” She hollers into the living room at her sister, who is still watching TV.
“You’re not Mom, Stella.” Bryndle groans, glaring at her sister as she walks into the kitchen.
“Yeah, well, this party is for you tomorrow, so if you want to have it, I need you to start chopping those veggies.” She waves her literal wand, whatever the thing is called that she’s browning the hamburger with, and Bryndle rolls her eyes. I have to seriously stifle a snort with a cough at how bossy Stella is now that her bossiness is being directed at someone else.
“Do you have a problem?” Bryndle asks, directing her question in my direction and I shake my head and shrug. “Good.”
I glance over my shoulder at Stella, and I can’t help the smile on my face when I see her looking over her shoulder at me too. The only sounds in the kitchen for a while are the cuts on the cutting board and the sizzling of hamburger in her pan. “So what should I be expecting for tomorrow?” I ask, finishing my potatoes and carrying half of them over to Stella. I toss them in the pan and she smiles at me.
“It’s the 4th of July! You can expect yard games and firecrackers and lawn chairs and sweet tea and lots and lots of beer and fireworks and little kids waving sparklers and punks and just a whole lot of fun.” She answers, stirring her hamburger and potatoes before reaching for a handful of peppers and onions that Bryndle has finished chopping.
“You can’t forget swimming!” Bryndle adds with a smile, and I think this is the first time I’ve seen her smile in the past 24 hours.
“Sounds like I’m in for a fun time. Who all usually comes?” I ask, eating a couple of slices of peppers fresh.
“A few of Dad’s second cousins come around and bring their kids and then a lot of our neighbors come. Gemma’s entire family usually comes, and a lot of people who Dad is friends with around town.” She shrugs, taking the pan off the stove and putting down a hot pad by the sink.
“Does Colt ever come?” I ask, grabbing a fork and stabbing at a potato.
“Not usually. Like I said, I never got along with his brother. You can invite him though. He can even bring Corey if he wants to.” She teases, poking my hand with her spatula.
“Okay can you guys like, totally stop flirting and help me with this stuff? I am so not meant for a kitchen.” Bryndle asks, slamming her fist that’s holding the knife on the table. She startles us both, but Stella quickly hurries over to her. If I’m not mistaken I totally saw a blush on her cheeks. I grin happily to myself before grabbing another forkful of stir-fry.
“Can you go get Dad? Supper’s almost ready.” Stella asks, avoiding my eyes after she and Bryndle have finished chopping everything and Bryndle heads back to the living room. Stella grabs a loaf of bread from one of the cabinets and pushes me out from in front of the toaster.
“Sure. Where is he?”
“Probably in the shop working on the Case.” She answers, and I head out to the shop that sits off to the side of the barn.
“Hey Mr. Hawkley. Stella says supper is almost ready.” I relay the information to him as I beat a tune into the hood of the truck that’s parked beside the tractor he’s working on. He rolls out from under the tractor and sits up, wiping his hands on an oily rag before pushing himself to his feet.
“I hope the house smells like all different kinds of food for tomorrow.” He smiles, clapping my shoulder as we walk back towards the house, before he stops me. “I just want you to know that I really like you, son. I wouldn’t want to have to hurt you if you hurt her.”
It takes a second for his words to sink in, but when they do I immediately start protesting. “No, no, sir. Nothing is going on between me and Stella. I’d never do anything to betray your trust. I actually like it here, and I need this job.” I could have continued, but Mr. Hawkley chuckles and cuts me off.
“You’d have to be blind to not see the chemistry between the two of you. Even I can see it. And the only reason I’m telling you that you have my permission to date my daughter is because I do trust you, Beau. I’ve gotten to know you over the last two months, and I think you’d be good for her, if I’m being completely honest. Also, cut the Mr. Hawkley crap. My name is John, so use it.” Mr. Hawkley, I mean John, says, completely taking me by surprise. “You just better not abuse my trust, Mr. Morris.” John says, heading to the house while I continue to stand in the middle of the driveway dumbfounded.
Maybe this is a test. Maybe he wants to see how far I’ll actually go with Stella. Maybe he’s looking for a reason to fire me now that she’s home. Eventually I make it inside, where I head to wash my hands in the sink while my stomach is doing flip flops. Now I’m not going to be able to look at either one of them.
“Beau, is Gunnar coming up tomorrow? I know you said you invited him.” Stella says as she puts the stir-fry pan on the table when I walk back into the room and take my seat. The only seat left at the four-person table is beside Bryndle and across from Mr. Hawkley, so I sit down, avoiding Stella’s gaze.
“Yeah. He said he’d be up after lunch sometime.” I mumble, dishing my share of food out of the pan, moving it around the plate without really eating it. My stomach is too knotted to eat anything right now.
“Do you not like it? Did I put too much salt in it?” Stella starts fretting, noticing I’m not eating. I glance up at her, afraid I may have hurt her feelings, and scoop a bite of everything onto my fork before forcing myself to swallow it.
“It’s delicious, don’t worry, Stella.” I manage to give her a small smile while I’m avoiding Mr. Hawkley’s gaze. It takes me a while, but eventually I manage to eat everything on my plate before excusing myself to my loft. I have a lot of thinking to do tonight.
“Beau, watch this!” Little Sammie Mock calls from where she’s running on the dock. The six-year old executes an impressive cannonball into the lake, and I smile and hold up all ten fingers when she climbs back up and takes her life jacket off. As soon as Sammie’s mom, Cynthia, who runs the local feed store that I’ve visited several times, introduces her little girl to me, she practically latched herself onto my leg and hasn’t left my side much since this whole day started.
So far, I’ve refed at least six games of yard pong – a drinking game similar to beer pong, only with feed buckets and small sponge balls – ate my body weight in watermelon that was supplied by the local farmer’s market, and had a cannonball contest against Bryndle that she actually won fair and square. It’s not even noon yet, either, plus I managed to do all of this while avoiding Stella as much as possible. I mean, she’s wearing a tiny American flag bikini top and bottoms with the pair of jeans shorts from the first night I met her that are unbuttoned. There in the middle of her stomach is a belly button ring I never noticed before, glittering in the sunlight and catching my attention every time I’m around her. She’s going to be the death of me.
Colt said he’d come by later tonight, and Gunnar should be here soon. Apparently, he and some of his friends were planning on going to the beach to celebrate the holiday weekend, but they decided that a lake party would be more fun. Mr. Hawkley already said it was fine if they come and camp here, as long as they don’t cause any trouble.
Looking around the campsite, I sigh when I see Stella open another Palm Breeze can when she and Bryndle take on a couple of their friends in yard pong. This is her sixth or seventh one already – not that I’ve been keeping track or anything – and like I said, it’s not even noon yet. Apparently those Palm Breezes are supposed to be loaded with alcohol, a lot more than a regular beer has at least. Somehow, I manage to pry my eyes away from her, and instead turn my attention to the little kids who are chasing each other with color smoke bombs that they’re holding in their hands. I smile as I remember memories from my childhood, chasing Gunnar with sparklers and the color bombs. One time, I even put those snappers under the toilet seat in our bathroom thinking that Gunnar would find them, but then that plan backfired on me when I forgot about them. I grab the beer that I’ve been nursing for a while now and chug the rest of it before it gets too hot and disgusting to drink, and stand up and head to find another piece of watermelon. While I’m cutting a good-sized chuck of watermelon for my pleasure, I stumble forward when a sudden weight appears on my back, giggling while her long hair falls over my shoulder and tickles me.
“Beau! Come play corn hole with us!” Stella giggles, wrapping her legs around my waist as she continues to hang on my back. I feel the cool metal of her belly button ring pressing into my back, and even though I don’t think she’s going to fall, I hook one of my hands under her knee to keep her steady.
“I’ll pass.” I chuckle, grabbing my watermelon slice and walking with her on my back back to my chair.
“But pleeeaaaasssseeeee? Bryndle sucks at corn hole and I need a partner! I want you to be my partner!” She giggles, clinging to my back even after I start to sit down. I sigh and return to standing. She still doesn’t get off my back until I’m at the corn hole game that is set up adjacent to yard pong. This is the most skin-to-skin contact we’ve had yet, and it’s honestly fogging my brain a little bit, leaving me thankful when she finally does climb down. She saunters down to the other side of the playing field while one of the guys from the other teams comes down to stand beside me.
“Hey, I’m Jackson. You must be Beau.” The guy who I faintly recognize from the party stretches his hand out to shake mine. “Stel hasn’t shut up about you all morning.”
“Haha, well she has had quite a few drinks this morning, that’s for sure.” I chuckle, shaking his hand before Stella starts the game by chucking down all four of the black bean bags, two of them going through the hole.
“She’s good at these games when she’s drunk though, I’ll give her that much.” Jackson chuckles, and I grab the bean bags while the other guy throws the red ones. All four land on the board, so I toss the black ones back down, managing to make one through the hole and one on the board. Jackson sinks all four of his through the hole, and I’m immediately impressed. He just canceled out all of the points Stella and I had created, and put his team up by 6 just like that.
“You’re pretty good too apparently.” I laugh, and Stella manages to make two more in the hole and one on the board, putting us up 1-0 if we’re playing by the canceling method like I assume. “We play to 21, right?”
“Yeah, and we also play Cancel, so if my math’s right, you’re up 1-0 right now unless Casey makes anything.” Jackson confirms my thoughts, and I nod.
“That’s what I had figured. But now it looks like we’re back where we started.” I laugh as the guy named Casey only makes one.
It honestly takes us about an hour to finish this game, because once Stella had her mind set to it, she was not going to stop until we won. And somehow, Jackson and Casey managed to keep the game canceling each other out until I start to get sick of playing so I step my game up and sink 8 in a row, winning the game for us. Surely Gunnar and his friends should be getting close, so I head back to check my phone before Stella once again leaps on my back.
“Let’s go swimming!” She giggles, having drank another Palm Breeze while we were playing, along with taking a couple of Jell-O gummy worm shots a lady brought over to us.
“I’m going to see if Gunnar is getting close.” I reply, gently prying her arm from where it’s flung across my throat, cutting off my circulation.
“Then we can go swimming?” She asks, her big blue eyes looking up at me once I’ve gotten her off of me. I couldn’t say no to those eyes even if I wanted to. I nod and check my phone to see if there’s an update from Gunnar – there’s not – and then let Stella drag me to the dock where she wiggles out of her shorts and pulls me off the edge. I know you’re not supposed to let drunk people swim, but I figure that as long as I don’t let go of her hand she’ll be fine.
“Stella, you should really stop drinking.” I whisper in her ear as she claws her way to cling onto my body. “I like you better when you’re sober.” I tell her, even though she’s hot as fuck all the time.
“And I like you sober too, silly!” She giggles, and presses her cheek into my shoulder. I sigh and hoist her out of the water and up to the dock before climbing out myself and offering her my hand. She takes it, before standing up and giggling before pushing me off the dock. She actually caught me by surprise, because my arms flail as I fall backwards into the water. When I come up she’s doubled over laughing, and I glare at her as I swim back to the dock, holding my hand up so maybe she’ll help me out. She takes the bait, and I give her arm a gentle yank, pulling her into the lake with me. She comes up still giggling gasping for air as I pull her towards my body. “You’re mean.”
“You started it.” I grin as she tries to give me a pouty lip, but it doesn’t work and she ends up giggling some more as once again, I hoist her onto the dock before climbing out myself. This time, I don’t let her have the chance to push me off because I grab both of her hands and hoist her over my shoulder as I carry her back to stable land. When I see Gunnar’s truck pull into the lot, I deposit Stella in my lawn chair, and jog to him, ready to embrace my brother in a hug. I haven’t seen him since we spent Christmas together.
“You didn’t tell me there were so many hot chicks in this small town.” Gunnar grins, eyeing Stella, Gemma, Bryndle, and a few other girls who Bryndle is hanging out with.
“Unless you mean actual chicks, as in chickens, I don’t get to see many.” I laugh, smacking the back of his head when his gaze turns to Stella.
“Oh, I see which one you have your eye on. Don’t worry, I’ll steer clear of her, big brother.” Gunnar smirks, and I realize I shouldn’t have smacked him. Now he knows. “Anyway, Beau, this is Charlie and Travis. They’re my two guards on the field, and my best friends off. Guys, this is my big brother, Beau. And btw, the one in the flag is off limits.” He says with a wink in my direction, and I swear I could wring his little neck.
Gunnar and his friends fit right in with Stella’s group, immediately attracting the attention of the group of girls Bryndle was surrounded by. I let them bask in the attention while I help Cynthia get the food out for lunch. Mr. Hawkley just finished the brisket, and I’m so excited, I literally can’t wait. I’m the first one to grab a plate and pile it with a huge brisket sandwich before getting the potato salad and several of the Jell-O salads that Stella made yesterday. Of course, I grab a couple more cookies, and head back to my lawn chair, where Stella is currently curled up with her head in her knees.
“Taking a mid-day nap?” I chuckle, sitting in the chair beside mine. She nods and rolls her head to the side, looking at my plate. I offer her a bite of the Jell-O salad, and she opens her mouth enough for me to feed her the forkful. “You should go make a plate. You’ve drank a lot and I haven’t seen you eat anything all morning.”
“Why are you so responsible?” She asks, trying to stand up. She sways on her feet a little, but then steadies herself and heads to the food table while I steal my seat back. I watch her walk away for a second too long, and really have to concentrate on my food when I look back down at my plate. “You haven’t touched your food, goof ball.” She giggles, falling into the chair beside me and nearly dumping her plate into my lap.
“Just, thought I’d be courteous and wait for you.” I manage to mumble a pretty acceptable excuse before remembering something else. “We’ve eaten lunch together every day for the past 10 days.”
“You’re so thoughtful! And responsible! Gosh, could you get any more perfect?” She gushes, stuffing a bite of her potato salad in her mouth. “And a good cook apparently!”
“I just cut the potatoes. You made the salad.” I remind her, making a mental note that she doesn’t seem even slightly embarrassed that she just hit on me. I smile and take a bite of my sandwich, watching Gunnar cannonball off the dock where his friends, Bryndle, and her friends are bobbing in the wake he left behind.
“That’s right! Oh gosh, I almost forgot about that.” She giggles again, trying to tuck her legs up in the chair, but ends up actually dumping her plate in my lap this time. “Oh!” She gasps when she realizes what she’s done, covering her mouth with both hands while I just look at the two plates that are upside down in my lap, trying to be mad, but I can’t help the smile on my face.
“I think you’ve had enough to drink for a while, Stella.” I try to sound angry as I whisk the Palm Breeze she brought back with her out of the cup holder, and tip it upside down on the other side of me.
“Party foul!” She gasps, covering her mouth with both hands for an entire other reason. As soon as the can is empty and I crush it in my palm, I glance back down at my shorts that are still covered in BBQ, and potato and Jell-O salad. “I’m sorry I ruined your shorts.”
“I don’t think you ruined them. I mean, there’s a giant bathtub right there.” I grin, a thought crossing my mind.
“No, pl-” I cut off her protest as I easily throw her over my shoulder in a fireman’s carry and run towards the lake while she pounds on my back before I leap over the heads of Bryndle, Gunnar, and their friends. Stella returns to the surface sputtering profanities at me, smacking my shoulder several times as she tries to tread water while I do my best to wash off my shorts in the lake water.
“Serves you right, Miss Alcoholic.” I tease after I’m finally satisfied that my shorts have been rid of the majority of the food.
“I’m not an alcoholic, you’re just a soberolic.” She argues, further proving my point.
“I don’t think soberolic is a word there, smarty pants.” I grin, grabbing her elbow and helping her float because it looks like she’s really struggling. I gently start to tug her back to where Bryndle and Gunnar’s group has been watching our interaction.
“I just invented it, so therefore that actually makes me a smarty pants.” She argues, trying to swim to her sister, who can’t hide the smile on her face.
“Is she like this all the time when she’s drunk?” I ask, directing my gaze to Bryndle.
“Every single time.” Bryndle laughs, reaching her hand out for her sister.
Apparently the girl who I met yesterday is not the same girl here before me right now. Stella must have been right when she said that the 4th changes Bryndle, because this girl is actually smiling and laughing instead of frowning and complaining. I release my grip on Stella once I’ve decided Bryndle isn’t going to hurt her, just to be dunked under the surface by Gunnar.
“Bro, you’re so done.” Gunnar sighs after I’ve come up for air and Bryndle has managed to get Stella back onto stable ground out of earshot.
“I was done the minute I saw her, honestly.” I hang my head in embarrassment, before Gunnar surprises me and embraces me.
“I’m so glad you found someone who makes you happy. You deserve that after all the hell we’ve been through.” Gunnar sighs, glancing at Charlie and Travis who have been listening the whole time. “Even if she is a little giggly when she’s drunk.”
“You have no idea.” I chuckle, returning my brother’s embrace. College has really matured him after our parents split. He was just 14, almost 15 when it happened, and I was almost out of high school and heading to college so the divorce didn’t affect me nearly as much as it did him. “You’re going to find someone, too, bud.”
“Think Bryndle can numb the pain for the weekend though?” He asks, eyeing Stella’s sister, and I smack his head again.
“She’s 16! She’s a little too young for you, Gunnar.” I laugh before realizing he’s serious. “Dude, no!”
“Why not? You get a sister! Why can’t I have the other one?” He asks, fully arguing.
“Because she’s 16! You’re almost legal to drink! She’s barely legal to drive!” I make my point very clear, before again, looking at Charlie and Travis.
“She’s off limits to both of you, too.” I glare, and they nod before I pull myself out of the lake to go make myself another plate. “Oh, and the food will be cold if y’all wait too long.”
I dodge a couple of kids who are chasing each other with water guns on my way to the food table, when someone grabs my arm and pulls me to the side. I’m surprised to see Mr. Hawkley looking over my shoulder at where Stella has returned to my lawn chair before turning his gaze on me.
“How many has she had?” He asks, bluntly. I blink a few times at him, trying to figure up a number. “Beau, tell me how many she’s drank today.”
“Um, I’m really not sure, Mr. Hawkley. Probably eight or nine by now, and I think she had some Jell-O shots earlier?” I guess, throwing my hands up in surrender. His brows knit together while he thinks, and I give him a questioning look. “Why?”
“Because I don’t like her drinking enough to where she’s actually stumbling over her own feet. Make sure she doesn’t drink any more for a while, will you?” Mr. Hawkley groans, rubbing his temples. “And I thought I told you to call me John.”
“Yes sir, John.” I reply, scrunching my eyebrows together when he walks away and I make a plate full of enough food for two people basically and take it back to the chairs. Gemma has pulled a chair up beside Stella, and I take the other chair.
“I brought you some food.” I grin at the two of them, Stella rolling her eyes at me.
“I’m mad at you.” She groans, her eyes flitting from my eyes to the plate in my hands, and she reaches for one of the two sandwiches I made.
“You’ll be less mad after you eat.” I answer, giving a small wave to Gemma.
“Whatever.” She retorts, and returns her attention to Gemma, having a conversation that I can’t keep up with, so I munch on lunch and watch the kids and parents who are trying to coach the kids through lighting more intricate fireworks now that it’s finally the middle of the afternoon. I swig down half a bottle of Coors Light before Stella reaches for more food on the plate. I hand her my fork, and she scoops up a huge bite of Jell-O salad before carefully maneuvering it to her mouth. I’m impressed when she actually doesn’t drop any of the salad, and she does the same thing with a bite of the potato salad.
“By the way, your dad said you need to stop drinking.” I tell her, pulling my plate out of her reach and forcing her to pay attention to me.
“I’m an adult, he doesn’t control me anymore.” She argues, looking around for an alcoholic drink.
“Good luck winning that argument, darling.” I chuckle, handing her the plate back.
Colt and Corey finally show up nearly four hours later, about an hour before dark when the fireworks show is supposed to start and rescue me from drunk Stella, who I’ve determined I’m not a huge fan of. I mean, I like how handsy she is when she’s trying to get close to me, but some of the things that come out of her mouth are completely unfiltered and belligerent. She sobered up there for a while, but started taking more of those Jell-O shots a couple of hours ago, and she’s even worse than she was earlier. I have a small feeling that I’m going to be doing all the work tomorrow, because she’s going to be nursing one hell of a hangover.
“Dude, your girl has gone crazy.” Gunnar startles me, sneaking up behind me and catching me off guard while I’m watching Stella dance around the lot with her friends, waving sparkers around in both of her hands. I’m actually impressed that she’s still balanced on her feet, and doesn’t show any sign of being as drunk as I know she is.
“I know.” I mutter, upset that I couldn’t keep her away from the alcohol after her dad asked me to.
“It’s not your fault.” He replies, falling into the lawn chair beside me and tipping back a bottle of Coors after handing me one of my own.
“I know.” I answer, finally pulling my eyes away from the girl and turning to watch the shows that are starting off in the distance. The explosions are faint, but still visible.
“Hey, so where are we supposed to crash tonight?” Gunnar finally asks, cocking his head towards Travis and Charlie, who are busy raiding what’s left of the food.
“I think there are a couple of empty stalls in the barn. The hay is pretty comfy to sleep in.” I shrug, trying to sound as serious as I possibly can.
Gunnar actually takes the bait and starts flipping out. “I am not sleeping in disgusting horse shit. I skipped out on the beach to come spend the fourth with my big brother, and he’s seriously telling me that I’m sleeping in horse shit tonight. Unbelievable.” He continues babbling about how I’m the ‘worst brother in the world’ for another few minutes before noticing that I can no longer control my laughter. “You were shitting me the whole time?”
“You’ve always been gullible, Gunnar.” I grin, grabbing my brother’s neck and pulling him into a halfish hug.
“And you wonder why I don’t trust you when I’m sober.” He groans, pulling back from my embrace. “Hey look, it looks like our show is getting ready to start.”
I turn my attention to where Mr. Hawkley and a couple of his friends are setting up a pile of fireworks by the dock. Apparently, everyone else around the lot has realized what’s going on, even Stella and her friends, who, by the way, are not nearly as drunk as she is. Bryndle pulls up a chair on the other side of Gunnar, who shifts his weight to the other side of his chair. I swear, if he tries anything, I’ll be the one who puts him in the ground. Her friends surround her, and Travis and Charlie join the group, pulling up their own lawn chairs. Stella isn’t part of the group, and I turn to look for her, only to find her crawling on my lap with a Jell-O shot in both hands.
“Oh, no you don’t.” I groan, grabbing both containers out of her hands. I’m tempted to dump them, but that would be a waste of alcohol, so I slurp one out and then the other to keep her from drinking them.
“You’re such a party pooper.” She pouts, wrapping one of her arms around my shoulders and pulling her bare feet up on my lap where she’s sitting.
“You knew I was done watching you drink a long time ago. You came to me, remember?” I laugh, trying to resist running my fingers up her back.
“Doesn’t mean you’re not a party pooper.” She grins, planting a sloppy kiss on my temple. Kind of like earlier, she doesn’t seem to realize what she’s done to me, and my breathing becomes extremely shallow when she rests her head against mine as she turns to watch the fireworks show that is just beginning.
Sometime during the next hour and a half that we’re watching the show, oohing and ahhing over the big, pretty ones, Stella passes out on my shoulder. Not that I really expected less considering I’m pretty sure she’s consumed her body weight in alcohol over the course of the day. As soon as the show is over, I stand up, cradling Stella in my arms, and tell Gunnar to follow me if he wants to not sleep in a barn. I tuck Stella into the passenger’s seat of her jeep, making sure I have her buckled in securely, before climbing into the driver’s seat and leading Gunnar and his friends back into town where I book them a local motel room. I leave them directions to the farm for when they wake up in the morning.
When I return to the Jeep, Stella hasn’t moved at all from where I left her, so I head back to the farm. I don’t think anybody else should be here yet because Mr. Hawkley stayed to clean up and he’s Bryndle’s ride, so I pull the Jeep into the garage and carry Stella inside. Considering she’s a small girl, she’s extremely heavy when she’s basically a dead-weight. And it’s not like I’m not in tip-top shape. I make sure I don’t bang her head against any walls or doorways as I carry her down the hall to her room and tuck her in her bed.
“Good night, Stella.” I whisper into her ear, softly kissing her forehead before I turn to leave.
“Don’t go, Beau.” She murmurs, clutching my hand and pulling me back towards her.
“Get some sleep, Stel.” I smile down at her, before watching her eyes open to look at me.
“I want to sleep with you though.” She yawns, trying to pull me down in bed with her.
“Not yet, babe.” I whisper, sitting on the edge of her bed and letting her hold my hand.
“But someday?” She asks, her blood-shot eyes going wide, reminding me that she is in fact, drunk.
“I hope so.” I chuckle, sure she isn’t going to remember this in the morning.
“Will you kiss me so I know it’s real?” She asks, and I roll my eyes.
“You won’t remember this in the morning, Stella.” I tell her, squeezing her hand.
“I always remember everything when I’m drunk.” She argues, pushing herself up so she’s at eye-level with me and catching me off guard when her lips start moving towards me. Despite my instincts and my brain telling me that she really won’t remember it, I turn my head so her lips plant on my cheek and not my lips. “You don’t want to kiss me.” She gasps, yanking back from me and I watch tears start to well up in her eyes.
“That’s not true. I’m just not going to kiss you while you’re drunk. If you’re so sure you’ll remember this in the morning, you can try again then.” I promise her, squeezing her hand again before standing up and exiting her room and heading to the barn because I’m beat.