“Hey, pumpkin pie!”
Standing at the top of the stairs, I fluff up my damp hair. Their jovial greetings ring out as suitcases thump against the floor. When the commotion dies to a dull roar, I blow out a lung full of air and go downstairs.
“Jared!” Hadley rushes over, her ponytail flying behind her, and she throws her arms around my neck. As I stand here, not sure how to react, my dad beams at us while Finn lifts his chin to me, grinning, before turning to say something to Dad.
“I missed you so much,” she says against my shoulder, the top of her head brushing my chin.
Reaching up, I uneasily pat her on the back and mumble, “You, too.”
She lets go of me, her clear green eyes shining at my muddled mix of green/hazel. Other than that subtle difference, and the obvious disparity in height, we can’t deny each other as brother and sister. We have the same hair color, lips, the same nose, and chin. Dad also says Hadley and I share the same stubbornness.
I wouldn’t call it stubbornness. We’re just strong-willed and refuse to give up on what we truly believe in. At any cost.
Maybe that’s the definition, though.
I will give my sister this much. To those who don’t know Hadley or underestimate her because she’s petite and soft-spoken, she doesn’t seem like much of a fighter, but I know she has it in her. I’ve been on the receiving end of her wrath a few times.
“Congratulations on your new job.”
“Thanks.” I glance over at my dad and Finn, but they’re already talking baseball. I now notice Dad’s wearing a gray New York Mets shirt while Finn has on a white New York Yankees one. They’ll be fighting over a game on TV tonight, and since I don’t care for baseball, I’ll be left with my sister. Before my dad met Finn, he didn’t seem to care about baseball either. It seems like a bandwagon thing, although he isn’t rooting for the Yankees with Finn.
I look back to my sister. “What?”
Hadley laughs. “I said you and I will have to find something else to do tonight since Finn and Dad will be glued to the TV.”
“Oh. Yeah. I guess so.”
She rolls her eyes and looks over at them. “I think those two purposely planned this weekend.”
Finn puts his hand on the back of his neck, tilting his head, giving her a slanted smile. “I’m pleading the Fifth, and since you’re a paralegal, you know my rights.” Paralegal. That’s right. I totally got that one wrong.
“Well, you have the right to remain silent about baseball until after dinner.”
He laughs, and Hadley blows him a kiss, which makes me roll my eyes.
Dad clears his throat and briefly gives me that look before swinging his arm and pointing to the kitchen. “Speaking of dinner, let’s eat.”
On the way to the kitchen, I trail behind Hadley as she meets Finn, and he puts his arm around her shoulders. As they walk, she lifts her face to him, and he bends to kiss her. She whispers, “I still love you, baby.”
“I love you back,” he whispers against her forehead.
Fuck me. This’s going to be a long damn weekend.
As Dad pulls dinner out of the oven, I grab glasses from the cabinet. Taking a glass from me, Hadley fills it at the fridge, giving me a smile as we exchange full for empty, probably remembering us doing this for dinner when we lived here.
“Someone needs to give me a job to do,” Finn says with a laugh. “I’m feeling left out.”
“So thoughtful,” I say.
“What?” Hadley asks, walking the last filled glass over to the table, and I grab the tray of garlic bread. “Finn’s nice, Jared. Maybe you should try it sometime.”
Dad laughs as I put the tray on the table and pull out my usual chair, next to Dad’s at the head. Hadley takes her seat across from me, and I sneer, “Oh, yeah? Who was the mean guy who used to kill spiders or helped his big sister with her algebra homework?”
“Hit,” she says with a sly smile, which unexpectedly makes me smile in return.
“What’s that mean?” Finn asks, taking his seat next to my sister.
Hadley says, “Instead of touché, Jared and I say hit. In middle school, we went through a Battleship game phase, playing as soon as we got home, during dinner—before getting yelled at—and even in each other’s rooms at night.” Yep. We were definitely obsessed.
Not that I’ve ever been obsessed with anything else in my life.
“I’d find red and white pegs all over the house,” Dad complains with a chuckle. “And don’t think I couldn’t hear you two playing that game on your beds at night. These walls are thin.”
“We had fun, though,” Hadley protests with a pout aimed at Dad. She then looks at me. “Didn’t we, Jared?”
I shrug. “It was all right.” Some of the best times of my life.
“We did that for like six months. It was a massive phase.”
“Titanic,” I abruptly declare, making her laugh, which makes me smile again. Damn it.
I look down at my empty plate as Dad brings the casserole dish over. Dad asks, “How’s work, Finn?”
“It’s good. They keep me busy.”
“Hadley gives me your schedule when you’ll be on TV,” Dad proudly announces. “I watch your broadcast online every day you work.”
Finn smirks. “Do you? I’ll have to remember that in case I get a dare from an Adam Beckett.”
“I’m still trying to come up with them, but it’s hard to come up with something you haven’t done.”
“There’s a lot I haven’t done before, so give me something good.”
I ask, “Do you ever turn down any dares?”
“I try not to. I love a challenge, but I try to keep them sports-related. I’ve gotten letters and emails from people daring me to do all kinds of things, from wearing a crown during a broadcast to signing autographs in the station’s parking lot. Naked.”
Hadley giggles over her hand. Compelled, I ask, “Like you haven’t seen Finn naked before?”
Both Hadley’s hand and mouth drop at the same time as Finn puts his fist to his mouth, coughing behind it, stifling a laugh. Glancing at me, he can’t hide his smirk.
“Jared Adam,” Dad briskly warns, cutting the lasagna, dishing the first piece to Princess Hadley. I’m still aiming for the triple threat of my full name. Those are rare.
“What?” Keeping a smile off my face is tough, while Finn coughs harder.
Sighing in exasperation, Dad changes the subject to something banal as he motions for Finn’s plate. “Grandma and Grandpa want to have you kids over for dinner tomorrow night.” Kids. Fucking hell. I haven’t been a kid in years, but I feel more like one now than I did as a damn kid.
Picking up my glass of water, I say, “Sorry. I’m booked solid.” I’ll make sure of it.
Another sharp look ensues. “You’ve yet to stop by to visit them.”
I roll my eyes. “Yeah. I’m here for a while.”
“But your sister isn’t. Can’t you eat dinner with them and then go out afterward?”
I shift my gaze to Hadley. “What about you guys? Do you have plans tomorrow night?”
Having salvaged her composure, she asks, “Plans? Here? No, why?”
Dad takes my plate, and I say to Hadley and Finn, “I thought we could go somewhere. Dash has a place he wants to take us to since he knows where to go. Though, I don’t think you want to go to a strip joint.” Finn quickly grins until Hadley looks at him, which he drops his smile like a stolen bag of money.
Hadley narrows her eyes at Finn with suspicion but is met with his innocent expression in return. Seemingly satisfied, she then turns to me. “Dash,” she says with a small laugh. “He’s so cute.”
“Who’s Dash?” Finn cautiously asks.
With a grin between mouthfuls of garlic bread, I inform him, “One of my best friends who has been crushing hard on your girlfriend for years.”
“Uh, really?” Finn’s forehead wrinkles, and his gaze darts to the table. Does he think Dash is an actual threat? He should have zero worries about losing my sister to Dash Calder.
Besides that, I refuse to have Dash as my brother-in-law.
She argues, “No, he doesn’t.”
As my dad hands my plate back to me, I offer, “You want to put money on that? Dash has always liked you.”
“He won’t try to make a move on her, would he?” Finn questions, his jaw, and the veins in his neck twitching.
Picking up my fork, I reply, “Trust me. He’s no threat. He just likes her from afar.” Not that I don’t know anything about doing that myself. “And he’s an elementary school gym teacher, so really. I suppose she could have it worse. My other friend, Rio, is a physician assistant at a gynecology office.” I shake my head, laughing. “You don’t want to hear what we call him.”
“No, we don’t,” Dad says with another sigh.
“I think Finn’s best friend beats both of yours,” Hadley says.
Finn shrugs, picking at his dinner. “Ricky’s a Richmond cop.”
I lean back in my chair. “Perfect. Rio and Dash are criminals waiting to happen.”
Hadley asserts, “Well, Dash is funny, but not my type.”
Finn smiles again as he looks at Hadley, more self-assured this time. “Oh, yeah? What is your type?”
She coyly smiles at him. “I love sportscasters who moonlight as daredevils.”
He raises an eyebrow, knowingly watching her. “Just any?”
My sister bites her smiling bottom lip. “There might be one I have in mind.”
Gaping at the nauseating display across from me, I set my fork back down, so I don’t choke on my food. They’re giving each other a look that clearly screams fuck me this second.
I loudly clear my throat. “You both in or not for tomorrow night?” I wish there was still a TV in my room I can use to drown the sounds I’ll be hearing from Hadley’s room tonight.
“Oh.” Hadley briefly looks at me and then back to her fuck buddy. “You want to go?”
He fleetingly glances down, licks his lip, and shrugs before he looks at her. “Yeah.”
What was that about? Does he have a bar phobia?
Hadley then asks, “Are you coming with us, Dad?”
As Dad grabs a piece of garlic bread, he regards my sister as if she’s nuts, as do I. “I’ll stay home. I’m not hanging out with my kids and cramping their style.”
“We’re not kids anymore.” Shut up, Hadley!
“You’re still my kids,” he insists. “That’ll never change, no matter how old you are. You’ll see. When you and Finn get married and have kids together, you’ll feel the same way. They’ll always be your babies.”
Dad smiles at Hadley and Finn. While she responds with a smile, Finn’s reaction is totally the opposite. He instantly freezes, his forkful of food not making it to his mouth. After a few seconds, he anxiously bites his lip, squinting at his food, looking like he’s in pain.
Maybe this entire dinner is making him sick, as well. I’m glad I’m not the only one.
Hadley sneaks a look at her horrified boyfriend but seems oblivious that he’s having some kind of covert breakdown. Is it because of Dad’s marriage and babies remark? If aimed at me, I’d be the one having a fucking breakdown right now, throwing chairs and food. So if it’s that, he’s taking it rather well. Or are he and Hadley having problems? They don’t look like they’re on the verge of a split. A few minutes ago, they looked like they wanted to rip off each other’s clothes and fuck on the table. Christ.
I don’t know if Hadley is aware, but something’s brewing underneath Finn Wilder’s confident façade.
I guess he and I have more in common than I thought.
Hadley asks, “So, Jared, are you dating anyone?” What the fuck is that shit?
I swiftly frown. “No. Are you?”
“Ha. Ha,” she says and then laughs, elbowing Finn, who quirks up a half-smile. He’s not fooling me. He couldn’t care less what was just said.
I oddly feel sorry for the guy. I know what it’s like to feel helpless in front of people you don’t want to explain yourself to.
I try distracting Finn from himself by teasing Hadley more. “Well, if you aren’t dating anyone, I know someone who will.”
She scoffs, “Even if I were single, I already said Dash isn’t my type. Aside from that, I’m too old for him.”
“Old? You’ll only be thirty-three in November. You have an age limit for the people you hang out with?”
“No. One of my closest friends is twenty-six, so that blows your theory out of the water of me not hanging out with him.”
“Him? Finn, do you know about her friend?” He looks at me over the rim of his glass but doesn’t stop to answer me.
Hadley answers, “Greg is my coworker, and yes, Finn knows him.”
I laugh, widening my eyes. “Oh. Work husband.”
Finn carefully sets down his water, and I notice he’s grinding his teeth as he intently stares at the table, evidently not in the mood for making any comments of his own on the subject.
Dad says, “Jared, quit teasing your sister. I’m sure Finn doesn’t appreciate it.”
“Finn isn’t a jealous boyfriend.” Hadley leans into his arm. “Right, baby?”
He clears his throat, and gruffly says, “Yeah.” Still holding onto his drink like it’s filled with helium, Finn’s grip tightens over the slick condensation so much I think he could crack the glass.
One thing is apparent. Hadley doesn’t know shit about her boyfriend.
Dad says, “Jared, I’ll take Hadley to Brenda’s tomorrow to introduce her. Why don’t you take Finn down to the marina?”
Dad gives me an impatient look. “Fishing. I have poles in the garage. I’ll even pay for your temporary licenses.”
“Oh. Yeah.” I ask Finn, “Want to go?”
He faintly nods. “Okay.”
“Just be warned, Wilder, if you catch more fish, I’ll push you off the pier. Ask Dash Calder.”
After dinner, leaving Hadley and me to park ourselves on the opposite ends of the coffee table, Dad and Finn go downstairs, where the larger TV resides.
“What now?” Hadley asks, turning on the TV and flipping through the channel guide.
Leaning back into the only new furniture my dad has bought since Hadley and I were kids, I prop my feet on the coffee table, crossing my bare legs at the ankle. “I don’t know.”
Hadley gets up and says, “I’ll be right back.” She goes downstairs, and I jump up to steal the remote, trying to find anything to watch, figuring she ended up burying her face in Finn’s lap or something. Kind of awkward around our dad, but whatever.
As I settle back into my chair, she comes up the stairs with a rattling sound. “Look what I found.”
Looking away from the TV, I see the red and blue Battleship games. Dropping my legs from the table, I sit up, surprised my dad hung onto them.
She hands me the blue one with the faded Jared I had written at the top in black marker. I can’t help the sudden smile as she sits. “You’re going down, little brother.”
“Promises, promises,” I say with a laugh, opening the blue case and setting up my ships. “Funny how I’m not so little anymore.”
“A technicality easily overturned,” she muses, working intently on placing her own ships.
While I wait for her to finish, I ask, “Has Finn stayed the night here before?”
She looks up from her red case. “Yeah. One other time. Why?”
Sitting back and propping my legs again, I answer her question with another. “Did Dad make him sleep on the pull-out?”
She shifts to tuck her legs underneath her. “No. I had asked Dad before we came up if he had a problem with Finn sleeping in my room. Dad wasn’t thrilled, but he didn’t argue.”
I nod at my game board. “Does Finn have to go away a lot?”
“He doesn’t often but does sometimes go to different locations in his viewing area for most of his broadcasts. I only see him on the weekends.”
“Why? You can’t see each other after work on weekdays?”
“He does a good deal of the night broadcasts, and we live on the opposite ends of Richmond. So, we just wait for the weekends when I don’t have to work.”
“Why don’t you just move in together?”
She hesitates. “He asked me to move in with him, but it’s further from work.”
I laugh. “That’s a lame excuse, sis. What about him moving in with you, or you both finding another apartment together?”
“You sound like Finn.” She bows her head over her board and mumbles, “I really don’t want to just live together.”
It dawns on me what she means. “You want to get married?”
She nods and guardedly looks at me as she plays with her ponytail. “He has told me before he doesn’t want to get married.”
“Then why are you still holding out for that?”
Hadley glances back down to her game. “Because I’m hoping he’ll change his mind.”
“You’ve been together for how long?”
I have to chuckle. “Finn isn’t changing his mind.”
She raises her head, and a panicked look falls upon her face. “How do you know that?”
I shrug. “It’s a guy thing. If he says he doesn’t want to, he won’t.” Hadley quickly looks away, sucking on her bottom lip. Christ. I don’t want her to cry. As she stares at the wall, chewing her lip and trying to calm her breathing, I say, “He’s offering to live with you. Why can’t you be happy with that?”
She swallows a couple of times before clearing her throat, her eyes back on her game. “It’s not a real commitment. Yes, we’d have to learn to live with each other’s quirks and habits, but there’s nothing concrete to keep him working on our relationship.”
“Why would you want to risk it?”
She finally looks at me. “Because I love him, Jared. I want the world to know he’s mine. In public, he doesn’t acknowledge he has a girlfriend. I’ve never even met any of his coworkers. I doubt they know I exist. We hardly ever go out, and if we do, it’s out of the viewing area.”
More than bored with this conversation, I stare at the bright blue screen on the top half of my game case. “I’m sure he has his reasons.”
“You’re defending him?”
“You’re with him. Be happy. That’s all.”
She irritably asks, “Well, what about you? Are you happy?”
I blandly nod. “Yep.”
“Have you dated anyone recently?”
Still without looking up, I scoff, “No.”
“When you find that someone—the one—it’s a feeling like none other.”
“And all you’ve done is complain about what your someone isn’t doing to make you happy.”
“I am happy. I just want more with him. I want it all with him.”
I sigh as I pick up my submarine, twirling it. Restless, I put the ship back on the game field. “Are we playing? You can go first.”
As she picks up a white peg, she asks, “Why are you so… dark?”
“I’m realistic. Practical.”
“No, you’re different. I’m not saying it’s a recent change, but one that’s making you more bitter. Is it because of her?” alluding to our damn mother.
I lean my head back, shaking it emphatically. “Jesus. This gets old. I’m not blaming her or giving her credit for any downward spiral that ensued. Can we just not ever talk about her again?”
Finn shouts, “Shit!” from downstairs, and we both roll our eyes.
“Jared, you have to talk to someone about it.”
I glare at her. “Didn’t you just hear me?”
She untangles her blue-jeaned legs and leans forward. “Yeah, but you’re not hearing me. You’re not the only one who needs to talk about it.”
“He’s been seeing a shrink for years.” That genuinely surprises me.
“Yep. He didn’t tell you?” For some reason, I slightly feel like a prick.
“I need to talk, Jared. You’re my brother, and we went through this together. We both lost our mother of her own volition. She wasn’t taken from us. She left.”
I look up at the ceiling. “Hadley, I don’t…”
“I do. I need to.”
“It doesn’t solve anything. It just…”
“Hurts? I know.”
My gaze falls on her. “Shit. Can’t we just play the game and forget? C8.”
She sniffs and looks down at her ships. “Miss.” I grab a white peg. “C3.”
“Hit.” We both dig for a red peg, and as we do, yelling erupts downstairs—one voice rejoicing. The other is Finn’s.
I laugh. “You might not get laid tonight.” Peering up from my board, I see her half frown.
“Just remember, big sister, our beds are on the opposite sides of the same wall.”
“We’re not going to be doing… that.”
“Uh-huh. Maybe ride him, instead. That way, it’s quieter. Not doggie style. I don’t need you yelling or banging your head on the wall.”
“Jared Beckett!” she squeals, nearly dropping her game.
Since I’m having fun, I go on. “Or, suck his dick and have him put a pillow over his face.”
“Holy shit!” she loudly whispers, her eyes wide, turning as red as her game case.
“Whatever you do, just keep it quiet. Dad can also hear you.”
“I can’t believe you just said all that.”
“Come on, Hadley. You’re no virgin. E2.”
She laughs, her long ponytail bobbing. “Jared! Really! Miss.”
“It’s not like he’s the first man you’ve fucked.” Hadley gulps for air, not sure how to respond. “Didn’t you lose it to that guy you dated in high school?” I rapidly click my fingers, squinting in thought at the pictures of Hadley and me on the wall, next to the TV. “Matt something?”
I nod and point at her. “Yeah, that’s it. You were a senior when I was a freshman, but I remember his face.”
“Well, what about you?”
I look back at the pictures. “I don’t remember her name.”
“Are you serious?”
“I was fourteen and drunk, Hadley.”
She’s silent and then stutters, “Jared. Shit.” With the appalled tone Hadley uses, I feel more ashamed than I usually do. “Do you remember it?”
Moving my legs to the floor, I shrug. “Not much. F10.”
“Hit. Tell me something else. Have you ever been in love?”
My gaze still on my game, I reply, “Your turn.” Sighing, I briefly look over at her. “I’ve never been mixed up, believing in that shit.”
She shakes her head. “Why don’t I believe you?”
“You can believe what the hell you want,” I snap. “So, you think you’re in love now? Maybe it’s a sham. One wrong move from either of you and the other hits the road. Your darling love is suddenly gone.”
“I do love Finn.”
“You might think you do like you did that guy in high school.”
Through her teeth, she says, “No.”
“How do you know it’s not any different?”
“Because Finn is different, Jared.”
“For your sake, I want that to be true. Finn Wilder used to be one of those guys in high school for someone else, I’m sure. Shit still happens, Hadley. We’re adults, but life is still the same as high school. Only now, we have grown-up jobs, car payments, and mortgages. He might want to try another girl, or tire of you hounding him about marriage.”
More loud yelling travels up the stairs as Hadley and I stare each other down, at a stalemate.
She finally breaks the stretching silence between us, growling, “D12.”
I curtly say, “Hit. F11.”
She snarls, “You sunk my fucking Battleship.”
“What are you two doing?” Dad asks, walking into the living room.
“Baking a cake. Want to help?” I retort, not taking my eyes from my sister’s death glare.
“Mets won, four to zero,” he states rather pompously. “It was a fast win.”
“Finn pouting?” I ask, still locked with Hadley.
Before Dad answers, Finn comes up behind Hadley’s couch. “Not pouting.” Yep. He’s pouting.
“You were crying,” Dad teases.
Finn scoffs at him, “I never cry.”
Dad walks over and slaps Finn on the back. “Thanks for watching it with me. I know that had to be rough.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Finn says, rolling his eyes.
Dad announces, “I’m going to bed. Night.”
We all echo goodnight to him, and Finn tells Hadley, “I’m heading up for a shower.”
“Okay. I’ll get one after you.” He smiles at her and bounds up the stairs. Hadley looks to me. “We didn’t get very far with our game, but we’ve been playing for hours. Time flies.”
“Don’t expect me to bring it into your room tonight to play on your bed.” She laughs, getting up from the couch. Before she leaves the room, I say, “Hadley, I just don’t want to see you get hurt.” That’s the truth.
She stands in the middle of the room, seemingly contemplating that. “I don’t want to see you hurt, either, but I think you are. Badly. Just remember I’m here for you. We used to be best friends. I don’t know what happened.”
Clasping my hands between my knees, I shrug and avoid looking at her. “We grew up.”
“That’s not it.”
I abruptly peer up at her, and she gives me a sad smile before going upstairs.
For the second time tonight, I feel like an asshole.
As I shut off the bathroom light and walk out into the dark hallway, heading to my room, which is next to Hadley’s, I hear Finn’s deep voice whispering, “Becks, don’t stop. You’re so beautiful. You’re mine. Fuck.”
He moans, and Hadley whispers, “Baby, shhh.” She softly giggles with the slow, rhythmic squeaks of the bedsprings. “Oh, Finn. You feel so good.” More loud kissing is heard, drowning out their restrained moans.
Pissed off about being plagued with mental images of them fucking, I go to my room and grab a pillow. At the last second, I stop myself from pounding on the wall. Maybe I’m sympathetic to Finn for his team losing and for not getting laid unless it’s the weekend.
I flip off the wall, separating our rooms. I then stomp downstairs to sleep on the fucking couch.
My sister. What a bitch.