Thirty-One and a Half Regrets Page 23

“We don’t know for sure that he was. Maybe that’s why he disappeared. Because he refused to cooperate.” His voice lowered. “I really think it’s time for you to tell Mason.”

Movement in the parking lot drew my attention. As a dark sedan pulled into a parking spot, Thelma came outside with Violet and her cameraman in tow. I drew in a breath of anticipation as the rear car doors opened. When Joe got out, he was already waving to the crowd, wearing a smile I’d never once seen on his face the entire time we’d known each other. He shook several hands before he walked toward us. He was handsome in his dark gray suit with a red tie and several women in the crowd shouted his name and whistled. Joe ignored them as his gaze landed on me and Jonah, his face hardening.

My chest tightened and I tried to take a breath. Of all the reactions I’d expected from him the first time we saw each other again, this disdain was stunning.

Thelma intercepted him on the sidewalk and it took him several seconds to give her his attention.

I blinked to ease the tears burning my eyes. What had I done to earn that look from him?

I barely had time to recover when the next person to emerge from the car sent the blood rushing from my head—Hilary. She wore a cream colored dress with a green vine print as though she were playing along with the whole gardening theme. Her long auburn hair was pulled back from her face and hung in waves. If I didn’t know the real her, I would have believed she was the sweet, dutiful fiancée of an up-and-coming political star. She was pretty enough to be a Hollywood celebrity.

My gaze strayed to Mason, who was watching me with a worried expression. I had no doubt he’d seen Joe’s reaction. I flashed him a tight smile even as I fought to take a breath.

Hilary waved to the crowd, her smile lighting up her face as she made her way to Joe. She looped her arm through his, pulling him like she was staking her territory. Her left hand rested on his forearm and the massive diamond on her finger caught the sunlight, sparkling like one of Ashley’s glitter-encrusted art projects. I couldn’t help comparing her engagement ring to the one Joe had given me. The one that now sat in a box in my underwear drawer. The rings were so vastly different it was like they had been given by two different men. But then again, I wasn’t surprised.

This man who was working the crowd wasn’t the one I’d known. He smiled and shook hands, talking to strangers as though they were his close friends. I had no idea why he was wasting time on people who weren’t even his constituents, but maybe he was thinking long term. After all, I’d seen a vision in which Hilary was his wife and he was winning a U.S. Senate seat.

I searched the crowd that had now swelled to over a hundred people. There were more people here today than had shown up for our grand opening. A group of middle-aged women held up signs with pictures of Joe and Hilary with crowns drawn on their heads with black marker and the word “Jolary for President!” handwritten at the top. It took me three whole seconds to figure out Jolary was their version of Brangelina.

Several younger women near the front were wearing T-shirts with Joe’s photo emblazoned across their chests with the phrase, “I want to be your First Lady on the street and the First Slut in your bed.” I wondered if they had truly thought that slogan through. My mouth dropped open when I realized Samantha Jo Wheaten was one of the women. She’d waited on us several times at the Suds and Spuds diner without ever giving Joe a second glance. But now that he had TV cameras on him, they all wanted him.

Joe watched as Jonah rejoined the crowd after offering me a smile and a thumbs up. Then Joe turned back to me, his cold eyes searching my face for a moment before he faced the crowd.

The blood drained from my head. Who was this man?

I considered bolting, the stupid grant be damned. I’d deal with Violet later.But as I went to leave, Thelma grabbed my arm and ushered me in front of the nursery doors. I caught a glimpse of Mason, who was hanging close to the building but staying away from the cameras. He offered me an encouraging smile.

I smiled back, not because I was happy with the situation, but because I could always count on him to be there when I needed him. The surety of this surprised me. Truth was, he’d been my rock for a while now. From getting me out of jail to saving me from Jimmy DeWade to helping me choose my truck, he had always been waiting in the wings to lend a helping hand. Now he was standing on the periphery again, and I realized I didn’t want him there anymore. I wanted him beside me. As soon as this nightmare press conference was over, I was going to address that.

But at the moment, I had to stand in front of the crowd in a straight line with the other official participants of this press conference, smack in front of the nursery. Violet and I hung to the right, while Joe and Hilary were on the left, Thelma between us. Joe stood less than four feet from me, close enough for me to see the tremor in his hand as he reached into his jacket and removed a folded piece of paper.

Several women shouted Joe’s name again and I noticed a sign that read Joe, will you marry ME? Hilary grabbed Joe’s hand and laced her fingers with his, smiling coyly at the crowd. “Sorry, girls. He’s all mine.” And without warning, she grabbed his face and gave him a kiss on the lips. Joe resisted for a moment before relaxing into her embrace. When he broke loose, he flashed a hundred-watt smile in response to the catcalls.

Violet stiffened next to me, and I was surprised when her hand slipped into mine. All my anger at her faded as we reverted to our familiar roles. The supporter and the victim. But I was tired of playing the victim, I reminded myself. I wanted to be the strong one for once. I squeezed her hand to show her how much I appreciated her effort, then released it.

Prev Next