Twenty-Nine and a Half Reasons Page 21

I set my wine glass on the side table and stood. “If y’all will excuse me for a moment, I need to visit the restroom,” I said as sweetly as possible.

Mike shot me an apologetic glance.

“Well, hurry up darlin’,” Violet drawled. “The steaks are almost ready.”

“I’m only going to the restroom, Vi. I’m not making a cross country road trip.” Although at the moment, that sounded like a great idea.

Mike snickered then chugged his beer before Violet caught him.

Hurrying to the bathroom, I shut the door and pushed my back into it, the molding pressing into my neck. I took deep breath and dug out my cell phone, hoping against hope that I’d missed a call from Joe.

Nothing.

Forlorn and having given up all pride, I called his number, preparing to hear Hilary’s voice. Instead, it went to voice mail. “Joe, I really need to talk to you.” My words cracked like kindling on a fire and I sucked in a breath. “I miss you. Call me. Please.” I hung up, embarrassed over my clinginess. What would Joe think when he heard me begging him to call? I might have just sent him running into Hilary’s waiting arms.

Stop it, Rose Anne Gardner. We don’t wallow.

And while it was true, I felt a little entitled. If that wasn’t dangerous thinking, I didn’t know what was. Wallowing was never the answer, which reminded me I had another task at hand. Time to go out and face the disaster of an evening.

While I’d been in the bathroom, everyone had moved inside. Austin handed my wine glass to me and pressed his hand into the small of my back, guiding me into the rarely used dining room. Violet was going all out for the occasion.

Violet and Austin carried on most of the dinner conversation. They talked about high school and Austin’s travels, and I added little, feeling out of my element. But Austin, who sat on my right, refused to accept my silence. “What interestin’ places have you visited?” he asked after telling us about his last trip to Boston.

I stared at the salad on my plate. “I haven’t been anywhere. Yet.” I looked up. “I’d love to go to Italy.”

“Which part?”

“Rome, Venice, Tuscany. There’s so much history there. You can see buildings that are thousands of years old.”

He grinned. “I did an internship in Venice, studying Roman architecture.”

My eyes flew open in surprise.

“I have a ton of pictures I’d love to show you sometime.”

As tempting as his offer was, I quelled my enthusiasm. For some odd reason, Austin Kent actually seemed interested in me and it wouldn’t be fair to encourage him. “Austin, that would be really nice but I already have—”

“Rose!” Violet interrupted. “Could you help me out and bring in the cheesecake?”

We stared at each other for several moments before I stood and grabbed my plate. “Sure.”

Mike picked up his plate and Violet’s. “I’ll give her a hand.”

I followed Mike into the kitchen. His mouth pursed as I scraped leftovers into sink and he loaded the dishwasher.

I struggled with what to say, but he spoke first.

“I’m sorry, Rose. I told her not to do it. You’re with Joe but for some damned reason, she’s decided he’s not good enough for you.” He looked me in the eye. “I like Joe, and even if I didn’t, I wouldn’t have had any part in this. It’s your business, none of ours.”

“Thanks, Mike.” Leaning my butt into the counter, I smiled at him. “I know you wouldn’t do this. Violet’s not acting like herself. What’s goin’ on?”

“What’s goin’ on…” He picked up a kitchen towel with a snap. “Is that Violet’s decided she’s unhappy with her life.”

My mouth dropped. “Has she said that?”

“No, not outright.”

“Oh, Mike. It’s probably just Momma’s death. She and Momma weren’t really speakin’ and as horrible as she was, she was still our mother. Violet’s bound to be affected by it all.”

He took a deep breath and looked out the window over the sink. “I hope you’re right, Rose.” Mike kissed me on the cheek. “I know I’m just your brother-in-law, but for what it’s worth, Joe’s a good man and he’s lucky to have you.” Then he pulled the cheesecake out of the refrigerator and carried it into the dining room.

When I sat down, Austin asked about my job. Working at the DMV wasn’t very exciting, but I had a few stories about customers to share. Austin laughed and picked up the wine bottle to fill my glass.

I put my hand over the top. “None for me. I have jury duty tomorrow.”

“Jury duty.” Austin leaned close. “I have to admire a woman doin’ her civic duty.”

“There’s nothing to admire. If I hadn’t shown up, I’d probably be in jail right now.”

Austin laughed like I’d made a joke. I tried to keep from scowling. There was nothing funny about incarceration.

“So tell us about the case.” Austin’s eyebrows rose, giving him a mischievous look.” Is it exciting?”

“I can’t really talk about—”

Violet leaned forward and whispered. “It’s a murder trial.”

His eyes lit up with interest.

“I assure you it’s not as exciting as it sounds.” It hit me that Joe said the same thing about his job, nearly word for word, the day before. My heart swelled, missing him more than I thought possible. For heaven’s sakes. He’d only been gone two days. But I couldn’t pretend to be polite and social when my heart was aching.

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