Dedicated to my favorite avid reader, Rachel.
COREY SAT IN COMPLETE and utter disbelief. What did I do to make her turn on me like that? She said a few words to Joe, and then disappeared around the corner back into the kitchen. Joe stared in Megan’s direction before turning his cold eyes onto Corey. He couldn’t stand for that. For years, he watched as Megan and Joe became close, all the while creating distance for him. Now, Megan seemed interested in him, and he’d be damned if he’d let Joe Adams interfere with that. Megan belonged with him, and he intended for the entire town to know it. Rising from the chair, his gaze on his rival for Meg’s affections, Corey crossed the room, each step filed with determination.
“Hey, Corey,” Anna said, stepping right into his path.
He scowled at her, “Get out of my way, Anna.”
She grabbed his arm tight, refusing to let go as he tried to tug it free. “How do you think Megan will take it if you go off half-cocked and make an ass out of yourself on the day of her father’s burial?”
Her words stung, like a sudden slap across the face. It would only serve to push her further away, and he wanted Megan beside him. She had a point. “An ass you say?”
The corner of Anna’s mouth rose, and her grip loosened. “Yes, and it’s not very pretty.”
Corey smiled down at his best friend. “What would I do without you around to stop me before I lost my head, Shrimp?”
Anna released his arm, smacking him for using the nickname she despised. “I, for one, don’t want to find out.”
As Anna walked away, his eyes found Megan standing near the kitchen doorway, her face somber and eyes locked on him like a heat-seeking missile, ready to fire. As much as he wanted to stay and be there for her, he had to leave. Corey smiled at Megan and nodded. He found Dex and Karen standing with neighbors, and made his way over to them.
“How are you holding up?”
Dex sighed and pulled Karen a little closer to his side. “We’ll be okay.”
“Glad to hear it.”
Dex looked past Corey and squinted before bringing his attention back to him.
“I noticed you and Meggie together,” Dex began, “is there something you want to tell me?”
Corey rammed his hands into his front pants pockets. “I’ll let you know.” He turned and headed to the door, needing to get away from there for a while. Megan caught his eye as he reached the front door. Disappointment washed over her pretty face and a pang of sadness hit him like a ton of bricks. Leaving before things got out of hand between him and Joe was the right thing to do. So why did he feel so awful about it?
IT WAS LATE AFTERNOON and the sky was still gray as Corey drove the short distance to The Stix. A stiff drink would take the edge off and hopefully, he'd a get a bit of perspective while he tried to figure out how to make Adams back off. The parking lot held only a handful of cars. He knew most of the town was visiting Megan and Dex. This would turn into a short bar hop. He parked the truck and headed across the warm asphalt, his mind still on Megan. That woman was in his every waking thought. He couldn't help but smile at that because for a change, she was coming after him. He didn't know what had happened but he was glad that she stopped running away every time he came within a few feet.
"Hey Corey, surprised to see you here today. I thought for sure you'd be with Dex," Sam, the owner of The Stix said.
Corey sat on the barstool, and smiled. "Just came from there. Let me have a beer and a shot of whiskey."
"Rough day, huh?” Sam shook his scruffy black head, grabbed a glass and beer setting them in front of Corey. “Hate funerals. Never can actually bring myself to go since my parents died when I was ten. I figure it's better if I stay away from them, maybe I just might live longer."
Corey understood Sam's logic but doubted it worked that way. “Well, I believe when your times up, it’s up. There’s no rhyme or reason to it, just the way it is. Life would be boring as hell if you could pick your moments and line them up in a neat little row.”
"Hey, sugar. You look like hell. How's that handsome brother of yours?" Sue Jones asked, setting a handful of empty bottles on the bar as she worked to toss them in the right bins.
He picked up his brown bottle and took a swig of the beer, the cool frothy liquid quenching his thirst, though he hoped it would make Nolan’s ex friends-with-benefits go away.
"How's Dexter?" Sue asked smiling.
Corey almost choked on his beer, yanked the bottle from his mouth, and swallowed hard, the once soothing drink burning its way down his throat. "I wouldn't advise you call him that to his face."
Sue winked, "I remember," she said and shrugged before a seductive smile formed on her lips. "But I really don't care."
“FEEL LIKE GETTING A drink?" Anna asked.
"Sure. I need to unwind before I go home. Trying to explain death to Kevin Jr. and Erin is complicated. If Erin asks ‘why' one more time I swear I'll lose my mind," Sara confessed.
"What about you, Karen?" Anna inquired, leaning forward on the kitchen counter.
Karen nodded, "Definitely."
"I should probably stay here," Megan uttered.
"No, you should get out of the house for a while," Karen coaxed a comforting smile on her pretty face. "One hour."
Anna and Sara both nodded and waited for her to change her mind.
"All right," Meg conceded. "I just want to change out of this dress."
THE FOUR WOMEN STEPPED into the noisy bar and took the first open booth they came to.
"Hey, girl, how are you?" The waitress asked.
"I'm doing all right, Gail. How's business?" Meg replied.
She shrugged, shook her blonde head. "Eh, the usual, not much changes around this place. What can I get you?"
They ordered their drinks and Gail turned and walked away, returning with their order in record time.
"So you've got it bad for Corey Brady," Sara said, her eyes focused on Megan.
The beer that was in her mouth threatened to shoot out across the table and onto Anna. Meg reached up and pressed her fingers to her lips as she swallowed hard. "Guilty as charged."
Anna smacked her hand down on the dull, wooden table.
"What?" Sara asked turning to Anna. "I, for one, think it's great. Corey needs a good woman in his life."
"Exactly," Anna seconded.
"It's getting too complicated," Megan said.
Karen put her arm around Meg. "How so?"
"Well, there's Joe to consider. He's been a good friend to me over the last five years. I don't understand why they can't just get along. Every time they’re in the same room together, I can feel the tension. I thought they were going to go at it at the house." Meg grabbed the beer bottle and downed half of the cold liquid.
"Slow down, girl. I didn't bring you here to get you drunk," Anna said concern sweeping over her face.
Meg smiled. "I'm glad you did anyway. I needed to get out. I don't have many girlfriends since I spent all of my time taking care of my Dad. Now that he's gone," Megan sighed, focusing on the red and white label on the bottle, picking at the edge. "I don't know what to do with myself. I even quit my job here." Now she regretted that decision.
"You could move to Florida with us. We'd love to have you," Karen suggested.
"I don't know, that's a pretty big step." Leaving everything and everyone she’d ever known was a terrifying prospect.
"You don't have to decide today, but think about it," Karen voiced.
"In the meantime,” Sara began, her eyes dancing and excitement raising her voice a few octaves, “you could always apply at the supermarket. I'm sure there's a position there if you're interested."
"Or, you could come and work for me," Anna piped up. "You have a nice, small figure. Lisa’s been begging me to hire some help and get new designs into the store."
"Now there's an idea," Sara said.
Gail set four fresh bottles of beer down on the table. "I'm sure Sam would love to have you back here."
"I don't know," Meg muttered, weighing all of her options.
"Ladies," Corey said, standing beside the table with a full bottle of beer in his hand.
"Fancy meeting you here," Anna said.
"Join us, Cor," Sara suggested, sliding into the corner of the booth to make room.
Megan’s heartbeat raced. She wanted to speak to him, but not here in front of everyone else. She needed to explain her relationship with Joe, make Corey realize that they had reached a crossroads. She wasn't looking forward to admitting what happened a few nights back, especially since she continued to struggle with it herself. Her stomach became queasy at the thought of her and Joe together in the living room.
"Well look who's here," Anna said, her eyes on the door.
Megan turned towards the entrance to The Stix, and her heart fell. Why? Why did Joe show up here with Beth tonight of all nights? She glanced at Corey, watched as his open hand on the table balled into a tight fist. The strobe lights continued to revolve, washing over his face, and she noticed that his jaw clenched tight.
"Corey," Megan said. He snapped his black eyes to her face and she shivered from the iciness he projected in her direction. She held his gaze disappointed, wishing he would not make a scene and let all the animosity go.
Corey sat back into the booth, pulled his hands off the table. "Whatever you want."
Megan's eyes widened as she looked at him. Is he serious? He'd put all that hostility aside and let it go? As much as she wanted to believe that, it was a hard pill to swallow. Indeed, Corey just might make it through this night in particular, but what about tomorrow, and the days after that? The cold hard truth was that Corey and Joe were going to have it out at some point. She just hoped she didn't have to witness it.
Megan forced a half smile, grateful that he'd be true to his word tonight.
"Here we go," Sara muttered.
Karen grabbed Megan's hand under the table and gave her a reassuring squeeze.
Joe and Beth appeared beside the table, Beth standing a bit behind Joe. Joe faced Megan, his brown eyes none too happy, his face hard and stern.
"We meet again, Beth," Anna said.
Beth stepped forward. "How’s everyone doing?"
"Good thanks," Sara chimed in.
"It's nice to see you, Beth. How's the family?" Corey asked.
Joe spun around, and all fell silent. Corey looked up at Joe, kept his cool, but didn't turn away.
"Everyone is fine. Thanks for asking." Beth took Joe's hand. "Why don't we go sit at the bar?"
Joe nodded, then turned and let her lead him away.
Sara began to laugh, just loud enough for the rest to hear. "That was intense. I honestly can't tell who he's more interested in at this point."
That thought gave Megan a bit of hope. A slow song began to play, and she looked across the table at him, hoping he'd ask her to dance. She remembered their last dance at Anna’s wedding, a time she thought things would change between them. Corey caught her gaze, reached out across the table with his palm up. Megan set her hand in his, and he stood.
Hand in hand, they made their way to the empty dance floor. When Corey turned around and pulled her into his arms, she was in heaven. In an instant, her body began to tingle from being this close, her breasts brushing up against his chest as he embraced her. Swaying to the music, Megan relaxed and leaned her head against his chest. Corey's chin rested on top of her head and they moved together, neither talking, just basking in the closeness of one another.
While they turned, keeping in time with the sultry music, the colorful lights flashed all around them and she caught Joe watching them. Her heartbeat stopped, started again as she tried to drive his image from her mind. In moments, Beth and Joe were on the dance floor beside them. Megan did her best to ignore the couple, but noticing the pure hatred in Joe's eyes sent a shiver down her spine and pure dread into the pit of her stomach.
The music continued, and Corey's embrace tightened around her like a vice, depriving Megan of much-needed air. She lifted her head from his chest and inched back enough to suck in a ragged breath. Corey leaned his head down and pressed his lips to hers. Megan closed her eyes, linked her arms over his shoulders, and reveled in the spontaneous kiss.
A hand on her shoulder thrust Megan back breaking the electrifying kiss. Suddenly Joe was in between them. "You son of a bitch, back off," Joe bellowed. He pushed Megan away with a violent shove that sent her reeling backward before he hauled off and slugged Corey in the face.
Corey's head whipped to the side. His hand held his face for a moment, and then he lunged at Joe, his fist connecting with Joe's stomach. Joe doubled over, and Corey swung again, catching him in the jaw. Joe swung back, his fist catching Corey's face one more time as the bouncers jumped into the fray, separating the two men as the fight came to a screeching halt. Megan stared at Beth and knew the woman shared the same emotion, total shock. Beth cared for Joe, Megan saw it the flood of concern in her pretty, green eyes. She forced a somber smile, rushed to Joe's side, pushing the hair off his forehead to get a good look at the damage from Corey's fist.