Isn't She Lovely Page 57

“What can I say? I’m bewitched,” I say, lifting a hand to touch a finger to her bottom lip even though it’s not at all the part of her that I want to touch. Or at least not the only part.

Her breath catches a little, and the people around us have the good sense to move away.

She gives a nervous laugh and makes a big show of looking around at the lavish surroundings. “Your parents continue to one-up themselves with the party hosting.”

I nod, even though I never take my eyes off Stephanie. “It’s the finale of the weekend, except for the casual send-off brunch tomorrow. We Prices like to say good-bye in style.”

The bright blue of her eyes dims just slightly, and I realize that she’s misread my words. That she’s thinking I’m saying good-bye.

And then I realize I don’t want that. Not at all.

I hold out a hand. “Walk with me.”

I don’t say where. She doesn’t ask. Just puts her hand in mine and lets me lead her. Past people I’ve known my entire life. Past my mother, whose eyes are resigned. Past Olivia, whose eyes are not.

None of it matters. Stephanie matters.

We get to the edge of my parents’ paved courtyard and pause long enough to remove our shoes, leaving them in a pile as I roll up my pants.

I take her hand again, leading her toward the water. I’m not even sure where we’re going or why, only that I want to be alone with her. And that I don’t want an audience.

Ironic, since the entire point of all of this was precisely to have an audience.

Despite the fact that I’m wearing a suit and her dress isn’t exactly outdoor-friendly, we find ourselves sitting in the sand, our feet just out of reach of the lapping waves.

Her back is pressed against my chest, my legs on either side of hers, and it feels like the most natural thing in the world to wrap one arm around her, my arm across her waist, my hand on her hip. The wind off the water occasionally shifts her hair into my face, not bothering me in the least.

Stephanie leans her head back against my shoulder before letting out a small, shuddering sigh. “My dad remarried six months after my mother passed away.”

Christ. Six months? But I say nothing, letting her talk.

“The worst part was, I didn’t see it coming. I mean, I guess in hindsight I heard the name Amy come up a couple of times while he tried to make conversation over the burnt dinners that he made for the two of us. But I was like the walking dead at that point. I didn’t even bother breaking up with Caleb. We just … ended. I barely remember my mom’s funeral, and then my dad was moving me to another freaking state so I didn’t even graduate with my friends.…”

I shift our positions slightly, sitting up straighter so that I can lean into her. Curl around her. Protect her.

“I know you think I’m just begrudging my father happiness. Hell, maybe that’s it a little bit. I was still up to my throat in grief, and here he was moving on with his life mere months after burying his wife. And you’d have to see a picture of my mother and Amy side by side to understand. They could be sisters. Maybe even twins. He didn’t try to move on from Mom. He tried to replace her. And after they got married, it was like the first part of my life hadn’t even existed.”

I rub my chin against her hair, trying to imagine being eighteen and losing a parent. And not just losing a parent, but watching her slowly fade away, probably painfully, and then not being there at the final moment. Having to learn from the guy who drugged your rum and Coke that your mom had died.

The missing piece of Stephanie clicks into place. The prickliness, the chronic frown, the attitude—I used to think those were all just the result of anger at the world, but now I’m thinking it’s something more heartbreaking than that. It’s simply self-protection. She lost her mother and boyfriend, and she sort of lost her father, in the span of a few months.

No wonder she changed from smiley teenager to hate-the-world goth.

I kiss her ear, wondering how to reassure her that she doesn’t have to go back to being guarded. That she’s allowed to trust someone. That just because the primary sources in her life disappeared doesn’t mean there aren’t other sources out there.

And that I want to be one.

She squirms a little, and I know she’s unnerved by her spontaneous confession, so I run my hands up and down her arms, keeping the touch gentle and easy as I do some confessing of my own.

I tell her that I miss Michael. He may have betrayed me, but he’s my best friend, and I’m torn between thinking of forgiving him and thinking that I don’t need “friends” who sleep with my girlfriend.

I tell her about confronting my mom, and how I’m terrified that my parents won’t know how to work things out.

Together we discuss infidelity, and how we always thought it was such a black-and-white, don’t-do-it scenario, but how perhaps it’s a good deal more complicated than that, because it seems to be all around us. Olivia and Michael. My mom and Mike senior. David. Even her father, in the sense that he wasn’t loyal to the memory of her mother for very long.

I lose track of how long we talk, cuddled there on the beach, getting our evening clothes sandy and completely ignoring the distant sounds of my parents’ party as the noise floats down to the water.

But even amid our dear-diary confession session, even as I’m vaguely aware that I’ve never talked so much to anyone ever—not even Olivia—I don’t say the things that matter.

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