Water beaded on my skin, mixing with the sunscreen and magnifying the texture of my tanned stomach. The sun beat down on us, and everyone else on the beach, making the heat dance in waves on top of the sand between the patches of brightly colored beach towels.
“Ma’am,” the waiter said, leaning down with two drinks. Sweat dripped off his dark skin, but he was smiling. “Charging to the room?”
“Yes, thank you,” I said, taking my frozen strawberry margarita and signing the check.
America took hers and stirred the ice with her tiny straw. “This. Is. Heaven.”
We all deserved a little Heaven to recover from the last year. After attending dozens of funerals, and helping Travis deal with his guilt, we fielded more questions from investigators. The students who were at the fight kept Travis’s name out of it when speaking with the authorities, but rumors spread, and it took a long time for Adam’s arrest to be enough for the families.
It took a lot of convincing for Travis not to turn himself in. The only thing that seemed to hold him back was my begging for him not to leave me alone, and knowing Trent would be charged with misleading an investigation. The first six months of our marriage was far from easy, and we spent a lot of long nights arguing about what was the right thing to do. Maybe it was wrong for me to keep Travis from prison, but I didn’t care. I didn’t believe he was any more at fault than anyone who had chosen to be in that basement that night. I would never regret my decision, just like I would never regret looking straight into that detective’s eyes and lying my ass off to save my husband.
“Yes,” I said, watching the water climb up the sand and then recede. “We have Travis to thank. He was at the gym with as many clients as he could fit around his classes six days a week from five in the morning to ten o’clock at night. This was all him. It sure wasn’t my tutoring money that got us here.”
“Thank him? When he promised me a real wedding, I didn’t know he meant a year later!”
“America,” I scolded, turning to her. “Could you be more spoiled? We’re on a beach, drinking frozen margaritas in St. Thomas.”
I smiled, turning to her. “Thank you. I mean it. And this is the best bachelorette party in the history of bachelorette parties.”
Harmony walked over and sat down in the lounge chair on the other side of me, her pixie short chestnut hair glistened in the sun. She shook the salt water out of it, making it feather out. “The water is so warm!” she said, pushing up her oversize sunglasses. “There is a guy over there teaching kids how to windsurf. He’s stupid hot.”
“Maybe you can talk him into being our stripper later?” America said, straight-faced.
Kara frowned. “America, no. Travis would be livid. Abby isn’t actually a bachelorette, remember?”
America shrugged, letting her eyes close behind her sunglasses. Although Kara and I had grown very close since I moved out, she and America still weren’t on the best of terms. Probably because both of them said exactly what they thought.
“We’ll blame it on Harmony,” America said. “Travis can’t get mad at her. He’s forever indebted to her for letting him into Morgan Hall that night you were fighting.”
“Doesn’t mean I want to be on the wrong end of a Maddox rage,” Harmony said, shuddering.
I scoffed. “You know he hasn’t lashed out in a long time. He’s got a handle on his anger now.”
Harmony and I had shared two classes that semester, and when I invited her to the apartment to study, Travis recognized her as the girl who’d let him into our dorm. Like Travis, her brother was also a member of Sigma Tau fraternity, so she was one of the few pretty girls on campus that Travis hadn’t slept with.
“Travis and Shepley will be here tomorrow afternoon,” America said. “We have to get our partying in tonight. You don’t think Travis is sitting at home doing nothing, do you? We’re going out and we’re going to have a damn good time whether you like it or not.”
“That’s fine,” I said. “Just no strippers. And not too late. This wedding will actually have an audience. I don’t want to look hungover.”
Harmony lifted the flag next to her chair, and almost immediately a waiter came over.
“How may I help you, miss?”
“A piña colada, please?”
“Of course,” he said, backing away.
“This place is swank,” America said.
“And you wonder why it took us a year to save up for this.”
“You’re right. I shouldn’t have said anything. Trav wanted you to have the best. I get it. And it was nice of Mom and Dad to pay my way. I sure as hell wouldn’t have been able to come otherwise.”
“You promised me I could be a bridesmaid and do everything you made me miss last year. I see them paying as a wedding present and an anniversary present to you, and a birthday present to me all rolled into one. If you ask me, they got off cheap.”
“It’s still too much.”
“Abby, they love you like a daughter. Daddy is very excited about walking you down the aisle. Let them do this without ruining the spirit of it,” America said.
I smiled. Mark and Pam treated me like family. After my father landed me in a dangerous situation last year, Mark decided that I needed a new father—and nominated himself. If I needed help with tuition or books or a new vacuum cleaner, Mark and Pam showed up at my door. Helping me also gave them an excuse to visit America and me, and it was obvious that they enjoyed that the most.
Not only did I now have the unruly Maddox clan as family, but I had Mark and Pam as well. I’d gone from belonging to no one, to being a part of two amazing families that were incredibly important to me. At first, it made me feel anxious. I’d never had so much to lose before. But over time, I realized that my new family wasn’t going anywhere, and I learned how much good could come from misfortune.
“Sorry. I’ll try to just accept this graciously.”
“Me, too,” America said, glaring in my direction. She had barely forgiven me for getting married without her. And, honestly, I hoped she’d never try to pull the same move on me. But marriage was still a long way off for her.
She and Shepley were going to get their own apartment, but both decided that even though they were always around each other, America would stay in Morgan, and Shepley would move into Helms, a men’s dorm. Mark and Pam were happier about this arrangement. They loved Shepley but were worried that the stress of real-world bills and jobs would affect Shepley’s and America’s focus on school. America was struggling, even at the dorms.
“I just hope it goes smoothly. I hate the thought of standing in front of all those people staring at us.”
America breathed out a laugh. “Elvis wasn’t invited, but I’m sure it will still be beautiful.”
“I still can’t believe Elvis was at your wedding,” Harmony said, giggling.
“Not the dead one,” Kara deadpanned.
“He wasn’t invited this time,” I said, watching the children taking lessons celebrate windsurfing on their own.
“What was it like? Getting married in Vegas?” Harmony asked.
Harmony’s expression was one of combined disgust and surprise. “Sounds like it.”
“Fuck you,” I said, not amused.
“Oh, c’mon!” Shepley said, shaking with laughter. “You used to say I was the whipped one.”
“Fuck you again.”
Shepley turned off the ignition. He had parked the Charger on the far side of Cherry Papa’s parking lot. Home of the fattest, dirtiest strippers in town. “It’s not like you’re going to take one of them home.”
“I promised Pidge. No strippers.”
“I promised you a bachelor party.”
“Dude, let’s just go home. I’m full, tired, and we’ve got a plane to catch in the morning.”
Shepley frowned. “The girls have been lying on a beach in St. Thomas all day, and now they’re probably partying it up in a club.”
I shook my head. “We don’t go to clubs without each other. She wouldn’t do that.”
“She would if America planned it.”
Shepley sighed, and squinted his eyes. “What about that?”
I followed his line of sight to the next block over. “A hotel? Shep, I love ya, man, but it’s not a real bachelor party. I’m married. And even if I weren’t, I still wouldn’t have sex with you.”
Shepley shook his head. “There’s a bar in there. It’s not a club. Is that permitted on your long list of marriage rules?”
I frowned. “I just respect my wife. And yes, douche bag, we can go in there.”
“Awesome,” he said, rubbing his hands together.
We walked across the street, and Shepley opened the door. It was pitch-black.
“Uh . . .” I began.
Suddenly the lights turned on. The twins, Taylor and Tyler, threw confetti in my face, music began to blare, and then I saw the worst thing I’d ever seen in my life: Trenton in a man thong, covered in about ten pounds of body glitter. He had on a cheap, yellow wig, and Cami was laughing her head off, cheering him on.
Shepley pushed me in the rest of the way. My dad was on one side of the room, standing next to Thomas. They were both shaking their heads. My uncle Jack was on the other side of Thomas, and then the rest of the room was filled with Sigma Tau brothers and football players.
Shepley burst into laughter. “I know, brother, but looks like the stripping happened before we got here.”
It was a train wreck. My face screwed into disgust as I watched Trenton bump and grind his way across the room—even though I didn’t want to. Everyone in the room was cheering him on. Cardboard cutouts of tits were hanging from the ceiling, and there was even a booby cake on a table next to my dad. I’d been to several bachelor parties before, and this one had to win some sort of a freak prize.
“Hey,” Trenton said, breathless and sweaty. He pulled a few yellow strands of fake hair from his face.
“Did you lose a bet?” I asked.
“As a matter of fact, I did.”
Taylor and Tyler were across the room, slapping their knees and laughing so hard they could barely breathe.
I slapped Trenton’s ass. “You look hot, bro.”
“Thanks,” he said. The music started and he shook his hips at me. I pushed him away, and, undeterred, he danced across the room to entertain the crowd.
I looked at Shepley. “I can’t wait to watch you explain this to Abby.”
He smiled. “She’s your wife. You do it.”
For the next four hours, we drank, and talked, and watched Trenton make a complete ass out of himself. My dad, as expected, cut out early. He, along with my other brothers, had a plane to catch. We were all flying to St. Thomas in the morning for the renewal of my vows.
For the last year, Abby tutored, and I did some personal training at the local gym. We’d managed to save a little after school costs, rent, and the car payment to fly to St. Thomas and stay a few days in a nice hotel. We had plenty of things the money could have gone to, but America kept talking about it and wouldn’t let us drop the idea. Then when America’s parents presented us with the wedding gift/America’s birthday present/anniversary gift, we tried to say no, but America was insistent.
“All right, boys. I’m going to be hurtin’ in the morning if I don’t call it a night.”
Everyone groaned and taunted me with words like whipped and pussy, but the truth was they were all used to the new, tamer Travis Maddox. I hadn’t put my fist to someone’s face in almost a year.
I yawned, and Shepley punched me in the shoulder. “Let’s go.”
We drove in silence. I wasn’t sure what Shepley was thinking about, but I couldn’t fucking wait to see my wife. She’d left the day before, and that was the first time we’d been apart since we’d been married.
Shepley pulled up to the apartment and shut off the car. “Front door service, loser.”
“Admit it. You miss it.”
“Yeah. I do sometimes, too. See you in the morning.”
“Pick you up right back here at six thirty.”
Shepley drove away while I slowly climbed the steps, searching for the apartment key. I hated coming home when Abby wasn’t here. There was nothing worse after we met, and it was the same now. Maybe even more miserable because Shepley and America weren’t even there to annoy me.
I pushed in the key and opened the door, locking it behind me and tossing my wallet onto the breakfast bar. I had already taken Toto to the pet hotel to be boarded while we were gone. It was too fucking quiet. I sighed. The apartment had changed a lot in the last year. The posters and bar signs had come down, and pictures of us and paintings went up. It was no longer a bachelor pad, but it was a good trade.
I went into my bedroom, stripped down to my Calvin Klein boxer briefs, and climbed into the bed, burying myself under the blue and green floral comforter—something else that would have never seen the inside of this apartment had Abby not had a hand in it. I pulled her pillow over and rested my head on it. It smelled like her.
The clock read 2:00 AM. I would be with her in twelve hours.