His words hung there, in the darkness between our voices. I sometimes found comfort in that space, but in three months, I’d only found unrest. That space became more like a convenient place to hide. Not for me, for him. My fingers ached, so I allowed them to relax, not realizing how hard I’d been gripping my cell phone.
My roommate, Raegan, was sitting next to my open suitcase on the bed, her legs crisscrossed. Whatever look was on my face prompted her to take my hand. T.J.? she mouthed.
“Will you please say something?” T.J. asked.
“What do you want me to say? I’m packed. I took vacation time. Hank has already given Jorie my shifts.”
“I feel like a huge asshole. I wish I didn’t have to go, but I warned you. When I have an ongoing project, I can be called out at any time. If you need help with rent or anything . . .”
“I don’t want your money,” I said, rubbing my eyes.
“I thought this would be a good weekend. I swear to God I did.”
“I thought I’d be getting on a plane tomorrow morning, and instead you’re calling me to say I can’t come. Again.”
“I know this seems like a dick move. I swear to you I told them I had important plans. But when things come up, Cami . . . I have to do my job.”
I wiped a tear from my cheek, but I refused to let him hear me cry. I kept the trembling from my voice. “Are you coming home for Thanksgiving, then?”
He sighed. “I want to. But I don’t know if I can. It depends on if this is wrapped up. I do miss you. A lot. I don’t like this, either.”
“Will your schedule ever get better?” I asked. It took him longer than it should to answer.
“What if I said probably not?”
I lifted my eyebrows. I expected that answer but didn’t expect him to be so . . . truthful.
“I’m sorry,” he said. I imagined him cringing. “I just pulled into the airport. I have to go.”
“Yeah, okay. Talk to you later.” I forced my voice to stay level. I didn’t want to sound upset. I didn’t want him to think I was weak or emotional. He was strong, and self-reliant, and did what had to be done without complaint. I tried to be that for him. Whining about something out of his control wouldn’t help anything.
He sighed again. “I know you don’t believe me, but I do love you.”
“I believe you,” I said, and I meant it.
I pressed the red button on the screen and let my phone fall to the bed.
Raegan was already in damage control mode. “He was called into work?”
“Okay, well, maybe you guys will just have to be more spontaneous. Maybe you can just show up, and if he’s called out while you’re there, you wait on him. When he gets back, you pick up where you left off.”
She squeezed my hand. “Or maybe he’s a tool who should stop choosing his job over you?”
I shook my head. “He’s worked really hard for this position.”
“You don’t even know what position it is.”
“I told you. He’s utilizing his degree. He specializes in statistical analysis and data reconfiguration, whatever that means.”
She shot me a dubious look. “Yeah, you also told me to keep it all a secret. Which makes me think he’s not being completely honest with you.”
I stood up and dumped out my suitcase, letting all the contents spill onto my comforter. Usually I only made my bed when I was packing, so I could now see the comforter’s light-blue fabric with a few navy-blue octopus tentacles reaching across it. T.J. hated it, but it made me feel like I was being hugged while I slept. My room was made up of strange, random things, but then, so was I.
Raegan rummaged through the pile of clothes, and held up a black top with the shoulders and front strategically ripped. “We both have the night off. We should go out. Get drinks served to us for once.”
I grabbed the shirt from her hands and inspected it while I mulled over Raegan’s suggestion. “You’re right. We should. Are we taking your car, or the Smurf?”
Raegan shrugged. “I’m almost on empty and we don’t get paid until tomorrow.”
“Looks like it’s the Smurf, then.”
After a crash session in the bathroom, Raegan and I jumped up into my light-blue, modified CJ Jeep. It wasn’t in the best of shape, but at one time someone had had enough vision and love to mold it into a Jeep/truck hybrid. The spoiled college dropout who owned the Smurf between that owner and me didn’t love it as much. The seat cushions were exposed in some places where the black leather seats were torn, the carpet had cigarette holes and stains, and the hard top needed to be replaced, but that neglect meant that I could pay for it in full, and a payment-free vehicle was the best kind to own.
I buckled my seat belt, and stabbed the key into the ignition.
“Should I pray?” Raegan asked.
I turned the key, and the Smurf made a sickly whirring noise. The engine sputtered, and then purred, and we both clapped. My parents raised four children on a factory worker’s salary. I never asked them to help me buy a car, instead I got a job at the local ice cream shop when I was fifteen, and saved $557.11. The Smurf wasn’t the vehicle I dreamed about when I was little, but 550 bucks bought me an independence, and that was priceless.
Twenty minutes later, Raegan and I were on the opposite side of town, strutting across the gravel lot of the Red Door, slowly and in unison, as if we were being filmed while walking to a badass soundtrack.
Kody was standing at the entrance, his huge arms probably the same size as my head. He eyed us as we approached. “IDs.”
“Fuck off!” Raegan snarled. “We work here. You know how old we are.”
He shrugged. “Still have to see IDs.”
I frowned at Raegan, and she rolled her eyes, digging into her back pocket. “If you don’t know how old I am at this point, we have issues.”
“C’mon, Raegan. Quit busting my balls and let me see the damn thing.”
“The last time I let you see something you didn’t call me for three days.”
He cringed. “You’re never going to get over that, are you?”
She tossed her ID at Kody and he slapped it against his chest. He glanced at it, and then handed it back, looking at me expectantly. I handed him my driver’s license.
“Thought you were leaving town?” he asked, glancing down before returning the thin plastic card to me.
“Long story,” I said, stuffing my license into my back pocket. My jeans were so tight I was amazed I could fit anything besides my ass back there.
Kody opened the oversize red door, and Raegan smiled sweetly. “Thanks, baby.”
“Love you. Be good.”
“I’m always good,” she said, winking.
“See you when I get off work?”
“Yep.” She pulled me through the door.
“You are the weirdest couple,” I said over the bass. It was buzzing in my chest, and I was fairly certain every beat made my bones shake.
“Yep,” Raegan said again.
The dance floor was already packed with sweaty, drunk college kids. The fall semester was in full swing. Raegan walked over to the bar and stood at the end. Jorie winked at her.
“Want me to clear you out some seats?” she asked.
Raegan shook her head. “You’re just offering because you want my tips from last night!”
Jorie laughed. Her long, platinum blond hair fell in loose waves past her shoulders, with a few black peekaboo strands. She wore a black minidress and combat boots, and was pushing buttons on the cash register to ring someone up while she talked to us. We had all learned to multitask and move like every tip was a hundred-dollar bill. If you could bartend fast enough, you stood a chance of working the east bar, and the tips made there could pay a month’s worth of bills in a weekend.
That was where I’d been tending bar for a year, placed just three months after I was hired at the Red Door. Raegan worked right beside me, and together we kept that machine greased like a stripper in a plastic pool full of baby oil. Jorie and the other bartender, Blia, worked the south bar at the entrance. It was basically a kiosk, and they loved it when Raegan or I were out of town.
“So? What are you drinking?” Jorie asked.
Raegan looked at me, and then back at Jorie. “Whiskey sours.”
I made a face. “Minus the sour, please.”
Once Jorie passed us our drinks, Raegan and I found an empty table and sat, shocked at our luck. Weekends were always packed, and an open table at ten thirty wasn’t common.
I held a brand-new pack of cigarettes in my hand and hit the end of it against my palm to pack them, then tore off the plastic, flipping the top. Even though the Red was so smoky that just sitting there made me feel like I was smoking an entire pack of cigarettes, it was nice to sit at a table and relax. When I was working, I usually had time for one drag and the rest burned away, unsmoked.
Raegan watched me light it. “I want one.”
“No, you don’t.”
“Yes, I do!”
“You haven’t smoked in two months, Raegan. You’ll blame me tomorrow for ruining your streak.”
She gestured at the room. “I’m smoking! Right now!”
I narrowed my eyes at her. Raegan was exotically beautiful, with long, chestnut-brown hair, bronze skin, and honey-brown eyes. Her nose was perfectly small, not too round or too pointy, and her skin made her look like she came fresh off of a Neutrogena commercial. We met in elementary school, and I was instantly drawn to her brutal honesty. Raegan could be incredibly intimidating, even for Kody, who, at six foot four, was over a foot taller than she was. Her personality was charming to those she loved, and repellent to those she didn’t.
I was the opposite of exotic. My tousled brown bob and heavy bangs were easy to maintain, but not a lot of men found it sexy. Not a lot of men found me sexy in general. I was the girl next door, your brother’s best friend. Growing up with three brothers and our cousin Colin, I could have been a tomboy if my subtle but still present curves hadn’t ousted me from the boys-only clubhouse at fourteen.
“Don’t be that girl,” I said. “If you want one, go buy your own.”
She crossed her arms, pouting. “That’s why I quit. They’re fucking expensive.”
I stared at the burning paper and tobacco nestled between my fingers. “That is a fact my broke ass continues to make note of.”
The song switched from something everyone wanted to dance to, to a song no one wanted to dance to, and dozens of people began making their way off the dance floor. Two girls walked up to our table and traded glances.
“That’s our table,” the blonde said.
Raegan barely acknowledged them.
“Excuse me, bitch, she’s talking to you,” the brunette said, setting her beer on the table.
“Raegan,” I warned.
Raegan looked at me with a blank face, and then up at the girl with the same expression. “It was your table. Now it’s ours.”
“We were here first,” the blonde hissed.
“And now you’re not,” Raegan said. She picked up the unwelcome beer bottle and tossed it across the floor. It spilled out onto the dark, tightly stitched carpet. “Fetch.”
The brunette watched her beer slide across the floor, and then took a step toward Raegan, but her friend grabbed both of her arms. Raegan offered an unimpressed laugh, and then turned her gaze toward the dance floor. The brunette finally followed her friend to the bar.
I took a drag from my cigarette. “I thought we were going to have a good time tonight.”
“That was fun, right?”
I shook my head, stifling a smile. Raegan was a great friend, but I wouldn’t cross her. Growing up with so many boys in the house, I’d had enough fighting to last a lifetime. They didn’t baby me. If I didn’t fight back, they’d just fight dirtier until I did. And I always did.
Raegan didn’t have an excuse. She was just a scrappy bitch. “Oh, look. Megan’s here,” she said, pointing to the blue-eyed, crow-headed beauty on the dance floor. I shook my head. She was out there with Travis Maddox, basically getting screwed in front of everyone on the dance floor.
“Oh, those Maddox boys,” Raegan said.
“Yeah,” I said, downing my whiskey. “This was a bad idea. I’m not feeling clubby tonight.”
“Oh, stop.” Raegan gulped her whiskey sour and then stood. “The whine bags are still eyeing this table. I’m going to get us another round. You know the beginning of the night starts off slow.”
She took my glass and hers and left me for the bar.
I turned, seeing the girls staring at me, clearly hoping I would step away from the table. I wasn’t about to stand up. Raegan would get the table back if they tried to take it, and that would only cause trouble.
When I turned around, a boy was sitting in Raegan’s chair. At first I thought Travis had somehow made his way over, but when I realized my mistake, I smiled. Trenton Maddox was leaning toward me, his tattooed arms crossed, his elbows resting on the table across from me. He rubbed the five o’clock shadow that peppered his square jaw with his fingers, his shoulder muscles bulging through his T-shirt. He had as much stubble on his face as he did on the top of his head, except for the absence of hair from one small scar near his left temple.
“You look familiar.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Really? You walk all the way over here and sit down, and that’s the best you’ve got?”
He made a show of running his eyes over every part of me. “You don’t have any tattoos, that I can see. I’m guessing we haven’t met at the shop.”
“The ink shop I work at.”
“You’re tattooing now?”
He smiled, a deep dimple appearing in the center of his left cheek. “I knew we’ve met before.”
“We haven’t.” I turned to watch the women on the dance floor, laughing and smiling and watching Travis and Megan vertically dry fucking. But the second the song was over, he left and walked straight over to the blonde who claimed ownership over my table. Even though she’d seen Travis running his hands all over Megan’s sweaty skin two seconds earlier, she was grinning like an idiot, hoping she was next.
Trenton laughed once. “That’s my baby brother.”
“I wouldn’t admit it,” I said, shaking my head.
“Did we go to school together?” he asked.
“I don’t remember.”
“Do you remember if you went to Eakins at any time between kindergarten through twelfth grade?”
Trenton’s left dimple sunk in when he grinned. “Then we know each other.”
Trenton laughed again. “You want a drink?”
“I have one coming.”
“You wanna dance?”
A group of girls passed by, and Trenton’s eyes focused on one. “Is that Shannon from home ec? Damn,” he said, turning a one-eighty in his seat.
“Indeed it is. You should go reminisce.”
Trenton shook his head. “We reminisced in high school.”
“I remember. Pretty sure she still hates you.”
Trenton shook his head, smiled, and then, before taking another swig, said, “They always do.”
“It’s a small town. You shouldn’t have burned all of your bridges.”
He lowered his chin, his famous charm turning up a notch. “There’s a few I haven’t lit a fire under. Yet.”
I rolled my eyes, and he chuckled.
Raegan returned, curving her long fingers around four standard rocks glasses and two shot glasses. “My whiskey sours, your whiskey straights, and a buttery nipple each.”
“What is with all the sweet stuff tonight, Ray?” I said, wrinkling my nose.
Trenton picked up one of the shot glasses and touched it to his lips, tilting his head back. He slammed it on the table and winked. “Don’t worry, babe. I’ll take care of it.” He stood up and walked away.
I didn’t realize my mouth was hanging open until my eyes met Raegan’s and it snapped shut.
“Did he just drink your shot? Did that really just happen?”
“Who does that?” I said, turning to see where he went. He’d already disappeared into the crowd.
“A Maddox boy.”
I shot the double whiskey and took another drag of my cigarette. Everyone knew Trenton Maddox was bad news, but that never seemed to stop women from trying to tame him. Watching him since grade school, I promised myself that I would never be a notch on his headboard—if the rumors were true and he had notches, but I didn’t plan to find out.
“You’re going to let him get away with that?” Raegan asked.
I blew out the smoke from the side of my mouth, annoyed. I wasn’t in the frame of mind to have fun, or deal with obnoxious flirting, or complain that Trenton Maddox had just drunk the shot glass of sugar that I didn’t want. But before I could answer my friend, I had to choke back the whiskey I’d just drunk.
“What?” Raegan said, flipping around in her chair. She immediately righted herself in the chair, cringing.
All three of my brothers and our cousin Colin were walking toward our table.
Colin, the oldest and the only one with a legit ID, spoke first. “What the hell, Camille? I thought you were out of town tonight.”
“My plans changed,” I snapped.
Chase spoke second, as I expected he would. He was the oldest of my brothers, and liked to pretend he was older than me, too. “Dad’s not going to be happy that you missed family lunch if you were in town.”
“He can’t be unhappy if he doesn’t know,” I said, narrowing my eyes.
He recoiled. “Why are you being so pissy? Are you on the rag or something?”
“Really?” Raegan said, lowering her chin and raising her eyebrows. “We’re in public. Grow up.”
“So he canceled on you?” Clark asked. Unlike the others, Clark looked genuinely concerned.
Before I could answer, the youngest of the three spoke up. “Wait, that worthless piece of shit canceled on you?” Coby said. The boys were all only eleven months apart, making Coby just eighteen. My coworkers knew my brothers had all scored fake IDs and thought they were doing me a favor by looking the other way, but most of the time I wished they wouldn’t. Coby in particular still acted like a twelve-year-old boy not quite sure what to do with his testosterone. He was bowing up behind the others, letting them hold him back from a fight that didn’t exist.
“What are you doing, Coby?” I asked. “He’s not even here!”
“You’re damn right he’s not,” Coby said. He relaxed, cracking his neck. “Canceling on my big sister. I’ll bust his fuckin’ face.” I thought about Coby and T.J. getting into a brawl, and it made my heart race. T.J. was intimidating when he was younger, and lethal as an adult. No one fucked with him, and Coby knew it.
A disgusted noise came from my throat, and I rolled my eyes. “Just . . . find another table.”
All four boys pulled chairs around Raegan and me. Colin had light-brown hair, but my brothers were all redheads. Colin and Chase had blue eyes. Clark and Coby had green. Some redheaded men aren’t all that great-looking, but my brothers were tall, chiseled, and outgoing. Clark was the only one with freckles, and they still somehow looked good on him. I was the outcast, the only child with mousy brown hair and big, round, light-blue eyes. More than once the boys tried to convince me that I’d been adopted. If I wasn’t the female version of my father, I might have believed them.
I touched my forehead to the table and groaned. “I can’t believe it, but this day just got worse.”
“Aw, c’mon, Camille. You know you love us,” Clark said, nudging me with his shoulder. When I didn’t answer, he leaned in to whisper in my ear. “You sure you’re all right?”
I kept my head down, but nodded. Clark patted my back a couple of times, and then the table grew quiet.
I lifted my head. Everyone was staring behind me, so I turned around. Trenton Maddox was standing there, holding two shot glasses and another glass of something that looked decidedly less sweet.
“This table turned into a party fast,” Trenton said with a surprised but charming smile.
Chase narrowed his eyes at Trenton. “Is that him?” he asked, nodding.
“What?” Trenton asked.
Coby’s knee began to bounce, and he leaned forward in his chair. “That’s him. He fuckin’ canceled on her, and then he showed up here.”
“Wait. Coby, no,” I said, holding up my hands.
Coby stood up. “You jackin’ with our sister?”
“Sister?” Trenton said, his eyes bouncing between me and the volatile gingers sitting on each side of me.
“Oh, God,” I said, closing my eyes. “Colin, tell Coby to stop. It’s not him.”
“Who’s not me?” Trenton said. “We got a problem here?”
Travis appeared at his brother’s side. He wore the same amused expression as Trenton, both flashing their matching left-sided dimples. They could have been their mother’s second set of twins. Only subtle differences set them apart, including the fact that Travis was maybe an inch or two taller than Trenton.
Travis crossed his arms across his chest, making his already large biceps bulge. The only thing that kept me from exploding from my chair was that his shoulders relaxed. He wasn’t ready to fight. Yet.
“Evening,” Travis said.
The Maddoxes could sense trouble. At least it seemed that way, because whenever there was a fight, they had either started it, or finished it. Usually both.
“Coby, sit down,” I commanded through my teeth.
“No, I’m not sittin’ down. This dickhead insulted my sister, I’m not fuckin’ sittin’ down.”
Raegan leaned over to Chase. “That’s Trent and Travis Maddox.”
“Maddox?” Clark asked.
“Yeah. You still got something to say?” Travis said.
Coby shook his head slowly and smiled. “I can talk all night long, motherfu—”
I stood. “Coby! Sit your ass down!” I said, pointing to his chair. He sat. “I said it wasn’t him, and I meant it! Now everybody calm the fuck down! I’ve had a bad day, I’m here to drink, and relax, and have a good goddamn time! Now if that’s a problem for you, back the fuck off my table!” I closed my eyes and screamed the last part, looking completely insane. People around us were staring.
Breathing hard, I glanced at Trenton, who handed me a drink.
One corner of his mouth turned up. “I think I’ll stay.”
Fiercely independent Camille “Cami” Camlin gladly moved on from her childhood before it was over. She has held down a job since before she could drive, and moved into her own apartment after her freshman year of college. Now tending bar at The Red Door, Cami doesn’t have time for much else besides work and classes, until a trip to see her boyfriend is cancelled, leaving her with a first weekend off in almost a year.
Trenton Maddox was the king of Eastern State University, dating co-eds before he even graduated high school. His friends wanted to be him, and women wanted to tame him, but after a tragic accident turned his world upside down, Trenton leaves campus to come to grips with the crushing guilt.
Eighteen months later, Trenton is living at home with his widower father, and works full-time at a local tattoo parlor to help with the bills. Just when he thinks his life is returning to normal, he notices Cami sitting alone at a table at The Red.
As the baby sister of four rowdy brothers, Cami believes she’ll have no problem keeping her new friendship with Trenton Maddox strictly platonic. But when a Maddox boy falls in love, he loves forever—even if she is the only reason their already broken family could fall apart.
In the first installment of the Maddox Brothers books, readers can experience the rush they felt reading Beautiful Disaster for the first time, all over again.
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