One of the positives of my new normal was my contact with Michelle. I’d remembered to text her every morning when I woke up and ask how her and the kids were and if she needed anything. Every day she responded the same way.
M: Thanks, but so far, so good. :)
She didn’t need me and that was okay. As long as she knew I was there, just in case, I could sleep at night. I’d visited Gam not once but twice, and I hadn’t missed one workout. In fact, I’d been putting in extra time at the gym. All in all, it’d been a great week, but I still had the weekend to go before I could strut into Dr. Roberts’s office Tuesday afternoon and prove to her that I could go a week without sex, standing on my head. And… one of Dr. Roberts’s stipulations was that I had to leave the house and go out once, but she hadn’t said anything in the rules about not bringing backup, so I called Brody and Kacie to have them meet me at Stumpy’s.
I got there before anyone else and grabbed our usual table in the corner. The saloon doors opened and Portland came striding over to the table with a big smile on her face.
“Hey, you!” She beamed.
I didn’t know how to act. Typically, I would have jumped up and hugged her and said something inappropriate, but it was only day five, and I had to behave.
Portland tilted her head to the side and chewed on the end of her pen. “You okay?”
“Yeah.” I tried to sound as casual as possible. “Why?”
“I don’t know, you just seem different.”
“Nah, I’m good. Just tired. It’s been a long week.”
“Okay.” She smiled. “You want a root beer?”
“All right. I’ll be right back.”
She turned around and had just disappeared into the kitchen when suddenly, two little hands covered my eyes.
“Guess who?” a female asked, but it was clear she was trying to disguise her voice.
“Uh…” I was stumped. I’d picked up so many girls at this bar it literally could have been anyone. “Is it…”
“Your worst nightmare!” A man laughed. I knew that voice for certain. I pulled the hands down and Brody was already sitting across the table from me, cracking open a peanut. Still holding her hands, I looked to my left and saw Kacie.
“Did I get ya?” She grinned, wrapping her arms around me.
I nodded and laughed. “You totally did. I had no idea who the fuck it was.”
As Kacie came around to sit at the table, I noticed she wasn’t alone. Michelle followed behind her.
“Hey!” I was excited to see her.
“Hey yourself, stranger.” She moved in for a quick hug too. “Long time no talk, huh?”
“Yeah, really. It’s been what, almost eight hours?”
“You guys talked today?” Kacie stared back and forth between the two of us. “When?”
Michelle gave me a small smile before glancing over at Kacie. “Viper has been really sweet. He’s been texting me every morning to see if the kids and I are okay or if we need anything.”
Brody’s and Kacie’s faces mirrored each other. Complete shock.
“What the hell are you making those faces for?” I snapped at them.
“I’m just stunned to hear someone call you sweet. I don’t think that’s ever happened before,” Brody joked. I picked up a peanut and threw it at him.
Kacie’s face lit up as she looked past me and started waving. I turned in my seat, just enough to see Darla’s smiling face walking toward us, dragging a man along behind her.
“Hey, everyone!” Darla said cheerfully as she walked up, looking at everyone except me. “Kacie, Brody, you guys remember Neil. Michelle and Viper, this is Neil, my boyfriend.” She motioned toward the guy in a suit standing just behind her. He stepped forward and held his hand out for me to shake. I looked down at it and back up at Darla, who was biting her lip with her brows drawn in together, clearly anxious about my reaction.
Grasping Neil’s hand tight in my own, I shook his hand and smiled. “Hi, Neil. Nice to meet you.”
He smiled back, showing off a row of perfect white teeth that looked more like pieces of Chiclets gum than actual teeth. “Nice to meet you too, Viper. I’m a huge fan.”
He turned and shook Michelle’s hand, offering her the same fake-ass smile. Darla took a step behind him and looked to me for my approval. Instead, I rolled my eyes and pretended to gag.
“Why don’t you guys have a seat?” Kacie asked, scooting her stool closer to Brody to make more room. Portland came back from the kitchen carrying my root beer and set it in front of me.
“Is that root beer?” Neil laughed, looking down at my bottle.
“Yeah,” I said firmly, staring him in the eye as Darla rested her head on his shoulder and cringed.
“What can I get everyone else?” Portland asked as she took out her pen and pad of paper.
Brody held up his index finger. “Beer.”
Michelle pointed at him. “Copy that.”
“Make it three,” Darla added.
“Do you have sparkling water?” Neil asked Portland.
“I have regular water,” Portland answered innocently, “but I can put ice in it so it sparkles.”
“Never mind. I’ll take a beer also.” Neil looked annoyed with her, and that annoyed me.
“Can I get a coffee, Anna?” Kacie asked.
“Sure. We don’t have any made, but I’ll get a fresh pot started for you.” Portland smiled at her. “Be right back, guys.”
“Coffee? Now?” Brody looked at the time on his phone. “You’re gonna be up half the night.”
“Yeah, well the girls had that birthday party at the jumpy house place after school, and if I don’t get something to keep me up, I’m going to be sleeping on this table within five minutes.” She stuck her tongue out at him playfully and squealed as Brody caught it between his lips. While Brody and Kacie slurped each other’s faces off, I looked to my left to see Darla and Neil leaned in close, nose to nose as they laughed about something quietly. I sighed and stared straight ahead at the same time Michelle looked back at me and shrugged, a tight smile on her lips. We both felt it, the awkwardness of being the oddball out. I wasn’t worried about being the oddball. I was used to being alone, and it didn’t scare me. But she was new to this alone thing, and I was concerned that everyone else so obviously coupling off would weird her out. I smiled back at her and gestured over toward the pool table area. She nodded eagerly and stood from the table.
“I didn’t know you played pool.” She looked up at me and grinned as we made our way across the bar.
“I don’t,”—I shrugged, pointing straight ahead—“but I like music, and there’s a kickass jukebox in the corner past the pool tables. I figured we could pick out a few songs while the lovebirds all calm down.”
She turned and looked at the jukebox in the corner, with its pink and green neon lights shining bright. Her eyes lit up. “Good call! We can dance while they—”
“Whoa.” I stopped walking, holding my hands up in front of me.
Once she realized I was no longer in step with her, she stopped too and spun on her heel to face me. “What?”