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Luck of the Draw Bonus Story

This is a bonus story for Luck of the Draw and will contain spoilers. It is only available to newsletter subscribers. If you haven’t read Luck of the Draw, you can purchase it on Amazon.

Bonus story below. 

 

 

“You win, Dylan,” my little sister, Tina, says. “I’m moving to Asheville. Is that invitation to stay in your spare room still good?”

Since this is the first time she’s mentioned the possibility in nearly two years, I’m not going to shout “Rah! Rah!” like I would’ve if I were still in the Marines. And no, I won’t be buying a party hat.

I may live hundreds of miles away from my childhood home in western Massachusetts, but there’s no escaping the DiVirigilio family gossip. Hell, even when I was stationed in Afghanistan, I knew about Matteo’s secret smoking habit and Tina’s addiction to buying shoes. So, yeah, I know what’s been going on back home.

Last I heard, my sister was pretty serious about the guy she was dating, although she’s kept uncharacteristically quiet about the whole thing. No one in the family has actually met her boyfriend. My parents ranted about Mystery Guy for a good hour on our video chat last Sunday—Dad is of the opinion that only someone without “proper respect” would pick up his daughter from his house without at least introducing himself first, and my brother, Matteo, agreed. Mom pitched her voice low, or low for her, and said she was worried the guy was married. Nonna, not to be outdone, expressed her hope that he wasn’t Irish. Given Tina was present when they said all of those things, rolling her eyes in the background, I’m not surprised she decided to bite the bullet and finally move out of our parents’ house, but this?

Tina’s not the kind of person to change her entire life on a whim. Case in point: she still lives with our parents. Then again, there’s a little voice in my head that reminds me that I wasn’t that kind of person either, before my ex-wife left me. Sometimes life requires us to change or break.

Mystery Guy, whom I’ve given the benefit of the doubt up until now, must have done something stupid, and the thought of this possibly disrespectful stranger hurting my sister makes my jaw clench. Sure, Tina can stand up for herself, and often does, but I’d like to have words with him all the same.

“What happened?” I say, struggling to keep the growl out of my voice.

My wife, Deeandra, emerges from the hallway leading to the back bedrooms, her eyes wide. Here’s the thing—it usually takes a lot to piss me off. Mess with my family, though, and I’m 0 to 60.

“Everything okay?” she mouths.

For a second, I can only look at her, because she’s wearing those silver strappy shoes and that pink silky dress. And yeah, they’re not the exact same ones she had on the night we met—those were loaners—but she bought a nearly identical pair. She was beautiful to me then, as the near stranger who’d lost her shoes, but tonight…

“Beautiful isn’t a big enough word to describe you,” I say, rising from the couch.

“How ’bout bewitching, resplendent, ravishing,” Tina says in my ear.

Oh yeah, I’m on the phone. “I’m pretty sure ravishing and beautiful are equally long,” I tell her, walking toward Deeandra with purpose. “But you’re right,” I add, just to tease her, “ravishing is the perfect word for her.”

Ignoring Tina’s fake puking, I put a hand on the curve of Deeandra’s hip, savoring her intake of breath, and dip her.

Before I can kiss her, Liam calls out, “Oh, come on!” from the hallway. “Can’t you two at least wait until you go out? We talked about this. No lovey-dovey stuff in the common spaces. Ollie might be away on his school trip, but I’m not leaving for Dad’s for another hour.”

I can’t help but laugh, because Tina’s still fake puking in my ear, and my stepson looks like he’s on the verge of real puking.

“They can’t cut us a break, can they?” I say to Deeandra.

“Never,” Liam and Tina say at the same time.

Deeandra just smiles. We both feel lucky for this life we’ve carved out together, cock-blocking teenagers and all.

I keep an arm on her waist as Liam heads into the kitchen, shaking his head as if he’s the adult and we’re canoodling teenagers. “I’m putting you on speaker,” I say to Tina. “Deeandra’s here.”

“Yeah, duh, I got that part,” Tina says, as I shift the phone and press the button. “Hey, ravishing sister-in-law.”

“Back at you, Tina,” Dee says. She glances at me again, her brow furrowing—she always knows when something’s wrong—and asks, “Everything okay?”

Tina heaves a sigh. “It will be. I was just telling Dylan…I’m ready for a change. I want to move to Asheville. Would it be okay if I stay with you guys for a while?”

Dee’s eyes widen, but she doesn’t hesitate. “Of course. We have a spare bedroom now that the addition’s finished. We’d love to have you. Stay for as long as you like.”

We hear a choking sound in the kitchen, like Liam chugged too much soda. I’ve had a suspicion for a while now that he has a crush on my sister, but when I tried to talk to him about it last week, he nearly broke his ankle trying to run away. Literally. We were out on a hike, and he bolted. He claimed he was practicing for track tryouts, but Matteo ran track in high school, and I’m pretty sure training doesn’t involve randomly bursting into a run on a mountainside full of loose rocks.

“You haven’t answered me, Tina,” I say, some of the growl creeping back into my voice as I try to imagine what the fool might have done to her. Was Mom right? Is the asshole married?

Except I don’t really believe that. Tina’s not the type to mess with a married man, at least not knowingly.

“You’re very astute. No putting anything past you, bro. Good for you.”

“Uh-huh.”

Another sigh. “I don’t want to talk about it yet, okay? But to satisfy the Sicilian in you, I will confirm he didn’t do anything worthy of sleeping with the fishes. Pinky swear.”

“You’re not here to do the pinky swear, which means it’s null and void.”

Deeandra gives me a little shove that’s undermined by her smile. “Leave her alone. She’ll tell us when she’s ready. She never keeps secrets for long.”

“See. See! Your wife has sense. Thank you, Dee. You’re ravishing and a genius. Actually, I have a little surprise for you two.” Tina pauses. “Call it a late wedding present. And yes, you got married months and months ago, so it’s really late, but good things come to those who wait, and all that. You’re going to try to say no, I can already hear you trying, but don’t. I need you to say yes instead.”

She’s asking me to take a lot on faith today.

Dee glances at me, letting me take the lead since Tina’s my sister. I shrug, and she says, “We’ll take it under advisement.”

Tina laughs. “You’ve been spending too much time with our peacemaker.”

Given my middle child status, keeping the peace between Matteo and Tina was always my role growing up. Come to think of it, I spent a fair bit of time peace-keeping with my parents and my nonna too, and diplomacy is essentially my job now, as tasting room manager at Buchanan Brewery. If people try to fight or talk shit in our taproom, I’m the one who needs to talk them down. Or, if all else fails, physically remove them from the bar. It occurs to me that might be why Tina wants my help. Something’s going on with her, and she needs me to protect her while she figures it out. Which only makes me more determined to be there for her.

I can practically hear Tina clucking her tongue at me and calling me Saint Dylan, the nickname my buddies in the Marines gave me.

I glance at Dee, feeling another swell of gratitude for her. Because she would never stand in my way when it comes to helping family. Because she’d be the first to offer our support.

“We gotta go, Tina,” I say. “You come see us whenever you need to, okay? I won’t even say anything to Mom and Dad, although I can guaran-damn-tee they’ll be calling me before long.”

I’m not looking forward to that conversation. There’s nothing quite like being on the receiving end of my mother’s temper. Or my nonna’s, for that matter. My buddy, Ray, who served with me, would say the same.

“Thanks, Dylan. Dee. I was hoping you’d say that. I love you guys, even when you go too far with the whole lovey-dovey thing.”

The call disconnects, leaving me with a hell of a lot more questions than answers.

I pocket my phone and glance at Dee. I meant to ask for her thoughts about the call, but her lips have a slight sheen that draws my gaze, and I can’t stop myself. I lean in and kiss her. It’s a soft kiss—I haven’t forgotten Liam’s in the kitchen, and I respect the boys’ boundaries—but that dress she’s wearing, those shoes…they stir me.

“Oh, come on,” Liam says, leaving the kitchen with a plate of teetering sandwiches.

I pull back, lifting up my hands. “Don’t worry, we’re leaving.”

But he lingers, his gaze on the sandwiches as if he’s worried to look up at us.

“Aunt Tina’s coming for a visit?”

“Sounds like it,” I say, thinking back to his near miss with a broken ankle. I’m going to have to ask Deeandra to try to talk to him. Or maybe Ollie.

“Cool, cool, cool,” he says, his tone anything but. He heads toward his bedroom before glancing back, then gives us a genuine smile, something that’s become infrequent as he nears fifteen. “Have fun tonight.”

“You too, sweetheart,” Deeandra says. “Call Dad or Sam if you have any trouble.”

Deeandra’s best friend, Sam, would be just as likely to help him get into trouble as save him from it, but I know better than to volunteer that opinion. Besides, I have it on good authority that she’s busy tonight.

Liam rolls his eyes. “I’m almost fifteen, Mom. I can take care of myself for an hour. You call Sam if you need help.”

“We’ll be fine as long as your mom keeps her shoes on this time,” I say, shooting a glance at Deeandra.

It’s not our anniversary, but it’s something like it.

We got married last fall at City Hall, just us, the kids, my whole family (of course), plus Deeandra’s mother and her friend Sam. Both of us had done the big wedding thing before, and we didn’t want to wait. We’d agreed to take a honeymoon, just the two of us, later.

But there’s one celebration that doesn’t have to wait. We met at a wedding at the Arboretum nearly two years ago, and we’re going to crash one tonight. Just like Deeandra crashed Georgie Buchanan and River Reeves’s wedding the night we met.

Only this time, a different acquaintance is getting married. Luke “Lurch” Dotson is marrying Stella Turnbull, also known as Goat Lady Stella.

It’s probably nuts to crash the wedding of the woman who once painted me as a naked centaur—a moment that I’m unlikely to ever forget given the painting still hangs in the taproom of Buchanan Brewery, my place of employment—but I can attest that love makes you do crazy things.

Look at Lurch. He’s signing up for a lifetime of love with Stella, whose idea of a good time is painting chickens murdering goats. She’s also made it very clear to everyone that they intend to have an open marriage. In fact, Dottie Hendrickson, my predecessor at Buchanan Brewery, showed me the invitation when she dropped by the tasting room last Thursday, something she still finds time for at least once a week. There was an asterisk next to “wedding,” and at the bottom of the invitation, it said We love everyone, and although we are making a commitment to each other, we look forward to enjoying intimacy with others too. Please email joinourmarriage69@lukeandstella.com for more information. Pictures appreciated! ;-)

I’d die before I’d let some asshole touch Dee, or any other woman put her hands on me, but I’ve lived in this town long enough to learn when to smile and nod.

We spend the drive to the Arboretum discussing Tina—mainly, what in the hell could have happened to drive her out of my parents’ house now, after living there for twenty-eight years, and when she might show up on our doorstep.

Deeandra suspects it’ll be this week, but I have a very thorough understanding of Tina’s shoe collection. It’ll take her at least three weeks to pack.

When I pull through the gates to the Arboretum, Dee shoots me a glance. “This is crazy,” she says, but there’s an excited glint in her eyes. “We’re totally going to be seen. She painted you, for God’s sake, and there’s no forgetting your face, Dylan. Seriously.”

I laugh. “You don’t think my beard is enough of a disguise?” I grew a mustache for Movember last year, and I let my beard grow in afterward. I’ve kept it maintained, but Tina teases that I’ve gone full mountain man. Deeandra thinks the beard’s stuck around because I’m sick of being recognized from the centaur painting, and she’s closer to the truth. Hopefully that will work in our favor tonight.

“Nope,” she says. I feel her gaze on me, radiating heat as if her fingers are actually traveling up my chest. “She’ll recognize the rest of you.”

“Dottie and River are going to be there,” I say. “They’ll help us pull it off.”

River is Dottie’s great nephew. He and his wife had a baby boy not that long ago—Beau, named after Georgie’s grandfather and the founder of Buchanan Brewery—and although Georgie flat-out refused to come to the wedding for fear the baby would be bitten by a goat or fed edibles, she encouraged River to escort Dottie. From what Dottie told me last week, he’d agreed. Reluctantly.

Dottie is actually officiating the wedding, just like she did for River and Georgie the night Dee and I met.

I turn into the parking lot, choose a space at the end, and park the car.

As soon as the engine stops, I glance at Dee and catch her biting her bottom lip, something that instantly sends a rush of blood down south.

“You know, I’m not going to make it through the night if you keep doing that,” I say, unbuckling my seatbelt.

“Is that a promise?” she asks, her voice suddenly husky as she unbuckles hers.

“Damn straight it is.”

She leans toward me a little, and I can’t help myself. I lift her up over the gearshift and onto my lap. I capture her laugh in the kind of kiss that would give Liam an actual fit, and she shifts so she’s straddling me, one leg on either side, those heels glinting.

My nonna’s sisters playing pinochle. Swimming in a cold river. Nonna’s giant crucifix.

Yeah, that’s not working great given she’s still on top of me.

“Come on, Deeandra,” I say, pulling back a little. “Not here. We have to go.”

There’s a plan, and this isn’t part of it.

“We don’t,” she says, rocking against me a little to drive me crazy. Looking up at me with an expression that makes me groan. “By the time we get home, Liam will already be at his dad’s. We won’t have anyone to traumatize, which means we can do. Whatever. We. Want. Wherever. We. Want.”

Shit.

Right now, I can’t think of anything I’d prefer to do, but if we’re back too early, my surprise is toast.

Which means I have to pretend I want to crash Goat Lady Stella’s wedding more than I want to take my wife home and have my way with her.

Simple.

Running through my erection-wilting thoughts again, I say, “Deeandra, I expect we’re going to have enough stories from this wedding to entertain Liam and Ollie for years. Hell, their children will be asking us about this wedding.”

She shrugs, because we both know it’s probably true.

“We don’t have to stay long,” I continue, “and I absolutely want to reenact everything we did that night.”

She lifts her eyebrows. “Even removing my shapewear?”
“Oh, you know it, baby,” I say, giving her a little squeeze.

Then, because I excel in torturing myself, I open my driver’s side door, shift her so she’s in my arms, and climb out.

“Ready to crash a wedding?”

 

***

 

I remember that first glimpse of Deeandra like it was yesterday—her body encased in a silky pink dress like the one she’s wearing now, her feet in those shoes that caught the light and drew my attention to her curvy legs. And, later, her wearing those shoes and nothing else. She’s my wedding crasher. Only this time I’m crashing with her.

I put my arms around her, holding her as we stand at the back of the ceremony, hopefully far enough from the happy couple to avoid notice.

“You’re using me as a human shield, aren’t you?” she whispers over her shoulder.

“Busted,” I say, squeezing her hip and making her squirm. Of course, given she’s a half foot shorter than me, she wouldn’t make much of a shield.

“Hey,” River complains from his position next to me. “Who am I going to hide behind?”

“You don’t need to hide behind anybody,” I say. “Even Stella knows better than to mess with your aunt.”

From what Dottie and River have both told me, it’s mostly true. Although Stella doesn’t necessarily behave where Dottie’s concerned, she draws the line when it comes to making a move on River. Although, come to think of it, she is getting married in the same location as he and Georgie, down to the amphitheater, where we’re gathered now.

The differences between the two events are already obvious, given there is currently a goat strolling toward the bride and groom.

River flinches and mutters, “I’ll be honest. This is hitting a little too close to home.” Which, fair enough—one of Stella’s goats nearly caused a fire at his wedding.

This time, the most damage they’ve done (they, because Stella already walked one goat to the altar) is to munch on the embellishments on her simple white dress. The goat that’s approaching them now has a pouch of sorts on his back, presumably with the rings, but he’s in no hurry. As everyone waits and watches, he stops a couple of times to snack on the grass by the path, and once to make a grab for a woman’s straw clutch.

Maybe it’s because my mind’s on Tina and her sudden wish to move to Asheville, but I hear her old refrain: only in Asheville.

Finally, after what seems like an eternity, the goat arrives next to Lurch, who pats it fondly and removes the buttoned pouch.

Dottie takes it from him, beaming, and turns toward the audience, her gaze ending on our group. “We’re here today to join this couple in a goddess-blessed partnership,” she says, “but first, they have requested to exchange their own vows. You’re in for a treat, friends. They’ll be decorating each other’s faces to look like their spirit animals.”

I glance at Deeandra, eyebrows raised, and she lifts her hand to her mouth to hide the laughter trying to sputter out. Which only makes me feel a rumble of answering laughter. River’s grunt suggests he’s right there with us.

We all hold it in and watch as Stella draws a startlingly accurate rendition of a goat on Lurch’s face with a marker, and he then reciprocates by drawing a barely recognizable wolf on her face.

“Their wedding pictures are going to be keepers,” Deeandra mutters.

Dottie, of course, looks utterly delighted by the whole thing.

“Does anyone object to this union?” Dottie asks, which almost makes it sound like she’s hoping for trouble.

Deeandra jolts against me when two men instantly stand up in the audience. They were sitting three seats apart, and they exchange a wide-eyed look, apparently surprised by each other’s existence, before storming separately onto the stage. One has snowy white hair and a beard, giving off a serious Santa Claus vibe except for his white linen suit and Chacos, and the other is dark-haired with sallow eyes.

Stella preens in a way that suggests she’s enjoying herself very much.

“You can’t marry this man,” Santa says. “We were together just last week. You said I was your muse!”

The other man gives him a dark look. “She said I was her muse.”

“Now, now,” Lurch says, looking completely unfazed by the whole thing. “There’s plenty of inspiration to go around. Most of the time Grumpy here is Stella’s muse—” he waves at the goat, who is chewing on a piece of fabric that he got who knows where, “—and she’s not about to run off with him.”

River swears under his breath. Probably he feels bad for Lurch, who’s been a family friend since the early days of the brewery, but the guy seems strangely happy with Stella. If he’s been brainwashed, he’s enjoying the Kool-Aid.

“To each their own,” I mutter, clapping River on the back.

Suddenly, Stella’s gaze flicks up and lands on me. Her eyes widen, and it’s obvious the beard isn’t much of a disguise at all. I’d duck, but that seems ludicrous. If she’s angry we crashed, it doesn’t show. In fact, she gives us a wide smile, revealing the points of her canines.

“Yes,” Stella says, still looking at me, “It would seem many of my muses are present tonight.” Her gaze flicks back to the two men on the stage. “If you’d been invited, you’d know that Luke and I aren’t bound to convention. We’re going to have a true open marriage.”

“But you can stay on the stage if you’d like,” Lurch says, pounding Santa on the back as if they’re old buds.

Only in Asheville.

Here’s the thing. The guys actually do stay down there, as if they’re in the wedding party. Santa has a sulky look, but the other man, the one with the sallow eyes, perked up at Stella’s reminder that it will be an open marriage.

The ceremony finally wraps up, and Dottie claps her hands. “It’s time for the goat roast! Stella selected all of the ingredients herself.”

Deeandra looks back at me and makes a face. “Do you think—”

“Yes,” River says from next to us. “Yes, they were absolutely Stella’s pets. Trust me. I have some experience with this sort of thing.” He checks his phone for what has to be the hundredth time. I catch a glimpse of the wallpaper photo—a picture of his infant son, Beau, with his wife. Before I met Deeandra, seeing that might have made my airway cinch tight. But the old feelings of worthlessness and grief aren’t there anymore. Or at least they’re not there in the same way. It’s my privilege to help raise Liam and Ollie. To be another dad to them.

I give Deeandra another squeeze, because she made that possible for me. She’s made so many things possible for me. “Ready for the goat roast?” I tease.

“Absolutely not,” she says with a grin that lights up her eyes.

Still, while the happy couple pose for photos with their marked-up faces—Santa and Sallow Eyes actually join Lurch and Stella for one of them—we head back toward the bar. We grab a couple of drinks, River joining us, then linger near a back table by a copse of oaks.

“I might need to hide behind one of those,” I whisper in Deeandra’s ear.

She looks me up and down. “Nope, no hiding you.”

“She has a point, dear,” Dottie says, joining us. She dyed her hair bright yellow this spring—not to be confused with blond—and somehow it suits her, just like the silver kaftan she’s wearing. “Besides, Stella already saw you. She was very pleased to learn you were here. I must say, she’s taken it as encouragement. She thinks you might want to apply to be part of their open marriage.”

“Apply?” Deeandra asks in horror.

I was too deep in my holy shit moment to ask the question.

“They have a box on the gift table.” Dottie gestures to the gift table, where a goat is eating page after page from a stack of papers. No one is attempting to stop her. Maybe because they feel bad about the whole goat roast thing. “Guests are encouraged to apply if they’re interested in helping Lurch and Stella honor their open marriage.” She shrugs. “I must say it isn’t my cup of tea. My Beau and I were very devoted to each other, but Stella does have a strong case of artistic temperament, bless her.”

“Is that what you call it?” I mutter. Then, louder, “Why did I think this was a good idea to crash this wedding?”

“Beats me, man,” River says, pounding me on the back. “I guess it worked out for you well enough last time.”

Deeandra beams at me. “You suggested it because you’re a hopeless romantic.”

“Not so hopeless.” I pull her closer. “Besides, it seemed like a good opportunity to get you to wear that dress and those heels.”

“I claim partial credit for getting you two together,” River says, even though he didn’t know about the whole crashing thing until after the fact. “Just like I’ll claim partial credit for saving you now. Stella is on the move. Repeat: she is on the move. This is not a drill.”

“Yes, I’m sorry to say you’d better be on your way, dears,” Dottie says, pressing her lips together in a thin line. “I did hope you’d be around for the interpretive dance after dinner. Lurch and Stella and the goats have practiced it for weeks. There’s going to be audience participation.”

I’m both sorry and not sorry we won’t be present for it. We say our goodbyes, then I take Deeandra’s hand and lead her deeper into the trees just as I see a flash of a white dress headed our way.

“Crashing was a lot easier when I wasn’t with a six-foot-three man,” Deeandra murmurs as we duck behind a tree and then a bush.

“Yeah, but was it as fun?”

“I was with Sam,” she says, grinning at me.

“Sam is fun,” I agree. “But I’m reasonably sure she’s never made you come three times in one night.”

“Take me home, Dylan,” she says, staring into my eyes.

I can’t help but grin because it’s the same line she used that night. I’d misinterpreted her meaning at first, thinking she wanted me to take her back to her house because I’d upset her, only now her house is my house.

“With pleasure.”

***

It’s hard as hell to get back to the house. Because Deeandra rests her hand on my thigh and leaves it there, her fingers sending buzzing awareness back to my dick.

But we do make it back, and as soon as I round the corner and catch sight of our house, I suck in a breath.

Because there are two cars in our driveaway, where there should be none. One belongs to Sam, who was supposed to play her part in my plan and then leave, and the other is an old VW station wagon that looks suspiciously familiar.

“What’s Sam doing here?” Deeandra asks, snatching her hand back. She looks like she’s going to be sick, and I realize what she’s thinking. Liam was supposed to call Sam or his dad if he had any trouble.

I throw my hands up. “I’m about ninety-nine percent sure this has nothing to do with Liam.” I grin, because busted. “I arranged for Sam to help me out, but she should be gone by now.”

My gaze shoots back to that familiar car, which is when I recognize the bumper sticker. If God Had Intended Us to Follow Recipes, He Wouldn’t Have Given Us Nonna. I swear under my breath. “Looks like you won your bet.”

“What?” Deeandra asked, her hand pressed to her chest.

I don’t need to answer, because Tina and Sam come out the door together. They both have a slightly guilty look, as if they’re teenagers who got caught sneaking out.

Or ruining my surprise.

Deeandra’s eyes widen, but her shoulders sag a little with relief. “Well, I expected to win,” she says, “but I didn’t expect it to happen so soon.”

“What can I say? You’re always right.”

She laughs, and she’s still laughing as I get out of the car and come around to open her door. I lift her down, and she gives me a quick kiss before I set her on her feet.

“I’m sorry,” Tina says as they reach us. “I might have been on my way already when I called you.”

Sam shrugs. “I couldn’t not let her in. She’s your sister. Plus, she offered to let me borrow her vintage heels as a bribe.”

I hug Tina, because I can’t not hug her, but my mind is working overtime. What the hell did Mystery Guy do to my sister? It must have been all the way bad for her to hop into a car and move. And given I haven’t heard from my parents yet, they don’t even know she’s gone.

Something tells me I’m the one who’s going to be smoothing all of this over—Dylan the peacemaker, and all that—but I don’t ask her questions yet. I’ve learned it’s best not to talk about important things outside. Everyone says older ladies live for gossip, but in my experience they’re not the only ones. The older man next door writes nearly daily posts on Nextdoor about other people’s business. Either his hearing aids give him super hearing, or he has surveillance equipment planted up and down the block. To be honest, I’m not sure which explanation I prefer.

I’ve tried to talk to him about it, but he shrinks back from me like I’m a street tough who wants to shake him down for money. Deeandra told me it was my fault for still working out as much as I did in the Marines…and then asked me not to stop.

Tina hugs me back, holding on maybe a little too hard, which makes me feel another pulse of worry.

“I’ll tell you everything soon, Dylan,” she says in a small voice. “I’m not ready yet.”

“Okay,” I say. “It’s going to be okay.” I’m not quite sure how. It’s completely possible our entire family will be beating down our door by morning, but I’ll protect her.

And I know I’m not the only one.

As if she can hear my thoughts, Deeandra steps in and hugs her too. “I’m glad you’re here,” she says. “It’s about time we have another woman in this house. There’s enough testosterone and dirty socks in here to drown a person.”

“Hey!” Sam says, mock offended. “I’m a woman.”

“And you’re honorary family, but you don’t actually live here,” I say.

She considers this for a moment before shrugging.

We head inside together, Deeandra and me in our formal wear, Tina and Sam in sweats.

“Let’s sit at the table,” Deeandra says. “I can make everyone some tea, and Dylan and I can fix you some food if you’re hungry.”

This fits with my plan, or what’s left of it, so I steer her toward the table, my hand on the curve of her hip.

She gasps when she sees the setup, which Sam actually finished, thank God. Except…that’s not the envelope I prepared, sitting beside the cake and the bouquet of flowers. It’s a different size, and it has Tina’s handwriting on it. I shoot a look at her, but she just gives a small shake of her head, and then Deeandra throws her arms around my neck, laughing, and my attention is arrested on her.

Some of her silky hair has tumbled down from her up-do. She looks radiant. And happy. So happy.

I’m still worried as fuck about Tina, but I can’t help but feel some of that reflected shine. It’s what Deeandra has always done to me.

“Since we’re replaying our first date and all, I thought it was only appropriate,” I say.

The cake is decorated with a Celtics jersey, exactly like the one Deeandra ran off in after our first night together.

The flowers are a similar style to the ones River and Georgie used at their wedding.

“I love it,” she says into my ear. “I love you. If only I’d known, I could have worn your jersey tonight.”

I have a flash of her wearing that jersey and nothing else, like she has a few times, but that’s not the kind of thought I want to be having with my sister and Sam hovering near us.
“To the wedding?” I ask, pulling back slightly. “Then we definitely would have been noticed.”

She smiles. “Did you miss the part where we were noticed anyway? I’m glad our crashing days are behind us.”

“Never say never,” Tina says. “Now, open the envelope,” she adds, drawing my attention back to it. “Please.”

I shoot her a what are you up to now look, but she gives me her best expression of innocence. The same one that I remember from childhood. Usually it preceded some sort of disaster, like when she cut up Mom’s best cashmere scarf to make blankets for her dolls, or when, as a teenager, she’d tucked pamphlets about women’s empowerment into Nonna’s bible.

That envelope can’t be good news.

Deeandra gives it a quizzical look as she pulls it to her. She’s not as familiar with Tina’s writing as I am—Nonna watched us sometimes when we were kids, and her favorite punishment was to have us write lines of scripture over and over. Tina wrote a lot of them. Still. Deeandra knows it’s not my writing.

She cracks it open and pulls out the folded sheets of paper, then gasps, turning to me with wide eyes. I take the contents from her and examine them, feeling a bolt of shock all the way down to my feet.

“Tina, what is this?”

“It’s your wedding gift that I forgot to give you,” she says. “I did tell you about it earlier.” She tucks some of her long hair behind her ear. “It’s about time you brought Dee on a honeymoon. She made an honest man of you long ago.”

“We were going to take a honeymoon. That was kind of the point of the other envelope. The one that you—”

“Confiscated,” Sam says with a sorry, not sorry shrug. “Good news. We looked while you were gone. You can get a 100% refund on that cottage.”

“Come on, Dylan,” Tina says, taking up the torch. “What did they tell you in the Marines? Semper Fi, not Semper I. You can accept help.”

I’d arranged for Dee and me to stay at a bed and breakfast in Maine for a week and a half later this summer. Even checked with her work to make sure she could take the time off, and—a more difficult task—talked to the boys’ father about taking them for that time. I’d wanted to bring her somewhere right after the wedding, but we’d just gotten finished with the addition to the house, which had been more drawn out and expensive than anticipated.

This is too much, and I have no idea where Tina, who’s a bartender and odd jobber, could have gotten the money. My parents do well with my dad’s sporting goods shop, but this didn’t come from them. If it had, I would have been called at least half a dozen times about this detail and that. I would have known.

My mind flashes to Mystery Guy, and I don’t for a minute like the thought that he might have something to do with it.

“We can’t accept a gift this large,” I say.

Deeandra, who looks understandably confused, turns to Tina for an explanation.

“Dylan was going to take you on another trip.” She shrugs. “A nice one. But this…this is the trip of a lifetime. My…ex and I had already made these arrangements for Italy. Non-refundable. They did, however, allow me to change the names for a fee.” A grin tips up her lips. “Liam checked your passports. He talked to his dad about changing the dates of the vacation, and the jerkwad was surprisingly cool about it.”

Huh. So maybe Liam’s been acting weird because he knew her secret, not because he has a crush on her. Or it could be a little bit of both.

We only have the passports because I know how much Deeandra wants to go to Europe. It’s number three on the bucket list of things we want to experience together, something we put together after our wedding.

  1. Learn tantric yoga
  2. Try at least fifteen positions of the kama sutra
  3. Go to Europe.

We wasted no time getting through the first two and now we have our chance to knock out the third. The envelope Tina left out for us—it’s an itinerary for a two-week trip to Italy, complete with first class plane tickets. I’ve never once ridden first class, and the same is true for Deeandra.

“You broke up with Mystery?” I ask, although I already know the answer. That’s what all of this has been about, after all.

She nods solemnly. “We’re no longer together, but he gave me the trip. He knows you two are going. It’s all settled.”

“I’m sorry, Tina,” I say, pulling her into a side hug. I have the flitting thought that it feels good to have them both in one place, Deeandra on one side, my little sister on the other. I’ve missed her. “But…”

I want to go, obviously. It’s Italy. I haven’t been since our family vacation when we were kids, but Nonna has told us so many stories about the “Old Country”—some fact and many fiction—that it feels like it’s part of me. That’s something I want to share with Dee, and from the conflicted look on her face, she wants to go too. Still, it’s on the tip of my tongue to say no. To tell Tina that we couldn’t possibly accept a gift like this, and she should go on the trip with one of her friends. Another part of me wants to point out that she and Sam have both been a bit presumptuous—that I had a plan, and it wasn’t a half bad one. But there’s this look in her eye. Almost as if—

A tear trails down her cheek.

“Oh, Tina,” Deeandra says, coming around to hug her, so we’re in this three-way hug that should be awkward, but isn’t—even when Sam circles her arms around all of us to join in, because it’s the Sam thing to do.

“Please,” Tina says, and I’m pretty sure it’s the only time I’ve ever heard her beg for anything. It’s not something I’d like to hear again. “I want to do this for you. I need to do this for you.”

“You don’t need to do anything for us,” Deeandra says. “You’re always welcome to stay here. Always.”

“You know that,” I add. “You should go on this trip yourself.”

“Let me do this for you,” she says. “I need you to let me. If you don’t…it will feel like it was all for nothing. It’ll break my heart.”

I hear the unspoken again.

And I can tell how much she needs us to say yes.

Deeandra looks at me then, her eyes swimming with tears, because this beautiful woman truly does consider my sister her family, and I know there can only be one answer.

“Yes.”

Sam starts jumping up and down, and Tina’s tears dry up, replaced by a grin. Almost as if they’d planned the whole emotional show to get us to agree, only I know my sister. The tears were real, just like I know this smile is too.

“You’re going to Italy,” Sam shouts, hugging Deeandra now.

Deeandra has a disbelieving look on her face, like she can’t quite wrap her mind around how our night has ended. I can’t either.

“Hell yeah, you are,” Tina says, then she tugs Sam back. “But Sam invited me over for a sleepover so we can watch romantic movies and throw candy at the men. We don’t want to interrupt your weird—” She motions to the table as if she thinks we have a weird sex thing planned with the cake, which we don’t, of course, but the table…

It’s not a bad idea.

“But we wouldn’t object to taking some cake with us,” Sam says. “I did play a role in the theft of the jersey, after all.”

That story has a place in our family lore now, so Tina doesn’t react with confusion. She nods adamantly, and Deeandra bursts into action—getting them Tupperware, cutting them huge pieces of the cake.

Then they’re giving us goodbye hugs and leaving, and suddenly it’s just Deeandra and me, and this bomb that went off in our living room.

She turns to me, worry in her eyes. “Is it okay, Dylan? I didn’t know what to say. But it seemed like she needed us to say yes.” She bites her bottom lip, giving me thoughts that have nothing to do with Tina’s current life drama. “I’ll be honest…I wanted to say yes.”

“So did I,” I say, pulling her to me and capturing that bottom lip lightly in my teeth. Then I kiss her softly. “We’ll find out what’s going on with Tina. We’re going to help her, and part of that is accepting her gift, because if we don’t, I think it really will break her heart.” People in my family throw that phrase around a lot, for sins as minor as refusing an extra helping of spaghetti at Sunday lunch, but she obviously meant it. “For now, this is what she needs from us. And as a side perk, we get to cross off number three on our list.” I lift her into my arms, loving the way her eyes fly wide and then hood with lust. “Now, I think I have some shapewear to remove.”

Her laughter fills the air around us as I carry her to our bedroom.

Oh, this life we’ve built. Laughter is a big piece of it. Family too. And I’m about to enjoy another piece of it—the pleasure of unwrapping my wife like the gift she is.

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