~ The Courage Series ~
“This place makes the best potato skins in the world,” Dante Ramirez said from his position next to Eve Knox in the over-crowded booth. Six were stuffed into room for five, but Eve wasn’t complaining. It had been months since she’d laughed this much, and laughing felt good for a change.
“Well, for as long as they made us wait, they’d better be,” Gabe Teague said in annoyance from the other side of Eve. His deep bass shook the air around him. “I just want you to know, if Ashley kills me, I’m sending you the bill.”
“And it’ll be stamped NSF just like all the rest of the bills I pay,” Dante said.
“NSF? I thought you had some secret trust fund,” Jeff Taylor said from beside his wife Lisa.
“Yeah, it’s so secret I don’t even know about it,” Dante said with a shake of his head, and the gel-slicked, black hair caught the light like a reflector.
“Darn,” Gabe said. “You mean we can’t off you for your millions?”
“Millions of bills or millions of creditors?”
Jeff looked at Gabe skeptically. “Maybe offing him wasn’t such a good idea.”
“Uh, you think?” Gabe asked.
“You forget, he’s a fireman,” Lisa said, punching her husband in the ribs. “He makes what you make.”
Jeff shook his head. “Ugh. Definitely not worth it.”
“Definitely,” Gabe said and then looked around the restaurant. “So is anybody going to take our order or is that going to take another two hours?”
“Friday night,” Dante said. “It’s always like this. Oh, I’m sorry. I forget you’re out of commission.”
“Married,” Gabe said. “They call it married.”
Even as she laughed, Eve’s gaze fell to the table. She remembered married.
“So, A.J.,” Lisa said, addressing one of the two non-conversational occupants at the table, “were you less nervous this year?”
A.J., the one person at the table that Eve hadn’t been around at every excuse Jeff and Lisa could come up with—Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, every major holiday and three or four non-major ones they had managed to include her in as well. If she hadn’t been so tired of looking at her apartment walls, she might have come up with a few more excuses to get out of their well-meaning excursions. However, the reality was she hated that apartment and all the memories that went with it.
“At least I didn’t throw up this year.” A.J. ducked so that the light bounced off his light brown hair streaked with soft blond tones. Soft. It was a good word to describe A.J. Knight. Features, light brown eyes, manner, tone—they all fell right into the soft category.
“That’s a definite improvement,” Jeff said, laughing. “We almost had to call the other paramedics to come stitch up that gash you got when you fainted off the stage last year.”
“He did not,” Eve said with instant concern.
“No.” A.J. glanced at her defensively, but instantly his gaze dropped back to the table. “I just missed a step.”
“Yeah. Ca-thung. Ca-thung. Ca-thung,” Jeff said, spinning his hands over and over themselves teasingly.
“You’re one to talk.” Lisa punched Jeff again as she came to A.J.’s defense. “Who was it that needed a paper bag this morning before he went on?”
Jeff shrugged. “For my lunch.”
“Yeah, those ham sandwiches can just take your breath right away.”
Eve laughed at them. Jeff and Lisa. Such a sweet couple, now looking forward to their first child. It wasn’t hard to see how much Jeff worshiped Lisa, nor was it difficult to see the love in Lisa’s eyes when she looked at her husband. As she put her head down, Eve remembered feeling that look in her own heart. That time seemed so long ago as to have been another lifetime.
“So, Eve,” Dante, the one guy she always seemed to get paired up with at every social function she was trapped into attending, said as he laid an arm the color of brown sugar over the booth behind her, “how’d Lisa con you into this speaking thing anyway?”
With a smile Eve looked across the table at the woman who had become her best friend over the last year. “She asked.”
Lisa smiled back. Together. Two women in a sea of men, and because of the other, they were holding their own.
“No arm twisting or hair pulling?” Dante asked far too into the whole cat fight scenario for her.
“Nope. None of that.”
“Darn,” Dante said. “I would’ve paid to see that.”
“Hey,” Jeff said, leveling an index finger and a warning gaze at Dante. “That’s my wife you’re talking about there.”
“Oh, sorry. I’m just saying she’s hot.”
“That’s not any better,” Jeff said darkly.
Lisa patted his leg. “It’s okay. I’m five months pregnant, and I feel like a blimp already. If the man wants to say I’m hot, don’t complain.”
Jeff’s gaze went to his wife’s face and frame, and it was clear he had no complaints.
“Is somebody going to take our order or not?” Gabe asked in frustration.
“I think they forgot about us,” A.J. said quietly.
“Well, get somebody’s attention, Jeff,” Gabe commanded.
“Me? Why me?”
“Because you’re on the end, and because this was your idea, and because as your commanding officer, I told you to,” Gabe said.
“Oh,” Jeff said, nodding. “Well, since you put it that way.” He looked around, put a hand in the air, and snagged the first waitress’s attention who happened by. “Umm, could we get some menus over here?”
Amazing, Eve thought as she watched the scene. When she had met him two years before, she would never have believed that Jeff could get so many words in a row out, in public nonetheless. However, it was abundantly clear that he had grown—in confidence and in stature since the night Dustin had first brought home his newest friend from the academy. Part of it was the job. Leading others in to fight fires had to inspire a certain amount of poise and confidence, but it was more than that. He had a woman by his side now who believed in him, who trusted him implicitly, who looked to him for guidance, and it showed in every movement he made.
In seconds the waitress was back with the menus. Each took one, and Gabe looked at his watch. “Order something that doesn’t take long to cook.”
“Like what? Kid’s grilled cheese?” Dante asked.
“You should’ve invited Ashley,” Lisa said.
“Yeah,” Jeff said. “Why didn’t you?”
“She had to work. Besides she’s heard me speak, and she wasn’t impressed.”
“I, Gabe, take you, Ashley,” Dante said serious and teasing all at the same time. “I can see why.”
Eve socked Dante’s arm. “Hey, that wasn’t funny.”
In surprise Dante looked over to Jeff who was trying not to laugh. “It was too. Wasn’t it, Taylor?”
“Like I’m stupid enough to get in the middle of that one,” Jeff said as he buried his gaze into the menu.
The waitress walked up at that moment to take their order, and when she was gone, Dante turned back to Eve. “You know that Van Gogh Exhibit is coming to the Museum of Fine Arts the first of November. Didn’t you say you wanted to go to that?”
“Is it that time already?” She sighed. “I was hoping I’d be through the spring buying by then.”
“Well, I’m free,” Dante said, hinting in his tone, “if you wanted me to get us some tickets, I could.”
He was being nice. Dante had been nothing but nice since the first time Jeff and Lisa had dragged them out on what no one dared to call a double date. Still every time Eve thought about going out with him, her heart jerked in the other direction. Slowly she shook her head. “I’m not sure I can get off.”
“It’s a Saturday,” he said as though the others weren’t sitting there listening to them. “Even firefighters don’t work all the time, you know.” He tapped her on the shoulder playfully, trying to get her to look up. However, her heart just couldn’t look at him.
Wishing it wouldn’t, Eve’s gaze traveled down the table and caught Lisa’s. The pity in Lisa’s eyes told her too much. Her friends felt sorry for her. They wanted her to find someone. What they didn’t know was that there would never be another someone in her life. She’d had a someone once. Now he was gone, and she had no desire to find another one.
“A museum exhibit?” Gabe asked incredulously. “Ugh. Ashley roped me into one of those once. Can you say, ‘Torture City’?”
Across from Eve, A.J. laughed although none of the other occupants seemed to think it was all that funny. She ducked to keep the laugh in her own chest from finding her own throat.
“I just thought it might be fun,” Dante said softly, and suddenly he didn’t look nearly so confident or so sure of the offer.
Knowing there was really no good reason to turn him down, Eve smiled over at him although to be honest, she didn’t see him at all. “It sounds like fun.”
On the other side of the table, A.J. felt the annoyed gazes of his hosts find his face, and his eyes widened as if to say, “What did I say?” Neither Jeff nor Lisa looked happy with him. He hadn’t been around them all that much, but Eve didn’t seem like someone who would be hanging out in museums all day—the mall looked more her style. But as much as she didn’t, Dante seemed even less the type. Strong, take charge, get it done so you can go have fun—that was Dante. Someone more likely to make fun of people who went to museums than someone lining up for tickets.
However, it was perfectly clear from where A.J. sat that getting in the way of Dante and Eve invited a fate worse than death. He understood that, of course. He had been there at the graveyard the day she had buried her husband. He had sat in the church and listened to Jeff’s heartfelt words about the friend he had lost, but more than that, he had been there that awful night when her husband had taken that final ambulance ride.
Yes, she had lost more than he would probably ever have, so he was smart enough to back off even when Gabe continued.
“Doesn’t make any sense to me,” Gabe said. “You meet someone, you go out with them, you try to make yourself be someone else the whole time, then you get married and boom. Who are you again?”
“I’m sure Ashley was thrilled when she figured out who you were,” Jeff said, and A.J. could tell he was trying to steer the conversation in a different direction.
“Ashley?” Gabe asked incredulously. “What about me? The first time I saw her with that awful green mask thing on, I thought I’d pass out.”
“She was trying to be beautiful for you,” Lisa said.
Gabe scrunched up his face. “She didn’t have to try that hard.”
The waitress arrived with their drinks and a dish of potato skins. A plate at a time Lisa passed them around the table. “I am starving.”
“Here,” Jeff said, dishing one potato skin onto a plate for her.
“Hey!” Dante said. “Who ordered these?”
“If you’re pregnant, you argue.” Jeff leveled the fork in Dante’s direction. “If not, get out of the way.” He put some sauce on the plate and handed it to Lisa. “There you go.”
“Thanks,” she said, ducking in embarrassment.
A.J. watched as the others dished up their own appetizers. Jeff was always taking care of Lisa, always making sure she was all right before he worried about himself. That was how love should be, A.J. thought. Not that he’d ever been around that many people who had found it. No, finding that kind of love took a heap of luck, and to this point he hadn’t had much in that department.
“So, A.J.,” Gabe said, skewering him with a glance. “Who are you taking to museums these days?”
Slowly A.J. shrugged, and the potato skin on his fork nearly slid right off into his lap. “No museums for me.” Then he looked across and caught the displeasure in Lisa’s gaze. “Not that there’s anything wrong with museums of course. I just…” He was drowning, fighting for the surface. “Well, there’s Melody, but she’s more of just a friend really.”
“A friend? Oh, boy. You’ve got to watch those friends,” Gabe said with a serious shake of his head. “That’s what I told everybody about Ash for a year.”
“Until she knocked you over the head with a frying pan?” Jeff asked.
“Something like that. I swear, I think you ladies have something figured out that you should really clue us guys in about,” Gabe said.
“We try to be subtle,” Lisa said. “Not our fault it takes a brick.”
“I’m telling you,” Gabe said, leaning over to A.J. although his volume was loud enough for the whole table to hear. “Watch out for those friends. They’re trouble waiting to happen.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
By eight o’clock the gathering was breaking up. Jeff said he had to get Lisa home. Gabe slipped out as soon as the checks arrived, saying Ashley might never let him out of her sight again. A.J. had offered to walk Gabe to his car although Eve thought that if trouble happened, Gabe looked far more likely to be the defender than A.J. did. And so, when everyone else was gone, she and Dante were left to walk to the parking lot together.
Subtle, she thought. So terribly, terribly subtle. As they pushed out into the cool October, Houston city night, her hand brushed Dante’s, and in the next breath his hand slipped around hers. Not once in all the time they had spent together had he taken her hand, and the instant hers was in his, Eve wanted to run the other direction.
“If you don’t want to do the museum thing, that’s cool,” Dante said. “It was just an idea.”
Backing out, getting away from him, running as fast as her heart was racing all sounded like very good ideas, and yet what was she running from? The fact that he wasn’t Dustin. He wasn’t. He never would be, and neither would anyone else. Her heart fell even further at the thought. “Are you sure you want to go? I kind of thought the clubs would be more of your style.”
“Can’t a guy broaden his horizons once in awhile?”
“No crime there. I just don’t want you to be bored.”
Dante turned intense deep brown eyes on her. “If you’re there, I could never be bored.”
Her chest hurt. She hated the look in his eyes—that don’t-kill-me-by-turning-me-down look. For as long as she could remember, she had been a sucker for that look. True, the guys had always turned out to be nice enough, but they always had earth-shattering soul mates in mind. It never quite made it that far for Eve. “If you’re sure you won’t be bored…”
“I’m sure,” he said as they got to her car. “I’ll call you the Friday before… just to make sure.”
“And I can pick you up if you want.”
“Oh, that’s okay. There’s never any telling what I’ll be doing. It’ll probably be better if we just meet there.”
“Okay, but you do want to go, right?”
She nodded. “I’ll be there.” Trying not to be obvious, she let go of his hand and climbed in her car even as fear that he might in fact kiss her flooded through her consciousness. “See you then.”
As she pulled out of the parking lot, the act she had been corralling around her since she had met Lisa early that morning as they headed for the second annual Cordell Youth Conference dropped away. Everything was so hard. Every moment was about holding it together, watching, noticing, making sure that no one saw beneath the mask. That was how life was now that Dustin was gone. It was called getting on with life. They all wanted to help, but the truth was no one ever could. It was like being dead without being in a grave.
Twenty-nine and living a hollow, empty, shell of a life. If it didn’t hurt so bad, she might have laughed at the irony. For it was she who had told so many people that life was not to be taken for granted, that the point was to live every single moment as if you might never have another. Yet that was exactly what she now wanted—to never have another. The moments lining up, staring her in the face collapsed her spirit. Crying didn’t help. She had come to that conclusion long ago.
Pushing the thoughts back, she hit the radio button. Not even the music helped much. There were just too many thoughts, and Eve thought at that moment that there would be forever.
“Melody came by,” A.J.’s mom said when he walked into the little kitchen around nine. “She was looking for you.”
“Oh?” He grabbed a couple Oreos out of the cabinet.
“She said something about playing a game she got.”
He poured a glass of milk. “Was she going home?”
“She didn’t say.”
“I’ll call her.”
His mother nodded and left the room. Picking up the phone he dialed the number without really looking at the keypad. He’d had it memorized since he was twelve. Melody Todd, tomboy extraordinaire. They had been friends so long, he’d forgotten when they weren’t. “Mel? Hey, it’s A.J.”
“Well, it’s about time. Where’ve you been? I was going to show you the new Rodent’s Revenge Game I got, but now Kendra’s coming over and we’re going out.”
“Oh, that’s cool.” He bit into the cookie. “Have fun.”
“You could come with us,” Melody said.
“I’ve got work tomorrow.”
“Likely excuse. You just don’t want me to set you up with Kendra.”
“Like I said I’ve got to work tomorrow.”
“Okay, okay, I know. Shadonna was a mistake. I admit that.”
“A mistake?” A.J. asked in shock. “She read me my star charts before we got in the car, Mel.”
“I said I was sorry.”
“Yeah, and then you turned around and set me up with Monica. How’s she doing anyway? Has she found herself yet?”
“Not unless herself was hiding in the Australian outback,” Melody said hesitantly.
“Australia? Huh, well, she’ll be right at home with all those kangaroos. Oh, and let’s not forget about Teresa. Shall we?”
“What? You don’t like table dancers?”
“Not when they’re my date.” He shook his head at the mere memory of that night. “Let’s get real, here, shall we, Mel. You haven’t exactly had a stellar track record with this matchmaking thing.”
“Oh, come on, A.J. Kendra’s different.”
“Already this is not good.”
“No, I don’t mean different, different. I just mean… well, different.”
“You’re trying too hard, Mel.” He ate the last bite of cookie and chased it with the milk.
“Well, you’re not trying hard enough. It’s one night, A.J. Just one. Come on. It’ll be fun.”
“Nope. I’m thinking thirty minutes in the garage, and then I’m going to give up and hit the sack.”
Melody sighed. “So you’re really not going then?”
“No, I’m really not going.”
“Fine. See if I ever try to set you up again.”
“Finally,” he said, breathing an audible sigh of relief.
Her side went silent for a moment. “How about tomorrow night? This game will explode your head.”
“Head explosions? Cool. Here or there?”
“Better make it there. Mom’s on a no-popcorn-in-the-living-room kick again.”
“No problem. I’ll see you then. Oh, and Mel. Have fun tonight.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. And hey, don’t ruin your hearing. Okay?”
He laughed and signed off. Melody, the next door neighbor who actually lived five houses down had been his best friend forever. Well, since sixth grade anyway, but that was as close to forever as he got. With a push he stood from the cabinet and stepped into the living room. “I’m going to the garage.”
Off-handedly his mother waved. Funny even at 25, ever since moving back home a year and a half before, he had felt the need to keep his mother informed about his whereabouts. She didn’t ask anymore, but he always told her just in case. When he opened the garage door, one hand went in front of him and snapped the dim light on. Over the concrete he walked until in the opposite corner, he stepped up to the royal blue plastic tarp. Carefully he pulled it up and wrapped it around his arm so that the blue pearl trap set underneath came into view.
From the wall he pulled the headphones on, hit the power button, and sat down on the little stool. With one drumstick he hit the play button and twirled the stick around his fingers twice as the other picked up the first beats of the song. In seconds he was immersed in the music—so deep, air seemed hardly necessary. He didn’t sing much, but the words and the beat drifted over him like soft rain on a cool summer day. His hands traveled effortlessly to a beat he had committed to memory years before. When he hit the break, every part of his body hit a drum and stopped. Hit again and stopped. Five consecutive hits, and he was flying on the music again. It was the one place that always felt like home to him, and he knew it always would.
“Good news,” Lisa said ten minutes into their phone conversation the next Tuesday evening as Eve put the finishing touches on a dish of microwaved ravioli. She licked her finger off and picked up the plate to take it to the table.
“Oh, yeah? What’s that?”
“Gabe and Ash are having a party.”
“Cool.” Eve turned the plate a quarter turn as she sat by herself at the table. “I’m sure Gabe’s thrilled.”
“Oh, no. Him and Jeff already have it all figured out. Pool. All night in the basement.”
“Nice, and what are you and Ash going to do? Sit around and stare at the walls?”
“Keep the chips and dip going I guess. No, they’re having like people from her work and his work come. He said you’re welcome to come too if you want.”
Eve corralled her long, black hair in her fingers, flipped it over one shoulder, and picked up her fork. “Me? I’m not from his work.”
“Well, it’s not just people from work. Besides I think Dante’s going to be there,” Lisa said.
“And this pertains to me how?”
“Come on, Eve. I know he likes you, and I think if you’d just let yourself, you could like him too.”
“He’s okay, but I’m not really interested in anything serious right now.”
“I’m not saying you are, but it doesn’t hurt to go out with some friends once in awhile either. Sitting there all by yourself all the time isn’t getting you anywhere.”
“You know, you sound just like…” A knife went through her heart, and she sighed. “When’s the party?”
“Friday at eight.”
“You can bring a date if you want,” Jeff said as A.J. sat in the dark living room, watching the little mouse careen one way and then the other over the crazy multi-colored screen.
“Why are you inviting people to Gabe’s party?” A.J. asked, leaning into the turn that Melody threatened to take too wide.
“He just mentioned you, and since he didn’t have your number… But if you’re busy, that’s cool.”
As the mouse burst through the final door, A.J. laughed when Melody threw the controller to the floor and collapsed over it. “It sounds cool, but I can bring a friend?”
~ Expect the Unexpected ~