“I just think if I’m making things worse…,” I found myself saying unexpectedly.

“Hold on,” Dex shot in, his hand raised. “What do you mean you’re making things worse?”

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I sank back into my chair wanting to disappear. My eyes drifted to the floor. I really shouldn’t have said anything. It was too stupid to explain what Bird had told me.

“Um,” I said slowly. “I just felt like maybe things are worse because I’m here.”

Maximus snorted. “Things were the same a week ago. Don’t be giving yourself too much credit there.”

I nodded. I could feel Dex’s eyes on me and knew he wasn’t going to let that go.

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But I was saved by the knock at the door.

“Come in,” I announced, straightening up, alert.

The door opened and Bird poked his head in.

“Supposed to tell you all that dinner is ready,” he smiled. Then lowered his voice, “Can I come in?”

“Sure.” Maximus waved him inside.

Bird stepped in before shooting a glance outside the door and closing it quietly behind him. He obviously had something important to tell us. We all looked up at him, wondering.

He walked over to the bed and perched on the corner. He gave us all hurried glances that made us lean in closer to hear what he had to say.

“I just wanted to tell you that we should go to Rudy’s bar after dinner. I think he can help us with this whole thing. In fact, I know he can.”

“How?” asked Dex, ever demanding.

Bird smiled. “I’ll let him tell you that. But we must not mention it to anyone, you understand?”

“No,” Dex said. “Enlighten us.”

I could see Bird was tired and wished Dex wouldn’t push him so when he was trying to help. He smiled politely. “The people downstairs. They wouldn’t like it. They would try and stop us and I think it’s best if we do things without them knowing. Just trust me with that. If Rudy can help us we need to do it as cleanly as possible.”

“Help us help them,” Max mused.

“Right,” said Bird. He got up and pointed at me. “And help her.”

My eyes widened. So much for that. But before Dex and Maximus could ask what that meant (and from the looks on their faces, I could tell they wanted to), Bird opened the door and led the way with his arm.

“Come on, dinner is getting cold,” he said a bit too loudly, for the benefit of the listeners downstairs. He jerked his head for us to join him.

Maximus got up first and followed him out the door. I scuttled after him while Dex closed the door behind us. I felt him brush up beside me as we walked down the hall.

“What are you keeping from me?” he asked gruffly in my ear. I melted a bit from the feel of his hot breath on my neck and the roughness of his voice.

“Nothing,” I whispered. Then, remembering my lecture about sharing, I relented. “I’ll tell you later.”

We walked down the stairs and into the living room. No surprise, everyone else was seated and waiting for us.

Sarah and Will were on opposite sides at the heads of the table. In a cozy row on one side sat Miguel, Shan and a place for Maximus. The other side was for me, Dex and Bird.

“How are you feeling Perry?” Will asked as I took my spot near him. He had his hands clasped in a prayer-like gesture, his shirt was neatly buttoned all the way to the top. His eyes were kind as always but his smile was a bit forced. He must have been on edge like everyone else. There was an air of tension floating just above our heads.

I attempted my most convincing smile and said, “I’m doing much better, thank you. I’ve always been so clumsy. My mother used to tie couch cushions to me when I was a kid cuz I fell down so much.”

To my surprise, everyone at the table roared with laughter. Was this what it felt like to be Patton Oswalt? Granted, it was a nervous type of laughter but I’d take anything.

Will cleared his throat after the chuckles died down and proceeded to lead us all in a quick prayer of grace. I bowed my head and kept one eye open on Shan and Bird. They repeated the prayer without hesitation.

We started on our salads which were actually quite tasty. I remarked on how crisp the greens were and Sarah informed me that she had a lovely garden out back, behind the house. She did so without a hint of malice or sarcasm. It seemed everyone was on their best behavior.

Sarah looked as done up as her husband. Her big, dark glasses even had tiny rhinestones in the frames which added some punch to her simple, high-necked burgundy dress. Her hair was in a long dark braid going down her back. Now that it wasn’t in a bun, I could see how marvelously long it was and how it didn’t have a single speck of grey hair. For someone that was at least fifty, I found that to be amazing. Actually the more I stared at her face, especially the way it looked in the low light of the dining room, the younger she looked. How funny to look so fabulously young for your age and not even be able to see it.

Shan and Miguel cleaned up well, too. Miguel still looked like a rat bastard with that contemptuous glint in his beady eyes, but at least he was in a pressed rodeo shirt and his hands looked clean. Shan actually looked quite handsome without some grimy hat on his head. He was hunched over slightly, I suppose from his chest pains of earlier but his face was open, a sun-beaten but fresh complexion. Inside, in this situation, he looked younger too, somehow.

He was explaining something to Will about some tricks a local rancher had taught his horse to do, and as he was moving his hands around, flashes of silver and shine caught my eye. He had silver rings on almost every finger on his hands. Most were solid but a few had some gorgeous turquoise jewels on them. I then noticed a few beaded and metal bracelets on his wrists and a few rope necklaces disappearing into the V of his neckline. One necklace lay on front, a tiny suede pouch at the bottom. I hadn’t recalled seeing so much jewelry on him before. As unusual as it was though, to see a man decked out in that much bling, it kind of suited him.

“So, Perry,” Shan said, catching my eyes on him. I played it cool and smiled, avoiding looking straight into those yellowish brown eyes of his. “Tell me about how you and Dex first met.”

Oh crap.

I looked at Dex and smiled, letting out a laugh I hoped came across as ‘oh this old story’ rather than the nervous one it was. Dex did the exact same thing.

What was our story? Did we have one? Could we just tell the truth? We met at a lighthouse. I know, we met on the beach. No, we met online. Wait, what if they quizzed him?

“Do you want to tell the story, sweetie?” I asked him, patting him on the arm like a good little wife would do when she didn’t want to hog the spotlight.

He cocked his head at me with a smile that usually accompanied a wagging finger. “No, sweetie, you can tell it.”

“I’ll tell it!” Maximus announced from across the table. We both looked at him in unison. This was new. I gave him an uneasy smile as a means to continue. This could totally ruin our cover but at the same time it was easy for just one person to tell it. Whatever it was, we were about to find out.

He looked at Will with his aw shucks grin. “After all, I was only the best man at their wedding!”

I rolled my eyes without thinking, then looked around to see if anyone noticed. They hadn’t. This was going to be something else.

I reached over with my left hand and placed it on top of Dex’s which was resting on the table. We exchanged a loving look for show but we both read the underlying one beneath. We were in this together whether we liked it or not. I tightened my grip as Maximus spun his fiction.

“Well you see, Dex and I were buddies in college. We were in the same band. Dex was the singer, I was the bassist–”

“You were a singer?” Sarah exclaimed, the first time she sounded mildly impressed. “Sing us something!”

Dex chuckled while shaking his head. “I’m afraid ‘were’ is the operative term here. You wouldn’t want to hear me sing now.”

I knew that wasn’t true. Dex’s voice was spine-tingling good but I knew he wasn’t going to do a stirring rendition of “Amazing Grace” at the dinner table for Sarah, either.

“Yup, he was the singer. Our fantastic singer,” Maximus continued. I detected the smallest trace of animosity in his lazy drawl. “And well, Perry was a groupie.”

“I was not!” I exclaimed before I realized what I had said. My heart caught in my throat but everyone was laughing, even Dex.

Maximus tilted his head at Miguel who seemed amused by all of this. “She says she wasn’t a groupie, but we all know it was true. You should have seen the other bands she went for. If you ask the right people around New York, y’all may just hear the legend of Perry and her fateful night with Mick Jagger in the bathroom of a Burger King.”

I burst out laughing. I couldn’t help it. My fake bio was getting better by the minute. I knew people at the table were watching me for my reaction so I just went with it, shaking my head with good humor at that cheeky red-headed Cajun. I wasn’t sure how he was making all of this up on the fly.

Dex wanted in, so he turned to me with playful eyes. “That was you?!”

I ignored him and Maximus continued.

“So naturally, Perry was going after me. I mean, why not?” he grinned. “I’m taller, stronger and I have a really big…bass.”

At least that comment made Miguel snicker.

“But alas I had to turn her away. You see, I had a girlfriend at the time and I am a romantic, one woman guy. And I guess, in her depressed, rejected state Perry went after the next best thing. Dex. Even though, I personally know she only went after him to get closer to me. In fact, Perry, marrying him may have gone a little too far.”

“Hardy har har,” I said while everyone laughed. Everyone except Dex, that is. He had fallen strangely serious, almost glaring at Maximus. I’m sure it looked to everyone else like he was playing up the jealous card but I think it had to do with how closely his story imitated real life, with Abby. I hoped Maximus had the right sense to quit while he was ahead, though I could now see he was just feeding off of the attention.

“And the rest is history,” I said, putting an end to it.

Sarah laughed from her end. “Is it? I have to say I’ve never met a married couple with so much sexual tension between them. You two must be dynamite in the bedroom.”

My eyes widened. I took my hand off of Dex’s. Maximus and his side of the table burst out laughing.

“Sarah, please,” Will said, embarrassed. “That’s not the way to talk at the dinner table.”

She pointed in Maximus’s direction defensively. “He was talking about the size of his bass.”

“I think everyone’s maturity level in this room took a huge step down,” Bird remarked humorously, man of few words so far.

“Well, you’re right Sarah,” Dex conceded, a wicked little smile widening his mouth. “Not that I’m one to kiss and tell but poor Maximus didn’t know what he was giving up when he passed this one my way. Ka–BOOM!”

He slammed his fist down on the table for emphasis. The silverware rattled.

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