Shepley jogged around the front of the Charger, and then slid into the driver’s seat. “I’m still taking the official position that this is a bad idea.”
“The jewelry store?”
“Why, Travis?” Shepley said, his voice more stern than before.
He shook his head. “Are you trying to run her off?”
“It’s going to happen, Shep. I just want to have it. For when the time is right.”
“No time anytime soon is right. I am so in love with America that it drives me crazy sometimes, but we’re not old enough for that shit, yet, Travis. And . . . what if she says no?”
My teeth clenched at the thought. “I won’t ask her until I know she’s ready.”
Shepley’s mouth pulled to the side. “Just when I think you can’t get any more insane, you do something else to remind me that you are far beyond bat shit crazy.”
“Wait until you see the rock I’m getting.”
Shepley craned his neck slowly in my direction. “You’ve already been over there shopping, haven’t you?”
FRIDAY. THE DAY OF THE DATE PARTY, THREE DAYS after Abby smiled about the new couch and then minutes later turned to whiskey over my tats.
The girls were gone doing what girls do on the day of date parties, and I was sitting in front of the apartment, on the steps, waiting for Toto to take a dump.
For reasons I couldn’t pinpoint, my nerves were shot. I’d already taken a couple swigs of whiskey to try to settle my ass down, but it was no use.
I stared at my wrist, hoping whatever ominous feeling I had was just a false alarm. As I started to tell Toto to hurry up because it was fucking cold outside, he hunched over and did his business.
“It’s about time, little man!” I said, scooping him up and walking inside.
“Just called the florist. Well, florists. The first one didn’t have enough,” Shepley said.
I smiled. “The girls are going to shit. Did you make sure they would deliver before they get home?”
“What if they come home early?”
“They’ll be here in plenty of time.”
“Hey,” Shepley said with a half smile. “You nervous about tonight?”
“No,” I said, frowning.
“You are, too, you pussy! You’re nervous about date night!”
“Don’t be a dick,” I said, retreating to my room.
My black shirt was already pressed and waiting on its hanger. It wasn’t anything special—one of two button-down shirts that I owned.
The date party would be my first, yes, and I was going with my girlfriend for the first time, but the knot in my stomach was from something else. Something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. As if something terrible was lurking in the immediate future.
On edge, I went back into the kitchen and poured another shot of whiskey. The doorbell rang, and I looked up from the counter to see Shepley jogging across the living room from his room, a towel around his waist.
“I could’ve gotten it.”
“Yeah, but then you would have had to stop crying in your Jim Beam,” he grumbled, pulling on the door. A small man carrying two mammoth bouquets bigger than he was stood in the doorway.
“Uh, yeah . . . this way, buddy,” Shepley said, opening the door wider.
Ten minutes later, the apartment was beginning to look the way I’d imagined. The thought of getting Abby flowers before the date party had come to mind, but one bouquet wasn’t enough.
Just as one delivery guy left, another arrived, and then another. Once every surface in the apartment proudly displayed at least two or three ostentatious bouquets of red, pink, yellow, and white roses, Shepley and I were satisfied.
I took a quick shower, shaved, and was slipping on a pair of jeans as the Honda’s engine whirred loudly in the parking lot. A few moments after it shut off, America pushed through the front door, and then Abby. Their reaction to the flowers was immediate, and Shepley and I were grinning like idiots as they squealed in delight.
Shepley looked around the room, standing proud. “We went to buy you two flowers, but neither of us thought just one bouquet would do it.”
Abby wrapped her arms around my neck. “You guys are . . . you’re amazing. Thank you.”
I smacked her ass, letting my palm linger on the gentle curve just above her upper thigh. “Thirty minutes until the party, Pidge.”
The girls dressed in Shepley’s room while we waited. It took me all of five minutes to button up my shirt, find a belt, and slip on socks and shoes. The girls, however, took for fucking ever.
Shepley, impatient, knocked on the door. The party had started fifteen minutes earlier.
“Time to go, ladies,” Shepley said.
America walked out in a dress that looked like a second skin, and Shepley whistled, sparking an instant smile on her face.
“Where is she?” I asked.
“Abby’s having some trouble with her shoe. She’ll be out in just a sec,” America explained.
“The suspense is killin’ me, Pigeon!” I called.
The door squeaked, and out walked Abby, fidgeting with her short, white dress. Her hair was swept to one side, and even though her tits were carefully hidden, they were accentuated by the tight-fitting fabric.
America elbowed me, and I blinked. “Holy shit.”
“Are you ready to be freaked out?” America asked.
“I’m not freaked out—she looks amazing.”
Abby smiled with mischief in her eyes, and then slowly turned around to show the steep dip of the fabric in the back.
“Okay, now I’m freakin’ out,” I said, walking over to her and turning her away from Shepley’s eyes.
“You don’t like it?” she asked.
“You need a jacket.” I jogged to the rack and hastily draped Abby’s coat over her shoulders.
“She can’t wear that all night, Trav.” America chuckled.
“You look beautiful, Abby,” Shepley said, trying to apologize for my behavior.
“You do,” I said, desperate to be heard and understood without causing a fight. “You look incredible . . . but you can’t wear that. Your skirt is . . . wow, your legs are . . . your skirt is too short and it’s only half a dress! It doesn’t even have a back on it!”
“That’s the way it’s made, Travis.” Abby smiled. At least she wasn’t pissed.
“Do you two live to torture each other?” Shepley frowned.
“Do you have a longer dress?” I asked.
Abby looked down. “It’s actually pretty modest in the front. It’s just the back that shows off a lot of skin.”
“Pigeon,” I said, wincing, “I don’t want you to be mad, but I can’t take you to my frat house looking like that. I’ll get in a fight the first five minutes.”
She leaned up and kissed my lips. “I have faith in you.”
“This night is gonna suck,” I groaned.
“This night is going to be fantastic,” America said, offended.
“Just think of how easy it will be to get it off later,” Abby said. She pushed up on the balls of her feet to kiss my neck.
I stared up at the ceiling, trying not to let her lips, sticky from her lip gloss, weaken my case. “That’s the problem. Every other guy there will be thinking the same thing.”
“But you’re the only one that gets to find out,” she lilted. When I didn’t respond, she leaned back to look me in the eyes. “Do you really want me to change?”
I scanned her face, and every other part of her, and then exhaled. “No matter what you wear, you’re gorgeous. I should just get used to it, now, right?” Abby shrugged, and I shook my head. “All right, we’re already late. Let’s go.”
I KEPT MY ARMS AROUND ABBY AS WE WALKED ACROSS the lawn to the Sigma Tau house. Abby was shivering, so I walked quickly and awkwardly with her in tow, trying to get her out of the cold as fast as her high heels would allow. The second we pushed through the thick, double doors, I immediately popped a cigarette in my mouth to add to the typical frat party haze. The bass from the speakers downstairs buzzed like a heartbeat under our feet.
After Shepley and I took care of the girls’ coats, I led Abby to the kitchen, with Shepley and America just behind. We stood there, beers in hand, listening to Jay Gruber and Brad Pierce discuss my last fight. Lexie pawed at Brad’s shirt, clearly bored with the man talk.
“Dude, you got your girl’s name on your wrist? What in the hell possessed you to do that?” Brad said.
I turned over my hand to reveal Abby’s nickname. “I’m crazy about her,” I said, looking down at Abby.
“You barely know her,” Lexie scoffed.
“I know her.”
In my peripheral vision, I saw Shepley pull America toward the stairs, so I took Abby’s hand and followed. Unfortunately, Brad and Lexie did the same. In a line, we descended the stairs to the basement, the music growing louder with each step.
The second my feet hit the last stair, the DJ played a slow song. Without hesitation, I pulled Abby onto the concrete dance floor, lined with furniture that had been pushed to the side for the party.
Abby’s head fit perfectly in the crook of my neck. “I’m glad I never went to one of these things before,” I said in her ear. “It’s right that I’ve only brought you.”
Abby pressed her cheek against my chest, and her fingers pressed into my shoulders.
“Everyone’s staring at you in this dress,” I said. “I guess it’s kinda cool . . . being with the girl everyone wants.”
Abby leaned back to make a show of rolling her eyes. “They don’t want me. They’re curious why you want me. And anyway, I feel sorry for anyone that thinks they have a chance. I am hopelessly and completely in love with you.”
How could she even wonder? “You know why I want you? I didn’t know I was lost until you found me. I didn’t know what alone was until the first night I spent without you in my bed. You’re the one thing I’ve got right. You’re what I’ve been waiting for, Pigeon.”
Abby reached up to take my face between her hands, and I wrapped my arms around her, lifting her off the floor. Our lips pressed together gently, and as she worked her lips against mine, I made sure to silently communicate how much I loved her in that kiss, because I could never get it right with just words.
After a few songs and one hostile, yet entertaining moment between Lexie and America, I decided it was a good time to head upstairs. “C’mon, Pidge. I need a smoke.”
Abby followed me up the stairs. I made sure to grab her coat before continuing to the balcony. The second we stepped outside, I paused, as did Abby, and Parker, and the makeup-spackled girl he was fingering.
The first move was made by Parker, who pulled his hand from underneath the girl’s skirt.
“Abby,” he said, surprised and breathless.
“Hey, Parker,” Abby replied, choking back a laugh.
“How, uh . . . how have you been?”
She smiled politely. “I’ve been great, you?”
“Uh”—he looked at his date—“Abby this is Amber. Amber . . . Abby.”
“Abby Abby?” she asked.
Parker gave one quick, uncomfortable nod. Amber shook Abby’s hand with a disgusted look on her face, and then eyed me as if she had just encountered the enemy. “Nice to meet you . . . I guess.”
“Amber,” Parker warned.
I laughed once, and then opened the doors for them to walk through. Parker grabbed Amber’s hand and retreated into the house.
“That was . . . awkward,” Abby said, shaking her head and folding arms around her. She looked over the edge at the few couples braving the winter wind.
“At least he’s moved on from trying his damndest to get you back,” I said, smiling.
“I don’t think he was trying to get me back so much as trying to keep me away from you.”
“He took one girl home for me once. Now he acts like he’s made a habit of swooping in and saving every freshman I bagged.”
Abby shot me a wry look from the corner of her eye. “Did I ever tell you how much I loathe that word?”
“Sorry,” I said, pulling her into my side. I lit a cigarette and took a deep breath, turning over my hand. The delicate but thick black lines of ink weaved together to form Pigeon. “How weird is it that this tat isn’t just my new favorite, but it makes me feel at ease to know it’s there?”
“Pretty weird,” Abby said. I shot her a look, and she laughed. “I’m kidding. I can’t say I understand it, but it’s sweet . . . in a Travis Maddox sort of way.”
“If it feels this good to have this on my arm, I can’t imagine how it’s going to feel to get a ring on your finger.”
“Travis . . .”
“In four, or maybe five years,” I said, inwardly cringing that I went that far.
Abby took a breath. “We need to slow down. Way, way down.”
“Don’t start this, Pidge.”
“If we keep going at this pace, I’m going to be barefoot and pregnant before I graduate. I’m not ready to move in with you, I’m not ready for a ring, and I’m certainly not ready to settle down.”
I gently cupped her shoulders. “This isn’t the ‘I wanna see other people’ speech, is it? Because I’m not sharing you. No fucking way.”
“I don’t want anyone else,” she said, exasperated.
I relaxed and released her shoulders, turning to grip the railing. “What are you saying, then?” I asked, terrified of her answer.