Snow Falling on Bluegrass
In Which I Restrain Myself from Envelope-Related Homicide
Responsible people do not take crotchless panties with them on business trips.
I stood in my bedroom staring down my lumpy blue duffel bag with two piles of panties in my hands. In one fist I held sensible cotton bikinis with little donuts printed on them; in the other, black lace undies of questionable structural integrity.
I weighed the two piles in my hands like some super-trashy version of Lady Justice and pondered why I was even considering bringing the new lacy panties with their still-attached tags on the annual Kentucky Commission on Tourism staff retreat. I would mostly likely spend the weekend taking notes and helping my boss, KCT marketing director Sadie Hutchins, construct complicated organizational charts out of color-coded index cards. I would not have the time to find a potential lace-panty-remover among the other guests at Lockwood Lodge. And I certainly didn’t have the inclination to hook up with one of my coworkers. So why was I even considering packing sexy lingerie on what was basically a three-day work bender?
“This is what happens when you let post-traumatic breakup disorder do your thinking, isn’t it? It sucks all the logic right out of your brain,” I muttered aloud to my gaping bag. “Stupid Darrell.”
Sighing, I tossed aside the delicate ball of sinful lace fluff and tucked the sensible cotton underwear in the bottom of my duffel, under my serial-killer-teddy-bear-print flannel pajamas. I zipped the enormous bag closed, chewing my bottom lip. Then I ripped the zipper back and, for reasons I didn’t want to examine too closely, stashed my favorite new pair—black roses and lace—under my socks. My eyes darted toward my bedroom door as if I was afraid someone would walk in and catch me. But of course, I lived alone now. I didn’t have to worry about anyone catching me doing something naughty . . . or finding me after I fell in the tub and knocked myself unconscious. It was only a matter of time, really. I was clumsy on wet surfaces.
Shaking my head, I dragged my monster duffel off my bed and tried to focus on less gloomy topics. Despite Sadie’s insistence on productivity, this was going to be a fun weekend. The KCT staff had participated in the annual retreat for ten years. It was originally an effort to defuse escalating staff feuds over stolen lunches with trust falls and “cooperative exercises.” While we still took advantage of the team-building crap, Sadie had slowly shaped the retreat into a strategic planning session for the upcoming summer season.
We usually took these excursions in the late fall, allowing us to make use of various high-ropes and obstacle courses around the state. But a crop of newly established small-town festivals needed our attention this past autumn, preventing us from taking our usual outdoorsy session. Ever the silver-lining miner, Sadie insisted that a winter retreat was more what she had in mind anyway. Besides, January was not only the cheapest month to book Lockwood Lodge, it was also our absolute last chance to breathe before the insane buildup to the Kentucky Derby in May and the state fair in August, not to mention our regular duties promoting the Bluegrass State as the only vacation destination for people who really love their families.
I glanced out the window, grimacing at the matte gray skies and low-hanging clouds. Maybe it would be sunnier at the lake, away from Frankfort. I wasn’t sure how proximity to the lake would make a difference, particularly after the disheartening National Weather Service update blinking from my phone, but it seemed Sadie’s penchant for optimism might be rubbing off on me. I checked the coffeepot and the water levels on my plants one last time and walked out of my apartment. It felt very strange to be leaving for work after noon (to allow for the travel schedule), much less in jeans and a sweater. It was definitely a step down from my usual work wardrobe of pencil skirts and tailored blouses carefully selected to accentuate the few assets I had. But Casual Friday through Sunday was just another perk of the retreat.
The green-and-gray hallway tiles creaked and groaned under my boots. What the Mayfair building lacked in luxury, it made up for in cozy ambience, giving its occupants the warm feeling of a lived-in dorm. Unfortunately, the warren-like prewar floor plan had never included an elevator, meaning I had to drag my bag down several flights of stairs, whacking my ankles all the way.
Some might say that a forty-two-inch duffel bag was excessive for a three-day trip, but clearly they had never had to pack for the contingencies that arise when traveling with the KCT staff. Nestled beneath my clothes were a deluxe first aid kit, three flashlights, stain remover wipes, a sewing kit, three different types of cell phone chargers, printer cartridges, a twenty-four-pack of double A batteries, backup dry erase markers, and a box of limited-edition Godiva truffles. That last item was for me, as a reward for surviving the weekend without hurting any of my coworkers—whom I loved, dearly, really—most of the time.
Two flights into my descent, my phone blared Britney Spears’s “Crazy” (Sadie’s ringtone because I knew she hated it). I dropped my canvas burden (on my foot) and grumbled mightily as I dug my phone out of my much smaller but equally stocked shoulder bag.
Sadie didn’t bother with greetings, which, in fairness, was no reflection on her as a boss or person, just a reminder of how keyed up she was about the retreat. “You’re late.”
Struggling to pull my duffel onto my shoulder while not falling down the stairs, I checked the clock on my phone. “We don’t leave for another hour.”
“For you, that’s late,” Sadie retorted. I could hear the copier running in the background, which meant she was in the office assembling more materials for the weekend. I tried to suppress my snort of irritation. There was no reason for Sadie to go near the copier. I’d spent weeks putting together binders of information about upcoming events, planned marketing campaigns, and an overall vision for this year’s promotions.
But since Sadie was our marketing director and a self-flagellating perfectionist, she couldn’t resist making last-minute changes. She had agonized over finding the right theme, something that would top the “Kentucky—Not What You Expect” campaign that won her the position. For weeks, she’d spitballed ideas off me with no satisfying results—because there were spitballs involved, and who could walk away from that satisfied?
After Sadie had a small breakdown over a missing Post-it, Josh Vaughn, assistant director of marketing and Sadie’s not-so-secret boyfriend, sent me out of Sadie’s office with a silent, pointing finger and closed the door. I chose not to think about what he did behind that closed door, but Sadie emerged smiling and spouting plans for a campaign based on the best “secret” spots around the state.
Sadie and Josh had begun dating, ever so discreetly, after the two of them (not so discreetly) battled it out over the director position. Their creative catfight was basically prolonged foreplay. Weirdos. Also, I may or may not have locked them in a closet overnight with vodka so they could work things out.
After Josh abandoned the office rather than allow Sadie to accept anything other than her dream job, he was hired on as the assistant director. This caused a few hiccups, as technically, Sadie wasn’t allowed to date an employee she directly supervised. So they pretended they weren’t dating. And that supplied no end of entertainment for me.
Josh’s exterior was just as magazine-perfect as Sadie’s, with his impossibly high cheekbones and coordinated-to-the-point-of-pain suits and ties. They were completely, disgustingly happy together, and I had it on good authority that Josh planned to propose at some point during this weekend. I had, after all, helped him select Sadie’s ring just a few weeks before.
I was very pleased for my friend. I knew Josh would make Sadie happy. Still, I couldn’t help but feel a little bit left behind. I was no closer to settling down into true adulthood than I had been when I graduated from college. There were times I just felt so stuck, afraid of losing the comfortable situation I knew but terrified of doing anything new or unexpected. So I would hide those insecurities by continuing to call Josh “Mr. Perfect Pants.” He was a lovely guy, but he kept an emergency color-neutral tie in his car. That was a comedic gold mine.
“So what’s going on? Is Darrell giving you a hard time again?” Sadie demanded. “Remind him that this is a mandated, non-optional work function and he can’t expect you to stay home and take care of him all weekend because he happens to have gamer’s thumb and can’t open his own Red Bulls.”
Yep, that was what I needed at this very moment: a punch to the emotional kidneys dealt by my unwitting best friend.
“Darrell is not keeping me from leaving,” I huffed. “But the weather report is calling for sleet, so you may want to consider delaying our departure time until the road crews have a chance to spray down the roads with salt.”
“Oh, these are the same meteorologists who predicted two feet of snow over the holidays,” Sadie said, her tone dismissive. “And our so-called white Christmas was sixty degrees and sunny.”
I snickered. Kentuckians were notoriously hypersensitive to snow predictions, immediately rushing out to buy bread, milk, and eggs at the first flake. Because everybody knows the first thing you want to do when you’re snowed in is make French toast. Winter storms invariably sent TV reporters to the bakery aisle to report the devastation to the Bunny Bread stock.
“What would you do if I took a sudden turn on the interstate and ended up in Cancún instead?” I asked, finally reaching the bottom landing and struggling out the front door. I needed a damn Sherpa.
“I would methodically hunt you down like something out of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. Or at the very least, that creepy bounty hunter from Raising Arizona. Also, since it’s the new year, nobody in the office has vacation time saved up, so you can’t get out of this with conveniently timed trips to Cancún.”
“There’s always bereavement leave,” I muttered.
“You’re just looking for an excuse to bump off your mom.”
I didn’t disagree with her there.
“I will be there soon. Take deep breaths. Or I will medicate you against your will.” I grunted, shoving my bag into the trunk of my molting blue 2000 Hyundai Elantra. “And you know I can and will use a tranquilizer gun without remorse.”
“You can be distracted with pretty shoes,” she singsonged. “And I happen to know of a consignment store that just got a shipment of last-season Jimmy Choos.”
“Damn your eyes, you know my weakness. I’ll be there in the next few minutes,” I told her. “But only because Jimmy knows the value of showcasing a slender ankle.”
“That’s my girl.”
It took a grand total of eight minutes for me to drive to the office. Sadie was nowhere to be found, but my coworkers were scattered around the KCT van like a bunch of grumpy kids trying to delay going to church camp.
The Kentucky Commission on Tourism was a branch of the state government devoted to letting the world at large know there were awesome things you could find only in Kentucky (beyond the sights regularly spotted on PeopleofWalmart.com). As the marketing director, Sadie liked to stick with the quirky and unusual, from fiberglass-driven roadside attractions like Dinosaur World to the Vent Haven Museum, the world’s only facility dedicated solely to the preservation of ventriloquism. But Josh’s addition to the staff meant we’d widened our focus to include the more genteel elements of Bluegrass State culture, like Thoroughbred horse racing and our famous bourbon. We designed advertising campaigns, published marketing materials in-house, worked with local governments to organize large events, and collected survey data to help us determine what those who vacationed in our fair state liked best about their experience.
I parked my car and turned off the ignition, closing my eyes and praying for the patience and strength to get through this weekend with a little dignity. And short of that, I would settle for not collapsing into a snotty pile of loser in front of people I liked and respected.
I took a deep breath and climbed out of my car. And of course, the first person I spotted was Dr. Charlie Bennett, resident statistician/math genius and devastator of my lady bits. And he was wearing jeans—dark, well-cut denim that clung in just the right places on those long legs.
I heard what sounded like a tiny flare gun and the Morse code for SOS being tapped out in the hornier, less dignified section of my brain—the section responsible for buying and packing the slutty underwear.
Since his first day at the office three years before, I’d been fascinated by Charlie’s lean swimmer’s body, his aristocratic features, his dark hair that fell messily over his high forehead. His dark green, slightly almond-shaped eyes. And right now, those eyes were directed at the back of the office van as he rubbed an elegant, long-fingered hand over his chin. I suspected that he was calculating the exact Tetris-like configuration of bags that would allow maximum luggage capacity.
I sighed and let the expected shiver ripple down my spine. Curse his sexy brain!
I lugged my enormous bag across the parking lot. Hearing my labored steps over the gravel, Charlie turned and gave me one of those world-tilting, knee-melting smiles I loved so very much. It just wasn’t fair what that man did to my nervous system.
My interactions with Charlie had been hit-or-miss lately. He was either his normal, charming, distracting self or he was withdrawn and quiet, not responding to my jokes, and finding some reason to avoid me. And he was only like that with me, which hurt my feelings considerably.
On the few occasions I’d asked him about it, he just got this really sad look on his face and assured me that everything was fine; that it was him, not me. But today he looked happy to see me, and I was going to consider that a sign of a good weekend to come.
“Hey, Kels, let me help you with that.” Charlie rushed to grab the handles of my bag only to stumble under its weight and nearly topple to the pavement. “Yipe!”
“Charlie!” I cried, rushing to help him back to a standing position. “I’m sorry. I should have told you it was so heavy.”
“I’ll try not to let it bother me that you were able to cart that behemoth across the parking lot without help, while my weak T. rex arms couldn’t hold it upright,” he muttered as I helped him heave the bag into the back of the van.
“You know that adrenal response that gives women the ability to lift cars off of their children?” I asked. When he nodded, I continued, “Well, it’s the same principle, but my super-strength only applies to saving my shoes.”
While Charlie laughed, Josh stepped around the van door and gaped at my extra-large luggage. True to form, Josh was currently sporting the starched-and-pressed weekend lumberjack look, thanks to an outfit comprised entirely of L.L.Bean catalogue finds. I bit my cheek to keep my laughter at bay, because he looked horrified enough already. “Uh, Kelsey, do you have a body in there or something?”
“Hey, crack wise all you want, but this bag contains everything we’ll need for the weekend. And this is where I put Sadie in time-out when she gets out of control.”
“I would like to think you’re kidding, but I know you’re not,” Josh said with a sigh.
Sadie emerged from the industrial-gray cracker box of an office building, locking the front door firmly behind her. She was practically skipping to the van, something I wouldn’t think possible in the high-heeled Prada boots she’d scored from our favorite consignment shop the previous week. I rolled my eyes at her boundless work enthusiasm.
My boss was a kook. I’d lived in Kentucky my whole life and had never managed to drum up the enthusiasm Sadie had for what she called “the unique and wonderful quirks of the Bluegrass State.” Sadie often said we were two compulsive halves of the same neurotic whole. While she was polished and composed on the outside, at any given time she was experiencing a Chernobyl-size meltdown internally. I, on the other hand, processed my panic almost surgically through well-executed lists and plans, but occasionally walked through the office with copier toner smudged across my face. (The amount of time my coworkers were willing to let me walk around with smudges on my face was alarming.) I loved Sadie like the sister I’d always wanted, even if she got a little pushy when it came to my personal problems.
My main problem, as far as she was concerned, was Darrell, and all Darrell-related side effects.
When Sadie saw the expression on my face, she slowed her steps to a grown-up gait and slung an arm around me. Apparently I wasn’t handling the whole “breakup/being desperately in love with a man who only acknowledged me every other day” thing nearly as well as I thought I was, in terms of facial expressions.
“Got a second, Kels?” she asked, though she was already leading me away from the van. Once we were outside of hearing distance, she said. “Look, as your boss, I don’t want to push you into a situation that’s going to make you uncomfortable. But as your friend, I think you need to use this weekend as an opportunity to get everything out on the table with Charlie; tell him that you’re very fond of him and that if he has the time, you would like to have a marathon of dirty, sweaty monkey sex until your thighs give out and then maybe have a dozen of his super-genius babies.”
I nodded, chewing on my lip. “Right. No . . . that’s not going to work.”
“If necessary, I will find a closet and lock the two of you in it.”
“Remember that I did that out of love,” I told her. “And I left you and Josh a hidden supply of vodka.”
“Yes, I definitely felt the love in the throes of my claustrophobic panic,” she deadpanned.
“And I’m not even sorry,” I told her, pulling out her last-minute checklist as the other female staff members boarded the van and chose seats in the more spacious fourth row. Jacob Denton, our recently hired media relations manager, and Tom Lucas, our new IT guy/self-appointed curmudgeon at the ripe old age of thirty-eight, had already managed to slink into the van’s second row of seats without helping with the luggage, which I considered a mark of intelligence as well as sloth. The fact that we were able to hire new permanent staff members when other state government branches were ruthlessly slashing expenses was a testament to Sadie’s general pushiness during the legislative budget season.
I slid into the van’s third row next to Charlie, who gave me a crooked smile. “I promise I’ll only elbow your ribs on the left turns.”
“That works both ways, Bennett. And my elbows are bonier than yours.”
Charlie frowned. “I’ve always thought you have nice elbows.”
My eyebrows shot up, but before I could ask when exactly he’d studied my elbows, Sadie chirped from the front seat, “Is everybody ready to go?”
The occupants of the backseat offered a halfhearted “yay.”
“Clearly we’re going to have to avail ourselves of a Starbucks drive-through to caffeinate your draggy behinds,” Sadie commented. When even that didn’t elicit a cheerful answer, she added, “My treat.”
The ensuing “yay” was a lot more enthusiastic. I laughed. This was why Sadie was a great boss. She was once one of us, so she understood that her employees weren’t mindless drones programmed to do her bidding. We needed incentive. And maybe one of those blueberry scone things with the sugar crystals crusted on top.
Just as Josh started the van, the rumble of bass from a stereo system so far out of balance that the car’s speakers were rattling in their mounts assaulted my ears.
I closed my eyes. Please. Oh, please, by Superman’s inappropriate red Underoos, not now.
I turned to see the fire-engine-red 1992 Corvette pulling into the parking lot. I gritted my teeth at the dreaded, familiar sight of my newly ex-boyfriend’s car. It wasn’t even one of the cool Corvette models. He looked like a drug dealer from a bad 90210 plotline.
Darrell Watts crawled out of his car, smirking all the way, pushing his mirrored aviators up the bridge of his nose without any irony at all. The humiliation, it burned.
I couldn’t claim Darrell was unattractive . . . because despite everything, I still had my pride and there had to have been something that drew me to this dink in the first place. Darrell had even features and big brown puppy eyes, and his dark hair was shaggy, because job interviews were for other people. He’d always landed on the thin side of an athletic build but had taken that for granted. He tried to bulk up his frame with protein bars and muscle milk, but forgot the step that involved actually going to the gym. So now he was going slightly soft around the middle, something he’d reminded me repeatedly that I had no room to judge him for.
Once upon a time I’d found that whole package attractive and believed that he was a sweet, funny guy who just had a little growing up to do before he would make a great boyfriend. Now all I wanted was to get the dent of his butt out of my couch cushion.
I threw the van door open, climbed out, and closed it behind me, praying the others wouldn’t hear whatever pointless, painful conversation would surely follow. Considering that we’d broken up only a few weeks before, I expected some sort of ache at the sight of him, some sign that my heart was still smarting from losing someone I’d spent the better (or was it the worst?) part of three years with. I thought I’d have to brace my heart against that now, protect myself from falling for the same crap again. Happily, I discovered this wasn’t necessary. I just wanted him to go away. I wanted him far from my safe, Darrell-free work space.
It seemed my heart had finally learned its lesson. Yaaaay, heart.
“What are you doing here?” I asked through tightly clenched teeth.
Darrell smiled at me, all sincere and doting, like he was just a sweet boyfriend who couldn’t bear for his girlfriend to leave him for the weekend. Bastard. He knew I hadn’t told anybody about the breakup yet. Hell, I’d quit Facebook last year because it was too damn embarrassing to keep bouncing back and forth on the “Relationship Status” like a dysfunctional Ping-Pong ball—“In a relationship,” “Single,” “It’s complicated,” back to “In a relationship.” And there was the additional issue of Darrell trolling my friend list for potential “investors” in his get-rich-quick scheme of the week. It was easier just to keep up with people I liked by, well, calling them and talking to them.
Darrell knew I wouldn’t want to make a scene in front of my coworkers right before I was supposed to spend a weekend trapped with them, so he was going to use that to his advantage. Once again, I questioned my very sanity for staying with this guy for so long.
“I needed to drop off some of your stuff,” he said quietly, sending a smirk and a significant glance over my shoulder toward the van.
I frowned at him. When he’d “moved out,” Darrell had left behind a crapload of his unwashed laundry and “men’s magazines.” I’d boxed the lot of it up and put it out on the curb with a sign that said free if you don’t mind parasites. Sadly, it was snatched up within twenty-four hours. If he was willing to leave ten pairs of his underwear behind, I sincerely doubted he’d made the effort to pack up some of my stuff during his great escape. Darrell grinned as he dropped a stack of mail into my hands.
“What the . . . ?” I sifted through the envelopes from his cell phone provider, a Best Buy store account, an Abercrombie & Fitch store account, and a Gamer’s Paradise store account, most of which were marked past due in big, scary red capital letters. “These are unpaid bills. In no way does this qualify as my stuff.”
“Yeah, but your name is on the accounts, too.” Darrell smiled sweetly at me, winking over my shoulder at Gina, who was watching closely from the van window.
“What?!” I exclaimed, immediately lowering my voice. “I never signed off on any of this!”
“No, but you did leave your social security card in your filing cabinet. And your credit rating has always been so much better than mine. It was only fair that you helped out.” He shrugged, giving his impersonation of a winsome grin as I fumed at myself for not immediately checking my credit report after Darrell moved out. That stupid grin made me feel so very stabby. He was lucky I didn’t keep a nail file in my purse. I turned toward the van, wondering if Darrell would stand still long enough for me to dig through my duffel for my manicure kit.
Charlie was watching from the window, an expression of concern flickering across his features. But when he saw me looking back at him, he squared his shoulders and looked away. I turned my back to him and growled, “How far behind are they?’ ”
“Eh, a couple of weeks, you still have time to catch up.” Darrell’s hand moved dangerously near my chest, twisting my long, dark hair around his fingers.
I glared, contemplating the various debilitating injuries I wanted to inflict on him. With my level of rage, I wouldn’t be able to make it look like an accident. But I could stash his body in my duffel bag and bury him somewhere in a state park. Thanks to Charlie’s statistical research, we knew which trail areas were rarely used. But with so many witnesses . . .
I subtly smacked his hand away, wincing when he dragged a few strands of hair with it. “Go away.”
“Hey, don’t be like that,” he chided. “I’m happy now, Kelsey. It’s not my fault that didn’t happen with you.”
“Great, go be happy somewhere else.”
“Oh, trust me, I am,” he said, shrugging with a self-assurance that made those stabby feelings resurface with a vengeance. “But I think I have some stuff at the apartment. Stuff I might need. I won’t know it until I see it.”
I snorted, and it was just as derisive and loud as I hoped it would be. I wasn’t worried about him breaking into my apartment for whatever he thought he was entitled to. My Lost Boys—Cyrus, Bud, Aaron, and Wally—were watching the place in my absence. I’d adopted all four almost immediately after moving into the apartment down the hall from theirs, serving as a sort of den mother to their nerd herd. I cooked for them and occasionally translated geek to girl-speak. Next to Sadie and Bonnie, they were my closest friends; friends so dear to me that I regularly had to keep them from illegally entering several government databases to delete all evidence of Darrell’s existence. Also, they were my designated mail collectors and plant rescuers and therefore well aware of my travel plans.
Knowing them, tech geeks that they were, I’d be surprised if there weren’t lasers and artificial intelligence involved. So I felt pretty comfortable responding, “It’s not the apartment. It’s my apartment. You can tell, because my name—not yours—is on the lease. Because I paid the rent, not you.”
Before High King Lord Douche Bag could reply, Sadie climbed out of the van and slipped her arm around my shoulders, pasting on her best dealing-with-politicians-she-didn’t-like expression—one I’d seen many times. “Darrell, lovely to see you as always . . . Go away.”
Darrell tried to turn on the charm for Sadie, but she was having none of it. The more he smiled, the frostier her gaze became. “I just wanted to see my girl off. Make sure she doesn’t forget about me while she’s gone.”
Sadie nudged me toward the van. “Oh, maybe if I hit her over the head hard enough the amnesia will take this time. Say good-bye, Kelsey.”
“Good-bye, Kelsey,” I muttered as she shoved me through the open door. Darrell practically simpered at me as Sadie shut the door, smiling with such charm I momentarily forgave myself for falling into his web of lies and hair gel. I resisted the urge to make a rude gesture in response.
“It was so sweet of your boyfriend to see you off!” Gina cooed, patting my shoulder. “Wasn’t it sweet, Charlie?”
Charlie nodded and gave us one of those tight-lipped, “I’m smiling because it’s expected, but I won’t show any actual teeth or mirth” smiles, then turned his attention to his copy of Business Trends. I didn’t respond, wondering why the hell Gina was speaking to me. Sleek, blond, and slender, Gina was the office shark, always moving, always looking for the next opportunity to suck up to someone higher ranked. She rarely had time for me unless the conversation was related to shoehorning her boss’s priorities into the budget.
As tourism commissioner Ted Bidwell’s executive assistant, Gina was representing him at the retreat, since he could not be bothered to actually attend. She’d carried a big flamey torch for Josh when he’d first arrived and was loath to give up the goal. In fact, it had taken my none-too-subtle reminders of an unfortunate incident involving Gina’s “indiscretion” with a jockey at the annual Derby Day party to keep her from reporting Josh and Sadie’s relationship to HR out of spite. But with Josh and Sadie clearly coupled up, Gina seemed to have refocused her energy on Charlie. She’d changed her morning routine to make sure they were in the coffee room at the same time. She’d even started dropping Dr. Who references, only she called the character “Dr. Who,” which was just—no.
This would not stand.
“Charlie, don’t you think it’s sweet?” Gina asked again, nudging Charlie’s shoulder.
Charlie didn’t bother looking up from his magazine to murmur, “Mmhmm.”
I was careful not to touch Charlie’s hips as I buckled my seat belt. Charlie subtly shifted away from me in the seat. It seemed that we were back to the “miss” portion of our hit-or-miss friendship. Great.
“Sorry, Kels, but I just couldn’t stand watching any sort of good-bye kiss,” Sadie said, still indecently cheerful, even after threatening me with significant head injuries. “We have a three-hour drive ahead of us and I wanted to hold on to my lunch.”
Beside me, Charlie snorted softly. I dropped my chin against my chest and thought about my dad’s promise when I was a kid that road trips would go much faster if I fell asleep. I prayed to fall into some sort of road coma for the next few hours. At Sadie’s mention of the lengthy drive, Josh seemed impatient to get going. He started the van and turned sharply out of the parking lot. Of course, the sudden shift sent me sliding against Charlie’s side. He gently put his arm around my shoulders and righted me in my seat, giving me an awkward little smile, which he seemed to shut down somehow, and then turned to the window. Great, he took back a smile. What was the return policy on those?
Sighing, I pulled out my phone and began angry-texting Aaron, which was never a good thing, because I ended up misspelling half the words beyond the capabilities of autocorrect. Fortunately, the boys were used to this, so they were able to interpret the gobbledygook I sent them as Darrell has racked up a bunch of bills in my name. Again. Would you mind checking my credit report? You know the info.
A few minutes later, Aaron responded with, Yeah. It’s bad.
I groaned and slumped forward until my forehead was resting on my phone. I just didn’t have the strength to deal with this right now. Who knew how much damage Darrell had managed to do to the credit I’d only just managed to rebuild after his last spree? My phone pinged again and I saw another message from Aaron. Wally put a freeze on your accounts and a fraud watch on your social security number. We’re already tracking the delinquent reports. We’ll have it cleared up by the time you get back. No worries.
I sniffled a little, not wanting my coworkers to see me cry over my friends’ generosity. The last thing I’d wanted to do was ask my boys to spend hours clearing up the digital mess in my life, but they were already on it. No questions asked. I was very lucky to have them in my life.
And once again, that little pilot light of anger I usually felt toward Darrell flared up into a healthy blaze. How freaking dare he do this to me again? How many times was he going to leave me with these messes to clean up, and what the hell was wrong with me for putting up with it for so long?
My phone pinged and I checked it again. Protocol: Icarus? Aaron asked.
My eyes went wide. Protocol: Icarus was a sort of legend within our small friend group. Named for the dipshit mythical son who reached beyond his capabilities and ended up falling into the ocean and drowning, it was a truly vindictive blueprint for revenge that we came up with after one too many of Darrell’s female “friends” turned out to be of the “with benefits” variety. When we’d sobered up and found the list of punishments, and realized the horrors we’d imagined, we’d put it on the boys’ fridge as a sort of reminder that we should use our powers for good instead of evil.
Was Aaron kidding about breaking the glass around Icarus or was he really considering it? Did Darrell deserve that kind of treatment, even after what he’d done?
Just then, my phone beeped again. It was a text from Darrell’s number. Oh, I forgot. You also opened a store account at Parson’s Leather Goods. I needed a new winter jacket. You should be getting a bill in a few weeks.
Yeah, he had it coming. Gritting my teeth, I typed Make it so and sent the message to Aaron. I tossed my phone back into my bag. I would see Darrell in hell.
The van merged on I-64, toward western Kentucky and the Land Between the Lakes recreational area. The lakes district boasted spectacular boating, fishing, and any number of water sports, and provided summer economic boosts to the locals who operated antique shops, go-kart tracks, mini-golf courses, regular-size golf courses, fudge shops, and country-kitchen-themed restaurants.
But of course, very little of that would be available to us, because it was January and winter go-karting expeditions never ended well. The best we could hope for would be some very chilly hikes and shivery trust circles.
True to our luck, at that very moment a misting rain speckled the windshield. So no outdoor activities at all, then.