I’d ignored the few calls from Rock I got after I’d sped out of the condo like a man running for his life. He would have to get over it. I couldn’t explain. I would just pitch in more money than I’d originally intended to make up for bailing on helping them set up. Staying that close to Amanda and not going after her and falling on my knees and begging her to forgive me for the stupid shit I said would have been impossible. I hated to see her hurt. I hated doing it. I was a shithead. But I couldn’t let her near me. She was too sweet and innocent.
Closing my Jeep door, I took a deep breath before heading toward the condo. The music was already pouring out the windows, and the parking lot was filling up. I’d come a little early so I could slip Rock some money so he’d get over the fact that I’d left him high and dry earlier.
Before I reached the door, it swung open and Rock stepped out. His frown looked more concerned than pissed. Shit.
“You okay?” were the first words out of his mouth.
I reached into my back pocket and pulled out a couple of hundreds. “Here. Take this. It’s my part for the party. I had some shit come up earlier and I had to run.”
Rock reached out and took it, but he didn’t put it in his pocket. He held it between his fingers. “You f**ked up with some shit and can’t get out of it?”
What? Wait . . . did he mean drugs? “Uh, no.”
Rock’s eyebrows lowered, and he pointed the money I’d given him at me. “Then where the hell do you get the cash you never seem to run out of? ’Cause I know where you come from, boy, and it ain’t an inheritance.”
This was not the first time I’d dodged this question. But it was the first time I’d had to deal with it sober. “It ain’t drugs, Rock. Now put the shit in your pocket and let me inside.”
Rock shifted on his feet, but he didn’t move. “You know if you need help getting out of anything, I got your back. Right?”
He’d had my back since we were kids. He was also the only friend I’d ever had over to my trailer growing up. I’d just had him over the one time, though. Momma had been high as a kite and throwing the few dishes we had across the kitchen because I’d forgotten to pick up her empty bottles of whiskey and throw them away the night before. I could still see the look of horror in Rock’s eyes that day. It had been the first and last time I let someone come over.
I nodded, stepped around him, and headed inside the door. He slapped my back as I passed, and I knew we were okay.
The place looked amazing. Those paper balls were hanging from the ceiling, and it looked pretty damn good. Flowers in vases wrapped with white lights were everywhere. It wasn’t too incredibly packed yet, but I knew everyone would be here soon enough. I scanned the room quickly for any sign of Amanda. She wasn’t here yet. I had time to get a drink and find a female to latch on to before she showed up.
There were several stations with bartenders outside on the patio and around the pool. I made my way out there. Fresh air and a shot of Cuervo would be nice.
“You bailed on me. I should push you in that pool,” Trisha said threateningly as she walked toward me.
“I know. I’m sorry. I gave Rock some money to make up for my running off. Something came up. I had to go.”
Trisha rolled her eyes. “Cheap sluts aren’t an emergency. They’re a dime a dozen.”
Let her think I’d run off to get laid. It was better than the truth. That I’d run off because Amanda Hardy was so f**king under my skin I couldn’t think straight. She’d been the only thing in my head while I’d relieved some tension in the shower before I left for the party.
“Don’t push me in. I might get nak*d and get this party started,” I replied with a wink.
“I wouldn’t be surprised,” she replied, and walked off.
I stopped at the first drinking station when I saw Dewayne, another of my best friends since elementary school. Me, Rock, Marcus, and Dewayne had been close since the day we’d all been suspended in the second grade for fighting on the playground. It had formed a bond that I’d never take for granted. I’d needed a family. They’d become that for me.
“If it ain’t the p**sy king,” Dewayne said. “I show up to help out, and your ass is already run off. ’Course, I wasn’t surprised. I’d have been more surprised if you’d actually stayed and worked all day.”
“Shut up. You lazy ass, I know you didn’t stay all day,” I replied with a grin, and looked over at the young guy in a tuxedo standing behind the bar. “I need a shot of tequila.”
“Already hitting it hard, huh? Damn.”
I started to respond when Dewayne’s eyes widened and he let out a low whistle. I followed his gaze and almost swallowed my damn tongue.
Amanda was here. Wearing a short, clingy white dress. Her long tanned legs looked even longer with the bronze high-heeled sandals she was wearing. Her silky blond hair was curled and pulled up on her head, while several curls had fallen loose and grazed her bare neck and shoulders. Ah, hell.
“Is she with Jason Stone? Fuck, I hope not. Marcus is gonna be pissed.” Dewayne’s words slapped me in the face. I tore my eyes off her and looked to see whose arm she was holding on to. Jax Stone’s brother was smiling down at her, saying something. He was making her laugh. She was gazing up at him like he was fascinating. Fuck. A red haze settled over my vision, and I started to move. A hand clamped down on my arm and jerked me back.
“What the hell are you doing?” Dewayne’s hard tone surprised me. What was I doing?
“I, he, she . . . I don’t know.”
I didn’t look back at Dewayne. I couldn’t explain that asinine answer. Instead, I turned to the bartender. “Make that a double, and keep ’em coming.”
Jason was everything Preston wasn’t. He was polite. He liked talking to me. He made me feel attractive. He didn’t say hurtful, mean things. He wasn’t scanning the crowd looking for a female to haul off and screw. He was with me. Completely. It was nice. I liked feeling wanted.
So why did I keep looking back at Preston? He was drinking heavily already, and Marcus and Low hadn’t even arrived yet.
“You want something to drink?” Jason asked from beside me. I tore my gaze off Preston and turned it back to my date.
“Not really. Unless you do,” I replied. I really didn’t want to go anywhere near the bar in front of us. Far away from Preston was best.
“Did Trisha do all this? She did a fantastic job. This place looks magical. Very romantic,” Sadie said in awe as she and Jax came up beside us. He’d been stopped at the door, and the request for autographs had begun. I needed to find Trisha and have her put a stop to that. A lot of the people here were accustomed to Jax coming around, but this would be new for some guests and I knew it got to Sadie.
“Yeah, she worked on it all day. She directed and we followed,” I replied.
Sadie grabbed my arm and tugged me close to her. “Preston is looking this way. He doesn’t appear to be happy. We need to move,” she whispered.
I agreed. “Come on, let’s go down to the beach and see what Trisha decided to do under the tent she has out there. I know they are playing music and that’s where the dance floor is.”
“Oh, wait. Marcus and Low are here,” Sadie said, pointing back toward the door we’d come out of. They were inside talking to guests. We needed to go speak to them before we escaped to the beach.
“Let’s go say hello first,” I replied, looking up at Jason to see if he was okay with this.
“Yeah, let’s get the big brother thing over with. That way I can be less nervous.” The amused tone in his voice didn’t take away the serious expression in his eyes. He was nervous. Marcus was pretty good about letting me date as long as he approved. He didn’t breathe down guys’ necks or embarrass me.
“He will be nice. Come on.”
“I don’t know that I’d believe her. Your last name is Stone,” Jax drawled.
“Oh, stop it. You know he has moved on from that. Look at him. He’s infatuated with Willow,” Sadie replied.
Once upon a time Marcus had been crazy about Sadie. That was how I knew her. But Jax Stone had been the only guy ever to win Sadie’s heart. Marcus never even stood a chance. When Willow had come into his life, I’d been so happy for him. She was just as gorgeous on the inside as she was on the outside. They’d had a major hurdle to get over thanks to our father and Willow’s sister, but they’d loved each other enough. More than enough. I wanted that one day too.
“I’ll just be happy when he’s married. Maybe with a kid or two,” Jax replied. The crooked smile on his face assured everyone he was kidding. Well, maybe a little bit of that was true. Jax was incredibly possessive of Sadie. He didn’t like any guy getting too close. Marcus had gotten too close once.
Sadie laughed and kissed his cheek. Thanks to the stiletto heels she was wearing, she didn’t have to stand on her tippy toes. “I’m moving away with you tomorrow. What more do you want?”
Jax raised an eyebrow at her question. “You really want me to answer that with an audience?”
Sadie blushed and ducked her head, causing Jax to chuckle.
“Let’s go see Marcus. These two are only going to get more disgustingly sweet the longer we stand here,” Jason said, leading me past Sadie and his brother.
Marcus and Low were standing under the white lights that Trisha and I had strung together earlier and wrapped around several of the paper lanterns in the center of the main room. The smile on Marcus’s face made me tear up. I loved seeing him this happy. I loved that he’d found Low. If anyone deserved a happily ever after, it was my bighearted older brother.
“You’re sure he isn’t going to take a swing at me?” Jason asked with his mouth very close to my ear.
I nodded. “Yes, I’m sure. Come on.”
As if he could hear the whispering, Marcus lifted his eyes to meet mine. The smile on his face froze as he shifted his gaze from me to Jason, but only for a moment. The sincerely happy expression returned as he made eye contact with Jason. Apparently, he approved.
“Wasn’t expecting you to show up with a date,” Marcus said as we stopped in front of him and Low.
“It was a last-minute thing. Jason saved me from coming here alone,” I explained.
“Or your sister agreed to go out with me, and I took the opportunity and ran with it,” Jason replied.
Marcus smirked and nodded. “I just might like you.”
Low held her hand out to Jason. “I’m Willow, and it is very nice to meet you. If you are lucky enough to get Amanda on a date, then you must be a great guy.”
Jason shook Low’s hand, then glanced over at me with a smile. “I’ve been working on getting up the nerve to ask for a while now. Tonight was my lucky break.”
Really? He’d been interested in me for a while? Wow. I hadn’t expected that. He was Jason Stone. He was splashed all over the news, and gossip magazines loved him.
“Well, we are glad you’re here,” Willow assured him.
“What’s he doing?” Marcus asked, taking a step forward, his attention directed outside.
“Shit,” Rock growled, running by us and toward the doors leading out to the pool. Marcus took off after him. What in the world was going on?
Then I saw Dewayne standing between Preston, who was leaned up against the bar with an amused grin on his face, and some guy who was yelling at Preston and pointing at him over Dewayne’s shoulder.
I started to follow Marcus. Something was wrong. Was Preston starting a fight? Why was he doing this? And why the heck did I care so much?
“Wait, don’t go out there, Amanda,” Low called out as I started after my brother. I wanted to run outside and ignore her, but I was leaving Jason behind too. Sadie’s big eyes met mine, as she and Jax had stopped just behind Jason and me to give their congratulations to Marcus and Low. I needed to give all of them a reason why I needed to be outside. I needed to see if Preston was okay.
“I’ll be back. They may need me.” It was the best I could come up with before running after Marcus.