“So your emails said you were transferring to Tulane. I thought you were studying finance.” There I said it. Tulane is not a school people studying finance go to. Now maybe I can enjoy the Chaurice sausage, duck, and poached eggs covered in hollandaise sauce.
Preston’s self-indulgent laughter, however, doesn’t put my soul at ease. My stomach forms a huge knot.
“Twyla, remember I’m a scientist. Those are the only numbers I’m interested in. Besides, I’m working on a master’s degree. Tulane has what I need to finish up.”
“I thought… Never mind. Obviously, I got it wrong,” I say as I rub my forehead. It’s an easy mistake. Preston changed his major a few times, but I figured he was done with college. Once a geek, always a geek I guess. Poor guy can’t stay out of a classroom.
My friend spears a plump shrimp with a fork. “Besides, I had to leave LSU.”
I tilt my head to the side. “Had to?”
He exhales. “Bad break up.”
I keep my mouth shut but shoot him a questioning stare.
Preston places the food in his mouth and talks around the morsel. “I didn’t tell you about Marjorie.”
No, Preston didn’t. Strange because we usually share everything, but I decide not to let the oversight bother me. “What about her? Was she some whacked-out bitch or something?”
“Exactly.” He places another bite of food in his mouth without elaborating.
Oh, hell no. He doesn’t get to drop a bombshell like that and not say anything else. “Preston Richard Montgomery, spill it.”
His eyebrows go up at my mentioning his full name, but he doesn’t speak. Instead, he pushes the food around his plate before reaching for his Bloody Mary. After a long swig, he says, “I met Marjorie at a fraternity party. She was a serious charmer, and I fell for her. Much later, I learned she was insanely jealous of other women. All I had to do was mention a girl’s name, and she’d get upset.”
That’s what happens when you spend all your formative years locked in your room with a textbook. Preston dated no one in high school. Poor guy even missed out on prom because he couldn’t work up the nerve to ask a girl. I hoped he’d meet a good woman when he entered college. So much for that.
“Is that why you never came home to see me?” I ask, reaching for my wine glass.
It hurt my heart when Preston said he couldn’t take the time away from college. I thought I was important to him—like family. But knowing how Preston feels about his parents, I guess he relegated me to the family zone. Out of touch, out of mind I suppose. While he was in Baton Rouge, I tried to reach out to his parents. They always shrugged me off with the feeble claim that he didn’t communicate with them much. Same with me.
“Yeah,” he admits and takes another drink of his cocktail. “Marjorie wasn’t a fan of the idea, but that was my fault. I let it slip one day that I wanted to see you, and that’s when we had our first huge fight. It took me a week to get back in her good graces.”
Why would Preston put up with someone like that? I joke, “That bitch must have had a magical pussy for you to stay with her.”
Preston’s head jerks back, and a vague smile pops up on his face. “She got the job done.”
I couldn’t help but laugh—a little too loudly. The other diners turn their gaze toward us. I drop my head and try to compose myself. A few seconds pass before I say, “I’m sorry, Prest. Continue.”
“Marjorie and I had a terrible fight before the semester was up. I’d had it with her misguided jealousy. It didn’t matter how much she claimed to love me. Losing my dignity wasn’t worth her love. I just couldn’t do it anymore, so I broke it off.”
“Good for you.” I’m glad to hear my friend possesses a set of balls after all.
“Naturally, Marjorie didn’t see it that way. She turned into a stalker, leaving hateful notes on my apartment door. She even cloned my phone.” Preston drains his glass, flags down the server, and gestures for another one. “I asked Marjorie to stop, but she wouldn’t. Shit got worse when she showed up at my place with a gun.”
Preston nods. “Nothing happened, but that was the proverbial line in the sand. I called the police.”
“And?” Preston’s story has me so intrigued I give up on my meal.
“The detective told me it might be best if I left town. You know—out of sight, out of mind? So, I packed up my shit and came home. Fortunately, I was able to use some family connections and got into Tulane.”
The server arrives with a second Bloody Mary. She offers to refill my wine, but I decline.
“I knew I should have come to Baton Rouge despite what you wanted.” Clearly, my friend still needs me to fight his battles.
“No, Twyla.” Preston lifts his fresh cocktail to his mouth. “It would have only made things worse. Marjorie is the type of person who strikes back. I would have never forgiven myself if something had happened to you.”
I pat his hand. “Doesn’t matter. You’re here now. If Miss Marjorie shows her ass in my city, I’ll send her running for the fucking hills.”
“That’s my girl.” Preston glances at the Rolex on his wrist—a high school graduation present from his parents. “It’s getting late. Do you have to go back to the shop?”
In all honesty, I don’t. Business has been so good that I’ve hired staff to cover the afternoon and evening hours, but I feel compelled to go back.
“I really should, but we can take our time.” Besides, I feel the need to walk. “What do you have in mind?”
“Let me finish my drink, and then we can head over to Jackson Square. Act like two tourists.”
“I like the sound of that.” It’s been a long time since I got to hang out with my best buddy.
As we cross Chartres Street, Preston grabs my hand, intertwining his fingers with mine. I’ve missed these times with Preston. As teenagers, we always touched each other.
Sadly, I don’t miss the elderly white couple staring at us. They can kiss my ass. It’s not the first time anyone has had opinions about Preston and me. His classmates spread rumors about us. His mother believed them and hated me for the gossip. Even my mother didn’t care for the closeness between Preston and me.
I tossed my backpack at the foot of the stairs and was headed toward the kitchen when Mama’s voice rang out from the front room.
“Twilight, can we have a word?” Uh-oh. Mama used that serious tone. Nothing good ever came with it.
“What’s up?” I asked, trying to ignore the tension in her voice, as I sat down on the sofa.
Her gaze searched the space behind me. “Where’s Preston?”
“He’s on his way. He had to run an errand for Mrs. Montgomery. Why?” I fished in my purse for a stick of gum.
“I wanted to talk to you about all this touching between you and that boy.”
Touching? Oh, she must mean our hugging and holding hands. I stuck the peppermint-flavored gum in my mouth. “It’s no big deal, Mama. We’re just friends.”
“It might not be a big deal to you, but it could be for Preston.” Mama adjusted her position on the chair, crossing her legs and arms. “Y’all reaching that age where kids discover each other. Twilight, it doesn’t look good. People talk. They are talking.”
“I don’t care. We know the truth.” I rose to my feet. “Preston is my friend. I do the same things with him that I do with Ginny. Anybody accusing us of doing something wrong?”
Mama pressed her plump lips together. A scowl crossed her pretty brown face. “That’s not the same thing, and you know it. Keep your hands to yourself, Twilight Marie. I don’t want to have this discussion again.”
I opened my mouth to speak and promptly shut it. There wasn’t anything I could say. Nobody challenged my mother. Right then and there, I swore never to be seen touching Preston around my parents again.
Preston squeezes my hand. “Where did you go, pretty girl?”
I force a smile and glance at him. “Just thinking back to when we were kids. I miss those days.”
“Same here. I was a fool to let Marjorie come between us. We’ve known each other practically all our lives,” he drawls.
Hordes of tourists crowd St. Anne Street. Preston puts his arm around my shoulders, pulls me closer, and we continue down the street. Before we know it, we’re standing in front of a women’s clothing shop. The front door is open, and I see my friend adjusting a garment on a mannequin.
“Ginny!” I shout.
My petite friend straightens. Her gaze bounces around the area and then lands on us. Ginny’s face brightens, but then her pale-blue eyes travel up past me. A flicker of irritation and impatience replaces the happiness shining in Ginny’s gaze.
“Preston.” Ginny says his name like she bit down on a rotten piece of apple.
“Ginnifer.” Preston’s tone matches hers.
My two best friends in all the world have never liked each other. On more than one occasion, I’ve asked each of them about their obvious hatred. Preston said Ginny was too judgmental, thinking everyone should share her beliefs. And Ginny? She claimed Preston was a guy with a hidden agenda. Just like with Mama, Ginny didn’t like how Preston touched me. She used to think he had a crush on me. Utter nonsense.
I slide out from under Preston’s arm and go over to Ginny. “Girl, when are you done here?”
“Late shift tonight, dawlin’.” Ginny repositions herself so that her back is toward Preston and tucks a strand of her ginger hair behind an ear. “What are you doing away from the shop?”
Preston, unfortunately, knows Ginny’s feelings. He places a hand on my shoulder. “We had lunch. Too bad you missed it.”
Ginny’s eyes, glittering with anger, flash to Preston’s. “Twyla and I have plenty of meals together. Real meals in down-to-earth places.”
“Euphemism for cheap food served out of a hole in the wall?” he shoots back.
My gaze flicks toward the sky. This constant back-and-forth between them is why I always have to plan my time with them. Ginny hates the fact Preston comes from money. Preston likes throwing it in Ginny’s face that she doesn’t. Away from each other they are different people—kind, caring, and totally loyal to me. Separately, Ginny and Preston are good for my ego. But together? They’re like a tanker spill and wine gone bad—immiscible and best left apart.
“Enough!” I shout and draw stares from the passersby. I move closer to my friend and lower my voice. “Ginny, let’s do dinner tonight? I close the shop at eight. Meet you at The Gumbo Shop around nine?”
“Perfect,” Ginny says while smirking. “Affordable, good food in a great atmosphere. My idea of fine dining.”
Ginny ducks back into the shop as I tug on Preston’s sleeve, preventing his rebuttal. I glare at him, and he waits until the door closes behind her.
“You know, I do eat gumbo, but I have a taste for some good jambalaya.”
“Good for you, Preston. Maybe you should have an early dinner,” I suggest. There’s no way in hell I’m eating with Preston and Ginny in public. That would be like inviting Hitler and Mussolini to dinner and expecting a great outcome.
“You do realize The Gumbo Shop is a public place? If I want to have dinner at…say…nine fifteen, I can do it,” he teases.
My feet find purchase in the middle of the sidewalk. Angry tourists zig-zag to avoid us. I glance up into Preston’s copper-green eyes—glinting with mischief. A crooked smile plays on his lips.
“Don’t you dare,” I warn.
Preston rubs his stubbled chin. “Ah, come on, Twyla. After the hell Marjorie put me through, I just want to have some fun.”
I shake my head and resume walking toward Vanpeer’s.
“Twyla!” he hollers behind me.
I slow down and let Preston catch up. Once he falls back into step with me, I say, “I’m begging you, Prest. Don’t interrupt our dinner. It gets embarrassing the way you and Ginny carry on.”
Preston slides his arms around my waist, forcing me to stop walking. He kisses the top of my head. “Fine. You know I’ll do anything for you, Twyla. You’re the last person on earth I’d hurt. Now, Ginny…”
I laugh, burying my face in his warm chest, and find myself against a sculpted body. When did Preston get so muscular?
Ignore the hot guy. He’s like your brother. Your very, very hot brother.
I shake off the very wrong thoughts and say, “Hurt Ginny, and I’ll kick your ass.”
“You said, you’ll kiss my ass?” he jokes.
“You heard me.” I step back. “Walk me back to the shop. I promise we’ll do dinner tomorrow night.”
“Deal.” His gaze, full of longing, drifts over me.
For a fleeting moment, I remember my mother’s conversation. It might not be a big deal to you, but it could be for Preston. I wave my hand in the air as if the gesture could evaporate the thought.
Preston notices the movement. “Problem?”
“No. Just a fly.”
The idea of Preston being interested in something more than friendship is preposterous. Just like an errant fly, it’s nothing to worry about.
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