Stephenie Meyer owns the Twilight parts.
Thanks to Iris for cleaning this up and to M and Nic for pre-reading. Any mistakes left are mine.
"I'm surprised you aren't working for Jasper tonight," Jared says, turning into my normal lot behind the forum.
"You texted first." My brothers get Red Birds season tickets every year. In a family as big as ours, there is always someone to step in if one of them can't make a game.
Beale isn't nearly as loud or busy as it will be a few hours from now, but there's a decent dinner crowd, considering it's Tuesday. We're running late because of a bicycle flat tire emergency Jared had to handle for my nephew, Lee.
Bella steps out of Rum Boogie with a loaded tray balanced on one hand and two beer mugs in the other.
Jared whistles under his breath. "That must be her."
"Told you, fucker."
The pink Rum Boogie t-shirt she's wearing is perfectly fitted over each curve and slope. Her hair is wavier than normal, thanks to the humidity, and she's wearing shorts instead of jeans. The tips of bold, red petals are visible on her thigh when she walks, kicking my imagination into overdrive.
I can tell from her sleeves, she doesn't do junk. That's more than some random flower growing on her leg. I want to know how high it climbs, if it wraps, touches her ass…
She catches me staring and waves, smiling and keeping her promise of "friends" from a few days ago.
We don't have a chance to chat since she's busy with customers when we reach her corner, but she calls my name before we get to the end of the block.
"Are you coming back?" She fans her face with her trusty order pad.
Jared looks to me for an answer. "I'm not the one with a wife at home," I shrug. Putting it in his hands gets me off the hook if Kim ends up pissed.
"We'll be back after the game," he yells. She nods and waves before disappearing around the corner. "I thought you said she hated you."
"Not anymore. Now, we're friends."
"Ouch." He fakes a sympathetic wince.
"She doesn't date."
"That's what she says."
"But we know she dated that Marcus guy."
"Do you want to get our nails done and talk about Bella's love life, or go to this baseball game and have a few beers?" I'm tired of analyzing every little thing she's told me. There was the first boyfriend her second year of college. Sounds like Charlie didn't allow dating in high school. Mr. Europe must not have treated her badly if she was still willing to give Marcus a shot. The path stops there. Marcus must've fucked up somehow, and now the rest of us have to suffer.
"God, you're such a grumpy bastard."
The crowd is thick outside AutoZone Park, but we don't have to wait in any lines. Budweiser, hot dogs, and nachos for dinner remind me of our old apartment and simpler times when we both had girlfriends instead of wives.
He catches a foul ball during the fifth inning, and after the game, we stick around to have it autographed by as many team members as possible. Our nephew, Alec, plays baseball, and he's a huge Red Birds fan.
Jared tosses it into the air and catches it during our walk back to Beale. "This little baby should score some points with the old lady. She hates shopping for teens, but she also hates giving gift cards."
"What did you do this time?"
"Nothing, yet. I'll hang on to it until I need it… or Christmas, whichever comes first."
It's a little past ten, and Bella is nowhere in sight when we get to Rum Boogie. Benny is at the door, tapping out a beat to the music blaring from inside.
"Is Bella done for tonight?" I ask.
"Yeah, she checked out a few minutes ago, but she's over at Silky's if you need her."
He nods. "No problem."
Felix is covering the gate across the street, and he waves us in after we flash our licenses. Alice is working the outdoor bar, and Bella is seated on the stool closest to the wall, eating a salad, and listening to the band. More than half of the tables in the courtyard are empty despite the game and the earlier crowd.
"Time to introduce me to your friend." Jared slaps my shoulder and passes me, walking straight for the bar.
He's going to embarrass the shit out of me, no doubt. That doesn't mean I have to make it easy for him.
I catch up to him and slide onto the stool next to Bella's before he can. "Hey."
She looks up, surprised. "Well, hey. Did we win?"
"Yeah. Seven to four," I say, trying not to grit my teeth at my idiotic brother for digging his elbow into my side. "Jared, this is Bella. Bella, this is my brother Jared."
"The fireman brother, right?"
"So you've heard about me. I'm the devilishly handsome, although weird, middle kid," he says, flashing her with his signature smile.
"I almost mistook you for the modest one," Bella says, catching that silver ring with her teeth to keep from smiling.
I have to laugh at the look on my brother's face. He's a likeable jackass, and most people don't call him on it. She must be immune to his charm.
"Let me guess," Alice says, leaning forward with her hands braced on the counter in front of me. "Ghost River."
Jasper walks outside to check on the courtyard and make sure everything out here is running smoothly. It is, so he joins us at the bar, shaking hands with Jared and taking the seat next to him.
"Good game?" he asks.
We fill him in, and Jared shows off his catch. Bella takes the ball from him to look at it.
"That's really cool that y'all waited around to get it signed for your nephew. Is he a fan?"
"Yeah. Alec loves baseball. He plays for White Station and a church team. The kid's a badass. Paul started him in little league when he was four. I'll be surprised if he doesn't get snatched up by the minors while he's in college."
"Wow." She glances over at Jasper and Jared. "Your family… You're pretty close, huh?"
"I guess." There are cookouts once a week at mom's house, when my brothers are lucky enough to be off on the same night. They send text invitations, but I skip most of the time unless it's someone's birthday or other special occasion.
Being around my brothers' kids is too much sometimes. The little ones cry and babble. The older ones want to throw footballs or play soccer in the yard. The teens complain and stay buried in their phones. My apartment is too silent and still after spending time with them.
"When is your daughter coming?" she asks.
"The first week of June."
"How old is she?"
"Twelve. She'll turn thirteen in November."
"God help you." She shakes her head, pushes her bowl away, and turns in her seat to face me. "Teenage girls are complicated creatures." The wicked twist of her smile tells me she's speaking from experience.
"I've heard some real horror stories from guys at the station."
"I bet you have."
Alice brings me another beer, and Jared orders a Coke for his second round since he'll be driving home soon. Jasper invites all of us to stop by his team's tent next weekend during the barbeque festival. Our conversation halts when a curvy blonde in a sundress taps Jared on the shoulder and interrupts.
"It's too early in the night to be switching to soda. Why don't you let me buy you a beer?"
"Thanks, but I can't," he says, holding up his left hand and twisting his wedding band back and forth. "It's stuck." Her lips turn up at the corner, and she angles toward me. "You don't want him, either," he continues. "Trust me. He's moodier than my wife."
Bella laughs, causing the rest of us to do the same. Blondie rolls her eyes and walks away with a hand on her hip.
"He's right, you know." Bella nods in Jared's direction. "Tonight is the first time I've ever seen you laugh."
That can't be right. Can it? "I laugh…"
"No, Edward, you don't. But you should. You have a very nice laugh." She looks away quickly, checking her phone. "Shit. It's almost eleven, and I've got to be at the clinic tomorrow morning at 7:30."
"I'll walk you to your tru-"
"I said get your hands off my fucking girlfriend. Now." Every head in the place turns to the center of the courtyard where two college kids are bowed up, tensed, and ready to go.
Felix catches my attention and nods, stepping away from his spot at the gate.
"Stay here," I say, putting a hand on Bella's knee for emphasis. I keep my eyes on the one closest to me, easing past Jasper and across the deck.
"She's not your fucking girlfriend, asshole," the one closest to Felix replies.
The girl in question is on the other side of her arguing beaus. I try to keep an eye on her, too, because it's not unusual for women to defend their men when alcohol is involved. This could get messy.
"What's the problem, guys?" Felix asks as he approaches. Before he can get between them, a shoving match ensues.
The girl starts crying when we pull them apart and pin their arms behind their heads.
"Who are you leaving with, sweetheart?" I ask. "Think fast, because I'm calling MPD if you're still here in two minutes."
She looks between them and steps over to Felix. He releases her boyfriend, and when she steps into his arms, all the tension leaves the man in front of me. "Fuck that," he says. "I'll leave. Just let me go, man."
"That's sounds like a good idea." I let him go, and he gives the girl one long look before walking away.
Felix escorts him to the gate, and I make my way back over to the bar. Bella is standing next to her stool with her bag already slung over her shoulder.
"Let me walk you to your truck."
She looks up at me and then glances at the couple talking quietly across the courtyard from us. "How did you learn to move so fast? I blinked, and you had him locked down."
"Two older brothers. I learned self-defense the old-fashioned way."
"And I'm a TACT lieutenant's daughter. I know a few moves of my own. Stay and have fun with your brother." She touches my arm. "I'll be fine."
"I've got to be at the station at eight. Jared has to get his kids off to school in the morning. This will give him a chance to finish his soda, and when I get back, it will be time for us to call it a night, anyway."
"You're not going to let this go are you?"
I shake my head.
"Lead the way," she says, waving her hand toward the gate. She waits until we're out on Beale to continue. "It's very… chauvinistic of you to assume I need an escort to my truck."
"Hmmm. My mother called it manners when she was raising us."
She smiles. "Three sons. She's a brave woman."
"We didn't give her much trouble, and she got a lot of cute grandkids out of the deal."
"I'm glad you had fun tonight," she says. "You should hang out with your brother more often."
The game was cool, and I did have fun – at Silky's talking with her. "You seem to think I never have fun."
We stop to wait on a passing taxi at Main and then cross to get to her lot. "Do you?" she asks, stopping at her truck. "Tonight was also the first time I've ever seen you smile. Well, a real smile. I'm not going to count the smirk thing you did with the lap girl the night I met you."
"She was not in my lap."
"Are you going to make it to Jasper's tent at the barbeque festival next weekend?" It would be nice to spend more time with her without Beale between us.
"Angela might be able to cover for me one night. She's going to let me know sometime this week. Will you be there?"
"I'm working Thursday, but I'll be there Friday and Saturday. It's a good time, and his team is badass."
I tap my watch. "It's 11:30. You'd better go."
"I'll see you this week, I'm sure," she says, opening the door to her truck.
"Maybe." Probably not, since I'm picking up as many shifts as I can at the station until Mack gets here, but I won't rule out a beer at Silky's on my one night off if it means I get to see Bella.
She waves and gets into the Explorer, and I wait to make sure it starts. Then I make my way back down my side of Beale to get back to my brother.
"She's hot for you," he says when I take my seat next to him back at Silky's.
Alice has her back turned to us, but she's close enough to hear.
"Man, I'm telling you… I thought she was going to squirm right out of her seat when you full nelsoned that guy. She's got it bad. All that flirting?"
"Let's go." I drop two twenties on the counter and pull him away from the bar by the arm.
"See ya, Edward!" Alice waves, giving me a big, toothy smile to let me know she caught every word.
"What is your deal?" he asks.
"That bartender is her friend, moron." He looks back at Alice long enough to wave goodbye before we exit through the gate.
"Then she probably knows exactly what I'm talking about."
We walk to his car in silence. Jared is full of shit – he always has been – but he's right about one thing.
Something was different tonight.
A/N – Happy New Year, guys! It's too cold here for this Southern girl to think clearly, and I'm high on cold meds, anyway, so I'll just say see you soon. Stay warm and well wherever you are.