“Where’s your mom, again?” Layla asked me, ignoring this.
“She and my dad are at a conference.”
“Now, don’t get any ideas about parties,” Ames said, holding up his hands. “That’s what I’m here to prevent.”
“I wasn’t going to have a party,” I said quietly.
“Sure.” He grinned, then looked at Mac. “You guys want some dinner? Or a drink? Nonalcoholic only. House rules.”
“No, thanks,” Mac said, just as his phone beeped. He pulled it out, glancing at the screen, then said to Layla, “Another order. I should get going.”
“Lucky me,” Ames said. “Spending the evening with two lovely ladies.”
In response, Mac just looked at him, his expression flat and unsmiling. After a beat, he said to Layla, “You left your stuff in the truck.”
“Oh,” she said. “Right. I’ll come out with you.”
He turned to walk to the door. As she fell in behind him, she looked at me, clearly wanting me to follow. Before I could, I felt Ames put his hand on my shoulder. “Little help cleaning up, Sydney?”
I followed him back into the dining room, where he gathered up his plate. Lowering his voice, he said, “When your mom calls, you know I have to tell her about this.”
“I’m not doing anything wrong,” I said.
“She didn’t expect you to have company, though.” I looked at him, his head bent as he picked up his napkin, and felt a surge of anger bolt through me. Like my mom was anticipating what he’d intended for that evening. Turning toward the kitchen, he added, “Don’t worry, I’ll spin it the best I can. You just owe me.”
To this, I said nothing, instead just standing there as, slowly, Mac’s truck began backing down my driveway. When he reached the road, his headlights swept across the window, catching me in their sudden glow. He sat there for a beat. Another. Then, slowly, he drove away.
* * *
“Okay,” Layla said, sitting down opposite me. “What the hell is the deal with that guy?”
I looked down at my hands. After an awkward conversation in the kitchen, with Ames hanging on our every word, she’d asked to see my room, giving us an excuse to go upstairs. I shut the door behind us; she went to lock it, only to find there was no way to do so. When Peyton first got into trouble, my mom had removed the locks from all the bedroom doors, implementing the policy of Knocks Not Locks. It was, apparently, about respect and trust. Or so she said.
“He’s my brother’s best friend,” I told her now. “And he creeps me out.”
“Of course he does.” She said this flatly: a fact. “He’s creepy. He was with you that day, right? In the courthouse.”
That explained the expression when she first saw him. Never forget a face. “Yeah. He, um, tends to stick pretty close.”
She shuddered visibly. “What does your mom say?”
“She loves him. It’s like he’s filled the hole my brother left, or at least made it less empty.”
“What about your dad?”
“He doesn’t notice much of anything when it comes to me.”
I’d never thought this before, actually, but as soon as I said it, I realized it was true. My mom’s distraction was new, a result of cause and effect. My dad’s had always been there. Before Peyton, it was work. Before work, who knew.
“Well, that sucks,” she said. She looked around my room. “So he’s here with you both nights?”
“I was supposed to go to a friend’s. She got sick, so my dad asked him and his girlfriend to fill in last-minute.”
“Stomach bug,” I explained. “Apparently.”
“I’m sure he wasn’t exactly disappointed,” she replied. “If he even invited her in the first place.”
“You think?” I asked. She just looked at me. “The candles and dinner were a bit unexpected.”
“Ugh.” She shuddered. “I’m glad you called me.”
“I’m glad you came.”
She smiled. “We’ll deal with tomorrow night later. For now, though, I need to get a peek inside your closet. It looks massive. It’s a walk-in, right?”
What followed was an extended tour of not only my closet—which was a walk-in, not that you could tell with the door closed, as it had been—but the entire house, with me leading the way. As Ames stood outside, smoking in the overhang of the garage, Layla oohed over the sunken tub in my parents’ bathroom (“Is that marble?”), wowed about the War Room (“Your mom is so organized!”), and repeatedly admired all the environmentally friendly touches my super-green mom had implemented throughout (“I can barely get my parents to recycle”). It wasn’t until I took her downstairs to see the workout room, though, that she really got impressed.
It wasn’t the elliptical, weight set, treadmill, or mounted wide-screen TV on the wall that did it, but the door behind the stack of yoga mats, straps, and blocks. When I opened it, she let out a low whistle.
“Oh, my God. Is that . . . a recording studio?”
“A partial one,” I replied, fumbling for the light switch. Once on, it illuminated the small booth, soundproofed, as well as the board of various switches and knobs. No one had been inside for a while; the air smelled stale, and there were a couple of to-go coffee cups, along with a guitar on the small couch, resting as if it had just been put there. “It’s my brother’s. They were just about to paint when everything happened.”