Author:Amanda Dick

This time next year, I should just lock myself in my house and unplug the phone. I wasn’t fit to be around people. Meeting Em’s double at the café today had only succeeded in making me crazier than usual.

“I’m sorry,” I said, suitably contrite. “You’re right.”

“Of course I’m right,” Henry snapped, picking up his cup once again and taking a quick sip. “I’m always right.”

Without breaking into a smile, he winked at me, indicating the half-eaten chocolate éclair on the table in front of me. “You going to eat that? I hate to see good food go to waste.”

Not so fast, old man. I picked up the éclair and took a large bite. Henry shook his head, as if I was a giant pain in the ass. He got up to retrieve the beaten-up aluminium teapot from the kitchen counter, muttering under his breath as I chewed. Pouring himself a refill, he sat down again.

“Bridget has the birthday memorial at the beach again tomorrow morning. You coming to that?” he asked, deftly changing the subject while subtly letting me off the hook at the same time.

I nodded, finishing my mouthful before I spoke. I knew better than to talk with my mouth full in front of Henry. It was one of his pet hates.

“Yep. She told me she switched it to the morning so it wouldn’t interfere with Vinnie’s party, which makes sense, I suppose. I haven’t seen Alex lately, have you? I’m guessing he’ll be there, but she didn’t say.”

“It makes no difference if he’s there or not – you’ve got as much right to be there as he has.”

“I know. But… you know what he’s like.”

It was hard to believe that Alex and I used to be good mates. These days, he treated me like a suspect. If it wasn’t for the fact he was Em’s brother, I would’ve sorted the situation out long ago, but I just felt like doing something about it now would only make things worse. Henry and Bridget had enough to deal with without Alex and I at each other’s throats. Until I could figure out another solution, I’d resigned myself to that fact that I had to just take it on the chin. I tried to stay away from him as much as I could, but Raglan was a small town.

“Don’t let him scare you away. That boy has problems, no two ways about it. But they’re his problems, not yours. He’s going to have to deal with them himself. God knows, we’ve tried to help him but there’s only so much we can do.”

Alex was unpredictable, that was for sure. He had a nasty habit of lighting up at the slightest thing, especially when he’d been drinking, which seemed to be all the damn time lately.

“Bridget wants you there,” Henry said. “I want you there and I’m sure Jasmine and Vinnie want you there. That should be enough.”

“I’ll be there, don’t worry.”

This little ritual that Bridget had orchestrated over the past few years wasn’t really my thing. It seemed to help her though, and that was the only reason I went along with it. Bridget had more right to call the shots than I did. I was just the boyfriend. Ex-boyfriend. God, what the hell was I anyway? Was there even a word for it?

My own way of marking Em’s birthday was more private. My grief wasn’t a spectator sport, it was something between me and Em and I wanted it to stay that way.

Maia’s face flashed through my head.

I’d better tell him. I didn’t want his death on my conscience, too.

“Looks like Bridget’s got a new helper at the café,” I said, playing with the lid on my paper coffee cup as I looked across the table at him.

MARLOW WAS NOTHING if not persistent. He lounged at an almost obscene angle on the bar, grinning at the pretty blonde tourist who was doing her best to get rid of him politely.

“Any minute now,” Vinnie said, taking another sip of his beer as we all watched the drama play out for the third time that night.

Marlow’s eyes slid down to the girl’s cleavage with less subtlety than a sledgehammer to the face.

“For Christ’s sake,” I groaned, hanging my head. “Every single time! Has he learnt nothing? I can’t watch, it’s too painful. Tell me when it’s over.”

I took a huge gulp of beer, avoiding the spectacle. Vinnie and Joel continued to watch Marlow with a combination of awe and disgust. I’d known him forever, but the dude had very few boundaries. Apparently, the pretty blonde had picked up on that. Suddenly, she got up, tossing her hair over her shoulder as she grabbed her bag. Marlow grinned up at her from his seat at the bar, clearly missing the signs. His face fell as she walked away, and he glanced over at us wearing a lost expression that set Vinnie and Joel howling with laughter. I felt sorry for him, in a way. He tried really hard, but I think that was the problem. He came across as desperate, and that was definitely not a selling point. Luckily, he bounced back pretty quickly. It was one of the things I admired most about him.

“Frosty bitch,” he said, collapsing back into his chair across from me and picking up his beer. “She doesn’t know what she’s missing.”

“Pretty sure she does, that’s why she left,” Joel chuckled. “Dude, anyone’d think you’d never seen tits before, the way you keep staring at them.”

“What do you mean?”

“Wait – have you seen tits before?”

Marlow’s cheeks lit up bright pink, making him look at least ten years younger.

“Not that I don’t love tits as much as the next guy, but look who just walked in,” Vinnie said, nodding in the direction of the bar.

I followed his gaze and my smile dried up, along with my thirst. Alex leaned on the bar, waiting to be served. Fan-bloody-tastic. The very last thing I needed tonight was his bullshit, especially after the day I’d had.

“All hail the Prince of Darkness,” Joel quipped.

“Just ignore him,” I said. “I’m gonna get going anyway.”

“How much longer are you gonna let this shit go on?” Vinnie warned, eyes narrowing. “I keep telling you – you need to stand up to him. He needs to hear it straight. If you won’t do it, I’d be glad to –“

“To what? What can you tell him that I haven’t told him already?”