I Pick You, page 16
Rydell ignored me the next day, too, assuring me that I had pissed her off, but I didn’t care. I knew my sister would be there soon, and Daddy was going out. I couldn’t help it that Rydell would be in the same place. I liked that bar. It helped with my Nashville nostalgia a lot. I expected to come to Florida and find techno bars, or rap, not country. That’s for damn sure. Even though my first week wasn’t so bad, Friday couldn’t come soon enough. I may have even prayed with the class that morning that Rydell would be on top of that bar again. I couldn’t wait.
“Hey, pretty girl. You want to go meet your Aunt Bridgette? She can’t wait to see you.”
“I fik it.”
I tried to take the plastic screwdriver from Bay and tell her she could fix it when she came back on Monday, but she wasn’t having that. Sister Dawn told me to take it and bring it back on Monday. My phone caught her attention when I placed her in her seat and the toy was in my back pocket.
“Wo, Wo,” she said, with my phone to her ear. God, I loved her. She was so stinking smart.
“You call Mommy, and Daddy will drive us to get Aunt Bridge, okay?”
“Mommy, wo. Wo, Mommy.”
“Bay, you said it. Yay,” I said, while clapping my hands with praise. “Say Daddy.”
“Grrr, say Daddy,” I prompted, while squeezing the tickly spot at the top of her knee.
Bay screeched and denied my request to trade her, cellphone for the screwdriver. No deal.
I honestly didn’t realize how much I missed her until I sat in that parking lot, waiting for a text from my sister. Bridgett was eleven when our mom went to prison and the only thing I had. Once we moved out to the country with Grandma Sarah, that’s all we ever had. If we hadn’t played with each other, we would have been bored out of our minds.
“Way go, way go,” Bay sang from the back seat, pulling my attention away from those years and back to her. I’m sure it was a coincidence, but Bay singing, Frozen’s, Let It Go song at precisely that moment was sort of ironic. And then she said something about a fish fry at noon.
I snickered, reflecting on how much she’d grown on me in such a short time. It was the first time I thought about signing that paper, promising to give her back. I knew why at that moment. Kit knew. She knew there was no way I wouldn’t fall madly in love with her. Then there was Rydell and why the hell I couldn’t get that chick out of my head.
“There she is. Let’s go get Aunt Bridgett,” I said, when I read the message.
Bridge—I’m here!!!! See you in five.
Blood was thicker than water, and the instant bond my sister had with my daughter proved it. Bay took up with her right away as well, but that didn’t really mean anything. Bay said hi to everyone.
“I’m so in love with her, Brantley,” Bridgette sighed, for at least the third time as I drove us out of the traffic mess.
“Yeah, so I’ve heard. She’s a pretty cool kid, huh, Bay?”
“S,” she replied.
“See, what I tell you?” I teased.
I took them out to eat before going home, and gently broke the news to my sister over desert.
“So, you going to be my babysitter and let me go out tonight?”
“Really? I thought you’d want to hang out.”
I didn’t feel the need to tell her about my night out when Kit was here, one week ago. “I do, but I haven’t been out in forever. I promise, we’ll hang out for the rest of the weekend.”
Bridgett looked to Bay and asked what she thought. “What do you say, Bay? You want to hang out with Aunt Bridge tonight?”
Everything was suddenly S. S was the answer to every questioned asked to Bay. Even if she meant no, the answer was S.
Bridgett was just as astounded by the house as everyone else. Her jaw dropped as soon as we entered the cul-de-sac. “Whoa. This is Lane’s house? Can you afford this place?”
“I mean, I guess so. I have enough savings to pay the bills for a few months, and I haven’t touched the money from Grandma yet, but I sort of wanted to take a trip with that. We’ll see when I get my first check next week. Fingers crossed,” I said with a smile, as the garage door went up and we drove in. I wasn’t too worried about money. I was quite frugal, and I didn’t really require much as far as stuff goes. I knew I would just have to get rid of it after a year for less than what I paid for it. I wasn’t looking to do that.
“Ima Phil on a wocks.”
I honestly understood every word Bay spoke from the backseat. It was her routine. She’d picked up on it that quick. I took her out of her seat, explaining to my sister that she wanted to take Phil to the beach and to the rocks. “It’s what we do when we get home every day. First, we hang up whatever artwork she did at school. We go to the beach, Bay plays in the pool while I grill our supper, she gets a bath, we watch a little TV, her mom calls at eight, and then bed. Kids need a routine to feel secure.”
“Is that so?” Bridgett questioned, with raised eyebrows.
“Well, that’s what Kit said.”
Bridgett frowned at me while retrieving her bags from the back. “I don’t think she meant that you had to be that consistent.”
“Hey, I’m new at this. Maybe I’m the one who needs the consistency.”
“Oh, wow, Brantley. This is amazing. You don’t have anything. Where’s all your stuff?”
I followed Bridgette while she walked around the empty rooms. An office that I kept the door closed to keep Bay from climbing up the shelves. A den with a beautiful fireplace, hardwood floors, and nothing else. A formal dining room with no table, a spare bedroom with no bed, and zero wall hangings. “I have stuff. We have all we need. Besides, Bay loves it. Look at the room she has to run and play in.”
Bridgette popped her head in Bay’s room, spinning around with a confused expression. “Where are all her toys, books, and baby dolls?”
“Kit brought her here on a plane. What did you want her to do, pack a toy box? She has things to play with.”
Bay slid down my leg and ran to her bed. She said, sis a wine, but I think she meant to say, this is mine.
“We’re going shopping tomorrow, lil Bay. I haven’t got to spoil you yet.”
I was happy she was here, for more reasons than a babysitter. She always did have my back. You would have thought she was the oldest, rather than me.
I showered and dressed in jeans with a plain black tee-shirt, but I didn’t leave until Bay was out. I didn’t want her to feel anymore insecure than she already felt, and I sort of wanted to surprise Kit with her new word. It made Kit’s day to hear her say mommy as plain as day and not mama. Bay learned a word. An English word.
The bar wasn’t as packed as it was the last time I was there. Still a good crowd, just not crazy. Rydell was the first thing I saw and she wasn’t even close to me. My eyes gravitated toward her all on their own, and she was staring right at me, shaking her head from side to side.
“How you doing? Can I get shot of Jack and a draft?”
Brenden shook his head at me, too, and then looked right at Rydell. “You hurt my sister and I’ll break your fucking neck. That’s a promise.”
My eyes did a quick snap from her to him and then to his arms, his huge arms. “Rydell is your sister?”
His sentence started out guarded, assuring me he could break me in half, but then it changed. “Yes, and her mouth never shuts up about you, but seriously dude. If you’re just here to play, find someone else. She’s still recovering from the last dick.”
Brenden walked away without another word, only raised eyebrows and a heavy sigh. “Not my story to tell.”
My attention left big brother’s bulges in his back for the angelic voice through the speakers.
“Listen up, guys. Seems as though we have a new cowboy in the house all the way from Nashville, Tennessee.”
I smiled right at Rydell, trying to make me fe
“Let’s see if we can’t get him up here and show us what he’s made of. Anyone want to place bets? I’ve got a twenty that says not all men from Nashville can sing. How about it BJ? You up for it?”
My feet were already moving toward her. I took the two steps to the stage in one and walked right up beside her.
“Let’s hear it, cowboy,” she quietly challenged through a shit-eating grin, thinking she’d one-upped me.
I wrapped my fingers around the mic with one hand and her wrist with the other one. “Hang on, where are you going? Good evening, folks. Everyone having a good time tonight? My name’s Brantley Jandt, and since my friend here has volunteered me to entertain you, I think maybe she should help me out. What do you think? A duo?”
“No, Brantley. Let go.”
“Duo, duo, duo,” I chanted in the microphone, while I tightened my grip to keep her from peeling my fingers from around her wrist. The crowd did just what I wanted them to do. They helped out, reciting the words over and over with me.
“I hate you.”
My eyes darted around to the back of the small stage, way smaller than I was used to, to the two lonely guitars. I jerked my eyes toward them, asking permission first. “Can I?”
“You really do sing?”
“Grab a guitar, let’s find out.”
“I’m not singing with you.”
“Oh yes, you are. You did this. What’s your flavor? Do you like it fast or slow?”
Again, Rydell tried to unpeel my fingers from her wrist, and again, I squeezed tighter. “Brantley, please don’t do this. I know everyone in here.”
“Yeah?” I questioned, as I looked down to her glossy lips, one eyebrow quirked, catching a scent of her perfume.
Her eyebrows took a dive to the bridge of her nose and her mouth formed into shiny duck lips. “One song, and I really do hate you.”
A huge smile took over my face. It was dumb, but one of the small things in life. There was nowhere I felt more comfortable than in front of a crowd. I probably would have taken it over sex if I had to choose. Rydell pulling me up there for her own sick pleasure to put me on the spot backfired. She was the one on the spot. I felt right at home. I placed the strap over my head and strummed a G cord, checking for tuning. It could have used some tweaking, but it wasn’t bad. “You’re the turkey trying to soar with eagles, not me. Do you know, Island’s In The Stream?”
Her head sort of jerked back a little, a look of surprise on her face. “Seriously?”
“What? You don’t like Kenny?”
“First concert, seven-years-old, Franklin County fair. Fan for life,” she quipped, short incomplete sentences as she took the mic from the stand.
Our private conversation turned back to the crowd as hands came together, clapping with the tune I had already started. Rydell and I spent the next three minutes, singing into each other’s eyes while the crowd watched and then cheered. The last note hadn’t even been played before they were reciting the same word, over and over. More, more, more.
“You got it in you?”
“No, what are you doing here?”
“Do you want the truth or do you want me to lie?” I questioned, hands already changing the tune to something to get the bar hopping.
“You came here for me.”
I wasn’t sure if it was a statement or a question, maybe even a realization. “I like you.”
“Do you want to do this right here?”
Rydell’s eyes moved from mine to the bystanders, waiting to be entertained, and then back to mine. “You scare me.”
Those were her last words to me. The next ones started in a song, my old buddy, Dan Seals. As soon as Rydell told the crowd to put on their bobby-socks at the start of the song, the gathering broke out to a floor of line dancers. But not everyone danced. Wendi stood on the other side of the room, a beer in one hand, and a look that I didn’t understand. Like she was disappointed, but in who? I glanced to her brother as we sang the words to the upbeat song in the same mic. He wore the same expression.
“Can I buy you a drink?” I asked, as we finished up and the real band began taking the stage.
“This is such a bad idea, Brantley.”
I sucked with words. I didn’t do well with serious, but I felt something. Something that I couldn’t even begin to explain. Singing with her like that, our voices coming together as one, and being close enough to feel her words on my skin was, I don’t even know. Cosmic. One of those marvels that couldn’t be explained. Quantum physics.
“You’re not just time that I’m wasting, Rydell.”
Rydell took a step back and then left the stage, stunned, unable to come up with a quick response.
I followed her, wondering myself where that came from. The plan I had just concocted in my mind was to make a joke, say something about her calling me BJ in front of all those people. I didn’t even know what the hell that meant, let alone where it came from. Jesus, Brantley, get a grip.
We stood in a circle with Wendi and her husband, John, for a few minutes and then grabbed a table. Awkward silence surrounded us for a few minutes, and we both kept our eyes and ears on the band. Rydell decided to speak at the exact same time as I did. I didn’t hear her, and I wasn’t sure whether she heard me or not.
“Go ahead,” I said politely, with a nod.
“I was just going to ask about Bay.”
“What about her?”
“I don’t know. I guess I’m still in shock. I didn’t peg you as that guy.”
I tilted my head, reading between the lines while manipulating the entire situation to benefit me. “Guys like me, right?”
“I’m sorry, but you have to admit, you don’t look like the typical single dad.”
There was something seriously wrong with me. This guilt thing took over with a strong urge to come clean. I didn’t even know what come clean meant. My right shoulder twitched while I mentally tried to knock the little angel in white off. I was Brantley Jandt. I lied. It’s what I did. I was the king of smooth talk and I was an expert at manipulating my way between a sexy pair of legs. Adulting was hard and no matter how much I fought it, I couldn’t stop it. It kept attacking me through strange situations like this.
“I’ve been a single dad for two weeks. Her mom didn’t just leave her. She’s working on something very important in another country. One year. I didn’t even want Bay. I never wanted her. I offered to pay for an abortion, and then I offered to sign off all rights to her if Kit, that’s her mom, would leave me alone. I never saw her because I didn’t want to. I paid child support directly to her to keep from going through all the paperwork bullshit the state requires. I saw her one time when she was a baby, but that’s it. Kit has pretty much forced her down my throat, but this is the first time I wanted her. I am that guy. I’m the kind of guy that could talk any girl in here out of her jeans. I’m the guy that runs from responsibility, I stay up partying way too late, and sleep all day. I suck at this dad thing, but for the first time in my life, I don’t feel like giving up on my dream is a bad thing. There’s more than one dream, and right now, Bay’s it. She’s everything and for the first time in my life, I’m in love. Whoa. I’m sorry. That just sort of spilled out.”
I swallowed a dry lump and chased it with the rest of my beer, wondering what had come over me. I couldn’t have just talked like a normal human being. I acted like an idiot, spilling out word vomit in mass quantities. Gah, freaking idiot.
Rydell stood and walked away, not one word, and I couldn’t really read the somber look on her face. Her eyes glanced to mine once when she walked behind the bar, pouring a draft beer, and then another.
I watched her bring us both a cold beer and waited for her to speak.
“So how did you end up here?”
“You are very talented. I didn’t think you could really sing. I thought you were some Uber driver, or something like that.” Rydell said, beer foam covering her glossy lips.
“Why the hell does everyone think I was taxi service? And you’re very talented, too. Now you. I sat here and puked stupidity all over you. It’s your turn.”
Rydell laughed and leaned in on her elbows, sexy eyes on me. “What do you want to know?”
I held her glance and I asked the loaded question, the one I that ate me alive, wanting to know. “Who crushed you?”
Rydell laughed, leaned back, and crossed her arms. “How did I know that’s what you were going to ask about?”
I shrugged. “Maybe you’re telepathic.”
“I am. I knew you were trouble the moment I laid eyes on you.”
“Who was he?”
Rydell took a noticeable breath, sipped her beer, and let it out. “Ryan McDuffie. CEO and co-owner of McDuffie and Truman.”
“Some consulting business out of New York City.”
“Where’d you meet him?”
“Right fucking here. He was here on business. Three years ago. They came in and bought the local factory here.”
JETTIE WOODRUFF SERIES:
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