Authors: Tess Oliver
Copyright© 2013 by Tess Oliver
Cover Design and Book Layout by: Nikki Hensley (www.hensleygraphics.com)
This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the writer’s imagination or have been used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locale or organizations is entirely coincidental.
All Rights are Reserved.
No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
Table of Contents
Strangely Normal Teaser
The throbbing in my head was compounded by the thwack my skull received as I hit it against the legs of my dresser. I groaned as I turned onto my side and came face to face with the side of my mattress. Either I’d been too drunk to find my bed before passing out or I’d started my tequila induced coma on the bed and at some point I’d fallen onto the floor. The morning tide rolled beneath the houseboat. Normally I wouldn’t have noticed the motion, but this morning it felt like a tsunami.
Pressing my fingers against my temples did nothing to ease the pain. With some effort, I hoisted myself up to sit on the bed and dropped my lead-filled head into my hands. The smell of freshly brewed coffee drifted into the room, and I took a deep breath. Remarkably, it seemed to revive me. The clanging noise of dishes being washed sounded like an explosion, but I had to hand it to Dray, he’d obviously recuperated much faster than me. The fact that he’d not only started the coffee but had decided to wash the dishes too was completely out of his character, but I wasn’t going to complain. I pulled on my jeans and headed to the galley for coffee. Hopefully it was black as tar this morning.
The second I stepped into the coffin-sized living room of the houseboat I knew something was off. It was clean. The couch and floor were actually visible. Apparently, a night of partying had given my roommate super powers. Either that or he didn’t have his portion of the rent. I was leaning toward the latter.
“Holy shit, Dray—” I stepped into the galley, and Cassie looked up from her newspaper. She pushed her black rimmed glasses up higher on her tiny nose and blinked up at me through the thick lenses. Her small, cute face hidden by giant glasses always reminded me of a Dr Seuss character. Only this Susie Who was a character I couldn’t live without. My tattoo parlor, Freefall, could not run without her.
Cassie returned her attention to her newspaper and held up a cup of coffee as if she’d read my thoughts, which she often did. “I’ve already put the sugar in. And it’s strong. I figured you’d need it.”
I took the hot cup in my hands. “You’re like an angel sent from heaven.”
She continued reading the paper. “Damn right I am.” Then she peered up at me through a curtain of long black bangs. “You two boys would never have made it home last night. It’s a good thing you called me.”
The night was coming back to me in a series of crappy events. Dray had talked me into going to a party, and somehow, we’d ended up in a drinking tournament. Then the night had gone black, which was probably a good thing. “Thanks for coming to get us, Cassie. I hope we didn’t ruin any plans you had.”
She lifted a brow, and her diamond stud twinkled back at me. “Well, I was deep in conversation with my cat when you called, but I’m sure he’ll get over it.” A moan of pain rolled through the houseboat. “He’s much worse off than you. At some point during the night, he must have gotten into a fight because he had swollen knuckles and a black eye.”
Thinking back to the evening made my head hurt more so I stopped. “Nothing new. For Dray, it’s not a successful evening unless he’s plowed his fist into someone’s face.”
Cassie took a sip of coffee. “He’s such an ass.” It was something she said often, and it was true. But I was the only person who knew how she truly felt about Dray.
Dray stumbled from his room and crashed into the bathroom with all the grace of a blind bull. A series of moans echoed through the boat.
Cassie stared toward the bathroom door. “Jerk. Deserves every minute of agony this morning.”
The boat lifted and sank, and a wave of nausea rolled through me. “This is why I hate drinking. Not worth the torment. Especially if you live on a boat.” I glanced into the front room. “Thanks for cleaning up in there.”
“You guys live like swine. Besides, it was too late to drive home, and I couldn’t find the damn couch.” She stood and put her cup in the sink. “Do you want me to make you some eggs before I leave?”
I put up my hand. “Please don’t mention—” I couldn’t even bring myself to say the word without wanting to puke. “Don’t mention those little white things.”
The bathroom door opened and Dray’s feet pounded the floor as he lumbered into the galley. He was shirtless, and he’d not even taken the time to button up the fly on his jeans.
I shook my head. “Shit, Dray, shut that before stuff falls out of there. We’ve got a visitor.”
“Where?” he looked around. One side of his face was puffy and bruised.
“Asshole.” Cassie walked over to the small refrigerator and grabbed out the bag of frozen peas. She tossed it around on her palm. “You need a new ice pack. This one’s ripped.” She handed it to Dray, but he waved it away.
“Too late for that. You should’ve put it on my face last night.”
Her lips twisted into a knot. “Oh, I’m sorry, but I didn’t have time to administer first aid because I was busy trying to keep you from falling off the dock and then there was the matter of getting you to your bed.” She looked at both of us. “Which, by the way, neither of you made it to.”
“Ahh, that explains why I woke up staring at the side of my bed,” Dray said with no attempt at a thank you or apology. He sidled past her and reached into the fridge. He pulled out yesterday’s leftover burrito. Then he grabbed up the bottle of hot sauce from the counter. Cassie and I watched in awe as he pulled back the greasy wrapper, shoved the burrito into his face, and then followed it with a hot sauce chaser.
I put my hand in front of my face. “I can’t watch this.”
“Why not?” Dray said over a mouthful of food. “I need energy for work.”
“Are you still on that construction site in Lakewood?” I asked.
“Yeah, but it’s coming to an end, and they don’t have much lined up.” He dropped the last half of the burrito into the trash. “But to hell with it. I’ve got some good fights lined up.” Dray worked construction during the day, but his real money came from the amateur fight scene. He was small, tough, and fearless. He was good enough to go pro but his lack of self-discipline made him too much of a risk for sponsors. Sometimes it seemed like Dray couldn’t feel pain like a real human, the result, no doubt, of a shitty upbringing. His dad was a monster, and his mom only worried about her own ass.
Dray grabbed a can of cola from the fridge and sucked it down. He scratched his stomach, burped loudly and winked at Cassie. “I’m out of here. Hey, Nix, don’t forget that Clutch is expecting us to go to that car show tonight. He’s finally unveiling that Pontiac.”
“Yeah, I remember.” Dray, Jimmy, or Clutch as we called him, and I had been best friends since high school. Dray had left without his diploma, but Clutch and I had somehow managed to snag ours. With the crazy shit we’d pulled in those days, it amazed me that we’d all survived our teens. Our high school had a tradition of creating a fake year book that was a spoof of the real thing. It was far more prophetic than the real thing too. Dray had been voted most likely to have a police record. Clutch had been voted most likely to scam his way to a million bucks, and I’d earned the distinction of most likely to leave behind a string of broken hearts. Dray and Clutch had made good on their titles soon after we left high school. It only took Dray a few months to get arrested for assault, and while Clutch hadn’t earned seven figures yet, he was close. But he really hadn’t scammed his way toward big bucks as much as he’d managed to invest in the right places. He’d always had an infatuation with cars, and his talent for fixing them had earned him a lot of money. I, on the other hand, might have left a few tears behind, but I had definitely not lived up to my title.
Cassie leaned back against the kitchen counter and watched as Dray disappeared into his room. Her dark eyes sparkled with longing. I walked over and kissed her cheek. “You’re way too good for him, Cass.”
“Yeah, I keep telling myself that, but it just never takes hold.”
“I’ve got to go by and check on my grandmother,” I said. “I’ll be at the shop in an hour.”
“Don’t be too late. Kristy the Crier is coming in for a dragonfly on her shoulder.”
I rolled my eyes. “Why the hell does she put herself through all the torture? And why does she torture me by coming in for tattoos that she hates getting?”
Cassie looked wistfully toward Dray’s door. “Some girls are just glutton for punishment, Nix. I’ll see you in an hour.”
I knocked twice but there was no answer. The flowers Nana had had me plant two weeks ago were already dead from lack of water. Like so many other things, she’d forgotten them already. I quickly fished the key from my pocket and unlocked the door. “Nana!” I called urgently.
“Here, Alex, in the kitchen.”
My shoulders relaxed at the sound of her voice.
A cup of tea was nestled between her thin, white hands as she stared dreamily out the window. She turned to face me. Her memory was leaving her, but the lines around her eyes still showed the incredible mind that had once been there. My grandmother had been an English professor at a private university, and my grandfather had been a dentist. They’d raised my sister and me since our early teens. Not an easy task. Nana had been in her late thirties when she’d had my dad and both she and my grandfather were nearly seventy when Dad died. They took us in without a thought.
Dad’s death was a day that was stuck in my head like a photograph, a picture that never faded and only seemed to get more vivid with time.
Nana turned her attention to the yard again. “You know, Alex, I was thinking maybe you could plant some flowers for me.” The lines along her cheeks deepened as she smiled up at me. “Some petunias might be nice.”
I nodded. Bringing up the fact that I’d just planted flowers for her would have been useless. “Nana, I won’t be over for dinner tonight.”
The phone rang. It was an old-fashioned phone with a long cord. Nana had fallen over it twice, once breaking her wrist, and so I’d tied the length of it up with baggie ties. I leaned down awkwardly so I wouldn’t drag the phone off the table. “Hello.”