Dad had a football. It was the first good news Mike had heard since leaving his house for the airport. After he was forced to trudge back down to the dining room and eat dinner without his girl, Randy told him about the football, and about the game they were having first thing the next morning. It had been raining – still was – the grass wet under their shoes, mud sliding, raindrops pelting them. It had been the perfect exertion, the best way to shake off the mood he was in…
Or, at least, it had been. Until Tam had put his elbow in Ryan’s eye. The others had bought the “it was an accident” story, but Mike knew better.
“You wanna explain that to me?” he asked, and paced a circle through the rapidly-expanding puddle that had dripped off his clothes and down onto the tile of the vestibule.
Tam had his arms folded, his wet clothes clinging to skin that almost looked blue in the cold gray light, his hair plastered flat to his head and dripping at the ends, leaned back against the wall. “It was an accident,” he repeated in a wooden voice and stared at the opposite wall.
“Tam, after fourteen years, I know damn well you don’t ever mark anyone up on accident.”
Tam swallowed, the muscles in his throat working, and his eyes stayed trained and lifeless on the wall.
“Do you know,” Mike blocked his line of sight, forcing him to make eye contact, “how pissed Delta and her mom are gonna be that one of the groomsmen has a black eye in the pictures?”
Tam’s eyes were the translucent, faraway, dangerous color that had preceded every one of his violent explosions. “Mike,” his voice was detached. “Let me ask you something. Do you give a damn about anything besides pictures?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
He looked away, out toward the heavy wood and iron doors. “Nothing.”
But it meant something, because the excursion into town – the sleepy tourist village of Cong – devolved into exactly what Tam’s eyes had hinted at in the vestibule.
“You’re quiet,” Walt observed as Mike reached for his beer again.
They were in Talon’s, a local pub Tam had scouted the day before on a guided bus tour into the village. It was dark, smelled of smoke and spilled beer, and not the typical tourist trap bar, for which they were all thankful.
He shrugged. “Tired, I guess.”
Lie: he was keyed up as hell. But Walt wasn’t the brother to have a heart-to-heart with over beers. And his other brother was with Jo: those two were thick as thieves this week.
Whatever Walt was about to say was overwhelmed by a sound like a gunshot. His head snapped up, adrenaline flooding his system in an automatic reaction, and his eyes went to the bar, to where Tam and Ryan had been sitting. They were on the ground now and there was nothing accidental about the way Tam was pounding on the other guy’s face.
“Shit,” Mike was on his feet and scrambling between tables before Walt could get turned around. He’d watched his friend fight, and he knew there was no posturing or hesitating. When Tam snapped, he snapped. He went to a place inside his head that was nothing but color and sound and it took long, harmful moments for him to come back to the real world. Mike had never seen Tam go after someone who didn’t deserve it, but it had still always been hell to try and talk them out of the trouble he’d caused.
Randy was shoving his way to the bar, but Mike got there first, pushing past Mitch who had his hands held uselessly in front of him; the poor idiot had probably never seen a fight in real life.
“Tam!” He grabbed his friend’s wrist as it drew back, at least tried to – it was slick with blood and moving too wildly. Damn…Mike couldn’t get a good look at Ryan’s face, but it had to be bad. “Tam…dude….” He did all he could, grabbing him around the waist and hauling him back. Tam fell back against him and Mike looped his arms under and around Tam’s shoulders, effectively stopping his swings.
“Come on,” he gave him a shake and dragged him back. “Snap out of it.”
Tam was wild, breathing in furious gulps and lunging against Mike’s hold: it was all Mike could do to hold onto him. He was bigger, and he was stronger, but strength paled in comparison to blind rage. God knew why Ryan was the object of that rage, but as Mike glanced over his friend’s heaving shoulder and watched Walt stoop to check on Ryan, his mind went to Jo, went to the warning he’d given Ryan in the upstairs hall.
Ryan’s square, pretty face was a mess of blood, thick red tendrils dripping down onto the hardwood as he got up on his hands and knees. It was an ugly picture as it was, and then he got sick all over the floor and his own hands.
“Jesus, Tam,” Mike said just above a whisper. “You trying to kill the guy?”
Walt stepped around Mitch and put himself in both of their faces, expression grim. “I told you,” he snarled. “I told you this shithead was gonna get somebody hurt!”
Tam kicked Walt, caught him in the soft spot right above his belt.
The bar around them exploded in sound, voices layering and shoving against one another. Mike held tight to Tam and focused every ounce of energy on trying to control him. Then Dad was there, and he plucked Tam up by the collar of his jacket like he was a little boy again, and dragged him away from Mike and through the jostling pack of bodies.
Ryan was making a noise that might have been a gag and might have been a sob. Walt had a hand propped on the bar, the other held over his stomach where he’d been kicked, his grimace furious. Mike scanned the crowd, read the shock on all the faces, and his eyes landed on Jo, big-eyed and frozen. Her gaze touched his for only a moment, but never went to Ryan – to her puking, bleeding, crumpled date – and then she whirled and went for the door to the pub.
Ryan’s nose was broken. Billingsly had its own little infirmary, like a cruise ship, and the nurse on duty thought he likely had fractured orbitals too. Either way, he looked like absolute hell – face a swollen purple mockery of what it had been before – and the only treatment was ice and pain killers. Mike stood propped against the exam room’s wall, arms folded, and watched the nurse gently pull the halves of a tampon that had been used to staunch the blood flow from Ryan’s nostrils. The indignity of it all.
“You’ll be alright, luv,” the nurse soothed, and gave Ryan a little pat on the knee. “Get some rest.”
He climbed down off the table with care, still dizzy and disoriented. Beth had wanted to take him to a hospital, but that was a long drive, and he hadn’t blacked out, so the concussion was minor. Mike was glad he’d been content with the infirmary because at the hospital, he wouldn’t have had a chance to get him alone.
“Come on, I’ll walk you up,” Mike offered, congenial, and pushed away from the wall.
“Thanks.” Ryan’s voice sounded off: muffled almost. He’d bit his own lip and it was swollen now. He fell into step to Mike’s left and set a slow pace out through the swinging door and down the long, narrow corridor that had been reserved for servants once upon a time.
Unlike the sumptuous above-ground floors of the castle, the basement was low-ceilinged and dimly-lit, serviceable brick walls and modern tile floors. It was a long walk down to the elevator so Mike let the quiet stretch a moment, their footfalls the only sounds.
“So,” Mike finally said, “what’d you say to Tam to set him off?” He thought he sounded innocent enough.
“I dunno!” came tumbling out of Ryan in a sudden, desperate surge. The quick, sharp defense of a guilty man. “He was sitting there all alone and I asked him what was wrong, and the next thing I know…” he made an empty gesture toward the hall, at a loss.
Mike felt a nasty non-smile threatening. “Try again.”
“He was crazy. He…” Ryan’s step faltered as he registered try again. “What?” His mangled face went pale as he snuck a sideways glance at Mike.
Mike had his hands in his pockets and he shrugged. “I’ve known Tam a long time. Guy’s got a temper.” He met Ryan’s gaze and was rewarded by a facial twitch. “But he always has a reason. What’d you say to him?”
Ryan’s tongue darted out between his split lips, wetting them. “N-n-nothing. I swear, he just -,”
“You didn’t, oh, I dunno, say some shit about getting with my sister, did you?”
His eyes were swollen slits, but the reaction in them was plain.
“See,” Mike kept his tone light as they progressed to the elevator, “Tam grew up with me. With all of us. Jo’s like his little sister too.” Though the two of them had become more and more distant over the past few years. “And the only reason I can think Tam lost it with you is that you were being a creep about her.”
“No. Shit, no, Mike, I wouldn’t -,”
The blatant lie prodded at his tissue-thin patience. Mike lunged, so fast Ryan let out a startled cry, and he met no resistance as he slammed Ryan up against the bricks and wedged his forearm in under his chin, pressing hard against his windpipe until the guy’s eyes got bigger than the swelling should have permitted.
“Listen here, shithead,” Mike said through his teeth, and felt his hands curl into fists. “You’re done with Jo. I’m real sorry about your face, but I’ll turn it into hamburger if you don’t lay off. If you wanna chase big-eyed little innocent girls,” he leaned into him, pushed against his adam’s apple until he gasped, “you look somewhere else. Understand?”
Ryan managed to nod.
“Good.” Mike released him and watched him slump against the wall, complexion an unhealthy shade of paste under his darkening bruises. Mike gave himself a shake, grappled for control of his adrenaline spike. He took a deep breath. “Okay, let’s get you to bed, yeah?”
Ryan stared at him a long, disbelieving moment before he finally got his feet working.
Jordan was a closet bookworm. He liked high fantasy and mystery and horror, political thrillers and the occasional biography. He’d never been able to stand anything that so much as smelled of romance, which was ironic considering he’d spent four years caught between Romeo and Juliet. This Juliet might have liked a mud football game now and then, but she was still a pining female.
He wasn’t really asleep, and when the pounding started on the other side of the door, he flipped back his covers with relief. Finally. It was long since time the Capulet and Montague in his life got back on speaking terms.
He clicked on the lamp and heard Jo sit up in her bed over by the window. He checked over his shoulder and saw that she had a hand held loosely over her mouth in that universal sign of feminine hesitance. She blinked, but she didn’t say anything, so he crossed to the door, threw the chain and opened it.
Tam was the kind of drunk that stripped away good judgment and fueled overly emotional responses. He was propped in the door with a bottle, and for a moment, Jordan wondered if maybe this wasn’t the sort of thing he should allow to happen. But Tam’s eyes came to his and they were clear, focused.
“Hi, Jordie,” his voice was edged with tension; his brawl with Ryan hadn’t eased the fight in him. “Kindly get the hell out while I have a chat with your sister.”
He debated, just a fraction of a second. Tam’s look became pleading: You know I won’t hurt her. And Jordan did.
He left them to talk or…whatever the hell they needed to do that he didn’t want to know about. No way was he staying within a fifty foot radius of the room while…whatever…happened. But that left him with a problem: it was after midnight and he was wandering the halls in his boxers. Sweet.
He tried to shove his hands in his pockets, but didn’t have any. There was a housekeeper with a cart full of clean towels heading toward him and he gave her a serious, flat look when she goggled at him; she kept moving.
“This is just great,” he told a gilt-framed painting of a dandy on horseback. He couldn’t go down to the bar for a drink like this, and he couldn't go knocking on doors and admit that he’d been kicked out of his room so Tam and Jo could…whatever. This wedding was embroiled in enough bullshit without him adding to it.
He’d decided he would find a linen closet somewhere to take a nap in when he heard a startled female, “Oh,” behind him, and turned to find one of Delta’s bridesmaids standing in the hall outside the room opposite the painting.
God knew what her name was, but he recognized the little brunette with the heavy blonde highlights and wide blue eyes. She was – to him – the prettiest of the bridesmaids; he’d always liked truly pretty in favor of fake tan and sex appeal. Her eyes went up and down his narrow frame, moving over his boxers and t-shirt. “What are you doing out here?” she asked, and the implied rest of the question was: dressed like that.
He shrugged and played it casual. “Taking a walk.” He gave her the same up/down look she’d given him. “What about you?”
She was wearing a terry cloth robe over her pink satin nightgown and she pushed it back to prop a hand on her hip. She shrugged. “Same. Walking.”
Without his brothers’ height, without a GQ model face and killer hair, he’d always had to use what he had to his advantage. He was good at spotting opportunities – damn good.
He snorted. “Who are you sneaking out to see?”
She reached up and twirled a lock of hair around her finger, feigning innocence, then sighed. “Ryan.”
Jackpot. “You didn’t hear?” he kept his voice mild. “Atkins got into a bar fight tonight. He looks like he used his face to stop a bus right now.”
She was disappointed. Her little shoulders sagged. “Damn.”
“But, you know,” Jordan pressed his luck, “I’m not busy…”
She laughed, just a quick little gasp of a laugh. That was okay; he was used to that. He waited, and her smile turned speculating, her eyes lingering on him. Jordan could feel her weighing the potential. Finally, she shrugged. “What the hell. Come in. My roommate’s asleep.”
Ryan Atkins may have had girls hunting him down, but the morning after, a won’t you please and a what the hell weren’t any different: the outcome was the same.