Tony parked and turned off the ignition. “I hope this goes smoothly,” he said as they got out of the truck. “And you.” He pointed at his friend. “Don’t. I know you. Don’t.”
“Me?” Jackson looked pained. “Don’t do what?”
“Don’t conspire with Karen to set me up with Mary.”
“Would I do that?”
Jackson got the food while Tony got the coffee. “I’m not nearly as sneaky as you think I am,” Jackson said. “Besides, I’ve already told you. You’re into her, you should ask her out.”
“Leave it alone, Jacks.” Tony stood aside with the drinks while Jackson knocked on the door. He heard Karen yell something and walked in as Jackson held the door.
“Hi, guys.” Karen came and took one of the cups. “Oh, good, more coffee.” She opened the lid and drank almost half of it in one go. “Wonderful.”
“How can you do that?” Tony shook his head. “It didn’t cool off that much.”
“Never mind. Where’s the food? I’m starved.” Karen led them into the kitchen, where Mary sat at the table, staring at her phone.
Tony didn’t like the look on her face as she tapped and scrolled. Nor did he like the bruise, which was darker than the day before. The slightly-large clothes she wore made her look small and vulnerable. It was hard not to go into angry protective mode, but he reined himself in; after all, he barely knew her and she might not appreciate that from a stranger.
“Hi, Mary,” Jackson said as he put the food down.
She looked up, startled, then relaxed. “Hello, Jackson. Thanks so much,” she said. “Hi, Tony.” She darted a glance at him but looked away quickly.
“No problem. Here, have something to eat.” Jackson unloaded the bag and pushed a sandwich towards her. “Lacey around?” he asked Karen, and Tony detected a hopeful note in his friend’s voice, and some disappointment when Karen said Lacey was at work.
“Oh, thanks, but I’m not hungry,” said Mary.
“You should eat,” said Tony, and winced when Mary jumped. He took a breath and ignored Karen’s glare. “Sorry, I’m not a morning person. But really, you should have something. Ow.” He rubbed his arm where his sister had smacked him.
“He’s not the most tactful, but he’s right, Mary,” said Karen. “Don’t make yourself sick on top of everything.”
“I know. Thanks.” Mary looked at Tony and held his gaze, which he took for progress. “I appreciate the offer, but I really couldn’t eat right now. I’m too nervous. I think once I have my stuff, I’ll be good.” She set her phone down and he saw her hands shaking a little; she really was nervous, he realized.
“Do you have a lot of stuff?” Jackson asked as he ate.
“No, mostly clothes,” said Mary. “My computer, my portfolio—that’s about it. I, um, started to get it together last night so it should be pretty quick.”
Tony saw her put her hands in her lap, presumably to hide the trembling.
“So no furniture? No big sofas or anything?” Jackson asked.
“The biggest item is a sewing machine, and it’s not that big and all packed up.”
“Thank god.” Jackson made a show of wiping his brow in relief and Mary laughed.
Tony ignored the twinge of jealousy that tugged at him.
“Are you ready, Mary?” Karen asked as they finished.
“No, but let’s go.” Mary gave one last glance at her phone. “The sooner we do this, the sooner it’s over.”
Tony and Jackson followed Karen and after about twenty minutes, they pulled up in front of a brick-front two-story townhouse. The tiny lawn was neat and the house looked well-maintained. Tony was surprised; he’d expected something different. More ostentatious, perhaps, since Dean had seemed like the type to want to show off.
“Ready?” Jackson asked as they joined the women.
“As I’ll ever be,” Mary said, but didn’t move.
“Come on, it’ll be quick.” Jackson slung an arm around Mary’s shoulders and nudged her forward. Mary gave him a startled look, but didn’t make him move his arm.
Damn it, Tony thought. How can he do that? If I’d done it, she’d have run away.
They reached the front steps and Dean opened the door.
“Mary, you’re back. Thank god, I was so worried.”
Crap, Mary thought as she stopped. She hadn’t realized how much she’d been counting on Dean not being home. She didn’t buy his concern for a second.
Jackson gave Mary’s shoulder a squeeze, which gave her some encouragement. She liked Jackson and his laid-back personality, which made her wonder why she wished it was Tony next to her instead. That was stupid. He didn’t even like her. Focus, she told herself.
“Hello, Dean. I’m here for my things.”
“Look, Mary, you’re overreacting, like you always do. You know you want to come back. You don’t need these people here.” He was performing the role of the worried boyfriend, but she saw it was just that—an act.
“These people are my friends,” she said, “and I don’t want to come back. I want to get my things and leave.”
“Come on, we can talk about this,” Dean said. He reached for her but she jerked back and his expression grew angry. “I’m not letting these strangers in my house.”
“Then we’ll wait here until you let us in,” said Karen. “Take your time, we’ve got all day.” She leaned against the stair railing and pulled out her phone, as though she had nowhere else to be.
Mary appreciated the gesture, but knew it wasn’t true. She wanted to get this done and not impose on them any longer than she had to.
“Mary, please.” Dean tried again. “Just come inside and the two of us can figure it out. By ourselves.”
“Look, dude,” said Jackson, “just step aside and let the lady get her things.”
Mary was about to say she’d go in alone, just to get it over with, but stopped. She saw what Dean was doing: working to get her inside alone so that he could try to convince her to come back and be his punching bag, maybe literally, again. She’d almost fallen for it, but after talking with Karen and Lacey, she could see through him.
It struck her that having friends was giving her the strength to do this. All her life, she’d been told she should only rely on herself, and maybe a few select others. To do otherwise was to impose on people and a sign of weakness. Because of that mindset, she’d often gone along with the flow in situations, like this one, that were detrimental to her.
That was wrong, and she filed it away for later. She could handle this now. She patted Jackson’s hand and went up so that she was on the porch with Dean.
“Dean, let us in or I’ll call the police.”
He laughed and gave her a condescending look as his concerned façade fell away. “Mary, for fuck’s sake, you’re being melodramatic. Plus, I work in the mayor’s office.”
“I don’t care. I’m trying to collect my things, and you won’t let me, so you’re not leaving me much choice.” She pulled out her phone and began looking for the local police number.