Jackson shrugged and reached for another bottle of water. “I don’t know. My mom wanted me to meet her and my brother.” He gave Tony a dry look. “That’ll be fun.”
“Steve still having problems?”
“Oh, always.” Jackson rolled his eyes. “But hey, let’s coddle him because god forbid he has to stand on his own two feet.” He shook his head. “I shouldn’t say that. Anyway, I don’t know what it’s about but I suspect they’re going to ask me for money, or to prop him up a while or something, and I’m not going to do it.”
Tony nodded. Jackson’s relationship with his family was fraught, and was what had brought him into Tony and Karen’s orbit in the first place three years ago.
It had been an odd night that started with Jackson’s brother breaking into the shop and ended with them hiring Jackson after he’d offered to work for Chandler Designs to pay off the damage. Tony hadn’t been sure about it, but Karen had taken him aside and insisted. She’d said she gotten good feelings from Jackson and thought they should hire him. Skeptical but aware of Karen’s almost-perfect record when it came to people, Tony had agreed.
Since then he and Jackson had become good friends. He appreciated Jackson’s goofiness, knowing that underneath it his friend was solid and dependable, as he’d shown when Mary had shown up and needed help.
“Yeah, family can be tough,” Tony said.
“Heard from either of your parents lately?” Jackson asked.
“Dad’s off camping in Montana or something, and Mom’s all right I guess. Karen talks to her more.”
“Think I could send my brother to Montana?” Jackson asked with a short laugh.
“It’s probably beautiful out there,” said Tony, “but I have to say, I’m a city guy.”
“You could probably paint all kinds of stuff out there,” mused Jackson. “Big Sky country and all that.”
“Not worth it.” Tony shook his head. “It gets too cold and my stuff is abstract anyway. I don’t need to go to Montana to know to paint the sky blue. Besides I get nervous when I’m too far away from an actual paved road. All that nature would creep me out.”
“Dad sounded fine last I talked to him,” Tony said with a shrug. “He and Elise are good. They’re visiting her kids after the Montana trip and might make their way over here sometime. Mom’s opening her own boutique, I think Karen said. I forget if it’s clothes or knick-knacks or what. Maybe both.”
“That’s cool,” said Jackson.
“I guess so.” Tony shrugged. “I think Karen was hoping Mom would ask her to come up and help.”
“No. Karen thinks it’s because she doesn’t look the part, that Mom doesn’t want her tattooed daughter showing up in her little suburb. Unfortunately, she’s probably right, but to be honest, my mom was never the most maternal. I don’t think she’d have asked even if Karen dressed in skirts and heels.”
Tony had always felt bad for his sister on that count. He knew she wanted a closer relationship with their mother, but unfortunately it wasn’t reciprocated. For himself, he hadn’t cared as much, or claimed it anyway. Sometimes saying something often enough made it true, or close.
“That’s too bad. Karen looks great in anything,” said Jackson. At Tony’s raised eyebrow, he elaborated. “Said the friend who has absolutely no designs on your sister beyond platonic friendship.”
Tony laughed. “I know, you’re too hung up on Lacey anyway.”
Jackson gave him a look. “I am not hung up on Lacey. I admire her. Besides,” he said, “her aunts wouldn’t think I’m good enough for her, and they’re right.”
Tony shook his head and let it go. He thought his friend sold himself short, but didn’t think that was something he could fix, though he tried here and there. Tony knew that what he could do was limited. Even if he and Karen thought the world of Jackson, which they did, it didn’t matter if Jackson didn’t believe it.
“How long has it been since you’ve seen either of your parents?” Jackson asked. “And can you tell me your secret so I can use it?”
Tony scoffed out a laugh. “I don’t know, and the secret is to do something they disapprove of.”
“Damn, that hasn’t worked for me.”
“Maybe you didn’t have enough variance in expectations,” said Tony. “There was no way my dad with thirty years of military service was going to be happy with his son running a tattoo shop.” It was bad enough when Tony hadn’t wanted to go into the military himself, he thought. When he didn’t even want to pursue a traditional degree and career, he and his father had argued constantly.
“Too bad, man, because you’re good at it. Karen, too. Chandler’s is one of the top tattoo places around, every list I see.”
“Good to know.”
“All right, that’s enough slacking,” said Jackson. He gulped the rest of his water and put the bottle down. “Let’s do this again, up to a hundred, and if I win, you buy me dinner.”
“I do that half the time, anyway,” Tony said, standing to stretch.
“If you win, I’ll cook and you have to eat it,” said Jackson.
“That’s not winning. Nice try. You will not talk me into throwing this game.” Tony grabbed the ball and dribbled a little to loosen up. ”
“That’s okay, I’ll just cheat.” Jackson snagged the ball and arced in it for two points.
“You’re in trouble now, buddy,” Tony said.
“Hey, I win,” said Jackson.
Tony stared at him. “We just started. You only have two points.”
Jackson held up his arm and pointed to his watch. “Time to go to work, amigo. We’ll barely have time for the lunch you have to buy. Since you lost.”
“I didn’t lose,” said Tony with a half-hearted glare. “You cheated.”
“Gotta be flexible, man,” Jackson said. “Not my fault it’s time to go. Plus, I told you you could cheat. Not my fault you didn’t take advantage.”
Tony shook his head and wiped his face with a towel. “This was rigged. I’m taking it to the refs.”
Jackson laughed. Tony did too, feeling better than he had in a couple of days. Mary had shaken him a little, but now he had some perspective. Yeah, she was cute, and his protective instincts had gone into high gear when he saw someone vulnerable being threatened. That was all it was, he thought. Now the drama was done, and he’d settle down. There were more pressing matters, like where he and Jackson would get lunch before going to work.
“So, how are you?” Allie asked when Mary called her a couple of days after ending things with Dean.
“I’m good, Allie, really.” Mary smiled and switched the phone to the other side. “You don’t need to worry.” She was relieved to talk to someone she’d known for longer than a few days, and who was familiar with her history. Karen and the others had been wonderful, but there was a different comfort in talking to her cousin.