My eyes had to be deceiving me. I wasn’t actually seeing my perfect big sister hanging on the arm of my client and sometimes make-out partner. I was seeing something much less upsetting, like a Mafia hit or an escaped saltwater crocodile on a bloodthirsty rampage.
I blinked rapidly, but the scene refused to resolve into anything other than what it actually was: Hunter. On a date. With my sister.
I will not cry in public, I repeated desperately to myself as I pressed my lips together and tried to laser burn through Hunter Knox with my eyes. I have no reason to cry in public, and therefore I will not cry in public, I will not, I will not, I will not!
The onions in my spring salad were a little over-fresh, and that was the only reason my eyes were watering.
I reached up to wipe them with my napkin, and Hunter, displaying the kind of fine timing that lost the Battle of Waterloo, chose that moment to meet my gaze.
His eyes widened, and his mouth dropped open slightly. He looked as surprised to see me as I had been to see him. But surely he would have known to expect me at a family dinner with his new girlfriend; why was he bothering to put on a show? Did he think I could be fooled that easily?
Did he think I wouldn’t realize that he had been dating my sister the whole time he had been making out with me? And then something else hit me.
I can never tell Paige.
Hunter strode over, never taking his eyes off me, practically pulling Paige in his wake like a tugboat. “Ally! I wasn’t expecting you.”
“Yeah, I bet,” I almost growled.
A response like that normally would have won me a full-on glower from my mother, complete with a hissed ‘Allison Brierly Beignet Bartlett, that is not the way a lady comports herself;’ fortunately for me, my mom was in full match-maker mode, and wouldn’t have noticed if little green men fell out of the sky and demanded we worship them. So my sarcasm went sailing right over her head like it was filled with helium.
“Oh, I can barely ever manage to drag Allison away from her dreadful work,” my mother said, sparing me barely a half-second of disappointment before turning the sun of her approval back to Paige, batteries on full. “Not like my Paige, what a good girl! Always RSVPs, so considerate, and what an eye for detail! Oh, any man would be lucky to have such a wife, someone who understands the importance of little things, like having dinner and a martini ready when a man comes home from a demanding day of work—”
My mom chattered on in a state of rapturous low-level misogyny, while Paige and Hunter made matching pained-but-polite faces at her ability to mentally time travel back into the 1950s. I bet they’d be the kind of couple that matched everything. Matching towels. Matching golf bags. Matching T-shirts with cutesy sayings like—
I think I’m going to be sick.
“I’m going to the restroom,” I announced. “If the waiter gets back before I do, somebody order me a white zin. And have them leave the bottle.”
“We’re having lamb, dear, with that a more appropriate order would be—”
“Actually, Ally, I have to go over some numbers with you and make a phone call to my CFO,” Hunter interrupted apologetically, his puppy dog eyes lowered in deference to my mother. He didn’t need to have bothered—having a Y chromosome absolved you of pretty much anything in my mother’s book. “Mrs. Bartlett, Paige, if you’ll excuse us—”
Great, now I didn’t even get a full private moment to compose myself.
“Oh, but couldn’t it wait until after the dinner?” my mother pleaded, already folding like wet tissue paper in the face of an assertive man. “All this talk of business, so terrible for the digestion…”
“Ah, actually…” he leaned over and whispered something in my mother’s ear. She beamed, and I caught just enough of his whisper to gather that he was pretending to want my input on a surprise present for Paige.
I deeply pondered how much it would hurt my career if I walked up to him and kicked him in the balls right at that moment.
I mean, I’d never get hired again, but it just might be worth it.
“Oh, I suppose we can spare you for a few minutes then!” My mother beamed up at Hunter like he was the Second Coming of Christ, and then wagged a finger in my direction. “Don’t you go keeping him too long, Allison; remember, he’s your sister’s!”
“How could I forget?” I said with a smile so brittle you could have put peanuts in it and sold it at a confectionary store. I didn’t add, You’ve all but written her name on him in Sharpie marker.