Stomping Grounds was a medium-sized neighborhood joint where Brendan dropped in to watch a game or have a quick bite whenever he and Tracy stayed in Brooklyn. The front was a coffeehouse and bakery, but through a pair of arches in the rear was a pub-style bar, with about six tables and a couple booths from which you could watch the flat-screen mounted on the wall, playing whatever sport was in season.
As Brendan entered now, he spotted Russell right away. Russell was one of Tracy’s best friends. One of her only friends next to Riley. Tall, dark as night and good-looking, Brendan remembered being somewhat threatened when he first saw Russell and Tracy standing together at some event at Shawn’s. Tracy had been looking up at him, her head tilted back so she could make eye contact, her face open and adoring, with an expression usually only reserved for Brendan himself.
And then he met Russell and realized that the brother was as gay as the day is long. And that had tempered Brendan’s sense of being threatened. Somewhat. Russell was still someone who had the power to command Tracy’s attention when Brendan had come to believe and expect that all of Tracy’s attention was his due.
Brendan walked over to the table where Russell was sipping a cappuccino or something, and clapped him on the back. Russell looked up, surprised then stood to shake his hand, indicating the other seat at the table.
“Hey!” he said. “Didn’t know you were around this weekend.”
“Just got here. What’s going on?”
Russell looked at him evenly and Brendan knew immediately that he knew.
“With what?” Russell took a delicate sip of his coffee.
“Anything at all,” Brendan shrugged. “Life. What have you been up to?”
“Nothing much. Just got back from L.A. Fashion Week. It was horrid.”
Brendan laughed. “Well, it’s no Bryant Park.”
Russell fake-shuddered. “No. That it is not.”
“So what do you know, Russell?” Brendan asked, cutting to the chase.
Russell grinned and shook his head. “I’ll say this: I am, bar none, the worst gossip you will ever meet, Brendan. But definitely not this time and definitely not about my girl.”
“I can respect that,” Brendan nodded. He waved over a waitress and ordered himself a Sam Adams then turned to Russell again. “You see her today?”
“No, but I expect to,” Russell said. “Momentarily in fact.”
Brendan glanced at the entrance. “Oh, she’s meeting you here?”
Russell nodded. “She said she had to stop in at Carol’s Daughter first.”
“Well when she gets here, you know I might to have to steal her from you, right?”
“You already did. Two years ago,” Russell shrugged.
Brendan looked at him but Russell smiled reassuringly. “Lord knows, I’m not complaining. She’s a happy woman with you. And that was one thing my Tracy—bless her heart—never was before.”
The weight of it, of being the person who made Tracy ‘happy’ was not a small thing, but he wasn’t prepared to relinquish it anyone else either.
Brendan took a gulp of his beer and looked up toward the door just in time to see her enter.
Tracy had pulled her hair back into a loosely-fastened ponytail, and was wearing a body-hugging long sleeved white t-shirt with palazzo khakis and a wide brown belt. Slung over her shoulder was a slouchy, soft calfskin leather bag that she’d bought when she was in Paris a couple years back.
Sometimes when he saw that bag, Brendan’s stomach clenched with remembered anguish. Her trip to Paris had come at a time when he thought they might be done, and that it might be better if they were. But that was long ago, and he’d believed himself past that. But seeing Janice today and considering the fall-out of Tracy being pregnant made him wonder whether at the time he’d ever truly contemplated the end-game. The one that seemed to be every woman’s end-game: matrimony.
Tracy’s face transformed when she saw him sitting there with Russell. It brightened for a split second and then she reined it in, controlling her instinctive reaction, not wanting him to see it.
Yeah, he’d definitely hurt her last night. Still, Brendan stood as she approached and opened his arms to her. Tracy leaned into him and accepted the embrace, but she turned so that she was giving him the half-hug that you give to a distant cousin, or someone whose pelvis you want to avoid contact with.
“What’re you doing here?” she asked lightly, taking the seat Brendan had gotten up from.
“Came to get you,” he said, pulling another chair from a nearby table.
Russell looked at them both, his expression that of someone expecting a conflagration.
“I told you I’d be back tomorrow,” Tracy said.
She hung her bag on the side of her chair and reached for the menu. She still wouldn’t look him in the eye.
“I couldn’t wait that long,” Brendan said. “And you know I won’t be able to get to sleep without you.”
Tracy’s lower lip wobbled.
“Okay, y’all better stop,” Russell said using both hands to fan his eyes.
“Baby, I’m sorry,” Brendan said, looking directly at Tracy as though Russell hadn’t spoken, as though they were alone. “But when we’re fighting you always tell me what an idiot I am . . . so you had to know I was going to mess that whole reaction thing up,” he joked.
The smallest of smiles began at the corner of Tracy’s mouth, though there were tears brimming in her eyes. “You are an idiot,” she said quietly, without looking up from the menu.
“Yeah. But I love you,” Brendan said, still trying to meet her gaze. “You know that?”
Tracy’s nod was barely perceptible.
“Trace . . .” Brendan reached over and lightly tipped her chin up so she would look at him, and when she did he smiled. “I love you.”
“I love you, too,” she said quietly.
Brendan stroked the side of her face with the backs of two fingers then stood, emptying his beer bottle.
“Well, I’m going to leave you guys to your plans. Trace, we’ll stay here tonight? In Brooklyn?”
Tracy looked up at him and nodded, and already the change in her was apparent. Sometimes it felt like he had too much control over her moods. Brendan pushed back against the pressing weight of that awesome responsibility.