"WHAT THE FUCK WERE YOU thinking?" I said, the words too loud, despite having to fight my clenched teeth to get them out. My jaw hurt from all the grinding I'd done in the past ten minutes. My palms were sweaty and the sharp bite of nails piercing skin reminded me to loosen my fists a little.
"I have no idea what you mean, little brother." Taylor gave a shrug, it didn't make him look innocent at all.
"It's Mom's birthday. You know they made Parker come, right?"
Taylor squinted, his grin turning cruel. "Not my problem."
I glared at my brother, annoyed by everything he did. The way he sat, splayed out on our parents' new couch he'd insisted they should buy. "To improve the overall aesthetics of the living room." The casual hold he'd kept on his new boy toy. The perfectly coiffed do he'd asked me to assess earlier. The smug grin he'd plastered on his lips, mocking enough, while still tapping into the full potential of his megawatt smile. I hated how he breathed, all relaxed. Not about to snap like me.
"Boys," the lady of the hour said, just as I was about to lunge and bash Taylor's face in. "I need help in the kitchen."
"I have to entertain my guest," Taylor whined.
"I'll go. The air is poisonous in here anyway." I turned to the guy plastered to Taylor's side. Small, sweet, and slender, the type Taylor seemed to go for since the divorce. "Do you know why you're here?"
The guy glared at me and pushed himself closer to Taylor. "Umm, I was invited."
"His ex-husband is going to be here. Taylor needs a new squeeze to parade in front of him. He's gorgeous. Sorry if you end up feeling insecure." I turned on my heel and marched to the kitchen.
"What the hell were you thinking?" I asked, defeated.
"I didn't know he'd bring someone," Mom said.
I rolled my eyes at her. "That excuse worked last Christmas. I stopped buying it by Easter."
Mom had the decency to hang her head. "I can't fathom not having Parker with me for family get-togethers. He's been part of this family since he was a teen."
"So it's okay to torment him because you're selfish?"
She gawked and looked at me, eyes wide. In a second, she recomposed herself and came to me, cupping my cheek. "Don't be like that, Van. I promise this won't happen again.”
I wanted to believe she'd keep her promise. She wouldn't though. Mom was great, for the most part, but she had this selfish streak when it came to her family, and Parker had unfortunately become part of it when he'd started dating, then was stupid enough to marry my brother. They'd been divorced for a little over a year, and Taylor still put all his dark genius into tormenting Parker. He couldn't forgive the guy for leaving him. Taylor had cheated repeatedly, but he'd expected Parker to put up with it forever. No one ever left Taylor. He discarded those he no longer needed, not the other way around.
"Okay. What do you need help with?"
"Oh, you're the sweetest child." She chuckled and patted the side of my face. "There are some bottles of wine in my trunk. Be a dear and carry them inside."
I went into the garage through the kitchen and popped open her trunk. By bottles she'd meant two cases. And some random bubbly. I sighed and hefted up the first case. At least this would keep my hands busy. If I couldn't use them, I couldn't wrap them around Taylor's neck and strangle him.
When I was done carrying booze inside, Mom sent me out front to bring in the flowers she'd left on the porch. I froze mid-step, my breath hitching. Parker stood there, smiling that bright, warm smile of his that turned all my bones to dust. It didn't melt me, it completely obliterated me.
And I was back! To Parker, I would always be his ex-husband's little brother. Technically his little brother. Fuck my life and fuck Taylor's luck to have met Parker before I had.
"Parker, hey." I jumped over the stairs of our porch and crushed him in a hug. I'd grown taller than him by a couple of inches and I was wider too. Yet he seemed to have totally missed that. Still a squirt to him, despite my best efforts to convince him otherwise.
He held me and patted my shoulder, a little sigh flying loose as we embraced. Once the total body and mind shock of hugging him subsided, I realized he'd lost some weight. Again. I stepped back and took a better look at him.
"Nope, stay," I said, squeezing both his shoulders when he tried to walk past me. He shook his head but didn't fight me. By now, he knew I wouldn't let up.
His clothes, a perfect fit only six months ago, seemed loose. "Parker, do I have to come to your place and force feed you?"
He snorted and pushed me away. "Fuck off, kid." There was no bite to it, but his reaction still hurt. I knew I had no right, I wasn't even his brother-in-law anymore. I couldn't help worrying about him though.
Parker ruffled my hair and pulled me into a side... something. Not even a half-hug, but some sort of friendly touch. "I'm fine, I promise. Too many long days at the office lately."
That had always been Parker's excuse: too much work. He ran his father's car repair shop, he'd done that since the divorce. I still hated he'd quit the advertising job he loved. Somehow, Taylor had convinced him he'd cheated because of Parker's career. A blatant lie, but that's all it took for Parker to give up his dream. Luckily, he had a good business head, no matter what he did, and the camaraderie at his father's shop was probably one of the few things keeping him afloat.
"What am I looking at tonight?"
"Pretty and cuddly," I said, noticing the shadow that descended on him. "I might have made it worse."
Parker huffed and bumped his shoulder into mine. "I can handle Taylor, don't worry."
Complete bullshit, of course. But Parker was like that, trying to reassure everyone, even as his world turned to shit. He'd be charming and funny throughout the evening, even to Taylor's date. He'd pretend not to notice his ex's cruelty and overt aggression, and he'd make sure my mom enjoyed her big day. He'd keep that up, until he said goodnight and walked to his car. With the engine running, sealed off from the world, everything would come crushing in. I knew it, I'd seen it before.
"Let's get this party started," I said, wrapping my arm around Parker's shoulders and walking him inside.
The moment I noticed Taylor's cold stare, I realized I'd made a mistake. Nothing set Taylor off like my closeness to Parker. We'd stayed friends after their divorce and Taylor despised me for succeeding when Parker didn't want to have anything to do with him outside these occasions Mom forced him to attend.
Taylor always had to steal whatever I had. Toys, friends, accomplishments, he had to take them, crush them, or downplay them. Parker most of all. I remembered well how he'd decided not to dump Parker a few weeks after meeting him just because I was totally in love with the guy. How were we even related?