:: Abby ::
I glanced over the contents inside the glass casing. As my mouth watered, I wondered which cake Travis would like best. After two hours, I had narrowed my choices to just three: yellow cake with chocolate frosting, Neapolitan cake, also with chocolate frosting, or wedding cake. Travis had made a fuss over the cake at our wedding in Vegas, so I knew he liked white on white, too.
"Jesus Christ, Abby, pick one already," America said, bored. She pulled a string of pink gum from her mouth and wrapped it around her finger. "I hate to think how long it will take you to choose a wedding cake if it's taking you this long to pick one for a casual birthday party for Travis."
I didn't take my eyes off the contents of the case, which included tiered cakes, cupcakes, round cakes, and rectangles, all decorated as differently as any personality one could imagine. "A wedding cake is for guests. This is for Travis. It has to be right."
I wrinkled my nose. "What the hell, Mare? Why are you so cranky?"
She gnawed the gum around her finger, and then crossed her arms. "They're not going for it."
"Who isn't going for what?"
"My parents. They said if Shep and I move in together, they won't pay for my college."
I was stunned. America's parents weren't exactly pushovers, but they made a point to support whatever would truly make their daughter happy. If America wanted to continue to attend college, I couldn't imagine what the difference was. America spent the night with Shepley almost every night. "I'm...I'm sorry. I didn't know."
She shrugged. "How could you?"
I hugged my best friend. "There's no rush, you know. Shepley can stay until whenever."
"He's moving into the dorms."
"Fall semester, but ... I'm going back to Wichita for summer break. He's freaking out a little. I am, too ... And I know how that sounds, okay? I'm not the type to care if I spend three months away from a guy. Normally it would be a breath of fresh air. But, I don't want to miss him. Ever since we broke up ... It's just different, you know? I really, really love him, Abby."
I gave her a squeeze and then held her far enough away to look into her eyes. "Stay with us, Mare. You do, anyway." I smiled. "It will be fun."
She shook her head. "They won't let me."
"Why?" I asked, frustrated.
"Dad said he doesn't want us getting too serious too fast. I understand their concern, but it just sucks."
"You could still do it, you know. Get a job, and we'll move your things."
America's eyes glossed over. "Easy for you to say. You have a scholarship or five. They pay for my tuition. If I want that to continue, I have to follow their rules."
"Fair enough. But you can come visit every weekend, right? They'll at least let you come see me."
"Yeah. Yeah, of course." She pushed away from me, wiping her nose. She smiled and shook her head. "God. This is stupid. There are much worse things happening in the world."
"Not to you, and not right now. It's okay to be upset about being apart from Shep for three months. You're right. It does suck."
She smirked. "Thanks."
"Not making me feel like an asshole."
I made a face. "That wasn't intentional. You're still an asshole."
America playfully elbowed me as a woman behind the counter stepped in front of us with a smile. I pressed my index finger against the glass, pointing to the the white cake. "It should say, Happy 20th Birthday Travis."
"Actually," America said. "Can you make it say Happy 20th Fucking Birthday Travis?"
The woman smiled. "Sounds like a fun party."
I mirrored her expression. "It will be."
"Kegs. Ice. Cups. Music. Cake ..." I said, pointing at the various stations. "We're missing something. I feel like we're missing something."
America crossed her arms, nowhere near my level of stress. "If you're comparing with years past, I'd say you're missing at least two dozen sluts."
I shot her a look. "Funny."
America giggle snorted, and then walked across the room, picking up a small balloon and touching it to her lips. Her cheeks bulged, her face turned red.
I looked at my watch. "Less than an hour." I glanced outside. "Why isn't anyone here, yet?"
"Spring training," America said.
I hissed the word fuck under my breath, and then froze when I heard a commotion just outside the door.
"I said ... no! Stop! Fucking stop, Travis!" Shepley said as he fell backwards through the door and onto the living room floor.
Travis stood in the doorway, breathing hard, a wide grin on his face. "Honey, I'm home!"
My mouth fell open, and in what felt like slow motion, I scream the word No!
"Why is he here?" America said to her boyfriend, accusation in her voice.
Shepley stood up and brushed himself off, red-faced and annoyed. "The second I tried to get him to go anywhere but home, he knew, okay? I did my best!"
Travis smirked, but his expression fell away when he saw mine.
"You couldn't have just pretended? You had to force your way in here to ruin all my plans?" I whined. I wasn't going to try to pretend. It was unfair.
"Baby," Travis said, shoving Shepley to the side as he walked toward me, arms out.
"No," I said, pushing him away. "Don't touch me. Don't!" I said, sulking. "Do you know how long I've been planning this? I didn't run around trying to ruin my surprise party!"
"No," Travis said, encapsulating me in his thick, inked arms. "Parker ruined it."
I frowned, pushing him away. "I was still surprised! You still pulled it off. Get off me!"
Travis leaned in to kiss my cheek. "I wanted to come home and see my wife, who I knew was working hard to make my birthday special."
"And then ruined it!" I snarled, still shoving him. I didn't know why I tried ... he didn't budge.
America hugged Shepley, and then kissed his cheek. "Do you ever get tired of him getting you in trouble?"
Shepley smoothed his hair, his brow furrowed. "He would have stolen my car and left me in the parking lot had I not jumped in the passenger side."
"Aw!" America said, unable to stop from giggling.
Shepley's arms were crossed, and he tried to pull away, but not very hard.
Travis grabbed my jaw and forced me to look at him. Once our eyes met, I stopped struggling.
"Thank you," he said, smooching my already protruding lips. He let me go, and I felt a bit disorientated from the kiss and my futile struggle.
Someone knocked on the door, and Jason Brazil opened it and walked through, abruptly stopping when he saw Travis standing amid the half-decorated apartment. "Oh. Damn. Are we late?"
"Yeah," I said, throwing a balloon at Travis. "And he's in trouble."
"I am not," Travis said, half playful, half annoyed.
"Is the um," Brazil stuttered, "the uh ... the party still on?"
"Yes. I can't exactly cancel ten minutes before forty people are supposed to be here," I grumbled.
"Forty?" Travis said. "Is that all?"
"Minus the sluts," America explained.
Travis wasn't amused.
A couple of girls walked in behind Brazil, overly fake baked, a ton of makeup, and fake double D's bulging from their tight v-neck T's.
"April Fools'!" America said, glaring at our uninvited guests. "The sluts have arrived."
The sorority sisters wrinkled their noses at America, but after that paid her little attention. They followed Brazil as he hunted for the keg tap, and then laughed when he held it high in the air.
"Found it!" he said, waving it around like a toddler with a toy on the playground.
Brazil and his friends helped finish decorate by blowing up balloons and stringing streamers. More people arrived and joined in. The more Travis helped, the more disappointed I became. Not in him—but in myself. I had a famous poker face, I could hustle Vegas veterans for thousands, but couldn't pull off a small surprise birthday party for my husband.
As the sun set, the last of the guests arrived, Trenton and Camille. Trenton helped his girlfriend with her coat, and then turned to hug his little brother. "Happy birthday, ass hat!"
"Hey," Camille said, hugging me. "Looks great." She'd gotten her nose pierced since I'd seen her last, and her hair had a peek-a-boo black streak. The longer she worked for Skin Deep, the wilder she looked, and I was sure Trenton loved it. I smiled. All the ink and makeup looked good on her. She was in love, and couldn't have been happier.
"What?" she asked.
"Nothing," I said. My smile faded. "Travis came home early."
"Sounds like him," Camille said with a smirk. She was in her bartender attire, and would likely head to work after Travis's party. She winked at Travis, and then handed him a bottle of whiskey with a bow around its neck.
Travis kissed her cheek. "Thanks!"
"Hey!" Trenton said, frowning and pushing Travis's shoulder. "Get your fuckin' lips off my girl!"
Travis held up his hands. "All right, all right. Just showing my appreciation."
I sunk twenty candles into the icing of the cake, and then searched the kitchen for a lighter. After opening one drawer after another, I came up empty-handed. "This is ridiculous," I seethed. "I'm married to a pack-a-day smoker, and we have no lighters?" Travis flicked his lighter and held the flame in front of my face. I paused, and then snatched it from him. "Thanks," I said quietly, returning to where everyone was gathered, plates already in hand.
As I lit the wicks, America turned off the lights, and Travis stood at the breakfast bar over his cake, smiling at the words scrawled with icing on top. He slid his arms around my middle, nuzzling my neck while each new flame flickered.
"Nice cake," he said, whispering the words on top.
Happy 20th Fucking Birthday, Travis
"Glad you like it. The swearing was America's idea."
Travis held up his hand, high-fiving America. "Well done."
America simply nodded, her arms crossed over her middle, holding Shepley's hands. He was behind her, swaying a bit as they watched us. He had the sweetest smile on his face. I wasn't sure what he was thinking about, but I knew it involved America.
We sang Happy Birthday, and then Shepley turned up the music. We danced, and drank, and the police only showed up once. Half of the football team was present, as was most of his brothers from Sig Tau. Jim, Thomas, Taylor, and Tyler all called at different times, but each time, Travis would go outside to smoke and chat with his family. I kissed Travis each time he left, and every time I was reminded of my birthday, of how sweet he was that night, and how hard I tried not to fall in love with him—so we kissed a lot. At one point, Travis backed me into the hall, and he curled his fingers behind my neck, impatient to put his warm mouth on mine. He tasted like cheap beer and sugar, and I drew him deeper into my mouth.
Just when I thought he might lift me into his arms and carry me into his bedroom, the rhythm of his mouth slowed. He pulled away, kissed my cheek, and then whispered in my ear. "I'm surprised you haven't set up shots for me, yet."
"I didn't think you were hard up for money."
"I will be if I don't get that job."
I breathed out a laugh. "You've got the job. You just have to go in and accept it."
Travis glanced around the corner, and then returned his attention to me.
"What?" I asked.
"Just making sure they're not trashing the place."
"Aw. Listen to you. All grown up."
Travis frowned. "I've never had a party here ... because I didn't want to beat someone's ass for trashing it."
I touched his cheek. "Strictly a love dungeon, huh?"
Travis's face twisted into disgust. "A what?"
I giggled. "Nothing."
"Oh, you got jokes," he said, pinching my sides with my fingers.
I ran out into the living room, giggling and hiding behind America. Travis only chased me for a few seconds before a slow song came over the speakers--my favorite song. Our song. Travis pulled me into his arms. We swayed for a few moments before Travis pulled me tighter into his arms.
"You sort of told me you loved me for the first time the last time we danced to this song at a birthday party," he said.
"What?" I said, pulling back to look into his eyes. There was no humor in his eyes. "No, I didn't."
"Yeah. You were drunk outta your mind, but you said it. Well, kind of said it. You said that in another life, you could love me."
I smiled, gazing into his warm, russet irises. I recalled the first time I saw his eyes--in the basement of a building on campus. He was sweaty and covered in blood, but his eyes were home. "What did you say to that? You didn't run screaming?"
He shook his head, his gaze growing more intense. "I said I could love you in this one."
"You did?" I asked, touched. That was almost six months ago, and he'd never told me. "So you said it first. All this time ... I thought it was me."
"No," he chuckled. "It was never you. I definitely said it first. After your birthday, even."
"No," I shook my head. "It was the night I was supposed to go out with Parker."
He shook his head. "No, baby. I can't believe you don't remember."
"I do. I said it first. You just admitted it. I said it on my birthday."
"You kinda said it. Loving me in your next life doesn't count."
"Well," I said, lifting my chin and feeling victorious. "Welcome to our next life."
He stopped in the middle of the apartment. His shoulders fell, and his eyes poured over me with such love and adoration, my cheeks flushed. "Ain't that somethin'," he said, hugging me to him. He rested his chin in the crook of my neck, causing him to hunch over. "Got my birthday wish before I made it."
I pressed my cheek against his ear, listening to the words of our song, and taking in the moment. "It's your first birthday as my husband."
"Best birthday to-date," he replied. "And don't worry. You have the rest of our lives to try to surprise me."
"You're damn straight I do," I said, pulling him closer. "We have a thousand more surprises ahead of us." All of them good, I hope.