Marcus ducked into the kitchen, sliding behind the granite island and heading for the recycle bin under the sink. He inhaled deeply, savoring the scent of his sister’s sweet and sour meatballs and his brother-in-law’s smoked pork. Even after everyone had grazed for the last hour, food still mounded the island.
His brother-in-law Fyodor waved his hands up, down, and sideways as he discussed the Diamondback’s Super Bowl chances with the neighbor.
Or was it the World Series? Marcus didn’t care enough to find out. He jerked his chin in acknowledgment of their existence and silently prayed they wouldn’t rope him into their conversation. Of course, worse traps waited for him, and he had no one but himself to blame. He should have known this meteor shower get together would be more than just family.
Like their mother, his sisters had never met a stranger they didn’t want to feed. And that applied double for their neighbors.
Too many of them were single women, swimming through the crowd like piranhas smelling blood in the water chummed by his sisters.
He was the chum or chump.
Marcus balanced his empty bottle on the heap of refuse filling the recycle bin and considered taking the trash outside. Maybe he could catch his breath. Not that many guests were actually outside watching the meteor shower. Sweat beaded his lip. But then his chances of being cornered increased if he left the safety of the crowd.
Safe being a relative word.
Just not around his relatives. Marcus needed an exit strategy.
Gabriella something-or-other tossed her dark hair over her shoulder and glanced at him from under her lashes. Her preteen son looked up from his phone to glare at Marcus.
The kid obviously had issues about his parents’ recent divorce. Marcus had been there, done that, and had the counseling bills to prove it. He turned, keeping her in his peripheral vision as he sidled up to the fridge.
Single lady number two wasn’t much better. He couldn’t even remember the name of the bottle-blond with recent LASIK surgery. Connie? Or was it Candy? Her horse laugh had him running for earplugs. The only thing that made her attractive was that she wasn’t looking for Mr. Right, only Mr. Right Now. Unfortunately, she also had a satellite child. This time a teenage son full of intelligence subsumed by hormones.
No, thank you. Marcus’s sons were still in their full head remodel of the teen years and had at least a handful to go before becoming rational human beings again.
Marcus snagged a carrot off the tray of crudités and ran it through the dip.
Across the room, his oldest sister Naomi glared at him.
Marcus popped the carrot in his mouth and chewed. Even with the mound of onion dip, they were pretty tasteless. How did Iona enjoy the things? Iona. She probably had some exciting plans for tonight’s meteor shower. Plans that didn’t involve family obligations, dodging babysitting assignments, and matchmaking siblings. Knowing her, she was outside enjoying the meteor shower.
Opening the refrigerator door, he stared inside but didn’t really see the contents. Maybe he should return to his parents’ house. Overseeing the renovations was a second full-time job, but given that he lived two houses away, the ladies could corner him there.
And then where would he be?
Marcus blinked. Seventy-two bottles of assorted Czech beers, a couple dozen Polish ones, and three English lagers. Even if he drank it all, it wouldn’t make him stupid enough to date any of the prospective candidates his sisters threw at him.
He grabbed the English lager, knowing it would piss off his brother-in-law Fyodor and popped the top. He hoped Fyodor and Naomi got into a big fight over Marcus’s pilfering. Then again, it could make his sister more determined to make sure he didn’t miss out on wedded bliss. Raising the bottle to his lips, he washed down the carrot and lingering taste of onion.
Motion caught his eye. His two potential dates approached him from opposite flanks. Despite their casual gait, they were closing fast.
Marcus ground his teeth. If they spotted each other, things could get real ugly real fast. Time to retreat. He’d heard Pittsburgh was lovely this time of year. He made a beeline for the kitchen door. Once he slipped through, he could escape into the alley and skulk all the way home.
Heart drumming in his ears, he neared the edge of the kitchen island.
The women picked up their pace.
A hand clamped on his shoulder. Fyodor’s eyes narrowed as he stared at the pilfered lager. “So how are the renovations going? I got plans for that money.”
Marcus shrugged off his brother-in-law’s grip. The meathead was always slapping something by way of a macho greeting. Couldn’t he get it through his thick skull that some people preferred a firm handshake to physical assault? “We’re still on track for the May listing.”
“Still May, huh?” Fyodor shoved a chip in his mouth and chewed as he talked. “With all the help we gave you after Mom and Pops died, I thought you’d be done by the end of April at the latest.”
“You don’t say,” Marcus grunted. The family’s help had consisted of descending the day their father’s body was taken to the mortuary from the hospice to ransack his parents’ possessions. His loving sisters had cherry-picked everything, even attempting to snabble Marcus’s belongings. Those days had been almost as joyful as a root canal without painkillers.
Fyodor’s small forehead narrowed, creating ripples all the way to his receding hairline. “Are you sure you’re not just making stuff up to live rent-free for a couple more months?”
Marcus shook his head. “It’s not rent-free, and you know it.”
He paid the mortgage every month and didn’t charge the family a dime for his time and coordination of the contractors just as he’d promised his parents. Sometimes it sucked being the oldest child. If he’d had a choice, he’d live in a smaller place that was energy efficient.
Fyodor nodded then shrugged. “With a May listing, we could have some family barbecues this summer.”
“Not once it’s listed. The place has got to stay in pristine shape to get top-dollar.” And Marcus would have a reason to avoid cookouts where he purchased everything and had to clean up later. He took a long pull on his beer and edged closer to the back door.
His sisters had corralled the women and sequestered them in different corners. Hand gestures flew as they whispered and sized him up.
Great. Marcus would bet his sisters were doling out advice on how to win him over. His advice would be to leave him alone.
“So which is it going to be? Gabriella or Cindy?” Fyodor planted himself in Marcus’s path.
Damn, his sisters had enlisted the meathead. So much for gender solidarity. “Neither. I’m not interested.”
Fyodor shook his head. “What, are you gay? They’re both beautiful women with enough meat on their bones for that extra cushion. And speaking of cushion. Gabriella had her boobs redone. There’s something to be said for firm and perky versus droopy bananas.”
Marcus stared at the beer bottle in his hand. If he smashed it against the granite counter, he could use the jagged edge to cut off his ears, then he wouldn’t have to hear his brother-in-law’s sexual preferences. Then again, he could just leave. Although only two feet away, the door might as well be on Mars.
“So, which is it going to be?”
Marcus drew a deep breath. His sisters were waiting for a nod from his brother-in-law before releasing the hounds. Goddamnit. They had ganged up on him. “Neither.”
“You need to pick. Your sisters made promises to your parents. Deathbed promises.” His brother-in-law shoveled two more chips into his mouth already inhabited by crumbs. “Pick perky boobs. You shouldn’t regret it.”
He regretted it already. Marcus set his half-empty beer on the counter and opened his mouth to respond. His phone rang; the old-fashioned jangle of bells drew attention. What now? He tugged his cell out of his front jean’s pocket and glanced at the screen. Peter Lynn from college. What could he be calling about? What did it matter? Anything was better than this conversation. He eyed his sisters then his brother-in-law. “Tell my sisters I’m fine on my own.”
Without waiting for a reply, Marcus thumbed on his phone and stalked outside. At least Peter Lynn offered a chance at a topic he might be interested in. Heading for the back gate, Marcus held the phone to his ear. “Peter. How is it going?”
A muffled sob rattled through the connection but no words. Had he been butt-dialed? He rechecked the screen before pressing the phone against his ear. “Peter?”
“No. No, it’s not Peter.” The woman’s voice was shaky, and her sniffles were watery.
“Bernice?” Marcus made the connection. Peter’s wife was the only one who would have access to his phone. “Is everything OK? Is Peter OK?”
“Peter’s dead.” Her bombshell exploded, blasting waves of silence, each more deafening than the last.
Peter? Peter was dead? Marcus floundered in the thought. It didn’t make sense. He stopped in the middle of the yard. Fresh growth caused the yard to look fuzzy. A few meteors streaked overhead. His conversation turned primitive. “How? When?”
“Cancer. It was cancer.” Bernice exhaled a shaky breath.
Marcus shook his head. “But he beat the cancer. Two, no three years ago.”
“It came back.” Bernice blew her nose. “It came back so fast. One minute he was fine and healthy, rattling on about a big project. And the next, he’d collapsed and was taken to the hospital. And the cancer… The cancer was everywhere.”
“I’m so sorry. I didn’t know. What can I do to help?” Marcus had experience with funeral arrangements, death certificates, insurance paperwork, and the Social Security Administration bureaucracy.
“Peter left you something.”
Marcus blinked. “He didn’t have to do that. His friendship was worth more than anything to me. You know that.”
She spoke as if she hadn’t heard him. “He changed toward the end. I should’ve known something was wrong. But it wasn’t like he’d had brain tumor before.”
“Changed how?” Marcus winced. Brain tumor? Peter would have hated the loss of his mental faculties. When he’d realized he’d lost the battle, would his friend have decided to go out on his own terms?
“He thought someone was watching him.” Bernice sniffled. “The doctor says… The doctor says the tumor’s location could’ve caused the behavior.”
“I see.” But Marcus didn’t. Not really. Peter had undergone nine months of chemo to beat the cancer the last time. Peter’s attitude hadn’t changed. Not one iota.
But it hadn’t been brain cancer last time.
“Can you come by after the funeral?” Bernice cut into his thoughts. “I’ll give you the package then.”
Marcus nodded. “Of course I’ll be there. When is the funeral?”
A doorbell sounded on Bernice’s end. “I’ll send you the details. I—I have to go.”
“Right. I’ll talk to you tomorrow then.” He spoke to the dial tone then stared at his screen. Bernice had always been painfully polite to him, but now… Grief was a rabid monkey on every mourner’s back.
A hinge squeaked behind him, and he pivoted on his heel.
His sister Naomi charged across the porch. “Cindy really is the better of the two. I know you’re not so shallow as to want someone with a boob job.”
Marcus sighed. “Peter Lynn is dead.”
She reared back. “Your friend from school?”
“Grad school.” Marcus nodded. They’d bonded over a shared tyrannical thesis advisor. “His cancer returned. With a vengeance.”
But he’d had slow-growing cancer before. What had changed?
“Peter was your age, wasn’t he?” Naomi tilted her head and tapped his chin.
“Yeah.” Marcus’s hindbrain kicked in, screamed at him to run.
“All the more reason why you need someone by your side. Like Mom and Pops wanted.” Naomi’s features squished together, aping a look their mother had perfected when she wanted to guilt him into doing something.
He’d been immune for years.
“Cindy would be great to take to the funeral. I’m sure she can offer you comfort afterward.”
Marcus’s mouth opened and closed. What in the world was wrong with his sisters? “You never give up, do you? No matter how inappropriate, no matter how many times I tell you to butt the hell out of my life.”
He’d never yelled at her before. Never raised his voice. He was the calm one, the one always left in charge, the one his folks always left to take care of their children while they worked two jobs.
Naomi squared her shoulders. “I promised Mom. And it isn’t going to hurt you to take Cindy out.”
Marcus squeezed his skull between his hands. “You don’t take a date to a funeral.”
“You can’t be alone, Marcus. It’s not natural.”
Turning his back to his sister, he stomped toward the gate. He had two options—either continue to avoid their matchmaking and eventually be worn down by their stubbornness or offer an alternative solution that would stop them. His fingers hovered near the latch. He almost smiled. Almost. That would give everything away. Opening the gate, he stood half in and half out of her yard. “I’m not alone, haven’t been for a while. But we’ve just decided to try for something beyond friendship, and I don’t want you lot ruining it for me.”
Naomi folded her arms over her chest. “So, what are you saying?”
The back door creaked, and his sister Annie tumbled outside. “Who did he pick?”
“Neither one.” Naomi held up her hand. “Apparently, he’s trying to tell me that he has a girlfriend.”
“He’s lying.” Annie joined her sister on the grass. “This mystery woman doesn’t exist. Does he even have a name for her?”
Marcus rolled his eyes. He was in it now. Guess this was just what he needed to ask Iona out. “I’m not making Iona up.”
“Iona.” Naomi hissed. “Is she Greek? Mom always said, you can’t trust the Greeks.”
Marcus pinched the bridge of his nose to stave off a headache. He loved his mother, but she always had a saying for everything. And none of it was good.
“When can we meet this Iona?” Annie plucked her phone from her pocket as if she had such a busy life she needed to consult her calendar.
“Never.” Naomi sniffed. “Apparently, she needs to be protected from barbarians like us.”
Marcus smiled. If they were mad at him, then he could have even more time to himself. Who knew being rude had such benefits.
“He’s lying.” Annie pointed at him. She sniffed the air reminding him of velociraptor searching for its next meal after being on a weeklong diet. “Look at him twitch. You’re throwing a barbecue this weekend, brother, and if this Lola person isn’t there, then I’m giving Gabriella the spare keys to Mom and Pops’ house and telling her you liked her best.”
“Fine.” He let the gate slam behind him and stalked down the alley. At least he had four days to tell Iona she was now his girlfriend. Where was the apocalypse when he needed it?