It was stifling outside. Much too hot to be spending more than a few minutes outdoors, but Georgia and Eric had insisted, so I'd decided not complain. It was their son's first birthday, after all.
Wondering if it might be time to invest in a pair of shorts, I raked my fingers through my semi sweat dampened hair and went to check if any of the appetizers were in fact appetizing. I'd offered to put my culinary skills to work and cater the event, but Eric had rolled his eyes and said that there was no need to have high class food at an event for a boy who couldn't even feed himself.
He had a point.
Pursing my lips, I scanned the selection before reaching out to grab a piece of celery and dipping it in ranch dressing before biting down on the end. A light slap on my upper arm drew my attention and I turned with a mouthful of celery to find Georgia mock glaring at me as she bounced her son on her hip.
"Caleb," she scolded. "At least use a plate."
Shooting her a closed lip smile as I chewed, I raised a hand to wiggle my fingers at the birthday boy, who giggled happily and clapped his hands together in response. "Hey, Coop. Happy Birthday, little man."
Georgia beamed down at her son, pressing a quick kiss to the top of his head before smiling at me pleasantly. "Having a good time?"
I nodded as I picked up another piece of celery, this time avoiding the dip altogether in an effort to please Georgia. "Of course. This food is excellent."
She rolled her eyes. "Excuse me for thinking you'd rather not have to cater a party you were a guest at."
"You know I don't mind," I smiled innocently, crinkling my nose for Cooper's benefit.
"What a sweetheart," she said. I would have thought it was sincere if not for the way the side of her mouth tweaked upwards into a smirk. "How is it you're still single?"
I rolled my eyes, already dreading the direction of this conversation. Sighing, I chewed thoughtfully on a carrot stick as I responded. "I think my last girlfriend said that I was too emotional for her. I'm not sure what that means."
Pouting slightly, she rubbed my arm in what I assumed was supposed to be a comforting manner. "We'll find you someone great. I promise."
I groaned. "Please don't."
The last time she and Eric had set me up had been disastrous. The women herself had been rather lovely. Maybe a bit too chatty for my taste, but that wasn't exactly a deal breaking character flaw. All was going well until her overuse of hairspray attracted the flame of the candle on the restaurant table and caused her hair to catch on fire.
She didn't even notice. She just kept talking and I couldn't get a word in, so I did what any rational person would do in that situation: I threw a glass of water at her. Needless to say, there was no second date.
Now that I think about it, maybe that wasn't Georgia and Eric's fault at all.
I parted my lips to say that I would give it another try, only to find Georgia's attention elsewhere. Her smile was wide and her eyes bright so I followed her line of vision only to suppress another groan.
"Stella's here!" she exclaimed, shooting me a grin before hurrying off to greet the new arrival.
"Great," I muttered sarcastically under my breath as I trained my eyes on the woman who had just stepped out into the backyard.
Stella St. Clare certainly was a sight to behold. Dark hair and olive skin offset by piercing gray eyes was a deadly combination, one which she frequently used to her advantage.
Someone patted me on the back and I looked up to find Eric smirking at me.
"Oh look," he said with much too much amusement. "It's your favorite person."
I glared and he laughed. Licking my lips, I responded. "I don't understand how someone like Georgia could be such good friends with someone like her."
Eric shrugged, carefully selecting a cube of cheese from the table and popping it in his mouth. "They've known each other since they were kids. I guess when you meet at such a young age, your differences in personality aren't that much of an issue to your friendship."
"Wow," I let out a low whistle. "That was deep. I think I may need to sit down and think that over."
He rolled his eyes. "What is your problem with her anyway? I swear I've never heard either of you say a nice thing about each other."
It was my turn to shrug. "We're just really different. And she's a high maintenance, condescending, spoiled brat."
"Is that all?" Eric asked, his eyes light with amusement.
I nodded once, turning my attention back to the appetizers. "Yep."
"I think her words for you were snarky, pretentious, douchenozzle know-it-all."
My lips parted and I gasped in mock horror as I turned to face him once more. I wasn't at all surprised by Stella's less than complimentary view of me. "Oh no. She doesn't like me. Whatever shall I do?"
"Dear lord," he muttered, rolling his eyes. "Can you two at least try to get along? For Cooper."
"Of course," I nodded. "I will be nothing but absolutely gracious towards Estelle."
"Don't let her hear you use that name," he raised an eyebrow, that kink of amusement returning to his lips.
I smirked in response rather than say anything as I recalled the last time I had dared to use her proper name in public. Granted, I probably deserved the shouting seeing as it was about the fifth time she'd told me to call her Stella. ("I swear to God, Caleb Hanley, if you call me that name one more time, I'll rip you limb from limb and feed you to my neighbor's pitbull.")
Still an unnecessarily violent threat.
So my relationship with my best friend's wife's best friend was far from friendly. But we seemed to have a mutual understanding that we only interacted when it was absolutely necessary. This would have been far more effective if it weren't for the fact that I could never seem to get away from her.
Stella was a model, and apparently a rather popular one at that, as pictures of her advertising clothing for a national chain were plastered all over town. She was everywhere. It was frustrating as hell.
Clearing my throat, I stretched my lips into a friendly smile as Georgia and Stella approached.
Stella was carrying Cooper on her hip, looking deceptively angelic as she stuck out her tongue and crossed her eyes, sending him into a fit of giggles.
"Caleb," she nodded at me when they came to a stop, hiking the toddler into a more comfortable position on her hip. "Always a pleasure."
I could practically taste the sarcasm in her tone, but I smiled politely and returned the words. "Lovely as always, Stella."
She pulled her lips into a terse smile before handing Cooper back to his mother. "I'm going to get a drink."
And with that she was gone.
I breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that our mandatory exchange of words was now completed. For the next hour or so, I mingled with the rest of the party guests, learning hysterical tales of Eric's childhood antics from his grandparents and reliving the glory days of school with his cousins.
Once the scorching heat became too much for me to handle, I quietly slipped inside the house for some relief. The party was officially being held in the backyard, so the house was extremely quiet, almost disturbingly so.
Allowing the cool air conditioning to wash over me, I plopped down on the couch and leaned back to rest my eyes. They were closed for but a moment before the clicking of heels on the hardwood floor caused them to fly open.
Utterly confused because I thought I was alone, I sat up straight, only to grimace in annoyance when Stella entered the room.
"What are you doing in here?" she asked, sounding genuinely curious.
I shrugged, rubbing my palms over my thighs, hoping the rough denim would alleviate the sweatiness. "Just needed to get out of the heat. It's like a sauna out there. What are you doing in here?"
She held up a bottle of what I assumed had previously been filled with water, except now it was swirling with orange juice. "I needed sustenance."
"And here I thought your life force was the tears of small children," I replied.
She wasn't at all taken aback by my response. Instead, she tilted her head to the side and gazed at me steadily. "Does that mean yours is the absolute boredom of everyone around you?"
I smirked. No matter how much I disliked Stella, verbally sparring with her was always entertaining. Resting my hands on my thighs, I pushed myself to my feet before shoving my fingers in my pockets and looking her up and down.
She was wearing one of those dresses where the skirt was short in the front and long in the back. The style showed of her shapely legs while the coral color caused her skin to glow. Nobody in their right mind could deny that Stella St. Clare was damn beautiful.
"If I didn't know any better," she said slowly, her lips kinking into an amused smirk. "I'd say you were checking me out, Hanley."
"Well, that would be an interesting plot twist, wouldn't it?" I held in a laugh, despite the fact that she was entirely right. I just knew better than to stroke her ego. "It's a good thing you know better."
"Was that a compliment?"
"Telling you that I'm not at all attracted to you? Last time I checked, compliments were supposed to be forms of praise."
"It's hard to tell with you," she shrugged. "To be honest, every time you talk, it sounds like a blender whirring."
"Ah, yes, the sweet sounds of deliciousness being made."
She rolled her eyes and I smiled inwardly at the small victory. Sighing heavily, she crossed her arms over her chest, swinging the juice filled bottle from the tips of her fingers. "Do you ever run out of snarky comebacks?"
"Nope," I replied proudly. "I like to think I'm twenty percent biting wit."
"And the other eighty percent is pretentious sarcasm," she muttered, just loud enough for me to hear.
"Careful, Estelle," I grinned, more amused than offended. "You might hurt my feelings."
"That's not the only thing that's going to hurt if you call me Estelle one more time."
I knew using that name would just rile her up and in all honesty, that's why I had done it. Because as much as Stella irritated the hell out of me, there was something quite beautiful about the way her eyes lit with fire when she was upset.
Shaking my head, I clicked my tongue against the back of my teeth. "Always with the threats, Stella. There's no need to be so angry all the time."
"Trust me, it's not intentional. It's an involuntary natural instinct upon being in the same room as you," she retorted, raising her chin in defiance.
"Trust me," I replied, using her words for emphasis. "The feeling is mutual."
Her anger was infectious and we soon found ourselves glaring at each other, arms crossed and lips pressed into thin lines. We stared, eyes alight, each refusing to be the first to look away. Because looking away would mean losing the upper hand. And we both knew that the mental advantage was everything in this relationship.
The tension in the room was a slow burning sizzle. Despite the air conditioning, I felt my cheeks flush with anger and I curled my fingers into fists at my side. She mirrored my actions and to an outside observer, it must have looked as though we were about to come to blows.
Fortunately, the moment was shattered when Eric stepped into the house, holding Cooper at his hip.
"What's going on here?" he asked, his brow furrowed in concern.
"Nothing," I sighed, unclenching my fists and smiling at the little boy because I knew better than to argue in front of him. "Stella and I were just having a conversation."
"Right…" he replied, probably not believing a word I was saying. He turned his attention to Stella. "Georgia's been looking for you Stel."
Stella nodded. "I'll go find her."
Shooting me one last angry glare, she disappeared into the backyard.
Eric sighed heavily. "Can't you guys go two minutes without being at each other's throats?"
"I think that might upset the balance of the universe," I replied, actually a little bit serious. A world where Stella and I didn't argue seemed entirely unnatural.
"Well, maybe just avoid each other for the rest of the party?" he suggested. "For the sake of Georgia's sanity, I'd like her to be under the illusion that you two are capable of getting along, if only for one afternoon."
"Can do," I smiled, leaning over to kiss the top of Cooper's head and smiling when he giggled lightly. "We wouldn't want Cooper's birthday party to be ruined, would we?"
"Thanks, man," Eric grinned. "Come on. We're about to cut the cake."
Nodding, I followed him outside, where Stella and I completely ignored each other's existences as we clapped and sang to the birthday boy, grateful that events where we were forced to interact only occurred a few times a year.
I could live the rest of my life contently if it stayed that way.