Straightaway's was jumping. Nick had spent the first half-hour pretending to enjoy the party, the second at the bar, drinking and trying not to watch Cody flirting. His tension was rising by the minute, with every drunken girl that jostled against him.
Nick didn't like crowds. They behaved unpredictably, making it hard to secure an area or preserve a path to your escape route. They barged in your personal space, they shoved. They were loud, making it hard to hear danger coming.
Worst of all, they got between him and Cody. Too many girls, too much excitement--Cody was flirting, high on attention. Nick got it--he wasn't jealous; not exactly--but Cody at a distance, surrounded by strangers, set off all his alarm bells. Combine that with the crowd that ebbed and flowed around him, pushing, shouting, slopping beer, and Nick was on the edge.
Nick knew himself well enough to recognize his options: get out in the next five minutes, or get blind drunk. The second had never been his preferred choice, but he didn't want to leave without Cody. And Cody wouldn't want to leave before the cake was cut--he'd said as much before they left the boat.
"Joanna's birthday, buddy. We gotta make an evening of it."
Nick had agreed, keeping his reservations to himself.
With a sigh, he turned back to the bar. "Gimme a whiskey. Double."
"Naw, you don't want that." Astringent tones from his elbow made him turn in surprise. "Get him a beer, Jack. And give me that whiskey."
Nick leaned back against the bar, grinning reluctantly, as the bartender scrambled to obey. "Evening, Mama Jo. Y'know, I figure Straightaway stocks enough whiskey for both of us."
The Contessa skipper hoisted herself onto a barstool and turned to face the room. "Not the way you were plannin' on drinking it," she said reflectively. "Now, maybe you'd tell me that's none o' my business, but this here's my pier, and from where I'm sitting, that makes it my business."
Nick said nothing. He figured opening his mouth would get him a clip around the ears at this point. His need for the whiskey had withered, anyhow. Somehow, the crowd seemed less noisy than it had a moment ago, as though the fierce old woman acted as a buffer against the throng. He looked over to the dance floor where Cody was rocking slowly to the music, drink held high in one hand out of the crowd, a slim girl gyrating against his hips.
"Look at Adrienne, there," Mama Jo said caustically. "Practically tying herself in knots tryin' to wrap herself around your partner's ankle. God knows it won't do her any good."
Nick took his beer with a muttered thanks to the bartender, and watched in awe as Mama Jo downed half her whiskey in a long swallow. "Why'd you say that? She and Cody look like they're really hitting it off."
Mama Jo snorted. "Cody Allen ain't interested in none of my girls, no more than you are." She was interrupted by a burst of applause, and took a more moderate sip of whiskey. "Time for the speechifying already. I b'lieve I might slip outside for a cigar."
Nick stared after her. It was true, neither he nor Cody had any interest dating any of the Contessa girls, or any other girls, come to that. But he'd thought they'd done a good job of covering that up.
Up on the stage, Joanna launched into a laughing speech detailing her first year in King Harbor. She was popular, as shown by the turnout, and people clapped and shouted encouragement. The crowd had fallen still, standing about in knots as they listened, and Cody was on the edge of the dance floor with Adrienne still attached.
Nick finished his beer, slipped off his stool and made his way through the throng toward Cody. Halfway there, he could tell Cody was looking for him--sideways glances and the tight, restless set of Cody's shoulders gave it away.
Warmth slid through Nick's veins, stronger than any whiskey, as his not-jealousy evaporated. Cody liked to flirt, but he needed Nick. Nick went quietly up behind him and stood close, allowing his shoulder to rest against Cody's, his hip to touch the curve of Cody's butt.
Cody started then relaxed, arm falling away from Adrienne's shoulders as he half-turned to Nick. "There y'are," he murmured, low and warm. "Been looking around for you--I was getting kinda worried."
"I was at the bar with Mama Jo." Nick rested his hand between Cody's shoulder blades, fighting the urge to pull Cody into his arms.
"Yeah? Drinking whiskey?" Cody shot a rueful glance over his shoulder at Adrienne. "I'm sorry, buddy, I shoulda come looking sooner--"
Nick shook his head. "I thought of it, I admit, but Mama Jo stopped that." He breathed deep, leaning as close to Cody as he dared in such a public place, filling his senses with his partner. "D'you need to get back?" He gestured over Cody's shoulder at the girl.
"No, he don't." Mama Jo walked up behind them and tapped Adrienne on the shoulder. "Young lady, you're needed in the kitchen. Case you forgot, we're helpin' Straightaway out tonight."
"Oh! Yes, Mama Jo." Adrienne swung around, then shot a flirty glance at Cody. "Maybe I'll see you later, handsome."
"Not if I have anything to say about it." Mama Jo smiled grimly, watching as the girl wove her way through the crowd in the direction of the kitchen.
"Aw, Mama Jo," Cody said, before Nick could stop him. "Why're you so hard on 'em? Surely they could have a night off once in a while."
Mama Jo gave a short laugh. "They surely could, Cody. And anytime I wanna see two detectives set a new record for the hundred yard dash, I'll go ahead and give 'em one." She sketched a salute. "Nice talkin', gentlemen."
Cody stared after her, open-mouthed. Around them, a storm of clapping broke out as Joanna concluded her speech and made her way to the large cake reposing in front of her.
"What do you think she meant, Nick? Do you...do you think she knows?"
Everyone was focused on Joanna. Nick took the opportunity to slide his arm around Cody. He thought of what Mama Jo had said at the bar, and squeezed Cody tighter. The charade was important for their safety and success as private investigators, but more than that, it was important to Cody on a deeper level. "Nah," Nick lied softly. "How would she know? She just meant she'd have our balls for breakfast if we touched those girls, night off or not."
Cody relaxed, nodding, and Nick stepped back slightly. He smiled and clapped along with everyone else as Joanna cut her cake, then followed as Cody made his way forward to congratulate her.
"Hey guys! Thanks for coming!" Joanna kissed them both and kept hold of Cody's arm. "Say, this place is kind of crowded. I thought of heading downtown in an hour, finding someplace quieter with a nice dancefloor..." Her invitation clearly included both of them, but Nick could see her eyes on Cody.
With a deep breath, Nick stepped back. After the Mama Jo incident, Cody would want to reaffirm his masculinity. Nick hated it, but he could accept it.
"You guys go," he said, carefully cheerful. "I'm kinda tired--in fact, I think I'll head home now. G'night, Joanna--night, Cody." He pecked Joanna on the cheek and waved off whatever Cody tried to say to him. He'd had his quota of people for the night, and as much as he loved Cody, he couldn't watch him making up to Joanna. Not tonight.
Halfway down the pier, Cody caught up to him. "Why didn't you wait?"
Nick paused, heart quickening. Cody was breathless from running. "Thought you were going with Joanna."
Cody slipped an arm around his shoulders and started walking. "Why on earth would I do that?" His voice dropped lower. "I thought we had plans tonight."
"We did." Nick quickened his pace, glancing sideways at Cody. "Thought maybe you needed a raincheck."
Cody glanced up and laughed. "S'not raining, Nick."
They came to the gate of the slip and Nick fumbled impatiently with the padlock, misdialing the combination on the first try.
"Come on," Cody said, half amused, half impatient, reaching around Nick to help.
"Keep it on the boat, fellas." Mama Jo's gruff tones made them both stand up straight in a hurry. Nick stumbled and Cody caught him, and they both stared as the charter-boat captain strode past. "Good night."
"Night, Mama Jo," they echoed.
"She knows," Cody said flatly as Nick opened the gate, successfully this time. He strode through and stood staring down the pier after Mama Jo. "She knows."
Nick stood still, padlock in hand. "You wanna take Joanna up on her offer after all?" he asked, unable to keep a hint of bitterness out of his voice.
Cody refocused all of a sudden, blue eyes sharpening as he gazed at Nick. A slow smile spread across his face. "Now why on earth would I want to do that?"
They reached for each other at the same moment, and the padlock fell unheeded to the pier.