Page d'accueil Birthday Girl
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VERY HOT......OMG YOU WILL LOVE AND HATE THIS BOOK....IT BRINGS TO LIFE some real experiences... not say the whole the just parts..
19 October 2020 (09:09)
Alguien me dice como puedo pasarlo a español?
03 March 2021 (19:53)
About to read this book, hopefully I like it
19 April 2021 (02:12)
Taboo but brilliant none the less. Definitely makes you more open minded. <3
20 April 2021 (03:51)
I’m close minded as fuck I ain’t reading this
30 April 2021 (04:43)
I just wanted to read some taboo smut. I ended up rooting for the couple. Who knew?
This is pretty well written, and also hot as hell.
This is pretty well written, and also hot as hell.
01 May 2021 (22:21)
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09 May 2021 (20:19)
Idk If someone still needs this but you can translate the books on a computer by going to translate page. Then select documents, and find the file you wanted to translate. After that you choose the language you wanted it translated to. Then click translate.
1.En su computadora, vaya a Google Translate.
2. En la parte superior izquierda, haz clic en Documentos.
3. Haga clic en Examinar su computadora y busque el archivo que desea traducir.
4. Para elegir el idioma al que desea traducir, en la parte superior derecha, haga clic en la flecha hacia abajo.
5. Haga clic en Traducir.
Así traduzco algunos de los libros.
1.En su computadora, vaya a Google Translate.
2. En la parte superior izquierda, haz clic en Documentos.
3. Haga clic en Examinar su computadora y busque el archivo que desea traducir.
4. Para elegir el idioma al que desea traducir, en la parte superior derecha, haga clic en la flecha hacia abajo.
5. Haga clic en Traducir.
Así traduzco algunos de los libros.
13 May 2021 (02:14)
gonna read it???
will i need holy water
will i need holy water
17 May 2021 (20:18)
ok I wanna read is there gonna be smut??
16 June 2021 (19:41)
Bruh I'm still 50/50 on reading this Haha. I've quit reading smut last year but rn, 12am thinking if i should summon my old self hahaha. I'll make this as my starting point ig? Hahahahaha
18 June 2021 (19:38)
This was a good docile book. It was just the age gap that was a thing but it was good
28 June 2021 (06:53)
THIS BOOK IS SO WELL WRITTEN!! GOSH U GUYS I'M HAVING SOME DADDY ISSUES RIGHT NOW!! OMGGGG I THINK IT'S NOT SO TABOO THO THE AGE GAP IS QUITE BIG BUT WHO CARES THE CHARACTERS SO HOT ASGDKDJSHSJSJSHSG I CAN'T REALLY?? I COULDN'T GET ENOUGH I WANT MORE!!! MUST READ!!
30 June 2021 (14:06)
I love how it was written. The romance wasn't rushed and wasn't slow either and it just kind of fits my taste. And now I just acquired this weird filf issues which is kind of weird for me before but now I understand. Although not totally into the idea of large age gaps but like who can resist men like Jensen Ackles or Tom Hiddleston? Way to go Jordan and Pike!
08 July 2021 (05:04)
i need it in french :((
08 July 2021 (13:45)
It has smut, would i need holy water..... Im starting to like it just by reading comments
09 July 2021 (03:51)
I loved this book so much!! Mega age gap and lots of daddy issues? Sure but who cares!?
11 July 2021 (15:47)
I am sure I will love reading it, even though I am yet to go through it and I don't even have access to it.
I am using the iOS phone.
I am using the iOS phone.
12 July 2021 (16:38)
Best Penelope Douglas book ever. By the way, it is definitely 18+
19 July 2021 (16:38)
Omg so hot I loved it.
20 July 2021 (23:43)
I love it. I don't have a problem with taboo stuff, unless it's a crime - if it's crime, it isn't taboo.
But this is one I can't even see it.
she met the guy bad liked him and he liked her, before she knew. Her bf is an ass, and Pike was the only person in her life, but her sister, to ever love her properly.
The only taboo in there is solved in like 5 pages, bc his son almost disappear.
I like this, they truly belong.
But this is one I can't even see it.
she met the guy bad liked him and he liked her, before she knew. Her bf is an ass, and Pike was the only person in her life, but her sister, to ever love her properly.
The only taboo in there is solved in like 5 pages, bc his son almost disappear.
I like this, they truly belong.
21 July 2021 (01:01)
Penelope Douglas Copyright © 2018 Penelope Douglas Cover Design © 2018 Pink Ink Designs All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system without the prior written permission of the author. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. Proofreading & Interior Formatting by Elaine York, Allusion Graphics, LLC/Publishing & Book Formatting Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9 Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Chapter 12 Chapter 13 Chapter 14 Chapter 15 Chapter 16 Chapter 17 Chapter 18 Chapter 19 Chapter 20 Chapter 21 Chapter 22 Chapter 23 Chapter 24 Chapter 25 Chapter 26 Chapter 27 Chapter 28 Chapter 29 Epilogue Acknowledgements About the Author “Addicted to Love” by Robert Palmer “All She Wants to Do Is Dance” by Don Henley “Bad Medicine” by Bon Jovi “Glory Days” by Bruce Springsteen “Guys My Age” by Hey, Violet “Hurts So Good” by John Mellencamp “I Love Rock ‘n Roll” by Joan Jett & The Blackhearts “I’m on Fire” by Bruce Springsteen “Jessie’s Girl” by Rick Springfield “Pity Party” by Melanie Martinez “Poison” by Alice Cooper “Pour Some Sugar on Me” by Def Leppard “Run to You” by Bryan Adams “The Girl Gets Around” by Sammy Hagar “The Distance” by Cake “When you grow up, your heart dies.” -Allison Reynolds, The Breakfast Club Jordan He’s not answering. This the second time I’ve called in fifteen minutes, and I’ve been texting without any luck, too. Was he planning on still remembering to be here at two? I end the call and glance up at the clock above the bar, seeing it’s nearly midnight now. Still two hours before my boyfrie; nd thinks I’m off work and need to be picked up. And here I thought we got a lucky surprise tonight, me getting off early. Shit. I need to get my car running. I can’t keep relying on him for rides. The music fills the air around me, customers laughing to my right and one of the other bartenders filling the cooler with ice to my left. Unease pricks at the back of my neck. If he’s not answering, then he’s either asleep or out. Both could mean he’ll remember me after it’s too late. He’s not always unreliable, but this wouldn’t be the first time, either. That’s the problem with making your friend your boyfriend, I guess. He still thinks he can get away with murder. I grab my shirt and school bag out of the cabinet underneath the taps and slide my phone into my pocket. I pull on a flannel over my tank top, button it up, and tuck the front of the hem into my jeans, covering myself. I’ll dress a little sexy for tips, but I’m not about to walk out of here like this. “Where are you going?” Shel asks, peering at me as she draws a beer. I glance over at my boss, her black hair with blonde chunks piled on top of her head and a string of tiny hearts tattooed around her upper arm. “There’s a midnight showing of Evil Dead at The Grand Theater,” I tell her as I close the cabinet and slide the strap of my leather satchel over my head. “I’ll go kill time and wait for Cole there.” She finishes pouring her beer and looks at me like there are a million things she wants to say but doesn’t even know where to start. Yeah, yeah, I know. I wish she’d stop looking at me like that. There’s a good possibility Cole won’t be here at two a.m. considering he’s not answering the phone right now. I know that. He could be three sheets to the wind at some friend’s house. Or he could be at home sleeping with the alarm set to come get me at two and his phone left in another room. It’s not likely, but it’s possible. He’s got two hours. I’ll give him two hours. Besides, my sister is at work, and no one here can leave to drive me home. Work is slow tonight, and I got cut early because I’m the only one without a child to support. Even though I desperately need the money just the same. I grip the strap of the bag over my chest, feeling like I should be older than eighteen. Well, nineteen now, almost forgetting what today is. I take a deep breath, pushing the worry away for tonight. A lot of people my age struggle for money, can’t pay bills, and have to bum rides. I know it’s too much to expect that I’d have everything figured out by now, but it’s still embarrassing. I hate looking helpless. And I can’t blame Cole, either. It was my decision to use what was left of my student loan money to help him fix his car. He’s been there for me, too. At one time, we were all the other one had. Turning around, Shel sets the beer on the bar in front of Grady—one of the regulars—and takes his cash, shooting me another look as she enters the sale into the register. “You don’t have a functioning vehicle,” she states. “And it’s dark outside. You can’t walk to the theater. Sex slavers are just looking for hot, teenage girls with blonde hair and shit.” I snort. “You need to stop watching Lifetime Movies.” We might be an easy distance to some larger towns, and Chicago is only a few hours away, but we’re still in the middle of nowhere. I lift up the partition and walk out from behind the bar. “The theater is right around the block,” I tell her. “I’ll make it in ten seconds if I run like I’m being graded.” I pat Grady on the back as I leave, the gray hair of his ponytail swaying as he turns to wink at me. “Bye, kiddo,” he says. “’Night.” “Jordan, wait,” Shel shouts over the jukebox, and I turn my head to look at her. I watch as she pulls a box out of the cooler along with a single serving box of wine and pushes them both across the bar at me. “Happy Birthday,” she says, smirking at me like she knows I probably think she forgot. I break into a smile and lift the small Krispy Kreme box open and see half a dozen donuts. “It was all I could pick up in a hurry,” she explains. Hey, it’s cake. Kind of. I’m not complaining. I close the box and lift up the flap of my leather bag, hiding my loot inside, wine and all. I didn’t expect anyone to get me anything, of course, but it’s still nice to be remembered. Cam, my sister, will no doubt surprise me with a pretty shirt or a sexy pair of earrings tomorrow when I see her, and my dad will probably call me sometime this week. Shel knows how to make me laugh, though. I’m old enough to work in a bar but not old enough to drink. Sneaking me some wine I can enjoy off the premises will be my little adventure tonight. “Thank you,” I say and hop up on the bar, planting a kiss on her cheek. “Be safe,” she tells me. I nod once and spin around, heading out the wooden door and stepping out onto the sidewalk. The door shuts behind me, the music inside now a dull thrumming, and my chest caves, releasing the breath I didn’t realize I’d been holding. I love her, but I wish she wouldn’t worry about me. She looks at me like she’s my mom and wants to fix everything. I guess I should’ve been so lucky as to have a mom like her. The welcome fresh air washes over me, the late-night chill sending goosebumps up my arms, and the fragrant scent of May flowers wafts through my nostrils. I tip my head back, close my eyes, and breathe in a lungful as my long bangs tickle my cheek in the light breeze. Hot summer nights are coming. I open my eyes and look left and then right, seeing the sidewalks are empty, but cars still line both sides of the street. The VFA parking lot is also full. Their Bingo night usually turns into a bar scene this late, and it looks like the old timers are still going strong. Turning left, I pull the rubber band out of my hair, letting the loose curls fall down, and slip the band around my wrist as I start walking. The night feels good, even though it is still a little crisp out. There’s too much liquor in every crevice in there, seeping up into my nose all night. Too much noise and too many eyes, as well. I pick up the pace, excited to disappear into the dark theater for a while. Normally, I don’t go alone, but when they’re showing an older 80’s flick like Evil Dead, I have to. Cole is all about special effects and doesn’t trust films made before 1995. I smile, thinking about his quirks. He doesn’t know what he’s missing. The 80s were fantastic. It’s a whole decade of just good fun. Not everything had to have a meaning or be deep. It’s a welcome escape, especially tonight. Rounding the corner and making my way up to the ticket booth, I see I’m a few minutes early, which is great. I hate missing the trailers at the beginning. “One, please,” I tell the cashier. I fish out the wad of tips from my pocket that I made tonight and dole out the seven-fifty for the ticket. Not that I have money to spare with rent coming due and a small pile of bills on Cole’s and my desk back at our apartment that we can’t pay yet, but it’s not like seven bucks will make or break me. And it’s my birthday, so… Walking inside, I bypass the concession stand and head for the next set of double doors. There’s only one theater, and surprisingly, this place has survived for sixty years even in the wake of the bigger twelve-theater cinema centers built in the surrounding towns. The Grand had to get creative with midnight showings of classic movies like tonight, but also dress-up events and private parties, too. I don’t get down here much with my school and work schedule, but it’s a nice, dark place when you want to get lost for a while. Private and quiet. Stepping through the doors, I check my phone one more time to see that Cole hasn’t called or texted yet. I turn my ringer off and slide it back into my pocket. Some ads loop on the screen, but the house lights are still on, and I quickly scan the room, seeing a few loners spread out. There’s also a couple sitting in the back row to my right, and a small group of guys are in the middle—young by the sound of their inconsiderately loud laughter. Out of about three hundred seats, two hundred eighty-five are still available, and I pretty much have my pick. I walk down five or six rows, finding an empty one and slide in, taking a seat midway in. I set down my bag and quietly pull out the purple box of wine, reading the label in the dim light. Merlot. I was hoping it was white wine, but I’m sure Shel needs to get rid of this stuff. We only serve it when there’s an outdoor event and don’t want glass outside. Unscrewing the cap, I sniff the pungent scent, not sensing any of the fancy aromas in the least that sommeliers seem to grasp from wine. No hint of oak with a “bold aroma of sweet cherries” or anything like that. Sliding my tray in front of me, I take advantage of the empty row ahead and bend up my knees, fitting my Chucks in between the empty seats on the arm rest. Setting the box down, I slip my phone out of my back pocket, just in case Cole calls, and plop it on the tray next to the wine. But instead, it spills off the tray. It falls down between my legs and onto the floor, and I jerk up my knees to try to catch it, but they bump the tray and send the open box of wine spilling to the floor. My mouth falls open, and I gasp. “Shit!” I blurt out in a whisper. What the hell? Planting my feet on the floor again, I push the tray off to the side and dive down to the floor, feeling around for my phone. My fingers dip in the spilled wine, and I flinch at the mess. Glancing up over the seats, I see the group of three guys a few rows down, dead ahead of me and right in line of the oncoming winefall. I groan. Great. A light layer of sweat cools my forehead, and I stand up, yanking my scarf out of my bag to dry off my fingers. I hate to ruin it, but I don’t have any napkins. What a mess. So much for escaping for two hours. I look around for an usher with a light, pretty positive this theater doesn’t employ them, especially at this time of night, but the only flashlight I have is on my phone, and the floors are dark. Seeing no one, I take my scarf and bag and travel up to the next row, bending down and peering under the seats to see if I can see my cell. When I find nothing, I move up to the next row and then to the next, pretty sure I heard it slide a ways. Since the rows of seats are on a decline, it could’ve gone far, too. Dammit. Moving up to the next row, I set my stuff down and drop to my hands and knees, peering under the rows to my left and right, feeling with my hands. A pair of long, jean-clad legs sit ahead, and I look up, seeing a man sitting in the seat with fingers full of popcorn halfway to his mouth. He stares down at me with raised eyebrows. “I’m sorry,” I whisper, tucking my hair behind my ear. “I dropped my drink and my phone went sliding down here somewhere. Do you mind…?” He hesitates a moment and then blinks, sitting up. “Yeah, sure.” He moves his tray aside and stands up, digging something out of his pocket. “Here.” He turns on the flashlight on his phone and squats down, shining it under the seats. Immediately, I spot my phone under the seat next to his and snatch it up. Thank goodness. We both stand up, and my shoulders relax. I can’t afford a replacement right now. I smooth my fingers over the screen, making sure I don’t feel any cracks. “Got it?” he asks. “Yeah, thank you.” He kills his flashlight but reaches over, swiping his fingers over the bottom of my phone, and brings them to his nose, smelling. “Is that…” he winces, “wine?” I glance down at the floor, seeing he’s standing in the drink I spilled three rows up. “Oh, geez.” I look up at him. “I’m so sorry. Is it everywhere?” “No, no, it’s fine.” He lets out a chuckle, his lips curving more to one side with his smile as he steps out of the mess. “I didn’t realize they sold alcohol here.” I grab my scarf and wipe off my phone. “Oh, they don’t,” I tell him quietly so I don’t disturb others in the theater. “I just got off work. My boss gave it to me for a… um,” I shake my head, searching for words, “to, uh… celebrate.” “Celebrate?” “Shhh,” someone hisses. We both look to the guy one row back and far to the right who’s shooting us a glare out of the corner of his eye. Neither the trailers nor movie have started yet, and we’re not in his line of sight, but I guess we’re disturbing him. I move away, back toward my bag. The man helping me picks up his drink and popcorn and follows, the faint scent of his body wash hitting me. “I’m just going to scooch over, out of the mess,” he says. He sits a few chairs down and glances up at me and then back to where I was sitting when my phone and wine fell. “You’re welcome to sit.” He gestures to the seat next to him, probably figuring out I’m on my own tonight, too. “Thanks,” I tell him. “I’ll just go…” I don’t finish. I back away and pick up my bag, turning to head to my own seat when I see a guy and girl enter the theater. I freeze, watching them veer left for the back row on the other side of the room and plop down in the seats. Shit. Jay McCabe. The only other boyfriend I’ve had other than Cole, and he makes Cole look like a prince. Unfortunately, he still loves to take a bite out of me any chance he gets, and there’s no way in hell I’m dealing with him tonight. “You okay?” the guy with the phone light asks when I don’t move. “I promise I’m not making a pass at you. You’re too old for me.” I shoot him a look, forgetting about Jay and the girl for a moment. Too old for him? What? I take in his more than six feet of height, the outline of muscles visible through his T-shirt, and his corded right forearm with a full sleeve of tattoos disappearing up his shirt. I’ve seen plenty of guys in the bar, and he doesn’t look like any nineteen year old I’ve ever seen. He’s got to be at least what? Thirty? He snorts. “I’m kidding,” he says, his mouth spreading in a wide smile that makes my face fall a little. “If you don’t want to watch the movie alone, you’re welcome to sit. That’s all I meant.” I dart my gaze to Jay and whomever he’s with, but then a group of guys suddenly push through the double doors, making a lot of noise as they enter the theater. I see Jay look away from the girl and toward the commotion, and I drop down in the seat next to the guy on instinct, not wanting Jay to see me. “Thanks,” I tell the guy next to me. I feel my ex’s presence in the theater, and the old memories surface, reminding me of how helpless I let him make me feel at one time. I just want one night where I’m not thinking about everything. I sit back and try to relax, but then I peer out of the corner of my eye, the close proximity of a guy I don’t know sitting next to me suddenly like a blazing bonfire and impossible to ignore. I turn my head, eyeing him with apprehension. “You’re not a serial killer, are you?” He pinches his eyebrows and looks at me. “Are you?” “They’re usually anti-social, Caucasian men.” Good-looking male here all alone? Hmmm… He arches a sharp brow. “And they look just like everyone else,” he adds, suspicion in his voice as he looks me up and down. The light from the ads on the screen play in his eyes, neither of us flinch, but I can’t take it anymore. I break into a quiet chuckle. I finally hold out my hand to him. “I’m Jordan. Sorry about the wine.” “Jordan?” he repeats, taking my hand and shaking it. “Unusual name for a girl.” “No, not really.” I relax into the seat and fold my arms over my chest, lifting my knees and planting my shoes into the crevice between the two empty seats ahead of me. “It was the name of Tom Cruise’s love interest in Cocktail, remember?” His eyebrows raise in question. “Cocktail?” I repeat. “1988 movie about flair bartending?” “Oh, right.” But he has this unsure look in his eyes, and I’m not sure he knows what the hell I’m taking about. “Do you like 80’s movies?” I ask, gesturing to the film that we’re about to watch on the screen. “I like scary movies,” he clarifies and holds the popcorn over to me. “This one’s a classic. You?” “I love the 80s.” I take a small handful and put a piece in my mouth. “My boyfriend hates my taste in movies and music, but I can’t resist. I’m here whenever they show something from the decade.” I feel awkward slipping in a random mention of a boyfriend, but I don’t want to give the wrong impression here. I quickly glance down at his left hand, thankfully not seeing a wedding ring. It would be wrong to sit here with a married guy. But he just looks at me knowingly. “Breakfast Club is your favorite, right?” he says. “And every other John Hughes creation?” “You have something against The Breakfast Club?” “Not the first ten times I saw it, no.” A smile pulls at my lips. It is on TV a lot, I guess. He leans in. “The 80s was the age of the action hero,” he points out, his deep voice close and hushed. “People forget that. Lethal Weapon, Die Hard, The Terminator, Rambo…” “Jean-Claude Van Damme,” I add. “Exactly.” I bite the corner of my mouth, so I don’t laugh, but my stomach shakes anyway, and I let out a snort. He frowns. “What are you laughing at?” “Nothing,” I reply quickly, nodding. “Van Damme. Great actor. Very relevant films.” I can’t keep the laughter off my face, though, and he furrows his brow knowing I’m full of shit. Just then I hear a giggle somewhere behind me, and I turn my head over my shoulder, seeing Jay turned away from the screen and leaning into the girl, both of them full-on making out now. “You know them?” the man next to me asks. I shake my head. He doesn’t need to know my business. We fall silent, and I finish the popcorn in my hand, letting my head fall back as I look up to the high ceiling and the antique gold arches overhead. He sits next to me, and I breathe in and out slowly, despite the hammering in my chest. Why am I nervous? Is it Jay? No, I’m not even thinking about him at the moment. People chat around us, waiting for the movie to start, but I can’t hear what they’re saying, and I don’t really care. My skin feels warm. “So, what are studying at Doral State?” he asks. I shoot him a surprised look. How does he know where I go to school? Serial killer. But then he gestures to my bag on the floor, and I see the keychain hanging off it with the university emblem emblazoned on the face. Oh, duh. I sit up. “Landscape Design,” I tell him. “I want to make outside spaces pretty.” “That’s nice. I work in construction.” I flash him a half-smile. “So, you make inside spaces pretty then.” “No, not really.” I laugh at his forlorn tone like he’s so bored with what he does. “I make them functional,” he corrects me. He turns hazel eyes on me, warm and piercing, but then his gaze drops to my mouth for a split moment, and a flutter hits my stomach. He quickly looks away, and I drop my eyes, having a hard time catching my breath. Clearing my throat, I bend down and pull out the box of donuts from my bag and place them on the tray, swinging the little table in front of me and lifting the lid. The sweet scent immediately hits my nose, and my stomach growls. I glance back at the projection window, wondering if the movie is starting soon, because I was saving these for that, but now I’m starving. I feel the guy’s eyes on me, and I glance at him, explaining the donuts, “It’s my birthday. In addition to the wine, my boss gave me the only cake she could get at a drive-thru.” I pick one up and lean back, putting my feet back on the arm rest in front of me. “You’re going to eat all six donuts?” he questions. I stop the pastry two inches from my mouth and glare at him. “Would that disgust you or something?” “No, I’m just wondering if I get one.” I smile and wave at the box, telling him to help himself. He picks up the plain glazed, and I’m not sure if he’s the no-frills type or just trying to save the special sprinkle ones for me, but either way, I kind of like it. We sit back and eat, but I can’t help stealing glances at him every once in a while. His brown hair is light, and his eyes look blue, green, or hazel depending on what kind of light is flashing across them from the screen. He has a little stubble on his oval-shaped face, a sharp nose, and my gaze is drawn to the way his angular jaw flexes as he chews. There’s the faintest of lines around his eyes, so he might be more than thirty, but it could just be all his time working in the sun, too. He’s tall, strong, fit, and tan, and his eyes suddenly flash to the side as if he senses me staring. I turn my eyes forward again. Dammit. That’s okay, right? It’s normal to find other people attractive. It happens. I mean, Scarlett Johansson is attractive. That doesn’t mean I’m interested in her. I take another nibble of my donut, my gaze darting to the side again, taking in his arms and the various tattoos. Black gears and bolts, like a robot skeleton, some tribal work that definitely says he was a 90’s kid, and I can just make out what I think is a pocket watch that looks like it’s trying to break free of his skin. It’s like a hodgepodge without any discerning theme, but it’s beautiful work. I wonder what the story is behind them. I take another bite, the pink glaze and rainbow sprinkles sending electric shocks to the back of my jaw and making me crave the whole damn thing in my mouth at once. “You know, I really kind of want abs,” I say, chewing, “but these are really good.” He breaks into a laugh, looking at me and chuckling. “What?” “Nothing. You’re just…” He looks away as if searching for words. “You’re just kind of, like, interesting or…something?” He shakes his head. “I’m sorry, I don’t know what I mean. And then he blurts out, “Cute,” as if just remembering. “You’re cute, I mean.” My stomach flips, and heat warms my cheeks like I’m in fifth grade again when it was such a compliment for a guy you like to tell you you’re cute. I know he means my personality and not how I look, but I kind of like it. He finishes the donut and takes a sip of his soda. “So, what are you?” he asks. “Like twenty-three, twenty-four?” “Sure, eventually.” He breathes out a laugh. “Nineteen,” I finally answer. He takes a deep breath and sighs, something far off in his gaze. “What?” I take the last bite and brush my hands together, slouching and leaning my head back on the chair. “To be that young again,” he muses. “Seems like yesterday.” Well, how old could he be? Nineteen couldn’t have been that long ago for him. Ten years? Maybe twelve? “So, you’d do some things differently if you could go back?” I inquire. He quirks a tight smile and looks down at me, his eyes serious. “Let me tell you something…. A little advice, okay? I listen, looking up at him and my gaze locked with his. “Hit the ground running,” he tells me. Huh? He must see the confusion on my face, because he goes on. “Time passes by you like a bullet,” he says, “and fear gives you the excuses you’re craving to not do the things you know you should. Don’t doubt yourself, don’t second-guess, don’t let fear hold you back, don’t be lazy, and don’t base your decisions on how happy it will make others. Just go for it, okay?” I stare up at him, and unfortunately, that’s all I can seem to do. I want to smile, because my heart is swelling, and it feels good, but I’m also filled with something I can’t place. It’s like a dozen different emotions flooding in at once, and all I can manage are short, shallow breaths. “Okay,” I whisper to him. I’m not sure if what he said was what I wanted to hear or needed to hear, but I feel my shoulders square a bit more and my chin rise with readiness. For however long it lasts, I’m a little braver, and he’s my new hero. I watch as he pulls out a small box and proceeds to light a match, the small flame burning bright. He sticks it in one of the donuts, all the pink frosting Shel asked for, because she knows it’s my favorite color, glowing in the light. I feel my heart warm at the gesture. Taking my feet down, I lean forward, close my eyes, and ask for what I want in my head, and then I blow out the flame. I didn’t wish for what I usually wish for, though. My mind is suddenly blank, and I’m not remembering all the things I need and want right now outside of this theater. Just the only thing I can think of. We both sit back and settle in, each having another donut as the lights finally dim, and the surround sound hits us from both sides of the theater. Over the next ninety minutes, we eat and laugh, and I hide my face a couple times when I know something’s coming. I jerk here and there and laugh at him when he does, too, because he looks embarrassed. After a while, I notice my head lays inclined toward him, and he has his foot up on the empty chair ahead of us with his head laid back, as well, and we’re completely comfortable. It hasn’t even occurred to me to keep a certain distance. I don’t watch a lot of movies with other people. I’m not used to just sitting in silence with someone else. Cole’s and my schedules don’t always mesh, my sister, Cam, doesn’t have any free time anymore, and most of my high school friendships didn’t last past graduation about a year ago. It’s nice to hang out. By the time the credits roll, I’m not sure I remember much of the movie. But I haven’t been this relaxed in a long time. I laughed and smiled and joked around and forgot everything that’s going on out there, and I needed that. I don’t really want to go home yet. The lights start to come up, and I slowly sit up, bringing my feet back to the floor as I swallow the lump in my throat and glance over at him. He sits up, too, but he barely meets my eyes. Standing up, I hook the strap of the bag over my head and pick up my garbage. “Well, they’re showing Poltergeist in a few weeks,” he says behind me, rising and taking his trash with him. “If I see you, I’ll make sure to sit at higher ground.” I laugh under my breath, thinking about the wine. We both exit the row and walk for the doors, and I notice Jay and his date aren’t in their seats anymore. They must’ve left already, but truth be told, I forgot they were here a long time ago. Poltergeist. Does that mean he’ll be here then? Is this his way of nonchalantly letting me know in case I just happen to want to come, too? But no, he knows I have a boyfriend. I can’t help but think, though, if for some reason Cole and I didn’t make it another month, would I come to the movies then, knowing he’d be here? I blink long and hard, guilt washing over me as I trail up the aisle. I’d probably be here. There aren’t a lot of “catches” in this town, and I had fun tonight. This guy is interesting. And good-looking. And employed. I should set him up with my older sister. How he’s gone by undetected under her radar all this time is a mystery to me. We push through the door, the last ones out of the theater and stop in the lobby, tossing away all our trash. I look up at him, my heart skipping a beat at seeing him in the brighter light and standing tall in front of me. Hazel eyes. Definitely hazel. But more green around the outside of the irises. His hair is styled with minimal product and just long enough to run your fingers through, and I drop my eyes to his smooth, tan neck. I can’t see if there’s a tan line under the collar of his T-shirt, though. Is he like that all over? An unbidden image of him hammering and hauling lumber without a shirt on flashes in my mind and I… I close my eyes again, shaking my head. Yeah, whoa, okay. “Um, I better head back,” I tell him, gripping the strap of my bag. “Hopefully my boyfriend is waiting at the bar to pick me up by now.” “Bar?” “Grounders?” I answer, thinking he probably should know the place. It’s one of only three bars in town, although many favor Poor Red’s or the strip club over the dive I work at. “I got off a little early tonight—unexpectedly—but he’s my ride, and I couldn’t get a hold of him. He should be there now, though.” He pushes the door open, holding it for me as I leave the theater, and follows me out. “Well, I hope you had a good birthday, despite having to work,” he says. I move to the right toward where Grounders is, and he veers left. “And thanks for keeping me company.” I tell him. “I hope I didn’t ruin the movie for you.” He gazes at me for a moment, his breathing growing heavier as a torn look crosses his face. Finally, he shakes his head, averting his eyes. “Not at all,” he says. A moment of silence passes, and slowly, we both steer farther apart but neither of us turns our backs on one another. The silence gets longer, the distance farther, and finally he raises a hand, giving me a little wave before hooking both hands in his back pockets. “Goodnight,” he says. I just stare at him. Yeah, goodnight. And then I turn away, my stomach twisting into a tighter knot. I didn’t even get his name. It’d be nice to say ‘hi’ if I run into him again. I don’t have time to dwell, though, because my phone rings, and I slide it out of my pocket, seeing Cole’s name on the screen. I stop on the sidewalk and answer it. “Hey, you at Grounders?” I ask him. “I’m almost there.” He doesn’t say anything, though, and I pause, calling his name. “Cole? Hey, are you there?” Nothing. “Cole?” I say louder. But the line is dead. I go to call him back, but I hear a voice behind me. “Your boyfriend’s name is Cole?” the man from the theater asks. “Cole Lawson?” I turn around to see him slowly walking back toward me. “Yeah,” I say. “You know him?” He hesitates for a moment as if coming to terms with something, and then he holds out his hand, finally introducing himself. “I’m Pike. Pike Lawson.” Lawson? He pauses a moment and then adds, “His father.” My lungs empty. “What?” I breathe out. His father? My mouth falls open, but I clamp it shut again, looking up at this man with new eyes as realization dawns. Cole has talked about his father in passing—I knew he lived in the area—but they’re not close, from what I understand. The impression I had of Cole’s father from his son’s brief mentions doesn’t match the guy I talked to in the theater tonight. He’s nice. And easy to talk to. And he hardly looks old enough to have a nineteen-year-old son, for crying out loud. “His father?” I say out loud. He gives me a curt smile, and I know this is a turn of events he wasn’t expecting, either. I hear his cell vibrate in his pocket next, and he digs it out, checking the screen. “And if he’s calling me now, he must be in trouble,” he says, staring at the phone. “Need a lift?” “A lift where?” “Police station, I’d assume.” He sighs, answering the phone and leading the way. “Let’s go.” Jordan “I don’t think this is a good idea,” I tell Cole, pulling out my stacked milk crates from the back of his car. “I feel like a freeloader.” My boyfriend brandishes that quirky tilt to his lips where you only see the left side of his teeth. “So, what are you gonna do then?” He looks up at me, sliding my collapsible drafting table toward him and lifting it up. “Stay at your parents’?” His blue eyes are hooded, probably from the lack of sleep, as we both walk over and set our loads on the porch steps to Pike Lawson’s house. Our new home. The past few days have been crazy, and I can’t believe that guy is his father. What are the chances? I wish we’d met a little differently. Not driving down to the police station at two o’clock in the morning to get his son—my boyfriend—out of jail. “Come on, I told you,” Cole says, walking back to the car for another load. “My dad was the one who offered to let us stay here. We just chip in on chores, and this gives us a chance to save up for a new place. A better place.” Right. And how many kids move back home to do just that and end up staying for another three years instead? His dad had to know what he was opening himself up to. I’ll make every effort to be gone as soon as possible, but Cole doesn’t save money. Setting up a new place, with a deposit—which we lost at the previous apartment due to minor damages to the carpets—and utilities will take substantial cash. Once we get a place, Cole can help pay for it, but actually getting in there and set up will be on me. It’s been three days since the theater and meeting Pike Lawson. Once we got Cole out, I came home to find our apartment completely trashed. Apparently, he was trying to throw me a late birthday party at our place, but our friends—his friends—didn’t wait to start the festivities. By eleven, everyone was drunk, the pizza was gone, but hey, they saved me a piece of cake. I had to go into the bathroom so I wouldn’t cry in front of them when I saw the place. Apparently, a fight started during the party, neighbors complained about the noise, Cole mouthed off, and he and another one of his buddies were taken in to cool down. Mel, the landlord, stated in no uncertain terms that he’d had enough and Cole had to go. I was welcome to stay, but there was no way I could pay for everything by myself. Not after I’d already drained my savings, helping repair his car last month. And thank goodness the cops let him go without bail this time, because I didn’t have a hundred bucks to squeeze out of anywhere, much less twenty-five hundred. “You’re his son,” I remind Cole, grabbing my floor lamp—one of the only big things we didn’t put into storage, since Cole’s dad already had one of the spare bedrooms furnished. “But me staying here, too, with him paying all the bills? It’s not right.” “Well, I don’t think it’s right for me to have to go without this every day,” he teases with a cocky grin as he pulls me to him and wraps his arms around my body. I release the lamp and smile, indulging his playfulness even though I’m feeling out of sorts. It’s been a long time since I’ve been at ease long enough to forget the stress hitting us at every turn. We haven’t smiled together in a while, and it’s starting to not come naturally anymore. But right now, he has that boyish glint to his eyes like he’s just the most adorable tornado and “don’t you just love me?” He plants his forehead to mine, and I thread my fingers through the back of his blond hair and look up into his dark blue eyes that always give the impression that he just remembered he has a whole pie waiting in the refrigerator. Taking my right hand in his, he pulls both up between us, and I clasp his in mine, already knowing what he’s doing. Our fingers wrap around the other’s hand, our thumbs side by side, and he holds my eyes, the same memories passing between us. To anyone else it looks like an arm-wrestling grip, but when we look down, we see our thumbs side-by-side and the small, pea-sized scar we both have and share with only one other person. It’s silly when we tell people the story—a friend’s little brother’s Nerf gun that was too small for our hands, and we got skinned when we tried to use it, all three of us laughing when we realized we had the same exact scar at the head of our metacarpals. Now it’s just Cole and me. Just the two of us. Two scars, no longer three. “Stay with me, okay?” he whispers. “I need you.” And for a rare moment, I see vulnerability. I needed him, too, once, and he was there. We’ve been through a lot, and he’s probably my best friend. Which is why I’m too forgiving with him. I don’t want him to hurt. And which is why I let him talk me into this. I really don’t want to move in with my dad and stepmom, and it’s just until the end of the summer. Once my student loans come in for the fall, and I’ve saved up from working this summer, I can afford my own place again. I think. Cole holds me tight and remains quiet. He knows I’m still mad at him about getting arrested and the damage to the apartment, but he knows I care. I’m starting to wonder if it’s one of my faults. Definitely my weakness. He reaches down and cups my ass, diving into my neck and kissing me. I gasp as he presses himself into me, and I laugh, squirming out of his arms. “Stop!” I scold in a whisper as I glance nervously to the two-story house behind me. “We don’t have privacy anymore.” He smirks. “My dad’s still at work, babe. He won’t be home until around five.” Oh. Well, that’s good at least. I look up and down the neighborhood street, though, seeing house after house, curtains open, and kids playing here and there. It’s not like the apartments where everyone sees your business but doesn’t really care, because you’re transient and won’t stick around long enough for anyone to think you’re worth their attention. Here, in a real neighborhood, people invest their time in who lives next door. I take a deep breath, soaking in the smell of grills and the sound of lawn mowers. It’s a really nice neighborhood. I wonder if this could be me someday. Will I find a great job? Have a nice house? Will I be happy? Cole bows his forehead to mine again. “I’m sorry, you know.” He doesn’t look at me, staring at the ground. “I keep screwing up, and I don’t know why. I’m just so restless. I just can’t…” But he doesn’t finish. He just shakes his head, and I know. I always know. Cole isn’t a loser. He’s nineteen. Impulsive, angry, and confused. But unlike me, he never had to grow up. There’s always someone taking care of him. “You know who you’re meant to be,” I tell him. “Committing to it is a different process for everyone, but you’ll get there.” He raises his eyes, and a moment of hesitance crosses his gaze like he’s going to say something, but then it’s gone. He flashes his cocky little grin instead. “I don’t deserve you,” he says, and then he slaps me on the ass. I jerk, holding in my annoyance as we let go of each other. No, you don’t. But you’re cute, and you give good massages. We finish unloading the car and make several trips back and forth, carrying everything into the house. I drop off the few groceries I bought earlier into the kitchen and then carry one last box through the living room, and up the stairs to our room, first door on the left. I inhale a deep breath through my nose as I round the doorway into our new bedroom, unable to hide my smile at the smell of fresh paint. From the looks of the house we’re moving into, Cole’s father is renovating. Although it seems like the bulk of the major work is done. There were gleaming hardwood floors downstairs, matching crown molding in every room, granite countertops in the kitchen with all new-looking chrome appliances, and the black and glass cabinetry kind of made my heart flutter a little. I had never lived in a place even remotely this nice. For a construction worker, Pike Lawson wasn’t a bad designer. It’s definitely a nice house. A really nice place, in fact. Not that it’s a mansion—just a simple, two-story craftsman with a small, walk-up porch leading to the front door—but it’s redone, beautiful, well-kept, and the front and back yards are green. I set the box down and walk to the window, peeking between the blinds. An actual yard. Cole’s mom’s living situation wasn’t always great, so it’s nice to know he has a clean, safe neighborhood here whenever he needs. I wonder why he always made it seem like he needed someone to take care of him when he had this anytime he wanted. What is up with him and Pike Lawson? Someday I’m going to have a place like this, too. My father, unfortunately, will die in that trailer I grew up in. Cole walks in, swinging a couple suitcases onto the bed, and immediately leaves again, digging out his phone on his way out. “Do you think your dad will mind if I use the kitchen?” I call, following him out of the room. “I got stuff to make burgers.” He keeps walking, but I hear his breathy laugh. “I can’t imagine any guy, even my dad, is going to say a woman can’t use his kitchen to make him a meal, babe.” Yeah, right. I shoot a look at his back as he takes a right into the living room and heads outside. I keep going straight, into the kitchen. I used to like doing things for Cole. Being there for him better than my mother was for my father. Keeping a clean house—or apartment—and seeing him smile when I made his life a little bit easier or made sure he had what he needed. It’s gotten one-sided over the past few months, though. His father is doing a lot for us, though, and cooking a few nights a week is part of the arrangement, so I have no problem keeping my end of the deal. Well, our end of the deal, but Cole isn’t going to cook, so I’ll leave the yard work to him, which his father also stipulated was his responsibility to keep up. Pike Lawson. I’ve had to make an effort to not think about the theater the other night. It’s still hard to wrap my head around the randomness of the whole situation. I keep thinking about the matchstick in the donut, and the pep talk he gave me about going after what I want. Part of me, though, feels like he was saying those things to himself, too. Experience and maybe a little disappointment laced his tone, and I want to know more about him. Like what he was like as a young father. And so I thought he was cute. So what? I think Chris Hemsworth is cute. And Ryan Gosling, Tom Hardy, Henry Cavill, Jason Momoa, the Winchester brothers… It’s not like I had sexual thoughts, for crying out loud. It doesn’t have to be awkward. It can’t be. I’m with his son. Walking over to one of the chairs at the kitchen table, I dig my phone out of my bag and start my app, Jessie’s Girl immediately playing where it left off after my run this morning. I do a scan of the kitchen, as well as a quick peek back into the living room, making sure none of our things are laying around. I don’t want his dad inconvenienced any more than he already is. I walk to the fridge, running my hand over the island countertop as I pass by. While the other counters are a tan granite with accents of black, the island top is made of butcher block. The smooth wood is warm under my fingertips, and I don’t feel any grooves from carving. The whole kitchen looks recently redone, so maybe he hasn’t used the cutting board much. Or maybe he isn’t a big cook. A practical, bronze metal light fixture hangs over the island, and I do a little twirl before reaching the refrigerator, laughing under my breath. It’s nice to be able to move without bumping into something. The only thing this kitchen needs that would make me go from an impressed nod to fanning myself in heat would be some backsplash. Backsplash is hot. Reaching into the refrigerator, I pull out the ground beef, butter, and mozzarella, kicking the door closed with my foot as I turn around and set everything on the island. I pick up the two onions I left on the counter before and bob my head to the music, sliding and swaying, as I grab a butcher knife from the block and start chopping both into the thin slices. The music in my ears builds, the hair on my arms rises, and I feel a burst of energy in my legs, because I want to dance, but I won’t let myself. I hope Pike Lawson is okay with 80’s music in his house from time to time. He didn’t say he didn’t like it in the theater, but he didn’t also bank on us living with him. I stick to lip syncing and head banging while I form five large patties in my hands and start to add them to a clean pan, already heated and layered with melted butter. My hips are rolling side to side when I feel a tickle making its way around my waist. I jump, my heart leaping into my chest as a gasp lodges in my throat. Spinning around, I see my sister behind me. “Cam!” I whine. “Gotcha,” she teases, grinning ear to ear and jabbing me in the ribs again. I pause the music on my phone. “How’d you get in? I didn’t hear the bell.” She walks back around the island and sits at a stool, resting her elbows down and picking up an onion ring. “I passed Cole outside,” she explains. “He told me to just come in.” I arch my neck, peering out of the window and seeing him and a couple of his friends circle my grandma’s old VW that Cole’s dad paid to have towed here since it doesn’t run right now. I couldn’t leave it at the apartment, and Cole looks like he’s finally making good on his promise to fix it, so I can have a car. The sizzle of the meat frying in the pan hits my ears, and I turn around, flipping the burgers. A speckle of grease hits my forearm, and I wince at the sting. I know Cam’s here to check up on me. Old habits and that. My sister is only four years older, but she was the mom our mom didn’t stick around to be. I stayed in that trailer park until I graduated high school, but Cam left when she was sixteen and has been on her own ever since. Just her and her son. I glanced at the clock, seeing it was just after five. My nephew must be with the sitter by now, and she must be on her way to work. “So, where’s the father?” she asks me. “Still at work, I suppose.” He’ll be home soon, though. I transfer the burgers from the pan to the plate and take out the buns, opening up the package. “Is he nice?” she finally asks, sounding hesitant. I have my back turned to her, so she can’t see my annoyance. My sister is a woman who doesn’t mince words. The fact that she’s guarding her tone says she’s probably having thoughts I don’t want to hear. Like why the hell am I not just taking the higher-paying job her boss offered me last fall, so I can stay in my apartment? “He seems nice.” I nod, casting her a glance. “Kind of quiet, I think.” “You’re quiet.” I shoot her a smirk, correcting her, “I’m serious. There’s a difference.” She snickers and sits up straight, pulling down the hem of her white tank top, the red, lace bra underneath very well visible. “Someone had to be serious in our house, I guess.” ‘In our house’ growing up, she means. She flips her brown hair behind her shoulder, and I see the long, silver earrings she wears that matches her glittery make-up, smoky eyes, and shiny lips. “How’s Killian?” I ask, remembering my nephew. “A brat, as usual,” she says. But then stops like she remembers something. “No, wait. Today he told me that he tells his friends I’m his big sister when I come to get him from daycare.” She scoffs. “The little shit is embarrassed by me. But still, I was like ‘Whoa, people actually believe that?’” And then she flips her hair again, putting on a show. “I mean, I still look good, don’t I?” “You’re only twenty-three.” I top the burger with shredded mozzarella, add another patty, and top that, as well. “Of course, you do.” “Mmm-hmm.” She snaps her fingers. “Gotta make that money while I can.” I meet her eyes, and it’s only for a moment, but it’s long enough to see the falter in her humor. The way her bemused smile looks like an apology and how she blinks, filling the silence as her awkward words hang in the air. And how she pulls the hem of her top down to cover as much of her stomach as she can in the presence of her little sister. My sister hates what she does for a living, but she likes the money more. She finally turns her attention back to me, her tone sounding almost accusing. “So, what are you doing, by the way?” “Making dinner.” She shakes her head, rolling her eyes. “So not only do you not cut loose the male you’re with, but now you’re waiting hand and foot on another one?” I place a couple onion rings on the first double cheeseburger and top it with a bun. “I am not.” “Yes, you are.” I glare at her. “We’re staying here—in this fabulous neighborhood, mind you—rent-free. The least I can do is make sure we keep our end of the bargain. We clean up and share some of the cooking duties. That’s all.” Her right eyebrow arches sternly, and she crosses her arms over her chest, not buying it. Oh, for crying out loud. I actually think we’re getting the better end of this bargain than Pike Lawson, after all. Central air, cable and Wi-Fi, a walk-in closet… I reach over the counter and pull the blinds up, barking to get her off my back, “He has a pool, Cam! I mean, come on.” Her eyes go wide. “No shit?” She pops out of her chair and scurries over, peering into the backyard. The pool is perfect. Shaped like an hourglass, the multi-colored tiles on the deck are Mediterranean-style, and it has a walk-in entry with a mosaic floor. Cole’s dad must be still working on it because there’s a display on the far end of the pool with flowerless flower beds and spouts for mini waterfalls that aren’t yet running. There’s a table and chairs placed haphazardly around the perimeter, and the rest of the grassy backyard has various lawn furniture not yet set up in any discernable way. A table umbrella lays to the right, next to the hose, and a barbeque grill sits covered with a tarp to the left. My sister nods approvingly. “This is nice. You were always meant to live in a house like this.” “Who isn’t?” I shoot back. Everyone should be so lucky. Although it still feels wrong being here. I care a lot about Cole, though, and I’d rather be with him than at my dad’s. I finish up the burgers, while she turns around, gripping the counter at her sides and stares at me. “You sure all he wants is a little cleaning and cooking?” she presses. “Men, no matter the age, are all the same. I should know.” Yeah, you can shut up now. I can take care of myself. If high school boyfriends and working in a bar haven’t taught me that by now… But she speaks up again, moving into my space and stopping me. “Just listen to me for a second.” Her tone turns firm. “It’s a nice house, a safe neighborhood, and yes, you can save up a little money. But you don’t have to stay here.” “It’s not Dad and Corinne’s, so there’s that,” I argue back. “And I can’t stay with you. I appreciate the offer, but I can’t be on the couch in everyone’s way and be able to study with a four-year-old trying to be a kid in his own house.” I have a summer class on Thursdays, so I need some space to work. “That’s not what I meant,” she quickly retorts. “You could’ve stayed in that apartment. You could’ve afforded it.” I open my mouth but shut it again, turning around to slip the burgers into the oven for a few minutes. Not this again. When is she going to give it up? “I can’t, okay?” I tell her. “I don’t want to. I like my job, and I don’t to work where you work.” “Of course, you don’t.” She gives me a bored look. “It’s beneath you, right?” “That’s not what I said.” I don’t think less of my sister because of her job. She feeds and clothes her kid. She swallowed her pride and did what she had to do, and I love her for it. But—and I would never say this to her face—it’s not a career she would’ve picked for herself if she’d had other choices. And I’m not out of choices yet. Cam has been dancing at The Hook since she was eighteen. At first, it was just a temporary job to get through her boyfriend leaving her and to support their son. But juggling college and her child became too much, and eventually, she quit school. It was the plan to get back on track once Killian started kindergarten, but that’ll be soon, and I don’t think she has immediate plans to quit anytime soon. She’s gotten used to the money. And nearly a year ago, her boss offered me a job bartending there, and she’s been on my ass to take it ever since. I could make more than enough to support myself, after all, and maybe not have to take out so many student loans, either. A few years and that’s it, she’d said. I’d be out. But I know bartending is just the job her boss gets girls to take while he works them over to get them to start dancing on stage. And I’m not doing that. I’m not watching my sister do that every night, either. My body is private. It’s personal to me and whom I want to show it to. I’ll stay at Grounders, thank you. “I’m fine where I am,” I tell her. “I got this.” She sighs. “Alright,” she says, giving up for now. “Just be prepared if this doesn’t work out, okay?” This, meaning Cole and me living in his father’s house. I move around her to pull some lemonade out of the fridge and suddenly hear the low rumble of an engine growing closer. I stop, peering toward the window, and see the corner of a black truck pull into the driveway. The same ’71 Chevy Cheyenne I rode in after the movie the other night to get Cole at the police station. My heart thumps in my chest, but I ignore it and quickly close the fridge. “His father’s home,” I tell her, grabbing her purse on the counter and shoving it at her. “You need to go.” “Why?” “Because this isn’t my house,” I bite out, pushing her toward the laundry room and the back door. “At least let me wait a week before I impose on his space with all my friends.” “I’m your sister.” I hear a car door slam. I keep pushing her out toward the back, but she’s digging in her heels. “And you better keep me posted,” she says. “I’m not letting you let some beer-bellied, middle-aged pervert who was only too happy to let a hot pair of teenage thighs move into his house start demanding a little extra from his new tenant.” “Shut up.” But I can’t help laughing a little. Yeah, he’s not beer-bellied, middle-aged, or a pervert. I don’t think, anyway. She turns around, jabbing me in the stomach playfully and lowering her voice to a deep, husky tone. “Come on, honey.” She squirms up to me, trying to wrap her arms around me seductively. “Time to work off your rent, baby.” “Shut up!” I whisper-yell, laughing and trying to nudge her out of the kitchen. “God, you’re embarrassing. Get out!” “Don’t be scared,” she continues, pretending she’s some creepy old guy as she slobbers up her lips and tries to get a kiss from me. “Little girls take care of their daddies.” And she mock thrusts into me, jutting out what beer belly she can muster with her twenty-two-inch waist. “Stop it!” I plead, flaming with embarrassment. She paws me up and down my hips, smiling as I try to shove her out of the kitchen. But then she stops suddenly, her face falling and her eyes focused on something—or someone—behind me. I close my eyes for a moment. Great. Turning around, I see Cole’s father standing in the entryway between the living room and the kitchen, paused and staring at us. Heat rises up my neck at the sight of him again. I hear my sister suck in a breath, and I move away from her, clearing my throat. I don’t think he heard anything. At least, I hope not. His eyes dart between us and finally come to rest on me. His short hair is just a little messy, and I can see the sweat from his workday still dampening the sides, and the five-o’clock shadow coming in across his jaw. Black marks scuff his forearms, and the tendons in his tanned hands flex as he grips his tool belt and lunch container. He inhales a deep breath and moves forward, setting his things on the island. “All moved in?” he asks me, running a hand through his hair. I nod. “Yeah,” I blurt out. “I mean, yes.” My heart is doing that thing again where it feels like it’s riding on ocean waves inside my chest, and I can’t remember what I’m supposed to be doing. So I just nod again, blinking until my sister comes into view at my side and I finally remember what’s going on. “Pike. Mr. Lawson,” I correct myself, “Sorry. This is my sister, Cam.” I gesture to her. “And she was just leaving.” He glances over at her. “Hi.” And then to my surprise, his gaze moves back to me for a moment before he sees the mail on the counter and begins flipping through it like we’re not even here. I blink, slightly confused. Cam’s a carnival ride. She might be younger than him, but she’s certainly a woman, and most men let their eyes linger on her, her long legs, and the perky and expensive handfuls she has under that tank top. He doesn’t. “Yeah, nice to meet you,” she says back. “Thanks for taking her in.” He spares us a quick glance and half-smile before taking all the envelopes and stuffing them in a mail holder. Cam starts to walk out of the kitchen, and I follow her as she enters the laundry room. Once she’s out of his line-of-sight, she spins around, mouthing to me “Oh, my God” with a mischievous gleam in her wide eyes. I clench my jaw, jerking my chin to keep her moving. She’s going to be over here every other day flirting with him now. I hear Pike behind me, opening one of the ovens, and I turn around. “I was making dinner,” I tell him. “For the three of us. Is that okay?” He closes the oven, and I see a hint of relief on his face. “Yeah, that’s great, actually.” He sighs. “Thank you. I’m starving.” “It’ll just be fifteen more minutes.” He reaches into the refrigerator and pulls out a Corona, sticking the cap under an opener nailed under the island and pulls the top off, the cap dropping into the trash. “Enough time for a shower,” he replies, glancing down at us. “Excuse me.” And then he walks out of the kitchen, the bottle hanging from his fingers as he clears the entryway by only half a foot. I pause, it hitting me how tall he is again. This is a good size house, too, but it will be impossible to not notice him in a room. “Now I get it,” my sister whispers a taunt in my ear. “And here I was, worried you’d be suffering unwanted advances from a sweaty, old, fat fart.” “Shut up.” I close my eyes in exasperation. I hear the back door open and humor laces her voice as she teases, “You take care of your men now.” I whirl around to slam the door closed in her face, but she squeals, pulling it shut before I have a chance. “Oh, I don’t like onions.” I stop at Pike’s words and stare down at the barbeque sauce drizzled all over my onion ring-stacked masterpieces. They’re an Instagram post just waiting to happen. If I take off the beautiful, golden onions it’ll just be a Pinterest fail. “Try a bite?” I venture, with a timid smile. “You’ll like this. I promise.” In my experience, men will eat what’s in front of them. He seems to think about it for a moment and then closes the fridge and meets my gaze. His expression softens. “Okay.” He probably feels like he owes me a bite, since I made dinner, so I’ll take it. Topping the burger, I hand him the plate, and he carries it over to a stool, taking a bite before he even sits down. I spare a glance over my shoulder. His jaw stops moving, and he blinks a few times, the muscles in his cheeks flexing. And then I hear a groan. I turn back around to the stove so he can’t see my smile. “That’s good, actually,” he says. “Really good.” I just nod, but I feel a small pinch of pride. “When you eat cheap growing up,” I tell him, “you find your own ways of adding a little gourmet to it.” He doesn’t say anything for a few seconds but follows with a quiet, “Yeah.” I’m not sure if that means he’s just listening attentively or agreeing with me. If he’s found out my last name, he must know who my father is. Everyone in town knows Chip Hadley, so he would have an idea of how we lived. I don’t know much about Cole’s family, though, or if they’ve always lived in this town. Pike Lawson isn’t wealthy, but he’s certainly not poor by the looks of his house. “It’s really good. I mean it,” he says again. “Thanks.” I turn around and place a plate on the island perpendicular to his seat for Cole and my own at the stool next to that one. We fall silent, and I wonder if he feels weird, too. We talked so easily the other night when we didn’t know who the other one was, but it’s changed now. I hear movement from the living room and glance around to see Cole coming into the kitchen. I smile. He has grease all over his shirt already and a streak under his lip. He can misbehave like it’s his job, but he can also flaunt some boyish charm like nobody’s business. He grabs the hamburger off his plate in one hand and tucks some dirty, rusted car part under his arm, tipping his chin at me. “Hey, babe. We’re working on your VW. You don’t mind if I eat outside, do you?” I stare at him. Is he serious? I shoot my eyes between him and his father. “Yes,” I reply quietly, trying to say more with my eyes. I don’t want to eat alone with his dad. “Come on.” Cole cocks his head, trying to work me with his playful expression. “I can’t just leave them out there. You could come and sit outside with us.” Gee, thanks. I purse my lips and turn back to the refrigerator, yanking out the pitcher of lemonade. It’s rude to just leave. His father’s not our meal ticket. I should make some effort to get to know him. But before I can tell Cole to just go and eat outside, his father speaks up. “Why don’t you sit down for ten minutes? I haven’t seen you in a while.” Relief hits me, and I’m thankful for the backup. I finally hear Cole release a breath and the legs of one of the island stools scrape across the tile as he takes a seat in front of his plate. I make sure the oven is off, grab my drink, and follow Cole’s father as he sits down, leaving the seat between him and Cole empty. I take it, reaching over the island and pulling my plate to me. “So, how’s work?” Mr. Lawson asks, and I assume he’s talking to Cole. Cole’s right hand finds my thigh as he uses his left to lift the burger to his mouth, and I glance at his father, seeing his eyes downcast and looking at Cole’s hand on me. His jaw flexes as he looks back up. “It’s work.” Cole shrugs. “It’s a lot easier now that the weather has warmed up, though.” Cole’s been doing road construction since we moved in together about nine months ago. He’s gone through a lot of jobs since I’ve known him, but this one has lasted. “Thinking any more about college?” his dad probes. But Cole just scoffs. “It took everything I had to finish high school. You know that.” I raise the lemonade to my lips and take a sip, my tight stomach and not wanting food at the moment. Cole’s father chews and sets his burger down, lifting his bottle next. “Time moves a lot faster than you think it will,” he replies quietly, almost to himself. “I almost joined the Navy when I found out…” But he trails off, finishing instead, “when I was eighteen.” But I think I know what he was going to say. When I found out I was going to be a dad. Pike Lawson doesn’t look old enough to be the father of a grown son, so he had to have been pretty young when Cole was born. No more than eighteen or nineteen himself. Which would put him at thirty-eight? Give or take? “I just couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that I was giving up seven years of my life,” he goes on. “But seven years came and went pretty fast. Securing a good future takes an investment and a commitment, Cole, but it’s worth it.” “Was it for you?” his son shoots back, tearing off a bite of burger, his hand lightly squeezing the inside of my thigh. It’s a subtle gesture I actually love despite the building tension in the room. It’s his way of letting me know he might be angry, but he’s not angry with me, and he hates that I’m probably uncomfortable right now. Cole’s father takes a drink from his bottle and calmly sets it back down, his tone now harder. “Well, I’ve had the money to bail you out of jail,” he points out. “Last time. And the time before that.” Cole’s hand tightens around my thigh, and my neck is so hot all of a sudden that I wish I had a hair tie. A thousand questions whirl around my head. Why don’t they get along? What happened? Cole’s dad seems okay, from what little I know about him, but Cole has erected a wall between them, and his dad has almost as short of a fuse as his son. Cheeseburger in hand, Cole shoves his plate away from him and pushes his chair back, standing up. “I’m eating outside,” he says, releasing my leg. “Come join us if you want, babe. And leave the dishes. I’ll do them in a bit.” I open my mouth to speak but stop myself, clenching my teeth instead. Well, this is going to be fun. Cole turns and walks out of the room, and moments later I hear the front door slam shut. Muffled voices carry in from outside, and a horn honks down the street, but it’s suddenly so quiet in the kitchen that I stop breathing. Hopefully Pike Lawson will forget I’m here. How the hell am I supposed to live here? I can’t take sides if they’re going to do this. But Pike speaks up, softening his voice. “It’s okay,” he says, and I see him turn his head toward me out of the corner of my eye. “You can join him if you want.” I turn my head, meet his eyes, and fix him with a close-lipped smile as I shrug. “It’s hot out,” I tell him. I’m already burning up with the tension in here. Besides, Cole’s friends aren’t my friends, and outside won’t be any better. “I’m sorry about that,” he says, picking up his burger again. “It won’t happen a lot. Cole’s good about avoiding anywhere I am.” I nod, not knowing what else to say. I have a gut feeling I won’t be here long anyway. I already feel like I’m on a tightrope. I force myself to eat, because this won’t taste this good as leftovers tomorrow. Music drifts in from outside, the rumble of a lawnmower sparks to life in the distance, and the scent of grass hits the back of my throat as it wafts through the open windows, the simple tan curtains of Pike’s house billowing in the breeze coming in. Chills spread down my arms. Summer. A phone rings, and I see Pike reach over and grab his cell off the counter. “Hey,” he says. A man’s voice grumbles on the other end, but I can’t hear what he’s saying. Pike gets up, carrying his plate to the sink with one hand and holding the phone with the other, and I steal glances while he’s distracted. Cam’s teasing about him keeps coming back to me, warming my cheeks, but it’s not like that. Pike’s kind of a mystery. I saw pictures of Cole in the living room—as a baby and as a kid—but other than that, the house doesn’t have a lot of his father in it. I know he’s a single guy, but there’s no coffee table books displaying his interests, no souvenirs from vacations, no pets, no art, no knickknacks, no magazines, no paraphernalia indicating his hobbies like sports, gaming, or music…. It’s a beautiful home, but it’s like a showcase house where a family doesn’t really live. “No, I need another digger and at least a hundred more bags of cement,” he tells the guy, tucking the phone between his shoulder and ear and pulling his sleeves up more as he turns on the water. I smile to myself. He’s doing the dishes. Without being asked? I heave a sigh and rise from my seat. I guess he normally does live alone, after all. Who else would do them? He chuckles at something the guy says and shakes his head as I scrape off my plate into the garbage. “Tell that idiot I know he’s not sick,” he says into the phone, “and if he doesn’t get off whomever he’s on by morning, I’ll come and get him myself. I want to stay ahead of schedule.” I come up beside him and quietly set my dishes down on the counter before putting the lemonade and condiments back in the fridge. “Yeah, yeah…” I hear him as he rinses off plates and puts them in the dishwasher. “Okay, I’ll see you in the morning.” He hangs up and puts the phone down, and I cast another quick glance at him. “Work?” I inquire. He nods, swishing water in a glass and dumping it out. “Always. We’re putting up an office building off twenty-two right before you reach the state park.” He looks at me. “No matter how much you plan and budget, there are always surprises that try to throw you off track, you know?” Highway 22. Same road I take to get out to classes at Doral. I must’ve passed his worksite lots of times. “Nothing ever goes according to plan,” I muse. “Even at my age, I know that by now.” He laughs, the corners of his mouth turning up in a grin as he looks over at me. “Exactly.” I suddenly falter, déjà vu hitting me. For a moment, I see the guy in the theater again. I blink, trying to look away. His hazel eyes look greener under the light fixture hanging overhead, his hair has dried from his shower, and all of a sudden he looks more like Cole’s older brother than his dad. I tear my eyes away from his smile, just catching a glimpse of the cords in his arm that are flexing as he works in the sink. I snatch up my phone off the counter and turn to leave, but then remember something. “May I have your phone number?” I twist back around and ask. “Like in case there’s a problem here or I lose my key or something?” He looks at me over his shoulder, his hands still in the water. “Oh, right.” He shuts off the faucet and grabs a towel, drying himself. “Good idea. Here.” He grabs his phone and unlocks the screen, handing it to me. “Put yours in mine, too, then.” I give him my phone and take his, entering in my first name and my cell number. I’m glad I remembered, actually. Anything could go wrong with the house. The basement could flood, packages could be delivered that aren’t mine, I might not be able to handle dinner on one of Cole’s and my nights and need to alert him…. This isn’t my place where I get to make all the decisions anymore. I give his back, and he hands me mine, but music starts playing from mine, and he does a double-take at my screen. My music app must’ve been up and he accidentally hit something. Shit. George Michael’s Father Figure starts playing, and his eyebrows shoot up as the suggestive chorus starts. My mouth goes dry, the lyrics registering. I snatch the phone back and turn it off. He breathes out a laugh. Awesome. Then he straightens, clearing his throat. “80s music, huh?” I run my fingers through my hair, sliding the phone into my back pocket. “Yeah, I wasn’t kidding.” After a moment, I look back up and see him staring at me, the hint of a smile in his eyes. His gaze flashes to the side, and he bends over, picking up one of the home and garden magazines I didn’t realize had dropped from my bag at the kitchen table. “And it’s Pike,” he says, handing me the magazine. “Not Mr. Lawson, okay?” He’s standing so close, and my stomach flips, unable to look at him. I take the magazine and nod, unable to meet his eyes. He turns back to his task, and I turn to walk away but stop and look back at him. “You don’t have to do that, you know?” I tell him, referring to the dishes. “Cole said he would.” I see his body shake with a laugh, and then he bends down to drop some silverware into the dishwasher before glancing over at me. “I was nineteen once, too,” he replies. “‘In a bit’ means eventually, and eventually doesn’t mean tonight.” I snort, my shoulders easing a little. True. I don’t know how many times I woke up the next morning to a sink full of dishes. Of course, it wouldn’t make me happier with Cole if his father was carrying his weight with the chores, but I brush it off as ‘not my problem’. As long as I don’t have to do it. “Thank you,” I say, quickly darting over to the fridge for a bottle of water to take with me. But then a thought occurs to me. “Do you have any other kids?” I ask. I guess I need to know if there will be other people coming in or out of the house. But when I look over I see his jaw tense and his brow furrowed, looking a little too serious. “I think Cole would tell you if he had siblings, wouldn’t he?” Against my will, my spine instantly straightens. His tone is chastising. Of course, Cole would tell me if he had siblings. I’ve known him for long enough. “Right,” I reply in a rush, shaking my head like I was in a fog and that was why I’d asked such a dumb question. “Besides I’ve never been married,” he adds, his Adam’s apple moving up and down. “Having multiple kids from multiple women wasn’t a mistake I wanted to keep making.” I remain still, watching him and kind of feeling bad. Cole was completely unplanned and, even to a small degree, unwanted by his teenage parents. Some of the mystery of their poor relationship starts to come into focus. But I also appreciate his pragmatism. It didn’t take a young Pike Lawson long to learn that making babies with just anyone wasn’t what was right for him. That was a consequence I never wanted to experience, not even once. He seems to realize what he’d said and how it probably sounded, because he stops and looks over at me, thinning his eyes in an apology. “I didn’t mean it… like that. I—” “I know what you meant. It’s okay.” I jerk my thumb behind me and back away. “I’m going to go study. I’m taking a few credits this summer, so…’night.” He turns back, loading the dishwasher with soap and starting the machine. “Thank you again for letting us stay here,” I say. He glances at me. “Thank you for dinner.” And before I leave, I step over to the table where I left a scented candle burning. I should’ve asked him about that. He might not like frilly scents in his house. Leaning over the table, I close my eyes, take in a breath, and make my usual wish Let tomorrow be better than today. And I blow, almost instantly smelling the pungent stream of smoke curling into the air from the extinguished wick. It’s always the same wish. Every candle. Every time. I want a life I never want to take a vacation from. That’s my goal. Except for the match I blew out at the theater. I made a different wish that night. When I open my eyes, I see Pike watching me. He quickly straightens and turns away. And as I leave the kitchen and head toward the stairs in the living room, I drop my magazine on the end table next to the couch. Now someone lives here. Pike I blink awake, my eyelids heavy and slow as the dim room comes into view. It’s still dark. I don’t normally wake up before five-thirty. Why am I… No, wait. I grunt, opening my eyes a little wider and noticing the faint glow dancing across my bedroom wall. Raindrops. Ah, shit. It’s not dark out. It’s cloudy. I turn over onto my back and squint at the ceiling as I wait a moment and listen. And then, almost immediately, I hear it. The pitter patter of little dings bouncing off the rain gutters outside. I let out a sigh. Goddammit. Not good. I dig my palms into my eyes and rub away the sleep before I glance at the clock on my bedside table. Five-twenty-nine. Yep. Like clockwork. I stopped needing an alarm clock years ago, my body just getting used to waking up at the same time every day. I still set it, though, just in case. Reaching over, I feel for the switch on the side and nudge it over two spots, turning off the alarm before it goes off. The rain could really set us back today. I don’t need to be at the site for another hour and a half, but half the guys will probably try to call in, thinking we won’t be able to put in a full day anyway, so may as well stay in bed. Not gonna happen, though. We’re working on something today—anything—because I don’t feel like side-stepping my kid’s bad mood and foul looks all day if I stick around this house. I’d rather be at work. When he was younger, it was different. He was mine. We did things together and talked and he wanted to be around me, but now… She’s gotten to him. My kid is the only hold anyone could ever have over me, and man, his mother knew how to use that. She pushed him around like a chess piece until he believed everything that came out of her mouth and that she was the victim in every situation, and I was the enemy. She could do no wrong, and I could do no right. After a while, I just decided to be there for him. Eventually he’ll wise up, and we’ll get through this. He’ll see through her lies, and I just need to hang on. No matter the patience it’s going to take or the arguments in the meantime. At least Jordan is pretty great. She’ll be a welcome buffer between us. Even if I was knocked on my ass when I found out who she was. I close my eyes, resting the back of my hand over my eyes and thinking back to that night. I had fun hanging out with her at the movie theater. Her comebacks, her humor, how easy it was to talk to her…. The way she just relaxed next to me during the movie, and it was so fucking comfortable and natural. The way her smile felt on me… I wouldn’t have asked her out. She’s way too young, and I knew she had a boyfriend. But it was hard not to entertain the idea for a little while. She’s cool. And then when I found out who she was, I was almost angry. I remember hearing her on that phone call and clenching my teeth so hard my jaw ached as realization hit. I was angry, because in that moment, I was jealous of my son. I was jealous of any guy who’s nineteen and gets a chance to be with her. Her flawless skin and pert nose. Her gorgeous bottom lip that I think she caught me staring at. The way she tipped her head back, put her feet up, and could just be next to me. Everything felt easy. But the girl of my dreams is off-limits. She’s Cole’s, and she’s nineteen. There’s no way. She’s a kid, and my brief, sordid thoughts will stay hidden in my head. My phone vibrates on the nightstand, and I reach over and grab it, looking at the screen. And I groan. Not now. But I swipe the green button anyway and close my eyes, holding the phone to my ear. “A little early for you, isn’t it?” Lindsay, my ex, laughs softly, the sultry sound of her sexy voice well-honed by now. The woman is used to getting what she wants from anyone. Almost anyone. “Not when you haven’t been to bed,” she taunts. I keep my snicker to myself. Some women who become young mothers later feel as if they’ve missed out on their youth by jumping into parenthood so early. Lindsay Kenmont, mother of my child, didn’t miss a damn thing. She didn’t let being nine months pregnant hold her back any more than she let Cole hold her back when he was a toddler. “How is he?” she asks. I throw off my covers and sit up, swinging my legs over the bed and yawning. “Warm, fed, and safe.” I rub my hand over my scalp. “That’s about all I know right now.” But then I add, “I’m surprised you’re okay with this, by the way.” “So that’s why you offered to let them stay with you? Because you didn’t think it would actually happen?” she presses. “I’m fine with him staying with you. It’s about time you took on some responsibility with him.” It’s about time I…Jesus. I laugh under my breath and shake my head, standing up. “You’re not how I like to start my day, Lin. You know that. Now what do you want?” She’s quiet for a moment, and then I hear her smooth voice return to its teasing tone. “Oh, you know what I want.” And despite the disdain I feel for her now, blood still rushes to my groin, much to my displeasure. We had some fun, after all. Back in the day. And my body remembers. Plus, I haven’t been laid in a while. But I’m not desperate enough to be used. Not yet anyway. “So that’s it?” I tuck my phone between my shoulder and ear as I pull my jeans off the bench at the end of the bed and slide my legs in. “You think I’m going to just be ready to go every time you break up with a guy, get drunk, and want to get laid?” “Why not?” she shoots back. “No matter who comes into your life or walks out of mine, there was always one thing we did really well together, right?” “Sure, Lindsay.” I don’t bother hiding the sarcasm from my tone. “Well, you’re not seeing anyone, are you?” she inquires, but she already knows I’m not. “And it’s not like we haven’t jumped into bed together over the years to blow off a little steam from time to time. I don’t remember you ever not liking it.” “Yeah,” I let out a hard sigh. “It’s called a lack of options. Small town and all?” “Asshole.” I chuckle despite myself. I have to hand it to her. The woman can roll with any insult. The truth is, she’s right. After the break-up when Cole was two, we still hooked up from time to time, but what I said is true, as well. The sex was good, she still has a great body, and bed was the one place we never hated each other, but I only kept going back because it was easy. Every other woman in this town is someone’s sister or daughter, and you can’t just screw around with them without them expecting a ring at some point. And I wasn’t ready for that. Not after the mess I found myself in becoming a father at nineteen. If I ever get another woman pregnant it’ll be my wife, and my wife is going to be someone I can’t get enough of. And I do want more kids. I’ve always wanted more. But at thirty-eight—two years shy of forty—it’s likely Cole will be my only kid now. I’m getting too old to start over again. “Come on,” she prods. “What have you got to lose? I know you remember, and I know you like everything you remember, Pike. That summer when I was seventeen? Still the best memories of my life.” Yeah, but not everything that came after it. “You and me going at it under a blanket on the couch with my parents sleeping right upstairs?” she tells me as if I don’t remember. “I know you still have a very healthy appetite.” Heat rises to my skin, and I pause. “So get over here and fuck me then,” she says. I hesitate for only a moment, but then I shake my head. It’s tempting. My body wants it. And if I only admit it to myself, I am kind of fucking lonely when I slow down long enough to let myself feel it. There are so many mornings I hate waking up alone. But no. My pride is sick of taking a hit every time she thinks I’ll be ready to go at her beck and call. “Gotta get to work.” I hang up the phone before I have a chance to think about it more, or worse, reconsider. I slide my cell into my back pocket and walk over to the dresser for a T-shirt. My phone buzzes again. “She’s fucking relentless,” I grumble and pull it back out of my pocket. But this time, I see Dutch’s name on the screen. I answer it, holding it to my ear. “What?” “It’s raining.” “Really? No shit?” I chuckle, pulling my shirt over my head. “You’re a genius.” “Look outside.” I pause, every muscle instantly tightening. Dammit. By his tone, I know what I’m going to see, but I walk to the window anyway and pull open one of the curtains, peering out into the morning storm. “Shit.” The street outside is lined on both sides with rapids of rain water, all racing for the storm drains, the whitewash crashing into the curb before sinking down into the sewers. The street itself is an orchestra of white noise, the drops bouncing off the ground or pummeling hoods of cars, the rain so thick I can barely see the houses across from me. “I’m meeting the guys over at the shop,” Dutch tells me. “We’ll load up tarps and sandbags and meet you at the site.” “I’ll be there in twenty,” I say, and we both hang up. Grabbing some socks out of my drawer, I slip my phone back into my pocket and walk into the bathroom, doing a quick sweep with the toothbrush before I leave the room. I walk down the hall, past the empty bedroom, the main bathroom, and then a closed door, the other spare bedroom, quickly remembering it’s no longer empty. But as I hit the top of the stairs, a sweet and heady scent hits my nose, making my skin buzz, and I stop to breathe in. A slight hunger pang hits my stomach, and I flinch. The girl blew out a candle yesterday. Did she leave another one burning all night? We might have to have a talk. Not only is that unsafe, but I’m really not into this whole aromatherapy thing where your body is tricked into thinking there’s blueberry muffins in the house when there’s really not. I head down the staircase, the house creaking under my weight, but when I reach the bottom, I look around, noticing the living room lamps are on and there’s soft music coming from the kitchen. Stepping in, I spot Jordan sitting at the island in the dark. Her laptop is open in front of her as she warms her hands around a cup of coffee. I hesitate for a split-second, taken back by how different she looks at the moment. The light from the screen makes her eyes glimmer as the steam rises from the mug in front of her face. Then she purses her lips and blows, trying to cool the drink, while strands of her blonde hair fall around her face from the messy bun piled on top of her head. The narrow slope of her jaw, the long lashes, the soft point of her little nose, and…. My eyes drop before I can stop them, and I take in her flawless, smooth and tanned legs, visible because she’s still wearing her sleep shorts. Heat stirs low in my stomach, and I turn away, digging in my eyebrows. They can’t be the same age. My kid is a kid, and she’s… A kid, too, I guess. It’s just weird. Last time I met one of his girlfriends the chick had braces. It’s off-putting to think of him dating girls now that were my type back in the day. “Morning,” I say as I walk past her to the Keurig. I see her pop her head up out of the corner of my eye. “Oh, hey. ‘Morning.” Her voice is small and cracked, and I hear the laptop close shut as I stick a K-cup in the machine and a metal travel mug under the spout. I look over my shoulder to see her quietly sliding off the stool and gathering up her computer and notebook. “You don’t have to leave,” I tell her. “I’m on my way out anyway.” She gives a small, tight smile but doesn’t look at me as she tucks her things to her side and picks up her coffee again. “Have you been up a while?” I ask. “I’m a light sleeper.” She finally raises her eyes and laughs at herself. “Thunderstorms are hard for me.” I nod, understanding. The heat is the same way for me. The AC needs to be set at sixty-five degrees every night for me to be able to sleep. It’s on the tip of my tongue to ask her if the temperature bothered her last night, but there’s really no point. I need to sleep, I’m not changing it, and she knows where the extra blankets are if she needs some. We stand in silence for a moment, and then she finally blinks and gestures to the stove behind me. “There’s, um…blueberry muffins if you’re hungry,” she says. “They’re just out of a box, but they’re pretty good.” I twist my head around, and sure enough, a muffin pan I don’t own sits on top of the stove, each cup overflowing with a golden-baked muffin. I reach over and grab one, hiding my smile. So no scented candles raising false hopes, after all. I think I like her. She turns around and starts to leave the room, but I call out. “Do you think you could wake Cole up real quick, please? The rain really screws with my timetable at work, and we’re still setting the foundations, so I need help sandbagging today.” She looks at me over her shoulder, curious. “Foundations?” “For the site I’ve been contracted to build,” I clarify. “We can’t work today with the weather, but we have to make sure the basement level doesn’t flood. I could use Cole’s help.” Realization hits and the confusion on her face vanishes. “Oh, right. Sure.” She nods and quickly leaves the room, her footfalls hitting the stairs with purpose. If she hadn’t already been up, I probably wouldn’t have thought to ask Cole to come help, but the opportunity to go through her instead was too good. If I ask, it’ll piss him off. If she asks, it might go over better. And besides, he knows this is part of the agreement. He and Jordan clean up after themselves, help with the cooking, do the yardwork, and help with anything else I might need, and I’ll pay bills while they save up enough to get back on their feet. It’s not too much to ask. I fix the lid on my travel mug and go through two more K-cups to fill my Thermos before carrying both to the front door where my work boots sit. Sitting on the bench next to the door, I set my stuff down and pull on my shoes, grab my keys, and take my black rain pullover jacket out of the entryway closet, pulling it on. I pick up my mug and Thermos. “Cole!” I shout, ready to leave. The ceiling above me creaks, and I hear quick steps. Then there’s a thud before a door slams shut, and I can tell he’s finally coming down the stairs. I grip the door handle and look over my shoulder. “I’ve got extra coffee. We can hit a drive-thru if you want something to eat real quick.” But it’s not him who comes around the corner. Jordan is dressed in tight, dark blue jeans, rolled at the bottom, with Chucks, and she’s pulling her hair up into a ponytail while trying to hold a yellow rain coat under her arm. I narrow my eyes on her. “Where’s Cole?” “He’s, uh…not feeling too well,” she tells me, pulling her jacket on. “I’ll come and help you, though.” Not feeling well. Code for hungover? “No, that’s okay,” I tell her. “Stay here. It’s… safer. Thanks, though.” Her eyes shoot up, focus on me, and then narrow. “Safer?” she questions like I just said I’m going out for a pedicure. “Or are you just worried you’ll spend more time holding my hand than getting any work done?” I try to keep a straight face. She’s pretty smart. Okay, yeah, sorry, honey, but yes. At least Cole has some experience—a little, mind you, but some—helping me during summers and weekends. I don’t need to get sidetracked explaining directions instead of giving them today. “Tell you what…” She buttons up her rain coat, her sweet, shy demeanor slowly being replaced with a squarer set to her shoulders. “If the little lady can’t handle some rain in her hair or mud under her fingernails, then she’ll go back into the truck and wait for you. Where it’s safe. Okay?” And then she arches an eyebrow at me like I shouldn’t even go there. I don’t even know how to respond, anyway, because my brain is now blank, and I’m kind of forgetting why I have a Thermos in my hand. I shake my head to clear it and yank the door open. “Fine. Get in the truck.” This damn storm came out of nowhere. I always watch the weather because sometimes it determines if we can work at all that day, so it’s kind of important. Especially in the summer. I thought this one was missing us and swinging north, though. I shut off the engine and pull up the zipper of my jacket, squinting out the front windshield. The downpour is blurring everything beyond the glass, but I see a flash of orange and a yellow hardhat floating a few yards ahead and know some of the guys are here already. Jordan pulls up her hood next to me, but I don’t look at her or instruct her on what to do. She can follow my lead if she wants to be here. I hop out of the truck, hard raindrops instantly pummeling the top of my head and shoulders, making me instinctively duck a little as I slam the door and jog for the building. My boots splash through small puddles, and I dash over to the bed of a company truck, immediately pulling down the tailgate and piling up as many sandbags as I can load into my arms. Bright yellow appears at my side and, without a word, Jordan does the same, quickly loading more bags into her arms and following me around the side of the building to where the guys are waiting. I drop the bags and glance through the steel frame of the structure, noticing the uncovered pallet of cement in the lower level. Son of a bitch. Nine men, including my best friend, stare at me, waiting for instructions. The wind blows the rain into the back of my jeans, soaking the material to my skin. “I want these bags around the entire perimeter!” I shout over the storm. “Three high! You got it?” Quick nods follow. “And get that cement covered, goddammit!” I jerk my chin at the uncovered pallet getting ruined below. Rain or not, that always needs to be covered, just in case, and someone dropped the ball last shift. Dutch, my best friend since high school, casts his brown eyes next to me, his expression instantly softening. I glance over to see Jordan, her hair tucked into the hood of her raincoat, but thankfully she doesn’t stick around to be introduced. Heading back to the truck, she pulls more sandbags out of the bed, and I turn back to Dutch who eyes me curiously. I just shake my head. Not now. It’s not weird my son’s girlfriend wants to pay her way and be helpful, but it is weird that he’s not here, too. Does he know she took his place, helping out this morning? What kind of man is okay with that? I taught him to fulfill his obligations, goddammit. Or maybe he just didn’t want to come with me. I need to do something about him, but I don’t know what. This whole “waiting and seeing” tactic isn’t working. He needs a kick in the ass. The men get to work, carrying stacks of three bags and setting them along the sides of the building, while I grab my utility knife out of the tool box in the truck and slice rectangles of blue tarp to staple around the first-floor frame. Before I know it, an hour has passed, the tarps are up, the sandbags are doing their job, and aside from me, everyone has seemed to vanish. I toss my knife and staple gun back into the truck and slam the door, looking around the site for Jordan. I haven’t seen her in a while. Regret starts to wind its way into my stomach. I should’ve given her some kind of direction out here. She probably doesn’t know her way around. It’s easy for people to get hurt if they aren’t trained. Walking around the side, I see all the bags lined up as they should be, the tarps still intact, even with the wind, and the pallet of cement neatly covered. I hear voices and trail around the back, instantly spotting Jordan helping carry window inserts to the trailer, one of the guys making sure they’re covered, as well. She’s smiling. Like crazy. Like eyes gleaming with excitement and she’s about to bounce on the balls of her feet, for crying out loud. Is she having fun? Her hood has fallen down, and her ponytail hangs drenched while strands of hair stick to her face. Her shoes are soaked, her jeans are muddy, and thank Christ she’s not wearing a white T-shirt, because the raincoat is doing very little to keep the guys’ eyes off her as it is. I look over at Dale, Bryan, and Donny who are carrying equipment to the trailer as they cast looks her way, smile, and then turn to each other, laughing at something I can’t hear. “Hurry up,” I bark at them and they jerk to attention, carrying on. Jordan walks over to where I stand next to the building and squats down, tucking the tarp under a beam. “So, you’re the boss then, huh?” She looks up at me inquisitively. Something about her expression seems softer than it did earlier this morning. Happier. More at ease. Didn’t Cole tell her I own a construction company? Does he talk about me at all? Hurt winds its way through my gut. “Well, he tries to be,” Dutch jokes, answering her question. I throw him a look, but I’m tempted to smile. Bantering is our thing, but I wish the asshole wouldn’t do it at work. It undermines me, dammit. “Shit!” Jordan suddenly exclaims. I jerk my eyes back to her and see rainwater crashing down on her head like a waterfall. The tarp has torn away at the top of the frame and spilled all the water it had collected in its crevice. She pops up, escaping from the downpour, and reaches, trying to put it back in place. But she can’t reach it. Coming up behind her, I reach in front of her and grab it, holding it in place as I turn my head and jerk my chin at Dutch. He nods and walks off to retrieve the staple gun again. Jordan lets go of the tarp and slides out from between my arms, stepping to the side and chuckling to herself. “Are you okay?” I ask. She nods, wiping off her face and shaking out her jacket. “Yeah. I guess the raincoat was useless, though, huh?” I drop my eyes to her shirt, seeing the soaked navy-blue T sticking to her body, tight and molded to every inch of her chest and stomach. A sliver of her hips and tummy peek out just below where the shirt is pasted to her. Her skin is flawless, her curves beautiful. I swallow the lump in my throat and turn quickly away. She definitely has a body I don’t remember nineteen year olds having when I was that age, but she is still only nineteen. And she’s Cole’s. Not mine. Don’t check her out again. Dutch comes up and hands me the staple gun, and I start refastening the tarp. She steps back up under my outstretched arms, placing her hands underneath mine and inching in to take over holding it while I staple. Something warm courses under my skin, but I shake it off. “Do I, uh… need to get you home?” I ask. “Don’t you have class or anything today?” “Summer schedule,” she replies, glancing up at me. “I only have one class this term, but it’s not until tomorrow. I do have to work at the bar later, though.” I wonder how she gets back and forth to work—or school, for that matter—since Cole starts his day at ten and doesn’t get off work until six. She has no working vehicle. Which reminds me…I’ll grab a few tools before I leave here that I don’t have at home. Maybe I can help Cole work on her VW today. After about another hour, everything is as tight as we can make it, the equipment is secured and put away, and everyone is soaked to the bone. I let the guys take off. I hate losing time, but summers are rainy, and we’ve done what we can. Hell, not even half of them showed up anyway. I climb back into the truck with Jordan and pull off my wet jacket, while she fastens her seatbelt next to me. I start the engine and wait for the lot to clear a little before finally pulling out, both of us riding in silence. It’s so quiet all of a sudden, and I realize the rain had been so constant for the last few hours that I hadn’t been able to hear a voice unless it was shouted. Or a movement, unless it was my own. Now, my ears instinctively search for anything to grab onto. The rain hitting my truck like rubber bullets. The grind of the leather on the steering wheel in my fist. The slosh of the rain under the tires as I charge down the highway, my engine rumbling like a lullaby. But still, it’s so quiet. She draws in a deep breath through her nose. Her raincoat squeaks as she slides her hands underneath her thighs. I hear a soft clicking sound and dart my eyes to the floor where she’s gently tapping her Chucks together. She licks her lips, and I fucking wince. Jesus. Reaching over, I turn on the radio. Anything to distract. I don’t know why I’m so irritable today. No, I know. I woke up to Lindsay on the phone. She’s the last person I want to deal with first thing in the morning. It isn’t hard to miss how happy I was at Cole and Jordan’s age, having fun with whatever I could get my hands on and not forcing myself to think too hard about any decisions I was making. But not long after I met Lindsay, the bill for all that fun came due. I made a kid with a girl I barely knew. A pathological liar and someone who manipulates like it’s a fucking sport. And when I left, I left him with her. Cole never had a chance. I took her to court, of course, trying to get custody, but judges back then often saw the mother as the better option, and she knew how to solicit sympathy. She wanted Cole, because Cole meant child support. And she certainly got that out of me. It was like being in prison, having to take him back to her after my weekends with him. She twists things into knots, and that’s what she did to him. By the time he was ten, he was putting himself in front of her if I needed to say things to her, and I was always in the wrong. By the time he was fourteen, he stopped wanting to visit every other weekend, and now, we barely know each other. He won’t even call unless he needs money. I shake my head, clearing it. “Want to put in a tape?” I suggest to Jordan. I don’t meet her eyes, but I can see her head snap in my direction. “A tape? Like a cassette tape?” Her gaze suddenly flashes to my car stereo and her eyes go wide, surprise lighting up her face. I almost laugh. She didn’t notice it on the drive here? “Is that an actual tape deck?” she blurts out. She reaches out and touches the old car radio like it’s a precious vase and pushes Eject. Out pops a clear cassette tape with white lettering that I’ve never listened to. She removes it, cupping it in her hand and reading the title. “Guns N’ Roses.” Her hand goes to her mouth, looking like she’s about to fucking cry. “Oh, my God.” Darting for the glove compartment, she opens it and stares at the line of tapes neatly set up. “Deep Purple,” she reads, “Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp, ZZ Top…” Then she seems to spot something that really excites her, because she reaches in and plucks out the black Def Leppard case. “Hysteria?” she exclaims, reading the album title. “They don’t make that album anymore. All you can get is the live version!” I raise my eyebrows, not sure why this is all so exciting. “I’ll take your word for it,” I say, a little amused at her excitement. “This truck was my father’s. Those are his tapes. I just never got around to clearing them out after he…passed away a few years ago.” It