He’s still there.
Hunkered down on the cinder block we use as a step. A tree branch, light tan in color and free of bark, set on his thigh. A few twirling inches of it sticking out, visible to the curious eye as he rolls it back and forth, back and forth.
His blond head turns. Like he knows I’m on the other side of the door, returning to take another peek around the sheer French drapes I’ve hung in the small front-door window.
The stranger’s been out there for a good hour, like a guard dog staking his claim on my stoop. His body angled slightly to the right so I can clearly see the thin lines whittled into the wood. Ladder marks, six in total.
The air is warm even inside the trailer, the humidity overtaking the comfortably mild run of temperature that’s graced Shelby in recent days. Signs that trouble’s likely brewing; atmospheric conditions are definitely ripe for tornados, especially if the temperature higher up in the atmosphere has grown colder. Two years ago, a tornado leveled the northern outskirts of Shelby, destroying everything in its path. As much as I’d like to wish it isn’t so, storms in Oklahoma are not to be overlooked. Period.
Is that what he’s doing? Biding his time and waiting to see what the weather will do? I wonder if the sexy stranger is one of my faceless neighbors, and try to think back on my brief stay in our new home. Surely, I would have remembered someone like him.
I stare at the gray hooded sweatshirt pulled tightly across his broad back. His thick biceps look like mounds of cut steel, flexing slightly as the branch rolls. Back and forth. Back and forth. Danger, wrapped up in shades of grayness.
With a sigh, I temper my curiosity and move away from the door, heading into the small living room to the right and over to the coffee table. Picking up my cell phone, I dial Kylie’s number.
It’s not like I’m afraid of the possibility of storms. I’m used to spending time alone at this temporary home of ours or in my home away from home, the biology lab at Shelby Community. I’m resourceful. Self-sufficient and self-motivated. Career-oriented, with a single-minded goal of making it out of Shelby so I can pursue my ambition at becoming a marine biologist at a college in a state that’s not landlocked. A dream I shared with my mama too many times to count, even right up until the hours before she died. We’d giggled and talked, laughed and cried. Comforted and encouraged each other. The Smiths are of hearty stock, both in life’s challenges and in death. And when cancer claimed her beautifully vivacious soul, I like to believe my reassurances of how Kylie and I are strong, that we’ll carry on, that we’ll lead full, productive, happy lives gave her peace of mind in the end. I like to think Mama’s love of life also is deep within me. A lightness always illuminated within my heart that drives away the darkest pains, the darkest sorrows. Still, my acceptance as a transfer student into San Diego State’s marine-biology program is bittersweet. But as promised, I’m moving on in life.
And so is Kylie, though I never quite know what she’s up to.
We’re alike in that way, our being independent to a fault. Unlike me, she’s always on the move and not one to spend inordinate amounts of time in a lab or with her nose buried in a book. She used to be. Before Pop was killed and Mama got sick. Then everything changed.
Shelby has changed. A darkness has been slowly creeping in like moss after a wet season. And no amount of lightness can shake the feeling that trouble’s coming.
I sigh as her cell phone kicks over to voice mail. “Wherever you are, pay attention to the weather.” I bite my lip, thinking about the bowl of cupcake batter I placed in the refrigerator, then offer her a subtle reminder of what day it is. “Come home when you can, okay?” I pause, wondering if I should mention the stranger. But I decide against it. No sense rattling her overprotective streak when I know she worries about me and my lack of “real-world experience.”
We might have been born out of the same womb and bear a lot in common, with our blond hair, blue eyes, long legs, and scientific predispositions—her passion is chemistry, mine biology—but our personalities couldn’t be more different.
Yep. My glass-half-full outlook on life drives her nuts. As does my compassionate streak, which she believes opens me up to being far too vulnerable for her liking.
Kindness isn’t a sign of weakness, I remind myself as I place my cell phone back on the coffee table and, resisting the urge to steal another peek outside, make my way past the front door and into the tiny kitchenette. In my book, it takes strength to be kind in a world full of lost souls whose only ambition in life is to make money. People who’ve lost sight of what’s important in life. Honesty. Compassion. Empathy.
Mind you, I’m no Dalai Lama. I’m not working at a food bank or lighting extra candles at mass. Like Kylie, I’ve a bit of a temper. I’m often focused to the point of being a little self-absorbed in pursuing my dreams, and I’m a bit of a perfectionist.
She says I’m setting myself up to be crushed, that the rose-colored glasses I wear will only last so long before they crack. Of course, when we do manage to steal a few moments together, it feels like she’s the one staring at me through crooked glasses.
A grin spreads across my face at my mental image of Kylie, with her head cocked, lips drawn in that familiar, protective-older-sister-way, and murky-brown, pessimist-prescribed glasses perched on her nose. I hope she checks her messages, that it occurs to her what day it is and she hurries home to celebrate with me.
Reaching out, I straighten the letter from San Diego State University. For once in my nineteen years—strike that, twenty years as of today—I’ve been accepted. On full scholarship, too. The perfect birthday present.
I open the refrigerator door and take out the bowl of batter. A Smith family recipe. Cupcakes our infallible tradition for cheering in a birthday.
Alone, or otherwise.
Except you’re not exactly alone . . .
Is he a neighbor? A friend of Kylie’s?
I’ve been cautious ever since my father died, ever since Mama got sick, ever since Kylie pulled into herself and became secretive and hard. With a glance at my acceptance letter on the fridge as a reminder of who I want to be, I can’t help but think maybe it’s time I stopped running scared. It’s my birthday, why not invite the hot stranger inside for a treat and flirt a little? Wasn’t that what young, naive college girls did?
I shake off the idea. Kylie might accuse me of being defiantly optimistic—her words, not mine—but I’m no fool. I shift my focus onto measuring the exact amounts of batter into the tin cupcake wells so each sweet confection will bake to perfection. Mission accomplished, I pop the tray into the preheated oven then clean up my mess. Sixteen is always the celebrated birthday. Yet twenty seems much more significant. Much more monumental and a better reason to celebrate. Twenty is the age you shake off your teenage years and join adulthood. The age you’re taken more seriously. A time when dreams become reality.
I’m roaring into twenty-dom with high hopes.
I’m turning twenty yet have never been kissed.
Yep, sad but true. The majority of boys in my life are friends from my classes. More interested in organisms than orgasms; which biologically speaking, the latter is highly unlikely to happen from simply kissing, though I’m curious to test out this theory and, if luck will have it, prove it wrong. Something I intend on pursuing once I’m settled down beneath the warm Californian sunshine. Pursue my degree yet not be such a lab whore. Hit the beaches, conduct research outdoors and in the San Diego waters. Take a chance. Live a little. Kiss. Have orgasms. I’m looking forward to the possibilities my roaring twenties will bring.
I fiddle with the clean bowl, turning it upside down then upright on the dish rack.
Then tap my foot.
Thinking about all the reasons why I shouldn’t.
Until a healthy dose of curiosity grasps hold of me once more and I return to the door, and to spying on the stranger.
I don’t understand how he knows I’m here—a sixth sense or something—but this time, he turns.
His head lifts.
Our eyes connect.
The heavy, humid air inside the trailer thickens like fog. Leaving me lightheaded. Breathless.
His hood is now pulled up over his head, adding to the dangerous vibe that seems to seep from his pores. His eyes cut straight through me, piercing me with their intensity. High cheekbones framing a crooked nose that’s likely been busted a time or two. There’s scruff on his chin like he’s forgotten to shave. His lips are full, yet pulled tightly into a firm, no-nonsense line.
I feel unbalanced. I had a similar feeling earlier, after being woken up from my deep sleep on the living room sofa by three loud pops. I lay there, stiff and still and a bit unnerved. Wondering if a kid had gotten hold of some fireworks. Or worse, his hands on a gun. Happy Times might not be the Ritz Plaza but it’s typically quiet and peaceful. I’d peeked outside but nothing seemed amiss. I waited to fall back asleep for what seemed like an hour, listening for any and all suspicious sounds, ready to dial 911 at the slightest noise. Until I was certain whatever had awoken me had passed and promptly gave into my sleepiness.
The next time I looked outside, the stranger was on my stoop.
What if he’s waiting for my sister?
I should find out. It’s not like he’s oblivious to how I’ve been studying him from behind the thin lace curtain.
I swallow hard, still staring at him. Aware of him and the fact that he’s the most gorgeous man I’ve ever seen. And for some strange reason, I feel compelled to talk to him. I crack the door open.
“Are you here for Kylie?”
He shakes his head ever so slightly. Is that a yes or no?
Thunder sounds off in the distance. It’s definitely going to storm. “You can wait inside for the weather to pass,” I murmur, making up my mind and throwing caution into the wind, the kind that comes rolling through Oklahoma like hell on a high breeze. “But I need you to prove you’re my sister’s friend. Otherwise, I highly suggest you seek shelter somewhere else.”
“‘Never mind the bollocks,’” he mutters in a low voice.
I blink, then burst out laughing. Oh sweet Heaven. He is a friend of Kylie’s. He’s quoted a line from one of her eclectic rock-’n-’roll T-shirts. I open the door wider. “Come on inside.”
Either he doesn’t hear me or he’s ignoring my offer. Hard to say.
It thunders again.
I watch to see if he notices. Or cares.
Trouble, I think, brewing right on my front step, much like the angry gray clouds rolling in.
Will he ignore them, too?
“Suit yourself,” I say. Yet I hesitate as my fingers skim across the door’s cheap lock. Ridiculous ever believing this tiny bit of metal would keep danger at bay. Still I don’t lock the door, leaving my offer open in case common sense kicks in and urges him to come inside and out of harm’s way. Whoever he is, if he doesn’t move soon he’s going to get soaked to the bone, even if he lives close by.
I return to the kitchenette, tidying it. Waiting. Waiting for the storm to pass or kick up in intensity. Waiting for him to move on . . . or inside. Waiting for the oven to chime, which it does exactly twenty minutes later.
If you want moist yet fluffy cupcakes, baking time is half the battle. Tonight is special. Monumental. Not an occasion to be nibbling on overbaked cupcakes that’ll crack your teeth. Moving to the oven, I remove the cupcake tray and place it to cool on the carving board I’ve laid out on the tiny countertop. I’m working on meticulously spearing a second cupcake with a toothpick when the lights flicker. He’s got to be long gone, right?
I’m testing a fourth cupcake, one on the end, when a loud boom echoes across the trailer park. The lights flicker. Then the rain begins. A deluge, from the sound of it.
Not a time to be outside. He had to have run for cover after that last big boom.
Mercifully, the lights stay on as I finish checking the last of the birthday batch. I’m in the process of sucking a tiny cupcake-blob off the end of a toothpick when I hear it.
A light tap on the door.
Sometimes in life, choices just aren’t part of the plan. When fate interferes and bulldozes right over you. Hadn’t I learned that the hard way after Mama’s cancer diagnosis?
Swallowing back the tiny, tempting treat, I stare at the door. The tin roof rattles beneath the heavy onslaught of rain.
Another tap. Not too aggressive. Yet loud enough to be heard over the wind kicking up outside. It’s going to be a nasty one. But so far, no hail and no sirens or any warning that the rain is a prelude to a twister.
I race over to the door and, dismissing all thoughts about stranger danger, and then tug it open.
Rain hits me hard in the face. It’s coming down in sheets. “Hurry,” I say, stepping aside so he can enter.
“Lock it,” he says, moving past me and into the kitchen. The raw gravel in his tone has me working hard at catching his words.
“Lock the door?”
I stare at him for a second. His gray hooded sweatshirt is in his hand. Why had he taken it off? His blond hair seems brown, darkened by water with drops rolling off of his sharp chin and onto his white T-shirt. A thoroughly drenched T-shirt that now clings to the curves of his broad, muscled chest. A transparent T-shirt, too—not only can I see his hardened nipples but the pink hue of areola surrounding them.
A blush spreads across my cheeks.
Don’t do it. Don’t do it.
I look down and am rewarded by the sight of his soaked jeans, which has the same form-hugging effect as his T-shirt. And he’s facing me, so . . .
He’s big. In all the right places—not that I’ve ever visited such a place like his. Or anyone’s, for that matter.
He simply stands there, frozen. Letting me look my fill, his eyes narrowing on me like I’m the hot mess of a hunk soaked to the skin and leaving puddles on the worn linoleum floor. I shudder from the dampness. From the mere size of him, six feet two of corded muscle rolled into one terrifyingly rugged stranger. In one hand, he holds the branch and in the other, a knife.
Oh my God.
“Do it,” he orders.
“What?” Do . . . what?
He grunts. “The door . . .”
I offer him my back to hide my face, not wanting him to see the worry that’s bound to be written within my infamously uncensored expression. “Not even your worst criminal would be running around in this,” I manage while taking my sweet time turning the lock on the door handle.
A knife. He has a knife. And it’s no butter knife but a large, wickedly sharp-looking one.
“You live here?”
I flinch. His tone is sharp.
“You’re Kylie’s sister.”
It’s not a question but a statement. Monotone in nature. Giving nothing away.
Curious, I turn to face him.
“How do you know Kylie?”
He doesn’t answer. His eyes rake over me, from head to toe. From my red-toned peasant blouse, to my cutoff jeans, to the flip-flops on my feet. Without expression. Without the same sexually charged enthusiasm that I’d shown him seconds ago.
So cold. Stone cold.
Suddenly I’m even more unsure of him. Unease settles in as he looks me over. Once. Twice. Until his brisk examination ends and his gaze shifts to the cupcakes stacked neatly in the Tupperware on the countertop.
Escape. “They’re not finished yet. I still have to add the icing. But go ahead and help yourself. I’ll be right back with a towel.”
“Goddamn it,” his cuss follows me out of the room, causing me to lengthen my stride.
What have I done, inviting him in out of the rain?