(Unedited) Chapter one of Maybe Matt’s Miracle

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Skylar

 

Today would be a beautiful day if not for the casket at the front of the church and the three children with wet faces and red eyes sitting beside me on the front pew.  The service hasn’t started yet, and people keep wandering to the front of the church to look down at my half-sister, Kendra. Some of them whisper soft words to her and reach out to touch her cold hand. I touched it too. That was the second and last time I would ever touch her. She’s the sister I never got to meet until the day she died. 

I startle as the pew shakes. Seth, the oldest of Kendra’s children, jumps to his feet and cries, “Grandpa!”

Grandpa? What? He has a grandpa? I look up and see my very own father.  He’s here?  What? He wraps Seth up in his arms and squeezes him tightly. He sets him back and looks into his eyes. “How are you holding up?” he asks quietly.

Seth’s eyes travel toward the casket. “We’re okay,” he says. He swallows hard. I can hear it from where I’m sitting.

Dad takes Seth’s face in his hands and stares into his eyes. “Everything is going to be fine,” he says. “She’s in a better place.” He looks over Seth’s shoulder toward me. “And you have Skylar now,” he whispers. Seth nods.

A better place? When can I go to a better place?  Anywhere would be better than this church where my dad is paying homage to his illegitimate daughter.

Dad walks over to me and kisses my cheek. “How are you, Sky?” he asks. He’s not nearly as friendly with me as he is with the grandchildren I never even knew he had until a few days ago.

“Fine,” I bite out.

Dad sits down and motions toward Kendra’s girls with a crook of his finger.  The little one, who is three, scrambles into his lap, and the older one, who is five, leans into his side. He drops an arm around her and holds her close. He knows these kids. He knows them a lot better than he knows me.  That chafes at me so badly that it makes me squirm in my seat.

Dad’s brows scrunch together in subtle warning.  I stop moving.

I really need to learn that look now that I’m a mom. 

Yes. I’m a mom.  My dad came to me about a week ago and asked for my help. And there it was – instant motherhood.

 

I should have known that my father wanted something. Or he never would have invited me to lunch.

“Skylar,” Dad says quietly. “I need you to do something for me.”

I look up from my manicotti and force a grin to my face. “Did you get another speeding ticket?” I ask. I’m a brand new attorney as of last month.

“No,” he says slowly. He won’t look into my eyes. “It’s about Kendra.”

I drop my fork and it clatters loudly to the table. I scramble to catch it, and then brace myself with my palms on the table. “What about her?” I ask.

I know who Kendra is.  She’s the daughter my dad had with his mistress.  I found out a few years ago when my mother went on a drunken bender and unburdened her soul. And burdened mine. 

Kendra is the daughter my father loved. Her mother was the woman he loved.  It didn’t matter that my father was married to my mother. It didn’t matter that he had three kids with my mother.  It didn’t matter that we were the perfect family with the house on the hill and a summer home at the Cape. Our family was perfect until we found out he had another one. One he actually loved.

He had a whole other life with Kendra’s mother.  Right up until the time she died.  They shared an apartment together and they had a daughter. Dad went back and forth between our house and theirs.  But he was never really present when he was at ours.  My mother was too resentful. So he stayed away more and more. With them.

Then suddenly one day he was back. His eyes were rimmed with red and he retreated to his study with a bottle of Glenlivit.  He didn’t come out for days.  When he finally did, my mom walked around for a week singing, “Ding, dong, the witch is dead.” Kendra was already an adult at that point, and married.

But I had my father back after that day. I didn’t understand at all how it had come to be.  I didn’t know until much later that he had another daughter. Another woman he had once loved. Another life.  But he did. And now he wanted to talk about her?

“Kendra is dying,” he says. His eyes fill with tears, but he won’t let them spill over. He blinks furiously, his face reddening.

“Oh,” I say. What am I supposed to say to that?  Ding, dong, the witch is dead… “What happened?”

“She has cancer. She found out when she was pregnant with her youngest daughter, Mellie.” He wipes his eyes with a cloth napkin and motions for a waiter to bring him a drink. “I got her into a really wonderful chemical trial. But she wanted to wait until Mellie was born.” He heaves a sigh. “If she hadn’t gotten pregnant, she might have made it.  She could have gotten an abortion, but she refused. She waited too long. The cancer is going to win, and she doesn’t have anyone to take the children.”

I can’t breathe. My chest stills and I feel like I’m going to pass out. Dad shoves a glass of water at me, and I raise it to my lips, sputter into the rim of it, take a sip, swallow, and inhale. I take in a deep breath. And I wait. Because there’s more. There’s always more with my dad.

“She has three children.  Seth is sixteen.  Joey is five. And Mellie is three.” He covers my hand with his and squeezes it. “They don’t have anyone but me. And I can’t take them.” He sits back and rubs the bridge of his nose. “You know how your mother is,” he explains.

Yes, and I know how my mother was betrayed. Yes, I know how my mother found out about his mistress. Yes, I know how my mother hates the ground they all walk on.  Sometimes I think she hates me too. It’s hard to tell. I really don’t think she loves anyone or anything.

He looks me in the eye. “I need for you to help me. They’re your nieces and nephew, no matter what your mother has taught you.”

I am stunned. Absolutely stunned. “You love them,” I say quietly.

He nods. “I do.”

“You love her.” The words fall on the room like cracks of thunder.

“I do.”

I lean back against the chair. “Can I ask you something?”

He nods. It’s a quick jerk, but I see it.

“What did they give you that we couldn’t?” I ask.  I don’t even cry. I just ask it. I always wanted to know.

“Your mother made it really hard for me to be a part of our family,” he says. “After she found out.” He raises his hand to stop me when I open my mouth to complain. “Wait,” he says. “Hear me out.”

I nod. I couldn’t talk if I wanted to.

“I loved you and your brother and sister. But I loved Kendra’s mother too, and I should have divorced your mother and made a clean break.”

“Without us,” I say.

“No, I would have taken you with me if I could. But I couldn’t. Your mother would have ruined me politically, but I could get over that. She would have gotten custody of you all. And I couldn’t just leave you with all that hatred, without at least trying to be a buffer.”  I don’t remember him as a buffer. I know him as that man I never knew. He balls up his fist and squeezes tightly.  “That’s why I never left completely. Your mother is more than a bit vindictive, as you know.” He scrubs a hand across his perfect white hair. “Sometimes I think she would have been okay with it if Kendra’s mother was white.”

What? Kendra’s mother’s not white? My father had an affair with a woman of a different race?

“If you do this for me, your mother is going to be very angry at you.”

No shit. She’ll hate me. But I think she already does anyway.

“I understand if you say no,” he says on a sigh. “But they don’t have anyone else.”

“Where is their father?” I ask.

He shrugs. “Fathers,” he says, enunciating the word.  “Seth has a dad who probably never knew about him, the girls’ dad has a new family and not enough time for them.”

“So, what do you want me to do?” I ask. I throw my napkin into my plate. My manicotti is churning in my stomach.

“I want you to go and get them.”

“Did you ask Tim? Or Lydia?” They’re my brother and sister and both are older than me.

He shakes his head. “They have families of their own.”

“And I don’t.” Shit, I don’t have anyone. No one but a boyfriend I almost never see. My mother is a nutcase and my father’s heart lies with another family.

“You’re single. You would be wonderful with them.” He lowers his voice and looks around the room. “You won’t look at them like they’re unwanted, bi-racial children. You’ll love them. I know you will.” He glares at me. “Will you at least go and meet them? Please? I know it would be a challenge. You’d have to learn a lot but Seth is almost sixteen. He helps to take care of the little ones. Hell, in two years, he can take custody himself. That’s what he wants.”

Dad’s pleading with me.

“I’ve never asked for anything before,” he says.

He’s right. He’s never asked for a good night kiss. Or any of the things fathers want. Well, he probably asked for them from Kendra.

“I’ll go,” I say. They’re just children after all. And children need to be loved. I wasn’t, but I can make it better for Kendra’s kids. Can’t I?  There’s a tiny little piece of me that wants to make my father proud. To make him love me.

He deflates like a balloon. “Oh, thank God,” he says. He lays a hand on his chest. Then he gets up, lifts me by my elbows and pulls me into him. I can’t remember ever getting a hug from my father before, and I don’t know what to do with it. He holds me like that, breathing into the hair on the top of my head for a moment. Then he sets me back. His eyes are wet with unshed tears.  “Thank you,” he says. “Thank you so much.”

I nod. I can’t do anything more.  I feel like somebody took my insides and shoved them into my throat. 

 

I’m jerked from my memories when someone sits down on my left.  I look up and instantly recognize Matthew Reed. He was a friend of Kendra’s from the cancer center.  I went to visit right before Kendra died to get the kids, and he was waiting with her. He stayed with Seth so they could be there when she took her last breath.  I took the little ones home, because I didn’t think they needed to remember their mom that way.

His blue eyes gaze into mine, and he sticks out a hand to shake. He doesn’t say anything. I look up at him. He’s wearing a blue turtleneck and a black button down shirt, with a pair of really nice trousers. He tugs at the neck of the turtleneck and I see a tiny peek at his tattoos.  “You clean up nicely,” I say. I smile at him, because I don’t know what else to say.

“Thanks,” he says quietly. His blond hair is held back with a leather band at the nape of his neck, but a piece falls forward and he tucks it behind his ear. He has a row of piercings up the shell of his ear, and I count them in my head. I have a suddenly insatiable desire to see his hair hang loose around his face.  He looks down at my black skirt and my white shirt. “So do you.”

I think I was wearing something similar the last time I saw him. But I smile anyway. He squeezes my hand and pulls his fingers from my grasp. I probably shouldn’t have held his hand so long. I’m an idiot. He leans across me and reaches for my dad’s hand. “Mr. Morgan,” he says with a nod. “I’m so sorry for your loss.”

Dad nods in thanks and grips Matt’s hand tightly. Dad’s eyes are rimmed in red and he swipes a finger under his nose. He goes back to talking to the girls, and they’re getting closer and closer to him as he murmurs softly to them.

Matt reaches past my dad and bumps knuckles with Seth. Seth smiles at him, but then the preacher walks to the front of the church, they close the casket, thank God, and the sermon begins.

Matt takes my hand in his again and I feel tears sting my eyes. I blink up at him and he smiles softly at me. He squeezes my hand gently and listens to the pastor. But he doesn’t let me go. 

 

 

Matt

 

“She looks lonely,” Emily says as she elbows me in the side. She’s my brother Logan’s fiancé and she holds a little piece of my heart. But sometimes I want to elbow her back when she pokes me with her scrawny limbs.  “You should go check on her,” she whispers vehemently. She raises her elbow again and I grab it before she can jab me.

“Fine,” I bite out. I get up, stepping on my four brothers’ feet as I scoot past them. Of course, I’m in the center of the aisle and I have to go by all of them. Reagan, Pete’s girl, reaches out and squeezes my hand as I walk by her. I love Reagan, and Emily, too. But Emily is a little more outspoken. Reagan is famous for her tender touches, and Emily is the opposite.

I adjust my suit coat and tug at the turtleneck I borrowed from Logan. He gets free clothes from Emily’s parents, who own Madison Avenue, the upscale clothing company. I feel like a monkey dressed up in a coat and a top hat. One of those that dances at carnivals.  Dance, monkey, dance.

I drop into the open seat beside Skylar, Kendra’s half sister, and I reach out to shake hands with her.  She holds on a second too long, and I don’t mind it. She looks tired. Her dad is sitting beside her, but there might as well be an ocean between them.  It’s only a few inches, but even I can feel the divide.

I shake his hand and bump knuckles with Seth. Seth and I were together with his mom when she died. We shared the most difficult moment of his life, and it’s a time I will never, ever forget.

I watched Kendra take her last breath and all I could think was how lucky I was that it wasn’t me dying there in that bed. I could have so easily been me. Kendra and I were in the same chemical trial, but I got better and my cancer went into remission, and hers didn’t.

She died.

I’m alive.

I look down at Skylar. She looks nothing like Kendra.  Kendra was biracial, so she had skin the color of sweet coffee, and she wore her hair natural, but short. Skylar is light skinned, blonde and blue eyed. She has rhinestone-encrusted sunglasses pushed up on top of her head, holding her hair back from her face. It hangs half way down her back in soft waves.

The preacher starts to speak at the front of the church, and Skylar closes her eyes. She squeezes her hands together in her lap, and I can’t tell what’s going on in her head. I wish I knew.

Without even thinking about it, I reach out and take her hand in mine. I tuck our twined fingers down on the seat between us, and I give her a gentle squeeze. She looks up at me and blinks slowly, her blue eyes startled. But then they soften and she blinks at me, and really looks at me. She squeezes my hand back and I don’t let her go. I hold it until our palms start to sweat together.

I get so wrapped up in the feel of her hand in mine and the soft drone of the preacher, that it startles me when a cough jerks me out of my trance. I look up and see a tall man looking down his nose at me. He nudges my knee. “I think you’re in my spot,” he says.

I look at Skylar, and she is just as shocked as I am. She pulls her hand from mine and wipes it on her skirt. I scoot over and he settles down beside her. He drops an arm around her shoulders and she leans over to press her lips to his. It’s a quick kiss, not a kiss like I would give her, because if I kissed her, I would never, ever want to come up for air.

Shit. Where did that come from?

Finally, they roll the casket from the church and we all follow to the graveside. I am a pall bearer and so are my brothers.  My brothers are really good for things like that.  I volunteered them when Mr. Morgan called to ask me to do it.

I take the carnation off my lapel and lay it on top of the casket, and go to stand with my brothers behind the crowd.

Emily threads her arm through mine. “Who is the guy?” she asks, nodding toward the man who’s standing with Skylar.

I shrug. “I have no idea.”

“Does she have a boyfriend?” Reagan asks.

My brothers are silent. I wish Logan and Pete would tell their girls to shut it for a few minutes and to quit being so nosy. I tap Emily on the tip of her nose and she scrunches up her face. “Stop being so curious,” I tell her.

I wrap my arm around Reagan and pull her into me. I like it when she goes all soft against me, because when she’s not soft, she’s ready to take my head off with a karate chop. I have been on the wrong end of a startled Reagan before and I don’t particularly want to go there again. “You okay?” she asks quietly.

I heave a sigh. “I guess.” I shake my head. “I still can’t believe she’s gone,” I say.

Reagan kisses my cheek and then stops to wipe her thumb across the lipstick she must have left on my cheek. She smiles. “I’m glad you got better,” she says quietly.

I squeeze her. “Me too.”

But shit. I feel guilty. Kendra left behind three children.

I see Skylar walking toward us, and Emily and Reagan step back. The heels of the three-inch high shoes Skylar’s wearing sink into the earth and she totters a little because of it. I reach out to help steady her with a hand on her elbow. She stops in front of me. “Thank you for being there with her,” Skylar says quietly.

“She was my friend,” I explain.  I don’t know what else to say.

She looks into my eyes. “Was she in a lot of pain?” she asks. She shakes her head. “I tried to talk to Seth about it, but he pretty much pretends that I don’t exist.”

I shove my hands in my pockets. “What do you mean? He’s not giving you a hard time, is he?”

She shakes her head again. “No. He’s perfect. He takes his sisters to daycare in the morning and picks them up after school. He feeds them and he bathes them. He won’t let me do anything. I think I’m just a placeholder.” She blows out a heavy breath.

I scratch my head. I don’t know how to tell her what I want to say.

“What?” she asks, her delicate brow arching.

“Kendra asked him to make it easy for you,” I admit. “When she was dying, she told him some things about how to be a good man. Always open car doors. Carry  a handkerchief on dates, because you never know when she’ll cry. Never let her pay for dinner.” I take a deep breath. “And she told him to make it easy for you.”

She’s speechless. Her mouth opens like she wants to say something, but nothing comes out. She closes it tightly, biting her lips together. “What else did she tell him?”

“Just normal stuff about dying,” I tell her. It was soul-wrenching to watch. And I’d finally had to leave the room so I wouldn’t upset them both with my sobbing, so I missed some things. 

“I don’t know what to do with kids,” she says.

“They don’t really need much,” I say. “Just for you to love them.”

“I’m trying,” she says.

I want to lay my hand on the back of her hair and draw it down the length of it. I bet it feels like silk.

“I, um, should have introduced you to my boyfriend,” she says. “Do you want to meet him?”

I shake my head. I see him talking with Mr. Morgan. Skylar’s dad doesn’t look like he’s impressed.

“When you, um, took my hand…” she says. “I should have told you.”

“Why?” I look down at her. She comes up to my shoulder, even in her heels.

“I, um, didn’t want you to get the wrong idea.”

This time it’s me raising my brows at her. “Why did you think I took your hand?”

Her face colors. “I’m not sure,” she says.

I wrap my hand around her wrist and give her a soft squeeze. “I took your hand because you were trembling,” I say. “That’s all.”

“Oh,” she breathes.

She has her phone clutched in her free hand so I take it from her and add myself to her phone book. “Do me a favor?” I say.

She looks up at me and then back down at the phone.

“Call me if you need anything. Anything at all. I promised their mom.”

“Okay,” she replies. “Thanks for everything.” Her blue eyes meet mine and I have never seen anyone look quite so lost. But then her eyes narrow as her gaze shoots past me. “Shit,” she suddenly spits out.

“What?” I ask, looking over my shoulder toward the sedan that just parked.

“My mother is here,” she says. She squares her shoulders and I suddenly see a spark that wasn’t there a moment ago. “Can you watch the children for a minute?” she asks.

“Why?”

“Just because,” she says. She grits her teeth. She looks up at me. “Promise me. No matter what, don’t let her anywhere near the children.”

Is she going to tackle her mother? What the fuck? I look back at the sedan. The door opens and an older version of Skylar gets out. “Okay…” I say slowly. Skylar nods her head, steels her spine, and walks toward where her mother is getting out of her car.

The rigidity of her posture makes me think of my own mother’s the time that Johnny Rickles stuck a kick-me note on my back and then watched all the other kids laugh. My mother went ballistic when she saw it.  It’s a look that says danger will have to go through her before it gets to the children, and I think I just met Seth, Mellie and Joey’s mom for the very first time. Her name is Skylar Morgan, and she’s tiny and gorgeous and awesome.

Finally Finding Faith

It’s officially live!

FFF

“You’ll find Faith in the clock shop,” Peter Reed says.

“Faith? I don’t believe in faith or God or predestination or any of that bullshit anymore. I believe in what I can see.”

Daniel has a list of things he wants to do before the clock strikes twelve on December 31st.

1. Get a tattoo
2. Ride a horse-drawn carriage in the snow
3. See a Broadway play
4. Buy hot chestnuts from a street vendor
5. Eat a one-pound burger at Rocko’s
6. Drink hot chocolate on a bench in the park
7. Fix my watch

Daniel’s watch stopped working when he lost all his men, his leg, and his hope in Afghanistan. A chance encounter at Reed’s Tattoo Parlor leads him to Faith, a redhead with the prettiest green eyes he’s ever seen.

Daniel intends to meet his deadline before the clock strikes midnight, and Faith sets out to help him. But she is goodness and light, and he’s not ready to let her warmth shine on him.

Faith takes care of her aging grandmother and knows how precious life is. But can she help Daniel realize it before it’s too late? She has less than twenty-four hours.

Tick tock. Tick tock.

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Chapter One

 

Daniel

Bells over the door jingle as I step into the tattoo shop. The big red flashing sign said Reeds’, and they appear to be open. I brush snow from my hair and blow warm breath into my cupped hands. It’s fucking freezing outside.  It’s officially midnight, which makes it December thirty-first in New York City. Of course, it’s cold.  One day until New Year’s Day, and I have twenty-four hours to cram in a lifetime of memories. Because by the stroke midnight, the last second of 2013, I have to be done with my list.  I pull the piece of paper from my pocket and scan down it really quickly.

  1. Get a tattoo
  2. Ride a horse-drawn carriage in the snow
  3. See a Broadway play
  4. Buy hot chestnuts from a street vendor
  5. Eat a one-pound burger at Rocko’s
  6. Drink hot chocolate on a bench in the park
  7. Fix my watch

I look around the shop.  There’s a bunch of interesting art on the wall, and a little pixie of a woman approaches me. She’s dressed in a retro style, and her hair is all curled up and pinned like she’s a sixties model.  Her nametag says Friday. It fits her. “What can I do for you?” she asks, and she blows out a slow breath. She looks tired and I immediately wonder what happened to her to put that look in her eye. But I don’t dare ask.

“Did you leave Wednesday and Thursday at home?” I blurt out.

Her right eyebrow arches and she looks down her nose at me. I immediately wish I could take it back. But then she starts to laugh. And it’s not a little laugh. It’s a great big belly laugh. She shakes a finger at me and motions for me to follow her. She sits across from me at a table and says, “I assume you’re here for a tattoo?”

I look around the shop. “Actually, I thought this was a brothel. Am I in the wrong place?” I move to get up, but my stupid prosthetic leg won’t let me play around the way I want to. It clanks against the table and I grimace.

“You okay?” she says quietly.   Her eyes don’t drop to my leg. She looks me in the face. Most people at least glance at my leg before they jerk their eyes back up to meet mine.

“Fine,” I bite out.

“Well, we can’t help you out if you were looking for a brothel,” she says. She looks toward the men who are doing tats. They’re all big and blond and a little bit intimidating. And they don’t seem to like my brand of humor as much as she does. She drops her voice to a whisper. “The last time I tried sell my body in here, the boys didn’t like it.” She laughs. The men scowl even more, and I wonder if I should leave.

I glance down at my watch. I don’t know why I still look at it. It hasn’t worked since the blast in Afghanistan that took all my friends, my leg, and my sanity. I still wear it like I expect it to start up any second now. But that’s not going to happen. My life is over. Or at least it will be at midnight tomorrow tonight. I glance at the clock on the wall. Twenty-three hours and fifty-two minutes from now, I’ll get to finish what fate started. I’ll get to right the wrong.

Friday waves a hand in my face and jerks me from my thoughts. “Hello-o,” she sings.

“Sorry,” I murmur. I heave in a sigh. It’s so easy to get sucked into the memories. The screaming. The hurting. The chaos. I look into her beautiful face. “I’d like to get a tattoo,” I say. “A clock, maybe. One stuck on midnight. With fireworks shooting off around it.” Fireworks. Bombs. It’s all the same thing.

She nods. “We can do that.” She starts to draw on a piece of paper. After a few minutes, she turns it to face me. It’s pretty fucking perfect, actually. “Like this?” she asks.

I nod. I can barely speak. By the time on the watch, I’ll be gone. “It’s perfect,” I croak out. I look down at my watch. It’s what I do when I’m nervous. I don’t expect to see the time change.

Friday calls over her shoulder and one of the men responds. He’s cleaning his table, and he motions me forward. She shows him the drawing and he nods, chewing his pierced lip thoughtfully. “I can do it,” he says. “This is the last one, though, for tonight.” He grins at me. “I have a hot woman waiting in my bed at home.”

“Gee,” Friday chirps. “So do I.” She grins at me.

One of the men, the biggest one, shoves her playfully in the shoulder. “You’re every man’s fantasy, Friday,” he says as he sticks out his hand toward me. “Paul,” he says. He talks to Friday again. “Cut it out, or the man’s going to get all excited, thinking he has a chance in hell of joining you.” He narrows his eyes and leans toward me. “Not going to happen,” he says quietly. “I’ve tried for years.” He motions for me to sit down. “Where do you want it?” Paul asks while the one whose nametag says Pete washes his hands.

I lift the edge of my sleeve. My upper arm is one of the few places on my body that’s not scarred up from the burns. “Here?” I say.

“You might want to take that off so it won’t be in the way,” Pete says. He motions to my shirt.

I was afraid of that, but this is my last day on earth. Who cares what my chest looks like? I reach behind me and pull my shirt over my head the way men do, and I hear Friday gasp as she sees my naked chest. It looks a lot worse than it actually is.

“Sorry,” Friday murmurs when Paul shoots her a glance. She sits down across from me, and her eyes finally land on the thin length of titanium that comes from my shoe.  “What happened?” she asks quietly.

Pete transfers the design onto my arm and starts to ink the tattoo into my skin. It doesn’t hurt nearly enough. I heave in a sigh. “There was an explosion,” I say.

“Was it awful?” she breathes. She lays her chin in her hand and props her elbow on a table.

I nod. “It was pretty terrible. Every one of my men died.” I lift my pant leg. “I lost my leg and was burned pretty badly. But I lived.”

“The universe must have better things in store for you,” she says.

Paul snorts. “Friday, please,” he warns.

I should have died with them. “I doubt it,” I say. “I ship out in twenty-four hours,” I inform her. That’s a lie. Well, sort of. But not really. “I’m going to join my team.”

Friday brightens. “Well, that’s something to look forward to.”

Yeah. It’s all I’ve looked forward to for a long, long time.

I want to change the subject, so I think about the list in my pocket. “Do you guys know where I can find a clock shop in town? Someone who can fix a watch?”

The men look at one another and one of them says, “Henry’s?”

“Do you know if they’re open tomorrow?” I ask.  “Well, today, I guess.”  I have to have the watch fixed by tomorrow night. Midnight. It’s on my list.

“Call him, Paul,” Pete says. He pulls his phone from his pocket and tosses it to Paul.  Paul juggles it playfully until Pete makes a noise and then he stops.

“Isn’t it awfully late to call tonight?” I ask. I look from one of them to the other.

“Henry’s wife had a stroke two years ago. They keep odd hours while he takes care of her. He might still be up. If not, Paul will leave a message.” He shrugs. “Worth a shot.”

Paul nods, and I see him smile as someone answers. Paul tells him I have a broken watch. He puts his hand over the mouthpiece and looks at me. “Can you go by there when we’re done here?” he asks. “He’s still up.”

I nod. “Love to.”

Paul talks to him for a minute and hangs up the phone.

“How is she?” Pete asks.

Paul shakes his head. “She’s not doing well, and she’s ready to give up. I think sometimes she just hangs in there for Henry.”  He blows out a breath. “I’ll write down the directions for you. It’s right around the corner from here. In the basement of a building.”

He hands me the directions when Pete finishes the tattoo. I look down at my new ink and smile. It’s beautiful. I can cross that one off my list. “You’ll find Faith there,” he says. “In the clock shop.”

“Faith?” I ask. I almost snort. I don’t believe in faith. Not anymore.

“Faith is Henry’s granddaughter. She helps to take care of his wife and works in the clock shop when he’s not there.” He holds up a hand to show she’s about as tall as his shoulder. “Short little redhead. Really fucking adorable. In an I-want-to-bang-the-librarian sort of way.”

“Faith is a girl?” I ask. It’s not some mythical state of being?

Paul nods slowly.

“Oh, okay,” I breathe. I’d rather talk to a girl than talk about faith or hope or God or any of those things I don’t have anymore. I pay my bill and walk toward the front of the store. But as I’m leaving, Friday tugs on my sleeve. I look down and she stands up on tiptoe and kisses my cheek.

“Best of luck to you,” she says quietly.

“Thanks,” I croak. I suddenly have a lump in my throat and I don’t know why.

Pete shrugs into his coat. “I’ll walk with you to Henry’s. You don’t want to be alone in this neighborhood at this time of the night.” He looks over at Paul, who I assume is his brother. They look very similar, but the big one is broad enough to fill a doorway. He doesn’t smile quite as readily as Pete does. “You going to walk Friday home?” Pete asks Paul.

Paul grumbles playfully and wraps Friday up in his beefy arms. “If I have to,” he says. He scrubs a hand across Friday’s hair. She slaps at his wrists until he pulls her back in for a hug. She settles against him and exhales. He looks down his nose at her, like he’s confused.  She breathes him in, a smile softening her face. He sets her back from him. “You ready?” he asks.

She nods her head and her cheeks color.  “Don’t walk me home hoping I’m going to invite you in,” she chirps playfully.

“One day, Friday, I’m not going to give you a choice about inviting me in.”

She freezes and her breaths fall a little quicker.

Pete bumps my shoulder as he walks by me. “You ready?” he asks. I nod, and stick my hands in my pockets. “See you tomorrow,” he calls over his shoulder.

“Big plans for New Year’s Eve?” I ask as we step out onto the sidewalk. The snow is falling even heavier, and I pull my hood up over my head. I stumble a little in the snow, and Pete slows down. He doesn’t mention my leg. He just adjusts his walk. “Thanks,” I mutter.

“For what?” he asks. He looks into my face.

“Nothing,” I say. Maybe I’m just imagining that he’s adjusting for me. I worry so much about my disability that I think everyone else does too.

“I’m taking my girl to watch the fireworks tomorrow,” he says.

“Tonight,” I correct. I look down at my broken watch.

“Oh, yeah,” he says. He smiles. “Tonight.” He blows out a steamy breath. Suddenly, he stops and turns, and goes down in to a stairway. “You coming?” he asks, when I stand there looking at him like an idiot. “We’re here,” he explains.

I walk slowly down the stairs. Stairs are hard for me, and if he wasn’t here, I would just hop on one foot down them. That’s much easier than taking them slowly, one at a time. But it’s much less graceful.

We walk through the door and step into a basement full of clocks.  There are grandfather clocks and cuckoo clocks and desk clocks. A train rumbles by on a track above my head, and I smile at the noise it makes.

“Kind of awesome, isn’t it?” Pete asks.

It really is, in a ten-year-old most-awesome-thing-ever sort of way.

There’s a long table at the back of the room and an older gentleman is sitting at it, and he has gears and parts spread around him. He’s wearing magnified glasses and has a bright light shining on his workspace. He doesn’t look up, so Pete calls his name. “Henry,” he says loudly.

The man looks over the rims of his glasses at us. “Pete,” he says. He sets his tools to the side and wipes the grease from his hands. “What a nice surprise.” Pete reaches to shake hands with him, but the old man pulls Pete to him and hugs him instead.

“It’s good to see you, Henry,” Pete says. “How’s Nan?”

Henry shakes his head and gets a far-away look in his eye. “She’s still hanging in there,” he says.

Pete squeezes Henry’s shoulder.

“Well, at least she’s home,” Henry says. He looks at me and points to Pete. “This young man and his brothers came and moved our furniture so I could bring my Nan home.”

Pete looks down at his feet and doesn’t say anything.

Henry extends his hand. “I’m Henry,” he says. “Who might you be?”

“Daniel,” I say. “I’m sorry to bother you so late at night, but Pete said you might be able to help with my watch.” I take it from wrist and hold it out to him.

He pulls his glasses down and looks closely at it, flipping it over. “This is old,” he says. “Can’t say I’ve ever worked on one of these.”

It belonged to my grandfather. “Do you think you can fix it?” I ask. He takes it to a nearby table and pops the back off, appraising the gears inside like he knows what he’s look at.

“Maybe,” he grumbles.

Suddenly, there’s a thump from upstairs and the old man startles. He lays my watch down and goes to the stairs. “Do you need some help?” Pete asks.

“Granddad!” a female voice calls from the top of the stairs.

The old man goes up the stairs, and Pete follows him. They both disappear. I shove my hands in my pockets and walk around, looking at all the old clocks. The man must just repair them. He doesn’t have a showroom or a place to display them. The train rumbles by on the track by my head, and I feel a grin tip the corners of my lips.

The door at the top of the stairs opens and light feet skip down them. I see puffy bedroom slippers and striped pajama bottoms, and I’m suddenly staring into the greenest, most beautiful eyes I’ve ever seen.

Faith

I stumble on the bottom step and he reaches out to catch me. He’s a little unsteady on his feet and he hops, but he’s solid and strong. I have a feeling he’d fall before he let me do so, and that’s an odd feeling to have.

“So sorry,” I mutter. I tug my sweater close to my body, wrapping it around myself. I should have gotten dressed instead of coming down in my jammies, but I just don’t have enough energy to do more. I’m working constantly, and when I’m not working, Granddad’s at work and I’m taking care of Nan. I feel like I haven’t slept in days. I probably haven’t. I nearly got the life scared out of me when Nan tried to get out of bed and fell just now. I shouldn’t have fallen asleep. I should have stayed awake to watch her. I knew Granddad was downstairs. He needs a break sometimes, too. He still works during the day as a doorman at an apartment complex. And he fixes clocks in his spare time. And he loves my Nan.

Theirs is a love like nothing I’ve ever seen. Not even my own marriage could compare. When Nan was at the nursing facility, he went there and slept in a chair beside her bed every night, because he said he couldn’t sleep without her, so what good was it for him to sleep at home?  I came to stay with them when they brought her home. I don’t know if I’m a help or a hindrance.  But I feel better being here, until I do something stupid like fall asleep.

The man coughs into his fist. I must have been wandering. Granddad says I do that a lot. It’s one of the reasons why I’m good at fixing clocks. It’s slow, methodical work and it takes my mind off the rest of the world.

“Didn’t mean to fall into you,” I say. Heat creeps up my cheeks.

He’s handsome. Startlingly so. He has brown hair and deep, chocolate brown eyes. His face is shadowed by beard stubble, and he doesn’t smile. Why doesn’t he smile?

He reaches down to adjust his pant leg and I see the length of metal that comes out of his shoe. I look up to his face and he’s watching me carefully. Is that why he doesn’t smile? I stick out my hand, for lack of anything better to do. “I’m Faith,” I say. He takes my hand in his and gives it a gentle squeeze, his eyes meeting mine, and I might even see a little spark in his dark gaze. But it burns out as quickly as it arrived.

“Daniel,” he says. “Everything all right upstairs?” He looks toward the closed doorway.

“Nan tried to get up and fell.” I shake my head. Nan’s head is still solid, but her body won’t cooperate and she just doesn’t fully grasp her limitations yet. “Pete’s upstairs charming her back into bed.” I laugh. That man has a way with people.

“The Reeds,” he says. “They seem pretty nice.”

I roll my eyes. “All five of them in one room can be a little overwhelming.” I had a crush on Pete for a little while, but then he met Reagan, and they are so freaking perfect for one another that I quickly discarded that notion.

“There are five of them?” he asks. He scratches his head. “I think I only met two.”

I start to count on my fingers. “Paul, Matt, Logan, Sam and Pete, in order of age. Sam and Pete are twins, although Sam swears he’s eight minutes older.”

I walk over to where Granddad started on Daniel’s watch. “Is this yours?” I ask, as I pick up my glasses and sit down on the stool. I bend Granddad’s light toward the watch. I look into it, and, although I’ve never worked on one of these, I might be able to fix it.

“It was my grandfather’s.”

I look up at him. “What happened to it?”

He looks everywhere but at me. “There was an explosion. In Afghanistan.”

“Was that where you were injured?” I ask, but my mind is already on the inner workings of the clock.

“Yeah,” he says and he blows out a breath.

“So your watch hasn’t worked since the blast?” I ask. I’m trying to figure out what could be the matter. Because the gears turn when I manually work them.

“Nothing has worked for me since the blast,” he says. His voice is suddenly heavy and I look up.

“What do you mean?”

“The clock,” he goes on to clarify, but I’m pretty sure he just meant life. “It hasn’t worked since.”

“Mm hmm,” I hum. I start to remove the gears and pieces and lay them on the table in front of me.

“Are you sure you should be doing that?” he asks. He walks close to me and pulls up a stool. He’s fidgety, and he makes me a little nervous now that he’s close to me. But Granddad and Pete are right upstairs.

I look up at him. “You do want it fixed, right?” I ask.

He nods. “More than anything.” He heaves a sigh. “I feel like time stood still that day, and it never started back up.”

I nod. But I can’t look at him. He’s telling me more than he wants to, and I’m afraid he’ll stop if he realizes how closely I’m listening. “Did you lose any friends?” I keep working on the watch, removing the parts piece by piece.

“I lost all my men.” His voice gets thick and he coughs to clear his throat. “Everyone. I lost everyone and everything.”

“Where’s your family?” I ask.

I feel the warm breeze of his heavy exhale. “All gone.”

I finally look up. “I’m sorry.”

He nods. He gets up and starts to wander around the shop. An hour later, I’ve put his watch back together and I wind it up. It should work. But it just doesn’t. And I don’t know why. I heave a sigh.

“What’s wrong?” he asks from directly behind me. I feel the heat of his breath on the back of my neck, and the hair on my arms stands up.

“Nothing,” I say and I start to take it apart again. I look over my shoulder at him. “Are you in a hurry?”

He shrugs and settles down beside me. He picks up a pen and starts to spin it on the tabletop. I look over at him. “Sorry,” he says sheepishly, and he stops the pen from spinning with a slap of his hand. “So, you live here?” he asks. “In New York? All the time?”

I nod. And I keep disassembling his watch.  Watches are made on a series of gears, even watches this old. I make sure each one works as I put it back in place. There are no snags. No broken gears. No missing parts. Nothing was jarred loose in the blast. “Yep,” I say quickly.

“Have you always lived here?” he asks.

“No,” I grunt. “I moved here when my grandmother got sick. Before that, I was in Florida.”

“Do you like it here?” he asks.

I shrug. “One place is as good as another.”

“Why aren’t you married?” he asks.

I look up. “What makes you think I’m not?”

He grins, but it doesn’t quite meet his eyes. “Because any man in his right mind wouldn’t let you out of his sight.”

I jerk my head up. He gets up and starts to wander around again, like he didn’t just say something profound. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I mumble.

He cups his hand around his ear and leans toward me. He grins. “What was that?” he asks.

“Never mind.” My gaze drops to his lips. He licks his full upper lip, and I have to force myself to look away.

“Something wrong?” he asks. His eyes drop to my mouth and he walks closer to me. Is he thinking about kissing me?

I look down at the watch. I shrug out of my sweater, because it’s suddenly hot in here. “No,” I say.

I look at the parts of his watch, which are scattered all over my table. The door to the upstairs opens and Pete walks down.  Half way, he slows down, and looks from me to Daniel and back. “What did I miss?” He grins.

“Shut up,” I grumble.

“Oh,” he breathes. He nods his head and punches my shoulder as he walks by me. I growl at him and he laughs.

“How’s Nan?” I ask. “Still upset?”

“Only that you were worked up over it,” he says. He ruffles my hair with his big bear paw.  “Don’t be so hard on yourself,” he says quietly. “Could have happened to anyone.”

I nod, biting my lower lip to keep from sobbing.  Nan has gone downhill so fast. She keeps having these mini-strokes that make her weaker and weaker. There’s not much else we can do for her, except wait and make sure she’s comfortable.

“She was talking about some old clock,” Pete says. He picks up a bag of chips I was eating earlier and helps himself.

I smile. Granddad bought her a funny little clock made in Germany when they first got married. But they sold it when times were lean, about thirty years ago.  Granddad has been scouring the internet to find another one. “He’ll never find another clock like that, not one that he can afford. They make crappy knock offs, but he doesn’t want crap. He wants the real thing for her. Or nothing.”

“What kind of clock?” Daniel asks.

“It was a German clock, made with a Black Forest design, and when the hour chimed, dancers came out of the clock and slid back and forth along the front.” I shrug my shoulders. “That’s all I remember about it.”

“Is it rare?” Pete asks.

I nod. “And too expensive for Granddad to buy another.” I would buy one today, if I could find one and had enough money. “Nan used to make up love stories about what the people did when they went into the house.” I lift my brows at the men. “Apparently, there was a lot of kissing that went on inside that Black Forest house.”

Nan and Granddad have always had this crazy kind of passion and I sometimes wonder if I’ll ever have that again. Maybe I’m waiting for a love like theirs. I don’t know. I don’t need to elaborate, because Pete’s already grinning.

“Henry was a horn dog,” he sings playfully.

I shake my head, but I secretly don’t want to scold him. “She started to mention it again a few weeks ago. I know he wants to give her one, but it’s just not going to happen.”

Pete’s phone chirps from his pocket and he grins and types something really quickly. He looks up. “Reagan’s going to lock me out if I don’t get home soon.”

I laugh. “You better hurry.”

“She loves me,” he says. And he gets this happy look in his eye. Pete’s settled and happy, and I couldn’t be happier for him. He looks at me. “How much are we talking about with this clock?” he asks.

“Like more than a car,” I say.  “Even for a broken one.”

He grimaces.

“Yeah, I know. I thought about buying one too.”

Daniel sticks out his hand. “Thanks for the help finding the shop,” he says to Pete.

“Hey, do you want to come over tomorrow night? You could go to the fireworks with us.”

Daniel shakes his head. “I have somewhere to be at midnight,” he says. “But thank you.”

Pete claps him on the shoulder, and then he hugs me way too tightly and leaves. I can hear him whistling as he goes up the sidewalk.

I snap the back onto Daniel’s watch and look up at him. “It still doesn’t work.”

His mouth flattens into a straight line. “I hoped someone could fix it before it’s too late.”

“Too late for what?” I ask.

“For me,” he says.

“It’s never too late for you, silly,” I tell him.

For my readers – A free short story!

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*** This is a short story. It’s not a full book. It’s only 7000 words, plus samples of the Reed Brothers series. ***

Sean has been in love with Lacey for as long as he can remember, but she has pushed him firmly into the friend zone and plans to keep him there. Or so he thinks.

Lacey did put Sean in the friend zone, but now she’s ready for more. Only he won’t make a move.

Lacey enters a contest in which a kiss from her will be the prize. Can Sean win the contest? Can he win the girl?

Available for free at Smashwords:

https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/391939

Nook:  http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/just-jelly-beans-and-jealousy-tammy-falkner/1118002569?ean=2940045545020

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Coming soon to other retailers!

Black Friday Sale!

Happy Black Friday!  All these books are 99 cents each!  Our holiday gift to you — from http://www.reddoorreads.com

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Sullivan by Linda Winstead Jones    Amazon   Barnes and Noble

The Spinster’s Seduction by Ella Stark  Amazon     Barnes and Noble

Tall, Tatted and Tempting by Tammy Falkner  Amazon    Barnes and Noble

Seven Minutes in Devon by Catherine Gayle    Amazon     Barnes and Noble

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The Matchbaker by Jerrica Knight-Catania  Amazon  Barnes and Noble

Still of the Night by Dee Davis  Amazon  Barnes and Noble

The Trouble with Goodbye by Sarra Cannon  Amazon  Barnes and Noble

Angel Unleashed by Andris Bear  Amazon   Barnes and Noble

To Burn by Claudia Dain   Amazon   Barnes and Noble

Tainted by  Julie Kenner    Amazon  Barnes and Noble

Just Desserts by Marquita Valentine  Amazon  Barnes and Noble

Encounter with Mr. Bad Luck by Michelle Marcos   Amazon  Barnes and Noble

Taste for Trouble by Susan Sey  Amazon

Unedited Chapter Three of CCC!

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If you missed the first two chapters, you can find them here:

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Pete

 

Damn, she’s pretty.  Then again, she’s the first girl I’ve had my hands on in almost two years. She lay there on top of me for a second looking down at me and I immediately knew who she was. I’ll never forget her. But the last time we met… it wasn’t a good night for her. And she would probably be uncomfortable if I brought it up.  I don’t want to get sent back to the city. I want to be here. I want to work with these kids. I want to have this damn tracking bracelet off my leg so I can go back to some semblance of a normal life. I just want to be Pete.

I wish the fuck I knew who Pete is. I had a pretty good idea of what my life would be like, until my brother Matt got sick.  Then things got all fucked up. 

Then I did what I did and ended up in jail. It was all my fault and I take full responsibility for it but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t suck ass.

She has green eyes and the same freckles I remember across the bridge of her nose. Shit. I can’t even think about things like that. If I were at home, I would ask her out to dinner. I would tell her about how I know her. I would find out if she’s all right. Then I would ask her out on a date. But here, I’m nothing. Nothing but a man who would get his nuts chopped off for talking to her. I have no doubts that her father was serious. Dead serious. I adjust my junk and keep moving.

But then she looks over at me, glancing over her shoulder. Her face colors, and my heart starts to do a little pitter patter in my chest. I’m an ex-con who’s still on house arrest, and she’s looking at me like I’m a real live man? She licks her lips and turns away to talk to someone else. I want her to look at me again.

Her blond hair is damp and it’s tangled up into a messy knot on top of her head. She’s not wearing any make up. The women I know paint their faces until they’re almost unrecognizable when they get out of the shower.  This one is all natural. And I like it. I shouldn’t. But I do. I could look at her all day.

There was a second there when she fell on top of me that she looked fearful. Was that because of what happened to her? Does she even remember me?

But then a motorized wheel chair zips toward me. “Hold on there, Speedy Gonzales,” I say, stepping in front of him. “Where are you going in such a hurry?”

The young man is blond and fair and he has a piece of plastic sticking out of his neck. He signs to me, but his movements are jerky and off balance.  They’re not fluid like sign language usually is. Marshmallows, he spells with his fingers. He jerks his crooked finger toward where someone is lighting a campfire.

I wonder if this is the boy I’m supposed to work with.  An older woman runs up behind him, her breaths heaving from her. “Sorry,” she pants, clutching her side. “He’s hard to keep up with in that chair.” She extends a hand. “I’m Andrea. And this is my son, Karl. Karl’s excited to be a camper this year.” I shake hands with her and drop down in front of Karl.

“You can hear, right, Karl?” I ask, signing to him. He nods and smiles, but it’s jerky and crooked. He’s so damn excited he can barely sit still in his chair.

I can hear, he signs. I just can’t talk.

I nod. I get it. “How old are you?” I ask.

Fifteen. He looks around me toward the camp fire. I think he really wants to get to where the other kids are congregating.

“Such a lovely age,” his mother says, rolling her eyes.

He’s fifteen? He can’t weigh more than a hundred pounds. I step out of his way. “Go get ‘em, Gonzales,” I say, nodding my head toward the fire. He grins and rolls away from me, stopping beside where Reagan is now setting up chairs by the fire.

“I think he already has a crush on Reagan,” she admits.

“Reagan?” I ask. My Reagan?

She arches a brow at me. “The owner’s daughter.”

Reagan is Caster’s daughter? All this time My Reagan’s father has been my pro bono attorney? Shit. This just got even more convoluted. I shake it away and I look at Gonzo’s mom. “Can you tell me a little about his challenges so I know what I’m working with?” I ask.

“Not what you’re working with,” she corrects. “Who you’re working with.”

“That wasn’t what I meant,” I start.

She lays a hand on my arm. “Where did you learn to sign?”

“My brother is deaf,” I say. She nods, taking in my tattoos and my piercings, which I couldn’t even get back in after I got out of jail.  I had to get re-pierced last night, and they’re still sore. At least I don’t feel naked anymore. “I didn’t mean to insult your son,” I say. Now I feel bad.

“Karl’s only limitations are that he’s in a body that doesn’t do what he wants it to do, and that he can’t speak.” She looks at him across the clearing, her eyes full of love for her son. And exhaustion. “He still has all the desires and urges of a fifteen year old boy. There are just some things he can’t do.” She heaves a sigh. “He gets frustrated easily. That’s the hardest thing for him. His mind is sound and his body just won’t cooperate.”

I nod. I know what it feels like to be out of control. “Why don’t you take a break for a half hour or so?” I say. “I’ll go hang with Karl.”

Her eyes widen and she looks so excited that I wish I’d made the offer as soon as they arrived. “Really?” she asks.

I nod. “Have fun. I’ll take care of him.”

Tears fill her eyes and I realize how much this woman desperately needs a break.

“I’ll see you in thirty,” I say.

She nods and walks toward her cabin. She’s tired. And I can tell.

I walk toward the campfire. The sun has just barely set and there are only a few kids out here. “Hey Gonzo,” I say to Karl. He turns around and looks at me, his grin big and goofy and so fucking adorable that I already love this kid. “You giving Reagan a hard time?” I drop down to sit on a log that rims the fire.

She’s really pretty, he signs. He looks up at her, blinking his blue eyes, his face tilted toward hers. She smiles at him.

“What did he say?” she asks.

“He says you’re really pretty,” I translate.

He throws up his hands in protest. You’re not supposed to tell her!

Sorry, dude, I sign back, trying not to grin. If you’re going to talk about her, I’m going to have to tell her what you say. I grab his shoulder and squeeze. This is a rule my brothers came up with and we always stand by it. You don’t get to use sign language to talk about people. It’s for communication. So, unless you want her to know it, you better keep it to yourself.

Traitor, he signs. But he’s grinning.

Reagan blushes. But she says, “Thank you, Karl. I think you’re kind of cute, too.”

I’ve never seen a kid grin quite so big. She looks down at him. “Do you want to go with me to find some sticks for the fire?”

He nods, and he’s already moving, before she’s even ready to go.

“You think we should bring your mouth piece?” she asks, nodding her head toward me.

He signs to me. I got this. You stay here. He waggles his eyebrows at me.

Not a chance, dumbass, I say back. He laughs. It’s the first sound I’ve heard him make. She’s too old for you.

Maybe she likes younger men.

I look around like I’ve lost something. I don’t see any other men here. I see a pretty lady and a boy who’s hoping to get some action.

He grins and nods.

I laugh. She’s too old for you. So, lay off. We’ll find you a different one. One more your speed.

My speed is faster than you think.

Apparently.

She turns back from where she’s been walking in front of us. “Are you talking about my ass?” she asks. She doesn’t even crack a smile.

Gonzo points to me as if to say, “He was.”

She laughs and blushes again.

Traitor, I sign when she turns back around.

He laughs, jumping in his chair a little.

Now all I can do is stare at her ass. She’s cute. Like a fairy princess walking in the woods, picking up sticks. When her arms are full, she looks at Gonzo and says, “Can you be my hero and carry these back?”

He nods and lets her fill his lap up with sticks. He turns to take them to the fire, and leaves us standing there, gathering more of them.  “Hurry back,” I call to him. He turns back and signs, Hands off my girl.

I hold my hands out to the side and then give him a thumbs up.

She turns to me and extends her hand. “I’m Reagan.”

She doesn’t remember me. Should I even remind her? She probably works hard on a daily basis to forget that night.

I take her hand in mine and heat shoots straight through me. And it’s not because it’s been two years since I’ve had a woman in my arms. There’s something about this girl. She jerks her hand back and looks into my eyes. I want to ask her if she felt that. She wipes her hands on her jeans, and I realize she was just pulling back because my hands are sweaty. I’m an idiot.

“Pete,” I say.

“Why do you call him Gonzo?” she asks.

“Why not?” I continue to pick up sticks.

“He’s a sweet boy,” she says.

“He’s a hormone on wheels,” I correct.

She laughs. “At least you see him as a normal young man. Most people see the chair.” She shakes her head and looks up at me. I feel like she’s looking directly into my soul. “What makes you different?” she asks.

You mean aside from my tats, piercings and the fact that I came from prison? I shrug. I look in his direction. He’s already on his way back. “I just see a boy who wants to be treated like one.” I call to him when he gets close. “Hey Gonzo,” I say. “Can you take another load?” He grins and nods.  We load him up and he leaves again. I turn to her. “So, what makes you different, Reagan?” I ask. I want to touch her. But I don’t dare. So, I just look at her instead. I watch her lips and wait for her to explain the meaning of life to me.

 

Reagan

 

He has the bluest eyes I’ve ever seen. It’s a little distracting, because his piercings draw your attention away from his eyes and then you have to find your way back. He has tattoos all the way up his arms, from his wrists to where his t-shirt breaks up the designs. Then they start again and go all the way up his neck. He’s broad and tall, and he’s a little intimidating. But he’s not, all at the same time. He saw me at my most vulnerable point, and he did exactly what I needed.

“I don’t think I’m different,” I say. “I’m just like every one of those kids.” She nods toward the cabins. “No better. No worse. Same fears. Same drives.” I shrug.

He nods slowly and starts to pick up sticks again. He has a tattoo on the back of his neck. It’s written in gothic, chunky letters and it says, SAM.

“Is Sam your girlfriend?” I blurt out. I immediately want to bite the words back, but they’re already out there.

“Sam?” he asks.

I rub the back of my neck, then point to his. “The tattoo.”

He smiles. “Oh, that.”

But he doesn’t elaborate. I feel like a dummy for even asking the first time. I’m not going to ask again.

“So, you’re home from college?” he asks.  I can’t believe he doesn’t remember me.

I nod.

“Where do you go?” he asks. He looks at me, waiting for my answer. And I don’t think I’ve ever had this much attention from a man that I actually want to talk to. He really cares about what I say. Or at least he wants me to think he does.

“NYU,” I reply. “Junior this year.”

“My brother goes to NYU.”  He smiles. “Logan Reed?” he asks. But it’s a big school. The chance of me knowing his brother is small.  But I know about all his brothers because I asked a lot of questions when I was looking for him.

I shake my head.

“He’s deaf.”

I shake my head again. The only time I have seen him was outside the prison yesterday, but never at school.

“All tatted up, like me.” He looks down at his arms, and I take the opportunity to look at his tattoos.

“Can I see?” I ask. I don’t want to be rude, but I really want to look at him. I don’t want to touch him, but I want to look.

He grins. “You can look, but you can’t touch,” he teases. It’s like he read my mind. My heart starts to thud. I’m the last person he has to worry about touching him. “Because I like my nuts exactly as they’re hanging.”

My face floods with heat. But I don’t let the opportunity to study the drawings on his skin pass me by. I look at the cross that has the word “Mom” written inside it. “What’s this one for?” I ask.

“My mom died a few years ago.”

He also has the word “Dad” with wings attached. “Your dad died too?” I ask.

“He left after our mom died.” He stills. He’s suddenly tense, and I hate that I asked.

“I’m sorry,” I say.

“I don’t want your sympathy, Princess,” he says.

I snort. “Princess?”

He nods, his gaze lingering on my eyes, then my lips. He licks his, and draws his piercing into his mouth to play with it with his tongue. “Princess,” he says slowly.

“You couldn’t be farther from the truth,” I say. He has me pegged all wrong.

“I doubt it.” He looks at me for a minute too long.  My stomach flips.

But suddenly, I hear the crash of boots stomping through the woods. I look up and see my dad walking toward us, a scowl on his face, and he has the hatchet in his hand. Pete immediately crosses his hands in front of his lap and steps away from me.

“Go help with dinner,” Dad snaps at me. He glares at Pete.

“Yes, sir,” I say. I take the sticks Pete has in his arms and smile at him. “See you later,” I whisper.

“Don’t go,” he whispers back. “Who’s going to protect my nuts?”

“Princesses don’t do that.” I grin at him and walk away. It’s hard to do, but I don’t even look back over my shoulder.